With sturdy boots, durable clothes in neutral colors, and pack and bedroll on his back, an eight-year-old prince tromped through the woods with his guardian. He'd already gotten dirty hands, bits of leaf in his hair, a rip in one trouser leg, and mud on his boots; these things all delighted him equally. His pockets were full of leaves from trees he hadn't met until today, pretty pebbles, and other sorts of interesting things that children and naturalists collected. Where he intended to stash tomorrow's new treasures, and the day after's, and the day after that's, was anyone's guess. He was out in the world again at last, and to Prince Endymion, that was all that mattered.
His guardian, on the other hand - Kunzite would never have admitted it, but in his secret heart these trips terrified him.
Kunzite had been the one who'd suggested them, yes. He'd advocated for them, fought for them patiently with all the reason and rhetoric and influence his teenaged mind could muster... and that influence was not as close to zero as another teenager's would be. There were reasons that a fifteen-year-old was guard and swordmaster to the prince. He'd put all his weight behind the matter, pushed for it as hard as he could, and on being granted the privilege, had time and time again brought Endymion home safely.
These trips were important. Elysion was the heart of the world, but was not itself the world. Its nature was different, its laws were different. Endymion having the experience of the world he'd rule, knowing it in his own heart and gut and bones, could make all the difference in the king he'd one day be.
And the thought of Endymion being out in that world with a single guard, inexperienced and nearly unprotected, chilled Kunzite's blood for weeks in advance every single time.
So: terrifying. And yet, moments like this one, when Endymion flung himself wholeheartedly into the minor discomforts of an almost-normal life ... terrifying or not, Kunzite wouldn't have traded these times for the world's own throne. (Of course, that was one of the qualities that had won him his position in the first place.)
They'd only been walking for a few hours, but the place into which they'd stepped as they left Elysion was one Endymion hadn't seen yet, and Kunzite knew only through reports. Everything was new and different. Forests and hills, moss and lichen, the chill of autumn and the brilliance of deciduous trees; through it all the young prince hiked with open-eyed, attentive fascination. His guardian kept an alert of a different sort, watching for signs of human habitation, of major predators, of sleeping snakes or unfamiliar spiders or colorful and poisonous frogs.
As the two went along, the sun disappeared behind clouds, and the colors of the forest took on a different kind of brightness, splashes of mystery amidst grey, omnidirectional light. The sky grew overcast, and the breeze gusted, chilling the air, dampening it and bringing the scent of ozone.
They reached a plateau in the endless woods, and the ground there breathed-- up and down, like a mighty and expansive chest filling with air and sighing out again.
The boy dropped a vine he'd absently been knotting and started walking more slowly, watching the ground with a frown. He skipped forward a couple of quicker steps to catch up with his guardian and grabbed the teenager's hand to make him stop. "Kunzite."
The older boy slowed in turn, half-glancing back toward his charge. Fifteen other times in the past couple of hours the prince had slowed for something interesting on the ground, or tangled in a low branch, or otherwise near Endymion's eye level. This time when Endymion reached for Kunzite's hand, he was already reaching back, meeting him partway.
The wind was in the trees overhead; leaves drifted down in a riot of colors, and the small prince waved his free hand at the carpet of leaves and moss surrounding them. His voice was hushed. "Did we go back to Elysion without me noticing? It doesn't feel like it but--"
Abruptly, the forest floor inhaled sharply, then sighed out vastly.
"We haven't gone back." Forests weren't Kunzite's home territory; for all he knew, the slow strange shifting of the ground might be normal. Must be normal, for this place, or it would have been mentioned in those reports. It still unnerved him. He understood how plants anchored themselves, and if the weather worsened suddenly, the unsteady ground and the ill-rooted trees themselves could become the enemy. He shifted with the rocking of the ground. Braced himself. Should that wind have been enough to catch at the trees that hard, to pull at unmoored roots so noticeably? Would there be more? He ran back the motion in his mind, hunting for stable patches of ground nearby, for the stages by which the earth had gone from steady to this. When that failed him, he strained his senses outside of the normal five, trying to read the energies bound up in the movement of the wind, but the trees complicated everything; the leaves' fall was a pattern of fuzz, and even if he could have gotten a clear picture, it wouldn't have stretched far enough to tell him anything useful, not in this alien place. "What does it feel like?"
Of course Kunzite's voice was calm. Endymion hardly ever heard it any other way.
