Some things are inescapable. (Reaction fic to the Kai-stern gaiden "Crescendo," which I recommend reading first if you don't want to be confused.)
"You might be surprised," Lykouleon said and picked up his bag. Although he'd been sleeping on the ground, his hair was as perfect as it was yesterday. "I want you to promise me something."
"What?" Kai-stern said as all his nerves went on instant alert. Nothing good ever came out of those words.
"Try not to get yourself killed." Lykouleon put one foot on his dragon's haunch and leaped gracefully to its back.
"Why do you care?" Kai-stern countered, and shaded his eyes from the concentrated golden glare.
"I didn't give you that sword to waste it. You think I hand them out to everyone I meet?" Dust swirled as the dragon beat its massive wings, and Kai-stern retreated to the safety of the rocks. Lykouleon's voice barely rose over the whirring. "Just don't do anything stupid, okay?" and the dragon launched itself into the air, a great molten ball of light rising like the sun into the sky and fading into the distance.
Kai-stern waited until the last pinprick of light had faded and the dust had settled like nothing had ever been there. He took the sword out of its makeshift sheath and turned it over in his hands, shaking his head, and then he turned his back and trudged back into town.
It was cold and raining and there was nowhere to get out of the slush. Kai-stern huddled in the corner of a makeshift shanty and just tried to keep his hands warm and ignore the gnawing in his belly. No one had enough to eat; nothing could grow when the soil was waterlogged and the crops were drowning, and he'd already given the last of his rations to some little girl crying on a street corner with big dark eyes he couldn't resist. His jacket made a good enough blanket, and if he was really desperate he could always pawn the sword. The thing had been more trouble than it was worth, anyway.
He took it out again, running the smooth length of the sheath through his hands. Three separate groups of bandits had tried to steal it from him on the road from San Jose, and twice merchants had tried to talk him out of it for a bushel of apples or something ridiculous like that, as if he was born yesterday (although, considering the price of apples...). It did look expensive, moulded perfectly without a seam although he couldn't see how, and the blade sharp enough to cut through everything he'd tried.
He'd wondered more than once whether he should have just left it in San Jose; whether he should have accepted it at all. He couldn't trust anyone, let alone crazy blond-haired men who rode dragons and wore silk. He still thought it could have been some bizarre set-up, so he hadn't hung around in San Jose; once the guy was definitely gone he'd headed out. Somewhere, anywhere, the place didn't matter, although he could have picked somewhere better than Chantel. He was going to be stuck here until the rains stopped, and there was no telling how long the town's food supply was going to last.
He was half-asleep and shivering when the sword handle seemed to warm in his hand.
"Not dead, but you're having a pretty good shot at it," Lykouleon said, crouching down in the mud next to him. "Did you remember what I said?"
"Jesus Christ," Kai-stern said, starting, drowsiness leaving him instantly. "You can't just sneak up on people like that."
"Is it my fault you were sleeping? Lykouleon said, somehow managing to look innocent. "I can't save you from pneumonia, you know, so you'd better take care of yourself."
"Why are you here? How did you find me?" he said, ignoring that comment, blood pulsing through his veins as all his nerves woke up at the hint of danger.
"Just visiting," Lykouleon said with that little closed-eyed smile. "It seems like they're having some problems and I thought I'd help out."
"You're all kindness," Kai-stern muttered, and pulled his jacket further over himself. The sun had set and the night chill was coming on. "Why don't you go give them some swords or something and leave me alone."
"Have you been using it?" Lykouleon asked, touching the handle gently, the change in topic startling Kai-stern.
"Don't want to," Kai-stern muttered, remembering wiping blood off the blade. He hadn't felt anything killing the demons with Lykouleon, but people, hurting people, even if they were trying to hurt /him/, was different.
"What do you want, Kai-stern?" The way Lykouleon said his name was soft and soothing and dangerous, like a snake charmer, he could almost feel himself falling under the spell.
"I want to be left alone," he snapped. Lykouleon shrugged and withdrew.
