CHAPTER EIGHT: SCARS
"I don't know about you, but I'm planning to go out and celebrate," Gemini declared, surprising everyone at the dinner table. "Tonight."
"Do what you want," Scorpio replied, uninterested.
Natalie shook her head. Not twenty-four hours had passed since the fight in the forest and he was already back to his normal routine. "Celebrate what?" Cancer asked with great interest, putting his fork down. "We kill Shadows all the time."
Gemini made a vague gesture with his chicken thigh. Of course he was the kind of man to eat with his fingers and talk with his mouth full. Natalie wondered what had happened to the fearsome warrior of yesterday. "That Leo revived. That Pisces didn't die. Do we really need a reason?" His answer made the black man roll his eyes.
"I'm going too," Leo stated, excitement growing in his voice. "Today is Midsummer Night in..."
Scorpio locked eyes with him for a moment, during which the air became thick with tension. "Do what you want." he repeated, finally lowering them.
"I don't need your permission," Leo snapped. Before it could escalate into anything else, Virgo intervened. She always knew when to say the right thing at the right time in a conversation. Then again, it couldn't be that hard, given the strange nature of her Light.
"Let's all go together. After what we did, no Shadow will dare mess with us."
"Yeah," Aquarius agreed enthusiastically. "I could use some fucking fun. This place is too damn serious."
"Fucking fun. That's a good way to put it," Pisces was quick to retort, though it was clear that her heart wasn't in it, which was all the better, really. She still hadn't recovered enough to spit insults at her brother properly.
It was a miracle, Natalie thought, that the Shadow hadn't killed her. You've always been our favourite, it had said. Why would they have a favourite? She briefly considered slipping into Initial Capricorn's skin to find out, but last night's vision set her back. She blushed. Scorpio was looking at her with curiosity, which only made it worse.
"Alright. Let's finish eating and meet in front of the Gate." Natalie's embarrassment grew as Scorpio's inquisitive staring became more intense. Stop looking at me, she thought at him, but instead he smiled amusedly and blew her a kiss when no one was looking. Her blush spread to her ears as she remembered again how his – not really his – lips had brushed tenderly against hers and–
Natalie was glad when Sage's soft voice rose above the rest, diverting his attention – and hers too, thankfully.
"I can't go. I was planning to start the search of the Breach again after dinner."
Already? Sage's eyes had bags underneath them, and her short frame made her look that much more delicate. She pushed herself too hard – she spent all her days away from the safety of the Hall, endlessly working to finish this recurring war once and for all. Everyone else seemed to be thinking the same, but it was only Aquarius who spoke.
"You're leaving?" The disappointment was evident in his blue eyes.
"Yes," she replied without looking at him. "Parties were never my kind of thing, anyway." She gave an apologetic smile and left the room. In a messy clatter he got up and hurriedly followed after her.
Natalie stared at their retreating backs in concern. What they felt towards each other was obvious; she had never seen Aquarius acting so impulsively, or Sage looking guilty about anything. She hoped things would work out for them in the end, whenever that was.
When they had left Virgo tugged at her sleeve, silently telling her to follow to her room. Natalie complied, intrigued. The older woman closed the door and started undressing. What are you doing?
"If we want to avoid trouble out there, we should change clothes. Sumgeri are quite loose on the dress code, but still not so much as that."
Natalie stared at her, confused, until Virgo made an explanatory motion to her outfit. "Your pants."
She looked down. That's right. She had gotten so used to wearing them that she'd forgotten that normal clothes were completely different… She should probably get rid of the boots, too. Nodding, she left Virgo's room to head for her own, and rescued from the depths of her drawers the servantgirl's uniform from so long ago.
