Brilliance and Bitterness
Chapter 34: Unstable State
Steffan paced his quarters, restless. He had long ago memorized the layout of the small outpost, but it wasn't so easy to work out if he was a prisoner or an honored guest. Even Angel's people couldn't seem to decide.
Sometimes he wasn't sure he ought to even think of them as people—he felt they might consider that an insult.
He'd gotten the basics from Angel herself, not long after arriving to this place. Not much more than the basics—only that they were of an alien race called the Tanmari. A psychic alien race, no less. (She didn't like the word "psychic," but Steffan simply couldn't make "the Ability" have the same significance to him as it clearly held to them.) And they wanted his help to keep humans off of their world of Ganymede.
"How did I get mixed up in this?" he sighed to the empty room. The idea that he might be overheard didn't bother him. That was just as much a risk thinking as speaking... hell, with the mindset of the Tanmari, speaking might have been safer. He laid on his bed and let out a deep breath. "This is insane."
He was left alone with that thought for some time but soon enough he heard a knock on the door. "Steffan?" The Tanmari voice stumbled over his name.
"We would like to speak with you, if you are amenable."
"Sure." He stood and opened the door. "What's up?"
The gray-eyed Tanmari gave him the searching look he'd grown quite accustomed to lately. His name was Falcon, and of Angel's half-dozen commandos he seemed to dislike Steffan the least—while not hostile, the rest of the alien beings were clearly uneasy having a human in their midst. His attitude was probably why he got stuck playing messenger. "Just a briefing, but an important one. Change is in the winds..."
Angel had mentioned that Tanmari had little grasp of human metaphor, but Falcon was certainly enjoying what he'd learned of it. Steffan grinned. "Sure, I'm coming."
Lance walked through the hallways, anger burning in his eyes. The Hellrazers, obviously, didn't have much in the way of a qualified veterinary staff, but Tundra was getting the best care possible from these facilities. It was frightening—not to mention depressing—to see the little animal lying on a human's infirmary bed, hooked up to a few machines and sleeping. Always sleeping. Several times a day he went in and simply rested a hand on her side to be sure she was still breathing.
It had been two weeks.
He reached his destination soon enough. The infirmary again. He just sat there, with Taiga on his lap, ignoring everything that happened around him.
I shouldn't have followed Falks out there, he told himself. Should've let the assassin get him. He's just a liability anyway, just dragging us down. It wasn't the first time Lance had entertained such thoughts and he always berated himself later for the idea that saving the engineer's life hadn't been worth it. But it made him feel better now. If I hadn't been out there Tundra would be fine. It was strangely easier to blame it on Falks than on the assassin. Maybe because the assassin was dead. He couldn't reach her anymore...
He felt someone touch his shoulder and jumped, too lost in his thoughts to have heard the approach. "Lance?"
Frown. "Hi Jay." Not actually the person he wanted to see right now—well, he didn't really want to see anyone. But it would be too easy... Jay's the one that told me to keep an eye on Falks. No. I was the one who brought it up in the first place. I can't blame him. I must not. "What're you doing here?"
"Looking for you."
Well that doesn't sound good. "Really?"
"What else would I be doing here?"
"Good question. I was hoping there'd be an answer."
Rather than a response Lance felt himself being dragged into a more or less standing position. "Come on," his old friend ordered, "you're not helping her by sitting there moping. Get out of here and let the doctors work."
Lance's temper flared and he shook the taller man off, turning to glare up at him. "I know," he growled, "that I did NOT just hear Jean-Paul Delaney lecture me on behaving for the doctors!"
There was silence for a time, during which Lance looked into Jean-Paul's emerald eyes and saw clearly that this was not the quiet but generally amiable youth he'd spent four years of school with. This was a darker presence, a man hardened by both WAR and war, one who—unlike Lance—wasn't showing any signs of difficulty coping with the new chaos. He flinched, bracing himself for something really horrible to happen.
What he wasn't expecting was to be laughed at.
"All right." Jean-Paul's voice was warm, if his eyes were not. "Point to you. However, I'm going to exercise a blatant double standard and make you get out of here anyway." He hesitated for a moment and his smile became sad. "It's been a long time since you called me that."
"Since I called you..." Lance blinked. He hadn't really thought about it. "Oh." Personally, he couldn't remember the last time he'd called Jay by his full name, though he was sure the other man would remember it perfectly. "Sorry Jay."
Shrug. "It isn't exactly something to be sorry about. However..." His expression was almost questioning. "Come on, Lance. Let's talk."
Lance did remember the last time he'd heard those words come out of Jay's mouth. They had been followed by a very painful conversation. "I don't like it when you want to talk."
Silence. Then, a very soft admission. "Neither do I."
"What do you mean you're LEAVING TOMORROW?"
"I didn't realize the concept was that difficult. Leaving. Going away. Not going to be here anymore. As of tomorrow, which is the day after today, a period of 24 h—"
"Enough already, I get it."
Jean-Paul turned away and stared out the window. Be nice. It's not his fault you have to go. "That was too harsh. Sorry."
