Chapter Thirty-Seven

* Content Warning: This chapter contains non-descriptive references to past sexual abuse of a minor, in the form of a character reflecting on personal trauma. While nothing is described, this story takes place in a fantasy setting which lacks the nuance with which such events might be handled in our own context, and thus, the descriptive language used and reactions of characters to the abuse in the story may be upsetting. While it wasn't available to the characters in the story, fortunately for us, help is out there.*

Cole wondered if he should knock.

He had not stopped to send warning of his arrival. That his father would be in his workshop in the basement, and not even hear him knock, was a distinct possibility that he didn't like to contemplate. Where would he go then?

The Market, to frighten the people and wander alone?

The dormitories, which would contain so many painful memories it was almost enough to make one laugh?

Aidan's? Servan's? Any of the hundred places he and Nika had sequestered themselves, to be alone together outside of their lives as cadets?

They all rang with echoes of Nika – the whole city did. Here was the only place where Nika's presence did not speak first. Faer had a point.

The door swinging open let out a breath of cool air, the house as dark and quiet as ever. Cole's father had to look up to see his face, gray eyes squinting against the light. He had added a set of magnifying lenses to his ensemble of simple, comfortable clothes; they perched on the end of his nose, but Cole doubted they were necessary. His father remained sharp-eyed as ever, and looked at Cole, to whom he hadn’t spoken in three years, standing on his doorstep, bloody and worn.

He took the little spectacles off, carefully folded them away into a cleverly disguised pocket, and said, “Come in.”


Cole sat at the kitchen table, trying to guess which emotions he should feel. It was an uncomfortable but familiar game. Carefully replacing his lenses, his father had treated the obvious wounds; experienced with injured fingers and actively concerned in their dexterity, he had felt about Cole's painful little finger, re-set and bound it. Cole should probably feel lucky it wasn't broken. Just dislocated, and not badly, his father had said. He had brought out a towel and basin for washing. Then he had left the room, after some other object which Cole could not guess.

Cole had wiped off the worst of it, but couldn’t bring himself to do more. He was ready to admit Faer was right. Here, he felt nothing. Or only confused brushes of things, far distant and indiscernible from shadows.

Nika had come here, yes, but usually when his father was absent. At best, Nika and Cole’s father coexisted… awkwardly. When Cole’s father was here, it was not the same as the place where Cole had courted Nika during the hot days before harvest season called them back to the Academy grounds. His father’s house fostered an almost preternatural numbness.

It hadn't been hard place to give up.

And his quiet reception seemed to prove that nothing changed. Before Durante, his father had been the originator of Cole’s studied self-control. This was the man, after all, who had watched his wife die, and sent his only son away in almost the same breath. He hadn't approved of Cole's interest in attending the Academy – Cole was his apprentice – but turned around the next day and sent him packing to Preparatory. Not with any encouraging words, that is... not with any words at all if Cole's only somewhat-reliable memory could be trusted that far.

He was only eleven. His mother had just died. What memories did one really have at that age?

What sweet memories of childhood he could conjure at the time hurt too much; they went to ash with his mother. Now that he tried to pull them up, he found he nearly couldn't, and that was doubly painful.

Or it was the hangover, and his bruises, and the fact that he was going to get everything he had ever wanted, at least after a kind – all the power, respect, and adoration of a kingdom if only he would give up his lover, who they were torturing while he considered.

Now it did hurt, pain so hard he couldn't breathe, and he gasped to force himself to fill his lungs. Blood and Death, but this place seemed only to be where he had things stripped away from him.

He had lost his first ‘love’ here, too – though that he had been well rid of. If he had ever told anyone, it would be cause to go back and beat Faer to death for presuming to send him back to a place that would cause comparison between then and now. But he hadn’t – he had barely hinted, even to Nika.

He had left for Prep eager to forget his childhood.

In a certain sense, he had succeeded.

Cole returned having taken a lover – having been taken as a lover, rather. He had wanted so much to forget he had even been a child. To be the child that he had been without the mother who had loved him was too much.

Now, he understood that it was not what he thought it was. Then, had called himself ‘in love’. His father had called him a fool.

Now, the best Cole could do was 'I was twelve'.

It was one of the few moments Cole had actually seen his father upset. A spontaneous fury, too deep to be new but of inexplicable fieriness. His father had been so desperate, so disappointed, so unable to even interact with Cole that he had reached out to Cole’s aunt – his mother's sister – and, yet more shocking, she had come.

