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Night at the Pendants

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“I was dead, then alive.
Weeping, then laughing.
The power of love came into me,
and I became fierce like a lion,
then tender like the evening star.”

“Twelve damn it, Raph’ir.”

The Crystal Exarch stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his sullen face radiating frustration. Only the angle of his lowered ears betrayed any discomfort at uttering the words. Save for a span of two ilms at the center, the heavy door to the Umbilicus separated him from me — again, like countless times before. Unlike those times, however, he’d attempted to close it directly in my face, muttering something vague and defensive about the need for progress.

It seemed that he hadn’t expected to discover my tail wedged into the dwindling gap.

“You know the stakes here as well as I do. So I must ask… what will it take for me to convince you to wipe that maddening grin off of your face and move?”

As he narrowed his eyes at me, pouting, the old G’raha Tia seemed to stand before me in the flesh. Some things never changed. My one saving grace during our adventures in the Crystal Tower had always been the fact that Cid was the most common target of his ire — and despite the devil-may-care expression on my face, I didn’t envy Cid in the slightest. A wiser man would have reconsidered his actions at once in light of such a glare.

Unfortunately for G’raha, he was aiming it at me.

“You’ve been in there for days, woolhead. Don’t you think it’s time for a break? Everyone’s worried about you. I’m worried. You said you needed to rest up from that trip to Beq Lugg’s place, but that shouldn’t have been far enough from the Tower to tax you this much. Unless… there’s something you haven’t told me yet. What are you holding back this time?”

“I am very much the master of my own limits, thank you. And as I so clearly stated countless times before, I am telling you that I need time to recover—!“

“G’raha Tia. You have page marks across your face. Your hair is a mess. Those bags under your eyes didn’t get there overnight. I’m not one to talk, mind you, but I find that pillows and beds are much better places for sleeping than open books on desks. You’ll have to do better than that if you want me to believe you’re actually resting in there.”

My tail swayed back and forth through the gap in the door, trying to keep itself limber in the tight quarters around it — and expressing my own seriousness with regard to the subject at hand. The words we’d spoken to each other months ago in this very same room had brought us even closer together, though I’d doubted such things were possible. But seeing him like this — a slave to his own impossible demands — made me wonder if he’d heard me at all.

I thought I had him dead to rights, but even after he’d run his hands through his frazzled mane to confirm my claim for himself, his tenacity knew no bounds. “Are you my mother now? I thought I told you that I no longer require sleep. It is a luxury that I cannot afford to—“

“Oh. Of course. I should have guessed. How silly of me.”

I allowed my grin to fade, twisting it into a melodramatic frown to accompany my words. “After that… lively conversation on the boat with the others, you’re too shy to be seen with me now. And here I was thinking it was high time someone explained the birds and the bees to Alphinaud. If we sit around and wait for him to figure it out on his own, I’ll be an old man too.”

G’raha’s face turned the color of his eyes by way of response. “I… that is not… that has nothing to do with this! I would tell them everything, and with the utmost pride, if not for the fact that they still suffer because of me. My dream can wait until they are safe. It must.”

It felt good to hear him say it, even if he was still making excuses to justify his selflessness for the five millionth time. I let my expression shift again into a comfortable state of neutrality.

“Well, if it’s not that, then I guess it must be what I thought it was the first time. Maybe you don’t need sleep to survive, but your body still needs rest, old man. Your brain doesn’t work right when it’s tired, and you’ve been working nonstop for the past hundred years and change. So… let’s go. Take a walk with me. We don’t even have to leave the city. I don’t care if you’re a hero, a villain, or a cart chocobo — even I can’t work miracles without rest.”

And I’m usually as gracious about that fact, too. But never mind that for now.

I watched through the gap in the door as he shook his head, his shoulders sagging. “This is useless. I swear it was easier to talk sense into Lord Vauthry than you.”

His words were a tacit admission of defeat. Though I took no pleasure in tearing apart his admirable dedication to his cause, I knew well that I had the weight of the entire Crystarium on my side. Though they remained ignorant of the specifics, his people were far too canny to ignore his absences forever. My flippant excuses to ease their minds were going to run out someday, and we both knew how happy Lyna would be to field their constant inquiries instead.

“I’ll take that as a compliment, Ser Exarch. Though if you didn’t mean it as one, you might want to reconsider following in my footsteps. It’s rubbing off.”

When he looked back up at me, a weak smile had driven the scowl from his face, and it drew my attention to how charming he still was, even with most of his thin braid escaping the bonds of its tie in all directions at once. It seemed that he’d taken my comparison as a compliment too.

