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Without Obligations

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"Then let us do as you say. Let us be friends without obligations."

"Yes," Veovis said, rising awkwardly from his chair to grasp both of Aitrus' hands in his own. "Friends, eh?"

"Friends," Aitrus agreed, smiling back at the young lord. "Until the last stone is dust."

- - - - -

Seemingly satisfied, Veovis released his grip and leaned back, wincing as he readjusted his bandaged shoulder. He sent a pointed look in the direction of one of the servants hovering near the stairs that led from K'veer's exotic garden terrace back to the main house. The old man nodded minutely and disappeared down the steps.

Aitrus had turned his attention to a decoratively trimmed blue shrub across the way; a half-smile lingered on his face but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere. At length, he spoke again.

"I know we agreed to set it aside, but..."

"Having second thoughts about my father's offer?" Veovis chuckled.

"Not that," Aitrus said, either missing the humor behind the suggestion or choosing not to acknowledge it. "I only just remembered, there was something you wanted to speak with me about, back in the Shaft, but we never found the time."

"That is a delicate way of putting it," Veovis said wryly. "We have spoken since then, though."

"Was there not something specific you wanted to say?" Aitrus hesitated, unsure if he was pushing the bounds of polite curiosity at this point. "You seemed...fairly insistent."

"Was I? I would hope that Lianis would have told me if I was making a nuisance of myself." The servant had returned, a tray laden with fresh drinks in hand. Veovis beckoned him over, taking a glass of something amber and sweet-smelling and sipping it slowly. When it became clear Aitrus wasn't going to say anything further, he continued. "It was not anything so important as to worry over. I simply wished to talk."

"Truly?" Aitrus pressed, unconvinced.

"How suspicious you are!" Veovis' laugh was not as strong as it might have been but his eyes shone with mirth.

"Not without reason."

Veovis nodded obligingly, conceding the point. "If I still cannot earn your forgiveness for the past, I would be content with earning your good opinion in the present."

For a moment Aitrus weighed what he could say in response to that, before giving up and reaching for the other drink that sat on the servant's tray. Silence fell uneasily, like the pause of a pendulum at the top of its swing, as the two young men drank, and considered, and looked at nothing in particular.

Gradually, Aitrus' brow furrowed with confusion, and then furrowed more deeply with realization. "...Veovis?"

Veovis hummed an acknowledgment.

"When I found you after the quake, you were alone in the lift."

"I admit that my memory is...a bit vague, but yes, I believe so."

"You were." Aitrus was speaking faster now. "You had left earlier, but when the earthquake struck, you were on your way back up, alone."

"Is that a problem?" Veovis asked, bemused.

"You were coming back to speak with me," Aitrus said flatly. "You almost died for the sake of a conversation with a junior guildsman you had not seen in over ten years."

"And I do not regret it, because he is an exceptional junior guildsman," Veovis corrected. "And a friend."

Aitrus looked almost pained at that, if still politely restrained. "Even so, you will forgive me if I...do not quite understand your reasoning."

Veovis gave Aitrus a long, measured look. Then he turned back to the servant, who had been waiting silently and attentively for further orders. "Leave us, please."

With a slight bow, the man did as he was asked, and Aitrus and Veovis were left alone. Veovis sat up straighter, gingerly avoiding jostling his shoulder too much. His eyes were fixed on some point in the distance as he gathered his thoughts. Aitrus shifted in his chair and turned his mostly-empty glass uneasily between his palms. The silence dragged on.

"You have what seems more and more to be a Maker-given gift for turning my life around, my friend," Veovis said at last, turning to look at Aitrus with just the barest hint of a smile. Aitrus stared back, confused, which only made Veovis laugh and shake his head. "You do not realize... Did you know that, before you turned around and broke my nose all those years ago, no one had ever tried to stop me from doing whatever I pleased?"

"Really?" Aitrus said, and then, as if he had only just processed it, "I broke your nose??"

"I deserved it," Veovis said, with a dismissive wave. "Oh I was angry at the time, certainly. However, I did learn to think twice about what I said. A small thing, in retrospect, but I do not think I would be as I am now if you had not drawn a bit of blood."

"I...see," Aitrus said, for lack of anything better to say. At the time, he had been thinking only of stopping the unfair torment. Beyond that, he did not recall much else; he had not been proud of himself for resorting to violence, and he saw little value in dwelling on unpleasant memories.

