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Stray Voltage

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So, they got themselves caught.

Veli settles against the far wall of his cell. Might as well be comfortable for it! Somewhat comfortable.

As comfortable as possible in the situation.

"Ve iz neffer going to live it down," Militsa moans as she climbs into his lap and curls in a loose, discouraged ball of red fur. Groaning his agreement, Veli rests a hand on her back, head tilted to press against the wall. At least he still has his hat?

The so-called bars are columns of rough, oddly strong stone, thicker than he's wide at the waist. Try as he may he can't even chip the stone, and Militsa scraped her shoulders trying to force her way in the wider gaps.

It's not cold in here, not with lava heat radiating slowly through the floor, but there's nothing at all of interest -- bare volcanic rock for a floor, a bottomless hole to crap in, a drinking fountain that's just a bowl dug straight out of the rock that sulfur-stinking stream water drips into.

"Hy iz kinda jealous ov de neighbor," he muses, leaning to the side to look out into the other cell through the gaps. "Vot rates a bed und actual books? Effen got a stool."

What he could do with a stool... well okay, probably not much, but he could throw it. Or hook a guard's neck with it when they come by, slam them into the bars...

... Be really mean and hook their daemon...

Sigh. He guesses there isn't much to plan with inside his cell, but it's not like they will let him rot in here. When they let them out, Veli and Militsa will improvise something. They're good at that. Worrying won't help a thing, so... Yeah, he's just going to catch up on his sleep.

But then Militsa's ears jerk up. "Guests, dearheart."

They stay sitting against the far wall like they're not about to throw themselves forward at the smallest occasion, Veli's hat tilted down so his eyes don't shine too noticeably. The gaps between the bars are narrow but he still sees a group of five men coming up, one to lead the way and the next three to herd the one in the middle -- not physically restrained, but still clearly an unwilling guest, if Veli knows people at all. Daemon hidden away and face set on somber and resigned, the young man lets himself be shown into the other cell.

Meanwhile Veli tries to see how it even opens but it looks like the rock pillars just briefly became oddly malleable and allowed themselves to be pulled apart. Urgh. Sparks. So unfair.

He waits until the pillars have been put back in place and the escort has left before he shuffles into a crouch and crab-walks to the front of his own cell.

"Howdy, neighbor."

The kid jumps so hard he almost topples over the stool he was slumping on.

"Oh my god, warn a guy--"

"Just deed!"

The guy tilts his head to frown chidingly at him through the bars. "Haha, very funny."

He's got a lamp on his side, and Veli doesn't. Veli watches him squint, trying to catch a useful glimpse in the dark gaps between the pillars, and takes in his youth-smooth face with the furrow between the brows that's apparently starting to move in on a permanent basis.

"At least he iz cute?" Militsa mutters to Veli, and goes to poke her white-cheeked muzzle through the bars, doing her best to look adorable. "Hallo, hallo. Hy iz Militsa, und dis is Velimir. Vot about hyu guys?"

The kid pauses briefly, like he's taken aback. Veli wastes a second wondering if they forgot that Vulkanburg is one of those weird towns where a daemon can't address a stranger directly, and then decides that either way they don't care.

"...I'm Sorin," the kid says in the end.

It almost looks like he's going to stop there. "Und?" Veli says, leaning close enough for the light from Sorin's lamp to touch his face, and grinning.

"Huh, you're a constr-- um. Sorry. Sorry, it just startled me." He gives in with a sigh. "Gabriela, but she's... not here."

"Phew, dey iz not playing nice," Veli replies with a commiserating wince. Sorin shrugs and avoids his eyes. "So vhut deed hyu do?"

Another abrupt shrug. "It's more like what I'm not doing. Or doing enough of. Whatever. What about you?"

Cagey, huh. Veli could be playing it close to the vest to match, but hey, what has he got to hide? "Saw all dese verra illegal lava clanks under de volcano vhile being employed by de Baron Wulfenbach, mostly."

