warnings for blood mention, death mention, a brief discussion of a suicide attempt, implications of self-harm and moderate swearing
The chill in the air isn't that different from what Freddie's used to; the latitude of the Antonian archipelago and Scotland are incredibly similar, after all. The leaves form coloured carpets on the pavements, but Freddie picks out the gold ones first. He's always looked for gold first, always looked for the colour of victory.
Gold's such an obnoxious colour, Freddie thinks. Especially the garish one that he saw so much as a child. He understands the precious worth of gold as an element, but he's come to hate the colour. There's just no point in the pursuit of victory when he doesn't even care about that anymore. He doesn't care about the Victory Ground anymore, doesn't care about any of their fucked up ideals, doesn't care about their war games.
Freddie thinks of Major Mendelssohn and Captain Faulkner, the bound pair who took their shot to get out of the clutches of the Victory Ground when they were both seventeen. Freddie remembers them standing at each other's backs in the clogged dugout of Company B on Freddie's right side, remembers them laughing with each other as dawn began to break when he went over to ask if everything was okay after the attack earlier that day, remembers them attempting to argue with Lieutenant Colonel Spencer and failing, remembers the sound of their frantic voices as they entered the dugout when everything was far too cold.
As the only links Freddie's ever had to his father, he tried to keep in contact with them, but once the war was over, both of them disappeared into the ether, disappeared into such a vast amount of nothing that Freddie's not sure that they were even real. They couldn't have been real; the Victory Ground wouldn't have let them keep their ranks after their desertion. They couldn't have been real; Freddie knows for a fact that Adam Faulkner is long dead, has been for the last fifteen years, and Samuel Mendelssohn is long gone, moved to Scotland where he inevitably found a nice wife. A nice wife who bore him a tall, strapping boy, Scottish to the core.
Samuel Mendelssohn raised a man that was always better than Freddie will ever be, one that offered to let Freddie stay with him indefinitely without even skipping a beat. Freddie should call him Sam, really, but he finds that he can't, finds that every time he tries, his mind aggressively rejects the notion and returns to referring to him as Adam. Accepting charity from him still makes Freddie a little uneasy; it still makes Freddie uneasy to accept charity from anyone, but he's got nowhere else to go. He's turned his back on the Victory Ground, not being able to stand that environment any longer. Andrew Frederick Darcy still sounds ridiculous, but it's the only thing Freddie could think of when they asked him to rename himself. His mother makes up half of who he is, after all. Jeremy Reynolds may have been an absolute arse, but Aoife Darcy was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed stalwart. Sometimes, when he's trying to sleep, he swears he can hear her faint Gaelic lullabies, even though he doesn't remember her at all.
As for Andrew? Well, suffice it to say that Freddie's come to respect the man who dared to love a Spencer, who paved the way for everything Freddie has done in his life, who took the hardest blows first so that by the time Freddie repeated his grandfathers' mistakes, the sting of the cane wasn't so harsh. He knows that there's a second-cousin with the same name on the seas somewhere, but they'll never share the same surname, so Freddie thinks nothing much of it.
Freddie drifts for a while. It's nice, knowing that there's no one here that will scold him for doing so, no one who will tap incessantly at their wrist, pushing him towards the end of the world. He just drifts, looking up at the buildings around him. He can't deny that they're pretty, but he also can't help but think that they're inefficient, his Victory Ground upbringing kicking in again. That's all he can really say about Edinburgh or the parts of it he's seen, at least. Pretty, but pointless.
He figures that he may as well get out of the rain. He doesn't mind it, but he'd rather not risk dying of hypothermia, so he ducks into the nearest shop, buys a map, and waits for the brunt of the rain to pass. The patter of the drops as they fall remind him of those lengthy tired days in those cold, cold trenches, and it's always been a calming sound to Freddie. If he could hear the rain, then for that moment there was no gunfire, no landmines, no planes overhead armed to the teeth with bullets or bombs.
He locates the street he stands in on the map, then traces the nearest route to Adam's house with a finger, still shaking from the wind outside. It's only about a mile away, not far. But Freddie's been waiting a lifetime for any sort of safety; even now, as he's so close, he can't quite believe this is happening, has to pinch himself to make sure that it's real.
He glances at the clock in the corner. Just gone four o'clock. The rain hasn't eased up yet and doesn't seem to anytime soon, so Freddie takes the time to peruse the shelves of the little corner shop, wondering if he should be getting anything for Adam. He probably should, shouldn't he? He peruses the shop some more, wondering if he should buy flowers or chocolate. Maybe a thank you card. Is that excessive? Freddie doesn't know.
"Late to meet your girlfriend and want something to make up for it, eh?" says a voice behind him. Freddie whirls around to see the old man behind the counter piercing right through him.
Freddie plasters on a thin fake smile and nods. "Something like that." Not strictly true, but he can't bring himself to explain the real situation. The less he has to talk, the better.
The man clicks his tongue. "I thought so. I can spot when you young ones in love from a mile away." If only, Freddie thinks. If only that were true. In a way, he'll never stop being in love, never be rid of Alec's bright smiles from where they're burned into his mind. But that was almost four years ago, and even though Jack's not with him anymore, Freddie can still hear his voice, the devil on his shoulder that tells him that he's worthless. Pathetic, it says. You haven't stopped grieving over something that wasn't real? As much as Freddie tries to convince himself, as much as he remembers those photographs, he can't quite get rid of those thoughts.
"In my experience, flowers are your best bet," says the old man, causing Freddie to turn around to face him. "Of course, that depends on how long you've been together."
