The Phoenix And The Ash
By Seras Serenity
Disclaimer: Crusade and all characters are the property of J. Michael Stracynski and Warner Bros. Entertainment's toyboxes. I'm just playing with them.
My people have always been aware of scent. Everything has one. Every person. Sometimes, I think, even every emotion. A unique signature, like an identification card, loudly and emphatically proclaiming, "I Am". I feel sorry for humans, sometimes. They miss out on so much with their limited sense of smell. Other times…I envy that limitation.
I've tried incense. I've tried sage and sweet grass. For three weeks and six days, I've burned candles of purification in my quarters with ritualistic fervency that would make my ancestors proud. Anything to get the smell out. Now, watching the last candle flicker and burn itself to ash, I realize two things: One- I have more sins than candles. Two- everything turns to ashes.
Reaching out, I dip my fingers into the ash, inky grains of penance blackening my hand until they become part of me. I close my eyes.
I have no home, only the memory of one. The smell of the reed grass after the seasonal rains, the wooden pipe the Chief Elder smoked. The sweet fragrance of moojai flowers my mother wore in her hair. There are no moojai flowers anymore. And for almost a month, I haven't been able to remember what they smell like- which is the greater loss?
Opening my eyes, I take a breath. And smell the ashes.
A cry of frustration wells within my throat, struggling for freedom. Air has become the enemy. It's all I can smell, the vile odor of ashes burning my lungs until I don't want to breathe anymore. I have a memory of friends struggling to keep breathing. I'm struggling to stop. What would they think of me now?
Restless energy brings me to my feet, carrying me from one side of the room to the other. Back again. Countless times, stalking between walls that feel more like a cage than quarters. Feeling more captive than crew. Despair has always fueled my rage- is that the source of the smell? Angry fires burning everything away, until nothing is left inside me, nothing left to feel. Or maybe it's the scent that pervades all the others and reminds me of what I've lost. The scent of death.
At the heart of every thief is an aching , spiraling emptiness, one we spend our entire lives trying to fill with coins and credits, jewels and precious metals. But you can only fill a hole with what came out of it. To lose my family, my home, my entire world… I've adapted. I've mourned. Now, years later, I've finally found the chance to fill that void with a lost tribe of my people. And all of them are carrying a death sentence. All of them are carrying the Drakh plague.
As I move to escape from my quarters and the smell of ashes, I find myself at a loss:
How do I explain to Sarah Chambers, to Matthew Gideon, to any of them, that I don't have the strength to mourn a second time?
His scent gives him away, even before I feel the harbinger wind caress my hair. I don't turn around. Forehead pressed against the cool glass of the observatory window, I focus my senses on the scent that at times I've found reassuring. Now, it's just an intrusion
The leather mantle he shuts his body away in, like a tomb, is what most people notice. But there are other, more subtle scents besides; metal, which lends him an earthy quality, overlaid with notes of raw and wild energy. I smell ashes on him, too. What his are from I can't tell- and haven't asked.
"You're awake rather early. Or late. Which is it?"
I turn around.
Standing a few feet from me, the soft illumination of the observation deck plays a game of shadows on the lines and planes of his face. And a smile, as cryptic as the technomage himself. He's been called many things- boogey-man, specter at the banquet. Pain in the ass. It's the first I've seen of him in weeks.
He moves towards me with steps that are confident, solid. Contrary to obnoxious gossip circulating amongst the crew, technomages don't float, fly, or walk on water. Not that I know of, anyway, though with Galen I suppose you can never be too sure.
I incline my head. "Does it matter?"
He shrugs. "To some. Perspective can be both a strength and a fallacy. Your present view, for example."
Sweeping his hand forward in a grand gesture, he draws my gaze to the expanse of space looming outside the window. "What is it you see when you look out? An army of light illuminating the darkness? Or is it an army of darkness, engulfing the light? It's a fixed equation, really- same number of stars, same quantities of darkness. The only variable…is you."
"Did you come back in the middle of the night to rattle off random metaphors?"
"The early morning. No. And again, it depends on your perspective."
Typical Galen. Never a direct answer with that one. A moment of deliberate silence crawls into minutes, as I wait for him to say what he's doing here. To say why he's standing next to me in the middle of the night- early morning by his perspective- blathering metaphors about stars and darkness. To say anything.
He's waiting for me to tell him why I can't sleep and I'm waiting for him to ask. While I out-wait him, I study the stars, as if they'll give me the answer. Not to his question, but what to say. We haven't spoken, not really- not since the Path of Sorrows. Ours is a strange association, I'll admit. Contrary to what most people believe, there is honor among thieves, a solidarity borne out of a common need for survival. But Galen isn't a thief, and we've never said we're anything but allies with a common goal. I never thought we needed to.
I never saw it coming.
