Chains

© 1999 by E. Liddell


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Author's Notes:

As usual, I don't own all of the characters, yadda yadda yadda. You all know the drill. This story takes place in 3001AD, which places it a year after "Choices". I think. Subject to change without notice. Gods of Darkness, this timeline is getting complicated!

I do love feedback, people! Email eliddell@despammed.com.


Amber

I glared at my husband as he slid out of bed and put his robe on. I'd been having such a pleasant dream -- about him, as it happened, but there was no way that I was going to tell him that -- and he had to go and interrupt it, by thrashing around and waking me up...

<<What is it this time?>> I asked.

<<Alex. He's having nightmares again. I'm sorry, beloved, but I can't just leave him when he's like this.>>

I grumbled and pulled myself out of bed as well. My robe was lying in a tangled heap on the floor, where I usually threw it, since I was too lazy to hang it up. I've always hated housekeeping. The most wonderful thing about living in the Negaverse is my husband, but I've come to the conclusion that the second most wonderful thing about it is having youma servants to pick up after me. It makes those facets of my life so much easier.

<<You don't have to come,>> Jay protested.

<<Hey, he's my grandson too.>> And he was. It's impossible to hate Alex, even when he's the cause of things like this. But that wasn't the real reason I wanted to go with Jay, and I knew it.

Jay shot me an odd sort of glance, as though he'd come to suspect something of my real reasons. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had, given his peculiar gifts of perception. Maybe it would have been easier just to bring it out into the open. But how could I admit that I was worried about my husband's relationship with our grandson? I'd been happier even during those first couple of years of Alex's life, when Jay had acted like the poor kid was a ghost and stayed as far away from him as possible. Then, all of a sudden, something had happened.

Something. Yeah, that was still the best I could do in terms of describing it. One day, Alex had just been a serious, thoughtful little boy, unexceptional except for his healing gifts. And then, all of a sudden, he and Jay had spent hours in a closed session with Malachite. Together. I think that was the most time they'd ever spent in each other's company, up to that point. And when they came out, Alex, looking slightly bewildered, was wearing the brown-trimmed uniform of a full General, and had replaced Jasper as Jadeite's working partner. Just like that. Even though he was still a child. And ever since that day, Jay and Alex had been inseparable.

I had to admit that it seemed to have been good for Alex. He'd been having these nightmares ever since he'd been born, as far as we could tell, but no one else had ever been able to soothe them away for him. Not even his mother, my daughter Aventurine. Just Jay. That had bothered Avi, I knew. She'd come to me for advice more than once, only to have me admit that I was just as baffled as she was.

I glanced at Jay again as we materialized outside Alex's door.

Maybe soon, I'll know what's between them, I thought, but that was something that I'd almost managed to put out of my mind. It was too vast, too frightening... and it was going to be happening tomorrow...

Jay knocked and went inside without waiting for an answer. Or perhaps he'd received one that I hadn't been able to hear. It was always so hard to tell.

Alex was sitting up in bed, arms wrapped around himself, staring at nothing. Shivers wracked his entire body, sending odd wisps of his dark hair to vibrating in sympathy. Jay immediately sat down beside him and took him in his arms. My husband stroked his grandson's hair as Alex burrowed into his robe, holding onto the blonde man as though he represented all stability, all safety, in his younger relative's life. The expression on Jay's face was inexpressibly tender. I'd never seen him aim that look at anyone but Alex, and, when she was very young, Aventurine. Unconditional love and the need to protect.

He'd never looked at me that way.

I almost laughed. Was I jealous? Of my own daughter and a boy who, despite his teenaged body, was really only six years old? That was so silly. I wanted my husband's unconditional love, yes, but not that kind of absolute protectiveness. I had my own strength to draw on. I'd had to have. Otherwise, I wouldn't have survived my father's disappearance, my mother's death, my disastrous affair with Jasper's real father, or raising my son alone for all those years. No, I didn't want what Jay gave Alex. I just wanted to understand it.

Alex

At first, I was only conscious of the warmth of a familiar body within the circle of my arms. Then an identity. Jay. Brother. He's here. This isn't... It wasn't real. Another nightmare. And I was finally able to break free of those images of horror, and stop shaking.

<<I'm sorry,>> I told him. <<I didn't mean to get you out of bed again. Amber must be furious.>>

<<Not at all. She worries about you, too, you know, even if she doesn't understand what's going on yet.>> His hands never stopped stroking my hair. <<I really wish that you would let me tell her -- and Avi, and Cuprite. I don't think you realize exactly what kind of torture this is for them.>>

<<Jay, I can't. Don't you see? I'm a ghost. I've stolen something valuable from them -- the son they could have had. If they ever find out, they'll hate me.>> I was crying, now, tears rolling down my face to soak into his loose robe of blue-violet silk.

