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Cocytus, named of lamentation loud

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Before the rest of his body comes back to him, he feels the sting in his hands from where he scraped the skin flailing on the ground. In this position, his body contorted, he has a perfect view of Locke as he brings the Sister down on something grey and twisted, lying between Calo and Galdo. Lying between their bodies, rather, because he'd seen the mess of their necks, and the unnatural stiffness in their limbs that told him they'd been dead for hours. Bug, he thinks desperately, but he can't see where he is. His face is turned away from the kitchen doorway, pinned down to watch Locke's back and the corpses of his friends.

Locke makes a low noise of animal rage as he works, his blows quick and brutal and full of more energy than he rightly should have had given his own injuries. It is easy to forget that he was limp and broken and drowned in filth not even two hours ago. How the turns: that it is Locke who is now full of frantic rage and energy, and Jean who is pinned down and helpless, waiting to be saved.

Awareness creeps back into Jean's limbs by slow, agonising inches as Locke hacks away at the ensorcelled thing in his desperation, and the moment Jean can turn his head he does so, eyes looking for Bug. He can see the edge of one small, childish foot through the doorway. Blood creeps along the outline of the boot, already settling in place around him as if framing a painting.

Beside him, Locke lands one last, furious blow, and abruptly Jean has breath in his lungs again. His limbs - released as if from nettle rope - sting with every movement as he rolls to his knees. Bug. “Oh, Bug. Oh, gods damn it,” he says, desperate and disbelieving as he stumbles to his feet and lunges for the doorway. The wood of the doorframe creaks beneath his fingers, slick with the blood and muck he presses into it as he grabs hold and tries to breathe.

He had thought – he had hoped – surely, surely something could be done. Surely, he could do to Bug what they had done to Locke and force him back to life. Surely –

Bug is stretched out on the floor, a bolt in his neck. His legs are twitching slightly as his muscles settle. His chest does not rise.

His eyes are open, his lips slack around the mouthful of blood.

Bug. The littlest of them, the one who wasn't a threat to anyone except himself, the one even Jean hadn't thought needed guarding except from overzealous yellowjackets. Bug. Jean can't fucking believe it.

Behind him, Locke takes a ragged breath.

*

When he closes his eyes, Jean can see Locke on his back in the dirt, his arms wrapped tight around Tesso, waiting for Jean to come back and rescue him. All I have to do is hold on until Jean gets here, Locke had said, struggling with laughter as Tesso had kicked and fought against him. He hadn't even dodged the blows, waiting it out until Jean could reach them and pry Locke's cramping fingers from Tesso's arms and drag the little shit-heel to his feet.

Jean! Locke had said, his breath coming out in wet gulps of blood and mucus, Jean, look what I have for you!

And he'd presented the struggling Tesso as if he'd been a gift-wrapped wench, legs spread and smile beckoning. As if Tesso had been the gift, and not Locke himself, panting and bloodied and bruised but alive.

*

Bug's clothes are in disarray, and for one brief, frantic moment, Jean's reaching out to smooth them into place before he snatches his hand back. It hardly matters now.

“Forgive me, Locke. I just couldn't... I couldn't move!” And whose fault was that? Some part of him whispers. Whose fault that the Bondsmage could hold you so easily? Bug's eyes stare up at the ceiling, blank and glassy in death.

“There's nothing to forgive,” Locke says. He touches Jean's arm, wrapping his fingers around Jean's wrist, fingers over the pulsepoint. "Jean. There's nothing to forgive."

Jean could almost believe it, if it wasn't for the look in Bug's eyes.

*

The ugly truth of it is, whatever his past may have implied, Locke had grown up into one of those people completely unable to survive on his own. Sure, he'd managed so far, but Jean is a realist. Locke had a very specific skill-set, and while this provided him and the other Bastards with the contents of the Vault, it did not really stretch to keeping himself alive or unmaimed.

He'd come up with one brilliant plan after the other – Locke was nothing if not creative – and yet each scheme would have him at the heart of it if everything went tits-up. “Or I could come with you,” Jean would say each time the denouement of a plan was outlined, and Locke would pause.

“That could work,” he'd allow, and he'd shift things so that he wasn't exposing his stupid neck for no fucking reason.

