Chapter 32: What happened after.
There were people everywhere. Running, screaming, terrified people, and small zoids they'd never seen before ducking in and out of buildings, ripping them to pieces as ground troops swooped in and took what they wanted and destroyed the rest. Not so much in the gunfire - they were conserving ammunition for resistance, not for fleeing peasants thank goodness - but the fire itself was devouring everything in its path.
In a time of crisis like this, running and continuing to run would make a lot of sense. But something cut through the confusion and the terror, and Prozen felt his old self return again just for a moment. He'd done the best he could for Karl, lying in the back with a tourniquet on and bandaged up as best he could with strips of his own shirt. His uniform was too stained to be really noticed, a shirtless and terribly bruised and beaten Prozen however, might be.
"Stay down." Karl's eyes glinted with agony and fear. Prozen didn't need to be told what it meant. "Yes, the baby is staying with you. Now stay the fuck down while the organoid and I do what we need to do."
He didn't wait for an answer. Shadow stayed at his side diligently, knowing that she was better off with him than trying to find Raven on her own. Swinging her shoulders low, she let Prozen crawl onto her back and shook herself slightly to see if he was secure before spreading her wings and darting into the chaos. Their street hadn't been hit so badly yet, but they didn't need to go far - Raven was already out and about, his face colouring when they caught up to him. Prozen leaped off the organoid's back with more energy then he realized he had. "Raven!"
"G-Gunther!!!" It was the cry of a frightened child. He was as pale as a sheet, his clothing ripped and torn, skin smudged with soot and dust. He ran into the albinos out-stretched arms, burrowing into him and bawling, bawling like he hadn't cried since he had his first nightmares so long ago after they met. Why was he covered in coal? Prozen looked up, wondering where his mother was and found his answer. Shouts up ahead, and he realized where half the smoke in the street was coming from - the dogs had already escaped, and the building was gutted.
"Shadow?" He croaked. She didnt answer, except to nose him gently. He took a deep breath, tried to untangle Raven from his body. "Raven, Tatiana, where is-"
He hadn't noticed the blood stains on the boys clothes, but the moment her name was mentioned, Raven let out a soft, agonizing wail. The realization came in a quiet burst, was filed away, and Prozen was allowed to get on with it. Murmuring quiet words of support and confidence to the youth, he let Shadow take him and followed them back to the car.
Karl was sitting up now, a gun in hand, looking wired and close to collapse. People split from harassing him the moment Shadow pushed between them and dropped Raven into the back before getting in herself. Prozen managed one last look at the place he'd been born, climbed in and slammed the door shut, tooting the horn just once to get people out of the way and make them realize he was not going to help them...although Shadows growls were helping with that.
He threw the car into gear, put his foot on the gas and drove away.
In four years Zenebas devoured Guylos almost completely. Emperor Rudolph attempted ceasefire talks but resulted in surrendering with the hope to save more lives - unfortunately when it turned out Zenebas had no desire for mercy or less killing, it all went very wrong. The youth disappeared into Republican territory, presumably to plan for a reemergence, but left his people on their lonesome. There was a general disagreement about the whole thing and talking about pulling up the bootstraps and all, but they realized that since one of his ministers cracked under pressure what was his name again? Began with a P - maybe they were better off on the quiet. Nothing like his grandfather, good old man he was, great with a bayonet and wasn't afraid of anything.
The worst part of it all was that while the Republic and Zenebas were circling each other and taking swipes before some real action started peace was in discussion, but Helic wasn't too happy with some of the laws being handed down about how to treat Imperials, some bright spark had popped up and was destroying towns on either side indiscriminately.
This was the reason General Karl Licten Shubaltz was making his way down the crowded and dark streets of Finmar, one of the few imperial towns left. It had its own private force left over from the days of the empire, and had been a fairly good place for those misplaced to resettle provided they wanted to work.
"Must we do this in person?" At his side, his gangly younger brother eyed the commoners nervously. The Shubaltzes had been protected by their collected wealth and military history, and sadly sometimes, Thomas seemed to be a little lacking in the area of human relations.
Karl glanced over his shoulder, smiling gently. "I owe him my life. I can at least turn up in person when I need to ask him for such a favour."
"Yeah, but you...you lost a lot in the process." Thomas rolled his eyes fiercely, movements nervous he'd never been able to get over the problems that followed from lack of proper medical attention or help in the time Karl had been missing. Having your brother disappear than reappear thanks to people being too busy to help out was one thing; reappearing missing an arm and several of his teeth was another thing entirely. What made it worse was that Karl got on with it. "I hate that guy. Father never thought much of him, and you know what mother has to say-"
"Mother, bless her, says a lot of things. Not all of them are true or necessary". They crossed a road, ducking into a side-street. A wrought iron set of steps was attached to the side of the building, and Karl pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket to check the address. "You can stay here if you want. I know this place makes you uncomfortable,,I visited here when they'd just moved in, its possibly not your kind of place."
