Four birthdays and a funeral
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Warnings/notes: part pre-series AU, part post-series AU, Tarrant/Almea and Damien/Tarrant, ooc?

Disclaimer: The wondrous world of the ColdFire-trilogy was created by C.S. Friedman.

written at 18th January 2008, by Misura, as a birthday-quickie for Alighiera.
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On Almea's fifteenth birthday, her father throws her a party - a proper one, not one like the year before, where none of the guests looked at her more than once, disappearing elsewhere after having shaken her hand and telling her how they can see she'll grow into a beautiful lady some day (as if she doesn't know, as if she isn't a lady already, and plenty grown-up enough to know what they really mean).

She's been taking dancing-lessons for over five years - more than enough time to learn how to make up for most men not having the slighest clue how to lead as a gentleman should, according to her teacher, or at least how to avoid stepping on her feet. Her father picked her dress though; her mother fussed over the model for a whole two months. (In spite of that, it's turned out quite lovely.)

"According to some, a servant of the Church ought not to be allowed to dance with a beautiful young lady," her current partner murmurs, with a slight smile.

"I'm fifteen," says Almea, and then, when any immediate reply to that fails to come: "Why not?"

He's been introduced to her, she knows - along with dozens upon dozens of others. She can't quite recollect his name at the moment, and it would be very rude to ask, even though he'd probably only smile at her some more if she did ask. He seems to be doing a lot of that, and Almea has to admit to herself that it's an expression that looks good on him.

"Jealousy?" he suggests, glancing to the side, where Almea's father stands talking to a group of people, most of whom look like soldiers, bearded and unsmiling. "In this particular case," he continues, "I fully understand their feelings, of course. You dance very well."

"Thank you." It's warm in the room, with all the candles and so many people. It's only natural she'd be feeling a little flushed. "As do you."

x

"She asked for them." Gerald, damn him, is giving her one of those looks again that tell her he's absolutely, completely and utterly not understanding her point. It doesn't help that usually, situations like these resolve themselves by his doing exactly as he pleases and her giving up.

It's Alix's seventh birthday tomorrow; during the past two months she's barely done anything but make sure everything will be in order for the (small) celebration, involving only some close friends and, of course, her parents. Her father-in-law has made some excuse, as usual, his message accompanied by a handsome if not very expensive piece of jewelry Alix might be able to wear in another ten year's time. She hasn't even bothered with inviting her brothers-in-law; she doesn't much like them, and Gerald has outright told her he's prayed for them to drop dead more than once, adding that of course, that was before he'd taken his vows to serve and protect the Church.

"She's only six years old!" No, no - not a good argument, that. "What will my parents say?" And that one's even worse. "You could have told me about this sooner!"

Boxes of toy-soldiers don't simply grow on trees; she knows that quite well. Especially not one such as the one standing on the table in front of her.

"I'm sorry." Not for wanting to turn their daughter into a female general, obviously - just for not having told her about it sooner. "I've been busy." Not so much as a hint that he hasn't been the only one. She wonders if he's even noticed, or if he's simply been glad not to have her drag him away from his books and research and artifacts every once in a while.

"You'll be there tomorrow, won't you? You promised." She was suspicious when he offered to take care of the gift; it sounded too much like a bribe, like something he was going to do to make up for not being there himself.

"I promised," he agrees, smile faint, but still there, to remind her.

x

Had someone asked Damien Kilcannon Vryce how he'd have preferred to spend his birthday, he'd probably have replied that he didn't care too much as long as it didn't involve any life-threatening situations, or crises of faith, or undead sorcerers, or a combination thereof. Dinner with a beautiful woman would have sounded perfect; more than he'd dared hope for, really.

Just went to show, Damien supposed.

"Damien, are you listening to me?"

Tarrant, damn him, would probably have found this whole thing very amusing. In fact (and Damien was very careful to shove this thought to the very back of his mind) he might be finding it amusing. Damien knew he wouldn't put anything past the man ... undead guy ... bastard.

"Yes," he tried, without much hope. Women had a kind of sixth sense for things like these, it seemed. Not that Damien had the slightest idea what 'things like these' were, he hastened to assure himself. Problems? He? Not at all. Just some personification of everything that was evil messing with his mind. No reason to worry at all, was it? Damn him.

Ciani sighed. "You should finish your wine before it gets luke-warm. It's too late for the rest of your dinner, I'm afraid." She comforted herself with the knowledge that she'd eaten well, and once again, as usual, on another's expenses. In the company of someone not at all bad-looking, and more than capable of carrying on an interesting conversation, if he set his mind to it.

"Oh," said Damien.

"The Forest isn't that far from here, you know," she said. "You could ... " She left the sentence unfinished, leaving it to his imagination to fill in the ending.

"No, I couldn't," said Damien. "Besides, the Hunter only takes women. Everyone knows that."

"Yes," she agreed, knowing the blandness of her tone, her lack of horror would only widen the gap between the two of them. She knew a lost cause when she saw one though, and the idea of taking Damien Vryce home with her tonight was definitely a lost cause. "And there's nothing more to the man than the Hunter, is there?"

Damien stared at his wine, sighed.

Ciani signaled a waiter to bring the tab, trying to be distantly amused, instead of feeling sorry for Damien (for him and Gerald both, perhaps) and the smallest bit disappointed.

x

It wasn't that much, Damien told himself. A coincidence, really. He happened to have made some money, and no real need to buy anything that'd be of a longer lasting use than a single good meal. It certainly wasn't as if he was celebrating anything - what had ever happened on this date that he'd want to celebrate, after all? Nothing he would still remember after a few bottles of good wine. He hoped.

The nice thing about places that were a little more expensive than he could usually afford was that people generally didn't bother you. No idiots trying to pick a fight just because you looked like someone with nothing left to lose but a modestly filled pouch.

"Here for a special occasion?"

He looked up, looked away, and counted the number of empty bottles on the table - as there was only one, and it was still half-full (or half-empty), that didn't take a lot of time. Presumably, that meant he wasn't drunk. Possibly, that meant he wasn't seeing things ... people that weren't there.

Probably, that meant he'd finally gone and lost his mind. A bit later than he'd expected it to happen, all things considered. Unfair, in a sense, to put him through so much while he'd been still fully, painfully sane, and then have him go insane just when he was about ready to get a move on with his life, leave the bad stuff buried behind him and start to feel grateful for what he'd got left, for all that it wasn't all that much.

The product of his insanity sat down opposite him and poured itself a glass of wine, raising an eyebrow at him. A waiter discretely put down another glass, alerting Damien to two facts: firstly, that if he'd lost his mind, he was apparently far enough gone to imagine other people sharing his delusions, and secondly, that someone whose name he wasn't going to think of was drinking wine from the same glass Damien had drunk from. Putting his lips where Damien's lips had been - and if that idea occuring to him didn't prove he wasn't quite himself anymore, Damien didn't know what would.

"A ... a birthday," he managed. "Of sorts," he added.

"A birthday." The word seemed to be tasted, like the wine had been, a few seconds earlier.

"Well, it's better than celebrating the day someone died, isn't it?" Damien snapped, picking up the menu again, even though he'd ordered already.

"I suppose that would depend on how fond you were of the someone in question."

The smile was familiar, moreso than the face. Damien swallowed.

"Just don't think I'm going to pay for your meal. If you want to eat, you can pay for it yourself."

the end