He was numb. Perfectly calm in outward appearance, as he had to be for the good of those who believed in him. He'd learned to school his feelings to be in accordance. Everyone he'd felt comfortable expressing his doubts to had been killed in the past few months - there was no one left for him to express them to - so it had been a quick, necessary lesson.
But now one of those people had returned, against all odds.
Standing in the hallway that led to his room, he couldn't help but stare at a man he'd never thought he'd see again. It seemed that Leknaat had pulled him back into the world just as he'd left it, just the way he'd appeared when he'd pulled the lever in Soniere. His hair was disheveled, more than usual - the loose tail he kept it in was falling all over the place - and his cloak was in disarray from the minor skirmishes with the guards. It only added credence to the vaguely disoriented look in his green eyes as he addressed Tir in confusion. "Young Master... what happened?"
Of course he wouldn't remember anything that had come to pass. None of the betrayals, none of the victories. He'd throw fits if he found out that Lady Sonya had been in the basement prison, even briefly. He still had never found out what happened to Ted after their departure from Gregminster...
Tir abruptly realized that he was going to have to explain about his father, and that realization was what finally caused it all to come crashing down on him at once.
Gremio tensed, almost alarmed, as the walls cracked just for an instant, long enough for Tir to succumb to the urge he'd had since the moment Gremio had reappeared, but had fought off - it wasn't the kind of thing the leader of an army should do, was it? But now that they were alone, he fell into Gremio's arms, wrapping his own around Gremio's neck and clinging tightly. After a moment's startled pause, Gremio relaxed, his arms slipping gently around his young master to hold him in close comfort. "Tir..."
Burying his face in the green cloak, just as he had when he was a little boy, even the unhappiness that made him tremble with barely stifled sobs could not prevent a wide smile - of all he'd lost, Gremio had come back to him. If there was any one person he needed, who could help him to find peace after all of this, it was Gremio. "...I missed you so much..."
"Here, here, Young Master..." Gremio was murmuring in his ear, turning him gently while still holding him closely. "Let's go sit down - your room's right here, isn't it? My, the castle looks so much different than I recall, but Cleo told me this was where you stay... I don't quite understand what happened to me, but... Ah, no matter, I'm perfectly fine now - let us talk for a bit, shall we...? You seem troubled..."
Trying to pull himself together quickly - he'd had to do exactly that so many times since Gremio's death - Tir allowed Gremio to steer him towards the bedroom. Once inside, Gremio closed the door tight behind them and pulled a chair from the table so that he could sit beside the unmade bed where Tir had seated himself, staring down miserably at his hands folded in his lap. This was going to be the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. Harder even than the act he was going to have to explain - at least then he'd expected that his father would understand. Gremio, on the other hand, might not.
"What is it, my Young Master?" Gremio asked again, concern apparent in the gentle way he rested his hand on Tir's knee. Looking down at it, suddenly he hesitated, and drew back. "I-I'm sorry, Young M... Master Tir."
Tir's distress was forgotten in his sudden confusion. "Gremio...?"
The older man blushed faintly. "Forgive me, Master Tir - they were right, weren't they? You're no little boy anymore... The others, they kept telling me that, and in my stubbornness, I refused to believe them. I'm still not sure what precisely happened back in Soniere," he admitted, "but it is obvious that some time has passed."
He sat up straighter, looking his charge over with a careful gaze. "You've grown. You haven't aged a bit, but I can see in your eyes that you're no child." His expression softened, and he smiled warmly, his green eyes shining in a way that Tir had never seen before. "You're a man... a strong young man, who has proved that he doesn't need to rely on someone like myself for protection - the fact you are still here and whole, with this large army at your command, proves it beyond the shadow of a doubt. As much as it saddens me to see that they were right, I... I find the tears I seem to be on the verge of shedding are more from pride than regret."
Indeed, he sniffled slightly, and Tir found himself lost for words. "But... Gremio, I..."
Gremio had lowered his head, nearly overcome, and now he stared down at his knees helplessly. "...Have you spoken to your father yet?" Blinking back the dampness in his eyes, he looked up to Tir's suddenly frozen face. "I'm sure Master Teo is so terribly proud of you, regardless of what you may be fighting for - you've become a great general, just as he is. And at such a young age..."
Tir managed to nod vaguely, trying to think of how he could possibly say it. "Yes, he told me he was proud..."