"Take this, at least," he said, tossing him a cloth-wrapped bundle before walking off into the darkness. If he squinted, a faint halo of light seemed to surround him. Cold fingers clumsily undid the knot of string, and the cloth fell open to reveal bread, cheese and dried fruit. For a second he considered throwing it away, but his stomach made an empty, hungry noise at the sight of food, and he shrugged and popped a shriveled piece of apple into his mouth as the rain started again.
Funnily enough,—his stomach jolted- there hadn't been a spot of mud on Lykouleon.
Luwa in winter wasn't much better than Chantel, but at least the snow stayed firm and he had somewhere dry to sleep, curled up in a farmer's loft in exchange for guarding his grain. He'd thought the man must have been crazy—since when did corn need a bodyguard?- but then he'd seen some of the pinched faces of the Chantellian refugees and understood why a wealthy farmer wanted a guard. He had more than enough for himself and the rest was probably fetching astronomical prices on a starved market, but Kai-stern didn't really care. If he had to be somewhere, it might as well be here.
Luwa was a port town, and he could still feel the cold winds coming in from the sea as he bedded down in the hay, sword at his side. His fingers twitched on the blade, ready to draw it at any moment. Even with Lykouleon's coaching he doubted he was much of a threat, but the farmer had taken one look at him and hurried him off before he could protest that he wasn't a mercenary for hire. More examples of the sword getting him into trouble, but at least no one was trying to slit his throat this time (he ignored the little voice in the back of his head that said he was one who was supposed to be slitting throats). Not a lot of people wandering around with swords these days, or much of anything, really. Times were hard. Most people were keeping their heads down and going their own way and not willing to pick fights with people carrying steel. Only the desperate, and the starving.
The lock creaked, a small sound to anyone else but in the quietness of the barn and to Kai-stern's trained ears it was a loud squeal. Kai-stern sat up ready and crept forward warily from the loft, sword in hand.
"Who's there?" he called, hoping they'd just go away once they realized it wasn't the easy pickings they thought it was. He really didn't feel like hurting anyone today.
The door swung open and a figure stepped in. Kai-stern swore loudly—why did everyone have to keep bothering him?- and felt around for the ladder.
"Hello, Kai-stern," the figure said.
"Jesusfuck," Kai-stern said, and fell down the ladder.
"I see you are still attempting to extinguish your own existence," Lykouleon said as he came around. "You're lucky you didn't impale yourself on the way down." He threw his sword—safely sheathed- at him and Kai-stern barely caught it, still fuzzy and blinking. His head hurt.
"Why are you here?" he blurted out, the connection between tongue and brain still not working well. "I'm pretty sure you're not a grain thief."
"Indeed I am not," Lykouleon said agreeably and made himself comfortable on a haybale.
"I'm starting to think you're stalking me," Kai-stern said, rubbing his head.
"Oh, I am," Lykouleon said cheerfully, and he was lucky that he was already on the ground.
"Stalking you," Lykouleon said. "Did you think it was a coincidence I kept turning up in the same places as you?"
"I was really trying not to think about it," Kai-stern said, and snatched his sword out of Lykouleon's hands and began to climb up the ladder, much more carefully than his way down it. "You're obviously crazy. I'm crazy for even talking to you. Why don't you just leave me alone? I'm working."
"Working?" Lykouleon said with raised eyebrows, looking ostentatiously around the granary. "Is this what you really plan to do with your life?"
"It keeps food in my mouth, which is more than you've ever had to worry about," he shot back, remembering his smooth skin and elegant vowels.
"How old are you?" Lykouleon said suddenly.
The man was crazy. He couldn't even begin to follow his changes in topic, and the way he kept asking questions about him made every little hair on the back of his neck stand up.
"Seventeen. Why?" he asked warily. Lykouleon shrugged.
"Just wondering," he said, and showed him one of those infuriating smiles.
"That's just great," Kai-stern said in disgust, and made a great show of plumping up some hay to sleep in. "Good night."
"Sweet dreams," Lykouleon said. "By the way, there's going to be a large snowstorm here soon, so you might consider moving on."
"Go away," Kai-stern muttered. He waited patiently for the snicking of the door, and then started packing the few possessions he owned in his rucksack. For some reason, the man had a nose for disaster. He could leave in the morning.
