To Stand While Falling
By Gabi (email@example.com).
A/N: This was composed entirely spur of the moment. Blame Tami. I do.
The light was coming in gray and watery through the high arch window. It had once been stained, that evidence was left in the few shards of glass which still stuck out from the iron frame at disproportionate angles. The angle of the light was low, and as she watched it she could almost trace the shadows as they lengthened over the trim floorboards of the now condemned south attic of Palace Burmecia. It was cold and it was damp, wet from the seasonal rains that had set in centuries ago and never let up. The damp was in everything. In the wood, in the rough burlap and fine satin that she had curled up on, in her left leg, dull and aching where the dragon had risen huge and unknowable to slam her gracelessly into a cliffside without so much as a by-your-leave. That had been her first time, rough and unapologetic on a windswept hillside.
It had also been her first serious wound – an audible crunch of bones that she had heard more than felt and had almost appreciated from the sheer melody of it. It had never quite fully healed, although she was still as lithe and serpent quick as any dragoon could hope to be. That strike had been a lesson, a price paid, and the knowing had cost her. The damp still got into her leg sometimes, but there had been blood and bile and entrails on her partisan that day, and they had not been her own.
The first time is always the hardest. After it gets easier and easier until you could almost forget the pain and lingering scars of the first time. Except when it's damp, and the weather sets in.
Curse her for living in the only place on the continent where the rain and the wet were year round.
"Don't be stupid," his voice was low and almost half-interested, coming from where it was on the ruined divan. The divan had once been in the Queen's dressing room. A rip had split the bottom and its cotton stuffing spilled out like a decoutage of unflattering cleavage. The fading glass-blue light picked out his profile and his undisciplined slump, but did little to quantify anything more about his rather perfectly incomprehensible statement.
"Pardon me?" she asked, rolling on her stomach, the gray, gritty dirt of the burlap burning into her skin even as she did. It was a sad little bower that she had built, discarded sacking and a ruined dress that had once belonged to a crown princess who had long since gone to dust in the palace cemetery.
There was utter silence on the other end. There weren't even crickets up here. They had more sense. She was aggravated, rubbed wrong in the way she had come to secretly suspect that she delighted in. If she did not have some masochistic attraction to his perversity, there were few reasons why she would continue to keep his company. Witty conversationalist and genteel friend, he was not.
"You could at least gratify me with an answer. I haven't said anything in nearly half an hour. What have I done to convince you so surely of my idiocy, pray tell?"
"It's that look you get on your face. Half cross-eyed because you're thinking about something. Your tongue was out. Just a little. On the side." He leaned back and was lost even more to the dull gray shadows. The last remaining rays of light glittered cobwebby on the half strung harp he was leaning against. The incessant rain went on ever and always overhead, like a thousand sharp pins dropped from the sky at once and forever. She was cold.
"Well then I'm terribly sorry that my expression has offended your delicate sensibilities. I'll try to keep a closer handle on it in the future."
"It couldn't happen, so you might as well stop thinking about it." He didn't move, much, only settled a little more solidly against the harp. A few strings snapped under his bulk but he ignored them, ignored her, and she balled in a desperate little fury.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Air castles made of grass and twigs don't hold meat and bone people. You know that, Rat Princess."
"Dragon," she corrected without thinking before rushing forward with an icy fury, "You have no right to tell me what I can and cannot think about, Coral, and don't you dare presume to think that even if you had the right to tell me not to think about anything else between heaven and hell that you have any right to tell me not to think about that."
"Don't you charge at me like you want to stick your lance between my eyes, Ratty. It's not me you're railing at, dammit, and you know that. If it was, you wouldn't be here. Or I wouldn't be here. Do you think I want to be sitting in the dark in the leaking attic of some half-destroyed rat's nest of a building while you daydream yourself stupid humming some goddamned song? I could be some place else. I could be some place warm."
"I wasn't humming,"her fury drained out of her and she only rolled away again, curling against herself like a petulant child.
"You were. It went like this." Here he stopped and gave half-hearted atonal recital that sounded rather like someone beating a beaver to death with a chalkboard. "Damned most annoying thing I've ever heard."
"Well, when you put it that way, yes," she was forced to agree. After a pause, she finally asked, "I was humming?"
"Like a damn fool."
"I don't believe you."
"Want me to sing it again? Maybe it'll jog your memory."
"No, that's quite all right."
The rain was in her bones, aching in a familiar way, in a way that she welcomed. It was a hurt that was part of her, like her own name was part of her, like the lance thrust so sharply in the floorboards of the far corner was part of her, like the crumpled salmon coat and visor were part of her.
She caught him move and resettle out of the corner of her eye and turned sharply. He'd lit a match and it cast warm shadows on the sharp lines of his face.
"I dunno why you even wanted me
if all you were going to do is mope by your damned self all day. You
could do that just fine all by yourself."
"I'm not moping. I'm just thinking."
"Well, I'm sorry if my mood upsets you, papa-Amarant. I will try to be sweet and pleasing in the future," she snapped, suddenly feeling more than a little surly.
"Listen, Freya, you can martyr yourself on that lance of yours as much as you want but that's your choice. You're the one who always goes back to that lance. You're the one who always puts that damned ugly vinyl raincoat back on. You're the one who goes back to that shell of a man and your pretty little honor guard. You may harp about duty and responsibility all you want, but in the end no one forces your hand. You live in this goddamned half-deserted city because you want to."
