Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 14
Friends and Enemies

"What-... do you think you're doing?" Duo's voice was like a dagger suddenly unsheathed.

Wu Fei paused, the scissors half lifted behind Duo, his eyes caught by Duo's in the reflection from the small mirror in front of them.

"Your hair. You're going to have to-"

"No-one touches the hair!!" Wu Fei took a step back from the creature staring out from the young boy's eyes. "I don't even let my father cut my-"

Duo's face flinched, and he spun away from Wu Fei to go stand at the small window.

Wu Fei carefully put the scissors down on the big box they were using as dresser, made a soothing gesture and spoke gently, as if he were trying to talk a maniac down from a tree.

"Duo, I know it is nice hair, but surely you've noticed that all the children of Lin have it cut short, even the girls. Anybody who practices black magic does that. You don't want it flying freely about your shoulders while you've got flames wrapping around you, right?"

His voice dropped out of the unfamiliar soothing tone he'd been using to return to his usual arrogant bite. "If you want to do this, you can't let trivialities stop you. You have to play their game, or you don't have a chance." His eyes burned, he'd had to swallow a lot himself in the past few months, small barbs and insults he did not consider trivialities, but was willing to put up with to reach his goal.

"No, it's IF I play their game that I don't have a chance." Duo said, his voice still a bit high but otherwise composed. "They've been playing it all their lives. I've been a child of Lin for less than a day. What do you fancy my chances are, knowing that?"

"Your chances are virtually nil whatever you do." Wu Fei said with astounding tact. "Completely nil if you need me to outline the obvious steps for you!"

"Hmm, humor me." Duo smirked, but his eyes were serious as he turned from the window.

Wu Fei rolled his eyes and considered leaving, abandoning Duo to his fate. But he didn't. Duo was obviously a few moves away from a full kata, but he was powerful, friendly, probably not as dumb as he looked, willing to help Wu Fei, and dying to kill Septim and wreak havoc on Lin. What were the chances of finding someone else like that running around the school? Worse than 'virtually nil'.

"Very well. If you want to stand a chance of not ending up with your throat cut, or as a family pet for one of the houses -or your uncle- you have to become a competitor for the government of Lin. That'll happen if you are here in two days time and recite the Acknowledgment. It's a little speech where you accept the rules of the trial. You will then have to find a candidate who has a chance of becoming the heir of Lin, and ingratiate yourself to him. Or her. You're better off with a man though, the women in this place are even more weak and volatile." Wu Fei made a contemptuous face.

"You will have to be sure to not stand out, which means, erm, trimming your hair, getting some new clothes -something not too fancy, you don't want to overshadow or provoke anybody. You saw the sort of blue or grey uniforms they were wearing, along those lines- what else? Being nice would help, or at least not rude. You probably don't want to be seen with me either." He added, brutally honest, with only slight regret. The oriental boy was too focused on his own concerns to let himself long for friendship and conversation.

"Why do I have to find a good candidate and kiss his ass?" Duo sounded puzzled.

"Because in two day's time, everybody is going to fall into two categories; the potential heirs and the followers. If someone tries to become the heir, he has to have the power to back up that claim, at least in the others' eyes. They'll not take a chance of moving against someone strong at this point of the game, but if they sniff out weakness, they'll hound you. That's why you need to find someone who is strong enough to protect you. If he becomes heir, then you'll be a member of his government. Well, that's not really an issue, right? You're not doing this for politics." Duo snorted. "All you care about is that while you are in the trials, your life is as sacred as mine."

"Oh good, here I was feeling all jealous of you for being sacred."

"No one can interfere with the children of Lin once the challenge starts, it would make the whole thing pointless otherwise. The only ones who can do anything to you are the children themselves. The first year, no one is allowed to use magic or kill one another. The first year." Wu Fei stressed.

"Hmm ok. Anything else I should be doing?"

Wu Fei hesitated. Duo had looked ready to maim when he'd suggested cutting his hair, the oriental youth didn't know how this suggestion was going to go down. But Wu Fei didn't know the meaning of the word fear. Or tact.

"It will go against the grain, but you will want to put yourself in the hands of your uncle Septim until the trial starts."

Duo curled a lock of his hair around his finger. "Really?" he asked softly. Wu Fei thought he'd have preferred shouts of protest.

