[ONE YEAR LATER...]
DUO: What the HELL happened?
MEL: Erm... can I take the Fifth?
DUO: No. This is Australia, not America, and I wouldn’t let you anyway.
CHRISTY: They followed us home?
[Duo looks around at the fish tanks, bird cages, mouse cages, and rat cages that have taken over most of the front half of the house. A sleek black-and-white cat that he’s never seen before saunters past, blinks calmly at him, and makes a weird bleating “ngaaaarrrr” noise that it seems to think is a meow.]
DUO: Do you people teleport new pets in here whenever I’m not looking?! I swear, you let us have a week off to relax away from the insane writing environment and we come back to--
CHRISTY: About that.
MEL: It, um, wasn’t a week.
CHRISTY: See... we may have given you a week off... but then we sort of took a bit more than a week off from writing.
MEL: A big bit more. And since you weren’t here, it was still just a week for you, so you didn’t notice.
DUO: ...How big a bit are we talking about here?
CHRISTY (mumbling): Over a year.
MEL (mumbling): More like a year and a half.
DUO: You WHAT?!
CHRISTY: Weeeeee kinda took a year and a half off. It’s not our fault!
MEL: I was ill. And we were working. And there were the pets. And--
CHRISTY: And Mel bought World of Warcraft. She addicted me.
MEL: --yeah, okay, it’s all my fault. I am a WoW pusher.
DUO: You... you... you mean I missed a year and a half of Buffy?!
[Spike sticks his head into the room. He’s holding a TV guide.]
SPIKE: What are you upset about? I missed my own death!
DUO: Best thing to do about your own death if you ask me. RIGHT. DVDs. Now!
Demon of Justice
When Arwen came to find him, Uthmar was frowning up at the darkening sky.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” the human Champion told him, sitting down by his side and peering up at the first faint stars.
“Naiya managed to tear herself away from Wufei’s side long enough to cook, but she kept sneaking back to check on him, so I don’t know whether it’s going to be as good as usual or a total disaster.”
“Is there a particular star that you’re upset with, or are you just annoyed at them all in principle?”
“Hm. --Huh?! Oh!” Uthmar scowled half-heartedly at Arwen, then slumped back on his elbows and resumed staring upwards. “I keep coming back to how Wufei can see power.”
“Well... yes, he does. He sees it, you smell it, I feel it. Why exactly would that cause you to be sitting here glaring at Silendros Orfressa’s fine handiwork?”
“You forgot Sir Kieran.”
Arwen sighed. “And Sir Kieran reacts as if he’s eaten bad meat, yes, poor man. And?”
“Think about it. What do you and I and Sir Kieran have in common, that doesn’t apply to Wufei?”
“...This is starting to sound like one of those trick questions Sir Terrian asks.”
“All right then. We’re Champions.”
“Exactly. Wufei is only a Champion-candidate, no matter how much a certain someone would like things to be different. And sensing a god’s power is an ability that only gods and Champions have. He’s not a Champion, he’s certainly not a god, and demons can’t do it, so why can he?”
“Um.” Arwen looked hopeful. “Maybe some demons can and we just never found out before? He’s certainly unusual enough already...”
Uthmar’s mouth quirked further, pulling into a sour smile. “I thought of that. Torframos said no. Then he just shut up and stopped talking to me.”
When Cord came to call them to dinner, Arwen and Uthmar were staring up at the darkening sky together; one frowning, and one looking decidedly worried.
The two Champions didn’t know it, but their god was looking back at them, frowning at a scrying window he was balancing in his hand.
It bothers me too, Uthmar, he thought, frown starting to slide towards a scowl. It bothers me a lot. It’s not just his ability to see power, either; it’s where he’s pulling his own power from! Even we don’t do that! And--
“What’s got you all knotted up like that, little brother?”
Torframos looked up and automatically smiled at the bearded, good-natured face that was trying to peer over his shoulder. “Oh... hello, Korthrala,” he replied, obligingly tilting the scrying window so the Light God of Love, Hate, Passion, and the Sea could get a good look. “It’s that demon.”
“What, the little human one with the funny eyes?” Korthrala looked surprised. “I thought you liked him?”
“I do! ...I’m just not sure that I should,” Torframos admitted.
After explanations had been made, Korthrala was looking sceptical. “So he uses wild magic, that just makes him a wild wizard, right? What’s the matter with that? You’ve never gotten worried about Wencit of Rûm, and he’s been around since before the Fall!”
“Wencit pulls his magic from the world around him, and he’s careful. Wufei was getting power from the walls between the worlds!”
Korthrala looked blank.
“Oh, for--! The wall around this world, around this universe, is part of Orfressa, Korthrala!”
An expression of dawning horror spread across Korthrala’s face. “You mean... Wufei’s pulling power from Grandma?!”
“Yes! --And don’t let Father hear you call her that, you know he doesn’t like it,” Torframos added automatically.
Korthrala ignored him. “But what if she notices?!”
“That would be my point, I think.”
“Well he’s gotta stop!” The older god drew himself upright, mouth firming in determination. “I’m gonna go tell him to stop.”
“...Hold on. Why haven’t you told him to stop? Told your Champions to tell him to stop, I mean?”
Torframos shifted uneasily under his brother’s gaze. It was beginning to look as if Korthrala was remembering his other role; God of War. “Well, at first he was unconscious,” he said defensively. “Now, well, think about it, brother! Father has to know about what he’s doing. There is no possible way for him to have missed something like that happening to Orfressa.”
“True,” Korthrala admitted. “He made her first, after all; she’s his first daughter, before even Khalifrio.”
“Which is why he doesn’t like you calling her Grandmother. So--“
“Well, she is, really,” his brother interrupted, distracted by one of his favourite arguments. “Father made Mother from Orfressa, so she’s like Mother’s mother, so--“
“So, why hasn’t Father said anything?” Torframos almost shouted.
