Thirteen Ways To Say Goodnight
chapter two - life interrupted
(in which Our Hero arrives home)
I've always been passionate, if nothing else. It was probably my saving grace
as to why they let me in the Knights. I did everything with my entire heart and
soul, nothing by halves, whether it be escorting a member of the nobility to
another land or stabbing another soldier in the throat. And even then, again,
I was still just a passion-filled fool - sometimes I wish I had never picked up
any weapon save a pen.
Sometimes. Only sometimes. I wish it was more.
- from the diary of Freya Crescent
Amarant Coral came to consciousness with a burning pain in his stomach, in a white feather bed with a hideous behatted urchin perched on the end of it staring at him. It was raining outside and the room was cold.
This is never a nice way to wake up.
He tried to sit up; the burning pain doubled, and with a grunt of expelled air he fell back on the pillows, breathing heavily. Murderous bastards, Burmecians, all of 'em. Fratley was gentle as a lamb? Yeah, Freya had got that one right. It felt like the pikehead had investigated around his guts and pulled large slithery ropes of them out with it. His side was heavily bandaged, white linen stark contrast to his mottled greenblue skin; his shirt had been removed, and the cold wet air was raising goosebumps on him.
Fuck it. He peeled down the blankets as the masked creature goggled, investigating the bandages in better light. Shit, Fratley had stuck him, well and good. At this rate they'd have to stick food up his ass just to get him nutrition.
His bleary eyes focused on the perching gremlin. It took ten years' fuzzy memory to pinpoint the familiarity; obscuring its entire head was Freya Crescent's crimson dragon-helmet, still looking like the beheaded skull of a red dragon, all leather and steel and age. If a wave of - pain - passed over him, he dismissed it as nausea.
Goddamn Fratley. What kind of man stuck another man in the stomach? A man ate with his stomach. Better to get him somewhere that didn't matter, like his pancreas or his shoulders or his heart.
"Don't touch those bandages," the Burmecian in question said briskly, coming into the room just as Amarant had started to touch them. "You'll start the bleeding again. Gudrun, my love, are you bothering Mr. Coral?"
"That's good," Fratley beamed, ignoring his daughter blissfully. (Or possibly not.) "Close the windows, please, our guest must be chilled."
"Guest?" The redheaded monk stared at his host in complete disbelief as the horrible little creature wriggled off his bed, thumping over unwillingly to close out the cold. Any awkwardness that might have existed between the two men was merrily iced over with a thick dose of righteous anger. "Did you fuckin' lose your memory again? You shoved a goddamn great lance in me, you be-tailed bastard!"
"No swearing in front of my daughter, please," the fawn-haired Dragon Knight said primly. "And I do not apologize most sincerely."
Amarant tried to wrap his head around that, and failed.
"You will live, however," Fratley said brightly, as if this was obviously a Good Thing. "You should be up on your feet in about a week or so."
"And then I finish the job. Ahahaha," the Burmecian said, without any trace of humour or laughter whatsoever. "No, no, just my little joke. I must request you lay low as a guest in my house for treatment, and then you will be free to do as you please."
"Freya would've - "
" - wanted me to," Fratley cut in smoothly, before any opposite claims could be made.
Both men had a little narrow-eyed stare at each other. It made the Dragon Knight's rising hackles and Amarant's testosterone level feel vaguely better, like a placebo.
"Side hurts," the monk sulked after a while, shifting restlessly in his bed. Fucking hells, they might've gotten in a white mage so that his nice inner bits didn't leak out messily on the rain-soaked streets, but Fratley hadn't been generous with the painkillers.
"I shall send for the healer again posthaste," his host said with the kind of contentment that meant that analgesiacs might come tomorrow. "Come on, Gunny. Let's get you a nice hot bath and go and see Captain Edda."
Gudrun swished her tail at Amarant rudely as she galumped after her father. He gave both of their rapidly disappearing figures the finger.
It was raining still. Big surprise.
Amarant hated the rain. In the past few years of his life, he had sweated his skin in desert cities with walls baked to the bone and devoid of moisture. His skin had dappled and leathered darker underneath those burning suns, and when it had rained it had been the kind of torrential downpour that tore your skin away from your bones. The rain in Burmecia - like now - was gentle and drizzly and depressing, as if it didn't quite know whether it was supposed to be there or not and was unsure if it actually had a date somewhere else.
