Like Clockwork:

A Steampunk Tale

Chapter Thirteen:

Of Enemies, Insanity, and Love

The wind is stealing bits of him. Just a piece, here and there, nothing vital. A thought, a feeling, a gesture, a smile—it's being taken, copied and stored and repeated a thousand fold across the world. Hadrian is being copied, taken, and he can't understand why. There's screaming all around him, harsh and so sharp that his ears want to bleed, and he doesn't know how much longer he'll last in the face of it.

Maybe that's way.

The air has always been his, just as he has always belonged to it—it hides his rare moments of lucidity when appearing sane is more harmful than remaining mad; holds him close when the power rides him hard, begging him to use it, take it, do anything with it so long as it is acting on something; cradles him, now that he no longer has a mother or a father or a family beyond Devlin. The number of things that matter more to Hadrian than the wind can be counted on one hand, with the majority of fingers still left over. And he has always mattered to the wind. It bows to him, dances at his whims because it has chosen him above all others.

But Hadrian has never felt pain like this, never had to endure such agony from the winds before. It hurts like nothing he's ever felt before, broken glass and forge-fire and acid-drenched knives across his skin as the wind begs him to release it from its agony.

Any other aeromancer might have been driven mad.

But Hadrian is already mad, and this new madness can't touch him.

His own madness keeps him sane.

He feels it, distant and cold and a little vague. Someone is reaching out through the air currents, reaching for the ones that control the Excelsior, the ones that Hadrian has placed. It's an eerie touch, odd, wrong, and it makes Hadrian's skin crawl even from such a distance.

That isn't aeromancy. Hadrian isn't even sure it's human.

No, he thinks, and reaches out with his own touch. The air surges around the ship like unsettled waves, buffeting and shaking, but Hadrian can't spare a thought for it. All his concentration is on that foul touch, on the way it's trying to steal his wind. He can't allow it. He can't stomach it, the thought of air so pure and clean being tainted and corrupted, and he calls up all of the familiar currents around the ship, hiding them, trapping the Excelsior inside a whirling orb. They're still moving forward, still progressing, but the winds are protected now. That reaching hand can't steal them, and Hadrian can keep everyone safe.

But not himself.

Never himself.

Hadrian looks around, hears the faint echo of screams, and realizes that no matter where his body is, his mind is gone from it. He has no way to get back.

The screams, distant as they are, tear his ears and throat as though he is the one making them. He tries to clench his fists, to focus, but he can't. He has no body here among the winds, and there is nothing to ground him. It's a young aeromancer's greatest fear, to lose so much control that you fall over the edge and become what you control. The other 'mancers don't have to worry nearly as much, because only aeromancy is so overwhelmingly addictive. Only it has a pull on the 'mancer like true north does a magnet, and only aeromancers can lose themselves so totally.

Hadrian tries not to panic, tries to tell himself that it is simply a matter of drawing his power back.

It's not.

Hadrian has always been too powerful, too much. That's the root of his madness. His mind is unable to contain all the power that he was born with, and it overflows in ways it was never supposed to. Mostly, that power is content in such a way, being used in drops and dribbles here and there, bent to another's whim. Now, to guard the Excelsior, he's used more power than he ever has before, and it doesn't want to retreat back inside, go back into hibernation.

He can't blame it, but it also means that he's in grave danger of never returning to his own mind.

Despair wells up, swift and all consuming, and Hadrian wants to scream but can't.

And then, out of the darkness of his desolation, a voice reverberates with the force of a gong.

Hadrian.

It's not really something he can hear. The sound is off, as though it comes from a great distance even as it comes from right next to him, and Hadrian pauses in confusion. Familiar, achingly familiar, even though he can't place it. He closes his eyes, focuses in an attempt to understand, and—

Come back.

