Chapter twenty-four, Gazing backwards
Begin Introspection. Serial code: Sig.
Glad that's outta the way. I think we've all got enough troubles to make some of our own, 'specially stupid ones like the cherries were at.
I have that other problem that keeps itching me. Mebbe it's time I gave it a different spin. Never wanted to ask Jak for help with it, because it's not his kinda business to sift through the rotten underbelly o' Haven. Not the part that just deals with info. That ain't his area. It ain't mine either but I've had to make it mine.
We both rather just shoot stuff, but I ain't got no choice.
Tess is alright. I just didn't know for sure before.
I gotta try. All I've done is come up empty handed over and over. Somethin's gotta change.
It just gotta.
There was a joke amongst the people of Spargus that their current ruler was an insomniac, or could rule just as well in his sleep. Or that he was undead. Any variant of it. Anything that could explain how he seemed to always be up and alert no matter what happened at any given time of the day or night.
Damas had once told Sig that he did fine with just three or four hours of sleep. It was nice to have an explanation. Because standing before Damas' throne just before dawn, Sig himself felt the early hour weighing down his eyelids and limbs, while the King looked as alert as ever.
Of course, it was Sig's own fault, as he had decided to leave this early to get to Haven as soon as possible. While he could just have made a call to the person he wanted to speak to, Damas had long since ordered him not to. Calls could be bugged, and they needed to keep Sig's mission under tight wraps.
In these troubled times, though, he could not leave Spargus without telling Damas. And there was another thing he wanted to speak to the King about.
"Don't stay long, unless you must," Damas said, gazing off towards the wall which on its other side faced the desert. "The marauders are just getting worse."
"Do you think they've got a base nearby, Your Lordship?" Sig ventured.
Damas turned back, absently knocking his peacemaker against the floor. It was the only sign of frustration the King gave, but as it was so rare it was glaringly obvious.
"They must have, and we must find it so we can weed them out." With that, Damas made a dismissive hand motion.
Sig cleared his throat.
"Just one thing, Your Lordship. I noticed Kleiver putting the new kid in the fruit picking squad yesterday…" he started, knowing he was out on very thin ice.
"What of it?" Damas asked, impatiently.
It was the second most fun Kleiver had, testing newbies for whatever usefulness could be squeezed out of them. The foremost fun being, of course, killing stuff. But regardless of that, the testing was also an important part of the foundation of the Spargus citizenry, making sure that everyone was given a spot where they could make themselves the most useful.
And whiners were not tolerated, not even if they whined on somebody else's behalf. So Sig didn't, of course.
"It's just a waste of time," he said with a shrug.
Damas raised a hairless, less than impressed eyebrow. Retreating at this point would be insane, so Sig plowed right on.
"That kid's the most useful hangin' with Jak," he said. "It's what he came here to do."
"His intentions are not the same as his talents," Damas said. "Why are you bothering me with this?"
The second sentence didn't even need the tone to be a warning, but Damas never did anything by half. Sig decided that it was probably wise to skip the fluff and get to the point.
"He's the one who got Jak out of Praxis' prison."
For a second Damas froze, and a strange look passed over his face. But it went so quick that Sig wasn't sure that he had really seen it, and he had no chance to catch what it was. He did, however, see that he had struck true.
"How…" Damas said, then stopped and shook his head. "Of course. A rat could move around in there unseen."
Sig nodded. He had not believed it at face value when Daxter first boasted about it back in the day, but Jak had confirmed it. It did make sense when you thought about it like Damas just had.
"Jak's a lot better now, but back when I first met him he could hardly control that dark eco form of his," Sig went on. "But whenever it got real bad, Daxter could always snap him outta it. I ain't sayin' Jak can't go on without Daxter…"
Even if that was true. Telling Damas that one of his finest warriors had a weak point like that, though, would not be in Jak's favor.
"… but sometimes he needs somebody to remind him not to rush in blindly."
At that, Damas actually paused and then softly scoffed as if reminiscing about something.
"Yes, he can be rash. Even now." It seemed more as if the King thought aloud than addressed the man before him. Then he looked up. "And your point is?"
"Kleiver would keep those two apart just for a laugh, but they're both stronger together."
