Title: "En Garde"

Author: Shaitanah

Rating: PG

Summary: Fire and Water play games neither of them can win. Especially if those games are orchestrated by a third party. [anthropomorphic Fire/Water; SLASH UST; Avant spin-off]

Disclaimer: There'll be a hot time in the old town, tonight. – a quote from Old Mother Leary nursery rhyme.

A/N: Some people asked me for a sequel to Avant, my previous Fire/Water story. While this isn't a direct sequel, it features the same characters. And also, please note that I don't condone arson, so the views on forest fires expressed here by some characters are not my views.

EN GARDE

There was a wooden lean-to in the middle of the beach, a crude, holey roof perched atop four poles dug safely into the sand. The rain kept drumming over it, striking out a forceful beat.

Water's music filled Fire's mind. He said cross-legged under the lean-to and watched the lazy waves churning in their bed. The sand felt cold. There came the rolling melody of the ocean, solid, unwavering, waves licking the coast with their broad, smooth tongues. This melody was a carrier, steady in its constancy. The only thing that changed occasionally was the pace. At times it grew faster; the waves would race each other to the shore, hopping over each other, splashing onto the sand bar in a heap of jolly whitecaps, and then the pitch would rise too, a note or two higher than the rest.

The buzzing of the rain intertwined with the music of the sea. Every once in a while a rolling peal of thunder would resound through the air, slashing through the gentle percussion of myriads of droplets falling back into the ocean. The sharp, unyielding beat of drops against wood upheld the rhythm.

It was a concert, monotonous and soothing, and it stirred unwanted emotions within him. To give Water credit where one was due, that manipulative bitch had a brilliant musical taste.

"You're not thinking what I think you're thinking, are you?"

Fire looked up and shook his head with a weary smile. Only one of the Winds could ask something so mind-boggling and expect an honest answer. And this one was, obviously, as she entered his shelter and positioned herself opposite him, hands folded neatly over her laps. He gave her a quick looking over, taking in her swarthy complexion and her curly hair scattered loose over her shoulders. She was clad in a plain white sundress that remained miraculously stainless in spite of her sitting on the wet sand.

"Which one are you then?" Fire asked, trying to sound as uninterested as possible.

She squinted and wrinkled her nose. The answer should have been obvious to him. He reached out and clasped her fingers between his hands before she could pull back. She was warm without the feverish heat of the desert winds and very aerial. He could feel the water she had drunk circulate beneath her skin, so close to the surface that he almost feared it would sting him.

"The offspring of the Foehn family." He smiled. Those oldtime friends of his. So many forests set ablaze with their help. He let go of her hand. "What do you want?"

"Do you remember that wildfire in Australia a couple of years ago? Wasn't it so beautiful?" She inclined her head, slanted shadows gliding over her face, attributing her glittering eyes the unfathomable expressions he couldn't begin to guess at. "In the end there was nothing left but charred landscape and heaps of ash. And that one burnt tree, standing like a ghost in the middle of what used to be a lush green forest."

Fire narrowed his eyes.

"I hadn't met you then, sister," he said warily.

"You know full well that all family members share collective memories." She waved her hand dismissively.

"What's your point?"

"The only thing that made you retreat back then," said Foehn, a sudden tinge of gravity in her voice, "was a rainstorm."

Fire remembered it only too well. Less than a week before that, he had managed to insult one of the Winds, a hurricane, no less. Seeking vengeance, the Wind had allied himself with Water. As a general rule, Winds were neutral, friends to him as well as to his enemy, but he had long since learnt to keep them pleased. It would often come to pass that he who had their support at the moment, won.

"I haven't made an enemy out of anyone of yours for the past years," Fire said.

A small smile crossed Foehn's lips. "That doesn't mean we haven't been making friends with the other side."

She rose to leave. The rain had almost stopped; fat lazy drops would still collide with the roof from time to time, but it would soon be safe for him to venture out.

He caught her by the hand again.

"Why are you telling me this?"

She smiled cryptically and slid outside where he could not follow her, leaving him without an answer. Fire watched her lithe figure dissolve in the distance and waited for the first ray of sunlight to strike through the clouds. He rubbed his palms against each other, producing sparks to keep himself warm.

