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Where the Road Waits to Be Taken

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Oscar knows Zolf is going to chew him out for this later, but it's worth it as long as there's a later with Zolf in it. He's done everything he can, and this is probably something of a futile gesture, but...screw it. Being next to Zolf might mean the others are too far away for his performance to affect them, but Oscar's not stupid, Guivres is going to go for the Babbage array and Zolf needs all the help he can get.

He flies up — thank you, Hamid — and makes it to Zolf's side just as Zolf, obviously sensing what Guivres is preparing to do as well — not that it's hard — curls himself around the Babbage array as best he can. He reaches out and puts his hands on Zolf's shoulders, reassuring him that he's there.

"We've got this, Zolf," he says gently.

Zolf tenses beneath his hands, and Oscar immediately understands why. He's brought Oscar back from the dead twice; he doesn't want to have to do it a third time, doesn't know if he can do it a third time, and from up here, if Oscar dies, Zolf might not be able to save him...even if he could see him.

But Oscar hasn't been hit, not once, so he still has all the defense against fire and all the strength Zolf has given him, and if he can loan a little bit of that back to Zolf, well, it's worth putting himself in danger. And even if he can't, he's not leaving Zolf to deal with this alone. Not again. Not ever again.

He presses himself against Zolf's back, placing his hands over Zolf's where he clutches the Babbage array, and sings directly into Zolf's ear for maximum effect. He doesn't get more than a couple notes out before the fire engulfs them and the world goes white.

He can feel the heat press against him as the flames curl around them, but Zolf's protection holds up and Oscar doesn't take a speck of damage. The trouble is that Zolf, who's been hit once, does. And the worst of it is that Oscar doesn't track that anything is wrong until Zolf goes limp in his arms.

Oscar isn't strong, probably not strong enough to hold onto both Zolf and Babbage, but he's going to try anyway. He tightens his arms around Zolf desperately as a secondary explosion goes off and closes his eyes, gritting his teeth with determination. He's not letting go.

He's never letting go.

There's a weird...sensation. Even Oscar, master poet that he is, can't put words to it properly. The world seems to elongate, then turn sideways, then fold in on itself in the span of less than a couple of heartbeats. Then, suddenly and abruptly, there's solid ground under his feet — for a given value of solid, anyway — and he stumbles and falls to his knees, arms still locked around what he hopes is still Zolf.

He opens his eyes, and, yes, Zolf is still slumped in his arms. Oscar can't see his face, but he's breathing. Just. Hastily getting himself better positioned, he turns Zolf over, arm shifting automatically to cradle his head and shoulders.

It's...not good. One side of Zolf's face is badly burned, his hair uneven and half his beard almost entirely gone. His shirt and trousers are singed away in patches, the remains still smoldering, and the legs...well, they're high-end magical prostheses, so they're probably fine. Small mercies, though, the spores from the blue-veined creature seem to be gone, either burned away in the fire or…

Or it worked.

Behind him, he hears movement and voices, people calling one another's names and probably running to each other, but he ignores them, because he only has moments, a minute at best. Zolf is strong and fairly robust, so it's possible he's not too badly hurt, but if it's too much, if the damage was enough to…

No. No, Oscar can't think like that, he can't. He can't lose Zolf. Not now. Not when they've finally got the chance for a rest, for some time to themselves. Not before he's told Zolf exactly what he means to him.

"Oscar! Oscar, are you there?" Cel's voice comes from somewhere behind him. "You were — we couldn't see you, and, well, we still can't see you, but — a-are you here? Are you okay?"

Right. Invisible. He's still invisible. Oscar takes a deep breath, concentrates all his will, and manages to break through the spell. It probably isn't that big a deal, but at the same time, it is. When — not if, never if — Zolf opens his eyes, he needs to be able to see Oscar.

"Wilde!" That sounds like Barnes, and he sounds relieved. "There you are. Are you all right?"

Oscar can't spare the breath to answer. He flicks his free hand into the air, sending up the fireworks — Wilde's fine! Stop asking! At least, he hopes they say that. He can't spare the time to look, either.

"Oh, Oscar." Azu's voice sounds regretful and sad. It's also booming. She's evidently still wearing the activated armor.