Inching backwards a little, unwilling to let go of Kunzite's hand, the boy prince kept his eyes fixed on the ground and scanned it as though his regular sight were peripheral vision. They weren't unfocused, but their remarkable blue was distant and preoccupied. He edged back a little closer to the nearest tree and pulled Kunzite with him; he stopped dead in his tracks, silent. Almost a minute passed with no acknowledgement of the question. This had happened before. This would happen again.
There were things that the prince did that Kunzite had learned not to question, things that his land-senses perceived that Kunzite's affinity for energy could not. Sometimes these things the younger boy didn't have the words to explain. Sometimes they were inconvenient. Sometimes they were priceless. Kunzite interrupted them only when necessary, and this time it didn't seem necessary as yet. The trees, the earth, the change of the seasons-- they were slow things, for the most part. There was no hint of magic moving, no hint of human manipulations that might have set things at a faster pace. Even the birds that rose in complaint were only birds, and the rush of their wings and the sharpness of their cries were perfectly reasonable when the branches swayed so sharply and the unseated forest floor heaved. But it was only wind. The forest must have weathered worse.
Endymion's psychometry, his land-senses-- they were slippery, still rooted in the world's heart and mired in its magical core instead of its surface. They were still oriented toward the dreams of artists, scientists, and children, the dreams which combined to shape the beautiful, terrifying, and impossible perfection of Elysion. The reality around them now, though Kunzite had taken him out into the solid world so many times, was still not where he slept for most of his nights; it was still not where he lived, here with his face to the true sky, here with his small feet on the crust of his planet. He couldn't always recognise things below the surface for what they were, not yet.
So the boy's quiet was uninterrupted. Kunzite took a step to close the distance that'd begun opening between them. Then a second step. Not too close; when Endymion was that still, it was best not to crowd him, not to confuse him with other human emotions. Let him learn the beginnings of these things undisturbed. There would be plenty of time to complicate matters later.
Halfway through his investigation, the young prince clenched his teeth in frustration and crouched, one arm still up to keep hold of Kunzite's hand, and he dug his fingers in the loose, dry, wiry-rooted soil. The wind gusted cold overhead, fingers of ice and spatters of freezing rain blowing through-- just a hint of the storm that'd had the day overcast since morning and had only lately begun to brood across the sky, shifting uncomfortably and rolling over itself.
Finally, Endymion said slowly, "Dark. Cold. Stony. Little lives in pockets of warmth." A pause. "Dripping." Another pause, and with furrowed brows, he looked up at Kunzite. "Spiky?"
"There's either a lot I can't see, or there's nothing there to see, it's like--" With the gust also came another inhalation from the forest floor, as though it were filling its lungs to scream.
"Like it's empty--"
Kunzite added each item to his own mental map of the place. Pockets of warmth -- nests, dens, closing in on hibernation with the falling of the leaves. Dripping -- no stream too close at this level. Water moving underground. Elaborate the dens and the stone, perhaps.
The older boy pushed the memories of his native sands out of the way, made himself consider what dirt and stone might hide. It came to him as the earth shifted under his feet, as those great roots pushed upward, no longer remotely secure. And he understood that the mistake was made hours ago, when they'd arrived here, when he'd trusted the reports that told him that the place itself was safe. Or days ago, when the writers of the reports trusted that because a place had been strange but stable meant that it would always be that way.
The trees slouched forward all at once, rocking violently, and a crack thundered across from them that echoed through the dimming light and the gathering wind, and one of the older trees, hollow in the middle, began to pitch over. Falling away from them: good enough. How to weather the storm was the question. Kunzite drew a breath to address Endymion again, and started to take another step to close the distance between them once more. If they could find one solid --
The earth gave way, shattering at the shock from the tree's impact and falling into the emptiness the scuffed little prince had named.
No magic Kunzite yet knew would help him fly.
Conditioning bordering on reflex drove him: he reached for Endymion with his free hand, starting to curl as he started to fall, but the fall didn't quite work as he was expecting. His hand clasping Endymion's was in the wrong place, his arm was at the wrong angle, and his shins hit something hard with a cracking sound -- the echo was, at least, in the air and not in his bones; whatever broke hadn't been him, not yet.
His weight tore at his shoulder.
