19 - El Corazón del Guerrero
So ending up at gunpoint thirty seconds inside the Zapatista rebel camp wasn't exactly how I envisioned my mission unfolding. But I hadn't planned on Mateo kissing me or Charlie attacking Mateo or the several dozen armed guards who rushed us afterwards. Well. You can't forsee every little detail.
And Mateo did step up pretty quickly and keep my team and me from getting shot. After he plugged his fingers in his bloody nose and finally managed to garble a coherent explanation out of his swollen mouth, of course. But Charlie's actions had already damaged more than Teo's face. The rebels were openly distrustful and insisted on locking the auror kiddies, Charlie, and me inside one of the buildings while they discussed what to do with us.
"I can't believe you did that," I growled at my pissed off, sulking boyfriend, "We were in, damnit! Teo vouched for me, and it probably wouldn't have taken more than a day or two for me to negotiate for this Snape jerkoff! Thanks to you, the whole deal might be blown! What the fuck were you thinking?"
Charlie looked up at me from one of the few chairs we were allowed, snarling, "You actually have to ask?"
Well, he was sort of right about that. It was pretty damn obvious. And, although inconvenient with the timing of his actions, Charlie was somewhat justified. I mean, I certainly would've decked any bitch dumb enough to put her skanky lips on my man.
But I simply snarled back and returned to pacing the small metal structure, occasionally grumbling insults at the auror kiddies and the world at large.
Several hours passed. The inside of the hotbox holding cell was excrutiating, probably only a few degrees shy of being an actual oven. It was certainly doing a good enough job of cooking us all alive. The walls were literally too hot to touch without frying skin, which Evan was good enough to demonstrate early on.
It was hot enough that I was tempted to strip down to my underwear, but I thought that would be unwise with Charlie in his crazy possessive mood. The auror kiddies proved not to have any similar cares, and all three gradually ended up in their skivvies. I was jealous but couldn't blame them. Isaiah and Annie were showing early signs of heat stroke and needed whatever relief they could get. We hadn't been given water, were stripped of wands and weapons and supplies.
And that was what finally got me protesting the confinement. I'd been willing to be patient, but not when it was going to end with members of my team dropping dead. We should've at least had water.
"HEY!!!" I shrieked, my throat dry and head pounding as I beat my fists against the thick metal door of the cell, giving myself heat blisters on the fiery metal, "PLEASE GIVE US WATER!!! WE NEED WATER RIGHT NOW!!! I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!!! I'VE BEEN VERY PATIENT, BUT IN ABOUT TWO SECONDS I'M GOING TO BREAK DOWN THIS FUCKING DOOR!!!"
"Merlin, shut up," Annie growled, sprawled helplessly on the floor, "All you ever do is yell! And it's even more awful when it's in Spanish and no one can understand a bloody word!"
I didn't want to be too hard on her. Hostility is a symptom of heat stroke, besides the fact that it was a shitty situation in general. "I'm trying to get you hydrated before you die, you ungrateful bitch," I told her weakly, swaying dizzily. I suddenly felt like I had no energy at all. I probably had heat stroke just as bad, if not worse than the others, but I didn't feel like admitting it.
And then I was falling, slumping to the ground for the second time in as many days. Charlie put out an arm, trying to catch me, but he wasn't doing so great either, and I ended up taking both of us down.
He landed on top of me. Usually I don't mind him being on top of me, but it was just too hot. I groaned and shoved at his bare clammy shoulders but quickly gave that up. Too much effort. And Charlie wasn't moving. I would've been worried but I could feel his breath against my bare neck, his chest struggling to heave against mine.
"Why'd he kiss you?" Charlie murmured, sounding parched and pitiful, like he was wearing the sad-puppy face I could never resist.
I groaned again. "Too hot," was the only reply I could think of, the only thing going through my sluggish mind.
Charlie chuckled. "Know you are, love," he croaked, "But most people manage not to assault you with their tongues."
Which, you know, was funny. Given the situation, I found it funnier than I probably should've, but I think I needed the laugh.
Charlie rolled off finally but stayed stretched out beside me, breathing like he'd been running a marathon. Flushed red from head to toe but no longer sweating the buckets he had been earlier. We were all in similar states. If we didn't get water soon, we really were going to die.
I turned towards Charlie and told him, "I'm sorry."
He returned a weak smile, soothing, "Me too, love. Guess both being stubborn as hell is going to bite us in the arse occasionally. But that doesn't mean I want to be anywhere but at your side, damn the danger."
Shivering suddenly, I murmured, "I know. And I'm glad to have you at my side. Don't want you there sometimes, when you could get hurt. But I don't want anyone else there either."
"Oh, for the love of Merlin!" Annie fumed, "It's bad enough we got sent on this insane assignment and now we're locked in together and going to die!! Do we really need to be subjected to this sappy bullshit?!"
