Chapter Eight: My Father’s Sword
by Casey Valhalla
He was eighteen years old, this time.
He was standing in the middle of a battlefield, the sky burdened with dark gray clouds. Rain poured down, soaking his hair and running in rivulets over his cheeks. His heavy black cloak was already sodden with water and blood and grime, his boots sank ankle-deep in thick mud. In the dim light the corpses littering the ground around him were only so much shapeless rubble, impossible to discern from the boulders and crags that jutted out intermittently across the countryside. Night was falling slowly, and it was cold. Bone-chillingly cold.
The sword was in his left hand, gripped tightly, rain and blood mingling along it’s length to drip red off the tip, splashing into a colorless puddle on the ground. The chain mail that covered his cursed right hand grated harshly against the handle of a Beretta. One round left.
He was alone.
He sneezed, which in turn set off a coughing fit that racked his body, doubling him over where he stood. He gasped for air, staring down in fascination at the swirls of mud around his feet. His breath was ragged and gurgled in his chest. Bronchitis. He winced as his sword hand bumped against his thigh; he sustained a deep gash there some hours ago, and bound it quickly with a strip of cloth torn from his cloak. It was probably infected. That combined with the blood loss and the respiratory infection left him in a compromised position, but he was too disoriented to remember where the medic station was.
The only thing he could locate with absolute certainty was Duo, and he wasn’t far away. With wobbling, painful steps he began moving forward, in the direction the Bond indicated. Mud squelched and sucked at his boots with every step, which made walking a battle unto itself.
He had lost all track of time and space, his awareness narrowed down to the process of putting one foot before the other, and the invisible trail that led to his Relic. Dimly his mind warned him that he had a fever, that it was rising steadily, that if he didn’t find warmth and shelter soon the sickness would reach delirium. But nothing broke him from his daze until a warning stabbed through the Bond, and he heard it.
Duo was screaming.
In an instant he snapped back into focus and ran. Ignoring the pain, the mud, the vertigo, his protesting body and aching lungs. Duo was screaming. The sound echoed through the Bond, echoed in his ears, bounced off the rocky countryside and reverberated through his skin.
His boots slipped in the mud and scrabbled for purchase, and he almost toppled as his feet sank into a puddle and stuck. Five yards in front of him a young mage stood, one arm outstretched, his face twisted into an ugly sneer. On the ground before him Duo lay curled in a fetal position, a web of Holy magic pinning him down, burning his skin as he trembled and writhed, his fingers clawing feebly at the mud. As Heero stared in shock the demon’s voice broke into an agonized wail.
The mage’s brown eyes snapped up to take in Heero’s presence, the sneer on his face melting into a wicked smile. "Heero Yuy." The voice was colder than the air surrounding them. "Surrender and I’ll let him live."
Dimly lit purple eyes cracked open, meeting the assassin’s midnight glare. A desperate plea made its way slowly across the Bond.
Heero shook his head. The Relic closed his eyes and a keening cry rose in his throat. The assassin returned his gaze to the mage, and his father’s sword fell to the ground with a dull smack.
The mage laughed, a cruel, grating sound, but even as he laughed Heero was loosening his boots in the puddle. A calm, cold rage had settled over him, numbing him to everything but the intense desire to kill. The mage’s second hand rose, his fingers twisting together.
Another sharp scream from Duo broke the tableau. Instantly the Beretta jumped to Heero’s left hand, and the right was raised to catch the bolt of lightning the mage threw at him. The spell crackled as it was sucked through the chain mail, and an intense wave of pure power passed through Heero’s body, tingling from the tips of his toes to every strand of hair on his head. He sucked in a breath and pushed, and the spell flared to life again, streaming a deadly arc from his hand to the mage’s heart.
The brown-eyed man was thrown backwards a good fifty feet, and Heero strode to where he lay in a heap without a moment’s hesitation.
The mage blinked blearily at the assassin, his face contorted with shock. "You – you – a Blue Ma – Mage…"
Heero bared his teeth and raised the Beretta. "I surrender."
The gunshot echoed in resounding claps over the battlefield. His last round. Right between the eyes, leaving the mage’s face in a ridiculous mask of surprise. Heero spat on the corpse scornfully and turned back to Duo.
The Holy spell dissipated as soon as the mage was dead, leaving the demon panting, curled on the ground. Duo’s coat was gone, his arms bare in the chilly evening, and when Heero bent to lift him up his skin was icy to the touch. The web had cut into his flesh in a few places, the wounds oozing slowly, and the assassin swore out loud. The spell was gone, but it had touched Duo’s blood. It was poisoning him, slowly.
