A/N: What can I say besides, 'I lost count of how many times I rewrote this'? Yeah. After over a year, the sequel to The Good Fight is finally out. You'll have to have read that first or else this one won't make sense ... or reread it again because I suck at deadlines.
A word of background: in this universe I do think of the Pokemon world in realistic terms. That means that there's no naturally-occurring blue or green hair and no yakuza groups being taken down by preteens. References to past history will reflect this, and 'The Good Fight' has (finally) been tweaked accordingly regarding the former.
Rated PG-13, more for swears and psychological issues than anything else.
And massive thanks to . IC Ghost . and Psychic for betaing!
~ THE MIGHTY FALLEN ~
Everything was red. The ground. The people. His clothes. His hands.
Their faces. Pale and drawn with fear, turned toward him in a deathly yawn of terror and pain, their bodies arched over bound hands or slumped to the bloodied ground. Their glassy eyes stared at him fixedly.
He wanted to speak, to beg forgiveness, but he had no voice. He wanted to move, to look away, but his limbs were frozen. He wanted to turn time back, but that was a power beyond men, and he was only a man: a sad, weak, callous man.
He would have cried. He would have fallen to his knees.
He could only stand there, in the red, and stare back.
* * *
Quietly Clair shut the door, bracing the edge with her spare hand to muffle the sound of its closing. She rested her forehead against the timber, squeezing her eyes shut. In the resultant blackness she could still see her cousin, sitting at his desk with his bowed head in his hands and his work incomplete and forgotten.
He hadn’t even noticed her.
He hadn’t noticed anything. He hadn’t left his suite in days. He hadn’t spoken. She hadn’t spoken to him: she’d tried, but her voice had failed her and she’d felt so sick with worry and fear that she could only stand, paralysed, in the doorway.
She didn’t know what to do. He needed help, but she wasn’t strong enough to give it, and yet she had to be the one to get it for him.
She couldn’t do it herself.
But she knew someone who could.
* * *
“To what do I owe the honour of your pleasurous … well, not ‘company’, since you’re not actually here, so— your pleasurous contact? Voice? Face?”
“I just wanted to talk.”
“Ah? I heard about the merry band of Rockets you guys put away—nice work. Now if only the last unaccounted-for fanatics of our dear local eco-terrorists would be so good as to present themselves for arrest, all would be well here in Hoenn too.”
“If only things were that easy.”
“Uh huh. Not all’s well that ends well then, eh?”
“… Something like that.”
“Something happened, Sidney. Something bad, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Need some cheering up, Luv?”
“Not me. Lance.”
* * *
Koga paced up the cobblestone path towards the dragon tamers’ gym, shoes near-silent on stone as he passed between the sentries and the statues flanking the gate. It was midmorning and already cloudless, but still too early for the sun to have warmed the stone of the city much, and the wind brushed off any heat that was there.
The past two weeks had been busy. Koga himself had only been indirectly involved on the raid against the laboratory, but between the mission that had sparked the breakthrough in the case and the follow-ups which had been necessary to cover the League’s use of the Southernwood depot he had been struck with a lack of time just like everyone else. Even now, following the minor chaos of the aftermath, the League still seemed to be collecting itself and would remain so until the arrested Rockets had been judged and jailed accordingly.
The towns that had been affected also seemed to be holding their breaths; the illness and death rates were still abnormally high, but their resources were being sanitised and effective treatments had already begun. With luck that success would continue.
Alas, it seemed that success was a scarcity, if Clair’s call was any indication.
He came to the door and nodded in response to the Clan member’s bow, but otherwise didn’t halt his stride. Clair was already hurrying down the broad marble stairs opposite the entrance; it was likely one of the gate guardians had called in his arrival, but her tread and timely appearance suggested that she had been waiting for him nonetheless. He met her at the step above the hall’s mosaic floor, already studying the relief in her tired face.
Worse than usual, is it?
She did call him directly.
“I’m glad you’re here, Koga,” she said without preamble, the relief in her voice as well as her eyes, and the ninja inclined his head.
“What do you require of me, daughter of the Clan?”
She bit her lip, glancing sidelong at the door-warden’s broad back, and then took his arm and turned him in the direction behind the stairs. “Come with me.”
She didn’t take him far: only to a room just off the hall, an antechamber for visiting dignitaries if the furnishings were any indication. She closed the door as soon as they’d entered, not even bothering to gesture him to a seat—not that he’d have taken it anyway. At the end of the room he turned to face her, linking his fingers behind his back. She took a deep breath.
