Lightning strikes in the distance beyond the floor to ceiling windows, and you inhale slowly, slower until thunder shakes the plains of Kholusia and you release your breath in a long, soothing sigh.
You have never felt more laughably decadent, curled up with a wine glass in your hand on a chaise overlooking the land as a cotton robe hugs your bath-wrinkled skin. The indulgence is absurd, but the Eulmoran mayor was insistent in flexing his newfound hospitality muscles for his most honored visitors. G'raha had ensured you that the man was thrilled to hear you would be accompanying the Crystarium council during their latest stay, but when you arrived only to decline the set of keys to your own assigned suite, you had never seen someone more flabbergasted and eager to please.
It all seems a bit much for what you're used to, but a moment of putting yourself in the mayor's shoes assures you that you would be acting much the same. Successor to a tyrant in a broken paradise, playing host to not only one of Norvrandt's most beloved rulers, but to the Warrior of Darkness? Anyone would want to make a good impression, and learning that the two of you prefer to share your accommodations must be daunting for a fledgling leader. You've heard yourselves described as the two most powerful men in Norvrandt, and that was even before night had been restored. Now it is no secret that to rouse the ire of one is to make an instant enemy of both.
Though you wish it were otherwise, kind smiles and happily pointed ears are not enough to ensure others that you are content, but you understand the viewpoint well enough. With how heavy the mantle of your title can be, it is comical how often you forget your importance to the public. A hero will inevitably be lavished with excess only fitting to their deeds, though you would be just as content to sleep on the ground in one of the abandoned shacks of Gatetown below. It would certainly be an incredible way to experience the storm, to feel the thunder shake and the wind howl.
It is in the name of diplomacy that you drink the mayor's expensive wine and utilize the provided bath oils. To leave such gifts untouched would be an offense. For the sake of politics, you endure. It is one of the more delightful trials you've faced in your days, you must admit.
The deep chime of the looming grandfather clock interrupts the lull of the storm. You glance over at it's ornate face. G'raha's last meeting should be ending soon. The Exarch has been hard at work striking deals and debating plans of action since the flock of Crystarium amaro arrived late yesterday afternoon. G'raha had returned late last night after enduring a social gathering with the mayor and all of the councilmen, and proceeded to promptly collapse into bed upon his return to you. Some nights at the Crystarium he doesn’t even have the need to sleep at all, snuggling up beside you only for the joy of it of it before departing to his study after you drift off. Here, away from the tower, G'raha needs his rest. Today he would likely be drained after the past ten hours of meetings, just like any living soul would be.
The clock finishes it's chime, and you figure you have at least an hour until the others arrive.
Just enough time to pamper a tired Miqo'te.
You abandon your view of the thunderstorm and return to the gaudy master washroom off of the bedroom. The pink and white marble edged with gold does not suit your tastes in the slightest, but the ruby red curtains and matching towels are nice enough, you think. The porcelain clawfoot tub has finished draining from your earlier bath, though some of the blue rose petals from the bottle of bath oil still cling to the sides. You set your wine glass down on the marble counter, then pull the lever to lock the drain before turning the gilded knob. Hot water begins to pool in the tub. Pouring some of the flowered oil into the downward stream, the air begins to smell more strongly of almonds, or something along those lines. Your nose is clever, but not for the finer things.
The sound of the key in the door catches your ear over the water. You scamper out to the lounge and abruptly wrap your arms around G'raha's middle while his back is turned to relock the door. He startles, not hearing your barefoot approach over the rush of the pipes.
"Oh! Hello there," G'raha says, turning to brush his nose against yours. "I had not expected you to be waiting so intently for my return."
You unhook the staff from his back and he turns in your arms, kissing you now that he can properly reach. It is brief but sweet, and the light in his eyes says that he most definitely does not mind your warm welcome.
"You've only ever used the showers here, yes?"
His brow furrows behind faded bangs. "Of course. A bath hardly seems an efficient use of time."
"That is not the point." You grab his hand and tug him towards the washroom, which spills enticing scents to beckon you forward. You toss his staff on the chaise along the way. It's heavy weight makes an indent in the cushion. "Come on. The others will be here soon."
G'raha follows along after you, but there is confusion in his voice as he says, "That is hardly necessary. I bathed this morning."
You release his hand to shut off the water. With your back turned, you hear him sniffing the air. The curious swish of his tail when you turn back around signals your impending victory over practicality. He offers no protest when you begin to unbuckle his robe, the product of your latest foray into Ronkan fabric. It makes you happy that he is always so grateful and pleased when you make something for him. What better way to develop your crafting skills than to help him expand his wardrobe, now that he isn't limited to what could conceal his race and telltale Allagan eyes?
While you will always prefer him in red, the mage's robe you slowly strip from him is one of your favorites: black and cinched with muted gold buckles that match it's trim, tied back at the open waist to reveal shimmering midnight blue beneath. The humble colors compliment his own body's adornments, but they do not dare outshine him.
His fingers catch in your bathrobe as you peel the heavy cloth back from his shoulders. "I take it you will not be joining me?"
