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A Place to Belong

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Retica had thought he was in good condition. He had to be, really; it wasn't safe to be a heretic and not be able to fend for yourself. When people found out about that, he was lucky if the worst they did was throw rocks. He'd learned a long time ago that he had to be able to take care of himself, had to be able to live in the wild, if he wanted any hope of a break from the fighting. It was one of the things he wanted to make the damn Majin pay for, now that he'd come to Besek.

But Besek was exhausting him. It felt like the air itself was weighing him down, dragging at his limbs every time he raised his bow. Thage said the only reason he was surviving Besek at all was because of the spell she'd laid on him, but sometimes he wondered. Could he really trust somebody who would do what she had done to him? Even if she was telling the truth and it was keeping him alive here, was that really the only way she could have done it? Couldn't she have -- couldn't someone else have found a way to save his life without making him into a possession in the process?

Across the battlefield, Thage cast a bolt of darkness toward the creaking white shape of the Dawnstalker approaching her. It squealed, thrashing helplessly as the darkness was followed by a cross-tipped crimson spear, pinning it to the earth at Thage's mercy. She laughed, clapping her hands in delight. Retica shuddered.

"Look out!" Raki growled, close beside him. Retica turned just in time to see the velox's bolt whistling toward him -- and then Raki shouldered him out of the way, taking the attack that had been meant for him.

Retica stared, as Raki snapped at the shaft of the crossbow bolt, catching it in his teeth and pulling it from the muscle of his foreleg with a toss of his head. Blood welled from the wound, the rose-crimson shade particular to Majin, staining Raki's silver fur.

"Keep your mind on the battle, whelp," Raki told him through clenched teeth, haunches gathering for an attack on the fox Majin.

"Don't tell me what to do," Retica snapped automatically. Raki was bleeding for him. A Majin was bleeding for him. He tried to clear his mind enough to activate the curing spell bound to his jerkin. They all had to fight if they wanted to keep Besek's Majin at bay. They couldn't afford to have anybody too injured to keep going. And that was the only reason that Raki was helping him, too, wasn't it?

Retica cast the spell, feeling the tingle of cool power brush his skin as he directed it. Raki didn't turn, but his horns dipped as he nodded acknowledgement.

"We have them on the run!" Thage called. She practically shone in the dim light of Besek, her magic crackling around her. "Don't let the stragglers escape!"

"I know," Retica answered. He nocked another arrow and drew his bow. His shoulders ached and the air felt thick in his lungs, but he wasn't going to be the weak link in this team.

Isapolis was better than Besek's labyrinths, but only barely. It might be more physically comfortable, easier to breathe in, but the people it attracted -- and he was using that word loosely -- gave Retica the creeps. They didn't bother Thage, of course. She walked through town as if she owned it, one hand holding her Librum and the other on Raki's ruff as if he was a tame hound instead of the Silver Wolf. Retica followed them, close behind, and if that made him look like he was her kept soldier...there were worse things. Especially here.

On the stone front steps of the Traviata House, Thage stopped, turning back to face Retica. "Wait here," she told him, her lips curving in a vicious little smile.

Retica bristled. "I'm not your pet! Don't just leave me here while you go do other things."

Thage raised one eyebrow. "Aren't you?" she asked. "Stay." This time power snapped through the bindings she'd put on him, and Retica gritted his teeth to keep from crying out. She wasn't hurting him, not really, not this time. Not as long as he held still.

He clenched his fists and watched her walk up the steps -- alone; Raki sat down on his haunches and didn't make a move for the door, either. "Who does she think she is?" Retica said, glaring after her as the heavy front door swung shut.

Raki yawned, pink tongue lolling, white fangs gleaming in the light of the streetlamps. "She's taking care of you," he said mildly.

"She's what?" Retica demanded.

"Keeping you out of harm's way," Raki said. "You can kill Majin, but do you really have the stomach to listen to their screams as Camellia grinds them up?" He licked his chops, and his tone took on a teasing rumble. "And what if Archaya can smell the strangeness of your blood, and wants to sample it for herself?"

