Lessons, Part 2
Summary:In which I know that this is the way for me to go; you’ll be there when you know what I know, and I know.
Timeline:November 2017; two days since Part 1.
Published:May 19, 2019.
Rating:PG/K+ - Sweet memories (I never thought it would be like this) reminding me just how close I came to missing.
Beta:Irish Samurai.

If anyone had asked, Derik would have found it difficult to explain why he was going back to RC 2112r, having missed his meeting with Thoth for two consecutive days.

His first attempts at meditation had gone just about as terribly as he’d expected. He wasn’t capable of sitting quietly for five minutes without getting edgy, let alone the hours it would take to reach some mythical state of calm control where he could choose not to be a flaming ash heap of a man. “Know yourself,” Thoth had said, and whatever Derik might wish, he knew that much.

Once he’d escaped the second session with the shreds of his dignity, he had seriously considered the merits of vanishing into Rudi’s and not emerging again until he couldn’t see straight, but knowing Legal, that would end with him winding up in the last place he might want to be. Instead, he had sweated out the worst of his frustration and shame with the equipment in one of HQ’s training rooms, then gone home, only to have Gall give him one look and declare that she’d known the idea of brain-training was a stupid one from the moment he’d mentioned it to her. She had thumped his back, dragged him off to Rudi’s anyway, and seemed happy with the return to status quo. Luckily, he was too exhausted to throttle her.

By the next morning, he’d decided she was probably right. He had only gone along with the idea because he had allowed himself to hope that he’d found a friend he could have a real connection with; someone who understood the magnitude of his loss, whose mental and physical composure were formidable enough to withstand him at his worst, who might make him safe. But perhaps it was never more than a false promise glimpsed in the bottom of a bottle. Whatever the Marine’s interest in him was, it clearly wasn’t friendship. Better to cut ties sooner rather than later, not waste anyone’s time.

He had ducked back into his normal downtime routine of canon research, exercise—not music; somehow he couldn’t bear to touch any of the instruments he’d rescued—and clashing with the other occupants of his response center. The minis had been particularly insistent on invading his personal space, the Egg knew why. Arasgorn the mini-Balrog most likely meant well, but Severe the mini-Aragog had never liked him and made no secret of it.

Perhaps what drove him back was a niggling sense that he at least owed Thoth a proper goodbye, and maybe an apology. Derik wasn’t a truant by nature; he believed his word should be worth something. If he must break it, he should at least do it to the other man’s face.

He wondered if the Astartes would even be there. Probably not. After two days without a word of explanation for his absence, Thoth would know Derik had been avoiding him, like a coward. Yet, Derik looked for him first in the empty response center at the appointed time.

And there he was.

“Ah. Derik. You have returned.” Thoth was sitting on the floor, occupying himself with a book; he closed it and pushed it aside before Derik could get a solid look at it. He’d suspected the man would be back sooner rather than later—his stubbornness was a force to be reckoned with. “I had wondered when you would once again grace me with your presence.”

The Astartes had spent his last few days thinking about what had gone wrong. His first, most immediate conclusion was that he’d have to be easier to approach. He was a teacher here, but it seemed like Derik wanted more connection than that. And seeing as whatever ulterior motives the former dragonrider might have weren’t coming to light, he’d have to take the man at face value for now. He’d made some plans to those effects, although whether they’d survive first contact remained to be seen.

The Marine’s chilly tone threw Derik back to his apprenticeship in the Harper Hall, when he’d been called up before the apprentice-master for fighting with another boy. He was in for it, and this time his transgression didn’t even have a noble explanation to shore up his confidence. “Thoth,” he said, dry-throated.

Thoth frowned. “I don’t appreciate faltering dedication in my students, Derik. However, if your absence has returned you to a state where you may be receptive, I consider it an acceptable price to pay.”

“You—wait.” Derik shook his head briskly. He was not a faltering apprentice, and he had not come here to get drawn back into this useless farce.

But he couldn’t make himself say it. He had to admit, if only to himself, that he was too relieved to see that Thoth hadn’t given up on him. The Astartes even seemed ready to forgive him.

