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After a good five months of eating what goblins ate, drinking what goblins drank and sleeping where goblins didn't sleep, Pain decided he was feeling positively suicidal. It was not, by any means, a good feeling, but nonetheless it felt sort of nice to have it. If nothing else, it gave him some sort of purpose: get out of here, or die trying.

Unfortunately, this very moment that last option seemed more likely than the first.

 

"What idiot decided to put a magical lock-out field on the whole of the goblin-territory?" demanded Charon. He'd gotten riding lessons in his first year, of course, but like most of faeries outside of the army, he'd never spent much time on horse-back. As a result, after two days of hard riding, he felt sore all over; the healing-charms he was wearing were stretched to the limits of their abilities, only since Charon kept on straining his sore muscles again, they didn't do much good.

"Three guesses, and the first two don't count," said Max. Unlike Charon, he was a frequent rider, either for recreation, to hunt, or in the line of duty, although it had been a while since any military incident had gotten important enough to warrant the personal attention of the Minister of Defense. "Damn that idiot of a Cedric to all seven hells."

"If we're too late ... "

"We won't be," Max assured him, trying to reassure himself as much as Charon. Pain was tough, he told himself; he wouldn't let a bunch of goblins get the better of him so easily.

"If we're too late, he'll *wish* he'd taken a one-way trip to hell when he had the chance," Charon declared fiercely.

"We won't be too late," repeated Max.

 

The worst of it was that he hadn't even found out that much. Sure, he'd seen enough to know they were up to something, but then, they wouldn't be goblins if they weren't. Throughout the history of Avalon the goblins had been there to be a thorn in its side, even if during the last war against the specters, there had supposedly been a group of goblins fighting on the side of Avalon. If it was true, that had probably simply been a case of self-interest; goblins might be nasty, only they were still beings you could reason with, to some degree.

A specter's only interest lay in sucking the life out of anything that lived, which rather limited the options when it came to negotiations. Goblins, on the other hand, ate food. It wasn't food Pain would consider eating himself, unless he was on the verge of starving (which he had been, several times now) yet it was food nonetheless. Goblins needed land to produce it, tools to work the land, houses to prepare the food in - they were a little like primitive humans, really, if you didn't take into account the fact that they were, well, goblins.

Goblin-lore had it that once upon a time, the goblins had ruled all of Avalon, as well as the Earth. Pain rather doubted if there was anything more to that story than wishful thinking.

Pressing himself against a portion of rock that he hoped wouldn't strain his camouflage-charm's limits too badly, Pain closed his eyes and tried hard to think invisible thoughts. Avalon might no longer be patrolling the border-areas, but the goblins, Pain had discovered quickly enough, most definitely were. What was more, they seemed to be looking for something ... or someone.

Given his recent streak of luck, Pain rather imagined he had a pretty good idea who it was they were searching.

 

"He's activated one of his charms," said Charon, halting his mount and concentrating on the faint sense of magic being used. Luckily, Charon had charged all the charms Pain had taken with him on this mission himself; it made it easier to pinpoint the exact source of magical energy that was Pain, or rather, in this case, Pain's camouflage-charm.

"Which direction?" asked Max, looking around and frowning. Rocky terrain like this was perfect for an ambush, and neither he nor Charon had thought to make any effort to conceal their presence; with Pain's life on the line, they hadn't thought of much else.

Given that they'd be no use to Pain dead, perhaps it was time to remedy that. "Charon, what do you think about putting up some kind of - " Max began.

"There." Charon pointed and was off the next second, not waiting for Max to finish his sentence or even appearing to be aware Max had been saying something.

Max sighed and followed, his horse eager to catch up with Charon's.

 

Pain debated whether or not he should try to make a break for it; if the patrol hadn't seen him, they were certainly doing a fine job of getting on his nerves by hanging around his present location. Of course, it could be sheer coincidence. Maybe it simply happened to be lunch-time. Maybe this particular rock had some special meaning to goblins.

Maybe a giant eagle would come flying over to pick him up and carry him all the way to the capital.