“You know about the raid two weeks ago.” It wasn’t a question. “Do you know what happened there?”
He inclined his head. “Only as much as is in the reports.”
For a few moments Clair didn’t say anything, rubbing her open hands absently against the timber of the door behind her. Then, “Something happened to Lance. Something bad.”
“I had heard.”
Clair sighed, and if she hadn’t been so worried it would have sounded exasperated with his most un-psychic foreknowledge.
“I heard,” he continued without paying heed to her annoyance, because she was still young and not a ninja, and a soldier only by virtue of duty, not desire. “That twelve days though it’s been, Karen has still yet to receive any paperwork from your brother—not even work she has sent him herself.”
“He broke,” Clair said flatly. “The day he got home. He smashed his bathroom mirror to pieces and now he locks himself in his office and doesn’t talk to anyone even if he comes out. He tries to work but doesn’t.”
“And you would like me to speak to him.”
She looked away from his piercing, narrow eyes. “He wouldn’t talk to me about it even if I asked and I can’t force him,” she admitted with some reluctance, then flushed as though ashamed.
“Very well,” Koga agreed readily, without trying to draw out the reason for her shame. Clair always had struck him as being wary of her cousin, both rightly and wrongly so. “Where is he now?”
“Probably in his study,” Clair said as she dragged her fingers through her hair distractedly, her head automatically turning to listen to the dull babble of distant voices penetrating the door. “Although apparently he has been coming out, more recently—for food, if he’d forgotten to eat, or for coffee—what is that?!”
Koga’s brow furrowed, the ninja still registering the fact that Lance was drinking coffee despite absolutely despising it—nor does he need it, insomniac that he is—when Clair flung open the door behind her and strode back out into the hall. She’d barely come level to the stairs before:
Moving to the room’s exit, Koga caught a glimpse of Clair’s startled expression just before the woman was engulfed by a wave of limbs, hair and brightly-coloured clothes.
A shaggy-haired boy maybe four years old skidded up and nearly collided with her, wrapping his arms around her legs and beaming, while a girl with thickly braided hair launched herself at the dragon trainer as if she’d been shot out of a blastoise’s hydrocannon. Reflexively Clair caught the girl while trying not to step on any one of the smaller children crowding around and, at the same time, attempting to return a few of the older boys’ greetings. For a moment the dragon trainer felt a little as though she’d just passed through her kingdra’s Twister, automatically shifting the girl on her waist—Chrissy, five—so she could pat the grinning shaggy-haired boy by her knees—Liam—a little dazedly on the head.
Chrissy threw her arms around Clair’s neck. “Auntie Clair! Guess what?! When I grow up I’m gonna be an awesome trainer and catch bad guys like you’n’Unca Lance!”
“Are you?” Clair asked bemusedly, avoiding the intensely amused eyes of the kids’ father—he’s dyed his hair again?—who was standing, grinning, next to the slightly more discreet but also amused-looking Clan member guarding the door to the estate.
“No fair!” Liam complained, tugging Clair’s hand. “I wanna catch bad guyth too!”
“Well, you can’t!” Chrissy stuck out her tongue, Liam pouted and scowled at the same time—I didn’t even know that was possible—and the tall, slightly gangly boy behind him—Adam, the oldest at eleven—slapped him lightly on the head.
“Stop whining, it’s annoying.”
“Yeah, you’re too young anyway,” one of the boys on Clair’s other side nodded sagely, and Clair had to fight down a grin, because Samuel was only a year older than his brother (which meant he was only just beginning martial arts lessons, the same way Chrissy was).
“We’re gonna kick arse!” Chrissy pumped a fist into the air, leaning back and almost making Clair unbalance, except for the sudden hand at the girl’s back.
“Now, who’s been teaching you such language, young lady?” Sidney admonished playfully, tweaking the girl’s hair.
There was a chorus of incredulous snorts and noises around them, and Chrissy grinned up at her father. “You did.”
Sidney looked appropriately—and theatrically—shocked and hurt, putting a hand over his heart. “Such accusations from my own daughter!”
“Yeah, but she’s right, Dad,” said black-haired Cameron, nine years old and sounding longsuffering.
“I’d believe it.” Clair smirked at the green-haired Elite, and Sidney waggled a finger at her.
“Now now, Clair, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” He held out his arms with a butter-wouldn’t-melt expression. “Now, where’s my hug?”
