Balance in all Things

by Chris Hoekstra

Every man's work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.

The rain was lightly beating against the window, the same as it had been for the past few hours. It was like a constant pattering of tiny feet against the glass and lent a subtle musical backdrop to the generally dreary atmosphere of Metamor Keep. A raccoon sat upon the stone bench in the semi-circular room and marvelled at the sheets of water washing down outside the windows. His pause didn't last long, and he eventually pulled his gaze away from there and back to his art pad. It didn't seem that long since he had been cooped up like this by the rain. It was only a few weeks ago, probably less than a fortnight. Still, nature looked to be making up for it with a vengeance.

The charcoal piece hovered over the parchment a few seconds before being lowered to the page. There it made a few small scratching noises, adding a small shadow to the picture. It was something that Rick had seen about half an hour earlier; a female collie morph sitting on the windowsill gazing out at the rain. She was bundled up in a full length coat which she was clutching to her neck in a sort of unconscious action. While it was late summer, Rick understood the need for the coat. Not only did the storm drop the temperature several degrees, but rain like that was a problem for individuals with heavy fur coats like the collie. And as a raccoon, Rickkter knew just how heavy thick fur could get and how long they would take to dry.

Some of the shadows looked too sharp to the artist's critical eye, and he ran a knuckle lightly over them. They in turn blended nicely. That was one thing that he liked about his new body; those furry digits he had worked quite well in smoothing out and blending the charcoal portraits. Now the only thing that really nagged at him was the rain. He had never done that before, and it didn't seem to be turning out quite right. Taking a small blade from his portfolio, he carved a few fine notches into the edge of the charcoal piece and went back to work.

That looked a little better. He added some more lazy waves to try and capture the running effect of the water, checking the window to ensure he got it accurate. Satisfied that it looked right, he used the side of his finger again to properly blur and lighten them. Rickkter checked the picture once more, touching up a few sections here and there, then scrawled his signature at the bottom and added it to the small pile already next to the worn leather case.

Finally satisfied, he closed his eyes and leaned his head all the way back. He didn't know what it was today, but it was most likely the weather. He just didn't FEEL like doing anything today. Well, except sitting here and drawing. It was just a cold, miserable day that seemed to say "Stay inside and do nothing". Just a dull, dead day. And Rick had spent a good part of it right here on this bench, or at other places inside Metamor, doing exactly the same thing.

He had been replaying a few of the scenes that he had drawn, watching the real life counterparts move in his mind's eye and comparing to the images in his had set down from those memories, when he noticed the presence of another form next to him. He raised his head and opened his eyes, blinking at the brown-furred body next to him. "Hello, Caroline."

The otter morph flicked him a quick smile then shifted around on the bench some more. "Afternoon, Rick." She looked out the large window, watching as the rain pelted a quick moving form run along the flying buttress between nearby towers. "Miserable weather, isn't it?"

"It is. Did you come here all the way through that?"

Caroline stuck her bandaged hands under her arms and pressed them down tightly. "No. I've been staying with Misha for the last few days. He had a meeting with the rest of the council today, so I've been just wandering around the last few hours."

"What about Oren and the other otters? Why not spend some time with them?"

She shifted around a bit more. "I don't know. Oren is just too... happy for my tastes right now. He also treats me too... I don't know, fragilely. Barney isn't much better. It took me next to forever to get away from him so I wouldn't have to keep hearing about fish and water temperature. And the other Longs are either out on patrol or doing something else." She shrugged her shoulders, pressing down a bit on her hands once more. "Papa has been doting on me, as well. I just wanted to be with someone different for a change. Someone who would treat more, well, you know, normal."

"And you think that might be me?" asked Rick as he ears perked up by themselves.

"You couldn't be any worse."

"What's with the hands?" asked Rick with a nod.

"They're sore. Stiff."

Setting down his sketch pad, the raccoon asked her to hold them out for him. He then gently took one of her bandaged paws and held it with his black-furred one and released a flow of his magic. Directing it down through the layers of tissue, he sought to repair the imbalances and remove the ache. Caroline only knew that the dull pain was being replaced with a kind of warm glow that spread several inches up her arm. Rickkter then repeated the procedure with her other hand.

"Is that better?"

Caroline looked at them a moment before settling them on her lap. "Yes, they are. Thank you. Though I can't seem to move my fingers now."

