Fiearius stepped out onto the landing, taking a breath of the crisp night air that stung as it filled his lungs. The warm light of the apartment behind him flooded out of the windows and it was tempting to turn back. He didn’t want to leave. Gods, he didn’t want to leave. But he couldn’t impose himself on Cyrus’ family any more than he already had. It was time to go.
Another deep breath and he lifted his hood over his head. As he headed down the stairs, he reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a tiny bundle wrapped in paper. When he reached into his other pocket, however, he found nothing in place of where a lighter should have been.
Taking the last few steps out of the building and onto the street, he looked around for any sign of life. It was quiet tonight. Rather, it was too late on a Tuesday for any sensible Satieran to be wandering around the residential area of the Shipbuilding District. Well, they were missing out, Fiearius decided. He wasn’t fond of the cold on any planet, but Satieran desert winter held a certain familiar hatred to it. And even he couldn’t argue that the clear skies and endless expanse of stars were a sight to behold.
He’d walked a few blocks before he spotted a couple young guys and a woman leaned against the wall of an alley nearby. They were laughing and joking with one another and the orange glow of burning cigarettes lit their faces.
It would do.
Fiearius approached the group and one of them, the woman, noticed first. She nudged her friend in the ribs and told him to hush, gesturing at the stranger until all three grew quiet and watched him suspiciously. One of them even stood up straight and puffed up his chest as though it might actually intimidate him. Fiearius chuckled under his breath.
“Can I bum a light?” he asked once he was close enough. The two men glanced furtively at one another, but the woman, hesitant as she was, unhooked herself from where she was leaning against him and sauntered towards Fiearius, digging in her pocket.
She handed the lighter to him without a word and watched as Fiearius lit the paper and held it to his lips, breathing in until he could feel the weight of it filling his chest, hard and sharp and mildly comforting. The rumor had always been that once you’d taken Flush, nothing else felt the same. Turned out, that rumor was painfully true. But at this point? Any little bit helped.
Fiearius released the long breath of smoke and watched it drift upwards into the night. “Thanks.” He handed the lighter back to the girl and turned to leave, but she stopped him.
He probably should have just kept walking. Because of course, he could guess at what was coming. But foolishly, since he apparently never learned his lesson, he turned back.
“I know you. You’re that –” She clicked her fingers beside her ear and scrunched her face. “Soliveré right? The admiral? From the war.”
Her friends joined in before he could put an end to it. “No shit?” One of them squinted his eyes to peer closer at Fiearius. The other let out a disbelieving laugh. “You’re kidding, this guy? Here? The fuck are you doing here, man, shouldn’t you be out livin’ it up somewhere? Damn!”
The girl made a grab for his arm that Fiearius narrowly avoided as he took a step backwards away from them. “Come on, we should take you out somewhere,” she suggested enthusiastically. “Can you imagine what people will say when we tell ‘em we went drinking and smoking with the Rogue Verdant?”
“No way will anyone believe us,” said one.
“What d’ya say Soliveré? Admiral? Sir?” said another, laughing. “What do we call you? Come out with us? There’s this sick place down by–”
“No,” Fiearius cut him off finally lest this go on any fucking longer. The three of them went quiet, watching him with a growing sense of disappointment he couldn’t care less about. He took another long draw from the joint, needing it now more than before. “Sorry, you’ve got the wrong guy.” He exhaled and dropped the still burning embers on the ground before turning back to the street.
As he walked away, he could hear the group whispering behind him, debating his identity, questioning the woman’s eyes, but he didn’t listen to the words. He just pulled his hood higher up over his head and pretended, as he always did, not to hear them.
Gradually, it was becoming less of a problem. With the war over a year behind them, fewer people were so acquainted with Fiearius’ face that they’d recognize him instantly on the street. Even so, Ridellian dress code had been a surprising blessing. With a hood to hide what was likely his most noticeable distinguishing feature, he could at least move about the city without the constant attention he’d received early on. It was a lot easier to be identified as religiously devout than a controversial war figure.
A hood couldn’t solve everything though and Fiearius’ method of traversing Paradiex like a ghost was far more than clothing choices. The cover of night helped, of course. As did avoiding crowded places. Or entirely uncrowded places, for that matter.
The preference was what had drawn him to the Tailspin. It was a bar just outside the PIT train stop nearest his apartment and, as its name suggested, it was a frequent hangout for people whose lives weren’t exactly moving in an upward direction. It was a dump. The door creaked like it was about to fall off. The booths seemed like someone had taken a knife to them. Half the bar stools were missing and had been replaced by chairs from someone’s kitchen table. The bar itself wore a crack right through the center that made every drink set upon it unbalanced.
But when Fiearius walked through the creaky door, late on this Tuesday night, not one of the four or five patrons inside looked up. Only the woman behind the bar acknowledged his existence, and only enough to pour him his regular to be ready when he sat down. Not a word was spoken. Not a question was asked. He was free to sip his pure Satieran tequila in peace.
