The Winners of RPGC# 16: It takes Two...
"I don't give a single damn, ya fuckin' prick." Edric's voice echoed down the dungeon hallway.
"No one is to see her."
"Fuckin' hells, mate. I'm Edric Karst. I helped build this rebellion. Now open the damn door." There was little contest to that, and soon the cell door creaked open. Edric felt strange, muted, once he stepped in.
Leia sat in the corner, where she could look up out the slit of a window and see a crack of evening sky. She seemed smaller, somehow, deprived even of the little control she'd had over her future during her time recovering. Particularly when training the guards, she'd been very self-assured, but now she was just another prisoner.
"Tell me it's a lie." Edric said. He was unreadable, but clearly suppressing some kind of emotion. "Tell me you didn't lie to me!"
"And would you believe me if I did?" The words came out sharp, bitter, and Leia immediately regretted them. "My apologies. You, of all people, don't deserve that." She turned to look at him, pale blue eyes rimmed with the faintest hint of pink. "I didn't lie to you. I have not, not since I turned my back on the Inquisition and got you out of their dungeons. But it doesn't matter. People believe what they like. And am I not a prime example of that?" The crack of a smile that splintered her impassive expression was fragile, and the farthest thing from cheerful. A moment later it was gone.
"If it's not true, then why are people saying it? Why's this happening, Leia?"
"Because they caught the spy that they were intended to catch. It's how the game is played, and if you have to kill off a few pawns to topple an opponent's piece, so be it." She sighed. "I should have seen this coming." Her gaze had wandered away from Edric but now it returned, and her expression turned hard. "You realize that once I'm out of the way, you're next. You and Duncan. At least he's got the Freelands' queen on his side, for the moment, but the Emperor isn't going to let her keep him much longer. It's about symbols, not people. ...Promise me you'll watch your back?"
"I'm not gonna need to, because I'm going to figure this out." Edric took a deep breath.
"There's nothing to figure out," Leia interrupted gently. "There's no proof that I'm telling the truth. Any evidence that supports my story...well, I was an Inquisitor, and a good one. Alys is too smart not to see a way to put anything into the perspective of a long game. It's what I excelled at, after all. But Edric, this isn't a battle you can afford to be fighting. I know how this works. I'm flattered you want to -- but your rebellion needs you, far more than a single oathbreaker does."
Edric blustered at this, searched for words. Grigory saved him. "Useless, I tell you! I told you 'no visitors,' and what do you do? You allow a visitor!" Hearing Grigory berate the guards made Edric feel a little guilty. He turned around, and started to walk away, but he stopped at the door.
"You take care of yourself, Leia."
She chuckled. "I'll do what I can."
When the verdict was delivered, Leia accepted it with an impassive nod. She'd shown little in the way of emotion throughout the trial -- and, given what she knew of those involved, she'd come to the same conclusion on her own not long after being shoved into a cell. She'd had time to make as much peace with it as she was ever going to -- admittedly not much, but damned if she'd let them see that. It was hardly fair, but she'd stopped believing the world was more than a decade ago, when she was still a child. All that was left was to face her fate with dignity, and that much she could do, no matter how she felt like raging or sobbing. And really, can you say you do not deserve it? To the rebels, the Inquisition is an order of criminals. I worked horrors, necessary or otherwise.
It felt like she'd known this was how things would end since the moment Edric had insisted upon trying to keep her alive. All he'd done was delay the inevitable. I hope he doesn't take it too hard. He shouldn't -- but that hasn't stopped him before.
---When did I screw up?
It was a question he'd been routinely asking himself, this last day. It'd been 36 hours, give or take, since the sentencing, and he'd slept for only five of them. It was enough, though. He'd had longer stretches, mostly in the dungeons. He'd kept himself busy, since then, in the med tents. There were only so many patients, though, and soon enough he was filling out medicine order forms for Declan. His writing had never been neat, but now his scrawl was hasty, there was an almost desperation in his letters. If he stopped doing something, he'd think about Leia.Two days, Eddy.
"Oh no you don't." The thick-necked guard outside Leia's cell lightly pushed Edric back. "Nuh uh, not this time, Eddy. We've got strict orders." The other guard, one with a startlingly impressive mustache, looked at Edric apologetically.
"Terribly sorry, Captain." It was an empty title, now that he was no longer in any kind of military command, but these guys had been in his unit, back in the Freelands. He couldn't remember their names for the life of him. "You should leave."
"You're right." Edric said, nodding gravely. "I should." The first punch hit the thick-necked guard square in the nose and he stumbled backward, grunting in pain. The mustachioed guard stood there, mouth agape, fumbling for his sword. They'd been instructed to look out for lynch mobs or wannabe assassins, not Edric. They were under the impression that they were there more to keep Leia safe until her execution than to actually stop an escape. Edric grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and slammed the crown of his head into the bridge of the guard's nose. He was out like a light. The other guard had recovered and drawn his sword, but Edric was banking on the fact that he'd hesitate to use it. It was a well-placed bet, and he was able to close easily. He grabbed the guard by the throat and put his leg behind the guard's. It was a simple matter to push with the choking hand and take the man down. He toppled to the floor. Edric crouched down and punched him once more in the face, for good measure. He hadn't brought his cutlass, as much because he didn't want to arouse early suspicion by bringing a weapon to the dungeons as it was because he didn't think he could seriously use it against any of the rebels.
With the two guards in front of the cell taken care of, and the ones upstairs not yet alerted, Edric made his way to Leia's cell. He'd fished the keys off of the mustachioed guard and, after struggling for a moment, managed to unlock it.
Leia hadn't missed the racket outside her cell, and she was already on her feet -- but far from looking relieved, her expression was cold fury. "Edric Karst, what the fucking hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, lifting her her chin. If it wasn't for the dark circles under her eyes and her overall disheveled state, it would be easy to think that she was the one in control of the situation. Her words were the greatest indication that she was not -- she'd never been one to use "fuck", and hearing it from her was jarring.
"Duncan's dead, Leia." Edric managed a sheepish, sad smile. "I'm not going to sit on my hands while a friend dies. Not again."
Her eyes widened and the rage on her face faltered, turning into something closer to confusion before she regained her composure. "You're going to break your own rebellion apart, Edric," she told him, no longer as harsh but still angry. "The Empire is doing everything it can to tear you all down, and this will help them."
"This isn't my rebellion, not anymore." Edric opened the cell door as wide as it would go. "I've got nothing but respect for Cormac, but no rebellion of mine bows to a king." He'd been willing to overlook it previously, when it seemed like the only option. But after further thought, the radical in him reared its head. He'd not followed Duncan to take the throne, but to destroy it. Perhaps that was naive, but with Duncan gone, it seemed like Edric's insurrection was a thing of the past. Besides, he didn't think he could ever really become one of them again. Not after the Inquisitor he'd brought here had been convicted as a spy. "I'm crossing the Reach to see if I can drum up support against Osten there. You're welcome to come along, if you'd like."
She looked at him for a long moment, measuring his words. "You're sure about this, Edric?" she asked at last. "The minute I step out of this cell, there will be no turning back. You may never be welcome here again. Your rebellion will brand you a traitor. Are you prepared to live with that?"
"Not at all. But I'm less prepared to live with myself if I let an innocent be beheaded."
"You've a lot of nerve, calling me innocent." Her eyes glittered, perhaps with humor. "Alright then. ...But I'm not leaving without Illiachen."
"You know damn well what I meant." Edric grumbled, earning a soft chuckle. "Illiachen should be taken care of, if Deck and Dack came through." It was more than just Illiachen, of course. There was his own cutlass, as well as old, roughspun clothes that were going to be torn for scraps soon anyway.
"...I hope none of you regret this." Sadness flickered across her face before Leia squared her shoulders. "Very well. I'll follow your lead. Be aware, I'm weaker than I was a couple days ago."
"'I'll follow your lead.'" Edric repeated, smirking, as they stepped out of the cell. "I can't say I ever expected to hear that."
"I told you back on that boat."
"Right, but then I was too worried to really savor
it." Edric planned to follow that up with another jab, but he heard the guards upstairs calling to the unconscious ones. "Shit." He quickly reached for her collar, muttering the incantation he'd memorized the previous night.
Leia stumbled as the runes in the collar flared and faded from view, grabbing hold of Edric to keep her balance. Like stepping into sunlight after too long in the dark, the abrupt return of one of her senses was briefly disorienting. She pulled away with a sigh of relief and a smile, bending to grab a not the sword but rather the cloak of one of the guards. "Right. After you."
"I don't know if I can manage to keep from inflicting serious injury, with an unfamiliar blade. Not in my current state," she admitted softly as they climbed the stairs. The guards above weren't expecting trouble. They turned to look at the stairs, and with Edric leading nothing seemed amiss at first.
So none of them were prepared when they saw the condemned Inquisitor following him, even as his fist connected with the jaw of the nearest. Leia followed suit, charging the second with the cloak thrown to both distract and tangle. She struck not with a fist but rather a beak-fingered jab, aiming for weak points on arm, stomach, and neck. He went down quickly, and between the two of them the third guard didn't have time to do more than shout.
Of course, she didn't need to do more. "That'll be the alarm raised," Leia panted, looking around to get her bearings. Edric swore under his breath, but there was no time to be worrying about it. The pair took off into the shadows, and when the bells started ringing they'd already made good progress.
"If you think I'm jumping off another wall, you need to realize that was a one time thing," she half-joked as they climbed. Dakur was waiting for them, crouched in the lee of a tower. The presence of a rope was not completely unexpected, but certainly a great relief. Leia didn't do more than acknowledge the man with a nod, but she felt oddly drained, more than she would have anticipated from the magic suppression alone. "Edric, something's wrong," she said, leaning on the wall to catch her breath. "I should not be having this much trouble." Ordinarily she would not have said anything, but...he kept trusting her. The least she could do was be honest in return.
