Alphinaud does not know what he expects of their retreat, but it is not to follow Shadowhunter two hundred paces to an Allagan structure, half-sunk in the sand. Shadowhunter goes over and aims two good kicks at the side, the impact of his boot against the hollow metal loud in the silence. The second kick pops what appears to be a side panel free of the rest of the body of the structure, and the woman with him joins him in dragging it open, shoving the aethersand out of the way.
Shadowhunter pulls out a small ceruleum lamp and lights it. “Down we go,” he mutters, ducking inside. Alphinaud hesitates for all of a heartbeat before he follows, picking Moonstone up to get her out from underfoot. She quickly balances onto his shoulders, her tail waving wildly to cast flickering shadows all around them.
Three sets of footsteps come in shortly after him, and from below, Shadowhunter’s smoke-damaged voice calls back up: “Shut the gods-damn door!”
When it shuts and plunges them all into darkness, the only sound is their footsteps and breathing and Shadowhunter’s occasional coughs from below. The staircase seems to go on forever, Alphinaud keeping count of steps, remembering an early lesson from his days in Studium—for the given variable of racial dynamics of the society that built them, stairs are usually the same height.
The bottom of the shaft is at approximately a hundred and seventy stairs. It is cold and dark, and the pressure bearing down on them is almost audible, a weight that hangs overhead. The room that waits for them bears signs of recent life within an otherwise-decrepit Allagan command chamber. Shadowhunter looks up as Alphinaud hits the floor, followed by Maxima and the other two survivors.
He gestures mutely to the chairs. Take a seat.
“Did any of your provisions survive the crash?” he asks, as Alphinaud rubs his hands together, the chill already starting to seep in. He’s glad, not for the first time, for the clothes that Tataru made him—this is no Coerthas, but he is ever and always too-cold.
“What we have on our persons,” Alphinaud admits, “and little more.”
“Standard operating procedures,” Maxima says sadly, sinking down in a chair. “Destroy the cargo holds when taking down enemy airships.”
The woman with Shadowhunter laughs, a hollow sound. “We’ll keep you fed, long as you pull your weight.” Maxima gives her a shaky smile.
“We shall endeavor, then.”
Alphinaud looks up when Shadowhunter makes a noise. “Boy,” he adds, and Alphinaud sighs.
“Alphinaud,” he corrects the other man. “Alphinaud Leveilleur. I am young yet, sir, but I am a far cry from a boy. It has been many years since that innocence became me.” Shadowhunter watches him with one brow cocked. “I understand your reasons for keeping your identity close to your chest, but I gain nothing in such an endeavor.”
“Leveilleur,” Shadowhunter repeats, slowly, like he’s tasting it. In his voice, pitched low and ragged, Alphinaud’s last name thunders. “You run a grave risk, boy. That name sells at a high price.”
Alphinaud gives him a thin smile. Their remaining companions have gone quiet, watching them as they circle. “You sound familiar with the experience.” He glances beyond Shadowhunter’s face to the blade sheathed over his back and struggles to keep his expression from changing, wonders how such a thing came to pass. “Did you wish to ask something of me, Shadowhunter?”
Shadowhunter beckons, wordlessly, for Alphinaud to follow. Alphinaud looks to Maxima, lifts a hand to forestall his motion. “I will return anon,” he promises, clucks to Moonstone, and follows Shadowhunter’s footsteps.
Without the lamp, Shadowhunter lights a match and puts it to the wick of a taper, leads them to a second, smaller room. This room has crates stacked in the corners and Shadowhunter sits on one such pile, bending over to struggle his boot off, coughing at the motion. It takes him a moment to do so, but once he does, he lifts the ragged leg of his trousers to reveal a second pair of trousers beneath of the Garlean carbon-weave that Alphinaud has come to know well from the schematics Cid stole when he left.
This cloth is old, worn thin and patchy.
“You are an Arcanist?” Shadowhunter says, his mouth feeling out the world Arcanist thicker in his accent than is the rest of his Eorzean.
“Yes. Were you injured?” Alphinaud comes closer, calling over Moonstone to set herself next to Shadowhunter, blazing thrice as bright as his candle. The injury Shadowhunter reveals is at the top of his calf, a bit of shrapnel buried into his skin, oozing blood. Alphinaud crouches beside him, pulling off his gloves, and unhooks Adelphoi from the back of his belt.
