Time softens what wounds were bared, rounding sharp edges as Falin and Sterling continued to grow closer. To love firmer. Distance was ever a problem for the pair, with the summer Olympics continuing to loom ever closer and eat away at Falin’s limited free time. Still, they had the virtual world to connect their hearts when the physical world was too far away. And there was still the chance to see one another when Falin’s work took him closer to Ireland.
Sterling had felt some guilt when it came to accepting the gifts of tickets and airplane rides, but it was clear Falin felt none of the strain, explaining he had very little to spend his money on and it brought him joy to dote on his boyfriend. So Sterling had learned to ignore that nagging feeling and spread his joy back to the fencer. To ignore the paparazzi the two of them started seeing more and more of. A side effect of fame and the growing notoriety that came from Sterling ‘reemerging’ into the public eye. Neither man bothered to read the tabloids, and that ignorance was a shield that allowed them to simply enjoy any dates they managed to have together.
As the seasons turned from a blistering hot summer to a wet and chilly autumn, dates in wild fields had to end. Bottles of wine had to be drunk together in hotels or out among the restaurants that spanned the places they were willing to meet. Still, hand in hand and rosy-cheeked by a brisk wind and a brash flirtation was a good look for both men. Love was a good look for both men. The cool weather drove away the crowds that both men felt uncomfortable in, at least. Allowing a rare chance for them to walk through town streets and exist in a bubble of peace.
It was here, after a meal at an Irish pub that had confounded Falin when presented with haggis as a dining choice and Sterling’s endless teasing on the matter that they found themselves. Walking hand in hand, Sterling’s coat turned up to drive away the chill he was far more susceptible to than Falin.“Be glad the locals didn’t demand a pint out of you in recompense.”
Sterling smiled and tucked a free-flying strand of white hair behind his ear. He didn’t have an ounce of heat in his voice, finding the ordeal of strange foods cooked in sheep’s organs an understandable horror if you hadn’t grown up eating it.
Falin let out a deep chuckle. A sound which was as their relationship blossomed through the year, became a growing occurrence. His own hair had grown long and was pulled back into a ponytail. He’d explained briefly that he’d have to cut it before his matches at the olympics and wanted to let it grow as long as it could before then. So it was the longest that he’d had it in his life. “Perhaps I should have bought it for them.”“Oh, then you would have been quite popular indeed.”
Sterling smiled again, scooting closer to Falin after a sharp wind made his shoulders go up and his nose wrinkle. “I’ll teach you some drinking songs next time, and you’ll be the belle of the pub.”
His phone vibrated in his breast pocket and he ignored it, unwilling to let his hands get cold from untangling from Falin’s fingers. Ahead of them the streets had a few more people on them, but behind and at their current pace they were alone.
The swordsman made a face at the idea. “I would rather not have the attention.”
But then, Sterling knew that. Falin might draw attention merely for his profession, but it wasn’t something that he enjoyed. Much to the chagrin of his managers. Suddenly he smiled though. “Do you sing Sterling?””Get a few glasses of Guinness in me and you may find out.”
Sterling raised a brow but didn’t elaborate, instead taking the moment to lean in and press a kiss to Falin’s cheek. “But to save you the embarrassment I’ll gladly roar out a few verses.”
They well matched in their privacy, but it was also clear that once Sterling warmed up to a place he was skilled at playing a room for attention. A magnetic charm he hid often.
His phone vibrated again, this time making him grumble at the insistence.
“You should answer that, it might be important.”
Falin glanced toward the sound, his fingers tightening briefly and gently on Sterling’s.
Sterling made a soft sound of disagreement. “It shouldn’t be. The university would only send an email, and who else would be calling me at this hour?”
The streetlights had come on long ago, casting both of them into ghostly light when they stepped under them. Still, he squeezed back and sighed when he realized Falin meant it. “I’ll take a look once we’re in the car. I’d rather not talk on the phone around so many other people.”
Ahead of them a small group were clustered together, one gesturing and talking loudly. And glancing at their direction, which gave Sterling pause.
Falin noticed the group just as quickly, particularly giving notice to the fact that they were rather close to where Falin had parked his rental car earlier. The swordsman’s fingers tensed in Sterling’s hand and he frowned a little. In that moment the loudest speaker seemed to light up, and the rest of the small gathering turned. One holding a camera while the other had a small microphone.