"Nerve block," Rickkter informed her as he examined her other injuries. Her black eyes were almost gone now, though her right was still swollen around the orbit and very red around the iris. Her left was fine, at least, as was her once swollen jawline. There were still some light bandages on her wrists, looking like tight cotton bracelets. "You've been trying to use your hands more and more I take it?"

Caroline responded with a clicking gurr particular to otters. "Do you know how frustrating it is to go around having to rely on others to do the simplest things?"

"No, I suppose I don't. But there was a good reason for bandaging your hands; if you used them too much, they wouldn't heal properly. You haven't tried to shift back to otter form, have you?"

She shook her head. "No, why?"

"Because it will only cause greater damage. The bones in your hand move and shift when you change, but the breaks would remain and get twisted out of shape. When you changed back, who knows what would happen. I can tell you they won't be magically repaired that way either, as other keepers retain their injuries during a change."

He could see from the way she had turned away from him and hunched her shoulders that she had heard that all too many times before. "Look, I can only imagine how that must be for you. But if you can hold off for about another week, then between your own body's natural healing process and what I did today, the bandages should be able to come off. Though it will still be some time before your hands are up to what they were before."

Caroline looked forlornly at her paw, turning it over and back again. "I thought you said that I would never be able to regain full use of my hand again."

Rickkter sighed and said, "Yes, I do realise that. I wish I had the magic to fully restore you, but I don't. Sometimes it doesn't work like that."

"Would you have been able to do it for yourself?"

Rickkter hesitated before replying this time. "Yes. But not for the reason you think. Many years ago I was given an enchantment that permitted accelerated healing of the body for those who are magically inclined, myself included. It was a template of sorts. I worked for several weeks getting my body in the best condition it had ever been in, so that the template would be of that body. And it worked."

"So how is it that you were dying when you came here? You could have just used this enchantment to repair what had gone wrong with you."

"No, I couldn't," said the raccoon with a shake of his head. "You see, it is an adaptive enchantment. It slowly changes over time to account for aging and other gradual changes in my body. And that disease was so slow acting that the enchantment thought it was part of the natural process. Oh, I did use it to prolong my life to a great degree, but it wouldn't have worked to reverse what was happening." He smiled at her. "I was practically a zombie when I arrived here."

Carol seemed to start a little. "You were a what?"

"Well, what do you think a zombie is? It's a dead body kept alive through magic. And that magic of mine was the tissue thin vale that kept me from becoming completely dead." He involuntarily reached up and rubbed at the stone talisman around his neck. "I couldn't stand to die like that."

Carol gave a small shudder and turned away from him.

"So what have you been doing with those hands to get them in that condition?" Rickkter wanted to know.

"Well, I've been learning to play the flute," Caroline explained as she glanced down at her hands in her lap. "Hey, don't you play an instrument as well?"

Rickkter smiled and nodded. "Violin, yes. It's a wonderful thing to be able to be able to create music. To be able to take an instrument, put it in your hands, and create something... beautiful. How long have you been practising?"

"A few days. I met a marten named Dream, and he gave me a few lessons. So far I've spent most of my time on the fingering and trying to learn the notes. I have tried a real flute, but made some horrendous noises."

Rickkter laughed, the end of his tongue curling up. "A common occurrence at first. I hope you get better quick, especially with your hearing." With his eyes closed, Rickkter leaned back a little. "It's a great feeling, the ability to play, very calming. I find it helps me think. If you do continue to play, I think you'll find that just playing, just improvising the music, is a wonderful thing. I enjoy fooling around on the instrument, seeing what new sounds I can come up with, though at times they can be pretty bizarre."

"When I get better, we'll have to play together."

"Oh, most absurdly."

The talk of music seemed to cheer up the otter and she directed her gaze to the small pile of papers between her and the raccoon. She moved one numb paw to the stack and slid around the top sheet. "So this is what you've been doing with your time?"

"Uh, yeah." He slid away the pile. "If you want to see, I'd better do it. They're charcoal, and with your hands... well, I just don't want them smeared. You understand." Caroline nodded and motioned for him to start.

The first one was of the collie morph that he had just finished. The otter made a few remarks about how he had sort of got the long fur on the collie to blend with the water patterns on the window. Rick thanked her and said that was the effect he had been looking for. Next was a picture of a trio of lizard warriors walking down a hall as seen from behind. They were all bundled against the adversely cold weather and joyfully engaged in conversation. Rick had even captured the forked tongue of one who had his mouth open in a laugh. Next was a large warrior leaning on his knees as he lectured a small child.