"Perhaps when we are not expecting company. Though if you would let me, I would love to wash your hair for you."
G'raha's ears swivel back, and the color in his cheeks can't be attributed solely to the steam filling the air. "No one has ever washed my hair for me, at least that I can remember. Not since I was a tiny kit."
"Is that a no?"
"I did not say that. It sounds… nice, I believe."
"It is," you assure him, patting his hip. "Off with the boots."
G'raha chuckles and lowers onto the marble bench to unlace the knee-high boots he has become so fond of. "Is there someone I should be jealous of?"
You snort. "Hardly, unless you want to be jealous of Y'shtola when the flu got hold of me last year. I was sweating so much, they needed to clean me up once we got back to The Rising Stones. She drew the short straw on that one since she knew how to deal with our ears."
"I hate to think of you so unwell, but I am relieved it was her to take care of you." He pulls off one boot and sets to work on the other. "Tis likely the one benefit to her blindness. My eyes are still the only ones that know you in a state of undress."
You dip your hand in the bath and flick water at him. He flinches and laughs when the droplets hit his face.
"Do you still get sick?" you ask. "Not just the fatigue- the normal stuff."
"I'm still a man. I may not have as much flesh and blood left as an ordinary Miqo'te, but what remains falls ill all the same."
You dry your hand on his robe in your lap, useless a gesture though it is. In moments your hands will be knuckle deep in shampoo lather. "I'll have to learn what kinds of soup you like. Autumn made quite the appearance, so winter should be right around the corner. I'll make you soup and take care of you when you're sick. I've been told I have excellent bedside manner."
"I do not doubt it." The rueful look is one you prefer not to see on him, especially when he is taking off his trousers in front of you. He continues before you have to ask. "I shall have to hope you aren't on the Source when that inevitably happens."
"Then I'll come back."
He folds his trousers, setting them on the stool with his robe that he takes from you. "How? If I am ill enough to need a caretaker, I will be unable to summon you."
"I would hope you'd let me know before it gets that bad."
"And interrupt your mission? I think not."
G'raha peels off his socks with an awkward hop and adds them to the pile of clothes growing on the stool. You step forward and grab his wrist, pulling him to face you.
"I thought we were past this." When you see the way his ears flatten, you soften and reach to pet the furry points in unspoken apology for your harsh tone. "You are my priority. If you need me, I am going to drop everything and come running, even if you think my time is best spent elsewhere. I imagine you would do the same."
"I would," he concedes. "I only wish it were not all so complicated."
The weight of those words is too heavy for just the common cold. You feel his smile form under your lips as you press them to his cheek. "We'll figure it out as we go, one day at a time. We've done an admirable job of it so far, don't you think?" Slipping your hand south as he kisses you, you snap the elastic of his smallclothes. His surprise is muffled against your mouth, and he playfully nips your bottom lip to chastise you. "You should get in before the water gets cold."
G'raha steps out of his smallclothes and adds them to the stack before climbing into the tub. His tail jerks in surprise at the temperature when his toes hit the water, but he lowers down slowly until the water envelops him up to his necklace.
As he acclimates to the hot bathwater and sinks back into its embrace, you roll up the fluffy bath mat and place it at the head of tub for you to kneel on instead of the marble tile. G'raha leans back to dip his hair and ears, and they come up a darker shade of red, the white ends clinging to his neck. You tug on the clasp of his necklace. It offers little give, nearly tight enough to be considered a choker.
"Want me to take this off for you?"
"I would prefer if you didn't," he says, voice deep and hushed with growing relaxation. One of the blue flower petals from the bath oil passes in front of him, and it dances as he releases a contented sigh.
"I hadn't expected you to like it so much."
The cuff your gemstone fragment rests in stands in the sink, drying after a thorough scrubbing. G'raha had a long day, but you haven't exactly been idle either. With Gatetown emptied of its desperate poor in preparation for the upcoming renovations, its residents temporarily displaced to The Crystarium, to Twine, Amity, even Slitherbough- wherever had room to take them- there has been no shortage of work to accomplish. You and Alphinaud spent the better part of the day ripping up shingles that all but crumbled to dust in your hands, and prying off patches of plywood before he retired to his newfound artist's obligations.
Gatetown is filthy, rife with decades of misery, but it will recover. Things will get better. For now, the rain washes away the evidence of suffering, if not the memory of it.
You grab the bottle of shampoo from the ledge and pour out enough to fill the dip of your palm. G'raha's crystalline fingers absently bother the pendant at his throat as you begin to massage the fragrant gel into his hair.
"This is precious to me, even beyond the truth of its purpose. I know you left your village when you were still young, but surely you were old enough to notice how cold it could seem."
G'raha presses into your touch, clearly relishing the feel of your nails on his scalp. The hot water turns his skin a delightful flush of pink.
"I did. It was difficult not to," you say in short, sensing that he has more to tell you.