The man must be cursed. There was no other reason for it. Ever since he'd met Lykouleon, his luck had gone from bad to worse. He'd thought he'd be safe so many leagues away; Costa Rica was as good as anywhere if he had to be somewhere, but trouble had him by the tail now and it wasn't letting go.
He held his hand to the slowly seeping wound, covered scantily by the rags of his last shirt, and wondered how many miles it was to Costa Rica. Whether he'd make it or not. They'd really chosen the best place to ambush him; no one else to be seen for miles behind or ahead, and him by himself, a skinny kid who didn't look like he could handle the sword he carried. He was fairly sure he'd stuck at least one of them pretty good—not all the blood was his, at least he hoped it wasn't or he was in deeper trouble than he realized- but not before the leader had tagged him and made off with everything he owned, including the sword.
It was getting dark, too, the sun going down in streaks of blood, and the wind beginning to nip. He was cold all over except for the fiery ache in his ribs. His feet were killing him, and it would have been nice just to sit down for a while, rest up, see if he could recover some energy for the rest of the trip. Just the idea of not having to walk in the cold and the dark and the mud made his mouth water.
Angrily, he sloshed through the potholes and tried to tighten the bandage even further.
He lost track of time as he trudged along and cold fingers nibbled at his ears and hands. He'd long since given up trying to navigate the smoothest path through the bumps and rubble and concentrated only on putting one foot in front of the other. His side ached like fire, and the dark had closed in so far that he could barely see his hand in front of his face. His breathing became ragged.
"At least I finally seem to be having some effect on you," Lykouleon said, leaning casually against a tree trunk. The darkness should have swallowed him up, but his golden hair stood out like a candle. He was neither wet not shivering.
"Don't give me any of your crap now," Kai-stern got out. The last step to him seemed to take a long time.
"You've done well," Lykouleon said sympathetically.
"I really don't care," he said, and if he'd had any strength left in him at all he would have tried to walk past him, but his knees just wouldn't hold him up anymore, and he almost sank into a muddy pile by Lykouleon's feet before he caught himself on the tree's trunk.
"Somehow I thought you'd say that," Lykouleon said mildly. "You might want this back. It doubles as a fine walking stick," and, prising Kai-stern's cold fingers open, he felt the reassuring smoothness of the sword's sheath in his hand again.
"Who are you? Who are you /really/?" he said tiredly.
"Are you sure you want to know?" Lykouleon asked, raising a perfectly structured eyebrow.
"Yes, goddamnit!" He was tired of being fucked around on; he had the sneaking suspicion Lykouleon had him tied to a string and was just jerking him around however he liked.
"His Majesty the Dragon Emperor Lykouleon," he said blandly, like he was reading the day's newspaper.
"Great. That's just fantastic," Kai-stern muttered under his breath. The guy was worse than crazy, he was a king, and getting entangled with dragons, let alone dragon kings, was something to be avoided at all costs. "Why do you keep stalking me, then? Don't you have important emperor stuff to do?"
"Maybe I like you," Lykouleon said. "Do you want me to fix that for you?"
"What?" Kai-stern asked, for a moment genuinely confused, and then he gasped as Lykouleon set his hand on the wound in his side, and it disappeared as if it had never been there. It felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over his head and he was suddenly ravenous, but it didn't hurt anymore.
"Feeling better?" Lykouleon asked, settled back into his normal amused face, and it was really, really hard to believe that such a young-looking man was supposed to be the sovereign of a country.
"Thanks," Kai-stern muttered. "What are you doing here, anyway? Aren't you supposed to be at your palace?"
"Yes," Lykouleon admitted candidly. "Alfeegi is going to have my head when I get back."
He didn't know who Alfeegi was and he didn't really care; it was just another indicator that Lykouleon lived in a completely different world from him.
"You're going to get yourself killed one of these days, wandering around in the dark like this," he warned him, hitching his shirt over his shoulders so it covered at least some of him. "Not everyone is as willing to put up with you as I am."