"Shit." Edric said, looking around, frantically. They weren't being pursued yet, so they had time, but this was troubling. "Was it the collar?"
"I don't think so, but--"
"Actually, it's my doing. Apologies, Leilani. This was more difficult than anticipated." Declan came into view. It was his voice, but the cadence and the way he moved were all wrong. One look at his eyes explained why, though Leia didn't even need that to recognize the real speaker.
"Illy, you -- oh curse it." They'd discuss the matter where they wouldn't be overheard. "Good to have you back." Edric's head snapped to Leilani, and he was surprised to see her with a faint smile.
"Your things, or what I saw of them." Illiachen handed over the satchel, nodding approvingly when she noted the one Dack had put together for Edric. She held out her physical form, but before she let go she pulled her wielder close, her tone shifting into gentle reproach. "You let it come far too close, Leia-syl
. Don't do it again." She waited long enough for a mute nod before kissing Leia on the forehead. "Take me and get out of here, you two. They're focused on the gates, but that won't last." The moment Declan's hand released its grip, the silver light in his eyes snuffed out and the presence vanished. Leia caught him, though it took Ed's help to keep the man steady while he regained his balance and his senses.
"Did your fucking sword-?" Edric stopped, surprised to find himself angry. He was on edge, he supposed. "He was taking it -- her -- here
"He'll be alright by tomorrow.”
"You sure?" Declan sounded worried. "Because my head feels like it got trampled by an ox. And so does the rest of my body, actually."
"I apologize." Leia rested a hand on Illiachen’s hilt as she looked over at the rope, then at Edric. "We need to move." To the two other men she gave a nod. "Thank you both." Without further conversation she took a deep breath and hoisted herself up onto the wall, then lowered herself down the side. It was slower than she would have done, if in better shape, but better not to fall. She'd done that once already. She gave the line a solid shake once she was on the ground, to let Edric know she was out of his way. Beyond the wall she could hear the bells still ringing, and every second she stayed still was a second less leeway they had. She found herself very much opposed to letting the rebels recapture her, now that she was free.
Edric, with far greater strength than he'd had during his last escape from a dungeon, managed to work his way down the wall at a respectable pace. When he reached the bottom, he tugged on the rope. Almost immediately, Dakur started pulling it up. The enormity of what he'd just done descended on him then, but he didn't feel as guilty as he'd expected. He supposed that if one spends eight years of their life rebelling against the established authority, it makes it easier to go against other authorities.
Even the ones you create.
He took a few breaths, and shivered. Yes, winter was all too clearly near. They'd have to move quickly.
"So. Ever been through the border forest?"
"I have, though not in years." Leia glanced around. "I don't know the way well enough to be a guide as such, but I can keep us going in more or less the right direction. Same goes for the pass through the Reach." She brushed her hair out of her face, regretting that she'd never had a chance to cut it. "You'll be okay handling whatever comes our way in there? I'm not going to be able to fight anymore until I've had some sleep."
Edric patted his cutlass and nodded confidently. "I'm reasonably sure." He took one last look at Ulricheim and sighed. "Well, then. You ready to go?"
The old elf that had spoken to her by dreams had warned her that if she accepted his offer, things might well get worse before they got better. It was odd for Amuné to be the one uncertain what someone else meant by what they said, instead of being the frustratingly vague one. It gave her unwelcome insight into what it must be like for others trying to work with her. Was it because of her decision? Was it because she'd tried to reach him on her own to tell him she would come, and pushed herself too far in the process? Was it unrelated, and there was just more danger surrounding those she cared about?
Whatever the reason, her dreams were increasingly troubled, and she was having more trouble shutting out visions. The night before she'd woken in a cold sweat, and pushed by some awareness she didn't even understand herself she'd grabbed her things and vanished into the night. She needed to leave her escort behind, though she was frightened by the thought that perhaps she was mistaken. But the impulse was too strong to ignore.
Now, with a full day's solo travel behind her, she still felt it was right but her thoughts were nothing but second guessing. Not for the first time, she wished she'd been born a simple healer. "But this trip will change things. They'll be better. Next time...next time you'll know the first night to say something, instead of waiting three days." The teenager brushed a stray tear from her face and carefully banked her little fire until it was just a dim glow of embers. "And won't Edric have my hide, when he learns that this time I was the one that was reckless." Maybe it was lingering guilt that drove her so strongly, keeping her from ignoring poorly-understood instincts after such a huge failure. Maybe it was Melindanar guiding her -- he'd said he'd be in touch, when she got closer, but how close was that supposed to be?
Worn out, she curled up in the hollow she'd chosen and before long she was fast asleep.
It was a few hours later that Duncan found her. The former leader of the Grand Insurgency was looking haggard, his hair longer than it had been and his beard uncomfortably thick. There were circles under his eyes, but they were bright and alert. They widened a bit when he saw who lay by the fire. He'd only been hoping for some warmth. Luck, it seemed, might not have abandoned him yet.
She seemed troubled, and Duncan knew her well enough to know she was having a nightmare. He gently kicked her shoulder and said, in a voice just above a whisper.
"Amuné." He wondered if word of his death had reached Ulricheim yet. He hoped not, otherwise his appearance above her in the middle of the night could be frightening. "Wake up."
She made a noise that fell somewhere between a sob and a whimper, no longer asleep but not awake enough to tell the different. "It's all falling apart, Duncan. This is just the start." She spoke in a mumble, not yet opening her eyes. Her face was twisted in distress. "The queen's hands are covered in blood, and some of it's yours. The pale-eyed rogue turns others, despite her best efforts. I can be where I'm needed or where I need to be, but not both. And all I see at night is disaster."
"Still in good cheer, I see." He mumbled, then dropped to one knee. Her words bothered him, but not so much as to unnerve him. "Amuné. I need you to wake up. C'mon, open your eyes." He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and shook her. "Up and at 'em."
"I don't want to look," she protested, pulling away and curling up. "But I can't keep from seeing." She spoke more clearly now, articulation damaged less by sleep and more by tears. "Even when I do it right. I watched them with Edric. I never said, but I was there. I saw Ulrichheim, when it fell. And you -- I don't know how many times I've seen you die now. Too many. Too many."
"Well, for a man who's died so many times, I feel pretty alive."
"I wish you'd stop being so friendly." Now she did lift her head and look at him. "It's my fault it happened. I was there, I watched it, and I thought it was a damned nightmare, not a vision. We were too late. I
was too late, all over again."
"Well, if you'd watched it, you'd know that I didn't actually die."
"He ran you through and shoved you out the window! I -- no, that was...there was a fire...." Amuné started with a snapped retort, but her own difficulty keeping it straight left her faltering.
"I slammed his face into a desk and set him on fire, actually."
This isn't real. It's not -- you're dead! Heavens above...it's happening. I've finally gone mad." Amuné pressed her hands against the side of her head, a laugh closer to a sob leaving her lips. "Even trained Seers can be too late, can't they?"
"For fuck's sake, Amuné, I'm real. You're fine!" His voice wasn't harsh, but it was firm.
"No you're not! The rescue party wasn't there in time. You were already dead. They killed you -- Ed got so smashed he couldn't talk straight--"
"They tried." He cleared his throat. "To kill me, that is, but I woke up before the assassin stabbed me--"
"--And Alys, she tried to sing, you know, that one song you play until everyone's sick of it --"
"--Fought him off and faked my death."
"--And I was still awake the next morning, and dammit, Duncan, stop doing this to me. Please. Go be dead somewhere else, I can't do this." She'd cried over him several times already, but the grief never really went away. It was always waiting for when she wasn't looking and then it'd come out of nowhere and just swallow her whole. How many years had it been before talking about her parents didn't make her throat close up?
Duncan sighed and pulled her into a tight hug. He'd seen her like this before, but never so bad.
"I'm here. I'm not dead." He whispered. "Come on. This is real. I'm real."
Amuné stiffened, the sort of mid-motion freeze that accompanied some of her visions. A moment later she made a garbled noise and flung her arms about him tight enough that she threatened his ribcage. She couldn't manage to say anything for some time, but when she did get something out, the first thing out of her mouth was, "Alys will kill you for this."
"I don't doubt it." He managed to squeak out. "Not at all."
It was well worth the couple hours of lost sleep to catch up with Duncan, to know he was alive and well. She had news for him too, filling him in on the flight from the Freelands, those they'd lost, the formation of the new country, and so many other things. Eventually, though, she had to broach a topic she was dreading. "Edric's back, you know. He'll be so glad to see you." The words were bright, but her tone indicated that there was more to it.
"Edric?" Duncan couldn't suppress a smile. "He got out? Did you guys rescue him?" He balked, in a joking show of offense. "Before me?"
"Leilani Suldevi got him out."
"Pardon?" Duncan wasn't quite sure he'd heard correctly.
"The half-Imperial Inquisitor? Shame of the Freelands?" Amuné grimaced and looked away. "And he brought her to Ulrichheim. She was in terrible shape on arrival, but...well, you know Ed. Heart big enough to make an easy target."
"But...she got him out, right?" He cocked an eyebrow. "I take it that means she wasn't actively against us. Unless..."
"Oh, that's what she said
. And...well, she was convincing. Even Grigory started believing her. I mean, we didn't exactly trust her with our backs, but...y'know.
"Then we find an Imperial spy trying to contact her. After she's supposedly gone rogue and turned her back on them. And she's been very clear that she's not supporting the Insurgency, and...." Amuné trailed off, shaking her head. "She's an Inquisitor. They're trained to mess with people's' heads. And she had him in that dungeon for...months. I've seen some of what was done. Far more than I wanted to, not nearly all of it. He won't believe she's using him, Duncan. And I don't know how to get him to. That's on top of the confidence he's lost. He's not entirely changed...but I think there is something wrong. Certainly where the Inquisitor is concerned."