"Aside from between mother and child, my home was barren of affection. I imagine your village was much the same. The only love I witnessed was whispered in alleys or behind doors where the Nunh was none the wiser. Tias tempted abandoned mothers, or otherwise found comfort with one another. All of it was deemed forbidden. When I first ventured to Sharlayan, I could not believe the open affection that mankind was capable of showing one another. Love was not something meant for the shadows, but to be held to the light and made to shine. Sweethearts gifted one another trinkets to display for all the world to see. Bonded pairs wore their vows upon their fingers in declaration. To see that people were capable of caring enough to offer such claim, and that it was possible to care enough to wear that claim with pride… It gave me hope for our world. I had always been very much alone, but to know that wasn't the norm was a tremendous relief. At the same time… it was bittersweet. I knew it could never be mine. My eye sealed my solitude from the moment I was born. My own parents didn't even want me. Why would anyone else?"
It was a tale that had ripped your heart in two the first time he told you, after he had asked of your family only to learn that you hadn't had one since before you were capable of memory. G'raha had made no secret of his lacking social skills and the eccentricities of a boy with only books for friends. Perhaps you could understand a Nunh ignoring one child among the masses, but what G'raha's parents had done was unforgivable. The Nunh had disowned him at the sight of his red eye, claiming that he could not possibly be of his blood, then cast his mother out for her shame. The kit was left with little more than a note on the doorstep of a church the woman passed in her exile.
Years later, G'raha found a tattered family history of his sire's lineage in the local dusty archives of what would have been his village. His grandparents' first kit had been stillborn, his fragile life 'tainted by the mark of Ifrit'.
The one of his bloodline to bare the eye before him was dead before his father had been born. The man had never even known.
G'raha's voice as he speaks of it now is no longer detached as it once was, but accepting. Time may not heal wounds, but it lets you learn to live with the scars. You comb your fingers back through his soapy hair, and he makes a happy noise as you rub his neck at the bottom of every stroke.
"When I wear this, I am reminded that you want me in your life enough that you do not wish to let me go, even when you must. It is truly the most remarkable thing."
Not for the first time, you debate telling him that you had considered setting the stone fragments into rings, but they had come out too large to display in an appealing way on such a small setting. Not for the last time, you decide against it. The message is the same regardless of the medium.
You scoop water up in your cupped palms and let it spill down through his hair. Suds pool in bubbling webs that fizzle out across the surface.
It should bother you that you are being quiet again, but everything that you can think to say has been said time and time again, and you do not want your words to lose meaning by wearing them out.
This is how it always goes, how it has always gone. He speaks volumes and you hang on every word. You speak in footnotes and he delves into you to glean meaning that you always thought you had lacked.
There are no right words to say. Your instinct is to tell him he will never have to be alone again, but that would be a lie. You will die one day, either in bloody battle or as an old man while his young face watches you breathe your last. One day, you will break his heart. The tower will not let him go so easily. It is a subject that has not come up, but hovers just beneath the surface of deeper conversations. It is too soon to think of inevitable goodbyes when you have only just evaded a second one. If Emet Selch hadn't shot G'raha in the back and left the horrid pit in his crystal that still strains to heal, he would have opened the rift and walked to his death.
That's another item on the list of things you don't talk about. You'd discussed his moves and motives and granted him full forgiveness for his reluctant deception months ago, but you've never talked about just how frighteningly close it had been.
"I'm never letting you go," you settle to say, because it is both true and vague enough to encompass everything you are feeling, the joy and the fear, and scars of loneliness and heartache alike. You tug gently on the length of his necklace and let a more playful note rise into your voice as you say, "You're mine."
"With all that I am."
You pour out another dollop of shampoo and lather it between your hands, then grab his ears to slick his fur with it. He sits up straighter, arching to chase the hypnotic sensation of your strong hands rubbing back and forth, thumbs paying special attention to the thick bases of his ears. When you switch from light rubbing to a deep, almost rough scratch, a moan catches in his throat.
"How are you feeling?"
"Completely at your mercy." The low breathy pitch of his voice falls to a sigh. "You are unfairly skilled at this."
"There isn't much skill required. I just want to make you feel good. That isn't what I meant though." Coaxing him to tilt his head back, you set to rinsing the lather from his ears and the places it still clings to his hair. "We've been here for over a day now. You're not feeling weak yet, are you?"
"No, not yet. I am certainly not at full strength, but the night of sleep helped immensely. You needn't worry."
"I can't help it. We're not far from where I found you that day. You gave me quite the scare."
G'raha huffs. "You didn't even know it was me," he says with doubt, but his tone isn't bitter.
"Not for certain, but part of me did. I know you." You rinse away the last of the suds and lean forward to place a kiss on his temple. "You can't hide from me."
"Nor do I ever wish to again." G'raha nuzzles into your caress. "Believe me, I am well. As long as I sleep again tonight I should be quite fine for Rak'tika in the morning."
"I'll make you some tea before bed. I think there is a tin of loose leaf chamomile by the coffee in the other room. That should help."
"It should." He nudges your chin with his nose, giving you a tender smile. "Thank you."
A knock that is decidedly more forceful than G'raha's was bangs from the other room. The water splashes as G'raha turns toward the source of the noise. His wet ear smears against your cheek.
