Alex fought his way back. He had to open his eyes, Tristan needed him.
He felt hands on him, heard a voice he couldn’t place. He had to wake up.
“Be calm.” The words were Standgov, but accented. “You are safe.”
“Not me,” he managed to groan, Not him. He didn’t matter, it was Tristan he needed to keep safe. “Tristan.”
He forced his eyes opened, everything was blurry. The person next to him was Samalian, but not Tristan. Of course it wasn’t him. Why would he bother with him when he hadn’t managed to stop five mercs?
He turned on his side and, then to a crouch. The world spun, so he stopped moving. His head hurt. He touched the side of it and his finger came back wet, but not with blood. The unguent. He didn’t remember the impact. He remembered fighting them, their attacks were coordinated. They were good, but that shouldn’t have mattered, he should have killed them. Instead, there was something dark, then a flash of light.
He touched the side of his head again and winced.
He looked at Hea’Las and noticed everyone else who was there. Except for this part of the House, where other injured people were being treated, the rest was packed with people. He got to his feet and someone caught him before he fell.
“Alex,” Rig’Irik said.
Alex pushed him away, preoccupied with what he was seeing. People were scared. Parents held children, some held bundles and huddled with friends, family. There was a sense of desperation here. They were hiding.
Their town had been invaded, and they’d come here for protection. He was still wearing his harness, but he needed a gun.
“Alex,” Rig’Irik was next to him again. “You need to—”
Alex grabbed the gun the Samalian had in his holster and headed for the door, fighting the vertigo and doing his best not to shove people. This place wasn’t going to offer much protection when the mercs reached it. He had to give them a —
The ground shook.
People screamed in fear. Hea’Las’ voice rose above it, a calm sound over the fear. She was telling them to have faith, that the Source would look out for them. Then she said words he didn’t understand, but the tone and cadence felt ritualistic. She was praying.
Alex didn’t need faith. He knew what that had been. An explosion. He hurried for the door. The problem was there were only three things here that could shake the ground. The two hovers could, but they would have to be next to the House, and would have taken out a wall. The third was the dropship, and if it had exploded.
Alex shouldered the door open was the wall of dust hit them.
People screamed again. Alex covered his eyes and stepped outside. The wind stopped, and he saw the devastation. The town wasn’t there anymore, just debris halfway to the House. Small copses of trees that bee uprooted.
Alex ran to the side of the House. The wall had fallen over, but the Defender was still in what was left of the alcove. Tristan wasn’t there.
Alex looked in the town’s direction.
He wouldn’t have.
Alex ran for the what was left of the town.
Rig’Irik called after him, But Alex didn’t listen. Who else but Tristan could cause the dropship to explode? Who else would go through all the mercs to do it?
Where was he?
He slowed as he reached the debris. Bodies were scattered among them, humans and Samalians. He ignored the humans, looking for dark fur. This far from the explosion there was a chance he had survived, maybe he’d been knocked out by flying debris.
“Tristan!” He didn’t care how desperate he sounded. “Tristan! Where are you?” Anyone with dark fur he turned on their back, checked for signs of life, but they were dead. Not from the explosion, they’d been shot. They’d died in the attack.
He headed deeper in, walking around an uprooted copse of trees. The closer he got to the explosion, the lower the odds were that anyone had survived it. He didn’t want to find Tristan there, but he needed to know. He needed to know if he was going to be alone again.
Coughing came behind him and he spun, gun up. He searched for where it had come from, but no one moved. It came again, and one of the smaller trees trembled. A groan of pain, more coughing.
Alex approached cautiously.
Someone laughed, then groaned in pain.
“I thought,” someone said in Standgov, “that we had enough time to get to the temple.”
More chuckling. “I’d like to see you make a timer out of a few capacitors, conduits and one processor and get anything accurate.” Alex almost dropped the gun. He knew that voice. He had dreams and nightmares of it.
