It’s dark when Armand wakes. The night lends a sickly, chilled cast to the scrunched-up balls of paper perpetually adorning his floor - and, not for the first time, he wonders abstractedly if he ought to consider sweeping them up. In all honesty, though, he’s worried he might end up discarding something important: at this point, he might as well admit that his floor has become his de facto library. Old habits die hard.
It’s out of his peripheral vision that he sees it: a shadow, out of place.
A figure in his chair.
“You know, they invented bookshelves for a reason,” a familiar voice smirks from the shadows.
Armand jolts upright, blood pounding. He scrabbles uselessly for his sword - as if there'd be any point, even if he did have the foresight to stash it next to his bed.
“You're dead,” he says. Rather reasonably, he thinks.
“Am I?” the shadowy figure looks down, “I hadn't noticed.”
“Is now really the time to be disingenuous?” he huffs, and can't suppress the urge to roll his eyes. “Penelope. Please. What the actual living fuck.”
“The exact opposite unfortunately, Armand. And without the fuck too, if I'm quite honest,” she stands up and walks into the dim light, her red hair just about lit and her many wounds open but not bleeding, her skin pale, “I just wanted to thank you. You know. For stuff.”
Even after all this time, there's something in him that can't look away: can't shake himself out of this vision any more than he can tear his gaze from the awful, shredded flesh - from the hair that still sends a twist of shock through him every time it catches the light.
“For stuff,” he repeats, dully. It might be a question.
“For, you know, getting Booker to not kill me… saying we can work together, even if, well… it was short lived,” she smiles a morbid smile, “Get it? Short lived?”
He flatly refuses to laugh. “It's always short-lived,” he tells her instead - entirely aware of how petulant it sounds. Utterly indifferent about this fact. “You managed to run away every single time. Why do you think that is? That we could never be allies for long - never be family? I thought it was circumstance. Just the way events played themselves out - but there's more to it: I've a family of my own now, and it was almost… a trade-off.” His knuckles blossom white against the edge of the bed. “As if we weren't allowed to be happy at the same time.”
“You're absolutely right, Armand,” Penelope says, deadpan, walking closer to almost whisper, “You have to kill Astreus to bring me back.” She pauses for a moment, waiting for a laugh, before adding, “Too soon?”
“Would you take this seriously for a single gods-damned second?” he practically explodes at her. “I mean it. How'd you end up making such a mess? Francesco and Astraeus mean everything to me - I love them so much I don't know how to cope with it. Have you ever felt that way for anyone? Anyone at all?”
“What, somebody I'd die to save?” she says, her voice becoming colder with the sarcasm, “Gosh, Armand, no, I can't think of anyone like that. I can't think of anyone who's changed my life so much I feel so strongly about I'd throw away everything else for.”
Armand makes a frustrated noise. “Devotion's different. Gods are different. Not lesser, mind, but that's more like an ideal - it doesn't count in this instance. I should know.”
“That might be the way you see it, but to me they're one and the same. Sure, you might class your relationship with the Warrior and your relationship with Francesco differently… well, actually, so did I. One I saw as a means to an end, and the other was someone I wanted… well, wanted to know. I wanted to meet her, I wanted to talk to her… and, well, that idea ended up being a bit dead in the water.”
Armand sighs. “I don't worship Francesco. Can you imagine how insufferable he'd be? And for that matter, I don't understand how you could have known him for that long, and not - like, not even a little… but I guess I'm glad you didn't.” He shakes his head. This is getting irrelevant. “The point is, I wish I could know the Warrior too. Speak to her, but more importantly, understand her. That hasn't quite panned out either. It rarely does, with gods.” He pauses. “Your problem, incidentally, is you never cared enough for the people you wanted to save. A major failing, in a priest.”
“You never did come to the Church, did you?” she sits herself down on the edge of the desk, “I did care. Even when I was still working under the guise of a Leader Priest, I cared for the people I was meeting. People that were thrown away by the Leader Church, people on the streets, people who were like me after… well. After Thys. I always cared.”
He glares at her - hoping to convey 'get off my escritoire - that's antique' with his eyes alone. “It never felt that way. All I got was the distinct impression that she was all you cared about. Gods - you were even prepared to shut off every single one of your emotions when it suited you, just to be more like her!”
He hadn't recognised that particular twist to the narrative for what it was until recently. Now, charged with the weight of knowledge he never asked for, it's unmistakeable.
