The quiet moments always surprised him. Snuck up on him, slow and languid, nothing like the quick snick and screech of steel or the splatters of blood scattering a battlefield. The quiet ebbed in with the silently mighty roll of a storm and he never knew it was there until thunder cracked and lightning arced in forked angry tongues against the earth. The rain that usually followed washed away the ruin, soaked the bones and the bodies and the quivering jump of his shoulders as he stood in the wake of victory.
There was nothing victorious about this silence though. Kneeled in the depths of a meadow, knees pressed into the earth, fingers dug into the dirt, head bowed, shoulders bent against the weight of the words etched and hammered into stone before him. He had carved it with his own palms, chisel and hammer set to devour the granite with the dull click-click of the mallet. The work had been long, arduous, only as precise as the tremble of his hands, the unsteadiness caught in his fists as he brought each letter to life on the smooth surface.
'If no one else...we'll always have one another, right?'
He had asked him that, in one of those quiet moments, where they had huddled in the midst of a battalion, the anticipation of a battle wagging their tongues as they spoke, arms slung over one another's shoulders as if they could tether each other to the earth and stop the inevitable.The idea that one of them could leave the other always set in heaviest the night before a fight. The notion that, so wrongly and so violently, one of them could lose everything in a single movement. With an arrow slung from a bow, the careful strike of a sword, with the precise puncture of a spear into a gut to tear the life from lips in a single blow.
They had always worked to prevent that terrible, ruinous future. Back to back, shoulder to shoulder, spine nearly melded to spine, as they fought and sundered anyone who tried to wrench one from the other. And there had been times it was close, when a blade had buried to the hilt in him, when he had slipped from a cliff's edge and the arm he clung to his only savior, when he had watched him become ill and sallow with a plague he couldn't reach over and kill; and elation had been all his when the sickness had faded and it was his arms around him in the end and not Death's.
But here, kneeled at the foot of his grave, he couldn't bury his arms into the dirt, couldn't reach so far down he dragged him right back out from the underworld and embraced him. All the smiles, all the candle-lit and hushed nights huddled close into someone else's arms, wings and feathers and warmth wrapped around him-- All of it lost for cold, dead earth.
He trembled and threatened to crack and sunder like the tumble of rocks thrown from mountains. It was never meant to end like this.
'For you the world, Phil.'
And he had meant it, because if nothing-- If everything, Phil was all that and more.
When, fallen in the dirt, with the steel tip of swords and the barreled ends of rifles pointed at him, eyes carved into him like he was merely beast, all horrible abhorrent vile animal; Phil had been there. Hand held out, and unflinching when he gripped it with his own that had never been anything but monster.
And monster, Phil never saw him as. Never looked at the tusks or the snout, the slight hunchback and the hooves, the fur and the tail, ears flopped over and all wrong, eyes that were redder than the devil and more dangerous-- Phil never saw anything more than him and that had been different. Different in the way that he had latched onto it, dying man amongst cackling and leering vultures at the lip of an oasis, dragged himself headfirst into the water and tried to drown in it.
He breathed out, and didn't breathe in and thought, for a moment, maybe he could die here, alongside him. Leave his body six feet above his and maybe they'd cross the river together like they were always supposed to.
He straightened, air rattling through his teeth and down, past the tangle of inky kelp and sickly black muck that wrapped around the pit sunk hollow his chest had become.
"Are you… Are you okay?"
And that was right, he had a responsibility here. To appear unmoved, to stand and shrug the world back onto his shoulders and not let his knees ever buckle lest he fail every single person tottering around the surface. Ranboo was one of those tiny little things he had to consider in the scope of losing everything. Focusing back in on him, all black and white and no greys, not a single grey feather in sight, made his chin threaten to dip, and the vulnerability of being here-- of being lost, settled in.
"Yeah.... I'm good." He even managed to sound like he was somehow.