He put little trust in Winds. They were capricious creatures, concerned, as far as he knew, only with fun and games. It made little difference to them whether they were chasing stray leaves over the lake surface or blowing columns of fire up to the sky. He saw no point resenting them for it; such was their nature.

Still, if Water had something to offer this fickle lot, then certainly so did he.

* * *

"One thing I absolutely love about human beings," Fire said as he ventured deeper into the forest. "They come up with all sorts of clever ideas. Up to and including," he squinted up at the greyish sky and smiled, "waterproof materials."

He wrapped the raincoat tighter around his body and pulled the hood lower over his face. The forest rose all around him in all its smothering glory. It was dimly lit and oddly quiet. Damp moss grew thickly at the bases of the trees and over their unearthed roots. Bright, blinding flowers popped out here and there, looking more like reproductions of wax than living plants, vibrant, glossy, offensive. Creeks gurgled over polished boulders that were half-drowning in muddy soil. A faint, bittersweet aroma that Fire couldn't quite place rose from the champing undergrowth.

"So… wet," he said contemptuously. "Can you taste it? Moisture at the back of your throat."

"Delicious," Foehn drawled.

Winds of her kind drank quite a lot. While he could never understand their fascination with moisture, he could very well appreciate it. They left the air blissfully dry, sucking all the humidity out.

"He always has to be everywhere. Pervade everything."

Foehn snickered. "Is that jealousy I detect?"

Fire caught her hand and dragged her closer. He wound his arm around her shoulders and chuckled without looking at her.

"I'm needed." He pointed up towards a vague flare of sunlight, barely visible through the leafage. "That big ball in the sky and me, we're related. And without us, there'd be no life at all." He glanced at the Wind, lips curved in a semblance of a smile. "No, sister, I am not jealous. Our conflict goes much deeper than that."

He let go of her and reached for a low-hanging tree-branch. He broke off a small twig and twirled it in his gloved fingers. He blew at it gently, thoroughly drying it, and trapped it between his lips. Sparks rushed over it, and it caught fire. He scoffed.

"I'm so hungry." He drew his twin guns and threw his hands up. Laughter was beginning to spill out of his mouth. "Let it burn!"

At that, he pulled the triggers.

Columns of fire whirled into the air. He watched, breath caught in his throat, as the flaming waves lapped ravenously at the humpbacked trunks, licking off the verdure. Branches crackled loudly after the ignition. Fire nodded to himself. Oh, that was good.

Whisper rolled through the forest. Barely discernible at first, it grew louder and louder–

Intruder.

Marauder.

Murderer.

–until it finally concentrated on him and splattered all over him, a hissing scream of beings determined to defend their domain.

This is our forest!

Fire darted further into the thicket, dank undergrowth bubbling beneath his feet. He released the remaining bullets, setting the trees ablaze as he went. Foehn had disappeared out of sight, but judging by the increasing intensity of the wind shaking and tousling the tree tops, she never intended to abandon him. Fire chuckled smugly. Sparks traveled from branch to branch, assisted by warm gusts of wind.

"That's right!" Fire shouted, reloading his guns. "Make them moan!"

Peals of thunder rumbled through the sky. Fire tilted his head back. The wind was getting stronger; something told him it was not Foehn's doing.

He took a deep breath – and almost choked on the thick, cool humidity that was breaking through the heat. A rainstorm was coming.

Fire burst out laughing. How predictably primitive.

"Oh no, you don't!" he spat. "Not today!"

His hand shot forth, palm open and inviting. He felt Foehn lace her aerial fingers through his. He clenched them fiercely, laughing at the furious element boiling overhead. Flames raged with a new force, riled up by their master's collaboration with the Wind.

Rain crashed down on the forest. A branch whipped at Fire's face, nearly slashing through the water-resistant hood of his coat. He staggered, but kept his balance. A ferocious smile flared on his lips.

"Keep the party going," he told Foehn. "I'll go have a word with the gate-crasher."

He slithered through the corridor of the blazing plants. The battle was getting more and more cut-throat. Occasionally the rain succeeded in extinguishing a patch of verdure, but another one would promptly flare up.

Fire came to a halt on the steep bank of a lake. It looked clear and deep enough to serve as a hideout. Fire reached into the pocket of his coat and procured a heavy flask. That should do it. He generously splashed its contents over the surface of the lake, mapping out a narrow path for himself, and sauntered over to the buzzing of the waterfall that grew more persistent in his ears.