"Oh no. I have to see this."
The climb was easy enough, but he wasn't expecting the hanging baskets not until he got closer and realized they were herbs. Prozen had always been an opportunist, and those potted ferns on the window sill probably weren't ferns at all, because they had a suspiciously orange root poking out of the earth. The single window there was open, a delicious smell wafting through it of the nights dinner. Along the wall there were many little boxes of light, the apartments piled on top of each other with a single stairwell winding up each tower. A gate had been installed however, on the walkway to his own, a sealed off corner where his plants could grow in peace.
The gate was ajar. That made things harder. But then it was time anyway, so what could he do? Prozen had been running for years, trying to grab a little time here and there and do what he could. To do the right thing. He'd exhausted all his contacts and all his avenues.
Karl walked carefully inside, tapping on the front door and waiting for an answer. What he wasn't expecting was the running of feet in that dusk, the lamp above the door to come on and for the door to begin to open so easily before a second set of footfalls caught the first runner and held the door shut. He heard the muffled voices one young, enthusiastic, the other older and more annoyed, before a third interjected and peace returned.
The door was opened, and there Prozen stood depleted from what Karl had last seen in the flesh. Defiance was still in his clear eyes, but there was more grey to his white hair, scruffier, despite the cut of his simple clothing, still dusted with flour from his day job at the bakers a few streets away. Thinner too but the strength that had saved both their lives and that of two others plus an organoid all those years ago still remained. He saw the look of confusion spark up, then become understanding a lowering of his brows, sadness around his mouth.
"Good evening, General Shubaltz." He gave the pair a faint smile. "Come in."
"I thought you were expecting us." Karl took off his hat as a sign of respect noticing his brother did not as he pulled himself into the narrow corridor that held the door to the kitchen and then the living area at the end of it.
"I was, but not for a few hours. Couldn't help but make extra. Please take a seat and have something to eat."
As he dished up they spoke about the past in the careful and thoughtful way adults do when theyre not on entirely good terms. Those that had passed away in the latest rounds of fighting, those that survived. The latest gossip from the nobles from either side of the border. Karl knew he grieved for his lost companions his Knights had fallen a long time ago, and each death had been a knife to his heart. Karl wondered if he had anyone left he loved apart form those in the room. Speaking of which, the kids obviously hadn't had that much to eat in a long time. Stew with actual meat, chicken and beef, he'd gone all out considering there wasn't that much food in town dumplings, and (when he got to taste them) deliciously crispy-outside-fluffy-inside roast potatoes. Thomas took nothing but a glass of water, turning up his nose at the poor fare. He hadn't served in the military properly as of yet, was more on the intelligence style of things, so didn't know what he was missing.
Raven was seated across from him, eating with the gusto of a man who hadn't eaten in weeks. This of course was not the case, but the teen years were hard on kids and made them hungry all the time. He was just as thin as Prozen was, but still in the uniform from his part time job, papers from school beneath his plate. It was his final year, if Karl remembered correctly.
Between Raven and then Prozen, who was to his left was the one hed come to see. Wolff was the spitting image of Prozen except around his eyes there was the potential for cruelty there, Karl could see, as the kid tore into his dumplings like a man possessed. His blond hair had darkened a little, but had a messiness that wasnt present on anyone else in the room. Prozen was merely unkempt from work, Ravens hair was always straight, but Wolffs....well. There was a curl there.
Must break his heart sometimes.
"Don't eat so fast, my little pest. You'll choke." Prozen sighed tiredly. Wolff looked up, spoon still in mouth and mumbled something incoherently that his father seemed to understand. "It can wait. I haven't seen you all day and all you want to do is play in the simulator!"
"I can take him!" Raven looked up, hopeful. "I was planning on going myself-"
Thomas kept staring despite the pleadings of the children against their parent. It was uncomfortable. Even though Karl had been updated by Prozen as per their agreement every month or so on the child's progress, his size and development was scary in the flesh. Thomas turned to him, and decided that tact wasn't allowed in the conversation. "...Karl?" He whined. "Karl that kid is not four. He's ten. What's wrong with you?"
The table became silent. Karl mentally hit his brother, but forced a smile on his face. "Wolff is special. But I think he knows that without needing to be told."
But the little boy was staring intently at Thomas now, and looked devastated as well. "No. No I'm not. I'm not special at all."
Prozen reached out and laid a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Its alright, Wolff."
"It's not. It's not at all. You didn't say they were coming for me today! You said I still had time!"
"I said I would try to buy you more time." There was a clatter as Raven pushed his plate away, face furious. "Raven-"
"The contract should have been burned. He's just a kid. Suppose you want me too?" He snapped acidly, glaring at Karl. "I've almost got my bit of paper now, without help from any of you bastards-"
Prozen stood up." Raven."
"This is so damn typical. I should have listened to father."
"Thomas, please go outside at once."
