First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
Nikol peered over at Aran. He was looking her way. Feeling her out?
“You could,” she agreed slowly. “Pretty sure I haven’t given you an order about that.”
“Not many orders, actually,” he agreed. He sounded cautiously agreeable. “I bet there’s a catch. This stupid thing has way too many catches.”
“There is. Everything I’ve heard says it’ll make you more and more miserable the longer you’re away from me. You could do it, but eventually you’d end up finding your way back. And then you’d have to deal with guilt and, well, if I wanted to punish you for it.”
“You don’t strike me as the punishing sort.” He almost made it a question.
Nikol smirked. “You haven’t had me as.a commanding officer.”
“Were you?” The surprise might have been insulting in other situations.
“No, actually.” She smirked at him. “But I was a trainer for the new blood more than once, and they thought I was a real hardass.”
“So what would you do? If I ran?”
“When you made it back to me?” She tilted her head. “Are you trying to decide if it’s worth learning on your own what it’s like to be away from your keeper?”
Their horses plodded on, content to walk now that the shouting was past and there were no slugs after them – as far as they could tell, at least. Nikol didn’t have the energy to coax them into a run again even if she thought they were wrong, and a wet spot in her shirt told her she’d have to stop and patch herself up soon anyway. The cats were both napping on the backs of the saddles, apparently having decided that they were horse-riding cats now.
“Trying to figure out what sort of Keeper you are.” He smirked back at her, like he was laughing at himself.
“What, travelling with me hasn’t told you that?”
“We’ve mostly been running. There hasn’t been a lot of time to find out what you’d be like in a relaxing situation, or if I decided to push things when our lives weren’t on the line.”
“Well, I guess asking questions is one way to do it.”
“I figured it was safer and more sensible than just, you know, running for it.”
“I’d have to find out what you actually dislike,” she mused, before he could try to convince his poor horse to run. “I mean, other than orders at all, which is obvious. And then it would depend on how you’d run, how much inconvenience it had been for me, how long you’d been gone. And how you acted when you got back.”
“So not just a lashing.”
“Why would I lash you? That takes you out of combat-readiness pretty quickly.” She wrinkled her nose at him. She didn’t want to admit how uncomfortable this conversation was making her, but he — well, he was making her rather uncomfortable.
He shifted a little. Maybe it wasn’t just her. “That’s pretty cold.”
“It’s honest. I can’t just, you can’t just wander off without any consequences or everyone would desert. But I don’t want to be the bitch that has you scared of me, either.” She looked ahead, between Strongfoot’s ears, at the remains of the highway they were meandering along. The line of cars had been shoved off to the side to allow enough room for a wagon or a somehow-still-functional vehicle to pass through.
“Seems like you can’t have it both ways. Besides, it is desertion when we’re not in an army and we’re both deserters?”
She snorted. “Not a bad point. Look, I’m gonna suggest you give your horse a rest and yourself the same before you try running off.” His mount snorted, as if agreeing with her. She wondered just how smart these horses were.
“You’re so cool about this,” he muttered. “Shouldn’t you be mad?”
“What’s that gonna do?” There had to be some place they could sleep — and yet, with her world-sense muted, all she saw were walls that told her nothing, off in the distance, and ruins more closely. Something had come down on this side of the city hard, burning down whole blocks. “Make you less likely to run off and more happy?”
“…No, not really.” He huffed. “You could make it an order.”
“And what’s that gonna do?” Maybe that factory-looking thing? It looked still intact, from here.
“Make it easier to remember you’re the enemy,” he muttered.
Nikol grumbled, looking away from him. “Am I the enemy, then?”
“You kidnapped me and forced me into servitude!”
“You, I might point out-” She forced her tone civil because she wanted to shout right back at him, “tried to gut me.”
“War!” Calm-face. danced sideways at his shout; he barely seemed to notice. “We were in the middle of a war, woman!”
“And I took you prisoner! Yes!” She dropped her voice to a hiss. “What is the point?”
“The point is – the point is that you keep acting like this is, like we can just be civil or work together or something and you kidnapped me!”
Nikol was honestly stymied. “Yes.” She looked at him. “Yes, that is my goal and my aim. That’s what I want. For us to be civil and work together. I didn’t kidnap you, she added at a mutter. “I might have saved your life, to be honest, and I did offer you a choice.”
“Die or come with you,” he grumbled.
“War,” she quoted back at him. “Seriously.” She shook her head. “We just survived a slime monster. Why is this a problem now?”
“Because you’re being nice.” He added something else under his breath. “And I can tell, I can tell that I’m going to be relaxing around you if you keep it up, and if you do that and I do that, then I’m going to be – uh. Then I’m going to give in to the weird feelings this stupid thing does to me.”
She let their horses amble on in silence while she sorted that out. “The bond, it wants you to relax into it.” She’d heard that. “And if you’re not angry, you’re going to relax into it.”
“Yes!” this time, he noticed when Calm-Face was not-calm. “Sorry, easy.” He patted the horse. “Easy, sorry,” he repeated, until the horse calmed down under his touch. “Yes,” he repeated more quietly. “I don’t want to be your lap dog. I’ve gone to a lot of work to not be anyone’s lap dog. I don’t want to be yours, just because – because I’m your captive. Because I’m… yours.” He deflated with a sad sound and a little finishing grumble.
“Well, shit,” Nikol muttered. “You put yourself in a pretty tight situation there, then, didn’t you?”
“I’m not the one who — fuck. Yeah.” He grumbled some more.
She felt bad for him, but there wasn’t much she could do, short of releasing him, and she wasn’t going to do that. Not yet. Not when she didn’t think she could outrun him if she had to.
“That building up there,” she pointed. “I think it should be fine for camping out tonight.”Want more?