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One solid day of traipsing through Mysidia's frigid countryside, and Lasswell was done. It was galling, what with not being able to fly into the wizard city, but at least that part was logical -- the reclusive Mysidians would open up with everything they had the moment they saw the airship coming. It was perfect sense, and Lasswell agreed with Sakura's tart summary without question ... it was the knock-on effects that he was loathing with as much passion as he managed to muster.

Finally, I can stop moving.

As soon as I heave myself upstairs, this will be it and I do not give one single solitary damn if I do not move again for a week. The others will have to simply accept that.

Surly thoughts, to be sure, but comforting enough in their own way while Lasswell eyed the inn's steep staircase like it was a serpent coiled to strike him. The worn wooden steps, with their soft magelights bobbing above to light the way, seemed to mock him and his carefully-crafted facade of normalcy -- because oh no, normal was the last thing he felt right that moment. Not with a reeling head and that pressing gnawing in his vitals that sapped his strength.

Come on, fool, it's one flight of stairs and then blessed oblivion.

Do you want to attract Jake's attention? Worse, Nichol's? Gods above, I'd never hear the end of it and he would never let it go ...

Nichol's sharp eye was the bane of his existence, and had been for nearly as long as the tactician had chosen to join them; longer, really than Lasswell cared to think about. The Warden noticed too many little details for someone trying to keep his secrets to himself, and it was a constant uphill battle to not be found out ...

Of course it's helped that he's been wrapped up in his own issues since we left Olderion --

Lasswell was wincing even before the thought ran to its conclusion, his hand twitching on the rail of the stairs. That thought was uncharitable, unfair, and he should feel ashamed for such a selfish thing, even kept to himself. Is this that he'd come to, then? Spite against someone who had lost so much and still accompanied himself and Rain on their mad, desperate quest?

Rain. Now there was an unpleasant reminder of his current situation.

... Which standing around like a sullen statue was doing absolutely nothing to remedy.

Pursing his mouth, Lasswell dismissed further thoughts of Rain, Nichol and anything other than crawling into a bed that hopefully had a heated brick or two in it and -- finally -- began his ascent up the wretched stairs. A furtive glance told him no one was in the hall to see him climb; muttering a curse, he leaned into the railing as he went, head spinning, hair spilling into his face. Why couldn't Darklord have dealt with this -- this weakness, this flaw -- when he inexplicably healed Lasswell's gut wound? It would have made everything so much easier, and since the Veritas seemed capable of pulling miracles out of the very aether, well, why not, then?

Unless he wants me to keep this pointed reminder of my shortcomings in all things, I suppose.

Or it's even beyond the capabilities of whoever or whatever the Veritas are.

And, curse it all, now I'm just rambling to myself.

Bad sign, that. Very bad, potentially humiliating sign. Once again Lasswell blanked out the offending mental meandering and concentrated on getting up to his room successfully and without -- he hoped -- looking too much like a fool; the last thing he needed was to be caught out.

Damn it, Rain, why did you have to do ... whatever it is with that horrible light again? It causes you agony and now I don't dare ...

The world tipped suddenly, nauseatingly sideways. Lasswell choked on a moan, scrabbling at the railing as his legs buckled beneath him; sideways just as abruptly because backwards and oh gods, this was going to hurt ...

Except the expected impact came too soon. An impact not with wooden stairs or the flagstone floor but with woolen cloth and solid flesh that grunted with the force of Lasswell's collision but did not budge from its own spot on the stairs.

Oh, no. No, anything but this.

A thousand impulses raced through Lasswell's mind in an instant, all revolving around each other, a panicked spiral: the fall, the impact, the merciless vertigo, the impossibility of this interloper being Lid, Sakura, Fina, even Nichol ... felt most like Jake, anyone else would have flown off their feet, even Rain most likely, oh hell no, gods why him --

In that same heartbeat one sturdy arm wrapped firmly around him; he found himself pulled close against his unexpected saviour as they anchored themselves against the railing. Steadied, now, if smashed against someone's chest -- someone, he saw as he eased his eyes open to half-mast, who was bulkier than Jake. And Jake did not dress in red and browns and black. Or have flesh nearly as pale as the snow outside. Startled, Lasswell forgot to keep up his mask of resigned control.

"Noel?! What are you -- why are you still -- I mean, I'll not complain about it but how ..."

