--Saw a ghost from the past just the other day
His body still works but his soul flew away
Or sits somewhere inside behind locked doors--
Pacifier; "Ghost From the Past"
It lurked inside him, slithering through his veins like a snake. It curled around every word, every thought, twisting them until he no longer recognized them as his own. It hissed into his brain and cried out for blood.
The serpent was silent now, in the quiet moments just after dusk. Silent, but not asleep.
Soon a hapless body would be thrown to him and the beast would rear up and strike, swallowing its victim until there was not a drop of life left. And in that moment, would he be the serpent?
He knew what he was, oh yes; his friends would be surprised to learn just how much he knew. He knew that he wasn't well, that whatever illness had taken him was not gone but still infected his blood. He knew that the snake could rise at any moment to command him.
He knew what madness was.
Fear held him close, caressed him like a lover, glorying in its power over him. He choked on it, struggled against it, collapsed in it. When they came for him, what would they see? Would they see the comrade they'd known for so many years or the monster he'd become? How long could he pretend to be their Wes, how long before the serpent swallowed him whole again?
He couldn't go on like that, not again. He couldn't bear the decades of darkness, of hunger and fury, not when he'd finally clawed his way to the surface of sanity once more.
They'd kill him. Friends, comrades, brothers-- they'd have no choice. He knew what he was. He knew what he'd been. They'd put him down like a dog.
Such pity. He couldn't stand pity, certainly not from Hobbie. The Prince had sent the other man away, snarling directions to get his affairs in order before morning, and the Toreador had turned away with blue eyes full of pity. He should order the Gangrel assassin to bring those eyes back to him in a jar. How dare he suggest that the Prince was losing his mind? That was it, wasn't it-- the damned Toreador thought that Celchu was insane, losing control to the point that he couldn't tell the present from the past, Earth from Alderaan, Merando from Palpatine.
The similarities couldn't be denied; even a parasite like Hobbie should be able to see that. That he couldn't only showed his own lack of insight and made the Prince question his usefulness, and that was a fatal error that every Kindred should avoid.
"He's not going, Tycho."
The Prince opened his eyes and stared at his former commander. He'd stayed in his office to wait out the day; he hadn't wanted to venture out where he might see Hobbie. Those pitying eyes cut him.
"He's too fragile."
The Prince pushed his own problems aside. They had to have Wes. "Fragile?" he laughed. "Wedge, this is Wes we're talking about. He's anything but fragile."
"His mind, Tycho, his mind. He's not ready for this-- it could break him."
"We're leaving tonight, Wedge. We need him. No one else can move through the shadows the way a Malkavian can."
The Gangrel shook his head. "It's not worth what this might do to him."
"There is only the goal, Wedge. The destruction of the Empire, the destruction of Merando; it's all the same, and you do what you have to to reach the goal. You were a leader of men, once. You sent us out, knowing that some of us would die-- why? The goal was greater than any of us, than all of us. How is this different?"
Wedge looked down. It was true, what Tycho said, but that didn't change how he felt. He'd regularly risked his own life and the lives of those under him, but he'd never stared into the face of someone who'd lost their mind. He'd never had to imagine that it might be his fault.
"What if he wants to?" Tycho asked gently. "He never backed down from a battle before."
"You don't use a pilot that isn't fit to fly, no matter what he wants."
"All right." Tycho pushed his chair back and began to pace. "Who would you put in his place?"
Wedge felt the other Rogue's eyes on him as the question hung in the air.
He knew the answer.
One moment, one battle gone wrong, and look where we are. The pawns of some Prince on a hill, all we have offered up in exchange for a freedom we will never own. Wedge watched the being that held Wes as it was led onto one of Tycho's planes. It was calmer, healed from the wounds it had given itself the night before as it raged in its prison.
He had to wonder about all those who'd gone before. The ones who aren't around to tell their own story, and have to let the legends and history books speak for them. History books never tell the whole story. They might tell of a man, a soldier, who sent men into battle. He won, he lost, only the outcome matters in a book of names and dates.
Legend is better. Legend tells of sacrifice and hurt, of a man stripped of all but pride, a man who couldn't look his friends in the face but could send them off to war because sometimes people are like the books and only the outcome matters. But legend knows that he walked the floors in agony, and the outcome meant nothing to him then. Win or lose, all that mattered in the dawning hours were the faces that were lost to him either way.
