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Title: Through These Nights - Chapter 05: Perfection
Genre: adventure, drama
Fandom: Fire Emblem 8
Characters/pairings: eventual Knoll/Natasha, Amelia, Duessel, Cormag, mentions of numerous others.
Summary/prompt: Grado lies in ruin, and a small band of its expatriates sets out to rebuild. In the face of horrors both past and present, they must complete their duties and somehow survive.
Chapter notes: First Cormag-heavy chapter, which was a huge challenge. Also poking at more of Knoll's unexplored backstory, which I'll be doing more of in later chapters.


You have beautiful handwriting.

Knoll couldn't quite recall who had told him that. It might have been one of the numerous mages he had studied under in his youth, or one of the officials at the meetings he occasionally scribed. It might have been his mother. Whoever it had been, they would laugh if they saw it now – lines meant to be swooping and elegant now marred by the tremble of his non-dominant hand, clumsy circles tainted by splatters of errant ink. An ugly reminder of failure, uglier than the patched-up gash across his left shoulder or the black-brown stains on his old set of clothes.

The pain, he could handle. Natasha would ask if it hurt every time she came by to drop off supplies and pick up new ones, and every time he would lie. A sin, he was sure of it, but he had no desire to see her curl her lip just so at his weakness, the same way she did when she found him peering at his books by candlelight in the middle of the night. The pain didn't anger him like black specks on cream, or disgust masked by a smile.

Paper is expensive, he reminded himself as he fought the urge to crumple the sheet and start anew. Thick, rough, uneven at the edges, it was nothing like the fragile sheets that filled his tomes, but it held up well to the slow, deliberate scraping of his quill. It would be suited to the whims of a painter, perhaps, if stretched wet on a board, as Knoll recalled one of Renais' knights doing when the weather was damp and the water was clean. It sucked the ink greedily from each tremulous stroke, a welcome distraction from the stabbing ache in his arm and the rising chill in the air. Winter would bring many problems, both for the struggling villages and the band of travelers. It was better not to think about such things.

He sat back and looked down at his work, trying to force his eyes to see the words and not the ugly wobbles in his lines. The tone was formal enough. Imploring, but not quite groveling – perfect for a letter that may as well have been begging Frelia for aid. Even in ruins, Grado would bow to no ruler but its own. The space for the signature remained empty. He would have Duessel sign it later. Despite refusing the post of regent Renais had offered him and resigning from his position as Grado's last great general, Duessel's name continued to hold clout, even if his signature was even worse than Knoll's broken handwriting. Better the sloppy hand of a hero than even the neatest of an accomplice to ruin, a failure in all the worst ways.

Knoll forced himself to push away from the rickety desk instead of continuing to stare at the blotches staining his page. Now that he'd written the letter, there was nothing left to be done, save following the instructions to rest, to "allow his body to heal", as Natasha had put it. He considered obeying for a moment. It would be nice to curl up beneath the quilt a villager in the northern countryside had given him – or rather, given Natasha with the instructions to pass it on to her "quiet friend" as he'd overheard – and read one of the few books he kept for pleasure rather than functionality.

The contemplation did not last long. He had not undertaken this journey to stay in bed and wish he were more useful. He had duties to fulfill, visions to bring to fruition. He would not fail.

Knoll stood and began to collect his supplies, finding they felt much heavier when he only had his weaker right arm to work with. He suppressed a gasp as he twisted the wrong way and sent pain shooting through his barely repaired shoulder, but couldn't hold back the string of curses that followed it, words that would have surely made his prince blush.

He hadn't time to even push that image from his mind when a voice cut in, cool and stern. "What are you doing?"

Cormag cut across the room and took the heavy tome that trembled in Knoll's hand, then tucked it neatly into the rucksack on the floor without so much as a pointed look to say you shouldn't be doing this. As little as they spoke, and as much as Genarog terrified him, Knoll had always appreciated that about Cormag.

"I could ask the same of you. Weren't you training with Duessel?"

Cormag came inside with a shake of his head. "I've other things to work on today, and the old man could use a day on his own. Genarog can help in my stead. Now, really, shouldn't you be resting?"