Lifting the demon to his feet, Heero winced as fire shot through his left thigh. Duo sagged against him, and would have slid back to the ground if Heero wasn’t holding him up.
"We have to get to the medic tent. You have to walk, Duo."
"C—can’t." The Relic shuddered violently. "Wh—why didn’t you run, Heero?"
"I couldn’t leave you." ~I couldn’t let that bastard son-of-a-whore torture you. I couldn’t let you die, not when all he wanted was to get to me. To kill Chang Wufei’s infamous assassin.~
The adrenaline rush past, Heero felt himself sliding back into the chaos of fever. Duo couldn’t walk, and he couldn’t carry him, not with the leg wound and his unreliable senses. They would have to wait, and hope to Kami someone found them. Heero bent carefully and retrieved his father’s sword with his free hand, driving it point first into the mud as a beacon to any friends who might pass that way.
Holding Duo by both arms, he made his way slowly and painfully to the boulder he passed earlier, and settled to the cold, muddy ground with Duo in his lap. He pulled the hood of his cloak low over his face and wrapped the thick fabric tightly around them both, the dark color providing suitable camouflage against the rain-slicked rock should any enemies pass by. Evening was deepening into night, the chill biting through the wet cloth of the cloak. Duo shivered uncontrollably, and the assassin held him close for warmth, tucking the head of mud-spattered chestnut hair under his chin, gently wiping grime off the demon’s ice-cold face.
Every breath made his lungs burn, even the slightest movement seemed to jar his injured leg. The fever clouded his eyes, and he startled at things moving in the night that weren’t there. Duo’s shivers subsided and the demon lay limp in his arms, the occasional whimper escaping his slightly parted lips. Coughing fits came and passed, leaving Heero’s body in spasms of pain that in turn made Duo moan and curl in on himself, shuddering.
~We’re going to die here.~
The rain passed, the clouds parting to give way to the thin light of a waning moon. Heero could hardly feel the cold any longer through the burning fever. He looked down to see Duo’s head had fallen back against his shoulder, exposing his pale neck to the moonlight. He pressed his cheek to the cold skin there, feeling a dull pulse and shallow breathing that ruffled his hair.
"Duo. Duo, wake up. I need to know you’re here. Please…"
Violet eyes opened slowly, glazed and dim, flickering like a dying candle. The demon made a low, gasping sound in his throat that might have been his attempt at a reply, and his eyelids began sliding closed.
Heero shifted slightly in an attempt to shake Duo awake, but he was too weak. "No, no, stay with me, please, Duo…"
The Relic’s mouth quirked in a tiny smile, his eyes blinking sluggishly, and Heero sighed in relief. It hurt to talk, but he had to, needed to. Needed to keep Duo awake and alive.
So he talked. He talked about his childhood studying under Odin. He recalled the day Duo had arrived at Dirin Roth for the first time, when a five-year-old Wufei had strode right up to the demon with a katana in hand and challenged him to a duel. He talked about politics, he talked about religion, he tilted his head back to look at the stars and named every system he could remember.
Heero Yuy had never talked so much in one sitting in his entire life.
When his throat was hoarse and dry and he couldn’t think of anything more to say he looked back down at Duo’s hazy eyes, tightening his arms as much as he could around the Relic. "We’re going to die here, you know, Duo. You and I, together."
Another smile twitched at the demon’s mouth, and his voice came out strangled. "Yeah."
Then Heero bent his neck slightly and kissed him.
The touch was gentle and languid, their lips moving softly against each other, brief moments stretching into eternity. When Heero pulled away and opened his eyes, Duo was regarding him quizzically.
"I just don’t want to die without ever having done that."
The demon’s eyes slipped closed and he let out a sated breath. Heero drew him closer, resting his cheek on Duo’s hair, breathing in the scent of blood and musk. He wanted this to be his last memory.
Sometime before the gray pre-dawn, they both fell asleep.
"Heero! Hey – Heero!"
The voice sounded like it was calling from the end of a long tunnel, and all he wanted was to fade back into darkness. Harsh light stung the insides of his eyelids, and he felt his body quiver as though he was being shaken.
"Dear Kami, Heero, wake up!"
Pinpricks of cold danced over his skin as his eyes fluttered open, wincing at the light of the newly-risen sun. A face was in his line of vision, Wufei’s coal-black eyes shining down at him.
"I—" His voice caught in his throat, a wretched, croaking sound that set off a fit of hacking coughs. He regained his breath and stared at his friend and foster brother wonderingly. "I’m alive."