“Of course she was at the centre of everything I did, Armand. Well, notable exception excepted…” she looks down at the floor briefly, though her eyes catch on Armand's chest, “I was trying to emulate her, and I guess I didn't do great, but she helped people… people were helped by me, just look at Simon… Okay, don't look at Simon too hard, but he was doing good before… Well…”
Armand stays very, very still. “So you're not going to deny the emotions thing. Interesting.” Slowly, he relaxes his grip on the edge of the bed. “Anyway - Simon's a feckless, thieving ingrate who acts towards no higher purpose than his own godsdamned gain. I don't have to look too hard to recognise that.”
“Well, yes, I was still working on him when Hoskins happened… and then I happened. Look, I'm not saying he's a shining example but he was doing a damn sight better in my care than out on the streets.”
Armand throws up his hands. She's dead. She's dead, and still she can drive him to distraction. “What do you want me to say? That you were a martyr? Paragon of benevolence? I believed in you once, and look what I got for my pains.”
“I'd like you to say where you're going to go from here, to be honest. What are you going to tell people? What are you going to tell my nephew?”
“What I tell my son isn't for you to decide,” snaps Armand. “And it's just as much Francesco's decision as mine. I don't see you petitioning him via weird postmortem dream visions.” He shrugs. “What do you want me to tell people?”
“That's not the question I asked, Armand. What are you going to tell people about me? That I'm a monster? A martyr? An idiot cousin whose hair totally didn't turn red because I set it on fire stop asking me about that?”
“Why would you possibly care?” demands Armand, feeling himself grow incensed. “You're dead, Penelope.”
“Because, dear cousin, you obviously care,” she says, simply, still sat (defiantly) on the edge of the desk.
There is a pause.
“How'd you figure that,” he asks - through gritted teeth.
She waves her hands, “With my magical post-mortem dark and mysterious Traitor powers,” before smiling, “Or you just make it incredibly obvious. Dear cousin, for someone who's so keen in politics, and with Francesco Graves, you are so very easy to read. I'm dead and I can still read you.”
Armand closes his eyes exasperatedly, leaning back against the headrest. “Then clearly,” he says, without looking at her, “you've already got your answer. If I'm such an open book, why even bother asking? Can't you - I don't know, divine what you want to know through, like, the wrinkles round my eyes, or the precise angle of my frown?” As an afterthought, he adds: “Transparency's a boon, in politics. And in being with Francesco, for that matter.”
“Ahuh,” Penelope says, thoroughly unconvinced, “I said you were easy to read, but that's no use if you don't know what you're meant to be saying. I reckon if you don't say it aloud then even you aren't sure what you're going to say about me until you actually say it. See, I've got my 'Armand' speech all worked out for the afterlife if I ever get there.” She grins, “It's great, you'd hate it.”
“Your 'Armand' speech,” he prompts, flatly.
“My 'Armand' speech,” she replies, simply, “It's a speech about Armand.”
“Right, thanks - oddly, I'd got that. What kind of speech? For whom?”
“I don't know for whom, I'm hardly an expert on the Acryn afterlife considering my categorical failure to go there. Anyway, you're distracting from the point, given far more mortal people are likely to hear what you've got to say: what are you going to tell people?”
“If you're going to slander me before sundry unknow denizens of the spiritual plane,” says Armand, caustically, “then I reckon it's my right to know.”
Nonetheless, for perhaps the first time, he finds himself actively considering Penelope's question.
“… I've never done anything other than tell the truth about you,” he says, eventually. “Why should that change now? When - if - I speak to Astraeus, it'll be the truth again. Unvarnished. He can come to his own judgement.”
“…you will tell him not to chase his cousins up trees though, right?”
“I'll tell him not to go back on deals.”
Penelope snorts, “Surely that's literally the purview of his other father?”
“We have very compatible views on parenting,” lies Armand.
“Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse?”
Armand squints at her. “Neither Francesco nor I have any intention of dying.”
“None of us really have an intention, Armand, it just sort of happens,” Penelope replies, poking one of the wounds in her chest in a morbidly curious fashion, “Did I leave a pretty corpse?”
Armand flinches. “No,” he says, coldly. “You were mutilated beyond description, and bloodied into unrecognisability. Your rotting cadaver probably hasn't stopped twitching. And you did have an intention, you did, so cut the 'you-too-will-come-to-this' crap.”
“I had an intention, sure, but you were the one who pushed me,” she says, her eyes fixed on him.
Silence. It is a couple of seconds before Armand remembers to breathe.
“And who might push you, hmm?” she asks, taking the silence to carry on, “You don't know. One day you're there looking after Astreus and the next… oops, there was a cause to die for. I'm not complaining - She's back, that's all that matters to me - but I'm just saying: get off your high horse of not-dying, because you're a lot more fragile than you think.”
“I didn't know,” Armand hears himself say - having apparently found his voice somewhere. “I didn't know what I was telling you to do. Or - or gods, maybe I did. I don't know. Did you even realise what I went through, the first time?” He feels faintly nauseated. “I'm never going to let that happen to Astraeus. Unlike you, I've got people to live for - not just idols to die for.”