Oscar ignores her (of course she understands, a little voice in the back of his mind whispers, of course she remembers the last time you did that, of course she knows what it means) and focuses on Zolf. He's got enough magic in him for one good spell, at least. He just hopes it's enough.

As gently as he can, he presses his hand to Zolf's burned cheek and sings softly.

Why should thy cheek be pale,
Shaded with sorrow's veil?
Why should'st thou grieve me?
I will never, never leave thee.
'Mid my deepest sadness,
'Mid my gayest gladness,
I am thine, believe me;
I will never, never leave thee.

He's not used this spell often, but he's seen Zolf do it enough that he knows what to expect. A golden glow spreads from beneath his palm to cover Zolf's injuries. His breathing steadies, the color returns to his cheeks, and most, not all, of his skin recovers. He's going to have a scar, Oscar can tell, but as the last note trails away on the wind, his eyes open, and Oscar has never seen anything more beautiful.

"Don't ever do that again," he croaks out, and Oscar's never heard anything more beautiful, either.

"Then don't keep putting yourself into dangerous situations," he retorts, but he can't help smiling affectionately, and there are tears in his eyes he doesn't bother to try and fight (it worked, it worked, the spell went off, Zolf wasn't too far gone to save, Oscar can still do something for him, he hasn't lost him, they still have a future ahead of them).

Zolf gives an exasperated sigh, but doesn't argue. He tries to sit up with a groan; Oscar hastily assists him, arm secure around his shoulders. "What happened? Did we — did it work?"

"I — I think so." Oscar honestly hasn't given it a moment's thought. "We're alive, at any rate." He considers for a moment, then adds, "I think."

Zolf groans again. "I hurt too much to be dead. What the hell happened? Guivres—"

"Guivres tried to broil you like a flank steak," Oscar tells him, keeping his voice steady with an effort. "I — I couldn't get you out of the way in time to stop you getting hurt. I'm so sorry."

"'S all right. I'm here," Zolf says gruffly, but he leans into Oscar's shoulder for just a moment. Oscar tucks his chin over Zolf's head and closes his eyes, soaking in the comfort and relief.

"Over — everyone over — everybody come in close." Azu's voice is a bit breathless but nevertheless resonates with authority.

There's some shuffling, and then a pure, angelic note that rings on the air for a minute, and something warm and soothing washes over Oscar. Zolf takes a deep breath, and Oscar opens his eyes as Azu says, "There, did that help?"

It seems to have. Oscar scans the assembled group. Carter still looks a bit wobbly, held up between Cel and Barnes, but he's smiling; Einstein, too, looks a bit battered but otherwise steady. Kiko has one arm draped over Azu's shoulder and a proud and somewhat impressed grin on her face, with Azu's arm wrapped around her waist, and an Orc who must be Azu's brother Emeka puts a hand on her other shoulder and squeezes. A Goblin who's probably Vesseek runs a hand over their face, and a golden-haired fighter with the symbol of Apollo emblazoned on his chest leans on the shoulder of...is that a dog in full plate? Oscar blinks at it, then decides if he's not hallucinating, it must be something Einstein came up with. All in all, though, it seems like everyone is all right. Azu's channel positive energy seems to have helped. Oscar feels a grin start to spread on his own face, matching the general air of relief and celebration.

Zolf's head flicks left and right. "Where's Hamid?"

Oscar freezes. Cel's grin melts away and Azu's eyes widen, and the whole group falls silent as they look around, but there's no sign of a dragon-winged Halfling anywhere. And there should be. If Hamid was there, Oscar knows, he'd be making sure Azu was okay at the very least. He'd be close to the middle of the group.

"Maybe he's still back in London," Einstein suggests. "This is definitely not London, right? No beaches in London?"

For the first time, Oscar becomes aware that they're on a shingle of sand, waves crashing against the shore very near to where he's still kneeling with Zolf half on his lap, which is something the Dwarf would never tolerate under ordinary circumstances and probably won't tolerate for long. There's a bit of a wind blowing, not much of one, and when he looks up, he sees chalk cliffs looming above them.