Korthrala opened his mouth, raised one finger, and stopped. There was a long pause.
“I know!” he said suddenly. “Let’s go ask him!”
* * * * *
Orfressa shifted without moving, reaching out for HIM, then stopped; she could feel that HE was asleep again.
She reached out for THE OTHER ONE, instead. THIS ONE was further away, but somehow easier to touch...
“Awright!” Duo hopped his red M&M into one of the home spaces on the Ludo board, ate it triumphantly, and scrabbled in his bag of candy for a replacement ‘playing piece’ to put in the Start square.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something, Duo,” Quatre murmured, eyeing his own pile of yellow M&Ms. “If we keep replacing the pieces, how do we know when someone wins?”
“When someone runs out, of course. This also means they’ve eaten more chocolate than anyone else, so they really win,” Duo said happily. “I dunno why people say this game is boring.”
“Probably because most people would play by the original rules, which do not involve chocolate,” Heero suggested.
“Or food colouring,” Trowa put in. “Is anyone else worried by the fact that Duo’s playing with -- and therefore eating -- the red ones?”
“Only because the shop didn’t have any Halloween M&Ms, so I can’t play black,” Duo told him, draining the last swallow out of his glass and reaching for his crutches.
“Duo, I’ll get--“ Quatre started.
“No, it’s fine,” was the firm reply. “I’m just gonna fetch the bottle; I can do that easy enough.”
“Ah... okay.” Quatre subsided back into his chair, visibly suppressing sentences starting with ‘Are you sure?’ and ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t’. Heero was carefully paying no attention, sorting his bag of candy into ranks of different colours with movements that were just a little too precise.
“The brace will protect his knee if he falls,” Heero murmured almost inaudibly as soon as Duo swung out the door. “He’s capable of protecting the rest of himself. The only injury he’s risking is to his pride--“ Cobalt blue eyes flicked up to stare coldly at the blond pilot for a moment, then went back to studying his multicoloured chocolate army. “--which will be far more hurt if we baby him unnecessarily.”
“I know,” Quatre hissed back. “I just wish his definition of ‘unnecessary babying’ didn’t include practically everything I consider to be ‘necessary help’!”
Heero almost laughed. “And this is different to the way I feel, how?”
“Ah. True.” Quatre’s expression turned quizzical. “It’s a bit strange, having you being the one lecturing me, isn’t it?”
“As long as you don’t start working on ‘Mission: Duo’, I think I can stand the irony.”
In the kitchen, Duo was balanced precariously on his good leg as he rummaged through the fridge to find something that all four pilots would consider drinkable. Iced tea seemed to fit the bill, and the plastic bottle was even sturdy enough to survive being dropped -- not that he was planning to do anything of the sort, of course, but when he felt like it he was perfectly capable of planning for contingencies, thank you very much.
The question of how he was going to get the bottle back to the table while both hands were occupied manipulating his crutches was settled by him sticking it down his shirt, wriggling slightly as the cold hit his skin. “Eep! Ooo... next time I’m just gonna grab a shopping bag,” he muttered, grabbed his crutches, turned towards the door, and--
--found himself somewhere else.
“Whoa! What the-- oh. Right. This is familiar,” Duo said, relaxing slightly as he looked around at drifting mist and floating stones. “Still no penguins, though. Wufei? You here?”
No answer. There was an itch at the back of his neck, though, a crawling feeling as if the hair there was trying to stand on end, and he knew he was being watched.
“No big Easter Island stone faces, either,” he murmured, glancing around again. “So, Krashy-- er, Krashnark-- what gives? Did you bring me here just to bask in the radiance of my scintillating personality, or am I gonna get to talk to Wufei again?”
Still no answer, but Duo was beginning to get the feeling that whoever was watching him was laughing at him, too. In fact--
--he was certain of it.
“All right, enough already! I’ve got better things to do with my time than hanging around in the middle of nowhere -- literally -- waiting for the Great and Powerful Oz to come out from behind the curtain!” Duo yelled, picking a random patch of mist and glaring at it. “I may not be a god the way you are, but I do a damn good imitation, and unless I get some explanations real soon now I will go Shinigami on your ass--“
The strength of the emotions pouring into him left Duo shaken, clutching at his chest as he struggled to breathe. Absurdly, he realised that although his crutches seemed to have vanished, he still had the bottle of iced tea down his shirt.
“Uhh... that’s OK,” Duo wheezed, straightening up. “I don’t think you did that on purpose.”
“Right. And somehow I don’t think you’re Krashnark, either.”
Duo sighed. “You can’t just come out and talk to me?”
“Great. Wordless Twenty Questions.” Duo sighed again, rubbing at his forehead as he tried to remember everything Wufei had told him. “So. You’re not Krashnark, but you are one of that lot of gods?”
“That felt awfully tentative. Was I only partly right?”
“You’re a Light god?”
“Huh?” Duo frowned, puzzled, then slapped himself. “Oh! Duh! Light Goddess?”
“Right, sorry. My bad.”
“Heh. Glad to see you’re not the type to take offence! You can’t be Orr, then... Kontifrio?”
“Damn.” Duo flopped into a sitting position in mid-nothing, leaning back on his hands. “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t really remember enough about your pantheon to keep guessing. I don’t suppose you could give me a clue?”
There was a ripple through the haze and nothingness surrounding Duo, the few floating rocks dissolving into fog as it passed, but unlike the last time he’d been here, the mist didn’t thicken and Duo didn’t begin to fade. Instead, the mist swirled and drew back further and further, thinning as it retreated until the last wisps evaporated and Duo was left staring at a surprisingly familiar view. Space.
