"Serious as harpy cancer," Elliot said, and Luke knew he could sleep. Elliot was tucked under his wing where he belonged. Luke didn't realize he was falling asleep until he came awake all at once: someone was pushing aside the flap of the tent. A jolt of remorse - he was about to get caught usurping his commander's tent - but it wasn't Commander Woodsinger, it was Serene.
"Luke," she said, sounding a bit taken aback. "I was wondering where you were. Elliot is not in your tent either, will you help me find him? He could be anywhere and Caelano is looking for him - "
"Wh' for?" Elliot said, of course choosing that moment to sit up from under Luke's wing.
"... huh." Serene said, but Luke didn't know whether she might have been smiling or frowning, because he couldn't keep from looking at Elliot, all blinky and unguarded.
"There's a ceremony," Serene said, after a beat, and Elliot said "oh!" and wriggled out and started groping around under the bed for his shoes.
"In case you haven't read this part either," Elliot said, frantically finger-combing his hair in a way Luke had never seen him bother to do, "It's an alliance ritual, it's symbolic, you'll need this." On "this" he reached into the middle of Luke's wing and plucked a sort of mid-sized feather and held it out.
"Hey!" Luke said, taking the feather; it didn't hurt more than a pinch, and he wasn't even sure he minded Elliot feeling entitled. It just seemed oddly intimate in front of Serene somehow.
"Come on," Elliot said, ducking out past Serene, and Luke followed him before he had to find out if she was going to say anything.
It turned out that Luke was supposed to exchange feathers with a harpy he vaguely recognized from the battle. Commander Woodsinger said a few words about peace and cooperation, and Caelano rattled off a couple of lines about flight and flock that sounded a bit like an often-repeated toast, and then Elliot elbowed Luke from behind until he stepped forward. The other harpy stepped forward too and held out the feather she was carrying, so Luke took it, and handed her his. She grinned at him, startling him, and Luke had a sudden pang of paranoia that he'd just gotten harpy engaged or something, but Elliot had nudged him forward, Elliot had said to do it. So it must be okay.
Caelano said a few more words, ending in "fair skies", and everyone echoed "fair skies" back at her, and then the harpies flew away without further ado. Luke looked at his feather curiously. It was a sort of bluish grey and he had no idea what he was supposed to do with it now.
Elliot solved that problem by whisking it out of his fingers. He pulled a hank of thread out of somewhere and stepped right up to Luke, reaching for the side of his head. Luke automatically turned his head, to try to see what he was doing, and Elliot stepped on his foot.
"Hold still," he said. "Ugh, your hair is too short for this, it's going to fall out for sure," and Luke realized Elliot was tying the feather into his hair.
It was odd having him so close, and so intent, with all his focus just to the side of Luke's face. Luke could see freckles on Elliot's collarbone, just peeking out of his shirt; in the corner of his eye he could see his eyebrows wrinkling and his lips pursing. The feeling of his fingers in Luke's hair, tugging and wrapping thread, was not unpleasant, and Luke began to get a little lost in it, until Commander Woodsinger cleared her throat and he remembered it was still a military occasion.
"The new treaty will have us building an outpost out here," she said. "I just wanted to make sure you knew that, Cadet Sunborn. In case you'd had another posting in mind."
"I'll go where I'm needed," Luke answered automatically, mind whirling. Commander Woodsinger nodded and turned away and Luke saluted, or tried to, Elliot swatting his hand away as he finished with Luke's feather.
Elliot had known, obviously, about the new outpost. Had he suggested it? Was it meant as some sort of favor to Luke? He would have known they'd want Luke for it. But Elliot wanted to be posted to the elves.
Luke thought of his mother, talking about how she was often posted far away from his father.
He realized Serene and Elliot were both watching him expectantly, so he reached up to feel the feather in his hair, as if that might be why they were looking at him.
"Thanks," he said, "Let's strike the tents," and they exchanged a little glance, but followed him.
There was a dramatic parting scene when the elves split off, consisting mostly of Serene and Golden staring at each other very unblinkingly while their hair blew in the wind. Luke didn't think they'd stay parted very long. It was hard to imagine Serene compromising her choice of posting to be near him, but it turned out to be very easy to imagine Golden simply following her to wherever it was. Or perhaps she'd marry him and bring him along officially as a military spouse. Serene was awfully young, of course, but maybe she wouldn't want to risk a long engagement. Luke was already sort of dreading the idea of being the best man at their wedding, which was inevitably going to be long, complicated, full of highly significant fiddly details, and entirely in formal elvish.
Serene looked extra-stoic when she fell into her usual place between them, and Elliot, surprisingly, didn't say anything. Luke congratulated him mentally on his decision to give her a moment to mope in silence and then had to take it back a scant hundred yards later when Elliot twisted half-sideways to flash her an enormous grin.
"Sooooo," he asked, "Gonna put a ring on it?"
Serene frowned very slightly.
"Exchange myrtle and holly," Elliot elaborated, and Serene frowned again.
"I can hardly make an offer as a cadet. Even next year, as a junior officer..." she sighed a little. "It could be years before I'll be able to keep him properly."
"You're talking about getting engaged, right?" Luke asked. "With the - myrtle thing. Couldn't you just have a long engagement?"
"Once she gives him the holly, she has a year to offer oak branches," Elliot said, before Serene could answer, "After that he might give her lavender instead of ivy, and then so much for planting the apple and rosemary."
Luke revised his image of elven weddings to include a bunch of gardening. He almost asked Elliot how come he knew so much about elven marriage customs, and then recalled one reason he might.
"Okay," he said instead. "So... you might be apart for a long time, before you even get engaged."
"I do not want to dwell on it," Serene said resolutely. "Someone talk about something else."
"Trollish!" Elliot said. "Why does it have five genders and no tenses? Are there five genders of troll? Do they think about time differently than we do? And don't get me started on the cases..."
"Don't get me started" was familiar Elliot-ese for "I have already started and plan to continue for some time," and Luke settled in to walk and watch and listen with half an ear. Elliot's chatter sort of lit up the air; it was becoming hard to imagine going out on missions without him finagling his way along.