"Are we in Dover?" he asks incredulously.

"No. France," Zolf says, his voice soft and heavy. "Couple hours south of Calais. Dover's over that way." He points across the water.

"We can get to Dover from Calais," Barnes says, sounding a little uncertain. "It'll at least get us back to England."

Cel looks worried, but nods enthusiastically. "Yes! Yes, and — and we can, we can get back to London from there, and Hamid is probably still back in London waiting for us. I mean, he's — if he's not here, he's probably looking for us super hard, and he's probably worried, so the faster we get back to London, the faster we can make sure he's okay, and he can know we're okay, and — and it'll all be fine."

Zolf abruptly turns his head to look in another direction, but before Oscar can turn to see what he's looking at, he slumps slightly and returns his attention to the group as a whole. The Apollo fighter, whom Oscar guesses to be Ed, looks around. "How did we get here, that's my question."

"Probably...whatever that was that blew up on the roof," Zolf says. He starts to struggle to his feet; Oscar hastily moves to assist him, whether he needs it or not.

"I'm kind of surprised it didn't kill us all, actually," Einstein says brightly. "Like, wow! That was a big explosion, and there was a lot of fire, too, and then the world going all weird like that? I thought we were all dead!"

"I kind of did, too," Carter admits. "I'm glad we're not, but I thought we were."

There's a sort of crunching noise, and Oscar turns just in time to see a diminutive figure come bulling towards them and catch Vesseek up in a tight hug. Vesseek hugs him back just as tightly, both of them murmuring at each other in very fast Goblin.

Azu gasps. "Grizzop?"

Oscar inhales sharply as Grizzop opens his eyes, looks up at Azu briefly, and smiles. "Wotcher. Be over there in a minute."

Oscar gets a...sense from Carter, a feeling of mingled worry and resignation. He turns to meet Carter's eyes and realizes what he's thinking, either because of the weird bond provided by their resurrection or because the same thought occurs to him in that moment.

"Zolf," he says softly, so only the Dwarf can hear. "I think we are dead."

"We knew there was a chance. At least…" Zolf looks up, and something in his face shifts. He lets go of Oscar and stretches out his arms a split second before two figures hurtle into them, nearly knocking him back into Oscar. Oscar wonders about the two dark heads for a split second before he takes in the bronze cast to the skin of the smaller figure and the splash of a burn scar on the neck of the other and realizes who they are.

Zolf makes a small, slightly broken noise as he pulls them closer, and it goes straight to Oscar's heart. Hamid clings tightly to Zolf's side and Sasha presses her cheek against the top of his head, and Oscar can't help but smile at the sight. It feels right in a way things haven't for a long time.

They might be dead, but at least they're all together.

"Are you okay?" Hamid chokes out, his voice high and crackling with emotion. "You — Guivres hit you so hard—"

"I'm okay. I'm okay," Zolf says. "I'm...I mean, we knew this was probably going to happen, but...so much for muchness, right?"

Hamid and Sasha pull back slightly and look at one another for a moment. Oscar can't read their expressions, but he steps in. "It could be worse, I suppose. For a minute there we thought you were the only one who survived."

Hamid smiles, but there's something regretful in it. "And it's the opposite, yeah."

"Wait, what?" Zolf's eyes widen in shock. "No, no, we're — aren't we all—?"

"No, boss, you're fine," Sasha says, and it's surprising both how good it is and how much it hurts to hear her voice again. "I mean, you're still alive. You're — there's a line, right? And we're sort of — we could get across it, I guess, to see you lot, but it's, we don't belong on this side of it. We were up there." She points to the top of the cliffs.

Oscar looks up. For a minute, his sight wavers, and he sees a forest that clearly isn't there, but then it vanishes. Hamid takes up the story. "We, we saw you all down here and...we didn't think we could come down at first, but the barrier sort of went...soft, I guess? Grizzop's faster than we are, but…"

"We weren't going to waste the chance to come see you," Sasha finishes. She swallows hard. "I missed you. A lot."

"I…" Zolf looks stricken. He shakes his head. "No. No, it can't — it can't be like this, it—"

"No, it's okay. It's okay," Hamid interrupts. "We saved the world. That was the important part, right?"