That is, familiar if you ignored one major difference, he decided. Whenever he’d been out in space in his Gundam, after all, he’d been in orbit; the Earth had always been right there, inescapable, taking up close to a third of the view. Not now, though. There was no planet, no moon, no colonies, not even a star close enough to be called a sun; just black space, and stars wheeling around him in unfamiliar constellations.
“Wow,” Duo breathed. “That’s... impressive.”
“So... are you, um, I can’t remember the name... the goddess that looks after stars?” I thought she pretty much ignored humans? Er, mortals, whatever, Duo continued in the privacy of his own mind.
“Oh. I really don’t get it, then.”
Duo’s field of view began to expand, more and more stars appearing around him. It was almost like his viewpoint was zooming out, pulling away so that more of a starmap could be seen, but nothing was moving. He was seeing further and further, past the edges of the galaxy surrounding him, past a nearly starless void, to more galaxies and beyond them to more again and...
“Whoa, hey, stop! What are you trying to do, show me the whole freaking universe?!” he yelped, closing his eyes against the dizzying sight.
His vision stopped expanding.
“You are?! Why-- oh. No way.”
“You’re the universe? The goddess that’s the universe, I mean? Orr-- uh-- Orfressa?”
“But Wufei said you never did anything!” Duo protested.
The burst of emotion that answered that comment was rather complicated, but Duo got a very clear impression of an immense, world-shaking shrug.
“...I’m guessing that means something like ‘I do when I feel like it’,” he hazarded after a pause.
Duo rubbed his forehead again. “Gotcha. And it’s not like anyone’s gonna tell you you can’t, right? ‘Where does the umpteen-bazillion-megaton universe sit? Wherever she wants!’”
Giving in to the inevitable, Duo let himself flop backwards, stretching himself out. “Okay, so we’ve established that you’re Orfressa, you can and will do stuff if you darn well please no matter what public opinion says, and today you’ve decided to have a friendly little chat with me. Can you at least let me know why?”
--and Duo wobbled sideways on his crutches, bounced off the fridge, and wound up landing flat on his butt on the floor.
Back in the lounge room, Quatre blinked.
“...Everything all right in there, Duo?” Heero called, wincing as another clattering noise came from the kitchen.
“Um-- ah-- I’ve fallen, but I can get up!” came Duo’s voice, sounding slightly strained.
“Would you like a hand?” Trowa asked calmly.
“Nope! I’ve got it. Good thing I didn’t get soda out of the fridge, hey? We’d be cleaning it off the ceiling...” There were more clattering noises, accompanied by a grunt of effort, and then Duo swung himself back through the doorway, semi-permanent grin looking slightly strained.
“I come bearing tea!” he announced, fishing around in the neck of his t-shirt with one hand. “Iced tea, to be precise, and believe me when I say that although there is no actual ice involved here it’s damn cold on the stomach...”
As Trowa held out his glass, and Heero did a surprisingly good job of pretending that he had not, in fact, been at all worried, Quatre stared at Duo for a long moment -- then blinked again, looked away, and looked back with a smile and his own glass outstretched.
Whatever that was, Duo isn’t planning to tell us about it, he thought, responding automatically to something Trowa said without really hearing it. So I’m not going to ask.
Orfressa shifted her attention away from THAT ONE again, back to the business of the universe-that-was-herself. THAT ONE was fine, unaffected by the intensity of her emotions. Not that she’d feared doing harm. THAT ONE was strong... and such a good fit for the aching hollow within her.
HE wasn’t as good a fit for the other hollow, but it was near enough.
* * * * *
Korthrala pushed open the doors to the set of ‘rooms’ Orr All-Father was most often found in and poked his head in, looking around. “Father? --Oh, there you are! I wanted to ask--“
“Don’t worry about it,” Orr responded calmly, not looking up from the orb he was staring intently into.
“--about that demon, you know, the one... um?” Korthrala trailed off. Behind him, Torframos peered rather tentatively over his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it, I said,” Orr repeated. “Orfressa knows what she’s doing.”
“But he’s pulling power--“
Orr smiled, finally looking up. “Do you honestly think he could do something like that without her knowing about it from the very beginning?”
“Um-- actually, yes, I did think that, but-- she knows?”
“Yes, Korthrala, she knows.”
“And she’s not going to get mad?”
“If she was going to get mad, she would have already. Have you considered the possibility that she might think this is a good idea?”
Torframos almost choked. “But he’s a demon!”
Orr’s smile widened behind his beard, stretching into something suspiciously like a grin. “Ah, but Torframos... as your Gunnar would say, he has style.”
Later, as the two younger gods were walking back to Torframos’s domain, Korthrala grinned ruefully at his brother. “Father really does pay as much attention to things as the humans think he does, doesn’t he?”
* * * * *
Krashnark’s mental ‘voice’ was a strange blend of puzzlement and humour. =*What in the umpteen hells is ‘quantum physics’, if you don’t mind me asking?*=
Wufei blinked a little blearily, looking up from the cup of broth he was carefully sipping. “...What brought that question on?”
=*You did,*= the god pointed out drily. =*Yesterday. I asked how you knew I was here, and you said ‘quantum physics, for all I know’, just before you fell asleep and left me wondering what in Norfressa you meant. Whatever it is, I’ve never encountered it, which is an unusual thing for a god to realise, you know.*=
“Uh... oh!” Wufei chuckled. “That. I can always tell when you’re looking at me, and, well... quantum physics is a branch of science, generally dealing with very very small things. So small, that anything and everything can have an effect on them, including ‘looking’ at them. So,” he gestured vaguely with the cup, “the idea there is that if you notice that sort of effect, you can tell someone is looking. It was a joke, of sorts.”
=*...Well, if it’s a joke, I don’t get it,*= Krashnark replied. =*You have one of these ‘quantum’ things with you?*=
“Er, no, and I can’t explain it any better than that. I just feel something whenever you’re hovering.”