Duncan was quiet for a moment, lips pursed. He sighed. "I can talk to him, when we get back. I take it she'll be long dead, by then, though." He stopped, as though remembering something. "Speaking of, what in the hell are you doing out here, anyway?"
"Del came through, with word from an elven Seer. ...I-I have to go. I need the training, desperately." Her shoulders slumped. "Doesn't mean I don't feel guilty for leaving, though. I'm needed in Ulrichheim too."
"Yeah, but what the hell are you doing out here alone?" He looked appalled. "It didn't to occur to you to take, well, anyone with you?"
"I did. But...I don't know. I needed to leave them. Maybe so you could find me?" Amuné's face twisted in frustration. "All I know is that I felt it as strongly as I've felt anything. Didn't even have a reason for it." She ran her hand through her hair with a sigh and waved in the direction she'd been travelling from. "If you want to find them, they're about a day thataway. But I get the feeling that you're not ready to go back just yet."
"Not without seeing you safely to the Pass, I'm not."
"Fair enough." She smiled, as much from relief as anything else. "It'll be good to spend some time with you before I have to split off on my own." She paused for a moment and nodded. "And I'll feel better about it with you around to keep an eye on Edric. I don't know that Alys would have been up to it, with you dead." Amuné realized the flaw in the plan. "Oh, but they still don't know! And I'm not sure I trust sending a message, even if I had a way to." The girl nibbled on her lip before she had to shrug. "It's the best we can do, I suppose. They'll manage a couple extra days." She looked up again, and slugged his arm. "Don't go faking your death again, you colossal jerk. You have no idea how miserable we were."
Leia watched Edric across their small campfire, her face unreadable. It was amazing just how little she understood him, even after all this time. Or maybe she did, but his motivations were simply altogether alien. Or maybe you've spent so long being bitter that you don't remember what it is to be bright.
Whatever the case, and no matter how many times she tried to just accept that this was how he was, it bothered her. She didn't like the idea of watching him be destroyed by the compassion he showed, and she'd seen it happen far too many times.
But it wasn't something she could really talk to him about.
Instead she broke the quiet with something else. "Mother thought favorably of Duncan. Not necessarily as a leader, but as a person."
"She was right to." Edric didn't look at her, but into the fire. It hissed and popped, and every noise it made caused the hair on the back of his neck to stand up, but he stopped himself from constantly scanning the surroundings. "He was my friend before he was my commander." The ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "Watching the same boy who used to drag me to the creek to try and spearfish, the same boy that would always convince me to go watch the old militiamen do their sword drills behind the grain storehouses, become the leader of the Insurgency was surreal. There was always some kind of dissonance, in my head, between Duncan the leader and Duncan the man." He grimaced. "Even more surreal to think he's gone." There were no sobs, wails, laments, or cries. He'd gotten the worst of it out back in Ulrichstead, and when he wasn't thinking of it, he could almost function as though everything were fine. But when he spoke of it, or if it even crossed his mind, he'd withdraw a bit.
He could never tell if he was sad or scared.
So long as he could remember, there had always been Duncan to turn to. It wasn't so much that Duncan was gone, hells, Edric hadn't seen him in what was fast becoming a year. The part that was hard to understand, the part that scared him, was that he'd continue to be gone, forever. He knew
that Duncan was dead, but knowing and believing were two very different things.
"As he was in life, so may he be remembered in death." It was the closest to a properly religious statement as the young woman had ever made.
"May it be so." Edric half-croaked, before clearing his throat. "So, ah, your sword. I'm not sure I've ever properly asked. Where's it- she- from?"
"I don't rightly know." Leia unbuckled the scabbard and shifted around the fire so Edric would be able to see as she settled the sheathed blade across her lap. "Mother carried her for very nearly her whole life. Before that, I know she belonged to my grandmother, but...we don't know much about her." Her words slowed. It wasn't exactly an easy topic to discuss. "Mother didn't always like discussing her parents. Well. Her mother -- to hear her speak, her father was some total stranger unworthy of the position."
"I understand that." Edric nodded. "My mother's parents were mercenaries I know, but little enough else. She told me their names, once, but it was so long ago, and she didn't like to talk about them." He looked over at her, finally breaking his eyes from the fire. "What about your father's parents?"
"Inquisition, mostly. His dad was a Lord Inquisitor, his grandmother Grand Inquisitor General, before she retired. Wonderful people....Probably kill me if I showed my face now, though." Leia grimaced. "Maybe not. Dad's family, they saw the Inquisition starting to stray years ago. It's part of why they served so faithfully, trying to keep it on track. ...Seems I did a real bang-up job of that." Heavy sarcasm crept into her voice. "That's where most of my extended family is, on my father's side. I've got an uncle on Mother's, and an awful bastard of a great-uncle, and...that's it. Well. And Illiachen. She's as much family as Uncle Gray."
"Speaking of." Edric glanced sideways at the sword. "Does your sword regularly hijack people's bodies, or is that just something she does with my friends and I?"
"Not usually, but she's a warrior by nature. I can get her to stand down most of the time, but not without speaking to her. ...Then again, she doesn't generally have cause." Leia snorted. "She says Declan wasn't nearly as impressive as you. Not that she gave him a chance. But if you'd been just a little slower with the collar she'd've burned him. That's more typical. I said I can't blame her...but I do apologize."
"I'm flattered." He scratched the back of his neck. "I think."
"Oh, I forgot to ask about it while we were running for our lives, but I was curious." He cleared his throat. "Those drawings, in the tunnels in the dungeons. You...seemed like you knew them.”
The question was not one Leia expected at all, but after a moment of surprise she shrugged. "Knew them? I drew them. Years ago, when my father was showing me around the catacombs. I made the chalk markers, too -- it was a game, though now I see it was also a lesson in wayfinding." Her expression turned distance, the sort of fond recollection that was easily identifiable. "Honestly, I didn't expect to see my terrible art still down there, but I guess there's little traffic."
Edric almost chuckled, not expecting so wholesome an answer. Even after all this time, Edric still found himself surprised at her little displays of humanity, of a childish side. He still had trouble separating Leia the Inquisitor from Leia the person, but he was making progress.
"Me and Duncan used to carve swear words into shop counters." He offered a smile. "Hey, you're an artist and I'm a writer. We should be heading to the Imperial University."
She snickered, and then laughed outright. "I think we'll learn more from the elves, if that's the sort of career you want to pursue. Though I have trouble picturing them accepting your...colorful descriptions." She started to say something else, but instead froze, listening, and slowly got to her feet. "We've company."
Amuné still felt driven in a particular direction, even after meeting up with Duncan. She wasn't sure what she expected to find, but this was not it. She was so shocked that she didn't even think to stay out of sight. "Fucking hells, Edric, what did you do?!"
Duncan stepped out next to her, half-smile on his face, joy at seeing his friend again overriding worry that his friend was travelling with an Inquisitor. "Not so sudden," he scolded playfully. "You'll give him a heart attack."
"You're dead." Edric stood up, suddenly, eyes widening and lip quivering "You're fucking dead."
"People keep saying that." Duncan sighed. "Heart's still beating; head's still wondering what the hell you're doing with a condemned traitor."
“...Duncan?” Edric’s voice cracked on the name and he stepped closer, only to stop short when Amuné blocked his way.
"No, you stay back." Amuné wasn't about to let him do something even more idiotic. If Alys was right, if Edric was under the Inquisitor's control, she wasn't going to lose Duncan again so soon. She even went so far as to draw her rapier, though she wasn't so sure she could use it against Edric.
“Amuné, it’s me. Put that thing away.”
“It’s you with a traitor who was sentenced to death.”
Edric shook his head, putting the pieces together. “No, that spy was meant
to get caught." His tone was pleading. "It's the sort of thing they'd do. They want Cormac to kill her for them." Duncan gave no answer, but looked at Amuné. He didn't think he knew enough to make a judgement just yet.
Amuné didn't know what to think. She was used to them looking at her for advice because she sometimes had it, but not always. "I...I don't know, Duncan. I can't be unbiased here. But I don't trust her at all." She paused. "Edric...she was sentenced. This isn't just about her anymore." The girl had to adjust her grip on her rapier and even then it shook. "You ignored your friends and defied your king. This...." She couldn't finish.
"And why's he king, anyway!" Edric couldn't help but shout. "Duncan's alive! Was this whole goddamn time!" He gestured emphatically to Duncan. "And wasn't the Insurgency founded on the fact that an old last name doesn't make you any better than the next person? Where was our election?" He was getting loud. "So we give our throne to a Callahan and because he's got a crown I'm expected to believe him when he says she's guilty and has to die?"
"Edric, this was always the emergency plan. If both of us were out of play, Alys was to go to Cormac. You know that."
"Yeah, go to him. Not give him a goddamn crown!"
"You swore loyalty, Edric. That...you didn't just go against him. You betrayed all of us." It was starting to sink in, what he'd done. What would happen because of it. "Even if we say nothing, you won't be able to come back. For fuck's sake, Edric, you promised me!" Amuné blinked away tears. Her family was falling apart.
"Oh, because you all needed me, didn't you?" Edric laughed, and it was bitter, a torrent of pent up resentment and anger bubbling out when he didn't especially want it to. "Because I was oh-so-necessary, doing fucking pity jobs
for Maxwell!" He took a breath, tried to steady himself, and failed. "Six goddamn months, I was in a dungeon. Everything went fine without me then. I won't stand by while she gets her head lopped off for a crime she didn't commit." He wheeled on Duncan. "And you! Why was I even your second? Because I was your friend?"
"Because I trusted you, you bastard!"
"Well, I can't do it. If being your second means being an expendable medic in the revolution I helped build, I can't do it. If it means I'm not even needed after a fire? I can't do it. And if it means letting her die, I can't do it." He took a shaky breath, finally coming down. "I'm sorry, but I'm not the rebel you want me to be."
