Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, notes, disclaimer

Two Halves: Circles + Chapter 7
The Burning Man

"It seems... smaller than I remember." Heero frowned at the structure in the middle of the clearing.

"Yes, husband dearest, that would be because the roof has collapsed inwards."

Heero glared at Duo. "That's not what I meant. The whole thing seemed much bigger when-"

"When we were twelve? Yeah, well, we've grown since then. You're also half an inch taller than me now, so you better stop it."

"Stop... ?"

"Growing, dimwit."

"Hn."

"Wow, somehow I knew you'd say that."

Heero recognized what was behind the tone of voice, the needling, which was surprising, he wasn't normally this perceptive about other people's behaviour. But this was Duo, and besides, in this instance, he felt some of the same; mingled grief and guilt making him feel defensive, closing his barriers. But they were alone here. Maybe there was no need for that.

Duo stiffened, wide-eyed, as Heero slipped an arm around his shoulder.

"Come on." Heero knew his voice sounded gruff -it always did- and he didn't know what else to say. They won't mind? That was obvious, they were dead. What could be said to make this easier?

He led Duo to the two mounds, a little way off from the broken and burned remains of the lodge which had been the backdrop of their childhood traumas. Zechs had had to pretend that Odin and Father Maxwell had left with the princes on the 'trip' which explained their disappearance, six years ago. He'd come back after Heero had left for Kespar, with the royal spy for only help, to bury his two best friends side by side where they had fallen. Their mounds were still unmarked, though Zechs was preparing a beautiful burial slate now that popular memory had let the two fallen slip from general ken.

The two young men stood hand in hand before the mounds. Then Duo knelt, followed by his husband. Duo's mouth drooped, for once it seemed the voluble king of Lin didn't know what to say. Heero knew that Duo blamed himself for the death of Father Maxwell, though it had been Septim who had twisted Duo's power to murder the gentle priest. Both deaths, however, rested firmly upon his own shoulders, his and his cursed heritage.

"How do you reckon that?" Duo snapped when Heero murmured this in an attempt to make him feel better.

Heero shrugged. "Septim was calling me here, using an old blood spell. Blood spells can control people in subtle ways and our shared blood gave him the power to use it. That's how he knew I would be here at that time and place. I was the one who broke away from Odin and Father Max that day, remember? The first one into the clearing, I led the way. The fact that you followed me, and that both of us showed up is what confused the issue. It wasn't a very strong spell, as he was only my uncle, if I'd resisted the urge... they'd both be alive, nothing would have happened."

"Well until five years had passed and the new heir of Lin would have ripped open the breach with Septim's help because we weren't there to stop him. Then lots would have happened, none of it pleasant."

Heero sighed. "It is useless to waste time considering 'might have beens', I know. I keep this in mind though, to make sure I never forget my heritage."

"And boy don't you ever let us forget it." Duo muttered.

"What do you-"

"Nothing." Duo took the incense sticks and gaily colored streamers from the bag he'd prepared. They planted the sticks and streamers in the mounds, the traditional grave offerings seeming incongruous in the long-abandoned clearing and moss-covered knolls. Duo lifted a finger towards the sticks but hesitated.

"Do-do you have a flint?"

"Sure." Heero understood why Duo wouldn't want to use mage-flame here of all places. He scratched his flint and lock and lit the incense with some trouble. Then the two young men stayed kneeling before the graves, thinking, while the breeze through the clearing brushed the streamers, flaring out the ribbons, and dissipated the smell of incense into the fresh forest air. In the distance, a horse stamped a hoof. Heero instinctively glanced up at the others, their escort and their friends, waiting at a respectful distance a few hundred feet away, giving the pair their privacy but, Heero noted with approval, not letting them out of their sight.

"Well... " Duo finally sighed and stood. He made a bow of respect towards the graves. Heero was about to do the same when something alien impinged on his senses.

"Do you smell burning?"

Duo glanced at him in surprise and sniffed the air.

"Yeah a bit. Must be the stick in the incense?"

"Wind's blowing it away from us."

They turned towards the breeze and stiffened. A trail of smoke was coming from the wrecked lodge. That brought back so many bad memories it held them paralyzed for a few precious seconds. Then Heero's mage blade sang out of the scabbard.

"Duo get to the horses!"

"Wha-"

"Now!"

Duo only moved closer to him to guard his back -of course- and anyway it was too late.

Something burst into flames in the center of the lodge, where Septim had appeared six years before. Fire shot out from the lodge in two arcs, running like galloping herds of red and golden horses around the clearing. Before the pair could do more than stagger away from the mounds, they were encircled in flame.

Duo started cursing a blue streak as he threw up a spell wall around them. Not that he had to. Even Heero could tell this wasn't a normal fire. It crackled and burned the trees around them, but didn't advance in on them, just flared like a barrier at a steady distance, twice as high as they were.

The lodge was burning brightly at that point. And something moved slowly out of the inferno.

"Oh shit... " Duo didn't sound surprised. Heero found himself grabbed by the shoulder and jerked back. "Outta the way, cuz, this is my kinda fight."

"Except if it can seal your magic like last one." Heero snapped.

"Well then we're toast. Quite literally." Duo muttered.

The burning man stopped a few dozen feet away.

Fire ripped up the form that looked slender and humanoid under the blackened cracked skin and withered, twisting flesh. The eyes were two black empty pits, the face was a charred lump, half roasted meat, half skull. The flesh was apparently growing at much the same rate it was being consumed so the fire kept making new leeway, boiling fluids and charring to the bone again and again.