"And now, I am still breathing only because of your intervention, regardless-" Veovis said quickly, as if to preempt any argument Aitrus might try to make. "-of whether you think you did anything extraordinary or not. It is no exaggeration to say that, without you, I would be lost. In more ways than one." The veil of humor that suffused his tone had slipped away, and Aitrus found himself momentarily taken aback by that unexpected frankness and openness that seemed to simply be a part of the young lord's character now. "That is no small thing."

"...And that is why you contacted me again?" Aitrus said slowly, still turning everything he had heard over in his head, and understanding only a small part of it. "But that was months ago. You did not know then that I would help you later; only that I had done so once before, entirely by accident."

Veovis seemed for a moment made of stone, almost dumbfounded. Then, he let out a heavy, if still good-humored, sigh. "My friend, forgive me, but if I had not seen proof of your intelligence firsthand, I would swear now that you were the densest man I had ever met."

Aitrus opened his mouth to respond, and then closed it again, more at a loss even than before. Was there some joke he wasn't understanding? "I am...sorry?" he managed eventually.

"There is no need for that." Although Veovis brushed quickly past the awkward apology, he made no move to say anything else. He ran a hand absently across his face, mindful of the heavy bruises around his temple, and combed his fingers back through his hair, once, twice, almost impulsively, before forcing himself to be still and speak his mind.

"I understand that you have little reason to do so, but please believe me when I say I speak honestly," he began. "I have...admired you, for quite a long time. I did not always know it, but seeing your work with the expedition made it clear to me. Painfully so." Uncharacteristically, he struggled with his words; they were heavier than he was accustomed to. "More than just talent or intelligence, you have a...clarity of mind and a stability about you that is like the stone itself. I am myself a bit too easily carried away, as I am certain you are already aware," he added dryly.

He paused, as if to allow Aitrus to interject if he so chose. However, nothing was forthcoming. Aitrus' expression had turned neutral and closed-off. Veovis cleared his throat, looked away, looked back, and began to speak again. "Our history is not the best, and our reacquaintance has not been long, I know. And I know that it is selfish, childish, to demand your attention now. I do not mean to force you to spend your time with me, and I do not wish for you to linger out of some sense of obligation. Just..." Unable to hold his head up any longer, he fixed his gaze upon his hands, clasped together in his lap, the joints pale with tension. "Whatever you are willing to give me, I will gladly accept. And, as I said before, anything you might wish of me, no matter what it is...I will give it, and not merely because I owe you a debt."

The hard angle of Veovis' back and shoulders, even under the mass of bandages, spoke volumes of the response he was expecting, or at least the one he feared. Unable to bear the silence for long, he pressed on, his natural charisma and social ease struggling to reassert themselves. "Whatever feelings you do, or...do not...have on the matter," he said hesitantly, "you should know that I can imagine no greater comfort than to be by your side." His expression was sheepish when he at last looked up. "There, now, that is out in the open. If you had harbored some wish to see me at my most foolish, you can be satisfied, eh?"

Aitrus wasn't smiling, but nor did he seem upset, nor anything in particular. He had not moved even a hair's breadth since Veovis had started speaking. "I did not wish for anything like that," he said slowly, but did not elaborate. It quickly became clear that he had little else to say at present; even his fidgeting had stopped. He sat stone-still and stared off into the distance.

Veovis looked out over the lake, towards the city, and broke the queasy silence with an offer of escape. "...I feel quite tired, all of a sudden. I think that perhaps I should rest, for now." He tossed the words out as lightly as a stone skimming across the waters.

Aitrus looked up sharply, startled. "Oh...I will, um. Head home, then."

"Very well," Veovis said, wasting no time in nudging his petrified friend out the proverbial door. "But we should speak again before too long."

"Yes..." Aitrus said instinctively, the reply seeming to come from very far away. He made no move to get up. Subtly, Veovis pressed a symbol on the table beside him, and in a heartbeat the servant from before had returned. Aitrus looked up at the person who was suddenly standing beside him as if he had just woken from sleep and found himself on an entirely different Age.

"Take Aitrus down to the pier, please."

The servant nodded, and his expectant presence combined with Veovis' words was enough to spur Aitrus to his feet. He drifted away in the servant's wake, almost dazed.

Veovis touched the symbol again; when another servant arrived, he asked for one more drink, much larger than the first, and let the healers' advice be damned.

 

* * * * *

 

It was four days before Aitrus visited again.

