Kokoro no Kage

by Talya Firedancer

*What we are doing...is it ‘right?’*

*Do we fight for this planet, or do we fight for ourselves?*

*Can we break free of the dictates of ‘Fate’ to make a future worth living?*

Serge tilted his head to look up at the pinwheeling constellations.  The sky was so bright, every bit as much as it had been over Arni Village, and that seemed strange after so many revelations during the past few days.  It whirled in his head as fast as the stars above him.  Somewhere back in Guldove, right now, Kid lay dying on a cot because the Hydra were extinct.  It made him feel terrible deep down in his bones, but there was nothing they could do.  What made him feel even worse, in a horrible-shivery sort of way, was what Lynx and the Prophet had said about him.

*The world is about to end...and when this comes about, there will be an enmity between you, Serge, and the world.*

*This is not prediction, Serge...this is history!*

Serge was worried, and a little frightened.  The fact that huge events were in motion already, crucial events that might hinge on him even a little, was a terrifying thought. He had just been trying to set things right... now he was involved in a struggle for which he had only part of the pieces.

A pair of warm arms wrapped around him, and soft breath blew in his ear.  “You’re worrying about something.”

Serge leaned back into the embrace, eyes still fixed on the stars.  “How do you know?”  He felt comfort, though, with his lover’s arms around him.  There was more peace in Nikki’s arms than he’d felt in a long time; even before Arni Village.

A hand reached up to press against his face, one slender finger tracing by feel the span between his brows.  “Your forehead creases, right here.”  Nikki’s warm mouth brushed over his ear.  “I don’t want you to worry, Serge, especially not right now.”

“Now?” Serge tensed.  “Right now, when we don’t know what’s happening in the world, except that the future is moving in patterns we can’t quite grasp?”

“Well, that too,” Nikki’s chuckle breezed over his earlobe, then lips closed over it, suckling gently.  “But I was thinking about us, too.”

“Oh.”  He was embarrassed even as a little thrill coursed through him.  This was a new sensation, having someone to care for him even more than he considered himself.  Nikki was so...Nikki was wonderful...Nikki was sticking his tongue in his ear.  “H-Hey!  I’m not sure we should...”

Nikki pulled back, violet eyes somber.  “I’m sorry.  You know I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”  The teasing, sensual grin flashed again.  “But you know I can’t keep my hands off you.”

Serge didn’t have a snappy comeback; he was no good at that sort of thing.  Instead he blushed.  “No, that’s not what I meant.”  His voice firmed.  “You know I’m comfortable with you, or at least, I’m getting there.  But I guess I think it doesn’t feel right, with all that’s going on.”

“Serge.”  Nikki tilted his head, demeanor serious.  “The world could fall around our ears at any moment, so I don’t think our friends, or the world for that matter, would begrudge us a little happiness.”  He walked his fingertips down both sides of Serge’s jaw, meeting at his mouth then pressing a kiss there.

Serge ducked his head.  When he said it that way, it sounded so reasonable and right.  “I agree.  I think I do.”  He wanted him so much, it almost didn’t matter.  “I suppose we could...”  He reached for Nikki, gloved fingers caressing over leather.

“Ah, ah...” Nikki chastised, pulling back again.

“What?” Serge said, apprehensive.  After asking him that way, he wanted to stop?

“Gloves,” Nikki reminded him, grabbing one of his hands and pulling it off for him.  “I want to feel your hands on my skin.”  And he smiled with a slow, surefire promise that glowed in sultry eyes.

Serge pulled off his other glove, eyes locked with Nikki’s, letting it drop to the ground.  The faintest hint of a smile tugged his lips, reflected in dusky plum-hued eyes.  He reached forward again, warming naked palms on the patches of chest left bare by Nikki’s audacious costume.

“We’ve got to get you some different clothes,” Serge murmured, splayed fingers encountering the lovely buttons of his nipples.  “What do you do when winter comes?”

“Sail south,” Nikki murmured back, husky, as Serge’s mouth approached.  He tilted his head to meet the shorter boy’s caress as their eyes closed and Nikki’s hands slid into his vest, warming him further.

“Serge!  Hey, Serge!”  Footsteps pounded towards them.

Quickly they broke away, guilty expressions masked by the pooling dusk.  So far, only Kid knew the true nature of their relationship, and she was tossing in a Hydra-inflicted fever back in the infirmary on Guldove right now. It was a young, male voice and soon Glenn popped into view, jumping down from the burned-out husk of the tree that sheltered Radius’ hideout.