Clair raised an eyebrow, eyeing his hands. “Who says you deserve one?”
“Ouch, burned,” Jed—seven—whispered behind her, and someone else giggled at Sidney’s pout and puppy-dog expression, frighteningly similar to his son’s.
Clair resisted the urge to smile. She didn’t see Sidney as often as she did the Tohjo Elites, for obvious reasons, but was kicking herself for not thinking of calling him earlier, because who knew more about cheering people up than a professional clown?
Conceding, she let Chrissy slide sulkily to the floor, and held up a finger. “Only if I get a sworn promise it’s not just a pretext for groping me,” she warned.
“Would I do that, Luv?” Sidney asked innocently.
“In an instant,” was what Clair said.
No, never, was what she thought, because even though the man flirted and propositioned shamelessly, he never took that step too far.
“You people are so mean.” He pouted again, coming forward to hug her anyway, and for a moment she allowed herself to rest her head on his shoulder. She didn’t feel so alone in the face of her cousin’s demons anymore; Sidney was someone else who might know how to fix things—though his route would surely be different to Koga’s.
Then, before the brats could start either making grossed-out noises (too late) or going ‘ooooh’ and singing a certain very annoying little ditty, she pulled away and glared. “What are you doing here?”
Sidney stepped back, automatically weaving around the shy little boy behind him—Erik, four—with all the grace of someone who knew that someone else would, inevitably, be there, and tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Well, I got word from my super-secret informant—”
“Uncle Will,” Jed stage-whispered behind Clair, and Sidney mock-glared at them over Clair’s shoulder.
“From my super-secret informant,” he emphasised. “That our dear Lancie-poo is feeling out of sorts. And as it happens, at about the same time as I came across this information—”Clair wasn’t the only one who snorted—“I also came to the realisation that the munchkins and I need a holiday and haven’t come to Johto in a while.” He beamed, pretending that two of his ‘munchkins’ weren’t miming the near-universal ‘he’s crazy’ gesture and rolling their eyes. “So here we are. All quite coincidental, really, Luv.”
“Quite,” Clair agreed dryly, but was smiling at more than just his put-on English accent as she said it. The man was incorrigible.
“Where’th Unca Lance, Auntie Clair?” Liam tugged enthusiastically at Clair’s dress, making the brunette take the boy’s hand firmly, because the dress’s neckline really wasn’t made for that action and Sidney didn’t have anything against window shopping.
“I was just talking to Koga about that.” She nodded toward the ninja, who was still waiting silently in the doorway of the room she had exited, hands clasped behind his back and face oh-so carefully blank that she was sure he had just been laughing at her—internally, of course—and wanted her to know it. He tilted his head slightly in greeting, and Sidney cast him a brief, casual salute and a vaguely self-mocking grin. “My cousin’s probably in his study or on the balcony, or—”
“Right here!” Samuel yelled delightedly as there came the sound of slow footsteps and a door opening, and Lance himself emerged from a hallway under the stairs which led to the kitchen. He looked exhausted: his eyes were bloodshot and ringed with black bags; his hair was limp and unkempt; his clothes looked wrinkled and slept-in—not that Clair thought he’d slept at all, because Lance didn’t drink coffee except when he was trying to avoid sleep altogether.
“Unca Lance!” came the general battle cry as Chrissy pushed her way to the front along with the more energetic boys, sprinting at the redhead full-pelt while the less assertive (and those old enough to try and pretend they were dignified) trundled behind with a giggles and cheers.
Lance looked up and saw them.
Clair expected him to smile, maybe laugh, and greet them—or at the very least nod, let them hug him and wring out a promise to see them later before extricating himself and going on his way (to the munchkins’ inevitable disappointment).
She did not expect him to react to the charging horde by paling, stepping back and dropping the full mug he was holding with a crash of shattered china, before spinning back through the door with a slam as if he was in a battle and dodging a rhyhorn in Take Down.
Chrissy and Sammie’s headlong rush cut short as they both skidded to a halt to avoid the hot liquid and shattered china on the stones. The rest of the munchkins’ race tapered out to nothing until they turned with wide eyes and guilty faces to the adults.
“Dad?” Adam asked uncertainly, still standing practically beside his father, looking confused and a little scared.
“Always said you guys are scarier than a berserk dragon.” Sidney ruffled the boy’s fair hair and managed a weak grin, but he also threw a worried glance back at Clair and Adam didn’t look convinced by the man’s jocularity.