The City of Rain, and him in Iron-Tail Fratley's house. Freya's house. How was that for a fucking lark? Freya's house, Fratley's house. Maybe this room was Fratley's room; maybe Freya had slept here -
Amarant lurched, heaved himself an inch to the side of the bed before giving a tooth-gritted grunt of agony as he fell back. His skin shivered and itched as if bits of Freya Crescent had been strewn in the blankets, and he felt unutterably stupid.
There were no bits of Freya Crescent here. She was somewhere out there in that rainy kirkyard, long buried down deep in that soft earth and green grass. He wondered what she would have thought about that; she'd hated being shut up, inside a box inside a room inside a house inside a city, more than content to roam for ever with no mention or suggestion of walls. She would have shit herself being shut in a coffin, excepting if she was dead.
Because she was.
It felt most abominably like waking up from a long and uneasy dream. Reconciling the Freya in his head and the bits of Freya rotting away in a box came together in Amarant's head like oil and water, like his digestion and Eiko's cooking. He'd had sunstroke, once; half-fried his brains in his skull, simmering like a stew, and the delirium he'd felt coming through that fever felt a little bit like this.
Felt vivid enough. He could smell the rain and the cotton curtains. Shit, Burmecia was a /hole/, the armpit at the end of the world, soddenly godforsaken, the kind of place an animal crawled to die -
Death again. Amarant's mind hurriedly slithered away from the concept before it could slyly pounce on his thoughts and beat them up for money. Instead he concentrated on how ill he felt and how hungry he was. Nausea battled with the rumble in his abdomen until he scrabbled for the white basin considerately placed beside his bed; what came up out of his guts was blood-flecked and hurt like almighty hell. The most dangerous part about having your lower bits punctured was your insides getting rot; back in civilization, where there was sterilization and healers, all you had to worry about was feeling like you'd spent the night in an alleyway with a cheap trick called Jym who'd tried making love to your bellybutton.
Well, now the nausea was gone, but he felt so weak that a Mu could have killed him gently with a feather pillow. Amarant collapsed, more than mildly helpless, back into the bed. He wanted a drink and he wanted thirty extra degrees of temperature and he wanted to have never taken the sea-tossed journey home to the Mist continent. His mind thus left defenseless in the face of growing self-pity, was cornered once more by the Concept, hurrying up sneakily from the side so that he couldn't run away.
It hadn't gelled when Dagger had told him and it wasn't gelling now, back in her homeland. Freyadead, Freya Passed Away. Freya plus death, meaning Freya Crescent was dead. Freya, Freija-go-bri/, Freya ya-ya sleeps-in-in-the-mornings with her silver hair sticking up like a wintry haystack. Freya who'd destroyed Death with him standing at rank, hulking body shooting forward in the wake of her leap. Freya of the bony ankles, Freya of the bony wrists, Freya whom he had approved of the moment she gave him the finger and challenged him with the warrior's way of walking down at the Alexandria docklands. He'd only /liked her far, far later, but a long-limbed rat with the wild-eyed promise of violence and a big spear had been something Amarant Coral could find real and true.
Freya the reason he'd left, Freya the reason he'd returned.
She'd probably done it just to spite him.
"Well," he addressed the window unsteadily, "see if I fuckin' care," and was promptly sick again. His mind kept pouncing, notwithstanding, pulling at the gash over and over and hardly giving him time to breathe or vomit or close his eyes.
Freya. Freya. Freija-go-bri -
"... The baby dragoons /smelled/." (The obvious insinuation was urine.) "They were idiot stupids."
Afternoon in Burmecia, light rain with hope of less cloud. Fratley, altogether too happy that a rather longsuffering Edda had not changed her mind despite logic and had agreed to take in Gudrun for threequarters of her nursery classes ("But please, my lord Sir Fratley, don't get your hopes up - I don't know if she's going to get anything out of these" - translation: she bites on her good days) was busily making afternoon tea of bread-and-dripping, with extra dripping on account of his daughter being a very good girl who had only snarled once - well, twice - and even nodded mulishly to yes-or-no questions.
"I thought they were very sweet." They had been very sweet, bright-eyed little things with their wooden spears shrieking with giggles at the end of a lesson and doing their best to demolish a straw dummy all together, bounding around as if they had springs in their feet. His daughter had obviously not found the scene charming; for all of her bluster, every moment she looked as if she wanted to sink deeper and deeper into her helmet like a pudding. "Milk or fruitwater?"
