A Second More
By Andrea

"Bored bored bored bored bored," Nate muttered under his breath, drumming his fingers against his leg.

"Would you *stop* that? It's getting very annoying."

Nate looked around the room with a purposeful air of surprise, scanning for the speaker. His gaze swept about a foot over the top of the pallet next to him, not reaching the boy lying there. "I swear I just heard someone talk to me. Nah, couldn't be. Redd and Slym aren't here, and there's no one ELSE who would bother talking to me, after all."

"Then you're in a habit of talking to yourself?" Stryfe snapped.

"Huh, there's that noise again. It *really* sounds like someone's talking to me, but that can't be. I'm just a stupid little peasant, after all. Why would anyone bother talking to ME?"

"I ask myself the same question," Stryfe muttered, glaring fiercely at the wall. This wasn't quite fair, as the wall hadn't DONE anything, but he wasn't going to look at the *peasant*.

Nate leaned back on his hands and studied the wall thoughtfully. "See, if there WAS somebody else here, it might be kinda nice to talk to him. But that's only if he's the kind of person who wouldn't shout 'leave me alone, peasant!'and ignore me for an hour just because I offered him a drink of water. People like that just aren't much fun to talk to. Even talking to yourself's better."

"Obviously you have a lot of practice," Stryfe grumbled, then settled back to glare comfortably at the wall some more and ignore the--peasant who dared speak to him. Except glaring wasn't quite as much fun as it had been, because his head hurt terribly and he WAS getting awfully thirsty. But he was hardly going to admit that to the peasant boy. Nate wouldn't even follow simple orders like a decent servant, and was rude and mouthy on top of it. And he had the most annoying habit of humming just slightly off-key, until even the High Prince of Apocalypse couldn't be expected to put up with it any longer. Even if it meant *speaking* to him.

Besides... Stryfe's painfully dry throat constricted, and he forced himself to swallow hard. He *wasn't* the High Prince of Apocalypse. He wasn't a prince at all, and Apocalypse wasn't his father. Apocalypse had tried to... *Slym Dayspring* was his father. That was balm against any wound. He just wished Slym was HERE, instead of out getting food and leaving him with... Nate. "...I'll talk to you if you're that bored," Stryfe offered, trying to sound casual.

Nate eyed him sideways. "How gracious of you, your highness."

"Do not *mock* me, peasant! And--" He swallowed again, feeling his head starting to throb just a little more. "Don't call me that."

"Then stop calling me peasant. I have a *name*. Besides, you're just as much a peasant as I am."

"My father is *Slym Dayspring*!"

"So's MINE, in case you forgot."

"I did not want a *brother*," Stryfe muttered under his breath.

"Neither did *I*, but we're stuck with each other. Whether we like it or not. Not like we can ignore it, anyway." Nate gestured at his face wryly.

Stryfe closed his eyes and turned his head away. "Bring me water. ...Nate."

~I guess I'll take that as a positive step,~ Nate thought with mixed amusement and annoyance. He knew Redd and Slym wanted them to get along, but Stryfe was... not the easiest person to get along with, even for someone he *hadn't* tried to kill before. Whatever Redd and Slym said about Stryfe being his brother--twin--he still wasn't quite sure what that meant.

He'd always LIKED the idea of having a brother, even though he knew Redd and Slym weren't legal for another kid. But he'd imagined another life, where they were his *real* parents, and he had a little brother who loved him and idolized him and was always trying to follow him around. Someone who'd be there to play with no matter HOW many times they had to move. Stryfe... wasn't exactly what he'd been picturing.

He was arrogant. He was rude. He never called Nate or Redd by their name--just "peasant". The only one he was vaguely nice to was *Slym Dayspring*--and that was always emphasized and run together as if it was one word, even though Nate hadn't been able to figure out in two days just WHY Stryfe had studied Slym. He'd asked, and Slym said it was about the Clan Rebellion, but Nate still wasn't quite sure why Stryfe had focused on Slym out of all the fighters in the Rebellion. And besides, Redd was part of it too, and look at how Stryfe treated *her*.

"Hey, don't drink that so fast. You'll make yourself sick," he cautioned as Stryfe gulped down the water.

"I'm *fine*," Stryfe replied sharply. "Do not tell me what to do."

"Fine. Make yourself sick. Why should I care?" Nate blinked and firmly told himself to be nice. *Even if he started it, you don't have to finish it,* Redd chided in his memory. Stryfe was just so... *irritating*!

