"You're humming again."
"I wouldn't if you'd actually talk to me," Nate said without looking up.
"I'd talk to you if I wanted to."
Nate grinned and pointed out mildly, "Well, you're talking to me *now*. Guess that means you want to."
Stryfe opened his mouth, closed it, and scowled. Nate flopped down on his stomach and looked up at his brother. "We're stuck together, you could at least talk to me." WHY did Redd and Slym keep leaving him alone with Stryfe? Fine, fine, food was important, but...
"*I* could hum instead. See how you like it."
"Okay," Nate agreed readily.
"Why are you always so *cheerful*?" Stryfe grumbled. "It's very disturbing."
"Why are you always so gloomy? It's very depressing."
"Apparently it's not WORKING!"
"I'm contrary. Deal with it."
"I don't WANT to deal with you. Can't you just leave me *alone*?" The question came out more plaintively than Stryfe intended.
Nate cocked his head to look at his brother. "Are you okay?"
All right, pointless question. "If you say so." Nate shrugged and went back to humming.
Stryfe sighed inaudibly, firmly pushing his headache to the side so it wouldn't sneak out and betray him in his voice again. And to top it all off, the water skin was empty again. He stood up cautiously and walked into the other room to refill it, glad that he could at least do that much. It had been more than a week now since... he'd left the palace, and his strength was slowly returning. Unfortunately his headaches were as bad as ever, but he suspected that was because the first glimmerings of his powers had begun returning.
Redd had been so *proud* of him when he'd first managed to send her a cautious thought, just into the next room but it had felt like *miles*. And Father had hugged him when he'd gotten back from hunting (with Nate, this time), he remembered with a secret grin.
He still couldn't use tk, and the really frustrating thing was that he couldn't *hear* anything, except the occasional thought Redd sent purposely. It was sort of nice having such quiet in his mind--the babble at Court had been so strong sometimes he couldn't even tell what he was thinking and what he was *hearing*. But it was still strangely unnerving to have such... silence.
Stryfe returned to the room and sat back down across from Nathan, sipping slowly at the water to calm his headache. That sometimes helped. "What are you doing, anyway?" he asked after a moment of watching Nathan draw on the dirt floor, still humming.
"It's a game called tic-tac-toe. Redd taught me." And none of the other kids he'd met ever seemed to know it, for some odd reason. "You take turns putting x's and o's in the grid, until one of you gets three in a row."
"Then what happens?"
"Um... you win?"
"*What* do you win?"
Stryfe just blinked at him. "You are strange."
"Yeah, I know." Nate shrugged. "Want to play? It's better with two people."
"...I suppose." Anything was better than staring at the wall or ceiling some more.
Nate rubbed out his game and started drawing the board again. "Didn't you ever play anything just to play it? With the other kids or something?"
"...There weren't any others my age at Court," Stryfe replied stiffly. "I amused myself." Mostly by incinerating his tutors or killing flatscans, which Father said was bad. He supposed he should be learning Nate's "games" now. Nate at least knew what Father wanted, even if he was a little weird and entirely too cheerful.
"Hmph. That sounds lonely. But no wonder you don't want to talk to me."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Not used to kids your age. It can be fun sometimes, you know."
"...Fun." Stryfe sounded very dubious.
"Yeah. Fun. You should try it sometime."
"...I used to have fun. Father said I shouldn't any more."
Nate blinked at him. "Slym doesn't mind if we have fun."
"He told me I shouldn't do fun stuff anymore."
"...Like what?" Because that REALLY didn't sound like Slym.
Stryfe shrugged. "Killing flatscans. Or low-levs."
"That's not FUN!" Nate squawked.
"It *was*," Stryfe replied defensively. He sighed and sounded very disappointed. "But Father said not to do that anymore."
"Well... you can have OTHER kinds of fun. Without hurting people."
"I guess." Stryfe put a third X in a row and leaned back. "This doesn't seem like much fun, though."
"I can show you other games, when you're feeling better," Nate offered.
Stryfe tensed. "I'm *fine*."
