✧ ☄ ☽
The vote was unanimous: More wine.
Aymeric hunted down bottles from the cellar. One was opened. They spilled a great deal more laughter, hushed-as-best-as-they could. And then they were at their posts again, half-drained glasses in hand, when the lord of their hearts and the manor cleared his throat.
Two nervous animals looked up from their libations as he led them—as he directed the tone of their next conversation. “In cases such as these,” he began, voice very measured and judicious, “I believe the established mode is to take the lay of the land.” He laced his fingers together in his lap. From his solitary armchair, Aymeric beheld his captive audience; two creatures crouched there on the couch, his cabinet in this unexpected conference. “It may be best to cobble together some boundaries and come to a mutual understanding.”
Aymeric, the pillar, and clearly the foundation.
Samantha took a deep breath. “Before I ask, I think I already know the answer,” she muttered. “But have either of you—” She cleared her throat. Blushed. Smoothed her fingers down her wineglass and took a hefty sip. She could feel herself grimace at the pool of crimson in her chalice. “Have you ever been a part of such an understanding?”
Estinien snorted so loudly she jumped. “Hells no,” he grunted. He leaned against his armrest of the couch; stretched his legs across the length of the cushion. His huge, heavy feet landed in Samantha’s lap and she frowned at them. “People disgust me,” he declared.
That made Aymeric laugh. “Everything disgusts you,” he amended, quirking a brow at the view.
“Including you,” Estinien proclaimed, flexing his toes and raising his glass. He tried to touch Samantha’s face with the ball of one foot and she smacked it away, glaring at him.
“You disgust me,” she grumbled.
“Estinien likes to be disgusting,” said Aymeric, watching them from above the rim of his own glass. “He became repulsive in an attempt to scare away others.”
She met pale blue eyes in question and Aymeric merely smiled.
“Let them run,” Estinien growled, clearly proud of himself. He shoved the pads of his toes in the crook of Samantha’s neck. She shivered with revulsion and gasped, slapping his leg. He grinned like a cat. “Weak constitutions make me sick.”
Samantha pried his bare and crusty foot off of her and scowled, pinning it down on the couch.
“To return to the previous topic,” steered Aymeric, wetting his lips. “Any and all of my past understandings—rather, interpersonal engagements—have followed sets of shifting rules and strictures all their own.” His cheeks pinked, the faintest tinge of humiliation on his face. He cleared his throat. “A diplomacy ever encrypted, something of an impassable labyrinth. Well do you know how unversed I am in such matters—intimate friendship, courtship, relations besides—”
“Relations and courtship are two different matters,” Estinien sneered.
“Aye,” sighed Aymeric, finishing his glass. “And, by my determination, similarly treacherous. I could never enter into them so glibly as you.”
Estinien scowled and shrugged, giving a threatening flex of his toes. “I know naught of courtship. And of the ruins of my relations, well—” The glance he threw between them was sharp as a lance. “I have little to say about that.”
Aymeric’s cheeks flushed darker. Eyes cold and bright flashed to fix first Estinien, then Samantha. He surveyed her through his lashes. “Indeed. For better or for worse, at long last, I believe some manner of—spark has been enkindled.”
Stares like nightfall and morning bore down on her at once. The force made heat pulse through her body.
Twelve. How were they always stealing her air?
Then the feeling was promptly dispelled, because Estinien was stifling laughter and trying to comb his toes through her hair.
“By the gods, Estinien—” She fought valiantly, cuffing at his feet, and he nearly suffocated on his own smothered chuckles.
“I knew that he would like you,” Estinien purred, curling up to drain the rest of his snifter. He set his glass aside on the table to focus entirely on using his toes for torture.
The gaze Aymeric turned to him was slow-blinking. “Would that I had known you liked her as well.”
“Hard to keep you abreast while I was possessed,” he said, lips stiff with concentration, trying to press a sole at her throat.
Aymeric was stretching up from his chair to pour himself another glass. “As far as I know, your possession of her was established long before that.”