So long ago. The texture of the fabric snapped her mind back to the time in Stonehill Castle, when she was that bubbly, ignorant girl who believed everything the world had to offer was contained within its walls. With a certain guilt she remembered Moark, who she hadn't thought about at all lately. What would he be doing now? Exactly how much time had passed since she'd left him? Was it still dangerous to go visit him? She recalled William's face too, feeling even guiltier when she realised that his features had started to blur. Then again, she had begun to understand that she had never really been in love with him. Being in love with someone felt more like –
She angrily stripped off her clothes, her wide belt and the small whiteglass daggers concealed under it, and slid the skirt on. How uncomfortable. Was it shorter than before? She took a few steps with it, trying to remember how to walk properly, which helped her settle down. It was shorter; in the time she'd been here, she'd grown a bit without realising it, which made her wonder exactly when she'd arrived at the Hall. Counting back the seasons, it should be close to… a year. It certainly seemed less than that.
She was about to leave when her eyes settled on her two swords lying in a corner. Should she take them? Probably not. There was no way to conceal them under her skirt, was there?
Virgo poked her head at the entrance to her room. "Take them," she advised. "Gemini can hide them." So she grabbed them and slung them across her back.
When they got to the colossal church they found Aquarius standing there, alone. The sight of him staring at the Gate in helplessness was quite heart-wrenching. Virgo silently approached and placed a hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off. "She fucking left me again," he whispered, fists clenched in frustration.
"You're a pathetic loser, brother," Pisces declared frankly as she made her appearance.
"Shut up, bitch, and try to make us some money tonight."
"That's enough, you two," Scorpio cut in. His expression was calm and composed, as always, but Natalie could feel tension rolling off him in waves. The siblings' bickering was starting to get under his skin.
His eyes slid over the group to ascertain they were all there, before turning to face the Gate. "Sumger, then?" His tone, though flat on the surface, was really a sheet of ice about to break. Having to ask Leo for directions was very close to becoming the last straw. Smiling, she briefly touched his hand; sometimes he ought to be less serious about things. They were going to party, after all.
"Pent. The Smith's Road," Leo specified from behind them.
The sky was already set in twilight when they arrived. A warm breeze caressed her cheeks. Natalie breathed in the exotic scent of spices and music, realising that it was the same smell that followed Leo everywhere he went.
But today there was something different, sparks of excitement in the air. People were setting up stands and elevated platforms and clearing spaces in plazas, which made no sense to Natalie – even if they were preparing some sort of festival, shouldn't they do it during the day, when there was light and it would be warmer? "Gemini, hide our weapons," Scorpio ordered while she looked around, intrigued. Gemini waved his hand, and Natalie witnessed how all the whiteglass the Stars had on them seemed to vanish. Alarmed, she brought a hand over her shoulder, but Chryseale's handle was still there.
Gemini's power was more useful than what she'd initially thought.
"Let's go get a few drinks," Leo suggested, heading to an inn on one side of the street. A board was hanging off it with the words The Golden Snake painted in yellow. "It hasn't started yet."
Natalie had never been in a tavern before, but she liked this one. It didn't have the overly-refined and oppressive atmosphere that accompanied wealthy people, yet it seemed clean and decent. And full. Nearly all the tables were crowded with laughing men and women. A musician played some sort of harp on a stage at the front.
The Stars scattered among the people. She spotted Cancer, who stood out by his skin colour, being challenged to a drinking contest by an old farmer and his friends. Leo, Virgo and Pisces were sitting quietly in their own table, and the others she had already lost sight of. Thus she found herself wedged in between a dark-haired servantgirl named Lyanna, and Scorpio, whose whole left side was touching her right. So far she was doing an acceptable job of ignoring the tingling that their contact produced.
"So where' ya from?" Lyanna shouted over the music. Her eyes, Natalie noticed, were green. In fact, nearly all the people in the tavern had green eyes, which unsettled her. It seemed a twisted retribution.
"Stonehill," Natalie replied. "It's North of here. Quite far away."
"Huh," she frowned, her freckles scrunching up. "Ne'er 'eard of it. But a'knew ya were from somewhir' else," she added after swallowing a mouthful of the liquid in her mug. "Yer clothes're too warm for Midsummir'. Beer?"