Nate stifled a sigh, propped his chin on his hand, and stared at the floor. Stryfe set the empty waterskin aside, leaned back on the pallet, and stared at the ceiling. Neither of them spoke another word until Redd's cheerful voice interrupted the serious floor/ceiling contemplations. "Boys? You awake?" She poked her head in the doorway and smiled brightly at them both, pretending that Stryfe returned the smile like Nate did instead of looking at her contemptuously.

"Any luck, Redd?" Nate asked, ignoring his brother again in favor of someone who actually *liked* him.

"The spring's clean, so we've got water for as long as we need to stay here," she replied cheerfully, setting down the variety of water bags she carried at her feet, then reaching behind to unhook the sling she'd rigged to carry firewood on her back. Once she was unloaded, she stretched luxuriously and grinned at Nate again. "So as long as Slym keeps having luck hunting, we'll be okay here for a while."

If they didn't have Stryfe with them, they could just head for a city again, maybe go back to Crestcoast where Nate actually had *friends*. But... there wasn't any point thinking about that now, Nate supposed. And it *was* sort of nice being out here without anybody else around. Easier on his shields, at least.

"Good." Nate clambered to his feet and went to take the firewood to add to the small stockpile they'd been developing.

Redd smiled her thanks, then cautiously approached Stryfe. "How are you feeling, sweetheart? Would you like some water?"

"I drank," Stryfe replied shortly. He turned his head to face the wall. "And my name is *Stryfe*."

Redd stretched her hand out, but bit her lip and stopped short of actually touching him. She sighed and replaced the empty waterskin next to him. "All right."

She hadn't really *expected* him to be cuddly, after all. Not after growing up with Apocalypse. She'd prepared herself to slowly build up his trust in her. But then he'd latched on so tightly to Slym when he first remembered what Apocalypse had done to him... She'd thought maybe he could accept them more quickly.

But Slym was still the only one Stryfe would even let *touch* him, when he was awake. And the past two nights, when Stryfe had woken up screaming, Slym was the one Stryfe clung to, while still pulling violently away from *her* if she tried to so much as lay a hand on his arm.

"Where is my father?" Stryfe asked, still not looking at her.

It was, she supposed, at least good that he'd started replacing Apocalypse with Slym in that role. "Hunting. He'll be back soon. Are you hungry?"

"I'm fine."

Redd mouthed the words along with him, since he never answered anything else. "Well, maybe you'll be hungry soon." She patted the ground beside his shoulder instead of touching him, then stood and went to rejoin Nate in sorting out what she'd brought back with her.

Stryfe closed his eyes and listened to the small, homey sounds as the peasants moved around in the next room. They were speaking quietly, so he couldn't make out the words, but... it was nice to hear voices. The silence with Nate had been unnerving. It was *already* too quiet in his head, but he wasn't going to mention THAT. His powers WOULD come back. Stryfe swallowed convulsively. They WOULD.

He'd almost dozed off, lulled by the soft ebb and flow of conversation, when he heard a new, deeper voice join in. His eyes flew open and he shifted until he was mostly propped up against the wall, since he couldn't quite manage sitting up on his own. It still didn't look as weak as simply lying on the pallet. When Slym poked his head in, Stryfe smiled tentatively and said, "Hello, Father."

"Hi, Stryfe," Slym replied warmly, favoring his son with a smile. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine, sir."

"That's good." Even if he rather doubted it was true. Slym carefully arranged himself at the side of the pallet, letting out a sigh as the weight came off his bad knee. "Busy day?"

"I... slept," Stryfe admitted, blushing slightly. He needed to get *better*, not lie around sleeping all day! But he was so *tired* most of the time...

Slym reached out and put a hand on Stryfe's shoulder. "That's good, son. You need to be resting right now."

Stryfe found himself leaning in slightly to the touch and pulled back with a tinge of embarrassment. "I'm fine. You don't have to... slow down, because of me." In Apocalypse's army, soldiers who couldn't keep up were killed. Stryfe had even done the culling himself. He... couldn't let *Slym Dayspring* think he was... weak.

"We'd be lying low right now anyway," Slym assured him, reading fear in Stryfe's eyes though the boy was obviously trying to hide it. "It will take a while for things at the Palace to calm down, and we don't want to get caught in the middle of it."

Stryfe lowered his gaze and nodded slightly. "All right."

"So just concentrate on getting better while we have the time to spare." Slym's hand moved to ruffle the boy's hair affectionately. Stryfe blinked at him. "Dinner will be ready soon. I'd better get cleaned up."