"I appreciate the kindness," Lykouleon said, with a smile that said he wasn't taking the situation seriously at all.
"Just so you know you shouldn't be following people around like this," he continued as he headed out into the night. "It's kind of creepy."
"So noted," he said, sounding more amused than chastised.
Kai-stern stopped. "How do you keep finding me, anyway? We both know by now it's not a coincidence."
"I can find you anywhere you go," Lykouleon said, and it wasn't the night that made a chill run down Kai-stern's spine.
War broke out, of course; it was what always happened when people were hungry and tired and worried. He just happened to wander into Zulebiggia at exactly the wrong time; he was just looking for somewhere to go and Zulebiggia seemed good enough. Most of the farmers had left their land to protest the tithes the lords were taking from them, the lords put up steel in response and the next thing anyone knew they were fighting in the streets. Mostly Kai-stern was trying to stay out of it, but one or the other side was always trying to coax him into joining their cause, or trying to kill him if he refused, all because he was carrying a sword. It really had been more trouble than it was worth. He'd thought of leaving it behind somewhere more than a few times since the last time, but it seemed to have melded itself to his side. It had probably saved his neck a few times, anyway. Maybe it was enchanted, and he thought of Lykouleon and the mystic powers he seemed to display. The Dragon Emperor. He was being stalked by the ruler of the entire country. It was enough to turn your shirt inside out.
He almost wanted to see the man. He seemed to have the knack of turning up whenever Kai-stern was in trouble; well, if this wasn't trouble then nothing was, and no leader could sit back and do nothing as his subjects killed each other. But days passed as Kai-stern tried to find a way out of town past the soldiers, and that soft, polished voice was nowhere to be heard.
On the fourth day the rebels took the mayor's head and marched it around the town in their victory. The retaliation was swift and unrelenting. The rebellion was quashed, but the town almost decimated in the process.
Kai-stern stepped carefully over the body of a boy too young to be fighting. His wasn't the only one in the alley. It was such a waste, such a stupid waste. Two years ago he wouldn't have cared, but everything had gone to hell since then.
"Such a waste," someone said, echoing his own thoughts, and he whirled to see Lykouleon standing in the mouth of the alley.
"Yeah," Kai-stern said bitterly. "Glad to see you were helping out and stuff."
"I came as soon as I could!" Lykouleon said, almost snapping, and Kai-stern blinked; it was the first time he'd seen him display any kind of negative emotion. Lykouleon leaned down and slid one boy's eyes shut gently, and when he came back up his face was absolutely raw.
"Sorry, that was out of line," he mumbled, and couldn't meet his eyes.
"It never gets easier," Lykouleon said. "You think you can make it better, but it never stops. I don't have enough time. I don't have enough /people/." He slumped against the wall, sword chinking against the brick, and suddenly looked very old.
"I, um," he said inanely, because this was nothing like the smiling, laughing Lykouleon who had been following him around the country for years now; he looked tired and afraid and that was frightening. "I hate it, too. We're only a small part of the population, but humans always get caught in the crossfire. It's not fair."
"It's not," Lykouleon said wearily. "What about you? What are you doing?"
"Just trying to get out of here," Kai-stern said. "Are you going back to Draqueen?"
"As soon as I've cleaned things up here," Lykouleon said, and closed his eyes in exhaustion. "Tetheus is taking care of things at the castle for me, but with things so unstable at the moment I can't afford to be away for long."
"I guess I'll be going then," he said. Lykouleon opened one eye.
"You could come with me."
He stopped. "What?"
"You could come with me. To Draqueen. I need someone like you."
"Me? I don't think I'd be much good to you," he said with a small, nervous laugh.
"Why not?" Lykouleon said, open-eyed and serious now. "You just said how unfair this all is. Don't you want to change it?"
/Change it/. Lykouleon said it so effortlessly, but it was like suggesting they turn the sky upside down. Everyone knew things would be the way things would be, and there was no changing that. That was why he'd spent his life drifting from place to place, tossed along like grass in the wind, going wherever fate took him.
"You say it like it's easy," he muttered, looking at the ground.