And with that response Sig was dismissed. It was non-committal, but Sig felt that he had managed to save his cherries a lot of unnecessary frustration born from Kleiver's sense of humor. Damas might not have reason to think too highly of Daxter, but he did want Jak at his strongest.
That good feeling got squashed when the train car driver called him on his communicator, to say that there would be a delay.
He could have slept for another half hour at least.
As it was, Sig found himself standing near the gate in the car pit as the morning sun painted the cliffs above the city in a golden red. It was not too bad though. The air felt fresh and there wasn't much of a bustle going on at this time of the day, even though the night shift and day shift people were switching places. Everyone was still sleepy at this point, so there was a rare sense of peaceful sluggishness in the atmosphere.
It made things seem a lot more at ease than they usually were.
The gears of the desert gates came alive with a grinding screech. Sig took a few steps back as the two huge pieces of the gate started moving apart, to avoid getting sprayed with sand by the incoming cars. It had been enough cleaning it out of his armor yesterday after Jak used his Shark to show his annoyance with Sig's meddling.
The small convoy of three cars drove inside the city at a fairly sane speed though. Two Screamers and a carrier, showing that it was a group of foragers returning. Sig frowned. It showed how bad the marauder situation was getting, when the food gatherers called in escort backup to ensure they could carry the supplies home safely.
The drivers climbed out of the Screamers while the carrier parked near the city entrance, and the whole group met up outside the vehicles to thank each other and say farewell. The wind carried one of the forager's request to the backup drivers to send carrier leaper lizards from the stables. With a promise to do so, the warriors left.
The foragers quickly unloaded bags and barrels of fruit and nuts from the back of their car, and as soon as that was done they sat back to wait for the lizards. Sig squinted at them, noticing a middle-aged woman with warmly dark skin and purple hair amongst them. She had stayed in the shadow until then and he had not been sure, but as she moved better into sight he recognized her.
He headed that way, but before he could call out a greeting, a pair of exes appeared from the city gate – one blond, and one dark skinned, with his black hair in a messy braid. The former walked first and the latter just followed as if pulled by an invisible string, staring dully at the ground.
The woman with purple hair straightened up.
"Lev!" she called out.
The blond one perked up and his friend froze in mid-step. He remained still as Lev made a turn and moved to meet the woman half-way. Sig stepped back to not disturb, but the wind made it so that he could not avoid hearing their conversation. Now he recognized the blond ex, though, as the one who had revealed Erol's bounty on Jak. The guy smiled in a far too cheeky way for somebody with that face paint, but then again Jak had said that he was alright. And also odd. That seemed about right.
There was a spark in his eye though, as at ease as he seemed, something that was either tension or pain. He hid it well, but not perfectly.
"Why, Mrs. Vida Durann," Lev said in an overly theatrical manner as they met, bowing to her with equal flourish. "Delighted to see you again."
Vida chuckled at his antics.
"It's been a while…" she started, but then she took note of the statue of a man behind Lev.
The other ex had not moved from the spot.
The smile fell off of Vida's face so suddenly that Sig took half a step forwards out of instinct, expecting danger. But none of them moved again.
Just looking at their differences in build, the silent ex could have easily snapped Vida in half. But looking closer at him, and the way he half turned, shifting his weight, it seemed as if he was about to run away in terror.
"Is that…?" Vida said, speaking to Lev but not taking her eyes off the other ex.
"Yup," Lev said, without looking around.
"Oh," Vida said at length. She visibly pulled herself together and returned to Lev, making small talk with him for a brief while. But it was obvious that both of them were distracted.
Finally, however, Vida pursed her mouth and looked past Lev.
"Mr. Tower," she said, and there was so much controlled emotion in her voice that it almost broke on those simple words.
"Ma'm," the ex told the ground.
Lev gently touched her arm and shook his head.
"You better leave it," he said in a kind voice. "An army of shrinks couldn't sort him out right now."
She looked at him, and at the other ex. Lev turned his head to glance at him, too. The morose ex quickly looked up at the two of them, then turned away to walk off.
Lev let out a deep breath and muttered something to Vida. She nodded and patted his arm farewell. Then he hurried after his friend.