“Can you do anything for it?” Shadowhunter asks as Alphinaud tugs his handkerchief from his pocket. He does not look up at the other man, plucks bits of shrapnel from the injury, nails picking at metal to find them separate from raw skin.
“I am no Scholar, but certainly I can do more for this than a potion.” Shadowhunter does not twitch, does not even gasp in pain beyond the occasional cough he does not seem capable of stifling: he is no stranger to the care of battlefield wounds. Alphinaud feels gently at the bloody puncture to be sure there is no more debris inside it before he wets his handkerchief and wipes it free of aethersand. “I thought that carbon-weave was meant to be bulletproof.”
“When it’s new, certainly. It decays as does any piece of armor without proper care, and there is precious little that can give proper care to these textiles out here.” The wound clean, Alphinaud holds his hand above it, fingers tracing the ink on Adelphoi’s pages as he murmurs under his breath, Physic tingling in his fingertips as the wound begins to knit closed.
Now Shadowhunter makes a noise. Not one of pain but of discomfort, and Alphinaud glances up, freezing in his casting. The echoes of their companions is a quiet susurrus in the oppressive silence of the underground. “There is nothing more stuck in the wound?” Alphinaud asks, because he knows that this is no mere favor. This is a test, for both of them, for the rough sketch that holds nascent at the edges of his vision.
Shadowhunter has shown his belly, his bloody wound, and asked for kindness. Alphinaud has obliged without question, with ease, proven himself worthy of this jaded man’s trust.
“No,” Shadowhunter replies when the silence grows thin, Alphinaud studying the line of his jaw, the stubble there, grown over old burn scars that are shiny in the low light. Now he knows to look for it, Alphinaud can see the similarities between Shadowhunter and the men who admired him: repeating the past as if the same greatness could be so easily shared. “It has just been many years since a healer was our traveling companion, and even then, there are few Illuminatori in the legions. It is an art too complex for easy integration. This is very different from the aether wielded by the Medicus.”
“Conjury and arcanima are very different disciplines,” Alphinaud agrees, returning to what he was doing. “They rely on disparate principles. I would be happy to explain them, should you truly have the interest.” Shadowhunter makes a noncommittal noise as Alphinaud feels gently at the wound again, finds it closed. “How is that?”
Shadowhunter flexes his bare foot, and in the dancing light from Moonstone’s tail, Alphinaud notices the raised lines of old burn scars just below his knee, shaped like greaves. It is faint but visible—pink, raised welts. As Shadowhunter moves his leg the scar tissue stretches, a break in the hair on his skin, shiny and raw.
It has not been so many years since that dark night that he has forgotten the plume of smoke above Mor Dhona, stretching almost up to the stars above, backlighting Midgardsormr’s shed skin and outstretched wings as if letting him crow over his old foe, finally vanquished.
“Yes,” Shadowhunter finishes after a moment, fixing his trousers as Alphinaud cleans his hands and stands up, tugging his gloves back on. Shadowhunter looks up at him from where he sits, and in the low light his eyes are so pale that Alphinaud cannot tell where the edges of his irises are, his pupils dark and wide and yawning.
“Would I be correct,” Alphinaud begins, holding that gaze, “That I can do naught for that cough?”
Shadowhunter snorts. “You can but wish. Have thanks for what you can do, Master Arcanist, and in return you may count another sword to come upon your command.”
“No need for such formality,” Alphinaud smiles the smile of a coeurl who has found a particularly juicy-looking dodo. “We are allies now, are we not?”
Shadowhunter smiles back, and it is the spark flickering around the ceruleum deposit just before the chamber snaps closed to fire.
Among the four of them who continue deeper into Garlemald, Alphinaud is the only one who has any gift for healing arts. This is not so bad—for one, it leads to the night he presses himself into Shadowhunter’s arms, which quickly becomes many nights pressing himself into Shadowhunter’s arms—but it does have downsides.
For one thing, Alphinaud is not...a particularly accomplished healer. His skills are limited by his expertise: he is a scholar, not a fighter, and knows more of theory than of praxis. But needs must, and needs must he learn to heal. This is easy enough when it is cuts and scratches, gashes and scrapes, things with little lasting damage.
