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peace is a river

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Three weeks after they’re back from the survey, Vossler is sick for the first time since he was a child. It’s not serious, not really: he’s in bed for two days, mostly at Daffyd’s insistence that he not spread whatever it is. Vossler feels like he has a fever, cannot shake the fog in his mind, cannot concentrate. When Daffyd brings him the new guard rotation from his office, the one he’s been working on for a week now and cannot seem to sort, he wants to tell him he’s fine. He’s fine in that he’s not contagious. He knows that. This isn’t a sickness that can spread.

“No offense, sir, but you look like hell.” Daffyd pulls the curtains to, touches the crystal at the bedside to dim it some. “I’m sure everyone else would rather not take the chance of catching it, not something that’s dragged on so long.” He stands at Vossler’s personal desk and straightens papers. Vossler’s desk is never messy like this, like it’s been. He watches the files re-sort to order, the inkwell capped and perpendicular to the pen-stand. As the wood shows itself beneath the papers, Vossler has to turn his head, look at the wall.

Something Daffyd said seems to sink in. “Dragged on so long?” It was only yesterday that Dina all but shooed him out of his office and threatened to send for medical if he didn’t go quietly. He went only because if she notified the infirmary, Basch would hear of it. Ashe would hear.

“Been a bit off since you came back, sir. That’s nigh on a month. That’s dragging on.” He pours water, puts it by Vossler’s bed, and he looks like he’s ready to say something else. Then he does. “Certain you didn’t pick up something odd in the north?” That always means the Archadian side of the border.

The graphite stick in Vossler’s hand snaps under his grip. “I’m fine, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” Vossler doesn’t bother to soften his voice.

Daffyd startles. “Sir. If you need—”

Dismissed.”

Daffyd still closes the door quietly, and Vossler is certain Basch will show up before the day is over. Basch is the last person he wants to see right now. He spreads the guard rotation across the sheets and tries to see the columns and the hours and the names he has. In a moment, he is already looking past the foot of the bed, at the bottom-most drawer of his desk, where the letter Gabranth sent him is still waiting for a reply.

The crumpled schedule never flies far enough when he throws it, and he’s not staying in bed tomorrow. He’s not sick, not with anything that rest is going to cure. He digs his own fingernails into the skin at his shoulders where the ghosts of old bitemarks still give shadows of pain and he feels nothing that helps.

***
It takes him another two days to get the new rotation in order, a full four days later than he’d wanted to have it done, and a full day later than when he needed to get it done. He drops sparring with Basch at the end of the day because he needs that hour, too, to finish things. Still tasks slip through the cracks, and Daffyd, Dina, and Cirdan pick up more of them than Vossler wants to admit. Basch does what he can, though he is as busy as he’s ever been. Basch looks at him, too, as though he knows the reason. He does know the reason, but he’s not saying it anymore than Vossler will. Basch might not know about the letter, but he probably does. He’s been writing to Gabranth, once a week, maybe more, since they came back from the survey. Basch has been seeing Balthier, too, from time to time. Vossler thinks he passes the next month without even looking Basch in the eye. Basch lets him do it, and maybe Basch is ignoring him. Vossler feels stretched too thin to bother finding out. His rooms echo and he lets them.

One night, though, Basch is waiting by his door when Vossler reaches the top of the stairs. He wears that rare hangdog look that says Basch wants something, and Vossler tries not to scowl. He does not want company—he does, but the company he wants, he cannot keep. Will not. Looking at Basch doesn’t help.

“What?” He shoulders past Basch, who gives him no room to get by, and the rasp of the doorframe against his hip feels like nothing. The last set of bruises Gabranth gave him, their last night on the survey, in the Highwaste, are long gone. The letter, now in the drawer of his bedside table, an open invitation that arrived only two days after they returned to Rabanastre, is still unanswered, and Vossler has read it so often the creases in the paper are starting to tear. The red wax seal, though, that had held it closed—stamped only with the flat of a dagger, no formal insignia—is crushed to dust, gone with the trash. Vossler grits his teeth and waits for Basch to speak.

Basch rubs the back of his neck, and one of Balthier’s love-bites shows when he moves his hair. Vossler turns his back, turns to the window, tries not to think about how long it’s been, how long it will be. He can’t put a word on it because the only one he can think of is forever. He can’t go back, won’t go back to Gabranth, not after coming home and seeing Ashe. And he can’t go back to the way it was before. He’d tried, one night, two weeks ago—he’d paid a courtesan, and the man had tried to give him what he wanted. But he’d had to tell the man what that was, and Vossler isn’t completely certain yet what all of those things he wants are. He’d been figuring it out, in the space of those few short weeks—but that’s done now. It has to be. He had gotten some surface bruises from the courtesan, but the man’s arm had been tentative, and Vossler had had to reassure him twice that it was all right. In the end, he couldn’t even bring himself off, hasn’t since the survey. His own hand isn’t enough, and he tries not to think of the memories. There’s no point. The only point is this: he looks out on Dalmasca, for the window, at least, faces south, the city walls and the Giza Plains behind them.

Finally Basch speaks. “Would you trade leave days with me?” The rest of it comes out haltingly, as though Basch is ashamed to be asking when he knows Vossler has not gone to see Gabranth since they returned. Other than that one failed night, Vossler hasn’t gone anywhere at all, after hours. Not even to the Sandsea, not even with Basch. He wraps himself tight and tighter in work, in what he is, and he cannot be, will not be, anything else. This is where he belongs. He’s trying to ignore that the strings are unraveling for him. The harder he tries, the less he accomplishes. Daffyd fixed the last guard rotation for him, unknotted the place where he’d had Merdin on two consecutive shifts. Vossler tries to focus his attention on Basch.

Basch, who has not gone to see Balthier anywhere, either, from what Vossler knows, but Balthier has come to him, twice that Vossler has heard of. He hasn’t seen Balthier, though Basch had invited Vossler out with them the first time. He suspects Balthier has been here at least twice more, a few hours in the middle of the night, but Basch doesn’t kiss and tell and Vossler refuses to ask. Now Basch wants three days together in a month’s time—the pirate has something planned—and now is a good time for Vossler to trade off, he says.

“The garnet shad are running. Heard the scouts talking about it.” Basch pushes in beside him at the window, stares until Vossler looks him in the eye. “If you’ve nothing else you’d rather do.” His voice is firm, his gaze even.

This is the first Basch has said anything to him that even comes near to broaching that subject. But Basch had been there, too, in Ashe’s office, when they’d made their report of the border survey, when she had looked hard at the bite-bruise showing under the edge of Vossler’s collar, the one on his bicep. Vossler had said Gabranth’s name, without invective, during the course of conversation, and she had ceased to look at him at all. Basch said, as they walked back to the barracks, to give her time. Basch’s black eye took a week to fade.

Vossler wonders if Basch has said anything to Gabranth about him—he’s said nothing of Gabranth to Vossler—then pushes the thought from his mind. He refuses, too, to think of the letter. And if he can’t not-think about it, he can refuse to answer it. He’s done that so far. It doesn’t feel like defiance, though. It doesn’t make him hold his head higher, but that doesn’t matter. He needs to remind himself: he has lived without it for all but three short weeks of his life. There is no reason to think he can’t live without it for the rest. And it’s been years since he’s been able to fish any of the shad runs, the garnet in the summer’s end, the onyx in the winter’s. They last only a week, and the timing is unpredictable. Too much else has been unpredictable to wait and watch for fish, too much has his attention been needed just here. And he will not mind a month straight of work. He has no need of leave, no need to leave his borders.

Basch is waiting for his answer, and Vossler has no understanding of how much time has passed between the posing of the question and now. “Fine,” he says. “I go tonight.” He starts stripping off his uniform, and there is a sudden fleeting urge to throw it. So he makes his hands slow on the buttons, hangs his jacket neatly.

Basch only nods, looks as though he would say something, but then he doesn’t. His blue eyes harden in that way that they seldom do, and then he walks slowly toward the stairs.

Vossler takes a deep breath, cannot ignore the clench in his chest, in his groin. “Basch,” he says, and there Basch is in the doorway again, his face oddly hopeful. Vossler makes himself not see that expression; he holds fast to that hard look, and he closes the door behind Basch. With memory, he might be able to fool himself. With luck, now Basch remembers how to bite. Vossler had seen evidence on Balthier. It might be enough.

He shoves close to Basch, kisses him hard, and Basch leans up for a moment, kisses him back, doesn’t pull Vossler down, and it’s not right, but the shape of his mouth is. Then Basch pushes him back, hard, but not hard enough that Vossler hits the wall, not hard enough.

And Basch doesn’t even have the decency to look angry. He just shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he says, and Vossler wants to punch him for daring to apologize. Then he crosses his arms, holds his gaze. “But I will not be a substitute for him. You know that.” And he walks away, doesn’t slow this time.

It is all he can do not to slam the door, not to hit the wall as hard as he can. What Vossler should do is call Basch back again, apologize, and give him his notes for the meetings he’ll miss. But Basch knows all of those things already, and Basch can speak for him—and will—even on those things that they disagree on. So Vossler makes only the most rudimentary of lists, and he’ll give it to Daffyd to deliver when he leaves. He packs quickly, gathers the rod and reel and tackle he replaced after the survey. He’s used none of it yet. When he reaches into the back of his closet for the crumpled hat that Basch found, somehow, in a tack chest in the cavalry stable, his knuckles hit the simple pole and string, the one with Balthier’s earring still bound to the makeshift hook. He leaves the hat and the pole in the back of his closet, shoves the door closed.

All else he needs will be available at the sutler’s. He locks his door, and he is gone.

**

He goes by crystal as far as the village on the banks of the Nebra. He has no mind to attend to a chocobo, and the sand feels good beneath his feet, the pack solid on his back. He continues north, follows the desert’s climb. The best place to fish the shad runs is on the border of the Mosphoran Highwaste, where the cool water of the mountains meets the desert-warmed branch. The chill makes the fish more apt to fight on the end of the line, makes them wild and wary. The worgens heed his scent, and he walks in peace under the orange-tinting sky. It will likely be too dark for fishing when he arrives, but it will be good to listen to the water, to see what insects are hatching so he knows his best choice of fly in the morning. He walks, and keeps his eyes trained on the sand, away from the dark, craggy line of the Highwaste on the horizon. He will not cross the border, will stay in Dalmasca’s desert margins. He will not think on the last time he looked at this water. He will not, and for certain, he does.

They part ways here, a trident between the four of them. He and Basch return to Dalmasca, Balthier goes to Balfonheim with Fran, who waits in the airship at anchor above the shrines. And Gabranth returns to Archades, by the ship that is coming for him and the three chocobos. Vossler doesn’t want to be there when it arrives, and the hour will be soon, at sundown. Balthier is the first of them to leave, though he and Basch have such a farewell it’s embarrassing to look at. Vossler suffices to wave and walks to the shrine’s far side, and though the Strahl’s engines’ hum still clouds his ears, he no longer has to listen to the whispers, the wet mouthed sounds. Before his feet have even stopped, Gabranth is at his side, though he says nothing for a while. They watch instead the floating platforms, the way the grasses flatten under the glossair-pushed wind.

Then—“Thank you,” Gabranth says. The circles under his eyes are still there, but they have lessened some. His bloodied fingertips are more whole. He has slept at least an hour or two, each night, without the deadening tea. Some nights were worse than others, but some were markedly better. Vossler wonders what it will feel like to sleep without something—someone—held tight under his arm. It was easier to get used to than he’d thought.

Vossler is silent a while more, and he rolls his shoulder so one place Gabranth’s teeth marked rasps against his armor. They’ve done nothing on this trip that might slow Vossler down in battle—no beatings, no heavy bruises—but he is bitten all over, and Gabranth has played his waiting games. The word “no” has become like a promise to Vossler, and asking once, thrice, twenty times for release has turned into a kind of cleansing clarity that he hadn’t thought possible. He feels whole, unpatched.

“And you,” Vossler says. He doesn’t know where to look, doesn’t know how to go about thinking on tomorrow, when they will be back in their regular duties. Leaving Rabanastre three weeks ago feels like months. He breathes deep, exhales, lets his head fall forward.

Gabranth’s hand lights on the back of his neck, squeezes with his thumb on another mark under the edge of his shirt. Vossler is turning toward him already.

He puts his pack down on the riverbank and wades knee-deep in the water. It’s dark, and it’s not wise to stay in the water very long when he can’t see if there are deep-eels, but he bends, splashes his face. The chill helps some, but not enough. The Highwaste’s cliffs rise on the river’s far side, the border just between the next set of dunes.

What will help is work, and there is the tent to set up. There’s moonlight on the water, bright enough to cast shadows on the pale sand, each shell-curve where the wind has shaped it into ripples, and that’s easily light enough for him to anchor the tent in the sand, to smooth the groundcover tight and even so the sand stays out. Then there’s nothing to do but sleep so he can rise on the cusp of dawn, with the fish.

But it’s early, still, the dark new. In Rabanastre, he never retires before midnight, though he has tried because the hollow feeling is hardest to ignore then, and sleep is slow to come here, too. He leaves the tent-flap open for the evening cool, and he listens for the howling yips of the desert wolves. If they’d only sing, he could guess what they’re hunting, how many, how old the members of the pack, but they’re quiet tonight, and he’s left with his thoughts.

He closes his eyes, pillows his head on his hands. If nothing else, he can say he left the city easily enough, wasn’t tempted to search the narrow corridors in Lowtown for any of the men he had found before. He knows enough to be wiser about it now, but the thought only sours his stomach. It wouldn’t be good enough. It wouldn’t even be close. He fits his own hand high around his throat, and he squeezes, just a little, just until his breath feels thin, stretched. There’d been promise of that, when they were in Phon—he jerks his hand back, under his head again. These are only needs of the body. He is a soldier. What are those to him? But his own fingers curl tight in his hair, as though the digits are not his own, and it’s not sex, it doesn’t feel like sex, the thing he’s somehow waiting for, but he’s hard and he will not seek his own release. He turns onto his side, bunches his unused blanket under his arm, and counts the breaths he takes. He tries not to remember that this has been a nightly ritual for a month and more, how he closes his eyes and can do nothing more than imagine, but he cannot make himself want to forget completely.

**

Midmorning finds him already hours in the water, and he stands thigh-deep in the river. The fishing is good insomuch as the fish are striking at everything: they’re voracious, they’re giving huge splashing fights as he reels the fish in. And it’s lucky, or he’d be going hungry: no matter what he tries, he can find no grace in his cast. His arms feel leaden, the rod as clumsy as an iron pole. It’s not the rod—that is thin, layered reed, as supple and fine as any he’s ever had. Despite the way he’s landing flies like he’s throwing rocks at the water, he catches enough that he’ll be fed.

The nearer to midday it gets, the more the fish slow, and he retires the rod and reel for now. Instead, he wades downstream to a deep pool, one deep enough he can’t touch bottom, and the water is icy-cold. He swims until his body is entirely chilled, until his teeth are nearly chattering, and he walks back to his tent through the sand, reveling in the way the sun eases the chill. The change in temperature makes him yawn—his sleep was not solid—and he is on leave. He puts Nightmare within reach and he stretches out in his tent. It is easier in the daylight to sleep, to not think on anything save the way the sand beneath him moulds to his body, the way the desert’s noon heat leeches slowly through the water’s chill. He cushions his head on his rolled-up shirt and closes his eyes. When he gives in and bunches the blanket under his arm again, sleep comes easily.

It comes easily, but the peace doesn’t last more than a moment. He startles awake at something large—larger than one of the wolves—approaching his tent; he feels it in the sand. But there’s nothing predatory about the movement—it comes from the north, and quickly enough that it’s not stalking but slowly enough that it’s no charge. Whatever it is tugs at the tent’s peak, pokes at the canvas, and there’s the click of a chocobo’s beak. Vossler grits his teeth. If Basch has come to check on him, if Eska, of her own uncanny volition—he leans out of the tent, and it is neither Basch nor Eska. It’s Tristan. Balthier’s stupid earrings are still threaded through the brow-band on his hackamore.