"I never wanted to take you useless jackasses on this mission!" I fired back, though there wasn't quite as much spite in my voice as there would've been normally. I just couldn't summon the energy. "Your training is completely subpar, and the only reason you're here is because you're not real aurors! The minister could send you to babysit without having to get officially involved! And you've been absolutely nothing but a pain in my arse the entire time!-"
I had more, but Charlie reached out and took my hand, and my rage calmed. The dim light filtering in through a few of the roof joints seemed too bright.
Not long after, Mateo unlocked the door and entered with two other rebels. Each was carrying a large sloshing bucket of cool clear water.
Annie kind of growled and probably was trying to rush them for a drink, but she fell on her face instead.
Mateo looked around, confused and concerned. His gaze was mostly on me, his nose looking puffy and purple; remembering how his nose got that way was probably what kept Teo from getting any closer to where Charlie and I were sprawled. Finally, Teo shot me a cocky grin. "You sure know how to make an entrance, chica," he laughed, coming a few steps closer with the water despite Charlie's furious glare.
"Me?" I croaked, shivering and parched and dizzy, "That was all you, Teo. You and Chaz and your crazy macho bullshit."
Teo winked at Charlie and explained, "Ah, but I could not help myself. I was so glad to see you! I didn't know I'd be trespassing on another man's property."
"Watch that mouth," I growled, though it probably wasn't at all threatening, "I'm no one's property."
"Sí, sí," he chuckled, genuinely apologetic, "Forgive me. I misspoke. I don't have nearly enough opportunity to use my English down here, and it gets rusty. I know you cannot be owned or tamed." Seeming to remember why he was there, Teo brought the water close enough for me and Charlie to drink from the bucket, gesturing for the other two rebels to give the other two buckets to the auror kiddies.
"Sorry," Teo said, "I hope you haven't gotten too sick in here. I took me a long time to convince the men that you weren't dangerous." He grinned. "To us at least."
With my arms trembling uncontrollably, I scooped out several handfuls of water and drank quickly, making sure Charlie and the kiddies were doing the same. "Slow down," I told Annie, rolling my eyes as I watched her stick her whole head in one of the buckets and inhale close to half. She'd be puking soon for sure.
Teo laughed, clearly thinking the same thing. "So do I get introduced to your friends, mia querida?" he teased, beaming at Charlie.
I nodded, gesturing around and quipping, "Charlie. Annie. Evan. Isaiah. Guys, Mateo Arroyo."
Several grunts from the kiddies showed they'd heard. Charlie said nothing, but his glare spoke volumes.
I splashed water onto my head and neck, sighing with relief.
We sat in blissful silence for a long moment.
"Well," Teo finally chirped, "I arranged a better building. And some of my friends want to talk when you're feeling better."
"I'll talk to them now," I insisted, eager to get negotiations underway, "Just- give me a minute. I'll be fine." I got skeptical looks from all around but still struggled to try to stand. Couldn't. Flopped back down at Charlie's side.
He rested his hand at the small of my back. It felt like a red-hot brand.
"We'll shoot for tomorrow morning," Teo soothed, "For now, let's get you out of here."
Annie doubled over and retched up her body weight in pale, watery vomit. Then sagged, unconscious.
"Dunk her in the stream," Teo told the two rebels with him.
They moved forward, but Evan and Isaiah closed ranks around the girl, fiercely blocking her half-naked body from view.
"It's ok," I said, "They're going to get her cooled down. Go with if you want, but she needs it."
The young men shared a hesitant glance but ultimately complied. Isaiah hoisted Annie's limp, lanky frame into his arms. Evan gathered their three sets of clothing, and off they went.
Charlie helped me stand, let me lean heavily against his shoulder while we followed Teo's chatter out into the sun.
I felt blind, clumsy and useless. Story of my life.
For the rest of the day, we lounged in cots inside a cool, shady building at the center of the camp. We were provided with plenty of clean food and water.
Annie recovered fine within a few hours and, while still kind of bitchy, was back to being mostly quiet about it.
I slept a lot, on and off, waking disoriented and confused, but Charlie was always there to calm me, feed me more water, soothe me back to sleep.
The sun had just set when I woke for real; Teo had insisted on taking the auror kiddies for a tour around the camp and dinner with the other rebels. Even without knowing any of this, I still woke feeling a lot better.
Charlie was stretched out beside me in the small cot, staring blankly at the wood ceiling, winding my short hair through his fingers. Deep in thought.
I brought him out of it with a playful nudge to the ribs.
He started and looked down, and I got caught up in the absolute openness of his clear blue eyes.
But that didn't last too long. Charlie smiled and pressed a clammy kiss to my temple. He handed me a half-full canteen and watched while I gulped down a few mouthfuls. The water felt amazing, but I still didn't want to overdo it. I stopped myself and relaxed back into the cot, against Charlie's solid form.
He went back to playing with my hair, probably expecting me to drop off and sleep again.
Instead, I murmured, "Charlie?"
He stopped for a moment, shifting nervously. "Ya, babe?"
