Dignity & Despair

Author's Note: I wrote the majority of this in the middle of the night. I'd been mulling over the possibility of something like this, and while trying to get to sleep a few lines sprung into my head and I felt an urgency to write them down before I forgot them. I ended up writing a bit more than a few fragmented lines, as you can very well see. And yes, the hints of Tel/Esme are quite intentional. I'm considering expanding this ficlet into a full-blown story, but with all the other projects crowding my mind it probably won't happen any time particularly soon. Though with my erratic muse, you never know. And: This wouldn't be a Kathy Tyers fanfic without the word "infinitesimally".

"So when you break, my arms they'll take hold of you I know your heart is a hand that takes hold of me"
- Sixpence None The Richer

Tel Tellai smoothed his dark purple sash over a long black tunic, then found suddenly that he really didn't care. Flicking imaginary dust from his trousers, a nervous habit, he glanced furtively towards the mirror once, and then strode out of the room, his thoughts teeming with uncertainty.

He wasn't sure he wanted to attend Muirnen Rogonin's funeral; it was already bringing up too many memories that he'd rather keep in the depths where he'd stowed them. As head of House Tellai, however, he could hardly shirk a state funeral.

He remembered, with a painful abruptness, Queen Siwann's funeral—almost two years ago. Phoena had looked like a firebrand in her midnight blue gown, her eyes blazing with something not quite grief. Hair elegantly coifed, she'd allowed him to escort her to and from the funeral, had smiled coyly at him as he ushered her into the back of his groundcar. He remembered the way that smile burned, and how, even then, it had worried him a little—that, and the palpable lack of mourning she'd shown for her mother. Carradee Angelo, on the other hand, had looked unnaturally pale and nervous, ill-suited to her heavy black frock and the new crown weighing worry-lines on her brow.

Sometimes Tel scared himself at night, reaching towards the empty spaces in his too-large bed, waking with a flaming longing for the imagined pinnacle of perfection he'd deluded himself into believing his late wife to be.

Shoving down the painful recollections (it rather felt like swallowing something he hadn't quite chewed properly), he turned down through the mess of halls—who'd built this mad place, anyhow?—and pushed the ornamental exit door open, stepping into clouded sunlight, blinking at it dazedly, then pushing himself forwards again. There was nothing for it. With a last touch at his dark hair—he felt curiously light without a hat—he headed towards the lot where his chauffeur had the car waiting.

A few minutes later, he was striding towards the dark-garbed crowd beginning to cluster about Rogonin's burial plot. Shielding off his insecurity—something he'd gotten markedly good at—with several superficial attentions to clothing, he managed to lose himself amongst the people before anyone could spot him and shake his hand or make barbed remarks about where his sympathies lay. He never understood how Firebird did it: how she seemed to always keep herself so straight and proud and capable amidst the constant barrage of criticism. Sometimes on those same sleepless nights he thought that Firebird was what Phoena could have been, might have been if he'd somehow found a way to cure her of herself. People had always said the sisters were more alike than most gave them credit for, although Tel could picture the way Firebird would have snorted in disdain if anyone had told her this.

Tel looked across the crowd and found Esme Rogonin, gowned in plum and looking wan. He was vaguely surprised at the transformation: this was not the same cool, barbed Esmerield who had come to invite him to her debut ball what seemed so long ago. This Esme had lost much of her pride and looked small, and very young, and vulnerable—and hard. She had not quite lost her dignity. For a moment, a peculiar resemblance to Firebird smote Tel's mind, but he pushed it away. Thinking about either of the younger Angelo sisters bore the sort of sting he was trying to put out of his mind, at least when there were people about who could see his face.

After the words had been said and the Powers invoked, and Muirnen Rogonin's oversized burial-chest had been lowered into the ground, the subdued-looking crowd slowly milled away. Some, the ones who had not particularly liked Rogonin—Tel saw General Caldwell leading Firebird away, both bearing identical expressions of guarded relief—were quicker to leave, but those who had been in his circle lingered. Tel suspected that some of them were secretly glad Rogonin was dead: one less obstacle standing between themselves and power. The thought disgusted him, but he remembered when he had once considered himself a friend of Rogonin...

Glancing up at last, realising that he too had been lingering, he saw that most of the party had gone—and Esme was walking towards him, her pale face drawn, her green eyes resolute.

"Prince Tellai," she said when she'd reached him, with what Tel thought might be an effort at warmth. She offered her hand mechanically, and he bent over it as protocol demanded, touching it gently to his lips.

"Tel," he insisted softly, but firmly, clasping her hand in both of his for a moment. It was surprisingly cold.

She smiled a little, but Tel could see that her heart was not in it. Her arm made a nervous jerking motion toward him but then subsided, and she compressed her lips. "I would...like to thank you," she said hesitantly, "for what you have done for my family. And for me." Her eyes glittered for a moment until her lashes swooped down over the tears. "At least Father died an honourable death."

"Honourable." Tel couldn't, even for Esme, keep the scorn from his voice. "Do you really still—" He shook his head, trying to shake off the words as a dog might water. "I'm sorry. This is neither the time—nor the place—"

"No...I..." She pressed her lips together again. "I don't want to harbour pretenses about Father. I know now what he was...what we all were..." Her voice broke. "It's just—it's so difficult to come to the realisation that your father is not the paragon of virtue that you think he should be, and have him die before you have time to reconcile that understanding..." A tear slipped out of one of those startling green eyes. "There were so many things I wanted to ask..."

And Tel's heart broke for her, because he knew. He had gone through this same sort of horrified, grief-stricken self-doubt when Phoena died. Suddenly he felt a weird, tragic kinship with Esmerield Rogonin. They had both invested so much love and respect into a person, only to have it thrown back and filled with a sickening uncertainty. It was because of this that Tel reached out and tenderly brushed away the tear, his hand lingering on the pallour of her cheek. His gentle touch seemed to undo her completely, for she suddenly crumpled against him, her thin frame shaking with sobs. Startled, Tel awkwardly drew a tentative arm around her, again assailed by memories of Firebird, this time crying on his shoulder over her babies, and Caldwell far away in the Shuhr's stronghold. He drew a shuddering breath and realised that he, too, was weeping. Slowly, he pulled both arms around Esme; her human warmth comforting him as much as he supposed his must to her.

For a while they remained thus, Tel stroking Esme's long dark blonde hair comfortingly and Esme weeping into his sash. Tel discovered that he could rest his cheek on her hair, something Phoena's height and her staunch unwillingness to make herself vulnerable had always prevented. A curious warmth stole over him, and as Esme's sobs subsided, he drew away slowly.

She looked up at him with something like embarrassment, and grief, and something else, something very fragile in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered brokenly, more vulnerable than Tel had ever seen her. This new Esme he found wrenching. He touched her hand hesitantly and forced a brittle smile.

"I know."

Her eyes glinted again and she shut them, hard. After a moment she regained composure and straightened herself infinitesimally, commanding a bit more of that frail dignity she still clung to. She inclined her head. "Thank you, Tel," she said quietly, and turned to walk away.

Tel stared after her, seeing the despair in the incline of her shoulders and remembering the warmth of her in his arms, wanting suddenly and desperately to put her fragmented world to rights again.