"Four years," Freddie hears himself mutter. "It's fine, I don't need anything. We're not together anymore. I just have nowhere else to go."
"Ah, young heartbreak," replies the old man. "I should have known. Well, feel free to stay here until the rain stops or until we shut at eight, whichever comes first."
Freddie nods and begins to turn back to the shelves, before whipping around again to face the man. Now that he's struck up a conversation, he may as well ask. "I am late to meet an old friend. I was wondering what you'd recommend?"
"Chocolates are your safest option," the old man replies. "If you haven't seen them for a long time and don't know what they like." Freddie nods, peruses the shelves again and picks up a box that's not too expensive.
"Do you have any blank cards? And may I borrow a pen?" he asks, as he's making his way up to the counter to pay. The old man produces a box from underneath the counter, and Freddie picks one with some blue flowers on it. He pays with a five-pound note and feels the unfamiliar sensation of the coins as they clink in his palm. He's never had any reason to deal with money; the clothes on his back and the food that lined his stomach has always been paid for with blood, sweat, and tears.
He scrawls a quick message in the card.
Thank you. For everything.
He puts the pen back down on the counter and seals the card inside the envelope, scrawling Adam's name on the front of the envelope. Tucking the card and chocolates into his rucksack, he turns to face the rain outside. It's slowing up, but if it doesn't stop within the next hour, Freddie might just have to make a break for it.
He looks back at the clock. Five o'clock - how is it five o'clock already? He's going to have to go, just going to have to run before it gets too dark. Freddie knows how to defend himself if need be; the years of military training never really leave you, after all. But if he can avoid it, he'd rather not have to walk those unfamiliar streets in the darkness. He fears somewhat that he might break down if he does, break down like he did last year, break down in a back alley where there's no one to help him.
He turns around to the old man. "Thank you for all your help. I really appreciate it."
The old man nods and smiles like he's seen this all too many times before. His old and wizened eyes pierce through all the layers Freddie has, and Freddie knows that they've never met, but he can't help but feel an affinity for this old man he's barely known for an hour. "You're more than welcome, son. Come back anytime, and good luck with meeting your friend."
Freddie smiles. "Have a good evening, sir."
"Call me Andrew," says the old man.
Freddie returns the favour. "It's Andrew," he replies, feeling the unfamiliar name roll off his tongue, smoother than Helena ever did. "My name, I mean. But people usually call me Freddie."
Andrew nods and smiles again; Freddie can't quite tell what's going through his mind. "Common name up in these parts," he says, even though Freddie's put on his mother's Irish accent, so it's clear he's not a Scotsman. Neither of them mentions it, though, so Andrew carries on. "I hope to see you again, Freddie."
"You too, sir," Freddie replies. He can't quite bring himself to refer to Andrew by his name, can't quite bring himself to address his elder as his equal. He hates that his Victory Ground upbringing has kicked in again, but Andrew doesn't seem to mind. Freddie's about three steps away from putting all the clues together and coming to a realisation, but he's far too exhausted and his brain doesn't want to function. When he's safe and dry, he'll figure it out.
Freddie checks the map and his route once more. Then he makes a break for it.
Freddie knows how to run in the rain. The morning run held no exceptions, not even in a torrential downpour. He's done ten miles in the rain at seventeen-years-old, has done the endlessly stretching hour on the trench steps that replaced it as he waited to see if the Carians would fire, as they did more than a century prior. The world moved on, but the Western Front was stuck in the same old ways it had always known. After all of that, going back to a mile feels like nothing, is absolutely nothing at all.
Freddie runs, past those ornate buildings and people who briefly ask him if he's alright and an old lady at a bus stop who tells him that he's going to fall, but Freddie just keeps running. He knows he won't fall; he's spent too long running on slippery tracks and muddy banks, spent too long suppressing everything he is, spent too long trying to stay afloat in that hellhole that he can't help but keep going, keep running even when everything screams at him to stop.
The cold starts setting into his aching bones as he has to slow down to check street signs, doubling back when he realises he's taken a wrong turn, despite all the time he had in Andrew's corner shop to double, triple check the route. He can't help but kick himself for not being able to do even this tiny little thing right, for prolonging the agony far longer than it needs to be. But in a way, Freddie doesn't mind enduring the pain, because he deserves this, doesn't he? As much as he tries to remember Thea's words as she took him by the shoulders and shook some sense into him that day in the hospital, as much as he tries to shut his brain down and just run, he can't. He just can't. He runs, and he endures the cold because the pain of it brings sweet relief to his body.
He makes it eventually, to the address that Adam gave him, to the place where he'll be able to rest at last. After a lifetime of being constantly on the move, being constantly pushed towards a larger goal, being constantly aware of the relentless darkness nipping at his heels.
Freddie's had an entire life of loss, of losing and losing and losing until he'd lost everything and the only thing he had left to lose was himself - and by himself, he means the fragile patchwork of skin and bone that houses the remnants of his torn up soul. There's nothing but fragments, at this point; as Freddie lost everything, he'd lost most of who he was, too. Until there was nothing left but that broken body sitting alone in the officers' quarters of Company A of the 10th Battalion on the Western Front, waiting for death.
Somehow, he'd managed to fuck up trying to die. He's still not sure how he feels about that.
But as he lifts the bronze door knocker, noting again that it's far too ornate for the purpose it serves, and lets it fall again, Freddie feels something strangely akin to relief.
The door swings open. The cold finally overcomes him, and Freddie blacks out.