It’s impossible to stand, and he can’t even find breath to call for the bird. But Tristan comes to him, closes his beak on a tuft of Vossler’s hair and pulls until he exits the tent. He stands, but he sees no rider in any direction. Then Tristan shoves his great feathered head into Vossler’s hands, and he has no choice but to scratch. For a moment, that’s what he can think about, the gold feathers and Tristan’s warm bulk all but pinning him against the side of the tent. That’s what he can think about, so he doesn’t have to think about what Tristan being here must mean.

But Tristan straightens himself, shakes hard enough that yellow down floats up, and he yanks Vossler’s hair again. He warks, ear-splitting at such nearness, and he seems to be pushing Vossler forward and backward at the same time. The bird’s not wearing a real saddle, just a thin pad, and he doesn’t know what that means. He considers what it could mean: that somehow Tristan has come all this way himself, perhaps looking for Eska. That Gabranth has come here, is waiting in the sands for him, somewhere. The thought makes his breath catch, and then the anger comes. If he has come here, unbidden, if he dares to cross that border again, then his Queen’s ire is justified—but it seems a frivolous way to make his disregard known. Vossler won’t pretend he knows Gabranth all that well, but nothing about him seems frivolous.

Tristan puts his head in the middle of Vossler’s back and pushes, and there is one more reason that Tristan might be here, riderless. Vossler leans back into the tent for his shirt and his sword, and he’s no graceful rider, certainly not without stirrups and reins, but he gets himself on Tristan’s back. If things are as he fears, he doesn’t know what he can do. He can only remember how Gabranth’s bloodied lip and nose bled far longer than they ought have, how the bruises from his and Basch’s wrestling hadn’t all faded even by the survey’s end, even after Basch’s healing magick. Vossler knows no spells that can knit flesh, and he urges Tristan faster, wherever it is he is taking him.

But Tristan is surely going somewhere, going north, toward the dunes that will cut into the Highwaste. There is no way to understand the border, how easily Tristan crosses it: it’s only another sandy stride to him. He crosses, and he cuts hard away from the oasis Vossler knows lies ahead. Instead, he climbs, choosing talon-holds on the rock swiftly enough that Vossler clutches at Tristan’s neck. Then Tristan stops going up, and Vossler finds himself looking down over the desert from the Mosphoran cliffs. He sees his own tent, a small pale triangle, and still he sees no one here. But Tristan warks again, scratches hard at the ground, and he shakes a little.

Vossler has no choice but to dismount, and Tristan walks away, walks toward one dark shadow on the rock, and something in the shadow moves, and Vossler’s spine goes rigid. The afternoon sun is bright, but the man who walks toward him is dark-haired, that much he can see. He’s reaching for the sword when he sees Gabranth’s travel clothes, the same he’d worn on the survey, but he wears no armor. It is Gabranth’s face. Vossler puts his arm down, but Gabranth stops short of him, out of reach.

His hair is as dark as Vossler’s. The deep circles under his eyes seem nearly the same shade, and he looks so wan, so still that Vossler nearly doubts that it’s him at all. But something in the center of his chest pulls forward, pulls toward, and he takes a step before he can help himself. He doesn’t know what to say, but he can’t simply stare.

“Your hair.” That isn’t what he meant to say. His hand twitches at his side. He would reach. But he cannot.

Gabranth smiles with half of his mouth, and he’d done that before, a smirk, but here it seems a grimace in his hollowed cheeks. “It’s only dye.” He lets Tristan crowd him, seems to lean, and he regards Vossler seriously. “I wanted to be certain no one would take me for Basch.”

Yesterday, before Vossler left, when he kissed Basch—that is the first thing he thinks of, and when he understands what he thinks of second, of something that happened nearly four years ago now, he is shamed. And yet—

“Then what have you come for?” It sounds much crueler than he means it to, but perhaps that’s best. It sounds like what he thinks it should sound like, were he any true son of Dalmasca.

The expression on Gabranth’s face may as well strip away all he wears, expose the scars he’d kept covered when he could in Phon, even in front of Balthier. He leans on Tristan heavily now, and the hand Vossler can see is chewed raw at the fingertips again.

“I’ve come for help,” he says. He says it plainly, and he says it before Vossler, and Vossler knows what that must cost him. It is a price he could never bring himself to pay openly, not in the words themselves. But it’s not what Vossler expected him to say, and this is not how he expected him to say it, and so he can’t think of a reply. He can only think with his fingertips, and he wants so much to touch, but there is no reason at all that Gabranth should seek him here of all places. And that means—

“Why here?” Vossler asks, even though he knows. When he gets back, he should punch Basch in the mouth for the deception.

“I’m sorry,” Gabranth says. It’s not even an answer to the question, and Gabranth grinds the palm of one hand against his eyes. Tristan ducks his head, curves his great feathered neck close, as though he’s holding Gabranth up entirely, and Vossler is starting to think he might be, and that’s enough to make him move.

“Sit,” he says, and Vossler can’t help but put his arm around his waist, sink to the ground with him. He feels thinner than he was, and that makes no sense. He’d been better at the end of their time together than he’d been at the beginning. He’d been sleeping some, at least, and at least somewhat more soundly, with less thrashing— The raw edges of his fingertips are as red as the sealing wax, two of them seeping blood still, and Vossler feels—he feels—

Gabranth only slumps beside him on the bare Mosphoran rock, and Vossler is already standing again.

“You can’t stay here.” He pulls Gabranth to his feet, and even though his hands are strangely cold for the day’s heat, his grip is desperately strong.

“I haven’t crossed your borders,” he says, but he turns his back, turns toward Tristan, and he takes one step, then stops. He sways on his feet and Tristan crowds close again so he can balance himself before he heaves himself onto Tristan’s back. There is none of the grace in the movement that Vossler had seen those weeks ago, and something feels like it crumples in his chest.

Vossler says the thing that he swore he would not do. “I am asking you to.” He doesn’t wait for Gabranth to answer—he puts his hand on Tristan’s bridle and he leads them down from the cliff. He doesn’t look back at Gabranth, can’t, though he feels Gabranth’s fingers touch his, high on Tristan’s cheek, just once. They cross the dunes, and he finds himself counting the paces from the border marker. It is not far to his tent. The spring foehn winds will have pulled sand and dust from the Highwaste into the Estersand, and the fall habb will push them back. Without the stone pillar, there is no way to say where he stands, on whose ground, unless there is a way to strip away these shifting grains, to put his feet on the earth’s bones where they lie beneath his Dalmascan sands.

Gabranth does not dismount when Vossler halts Tristan beside the tent. He grips tight to Tristan’s sides with his thighs and he keeps his eyes closed, won’t look. Vossler nearly has to pull him down. No lightning cracks when the kingslayer’s boots touch Dalmascan ground, no cavern opens to swallow him. But his knees nearly buckle on his own, and Vossler muscles him into the tent. He puts Nightmare aside, tugs off Gabranth’s boots. Gabranth says nothing, still keeps his eyes closed tight, as though looking is too much, as though refusing to see means he has not come here at all. His body is still, rigid, and Vossler wants to say something.

All he can think to say are questions, and he can’t bring himself to ask what he already knows. The answer is in the thick, dark rings around his eyes, the haunted look. Vossler knows what help it is Gabranth has come for, and it seems like such a small thing, too small to make any difference. So he says, “Lie down.” Gabranth doesn’t move. So he pushes Gabranth onto his side, rolls up his own blanket to pillow his head, and he wraps his arm tight over Gabranth’s chest.

He is embarrassed at the way his body remembers this, embarrassed and longing, but then Gabranth’s hand closes tight around his bicep, keeps him just as he is. Sooner than Vossler expects, Gabranth’s body relaxes, but it seems he goes entirely limp instead of drifting off, save the hand that holds him there.

Despite the long sleeves and sturdy trousers he wears, Vossler can feel no warmth coming from Gabranth, and he wraps himself closer, puts his own leg over Gabranth’s. The leather is smooth against his calf and he wishes he could feel skin on skin.

But it is not his right to wish for that—he was the one who left the letter unanswered. He looks again at the chewed tips of Gabranth’s fingers, worse on the right hand than on the left. Was any of it in his power to assuage? To prevent? Vossler puts his head down, stops looking. Sleep doesn’t come.

The hair at the nape of Gabranth’s neck is still pale at the edges, though there is a smudge of the dark dye still clinging behind his ear. It’s imprecise. Vossler inches closer, touches his lips to the stain, and it’s bitter, acrid-tasting. He moves his mouth to unmarked skin, and Gabranth’s fingers tighten on his arm, dig into the skin, just for a moment. They lie still, and now Vossler’s eyes close.

Gabranth’s elbow cracks into his ribs and the back of his head crashes into the bridge of Vossler’s nose. He feels the wash of blood in his sinuses, but the first thing he does is hold Gabranth’s head down, tighten his arm around his chest, press himself closer, press himself onto Gabranth’s body. Gabranth’s eyes open wide and he clutches hard at Vossler, and Vossler catches his wrists, pins them down. He remembers this: the same scene played out half a dozen times on the survey, though this is the first time Gabranth managed to draw blood.

“No,” Gabranth says, he gasps, and his skin is sweated slick and cold. A drop of Vossler’s blood lands on Gabranth’s cheek. Gabranth makes a choked keening sound, lurches up hard. He’s speaking, mumbling that sounds like madness, though Vossler thinks it’s Landisser. Another drop of blood falls, and he sniffs back hard, turns his head away. It’s a coppery wash in his throat, but the sound startles Gabranth, makes him really see, makes him wake up from his eyes-open dream.

Vossler almost wants to laugh, thinks he would if it weren’t for what’s behind the recognition on Gabranth’s face. “Caught me in the face is all,” he says, and he backs up now, wipes his nose on his forearm. It’s not bleeding enough to be broken, doesn’t hurt at all like that does, so he pinches down, holds the blood vessels closed, and he can feel the blood slowing.

Gabranth shoves himself up to sitting. He shoves himself away from Vossler. “Sorry,” he says, and he reaches for Vossler before he even wipes his own face. “Sorry.” He pulls his hands back. “Should have warned you that was happening again.”

“I’m fine.” Vossler is confused at how fine he is, at the calm he feels here, now. He should be anything but calm, and Gabranth is not fine, but Vossler can manage some of that, he thinks. He can manage this part. What might come after, he’s not going to think on. He wipes his hand on his shirt, and he reaches for the fastenings on Gabranth’s. His hands are pushed away, but Vossler persists. His shirt is sweated through, and there’s another drop of blood near Gabranth’s collar. The cloth falls away, and Vossler struggles not to touch. But this is no time for that. He takes Gabranth’s hands and pulls him out of the tent. He hasn’t slept enough, but there’s no way to sleep as he is, over-dressed for the desert, covered so that the chill in him cannot hope to get out.

He draws Gabranth into the water, lets them both be still dressed while the water swirls around their legs. Gabranth doesn’t seem to notice the water’s chill, not even as the water cuts across their shoulders, and now Vossler holds his breath, ducks himself, and peels Gabranth’s trousers down. Gabranth’s hand finds his shoulder as he steadies himself and steps clear. When Vossler comes back to the surface, he can’t help but remember that afternoon in Phon, but this isn’t that day at all. And that is his doing, that was his choice. He scrubs at the bloodied spots on their shirts, strips himself bare, too, and the water is clean and clear and good. Gabranth blinks slowly, and Vossler comes closer. He still does not let himself touch, and Gabranth doesn’t reach for him. He doesn’t do anything at all.

Vossler lifts his hand and wipes away the smear of his own blood on Gabranth’s cheek. Gabranth leans neither into nor away from his touch, and Vossler’s calm disappears. But he feels compelled—he drags his wet fingertips across Gabranth’s forehead, over his temples, follows the line of his jaw. The muscles tighten under his touch and he doesn’t know why, but that comforts him. But he is otherwise wooden, and Vossler wants to rinse away the dark color in his hair, the falseness of it. But there is no way to do that without Gabranth’s consent, and he cannot bring himself to ask.

He doesn’t know how long they stand there, but Vossler waits until he starts to feel chilled again, until Gabranth’s weary eyes glance sidelong toward the tent. Vossler will take that for assent, for desire to do something else, and if he can do nothing but lead him back out of the river, drape their wet clothing across the tent’s peak, that is something. He doesn’t give Gabranth any of his garments back. If he is still cold, Vossler has a blanket, a spare set of clothes, but what he wants—what he’d told himself he didn’t—is this: Gabranth ducks into the tent without prompting, and he doesn’t object when Vossler inches close, wraps his arms around him. The chill on Gabranth’s skin fades now, where they touch.

Gabranth says his name, his voice rough, graveled, hoarse. It’s not quite a question.

Vossler can’t help how his cock stiffens at the sound. “Later,” he says. Later he—they—will have to talk about this, about what’s happening here. Hopefully between now and then, he’ll have something to say. No words, no explanations are coming, though, when Gabranth relaxes against him again, and they slowly warm through. This time, Gabranth sleeps more solidly, more calmly, save some small twitches, as though he’s falling, as though he’s managed to catch himself.

Vossler doesn’t mean to fall asleep again, but he does, and what wakes him is Tristan’s beak parting the tents flaps. A single ruby-colored scale falls inside the tent, and Vossler remembers his fish. The three he’d had strung together in the shallows to stay fresh are surely disappeared into that feathered walking stomach, and Tristan clicks expectantly, nudges Gabranth’s foot.

Gabranth makes a slow, sleepy kick, a grumbling sound, and he rolls over, wraps his arm tight around Vossler’s waist, pushes his face into Vossler’s shoulder. He hadn’t done that, not once, the whole time they were on the survey, and Vossler is sure Gabranth doesn’t know what he’s doing. Because he’s asleep, soundly. Vossler tries hard to keep his breathing even, to hold still, to keep it that way. He has been stupid, he has been selfish. He knows. But he doesn’t know how to right it.

Tristan doesn’t back away. He leans in closer, pushes harder on Gabranth’s foot, and he makes a huffing noise. Gabranth draws his knees up, refusing to let go of sleep, and Vossler hates to do it, but he has to wake him. Tristan’s already halfway in the tent, and if he steps in, his talons will go right through the ground-sheet. He doesn’t mean to, but he brushes his lips against Gabranth’s forehead before he speaks. Gabranth’s eyes are open before he opens his mouth. Vossler says it anyway.

“Your bird wants something.” Vossler means to let go, to give him room to get up, but his hand skates slowly over Gabranth’s arm, the thin scarred lines that cross one bicep. Those weren’t from the Bahamut fight. They’re older than that, much older, but he doesn’t know their story. For all that he has learned about Gabranth’s body, he knows very little of his story.

Gabranth pulls back quickly, and his back and shoulders pop as he stretches. This time, he looks away when he sees Vossler watching, not like he had before, not the way he’d held Vossler’s gaze and even preened a little under it toward the survey’s end, and he folds in on himself. “Tristan always wants something,” he says, and he slips out of the tent. Vossler hears him taking his clothing down from the tent’s peak, and at least it will be clean and dry now. Vossler makes himself follow, pulls on his shorts. If nothing else, he can catch more fish, enough for Tristan and for them.

Behind the tent, though, Gabranth is lacing his boots, and Tristan’s standing beside him, crouched a little, even, holding him up while he leans to tie them.

No, Vossler thinks. What he says is, “Neat trick, that.”

Gabranth looks up like he’s surprised, looks at Tristan as though to figure out what Vossler means. Then he looks down at what he’s doing. “Oh,” he says. And nods. “It’s the least the bastard can do after waking me up.” He’s watching his hands, not Vossler, and though he’s slept for a few hours, the circles under his eyes haven’t faded, and his eyes still don’t seem to be looking at anything the right way. He finishes the left boot and straightens, and Tristan nudges him toward his back.

Vossler breathes deep. Gabranth is going to leave, he’s going to ride back across the border, and they will pretend he has never crossed it.