“Damn it,” Derik muttered under his breath. Banking his pride, he straightened up, stepped into the room, and said stiffly but sincerely: “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Thoth nodded his acceptance of the apology. “I do not believe that I could give a punishment that would serve any real purpose. So this will be the end of the matter, for the time being.”

Derik didn’t really hear the last words over the sudden roaring in his ears. He’d done the honorable thing and accepted his fault. The suggestion that Thoth had the right to punish him on top of it, like a particularly thick-witted child, was a slap in the face. His eyes narrowed; his entire body was tense. He had a notion or two of what Thoth could do with his unwarranted condescension, and he barely restrained himself from saying so and then slamming right back out the door.

Thoth immediately noticed the shift. This confirmed what he’d thought in Derik’s absence: He had approached this from the perspective of a teacher, or a commander, but that had failed. He’d still thought that he could treat Derik like a student, although with some more personal consideration, but that was already going south. He’d been reticent to admit it, but his relationship with Derik, tenuous and new as it was, had begun on common footing. As much as it pained him to admit it, he was, somehow, at least in how they interacted, this mortal’s . . . equal.

“Have I upset you?” Thoth asked. The words felt strange on his tongue. He wasn’t used to asking, and he was all but certain he knew the answer, but what little social sense he had told him it was important to do this the right way round for once.

To Derik, the question was almost comically stupid. His lips pulled back in a grimace. “Now, why would I be upset? Could it be, perhaps, that a grown man might not appreciate being treated like a naughty little boy by someone he almost believed was his friend?”

Those words hurt more than any Thoth had heard in a very long time. And he already knew what he’d have to do to make things right. That didn’t make the actions any less painful, or damaging to his pride, but on some level he’d already decided it was worth it. “I’m . . . sorry,” he said. The words practically had to be forced through him, strange and unfamiliar as they were. “That was . . . incorrect. It was not my place.” He hoped that would be the end of it. This was demeaning enough already.

“You’re damn right it’s not,” Derik snapped. It was tempting to take the opening and go on lashing out, but that would have been just as incorrect. He took a deep, ragged breath and let it out again. He still had some self-control. “Let’s get this straight: You’ve a right to be angry with me. I accept that. But it does not grant you authority over me or my honor. Is that clear?”

Thoth bowed his head. Being shamed was bad enough. But being shamed, justly, by a mortal . . . “Yes,” he said heavily. “I can understand that. And I can understand honor.” He needed to move on, and between the new understanding between them and his wounded pride, it was as good time as ever to try something he’d been planning. Hopefully it would engage the student’s—no, his friend’s—interest, even as it satisfied his own curiosity. “I have a question to ask you.”

Derik found he did not particularly like seeing the big warrior humiliated, although he didn’t regret saying what he’d said. After another breath, he nodded, accepting the transition. “Go on.”

In response, Thoth took out a note he’d jotted down recently. “I should like to know the tune to these words.”

Warily, Derik stepped toward him and took the fold of paper from his fingers. He looked down at the handwritten verse and was shocked to recognize it.

Drummer, beat, and piper, blow
Harper, strike, and soldier, go
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Til the dawning Red Star passes

His head snapped up again. “But that’s—how did you—?” He looked at the book Thoth had pushed away. Though it was hard to see precisely, given the angle, he recognized a copy of Dragonquest. Disarmed and at a loss for words, he turned back to Thoth in mute query.

“I ask much of you. It would be remiss of me not to put similar effort into my own studies.”

“Oh.” Ashamed of his delinquency all over again, Derik sat down heavily. He pretended to scrutinize the verse, though he knew it well. Everyone did. “Well. This is the first stanza of ‘The March of the Wings’. Very popular . . . quite stirring . . . perhaps a little overly cheery, given the subject, but that depends on who’s performing.”

“Well, then.” Thoth became noticeably more attentive as the answer to his question emerged, his eyes brightening. “How is it performed? What is the tune?”

“Drum . . . guitar . . . pipe . . . brass horn if you can get one.” Derik shook his head in reluctance. The song was clear in his mind, and he would have liked to oblige the man’s curiosity, but it was difficult. With no hope of properly explaining why, he gave an excuse. “Without accompaniment, there’s not much point; it would fall flat. Maybe another time.”