Aunt Grainne had come, and as if to show him the shallowness of the grand promises he had been made at Prep, she gave him the city that he later gave to Nika. She had taken him everywhere, going to places neither of them ought to be, ranging far and wide into bright and thick-scented Midraeic neighborhoods and shady, salty Wulsh inns. They had spent what seemed days amongst the bright and varied markets after obscure items that might not even exist – as if testing the Capitol’s claims for its bragging of its own breadth.

Grainne was nothing like his mother. She was the fiery counterpart to his mother's mildness (they were both, in their own ways, unfathomably stubborn). She had met Nika once, and watching them be in the same room was better than a play.

She and Cole’s father could not stand to be in the same with one another; their abiding hatred predated Cole’s very life. Grainne hadn't approved of his Preparatory ‘love’ either – perhaps the only time she and his father had ever agreed, short of the mysterious capitulation that had resulted in sending him to Prep in the first place. She was furious, too – perhaps more so, because she appreciated the damage that could be done to Cole’s future, his reputation – and since it was her idea he go, she blamed herself, at first. But she was far, far too practical to let that go on for long, and far, far too canny to let Cole dwell on it.

Frankly, a week into Aunt Grainne’s visit, Cole had sort of stopped approving of what had happened himself, not that he could admit anything of the sort. Certainly not in front of his father. And the fragile peace – both between his father and Aunt and the stable bubble it created between the two harrowing years at Prep – wouldn’t last.

Grainne couldn't stay; he doubted the little house could withstand the strain of both her and his father existing in it at once, and, either way, she had an estate to mind in the west. Cole’s mother's side of the family had something nobler than tailoring in their blood. In his first year at Prep he had claimed her as kin to pass among the nobles' sons, happily using his mother's long lineage to attach himself to Ainjir's noble traditions, while also busily scrubbing away the ways she had attached him to the less popular ones.

See, there was where he had first fallen. He had been given poetry, and offered rank, and promised ‘love’, and he had taken it. Poetry was well and good, beautiful and noble, an ancient tradition – ancient as the Old Gods. His mother taught him the first of his poetry, cultivated his love for it, and with it, showed him the ancient signs and told the old stories.

And then she had died and he had scoured them from his heart. Kept the skin, the outer flesh, the oratorical skill and the subtle secrecy, and the admiration it gained him, but if the slightest word of his mother's and his aunt's antiquated attachment to the old ways had gotten out, the Prep cadets would've turned on him like so many starved rats.

Giving credence to the old religion was a shame only slightly worse than having fallen for the offer of ‘love’ as Cole did – they were both in the same bracket of old and savage traditions best forgotten.

So Grainne had left and Cole had to go back to Prep only just realizing his ‘love’ was empty manipulation. His mother was dead and his father had died with her, and left only a disapproving and hollow ghost.

That Cole had come to see his father's bitter forecasts of his first relationship's terrible ending come true did not repair their relationship. Cole was too proud to admit he was wrong, his father too distant to show any regret that he had been right. They simply haunted one another – excepting when Cole’s youthful debts caught up with him and creditors briefly forced them together – until Cole came of age for attending Academy.

When he left as if he hadn't a home to return to, despite being only a few blocks away and staying with his father every holiday.

That the first had been disastrous only seemed to urge Cole to pursue affairs of the heart more fervently – or at least, frequently. His father's disapproval continued with grinding, silent consistency through a number of flings, brevities, and rentals – the development of the aforementioned debt.

Which, if anything could, likely worsened his father’s relationship with Grainne. It was only when returning to the district several years later that he realized her seemingly aimless wanderings had included an introduction to the Families and an oblique lesson in their proper etiquette for negotiations. Sitting next to his Aunt, sipping tea, and having the lovely Sons and Daughters and various other members of the Families pinch his cheeks and ruffle his hair and call him adorable while they swapped stories of their own children – this was an outing as routine as when she had taught him to haggle. All he had thought of it then was how nice his Aunt's friends smelled.

It didn’t really excuse, though it went some way to explaining, why Cole’s father had thought Nika was a prostitute, at first.

Even so, Nika refused to see Cole's father as anything but a respected authority, and his father's house sacrosanct palace. Nika refused to do anything he thought might imply disrespect without Cole’s father’s approval. After that introduction, however, Cole's father never spoke a single word to Nika that he could not funnel through Cole. Cole didn't speak to his father unless without recourse.

Unlike the first time, Cole did not bother to defend himself with protestations of love.

Thereafter, Cole spent as much of the summers as he could in Nika's bed at the Academy. During the war, he stayed in the Tower when stationed in the Capitol.

