A/N: This is a Janther Week fic, written in response to the prompt for Day 6, Potential. Shout-out to lareepqg for helping significantly with the action/battle sequences.
This is chapter one of two. I will post the second and final chapter sometime next week, so as to extend that Janther Week mojo just a little further!
'Cause, really, EVERY week should be Janther week! ;)
Okay, Hiccups was a nice little interlude, but... back to the angst.
Gunther's breath leaves his lungs in an awful little whoosh when he sees her.
It's not entirely a surprise. He'd wondered – caught halfway between longing and dread – whether she'd be with the party that came to discuss terms. He'd known it was a possibility.
And he'd thought he'd known what it would do to him.
He'd been wrong.
He had anticipated some manner of… residual ache. After all, they'd been close once.
He'd loved her, once.
But he hadn't expected the very air to be stolen from his body at the sight of her, hadn't expected to feel as though the ground were being savagely yanked out from under his feet.
He grits his teeth and clenches his fists until his knuckles turn white. It's not fair, damnit.
It's not fair.
Because she seems completely unaffected, looking through him as though he isn't even there.
There'd been a time when he had been the one with the perfectly smooth mask, the flawless, unassailable facade. Not Jane.
Never Jane. Jane wears her heart on her sleeve, always has.
Except… apparently… not anymore.
He supposes, distantly, that he hardly has a right to be surprised by that. He hasn't seen her in over three years… closer to three and a half.
Not that anyone is counting.
He doesn't know her any longer; she's a stranger to him now. And of course it's to be expected that she would change with the passage of time.
But he hadn't expected her to appear so… hardened.
Had he caused this, had he done this to her with the way things had ended, the manner in which he'd left?
Something inside of him twists at the thought.
He realizes he's staring and forces his gaze away. Anywhere else, it doesn't matter. The rough canvas wall of the large tent in which the two parties have met, the dully gleaming pile of weaponry by the entrance – they'd all divested themselves of their various blades when they'd arrived, as a show of good faith – hell, even the ground beneath his scuffed boots.
Anywhere but at her features, once so familiar, so open and caring; now, for all appearances, chiseled in stone.
Thank God he's not expected to take an active part in these talks. He'd be useless. Useless.
Not that the negotiations are fruitful in any case. He hadn't really expected that they would be. The objectives of the two kingdoms are too different, thoroughly incompatible. There's no bridging that distance through diplomacy. Terms cannot be made.
There will be battle on the morrow, a battle in which both he and Jane will take part –
On opposing sides.
He hadn't even realized that he'd intended to chase her down after the meeting had dispersed; it's a terrible idea, reckless and ill-thought-out; there's nothing to be gained by it. It cannot possibly result in any fruitful outcome, given the way the negotiations had ended.
And yet his feet, with a will of their own, carry him after her all the same.
She'd been walking briskly away into the deepening dusk, but turns at the sound of her name. She stands there passive, saying nothing as he approaches.
"Jane," he says, stopping a few feet away from her, and then nothing more. He can think of nothing more to say.
"Gunther," she responds in kind, and she sounds entirely detached from the situation, from him.
Which, he supposes, is appropriate. He'd certainly detached himself completely from her three and a half years ago.
So why, why does it hurt like this to hear her so?
"You... look well," she adds a moment later as he stands there, tongue-tied. Still he says nothing. Words have entirely deserted him. Eventually she starts to turn away.
"Jane." Gunther can hear a slight edge of desperation in his own voice. Does that mean she can hear it too? Crazily, he finds that he doesn't even care. He's just frantic, suddenly, to keep her here, near him, within eyeshot, safe. Because tomorrow –
Sweet bleeding Christ, tomorrow –
"Gunther," she says again, and he can hear just the faintest hint of impatience creeping into her voice, "was there something you wanted? I have preparations to make. I am sure you do, as well."
He swallows hard. He wants to ask her where she'll be tomorrow, what part she will take in the fighting. He wants to ask her if she'll be safe.
"Will… will you be on Dragon tomorrow?" he manages at last. That's probably the safest place for her. Not safe enough, God no, but safer than being on the ground. Safer than being in the thick of it.
Finally something shows on her face – a tinge of incredulity. She folds her arms over her chest. "You cannot really expect me to share that sort of information with the enemy?" she asks.
The words slam Gunther, nearly knock him flat.
This truly was the worst idea of his life, and his life has been a veritable study in poor decisions; look where it's landed him, after all.