Amuné couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Ed...you...How can you be saying this? How--" She couldn't finish, couldn't accept it. He was family, but that didn't seem to matter. "You fucking bastard!" she managed, choking on the words. She gave Duncan a look that said everything she couldn't articulate, and headed back into the woods.
"You two are my best friends! I thought, if anyone would understand..." Edric yelled after her, to no avail.
"Ed, I-" Duncan stopped. "You understand, right? Why she's upset?"
"We did just scream at each other."
Duncan shook his head. "Listen, I'm going to go see if she's alright. You two, sit tight, yeah?"
"That's up to Edric." Leia spoke flatly. She knew when she wasn't needed, but damned if she'd leave him alone with two people that acted angry and aggressive, even if they were his friends. "Go keep your Seer safe. This isn't a place to be wandering blind."
Duncan nodded, and walked back into the brush, after Amuné. He stopped once he reached the brush, turned back around to stare incredulously at Leia, before shaking his head and continuing on.
"Doesn't keep secrets as well as Grigory," Leia observed softly once he was out of sight. "Not that it matters. I can tell what she is at a glance." She looked at Edric, finally falling out of her combat-ready stance. "You alright?"
"I'm losing my goddamn mind." He said, finally. "It's not just this. Ever since the dungeons, it's been getting harder to control what I say, what I feel. And I've been drinking like a fiend, on top of it."
Leia sighed as she sheathed Illiachen and sat back down, waving for him to join her. It didn't look like he had any interest in leaving. "I don't know what to tell you, Edric. Not many people ever make it out alive. Those that do are changed. Whatever this is, I'd guess it's a part of you now. The cause matters less than how you go about dealing with it.”
Edric looked at her, then, and it seemed like he finally understood something. Leia had been the one, broadly speaking, who'd put him in this mess. And yet she was also the one seemingly endeavouring to pull him out of it. Absurdity. Duality. He knew, then, that he hadn't made a mistake. That she was as complex and rational and affected as any other person, and that she deserved to live. He wasn't sure if it was forgiveness that he felt, but it was the closest to it thus far.
"Amuné!" Duncan hurried to catch up. Once he did, he put a hand on her shoulder, but she whirled on him and shrugged it off.
"No! Don't try to stand up for him! I don't care how long you've known him, or how hard things are. It's no excuse!"
"I'm not trying to defend him, I'm trying to figure out what in all seven hells is going on." Duncan took a breath. "You have to understand, I've known him damn near my whole life, but I've known you for a damn long time, too. If there's an issue, we're going to figure it out. We've got to."
"It's too late for that," Amuné whispered, shaking her head. "He can't go back now. Grigory can't stand him, and Cormac won't have a choice."
"He won't, but I will." Duncan thought for a moment. "If
we can get his head on straight, I'll vouch for him, and I'd like to think that my word carries some weight."
"He said the same about her."
"Are you comparing me to him, or him to her?"
"...I don't know. But it doesn't matter, I know -- he can't come back."
"Well, then we can't rightly force him to." Duncan's face hardened a bit, a frown touching his lips. "We might have to, though. I'd like to get to know this... Leilani, a little better. If she was actually working with an Imperial spy, then I can't have her on the loose, certainly not with Edric."
"No. I'm not...." Amuné sighed. "He can't come back. That's not me saying it as someone he's hurt. He can't go back.
If he does, it's...dark." She sniffled, wiping the tears that she was finally calm enough to be shedding away from her eyes.
"So be it." Duncan said, finally. He'd love nothing more than to continue fighting alongside his best friend, but he didn't expect Edric to fight if he didn't believe in Ulricheim, in Cormac. He wouldn't follow him, the revolution meant to much to him to turn away from it now, but they could if they could function without Edric, and if Edric would be happier on the road, then it only made sense to let him go.
"Duncan, he promised me. I made him, before I left. With you...gone, I knew he'd try something reckless and stupid, I just...I didn't think it would be this. And then he just...." She shook her head and took the two steps she needed to wrap her arms around him. "He wouldn't have if I'd still been there. I could have seen it, could have stopped him. Could have talked to him, or...something."
"Well, what's done is done." He thought about what to say, choosing his words carefully, but she beat him to it.
"It really hurts. That he'd break a promise like this. That he's okay just up and vanishing on us -- on me." The girl shuddered. It had taken time for her to grow to trust them, but she had, and now she had trouble remembering that they had lives too. Losing her birth family had made her possessive. "I get it...but it hurts."
"Waif, this world is full of awful people. People who will stop at nothing to hurt other people, people who want nothing more than to fatten their coinpurses or further some means or another." He sighed. "Edric isn't one of those people, but he's a person, nonetheless. What's he's done is selfish, and it was irresponsible and rash. I can't blame him, though. If you or Alys or, hells, Edric, committed some crime and were going to be killed for it and I thought you were innocent, I think I’d do the same thing."
"This isn't one of us in trouble! She's Leia fucking Suldevi! The one that spent six months making his life hell!"
"You think I don't know that?" Duncan's mask of composure fell then, and for a moment, he looked as conflicted as he felt. "I'm trying hard to understand, Amuné. I'm trying not to get angry at him, trying not to drag him back by his ear. I don't get it, but no one does anything without a reason. I can't let myself rage at him until I understand why
"...And neither should I, I suppose. Dammit, I'm not strong enough for this." Amuné took a deep breath and stepped away again, wiping her eyes. "Alright. I guess if you're wanting to feel her out we have some time. ...But I still don't like it."
Amuné did not return with Duncan to join the other two, instead opting to lurk quietly in the shadows. She was visibly uncomfortable with the thought of staying near the Inquisitor, and not yet ready to forgive Edric. By the time he returned, Leia had managed to coax Edric into conversation. He stopped as Duncan approached. They looked at each other, and Duncan looked as though he was struggling for words. Finally, he sat down next to Edric and looked at the fire.
"So, I take it you were none too satisfied with your stay in the Imperial Inn?" Duncan asked, after a while.
"Well, the rooms were a mess, it was too damn cold, and the food was just terrible." Edric responded, and Duncan chuckled. He sighed and turned to Leia. "I suppose I've got you to thank for getting him out."
"I do believe you're the first person to say that. Don't know that you should -- I didn't do it for you or your rebellion." He might be trying to be friendly, but she knew a man with ulterior motives when she saw one, and he did not have her trust.
"Aye, perhaps not, but your motivations don't change the fact that ol' Eddy here's alive." He patted Edric on the back, hard enough to knock him forward a bit.
"Not to say that your motivations aren't important." Duncan frowned. "So if you didn't do it for me or my rebellion, why did you do it?"
"For him." Leia jerked her head at Edric, frowning. "It's a bit more complicated than that, but I do think that's what it boils down to."
"Now, the spy." Duncan took a deep breath. "Amuné already told me, generally, what happened. You were found guilty, but why don't you give me your take on it. Edric was saying something about the spy being sent there to incriminate you?”
"My guess is that the spy was a plant, but I honestly don't know. It's not impossible. I never had the chance to assess the man, so I can hardly draw conclusions there." Leia ran the fingers of one hand along her swordhilt, not as a threat but more as a gesture of habit. "I'll tell you this, though. The Empire has lost my support for good, and they were keeping it through treachery. And since my departure was so...ah, visible
, it is not in their interests to leave me alive and at large. Even if it hadn't been, I was one of their symbols. And they've no reason to think I'm not supporting the Insurgency now, or at least trying to. They want me off the board, by whatever means necessary."
Duncan hated to admit it, but what she said made sense. Then again, it also made sense that she was bullshitting him completely. He knew what Edric believed, and he knew what Amuné believed. He groaned internally. Making a judgement now would land him in hot water with one or the other.
"Treachery?" Duncan thought for a moment, scratching at his beard. "So, what exactly led to this escape?”
Leia was slow to speak, her gaze focused on the little tongues of flame that licked around the glowing coals of the fire. "I should have figured it out sooner. Looking back, there were clues...but I'd grown up with the neighbors Mother's wards caught breaking them. They were good at their disguises, and it paid off. Combined with Mother's death, the truth seemed obvious. But Cristov with Mother's books, running the Tower...it didn't add up. From there, things just started falling apart." She stirred and shook her head, turning towards Duncan again. "The decision to get Edric out was made under pressure, but not without thought for the consequences. I was working under Lord Inquisitor Tomas, and getting past him was...unpleasant. I wasn't sure I would be able to, but I had to try." Without meaning to draw attention to what was now just a bad scar under her clothing, Leia rolled her shoulder, the pain of it a vivid memory. "I'm lucky I made it out in as good a shape as I did, and Edric was responsible for that."A lot of sense.
Duncan frowned and glanced to the shadows, wondering if Amuné had been close enough to hear. He let out a breath. "So, you two are headed past the Reach, then?"
Edric nodded. "The way I figure, that's just about the only place around where nobody wants her dead. I'm hoping that she can find a place to lie low, and that I can rally some support against Osten among the Fair Folk."
"Just a minute here, who said anything about laying low?" Leia demanded, glaring at Edric.
"Oh, well, you said you weren't willing to pledge loyalty to the insurrection, so I assumed--"
"I also said you personally had my loyalty. Or did you forget that part? If you think I'm letting your bleeding-heart self go waltzing into trouble unprotected--"
"I'm not exactly defenseless, Leia."
"Would you be safer if I stayed at your side?" she asked him, looking him straight in the eye.
"Then I'm coming. I'll hide the cloak, if I need to."
"Then it's settled!" Duncan suddenly said, not exactly shouting, but certainly speaking louder than anyone else had been. "Oh, it's been too damn long since I've been on a real, proper trip."
Leia looked over at him, frown returning. "The rebellion is going to need you with them. Unless you mean to send word you're alive and then just wander off." Her tone was far from gentle.
