Xaxac felt the familiar, bone-deep exhaustion that always accompanied the morning after shifting and fought to open his eyes. He didn’t have the luxury of sleep. It was very possible that he would be lying in the middle of broken furniture, at the eye of a tornado that had swept through the place.
But… it felt like he was in bed. It felt as if there was a soft sheet between his naked body and the soft mattress under him; felt as if there was a light quilt thrown over him, felt as if there was a warm body beside him.
He opened his eyes and saw sixty flowers arranged pleasantly on sixty tiles.
Nothing in the room was broken; everything was as it should be.
Except that it was the middle of the day and Agalon was still home, sitting up in bed with a book he had apparently been reading. He was wearing an undershirt that was not the one he had worn last night, and that worried Xac. He turned weakly and snuggled into his thigh, and in response Agalon put the book down and turned to look at him.
“You awake or just squirmin?” Agalon asked him as he reached down to run his fingers through his hair.
“I get so tired,” Xac whispered, “Is… is daddy still here?”
“Abe? The field hand?” Agalon asked, and Xac nodded as best he could from his position, “No, darling, I sent him home. It’s been a bit of a long night. I told him not to go to work today. Do you know anything he likes? I’d sure like to send him something.”
“I wish I could get him a better job,” Xac said, completely exhausted and unequipped to be awake, “I wish he didn’t have to work so hard… he likes all kinds of stuff. He likes stories, nights in the fall around the bonfire or back home where he’d sit and roll out cigarettes or play cards… I dunno… different stuff.”
He said all this in a half-dream state where he saw it play out. He wasn’t particularly sure who he was talking to, and could not have said with any certainty that the conversation had actually happened. Agalon kept scratching his scalp and playing with his hair, and the closeness of it, the safety it brought him, made it a very real danger that he would just drift back off.
“You alright, darlin?” Agalon asked after so much time had passed Xac had fallen asleep again, but had not had enough time to dream.
“Just tired,” Xac mumbled, “Kinda hungry… not starved like I usually am though… Is everything ok?”
“Yeah, everythin’s dandy.” Agalon smiled down at him, “I just… don’t know what to do here. I feel like I oughta make you get up or you’ll be up all night. And I don’t wanna get you used to that on account of I’d like to leave for Basilglen tomorrow.”
“I didn’t cause no trouble?” Xac squirmed until he could lay his head in Agalon’s lap, which put him lying the wrong way on the bed so that he had to curl up into himself not to dangle his feet over the edge.
Something flashed over Agalon’s eyes but Xac had his eyes closed and his face pressed to his stomach, so he didn’t see it any more than he saw the fabric bulging out over the bandages he did not know existed on Agalon’s arm.
“You’re cute as hell when you’re a bunny,” Agalon said after some time had passed, “When you shifted back there was hair everywhere. Somethin tells me you could use a long bath and a good meal. Sound like a plan?”
“It sounds like heaven,” Xac sighed contentedly, “Thank you, master. I’m sorry I’m so lazy.”
“You ain’t lazy,” Agalon said and Xac did not see him move, so he could not know he had been wrong. Agalon wasn’t reading the book, he was writing in it, and this information would have meant very little to Xaxac if he had known it, had seen Agalon dip his quill in the ink he had set out on the bedside table and jot down a few final words.
It was a lazy day, and Xac was glad to have it, especially because Agalon was even more kind, more attentive, and more loving than he normally was. It was, however, odd to him that Lorsan refused to speak to him. Xac saw him, several times, peeking around corners, following them at a considerable distance through the hall to and from the bath, which interested Xac greatly because Agalon did not seem to see him at all.
So as he sat at the dinner table sipping his wine he thought it even more strange that Lorsan’s chair sat empty. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly odd about him, except for the change in his attitude to one that was less confrontational and therefore considerably more pleasant, but his absence was obviously grating on Agalon’s nerves.
“Lee!” He barked.
“Yes, master?” Lee asked as he threw open the door separating the dining room from the hall and stepped inside.
“Is he sick, dead, or maimed?” Agalon asked.
“Young Master Lorsan?” Lee asked.
“Yeah, you run up there and tell that boy he better be sick, dead, or maimed,” Agalon said, “Because them’s the only possible reasons he wouldn’t be down here. He needs to pick one and I’m comin up there to see if it’s true, and if it ain’t, it will be by the time I get up there.”
“Yes, master,” Lee bowed and went back out the way he had come.
“I love this wine!” Xac said enthusiastically, “It tastes better than the other’n.”
“Oh,” Agalon turned to him and his sour mood evaporated with a smile, “Yeah, I like it too. It’s a strawberry wine. I think you like sweet stuff, sweetheart.”