"'ter." She was under the table again; the reason being the healer was upstairs, tending to their visitor, hopefully involving a lot of stinging poultices and tinctures. Fratley had never felt so refreshingly uncharitable in his life.
There were her footsteps now; he smiled as the other Burmecian came in down the stairs, doctor's kit slung over her shoulder, looking as put-out as he felt content.
"And how is our patient, Gretchen?"
She merely gave him a bleak look, resettling her glasses on the end of her muzzle before she shuddered descriptively and headed towards the door. "Call me again if he worsens and don't let him move. Good day, my Lord."
"Ah, well," Fratley said vaguely to himself, as Gunny slowly deigned to crawl out from underneath the table and the fat spat on the griddle. He piled two pieces of steaming fried bread on a plate, judiciously simmering with fat, one hand groping for the dripping. "He's not dead yet."
Gudrun had been absolutely frenzied with excitement ever since it had happened, and that plaintive question had been on her lips for hours. He would have been pleased to see her take so much interest in anything, had it been anything but /this/. He had given her the answer a dozen times, not satisfying her by saying anything different, still snorting over the pertinent parts. "Amarant Coral. A... family... /friend/. Eat your dripping, my love."
Her mouth was busied with bread only for a few seconds before she managed to chew herself into coherency. "Why'd you stab him?"
"Do it again."
"Gudrun." The tone was forbidding, though Gods help him at that he had to quell a smile. "This topic is not for the dinner table."
"... hnng." They weren't at the dinner table, anyway. They were at the afternoon tea table. It became a dinner table at seven o'clock and a supper table at nine-fifteen. Gudrun tilted her helmet for maximum food intake, determined to get afternoon tea done with as quickly as possible so that she could go back to the game of asking. This was the most entertaining thing that had ever happened, /ever/.
Fratley saw through her ruse. "Chew everything twenty-five times or you'll choke. I'm going to take Mr. Coral up his food."
His nine-year-old swished her legs back and forth, swallowing thoughtfully, crimson leather bobbing up and down and the chair creaking ominously with the movement. She was going through another one of her slow growth spurts. He really needed to make her another chair. "Poison?"
"Little mouths at the table are for /chewing/, Gudrun!"
Gruel in a bowl; mild guilt stabbed at him, his own feelings' momentary treachery, and he was about to add more milk to it before he remembered that he was feeding Amarant Coral and took it up plain on a tray. Fratley held it before him like a shield, mounting the stairs soft and dry, rapping on the door smartly before opening it. Amarant was sitting up in bed with his red rough locks of hair spilled all over the bedhead, legs too long for the bed itself; his toes stuck out of the blankets.
"I want to fuckin' leave," he announced grimly.
"I'm sure you do. Here, eat up your gruel." Fratley would have cheerfully rammed it down his throat, bowl and all. His houseguest looked as if he had done just that when faced with it, tray on his lap, but extreme hunger won out and he lifted the bowl to his lips.
"Tastes like swampwater." Amarant wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, double over his short beard, looking up to see Fratley's retreating back and swishing tail as he made his way back down the stairs. "Hey, where're you goin'?"
He paused mid-step. There was a bright red ribbon on his tail, neat and dapper, that reminded Amarant of something he could not quite recall. "Back down to tea with my daughter, if you please, uninterrupted as you think whatever thoughts you care to."
The way he said it, daughter/, made Amarant's knuckles turn to lava. "Daughter, eh?" He slurped at the mess again, the grumble of his voice harsh and glassy and filled with sneer. (The way he said it, /daughter/, made Fratley's spine turn to ice.) "She's the crippled mongol-mouse, huh, just like Dagger said. No wonder Freya carked it when that - /thing burst out her hips. Must've been your side of the family, /Frats/, somebody inbred back there? Looks like one of your grandsires fucked a Garuda, I'd've drowned it, first thi - "
The bowl of gruel clattered to the floor, mercifully unbroken but certainly spilt, as Fratley leapt forward with an intake of breath and leapt nimbly to the bed. One of his deceptively light, arched feet pressed down on Amarant's bandaged midsection; before Amarant could move away, Fratley had pressed his foot down, lightning-quick. The Burmecian was perhaps out of practice, but so was Amarant, and the pressure made him snarl in pain.