Wufei nodded, a wry smile lightening his features. "We won."
Heero flexed his aching muscles, flinching again at the sharp pain in his thigh, and realized he had something heavy clasped in his arms. "Oh sweet mother, Duo!"
The demon lay limp and pale as death, only a slight trickle of air escaping his mouth as any indication he was still living. He ignored his protesting limbs and shook Duo as hard as he dared. "Kami in heaven, wake up! Please wake up!"
Wufei reached out to touch the Relic’s face and drew his hand back with a hiss. "What’s wrong with him? He’s fucking frozen!"
"Holy poisoning. I can’t – get him to the medics, NOW!"
That little bit of expended energy was Heero’s undoing, and the rest of the day passed in a blur of light and sound, until he fell unconscious in an infirmary somewhere, only one thought left on his mind.
~This will never happen again, Duo, I swear it on your life. You will never be used to get to me again.~
The sunlight slanting through the bay windows of Dirin Roth’s guest suite was far from welcome.
The lump under the blankets on the four-poster bed stirred for the first time in hours, stretching, then poking a sleep-tousled head of dark hair out of the covers. Eyes squinted against the morning light, and Heero yawned, rubbing against his eyebrows and the bridge of his nose as he slowly shifted into a sitting position. His nose instantly caught the scent of hot food trickling in from the suite’s sitting room, and his stomach gave an unapologetic growl.
The prospect of eating was his only motivation for crawling out of bed and throwing on a dressing gown before he stumbled through the door. His eyes locked instantly on a covered tray sitting on the coffee table, completely missing the figure leaning against the opposite wall by the main entrance.
Heero’s head jerked up to take in the presence of a smirking elf, at the same time his mind performed a thorough inventory of his sleep-sore body. The greatest impediment of note was a thin layer of sweat and grime that covered his skin, head to toe. "Not particularly."
Trowa nodded by way of understanding. He had traded in his battle garb for a layered outfit in varying degrees of brown, topped by a sienna stole that hung loose about his shoulders. His long knives were still present at his belt. "When you’re feeling more yourself, Wufei would like to see you in his office."
"I will be there." Heero sank into one of the plush armchairs, then shot Trowa a look. "Wufei? Since when do you address your superiors by their first names?"
The elf was half-turned towards the door, and he returned the glare with a serious expression. "Alliances formed in battle are often the strongest." He left silently, and Heero turned back to his breakfast.
Once he’d eaten and made use of Wufei’s heated water systems, Heero felt slightly more amiable at the prospect of meeting with the Mandate, and slightly less like a grumpy bear coming out of hibernation. As he searched his rooms for a presentable set of clothing he felt a poke in his mindspace, almost ticklish, as though someone had prodded him in the ribs. Duo’s way of getting his attention.
"Fit as a fucking fiddle," he muttered, retrieving a belt from under the bed. "What was it? Two hours in the situation room, five in the command center, ten in a fighter…"
He pressed a shirt to his nose, tossed it over his shoulder and eyed another one. "A pack of bloody demons, that’s who. With a mysterious disappearing command ship and weapons no tribe of demons in the lower galaxy has ever been known to have." He shrugged after a preemptive sniff and pulled the shirt on.
At the other end of the Bond Duo’s thoughts were rapidly reaching the boiling point, and Heero felt the demand before it even arrived and began echoing in his brain.
He couldn’t help but flinch away. Duo rarely got angry, not like this. He was easily irritated, but the rage that was seeping through the Bond was definitely a far cry from simple irritation. Heero decided to pause his search for boots and a decent tunic and sat on his bed, searching for the right word to still his Relic’s unpredictable emotions. He reached out through the connection, wishing he could twine his fingers in the demon’s soft hair and soothe the anger away like he had only a few days ago, in this very suite.
Somewhere in his mind he found Duo’s presence and wrapped his arms around it, unsure why the action felt so real. He slid deeper into the vision, darkness swirling about him as he whispered assurances against the demon’s hair. ~Don’t be rash. Don’t do anything stupid. There will be time later. Let it go. I want you to be alive when I get there, I want to see you standing on the landing pad, waiting for me.~
Some time later Heero wondered why he was lying on his back, staring at the blue-painted ceiling as though it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen. At the other end of the Bond Duo had slipped into a light doze.