"Maybe it could be," Lykouleon insisted. "You're how old, twenty? You've already lived half your life. Are you really going to spend the rest of it just wandering?"
It was like being stabbed, a sudden, shooting pain in his chest. "What I do is my business," he shot back. "Why do you care what I do so badly, anyway? You follow me around, you ask personal questions, you give me this sword..." He hefted it in his hand, feeling its weight. "It's like you want something from me or something," and all the pieces fell into shape with dizzying speed.
"My god, this is what you've been working toward ever since we met, isn't it?" he realized out loud with increasing anger. "You've been playing with me! Was it even a coincidence you were in that cave, or had you been hunting me before that?"
"Kai-stern..." Lykouleon said placatingly.
"Shut up! Jesus Christ," Kai-stern said. "All this sweet talk about changing things, but you're just trying to manipulate me. I've had enough of that, thanks, and you can take your sword back while you're at it." He launched it like a javelin at Lykouleon, who caught it easily.
"It's yours," Lykouleon said quietly and held it back out to him. "I couldn't take it back now if I wanted to."
"Sure, whatever," Kai-stern said bitterly, and turned to go. "Go find someone else's strings to pull."
"I had hoped I'd find you," Lykouleon said. "You weren't who I'd thought you'd be, but I still sensed in you that you could be something."
He snatched the sword out Lykouleon's hands angrily. He could always sell it this time. "I'm not anything, I'm just Kai-stern. Leave me alone."
He sailed to the end of the world. In the summer he hoed fields; in the bitterly cold northern winter he worked weekends in the only pub in town. He salted fish. He shoveled snow. He took a small dingy room above the pub that leaked when it rained and was unbearably hot in summer. At the beginning people brought him flowers and biscuits and tried to make conversation, but they left him alone once it was clear he wasn't going to make friends. He kept to himself and just listened, letting the wall of sound from downstairs wash over him. So far away from the rest of the world they only caught snatches of what was going on at the mainland. War between Chantel and Zulebiggia was breaking out now, but in Hyuray it was quiet. Months passed. Lykouleon didn't come.
His head was still dizzy from being bounced around in the cargo hold (the only way he'd been able to afford passage all the way from Hyuray) and trying to follow the man as he took seemingly random turns and climbed up staircases Kai-stern hadn't even realized were there didn't help any. His guide was talking to him but Kai-stern tuned him out, too busy taking in his surroundings. He'd never been in a palace before.
"This is it," the green-haired man said, stopping before an imposing set of double doors. "God knows why he agreed to see you, but here you are." He tapped on the door—even his knock sounded officious- and the sound echoed off the massive stone walls.
"Come in," came the muffled reply. Kai-stern put one hand on the door handle and stopped. His companion gave him a strange look.
"Well, go in already; I can't wait around all day babysitting you," he said impatiently, and Kai-stern went in more to get away from him than anything else.
It opened into a room like something out of a fairytale; carpet thick enough to swallow him up, touches of gold and silver everywhere, rich tapestries covering the wall. And the Emperor himself sitting behind a massive desk, looking up as he came into the room. Kai-stern swallowed.
"Hello," Lykouleon said.
"Hello," he parroted back, but he could think of nothing else to say; in truth he didn't really understand how they'd even come to this situation. "Um. The sword broke," he said, and thrust it towards Lykouleon. A small crack had opened up in the handle.
"Did it? That's a nuisance." Lykouleon came around the desk towards him, and Kai-stern was struck by how much he seemed to /belong/; him, he felt like the scary green-haired guy was going to come toss him out of the castle any moment now. "I can fix it, but it might take a while; I'm afraid I have far too many things to do that the moment. Treaties and such."
"That's okay," Kai-stern muttered, shifting his feet awkwardly. "I'm not in a hurry for it or anything."
"Good," Lykouleon said, and made to go and store the sword away.
"I need a place to stay," Kai-stern said in a rush. "Probably not for that long. Places to go. You know."
"As long as you wish," Lykouleon said. "Though, if you're going to be here, maybe you could..."
DISCLAIMER: Dragon Knights belongs to Ohkami Mineko. I claim no ownership and make no profit.