"Ahh!" Gremio's warm smile brightened. "Then you have met with him!" Closing his eyes for a moment, Gremio breathed a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad... Though I chose to remain with you no matter the circumstances - I did give your father an oath, you know - I feared that it might..." Gremio's voice trailed off as he took in the look in Tir's eyes. "...Master Tir...?"
There was a note of fearful disbelief in his voice that told Tir that he'd already guessed the worst - although "the worst" that Gremio could imagine was probably more pleasant than the reality. With a sigh, he forced himself to begin the explanation. "When we met, Gremio... it was on the battlefield."
The fear in Gremio's eyes abruptly turned to pain - that all but confirmed his worst suspicions - but his expression was nothing but sympathy. "Master Tir..."
He wasn't a child, Tir reminded himself, trying to harden his own expression. It was difficult, with Gremio looking at him that way, when all he really wanted to do was throw himself into Gremio's arms again. Instead, he bit his lip and set his jaw firmly - Gremio might have said stubbornly, in the past. "My father... I believe it was how he wanted it." He was fumbling for words now, having always been more of a listener than a talker when it came to the serious issues. "It wasn't just a random soldier who struck him down, either... that wouldn't have been worthy of him. But..." Tir bit his lip again, unable to bring himself to breach the subject completely.
He felt sick remembering. His own plain staff spinning upwards to block the sword of the emperor. Blotches of his father's blood, red and warm on the white knuckles of his hands.
He'd unconsciously closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he found Gremio still regarding him with the utmost concern. His mouth was half-open, as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't think what. It was a feeling Tir knew all too well at the moment.
"It was a duel," he finished at last, looking away. "Between my father and myself. That was how he wanted it..." He could still see the steely determination in his father's eyes as the wind whipped about the two of them in the middle of the battlefield. "And I won."
Gremio said nothing, and Tir dared to look back at him, only to find him with the same trying-to-speak expression. Slowly, Gremio lifted a hand to cover his mouth in shock, but still said not a word.
"At first I thought he hated me." Tir couldn't stand the horrified silence between them. There had never been silence between them before - not ever. "I thought he wanted to kill me. But that wasn't it at all... I don't think. I got the feeling," he said haltingly, "that he knew what was right. But I don't think he could have lived any other way than he knew... he had to follow Emperor Barbarosa, even if it wasn't the right path. And in the end..." Tir's voice had unconsciously lowered to almost a whisper, his mouth dry. "He was proud. Not because I bested him in single combat, but because I was strong enough to escape that..."
Gremio remained silent, frozen and slightly pale with his fingers pressed to his lips, and Tir again fumbled for something to say. "...Not to say that I was stronger than him, because I... I don't think I would have had the nerve to-"
"There's no need to explain yourself to me, Young Master," Gremio interrupted, dropping his hand to reach out and take Tir's. His fingers, always a contradiction, were slender as any noble's but rough and callused as a workman's as they caressed Tir's palm. Tir looked down at them, watching Gremio's thumb trace over the black mark on the back of his hand. It felt strange, somehow... the rune felt alive at Gremio's touch, but not in the hungry way that seemed to come before battles.
His normally steady hands were trembling slightly, too, and when Tir looked up again, he found that Gremio's eyes again were wet with tears barely kept in check. "I-I once swore that I would protect Master Teo from anyone who might attempt to endanger him... with my life. But... I..."
That reminded Tir of something, and he nodded as he pulled away reluctantly, leaning over to his pillow and slipping a hand beneath. "I know. Gremio... I, uhm... well, you'll want this back..."
When Viktor had come to his room just a few nights past and given him Gremio's axe, Tir had never expected it to ever have use again, except as a memento. And if it was childish to sleep with it beneath his pillow, or absurd, then let him be childish and absurd - after all the restrictions and expectations he'd had to live up to, the numbness and calm he had to constantly maintain, he could at least do as he pleased in his own bed at night.
As he pulled the axe free from his bedding, he turned it over in his hand, almost caressing it. It was nothing special, perhaps, but precious in its familiarity. Though Maas and Meese had sharpened it since the war began, and Gremio had always been careful to keep it in good condition, the haft was old and faded, worn by many years of use to fit even more perfectly in its owner's gentle hands. The strip of cloth that bound it was not tied tightly, but loosely wrapped, so that it could be adjusted as needed. The blade carried the duller gleam of old metal rather than the bright shine of new steel.