Perhaps someday I’d know whether I meant it as one.

“Very well then. I had hoped that a day of uninterrupted research might yield a new breakthrough for the Scions, but it seems that the Warrior of Darkness has other plans for me. Unless I can persuade you to wait for another bell or two, I appear to be at your mercy.”

Heh. Not the way I’d hoped, alas. Finding a way home has taken much longer than any of us thought it would, and I intended to wait until things were settled in Eorzea for… that. But if it would get you to rest, then what kind of a fool would stand here and argue?

I let my grin widen far enough to show the tips of my upper fangs as a friendly threat. “You do indeed. So glad you’ve come around to my way of thinking. Fortunately for you, though, I’m a bit of a scholar myself. I know the pain of being interrupted at a crucial moment. Perhaps we can come to some sort of… agreement, assuming you’re willing to negotiate with terrorists.”

Though his smile never left his face, I could see the wheels starting to turn in his mind, and his gaze strayed to my tail’s place between the two halves of the door. “Perhaps. If your terms leave anything to be desired, of course, I have other options at my disposal.”

He didn’t have it in him to close the door on top of me. So great was my confidence in that fact, and in the offer I planned to make, that I called his bluff without so much as a second thought.

“If I spare you my presence now, as you so humbly requested, you’ll owe me a favor. And I recall telling you that we’d have to find time for something other than books when I got back from the Source. We’ve all been busier than I expected since then, but I won’t have it said that the Warrior of Darkness goes back on his word. If you’re too busy to take a walk with me now, then you’ll simply have to meet me at another time. Of my choosing.”

“Raph’ir… do you want to take a walk with me this much?”

His gaze started to soften, but I shook my head. “No. I mean, I did when I got here, but then I had this long and stupid argument with some old man in a tower. Given the circumstances, I’d rather give him some time to cool off and then invite him to dinner instead. Tonight.”

I thought that he might see it coming, especially after I’d already mentioned something of the kind many times since my return to Norvrandt, but the dumbfounded look that crept onto his face suggested otherwise. He blinked at me several times before opening his mouth again.

“W-Wait. A-Are you seriously suggesting that we… I mean, together…? Now?!”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “That… is standard practice for an established couple, in my experience. I’ll grant you that we’re not exactly standard at this point, but—”

His quiet, hesitant interjection silenced my attempt to lighten the mood. “Believe me, I… would like nothing more, but… you know that I must refuse. The Scions still—”

I crossed my arms over my chest as I looked him in the eye. “The Scions still live, G’raha. Things are grim, I grant you, but you know our friends as well as I do. You know they want what’s best for you. Maybe they don’t feel the same way about you as I do — and I’m rather glad for that, if you don’t mind my saying so — but they have no wish to see you suffer. It’s one night. And if it goes well, maybe we can take future breaks together, too. When we need them.”

I should have known that the idea would be too much for his tired mind and heart to bear, but I’d gotten desperate. His face fell as I spoke, but not before the now-familiar gleam of unshed tears reached his eyes. I knew all too well what it felt like to be caught between my dreams and my duty to others — and yet I’d forced that suffering on him myself despite my best intentions.

I stepped forward, removed my tail from the space between us, and replaced it with as much of my hand as I could manage to fit into the two-ilm gap.

“Hey. I’m sorry. I do want you to take a break. A real one, not whatever you’re doing in there between books. And I won’t take no for an answer. But no matter what you choose, I will still be at your side. If a walk is all you can spare without feeling like you’re letting everyone down, then let’s walk. We can save the rest for some other time.”

His fingers found mine after several awkward attempts to manage the feat through two ilms of space. “N-No, I… I want to. And that is exactly the problem. How many years have I dreamed that I would hear you say those words to me? I thought that having one more adventure with you would give me the courage to face everything before me, but… I fear it is harder than ever to deny you. Will they truly forgive my selfishness if I agree to this… d-date?”

Thal’s balls. For the sake of anyone else that ever dares to follow in my — our — footsteps, I need to make a habit of taking my own breaks. Even if it’s only for a moment, here and there.

The torment on what little I could see of his face broke my heart, even if his words still lit a fire in my soul. I rested my head against the closed door, giving his fingers a gentle squeeze.

“They helped me save your life, y’know. What do you think they’ll say?”

For a while, he was silent, mulling it over. At last, a shaky smile found its way to his lips. “I am sure that Alisaie will call me some sort of idiot for taking so long to agree in the first place. And she will not be far from the mark. Y’shtola will sound like she does not approve, but there will be a glint in her eye that speaks far louder than her words. Thancred will slap me on the back and wish me well, but that is all he will say with Ryne in the room. And Urianger will say something long and pretty that none of us can make sense of. As usual.”