“Stay,” he says. He never expected himself to speak, but he did, and Gabranth keeps his back turned, his hands on Tristan’s saddle pad. Vossler makes himself say it again. “Stay. If you don’t have to go.” His lungs expand, contract. “Please.”

Now Gabranth turns, looks him hard in the eyes, crosses his arms across his chest. Somehow that makes it easier to say more.

“I’m out here for a few days. There’s fish.” That sounds fairly stupid, too, but— “It’s quiet.” He could rest. He did, a little. He waits for Gabranth to say no, but he’d come, he’d said—

“If you’re certain.”

Vossler nods. He’s certain about this much. He doesn’t want him to go. Of course, that means figuring out what happens if he stays. Vossler will start with food, or—he pulls out his pack, takes out his extra clothes. “Here,” he says. “You’ll be more comfortable.” Gabranth takes the shorts, though not the shirt. That makes sense enough—his long sleeves may be warmer, but he won’t burn as easily, if he’s out in the sun. It may be, too, that Vossler’s shirt is of a Dalmascan cut, and it leaves more of the chest bare than it covers. It is with that thought that he turns away as Gabranth changes his pants for the shorts; it is not his right to look, not now. He walks slowly toward the river, slowly enough that Gabranth could catch up easily, quickly enough to allow him privacy.

Tristan steps into the space between them, and he steps up to Vossler’s side, yanks hard on his hair again, and then he trots back to Gabranth. Vossler chances a glance over his shoulder, and at least Gabranth doesn’t need the bird as a crutch. He’s just rubbing the yellow feathers, pulling another stray scale off of him.

At the water’s edge, he can see the shad flit by, ruby stripes in the blue water. They’ll be biting again soon, the evening feed, and he sits on the bank and replaces the leader and fly. There are three of them now, and so he chooses a fly two sizes larger. He’ll see if he can outsmart some of the larger, older shad. Gabranth sits on the bank, too, near, but not touching.

While Vossler steps into the shallows, Gabranth calls Tristan near again, and Tristan settles behind him, like a yellow-feathered chaise. Gabranth yawns and leans back, his arms folded over his chest again, but a little more comfortable-looking now. He catches Vossler looking.

“I won’t be good company.” Even talking sounds like it exhausts him, and Vossler wishes he knew why. Vossler wishes he didn’t have a really good guess.

Vossler shakes his head, steps deeper into the water. “I don’t mind.” He thinks of what Balthier has said of him. “I’m never good company.” For once, he doesn’t think this is Balthier’s fault.

“I thought you were.”

There’s no mistaking what Gabranth said, not even if he listens hard to the water, and he can’t bring himself to turn around. He can only do one of these things at a time. Fish—food—has to come first. But he pauses in the water, and he feels his shoulders slump. When he finally looks back, he can’t tell if Gabranth’s eyes are closed completely or just slitted against the glare on the water, and he can’t tell if that’s better or worse. But Gabranth looks still, calm, and Tristan is blinking slowly at him.

Vossler turns his attention to the rod and reel in his hands, and he tries again to find the easy metronome tick in his wrist, the one he’d had years ago, the comfort in his own body that he misses so. It was years ago, and it was two months ago, fishing at Phon with just a line on a stick. But even with a ready, smooth reel and all the effort he can muster, it’s not coming back; his back and his shoulders are knotting tight and tighter, and the knowledge of what he could have twists like a clock-key in his spine. He could be doing this with the aching warmth of bruises he earned patterning his shoulderblades, reminding him with each fluid arc of muscle and bone— He stops trying. The lure lands in the water with a splash he can hear, and there is no skill, no sport in this. He has only to wait until the next wave of hungry fish lunge down the river: there, an old bull shad leaps and crashes down on the lure, all but swallowing it whole. In its greed, it has set the hook deep, and Vossler doesn’t bother playing out the line, fighting the fish for the pleasure of it. No, he hauls the line in fast and hard, and the fish is as long as his thigh, its whiskers long and wiry. An old one indeed, and Tristan won’t mind that its flesh will be a little tough.

Without meaning to, he starts for the shore already. The water feels wrong, everything feels wrong. Maybe fishing from the bank will help, though he doesn’t know how. He’s not quite out of the water when Gabranth twitches hard, sits up fast. Vossler makes himself not hurry. But he is standing not two paces from Tristan and his open beak, anyway, and Gabranth’s eyes are open, watching him.

“I was hoping I could get him fed without waking you this time,” Vossler says.

Gabranth shakes his head. “Wasn’t really asleep, not like earlier. And no chance of that, anyway. He only ate like a civilized creature in front of Eska.” He nearly smiles.

“Then I suppose I don’t have to clean this one for him?”

Gabranth shakes his head, inches forward, and gives Tristan a shove. When Tristan gets to his feet, and his eyes are fixed on the fish, Gabranth says, “You’d make his day if you threw it.”

Vossler looks at the fish—he’s holding it in both hands—but he remembers Gabranth throwing things for Tristan before, when they were in the Salikawood. He remembers so much of those weeks. And he can’t help but think of those things now. But he just takes a few steps further from the tent and heaves the fish as hard as he can. Tristan is off like a shot, and Gabranth turns his face to avoid the shower of sand from the bird’s talons.

There’s nothing to do, then, but sit down near Gabranth and cast the line back in the water. Behind them, Tristan is throwing half of the fish carcass to himself, and Gabranth picks himself up. The borrowed shorts hang low on his hips; Vossler hands him the fishing rod, goes to the tent. He slips Gabranth’s belt from the loops on his trousers, sees the new creases in the leather a mark slimmer than the well-worn line from before. Vossler runs the leather through his fingers for a moment. He can’t stop himself from holding it to his nose, breathing deep the scent of leather.

He is a fool.

He doubles the belt in his hand and walks back to the riverbank, and the leather brushes his leg as he walks. He’s tempted to slap it against his thigh, just once, but he knows that doesn’t work. It doesn’t help. He’d tried using his own belt on his back, on the front of his thighs. More than once. As he walks up, Gabranth turns to look at him, and he looks first at the belt in Vossler’s hand. They trade, and Vossler is surprised to find that there’s a fish on the end of the line, pulling half-heartedly against the current.

“Didn’t want to steal your fun,” Gabranth says, and he threads the belt through the loops, pulls it snug. Vossler lands the fish without fanfare, and before he can stop him, Gabranth has Vossler’s knife, and he starts gutting the fish. Vossler remembers something Basch said about Gabranth really preferring not to do this part if he doesn’t have to, and that’s what Vossler says.

“You don’t have to do that.” It’s as easy for Vossler to clean a dozen fish as one; even if he hasn’t done that in a while, his hands will remember.

Gabranth shrugs, keeps doing what he’s doing. “I’ll live,” he says.

“It didn’t look like you were living earlier.” The words fall out of his mouth before he can stop himself.

Gabranth rinses his hands clean, puts the fish in Vossler’s creel. “Don’t worry about me.” He stands, starts walking toward the desert palms and the Valeblossom branches fighting their way through the rock. “I’ll get wood.” Vossler watches him go, watches him test branches until he finds the ones that are brittle, long-dead, unflowering. He is meticulous, maybe even more than Basch, far more than Vossler would be himself at the same task. There are four fish and they’re all cleaned before Gabranth returns with a bundle of sticks. He’s used his belt to bundle them together, and Vossler’s shorts are threatening to fall entirely.

“That’s one way to do it.” Vossler spikes the fish to roast whole on reed forks while Gabranth starts the fire.

“Whatever works,” he says.

“You could have been done in half the time,” Vossler says. It sounds like a complaint. “You didn’t have to be so careful,” he amends. Vossler would have cut two young palms. This late in the season, they’re well dry enough to burn.

Gabranth glances up at him, then back to the branches he breaks into uniform lengths. “Your home is beautiful. I wouldn’t willingly damage it. And we were raised to be gentle with the land.” Vossler knows Gabranth is talking about himself and Basch, and he doesn’t know why, but it sounds good to hear him say it. “In the mountains, an over-eager harvest of branches one year might mean freezing the next.”

“So it is with the wells, in the settlements away from the river.” And then the words are gone again, and Gabranth is quiet, his hands still for a long while, until he raises his ring finger to his mouth, nips at something. The blood wells quickly, and Vossler looks at him. Gabranth is looking out at the water, toward the setting sun in the west, and he bites at the next fingertip. Vossler cannot watch him do it, and he takes Gabranth’s wrist, holds it fast. Gabranth doesn’t look at him still, and he lifts the other hand to his mouth instead. Vossler grabs that one, too, and finally Gabranth looks at him.

“Don’t,” Vossler says. The blood beaded at Gabranth’s ring finger tip falls, is absorbed by the sand. Another is gathering, and even a wound this small will stay fresh on his skin for two hours. Vossler knows that. Gabranth knows that better than anyone, but still—

Gabranth doesn’t try to pull his hands back, but the force of it is in his eyes. Even so, Vossler wants to put Gabranth’s bleeding fingertips in his mouth, lick away the coppery salt of it, wants Gabranth to bite his lip, his shoulder hard enough that Vossler can taste his own blood in Gabranth’s mouth. He wants—

“Why all this? It was better,” Vossler says. He hopes Gabranth knows what he means. He doesn’t know how he would explain it. Because it was better, Vossler was better, too, but then he wasn’t, and he’s done nothing about it. But that’s not the issue at hand.

“It was. That’s what I don’t understand.” Gabranth turns his face to the water again, and Vossler feels sick in his stomach. “I told Larsa about Drace the day I returned, as I told Basch I would. I slept nearly without dreams, of my own accord, for the first time in more than a year.” Gabranth had been happy. Basch had brought his own letter, arrived the same day Vossler’s had, to Vossler’s quarters. He’d shown Vossler what his twin had written—small details about Larsa and his chocobo, a few pointed and dirty questions about Basch’s relationship with Balthier, an anecdote about Penelo and Vaan’s last visit to Archades. All signs of ease, comfort, peace. Basch had been ecstatic. Vossler had pretended the feeling, for Basch’s sake, that night.

Gabranth goes on, his voice quieter now. “But I didn’t hear from you. I was afraid—” Now Gabranth looks him in the eye, and Vossler wishes he wouldn’t. “I was afraid you’d gone back to the way things were.” Vossler can’t do anything but shake his head. No, he can’t do that. He doesn’t say out loud that he wishes he could. That now he thinks he’d rather not have ever known how good it could be. He doesn’t have to. Gabranth can read that much on his face. But he doesn’t mean it like that—not that it wasn’t good, not that it wasn’t everything Vossler has wanted and more than he knew he wanted, but—

“You made that impossible.” Vossler needs to let go of Gabranth’s hands, needs to not be touching him. He can’t make his hands let go because he doesn’t want to.

“I’m not sorry, if you were looking for an apology.” Gabranth turns his hands, so he’s holding Vossler’s wrists, too.

That makes Vossler move. It’s too much, touching like this. It makes him want to give over what strength there is in his arms, makes him want to bare his neck. This is no place for that. “I don’t know what I’m looking for,” he says, and he reaches to take the cooked fish from the fire.

“Yes, you do,” Gabranth says, and his voice is firm. Then they are both quiet. Gabranth helps with the fish, though they have only Vossler’s mess kit to share. Vossler doesn’t think about how right Gabranth is, and he’s not going to tell him. It is hard enough holding this distance at all, hard enough to remind himself that he was resolved weeks ago: it doesn’t matter what he wants. His mouth is bitter with it, but the fish comes away in sweet, smoky flakes, and Gabranth doesn’t say anything else while he eats. At least he is eating.

Vossler is trying to put together how Gabranth got here. He has nothing at all with him—no weapons, no pack. He must have come by crystal, but even then, porting into the Highwaste isn’t like coming into Rabanastre or even Archades. The oasis sees its share of raksas. And Gabranth wasn’t waiting in the oasis. Tristan is canny and deadly in his own right, but he’s one chocobo.

He shouldn’t ask. He’s trying not to care. Gabranth came to him for help, and Vossler is going to take that to mean sleep, sleep only because that’s the easiest thing to hold fast to. When he leaves, he can be more rested. Vossler can do that much. But still. He can’t hold it in.

“What were you doing, heading out without even a waterskin?” Without a blanket. Without antidotes. Without food. Without a weapon. Even if Basch told him where to come, Vossler might have gone somewhere else. He’d thought, briefly, of staying nearer to the village.

Gabranth shrugs. If he’s going to say anything, it is lost in a yawn.

The fish are reduced to bones and tails, and Vossler floats the scraps on the water. The deep eels will appreciate them, and the wolves won’t nose about at the scent of offal. Gabranth sands the fire until it’s extinguished, and they stand there, looking at each other for a long while. Vossler is the one who moves first toward the tent. Tristan is settled beside it, facing the open desert, and he makes a dozy huff when Vossler scritches his crest. Again, it’s early, not even fully dark, but if Gabranth will sleep, he’ll be better, and Vossler won’t have to explain what he doesn’t have an explanation for.

Vossler is pulling off his shorts when Gabranth comes into the tent, and Gabranth turns away again when he undresses, too. It’s starting to feel absurd.

“It’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” Vossler says as he lies down.

“But I don’t know if I’ll see it again.” Gabranth keeps his back to Vossler when he stretches out beside him, too. “So it’s easier if I don’t look.”

Nothing at all about this is easy. When Vossler puts his arm over him this time, Gabranth doesn’t hold on, doesn’t pull him closer, but his body goes supple and relaxed when Vossler’s leg comes over his. Vossler tries to tell himself that it is all muscle memory, and he is grateful when Gabranth’s breath elongates into sleep. Only then does he dare to inch closer. He aches.

***

Sometime, though, he sleeps, and he wakes with the sun already high in the sky. He’s on his back and Gabranth is sprawled half over him, is hard against his hip, and his own body echoes that. This is new, too, that Gabranth should sleep so spread out, so fully. Basch sleeps like this, when he’s having a lie-in or when he’s gone to bed still a little drunk. He and Basch hadn’t really slept together any of the times they’d been together, but he’s seen Basch asleep in his own bed often enough. But Vossler and Gabranth are not together. Except Gabranth’s arm is an insistent bar across his chest, keeping him where he is, and it feels right, if there is nothing outside this tent, nothing at all. His fingers play across the width of Gabranth’s shoulderblades, and even though he’s sleeping here, like this, the muscle is tight beneath the skin, knotted hard. Vossler could manage that part, too, could ease those points to looseness, with his thumbs, his fingers, his palms. Gabranth could do the same for Vossler with the sting of his belt or the crush of his teeth.

For a moment, he wonders what he could accomplish with fresh bruises on his skin. In Archades, before the survey, he wasn’t on-duty, but he’d felt tireless, boundless. Since returning…well. Basch commented on it more than once. Vossler pretended not to hear.

He pretended not to hear the way he is now pretending not to feel Gabranth pressing himself closer, but his hand hasn’t stilled on Gabranth’s back. Gabranth’s fingers curl into his ribs, and Vossler’s breath catches when the pressure bites into the place where Gabranth’s elbow hit the night before. It feels now like Gabranth has gotten under his skin; his back arches and his breath presses out slowly, evenly. Gabranth isn’t asleep, Vossler knows, but he’ll pretend. He’ll pretend Gabranth is asleep and that Gabranth doesn’t know what this is doing to him, that Gabranth doesn’t know that this feeling is the one that draws that steady, firm line from his spine to what feels like bedrock itself. Or it would be, if they weren’t both pretending that this isn’t happening. Vossler lies as still as the steady ache will allow him, and then Gabranth draws back. He picks himself up, looks at Vossler, and this time he doesn’t turn away while he dresses. But he dresses quickly, steps out of the tent. Tristan must be wandering—Gabranth whistles sharply.

Vossler is trying to keep his hand off his cock when Gabranth calls out to him. Outside, Tristan is loping back toward them from the open desert, and there’s clearly something else on his back, over the pad saddle. He stops just short of Gabranth, and there’s a feather missing from his crest. Eska. If chocobos could grin, Vossler thinks the look on Tristan’s face would be the same dopey one Basch gets when Balthier is on his way.