He opens his mouth to retort; closes it with a snap, turns on his heel and leaves without another word. He's taken maybe half a dozen long strides when –
He stops, fists clenching all over again, but doesn't turn back. He can't. He can't look at her right now. It'll undo him.
Jane, however, still apparently being, essentially, Jane, doesn't give him a choice in the matter. She walks around in front him him and stands directly in his path. Reluctantly, he raises his eyes to meet hers once more.
"Be careful out there tomorrow," she says. "Gunther… be safe."
And he's sent reeling all over again.
She's gone into the gathering gloom before he can compose himself enough to reply.
Before he can unfreeze his stupid tongue and manage to say, you too.
Gunther wrenches his sword free of the man – no, the body – that is slumping to ground before him, then whirls and raises it just in time to deflect a blow from the side.
He dispatches this new opponent too, although not before sustaining a shallow – but stinging – gash to his hip. He pauses, breathing heavily, to shake his hair out of his eyes, mop sweat from his brow. The battle's been raging for the better part of the morning, and he'd lost his horse early on. He's been on foot since, and he's aching with exhaustion.
And fear. That too.
Not for himself. But Jane is here somewhere and that fact is killing him, it's killing him.
He hadn't slept at all last night, just lain there wide-eyed in the darkness, staring upward toward the canvas ceiling of his tent, his mind obsessively running over the hundred – thousand – hell, the infinite ways in which she could die today, and…
He never sleeps soundly on the eve of battle, he doesn't know anyone who does… well, except for those who choose to imbibe, but… face a battle hungover?
No thank you.
He may not have the best decision-making track record, but he can do better than that. He would need to hate himself quite a bit more then he currently does, to subject himself to that magnitude of hell.
So no, he hadn't expected a deep, restful, uninterrupted slumber. But he usually manages to sleep a little. Even an hour would have been appreciated, Christ, even half an hour.
But no. What he'd gotten instead had been an endless, unrelenting horror show - eyes open, eyes shut, it made no difference – Jane and Dragon falling from the sky. Jane run through, Jane shot full of arrows, Jane gutted by a lance, trampled by a horse, Jane's head yanked back by a fistful of that incredible molten hair and her throat slit, or her head lopped clean off. Jane taking a minor wound – no more than a scratch, really – and then taking a fever. Dying in agony days later.
Jane surrounded, overpowered by her enemies - his comrades - dragged down to the ground and –
Torture. It was torture. And he'd been utterly helpless to make it stop.
There's a slight lull in the fighting in his immediate vicinity, and he takes advantage of it to look around, scanning the battlefield as best he can from his admittedly limited vantage point, scanning the sky overhead. He's been looking for her more or less ceaselessly since the battle had been joined.
He has yet to catch a glimpse though.
God's wounds, how difficult can she be to spot!? She has hair like a signal fire! There is no one, no one else like her on earth, she is unique, she is exceptional, and –
And he is still head over heels in love with her.
This was why he'd cut and run in the first place. It had terrified him when he'd realized he was falling – truly, madly, deeply falling – for his childhood nemesis, training partner, and comrade-in-arms, Jane Turnkey.
This is not – is not – the sort of life that is conducive to intimate relationships. There's just such uncertainty. Every day, every night, every minute. His life could be cut short at any given second, brutally and unapologetically, and so – as he is currently, excruciatingly aware – could hers.
He hadn't been able to handle it. It had been too much, entirely too much, for the broken boy who had grown up without the slightest inkling of what love actually was.
And what love actually was, he had discovered through Jane, was amazing. So amazing it had scared him to death.
It had been good at first. Beyond good. It had been euphoric. The world had flooded with color and sensation in a way that Gunther had never known before. It had even been worth the other knights in their company rolling their eyes and making kissy faces at him around the fire at night.
It had all been in good humor, the ribbing. Most of his compatriots had been in love before. They knew, apparently, what it was like, or at least they said they did. Although Gunther hadn't been at all convinced that anyone, anywhere, ever, could have felt as strongly as he did for Jane.
It had burned in him like dragonfire.
Still does, his mind whispers as he stands, panting, in the midst of the killing field. Still does.
But the euphoria had not lasted long – only a matter of weeks – and when things had taken a turn for the worse, it had happened quickly and completely; two incidents spaced only a few hours apart that had killed the whole thing, blighted his entire life from that day to this.
