The sound of footfalls was heavier to him since morning.
When serving girls weaved to-and-fro his tent, refilling untouched wine in the decanter and lighting the candles that had snuffed overnight, their sandaled feet cushioned upon the floors and each soft step that rustled the rugs crawled up his neck and settled to constrict his throat. They muttered among themselves as he mutely stared up the ceiling of his bed, swapping rumors without a hint of restraint – the one he heard the clearest was that Renly's mind had gone with his legs, from a girl who lit the candle on his nightstand and afforded his silence with a stifled frown.
The maesters came later, after he broke his fast with a single roasted leg of goat that he’d left to cool before eating. They came with milk of the poppy sloshing in vials, and solemn peace Renly was thankful for. They drew away his furs and he closed his eyes when peals of winces resonated within the groups – he knew how they looked, he knew it better than anyone; misshapen, shattered, obliterated and battered blue. He felt each jutting bone and offbeat joint and reaped no pain from it, though he wished he could. The wisemen brushed their fingers on his broken skin, and maybe they poked. Maybe they pressed. He didn’t know – how could he?
Renly remained loyal to his oath of silence and let them redress the rest of his bandages. The maesters were wordless as they worked, though the light feel of fingers gingerly handling his legs assured him they weren’t without curiosity and questions. A man with skin wrinkled taut approached his bedside.
“How are you feeling, Your Grace?”
Renly opened his eyes. A tear drifted down his cheekbone, restful in its travel.
A piece of dry cloth tentatively swabbed the little drops until Renly summoned his dignity. The wizened maester let concern creep up his features, hovering above his king.
“Are you hurting, Your Grace?”
They thought it was his legs. They thought, with their examinations and prodding, they hit some pristine nerve and caused pain – his tongue swelled with the want to answer, to seethe. If only it had been the pain, he would say. With pain, I'd be whole again.
But he merely blinked and turned his face away, like a petulant child. He was sure the maesters thought so as well, despite them continuing their duty with tranquility in mind. They used cloths soaked with warm rosewater to wash him, and when a young maester went to settle the furs on Renly, the young king weakly waved him away. They left him, and when he was sure his privacy wouldn’t be intruded he gathered a fistful of the furs and smothered an angry sob broiling in his throat. He was pitiful – scrounging for imaginary scraps of honor that died with his legs, dismissing that maester when his body barely responded to exertion at all. The day wasn’t cold, but a harsh breeze swept over him nonetheless – he felt bare. Stripped.
The Crippled King.
For a moment, he saw red. Death he willed upon many in a surefire list – his brother for waging war, the gnarled hedge knight that knocked him from his mount, his horse that trampled him and left him for dead in the middle of a sprawling battlefield, and for a second, himself. For being so foolish and wasting away when he could simply wrest back the want to speak, laugh, not act like a corpse when all he’d done for a week was sleep.
But he couldn’t. He could move his arms, but he wouldn’t. He could speak, but the words choked him before they could flow.
He refused to even look at his legs – he hadn’t since the moment the maesters filed in his tent after some hedge knight’s squire reported he’d woken, and they crowded his bed to soothe the rising panic that wrenched his chest because why did they look like that, why couldn’t he feel them. Your horse, they said, and that was enough for him. Suddenly he could taste dirt in his mouth again, and his eyes went bleary from hitting his head and staring up the glaring sun so abruptly; shapes blurred above him, and before he knew it, there was a distressed bray and the thumping of hooves so close to his ears and the next thing he knew his body set aflame–
“They worried you wouldn’t lunch.”
The first sight Renly caught was a bright smile and a brighter head of curls. The orange of candles burning low fell upon Loras and he subtly shone like the evening sun – sporting a pewter plate of roasted slices of pork in one hand and a bottle of cherry red in his other, Loras was still clad in steel plated armor, though it was unmarred by blood and dents. A bandage adorned his scalp where a stray arrow whizzed past and missed him narrowly, but cut open the flesh so that stalwart men had to hold Loras still as the maesters sutured the wound.
Loras hummed a bawdy drinking song as he ambled close, and went to set the plates on Renly's belly before he froze mid-motion. The blond grinned sheepishly and whirled to place the meal and wine on the nightstand. Loras’ eyes lingered there for a little, and he picked up a milk of the poppy vial Renly didn’t realize the maesters left behind.
“It looks as if they’ve gifted you drinks already,” he said mirthfully. It was then it dawned upon Renly that he hadn’t seen Loras since he woke – the battle had only simmered down fully the day before he stirred to wake, and Renly’s heart gave a boisterous kick.
Loras deposited the vial with the rest, and threaded his fingers with Renly’s, beaming. The Tyrell’s leather gloves felt warm on Renly’s cold ones.
“How are we today?” he asked, and Renly didn’t know how much he missed and craved Loras’ dulcet voice as much until now.
“Loras,” Renly said, noticing how hoarse his voice had become. He was sure Loras noticed as well, as his expression softened. The bed protested in a subdued creak as Loras sank down, careful to avoid sitting on his companion.
“I’m here,” Loras said, almost a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
Renly didn’t ask why; there was the ever-present air of solitude Renly breathed since he woke, and the warmth of the tent was colder than ever without someone to share it. The first time he asked for Loras, the latter had been returning from the denouement of battle. The second, Loras had been recovering from his wounds. The third, the fourth, and the fifth, the servants merely exchanged glance between each other, then hastily excused themselves.
“I had duties around camp, but I realize that doesn’t excuse my constant absence,” Loras continued, still in a hushed tone. He was slowly regaining his smile, and Renly soundly forgot his own need to smile.
“I understand if you’re vexed,” Loras said. “Berate me, if you’d like. I won’t say anything, not even touch the wine.”