Then it was a few personal images Rick had done from memory. Pascal was there, dressed in her usual robe that didn't cover everything completely. That was another shot from behind, only she was looking over her shoulder and smiling. There was a bust sketch of Scratch. It was a simple one with him looking at nothing in particular. Caroline could make out the Medallion of the Dove around his neck.

"Oh, what is this?" she asked when the next picture came up.

"Ah. That... that's nothing really..."

"Nothing?" said Caroline as she looked at picture of the skunk morph. "Rick, this is amazing." Indeed it was. It was a very high detail sketch of Kayla. Like so many of the others, it was done from behind. Rick had chosen to do it from that angle as it showed the generous white of her lush tail the best. Her pose was one of motion, in this case walking off to someplace with her arms swinging slightly and one visible leg bent at the knee. Yet at the same time, her upper torso was twisted around and she was giving the viewer a small, open mouthed smile. Carol saw that by the great deal of smudging around the figure itself, that Rickkter had worked on it a very long time.

"That was just something that came to me," said Rick as he moved to the next page. That one held various small pictures of different sections of the previous portrait. Hand, eyes, and tail were some of the aspects. Caroline hadn't seen any sheets like that one for the other pictures, and got the feeling that Rickkter wanted to capture the skunk JUST right.

Rick moved quickly passed that one to an illustration of Gornul perched upon the shoulder of Oren. Carol noticed that Rick had chosen to focus on the dragon himself and that Oren was more there to provide a support and was faded out around the edges. The last portrait was of Saroth, apparently just rising with the dawn. He was on the ledge to his tower, sitting upright in full dragon form with his wings fully extended as he stretched and yawned. The rising sun that was silhouetted him had been added by Rick for a more dramatic effect, but the otter thought it worked very well in this case. The fact that it must have been done it based solely on memory impressed the Scout even more.

"If I may ask, why did you chose such a similar pose for the majority of these?"

"Well, to be honest, I was trying to get better doing different animal markings. Seeing as how so many people around here have them, I figured that I might as well try it."

"And where are most people's markings but on their back," said Carol, nodding as her eyes lingered on the picture of Saroth a little longer. "I never knew you could do this," she said after Rick had put the small stack back in his personal portfolio. "Just with your attitude and all, you've never struck me as the kind of person who would do something like this."

"People are complex beings, Carol," said Rick as he straightened out the light jacket he had on and curled his prestigious tail around one leg to get comfortable. "None of us are purely our jobs, or if they are, those people are hopelessly shallow. Most of us like to escape from our everyday lives. So we have things like this," he said gesturing to the leather case. "Tell me, Caroline, what do you like to do during your off hours?"

Caroline tilted her head back rocked back and forth on the bench a little as she thought. "I like to paint," she eventually said. "I wouldn't say I'm very good with it, not like you with your sketching or some of the other painters here, but I do like it." She smiled, her eyes lighting up as he thick tail found its way around one of her legs. "I remember this one time, not too long ago. I was doing a portrait of Misha. Well, I wanted to do it JUST right, so I was taking my time working on it. Well, he got a cramp or something and decided to move..." Carol giggled at the memory. "And because of how close he was sitting to the easel, I ended up splatting him on the nose with the paint brush..."

Rickkter chortled. "I can just imagine he didn't take that too well."

The echos of the otter's barking laugh bounced off the stone walls. "You could say that! He dipped one of his hands a red paint pot. And with a covering of fur, I'm sure you can guess how they came out. I tried to back off, but... splat!" The two dissolved into laughter. "The portrait session kind of degraded into a finger painting contest then." Tears were now flowing from the otter's eyes as she tried to tell the rest of it against the laughter. "It took us hours to get each other cleaned up afterwards!"

The two friends cackled at the retelling, though Carol's quickly died when she went to dab at her eyes. It was the bandages. For just a short while she had been able to forget about them, pretend those god-awful things weren't there. But that illusion had shattered when she had touched her face with them. Rickkter had also calmed his laughter by this point and was looking expectantly at the Long Scout with the suddenly morose expression.

"Will I ever be able to paint again, Rick?"

"Of course, Carol. Of course. You'll still be able to do all the things you used to."

"But you told me--"

"I said you'd loose some of the fine coordination needed for archery. You'll still shoot straight, just not as accurately at a distance. The same applies here. Your painting will still be as it was, just that your finer details will suffer some at the beginning. Speaking of which, where is that portrait you did of Misha?"

