[Plus ça Change - Verad Bellveil Versus the World, Part 3]
Past Story Background: Homecoming Part Six
How many times had she been here before? It was another evening of excitement and trouble. Neither of which her parents would approve. It ended in a dive bar, followed by a walk home filled with dread and perhaps, a hint of shame. There she stood, just outside the front door, head bowed, heart resigned. There she pulled off her thigh-high boots, knowing that their steep heels would too-loudly announce her late-night return home. It was already well past midnight. She wiped the tears from her cheek with the un-torn sleeve of the leather jacket that clung tight to the sides of her figure.
The break-in at the Caged Bird had gone both well and horribly wrong. In the short term Aya’s place in the Tower City would be a dangerous one. She couldn’t say here and couldn’t risk endangering her family. By necessity this would be a brief visit: recover her things, say another silent goodbye, and vanish into the shadow of the Ishgardian under-city.
But she couldn’t wipe the haunting events of that night away with the mere brush of a sleeve. She’d agreed to help Verad because she believed in him. But in the moment of danger, within the house of the enemy, he had seemed to snap: he abandoned the plan, he endangered her and the others, and then when she’d moved to slap some sense into him he had deflected her with a slash of his knife.
She could fault herself: she had intended to strike him with the palm, but in his madness he’d shown no hesitation to drawing her blood. Even as he’d recovered his senses, she’d recoiled from his reach. Who could blame her? The confusion of the night still clung thick, but she knew she’d never forget that moment of terror in the dark alley behind the Caged Bird where she faced an ill-tempered Verad and his flashing knife.
In the present, she pushed the front door open as quietly as she should. Light feet stepped inside. She moved slow and careful as she mounted the stairs. This was was virtually indistinguishable from those not-so-distant teenage evenings: dressed for a night out on the town in a flirtatious little skirt, a cute leather jacket, and an array of glittering jewelry all intended to draw the eye. Only the blood-soaked bandage tied tight around her upper right arm revealed anything untoward. The jacket had been sliced open, the flesh beneath gouged and still bleeding.
She had not expected the old sentry to still be at his station.
Thule Lord Tharin: warrior, master of his house, father. The old man had nearly wasted away under the crushing weight of failure and advancing age. His rule over his children had faltered and failed. The family of which he dreamed seemed to disperse and scatter. Only his eldest son had become that for which he’d hoped - and that one true son grew to detest a father who had abandoned all that had mattered to their Ala Mhigan forebears. He was a father who could never convince himself that he had done his best, but the return of his daughter, and the opening of the city’s long-sealed gates had still breathed a fresh sense of life into his tired body. In recent days he had cut his long, matted hair - trimmed his gray beard.
Now he had returned to the lonely post where he had sat many long vigils. His aim was always to catch his daughter upon her return from late night sojourns. There he would impress upon her the full seriousness of her transgressions. Their yelling argument would wake the family. Their conflict would tear them apart. He would never admit how deeply he worried for her safety. How the long hours of waiting were filled with the dread of her absence.
And what now? He found himself seated far across the main room of the inn. With the flick of his finger the low-beam of his lantern flared brighter into a dim spot-light that caught his daughter by surprise.
She flinched, the breath caught deep in her throat. Reflexively she steeled herself for his powerful, practiced glare, her heart pounded in her ears. In an instant she was again the rebellious, terrified teenager terrified of her father’s reproach. The years that had passed, the freedom she had won, the name she had made for herself vanished in the sudden realization that he was there.
He knew all this. He knew the role he had played. He lifted his pipe and cupped the bowl with his fingers. Striking a match, he puffed softly as the embers burned a soft amber within. She did not move, frozen in place as if stunned.
He lowered the pipe and exhaled a deep sigh of relief. His voice, when he spoke, was softened with age and wear. It carried to the stairs with just enough force to be heard, but no longer held the authority to shake.
“Thank the Twelve. I thought I’d have to go out there and find you…”
The gentleness of his tone broke the spell. She turned her eyes toward him and offered a long stare. He returned it silently, just watching her from his ruined throne. She nearly leapt from the stair, and hurried to him with an anxiousness that threatened the quietness of her mission.
He coughed, ever-so-slightly. “I’d over-heard just enough,” he couldn’t quite make eye-contact, but he seemed to catch sight of the blood-soaked bandage. “I knew you were up to something dangerous tonight, and I had to make sure you got home alright.” He turned relieved eyes back upon her, and pulled the pipe quickly to his mouth to seek its calm.