<<Alex...>> And there he stopped. We'd had this discussion so many times before that he knew what was going to happen if he tried to reassure me. I wouldn't believe him. I couldn't believe him.

I hate hurting people so much, and in this situation I knew I was going to hurt someone no matter what I did...

<<Amber's going to find out soon anyway, you know,>> he added. <<Or have you forgotten what day tomorrow is?>>

<<How could I?>> I asked. No more reaching inside myself and finding only emptiness where other voices, other selves should have been. No more being alone. To be part of a Weave again. <<You have no idea how long I've been waiting -- how long I've needed this -->>

A tiny smile quirked a corner of his mouth. <<Probably almost as long as the rest of us have needed you back. You're still in our hearts, Alex. You always will be, I swear. Even Zoisite misses you, although I'm sure the sky will fall before he admits it.>>

That made me smile, too. <<Zoisite never has been good at expressing little things like friendship, has he? I pity him, in a way. He's so fragile. Iron plating wrapped around a heart of glass...>>

Jay ruffled my hair, making, I suspected, a terrible mess of it. <<Just don't ever tell him that. Can you imagine the look on his face?>>

<<No, and I'd rather not imagine what I'd look like afterwards, after he got done with me,>> I replied, but I was grinning.

Momentary silence. <<So, what was the nightmare about this time?>> Jay asked.

I could feel my smile fade, and one final shudder welled up from somewhere deep inside me. <<The usual,>> I replied, brushing it off. I'd told him about all the dreams at first, until I had realized that it never made me feel better and always made him feel worse. Because the dreams were of our shared memories: of the destruction of the Earthan Palace, all those years ago. Of those centuries of life in the Negaverse, when I had been an impotent watcher and he had been crumbling apart. Of his death... And one other thing. Sometimes, very rarely, I would dream of that first day, which I could no longer consciously remember, when Onyx had come to my parents' house and offered them more money than they had ever seen before in their lives in return for Jay and I, except that his name hadn't been Jay then, any more than mine had been Alex. We had been different people back then.

I wish I knew who we might have been if that dark stranger, wrapped in his mantle of pain, had never darkened our door. Maybe if I knew for certain whether it would have been better or worse, I would know whether or not the decisions that I've made have been the right ones. Maybe.

Gently, carefully, I pulled myself out of Jay's arms. There are some burdens that it just isn't right to place on anyone else's shoulders, not even when that person is your big brother and your protector and has known you all your life. All your lives.

<<Go back to bed,>> I told him. <<You're going to need your rest. If I'm not there on time in the morning -- you'll find me by the tree.>>

He nodded. He had no need to ask me which tree. We both knew that it could only be the one he had planted for me.

As Jay rose to his feet, I caught sight, for the first time, of Amber standing behind him. Not speaking. Not moving to help. Just standing there, staring at us with an unreadable expression in her eyes.

<<I'm sorry,>> I told her sincerely.

<<You always are.>> Her tone was neutral, not accusing, and yet...

<<I'm sorry,>> I repeated. <<You'll understand soon.>> Either that, or we'll all be dead, and it won't matter anymore. But I didn't really believe that. Zoisite, Demantoid, and Sapphire, who between them were the highest-powered magical talent we had left, had all decided that the procedure we were going to use was safe. Even Malachite believed them, and was staking his life on them being right.

Amber gave me one last unreadable look, then followed Jay out the door. I waited until the portal was firmly shut before grabbing my pants off the back of a convenient chair and slipping them on. I didn't bother with the rest of my clothes, and my spirit crystal swung against my bare chest as I braided my hair, quickly, sloppily, just enough to keep it out of the way. Only then did I teleport.

It was night in the Earth Realm as well, a new-moon night, with the stars providing the only light. Nephrite will like that, I thought. He'd always seen such nights as lucky, due to the nature of his powers. There was no artificial light to augment the faint radiance from above, not here in this isolated little valley.

I moved towards the tree, then paused. My original bones weren't the only things buried here, and my bare foot had struck a small stone marker protruding from the ground.

I stared at it for a moment, then knelt and pressed the palms of my hands to the earth, right above the point where Onyx's broken spirit crystal was buried, where Amber had placed them. He wasn't my kin, except through Amber, even though he was the only father I had been able to remember for most of my first life. Cuprite had taken his place now, though.

I smiled as I thought of the diminutive ex-Enclavite. I couldn't claim that we'd ever been as close as most fathers and sons. I was too different for that to work, and he seemed to sense that, on some level. I still wondered, sometimes, if he really had seen my soul enter my present body, almost seven years ago now. So. We were both strange. But I still loved him. I might not be sure of much else, but I was sure of that.