“Mister McGill! We’re so sorry about your loss!” They moved closer in a herd, aware enough about Falin’s history with the press to not get too close. The camera went up and angled directly at Sterling, his sensitive eyes closing the instant the bright light hit them. The dazzle was as confusing as the paparazzi’s words, and he blinked rapidly and furrowed his brows.
“Your father! We’re so sorry about his passing. You hadn’t been seen with him in years. Did you have a chance to speak with him before he passed away?” The questions were fired at him rapidly, and his stomach plummeted as the words finally penetrated his brain. His face going grey and his eyes widening even as the bright light shone into them, turning his blue contacts violet from the red coming through.
His phone buzzed again, silent against the wave of voices but bludgeoning against his breast. The man speaking seemed to realize it even as Sterling did. That he hadn’t known his step-father had passed away. Stepping back and beginning to stammer an apology.
Falin caught on quickly too, realizing the reality of the situation more readily than Sterling because it had less emotional impact on him. The swordsman slipped his arm around Sterling, just in case he needed more support than his own feet would allow and firmly stepped into the space that the other man had vacated. “We need to get to our car.”
He said the words firmly, stepping again toward the vehicle with the purpose of getting Sterling out of the uncomfortable light as soon as possible.
“Y-yes of course. We’re sorry again, for your loss Mister McGill.” The speaker shuffled back even as the camera kept filming them, focusing on the hand wrapped around Sterling’s shoulder and the look of surprised numbness on the pale man’s face. He allowed himself to be herded to the car, recalling himself enough to get in his seat and lock the door as soon as it was closed.
“Get me out of here, please Falin.”
He turned from the window and the recording camera, getting back in control of himself enough that he could turn pleading eyes on Falin.
The look wasn’t necessary, but it urged Falin to nod and pull out of his parking spot a touch faster than he might have otherwise. He pointed the car toward the destination of his hotel room where they were headed before all this, but he was suddenly uncertain that they would be going there. “Should you answer your phone now?”
His voice was gentle and careful.
Sterling nodded and pulled the phone from it’s pocket, sighing heavily when he saw the name of the many missed calls. “It was my sister. Hell.”
He unlocked and was about to dial when it began to buzz again, the vibration accusing in his hand. He answered instantly, the warm glass pressing against his cold ear.“Carina. I just heard. I’m so sorry.”
The voice that answered him was rougher than he remembered, raspy tone amplified by grieving tears. His younger sister, younger than Falin but a loud voice on her public media.
“Thank you, Sterling. I wish you’d answered earlier. Thalia was going to call you next.” He winced and nodded, even though she couldn’t see him.“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, you always apologize when it’s too late to make a difference.” Carina continued, the sounds of movement and the echo of voices through the line announcing she was still at the hospital. When the noises were suddenly muted she continued speaking, clearing her throat in an uncharacteristic sign of weakness.
“You’ll be at the funeral? We’ve seen you’ve been out and about lately so it would be odd for you to miss an event like this.”
Sterling sighed and nodded again. “Yes of course. Whatever you and Thalia want.”
He closed his eyes as traffic moved past them, letting Falin drive as he saw fit.
“This is what Mama would want. And da.” “Right, of course.”
Sterling floundered for a moment before pressing on. “Do you… want to talk about it?”
“Not really. Here.” There was a sound of the phone moving, of the soft scrape of skin and a muttered exchange before a new voice came on the line. Deeper, but familiar and feminine in a way that gave Sterling the chills when she started speaking.
“He was ill. There was little point in contacting you when there was nothing you could have done.” Thalia, the eldest. Her voice almost identical to their mother’s and containing Phaedra McGill’s iron will. She didn’t wait for Sterling’s second offer of condolence before she continued.
“We will send you the location and date. Father specifically requested you come to the reading of his will as well, so you will be there as well.” “Yes, of course.”
Sterling swallowed. “May I-”
“Bring whomever you like. As long as they can behave. Goodbye, Sterling.”
The call ended before Sterling could get out anything else, the screen lighting up and showing his background with the flashing timer for how long the call had lasted. Ten minutes, barely a moment longer. After over a decade of not speaking. Sterling dropped the phone in the cupholder between them, both of his hands coming up to rub his face as he felt suddenly exhausted.