She didn’t seem to know how to respond. A long moment passed as she just stared at him with wide-eyed surprised. At last she leaned down to him, wrapping her arms around him in an affectionate embrace. “Father…” she sighed softly, tears welling within her eyes as conflicting emotions overwhelmed her.
He hesitantly wrapped one arm around her as best he could to return the gesture, “You’re hurt.” He commented as she leaned back from the hug. “Don’t tell me that Duskwight friend of yours had anything to to with this?”
Verad had been staying at the inn for some time. Though her family had initially regarded him with suspicion, his charming manner had a way of softening the hardest of hearts with the warmth of affection. She flinched at the question, daring not to answer it honestly. Her eyes grew more worried as she hesitated; she’d never been able to lie to him, and he’d see right through her at a time like this.
“I see…” the old man sighed. “Well, I am sure he protected you as best he could.” He nodded to himself, as if confirming the comforting truth for his own sake. “I know you’ve found loyal friends.”
Her heart cried out, but she struggled to hold back the truth that ached inside. Verad’s own knife had been responsible, but she’d never admit it: not to her father, not to her friends.
Struggling, she offered only a meek nod in reply, “I have…”
The old man turned his head as he regarded his daughter. Old instincts die hard. He could offer a thousand words of rebuke and advice, knowing full well that her behavior would put her in danger (of which he did not know the half). That she could be safe, secure, and surrounded by family if she just listened to what he said. But that wasn’t why he was here. He’d convinced himself of that, hadn’t he? He did his best to suppress the accusatory look that came so naturally to his features at this hour.
Instead, he changed the subject. “Kael stopped by earlier this evening, looking for you.”
She swallowed hard at the mention of her eldest brother, guilt swelling within her breast.
“He had hopes of speaking to you alone, today. He said it was wonderful that you’d been to visit the children, and they were loving the toys you gave them. But, he said, he had something he wanted to talk to you about privately.” He narrowed his eyes somewhat, as if trying to guess a hidden truth. He slipped the pipe stem back into his mouth, “I’m supposing it had something to do with Gyr Abania.”
She deflected her eyes as her expression fell with guilt. “I’m sorry that I didn’t get to see him again.” She shook her head before looking back, “But I can’t help him with that. My concern is far closer to home right now.”
“Ala Mhigo is your home.” Replied the father reflexively, his voice rising in volume and sternness.
Her eyes locked on his as she pulled her lips tight. She slipped easily into practiced defiance, “My home is where you are.”
He tensed his jaw. Old habits die hard. An expression of contrition briefly crossing his features, but he didn’t speak.
It was enough. Maybe he wouldn’t press her this time. Her voice softened, “I’m sorry,” she said with a breath of regret, “But I have to leave. There’s just no other way.”
“I know that.” He answered flatly. “You’ve had the look of a frightened fox since you came through the door.”
His eyes turned to the bandage on her arm, “But you can’t leave this untreated. It is a long journey to Ul'dah. Let me get your mother…” He moved to start the difficult rise from his seat.
“No,” she interrupted emphatically, “this is hard enough already, don’t wake her.”
He paused mid-way and looked back at her with concern. Buried deep within that look was an implicit threat to overrule her. To do what he thought best regardless of the consequences. But he had come to know better by now, at least for the night.
“Very, well. Then allow me.” He finished the struggle to stand.
She hesitated, but knew he was right. Verad’s darting knife had cut into the flesh of her bicep, the pain was at times excruciating and she continued to bleed through the make-shift bandage that had been applied. She nodded to him.
He reached for her arm, carefully untying the cloth wound around it. He cringed at the sight of what was beneath. It was only a flesh wound, but the cut had sliced straight-through the leather of her jacket, and had gouged her arm and muscle. It hurt him deeply to see his daughter so wounded. How much had he given during his life to protect her? Why did he always seem to fail when it mattered most.
He struggled for a moment but managed, “We must stitch this closed. If we don’t, it could become infected or worse. I hope you know someone who can heal this properly soon, but we can’t let it wait for you to get there.”
He moved with considerable effort, supporting himself against the bar as he moved around it. “Your mother keeps a kit under the bar for this. Just in case someone gets out of hand down here…”
While he fetched the first-aid kit, Aya struggled to pull her right arm free of the tight-fitting jacket. She cringed in pain with the motions before resting the elbow of her now bare arm on the table. She looked away, trying to hide the full nature of her wound from her own eyes. She could still see Verad, and that casual flick of his blade.
Her father returned to his chair, letting out a breath of exertion as he settled back down. He set the kit upon the table, and thumbed it open. He knew what he was doing, he’d dressed numerous such wounds in his lifetime, and many far worse. But this is one he’d have much preferred to never have seen. Still, he knew, with effort he could close it. And in time it would heal.