It would never be the same, Wedge knew it. Wes couldn't fight it forever, and when he was turned loose he'd be no better than a rabid beast. He'd watched the thing in Wes' body, watched it shake and fight, mauling the body that held it inside. They might bring him back long enough to fight, but the core of Wes could not hold out against Hades. There could be nothing more for them. In the end, history would be served, and legend could weep.
A hand touched his shoulder, squeezed gently, and dropped away. Hobbie watched the plane being loaded, glancing at its windowless length.
"It seems he's thought of everything," he murmured. "Everything but us."
"Who better to send up against impossible odds?" Too tired to fight, Wedge turned away. "We've been trained for this, and we've waited our whole lives for it."
"I haven't," Hobbie shrugged. "I spent my life fighting like this; I thought death would bring peace."
Wedge growled. "There is no peace while Merando lives."
"There was peace for two hundred years, wasn't there? Funny, that."
"Biding his time, Hobbie. He was biding his time, and now he'll try to rise."
"Tycho, you mean?" Hobbie stepped back as fangs snapped in his face. "What's the difference?"
"If you don't know the difference, you're not the man I thought you were."
Hobbie shrugged. "But we already know that."
It was odd flying without windows or viewports, odder still to not control the aircraft. Wedge looked over the plans of Merando's palazzo and tried to ignore the prickling on the back of his neck that he always got when someone else was piloting. You'd think after two hundred years I wouldn't care, he mused, unconsiously rubbing the offended skin.
His gaze traveled over the interior of the plane and its passengers. Hobbie and a now-docile Wes sat together near the rear of the craft; Hobbie was reading, ignoring Wes as the Malkavian swung his feet and repeatedly kicked the side of his friend's foot. As he watched, Hobbie turned a page and absently kicked back, making Wes yelp and grab his leg.
"Quite the pair, aren't they?" Tycho murmured, resting his hand on the back of Wedge's seat.
The commander looked back in time to see Wes bash Hobbie over the head with a decorative pillow. "If I didn't know better, I'd think things were back to normal."
"Give it some time, Wedge," Tycho answered. "You never know what might happen tomorrow."
Once Merando is dead and Hobbie is dealt with, it will almost he normal, the Prince thought, smiling down at his former commander.
"Come up to the cockpit, if you like-- I've got something to show you."
Wes sprawled across the cushiony seats, tapping out the rhythm to a song only he could hear. Thoughts flashed across his mind bright as lightning, and every bit as fleeting. They illuminated the dark corners of his brain for only a moment, then the shadows fell again.
The papers that Wedge had been studying lay abandoned in his seat. Wes rose and picked up the top sheet, an aerial view of the palazzo. It all looked in order with the plan Wedge had made, but one side of his brain made a perky noise and shot its hand into the air. He seemed to remember something about the streets, about the way they were cut off...
He shook his head roughly and noticed Hobbie staring over the top of his book. They were all watching him and pretending not to like they thought he didn't notice, like he didn't know he was fucked. He glanced down again. Something about the place jogged his memory, but he didn't remember having a memory of that city.
"Something the matter?" Hobbie asked carefully, and Wes flinched.
"I've been here," he said quietly, then louder, defiantly. "I've been here."
"To Merando?" Hobbie stood quickly and looked over his shoulder at the street plans.
"No, to the city. I know the city." Hobbie stared at him for a moment, as if wanting to reply, but said nothing. Wes sat down in Wedge's seat and flipped through the papers. "I don't know how I know it, but I do. Look at this..." He held up a report from a group of Roman Kindred.
"The entire city is crisscrossed with underground tunnels and channels and whatnot-- I can't imagine any problem getting into this place." Wes frowned at the notes that Wedge had made. "He's made this too difficult."
Hobbie leaned over as Wes pointed to a spot on a map of Rome. "See where this street dead-ends? There's a wall, and it snakes around about a klick. I'd say half a dozen buildings back onto this wall-- it sure as hell looks like Merando's place is one of them."
"I thought the palazzo backed onto an alley..."
"It can. See?" He picked up Tycho's sketch of the palazzo's layout. "The wall is part of the building, like it's part of all the buildings along there."
"Ah." Hobbie took the proffered drawing and grabbed the back of the seat as the plane took a brief dip.
"I don't see how this helps," he murmured, staring hard at the image. "It's not like we can jump the wall on this end and head straight over."
"We don't get over the wall, Hobbs. We get inside it."
Continued in Part Twenty