At least the lack of daemon doesn't make him all that much harder to read; Sorin chokes a little, lets out a laugh visibly despite himself. "I -- I see. Yes, that would do it. Wow, I'm sorry you got caught."

Veli grins; Militsa lolls her tongue. "Thenk you. Vos our own fault, ve still thot ve could play it nice."

"--Oh."

"So," Velimir says, before the kid can get into thinking too hard about Veli being dangerous. "Vot iz a nice boy like hyu doing in a place like dis," he adds, and gives a campy grin, and even doffs his hat, a nice big wave that ends with it held against his heart while he bows over it. (They call it 'doing a Maxim' in his unit. It always gives him a bit of a pang.)

Sorin splutters.

"Dis iz vhere Hy wag mine tail at hyu daemon," Militsa adds mournfully.

And... bingo, laughter. Shy and awkward laughter, but laughter.

"Effen though foxes dun do eet much und Hy had to practice. But iz verra charming!"

"I'm sure she would be very charmed," Sorin replies between chuckles.

"Hy iz imagining so," Militsa says, voice dropping into a teasing purr (it usually puts men's backs up less from a female voice. Heh.) "Vot is she, by the way? So Hy ken visualize."

... Okay, neither of them expected a moment of frozen-faced, nervous indecision to a basic question like that.

"Um. Badger."

Yeah, that's a lie. Veli is all set to glibly ignore it and keep note when the kid shakes his head, sharp and chiding (curls fly), with his brows drawn like guilt, and kind of like sadness too.

"Not an European badger, but -- pretty much, that's mostly what she..."

He gives up there, shrugs. Militsa gives Veli a speaking glance. Yeah, okay, the guy's daemon is being held hostage somewhere else against him, probably better not to prod too hard.

"Dot sounds fun," Veli says. "So hey, vot do hyu do?"

The look he gets is suspicious and maybe a little impatient. "Things."

"Awgh, hy iz not questioning hyu, Hy don't tell hyu mine first because Hy iz obviously soldier-type." He arches his brows, lowers his eyelids, looks down his nose like he's all austere and researcher-y. "But iffen hyu vant another topic, mine hobbies iz flower pressing und darning socks."

That look was a 'yeah, right.'

"Iz true! Is verra medita... dot ting dot meks hyu brain stop und all."

"Oh," Sorin says like he can't help responding, "you're telling me a jaegermonster likes being calm and contemplative?"

He didn't say 'you're telling me you have a brain'. Veli grins. "Iz de ting hy love most ov all," he lies, badly. "Vot hyu do in hyu off time?"

... Does he lay it on thicker... Well, there has been no disgusted spluttering yet, so.

"Pliz tell me iz making time vit handsome war monsters," he adds, eyebrows wagging outrageously.

"Oh, you are so not going to manage to flirt your way past it every time you annoy me," Sorin shoots back, but his mouth is trying to flip up at the corner, so Veli doesn't even think of taking it as anything but a 'yes, please do flirt with me.'

He has no idea how well the flirting will go down once there are no longer bars between them to keep him harmless, but he'll probably be too busy escaping to bother; in the meantime it's still a fun distraction, and he's been so bored.

--

What Veli and Militsa have learned about their cell neighbor in the last day: he's ridiculously easy to fluster, he's never flirted with a man before, and he has really, really wanted to.

Also, he's not bookish but still smart, too nice -- he started throwing his own bread rolls at Veli when he noticed the guards never brought him any food -- he used to be some kind of smith until the local spark decided she needed him, and he's madder than a box of rabid cats that's been shaken about it.

But, they have him by the balls, and also -- more relevant -- by the daemon, and probably by some loved ones in town on top. Veli is not sure how to talk him into contributing to their escape plans.

"But really, if ve could just figure out how to get de bars open," Militsa is saying, "It doz not even matter if it's not open much, Hy iz verra slender und slippery--"

"No, I know how it works," Sorin says from his seat on the ground, sideway against his own bars, a shoulder pressed to the stone so he can talk. "It's set to respond to heat, and friction alone is not going to do it. Neither is cuddling up to it, breathing hard on it, or -- this is just a guess, mind -- pissing on it."