"Well, I'm not letting Amuné go alone, and I don't think she's of a mind to travel with you lot, unless I'm there." He shrugged. "Besides, it's only about a four day trip to the pass. If we make good time, I can be there and back in ten or eleven days, and I'm reasonably confident that the Empire won't make an attempt to launch any serious offensive soon, seeing as how Osten's in the Freelands trying to woo the queen."
Leia made a noise that sounded a lot like choking.
Edric and Duncan looked at Leia, then to each other, and back to her. "You alright, there?" Edric asked tentatively. She wasn't able to respond right away, but after a moment she gave up trying not to laugh.
"Damn, I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that," she managed, when she'd regained some of her composure. "I hope Natalia gives him hell. I seem to remember her being very shrewd. Osten is in for a surprise."
Duncan couldn't help but laugh.
"Aye, she's got that prick running around in circles. She made it a contest. From what I understand, our friend Del and Sir Orrin are participating, as well as a fistful of rich landowners and nobles." He snickered. "I heard that when she announced the contest, he was so angry he shook."
Edric looked between them and managed a small smile. They'd get along alright, it seemed. His smile fell when he looked to the shadows. He should apologize to Amuné, he knew, but his blood was still hot from the earlier argument. He wasn't so sure that he could properly apologise, just then.
Maybe he just didn't want to.
Leia eventually withdrew from the conversation to let the two friends catch up. The Seer girl still hadn't returned, but she was hardly surprised. Most people with exceptional magic wanted nothing to do with Inquisitors, and she could hardly blame them. She moved a stone's throw away, and very deliberately did not try to listen in, though she caught the occasional word.
They'd been talking for a while, but a lot of it was just them catching up. Two old friends bridging the time that had passed since they'd last seen each other, almost a year ago. Edric supposed that, for many people, a year was nothing. There were people that could go years without seeing close friends or family. Edric, though, had seen Duncan practically every day of his life until his departure and capture. Initially, missing his friend had been one of his lesser worries, but as time dragged on, he started really feeling the absence of his comrades. It had been soothed, somewhat, by seeing Declan, Dakur, Alys and Amuné, but hell, he'd been closer to Duncan than lots of people were to their own siblings. Hearing he'd been killed was like a punch to the gut. It might've hurt less, if he'd had time to process it, but now, here he was. He'd been lost in thought for a few moments, but managed to snap back in time to hear Duncan speak after a brief lull in the conversation.
"I've got no idea how you survived in there, Eddy." Duncan, for just a moment, didn't seem quite so vibrant or present
. "They had you in the dungeons. I was quartered up in a bedroom, and it still damn near drove me up the wall."
Edric thought for a moment. "Neither do I." He answered, honestly. "I don't think it was hope, I lost that a few months. Humor, maybe, but I'm not so sure that was all that effective." He shrugged, shifting a bit in his seat by the fire. "Perhaps I just got lucky."
"Or, maybe you're strong."
"I thought I was supposed to be the idealist."
"I'm serious, Eddy."
"He's right." Something about their past few exchanges had caught Leia's attention, and now she ventured a quite comment of her own. "You've a strength of heart that is difficult to break. And beyond that, you're just plain stubborn."
"Bleeding hells, Karst, she just read you like a book." Duncan put a hand on Edric's shoulder. "Now, I might not have picked you as my second because of your administrative talents or your good looks, but she's right. I don't regret it."
"You just feel sorry for me." He said it with jest, but internally, there was little humor. Duncan playfully smacked the back of his head, and Edric elbowed him in kind.
"By all ten, Ed, learn to take a fucking compliment, yeah?"
They traded empty banter for a while longer, until it once again grew quiet. The silence threatened to end the conversation, as he saw Duncan glancing to the shadows, presumably looking for Amuné. Edric broke it, and the words came out as though a dam had broken, and he threw an arm around Duncan's shoulders.
"It's good to have you back, Duncan." Edric laughed, more out of cautious joy than out of any kind of humor, and he was surprised to find a tear in his eye. "You don't know what it was like. I'm no poet or bard, I'm not even sure how you'd describe it, but it was awful. Alys was crying. When was the last time you saw her cry?"
"Shut up and listen to me, damn it." Edric let out a breath. "You're my best friend, and you're just about the only thing that Alys loves more than a good field report." He laughed, but he meant it. "Hells, Declan, Amuné, all of us. We'd be lost without you. Now, for fuck's sake, keep yourself alive." Edric was surprised to find the tears had escaped to run down his cheeks. He wiped his face with his sleeve. "And thanks, for everything. You're a better friend than I deserve."
"Oh, screw off with that." Duncan stood, brushing off his legs. "It's not about what you deserve. If that had anything to do with it, Ilyse would be a princess and Osten'd be at the bottom of some lake or another. We're stuck with each other, way I see." He looked at Edric, sighed, and opened his arms. Edric rolled his eyes, but stood, and hugged him. It was brief, and maybe a little stiff, but damn relieving. Something about a hug made it hard to deny the reality of what was in your embrace. A few short moments later, Duncan wandered off to find Amuné, and Edric sat back down at the fire.
It was a full day before Amuné was willing to put up with Edric at all, and even then she was frosty towards him. Compared to the young girl that always wanted his attention, it was a massive difference. Despite her best efforts, he'd broken a personal promise and she was taking it hard, on top of what she saw as a betrayal of everything he'd worked to build. With no apology forthcoming, it was difficult to work towards forgiveness, and it made travelling tense.
Edric understood why Amuné was being cold toward him, but the comprehension didn't make it any less irritating. It was natural, he supposed, for friends to argue, but this had never really happened with her. They'd always been agreeable, understanding, with each other. In the end, he knew it was he who needed to make the first move. He thought about how he might go about apologizing without compromising the validity of his stance. In the end, he was no closer to a plan than when he started, and he decided to improvise.
"Hey, Amuné." He said, while the party was walking and the two of them had lagged behind a bit. She looked at him, tilted her head slightly as an acknowledgement instead of bothering to speak. Her silenced irked him, but he reminded himself that he was trying to apologize, not start another argument. "I'm not certain that I can honestly say I'm sorry for anything I said, but I am sorry for making you a promise I couldn't keep, and I'm more sorry for breaking it." Like removing a blood-stuck bandage or a stuck arrowhead, some things were best done quickly. He knew, rationally, it wouldn't be that simple.
She didn't reply immediately. "I don't expect you to change what you believe just because i disagree, Ed. That...we just need to work through, I guess. But it hurts a lot that you were so quick to ignore a promise you made. It felt a lot like being discarded."
“I didn’t mean that.”
“I know. And I’ll forgive you, but I can’t yet.” She paused. “It’s a long way to the elflands, Ed. We’ll have time.”
Edric nodded. Privately, he hoped that meant she’d have time to understand Leia as well.
“Two Grand Slamwiches, please.”
“Two Grand Slamwiches...-”
“Each. I hear they’re very popular.” Jeremy offered Noah a coy smile, knowing full well that his friend wouldn’t want to be outmatched on that front. “And if you could put the hash browns in with the other ingredients, that’d be great. Thank you.”
Watching the waitress walk off, Noah gave a laugh, clinging his spoon on the rim of the coffee mug.
“When did you get so funny?” Noah asked Jeremy. “Oh, this better not be a Hansel and Gretel moment. No surprise ovens, right?”
“No no, nothing like that,” he reassured him with a shoulder pat. “I just figured, it’s my last day alive. Let’s make sure I’m not living it on an empty stomach, right?” Whilst he wouldn’t normally have picked Lenny’s for breakfast, it had struck him- more specifically, it had struck Noah, who then told him as much- that he’d never had one of their more expensive options. And what better place to start a day than a hearty meal at Lenny’s, right?
Noah gave another snorty laugh. “Don’t say your last day alive. It’s your Ascension.” It’s not like he was trying to avoid the terminology. It wasn’t his style. He already grieved a long time ago for Jeremy’s departure. He just dealt in silver linings and all that, rather than leaving a sad note on the world. “You’ll go from Jere Bear. To God’s Right Hand Man.” Again not that he believed in God, just something. Something after death.
“Ah, I don’t know about right hand man... maybe one of his librarians? He must have a lot of data to sort,” Jeremy mused, fingers stroking his goatee. For a moment, he grieved the loss of one of his favourite jobs - hell, his favourite, period.
Alas, as he’d grown weaker, he’d found himself less and less able to work, and had eventually put in his two weeks notice, receiving a surprisingly graceful send off on his last day. He couldn’t convey how encouraging Noah had been in the weeks after that - nor could he be sure how graceful his send off would be on this, his last day ever.
Noah began to crack up in hysterics, he was sure that his thoughts were obvious to no one. To him, Jeremy had a funny view on things about God’s data, and a great joke has come to mind: “Don’t you know God ignores most of his prayers?” He snorted and took a second to calm down. “No, Heaven’s Library would be perfect for you,” Noah said, sipping some coffee. There was always a pro and con to seeing the future. The pro was seeing shitty people finally get theirs. The con was seeing things happen to people you love and care about. He knew Jeremy was going to die before Jeremy was dying. Today was going to be his big send off. His big day. He spent a year on this project, no project wasn’t the right word. A year making sure Jeremy had at least one person close to him.
One person who cared how he left this Earth. Noah wanted Jeremy to have something to cherish.
Jeremy couldn’t help but chuckle at Noah’s crack about prayers, but in turn settled down and sipped his own drink, observing Noah briefly in the silence that followed. The other man had gone to such lengths to make sure he enjoyed his last day. Pain had been a constant companion for months, and if Noah hadn’t done his best to be nearly as constant, Jeremy was sure he’d have languished in bed for the last week or so of his life.
“Hey,” he began, smiling warmly, “I know I’ve said it a couple of times before, but I really do appreciate you doing all this for me. It means a lot to me.”
