“You know...” you begin, and it must sound suspicious because the Exarch’s ears flatten, “these days, I’m a fair hand at the bow.”
He levels you with a look that aspires to be blank but fails; you can read his amusement in the curve of his lips. “In case you have forgotten,” he says, sibilant with humour, “I’m rather aware of your fondness for projectile weaponry.”
For a moment you really do forget what he means, but then the Dwarves’ trial drifts to the forefront of memory. G’raha’s indignation at your attempt to knock the cowl from his shadowed head, his somewhat genuine rebuke that you wouldn’t succeed even if you tried. You cough: he raises an eyebrow and tries to look displeased but there is no mistaking the laughter in both of your gazes.
“Well,” you bluster, “slingshots aside, I really can hit a target.”
The Exarch nods, turning his gaze back to the book he’d been reading. You’re both cloistered in the Ocular, working through a few theories on how to return the Scions to the Source - though what’s actually happening is that G’raha is talking through his hypotheses and you’re playing the part of a willing listener. And if the finer points are lost on you, well, then you’re sure he’s still grateful for someone to share them with; decades of having no-one to turn to have made him crave any perspective not his own.
“I don’t doubt it,” he agrees, and you believe him because he never, ever doubts when it comes to you. “You can do anything you turn your mind to, my friend.”
And you’d take that lightly, were it not for the blush that stains his cheeks with his words.
“Hmm…” you manage, drumming tense fingers against the smooth stone of your chair. You hope he doesn’t notice the bashful motion, but the ear closest to the sound twitches and you know he does. G’raha as you first knew him would have pressed the advantage; the Crystal Exarch merely turns the page.
Somehow, it’s worse.
“I seem to remember G’raha Tia telling me he’s the best marksman the Sharlayans had ever seen.”
He blinks at you, tome abandoned in his lap and surprise painting him once more his younger self.
“Did I really say that?” he asks, rueful. At your grin he shakes his head, embarrassment obvious as his crystal hand creeps up shield his face from your gaze.
“Is it true?” you prompt.
“It was ,” he admits with reluctance, “but I haven’t picked up a bow in…- ah, I must say… why do you ask?”
“I need to clear my mind,” you say simply, “and I daresay you do too. So how about we have a little competition?”
You are a competitive sort: it’s part of your adventurer’s drive. And you know he still could be if given the right nudge. Though the residents of the Crystarium call him mysterious you don’t find the Exarch so cryptic anymore, especially not when his temptation is plain as the nose on your face. An old man, he likes to call himself; you see the confident young marksman in the curve of fingers that hold an imaginary bow.
“I’m out of practice,” he says, finally, and you know you have him. “And I’m… I’m not a young man any more. I doubt I have strength to fire an arrow.”
His performance at the nightmare in Holminster says otherwise. But that’s not where his hesitation really lies; it’s more about appearances, and the keeping of them.
Silence reigns for a time. It’s long enough that he probably thinks the matter dropped, but when you finally stand, the Exarch watches the movement with crimson eyes frank and curious. There’s a part of you that wants to take the hand that still breathes, uncurl his fingers and place them around your own, prove to him that there’s heat in him yet. But you won’t, because G’raha is one of your dearest friends, and he has waited for you for years upon years and what you should do is give him the friendship and help he has wanted, needed; only that. You dare not presume to give him more. So you simply send him a smile that shows teeth and say,
“Well, I need to return to the Source, so you’ve got a few days yet. Get practicing?”
He reads between the lines to what you’re really saying - I’ll see you soon. And it’s with a crystalline salute and his own smile that the Exarch sends you back to the place from whence you both came.
You’re two steps into Syrcus Trench before the linkpearl rings. It’s tempting to ignore it; a few days had turned into a fortnight, and though you know you have duties here your mind is in the First. You’re simply thinking of your friends, you tell yourself. All of them.
It’s almost convincing.
Despite that, a hero does not ignore those in need and though your face says otherwise your hand dutifully rises to answer, turning away from curious Ironworks engineers as you speak.