"Shh. Let's get ourselves some less precarious footing first before I start telling stories, hm? Not that the answer's terribly exciting, but, well, you and your questions. You're as terrible as Nichol, I swear."

All this delivered in a jocular burr while Noel manhandled him bodily into something resembling an upright position, one arm slung securely around the white knight's neck. Burning with embarrassment, Lasswell tried once to stand on his own and tug away, failed utterly at both, and heaved a sigh that left him sagging, enervated already. Noel only chuckled and hooked his arm more firmly around Lasswell's waist; and, with the hapless swordsman now held firmly on his feet, Noel surged forward up the offending stairwell with not a single care for appearances or for Lasswell's feeble protests.

"I was -- it was just a dizzy spell, what do you think you're doing, Noel --"

"Don't be foolish, now, not after a 'dizzy spell' that nearly had you dashing your brains out."

The swift sidewise glance from the corner of one crimson eye was sternly reproving. Lasswell drew a breath to retort but Noel cut him off with a shake of his head, helped along by conveniently cresting the head of the stairs at just that moment. He glanced up the hallway, counted doors, and cocked his head to meet Lasswell's eyes a little more squarely.

And was still completely serene about the whole thing, the git.

"Which one's yours? I'm assuming you aren't sharing a room with anyone."

Gods no he wasn't, especially not right now. Lasswell squeezed his eyes closed against a wave of gnawing dizziness, took a few carefully controlled breaths, then pointed off to his right.

"... Third door on this side, and I'll have to get the key out of a pocket currently crushed against you. Monster mage that you are, and all that."

The return of that amused little chuckle was all the warning he had before a whirlwind of activity -- including having his coat perfunctorily ransacked -- ending in keys retrieved, corridors traversed, doors opened, and he himself delivered with surprisingly gentle alacrity onto his bed, head to pillow. Noel stood over him still, mind you, and despite the expression of concerned thoughtfulness on the man's face as he stood there, tapping his mouth with folded knuckles, Lasswell felt distinctly uneasy. Which, to be fair, was most likely the fault of his roiling head. He forced a wan smile onto his face.

"So, that explanation? I didn't expect you of all people --"

-- don't say 'visions' --

"-- would want to be lurking around Mysidia. What did you do with Rangifer, actually, now that I'm thinking about it?"

With his internal debate apparently over now, Noel -- promptly began peeling Lasswell's coat from him. And then moved to contending with Lasswell's boots, with no forthcoming explanation either. Lasswell kicked out once, making his head spin, found his shin caught in a grip like the most gentle of vises, and resigned himself to the continued attentions. Surely Noel suspected something, with all this sudden ... was fussing the right word? Lovely. Just positively wonderful. Why couldn't he just be ...

"... Hey now, don't fade out on me yet, I need to at least get you in the bed properly while I'm answering you."

Suddenly realizing Noel had been speaking the entire time: also embarrassing. He stayed silent; Noel rapped him lightly on one knee and went back to work.

"So, I guess let me backtrack just a bit: I'm quite happy to be nosing around Mysidia and that's roughly half the reason I'm still lurking around in public to begin with -- Mysidia's filled with off the wall arcane research, the terrain reminds me of my homeland before home was completely engulfed in miserable heat --"

-- and here Noel grinned cheekily at the now-staring Lasswell, fully expecting certain conclusions about that statement to sink in --

"-- and with so much insanity going on now, why not? I might have a few useful tricks to deploy, or at least can be a convenient wall. Or, as it turned out, a convenient barricade. Rangifer's parked in the Farplane, though; I don't trust the Mysidians that much. Someone's bound to dismantle it if I just left it hanging around in a stable or something."

Boots were now gone; and now snowy fingers tugged the collar of Lasswell's shirt looser. This time Lasswell didn't bother to try to avoid the attention, and that prompted Noel to fix a frankly critical gaze on him for a long, long moment, fingertips drumming on one hip, before jabbing a finger pointedly at Lasswell with his other hand.

"The other half of the reason happens to be you.

"I don't know if you tried to throw us all off the scent with that gut shot you took -- or should I strip you altogether and check for another one? -- or if it's entirely unrelated, but you've been on a slow downward slide ever since Olderion. Since not all that long after Rain had that light ignite in him and you sat up with him for days, more precisely. You've a bad habit of pushing yourself in favour of him from even before you spilled half your spleen, Lasswell, and in my own, ornery opinion? He's been taking advantage of that if this is the state it leaves you in.