My feelings toward Onyx were a lot more tangled. On the one hand, it had been his fault. All of it. On the other... He'd really been just as tortured as the rest of us. I knew that some of the others still held grudges, but it wasn't in my nature to do likewise.

I smiled wryly, hands still pressed to the ground.

"I forgave you a long time ago, you know," I said aloud. "We're all pawns, really, aren't we? It's ludicrous to hate a fellow gamepiece, whatever Zoisite may think. I...just realized that I'd never told you that." And I should have. More than anyone, I knew how likely it was that some vestige of his spirit still clung to these, his last mortal remains. Despite it all, despite the nightmares and the lingering legacy of fear and pain he'd left me, he deserved to know that I understood.

After all, his nightmares had to be ten times worse than my own.

I sighed softly and stood up, going to my tree at last. It was a healthy young sapling. I tended it on a regular basis, behaviour that those who didn't know found mystifying. I stroked its trunk as my feet burrowed into the soil beside it.

I wonder how Amber is doing, I thought as I surrendered myself to the slow life-rhythms of the plant. She's worried, I think. I hope she'll be all right.

Amber

I slept no more that night. The incident with Alex had brought what would be happening in a few hours' time into clear focus at the forefront of my mind, and I couldn't drive it away for long enough to doze off. My husband had no such problem, and I lay there listening to the soft sound of his breathing and trying to convince myself that I was being silly.

I failed.

I mean, the thought of having six other people inside my head, at least one of whom I really didn't much like...it was almost as though I was contemplating being raped. Not just total loss of privacy, but a violation so basic that the thought of it made me feel ill. Why was I going to do this to myself? It wasn't as though Malachite needed me to.

Jay chose that moment to thrash a bit in his sleep, flinging one arm across my bare breasts.

Oh, yeah. Him.

Gods, gods... I'd never known how much it was possible for one person to love another, before I'd met Jay. And we'd only grown closer over the years of our marriage. There was no way I could live without him now. I think that's a kind of closeness that Crystal Weaver couples need, if they're going to stay together. A love that lasts for centuries has to be really strong, really solid. Certainly, True Love is far more common in the Negaverse than in the Earth Realm, and the couples who don't have it tend to drift apart again after a few years.

Although I don't want to contemplate what that says about pairs like Melvin and Zantisa.

Still, no matter how close Jay and I had become, there had always been a part of him that I couldn't touch, that belonged to his Weavemates. And, selfishly, I wanted all of him for myself. So when I'd heard that Malachite and the others were going to make an experimental attempt to expand the scope of their Weave to include Alex, I'd begged to be included.

I've been a fool, I thought, staring into the near- total darkness that didn't quite hide the ceiling from my enhanced vision. That had been one of the hardest things to get used to about being a Crystal Weaver, really -- well, that and the spikes on my shoulders, before I'd had them surgically removed in the Earth Realm. It had been months before I'd been able to get a decent night's sleep in the Negaverse. Still, it's too late to back out now.

There are worse reasons for doing something really stupid than being head-over-heels in love.

I lay there for hours before Jay finally stirred and woke.

<<You don't look like you've slept much,>> he stated, kissing me gently. His message was carried on a current of absolute love so powerful that it almost hurt. It was a feeling that I wanted to hold inside of myself always. And maybe what we were about to do would make that possible. That would make it worth it.

<<It doesn't matter,>> I told him.

We took a quick shower together -- which might have led to something else entirely, if we'd had the time -- and got dressed. I fitted the cuffs of my jacket around the spikes at my wrists, then stood there, fingering my spirit crystal nervously.

<<You sure you're all right with this?>> Jay asked, not for the first time.

<<I'm sure,>> I told him, stating it with a firmness that I didn't feel. <<Let's go.>>

<<No, you go on ahead. I'd better go fetch Alex. I think he's still, well, stuck in the tree.>>

The mental image that produced was almost funny, even under the circumstances. I managed a small smile.

<<There, that's better.>> Jay was smiling, too.

<<I just don't see why you have to be Alex's keeper,>> I complained mildly. <<You're his grandfather, not his mother. Even if he is your partner, you don't have to be responsible for him to this degree.>>

My husband's smile faded, and his face acquired a set expression that I normally only saw when we were discussing the Bad Old Days under Beryl. <<It doesn't have anything to do with him being my partner, or my grandson either, for that matter. But it isn't my secret to tell. You'll understand soon.>> And he teleported away.

"It's a damned conspiracy of silence," I said aloud to the empty room. "And the explanation had better be pretty good."