Xac giggled and took another sip.
“You said that fieldhand liked to smoke?” Agalon asked.
“Daddy?” Xac asked.
“He ain’t your daddy, Xac,” Agalon sighed, “You get so confused…”
“Abe?” Xac tried again, and attempted to look pretty, smile, and do as little as possible. It was actually, he thought, sometimes easier not to think while sober, because this seemed like a grieve insult and his tipsy brain argued that he should say as much.
“Yeah,” Agalon said, “That’n.”
“Yeah, I mean, he rolls out cigarettes,” Xac said, “He never give um to me, though. I never had one till you give it to me. I think I like um too.”
“Rabbits will absolutely tear the hell out of a tobacco crop,” Agalon said, “They’ll destroy the shit outta it. You gotta watch out for um.”
“Neat,” Xac said.
“My point is after you told me that and you fell back asleep for a little bit I sent him a package of that fancy shit they grow on the Fire Continent. I think he’ll like it. They got the right climate over there, can grow it year round.”
“Neat,” Xac said again with a smile, leaning closer to Agalon.
“Master,” Lee walked swiftly back into the room, “I’m afraid there’s been some bad news. Young Master Lorsan is not in his room.”
“What fresh batch of foolishness…” Agalon muttered, “I guess you don’t know where the hell he’s at?”
“No, Master, but I did find this. It looked as if it’d been left out for you to find,” Lee held out a piece of paper and Agalon took it.
“Oh that little shit!” Agalon snapped, stood, and marched quickly out of the room.
“Master?” Xac called after him, but Agalon did not heed his call.
What did he do now? Agalon was gone, and he was out of the bedroom. Did he follow him? Did he stay here quietly? Did he go back to the bedroom?
“What’s goin on?” He asked Lee, trying not to display how frightened he was, because there was no reason to be frightened, “What do I do?”
“You just sit here and eat your salad,” Lee said, “If he doesn’t come back, I’ll escort you back upstairs and lock you up, you know,” he huffed, “For your safety and whatnot.”
“What’d Lorry do?” Xac asked.
“Master Lorsan,” Lee corrected, “And lord knows with that boy. That young’un is the bane of my existence. Worst fourteen years of my life. Well, five I guess, wouldn’t as bad when his mama had him most of the time. I can’t wait till that school starts back up and he’s outta my hair again.”
“I know what happened,” Jimmy said in a sing-song voice as he came into the room carrying Xac’s salad, “And thank Thesis above we got a second alone, I got a lotta shit to say to you, Xac.”
“What happened?” Lee asked.
“Ellie was cleanin up there and she seen him talkin to that box of dirt,” Jimmy continued as he sat the plate on the table, “He’s told somebody about what happened here last night. Xac’d you really bite the shit outta him? Done to the bone?”
“What?!” Xac shrieked. He had not meant to scream this, but a dreadful panic came over him, and he suddenly became unable to control his breathing; it came in great heaving gasps, and he was taking in far too much for his body to process. He felt as if he was drowning; was it possible to drown in air?
“The everlovin hell is wrong with you?” Lee asked and smacked Jimmy upside the head.
“Hey, don’t hit me!” Jimmy demanded, “Xac’ll tell Master Agalon and you’ll get sent off and come back a lot nicer.”
Lee bent and spun the chair Xac was sitting on so that he would be forced to face him and watched the boy drown for a few seconds before he reared back and slapped him full across the face. Xac felt it connect, and the pain was the most real thing he had felt in a long time, full to the brim of physical reality, and that reminded him, quite suddenly and all at once, that it was impossible to drown in air, that the entire concept was foolish, and he was a fool for believing it. This sudden realization hit his entire body at the same time, and it stopped acting up, earning his eternal gratitude.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t go spreadin rumors like that!” Lee demanded of Jimmy.
“So it didn’t happen?” Jimmy asked, “Lorry or Ellie was lyin?”
“Did I bite him?” Xac asked, and for once he did not have to pretend to be weak or pathetic.
Lee looked down into those big brown eyes, stood to his full height and sighed so deeply it moved his entire body.
“Yes,” he admitted, “You did. Bad. There was a lot of blood. You probably didn’t see it on account of we rolled that rug up and burned it. It was tore all to hell anyway… and there wouldn’t no gettin them stains out. You don’t remember that?”
“I don’t never remember nothin,” Xac hadn’t noticed he was crying, but it was obvious as the force of it began to choke him.
“Aw hell,” Jimmy said and crossed the room to disappear into the supply room calling, “Abby!”