Serene had the right idea not to dwell on it. Luke dropped back a step and went around Serene to Elliot's other side, where he could keep his coppery hair in the corner of his eye as they walked.
Elliot skived off the minute they got back into camp like he always did, and Luke went to help return the tents and things to the supply rooms like he always did. Somewhat unusually, Serene came along.
"Luke, it is improper of me to ask this," she said as soon as they were alone, "But what are you doing with Elliot?"
Luke's eyebrows went up. "Are you asking me to kiss and tell," he asked, "Because that seems unlike you."
"So you are kissing," Serene said, and Luke started to look for some words that were going to be something like "I told you I was in love with him", but Serene held up her hand to stop him.
"I was careless with him," Serene said, low and apologetic. "I would hate to see him hurt again."
For all Elliot's talk about harpy cancer, Luke still thought it was more likely that Elliot would be careless with him, but he realized he maybe didn't completely understand what had happened between Elliot and Serene.
He wanted to tell Serene about the kiss in Celaeno's hut, and the way Elliot had fallen asleep holding onto him, and at the same time he didn't; it all felt somehow too new and too fragile. Elliot folded in Luke's wings had been something precious and entirely Luke's. "I don't want to see him get hurt either," he said. That at least was simple enough.
After the common gear, they had their personal armor and weapons to check and clean. Luke made sure they were sitting somewhere they'd be easy to spot, in case Elliot finished doing whatever he was doing and wanted to come find them, but of course that meant a whole stream of other people could find them too, asking about the mission and the feather in his hair and whether it was really true that he'd been offered command of a new garrison straight out of camp. (Postings gossip was as tenacious and fast-spreading as grain weevils.) The third time Luke said no, of course not, that was ridiculous, Serene coughed and looked hard at Luke until whoever it was had gone.
"You know you would have command within four months," she said, "Are you being unusually careful about saying that, or do you really not know?"
Luke frowned at her. "That's... very specific," he said. "How do you figure?"
"If they start building soon, the primary fortifications should be done by the time we finish camp," she said, counting on her fingers. "We get a month to go home, then you'd show up while they're finishing kitchens and quarters and such. Three months for you to familiarize yourself with operations and the other people posted there, and then whoever had temporary command leaves and you get the winter to settle in." She hesitated. "Unless they think rogue trolls might still fight in the winter, but the former commander will want to get out before everything freezes, I know you humans do not like to travel in snow."
"Three months doesn't sound very long. To - to learn everything." He had led in battle, but he knew there was more to running a post than that.
"Your quartermaster would handle logistics and your secretary would do your paperwork," she said. "They'd give you someone from the council course for that, you know." It was the barest hint of a question.
Luke looked down at the sword he was holding. "Do you want me to take it?" he asked, picking the easier of two hard questions. "I guess you would be my second in command?" He winced; he and Serene had decided a long time ago that they would be posted together, to be sure they would be able to ride into battle together. Luke had figured that had probably meant he would take what he could get wherever she ended up; of the two of them, it seemed pretty clear to him that she had the greater share of ambition and glorious destiny. He had not thought he might be handed an outpost just for being a harpy's nephew.
"I pictured us with co-command of a garrison nearer the elven lands," Serene said, a little wistfully. "Of course I had thought it would take a little longer. The new outpost should have an important role in dealing with the bandits though. Maybe we could request a transfer after a few years there?"
Luke had never once thought that far ahead at all. He was apparently behind in his career planning. He opened his mouth to answer and discovered to his horror that he was about to say "of course I'll go where I'm needed", the same rote non-answer he had given Commander Woodsinger, and Serene deserved better than that. "Do you think - " he started, and was promptly interrupted by Elliot, sitting down next to him on the side away from the point of the sword in his lap.
For a moment he thought Elliot might kiss him, the way he used to kiss Serene, as if every time they saw or left each other they had to remind everyone what they were. Luke had hated that and he wasn't sure why he wanted it now. But Elliot didn't kiss him or even smile at him.
"Why does Myra want to know if I'm going to be your secretary?" he asked crossly. "Ben Dewgrass last year went straight to political officer - the ambassador kind, not the Soviet kind, obviously - and he hadn't even written any treaties. There's always postings gossip but this seems particularly spurious. You wouldn't have told anyone anything like that," he said, "You - wouldn't have, right?"
He sounded hesitant, and it was completely wrong. Elliot was supposed to snap at Luke if he was being stupid and order him to stop, not look at him like he was trying to be ready for anything Luke might say.
"I didn't," Luke said, because he hadn't. "I wouldn't - " but Elliot did not look reassured. Elliot looked even more like he was bracing for something.
In Trigon, there were two ways to handle the ball wrong: you could forget it was made of glass, or you could remember that too much. Luke didn't want to worry about whether he was handling Elliot too carefully or not carefully enough; all that sort of thing was Elliot's job, and now for some reason Elliot was not doing it.
They hadn't even had one entire day together, yet; Luke had never yet woken up and gone to sleep in a relationship the whole time. They had never kissed when nobody was about to go fight a battle or had just come back from one. It was unfair and impossible that he was being asked to think about the future when they barely had a present. Luke wished, for a moment, that he could just open his wings and let them block everything out - his wings around Elliot before had made a sort of citadel, and inside everything was simple, but out here everything was complicated. If being swordsisters meant sticking together, and being married meant months and months apart, where did that leave whatever it was that he and Elliot were going to be to each other? It felt grossly presumptuous to tell Elliot he didn't mind who he slept with at his posting, when they hadn't even done anything like that yet themselves, and besides which it was an utter lie.
Luke realized he had been staring like an idiot at Elliot and Elliot had been staring guardedly back at him and Serene, across from them, was starting to look a little panicked, like she had realized they were having emotions at each other and was trying to figure out the quickest way to get away.
"Right," Elliot said finally, resignedly, "Here's what we've missed in classes the past few days," and it was so normal, except for his voice, that Luke almost thought the whole thing had blown over.