"Here are a few rules," Fratley murmured, through clenched teeth. His dark eyes burned absolute fire. "You do not slander the name of my wife in my house." The foot added pressure. "You do not slander the name of my daughter in my house. You do not look at her the wrong way or I will kill you where you slouch, am I speaking with clarity?"
"I," said Amarant through equally clenched teeth, "'m gonna rip your fuckin' dick off."
"With your wound? Do try, Mr. Coral." All the hate and the misery and the venom had been put in his tongue, his mouth, spewing out like bile as the demons on his shoulders danced the fling. "Leave all you like; your stomach will ensure infection before you make it through the Grotto, and the dragons are being particularly pesky of late, I hear. Call the Queen to assist you out of here by Moogle post. It will take a few days, and I cook all your food." Fratley's smile bared nasty little teeth. "Do not underestimate my desire to see you die a slow, painful death."
One of Amarant's large, quick-killing hands with all those powerful fingers closed around his calf; he was a Burmecian, and he knew that the greenblue-skinned man could snap his bones like twigs. Fratley leant his weight further on the bandages; the grip wavered, and from the ensuing expression he thought that Amarant might be violently sick.
"If I ripped your leg off," Amarant said slowly, "Crescent would kill me."
"If I laced your food with ladybug spores," Fratley said evenly, "my wife would hate me."
The pressure lightened almost imperceptibly; the grip lessened just barely.
"It's the only reason I haven't - "
" - or I would've pulled the pike out'n shoved it through your eye first thing..."
"And ripped your wound open with my hands and pulled your innards out."
"In a fair fight, with a good wind, I might kill you."
"Try, Iron-brain," Amarant grunted. "Fighting fair is for pussies and big girl's blouses."
Fratley removed himself from standing on the bed and dusted himself off, wiping the gruel up with a napkin, the loathing in his voice all painted over with the peeling sunny cheer from before. "What a mess. I'll get you some more in a moment, there's lots. Excuse me, Mr. Coral, I must go and check on my daughter."
(The hate between them frothed like the sea, like the pull of the tides in and out, something steeped in horror that beat its wings against both of them and raised the short soft fuzz on the back of Fratley's neck rise and the muscles in Amarant's jaw ache. Horror; fear; jealousy; the slow-banked smouldering fire had been drawn to the top as if by poultice, and lived within them both. It lived deep within Fratley's stomach; it nested in Amarant's hands. The urge to tear the other into millions and millions of pieces was undeniable and heady and poisonous, now, /now/, for being him, for being him, for not being him, for being there, for not being there, for the hate hate hate that tore at the soft flesh of their eyes and their brains and then - )
As Fratley walked down the stairs he had to stop and lean against the wooden railing. For some odd reason he suddenly felt like weeping; it passed and he started again, back down to his daughter who had slithered down in her seat until her chin was at the table and her calves rested squarely on the floor. The helmet scraped against the wood like the beak of a crimson bird.
"Oh, Gudrun." Suddenly choked, he settled the bowl down on the sideboard, won over by rage and grief and possession. Fratley threw his arms around her shoulders, tugging her to sit upright, half-burying himself in her rain-and-grit smelling shoulder. He adored her, slithers and all, even the way she licked things off bread and refused to eat the actual vehicle most times and sat on things smaller than her and never brushed her hair. She would never be normal, she would always be his. "I love you, my Gunny. I do."
His nine-year-old squirmed unmercifully in his grip but eventually consented to be held, obviously with the hypothesis that her father was having one of his usual fits of insanity and might go away if not provoked. "/Mmmn/nffg."
"I do," he repeated, and for a moment wished as hard as he could that Amarant Coral had never come to his house.
Gudrun, seeing possible use to be gained from this, relaxed slightly in her father's inutterably embarrassing hug. "Who's the strangeman, Da?"
He let go of her, picking her helmet up and ruffling her wealth of hair, dropping it again on her head before she could protest as he bustled back to the kitchen with a smile. It was difficult to choke things down again, after so many years, after so long; after he had opened his eyes Amarant had remained, and thus it must be so. His voice was ruthlessly and kindly dismissive, in a way it never was. "He's just an ass, my pet. He's an - idiot stupid."
Gudrun was so shocked she ate her fried bread, even the crusts.
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