He'd been holding Jane, the two of them lying entwined in her tent, sated and drowsy and falling away toward sleep when he'd gathered her more fully against himself, buried his face in her hair and mumbled impulsively, "I love you."
It was the first time he'd said it aloud – and also the last and only time, as it happened.
Because she hadn't said it back.
She hadn't said it back, in fact she had stiffened in his arms, said "Gunther" in a stricken little voice as if he'd just wounded her somehow instead of declaring his love.
Abruptly he'd been wide awake, more awake than he'd ever been in his life – and cold.
Cold right down to his bones.
Extricating himself from their decadent tangle of limbs, he'd sat up, every part of his body suddenly tense almost to the breaking point. He'd raked a hand through his hair, struggling to breathe.
What have I done, what have I done, wh –
"Gunther – it – you –"
She'd put a hand on his back, tried to draw him back down to her.
But he'd understood. He'd understood she didn't feel the same way and oh sard it had hurt. Sure she cared – Jane had enough heart for the whole kingdom – but there was a difference between loving someone and being in love and he had just ruined everything by foisting his feelings on her, unasked for, unwanted, unreturned.
In a panic, he'd thrown on his clothes, grabbed up his boots, and positively fled her tent, barely even feeling the bitter midnight chill. Jane had tried to stop him, calling after his retreating form in frantic, hushed tones so as not to wake their comrades, but she'd tangled in the blankets and fallen heavily to the ground – and Gunther had been long gone by the time she'd recovered and put on enough clothing to pass for the barest minimum of decency.
She'd looked for him, probably to console him or soothe his ego with some paltry words of pitying comfort – Jane was nothing if not kind, and hells he loved her for it – but he'd made sure he was unavailable.
Which is to say, he'd hidden.
He isn't proud of it, but he'd hidden.
He'd watched from the shadows as she'd searched for him; he'd been able to see the troubled crease between her brows in the dim light. She'd almost found him once, been right there, so close he could have reached out and touched her – and God had he wanted to – to hold her and let her whisper platitudes and believe it was enough, enough...
But it wasn't. Not really. So he hadn't reached out to catch her hand or run his fingers through her still-mussed hair – and as soon as she turned away, he'd run off into the forest to lick his wounds in private.
That had been the first incident. The second, coming right on its heels, coming with the break of dawn, had been ambush.
Gunther had waited a long time, until he'd been reasonably sure that Jane would have either worn herself out searching, or been driven back to her tent by the cold.
The sky was already just barely starting to lighten toward dawn, though still smattered with stars that glittered like ice chips in the chill air, when he'd crept back to his own tent, shaking from the cold, moving like a fugitive, thoroughly miserable.
There'd been a part of him that had been hoping against hope, against reason or his own better judgment, to find Jane there, wrapped in his blankets, sleep-warm and drowsy, soft and pliant as he curled himself around her, nestled into her heat and pretended that none of this had ever happened.
But his tent had been empty, blankets cold.
Suddenly, despite being half-frozen and fully exhausted, it had been the last place in the world he'd wanted to be.
Turning his back on it, he'd wandered over to where a handful of men just off night watch sat grouped around a small fire. He'd folded himself onto the ground just outside the circle of light, and dropped his head into his hands.
"Gunther," one of them had said cautiously, "Jane was look–"
"I know," he'd rasped out without raising his head.
"She was almost blue with cold and worried sick," another added. "I do not know what has happened, but you should r–"
And that was when the alarm had sounded.
There'd been a frantic shout from one of the sentries – "to arms, to arms!" followed immediately by cries and the clash of swords. Gunther and the others had been on their feet instantaneously; they'd exchanged a lightning-quick glance of horror and then they'd been running – the others, who'd been on watch and so were already armed, toward the sound of the disturbance. Gunther, who was not, had raced back to his tent again for his sword and bow.
Ducking out through his tent flap, he'd immediately been met with an adversary. Holy hell, they were already in the camp, how had they infiltrated so quickly!? Gunther had realized in that moment that their attackers had probably been watching them all night. With a rush of horrified clarity, he'd understood that he'd been very, very lucky not to have stumbled upon one – or more – of them when he'd run into the trees to escape from Jane.
As it was, he might not have seen them but they had likely seen him. He was probably only alive right now because they hadn't wanted to jeopardize their element of surprise.
All of this had gone flashing across his consciousness in a heartbeat's worth of time and then the other man had been on him, snarling.