Luke wasn't sure whether he should go to the council trainees' campfire that night or whether Elliot would come to his, so he stayed with the other warrior trainees, and then Elliot didn't come at all. In the morning he was tempted from the first minute he was awake to go wake up Elliot too, but he knew Elliot hated mornings and wouldn't appreciate that. After breakfast was mostly training with Serene, who mercifully kept her conversation to weapons technique.
Elliot met them in the mess for lunch, and Luke thought maybe he was supposed to do something boyfriendly there - if they even were really boyfriends now that they were back at camp - but he didn't know what. (He had a sudden mental image of carrying Elliot's tray along with his, one balanced on each hand, but that seemed ridiculous. How would he take any food?) Elliot ignored Luke until they got to the table and he sat down next to him, close enough that his leg touched Luke's all along the side. Luke's wings twitched and he hurriedly scooted back an inch, at which Elliot scooted several inches back the other way. Serene, across the table, gave them both a dubious look and began to systematically scrape out the inside of a jacket potato.
Elliot looked at her, looked at Luke, and dropped his forehead down to the table. "Look," he said, "This is actually going to kill me, and I thought it would be worth it, but it's terrible, and I don't know what to do."
Luke thought his wings, tearing off, might feel something like this, but of course Elliot should not do anything that made him feel terrible. He swallowed. "I'm sorry," he said, and tried to think of what came next. He had been in a relationship for one entire day, the day before, and now it was looking like he wouldn't get a second. "Thank you for giving it a try, at least - "
Elliot narrowed his eyes at him, and it was like a spark of the old Elliot returning; Luke thought in a burst of hope he might be about to get told how stupid he was. "You - " he started, but that was as far as he got before the runner burst in.
"There are monsters on the north road!" he yelled, waving his hands, "Monsters!"
Elliot and Luke stood up simultaneously. Luke very much doubted Elliot was also intending to direct the man to Commander Woodsinger.
"They're looking for something, zeenola something. Zeenolacueshonist," the man added, and Elliot lit up like he'd caught on fire, and bolted for the north road.
There were three of them, and none of them were anything Luke had ever heard of before.
The most human of them walked on two legs and had two long arms, but the head was like that of a antlion, with giant protruding mandibles, and its arms and legs were covered in chitinous plates. The second looked like a sort of upright shrimp with mantis-folded arms, standing on a whole mess of little spidery legs.
Those two were wearing ill-fitting, hooded grey cloaks, from which arms and legs and heads protruded. Luke thought the third was wearing a cloak that covered it completely head to toe, until it fluttered in the wind and he saw that what he had thought was a hood just continued on down over where the face should be, and beneath the bottom hem he saw nothing at all, and realized that there was no head or toe to it, it was just a hanging, floating drape of something that maybe wasn't cloth at all.
It was the most uncanny thing Luke had ever seen, and Elliot was talking to it.
Elliot and the cloak-thing stood about ten feet apart. Luke and Serene stood five feet behind Elliot, and the antlion and the shrimp stood five feet behind the cloak-thing, making two triangles pointing at each other. Commander Woodsinger stood another ten feet behind Luke, glowering at the back of Elliot's head. They had sorted it out after Elliot had come up at a dead run, pushing through the soldiers facing off against the monsters, yelling "me, talk to me" and the antlion had clicked and stepped forward and nearly gotten speared.
Luke had had to simultaneously push the soldiers back and guard Elliot - he knew it wouldn't do any good to try to push Elliot back - until he got everyone into a reasonable parley configuration. The antlion had pointed to Elliot and said "xenolocutionist" and Elliot had preened and said "yes, yes, yes, who are you, what are you", but the antlion had just stepped back and let the cloak-thing come forward.
"Stranger speaker, mermaids mentioned," the cloak said in its weird hissing voice. "Scouting sneaking action altered."
Elliot's eyes widened a little. "Okay," he said, "Um, the mermaids told you about me, and you were traveling in stealth, but decided to come talk to me? Can you understand me if I talk like this, or do you need the, uh, verse form? Metre, uh, mandate?"
"Listen loosely, talking tightly," it answered. "Telling trouble common challenge."
"We're both having trouble understanding each other?" Elliot guessed.
The cloak made a sort of rippling motion.
"Warnings witnessed, vastness voyaged," it said. "Border broken, Wall will wobble."
"Oh," Elliot said. "You're telling me we have trouble in common, something's wrong with the Wall. Wait, something's wrong with the Wall?"
"With us walking, see it self-wise," the cloak said, and then Elliot had to argue for fifteen minutes with Commander Woodsinger about letting the strange visitors pass through the camp to reach the Wall.
"I would think "Border broken" would get your attention!" he said, and Commander Woodsinger said she did not trust anything out of the deep otherlands, and Elliot said he felt profoundly betrayed that he didn't even know there were deep otherlands, which it turned out were a high-level military secret, now blown open.
Finally Commander Woodsinger agreed that Elliot could walk with the monsters ("visitors!" insisted Elliot) if they were surrounded by a double ring of soldiers and if Serene and Luke stayed in arms' reach of Elliot. Luke intended to grab Elliot and get into the air if the monsters so much as twitched suspiciously - they didn't have weapons that he could see, but there was no telling how strong or fast or venomous they might be.
Elliot didn't seem to be on his guard at all. The cloak was apparently done talking for now, and so Elliot just walked along quietly, glancing over at the monsters and beaming. Luke couldn't believe he had let himself think for a moment that Elliot might be happy as his secretary.
When they got to the Wall, the shrimp and the antlion conferred, and then the shrimp pulled a tiny mallet out of somewhere and started tapping the stones of the Wall. It chittered over its shoulder and the antlion produced a tablet and stylus and began, as far as Luke could tell, to take notes.
"Wait, are you taking measurements?" Elliot asked. "Are you guys scientists? Is the true dark secret of the deep otherlands the fact that someone there is willing to investigate strange phenomena numerically?" All three of the monsters ignored him and kept working their way along the Wall.
Luke had never thought about the Wall much. From this side, it was about twice his height, built from large blocks of some light-colored stone, something soft enough that hundreds of people had carved their names into it. The names crowded around the shimmering archway that led to the other world, ground to over Luke's head, then spilled along the wall in both directions, trailing off into a sort of band around chest level.