Alexandrite

<<Hey, you aren't going to present yourself to Malachite dressed like that, are you?>>

<<Jay? Is it already time?>> I uprooted myself as carefully as I could, shaking my head. I'd lost track of time again. That happens, sometimes, when I root. <<No, I suppose I'd better get dressed properly. Although there was a time when no-one would have cared.>>

<<Maybe, but we were only impersonating nobles, back then. It's different now.>>

I made a face. <<Yes, we must put on a proper show for any youma who may be foolish enough to watch us through the keyholes, I suppose. Wait a moment.>>

My grimace deepened as I steeled myself for the effort of conjuring the rest of a uniform. My pants would just have to do as they were, I decided. Making clothes out of thin air and magic is surprisingly difficult, if you want them to fit, and those damned Negaverse jackets have to be shaped with a fair amount of precision. But first I needed a shirt, and a pair of boots. Those were easier--I'd done them in my former life, often enough.

Jay watched me, silently, as I struggled with the act of creation. There had been a time when he would have... But that time was long past. We were both so different now...or were we?

I contemplated the jacket again, and shook my head. No. I won't wear one of those damned things. Not today.

<<Then wear this instead.>>

The garment he held out to me was still grey and brown, but the style was completely different from that which I'd worn since coming to the Negaverse. Instead, it was a collarless wraparound, sort of like a short bathrobe, the same sort of jacket that Jay had conjured for me countless times when we'd both been much younger and I'd still had trouble creating my own clothes.

<<Thank you,>> I told him.

<<Your hair's still a mess, but it'll have to do, I suppose,>> Jay stated, not bothering with a "you're welcome". <<Malachite and the others are getting impatient, and I think Amber's on the verge of going catatonic.>>

I winced. <<I'm sorry.>>

<<No, it isn't your fault. I don't think she's really ready for this, but I don't seem to be able to convince her of that. She wants to be closer to me so badly that she doesn't understand that she already has all the parts of me that matter, except for a couple that belong to you and Avi and Jasper and Cass.>>

<<Somehow, I don't think you've been trying all that hard to keep her out of this,>> I stated.

He smiled and sighed. <<No, I haven't. I admit it. You see, I want that connection with her as badly as she wants it with me.>>

I punched him lightly in the upper arm. <<Hey, stop that! You look like a lovesick idiot.>>

Jay chuckled. <<I suppose I am, in a sense. I'm sure you'll understand, one day.>>

<<If I'm lucky,>> I replied. <<I'm not sure that all of us have soulmates, Jay. Or maybe they only come to those who need them.>>

<<And you don't?>>

I didn't like the look he was giving me -- it almost looked...pitying.

<<No,>> I replied. <<No, I don't. Nightmares notwithstanding, I think I'm pretty solid.>>

<<Living in a place you hate.>>

<<The Negaverse?>> I must admit that I was surprised. <<I don't hate it, Jay. It isn't where I'd live if I had a choice, but I don't hate it.>> Did I? <<Although...I wish it weren't necessary for a place like it to exist.>>

It isn't often that I get to see my big brother looking non-plussed. <<What do you mean?>>

<<Have you ever looked at the new immigrants, the ones who aren't criminals? I mean, really looked at them and tried to figure out what they're doing there? Most of them are victims, Jay. They've been abused or just used or they've somehow lost everything that was ever important to them. They come to us because they've lost any hope of having any kind of reasonable lives in the Earth Realm, ever again.>> I knew I was babbling, but I just couldn't stop. <<We're their last hope, the only place they can turn to for refuge. That's why we're needed. Maybe it's why we exist. I don't know. But we're needed. If there was no place like the Negaverse, they'd invent one.>>

<<The humans used to say that about Hell, too,>> Jay observed.

<<Did they? I didn't know.>> I shook my head. This conversation was kind of surreal. Get a grip. <<Jay, we're really, really late now, aren't we?>>

<<Yes, I guess we are. Don't worry, it isn't like they could start without us. Although I'll admit, I'm surprised we haven't been paged.>>

So was I, for that matter. <<Maybe they're intending to send Zoisite after us with a machete,>> I suggested.

<<Well, we can always propose something he can do with it that doesn't involve filleting us,>> Jay stated. <<This is the man who sleeps with our beloved Ice Blade, after all.>> He winked at me.

I felt myself blush. <<Jay, that was not funny.>> I've never liked off-colour jokes much, and that one had the added disadvantage of being weak.

<<Maybe not,>> he acknowledged. <<Zoisite would have found it hilarious, though, if it had been aimed at anyone else.>>

<<Zoi's always had a sick sense of humor,>> I pointed out. <<Now, let's get going before he really does come after us with something pointy or sharp- edged.>>

Jay smiled and shook his head. <<Do you want me to teleport you, too?>>

<<If you wouldn't mind.>>

Like old times, I thought happily as we vanished.

Amber

I swallowed, jerked at the lower hem of my jacket, then fingered the crystal that hung at my throat. This is it. Once I stepped through the door in front of me, there would be no going back.

