Gangrel laid still in his bed, vacantly staring at the ceiling. It had been the only thing he'd done since waking that morning. His laziness was not born of apathy but deep contemplation that had simply run dry. He couldn't stop thinking—in circles it seemed—of the events of last night. Again and again, he felt the pain, desire, joy and overpowering rage, one after the other, as if following a scripted sequence. How many hours had he relived that interrupted kiss? It could have been eternity, an eon beyond reckoning.
The Mad King pulled at the chain around his neck and studied the intricate metalwork of his pendant, studying the familiar design of the Levin Sword's crooked curves. An apt description of his life: first going one way, then the other, ever polar and crooked. Gangrel ran his finger over the gold, letting its shape leave small imprints on his skin as he watched the candlelight flicker against the tiny, shiny object, lighting and dimming it in a hypnotic pattern.
A sudden knock came at the door. Gangrel's head snapped to the side as his hand closed protectively around his cursed luck charm. There was silence for a long, strained moment before the sound came again. The trickster stood and—stuffing his pendant back under his shirt—crossed the room and opened the door.
The first thing the Mad King registered was a paladin's armor, painted a deep forest green. Gangrel immediately slammed the door shut. No. He would have nothing to do with that boy. He could hear Stahl's muffled voice through the wood, but nothing distinct. And then there was silence. Gangrel continued to wait, however; no telling if the Ylissean would stick around or not.
After perhaps five minutes, the tension was too much to bear and Gangrel cracked open the door again to see outside. Nope, still there. But as the Mad King went to close the door again, he encountered a sudden resistance that kept it from shutting all the way.
"Gangrel, please, just listen—"
"I don't have anything to say to you!" Gangrel snapped, kicking Stahl's boot out of the doorway. But the door still wouldn't close: Stahl had begun pushing against the wood to try getting in. Gangrel pushed back and the pair began wrestling over the door.
"But I need to talk to you!"
"Well, I'm not interested! Go away!"
"Please! I need to talk to you about Nisha!"
Gangrel paused for a moment. Then he released the door and stepped back, letting the young Ylissean crash to the floor. Before Stahl could orient himself, the trickster seized the paladin by the breastplate and tossed him from the room.
"Don't you have ears? I'm not speaking with you about anything, least of all the tactician!"
The door slammed shut, the sound echoing against the stone. Gangrel breathed heavily, fists clenched at his side. And then he heard Stahl get up and take a few steps towards the room, his voice muffled through the wood of the door.
"Gangrel, I know what happened between you two last night. I just wanted to tell you that whatever you might think about my relationship with Nisha is, it isn't like that. She thinks of me like a big brother! I promise, that's all it is!"
"And why should I believe you?!" Gangrel shouted. "You're just another Ylissean! Another lying, conniving Ylissean! Why can't you just leave me be?!"
"Because you need to know that I'm bowing out of the competition."
The Mad King froze in the dim room, completely derailed by those words. Slowly, he raised his hand and placed it upon the door, pushing it open so he could see his rival's expression.
"What did you say?" he asked. Stahl heaved a sigh and scratched the back of his neck, looking decidedly at the floor.
"Look, I've talked with Nisha about it already. She might not have said it aloud but...out of the two of us... If she had to choose one of us to save in a life-or-death situation, it would be you; it's always been you." The young man sighed again before adding, "I'm like the big brother that she never had, and you...you mean the world to her; I've seen how she looks at you."
"That's it?" the trickster asked, unable to process this turn of events. "You're just going to stop fighting for her?"
"I lost a long time ago," the paladin replied, glancing up and looking Gangrel in the eye. "I can't say when, but somewhere along the way you became the center of her life. When you two stopped talking...it destroyed her. She wouldn't tell anyone what was wrong, but we all knew she was hurting and we couldn't figure out why for the longest time. And then the second you came back to her...she came alive again. I've never seen her so excited to go and do something as when she goes to talk to you. I can't compare with that, no matter how close I get. So I'm surrendering; you've won."
Stahl extended his hand. Gangrel stared at it, then glared hard at the Ylissean's face. He didn't seem to be lying, but...one could never be certain. Reluctantly, he reached out and took the proffered hand, shaking it once before quickly releasing his grasp.
"Also, another note," the brunette added as he turned away. "Chrom's just assigned me to a squadron of Shepherds to go with him to fetch Tiki from the Divine Dragon Grounds, so I'll be in Valm for the next month."
"And you're telling me this why?" the trickster asked waspishly. Stahl grinned.
"You're clever; figure it out."
Before the Mad King could protest or demand a proper answer, Stahl walked down the hall and out of sight, whistling cheerfully as he went.