Nate blew out an irritated breath. "*Fine*." That'd show him to try to help someone like *Stryfe*, at least. Nate *knew* that Stryfe had done awful things as the Prince. He'd tried to kill Nate himself, when he was only nine, and apparently had led Apocalypse's troops. But... it was sometimes easy to forget that when Stryfe was so... sad, clinging to Slym or Redd when he woke up with a nightmare. Of course, then he'd start acting all prickly like he was now, and any compassion Nate might have felt melted away. Nate gritted his teeth and started drawing a new board.
"This is a stupid game," Stryfe grumbled.
"Well, it's nothing like killing people, but I like it," Nate snapped.
Stryfe muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like, "It's not MY fault if you're boring," and made the next few moves in silence.
"I win," Nate announced, drawing a line through his three O's in a row.
"I still say this is a stupid game."
"That's just because you're losing."
"I won last time and I still said it."
"Then you're just boring. Slym plays."
Stryfe blinked, then reached out and started re-drawing the board. Nate restrained a snicker.
"Um, Stryfe, are you sure you want to do that?" Nate offered after they'd played a few more games.
"Of course I do," Stryfe said defiantly.
"Okay, then." Nate shrugged and placed his final O where Stryfe failed to block. "I win."
"This is a *stupid* game."
"*You're* the one who wasn't paying attention."
"I was so!"
"Then why'd you miss the block?"
"Because this is a stupid game!" Stryfe snapped, turning away. "I don't want to play anymore."
"Don't be a sore loser."
"I'm not sore, I'm FINE!" Stryfe's voice cracked on the last word and he closed his eyes in shame.
"...It's just an expression." Nate eyed his brother for a moment, then cautiously extended a telepathic tendril towards Stryfe's mind. He winced. "If your head hurt that much, you could've *said* something. We didn't have to keep playing."
"My head doesn't hurt!"
"Liar," Nate observed without rancor. Stryfe glared furiously at him. Nate sighed. "Look, do you want me to try to help?"
"I don't need your help!"
"Fine. Just sit there and *hurt* like an idiot, then!"
"I--" Stryfe clenched his fists in frustration and bit his lip. It *hurt*, but he didn't NEED any flonqing help! Not from Nathan...
Nate rolled his eyes. He didn't know why he was even *bothering* with this, except that Stryfe was his brother and Redd and Slym liked him and didn't want him to be in pain. "Just relax, okay?" he muttered, reaching out to take hold of Stryfe's wrist and stretching his mind out to soothe the pain away. As he touched Stryfe's mind, though, something... caught, reached out at him, making him start in surprise. #What the flonq is *that*?# he exclaimed, blinking and leaning in a little more to examine the whatever-it-was more closely.
#Get OUT!# Stryfe shouted in panic as the intruder moved more deeply into his mind. It couldn't be happening again! Slym was supposed to protect him, but there was something holding his hands so he couldn't move them and a presence invading his mind and he was going to lose HIMSELF! How could it be happening AGAIN?!
Nate recoiled as Stryfe started thrashing around in panic, trying to pull out of his brother's mind. But he couldn't, somehow, no matter how hard he struggled. In fact, the harder he struggled the DEEPER he worked into Stryfe's mind. He shouldn't have done this without Redd here; their minds were so close, almost the same frequency, and they'd gotten mixed up before. But this... felt worse, somehow.
And there was something thrashing around, getting worse the more he and Stryfe struggled, sending pain shooting through both their heads and making them struggle even *more* to get AWAY from it.
"Stryfe, calm DOWN," Nate whimpered, tears springing into his eyes at the pain. "We're just making it worse. Please calm down..."
"GET OUT OF MY *MIND*!" Stryfe shouted mentally and physically, trying to curl in on himself.
In sheer desperation, Nate reached out and grabbed for the whatever-it-was that had started this whole mess, something in Stryfe's mind that was somehow connected to his, causing them BOTH pain. It snagged at his mind again, but this time caught--held on--and *fused*...
Both boys gasped as there was a *pop* almost like restoring a dislocated joint, followed by a surge of relief so powerful it was almost painful. Nate could suddenly feel the floor beneath his cheek, even though *he* was still sitting up, slightly slumped over. He could feel a hand holding onto his wrist even though he *knew* he was the one holding Stryfe's, and there was a terrible aching in his skull.