Natalie eyed the contents of the mug sceptically, then shrugged and gulped it all down. "Whoa, nut so fast," Lyanna advised, amused. It tasted bitter, and she didn't quite like it, but it suddenly brought a spinning feeling to her head that she found very... disconcerting, but not unpleasant.
She laughed with Lyanna for a indefinite amount of time, drowning one mug after another. "Who's paying for this?" She wondered out loud, after her fourth or fifth.
" 'is dearest King of Sumger," Lyanna explained, giggling. " 'e gives a 'efty amount of gold to all the taverns that serve fer free on Midsummir's." Natalie's eyes automatically shifted to Leo, who was still sitting on his table with Virgo. "A'say to the King!", Lyanna proclaimed, lifting her mug.
"To the King!" Natalie replied enthusiastically before swallowing the liquid inside.
She could feel Scorpio's gaze on her all the while, but she was having too much fun with Lyanna to be bothered by it. Eventually more people started approaching their table – including a man who put his elbow on the wood, staring right at her.
"Hello, beautiful," he slurred. It was clear, by the clumsy way in which he moved, that he'd had quite a few drinks (more than her, anyway). Natalie found it funny when his elbow started slipping sideways and he had to pick himself up and set it straight again.
"Hello," she replied, giggling.
Scorpio stirred next to her. Natalie looked quizzically at the hand now hanging over her collarbone, wondering how it had gotten there, when she realised that it was his – he had put his arm around her shoulders. "Hello," he greeted as well, in a dangerously calm voice. The man's attention turned to him, and he frowned.
"Ya don't seem t'be from round' here," he stated.
"No, we're travelling."
Natalie shifted her weight nervously. His tone definitely hid a dark menace under it; she hoped the man was sober enough to hear it. At the same time, she didn't understand why Scorpio was angry with him; the fellow seemed nice enough.
Once more the man's gaze travelled to his hand, which hovered just above the limit of her dress. Natalie had never seen Scorpio's hand from so up close. It was full of tiny little scars criss-crossing each other, and before she knew it her fingers were tracing them. "How did you get these?" she wondered out loud. "Not all of them are Shadow-scars." Some were the simple, pale reminders of the bite of regular steel.
The man was about to say something, but once he got a closer look at Scorpio's scars, which covered his face as well as every piece of his visible skin (there was one above his eye that made him look quite fierce, and one climbing up his jaw like a snake), and when he finally took in the menacing intensity of his gaze, he thought better of it.
Even when he was gone Scorpio didn't remove his hand. Natalie was busy examining it. Suddenly she burst out laughing. "Oh, those three make the shape of an N. Look, Lyanna," she demanded, pointing at the tiny white marks on his skin.
Lyanna wasn't paying attention to her, so she bumped her knee under the table. "Look, Lyanna," she insisted.
"Capricorn," Scorpio leaned in to whisper, "I think it would be best if we went outside for a while."
"Hey!" she squirmed, "your breath tickles." It was making it harder to ignore the fact that they were very close together and that her head was spinning much faster than for the influence of alcohol.
It didn't phase him. In fact, it only made him lean closer, which drastically increased her heart rate. "He wasn't the only one looking at you, and now that they're getting drunker, they might start up trouble. Let's go outside." Natalie started to protest; she was having fun here. But he still got up and dragged her through a back door.
The warm air of summer shifted her brown curls. She brushed one strand aside, then decided that it was too hot to have her hair down anyway, and started pinning it up. Scorpio was watching her every move silently, as he had all night, his black clothes making him blend in with the darkness. If it weren't for his eyes, he would have completely disappeared. "Why did we leave?" she asked, pouting childishly.
They were alone in a sort of backyard, with a fountain in the middle. He walked to the fountain and sat on the edge, still looking at her. The quicksilver in his eyes became brighter, as if enhanced by the reflection of the moon on the water. "I already explained."