"I'm going to go ahead and guess that would be Thancred," you say.
"I believe that would be a safe assumption."
"I'll let them in." You squeeze his shoulder and rise to your feet. The bath mat unfurls with a snap when you shake it out from it's coil. The sound precedes another series of knocks.
"Be right there!" you call.
G'raha turns in the tub to look up at you, disrupting the water with a slosh that leaves behind a peaceful trickling sound. "Are you certain?"
With his skin kissed with steam and his hair a wet tousled mess as he reclines, G'raha looks just as debauched as you've left him on far less innocent occasions. Contributing to his moment of bliss, you hand him your half-full glass of wine from the countertop after retrieving your cuff and securing it to your wrist.
"Not such a waste of time after all, is it?"
"I admit, you have shown me the error of my ways."
You crouch to sweetly press your forehead to his as you scratch the base of his hairline, then glide your hand down the water-slick crystal of his neck. He soaks up the affection as though he will never tire of it. You will never tire of giving it.
"Take some time to relax. Come join us when you're ready."
G'raha rolls onto his stomach and drapes himself over the side of the tub, resting his head in the crook of his elbow as he cradles the glass between his fingers. The tip of his tail pokes out of the water, creating lazy ripples with every contented tap. The small curve of his smirk as he looks at you before letting his eyes fall closed makes your heart do somersaults beneath your breast.
Your work here is done. With your hand still on the knob, you close the door behind you and pause to collect yourself. You bow your head and indulge in a private smile that flutters down toward your feet.
Thoughts of decadence shoved aside, there is nothing wrong with an occasional hard-earned indulgence. It is when indulgence becomes an expected norm that wastelands of human conscience like former Eulmore arise. You refuse to feel any guilt at accepting your host's hospitality as you work together to repair these broken lands. There is nothing but joy in teaching G'raha the pleasures of a stolen moment for a bath when the man so rarely does anything for himself.
You cross through the main room and open the door to find Thancred and Y'shtola waiting in the warmly lit hallway. Your fellow Seeker holds a small tower of covered trays that emit mouth-watering aromas that can be smelled even over the heady fragrances drifting in from the washroom. It's not much of a surprise that Thancred cradles a couple of dark glass bottles to his chest.
Taking the mountain of food platters from Y'shtola, you toss your head to wave them in. "Come on in."
Y'shtola thanks you and closes the door. Thancred looks you up and down, then raises an eyebrow at your bathrobe as he walks beside you to the dining table.
"I hope we aren't interrupting something?" His tone is only half joking as he sets the whiskey and mead out in a line. "You look rather cozy."
"You would have wanted to wash up too if you had joined me and Alphinaud out on the rooftops."
"Forgive me for wanting to give Ryne the time to explore the city as a proper guest instead of a prisoner." Thancred takes half of the stack of trays and begins spreading them out on the tabletop, leaving room to sit and eat. "I daresay she rather enjoyed herself. I hadn't expected that."
"Not all of us are so stubborn," Y'shtola says. "The people of this city are trying as best they know how to mend their ways. Twas not truly their own doing to begin with. As much as I loathe what Eulmore once represented, it is our ongoing duty as the Warrior's companions to keep an open mind. Tis not easy, but I do suggest trying."
Thancred scoffs. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"How noble of you to suffer a night in a suite fit for a king," she teases, then turns to you. "Thank you for the invitation, by the way. Our rooms are simply remarkable."
"I didn't need them." You shrug. "I'm glad the reservations could go to use, and we haven't been able to get together in a while. It seemed like a sound decision."
The next item you pick up as you assist Thancred is a more humble pan, the metal hot to the touch.
"That one is from Runar," Y'shtola says. "He made his famous stew last night and insisted I bring some for you to try. Apparently you boys bonded over cooking while I was unaware."
You peel back the edge of the foil and take a sniff of the hearty stew. Already the blend of spiced meat and chopped vegetables has you salivating as though you haven't eaten in days.
"I can't wait to try it," you say with an eager grin as you cover up the tray and set it on the table. "He couldn't join you tonight?"
She sighs and crosses her arms. "He wished to, but he insisted in going over preparations for tomorrow with The Night's Blessed once more. I assured him that we can handle a few stray fanatics without breaking a sweat, but he is accustomed to doing things his way. Let him. I am not one to argue with a man who has made up his mind."
"Oh, a lover's quarrel. How quaint," Thancred says, earning him a slap on the arm that nearly knocks the basket of bread out of his hands.
"Twas not a quarrel, and we are hardly lovers."
"I am not one to pry, Master Matoya-" Thancred begins, emphasizing her assumed title in the Hrothgar's accent. You smother a laugh.
"Yes, you are."
"-but were you not the one who said that you could never develop feelings for our friend here since you prefer your men with more muscle on their bones?"
Y'shtola senses the amused look you give her, and she turns her blind eyes away. "I also find it more practical to prefer men who do not prefer men themselves. ‘Tis a more economical use of my time. Speaking of which, why are we even discussing this?"