And he said it like his ribs hadn't carved through the whole of him and right out the other side, like he hadn't swallowed every single rock and the entire sea, like he wasn't one toe slip from waves crashing over his head and down his throat and nostrils. Drowning didn't sound so bad in comparison to this though. The knowing that, for the first time in so long, in what felt like forever, he would be all alone.
"Uhm… Did you-- Did you want to stay or…?"
Ranboo was as considerate as he was floundering, awkward, all staring too long and gangly, and Phil had half-joked that they could take advantage of the kid's memories, use them against him, and he thought, maybe, for the first time, that was cruel. And yet, even the cruelty of that didn't compare to the violence of Phil being nowhere near his side.
"Naw… We can head back."
He had buried him next to Wilbur. A moss stained cairn in a meadow beside a headstone he had molded to life with his own hands. Phil had never told him where or how he wanted to be buried. If he preferred a send off on a burning ship, a pyre, ashes collected in an urn, turned to fertilizer for a tree-- nothing. Because even the discussion of the unfathomable had felt like signing it into a promise. That, if Phil ever told him how he wanted to be buried, he would be laying the man to rest the very next day...
The cabin sat empty once they returned to it. Hearth dead; snuffed out alongside every candle, every single spot of light that could have winked and flickered and glowed from within. Where a home usually sat and crouched and purred with warmth this one had risen from the corpse of that living being, that happy little thing, and taken up like carrion, like bones, empty and lifeless and with the constant reminder that something had been here once. He stepped into the rotted shell of a house, Ranboo in tow, and his steps weighed with each fall like he might truly collapse through the floor and fall to the basement, further still, past bedrock and brimstone and into the grasping fingers of Death, and for all the world he would welcome that.
He knew pain. Knew it like the back of his hand, like a sword driven through him, like his arm snapped between the jaws of a hound, like the smack of a fist across his cheek, knew pain so intimately that he anticipated it with every touch. But he didn't know this pain. This settled deep, dull one. This insides scooped clean ache, like he had been trussed upon a meat hook and gutted, every ounce of him spilled out onto the floor, raw and twitching and dragged from him with fingers and knives.
He felt hollow.
A mug sat, innocent and half-filled on the table and he couldn't bring himself to lift it from the surface, to discard its contents and clean it. As if, plucking it free from it's limbo, it's half-suspended state between reality and the time it used to exist in, would somehow erase the memory of Phil, perched at the other side of the table, smiling over the rim of it at him.
And he wasn't strong enough for this. All muscle and bulk and honed like any weapon; he had trained to be stronger, unflinching, immovable. Nothing was supposed to be able to reach around him without their wrist snapping like popping glass under his fist. But this, the strength to look where Phil should be sitting beside the hearth, he didn't have that.
It should be raining. The sky should be heavy and sallow and thick with tears. It should be grey and sad and somber. But it was cheery, bright, not a cloud in sight. It was all wrong. And the world, it hadn't turned to dull greys or lifeless monochrome. He could still see the greens and off-whites of the bucket hat on the hook by the door, still see the noxious shimmering purple of the netherite armor, rusted blood dried on the edges, thrown at the foot of the chests. Everything was the same. Everything except the one thing he wanted to be different.
He looked back towards the entrance of the cabin, to shut oak, to something terrible and missing. Prayer was not a common practice he partook in, but he might reconsider if begging to a god would make that door open.
Ranboo stepped for the mess of netherite on the floor. "Should we--"
He sidled in front of the armor, arm swept out to block him, lip curled enough to show teeth, back hunched as he loomed over the mess and narrowed his eyes over his shoulder.
"Don't touch it."
Ranboo stepped back, nodded, and stared. "Uhm, alright, yup... Okay."
It was hard. Difficult even, not to resort to anger, to violence, to snarling and growling and baring his teeth instead of turning over the well of hurt buried deep in the pit of him. Phil had always been good at talking him and the voices down. At getting him to halt in his tracks on his prowl for blood.