Clair couldn’t muster a smile; she was still too shocked, standing, stunned, behind them all. She turned to look at Koga, but the ninja was gone.
Footsteps sounded on stone, hanging slightly in the air of the corridors as Koga passed—he was in a hurry. He didn’t know the layout of the Dragon Clan’s estate nearly as well as Lance did, but he knew enough that he might—just—get back to the boy’s rooms before the boy himself did, taking into account the detour the redhead would have to take to avoid the entrance hall and Sidney’s family.
And if he didn’t, quite, it didn’t matter, so long as he got there before the boy re-mastered his barriers. Because Koga knew Lance, and he knew that even though there were times when Lance seemed indifferent, he actually rather liked children. He liked their innocence.
He reached the doors to Lance’s suite just in time to see—and hear—them slam shut, nearly in his face. He didn’t pause for contemplation, opening one and sliding in with a smooth motion, letting it close again with a soft snick.
The noise of his entrance was still loud enough to make Lance whirl around, his red-rimmed eyes dry—barely—but face and lips so tight that Koga knew he was holding himself together on only the barest of threads.
“Get out,” the redhead said hoarsely.
Koga took a few steps deeper into the room. “What happened?” he asked, unperturbed by the tone or the order. Lance shook his head and turned to walk away, but with several quick strides Koga was near enough to swing him around and grip him by the shoulders, and he didn’t plan to let go until the boy conceded—or cracked. “Lance. What happened?” He infused his voice with command, taking the gamble that, considering the recipient’s state of mind, it might just work this time.
For a moment the younger man stared at him; then between one breath and the next Koga saw, in his eyes, his defences crumble.
“I could have saved them,” Lance said, his voice breaking. “They were only kids, and I could have—I should have—saved them. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do? Not—” He trembled; Koga felt it beneath his grip, and then all of a sudden the ninja found he wasn’t holding the boy still as much as holding him up. “—Not just stand there and—and fucking watch as they’re—as they’re murdered—”
And everything was made clear.
Koga could have spoken, then. He could have told Lance he had made the right choice (but it hadn’t been; it had only been more tolerable than the alternative). He could have told Lance that everything would be all right (but for some parents, somewhere, it would never be). He could have said many things.
But Koga didn’t like lying, so instead he released his grip on Lance’s shoulders, letting the younger man sink to the floor, the redhead’s breathing hard and fast as though trying to contain himself and failing. For a moment the ninja’s hand rested silently on the back of that bowed head; then Koga turned and walked away, slipping out and closing the door on the sound of the choked, muffled sobs behind him.
* * *
A cascade of paper slid across Karen’s filled desk and she gritted her teeth in annoyance, scraping up the papers and attempting to shuffle them back into a neat pile without disturbing any of the other pages on the tabletop.
She was going to kill Koga. As if she didn’t have enough on her plate already—oh no, he had to come in to tell her it was absolutely vital he had a number of very specific reports but was apparently far too busy with something else to go chasing them up himself.
That was two days ago. The bastard.
The one and only reason she was doing it for him herself rather than passing it off onto one of the League-employed aides was that Koga knew perfectly well how to use the League-employed aides as well as his own ninja (at least one of whom always lurked around the Plateau whenever Koga was in residence); therefore whatever he wanted was something he wanted to keep confidential.
When she had asked, archly, what they were for, he’d just told her they were for Lance.
She was fairly certain Lance hadn’t asked for them personally, however, so that meant Koga was up to something and there was something in these reports he wanted Lance to see, but if it got Lance out of the dumps and back into the game then Karen wasn’t going to complain. He’s starting to worry me—more than usual, anyway.
With a sigh she concluded that everything Koga wanted was there and rose, picking up the stack to take with her.
“Breeen?” Umbreon lifted her head, looking up at her trainer from where she was nearly buried in the lumps of her navy-blue beanbag in the corner of the office, in the shadows behind the door and away from the (curtained) window.
“Yes, I’m visiting the lunatic ninja. And yes, I could use your help making sure one of his traps doesn’t kill me by accident.”
“Mmbrruuun.” The black-and-yellow pokémon struggled out of the sea that was the beanbag, stretching with a yawn and shaking herself before following her mistress out the door.
Koga’s lodge wasn’t far from hers—within viewing distance, if she cared to look through the window—barely, anyway, considering there were trees in the way. Within minutes she was briskly rapping her knuckles against the front door, waiting for him to either come and get her or call for her to come in.