"Hanging in his bed room, of course. It's right above the head of his bed. I thought you would have seen it by now."

"Well, I haven't been in his quarters yet."

Carol was a little taken back. "Really? You two are such good friends, but you've never been in there?" Rick told her no again. "Well... when you do, ask to see his model collection. It's in his workshop, and it's surprisingly good. They're all war machines and siege engines, built perfectly to scale. Most are about a foot long and include miniature figures manning them."

Rickkter was nodding thoughtfully to himself. "I'll make a point of it when I do go. But you have proven a point that I got side tracked from." The otter's rounded ears went up in a questioning manner. "Most warriors, at least the relatively sane ones, also create."

"'Relatively sane ones'?" repeated Carol.

Rick snickered. "Well, look at us. This is one of the few jobs where death is a constant factor. We have to be a little crazy, or we'd all be insane." At least that got a small smile from the Scout. "But we do have balance. In some small way we try to make up for the destruction we cause."

"Warrior poets," chimed in Caroline.

"That's one form yes," agreed Rick. "Others, like us, are artists, though we each have our own form. I tried painting once, but it didn't come out very good. That fox of yours, his passion is to build. He creates with his hands. Bradfox has hir astronomy. Then there is Scratch. Pascal tells me that he fancies himself a juggler and entertainer, and has even made efforts to try and learn her profession. Why even that little rat Matthias holds to this principle. I've read a few of his pieces, and they're surprisingly good."

"Well, you don't get to be head of the writer's guild without having some talent."

"I suppose not. Do you have any idea why he quit to join the Longs then?"

"Um, no not really." Rickkter looked away at where a particularly vicious bout of rain was lashing at the window. Caroline sighed. "What is it between the two of you, Rick? I don't think I've ever seen two people loathe each other as much as you and Matthias."

Rickkter turned back with a small grimace and shook his head. "You wouldn't understand."

"You're right, Rick, I don't understand. And neither does Misha. Believe it or not, he does want to. He considers you and Matt both friends, and your downright hatred of each other is really frustrating." She waited for Rick to say something, but he just sat there, stone faced. "What happened at the Stronghold, Rick?"

"What did Misha say about that?"

Carol blinked her large brown eyes at him. "Not a lot. Oh, I can tell he wanted to, that he knew more than he was saying, but he didn't." Rickkter just sat there stone faced, totally impassive. "Please, Rick, tell me what happened."

"Do you believe, Carol, that there are things that can never be resolved between two people? Well, there are. Things happen that just can't be overlooked."

"I don't believe that, and neither would Misha. Things that happen--"

"You know, Carol," said the mage, cutting her off midstream," in retrospect I don't think I would have chosen to be a warrior. I would much rather have been an artist, or probably an alchemist. Maybe a musician. Maybe, even, a farmer."

Carol burst out laughing. "You a farmer?" she said, her long whiskers standing up as she smiled fully at him.

At least he had got her to lighten the mood some and move her off a potentially dangerous topic. "Well, you never know. Haven't you ever wanted to be something else?"

Caroline thought it. She had never really considered that. She was also getting a little stiff, and moved over to the other side of the bench. Tucking her feet up on the bench, Carol laid her head on her arm and gazed out the window. "I suppose we've all wanted to be something else at one time or another. To look over your whole life and ask ‘What if?'. And then to imagine all the different paths that you could have potentially taken."

"Um. I find that Death is a great motivator for such introspection."

Curling up tighter, Caroline gave a shiver. "I know that well enough. I used to ask myself that all the time when I was alone. If I did this, would I be here? Would I be back at Metamor with Misha by then? Or would I be dead?" She stopped a moment. "Or would it be Craig who was alive now and me who they killed?"

Rickkter sighed as he leaned back. "I've asked that myself so many times about a former friend of mine. If I had just been looking a little more to the right, would he still have been around the last two and a half years? Of course, all that talk is just shit," he said, leaning on his knees now. "Wishing can't make the dead come back, and it can't change anything. The most it does is wind up torturing us with guilt because we got lucky in the toss. Right?"

Caroline muttered something that sounded like an agreement before she snuggled down a little more.

"Exactly," said Rick as he looked back out at the window. Of course it was still hard to believe that. People had a natural tendency to harbour some guilt over such thing, especially when the person who died was a close friend. Rickkter sat there on the bench, watching the rain wash down on the stones outside. The sounds of the droplets smashing into the glass changed in Rickkter's ears to those of steel smashing on steal. Like he had done a thousand times, a million times, he watched the battle in his mind's eye. And like all those other times, he looked for the one time when he had made that fatal flaw that cost his best friend his life.

