A Bit of Ash

By Kay

Disclaimer: I don't own Inkheart or its characters. The books sit on my shelf, well-loved.

Author's Notes: I wrote this after reading Inkspell, so there are no spoilers for Inkdeath in it. I haven't even finished Inkdeath. But there are definitely spoilers for Inkspell. Revolves around Farid and the events immediately following the book. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for reading!

He didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.
- Clarence Kelland, on fathers

He tries not to think about it. If he thinks about it, the world goes a little white at the edges and Meggie will catch him swaying again. Farid hates to worry her.

For all his determination, Farid feels a weight pressing down on his thin shoulders (there isn't even a scar left behind from Basta's knife) that makes his steps drag and breaths halting. At night, he cries sometimes. It makes his eyes gummy and sore, though, so he tries not to. He thinks Dustfinger would be exasperated with him if the man knew Farid sobbed so much. So he tries his best. And there's Meggie, too—a few nights, before Silvertongue calls her away, she'll stay with him until sleep comes and Farid will feel as though he has fallen into her eyes.

But mostly he tries not to think about it.

The martens squirm in Dustfinger's backpack. It's very large, really, for his own back. He's used to carrying it. Too often, his heart wars with whether to call it a burden or one of the precious few things left to him. "I'm just keeping it until he's back," is what he tells Meggie, once. He likes to run his fingers over the fabric and when they bed down in the dark, he uses it as a pillow and inhales the lingering scent of smoke and herbs and marten. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend well enough—Farid has never been good at making up stories, but he can conjure, on a single whim, a melancholy smile or a red spark against the pitch black.

During the day, he runs errands for Orpheus. Gathers him food, although all the rotten man ever wants are the things Farid has neither the capability or the money to buy. Cleans his clothes in the river. Answers his annoying, insipid questions. Fetches him whatever his heart desires, within reason and expense. Cheeseface is still an arrogant, untrustworthy bastard, but he may be the key and Farid isn't willing to risk Dustfinger one single time more. He does all that's asked of him and more. He thinks, once, that Dustfinger would have frowned to see the new sores that have sprung from splinter and labor alike on his hands. Burns make for better and more suitable marks. But then Farid thinks of that no more.

Gwin and Jinx miss their master, too. They cling to Farid now, as though suspicious he will disappear, as well. He takes comfort in their presence and dark, beady gazes, the way their twitching tails curl about his neck. Sometimes he looks at them and sees himself—an ignorant omen of death that had pattered at Dustfinger's heels.

It takes a few days of traveling with the man who plays with fire before Farid truly settles into this new world. Soon, the memory of being thirsty becomes dim. Hollow bellies and bruised bones are only shadows from another lifetime.

Farid forgets his story because there is nothing left in that barren landscape for him. The sun had been unkind; the men there, worse. Hunger had been his only constant companion that he could trust. He'd been terrified when Silvertongue first pulled him out of the familiar, long ache of his life, but time and smiles soften the blow. And then there is Dustfinger. Flame charmer, but better, not like the old men in their turbans who swallow paltry matches and swords in Farid's old country. As easily as a bit of ash clings to Dustfinger's coat, so does Farid. It is how the man speaks, how he walks, how his touch, rare as it is, comes gently, as carefully as though anything in the world could burn him worse than his constant friend, paper and wood eater.

Farid knows that it doesn't matter what story he stands in so long as he's with Dustfinger. He's never met anyone remotely like him. That alone speaks of his worth and Farid often feels, somewhat foolishly, as though he's found an unpolished coin in a dune all for himself. Put any type of gold up to the sun and it will glint true.

In the light of day, Dustfinger has kind eyes.

He thinks about finding a way to bring the White Women to him for a while. Surely, if Farid could summon them, they'd prefer a younger fire user for their entertainment? But there is no surety and Farid is all too aware that Dustfinger is the best, has always been the best, and the trade would be ludicrous. And to be truthful, he doesn't just want Dustfinger alive—Farid wants him alive, with him, together. He misses traveling on the roads and sleeping under the trees. Learning fire tricks by moonlight. Having someone to scoff away the dead.