Damnit, where is Jay? He'd gone to fetch Alex nearly fifteen minutes ago, and hadn't yet come back. Several times, I'd restrained myself from calling out to him. I didn't want him to be aware of my growing panic.

<<Are you all right?>>

I jumped and flinched.

<<Guess not. Sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.>> Almandite offered me a lopsided smile, her husband a shadowy presence at her shoulder. <<Look, you don't need to be nervous. This won't hurt you. It didn't hurt me.>>

<<Yes, but you were...what, fourteen? It's been a long time since I was that young and that flexible.>> I'd never been all that close to Almandite, even though she and I had been the only female Generals for several years, until my daughter Aventurine had come of age. She'd had her duties (as a healer and, later, unofficial liaison to Crystal Tokyo's Queen) and I'd had mine (mostly as the person-responsible-for-checking-any-outlying-ward-too-important-to-be-left-to-the-youma, since I have no talent at all for leadership or diplomacy), and there hadn't been many opportunities for us to get to know each other better even if we'd wanted to. Still, at that moment I would have taken reassurance from that little weasel Zoisite, if he'd offered.

And of course, soon, if we survived, I would come to know her very well indeed.

<<I don't think it's a matter of age,>> the red-haired woman told me. <<It's...you have to want it. That's the most important thing. When... That night, I realized that I loved Nephrite so strongly that I was willing to die for him. Or to change for him. You've already changed for Jadeite. Is the thought of a little more of the same really so daunting?>>

My left hand rose, involuntarily, to chafe the spike that protruded from my right wrist, then slid over to scrub at my chest, where the scar that had been made by a white-fire spear lay concealed beneath my clothing. <<In all honesty? Yes. I... didn't have time to think about what was happening when I threw myself at Beryl, that time. If I had, I don't know if I could have brought myself to do it.>> Meeting Jadeite and becoming a Crystal Weaver had turned my life upside-down and inside-out. I still had a few regrets about that, a few friends I'd had to leave behind, but no-one who had been important enough to me to risk breaking the code of silence that had concealed the Negaverse in those days.

<<Then I guess you've got a decision to make,>> Almandite stated thoughtfully. <<Which isn't something I can help you with. I'm sorry.>>

I winced and looked up and away from her, involuntarily meeting Nephrite's eyes. They were a truer, colder blue than Jay's, and seemed to go right through me. I was sure that he perceived my discomfort, and wondered what he thought of it. He'd always been so damnably difficult for me to read... I didn't know what I was going to find behind those eyes. And that was the most frightening part of all this: the things I didn't know about these people. What if one of them hated me, which wouldn't surprise me at all in Zoisite's case? Would I have to spend the rest of my life with that hatred gnawing at the back of my mind?

<<Zoisite hates everyone and everything except Malachite.>> Jay's thought suddenly intruded on my mind. <<That includes himself, most of the time. It doesn't seem to matter.>> His arms wrapped firmly around me from behind. I sighed and leaned backwards, letting him support my weight.

<<Oh.>> I didn't know what I was telling him, and didn't much care, either.

<<Is there a reason that everyone's waiting outside?>>

I glanced up at Alex, then did a double-take. I had never seen him dressed like that before. I hadn't known...hadn't even suspected...

The photograph of the five young men who had formed Malachite's original Weave had stood in a place of honour on Jay's dresser ever since our return to the Negaverse all those years ago. It was the only image I had ever seen of the first Alexandrite, the brother that Jay hardly ever talked about. And the young man who stood in front of me now could have stepped right out of that picture. Well, almost. Alex's face was still a little younger, a little softer, than that of the original Alexandrite had been at the time the photo had been taken, and his clothes were the wrong color, of course. But the resemblance was still stunning.

Gods of Darkness! No wonder Jay used to look at the poor kid like he was a ghost! Why didn't I ever notice it before? I mean, a change in the style of Alex's jacket shouldn't have changed his appearance that much. I don't think I *wanted* to see before. I don't think I wanted to understand. It's difficult to believe that they're all still so much prisoners of the past...

So. I'd finally solved the mystery. When Beryl's former Generals looked at my grandson, they didn't see him, they saw my long-dead brother-in-law. And acted accordingly. And Alex was one hell of a kid to have borne up under that the way he had.

<<We're waiting for Malachite and Zoisite to let us in.>> Nephrite answered my grandson's question without seeming to be aware that he was really addressing his statement to a ghost. <<It seems that there were some last-minute preparations they wanted to make.>>

<<After all, if I'm going to die in here, I want to make sure that I go out in style,>> stated a familiar and less-than-beloved mind. <<It's okay, you can come in now. We're ready.>>

It was Almandite who pushed the doors open. Nephrite followed her through. Then Alex went, without hesitation. I almost tried to stop him. Does he really want to do this, or is this what he's been told to want? I thought I was beginning to see the shape his life had taken, and I was beginning to wonder if he'd ever been able to choose anything for himself, really.

