Chapter Ten: The Heartbeats of Time
by Casey Valhalla
The command ship Azurmala hung like a jewel in the atmosphere, against the flare of Sabaku’s sunrise. Thousands of miles below, the firefight renewing at the walls of the Talmac was indiscernible among the beige landscape, beneath scuttling wisps of white clouds. A civilian cruiser was entering the atmosphere, visible as a glowing streak against the blue expanse. Within the blackwashed ship, a com link was opened, and a message sent to the hovering bulk of the Azurmala.
"Operative Opal reporting in, Admiral."
The stern visage of Seol Runair appeared on the screen, scowling obliquely at the ship’s pilot. "You’re late, Opal."
Dorothy Catalonia smiled and fingered a lock of platinum hair, raising one forked eyebrow at the admiral. "My business is information, Runair, and information takes time and attention."
"Then do not waste mine," the admiral spat. "I needed you here yesterday, Opal. The Eldest Relic is commanding Winner’s forces."
The smile on Dorothy’s face turned inward and she closed her eyes, tilting her head in deference. "Yes, I know."
Runair’s look was silent and contemplative. A pause stretched between them, before she replied. "I suppose that should not surprise me."
"May I dock, then?"
"Clearance codes are being sent. I will send Mishide to meet you."
"Excellent." Dorothy closed the link and sat back in her chair, leaving the autopilot to carry her into the ship’s docking bay. "All the pieces are in place."
Unknown to all but one on the command ship, on the opposite side of Sabaku another cruiser was materializing out of hyperspace, just on the dark side of the planet’s second moon, a swirl of brown and gray the natives called Dorobo. But on Sabaku’s surface, a figure in black on the Talmac’s balustrades turned suddenly to gaze at the slanted row of moons hanging in the western sky.
Thus, only two players in the siege on Sabaku knew of the appearance of an unknown variable.
Heero sat forward in the pilot’s chair and scrutinized the landscape of Dorobo. Most of it was comprised of dusty ravines and scraggly vegetation, a small range of mountains feeding a few small rivers. "We’re going to stick out like a sore thumb, here."
His copilot was busy manipulating the navigational controls. "Not so," Trowa said, in his usual even voice. "I chose this location for a reason. The Winner clan has a small estate here, with a docking hangar."
Heero blinked at him in surprise. "A summer house on the moon?"
Trowa’s tiny smile appeared. "Quatre’s father was rather eccentric." His vocal inflections had turned warm and carried a hint of fondness. "Which is fortunate. He accepted his only son’s decision to take me as a consort without batting an eyelash."
Heero’s head whipped around to face the elf. "You – you’re his…"
Cool emerald eyes blinked slowly open. Their gazes remained locked for several minutes before Trowa turned away and chuckled.
The assassin scowled. "What?"
Trowa shook his head and continued guiding the ship’s decent onto Dorobo. He pointed out a clump of trees on the viewscreen. "That’s where it is."
Heero set his jaw and continued glaring holes into the side of Trowa’s head, but the elf ignored him. Momentarily a low villa came into view, nestled against a hill in a large clearing. Beside it sat a single landing pad with a small hanger. Trowa fired the thrusters to bring them in.
Once the ship was stowed, the two made their way to the villa in silence. The sky above them was light blue and cloudless, the darker blue sphere of Kodoku hanging in the west and the tiny white orb of Aruki-Mawaru in the east. The larger bulk of Sabaku peeked over the northern horizon. Heero felt the chill air of the moon’s thin atmosphere biting into his skin, and staunchly ignored it.
The villa itself was a sprawling, single-floor building of golden-beige brick, surrounded by hedges and a low, cast-iron fence. While Trowa searched for a gate, Heero eyed the building dubiously and watched his breath freeze in the air. "This place hasn’t been used in years."
"No, it hasn’t," the elf agreed, and bent to study a lock hidden among the brush, securing a service entrance. "Ten years, to be precise."
Heero had several thoughts concerning dust, rodents and malfunctioning heating systems, but decided not to complain. This was as close as he could safely get to the fight, to Duo, and for that he could endure a few domestic discomforts. His eyes traveled to the semi-circle of Sabaku visible in the sky, picking out his Relic’s precise location through the Bond. Duo knew he was there.