For a moment Vida stood motionless, until the two of them disappeared out of sight behind another carrier.
She turned away, so lost in thought that it took her a moment to even notice the approaching Sig, despite her looking right at him. Once she caught up on that she gave a start and a small smile touched her lips.
"Good morning, Sig."
He inclined his head in response, but then his own smile faltered and he glanced after the two exes.
"Trouble?" he asked. It didn't seem like it, but there had been something very off about the whole thing.
Vida glanced in the same direction, shaking her head. Her face fell, and she idly massaged her upper arm.
"No," she said in a low voice. "Friends of my son."
All air was squeezed out of Sig's lungs.
It made sense, then. He didn't know all of it, not even Vida did. But he did know about her loss.
She gave him a bland smile and shook her head, but he still put a big hand on her small shoulder. Vida started to say something, but just then the city gate opened and a herder appeared with several leaper lizards outfitted with baskets.
With a soft goodbye Vida returned to her duties, and all Sig could do was return to wait for the air train. Though he used his free time to help loading the supplies, he left Vida alone with her thoughts.
Mornings were quite pleasant, in Daxter's opinion. Well, at least out here. Mornings as a whole was a horrible invention. However, the desert grew surprisingly cool at night, to the point of being uncomfortable – and during the day, it was boiling. But mornings and evenings had that refreshing middle status.
He came awake slowly, breathing in the fresh air streaming in through the cracks in the window covers. They let in enough light to make the whole room visible, even though it was a soft, subdued glow.
For the first time in days, Daxter felt refreshed from sleep. As he stretched, his muscles complained a little about all the climbing yesterday, but it was just a slight ache. With a content sound Daxter flopped back down and blinked his eyes open.
There was a grunt beside him and he turned his head, watching Jak yawn and open his eyes a crack.
"Wow, you really must've been conked out to sleep this late!" Daxter said, hoarse from sleep until he cleared his throat.
Jak mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over on his back to rub his eyes. It showed that the full night's rest had done a decent job of chipping away at the worst weariness, though.
A realization struck and Daxter's grin softened.
"Slept well, huh?" he said. It surprised him now that he thought about it, considering what had happened yesterday with that marauder ex.
There was a dry shuffling sound from the carpet and floor as Jak shifted, resting his temple against the muscles just below his elbow. The rest of the arm stretched out and disappeared out of sight above Daxter's head. Jak was smiling like that again; like he did by the oasis, like minutes after his first fight outside of Praxis' prison.
Maybe it was just the sleepiness still in his eyes, it was enough alike the exhaustion to make a similar image – though without that near-death sense about it.
Still, it hit too close to those times, making what should have been gentle, uneasy instead. Daxter hadn't deserved to get that smile right then and there, not with just so little. It said too much, asked too much and he had no idea how to answer.
Daxter's hands curled into fists without him even noticing it, and he looked away.
The snort was as soft at the look, but he heard the bitterness perfectly well. Snapping back towards Jak, Daxter got his gaze back up just in time to see a big hand touch down between the two of them. The fingers flattened out, tightening from the weight of the arm that rose up further, starting to lift the rest of Jak's body. He was getting up, a dull apology in his slack expression. Not sure what he had done wrong now, but…
A fist flew open and shot upwards, Daxter's fingers slapping down on Jak's muscular shoulder and pulling.
"Get back here, you!"
Jak managed to catch himself thanks to the arm he'd been leaning on, but the force of his own pull dragged Daxter closer to his friend. The thinner chest brushed the arm, and he felt the side of Jak's hand and little finger against his ribs before he pushed backwards. Even through his clothes, the redhead got a brief whiff of the body heat.
A very annoying amount of heat flared up in Daxter's throat and cheeks, too. It wasn't natural to touch anymore, not like it had used to be. And it was starting to piss him off.
He quickly cleared his throat, retracting his hand and shuffling back. Jak was still looking rather surprised, but being Jak, it wouldn't last for another two seconds. He wasn't the kind who had time to be surprised.
Only later did Daxter wonder if there had been one of those dreaded flinches, but if so he completely missed it.
At that particular point in time however, he focused on getting himself back in gear. He did this by setting an annoyed look and eye roll upon Jak.
