Oralech bids the scrivener good evening and waits, without looking up, for the echo of her footsteps to recede beyond earshot of his office. They had convened a little before dusk to transcribe his latest findings, sitting together on opposite sides of a large, antiqued writing desk that has never witnessed any actual writing before. Helaine remained ever-alert long after the sun sank below the horizon, a contrast to his own creeping fatigue; once in a while she would tug absently at one thin braid or another with her free hand, as if pulling her focus back to the present, and for the first time in the many moons of their acquaintanceship Oralech happened to notice the dull red of the three-pronged star etched into her skin just above the temple. Not merely a fugitive, then, but an exile. He hadn't been aware, when she'd first entered his employ—or, more accurately, when Volfred put her there.
A deep sigh escapes him. It's unpalatable news, though not for any particular reason he can name. Volfred gives preference to those he deems trustworthy above all, be it his commanders or his pages or his Physician-in-Chief, and Oralech has no reason to think Helaine's case any different. He sits a while longer, fresh notes fanned out in front of him, carefully skimming over words he's only just begun to understand, when through the open window he hears the striking of a distant bell. Nine already. They're near the end of tenthmoon, that point at which winter begins shaving the autumn light away in steadily larger slivers, raking at the city's warmth coal by coal. In the Downside, winter's approach meant nothing short of running, frantically at times, as fast and as far as it took to outrun freezing, sickly, starving death. The sensation is one of encroaching, terrible darkness; it slithers past the windowpane and coils around the rawest parts of Oralech's memory, squeezing tight.
He makes his decision then. Despite longing very suddenly for home and the warmth he'll find there—a spiced glass of wine and Ti'zo snoring in his cozy nook above the kitchen door—Oralech stands and, gingerly as possible, banishes the lengthy transcript to a cedar-scented drawer. Dutifully, he snuffs the lamps. He traverses the alabaster halls of the assembly, human footfalls reverberating through corridors and silent galleries, and ascends, as ordained, the grand staircase leading to the offices of the Prime Minister.
Inside Volfred's pipe plume precedes him, curling up and evaporating a foot or two above a high-backed armchair sat a polite distance from the fire purring away against one wall. A snifter of something bracing glitters sumptuous garnet in the frenetic lamplight. He's absorbed in a book so unlike the thick tome they'd worshiped in the Downside: a worn cover softened with use, whisper-thin leaves crackling faintly as Volfred handles them with a beautiful, typical delicacy. Mindful of the twinge beneath his sternum, Oralech greets him with the precursor to a greeting, sucking in a loud breath that he holds for just a beat.
Volfred alights on him with a flash of something unreadable in his eyes. Then, obstinate, he nods and says to him, "And the Honorable Doctor as well, it seems."
Oralech steps in without invitation, sinking deeper into the warmth of the room. He stops just behind the settee adjacent to Volfred's chair, shining cool wood pressed into his palms. For a second they do nothing save for look at one another, and then Volfred makes a sound like a short hum and the book falls closed with a pat.
"You're here quite late," he remarks, the dangling start of a sentence Oralech is meant to complete.
He does. "My studies are never finished. Perhaps they never shall be."
"Ah," says Volfred, "that project. You've lost a fair amount of sleep to this already, if I'm not mistaken. I do hope I don't have to admonish you not to worry poor Ti'zo more than necessary."
Oralech pictures Ti'zo fondly for a moment, then thinks back to Helaine and the shroud of her hair, frowning. "The Downside and its influence, its... consequences... they are poorly understood. Even I, having more experience than most, have failed to grasp the whole of it. But fear not. It shall not elude me for long." The wood groans very softly under his fingers. "Even should my work outlast me, others may yet take over. Is that not so, Volfred? Is that not what you intended?"
"I can hardly be credited for any pursuit as worthy and personal as yours—"
"You might take credit for its continuation. I have publishers barking at my door, Volfred. Publishers!"
"Literally barking, in some cases, one assumes."
Oralech throws a peevish look sidelong toward Volfred from his place on the end of the sofa, where he's seemingly come to rest without even meaning to. "You are absurd... but correct."
For the moment there is no tension observable in Volfred's posture, his knees set in a loose splay, here and there a root creeping down beyond the hem of his robes to coil securely round the chair legs. Again, without meaning to, Oralech mirrors his posture. "The truth of it is... it is nearly inconceivable to me."
"This. All of it. This world you've wrought."
Volfred lets out a chuckle at that, right into his nearly-forgotten glass, the sound as warming as any spirit. "You've a very special way of dressing compliments as accusations, you know."
Oralech's head darts up. His brow furrows. "That... I did not mean..."
But again Volfred only laughs, dark and rich, more confidently now than when they'd first reconciled. His hand flexes against the arm of the chair the way hands do when they're unable to touch what they want, and Oralech ignores his waning claws sinking into the plush upholstery as he leans in and plucks away Volfred's pipe. A log pops and flares at the edge of his vision.
He watches Volfred watch him while he closes his lips around the bit, then takes a deep pull.
"Helaine was exiled."
"Long ago, yes."
"You said nothing of it."
That seems to give Volfred a little pause. "I thought it self-evident. When she learned of your research, she petitioned me personally. Although I cannot speak to her reasons, one has little trouble imagining what they might be." He reaches to reclaim his pipe. "I suspected the irony would not be lost on you, but—"
"It is not irony," Oralech cuts in, sharper than intended, but elects to stay the course. "It is justice."
Without missing a beat, Volfred takes a crackling drag and replies, smokily, "It is justice."
Oralech hadn't had anything else prepared. They're quiet for a spell.
"Your horns... they've gotten quite short."