The shrimp was methodically working its way up and down - its arms unfolded dramatically and it could reach nearly to the top - and Luke saw some of the soldiers shifting from foot to foot. Luke had just decided to ask Elliot to ask the monsters how long they thought it would take when instead of the tap-tap of the little mallet he heard a sort of reverberant plop.
The shrimp chittered and the antlion and cloak came forward and gathered around a particular stone carved with the name "Walterus". The shrimp hit the stone again and Luke saw it judder and ripple, as if what he had thought was stone was actually jelly under a crust of sand. All three monsters took a step back and started chittering to each other.
"What," Elliot said, "What is it?"
The antlion turned to him. "Instabilperiphery," it said.
The cloak didn't turn, but it sort of shifted so that the part facing Elliot looked more like the opening of a hood. "Fears were founded," it said. "Fissure follows."
The monsters went back to their conference. Elliot looked down and picked up a stick.
"Hey," Luke said, but Elliot poked the stone and watched the surface wobble.
"That is not right," Serene pronounced.
"It's pretty cool though," Elliot said, and he raised his other hand to touch the surface.
His fingertips sank in like the stone was water.
"Ulp," Elliot said, as the surface engulfed his hand and wrist, "Something's - " and he was pulled bodily forward, yanked off his feet.
As Luke threw himself toward him he noticed, with incandescent fury, that Elliot had the nerve to look surprised, like it had seriously not occurred to him that a mysterious magical anomaly could be dangerous.
Luke had lunged with all the force of his legs and wings combined, but Elliot's head and torso vanished into the Wall before he could grab him, and Luke could only follow, his outreached hands piercing the deceptive surface like there was nothing there.
Luke was somewhere dark. It was a sort of rubbery, muffling dark that resisted movement, like being caught in a net, or maybe baked into a giant jelly. Elliot should have been right in front of him but he wasn't. Luke thrashed around soundlessly, trying to find him, until one of his hands caught on what felt like a lip of stone, and he pulled himself through an invisible window to tumble back out into air and sunshine.
He was back at the base of the wall. The monsters were pointing and chittering at him, but Serene was gone, and Commander Woodsinger, and all the soldiers. And Elliot wasn't there. Luke spun around at once and tried to go back into the stone block he'd just come out of, but this time it was like pushing into taut fabric - the rough surface gave and stretched, but no matter how he scrabbled at it his fingers couldn't penetrate the surface.
"Help," he said over his shoulder, "Help! He's still in there!"
A big, plated hand took him by the arm, turning him to face the other two monsters.
"New-come no-one enter exit," the cloak said.
Luke scrubbed a hand over his face. "I don't understand," he said, "You want Elliot for that, I've got to get him out of there!"
The monsters discussed that, while Luke tried sticks and his dagger against the Wall. None could even scratch it. He tried hitting it as hard as he could but his fist just sank in and then sprang back, throwing him nearly off his feet.
"Look and listen," the cloak said. "Threshold theory."
The antlion squatted down and started performing a little play with a pebble and a leaf. The pebble came up to the leaf and was folded inside of it, then the leaf was turned over, and the pebble came out the other side.
"I have no idea what this is supposed to be," Luke said, "What happened to Serene and all the others?" He was looking around now, and, weirdly, he couldn't see any of the soldiers' footprints, just the various odd tracks of the monsters. He almost would have thought he wasn't at the same part of the wall, but the stone block still said "Walterus", and he had the same vantage back to camp.
Except, no, now that he looked, that wasn't right either. There were palisades where there should be open meadows, and stumps where there should be clusters of trees. Luke flew up automatically, for a better view, and he saw that the woods around the camp had been burned for acres, burned down to ash. He didn't see how it could have possibly happened in the brief time he'd been inside the Wall, but maybe he'd been in the dark for longer than it had seemed. And that would explain why Elliot and Serene weren't there waiting for him - maybe Elliot had come out first, and then they'd waited for awhile, but something had happened, a fire or an attack, and they hadn't been able to stay.
It was strange that the monsters were still there, but then, monsters were strange. Luke decided not to worry about them and to focus on finding Elliot and Serene. He swooped down toward the first group of cadets he saw, who screamed and readied arms, and Luke back-winged rapidly, shouting, "It's just me, it's Luke Sunborn, have you seen Elliot?"
The front cadet lowered his sword. "Oh my god, Luke, you're - you're flying!"
Luke dropped to the ground. He had forgotten that most of the camp had never seen him fly.
"Elliot," he repeated, "Elliot Schafer, or Serene."
The cadets glanced at each other uncertainly. Closer up, they looked terrible - exhausted and scarred, as if there really had been some major battle. "I don't know an Elliot," the cadet said. "Serene - your elf friend? She left ages ago."
Luke tried to think of who else might be likely to know where he could find Elliot. Elliot's friends. He had a sudden flash of memory, Elliot writing to every elf they'd ever met looking for news of Serene. "Myra, then," Luke said, "Or - or Adara Cornripe."
The cadets looked at each other nervously again. A girl in the back spoke up. "I was friends with Myra," she said, "But she left years ago now, when all the dwarves left. And Adara... um... I think you'd better go talk to Whiteleaf."
Luke could not imagine why he would want to go talk to Captain Whiteleaf, but reporting to Commander Woodsinger was obviously the right thing to do. He wasn't sure why he hadn't thought of it sooner, except that his brain was still scrambled from the Wall.
He took off at a run towards the commander's tower, and switched to flying halfway there. There was no obvious threat and yet the whole situation, the impossible events at the Wall and the fields of ash around the camp, had him almost unbearably on edge. There was a knot of tension in the middle of his back; he could feel the feathers in his wings wanting to flatten and draw in.
There was a sentry at the commander's tower, who gawped at Luke but let him past. Luke ran up the stairs and burst into Commander Woodsinger's office, only to find Captain Whiteleaf there, and no sign of the commander.