"I don't know, Hamid." Zolf drops his hands and takes a step away, turning to stare at the waves, one hand coming up to grip his hair — not the side that's still got the burn scar, Oscar notices. "I don't — there was all that weird stuff happening, and that bright white light, but I don't know if there was enough time for it to work. I don't know if the device managed to get off or if it was destroyed before it could finish. I don't know if we saved the world, and if we didn't, what was the point of losing you?"

Silence follows Zolf's words. Oscar doesn't have to look around, but he does anyway. Everyone is staring at Zolf in varying degrees of sympathy or dismay, except for Grizzop, who just looks disappointed or angry or both — which doesn't exactly count, since he's the only one there who's never met Zolf before. The rest of them know Zolf as the leader, the team's rock, the slightly grumpy Cleric whose faith in Hope is nevertheless unshakable. To hear him so close to despair is painful. Azu puts one hand up to touch her neck, where the replica of the Heart of Aphrodite is, and Oscar knows she's trying to decide if it's worth reaching out to her god or if it's better to just hold out hope a little longer.

The sand crunches softly under Hamid's feet as he steps closer to Zolf. He reaches up to put a hand on Zolf's upper arm, turning him carefully to face him. Zolf doesn't meet his eyes.

"You're not losing me, Zolf," Hamid says gently. "You never did. I know it hasn't always been easy between us, but you've never not been my friend. And the ones we love never truly leave us. Not as long as we remember them. As long as you're alive, you have a chance to save the world, and if anyone can do it, it's you. I've never not trusted you, and I've never not believed in you. We've never not believed in you. And we'll never forget you."

Zolf looks at Hamid for a long minute, then shakes his head. "I'm not…"

"You're you, Zolf," Sasha says, stepping up next to Hamid. "That's all we ever needed you to be."

"I didn't die because you failed me," Hamid says, his voice so soft Oscar wonders if anyone other than Zolf, Sasha, and him can hear it. "Neither of us did. We survived as long as we did because you saved us. You did everything you could, and it was enough. The only one blaming you is you." He cracks a small smile. "And I think the evidence has shown that if I blamed you, I'd tell you."

Zolf actually laughs at that, a little. "Yeah...yeah, I guess you would." He sniffs. "Thought I had myself convinced that it didn't matter what happened to us as long as we saved the world, but…"

Oscar's not really part of this conversation, but at that, he can't resist stepping in, because he knows Zolf better than Zolf thinks he does. "I think you were convinced it didn't matter what happened to you as long as we saved the world," he says, putting his hand on Zolf's shoulder. "You worked too hard to give the rest of us a chance to survive to really be resigned to any of us dying."

Zolf reaches up to cover Oscar's hand with his own. Sasha's eyes suddenly twinkle mischievously. "I knew you fancied him."

Zolf sputters at that, and Hamid starts laughing, a genuine, joyous laugh. Sasha snickers, too, the same grin she had when she workshopped puns over the remains of the Clank factory so long ago. Oscar can't help but laugh, too, even though it hurts a little.

"There was a question about that?" Cel asks someone in the background.

"Oh, yeah, they hated each other at first," Barnes says matter-of-factly.

"It's not — I don't—" Zolf looks up at Oscar, then sighs and gives him a small smile. "Bit more than that, if I'm being honest."

"Yeah. I can tell." Sasha reaches out a little hesitantly and touches Zolf's cheek.

Zolf raises his free hand to touch it as well and winces at the ridges of skin. "Guess Guivres got me good."

"Almost lost you," Oscar says, echoing Zolf's words from the lab beneath The One That Got Away…was it only yesterday? It seems so much longer, but honestly, it can't have been more than twelve hours or so. Feels like it's stretched on forever.

The look Zolf gives him tells him he's thinking the same thing. He lowers his hand from his cheek and turns back to Sasha. "Don't see how that tells you…"

Sasha touches her own burn scar. "Like I told Hamid when we was on that restaurant crawl in Prague. Scars are just a sign that you could've died, but someone cared enough about you to make sure you didn't. 'S probably why we still have most of ours, even though we're dead and they don't matter. 'Cause, yeah, we got hurt and stuff, but that's not what killed us, 'cause you made sure it didn't. And like Hamid said, we're not gonna forget that. Or you."