Even Roxane's farm would be better. Farid could learn to live under her roof and share Dustfinger with her. Though it's unlikely she would allow Farid to ever enter her home again, given the last time he'd seen her—and oh, how that memory churns in his stomach, burning as though he's swallowed fire elves, her cold eyes as she stood over her lover's body. Dustfinger, through her, is lost to Farid. He wants to hate her for that. But Farid feels nothing strongly anymore; he's no energy for hate. He has to keep it up to run more errands for Cheeseface until the traitor gives Farid what he wants. No, all Farid carries in his chest now is a dull ache, some unpleasant mixture of agony and love. Meggie gives him the word "longing" to use for it.

He's never been dealt such pain. In his own story, the only hurt was hunger. The only fear was of ghosts, never loss. Had there ever been something to lose beyond his life? Farid has things now: Meggie and her family's wary kindness, a backpack that isn't his own, two martens that nibble his fingernails, a pair of shoes, a bulky sweater Dustfinger bought him that itches his neck, a knife, soot streaks, a children's silver charm, and a bit of twine in his pocket. He once had Dustfinger, but now he knows how all the families he'd helped thieves rob had felt.

White Women don't come to a whisper, even in the language of flames.

Dustfinger isn't the only one bearing scars. By firelight trickling from his fingers, Farid shows the man one night, lifting his shirt and tracing the thin, pale line on the small of his back. It stands out against the dark skin and glows pink when the flame lights upon it. "From another boy, who was older. We split what little bread they gave us, but he wanted it all!" Farid explains, brushing his thumb along the old wound. "And I always scouted much better than he did. He hated that. He used a sharp rock, and then he sat on my back and ground sand into it. But I did not cry."

Dustfinger reaches out and for a moment, Farid almost believes the fire-user will touch him. But some of Farid's surprise must show in his face, because the fingers stop short and tuck back towards the man's body. His face shows nothing, but then he smiles. "That's very brave of you."

As quick as a rabbit, Farid can feel his heart fluttering.

On the most clear-headed of his days, Farid wavers between horror and being flattered, almost, in a strangely miserable way. He would have never wished this on his Dustfinger. It had been his job to protect the man, to keep watch for him. Farid considers this to be the most important honor of his short lifetime. Eventually, as time blunts the pain, Farid can feel a glimmer of tentative happiness that Dustfinger had felt so much for him, to do this, his tenacity for life vanquished beneath a single boy's closed eyes. It's not quite joy, but it's something fierce and overwhelmingly glad.

But then, Farid would trade anything to make it not so. Better for Dustfinger to have hated him and let him die than this. Anything but this. Dustfinger's love hurts too terribly, burns too harsh. Now that Farid has it, he doesn't know whether to cast it away before it eats him alive or clutch it fast to his chest until it's the beautiful end of him.

He does not look like Dustfinger's son. Oh, it's there to see—the trusting swell of flames under his guidance, the length of his stride he'd automatically fallen into, a certain watchfulness Farid has learned from Dustfinger that settles in the eyes and lingers like moisture in air after a rain spell. But these are things taught. Farid has nothing of Dustfinger in his face, in his skin, in his bones. Whatever resemblance had existed died with Dustfinger. There is no one to compare Farid to now, and he is alone. At least before he was "maybe" someone's son.

He searches for a hint that it's meant to be in the surface of every body of water or every mirror they come to. He finds nothing but weariness. Lines at his eyes. A solemn dip to his mouth.

It's the loneliness, really.

It gnaws at him as though starving, leaving nothing left of Farid for the birds.

In the mornings, he goes out and pulls weeds growing near the fence so they don't creep into the garden. Not for Roxane—she still stares at his face as though an old nightmare has come back, but is not frightening anymore, merely distasteful—but for Dustfinger to spark more flowers for Jehan. Farid doesn't mind Jehan. He envies him, of course, but he can't find the same measure of suspicion he holds for Roxane. Jehan doesn't seem to realize what he's found in having a father like Dustfinger, a mistake Farid understands as an advantage in his favor.

Besides, there's something quiet and simple and sweet about watching the boy's face as the flowers unfold. Farid wonders if Jehan would clap the same if he tries.