And then there was the one thing that Tir had never seen before that night that Viktor had given it to him, as many times as he'd seen Gremio's axe in the past. He'd never looked closely enough to see the engraving along the inner edge of the blade where it attached to the haft. He'd broken down when first he'd seen it, but now he simply felt the numbness overtake him as he wordlessly held out the axe, offering it to its rightful owner.
Gremio almost looked as if he wasn't sure what to do with it for a moment, but accepted it after a brief hesitation. His fingers strayed to the engraving along the haft, pressing against the metal in a idle gesture Tir had seen from him many times before, but never understood the meaning of. He still looked shaken, however, and it was no wonder after the news he'd received. "So you kept my dear old axe for me... I'm deeply indebted to you, Master Tir."
"Actually, Viktor brought it back," Tir admitted. "After... what happened... I wasn't thinking." Another way in which he'd been a disappointment, he thought with a deep sigh. "...Gremio... I'm so sorry..."
Gremio raised an eyebrow in bewilderment, though his eyes still remained dazed and shimmering with sorrow. "Ah... whatever do you mean, Master Tir? It's only an axe, many years old..."
"No, I..." Tir suddenly felt choked by the things he never had expected he would be able to express, and instead of continuing with words, reached out to touch Gremio's axe with his own hands, pressing his own fingers against the tiny ridges and valleys carved into the metal. He underlined the small letters with one fingertip as Gremio looked down in confusion to see what he was doing.
I will protect my Master.
When his eyes rose again to meet Tir's, it was obvious that no words were necessary; Gremio understood.
"Heavens no, Master Tir!" he proclaimed fervently, leaning forward to regard his young master seriously. "How could I blame you? H-how could I ever blame you, having raised you since you were a little child? I know your heart, I trust it implicitly - y-you only did what this path you've chosen to walk required! Never think that I would blame you for... f-for that."
Regardless of his words, there was raw grief in his eyes and a frustrated stammering in his speech that Tir knew was his fault. Gremio had sworn to serve Teo McDohl, and through him, was devoted unto death to the McDohl household. How could he possibly reconcile one McDohl killing another? Especially when the man killed was his first master, his personal hero, whom he'd followed faithfully for over a decade? His father's death was enough to crush Gremio; the manner of death doubly so.
"Never!" Gremio swore again, turning away almost angrily. "If... if anything, I..." His voice trailing off helplessly, he lowered his head to rest in one palm wearily. "I-I blame myself, Master Tir."
"Don't, please..." The protest sounded weak even to his own ears, and Tir started to reach out gingerly to Gremio's shoulder, trying to offer a more certain kind of reassurance. "It was me... and besides that, it was my fault that you couldn't even be there-"
"If I had been, I would not have stopped you." Gremio's voice, quiet and bitter, caused Tir to hesitate. "I served Master Teo as well as I believed I could, since the War of Succession. Loyal as I was to him, I never thought to question his loyalty to the emperor... On the contrary, it was one reason I admired him, that unfailing loyalty. I aspired to be the same. And so when I heard the rumors in the marketplace, the whispers of corruption, I said nothing of them - to be loyal to Master Teo was to be loyal to Barbarosa also."
His fingers still traced over the engraving on the blade of his axe, but abruptly clenched into a tight fist around the haft. "I thought to be loyal was to turn a blind eye, just as he did - Master Teo was no fool, and I've no doubt that he heard the rumors as well. But perhaps if I had questioned him, perhaps even confronted him about the things I heard, he might have listened - he might have turned aside as you did..."
Tir didn't know what to say. Even having expected the news to upset him, it was so strange to see Gremio in such a state - sorrowful and filled with regret - that it was nearly frightening.
"And I must apologize to you also, Master Tir," Gremio continued, still resting his head in his palm in quiet frustration. "When you chose to join with the Liberation Army, I-I tried to discourage you, out of that same blind loyalty to the Empire... When you made your decision, I loathed myself - I believed I'd let your father down, I'd not raised you to be a proper citizen. But everything I believed was backwards, as it turns out..." Finally he raised his head again, and in his grief, it seemed to Tir that he looked older. "Forgive me, Master, I still have my doubts, even knowing your heart - I can't help but wonder if I've served you any better than I served your father. Here you are, a great leader and general in spite of my discouragement and treating you as a child... I'm afraid I've been standing in your way all along, rather than supporting you..."
