Chapter 3: Of White Magic and Interpersonal Relations
by Casey Valhalla
Duo's eyes fluttered open, still glazed and dim with sleep. His thoughts descended into a gentle thrum of movement, synchronizing with the soft nudges in the netheregions of his psyche.
Slowly, as though still dreaming, he slid out of the comfortable four-poster bed that occupied the bedroom space of Wufei's guest suite and methodically dressed himself in the dim light of pre-dawn. Oblivious to all but the commands moving like caresses in his mind, he slipped out the door, silent enough not to disturb the cat sleeping by the dead fireplace.
Lieutenant Danoff was the sole occupant of the docking station during the early morning, and he patrolled the space port areas languidly in a state of peace. He didn't expect to see anyone for another two hours, so he was startled when he rounded a corner to find the Relic Duo Maxwell standing perfectly still on a landing pad in the gray dawn light, staring up into the hazy sky.
The long-haired demon made no move as Danoff approached, and gave no sign of even being aware of his presence as the guard circled him and peered into his face. His features were slack, his eyes vague and shimmering with a dull light, and he gazed at the clouds as though entranced.
Duo jumped and came to awareness suddenly, shaking himself and looking around in confusion. "How did I...? Damn it! He did it again!"
"Are you all right, sir?"
His eyes traveled back to the guard, and he offered a shrug and an apologetic smile. "I'm fine, Danoff, thank you. My controller knows I'm disoriented when I first wake up, and takes advantage of that sometimes. How long have I been here?"
"At least ten minutes, sir." Danoff looked the Relic over with a frown. "Are you sure you're okay? Should I get Master Chang?"
Duo shook his head and turned back to the sky. "You should get out of here. My controller's gonna touch down in a few minutes, and he's not very happy with me right now."
"Shall I inform Master Chang of his arrival?"
"When he wakes up. We'll probably be in the guest suite."
"I'll do that, sir." When Duo didn't respond, he nodded and began walking back to the station, casting a look back over his shoulder. ~Still as a statue~ he thought, brushing off the eerie feeling of the encounter. ~He seemed much more animated yesterday. He must have really pissed off his master.~ He shuddered involuntarily, remembering his training on Niccon II and witnessing the less-than-humane treatments some controllers gave their demons. He decided to send the errand boy to notify the Mandate anyway.
Heero regarded the lone black-clad figure standing on the landing pad, one hand flung up over his eyes against the winds whipping around the outside of the spaceship, trenchcoat billowing out behind him and a long braid snaking though the air at his side. ~How many times have I seen him like this? Waiting for me because I called. Yet I never get tired of it. Four months. That's how long it's been.~
He continued to watch until the ship came to a stop, then flicked off the viewscreen, his expression changing abruptly from wistful to demanding. ~He disobeyed me. I'm not here to gawk at him, I'm here to discipline him.~
Duo hadn't moved from his place when Heero stepped out of the hatch, but the look in his eyes said he wanted to run. Heero frowned disapprovingly. ~He's afraid. He knows I'm angry, and I've never been angry at him before. Not like this.~
He shouldered the pack he was carrying and strode quickly across the platform, only stopping when he was nose to nose with his wayward Relic. Duo's eyes were wide and shining, like a cornered animal, but he remained motionless, staring back into Heero's icy glare.
"You refused a direct order." He kept his voice low and even, the tone of a commanding officer to his subordinate. Duo nodded without breaking his gaze. "Your position was extremely compromised and you failed to contact me and confirm your safety as well as passing on any information I couldn't receive through the Bond. This will *never* happen again."
His eyes broke from Heero's and he hung his head, hands clenching into fists, body tensing as though preparing for a blow. Heero considered this behavior with a scowl. ~He should know by now that I'd never punish him like that.~
Duo peered up at him through his bangs with a quiet, "Sir."
"Increase restrictions to level ten for the remainder of our stay here unless otherwise instructed."
He looked pained but nodded in assent, and through the Bond Heero felt a good portion of his power being cut off. His feet shuffled nervously, but he made no move to leave.
"You will return with me to the suite for a debriefing, after which you will report to Wufei's practice yards and train until I call you back. In addition, you will continue to keep the Bond open and unobstructed for the rest of the day. Understood?"
Again the slightly muffled, "Sir."
Heero reached out and lifted his chin, forcing him to look directly into his eyes. "Don't scare me like that, Duo."
