All the things that, in the end, led to things getting better in Novigrad, didn't feel like that while they were happening. They felt like days of teetering on edges, waiting and wondering how life just kept going, how he kept making swords and Elihal kept making clothes and they both kept meeting up for meals, kept lying down in each other's beds and rising up in the morning and going on.
And then, very suddenly, life descended into chaos. The guardsmen doubled--disappeared--were replaced by thugs from one group or another--were driven off by a hastily organized group of citizens with sticks and torches--and the cycle repeated. The shrine's Sacred Fire was extinguished and relit repeatedly by whoever thought they had something to prove to anyone in this corner of the city.
And then Elihal--in guardsman's armor--had come for him, after the first day and night of the madness, and hauled Éibhear away to the city wall.
Éibhear had never known there was so much inside to the city walls, but it turned out the big gates everyone thought of as gates weren't exactly the only way through. There were smaller doors, too, and endless torchlit corridors and possibly tunnels, which a guardsman could drag an elf through, shouting about sealed orders to anyone who tried to delay them.
Elihal covered the armor with a cloak once they were out of sight of the guards on the south side of the river. Éibhear had no idea where the cloak had come from--Elihal was carrying a sword, had a tabard, but nothing else--but he wasn't going to ask questions. Not until they were somewhere safe, and with Elihal at his side and Novigrad behind them, Éibhear didn't really care whether that meant keeping his mouth shut until they were under the trees of Brokilon.
In the event they had gone only as far as Elihal's little house. Elihal barred the door behind them, checked that all the window shutters were secured, and then stripped out of the armor--half of it had only been foil over leather, Éibhear saw with a sick jolt--and threw his arms around Éibhear.
It had taken a long moment for Éibhear to return the embrace, to gather his wits enough to say, "We're staying here, then?"
"Of course!" Elihal said. "All my things are here. Hopefully yours are too heavy for anyone to carry off, if they get any bright ideas about that."
"I mean," Éibhear said helplessly, and waved a hand in the direction of the teeming streets on the other side of the wall. "Novigrad?"
Elihal pushed back then, to look him in the eye, and his expression was stern as he said, "Of course. Novigrad was ours before those human children ever built a city there. I was born in Novigrad. My grandmother was born in Novigrad, and her grandmother was born in a forest that got cut and burned down to make room for Novigrad. Those humans inside the walls can do what they like to each other; this place is mine and I won't be chased away."
"Oh," Éibhear said, feeling vaguely ashamed but mostly glad to have someone else making the important decisions and sounding so sure about it. "Well. All right, then. Is there anything I can do?"
Elihal gave a shaky laugh and said, "You can take me to bed and make me forget what I just did to get you away from there."
Éibhear wrapped his arms tightly around Elihal, looking down at the foil peeling off the leather plates discarded on the floor. He thought of the firmness of Elihal's stride, the pure authority in his voice shouting about orders, the strength of his grip on Éibhear's wrist, pulling him along. Elihal did love a costume, but Éibhear had seen him put on and take off enough to know by now that some were a great deal harder to bear than others.
"I can do that," Éibhear said, and spent hours making himself forget, too.
They spent that day, and the one that followed, mostly in Elihal's bed or, after they heard quite a lot of boots and horses and armor massing somewhere nearby, down in Elihal's hidden cellar.
And then the next day, they'd woken to the sound of Elihal's neighbor knocking on the back door and calling out, "Elihal? The hens were too stupid to be frightened, so there are plenty of eggs--would you like your half?"
And just like that, normal life was happening again.
They had eggs for breakfast, and listened to the aggregated gossip from the neighbors, and read some of the notices people had found tacked up. Radovid was dead, murdered by unknown assassins; the Hierarch had decided to retire into seclusion; a new Hierarch would be anointed soon. Novigrad was now, apparently, under the protection of the Empire of Nilfgaard. And the Empire of Nilfgaard, according to the notices and general gossip consensus, extended its protection to include the elder races, and mages.
Éibhear did not voice his doubts about just what that protection amounted to, at this distance. The Nilfgaardian armies were huge, but they were also spread out over half the Northern Realms and, according to persistent rumor, also sailing for Skellige. Still, even from Elihal's house they could see people coming and going on the bridges.