Kicking his legs a little underneath the table, restless sitting usually he continued to drink his coffee. As Jeremy thanked him for the umpteenth bajillionth time. Noah rested his mug onto the table and just gave Jeremy a smile. “No seriously thank you for letting me do something.” Too many people remained grief stricken. They just wanted to wait for the day to come. He didn’t like to experience sad things feeling like he has done nothing. He dealt with it by doing something about it. Beat the sadness down like its a fist fight. Go through it. But don’t let it take you down.
Once they were both stuffed with various breakfast foods, the duo headed to the nearby golf course. It had always been a favourite pastime of Jeremy’s, and though Noah had suggested it was a bit boring for a final day, Jeremy had wanted to play one last game.
Suffice to say, it wasn’t going as well as he’d have hoped. His last round had been a while ago, and whilst he’d been able to send the ball three hundred meters on a good drive, now he was barely managing a hundred at best, and had to catch his breath after each stroke. Both of these frustrations had built up to severe annoyance; he’d forgotten how exhausting the sport was… or was that a physical change in himself? And this, despite all that medication...
Even before Jeremy had a death sentence, Noah had been dragged out here before and it always ended up the same. No matter the circumstance it simply could not keep his attention for very long. Jeremy always ended up putting more effort into than Noah. He couldn’t understand the rules, the swings, what club was what club and ended up getting distracted by a weird looking shaped tree.
“Has it always looked this crooked?” Noah asked out loud, he didn’t even really mind if Jeremy actually paid attention. Though Noah thought this would make a great piece on one of his art demonstrations. Perhaps put a bra and a pair of undies, where the two knobby parts looked like breasts.
Jeremy glanced over at Noah’s question, still frowning. Maybe he’d been selfish in trying to bring Noah golfing... maybe he’d wanted to relive some glory days that weren’t accessible any longer. His friend had agreed to it, sure, but he probably wasn’t enjoying himself.
“I think it’s gotten a bit more crooked since I was last here,” Jeremy considered, glancing over it himself and eventually nodding. That tree had been old before his father was born, or so he’d heard, and the irony was that it’d probably grow older still well after today. That said, Noah wouldn’t just point it out unless... “What did you have in mind for it?”
Noah turned his attention to Jeremy quickly, “You know who plays Golf the majority of the time?” Noah pauseed. “And this isn’t against the Jere Bear. Rich shitheads. Who like to touch people without their consent. In this case women. These two knobs look like breasts, and this would be a great place for big underwear.” He began to hysterically laugh, “Like a big tree version of grammy panties.”
Jeremy first chuckled, then began hooting with laughter at the mental image. “God damn it, Noah,” he called, “this is a civilised sport!” His laughter continued for a second or two, only to segue into harsh, hacking coughs, a fit that brought Jeremy to his hands and knees as he struggled for air. God damn it, indeed; they had a whole day planned, he couldn’t die now!
Luckily, the moment passed, his breaths rattling with mucus before he choked it up and swallowed it, but ultimately under control. Slowly, he brought himself back to his feet, shaking his head. That had not been fun, and he was feeling drained all over again.
“Uh… pardon me,” he stated, blushing ever so slightly despite himself. “I guess the golf was a bad idea for both of us?”
Noah didn’t feel anxious during Jeremy’s fit, it didn’t make him uncomfortable. It just became something normal as he grew weaker. Plus it was easier to deal with it if it was something normal. Of course he felt bad and of course he hated to see Jeremy this way. There was a comfort though, in knowing how Jeremy was going to die and when, letting him know that he’d live through today. So he needn’t worry.
“You always thought you were better at Golf than you were anyway,” Noah told him. “Your swing is bad.” He wasn’t sure if that was true. He just repeated something he’d heard Jeremy’s dad say once when they were teenagers brought here by his father. To show them a man’s sport. He never had the attention for it then as he did now.
Noah clapped his hands excitedly.
“How about we go to the Arcade then?” Noah remarked, “I know we weren’t supposed to after this, but... I’m dying of mind numbness and you’re actually dying.” Noah wasn’t sure if that came off in poor taste. He just didn’t want to sit through reminiscing about the old days, he wanted to create one last day to commemorate their friendship.
Jeremy snickered at his friend’s words. “Like you’d know how good I am,” he ribbed with a grin, before his face fell at the thought of his impending doom. He’d declined, in his game and his health... and he wasn’t going to get any better at either. He’d had a good run at the sport, but best to cut his losses, perhaps.
“Alright, let’s go, then,” he yielded with a half-mock sigh. “I’ve gone and tired myself out; maybe kicking your backside in a few rounds of Street Battler will suit me better.”
Jeremy didn’t think he noticed that look. This wasn’t supposed to be that time. This was a celebration of twenty-six years of life. This was a commemoration of their friendship and the things they had overcome. Jeremy was the only person who ever stuck around. Everyone else never stuck. It was probably his fault because of the way some people saw him and his behavior.
Noah gave Jeremy a cheeky smile. “Where I may not be able to swing a club on the golf center, I have an unnatural gnack of hyperfocusing on Street Battler. You sir are going down and I am going to get a thousand tickets to get their most expensive prize. Then I’m sending you off with it. A PS4 or something like that.”
The arcade wound up being far more fun than golf had, much to Jeremy’s surprise. He suspected Noah had let him win a couple of rounds of Street Battler before “hitting his stride” and flooring him ten times in a row; by contrast, a five-race tournament in Grand Prix X ended squarely in Jeremy’s favour, a full ten seconds ahead of Noah by the end of most of them.
“Noo,” Noah sobbed as he lost again in a race of Grand Prix X. Hugging the steering wheel a little, he asked “Why would you betray me? It’s this gas pedal, it’s sticky with soda.” Noah slung his head in defeat, then sighed deeply.
“That’s like blaming other people’s lag on your performance in Horns, Noah,” Jeremy admonished with a cheeky shoulder pat. “You had Street Battler, I’ve had this. And you have a promise to keep, my friend!”
“Lag matters,” Noah defended proudly. “Lag and performance do go hand in hand.”
After that, Noah buckled down hard on his word. Just an hour after the GPX tournament, he’d already earned countless hundreds of tickets, and dramatically spouted his intent to earn far more than that - something he was trying to make good on by claiming a massive jackpot in an arcade version of Wheel of Millions.
“Seven-thirty-seven,” a voice interjected, as they stood around Wheel of Millions farming tickets. Noah turned his head to a fresh faced high schooler, wearing a polo shirt with the Arcade’s logo on it. He had piercings and a neck tattoo. His hair was dyed in an assortment colors, but under the harsh, dark blue lighting of the arcade you couldn’t make out any of the details.
Couldn’t they see the moment he was creating here? And couldn’t they see he was basking in his own defeat? Seven thirty-seven? Oh. Oh.
“That’s what some call me, others number the rest of the numbers, othas call me Tetris and others call me Tetyais,” Noah snorted a laugh. “Watcha need?”
The kid beamed. “I’m a huge fan. I watch your feed.” He looked to Jeremy and said, “You must be lucky to know him.”
Sometimes, Jeremy forgot that Noah had a bit of a cult following for his street art. It was, he considered, good for him that he was starting to be recognised. Maybe he’d become the next Banksy, if he kept that work up... though he might become more well-known for his sometimes-bizarre arrest record. What had it been last time? Right, burning a pile of Monopoly money in Wall Street after spray-painting “WHERE HAS THE MONEY GONE?” all over it.
And yet, for all his quirks, he couldn’t have been a better friend. Who else would set up a Patreon, who else would gather and save and thrift, all to ensure somebody would enjoy their last day on Earth?
“You don’t know the half of it,” Jeremy murmured with a distant gaze, just a tad overcome with emotion, before shaking his head clear as he had a thought. “Hey, since you’re a fan, you want to help us get this jackpot?” he asked the teen. “We can split it half-and-half.”
The kid smiled.
“Sadly I am working-” the kid pointed to his shirt- “But tell you guys what. The Boogie Club tonight has a huge event going on. I know the bartender that works there.” He handed Noah a card. “You guys should come. I want to show seven-thirty-seven to my friends. They won’t believe me if I tell them I saw you with no proof.”
Noah snorted a hysterical laugh and shows Jeremy the card, The Boogie Club, the B formed by a woman bending over and lifting her leg up in a sexy pose. “We have to go!” Noah said excitedly. “Last look at breasts.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes just a little at the card, but couldn’t help but smile at it. “Yeah, alright, I’ll think about it,” he offered. It was all well and good seeing a nice chest or thirty, but worse than worthless without some, ahem, payoff.
And speaking of payoff, Jeremy had realised something about the current state of the game. “Noah,” he pointed out, “if you can get the wheel to land there,
and then follow up with an immediate answer, you can get that jackpot unlocked for the endgame. You want... a medium amount of spin, I think.”
Noah looked to Jeremy, replying “They don’t call me the Wheel of Millions god for no reason, sit back Jere Bear and watch the wheel spinning master.” Noah laughed maniacally as a joke, as he rubbed his hands together and span the wheel for that sweet sweet jackpot.
With baited breath, Jeremy watched the wheel spin, spin… and land on the million dollar space, which translated to more than one and a half thousand tokens if he got it. Seconds later, he’d answered the question and secured the space, along with a substantial chunk of in-game money in his own right, practically guaranteeing his entrance into the final round.Holy crap,
Jeremy thought to himself as his eyes widened, he might actually get that jackpot.
Soon, the final question loomed. Noah drew the in-game card; picked his letters; answered the question with seconds to spare... and...
Blaring lights and sounds in an already loud arcade, as JACKPOT shined with multi colored lights. Wait? He actually got it?! Of the many times he had farmed tickets from this machine to get things to pawn, this was actually the first time he got a Jackpot. The machine loudly declared his big win on its speakers.