He glances away at nothing, his smirk grim but real. "It will be years ere they're gone for good, surely. The 'demon doctor' yet lives."
But they do recede. Jodariel's progress has served as something of a metric by which he can estimate his own: their hooves returned to feet; claws turned rounder and softer, no longer resisting the file; their horns the first to show and most probably the last to leave. She had survived down there not quite so long as he, a fact which reflects itself, or so he hypothesizes, in her accelerated recovery. Most peculiar, however, to look himself in the mirror day after day only to find that his snowy shock of hair hasn't gone anywhere at all.
"Age, my dear Oralech," Volfred quips.
"The only proof set to remain of what I lived," he says, a dull-edged rebuttal, and any last wisp of Volfred's levity dissipates with the bluish plume riding his sigh.
"It's not my wish to make light of your hardship, Oralech. Never... Would that I could change it, take it. I would. More than anything, you must know that I would."
Oralech closes his eyes against the force of the urge to hold him.
"No, Volfred, no, you cannot make promises for the past. You cannot." And it is less that it's impossible, and it is, but because it is unendurable. His voice turns hoarse, reminding him for just a moment of the distorted growl it used to be. "...My peace is made. You would have me smash it to rebuild yours?"
Volfred rises and moves to fill the blank space on the sofa, slowly, so that Oralech might flee if he so desires. His shin presses into Oralech's calf where he settles. The hearth lights half a halo around his pale hair and he feels scorched inside, fragile like ashes. Oralech's resolve crumbles and he captures his hand; he shakes out a long breath, defeated.
Together they study their entwined fingers. But because he is brave and lost in equal measures, Volfred peers up. "What would you have me do instead?"
Oralech brushes his face with his horn as he turns and stares deep into the fire, shoulders setting into something thoughtful, unwary. Accepting, perhaps.
"Alone, down there... each passing winter ran me closer to the grave. Each time it would fail, and every Thirdmoon I ventured North into the hinterlands of the Glade in search of meltwater yet unspoiled by the corruption of that blighted place.
"After many years, one spring I traveled there and chanced upon a clearing where flowers poured forth from the earth. For a long time I merely waited, for I did not trust it. Yet... nothing. No virulent poisons. No fell creatures lying in wait. Simply... flowers. I returned each Thirdmoon I could. Then one spring they were not there, or perhaps I finally lost my bearings in Lu's Glade for good. And that was the end."
The story rushes from him all in one piece, no thanks to Volfred's refusal to fill the pauses he inserts here or there in hopes of sampling his thoughts. He cannot quite muster the will to look him directly in the face.
This used to be so easy.
"The Downside is death. It is treachery. Yet even then, even in the midst of bitter winter, I longed most to return to my favorite place of all. Do you see, Volfred?"
But Volfred is only staring in reply, astonished. Agog, really. How embarrassing. Oralech's gaze slides to meet his. His hand slides to graze Volfred's knee.
"Still I long for it."
And Volfred hadn't realized he was holding his breath this whole time, and it escapes all in a rush as he surges to take his mouth, and Oralech is waiting, catches him like they'd conspired for him to fall, and everything crashes into its intended place. Oralech's lips remember the petals of the glade. Minutes pass in not quite silence. Light and heat prick his back; he settles there before too long, knees planted into the rug.
His lips remember Volfred's petals, too, frosty teal and full as the rock roses in the assembly gardens. Volfred shakes and gropes blindly for his horns, his hair, stroking, pulling; Oralech hears his thighs creak a little from his place between them, a messy nest of legs on shoulders and hiked-up raiments and greedy fingers, greedy mouth. Such an old rhythm. Aching with the weight of memory, furtive and joyous stolen time on the floor of the otherwise empty wagon, Ti'zo and Erisa scouting ahead.
Caged to his seat by a pair of curled horns and speechless for once in his life, Volfred just watches Oralech with something approaching helpless awe. The man is everywhere at once, licking into him deep and slow, a steady well of nectar sharp and green on his tongue. Sensitive tendrils brush his skin with every dip of his head, and a fine dusting of pollen sticks to his cheekbones. A compelling view, all in all.
It is perhaps its own breed of revenge, one supposes, when Oralech's lips finally envelop the slender pistil and draw upon it again, again, again, sucking savagely at silky flesh until there's no more to be done but thrash and oblige his clever mouth with a pith-deep tremor and a gasp, and Volfred wants nothing but to stammer out a litany of oaths, never again will you have cause to doubt my love, never again will you be left behind, the Scribes themselves could not fathom how I've missed you—but he just comes instead, roots trawling desperately over the impenetrable floor, and Oralech, Oralech, blithely bestial, seizes him by the hips and cruelly drinks his fill.
In the calm that follows, Oralech rests his heavy head on one of Volfred's thighs. He fingers an errant little drop of dew back toward their apex when he catches it glistening in the firelight. He says... well, he says something.
Volfred, gazing into the middle distance, replies, "hmmm?"
"Hmph." It's a distinctly satisfied sound. "I said, come back with me."
"Yes. Home. Ti'zo shall delight in your company regardless of the hour."
Volfred's roots hold a moment, having twisted themselves elaborately in order to ensnare the pipe still smoldering weakly by his armchair, as he makes a show of weighing the offer. "Only Ti'zo, then?"
Oralech meets Volfred's ghost of a smile with his own, wry. "I shall manage to do something about that cheek yet tonight. Count on it."
Then the smile on Volfred's face is real, wide and warm, aching just a little from years of atrophy, and for the second time in an evening Oralech's breath stops inside his chest. "Oh, I most certainly will be doing that, my dear."
"Then let us go," says Oralech, face turned into Volfred's palm. Neither of them move.