Natalie started giggling for no reason. Realising it, she stated, "I think I've had a little too much beer." She laughed again.
"You're still walking straight," Scorpio remarked.
She held up a didactic finger. "But that, my friend, is because of my superior sense of balance." Feeling somewhat thirsty, she leaned over the edge of the fountain and cupped water in her hands. But then, instead of drinking it, she splashed it on his head.
"Hey!" he exclaimed, jumping up in indignation. Giggling again she skipped away from him and started running around the courtyard. Seeing Scorpio mad was funny. He humoured her by making half-believable attempts at catching her, until he suddenly appeared behind her and wrapped his arms around her body. "That," he murmured, "was not very nice."
It was a couple of startled breaths before she found her voice again. "You're too serious. Why aren't you drunk?" she demanded, twisting her head back to try catching a glimpse of his face.
"I don't like to lose control." His starlit eyes darkened, as if veiled by smoke. "Though I don't know how in control I am right now." A long, charged silence settled between them. She could feel every plane of his body against her back, and his arms wrapping tighter around her. His breath caressed the skin of her neck, and Natalie couldn't suppress her shiver. She felt light-headed, her chest rising and falling rapidly. For a long time, neither of them moved, and all she heard was both their tense breathing.
Then what he'd said finally sunk in, and she started laughing energetically.
"What's so funny?" he asked, letting her go.
"You don't know if you're in control or not," she managed to wheeze out. The thought seemed so hilarious that she doubled over, unable to contain her laughter, her eyes filling with tears.
He frowned, but didn't say anything. "Actually," she added, suddenly serious, "I can't decide if I am or not either."
"If you are what?"
"In love with you, obviously." She turned away from him to look up at the sky, pretending she hadn't just dropped those words into the conversation. "The sky was the same a year ago."
He seemed momentarily stunned; then she felt his presence behind her, the intensity in his tone, the strength of his hand as it grabbed hers. "Why?"
"Why can't you decide if you're in love with me?" He clarified, a rough note in his voice.
"Well," she started, as her brain fumbled for the explanation. "Capricorn is obviously in love with Scorpio, but I don't know if I'm in love with you, even though I am Capricorn and you are Scorpio." She paused, realising that it had only made her more confused. "That doesn't make sense, does it?"
He didn't answer. Instead he laced his fingers through hers; she glanced down at their intertwined hands for a moment. "And then, there's Leo," she finally added.
Scorpio's body went rigid.
Leo stared morosely at the table on the left corner. It was surrounded by men and women, blocking Capricorn from his view, which annoyed him profoundly. Not that watching her sitting right next to Scorpio would have done wonders for his mood, but still, he needed to know when he could make his move.
Pisces was drinking, chatting and singing obscene verses all at the same time. "… under the priest's cloak, there was a big long…" Her speech, Leo pondered, momentarily distracted, greatly contrasted with her appearance. Her blonde hair, as always, was tied in a braid which fell down to her waist, and her blue eyes twinkled like the sea. She could have passed for a princess if it weren't for her indecencies.
At one point Cancer showed up and dragged her away to some drinking contest. Leo stared at his own mug darkly, then picked it up and emptied it in two long swallows, smiling at the familiar taste of the Pentish beer. It had always been his favourite.
Aquarius came to take his sister's place. His mood seemed as sombre as Leo's – or perhaps even worse. Virgo, who'd been sitting quietly all evening, stared at him in concern. "Fuck," he swore, "she should be here."
"She should," Leo agreed.
Aquarius clenched his fists. "Damn. I'm sitting alone like an idiot when she should be right beside me. Why the fuck does she always leave? Why– "
"She's doing her best to end the war," Virgo interceded softly, placing a comforting hand on his arm. "She wants to be with you, but she feels she can't allow herself to until the Breach is closed."