“I should like to hear it, among others,” said Thoth. “Music seems to be an important component of your world—”

“Music is important everywhere.”

“. . . Quite.” The intensity of the interjection had stunned Thoth a little. “I have other questions, of course. Details that don’t seem to be present in these records, thus far. Though such questions can wait until a better time . . .”

“What better time? I’m here; you’re here.” As amazing as that was, after the initial friction. “But . . . where is this coming from? Why the sudden interest?” It was welcome, but unexpected, given Thoth’s previous resistance to Derik’s attempts to make conversation.

“An exchange of knowledge was part of the arrangement, and I am curious.”  . . . And because it would help Derik relax and hopefully lower his defenses enough that he might actually engage in his exercises. But Thoth had enough common sense to leave that part out. Though not quite enough common sense to admit that part of him wanted an excuse to simply converse.

Derik was still puzzled, but since it seemed that was all Thoth was going to say, he shrugged it off. “I can’t argue with that. What do you want to know?”

Thoth spoke slowly and deliberately. “My primary questions, at this time, concern social organization. These books provide a broad overview, but little in the way of details. The internal functions of Weyr, Hold, and Hall at any but the uppermost, and sometimes lowermost, levels are hardly discussed. In addition, the functions of the Harper Hall in particular seem ill-defined. I was hoping you could clarify some of this for me.” He’d chosen his questions carefully, and they served a dual purpose: they were questions that he believed Derik would respond well to, and he was also genuinely curious. Despite some superficial similarities, it was becoming increasingly clear to him that so much of Pern’s culture was far outside his frame of reference. Were he to try and infer detail, he’d likely be radically wrong.

Derik realized his mouth was hanging slightly open and quickly shook himself out of stupor. “Shards, man, you want to be here all day.” He had to laugh. “Give me a starting point!”

“Let us start with the Weyr, then,” said Thoth. “I presume that is the one you would know best.”

Derik hesitated. “Yes, I suppose it is. Let me see . . .” He glanced at the book again and tipped his head toward it. “You’ll come to understand that things at that point in history were far from normal. But some things don’t change much. People are people. There’s duty; there’s leisure, though not much—”

“Leisure, yes . . .” Thoth waved his hand absently: it wasn’t important.

“Unlike the rest of the world, our lives always revolve around the needs of our dragons.” Derik fell silent. Apart from the heartache this subject brought on, his memory was somewhat fuzzy when it came to his life as a dragonrider. Some moments stood out, but others were a confusion of contradictory impressions. Such were the side effects of being caught up in a badfic and then blundering into a Reality Room.

“But what is the organization of a Weyr? There seems to be a hierarchy of some sort, with greens at the bottom. Beyond that, little detail is given. Beyond the functions of the servants, that is . . .”

“Oh, I see now. You’re talking about the chain of command?” Derik nodded in understanding. “It’s simple, really. The weyrleaders are at the top. A queen dragon is called that for a reason: none but another queen would gainsay her, and that authority is shared by her weyrwoman and her chosen mate. The weyrleader is in charge of all matters pertaining to fighting Thread. Under him, there are wingleaders and their wingseconds, and the rest of the fighting contingent by seniority and merit. Other positions of authority and respect include those of the weyrlingmaster and his deputies, dragonhealers, and Search riders. And then there are the weyrfolk—disparage the Weyr’s support, and you’re asking for nothing but trouble.”

“Fear not. I recognize the significance of support staff.” Thoth’s eyes narrowed. “This all seems largely sensible but for the way you choose your weyrleader and weyrwoman. That critical choice appears to be largely arbitrary, based on little that would indicate firm leadership skills—and the case of Kylara rather proves my point.”

Derik had to think before answering. His gut response was that that was just the way it was, and not open for criticism. On the other hand, the subject of what gave the weyrleaders, and dragonriders in general, the right to their elite status had been a raging debate in his day, particularly with a permanent end to Threadfall in sight, and things had already begun to change. One only had to look at the example of Weyrleader T’gellan and Greenrider Mirrim to see that, and Derik had served under them. At least, he was pretty sure he had.