Ten points of heat and light burst into his consciousness, settling on his shoulders. A moment later, arms are around him, bands of steel that protect rather than entrap. Hadrian feels them drawing him back, drawing him home, in a way nothing else ever has before. He gasps in a breath as he slams into his own body once more, prepared to scream, only to find that he doesn't need to anymore. The breath comes rattles out in a choking, gasping little sob, and Hadrian clutches at Tobias's arms—because of course it's Tobias, always, forever saving him without even knowing it, before they even met.

Strong hands lift him up, steady him against a hard chest, and Hadrian tips his head back wearily to look up into the captain's face. "They're out there," he manages to whisper, even though his throat feels as though he's been swallowing glass and acid. "We can't let them drag us into the Wastelands."

Tobias stares down at him for a moment, grey eyes narrowed. Whatever he sees must convince him, because he hooks his arms underneath Hadrian and heaves himself to his feet, the aeromancer still held tightly against him.

"All right," he orders, and that's his captain's voice, so different from the one he uses alone with Hadrian. "Siobhan, anchor us in the first hospitable section we come across. Under no circumstances are you to let even our shadow fall over the border. Doherty, get everyone we can spare set up on rotating watch shifts. There's definitely something out there and I don't want it to catch us unawares. Get them armed and ready. Anderson, keep scanning. I want you to send the guard towers our position updates ever ten minutes." He pauses and looks down at Hadrian, a faint line of worry creasing his brow. "Hadrian, do you need the doctor?"

Hadrian shakes his head, then—rather unconvincingly—has to grab onto Tobias's shoulders as the world starts to spin. "Just…tired," he croaks, and it's probably the most unflattering sound this side of a toad, but he's too exhausted to care. "Have to tell you—"

"Not now." Tobias turns without acknowledging anyone else and makes for his own cabin, where he boots open the door and lays Hadrian down on the mattress. "We're anchoring for the next few hours. Take that time to get some rest, and we'll talk when you wake up."

Normally, Hadrian would argue. Normally, he isn't so tired that the world spins constantly and his eyes feel like they've been rubbed with sand. Hadrian bows to the laws of nature just this once, closes his eyes, and goes to sleep.

His last thought before oblivion overtakes him is, I'm not mad.

It's startling in its obviousness. He's not, even though usually expending even a fraction of the power he just used sends him tumbling headlong into insanity. But it hasn't happened yet, and Hadrian's mind feel miraculously whole, even with what just happened.

Through the darkness, Tobias's hand burns in his own, a clear point of contact that lets him breathe easier as he finally succumbs to sleep.

~.*.~.*.~.*.~

When he dreams, he is the air again, but this time it is joyous. There is only light and laughter and love, and Hadrian revels in it. There is something so perfect about this place, this feeling, and he knows—in the abstract, certain way of dream-knowledge—that this is not the present, but the future.

Behind him, the great clockwork engines hum, and Hadrian turns, balanced on a warm updraft. The Excelsior slips from between two clouds like a sleek bird of prey, and Hadrian raises a hand to shade his eyes as he looks at her. The dark figure leaning on the railing waves one hand, a lazy gesture, and Hadrian feels his heart swell until it might burst from the strain of keeping so much joy inside.

He's never been this happy before, and it's addicting.

Hadrian waves back, careful not to upset the current his feet are braced in, or the ones wrapped around his body to keep him aloft, and turns to face the clouds again. There's a break between two of them, just large enough that he can see the nearly painfully blue sky beyond, and he lets his body tip forward, lets the wind catch and cradle him as he sends himself hurtling forward through the cold, clear air, and laughs.

Never before has he been this free, except when Tobias touches him and he knows he is in love.

~.*.~.*.~.*.~

When he wakes, night has fallen, and there are tear track on his cheeks. Hadrian sits up to wipe them hastily away, before Tobias or Devlin, sleeping in chairs on either side of his bed, can awaken and see.

For the life of him, Hadrian can't tell whether he cried for the loss of that joy, or because of it.

What scares him to death is the knowledge that, either way, he can actually have it.