Gulping down the sudden urge to cry, I choked, "I'm sorry."
He sighed, relieved, and his fingers started moving through my hair again. "I know, love," he replied, low and deep, "And I am, too. We covered this already. It's alright."
"No, it's not," I blubbered, losing control over the intense guilt that had been festering in my chest and gut ever since leaving the hospital. "I'm sorry," I sobbed, "I just- I wanted to be able to fix everything a-and I should've told you, but I knew what you'd say, and I needed to fix everything!"
"Shhh," Charlie murmured, holding me close and letting me press my face against his shoulder, "You don't have to fix anything. You never did." He kissed my cheek, tender and sweet. "All I want is you, fugitive or not."
"But that's not fair!" I argued, sniffling almost violently, "You shouldn't have to give up a normal life because of me!"
"Who's the idiot who told you I wanted a normal life?" my boyfriend chucked, turning over onto his side so we were facing each other. His grin was magnificent. "I have an insane family and an unbelievably dangerous job," he said, "Not to mention the Order spy thing. Normal hasn't ever been an option. Part of why I love you is because you fit so very well into my abnormality."
"Shut up," I croaked, laughing despite myself, "I'm being serious. I couldn't ask you to go on the run with me. I couldn't take you away from your family. Your life."
He reached out, cradling my face in one massive palm, asking, "Why not?"
I thought the answer would've been obvious: "Because you'd probably say yes."
"In a heartbeat," Charlie confirmed, smiling softly.
"But I don't want to take you away from everything," I replied, "From all the people who love you. I know what that feels like, and I couldn't do it to them or you. And as soon as I complete this mission and get my name cleared, I won't have to."
Scoffing, Charlie idly drew swirling protection sigils along my hipbone. "So that's why it's alright for you to run off into this mess?" he challenged, obviously angry, "Still injured, with no real backup? You're supposed to sacrifice to be with me, but I can't for you?"
"It's not the same." I suddenly couldn't meet his startling blue eyes. "You don't deserve to have to."
"And you do?" He grasped my chin, forced me to look up again.
I chokingly answered, "Yes."
Charlie stared at me for a few long moments, frowning and serious. A deep, thoughtful wrinkle furrowing the space between his ginger eyebrows.
I couldn't stand the look or the silence that came with it. "Charlie," I murmured, "Just... don't give me a speech, ok? I know what I've done. I know I'm not a good person. And I... I deserve this. I did so many bad things, then... then I found you. Remus. I have a family again, and I don't deserve to keep it. So maybe this'll balance things out. So Karma doesn't decide to make me pay the way I should."
"How's that?" Charlie inquired, clearly not buying my rationale.
I tried to look away again, but he wouldn't let me, holding my gaze as firmly as he held my face. "Losing you," I explained, shivering violently at the very thought, "Losing everyone."
The again was implied.
"The world isn't random," I went on quickly, "People who do bad things get punished. And just because I did bad things to bad people doesn't mean I'm exempt. I have to be punished or else the whole thing doesn't work the way I need it to." I focused on a constellation of freckles on Charlie's earlobe so that I wouldn't have to watch the irritated, pitying expression that came over his handsome face.
"You can't possibly think that," he said, quiet, "You can't possibly hate yourself that much."
And that's when I started full-out bawling, tears and snot and desperate gasps for breath that wouldn't come--the whole messy, humiliating deal.
Charlie crushed me against his chest, murmuring soothing nonsense, "Shhh, come on, love. I didn't mean it. Don't cry, I didn't mean it."
"Did too," I gasped into his sweaty, tear-soaked t-shirt, "And you're right. You just... you don't know me any other way than how I am now! I used to be... I wasn't always like this!"
His body was solid, pressed down the length of mine. Almost uncomfortable with the penetrating heat it radiated. Like a fire I couldn't pull myself out of.
"We've all got our casualties," Charlie told me, "No one lives through a war without them, without changing. Saying that you deserve punishment, especially after what made you change in the first place, it's just crazy love. You were a victim, and now you're an avenger, a hero."
"I'm no damn hero!" I snapped, shoving hard in a sudden, irrational attempt at getting away from him, from his kindness and understanding.
Of course, Charlie was used to my sudden bursts of irrational violence. He held on tight and managed fairly effortlessly to wrestle me down onto my back. He pinned my fists over my head.
The cot creaked in protest of our combined weight.
I started to cry again, whimpering, "Stop. Let me go. Charlie."
His biting grip was gone in an instant. Contrite, he smoothed my sweaty, tousled hair, kissed my blubbering lips and whispered, "Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
I fought to regain my control and, when I finally did, choked, "Not your fault."
Charlie gave me another stern, disapproving glance before his face softened. He sighed, sagging so that his whole body fell limply to cover mine. He kissed my throat, tangled our legs. "I may not have known you before you changed," he murmured, soft, "But I know you now, probably better than anyone else does. I know how amazing and sweet and smart and loving you are. How incredibly strong. And I don't think it's fair that you're so hard on yourself."