He sat across from Veovis in the young lord's study, in an armchair large enough that it dwarfed even his broad, sturdy form. He shifted in his seat and looked around the room, obviously ill at ease.

"Thank you for coming by," Veovis offered. "It is good to see you again."

Aitrus nodded, and seemed about to start on whatever it was he had come to say, but then his eyes caught on the hint of white bandage poking out from beneath Veovis' loose tunic, and he was momentarily diverted, a concerned wrinkle forming between his brows. "...How is your injury?"

"A bit better every day," Veovis assured him. "It will leave a handsome scar, certainly, but nothing more consequential than that."

"Good." Aitrus cleared his throat. "...I have been thinking about what you said before."

"You have?" Veovis echoed, leaning forward a bit in his seat.

"Yes." Aitrus' eyes were locked on a point somewhere near Veovis' right elbow. "You...mentioned that you would accept whatever I wanted to give."

Veovis blinked, caught off guard. "...Aitrus?" He watched as Aitrus reached into his shirt pocket. "What do you--"

"Here," Aitrus said, cutting him off, and presenting him with a small, soft leather pouch. It swayed heavily as he took it. "The gift you gave me has been very useful in my work. I know I thanked you for it, but I thought, perhaps, I could give something in return as well."

Veovis dropped the pouch on his palm. The object inside was dense, and smooth, sliding easily across the leather. He loosened the drawstrings and let it fall into his other hand. It was a stone of some sort, palm-sized, oblong and highly polished, with a simple design carved onto one side. Its pale brown color nearly matched the pouch it had been in, but it was spotted with irregular crimson inclusions, like splashes of dark wax on wood.

"Take a closer look," Aitrus suggested, now offering a handheld lens that he must have pulled from yet another of his many pockets. Veovis took it, adjusting the magnification until he could see the structures of the red crystals, the glassy slivers embedded within the rock that gave it a faint glimmer. It was not as if he could identify anything specific about it though; stone was not really his specialty, as Aitrus must have known.

The resemblance fell into place like the turning of a key. Without thinking, Veovis glanced over at his desk, with its piles of books and papers. "Pyroclastic glass," he murmured, half to himself.

"I had several samples left after I finished my research," Aitrus explained. "Most of them were too small or too brittle to work with."

"You made this? For me?"

Aitrus nodded. "I was worried that too much reshaping might crack it, so it is a bit plain."

"It is no more than it needs to be." Veovis chuckled. "Something more unnecessarily decorative would be unlike you. I prefer it this way."

"I am glad that you like it," Aitrus said quietly, his eyes averted. "It sounded as if that research meant a lot to you. This way, you can have something to show for it." He coughed awkwardly. "I imagined it might be useful as a paperweight, but it is up to you what you choose to do with it."

"It is nice to hold," Veovis said, grinning as he turned the stone over in his hands. "Perhaps it would serve well to keep me on the ground, and not just my papers." He looked up from the momentary distraction, his eyes earnest. "Thank you, Aitrus."

Aitrus simply gave a humble nod in response. Veovis continued to run his fingers across the glass-smooth stone, tracing the carvings on it. Quickly growing impatient with the silence, he spoke up again. "Is there anything else you wished to say?" Then, more enthusiastically, "Did you come for more discussion? We can sit on the terrace again. I will call a servant to set some chairs."

"Sorry, but I do not have a lot of time today," Aitrus cut in. "The guild can only spare me for so long; we are still sorting everything from the expedition."

"I see," Veovis said, a bit crestfallen despite himself.

"I just wanted to give you this. And to say..." Aitrus took a breath. "...I have been thinking about what you said. I am still thinking about it. And although I do not think I can give you an answer that would satisfy either of us right now, well..." Seemingly having come to the end of his words, he gestured vaguely at the stone he had spent the last few days working on. Veovis couldn't have explained it well if he'd been asked, but the significance of everything in that fraction of time - the way Aitrus moved his hand, the look on his face, the way he was still leaning forward in his seat - settled over him nonetheless, and he understood.

Aitrus rubbed his hands along the hem of his guild coat with a restless motion like brushing away dust. "Until then..."

"Friends?" Veovis offered. Then, with a grin that was very nearly on the wrong side of cheeky, he extended his uninjured arm, his hand open and inviting. "Without obligations."

That brought a touch of a smile back to Aitrus' face. He reached out and took the offered hand in both of his. "Very well."