It is another thing entirely when the thaumaturge has his leg broken in two places, rebar impaling him through the injured calf. They drag him free, screaming, Alphinaud slicing the leg of his trousers above the knee as Shadowhunter takes the man’s belt off and presses it between his teeth, makes him bite down.
Alphinaud strips off his gloves, kneels beside the injured leg, and wills himself calm.
The rebar will have to come out first, then the bones must be set. He’ll have to put them back into place, bind them to heal straight. His heartbeat is loud in his ears, and he fights to breathe evenly through it, stay in control, stay focused.
He cannot afford to fail here.
Moonstone crawls onto the thaumaturge’s other leg, and Alphinaud swallows. “Pin him down,” he tells the lancer, who leans her entire weight onto his chest, and then he works as fast as he can, focused entirely on the steps he’s trying to remember, things he was trained to do years before. Tie off the tourniquet above the injury—he does it above the knee. Clean either side of the wound, water washing away aetherdust and blood.
Alphinaud takes hold of the rebar, squeezes his eyes shut, and pulls.
It grips for half a moment, and the thaumaturge howls as it slips free, Alphinaud keeping his other hand on the man’s thigh for leverage to keep from injuring the broken bones further. He swallows, his throat dry and his hands shaking, drops it aside, and looks down to where Adelphoi is sitting, closed, beside him.
His hands drip blood, and all things aside—he knows it is a weapon. It is meant to be used.
But it is still his last gift from his grandfather.
Shadowhunter crouches down, and opens the book as Alphinaud freezes. “Tell me when to stop,” he says, covering his mouth with his other hand when he coughs to keep from spitting on the wound. His fingers find the page unerring, and he stops on Alphinaud’s command, and then Alphinaud begins to cast, geometry and arcanima guiding his mind and aether.
Shadowhunter’s broad palms settle warm on his shoulders, and he murmurs, “You can do this.”
Afterward, when Alphinaud has washed the blood from his hands and night takes them all to their rest, he sits in their bedroll and watches Shadowhunter clean Heirsbane’s inner workings, Moonstone in his lap with her chin on his knee. In the light that she gives off, saving them from using the ceruleum lamp, the older man looks exhausted, the silver in his hair standing out, bright against the rest of the dark strands.
They cannot drag an injured man with them where they are going; it would only put more lives at stake, so in the morning they will take him to a nearby refugee camp—Shadowhunter has been there numerous times himself; you cannot, after all, live a life entirely alone and on the run.
“Do they know?” Shadowhunter looks up. His hair has fallen into his face, and the shock of endearment Alphinaud feels over strands of greying hair in his eyebrows momentarily silences him. “Do they know who you are?”
They have not spoken of it since the day Shadowhunter attempted to drive Alphinaud from his side. Alphinaud pretends he doesn’t know, and Shadowhunter pretends he doesn’t know, and when they fuck Alphinaud says please and yes rather than the name that perches unspoken at the tip of his tongue, burning the roof of his mouth.
Shadowhunter shrugs one shoulder. He turns back to what he was doing, lifts a hand, tucks a loose strand of hair back behind his ear. “Why do you ask?”
“I know that you wish to hunt shadows, but what does Garlemald want you to do?”
Shadowhunter goes very still.
“I know driving Elidibus out is essential to the future of the Empire continuing to exist. But had you ever considered if the people of Garlemald might wish for you to be more than a ghost, haunting old structures?”
Shadowhunter gives a hollow laugh and sets Heirsbane aside, leans back on his elbows to look at Alphinaud with something that it feels strange to name as fondness. “My boy, why speak in riddles if you have an idea in mind?”
“You’ve a fair bit of practice at creating revolutions to overthrow mad kings.”
“Yes,” Shadowhunter agrees at last. His face is drawn and older than his years, which already number many. A muscle in the side of his jaw tenses. “But more proper that knowledge serve Garlemald from afar than ruin her at home. There are none who better know what happens when you take a tyrant from the throne—nor what happens if you put a different one on. No.” He rolls to sit back up, picks up Heirsbane. “Best to let a shadow hunt shadows.”
He leaves, Alphinaud watching as his footsteps in the frost on the ground go crunching loudly away through the night. He shuts his eyes and wonders what kind of a world it might have been if the Black Wolf had always been a better man.
“How much Garlean do you speak?”
Shadowhunter had asked it on their second day together, trudging through the aethersand of the Burn. The silence of the place was oppressive, so any conversation was a relief, and Alphinaud had fallen into it without a second thought.