Karl's voice carried enough to silence the voices, and it broke his heart as Wolff seemed to leap out of his chair, and was torn between running from the room and running to his father as his human genes fought with his Zoidian - the mind of a child against the mind of an almost-teen. He wondered how many times people had noticed what he was, or how he did it. Making up his mind at last, the boy dove into the arms of Prozen, cuddling against him tightly. Prozen rocked him back and forth gently, stroking his hair. Raven on the other hand was looking away but having his hair groomed by Shadow. She must have been in the living room, Karl realized, but how she got there so fast he didn't know.
'So there's no more time, I'm guessing." Prozen said, very quietly, his voice smooth and gentle as the child sobbed. "Being that he seems old enough to pilot, correct?"
Prozen looked down at his son sadly, then looked across the table to where Raven was sitting, looking miserable. "But you came alone, and without an escort apart from your brother?"
Karl sat back. "I did."
"We could run again."
"But you wont. You've been running for four years. You've sought out all the help you could find, and you've come to the end of it. Of everyone in the court, you're the only one who's made it, and I don't know for how much longer because we both know that no matter what you make its not going to be enough to nurture these two. The next Republican scan of this town is going to find you maybe not you, maybe Raven, maybe Wolff there. But you will be found. You've fought for a long time, Gunther. And I respect that. So I'm here to make you an offer."
"You've made me this offer over and over again, Karl. I'm not selling out."
"I'm asking you to buy into." Karl's eyes glittered fiercely, surrounded by scars. "The Republicans have their hands tied by protecting their own interests, and working with the refugees. Whats left of the empires military contingent have been protecting whats left of the empire." It was the wrong thing to say, because Prozen glared at him. The point is...Helic is considering a breakaway company. They cannot look after things outside the war alone - surely you heard about Romeo City and the Wind Colony?"
Prozen's face went white. Wolff squeaked in protest as his father clutched him tightly.
"They're calling it a security team. My brother ships out tomorrow. There's a few peoples names on the list...Van being one of them, I think you remember him, don't you, Raven?" The young man looked up in interest."But I was wondering if the idea of being one of the troop leaders might be a more attractive idea than having your life drained away as it is here. There are certainly places for both boys. Full medical, fully paid, fully insured. Nobody need know you're working for the Republic. But we need your mind. And we need the strength of three very good pilots who are capable of..." He trailed off, looking for the right words to say. "Helping?"
"Fuck." Prozen said very tiredly. A pause. "Don't repeat what I just said, Wolff."
The child was tactfully quiet, but Karl did spy a naughty grin out of the corner of his eye.
Raven seemed to be thinking this over. He watched his foster father for a moment before catching Karl's eye. :Fully paid, you said? How 'bout education?"
"Zoids? We don't have any."
"We have a few at our disposal, Imperial and Republican types of course".
"Raven..." Prozen began, but fell away as their eyes met - he could see the cogs ticking away in the dark haired youth's mind, and they were coming to the same conclusion. Wolff had stilled at last, and had his eyes closed, resting his head on his fathers shoulder and acting a lot more than his actual age than what his genes dictated him to be. He watched Karl carefully. "You go back on this deal, and I'll kill you. Sign either of my boys off on some crazy scheme, and I'll kill you. In fact, do anything I don't like, and I'll kill you." He took a deep breath to steady himself. "It's him, isn't it?"
He seemed to be thinking it over, and looked to decline, but to Karl's surprise, Prozen sat back, looking a little more like his older self. Civilian life wasn't comfortable with him. "What's the name of this so called security team?"
Karl grinned. "The Guardian Force."
In the time it took to write this story too long for my liking a lot of things happened. Its been...almost six years? Close to it. In that time, I have lost my mother, watched my brother develop and recover from anorexia, moved four times, had five jobs (one of which I was fired and rehired in a single day by the same person) got into and graduated university, had 30+ house mates, been involved with two police raids, been interviewed for my dream job and lost it due to a housemates selfishness, lost three cats, a dog, and had a dealer stash his stuff with us (housemates) and eat all our food.
Its been a mad, mad set of years. The story started and finished in the same place. I walked away from it for awhile thinking it wasn't worth finishing (like a lot of work Ive done, but that's another story) and found solace writing with others under roleplay. The characterization is terrible, and I'm sorry Ive put you through it, so if you're reading this,,,thank you! Thank you for your patience with me, thank you for your kindness not to judge me for what I decided to write. It was a plotbunny started by someone else how I kept going I do not know. Especially considering some of the things that happened mostly being told how to write, or what I could write! And I listened, more fool me.
Anyway. Thanks for reading. Even with the Bad End. There were several endings in the drafts (over 60 pages of material) but I realized I was writing at a level that would not have a nice ending no matter how I put it. The couple are still my OTP. I do not know why. They keep giving me material, I suppose.
This ran on too long. This story annoys me no end. Much like 's love of taking all punctuation out of stories.
Again, thank you.