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Fight or Flee

By Quillblade

 

The street was a pale ghost of its usual self, thickly covered in snow that was not soft and yielding so much as the next best thing to solid rock, the surface of the road slickly coated with a glistening sheen of ice, windows of buildings and cars alike touched by delicate fern-like hoar frost. It was a beautiful sight - as long as you were viewing it from indoors, rather than in the patch of the snapping, growling wind that bowled down the frozen streets and chilled all warmth from whatever it touched.

Unfortunately, there were many people out there in the cold in duCaine Metropolis; homeless men, women, children, whose lives had been turned upside-down by the Invasion, and had been further destroyed by the tyranny of the ruling Government and its ruthless Enforcers.

However, only one lone figure was stumbling down that street; a small, undernourished, tan-feathered young man who had his arms wrapped tightly around his chest in a futile attempt to stay warm. He had not the clothes for this kind of weather: a raggedy pair of shirt and jeans, and shoes in bad need of a cobbler's attention. Many times he had attempted to seek shelter from the cold, but his desperate knocking had been ignored - no one opened their doors to strangers anymore. It was a time of terror in the city, terror mostly brought about by those who were meant to help...

The young man stumbled on the slippery, icy road, falling onto his side and wincing as his head copped a whack on the curb. With more than a little difficulty he pulled himself upright again, and continued his somewhat aimless trek down the road. He wasn't entirely sure where he was going, but he knew that somewhere... somewhere close, hopefully... there would be some kind of shelter, even an open garage where he could huddle in for a while.

The chill wind tickled under his feathers and he grit his teeth, squinting through the haze of snow and blinding wind in an attempt to see the street before him. He now recognised where he was; Altrhein Square was not far in front of him, and he was surprised by how far he'd come since being tossed out of the comfortable warehouse he had shared with a number of other homeless. His eyes narrowed as he remembered - the Enforcers, all pomp and brutal indifference to the people, arriving and demanding they leave the premises. One poor soul had refused, so they shot him where he stood, then continued to fire even as the homeless snatched up what they could and dove out into the cold of the night. He had escaped with only a few burns.

As if thinking about the burns made them stronger, his shoulder began to ache, and he knew it had opened again. That area of his shirt was a charred and blistered mess, and although he'd stopped the blood with a handful of snow, his old shirt was stained dark red. If it became infected, he thought with an almost clinical detachment, it might yet claim him.

Again he slipped on the road, but instead of falling to the side he skidded forward. The ground vanished from under his feet with a heart-stopping abruptness, and he tumbled down the concrete steps surrounding the Square to land in a heap at the bottom of them. He was too tired to get up again, and the wind seemed to have lessened, or at least it couldn't reach him where he lay. Wet, slushy snow began crawling in through his tattered shirt, but by then he was very nearly oblivious to anything much. He was staring at the head of a duck.

It was, of course, Drake duCaine - or at least his statue, which the Saurians had used for target practice when they'd invaded, and the Authority had seen little profit in rebuilding. The Authority had seen little profit in rebuilding anything much.

Hunching up into a ball in the snow, he contemplated whether dying where the shadow of duCaine used to fall was any better than dying anywhere else. He doubted it somehow, yet once he closed his eyes he couldn't summon the strength to open them again. Drake duCaine... almost a God to many, was the Savior of Puckworld, but where had he been when Puckworld needed him once more? He certainly hadn't been helping out his people. And keeping watch from on high was a lot of help, in any case, when the new threat was from within, and just as deadly...

Like the cold. Only it wasn't so cold now, was it? The snow falling over him was almost like a blanket, soft and welcoming, inviting him to sleep a while. But sleep, he thought foggily, was the enemy now; he couldn't sleep. He shouldn't sleep. But it was so hard not to... and slowly he began to drift off, deciding to let his life slip away in relative peace.

"Hey!" called a voice.

He frowned a little; some people just couldn't leave a body to die alone, could they?

The voice came again, more insistant. "Hey, kid, are you okay?" And then someone was shaking him furiously, slapping at his face. He gave a small groan and lifted a hand in a vague attempt to push this intruder away. It failed. "Hell, you're almost an iceblock, kid. Jedar! Yo, Jedar, over here, I need some help with this one!"