"I'll take care of it, just…" He didn't know what he wanted to say, he just needed the other to leave him to this, to stop staring, to stop seeing something unhinged and feral without the tether that usually tied it to humanity.
"I'll, uhm-- I'll just go check on Carl--" Ranboo said, shuffling back, and bee-lining for the door.
He huffed out a harsh breath through his nose, his only answer as the kid abandoned the tension here for the winter outside once more. The armor needed to be cleaned, it needed to be cared for, it needed to be placed back into a chest and preserved. Bundling it up into his arms he gathered it beside the dead hearth, sat cross-legged, a wire brush in one hand, breast plate in another as he scrubbed at the stains. Flaked off the liquid rust that had dried to the surface, erased the reminders of anything besides the idea that this had protected someone once, kept them alive and hale and hearty.
The armor shined where he swiped it clean, oil across the brow of a newborn babe, christened and exalted, and he considered the warped reflection in the breastplate. The twisted visage captured within stared back at him and he recognized none of it.
"You couldn't just not get yourself killed?" He bit out, the venom startling him, the rattle of a snake surprising where it coiled and hissed from the pit of him. "You had to throw yourself away for--" He nearly warped the edges of the armor with his fists, nearly shattered it beneath his fingers. "For some-- Some kid you don't even know."
And that wasn't fair. Saying any of that wasn't fair. Phil's decisions were his own. All of them. It was unfair to deny him that. But maybe it was unfair to abandon him here too though, bereft and bereaved with the very kid who's back should have a sword sunk so far through it he only spoke blood and bile. Phil had always been stupidly noble like that. Noble in the way that he would stare down Death and glare, raise his fist and threaten the words of a King, injustice and justice his to weild in the name of others. Phil had been brave that way.
Stupidly, idiotically, dumbly brave. Phil had killed his own son, gotten the blood of his own lineage smattered across his palms, and while there were nights-- Nights where Phil ended up huddled against him, hands clinging to any scrap of fabric and forehead pressed to his sternum, face hidden against his chest, like he had to know that the person beside him was alive and not struck under a sword and gargling on their own blood-- Phil was still brave even in his weakness. And he would clutch at him in return, hold Phil close as he stuck the pieces of himself back together, like gold dripped into the cracks of a vase, more beautiful in the brokenness than the whole.
He couldn't fix this though. He held the armor in his palms, let it slip from his hands and clatter against the floor. It was just armor. As useless as the notion that it would never be worn again. That Phil would never ask him to help with the buckles, grin at him, pat him on the shoulder, cup the side of his face, and promise he would come back alive.
He was supposed to never die. He was supposed to be undying. The Undying. A title he had earned with every scrape and brush with Death. This wasn't meant to happen. It was never meant to be like this. This wasn't--
Phil was dead.
He hadn't actually thought it yet. Hadn't dared let the idea cross his mind. Dared not let it brush his lips where it could fester and chill him down to the root of every bone until he unraveled from the inside out.
And he had fought a lot of battles, won nearly all of them, the fact he was here and living and breathing a testament to that, but he didn't know how to fight this one. He wasn't even sure how to win. It was like he was trying to best a mountain, rock slide burying him in one swoop and the stones pushing into his chest threatening to crack every rib in slow labored agony until he gave in or they finished the job for him.
He looked to the empty fireplace, to the dead hearth, to the snuffed out life and heart of the house, like someone had snuck up to Olympus itself and ripped Hestia from her perch. He reached into the maw of brick and mud, buried his hand in the white and black and crumbling wood. Maybe Phil had wanted to be burned. Maybe that would have been better than letting him become devoured and eaten by insects, skin sallowed and eyes popping, bored out by maggots and worms. Maybe burning would have been a nobler send off...
Dropping the ash, he mused over the stains of black, the soot clinging to his fur, to the way it looked like his hand and wrist had been dusted with decay. As if he had reached into the underworld to drag Phil back to him and the hound of Hades had closed its teeth around his arm instead.