The blackened corpses had been taken down. The pyres had been dismantled. Some of the witch hunters were said to be in jail, the rest scattered out of the city.
Éibhear found his shop mostly undisturbed, though he had to clean what was almost certainly blood off the railing around the forge and the flagstones under it. Nothing else had been touched; everything was just as it had been a few days ago, except that there were no witch hunters in sight. The usual guardsmen were standing very meekly at their stations by the shrine, and every so often a patrol of Black Ones rode through.
Once they stopped and asked the use of his whetstones; he sharpened their swords and they insisted on paying, requiring him to write out a receipt for the expense, which the patrol's commander put neatly into a pouch on his hip.
Elihal looked down at the handful of copper the commander had carefully counted out, no sum he would have missed if they hadn't paid, and felt lighter than he had in months.
That should have been the end of it. He could buy supplies at the reopened alchemists' shop now, and Elihal dragged him out to eat dinner at a tavern favored by elves, and to see someone sing at the Kingfisher. Even there, the endless rehashing of what had happened and who was missing faded into the ordinary chatter of life going on. He and Elihal still spent most of their nights sharing one bed or another.
Éibhear tried to let it be enough to make him forget.
He didn't know why he couldn't. Nothing had really happened to him; no one he knew better than vaguely recognizing a name had been killed in the weeks of the pyres or the chaos during the transfer of power. He and Elihal were together now, and that was a shocking improvement over his life before.
And still, there were nights when that same old tension knotted his shoulders, as if he was waiting for the axe to fall, for a pyre to be lit, for someone to drag him away for questioning. Sometimes when Elihal was out of his sight he couldn't breathe for the fear that he would never return and Éibhear would never know what had happened to him.
Sometimes even when Elihal was lying in bed beside him, Éibhear couldn't stop thinking about what had happened, about what could happen, whether it was truly over or merely a lull before something worse.
He slipped out of bed in the darkness and padded downstairs. He didn't want to wake Elihal; he'd gotten a big order from some lordly Nilfgaardians and had been working all hours over the last few days to get everything finished, and there was still more to do. He'd come to Éibhear's tonight so that he'd be forced to take a break from it, now that he'd finished the first part of the order. He needed his sleep. And it was good to know that he was sleeping, was safe in Éibhear's bed, and anything that came through the door would find Éibhear first.
He paced from the stove to the front door for a while, his thoughts spinning endless scenarios.
He knew it was useless. If the guards or the Black Ones were coming for them, if fresh riots broke out, if a new racket put him out of business again, there was nothing he could do about it like this, tonight. But he couldn't stop the thoughts. He wished for the heat of the forge, the simplicity of working metal, which required all his focus and left no room for other thoughts. But the sound of the hammer would surely wake Elihal--and irritate his neighbors, who had already been rather peeved the last few nights when he'd worked late in Elihal's absence.
Well, there. All that work meant that there was cleaning to do, and tools to maintain, acids and oils to mix for treating various blades tomorrow or in the future.
It was all work that would busy his hands more than his mind, but it was something, at least.
Sometime later he was kneeling on the floor by the stove, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn bit of sooty grease with a stiff-bristled brush, when he jerked and then froze at a small sound. He turned, gripping the brush too tight, and saw Elihal kneeling just out of reach. Elihal was wearing a silky robe with a pattern of birds and flowers in a rainbow of colors, loosely belted with nothing underneath.
Éibhear was learning to read Elihal's presentation as he read his lover's face, but the single garment told him no more than the unreadable look.
"I think the floor is as clean as it needs to be, a leannán. Come away now."
Éibhear looked down at his hands, and saw the marks and stains all over them, the reddened skin and scraped knuckles he hadn't even noticed, and felt the sweat going clammy on his skin. "I'm sorry, my dear, I--"
"There's nothing to be sorry for," Elihal said firmly. "Unless you don't come along now and let me look after you properly."
Still, Éibhear looked from his grimy hands to Elihal, lovely and immaculate, and didn't know how to so much as move without dirtying him somehow.
"Come," Elihal repeated, standing up and coming over to him, gripping his shoulder with that stern strength that shouldn't be a surprise anymore. Éibhear knew as well as anyone how hard Elihal's hands worked.