Gunther had dispatched him, but not without some significant difficulty. His enemy had been larger and more experienced than Gunther, his combat style tending more toward street fighting or thuggery than gallant warfare. Without his weapons, Gunther surely would have lost.
Once the man was down, and once Gunther had regained his breath, he'd made his way through the camp – assisting comrades when they were pinned down, engaging such enemies as he'd encountered, and dispatching those that were down but could still present a danger – working his way, desperation increasing by the second, toward the vicinity of Jane's tent. He'd been distracted by his mounting panic as the minutes had passed and he'd seen no sign of her – distracted to the point where he'd gotten careless and sustained a minor, but bloody slash wound from a man he'd thought, mistakenly, had already been dead.
He'd been nearly beside himself by the time he'd finally caught sight of her. And he'd been fully beside himself when he had.
She'd been heavily engaged already, locked in combat with a hulking brute who'd looked twice her size at least – maybe closer to thrice, come to that. But that hadn't even been the truly horrifying part.
The truly horrifying part had been that not one but two more men had been converging on her position while she was occupied with the behemoth's frontal attack.
And there'd been nothing he could do about it.
The distance between them had still been too great, and Gunther had still been occupied with foes of his own. His breath had caught, the world tilting slightly with the force of his terror for her.
Jane, oh bleeding hell, JANE –
He'd swallowed past the sudden obstruction in his throat and had started to shout out a warning to her – but he needn't have bothered.
She'd been aware of the other men all the while, as had been evidenced when she'd managed to fell her initial attacker and had spun immediately, with uncanny – almost frightening – precision and grace, to face the other two. Jane had been poetry in motion, her movements fluid – beautiful – deadly.
Gunther had watched between his own parries and strikes… he'd have been positively transfixed, if he'd had that luxury. How had he never fully realized how skilled she was, how entirely, gorgeously lethal? He supposed he had usually been too busy fighting alongside her to ever just simply… well… watch.
She'd killed them, one after the other, with efficient, nearly effortless ease - then, without missing a beat, had been on to help another of their fellow knights who'd been laid low with a gash to his leg.
She hadn't even seen Gunther.
And that had been when he'd really, fully understood. Jane hadn't needed his assistance.
Jane hadn't needed him.
She'd never needed him. She never would.
But he needed her, and he'd realized, in that moment, how horrendously vulnerable that made him. How much of a liability it made her. As if he'd decided to cut his heart right out of his chest and wear it on a thong around his neck, fully exposed outside his mail. And it might – might – have been worth it if there'd been any sort of reciprocity there, but to cripple himself like that for someone who didn't return his feelings? He couldn't.
His decision had been made in an instant.
He had to get away.
The clash had taken longer than he would have expected, given the relatively small size of the attacking force. Their ambushers had been well-organized, had known the lay of the land, and had planned for contingencies… but ultimately had been unable to overcome the superior numbers, weaponry and training of the king's men.
In the end, Gunther's company had only lost two people – an older knight who'd been trampled by a frightened horse, and a new squire who'd bled out after catching an arrow in the throat. Most of the opposing force, by contrast, had ended up dead – but they'd managed to capture half a dozen of the enemy for questioning. As prisoners of the crown, they'd be taken back to the castle, interrogated, and likely executed.
It had been determined that a couple of men should be sent ahead with news of the ambush and the fact that prisoners were in transit, and Gunther had been quick to volunteer. He'd been desperate, almost crazed with the need to put some distance between himself and Jane. He hadn't even spoken to her before departing – had reached the castle, delivered his news, resigned his commission, and left. He hadn't even said goodbye to his father; had just penned him a vague note and sailed on the next ship out of the harbor.
It had gutted him to leave like that, without saying goodbye, but it had been necessary; basic self-preservation – or at least, he had thought so at the time.
It had eaten away at him, though. A little more with each day, with each mile.
He'd thought he'd grown used to the pain, numb to it – that his heart had scabbed over, maybe even healed, but now, having finally seen her again…
It's clear that nothing, nothing has changed.
His heart is still beating outside of his body. It always has been, from that day to this.
Running from that fact, trying to ignore it, refusing to face it, acknowledge it, has not made it any less true. The passage of time has not made it any less true.
He will love Jane Turnkey until he draws his last breath, and he's half mad with fear for her now.
If only he could just lay eyes on her, know that she's all right. Where is she?
Hell's BELLS –
Where IS she!?