He nodded and turned to continue into the station, sighing inwardly when the demon still didn't move from his spot on the landing pad. ~What in the seven Hells has gotten into him?~ He pushed the question aside and sent a command through the Bond as gently as he knew how.
Duo hunched into his jacket, hands thrust deep in the pockets, and padded softly after Heero, a few paces behind. He quelled his anger at the show of subservience, and stepped up to the guard manning the security checkpoint, only passively noting the man's sharp look. Heero provided the required information, and the guard dismissed him with a curt nod. "Welcome home, Master Yuy."
Another sandstorm was rising, the dunes surrounding the Talmac stronghold shifting in the growing winds. Rashid cursed and kicked the base of the satellite receiver he was working on and yelled a warning towards the nearby guard tent. "Incoming! Move out!"
Three robed and hooded figures scurried though the blowing sand and scorching noonday sun to the safety of the Talmac, rough-hewn limestone walls rising forty feet above the desert to coalesce into a vast dome more than twice that height. Rashid cast one last glance across the landscape and the docking station to check for any other stragglers before stepping through the gates to help push closed a pair of thick wrought-iron doors.
"The circuitry on that stone-age piece of junk is blown. We've got zero contact and no visibility with these storms," he griped to one of the standing guards as they dropped the wooden reinforcements in place. "If there's enemy troops off-planet, we won't see them until they're right on top of us."
"What about the Grand Minister?"
"He's been holed-up in the lower ballroom for days. If he knows anything he hasn't told me."
"Send for him. We can't hold this kind of position for long without risking an ISG invasion right under our noses."
"I'll go myself. Keep the wall-posts manned, and get a lookout in the observatory. If there's a break in the weather maybe we'll catch something."
Rashid proceeded through the inner doors, leaving the men to arrange their respective duties. The state of their nation's defense was grossly unsatisfying. With the death of their former Grand Minister less than a week old, the encroaching force of the Interstellar Government was imminent, and the heir of the Winner clan, newly-appointed to his post, had yet to show his face since his father's death. He was up to something, and Rashid had suspicions as to what, though he hadn't decided yet whether he approved or not.
The interior of the Talmac was a maze of paneled wood passageways and polished staircases, grand in appearance but simply furnished and decorated, the home of the entire clan along with the Minister's elite force, the Manganacs, and their families; as well as the few groups of refugees from the Niccon system that hadn't moved to other areas of the sparsely populated nation - a total of over two hundred, yet the Talmac was large enough to house them all comfortably. In the center of the structure, if one knew where to look, the spring that provided water to the huge fortress fed a small garden, sustained by sunlight that filtered though the crystalline globe at the apex of the dome, where the observatory sat.
Rashid, Captain of the Manganacs, navigated this all with long-practiced ease, his booted footsteps muffled by fur-lined floors, his passing in the narrower causeways ruffling the edges of woven tapestries and embroidered clan crests, one for each elite family of the Sabaku nation. In the broader landings and foyers children and pets scurried out of his way, and as he moved into the domestic areas the furs gave way to straw matting, and the air was hung with scents of baking bread and stew, as well as the harsher hint of laundry soap. All this passed by as he continued descending into the underground levels of the Talmac until he found what he was seeking.
On the polished maplewood floor of a high-ceilinged ballroom hung with chandeliers a boy knelt, applying white paint to a circle twenty feet in diameter that was taking shape around him. The circumference was complete, a thick line indicating the barrier, and within it thinner lines roamed, meeting and intermingling, then crossing to form intricate geometric shapes interspersed with ancient letters in a dozen different languages, magic symbols, curved arrows and networked trails of incantations. The painter bent studiously over his work, enhancing the circle with careful precision. Ruffled platinum hair hung low over clear eyes the color of sunlit water, framing a delicate face flushed with concentration. A simple garb, consisting of a loose white shirt and leggings and soft leather boots was overlaid by a royal purple tunic, cinched at the waist by a plain belt. He didn't acknowledge Rashid when the soldier stepped into the room.
The boy looked up, brush poised over his clay pot of white paint. When Rashid made as though to step in further he set the brush aside and raised one hand to bring him to a halt.
"Master Quatre..." Words failed him, and he gestured helplessly at the display.
"It is a circle of summoning, Rashid, and extremely delicate work." He sat back on his heels and rubbed his sweating forehead against a sleeve. "I won't have it finished for another fortnight, I expect."