Noah fell to his knees for a second and raised his hands up to the ceiling, “I take everything I ever said back about you,” he told whomever was watching from the Heavens. “There is a God!” he declared. As tickets began to spill out from the slot.
Hardly able to contain his own excitement, Jeremy fell to his knees next to Noah, clutching the man’s shoulders as he laughed with unadulterated joy. Admittedly, laughter failed him as he began to hack and wheeze for the second time that day, choking for nearly half a minute before he could breathe again, but even in spite of this reminder of his mortality, he was grinning like a madman. They’d gotten the freaking jackpot. Fate itself couldn’t have been kinder.
“Well done, Noah, you grand man, you,” he smiled, practically hugging him. “A Wheel of Millions God you are! Now let’s get those prizes you wanted.”
Both men continued riding the high of their arcade victory as they ate lunch in the car, their prizes safely nestled in the boot. They’d grabbed a sandwich each from a nearby Submarine, then stopped on the way up to Niagara Falls State Park. Alas, Jeremy had had only a couple of bites before the two breakfast sandwiches from earlier had his body insisting that he was full. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d downed them earlier, given his recent low appetite, but he wasn’t going to push his luck.
“You know the staff died inside when you made them sing the song, right?” he uttered, glancing over at Noah with a renewed blush of embarrassment. Apparently, today was now his birthday, and thanks to Noah, everyone in the store knew it. It was a bit special, but also a bit unnecessary in his mind.
Behind the wheel he had already given Jeremy shit about Niagara Falls being on his bucket list. Here they lived in New York city and they had to take the drive up to the state park to look at a huge body of water dump into another huge body of water and it was called a World’s Greatest Wonder. The sad fact is Jeremy was in New York and had never seen Niagara Falls. He hadn’t touched much of their lunch either. But the fact he got some people to sing happy birthday to Jeremy was worth it.
“I love it,” Noah told Jeremy as he parked in a crowded parking lot. “I love watching them feel their own mortality.”
“I kind of wonder if they could sense the death on me,” Jeremy quipped in response, giving a grim chuckle afterward. True, he’d done his best to look nice today, but in the end, he looked exactly as haggard as he felt, if not moreso. Terminal illness was a bitch like that. “I can’t imagine they’d be too pleased to learn how much longer I had, either. At least I’ll live on in your memories, though,” he added whimsically, throwing a crooked smirk in Noah’s direction.
Noah just snorted.
“A dying guy and someone who must have a drug habit walk into a shop and ask for a birthday song,” Noah began to laugh.
Still Noah looked up towards the stairs as the tourist trap awaited them. “Are you good to face the crowds? I can’t save you if some Chinese woman comes up to you and starts speaking a language I can’t speak.” That was no racism card. Just the truth. A lot of foreigners he’d love to ask questions to, who didn’t all speak English.
Jeremy barely held back his laughter at Noah’s quip, wanting to avoid another choking fit for the day. It wasn’t that the medication wasn’t helping, but as close to death as he was, there was only so much it could do for him. He envied his former self a fair bit, frankly... speaking of which.
“I’m sure they’ll avoid us both like the plague.” Or like he had the plague, or at least something just as infectious without inside knowledge. “I’d be a bit more concerned about whether I collapse on the stairs or not. It’d be a damper on the best day of my life if I spent the rest of it in hospital, don’t you agree?”
Noah scowled. It was probably the first time he had scowled in a long time.
“You’re not really taking this with tongue and cheek,” Noah mumbled, “you’re already serious. Can you lighten up more? That was the whole point of this day and all you bring up is hospital and death. We already know this. Can we make this more fun? You’re not really being...” Noah sighed and rested his head on his steering wheel, taking out his keys. “...this is suppose to be a celebration and a commemoration.”
Jeremy’s face fell a bit as Noah turned serious. He only got really serious when he was upset, as he knew full-well from their school days. After a moment, he nodded, then forced a grin on to his face.
“Alright, I apologise. Maybe I’m being a tad morbid...” he murmured back, putting an arm round his friend’s shoulders. “But hey, cheer up. We’ve still got time with one another, and... well, you’ve taken time out of your day- hell, out of your life
to get me here. How many of my other friends did that for me, one or two? You have done so much for me, I... I, uh...”
Jeremy took a moment to inhale and exhale, keeping himself from breaking into tears at the thought. “Anyway, you’re right,” he continued with a bit more composure. “I should be taking today with a bit more humour. Besides, if I faint, you can just puppet me around on your feet, right?”
Noah started to laugh. “Hello I’m Jeremy, I’m always serious, yes harrumph. I cannot stop harrumphing.”
“Yes, I am always completely serious. This is my serious face, which I’m always wearing due to how serious I am.” He made a serious face, before breaking into light snickering at Noah’s joke.
“Alright, fair enough, your message is received,” he sighed. “Let’s get to Niagara Falls, eh? I’d like to arrive before
the sun goes down.”
“I’m going to buy you awful souvenirs to take with you,” Noah laughed, “you know over your Sunday Best suit is an ‘I <3 NY’ shirt.” Noah began his fit of hysterical laughing, as he did whenever he found something more funny than he should.
“Your mom would be shitting the bed so hard if I had that happen.” Noah lost it and snorted. “Okay, we can go. Let’s go look at the world’s greatest puddle.”
It turned out to be quite a great puddle, despite Jeremy’s lingering fatigue throughout the trip. He’d recovered somewhat by the time they’d driven back to the city, but what came next was going to be far more exhausting than even that: laser tag had never been his finest game even when he was healthy.
“Come on out, Noah, or I’ll come to you,” he yelled, leaning against a wall as he tried not to suffocate again. At least he was expecting to be bad at the game this time, unlike with the golfing earlier, but at least they had a buggy to drive around the golf course on back then.
He wasn’t very good at laser tag either. He suggested it only because Jeremy needed to live a little. Bad word choice? Even before Jeremy was dying, they already spent hours at the library or somewhere with little sound or something to hold his attention. Standing next to Jeremy who was yelling to his left Noah snickered, “Yo Jeremy.”
He was fatigued, not paralysed. Hearing Noah’s voice, Jeremy whipped his gun around and shot the jokester, scoring a point against his companion’s arrogance. “Cower in fear, for I have none!” he exclaimed, making to escape before Noah’s gun came back online… a slow escape, but even so.
“Oh now it’s on. SPLINTER CELL BITCH!” Noah laughed hysterically. He didn’t follow Jeremy instead he snuck around using the walls to conceal his presence. He wondered how some might sum up this day in writing. Two grown men reliving their nostalgic childhood. Reliving their glory days or something like that. Now he was getting inside his own head right now. The one wish he wanted for Jeremy was that tomorrow he could have the final laugh. That’s all he wanted to know, was that Jeremy was comfortable and happy.
Jeremy wondered at Noah’s thought process when he seemingly vanished. Splinter Cell, huh? Which meant he’d be sneaking around in an effort to catch Jeremy out... which meant, if he hid himself into a corner, he could out-match Noah without even moving too much. If he could get to such a spot, and if he could shoot Noah first...
Well, maybe not. He’d need to be pretty well hidden for all that to work out. Though he had found a decent corner; sequestering himself there, Jeremy waited, attempting to minimise his huffing and puffing to catch Noah off-guard.
He had scanned the area in front of him beforehand. The way the corners slanted and the walls were slightly triangled together. Jeremy would most likely be somewhere trying to corner him. The only thing Noah was ever good at was not being noticed. The only time they actually played laser tag was back in middle school during Chelsey Rayman’s birthday party and the only reason Noah was fifth place was because he opted not to play-play. By shooting people who didn’t notice him and hiding.
Sneaking up on Jeremy again, Noah shot this time without hesitation. “Bzzzzap.” Something about this didn’t feel right to him though. Noah just scowled, “Are you having any fun with this? I remember us cowering in a corner as a team during Chelsey’s birthday. And shooting people who tried to get close.”
Jeremy “hmph”ed with a slight smile as Noah hit him, then frowned before realising what his friend was implying.
“Oh- no, Noah, don’t worry,” Jeremy soothed, walking up to Noah and patting him on the shoulder. “Listen, I know it looks like back then...-” For a second he considered how to word himself, then just decided to be blunt. “I am enjoying myself, I promise. You wanna know why?”
Half a second later, Noah received a laser to the gut, and Jeremy smirked just a bit. “Because I can still get cheap shots in. No, no, I’m joking, it’s... you’re here, with me, we’re playing this, and it’s... it’s fun, you know? This is a good time. Thank you for bringing me here.”
“Cheap move Jeremy,” Noah said with a smile, “I give oh master gunslinger.”
“Come on, no need to do that just because...” Jeremy’s words caught as his breathing hitched, his eyes widening as he stopped breathing momentarily. About ten seconds later, he finally managed to force some air into his lungs, inhaling and exhaling with a harsh rattle to his breaths. At least that didn’t add to his ongoing pain, despite highlighting his proximity to the end.
I’ll accept the win here. Let’s… let’s move on to the next thing.” He scrunched up his eyes and shook his head, then made to move out of the laser tag arena. He really did hope Noah’s vision was as accurate as he claimed.
The Boogie Club’s bright neon sign was fairly well-designed, if standard: as the b became an l, the woman would lift her leg up and wink in blinking lights. Noah howled in excitement, “Would you look at that? It blinks!” He laughed hysterically for a second as a group of high schoolers eyed him. He waved at them. Written on a chalkboard, 18+ night, no booze, and dance open.
“You made it,” a familiar voice standing in line called out. “Come on. I don’t think anyone will mind a celeb cutting a little. My friends are going to totally love you.”
Noah looked at Jeremy. It was still his night. Day. His Life. They took some time to rest in the car after laser tag. There were still things he had left for Jeremy to take with him. Something Noah had been working on. Something important.
Jeremy couldn’t help but squint at the neon sign’s apparently-humorous glare. Did they have to crank those things to be so bright? Or was it at normal brightness, and he was just too sick to look at it properly?