The farm isn't terrible. It isn't what Farid had expected—the days where Dustfinger watches as Farid pleases the crowds with the other players are the best, the most familiar—but it doesn't grate on him anymore. Roxane ignores him and Jehan can't remember his name, but Dustfinger is here. Farid is fed. Given a place to sleep and eat. He wonders, anxiousness crawling into his heart at night, when they will give him something more permanent. A bed can be moved, a bowl taken away. Dustfinger will not send him off, Farid knows, but he wonders if Roxane knows that.

"The both of you are really too alike," Dustfinger tells him one day, as Roxane stares impassively at an equally stubborn Farid from the porch. "Each seeing a part that doesn't belong to you, so you want to cut it away. But I'm not having that, as I like to be a whole person."

Farid frowns at Roxane and is glad she can't hear them. He says, "I won't have her cutting me away."

Orpheus won't read for Farid.

He's too busy getting to know this world and surviving. Both are exhausting tasks. "The more prepared I am, the more successful my masterpiece will be," he loftily explains to Farid, every time the boy accuses him of sloth. "You wouldn't want this to fail and mess up poor Dustfinger even more, would you?"

No. No, Farid doesn't want that. He holds his tongue.

Each day is like a sliver of metal lodged into his esophagus, stealing words. Without Dustfinger, Farid becomes a silent slip of a boy. Meggie can coax the most from his mouth, aided by timid touches and kisses to guide the sounds, but even then, Farid feels pained when he releases them. There seems to be no point without Dustfinger to hear. But he tries, nevertheless—the reason he's alive now in this story is because Farid is, if anything, a survivor. He wants to live. He wants to live so badly he can taste the irritation of Death as it hovers behind him.

He just wants Dustfinger more.

"Soon, I'll have nothing left to teach you," Dustfinger muses. He runs his fingers across the branch in his lap, searching out knots in the wood. He's showing Farid how to carve a strong walking stick. Farid thinks he will never need one, but it's soothing to watch so he says nothing.

The rain has come and gone, leaving pools of water in the garden. It smells of wet earth here. Farid likes to inhale it. Rain, another thing he's grown fond of, even if it sputters fire and makes him shiver with the cold. "No, I'll never be as good as you," he murmurs. Dustfinger presses a knife into the green wick and it seems almost like another form of magic, the tender gestures from this man with bare traces of whiskers. "And I know you have your secrets. All men do. But you'll show me them someday, won't you?"

Dustfinger smiles. "Give you all of my secrets? That would be like giving you all of myself. No man would be that stupid. Come here and touch this, now. Bend it at the middle. You can test the wood this way."

Farid stretches his arm forward. He doesn't say that he's given away what few secrets were left to him to Dustfinger because he doesn't want to seem stupid. They were never precious, anyway, nor terribly impressive. Perhaps there is no gain to keeping worthless secrets, but he feels better knowing they don't belong to him anymore, all the same. They're in a safe place.

The branch feels damp and young between his fingernails. When Farid glances up with a grin, Dustfinger's own expression is unreadable.

Farid dreams.

In his dream, there are doors in the sand dunes. Some are patched, some are metal like in Meggie's world, some are covered in the red skirt that Roxane wears just for Dustfinger. Farid wanders past them like a ghost, searching but never seeing. Sometimes his fingers light upon a doorknob for an instant before trailing away. Somewhere, his heart is frantically beating.

He's sure he can find it if he keeps looking.

'Give me a story,' he whispers, unable to hear his own words. There's only one story he wants and it has ended. How can Meggie love books so much when every time a cover closes, it feels like this? He's left so much behind in it.

In his dream, Farid searches for a word to call for Dustfinger, but that word won't come to his lips. Perhaps the man named himself in his final act, but Farid knows to say it would rend the last protection out of his body, leaving it open for despair to claw deep into his insides and nest. No, this he will only say to Dustfinger's face as it gazes back down at him. To the wry, sad smile and silver scars.

Instead, Farid creates a trail of fire blossoms and ash. When he wakes, his pillow is black with soot and Gwin and Jinks' thin bodies warm his neck and hip bone. If this were a story, it would end unlike this, but it's not and so Farid only trembles in the morning.

The End