Pain snorted softly. Not very likely. Possible, of course, but not very likely at all. Besides, he was getting stiff from trying to keep still all the time (the cloak needed some time to change colour, and Pain had been told that what to a faerie looked like rock and rock, looked like rock and different rock to a goblin, meaning that if he moved while being pressed against a rock, chances were that he'd be seen).

He probably hadn't been noticed yet. After all, nobody was poking at him with a spear, and goblins weren't exactly noted for being very refined in their ways of toying with their victims. If they'd seen him, they'd have attacked him by now.

Defense wasn't really his style, Pain reflected, making an attempt to flex the muscles in his arms and legs without moving them too much. He prefered to take the initiative, be the first one to make a move, to step forwards and say something witty and charming like -

"Oh, shit."

A pity he'd never get to meet that cute Secretary of Charon's, the one who was supposed to have gotten a crush on him. Puppy-eyed youngsters weren't really his type (he'd lied when he'd told Charon he didn't have a type; he did, and it wasn't puppy-eyed Secretaries) but, well, Pain thought it might have been nice to get to spend an evening with him all the same.

 

Max wasn't entirely clear on what had happened after he and Charon had cleared a particular rock-formation and come upon the goblin-patrol. He hadn't even seen Pain until after the fight, really, which might have been all to the good, because with Charon pretty much losing it the moment he'd set eyes on the goblins, one of them had needed to keep a clear head.

If he'd seen Pain before the last goblin had either died or fled, Max thought he might have lost it himself. As it was, he kept half an eye on Charon, whose eyes were still a bit too wild for Max's peace of mind, while making some attempt at a primitive kind of first-aid. Luckily, the type of wounds that Pain had were all things any soldier knew how to deal with in the immediate absence of a healer.

Not so luckily, the nearest healer was at least two days away. Charon probably knew something about healing, only Max estimated that the slaughtering of at least a dozen goblins had left Charon rather drained, even assuming Charon'd be able to pull himself together enough for a healing spell.

There was a reason why healers didn't go into battle, and it wasn't just that they were too valuable to risk getting injured themselves. Max glanced at Charon again, taking in the blood-splattered robes and glassy-eyed expression, and telling himself not to worry. It wouldn't help, anyway.

"He's alive, Charon," he said, softly. "Pain's alive."

 

"Pain's alive," someone said, and if that really was Uncle Max, Pain was going to be incredibly pissed off at Charon for not having taken better care of him.

Then, slowly, the words registered, as did the fact that his body hurt all over. A lot. Which meant that maybe, just maybe, he wasn't dead after all. It would have been a nicer idea if it hadn't hurt so much.

"I'm really alive?" His voice came out as a hoarse whisper, but judging by the way he was being pulled into a hug, Max had heard him anyway.

"You are," Max assured him. "And I am, and Charon is, and all of us are going to be just fine. I promise."

Pain nodded and slipped back into unconsciousness.

 

After two days, Max admitted to himself that he was worried. Pain was healing as well as could be expected (being a faerie, and one with considerable magical powers to boot, he healed quickly) so Max wasn't too concerned there, only Charon was still not acting like his usual self, and the closer to the capital they came, the uneasier Max felt about that. When they reached the capital, there'd be questions asked, and Max knew they needed Charon to answer them.

If he'd be able to get an audience with the King, he might win Charon some time, yet even the King would want answers, and the royal patience wasn't famous for its length. Besides, Charon was Max's friend, and Max wanted him back the way he was. Right now, Charon acted like a living statue; he ate and drank what Max gave him, and slept when Max tucked him in, but he hadn't spoken a word since they'd rescued Pain. When Max had given him one of Pain's healing charms to recharge, Charon had looked at it numbly for a long time before handing it back to Max, uncharged.

Max knew that sometimes, a mage would burn himself out, using too much magic at once, and yes, that might well have happened to Charon, only it didn't explain all the other symptoms. He'd have talked to Pain about it, but Pain was still healing himself, and Max didn't want to get him upset.

On the third day, they reached the capital, and all hell broke loose.