He girded his thoughts, trying to focus purely on the matter at hand. She’d want tight stitching to prevent scarring. Even if she may seek magical healing soon, if he botched this it could be too late. An open wound was too dangerous, and someone had to treat it. Piece by piece he extracted the elements of the kit, setting those unnecessary to the side, while preparing those he would need.
“Still fighting to protect your friends, are you?” He commented without looking at her, while picking from a small selection of needles. “Some things never change.”
She flicked her eyes quickly towards him. “I suppose…” she answered meekly, afraid to fully meet his gaze.
“It always worried your mother, you know.” He open the lid a small cylinder. He’d been shown how to use this unusual device. It would heat the needle without the use of a flame.
His daughter continued to watch his eyes, glancing only momentarily at his preparations. She’d overheard them talking about her fighting as a child. It wasn’t often, but it always seemed to end with somebody hurt. “And you?”
He paused at the question, taking in an audible breath as he set the cylinder aside to do its work. His fingers opened a container of salve, prepared by her mother.
“It made me proud.” He admitted, earnestly. She looked at him wide-eyed and astonished. He dipped his finger into the medicinal ointment, “This is going to sting.” He stated matter-of-factually. He began to apply it, as gently as he could manage. Warm and joyful memories of his cheerful little girl clouded his mind as he treated the grown-up version. She cringed and bit down hard to avoid crying out at the intensity of the stinging pain.
“Though, I think if I’d known you’d still be up to it at this age I’d have been more worried.”
He looked up at her, but she’d turned away. She was trying her best to not think about something else.
He carried on, “How did you ever get that name, anyway?” He extracted the sterilized needle, and threaded it. His aged fingers, once so strong and powerful, still moved with careful precision.
“What name?” She asked innocently, though she knew full well to what he was referring.
“Foxheart.” He answered, his eyes sharply focused as he carefully tied the thread off. It was the first time she’d heard him use that name- and it sounded beyond strange from his lips.
She gave him time to finish before answering. “For a while, in the Shroud, I ran with a pack of wolves. They came to trust me, but knew I was neither as brave nor as strong as they were.”
Her father nodded at the answer. “Well, I certainly can’t imagine you as a wolf.” He set the needle down, taking another look at her with eyes filled with memory.
She swallowed, wondering just what her father would think of her if he knew it all. Then again, he had lived his life on the battlefield, and navigated the treacheries and terror of the King of Ruin. Only the Twelve knew what compromises he had made in his time.
He poured brandy from an open bottle into an empty tumbler that rest on the table. “At least the Ishgardians make a decent brandy.” He slid the glass to her, “Trust me when I say you’re going to want that.”
She accepted the glass, drinking its contents in one quick shot before continuing. “Though I wasn’t as strong, I did find my place there. They came to see me as clever, quick, and careful. I think they thought it was amusing: like a fox among wolves.”
He nodded thoughtfully, while dabbing a cloth in the brandy. “Truly?” He asked rhetorically, “Well, I happen to think the fox suits you well.”
She’d have sworn he smirked, “You’ve your mother’s beauty, and my foolishness I fear.” Taking the spirit-soaked cloth he began to rub the wound and the area around it.
She took in a sharp breath, cringing at the words and the sting of alcohol. She had no idea how to respond to his speaking like this. Once upon a time he had shown her such affection, but that was so long ago. Had she really only known harshness and regret? Memories of their closeness came pouring forth in a fountain of sentimental yearning.
“Here,” he offered her a wooden peg from the kit. “You’re going to want to bite down on this. If you don’t, you’ll wake the entire house.” The gesture and statement hurt the man far more than he’d ever admit. He hated this. But someone had to do it, and better him than anyone else. With effort he could close the wound, but he knew only time could heal it.
The father steeled himself for that which he was dreading. It had been hard enough to look upon his daughter’s wound. Harder still to steady himself to pierce her tender skin again and again with the painful steel of the needle. Every fiber of him rebelled at the thought.
She took the pin of wood, and set it between her teeth. She bit down. Her chest began to rise further and faster with deep, worried breaths of anticipation. He tried to ignore her fear. His eyes focused. He’d use the best technique he had learned. It would take longer, but the result would be more reliable, and heal cleaner. Every stitch independent, close together. This had to be done right. Never had it seemed to matter more.
A moment later the needle first pierced her sensitive flesh. Reflexively her teeth bore down on the softer wood between them. It was more than the needle. Tears began to stream from her eyes.