And now it had been so long this place was utterly strange. Hardly even the place where he watched his mother die. Cole stared at his bound fingers and felt nothing.

His father pushed the door aside and walked in the room at a careful shuffle. He had a thick sheaf of over-sized papers in his hand, their edges yellow and curling, some rain-rumpled and torn. Cheap, thin paper and large black letters confirmed that they were broadsheets. A year's worth, if collected every day.

He carefully placed the sheaf on the table before Cole, taking his seat with a sigh. True to Cole's assumption, he removed his lenses again and set them safely aside, rubbing his eyes. His father had never been interested in the city gossip before, but perhaps that's what filled his long days now.

As ever, his farther spoke with words slow and quiet. “It's been three years since you've been in town. I heard the war was over; I thought, if you were alive, you would be back soon.”

Cole waited, but his father seemed to be gathering himself. Perhaps for a lecture. Perhaps for a lesson in how to perform a particular stitch. It was difficult to tell.

“You never wrote. You never did before, either… I just… You were very busy, of course, but... three years and the war...”

His hand trailed over the stack, touching the edge of the papers as if wanting to push them into order, but convinced they were too delicate. Their worn and weathered state, the result of being handed out in markets or nailed to posts around town, didn't allow for much neatness, but still, he touched.

“I had to learn...” again his father paused, “I had to learn you were alive through the broadsheets.” His eyes caught on Cole's, before flicking away, emotionless as glass, never apt to stay on a person's face for long. “I went to see you, at the parade, but I could see it wasn't you. I was worried. I worried the reports were wrong.”

He moved the papers like precious things, a tremble to his careful hands that Cole could follow to the one in his lip as he closed his mouth, gathering strained air in his lungs. “I went to the Academy, but they said you weren't there. I went to the Palace and they would not let me through the gates. I didn't think... I thought maybe...”

Tears leaked out of his eyes, running down the lines of his pinched, pale face as his eyes flicked to Cole's again, then back to his stack of broadsheets. He laid a hand on the one on top, as if it were comforting hand of a friend. “Then somebody saw you, at the party, so I knew you were alive, and well.”

Relief flooded his face, the emotion so bright and clear it was unmistakable, but only for a moment. He must have reacted to the look on Cole's face, for he seemed to realize that his relief was not a wholesale thing. He bundled it close, keeping it private, for Cole's sake. His brows came together again, a concerned frown touched his lips.

“But I was worried. I... I had heard, what they said, about that boy you used to bring here.” His father sniffed, working hard to pull himself back into control. “I thought... well... I knew that if he was in trouble, you would be, too.”

He wiped one steadying hand beneath each eye, gathering his tears and drying his hand against his pant leg. Cole watched, not quite sure what to think.

“That must have been why you weren't there, at the parade,” he said, firm in his deduction. “You were busy.”

Unable to meet his father's eyes, Cole looked at the stack of broadsheets on the table. A year's worth, if collected every day. A few years of the cheap, thin papers, if collected only on one subject.
Cole felt his eyes sting, the scratch of the bandages as he rubbed his nose with them. He had thought his father, too, had wept his last at the side of his wife’s sickbed. Wrong, on both accounts.

“You were right,” Cole said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “Nika's in a lot of trouble. So am I.”

“Well, we'll mend it,” his father said. Cole could hear him swallow, the slightest sound of eagerness to his voice, and, encouragement, reassurance... relief. He could help. He stood up and froze, uncertain where to move next.

His father spoke as if the idea were a merciful revelation from the heavens. “I'll make tea.”
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Artist's comment:
[icon by the incomparable StGibbs [icon=???]]

Warning! This story eventually includes these elements:
Violence (battles and rough sex, a twofer); Homophobia (internalized and familial, but no slurs or violence, the world is too gay for that); Religious Intolerance (mostly language and for fantasy religions); Explicit Sex (obvs); Female characters in non-sexual, plot-central roles (just minding the TOS here)

Individual chapters will be tagged with relevant filters but be forewarned and consume at your own discretion.

Start at the Beginning: Chapter One

AN: And now we slow... things... down... haha, take that, story momentum.
Welcome to this chapter, in which we meet Cole's father, and begin a long interlude into the traumatic memories that make Cole the upstanding and totally normal man he is today
Content details:
• Category – Literature
• Critique – Optional
• Filter – N/A
• Series – Original
• Theme – Angst
• Theme – Family
• Theme – Rivalry
• Theme – Romance
• Theme – Supernatural/Fantasy
• Time Taken – Who knows?
• Tools – Literary Work – Prose/Stories
Posted on 2021-02-22 @ 6:50 PM
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