"Aw."

"It's lava-based somehow, but the surface of the stone is not hot when it happens, it's just warm, and yet it still deforms like taffy, it's like it's taking the flexible properties of lava and leaving out most of the temperature part, which makes no sense because goddamn, there's a reason it's called a melting point, and if I had my forge and some tools I could figure out how the hell she's redirecting the heat that must exist at some point in the process--"

Something else Veli knows about Sorin: he's on the verge of breakthrough.

Which makes a lot of sense as to why the local spark is keeping him and his daemon separate when the daemon would be just as solidly caged by all that stone (unless it's some weird sparky construct badger that can ghost through walls, and then how is she even keeping them apart to start with?)

Viscountess Raduva is trying to get him to break through, and she probably thinks she'll still come out on top.

Well. She's got a reputation as a fairly strong one, so she's even likely to be right.

At any rate, Veli was hoping for an element of chaos to give him a chance to escape, and hey, this is one. "So hyu iz saying she iz moving de heat sumvhere else before it ken burn hyu hand?"

Sorin stares at him between the bars, light brown eyes too intense, startled but oddly predatory.

"... Oh my god, that's it. She's -- heat travels differently depending on materials, and -- probably different types of stones, I never really thought about that but it just makes sense -- or maybe she used metal ores to -- but the threads would have to be so fine, I don't -- how would she --"

"How do hyu think ve ken mess it up enough to get out," Veli says patiently, sitting with his wrists on his knees, shoulders loose, wanting to be out so bad he can taste it.

Sorin opens his mouth as if to answer, and then pauses, looks around his cell, looks at Veli, at Militsa...

... Goes silent.

"Sorin?"

"... I don't think I get it enough for that." A short sigh; he leans his head against the stone pillar, face half hidden from them. "Even if I had the tools here, I just..."

"Aw --"

"I don't know," Sorin says, all quiet and defeated, and gets up to retreat to his bed.

Awrgh.

Veli gives up -- breakthrough will take care of that self-confidence problem, likely in ways Veli can't even start to predict. He picks up Militsa and they also retreat to the back end of their cell. Bare, rough and pokey stone is not great, but there's this spot that's toasty-warm and it kind of makes the lack of accommodations not matter at all.

"How doz dis guy haff a badger, Hy dun get it," Militsa whispers, her muzzle pressed in his neck. "He iz so..."

"Mmm." Veli can see the edges of a temper -- the kid certainly responds to banter with a bite to it sometimes -- but the way he gives up is... "Vell. Ve dun know how long she's had him by de daemon. Effryone wears down, Hy guess..."

Militsa sighs against his neck. Veli burrows his fingers in her soft, downy fur and scratches gently as he can with his claws, the way they both like.

He's starting to feel really hungry, but he's pretty sure the Viscountess is going to severely misjudge how long it'll take him until it's debilitating. And talking out plans is out. There isn't much to do but sleep, so he does that.

He dreams he's back home watching Master Carmine work. Master Carmine ruffles his hair like he did that one time when Veli survived the Brau and starts humming the volcano apart. It makes for very, very pretty lights.

--

If he takes his neighbor's (unexplained) absences for daylight events, this is now the fifth day he's in this goddamn cell. He's hungry enough to vaguely regret he doesn't wear shoes, because he could have started gnawing by now. He's going to need his belt if he doesn't want to end up bareassed and tripped by his own pants during his escape, and he has nothing else that's leather on him.

Also Militsa's voice is good and nice to fill up the silence of the stone, but with the total lack of new input it's pretty much exactly like talking to himself. The Veli part of himself. He tried to banter with the guards this morning but they all just ignored him, which was very hurtful and he was surprised to realize he's actually peeved about it.

He wants to touch someone else so badly he has caught himself petting his own knees four times this morning alone. He's not yet at the stage where he hugs himself but it's probably coming. Sigh.