"No worries." Lance was sprawled in the middle of the floor, staring up at Jean-Paul perched on the windowsill. "I just..." He sighed. "What about the Wolves?"
Lance sighed much more loudly, then rolled over and crossed his arms. "Yes, Jay. The North Slope Wolves. You know... the hockey team... been here for about six years? The one we were gonna go try out for after college? Those Wolves."
"Oh. Yes. Them." The emerald-eyed youth did not look at his roommate. "I don't actually remember saying I would go along with that idea..."
"You never said you wouldn't, either. You could've just said no. How long have you known you had to leave... on the damn morning after graduation?"
He'd been dreading that question for years now, but now that it had finally come up, it was surprisingly easy to answer. "For the last four years. I was supposed to be leaving after high school graduation. Joining the hockey team bought me four more years here, since the sport's outlawed in WAR territory. But I've known for quite awhile."
"And you couldn't be bothered to tell me this until now?"
Jean-Paul met Lance's cerulean gaze. "This is Alaska, Lance. What was I supposed to do? Tell you I'm a ward of WAR and have you hating me from the start, or save it so you don't hate me until I'm leaving?"
Lance had had no answer for that. He still didn't have one.
The conference room seemed very small, though Jean-Paul knew it could comfortably seat twelve—as it had for many briefings lately. He sat in the closest chair to the door, and his companion did not sit at all.
"Okay, so you got me out of the med wing. Now will you tell me what's up?"
"I wanted to apologize." I'm doing this too much lately. "There was no reason to send you to watch Falks. That should've been my job." He sighed. "I wasn't thinking."
"Hmph." Lance laughed, entirely without humor. "I feel like I should be insulted. You really want me to believe there's ever a time that you aren't thinking? But that's okay, because I have been." He moved around the table and dropped into a chair on the other side. "I've been hunting like hell for someone to blame in this. I keep coming back to you." He shook his head. "I keep coming back to the fact that I'm the one who brought it up, and convinced you somebody needed to watch him. I all but asked for the job and you gave it to me. Why do you need to apologize for that?"
The look in Lance's eyes was challenging, just daring Jean-Paul to say something about giving jobs to people who weren't qualified for them. That had indeed been his first inclination. But I'm really not that dumb. "Fair enough."
"You have other things to apologize for, though."
"I suspect I know where this is going." In fact, I'm rather smart.
"I'm sure you do." Lance put his head down on the table and stared into the splintered wooden surface. He was quiet for awhile. Then, "I have to admit... I never really expected you to disappear that day. Even though you said you would. Even after the argument we had about the Wolves. When I got back to our room and you were gone, it still surprised me. I don't know why." He sighed. "Maybe because I knew you were a genius. I knew it Jay, I just knew you'd find some way to get out of it."
Jean-Paul closed his eyes and remained silent. Until the morning in question, he'd thought the same thing. But no. For all his intelligence, he could not stand against WAR alone. Not then. Not now.
"Then I left too. You know that. I didn't go to the Wolves, even though they'd offered me a roster spot. I wanted to. But every game, every practice, you would not have been there and I would have remembered the lie. I didn't want that."
There was a pause. Maybe Lance wanted him to say something, but there was no response he could make to that. He was surprised to find he felt guilty... a slight nod indicated for Lance to continue.
"I don't know why I left the country. I guess I'd just always assumed that Alaska was beyond WAR's reach. But then they made you leave... when I had that illusion shattered I just didn't know what else to do. So I left." He looked up, meeting Jean-Paul's eyes for the instant his old friend allowed it. "And somehow I ended up in Colorado, within viewing distance of WAR's primary fortress. Sometimes I wondered if I was following you. Or maybe I was just mocking the company. Tempting fate. I don't know." He sighed deeply. "Then you showed up with Taiga. Just literally walked up to my door and said hello. What were the chances? I couldn't be angry. I'd been waiting so long to confront you about lying to me, and when I had the chance we both pretended it never happened."
"That we did." Jean-Paul still wasn't sure what else to say, assuming there was anything that could be said. At the time he'd been so wrapped up in his own sadness and anger. It was hurting him to leave Alaska, but why the hell should it matter to anyone else? He'd regretted lying to Lance, but he'd refused to dwell on it. No petty personal feelings could get in the way of his mission.
He thought of Cossette and realized he'd abandoned that line of thought. So why didn't I think of this myself? ...Because I had no damn idea it bothered him that much. "Lance..."
"Why did it matter?"
Lance was quiet for a time. Then he shook his head. "Because you were always there. You know how much my parents traveled. I didn't realize for a long time that you didn't have any other friends—I just knew that you were the one person I could rely on. We got older. People got more mature and weren't terrified of you just because you were smart. But you were still always there and maybe I took that for granted. I always knew eventually we'd go our separate ways. But when it happened so quickly..."
Jean-Paul grimaced. And if I'd just warned you ahead of time, you would've had plenty of time to adjust to the idea that your friend was going to be gone. And you've been carrying this with you for five years. God. Here I thought I was the lonely one.
"And now we have a war, and here I am."
"Here you are." Jean-Paul met Lance's gaze. "Do you want to leave?"