The creak of rusting hinges brought his attention back to Trowa, who was holding the gate open and casting him a wry, knowing look. "Home sweet home," the elf drawled, stepping inside with Heero close behind. "For as long as it takes."
Quatre woke to a cold nose nudging his hand. Blue eyes blinked open, and green slitted eyes blinked back.
The cat sat patiently as Quatre shifted against the floor, registering every aching muscle in his body. When he didn’t move to get up, she nudged his hand again.
"What is it?" the boy mumbled, rubbing his cheek where it had been pillowed against unyielding wood all night. "Does Duo need me?"
Yoko licked a paw and looked away, gazing pointedly at the white-painted circle, glimmering faintly in the soft light from the chandeliers. Quatre chuckled. "Ah, keeping me busy, are you?"
In response, the cat stalked across the room and sat in front of a small assortment of supplies stacked against the wall – a pile of books, several stoppered pots and brushes, and a long staff of finely sanded white oak. Quatre smiled and pulled his protesting body into a sitting position. "You didn’t happen to bring me breakfast, did you?"
"Are you hungry?"
Dorothy turned to the boy walking along the corridor beside her. His voice carried a clinical detachment that gave her chills, and his glowing gray eyes were focused on the floor in front of them.
She shook her head and replied, "No, I’m fine. How have you been, Mishide?"
He stopped suddenly and gazed at the cold metal floor for a moment before raising his dark head to her. "I’m going to die." His eyes gleamed dully.
The young woman frowned. "I hardly think that possible."
Mishide shook his head, his tousled hair swirling in shimmering tracks under the fluorescent lighting. He clasped his arms tightly around his waist. "Azrael is calling my name," he whispered fiercely.
Dorothy gave the Relic a curious glance, puzzling over his reaction. She expected the demon to be in a state of forlorn misery over his determined fate, but then again, Mishide rarely made sense. She pitied him. With a guarded sigh and a light touch on his arm, she turned and continued down the hallway. "Perhaps she will not make you fight him."
"She will," Mishide said, quietly but with a cool inflection that sent a shiver down her spine. "And well she does."
"I shall be sanctified by the sword of the Eldest," the demon snarled, eyes wild as he clutched himself, digging his fingers into his arms. "My sins shall be erased by my own blood. I shall embrace Death, who shall bring my soul to the paths of darkness, under which the atrocities of my lifetime will be taken into the hands of the god of nightmares—"
The command echoed through the corridor, ringing against the metal walls. Dorothy’s head turned to see Runair, standing stiff and bristling with impatience outside an open door. The demon dropped his arms and hung his head, studying his toes.
The admiral’s boot heels clicked against the floor, tapping a staccato as she approached the pair. One callused hand shot out to grab Mishide by the chin, forcing his face up to her. "Your quarters. Now. I will call you when I have need."
"Sir." The reply was almost inaudible but for the silence that had fallen. Sliding out of Runair’s grasp, the boy broke into a run, disappearing around a corner into the depths of the ship.
"Debrief," the admiral snapped, turning on her heel and stalking back to her office. Behind her, Dorothy let out a breath and followed.
The satellite receivers at the villa were still operational, though they were old and their feedback time was rather sluggish. Trowa brought in the last of their equipment from the cruiser, and found Heero in the security room. The assassin was examining the functions of various communication devices.
The elf grunted and set down a box of electronic equipment, and dusted off his hands. "With what we have here, I think I can set up a scrambler to disrupt their communications within a few hundred kilometers of the three moons."
Heero didn’t turn his head. "That helps us, but not the Sabaku army."
Trowa hid a smile. ~You mean that it doesn’t get us any closer to your Relic, my friend.~ Aloud he said, "No, but it may make it easier for us to hamper the ISG’s progress. What are you doing?"
"Securing a link with Wufei." The assassin canted his head to glare at Trowa. "What’s so damn funny?"
Heero snorted. "I am not here solely for your amusement, Barton."
"No," the elf agreed. He knelt and rummaged through the box. "That’s merely a perk. Here, attach this to the receiver lines."
Another rumble shook the foundations of the Talmac. Quatre looked up from his work to see Yoko studying a section of the circle. "Duo needs to reinforce the shield."