Her flustered blush is a novelty, and you cannot help taking one last jab. "It is as you said to me not long ago. You are smitten."
Thancred shoots you a glance of conspiring approval as Y'shtola groans, exasperated.
"I would have been better off spending the evening with Ryne and Alisaie," she mutters.
"Unlikely. I expect the ladies would show no mercy in their interrogation," Thancred says. "Besides, we have whiskey."
"We do," she admits wistfully, reminding you just how much you've missed casual nights with the Scions at The Rising Stones. You may have relocated and added some new faces to your ranks, but the sentimental tug is still there. Your family will not forsake you, neither in fight nor in festivity.
Thancred lifts the final container and places it into the neat display. Between everything, there will be more than enough for the three of you and G'raha, plus Urianger and Alphinaud whenever they decide to show up. You might even have leftovers for breakfast in the morning.
With dinner arranged and a stack of plates and utensils fetched from the cabinet, you make to open one of the bottles, but Thancred snatches it from you.
"Go put some clothes on, will you? I'll do the honors."
You shuffle off to the bedroom and quickly dress yourself in casual trousers and a simple cotton shirt you brought with you from the Crystarium. From the other side of the washroom door, G'raha sings a barely audible sea shanty from Limsa Lominsa's taverns that was - is - popular throughout all of Eorzea. You close the bedroom door when you leave to give him more privacy. If he is content enough to sing, you will suffer nothing to interrupt him, even if it is just wisps of conversation carried from the main room.
You emerge to find Y'shtola standing beside the chaise with her arms folded, looking out upon the thunderstorm, stray bolts of lightning striking the earth. "’Tis still a curious sight to see a proper storm after being here for so long. The light detracted from the raw beauty of the elements. I can only imagine how it must seem to those who were born here."
Thancred hands you a glass tumbler filled with two fingers of whiskey. "After what they have known all of their lives, I imagine seeing the dark they worship bare its teeth is quite the experience."
You take a sip from your drink. With your empty stomach, the smoky liquor burns all the way down, but not unpleasantly. "It will take getting used to for everyone. Even G'raha was stunned when the leaves started to fall last month."
Thancred picks idly at a crinkle of foil that wraps over the edge of one of the trays. "It still feels peculiar calling him that again after all these years of smoke and mirrors."
You begin to agree, though for you it is months rather than years, but your reply is derailed as you stumble over one word.
Thancred huffs his amusement and pulls aside the low collar of his shirt to reveal his neck tattoo in full- the prestigious sage's mark displayed for all to see. The base of the Scion eye peeks out from his sleeve, but you know now it is meant not for the Scions at all, but for those few among Sharlayan who cast aside their old ways of knowing and observing without interfering, and broke tradition to take up arms in an attempt to help make their forsaken world a better place.
"Your dear boy didn't confide in Urianger simply because he seemed most dedicated to the cause. Our paths have crossed more than once."
Your mouth hangs agape as you regard Thancred. Somehow the completely logical possibility had never crossed your mind. You'd heard Krile mention G'raha's name in passing while discussing the Students of Baldesion, but any possible connection to the Circle of Knowing had completely escaped you.
"Sharlayan is no small place," Y'shtola says with a smirk, "but most Archons tend to meet at some point or another. I did not know him well, but we were acquainted enough that we would say hello in passing."
"I ran into him in one of the taverns the night before his tattooing ceremony," Thancred says. "Bought him a drink to celebrate and he repaid my kindness by wiping the floor with me at cards."
"Tis a shame your skills as a tactician do not extend beyond the battlefield," Y'shtola teases with a coyly arched eyebrow. She drinks from her glass as Thancred sneers at her.
A part of you is jealous knowing that your fellow Scions had known G'raha long before you, that they have memories of him in a way you never knew. The better part of you warms at the thought of G'raha having a deeper connection to your found family than via your acquaintance. He is no Scion, but he is bound to them all the same by ink and memories of a land they once called home. It means more to you than you could have expected.
The bedroom door opens and G'raha emerges with a towel slung over his shoulder, dressed in similar attire as yours- a sleep shirt brought strictly for the benefit of your friends and a pair of knee-length trousers. His hair is tied back in a tight wet braid, though his bangs fall free in damp waves around his face that are frizzing as they dry. You see rather than hear him scent the air, the wind and rain outside too loud to hear a sound so delicate. His nose leads his eyes to the table, but the cloud of fragrant air that follows him guides your eyes to his skin. You wonder how soft it is after his soak, how his crystal feels after being treated with bath oils.
G'raha manages a bashful smile, lifting his gaze from the food to the Scions each in turn. "Good evening Thancred, Y'shtola. Thank you for the pleasure of your company this evening."
Thancred holds his arm out and G'raha steps forward to clasp hands with him. The two of them have become more friendly in recent months, which is more than can be said of Y'shtola. Her coldness towards the Exarch has warmed to brisk chill, which you think is more habit than anything. She has forgiven his drawn-out deception, but her prior distrust has left a lingering hesitance around him.