Of course, I was totally, completely, and absolutely wrong.

<<It's our turn,>> Jay prompted me gently. He pushed me gently forward and guided me through the doors without waiting for an answer.

There were no light globes in the room beyond. Demantoid had recommended that they be removed while the old conference chamber was being put to this purpose, and Malachite had agreed with him. And so the room was illuminated only by the pulsing glow from the walls, which would leave us all sitting in near-darkness. Zoisite looked particularly demonic, sitting there in the middle of a darkness that even Crystal Weaver eyes could barely pierce, his sharp features underlit by a particularly bright concentration of veins in the wall beside him. Malachite, beside him, was frowning down at the table and appeared to be paying no attention to us latest arrivals. Nephrite was lounging back in his chair, studying -- well, if he hadn't been wearing gloves, I would have thought he was checking his cuticles, to be perfectly honest. I wasn't quite sure whether he was trying to look nonchalant because he'd gotten bored waiting outside or because he was trying to hide his nervousness. This was an untried procedure, after all.

Almandite was the only one who acknowledged our arrival at all, nodding to us. I sat down beside her, with Jay beside me and Alex on the other side of him, at the foot of the table.

<<I need your spirit crystals,>> Malachite informed us, without looking up.

Alex almost tore the chain that supported his off. His hand shook as he deposited the little crystal in the center of the table, beside the four others that already lay there. Jay smiled and shook his head, removing his own with a little more decorum. I hesitated with my hand on my pendant. It was hard for me to believe that even a small portion of my life force was inside that glowing rock, but at the same time, I hated to take it off or let anyone else touch it, not that I'd often permitted anyone to do so. Jay had. Avi had, and Cass, when they'd been too young to know better. Oddly, Alex never had, not even as a baby. Malachite had done so, once, long ago. That still felt like a violation when I remembered it.

I gritted my teeth and forced myself to lift the thin chain off, over my head, and lay the crystal beside my husband's, at the center of the table. There was a moment of silence, in which nothing happened. Then, in response to a gesture from Malachite, five of the crystals floated up off the table, four of them arranging themselves in a tetrahedron with the fifth, his, at the center. Lines of white fire blossomed between them.

And then the crystals slowly began to shift out of alignment. Malachite's face was pale with effort, and I saw Almandite wince and raise her hands to her head, although hers was just about the only crystal that remained in the same place, floating directly above Malachite's. Nephrite's crystal shifted upwards and towards me, and Jadeite's, upwards and in the opposite direction, until the three were neatly lined up, while Zoisite's crystal slid downwards until it floated underneath his lover's.

A sixth crystal--Alex's--rose to join the others in their ragged pattern, and Malachite's finger sketched a line from his crystal to my grandson's, connecting them with another tracery of white fire. Alex smiled, but it wasn't his normal, shy smile. In fact, this was probably the happiest expression that I'd ever seen on him. He relaxed in a way that I hadn't known he was capable of, as though some tension that he'd been feeling all his life was just... gone. Indeed, the expressions that crossed the others' faces as their crystals were linked weren't at all what I had expected. I'd thought that there would be shock, when they realized that this youth wasn't who they thought he was. Instead, even Zoisite looked like he was welcoming back an old and sorely-missed friend.

Then it was my turn. I tensed as my spirit crystal floated up towards the others, not quite certain what to expect. Malachite's hand traced its path from his crystal to mine...

...and something burrowed deep inside me, something cold and slippery and sharp. It didn't hurt, exactly, but I knew instinctively that this new thing was something that I should be very wary of. It took me a moment to recognize the sensation as Malachite's mental signature, which I had never felt with such intensity before. It was certainly the first time that I'd been able to sense the depth of the mind of the Negaverse's second-oldest Crystal Weaver. He was... I don't know. There aren't any words. Maybe the old Crystal Weaver language had them.

Then there was a little shock, and a second mind inside mine, but this one was far more familiar than Malachite's.

<<See? I told you it would be all right!>>

I squeezed Jay's hand, blinking back tears as the pulse of absolute, pure love that had accompanied his message rolled through me.

I expected Malachite to connect me to Alex next, but instead he traced the path between my pale green crystal and Zoisite's darker, emerald green one, and I was rewarded with the sensation of something prickly, like a sea urchin, inside me.

Zoisite twirled the tip of his ponytail and shrugged. <<It's what I am.>>

The connections to Nephrite and Almandite were formed next. I couldn't help but notice that the mind of the other female member of my new Weave was...shallower...than those of the men. Not lesser, just younger and less developed. I wondered if I felt like that to the rest of them.