Shaking and dusting the soot from himself, he stood. And the weight of gravity somehow felt different, the planet attempting to drag him to it's core somehow tangible, like at any moment he threatened to buckle with it. He contemplated letting it, letting himself fall to his knees, fold into merely a crumpled remnant of a person and stay there for Ranboo to find.
Phil wouldn't want him to wallow like this though. He wouldn't want him to give up. He reached up to his face, laid his palm along the side of his cheek, closed his eyes and tilted his head into it, imagined for all the world someone else's hand was beneath his, wished for all the world there was.
'I'll be just fine, old friend.'
Phil would say that every time he asked, nearly begged for the other to stay behind, and if not that, then to return from battle, to return unscathed to him. They never said it. Never uttered that unspoken thing, that made others side-eye them, watch from round the corner and whisper in gossip that wove like tales, all asking 'how close' and only ever replying 'just friends'. "My very good friend, Phil." A euphemism compared to the indescribable, indefinable thread that wove between them, that tied one life to another.
And maybe he didn't love Phil the way Orpheus loved Eurydice or the sun loved the moon, but maybe the way the stars did. Always together, decorating the sky beside one another, complementary and bright, hand in hand, forehead pressed to forehead.
Maybe he should have told Phil he loved him, loved him in the way you would die for someone, the way you would bring them a warm mug of tea late into the evening, the way you would bring them food and offer comfort and chop off pieces of yourself and hand them over if they only ever just asked. The way his voice dipped and fell and colored with actual warmth when he spoke to him, when he slid back the satire and the sarcasm and the monotonous drawl for something more vulnerable, more fluttering and shaking when he handed Phil a compass and promised in everything but words he would always be there for him.
Maybe he was always meant to be alone in the end though. Monstrous, hermit, ungovernable, uncivilized. Maybe it had been naive of him to think, impossibly, that he could keep the arms wrapped around him, the chin rested on his shoulder, the comfort and the feeling that maybe-- Maybe he wasn't just some animal amongst them…
His attention jerked back towards the door as it croaked open, and for a moment he held his breath, expected to see wings and blonde hair, but it was just Ranboo. The kid's crown slipped off from it's perch atop his head, nervously turned between his hands as he shuffled inside and closed the door. Guilt was a familiar sight. It curved his spine too. And the guilt of a survivor always sat acrid and bloody against the tongue, heavy and shrill like screams in the ears.
"Did you, uh…want some tea or something?" He asked, the words foreign, voice rougher than he intended it to be.
Ranboo nodded tersely, avoided his eyes where he usually held his gaze and stared unnervingly. And he moved for the stove, fed the flame and laid the kettle over it, waited for water to roil as he pulled two mugs and the small tin of tea leaves down. The small writing scrawled on the side that said 'Philza's: Don't Touch' made him reconsider, but he scooped out the loose leaf and dumped it into each cup. The kettle squealed after what felt like too long and he poured the steaming water over the leaves, watched them steep and color the water, dropped a spoon and a dollop of honey into each one, considered asking Ranboo if he wanted milk in his and remembered that was just Phil's preference.
Settling down at the dining table, one mug left before Ranboo who stared down into it like he had never seen tea in his life (and he wasn't even sure if the kid could drink water honestly). His own mug wrapped in his hands and stealing the warmth from it, imagining for a moment it wasn't unfeeling ceramic, that instead, he was crouched in the dirt, Phil's hand between his own while the other clutched at a negligible wound in his side and smiled around the pain, while he told him the battle was over, that they had won, that L'Manberg was gone.
But it hadn't ended like that, had it?
"Is it my fault?" Ranboo asked and it snapped his attention up to him, eyes narrowed and then flattening.
A part of him wanted to say yes. Wanted to bare his teeth and growl and watch Ranboo cower and flinch and feel every ounce of hurt he had locked up and buried under his sternum.
