Milton swooped into the forest once he had sighted the roof of the tree house. At this time, he should still be in the flat, cleaning up after Humphrey’s mess, but he had been given orders to check on all of his members after Valet Gemini’s ambush, and right now, he had seen everyone except for Matthew, Tom and Ben.
Milton landed on the porch and knocked on Matthew’s door; when there was no answer, he knocked again, but still nothing. He doubted that Matthew would have gone round to the flat this early; there were still several hours before he had to go back and wake up his master. As he flew down to the ground, he wondered if Matthew had gone to find Tom and Ben; as he recalled, he had mentioned something about their tree house being close to his. Before Milton touched ground, he swerved upwards and started to weave through the other trees.
He didn’t go very far when he heard what sounded like pieces of metal clashing. Regardless of what it was, Milton followed the direction of the noise, perching atop a tree once he reached his destination.
Opposite him was a large tree (although, to Milton’s perspective, it looked as if someone had helped it grow to that size), in which a house had been built. The exterior was the same as Matthew’s, but it was much bigger, and fitting for at least two people. Underneath was a clearing in which the three people he wanted to find were there; Matthew was leaning against the tree, his arms folded, observing the practice spar that was going on between Tom and Ben.
Ben was kitted out in a helmet, chest plate, wing guards, and gauntlets, although each piece (bar the wing guards) of his armour was dented in at least two places; by comparison, Tom – now with a monkey tail that reached his knees – was armour-free, but he was holding onto an iron-tipped, wooden handle staff that was about an inch or two shorter than him. Despite that, he twirled it in circles with ease, a grin on his face as he steadied himself.
“Come on Clarkey, you first,” he said.
Ben jumped and his wings started to flap; his guards bent and waved in beat, moving like they were a natural joint. He remained static for several seconds, during which he shed two or three feathers; then, he glided upwards, albeit with some hesitation, snapped his wings open, and shot downwards, the current ruffling under his feathers as he aimed at Tom –
The latter raised his staff and swung it vertically, blocking the blow from Ben; he also grabbed the staff, but he lost his balance and flopped onto the ground, his knees landing first. He was already trying to avoid contact, but Tom kicked him on his thigh, thus forcing his grasp off the staff. Now free, he jabbed the metal end at his stomach, scraping his chest on the way; the force pushed Ben over which, under normal circumstances, would have left him exposed to a potentially fatal blow.
Tom took several steps back and waited for Ben to stagger to his feet; when the latter did, he was rubbing the spot, where a new dent had been formed. Despite that, he seemed ready for another round, and Tom grinned at him as he shifted his grasp, so that both hands were holding onto his staff like he was about to pole vault with it.
“Tom – stop –” Matthew leapt in between the two Valets, waving his arms. “You’re going to kill Ben if you do that.”
“Clarkey’s fine, he’s used to it,” said Tom. He resumed holding onto his staff with one hand, then spun it round before jabbing the wooden end onto the ground.
“His armour was brand new this morning, look at it –”
Ben shook his wings, thus brushing back Matthew. “I’m fine. I’ve had worse, a few bruises isn’t going to hurt.”
“See? Come on, Matthew, he’s made of metal. Anyway, it’s your turn.”
“To do what?” said Matthew. “If you think I’m going to fight you –”
“Of course you are.”
“Oh my God, no, not after what I’ve just seen. You’re going to break all my bones if I let you. I’d rather fight Ben.”
“I’ll go easy on you.”
“Your ‘easy’ is still enough to kill me.”
At that point, Milton had seen enough; he didn’t want to disturb them, not when he really did have other things to do. As long as they were keeping up, ready to defend themselves if necessary, he saw no need to interfere, and he returned to the flat.
Milton hadn’t been back long when the doorbell rang. He slipped into Humphrey’s room and hung up his coat in his wardrobe, and he left just as his master opened the door.
“Hi Humphrey –” Thom leapt onto him, pushing him backwards as he kissed his cheek before he let go and turned to Milton. “– Sweetheart –”
Milton leapt back, but Thom grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward; once close enough, Thom stopped him by hugging his neck, and then also kissed him on the cheek. He let go only when Milton managed to prise his fingers off him.
“What’re you doing here, Tuck?”
“Like you, I’ve been checking on my members, and I’ve only got Tim and Mark left to see. Since you were en route, I thought I’d come and see how you are.”
“I’m fine, now if you could –”
Milton tried to shove him towards the door, but Thom pushed him back, forcing him into Humphrey’s room. He kicked the door shut, and then leaned in, his eyes flickering between the other leader and his Item.
“If I were you, I’d ask your free members to find masters,” he said. “Word’s going round that Carr, O’Doherty, Herring, Perkins and Brooker have all managed to do it.”
“What about you?”
“I’m not concerned about Ingrid; she can manage, and she’s got Lorna with her. When I see Tim and Mark, I’ll try persuading them. As for Miles … I’ve had a word with him.”