He paid careful mind to his work. It had been a long time since he had treated such a wound, but clever fingers still retained their muscle memory. Each stitch individually tied off, was made close to the one before. It was intricate, grueling work that seemed to stretch for an eternity under the dim lantern light of the quickly vanishing night.
Neither spoke, and both were exhausted as he finished tying off the final stitch. He set the needle aside, and returned to the balm which he applied to the now-closed wound. Her jaw finally relaxed. She set aside the wooden pin, now indelibly marked by her teeth.
“I’m sorry…” he said, “I know how terribly this must have hurt.”
What he could never know was how much more painful it had been knowing who was responsible, and how much worse that memory would remain.
She breathed deep and tired. Long, deep, and exhausted breaths that seemed to sum the entire evening. “Thank you.”
He nodded, biting his lower lip in an expression she often mimicked when stressed. But he couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
“Fierce and tough. That’s my daughter.” He stated with a nod, before moving to reassemble the kit, putting the pieces away one at a time.
She lifted her eyes, staring off into the distance. He poured himself a drought of brandy, and took it stiffly.
“If I ever find the bastard who did this to you, I’m going to give them the drubbing of a lifetime.” He announced in a fatherly manner.
She turned toward him, silent for a moment. She knew exactly who it was, and hoped he would never find out. “I know you will…” she said at long last, “You’ve always protected me. Even when you haven’t realized it. But, I’m afraid its worse this time…”
“What do you mean?” He snapped the kit shut.
“Voidsent.” She answered with a single word full of foreboding menace.
“Those monsters in children’s stories?” He asked, incredulously.
“As real as dragons.” She answered flatly. “And there’s one after my friends and I.”
His expression fell grimly. “Aya…”
She turned her eyes quickly toward him, “You’ve protected me my whole life. You’ve protected all of us.” She had quickly drawn a long, cylindrical device from a small pouch on her belt. “Right now you have to think about the entire family, and not just me. Protect everyone. Mother, uncle, all of the children here. They’re counting on you. I have to help my friends stop these people.”
He nodded, eyeing the object curiously. It was a magitek beacon, one she’d acquired long ago. It had aided her escape from the city and on many adventures since. “At the press of this switch it will shine with bright light. If you -ever- think there may be something dangerous nearby, you shine this at it. The monster we’ve encountered seems to be afraid of light, and it may be enough to buy you and others the time to get away.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Do you understand?” She asked. Running away was never a style he’d admit to, even if he had done just that again, and again over his life. “Shine this light at the monster… got it.” He said, as though he understood more fully than he did.
She took out a card, with a couple of names written on it. “These are two Dragoons, one a former Dragoon, to contact if there is -any- sign of trouble.” Her tone had become quicker, she struggled to remain calm at the thought of the danger she could have already brought upon her own family.
Her father nodded, regarding the card carefully, “Orrin Halgren, and V'aleera…” he paused at the second name, “V'aleera?” he repeated, “Why does that sound so familiar?”
“You knew her when she was a child, she grew up right here.”
“Ah… the Miqo'te girl,” a hint of a smile crept across his lips as he remembered, “and she rose all the way to Dragoon?”
Aya nodded, “The finest.” He smiled. The city seemed a little brighter at the thought.
“I have to get my things and leave. I can’t stay here, I’ll put you all of you in danger.”
Her father nodded. He was still looking at the card. His expression grew resigned. All her life he had wanted nothing more than to protect her. To keep her close and safe. There was nothing he wouldn’t do, nothing he would flinch at, nothing that could stand in his way, save death itself. Now helplessness gripped him.
He didn’t look up. She slipped quietly upstairs, visiting her own room and that recently used by one Verad. She gathered their remaining belongings she could, hefting a pair of small packs over her left shoulder. By the time she returned to the entry-way her father had risen, and stood to greet her, supported by the heavy walking stick at his side.
His gaze followed her down the stairs, “Promise me you’ll come back.” She put her arm around him, embracing him again. "I will, and sooner than you think…“
She slipped out the door and grabbed her boots without putting them on. He watched as she moved swiftly into the darkness of their underground avenue. Barefoot and still wearing that skirt he’d have never allowed. His late night vigil had exhausted him. He grasped at the door frame, bracing. Silently he watched the vision of his daughter retreat into the darkness. He’d been here many times before. So many times. Too many times. The sadness was as powerful as ever.
But he was not angry. Not at her. Not this time. Rather than shouts, tears were all that was left in the darkness he faced. He’d closed the wound. With time, he hoped, it will heal.