His hypothetical version of events had not strayed far from my own interpretation. I couldn’t help laughing, and it made me even happier to see him join me.

“Sounds like you’re a dead man, then. What a shame. I was really looking forward to that date. So was half the Crystarium, by the way. I could have sold tickets. Which is why I paid the manager of suites double his yearly salary for some Twelves-damned silence at the Pendants tonight, in case you happened to agree to my terms. It always pays to think ahead.”

A brief silence stretched between us before he lifted his head to look me full in the face. Despite the tears that remained in his eyes, there was also something… dangerous behind them. “Wait. If you knew I would agree, then you could have asked me from the very beginning. But you came in here to interrupt me, aware that I would argue with you… and walk right into your trap. So… the only reason that we are standing here having this conversation right now is—”

Ah. He’s finally figured it out.

“You already agreed to my terms. Can you blame me for making you take two breaks in one day? I admit, I would have preferred this one without the door in the way. You got me there.”

The grin I flashed him lasted only a moment. All at once, I heard the sound of a distant button being pressed on his side of the door, and his hand let go of mine. My survival instinct kicked in hard as the two-ilm gap in the door slid closed with a solid thud. I barely managed to yank my hand free in time, sparing the tips of my fingers and leaving my bones intact.

“I agreed to no such thing. And if you think for one bell that I intend to open this door again, after that dazzling display of trickery, then you are sorely mistaken!”

His voice was muffled behind the door, but I thought I detected the barest hint of a smile remaining in his otherwise faint praise. It did little to stop the flood of adrenaline still coursing through my veins, though. “I’ll be damned. You actually did it. I’d say you’re the villain here after all, but I think maybe I managed to win this round… didn’t I?”

My empty words bounced off of cold, unflinching metal.

“Fine. If you come across any heroes that still need dinner plans, you know where to find me. Around the seventh bell, perhaps. For reference, that’s six bells from now, since I’ll put ten million gil down on you not having a chronometer in there. I’ll have everything ready by then.”

I gave the closed Umbilicus door a lazy wave, not caring whether he could see me, before chuckling to myself and heading for the door to the Oculus proper. If I’d been a fly on the wall, I might have seen him wait out my exit before scrambling to contact Lyna for advice. I might have laughed at her baffled expression as she tried to figure out what sudden pressing engagement had him so twisted up in knots. I might have had time to remind him that I’d invited him to the Pendants — not a Eulmoran banquet at the height of Vauthry’s excess.

Alas, I was not, and I had my own preparations to attend to. Though I had bribed the manager of suites as I’d claimed in case my gambit paid off, I’d done little else to ready the room — or myself — to house such an esteemed guest for the evening. I knew him well enough to have anticipated his nervousness, but the growing presence of my own was somewhat novel.

Breathe, Sahra. You’ve done this a million times before.

Just… not for him.

Five and a half bells flew by in the span of two, or so it seemed by the time I lowered myself onto the empty bench next to the door of my rented room. A thorough cleaning spree had taken up the first two. The housekeeping staff had already left for the day, and it wouldn’t do to let G’raha see the messy dishes and food wrappers I’d stored under the bed for the last three days — if only because of the example it might set. Keeping my own home spotless seemed so much easier, but perhaps that was only because of the infrequency of my visits.

The next two bells disappeared completely in my rush to bathe, freshen up, and find suitable clothing for the evening. A suit seemed too ostentatious for the scene I wanted to set — and while I might have paid good money to witness the Exarch’s reaction upon greeting me at the door in nothing but a Shisui kohakama and a smile, the joke seemed in poor taste given the nuisance I’d already made of myself.

In the end, my sights strayed to the casual yet stylish work shirt and suspenders I favored in my work for the Crystalline Mean, paired with simple slacks and unadorned shoes to finish the look.

He’s already tired… and he’s going to be nervous enough, I suspect. I should do everything I can to put him at ease, and that means comfort. I’m not sure he’s ever seen me outside of my usual battle attire before, so that’ll be special in its own way. Heh… as if I need to try to impress the man who has a private sanctuary filled to the brim with stories about me.

It was strangely unsettling not to have to focus on the eternal need to mask my own insecurities. Though a steady drip of adrenaline still coursed through my veins, I’d managed to get myself under control by pouring my last bell and a half into my final task for the evening: the food. In lieu of my typical insistence on patronizing local establishments during all of my past romantic interludes, this situation seemed to call for something… special.