A crackle on the other ends greets you. In it, Tataru’s reprimanding tone can be made out, just distorted enough that it might be convincing to say you didn’t get the call. But even as your thoughts turn that way, your feet turn another, heading out into the light of Mor Dhona once more. Tataru, in her infinite capacity as your wrangler, will likely never let you sneak off again.
And in the end, it’s a full month before you slip back through the portal. A month where you sign papers and speak to rulers and drive back incursions, your bruised and battered soul dragged from one end of Eorzea to the other. It’s hard to be so wanted, even harder when you know you will always, always answer.
Night reigns when you return; you can’t see it from inside the Ocular, but there’s something about the darkness on the First that you feel attuned to. Ardbert’s soul, perhaps, or maybe it’s nothing deeper than your rhythms readjusting to something that has become very familiar. Whichever it is the Exarch isn’t there to welcome you; and you wonder if despite all assurances otherwise, G’raha is indulging in a nap. In the days of NOAH you lost count of how often Rammbroes sent you on the scholar’s trail, a merry dance that lead to finding him curled up like a kit under the crystal spokes outside camp. It wasn’t quite a tree, he’d complain, but the shade was nice nonetheless.
Part of you wants to find him. Wants to see if the Crystal Exarch still sleeps nose to tail, paying homage to every stereotype of his race and unashamed in it. Your sensible side, the one that stays silent in the face of awkwardness and stoic when others are in disarray, warns that watching your friend sleep is not strictly appropriate. And yet...
Walking away, not stopping until you are outside and safe from temptation is hard. But you do it, staying to the blessed shadows as much as possible, for the reappearance of the Warrior of Darkness is sure to disturb the calm you rarely get to enjoy. Ever loyal, the Master of Suites shows you to your room with the discretion you’ve come to appreciate.
Still, it’s hardly surprising when you’re woken soon after dawn. You grumble a question - clear, if incoherent - and the answering voice pierces through the fog of sleep, sends colour to tired cheeks and wakes you enough to rise from your rest.
“It’s early,” you say, throwing the door open without care for propriety. From his position across the threshold, G’raha Tia grins with unmistakable mischief. It suits him.
“Your only weakness,” he teases, cowl down in the quiet of morning. “The second quarter of the clock.”
Rubbing a hand over eyes still focusing, you beckon him in, missing the way his eyes dart over your rumpled figure before he steps inside. He stands until you point imperiously to the bench at your table, facing him from your perch on the bed. You’ll talk - because it’s G’raha, because you missed him - but you’ll move no further from your bed than you need to.
“You returned late last night,” the Exarch observes, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you.”
A jaw-cracking yawn is the only response he receives for a moment and you flinch when he leans forward on his knees. His expression shifts from amusement to the slight concern you see all too often from your dear ones. It’s your most private wish that one day, far in the future, nobody you love will look at you and worry. Today will not be that day: G’raha’s red eyes flit from head to toe, registering the weary slump to your shoulders.
“Ah...you’re exhausted,” he continues. “More so than usual.”
There’s no point in lying. You shrug, aiming for a nonchalance your muscles are too tired to sell.
“I was… I admit I was busy.”
He stands. “Then I will leave you to rest - I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Oh, you did ,” you counter, and he looks up to the ceiling with a guilt you find near irresistible, “but I suspect not when I’m tired as this.”
There is something of the Leveilleur twins in his folded arms and stern expression. It’s not a rebuke you need though and he holds it in, ears pointed upright with the concern he cannot mask. “You should sleep a few bells longer - please, send someone for me when you wake.”
You shake your head even as a yawn threatens. No - you mouth, but the Exarch’s pursed lips have you flopping back onto the bed, stretching full out on the luxurious down.
“You can stay,” you throw out, offhand. “I’m a heavy sleeper.”
The request hangs in the air between you and though it was meant innocently, your face flushes with the implications that you realise too late. Had you really just asked of him what you denied for yourself? What you meant and the way it was said linger, G’raha’s mouth opening and closing before he retreats into politeness, smiling down at you from his position across the room. He’s going to leave, you realise, his shoulders hunched in the throes of refusal and you’re so tired you don’t care about not pushing and pushing too much.
“Really,” you continue, brave, “I brought a thesis from the scholars of Nym on aether transformation. It’ll take you a few hours to read through.”