"Sheez, bud. You think I'm a little girl or something? You're getting paranoid, man."
He let go of the shoulder and pointed a finger straight between Jak's eyes.
"And now you listen to me. I haven't slept this good in days, and there's no way you're angsting your way out of my well-deserved resting time."
Jak slowly blinked a couple of times and then, to Daxter's relief, relaxed back onto the mat.
"That's right!" Daxter said, nodding. "Listen to the boss."
A silent chuckle shook Jak's chest.
"Yeah, you know I can't get anything done without you showing me the ropes," he murmured.
"Damn straight!" he said. "Everyone else thinks you've got it all under control, but I just happen to know better. And that's the best piece of luck in this here ol' world, 'cause otherwise we may as well have all walked around with dark eco up to our knees. Or worse."
Much, much worse.
Jak gave him a wry smile, but Daxter's grin was already weakened.
"Jak doesn't want you to die." It's too dangerous for you. He doesn't need you.
Daxter tried to get a grip, focusing on the good part of the marauder attack they had lived through mere hours ago. He'd saved Jak from getting his fingers chopped off. Even when Jak shouldn't have been there in the first place and probably could have broken free on his own.
He could have. He really could, with those white eco reserves. It may have been a hairy case either way but had there actually been any help added past the distraction?
A suspicion struck Daxter, that maybe he had been allowed to be the hero. His eyebrows tightened, making Jak narrow his eyes.
Had he seriously let himself get beaten up by marauders just to make a point about trusting his best friend's skills?
And now he was lying there with bags under his eyes, uneasily trying to make out what the expression on his best friend's face was about.
Wetting his lips, Daxter tried to set his bearings straight and get back on track – deciding that this was a case of Don't Wanna Know. He grasped for the spoken dialogue from a moment ago, to head into safe territory again.
"It's true though," he said, trying to sound like it was an affirming statement.
He saw Jak's fingers twitch a moment before the hand actually rose up from the floor. Face easing up a bit, Jak lightly slapped Daxter over the shoulder.
Daxter breathed out. Which one of them had an angsting problem, again?
"Hey, you keep saving my life when Erol is around," Jak murmured.
Now that deserved a big, cocky grin.
"Yeah, we'd be in a riiight soup if I didn't bother pulling him away," Daxter said, cheerfulness right back in place where it belonged. Funny how Jak could do that to him, too, not just the other way around. "I'd like to see anyone else saving this sorry globe."
They shared a smirk.
Jak stretched, starting on a yawn which was cut short in a hiss. He retracted, cringing in discomfort as a hand came up to fumble for the opposite shoulder. Without even thinking, Daxter let out an evil cackle.
Their eyes met and the laughter died off, awkwardness hovering dangerously between each blink. Then Daxter shook his head and swiftly sat up, refusing that crap to take over again. Not this early in the morning. Not on his turf!
"Figures, with all your fooling around here without me knocking some sense into you. You've probably got tennis balls in your back at this point, 'cause I assume you never asked anyone else to rub 'em? I'll pull your finger if you did. It's my job!"
He knew from the split look – the amused smile and the gaze that fell away – that Jak hadn't. Of course he hadn't, there wasn't much to question there. Not when it took familiar little paws months to be allowed such touch.
Familiar little paws that had apparently been more appreciated than the owner had known.
Daxter wrung the thought from his brain by clearing his throat. He wasn't going to fall in that trap again. He was getting back to at-ease-status with Jak even if it killed him, dammit.
When Jak raised an eyebrow, a freckled nose wrinkled.
"It's gonna be okay 'cause I say so!" Daxter declared. He stretched out his pointing finger and drew a circle in the air. "Roll over, big boy."
Jak snorted but did as he was told, bundling up the pillow under his chin to prepare biting down on it if needed.
Daxter made a thing out of entwining his fingers and stretching them out, just to pull himself together properly. No big deal. This was something he had known he needed to do. Jak needed him to.
And he focused hard on any sign of real tension as he pushed the balls of his hands into Jak's back. Luckily, there was only the usual hitch in Jak's breath as Daxter struck down on a bundle of tense nerves.