The simple act of making a recipe from my earliest days of study at the Bismarck brought out the calm and quiet in my soul. So much had happened since the last time I’d made it, and yet the technique hadn’t left me, no matter how much else had; no matter how much else would. The knowledge somehow seemed to be the only constant in my eternally shifting world.

That, and… you made it for me too once, didn’t you? I was too exhausted to put it together at the time, but it was all there from the start. The orange trees in this room are Lominsan, even if you call it Kholusia here in the First. The bow you carried when I first met you at the Crystal Tower was Storm-issued. Someone as dedicated to the art of adventure as you would have taken a lengthy sabbatical in Limsa at some point before he fell asleep. You must have learned the recipe from Lyngsath back then… and brought it with you to Norvrandt.

To me. Right when I needed it the most.

I’ll forgive you the couple of eggshell pieces I found. It happens to the professionals sometimes, me included. You did really well, y’know… considering everything.

I glanced across the room at my own freshly-made basket of sandwiches, resting on the table in the same place he’d left his so many months before. Such a thing should have been effortless for me, but I’d taken my time with each of the steps, foolishly trying to pour my own gratitude for his kindness into them all. Like as not he’d be embarrassed by the gulf between our skill levels in the end, but I hadn’t chosen it for that purpose. It was quite the opposite.

Your sandwiches won Ardbert’s heart that night too, even if I thought him to be little more than a hallucination back then. So I want to give you what you gave us. Peace. Happiness. A calm in the middle of the storm. Egg salad can be its own form of magic, I guess. Who knew?

It seemed that I’d worked myself too hard and finished my preparations early. My gaze strayed toward the chronometer on the wall for what felt like the fiftieth time that bell — fifteen minutes remained before he arrived, assuming he had the strength. Assuming he didn’t talk himself out of coming. Assuming he wouldn’t stand me up to spite me for my earlier antics.

It was inevitable, then, that in the silence between moments, my scattered thoughts became unwilling prey for the uncertainty that served as my constant companion.

This has all happened so fast. What am I thinking, going this far? He’s carried this torch for more than a hundred years, but for me… no, maybe that’s exactly it. I want to make up for lost time… for the years we could have had, if he’d never gone to sleep. And even if that weren’t the case, he… shouldn’t still be alive, in theory. There’s so much about him that I don’t understand.

And what’s more… I don’t think he does, either. Which means that every moment we spend together here in Norvrandt could be our last. I have to get it right. I have to.

The regular, comforting tick of the chronometer suddenly seemed too loud for my liking. Unable to shake the ominous implication, I rose to my feet and started to pace the width of the room. It was far from the first time that the logical, reasonable part of my mind had tried to suggest that I was courting inevitable disaster by returning G’raha’s affections. And yet, if I’d learned anything of love in my lifetime, it had to be the fact that logic and reason played little more than a supporting role in the process. They played no part at all in his journey to Norvrandt.

He promised he’d live for me. I have to trust in that… and in him. I don’t know what Fate has in store for us, but… whatever comes, we face it. Together. As we always have.

Anything else… I refuse to consider.

A quiet knock on the door interrupted both the rhythm of the clock and my pounding heart at the same time. Doing my best to push down my fears, I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and made my way over to the door. For this moment, and this moment alone, I would allow myself to play the role of someone braver, for my own sake as well as his. The truth could wait until he was better rested — assuming such a day ever came.

With sweating hands, I pushed the door open to reveal the last person in either world that I wanted — or needed — to see. Judging from the speed at which he filled the awkward silence between us, I knew I had no need to remind him of our prior arrangement.

“Pardon the intrusion, sir. Your esteemed guest appears to be running a bit… behind schedule. Incidentally, I was on my way back to my desk — as instructed — when a curious scuffle in the distance caught my attention. I thought it best to investigate, as you did request privacy this evening. However, I fear this situation may require your intervention. I appreciate the impropriety of my request, but I would not suggest such a thing were it not in your best interest.”

The Pendants’ manager of suites wore an expression that brought to mind Mama’s old story of a wolf pretending to be someone’s grandmother. Though my temper had started to rise when he requested my assistance — what had I paid him for, precisely? — the twinkle in his eye and the careful emphasis of his words told me that there was more to the story than I thought. If G’raha was going to be late anyway, then I had time to clean up a minor mess or two. It might even settle my rattled nerves in time to greet him properly.

Unless that was an excuse, and he’s not planning to make it after all. Tsk. I really shouldn’t have gloated so hard. I made too many sandwiches for only me.