"What do you mean?" Tir couldn't help the incredulous outburst. "...You died for me, Gremio."
Gremio's eyes widened - was he actually surprised to think that Tir wouldn't cherish what he'd done as the greatest gift he could have been given? - and Tir stopped short to collect his thoughts and emotions.
Gremio, however, was struck silent by something entirely different. "...I-is that what happened, then?" he murmured at last, staring at Tir in surprise. "...I died?"
Tir nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and Gremio sighed heavily, looking worried. "I wondered how I could possibly have escaped those spores of Milich's unharmed - it never occurred to me that I hadn't." He laughed softly, but the laughter was shaky and thin. "To die and then to live again... Lady Leknaat's power is quite incredible."
There was a questioning look in his eyes, and Tir knew what he must be thinking; unfortunately, the answer was no. "It's something she can only do once. The Gate Rune..."
"I see..." Gremio lowered his head again, sinking into troubled thought. "...Why me, then?"
Tir had never thought about that - he had only been grateful - and he thought for a moment, until he found an explanation that spoke to what Gremio was really asking. "The first things you said when she brought you back were all about the things you still wanted to do for me. ...But my father told me he was glad to see that I'd surpassed him. I think he knew that the Empire was failing, he couldn't have continued on his path had he lived. He had nothing left to do in life, nowhere left to go..."
"Ah... that does make sense. I-I'm happy to hear it, that he had no regrets."
Despite his words, Gremio was trembling, and finally he gave in, brushing at his eyes with one hand as his shoulders shook. "I'm sorry, Young Master," he murmured between quiet sobs. "I know I... I shouldn't... I'm so sorry, Young Master, I can't..."
Tir had never seen Gremio cry before, in all the years they'd spent together. It came as no surprise, exactly, for Gremio had served his father out of love and respect for many years, but it was as alien as it would have been to see his father cry, and he had no idea what to do. Feeling helpless, he reached out to place a hand cautiously on Gremio's shoulder.
"Please d-don't mind me, Master Tir," Gremio urged him in a whisper, turning his head away. "I'll be fine, I just... I... I'm very sorry about this..."
"Gremio..." Unable to stand seeing him in such misery, Tir reached out further, hugging him gently. Gremio's arms wrapped around him in response, squeezing him tighter than he ever had before as he moved to sit next to Tir on the bed, still shaking with the sobs he was so desperately trying to keep in check. Tir's arms tightened around him also; they were so close that he could feel Gremio's grief. It ate away at him until he likewise had no strength to fight the tears he'd kept inside for so long, and soon he found himself crying into Gremio's cloak.
They remained that way for what seemed like ages, until Tir ran out of tears to cry, and Gremio's sobs slowed to an intermittant tremble. His pain was still fresh, a raw open wound, and Tir sought for some way to ease it. On a sudden impulse, he realized that his arms were in fact conveniently around Gremio - the perfect position for something that had always made him laugh.
Gremio jumped at the motion of Tir's hands, and began to giggle in spite of himself. "Y-young Master! Why you... Stop that! Ha ha ha..."
Tir grinned wearily, refusing to relent in his tickling no matter how Gremio squirmed. Thank goodness it had had the effect he'd been trying for, or he didn't know what he'd have done. The tension had been unbearable.
"Ahh ha ha! S-stop it! I can b-barely breathe!" In an effort to stop the torment, Gremio stopped trying to escape and instead pulled Tir against him, pinning his arms within the hug. Laughing himself, Tir gave in and stopped, leaning against Gremio.
Gremio relaxed as well, still panting for the breath he'd lost, but the two of them did not move; both were content to rest in each other's arms. How long had it been since he'd laughed, Tir wondered? And he was tired, he realized - terribly tired, after so many nights full of insomnia or uneasy dreams, although he hadn't noticed it until that moment, within Gremio's arms as he'd been so many nights as a child. When he'd been sick or if he had a nightmare, it had been Gremio who held him until sleep managed to find him, and it had always been a comfort. With so many things having changed even in the past few months, it was a relief to find one thing that remained the same.
At last Gremio sighed, calming enough to remember what they'd been speaking of beforehand. "Did he... at least have a proper burial?"
Tir nodded against his shoulder. "Alen and Grenseal saw to it, before they came to join us here at the castle."