"Hey, Veli, vot if ve play tic tac toe," Militsa suggests from her belly-down sprawl, without even raising her head from the gritty floor.

Veli grunts. "Hey, Mila, vot if ve don't."

He wonders how long until Sorin comes back. Flirting is at least entertaining, and he thinks he's slowly approaching the stage where he can suggest sexy no-contact games and not get gasped and exploded at. (Hey, he'd do it the proper way and ease the kid into kinkier stuff more slowly if Sorin was in touching range, it's not his fault he's not.) He can't figure out what Sorin does for the viscountess -- he has most definitely not broken through yet, and surely she doesn't need a smith that much, especially one who's probably still an apprentice or so freshly made a journeyman it comes out the same thing. It's just weird.

"Vot about de crack?" Militsa asks, pretty sure of what she's going to hear.

"Filled back in during de night," Veli confirms tiredly. He rubbed three claws down into nubs on that bullcrap--

"Footsteps," Militsa says, and rolls onto her feet to trot to the front of the cell. Veli lifts his own ears, tries to pinpoint the sound. Can't be the guards, this is hours too early...

Single person. Running.

Sorin bursts past the farthest bend. His hair is a royal mess and his cheek is dark -- dirt or a bruise; he's holding some big metal tube against his chest, and he trips in his hurry, almost falls. Veli and Militsa are pressed against the bars, grinning matching toothy, hungry grins, and they only notice when he sees their faces and falters.

"Sorin?"

"--Right. Move back, I stole it, I don't know what it will do exactly," he says as he aims one end of the tube at the stone pillars, words tripping over themselves. He sounds more frazzled and panicked than like a spark in action, but Veli and Militsa know better than to ignore the warning.

For a few seconds nothing happens, and Sorin groans and throws a nervous look back at the passage, and then suddenly it's hot like a huge, desert-dry slap, like opening a baker's oven and putting your head in. The pillars start to go runny -- but they run downwards and only seem to stretch out from the ceiling, stretch the ceiling down onto them--

"God damn it!" Sorin snarls, and wedges the tube between two pillars, forcing them apart. He's wearing leather gloves and doesn't touch the stone directly and he still hisses -- the metal of the tube is already starting to warp.

Veli and Militsa take a running leap through the shrinking gap. Veli lands in a clatter of hooves in the middle of the corridor, and then he's picking up Sorin and throwing him onto his back even as the tube finishes crumbling, red-hot.

"Vhere's hyu daemon!" he snaps as he starts running for where Sorin came from. He doesn't want to break their bond but by god they need to pick her up now. He can already hear people yelling.

"Down, she's down -- go left!"

Veli goes left. Militsa races ahead, finds them a rougher tunnel to duck into -- it goes up a bit, though, which is not good. He doesn't know how many meters of stone are between Sorin and his daemon right now but it can't be healthy. He knows people -- he knows jaegers -- who faint if they're locked in a different room from their daemon, and it's mostly in their heads but still, shit.

"Militsa, not that way, there's people!" Sorin whisper-shouts.

"It goes down und ve ken fight through," Militsa replies, all business. Sorin snarls in Veli's ear.

"You'll be saving them the trouble of carrying you to the lava pits, is what you'll do!"

"Oh, vos dey finally decided to chuck us in?" Veli asks as they turn and hop up a counterintuitive slope.

"Were they -- what, you were expecting it?!"

"Vell, iz vun vay to make sure ve iz dead enuff!" Veli says -- cheerfully, because he's free, and he's going to get out if he has to murder the whole volcano's contingent of minions on the way.

Sorin sputters. Veli laughs.

"Deed hyu schteal de ting just to save me?" he asks, maybe a little touched, and makes note not to mention that trying to transport them might have been the last mistake the viscountess and her people made. It's not like he's a hundred percent sure she didn't have a way to knock him out or something. Maybe she would have just opened the floor of his cell to dump him straight into the caldera.