“That’s difficult to explain to an outsider,” he admitted, “because it all comes back to the dragons, and there are things we ourselves have never fully understood about them. They have their own hierarchy, which follows color, as you noted, and other, more subtle factors. We adapt to it, as we adapt to their needs in all things . . . but there’s more to it than that.

“A dragon hatchling will always choose the best possible match—that’s a truism, but it should properly come with the qualification ‘from the candidates available’. Under ideal circumstances, every gold gets a potential Moreta or Lessa, and every bronze gets a potential F’lar. But sometimes . . . sometimes they get stuck with the best of a bad lot, and sometimes we simply don’t understand why a particular dragon chooses a particular rider.” That had certainly been the case with Prideth and Kylara.

“So your ordering,” Thoth said, after a moment of thought, “is based upon the belief that dragon intuition will choose capable and effective leaders.” He bowed his head. “Still not ideal, but I must admit that perhaps the idea has some merit, in light of dragons’ psychic ability.”

“That’s about it,” Derik agreed. “Search dragons identify strong candidates, the hatchlings choose the ones that suit them best. Usually it works out. But even if the ideal partner isn’t there, a hatchling always Impresses someone. The instinct is so strong they can’t live otherwise. Believe me—thanks to the PPC and some decision-making I am certain will never cease to astound me, I’ve had the unique misfortune to hear the misery of an un-Impressed adult gold dragon.” He shuddered hard at the memory and passed a hand over his eyes as they pricked. The echoes of Ilraen’s screams were bad enough, and he was treading too close to what had happened shortly after the disastrous morph.

“What of the Harper Hall?” Thoth asked, moving on quickly. He didn’t think giving Derik too much time to reflect on whatever he recalled would be a good idea. “They seem to have many purposes, none of them clear.”

Derik nodded. “Many purposes. But quite clear.” He threw himself into the new subject. “First and foremost, harpers are the keepers and teachers of history, law, and tradition. Everyone has a right to these things, but not everyone learns to read and write, so we educate through song. This” —he waved the slip of paper— “is a fair example. Did you happen to see the rest of it, or just this?”

“Merely that. The rest was not printed.”

“Well, even in a celebratory little fanfare like this, you get that line about searing the grasses, not to mention an entire verse admonishing dragonriders against taking advantage of their station.” He took a breath and recited in an authoritative voice: “Dragonman, avoid excess. Greed will bring the Weyr distress! To the ancient laws adhere; prospers thus the Dragon-weyr.” Not without irony, knowing what events Thoth was reading about.

“As it is written,” Thoth said dryly. “Although it seems to be more often said than obeyed. I suppose human nature really does not change, regardless of continuum.”

“No, not by much.” Derik regarded the other man thoughtfully. “We all tell stories to remind us of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going, but it’s possible to repeat the same words so often the meaning is lost. Putting the right words in the right ears at the right time: that’s harpering in a nutshell. With or without the harp.” With a wry smile, he mimed plucking the strings in what would have been a cheeky little arpeggio if actually played.

Thoth nodded once again. He paused to think, as he so often did. “Shall we continue, then?”

Derik didn’t immediately understand. Then he cottoned on and, not wishing the conversation to end just when he was beginning to enjoy it, he feigned confusion. “Of course. I didn’t imagine you were finished picking my brain so soon.” He raised his eyebrows just a fraction, as though in innocent expectation.

“On the contrary, I’m not. However, I like to think things through. I shall consult you again once my mind has settled.” Thoth smiled. “And . . . thank you for the information you have provided.”

“Any time.” Derik affected an awkward half-bow with a hand flourish. Since he couldn’t pretend not to see where this was going anymore, he sighed. “I suppose you want me to shut up and try to be still now.”

“For a time, yes.”

The harper raked his fingers back through his hair, looking down. “I confess: when I got here, I was all set to call it off. But I didn’t. I’ve set the score, so now I’ll just have to play it through.”

“It’s not such a bad thing to play through. With luck, you will come out the other side of it stronger than you were.”