The cat flicked her ears and patted the floor with her paw, indicating one of the painted symbols. Quatre frowned. "What is it?"
The blond stood and collected a book from his pile of supplies, then walked over to where Yoko was sitting. She placed a paw over the same symbol and looked at him expectantly.
Quatre sat cross-legged and opened the book on his knees, flipping through it and casting his gaze back and forth from the pages to the symbol on the floor. He leaned back with a start. "That’s a mistake."
He leaned across the floor to collect his paint and brush, and sat for a moment, regarding Yoko with a perplexed expression. "How did you know?"
Green eyes blinked at him, slowly. Through his extra sense Quatre felt a wave of intelligence wash off the little cat. High intelligence.
Another explosion shook the walls, and the Minister bent to correct his error quickly. Despite the need to complete his work, the front lines demanded his attention at the moment.
Quatre dropped to the steps as a passing fighter fired a volley of missiles into the weakened shield, the blasts reverberating to rumble like and earthquake through the walls. A dozen Manganacs were lined along the casement, guns and mechanized crossbows at the ready. Duo was sitting on his coat, back propped against the stones, his gaze darting from the datareader in his hands to glance over his shoulder through a gap in the casement. The Minister crawled over to him, flinching at the sound of repeating gunfire.
"You need to reinforce the spell!" the blond called over the din.
"I know!" Duo yelled back. "But unfortunately we have ground forces inside the shield and if I lean out over the walls to do that I’ll be punched full of holes." To punctuate the statement, the demon drew a handgun from his side and fired a shot through the gap behind him, then returned to studying the datareader. "I haven’t been able to get a spell in edgewise for the last two hours."
"There’s only a handful left," Abdul announced from his position, several yards along the balustrades.
"I’ve almost got it," Duo replied. "Just hold them off a few minutes longer!"
Quatre crouched down against the casement next to the demon, careful to keep his head below the edges of the stones. His voice hissed in Duo’s ear. "What the Hell are you doing?"
The Relic grinned and pulled Yoko out of the Minister’s arms, holding up the datareader. "Some of my friends’ spellbooks. Black Magic for all occasions."
The blond braced himself as another volley shook the walls. "NOW would be an excellent occasion, Duo."
"As you wish," the demon muttered, and flashed Quatre a fierce look. "DUCK!"
The Minister only registered Duo jumping to his feet. Everyone else on the balustrades hit the ground, and then a harsh voice whispered something that sounded like, "Blast Inferno."
Flames instantly shot up outside the walls, ending in clouds of smoke and abbreviated screams. Quatre grit his teeth against the sudden heat. Then, as abruptly as it came, the fire vanished, and Duo chuckled.
When Quatre stood, the demon was leaning out over the charred walls, his palm pressed against the shield. Ashes were fluttering in the air, swept along by a steady breeze.
The Minister rubbed his elbow, sore from being struck on the ground. "Don’t you think that was a bit much?"
"No ruining my fun, Q."
Duo stiffened suddenly. Quatre followed his gaze along the balustrades, to where one of the soldiers was curled on the stones, clutching a gunshot wound to his shoulder. Several others were hovering over him, and the Minister saw Abdul kneel down and press a wad of fabric over the wound.
At his side Duo stirred, and the blond looked over to see the Relic trembling slightly, his eyes squeezed shut. "I smell blood…"
Quatre started as the demon sank to the ground, knees drawn to his chest, one arm wrapped tightly around his stomach. Duo’s other hand was pressed over his nose and mouth. He was shaking visibly, his breath coming in long gasps. Quatre fell to his knees beside him, grasping the demon by the shoulders. "Duo, what—"
"Let out some backwash." Duo’s voice was low and rough. When the Minister made a protesting sound, his eyes flew open. "DO IT NOW!"
Quatre sat back on his heels. A ring of red circled Duo’s pupils, glaring against the normal violet glow. Startled, it only took a second for the blond to relinquish some of his control over his magic.
The demon flinched slightly, his nose wrinkling in displeasure at the smell of White Magic, but his body relaxed. The red circles in his eyes disappeared. Duo let his arms fall limply to his sides, and he leaned forward to rest his head on his knees. "I’m okay now. Go heal him."