It was hard not to overhear the conversation. Whether it was because in spite of his years of teaching himself to not eavesdrop on others conversation, he couldn’t help but to listen in, or because Sterling’s conversation was just that easily heard… He slipped on hand off the wheel long enough to squeeze Sterling’s knee briefly to remind the other man that he wasn’t alone. “Where would you like to go?”“Home. God... “
Sterling mumbled behind his hands, fingers ruining his makeup as he rubbed his tired eyes. “If you would, Falin. I can’t imagine the people waiting outside your hotel right now. At least the farm will be private.”
He felt the prickle of tears and banished them, unwilling to collapse while they were still out in public.
Falin immediately took the next street to turn to the east, a direction that would eventually take them to Sterling’s home out in the edges of civilization. “Of course Sterling.”
Thankfully the township they were in wasn’t far from the farm. Only a little bit further than the hotel was in fact. Falin liked to pick places that were between. Places that it was easy for them both to get to even though he had driven out to Sterling’s house to pick him up for this particular rendezvous.
It was a quiet drive though, with Sterling being on the verge of… something, and Falin unwilling to press with Sterling so obviously upset. When they arrived, Falin pulled to a stop and turned to the other man, his hand touching Sterling’s hand. “Do you want me to stay?”“Yes.”
Sterling grasping the lifeline that was Falin firmly. “Please, if you don’t mind.”
He looked over at Falin, his eyes smudged only adding to the exhaustion that was on his face. The farm house was quiet, the chickens long asleep and the road to reach it long enough that they would have seen anyone there before they arrived.
He squeezed Falin’s hand and let go so he could slide out of his seat. Leading them inside and making sure the locks were all thrown and shutters drawn before turning on the warm-light lights that made the old house feel cozy instead of lonely. He gestured towards the little study that had once been a sitting room, knowing the fireplace was in there and ready to be lit. “Make yourself comfortable. I need to…”
He drifted for a second before finishing his sentence. “Wash my face. I’ll be there in a moment.”
He shook his head and wandered off towards his washroom, leaving Falin to his own devices.
Left alone the swordsman slipped out of his jacket and hung it in the appropriate place which was found with relative ease. Then made his way to the little room he’d been directed towards and quickly set about making a fire. These simple tasks were a welcome distraction from the realization that Sterling was also alone. Falin rose from the fire it had taken him far too little time to create and pensively stood nearby it. The black turtleneck he wore seemed to draw in the light of the flames beginning to take life. His pale skin however reflected it, forging his features in sharp relief as he waited for Sterling to return.
When he did return Sterling was devoid of his makeup, pale as a ghost before making his way to first the little bar where he kept his whisky and pouring himself a small amount. When he looked at Falin to see if he wanted some he shook his head a little, and Sterling drank the glass down in a single swallow before making his way over to his boyfriend and leaning into his embrace. Then he swore, softly.
Falin’s arms were a safety net of gentle strength. It was easy to forget that Falin was as muscular as he was until times like these. Times when he caught Sterling up and let him feel the quiet promise of power. If Falin could have kept him safe like this, he would have, but emotions weren’t a thing that he could battle with a sword. “I am so sorry about your stepfather.”“Thank you,”
Sterling mumbled from Falin’s shoulder where his head had fallen to rest. “Poor Chie.”
he gripped Falin tightly, the fire warm against his back and his boyfriend warm against his front. “I wish…”
He felt his chest tighten, his throat squeezing as he felt the grief come welling up. “I-”
He swore again, shuddering before bursting into tears.
That Chie had raised him when he was a product of assault on his wife. Had adored him as much as he had loved his two daughters. It hurt Sterling so deeply that now he was gone, after being pushed away by his own need for solitude and peace. Chie hadn’t deserved that. He’d deserved more than Sterling had ever been able to give him as a step-son. As the family mistake.
So he wept until he couldn’t anymore, and when he was empty he poured himself another glass of whisky and curled up on the sofa he’d replaced his well-loved chair with. Falin came with him, and he melted into his presence as an anchor he desperately needed.“I can’t go to that funeral alone.”
He whispered, head once again buried against Falin. The glass resting on the floor and catching the light of the fire with glittering clarity.“And you will not, if you will have me by your side.”
