Xaxac had thought that perhaps the men would be unshackled when they stopped to eat their picnic lunch, but he had been wrong.
He also thought that he would get more delicious pastries, as he had the last time, but he was proven wrong again. He and Lee sat on the blanket with the elves and took their food communally again, but Lee was late because he was busy helping the soldier give out food and water to the fighters, and a strange darkness hung over Xac that he hated and could not dispel, despite the generally friendly and upbeat atmosphere of the day.
Agalon’s good mood had continued, and he and the vet had spent the trip speaking animatedly and excitedly, but Xac had tuned in and out of the conversation. He had learned that the vet wasn’t going all the way to Basilglen with them, though he would show up for the matches.
Xac just couldn’t listen very well. He felt as if he had too much energy in his brain and not enough in his body and he was afraid Agalon would notice.
He wished so badly that he was drunk, but even after he had drank the wine meant to go along with lunch, he didn’t feel anything, not even a slight tingling, not even a bit of cloudiness in his brain. It seemed as if it had stopped working, and he wanted to avoid eating so that he could have more alcohol. He thought that, perhaps, if that was all he had, it would start to take effect.
The fighters were so quiet when they ate that Xac wondered why they didn’t talk to each other.
“All accounted for, sir,” the soldier said to Agalon, “and everything seems clear.”
“I told you it was an easy gig,” Agalon said chipperly.
Lee had taken his seat and opened the basket to distribute the food, and Xac wondered if he was supposed to do this, or if he was so accustomed to serving he did it without thinking. He hadn’t done it last time.
They didn’t have any delicious pastries this time, prefilled with apples, spices, and sugar. This time they just had biscuits that Xac thought were, like the cornbread, much too heavy. It seemed like maybe that was also all the fighters had, but he couldn’t really tell because they were sitting all facing inward, and their silence unnerved him.
“Here, darlin,” Agalon said, took the biscuit Xaxac had been preparing to eat and broke it open in the middle. He unscrewed a small jar from the basket and spread a layer of jam over it, then closed it and handed it back.
“Thank you, master,” Xaxac said as pleasantly as he could and smiled up at him.
“You’ve got good prospects this year,” the vet said as he prepared his own food.
“Master?” Xaxac asked, “What’s gonna happen when we get to Basilglen? I’ve never seen a rodeo before, but Alex says it’s real fun! He said it’s not just the fighters, it’s a bunch of stuff!”
“Oh, right!” Agalon said, “Ain’t that cute? He ain’t never done nothin. Everythin is so excitin for him.”
The soldier said nothing but he was staring at Xaxac as if he was trying to figure something out and Xaxac suspected he knew he was a shifter though he had never seen him before.
“We’ll be down there a little bit, for the first rounds,” Agalon said, “You gotta win in the district to go on to regionals. Then we’ll head out to the capital for the regionals, cause that’s where it’s held for us. And if we win there, we’ll go up to Satra for the finals.”
“Neat!” Xac said with real enthusiasm, “I ain’t never traveled before!”
“There is a bit more there,” Lee said, “Some of it’s worth watchin. Then they got the dancin and whatnot. I ain’t a big fan, but it seems like somethin you might be into.”
“Is he cold?” the vet asked, and to Xaxac repeated, “Are you cold?”
Xaxac had not realized he had been shivering, but after it had been pointed out to him he couldn’t stop feeling it. It was true that the brisk autumn wind blew right through his useless, thin outfit, but he wasn’t particularly cold. But still, his teeth were chattering and his hands were shaking.
“I don’t… think so?” Xac said, “Maybe? It’s fall.”
“Oh,” Agalon reached into his traveling pouch and pulled out something small and round wrapped in a handkerchief, “His metabolism is so fast… here, Honey Bunny, might be your nerves.”
He unwrapped the bundle and Xaxac saw the snowball that Agalon often used in the morning to flavor their coffee. He peeled off his gloves and scratched at it with a fingernail until small flakes came off, then licked his finger, stuck it into the powder, and began to rub it inside his mouth along his gums. Once he seemed satisfied he repeated the motion and spoke.