“Your brother is a nosy twat,” Vossler says. The saddlebags in front of Tristan’s wings are one of Basch’s old sets.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Gabranth says. He’s combing Tristan’s mangled crest with his fingers. But he’s watching Vossler, watching him sift through the bags until he comes up with a folded piece of parchment. As Vossler reads, Gabranth asks if he has to leave.

Vossler can only shake his head. “They’re making me stay out here.” There’s a squad of scouts and engineers coming through Barheim. Vossler remembers sending them out, through Nalbina, a few days ago. He’d asked Basch if he wanted to go along, for old times’ sake. Basch hadn’t laughed, but he’s probably laughing now. Since you’re already out there, Basch writes, Vossler can wait to take their report, and Vossler has to tell them where to go next, whether there’s enough information to start the shoring project they’re assessing, or whether there’s need to call for mining experts from Bhujerba. It should only be a few more days, Basch says. At most a week. A week. The rest of the packs hold food—in case the fishing falls off—some clothes and another flysheet for the tent—in case the weather turns foul—a book—in case he’s bored—more curatives and salves than Vossler would ever bring on his own—in case everything gets bad. There’s enough for two people. Vossler knows standard rations inside and out, and so does everyone else whose name is on this letter. Ashe’s seal and her own silver-inked signature is under Basch’s. In small script beneath—“We trust your council in these matters.”

These matters. Not “this.” Not the one task they’re leaving him in the desert for. Ashelia B’Nargin Dalmasca doesn’t make grammatical mistakes, hasn’t since she was ten. She knows. She has to know. Vossler folds the page as small as he can, puts it in his pocket. He breathes out, slowly. He wants more of an answer from the parchment square than it will give him. It’s not her blessing, that much he knows. He doesn’t know if it’s a test. He doesn’t know anything.

“Is everything all right?” Gabranth’s voice is quiet, unassuming.

“No” comes out of his mouth and he is surprised to find that he means it. He lifts the saddlebags clear of Tristan’s back, and Tristan tugs at his hair again. He tries to duck out of the way, fails, and he starts putting the extra sand-fly over the tent. He’ll be prepared, then, if a sandstorm does kick up, and it will make the tent a bit cooler during the day, will thicken the shade. Gabranth watches how he stakes it down tightly, and he does the same on the far side. When they get to the back of the tent, Vossler stretches it out as far as he can, then leaves one side open. “For Tristan,” he says, “if there’s a sandstorm.” There will be enough slack on the front side of the tent to make room for a second chocobo or to close off the tent-front entirely.

“Thank you,” Gabranth says. He ducks into the sheet’s shade, wipes his forehead on his arm, and he looks at Vossler expectantly. He’s waiting for the rest of it.

Vossler’s not willing to say it yet. “How is it you’re here?” Why isn’t he attached to Larsa’s side?

“The medical staff put me on leave.” Gabranth gathers sand in his palm, lets it fall. “It’s the first time in my career.” He nearly looks amused, and Vossler has to ask.

“After Bahamut—”

Gabranth shakes his head. “I was never officially on leave.” And Basch had said Gabranth had started working again—at least in a limited capacity—the day he’d regained consciousness. “I wouldn’t let them. But Larsa ordered this.”

If not after Gabranth was more than mostly dead, why now? He says it out loud.

“I was not fit for duty,” Gabranth says. And that is evident. Yesterday, Gabranth could barely stand on his own feet. Vossler’s been exhausted before, has been awake to the point of seeing things that aren’t there, has been awake enough that he’d felt sick in his stomach, but he has no idea how Gabranth has lasted this long. He knows, too, what it costs Gabranth to leave Larsa. Vossler wonders if there are any other new magisters now, or if it is just him and Zargabaath and Rannel. He doesn’t want to ask about more judges, but he does want to ask about Larsa. It’s not his fault he was born Archadian.

“There’s someone else you’d trust to keep watch over your charge?” On the survey, Gabranth had hinted that there was not. Not that he’d mistrusted anyone more than was his duty, but he didn’t know anyone well enough to say. Gabranth heaves a sigh, and Vossler has no tact. “I didn’t—” Vossler corrects. “I know he’s important to you.”

Gabranth just shakes his head. “I’m better away from him now. I couldn’t keep him safe like this.” He lifts his hand to his falsely dark hair, tugs at it a little. “Magister Hausen is there, and your baby sky pirates are with him,” he says.

That’s a new one, but not important. Vossler barely keeps himself from gaping. He’d known Penelo and Vaan were fond of the emperor, but leaving Vaan to look after anything—

And Gabranth does laugh a little at his expression. “Penelo is in charge, where Larsa is concerned.” He chews again at a fingertip, and Vossler again keeps himself from reaching for that hand. “But they’ll protect him. They’re good friends to the boy.”

“You trust them?” Obviously he does, but Vossler has to ask.

“They’ve never given me reason not to, at least where Larsa is concerned.” His expression says what Vossler already knows—the treasury may end up emptier than it had been, Larsa may end up on an impromptu adventure somewhere—but Gabranth nods, as though to himself. “Fermina Hausen is of Drace’s house. Between them three, he is in good hands.”

The situation, of course, is not the same, but Vossler is certain Ashe would not say the same for Vossler right now. But his queen had not been there, those weeks ago, does not know how unsafe Vossler was, left to his own devices.. He balls his fingers into fists at his sides.

Gabranth sees it, of course, and the subject of Penelo and Vaan drops. “Tell me why you never answered my letter,” Gabranth says.

“You know why.” Suddenly, Vossler doesn’t know how to sit comfortably in the sand.

“No. I don’t.” Gabranth folds his legs in front of him, Garif-style, and he waits. He waits, though, waits for Vossler to answer, though it seems that all of the frailty of yesterday has set in on him again. And he doesn’t look away. Vossler wishes he would.

The piece of parchment is like a stone in his pocket, and that complicates all of this. He doesn’t know if it changes anything. It sounds like it could. We trust your judgment. It’s the royal We, he knows that. And that is something he should be able to trust at face value, even if he knows that Ashe doesn’t like it.

His mind was not made for this kind of weight and measure.

He folds his legs under himself as best he can, kneeling, his palms on his thighs. As soon as he does it, here in front of Gabranth, he knows he shouldn’t have, but it feels good to do it. And Gabranth takes note of it: his chin lifts, his eyes up. He’s listening.

“You know what I would choose, what I would have to choose, if the question were put to me.” He has to say it out loud. “If it were between seeing you and serving queen and country.” They’ve had this conversation before.

Gabranth nods, slightly. They both knew that. He breathes deep before he asks, “And was the question put to you?”

It was, and it wasn’t. “Not in so many words.” Vossler laces his fingers behind his back, and he’d meant to stretch, but now he only holds them there, still, at the base of his spine. It keeps his shoulders back, keeps his back straight.

“But?”

“Would you continue to do something if you knew Larsa hated it?” The question isn’t fair, Vossler knows, and he’s not even sure why he’s asking it. Larsa and Ashelia are very different people, and there’s no equivalent Vossler can think of. If Larsa should take issue with anyone, it would be with Ashe, with Basch, with Penelo, Vaan, the skypirates. They killed his brother, though by all accounts—even Larsa’s, it seems—it was more like putting a mad dog down. And Larsa opens his arms to all of them. Vossler doesn’t want Ashe to do that. He wants her to hate where he finds himself unable to do so. One of them should remember, shouldn’t they? He looks at Gabranth, wishes there were not the three feet of sand between them, and he cannot help but feel again as though he has failed somehow. But he doesn’t regret that failure.

Gabranth holds up his battered hands so the reddened nailbeds face Vossler, so they hold there on either side of his face, on either side of his sunken eyes, his hollow cheeks. “Why do you think I finally came to you? I promised Basch I wouldn’t use that tea anymore.” So, it seemed, he’d not slept at all, again. He puts his hands down. “I’d sworn not to come after you. I said that whatever there was to be between us would be at your choice.” Vossler remembers that. Whatever space there is between them, it was Vossler’s hand that put it there. Gabranth goes on. “But I couldn’t go on as I’d been. I thought we—it was easier before I met you.”

“Yes.” Exactly. Everything was easier. It didn’t matter.

“Easier. But it wasn’t better,” Gabranth says. Gabranth won’t let him look away. They’re not touching, but it’s true nonetheless. Vossler knows he wasn’t better. And he hasn’t been better since swearing that he’d never be in this position again, on his knees, in front of Gabranth. He doesn’t know, really, when he’s been worse.

“Would you continue to do something if you knew it made you less useful to queen and country?” Gabranth’s voice feels louder, stronger, though Vossler knows the volume and pitch haven’t changed.

No. It would be dereliction of duty. “I couldn’t,” Vossler says. “Not in good faith.” It’s why he’s never let himself indulge overmuch in drink, why he won’t tolerate the same in his soldiers. It’s why anyone caught gambling with army provisions sees swift and strict punishment. It’s why the army provides food for her soldiers that nourishes, that sustains, and it’s why soldiers are required to eat in the mess hall together. It’s why Ashe herself commanded that he and Basch observe a leave-day each week.

Gabranth says, “Basch told me you were ill. You told me, before, that you’re never ill.”

Vossler is going to punch Basch in the throat when he gets back. And maybe kiss him again. “I wasn’t sick.” He wasn’t well, either. Gabranth obviously knows that, and he knows the cause. He shares it. “Basch writes often?” Vossler guessed he might, but apart from that first letter, Basch hasn’t shared anything with him.

Gabranth nods. “Once or twice a week. He came to see me, once, too.” Gabranth inhales. “He was worried about you.”

One of those days where it looked as though Basch had been awake all night. Vossler never asked. He’s going to punch Basch twice. “I would have been worried about you, if I’d known—” If he’d known this was killing Gabranth, whatever “this” was. It was supposed to be his own punishment, not Gabranth’s. Surely Gabranth would be too busy, would find someone else, would—it would pass for him.

“You never asked.”

Hearing Gabranth say it turns his blood to ice. He exhales, slowly. The folded parchment in his pocket rustles as he moves, as he crawls forward on hands and knees. Standing and re-settling would be more dignified, but the flysheet isn’t high enough for him to do it without stooping, and his dignity is not on his mind.

He kneels in front of Gabranth. “Forgive me,” he says. “I didn’t know.” It’s not really true. But he is sorry. He lifts one of Gabranth’s hands, finally lets himself look close at the red-dotted wounds.

Gabranth pulls his hand away, and he’s not touching Vossler anywhere. The palms of Vossler’s hands feel strangely cold when the contact is gone.

“Please,” Vossler says.

Gabranth sets his teeth against his bottom lip, but he shakes his head. “It’s not that.” He sits up more. “I know this is easier out here, where you can look at me and say that, and you don’t have to answer to anyone else.” To Queen Ashelia B’Nargin Dalmasca, he means. Because it had been easy for Vossler to make the same kind of promise before the survey, that they’d make it work, even after they came back. A promise easy to say, easy to want to keep, but—Gabranth exhales. “I can’t do this again, not-knowing.”

“You’ll hear from me,” Vossler says. “Soon. Often.” He doesn’t mean to interrupt, but now the words come spilling from his throat. He remembers how he is out here at all. “It’s at least a month until my next leave-day, maybe more, if I am out here for another week.” It’s hardly like being on full duty, waiting in the desert for scouts to report, waiting with nothing to do but fish and—he looks at Gabranth. Nothing to do but fish. And. “But then—” It feels like lightning in his brain. Now, he could go by crystal to Archades, if he had to. He could, if Gabranth isn’t sleeping when he’s alone, go for a few hours at night. Not every night. But a few hours. Basch has done it. He realizes that he is speaking out loud when Gabranth’s mouth on his makes him stop talking.

The kiss is not what he expects: it is gentle at first, slow, and Gabranth touches him nowhere else. The inside of Gabranth’s mouth tastes a bit like blood, too, and Vossler’s tongue finds ragged, raw spots on the inside of Gabranth’s lip, his cheek, like he’s been chewing there, too. Gabranth winces against him when Vossler licks at one of those spots. Vossler pulls back.

“If you need to bite something,” he says. He tilts his head back, offers his throat. Now Gabranth’s hands move, and one snarls tight in his hair, the other clutched hard on his shoulder, and Gabranth pulls him closer, pulls him down, and when his teeth dig in, Vossler moans. He doesn’t try to quiet it. What he struggles with is keeping his own hands still, keeping from grabbing at Gabranth. He holds his own wrists fast, behind his back, and he grips hard. Gabranth has no fingernails to scratch with, but he moves the hand on Vossler’s shoulder to his hip, lets his hand straddle skin and cloth, and he drags his teeth down Vossler’s neck. He’s expecting the pinch when it comes, but it still makes him groan, and when Gabranth bites at the pulse point under his jaw, there is nothing he can do to keep himself from tipping over that edge. Gabranth presses his teeth together more while Vossler stiffens and shudders, and this time he does try to stifle the sound. But stopping the sound doesn’t do anything to stop the wet smudge across the front of his shorts, and he almost expects Gabranth to push him, to grind his palm against his softening cock, but Gabranth doesn’t. He keeps his hands where they are, though the one in Vossler’s hair gentles a little, lets go enough that Vossler can lower his head.

“Sorry,” Vossler whispers. He’d wanted to ask for permission. He’d wanted this every hour since the last he’d had it. As it is, he can barely find breath enough for that one word. But he has some pride left, wants to defend his lack of control. “It’s been a while.” That might be an excuse. And with Gabranth’s hands still on him, he thinks it wouldn’t take much to be ready again.

“How long is a while?” Gabranth’s fingers card through the hair at the base of his neck, slowly.

For Basch, “a while” had been years. Balthier thinks anything longer than two days is a vow of celibacy. “Since there.” He points toward the Highwaste, where last they were together. And it wasn’t part of the question, but he wants to be honest. “I tried, once, with someone else.” He just shakes his head. It didn’t work. That’s all there is to say about it.

Gabranth pulls him closer, kisses him again and nips hard at his lip. When he stops, he pulls both hands back. “No one else,” he says. “Not while you’re with me.”

With him. Vossler nods. “No one else.” He doesn’t think he needs to say it, but he’s going to. “The same goes for you.”

Gabranth puts his hand on Vossler’s thigh. “There’s no one else I want.” He leans in, bites at Vossler’s bare shoulder, and Vossler starts to inch closer when Gabranth’s eyes unfocus, blink hard. Gabranth’s hand on his thigh goes completely slack for a moment, too, and Vossler is disappointed before he can stop himself. He can’t hide it—Gabranth digs his teeth into his own lip again and leans closer, squeezes hard though his hand almost shakes. Vossler is certain he’s the most selfish ass in all of Dalmasca.

He gets up and reaches for Gabranth’s hands to pull him up, too. Some of the scabs have cracked and are bleeding again, from the dryness and from the way Gabranth’s hands have been fisted in Vossler’s hair, against his body. The middle and ring finger of his right hand are better than the rest, though, not bleeding, though the nails are still bitten short and blunt. He’s not sure how these two fingers have escaped the brunt of Gabranth’s teeth, but that’s a start, maybe. Vossler presses his lips to them, then moves to the ragged index finger. He licks at it and has to stop himself before he sucks the whole digit into his mouth. Later. Later he can do that.

This time when he leads Gabranth into the water, Gabranth lets him stand close, keeps an arm loosely around Vossler. Vossler tries to keep his hands to himself, but he can’t help asking about his hair.

“Will that wash out?” It looks so strange darkened. He knows why Gabranth did it, knows what he offers him so disguised, but it’s not him.

“Don’t care for brunettes?” Gabranth grins through his tiredness, and Vossler realizes that Gabranth really doesn’t know whether he does or doesn’t. Vossler’s never thought about it in those terms. And he doesn’t know what—who—Gabranth prefers. It doesn’t really matter, but Vossler finds himself curious. He just wants to know. They can talk about it later.

