Author: Maldoror
see chap. 1 for warnings, disclaimer

Two Halves + Chapter 7
The Cut

The boys ran ahead of the three men they now firmly considered their family. They were having fun in the last shreds of autumn, throwing dead leaves at each other, finding bigger and bigger pinecones, finding mushrooms in the leaf mould. The boys had been exited at riding in a carriage for the first time, and, after their initial shyness at being in unfamiliar territory, had started to relax. They didn't notice the air of gloom hovering over the adults who led them on through the king's hunting woods.

The boys trotted ahead of them when they came into the clearing. An old hunting lodge, open on three sides, stood at its centre. The bleeding boards, the hooks, the racks for meat and mead were all empty and weather beaten. A brazero had been lit at the centre of the lodge, providing warmth if little light. A dark figure sat next to it, in a high-backed carved wooden chair which was obviously not part of the furnishings of the run-down lodge.

Both boys were clustered against Zechs' side in an instant, silent and wide-eyed like young frightened animals. The figure looked at them slowly, then looked at the king, standing over them, hands on their shoulders in love and comfort.

"Don't worry, sons. She won't hurt you. She's not here to take you back. You are staying with me, always. She just wants you to do something, and then you will never see her again."

This last was thrown as a gauntlet. Her ladyship didn't blink, her eyes still on the tableau before her. She noticed the boys relax -not much, a few months of love couldn't undo years of icy isolation- but still... her eyes speared Zechs with anger, a grudging admission of failure. She knew that he was tormented and always would be by what she had done, but not as much as she hoped. And not as much as herself.

"Boys. Approach." The voice sliced the cold autumn air.

The boys shrank against Zechs but he nudged them forwards. The grip he had on their shoulders strengthened though. He was obviously not going to let them go forward alone. The twins hesitated, grabbed each others hand, and approached, their father protecting them.

In front of the seated figure was a low table, from the same wood as the chair and bearing the same carvings. On it lay three ebony rods, the size of the children's smallest fingers, covered in runes and carving. They were fortune telling rods, old as time, the art of tossing and reading them long forgotten.

"Those there." The voice was cold and commanding. The boys followed her finger to look at the rods on the table before them. "Pick them up. All of them."

The boys stared but didn't hesitate to reach forward, used to obeying that voice unconditionally. They each picked up a rod. Then, glancing at that still menacingly pointing finger, they both reached for the last rod hesitantly.

One of the boys reached it first, picking it up and grasping both rods to his chest apprehensively, while the other's hand fell back. Behind them Maxwell sighed slightly.

The old woman slowly stood up, ignoring the flinch from her 'grandsons'. She advanced slowly. The boys backed up nervously, something they would never have dared to do before, and they were grateful that Zechs backed up with them, pressing closer to his legs. Finally the old woman stopped and sank to her knees before them, her dark cloak billowing out and settling around her like smoke.

"You. Give me that." She pointed to the child on her left, who'd picked one of the rods. The child hesitated and handed her the rod slowly, Zechs tightening his grip on his shoulder reassuringly and taking half a step forwards to keep their bodies close. Emboldened, he thrust the rod at her. But she grabbed his wrist instead of the rod. Both boys gasped, but didn't dare to flinch.

Her eyes fixed on the startling blue eyes of the boy, she slowly dragged him closer. A withered hand reached up and loosened the strings on his collar, jerking it open to reveal a smooth white shoulder. Then her hand turned and dipped, her knuckles brushing his back near the shoulder. For a few seconds the young boy just looked scared, then he flinched and lifted his free hand to his back as if in a little pain. He whimpered, and his other half immediately did the same.

The old woman looked at him. "Your name is Heero." She said, in a voice that was finality itself.

She then released him and turned towards the other child. She reached her hand forward silently. He hesitated but she knew she didn't have to say anything. He would come towards her because the other one had already done so. He handed her his rods in silence, his eyes a bit wilder than the other one. She smiled like a reptile. Already it was starting. Once more she grabbed the wrist instead of the rods, loosened the collar. Once more her hand turned, in a different movement this time. The ring on her knuckles, treated with silver nitrate and another secret compound she knew from long intimacies with poisons, jabbed twice at the soft skin of the back.

"Your name is Duo." She said quietly. It was the last she would ever speak to them, she knew. She turned without looking and sat back in her chair, her eyes closed. Whatever regret she might have felt as she heard the people in the lodge leave didn't reach as far as her heart, which had died long ago anyway. She wouldn't allow herself to feel. She didn't deserve it.

+

They were all silent in the carriage on the way back. Zechs had not let go of his sons one instant, and held them close now. Heero was looking ahead, brow slightly furrowed, eyes blank. Duo was looking at his two divining rods with curiosity, eyes trailing the carvings and runes. Maxwell was sitting opposite him in the carriage, and slowly leaned forwards to retrieve the rods as the child lost interest in them and let them fall to his lap. The man looked at them curiously, then, following a hunch, tied them together with a handkerchief. He took Heero's from the child's unresisting fingers and put the single stick and the two others in different pockets to keep them seperate.

Both boys were starting to rub their shoulders uncomfortably. Odin, opposite Heero -gods, it was suddenly so easy to give them those names- leaned forward to take a quick look down the collar. Nasty, bit of a burn, he'd have to get some ointment from his quarters on his return. No need for a doctor, those quacks did more harm than good. A bit of old horse ointment would keep infection at bay.

Zechs followed the soldier's glance. He looked at the burn on Heero's back, near the shoulder, in as unobtrusive a spot as the old witch had managed, he granted her that. Not that aesthetics were her concern, or Zechs'. His eyes flickered, from Heero's mark - a straight upright slash, like a raised dagger, | - to Duo's - two slanted slashes, //. Maxwell hadn't needed to tell him that the less the boys saw these marks on each other, the better it would be. They would hopefully come to accept the names given to them by the person who had previously robbed them of identity. Maybe. And maybe the damage already done could be reversed. Maybe. But those marks would upset them to start with, however well things went afterwards. Zechs had obeyed instructions and dressed the boys in loose collared shirts that day; he intended them to spend the rest of the winter in high-collared tight vests to hide the marks from each other. They would be bathed separately, too.

Hopefully they wouldn't notice too often that they were now no longer identical. The adults would have to do with only a few rare glances at the marks to help them give each boy the right name, the less fuss they made over that the better. The names were new and neutral, hopefully they would go down ok, hopefully, hopefully... his arms tightened around his sons, who were falling asleep to the carriage's swaying rhythm, despite the stress of the day.

Hopefully he would now have two healthy and whole sons; his mind, weary of the worry of the past few months, managed not to dwell on the uncomfortable plural of the word, not think of who the other father was. That might come back to haunt him later. And when it did... the marks on their backs were permanent, he knew, the inking compound being tattooed into their bodies by the burning nitrate. Even when they were grown men, finding their own way in the world - even when he had to decide which one would inherit the throne- a glance at those marks would remind him he should be thankful to have two whole and healthy sons... instead of none at all.

[chap. 6] [chap. 8] [back to Maldoror's fic]