Confusion registered across the link, but the reply was favorable, Duo was in position as planned and holding for further orders. Only when he had found a fresh tunic and was about to pull it on did he stop short. Frowning, he lifted up the collar of his shirt and sniffed again. ~It smells like him. Why? It didn’t before, I’m positive…~ Something odd had happened during that exchange through the Bond; something Heero was fairly certain wasn’t supposed to happen. ~Were we really together, just for a moment? That doesn’t make any sense.~
He set it aside to think on later, located his boots, and left to meet with Wufei.
There was some commotion near the office as Heero approached; a pair of middle-aged dignitaries appeared to be arguing through the open door with the secretary. He recognized the clan colors of Whitesnake, and his left hand immediately leapt to the pommel of his sword. As he stepped closer, however, the conflict resolved into a simple dissatisfaction with appointment times. He took a few extra breaths and reminded himself that Wufei had formed alliances with Whitesnake almost two years before, and that there was no need for alarm.
It took longer to reassure himself than it should have. The battle of the previous days and his dreams over the course of the last twelve hours had run his nerves short.
The two dignitaries nodded respectfully as Heero arrived, although the assassin’s countenance left something to be desired in the way of grace. "Master Yuy," the first offered, a thin, gaunt man with a glaring bald spot. He removed a pair of spectacles from his hawk-like nose and looked Heero square in the face. "Our humblest regards. We were greatly distressed to hear of the attack on your planet."
Heero blinked at the man, searching for something to reply with, preferably not scathing. These men had been his enemies not long ago, and try as he might, he couldn’t shake off the need to distrust.
He was rescued from a response by the second dignitary, a fat, pasty man with a greasy fall of gray hair. "Leave the boy alone, Halberd, he’s probably fought more in the last two days than you have in your entire miserable life!" The man touched his fingers to his forehead in a gracious clan salute, while the first dignitary muttered something under his breath. "Good health to you, Master Yuy. Pay no mind to my associate. His courtesy is somewhat lacking."
The thin man snorted and polished his glasses on the hem of his white tunic. "Lacking indeed, old fool. Why, if your proposal to the council had half a leg to stand on—"
"What has that to do with anything? Our main concern right now is with the plight of the Kaji syndicate, isn’t that right, my boy?" The second man turned bright beady eyes at Heero, who once again struggled to formulate some kind of reply.
"As usual, you miss the point entirely, Glave," the hawk-nosed dignitary huffed, pointing a finger at the open door to Wufei’s office. "If we weren’t falling all over ourselves at the whim of a teenager we’d be well on our way *back* to the council and back to work instead of hovering here doing nothing!"
"Nothing! Humph!" The fat man offered a bow and excused himself and his compatriot. Halberd and Glave ambled off down the hall, still arguing emphatically. Leaving Heero puzzled, standing by the door with his jaw hanging open, still contemplating what to say.
"You have an appointment?" the secretary called out.
Heero shook himself, cast a last look at the retreating dignitaries, and stepped inside. "I was ordered to report here at my earliest convenience."
Marco hummed to himself and perused the appointment list, then turned to look up at Heero with one eyebrow cocked. "I’m sorry, Master Yuy, you don’t appear to be on the list."
His temper rose a notch before he could stop it. "What the hell are you—"
Heero narrowed his eyes. "Wipe that look off your face before I punch it off."
The chuckling erupted into full-blown laughter, and Marco waved him off to the sitting areas. "Sit down, Heero, he’ll be done in a minute."
"I’m going to kill you one of these days, you realize that."
"Watch closely as I hide behind Wufei. He will always protect me! Who else could ever handle being secretary to the great Mandate of Kaji?"
"Smartass." Heero gave Marco his darkest glare and turned to the small circle of couches.
He was surprised to find someone else already sitting there. A young woman was reading a book with her back to him, showing little but a simple blue dress and an incredible length of platinum hair. He turned to take a seat on the couch against the wall, and just as he took in her slim features and odd eyebrows her clear, sky-blue eyes flickered up to regard him from behind a pair of frameless reading glasses.
"Master Heero Yuy. A pleasure." Her voice was low and melodious, and she set the book aside to lean back, crossing her legs. She wore combat boots under the dress. "I trust the battle went well?"
Heero folded his arms and stared back. "As well as can be expected." She wasn’t wearing any identifying clan colors or rings, and if the boots were any indication, she was a far cry from a lady of nobility. "What are you here for?"
"Diplomacy." She smiled secretively, and held out a delicate hand. "Dorothy. I’m here representing Catharta."
He stood up and took her hand, bending to touch her fingers to his forehead. As he did, he noticed a crease in the dress where her thighs crossed. A leg sheath.
Her eyes glimmered merrily at him when he straightened. She knew. "I believe the Mandate is free now."