“Enter,” came a distant, idle-sounding voice from inside, though when she pushed open the door she allowed her umbreon to enter first, just in case the paranoid, crazy old man had done something typical like set a trap just to test her reflexes.
“Breeen!” Umbreon whined, crawling past the step on her belly, and after a moment’s search Karen found the wires suspended across the doorframe both at about ankle and waist height, both electrified, and sighed.
“I didn’t bring my rubber gloves with me, Koga,” she called.
“Ah, it’s you, Karen,” Koga’s voice came from somewhere through the open shoji opposite the door and Karen snorted.
“You already knew that.” Carefully she bent and squeezed her way between the quietly humming threads, feeling her hair stand on end slightly from the static and glad she’d had the foresight to wear flats across the grounds instead of her usual high-heels. You never did know when it came to Koga, and he’d been finding ways—both subtle and not—of displaying his disapproval for her footwear since she’d become a member of the Elite Four. Busybody.
“I’ve got the reports you wanted,” she said, coming to the door leading to his study after making her cautious way, with Umbreon’s help, through his lodge—just because he was currently in there didn’t mean he wouldn’t have done something to the rest of the house. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of the paper-strewn room.
Even messy, his room is tidy. There were pages everywhere, but they were all in neatly ordered stacks which probably only made sense to him unless he deigned to explain it to her. She used to think she was neat—until she met Koga.
“Is that Lance’s fan-mail?”
“It is,” Koga answered calmly as he relegated one letter to a pile and slitted open the envelope of another.
“I’m fairly sure it’s illegal to open someone else’s mail unless you have a justifiable cause.” Karen entered the room proper, stepping carefully to avoid the piles, Umbreon trotting at her heels.
“I have justifiable cause.” The letter was banished to the same pile as the last and the cycle continued, and Karen smiled.
He is staging something. Placing the reports on a clear space on the low table—probably deliberately left for them, the foresighted bastard—Karen knelt and picked up a letter of her own, absently stroking Umbreon around her long ears when the pokémon came to sprawl on her trainer’s lap.
“What am I looking for?” the blonde asked, not even bothering with permission or anything ridiculous like that; there were some things they both knew that you just didn’t bother with permission for, because just the asking of permission implied a lack of something necessary.
He didn’t smile, quite, but he turned his hand so she could read the first few lines of the letter he was holding. “This.”
She nodded and he placed the letter on a different pile to the other two. She didn’t quite know what his plan was but she could guess, now, and so without another word she turned to her own letter and slitted open the envelope.
* * *
Lance rubbed his eyes wearily. God, he was tired. He was tired, but couldn’t sleep, and really, really didn’t want to try. It wasn’t like he’d get very much anyway; he didn’t think that any of the circles of hell allowed rest for the weary.
A maudlin thought, that, and one he knew that any number of people would knock him over the head for thinking—if they knew he was thinking it—but he couldn’t find the strength in himself to listen to that slightly disdainful voice telling him to suck it up and stop being so selfish and self-pitying. He’d been in worse places before … much worse places.
It didn’t make a difference. People had told him over and over that it was okay to ask for help, but in the end he could never bring himself to lay his burdens on them. He was the Champion, after all; if people couldn’t trust him to pull things out when in dark places, who could they trust?
There were any number of people who’d tell him there was something wrong with that assessment, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. It was better than it had been, before anyone knew that his masks were masks; nowadays, people knew to just help him without his permission.
I think I like it better that way. That was probably why he wasn’t as concerned about Koga as he might have been. Koga had always been the most subtle of the lot—the most observant, too. That was why Lance had avoided him, when the man was still a gym leader; Lance had been young and inexperienced—hah, that’s a laugh—enough that he hadn’t wanted to be judged. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why he applied for the Elite membership.
Lance shivered. It was growing dark, but he couldn’t have said when that had started to happen, and even though he’d wrapped himself in his favourite cloak it seemed as though he could still feel the cold through the fabric. The wind didn’t help, even in the lee of a crag as he was; he was near enough to the edge to see the glow of lights in the gym, and that was a little too close for the comfort of warmth at that time of night. He wouldn’t usually be out there—because he was supposed to be working—but he’d wanted the distance, and before he knew it time had passed.
He rose, shivering again as his blood began to pump. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to go back inside, because the kids were there and although he knew they were smart enough to know there was something wrong—as it that weren’t obvious from the way he’d run away—some of them were also stubborn, likely to try and sneak in even after it being clear he didn’t want them to. While that thought usually—and rightfully—filled him with a warm glow despite the fact they did it while he had work to do, right now the idea filled him with cold dread.