"You look damn near exsanguinated, do you realize that? You're nearly as pale as I am ... what's so funny?"

He couldn't help himself. Lasswell clamped a hand (that only shivered a little) over his mouth, shaking with repressed laughter. Noel eyed him dubiously, pressed the back of one hand against Lasswell's cheek -- no fever, anyway -- and flicked the coverlets over his 'patient'. The soft whumph of the bedclothes settling into place for some inexplicable reason made Lasswell give up on containing his mirth, but his laugh had a pained edge to it. He couldn't help himself.

"... It's not Rain. No, it's nothing Rain's done -- what he has done had helped more than anyone here realizes. I owe him -- I owe Sir Raegen -- so much.

"'Exsanguinated', I look like, is it. I suppose that's appropriate enough ... But, Noel?"

The amusement evaporated. Noel cocked his head; Lasswell caught him by the wrist.

"Thank you for worrying about -- all this. And for keeping my skull from cracking like an egg."

With a shake of his head Noel brushed aside the thanks, growing concern crimping his brows as he studied Lasswell.

"Always and any time. Now, you get some sleep -- and stay in that bed! -- and I'll come back up in a bit with something for you to get down your throat. You don't eat enough either, lately, and don't think it hasn't been noticed. I'll lock the door, and something comes up, I'll push the key underneath so I don't disappear into the aether with it. Does that sound workable?"

It certainly did; Lasswell was half drifting before Noel had even finished the impromptu list of instructions and didn't feel compelled to argue them, the combination of warmth and continued vertigo drawing him down into unconsciousness despite his gnawing insides.

Sleep sounded like a very, very good idea, yes.

He barely marked Noel's soft, rueful little chuckle, and the slight rocking of the bed as the white knight moved off. He missed altogether the sound of the door lock clicking into place.

-*-

Wrapped in warmth and enervated exhaustion, Lasswell slept. Slept through everything that happened all around him -- including a wild argument between Lid and Jake, out in the hallway -- and through the click of the door lock releasing. he slept through the padding of booted feet across the floor of his room, the weight of someone carefully settling themselves on the side of the bed he wasn't huddled up on.

He snapped awake in an instant, insides roiling, at the scent of warm, coppery --

"I don't have to wake you up, I take it? That's perfect. Can you sit up a bit, do you think, or would you rather some help?"

The words barely registered at first, buried under the omnipresent vertigo and a wave of gnawing hunger that nearly made him physically ill. Only years of stubborn self-control -- and the wretched weakness -- kept him still; that and the horror at being found out. Because surely his reaction, his expression, the very fact that ...

How --

"Lasswell, please. I'd prefer if I didn't spatter all over the blankets waiting for you; say the word and I'll help you any way you need. Just answer me, if you would?"

Forcing himself to focus, Lasswell attempted to heave himself upright and failed, falling back against the pillows like a puppet with severed strings as a wave of weakness turned his muscles to water and left him sprawled and all but helpless, staring at Noel through a tangle of his own hair. Too long; he definitely had waited too long, pushed himself too far. And Noel was right there -- right there, seated on the bed beside him, white brows crimping with concern.

Seated beside him with one hand cupped like a chalice, an offering-bowl, welling with the coppery crimson warmth that flowed freely down that snow-pale forearm.

Alarmed, ravenous, Lasswell fought harder to -- sit up? round on Noel? flee? he wasn't sure -- and stilled only when Noel dropped his near hand, the unbloodied one, onto his shoulder like a stone.

"Don't. You're only harming yourself; let me lift you if you don't have the strength right now."

"... Noel ... What are you ..."

"None of that now. This is what you're lacking, isn't it? Are you going to drink, if I lift you?"

His face burned with horrified shame, helped not at all by the calm concern in those eyes -- eyes as scarlet as the welling rivulets of blood that indeed threatened to stain the coverlets. How much was Noel already bleeding? What possessed him to do this -- how did he even know about --

"Lasswell. Please."

A convulsive swallow; he squeezed his eyes closed. To be found out, and this monstrous weakness known ...

"Lasswell."

"I ..."

"Let me do this for you."

"I ..."