Dirt in his eyes. He clawed with his free hand, managed a moment's purchase, an instant of enough stability to recognize the situation --
There was darkness beneath him, and somewhere in the empty darkness would be cold, and stone, and little pockets of warmth and life, and-- perhaps-- spikes. Dripping. The spikes that grew in caves, some tiny, some tall as he was. The tearing pain in his shoulder was because it had caught the shock of stopping all his weight. Because an eight-year-old prince still, somehow, had hold of his hand.
At fifteen, Kunzite was nearly half again Endymion's height, and as broad of shoulder as half the adult guards. The pack that weighed down his back just added still more mass to the muscle he was already carrying.
His handhold disintegrated, and even as he reached for a new one, his reactions were dominated by a fear far worse than falling. "Endymion! Let go!"
The black-haired child blinked dirt and dust out of his own eyes, gaze unfocused as he concentrated on healing the wrench of his own shoulder, the hairline fracture of bone, strained muscle and stressed ligament. His hand gripped Kunzite's like a small vise; it was dry, solid, and as steady as the stalagmites waiting unknown fathoms below. There was nothing wrong with the strength of his grip. He was certainly nowhere near as strong as his guardian, his mentor, his brother-- but he could borrow strength from the earth, enough to hold on long enough for Kunzite to climb up, long enough for Kunzite to find some way out of this, or maybe think of something himself.
No, strength wasn't the problem. The problem was one of mass and mooring.
Endymion had hooked one of his feet in a root, toes splayed out and ankle cocked to keep his boot from slipping off; the other dug into the loose dirt. His pack was still on his back, which helped anchor him a little, but still, still! the dirt continued to sift down from beneath his shoulders, his neck, the top of his chest. Slowly but surely, he was sliding-- or perhaps the earth was still crumbling steadily despite the will of its prince, its tiny and untested protector.
"Do you," the small boy asked Kunzite disparagingly, strain in his voice, "think I'm stupid? Unsling the low side of your pack. Cut the high side's strap. I'm anchored." Endymion couldn't hide the taste of a partial truth from the channel their contact created. Nonetheless, his words slammed into sharpness at the end, fierce and biting. "If I let go, you'll fall, and you'll die."
If Kunzite could have taken that sudden stop at a better angle -- if he could've gotten purchase, either to push himself up or to take enough weight off of his shoulder for his prince's healing to work on both of them -- if there'd been anything to get purchase on at all -- if any of those things had happened, Endymion's plan would have been sound. But where the younger boy had anchorage, any roots thick enough to take Kunzite's greater weight were back further within the earth. He tried anyhow, and more dirt showered down beneath him, whispering on its way with a sound like rain. For an instant, the toe of one boot found a rock. It was too small; it tore out of its mooring. He didn't hear it land.
"If you don't let go, we'll both fall, pack or no pack." Somehow Kunzite put the calm he'd lost a moment before back into his voice -- the calm that he could almost get purchase on. Almost. "I won't die."
That last was a partial truth, too, but Kunzite set quickly about trying to make it less partial. If he could control the fall, if he could use the pack as a kind of armor against any stalagmites that might be beneath, if he could concentrate hard enough -- the analysis didn't give him control of the situation, but breaking it down let him think past the adrenaline flooding his system.
He tried to find his knife, prayed wordlessly that it was secure enough not to be somewhere below him, fallen into the yawning mouth of the caverns. Then, as if repeating it would do any good: "Endymion, I need you to let go."
"NO! I need you," Endymion shouted through his teeth, glaring at the older boy from behind long, dusty eyelashes. There was no fear in his blue eyes, only that same stubbornness that'd been his curse and his blessing through all his short life. "I'm not letting go. I won't let go of you!"
Sometimes, Kunzite decided, a little fear in the obstinate prince would not be a terrible thing. There was the knife. He drove the blade hard into the crumbling earth, felt the point grate on something that gave a moment later, and hoped that was a good sign. He tried to take a little weight on that hand -- and nearly stabbed himself in the side when the hold gave way. That trick always worked in the stories. Planting the knife in the dirt again and leaving it with only its own weight worked better.
More dirt, more grit sifted down; there was a tiny but noticeable shift as one of Endymion's boots lost purchase, and the boy shut his eyes and lifted that foot to kick it back down into the ground, hard. The motion jarred the foot caught in the root, and they slipped a little more.
All of the prince's bright, active mind, all of the attentiveness and capacity for detail that had filled his pockets with treasures before, focused in on this moment now: examining possibilities and angles, hanging hard onto his indignation and aggravation with his white-haired guardian, playing keepaway with the thought of what would happen to Kunzite if he should lose his grip. He still had one hand free; he stretched to put it over the side. "Climb up me!"