"Yes. A very old magic." Blue eyes flickered over him before coming to rest on his face. "You're distraught, Captain. Another sandstorm?"
The man nodded and cast a searching glance over the room, taking note of a bundle of blankets and cushions in one corner and the remains of a breakfast tray.
"They're not coming - not yet, anyway."
The words broke him from his thoughts and he turned back to the blonde boy in the circle. "Who?"
"The ISG. They're not coming. Our allies will arrive long before them." Quatre flashed him a smile before returning to his work.
"So, you *are* up to something." Rashid sank to the floor wearily, leaning back against the cool wall. "So tell me, young Master, who are these allies you speak of?"
"The Resistance. I've already arranged a trust for their use and taken position as prime operative. I'm waiting for representatives from the leaders in the Modicum to arrive or contact me. I've sent Trowa to scout out a possible rival, but it seems there's no danger there."
The Captain's eyes had widened slowly over the course of the speech until they were nearly as round as saucers. "You would ally the honorable Sabaku nation with rabble-rousers and crime lords?"
Quatre's laugh echoed musically about the ballroom. "My dear Rashid, so quick to judge. The Resistance is the only force that has ever made a move against the ISG; their network is vast and the skills of their operatives are impeccable. And in all fairness, some of these 'crime lords' you speak of value honor far higher than we do. Mandate Chang of the Kaji syndicate has completely halted all the petty battles between the clans in the Modicum, and I hope dearly to gain his support. Would you rather we fell helplessly to the ISG and allowed them to colonize our beautiful planet?"
Rashid chuckled. "No, I suppose not. I'm impressed. You seemed to have accomplished an awful lot in the past few days without so much as leaving this room."
"You know I don't need to communicate in the normal fashion." He set aside brush and pot again to shift position, sitting on the floor with legs crossed. "Now if you'll excuse me, Captain, I have an incoming call."
"As you wish." He stood and turned to go.
"Yes, Master Quatre?"
"You are performing remarkably well under the circumstances. My thanks."
"You are very welcome, my Quatre."
When the Captain had left, he settled back onto his elbows and closed his eyes. ~*Message received*~
~*Ah, Trowa, my love, my everlasting...*~
~*Enough*~ was the reply, though he detected a hint of amusement and a mental blush.
~*What have you to tell me today?*~
~*We have another new arrival, even more interesting than the last*~
Quatre gasped aloud. ~**The* Heero Yuy?*~
~*The scourge of the lower galaxy himself. He touched down this morning, and his Relic was on the landing pad to greet him*~
~*The Relic - the Eldest Relic belongs to *him*? Dear Allah...*~
~*He, too, seems friendly with our esteemed Mandate Chang. More intriguing by the day, is it not?*~
Quatre slid to lay on the floor and ran fingers through his hair with a sigh. "More intriguing by the day."
The sun was high by the time Duo stepped into the practice yards, a broad and carefully leveled sweep of grass surrounded by a low wall that separated the training grounds from the gardens. A small assembly of young recruits from the various clans residing on Kaji took up one corner of the field, engaged in a polearms lesson overseen by one of Dirin Roth's weaponmasters, a middle-aged man Duo recognized but couldn't put a name to. He paused beside the gates to remove his trenchcoat and fold it on a bench, then removed his boots and stockings as well before moving on to the racks of weapons stacked along the wall.
Quarterstaffs. Bokens. Practice weapons. Duo passed them over with a look of disdain. He'd never used a wooden sword in his life - a very, very long time, and he wasn't about to start now. Longbows. Shuriken. Chains. An assortment of pikes and lances, single and double-ended. He almost reached for a polearm, then shook his head. If Heero hadn't raised his restrictions so high, he could have summoned his weapon of choice, and not a one of these was going to prove an ample substitute. Rifles. Blaster pistols. Hell, a semi-automatic. Wufei was upping his standards. A door on the east end of the field led to a firing range, but a gun wasn't cohesive to venting his frustrations at the moment. Shortswords. A double-headed battleaxe. Ah!
He pulled a black-sheathed katana from the rack, drawing it to test the weight in his hand. Not his first choice, but it would do. He resheathed the blade and slung it over his shoulder as he eyed the field, choosing a clear patch in the northwest corner, opposite the training youngsters. He curled his bare toes in the grass as he walked, concentrating on the warmth of the sun on his shoulders to keep the seething feeling in his chest from exploding. Just a few more moments, and he could let it go.