Malachite hesitated, and then, reluctantly, traced the pathway between Alex and myself. I'd never had more than the briefest of contacts with my grandson's mind before, and the feel of him was...unexpected. Solid and steady, like an ancient tree, and as deep as any of the other men.

I hope that doesn't mean that us girls are naturally shallow-minded, I thought wryly.

<<No, it doesn't,>> Jay stated. <<Mental depth seems to increase with age -- not at the same rate for everyone, admittedly, but it does.>>

I glanced at Alex. <<If you tell me you've got an old soul, I'm going to turn you over my knee and spank you, even if you are taller than I am.>>

Alex didn't reply. Suddenly, he looked completely miserable.

<<Well, that's sort of it,>> Jay admitted, with a sigh. <<Amber, Alex and my brother Alexandrite -- they're the same person.>>

Oh, no...

<<Jay, I know he looks like your brother, but he can't be.>> I tried to be as gentle as possible, because I didn't know what would happen when they all came to their senses. <<This is our Alex, remember? Our grandson. We watched him being born. He got a lot of your genes, that's all. He -->>

Then I heard an odd sound. Alex was laughing, although the expression on his face was one of pain. Tentatively, I reached out to him along the still-tender Weave-link, and found...a storm of emotion so complex that I couldn't even begin to interpret it.

<<You know,>> he stated, <<I've played this scene in dozens of ways, inside my head, since before I was even born this time, but it never occurred to me that you might not believe it. The others all understood right away, but then everyone in this room except you and Almandite knew me before. I suppose I'm going to have to convince you, now. Very well. Grandmother. Sister. This is my story. Make of it what you will.>>

He didn't tell it in words. Instead, images flashed between our minds. I lived brief fragments of his life, seeing the Silver Millennium through his eyes. Feeling the pain of centuries of impotent non-life. And then Avi... Cuprite... The tree in the open meadow, and the choice he had made...

<<I never meant to hurt anyone,>> Alex concluded, rising to his feet as he pushed his chair away from the table. <<I'm sorry.>> And then there was a swirl of orange and red and gold, and he was gone.

Zoisite swore, softly and incisively. <<This is all your fault,>> he added to me.

I ignored him, instead listening to an echo inside my own mind.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

For what? What had he ever done that he needed to apologize for? What had I ever said or done that made him believe that he was causing me pain?

Jadeite

<<This is all your fault!>> Zoisite snapped. <<We've all been waiting for this for years, ever since we knew, and then you had to go and spoil it -->>

Malachite grabbed his lover's hands. <<Not now. It'll be all right, I think. They both just need a little time to adjust...>>

I felt a tremor run through Amber's body, where our legs were pressed together under the table.

<<GET OUT OF MY MIND!>>

It rocked all of us, I think -- no, I know. I could feel surprise resonating down the Weave-link. Amber has never been a very strong Crystal Weaver, and I don't think the others had believed her capable of such a scream. I knew better, though. My lady is one of the toughest people I have ever met.

<<Get out,>> she repeated more softly. <<I don't need a running commentary on my stupidity, thank you very much. I can manage that without your help.>>

I thought a rude gesture in Zoisite's direction. <<Let her be, damn you! Can't you see that she isn't up to dealing with you right now?>>

Then I turned to my wife, who was hunched over the table, shivering. I gently brushed a stray tear from her face.

<<Are you all right?>> I asked her.

<<I don't know. I really don't know. I feel like I'm going to burst open. I was okay at first, but now... I don't know if I can stand this. I feel like I'm standing naked in the middle of a roomful of strangers, and they're all staring at me and commenting on how I look.>>

<<Well, in that situation, you'd have nothing to worry about,>> I told her, and was rewarded with a tired smile. <<No, it isn't always this bad. I think we're all experiencing some sort of delayed-stress reaction, for one thing. We've all been trying so hard to forget that what we just did could have killed us...>> At least she wasn't shaking anymore. I began to relax a bit. <<Our minds haven't really been shoved inside yours, you know -- it just feels that way. You can learn to block out some or all of it when you want to be alone inside your head.>>

<<We'll all help you.>>

I must admit that my jaw almost dropped to the floor just then, for it was Zoisite who had made that statement.

<<I'm not stupid,>> the smallest -- no, second-smallest, now -- member of our Weave stated irritably. <<If one of us is depressed, it bleeds off onto the rest of us, and surprising though it may seem, I do prefer to avoid that.>>

It was as close to being sympathetic as I'd ever known him to come.

<<Thank you,>> Amber told him. She took a deep breath, then squared her shoulders and rose from the table.