"Sunborn!" the captain exclaimed, standing up from his desk. "You're looking, uh, healthy." Luke belatedly saluted. "And unexpectedly respectful," the captain continued - no. Luke looked again at his insignia. Not the captain; Whiteleaf apparently had command.
"Sir," Luke said. He was hardly sure where to start. "How long ago - where is - what's going on?"
Whiteleaf sank back into his chair. "The dwarves took the eastern refugee camp, the elves tricked the Third Army into an envelopment, and the nymphs woke the trees behind the lines at Symah. If you're willing to go out again, we could use you - anywhere, really."
"What?" Luke said.
"Of course, not to rush you," Whiteleaf said quickly, "Or, ah, presume. Third Army hasn't seen Chaos-of-Battle, though, if that makes a difference."
"What," Luke said again. He had a similar experience with Elliot any number of times, of having two different conversations, the other side of which was completely incomprehensible to him, but this one seemed particularly ominous.
It couldn't really be possible, that they were fighting the dwarves and the elves and the nymphs. Elliot had said they had five to ten years before the wars came again. Where was Elliot in all this?
"I need to talk to Elliot," Luke said.
Whiteleaf tapped his chin. "I don't know an Elliot," he said, "I don't believe we've ever had an Elliot. Was that someone from Thewn?"
Thewn was a small village known for goats. Luke had never been there.
He heard running feet on the stairs.
"Luke," the newcomer said, bursting in and taking his hands. "Oh my god, Luke!"
Luke pulled his hands away carefully, then did a double-take. It was Dale Wavechaser, wearing an eyepatch and a beard and a desperate expression.
There was something about the beard. Elliot had talked about a story once, where history had happened differently and everyone had beards.
It was a ridiculous, nonsensical thing to think, but so was being swallowed by a wall - so was a giant shrimp and a talking cloak, when it came down to it.
"Dale," Luke said carefully, "Why aren't Elliot and Serene here?"
Dale blinked. "Serene left after it came out that Rayburn had lied about the treaty," he said just as carefully, feeling along the words like he was looking for traps. "She had hysterics about her honor and quit. Do you - do you not remember? And who's Elliot?"
"You don't know Elliot, and Serene left but I stayed," Luke replied, instead of trying to answer that.
"No-o-o," Dale said, drawn out, "But you came back after your mum di - Luke," he cut himself off, "I think we'd better take you back to the infirmary, maybe you weren't quite ready to get up." Whiteleaf nodded and Luke let himself be led away.
The medic on duty took one look at Luke and dropped a box of bandages.
"Ha," Dale said, "Did you sneak out? Oh, you." He gave Luke an affectionate jab in the arm. He had grabbed and talked at Luke the whole way over while Luke tried to ignore him and concentrate on telling himself he was calm. This wasn't his world, this was just a story where everyone had beards. His mom was fine, and Luke would get back there as soon as he figured out how.
He kept thinking of how Elliot had danced with his mother in their kitchen to the music from his weird music box; how that had probably never happened here, and never could.
Dale conferred with the medic quietly, and then she ushered Luke to an alcove of the infirmary tent, and pressed a hot mug of tea into his hands.
"Your friend says you're disoriented," she said bluntly.
Luke shook his head. "Not - not medically. This is going to sound crazy, but have you ever heard of a story where things happened differently, and everyone has beards?"
The medic raised her eyebrows. "Beards?"
"There's something wrong with the Wall, I got sucked in with Elliot - Elliot Schafer, you've probably never heard of him - and I came out here, but it's all messed up. In my world, Serene never quit, and Commander Woodsinger is in charge, and - " it hit him, suddenly. "I think one of those cadets was Darius Winterchild, and he's dead. So this is definitely not just the future or something."
The medic looked unconvinced.
"You treated me once," Luke went on, trying to think of something that might convince her. "Did that ever happen here, that I got hit in the head with a Trigon ball?" Although maybe reviewing his history of head injuries was not the best tactic.
"Drink your tea," the medic said, and Luke obediently took another sip.
"As it happens," the medic said, "I've heard of alternate universes before, and I'm even willing to believe you're from one."
"You - really?" Luke asked.
"Yes," the medic said, "I know you're not our Luke Sunborn, because our Luke Sunborn is in the isolation ward, not likely to wake up again after the injuries he took in a heroic rearguard defense of the evacuation of Thewn, or, as I see it, attempted suicide by troll. So either you're his identical twin, or you're some kind of monster that can take his shape, or, as you say, you're from some other world where things went less stupidly."
"You're at war with the trolls too?" Luke said. It wasn't the most important thing she had said, but in that moment it was the only one he could focus on.
"We're at war with everybody," the medic answered. "What did I just say about things going stupidly."
"In my world we have treaties," Luke said. "Lots - lots of treaties."
If Elliot were there, he would crow, he would gloat. He would be completely insufferable. Luke missed him so, so much.
"I need Elliot," Luke said. "The monsters were trying to tell me something, he would be able to figure it out. The monsters have something to do with the Wall," he explained; they were another detail that wouldn't exactly add to his credibility, but he couldn't just leave out. "If I can't find my Elliot, I at least need the one from here, only none of you seem to know him. I would think someone would remember him, even if - even if - " Luke couldn't say it.
"This is Elliot Schafer?" the medic asked.
"Yes. Wait, do you know him?"
"I know of him," the medic said, a little evasively. "You mentioned him earlier, anyway. In our world, he was on the list of potential candidates but he never crossed the Border."
"I was getting that idea," Luke said. "Do you know where I can find him? In the other world?"
"Maybe," the medic said. She looked at Luke for a long moment. "I don't see how a lookalike harpy or shape-shifting monster could know that name."
"I'm really not," Luke said, trying to sound confident and cheerful instead of desperate and weirdly heavy. "My word as a Sunborn. As the Sunborn." He didn't usually like to trade on that but this was no time to scruple.
The medic blinked. "Our Luke is not the Sunborn and a spy should know that," she said crossly. "Oh, fine. I'll tell you how to find Elliot Schafer."
She started rattling off directions - look for such and such big building, ask someone how to get to this then the other place, he was looking for a grey house with a certain number on it on a road with a sign with a certain name on it. Luke might have found it hard to follow if he wasn't so used to listening to Elliot.