"No!" Even Lance seemed surprised by his vehemence. "I'm definitely not leaving now. Not after what they did to Tundra. ...I don't think I even would've left before. But definitely not now." His blue eyes blazed with ferocity. "I don't have the same personal enmity you do. But I did grow up in that climate of fear. I still hate WAR."
Jean-Paul nodded his understanding. "Then what do you want from me?"
There was a long silence between them, long enough to be very uncomfortable. Then Lance sighed and squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't know Jay. I don't know." His voice was soft. "After all this time I've been waiting to make you apologize, I don't think I want you to."
Now that was surprising. "You don't?"
"No." A noise that might've been a laugh. Then again, it might've been a sob. "If you apologize... I have to accept it. Or not. I don't know if I can. But I don't think I can refuse to either. I can't do that to you. You were... you are my best friend."
Jean-Paul stood and walked around the table "Lance." He knelt next to his old friend and tried to think of the right words, but they would not come. Sensei would tell me not to think. He'd tell me to say... what I feel. "I was selfish, and I was wrong. Looking back it all seems so clear, but it wasn't clear at all at the time. ...I'm sorry, Lance."
"I told you not to apologize."
"Too late. Shall I apologize for apologizing?" Jean-Paul smiled, but Lance wasn't looking at him and the expression was wasted. "Decide if you can accept it, Lance. Decide for your own sake and not mine. I'll be here either way, until you tell me we are no longer friends." I owe you that much. And... even though it's always surprised me, I like you that much.
For awhile he wasn't sure if he'd gotten through, if he'd angered Lance or helped him or hurt him. Then the blond man raised his head. "You are very different, Jay."
"Cossette's a good influence on you."
Jean-Paul's eyes widened. He hadn't exactly expected 'different' to be a good thing, and he hadn't expected... "I... didn't realize that was common knowledge."
"It's not. It's just blatantly obvious to someone who's known you for twenty years and lived with you for four of them."
"Oh. Is that it."
"Yep." Lance smiled. It wasn't his most convincing smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. "So are we done? Can I go back and check on Tundra now?"
For a moment or two, Jean-Paul was going to lecture him on behaving for the doctors again, but something made him reconsider. Maybe the realization that for Lance, at least, a very significant and painful memory had just been remedied. For him... perhaps it was proof that he could show compassion without being prodded by nightmares. Yet the trend worried him. Am I going to spend the rest of my life apologizing for past mistakes?
He shifted his attention back to the present, and nodded. "Go on."
Lance left without another word, leaving Jean-Paul to stare at the table, eyes cold. Now that that's out of the way... he was glad to have the matter resolved, even if he hadn't realized it needed resolving. But now that he no longer had that issue to worry about, other issues were coming to mind.
Such as why the hell Falks had been in Artemis to begin with, and set this whole thing off.
My turn to do some investigating.
Tanmari meetings were really very weird, Steffan had decided. They didn't talk to each other—not even for the benefit of their human companion, Falcon usually relayed all the key points to him. In fact, they weren't always even in the same room. The fact that they were all present for this meeting would have told Steffan it was very important, even if his guide hadn't told him so.
He sat in the uncomfortable silence for a minute or two before the first explanation came to him. And it wasn't from Falcon—it was from Angel.
Much has changed in the politics of the human war since we first brought you here. The one called Milano has become powerful, but he is also a target. Others operate with impunity while he and his people become the focus of all violence.
Steffan nodded. "From the reports I've seen, his side is strong, but not strong enough to stand up to the pounding they're taking."
Yes. This is not acceptable.
"Huh?" Though it was clear the Tanmari were a side of their own in the conflict, they'd so far seemed to sympathize with demolitionist ideals. "I thought you wanted the loyalists to lose?"
We wish for those who will leave our moon to triumph. It is true that all of the loyalists, as you call them, will eventually use WAR's power to encroach upon our world once more, and so we would prefer to see those called demolitionists ultimately succeed. But the cooperation between the other loyalist factions is worrying.
"Oh. I see," Steffan nodded, not seeing at all.
We have taken the liberty of undermining this cooperation. Angel's eyes met his. Last night, commandos from Raven's organization struck at one of the major bases belonging to the old board. Raven's people deny any knowledge of it, of course.
Steffan's eyes widened. "Nice." He'd known the Tanmari detachment had some military capacity, but he hadn't realized they were actually attacking things. "So uh... what's that got to do with me?"
One of the other Tanmari, Iris, smiled. "Nothing, and everything."
It was the fact that she'd actually spoken which startled him, there was nothing too spectacular about what she'd said. "Um."
"We are going to attack them again. This time we need you to lead. Return to them, the hero who assassinated WAR's leader and was kept a month in their prisons before escaping." Her eyes glinted. "This will be a delicate operation. Nobody must recognize you who will have a voice when this war is over—or the neutrality which is your great asset will be lost. We will do our best to ensure that does not happen. But we must get close to their leadership to strike a decisive blow, and this is the best way to do so."
Later, Steffan would decide that this strategy made sense. Right now all he saw was Deluna's smirking face 'offering' him the mission to assassinate Shirro, and how much he'd like to see that face blown off... he nodded. "Count me in."