An almost hysterical, entirely inappropriate laugh bubbled through my mouth. "I don't get a free pass just because you love me," I told him, teasing bitterly, "Just because you're a crazy bastard who can't seem to see me for what I am!"
He set his jaw mulishly, biting back, "You're the one who can't see yourself for who you are, who asks so damn much of yourself. For Merlin's sake, Leila. You saved a boy from a burning building, jumped off a cliff after a man you'd never met, and rescued a room full of children by taking a bomb blast. And that's just since I've known you! Anyone in their right mind would call that a hero! Or at least not someone who deserves karmic retribution!"
I should've just ignored Charlie, gone back to sleep until I was feeling less weak and shaky and slow, until I was up to arguing to win. Instead, I quietly observed, "Too little, too late."
"No," Charlie countered, edging towards a full-on tantrum, "My niece's life is not too little! All those other children's lives are not too little!"
"And what about the ones I didn't save?" I asked him, gaze blank and exhausted, resigned. I was tired of the conversation, tired of Charlie trying and failing to talk me out of what I knew to be true. I mean, other people could see me for what I was. I'd been called a monster and a killer and a psycho, an angel of death. And no matter how many children I saved or didn't save, I was still all those things. Charlie just couldn't see because he loved me so much, and I loved that about him, but sometimes I really didn't need the blind, unwavering faith.
His blue eyes grew sad. "You can't save them all," he murmured, petting my hair back from my damp forehead, "All you can do is try, and you never stop trying to save people, not even when you have to throw yourself in harm's way to do it. And though I wish you wouldn't go that far, it's part of what makes you so brave and amazing."
"Charlie," I told him, sighing, "I'm tired."
He sagged a bit, instantly ready to let me get some rest. He snuggled down beside me in the cot without another word.
I barely lasted a full minute. "You're not really letting this go, are you?" I accused.
Charlie chuckled, his arms folded safe and snug around me. "Not a chance, gorgeous," he remarked, nuzzling my neck, "I'll convince you even if it takes me the rest of my life."
I laughed a little, teasing, "Was that your idea of a proposal, stud?"
Without hesitation, voice serious, silky, Charlie answered, "Do you want it to be?"
My heartrate suddenly reached hummingbird levels. "Charlie," I scolded breathily, "It was a joke! Not... not right now! There's a war! And I almost died!"
"So?" he responded, fingers dragging lightly up the length of my spine, "Those seem like good reasons to live in the moment, to go for what makes us happy."
I would've held my breath if I didn't think it would result in my lungs exploding.
Smirking, Charlie challenged, "What would you say if I asked you right now? Got down on one knee with a sappy speech and something sparkly to go along with it?"
I gave a nervous laugh, still trying to catch my breath as Charlie's mouth inched closer and closer to mine. "I'd say you were insane," I whispered, "Absolutely raving mad."
"Sounds about right," the redhead agreed, resting his forehead on mine, "After that?"
I felt a little queasy, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant. "I'd say I'm too young," was my reply, "That we haven't known each other for very long."
Moving in achingly slow, Charlie prodded, "And then?"
I laughed nervously. "God, you're a nut. Is this what you've been doing while I was asleep? Thinking up new ways to make me squirm?"
Charlie's grin spread wider. "It is a favorite hobby of mine," the man declared, darting in for a quick kiss, "You're so very lovely when you squirm."
I gave Charlie a light smack on the chest, feeling my face flush at the unintended innuendo.
But before I could respond further, Charlie's lips crashed into my own. It had been so long since Charlie and I kissed like that, since before the Diagon Attack. We were both starved for the contact, the closeness and intimacy and passion. For each other.
We may have let the situation get a little out of hand. I mean, it was a cot in an unlocked rebel cabin in the jungle. Mateo and the auror kiddies could've been back at any second, could've walked in and caught Charlie and me tangled together, tearing furiously at each other's clothes. Really, anyone could've walked in, could've walked by and seen through the windows. Seen us both bare, breathless, our mingled sweat shimmering in the dim light of the one kerosene lamp on the bedside table.
They would've seen Charlie, reverent hands and lips, teeth and tongue, would've heard his soft, unceasing litany of mindless worship.
They would've heard my gasps, moans, growling demands for harder, faster, Charlie.
They would've seen me flip Charlie onto his back, seen the way he bounced on the cot and laughed joyously and caught my hips in his rough hands. They would've seen his sunkissed freckles, my mottled, fading bruises, the force I used as I drove my hips into his. And again. And again. And again. And again...
I hope no one did see us, hear us. Saw me the way only Charlie should: hair wild and head thrown back, moving in time to our joined gasps of pleasure. I wouldn't want anyone else to see that, the blissed out way Charlie's pupils almost swallow the tropical blue in his eyes as he surges inside me and comes with my name on his lips. The way I never fail to follow him into that hot electric rush.