“My track record suggests not.” Blond twins. The courtesan was also fair-haired, tall. Also: “I want you to look like yourself.” He lets himself run his wet hand through Gabranth’s hair, and there is a bit of the dye on his palm when his hand comes down.

Gabranth looks at him a little strangely, as though that surprises him, and maybe it is surprising. But Vossler means it. He’s not about to advertise their association to anyone else—he’d be crucified in Dalmasca and rightly so—but he’s not going to pretend to himself that Gabranth is anyone other than who he is. Gabranth ducks under the water and scrubs at his hair, and the water swirls black. When Gabranth surfaces, though, the dye’s not all gone and the drips of water at his temples are tinted dark. Vossler suspects it will dry that way, streaking his fair skin, but that’s all right. The circles are still thick and purple under his eyes, he’s still too thin, but he looks lighter in some intangible way. And Vossler still can’t help wanting him, wanting his mouth on those scars, wanting it all this very minute. But now is not the time. Vossler washes his shorts and is grateful for the cold water.

Tristan is still sitting in the shaded lee of the tent, blinking lazily at them as they come out of the water. Vossler hangs his shorts and stands full in the sun for a moment while Gabranth crouches in the shade with Tristan, whispering something to the bird. Tristan just tosses his head a little and tucks his beak under his wing again. Gabranth watches him, and Vossler stretches, lifts his hands above his head and holds the pose, feeling the heat bake into his muscles, feeling the heat of Gabranth’s eyes.

When they go into the tent, Gabranth shakes his head at him as he lies down. “Basch said you were an awful tease.”

Vossler presses himself to Gabranth’s side, doesn’t try to hide his desire. He wants Gabranth to know. He wants him, even like this. “Teases don’t follow through,” he says. He touches his lips to Gabranth’s shoulder. “And when were you two being such tawdry gossips?” For a moment, it’s like the last two months never happened.

“One night, during the survey,” he says. He turns to face Vossler, slides one hand down Vossler’s side, lets his fingers wander the long, trenched scar Basch’s sword left. “And maybe teases like you aren’t allowed to follow through.” He grins, but his hand moves more and more slowly. He needs to rest.

Vossler rolls onto his back, tugs him closer, so Gabranth is pressed against him as he was this morning. “What if I ask very, very nicely?” His hand splays across Gabranth’s back, where the muscle is still knotted under the skin, and Gabranth’s arm crosses his chest. It’s a good position to get himself kneed in the groin if Gabranth spasms in his sleep, but for now, it’s comfortable.

“I’ll think about it.” His voice is slowing, too, his chest pressing tighter to Vossler’s as he breathes deep. The strangely healed bone seems to put him even closer, where the convex curve of Vossler’s ribcage fits into the concave shell of his.

After a while, Vossler dozes, too, and he is woken up by Gabranth’s knee jerking toward his balls, though he blocks it in time. Gabranth rolls over without really waking, and Vossler follows, curls around him. Before he dozes off again, he promises himself that he will see that Gabranth is taken care of before anything else happens between them.

He wakes a few hours later, when the sun has shifted to its hottest point of the mid-afternoon, when the light is hard as topaz. Vossler’s right arm is mostly asleep, they’re nearly stuck together with sweat, and more of the tint that Gabranth used on his hair is leaching out from the moisture. But Gabranth is wholly asleep until Vossler inches away. His eyes blink open slowly, almost normally, until he sees Vossler pulling away. Then they open wide, and he rolls to face him. Vossler puts his hand back on Gabranth’s side.

“Getting dinner. I’ll wake you later.” Gabranth’s eyes don’t close right away, though, and Vossler stays where he is until he’s asleep again.

Tristan gives him a wary look when he leaves the tent, and Vossler can’t help but explain himself. “I’m only going right there,” he says, and he points at the river just in front of the tent. It’s still a little early for the shad’s evening feed, but Vossler is hungry and Gabranth should be eating more than one meal a day. Stupid yellow-haired twins with their not-eating. And with their making people talk to birds. When Vossler walks away, though, Tristan stands up, shakes his feathers out, lifts his head high. He stays right in front of the tent, watching Vossler, watching the rest of the sands.

The first fish he catches is a dune trout, one of the usual suspects in the river, and that means that the garnet shad are thinning out, giving up their ravenous feed at this time of the year. They’ll be swimming their way around the breadth of the continent for the next year, ready to cut back into the rivers from the sea at the end of another summer. There are still the red flashes from time to time, and he hooks a small garnet on his fifth cast. He wets his hand carefully before taking it from the hook, before pointing its gaping mouth upstream so the water runs fresh in its gills. It’s not even the length of his hand, this fish, and he will, he thinks, make an effort to come back next year. He can wait that long for that rare kind of fishing again. While the fish darts away through the current, he glances at the tent. Yes, next year: the fish will be wiser, and by then, he’ll have found that grace in his cast again, he thinks. If there is grace enough in this lifetime to give him this one thing, to allow him the strength to keep the promise this time.

The thought helps, and by the time he has enough fish, his elbow is starting to go liquid and the line and fly are landing nearly where he wants them, are feeling almost as light as they really are. When he turns away from the river, he sees Gabranth sitting in the shade before the tent, watching him.

“You should do that more often,” Gabranth says. “You look so relaxed.” His voice is soft, muzzy-sounding, and he yawns wide. During the survey, Vossler doesn’t remember that sound or the yawn—no such regular markers of tiredness. He’s glad for them now.

Vossler shrugs. “My form is shit,” he says. “Out of practice.” The rusty feeling, he thinks, has spread other places, but all of this feels like stretching. In the last few hours, it’s been the good kind. “Do you fish?” In those weeks before, he can’t believe that he never asked Gabranth that. Not even after he’d made him that rod and lure. He starts cleaning his catch, and there’s enough wood to cook these without Gabranth having to get more.

Gabranth stretches as much as he can without putting so much as an ankle out of the shade. “Used to, when we were young.” He and Basch, he means. Vossler promises himself he’ll ask more about those years. It doesn’t seem to bother Gabranth as much to talk about them. Basch still doesn’t, much, though he’d been getting more talkative on the subject on the survey. In the last two months, Vossler doesn’t remember saying much to Basch at all that wasn’t related to work, except a few questions about Balthier so Basch would talk about that instead of asking Vossler anything. Gabranth leans out to look for Tristan, who is digging at something in the sand. Probably rock adders. Eska likes them, too. “Hunted more than fished. Chocobos aren’t much for fishing,” Gabranth says.

“Were there any hours of the day you two weren’t covered in feathers?” If it were up to Basch, Vossler knows, there wouldn’t be still.

“Mealtimes. And once in a while to impress someone.” Gabranth inches closer as the shade lengthens.

“Chased a lot of tail, did you?” The fire crackles to life and the fish are cooking. The scene is the same as it was before, but it feels very different. When the only thing left to do is wait for the fish to cook, Vossler moves back, until he’s on the edge of the shade and Gabranth leans against his back. Vossler feels like he can breathe deep again.

“A fair bit,” he says, and he’s smiling.“Basch used to be a real slut. Corrupted me like you wouldn’t believe.” Gabranth’s hand comes around his waist, and he puts his hand on the cool, wet fabric of Vossler’s shorts.

“Certainly,” Vossler says. “Made you deflower half the cavalry?”

Gabranth nods gravely. “And half of the shepherdesses.”

“So you do like women.” He’d thought, maybe.

Gabranth’s hand stiffens on his leg. “Is that a problem?”

Vossler turns his head. “No.” He didn’t mean it to sound like that. “No, I just didn’t know.” He puts his hand atop Gabranth’s. “I don’t care, one way or the other, as long as—” He can’t quite finish it.

“I’m interested in you,” Gabranth says, and he pinches a little. “What’s your position? On women.”

He shakes his head. “Never been in any positions with women.”

Gabranth’s eyebrows draw together. “Basch said you were on the verge of getting married.”

“Arranged.” Vossler turns to face him completely. He’s never told this story to anyone. Enough people know it, but. “My aunt—father’s sister—had set it up. I barely knew the girl.”

“I can’t imagine you married,” Gabranth says, and Vossler agrees with him.

“I couldn’t, either. But I couldn’t make any more sense of wanting a lover to hit me, and I thought that would fix it. If I could settle down.” At his words, Gabranth starts to scratch at one of the scabbed points on his thumb, but he stops. He puts his hands on Vossler’s knees, under the edge of his shorts, and Vossler goes on. “She and my aunt died in the first wave of plague.” And Raminas’s chief counselor, too. He’d been old, Vossler’s aunt had always had weak lungs, and the girl he’d been intended to marry—he doesn’t know. She was young and looked healthy the one time he’d met her, but she’d seemed delicate in ways he didn’t know how to understand.

“I remember that epidemic.” Gabranth’s fingertips are light on his skin. “Balthier’s mother, too. I didn’t know him then, of course, but that’s when Cid’s mind started to go.”

It was in Archades. Vossler didn’t know that. “I didn’t know it spread that far.” He wonders now if it had gone as far as Rozarria. He’s never thought to seek out that information. Basch probably knows.

“Illness and fire don’t bother themselves looking at maps.”

Vossler nods. Shit. Fire. The fish. He goes to the fire, and the fish is overdone. It’s not blackened, except for one of them. “Sorry,” he says. “You distracted me.”

“If it’s not burnt hard enough to bounce, you haven’t ruined fresh fish.” Gabranth falls on his food like it’s been weeks since he’s eaten. And the fish is not as bad as it could be, but it’s not all that substantial. Tomorrow, maybe, he’ll see if he can get a cockatrice or something—Tristan would probably be thrilled for something to do—but for now, he reaches into the tent for the saddlebags Basch sent, and he pulls out packets of dates and almonds. Dried fruit and nuts are standard for rations, but Vossler is certain Basch chose these particularly: both are nutrition-dense, and Gabranth likes sweet things. That Vossler remembers.

While he rummages, Gabranth is the one to clear the bones and offal away, and Vossler looks at him. “You don’t have to—”

“I’m not actually dead,” Gabranth says, and he puts out the fire, too, as if to demonstrate. While he’s stubbing out the glowing ends of a few mostly-whole sticks, though, he yawns again. At Vossler’s look, he concedes, “I just felt like it for a while.” He flicks a pebble at Vossler. “So stop cosseting me.”

Vossler almost laughs because Basch would choke on his own tongue at that. Vossler, cosseting anyone. But what he says is, “I might be trying to be nice.” Trying. It’s easier with Gabranth than it has ever been with Basch, and he has no idea how that can be true. But it is. “Come here.” He sets his back against one of the palms near the tent, puts an arm out.

Gabranth looks at him strangely again, but he settles between Vossler’s legs, gingerly, puts his back against Vossler’s chest. He’s still sitting up, though, holding himself from leaning too hard into Vossler. Vossler puts his hand on Gabranth’s chest and pulls him closer. “Relax,” he says. For a moment, Vossler wishes he knew how to make his voice soft, coaxing. But Gabranth does relax, sort of. At least he lets his full weight press back into Vossler; that’s a start. And he doesn’t need coaxing when Vossler holds a date up to his lips. What he does do, though, is to hold Vossler’s wrist where it is and lick away the sticky sugar the date left behind. He chews slowly, and Vossler wishes he could see Gabranth’s face because Gabranth makes a small, deep sound in his throat, the kind that says he likes that a lot. It’s probably better this way, though: if he’s not watching his reaction, he can keep feeding him like this, can listen to the crunch of the almonds under his teeth, can watch the tight muscle of his jaw work. Better that he’s not looking at his eyes.

Sooner than Vossler thinks he should, Gabranth stays his hand. “Thank you,” he says, and he drags his teeth over the pads of Vossler’s fingers. Vossler feels himself harden again, and Gabranth notices it because he inches back more, until Vossler’s cock is caught between Gabranth’s back and his own stomach, but Gabranth does nothing else. He sits more still, he leans comfortably, and the knotted prickle of the palm’s bark dots Vossler’s back. He imagines flogged bruises there, how that would feel now, but this is not, right now, about what he craves. He puts his hands on Gabranth’s shoulders and he amends that: it is a different thing he wants, right now, and it surprises him again. He squeezes softly at Gabranth’s shoulders, and even though Gabranth leans full against him—relaxed, maybe as relaxed as Vossler’s ever seen him—the muscle beneath the skin feels like clenched fists in places, the knots from a long period of tension. He thinks his back was like this before the survey, during it, too. Vossler hadn’t done anything about it then, hadn’t thought to, and these last two months certainly made it worse.

He kneads a little, and Gabranth glances back at him.

Vossler clears his throat. “If you’re willing to lie down again, I can get rid of some of this tightness for you.” It’s been long while since he’s done this for anyone, let alone someone—someone. Someone who hadn’t just pulled a muscle in the desert or in the waterways. He will make an effort to make this more pleasant than that ever was, more pleasant than the times he and Basch traded these after the hardest of their training.

Vossler is barely done talking when Gabranth levers himself up, has barely stood by the time Gabranth is already stretched out on Vossler’s blankets. Vossler himself goes more slowly, searches in the saddlebags for something to help carry his hands more easily over the skin. In the field, they use saddle or armor oil, sometimes potion, but there’s half a dozen vials in this bag. They’re certainly here because Gabranth is, Vossler suspects, because Basch isn’t this cautious with himself and he knows how Vossler would pack. But Basch had been zealous in watching over Gabranth after seeing how he didn’t heal, how his blood was slower to clot. Vossler takes the stopper from a small, fancy bottle he’s never seen before, and he tries to place its scent. It’s familiar, rich and warm—

“What smells like Balthier’s leather oil?” Gabranth props himself up on an elbow.

“Balthier’s leather oil, I guess.” It’s lighter than most leather oil, though, and it leaves only a thin sheen on his fingertips. It will work. And it smells good—even better when it doesn’t have Balthier’s incessant talking attached to it.

Vossler crawls close to Gabranth, and he’s still wearing Vossler’s shorts. Vossler tugs at the cloth, and Gabranth wriggles his way out of them. His legs are still beautiful, and it’s all Vossler can do to keep from bending close and putting his mouth on the back of Gabranth’s thigh. Instead, he straddles Gabranth’s legs, and he kneels there for a moment. It feels strange—nearly wrong to be above him like this, but Gabranth’s thighs are warm and it’s good to be touching him at all. To be touching someone. No, to be touching Gabranth. He tips a bit of the oil into his palms and everything is warm when he smoothes it across the tops of Gabranth’s shoulders. He’s not even using any pressure and still Gabranth lets out a long sigh.

“Does it hurt?” It shouldn’t hurt, not like this. It might hurt a bit when he gets to the worst of the knots, but now—

“Nn-nn,” Gabranth hums, and then he turns his head far enough to speak. “Feels perfect.”

“Barely even started.” Vossler keeps his hands as gentle as he can, though, making wide, sweeping strokes from his biceps to the base of his back. He runs his thumbs on either side of Gabranth’s spine, and Gabranth’s body loosens under his touch. Vossler’s hands find the back of Gabranth’s neck, the space between his shoulderblades, and he makes another one of those low, contented noises. This time, Vossler can’t keep himself from touching his mouth to that place. Gabranth stiffens a little at that—with surprise? discomfort? Vossler doesn’t know and he wishes he did—but he breathes slowly.

“I need to push a little harder to fix this.”

“Mm, I’ve said that before.” Gabranth pillows his head on Vossler’s balled-up shirt, and he’s almost smiling again. “Do your worst.”

Vossler doesn’t know what to say to that and he doesn’t want to think too hard on what he must be referring to. Vossler’s not the first person Gabranth has worked with. That was one way he’d put it, when they were on the survey: Gabranth had given someone else beatings, once a week, scheduled in, in years past, like it was a staff meeting, called it working on, working with. But now he said “pushing.” Vossler doesn’t know what that would look like, what it would sound like, unless it was what had happened that day before they’d left Archades, when Gabranth made him stroke off for him, when he’d done things he’d not done before and he’d wanted it, wanted whatever it was that Gabranth wanted. He pictures Gabranth saying that to him: pushing. He wants that, even though he’s not completely sure what that would mean. He knows he doesn’t want it to use the word “work.” He is not a project. It sounded like Balthier was a project, long ago, for Gabranth, among other things. Vossler does not want to be a project, though he’s not sure what else he wants to be, either. Or he knows, but he has no word for it. So he focuses instead on the problem of skin and knotted muscle, on fixing Gabranth, in whatever small way he can.