“I am afraid far less than I ought. I have some basic grasp—enough, perhaps, to follow conversation—and a rather complete index of uncouth language, but not enough to participate effectively upon my own behalf.” Cid was the only conversation partner he was like to get in Eorzea, and Cid oft refrained from speaking his native tongue unless his ire was properly raised. Thus had Alphinaud gathered his more colorful vocabulary from the man, so he was not like to be ungrateful. “Why do you ask?”
Shadowhunter made a noncommittal noise. “A useful skill, that’s all.”
His experience in further Garlemald has been localized to the diaspora of the Empire, where most are not Garlean-by-birth but Garlean-by-conquest, and who speak languages as varying as their climes. His Doman was next to nothing until the better part of a year spent in and around Doma, but it is now better than his Garlean, which came from years at study of texts in the dusty anterooms of Studium libraries in what seems a lifetime ago.
Now, in Garlemald itself, his haphazard knowledge is a curse, and one that clamors for a remedy. His companions speak Eorzean with him, which he appreciates, but they are not alone any longer. He must needs adapt to survive.
Once their companion is seen to, the campsite medicus pulls Alphinaud into a brief meeting with Shadowhunter to talk over what had happened in the accident. He holds his own with little interference—after all, it is easy enough to speak of the accident in small words, third-person singular perfect erat easy on his tongue—and none think lesser of him for confusing the nominative and the genitive.
However, when the conversation turns to questions of water sanitation, Alphinaud quickly finds himself beyond his linguistic depth. He catches perhaps one word in every five, frustrated by his lack of facility in the language he’s studied since his youth, and this delay makes it all the more confusing when Shadowhunter turns to him, brow furrowed.
“What do you know of purpie fiver?”
Shadowhunter looks consternated for a moment. “The Ala Mhigan term is the one most familiar—in Eorzean it’s called ‘camp fever’.” Alphinaud tries kólera, but Shadowhunter shakes his head, and beyond that he is unable to add much more. Alphinaud knows little colloquial terminology and Shadowhunter little medical; between the two of them they are ill-matched at this pursuit. “Gaius believes it to be escherichia coli.”
Alphinaud opens his mouth, shuts it; feels as if he’s stepped into some poorly staged low-budget farce. “What.” It comes out strangled, hissed under his breath as if to say, you want to do this right now? Shadowhunter has at least the good sense to look chagrined before he nods toward the medicus as if it explains everything.
“Gaius. The medicus.”
Alphinaud’s attempt to speak peters out against the roof of his mouth, and he goes silent rather than argue the absurdity of their present situation. It is easier than any more reasonable alternative. Instead, he turns his attention toward his memory of infectious diseases. “Pestis est?” he asks the medicus. “In cibī?”
“Nē, in aqua est.”
“Ille non est escherichia coli.” Alphinaud turns once more to Shadowhunter. “What did you mean by camp fever?”
He frowns, thinking aloud. “In Garlean, castrum pestilentia refers to shigella dysenteriae, but Gaius mentioned skin lesions, which is reminiscent of what the Ala Mhigans call purpie fiver.” Shadowhunter rubs his chin, sighs. “You seemed a likely candidate to be familiar with it.”
“You’re far more familiar with Ala Mhigo and its linguistic environs than I. I’ve but been there a handful of times since the liberation, and those all but briefly. Can you describe it in greater detail?”
“High fever, rash on the torso, exhaustion, abdominal pain, diarrhea and constipation both, before incoherence and then often death. The portrait is not quite the same as what Gaius described—”
“I hardly caught the whole of it,” Alphinaud admits, though it galls him.
He expects castigation. Instead, Shadowhunter’s face softens, and he sets a hand on Alphinaud’s shoulder, offers Alphinaud a smile—or something close to it, the expression too intimate for their present company. “You’ve thanks for trying. There’s little doubt in your ability to find a solution sooner than later.”
The three of them elect to stay in the camp for a fortnight, despite the epidemic—although it is apparently confined, and all the water is being boiled. It is logistically sound, giving them access to news from the outside world and the opportunity to repair and purchase supplies, as well as the chance for Alphinaud, frustrated, to tackle the problem set before him. He has never backed down from a task of the mind before: he is, and always has been, stubborn to a fault.