That name was familiar, and the young man managed to open his eyes, peering out at a big, worried black face in front of him. "Jedar?" he croaked. "Did you.. say.."

He was interupted by a voice, as familar as the name, and he struggled to see the figure approaching through the near-snowstorm that was going on around them. "I'm surprised anyone out in this has managed to survive, it's suicide to come out and..." The man's voice trailed off slowly as he came close enough to see them clearly.

"I don't believe it," he said finally. "Tarrin."

Jedar continued to stand there, frozen by shock rather than cold, then snapped out of it in a moment and fairly dove to pick the cold young man up. His black-feathered friend stood with him, his expression a mix of curiosity and concern. "I have to get him inside," Jedar insisted, "You've full control of the team for now, I'll join you when I can."

"I understand, sir."

And now Tarrin Avias was being carried quickly from the steps, toward the cracked base of the old duCaine statue. Only now everything was a blur, and he couldn't even see the face of his friend as Jedar said, "You'd better hang on, Tarrin, because I'll never forgive you if you die on me now."

Tarrin gave a faint smile, and it felt as though ice were breaking off his face. Then he closed his eyes with a pained expression, and a surprisingly warm darkness sped to greet him.


A thick woollen blanket tucked completely around him like a tight cocoon was the first thing Tarrin noticed when he opened his eyes some hours later. That and the warmth it offered him, more warmth than he'd felt in months.

After a little while, he began to notice pain, too. Wincing, he shifted his weight off his injured shoulder, sitting upright. The burns were bandaged, and the faint smell of iodine hung around it.

The room he was in was small but clean, with a tatty bed (on which he sat), an empty row of shelving along the back, and a small table in the near corner, the whole setup painfully reminding him of the bedrooms back at the Lair. The Lair. Once a home, his only home, now nothing but a beaten, decrepit old ruin of dead memories.

It was not as warm out of the blanket, but it was certainly better than being out in the snow. Tarrin pulled the covering after him and wrapped it about his shoulders as he walked, only a little unsteadily, toward the door.

However, he'd barely got there when it opened, and he found himself staring at a familiar, blue-haired face. "I see you're awake," Jedar observed, grinning.

"No, no, I've decided to take up sleepwalking as a hobby." Stepping back, Tarrin let him through, and returned to the edge of the bed. It was the only place either of them could sit down, but it still wrung at him that he couldn't offer a chair. "It's good to see you again."

"You say it so calmly. It's been almost a year since the Brotherhood was destroyed." He plonked down beside his friend. "I'd given you up for dead long ago, brother.."

"Brother.." Tarrin smiled. "I was a lucky duck, Jedar. I was in the bathroom at the time, and when the place was hit, I guess the beams stayed put.. I'm not sure, I remember blacking out, then blurs, and then finding myself wandering about with a group of vagrants. They said they'd picked me up months ago, that I'd been delirious until then. This was.. about a week ago."

"Why wander in the snow, then?"

"Enforcers." He only needed to say that much; Jedar's expression darkened. "You've had some experience with them, I take it?"

"The Government's super-police, the thugs of the force... Yes, I have," he added dryly. "We were just heading out on a strike when we found you."

"We?"

"What this place is, Tarrin... I think Mayhem described it as a homeless shelter with teeth. He and I, we're part of the 'teeth'. A lot of people eat a lot of food, well you know, and also need water, clothing and blankets for warmth.. We have to find that, and protect them too, because the Authority would like to see all of us dead."

"You fight the Enforcers?"

"Frequently. Enforcer ration-houses and certain other government stations are some of our favorite strike points. We only hit the baddies' places." Jedar paused. "Now, I realise that 'good' and 'bad' are only generic terms, but in this case, when we have people being jailed, being killed, for minor offences... Pompous officials all over the world siding with this 'efficient crack-down on criminal activity' out of greed and cowardice, looking the other way while innocents are shot, hanged, executed in the street..." He was up and pacing now, his expression clouded but his eyes sharper than Tarrin had ever seen. "...Our own Government taxing the world to the point of poverty under the guise of funding for rebuilding projects, allowing, moreover encouraging, the elimination of the homeless and hungry to happen right here in their own capital... all that constitutes 'bad' to me."