"Thank you," he said, and tried to leap to his feet, to take off at once. He almost fell out of his chair instead. His legs didn't seem to want to hold him.
The medic snorted. "I was just about to mention that," she said, taking his tea and setting down a little vial in its place. "You might be a little poisoned right now. Drink this and you should be fine."
Luke stared at her, aghast. "You poisoned me?"
"It's not like I could just let you waltz off with information if you were a spy," the medic said impatiently. "I'm going to go somewhere public with lots of armed soldiers now, don't even think about coming after me."
Luke grabbed the vial. "This is the antidote?" he asked. He thought his hands and feet might be starting to tingle.
"Sure, something like that," she said, already walking away. "Good luck!"
When Luke was done vomiting up the entire contents of his stomach (or more, it seemed like more, did harpies have more than one stomach?) he flew for the Wall. He landed right in front of the archway to the other world, took a deep breath, and tried to step through.
He smacked into it like a bird into a window.
The Walterus stone, earlier, had looked like stone but had offered less resistance than water. The shimmer of the gate looked like water but had less give than stone, because it had no texture at all, only a sort of absolute solidity.
Luke hit it harder. He hammered on it with his fists and kicked it with his foot and was on the brink of trying screaming at it when he turned around and realized the three monsters were standing there watching him. Luke tried not to let anyone see him get frustrated, and now these creatures had seen him having a tantrum. Great.
"I have to get through," he said, to explain himself.
The shrimp took a step towards him and held up the little mallet it had used to test the Wall. Slowly, it unfolded its arm towards him, moving deliberately enough that Luke could see it wasn't an attack, until the mallet stopped just in front of his face and then, gently, tapped his forehead.
The shrimp chittered something at the others, and the antlion held up its hands and started doing another little pantomime, two fingers slapping the other palm and one bouncing away. "Isodisplacement," it said.
"Timeline torqued, replace return," the cloak added.
"Stop, just stop," Luke said. "I have no idea what you're talking about. But I'm trying to go get someone who can understand you," he said, "He's who you wanted to talk to before, in my world."
The shrimp reached under its cloak and pulled out something that appeared to be a long, knotted, dirty string. It reached slowly out to Luke again with both arms, and carefully draped the string around his neck.
"Uh..." Luke said. "Thanks?"
The shrimp gave him a little push on the shoulder, in the direction of the arch.
Luke did not see how a dirty string was going to help him cross the Border, but he was desperate enough to try. He put his fingers up to the shimmer. They sank in.
It was like walking through a curtain of bees, the way the shimmer buzzed and prickled against his skin, but Luke closed his eyes and stepped briskly until he was through, and opened his eyes for the first time to Elliot's world.
Elliot's world was fog. There was a little stone landing with a low stone railing, and a staircase leading down, and everything else was just clouds. Luke recalled Elliot complaining about the enormous number of stairs he'd had to climb up to come across. That sounded slow. He didn't need stairs. Luke launched himself over the railing.
He felt an immediate flash of panic and regret - what if his wings didn't work here? what if they wouldn't even open - but then they did open, and Luke turned his fall into a long, spiraling glide, down and down and down. He broke through the bottoms of the clouds and got his first real look at the other world.
He could hardly understand what he was seeing. Buildings. Wires. Huge roads everywhere, and things moving on them.
Luke spotted a tall spire that he thought might be the first thing the medic had told him to look for, and landed, keeping his eyes on it. He knew people didn't fly in this world and he didn't want to alarm anyone.
Hours later, Luke looked at the number on a large grey house and crossed his fingers. Navigating Elliot's world had been horrible. He'd had to ask for directions again and again, and everyone he'd asked had had some sort of incomprehensible question for him in return - was he a cosplayer. Was he a strip-o-gram. One man had asked if he was being punked and a woman had tried to slip a small folded rectangular piece of paper into the top of his cuisse. Luke had also had to repeatedly jump out of the way of the fast colorful wheeled things that apparently had right of way on the roads.
The only thing Luke liked about this world at all, in all its rapid bright complexity, was that it did help to explain Elliot, a little. The grey house was too grey, though. Luke had walked past buildings that had seemed to be entirely windows. Elliot would have looked more at home in any of them than here. But Luke thought he finally had the number and street right, so he knocked on the door.
The man who answered was also grey, thin and hunched and somehow not quite looking at Luke.
"I'm looking for Elliot Schafer," Luke announced.
"He's not here," the man said, and started to close the door again.
"Wait," Luke said, "Can I wait for him?" and the man said "I don't see how I could stop you" and shut the door in Luke's face. Luke had hoped to ask if he might get a drink of water and maybe use the privy but he recalled his military discipline and sat down on the steps to wait.
The light slid sidewise from afternoon to evening. Luke recalled that the message about the monsters had come before he'd eaten any lunch. He still had his bag for his classes, slung over his shoulders and nearly forgotten, but it didn't have so much as an apple in it, just a book of elvish history Elliot wanted him to read, and the harpy notes.
Luke took out the harpy notes, holding them tightly with both hands. He remembered telling Elliot he was saving them. Maybe he had been saving them for a moment just like this; if things were going to get even worse, Luke did not want to know about it.
He found where he'd left off before, and started reading. At some point the sun set but lamps up on poles lit up the street brightly enough to read by. He found a page about the feather exchange ceremony. It turned out it could be used for all kinds of allegiances, military, commercial, or personal. If Luke fought in another battle with the same harpy (or completed a planned trade transaction, or they broke up amicably), they would trade their feathers back to each other. Wearing lots of different feathers was a sign of having lots of connections, good for the up-and-coming; wearing lots of your own feathers meant you followed through, even better. Caelano must have realized that Luke wasn't going to ask on his own and had arranged a little status bump for him. Apparently everyone on both sides was intent on speeding Luke along to his predetermined role.
