Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 20
His Weakness

Rao didn't have time for any shenanigans when he returned from the back country. He and Duo were ordered to each select some of their men and head out of Linheights to a place near the southern frontier.

Although their orders were to go and investigate a possible origin of the fiends, it was obvious what was going on. The council was about to decide who the next ruler of Lin would be; the inheritance ceremony was only a month away. It was time for a final showdown. And it was to everybody's advantage that it not take place in Linheights where property damage would be expensive.

It was obvious what this was about because both candidates were being sent on the same mission, and also because the council observer sent to watch them was none other than Septim himself.

Duo glanced over his shoulder. By common accord he and Rao had selected different approaches to the final camp in the dark, bleak hills a few miles from the Gap of Sevring. This kept their troops apart and avoided any unpleasantness before the grand finale.

Duo's men were in good order behind him. Wu Fei was on his left, Yuy on his right, hand on sword as per usual, eyes flicking around for signs of danger. Amon was talking to Bull; he'd stopped chatting to Sally after the third proprietary glare from black oriental eyes. Bull, Duo's burly sergeant, answered the smaller sorcerer politely but kept glancing back at the twenty select troops Duo had chosen, keeping them in line with a glare and a waggle of bushy eyebrows. Other sorcerers of Duo's faction would arrive over the next few days with their own men. Even Dr G would be there, though he'd opted to come with Septim and the council guards.

The camp was a loose arrangement of tents and pavilions in the lee of a rounded hill. Septim's quarters were in the centre of the camp, separating Rao and Duo's sections. A clear message. The competition traditionally ended with an official confrontation between remaining candidates before a council member, and this would take place within a week or so, if all went according to plan. The candidates were being asked not to wreak too much havoc in the meantime.

Duo was not in any hurry. He knew he had the sheer power to win an open confrontation, so it was to his advantage to wait for it. Which meant that Rao was the one who had to take chances, force a confrontation, maybe even try to catch Duo off guard with a less official approach.

The competition had been getting fiercer than ever since the first year of the trials. Duo had had to kill two other children of Lin before now, and some less official assassins as well. Duo wasn't as bloodthirsty as Rao but anybody who attacked him met the god of death up close and personal. Rao wouldn't risk a headlong approach; he would try to gain any advantage over his dangerous adversary he could. Duo was going to have to watch his back.

He glanced sideways. Wu Fei, his old friend. Face set and determined, despite the fact that his fate was going to be decided in the next week. Yuy, his new - well, friend, yes, he supposed. His stalwart support, certainly. Most of the troops were his, or had been trained by him in the last few months. The man was a mountain of efficiency in war. Duo grinned; as he'd told the captain, he liked mountains.

His back felt safe.

*

The next day, Duo and his two shadows were away from the main camp when things came to a head, much sooner than expected, and in the worst possible way.

They were on a small rounded hill inspecting the area around the camp in a very large circle. The Gap of Sevring was in Lin territory but close to the borders of Sanq. The kingdom of white magic had its hands more than full with the fiends roaming its countryside and attacking its villages, but Duo had become an adept commander in the past few years. He wasn't about to ignore the possibility of a border raid. Yuy would have made him check it out anyway.

Duo had his protective wards in place -they'd been there for the past few years now- but still flinched when he felt the presences reveal themselves behind the trio.

Rao. His sister, Kelna. His three most powerful cronies, smirking behind him like miniature Septims. And a lot of tension in the air.

Duo's smile hid his worry and his surprise. This was stupid. His wards were top-class, which was why he hadn't worried about leaving camp with only two non-sorcerers to guard him. Rao might have had the slimmest of chances hitting him all at once and in complete surprise -he would still have been swiftly introduced to the words 'spontaneous Duo-induced combustion' of course, but at least he'd have had a sliver of hope. But he didn't have a prayer with a heads-on attack so what kind of strategy was he trying here?

"What's up, Ra-baby?"

"Nothing to do with you, Maxwell." Rao liked to use that name, to remind everyone that Duo had never claimed Treize's name.

"Well then stop ruining my view, will you?"

"But I'm afraid I have business with your captain Yuy here."

Yuy? Duo's gut suddenly froze. Damn! He'd screwed up, he'd overlooked something!

"Yes, Lord Rao?" Yuy's tone was completely flat.

"Come here, captain."

"Captain Yuy is under my command, Rao!" Duo snapped.

"Yes, but he is also a servant of Lin now, and as such will respond to our laws. And to the orders of one of the lords of Lin."

Duo's jaw tightened as Yuy strode slowly but without hesitation towards Rao. He knew the law.

"Fei, tell you what." Duo's eyes were still glued to Yuy's back. "I'm about to have a bit of a discussion with Rao here about politics and the rights of the common citizen of Lin. It'll probably bore a foreigner like you to tears. Why don't you head back to camp and see if you can find anything interesting to do there."

"Duo!" Wu Fei whispered, his black eyes pleading, flicking between his best friend and a man he had grown to like and respect as well. He knew where this was going.

"Fei... "

Wu Fei glared murderously at Rao, then spun on his heels and ran. His life was sacred, which was why no one had ever tried using him against Duo. He would be left unmolested while he ran back to the camp, a mile away, to warn Duo's friends that the confrontation was going down now. By the time they got back it would, in all likelihood, be too late; either for Duo, if he decided to stop this, or for Yuy, if he didn't.