Falin gently stroked Sterling’s hair, his eyes on the other man alone. “It will be a cruel event.”
Sterling wrapped his arms around Falin’s chest, eyes closed as they weeped hot tears. “My sisters are… They’re a lot like our Mother.”
Hard. demanding. And impeccable actors. “And I am not.”
Nothing like the man the world thought was his father, nothing like his mother except in looks. And in his ability to keep people an arms length away while they believed they were as thick as thieves.“And there will be… a lot of attention. From people who haunt the ‘rich and famous’.”
He snorted against Falin’s black turtleneck.
“One would think then that they would be on their best behavior in front of so many eyes.”
Falin mumured his words somewhat thoughtfully but shook his head. “For me it matters not, I want to be there for you Sterling. I will not be frightened off with the thought of cruel relatives or attentive strangers.”“If you were this would be your chance to flee.”
Sterling sighed and sat up enough to sip his drink. Using his sleeve to rub away the moisture on his face once he put the glass back down. He looked at Falin, eyes bloodshot and tired in the fire’s light. “Thank you.”
As if Sterling had missed a spot of moisture which he had not, Falin thumbed over his cheek. “You are the most important thing in this world to me. Just tell me what I can do, and it will be done as best as I can see it done.”
Falin smiled briefly. “Try not to let that power go to your head.”
He earned a laugh out of Sterling, who smiled down on Falin before returning to his place on Falin’s chest. It was damp with his tears and snot, but he couldn’t care. Because he was with the only person left who truly cared about him. “This is enough for now. I can work my wicked wiles on you when I don’t look like I was stung by a bee.”
He sniffled out a second laugh and squeezed Falin all the tighter.
Slowly the weather began to turn, the autumn falling to winter in a swift defeat. Which was to say that it came suddenly and with very little warning. One day the weather was mild and the next it seemed as though the world over was covered in snow. It certainly was from Ireland to France which the two men called home. During the course of signing up for Sterling’s class, Falin had given up his birthday, and the older man kept a keen eye on the date which seemed to be ever approaching. However as the days into winter grew colder Falin seemed to grow more distant once again. He was on Savior less and less, and even their other sources of communication waned.
Finally, a few days before his birthday Falin texted out of the blue. Hey there, sorry for the radio silence, things have been busy.
Sterling had been going through paperwork, filling the spare time he usually gave freely to Falin. The death of his stepfather had left him with more than enough red tape and prohibitive documents to last through the entire season and it had required him to hire a lawyer of his own to muddle through the worst of it.
When the phone notified him he set it all aside to read what Falin said, his fingers resting on the keyboard before he typed out a response.Are you well?
The silence never ceased to worry him. Remembering the scars on Falin's back, and the wounds to his soul.
The answer was somewhat slow in coming. The legal battle is going well, but this is a hard time of the year.What can I do to help you?
Sterling left behind his paperwork for the moment to stand by the office window and look out at the snow covered fields around his home.
I have made an arrangement with her. She has agreed to drop the case and let me go my own way. So I was hoping you might know of a cheap place I can stay afterwards.
Without giving himself the chance to overthink Sterling took a photo from his window and sent it to Falin. Part of his face was a soft ghost reflecting on the glass but the pastoral scene was all he had been after.I know of one, at least. You're always welcome here, my love.
It didn’t take a moment to recognize the beautiful landscape and know where it had come from. Particularly not with Sterling’s own reflection in the background. For several long moments all Falin could do was stare at the image. Are you sure? I won’t be the best company this time of the year.
At your worst I would still want you here. I'm sure.I love you so much. I can hardly wait to text you that I am free. XOI love you. I'll see you soon. Be safe.
Sterling let his head rest against the chilled glass and let out the breath he didn't know he had been holding. There was suddenly a great deal more looming upon him, and he had to find a way to handle it.
Instead of allowing himself to dwell any further he unlocked his phone again, reading over their last conversation as if it hadn't just happened. From all the way in France Falin was doing much the same thing, holding the image that Sterling had sent him of himself in Ireland as a compress against the cold days he knew were coming.
It was a week and three days later, a week in fact after Falin’s birthday that the swordsman finally texted Sterling once again. There had been no response to the well-wishes for his birthday. Nothing for nine days. Then, out of the blue again a text.I am free.