=*I do not hover. I can, however, float.*=
Wufei nearly choked on his broth, and fixed one particular bit of ‘empty’ air with a withering stare, eyebrow raised.
=*Hells and demons, you really do know exactly where I am.*=
“I feel compelled to point out that you aren’t acting like the god I’ve come to know and loathe. Is there any particular reason why? Or should I start practicing my paranoid twitch?”
It was Krashnark’s turn to half-choke on a laugh. =*You have a point. I think the best way to put it is that I’ve come to terms with my situation.*=
“And that situation is?”
There was a quiet sigh. =*Essentially, that nothing I can do or say will influence you towards agreeing to become my Champion. I can very easily influence you away from agreeing, though, so I might as well stop trying.*=
“...I thought you came to that realisation a few days back,” Wufei said slowly.
=*Ah, no, that was the realisation that nagging wasn’t going to work. You made that point quite forcefully, but that didn’t mean I’d ruled out persuasion, flattery, and sheer force of personality. I was just going to be subtle about it.*=
“Krashnark, I’m sorry, but to paraphrase Duo, I don’t think you do ‘subtle’ very well, if at all!”
=*Actually, I’m told that I do, but I haven’t needed to for a very long time, so I may be a bit out of practice. That, and I haven’t tried to use subtlety on anyone who can get under my skin the way you do. Mortals don’t generally taunt gods on first meeting,*= the god said ruefully. =*You seem to have started a trend, however-- anyway. When you were captured by Sharna’s little pets and I was cut off from you, I realised what I was risking.*=
“A return to your previously idyllic existence?”
=*There, see? You’re doing it again.*=
“Duo mode on autopilot,” Wufei muttered into his cup.
Krashnark either didn’t hear him -- unlikely -- or chose to ignore that. =*I was risking losing not just the chance to take you as my Champion, but even the chance to just be with you... even if Sharna didn’t kill you. Even without nagging and with whatever level of subtlety I might be able to manage, I don’t think I could keep on trying to coax you into my service without you noticing; and though reluctant Champions generally can’t keep a god from coming back, I wouldn’t put it past you to find a way to block me out of your mind and soul permanently. Through sheer force of willpower, if nothing else.*=
“Is this where the flattery comes in?”
=*You have a very... comfortable soul, Wufei. For want of a better word, I like you. I haven’t liked any of my worshippers for a very long time. I certainly don’t really like my family,*= he added darkly. =*I doubt any of them would say any different about me. I am bored, and yes, I am lonely, and I want to be able to spend time with you without you having to continually question my motives. I want you to not wince whenever I show up... so trying to manipulate you into becoming my Champion is no longer an option.*=
“But if I just happened to end up liking you, and decided to become your Champion anyway, you wouldn’t say no,” Wufei said in an acid voice.
=*That is not my motivation. I’d be lying if I said I’d turn you down, but this is not part of a cunning plan to beguile you into my clutches by pretending to give up. And I realise I can’t expect you to believe that, given my past behaviour.*=
“Hmph. I’m not going to argue with that comment.”
There was silence in the small tent for a minute. Outside, the normal sounds of the camp and distant wildlife continued. Finally, Wufei shrugged one shoulder.
“So,” he said, deadpan. “Krashnark Phrofro, the Dark God of War, wants to hang out with me.”
=*...If that means what I think it means, then yes.*=
“I really hope you can manage another of those shared dreams sometime. Duo will kill himself laughing if he ever hears this.”
A little later, Wufei thought of something.
“By the way,” he asked, shifting carefully to get more comfortable, “what was Arwen talking about yesterday? He said something like ‘Remind me to tell you what Krashnark did’.”
=*...Ah. That.*= Somehow, Wufei managed to get the impression that he wasn’t the only one shifting uncomfortably. =*I... may have been slightly impolite to Torframos and Korthrala on the subject of how fast Torframos’s worshippers weren’t rescuing you.*=
Wufei raised an eyebrow. “Why do I get the impression that there was more to it than that?”
=*...Uthmar and Arwen insisted I say ‘please’.*=
Luckily, giggling didn’t hurt Wufei’s healing cuts as much as a full-bodied laugh would have.
Outside the tent, Uthmar raised his own eyebrow as he heard a quiet, one-sided conversation from inside. Torframos? He’s talking to Krashnark, isn’t he?
=*Yes... but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. It might actually be a good thing.*=
=*Given that that young man actually seems to have had a positive effect on Sir Vaijon, it’s within the bounds of possibility that he might actually have a civilising effect on my nephew.*=
Uthmar snorted, grin hidden in his beard. Normally I’d say that was impossible, but your choice of example does have impressive persuasive force.
* * * * *
Somewhere in a dark forest, there was nothing but blood and pain for a hradani who was much too far from home.
He couldn’t see, couldn’t tell for a moment if his friend had gone down under the Navahkian armsman’s sword in that last mad scramble after Harnak had fallen, but then a familiar hand touched his shoulder. He would have sighed in relief if it hadn’t been so hard to breathe somehow...
“Bahzell?! Bahzell, are you-- oh gods curse it all, Bahzell, don’t you dare, don’t you die and leave me stuck alone in the middle of some damn Purple Lord’s lands! We won, damn it, you killed the bastard, so don’t you dare give up and die on me now!”
Ah. So that’s the way it’s after being, then?
Bahzell Bahnakson, youngest prince of Hurgrum, found himself feeling unexpectedly cheerful at the prospect of his own death, and wondered how much of that was due to blood loss. It wasn’t that he wanted to die, certainly not so far from his family and all he’d grown up with; but on the other hand, from the sound of it Crown Prince Harnak of Navahk had gone first, probably screaming all the way down to one of Krahana’s hells like the coward he’d always been underneath the bullying façade, and that was something any man could be proud of.