"Of course I did!"

Veli grins harder and squeezes his thighs. "Aw, thank hyu."

Sorin's arms tighten around Veli's neck and he bows his head, ducks under the brim of Veli's hat so he can curl up smaller. "Just -- go."

God but he reeks. Lava and molten metal, the stink of burnt hair, burnt leather. Veli really wants to kiss him right on the mouth, mostly out of glee.

They burst through a crowd of milling, busy minions, bowl several over; Veli kicks a cart upside down and is gone again.

"Oh god, they'll follow, crap, crap--"

"Focus! Vhere?"

"Right! Middle-right -- okay, now down!"

Staircase. Veli races down. He can't help but notice that this is several floors' worth of down, and while they've gone in a half-circle, they're still getting pretty far from the cell. Either Sorin is severed (hah, no) or he has the widest range Veli has ever witnessed. That or his daemon is ghosting them somehow, but badgers are not that fast.

The last cave they burst into is rough, unfinished, empty of people but full of piles and piles of base materials; it's also a dead end. Unless one of the piles hides a tunnel. He looks back at Sorin to ask for the plan--

The far wall caves in.

Holy crap. Those are some claws. They're longer than Veli is tall, he's pretty sure, spear-straight and flatter on the bottom, but the points are like ice picks. He pauses briefly to assess, noting the size of the rocks tumbling across the floor and the speed of the creature's movements, and then his brain catches up to his eyes and he realizes -- even as a long, black nose pokes through, sniffing -- that this is not an animal.

Or a monster.

At least not a whole one.

"Gabi!" Sorin calls out as he wriggles out of Veli's hold. Veli drops him without a word, still blinking.

... This is probably a badger. Though the front legs are more like a mole's, digging hands and all, and the face reminds him a bit of a ferret -- the body is squat and bow-legged, but the muzzle is pointy. It's just...

... It's just that Sorin's daemon is about the size of Franz, the Great Dragon of Mechanicsburg.

"Leedle baby Jesus," Militsa mutters. "Iz dot vhere all de spark went?"

"Dot vould explain tings," he mutters back, and trots ahead. Sorin is being licked by a tongue half as wide as his own torso, is petting and scratching at the root of massive whiskers with desperate relief. It's awkward to hurry them up but the hunting party will be there in another minute.

"Hey, iz great to finally meet hyu," Militsa says, and hops closer, tail floating behind her, to go press her nose against Sorin's daemon. "But ve need to moff on. Do hyu know vhere --"

"I've been mapping the old lava conduits," the giant daemon replies, tossing her head a little like she's got curls to fling out of her face too. "I know exactly where."

Veli presses his lips together and thinks about how hard it's going to be to lose pursuit when he's saddled with something that gigantic. The forest is old and the ground not anywhere near flat, but if the viscountess has air support to pick them out from between the trees, they're done for.

"She's blind," Sorin says, fast and terse like he's used to saying it, like he thinks the face Veli is making is because he doubts Sorin's daemon, "but she can feel the vibrations in stone, she doesn't need to break into a tunnel to know it's there. We can get into the forest, probably--"

And those claws cut through rock like a living drill. Huh. Interesting. It's not going to be fast, though. If he doesn't bring Sorin along the kid is likely to be even worse off than he was -- the local spark won't take rebellion well -- but if he does...

"We've got another thing first," Gabriela says, and nods casually back toward the light-less tunnel she's still half sitting into. There's a moment of silence, and then as Sorin blinks in confusion she presses herself against one side of the wall and says, "Go on, then."

A few more seconds of silence, and then someone approaches in a ruffle of feathers and skirts; a young woman wedges herself in the gap, glaring daggers at the daemon as she leaves a noticeable gap between the two of them.

"--Rozalia, oh my god. How did you even--"

Veli rolls his lip inwards as he contemplates this new problem. Family? Childhood friend? Neighbor? The main issue is, do they take her along or stash her in a hole?