"I cannot just stay here while everyone else works," Knoll answered icily. "I'm not in much pain, and I can still work magic without much trouble – "

"Not in much pain? I've never heard you curse like that. Duessel teach you those words? I can't imagine you learned them from those books of yours."

"Perhaps I did," Knoll challenged with the slightest smirk, though neither of Cormag's hypotheses were correct. They were the words of castle servants above the crash of fragile dishes, the whispers of nobles from the countryside when the emperor spoke of higher taxes, the rabid shouts of mad generals as their exiles were announced before the court. Knoll had never heard Duessel curse.

Cormag snorted. "Right. Are you certain you're up to coming out?" He gave a nod in the direction of Knoll's bound shoulder. "Natasha says she couldn't close it all the way in one go, isn't that right?"

"I plan on being cautious." Again, Knoll bent to finish collecting his supplies, but this time Cormag caught him by his uninjured shoulder.

"What, exactly, do you intend on doing carefully? Natasha told me you both tended to the worst of the injured and ill yesterday, and you're in no condition to train with Duessel, not with that wound."

"I thought I could go help Amelia keep watch at the edge of town. I can still work magic with one arm; it isn't that difficult."

Cormag sighed and shook his head. "I doubt that's the best of plans, but I can see you won't be deterred."

"Correct," Knoll answered, fingers clenching around the book in his hand. "I haven't come all this way to just sit inside and burden everyone else." It was bad enough Natasha had used supplies intended for the unfortunate on his wounds, that the possibility of some poor child going without thanks to his own clumsiness was far too real.

"I won't try to stop you, but I think Amelia can handle herself. Why not come help me with repairs around the village instead?" Knoll shoved the book into the sack and glanced up, eyebrow arched. "You look as if you could use some sunshine. Someone might mistake you for a revenant, the way you look now."

It took a moment for Knoll to catch on that he was being teased, even with the slight smirk on Cormag's face, and a moment longer to decide that he wasn't upset by it. There were worse things – worse people – to be compared to, after all. Long, ragged pale hair, soft voice and slender build, an affinity for the ancient arts – whenever such things were mentioned, Knoll considered setting his books alight.

"Repairs? Do you mean. . . carpentry, and the like?" The village hadn't appeared to be in much need of it, at least not compared to the piles of rubble and ruin they'd passed through before. The fiends creeping from the marshes beyond were far more concerning than holes in roofs and toppled fences, and neither was quite as large a threat as the foul smell that crept into once-clean rivers and strangled fields from within.

Cormag nodded. "There isn't too much to be done here, but for a beginner like you, that might be for the best. I could still use a hand – even if you can only use one."

Knoll understood the tease there immediately, but did not appreciate it that time. He needed no reminder of his numerous failures, his arm just the latest in a long string of them. It was still better than the thought of contending with Amelia and her endless stares, her uncomfortable questions, her need to ask him every once in a while about the dead, the darkness, the future, all the things he preferred to leave lurking in the back corners of his mind.

"I shall try," he answered at last, but he still lifted his bag of books onto his good shoulder, just in case. "But I make no promises regarding the quality of my workmanship. My right hand is. . . unsteady, and I am unskilled."

Cormag's smirk twitched up into a friendlier smile as he shook his head. "I'm sure I can fix any mistakes you make. You're a mage, not a carpenter. I don't expect perfection."

I do, Knoll thought, but he remained silent, only giving a nod in return. Perfection at that moment could not erase the flaws that had come before. Like black ink splattered on pristine cream, they were permanent, unerasable.

- - -

"We'll start right here," Cormag said, gesturing to the house before them. "It isn't too bad, but the roof could use repairs before winter comes. . . ."

Knoll knew Cormag was still talking, and he understood snippets about fences and doors and other details, but he was distracted by the familiar scent of vegetable soup and chamomile, the sight of a tiny yellowed garden at the window, the slight sound of moaning and sobs he swore he heard carried by the wind.

"You understand?" he heard Cormag ask, and by the slightly sharper tone, Knoll knew it wasn't the first time he'd been asked.

"Ah, yes. I understand."

"Perfect." Cormag clapped his good shoulder before going to the door and knocking. Knoll's stomach wrenched as it creaked open and the father he'd spoken with the previous day, somehow more haggard than he had been before, came outside. His gaze seemed to drift in Knoll's direction even as Cormag explained the repairs they'd be doing, and somehow Knoll managed to meet it with the coldest expression he could manage. Natasha, of course, was the image of hope, the wholesome healer sent to soothe the pain of the unfortunate. It was better for someone else, someone already tainted, to be the bearer of bad news.