There was a shift of Gremio's head against his own, as if he'd tilted it curiously. "Sirs Alen and Grenseal...? Here? After all this?"
"By my father's order," Tir told him. "His final order to them was to follow me instead of going back to the Empire."
There was a shocked silence, then Gremio breathed a quiet, relieved laugh. "So he did choose his own path in the end, after all..."
Tir had never thought of it that way, and he smiled as he closed his eyes, resting in Gremio's embrace. He'd barely returned, and already Tir felt much more at peace than he'd felt in the weeks past.
Gremio must have been able to tell from the way Tir was leaning against him just how tired he was, for he shifted again, looking around the room, which was considerably larger than it had been the last time he'd seen it. "I know it's only mid-day, but would you care to take a nap?" he asked. "It's been a rather eventful morning, and you're dreadfully limp. I'll draw the drapes for you, if you wish..."
Back only a little while, and already fussing over him. Tir's smile grew wider. "That would be nice, Gremio... thank you." He had grown in many ways during Gremio's absence, from a sheltered young aristocrat to an open-minded and powerful leader. He was glad for that growth, for he wouldn't have wanted to remain as blind as he had been to the feelings of so much of the nation he'd grown up in, but it was perhaps too much too soon - there were times when he felt he could still use a little bit of the same shelter he'd had as a boy.
"You're still wearing your shoes," Gremio observed, rising with Tir as he stood to turn down the blankets. "I should get something else for you to wear, so your clothes don't wrinkle," he added as he went to the other side of the bed to assist him with the sheets, still tangled from the previous night's fitful slumber. "But I'm afraid I'm not sure where you're keeping your clothes now - and my, but your bed is a mess. You do know how to make a bed, I'm certain - I taught you myself, if I recall correctly."
Tir followed Gremio with his eyes as his friend went to the windows, shutting out the light and the view of his responsibilities outside. Aside from the size of the large room, he felt ordinary again, just for the moment.
"Leader or not, you should not be resting in an unmade bed," Gremio muttered vaguely, pulling the last of the drapes across a window. His grumbling ceased when he turned back to Tir, and found the boy still standing by the bed, eyes on him. "Is something wrong, Young Master?" he asked, then hesitated. "Ah, forgive me - I shouldn't treat you as if you were a child. Is that it? I'm terribly sorry, Youn- Master Tir," he corrected himself quickly.
Tir shook his head, sitting down on the bed to remove his shoes. "Nothing's wrong." Aside from the absence of Gremio's arms around him, leaving him feeling strangely cold, it was the truth. "But..." Gremio's expression showed concern, and Tir gave him a reassuring smile. "Call me 'Young Master' anytime you like."
Gremio relaxed as he returned to Tir's side, fluffing the pillows briefly. "As you wish. Sleep well, Young Master," he added as he straightened, having seen that the bed was in order, and rested his hands on the back of the chair. "I suppose there are things I need to do, people I should speak with..."
Leaning down to pick up the chair and move it back to where it belonged, he paused, as Tir's hand suddenly touched his own. "...Can I be selfish for a few hours, Gremio?" Although some would have said that the entire Liberation Movement centered around him, it seemed to Tir that he hadn't had anything that he wanted for a long time; just this once, his army could wait.
Gremio's other hand moved to rest atop his, and he smiled as he sat down again, understanding what Tir was asking without so many words. "I believe after all of this, you are entitled to a few hours of selfishness, yes. And as for me, there is nothing I would enjoy more than to serve you once again. I would have to say that after being devoured alive by that Milich's spores," he added with a shudder, "sitting at your bedside is no trouble at all."
Tir was also going to have to explain to Gremio why Milich was now welcome in their castle, he realized - but that could wait. For the time being, he was going to be selfish. He was going to fall asleep, with his hand in Gremio's and a smile on his lips for a change. As he drifted off, the last things he was aware of were the sound of Gremio's voice quietly humming an old tune he'd heard in his youth, and a stray bit of light caught by the blade of the axe that leaned against his chair.
Tir still had vague memories of his abduction as a child, of a tall figure - so much taller than he was, at the time - hurtling through the dark room, tossing his kidnappers aside, and placing himself firmly before him, so that they could not touch him again. The blade of his axe had gleamed in the dim light, just as it did now, allowing the promise Gremio had made all those years ago to shine even in the near-darkness.