"Man, you've been tensing like a snake with a cramp," Daxter said. He started rolling his hands between and above Jak's shoulder blades.
Bit by bit, they both relaxed. Sort of at least, in Jak's case, because there was always that threat of pain shooting through his muscles.
This wasn't so bad, Daxter concluded. With bigger hands and more body strength, he could get this done much more effectively. Though he kept that increased strength in check. Jak was already biting the pillow.
Time for a distraction.
"Also, first order of business after sorting all of this out," Daxter said and tapped a fingertip against Jak's back for emphasis, "is that you still look like crap. Shave, food, wash. Sheez! When did I become your mom?"
He could tell from the slight tremble of Jak's shoulders that he had finally earned a silent chuckle. Daxter felt as if a rock fell from his heart.
He caught himself smiling like a goon, but considering the situation, he allowed himself that much for a little while.
Then another thought struck.
"Eh, I hope Sig covered for me, so the forager guys don't wonder where I went off to," he said. It was a minor worry, though. "Yeah, Kleiver made me go pick fruit! Can you believe it?"
Jak made an amused agreeing sound. Even in that, Daxter could hear the real smile.
He hesitated for only a moment. In the end, though, he realized that he wanted Jak to know. So he started heading for it.
"By the way," he said, "Sig was just acting out Tess' plan. Operation Unbolt, she called it."
Jak snorted out a laugh this time, turning his head so he could glance at Daxter from the corner of his eye.
"Yeah, really. She was super pissed. Ah…"
Daxter paused and scratched his cheek. Even when he had decided to tell the whole truth, it still stung a bit.
"She kinda dumped me."
At that sudden piece of news Jak gave a start and began rolling over to look properly at his friend. However, Daxter pushed him back.
"Stay! I'm not done."
Jak kept watching him, though.
"Yeah, I'm okay. We had a good talk about stuff." Daxter threw up his arms in a theatrical shrug. Then he plopped his cheek on a fist and stared dramatically at the ceiling. "Why? 'Cause she thinks I should get with you."
Despite all his mental preparation for throwing that one out, he could still feel heat rise to his cheeks again. Dangit. But from the look on Jak's face, he neither noticed that (much) nor believed Daxter's claim.
"Oh I wish I was joking about that!" Daxter huffed, lifting one hand from Jak's back to rub his own forehead. It was theatrical, and the motion softened the weirdness of the whole thing despite his words confirming that it was actually true.
"So you owe her big, just remember that!" Daxter cut him off, wagging a finger.
And that was the end of that conversation. Following it Daxter changed the subject to more nonsensical, safer things until he felt satisfied with the results of the massage. Jak slowly pushed himself up and stretched, giving Daxter a lazy smile as thanks.
"Right!" Daxter said and got to his feet. "Next on the schedule…"
Saying that reminded him that he had brought Jak a change of clothes, and that those along with the rest of his stuff was at his own apartment. The apartment which he didn't care one bit about any longer.
He went off to fetch the stuff kept there, leaving Jak to shave. He had gotten about halfway down the street when his communicator beeped. The sight of the name on the screen made Daxter's good mood crash and burn, and he was in half a mind to not answer. But he knew that he'd only regret that.
Bracing himself, he pushed the button. A scarred, unpleasant face appeared on the screen.
"Kleiver, dude…" Daxter started, but the big man waved a huge hand.
"I ain't got time for you," he said. "'m puttin' the blonde wonder in charge of making you useful. It's prolly the fastest way ta get ya mangled, anyway."
Daxter had to do a double-take before the words sunk in.
"That… sounds too good to be true," he said, suspiciously.
"Whazzat?" A nasty grin spread over Kleiver's face. "Ya'd rather keep workin' for me?"
"No! I mean–– no thanks! Thanks!" Daxter added the last as Kleiver started to say something again, then quickly switched off the communicator and hung it back on his belt before the big walrus could make changes to the new deal.
Well. This day was turning out awesome.
Almost too good to be true, indeed. He kept wondering what blessed fate had taken that weight off of him, and if there would be a trap waiting later on. Then he pushed it aside and decided not to worry about it, hurrying down the street with a big grin.
