AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
They didn't speak to each other as they walked through the palace silently. They didn't speak to each other as Drona opened the door to their apartment suite. They didn't speak to each other as Drona flipped on the lights and paused to read the note that Kripi had left scrawled by their media console. Ashwatthama slipped into his room, shrugged off his robes, and lit the candles in front of his statue of Shiva, removing the leftovers from the sacrifice of dumplings that he had left that morning.
There was no speaking at all, until Drona showed up in the doorway of Ashwatthama's room and said brusquely, "I commed your mother. She'll be back in half an hour. Pack your things. We're leaving."
Ashwatthama paused in the midst of wiping off the plate that had, as of that morning, held three dumplings. Now there was nothing left but crumbs. "Leaving?"
"We're leaving Kuru."
"We can't," Ashwatthama said evenly. "The High Council on every planet wants to arrest us. Duryodhana's protection is--"
"Duryodhana is a devil," Ashwatthama's father spat, suddenly full of venom. "And no son of mine will serve a king such as him."
Ashwatthama looked his father straight in the eye and said, "No more of a devil than Drupada ever was."
He regretted the words as soon as he said them. His father looked as if he had been slapped. "That's not true," he said. "Drupada has committed sins – and neither you nor I are anyone to judge him for them – but he would never have betrayed and humiliated his own family like--"
"No," Ashwatthama said, "that would be our sin, wouldn't it?"
Drona said nothing. Ashwatthama put down his plate, turned back toward his father, and said, "I'm sorry. That was… I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize." Drona turned and walked back into the common room. Ashwatthama followed close behind. Drona sank down onto a couch, then hunched over, like a bent old man, and buried his face in his hands. "She was Drupada's daughter!" he wept, his voice muffled from behind his hands, "and Arjuna, and I did nothing--!"
Ashwatthama wanted to feel something as he watched his father sitting in front of him, broken and weeping. But he was just too numb inside. The events of the day had drained him completely: mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Ashwatthama thought, wryly, that he had finally discovered the secret to keeping his emotions under control. All he had to do was continue the rest of his life this way, perpetually too exhausted to even feel the slightest emotion.
But Ashwatthama still sat down on the couch beside his father and wrapped his arms around his father's shoulders. "At least you tried," Ashwatthama whispered, quietly. "At least you tried. I didn't even…" His voice hitched, and he was unable to finish his sentence. Ah, there is was. All of that emotion that moments ago he had thought himself too exhausted to feel, suddenly welling up to the surface.
Ashwatthama's father wiped his eyes with his hands, seemed to get himself back under control, then took his arms and wrapped them around Ashwatthama in return. "I can at least protect you," Drona said, his voice a fierce breathy hiss. He sounded like a drowning man, trying desperately to clutch at one last idea to save his life. "I promised you, didn't I? I'm going to protect you until--"
"—Until it's time to use my Gift. I know," Ashwatthama said, with a wry smile, pulling out of his father's arms.
"Which is why we have to leave!" Drona insisted. "We can't stay near Duryodhana. That man is poison."
Ashwatthama suddenly stood up off the couch. He was shaking his head. "No," he said. "I told you. I can't leave. I--"
"We'll go into hiding again. You know how easy it is. Nobody will ever find us. We--"
"It's not that." Ashwatthama looked down at his father, still sitting on the couch, looking more feeble and old than Ashwatthama had ever remembered him looking before. Ashwatthama felt his heart twist in his chest, but he still took a deep breath, and forced himself to say what he had to say next, because it needed to be said, even if it hurt his father. "I'm an adult now, Father," Ashwatthama said. "And it's time that you started respecting the choices that I make. And I choose to stay with Duryodhana."
Drona looked up at Ashwatthama, regarding him with unreadable eyes. "Why?" he finally asked.
"Why would you choose to devote yourself to Duryodhana?"