A few times, Vossler feels the sharp intake of breath or a shaky exhale when his fingertips find the root of a knot, and so he slows his hands even more. He doesn’t lessen the pressure, but he goes slowly, and the tent is full of the oil-scent and the warmth of their bodies. The longer he massages, the more he is convinced that he’ll need to do this again, regularly, to undo all of the tension here. The longer he does this, the more he wants to do this again. He tells himself he doesn’t have to get it all right now. There will be another chance. There’s tomorrow. There will be weeks from now. He said so himself. He reminds himself of that as he gentles his hands, not so much massaging as keeping contact, and Gabranth seems to sink further into the sand. His breathing slows, lengthens, and Vossler realizes, only belatedly, that Gabranth is asleep again. As carefully as he can, he leans close again, puts his lips on the back of Gabranth’s neck, and Gabranth doesn’t move.

His eyes do flicker and then open, though, as Vossler stretches out beside him, and Gabranth is clearly forcing himself awake then.

“Feels a thousand times better,” he says, and he stretches long, like a cat, and then he presses himself against Vossler’s side, and this still feels new. He almost asks when Gabranth got this kind of touchy but he stops himself. There’s no way to say that without it sounding like he doesn’t enjoy it, and he does. And Gabranth is talking, anyway. He’s asking where Vossler learned how to do that.

“And don’t say it’s just a back rub. I’ve had those, and they feel nice, but they don’t change anything. My back feels different now.” Gabranth leaves a soft bite—just one—on the outside of Vossler’s shoulder.

For a moment, Vossler considers explaining the traditional practice, the borrowing of Rozarrian lore in the laying on of hands and the manipulation of the body, but Gabranth knows history and cultural exchange, Vossler is sure. And Vossler doesn’t know all that much about the formal practice—he knows what he’s picked up, what’s been useful to him. So he says, “It’s a family tradition.” He hasn’t spoken much about his family to Gabranth at all.

And Gabranth nods, like something’s been confirmed. “Your surname. It is Rozarrian. I thought so.”

“It’s been in Dalmasca for five generations.” But he gives his assent. That is where his father’s name came from. “My aunt was the palace chirapsia until she became ill.” Vossler says, “She raised me.” Inasmuch as he would be raised, anyway. By ten, he had enlisted himself, and he was tall enough to fetch and carry. He is glad that Gabranth doesn’t ask about his father.

“If I were able, I would thank her,” Gabranth says, and he rolls over, pulls Vossler’s arm around himself, pulls Vossler closer entirely, expecting he’ll simply follow. Vossler does, and he doesn’t think he needs to do it, but he tucks himself close, throws his leg over Gabranth’s, and yes, there is that comfortable sound again. Vossler kisses the side of Gabranth’s neck and it’s only the tenderness across the bridge of his nose that keeps him from crowding more.

***

It’s strange to punctuate his days so, with such attention to going to sleep and waking up, but on this third day, it’s hard to mind. Gabranth is awake before he is and is lying half on top of him again, drawing designs on the flat plane of his stomach with a fingertip. Vossler takes his hand and this time he lets himself put Gabranth’s finger into his mouth, lets himself lick at the ragged skin and its metallic flavor. Gabranth pushes his finger deeper into Vossler’s mouth and holds himself up, looks at Vossler’s eyes and his mouth as he sucks. Vossler licks and Gabranth levers himself completely on top of Vossler, rubs against Vossler’s thigh. When Vossler lifts his own hand, when he would pull Gabranth closer, Gabranth’s fingers close on his wrist, pins his hand to the groundsheet.

“No,” he says, and his eyes are clear, glinting blue and hard, and Vossler has to moan around the digit in his mouth. “Wait,” he says, “until I tell you.” He pulls his finger from Vossler’s lips and he kisses him hard, biting and scraping, and Vossler makes himself hold still as best he can. In the back of his mind, he is trying to remember the promise he made to himself, that he would be certain Gabranth would be taken care of before it came back to this, but Gabranth wants and all Vossler can do is give. He offers up his throat, wants him to bite where anyone might see the mark on him, and that makes it solid, his choice: he’ll go back to Rabanastre like this again, he will go with evidence he cannot deny. Gabranth bites hard, hard enough that Vossler cries out; he nips close with his teeth, and when Gabranth’s mouth finds his again, the reddened taste is there, faint. Vossler shudders, fights for control of his own body, and no, he doesn’t need to do that: Gabranth crosses Vossler’s wrists and pins them down with one of his own. Yes, Gabranth will do it. Vossler’s back settles against the groundsheet, his body goes still. He will wait.

He waits, and Gabranth does not. His hand is on his own cock, and Vossler sees: Gabranth is going to mark him, and he wants it. How much he wants that makes him arch, makes him curl his leg around Gabranth’s to pull him closer, and he doesn’t understand any of this. Once, Basch had pulled out and come on his back, and Vossler hit him for it. Others have come on his face, nameless men, after they’ve used him hard; Vossler considered it the necessary trade-off for the pain he’d wanted. This feels different, wholly different, from all of those things, and as Gabranth works himself, his breath panting out between his teeth, Vossler says, “Please.”

The first hot streak is across his chest, and again, until Vossler’s torso is slashed white with Gabranth’s spend, and Gabranth sags against him. He doesn’t seem to mind the mess. He kisses him, lets go of Vossler’s wrists, pets at Vossler’s forearms.

His thigh is firm against Vossler’s cock, and the temptation is there—maybe even the offer is there—to rub off against him, but Vossler will wait. He wants this—Gabranth’s mouth against his, Gabranth’s sign all over—and now he puts his arms around him, keeps him there. His heartbeat is a quick thump under the skin, and his body doesn’t feel as solid, as steady as Vossler remembers it. That steady hold, though, is in his eyes, in the set of his mouth.

Vossler speaks beside Gabranth’s ear. “What can I do?” Before he can help it, he rubs a little against Gabranth’s thigh, but that is not what he means to do. “For you. What can I do, for you?” What does Gabranth need?

Gabranth bites the angle of his jaw. “You can wait,” he says, and Vossler nods. Yes, he can. His cock is a singular ache between his legs and he savors that: it means Gabranth is here now. He kisses Vossler again, but then he levers himself up. They don’t need to be stuck together, and if they go into the river again, maybe the last of that dark color will wash from Gabranth’s hair. There is soap in the gear Basch sent.

There is soap, and Gabranth does lather out almost all of the dye. He grimaces at the sting of it on his raw fingertips, and Vossler remembers its bitter taste. His aunt had colored her hair, but she’d done it with henna.

“What was that?” Vossler combs the short hair with his fingers, and there are some dark patches on his scalp, underneath, that haven’t come clean. The dark spot behind his ear is still there.

Gabranth coughs. “Ink.”

Vossler just looks at him.

Gabranth sighs. “There was some kind of ink that Drace had for Larsa when he was very small, some kind that washed out of fabric, off skin, because he was always trying to help.” He puts himself back into a palm’s shade, rubs at the spot. So he knows it’s there. “The bottle was in my drawer for—eight, nine years now.” He seems to be remembering something, something pleasant, and Vossler wants to know what it is. Gabranth looks up, as though he can see the fringe of yellow hair at the edge of his forehead. Right behind that, there is a black splotch on the skin as large as Vossler’s thumb-print. “I think it went off. Or I should have shaken it before I used it.”

Vossler inches closer, kisses him. “I think you should let your hair alone.” He puts his hand back in Gabranth’s hair and rubs with his fingertips. He can’t stop touching him, doesn’t want to stop, not when it makes Gabranth’s eyes close like that. He takes the chance and drags his fingernails softly across his scalp and Gabranth makes a sound that’s a lot like a cat’s purr, but surely not—

Gabranth swivels in front of him, until his back is to Vossler, and he tips his head back, inviting more. Kneeling up behind him, Vossler continues, flexing his fingers in Gabranth’s hair, letting his left hand come up to scratch gently across his back. There is a definite quiet rumble in his chest, and something trips in Vossler’s memory.

“Basch used to do that.” Vossler had laughed at him, called him a freak. It doesn’t sound funny now. But Gabranth sort of laughs.

“I’m glad he remembered how.” Gabranth is leaning into the hand on his back, and Vossler scratches harder, until he’s drawing up thin red lines. The rumbling sound gets louder, but it stops when Gabranth has to speak. “Took us a lot of practice to be able to hold it.” Then it starts again.

Vossler slows his hand, and he can feel it—it’s circular breathing, the kind of exhale-inhale at the same time that the Garif didjian players use. In the early years of Raminas’s rule, there’d been a Garif embassy. Basch had been wholly fascinated, though he’d never explained why. And Vossler has never known Basch to be musical in the least—he’s tone-deaf until he’s two drinks shy of passing out entirely. He can’t help the curiosity. “Are you musical?” He tries to picture Gabranth playing some sort of instrument—surely they wouldn’t learn such a musical skill just for a new way to indicate pleasure—but he can’t quite do it. Maybe a gittern, something that can be played with the hands.

Now Gabranth laughs fully, and Vossler gets as close as he can without stopping the motion of his fingers. “Worse than Basch.”

“That’s not even possible,” Vossler says, and he touches his lips to one of the places where the red lines his fingernails have drawn cross. Gabranth doesn’t respond, but the purring sound starts again, and they stay there like that until the sun shifts enough that Gabranth’s not in the shade anymore. Gabranth starts to move a little.

“Stay,” Vossler says. “You won’t burn instantly.” All of the color he’d gotten on the survey is long gone, and there’s still more of that exhausted translucency in his skin than Vossler wants to see. He needs sunlight. Vossler knows what his armor looks like—there’s no way for him to feel sunlight while he’s working. And Basch’s skin acclimated easily enough. “You’ll get used to it,” he says.

Gabranth turns to look at him, and his face is wry, almost sad. “I don’t think I have that luxury.” He edges back into the shade.

Vossler realizes what he’d said. No, of course he doesn’t. He’ll need to be gone maybe as soon as tomorrow; he can’t be here when the scout troop arrives, and he can’t come back. “I’m sorry.” And he is. He actually is.

Gabranth pulls in on himself, wraps his arms around his knees. “Dalmasca has its right to its anger. If I had known how it was going to play out, I would never have set foot in Nalbina.” He’s looking at the sand, looking through the sand, and Vossler wonders what it is he’s seeing.

He asks the question that he never thought he’d ask. “Why did you?” He knows that it was shortly after that that the fifth Magister changed, that that had to be Gabranth, and the one responsible for Nabudis was gone. He knows now the story of Judge Magister Zecht and the sky pirate Reddas. Both Basch and Ashe have told him that. No one has told him this one, though he knows Basch knows the whole of it.

Gabranth sighs. “I don’t think what I tell you will ease your mind any,” he says, and Vossler wonders if the next hour is going to undo what has happened in the last two days, but Vossler is prepared to believe him, whatever form this takes. Gabranth starts with, “I was never supposed to live out that night,” and whatever Vossler was expecting, it wasn’t this. The bleakness, the echoing emptiness behind his words—it was easier to deal with when he thought it was for the advancement, for the fact that it was an order. It might have been easier, too, to think simply that Dalmasca was the enemy at that moment, and Raminas’s assassination was the necessary course of action. But this—Vossler can hear what is behind it all: if Gabranth’s plan had actually worked, he would have none of what he has now.

Basch has forgiven his twin for that night, and Vossler holds nothing about wanting to kill Basch against Gabranth. He’d done the same, and Basch has forgiven him, too. For a moment, all Vossler can think of is what Ashe would make of this. He suspects she would not believe it—Raminas was her father. The act stole her kingdom. The reason behind it holds no sway over effects like that.

They sit for a while, silent, and Gabranth is still staring at the sand. The admission doesn’t change anything, not really—it was still the thing that gave rise to Vayne Solidor’s power, it was still the thing that stole Dalmasca from her queen, her captain. But something in his mind eases because Gabranth told him. So Vossler leans closer, rests his forehead against Gabranth’s shoulder, and when he touches him, Gabranth startles.

“Come inside,” he says. “Let me work on your back some more.” His fingertips trace that muscle; it’s knotted tight again. He pulls Gabranth to his feet, and when he’s standing, he kisses him, opens his mouth in invitation, and Gabranth is slow to take it.

So Vossler bites him, sharp, on the lip, and he knows he did it too hard or he hit one of the old tender spots that hasn’t quite healed because there’s blood on his tongue. Gabranth yanks Vossler away from his mouth by the hair, and yes, his bottom lip is reddened. Gabranth’s fingers are tight at the base of his skull, as though he’s been scruffed, and Vossler is instantly hard.

“Bad Vossler,” Gabranth says, and he wipes his mouth with the back of one hand. It’s not bleeding much, but there’s a faint red smear. Vossler wants it. Vossler wants it and that lost look is gone from Gabranth’s face. “In,” he says, and he pushes Vossler toward the tent. When he follows, though, he doesn’t touch Vossler. He stretches himself out on the blankets and looks at Vossler expectantly. The expression on his face sparks something low in his gut, and Vossler is pretty sure he won’t be getting off any time soon. It’s almost as good as getting hit, getting bitten, and this time, when he tips out the oil onto his palms, he starts at Gabranth’s calves.

The muscle there is chiseled sharp, solid, and that must be from walking all day in all of that armor. He moves from one leg to the other, cupping the curve of his calf in his palms. One is crossed by a deep scar, an old scar, something that would have seen Gabranth on crutches until it healed. Vossler leans down and licks along the length of it, and the oil tastes faintly of something like almond and a slight bitterness that’s new to his tongue. It’s not a bad taste, certainly not unpleasant enough to keep him from doing it again, and when he does, Gabranth looks back at him again. Vossler tries to look innocent and he resumes rubbing.

There’s not much work to be done here—he doesn’t carry his stress in his legs—and Vossler would admit to anyone who asked that this part he’s taking for himself: it’s more to touch. And Gabranth doesn’t seem to mind. When Vossler’s hands smoothe over the backs of his knees, Gabranth’s legs stiffen, and a lighter touch sees him squirm a little against the blankets. Vossler touches his tongue there, and Gabranth growls his name, though he might also be trying not to laugh. Vossler does it again, and this time Gabranth rolls, kicks a little.

“If you tickle me, every hair on your head will be gray before you get to come again.” He’s glaring, but he’s fighting down a grin.

Vossler files that away for later, schools his face to contrition. “Yes, sir.” It’s not really sarcasm, and Gabranth knows that: his cock thickens between his legs, and Vossler watches him adjust himself before he settles onto his stomach again. He glides his hands up to the backs of Gabranth’s legs, and he kneads the corded muscle. His skin here is pale gold, and Vossler remembers Basch pulling his hamstring once, during an infantry versus cavalry ruggerball match. Vossler putting his hands here, on these identical inches of skin, was what led them into bed the second time. It was the only time Vossler fucked Basch, and it had been good. But not what Vossler wanted most, and this is not Basch under his hands. Vossler slides his hands over Gabranth’s arse, and he wonders if Gabranth ever bottoms. If he has. Vossler thinks so—he’s mentioned learning some of these things, and the surety of his touch suggests to Vossler that he knows what it feels like. No one else who’s given Vossler pain, he’s sure, has ever been on the receiving end of it.

Vossler slides his hands back down to Gabranth’s thighs, leaves an open-mouthed kiss on his left leg. He remembers leaving the mark on the front of this leg, those weeks ago, and he scrapes his teeth over the skin. As he moves back up to the base of Gabranth’s back, he straddles his legs and tries to turn his mind now to actual help. It feels, though, that his muscles are looser now, at least better than they felt before they’d come into the tent, and Gabranth makes that purring sound again as he makes small circles with his thumbs over Gabranth’s kidneys, follows the curl of his ribcage down to his sides, as far as he can reach before the blankets he’s lying on stop Vossler’s hands. He inches closer, and the sound actually vibrates his hands a little. He likes it, but it still means Gabranth is doing something, and the only thing he’s supposed to do is enjoy it.