 

Charon wasn't sure anymore when he was awake or when he was dreaming. He vaguely remembered having seen Pain's body, bloody and dirty and not moving - after that, things went all hazy. He'd killed a number of goblins; he knew that much. He'd survived; he knew that, too. Aside from those two things though, he wasn't entirely sure of anything else.

Pain might have turned out to be alive - or not.

Max might still be alive - or not.

The three of them might be traveling back to the capital - or they might be trapped in the borderlands, hunted by goblin-patrols, taken prisoner, held captive, locked inside a prison while a group of goblins had taken Pain away to find out how much he'd found out ...

 

"I don't care!" yelled Max. "He's hurt!"

"But I only want to talk to him," protested Cedric. "I don't find your explanation for your presence in a restricted area satisfactory at all, and I must tell you that I am seriously considering - your highness!"

"How's Charon, Max?" asked the King, sucking on his pipe and looking like he didn't have a care in the world, which might have annoyed Max more if the King also hadn't been completely ignoring Cedric.

"Bad," said Max. "Really, really bad. So if your highness might want to lend a hand ... "

"Maybe I will," said the King, staring at something Max couldn't see. "Then again, he's always giving me a hard time. It's kind of nice not to have him around for a while."

Cedric smirked. Max told himself that if he got himself thrown out of the palace for threatening the person of the King, he'd be no good to Charon at all.

"Of course, he is my prime minister," continued the King. "Hm."

 

Pain woke up to the smell of something burning. It took him a while to realize that nothing in his room was actually on fire and that the smell didn't come from the kitchen either. It took him another while to realize that he wasn't so much smelling the fire as *sensing* it.

By the time he'd tracked down the source, Charon's room had almost been reduced to a smouldering heap of ashes, with Charon buried inside of it.

"Charon, can you hear me?" Pain shook Charon gently, disturbed at the way Charon didn't resist at all, his body limp in Pain's arms. "Charon?"

"He looks like he's in shock," commented the King. "How long has he been like this?"

"Four days," mumbled Max, bracing himself.

"Four days!" Pain repeated, eyes flashing. "Why didn't you say something sooner? I - "

"You were near death yourself," said Max, looking away. "You'd have killed yourself trying to bring him back when maybe - well, I thought that maybe he'd get better on his own."

"But he didn't," noted the King. "And now someone has tried to burn down his rooms."

Max opened his mouth and closed it again. Pain narrowed his eyes, keeping quiet as well. They both knew that Charon's own magic had lit the fire, and the King had to know that as well.

"I don't like the idea of someone trying to kill my Prime Minister," said the King. "It's meddling. I want it to stop. See to it."

"Your highness commands, and we obey," said Max.

"As well you should, Minister Camaxtli," the King murmured, walking away. "As well you should."

 

Charon opened his eyes and wondered why his ceiling looked singed. Then he lifted his arms and wondered why there were bandages around them.

"Welcome back among the living," said Pain. "If you do something like this to yourself ever again, I'll kill you myself. Soup?"

Charon blinked. His head felt all fuzzy, but it seemed that there was something wrong with this picture, with Pain being here, in the capital, while Charon had last seen him -

"Easy, easy." Pain hastily put down the bowl of soup on a nearby table and hurried over to Charon's side. "I'm not dead, see? You got to me in time, you and Max. Remind me to never get you mad at me because whoa, talk about scary. Although, honestly, I don't think anything could scare me worse than the thought that you might never scowl at me for my taste in lovers ever again."

Charon summoned a faint smile. "I guess I owe you an introduction to my Secretary then."

"What Secre- oh. Yeah. Him." Pain picked up the bowl of soup again and sat down on the edge of the bed. "You know, Charon, how about we just forget about that? Instead, why don't you take me to some nice restaurant after you've gotten all better?"

"Are you," asked Charon, "trying to press me into going on a date with you? While I'm as weak and as helpless as a newborn kitten?"

"Safest time to ask," Pain declared cheerfully.

Charon sighed. "Very well, it's a date."

"That easy?"

"Can I go back to sleep now?"

"Sorry, soup first, sleep later. By royal command."

"Royal command, eh?" Charon closed his eyes. "Guess there's no use in protesting then."