Title: Advice Unsought
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: The first sign that Lorne's vacation would not last forever came a few months after his arrival in the O.Z., when he brought a refill to a male human humming a solemn lullaby to himself over his ale. 1900 words.
Spoilers: Post-series for Angel, no comics; pre-series for Tin Man
Notes: Challenge fic. Follows "Conferring With The Flowers". Because Lorne isn't the only one with an eye on the Realm as a refuge...
The Realm of the Unwanted, it turned out, was much bigger than it seemed from the outside. The little shielded entrances, buried under the tall grass of an empty field, a pile of flotsam on the shore of a lake, and other easily overlooked locations, gave into public areas the size of small villages. Bright with neon lights and eccentrically dressed hawkers and public boxing rings, they were populated mostly by a variety of human outlaws. But there were deeper mazes of grottos as well, linked through narrow openings designed to foil any spying eyes, where the more exotic residents made their homes.
Lorne's green skin, and Ambrose's prominent disfigurement, earned them almost immediate entry to those inner sanctums. Everyone who met Lorne seemed to assume he was descended from one of the mostly extinct vegetative peoples, contrary to his previous fears, and it seemed no one would mistake a Zipperhead for a friend of the Sorceress. Once those in charge were sure their differences were not merely cosmetic and that they weren't Longcoat sympathizers, the secretive inhabitants were much more interested in keeping them out of sight than keeping the hidden areas from them.
Lorne quickly secured a job in a bar called the Nimmie Amee, serving folk who would have looked entirely at home back at Caritas. Ambrose, however, was a little harder to settle. Lorne arranged for him to sweep floors and wash dishes for his keep at the same bar, but the damaged young man had to be watched carefully lest he lose focus and forget what he was supposed to be doing. The Realm had little provision for mental health facilities, and while the average resident seemed sympathetic to his plight, few were all that keen to befriend him. The knook who owned the bar they worked at started calling him Glitch; Lorne disapproved, but Ambrose answered to it easier than his own name, so it stuck.
It wasn't a bad life, overall. Lorne wasn't putting much aside, but he was getting by, and there was music unlike anything he'd ever heard before: with so many strange cultures rubbing elbows all around him, he could walk along the subterranean thoroughfares for hours and never hear the same song repeated twice. Even better, most of the glimpses he caught of destiny through those songs were unremarkable: private people living private lives, with average if circumscribed fates and expectations. Nothing that required him to meddle. If it hadn't been for the fact that no one could leave without risking their lives, and that every resident had some sort of tragic back-story, it would almost have been like a vacation.
The first sign that that vacation would not last forever came a few months after his arrival in the O.Z., when he brought a refill to a male human in a hooded robe humming a solemn lullaby to himself over his ale. The man had been drinking for hours, drowning his sorrows; when Lorne caught the first glimpse of two little girls dancing through the man's subconscious, he felt only sympathy for yet another customer who'd lost everything he'd ever cared for in the usurpation. But then the elder of the two girls morphed into a much taller, much more menacing young woman all in black with winged tattoos on her breasts- and Lorne swore, dropping the mug and sloshing its contents all over the rough wooden table.
"Seeker," he gasped- because he couldn't, didn't dare say the man's true names in that place. Not the name the man had used as Prince Consort, reviled throughout the O.Z. for his cowardice in abandoning Queen and country when the Sorceress rose to power; nor the older one that marked him as an obvious Other Sider, a name no few of the Realm's oldest residents might recognize for its similarity to that of the long-ago Wizard who had imprisoned Queen Ozma's father.
Ahamo looked up at that, wheat blond hair framing a still youthful face newly lined with care. His eyes were a clear, piercing blue, and widened in startled alarm as they lit upon Lorne's face. "A demon?" he blurted in surprise, then lowered his voice to a whisper. "What's a demon doing in the O.Z.?"
Lorne grabbed for the spilled tankard, wrestling it upright as he stared at the disguised Prince Consort. He glanced around the taproom, making sure the owner was currently in the back office, then pulled out a chair across from the man and sank into it. "The same thing any other accidental Slipper is doing, I imagine," he replied, in an equally terse voice. "Trying to make a life for myself here. I think the real question is, what are you doing here?" There was nothing accidental about Ahamo.
"You know who I am?" the man asked, eyes widening further.
"Do you really want me to say either of those names out loud? In here?" Lorne shook his head.
Ahamo straightened in his chair, brow knitting together and gaze sharpening as adrenaline blew out the cobwebs spun by grief and alcohol. "Who told you?" he said in low tones, then shook his head, working his jaw. "Nevermind; if you are what I think you are, no one needed to tell you, did they? I can't believe I'm living in a world where I want to be talking to some kind of evil precognitive being, but..."