Sterling's chest constricted and he grabbed the phone, texting back so quickly he missed any typos he created.Wher are you? Can i come getbyou?I am in the hospital. I am fine.
You do not have to come all this way. I am on my way to you as soon as I am released.
The way that Falin texted, so seriously all the time was far from comforting.I want to. Please send me the hospital's name.
Sterling was up and practically running through his house. Packing a small travel bag, making sure his passport was on top before securing his chickens in the event he was gone longer than a weekend. Only then looking at his phone.
There was an address waiting for him, and an assurance that his presence there wasn’t required, but that was easily enough ignored. Falin was still in France, in fact in the town he spoke of rarely as being his homeland. Which meant a trip for Sterling, and one that could not happen fast enough.
It seemed to take far too long to reach the small county hospital that Falin was housed in, and somehow even longer to find him inside the relatively small complex. The place smelled like all hospitals do, of antiseptics to cover the less pleasant aspects of daily life in a hospital. Eventually he made his way to Falin’s side however. The swordsman had his own private room, a small affair to be sure.
He looked wane. Paler than he usually did which was a remarkable feat. His upper body was covered in bandages, from arm to arm and from top to where his blanket was pulled up around him. He was talking quietly to a nurse, who was obviously bespelled by him. He carefully wrote his signature on a piece of paper for her and she gushed a thank you at him before they both noticed Sterling’s arrival.
Sterling stood in the doorway, a delicate bouquet of flowers in his hands and a face set firmly in worry at the sight of his boyfriend swathed in bandages. He was as put together as always, though the few strands of loose hair around his face may have been accidental."Falin."
The swordsman’s face lit up at the sight of him, the lines of worry and wear that perpetually aged him seemed to vanish as the soft smile spilled across his lips. “You brought me flowers.”
He seemed stymied by this fact, and the nurse at his side smiled and backed away a little, meaning to make a quiet exit from the room so that the pair could be alone.
Sterling spared her a well constructed smile, stepping into the room so that she could leave. "If we could have a moment of privacy?"
His voice was a murmur, as if he could create a barrier with just the tone and softness of his words.
Only when she had gone did he come to Falin with his flowers, the colors rich and vibrant in the drab hospital room. "I had to bring something."
Sterling offered them before reaching out and taking Falin's hand.
“You brought yourself, that would have been more than enough for me.”
Falin accepted the flowers, setting them aside on the table however so that he could hold Sterling’s hand. The quiet strength that Falin always seemed to have was lacking. Instead there was a fine tremor to his fingers, and he seemed to relax into the bed as if Sterling’s presence gave him permission to be at ease. “I must look a sight, but I assure you, I will be well enough.”
Taking a seat at Falin's bedside, Sterling pressed the injured fingers to his lips in a kiss before covering them on the hospital bed. "What happened, Falin?"
Sterling allowed his facade of calm to fade and the deep worry in his eyes as he took in all of Falin's injuries spoke volumes.
It was clear that Falin didn’t know how to answer. He looked down at their hands on the bed and his own smile faded at the seriousness of their conversation. If he could have avoided this discussion… “My agreement happened to me Sterling. I agreed to one last punishment for my freedom. I think... I underestimated how little she wanted me to go.”
Sterling's grip tightened and he furrowed his brow, allowing Falin to be vague for both of their sakes. One hand slipping free from where he held Falin's to lean in and cup his face instead. "I'm so sorry, Falin."
He wasn't sure anything would be a good enough response to that. To the knowledge of how twisted his aunt was.“I am not.”
Falin tilted his face into Sterling’s touch and turned slightly so that he could place a kiss into the palm of Sterling’s hand. “I am free, and she will never again hold me. Will never again harm me. I will heal Sterling, all she has gained is a moment that will fade with time.”"And what does the hospital believe happened?"
Sterling ran his thumb over Falin's cheek and smiled gently. At the ease that sat beneath his skin next to the pain. A lightness.
The swordsman’s eyes crinkled in something that was apologetic. “I believe the running theory is that I was abducted by a crazed fan. One of the nurses was very concerned that her being a fan would be traumatic for me.”
He made a small amused noise.
"That was kind of her."