As far as I know, no one did see, not even afterwards when we collapsed onto the cot, when Charlie pulled me close and covered our drenched, shivering bodies with a thin blanket. No one saw me curl up against Charlie's strong chest, press my ear to his rapid heartbeat, already slowing with sleep.
No one at all heard me whisper, "Yes."
In the morning, after breakfast and a round of cold showers for all, the auror kiddies, Charlie, and I were asked to meet with one of the men in charge, Luis. He was a large man, Charlie's build and a little taller, with black hair, skin and eyes the color of dark cinnamon.
He greeted us with a friendly smile, and we saw that he was missing his right upper canine.
"Come," he said, ushering us into another building, this one enclosing an battered wooden table and chairs, a full bookcase and an old rabbit-eared television and radio. "Tell me," he said, once everyone was seated, "What business would you like to do with us?"
"You're holding a man for ransom," I spoke up, blunt, "We wish to pay the ransom now and take that man away with us."
Luis looked at me skeptically, responding, "If we have this man, what would you offer for him?"
I replied with only half the amount Scrimgeour had sent along, knowing that the curse I put on that particular bag would've kept the rebels from knowing I had more.
Luis scoffed. "We would ask three times that from your Ministry. He is a valuable man you think we have, yes?"
"Not valuable," I argued, "Just wanted. He is a murderer and we will bring him to justice."
Laughing, Luis answered, "Well, justice is not cheap, yes? If we had this man, we would make you pay to make him pay. Or else we would sell him to someone else who was willing to."
The hypotheticals were very quickly getting on my nerves.
"The difference," I declared, "Is that I will pay you now and take the man myself. No waiting, no dealing with transport." I upped my offer by a few thousand.
Luis still wasn't buying it. We haggled for a long, boring hour. Luis never dropped the hypotheticals. I had a very strong urge to hurt him.
"I think maybe," Luis finally said, "We would take this lower price for the man if you would first do a favor for us."
More amused than I should have been at that frustrating juncture, I thought bitterly to myself, Quid pro quo, Clarice. But that really wasn't helping. "What kind of favor?" I questioned.
Smirking insipidly, Luis stated, "Two of our men went missing last month on a mission. We would very much appreciate their return and the return of the artifact they were meant to obtain."
"Fine," I gritted out, "Not a problem. But I want to see Snape before we go, and I want your word that you won't sell him out from under me in the meantime."
Luis seemed suddenly skeptical. "You agree so quickly?" he pressed, "Without more information?"
"If it will get me what I want," I stated, curt and trying not to sound too annoyed (even though I really, really was), "Then yes. I'm very good at what I do, Luis. The specifics are only a minor hindrance in the grand scheme of things. Now, do we have a deal?"
He chuckled, conceding, "Yes. I believe we do."
The man the rebels brought in was skinny and filthy, dressed in rags, tied with his arms behind his back and a black hood over his head. I only got a brief look at his face between the hood coming off and being jammed back on a mere minute later.
The hood came off, and the man beneath blinked owlishly at the relatively dim light inside the cabin. His unbearably pale skin glimmered with a sheen of miserable sweat, a single drop clinging to the end of his long hooked nose; it looked terribly annoying, as did the dirty gag and the greasy tangle of black hair that hung midway down his bird-thin back.
And he was indeed the man I'd seen in my coma dream, the man who'd been running through the forest--who'd been running from the Zapatistas, if his current incarceration was any indication--and, at the behest of my mother, he was the man who'd done some sort of power bind on me as a child.
I wanted to know why. I wanted to throw him to the ground and jam my gun in his face and demand answers.
But the rebels swept him out only a few moments later, stuffed the hood back over his greasy head and pushed him right back through the door to presumably be returned to whatever barrack or hotbox dungeon in which he was being kept.
My answers would have to wait.
"Here is all the information," Luis stated, handing over a single folded sheet of notebook paper, "Mateo can answer any other questions you may have."
I smirked, at Luis and then at Teo as I asked, "Teo's coming?"
"Your escort," Luis answered, grinning broadly, "You will need someone with you who our men trust, and Mateo insisted. He speaks very highly of you."
"I should hope so," I teased back, greatly amused by Teo's blush, "Certainly pulled his arse out of the fire enough times."
Smirking, Teo replied, "And vice versa, mia bonita. Don't forget about that."
The rebels had taken my helicopter, which--after I got over the initial feeling of rage and violation--I realized was actually lucky because it meant that Charlie, the kiddies, and I didn't have to be subjected to another days-long car ride through hellish jungle. We were simply blindfolded for the duration of the first leg of the journey (while Teo piloted, of course, seeing as how I couldn't see...).
Once satisfied that we wouldn't be able to find our way back to the base, Teo touched down and let us take off our blindfolds. We were in a clearing in the jungle, near a waterfall and a calm crystal pool. We stayed for an hour and had lunch on the bank. Teo explained more about the men and the artifact we were after.
"It isn't an artifact," Teo declared, grinning implishly, "It's a jewel. An emerald big as my fist. We call it El Corazón del Guerrero."