He could do so, but Renly didn’t find it in himself to desire it. More than any ire he should feel for Loras’ enigmatic leave, relief swelled in his being with Loras here, so close that he could touch – if Renly couldn’t feel his own body besides the pain, then he would have Loras, with all the latter’s lesions and imperfections. It was always this way.
Instead, he glided his thumb over Loras’ garbed digits. Gently, Loras swept his lover’s hand up and pressed a kiss to Renly’s knuckles. There was a shade in his golden eyes that would have and did instill a certain lust in Renly, but the king could seldom move without reviving searing aches.
“Not now,” Renly mumbled, and he noted the slight disappointment affecting the curl of Loras’ supple lips – so beautiful, but now, they felt unattainable. The disappointment was banished as quickly as it came, and Loras kissed his lover’s hand again. He let his lips linger for a while, but it was sweetly chaste.
“Does it bother you?” Renly asked faintly, and Loras regarded him with a curious look.
“That I can’t…” he wanted to motion below there, but only mustered the energy to give it a pointed look. Loras followed his clue, but his eyes found Renly's with surprising speed.
“No.” His voice sounded blatantly startled. “No. Of course not.”
Loras’ lips curved in a more mischievous yet oh so charming arc as he lofted a golden-brown brow. “Do you think me so shallow that I only want you for the lovemaking?”
It was on the tip of his tongue; a jest, jape like he preferred to – but like the rest, it bubbled and died down in his throat. There was a pregnant silence before Loras' eyes drooped.
“They say you seldom speak anymore, to anyone,” Loras said, his tone the softest it could be without being inaudible. “I shan’t assume it’s because I’ve offended you, but if you can, will you speak with me?”
Renly tried; he really did. Not hard enough. He felt like a child, whose platform was knocked from beneath his feet; the skies beat down on him and he was pitiable under pressure.
There was a dull thud as Renly rested his skull against the headboard.
“It’s there,” Renly said, and Loras’ eyes glistened with hope. It battered the former’s heart all the more. “It’s there, but I can’t. I don’t– I can’t. I–”
How is the boy lord of Winterfell? His mind mused, interfering. His mouth dried as he recalled the young spawn of Eddard Stark – the name refused to dawn in memory, but he didn’t forget the quiet uproar that rippled in the Red Keep after news reached their former Hand of their son, crippled and comatose. Clusters of serving girls balancing baskets of newly acquired produce rumbled with murmurs that mentioned the lame Stark, and any member of the Keep possessing some semblance of noteworthy status made time to pass their condolences through the mouth or written correspondence. Renly himself had voiced his consolation after a brief council summit – he hadn’t a son, or a little brother, and bore little familial affections for his own blood, but he understood well enough what the news might feel like. Was this punishment for his lack of sympathy?
The Stark boy had waked not a new man. He was a child, then, not yet versed with the unpredictable tides of life that pulled him under at an unfairly young age. Maybe he was blessed with that – only the Seven knew how he regained metaphorical footing so quick, and mayhap it was his crippling that allowed his wisdom to mature so readily. The crippled boy lord now sat at the head of Winterfell, displaying the fine bearings of man, and here Renly was – in bed, moping and inexcusably pathetic.
Perhaps it was because the Stark boy could have been great. He could have retained his legs, could have been fostered as a squire in one of the great houses and knighted as an exceptional Ser of the North, could have led a life normal by standards of nobility and died a man with full composure of his body. He’d been a little boy when tragedy befell him – the tapestry that told of his life was still in the process of being woven, and his men didn’t know him for anything else before he became their disabled ruler.
But Renly had been great. He was coveted as the handsome youngest son of the Baratheon name, claimants of the Iron Throne, and the common people celebrated his fingers gripping the throne. No matter how lousy he was at fighting and jousting, the crowds rallied to his name and cheered when he got to his feet – once, in his lifetime, he could defuse a tumultuous mass with a smile. Men patrolled his grounds and respected him, would defend him to their dying breath, and Renly used to believe his pure disposition curbed any possibilities for mutiny. He was arrogant, but he truly had been honored. Great.
Now, his people freely talked of his tragedy and muttered hints of disrespect. Servants washed him and set down bowls of expensive fruit but shamelessly swapped rumors that Renly was going insane as the latter heard boundlessly. Hedge knights passed his tent, shadows visible through the sunset fabric, japing of their liege’s misfortune and guffawing wetly.
Just like that, his influence cracked. The rug was pulled under his feet by a simple accident – had he been more careful, seen behind him where the enemy knight swung the pommel of his sword, held on tighter, or rolled away before his stallion flattened him to the earth, it would have all been fine. Normal. He would still be revered, but as it stood, circumstances rendered him forcefully to become a shadow of the proud Baratheon he once was.
Sickly, weak, crippled. Loras made the furs susurrate as he inched closer and Renly wondered if the Tyrell would leave too – he’d half a mind to urge him to do so, but when the people who flocked under his banner deprived their king of the barebones of respect, who else was there but Loras? Years have passed, yet the reality that the only person he truly loved after his brothers and he grew up was the bright-headed Tyrell weighed the heftiest then, bedridden and hurting.
Did it confirm how far Renly had fallen when he felt tears pricking, or did it just further his unworthiness? He prepared to berate himself and remember his self-esteem when Loras reached and gathered him into an embrace.
Face buried in a breastplate fashioned of fine steel, it should have been cold, but Loras radiated warmth none could compare. Renly’s lover was nonchalant as he petted Renly’s hair, scented rose but matted and tousled, fingers running a pattern from the back of his neck to the small of his back. Tenderly, his lips brushed Renly’s scalp, innocent and bare.
At home, the king wept while his people laughed.