"I wasn't aware of any rudeness on my part towards lady Kelna." Yuy's voice broke through Duo's black self-recrimination. Duo hadn't really been listening. It didn't matter what excuse Rao would find, what ploy he would try, it was all a gambit. The Lords of Lin normally treated their subordinates with respect, if they wanted it back from the rugged mountain people, but the law was there; a non-sorcerer who insulted a Lord was in trouble. Rao couldn't kill Yuy, but he could punish him for some imagined slight to Kelna and hopefully get the captain to fight back, which would be much more serious... If it worked, he might get a shot at Duo while he tried to defend his captain. At the least, he would score a point and rob him of one of his best men on the eve of their confrontation. And all this with little or no risk to himself.

But Yuy's voice was calm and steady. Maybe, just maybe they could spin this out until reinforcements arrived. Yuy might get hurt but Duo could take care of that. Just as long as he didn't openly confront a Lord of Lin, they just might...

Duo drifted closer, barely listened to Yuy apologising for whatever insult Kelna thought he'd given her. Knowing Yuy, if she had actually approached him -and Kelna had the mores of an alleycat, she might have- he probably had been rude, or at least very short and untactful. The apology sounded sincere. That would make no difference.

"I'm glad you know your place, captain." Rao smirked as Kelna leaned towards him and whispered in his ear. "But unfortunately my sister is not happy with your apology. She was really quite offended."

Crack. Rao's thick, spiked riding crop thundered full force across Yuy's cheek.

The harsh logic of the Lords of Lin dictated that Duo not put himself at risk for an underling, one who was not a sorcerer and a foreigner at that. Nonetheless, Duo flinched and barely stopped himself reaching up to the trickle of blood he could almost feel running down his own cheek.

Yuy stood there, face slightly turned. He was smarter than the fuming Duo. He'd made no move in defence, did not even lift his eyes now. Duo was only a few steps away, he couldn't even see any pain in those cold blue eyes, though his cheek was laid open almost two inches.

The next blow took him on the neck, and made him stagger just a bit, but his face still looked impassive beneath the trickle of blood and messy brown hair.

Duo found his fingernails piercing his palms. Anger was burning him, he could feel it try to pool together at his fingertips.

But to attack Rao with enough strength to actually do any harm, he'd have to drop his protective wards. And Rao was waiting for just that.

As if sensing his Lord's temptation, he saw Yuy cast him one of his patented scowls before turning back to Rao. The look made Duo shake -and not because Yuy's glares could be used to etch glass - as he realized that Yuy was quite willing to go through with this to stop Duo from entering a confrontation that could get him killed.

The riding crop twitched in Rao's hands. Though the man was looking at Yuy, he was concentrating on Duo. There was anger in his face, behind the urbane smile. He must have been hoping that Yuy, a notoriously violent killer, would have reacted by now, resisted. One of his sorcerers was ready to intervene with a freezing spell if he did. Then he'd have his excuse to really do some damage, Duo realized. If Yuy didn't give him that excuse, then the harm done to the captain would probably not be too serious when Wu Fei returned.

The captain was made of the same granite as the mountains of Lin. His straight back and calm eyes informed the world that he could take on more than Rao could ever dish out. Duo would just have to stand there and stay calm.

Yeah, stay calm while that dog Rao ripped shreds out of his Yuy for the sake of his little power plays! Duo was trembling all over with hurt and fury. He didn't know if he'd be able to last as long as the stoic captain.

His Yuy... that was the heart of the problem. Rao wouldn't have tried this with any other of his friends -bar Wu Fei, perhaps, and he couldn't harm the oriental hostage. With anybody else, Duo would have glared but let the attack continue until he was in a position to heal the damage and then make Rao pay with ten times the pain. This had been the case for years, and so Rao had never tried this gambit before. But apparently he'd seen what Duo was only just beginning to realize. He might not have known Yuy for long but the man had inexplicably gotten closer to him than any before, bar one, and Duo was going to find it hard to see the brown-haired man badly injured for his sake.

Rao's crop struck Yuy on the shoulder, but he was protected by a thick leather jerkin and almost sneered in contempt at the blow. Rao's eyes narrowed, but his smile grew wide and almost charming.

"Well Captain, I'm glad to see you accept that you should receive punishment for your grievous insult to the person of a noble of Lin. I'll make this quick then." The crop swished again, gesturing in a small circle. "Turn around, captain, strip down to the waist and kneel."

Duo's heart skipped a beat - then another as he saw Yuy's back twitch. His mind ripped in two. Nothing in him wanted to see the young man horsewhipped for his sake, but if he refused-!

"Captain?" Rao's nostrils flared, sensing an unexpected opening. Duo's mouth was dry as he tried to find the words to stop what was going to happen, just as he knew that there weren't any. Nothing could stop Rao now.

"Captain, we're waiting."

It wasn't fear of pain, Duo's mind gibbered, or humiliation that was stopping Yuy from complying; he didn't know what it was! But Yuy's eyes had flicked towards him at the moment his arms had raised to comply. Duo could read the cold mask by now, but he couldn't understand the look of agonized indecision that flickered across the set face. What... ?

Yuy's face was like rock again as he slowly turned his back to Rao. His hands reached down, as if to pull the leather jerkin from the belt, but Duo, in tune with the captain's smallest gestures, knew that the right hand was moving to his sword hilt instead.

He's not going to do it! But he knows what that means! And he's going to try to take Rao with him! NO!

The reaction was as instinctive as it had been when facing Septim five years ago; laboriously build protective wards flickered out as Duo leapt at Yuy, jerking him towards his chest, hand rising to blast as he was hammered with several immediate and powerful attacks aimed straight at him.

The explosion engulfed the two young men in a wave of obliterating heat and darkness.

[chap. 19] [chap. 21] [back to Maldoror's fic]