"I was starting to think you were incapable of looking even half this relaxed," Thancred says to G'raha, plucking at the sleeve of the Seeker's spectacularly normal shirt. The peaks and edges of his crystal show through the fabric where it hugs his body.
"My position hardly affords much time for relaxation," G'raha replies. "Though in truth I do not mind overmuch. Now that our efforts are bearing fruit and recovery has at last begun, I must admit, my work is far more rewarding than it has ever been."
"I take it things went well today?" Y'shtola asks, making an effort to break the thin layer of ice that stands between her and G'raha. He seems to be pleasantly surprised by her initiative.
"It could not have gone better. The forts throughout Lakeland will be assisting in training new recruits to replenish the Eulmoran army, which has been a primary concern the citizens are lamenting. We have also agreed on an exchange program, of sorts. I will be asking Katliss in the Mean to field volunteers from the disciples of hand to transfer here to assist in rebuilding the Derelicts and Gatetown, as well training willing citizens in their crafts. In return, the Crystarium will serve as home to some of Eulmore's more visual artisans- painters, dancers, and the like, to bring a more thorough variety of culture to expand on the city's preference for knowledge and literature, which I admit is largely due to my biased influence. There is still much to discuss in regards to trade, but I truly believe we have broken ground this visit."
Thancred takes G'raha's empty wine glass and fills the bottom with a splash of whiskey from the open bottle on the table. "All good things, my friend." Thancred clicks his glass to G'raha's. "Should you need my assistance with any of these initiatives, you know where to find me."
"I may take you up on that offer, in truth."
As the two of them discuss the need for assistance in training the new military recruits, a drop of water lands on your foot. You look down to see the tip of G'raha's tail beading with droplets as gravity carries them down the furry length. He doesn't acknowledge when you set your drink down to take the towel from his shoulder, but he does make an undignified noise of surprise when you grab his tail with it.
"You're getting water everywhere," you explain as you rub the towel back and forth along the sides of his tail, squeezing the end to draw out all of the water collected there. Thancred laughs as G'raha grumbles at your fussing.
"You should be happy that you don't have to deal with these problems," Y'shtola says, her voice bright with amusement.
"If I did, perhaps I would fit in better," Thancred laments with a roll of his eyes. "I'm surrounded by cats."
You toss the wet towel at Thancred and he nearly spills his drink as he reflexively tries to bat it away. You and your fellow Seekers share a laugh at his expense before you spare him by draping the towel over the back of one of the dining chairs.
"Not for long," you say, smoothing down G'raha's ruffled yet significantly drier fur. "Our Elezen comrades should be here soon enough."
"Did they say when?" G'raha asks.
"They did not," Y'shtola replies. "Urianger wanted to sit in on Alphinaud's portrait session. He said they would be over afterwards."
G'raha tilts his head as he looks eagerly at the spread of food on the table. "In that case, given that they did not advise the time of their arrival, it would not be rude to begin dining without them, would it?"
"Absolutely not," Thancred declares with enthusiasm, clapping his palm on the table. He grabs one of the smaller trays, perhaps only six ilms long, and hands it to G'raha. "That one is for you. Our friend here shared the disturbing news that you have never had sushi, so I had Ryne help pick out an assortment before I left her with Alisaie."
G'raha's ears flick as he accepts the platter and pops the cover off. A rainbow of raw fish sits in perfect lines between sticky rice and seaweed wraps. You can see his feline instincts kick in as his nostrils flare and his pupils expand just the slightest bit. His tail brushes your leg as it lifts in excitement.
"Thank you very much, Thancred. I will be sure to say the same to Ryne for her assistance when we see her tomorrow," G'raha says, and you can read him well enough to know the gesture has touched him more than a simple offering of food. The outcast boy with the red eye has at last found a circle of friends.
After quickly scoffing down a chunk of bread to pacify your stomach, you set to the task of teaching G'raha how to use the chopsticks you find in the cabinet. The mechanics pose no challenge, but the smooth surface of the porcelain offers no resistance and he struggles to grip it with his dominant crystal hand. Even after several futile attempts, G'raha is undeterrable. He transfers the chopsticks to his left hand and though the motion is stilted and awkward, he manages to lift a piece of sashimi to his lips. His eyes flutter closed as he savors the fresh salmon, humming in utter delight at the flavor.
"Save those noises for him, will you?" Thancred jokes over a bowl of stew.
Y'shtola chuckles beside him at the table, lifting her fork from her plate of roasted chicken and vegetables. "Oh, I do hope our friend is more impressive than a piece of fish."
You lift a rude gesture in their direction to a resulting round of laughter. G'raha leans into you as you drop a kiss in his sweet-scented hair, scratching the base of his tail where it pokes out of the back of his trousers.
"I prefer to keep such matters private," G'raha says, taking a sip from his glass as he readies his left hand to tackle the chopsticks a second time. "Though between friends it seems no breach of confidence to assure you that yes, he most certainly is."
Y'shtola bursts into giggles and Thancred lifts his glass to you in proud salute. You try not to acknowledge the heat in your cheeks and promptly knock back the rest of your drink. You set about fetching another, as well as a second helping of bread to dip in a bowl of stew.