Samantha made a sound of extreme frustration. She took Estinien’s ankle in her hand and shoved him so hard he fell from the couch. “Why did you not tell him?” She glared at the pile of open shirt and long limbs and silver mane on the carpet. “I thought Aymeric was your dearest friend.”
Estinien pushed the hair out of his face and scoffed. He rolled over to meet said friend at the wine bottle. “He is,” Estinien insisted. The Urchin pushed over his glass and the Bastard, predictably, obliged. Then the beasty sighed loudly, lifted the wine to his lips, and emptied it all down his gullet at once. “But I wanted to keep you to myself.”
She wondered if all three of them felt something like it, the hard knot that wrung in her gut. “Relatable,” Aymeric stated, toasting his drink while Estinien poured another. “Alas, I daresay exclusivity is far beyond us now. While the past is in the past, and the future is unknown, to be sure—it remains undoubtedly ours, to envision and create.”
Well said. How unsurprising.
“What say you, Samantha?”
Estinien, crouching back over onto the couch.
Her eyes flicked between them, hellhound beside her, monster standing at the table. “I am also cursed with the urge to possess,” she muttered, staring down at her almost empty glass. “But I never presumed—never expected to keep either one of you.” Her attention flicked to Estinien. “Especially not you.”
The beast seemed deeply placated, dully amused, teeth grinning over his filled-again chalice. “Oh?”
“I have no wish to dally with anyone else.” Aymeric, volunteering his opinion. His voice was firm. “For his abundance of misgivings, Estinien has ever been my most faithful, authentic companion.” He looked down at him fondly and Estinien grunted and stiffened. Then Aymeric’s eyes glittered at her, hot and steely, from his vantage point above. “I never expected to find another.”
She gazed up at him a moment, silent and spellbound. Then she tore herself away from the power of his stare, distracted by the echo of a question. “Can I—ask about the nature of your—authentic and faithful companionship, now?”
Estinien huffed; scowled so much his mouth nearly fell from his face. He was visibly strained, lips pressed together tightly. “Brothers in arms,” he mumbled gruffly, going ruddy.
“More than brothers,” Aymeric corrected, turning back to him with some mixture of ancient ennui and affection. “But Estinien prefers to keep his arms far away from me.”
Estinien’s nostrils flared and he rolled his eyes, and Samantha was on the edge of her seat, heart rushing, drumming, wondering. Curiosity and intrigue, forcefully beguiling. Aymeric and Estinien looked at each other and seemed to decide something. “I ran,” said Estinien flatly.
Aymeric was nodding easily, thinking. “We fare far better as friends.”
“His mother would have killed us,” Estinien added.
“That is true.” Aymeric was still clearly compiling something else to say, pressing his lips at the edge of his glass. “‘Twas a complicated situation,” he finally sighed. He sank back into his armchair and pushed the hair from his forehead. “I am not—” He tilted his glass; watched the wine swirl inside it. “It is not so easy for me, to engage in physical relationships. Not without an emotional attachment.” His eyes were nostalgic and thoughtful. “Estinien is rather the opposite.”
In fact, case and point, Estinien was grumbling something under his breath about bloody emotional attachments and shaking his head.
Not an ideal combination. She chewed on her lip and scowled. “Is that what you meant—when you spoke of waxing fondly? Estinien … dislikes your affection?”
“Despises it,” Aymeric insisted.
Estinien made a discontented sound and pouted. “I do not despise it,” he mumbled.
“Nothing he hates more,” the Bastard continued, ignoring him. As Estinien glowered at him in silence, he mused thoughtfully for a heartbeat. “Differences aside, it is far beyond taboo here in Ishgard to engage in such an affair. I consider it a blessing to find myself—drawn just as easily to the so-called fairer sex.”
“Little do I care about people,” Estinien grunted. “Little do I care about sex. But in the case of him,” he jerked his chin to Aymeric, “Brothers in arms, but not in the arms of each other.”
That made her snort. “But maybe in the past?”
Estinien scoffed. His face was permanently reddened now, likely from the wine as much as the topic. “He would just as soon have all the arms in the room on him at once.”