Jak was equally surprised and initially suspicious of Kleiver's sudden mercy, but it was such good news that he too didn't want to question it for too long. There was so much better things to focus on, like the fact that Daxter rolled out his fetched sleeping mat in Jak's bedroom, and showed off the jet board that Keira had given him.
First of all, though, they had other things to take care of. Repacking their already light bags they headed down towards the market, buying fruit and bread for their breakfast.
Then, they headed further towards the ocean. The cliffs fell almost straight down into the waves in most places, but there were marked, fairly safe places to climb down and if you kept moving further along, there were little beaches. But Jak preferred to be further out, where nobody could see his scars.
Reaching one of the little beaches below the cliffs, they both unfolded their jet boards and Jak waited as Daxter tested his, gliding around first above the sand and then steering it gingerly over the water. Daxter swayed, both arms out, but he had the right feel of it from standing on the board together with Jak many times before as an ottsel. At least enough for them to make it across the water and out to one of the off shore islands where Jak had used to bring both of them before.
It was with a mix of relief and excitement that Daxter hopped off his jet board on the shore and set it against one of the palm trees growing on the island. He wanted to try it out more, but knew full well that he would be doing a lot of falling on his behind. So maybe a bit further away, when there couldn't be an audience looking down on him from top of the cliffs…
And later, also. He carelessly threw down his bag besides Jak's and started pulling off his shirt.
And then reality struck and he froze for half a second, glancing at Jak. But the blond man had turned his back as he pulled off his own shirt. Daxter fidgeted with the hem of the cloth for a moment.
Cut it OUT.
He scowled at himself. Things would never ever be okay again if he didn't stop worrying so much. He heard Jak's soft footsteps in the sand and looked again, watching as his friend walked out into the warm, softly lapping waves in only his pants, and dove into the blue.
The sight of that sparked memories with such force that it almost hurt, and Daxter ripped off his shirt and boots to follow. Sand welled up around his feet, as he ran, then water splashed up his legs.
The sun might be too hot, and they both had too many scars, but it was still a piece of heaven. Jak broke the surface with a gasp, coughing water and laughing in his silent way at the same time as he swept his soaked hair out of his face.
Really laughed, for just that moment as carefree and happy as they had been too many years ago.
It was beautiful.
Daxter couldn't do anything else but tackle him. It's what he would have done in their childhood, taking advantage of Jak being half-blind by the water in his eyes. Catching Jak by surprise had been difficult then and he knew full well it was neigh impossible now, so Daxter wasn't prepared for the fact that they both did crash back under the surface.
Then he felt Jak fluidly rolling with the motion and pushing away, realizing that of course the attack had been allowed. Even through the underwater haze, Daxter could still see the smile. No uneasy realization that he could have triggered a memory was even allowed to pop into mind.
No such things were permitted in that blissful moment.
Also he did not have time to think about it, because Jak pushed against the sandy ocean floor and launched himself right back at Daxter. Underwater it was a slow tackle, but it had all the force of the much more muscular man.
He only touched Daxter's shoulders, pushing him down as he passed by – that did not go unnoticed. In the past, Jak would probably have grabbed him tight for a slow motion wrestling match.
The change in their friendship reared its ugly head again, and yet in that moment Daxter did not feel disturbed by it. He saw it clearly, that Jak was playing but keeping his distance at the same time, respecting the boundary.
Daxter rolled around and dug his toes into the sand below to launch himself after Jak, pushing down at the small of his back. Jak turned, grabbing for Daxter's arms. They could have gone on, but the rising sting in his chest reminded the redhead that he hadn't been up for breath for a while. He caught the edge of Jak's hand between thumb and pointing finger, pinching. Instantly, he was released.
Daxter broke the surface with a gasp, Jak following a second later. They floated upright, coughing, spitting, laughing as they clumsily wiped their hair out of their faces. Then they caught each others' eyes, grinned and dove right back down.
Time didn't matter. All there was, was the sun, sand and waves.
It was only a question of stamina, as it had been back then, for when the game ended. And it had almost always been Daxter who crawled ashore first. Therefore it said a lot about how much Jak still needed to recover, when it was he who moved up the small beach, Daxter following behind, laughter ebbing.