You all feast and drink and share talk of recent endeavors. Each of you has had your hands full, and stories flow from everyone's lips as easily as the rain water sluicing down the grand windows you overlook. Thancred tells of the empty lands he and Ryne are poised to investigate, and Y'shtola speaks at length of the efforts to strengthen ties between Slitherbough and Fanow. Inevitably the problematic topic of the Children of the Everlasting Dark comes up, and you all agree to set aside talk of the violent fanatics until the morning when you make for Rak'tika to rid yourselves of the nuisance once and for all.
Plates are emptied and cleared away, left in the hallway for collection as instructed. There is a bit of everything left except for G'raha's sushi, and you help tuck the leftovers into the small ice chest provided in the room until they will be revisited in the morning for breakfast.
Once the table is empty except for glasses and bottles, Thancred turns to G'raha with a quirked eyebrow. "I have a question for you."
G'raha sits up straighter in his chair, pale cheeks adorably red with drink. "What is it?"
With his bravado bolstered by his three helpings of whiskey, Thancred reaches into his pocket and smacks a deck of cards on the table. "Do you remember how to play, old man? I daresay our rematch is long overdue."
G'raha's smirk is wicked as he takes the deck from Thancred and makes his first selection. He was never one to turn down a challenge or the opportunity for a game, and it seems your Miqo'te is just as competitive as ever. They pass the deck back and forth until they have each selected a full hand, and even through a century of rust, G'raha destroys Thancred at Triple Triad.
Best two out of three ends with Thancred giving up and passing the torch to Y'shtola. She manages to score a draw on her second hand when a reserved knock raps on the door.
"I'll get it," G'raha declares, passing you his cards as he slides out of his chair. You shrug, challenging Y'shtola to a round of Ascension while G'raha admits the latecomers with a welcoming 'good evening, gentlemen'.
Drinks are poured for the Elezen as they fill in the empty seats at the table. G'raha returns to find Urianger in his chair and pauses. Alphinaud moves his bag of art supplies and offers his seat in apology, but G'raha declines in favor of your lap. You happily pass your cards to Urianger so you can snake your arm around G'raha's waist. It's new for him to do this in the company of others. You attribute his boldness to the alcohol, but you're all still entirely in control of your faculties, only more relaxed while simultaneously more animated.
Urianger slays each of your fellow Scions in turn with his quick witted card play as Alphinaud regales you with snippets of his more interesting portrait commissions that break the monotony of tearing up the ruins of Gatetown and The Derelicts. You used to tease him for embracing the farce, but the wealthier citizens pay good money for Alphinaud's work which he then uses to help fund the repairs. Just this evening a young woman wished to be painted in a questionable pose on the dance floor of The Beehive to present to her fiance as an engagement gift.
"Wait," Thancred says, setting his drink down. "You're telling me you were late because your were painting a girl dancing on stage with one of those poles? Surely you know that in the event of such an occurrence, you require a loyal assistant." He puts his hand to his chest, fingers spread wide.
Alphinaud tosses a thumb in your direction. "He's my assistant. The lie wouldn't have gotten past the door."
Thancred sighs. His eyes widen suddenly and he points accusingly at Urianger. "What about you, then? You went to visit him. How did you get in?"
"Every aspiring artist doth require the occasional guidance of a mentor to ensure they stray not from their path to greatness," the stoic astrologian says.
Y'shtola snickers. "You haven't lifted a paintbrush in your life."
"Art is no fickle mistress. One needn't participate to appreciate," he replies with a small curve of his lips.
Thancred sighs dramatically. "Oh, now he's a poet."
"Wouldn't you know it?" Alphinaud chimes in with a cheeky grin. You channel Alisaie's spirit in her absence and give him a shove that nearly knocks him off his chair.
A few more rounds of Triple Triad circle the table. When the deck makes its way back to G'raha, he doesn't take it from Alphinaud. He has a far away look in his eyes, though not unhappy. You scratch at the uneven crystal of his hip through his trousers to get his attention.
"Hm? Oh. I apologize. I was just-" His hand comes to his neck, gold-lined skin gliding over crystal almost as if he is trying to rub it away. "I have not had the opportunity to regard my old markings so openly in quite some time."
He was staring at Thancred's tattoo, you realize. The mark of the Archon, the same as on Y'shtola's neck and Urianger's cheek. He is surrounded by visions of the symbols he has lost.
"I often forget you studied in Sharlayan too," Alphinaud muses. The small Elezen has a glaze over his eyes after only two glasses of mead. He looks from Urianger back to G'raha, eyes narrowed in thought. "What color?"
G'raha frowns, then Alphinaud taps his fingers to his neck.
"Rolanberry," G'raha says, then watches with great interest as Alphinaud dives into his bag of supplies.
"I mixed this for earlier but we didn't use it all." The budding artist shakes a bottle of paint a little more purple than rolanberry to the discerning eye, but close enough at a passing glance. "It washes off, if you like."