Penelope shrugs, “So long as telling yourself that helps you sleep at night.”
“What do you want from me?” he finds himself demanding. “Some kind of statement? Admission of - of guilt? Why are you here?”
Penelope moves suddenly, staring Armand in the eyes, “That's for you to work out. This is all in your head, after all.”
Armand flinches a little, then forces out a laugh. “Well then. Clearly I have a subconscious craving for idiotic lectures and accusatory rants that can only be satisfied via ghostly visitation. Great.”
He's not entirely sure he doesn't know what it is. He has so much he ought to have told her - and absolutely none of it pertinent or particularly wise.
“I'm done with you,” he lies, instead. “What could there possibly be left to say? I'm not about to let you -” mess with your mind, Francesco had said, and it's amazing how wrong Francesco can be, right up to the point where he's not, “- attempt to manipulate me anymore.”
“For pity's sake, Armand,” she says, her face despairing, “I'm not trying to manipulate you. I'm trying to get you to open up – and without the help of a knife this time.”
“Well what could you possible hope to hear from me?” he demands - standing, rounding on her. “How I was in love with you, but now I'm not? How I used to think we could help each other, learn from each other - but now I don't? How I was an idiot to think any kind of apology could make amends for what I did when we were stupid kids - not when you could use it as a tool to bludgeon me with when practical? Enlighten me, Penelope. What would be the point of any of those things?”
Penelope stands tall, despite the tirade and grins childishly, “Haaa, you said you were in love with me.”
Armand gives her a level look. “Seriously?”
“See, you're opening up already!”
“Shut up. My point was, all of that stuff is totally irrelevant.”
“So go on then, what is relevant?”
Armand gives what is not so much an eyeroll as it is a full-bodied exercise in extreme derision. “How the fuck am I meant to judge what'll interest you? All that stuff, you knew already. I can only assume.”
“It's irrelevant if it will only interest me. Go on, you've got me here, what's of interest to you? What do you want to say?”
Don't patronise me. Is what he's meant to say. Is what he tries to say, in fact - but all of a sudden, halfway through, it's too much: she's dead, and it's too much, and before he can speak, the tears are hot against his lashes, and nothing in the world could make him blink them away, acknowledge this idiocy -
“Don't - damn it…”
Her brow furrows into a frown, “Hey, come on, don't… oh Armand, come on…”
“What?” Audible sniff. “I'm not. I'm not doing anything.”
“Of course you're not,” she says, hopping off the desk and sitting down on a chair, “but since you might not get a chance to continue to not do anything again any time soon… that's okay.”
“That's okay?” he repeats, derisively, swiping his sleeve over his eyes - and okay, fuck, she definitely saw that. “I don't need you to tell me what's okay! Gods - it's like I'm more cut up about this than you are. You don't have to worry about anything anymore. You just get to sit there, smug in your martyrdom.”
“I think if anyone here's cut up about this-” she starts to say, but pauses and stops. “Trust me,” she says, “'smug' is not the right word for endless torture: so at least do me a favour and stop torturing yourself.”
“Oh, like you care whether I do or not!” The tears are threatening to spill over, and it's everything he swore he'd never become - depths to which he promised himself he'd never sink. “I'd have thought you'd rather relish it, all things considered.”
“I thought we discussed that.”
“In general, sure. But don't tell me you ever cared about what happened to me.”
“Well, no, not until the end. Not that we knew it was going to be the end, mind, but the end nevertheless,” she says, biting her lip slightly as she does. “And you're doing it again, Armand: dancing round the issue with your clever words, quietly avoiding answering what you need to answer yourself: what do you want to say? One shot, one chance, and let's be honest we both know this is for you far more than it is for me.”
Armand straightens. He's painfully tense, he realises - nails biting into the flesh of his palms. “You're right. It is. And so, frankly, there's nothing to say.” He's looking at her now - actually seeing her. Unflinching. Calm. “I said everything I needed to back by your coffin.” Assuming this vision - this spectre - is even aware of that. “'Thank you' would be insincere. 'I love you'… you'd take it the wrong way. And that's the sort of thing you only say once.”
Penelope looked at him, her eyes, still red from the blood mannequin she once was, looking into his eyes, boring into his soul, and then she smiled: “You really really aren't that arse of a cousin I used to know.”
Armand isn't sure whether to take offence at this, or to laugh. He ends up doing an awkward sort of sputter: indignant, yet undignified.
“The city tends to do that to you,” he says, cautiously. “Political marriage too, oddly. If it doesn't send you the other way instead.”