"I say fuck that!" he shouted, pushing her away. His eyes scanned the crowd. "I'm tired of waiting." They finally settled on Gemini, who was already making out with one of the waitresses. "This isn't like me at all, anyway." He got up and grabbed the next one that passed by him by the waist, turning her around and kissing her in the same motion. The girl froze up, but she didn't push him away, and they disappeared into a dark corner.
Virgo shook her head, half in pity and half in disapproval. Now that they were alone again Leo's gaze wandered back to Capricorn's – Natalie's table. He saw how Scorpio whispered something in her ear, and he frowned.
"You should give up," Virgo sentenced.
He immediately shut his eyes. "Get out of my head."
"Leo, listen to me." Her tone was different, authoritative. Virgo never spoke in that way. "Capricorn and Scorpio are destined to be together. That's how it's always been."
His frown deepened.
"You only… like her because she's beautiful," she added more softly. "And because it's something Scorpio has."
"No!" His eyes flew open. "Just because you can read my mind, don't assume you understand my heart," he added fiercely. "Or hers, for that matter. Capricorn might feel something for Scorpio, but Natalie feels something for me."
He turned his head to their table again – to realise that they were no longer there. After a second of puzzlement, his eyes fixed back on Virgo, a slow, angry fire burning behind them now as he understood what had just happened. She flinched away the way one might quickly pull back from a flame too hot. "You've done that on purpose," he spat. "You're his dog, Second Star, just like everyone else." He got up violently, toppling all the drinks, and stalked out of the tavern altogether.
Once outside he sat against the wooden wall and put his head in his hands, ignoring all the dancing and the music flying around him. He hated Scorpio. He loathed him with all his soul – he would have loved to watch him burn to death, and he would have made himself a necklace with his charred bones. His own feelings scared him – he had never felt so violent towards anyone, not even Shadows. He made an effort to breathe in deeply and control himself. After a while his calm, the warmth he'd learnt to cloak himself in since dying, came back. His eyes settled, and for long minutes he didn't move. Then he lifted his head.
His enhanced senses had caught the characteristic noise of metal being unsheathed under the music. Intrigued, he got up, and followed it into a dark alley.
Three men were surrounding a single woman, threatening her with knives. One was bald, and another immensely fat. Of the third he couldn't really make out anything, except that he was the one holding the knife. "Pretty," he was saying, "aren't ya scared?"
All of Leo's contained rage erupted inside him like a volcano. This? In his kingdom? In Midsummer? He'd thought his father had gotten rid of it with that public execution so many years ago. He prepared to scorch them in a merciless inferno – but then he caught a glimpse of the woman, and laughed incredulously instead.
They turned towards him. "What's yer problem?"
"Nothing," he dismissed, waving his hand. "By all means, go ahead."
"A watcher, hey?" the thinner one grinned. "A' long a' ya dun't interrupt…" They turned back to the woman. "Seh, y'aren't scared? 'S no fun like that."
Natalie was looking at them, amused. "Are you trying to threaten me… With that little thing?" She giggled, finding the thought hilarious. Leo too chuckled under his breath and leaned against the wall, folding his arms. Indeed, this promised to be entertaining.
"Yeh…" The bald man answered. "Usual' the knif' does the trick."
It wasn't long before all three of them were writhing heaps on the floor. Natalie ground her heel on the fat one's stomach with satisfaction as he whimpered in pain. "I didn't remember humans to be so weak," she commented.
"It's not that they're weak. You're simply too strong." He pushed off the wall. Should he take the criminals to a guard? No, he decided. Guards knew his face better than the average Sumgeri, and though many years had passed, there was a chance they could recognise him. He determined to go ahead with his plan instead. "I have something I want to show you. You'll understand why we celebrate Midsummer festival at night."
Natalie looked at him curiously, then nodded and took his hand.
