It was eerie the way the world had changed for Dar. Laying on the ground near the dying fire, he stared up at the stars and listened--to nothing. He hadn't realized before how much he actually heard, even when he wasn't listening. For Dar, the forests had been filled with noise and feeling and hunger and excitement. The thoughts and the calls of bird and beast were as clear to him as Tao's steps tripping beside him.
And now...now he couldn't sleep because of the terrible, echoing silence--the feeling of being utterly alone. Abandoned.
The stars blurred, and Dar angrily turned on his side away from them. His eyes burned with salt as he looked over the sparking embers at Tao's sleeping form. Tao had insisted on sleeping on the far side of the fire to give Dar the distance the Eiron felt he needed to think. The young man's back was to the fire, huddled in a ball to conserve its warmth. With Tao, Dar had found a companionship beyond the bond he had shared with his animal friends. Even without the ability to speak mind-to-mind as Dar had with the beasts, Tao was able to understand his friend's feelings and thoughts with only a quick glance. Even the demon Iara couldn't take away that special bond.
Dar wasn't alone. The animals may have abandoned him, but Tao was still here. He wasn't alone. Dar repeated it to himself, over and over in his head, and after a while it did relieve some of the emptiness. His tears, though half-formed, wouldn't easily be blinked away and forgotten.
In the silence, a noise arose. At first it was quiet as a distant storm, but like a storm it picked up in volume and intensity until it shattered the quietude of the forest. It was not unlike the mewling of a wounded cub, the heart-breaking sound of something in intense pain calling out for help. Dar wanted to go to the creature that made such a anguished noise and relieve its pain, but he found he couldn't move; his body shook and trembled beyond his control. The noise...if the silence had been terrible, this noise was tragic.
It wasn't until Tao's face swam into view that Dar realized the noise was coming from himself. He could feel the strong hands hold his shoulders and turn him onto his back, and he could hear the worry in Tao's voice as he checked for nonexistent wounds, but it was as though it was happening far away from him--as though his every sense was wrapped up in thick furs, preventing him from feeling anything. Iara stole his ability to sense and communicate with the animals--was she now trying to steal the rest of his senses as well?
In a total panic, he sat up and reached out to hold on tight to his only link. The smaller form of his best friend came easily into his arms, allowing the crushing hug, even returning it. Dar buried his face in Tao's chest, gasping shuddering breaths between sobs as he clutched at his solid body. Tao's scent of herbs and sea water filled Dar's nose and mouth. The stable warmth of his arms circled Dar like a protective cloak. Little by little, the intense panic left him; the thick furs of his own fears released his senses, and once again he could hear, see, smell, touch as he could before.
Tao gently wiped the hair back out of Dar's face, whispering calming words to him. "It's okay. She won't hurt you anymore. I won't let anything hurt you. It's okay. It's okay." Dar relaxed as the litany of reassuring nonsense washed over him. He didn't move away when it stopped; it was too comforting to feel Tao like this again. When had Dar allowed himself to simply be held by Tao and be comforted, without eventually turning it around so he was the one doing the comforting? To his memory, never. It was nice, though, to be like this. Very nice.
The petting hand stroked down Dar's hair and rested in the middle of his back, rubbing concentric circles on his bare skin. Holding him closer--if that was possible--Tao leaned over and rested his cheek against the top of Dar's head. "I'm sorry," he whispered, so soft Dar wasn't at first sure he heard it correct. "It's my fault." His breathing was a little ragged, as though he himself were crying. "If you weren't--if we--if we hadn't..." His voice trailed off with a sigh; for once, Tao was unable to find the words he needed. Any other time, it would have made Dar smile. Now, it only made his heart constrict with pain. When Tao began again, his voice was stronger, angry even. "If I weren't here, you could have given her what she wanted. She wouldn't have taken your powers if it weren't for me. Perhaps I should leave--"
"No!" The word was raspy, broken. It escaped Dar's mouth like a caged tiger attacking its captors--all razor claws and sharp teeth and fierce determination that tore his throat with its ferocity to escape. "No. Not your fault." The words came easier, like a flood, after the first outpouring. "I wouldn't have. Even if you weren't here, I wouldn't have."
"You say that now, but Dar--"
"No! I know it. In here." Dar brought his hand up to rub at the tear-soaked skin beneath his cheek, over Tao's heart. Tao brought his hand around and placed it over Dar's. Dar kept his face hidden in the wet folds of Tao's shirt, even when Tao tried to nudge his face up with his finger. Some things were easier confessed without having to look into the other person's face. Tao allowed Dar to proceed at his own speed, in the way he wished, even though he had to sit in pregnant silence for many minutes.
"If you weren't here, then neither would I. After Kyra--I thought that without her, I would die. I thought I would have nothing left. But you were there." Dar took Tao's hand and placed it over his own heart. "In here. Always. Without you, I have nothing." Feeling those soul-burning tears threatening to return, Dar begged in broken words, "Don't leave. Don't want to be alone." He pressed his face closer to Tao's chest, as though he could make them one being if he pressed hard enough.
Shaken by the confession, Tao pressed a kiss to Dar's head. "I'm sorry. I won't leave."
"Swear?" Dar's muffled voice was serious. Even though he loved and trusted his friend, he needed some reassurance, something solid.
"I swear by all the gods that I will never leave you willingly." Tao's voice instantly changed from serious to teasing. "So the bad news is that you're stuck with me forever, Dar."
Dar joined Tao in the easy laughter, his fear and emptiness leaving him. No matter what Iara--or anyone else--did, there was nothing that could separate them. For the first time since he began crying, Dar lifted his head to look into Tao's face. The soulful brown eyes glittered with sympathetic tears, but his gaze was clear and full of love. "I think I could live with the burden."
With the greatest of care, Tao leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Dar's. It was just a small kiss, a meeting of lips only, but a lifetime of tender words was spoken by the touch. When they pulled apart, Dar pushed Tao down gently to the forest floor. Too tired to do anything but sleep, Dar stretched out over the warm length of Tao's body, his head resting on Tao's heart. Tao's arms came up around him again, holding him safe against his chest.
The forest was no longer quiet. The steady, rhythmic pounding of Tao's heart filled Dar's ears, driving away the emptiness. Finally, he could sleep.