Ashwatthama sat back down on the couch, albeit a bit of a distance from his father this time. "Do you remember what you used to teach me?" Ashwatthama asked, quietly. "About people, and how everyone sins... You once told me that even if I met bad people in my life, I was supposed to love them. If they tried to do bad things, or to hurt me or other people, then I could hurt them back. But I must still love them. Because there is no one – not a single soul – who cannot be guided to the light. A lot of people will turn away from the light of the devas, and a lot of the people that I try to help won't listen to me. But I can't ever stop trying. That was what you taught me, so that was the path that I chose. I bring the light of the devas to everyone, even those who will turn away from it, and I must never abandon them, because without me, they won't ever find the light again." Ashwatthama looked down at his hands. "I know that you were saying those things because that's how you felt about a lot of people, like Drupada. I know that you stayed with him because you saw the light of the devas in him, even when nobody else could see it. Even though I still can't see it." Ashwatthama took a deep, shuddering breath. "And that's why I choose to stay with Duryodhana," he said. "I do not think… that he is a very good person. But I have seen him do good before." Ashwatthama paused, silently remembering the weapons contest so many years ago, when Duryodhana had stopped the crowd from rioting and crowned Karna a king. But of course, Ashwatthama couldn't very well bring up that particular example in front of his father. "I know that Duryodhana has done great evil," Ashwatthama said quickly, "and worse today than I had ever thought him capable of. But I agreed to serve him and his family, and serve them I will. There are good people in this family. Good people that love Duryodhana, and who trusted me with the task of watching over his soul. I can't abandon them, and I can't abandon him. Not now. Not ever."
Ashwatthama finished saying his piece and then sat quietly, waiting for his father to say something in response.
Ashwatthama turned his head to look at his father. He felt his stomach clench when he saw that tears were rolling down his father's cheeks again. "Father?" he asked, alarmed.
"It's nothing," Drona said quickly, wiping a tear from his eye. "I'm just a sentimental old fool. And even I can't tell whether these tears are because of the fact that right now I am prouder than I have ever been of you, or because of the fact that I may have raised the greatest idiot the universe has ever known, and can do nothing anymore but sit on a couch and weep about it."
"Forgiveness and mercy are the greatest virtues," Ashwatthama said. "You taught me that."
Drona wiped at his eyes with his sleeve. He swore softly in a language that Ashwatthama didn't even recognize. That was a new one. Then Drona finally laughed and said, "Why do you always make me cry?"
" 'Always'? I think this is the first time."
"Not true. I cried when you took your first steps." He sniffled. "Your mother caught it on her recorder. I burned that holo a week later and told her that there had been an accident with the puja."
Ashwatthama laughed. He had nothing to really be laughing about, at the moment, but it felt good to laugh anyway. Then he suddenly stopped laughing, when he realized that his father was regarding him somberly.
"This is truly the path that you choose?" Drona asked.
Drona sighed. "You are stubborn," he said, "and stupid," he added, ticking off on his fingers, "and short-sighted, and pigheaded, and clearly more concerned about the welfare of others than that of yourself." He held out his five splayed fingers at Ashwatthama. "Clearly you get that from m… your mother."
"I thought I got it from you."
"I told you," Drona said, finally smiling, "Right now, I couldn't be prouder."
"Thank you," Ashwatthama said, his voice husky. He sniffled, afraid that he was suddenly about to burst into his own tears. He stood up off the couch, hoping to grab a handkerchief before he could embarrass himself with running snot, when suddenly, the apartment's buzzer rang.
Ashwatthama ran to the door, because he already knew who would be there. He threw open the door and then froze, suddenly unsure of what to say.
Fortunately, Arjuna spoke first. "May I come in?" he asked. Since the end of the dice game, he had at least managed to put on some clothes. But he looked exhausted, with dark rings under his eyes, and his skin pale, drained of color.
"Yes. Always. Please come in," Ashwatthama said. Arjuna stepped inside. Ashwatthama risked a quick glance around the hallway outside – no guards or aides present, since Arjuna had come alone – and then closed the door.
