Mean Time to Failure
by R. Hyperion

It had started with little things, he realized, in retrospect, while they'd roamed the wastelands of Filgaia together. He'd miss a shot he shouldn't have. React a little bit more slowly; sleep in a little bit later every day.

Idiot that he was, it took him three long months after he started waking Rudy up in the morning to realize that something was genuinely wrong.

"Kid, we should go see Emma," he said, lightly punching Rudy's left arm. "See how they're doing in Adlehyde, now that Cecilia's got herself established."

Rudy looked at him strangely, then smiled that warm little smile and shook his head no.

The grin dropped clean off Jack's face as it darkened. "Listen, you—"

"Jack." Rudy's voice was firm. "No."

He sighed, then reached over and ruffled Rudy's hair. From his shoulder he could feel Hanpan's dark eyes searching his face, but his companion wisely said nothing. Yeah. Last to pick up on it. I know. His eyebrows tightened in frustration.

The young man laughed, sheepishly, and Jack committed the image to memory.

Then came the day he wouldn't stir at all, no matter how much Jack shook him. In the end, neither he nor Hanpan had known just what to he'd carried the sleeping body to Adlehyde, and Emma's office. The Professor would know. Crazy as she was, the Professor always knew.

They'd laid him to rest near Zepet Roughnight, one early morning after. As close as they could get without placing both in danger, that is—Rudy would have had to bury the old man on some narrow precipice. Careless kid, Jack had thought, while thrusting the shovel into hard earth...but the words rang hollow inside himself.

It had been cold. A pale, sniffling Jane wore Magdalen's jacket for that reason...and because the man himself was helping Jack dig. Emma had spent several long days and nights on his coffin—rather, its lock—for a number of ugly reasons no one else had the presence of mind to consider. Mariel, of course, picked more flowers than she could carry.

...Zed ended up taking half. So odd, to see a demon and an Elw stand side by side like that.

When everything was done, the sun barely peeked over the horizon. All eight stood in a ragged line against the brightening dawn, silent. In the end, Cecilia had been the only one to speak, delicately stepping forward and bowing low to his grave.

"Goodnight, Rudy. Please rest well."

Three of them (plus one) had headed back to Adlehyde, in an unspoken agreement. They'd laughed about the old days along the way...carefully dancing around a hole where someone important had once been. Then Cecilia'd gone to the castle, and Emma to...whatever she did all day.

And now he was alone. Back to being the solitary risk-chaser with Hanpan at his side. It was funny; the older he got, the more it felt like time was flowing backwards. (Damn Dairam.)

Maybe he should just head to Arctica and help rebuild for the rest of his days. Complete the whole screwed-up cycle.

But Jack stopped at Adlehyde's gate.

"Forget something?" Hanpan's tail switched back and forth, expectantly.

"Yeah, actually. I think I did."

"Excuse me, sir!" The clumsy clanging of metal against metal echoed through the hallway, along with a young man's anguished voice. "Those are the Queen's chambers!"

"No shit," came a gruff retort, and she grinned at the familiar tone. He had always hated it when they didn't recognize him. Cecilia pushed her chair back and stood, as the Dream Chaser in the leather jacket shouldered his way past her distraught attendants.

"Jack!" she exclaimed, brightly.

He didn't bother returning the greeting, but strode close enough to place one heavy hand on her shoulder. She blinked, surprised, and confused by the unreadable look in his eyes.

"You didn't tell him, did you."

Not a question. An assertion. He already knew, both the answer and the question—the latter being what really hurt. Salt in the wound he'd torn open. Cecilia pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, biting her lower lip.

" never told her, either!"

Not a question. An accusation...or an insult, high and strained around the lump in her throat. Her cheeks flushed an angry, humiliated red; the young queen of Adlehyde had always hated losing her composure in front of anyone.

"Your Highness!?"

...And that was just one reason why.

Jack glowered at him over one shoulder. "Get the hell out of here!"

"...dammit, Jack..."

"Yeah. I know." She was sobbing openly now; maybe it was weakness on his part, but the old scars on his own heart ached in sympathy.

Much as he'd tried—much as he'd desperately hoped—she'd ended up a lot more like himself than not. Jack shook his head slowly, and thought, What a damned shame.

Wild Arms Alter Code: F © SCEI 2003.