Completely flabbergasted, Quatre didn’t move for a moment, staring at the Relic. He shook his head in resignation and got to his feet, making his way over to the injured Manganac.
Duo was simply an eternal puzzle. That was all.
"How do you do it?" The question rang hollowly in the silence of the security room. "You’re going to outlive him, you know."
Trowa looked up from his console, considering the young man across the room, still working with his back turned. "Perhaps I will, yes," he mused, scrolling through the code on his screen.
"I love him," the elf said, smiling a little at his reflection in the monitor. "That’s all that matters."
The air in the room was occupied only by the quiet clicks of keyboards and the soft hum of the central heating system for long minutes. Then a soft, contemplative reply came from the assassin at the other console.
"Oh, I almost forgot. I found something for you."
Duo, completely recovered from whatever episode he had undergone, motioned for Quatre to sit down beside him. The blond complied, stretching his feet out in front of him. Yoko was seated on Duo’s coat, staring down at the datareader, its screen reflecting faintly in her eyes.
"What have you got?" Quatre asked.
"A continuous animation spell to help you with the circle," Duo replied, folding his hands behind his head and gazing up at the sky. Two of the moons were visible overhead, Dorobo and Aruki-Mawaru. A funny smile was twitching on the demon’s lips. "Has Trowa contacted you?"
Quatre looked up from staring at the cat and frowned. "No. Why?"
Duo grinned and pointed at the second moon. "Cause Heero is there, and your elf-boy is with him."
The Minister leaned his head back against the stones, and the two sat in silence for a while. Presently, his eyes traveled back down to Yoko, who was using one paw to scroll through the information on the datareader. Quatre made a small surprised noise in his throat, catching Duo’s attention. "Is she *reading* that?"
"Yes," was the demon’s amused reply.
Quatre tilted his head to peer at the demon through narrowed eyes. "Cats can’t read, Duo."
"They can’t understand human speech, either," Duo intoned, his eyes flashing wickedly. "Or calculate coordinates for a nav computer. Or use a com, or a datareader." He smiled fondly at the cat, chuckling a little under his breath. "She’s not just a cat. She’s Yoko."
Registering that she was being conversed about, the cat in question looked up at Quatre, and nudged the datareader in his direction with one paw. He picked it up, reading over the spell displayed on the screen. "This is the one you were telling me about?"
The demon nodded.
Quatre fixed his eyes on the screen, committing the words to memory. When he looked back down Yoko was curled up in the folds of the coat, sleeping peacefully. "What is she?"
"I don’t know, really," Duo said, stretching his arms out over his head. He yawned once and grinned apologetically at the blond. "I found her during the Mage Wars."
"What?" Quatre’s head jerked around to face him. "She’s as old as *you*?"
The demon scratched his head and pulled his braid over his shoulder, fingering the tip absently. "Yeah, guess so. I don’t really remember what happened, just the story, I’ve told it so many times…" His voice trailed off for a moment, then returned with a sigh. "She’d been caught in the backwash of an experimental spell. She was barely alive. So I kept her. That’s all I know."
Quatre reached out and ran one finger over the cat’s head, gently. She stirred in her sleep but didn’t wake. "So, maybe she *was* just a normal cat, once."
"It’s possible, I guess. Maybe she was something else. Maybe she wasn’t anything." Duo shrugged. "But she’s never acted like she wanted to do anything other than stay with me, so stay she does."
"You talk to her, all the time," Quatre commented reflectively. "Does she speak to you?"
"In a sense. I understand her body language, that’s all. She’d probably talk as plain as you or I, if a cat’s anatomy was capable of it."
The silence stretched out again. A few Manganacs were holding their positions on the walls, but most of them had retreated to the gun turrets and other lookout locations, or the guardhouse. Quatre gazed up at the brown surface of Dorobo, distant yet so close, and wondered what his consort was doing.
A weight settled on his shoulder, and the Minister looked down to see Duo sound asleep at his side. A light laugh bubbled in his chest, and he settled into the quiet moment, ignoring the flash of fighters passing over the fortress, beyond the shield.
There would be too few moments like these in the future, Quatre thought with regret. Thus, with a cat on one side and a serpent on the other, the Grand Minister of Sabaku closed his eyes to the glare of late afternoon.