"I can't stay long," Arjuna said. His voice was low and breathy. He was half-whispering, as if he were hiding and afraid that someone would overhear him. "We're being escorted to the port in an hour, and I… Uh…" He scratched at his head for a moment, then looked helplessly around the apartment, at Drona, at Ashwatthama, at the clock and the pictures on the walls, at the blank media console, and then finally back at Drona, his eyes helpless and desperate and lost.
Drona immediately took charge of the situation. "Come here," he said. It was clearly and order. "Sit down," he ordered again, motioning Arjuna toward the couch. "Ashwatthama, could you…?"
"I'll be in the library," Ashwatthama said, quickly. He was out of the apartment before Arjuna could protest. Ashwatthama didn't really want to go to the library. He didn't want to go anywhere in the palace where he might risk running into one of Duryodhana's ubiquitous family members, at least not at the moment. But he knew that his father and Arjuna needed to be alone, and that was important.
Ashwatthama wasn't sure why Arjuna had showed up on their doorstep. Was it because he always came running to Drona whenever something went wrong? Was it because he was angry about what had happened at the dice game and need to confront Drona about it? Was he desperate for a last-minute bit of wisdom or training that might help him survive the horrors of the Yama Quadrant?
Or had he come merely to say goodbye?
Ashwatthama found the palace library utterly deserted. Even at such a late hour, the library was usually filled with people; but on this night, of all nights, Ashwatthama understood why nobody was around. So he found himself a table in a secluded corner, sat down with a book, folded his hands in his lap, and tried to think of nothing.
Ashwatthama's comm rang some time later. He picked it up and heard his father's voice: "Arjuna wants to see you."
"I'll be right there."
Ashwatthama arrived back at the apartment, his arms loaded with data discs. "These are for you," he said, setting down the pile of discs on a table for Arjuna to look through.
Arjuna thumbed through the discs, frowning. "What…?"
"They're dictionaries. Of languages known to be used in the Yama Quadrant." Ashwatthama looked down at the pile, then shook his head sadly. "There's not many. And… I searched the library, but I couldn't find a decent map or star chart." He looked up at Arjuna. "The Yama Quadrant is expanding so rapidly that it's nearly impossible to keep a current chart, anyway. There are planets there that used to be relatively close to us, but they've drifted so far away that we've lost contact for hundreds of years." He folded his arms over his chest. "And there are rakshasas out there, too. All of the expanding dark matter breaks down the boundaries between our universe and theirs. They can cross over freely and--"
"I know," Arjuna said quickly. "I know." He took a deep breath. "Believe me, I know."
"I know you know." Ashwatthama sat down on the couch where his father had been moments before. His father was already gone from the room, Ashwatthama noticed. That left him and Arjuna alone. "Your family needs you to protect them, though. You have to be the one to do it. None of the rest of them can."
"Do you think that I can't do it?" Arjuna asked, sitting down beside Ashwatthama.
"No, that's not what--"
"And what about you?" Arjuna continued. "Do you think that you can really, I don't know, save Duryodhana's soul, or whatever it is you said you were going to do?"
"That's oversimplifying it," Ashwatthama said. "And did Father tell you that?"
"If you stay with Duryodhana," Arjuna said, quietly, "then I'm scared for you."
"Believe me, you are not half as scared for me as I am scared for you."
"Thank you… I guess."
Then Arjuna reached for Ashwatthama's hand. Ashwatthama took Arjuna's hand in his own, and the two sat silently, not saying a word to each other, not even looking at each other, for a long time. They didn't need to say anything to each other. Their hands were clasped together, and that was enough.
Finally Ashwatthama risked glancing at a clock and said, "You've been here for far longer than an hour."
"Nobody's coming to look for me, though."
"Did you tell anybody that you would be here?"
Arjuna didn't answer.
Ashwatthama sighed and said, "They need you. You should be with your family right now."
"But you're my family too," Arjuna said.