Duo set the katana on the ground in front of him when he arrived at his chosen corner, and turned to face the wall, smirking a little at the lean form of his shadow. The restrictions were not so high that he couldn't conjure a sparring partner for himself. One he wouldn't have to worry about injuring, and one that had some chance of posing a challenge.
One hand lifted to indicate the shadow, while the other cupped against his chest, fingers curving into a symbol. "Animate."
The silhouette shimmered, undulating, then coalesced into a moving form, still slightly two-dimensional and not exactly sentient, but if it could mimic his own movements that was all that mattered. He lifted his sword and drew it, noting that his shadow did the same, discarding the sheath and shifting his feet into a ready stance. Duo drew a deep breath, exhaling slowly, and the glow in his eyes erupted into a blaze as he released his hold on the emotions he'd kept in check the entire morning.
At once he became a whirl of black and chestnut and glinting steel, attacking his enchanted shadow with inhuman speed. The shadow-sword blocked efficiently, making no sound at the impact, and swung around to offer a blow of it's own. The duel became a dance, an intricate pattern of thrusts and parries, graceful dodges and sweeping arcs of metal, moving feet, forms and twists and quickening breath.
~Why didn't you hit me?~
A wide swing, a block to the chest.
~You had every right to.~
A feint to the left, a jump, a swipe.
~But that's never been your style, has it? Not you.~
A block to the side, a twist to the right.
~It's all business with you. Always has been.~
A cut to the left arm, blocked, feinting to the chest.
~Do something, Anything. Something horrible.~
A down strike. Blocked and holding. Pressure.
~Make me hate you.~
Break away, and a slash. Unexpected. The shadow form stumbled backwards. Duo paused, still in stance, his breath coming in ragged pants. The anger was draining away, slowly, leaving a burning sensation in his gut. He lowered the katana and sank to his knees, holding up a hand, two fingers waving at the hovering shadow.
It fell into the grass silently, mirroring only his slumped, slightly trembling form.
~What in the universe and the Seven Hells am I thinking?~
He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, sliding them back to dig his fingers in his hair, his long bangs plastered to the sides of his face with sweat. His only answer was the burning, knotting around his stomach. He sat back on his heels with a sigh that faded into a whimper. "Dear Azrael of all that is dark and pure, why me?"
"I doubt one could find much solace in praying to the god of nightmares." Duo looked up to see the instructor he'd noted earlier, and beyond him noticed the class breaking up and filing out the gates. "That was an impressive show. The boys were speechless."
"Thank you." The words sounded muted to his own ears. He suddenly wanted to run as fast as he could and as far as he could get from the fortress, but he couldn't so much as leave the walled off field until Heero called him.
The aging man smiled, crinkling lines at the corners of his eyes and along the thin scar that traced his left eyebrow to his cheek. "I remember you now. You're one of Master Chang's retainers. It's been a while since I've seen you or Master Yuy in the castle."
Duo nodded slowly, the restlessness in his limbs ebbing somewhat. "It's - Bowman, right?"
"Bower. Oemund Bower. I don't pretend to have half the skill you do, but if you'd prefer a more sedated practice I might prove a useful opponent, if not a worthy one." He hefted a double-ended lance in his right hand.
Duo let out a long breath, his shoulders sinking, and shrugged off the edgy, nervous feeling still eating on the corners of his thoughts. He stood and stretched his arms out to the sides, then deftly swung the sword back up into guard. "I think sedated might be a good idea."
Wufei settled back in his easy chair, brushing a few stray hairs out of his face and looking over his new guest with scrutinous black eyes. "In all honesty, Heero, I can say that I've never been witness to him refusing a direct order from you. He was tense as a coiled spring from the moment he arrived."
"There's been a lot of demonic movement in the Outer Rim as of late, and that's had him agitated. And he's frustrated that his mission failed drastically. That's why I sent him to the practice yards, to work off some excess energy." Heero kept his eyes on the low polished oak table between them, lost in unvoiced thoughts. He seemed less rigid than usual, weary of the past months' inactivity and more than a little restless.
The Mandate considered the first statement. "Is it refugees, or just movement in general?"
"Some of both, and none of my intel has suggested anything strange. In any case, he's been nagging me to let him go to Torreldaeo for a while now, but for the last eighteen months we've either been too busy or it hasn't been safe for one or the other of us to travel."
"So what, you think he's homesick?"