"Oh, please!" she's shouting back. "Like it was in any way hard to guess! You'd never go up into town, you're paranoid about Gabi in the streets!"

"She can't fit in the streets!" Sorin splutters back, frazzled and off balance, but the black swan on the girl's heels snaps his beak in furious agitation, wings flapping in a threat display that only seems ridiculous because there's this huge badger thing right beside it. Gabriela looks nonplussed, small ears flat, like the swan is actually taking her aback. Veli's eyebrow arches.

"--And of course you'd throw away the chance the Mistress is offering you to save some jerk spy and hope for the best about your family--"

It's like a switch thrown.

One of those big dramatic switches that borderline take both hands to move and snap into place like gigantic mouse traps. Switches that say "lightning moat" or "anguish dispenser".

Sorin and the girl are of a height, and obviously she's not impressed -- not even when the badger straightens up (and up, and up) and Sorin's shoulders (strong, wide) draw back, straighten from that unsure curl.

"Yes," he says with his voice edged with barely controlled danger. "Let's talk about my family."

The girl tosses her long black curls over her shoulder in impatience. "Oh, please, don't even bother glaring at me, you--"

A gigantic hand with gigantic claws comes down; five spears pierce the ground around the swan, caging him in.

"--Hey!"

"It's actually a good thing that you snooped around and followed us," Sorin muses, tone going dangerously light, and then without warning he swoops in and throws her over his shoulder. She shrieks. Sorin stalks right back into the previously hidden tunnel; her trailing hair brushes against Gabriela as she kicks, and Sorin doesn't slow down at all, like he doesn't care she would barely have to reach out a hand to smack Gabriela.

"Herr Jaeger, Frau Fox," Gabriela adds, in the way that is politely not a request, and points her muzzle at the hole.

"Pipple iz coming," Militsa replies. "Ve ken guard de hole--"

The way those blind eyes seem to stare right through them is a bit eerie. "What hole?"

... Heeeeeehehe, Veli likes them. He and Militsa bound forward to follow. The swan, freed, comes on their heels, ranting, and then the giant badger wriggles backwards through the hole and taps the edge of the ceiling. Rocks crash down.

Suddenly there's silence, from the girl and from her daemon both.

It's an old lava flow tunnel, not anything man-made, and the only light in it comes from Veli's mouth. He follows Militsa and the tug of their bond, her cautious padding over bumps and crevices.

"... Sorin--"

"Shh. We're letting you go at the next intersection. And then you can choose!"

There's a moment of silence, only broken by the sound of Gabriela's fur and her claws on the rock as she finds a gap to back into and turn herself around. Her hot breath washes over Veli once, so close the brim of his hat shivers. He still can't get over how awesomely spark-like Sorin's daemon is. A lot of them have unnatural animals to start with, but the weirdness of them correlates both with strength and with pure madness, and -- yeah, considering how mundane and depressed the kid's been, this is a surprise. A fun surprise.

"Choose what? I -- Sorin Petrescu, you put me down. Now."

"Choose between your viscountess and her stupid, wasteful, criminal little rebellion, and doing the right thing and going to tell my family they need to get away."

"You want me," the girl says with offended disbelief, even as she's wheezing from still having his shoulder digging into her stomach, "to betray my mistress."

"I want you to do the right thing and get our families out of the way because your father's my master and do you think she will spare him?! I want you to get out of the way before I bring down the Baron on her high-handed, murderous fucking head, is what I want you to do, but if you don't then I guess I'll just have to help him destroy you all before she can touch any of them!"

There's a brief pause and then a choking sound -- Veli makes his glow brighter, squints. The girl just dropped to the ground; Sorin has a hand on his chest, where he probably got kneed good and proper.

"Ow," he says in bewildered betrayal. "You didn't have to do that--"

Rozalia is back on her feet like a spring, snarling. "Are you breaking through? Are you kidding me? Now? You're breaking through now, you absolute horse's end, you -- argh!"

She goes to beat her fists on the kid, who stands there knocked out of his fugue.