“What if I make Lorna find a master?”
“Even if Lorna is gone, Ingrid will be alright. Like I said, I’m not concerned about her.”
“Thanks Tuck, I’ll get in touch with them.” Milton pushed the door open and waited for Thom to leave. The latter tried to kiss him again, but he clicked his fingers and a gust blew him out.
“That’s a bit rough of you, sweetheart.”
“Milton. I’m sure Humphrey can see you out.” He shut the door and clicked his fingers again, creating a small hurricane to block it from being opened, and he kept it up until he heard Thom leave for good.
Now that the wind was gone, he turned around and picked up his Item, but then put it down as he settled on seeing Tom, Ben and Matthew first. After all, they were the easiest to find, and he knew they weren’t doing much, not after seeing them that morning.
“Hi Milton,” he said. Tom and Ben were too breathless to speak, but he knew they would have otherwise also greeted him.
“Tom, Ben, Matthew,” said Milton. “Have you just finished…?”
“Tom tried to drag me into it, but I stopped him. Anyway, is there something you want to…?”
“Yes. You should know by now that the Western Valets have returned. We may have beaten Valet Gemini, but I’m worried that the others won’t be as easy as him … particularly if they are after your Items.”
At those words, Ben flung his hand into Tom’s as the latter looked up. Matthew straightened up even more, but he also folded his arms even tighter.
“If you’re suggesting what I think you are, no,” said Tom. Judging by his current state, it was difficult to believe that a few moments ago he had been out of breath. “And I think I can speak for Clarkey and say no as well.”
“Sorry, but I’m saying no as well,” said Matthew.
“I don’t want to force you, but you need masters for several purposes, mainly to stop the Western Valets to stop doing the worst amount of damage they can to you,” said Milton.
“I know, but I don’t think it’s convenient for any of us to start serving again right now.”
“You have nothing to do all day, so what’s stopping you?”
“You’re not splitting me from Clarkey,” said Tom. His knuckles started to turn white as he gripped Ben’s hand. “We’re staying together.”
“Don’t – you two have been free … for … two … years …” Now that he thought about it, it had been around that time that they had started going out. His face felt warm as he realised their meaning, and his hands twitched into a fist. “A lot of us are serving when we have other halves, so why can’t you do the same?”
Ben shrank closer to Tom, and the latter slipped his hand out of Ben’s before resting it on his shoulders, though his hand reached for the spine of his left wing. “We can’t explain right now. You have to trust us, we can’t find a new master yet.”
“I can’t start as well,” said Matthew. “Not when I’m just … starting with … you know.”
Milton gritted his teeth as his arms began to shake. “You’re choosing to defy what’s expected of you … because you would rather be with your boyfriend?”
“It’s not like that, it’s just … why are you forcing us to find someone? It’s not like we’re definitely going to be targeted by the Western Valets.”
“I’m also hoping you won’t be affected, but even if this wasn’t happening, how can you be satisfied with doing nothing all day? We’re meant to work for the rest of our lives.”
“I told you, I’m not going to be split from Ben,” said Tom. He took a step forward, as if squaring up to his leader. “I’m sorry, Milton, but –”
“Tom – don’t –” said Matthew. He was looking at the two Valets, his arms now out by his side. His habit of interrupting Tom mid-sentence did little to help; Milton also stepped forward, staring into his eyes, his chest rising and falling faster and closer with each intake. Tom remained unflinching, glaring back at him, his free hand also shifting into a fist.
After a while, he shifted his view and glanced at the staff. The only weapon within reach was propped against the tree, and was closer to Tom, though that didn't stop him from taking a step forward and grabbing for it at the same time.
A feather floated in front of them as Ben stepped out of Tom's grip. Matthew also started back, his hands open, but his palms weren't glowing. Milton ignored them as he was beaten to the staff by Tom; regardless, he still grabbed the weapon on the handle, and he curled his other hand into a talon.
“Get off –”
Milton flung his free hand in Tom's direction and a much stronger gust of wind pushed him back, though he remained holding onto the wooden end. He tugged harder, but Milton trod on his foot, forcing him to lessen his grip; as if it wasn't enough, he then kneed him in the stomach, and it was enough to send him rolling backwards.
“Tom –” said Ben as he ran over to him.
Tom got up without help, though now his monkey tail – which had re-appeared as an involuntary reflex – was now swishing from side to side. His palms were hidden by his fists, but they didn't seem to be glowing.
Milton had shifted his grip so that both hands were holding onto the handle, and the metal end was pointing at Tom. He hesitated, and although his arms appeared to be still, the staff was shaking. Ben took a step forward, ready to defend if they were attacked, but Tom put a hand on his shoulder and eased him back.
He gave no reaction, and remained standing in front. Milton's hands were losing colour until he threw the staff down. He lingered for a while longer, giving protracted stares at each of his members, before he turned on his heel and stormed away, disappearing from sight first before he flew back to the flat.