“I think Locke's an idiot,” Jean had said to the Sanzas some time back, right around the time Locke had had the shit beaten out of him again. “Either that, or he's been hit on the head one too many times. It's like he wants to get caught.”

Calo raised an eyebrow. “Well, I'll not argue with you that Locke having his brains scrambled isn't unlikely, but what makes you think he has a deathwish?” He tapped his fingers against his sternum, right around where Locke's mark would be.

It's not exactly a deathwish. Jean doesn't quite know how to name it, or how to describe it. Only, he thinks that Locke maybe does it at least a little bit on purpose, leaving himself as the one in danger and trying to keep the rest of them away. It's the way a mother puts her baby behind her when the bruisers come; that mix of protectiveness and ownership. This is mine, it is made from me, and I defend it with my life.

The thought of Locke as a parent, a child on his hip – one wearing Bug's face, or Galdo's, maybe – is one that is inadvertently hilarious in all the wrong ways. Yes, the Gentlemen Bastards may have been the creation of the dearly-departed Chains, but it was Locke who brought them home safely. Locke who poured the wine for their loved ones and lost ones, and Locke who bore the worry of it on himself.

Jean worried for Locke like a friend. But Locke? Locke worried about them all like a father. A short, scrawny, ugly father who took after Chains in more ways than he cared to admit.

“Maybe he's just a contrary bastard,” Jean had muttered at last, and Calo had laughed.

*

Thinking back, Jean knows that should have knocked Locke over the head with something solid, and carried him and Bug and the Sanzas out of fucking Camorr, by force if need be; naked and penniless, if required. Thirteen knew, with or without money or fine clothes, Locke would be able to spin them a tale to get them settled wherever they ended up. Jean wagered he could have got the whole gang far enough away from the stench of this that even a Bondsmage would have lost interest eventually. They would have probably ended up better off than before.

If he'd got them away when his instincts had told him to. If he'd not let himself be persuaded by Locke's plan. If he'd acted.

If...

Locke is still staring down at the shriveled hand between Calo and Galdo's bodies when Jean turns back. He's managed to hack it to small enough pieces, but Jean can see that it had been human, the withered little finger ending up in the pool of blood around Galdo's head.

Calo's barefoot, for some reason. The soles of his feet are smeared with blood.

The Gray King's man must have killed Galdo first, Jean realises, and the certainty of it knifes through him. And then, as Calo stepped and slipped in his twin's blood, he must have -

“There's nothing to forgive,” Locke says again, and his voice is flat, rasping. The bruises around his neck are starting to come up in vivid colour, marking a purple ring around his collar. “It was a trap. It had your name on it, that thing the mage left for us. They guessed you'd be coming back.”

Because if Locke was dead, what would have been left except for Jean to collect Bug and the Sanzas and flee? What would have been left except the thing that Jean should have done anyway, with or without Locke's cooperation?

Locke's still speaking, explaining about the hand, asking for lamp oil. Jean barely hears him. His palms sting like a flagellant on Penance day, and his blood is throbbing in his ears and everything slows around him until it feels like he's back in the waterway, wading through muck and filth as he slowly turns and heads back through the kitchen.

At the sink, Galdo is laughing as he washes up after dinner, and Calo and Locke are sat around the table, teaching Bug the rudiments of card-counting.

When he closes his eyes, he can see Locke sprawled on the ground, almost smothered by Tesso's bulk, squirming and kicking his legs and holding on for dear life, his life in his bloodied mouth and his eyes fixed on Jean.

Bug's head lolls to one side as Jean kneels beside him. He's thin and wiry and maybe twelve; maybe twelve forever, now. “I'm sorry,” he whispers into the deaf ear. “I'm sorry, Bug.”

He cannot make a death-offering, he knows. It is Locke's place to offer that, and to avenge their friend's deaths. He is their garrista, and Jean cannot usurp his right to it. But Jean has something else he can offer instead. “I'll take better care of him, I promise you. By Perelandro, and by the Crooked Warden, I promise you I'll keep him alive.”

By hook or by crook, Jean thinks. One way or another, he's going to make sure that Locke survives.

*

fin