“Oh...hey, Nikki,” Glenn said, sounding young all of a sudden.  “I—I didn’t know you were here, too.  Serge, we should camp in the Hideaway tonight – Radius says he has room for everyone.”

“That sounds good,” Serge replied, raking a hand through the bandanna-escaped spikes of his dark bluish hair.  “We’re going to need the rest, if we tackle trying to find Fort Dragonia tomorrow.”  He felt Nikki touch his shoulder, comforting.  They had needed rest wherever they could snatch it, lately.  And it was all from fighting and not more...questionable...pursuits!

Glenn’s eyes went from Serge to Nikki and back again.  “Okay...I guess...I’ll get back down there, and see if I can help Radius with anything.”  He offered them a hesitant smile and retreated.

Serge was busy wondering when everyone had made him impromptu leader when Nikki’s arms went around him again.  “Hey...whatever you’re worrying about, stop it.  There’s nothing we can do this moment, anyhow.”

“Well,” Serge twisted in Nikki’s arms, “there *is* something we can do, and it would make me feel a lot better.”

“Ah.  Yes, there is that,” Nikki agreed softly.  He bent and pressed his lips to Serge’s.

*So warm...*

Serge pulled his thoughts free from the churning tide of events that were trying to suck him under.  Nikki’s tongue was on his bottom lip, asking permission to enter.  He opened his mouth and with a sigh Nikki slipped inside.

Here and there, they had snatched kisses.  Kid had turned her face away, probably more to hide the smile than out of any sympathy.  Nikki had stolen him for a handful of breathless moments when they’d returned to Viper Manor, while Glenn called out their names in confusion as he tried to find them.  For an hour, they shared a bed in the inn.  For seconds while Macha’s head was turned away, Nikki claimed a kiss or their hands brushed or thighs met for a long moment, under pretext of the wave-tossed boat.

An arm slipped around Nikki’s bared midriff, palm pressing flat against the warm flesh of Nikki’s spine.  Serge murmured, learning his lover’s kiss.  Nikki’s lips were tangling him up in sensation, making his belly burn as surely as the fingers that stole inside his mythril vest and under his shirt to search for skin.

“We could bunk under the stars,” Nikki suggested huskily.  “We could tell them we’re setting up watch detail for Harle, if she comes back.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Serge said, pressing his mouth down, smiling against the curve of Nikki’s lips.  “It’s even plausible, but the minute we suggest it Glenn would be camping up here, too.”

“Dammit,” Nikki said without rancor.  He groaned and tipped his head back as Serge mapped a slow path along his jaw with fluttering, sucking kisses.  He eased his way down Nikki’s bared throat, fascinated by the pulse of the blue vein beneath his skin.  He pressed his mouth into the hollow at the base of Nikki’s throat and hugged him tighter, fingers digging into leather.  Nikki’s voice distracted him from flesh.  “Do you get the feeling Glenn would jump right in with us if he had the chance?”

Serge thought about it, tracing a wing of collarbone with his tongue.  “No,” he said musingly, “I think he just wants *you.*”

“Huh?”  Nikki’s nails raked over his neck.  “Don’t be silly.  If he’s staring more at either of us, it’s you.”

He shook his head slowly from side to side.  “Why would he stare at me?” Serge asked, eyeing the impediment of a leather strap before placing a kiss on the flesh beside it.

“You’re serious?”  Hands pressed against his face, drawing his vision up and cooling his skin with their insistent touch.  “Are you completely oblivious to your looks?”

“What do you mean?” Serge asked, lips aching to touch Nikki’s skin again, totally bewildered.  Nikki was the gorgeous one, and he was lucky beyond words.

Nikki shook his head.  “I guess it’s only natural.  You grew up isolated.”

Serge turned his face into Nikki’s palm, kissing it.  “You’re the beautiful one,” he whispered.

There was a smile on his face as Nikki shook his head again, but he bent to kiss him this time.  His expression was hard to read.  “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he told him.

Serge trembled, but he couldn’t look away.  “I...I know,” he replied, thrown back into the shy confusion of his first day with Nikki.  “I...”  He didn’t know what to wish for.  Was he fighting to find a way home?  Or was he fighting for the people of this world?  He had been drawn into the battle against Lynx and no one had asked him what he thought, only hinted where to go and told him who to fight.  And now, with Nikki, did he fight to stay?  The other world, his home world, already had a Nikki.  There was no place for his Nikki there, so he couldn’t ask him to cross worlds together, even if it was possible.  But this world, which had no Serge...could he make a place for himself here?