The hair stood up on the back of Retica's neck, and he swallowed hard. "She can't do that," he said. "Can she?"

Raki sniffed. "One of her greatest strengths is that nobody knows the limits of what she can do," he said. He lay down across the bottom step, his black front paws with their golden bracelets held regally in front of him. "I can smell your heretic blood, and I'm not the only Majin with a keen nose. If a Falsin witch gains her skills from the Majin her cauldron devours, couldn't she learn the same trick?"

Retica fidgeted, chewing his lip. Thage was taking care of him, huh? Just like the spell she put on him in the first place. It wasn't nice, the way she did things, but...maybe that wasn't her fault. From the sound of the argument she'd had with Arkanos, nobody had ever really been nice to her, either. Maybe it was like the dogs that were trained for fighting pits -- they got so they didn't know how to do anything but bite and snarl. And Thage was at least trying to do something else.

"You've gotten quiet, cub," Raki said. He never really laughed, but sometimes, like now, his voice sounded amused.

"I guess," Retica agreed. There was a difference between the way Raki called him whelp and cub, too, wasn't there? Different tones of voice. Different meanings. "I'm thinking, that's all."

Raki made a noise that was probably a growl but sounded more like a hum, and lowered his head. He didn't say anything else as they waited for Thage to come back, but the silence was comfortable enough.

It was late when they got back to Twilight's Rest, at least according to the clock in the front hallway -- the light didn't change much inside Besek's confines, so sometimes it was hard to tell how much time was passing. Thage had taken them down to the Uzaporium after she finished up with Archaya, checking the stock of jewelry and trinkets for anything that might help them fight their way through the depths. They took supper at the Libertine, which was noisy -- most of the band had been rescued by now, and they were doing their best to give a good show -- but friendly, and Iryth served good food to go along with the drinks. Thage talked to a few of the mercenaries about going with them on their next trip, and Retica played a game of stones with one of the Count's koona, and it really wasn't bad at all.

And when they got back to the room they shared, the fire had already been lit in the hearth, crackling and warm. The velvet draperies over the windows shut out the chill that wound through Isapolis's streets. Retica set down his bow and quiver and tugged at his scarf.

Raki padded over to the rug in front of the fire and lay down there, just like an ordinary hound soaking up the heat. He sighed contentedly, and after a minute Thage went over to join him, curling up against his side and stretching out her stockinged feet toward the fire. Retica watched them quietly for a minute.

"We're getting closer," Thage said eventually. "We have to be."

"You know we are," Raki answered. "I would not guide you wrong, Thage."

"I know you're guiding me toward your goal, Raki," Thage said. "We'll see whether that brings me to mine, too." But she rested one hand on the crown of his head and scratched lazily at his ears.

"I'm sure you'll make it," Retica told her. "You don't let anything stand in your way."

Thage looked back over her shoulder and smiled at him, and Retica felt a prickle down his spine that might have been the binding and might have been something else entirely. "Come here," she said, and there was no pull on the binding at all. Retica went without question. She was nice enough to not make him, so he wouldn't argue. That was fair, right?

The fire was warm enough to make his toes tingle when he came to sit in front of it. He hadn't even realized how much the cold outside was getting to him. "This feels really nice," he said. "Relaxing."

"It does," Thage said. Her voice had a low purr to it, a tone that reminded Retica a little of the count.

Raki sniffed at the air, the way he did when he was curious about her moods. "Thage?" he said. He sounded wary.

"Hush," Thage said, smiling at Retica. "Everything's fine. Isn't it, Retica?"

And it was, he thought. It was better, now that he understood them a little better, now that he could see their kindness for what it was. When Thage undressed him, when she took him by the hair and pulled him down to press his face to the softness between her thighs -- even when Raki mounted him, and that ached, too much to be really comfortable -- still, they were accepting him. They had chosen him. They had given him a place to belong.

How could he ask for more?