His impromptu interrogation left me blindsided. I didn't even have time to think, to wonder at his viciousness or why, out of everyone, he chose to single me out He used me. My sorrow, my tears to open the path. Does he know how cruelly accurate his attack was? It was an impersonal shot, he claimed, taken without any special knowledge. Fine. Pure luck. If not…I rub my arms, suddenly chilled.
"Something troubles you?"
"It was a statement, not a question."
"Maybe you shouldn't have phrased it as one", I say, doing nothing to hide my irritation.
"It was rhetorical, at the very least."
My temper snarls, and for a moment slips from its leash. "Don't you have anyone else to spew your half-truths and cryptic prophecies to? Or am I just the only one foolish enough to listen?"
It's a moment before I can find my voice.
"When Matthew is troubled he often engages in games- cards, chess. For Mr. Eilerson, it's reading classic literature. And you- you burn sweet grass."
He says it as if remarking on the weather.
"I've noticed it on you at certain times. When you first came aboard the Excalibur, during our search for the Well of Forever. You hide your emotions well, Dureena, yet the scent of sweet grass always betrays you. As it does now."
He looks at me and an unexpected thrill shivers up my spine. He noticed. He noticed Max's habits, too. I feel my cheeks burn with self-disgust- why am I always analyzing his actions for a layer of meaning that isn't there?
I watch him out of the corner of my eye, not willing to risk more, wishing for Lt. Matheson's telepathic abilities. I don't know what to make of this exchange. It's like a tiny winged creature, I think, strange and all too fragile. I want to capture it, hold it between my hands, study it. Seconds crawl by, and when I feel the gathering of a retreating wind, I realize it's about to slip away. I desperately grasp at it.
It's so silent I almost think I'm alone, save for the metallic scent in the room that wraps around me like a life-line in an ocean of ashes. I tell him. Because he noticed. Because, in the middle of the night, he's standing beside me, and for now, it's enough to buy a moment of trust, one I pray I won't have to pay for later.
"The reason why I burn sweet grass. Ever since….gods, I don't even know when. But I smell them. I've gotten used to it, but once in awhile…' I close my eyes. 'It's overpowering."
I raise my head with practiced defiance, challenging Galen to call me foolish. Instead our eyes meet and my fears are soothed in twin pools of cobalt. For the first time during this encounter, I return his gaze without hesitation. I don't know why his opinion should mean anything to me, but I suspect it's for the same reason I keep seeking his instruction. Why I keep looking for some flicker of approval in his eyes. It's infuriating. And also, somewhat comforting.
He's silent, and I begin to wonder if he'll answer at all.
"The phoenix sleeps in ashes."
His voice carries a calculated intensity.
"Humans have a myth about a fantastic bird of fire, its body a living, breathing flame." He opens his hand, and from his palm springs a flame. A feeling of wonder wells inside me as a bird takes form within the fire. Suspended in mid-air, it raises its wings, as if ready to fly from his hand.
"The haunting song, tears with the power to heal- they're fascinating creatures for many reasons, but chiefly for the way in which they are born, or, rather not." The bird dives into Galen's palm, and is obliterated in a crimson blaze. It's a bittersweet image.
"At the moment of it's death, the phoenix is consumed by its own fire. Only ashes remain. But it's from those ashes that a new phoenix rises." He closes his hand, and the flame disappears into his fist. 'We are travelers, suspended between two worlds, one foot in the threshold of each. Perspective- do you live simply to die, or do you die to be reborn? Are you the phoenix? Or are you the ash?"
His questions echo in the void within my heart. I have no immediate answer for him. How can I, when I've only just realized the question? Realized I have a choice. For the first time in weeks, I feel a genuine smile soften my lips.
"Will there a be test on this later?"
"There is always a test, Dureena."
I nod. Curiosity pulls at me. I want to ask about his ashes, what they mean. What choice he's made. But I don't. I, better than most, understand the needs of trust.
His fingers suddenly grasp my chin. It's so unexpected, so gentle, I don't even think to resist. Tilting my face towards his, my lungs seize up, and when I manage to suck in a breath, ashes are the last thing I smell. Fingers dance across my cheek like a welcoming breeze. Our gazes tangle together like vines, and I'm torn between wanting to grab for my dagger and leaning my head into the warmth of his hand.
I never get to decide. As quickly as it began, the moment is over, and Galen is stepping back, putting space between us on more than one level. He disentangles his eyes from mine looks out the space port, refusing to be caught in my gaze. I watch him rub his fingers together.
"You had ashes on your cheek."
Author's Note: I wrote this piece because, despite it being an older fandom, I've always loved the series and characters that is Crusade. Dureena and Galen especially. Watching the dvd again just reminded me of that. This evolved out of a character study of Dureena, and ultimately, I think, became a study on the intricacies and complexity of the relatinship between Dureena and Galen. I sincerely hope that I remained true to the characters while taking them deeper than what the series allowed, due to cancellation. And, also, I hope you enjoyed it.