The room had always been small, but never before had it felt so...cramped, confining. Pacing like a caged lion, Gangrel thought about what Stahl had told him. Why should he care that the boy was leaving for Valm? If Nisha truly was his, then he didn't need to take advantage of the paladin's absence to win her over. All the same, how could he be certain Stahl wasn't just trying to put him off his guard?
"Gods above, why does this have to be so complicated?" he muttered angrily. Overcome with a sudden, scorching frustration, the red-haired man strode to the door and threw it open, stalking out into the dark corridor. Night had fallen, and the only light in the South wing was the occasional torch on the wall and the moon coming through the few windows. Gangrel really didn't have a destination in mind: he just needed to do something to work off these complicated, vexing emotions.
When did Nisha become the center of the universe? he wondered. How long have I just been circling her? Why did I never notice before?!
The Mad King blinked, coming out of his thoughts as he stopped walking. He looked around at his surroundings, realizing that he had walked straight to the North Wing. In fact, the tactician's room wasn't too far from where he stood now.
It's the middle of the night; she won't be awake to talk to, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind.
But at least I can see her, he argued back. That will be enough.
Gangrel padded across the carpet to Nisha's door and gently pushed it open, slipping inside and closing it just as softly.
The room was brighter than the halls—half-melted candles burned brightly across the desk and bedside table along with the moonlight pouring in through her window—and the Mad King easily spotted the dark-haired woman curled up on her bed. The trickster crept to her side, letting his eyes rove over her form.
She'd shed her cloak, allowing her figure to be more visible than he had ever seen it, and her hair had been loosed from its ponytail, spreading across the white pillows like an ink stain. One of her arms was curled against her chest, a book nestled in the crook of her elbow. The other was stretched out, as if reaching for something. Gangrel ran his fingertips on the pale skin of her stretching arm, marveling at the softness that covered the strong, lithe muscle beneath. He was almost surprised that she was made of warm flesh and not the cold stone of a goddess' statue which she so resembled.
The red-haired man sat down on the side of the bed, tucking a loose lock of hair behind her ear. He then took the book from her grasp and set it on the bedside table. All the while, his eyes never left Nisha's sleeping face. She was so beautiful, he couldn't help but want to be near her, couldn't help but want to hold her, kiss her. But despite all his desires, there was still something holding him back, something unfamiliar.
"Why must you be so vexing?" he whispered, stroking her cheek. She sighed in her sleep, shifting a little before becoming still again, the only movement the rise and fall of her chest. Just watching her was making him drowsy. Leaning on his side, Gangrel laid down next to her, taking her outstretched hand in his.
I'll just lie here for a minute, he thought. Just minute or two more.
It was bright, and a young man of about thirteen years of age was seated on the hard ground, working a knife over a block of wood, clearly carving something to amuse himself. The youth's face was concealed behind long, wild bangs that fell into his eyes. His rusty, reddish brown hair was long—long enough to be tied back with a short length of cord. He was thin too, clearly underfed and going hungry regularly. But he was whistling cheerfully to himself as he cut away at the wood in his hand.
And then, interrupting the peaceful scene, a child of about five years old ran over to the older boy and leaned his head on the teenager's shoulder. The little boy was just as scrawny as his elder counterpart and covered from head to toe in dust and dirt.
"Hello there," the young man said cheerfully, pausing in his activities to ruffle the child's vibrant red hair. "How's my little brother today?"
"Big brother?" The child asked, his voice small and timid. "I have a question."
"Go ahead," the elder sibling prompted, examining a deep notch he'd made in the wood with an appraising eye.
"What does love mean?"
The teenager looked up, clearly surprised, though half his face was still hidden. He watched his younger sibling quietly for a long moment, then asked, taking back up his blade, "Where did you get a question like that?"
"There was a girl at the well," the child explained. "She kept saying she was in love with somebody, but her friend didn't believe her. And she told her friend 'you don't know what love is' and walked away. Now I wanna know what love really is, for certain."
The elder boy carved away at his block of wood for a few minutes in silence. Then he sighed and set the project aside, sticking the knife in his belt.
"That's a hard question, little brother," the teenager said softly. "Even some grown-ups don't really know what love is."
"But I want to know," the adamant child insisted, folding his little arms in a show of defiance. His brother was quiet again, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"Love," he murmured softly, his mind clearly miles away. "Love is...love is when you care for somebody else so much that you're willing to put whatever they need first, no matter how much it might hurt you."
"Like..." the tiny boy said, screwing up his face in thought as he tried to come up with an example. "Like when you let me eat first, even though you're super hungry too?"
"Then what's true love?"
"Are you trying to unlock the mysteries of the world or something?" the teenager laughed, scraping his knuckles affectionately across his little brother's head. The child laughed too and returned the gesture before the elder sibling returned to his more contemplative state.