Ashwatthama wiped at his eyes and whispered, "Thank you."
Arjuna finally let go of Ashwatthama's hand, stood up, and gathered the data discs in his arms. "Did you steal these from the library?" he suddenly asked.
"That depends on your definition of 'steal'." Ashwatthama winked at Arjuna. "I'm the royal priest. Technically, I own the palace library."
"I thought that the High Council owned--"
"Arjuna, you just had an entire kingdom stolen from you, I hardly think that this is the time for you to be complaining about--"
"We're lifting off at nine hundreds hours the day after tomorrow," Arjuna suddenly said. "Will you be there? I, uh… I don't want to have to say goodbye right now. It wouldn't feel right."
"I'll be there," Ashwatthama said. "And you don't ever have to say goodbye to me." He tried his best to smile at Arjuna. "You're coming back in thirteen years, aren't you?"
Arjuna returned Ashwatthama's smile, although Ashwatthama could see that Arjuna's smile was every bit as fake and as strained as his own. "You'll be here waiting for me, won't you?"
Ashwatthama blinked at Arjuna. "Why wouldn't I be?"
Arjuna was silent for a moment, then he said, "If you're staying here, then you have to promise to protect Kuru for me. Everyone, and every place. Even Duryodhana." Arjuna's stormcloud-colored eyes were the most intense and focused that Ashwatthama had ever seen them. "Please, promise me. I was supposed to be the warrior who protects Kuru, but if I can't be, then… Then it has to be you. Nobody else has the light that you do," he finished, in a small voice.
Ashwatthama nodded slowly. "I promise," he said. He placed his hand over his chest and said solemnly, "I promise that in the next thirteen years, I will do my best to ensure that Duryodhana becomes less of an unmitigated asshole."
Finally Arjuna laughed, and this time, his smile was genuine. "I love you," he said.
"I love you too. Now get out of here. Somebody's got to be looking for you by now, right?" Ashwatthama jerked his thumb toward the door. "Hurry up. Remember what happened the last time that I tried to hide you from the palace guards?"
"Has it been long enough that we can look back at that now and laugh?"
"I think so, yes."
"Then I'm out of here," Arjuna said, already halfway out the door, his arms still loaded down with Ashwatthama's discs. "I'll see you later."
Ashwatthama didn't say anything as Arjuna left. Once Arjuna was gone and the door closed and locked behind him, though, Ashwatthama turned around and said to the empty apartment, "You can stop pretending to not be eavesdropping anymore."
Drona emerged from wherever he had been lurking and glanced sadly at the closed-and-locked door. "He's not ready for this," Drona said. "He hasn't grown up at all. I had hoped that marrying Draupadi would help him mature a little, but…" Drona trailed off, then tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Was it my fault?" he asked, although Ashwatthama had the distinct impression that his father wasn't actually talking to him. "I let him rely on me too much, didn't I?"
Ashwatthama shook his head. "Arjuna will be fine. The devas won't abandon him. He will be protected." He turned toward his father. "Arjuna defeated Lord Indra himself, remember?"
Drona turned away from Ashwatthama. "Lord Indra is a deva. He has honor. But Arjuna and his family are going to travel to places where there are things without honor that will want to destroy them simply because they share the blood of the devas."
Drona then left the room without saying another word. Ashwatthama sat back down the couch and tried not to think of the darkness in the Yama Quadrant, tried not to think of Arjuna walking right into that darkness armed only with his bow, and tried not to think of the city of Indraprastha falling under Duryodhana's rule. Ashwatthama had never even been to Indraprastha, but somehow, the thought of Duryodhana sitting on the throne in the palace made of maya sent chills down Ashwatthama's spine.
It's all right, he told himself. I promised Arjuna, and I promised Duryodhana when I first took my oath to him, and I promised my father. I won't let the darkness come to Kuru. I will protect this planet. I can be the light.
Ashwatthama spent the rest of the night sitting on that couch, convincing himself that it was true.
To be continued.