Knowledge: it is perhaps his one vice.
“Ah…” he begins, but you interrupt with-
“We could discuss it when I wake. I’ve been told it’s the discovery of the decade, back in Limsa.”
Surely he’s tempted to ask how you got your hands on such a treasure and you hope he asks because it’s a story and a half, but the Exarch simply frowns down at you, caught between answering your request and the connotations. You’re so sure he’s working out a way to deny his warrior a request when he moves a step closer, then another, meeting your eyes with an expression you cannot read.
“Is the book with your things?”
You’re too stunned to do anything but nod. The Exarch looks over to the travel bag, hastily abandoned in your rush to the far-too-comfortable bed and breathes out audibly through his nose.
“I’ll find it,” he says, “and I’ll take a look over it while you rest.”
With his words - his assurance that he’ll be here when you wake again - your body relaxes into restfulness and you realise you were far, far wearier than you thought.
Embarrassingly, you’re asleep before he opens his mouth to ask where he should sit.
He had tucked you in. It’s on your mind as you head to the archery targets you’d seen before, a secluded spot hidden from the many prying eyes of the Crystarium populace. Though you couldn’t say quite how long you’d slept, it seemed it had been long enough for the Exarch to fall asleep too, tempted by the warmth of the afternoon sun as it crept towards where he sat.
Which was, you’d noticed, with his back to the dresser beside your bed, a distance that meant when you opened your eyes almost the first thing you saw was the curve of his ears as they relaxed in slumber.
You’re very, very glad that you’d woken fully up before the traitorous hand that sought their russet fur had completed its path to temptation. Instead, your fingers curled into the soft down of the cover he’d drawn over you and waited with bated breath to see if he’d rise too.
It hadn’t taken long, his mumbled ‘ah’ and prominent blush eclipsing your own, endearing the tired scholar to you more than you’d thought possible. More than he already was. He’d left rather quickly, your promised discussion paling in the face of genuine business the Exarch was most definitely late for, but the sight of his face in repose made it worth it.
Reaching the archery stands, you’re relieved to find them empty. With the dimming of cursed Light they’re no longer in a good spot for sport: half-covered in shadow from noonday till sunset, the targets are just beginning to fray around the edges. But you’ve hit harder targets and the glare of the sun striped with shade only adds to the challenge.
Soon, your attention stops flitting between surface thoughts, and your fighter’s focus reduces the world to you, the target, and the heft of the bow in your grasp. It’s a good feeling, this meditative violence. And it consumes your worries, your weariness and your wish to be just another wanderer until you are so honed in on the poetry of arrow hitting straw that you miss the Exarch’s arrival until his voice sounds behind you.
“That was a good shot, my friend,” he admires.
You spin round and blink at him, taken aback. He must be able to move soundlessly, you think, because there are not many people who can sneak up on the Warrior of Darkness nor of Light.
His overly-innocent expression, which only deepens as your narrow your eyes at him, all but confirms it.
“Thanks,” you say slowly, “most of them are.”
The Exarch nods, moving around you to inspect the target closer. In the warmth of the afternoon his crystal hand shimmers with refracted light, casting prisms of pure colour onto his robes as he reaches to pull out the arrow. Any future claims of infirmity he might make lose their power forever: you’d embedded that particular shaft almost two ilms deep, and he rips it from the straw without any effort at all.
“How do you find Crystarium-made arrows?” he enquires lightly, and you read from the way he speaks that your earlier mutual nap will not be talked about. You don’t mind; his faint blush is nice to look at.
“A little heavy,” you muse. “The trees from around here are solid enough, and when you use seafowl feathers for the fletching…”
Trailing off with a shrug, you’re amused to see G’raha nodding along with all the confidence of an expert archer.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I thought.”
He smiles, openly happy to be in agreement with you and though it is innocent his pleasure brings heat to the pit of your belly. It burns brightly enough that you have to turn away.
“I’ve opened a line of communication with the hunters at Fanow, to see if they’d be interested in trading for their better stock.”