I captured her hand in mine as she made to move away. <<Where are you going?>>

<<To talk to Alex. I think we'll all be a lot happier if he and I sort out our relationship, won't we?>>

<<Alex is all right,>> I told her. <<He's just in shock, like the rest of us.>>

<<Still, I think that he and I need to talk. There are so many things that I would have said to him if I'd known...and I can still say them now.>>

She tugged her hand out of mine and vanished into nonspace.

It was Zoisite who finally broke the ensuing silence.

"There's more to her than I thought. Maybe this can work, after all."

High praise, from him.

Alex

I pressed my forehead against the tree and wept, not entirely for sorrow. No, some of it was relief. I didn't feel empty anymore. I hadn't realized how much I'd hated that feeling until it was gone. How could the humans stand it? I'd been so lonely...

But it wasn't just relief, either. How could she not believe me? What reason did I ever give her to believe that I would lie to her? That had hurt. That had really hurt. And then, having to convince her, I'd relived all those years of darkness...

Perhaps I should start seeing a psychiatrist, I thought wryly. This is really getting out of hand. I wonder if it's possible to have a phobia about the past. Then I chuckled through my tears, thinking about what the poor human shrink's face would look like when I explained my troubles to him.

Either he'd call for the guys with the straitjackets and the butterfly nets, or he'd have a nervous breakdown himself, and I'd have to call them, I thought, good humor more-or-less restored. No, if I do talk to someone, it's going to have to be one of our own. But not Jay again. He's too close to the problem. Almandite, maybe. She's a good enough listener, and she *knows*, without having been part of it... Still, I think I'll be okay once I have a chance to absorb it all. It's just that too much happened, too quickly.

I lay down on my back on the ground, staring up at the sunny blue sky of the Earth Realm, my left hand resting on Onyx's grave marker. You'd find it tremendously ironic, wouldn't you? I asked him. A non-aggressive Crystal Weaver, I mean. You always went to such lengths to remind us that we were supposed to be warriors, the defenders of the human race against the Empyrean...and the demons... Did you even know about the demons? I wonder. They'd all been chained so many years before you were born, if what Demantoid says about you is the truth. They can't have been much more than a myth to you. If you had known, would you have done anything differently?

<<You knew him, didn't you.>> It wasn't a question.

I tilted my head at an awkward angle to meet Amber's eyes. <<Yes. Yes, I did.>>

<<It sometimes seems like I'm the only one who didn't,>> she stated, sitting down beside me, on the other side of the marker, <<even if he was my father.>>

I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. <<Do any of us ever truly know each other? Even Weavemates keep secrets from one another. I have a suspicion that you know more about your father now than you would have if he'd stayed to watch you grow up.>>

<<I know. Damn him.>>

<<He wanted to protect you,>> I told her gently, knowing that she already knew, but forced to repeat it nonetheless.

<<And I'm not sure I'll ever forgive him for it,>> she stated. <<Tell me, oh wise youth, will there ever come a time when I remember him without a twinge of irritation?>>

<<I'm not wise,>> I corrected her. <<And parents are complicated. I should know -- I've got something like five of them now. But even grudges eventually die of old age.>>

She snorted. I went back to staring at the sky, not speaking until I felt her hand close over mine on her father's gravestone.

<<I didn't come up here to talk about my father, though,>> she told me. <<I wanted to make a peace offering, of sorts. Here.>> She opened her jacket, pulled out something small and flat and rectangular, and handed it to me. <<I hope I did a decent job on the duplication. I'm still not very good at that sort of thing.>>

I held it up in front of me, that tattered image of the past, and smiled wistfully. <<We were so young then... You know, Amber, I've been meaning to thank you for years now.>>

<<Thank me for what?>>

<<For looking after my brother. You were there for Jay when I couldn't be. You have no idea how much that means to me.>>

<<I think I'm beginning to have some idea,>> she stated. <<I don't think I've ever met anyone as selfless as you. I'm surprised that no-one's ever nicknamed you Saint Alex.>>

I winced. <<Please, no. Saints don't kill people. I have.>> To my everlasting shame. Youma had died under my hands, that horrible night. It didn't matter that I hadn't understood that they were people and not monsters. I was still responsible. <<And anyway, I'm not into martyrdom. It hurts too much. I'm only a healer.>>

<<You could have fooled me.>>

I made a rude noise, and was rewarded with a smothered laugh. Then we lay there in silence for some minutes.

<<Alex?>>

<<Yes, Amber?>> I didn't call her "grandmother" now. Not now that she knew.

<<I ... For a while now, I've been trying to make a sort of a garden. In the Negaverse. But I can't get Earth plants to grow there. I had Nephrite show me what he did to those pines of his, but I just don't have a delicate enough touch... I was wondering if you... If you could...>>

<<Help you?>> I finished. <<Of course. Come on, let's go.>>

The End

"For the chains which once held us are only the chains which we've made."

(--Jewel, "Deep Water")


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