"Petrol?" he heard a familiar voice ask. "How imaginative."

Fire didn't need to look around to feel disdain curling off of Water. He was probably looking all righteous now, his bleeding heart aching for all those lovely trees that were about to rejoin Mother Earth as piles of ash.

"To what do I owe this vicious destruction of innocent lifeforms?" Water asked bleakly.

"I was hungry." Fire licked his lips sensually, making sure to lower his head so that his face reflected properly in the lake surface. "And bored."

There was silence. He remained decidedly still, eyes boring into the shimmering water that spread beneath him like a giant looking-glass. As Water loomed in front of him, Fire snapped his head up and smiled. Water appraised him with unusual gravity in his pale eyes, indistinct weariness written across his face.

"You're not as much of a coward as I have pegged you to be," he said lightly. "But aren't you afraid to meet me on my own, so very vast territory?" He moved closer; in spite of protection, Fire barely resisted the urge to step back. "Doesn't it just make you burn with fear?"

His playful tone struck a chord. Fire swallowed a breath of relief: he was beginning to worry his oldtime playmate had got too worked up over these blasted trees. Oh, he might yet give him hell, but a good brawl was at any turn of events preferable to being condescendingly scolded, which Water loved doing from time to time.

Fire leapt back just in time to dodge a blow of Water's whip. Its long tail landed across the lake surface and shattered its mirror-like peace.

"There are better ways to critique one's artistic skills than starting a slaughter-house," said Water, and elaborated when Fire arched his brows inquiringly: "I take it you didn't appreciate the concert."

Fire poured more petrol out of the flask to allow himself to maneuvre and pointed a gun at his opponent.

"One hardly appreciates art that is aimed at maiming him."

Water laughed. His whip swished by, crashing down in the vicinity of Fire, close enough to stir a wave right at his feet. He jumped aside, swooning.

"You are safe and sound, as far as I can see," Water commented.

"No thanks to you."

He fired. Water flicked his hand, summoning a wave that rolled over him as a shield. The bullet entered it and faded out. Steam curled off heavily. Water waved towards Fire, and all those masses of liquid were flung in his direction immediately. It swirled around him like a tsunami. A perfect weapon. His perfect weapon.

He emptied the flask into the whirlpool and fired another shot right into the heart of it. The lake caught fire instantly, burning brighter and brighter until the intensity of the flames was unbearable. Fire laughed as his element danced, raging, around him.

Water cursed under his breath. He could barely look at the fiery feast, his eyes narrowed in pain. He scrambled rapidly towards the bank. Fire pursued him. Things were going even better than he had expected. He bathed his hand in the petrol-infused water and lashed out to grasp the end of Water's whip that dragged after its owner so very negligently.

Feeling the pull, Water looked around. He tugged violently at the whip, attempting to regain control of it, but Fire's grip was steady.

"They're so scrumptious, those wooden friends of yours," Fire drawled. "If it were up to you, I'd probably feed on dust and rotten wood forever."

Water's lip curled. He tried to summon another wave, but the lake was oily and thick with gas and refused to obey his commands. Fire squeezed his grip tighter; a ribbon of flame streamed up the whip, all the way to the handle. Water stared at it, apparently enthralled, hesitant to let go. His fingers unclenched only when a few sparks spread hectically over to his sleeve. The handle dropped with a loud splash and sank.

"There'll be a hot time in the old town, tonight!" Fire cried out triumphantly.

Water glanced up at him, his face unreadable, and made a go for the bank. He washed himself out and nearly collapsed into the silty brushwood. Black fumes clouded the view. The wind blew stronger, colder, bending the trees lower to the ground. Water raised his hand. The rain intensified.

"How d'you get one of them to help you?" Water asked breathlessly.

Fire ended up towering over him in a few quick leaps. "The same as you." He arched his eyebrows, giving Water his best blameless look. "I asked nicely."

Water sprang up, fluidly, and hit Fire flat in the chest with his foot. Fire wobbled, slipping on the lakeside mud. One of his pistols sploshed into the brownish silt. He reached for it, but Water beat him to it. He grasped the antique, wrought weapon and started running, having flashed Fire another unfathomable glance. On raw impulse, Fire followed.