"The Warrior's Heart?" I challenged, exasperated, "You told them about that stupid thing?"
"Not me, dear one," he laughed, passing a chunk of spicy tropical fruit to Annie and ignoring Charlie's constant menacing glare, "They were already researching it when I joined up. The two men we sent, Fernando Espinosa and Vicente Jimenez, they were the ones who uncovered the location. It was supposed to be a simple matter of finding the jewel and bringing it back. But Fernando and Vicente never returned, and we've had no word from either for over a month."
"What's so special about this Warrior's Heart?" Isaiah asked, clearly skeptical
Smirking, Teo replied, "It's a very rare type of emerald called a trapiche. They're found only in Colombian mines and have these dark six-pointed star patterns in them. The Warrior's Heart is the largest and most perfect trapiche emerald in the world, one of the oldest ever mined. No one knows exactly when it was discovered or how it came to Mexico, but references to it are made in hieroglyphs that date back to the early Preclassic Period. That's around 2000 B.C. The legend goes that the gem can only be truly possessed by the bravest and most skilled warriors and that those not worthy are cursed just by laying their hands on it. It was held by many Mayan and Aztec kings, men who believed themselves worthy, but the stone has had few rightful owners. It was one of the first things that the Conquistadores stole and took from the country, and it made its way through the royalty in Spain and other parts of Europe for a hundred years or so before vanishing from the written record."
"There have been a lot of rumored sightings throughout history," I contributed, "It was supposedly passed down through several generations of Mongolian warlords, and there are even stories that Louis XVI had it brought to the Versailles Palace just before the French Revolution... it's the sort of treasure that power-hungry idiots are always chasing because it's supposed to give them an edge over their enemies. But most of those who actually seek it out aren't worthy and only manage to end up cursing themselves to misery, defeat, and/or death. Unless it's with a rightful owner, it changes hands very rapidly and that makes it almost impossible to keep track of. When it's possessed by a rightful owner, the Heart is supposed to provide protection and good fortune. A rightful owner will triumph and rule and cannot be killed in battle except by a more worthy warrior, who can then take possession of the stone and start the whole process over again."
Nodding, Teo explained, "Fernando and Vicente thought they had found the stone in 1900, in a muggle's private collection in Munich, except the muggle didn't know what the stone was at that point so it was just referred to as a 'large trapiche emerald.' Vicente was convinced it was the Heart because the man who bought it tried to have it cut. The jewler's shop exploded on the very day the stone was dropped off, and magical residue was present in immense quantities. Now, there were no survivors of the explosion itself, and the stone was never reported recovered. However, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich was only a few blocks away, and they had a young expert in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures, Dr. Franz Pfenning. He had a German adventurer for a father and a Mayan mother who died when he was young. Pfenning was one of the people who rushed to the scene after the explosion and searched the wreckage for survivors. He was even interviewed for the newspaper. Pfenning was only twenty-three and hadn't been out of Germany since he was eleven, when his father brought him back there and enrolled him in boarding school shortly after his mother's death. But only two days after the explosion, Pfenning left on a sudden an expedition to Mexico. We know his boat made land in Veracruz, and he hired guides to take him into Chiapas."
"He was returning the stone," I realized, frankly flabbergasted, "He must've found it in the wreckage, known what it was, and tried to... bring it back. It was originally mined in Colombia, but he likely wouldn't have known that. References to the Heart are made only in Mayan and Aztec glyphs. He thought it belonged in Mexico. That thing has actually been here all along?"
Smiling proudly, Teo agreed, "That is what Fernando and Vicente believed as well. Only, other than the fact that he was headed into Chiapas, they couldn't find anymore references to his destination. And no one from the expedition was ever seen or heard from again. It's not for certain, but there is a good chance that Pfenning either stashed the Heart and died on his return trip, or died before he could put the Heart anywhere. In either case, as long as no one stole it, the Heart would be wherever he stashed it or with his body. Since finding a hundred-year-old corpse in the jungle is fairly impossible, Fernando and Vicente thought they would first visit all the ruin sites in the area. They were starting with Bonampak, and that's the last anyone heard."
"That's not right," I declared, frowning, thinking something was definitely up, "If they're half as smart as they seem for having put this all together, they should've gone to Yaxchilan first. It's far more likely the stone's ceremonial home."
Teo shot me a skeptical glance, inquiring, "Why do you say that?"
"Bonampak was a small settlement," I replied, "It was a dependency under the much more powerful city of Yaxchilan. The stone's good fortune would've seen to it that anywhere it was housed under a rightful owner became a power in the region. Even after the rightful owner dies, as long as no one else touches it, the protections remain somewhat intact. Besides, Yaxchilan in Mayan means-"
"Green stones," Teo cut me off, shaking his head at himself, "And what is the Heart if not a big green stone. I should've thought of that. I could kiss you."
Charlie growled audibly, crowding against my side.