Stryfe could feel something... wrong, with his whole left side, cold and aching and a sense of deep concentration. He could feel a pain emanating from it, and a curiosity that was somehow familiar...
#What the flonq HAPPENED?#
The thought came from neither of them and both of them simultaneously. Stryfe blinked up at his brother in utter confusion, and a little lingering fear, before managing in a low voice, "Let. Go. Of. My. Wrist."
"Huh?" Nate blinked, looked down at his hand still locked around Stryfe's wrist, and let go. There was an immediate lessening in the panic surrounding his mind. "What's wrong?"
"Just...don't." Stryfe pulled himself back into a seated position and rubbed his wrist. "W-what just happened?"
"I...don't know. I was just trying to take away the pain and... you panicked."
"No, I didn't. I just... d-didn't like what you were doing."
Nate had a sudden flash of the same panic he'd felt earlier, terror of losing himself, and... of his hands held out so he couldn't move them, keeping him still so he couldn't even fight back as his father... "Hey!" he exclaimed in alarm, leaning forward and putting an arm around Stryfe's trembling shoulders. "It's okay. That's over now. I promise. I didn't mean to scare you, I just--wanted to help."
"How did you see that?" Stryfe whispered.
"I--" There was something REALLY weird going on here, Nate decided. He was still all mixed up, not even really sure if he had an arm around *his* shoulders or if he was the one holding on. He felt... split in two. Or...
"Linked," both boys whispered together.
"Why'd you LINK to me?" Stryfe asked, his eyes wide.
"I didn't! It--it started to grab me as soon as I looked in... Like it was already *there* somehow."
"That's impossible! How could we be linked? We didn't even KNOW each other until a week ago! Well... and once more, but I KNOW we didn't link THEN."
"I know what this is," Nate whispered, his eyes wide with excitement. "We DID know each other before, don't you see? We were together until Apocalypse stole you! It has to be a twin-link! I've heard about those. Redd told me about them. *She* has a link with Slym that she made on purpose, but she said it was like some twins form just as they're growing together, naturally. That must be how we did it!"
"...When we were little?" Stryfe asked slowly. That would explain why he suddenly felt this... warm, welcoming sensation curling in his mind along the... link. He was still scared, but... It was a link, not an intrusion, and it was with *Nate*, his brother. His twin. He smiled tentatively. "I--I think I *remember* you..."
Stryfe nodded, his own eyes wide as he accessed a memory that he *knew* hadn't been there before. "It was... warm. And... something was humming, all the time. And YOU were there. I--I couldn't see you, but I could always *feel* you there..."
"I... I remember that," Nate breathed in awe. There was some pain--there'd *always* been pain--but there was also a bright little mind not far from his, curious and happy whenever he looked over...
Stryfe shivered as he was assaulted with memories he didn't even know he *had*, and feelings he *definitely* hadn't felt before. ...Love, and caring, and it was all directed towards *Nate*, of all people! "But... then it was cold and noisy and... you weren't *there* anymore! And I tried and tried, but I couldn't FIND you!"
Nate blinked hard and reached out to hug his little brother tightly. ...*Little* brother? Slym and Redd had never said which one of them was older... but he suddenly felt fiercely protective and definitely towards Stryfe. Little brother. "I tried to hold onto you," he whispered. "That must've been when Apocalypse came..." He closed his eyes. "I MISSED you!" It sounded foolish, but it was true, and he realized he'd *been* missing his brother all this time, without even realizing *what* he was missing.
"I missed you too," Stryfe said hoarsely, huddling into the hug and nestling slightly against Nate's comforting, suddenly-familiar mind. Part of him was still telling him not to trust this *peasant*, but the rest of him was so overwhelmed by the surge of unfamiliar emotions and new memories that he couldn't help it. "Don't do that again!"
"I won't. I promise. You're *ours* again, and you're stuck with us!"
Nate leaned his head down and just clung to his twin, projecting love and warmth and reassurance, feeling all the same flowing right back to him from Stryfe's mind.
They were still huddled on the floor together when Redd and Slym got back.