Instead he sighed. "No…"
Ranboo tapped at his mug, eyes falling to the table. "I--"
"He made his choice." He said, but that didn't align with the way his head had latched onto the mantra of 'this isn't fair.'
They finished with their respective drinks, Ranboo's never touched, his empty, both left on the table, beside the one that would never be more than half finished. He pushed back, rose and retreated like a beast who had decided the thing it had planned to kill was no longer worth his while. He trudged for his room, midday it may be, but he didn't want to face the sunlight any longer. Didn't like the way it beat against his shoulders and cheeks and was artificial in all it's warmth.
He let his shoulders fall when he closed the door behind him, when it was muffled darkness and thick curtains over the window, and the bed far too big for one person. Phil's things littered the space, like a museum, like a diorama of 'someone else lived here'. And there were still sandals beside the bed, a robe hooked onto the back of the door, a folded straight razor on the bedside table...
He picked it up, folded it open, remembered the first time Phil let him shave the annoying stubble from his chin. The other laughing when his hands had shaken as he, ever so slowly, dragged it over his neck and worried he might slip and lose Phil in the stupidest way possible. But Phil had watched him, eyes half-lidded, trust stamped into every scar and mark in his face, and it had been too much. The amount of trust that Phil had laid into his palms, curled his fingers around, and cupped with his own-- It had always been far too much trust.
He closed the blade, set it back down, adjusted it to where it looked like he had never touched it, and sat on the bed. On Phil's side, not his own. Buried his face in his hands and breathed, deep and long and heavy. And he could smell him still, scent lingering, like the quiet musk of pine in a forest, the dew of a lingering rain, like the dust of feathers and the slight residue of blood that permanently lingered on the both of them.
He ended up curled on his side, fetal, shaking, shoulders heaving and quivering and while tears didn't blur his vision, tear ducts bereft of the ability to even allow him this-- He mourned in the way he grit his teeth, bit down so hard he thought his jaw might shatter, fisted his hands into tight balls against his chest and pulled his knees up to hide against them. Choked back the whimpers, the lost little sounds of a child, of something fawn and desperate for whoever it was calling for to find him, to curl around him and remind him he was safe, that he wasn't alone, that it would all be okay.
And he only hoped Ranboo couldn't hear him shattering into pieces, couldn't hear him cracking and splintering and falling. Slamming into grief like he had tumbled from a cliff and the hand that had been holding him steady for so long had vanished into smoke and nothing.
He had clung onto Phil's body when he found it, when Ranboo had looked at him and stuttered that he was sorry, that Phil had pushed him out of the way. He had fallen to the floor, held Phil to him and snarled, shoulders hiked up and hackles raised at any approach Ranboo, or the others that had gathered and trickled into the scene, made. As if Phil would wake up, as if he had to keep him safe in his brief slumber. He had carried him back, back home, to the cabin, removed Phil's armor slowly and methodically and left it piled on the floor and tried not to think about how that armor had killed him, that if he had never let Phil don it, he wouldn't be chilled to the touch and unmoving. He had sat with him, arms cradled around a lifeless corpse, as the hearth died, as the dusk turned to dawn, as his eyes burned and his head drooped with sleep.
Then he had made the grave marker, hammered at stone til his hands bled, until he had completed it. He had Ranboo carry it (the kid somehow far stronger than he looked) while he carried Phil, and they had marched back for the outskirts of L'Manberg, for Wilbur's grave. And if he hadn't focused on the way Phil's arms didn't stay pooled in his lap or that he didn't wake up and blink up at him before coloring at the embarrassing ordeal of being bridal carried, he might have convinced himself he was still alive. He had dug a hole, ripped open the welts on his palms and fingers and kept churning at dirt until the shovel's handle ran with red. Laid Phil gently among the earth, brushed his hair back from where it stuck to his forehead, and wondered if Ranboo would agree to burying him alive down here with him.