Derik didn’t respond immediately. He gripped the open neck flap of his flight jacket, feeling the tough wherhide and sinking his fingers into the thick, wooly lining, smelling the faint spicy odor that still rose from it. The jacket was a symbol both of everything he’d lost and of everything he still held onto that defined his existence. It had small practical use in the PPC, but he couldn’t put it aside any more than he could put aside his own skin. Whether that meant he was pathetically clinging to the past or courageously staking a claim to his identity, he wasn’t sure. Maybe it was a bit of both.

One way or another, there really wasn’t much point in trying to avoid confronting the other remnants that he carried within himself, good, bad, or ugly. There was nothing new in store, nothing he hadn’t already encountered when his will failed and it all burst forth uncontrolled. It was just that the idea of releasing control to gain control went so against the grain, his every fiber rebelled against it. His instinct was to continue his struggle in privacy so that no one could see and no innocent could be harmed in the process, yet he was well aware he would never manage it alone. He’d been trying for the past several years, and by any reasoned measure, he was failing.

And here was Thoth, patient and immovable as a rock; Thoth, who insisted there was another way and utterly refused to hear any of his protests that it wouldn’t work.

“You won’t let me quit,” Derik muttered, half complaint, half question. “You won’t let me go back.” He raised his eyes, hooded beneath his brow.

Thoth nodded solemnly as he looked back. “I will not.”

Derik wondered if the sudden conviction he felt was empathy at work. If he truly had it in the sense that Thoth said he did, then it had always shown itself in this way: a moment of perfect clarity between himself and another.

“Well,” he said, straightening up, “forward it is, then.” To show willing, he reached over and gave the other man a comradely clap on the forearm.

Thoth flinched, but controlled the reaction.

For that brief moment, Derik sensed his danger, and quickly sat back. He did recall that Thoth was sometimes odd about being touched, so he wasn’t offended at the rebuff, but concerned that he’d shivered the fresh welds on their friendship.

“. . . Let us get to it, then,” said Thoth, with the certainty of someone desperately trying not to acknowledge an awkward moment.

Derik quickly nodded. “Yes. All right.” Just as well to let it pass without comment. He resettled himself more comfortably and lowered his eyes in an attitude of concentration.

However, Thoth did not leave him be. “Before, I was observing. Now, I will assist you. Should you need an anchor, you may focus upon my voice. I will attempt to guide you.”

Derik was momentarily annoyed, thinking this was more condescension, but he realized that was not the case. Last time had been a shambles. The plain fact was, he needed help.

The thought crystallized into sharp realization: he really did need help. He’d known it for a long time, but never really looked that knowledge in the face until this moment.

Feeling like the wind had been knocked out of him, he just nodded again, pensively staring into the middle ground.

“I am glad to have your agreement.” Thoth tried his best to smile. “When you are ready, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Endeavor to relax yourself.”

Derik did as he was told, but relaxation seemed a hopeless prospect. What if this didn’t work? What if there was nothing to be done for him, and he was doomed to continue his downward slide now fully aware, but powerless to stop it? What if—?

Thoth’s voice rolled over his train of thought like an avalanche. “Calm, Derik. Hold. Steady yourself. Focus on your breath. I will give you a count of four. Inhale for four. Hold for four. Exhale for four. We will begin now: In. Two, three, four. Hold. Two, three, four . . .”

Derik was trained to take and keep a beat, and he quickly latched onto it. Between that and the bass rumble of the words vibrating in his ears, it was impossible to think about anything. With his respiration controlled, his heart rate gradually fell to match. In time, a state of near-somnolence stole over his body.

Thoth stopped his count. “Very good, brother. Endeavor to continue on your own.”

For a while, Derik did, but in the silence his thoughts started to crowd in on him again. To keep the darker ones at bay, he turned over the earlier conversation they’d had about his world. There was a lot to unpack there, and much more to plan for if they were going to keep doing this.

Not least of which being the matter of singing. Thoth hadn’t questioned his reticence this time, but it couldn’t go unexplained indefinitely if the man was as keen to learn Pernese music as he seemed. That was a conversation Derik did not look forward to having. It was a weight off his back to be around people who didn’t recognize his face as belonging to someone else, but how could he possibly explain the facts to someone with no context for them at all?