He admitted to himself that he wished they wouldn't. Here, in the weird privacy of being twice removed from his own world, he could think that kind of thing. He had never thought about his life in terms of what he wanted before; there was how it was going to be, and that was all. But he was rattled by the implication that this other Luke, a Luke he might have been, had been torn apart between Serene and his duty and family. And he was unable to settle himself again when underneath there was the gnawing worry that he wasn't getting any closer to getting his own Elliot back out of the Wall. Even if he did get him back, Elliot was just going to go off and get into more trouble, with people who wouldn't know they needed to be ready to get him out of it, and Luke wasn't going to have him there when Luke needed him, to make all Luke's different obligations reconcilable.
The harpy notes crinkled in his hands. Maybe Elliot would write him letters; he had written Serene.
Or maybe he would just sit here on the other Elliot's front steps for the rest of his life, hungry and uncomfortable. That was one problem at least he could solve - Luke looked up and down the empty street, and stepped behind some bushes to relieve himself in the shadow of the house.
That was of course when the other Elliot finally came home.
"Excuse me," Luke heard over his shoulder, "What the hell?"
Luke straightened his clothes and stepped out of the bushes. The other Elliot was standing on the walk, hands on his hips, glaring at him. He didn't have a beard, but he was softer, scrawnier, maybe even a little shorter. Luke took another step towards him. Even in the odd-colored lamplight, he could tell that his hair was dyed, a sort of dull bronzy green, Luke thought, and he was wearing eyeliner.
"Elliot," Luke said, "I need your help."
Other-Elliot looked dramatically to either side of him. "Oh boy," he drawled, "Am I getting beaten up, or just punked?"
"Sorry," Luke said, "You don't know me, and it's a long story. But I have a problem, a translation problem, well, part of it is a translation problem, that only you can solve." It was dawning on Luke that instead of pining over his missing Elliot he should have been preparing what he was going to say to this one. "And then, something made the past all messed up, we have to - "
"Oh, god," Elliot said, "Is this a LARP? I don't LARP, I will never LARP, I'm a mundane, you are being very rude."
"I don't want to larp you," Luke said, and Elliot scoffed, which was heartbreakingly familiar. "I just want you to come with me - "
"Ohh," Elliot said, drawing it out, "You don't want to larp me, but you've got something else in mind." He licked his lips deliberately and obscenely.
Luke thought briefly about things that might motivate Elliots. It was probably too much to expect him to feel any duty or loyalty to people and a world he'd never even heard of. Other-Elliot had continued to vamp at him, looking at him from lowered eyes and suggestively rubbing his chest, and Luke gave in to the inevitable.
"Yes," Luke said, snapping open his wings, "I'm a magical creature and I want to carry you off and have my way with you."
Other-Elliot squeaked and took a little hop backwards. The flinch and retreat made him all at once entirely not Elliot, not Luke's Elliot, and Luke was glad that he wasn't actually planning to have his way with this one at all, as he wasn't even sure he could manage it, now, not for all the pinkness of other-Elliot's tongue or the dark outlines of his eyes.
"Holy shit," other-Elliot was saying, "That is the best cosplay I've ever seen, why are you on my front steps again?"
Luke silently beat his wings once, twice, three times, until his toes lifted, and he glided down the walk to land right in front of Elliot.
Other-Elliot held up his hands, motioning him to wait. "I'm not a virgin!" he yelped. Luke raised his eyebrows. "Also I'm Jewish, I'm a guy, and if you were Annunciating me you would have started with "rejoice" or something. Okay, I'm sorry, I don't know why I thought of that. But... you are... are you some kind of angel?"
Luke shook his head. "There's much weirder things than me where we're going," he said. Elliot grinned, so like himself and yet not, and then stopped.
"Wait," he said, "Am I coming back? Is this going to get me killed? Am I Lucy Pevensie here, or Richard Mayhew?"
Luke didn't have good answers to any of those questions, but Elliot held up his hand before he could say anything anyways. "Fuck it," he said, "I don't even care, get me out of here." It was late and dark enough that Luke didn't think anyone would spot them in the air. Luke picked him up and started flying them back to the Wall as mechanically as he might have carried tents to the supply rooms. He kept thinking of his own Elliot, saying "this is actually going to kill me, and I thought it would be worth it," and what he might have meant and not meant. He thought about that all the way back.
Luke set the other Elliot down at the landing at the top of the stairs, and wondered what he should tell him about what he would see on the other side. It had taken all his breath to keep them in the air - it was the longest and farthest he'd ever flown, and Elliot was not the tiny person he'd been as a kid.
Luke was not immune to a certain feeling of guilt that he had basically swooped down and plucked an innocent, uninvolved civilian out of his life and was hauling him back to what was to all appearances a miserable war zone on the off chance he could help Luke get back to his own life and his own, superior Elliot. On the other hand, this one was welcome to turn around and walk right back through the gate to the grey house whenever he wanted, and it wasn't like anyone had ever been able to stop Luke's Elliot from going where he wanted, so Luke thought he would probably be okay.
Luke took his hand, and they stepped through the archway. Luke felt the same buzzing feeling he'd felt before, and more alarmingly, he felt Elliot's wrist turning in his grasp. Luke stepped all the way through and hurriedly turned back to Elliot, who was just coming through the shimmer, and gasped.
The greenish hair and eyeliner were gone. "Elliot?" Luke asked stupidly - of course either Elliot would agree they were Elliot - but this one beamed back at him. "Luke!" he said. "Were you in there too? I didn't see you. Wasn't that fascinating?"
Serene and Commander Woodsinger and the monsters were rushing over from where they had all been standing around the Walterus stone.
It turned out that Elliot had been in a sort of vast, illuminated white space, talking to another shrimp guy. "Only we couldn't really understand each other," Elliot said cheerfully, "So it was mostly charades, but he was able to sort of very slowly make patterns on his carapace. I think I'm supposed to show you guys this symbol," and he drew something in the dirt that made all three monsters very excited. Elliot seemed to think he'd only been in there for a quarter of an hour, and Serene and Commander Woodsinger agreed they'd only been missing that long, and when Luke started trying to explain where he had been, everyone got very concerned.