Against his own judgment, Kunzite reached up for Endymion's hand.
He could not reach it.
Gravity pulled him downward. That shoulder was lower than the other one; he could brush fingertips. One foothold, just one, and the idea could work -- if it didn't wrench the prince's hip out of the socket. One foothold, and cut the pack, and reach his hand, and swarm up in a shower of debris.
Kunzite had a feeling that that was a plan that always worked in the stories, too.
It was even harder to get a breath in that position than it already had been. "Endymion," he tried, and the word didn't carry right. Tried again. "Endymion." There. Steady. He couldn't quite manage calm; the shallow breaths prevented it. He could manage steady, and with that steadiness he enunciated every word. "I won't leave you alone. I swear it." He had no idea how he'd manage that if he died, but in that particular moment, he had no doubt that if he needed to, he'd find a way. "I need you to trust me. I need you to let go." Before they slipped any more. Before his weight pulled them both down.
For all that Kunzite's charge was the Crown Prince of Earth, for all that he was the inheritor of the Golden Crystal, for all that he was not afraid for his own life and was as stubborn as a mule, Endymion was eight years old. He was eight, and the person who made him feel safest in the world, his brother and friend and guardian, was telling him to drop him into a pit so deep they couldn't hear fallen stones hitting the bottom, a yawning cavern that his own sense of the land told him had spikes in the bottom.
The dust on his face was getting wet, and it wasn't from rain, and all Kunzite could feel from him was white-hot anger and desperate need.
"I can't!" the child said with a hitch, his high young voice catching as he choked down the lump in his throat, as his eyes burned. "I trust you but I don't trust this stupid hole in the ground! I can't let go of you, I don't want to, I don't WANT to! You'll DIE! Stop being so-- such a--"
His free hand was trying to grasp, still, and was catching nothing but air; crying now, Endymion slammed and shoved his elbow down at the edge to loosen more of the dirt there, and he pushed more of it into the hole, gouging a channel for his arm to reach through at a lower angle.
In another instance, this would have been very clever. His small brown hand was finally in reach of Kunzite's.
Except-- the motion and digging had jarred him further, destabilizing even more of the edge, and the dirt between the roots was crumbling faster, and it was all so dry, and the roots protested with tiny snaps and creaks.
Then there was a reverberating crack that echoed down and down into the blackness of the cavern.
All at once, the edge completely gave out.
Endymion's foot was ripped out of his boot, and the tree belonging to the root it was caught in started to slowly, creakily threaten to tilt in after them, and the rest of the tenuous system of roots crackled and snapped like the sound of a shower of hail and there was nothing below either of them, nothing holding them up.
And Kunzite moved.
His hand in Endymion's hold shifted as they fell, fingers wrapping around the boy's wrist and redoubling the connection that anchored them to each another. He pulled, hard, and his other hand could finally reach -- too late to be a rescue, but not too late for this. Touch glanced at Endymion's hand, at his arm just above the elbow, at his back; his guardian pulled the prince in against his chest, curling his body around the smaller, slighter figure.
The child didn't make a sound. He was still crying, but it was silent, chin crumpled but eyes open and looking up until the only thing he could see was the rapidly shrinking white circle above them. It only took instants to vanish, but it didn't matter because he was pulled in close to Kunzite's chest, enfolded and enclosed and shielded-- and oh the planning, Kunzite was planning, he was still planning and Endymion could feel it, the cold hum of effort and calculations of angles and velocity--
Kunzite knew that at the speed they'd be falling when they hit, none of it would make a difference. Unless...
He reached out with his own power, stealing energy from everything he could reach, everything but Endymion. That was mostly air, and the air was already cold, but it chilled harder. The strength with which they were falling through it -- he could blunt that a tiny bit. Everything counted. It started to set them tumbling, and he struggled with that, forcing their fall to keep him between Endymion and the stone below, to keep his pack as much between both of them and the drop as he could. He emptied his mind of everything but the boy whose hair his cheek pressed against and the spells he was building, defenses patched together desperately out of shadow and light.
Endymion cried into his brother's shirt and he was finally afraid, finally, but still, he trusted the older boy. Not the stupid hole in the ground, but Kunzite, he trusted Kunzite, he'd always trust Kunzite even if he disagreed with him. He didn't let the overwhelming knot of emotion inside him interfere with his guardian's concentration. He just prayed, just believed, as hard as he could. Faith. Everything was faith, and trust.