He let Elihal pull him to his feet, let the brush be taken from his hand and set aside, he knew not where. Éibhear kept his dirty hands curled close to his chest, still not daring to touch, but Elihal didn't try to embrace him, just steered him to the stairs and up with that unyielding grip on his shoulder.
Only when they reached the upstairs room did Éibhear see the evidence of how long Elihal had already been awake: he'd set up the big copper bath and filled it with hot water, and set up candles and things around it. It looked lovely, romantic, like something Elihal would adore, and Éibhear only felt guilty and tired at the sight of it. He ought to have done this, had it waiting just like this when Elihal arrived tonight. He--
"What did I just say," Elihal murmured sternly behind him, "about letting me take care of you, darling?"
Éibhear closed his eyes and nodded. He let Elihal guide him, let Elihal divest him of the soft linen trews that were the only thing he'd bothered to wear downstairs. He moved where Elihal wanted him, into the tub, sitting down and leaning back where he was pressed, to find a towel padding the edge for his neck and shoulders.
He let his hands fall, finally, into the water. The comfort of it was almost stunning for a moment, and he was thankful again for the boredom of his time making dumplings instead of swords, which had driven him to work out how to pipe water up here, heated by the banked fires of forge and stove.
Then he felt both of Elihal's hands close around one of his, under water, making him aware that he was still holding it in a cramped curl, not quite a fist.
"Oh, my love," Elihal murmured. "Your poor hands. Here now, shh, let me."
Elihal's fingers, strong and dexterous from hours of needlework, began to press here and there into his palm, the base of his thumb, up his wrist and then back down. Éibhear groaned a little as his hand fell open, sharp darts of pain subsiding into warm relief.
"You'll," Éibhear mumbled, feeling dazed already, half-drunk on the warmth and the touch and the relief of letting Elihal take charge. "Dirty, should've..."
"That's what a bath is for, silly," Elihal said, the sorrow in his previous words vanishing into his more usual gentle teasing. "Wait until you find out what I can do with a cloth and soap that isn't made of lye and grit."
Éibhear meant to explain that the harsh soap was necessary sometimes, when he'd gotten difficult substances on his hands--which meant he kept it on hand all the time, and then used it even when he didn't need it. But Elihal's soft hair brushed his cheek as an oddly-angled kiss was pressed to his lips, and he realized that Elihal had moved behind him, his slim arms coming around Éibhear's inelegantly wide shoulders.
There were more soft kisses, pressed to Éibhear's jaw and throat and shoulder, and then Elihal finally let Éibhear's right hand slip down into the water and took up the left. Éibhear sighed and turned his head enough to kiss whatever of Elihal he could reach--his arm, as it turned out, wiry muscle bunching under Éibhear's lips as Elihal firmly massaged the tension from his hand.
"There, now," Elihal murmured in his ear. "That's better, isn't it?"
Éibhear nodded a little, but the suggestion of being finished--the suggestion that he ought to be better now--stirred up all the whirring thoughts that had gone quiet in his brain, smothered by physical activity and then stunned silent by Elihal. This ought to have been enough, he ought to be able to relax and enjoy this, enjoy this lovely thing Elihal was doing for him, and--
"Tsk," Elihal said, lightly, with no real aggravation behind it. "I'm only getting started, my love. Let me do this properly before you start worrying I can't."
Éibhear opened his eyes at that, and watched as Elihal stood up over him, letting the robe fall away as he did, leaving him naked. Without costume he was only himself, and all facets of himself equally. Éibhear couldn't help smiling a little, even as his worry still picked away in his mind.
Elihal stepped into the tub and knelt over him, straddling his thighs. He'd judged the amount of water in the tub to a nicety; water rose up to cover nearly all of Éibhear's chest, but was still an inch or so below the rim of the tub.
Elihal's hands settled on Éibhear's cheeks, framing his face and tilting his head up to meet Elihal's steady gaze. "You take such good care of me, a leannán. I wish you would let me take care of you, or at least stop pretending that you never need it."
"I--" Elihal's thumb pressed over his parted lips, cutting off the words.
"I know you've survived a long time without anyone to look after you," Elihal went on. "I know that's what you think need means: what it takes to survive. But there's a difference, isn't there? Because we survived the pyres, but we needed it to end."