You don’t have anything to add to that - despite Tataru’s best attempts you avoid the entire matter of outfitting the Scions and the quartermaster is but a shadowy figure in the bar - but the Exarch’s idea seems sound enough. Trade is the lifeblood of any city, and he has had plenty of practice at negotiations. It is a far cry from the young miqo’te who held you hostage over an item you desperately needed; you imagine the wise and venerable ruler doing so now. Before you can help it you find yourself laughing, chuckling even harder when G’raha’s ears swivel in open confusion.
“You think they wouldn’t be amenable…?” he asks, bemused at the humour.
“Oh, no, it’s a fantastic idea,” you say, and his ears relax but his eyes remain skeptical, “I’m just tickled by the thought of- oh, never mind.”
The Exarch folds his arms, arrow forgotten on the ground. If you could see his tail you know it would be held in the stiffness of suspicion.
“What?” he says, tone unmollified by his gentle persona. He looks piqued: it only makes you laugh harder. And it’s somehow gratifying to see he hasn’t lost his famous pout. But you give in eventually, hands clutching your sides and your bow tense across your stomach as you invite him to your thoughts.
“I’m remembering,” you say, “a certain scholar who made me run halfway across Thanalan to get something for a trade, only to give me it on a whim. I cannot quite imagine him opening a- a ‘line of communication’, as you say.”
The Exarch’s nose twitches as he tries not to laugh, but his ears follow no such strictures and they shake with mirth.
“I wish you’d forget that,” he admits, “though I must say, there is something of that attitude in all my negotiations, even now.”
You cock your head, curious.
“For example,” G’raha continues, “I recall a certain Warrior who recently proposed a competition.”
The grin spreads across your face as though you’re chasing his words, the unspoken implication - that he’s been thinking of it, thinking of you - turning your humour into a deeper happiness, one that’s echoed by the way you both stand, daft and friendly and at ease. And you think, watching the Exarch bend to pick up the discarded arrow and absently twirling it in his spoken hand, that if you are never anything more, being his true friend is a gift indeed.
“Do go on.”
“Well,” he indulges you, “I thought that we might take the traditional route… you’re familiar with the trials of the Gridanian guild?”
You are more than familiar. You’ve run the gauntlet, collected the prize, claimed your place as one of the most decorated bowsmiths in the city, all because you wanted to feel the same thrill of the hunt that the man in front of you described once upon a time. It’s not easy to keep your cool when G’raha puts his hand on his hip, waiting for your response.
“Don’t tell me... you know the spells?”
He smiles. And with one sweep of his hand the humble targets are transformed, taking on the appearance of the elusive, twisting marks you’ve chased across the Shroud. Your blood beats faster in your veins; excitement making your breathing shallow as you watch the Exarch extend his crystal arm, a shining, spectral bow materialising in his grasp. He sees the adrenaline swirling in your aether, perhaps, because his ears are flat to his head with his own excitement.
And you barely have time to shoulder your bow before the definitely-not-frail miqo’te takes down the first shot with effortless grace.
“The stakes?” you prompt, voice ringing with a confidence that stutters when his next hit lands smoothly.
The Exarch explains it between nocking one arrow and the next and you scramble to keep up, fighter’s fire deep in the pit of your belly as he calls out shots that you hit ilms behind his. You’ll compete for first to take down most targets, the buzzing, shifting little creatures evading all but the most perfect of sights. And the winner, your friend says with a grin that is G’raha in youth, may request something that is hard to find from the loser. An adventure in miniature, just like the race for aethersand you’d been defeated in all those years before.
“Rather like old times,” he finishes, straying close for a moment, stealing a target from under your nose.
And you laugh, because it is.
The competition is over embarrassingly quickly. You’re not used to being beaten these days - and if you will admit, are quite a bad sport about it - but G’raha’s twitching ears and swaying tail are just enough to keep you from grumbling visibly. That, and the sight of his bare arms and torso; the heat had gotten to you both, and the top half of the robes of his office are tied messily around his hips, low enough that his russet tail swings freely in the air.
