The Other Word for Sorrow is Joy
Post-series, spoilers. Prompt: 'wedding, sophie & alex, marrying vincent' from Nat.
The match is both simpler and harder than he expects. Sophia is in control. Which was completely predictable; Sophia is the Empress-Queen of two nations, last of her bloodline and last of an era. In a world where the power of the Guild has been shattered and Anatoray and Disith are scrambling to understand one another as allies, she cannot afford to be anything less.
For the sake of them all, she must be strong.
And Vincent? Despite his confidence and charm, he is willing to let her take the lead. Sophia is a woman who has been through much, and there is some measure of sympathy in him for her. He cannot make the world a gentle place for her to rule overnight, but it would be an insult if he could. She is tougher than that. They have both survived a war.
Their wedding is met with muted public appreciation. Vincent is military. His Urbanus served well enough during the conflicts, and though he suffered through a temporary demotion, Sophia's forgiveness is enough to restore him to good grace. Even so, there is gossip. It is both distasteful and logical for an Admiral to wed an Empress. Distasteful, because he is technically her subordinate; logical, because there is no one else left who might be appropriate.
When the marriage celebration had dwindled to a soft roar down the halls, and they were left alone in their massively elaborate bedroom -- two dressing tables, large closets, monsterously bloated bed -- Vincent hadn't known what to say. He had tried to be conscientious. They had made it as far as his shirt unbuttoned and the lacings of her gown undone, but when he reached forward to slide the garments off her shoulders, Sophia had flinched away.
He spent the night sleepless, staring up at the canopy above both their heads, and listened to his new wife breathe jaggedly into her pillow.
Afterwards, he walked carefully while in her presence, unwilling to cross whatever boundaries she had drawn for herself -- but no, she said, coming to him the next night. No. Heirs are important. And she was in charge, so Vincent let her take his hand, and allowed her to run his fingers over her body, resting gently on her nipples. Sophia was making her decision, so Vincent let her push him back, step by step, until he was on the bed and she was moving her knees across his thighs, satin skirts crumpling. He let her open his breeches and encourage him to readiness with her mouth. His hands trembled on the sheets, helpless and slack.
He let go of everything then: every last idea of perfection, every thought of the future he had envisioned when Sophia's ministers had come to him with her proposal. Sophia's determination was a solid beast straddling him. Her jaw was set in a grim line, as if he was another obstacle for him to overcome in her bitter determination to survive. Her hair had come undone. He reached up to brush it away from her face, and watched the strands tangle in his fingers, each one so delicate and yet so strong.
When her muscles clenched around him in a hot caress, he pretended he did not hear her crying someone else's name.
Afterwards, he had gently wiped her clean with a corner of his shirt, and made them both coffee.
Vincent does not keep to illusions any longer. Reality is good enough. He has a secure position in the military and a comfortable retirement waiting. His wife becomes more beautiful with each passing day, layering her ship's discipline with courtly tact. They are brilliantly efficient with one another in hundreds of ways, understanding the dance of trust and familiarity. War has not made her cruel; it will not make him jealous. It has left both of them mostly intact.
She closes her eyes whenever he is touching her. They rarely kiss one another on the lips. Her body shrinks away whenever he tries, tensing up on the bed; her head turns away and she grimaces in the moonlight, eyelids squeezed shut.
Vincent is a good man. At least, he tries to be. He is subordinate to his Empress and takes pleasure in his work; he knows he cannot replace Sophia's priorities, nor does he wish to try. Her course is set. She does what she must in her role, shouldering through her grief without allowing it show on her face.
In return, he supports her in every venture, like the best of First Officers. He offers unending reassurances, both in word and in deed. He flies ships for her and speaks with diplomats. He listens to her privately rail against the stubbornness of Disith trade officials, and makes her cup after cup of fresh coffee, hand-tailoring the blend each time.
At night, he brushes her hair when she is too weary to do it herself, and then kisses her brow before turning out the lights.
This, he thinks, is the gift that Alex Rowe has left behind for his friends to remember him by. This -- not the truth of the Exile, or the ruin of Delphine -- is the legacy that has been handed down, linking a chain from Euris to Alex to Sophia and now to Vincent himself. Of all things that could be said about him, Vincent is not a slow learner: it took no time at all for him to fall in love with someone who has already surrendered themselves to the dead.
When Sophia goes into labor with their first child, Vincent sits on the throne instead. Mostly, it serves as a place for him to wait. The court is on hold; there will be no official business conducted. Though Vincent is more than authorized to make the appropriate decisions, he has no intention of doing so in his wife's absence.
He misses Marius. None of the current officials are particularly good at taking initiative, which is why they are all alive, and Marius is lying cold in the ground. This, Vincent thinks, is justice. He is very careful not to think about other people who are dead because they also took initiative.
All his efforts in avoiding his own thoughts leave his mind looping aimlessly, like a bird with one wing flying tethered to a pole. He spins, and crashes often. Only gradually does he realize that the royal ministers are standing in clusters before the throne, their tight-pointed shoes pressing into the thinning carpet.
Vincent's cheek feels cool when he straightens up, taking it away from its slouch against his hand. "Is everything all right?"
One of the ministers -- he can never tell them apart, and doesn't want to -- wets his lips nervously before answering. "She is -- I mean. The Empress. She is still in labor."