“Focus, Derik.” Thoth’s voice brought him back with a guilty start. “Try to observe, rather than lose yourself to your thoughts.”

“Ah.” Realizing his brows had set into a tell-tale frown, Derik made an effort to relax the muscles. They didn’t want to release their tension, even when he dug a knuckle into the knots. In fact, he was tense all over, anticipating another painful and embarrassing exhibition of his brokenness and reacting as though the threat were a physical one.

“Better. Yes, that’s it . . .”

Derik shook himself out. It helped a little, and he resettled into the rhythm of breathing that Thoth gave him.

The pattern continued in this way: Thoth coached Derik until he reached a state of low physical excitement, then left him in silence to maintain it on his own as long as he could. The duration of his success increased by slight increments each time, but by the very nature of the exercise, Derik was unaware of it.

All he knew was that he kept on faltering, and each time it was more frustrating and more difficult to start again. When he sank down into deeper stillness, he could feel the emptiness at the edges of his thoughts, pressing in ever closer, waiting to break through. He had found ways to cope with it in the normal course of life in the PPC. He could almost forget about it when he had something to focus on, like a mission or an AIRQ match; he could fight it with anger at the forces responsible for his loss or at himself for his failure to rise above it; or, in his more extreme moments of despair, he could run and hide under a blanket of intoxication.

Now, though, he couldn’t fight or run. Those options had failed and were now exhausted. The only direction was forward; the only path, surrender. A terrifying prospect, or so it always had been before.

But now . . . it wasn’t as though Thoth hadn’t seen him at a low ebb of his dignity already, he realized. In spite of that, rather than despise him as an object of scorn or pity, the man still chose to be in his company, at his back, as a friend and mentor—maybe even a brother. Derik had nothing to lose in that regard.

He had little enough to lose in any regard.

So he let go.

He remembered his breathing. With each exhalation, he allowed a little more of the resistance to leave his body and his mind. The ever-present ache of his separation from Skepnadth grew in its place, as he knew it would. He allowed it. It was no secret that he was a broken soul, half a man. Why shouldn’t he let the tears fall? At least, with his eyes closed and covered, he didn’t have to see the response.

The minutes drew on, though, and there was no audible reaction at all. The silence became concerning. Derik felt a chill and dragged himself back to the present moment to see what was going on.

When he opened his eyes, Thoth was holding out a small metal bowl to him. “Drink,” he said, simply.

Derik scrubbed his eyes and blinked a few times to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. He looked around the room—just as bare as it had been when he’d first arrived. Cautiously and with deep skepticism, he took the bowl. It was reassuringly solid and warm, larger than it had looked in the Astartes’ hand. The contents were a pale amber liquid with a few brown leaves drifting around the bottom. “Is this . . . tea?”


“But, how?”

“One does not survive long as a sorcerer without some preparation. I had retained the bowl within my bag. The tea as well—although largely out of a lack of bother to remove it. It was comparatively trivial to condense water from the air, and the heating was elemental. Psychic abilities here have less associated risk than they do in my home continuum.”

“So you literally conjured up a cup of tea for me.” Derik stared down at it another moment before the reality finally settled in. With it came a piquant sense of the absurdity of the whole scene, and he laughed, trying hard not to upset the bowl as his body shook. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “It’s just that I expected . . . well, not this! Not from you!”

Thoth raised an eyebrow. “Well, then. What is it that you did expect?”

“Oh, I don’t know, really.” With his free hand, Derik massaged his eyeballs, which had begun to tear up again. He felt strangely light. “Telling me to get a hold of myself, maybe. Control, yes?”

“Perhaps. But at times, it is worthwhile to cry. You cannot heal until you allow yourself to feel the pain. I have heard that tea helps.”

Derik’s mirth died abruptly. “Perhaps,” he echoed. Now he took an experimental sip of the infusion, and found it weak and lukewarm. “I’d almost think you’ve been talking to Nurse Jenni, but she at least understands that this isn’t the kind of pain that heals. Why can’t you?”

There was a silence while Thoth mulled it over. “Perhaps it will not heal. But I do not doubt that it will fade. That the pain will dull, and you will regain at least a part of what you feel you have lost. Today, you find your troubles and pains insurmountable. I have seen the rise and fall of planets, the death of worlds, and thousands of years of strife. Thus do I believe that this, too, shall pass.”