If he wasn’t a champion of Sharna yet, it was only a matter of time, he thought muzzily, mind drifting. And that sword of his... that was a nasty thing and no mistake. Can’t help thinking I would’ve been dead and worse than dead if he’d actually managed to stick me with it.
’Course, he might not have managed but his men did... doesn’t take a magic sword to get a body plain dead.
Farmah and Tala are safe, now. He clung to that thought as the darkness seemed to thicken and curdle around him, barely hearing his friend’s curses and sobs as Brandark tried desperately to bandage wounds far too deep to heal. Churnazh might chase them all the way to Hurgrum to save a live son’s reputation, but a dead one? He’ll cut his losses, say it was nowt to do with him, and hope for the scandal to die as quick as Harnak did. Farmah and Tala are safe.
Something about that didn’t seem quite right. He almost managed a frown, puzzling it out slowly.
Farmah and Tala are safe... once Churnazh knows his son is dead, he realised eventually. And it won’t have been just Harnak messing with the Dark Gods. Once Sharna gets his poison into a country, he doesn’t let go easy...
“Brandark,” he managed to choke out, through the blood.
“Don’t talk, you big lout, just lie still and I’ll-- I’ll--“
“Now don’t be a fool, little man,” he whispered, feeling a crooked smile lift his mouth. “We both know I’m dyin’ here.”
“You are not!”
“Stubborn as a bloody stone-headed Horse Stealer,” Bahzell chuckled, and coughed again. “If y’ weren’t so short, little man... well. No time. You have to get to Hurgrum.”
“You mean we, you big lunkhead!” Brandark snarled. “If you think I’m going to walk into Hurgrum, a Bloody Sword hradani strolling into a pack of Horse Stealers -- and a Bloody Sword from Navahk, at that -- without a nice big Horse Stealer idiot to hide behind, you can damn well think again! I’m not leaving you, so shut up!”
“You’ll have to.” His mind was surprisingly clear now, and the pain was ebbing away, leaving a strange lightness of feeling behind it. “Take *kaff* the money. All of it, Harnak’s too, he’ll *kaff* have a lot. Get to the coast. Wait for a ship... a Marfanger ship, they *kaff* hate the Purple Lords, they won’t give you up so long as they can squeeze a good passage fee out of you. Get to Hurgrum--“
“I won’t leave you!”
“--and tell my father!” Bahzell reached out, blind in the dark, and clutched Brandark’s shirt, feeling the ragged remains of lace under his fingers. “Tell him Harnak’s dead. Tell him about that damn sword of *kaff* his. He needs to know!”
Brandark’s breathing was as ragged as Bahzell’s, and for a moment he worried until he felt something hot and wet fall on the back of his hand. Oh. It’s sorry I am to do this to you, my friend...
“What else do you want me to tell him?” Brandark said bitterly, voice cracking. “Tell him I left his son to die and ran like a coward for safety?”
The next cough was at least half a laugh. “Safety? Among Horse Stealers? Weren’t you just *kaff* saying you needed a bodyguard... little man? No. *kaff* Tell him... I told you to make sure... I didn’t *kaff* die for nothing.”
Then Brandark was saying something, but the darkness was muffling it somehow, smothering the remaining sense of his body until he whirled away into nothing, wondering if he was finally going to find out what it was he’d been looking for all his life.
Orr sighed, looking through his orb at a bleeding hradani weeping over the body of his best friend. I’m sorry, Brandark, son of Brandark, he thought, knowing the living hradani couldn’t hear him. A great soul has been lost from the living, and you are not the only one who will grieve. But at least you will live.
Reaching out sideways and elsewhere, he cupped a gentle hand around a lost spark of bewildered blue light and drew it to him. This soul wasn’t one of his, exactly; but he was Orr All-father, so in some ways all souls were his, and he was not going to let this one wander lost as so many others had.
“Hello, Bahzell,” he said gently, and smiled as the spark recoiled warily. “I’m not what you’ve been looking for, I’m sorry. I’m just going to look after you until he gets here.”
“I promise you, he’ll be worth the wait. Get some rest, now.”
“That’s hardly restful.”
“And that’s hardly respectful.” Orr lifted one snow-white eyebrow, looking sternly at the bright blue spark, and almost laughed as it flickered warily in his hand but refused to back down. “Even if I do let you watch, you won’t be able to do anything, you realise?”
Orr sighed again, but smiled behind his beard.
* * * * *
Trowa sat down next to Quatre on the bed, one hand lifting to brush a curl behind his lover’s ear. “You’ve been off in your own world since before lunchtime. Is it anything I can help with?”
“Sorry,” the blond boy said sheepishly. “I have been a bit distracted. Um... I’m really not sure if there’s anything to help with, actually. It’s about Duo.”
Trowa raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“When we were playing Ludo, and he went to get us all something to drink...”
“And fell over.”
“And fell over, yes.” Quatre chuckled weakly. “I... felt something.”
“I’m not sure.” He hesitated for a long moment. “It was like that time in the hospital, when I felt Wufei through Duo. Only it wasn’t Wufei this time.”
Trowa blinked. “Somebody else?”
“Or something. Whatever it was, it felt a long way off, and muted the same way Wufei was, but... powerful. Very powerful.” Quatre shivered. “There was a, a depth to the feeling, and it sort of echoed... it’s hard to explain. Whatever it was, it surprised Duo, but... he was kind of laughing, too? And he didn’t mention it, so I don’t know if I should ask about it or not.”
“Did it feel like something we should worry about? A threat?”
“I don’t think so. Duo didn’t seem to see it as a threat, but... argh!” Quatre rubbed one hand across his forehead in frustration. “I don’t want to pry if it’s something Duo wants to keep secret...”
“But you want to ask?”