Slym stood and left the room. Stryfe forced himself not to sigh. Slym would be back. He said so. He wasn't going to leave Stryfe alone with the peas--Redd and Nathan.

Before long, Slym *did* return, with Redd, Nathan, and food. Stryfe leaned back against the wall and let their conversation wash over him, concentrating too hard on getting the food to his mouth without his hand trembling to worry about what they were saying. He couldn't let the *peasants* see his... weakness, after all.

Redd glanced sideways at Stryfe, who was eating slowly and carefully, with an air of great concentration. Maybe... with Slym here, he might be willing to talk to them a little more... Of course, finding a topic of cheerful conversation between three rebels and the former prince was not exactly an easy task. "So did you boys get along all right while we were gone?" she asked brightly, trying to sound enthusiastic.

"...Fine." For once it was Nate saying that, not Stryfe. He knew Redd and Slym *wanted* them to get along, so he hardly wanted to admit that they'd spent most of the day in silence.

Stryfe put down his food in his lap and stared at his hands for a moment before taking a steadying breath and admitting softly, "He's quiet." Slym looked delighted at Stryfe offering any sort of conversation, making Stryfe feel warm inside. So he added, "But he hums sometimes."

"Hums?" Slym grinned and looked over at his other son. "Going to treat us to a recital sometime?"

Nate blushed. "It was too quiet..." Because Stryfe refused to speak to him, but apparently he'd talk NOW.

Redd smiled happily at this evidence that her sons were at least TRYING to get along. "Well, that's something, at least. Would you like some more water, Stryfe? More to eat?"

"I'm fine," Stryfe replied as always, but Redd frowned at the shadow in his eyes.

"Are you sure, sweetheart? If your head's hurting you, I--"

"I SAID I'm *fine*! Do not QUESTION me, *peasant*!" Stryfe snapped, his eyes wild. If the peasant guessed how weak he still was... He didn't WANT them to leave him here alone, and that was only a best-chance scenario. Slym might...

Nate's eye flashed angrily and he shouted, "Stop talking to Redd like that!"

"I'll talk to her however I want, *peasant*! Leave me alone!"

"Stryfe," Slym spoke up gently but firmly. "Redd's your mother, and she deserves your respect as much as I do."

Stryfe turned wide eyes on his father. "B-but she--you're--"

"Redd was in the Clan Rebellion too," Nate added, crossing his arms in front of him and glaring at his brother. "I don't see why you think Slym's so much better."

"Don't you know *anything*?" Stryfe asked him, contempt disappearing in sheer incredulity. "He's *Slym Dayspring*!"

"I *know* that! *I'm* the one who grew up with him!"

"*Nate*," Slym snapped as Stryfe paled again. Nate winced slightly.

Stryfe, however, was tight-lipped with anger this time instead of collapsing into tears. "*Slym Dayspring* isn't just some *soldier*. Anyone can do that," he enunciated carefully, flicking a barely contemptuous look at Redd again. "*Slym Dayspring* was a great general. *Slym Dayspring* was the greatest tactician since--since--EVER!"

Nate blinked at Stryfe for a moment, then laughed. "Don't be stupid. Slym isn't--" He looked over at Slym briefly and was surprised to see him almost... blushing? "...Slym?" he asked slowly.

"Well, I wouldn't say I'm THAT good, but I was one of the leaders, yes."

Nate just stared at him. Stryfe protested, "You ARE that good!"

"...You didn't even tell me you were PART of the Clan Rebellion until I followed you," Nate said slowly, accusingly. "And you're one of the *leaders*?" How much ELSE weren't they telling him?

"You didn't *know*?" Stryfe asked contemptuously. "*I* figured it out, and I wasn't even around!"

Irrationally, Nate's anger transferred to Stryfe, for knowing when he hadn't, and he glared fiercely at the other boy. "If you're so good at figuring things out, why couldn't you even figure out enough to fight Apocalypse without US?!"

"Nate, that is *enough*!" Redd said firmly. Nate crossed his arms and looked down, still simmering with anger and frustration.

Stryfe was pale and shaking again. "You don't know *anything*," he managed to snarl, then pushed aside what was left of his meal and flopped back down on the pallet. He turned to face the wall and closed his eyes, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head coming in time with his heartbeat, which was entirely too fast.

The pain was so intense he feared he was about to lose what he'd just eaten, and a few tears sneaked past his rigid control to trace their way down his cheek. He distantly felt a hand against his shoulder--Slym--but was too absorbed in his own misery to move.