It hurt the most the first time. After a while, you stopped thinking about it. It was just something you did to survive.
She launched herself at him like she would tear him apart with talons white and silky as the moon, but he didn't make a move to parry or throw her off. His claws were somewhere on the other side of the room, buried half-underneath an assortment of fragmentary pottery. She bulled into him like an angry child headbutting against a wall, and he took it without comment, although the harp behind him whined as it took the strain.
She curled against him like cat, a small bundle all limbs and smooth cool curves, whip-skinny tail bundling her all together like she was some sort of package. To: Amarant Coral, From: Freya Crescent, tidings of the season and all.
"Sometimes I think I hate you."
"Sometimes I think you should."
And he was warm, not warm-safe like a hearth fire that you curled up against to keep out the chill of the weather, he was warm-hot like a tea kettle you always burn yourself on because the handle has broken but you love it too much to throw out. Maybe the burn from the teapot and the fire in his arms were the way that she counted the rain-gray days, hurting to feel alive again, like the barest breath of the adrenaline rush of a full trance raining hellfire from the air. Peacetime is good for everyone but the warrior who knows nothing but the scream of coming down in a spiral of death to the point of a lance that fits as close as your bones. There was no one left to fight but herself.
She balled her fists and pushed against him hard, uncoiling like a snake, but he had the advantage in position and used her momentum to push her under him where she posed no immediate threat. Then he sat on her and she was strangely reminded of one of her elder cousins that solved all disputes with her by forcing her down and sitting on her until she agreed. No matter how much she squalled and wriggled as a child, she never had enough force to get him off of her. She went still and wondered if she was supposed to sit quietly and think about her transgressions.
"I've never understood it."
"What?" she asked, honestly puzzled. Was he talking about the lance or Fratley? Or maybe her raincoat.
"How you don't smell of mildew. Everyone and everything else I've ever come in contact with in this goddamned place smells of mildew. Even the fires."
"Well, I do try to take baths fairly frequently," she grunted. She was cutting her sentences because it was difficult to be eloquent with a great rock like him sitting steadily on her back.
"You smelled of mildew when I first met you. Mildew and superiority."
"Really? How does that smell?" she asked, more to pass the time than anything else. Despite his weight it was rather pleasant having him sit on her. He had no sharp points of elbows or knee-joints like her cousin.
"You charmer," she grunted half into the fabric of the divan.
"But it fell away after a while. I guess you started bathing better. I could almost stand the smell of you after a good fight."
"But when you came back here, it started to hang on you again. Not all the time. Not at this particular moment. The thing that I don't understand is why you seem to like it. If I smelled like mildew I'd do something about it."
"No you wouldn't."
"Okay, I wouldn't. I don't care what I smell like, but you would. That is, if you had any room for sense in your goddamned head."
She squirmed underneath him ineffectually.
"So what do you suggest I do, run off with you and set up houeskeeping in some sweet little cottage in Treno? I know, we can have three sweet little children and I'll name them all after you, darling."
He moved all at once, rolling off of her, off of the divan and onto his feet and collaring her in one move. He held her by the scruff of the thin cotton shirt she was wearing and looked at her hard in the feeble moonlight.
"I told you not to talk about it," his voice was lower and more gravelly even than normal, and there was a vicious glassiness to it.
She squirmed once suddenly as she hung and came out of her shirt like a lizard losing a tail and was across the room and up her lance like a cat up a pole before he could react. She perched there, all bundled up on the top of it while he threw down her shirt and struck another match.
"Damnit Freya, you could've at least picked some place dry."
The roof was leaking furiously right over her head, wetting her hair slick against her neck, as if the whole sky wanted to come down on her, to punish her for seeking a heat that was not domestic in origin. Here in the rain, on the lance, she was Freya Crescent. She was a respected Royal Dragoon. She knew herself, knew the ache in her leg, knew the man she had to go back to, knew his Iron-tail and his empty head.
But that wasn't right, not really. The ache in her leg went with her wherever she went. It had followed her all over Gaia, over mountains, under oceans and even into that upside down mirror world Terra. Her name was Freya Crescent, not School Marm Freya, not Freya the Rebuilder, not Nurse and Caregiver Freya. She had smelled like piss to him when they'd first met? Maybe piss and vinegar. The lance had been keeping her up for too long. She'd forgotten that she'd once stood on her own.
"Let's go out and kill something," she said suddenly, slipping down the lance like a pole. She was once again within cuffing distance before he could react. The warm glow of the match that was burning down to his fingers made her feel more alive than she had in weeks, more alive since her last trance had burnt itself out around her and she fallen back to the ground like a star.
"Before or after you put your shirt back on?" he grunted, toeing it with his bare foot.
She looked at it where it lay and hugged herself around the waist. She chose to ignore his question.
"If you weren't here, then where would you be?" she asked, as his match finally gutted out between the stubs of his fingers.
He grunted, then breathed in the scent of her hair, which contrary to previous sentiment, smelled nothing like mildew, and brushed a hand rough-soft down the length of her spine, catching her flipping tail.
"You damned idiot. I wouldn't be anywhere else."