Tears fill Zolf's eyes, and he holds out his arms again wordlessly. Hamid and Sasha both step forward and hug him tightly, then Sasha lifts one arm and reaches towards Oscar, too. It surprises him, but he's not going to argue. He steps forward and joins the embrace. For possibly the first time in his entire life, he knows what family really feels like.

And he's about to be separated from half of it. It's not fair.

After a moment, Hamid steps back and puts up a finger, then reaches around his neck, lifts something off, and holds it out to Zolf. "Here, I — I forgot I had this, honestly. I found it in my things while we were resting in Chaucer's crypt and...it seemed important to have it close, but I think you need it more than I do."

Oscar looks over Zolf's shoulder as he takes the object. It's a heavy gold locket, chased with intricate swirls and starbursts, on a fine chain. Zolf pops the locket open, revealing two miniatures, one on either side — Hamid and Sasha, facing outward but more or less turned towards each other, looking like they're sharing a joke.

"Oh, yeah, I remember that," Sasha says. "That's from — that street artist we ran into in Prague, right? The one that got you all flustered and you wouldn't tell me why?"

"Yeah, he — he thought you were my girlfriend." Hamid grins a little sheepishly as Sasha wrinkles her nose — not in disgust, Oscar thinks, just in exasperation. "I told him you were my sister, which, you know, is basically the truth."

Zolf closes the locket carefully. "Thank you," he says quietly, slipping the chain over his head and tucking the locket into his shirt, where it's close to his heart.

Hamid turns and hugs Azu, who hugs him so hard Oscar would be worried she might smother him to death if...well, if he wasn't already dead. Cel gives him a hug, too, and Hamid reciprocates, then comes back to hug Zolf and Oscar again. Oscar hugs him tightly.

"Thank you," he murmurs to Hamid. "For everything."

Hamid nods jerkily, obviously understanding. "Look after him?"

"You know you don't need to ask that of me."

"I know, but I am anyway."

"I will. I promise." Oscar squeezes Hamid again, then lets him go.

"We should — we should probably figure out how we're getting...home," Cel falters, looking reluctant. "And, and if you can...of course, you're all welcome to stay as long as you like, we'd definitely enjoy that, but I don't know how far you can...go...from here, I mean, I'm not exactly a student of that kind of thing, but if you can't come with us, then, well, the longer we stay here, I think, the harder it's going to be to leave."

They have a point, but Oscar's reluctant to agree. The look on Zolf's face says the same. Hamid opens his mouth to say something, but suddenly, there's a popping noise and two figures appear out of nowhere — a pair of Gnomes in black, three-piece suits with sunglasses.

"Oh, no, what now," Hamid says under his breath.

The two Gnomes approach the dog in plate armor, who kneels respectfully in front of them. Oscar notices for the first time the golden wreath on its head. Hamid's eyes suddenly widen, and he nudges Sasha and points wordlessly; she nods. Oscar's about to ask what they're talking about when one of the Gnomes — or maybe both of them, he's not sure — start to speak.

"Sir Brutor MacGuffingham?" they ask, not really sounding like they're actually asking.

"What," Zolf says flatly.

Oscar does a double-take, but the dog looks up at the Gnomes respectfully and...yep, yep, that's definitely the one that followed after Bertie for several weeks. He guesses the fact that it seems to have some actual intelligence confused him for a moment. The Gnomes pull out a clipboard.

"We have come to inform you of the completion of your contract," the Gnomes say. Oscar is pretty sure they're taking turns talking, but it's not in any kind of regular way; they just keep passing the sentences back and forth between themselves like they're one person trying to use two bodies simultaneously. "Your actions in helping to save the world and end the threat posed by the blue veins and the plant creatures, as well as your assistance to the animals of the world, has resulted in you being the first MacGuffingham heir in generations to fulfill the terms of your contract and pay off the debt. You are free of the obligations bequeathed to you by Sir Bertrand MacGuffingham, and our business is at an end. Congratulations on your success. May you have a long and happy life."