Heero sat back and met the searching eyes of his host. "Despite everything, he is not now nor will he ever be human, Wufei. He needs to spend time among his own once in a while."
"Not to mention that other little problem he deals with on that planet." He didn't bother to hide the tone of disgust.
The stare broke at that. "Yes, well, just don't get yourself cut around him. It's been long enough he'll probably go berserk."
The quiet exchange ended, and a moment later a silvery laugh drifted past the open curtains of the guest suite. The topic of their conversation was sprawled over a lounge chair on the low balcony beyond the open window, a number of purple orbs floating about his hands, bouncing from fingertip to fingertip. Yoko had caught one of them and was idly batting it from her perch on the balcony railing, both her and her person basking lazily in the afternoon sun. Heero settled back in his chair to admire the view - rays of light playing over dark golden-brown hair, smooth, pale skin against burgundy fabric, a lithe body shifting to a more comfortable position among cushions... by all appearances Duo was in much better spirits than he had been earlier, but through the Bond Heero heard his thoughts dwelling on the morning's discipline and felt the tension that still hadn't completely left him.
"Stop sulking, Duo."
The purple balls vanished and the demon stretched languidly over the length of the lounge chair. "Who says I'm sulking?"
"I do, and I should know better than anyone."
Silence fell again as Duo turned his attention to Yoko, who had decided to take residence on his lap. He huffed suddenly. "I'm bored."
Wufei snorted. "Keep him in one place for more than a day and he goes stir-crazy."
"We'll find you something to do soon enough," Heero said with a gesture. "Come here."
Duo turned his face away. "No. I'm comfortable."
The demon grunted and swung off the chair, striding haughtily across the room to stand beside Heero. "You called?"
He obediently dropped to the floor and turned dangerously glinting eyes on his controller. "What's with the doggie-commands all of a sudden?"
"If you're going to behave like a disobedient pet, you will be treated like one."
Wufei made a valiant attempt to keep from laughing at the display and succeeded in snorting ungraciously. Heero narrowed a look at his host, who shrugged. "You two."
They fell into a discussion on the inner workings of the Kaji syndicate and planetary government as the afternoon passed on, which descended into an exchange of gossip regarding their mutual acquaintances. Duo summoned his little Cantrip globes back, and they floated around the room like stray bubbles, stalked among the scattered furniture by the sleek red cat. Heero caught one in his right hand as it drifted towards him; the ball of light melted as it touched the silver chain, sinking slowly through the tiny links. For a brief moment he felt the trickle of the demon's magic rushing through his body, the signatures of that power - warmth, darkness, blood - washing over his consciousness, before the orb reformed in his palm, glowing a dark blue. He released it to drift among the others, noting that a tiny mist-formed dragon had joined Yoko's hunt. He smiled inwardly, relaxing into the quiet scene, so much like those he remembered from his and Wufei's childhood; a lazy afternoon in a comfortable room, playing with Cantrips and chatting about nothing, his best friend at his side, his Relic snoozing at his feet... Heero found himself idly scratching the fingers of his left hand through Duo's hair, rubbing his scalp gently as one would pet a kitten. He was about to pull his hand away when the demon hummed appreciatively and curled up against the side of his easy chair, eyes slipping closed into a light doze.
Wufei observed all this and allowed a mental chuckle. ~Heero, though you'll never admit it, I think the real problem is that you've both been apart too long...~
A knock sounded at the door to the suite, disturbing the relaxed atmosphere, and it cracked open to reveal the castle's errand boy, his green eyes flickering over the room before coming to rest on Wufei. "Message for you, sir."
Wufei nodded and waved him in, accepting the envelope and exchanging a request to send orders for an early dinner. While this went on Heero made a quick study of the messenger, noting the clan livery he wore and the standard cap of the palace staff that was pulled low over his ears, allowing for a sweep of tawny bangs that shadowed half of his face. He got the distinct impression, somehow, that the boy was far older than he looked...
His thoughts were interrupted by Duo jerking to attention at his side and darting a hand out to clasp firmly around the boy's wrist, his eyes glowing brightly with alarm. It only took a moment for Heero to puzzle out the reason through the Bond.
The errand boy turned a startled look from Duo to Wufei, and finally to the assassin sitting in front of him. Duo didn't relinquish his hold and blazed a glare into the boy's face.
Heero's gaze turned to ice. "My Relic smells White Magic."
If ya like, just say so! I've got a lot more up my sleeve yet *sigh* This is my precious little monster.