Veli steps behind her, catches her by the wrists, lifts them over her head. It ought to stop her but even as she strains fruitlessly to break free she heaps more and more incoherent insults on the kid.

"Hy dun mind listening to hyu guys' star-crossed master-minion ting," he says placidly, putting both of her wrists to a single hand so he can muffle her with the other, "but iffen de Viscountess vorks vith volcanoes she vill have something to move rocks aside, jah?"

"--Oh," Sorin goes, and Gabriela says, "Well, usually she uses me."

Veli pauses, blinks. Rethinks it all.

Sorin and Gabriela breaking through is probably a bonus and-or the end result. But he has been thinking that Sorin was otherwise not so useful, and -- yeah, it works better if he assumes that Sorin's daemon wasn't used as leverage against him, Sorin was used as leverage against his daemon.

Wow. That's an interesting variation.

"Right. Yes. But she'll probably figure out something else, she's not slow and probably she was doing it some other way before we... Yes, let's... Let's move."

Veli hoists up the girl under his arm like luggage, letting go of her mouth, and she starts hissing. She's been chewing on his palm for the last two minutes. "Hokay, but Hy, personally, iz blind as hell in here. Do Hy hold hyu hand or vot?"

"Und iffen hyu even try to peck me, chicken-boy," Militsa is saying to the black swan, "Hy vill bite back."

Sorin clears his throat; Veli bets he's blushing. "No, wait, I've got a, I mean I kind of always know where Gabriela is but she doesn't notice elevation and pebbles as much as I do anyway--"

"Oh my god," the girl under Veli's arm mutters, disgusted. Veli grins down at her, teeth lit from behind. She flinches, then glares. Not bad for a minion.

Sorin cracks a stick in two and the ends starts to glow like embers, which isn't much light, but enough to see the holes in the ground by, and they speed up their hesitant shuffle to a fast walk.

--

"Okay, here's good enough."

In barely thirty minutes they've come across so many crossroads and cracks and sudden caverns you could have fit the jaegerhall into that what's special about this one fork is not immediately obvious, but Gabriela sounds certain. She has stopped walking, nose pressed to the crack that comes down from the ceiling and becomes a somewhat slanted corridor.

Veli puts Rozalia down, either way. The girl bats her clothes back into place, taking a big, deliberate side-step away from him.

"So this goes down a bit, but you guys should fit. So. Here's a light stick."

"Are you even serious," she says, still snatching the light stick from Sorin's hand. Veli, standing back, is trying not to snicker. Gabriela brought down the tunnel ceilings behind them at least six times, it's not like she has much of a choice. "Goodbye, have a light stick?"

Sorin meanwhile is back to being weary and restrained, kind of like he was in the cell, which is sad after seeing his blooming anger and that set to his shoulders that makes Veli very aware that he must lift or otherwise hit a lot of very heavy things for a living.

He hasn't sparked out again. How the hell is he still holding back? This is called breakthrough, not waffle-through.

"Goodbye," Sorin replies, waspish, "Have a light stick. Did you want a lecture?"

"That's never stopped you from giving me one," Gabriela mutters, under her breath, at the exact same time as Rozalia goes "That sure never stopped you giving me one!", but under the breath of a giant badger... well, there's still a lot of room. The black swan goes flying at the badger's nose, trying to peck it; Gabriela patiently lifts her head out of reach as the swan screeches.

Veli is still working very hard on staying out of it, but he doesn't want to, so he's not surprised when Militsa snorts and jumps, and pulls the swan back down by the tail, teeth clamped down on thick feathers.

"Hey!" Rozalia snaps, turning on Veli, and there is when Sorin's smothered annoyance snaps into open flame.

"Leave them alone!"

"Don't you tell me--"

"I'm not going to be in touch, Rozalia," he snarls, low and dangerous. "I'm not going to listen to news from back home, I'm not going to answer letters, I'm not going to know what happens here. Until this is done I won't know." A brief pause, to make sure he has her attention. "So when your viscountess throws my family in prison I won't know, when my father takes sick and dies I won't know, when she decides that maybe she just needs to go after more people so it'll work and picks up my friends and my master I won't know. It won't change my mind, it won't change what I'm doing.