Then there was a gentle, cool stroking against his mind, like a soft breeze that eased its way around to the very center of the terrible throbbing pain and gently, slowly stroked it away. He let out a shuddering breath of pure relief and turned slightly, opening his eyes. It wasn't Slym's hand on his shoulder. It was Redd's, and she was looking down at him with a warm, compassionate gaze that wrapped around him like a hug. He knew somehow that *she* was the one who'd taken away the pain...

He opened his mouth, but couldn't manage to formulate a question. She stroked his shoulder gently and asked softly, "Feel better?"

She--she was just trying to trick him, to get him to admit to weakness so Slym would have to leave him behind. But... her hand and her mind were so gentle, and she didn't HAVE to take away his headache... And Slym said she was his mother. Stryfe wasn't entirely sure what that *meant*, but... Slym said he was supposed to respect her, as much as Slym. Could he dare...?

Stryfe swallowed, closed his eyes, and nodded minutely. He dared to allow himself to lean just a little against Redd's hand. Very, very quietly, he whispered, "Thank you... Redd."

He heard a muffled sob, then just as quietly, Redd replied, "You're welcome."

Nate scraped fiercely at the tuber in front of him. He had to be careful to remove every bit of the thick outer peel, or eating it would be a quick way to a long and agonizing illness. With it removed, though, the insides were quite tasty, and Nate was able to use the tedious task to remove himself from the conversation taking place on the other side of the room.

Redd was out hunting this time, but Slym had returned after a brief but fruitful foraging trip with a bag full of edible plants from the area. Now he sat with his leg comfortably propped up, pulling the husks off small ears of corn he'd found growing not too far away. Ordinarily, that would mean the two of them would sit and work together while talking, joking, and laughing. But *this* time, Nate sat alone, and Slym was talking and laughing with someone *else*...

Stryfe was smiling slightly as he held the bag for the discarded husks steadily. (Well, *mostly* steadily. Neither of them commented on the occasional small tremors that still shook Stryfe's arms.) "Then what happened?"

"We ran *really* fast," Slym laughed, ruffling Stryfe's hair. "Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. We managed to sneak around later and make a trap to catch it. We ate roast calador for three weeks straight after that! Remember, Nate?"

Nate looked up briefly. "I remember." He looked back down at the tubers, not noticing Slym's smile falter slightly.

"We used to have roast calador a lot at Court dinners," Stryfe offered, wanting to contribute to the conversation somehow. "When I was little, I threw it at Ch'vayre and Fa--" He cut off abruptly and stared at his hands. "...Never mind."

An awkward silence descended on the group, and for a moment there were no sounds other than the quiet noises of food preparation. Nate glanced at Slym briefly, then began slashing at the tubers with renewed vigor. Slym looked sad.

"Will you... tell me about Nesson, F-Father?" Stryfe asked tentatively as the silence began to stretch on uncomfortably. "I... wasn't there that day. I took the memories from one of the dog soldiers, but... it's not the same."

"What's Nesson?" Nate asked, blinking as he looked up.

A fierce light lit behind Stryfe's eyes, his face suddenly more animated. "It was a great battle, just over a year ago. Father led the Clan Rebellion against some of--Apocalypse's best troops, outnumbered three to one! Only a few soldiers managed to escape. They claimed *they* were outnumbered, but Father sprang a trap on them." He looked over at Slym with shining eyes.

Slym could only meet those eyes for a moment before looking away. "It was a battle. A lot of people died on both sides."

"Because of you!" Stryfe said proudly.

Slym flinched. "Killing people isn't something to be proud of," he replied slowly and heavily. "It's something you do when you don't have any other choice."

Stryfe blinked at him, his own smile faltering slightly. "But... what about Ockland? Or Krier? Or--"

"We were at war," Slym interrupted before Stryfe could name off any more battles. "And in war, people die. It's still not something to be proud of."

"But... you're a great general!" Stryfe protested fiercely. "You--you slaughter anyone who dares to come against you! You bathe in the blood of your enemies! You--"

"I'm going to see if Redd's close," Nate said suddenly, pushing aside the tubers and standing up quickly. He ducked through the doorway before Slym could say anything and started striding away from the shelter, his hands clenched into fists at his side. Slym was *always* talking to Stryfe lately. And Stryfe... Stryfe seemed to be talking to a Slym Nate hadn't even known *existed*. Not Slym, crippled foster father (*real* father, he reminded himself fiercely) to a diseased mutant, but *Slym Dayspring*, rebel general.

As he settled down to wait for Redd, Nate wondered morosely if he even knew Slym anymore.

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