They ended up on top of the cliff where the boiling waterfall was crashing down into the burning lake. Fire couldn't suppress a haughty smile: the lake looked marvelous, a true piece of art, like the Apocalypse come early.

He laughed, bemused, as he saw Water point the pistol at him.

"It won't work on me, you dimwit!"

Out in the open, with no tapestry of leaves to protect them, the rain was pouring down on them like a dense curtain flapping in the wind. There was no black smoke here, no sweltering heat that made Water's vision swim. He pulled the trigger; the bullet dashed past Fire, barely grazing his shoulder. Fire always knew Water was a fumbler; he had no particularly liking of firearms and thus no practice. But that was way too pathetic even for him.

Water watched him calmly, his arm lax along his body, the pistol still clutched firmly in his hand. Fire frowned inquiringly. He wanted to ask what this farce was about, but the prickly sensation in his hand cut him off before he even began. He raised his hand and looked at it quizzically. The sensation grew, swelling into an all too familiar stinging. Fire gritted his teeth and struggled to peel off the glove. The back of his hand was wet, and the wetness was biting into his skin. He turned his head and noticed a singed rupture in his sleeve where Water had shot him. It split the water-resistant fabric and went deeper into the sandpaper corduroy of his waistcoat, the cotton of his shirt – and into his skin. Light dripped thickly from the wound, but it wasn't the bullet that had made it. It was the rain that penetrated stealthily through the gash in his clothes and trickled down the length of his arm.

Fire covered the hole with his hand quickly, but the damage was already done. Rain assailed his ungloved hand with the power of a thousand needles piercing his skin. Fire staggered and took a step back and started falling, disorientated and lost. He could see Water's face above him, white and affrighted; his nemesis was shouting, but Fire couldn't make out the words.

He fell into the burning lake and continued his descent past the frenzied flames and the fragrant cascades of petrol right into the chilly, pure depths of untouched water that battered him down vengefully, tearing at his damaged armour. The cold abyss closed in on him, squeezing him in its unbreakable grip. The world had never been so utterly silent.

* * *

Fire came to with a start, the first forced intake of breath scorching his lungs with air. He was lying on the floor in a dimly lit lodging, which he failed to recognize. He rolled on his back, the raincoat still on, and pushed the hood back and took a deeper breath. The floor was sprinkled with drops of water that had pooled from his clothes. He tore at the zipper urgently and peeled the raincoat off and shoved it aside. Hair fell into his eyes in dense curls. He brushed it off of his forehead and finally looked around.

His gut clenched. He seemed to be drifting below the water surface in a strange spherical vessel, some sort of a futuristic-looking bathyscaphe. It was warm and considerably dry there, but the salient walls and a giant porthole, beyond which there lay a vast reservoir, made him feel vaguely claustrophobic.

Fire examined his prison cell, his motions jerky like those of a caged animal. Some wood bark was piled near the wall. He took a whiff. The wood was damp, and he put it aside in mild disgust. Next to it, there were paper scraps, some old receipts mixed with pages torn out of books. Fire crammed one sheet and stuffed it into his mouth. It burned quickly, sating the hunger that was beginning to rise. Slowly, warily, he reviewed the recent events and thought with dark triumph that he had survived falling into a lake. A bloody lake! A cistern of cold, merciless water.

He chuckled nervously and shifted closer to the porthole. The same terrifying darkness reigned outside.

"Where am I?" Fire murmured with mingled amazement and alarm.

"The ocean," the answer came.

Fire narrowed his eyes. He brought his face closer to the plexiglass until the tip of his nose was touching it. He felt curiosity stirring within him, a bare whisper that brushed the corners of his mind relentlessly: come! take a look!

A shoal of small rainbow-coloured fish flitted past the bathyscaphe, taking no notice of it. A shimmering bulk of a reef was looming in the distance, a raging feast of form and colour. They could not be too deep then. Fire's gaze glided over the terraced slopes covered in fluffy incrustations of something moss-like. It revived a memory of a fishtank he had once seen in a shopwindow, a rectangular cutout of an ocean, overgrown with mesmerizing brownish-green waterplants. Fat shiny fish had sauntered lazily between their sleek leaves and the bottom had been laid out with multi-coloured gravel. He had considered buying it then to decorate one of his estates, but keeping so much pure, concentrated water in one vessel would have been a folly.