Something was different about tonight though and for a while, he couldn’t quite place his finger on it. Not until the man seated two stools away from him said, “So. This is what happens to washed up old admirals, is it?”
Fiearius’ fingers tightened around his glass, already knowing he was going to end up punching this asshole if he said one more damn word. But when he glanced over at his neighbor, he realized something about the man’s accent. It wasn’t Satieran. It wasn’t Ellegian. It was…Carthian?
The older man turned towards him and Fiearius got sight of his face. His mouth dropped. “No fuckin’ shit…”
Gates raised a brow at him and then shook his head and took a short sip of his drink. “I see your manners haven’t changed at all.”
“The hell are you doing here?” Fiearius demanded.
“Having a drink, what does it look like?” Gates smiled humorlessly and Fiearius simply glared back at him until he relented, “I may have asked around a little where I should have a drink.”
“Why?” was Fiearius’ gut response. His second wasn’t much different. He lifted his glass to his lips and looked away. “I have no interest in talking to you.”
Gates let out a sigh. “Stubborn as ever.”
“I came all the way out to this shitty part of town and you won’t even honor me with a conversation?”
Fiearius scoffed indignantly. “If I recall correctly, it’s your fault it’s shitty.” He shot him a glare. “Y’know. The whole…destroying the planet thing.”
But if Gates was intimidated, he certainly didn’t show it. If anything, he only looked more curious. “If it’s shitty, why do you live here? Your council, they gave me and my family a huge loft in the middle of downtown and I’m nothing more than a political refugee. Surely the hero of Satieri could do better than–” His hand waved in the general direction of the door. “This.”
“I could,” Fiearius answered and left it at that.
“Yet here you are,” Gates concluded, continuing to press.
Fiearius’ fingers left his glass to massage his temple where a headache was already spreading. “Why do you fuckin’ care?”
“Curiosity,” was his only reason and though Fiearius could easily have ignored it, without knowing why, he didn’t.
“I used to live here,” he explained, his voice growing quiet. “With my family. It wasn’t as shitty back then. It was a good neighborhood.” He shrugged. “Feels like home.” The last shot of tequila in the glass could not have slid down his throat any quicker. The glass hit the bar with a dull ‘thud’. “Even if half of it’s in the Void.”
Fiearius didn’t have to look at Gates to know that he was watching him with that obnoxious stare he’d always had. The one that made Fiearius feel like a beast behind a cage in a zoo. Or like a fucking carnival attraction. Thank the gods, the bartender had already poured him another drink.
“So how you likin’ Satieri?” he asked, blatantly changing the subject and fully expecting the man to counter. Strangely, for perhaps the first time ever, he didn’t.
“It’s different,” Gates admitted. “Maryah loves it, actually. The kids just started school, they’re enjoying themselves.”
He frowned down at his hand on the bar. “Under other circumstances, perhaps I would welcome the change. But playing the part of mild-mannered Gordin Lareis from Ellegy to avoid being murdered in the street is a challenge…”
“Probably a good idea though.” Fiearius tapped his index finger against the bar. “Secret identities…maybe I should try that.”
Gates glanced at the room around them. “Right. Not so into being famous, I see.”
“It’s not that exactly. Hell, let em sing my praises all they want, just — side effects aren’t so grand,” he muttered, tracing a symbol along the wood. He fell quiet for a moment before letting out a short laugh. “Y’know no one will hire me?” Gates tilted his head in consideration. “It’s true. Or if someone will, they just want to do it for the publicity. Which I’ve had numerous offers for, but — an actual daily something-or-other to occupy my time?” He shook his head slowly. “Not a one.”
“That seems odd,” he remarked.
“Is it?” The question came out harsher than he’d intended. “What exactly am I qualified to do? I spent a decade as an assassin, few years as a gun smuggler and another five as an over-glorified foot soldier. Can you really see me working downtown in an office?” He groaned his frustration and put his head in his hand. “I didn’t even finish high school.”
“Aren’t there programs now for that exact thing?” he asked.
“There are. Real nice government sponsored programs to — what are they calling it? Integrate pre-Restructure Society agents into post-Restructure life? It’s real popular with my old Internal Affairs colleagues. Me though?” He grimaced and took a deep sip from his glass. “I went to a meeting at my brother’s behest. Half of them wanted to thank me, the other half wanted to kill me. In the end, the guy running it told me I was ‘too distracting’ and ‘detrimental’ to the progress of others.”
Now Gates grimaced too. “Ouch.”
Both men lifted their glasses and drank, unintentionally in unison. When Gates’ glass met the bar again, he frowned. “I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit though.” When Fiearius glanced over at him, he was looking curiously up at the wall behind the bar. “You have plenty of marketable skills. You’re resourceful, adaptable, a problem solver, you think quick on your feet. Not to mention you’re a natural leader.”