“Stop crying!” Lee demanded, “What did I tell you?”
“I’m trying!” Xac lamented, because he was.
Abby came bursting out of the kitchen wiping her hands on a dishrag, which she tucked into her apron pocket as she ran to Xac with Jimmy on her heels.
She shoved Lee out of her way and pulled Xac into a hug, and he clung to her the way he had clung to her the night he had fallen ill as a toddler and sobbed into her breast.
“That ain’t helpin nothin,” Lee said, “He’s damn near grown- hell, he is grown, he can’t go cryin to his mommy.”
“Shut up,” Abby snapped at him, and Lee looked insulted enough to convey the information that no lowly kitchen slave had ever spoken to him this way before.
“Baby, you listen to me,” Abby said gently, “We might not have a lot of time. Everything is gonna be alright. You got that man eatin outta your hand. I know you been through a lot, and you’re probably gonna be through a lot more, but you’re strong. You’re a survivor. They ain’t gonna do nothin to you because you done everythin right. Agalon ain’t gonna do nothin to you.”
“I. Bit. Him!” Xac sobbed, “He’s. Gonna. Kill. Me!”
“No, he ain’t,” Abby said, “Get it outta your head. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
During this conversation, Jimmy had moved to listen at the door by the hall, and he turned, eyes wide, and frantically ordered, “Everybody act natural! Somebody’s comin! Get back to the kitchen! Quit cryin! Lee, you just stand there and look bossy!”
Abby squeezed Xac one last time, then darted frantically to the door, but Jimmy was not fast enough to do that even with his leg healed as it was, so he turned at the last second, standing beside Xac, and picked up the plate he had set down in an attempt to look as if he was serving it. Lee had simply taken a step back to stand by the wall.
But Xac, who was not able to control his emotions on a whim, stayed where he was, hunched over in the chair, facing the wrong direction, sobbing into his hands. He should have told his mommy he loved her. If he was going to die, the last memory she would have of him was him crying like a baby and clinging to her for support. Her son would die weak and miserable, and she would have to live with that, and the very thought wracked him to his soul.
Agalon burst into the room in the same rage he had left it in, and it seemed to intensify when he saw Xaxac.
“I took care of it,” Agalon announced, “That dumbass is headin to the capital, on my horse, tryin to start shit, and he’s gonna be real bitchy when he gets there and they bring his ass right back! Get me a goddamn drink!”
“Yes, Master,” Jimmy sat the plate at Xaxac’s place setting and asked, “Stronger than the wine, I reckon?”
“Whiskey!” Agalon yelled.
“Yes, master!” Jimmy darted to the supply room.
“Help!” Xac begged, stood, and closed the distance between himself and Agalon to bury his face in his chest, “Help me! I’m scared! I don’t know what’s wrong with me! I ain’t never been this scared before! What happened?”
Agalon wrapped his arms around him and held him there as tightly as his mother had held him.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little head,” Agalon said, “Sorry I scared ya, Honey Bunny. My youngun’s tearin his ass about you bein dangerous, just tryin to start shit. Don’t worry. Soon as he gets back I’m puttin an end to it. He ain’t gonna get far.” He clung fiercely to Xac and ordered Lee, “Get you a crew together, run up to Lorry’s room and get everythin that even looks like earth crystal. Anything what even looks like a green rock! Look around for loose floorboards, take pictures down and look in the walls. Take everything outta his wardrobe and go through the pockets. Check every drawer, look through his toiletries. Leave no stone unturned. Bring everythin he’s got to my sitting room. Get that shit done NOW, before they bring his ass back.”
“Yes, Master,” Lee bowed and rushed out into the hall.
“This has obviously been too much for Xaxac,” Agalon squeezed even tighter, and Xac felt as if that helped him, kept his lungs from inflating too far, kept him grounded in reality, “We’re headin back upstairs. He’ll eat up there. Bring us two bottles of that strawberry wine, and tell the cook to make somethin special for him. Break out the good shit, for parties. I don’t care what it is but if he gets sick I’m beatin her myself. It’s a great day for me to go right the fuck off on somebody!”
“Yes, Master,” Jimmy said, “Bring it up now or?”
“Right now,” Agalon said as if he shouldn’t have to say it, “Your ass better be right behind me! I didn’t pay to have you patched up so you can fuck around!”
“Yes, Master,” Jimmy said, “I’ll be right behind you. Let me fetch your dinner. And get this carted.”
