Nightmares jutted into Gaillard's sleep, and the sharp edge of waking cut him from his slumber all at once. He hadn't slept through the night since returning home, not easily, not at all. It had to be his dreams, he thought, shifting in the dark.
But he wasn't sure, either.
After all, he couldn't remember any of them. But he had no other way to explain the carved out hollow in his chest: sharp, stinging, and entirely psychosomatic. There were still hours to go until dawn light sliced through the windows, and if past nights were any indication, there would be no more rest coming to help him swallow down the keening void.
He shuttered his eyes tight and tried to rest, anyway.
Serra did not remember the last two weeks.
Serra did not remember where Morress had gone.
Serra did not remember where the coat he woke up in came from, which tailor or store or gift from whom that came with which certain strings attached.
But where the gaps in his memory were, his mind was full of sharp-bladed thoughts, non-sequiturs whose origin he didn't recognize and turbulent emotions like needles driven under his skin. His hot-blooded exiled cousin who he'd long resigned to the dumping grounds of buried recall flared up in his mind when he stared at his Granblue deck. Frying oil and sugar scents pierced his attention at morning meals, but what exactly he was looking for he hadn't the slightest idea.
It was all distinctly irritating, and that he was even being affected by these trivialities is more so. He was above these things.
Except that all of the sudden, he wasn't, not where it counts. His mask was perfect and his acting hadn't revealed a single crack, but beneath it he felt his was mind too full and it festered with emotions long ago cast out.
This time, he would do a better job amputating.
Returning to the role of big brother was easy, and Gaillard was relieved.
Not that he'd consciously worried. But when the thorns of his knight persona stripped away so easily he found himself breathing a soft exhale, once out of the presence of his siblings. He closed his eyes and took a moment to lean against the wall as if he had just gotten away with some deception. It had only been two weeks. Here, everything was just as before. Nothing had changed.
He heard the thundering of excited footsteps running down the stairs before one of his younger sisters came into view, and straightened up before she reached the bottom. She still gave him an odd look.
"You're out here? We're setting up a mini-tournament! Don't you want to play?"
"Of course I do. I'll be right in," he said and smiled at her, offering his hand for her to take. Colette grinned widely and glommed onto it, and dragged him upstairs to join the others.
Because he was the European champion and playing his hardest would be cheating, but no one wanted him to go easy on them either, there was a lively debate over what handicap he should take. (No heal triggers, and he's only allowed four damage before he lost is what is settled on.)
The afternoon was lively, fun, and familiar.
He still had trouble sleeping that night.
In the morning, he took out his stationary and wrote to Kai Toshiki. Having no idea what else it could be, he suspected it was his conscience that kept him from resting easily. He might as well try to make amends.
Moress never materialized.
A new valet wasn't really on his top ten list of concerns, if he were to pare down his priorities. Incompetence rather than blood must have run Morress's veins, because Serra was used enough to having to aid his own assistant with his tasks that his absence made little difference. He will last a while without one.
A week later, he took one on a whim.
He was barely out of his teens, if that, with dark skin and darker hair. His older sister worked at the manor, part of the kitchen staff, and every day he waited at the gates to walk her home. How loyal, how devoted. No one needed to hold the leash for Serra to recognize a dog when he saw one.
What cinched it was the box-shaped bulge in his pocket, there everyday he comes. The boy was a cardfighter.
He timed it so he is there ten minutes before the brother arrived, and was shuffling through his deck when the boy showed up.
"Would you mind giving me a moment of your time for a cardfight?" Serra asked, gauging. As expected, his eyes looked towards the gates, searching for his sister, and Serra smoothly continued, "A ride has already been arranged for her."
The boy was too straightforward, and every thought that went through his mind in that moment is clear. It was suspicious, but he couldn't risk anything as bold as a rejection to the man who controlled his sister's employment. With no other options, he agreed. "Yes, I'll fight."
"Excellent. Come inside, then. You do have your deck, I assume?" he led him to the parlor.
"Yes. . ." he took it out and shuffled, as Serra prepared the field. "Can I ask why?"
"My valet left us recently. Which clan do you play?" he returned.
Serra hummed a noncommittal, and asked, "Only Shadow Paladin?"
The boy paused and cautiously shook his head. "Neo-Nectar," Serra's eyes slid away, disinterest building, "Gold Paladin." Serra's gaze returned to him. He nodded solidly. "Just those three, sir."
Serra reached into the hand-carved desk and left a gold paladin deck on his opponent's side of the field. Already having made his decision, he explained, "Before we start the paperwork, I would like to test your skills with this. I think it will suit you."
For his own part, he used Neo-Nectar. He's never had any particular attachment to any clan, a predictable strategy meant a predictable weakness. But tonight he was in a manic mood beneath his polished veneer, and the rhythm of it spoke to him in voices that promised there's no such thing as finished business.
The boy (Gabriel) legioned first and Serra won, despite the fact he'd allowed his damage to build from the start, a self-imposed handicap.