You’re strangely glad to see it. The gently ruffled fur is a sane focal point, something for your eyes to follow instead of the shift and flow of the Exarch’s lean frame as he drops to the ground beside you. His unclothed chest shows the passage of crystal differently from his arm, an inexorable march that makes him burn with a subtle scintillance that takes your breath away. It’s beautiful, untouchable, a thing to admire and despair over.
“G’raha Tia,” you pronounce, wielding his full name in the hopes it will bring the colour on his cheeks to match yours, “you have been practising.”
It works. His neck turns pink with your words, joining the flush of exertion that has spread across his spoken shoulder and collarbones. You blink and look away, before you betray yourself, your friendship by indulging in another glance. The state of half-dress you’re both in is already skirting the line of propriety, a spice to the sweetness that has been your afternoon. And though you long for nothing more than to lean your side against his, you shift up onto your knees instead, hands grounded in the warm soil of the Crystarium.
“Only a little,” the Exarch says. You can’t quite tell if it’s the truth. “And only when Lyna can’t catch me.”
He winks at you conspiratorially, finger to his lips. And in that instant, even if he hadn’t won you think you would have ran across two worlds to give him what he wanted anyway.
Shaking your head with a rueful grin, you lift your hands from the dirt now that you feel you won’t reach out to him, spreading them in a gesture of defeat.
“Fair is fair,” you chirp, happy because so many of your battles are anything but. “Claim your prize.”
G’raha sucks in a surprised breath and your heartbeat sounds loud in your eyes as you rethink your words, your mind catching up to what you’ve just said, how you meant it and how it in fact sounded. As before, you have quite firmly put your foot in it; a Warrior of Darkness and Light and embarrassing yourself in the most ardent of ways.
You can’t hold back the shiver that accompanies your thoughts of what would happen if he did . Press warm lips to yours, his crystal-marked skin a whisper against your face. The cool, smooth trace of his hand on yours. What it would feel like to have him pull you closer, until you knew what he felt like flush against you, claiming you as his.
Your eyes try to stay firmly on the ground but his are on you: bright even in shade, his lips parted just enough that the hint of a fang draws your gaze inexorably up. It makes you wring your hands together and you should play it off as a joke, but-
“I, I meant-”
The words come out breathlessly and your throat closes around them. If the Exarch did not know what you struggled with before then surely he must now. And you know he admires you as a hero and and a friend but you’d never wanted to force on him this, the longing for him that sustained you through weeks on the Source.
“Ah… just- please just let me know what I can get for you.”
Silence stretches between you for long enough that your face smoothes back into a semblance of calm, at odds with the way your heart has slipped into your throat. Your spine tingles as you realise that G’raha has moved a handspan closer to you, near enough that your fine-tuned nose picks up the clean scent of him. He is exertion mixed with the steel-covered spice that belongs to him alone. It is torture.
You lean in for more.
“I would ask for…”
He pauses, considering with eyes cast up to his crystal home, and you strain to listen over the voice in your head that wants him to say you .
“...three things, if I may.”
You bless him for the evenness of his voice, of his delicacy and tact in not enquiring as to whether you are alright when it must be clear that you’re anything but. It’s only with an encouraging nod that he continues.
Listing them off on his fingers, the Exarch tilts his head to the side, ears flicking in anticipation. “I have thought about- about La Noscean Oranges for close to fifty years,” he admits, sheepish. “And Lohmani Red for close to fifty more.”
It’s unexpected, that he would so openly talk of things he could not hope to taste again. And yet, it is a simple matter for you to procure them, to bring him such wholesome joy. Your heart swells.
“And the third?” you say, leaning ever closer to him in your haste to grant his wish.
“For the third,” G’raha Tia whispers, and you bite your lip as once more you feel the frisson in your bones from his proximity and his words, “I would wish to share them in the company of the one I have thought about those full hundred years.”
A breeze winds its way mischievously past you both, brisk air hitting cooling skin and at the sight of the Exarch’s expressive ears trembling in its wake, you wonder if he feels it too. The magnetic pull between the pair of you as you sit, vaunted warrior’s form sprawled as close to him as friendship dares.
Biting your lip, you dare further.
“I can do that,” it comes out quietly, and you’re near enough now that your knees knock against his. “For you.”
Always for you , your soul sings. You hope he hears.