Before their present arrangements, Alphinaud had never shared a bed with someone for more than a handful of nights. More than a moon in Shadowhunter’s has quickly revealed the fundamental incompatibility of their respective sleep cycles. Usually, Alphinaud falls asleep tucked into the heat of Shadowhunter’s side while he lays awake caring for Heirsbane or speaking to their companions. When Alphinaud rises at dawn, Shadowhunter will often just have fallen asleep, finally worn thin enough with exhaustion to doze.
Alphinaud spends their first week in camp feverishly studying any books he’s able to borrow from the medicus, his reading comprehension poor until practice grants facility. Every night he remains awake nearly as long as Shadowhunter, laying next to him, legs bent over his lap, reading by carbuncle-light to save on ceruleum and tallow. They have a fortnight, and he will solve this puzzle.
There are people counting on him.
When a particularly bad cold snap drops the temperature another several degrees, they solve this problem the way people have been solving it since time immemorial. Afterward, they don’t bother to get dressed again, curling together naked to share body heat. Rather than stretching out, as is his wont, Alphinaud spends the late evening curled in Shadowhunter’s arms beneath the blankets, the both of them reading in comfortable silence broken but for the other man's coughing, their hands occasionally brushing as they turn pages.
As the bells tick on, Alphinaud's yawns grow more frequent and his head eventually drops to Shadowhunter's chest, his eyes heavy with exhaustion.
“Go to sleep,” Shadowhunter says, his voice warm with amusement and affection in equal measure, a low puff of air across the sensitive tip of Alphinaud’s ear. He’s been playing with Alphinaud’s hair all night, left loose after Shadowhunter had tugged free the ribbon and strewn it across the pillow. “There’s time enough for study in the morning.”
“In a moment,” Alphinaud replies, distracted, and ignores the stubbled kiss pressed to the hinge of his jaw when he yawns. He loses himself once more in the book, and it is only when he finishes his section, shuts the text to set it aside, that he realizes Shadowhunter has been watching him.
Moonstone’s white light makes Shadowhunter’s eyes more silver than gold, and they are warm with curiosity. “You never cease to amaze,” he says at last, when Alphinaud’s single, imperious eyebrow spurs him to speak. “Goodness and sense in equal measure.” He leans back against the pillow on his better elbow, brushes a few loose curls of Alphinaud’s hair from his cheekbones. “For people to whom you owe nothing, you are ever willing to give all of yourself.”
“If I can save but one person, however difficult, I must try. I have a responsibility.”
Shadowhunter cups Alphinaud’s cheek in his left hand, the skin over his palm and fingers ruined with burn scars, brushes his thumb across Alphinaud’s cheekbone. There is sorrow in his eyes, in the firm lines beside his mouth. “You cannot save everyone.”
“But I must try,” Alphinaud repeats. “Can you muster against me no more than the knowledge that universal redemption is impossible?” He pauses, and then adds, “Is that all?”
Shadowhunter’s laugh is half-cough; warm with affection, Alphinaud does not need words to know what it means.
On the twelfth day, he finds the answer. He goes straight to the medicus. “Hūc,” Alphinaud says upon his arrival, “Salmonella enterica.” The medicus stares at the page, nodding slowly.
“Tū de re ēmendat,” Gaius says, smiling. “Gratias tibi ago, Dominus Alphinaud.”
It is a small thing, but the hope it raises is all the greater for it: another step forward, another wound mended, another bridge built.
The ambush is expected: all among their number have been on-edge for nearly a week, knowing someone is skirting their campsites. Unfortunately, the bandits time their arrival when Shadowhunter is on patrol and take out their lancer before Alphinaud even sees. Then it’s all to the hells in a handbasket, and Alphinaud ends the encounter trussed up like a prized boar. Were he could be embarrassed of the matter, he would be.
They catch Shadowhunter at the edge of the clearing. The hilt of a sword to the temple would likely knock any other man out—instead, he takes the strike but half-sidesteps it, stumbles, wavers. He does not even bother to draw Heirsbane, he simply leans forward and pulls the trigger, and the shot takes the bandit in the hip.
Then everything happens very quickly, and at the end they have no injured bandits to turn loose, no prisoners to take. Shadowhunter is a pragmatic man—they cannot care for any but themselves, here.