Cormag finished speaking with the father and gestured for Knoll to come closer, thankfully only after the door had closed. "I'm going to start with the fence," he said, "and later, I'll bring Genarog over and we'll start on the roof." Knoll barely registered the thought of the wyvern, whose teeth and wings and horrible claws usually made him want to cower or scream. "You at least know the names of tools, don't you?"

"I've read about them," Knoll answered, perhaps a bit too curtly, and Cormag pressed his lips into a frown before dropping the bag of tools he'd picked up at the house by the collapsed fence. A high enough fence, Knoll recalled, would keep the slower, duller revenants at bay, a delay that could easily save a life in times like these. Had they time to stay longer and the funds to spare, he might have proposed the erection of one around the town itself. As it was, they had only the means to repair what was already there with the paltry supply the blacksmiths at the capitol had been able to spare.

Cormag grabbed for a hammer and explained nothing as he lifted a fallen post and began ramming it back into the soft earth. The steady rhythm of hammer on wood, the same as the quick succession of gasp, shudder, wheeze he swore he could hear through the open window, drove into his mind.

"So," Cormag said, glancing up from his work for a moment to look straight at Knoll. Knoll avoided his eyes and stared instead at the thick callouses on his large, tanned hands, the fine lines of scars dancing up his bare arms. "You and Natasha, are you. . . you know?"

"I don't know what you mean," Knoll replied, before grabbing another fencepost and trying to imitate Cormag's actions. His own rhythm was shaky, uneven, and each blow made little impact on the stubborn wood.

"I assumed. . . well, you work together all the time, don't you? I assumed you had to like her, the way you look at her."

Do I look at her? Knoll wondered, and tried to remember. He supposed he could recall easily the slope of her shoulders, the glint of her hair, the slight smile that seemed to dangle between mercy and mockery. One would have to look at her, at least from time to time, to recall such things. But then, there were things he hadn't seen in years that he could call up at a moment's notice, as if he'd seen them moments before. Perhaps Natasha was like that.

"I don't. . . dislike her," he ventured, as he tried to match the timing of his strokes to the steady gasps that continued in his mind. Cormag reached over and steadied the plank, a welcome addition to the shaky support his own free hand could offer. "But we work together because our disciplines complement each other. No other reason."

"Is that so?" He heard the faintest trace of laughter in Cormag's words. Friendly or derisive, he couldn't decide. "Well. Should you decide that it is more than 'don't dislike', I'm always here for advice."

"Don't we have more important matters to attend to than that?" Knoll finally gave up on the plank and stepped away, letting it jut to the side next to its neighbor. His breath came in short, wheezing gasps in the same rapid one two three rhythm as the ones in his mind. Cormag made no move to reach for the hammer and continue the work. Instead, his hand moved to Knoll's head and mussed his sweat-drenched hair, the same way he would do to Amelia at the end of a trying day.

"There's not enough time in this life to think like that. If you want something, take it today. It might not be there tomorrow."

There were so many things Knoll wanted, so many dreams he had left to fulfill, but he knew better than to think such things mattered in reality. He looked back to Cormag and caught the slightest hint of a frown playing on his lips.

"Why did you just do that?" he asked, trying in vain to fix his hair. "I'm not a child. Don't treat me like one."

"You're still young. Don't be so touchy." Cormag offered his hand in apology, but Knoll only stared at it, doubtful. Eventually, Cormag lowered his hand.

They fell into silence and stillness, alone with the gentle moan of the wind through the marshlands, the distant squawks of wild crows and magpies, the lingering whispers of labored breaths that floated between imaginings and reality, the same scraping sound that accompanied nearly every death Knoll could remember.

"It sounds a bit stupid, doesn't it, what I said?" Cormag said at last, his deep voice breaking the reverie. "You must think so. I suppose it's a bit trite, but. . . it's what my brother would have said to me." He reached out and took the hammer again, and as the pounding commenced, once more with that dreadful timing, Knoll tried not to think about grief.

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July 2011

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