"You don't have to explain yourself, Jedar," said Tarrin, gently, "I hold no love for the current Government, either."

Jedar looked up at him, grinning ruefully. "I guess I'm just too fond of the sound of my voice. Of course, Mayhem has me giving speeches to the group regularly, I suppose to pluck them up when they're down... it may be rubbing off."

His gaze wandering to the room, Tarrin asked, "This isn't the Brotherhood, is it?"

"No." The older man came to sit down again. "The Brotherhood is alive, though... Last I heard, what was left had relocated to the shelter in Keltor. They'll be battling out for the Leadership about now, I should think."

"Duke never returned?"

"Duke was part of the strike team that demolished the Overlord's stronghold. Rumor has it, that both the saurians and the team were destroyed as well."

Tarrin sighed, and then frowned. "Do.. do you know who survived?" he asked cautiously.

"No, I don't."

"Felicity? Nylessa?"

"I don't know, Tarrin." Jedar sighed, running a hand back through his hair. "I'm thinking to establish some kind of contact with them, it'd be good to have them on our side at the moment... but I'm also afraid to try. I'm not sure I want to find out how many friends I've lost."

"You'll have to face them eventually, though."

A tired, lopsided smile met his statement of the obvious. "True, but right now I've got more immediate problems on my hands. Security is getting tougher around the ration-houses, and very soon we're going to run out of supplies."

He looked so unlike the Jedar who Tarrin had grown up with, that the younger man was somewhat taken aback. Rather than the cheerful attitude, the playful grin, and the almost mischievous glint in his eyes, right then Jedar looked like a man who'd accidentally taken the world on his shoulders and was doubting now whether he could deal with it.

"We're going to have to get harder," he added, "Strike further. Until recently we were just a minor annoyance to the Authority, but now they've whole teams of Enforcers out looking for us. Fighting in the streets..." Jedar paused, his eyes narrowing speculatively. "You'll be heading back to the Brotherhood, won't you?"

"Of course. Well, if you don't need me here, that is."

"We've a couple doctors of our own. Tarrin, I need to ask a really big favor of you."

"I'll do it."

"You shouldn't volunteer before you know what you're volunteering for," Jedar said dryly. "The safer answer would have been 'depends, what?'."

"I'll try to remember that." He shifted position a little so that he was leaning more comfortably against the smooth old wall. "But I think I have a fair idea what you're going to ask. You want me to carry a message back to the Brotherhood, yes?"

"More a request. We need aid.. food, clothing, medical supplies, weaponry, whatever they can manage. Hell, I'd go myself, get down on my knees and beg even, but I'm kind of important back here and I can't just up and take a trip to Keltor."

"When do you want me to leave?"

"I'll send a couple of people with you... but not until later this week. As eager as you seem, I'm not letting you out of my sight until I'm sure you aren't just going to collapse on the way. This is not a case of 'physician, heal thyself'."

Tarrin smiled at that. "All right. I'll curb my enthusiasm for a few more days."

"My thanks, brother," Jedar replied, giving him a quick hug. He stood then, glancing toward the open door with a grimace. "You know, the position of leader in any organisation is over-glorified, I'd give anything for the chance to put my feet up for an afternoon with a strong cup of coffee. Unfortunately, I've other duties I have to get back to. I'll drop by again as soon as I can, all right?"

"All right."

"Hungry?"

"Starving."

"I'll send someone up with a meal, then." He turned toward the door.

"Jedar?" Tarrin asked suddenly.

He looked over his shoulder. "Yes?"

Unsure how to ask the single question still ringing through his head, Tarrin fumbled around mentally for a while before finally settling on a rather vague, "Why you?"

Jedar, however, seemed to understand perfectly. "Because no one else was doing anything," came his answer. "It's fight or flee, Tarrin. And sooner or later, if we just keep on fleeing, one day we're going to run out of places to hide in."

 

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