"True love is stronger than regular love," he finally said. "It's strong enough to change people."
"True love is caring about someone so much, you would die to keep them safe and happy. You can love almost anybody, but truly loving someone is much rarer; I've seen some families that care deeply for each other, but they don't have true love."
"How do you truly love?" the little boy inquired, his eyes wide and enthralled. When his brother replied, his voice was very soft.
"You have to be humble. Selfishness is the enemy to true love. If you only think of yourself, you can't care enough about anybody else to feel it."
The teenager fell silent, drawing something in the dirt with his fingertip. His little brother tilted his head to see what it was, but nearly toppled over when he leaned too far. Then he embraced his elder sibling suddenly.
"How did you get so smart?" the child pouted.
"I think a lot," his brother laughed, returning the embrace with one arm. "And I pay attention to people; how they treat each other says a lot about their personality."
"Big brother, do we have any food left?" the tiny red-headed boy asked suddenly. "We haven't eaten since yesterday."
"Go check the hiding place. I'll catch up."
The child darted away, then stopped suddenly and came right back.
"Why don't people tell each other that they love them?"
The rusty-haired youth laughed, brushing his long bangs aside to reveal deep crimson eyes that stood out in his slim, sharp features.
"I guess they assume that the other person knows," he answered. "But let me tell you something, little brother: when people love one another, you'll know by their actions, not by their words. People do amazing and crazy things for the people they care about most."
His question answered, the little boy sped away again, sending a small cloud of dust into the air after him. His elder brother stared after him before picking up the block of wood he'd laid aside. He looked over the rough outline of his work, running his thumb across the grain.
"He's right," he muttered softly to himself. "People don't say it enough."
The teenager then looked out to where his little brother had run, though the child had disappeared from sight. Taking a short length of leather cord from around his wrist, the teenager tied his hair back in a low tail, sweeping his bangs out of his face.
"I hope you can grow up to love one day, little brother," the youth muttered, his vibrant eyes distant. And then, as if the sun had suddenly drawn closer to the earth, the daylight intensified and the world went white, hiding everything from sight.
Gangrel jolted awake, his heart pounding as he tried to make sense of why everything was so dark. And then he remembered: he was in Nisha's room. He must have fallen asleep without realizing it. He shakily settled his breathing and laid his head back down into the pillows.
Clearly, that was not just a minute.
When the thought passed through his head, he all but leapt from the bed in alarm. What time was it? If it were morning, then they could be discovered. Personally, the Mad King would be relieved if the secret would be out at last and he would stop needing to pretend he and Nisha were only simple companions. But if they were found like this—with him in her bed—Nisha would be shamed, looked down upon. He couldn't let that happen; he wouldn't. No matter how much he wanted to keep her all to himself, he refused to let her be hurt—by him or by anyone else.
The trickster inhaled deeply, halting his racing thoughts. If it had been morning, it would be lighter in this room. But the window was still dark; no one would be awake yet. Gangrel brushed his bangs out of his eyes and the dream reentered his mind. Those two brothers were hauntingly familiar...
Standing, the Plegian trickster cast one more look over his shoulder at the sleeping tactician, who hadn't stirred at his leaving. He crossed the room and stepped back out into the long corridor, making his way out of the lavish North Wing and back into the comparatively bare South Wing. As the door to his room swung shut behind him, he crossed to the mirror. In the weak light of his dying candle, Gangrel could just make out his features. His hair was almost long enough to touch his shoulders now, and it kept his face concealed at almost all times. But as he pushed his bangs back, the man in the mirror transformed, nearly identical to the elder brother in his dream. His face was more mature than the youth's, and not as slim-featured, but their eyes were exactly the same. Had they stood side-by-side, Gangrel would have looked like the teenager's older brother. But that wasn't the case at all: in fact, it was the other way around.
"Does this count, big brother?" Gangrel asked his reflection. "Does this count as love?"
His reflection did not answer, and the Mad King smiled bitterly. He then walked back across the room and took his dagger from the small bedside table where it rested by the candle's growing pool of wax. At the mirror, Gangrel gathered his hair in a low tail and pressed the knife against it. After a moment's hesitation, he moved the knife and the hair fell to the floor. No longer did his reflection look like the boy in his dream, but like his own again.
"Stop coming back at the worst possible times," he muttered as he used the knife to straighten where his hair was now uneven. "I'm an adult; I don't need your advice anymore."
But as red hair continued to fall, it felt as though he had just watched his brother die again. When Gangrel laid down in his bed, he reached for the chain around his neck, pulling out the tiny golden Levin Sword."You dare interfere with Nisha, and I'll throw you to the bottom of the Eastern Sea," he promised it. "Your curse won't take her away from me; she's mine."