He still had the string around his neck, though, which he definitely hadn't before. He gave it back to the shrimp, hoping it was nothing the other shrimp had needed back. Elliot started having some sort of very complicated conversation about that but Luke discovered that he needed to sit down rather urgently, and Serene dispatched one of the male soldiers to fetch him provisions. "No tea," Luke called after him.
"... so either the alternate reality only ever existed while I was superpositioned, and it collapsed when they crossed back over the Border," Elliot was explaining to Commander Woodsinger, "Or it did have some sort of independent existence and alternate-me found himself there without our Luke, and either way we're not going to be able to touch it again. I think. What they actually said was all "doubles ditto" and "builders' bolt-hole", and the pincers guy kept trying interpretative dance - god," he interrupted himself, "If there are any, any secret military records at all that might shed some light on this alliterative-trochee thing, I need them as soon as possible, there is no natural process of second-language learning that could have made them think we talk like that, so obviously something more is going on there."
Luke let the stream of words wash over him. It was almost unbearable that he'd managed to do the right thing completely by accident. Luck was nothing substantial enough to trust with Elliot.
Luke looked at him, waving his hands and ordering the commander around, and at Serene, sitting there solidly and quietly, and realized that for once in his life, he didn't want to just go along with things.
"I need to talk to you," he said to Elliot, and Commander Woodsinger said "yes, get him out of here," rubbing her forehead like she wanted to drink every time Elliot changed topics mid-sentence.
Elliot, walking out of the tower with Luke, seemed as happy to babble to Luke as to the Commander. "I can't believe today," he said. "I get a vision of the lingering spirits of the Wall-builders, or something, and you get a dark mirror universe. Seriously, I want you to go over every difference, that's so cool."
"Oh yeah," Luke said, "A world without Elliot Schafer, must be significant."
He was sarcastic, but Elliot bounced a little. "I know!" he said. "You guys really would be doomed without me." He grinned mockingly at Luke. "Was it educational? I never come to Border camp, and life is bleak and awful for everybody?"
"No," Luke said, and Elliot's face fell a little. "I mean, it wasn't educational. Of course it was bleak and awful, that's how it would be, without you. Even without the extra wars."
He could feel himself blushing, but Elliot's eyes were widening. He reached out and grabbed Luke's arm.
"Serene would laugh at this," he said, "Hell, past-me would laugh at this, future-me is very well going to laugh at this, but, Luke, I think we should talk."
"Right," Luke said, "I said that, upstairs." They had stopped in the shadow of the tower, the second evening Luke had seen that day.
"No, but, look," Elliot said, "Actual words may need to be used."
"So," Luke said, "You're good at that."
"Sometimes I wonder," Elliot said.
Luke took a deep breath. "When you said you were as serious as a heart attack, or harpy cancer," he said, "You were talking about... risk. And then later, when you said it was actually killing you - "
"You're going to break my heart," Elliot said in a rush. "It was - really hard for me. After Serene. And at least then I could have gone home. Now I've burned my bridges and I'm just going to be stuck here forever, hearing all the news about the Sunborn and remembering the forty-eight hours when you - that we - well. I thought I could enjoy it for what it was," he faltered, "As long as it wasn't about Dale, as long as it was just - you wanting me, for some reason. But it was like holding a grenade with no pin. But then you," he scowled, "The first thing you do when you get to a world without me is go look for another copy of me, and you tell me life would be awful without me, and, Luke, I just don't know what to think, here!"
His hand had tightened on Luke's arm and his eyes were burning into Luke's, like he couldn't help but look for the answer he wanted, but was bitterly sure he wouldn't get it.
Luke very carefully brought his free hand up to the side of Elliot's face.
"I told Serene," he said, "But I never actually told you. I love you." Elliot started to respond, but Luke cut him off. "No, wait. Let me - it's not just that I'm in love with you. I want you to wear my feathers in your hair. If you were an elf I would do the myrtle and rhubarb thing. I'm as stupid for you as Serene is for Golden. I don't want to drag you to a post where there would be nothing for you to do, and I don't want to see you twice a year while having an open relationship, I want to follow you to wherever you need to be, to do what you do. I want too much, I want everything, and why are you laughing at me?"
Elliot was laughing at him, laughing and shaking his head.
"Luke," he said, "Are you still worrying about the harpy outpost? You're obviously getting command of the expedition, you and Serene jointly, the elves will like that."
Luke couldn't help but grin back. He had no idea what Elliot was talking about, Elliot had gotten ahead of him again somehow, and it was beautiful and ordinary.
"To the deep otherlands," Elliot clarified, "To solve this whole Wall thing. And, you know, make new allies, give everyone here an outward focus that might avert the next war... we'll escort the visitors, meet the elders, if they came as far as they think they did, we're talking serious Marco Polo travel here. I've been thinking about who we should bring. Peter for maps, obviously, and maybe Adara, theater might be good for cultural relations - "
"Marco Polo is the game," Luke said. "In the water."
"No," Elliot said, then "Yes. Look, what I mean is, half an hour ago I thought it was going to be months or years of watching Serene and Golden schmoop on each other while the tension between you and me slowly solidified into something tolerable, but instead we could share a tent and I could wake up warm every morning." He put his arms around Luke's neck. "You could not break my heart."
"That was my plan all along," Luke said, sliding his own arms around Elliot's waist. "I should have said."
"I should have asked," Elliot said. "It's possible that I've developed a fear of rejection."
"You're never afraid of the right things," Luke murmured, next to his mouth.
"I love you," Elliot whispered, and Luke opened his wings, bringing them forward like a canopy over Elliot where Luke leaned him back against the wall of the tower. Elliot kissed him, carefully, lips and a soft curl of tongue, then broke away again.
"You can put feathers in my hair," he said, against Luke's lips. "I don't know what I can swap you though."
"Myrtle," Luke said, "Rings, I don't care." He was pressed against Elliot shoulders to knees, and Elliot rocked his hips against Luke's with a little gasp.
"Rhubarb," Elliot said nonsensically, "I can't believe you." He hooked one of his legs around the back of Luke's, and threaded his hands into Luke's hair.
Luke kissed him, and held on just as tightly.