"Er, not kiss," Teo quickly backtracked, "I mean hug. Friendly, platonic hug. Or maybe handshake is the correct word, yes? I'm sorry. My English, it's not so good sometimes."
"Your English sounded fine until a second ago," Evan muttered, laughing around the mouth of his canteen.
I lobbed a rock, playfully, at the boy's head, snapping, "Charlie, behave yourself. And Teo, stop pretending your English is bad. Nobody's buying it anymore."
"Fine," Teo huffed, smirking, "Having a big mouth is so much easier when people just assume I'm an ignorant half-wit."
"I know you're an ignorant half-wit," I told him, gulping down the rest of my lunch and getting to my feet, "But I also know you speak perfect English. Now everybody finish up. We've got a long way to go before nightfall."
The structures at Yaxchilan, near the banks of Rio Usmacinata, are in fairly decent condition, still standing and safe to explore; the grayish white stones are worn and chiped and cracked, most covered in a soft fuzz of brilliant green moss. The place isn't exactly Disneyland, but the ruins do get some traffic, and the extensive site has been thoroughly mapped. The architecture isn't known for any kinds of hidden rooms or compartments, but I still felt that we should double check everything.
We arrived late that night, set up camp in the rain, and started our search the next morning. We paired up. Charlie and I were together (since he still wasn't untying us), and we searched the higest area called the South Acropolis. Annie and Isaiah went into the West Acropolis, and Teo and Evan went into the Central Acropolis. Not long after we all headed in our separate directions, Annie radioed that she and Isaiah had found something.
Upon arriving at their location, I saw that they'd come across an abandoned campsite a few hundred yards into the jungle, several weeks old by the looks of it. Teo identified a few assorted items as belonging to the missing men; my friend looked grave and worried. There wasn't really anything to show where Fernando and Vicente had gone though, no trail to follow, so we all got back to searching.
Charlie and I, being the strongest hikers, covered the most ground the fastest and were back at the designated meeting place on a shady terrace almost an hour before the rest were due to return. We took the time to relax, eat. Escape the mid-day sun. I kept catching Charlie staring at me, for which I'd usually just shake my head and laugh.
"This is pretty nice, you know," he finally reported, kind of nonchalant and just a bit whistful, "Being on an adventure with you. We'll have to do it again sometime. But just for fun. No blackmail or ransom or rebels involved."
I chuckled, slugged back some water and replied, "I look forward to it. And, while we're on the subject of our rosy future, when do you forsee letting me out of this tether? I'm starting to feel like a pet."
He pouted, arguing, "I enjoy spending time with you."
"Ya," I answered with a smirk, "But do you enjoy listening to me pee? Because that is entirely the wrong kind of kinky."
Charlie laughed and flicked a pebble at my shoe.
Before the conversation could go any further, we got a radio communication from Teo, this one urgent yet staticy and garbled and incoherent. He sounded altered and couldn't even give up an exact location, despite my badgering, so I decided to risk using magic and performed a point-me spell.
Quite a ways north of the search grid, Charlie and I found a hole; it was only about two feet around, and, had it not been for the person-sized rip in its leafy cover, I never would've known the damn thing was there.
Sure enough, shining a flashlight beam inside revealed Teo and Evan in an unconscious heap at the bottom, about ten feet or so from the surface.
"Bloody idiots," I sighed, dropping my pack and quickly rigging a rope so that I could repel down. I made Charlie stay above, so that Annie and Isaiah wouldn't show up and stumble in and fall on top of me.
The tunnel stank like mold and fungus and rotten meat and echoed with the sounds of dripping water and skittering insects and rodents.
Teo and Evan roused quickly and, aside from some scrapes and bruises, were pretty much fine. It's hard to believe that people that hapless could get so lucky, or that they would see fit to still whine about their mild bumps after avoiding what very well could've been crippling or fatal injuries.
"What were you even doing out here?" I scolded, shining my flashlight around the hole, which I'd discovered was actually a narrow cave that plunged further in and down into a fathomless darkness.
Pouting as he rubbed his bruised head, Teo explained, "I was reading Vicente's journal. The last entry said they planned to search this area."
"And you didn't think to radio that in?" I replied snappishly, "God, Teo! They disappeared, and you just run off after them without even telling me? How does that sound like a good idea?"
Still pouting, my friends answered, "I didn't think I'd fall in a hole."
I rolled my eyes, countering, "Once again, you've completely missed the fucking point. Well done." My flashlight beam caught something shiny. I investigated and found that the something shiny was a cracked pair of glasses.
"Those look like Vicente's," Teo reported solemnly, taking the object out of my hand and examining it carefully.
I turned my flashlight further down the dank tunnel and spotted a leg. Well, a leg bone. It was not attached to anything and, despite being almost completely decomposed and crawling all over with various scavengers, was still wearing a tatty old hiking boot.
"Out," I ordered softly, figuring it was a good possibility that the creature or curse responsible for the amputation was still in the general vicinity.