“Hey, early entry’s always nice,” he murmured, taking a moment to lean on Noah as they moved forward. At least they’d have seats inside... a couple of minutes passed before they got to the front of the line and were ushered in. The sight was, as expected, very much like a usual strip club, though with more clothing on the dancers than one would normally expect of an establishment like this.
“Alright, let’s give you something to work with. Anyone you fancy the look of?” he asked, glancing around himself just in case somebody took his fancy first.
It was so shiny in here. Neon rainbows dancing around all the walls, creating glittering effects. They would swap colors in an instant, before fading in some effect that honestly looked like a screensaver from the late 90s. It didn’t bother him, it was honestly what caught his attention first. He only half caught Jeremy’s question as he was fascinated by a star design that imploded and spread out into rippling colors, “The lights are fancy!” Noah told Jeremy excitedly.Heh. Of course he’s more attracted by the lights than the half-naked girls,
Jeremy pondered with a smile. They were some very nice patterns, of course, albeit just as glaringly annoying as the one outside... that said, after a moment of ponderance and shaded eyes, he decided that one of the nearby dancers who looked like she wasn’t getting much attention at the moment seemed quite attractive. Clear skin, nice hair, pretty good figure - he didn’t like judging people if he could help it, but since that was rather the point of a strip club anyway, he decided she was a very solid seven, if not an eight.
“Come on, you,” he said, pulling Noah away from the light show he’d been drawn into by one arm and toward the dancer in question.
Noah was being dragged away from the glittering, shimmering wall, goodbye lights as Jeremy dragged him to a half naked woman. There really wasn’t much fuss, most of the dancers were quite clothed today and there were a lot of teenagers just dancing and ignoring many of the actual dancers. Then he saw it. A sparkling orb, when it caught the other lights, it turned the walls into a wash of silver light.
“O mah gawd!” Noah said. “It is the greatest thing I have ever seen.”
“The best part is, you can buy those in a lot of places,” Jeremy pointed out. Disco balls were pretty commonplace, and whilst he was sure Noah would get a kick out of having his own, it’d probably distract him from... well, life. His street art, no less.
That said, if it was what Noah wanted to look at, then by all means, Jeremy would let him look at that. As for himself, he’d take a seat at the base of the dancer’s stand, silently watching her pour herself into her movements, erotic and titillating as they were. Somewhat, at least.
Noah gasped and grabbed Jeremy’s shoulder, “You’re so right!” Noah said excitedly. “Where do you think I can get one?” He only noticed the dancer when she started moving, he stared for a second. Hips moving, he could see the movement around her. Invisible strings that called to his muse, colored in glittering lights. Where was he? He couldn’t remember.
“Drink? You want a drink?” Noah asked near as excited as he was earlier for something he couldn’t remember exactly what it was.
“Uh... sure, Noah,” Jeremy murmured, drawn out of his observation briefly. He’d probably tail the guy, to be honest; he rather suspected he’d wind up lost or distracted otherwise. Nonetheless, he said “I’ll have a coke. Make it a rum and coke, if they’re letting you buy alcohol with an ID.”
Noah nodded and walked to the counter. The bartender gave him a stare. Obviously Noah was not his usual crowd. He was sure the man expected him to frequently visit some queer bar. Dude was ripping with muscles and looked like he should be replacing his job with the bouncer up front.
“Yeah,” the man barked at him, “can I help?”
Rude. In a perfect world he’d stand on the stool and use his persona, do you know who I am? In reality he just walked back to Jeremy.
“Out of everything,” Noah told Jeremy.
He’d managed to keep an eye on Noah as he wandered over to the bar, then wandered back with... nothing at all. Jeremy frowned for a moment, then raised an eyebrow, then finally just shrugged.
“I doubt that, but I’ll take your word for it,” he acquiesced, returning to look at the dancer as she started to put on a bit more of a show. Specifically for him? It almost seemed like that could be the case, what with the sultry looks that nobody else seemed to be receiving. They wouldn’t amount to anything, of course; he looked half-dead, and she wasn’t paid to sleep with her clientele.
“Hey, did I ever mention how I think strip clubs are essentially designed to blue-ball their customers?” he asked, leaning over to whisper in Noah’s ear before he got distracted again.
Noah ended up hysterically laughing in his way and he snorted. Didn’t know why Jeremy whispered it when he found himself bringing the attention of people’s eyes from his laughter alone. “Jeremy you’re thirsty,” Noah whispered back after gaining some control of himself after his laughing fit.
“Maybe I am, Noah,” Jeremy pondered, “maybe I am...”
This problem, as it happened, would be solved shortly by a good dinner at a high-class restaurant. Noah’s meal was quite sumptuous; Jeremy’s was less so, and yet came close to being wasted despite his very light lunch. They talked about their likes and dislikes all over again; Noah described his ideas for more street art; and the waiter serving them was tipped very generously when all was said and done.
It wasn’t as difficult as he thought it would be to walk behind Jeremy and guide him up some hills behind an abandoned park. It was a quiet place, lots of trees, lots of scattered memories, old coke bottles from ages ago dug into the leaves, but there was one special place he wanted to take Jeremy. This was what all his money amounted to in this moment. He had Jeremy go up one more rock, to a clearing, towards an abandoned parking lot and a building. Jeremy blindfolded and dumb to his plans, he stopped moving.
He had managed to snag one dollar cups earlier today before they met at Lenny’s, and he bought a couple of bottles of wine on the way.
“Okay, take the blindfold off,” Noah said with a mischievous laugh.
Jeremy did as he was asked, blinking as he glanced around, before his eyes settled on what appeared to be an unlit billboard before them.
“So, I take it we’re going to be looking at adverts tonight?” he asked jokingly, smiling half to himself. Chances were Noah had something more elaborate planned, but even if he hadn’t, he’d be happy to spend that time alongside the man.
“Nah,” Noah said eagerly, dashing to the other end of the billboard where he’d stashed a generator back there. Please the fuck work.
Plugging a bit into the other bit, the billboard at first slowly blinked on, until a bunch of colorful Christmas lights in red, green, blue, and yellow all lit up. Reading in bold, wrapped around iron, it said ‘Goodluck in Heaven’.
“Tadah!” Noah said, raising his hand in the air as a delayed big reveal.
For a moment, all Jeremy could do was stare. This was... this was... exactly the sort of thing Noah would set up, when he thought about it, typo and all.
Overwhelmed, he fell to his hands and knees as he laughed joyously, shaking with it for a few seconds before he managed to pick himself up and stroll over to Noah. By the time he’d made it there, his laughter had diminished to silent mirth and a shaky smile; and yet for his apparent laughter, tears had streamed down his face like waterfalls in that time.
“God fucking damn it, Noah,” was all he managed to get out before wrapping his arms around the artist and squeezing him like a vice. This time, he shook as a result of his quiet sobbing, interspersed with quiet “thank you”s repeated again and again. What else could he say to a grand gesture like this?
“I figured it’d be big enough for you to see when you’re up there,” Noah smiled, he was glad it made Jeremy happy as much as it made him happy, “So...you know whatever is after life you do not forget I am still here.”
“I won’t, I s-swear I won’t,” he promised, crying into Noah’s shoulder. He held his religion as a somewhat minor part of his persona, but of course he couldn’t forget, not after everything he’d done for him.
“...thank you so much,” he finally uttered with some force once his sobs had died down. “This has... listen, Noah. In spite of my illness, this has been one of the best days of my life. I couldn’t have wanted a better sendoff than this... and I couldn’t have gotten a better friend than you to set it up for me. Thank you.”
Noah smiled and took out a bottle of wine he bought. “Should we toast?”
Pulling away from his hug, Jeremy smiled back, eyes wet with emotion. “Let’s.”
Noah laughed and took out the cork opener he also brought. Popping it open, the air hissed, and he waited for it to breathe before he poured it into red plastic cups. It wasn’t quite fancy as the crystal wine glasses they drank from earlier at dinner, but it was better this way. He handed Jeremy a glass and he held his glass.
“To Jere Bear, you have always stuck with me like that 90’s goo toy we used to throw at the wall and when you go to Eden or Paradise or Heaven, you’ll be going in style cause I have your back and I ain’t going to let them have no paradise without a few treasures,” Noah laughed. “To your life. And to your friendship.”
Jeremy laughed in kind, exalting in spite of himself. “To my life, to my friendships, and to you, Noah.” He tapped his cup against Noah’s, and drank of it.
For the next hour and a half, they drank, and laughed, and made more ostentatious toasts to one another. At some point, midnight came and went, and eventually, Jeremy found himself lying on the grass, Noah to one side, glancing alternately between the billboard and the stars above him with a smile on his face.
The smile faded, and he grimaced for a mixture of reasons.
“I’m scared,” he admitted in a small, hollow voice. “This is going to sound sappy as anything, but... could you hold me, please? At least my hand?”
Noah looked at Jeremy, before hesitantly taking his hand.
“Remember when Bobby Roberts wanted to fight you,” Noah told Jeremy. “You were scared then too. Remember what I told you back then? Punch Bobby in the fucking nuts. Jere, I’m scared too. I don’t like seeing you like this. You did not deserve this. And I hate myself for knowing the fact before you did.”
For a moment, Jeremy looked over to Noah, coming to an understanding of what he meant - though there was no punching terminal colonic cancer in the nuts, he didn’t need to be scared. Whatever came after, whether it was Heaven or Valhalla, or whatever, he’d face it with dignity.
“I’ve never blamed you for that, Noah,” he explained gently. “There was nothing you could have done about it, and you did as much as you could anyway. Thank you, so much.” He meant to say more than that, but found he no longer had the strength to say so; turning his head back to the sky, he gazed up at the stars one last time before closing his eyes.
As he drifted off into slumber, he wondered if he’d open them again.