“So ask,” Trowa shrugged. “Just tell him you won’t ask again if he doesn’t want to talk about it. Even if-- especially if he wants to keep whatever it was secret for now, it’s probably a good idea to tell him you felt something.”
“True.” Quatre blinked. “Actually, if I don’t tell him I felt it, it’s almost like eavesdropping, isn’t it? I think... I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning, before Heero gets up.”
Quatre woke up with the first beep of the alarm, one hand reaching out to slap it silent before he was truly aware of where he was. Tousled head poking out from under the covers, he blinked at the display, momentarily puzzled.
Why’s it set for six forty-five? I normally set it for seven fifteen... um. Duo. Something to do with Duo... does he have an appointment or something? He’s not supposed to get the brace unlocked yet... oh! Of course. Now I remember.
It wasn’t in Quatre’s nature to say “duh”, even inside his own head, so there was just a wordless mental grumble as he scrubbed sleep from his eyes and reached for his pants. Heero will be getting up soon, but he’ll start breakfast before going out to talk to Duo, so I have at least half an hour... assuming Duo wants to talk to me.
Ngh. If he doesn't want to talk, I’m going back to bed.
When Quatre slid open the glass door from the hallway and stepped out into the courtyard, yawning hugely behind one hand, Duo was already settling himself into the hot tub. “Hey, Quat,” he said cheerfully, almost hiding the wince as his healing incision slid under the water. “You’re up early. What gives?”
“Mmh. Wanted to talk to you for a bit,” Quatre answered, rubbing at his eyes again. Oof. I want coffee. How in the world did I manage to get up for all those early-morning missions?
Oh, right. Adrenaline. That was it.
“Ooooo-kay. Talk? Should I worry?” Duo asked, a little warily.
“Eh. No.” Quatre waved that off, sitting down on the nearby bench and yawning again. “Uff. My apologies. No, I just want to ask you about something I think you might want to keep private, therefore I am here at this obscenely early hour, without coffee. And if you do want to keep it private, that’s fine, I won’t ask again. It’s just... hm.”
Duo raised both eyebrows. “Hmmm?”
“Were you...” Quatre paused, trying to frame the question. “...talking to someone, yesterday? When you were in the kitchen. Because I felt something, and it definitely wasn’t Wufei, but it also wasn’t anyone from here.”
Oh boy. Duo stiffened. Damn. Stupid of me, I should have realised-- if Quat felt Wufei that time, of course he’ll-- damnit, damnit, how do I get out of--
Wait. You moron. This is Quatre, not an enemy, you don’t have to get out of this.
...And if anyone’s going to believe it, he will.
He’d taken a little too long to answer. Quatre’s face fell slightly; then he smiled again, and started to get up. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s--“
“Nah, that’s okay Quat, sit down-- you just, um, kinda startled me is all,” Duo said hastily. “Um. Yeah. I was, um, kinda talking to someone... well, not talking exactly, it was more like playing Twenty Questions for a while there.”
Quatre blinked. “Very fast Twenty Questions, then.”
“Heh. It was a lot longer from the inside,” Duo grinned sheepishly. “From my end it felt like about ten minutes. Right.” He rubbed one wet hand through his bangs, frowning. “Man. How do I explain this...”
“Well, to begin with... who was it?”
“Oh, sure, pick the hardest explanation first, Q-man.” Duo rolled his eyes. “Well. I didn’t exactly tell Heero everything about my dream...”
* * * * *
=*Perhaps you should call someone to lend you their shoulder?*= Krashnark asked tentatively.
Wufei would have glared at him if he’d been willing to spare the energy from his current predicament. As it was, he was clinging to the nearest tent pole with a one-handed death grip, perilously close to falling over, and feeling every one of his barely-closed wounds with an entirely unwelcome clarity. “No.”
He could literally feel Krashnark open his mouth to argue, pause, and shut it again. =*...Then... may I loan you a shoulder? Given that putting you back to bed is clearly not an option.*=
The Chinese pilot bit off a laugh, straightening up another careful inch or two. “Seriously? You’re offering to manifest, in a camp full of your enemy’s servants including two Champions, just to give me a hand to walk six feet?”
=*It’s more like twelve feet, and it’s not as if I haven’t manifested before them for less reason...*=
“For nagging purposes, you mean.”
=*A far less worthy purpose than giving you a hand, exactly. May I?*=
“Krashnark,” Wufei said with a wry half-smile, “think of your reputation. Think of my reputation.”
“You weren’t watching right after I managed to get Nataku walking, were you?”
=*No... I must have still been concentrating on talking to Torframos and Korthrala. Why?*=
“Uthmar’s already making jokes about asking you what your ‘intentions’ towards me are. I don’t need you giving him -- and Gunnar! -- more ammunition.”
The mental pulse of shock and disbelief and sheer embarrassment was so funny that Wufei laughed, choked at the pain, doubled over, lost his grip on the tent pole and started to fall--
--only to be caught by a pair of strong hands, carefully holding him up without putting pressure on any of his wounds. Expecting to see Krashnark, Wufei looked up and discovered that his unexpected saviour was Sir Vaijon, looking decidedly worried.
“Sir Wufei! Are you all right?”
Huh. Listen to that, Wufei thought giddily, controlling a wince. The ‘Sir’ came out without him forcing it. “--I’m fine,” he insisted, resisting as Vaijon started to lower him back to the camp bed. “I’m fine! I want some fresh air, that’s all.”
“Ah. Certainly,” Vaijon said, reversing direction and supporting Wufei upright. “If you would be so good as to allow me to assist, there are some seats by the fire. Would that be acceptable?”
...I can hardly say no now. Damn it. “That would be just perfect, Sir Vaijon. Thank you.”
For some reason, that started an embarrassed flush on Vaijon’s cheekbones. “It’s I who should be thanking you, Sir Wufei,” he said awkwardly, matching Wufei’s slow steps towards the tent flap. “You saved my life.”