"The school will provide you with food and a place to sleep." Wu Fei said firmly, knowing he was right. "But as I said, you need more. You need clothes, grooming, training in magic and the rites of the trial. At the very least, a safe place to sleep. That last is important. From what you say, Septim is trying to pretend he doesn't much care for you or think highly of your chances of getting a good position in the next council. But I think he's lying, that he's actually hoping you'll gain a position of some power, and others may think so as well. They may decide to assassinate Treize's son before he gets placed under the protection of the trials."

"Would you? Try to gain Septim's protection?"

Wu Fei looked at him, his face a mask. Then he nodded. "He wouldn't give it to me, I am not his concern, but if he did, I would take it."

"Because you wanted his protection, or because you're hoping he'll let his guard down around you and you can slip that knife you have hidden in your boot into his slimy little heart?"

Wu Fei stiffened ever so slightly. Duo smiled. "Don't even bother answering that, buddy, I think we have an understanding here. Why go for Rao and not Septim in the first place?"

"Because I have at least a chance of getting near Rao in an unguarded moment. Septim has survived many years as the head of the council because he's as prudent as an old snake hiding under a rock. When I die I want to take someone with me, a burial gift worthy of my wife and her clan." The dark eyes were suddenly blazing with a fire that reminded Duo of the black magic that had charred his own soul. "Whoever becomes heir of Lin will be designated to reign for twenty five years. Even if I kill him. That will leave a council full of infighting inbred idiots to rule Lin for another twenty five years, without a driving force like Treize was. Septim will have lost his place in the council with the new heir, and he will be powerless to do anything but watch. I hope it eats his guts out. That will have to be good enough."

Duo thought about this.

"Hmm, nope." He finally said, tugging at his locks again. "Sorry. I'd still rather see him get slowly burned to a crisp, if that's alright by you."

Wu Fei snorted, wishful thinking was contemptible to him. "How do you think you are going to accomplish that? Even if you ask his protection I doubt he will let his guard down around you for awhile yet."

Duo turned with a manic smile and shoved open the small window before him. "Which is why I'm not going to bother asking him for protection. I don't need it. I'm staying up here until the competition starts, that should throw any assassins off my trail."

Wu Fei looked wildly around the small attic space that Duo had found under the rafters of the school. The oriental boy had thought Duo had wanted a place to talk privately. He now understood why Duo had stolen a lamp, a mirror, some toiletries and some bed sheets from various rooms on the way up.

"I'm not going to settle for anything less than Septim's life." Duo said dreamily, leaning out the small attic window leading onto the roof. "And there's some other stuff I'd like too; I want to know exactly what he has in mind for Sanq. It didn't sound like idle threats earlier... I know a really good way of doing that, getting Septim to trust me, and screwing this shithole of a country while I'm doing so."

Wu Fei stared, suddenly wondering just how crazy Duo was. "You don't mean-!"

"You better get going, Wuffie boy. If you think I have a chance -or that the ride might be fun enough- you can bring me some stuff to eat tomorrow, and help me get ready. If not, I don't blame you, but you better leave now, cause you won't want to be seen near me. Now if you don't mind... "

"Duo!" Wu Fei shouted, leaping to the window from which the slim boy had thrown himself.

Dusk was falling quickly in the thin mountain air. Duo stared up at the dark boy, framed in the window above him. He was balancing on the thin stone guttering of the roof as if he were strolling down a street. "Yes?"

"What do you think you're doing?!" Wu Fei hissed, anxiety adding venom to his voice.

"Going to do what I do best! Steal some clothes and some food, and think up ways of driving each and every sorcerer in Lin screaming up the wall. Why?"

"Just asking." Wu Fei sighed, in sudden resignation. Maybe Duo didn't have much of a chance, but suddenly the oriental was curious to see how far he would be able to go... and it would probably be fun to watch. "I'll grab you some stuff at dinner and bring it to you tomorrow. Don't get caught."

Duo's grin was as bright as the last glint of the setting sun. "Ah! No worries. Thanks, Wuffie, and see you tomorrow!"

"Wu Fei." It was just a mutter as he watched the nimble figure run along the roof's edge, over some low eaves and into the gathering darkness.

[chap. 13] [chap. 15] [back to Maldoror's fic]