Sterling tutted and then sighed, smoothing out Falin's hair before taking up his hand again."If that's how it works best for you then I won't argue."
That he didn't like it was unspoken, but he didn't seem bitter about the accepted lie.
“I can hardly say the truth.”
Falin sighed and shook his head. “No one would believe it of her, and it would just begin something which would only end in more publicity, more legal battles. Ones that this time I know I could not hope to win. She pointed out quite succinctly that I could have done this to myself, and that it would be quite believable if I was a…”
Falin’s mouth twisted and he shook his head. “Pervert given my history.”
Sterling's frown deepened but he held his tongue, instead taking Falin's hand to kiss his knuckles again. This time he let his eyes close and simply held them to his cheek."I have so many questions and I don't want to burden you with them when right now should be a turning point to bring us joy."
He looked at Falin, his fingers as tight as he dared allow with the other man bedridden.
"I want to stay here until you're cleared to come back with me."
To come home, to the little country manor in the snow.
Falin had no strength to offer back to Sterling, but he had his steady presence and his endless calm acceptance. “You should go, see a bit of France while you are here. I will be terrible company, particularly here. Besides, I have already talked to the doctors about leaving. I will be yours as soon as they can bring me the paperwork.”
Sterling's brow drew tight again. "You're well enough to travel?"
For a man who looked as wane and wounded as Falin currently did, it seemed hard for the professor to believe.
The swordsman had the grace to look embarrassed, but not enough blood to pinken his cheeks. “Not according to these so-called doctors, but I have little desire to remain cooped up in a hospital any longer than is absolutely required.”"I am not a medical professional, you know."
Sterling raised a brow and looked down at Falin. "And I cannot replace one at home. You'll need to see someone who knows what they're doing."
Falin smiled and shook his head. “I do not expect you to, I can change bandages as well as any of them, and it is not as though they can do more than that.”
He patted Sterling’s hand gently. “All they are worried about is that I will catch an infection, and I am as likely to get that here as anywhere.”
While Sterling seemed unconvinced he held his tongue again, sighing and looking past Falin towards the window that showed very little. "As you say then."
He squeezed Falin's hand, letting a soft silence grow.
It was a silence filled with questions left unanswered and the sure knowledge that Falin was acting more rashly than he should. Even so, the swordsman had his reasons for wanting to be as far from a hospital as possible. He too found himself looking out the window, but could not allow the well to grow beneath them. “I will check in with your local hospital if it will assuage your concerns, I can not be here though Sterling.”
There was something tight and painful in his words and he kept his eyes steadfastly on the nothingness outside.
"I'm with you."
Sterling squeezed Falin's hand again, shifting his chair so that he was more comfortable and could keep his face on Falin or the window as he chose. "And I think… I will skip the exploring for now. I do not need you to be good company."
Falin’s hand twitched in Sterlings. “Thank you.”
Those two words held a world of emotion which Falin’s face didn’t show. He couldn’t have said that he didn’t want to be alone here. He took an unsteady breath. “Aviline… Died here. Just down the hall in emergency.”
Sterling closed his eyes and let out a soft breath. "I'm so sorry, Falin."
He was still processing Chie's passing, the feeling soft and raw knowing that Falin was feeling something much more painful in this place. So close to his lost wife's deathbed.
“You would have liked her Sterling. She was a dancer. Did I ever tell you that?”
Falin’s voice was just a touch hurt; he managed to hold the pain inside himself so well that it hardly leaked out at all. “She died a few days from now.”
He made an amused noise. “We were both very young. But I’ll never forget.”
He finally looked at Sterling finally, his dark eyes almost black. “She made me brave, like you do. I think that must be a side effect of love.”
"It makes us brave and sometimes foolish."
Sterling smiled at Falin, running his fingers gently over his arm and back down to his hand. "And I will never regret it. And I think she wouldn't have regretted it either."
His brave, deeply wounded knight. Still desperately fighting for every step he took.
“Foolish yes. Like rushing off before one is fully healed.”
Falin made another noise in the back of his throat and soothed Sterling’s hand. “I can not regret it either. Some days it is hard and I want to, but I can not.”
Sterling smiled again, a small and crooked thing that was honest as he looked at Falin. "All we can do is keep going forwards, my love."
The swordsman nodded. “Then let us get out of here.”