Afterward, Heirsbane still dripping in his hand, Shadowhunter abruptly says: “One of us should go check the perimeter," before he turns, shaking the blood from his blade, and leaves in the same direction he came. The three of them stare, motionless, after his retreating back.
Attempting to stop Shadowhunter from shooting himself in the foot is impossible. Plenty of people have tried, and half of Eorzea bears the scars to account for it. Alphinaud glances to his companions, sees they have no intention of following, and then he jogs after Shadowhunter’s retreating back, the use-worn red of his coat across his broad shoulders already vanishing into the shadows cast by the bare-branched trees.
He catches the other man some forty paces from the clearing. When he’s still ten steps back, Alphinaud says, “You’re bleeding.” Blood has left a smear from his hairline over his temple, running through his eyebrow and down his cheekbone, visible even this far away.
It takes Shadowhunter two full footsteps to reply, and he answers a question that yet remains unasked. “It will wait.”
Alphinaud is no stranger to the symptoms of a concussion. Shadowhunter walks slightly off-balance and the lag in his response is telling. In all conversation he speaks as if into a helmet, enunciating with precision to make up for the volume he has lost from the smoke in his lungs. Now his words seem slurred, the sharp consonants of his accent worn down.
“Let me heal you.”
“See to yourself and the others.”
“We are fine. You will not be. You’re concussed,” Alphinaud hurries his steps because Shadowhunter has lengthened his. “Allow me to see to you before it gets worse.”
“It can wait.”
Alphinaud reaches for the other man’s sleeve, Shadowhunter stepping aside just enough to dodge the grip. He finds he is beginning to see the appeal in beating the man over the head with his book. Alphinaud has never been a particularly patient person. It is among his may failings—one of the few that he and Alisaie share in equal measure. Much like his sister, when worn, Alphinaud is not one given to politeness.
Shadowhunter is still walking away from him, Heirsbane bloody in his hand, looking a great deal like a vengeful specter. The Man Too Angry To Die, perhaps. He clenches his teeth, his jaw tight, and his patience snaps.
Alphinaud calls “Legatus,” and in the quiet it rings out like a gunshot.
Shadowhunter goes still between one footfall and the next. His shoulders freeze, tight with tension; the only sound their breathing. The fiction of spun-sugar and glass that they have kept balanced between them shatters, and Alphinaud knows he is testing a bridge of rope so frayed naught but strands remain to hold it upright. Should it break, they might well both go down with it, and he knows not if the other man will be willing to swim should he fall—if he would rather just drown.
“You have a responsibility,” Alphinaud keeps his voice low. “To your companions. You have a responsibility to me. You promised me your sword arm. Would you rescind that promise now so that you may prove a point? You could get the four of us killed, and I hardly think that befitting the oaths I know you did of late undertake.
“There is a difference between martyrdom and suicide, but I fain begin to believe you know it not.”
Shadowhunter leans on Heirsbane, lets the blade take part of his weight, and laughs under his breath. At the angle Alphinaud stands at, he can hardly help but notice the way the man’s hair falls is reminiscent of the greying mane of an old wolf. “Every time you seem to have given all your secrets, you insist on proving it a false conclusion.”
Alphinaud softens, crosses the last few steps between them to take the other man’s hand. “If you truly so wish for death, gods know I cannot stop you. But as long as you yet remain my sword and shield, you can hardly perform either while bleeding from a head wound.”
At last he rest of the tension saps from the other man. Shadowhunter lets Alphinaud tug him to sit down on a nearby stone, watches as he pulls out a handkerchief—once white, now much-stained—and, tender, brushes Shadowhunter’s hair back from his temple. Alphinaud wipes the blood from the other man’s face in silence, pausing when he coughs, and then, needing to be closer, pushes into Shadowhunter’s space, leans against his thigh and holds Adelphoi one-handed as he presses against the cut with the other.
Soon enough, Shadowhunter looks at him once more with clear eyes. “You are wasted with combat,” he says, hoarse voice soft, after Alphinaud pulls away. “You would be best served should you heal this star, not slay those upon it as if doing so will solve all the sins of your fathers.”
“I am healing the world,” Alphinaud returns, “starting with those in front of me.”
The night that Castrum Meridianum fell, Alphinaud paid little heed to those entombed within it.