What promises could a dead man make, without expecting them to be broken?

“Serge?” Nikki questioned, voice subdued but eyes intense.  His hands pulled away, cupping the base of his neck with a delicate touch.

“I know,” Serge repeated, still trembling.  Anguish clogged his throat.  What was he supposed to say?  In this world he was dead; he’d been dead for years.  Something had called him over to this world, sucked him in to fill the void of his loss.

Was he here to restore the lost balance of Another World?  Or had he been pulled here to die a second time, like some grand master weaver was disposing neatly of the loose ends?  *Fate has no forgiveness for those who dare stand against it...*  It was like a whisper of something he’d heard before; the end that was waiting for him if he made a single misstep.

Serge was torn in so many different directions, and Nikki was source of both comfort and confusion.  He didn’t know what to do.

“All right,” Nikki said in a tight, controlled tone that Serge had never heard him use before.  Serge found himself startled and standing alone, feeling bewildered now as well as torn.

“Wait,” he reached out, shocked by how cold his body felt without Nikki’s nestled against his.  “No.  You know that I...”  He stopped, frustrated.  How was he supposed to distill everything into a few words that would apologize and explain, all at once?  He was no good with words; it was why he’d never been able to tell Leena ‘no.’

Nikki did wait, his violet eyes guarded.  That sudden sense of exclusion hurt him more than anything.

That desperate sense of helplessness welled up in him, choking his throat again.  Nikki made a small movement, as if he would turn to go.  Serge blurted out, “You know I’m dead here.”

“So that’s it.”  Warmth spilled into Nikki’s eyes.

Wordless, he nodded.

“Serge.”  Only a few steps had separated them and now Nikki bridged them again, folding him into lean muscled arms.  Serge rested his head against one shoulder, grateful that the dreadful misunderstanding had been averted.  The same way Serge was learning his lips, Nikki was learning his silence.  “It’s okay.  You’re not going to die here, because I won’t let you.  You got that?”

He nodded again, arms around Nikki’s waist, losing himself in the hug.  *I love you, I love you, I love you.*  He kept his lips shut over the words he did want to say.

A dead man couldn’t make any promises, and that was one for a lifetime.

“We’ll figure out the rest as we go along,” Nikki was saying, a hand on the back of his neck, the other rubbing a soothing circle low on his back.  “Okay?”

Throat tight with the words unsaid, Serge could only lift his head and nod again, blue eyes drowning in twilight-purple.

“Let’s go inside before Macha sends up a search party.”

Arm around his waist, Nikki led him back to Radius’ Hideaway.

* * *

*I love you so much...*  That voice, that haunting voice.  It pierced him to the bone.  *I love you so much...that is why I sometimes desire to smash you to pieces!!*

He snapped out of sleep with his mouth gasping wide, struggling to pull air into his lungs.  For a long moment all he could do was stare into the darkness, sweat-tangled hair damp against his face.  The echoes of a cat’s scream shattered in his ears and dissolved away, making him wonder if it had been part of the dream at all...maybe it had only been the night.  Instead of the darkness he could still see ruby-red drops sliding fat and wet over the point of a steel dagger.

Nikki raked trembling hands over his face, pushing the hair back.  His heart was still racing.  Beside him, Serge was muttering and tossing beneath the covers, one hand curling up and towards him in sleep.  He must have moved over from his own cot into Nikki’s some time during the night.  As he looked down on him, the boy whimpered in his sleep and twitched, movements distressed.

Did he have nightmares every night?

Had it been anything like the blood and jumbled images that had slashed his dreams to tatters, showing him an impossible merciless Serge and wanton murder?  Nikki shook his head, easing back down onto the bed and beside the boy who still shook in his sleep, eyes darting beneath bruised-seeming lids.

“You would never kill anyone,” Nikki whispered to him, the way he’d denied the possibility of death earlier.  It couldn’t happen, he would never do that.  But his face in the blued-out, glowing dreamscape had been so cold and alien.  He stretched his arm across the flat belly, offering tactile comfort.

Serge rolled, nearly smacking him in the face with an elbow.  “No!”  He exploded up in a flurry of sheets.

“Serge!”  Nikki was up too, arms going around him, ignoring the fact that he might get hurt.  “Shh, shh, you’ll wake everyone.”  He watched the boy bite down on his lip and struggle to remember where he was.  By degrees he calmed down and his arms wrapped around Nikki in return.  He laid his head on Nikki’s shoulder.

“Sorry,” Serge mumbled, contrite.