He guided her through the crowded streets to the Central Plaza, where a huge crowd was gathered around a space in the middle. Bursts of orange light occasionally flared from it as they made their way through the dancing bodies. Finally they got to the interior edge of the circle and just stood there, watching.
The space was reserved for the true professionals of the Sumgeri dance. It wasn't just a dance, but rather all sorts of acrobatics… and fire. Fire in the hair of the women and in their hands and feet, following their jumps and twists and flips. Flames in the backs of the men spreading outwards like wings, sparks every time they stomped on the ground, and bursting from their fingertips with each beat of the drumming music.
The spectacle awakened childhood memories in his mind and built a knot in his throat, but he was quick to push them back. He glanced sideways at Natalie to judge her reaction and smiled when he saw the awe in her eyes. "I've never seen anything like this," she whispered, watching how a woman jumped with a burning skipping rope, which made it seem like she was in the middle of a ring of fire.
Her eyes widened when he started taking his shirt off. He smiled back at her again before jumping into the circle, his own flames as his only dance partners. Even the acrobats stopped momentarily in their routine to watch him as he manipulated them around himself in a gentle heat, then a ravaging tornado. He landed back in front of her after a triple somersault in the air and wordlessly extended a hand.
She took it timidly, and he brought her out as flames enveloped them again.
"That was incredible," Natalie stated, breathless after a long hour of dancing. Not incredible. Wild. Foreign. Exciting. The dancing had made her forget everything as she just let herself get lost in the moment, and simply moved and jumped and spun, following Leo's rhythm. It had felt incredibly great to chuck reason away and just go with the flow, and she couldn't stop grinning the whole time.
Now, they were sitting next to each other by one of the numerous fountains that dotted the city, not unlike the one she'd been in with Scorpio. Leo hadn't put his shirt back on, and the star-shaped scar over his heart shone palely in the night. "But there's something I don't understand. That wasn't Beyond's Light in those people, was it?"
He chuckled, his chest vibrating with it, causing her to trail her gaze over his toned muscles wonderingly. "No. Those were tricks. They drench their bodies in a special substance that protects them from the heat. Don't worry, they're only in as much danger from Shadows as every other human." Towards the end, his tone dipped in bitterness.
Natalie nodded. "Your country is an amazing place. I wish…" She didn't finish her sentence, tearing her eyes away from his chest. The drink, she convinced herself. It was the drink. "I can understand why you'd want to stay here instead of in the Hall."
"I never said I did," he replied, surprised.
"No, but I can tell. You belong here."
He simply looked at her silently for a while. He does belong here, she decided, watching the gold swirl in his green eyes. "It's not safe for us to stay long periods of time away from the Hall. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. But I don't want to."
"Why?" she asked sincerely. If she was able to, she would definitely go back to Stonehill Castle. Or maybe… Maybe not. Lately she'd been feeling comfortable among the Stars; it was the place where she was supposed to be; it was right.
But then again, Leo wasn't a humble servantgirl. He was a prince. A whole country was waiting for his return; he had responsibilities to fulfill, and eventually he would become the ruler of the people of Sumger. Surely he must have plans to return after the Shadows were defeated.
"I'd never want to be away from you, Natalie," he said, reaching up to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. His words sent a pleasing warmth through her body, yet she flinched back at the touch. He lowered his hand, quickly turning around; but not fast enough that she couldn't see the hurt in his eyes. Heart pounding faster than the sound of the drums, she touched his arm.
"We'll all have to separate someday," she said softly, still feeling his burning fingers where they'd grazed her skin. She didn't want to admit it to herself, but it was no longer just Scorpio's touch that unsettled her. "And maybe, sometime, we'll forget each other."
He heard something in her voice, and turned around to face her again. "But I could never forget about you." He brought his hand over his heart, over the nine-pointed star that covered it. "I have you right here."
A.N: I'm really, really not confident about this chapter. Sometimes I think I shouldn't even put it in, and just get on with the story. Tell me what you think. As always, if you spot any mistakes, tell me too.