But then Jak thudded down and rolled to sit on the sand, smiling up and waving a calming hand. Saying not to worry. It'll be fine.
It was enough.
Daxter plopped down beside him and reached for his and Jak's bags to pull out a towel each as well as their water flasks. They sat in silence for a while after drenching edges of the cloth with the drinkable water, wiping the salt water out of their eyes.
"By the way, you better let me drive more now," Daxter said after a few moments, wagging an important finger. "I haven't forgotten that you wagered my awesome self against the Puppy!"
Jak gave him that confident smirk and shrug that he had used when making that bet. To that, Daxter shot him a more or less mock glare in return.
"Yeah, yeah," Jak said, cracking up in a silent chuckle. He wiped his face with the towel and gazed towards the cliffs. "But I want to practice something first. Out of sight."
Daxter quirked an eyebrow.
In the light of the sinking sun, Lev followed Zem back to his apartment. It was a strange thing after day after day of leading Zem around, and he wasn't sure if it was good or bad. But he could tell that there was something on the guy's mind, and he could very well guess what had triggered it.
He half expected to get the door slammed into his face, but instead Zem glanced over his shoulder at Lev before going in. It wasn't an invitation, rather a take-it-or-leave-it-but-I'd-rather-you'd-leave-it look.
But Lev couldn't leave it, so he continued inside and closed the door. At the soft clacking sound of wood meeting clay, Zem turned around and looked straight at him.
"Lev. Why the hell're you botherin'?"
Okay, that was something. Lev breathed out and squared his shoulders.
Here goes nothing.
"I'd tell you," he said, "but you'd sock me in the face and then we'd have to start all over again."
Zem stood frozen for a moment, and then he deflated, more falling than leaning against the wall as a deep, rough sigh emptied his lungs.
Yeah. He understood. He had known even before he asked.
Of course he did. Like most everyone else, Lev had just barely tolerated Zem back in the day, and even then mostly to push his buttons for a chuckle. There was only one person that connected them, that had made them share the same breathing space during periods of rest after training. And seeing Vida brought that memory so painfully close.
Zem shook his head.
"Don't you get it, what I've done? What I am?" he harshly muttered.
A nerve twitched on Lev's face. Then he took in a deep breath and folded his arms.
"Did you want to?" he asked, calmly, watching Zem.
The much taller man bore that look for a couple of seconds before his legs gave away and he stumbled over to crash on a chair. Pressing a hand to first his mouth, then his eyes.
He shook his head again, harder this time.
"No. No… gods, no," he croaked. "But they made us… me… think it's right…"
He trailed off. Then he whispered something, staring off at nothing. Might not have meant, on a conscious level, for Lev to hear it, but just that he said it at all screamed out the subconscious meaning.
"I don't deserve to live."
Help me, oh gods please help me
Lev hunched down beside him, putting a hand on Zem's shoulder.
"Yeah, you told me that before." Lev moved his other hand up, fingertips almost touching Zem's shirt. Right at the part where the cloth hid the tattoo on Zem's chest, the one that marked him as a former prison guard – but also the dozens of scars that were slashed across that grey mark.
The scars from wounds that Zem had given himself.
"But as long as you're here, you know," Lev said, as calmly as he could despite how sick he was starting to feel with unease, "you can make your carcass useful to the city."
Zem's face disappeared behind one of his massive hands as he mutely shook his head.
Lev sighed as he stood up. Alright. Enough.
He took a step back just to be out of punching range. It was a blow below the belt, but this subject had already opened a crack in Zem's defenses for the very first time.
"I can't get through that thick skull of yours. Sad. He could have done it with one or two words." Lev didn't even have to put emphasis on 'he.' Zem stiffened.
For a moment Lev waited, but no fist flew towards his face. So he dropped the bomb.
"One of these days we're gonna have to talk about Junn."
"No!" came a snarl from behind Zem's hand.
Lev let out a deep breath to calm himself. It didn't work.
"Why are you so sure he's dead?" he snapped.
"Lev!" Zem sharply turned his head away, slamming his fist into the table.
Well, anger was a step in the right direction. Sort of.
"What?" Lev growled back.