After vacating the hole without incident, we took about an hour to prepare to go back in. The cave needed to be searched, if only to confirm that Fernando and Vicente were dead. Coming back with such news wouldn't make the rebels happy, but I was hoping I could find the Heart in there as well and at least fulfill that part of the deal. It wasn't like the deaths had anything to do with me; the leg and its owner had most likely separated weeks previous, long before I'd taken the mission. I could hardly be held responsible.
Since he was still being whiny about the fall (and may have been slightly concussed), we left Evan to guard the entrance. We would've left Teo, too, but he needed to come to identify any bodies or parts we might find. Fun times.
Our little crew repelled into the hole, drew guns and flashlights, and set off down the tunnel. The first several hundred yards or so were entirely unremarkable, dank, twisting passageways filled with darkness and bugs and damp, stale air as the angle of descent grew steeper and steeper.
Then we reached a door, a great wooden thing built right into the slick cave walls. It wasn't exactly what I'd been expecting to find. Even more surprising were the carvings. The curse etched into the frame was a fairly standard one, similar to the Unbreakable Vow; it basically promised a swift, painful death to anyone who entered and then tried to leave without fulfilling the terms outlined on the door itself. Written in Mayan and Spanish were these words:
Seekers of the Heart,
Enter if you dare.
Only the worthy shall taste daylight once more.
I spent another half or so breaking the curse, and then we continued on through the door. Immediately on the other side, the cave transformed from a soggy, unpleasant hole in the ground into a... into an actually quite cozy little entryway. Like you might find in someone's home. It had yellow striped wallpaper and hardwood floors and little bronze lanterns and a table with a vase of bright tropical flowers.
The shift was eerie and jarring.
"Spooky," Annie commented softly, peering about with wide eyes and looking quite jumpy.
"Mhmm," I agreed, leading the group onward down the hall and further into the strange underground house. We found a living room and a kitchen and a bathroom and a staircase that went up to another hallway, which branched off into several bedrooms and bathrooms and a huge, well-stocked two-storied library that reminded me of the one in Grimmauld Place.
In the library, back on the first floor, was the Heart. The gem really was as a big as a fist, roundish and glowing faintly green, the black six-pointed star inside it almost but not quite pulsing. It was beautiful and seated atop a black satin pillow atop a golden pedestal in the center of the room.
Beyond the pedestal and the mythical gem, a young brunette man of maybe twenty-five sat in a plush green armchair. He wore crisp blue jeans and a faded Rolling Stones t-shirt, both slightly snug and stretched across his broad, fit frame. His obvious muscles.
He didn't look up immediately when we entered the room, dark eyes staying firmly in the open book on his lap. He seemed to be finishing the paragraph or page, and then, not hurried in the least, the fawn-skinned youth marked his place, set the text aside on an intricately carved endtable, and rose to greet us with a wide, charming smile.
"Welcome, seekers of the Heart," he stated kindly, crossing the wide room, pausing briefly to touch the emerald before climbing the spiral staircase and joining the rest of us on the balcony. His Spanish was oddly accented, an old, formal dialect I'd never heard before, but he spoke with confidence and just a bit of good humor. Like we were all going to be great friends. "Forgive me for not greeting you properly," he chuckled, not offering to shake hand, just grabbing hands left and right before the owners could refuse, "My perimeter spells must be acting up again. That happens sometimes, what with all the old magic around these parts."
"You're the Heart's keeper?" I asked, still very wary despite the warm reception.
"I am," the young man replied. He had handsome features, sharp and vaguely bird-like, his nose long and his jaw pointed, his lips thin and shapely. Sweeping into a gallant bow, he said, "Dr. Franz Pfenning. At your service, my dear."
"Franz Pfenning?" I answered, sharing skeptical, worried glances with Charlie and Teo, "That's impossible. He'd be a hundred twenty-three years old."
The man chuckled, pushing rich brown fringe back from his high forehead. Gesturing for us to leave the library, he declared, "I get no visitors for over a decade, and then a flood of people who all know my name. Very curious. Come. I will prepare a meal and answer your questions. And then we will decide who goes first."
I found the statement a little ominous and asked, "First for what?"
"For the fight, of course," Pfenning beamed, practically vibrating with excitement, "We must battle to the death in single combat to determine the Heart's rightful owner. Would you all like to freshen up? I have quite the selection of bath salts from all over the world. They're simply marvelous! And very refreshing!"
I realized that Pfenning had to be completely bat-shit crazy. And that, mostly likely, I was going to have to actually fight him if I wanted to take the Heart.
Lucky, lucky me.
So I realized that it's been a little over a year since I last updated this one, and I am understandably apologetic and embarassed. I hit a bit of a block, but I think I know better where the story's going now, so hopefully it won't happen again. And I will offer penance to my dear readers by spending all my spare time writing... no, wait. I already do that... um... I'll... plant a tree? Everybody likes trees.
Reviews (even ones scolding me for lack of updates) are awesome like awesome cake sprinkled with awesome :)