"So what now?" Fire inquired coldly. "Will you just keep me here for the next hundred years so that I could play Captain Nemo?"

Water's pale face flickered just outside the porthole. It seemed deathly in this lightless abyss, yet oddly attractive. It was only inches away from Fire's face; they would touch but for the plexiglass impediment between them. The thought of that made Fire cringe inwardly, and he pulled away.

"I could do with a thank-you," Water said softly. "I did save your life, you know."

Fire snorted at that, but acknowledged his words with a curt nod.

"I could, you know, keep you here forever," Water smiled deviously. His face loomed right in the middle of the porthole, thick dark hair floating around his shoulders like kelp. "You're beautiful, you know that?" Fire squinted. Something about Water's voice changed. That odd, unsettling resignation was seeping through again. "I've always viewed you as such. So passionate, radiant, so unyielding! I wish to hell you stopped munching down my blasted forests, though."

"Must be a lovely place. Hell. Just imagine all that fire, free, untamed, miles of burning ground, dazzling lakes and rivers, sparks flaring, and the heady scent of ash pervading the air. Heat so intense that it makes your vision swim."

His throat constricted. He wished he could think of something more to say just to fill the silence that held complete dominion over this boundless reservoir.

"I keep thinking," Water whispered, stroking the outside of the porthole with his fingers, "what it would be like to share all this with you. What it would feel like for you to enter my realm and for me to enter yours. That pretty inferno you describe with such inspiration–."

"It'll never happen." Fire looked away, the same bittersweet feeling that had haunted him during Water's musical improvisation swelling in his chest. He crumpled another sheet of paper in his fingers and asked with feigned nonchalance: "Was it the same Wind as before? You seem to be getting along pretty well."

Water shrugged, evidently unfazed by the mockery in Fire's voice.

"I called in a favour from a friend as soon as I heard you were coming. A different friend though. That one was a bit too temperamental even for me."

Fire snorted. He was about to deliver a snide comment on the situation when something about Water's words made him reconsider.

"What do you mean, 'I was coming'?" he frowned. "I heard you were consorting with the Wind and thought it a good chance to test both your limits. And, well, get back at you for Australia."

The expression of genuine surprise on Water's face bled into that of amusement. He pressed his forehead against the plexiglass, lips twisted to contain laughter. Fire cursed under his breath.

"I thought your girl-friend was a bit tricky. A Foehn, isn't she?"

His eyes looked shades darker like this.

"Back in Australia," Fire heard himself saying, "there was some toxin buried in the ground. I could hear the trees moaning, begging for salvation. There was nothing I could do. They were already too far gone. I could only put them out of their misery."

A huge silvery-blue fish floated leniently behind Water, a smudgy blob of colour that slashed viciously at Fire's eyes.

"You once said I had no mercy."

"I don't want to have to forgive you," Water interrupted. "You enjoy it. All the chaos that you cause; you love it. And I can't really blame you because I enjoy my brand of chaos too. Sometimes we all need a bit more freedom. But I don't want to take it for granted. For all the evil I do, I pay. With toxic waste in my waters. With nuclear warheads buried on the ocean floor. With coral reefs on the verge of extinction. With petrol and litter polluting canals in the cities. So please, spare me that crap about you having a reason to destroy one particular forest out of a bloody thousand!"

He smashed his fist into the porthole in helpless fury. A stray strand of his hair drifted across his face, blindfolding him for an instant.

"I love it when you're angry," Fire murmured.

"Even if you could kill me," Water scowled, "you can't expect all this to simply evaporate. This world you're having so much fun with is seventy per cent me!"

Fire trailed his fingers down the plexiglass. Barring the sensation, it almost looked like he was touching Water's cheek. His nemesis was right, of course. But then again, without him, the world would be no fun at all.

"I'm sort of burning up oxygen here," he said in a quiet, hoarse voice. If Water planned to put him out like a candle, his plan was advancing perfectly.