"He was worse than you! You just opened your mouth quicker!" Zem threw out his arm towards the windows. "But he's not here! So either he died in the desert or they just shot him!"
"You don't know that!" Lev protested, refusing to acknowledge the bitter logic. "He could've just grit his teeth and––"
"He wrote to me, but then he stopped."
Lev paused, watching Zem as the taller man rubbed his own face. There was no elaboration coming for free, though.
"What, to the prison?" Lev finally asked.
Zem nodded behind his hands.
"I never answered. I burned the letters after…" He grit his teeth. "After I did somethin' I knew they'd bust me for if they figured it out. It doesn't fucking matter."
His hands fell down into his lap and he stared at Lev, eyes so intense and tortured that it hurt to meet the gaze. Lev had to glance away.
"He. Stopped. Writing."
Zem forced the words out.
However, Lev remained unimpressed.
"Can't blame him if you never answered," he said.
"He wouldn't give up on me––"
Zem seemed to realize what he said only when he actually spoke the words. His eyes shot wide open and he slapped a hand to his mouth.
Even when neither of them knew if he was alive or dead, apparently Junn could still work miracles on Zem. A small but triumphant grin swept up on Lev's lips.
"And you still want me to give up?" he said, softer than his expression called for.
"Lev… Lev, stop. Just… fucking stop."
"Can't do that, man." Lev showed proof of either momentous bravery or earth-shattering stupidity by reaching out to put his hand on Zem's back. The worn green cloth of the mechanic's shirt was damp with sweat.
Once more Lev got away with it. So things were still bad with Zem. Then again, not striking out against an insistent and annoying but still friendly gesture was a virtue.
"'Cause, y'know," Lev went on, "in the event if, and alright, let's say if, Junn poofs up from out of nowhere, the first thing he'll ask me is if I've seen you. And I don't wanna give him any bad news. You don't want me to do that to him, Bignasty, do you?"
He wasn't crazy enough to pat Zem's back, though. There were some limits to the dangers a sensible man could chose to face down.
Zem said nothing.
Begin Introspection. Serial code: Ashelin.
There's something that's been… bothering me.
Very well, I have a great many things on my mind that are more pressing, but it's like a buzzing whumpbee in the back of my head.
When Jak returned from the Wasteland, it was the perfect opportunity for us to report to Damas that the Underground had kept his son safe. Yet Onin insisted that we could not do that yet, and Samos refused to explain why.
Something's wrong. Where is Prince Mar now? Samos assured us that he and the Shadow had used Precursor technology to send the boy to a safe place, where the metal heads and schemers searching to find and use him in a political game would never find him.
I have begun to suspect that we cannot tell Damas about his son, because Prince Mar is as unreachable to us as those who would harm him. I could understand that, even if I don't like that idea. But if that's it, why wouldn't Samos say so?
And who was the Shadow, then? He looked so much like a younger Samos… a brother, perhaps? But Samos avoids answering those questions as well.
I don't have time to figure it out right now. But when all this is over, the Sage owes all of us an explanation.
Author's note: Oh boo. Why yes, I should have introduced Vida Durann, the mysterious Junn's mommeh, to the sideplot long ago. Even though she won't play a huge part. But it would have been better if she'd popped up a little earlier at least. Unfortunately that's what happens when you take nine years (oh. My. God. This thing has been with me for almost a third of my life) to get through a story :P So it's all me.
The whole Junn/Zem thing wasn't even planned from the beginning, in fact Zem wasn't even supposed to become this important. What happened was that Demyrie, who got me into Jak/Daxter in the first place, created Junn Durann, her soft-spoken KG, and his psychologist mother. Then Demyrie drew an awesome picture of Zem. So I made a much less (because I write much better than I draw and don't try to tell me otherwise) awesome drawing for her where Zem and Junn had lunch together, and made a joke comment in the description: "OMG Junn/Zem OTP theirloveissotattooed!"
I just meant it as an offhanded joke because Junn already had a female love interest OC, buuut Demyrie, being a raging and bouncy yaoi fangirl, took the joke and ran with it. Cackling. In loads and loads of scribbles and a chat-RP that we unfortunately never finished.
And along the way Zem just developed further and further. So here we are.