On cue, Aymeric turned a dark shade of cabernet, and averted his glance. “It is not an unwelcome thought,” he admitted rather timidly, well under his breath. “But, in the interest of keeping my degeneracy under control, I would never dare presume to solicit such an … event.”
Ringing in her ears. She was struck by the brazen image of him, reveling, boastful, immodest—an idol bared to the skin, worshipped by the two of them. Pale blue eyes slitted, red-faced and watching; the wickedest, most sinful divinity, flushed and sculpted and golden, his loyal servants kneeling at his feet—
Her blood rushed south, and she struggled to breathe. “W-would you?”
Gods and hells that was her voice—
What was she asking—
It was cracking—
“Would you want—both of us at once?”
Several things happened in his face. First, that sense of something unpenning, velvet and voracious. His eyes blazed like blue flames as he wound himself back, reeling in tightly. A mask descended over the turmoil beneath his expression, dimming the heat in his stare.
His face was still red.
“It makes no matter what I desire,” Aymeric stated, pointblank, as though that was that. His shoulders rose and fell with a strict, steady breath. “My desires are of negligible importance.”
Estinien’s wine was gone again. “Your desires are important you twit,” he grumbled, getting up to pour himself another glass. He was snorting and scoffing. “Always with the flogging and autoflagellation—”
Aymeric winced but held fast. “My own pleasure is the least of my concerns,” he said determinedly. “My aim in any endeavor—” A cough. “In endeavors such as those—” He cleared his throat. “There is—great satisfaction to be had in—bringing delight.”
Dizzy. That was how she felt.
Maybe she needed more wine, too.
Estinien’s voice was singsong and drunken and sardonic. “There is great satisfaction to be had in bringing delight,” he derided. His face was fully wrinkled. “What in the hells is wrong with you? Will you not let yourself be delighted?”
“I have!” Aymeric coughed again. “That is—to say—” His brow furrowed. “I should not have to explain this to you again,” he grumbled under his breath.
“I was with a man once who cared very little for anything but his own delights,” Samantha decided to contribute, breathing weakly. “He wanted to control everything.” She lunged for the wine bottle.
His fingers dragging through her hair, plaiting it gently. It felt good when he touched her like this. Loving. “I want to protect you,” he said, his voice low and soft. “I want to keep you safe and healthy.”
“He picked the clothes I wore,” she muttered, crimson glugging into her glass. “The food I ate—the very people I conversed with.” She closed her eyes. “I want to make sure that I—”
“What?” Estinien spat out the word like a curse. He set down his snifter before he could break it, hands fisted, knuckles white. “What absolute shite eating twat of an arsecheek dared,” he roared that word, “To tell you what to bloody eat?”
A snort escaped her, breathy with hysterics, but he was deadly serious.
Quite literally deadly, she was suddenly afraid.
“That professor she mentioned before, perhaps?” Aymeric. “Raphael was his name?”
Estinien was shaking and she grabbed him by one big knee. He jerked to face her, breathing hard enough to shudder. “It was years ago,” she said. “Almost an epoch since I met him. As my mother would say, the man’s a moronic tomfooling ignoramus. Not worth your thoughts or anything else. I only mentioned it because—his was the last big understanding I was ever a part of, before this.”
A hush descended as the word bounced between them again.
Aymeric took a breath. The diplomat, reining them in to the main idea. “Shall we assemble ours for certain, then? An understanding more specific than accursed devil’s triangle?” Two faces turned to him again, and he raised his eyebrows and blushed. “You wish for me to decide it?”
She took a breath. “Please do.”
He looked between the two of them, and something fragile and covetous swelled behind his expression. “I want you both to be contented—”
Estinien groaned and rolled his eyes. “And we want you to be contented, you forlorn holed-away dullard—which, might I add, is the entire bloody reason I left in the first place.” He slammed the heel of his fist against his forehead and hissed. “Fury fickle and facetious knows how swiving hard I tried—fine damned godsforsaken clods in hells in a codpiece—"
She blinked at Estinien several times, ignoring his colorful profanity. “But what about you?”