G'raha's eyes grow wide at the implied suggestion. The protective part of you glares daggers at Alphinaud for bringing up a part of G'raha's life that he cannot get back, but then you see the man in your lap smile, red eyes shining as he nods. He unbuttons his shirt enough to tug it aside and bare his shoulder.
You unclasp his necklace and place it on the table. He looks at you with gratitude. It's such a part of him now that he had forgotten he was even wearing it.
"The eye was a russet color," you tell Alphinaud. He plucks a thin-tipped paint brush from the bag and removes it's cap.
"I think I can manage that."
The others return to chatting and you set your eyes on G'raha's as he closes them. You don't even have to ask to know he's lost in thought as the bristles glide over his neck, painting vibrant red over blue crystal. The arcane symbol takes form with strokes reminiscent of calligraphy. With how the sight of it takes you back to those days in Mor Dhona, you can only imagine how G'raha feels right now, how he will feel when he sees it. The G'raha Tia who had these symbols inked into his skin was a boy you never knew. How many years had passed between then and when you met? How impossibly proud was he as he endured the bite of the needle that would brand him with the mark of his achievements?
How many years was he able to look back on the proof of those accomplishments from his solitude in the tower before the last remaining proof of them was swallowed up by his affliction?
Alphinaud finishes the symbol on both sides of G'raha's neck and places the cap back on the brush, to be cleaned later when he is more of a mind to care. He fishes out a bottle of deep brown paint and a fresh brush, then sets to work on G'raha's shoulder. The eye forms more slowly, the pattern more intricate and symmetrical, which seems to require increased concentration in Alphinaud's easily inebriated state.
You had thought the memory of such things would rattle him, but when G'raha looks down at Alphinaud's diligent work on his arm, for a fleeting moment you see the age in his eyes, tender and nostalgic as though he were the old man he once claimed to be, looking back upon misplaced yet beloved photographs of times long past.
G'raha thanks Alphinaud for his work, then does not say much for the rest of the evening.
The hand on the grandfather clock reads later than you expected by the time conversation lulls and yawns begin to take the place of intoxicated laughter. Thancred nearly falls asleep on the chaise next to G'raha's staff, lacking the motivation to drag himself to the room next door until Y'shtola yanks on his arm with threats of leaving him to sleep in the hall. The Elezen Scions are in better shape than him, departing with good tidings until you reconvene in the morning.
G'raha disappears into the bedroom and you allow him a moment of privacy while you set about brewing a cup of chamomile for each of you. The taste doesn't do much for you, but you can't deny the relaxing abilities of the herbal blend.
After allowing the proper amount of time for the tea to steep, you stir in a drizzle of honey and carry the mugs into the bedroom. It is there you find what you had feared- G'raha cross-legged and shirtless on the bed staring at his reflection in the dresser mirror. The look in his eyes is one you've seen before but haven't yet learned to read, though it troubles you regardless of its meaning. He seems relieved at the distraction of your arrival, accepting the mug of tea with a touched smile.
"Where did it start?"
G'raha takes a careful sip of the hot liquid and cradles the mug in his right hand where his crystal is less susceptible to temperature. With his left, he touches the underside of your wrist where your veins burn blue through your skin. "Here," he says, tracing his fingers up along your arm until they reach your neck. You shiver, almost spilling some of your tea. "It stopped at my cheek after about forty years and has since been working its way down my body. Worry not. It is a slow enough process. You shall not see me turn to stone."
You open your mouth to speak, but no words come. He wipes away the pained set of your expression with the touch of his hand to your cheek, smiling gently as though it had been a joke and not the very real future that lies ahead.
It is best not to think about it right now, not when his mind is bogged down in the past. He withdraws his touch to bring his mug to his lips. You do the same.
"Should I have asked him to stop?" you ask.
"Alphinaud? No." He looks into the mirror again, turning his arm to regard the arcane eye painted there. The deep hue is stark against the azure of his body. "I shall wash them off in the morning, but for now I enjoy being able to see my old markings again."
"You seem more upset than anything," you counter cautiously, the unspoken question evident in your voice.
"’Tis difficult to put into words. Memory is not always without mourning, and mourning is not always an act of grief." G'raha looks down into his tea, tracing a crystal finger along the curve of the ceramic mug. The faint scratching sound it makes is nearly deafening. "Tis good to remember how it felt to fly before I clipped my wings."
You smother the instinct to comfort him. He isn’t hurting, and curative words will do nothing for him now. Instead, you offer him what you know he needs and slip an arm around his waist to encourage him to sidle closer. He cups his mug with both hands in his lap and rests his head on your shoulder, his ear slightly squashed between you.
“Will you be able to sleep tonight?”
“Yes, though not just yet,” G’raha says. “Would you mind sitting up with me for a short while longer?”
You place a kiss on the crown of his head. Before you have the chance to think better of it, you begin to quietly sing the sea shanty G’raha had serenaded himself with in the bath. Your voice is off key and cannot hold a candle to his lovely instrument, but it makes him laugh. That and the smile you feel against your shoulder as he relaxes more heavily into you are all that matters right now.
Hollow thoughts of flight and the stone that anchors him can wait until when the bright hope of morning comes.