Éibhear let his eyes shut again. "I don't know why I..." Elihal didn't hush him this time, or answer the question he couldn't put words to, so after a moment Éibhear said it as best he could. "I don't know why it still troubles me. It's over, and it's not as if I..."
"I still have nightmares," Elihal said, and that brought Éibhear's eyes open, made his hands rise to Elihal's hips, the easiest place to hold and steady him.
Éibhear hadn't even considered what Elihal was doing awake, to catch him at his fretting.
"And I can see," Elihal went on, before Éibhear could say anything, "that you don't think that's silly, do you? You think it's perfectly reasonable for me to still think of it, because of that night."
Éibhear swallowed and nodded.
"Tell me," Elihal said. "If they hadn't listened to you, was there truly anything you could have done to protect me? To keep from seeing them kill me--or do worse--right in front of you, right there in the square in front of your shop?"
Éibhear couldn't help the wordless noise of protest; his arms closed around Elihal's hips and he sat up, pressing his face into the soft unprotected skin of Elihal's belly.
That was the one worry he tried never to let himself think about, the hideous what if.
"I would have," he started, but he couldn't really tell Elihal it wasn't so. He wasn't even sure he would have died trying, if it had come to that. He had always been as much of a coward as it took to survive.
"You did," Elihal assured him, setting one hand gently on the crown of his head, petting down to his neck and then repeating the motion. "You did, and you'd have risked more if it had come to that. You would have tried, if you thought there was any chance of actually saving me. But whether there was a chance or not was entirely out of your hands; it was up to those dh'oine and whatever mood they happened to be in."
Éibhear shuddered, feeling sick with helplessness all over again. Elihal's hand on him tightened reassuringly, even as Elihal kept on speaking relentlessly.
"We were under their power, and we could have died, any of us, at any moment. I had to cross that bridge every day, walking between the victims of the pyres. You had them in your face all the time--you had to sharpen their swords. So it didn't only happen to me, Éibhear. It happened to you. What they did to me, and what they could have done, and everything they did to your people in your city, all those weeks of waiting for worse, that's something that happened to you. Not in the same way it happened to others, not more than it happened to anyone else--but it happened to you, and that's why it still makes you feel this way."
"But I," Éibhear said, not even knowing what he meant to say, only that it couldn't be as simple as Elihal made it. He couldn't deserve this.
"You are mine," Elihal said sternly, and despite everything it warmed something in Éibhear's chest to hear him say it so baldly, though Elihal was never stingy with such words. "And so it's you I wish to take care of. If you smashed your finger with a hammer, I wouldn't ignore it because someone else somewhere had a broken leg."
Éibhear felt an ache in every bone of his hands he'd ever broken--which was most of them, after all these years wielding a hammer--and then he realized that part of the ache was because he was holding on so very hard. Elihal didn't bruise easily, but Éibhear never treated him roughly or carelessly.
Still, it took a moment's effort for him to gentle his grip. All the time, Elihal stayed calm, the motion of his breathing steady against Éibhear's face, his hand running smoothly over Éibhear's hair and down to the nape of his neck.
When Éibhear did make himself let go, his open palms just resting against Elihal's skin, Elihal tugged gently on the back of his neck. "Sit back now, my love. Let me, all right?"
Éibhear nodded and leaned back against the towel with his eyes closed. Elihal hummed a pleased sound and stayed where he was, straddling Éibhear's hips; the water sloshed and Elihal's thigh pressed against him on one side as Elihal leaned to one edge of the tub, and soon there was the sound of a cloth dipped in water, the soft scrubbing noise and rising light scent that meant it was being lathered with some of Elihal's nice soap.
The cloth brushed over his forehead first, and then there was the pressure of firm scrubbing at a few spots on his hairline and temple--places where he must have smeared something in his frantic cleaning. He kept his eyes closed and let himself relax under Elihal's ministrations, which were never less than gentle but also never less than thorough. He'd pointed out to Éibhear before that his work demanded an eye for detail and the will to stab a piece thousands of times before it was finished; Éibhear had never seen any reason to doubt either trait.