Vossler leans up and presses a kiss to his shoulder. “Ssh,” he says. “I know you like it.” He moves his hands along his shoulders, out to Gabranth’s elbows and back up, and Gabranth shifts a little, so there’s a ghost of friction where Vossler’s cock touches Gabranth’s back.

“Feels like you like it, too.” Gabranth sounds smug. It makes Vossler want to rub closer because it’s true. He likes this a lot, and it doesn’t make any sense because he’s not really getting anything out of it.

But as another tight point yields under his fingertips, even Gabranth’s bones go supple under him—he’s not holding himself up or at any kind of attention now. His breathing is slow and even, wholly plain, and Vossler is getting this: Gabranth has let go of the situation. This moment is in Vossler’s hands, this is something Vossler can do, that he knows Vossler can do for him. In spite of everything else that is still a disaster, there is this.

This time, too, Gabranth doesn’t fall asleep. So Vossler urges him to roll over, and his plan will probably fall apart if they’re facing each other, but he oils his hands, strokes from Gabranth’s neck down over his chest. He spends a long time on the front of Gabranth’s right shoulder, where the scar tissue is thick, layered. Watching him, it’s clear that Gabranth can’t feel as much on the surface of his skin where the scars cut across, but Vossler knows that there’s probably more reason to pay attention here. And there is the fact that his fingers love this texture; he could spend days doing nothing more than this, tracing these marks. He bends again to lick across them, and Gabranth’s right hand comes up, rests on Vossler’s thigh. He’s not doing anything with it, he’s staying relaxed, the way Vossler wants him, but the touch—Vossler likes that.

He can’t stay under that hand, though; he moves back so he can pay attention to the front of his legs, too. It’s hard to keep himself from doing more than slide his hands slowly over Gabranth’s hips. His cock isn’t fully hard now, and the want to put his mouth on him now staggers Vossler, the want to feel him stiffen on his tongue. Vossler kneels between Gabranth’s legs, and crouches low, keeps his hands moving softly over his thighs. Gabranth’s eyes are closed, and his chest rises and falls slowly, deeply, calmly. Vossler wants, but he’ll wait. He presses a kiss above Gabranth’s knee.

Gabranth cracks one eye open. “You’re magnificent,” he says. Two fingertips lift and motion him closer. Vossler can’t even think of a way to reply to that. His cheeks feel hot. He settles beside Gabranth, props himself on one elbow, but before he can rest his head in his hand, Gabranth tugs him down to his mouth, kisses him slow and hard. When he pulls back, he says, “You have no idea how good that felt.” This is an expression Vossler has never seen on his face, and it makes Vossler want to look away. He ducks his head, inspects instead Gabranth’s fingertips.

Gabranth’s fingers in his hair make him look up, but he’s not pulling. He’s only touching. “What’s this? Shy’s not something I’ve seen from you.” He’s almost smiling, like it’s funny, and Vossler might be mad except he’s not at all. He just doesn’t know how to look at him like this.

Gabranth keeps him from turning his head away again, but he can move his eyes, so he does. “Not exactly what I’m used to, either,” he says. There’s no reason for Vossler to have enjoyed that as much as he did, nor any reason for Gabranth to make such a display over it. It’s no grand thing—

Gabranth kisses him again. “I just wanted you to know. I appreciate it.” He sits up, drags his fingertips down Vossler’s arms. They both look at the lack of scratch, and Gabranth’s face is wry. But he is not distracted. “You did something for me without trying to get anything out of it yourself. That’s rare, in my experience.” His gaze drops purposefully to Vossler’s crotch where he is, inexplicably, still mostly hard.

“That’s not true,” Vossler says. And he makes himself meet Gabranth’s eyes. “I enjoyed that.” He fills his lungs. “A lot.” The more he says, the more clear it becomes, even though that’s never been true for him before. He’s taken care of Basch before—a terrible case of food poisoning, sun fever, half a dozen injuries—and it wasn’t a hardship. Despite what some think, he’s not entirely without sympathy—but this isn’t about sympathy. He wants to do that again, to make Gabranth go boneless, easy under his hands.

Gabranth makes a thoughtful noise, then he narrows his eyes a little. “Then you’re lucky it was good because what you just said doesn’t sound like being patient when I told you to wait.” He’s grinning, the kind that looks more like he’s baring his teeth than like a smile. It’s the one Vossler likes best. He leans in, bites over the place where he’d broken the skin before. Vossler’s hands come up to Gabranth’s shoulders, and he holds as still as he can. That point on his throat throbs with ache; Vossler wishes he had a mirror to see it. The river will never hold still long enough for him to get a good look. Then Gabranth bites two inches higher, right under his jaw, forcing his head back until his whole throat is exposed. His fingers stroke down Vossler’s throat, on either side of his windpipe, and Vossler pushes closer, tries to get pressure in the places Gabranth’s fingers touch, but Gabranth won’t give it. He tries to hide the impatient growl, fails. Gabranth lifts his head from Vossler’s throat.

“I know you want that,” he says, and his fingers continue their tantalizing slide. But he shakes his head. “Not yet. We don’t know each other well enough, and I’m not well, full stop.”

“You’re better,” Vossler says. He knows he shouldn’t be fighting for this. He knows Gabranth’s right. But he doesn’t want him to be.

Gabranth presses instead on one of the marks on Vossler’s shoulder, and Vossler shivers. “I’m better than I was. Which means I can walk on my own.” Vossler tries not to think about that, but Gabranth won’t let him avoid it. He leans closer with his dark-circled eyes. “But I need to be at my best for breathplay, and you deserve me to be at my best for something like that.”

Vossler’s hands find Gabranth’s forearm, his left arm. He doesn’t say anything for a while. It still feels strange that Gabranth should be so cautious with him; it feels strange, but maybe good. He looks instead at the lean corded muscle there, pets slowly at it. “Can I ask for something else?”

“You can ask.” They both know Gabranth can always say no.

Vossler edges away from Gabranth, and he crouches beside their clothes, piled in one corner. He threads Gabranth’s belt from its loops again and returns. He doubles it over carefully, holds it out. “Please,” he says. Even if it’s just once.

Gabranth doesn’t take the belt from him. “Please what?”

Vossler takes a deep breath. Toward the end of the survey, he’d done this a lot, made Vossler say what it was he wanted, and it’s gotten harder, somehow. It had been harder at the end than at the beginning, and it’s hard to think of why. It’s not easier now, though he doesn’t think of refusing. He straightens his back, holds his shoulders where they ought to be. “Please,” he says. “I want you to beat me.” He makes himself meet Gabranth’s eyes, and he re-offers the belt. “I missed having your bruises.” When the words leave his mouth, he knows they didn’t come out the way he’d intended. There’s an extra word there. He has to cover it. Nothing is coming.

But Gabranth reaches, takes the belt from him, takes a kiss. “I missed giving them to you.” His hand drags down Vossler’s chest, down his stomach, but Gabranth avoids his cock.

There’s not enough room in the tent for all of this, but there’s no way to get out, and Vossler doesn’t want to leave. He does, though, want to turn, offer his back, but he won’t until Gabranth tells him. And Gabranth doesn’t tell him to move yet. Instead, he drags the belt along Vossler’s thigh, and Vossler kneels up. The belt skims the muscle, and Vossler closes his eyes. A quick sting on the inside of his right leg makes them snap open again. Gabranth is watching him closely, and he taps the belt against his left leg this time, a little harder. The small red mark isn’t more than a hand’s-width from his balls, and Vossler doesn’t want pain there, not at all, but he breathes and holds still. It must be the right thing: Gabranth nods.

“Trust me,” he says. The belt nips into Vossler’s right thigh—not terribly hard, but the skin there is thin and it makes Vossler suck in his breath.

With his exhale, he says, “I do.” The belt snaps more sharply into his leg, and Vossler feels his cock jerk. No one’s ever hurt him here. Basch used to lick, bite a little, but Basch will put his mouth on anything. He’s not thinking about Basch. He’s concentrating on the thin red lines that are striping his thighs, on the concentration on Gabranth’s face. He closes his eyes again, and the belt bites full across the front of one leg, as hard as Gabranth would hit his back, and the thick leather raises a welt. He gasps. There’s no use in trying to know what to expect, so he lets his eyes go shut again, is going to keep them that way. This is about feeling.

There’s so much to process, too. The new sharp mark, the small stings that build into one ache, the soft pressure of Gabranth’s fingertips over them. He raises a matching welt across the front of the other leg, and Vossler moans. What he wants is more of this; what he wants is for Gabranth to take him, to make him ache from the inside out. He can’t find words for that now, not with the hurt covering his thighs, but the belt stops. Gabranth is looking at him when he opens his eyes. The flat of the belt traces the inside of his thigh, down the other, back up, until the belt drags over his balls, up the length of his cock. Vossler wants to squirm away from the sensation, but also toward. It’s too strange, it reminds him of things he doesn’t want to remember.

“This makes you nervous.” Gabranth keeps the belt moving, slowly and softly, up and down his legs. “Is there a reason?” He reaches with his other hand, slides his fingers gently over Vossler’s cock. “Besides the obvious, of course.”

Vossler wants to lie, to say it’s just that no one could possibly like pain on his genitals, but enjoying the dull ache of delayed release is not usual, either. And he can’t lie to Gabranth like this. “I’ve been hit there before.” He doesn’t have to describe the circumstance—it’s happened in battle, it’s happened in friendly leisure, and it’s happened in dark back rooms. The first two are a given, and Gabranth can read the last on his face. Gabranth’s fingers continue their soft pressure and the belt’s doubled edge curves under his balls. Vossler leans closer.

Gabranth bites at his lips. “I won’t ever hurt you in any way you don’t want me to,” he says. Vossler nods. He knows that. He lets his eyes fall closed again because Gabranth takes his hand away, drags the belt down his leg, and then it lands sharp and stinging at the crease of his hip, not two inches from the shaft. Vossler’s pulse is racing and a pearly bead shows at the tip of his cock. He keeps his eyes screwed shut. Gabranth kisses him, rubs his stubbled cheek against Vossler’s neck again. “But you like when I get close to the edge, don’t you?” His thumb presses over the new-forming welt.

Vossler’s chin jerks down. “Yes.” The breath leaves his lungs in a slow, steady stream.

Gabranth’s thumb slides further inward, another inch, and there it stops, brushing circles in the coarse hair. Vossler thinks he knows what that means, that when Gabranth’s more steady, this point is where he could safely land these strikes. He reaches and touches what he can: Gabranth’s shoulders, his arms, his ribs, his hips. Then he takes the hand holding the belt and kisses it.

“Lie down,” Gabranth says. He guides Vossler onto his stomach, and when he presses himself full against the blankets, the welts across his thighs throb. He wishes he could make that purring sound, wishes he knew some way to show Gabranth how good this feels, but what he can do is to hold still, to be patient—Gabranth is doing something on the far side of the tent, and Vossler listens to the clinking of vials. He lies there, keeps himself from looking. He doesn’t need to see it to make it true, and Gabranth rewards his faith by straddling his knees, stroking his back. Vossler feels the belt’s leather resting against his thigh.

“Remind me,” Vossler says, “to kiss Basch for this.”

“Only if I can watch,” Gabranth says, and his teeth scrape shallowly across the back of Vossler’s neck.

Vossler wants to say something else to that, but he can’t form the words. Slick fingertips slide between his arsecheeks, and all he can do is give voice to the moan. He presses back as best he can, is trying to be still and stay where Gabranth put him, but he can’t. “Fuck me,” he says, before he means to. Gabranth’s fingers are inside him, two at once, and he arches into the burn of it. “Gods, please, fuck me.”

“Patience,” Gabranth says, and his fingers are gentle now where they breach him, rubbing soft and stretching him. His other hand rests in the middle of Vossler’s back, steady, and so Vossler closes his hands on the blanket and sighs into his arm. Soon, though, Gabranth tugs him up, just at his hips, so he is braced on his forearms, bent over, and Gabranth pushes in with one inexorable slide.

Yes. He arches his back, presses toward Gabranth, and Gabranth’s open palm stings sharp on the outside of his thigh, overlapping one welt by a mere finger’s width. His cock jerks hard and Vossler bites his lip.

“You don’t want this to be over yet,” Gabranth says, and his voice is strained. He is still, still, only moving where his left hand pets over Vossler’s back. Then the hand is gone, and Vossler feels him reaching. Vossler feels his breath catch in his throat, and the flat of the belt drags across his shoulders.

“Can you hold still for this?” Even as he says it, Gabranth thrusts a little, and Vossler wants to claw at the blankets already.

“Yes, sir.” He wants to claw the blankets, wants to rock back hard on Gabranth’s cock where it stretches him hard and tight, but he will not because what he wants more is this. He holds his back flat and he waits.

The belt snaps full and flat across his left shoulderblade, then across his right, no time between the strokes, and Vossler just breathes. There is no gradual increase in strength in the blows this time, none of the deliberate patterning. There is only the sure force of Gabranth’s arm and the sharp lines of the belt against his back. The blows fall faster than before, too, and Vossler realizes only belatedly that he is arching into the belt, rocking back against Gabranth’s cock. The welts ache fire, he cannot form words. The belt falls to the blanket beside him and one of Gabranth’s hands squeezes the bruised skin while the other digs in hard on Vossler’s hip. He is not telling Vossler what to do; he is shoving Vossler forward with the force of it, he is growling, he is stiffening hard against Vossler’s back, and Vossler feels the wet heat of his spend inside of him.

Too soon, Gabranth pulls away, and Vossler wants him back where he was, but Gabranth pushes him onto his back, pushes him down until the belt-marks ache more. Gabranth kneels between Vossler’s knees and Vossler watches him bend close as though he’s watching someone else entirely. When Gabranth’s mouth closes over his cock and his fingers press into arse again, Vossler can’t even beg. He can only watch as Gabranth pushes down further, slowly, and he licks hard, tighten his lips, and curls his fingers to spark each steady thrust. Everything slips sweet and hot and throbs with ache and Vossler loses track of when he actually comes. He shakes and his eyes unfocus and there is too much to feel. He knows only that Gabranth kneels over him now, kisses him deep, shares the thick bitterness of Vossler’s own spend between them.

Gabranth lies beside him, pulls him against his side so the welts on his back aren’t pressed against the ground. They lie there for a long while, and Vossler feels the thrum of Gabranth’s heart behind his ribs.

Vossler sits up, crawls across the tent, reaches for the waterskin. He holds it out first to Gabranth, but Gabranth is looking at his thighs, at the red stripes patterning them, at the pearl-white ribbon snaking down. Gabranth finally takes the waterskin, but he doesn’t drink. He holds it in one hand and draws Vossler closer with the other, kisses him again. Only after that does he drink.

Vossler is thirsty, but he can’t find a way to lift the waterskin to his lips. Gabranth sucked him, Gabranth let himself come before he made Vossler do it. Gabranth beat him and fucked him at the same time. He kneels beside him, presses a kiss to the top of Gabranth’s thigh. They’ll wash, and as soon as Gabranth wants him again, he’ll offer his mouth. He wants, though even kneeling here, it feels like it couldn’t actually have happened.

Gabranth tugs him down. “Rest now,” he says, and his hand slides lightly over Vossler’s back. Vossler makes it a point to roll onto his back, press his shoulders down. Gabranth smiles at him a little, tired, pleased-looking.

“I didn’t think—” Vossler still can’t quite catch his breath.

“It works well enough with someone who can hold still,” Gabranth says, and he looks even more pleased with himself. But he pets at Vossler’s chest. “Wonder what I’d have to do to get you to really thrash,” he says, and there is that mischievous face.

“Don’t tell me to hold still,” Vossler says, but he can’t help but think of possibilities. He doesn’t know the answer to that question.