"Hey! Not evil, here," Lorne objected. "I don't take sides. It's an irresponsible use of the gift, not to mention dangerous for everyone concerned. Especially me." He'd been hit over the head more times in his various attempts to meddle for the better than at any time when he'd been working on his own.
"I'm inclined to believe you about that," Ahamo replied, frowning. He studied Lorne's face a moment longer, then glanced past him as Ambrose shuffled into the room to start his shift. He did a distinct double-take at the sight of Ambrose's face, swallowed hard, then deliberately drew his attention back to Lorne. "But it brings up another question. Have you told many other people about your... ability to pierce secrets?"
It was Lorne's turn to frown at that. The conversation was growing more and more surreal; if the man across the table from him hadn't been the Sorceress' father, he would already have left the bar, perhaps for good. But he was having a hard time believing their meeting was coincidence. "I haven't had much reason to. I'm incognito here, just like you. Except that I'm hoping to eventually find a way back to Los Angeles, not... whatever it is you have in mind." He gestured between them.
"Don't find a reason to," Ahamo said sternly, glancing back at Ambrose again. "Back home, it might have just got you your own show at the circus, and I grant you, this place does resemble one most days. But if you draw attention to yourself here, Azkadellia will track you down and put you to use like she does the Viewers, and... let's just say, enough damage has been done to these people already."
Well, that answered the question of where the man had seen demons before; a number of neutral clans made good money from lives on the road. And Ahamo definitely knew Ambrose. "Who was he?" Lorne asked. "He doesn't remember, and no one here seems to recognize him- except for you."
"Someone who's much better off staying under Azkadellia's radar. One of my wife's distant cousins from Ev. Brilliant kid, once." A flash of pain briefly deepened the lines around his eyes.
Lorne cleared his throat, feeling a sudden spark of defensive anger well up in him- an emotion he'd thought permanently doused by what had happened before his little whirlwind adventure. But something about the situation reminded him of poor Fredikins, exiled to horrific circumstances and later destroyed by powerful men who should have had her best interests in mind. He didn't think Ahamo meant his remarks to be insulting... but they grated on raw nerves all the same.
"He still is. Maybe not the same way as before- but I've never encountered a more earnest, seeking mind. Given what you're calling yourself these days, I'd think that would be something you could appreciate."
Ahamo snorted, glancing down into his empty mug, then over at the one Lorne held. "It's not that- none of us are the same as we once were. But I bear part of the blame for- well, everything- and it's hardest to bear the consequences when they come in so personal a form. I don't even know- I can't even promise it'll ever get any better for him, either; none of them. If anything goes wrong..."
He looked inexpressibly, unutterably sad in that moment, his mood as blue as the lake whose shoreline abutted much of the Realm.
Lorne rubbed a hand against the base of his horns, weighing his sudden surge of compassion against the Consort's desperation and his own future in the dimension he'd landed himself in. "Never mind that," he said, giving in. It seemed the Powers did have a plan for him, even there. "What was that song you were humming when I found you?"
Ahamo blinked, but immediately began to sing, a quiet, mournful little nursery tune. "Two little princesses, dancing in a row. Spinning fast and freely, on their little toes. Where their lives will take them, no one ever knows..."
Lorne saw the Sorceress again, starkly pale against silver mail and long, dark hair, green fire burning around her; a slightly younger woman, dressed in Other Side fashion, pounding small fists against Ahamo's back as he carried her down an underground corridor; Longcoats and ragged men and women fighting at the base of a vast tower; and competing visions of eternal darkness and sunlight glinting from the walls of a distant city.
"Even if something does go wrong," he said quietly, raising a hand to cut Ahamo off. "It does get better for him, at least for awhile. I can't see the way it ends- but I can see a young woman with your eyes and her mother's fire, and a little green gem with the power to destroy a world. There aren't many futures where your plan fails entirely. Smart woman, the Queen; she must be prescient herself. But what happens after that- it's all up to them."
"My two little princesses..." Ahamo repeated, hope dawning in his eyes. "And my wife?"
Lorne stood and picked up the mug again, abruptly uncomfortable. "You'll have a long way to go- and not much time," he said, evasively.
Ahamo stared a moment longer, then let out a long sigh. "That's more than I knew this morning," he said. "Thank you. Whoever you are...?"
Lorne shook his head. "Thank me by staying out of the Inner Realm; if you want to be ready in the time comes, you don't want to be hidden away where she'll never find you. I said there aren't many futures where your plan fails; not that there aren't any."
Ahamo nodded, then stood and offered his hand. "All right," he said. "Then I hope to see you on that bright day."
"If I'm still here," Lorne prevaricated again, then smiled, seeing a flash of the younger princess again. "Just don't blame me for not warning you about the broom."