It was too much; too tempting, too present. With a pained little cry he stopped struggling against Noel's weight pinning him in place, and in a heartbeat a steady, strong arm slipped under his shoulders, lifted him from the pillows, cradled him as Noel brought his other hand -- and its scarlet-wet gift -- to his mouth as if offering him water.

And Lasswell drank deeply, desperately, and cursed himself as he did so.

If Noel noticed the angry murmurs he made no outward sign, instead concentrating on keeping Lasswell upright and his trailing hair away from potential stains, and occasionally pumping the muscles in his arm to keep the flow from carefully-placed incisions running freely. No more heavy droplets had a chance to seep towards the bedclothes, either; the moment the bloody pool in Noel's cupped palm had drained dry, Lasswell's attention shifted to the wounds themselves, to drink directly from the source.

-*-

"Has it helped at all?"

It felt like he'd spent an eternity drawing the life from the stolid white knight before Lasswell finally lifted his head away. Noel, still supporting him, leaned sideways slightly to snatch from the night-table first a rag to tie off his arm and then -- having clearly planned all this, damn him -- a healing draught to knock back down his own throat. Lasswell wiped at his mouth, shakily, and then without thinking nibbled his fingertips clean while Noel chuckled quietly.

"I'll take that as a no, then? Or ...?"

He didn't try to lift himself from his cradled posture against the heavier man's shoulder; the vertigo was fading, it was true, but he still felt enervated. Improving, certainly, but still weak and now also drowsy and, if the truth be told, not terribly inclined to move.

"Mm, no -- yes, and no. The world isn't spinning around me any longer, but --"

"But once isn't going to be enough because you've strung yourself out to nothing trying to avoid the inevitable. And don't try to demur, not after all this."

There really wasn't much point in arguing the matter. But that hardly put Lasswell off altogether -- and now he could marshal his flagging wits, and along with a clearer head came fear and humiliation to march up his spine and lodge painfully in his throat again. Twisting in Noel's embrace, he tried to capture his attention. How --

"'All this' -- how did you find out? If Rain --"

Noel shook his head.

"Rain has nothing to do with it, except for my new assumption that he's been your source up until Olderion. I had a few suspicions on my list as possibilities of what exactly was happening while you've slowly faded, and Sakura filled in the rest. You didn't have much chance to hide from her, you realize."

Of course. The perils of traveling with a seven hundred year old arcanist. Really (and with great ruefulness) Lasswell couldn't be surprised that Sakura was how he was found out, now that he considered it for a moment and with a clearer head. The revelation prompted a sigh, in turn prompting a questioning lift of a shaggy white brow; he only shook his head. Noel tsked.

"She's not inclined to mention it, if that helps. I need to ask a question myself now, though -- if Rain knows about this quirk of yours, how did you get yourself into these straits to begin with? Aside from your usual stubbornness, I mean."

"Because I refused him after Olderion."

Lasswell studied his hands, not particularly wanting to elaborate even as the words tumbled out of his mouth.

"He was in too much agony for so long, to be needing to deal with my preying on him. Afterwards, I didn't -- I don't -- want to take the risk of disrupting whatever it was Fina did to bring that whatever-it-is under control. Rain is important and I can manage --"

"Nonsense."

The sharpness in that one barked word left Lasswell blinking up at Noel, startled. Crimson eyes sparked.

"You've as much importance as anyone else here. I'll substitute for Rain, if you're going to continue to be stubborn on his behalf, for as long as it's necessary."

"Noel --!"

"No arguments. With advance planning --"

-- Noel gestured at the night-table with its impromptu tourniquet, the empty potion flask, the bloody knife resting on a folded scarf --

"-- I should have no more problems than I assume Rain's had all this time. Years, am I right? And this is only a temporary body to begin with. I'll be fine.

"Let me give this to you. You deserve it as much as anyone else might. Stop maiming yourself."

So much ferociousness in Noel's voice, pitched low lest there be lurkers in the hallway. Lasswell wanted to protest again, but the words died in his throat, stung by shame and gratitude at the same time; Noel didn't ask why any of this was, or how -- not that Lasswell had any answers, nor had Sir Raegen ever shared any revelations, had he known them -- but simply offered. Without hesitation, despite, well, everything.

And Lasswell found, right that moment, that he wanted to say yes this time, but those words also failed him. So the slightest of nods had to do; for now, he was enough to let his guard down enough to rest.

He drifted off to sleep soon enough after that, still cradled by Noel's encircling arm.