The below is a short story treat starring characters from Empty Vessels, as requested by Nicole. Warning: This treat is set very near the end of the story and contains spoilers; if you haven’t read the book first, go ahead and do that–it’ll still be here when you get back!
Hiraeth lowers himself onto his futon with a soft oof as his entire body aches with the effort. His skin feels, more than ever, like a foreign entity, a bag shaped like a person, now patched up and straining at the edges as movement reminds him of all the places where part pulls on part. He licks his upper lip and tastes copper there, his lip split again. He must have been grimacing.
His tiny bachelor apartment has never felt so big.
The fact is, he thinks, as he pulls the blankets up over himself with a shiver, wanting both the warmth and the weight of them on his body, the fact is, he’s never been very good at making room for other people and then just filling that space up by himself again. Marion commented on it, before he sent her back to her own home, a sort of dry, sympathetic, Won’t you be lonely? They might not come back.
I’m used to being alone, he’d said, with no trace of irony.
Her new face doesn’t show much expression, but then, her old face never had either. You fall in love too easily, she’d said.
It’s a long-standing point between them that would be contention if either had ever put the sharp edge of their feelings on the matter against each other. They don’t; they keep those blades inside themselves and just understand instead. They both react to their losses in their own way; she closes up, he opens more. He remembers being on the brink of feeling his nature change and refusing, throwing himself into life, music and dancing and love. He doesn’t put reins on his heart at all. It moves where it wants and drags him behind it.
“It’s a good thing I’ve got good taste,” he mutters to himself, just to hear the humor in his voice and cheer himself up with it. She might say it’s too easy, but at least he knows what he likes. Determination. Hope. The decision to do the right thing, the thing that helps others. People whose natural instinct is to withdraw, who have everything stacked against feeling any good thing but who face their fears and decide to live, like he has.
He groans, rolling until he’s face down in the pillow. His antlers catch his blankets and wind them around him; he kind of likes the sensation, being wrapped tight like he could hold himself in, and allows it.
The pillow still smells like Keith, sweaty and awkward and a bit greasy, and he laughs to himself into the pillow as he lets himself huff it. It makes him feel a little less alone. It had been so crowded here recently, Keith and Lucas, then Keith and Marion, then Marion, and now just him again. But nobody goes anywhere without leaving some element of their presence. He’s always held onto that as his only defense against how big and lonely the world is, how quickly people, humans, come and go from it.
Here, now, he has scent and memory, Keith in his chair, sitting stiffly as he tried to figure out the best way to protect everyone, protect Hiraeth. Keith sitting on his bed, trembling and afraid and determined to move ahead anyway. Keith sobbing here in his arms, pouring out the loss of another and the loss of his own hopes. Keith’s face screwed tight in pleasure as he allowed himself to accept help. Hiraeth had memorized that, etched its lines into himself so that he could draw on it years later as needed.
Keith’s warm presence at his back. He could call that back now, too, his own terror and exhilaration as they fought, and Keith right behind him, fighting too, keeping them safe as they acted recklessly to save Lucas. To save all of them.
The parts Lucas had left were stranger. Not even in the normal strange way that ghosts leave traces of their passing, the hollow spaces, strange chills and darknesses as death tries to remember what it’s forgetting. Hiraeth hadn’t known Lucas, not really; he liked what little he had known of him, and liked even better how important he knew Lucas was to Keith. Having already come to love Keith, he knew that Lucas must be something else.
But he hadn’t known-known that, not until he was unable to move, facing death down himself, and felt Lucas pour himself into this body that Hiraeth had claimed for his own. Under most circumstances, it would have been the worst sort of intrusion. An Other’s vessel reflected their metaphors, reflected what symbols they still laid claim to, was a thing they had remade into themselves. And even as things were, it was strange to share it, a nearly-dysphoric reminder that his body was separate to himself, that his space was just a space to be filled.
But pouring off Lucas was that same recognition that it was weird, not really great, felt wrong—Hiraeth’s body couldn’t be further from Lucas’s own, and Lucas’s own was long gone and six feet deep. But even so, he was determination, he was passion. Lucas poured himself into Hiraeth to do what Hiraeth couldn’t do any more, to get him up, to make him run, to force him to move and live and carry on in this vessel instead of having to abandon it to the fire. He had felt Lucas’s soul wrap around him like strong arms to pick him up, a promise that he wouldn’t let anything happen to him. Everything in Lucas was striving towards life—not for himself, because he couldn’t, but for others.
I won’t let you die, Lucas had promised to Hiraeth. Hiraeth lets out a sob into his pillow, surprising himself, as he remembers that feeling. He can’t remember the last time someone promised him that they would take care of him. He can’t remember the last time he knew they meant it, either.
Get me home, he’d responded, and Lucas had, carrying Hiraeth inside Hiraeth’s own body, feeling Hiraeth’s feelings like they’d been his own, just as Hiraeth had felt Lucas’s feelings: that bone-deep goodness, that care, that hope, that newly-realized love he’d discovered with Keith moments earlier.
“Maybe I do fall in love too easily,” Hiraeth mumbles into the cushion, but this time he says it, he’s smiling a bit, lips wet and coppery, eyes wet and stinging. He rolls over again, the blankets hurting with how tight he’s cocooned himself, but that’s fine. It sort of feels good too, an embrace.
They might not come back again. He knows that. Keith hadn’t ever been involved with Others before this, and had gone through loss and pain and nearly death to help them. And Lucas goes where Keith goes.
If they don’t, he’ll be fine. Hiraeth knows that. The easier you love, the easier you lose, so he’s lost lots of loves before, to death and time and distance and just it not being right between them. Whether or not they come back to see him again, he’ll react the same way: he’ll smile and laugh and live and always move forward and open himself up even more.
If they don’t, he’ll still have the moments and memories that they left with him, those things filling the spaces their presence left.
If they don’t, they don’t.
But he hopes they do.