“It was just a dream,” Nikki soothed.

“Yes,” Serge agreed, quiet.  “It was a nightmare.”  And he said nothing else, just clung tight.

After a while when he was no longer shaking in Nikki’s arms he extricated himself, balancing on the edge of the bed.

“You don’t have to—” Nikki reached for him.  Someone could wake up at any moment, but he didn’t care anymore about being discreet.  Some things were too important.

“No, that’s not it,” Serge assured him, looking back with a sweet smile.  A hint of embarrassment was in his eyes.  “I have to go...”

“Oh.”  A suggestion flashed through Nikki’s mind, suppressed before it could escape his lips.  Serge blushed often enough without hearing *that* idea.  “I’ll be waiting.”  He let himself tender a glance of invitation.

Now Serge blushed.

He got up from the bed, tugging at the drawstring of his pants to secure it.  Nikki’s eyes traveled over the path of the fabric as it clung to pert rear and the backs of his sinewy legs.  What a lovely man he had.

Nikki sprawled out on his back as Serge left in search of an outhouse and listened to Macha’s soft snores, Leena’s fluty breaths, and Poshul’s unconscious sleepy burbles.  It was amazing no one had woken up when Serge broke from his nightmare.  He ran a hand over his still-sweaty forehead and puzzled over the odd dream.  Where had the dream come from, since Kid was back in Guldove dying from Hydra poison?

He remembered with a child’s sense of wonder the way his Mama would look up from whatever she was doing, and announce with faraway eyes that his father would be home in a few days.  Like the music that had spilled from his fingers since he was little, his blood was calling to him, senses awakening.

Nikki didn’t want this to be real.  He wished he was dreaming this very moment, with Serge in his arms.  He told himself he was not seeing the future.  He couldn’t.

*Life is just a dream on the way to death...*

Serge’s lips had curved so cruelly the moment after that final thrust.

* * *

With a soft thud he kicked the outhouse door shut behind him, then looked up at the stars and scratched his abdomen.  He should have asked Nikki to come with him.  The sky was brilliant, the night cool and gentle around him, and everyone else was asleep.  It was the perfect set-up for some serious making out.

“So...so, I see it is too late.”

The shock jolted him from top to toe, hearing a voice when he was alone.  So he’d thought, at least.  Serge started, falling easily into a fighting stance, wishing he had his weapon firm in his hands.  At least he could hit well enough with his hands to use Elements.

“Mon puce, zeir is no need to be so désagreàble,” the heavily-accented voice stated with an inflection of annoyance.

“Harle,” Serge said with some surprise.  Now he *really* wished he had his Sea Swallow.  “What are you doing here?  And what do you mean by that?”  *...it is too late.*  The words stroked a chill through him.

“Merely nozzing,” the white-and-black harlequin shrugged, materializing from the shadows.  Her large eyes were fixed on him, thoughtful and...sad?

What right did she have to be sad!?  When she’d done so much damage already, and would doubtless do more.  Harle was siding with *him,* the fright’s-head mask of a panther with chilling eyes.  There was another nightmare that decorated his dreams for years, and the demon that loomed over him looked an awful lot like Lynx. It was strange that he had seen the fright’s-head in his dreams for years before actually encountering Lynx in the flesh.  Or perhaps, it was strange he hadn’t remembered it before now.

“Nozzing...for you have Nikki to comfort your nights now, non?  There is no room to dream of moi after all.”

Serge stared at her.  “Why would I dream of you anyway, Harle?”

“Exactement.”  Small shoulders shrugged.  She offered him a small black-hued joker’s grin.  “Has any girl had a chance, I wonder?”

“It’s none of your business.”  Serge backed up a step, wary.  If he shouted loudly enough, his entire roster of friends and fighters would come boiling up out of Hermit’s Hideaway.  Harle had no chance here.

“Relaxe, relaxe,” Harle murmured, waving scarlet-gloved hands.  “I am not here to fight you.  Not *you,* Serge, mon puce.  After all...”  She fell silent, staring at him intently.

“What?” Serge shifted, uncomfortable.  Like all girls, he did not know what this one wanted from him.

Her smile was sad and terrible all at once.  “Well...even a dragon can dream, non?” she said enigmatically.  With a single backflip, she vanished.

“W-wait!  How—”  Serge reached out, frustrated.  It was too late; Harle was gone.  How had she known about him and Nikki?  They had been so careful.  Only Kid had found out...so they thought.  Was there some kind of betraying look or touch?  Any touch would be a giveaway, really.