Derik scowled down into his tea, gripping the bowl in both hands. He had little energy for it, but he still wanted to rage that Thoth had no idea what he was talking about—that with Skepnadth’s death, a piece of his own soul had been ripped away from him. He could never get that back, and to even contemplate not hurting for his dragon’s absence, not being furious at Alanna, Yunith, and all Suvians for the rape of his mind and the destruction of that which he held most dear, was nothing short of a monstrous betrayal of their bond.

But Thoth had made it impossible to argue without seeming petty. It was easy to forget that he was ancient in years. Remembering that, and all the woe that attended such a life as the warrior had had, Derik was not so self-absorbed as to suggest his pain was somehow more important. He was certain he wouldn’t live long enough to see it pass, but at least he could look forward to a final end in just a few decades. That was a mercy.

He said nothing, but with an effort, was able to take another drink from the bowl.

“. . . That did not help. My apologies.” Thoth didn’t say it as a question. “I am, perhaps, ill-equipped, socially.”

Derik snorted. “No, you’re saying all the correct socially prescribed things. I commend the effort. But those things are wrong. Just one of several reasons I avoid society these days. I don’t expect most people to understand. But you . . .” He looked up, pinning Thoth with his one bright eye. “Have you healed from the Burning of Prospero? Has that pain dulled for you? What of that loss have you gotten back?”

Thoth breathed slowly. “I . . . no. The pain never went away. It has lessened. But it is not gone.”

Derik nodded along with the other man’s words. He knew—it was the thing that made them the same despite their overt differences. He felt his chest constrict in sympathy, and he hated himself a little for making his point like this, but it seemed to be the only way.

In the silence, Thoth added, “I never grieved. There wasn’t time to.”

“Whereas I haven’t stopped,” Derik muttered. He shook his head and refocused. “Listen, is there any more where this came from?” He gestured with the tea bowl. “Something stronger would be more appropriate for this sort of talk . . . but the point is, you should drink with me, and take a little of your own advice. There is time now.”

Thoth pulled another small bowl from his pack. “. . . Yes. Perhaps I should.” The air grew drier and seemed to hum with energy. Slowly the bowl filled with water. Thoth put in some tea leaves and Derik saw a haze of heat around the bowl as the water came to near-boiling. When it had steeped for a moment, Thoth took a sip and frowned. “Weak. I shall have to improve my technique.”

A half-smile ghosted across Derik’s face. He hadn’t planned on mentioning it and wasn’t about to now.

For a minute, they simply sat and drank.

When he felt the tension in the air had settled some, Derik said, “Tell me more about your city. Tizca, was it?”

“Indeed,” said Thoth. “It was a place of knowledge. Of great libraries, of learning, and of understanding. And when we conquered . . . we returned home with the history of the civilizations we had destroyed.” He took another sip. “Perhaps I should have learned more about tea in my youth . . .”

“You probably need to use more of the leaf.” Derik thought a moment, troubled by the mention of destroyed civilizations, but war was the way of that continuum. He wasn’t here to pass judgement. “So,” he said, “you loved it for that. For the wealth of knowledge.” Thoth had said something to suggest as much when they’d first met, if Derik wasn’t misremembering. So much of that night was hazy after the third or fourth drink.

“Among . . . other things. It was my home. To say that I loved it merely for the knowledge is to say that you loved Pern merely for the music. Prospero . . . was . . .” Even after all these years, he spoke little enough of it that those three letters could be hard to say sometimes. “It was a place of beauty. Of science. Of art. And yes, that which the ignorant call witchcraft. There is no place in the universe that could compare.”

“What do you miss the most? Ah, maybe that’s an impossible question.” Derik waved his free hand dismissively. “I don’t know how I’d answer it. Apart from the obvious.” He took a deep drink.

“. . . I miss the people. Thousands of names and faces, a millions of lives, an entire people . . . destroyed in naught but a few hours.” Thoth took a sip. “And me and my kin are what remains.” He raised his glass. “A toast, then . . . to those not present.”