Maybe if Endymion had let him fall, if Kunzite hadn't had to take the second or two to secure him, those defenses would have built up enough for him to walk away from the impact. Maybe the prince had been right, and that had never been possible at all.
The sound when they hit was something no eight-year-old should ever have had to hear.
It echoed in the pitch blackness and Endymion was thrown from Kunzite's suddenly slack hold, and the implication of the sound hit him at the same time as he bounced and hit a second time, away from Kunzite.
But even then, he could hear--
The broken body that had protected him was still breathing.
The wind was knocked out of the child, and it was an inconvenience he brushed away without a thought, healing himself enough to move and suck in a lungful of the cool, damp cavern's air; he let it out with a sob as he scrambled over to the white-haired teenager, slipping in blood and nearly pitching into his body, twisted unnaturally and ripped through the side by the damned spikes, by the low stalagmites that were still tall enough to get through the pack and sink their stone teeth into his brother.
Endymion's hands were abruptly on Kunzite's skin, and he almost couldn't focus enough, almost couldn't get his mind to stop screaming and screaming with all the sound he hadn't made as they fell; the memory of the sound of their impact echoed through his skull, gouging at his heart.
He would never once doubt his decision to hold on.
(There would never be an argument from Kunzite about that decision.)
If Kunzite had fallen and he hadn't been with him then Kunzite would be dead, would really be really dead, he was sure of it.
(There would never be recriminations. Never a lecture about listening to one's elders' judgment. Never so much as an angry look. It would never be mentioned at all.)
He could fix this.
(Kunzite might, if pressed about the boy's decision, have claimed that his lack of reproach was because a prince needed to learn such things: the making of choices, the understanding of their consequences, the living with them, the awareness that some factors would never be in their own control. If anyone ever pressed him on it, it would not be where Endymion could hear. And Kunzite would have been lying anyway.)
He could fix this. He had to.
With everything he had, the eight-year-old prince poured his own energy into maintaining his best friend's vital functions, and he sealed the bleeding-- there'd be more damage when he rolled Kunzite off of the stalagmite buried deepest in his side, and still more when he removed the pack. He'd fix that too.
It was complicated. It was a lot of things he didn't know how to do yet, only in theory, only in his imagination. It was a lot of energy, which he pulled up from the Earth continuously and in greater and greater measure once his own reserve gave out. He needed it all in order to maintain himself and Kunzite for the hours it took him to work, painstakingly, learning to do what he needed even as he did it.
It was arduous. The darkness in the bottom of the pit was a blessing; his eyes couldn't see what his mind and his magic were working on, and that made it easier. As long as he could feel the teenager's heart beating, as long as he could feel his soul glowing in the back of his awareness, Endymion didn't have to think about what his hands were doing, what was below his fingers, what he'd have been seeing if there were light.
It was a blessing.
There was, in all of this, a promise kept. Even in those terrible moments between the impact and finding the body, Endymion could hear the damaged sounds of breathing. And after that -- yes, he could feel the heartbeat, even if he needed to fuel it himself for a little while. He could feel no emotion, but this was Kunzite; that was only a small difference from his usual conscious state. Most importantly, he could feel the soul, the life, silent and weak but slowly, slowly steadying.
That promise was kept: even in the darkness, Endymion was not alone.
His focus was steady for hours, and he worked without stopping until he fainted from fatigue, spent of even the strength to pull more energy from his planet. His head fell on Kunzite's chest, his grip on the bloodied fabric of the older boy's shirt going slack.
Even in his exhaustion, something in the small prince was faintly aware when that small difference in emotion registered, when the body he was leaning on moved, however painfully. Part of Endymion was aware when his tiny form was drawn up off the cold stone, not to separate him from the earth -- his fingertips were left to trail against it, instead -- but to keep him just a fraction warmer.
It didn't matter to Kunzite if breathing still hurt. It didn't matter if his clothes and his hair had more clotted than dried. It didn't matter that he barely had the strength to wrestle with Endymion's own forgotten belongings. He took his turn again, shielding his brother from the cold with his body, wrapping the bedding that survived about the both of them, cradling his prince with his own head resting against the exhausted boy's hair.
Even unconscious, Endymion knew once again what he'd known for years, that ghostly shade of a difference that set Kunzite's waking moments apart.
He knew that his guardian would do anything to protect him. Anything.
If it were what he needed, his brother would burn the world.