The washing with soap was followed by careful rinsing with an even softer wet cloth, and then Elihal moved on to his ears, sweeping over them with long, careful passes of the cloth that only made Éibhear shiver a little. He let himself drift under Elihal's hands, moving when and how Elihal guided him to move, and otherwise going gradually more and more limp in the warmth of the water, until he felt soft as warm copper wire, needing no more than the nudge of a fingertip to be molded into a new form. He turned when Elihal turned him, and let Elihal wash his back, and further down.
He wriggled a little at the nudge of Elihal's fingers just there, purely a reflex; Elihal made a pleased sound, nearly a laugh but warm and gentle as his touch. Éibhear felt himself smile at that sound, as much a reflex as the wriggle of his hips and the twitch of his ears.
"First we finish getting you clean," Elihal said, mock-sternly, dragging his cleaning cloth lower down. "Then we see about what we're going to do with your nice clean self in your nice clean bed."
Éibhear rested his forehead against his arm, propped on the edge of the bath, and let out a sound of agreement that wound up being more of a moan, as Elihal's hands continued to move on him. Now that he was anticipating what would come next, every touch from Elihal pushed him away from that boneless relaxation. He wasn't headed for that same awful overwound tension, but an anxious anticipation of the pleasure awaiting him--awaiting both of them, and it would be good to give some pleasure back to Elihal for all of this.
He was halfway to ready by the time Elihal drew him up out of the water and dried him with a soft linen towel, not neglecting any part of him, but not lingering either. He ended by pressing a firm kiss to Éibhear's mouth, his strong slim hands circling Éibhear's wrists as he said, "I'm going to make love to you now, my darling. Any requests?"
This was, Éibhear knew from his little stock of delightful if dizzying experience, not only a question about what physical acts they would undertake. Elihal was asking, also, who would you like me to be?
Éibhear shook his head a little and swayed forward enough to press his own kiss to Elihal's lips, though Elihal's hands tightened on his wrists, warning him that he still wasn't to take more initiative than that. He could ask Elihal to be someone who would be yielding and easy, but they both knew he wouldn't tonight; he didn't even have it in him to ask Elihal to do this in any particular way.
"Any of you," Éibhear said. "All of you. Just you."
Elihal beamed. "Good answer, a leannán. Now, properly, yes or no and either is equally fine--" Elihal released his wrists and twisted away to pick up the lovely robe he'd been wearing. He drew the belt out and tossed the robe back down on the chair where he'd draped it, then turned back to Éibhear and looped the length of silk gently around Éibhear's wrists.
He hadn't moved his hands an inch since Elihal released him, and Éibhear thought that rather answered the question, but Elihal raised his eyebrows and waited until Éibhear took a breath and said, "Yes, please, my dear."
Elihal kissed him, then went up on his toes to kiss Éibhear's forehead. "Yes indeed. Nothing complicated, I just want to keep reminding you that you're to let me take care of you tonight, and I expect to have my hands quite full with the rest of you."
Éibhear smiled, and his cock gave an eager twitch. Elihal's smile turned sultrier and he drew the soft silk a little tighter, then released him. "On the bed, now. Face down, I don't want you to even have to hold yourself up."
Éibhear went where Elihal directed, letting Elihal arrange pillows under and around him until he was cradled in softness--quite a lot more than his own bed had featured, before Elihal began sharing it. He laughed a little, remembering the look that had crossed Elihal's face when he saw it, that very first night; despite everything that had happened with the soldiers, despite the newness of everything between them, Elihal had still spared some attention to be visibly horrified by Éibhear's single pillow and plain blanket.
"Mm, yes, more of that," Elihal murmured now, brushing a kiss across the nape of Éibhear's neck that made him shiver. "Give me your hands?"
It wasn't just the sweet lilt of Elihal's voice; it was a real question. Éibhear could change his mind, say no now, and Elihal would still stand by his earlier yes or no is equally fine. But Éibhear had known what he wanted before Elihal asked, and he raised his hands, pressing his palms to the headboard.
Elihal made a soft, satisfied noise and settled astride Éibhear's back, leaning above him to fasten the silk tie around his wrists. He took his time, carefully knotting each wrist in its own firm loop before finding the right spot in the worked bronze of the bed to attach it.
He pressed himself down against Éibhear's back when he was done, pressing a kiss like a secret behind Éibhear's ear. Éibhear went limp under his weight, and the promising pressure of his cock against Éibhear's ass.