Derik nodded once and mirrored the gesture. He added, “To we who still are, for some damn reason.”

They each knocked back the remainder of their tea to complete the ritual.

Feeling unsatisfied without the burn of alcohol in his throat, Derik shook his head and set his bowl down on the floor between them. “Next time we do this, we have to get a proper drink for it.”

Thoth set down his bowl as well. “Indeed we shall.” He frowned in thought. “. . . Now. With regards to your training . . .”

Derik rolled his head back in a somewhat theatrical show of exasperation. “Ah, Thoth. Must you be so single-minded?”

“Somebody has to be. Otherwise, I am fairly certain neither of us would get anything done.” Thoth smiled wryly. “And there is most certainly much to be done. Up to this point, I have focused on getting you in touch with your emotions. This was a prelude, little more than a grounding exercise: the true task is to learn to rise above them, as will be required.”

Derik gave a resigned sigh and shifted position, drawing up one knee to rest his arm on it and rub his cheek. “I don’t think I’m any more or less in touch than I was when we started. I just stopped fighting the current for a little while. It doesn’t feel like progress.”

“Feeling progress and making it are two different things. You are correct in what you did, and indeed, we have merely scratched the surface in that activity. But learning how it felt to stop fighting was important. If you do not know how it feels not to fight, how can you know what it is to fight well?” The Space Marine frowned. “That particular expression made more sense when it was in my head. Nonetheless. You will continue to develop in that area. Our lessons are over for today. Next, I believe, we will begin your study of the Enumerations.”

Derik picked up his head. As reluctant now to leave as he had been to come, he asked, “And what are they?”

“A set of exercises and mantras. We of the Sons use them to focus our thinking, to guide rituals, and to keep our emotions in check at times when interference could be disastrous. You will understand the particulars soon enough.” Thoth rose to take his leave.

“All right.” Derik rose too, still feeling vaguely unmoored from reality, like a ship adrift with no anchor. He wasn’t eager to see what it would be like back out in the corridors. “Tomorrow? Unless one of us has a mission?”

“Tomorrow is what we shall plan for, brother. Although we cannot know where the fates will take us.”

Derik softly snorted. “Very profound.” He took a breath and sighed. “All right,” he said again, and offered a parting handshake.

Thoth took the hand and shook it gingerly. Either out of uncertainty or a respect for his own strength. It was hard to be sure. “Farewell.”

Derik smiled. “Until next time . . . brother.”

Neshomeh’s Notes

Well, here we are at the end of the beginning. It is now safe to assume things continue more or less in this vein for the foreseeable future. We’ve got a couple more stories set inside RC 2112r planned, but likely not more than two. Unless more ideas come along, of course. {= ) But otherwise, the fruits of Derik and Thoth’s friendship will appear most in how they begin to change outside this room, and that is something I look forward to, both showing it for Derik and seeing it for Thoth.

This is what I love most about the PPC: interactions between characters you couldn’t get anywhere else, having an impact you’d never expect. Who would have imagined a former dragonrider and a Chaos Space Marine would find any common ground with each other, let alone enough to relate as brothers? And yet, for these two specific characters at this specific time, it works. And it’s so much fun to write. ^_^

Thoth’s Notes: Dammit, Nesh, you and your stupid really good ideas, making me develop my characters and think about interesting arcs . . . grumble grumble. :-P

We’ve got a few more ideas planned for this lot, as Nesh says, but don’t expect to see them for a little while yet: there are some other stories that must be told, for a few of them, at least. But hey, this might just be the oddest friendship in the PPC . . . probably not, but we can try, can’t we?

Honestly, I still have no idea how this happened and I’m a little bit in awe. Somewhere along the way, Thoth went from my battlefield 40k avatar and snarking alter-ego to an actual character with his own ideas. I guess I’m proud of the guy. ;_;

Additional Note: The title and summaries of this piece are unapologetically cribbed from “Lessons” by Rush, who also inspired the RC number. We are dorks. Dorks have more fun. ^_^

This website is © Neshomeh since 2004. This page’s content was last updated 05.19.2019.
The PPC belongs to Jay and Acacia and is used with permission.