“Open up, Honey Bunny.”
Xaxac opened his mouth and stared up at Agalon, then leaned forward for good measure until he was on his hands and knees.
“Stick your tongue up,” Agalon said, so Xaxac did, and he rubbed the powder all along the underside, which tickled, so Xac giggled as he pulled away.
“Anybody else?” Agalon asked.
“It’s noon,” the soldier said, as if this information made Agalon’s offer ridiculous.
Xac’s tongue had gone numb and it felt heavy and strange in his mouth. He wasn’t used to being unable to feel a part of himself, and it wasn’t exactly like his arm, in the sense that he was still aware of the fact that he had a tongue, perhaps even overly aware. It seemed much larger than it did when he could feel it, so large it was taking up most of his mouth and he was finding it difficult to breath.
But he certainly had as much energy in his body as he had had in his brain. Was that what it did? Was that why they put it in coffee? Because it was good at helping you wake up?
“Aggie, I can’t feel my tongue,” he attempted to say, but it turned out that the tongue was extremely important in speech, so he was amazed Agalon understood him.
“Oh, right, I usually put it in his coffee,” Agalon said as if he had forgotten this, “Oh, darlin, that’ll hit ya like a ton a bricks.”
What did that mean?
“Glad I’m not in the carriage,” the soldier said.
“I wish I had ‘put it in my coffee’ money,” the vet lamented, “You lose so much that way. The bioavailability dwindles…”
He peeled off his glove as well, to take Agalon up on his offer.
Xac was still standing on his knees and found it difficult to sit down again. He bounced a little as he stuck out his tongue and ran his fingers over it to see if he could feel anything. It was so odd. He hadn’t lost all sensation, still felt pressure, but in a very generalized sense. His tongue had not, as he had suspected, grown, it just felt heavier when he couldn’t feel it. At least that meant he likely wouldn’t choke on it, which had been a concern.
“Eat, darlin,” Agalon kissed Xaxac on the cheek, “And put your tongue back in your mouth. You’re givin folks ideas.”
He laughed as if this had been a joke, and Xaxac understood it instantly and began to laugh with him, because Agalon was often as funny as he was beautiful.
“Everybody but him,” Xac gestured toward the soldier, “I don’t think he likes me.”
He tried to pout, but didn’t have the spirit for it and giggled instead.
“Everybody likes you,” Agalon said and bit into his biscuit.
Xaxac thought Agalon was probably so good at understanding him even when his tongue wasn’t working properly because he understood him on a deep, fundamental level. Because he loved him.
The soldier stared at Xaxac, then turned to Agalon and spoke, quietly.
“That thing was eight foot tall with the ears, standin on its hind legs,” he said, “You’re a brave man, your grace.”
“I don’t reckon,” Xac giggled, “I ain’t never been eight foot tall in my life! I’m a cute little bunny,” he couldn’t keep a straight face and laughed again as he continued, in jest, “And I won’t have you sullyin my reputation like that!”
“You sure are,” Agalon said, and began to play with Xaxac’s hair as he often did, so Xac leaned into the affection so hard he wound up falling a little, so he sat down properly and scooted into Agalon’s side to eat.
“You can’t be scared of a little bunny rabbit,” Agalon scoffed at the soldier.
“I hunt with some of the folks in my unit,” The soldier said, after a stretch of silence, “I’ve seen rabbits get cornered. The wild ones, not the ones folks keep in hutches. Seen a dog catch up to one, one time, tried to snap its neck. That thing flipped over on its back and let out the most godawful sound you ever did hear. Kicked up with them back claws and ripped that dog clean open. Guts spillin out. Rabbit got up and run off.”
“Don’t sound like much of a huntin dog,” the vet huffed and took a drink from the bottle of wine, then passed it to Xaxac.
“Folks underestimate prey,” the soldier said, “on account of they don’t look like much. But nine times out of ten the prey wins. Because the predator’s fighting for their lunch, but the prey’s fightin for their life.”
He shoved the rest of the biscuit into his mouth, pulled the water skien from his belt and took a long drink.
Xaxac didn’t think he liked him very much.