"There we go," Elihal murmured, and lifted up again. Éibhear pressed his hands against the bedframe and his face into the pillows, bracing himself to be teased and drawn out until Elihal was satisfied with his responses. He would enjoy that, he knew; Elihal would make sure of that. It would just mean having to keep himself in the right frame of mind, balanced between tension and weariness in the place where Elihal wanted him.
But the next touch wiped his mind clean of any attempt to do anything but feel: Elihal's hands squeezed once on the cheeks of his ass before spreading him open, and then Elihal was pressing another kiss to a much more secret place.
Éibhear made a pillow-muffled noise, startled and grateful more than anything, and Elihal's hands moved up to squeeze firmly on his hips while Elihal just barely breathed against him, waiting for some further objection or surrender. Éibhear yielded, his body going even more lax, his wrists hanging against the silk ties as he melted into the bed.
Elihal clearly understood his answer, because he hummed approvingly and licked. Éibhear was almost immediately lost to the sensation, and the slightly unstrung feeling that came with knowing that Elihal was doing this for his sake, for him to enjoy. He moaned freely, letting himself shiver and writhe without a thought. Elihal's hands and Elihal's knots kept him just where he should be, so he didn't have to think about getting anything wrong.
He didn't even have to think about the way the pleasure of that softest, most intimate touch built and built, because just when it was becoming urgent, Elihal drew back.
Éibhear whined, turning his face out of the pillow to be heard, and Elihal laughed softly and said, "Like this, darling? Just this? Or more?"
It took Éibhear's pleasure-fogged brain a moment to understand what Elihal was asking--offering. He shook his head as soon as he understood. "You. I want to feel you."
"Oh, I think you feel me just fine," Elihal said, wickedly pleased, but when his mouth returned to Éibhear's opening it was accompanied by his fingers, readying him for more instead of just driving him directly out of his mind. Pleasure and the need for more were both stoked higher and higher, until he was begging in words he barely understood himself, frantic in a way that made his mind fall still while his body writhed.
"Yes, dearest, yes, yes," Éibhear was gasping, and he barely realized that he felt the warmth of Elihal's body over his body, Elihal's breath brushing against the nape of his neck, before he felt Elihal's cock pressing into him where he was so soft and wet and needing.
Éibhear groaned, pushing back into Elihal as best he could, his cock and his kisses and the weight of him all together. Elihal was wonderfully solid like this, all that muscle on his slim frame weighing Éibhear down--and he was even more satisfyingly solid where it really counted. He filled Éibhear perfectly and moved in him in a steady rhythm, drawing him higher and higher toward the peak.
It was close, making him feel lit up from the inside, when Elihal's rhythm altered. He reached up to tangle his fingers with Éibhear's, thrusting into him harder and pressing messy kisses to the back of his neck, and Éibhear clung to him as best he could, encouraging him even when they were both beyond words.
It didn't take long before he felt Elihal pulsing inside him as he climaxed, his teeth scraping Éibhear's skin in counterpoint. Almost before he'd finished Elihal was tugging Éibhear into another position, getting his hand on Éibhear's cock while he was still inside, barely softened yet. Éibhear moaned and let Elihal pull him the rest of the way to completion, whispering nonsense in his ear that still somehow made everything even better.
Coming was almost more relief than pleasure, a coiled spring finally releasing, spending all its pent up tension. Elihal stroked him through it, and went on holding him even as Éibhear felt himself slipping almost without a pause into a drowsy fog.
He was vaguely aware of Elihal moving him, cleaning them both up and loosing the silken tie from around Éibhear's wrists. He made a little protesting sound at that, not wanting to be so unmoored, and Elihal seemed to understand. He tangled the tie between their two hands as he settled again facing Éibhear, so that they were loosely bound to each other instead of the bed.
"There, now," Elihal said, from a great distance even though Éibhear could feel where their foreheads touched, their fingers interwoven around the silk, and Elihal's breath brushed against Éibhear's tingling lips. "Now we'll sleep, with no more worries and no more dreams, and tomorrow will be a new day."
Éibhear only nodded as he let himself sink into the dark; he knew better than to do anything but obey when Elihal gave such a definite command.