Vincent glances around the chamber for a clock before giving up and gathering his pocketwatch chain in his fingers. He checks the hour. "And?"
"If anything goes wrong, your Highness," another pause, another fidget, "are you prepared to assume full leadership of the nations?"
"Why?" he responds carelessly. "Do you expect something will?"
He glances towards them; one flinches back, and that's when he wonders what sort of petty little machinations have been keeping them warm at night.
"I don't think you understand," something in him continues softly, moving his lips for him like a puppet. "If something goes wrong, there will be no nations left once I am through with them."
The absolute conviction shakes him, and that's when he knows, he knows how completely he has lost himself. To Sophia. To Alex. He's tasting it in his teeth and spit and throat, a lump of grief that has nothing to do with mourning.
He cannot take another loss. He cannot endure losing more. This is the wall inside him, that final line that remains once everything else has been surrendered: he cannot and will not let the world they have sacrificed so much for be dismissed so lightly. If Sophia dies through some childish attempt at political manipulation, Vincent will not accept the future.
Oh, Alex, he thinks in a burst of fresh understanding, and sighs.
As if spurred by his ultimatum, the ministers pass along their concerns to the doctors, who must have been suitably encouraged because the next time that Vincent finds his silence interrupted, there's a ring of expectant faces waiting for his attention. All of them appear relieved. The state of Sophia's health is still being attended to, they say, when they offer the child to him for examination -- but she is alive, she is alive.
He stares at the object they extend forth, swaddled in blankets of ivory and gold.
"Irene," he announces blankly. Sophia had discussed name choices with him before. Lavie, perhaps, or Tatiana, Alister, any number of acquaintances they might wish to honor through memory. The female options, at least, they'd had no difficulties discussing; in the end, they'd settled on some great-aunt of hers, some distant, innocent relative. Something untouched by conflict. "Irene Alzey Forrester."
It's only after much arguing and some visual proof that the doctors convince him that the child is, in fact, male.
Vincent isn't sure if he's entirely happy about that revelation. A male child will likely have more of a resemblance to him than to Sophia. If that is the case, neither one of them will be able to pretend that another man might have been standing here, serving as Emperor-Consort.
He carries the child with him to the room where Sophia is recovering. Tendrils of her hair have been slicked away from her temples, which are damp with sweat. She is flushed, and half-conscious. She is beautiful.
"A boy?" she whispers as he sits carefully at her side, offering over the child.
"Yes," he says wearily, "but what should we name him?"
Sophia looks at the babe, and he can see it in her face: the way that she struggles not to say a particular name, to avoid saddling the boy with a ghost that will never leave.
He feels the moment turn between them, as bitter and gritty as slop water.
"We could always raise it as a girl anyway," he suggests, entirely serious. Sophia groans and shoves ineffectively at him with a palm. The tension breaks, then; a nurse steps forward to warn Vincent not to agitate his wife, and if the poor dear could have some broth then she'd feel much better.
In the end, they choose a Disith name, as a sign of further union between the two nations. The boundaries between the lands are largely dissolved -- but there are a few stubborn patriots. There will always be a few patriots. Even in times of yearned-for peace, there remain voices of doubt. The boy will help to bridge that.
He starts the instruction of his son in chess before the child is old enough to understand that the pieces are little more than chew-toys. Not-Irene likes the black pieces more than the white. Vincent sets the water to boil as he listens to the happy, wet gurgling of gums on ivory; he makes endless cups of fresh coffee and lets Not-Irene breathe in the smell. He is deliberately careless with pronouns on purpose, calling the child he, she, it in public -- always where Sophia can hear -- and the humor is enough to keep his wife smiling even when she gives rebuke. Even if he cannot change the world overnight, Vincent can at least keep it entertaining.
They still do not kiss one another on the lips except when ceremony dictates -- but they make up for it in their own ways, her mouth hot on his neck while he moans into her hair. Too, they are gentle with one another, and this is a common ground that Vincent takes pride in maintaining; he does not think that Alex could have shared it with her, not in the way that Vincent can.
He does not know exactly how it would have gone, if he had died and Alex lived. Vincent is capable of guessing, just as he is capable of seeing how some of his officers follow him around with the hunger of their eyes and with the wistfulness of their voices. He turns a blind gaze to it all. He will not stray from his wife, who has managed to accomplish already what he and Alex would buckle under: she keeps herself alive in a world where she has lost so much, and she does not choose to ignore its existence.
In that, Vincent is proud. That strength is what led him to love her so much, just as he suspects that the bittersweet nature of Alex's disposition was what attracted Sophia. He does not ask his wife if she speaks to Alex's memory, but he does not have to: he watches the shape that her lips make when she is sprawled on the bed they share, regal as a goddess being debauched on silks. He listens to the name that she utters underneath her breath. He does not have to guess.
It is a strange triad of steps to dance through: the past, the future, and contentment between; the dead, the living, and the lost. Neither he nor Sophia can forget their fallen comrade-in-arms. Memory of the Guild can never entirely leave the two realms. Memory will haunt the living, but Vincent thinks he can survive through love of the dead. He can last as long as it takes.
Is this how you managed as well, Alex? he wonders, then laughs.