Wufei quirked one eyebrow, looking up at the much taller young man. “Don’t concern yourself. You’d do the same.”
Vaijon bit his lip. “Ah. Well. There’s the rub. Two days ago, Sir Wufei, I probably wouldn’t have done the same if our positions had been reversed, and I believe you knew that...”
The eyebrow went higher. “You hadn’t exactly kept your feelings secret, no,” Wufei said dryly. Where’s he going with this?
“And yet you saved me anyway. Twice.”
Wufei delayed his response until after he’d settled onto one of the roughly squared-off logs that had been set around the camp’s cooking fire, jaw clenched as the cuts on his legs protested. His emergence from the tent had definitely been noted -- he and Vaijon were the subject of several armsmen’s attention -- but for now, at least, they were being left in relative privacy.
=*The puppy’s learning,*= Krashnark murmured in his mind.
Hush, you. Looking back up at the knight-probationer, standing awkwardly beside him, he let a trace of wry amusement show. “I don’t exactly stop to consider whether or not someone who needs my sword in a melee likes me, Sir Vaijon. Helping you had nothing to do with our, ah, less-than-comfortable relationship at the time.”
“But you would have in any case, wouldn’t you?” Vaijon persisted, a strange sort of desperate urgency in his expression. “Under different circumstances, where you had all the time you needed to make the decision, even if not saving me would have had no negative repercussions for you whatsoever... you would still have saved me. Wouldn’t you?!”
Wufei stared at him for a long moment... then shrugged his unbandaged shoulder, and sighed. “Yes.”
“Because you needed it,” Wufei replied quietly. “I don’t require more reason than that.”
Vaijon let out a strange noise, half-laugh, half-sob, one hand rising to push back his golden hair. “I thought so.”
A couple of the armsmen shifted, frowning uncertainly, and one eased back out of the ring of watchers, heading off at a fast walk.
=*You’ll have the Champions here in a minute,*= Krashnark noted mildly. =*I think they’re worried that the boy’s going to do something foolish.*=
Given his track record, I’m not surprised, Wufei thought back. Especially since I don’t think they can hear what he’s saying... so all they know is that he looks agitated.
=*I wonder how many of them are planning to hurl themselves into the breach if he attacks you?*=
Hopefully none! I don’t need--
“Well.” Vaijon looked around at the watchers and grimaced unhappily. “I had planned to do this in private... but given that my errors were very definitely public, this is probably all to the good.” And he went to one knee in front of Wufei, head bowed.
“I have erred,” he said formally, hands clenching into fists. “I have disregarded the advice of my superiors in the Order, and the words of my God as transmitted to me through his chosen Champions, and allowed myself to be blind to your qualities. I have wronged you in thought, word, and deed, and I am truly sorry, Sir Wufei.” He swallowed, and looked up, piercing blue eyes miserable but undeniably sincere. “I will accept whatever punishment you and the Champions think appropriate.”
* * * * *
Shaking with pain and exhaustion, Brandark let himself collapse by the pile of driftwood he’d laboriously collected and doused with lamp oil. Is it big enough? he wondered. ...It had better be. It’s all I’m going to get. He pushed himself up into a semi-sitting position, hearing himself whimper as the deep wound in his right thigh stabbed pain at him, and hating himself for the weakness. Bahzell didn’t whimper-- he didn’t-- don’t think about it, don’t think about it, just get this done, get the job done and then I can cry all I damn well want--
The tinderbox was a lovely little thing, Spearman work, but all Brandark cared about right then was that it could be worked one-handed. His left hand was useless, blood-soaked bandage wrapped around what was left of it, but the tinderbox let him set a spark in shredded bark and feed it into a healthy flame.
A Marfanger ship, he told himself, shielding his eyes from the light to protect his night vision. One going west, to their island. A fast one, preferably, though I’ll take what I can get... they’re all fast, Marfangers like it that way... His mind wandered, and he brought himself up with a jerk. Find a ship!
Bortalik Bay and Marfang Island were both relatively close, and both centres of trade; it wasn’t long before the first ship hove into sight, running lamps shining through coloured glass. Heading west... but it’s a tub, Brandark told himself, squinting. Purple Lord ship. No good.
The next two ships were useless too, eastward-bound towards Bortalik Bay, the main source of the Purple Lords’ power and influence; the wounded hradani continued to wait, feeding twigs and chips to his tiny flame. His leg wasn’t hurting so much any more...
...then a spike of agony from his wounded hand woke him, to find himself slumped over and his precious flame guttering, nearly out. Near panic, he was about to dump a handful of wood chips on top of it when he forced himself to stop, breathing hard, and add one twig at a time until the fire filled the tinderbox compartment again. Stupid. Stupid! he berated himself, good hand shaking. What if I missed a ship? What if--
There were running lights offshore. Green closer to him, red nearly obscured behind the long, low shape, and it was cutting through the water like a shark--
Marfanger. Heading west. I can only do this once -- please, please let this work!
On board the Wind Dancer, Captain Evark Pitchallow squinted up at the masthead as the lookout shouted down to the deck. “Fire on the starboard bow! Sprang up all of a sudden!”
“Beach or ship?” Master Holderman called back.
“Beach! I think--“ a pause as the lookout squinted through his spyglass “--there’s someone there... waving?”
“Could be just about anything,” Evark muttered to his first mate. “Wreckers or smugglers, maybe.”
Holderman grimaced and rubbed the base of one of his horns, considering. “Bad spot for wreckers -- no reefs this far from the Bay, and nobody would mistake it for an official landing -- but it’s a bad spot for smugglers, too. Too open, and no streams to hide up. Let it go on by?”