"Have you ever... have you ever wondered if between the two of you, if you were the one who deserved it the least?"

Rickkter waited for an answer, but didn't get one. When he turned back to ask, his eyes fell upon the sleeping form of the otter. Her head was rested on her arm and her chest was gently rising and falling. Rick chuckled as he looked her over. The smile on his face began to fade the longer he looked at her. He reached over and took up his art pad again. Admiring at the sleeping otter once more, he put the charcoal to the paper and drew.

The voice was rather hazy when it first penetrated the blackness surrounding her mind. "Carol. Wake up, Carol." But the voice was an intrusion into her serene blackness and she mumbled to try and get it to leave her. It seemed to retreat for a while, but it was soon back, this time louder and with a gentle shaking motion. She grudgingly opened her eyes.

"Hey, Carol. You fell asleep."

Caroline looked away from the raccoon's black mask and out at the window. The storm had passed and the deep red sun was coloring the last remnants of the few storm clouds to the west. She yawned deeply, giving a full show of her sharp teeth. "How long?"

Rick shrugged. "About an hour."

"You let me sleep that long?!"

"Well, you looked like you needed it. And besides, I didn't really have anything else to say." He nodded to the window. "It's getting late, and I think Misha should be done now."

Yawning once more, Caroline uncurled her legs and stretched out the kinks in her arms. "I hope so." She gave Rickkter an affectionate smile. "Thank you for spending the afternoon with me."

The raccoon helped her to her feet and started off towards Misha's quarters. "The pleasure was all mine." He gave her a smile. "Though I apologize for not being the best conversationalist. Was it everything you hoped it would be?"

"It was... all I wanted. Just a little quite time in order to relax. And to forget."

Rick nodded. He had his portfolio behind his back, and his tapped it lightly between his shoulders. "I just want to say thanks for choosing to spend it with me. You brought a little cheer to an otherwise VERY dreary afternoon." They stopped in front of a familiar wooden door. "Be sure to tell that crazy fox of yours hello for me."

"I'll be sure to." Caroline opened the door and made as if to enter, only to turn back and give Rickkter a small peck on the cheek. "Thank you," she whispered as she closed the door on the raccoon's sheepishly grinning face.

The meeting was long, it was boring, and, most importantly, it was over. The red fox morph rubbed his tired eyes as he stood outside the door to his room. The council meeting had dragged on for much longer than either him or Thomas had anticipated, with all the different lords and nobles bickering about the recent offensives. He was just thankful that it was all finally over.

Misha was mildly surprised when he tried his lock and found that it turned easily. Normally he would have been quite leery of this, but he quickly remembered Caroline.

He smiled when he opened the door. "Hello, love."

Caroline slid off the bed and sauntered over to him. Oh, how Misha loved the way that her sinewy body moved at times like these. She could appear so sleek and sexy when she wanted. It was almost no wonder that their courtship had been as whirlwind as it had, with each of them falling in love before they had known what was going on.

Yet his eyes were drawn to her hands where they were swung at her sides in their mass of bandages. His eyes couldn't help moving up to her face and the damage that had been done to it. That beautiful face of hers, how could anyone do it? The scars she had retained would most likely remain with her for the rest of her life. But the healing had already started and looked to be minimal. Then there were other scars that he couldn't see, but knew were just as real.

But all those concerns, and all the stress of that day, melted away when he felt her arms wrap around his chest. Caroline pulled herself close and nuzzled into the soft fur beneath the light shirt he was wearing. "I missed you so much."

Misha rubbed a small circle on her back. "I think I can understand that. I would much rather have spent the day with you, but I didn't have much say in this."

Churring, Caroline lightly nuzzled him in the sweet spot at the bottom of his jawbone. "I understand. My day wasn't as boring as I through it might be." The female otter moved so that her arms were resting on Misha's shoulders, then reached over and gave him an affectionate lick on the snout. "We have some great friends, Misha."

Misha placed his arms likewise over her shoulders. "I know. It's just too bad that it takes something tragic like this to really show you who your friends are." The Long Scout returned his lover's lick. "Shall we get something to eat now?"

Caroline nodded and rested her head against his shoulder as they made the way over to the Mule. No more words were necessary.