Agalon wasn’t listening to him at all; he had picked Xaxac up by the hips and was carrying him out of the room and into the hall. They marched in a stormy silence, and the comforting hold eventually became enough to allow Xac to relax. Agalon really wasn’t mad at him, hadn’t acted angry in the slightest, in his direction. He was mad at Lorsan, and so was Xac. Xaxac didn’t know who he had been talking to with a tray of dirt, or how that was even possible, but he suspected it was some sort of magic, and he was really happy that Lorry was getting in trouble instead of him.
Did Agalon really love him? Did he love him more than he loved his own son?
“I’m sorry,” Xac whispered, “I got really scared when you left like that. I ain’t never been alone in here outside the bedroom like that before. And you seemed so mad. I thought I’d done somethin.”
“You ain’t done nothin, darlin,” Agalon assured him, “This has been a long time comin.”
“I can walk,” Xac promised, “You ain’t gotta carry me up the stairs.”
“I know I’m old but I reckon I can pack a ninety pound human,” Agalon said, though he did not actually seem sure, “Sure to god.”
“I wanna walk,” Xac begged, “If that’s ok? I feel real weird… I wanna lean on you and walk.”
“If that’s what you want,” Agalon shrugged and set him on his feet where Xac immediately turned, grabbed onto his arm with both hands and rubbed his face against his upper arm just below the shoulder.
He felt the bulge there, felt the way Agalon’s body tensed.
“You get hurt?” he asked softly.
“Nah,” Agalon said, “Hard to hurt me, darlin. I had an angry fire elf twice my size try to slice my ass up duel wieldin scimitars while I was leanin over a buddy of mine tryin to figure out if he was worth tryin to save or if it’d be a waste of the potion. If it wouldn’t for my buddy Maury I’d be a mess a scar tissue. Poor son-of-a-bitch carried half the unit before he lost his damn mind. Havin your whole damn back slashed open hurts. This ain’t nothin.”
“Oh,” Xac said, and meant to go on, to ask if he had caused the wound, but Agalon kept speaking, and the way he spoke was so strange, as if he was in some sort of dream, or as if he was talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t there, that Xac could not have spoken if he wanted to. He had to listen, he was compelled to listen.
“Whole fuckin sky was on fire,” Agalon said to someone who was not Xaxac, “But it was snowin. I kept thinkin, ‘How the hell is it snowin’? That don’t make no damn sense. It’s hotter than hell, ain’t no way it’s snowin.’ And it’s like… we was there to help. We cast that shield so they could get out, you know? We was there to help. I’m a goddamn medic! That’s what I do! I help people! So why the fuck are you out here tryin to slice me up? Why don’t you run, you stupid bitch? Can’t you feel how wrong this is? It’s pitch fuckin black! Can’t you see how wrong this is? The fuck did I ever do to you, you ungrateful, ignorant-ass, savage!? Evacuate, you dumb bitch! The whole goddamn sky is on fire! Y’all did this! We don’t know shit about fire! Y’all did this!”
“Master?” Xac asked softly and when he got no reply he tried, “Aggy?”
“The fuck was I supposed to do, Xac?” Agalon asked, quietly and with a great meaning Xaxac did not understand, “We were tryin to help um. We wanted um to evacuate. I was a kid, I didn’t know what the hell to do. I don’t know why the hell they attacked us.”
“I’m sorry,” Xac said, “That sounds real scary. I’m so sorry.”
“I grew up on a battlefield,” Agalon sighed, “And my son’s scared of a goddamn rabbit. I’m worried about my boy, darlin.”
“Is he gonna be ok?” Xac asked.
“Yeah, he’ll be alright,” Agalon said and began to move up the stairs again, “I ain’t givin up on him yet. There’s gotta be a way to toughen him up.”
“Did… did I hurt you?” Xac asked quietly as he followed along, leaning into his arm.
“You bit me, but you didn’t hurt me,” Agalon said as if the concept of a tiny little bunny being able to hurt him was ridiculous, “Don’t you worry nary bit about that. I scared ya before I got it worked out. You really don’t remember nothin?”
“I can’t never remember nothin,” Xac said and tears began to leak from his eyes again, “I’m so, so sorry, Master.”
“Hey, Honey Bunny,” Agalon reached out his free hand to steady themselves on the wall and continued, “I like it when you call me ‘Aggy’. You do it when you’re drunk. How about you do that when you’re sober.”
“Ok, Aggy,” Xac looked up at him and said again, “I’m so sorry, I done told you I was dangerous, I done told you I can’t control it. I feel like a monster!”
“Everythin’s gonna be alright,” Agalon promised, “I got it figured out now. It ain’t never gonna happen again.”
“I love you,” Xaxac said, and did not stop to wonder whether or not it was true, or if it was, when it became true, “I wouldn’t never want to hurt you!”