Fiearius couldn’t stop himself from gaping at him. Gaping until he laughed. “Sorry,” he managed through the chuckling in response to Gates’ unimpressed glare. “Just weird. Hearing that from you of all people…”
Gates shrugged. “I brought you in for a reason, Soliveré, believe it or not. We wouldn’t have had a chance without you. I stand by my decision.” He lifted his glass again in a toast, although it lowered a few inches moments later when he added, “Even if it got me fired. And criminalized. And exiled from my entire home system…”
Fiearius clamped his mouth shut and scratched the back of his neck nervously. “Yeah…I guess I owe you an apology for that. But — I’m not actually sorry.” Casting him an apologetic smirk, he explained, “Honestly, I don’t regret a thing. I’d betray you again in a heartbeat…”
To his surprise, Gates did not look angry, nor even disappointed. He just nodded a slow understanding and admitted, “I know. And between you and me?” His eyes glanced behind him, just in case, before he whispered, “I’m kinda glad.”
Fiearius smirked. “That so?”
“Not that it absolves me or anything, but I voted strongly against reviving that awful thing,” he explained. “And if you hadn’t stopped it? Well, we had measures in place to try and evacuate as many civilians as we could, but –” He shook his head. “It was never going to be enough. And frankly I’m not sure if I could live with that much blood on my hands. I’ve already got enough as it is.”
“Yeah,” Fiearius murmured and lifted his glass. “I can drink to that.”
The two of them clinked glasses and downed what was left of the liquor. “Well,” Fiearius declared as he slid from his stool onto the floor. “It was less awful seeing you than I expected.”
“Same to you,” said Gates.
“If you hear of anyone looking to hire a washed-up old admiral.” He shrugged half-heartedly. “You know where to find me…”
Gates snorted a laugh and nodded. As he turned for the door, though, he called out, “Good luck, Fiearius.”
Which was surely meant to be hopeful or reassuring. But as Fiearius walked out of the Tailspin and back into the street and above him, the sky, tainted by clouds from the Void nearby, cracked open and drenched him in a torrential downpour of rain, he didn’t feel very reassured.
Used to this by now, Fiearius dropped the hood, ran his hand back over his sopping wet hair to keep it out of his face, stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and walked quickly.
Funnily enough, talking to Gates was perhaps the most ‘himself’ he had felt in ages. Nothing was the same as it used to be. Not before he left Satieri, not after. Everything had changed. Cyrus and Addy had jumped right back into normal life as if it were nothing. They helped rebuild the city, they were getting Atelier Industries back off the ground, they were getting married.
And it wasn’t just them. The rest of Satieri had all moved on too. Hell, even Gates had it more together than he did. It had been a year. Everything was back in motion, moving forward, but Fiearius still felt stuck, trapped in some kind of purgatory. He was better now than he had been a while back, but not by much. He couldn’t move forward. But he couldn’t go back either, there was nowhere to go back to.
A year. A fucking year had passed and what had he done besides sit in a dive bar and drink tequila?
Gods, how fucking pathetic.
Fiearius tore open the door to his apartment and rushed inside, eager to get out of the rain. He was dripping massive amounts of water onto the floor, but he didn’t care. The apartment was where he lived, had lived for seven months, but it wasn’t home. It was just an empty box with a bed in it, for all it mattered. Not even a bed. A mattress on the floor.
He stripped off the soaking wet clothes and threw them in a pile across the room before collapsing onto the mattress. Something about that conversation had struck something deep in his core. That urge to fix this. The pull to get his shit together, to veer out of this downward spiral and get better. He had no idea how to do it, but suddenly, he knew exactly where he wanted to start.
Sitting up, he reached for the tablet that he’d thrown aside that morning and switched on the screen. Muttering to himself, he practiced what he was going to say. I’m sorry, that was the big one. I’m so sorry. I fucked up. Again. Please forgive me.
Please, gods, let her forgive me.
But when Fiearius found the contact he was looking for and hit the panel for her name, ready to call her, ready to start over and mend things, the screen displayed something else. It was all the recent messages she’d sent him, but it was the most recent that caught his eye. It was dated just a month ago and he had read it probably a thousand times since then.
It has been exactly a year since we’ve been in the same room. Happy anniversary I guess.
I write, and you don’t answer. I call, and you are silent. You are more than halfway gone.
I know that you’re in pain, that you don’t sleep, that you are living with every single choice you made. I forgive you for shutting me out.
But there’s a wall around you right now, and you’re not ready for us, I can see that. I wish you would let me love you.
He read it again. And again. He knew every word by heart now, but seeing them there on the screen made them sting all over again. The confidence that had been running through him moments before was gone and his grip on the tablet weakened until it fell from his hands onto the floor with a clatter.
“Fuck,” he said to the room as, certainly not for the first time, and probably not the last, he covered his face with his hands and fell back onto the mattress, knowing that he was likely to lie there all night, awake and more alone than ever.