"Go," Gerald Tarrant whispered.
"No," Damien whispered as well, then shook his head and said it louder, with determination: "No. I'm not going."
The other man present, Andrys Tarrant, tightened his grip on the springbolt convulsively, then allowed it to waver. He glanced at Damien for a brief moment, then asked, "Why?"
"Why are you willing to block my shot with your own body? What has this murderer done to deserve such defense?"
Even the Hunter's attention snapped to Damien, waiting for the response. Why, Vryce? Why defend me, when once you swore to kill me yourself?
Emotions flickered across the former Churchman's face, too quickly for a man like Tarrant to identify. "The man who killed your family is dead," Vryce rasped. "He died on the rim of a live volcano, offering himself to save humanity from Calesta's designs. This one who stands before you now has been reborn, given another chance at salvation. I didn't risk my life to save his flesh just to let you kill him now. Even the Unnamed accepts that this man is no longer who he was. Death, however brief, ended the life of the Hunter, and I will defend the right of Gerald Tarrant to make a new life for himself with my own life without hesitation."
Tarrant felt a purely human chill at the mention of the Unnamed.
The springbolt wavered, then dropped still lower, to an almost unthreatening position. "Tell me what happened."
Damien wondered if the young man, so filled with hatred for Gerald Tarrant, knew how much like his ancestor he sounded at that moment. Then he began to speak, relating the events of the past days in a dry, factual way that did nothing to conceal his own emotional responses.
Gerald Tarrant watched.
Andrys Tarrant listened, and wilted under the tale of self-sacrifice and rebirth that had nothing to do with the undead Hunter that destroyed his family.
"Calesta is dead," Andrys whispered, a long, silent moment after Damien finished speaking. His tortured gaze moved from Damien to his ancestor. "The Hunter... is dead. Now what?"
* * * * * * * *
Life coursed through Gerald Tarrant's body, an unfamiliar sensation. The body itself offered up reports he barely knew how to process, complaints and sensations from a past so distant he had forgotten what it felt like. Tired, sore, hungry, dirty... The last two were familiar concepts indeed, but oh so different now. He felt the dirt in new-old ways, could smell his own sweat, felt a craving in his belly for some long-forgotten treat (and where would they find eggs here, in this lightless world he'd created to serve future need?). Disgusting, in a way, the way his body felt now, yet he couldn't complain. Life itself pulsed in his veins now, not the malignant power he'd felt for so long, and it felt... good. Right.
And he owed it all to the man stumbling along the tunnel in front of him, clutching the lantern as if his life depended on it.
Gerald felt a brief surge of annoyance at the thought: life was so much simpler before Damien came into it. But then his mouth twitched in a faint almost-smile, thinking of the ways both he and the ex-priest had adjusted to each other, become a functional partnership that not even a Iezu could withstand.
"I don't know about you," Damien said suddenly, coming to a halt, "but I don't think I can make it any further."
"Very well, this place is as good as any other to rest." Tarrant lowered himself to the floor, noting the way his new-old body creaked and protested, catching himself in a familiar attempt to banish dirt. Vryce groaned as he did the same, and pulled an unappetizing dried substance out of his battered pack.
"Dinner?" He offered it to Tarrant, who gave it a dubious look, then accepted a strip of dried meat.
The meat did little to satisfy the demands of his body, nor did the few spare swallows of water he allowed himself. But one thing that had not changed over the past tumultuous days was the will of the Hunter. Gerald Tarrant finished his meal in silence, laid down on the tunnel floor, and forced his body into a state of calm acceptance before drifting off into a natural sleep.
* * * * * * * *
He lurched awake with a gasp, muscles screaming as his abused body came upright on the unforgiving tunnel floor.
Gerald Tarrant shivered, caught in the grip of the nightmare of his own death.
Vryce's voice, thick with the remnants of sleep, reminded him that he still lived. Tarrant wrenched himself back under control immediately.
"Go back to sleep, Vryce."
"Hell I will," Vryce replied, sounding more alert. Clothing rustled in the darkness and a warm hand reached out and touched his arm. "You all right?"
"I'm fine," Tarrant said shortly.
"You were having a nightmare," Vryce said, wonder creeping into his tone. "Not giving one."
"Yes. Now go back to sleep." Admitting that human weakness hurt. Tarrant laid back down and felt a stab of regret as Damien's hand fell away.
"I died." The words came out before Gerald could stop them. He heard a sharp intake of breath. The hand sought him out again, this time discovering his own and squeezing, living warmth to living warmth.
"Yeah. Somehow, I don't think anything less than death itself could give you a nightmare. I'm... glad you're back."
Gerald swallowed against the traitorous human lump in his throat and refrained from comment when Damien's hand withdrew. He listened to the quiet breathing of his companion and wondered what was happening inside his formerly frozen heart.
* * * * * * * *
They emerged from the tunnel once again facing Shaitan, although this time the land was safer, more hospitable, than the hellish maze they'd traversed before.
"We made it," Damien said, surveying the vista before them.
"What's wrong?" Damien's eyes left the scenery and studied Tarrant's face. "I felt that."
"Nothing," he muttered, looking anywhere but at his companion. Complex feelings welled up in him, threatening to strangle him. "You should probably move on now. You've got a life waiting for you"
"Not without you," Damien interrupted, fiercely. "Gerald. We've been through too much together to just go our separate ways." He smiled, with a hint of real humor in it. "I don't think I'd know how to live a normal life anymore if you weren't around."
Gerald started to protest, to say he could make it on his own, then caught himself as a flash of insight hit him. "You're as lost as I am," he said, then an unfamiliar heat prickled his cheeks.
Damien, caught by surprise, looked at him with all the vulnerability and uncertainty of someone who has lost his life's calling and has nothing left to look forward to. "Maybe. And what if I am? At least I'm used to being human."
Gerald never knew why, never asked what unconscious signal passed between them, but somehow they both knew what to do. He reached for Damien, even as the ex-priest enfolded him in his arms, and they stood like that for a long moment. Bodies pressed close together, hands clinging with equal need, hearts pounding in unison.
"Suddenly human, not-so-suddenly secular... what a pair."
"Gerald," Damien said into his hair, "we can do this together."
"Why, Damien? Why are you willing to stay with me, the one who cost you your priesthood?"
Damien pulled away a bit, hands coming to rest on Gerald's shoulders. "Because you're worth it," he said. "Because I can't imagine life without you. And most of all, because you're starting a new life, and I want to be part of it this time."
"Life..." Gerald Tarrant breathed, stepped back, studied the man before him. Then he deliberately raised his handhis warm, living, human handto cup the rough-stubbled cheek, using the flesh-to-flesh contact to widen the channel between them, letting Damien feel his bone-deep uncertainty and the secret within. "Are you sure?"
Damien's eyes widened and a smile played around his lips. "So that's why you stuck around." Then he used the channel as well, sharing knowledge of his own secret. "I'm sure."
It suddenly seemed the most natural thing in the world for Gerald Tarrant, formerly the Hunter, to accept the situation and relax back into Damien's arms, sure in the knowledge that this time it would all work out right in the end.
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