Estinien’s hand clamped like a vise on her thigh, unexpected. As she choked back a cry of surprise, he took a sharp breath and glared at Aymeric. “I want the two of you to stay alive,” he rumbled, intent. “Because absent, I will be.” He looked at the carpet, then. “Promises and commitments were never mine to make,” he muttered. “But both of you belong to me.”
❅ ☾ ✧ ☽ ❅
They opened another bottle of wine.
Maybe two. No one knew what time it was anymore.
She could hardly keep track of what she was thinking.
“Fine,” Estinien spat, sighing heavily. “Yes. I like it in your manor,” he grumbled. He was taking up the entire couch with the slink of his body, head pillowed in her lap. “I like to lollop about in your manor, Ser Aymeric,” he caterwauled. “Sloshing and noshing.”
She stroked her fingers through long silver hair and ugly-laughed, and Aymeric—who was sitting on the floor now, cheek against her knee—turned around sharply to face him. He propped his chin up to scowl, an ilm away from his brow. “Then why in the name of Halone do you never stay?” he complained.
“A man needs freedom,” Estinien slurred, shoving Aymeric’s forehead with the heel of one palm.
Aymeric groaned in mock frustration and scoffed, rolling his head on the edge of the cushion. Samantha grunted. “I doubt he ever tried to trap you, you numpty,” she said, wiggling the tip of Estinien’s regal, shapely nose with one forefinger.
He snapped his teeth at it. “Hands to yourself.”
“Says the lump with his head in my lap,” she snorted, flicking him in the forehead.
“I am not a lump,” woofed Estinien, swatting her fingers.
Aymeric rubbed his face on her leg. “Let me switch places with him,” he begged, rising on his knees.
“No,” Estinien barked, shoving him away again. “You had her all this bloody time.” He started caterwauling again. “Who stood for Ishgard in the Aery,” he sang. “Who felled Nidhogg in my stead—”
“Oh, shut it,” Aymeric whined, clawing his way up—shoved down by Estinien again.
“Who flew to Azys Lla and became him—”
Aymeric harrumphed and Samantha moved her swatted-off hand to tangle in his hair instead. Rook black curls soft as feathers snagged between her fingers. Aymeric arched up into the touch like a cat and moaned softly. Estinien laughed at him. “Needy,” he accused.
“Guilty,” Aymeric admitted, tipping back his chin to divert her attention; to rake his lips across the lines in her palm. She cupped his face gently and smiled down at him; met worshipful eyes like blue starlight.
Estinien cackled. “Dumb clodhopping mooncalves.”
Samantha flicked him in the forehead again. “Ass.”
❅ ☽ ☄ ☾ ❅
They were all on the floor now, in front of the fire, backs to the carpet, staring at the ceiling.
She wondered if the room was spinning for them all.
“Persevering.” Aymeric listed one more trait, making a sound as he stretched. “Most certainly.”
Samantha pursed her lips and squinted at the rods of the curtains. They seemed to be wobbling. “Persevering for you. Stubborn or pigheaded, for me,” she qualified. “Estinien is inflexible.”
A palm full of scars and calluses spread across her face and she tried to bite it.
“Unapproachable,” Estinien growled, lifting his ragged hand away from her gnashing jaws and above his face to inspect it. “Intimidating, for another.” He chuckled. “So many times, a highborn came mewling.” He aped a haughty, infantile voice. “Oh, Ser Estinien, tell me—why does he always look so cold? What could he ever be thinking?”
Aymeric sighed through his nose. “Cautious, then,” he hummed, his voice a bit quieter. “But nonetheless compassionate.” His knuckles brushed the back of Samantha’s hand, and she gripped his palm tightly.
Estinien grunted in disagreement. His lips made a sound when they parted and Aymeric lurched over to slap a hand across his mouth. “Brutally tender inside,” Aymeric insisted, hissing when Estinien’s teeth found purchase on his flesh. “You cannot deny it.”