A tree moved aside and Tristan sat up. His fur was grayer than brown-black. He looked up and his deep brown eyes met Alex’s and immediately Alex knew something was wrong there was warmth in them. Tristan smiled at him.
Alex wanted to run away. He wanted to hide. The Defender was in the Alcove. He’d been so certain he’d seen the wall completed when he’d run to rescue Tristan. He was supposed to be himself again.
Tristan got to his feet, keeping an arm against his side. He’d gotten hurt. Alex searched his pockets for Heals, but he didn’t have any. He hadn’t had time to grab anything from the hover. When he looked up Tristan was in front of him, and Alex took a step back.
“Alex.” The voice was soft, caring. Alex hadn’t thought anything could scare him anymore, but the idea Tristan thought he needed to wear a mask for him was terrifying.
Alex flinched when Tristan reached for his face, and the Samalian pulled his hand away.
“Are you okay?” Tristan asked, sounding concerned.
Alex ignored the tone. He ignored the mask and focused on the question. “I’m okay, I’ll keep up.”
Tristan looked saddened, and Alex felt something break inside. No! He wanted to scream. He couldn’t have gone through all this for nothing. Where was his Tristan? Where was his monster?
Tristan looked around, and Alex studied his face. He saw satisfaction there, a calm Alex hadn’t seen in too long. This wasn’t the out-of-control Tristan. So something had worked. Maybe the mask wasn’t for his benefit? Maybe it was for the others? Jacoby hadn’t known Tristan. Maybe he felt he had to play a part for him? For the Samalians? Alex didn’t understand why, but he trusted Tristan’s judgment.
This was an act. The thought comforted Alex. He could go along with a mask. Tristan turned and walked the way Alex came. A tree fell aside and Jacoby got to his feet.
“Really? You couldn’t help me out?”
“You managed well enough on your own.”
“I manage—? Are you serious? We could have died here, it’s pure luck nothing punched a hole in one of us when the shock wave caught us.”
“There’s plenty of Heals lying around.” Tristan went through one of the Mercs’ pocket, pulling out broken vials until he had an intact one, but no injector.
Jacoby handed him one. “Heals won’t do you any good if you’re dead.”
Tristan injected himself and smiled. “Takes more than an explosion to kill me.”
“That wasn’t just an explosion, that was the mother of all explosions. Just what did you detonate, anyway?”
“The power core.”
Jacoby looked in their hover’s direction. “Are you insane? I swear, if that caused a sympathetic reaction in the hover’s core I’m going to kill you.”
Alex’s hand tightened on the gun, but before he could raise it, Tristan laughed. “Ease off. The hover’s too far. The energy wave dissipated long before the shockwave reached it.” He shrugged. “And if not, there’s another one hidden among the forest, even further off.”
“I took that one apart for pieces, if I need to fix it, we’re going to be here for another week, and I want out of here now.”
“Not that one. The one the stealth team used to get to me.”
A mask, Alex reminded himself at the normality of the conversation. Tristan was acting the way Jacoby expected him to, nothing more. He was back to his old self, and as soon as they were alone, things would be back to normal.
As they approached the House, they saw Hea’Las, Rig’Irik and others standing by it, looking at the devastation.
“Go get the hover ready. I need to have a talk with them, then we’ll head out.”
“Finally!” Jacoby headed there.
Tristan shook his head, grinning. “Can you do me a favor?” he asked Alex. “Keep an eye on him, I don’t know how long this is going to take and I don’t want him interrupting me.”
Alex’s insides went cold again. Tristan had asked. He hadn’t ordered, he’d asked. Why was he keeping the mask on when it was just the two of them? No one could hear.
“Alex, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he answered. “I’ll keep Jacoby out of your way.”
But Alex was heading for the hover. He didn’t know why Tristan was bothering with a mask, but he didn’t want to have to deal with it. Soon, he told himself. Soon Tristan would drop it and then it would all be over, one way or the other.