"They just keep getting better and better, don't they. Or worse and worse, depending on your standards." Duo ground out, mouth on automatic while fingers flexed. Fortunately magic sprang to his hands, unimpeded. "I give this one a ten on the ick scale."

"The first one was uglier, but this one looks a lot more dangerous." Heero muttered, hoping Duo was taking this seriously.

"Should we see what it wants? Or do we -"

You will come with me.

Flames roared and shot out of the tortured throat as the jaw flapped up and down, the ligaments crackling in the blaze. The voice was nonetheless clear, echoing strangely through the clearing, seeming to crackle up from the flames themselves.

"It forgot to add 'Or Else'. Or 'Please', that would be a nice change." Duo started gathering up strands of power in his hands.

You will come with me or die.

"There you go. Gotta respect the classic fiend lore, you know."

Heero could feel power coursing through his husband. He was close to Duo's back, to shelter in his wards, though that might not be enough to protect him from a direct blast from the creature. Black magic wards weren't meant for two. And as long as Duo kept those wards up full strength to protect them both, he couldn't use his full power against the fiend.

The fire crackled and hissed, a branch broke and fell, the fire consuming it without ceasing to burn any brighter. The creature just stared, while Duo flexed his powers and readied himself.

Heero, feeling pretty useless, tightened his grip on his mage-blade. Unbidden, memories of a few months back passed through his mind, riding with Duo or listening to his cousin chatter by the fire late at night. Duo had explained sorcery to him, as well as taught him a few rudiments. Heero had just listened with something like quiet contentment, even though the subject matter made him uneasy.

He'd learned that sorcerous battles were as strategic as sword fights. It wasn't just a question of 'blowing the crap out of each other' (Duo's words) at full strength. Loosing a bolt through a ward weakened it temporarily, so it was best to wait for the opponent to strike first, or do something to surprise him or throw him off balance, make him lose his temper and attack first and unwisely. In that respect, Duo's flippant trademark one-liners had been devastating in the ranks of the overly-serious lords of Lin, Heero recalled. He didn't think this creature would be affected though.

Heat waves washed over them from the cage of fire around them. Heero wondered briefly what the others outside were doing; Jay and G and a few of Duo's sorcerers were out there, they might think of something. Heat also rippled from the figure near them. Who was waiting with remarkable calm. Duo was grinning. Heero knew that his manic husband was hot-headed and impatient on occasion, but never when it came to matters of magic.

If you think you can do anything with those pitiful blasts of yours, little mageling, you should do it now...

"Oh, I've got all the time in the world! I'm not the one who's on fire, friend."

You have very little time at all... The Noose of Flames is slowly burning up the air and increasing the heat in its embrace. Soon you will pass out, and then I will drag you out of here. You will be badly burned, but alive.

The pair didn't look at each other, but the same thought was running through their minds. Oops.

"Hit him, Duo."

His husband's lips curled. It went against his sorcerous instincts to attack an unknown quantity like this first. But if the creature was telling the truth -and from the heat and billowing smoke starting to choke them, he probably was- this was a good time to break with tradition and try something new.

Duo sent a small testing bolt shooting through the wards. It caught the creature in the chest and shoved it back a couple of feet but didn't otherwise affect it. It didn't retaliate either.

"It wants you alive." Heero reminded him in a whisper.

That is not quite exact.

Heero cursed himself, of course the fiend was using some magical means to hear, what with its ears being on fire, so a whisper couldn't be trusted.

"You said you were going to drag me out of here alive." Duo snapped, as he gathered more magic. Heero could see by the knot in his brow that he was thinking frantically.

Yes. There is a portal that awaits us. All three of us. I need you both. However much I wish I could burn at least one of you to cinders instead.

There was a moment of stillness as Duo's eyebrows shot up, then he frowned dangerously.

"Neither of us are going anywhere, so why don't you go stick your ass in a bucket of water and leave us the hell alone."

Foolish...

"Whatever." Duo's hands flickered.

A maelstrom of force struck the fiend, punches of sheer power coming at if from different directions, trying to rip it apart. Heero stared at the amount of unleashed energy, noting the trickle of sweat running down Duo's face, the look of strain around his eyes. He was going full out.

The flames roared and screamed and so did the creature. But there was almost obscene pleasure with the shrieks of pain, as the flames curled around it, erupting under the blows, healing it as it burned and countering the worst bursts. Duo's lips curled back in an angry silent snarl and he angled his hands, trying to outmaneuver the flames. He was panting with exertion in the raw, burning air.

Heero made up his mind in an instant, drawing up the leather hood of his riding clock and tying it over his hair. "Keep it up, Duo!" He snapped, and leapt at the fiend, sword swinging. He heard Duo's scream of protest behind him, and the buffets of power lapsed a bit, but Heero was already in striking range, ignoring the blazing heat and ripping winds tugging at him, singeing skin and clothes. The mage-blade swung, biting deep into the fiend's chest. It screamed in real agony, flames billowing from the wound, burning Heero's hand. Uncaring, he ripped the sword free, spinning to deliver the second blow that would sever the thing's head. The sword-

-bit nothing but hot air, and Heero staggered forward. He crouched to regain his balance, casting about for the fiend, he could still hear the crackle of its shroud of flames-

You dare!

Above him!

The fiend was hovering a dozen feet or so above his head, one hand clutching the ugly wound in its chest, the other lifting slowly to point directly at him.

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