The silver beast growled and jerked his head to dislodge the monster’s claws.
“Lonely,” Samantha said, beneath the tangle of their limbs.
Both Aymeric and Estinien stilled and turned to face her. She crouched up to sit and stare at the fire; slid her stockinged feet a bit closer to the hearthstone. Her toes flexed. “I know you both are lonesome, same as I.” Her voice was bald and plain. Then she shivered. She folded her knees to her chest and propped her chin on them, pulling her skirts to her heels like a blanket.
Aymeric hunched up beside her, and Estinien followed, not to be outdone. The three of them stared into the flames and thought in silence for a moment. “Solitude was ever my bedfellow,” Aymeric muttered. “I believe Estinien calls it being reclusive.”
“I am the recluse,” owned Estinien, reaching his bare toes toward the hearth. “You are a cloistered old hermit.”
Cross-legged, Aymeric leaned back against both palms; pressed a shoulder to Samantha. He crept one hand along the floor behind her, toward Estinien. “Locked away with Ishgard, alone in my manor,” he said, quoting something spoken before.
She supplied the next part, words muffled by the press of her chin on her skirts. “Plenty of stories of damsels in towers.” She took a deep breath, fire reflecting in her eyes. “Plenty of dragons in Coerthas.”
“Puts me in mind of Anyx Trine,” Estinien grumbled.
He glanced between them. Samantha, withdrawn to curve over herself. Aymeric, wanting to comfort them both. The Urchin huffed out a growl and thrust his arm behind his Witch, grabbed his idiot Bastard by the forearm, and dragged him over.
✧ ☾ ❅ ☽ ✧
“If you could have anything you wanted,” she asked them, “What would it be?”
Samantha was drowsy from the wine, but Estinien was sobering, still wide awake. He propped himself up on his elbows. They were cross-hatched together now, overlapping, her legs folded at his side, the back of Aymeric’s head on his stomach, her cheek on Aymeric’s chest—
Aymeric’s answering chuckle was soft and silken, rumbling through Estinien’s sinews, resonating deep in his marrow. “Obvious answers aside?” As he spoke, Aymeric skimmed a thumb down her jaw and the line of her neck, tracing the frame of her shoulder.
“Rest,” Estinien said, very quickly, before the wine could finish wearing off. His chest rose and fell with a breath. Aymeric’s hair tickled his skin as he tilted his face to look up at him—cool blue eyes filled with gentle interrogation—and Estinien avoided his gaze. Estinien focused, instead, on the hearth. “Contentment. No more toils.”
Samantha conspicuously stiffened.
Aymeric curled to hold her in a reflex, and she took a strident breath.
Estinien turned to find her looking right at him, something haunted in the depths of her stare. The taste of blood and smoke filled his mouth; an echo of terror, burnt ash in his stomach.
With this task accomplished, my toils shall finally—
His jaw tensed as he realized what he said. He bent toward her, reaching a hand, and she grabbed it, lurching forward. Aymeric sat up to follow, buzzing with alarm, spreading loose arms to drape around them both—
She crumbled into Estinien’s chest and sobbed. Wept. Moaned feebly like a child. “You—” She gasped sharply, doubling over, folding her hands at her stomach. She shuddered with horror and revulsion. “I—couldn’t stop you—”
“It is over,” Estinien reminded her. He was uncomfortable but he held her very tightly; pressed his lips to the top of her head. “Nidhogg is gone.”
At the bare skin of his breastbone, he could feel her clenching her teeth against the tears, trying to stop.
“Does she—” Aymeric, beside himself with concern. He gripped Estinien’s shoulder. “Of what is she thinking?”
“The Eyes,” Estinien muttered, and she racked with an unspoken cry, choking it back. He shifted his body to hold her more closely; opened his limbs to fold her, flush, to him. He felt Aymeric’s tentative hands at both of his shoulders and leaned forward to encourage him. Air escaped Aymeric’s lungs as he took them both into the reach of his arms.
The three of them locked in an embrace.
☾ ☄ ✧