Frustrated, he raked a hand through his unruly dark hair.  The stars were still bright.  The night was so beautiful.  Yet somehow his enjoyment had been tainted by Harle’s brief visitation, and he didn’t feel safe anymore.

He hurried back inside, where Nikki’s arms were comforting.

* * *

“Make me forget.”

Serge’s pale torso flashed in the darkness, a second’s warning before his weight pressed down on the bed, down on Nikki.  His strong arms were twining around him and his mouth moved enticements against his throat.  “Please, make me forget there’s anything else but you.”

“S-Serge?” Nikki questioned, arms going around boyfriend naturally, but he was confused.  It wasn’t like Serge to be so forward.  They had barely progressed past fumbles in the dark and lots of kissing.  Had something happened on the way to the outhouse?  Tonight was a dark night, dogged with nightmares.

“I’m scared.”  And he was trembling against him.  “I don’t know what’s happening anymore, I just wish things were simpler.  I just want to be with you.  I just want things to be uncomplicated.  And I don’t want anyone to die.”

Nikki hugged him close, lips on his forehead.  “We’ll make things right.”

“Why me?”

He combed back dark spikes of Serge’s hair, falling every which way without his bandanna.  “Why anyone?  Because we’re the people who can get things done.  And because you care too much to walk away from the world.”

He felt the nod against him.  Nikki tightened his arm around Serge’s waist.  “And I guess the most convincing answer would be, is there anyone else you would trust with saving all our lives?  With chasing down Lynx and finding the answers?”

Serge was quiet for awhile.  “No,” he finally spoke to Nikki’s collarbone.  “You’re right, there’s no one else but us.”

Nikki wished he could voice the lie and give Serge the certainty that everything would be all right.  The only thing he could do for Serge’s peace of mind was keep his nightmare to himself.

“But we can forget for a little while.  Can’t we?”  A hand quested over his hip, fingers curling tentatively over his skin at the zenith of his pants.

“Absolutely,” Nikki purred, feeling warm clear through.  He reached back and covered Serge’s hand with his own, pushing it under the band of his pants.  Serge gasped and went still against him for a minute, fingers burning against his skin.  His head tucked under Nikki’s as if trying to hide, but then his fingers prospected further.

“You’re not wearing underwear,” Serge said after a moment.

“I live in eternal hope,” Nikki replied.

Serge smiled at him, still shy, fingers flexing over his skin and encountering something vital.  Nikki inhaled and arched against him, waiting, not daring to touch because this was the furthest Serge had ever gone and he didn’t want to scare him off now.  The coolness of a hand curled around him, wrenching free a gasp, and Serge moved against his body in a way that turned his bones to water and his purring sex drive to steel.

“Yes...”  He turned his head, seeking, feeling Serge’s mouth covering his.  And here he’d thought he would have to initiate everything.

“Is this all right?” Serge asked him, breathless, not waiting for an answer before his tongue slipped in.  The small helpless noises Nikki was making were intended encouragement, and evidently he took it as such.

They moved together in a liquid rhythm, and he felt Serge shudder against him, mouth opening and closing.  “Ahh!”  It was impossible to be completely quiet

“Whu—!?” Macha’s voice was abruptly loud in the dark.  “Somethin’ wrong?”

With the guilt of the uncovered, they broke apart and Serge scrambled for his empty bed, just visible with its rumpled sheets adrift in emptiness, framed in a silver bar of moonlight.  Every nerve was throbbing and resented the interruption, while understanding why Serge had bolted so quickly.

“Nothing’s wrong, Macha,” Nikki called back, restlessly pulling the sheets tight around his thighs.  It wasn’t enough.  “I was just having trouble sleeping.”

“All right, then.”  There was the sound of mass shifting around on the bed the motherly woman shared with Leena.

“I’m sorry.”  The thread of whisper reached him, making him turn his face to see Serge’s earnest apologetic face.  A hand reached out for him, consolation to bridge the gulf between the cots.  Nikki accepted it, lacing his own fingers with Serge’s.  He remembered Serge’s wistful plea from so many days before.  *Do you think we’ll be able to share a bed like that again?*

Nikki pitched his own whisper carefully.  “I promise, we’ll have a night to sleep through.”  Some night soon, he vowed.

Serge’s smile lit his whole face.  An angel strayed to earth couldn’t be more beautiful.  The cruel face of his dreams melted away in the face of the reality.  He would see through his more important vow; nothing would happen to Serge.  He was too beautiful to die young.

They slept eventually, hands clasped until morning stripped the sleep from their eyes.