The secrets that now lay buried beneath the Praetorium will stay there. The details will die with those who lived it, for none who survived speak of it. Shadowhunter still wears that history as scars upon his body, old wounds festering for the better part of a decade without proper treatment, killing him as sure as laying undisturbed beneath the collapsed carbon steel and cermet would have, and those wounds oft speak truer than his mouth.
Would that a kiss could heal them, would that a spell could cure them.
Neither are capable, but Alphinaud does both anyway, lips pressed to the palm of the other man’s left hand, makes believe that tenderness can right grief, or that there is such a spell as spare the dying.
When the Call first takes him, Alphinaud screams with his hands pressed over his ears as if he can block out a noise without a source, the throb in his bones and mind, the booming of great doors and the shatter of glass and the collapse of empires coming from within, not without. He is wailing when he falls to his knees, crying in pain, the pulse of his heartbeat is loud, louder—
Let expanse contract the pain is too much so much beyond anything he has ever known or endured a hot knife blistering to the quick his bones burning to dust eon become instant and he cannot even think to pray because it’s too much too much too much too much Alphinaud can taste tears upon his lips all he can hear is his own heart and his screaming the boiling of his eyes behind his eyelids the rattle of his teeth in his jaw bruising in every muscle drawn too-tight the dying agonized shriek that tastes of pungent vomit in his mouth echoing over and over into cacophony in his ears and oh how it hurts it hurts—
Throw wide the gates that we may pass—
Alphinaud wakes in bed.
It is dark and he is warmer than he has been in months. His mouth is dry, his tongue stuck to his teeth, and his head throbs with cotton, a low, roiling nausea at the base of his gut. He is sticky all over with sweat despite being stripped to his undershirt and smallclothes, his hair damp and loosed from its braid. He sits up, slow and disconcerted, for he can remember nothing after pain and darkness.
At the foot of his bed, Moonstone wakes from his motion, her nose and ears twitching as she leaps down to bolt from the room. Gone with her is his only source of light, a brightness that vanishes into the bleak midnight gloom. Still bleary-eyed with sleep, Alphinaud shifts to reach blindly for the nightstand and fumbles for a match.
Footsteps stop him, Moonstone’s light bobbing through the darkness. She comes racing through the open doorway a moment later, and behind her—
The stranger who stands there is not the man whose company Alphinaud has of late grown accustomed to: a ghost in a red coat, a bloody-muzzled old wolf trying to pull a thorn from its paw, snarling at any proffered succor. Neither is this the man who once plagued Eorzea, the black helm and the vanguard and the promise of peace wrapped in chains.
The man who stands now in the doorway, holding to the jamb as if it is the only thing keeping him upright, is—
That man has a name. It is one that started to die twenty years before, whose corpse has been running from its own shadow for five, this near-stranger who now stares at Alphinaud, coughing between gasps, his eyes the same white-gold as the noon sun. This man has a name, Alphinaud realizes, a name he has not even dared think for fear that—
“Alphinaud,” Gaius says in his ragged, fire-blackened voice, the voice Alphinaud loves, in his accent that sets the slightest pressure on al before cresting a rounding dip on the -au to land, almost-too-heavy, tip of his tongue behind his teeth, on the final -d. He crosses the room in three long strides, falls to his knees beside the bed to gather Alphinaud in his arms, and Alphinaud buries his face into the other man’s shoulder, the side of his neck, clings to him.
Gaius smells like soap and hot water. He has shaved, the first pricks of new-cut stubble above his collar rough against Alphinaud’s skin. Gaius’ hands are broad across his back, and Alphinaud feels strange, to be the still one as Gaius shakes apart against him, nails catching in the cotton of his undershirt. He tangles his own fingers in the other man’s hair, finds it still-damp and softer than he can ever remember, swallows around the lump in his throat.
“Laus Deii,” Gaius whispers, hoarse voice cracked raw down the center. Alphinaud holds him, is held in return, supporting, supported. “Deii gratias, gratias maxima vobis ago.” Alphinaud laughs, finds it wet in his throat. “I was so frightened,” he whispers, and Alphinaud cannot remember a time the man has spoken as such, of himself but not for loathing.
“I’m here,” Alphinaud promises, pulls the man to kiss him, open mouthed and desperate, wet with tears he is almost certain are not his own, “I’m here,” Gaius said he would come and he has but what shadow can he hunt when they do not even know what its shape would be and yet still—