Gabranth kisses him again, all tongue and teeth, and Vossler thinks he can still taste himself there. He’s still maybe half in shock from that, and maybe that’s why Vossler says it out loud. “I didn’t think you sucked cock,” he says. When the words are out of his mouth, he wonders if he’s just ensured that it will never happen again. But in three weeks, Gabranth hadn’t done that before. He holds his breath waiting for some kind of response, and Gabranth actually grins. Here he looks like Basch.

“Been wanting to do that for a long time,” he says. He squeezes at Vossler’s thigh, just once, and he curls closer to Vossler, yawns again. Vossler wraps an arm around his shoulders, pets softly.

They nap for a while, until Gabranth twitches hard, jerks his knee into the side of Vossler’s leg. He hits him square in the place that makes Vossler’s whole thigh goes numb, and Gabranth opens his eyes, shakes his head, opens his mouth to apologize. Vossler laughs—it’s not a pleasant way to be woken up, but it’s funny, funny the way Basch used to thread chocobo down through his blanket so the thin vanes would make Vossler itch, the way Vossler used to slide ice down the middle of Basch’s back when he was fast asleep—and when he’s rubbing away the nerve spike, he can’t help his hand straying to the bruising marks.

It feels good, good enough to make him start to reach for Gabranth again, but his arse is sore and he wants to wash. Despite all that, though, he lingers in the tent, watches Gabranth stretch his arms, his wrists.

“Stop ogling me,” Gabranth says in the way that means he doesn’t mean it at all. He’s looking from Vossler’s eyes to the welts on his legs.

“You first,” Vossler says, but he moves now, lurches through the open tent flap, and though his muscles are tight around the bruised places, his body feels loose, easy. He dashes for the riverbank, leaps, cuts the downstream pool with a shallow dive. Gabranth follows with a terrific splash, and Tristan warks at them, trots away from the bank. He shakes hard, then picks up a stone with his beak, tosses it at them before settling into the tent-flap shade.

This time, they wash each other, and almost all of the dye is gone from Gabranth’s hair. There are only a few dark places where it won’t come off his scalp, and Vossler fits his fingertips over those places. Gabranth bites at his wrist, shoves him under. When Vossler surfaces, Gabranth splashes him again.

“You’re not that much taller than I am.”

Vossler straightens up even more, grinning, and he’s standing on a rock under the water—he’s got almost six inches on him this way, but Gabranth reaches, takes him again by the back of the neck. Vossler sinks to meet him.

Eventually, though, they have to get out of the water. Before their commotion makes the fish shy away, before Gabranth is chilled through.

This time, Vossler pulls on his shorts even over his wet legs. He doesn’t want sand in his arse, and maybe if they’re covered, they can keep from falling into bed again. Vossler keeps reminding himself: Gabranth should still rest, should still do something other than wear himself out beating Vossler from neck to knee. And Gabranth won’t beat him over these bruises again, not until they heal. He’d told him that before.

Gabranth dresses, too, puts his shirt on. He watches Vossler gather his fishing gear again, and he looks at the saddlebags. He is hesitant, but he asks, “I saw Basch sent you a book. Could I read for a while?” He blinks, says, “I want to get myself back into trying to sleep at night.”

Vossler nods. He rummages through the bag. He doesn’t remember what book it was, and when he finds it, he is surprised. It’s the Dalmascan history book that Vossler gave Basch not long after he enlisted. It’s not the same copy, of course—Vossler doesn’t know what happened to Basch’s things after Nalbina. He doesn’t know where most of his own things went after Nalbina. But it’s the same book. Vossler opens the cover—it’s plain inside—then he snaps it shut.

“It’s Dalmascan,” he says. He’s not sure what to do with it now. The book is half-extended between them. “It’s in Dalmascan, I mean.” He’s not really sure what he means.

Vossler sees Gabranth’s chest rise and fall. He looks seriously at Vossler. “Would you rather I pretended I couldn’t read it?”

Vossler feels stunned for a moment, then tosses the book at him. “Arsehole.” He’s half-laughing, despite himself.

Gabranth catches it neatly. “I’m not completely joking.” He’s looking at the cover. “I won’t—I want to make this as easy as I can for you.”

Vossler shakes his head. “Nothing easy is ever good.” He opens the book and puts it back in Gabranth’s hands, taps the flourishing capital on the first page of text. “Read up on how much better Dalmasca is,” he says. He tries a grin. It almost feels right.

“I never thought it wasn’t,” Gabranth says, and he carries himself out, plunks down on the riverbank, his feet hanging in the water. For a moment, Vossler watches again how quickly he reads, how fast the page turns from one to the next. Vossler sits near, sorts through the nanna-wool patch that holds his smallest flies.

“You know half a dozen languages, don’t you.” Polyglot, like Basch. For all that sometimes Basch just doesn’t say anything, he’s able to do it in more languages than Vossler can think of.

Gabranth glances at him. “Closer to a dozen.” At Vossler’s disbelieving look, he says, “We already had Landisser, some Garif, Kiltean, Archadian, and Common. Old High Nabradian, Rozarrian, Bhujerban Hanti and Divin, and Dalmascan were part of my training. And Balthier’s been teaching me what he knows of the viera tongue. That isn’t much, but.” He shrugs.

Vossler just shakes his head. He knew some of that, could have guessed at some, but it feels like an enormous list. Vossler knows only his own language, Archadian, Rozarrian, Common. It’s that way by his own design. “Wait.” Gabranth looks at him. “How did you know Garif?” The way he said it—they’d—Vossler can’t remember if Basch ever said he knew Garif. Or if Vossler just assumed the obsession was new.

“Our great-grandfather journeyed as far as the Bancour. He was a friend to the Great-Chief who guided them before Uball-Ka’s predecessor.” He looks up. “Basch never said?”

“Basch never said anything about his—your—childhood.” Vossler nips the leader off neatly beneath the new knot he’s made. “And I never asked.” Vossler said it didn’t matter. But now—now it feels like it would have mattered. He sighs. “I’m apparently shit at asking the right questions.” How much of this could have been avoided if Basch would have said he had a twin.

Gabranth shakes his head. “He wouldn’t have said anything, even if you had asked. I never did, either.” He amends that. “I’ve told Larsa some of our old stories. But only since…more recently.”

Vossler leans in to bite at his shoulder. “When you finish your reading,” he says, “I’ll have questions.” He pushes away from the bank, drops waist-deep in the water again.

For a while, he stands there, watching Gabranth read, his head bowed to the page, his hands light on the covers. He doesn’t bite at his fingertips. He doesn’t look up. It’s only a yellow splash that makes him turn his head; a golden shrike wings up from the water, a thrashing dune trout caught in its hooked beak. If the bird can see the fish lunging at the surface, his luck should be good.

It should be, and it is. The smaller fly, the thinner leader—they need his attention as he plays each fish in, lets it fight the current rather than the line. As he casts, the muscle across his back burns, aches, and his shoulder is supple with it. The sand bug he’s fishing drops just at the start of a thin riffle of water, and Vossler almost whoops at how perfectly it lands. But he holds still, plays out line so there is no cross-current tug to make the fish suspicious.

Then someone does shout. Vossler turns, and it’s Gabranth. Tristan’s standing beside him, crest up, and there’s another chocobo cutting across the sand toward them. It’s not Eska—the color’s wrong, too plain yellow, and it’s not Basch on its back. Vossler lunges back toward shore so suddenly he trips, ducks himself, but he keeps fighting for the bank. It’s Ashe. It can only be Ashe. Basch is in the Westersand today, running sandstorm drills with the skirmishers, and for a moment, Vossler almost hopes she’s come because something happened. But he knows she’s here because Basch isn’t in Rabanastre to keep her from coming.

Vossler stands dripping on the bank, beside Gabranth, and he doesn’t know what to do. Gabranth puts the book safely to one side, commands Tristan to go lie beside the tent. Vossler sees it for what it is: Gabranth is now unarmed. His hands hang at his sides, then one hand comes up, draws a flat sigil across his chest. It’s familiar somehow, but Vossler can’t place it, and then he can’t think because Ashe pulls the bird up short, so sand flies up. Vossler doesn’t cover his face. The sword across her back is plain, like the one Vossler trained her with. Nightmare is inside the tent. Vossler doesn’t know if he would lift it against her again. He is not religious, but he prays now. He prays he doesn’t have to learn the answer to that question.

When she dismounts, Gabranth bows. “Queen Ashelia—”

She holds up her hand. She does not look at him. “If I never hear your voice again,” she says. She doesn’t finish the thought. Her gaze is full on Vossler. “This is what decision you make.” It’s almost a question, but it invites no answer. Her face turns to each portion of the river-side campsite: the book, Vossler’s fishing rod dropped hastily beside it; the sand-and-char ring of their fire; Tristan watchful in the tent’s lee; the one palm that’s served as a backrest, the sand before it scooped in the indents of seat and legs. She turns her face to Vossler, but she does not seek his eyes. She stares hard at the patches of marking across his throat, his chest. His shorts are long enough to cover his thighs, but he is sure that she has seen at least some of his back. It feels like her sight can reach through his chest, his ribs, can know what she cannot see.

Her hand lifts, and Vossler is certain she is going for the sword. Blue-white light flashes and the blast of healing magic catches him full in the sternum, knocks him back apace. It knocks the breath from his lungs and the bruising is gone. An ache is stuck behind his breastbone.

She says, “Never be in my sight with his sign where I can see it.” She still does not look at Gabranth, does not turn so much as an eye. “If his feet cross this border again, I will consider it an act of open war.”

“I brought him here,” Vossler says. “It was at my insistence only.” He’s said it out loud. It is both harder and easier than he thought it would be.

“If it happens a second time, you commit treason.” As though it is more magic, her blade is at his throat. He hadn’t taught her that speed. For a moment, he is proud. For a moment, the old scar on his side feels like it echoes. Then she whirls, the blade a long white-gold arc in the sun, and there is time to move, but Gabranth doesn’t. He stands fast, and the sword lies under his jaw.

“It is your right,” Gabranth says, quietly, “Queen Ashelia.” Her right to be revenged. They all know this. At the sound of his voice, Ashe presses the blade closer, and Vossler sees the thin red line opening on the side of Gabranth’s neck. Gabranth is bleeding, but she has the blade in the wrong place, against the thicker muscle at the side than at the place closest the big veins, the windpipe—a deliberate choice on her part, he knows.

“Do not tell me what my rights are,” she says. The blood on Gabranth’s neck beads and slides, slowly. He still doesn’t move, and Vossler can’t do anything. This is not a place where any power is his to decide. “You live because of the treaty between Dalmasca and Archadia.” The blade presses closer, and another bead forms and falls. “You live because I will not murder in cold blood. I will not be like you.” The blade pulls back, returns to its scabbard. Ashe’s hand flies forward, though, and the stinging slap echoes over the river’s sound. Gabranth closes his eyes, keeps his head turned where the force of the blow has put it.

He looks up. “Thank you,” he says. Blood soaks into the collar of his shirt, a muddy-colored stain on the dark green fabric. “I do not take your mercy lightly.” Vossler doesn’t know where the strength to say these things come from, but now Gabranth’s sunken eyes are perfectly focused.

Vossler sees Ashe’s eyes flicker toward him and back. “You will answer for it if you do.” She turns, she mounts, she is gone. Neither of them move until she disappears behind the dunes, and then Vossler is at Gabranth’s side, his arm around Gabranth’s waist. Gabranth’s breath is steady, even, and he doesn’t lift his hand to staunch the blood at his neck.

Vossler does, though, covers the wound with one hand, cups the other around Gabranth’s reddened cheek, and he kisses him, as carefully as he knows how. Gabranth mimics his touch, returns the kiss more fiercely, until his hands move and his fingers are in Vossler’s hair, on his unmarked shoulder, until his scalp aches and there are fingertip-wide points of hurt where the residual magic still prickles his skin. Vossler’s palm is wet with blood, and now he pulls back.

“Let me wrap this,” he says, against Gabranth’s mouth, and Gabranth lets him lead him to the river’s edge. Before he washes away the blood, he licks once across the red trails soaking into his shirt. Gabranth keeps his hand on Vossler’s back, calm.

Now Vossler is grateful for all that Basch has sent him, old-fashioned ointments and binding cloths, nothing of the distilled magic that doesn’t work on Gabranth anyway. The salve stings, of course, as all old medicine does, but Gabranth only grits his teeth while Vossler rinses away more of the blood, smudges in the cure. If they were anywhere with true healing hands, Vossler thinks he might insist on this cut being stitched, just to be certain, but it’s only an inch long, not very deep at all. The Queen’s hand is steady, sure, exact. Vossler’s own shakes a little now. He tries to tuck in the bandage edge neatly, the way Basch has always been able to, so that there is no loose tail and no visible knot. Now he remembers what sign it was that Gabranth made as Ashe approached. Basch used to do it, before battle. The Old Landisser invocation to the beasts of battle, to the raven and wolf, to see the body was made use of after death. Basch’s hand made it automatic. Gabranth’s was a deliberate choice. Vossler’s fingers are blunted, dumb, stiff, and he only sees that they shake hard when his smallest finger knocks into the side of Gabranth’s neck. The tremors wrack him. He knows courage in the face of death. He knows the necessity of it. He knows defiance of death, how to mock the final end. He has never been in the presence of someone ready to die.

“Easy,” Gabranth says, and he nudges Vossler’s hands away, ties the knot in the bandage that Vossler was trying to avoid. Vossler is certain he could have done it more neatly, but the knot is immediate, and Gabranth’s hands are on Vossler’s now, are holding his wrists tight. “Kneel,” he says, and he doesn’t let go.

Vossler moves out of his crouch as gracefully as he can, orders his knees beneath himself, and he bows his head. He breathes as slowly as he can. “You weren’t going back to Archades. If I hadn’t come.” If Vossler hadn’t taken him in.

Gabranth must nod. There is a hint of motion. “I would have gone home,” he says. “If I could not atone here, I would try at the foot of the mountain.”

To Landis. A journey no one can make without weapons, water, food. Vossler can only try to order himself, his beating heart, his thoughts.

Gabranth reaches, tips Vossler’s chin up, and he holds Vossler’s gaze. “In this practice,” he says, “I am glad Basch broke from Landis.” Vossler is glad, too—he has never seen even the capacity for that kind of despair in Basch, that kind of loss. Gabranth breathes deep and he turns his face toward the Highwaste. No, Vossler thinks, toward Landis, and the Dalmascan sun slants across his cheeks.

Vossler reaches for him, and when Gabranth turns back toward him, he looks fully forward, at Vossler, and takes Vossler’s hands in his. “I will be here, now,” he says. They both know that this here, Dalmasca, can only be temporary, but he is not looking over his shoulder anymore. He is not looking at the past.

Vossler touches the blooded cloth at his neck, pulls him in close. Then he stands, tugs Gabranth with him, and he leads him away from the river. He knows they cannot go far, knows he needs to keep them out here, away from any of the trade-traffic bound for the Estersand village or the ferry, but there is space, there is time now. “I want to show you something,” he says. “You cannot leave the desert without seeing it well.” Basch had been fascinated by the strange cacti growing in the rock crevasses, by the burrowing owls in their sandy hollows. He used to know where he could find the nested pairs, the downy owlets with their sharp orange eyes.

Gabranth follows him a few paces, then he stops. “You don’t have to do this,” he says.

“I know.” Vossler keeps walking, and soon Gabranth’s steps align again with his. The path he wants to take to the cliffs on the desert’s edge is straight and even, but a ridge juts high and sharp toward the south. Vossler turns his feet toward it, and from its crest, he can see the place where the river widens and flattens, where it is a broad lapis ribbon. The falling sun leaves it shot through as though with gold thread, and the dunes mound ivory and pearl before it. Gabranth stands beside him, one hand resting at the base of Vossler’s back, the other shading his eyes. There is nothing to say here, but as Vossler looks out on his country, he does not know when he has seen it better.