He couldn’t handle being around one of them. Not right now. They were too young, too innocent, too confident in what they thought they knew, too trusting—
He didn’t want their trust. He didn’t deserve their trust. They thought of him as some kind of real-life superhero and as much as he tried—really he tried—to give them what they wanted and needed, he couldn’t.
He found his way to his rooms, closing the door behind him with a snick and standing for a moment. He rubbed his eyes, running a hand through his hair and very nearly heartbroken at the sight of the crayon drawing sitting on the coffee table in his sitting room. It was one in a long line of them, appearing every night since Sidney and the munchkins had arrived and ignored every night since then as the last straw to break his shattered armour—what remained of it.
His eyes skirted around the piece of paper and he moved instead towards his study. The desk looked absurdly off-centre by the stacks of white paper sitting impatiently, waiting, on one corner—off-centre because if he had been doing his work the desk would be covered. Instead it was neat, pristine, and completely untrue. He wasn’t that neat when he was working.
Except there was folder sitting in the middle of the desk, and even though he hadn’t been paying much attention he was sure it wasn’t his, or that he at least hadn’t seen it before, which meant that someone had brought in more stuff for him to sign—unlikely, because he knew that his people wouldn’t have missed how badly he was faltering and they wouldn’t allow anything new to be brought in—or someone else wanted him to see it for another reason.
Considering the eclectic collection of edges he could see poking out the side, he could maybe guess that it was the latter. Then he lifted the top flap of the folder and his heart sank. It was just another report.
But he’d come here to work, and it was a report that still needed to be read, and so with a sigh he sank into his chair, fumbling his reading glasses on to make an effort to do so. It was better than sleeping, at least.
‘… While initially tests A and C showed no changes to the contaminated samples, test B displayed evidence of a reduction in the level and intensity of the contaminants. In following up on the test results, it was found that the specific combination of chemicals used to counteract the contaminants had the most potential of all the tests thus far, and subsequent tests with varying levels of quantity succeeded in cleansing over fifty per cent of the samples …’
Lance blinked, rereading the paragraph (mid-way through the report) and then glancing at the top. It was dated over a week ago.
With a deep breath and inexplicably shaking hand, he flipped the pages over and started from the beginning, and this time, he actually paid attention to what he was reading. Before he knew it he was onto the next. And then the next.
Each of them was a succession of the last: the tests continued, getting more and more effective with every report, until at last the people themselves were being treated.
And getting better.
He barely noticed when he reached the end of the pile of reports and came to the newsletter articles, and had worked up too much momentum for the shift in medium to give him pause. Most of them were clipped neatly from their parent, and they were a range of sizes and shapes, but all of them followed the same line as the reports themselves: there was absolutely nothing about the arrested Rockets and everything about the saved townships and their personal stories.
‘—Burns, father of two, was in tears as he told this reporter about his son’s recovery. “We’d lost hope,” he said. “I was really getting ready to bury my son.” Mr Burns—’
‘—Town Pokémon Centre recently declared itself open to trainers, now that its resources had been fully cleansed and its patient load eased by the other Centres in the vicinity …’
‘—were celebrations yesterday in the town’s critical ward as Marilyn celebrated her sixteenth birthday from her hospital bed, an age neither she nor her family and friends had expected her to live long enough to see. “I’m going for a driver’s licence as soon as I get out of here,” she told this reporter …’
The newsletter articles ran dry and he found himself putting his hand down on a piece of lined paper. He blinked, mildly startled at the sight of scrawling handwriting instead of heavy type. It took a moment and a read of the first one before he realised that that was because these were personal letters—directly from the townspeople—and he had to put the letter down and take a few deep, shaking breaths.
Yet he couldn’t just leave them. After all the energy, the tension, built up by the reports and by the articles …. Half against his will he found himself reading them swiftly, one after another, in something of a daze, drinking in every word but not giving himself time to really process them. All of them were words of thanks, of gratitude, for doing his job, for finding the Rockets, for letting three innocent children be murdered—
He picked up a letter written in careful crayon, and the sight of the bright orange, the childish letters, stalled his numb progress through them.
‘Dear Mister Dragon Master,’ he read. ‘My little sister was very sick and the doctors didn’t know how to help her. Then you found out about the bad people and now the doctors say she can come home with us tomorrow.
Thank you thank you thank you!’