"It'll only have useless, wasteful results.

"So you do what you want. And I do what I want. And I guess when it's over we'll see who survived."

Once again it's not really madness, not fury or any kind of really fun excess, just the certainty of a spark that the world is going to bow or get out of his way. Veli has no clue how Sorin does it.

(Or why. It's mildly badass, but not very fun.)

Sorin moves first -- to wrap his arms around Rozalia, hug her, and she's so baffled she lets it happen, stutters when he lets go.

"So… Take care. Bye."

… Then Gabriela picks up the swan between her giant claws and delicately shoves him through the gap and into the slope behind. Rozalia dodges under the badger's paw to catch up, swearing vilely.

"Whoof. Hyu momma sounds interesting de vay she tells it," Veli says. Sorin snorts.

"My mother is interesting in a lot more ways than that."

They start walking again. Gabriela opens the way, and she moves a lot faster now than she did, so it takes Veli a little while before he notices that Sorin, who's walking behind him, is fiddling with something.

"... Hy thot hyu did not have tools," Veli says, eyeing the embroidered satchel in the boy's hands.

"Hm? Oh, yeah." He ducks his head, embarrassed; Gabriela shuffles her feet guiltily, clears her throat and knocks down a couple tons of bothersome rock. "It was driving me crazy."

Veli's laughter bursts out, rings far into the tunnel; Sorin pauses to look at him sideways, probably blushing, sort of smiling like he thinks he shouldn't find it funny but can't help it.

"Hyu -- hyu took--"

"It's a good thing she didn't expect me to hug her," Sorin says drolly, "it's a decent weight, she'd have noticed."

He grins when Veli laughs harder, a bit shy but proud of himself, too, and yeah, it's ridiculous, but also kind of great. Veli throws an arm across his shoulders, pulls him into his side in a rough, friendly hug.

The dimpling smile falls off the boy's face, replaced by -- Veli kisses him without thought.

"--Oh."

"Vos dat bad?" he asks, already knowing it wasn't.

"No, I--"

Veli kisses him again, a short press of lips, and then leans back in slower, open-mouthed.

"Been vanting to for five days," he confides quietly.

Sorin's square, rough hand closes on his collar, hauls him in for a third kiss, one that quickly picks up tongue and teeth, that has Veli's breath come out sharp through his nose. How does he taste so good when he smells so nose-burningly bad.

"Oh god, this is not the right time for kisses," Sorin mutters against his mouth. "This is so not the right time, it is in fact almost the worst time--" he kisses Veli again, briefly-- "and you are a bad person and I was making something!"

"Not sorry," Veli replies, just a bit breathless.

Sorin glares heatedly at him, and then pokes a finger at the keel of his ribs, hard. "You are a menace and I will deal with you later."

Veli grins with all his teeth. "Looking forward to being dealt vith."

Sorin glares some more, and then storms off blushing so hard Veli doesn't even need good light to know, he can smell it on him (he bets Sorin smells good, under the acrid volcano smoke and the molten steel.) "Seriously stop distracting me! It's really unfair, I have all these ideas in my head and you yank me around by my -- by -- um."

Militsa and Veli fight off an epic fit of laughter. "Holding back breakthrough vit our sex appeal, dat's us!" she sings, hopping gaily over a half-hearted flick from Gabriela.

"Maybe you'll regret that when your lungs have burned from lava fumes!" Gabriela growls, and shoulders a wall out of the way.

The heat that rushes out into their tunnel is almost a physical impact. Veli can feel his nose hair curling.

"So am I allowed to finish my air freshener, now?" Sorin says, peevish. Veli picks him up wordlessly to put him back a few dozen feet away from the hole, so he can finish fiddling without burning himself with Rozalia's tools through his gloves.