“I think so,” Evark started, then cut himself off as the pendant under his shirt chilled suddenly. “--Wait up.” My Lord? he thought, pressing one hand over the cool spot.
The halfling didn’t have the sort of easy access to his God’s voice a Champion would have, but as a captain-dedicate of Korthrala he could still get the occasional nudge... and he was getting one now. The trident pendant was getting colder as Wind Dancer swept along the coast towards the fire, and then there was a definite shove towards shore.
“Drop sail and anchor,” Evark ordered. “Korthrala thinks we have business with that light; we’ll put a boat over.”
“Right,” Holderman said laconically, and turned away to start bellowing instructions to the crew.
“They’ve stopped waving,” the lookout reported.
Master Holderman was the first out of the longboat as its keel dug into the sand, short sword and belaying pin ready. The bonfire was dying down already, smelling of lamp oil and burnt seaweed, and the flickering light outlined a prone figure beside it.
“...It’s a gods-damned hradani,” one of the sailors muttered, and spat. “What’s Foam Beard want with one of them?”
“He hasn’t seen fit to let me know yet,” Captain Pitchallow said dryly. “Light your lanterns and spread out, see if there’s anyone else here.” His pendant was as cold as a storm-sea, somehow yearning towards the unconscious hradani, and he doubted there was anyone else to be found; but he hadn’t reached captain by taking unnecessary chances on land, so his own sword was out as he knelt by the figure and reached out to its shoulder.
“Uff. Bastard’s heavy as ballast,” he grunted, shoving until he could get a clearer look. “Been in a fight, too.” Handsome for a hradani, he added, directing the thought towards his god. Missing fingers on that hand, missing half of one ear, bunch of cuts -- wounds are fresh -- hm? His eyes narrowed.
“Some Wild Wash brigand that got away from a Purple Lord patrol, maybe?” Holderman suggested.
“No Wild Wash hradani ever wore that shirt,” Evark snorted, flicking one finger at the bedraggled remnants of lace and embroidery. “And he’s too tall. Broken Bone, or maybe Bloody Sword, though they don’t go much for fripperies either.”
“This far south?!” Holderman sounded incredulous, and well he might.
“Anything’s possible,” the captain shrugged, and moved to brace himself with one hand on the sand as he leaned in closer -- then stiffened, and lifted that hand into the light, sticky with sandy clots. “Hells, I think he’s bleeding out. Check for deeper wounds, the ones I can see aren’t bad enough to spill this much--“
Glittering brown eyes opened, and the hradani reached out with his whole right hand, clutching a handful of Evark’s shirt along with the pendant.
“Hold!” the halfling said sharply, and Holderman’s sword stopped a hair away from the hradani’s back. Evark’s sword was resting gently against his throat, sharp enough to shave with, but he didn’t seem to notice or care.
“Marfangers?” he whispered, voice cracking.
“I got within arm’s reach of you instead of running a mile, big ‘un,” Evark said blandly. “What do you think?”
The hradani’s brow furrowed, working through that; then he nodded slightly, acknowledging that only a Marfang Island halfling would be brave -- or foolhardy -- enough to do that. “Passage,” he said, voice faint but clear. “I want to buy passage.”
“Oh, aye? And where would you be wanting us to take you?”
The captain blinked, mental map coming up blank for a moment; then Master Holderman choked, recognising the name. “Hurgrum?! You want us to sail all that way north and then leagues upriver to a Horse Stealer city?!”
“You’re Bloody Sword, aren’t you?” Evark asked. “What business has a Bloody Sword with the Horse Stealers, apart from what can be delivered on the point of a blade?”
“I have to warn them,” the hradani insisted, grip starting to loosen. “Warn Prince Bahnak...”
The clinging hand fell away, and the hradani laid his head down on his arm like a child going to sleep. “’bout Harnak...” he mumbled. “’bout Sharna...”
And Evark’s pendant gave a pulse of cold and anger that even Holderman could feel.
There was a long pause; then Holderman sighed, sheathing his sword. “He’s not going to fit in the longboat,” he muttered, comparing the hradani’s six foot six inches with his own three foot two height.
“Then we’d best fetch the cargo skiff, hadn’t we?” Evark frowned. “And the surgeon, afore he goes and dies on us.”
End chapter 32
DUO: ...Where are we?
QUATRE: I have no idea.
[The G-boys are standing in a living room that is clearly not the Evil Onnas’ usual writing spot. For one thing, it’s not full of fish tanks. There are two comfy-looking couches, a huge barrel chair, one nice large-screen TV, a grumpy-looking tortoiseshell cat they’ve never seen before glaring at them from a pile of large cushions, and a thumping noise coming from somewhere offscreen.]
MEL: Hey guys. Mind giving me a hand with this blast shielding? I need to get it to the bunker in the back yard.
WUFEI: Where are we, and why do you need a bunker?
HEERO: And do we need a bunker? Because if the answer is yes, I’m building one we don’t need to share with you.
TROWA: I’m getting the impression there was another timelapse.
[Mel sighs, leaning on the large slab of metal she was dragging.]
MEL: Uh, yeah... about three and a half years long. Maybe four. Long story short: I got married, we live here now, Christy owns the House of Bishounen Torment ER I MEAN the old townhouse and we’ll be commuting back there to write, DoJ has been restarted as sort-of therapy, and no, you guys don’t need a bunker.
DUO: So in total it’s been about five years since the last chapter? No wonder you need a bunker!
MEL: Actually I need a bunker because we killed Bahzell. It was a literary necessity and we really hated doing it, but that’s not going to stop his fans.
[The distant thumping is joined by a strange mooing noise.]
TROWA: Is that them now?
MEL: No, that’s the other cat. She thinks she’s meowing, leave her to her delusions.
WUFEI: You two are incapable of having normal pets, aren’t you?
MEL: It’s a gift. Bunker-building? Please?