Lance took a breath, but it was shaky, and he was surprised to find his cheeks were wet, his chest and throat tight. And somehow that realisation was all that was needed; he sat in his chair and let the tears come, smoothing out the slightly crinkled paper with the red-and-black crayon drawing of caped man that he supposed was him, tracing the ragged letters over and over until the tears had stopped.
When they had he found he felt empty—not peaceful, but at least no longer pained at heart. And he found, for the first time in days, that it was in fact possible for him to sleep.
* * *
Lance woke the next morning with a groan and an almighty crick in his neck. His shoulders ached from having fallen asleep on his arms and his hands tingled with returning blood flow when he pushed himself upright, blinking against the hair in his eyes. He didn’t even want to know what he looked like in a mirror.
His stomach rumbled, almost painfully so, and he scrubbed his face in a cross between relief and frustration; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually felt hungry, but he still didn’t relish the thought of having to leave his refuge.
Shoving the chair back, Lance stood, pressing his hands to the desk and taking a deep breath against a momentary dizzy spell before making his way out of his office and through the suite. He was halfway across the room before his eyes caught on—
—red and black and blue crayon smudging the paper in scribbles of colour, marking out clothes and capes and long, serpentine dragons—
—the picture lying innocently on the coffee table. He stopped short beside it, his heart doing a slow thump against his ribs, and then after a moment’s pause bent down to pick the picture up. It was of him and his cousin, the lines thick and inelegant, but the identities of the subjects clear. His fingertips brushed the waxy surface, and he realised abruptly—
They’re probably having breakfast right now. A glance at the clock on the mantel confirmed the time.
For a long agonising moment he hesitated, but when he looked again at the drawing he caught his reflection in the polished surface of the table behind it, and his chest tightened. He looked awful—he hadn’t realised just how awful, until now—he’d been avoiding mirrors. His face was the sickly pale of someone who hadn’t had enough sleep, his cheeks sunken, his eyes ringed with black and bloodshot from crying and sleeplessness both, and his hair was actually beginning to look unwashed, let alone feel it. He was amazed no one had said anything to him the few times he had ventured down to the kitchens.
Then he had to admit, reluctantly, that he wouldn’t have noticed even if they had. He hadn’t really been up to noticing anything for the past—how long was it? Another glance at the clock.
Two weeks?! It’s really been two weeks?!
For several seconds he could only stare at the date in disbelief. Then he took a deep breath, dropping the picture back down to the coffee table. Shower first. Then breakfast. He turned a little dazedly on his heel and made for the bathroom, looking away from the repaired mirror on the wall with a jerk.
Twenty minutes later the bathroom was empty, and the door to his suite clicked shut.
“Da-ad! He stole my pancake!”
“I didn’t, Dad!”
“Now, now, there’s plenty for everyone,” Sidney admonished the two boys across the table without even looking over at them, too busy cutting up Emily’s pancakes for her. Consequently he missed the scowl Jed cast Adam’s way and the fist a glaring Adam raised for a retaliatory punch on the shoulder, but without missing a beat the dark-type trainer snapped his fingers at them both. “Adam, don’t hit your brother. Jed, eat your pancakes, Luv.” And then he added absent-mindedly a second later, “Erik’s hair doesn’t need gel, Sammie, not even gel made of syrup.”
Samuel’s voice wasn’t the only one to sound out, and Sidney looked over just in time to catch a pouting Liam pulling the syrup jug back from where it had been half tilted over his own head. Quickly the man turned back around so none of them would see his grin. Mustn’t encourage them, after all—even if he remembered doing that to his own brother twenty years ago.
They were clustered around a long rectangular table in the corner of the kitchens, one that was usually used whenever a Clan member came in to have something to eat between meals and was almost always reserved for the munchkins when they were there (because the last time they’d eaten in the cafeteria three initiates’ classes had been an hour late thanks to the resultant food fight). With the air of a man who had done this a thousand times before, Sidney checked that all his munchkins had food and were eating it, deflecting fights and cheerfully giving in to pouts and pleads to “cut this, Papa” or “can I have some orange juice, Daddy?”
He stalled when he came to Chrissy—his little artist. The girl was chewing on her braid, not her food, as she drew on the page in front of her with a thick crayon. Her plate was shoved to the side, her breakfast unfinished, and her brow was furrowed with concentration.
Ah, my. He slid across the bench to sit beside her, draping an arm around her shoulders and leaning in to see the picture. “What’s this, hmm?”