"Thank you," Brutor says gravely, and can this day get any weirder?

The two Gnomes nod, tuck the clipboard away, and vanish in a puff of smoke. There's a long moment of utter silence before Einstein says, "Okay, did anybody else see that whole thing just happen or am I going cuckoo again?"

Brutor gets to his feet, comes over to where Sasha, Hamid, Zolf, and Oscar are standing, and bows politely. "It's good to see you all again. I'm glad if I could help in any way."

"You...you helped," Zolf says, sounding more than a little disorientated. "Thank you."

"It's the least I could do. Not just because of the contract, but because I think my late master was in some way responsible for some of this and it's my duty to repair as much as I can." Turning to Sasha and Hamid, Brutor adds, "I have a place of my own, a new family to protect now, but before I go back to them, I think I owe it to both of you to make sure your family gets back safely. You were both always very kind to me, even when you didn't need to be."

"I...thank you?" Hamid looks extremely confused, but rallies himself and offers Brutor a smile. "We are...extremely grateful that you came to help. And for what you're offering."

"Could you give us a minute, please, Sir Brutor?" Oscar asks, as politely as he can while trying not to feel like his brain is dribbling out his ears.

"Of course." Brutor moves away and seems to fall into conversation with Ed.

"Well. That happened," Zolf says, blinking.

Oscar huffs. "I suppose that's one way of confirming that the device went off properly. Having it legally declared."

Hamid laughs, but there's a sadness in his eyes. "I...I guess this is it. For now, anyway."

"For now," Zolf echoes. "I'll — I'll see you both soon."

"Not too soon," Sasha says. She looks suddenly worried. "Don't rush it, yeah? Take your time. There's loads of stuff to do. We can wait. And it's, it's going to take me a while to — you know I'm not that fast a reader and all, so it's going to take me a while to finish those Harrison Campbell books you like so much. There's a whole bunch of them in the library at the villa in the middle of...you can't die until I've finished them all so we can talk about them proper."

Hamid holds out a hand to Zolf. "I'm going to give them another try, too," he promises. "Read them with an open mind this time. After all...three of the people whose opinions I respect most enjoy them. They can't be that bad, can they?"

Zolf stares at Hamid for a moment, then gives a small laugh and hugs him tight. Sasha and Oscar join the hug as well, and for a long few moments, they stand sharing that last embrace.

After a bit, though, Oscar realizes that the other two are starting to go faint and insubstantial under his arms, and reluctantly, he pulls back. "Zolf. I think it's time."

Zolf holds on to Sasha and Hamid just a little bit longer, and they do seem a bit more solid for him, but at last, reluctantly, he lets go. Hamid takes a step back, still smiling even though there are tears in his eyes, and takes Sasha's hand; she grips it tightly and smiles at them, too. "Be good."

"You, too," Zolf says gruffly. He swallows, then adds softly, "Love you both."

"Love you, too, Dad," Sasha says with a crooked grin. Zolf's breath hitches, but Hamid just nods and smiles.

They join Grizzop, who looks even more insubstantial than they are, and the three of them walk backwards up the cliff, somehow, waving the whole time. Most of the others wave back until the three figures fade into the tops of the cliffs, and then it's just...well, just the survivors.

"How far away are we from Calais?" Barnes asks finally.

Zolf takes a deep breath. "Not sure. We...last time we were here, we ended up hitching a ride. Took us a couple hours, maybe. If we have to walk, maybe a bit longer."

"Well, we won't get there by standing here," Brutor says practically. "Onward, then?"

"Onward!" Ed raises a fist in the air and starts down the beach. Azu snags his shoulder and spins him around to face north, towards Calais.

Oscar puts an arm around Zolf's shoulders and gently steers him away from the cliffs where his two oldest friends are — probably — still watching over them. There's a lot to process here, a lot they're going to have to deal with, a lot Zolf is going to have to learn to live with for real, because the last time he lost them he had hope and this time they're gone. But that's all for tomorrow. For today, they have a walk and a train or boat ride and the knowledge that, whatever else may have happened, the world is free and they won.

"Come on, my love," he says gently. "Let's go home."