"Gold Paladin less than the other two, I see." He smiled blandly at Gabriel's defiant pride, unwilling to admit he'd been unfamiliar with the deck, and produced the paperwork to make his employment official.
Inviting Kai didn't help anything.
If there was any guilt that could be blamed on him, it evaporated too quickly for him to pin it down. Most all of Gaillard's time spent in Kai's presence was spent simmering in annoyance. It was hard not to, when most every one of his actions seemed to have been calculated out of sheer petty selfishness and what would irritate Gaillard the most.
It was invariable. Kai decided to cook and commandeered the kitchen when Gaillard had promised his siblings snacks. He participated in his family's mock-tournaments without warning the children of his skill level, or taking a handicap. More annoying yet, the request for him to take it easy on them was met with a look so blank Gaillard had turned his head to look at his siblings to check that he hadn't slipped into French, instead of asking in Japanese.
"They need to get stronger," Kai had replied, several moments too late.
"They don't need to do anything! They are children, and playing for fun—!" and he had bitten down abruptly, to keep from shouting more. Some of the children had stared, but the girl who was Kai's current opponent was fighting down giggles.
"It's good you have a friend your own age now," Colette assured him. "You're always trying too hard to be nice."
For a moment he was torn between protesting and continuing to berate Kai (now that he had been given the go-ahead), but then Kai had pulled double crits and won the match. He settled for putting his head in his hands, as the children figured out who Kai's next opponent was to be.
It had been easier to idealize Kai when he wasn't here. He could remember his fire, and passion, and focus on the fact that he was a man who had saved Aichi his sacrifice. But with Kai there, there was no denying the obvious. Kai was not an idealist, who had saved Aichi out of a refusal to allow anyone to be sacrificed. Kai was selfish, and had not wanted to lose a friend.
It's understandable, but disappointing. He's grateful, still, that Aichi had been saved. But guilty? No. As things are, Gaillard doesn't regret a single thing. Of course he had tried to save the world. Of course he had followed Aichi.
The restless nights stay, and Gaillard has no choice but to confront it. Something else is the problem.
An international tournament was announced not long after Kai had come to stay.
Gaillard entered, of course, looking forward to a possible chance to see Aichi.
(No thoughts were given to Serra. He'd defeated him, and the threat of Link Joker was over and done with. That was all finished business. So it was a nasty surprise when his name appeared as well, on the roster of competitors.)
It had been prudent, to watch Gaillard's fight. Along with the up-and-coming competitor from Japan, Kai Toshiki, the European champion was a sure favorite in the rankings. Someone to keep a careful eye on, if you didn't want to be caught off-guard. And as luck would have it, his very first fight was scheduled before Serra's. His choice of threats to observe was made for him, but he had not expected much. He'd seen him fight before, in televised tournaments, and expected there had not been much change since.
In this, he was wrong.
When he'd seen Gaillard's fights televised before, he'd not cared for them. Gold Paladin was largely luck based, and it spoke of a fighter with supreme faith-- in himself, a cause, something. But nothing interesting, he'd been sure. A child fighting for his family (he said in the interviews, an arm around a boisterous younger boy with several more children clamboring to get in the picture), glory, and the sheer fun of it. How naive. If he hadn't made it all the way to the finals and claimed the championship title for himself, Serra wouldn't have watched him at all during that time.
Either his television presence was very carefully calculated, or the intervening months had not been kind to Gaillard. Oh, he still smiled, and his lines for the camera before heading out to the preliminary match were scripted to the same refrain of familial piety as before. But he strode out to the field, and the smile tugging his lips was a smirk that Serra knew well: there was no match in this. Gaillard was going to win, and he knew it. His opponent stood no chance.
Serra was positive, it couldn't have been long since Gaillard had lost something near and dear to him. This poise came from struggle, and knowing these stakes were nothing. He'd stood more to lose than just a title before. It was bravado, a mask different than Serra's own but one he'd seen in his family before, someone desperately covering up their own weakness with the buttressed facade of strength. He must have failed miserably, and put all the faith he had left in this one skill. Serra would be surprised if this match lasted longer than it would take him to legion.
He glanced at the clock. "Accompany me down," he commanded Gabriel, and left the room, with his valet beside him. He was prepared to be called out soon, and wasn't disappointed. The match ended as soon as Serra had reached the entrance to the field, and Gaillard turned to leave it.
"You've changed your deck," he offered the European champion in bland conversation, as he took his newly shuffled deck from Gabriel. "Prominence Glare leaves less to chance than Percival. I imagine that makes for a more consistent play experience." He was blatantly fishing, seeing what explanation Gaillard would give for the change, if any.
Interesting. Gaillard hadn't given his opponent a look like that, turning around abruptly from where he had brushed past him, quitting his escape and freezing. He'd stared at Serra and the arrogance and joy had bled from his face, his eyes casting about for some sign of a tool he could use to fight his way out of this, and escape. "And you got rid of Morress," he returned, stiffly.
Serra had stared down at his own deck for a moment, before lifting his eyes to meet Gaillard's. "Excuse me," he said, his tone all polite confusion, "Have we met?".