Dumb question, he realised almost instantly: it was another picture for Lance. Why do I get the feeling my little girl’s going to crush on him something terrible once she gets to be a few years older?
If she wasn’t already, five-year-old or not. Then again, he’d wondered about the same thing with Clair … there must be something about dragon tamers that just—
“Hmm?” He blinked and looked down to find she was looking up at him, her face half-hidden behind the tufts of her thick braid, her eyes soft and worried.
“Is Unca Lance gonna be okay?”
Sidney smiled, flicking her nose. “’Course he will be. He’s got us, doesn’t he?”
A tiny, almost shy—and thus utterly unlike Chrissy—grin. “We’ll save his bony arse.”
Sidney raised his eyebrows. “Now who’s been teaching you such language?”
“You did,” Chrissy said, echoed by at least three other munchkins who’d been listening in.
“Lies.” Sidney mock glared at the angelic-looking lads across the table—in the process missing the way his daughter’s eyes flickered at something behind his shoulder. “And whoever told you Lance’s arse was bony?”
The anticipatory expressions all around the table made him blink, his eyes scanning all down the table to check that none of the munchkins had pranked one another while he was distracted or—
“You’ve been checking out my ass?”
Sidney let out an unmanly yelp, trying to twist around and leap up in the same movement. He wound up banging his knees on the underside of the table hard enough to make glasses spill, nearly sliding off the bench entirely before catching himself on the side of the table. Rubbing his knees, he pouted up at Lance. The redhead was standing a few paces behind him, rather blank-faced and a little severe with two of his fingers pressed to his lips … just like he did whenever he was remotely amused and hiding it.
Hoy. Relieved beyond words that Lance was actually willing to joke a little, Sidney grinned sunnily up at him. “Well, it is a very nice arse.”
“I thought it was bony, Papa—”
With one hand Sidney reached up to cover Chrissy’s mouth, giving Lance his best what-is-she-talking-about?-I-have-no-idea look. Lance just raised an eyebrow.
“Unca Lance! You came just in time for pancakes!” Samuel’s cheerful voice broke their stalemate.
“Hand me that plate,” Jed’s instructing voice came on the heels of Sammie’s, and the two men looked over in time to see the boy snatching up the plate Cameron passed over, holding it out to Adam who, with several quick motions of his wrist, slapped a rising stack of pancakes onto it.
“Actually I—” Lance hesitated at the sight of all those faces suddenly turned pleadingly up at him, and his voice turned soft … almost as if he was begging, Sidney fancied. “I still have work to do.”
“Oh.” Disappointment ranged over the table, but a moment later Sammie perked up. “It’s okay, Unca Lance! You can take some with you!” And without further ado he held up his jug of syrup to pour it over the pancakes Jed held out. It was a good thing, Sidney reflected, that Lance had a sweet-tooth as big as most five-year-olds’, because Sammie was drowning the things.
The green-haired man took the plate, along with some cutlery, to hand it to Lance when Jed thrust it triumphantly over the table, the man waggling an eyebrow up at the redhead.
“Well, since you’re too busy now, what about tonight? I heard about this nightclub, y’see …”
Lance took the plate tiredly, blinking down at the sopping pancakes in faint bemusement. “Okay,” he agreed, not exactly enthusiastically, but not unenthusiastically either.
Given that Lance rarely went out clubbing or drinking, Sidney chose take that as a good—or bad, depending on your perspective—sign, clapping his hands and beaming. “Great! It’s a date.”
Lance raised an eyebrow slightly.
Oops. Sidney lifted his hands in mock surrender. “Bad choice of words. I promise not to hit on you.” The redhead’s other eyebrow joined the first, and Sidney amended, “Well, not too much, anyway.”
“And then you can come play with uth tomorrow!” Liam beamed.
A corner of Lance’s mouth twitched, and the blank exhaustion in his eyes seemed to soften a little. “We’ll see.”
The munchkins cheered. Lance felt someone tugging on his shirt, and, smothering his instinctive reaction to jerk away, he looked down to find Chrissy looking up at him anxiously. She thrust her drawing up at him and then, as soon as he had it in hand, scuttled back to her seat. He blinked wordlessly down at the crayon-covered page for moment before shaking himself and taking a deep breath.
“See you tonight, Sid,” he said softly. Sidney half waved, half shooed him away with a grin, and with the hand holding the drawing Lance sort-of returned the munchkins’ carolling goodbyes before turning on his heel to return to his office, still clutching the plateful of pancakes.
He did have work to finish, after all.