The picture rippled before him; for a moment Water was gone. Then he reappeared in the distance, floating tauntingly outside the bathyscaphe, in the cold, dark freedom, like a lenient diver. His shirt foamed around his torso, dark against the stark pale skin. Water mouthed something, and his face acquired a tinge of foxiness.

"What?"

"I said: I want you to ask."

He was once again too close, lips almost brushing the porthole in a caricature semblance of a kiss. Fire's face darkened.

"By asking, I suppose you mean I should beg."

"Beg, implore, beseech, take your pick."

Cruelty wasn't really his thing. Water could snap occasionally, but he never enjoyed asserting himself through games. Something about his eyes made Fire's breath catch. They held a deep-seated yearning for something Fire couldn't – didn't want to – wrap his mind around.

He darted towards the control panel. This thing shouldn't be much tougher than a car, he reasoned, pulling some levers and pressing some buttons.

"I should probably mention," Water suggested, "that I locked it."

"You locked it," Fire echoed. Oh, just brilliant. And the bastard insisted he was not trying to kill him! "Could you be any more of a wanker?"

Water flashed him a look of utter innocence that caused Fire to smile. He hastened to wipe it off his face and continued tinkering with the control panel, just in case. Water once told him he liked it when Fire spewed out that funny human slang.

"Come on," Water admonished. "Just say please. It won't kill you."

Fire sneered and positioned himself on the floor, his back on the porthole, indicating utter resolve. He was prepared to stay like that for hours, days if need be, but he was not going to beg for freedom. Water might as well reduce him to a candle flicker if that was what he wanted.

Fire couldn't tell how much time had passed in the end. He was lying on the floor, facing the porthole, his head aching and his throat dry. He felt sleepy. The idea of saying 'please' suddenly didn't seem so bad. After all, he could always get back at Water for this later.

"You got it," he muttered. "Please let me out."

Silence was squashing him. His ears seemed to be stuffed with it. It made his eyes pulse with visions he didn't want to see.

Water's face once again came into view. He mouthed: "Like you mean it."

"You cheap bastard!" Fire sat up, face twisted in fury. "You didn't need to hear me say anything. You would just keep me here either way!"

"Of course I didn't!" Water laughed. "I don't care for such things. I know you don't mean it anyway. And I also know that pride matters less to you than you would admit. I was just curious to find out how long you'd pretend. As for keeping you here – what for? So you could frighten my fish?"

Before Fire could reply, the bathyscaphe began shaking, and Fire felt a force of some kind pulling it up. The vessel bounced out of the depth like a loose tennis ball. Fire darted up to the hatch and turned it forcibly. Light flooded the opening. Its warmth caressed Fire's skin as he pushed himself up and took a gulp of salty sea air. Soft breeze was blowing, the surface of the ocean rippling slightly, following its course.

Fire bathed in the sunlight, his head tilted backwards and his eyes narrowed with pleasure. He could feel Water staring at him from a few feet away, but at that moment he could not be bothered. A long stretch of coast lay to his right, close enough for him to try and leap there with the help of the wind. Faint smoke was rising beyond it where the forest was located. It could not have been too long then.

* * *

"Talk about couples' therapy," Foehn remarked.

Water opened his eyes. He was lounging in a small natural-made hollow in the sand bar. Night had fallen early; myriads of stars sparkled above the beach.

"I don't know what you mean."

"You seem happier." She lowered herself next to him and ran her breezy fingers through his hair.

"What I can't figure out," he said, "is what your interest in this is."

Foehn kept silent. She continued stroking his hair absent-mindedly, in gentle, barely perceptible movements that nonetheless had an oddly soothing rhythm.

"The big tragedy is," she said eventually, her tone uncharacteristically blank, "you really don't hate each other, do you?"

It was Water's turn to collect his thoughts. He let his imagination run away with him, lost in the bright starry night and the peaceful sound of waves; and then an odd crackling sound bore into the melody. Water snapped his head up. A small campfire was burning a few paces away.

"Did you start it?" Water asked Foehn.

"No. It was already here when I came. Didn't you notice?"

Water shook his head. She asked if he wanted to put it out. He considered saying yes, but something stopped him. There was something about that sound, the way the flames popped cheerily like there were firecrackers stashed between the burning logs. An odd rhythm.

Music, Water realized with a start. It was music.

He lay back and laughed and whistled to the jolly tune of the flames.