Indeed, the door to the inner office was ajar, Lieutanant Danoff standing just inside. The soldier nodded to Heero as he made his exit, and the assassin scowled down at the young woman whose hand he was still holding. "You’re not a diplomat."
She winked. "No, but it makes for an excellent cover, wouldn’t you agree?"
He released her when he felt Wufei boring holes into him through the open door, and left her with only a glare.
The Mandate and his office were both in an advanced state of disarray. The desk was piled with papers, scrolls, books and plastic-sealed documents, all of which were growing to cover the floor space as well. Wufei himself had his hair loose and his glasses on, his white coat hanging open to expose the rumpled blue shirt beneath. His red scarf was dangling over the back of his chair, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and he wore a frazzled expression like it was the latest fashion. He waved Heero into the one office chair that wasn’t occupied by a mess of bound and unbound paper, a thin black quill twirling between his fingers.
"That woman isn’t a Catharta dignitary," Heero commented as an opening line.
"No, she’s a Catalonia, and I called her here. Sit down, Heero."
"I am sitting down." The Catalonia clan was not widely known, but once they and the Yuy clan had been friendly rivals, both of them being nomads in the Modicum. He wondered absently what Wufei would want with one of their spies, but had no time to think on it since the Mandate’s words were running away with him.
"Good, good. Now, before you leave for Sabaku—"
"You’re leaving for Sabaku with Trowa at 0530."
"Yes. Before you leave I need you to secure a connection for me, so I can contact you when necessary and you can send me your reports."
"You’ll be expected to—"
The Mandate blinked wide dark eyes at his assassin, and Heero sighed. He stood to lean over the desk, bringing himself nose to nose with Wufei. "Breathe. Through. Your. Nose."
Obediently, he sucked in a long breath and exhaled slowly. "I’m sorry, Heero. It’s been a long couple of days."
Heero returned to his seat and offered a commiserating smile. "I know. Just start over from the beginning, and go slow."
Wufei took another deep breath and rubbed his free hand through his loose black hair. "You’re not going to like this. Trowa and I have discussed our discoveries yesterday, repeatedly and at length. We can only draw one conclusion – a shaky one, but we have nothing else to go by right now."
Heero nodded. "Explain."
"We can’t quantify any relation between the ISG and the demon attack, nor can we be certain that they were sent here to distract us from going to Sabaku’s aid. Though if they did intend that, they succeeded. Trowa informed me a few minutes ago that the ISG fleet has just arrived in Sabaku’s atmosphere."
"Shit." Heero leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Why are you sending me there if I can’t even land?"
"Trowa has prepared your travel coordinates. You will drop out of hyperspace in the lee of Sabaku’s second moon, where the two of you will land and observe the proceedings. Cause some trouble if you wish, but do *not* get caught."
"There’s more. Two points that I can be reasonably sure of." Wufei leaned his elbows on the desk, bridging his fingers under his chin. "One is that this attack was a warning to me, as the assumed prime operative of the resistance."
"Then they don’t know who the real one is."
"Fortunately for us, yes. The second conclusion is that the Drow in the downed spacecraft was an assassin, and he was here to kill you and kidnap Duo."
Heero’s hands moved to the arms of his chair, gripping the curved wooden armrests until his knuckles turned white. "Just how did you come to that conclusion?"
Wufei’s gaze was dark and cool. "Remember the spear handle? According to Trowa, the touch of a white moonstone could knock a Relic unconscious for days."
The assassin racked his memory, pulling up the image of a broken figure in a shattered fighter cockpit, a gurgling, dying voice rasping out, ‘my pretty prey…’
The dream came back in full force then, rain and cold and burning fever, a shaking bundle in Heero’s arms, his own mortality hanging over his head. He looked up to see Wufei standing in front of him, bending to pull Heero’s hands away from the armrests that were cracking under his grip.
"This is why I’m sending you now." Wufei’s eyes stared straight into his, contemplative, almost sad. "Go and do what you can, but keep your head. They don’t know where he is yet. I will come as soon as I can."
Heero gave a sharp nod and stood up, a hand’s span away from the black-haired Mandate. Wufei smiled and pulled him into a hug, and for a moment the assassin was too startled to do anything.
"Take care, big brother," Wufei whispered. "He’ll tear the universe apart if you get yourself killed."
Heero nodded mutely and pressed a hand against his friend’s back. ~Damn it all, Duo, I swore you’d never be used to get to me again.~ Wufei released him with a reassuring pat on the shoulder, but as he left the office he felt anything but assured.
~And now someone is willing to kill me to get to you.~