Instead, he had left Phil down there and all he could think about was how much he regretted not dying alongside him. They were only ever meant to live together or die together. Unnatural to be separated prematurely, to be ripped from one another and live, one without the other. It settled unwell and ill in him, the thought that he was up here all alone and Phil was down there all alone. It was meant to be them, hand in hand, in death, skull and bones buried beside one another, lost to the throes of battle. It was supposed to be their blood mingled with one another's where they would fall and clutch at each other's hands, and he would watch the light snuff from the eyes across from him as his own went dark.
Every moment he breathed in, alone in this bed, alone in this house, alone in this-- Was agony.
He didn't clamber his way out from despair for long enough that he wondered if he had lost a day, a week, a century. Rolling up to swing his legs off the edge of the bed, he sat there, swiped at his face, kneaded at his snout and his eyes and grit his teeth so hard his tusks slid together with the unnerving grind of bone. He sighed, rested the heels of his palms against his forehead as he hunched over, elbows on his knees. And he wished he had been given the ability to cry. That of all the beastial traits smothering the human ones, wished that one hadn't been taken from him. He had seen Phil cry, heard the gasping tear choked sobs and seen the way his face crumpled in something like agony, and he had never thought him weaker for any moment of it, just let him curl up against him, cling to him, and waited for the moment to pass.
He wished he could have that catharsis. The kind of chest rattling violence of crying until maybe it felt better. But instead it was stuck, anchored down in the pit of him, eyes dry, throat dry, and he had never wished for tears more in his life.
Stumbling to his feet, he headed for the chest at the corner of the room, tucked up against a bookshelf littered with novels and small knick-knacks, a collection sprawling out travels and adventures with the minutiae collected on its shelves. He dug around in the wooden belly of it, closed his fist around soft fabric and pulled it free. The dark gray robe settled over his hands, empty and lifeless, and he bundled it to his chest, held it so close he thought maybe he could shove it right past his sternum.
Finding Phil's side of the bed again he curled back up on it, held the piece of clothing close, and stared at his own side of the mattress. Weird to see the room flipped like a mirror, odd to be on the opposite side of the view he usually had, and he tucked his chin towards his chest, clung onto the robe in his hands, and shut his eyes.
Sleep did not approach him, another day of no rest under his belt and it was like the need to do so had skipped him entirely. He lay there, darkness behind his eyelids, all nothing and too much at the same time. He tried not to contemplate if this was all Phil saw now, more void than substance, tried not to wonder if he was scared, if he was lost, if he--
He grit his teeth, brow furrowing, eyes screwing shut tight enough lights popped up in the black. The voices chattered and cackled like fiends, caressing over the edges of him in fingers that threatened to tug him around and shove him, like imps at the gates of hell, begging him to do anything but grieve. And there was one thing they said, one little note, a single repeating melody that he clung onto. It grew, sparking like embers under the dead remains of a wildfire, growing and leaping up the last of charred bark, roaring back into a flame that licked and clawed at the blackened sunset.
Even if it made him a monster. Even if it killed him. He would destroy every single thing they had ever held close, every single thing connected to L'Manberg. Every. Single. Thing.
The phantom brush of wing tips, of feathers settling over him, had him wanting to open his eyes, but he knew it wasn't real, knew that the knuckles that brushed over his cheek weren't real either, that the voice that said goodnight, so warmly and softly he barely heard it, was just in his head.
He fisted his hands further into the fabric clutched to his chest, and he promised himself revenge. They had struck his heel, ripped everything from him, and expected him to fall, but he would show them true ruin. When Phil had stood beside him on the battlefield he had always felt like he could devour the world whole, stand up against anything, fearless and unkillable; Phil had also humbled him, kept him tethered and tied down, to the notions of humanity and death. Without him though--
Without him there was nothing to tame the lion's teeth. He would eat them alive.