I followed the manager of suites back to his desk, but everything seemed quiet enough at the Pendants. A few patrons stood around the lobby, absorbed in their own business, but none of them struck me as being out of place. Everything was… normal. I opened my mouth, prepared to give him a piece of my mind for disturbing me, but he shook his head with purpose, placing a finger over his still-smirking lips. I watched him glance around the room for a moment, making sure that none of the patrons were looking at either of us.

Then, only after ensuring he’d earned my silence, did he point in the direction of several discarded dressers propped up against the lobby wall. I narrowed my eyes at him, still baffled by the sudden turn of events that he still hadn’t even begun to explain in a reasonable fashion — but he sighed, rolling his own eyes in a manner that befit a far less professional man than I’d taken him for. And he jerked his head in the direction of the dressers again.

I’d barely taken two steps toward the dressers when the pieces began to fall into place. Beneath the quiet chatter and ambient sounds of the Pendants, a familiar muffled voice rose up to meet my ears. The hem of a familiar robe, and the pattern of familiar sandals, caught my attention between the gaps at the bottom of the shelves. My simple attire aided me in creeping into the shadows unnoticed until a single dresser separated me from the hidden Exarch.

I soon realized that he wouldn’t have noticed if the entire Crystarium fell apart around him.

“The future is where my destiny awaits… and who am I to tremble before it like some sort of mewling child?! I… will be late if this continues. I cannot let him think that this was all for naught! So move, damn you! Seize the future you have wrought! In which dream becomes reality…”

It took me a moment to confirm that the nervous chuckle I’d let out was only in my head. If he was a mewling child, then what did that make me? The urge to join him behind his private dresser was overwhelming. I would have been content to sit by his side, letting our panicked thoughts race together without any words needing to be spoken between us.

But the night was young, and the only guarantee we had against having to answer awkward questions from every man, woman, and child in the city stood across from me, winking cheekily over the top of a book he was pretending to read. Much to my relief, nothing I’d overheard seemed to suggest that G’raha regretted his choice to meet me. If there had been any hint of coercion or guilt in his voice, I would have called the whole thing off. As it stood, however…

I think I understand. When we’re fighting or working together, everything falls right into place. There’s no time to overthink it. We’re both afraid of getting this wrong, but… the simple fact is that anything is right as long as he’s here. And… he’s here now. As brave as always.

So. Shall we take the last step together, then?

A clever nudge in the right direction would end the stalemate without bloodshed on anyone’s part. Holding my breath, I slipped away from the dresser and back toward the manager of suites’ desk. In one fluid motion, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a fistful of gil, and shoved it across the surface toward him, my eyes locked onto his and my voice a low murmur.

“I can fix your problem for you… but you’ll have to follow my lead. Deal?”

He nodded in response — almost too fast, expecting it all somehow — and for a fraction of a second, I found myself convinced that the man was an Ascian out of his black-robed uniform, playing us both for the fools we were. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. I turned my attention back to the dresser across from me and cleared my throat, trying to make sure my voice was clearly audible without attracting too much attention from the other patrons.

“Of course! I’d be glad to help you move these down the hall, good sir! I have a guest on the way, but I’m sure it won’t take more than a few minutes. Just let me—”

The hem of G’raha’s robe shifted suddenly at the sound of my voice at close range. It seemed as if he was crouching low before, but now he stood upright, his body and motions tense. I didn’t need to see his face to imagine the frantic expression that he was wearing. His feet attempted to turn one way, then the other, in a last-minute search for escape. I half expected him to use his invisibility trick to hide himself at the last moment, but he didn’t — perhaps he couldn’t extend that glamour to himself, or perhaps I’d caught him too off-guard to think of it in time.

In the end, he stepped out from behind his dresser as I moved to grab it by the side. The almost-natural look of welcome surprise plastered across his handsome features might have fooled anyone but me. Though he hadn’t dressed for the occasion at all, his braid was neat and tight again, and I found myself distracted from my own diversion by the scent of fresh soap on his skin. Knowing he’d taken the extra time for a bath made my earlier antics worthwhile.

“Raphail! Fancy meeting you here. I was on my way in, but… ah… one of my sandals came untied, and I… am not the agile youth that I once was. I pray I have not kept you waiting overlong.” His apologetic smile, at least, was natural enough. “It seems the time agreed with you, in any case. Who would have thought the Warrior of Darkness the type to wear suspenders? Not that I object. That heavy coat of yours must be exhausting.”

I shrugged, returning his smile with my own. “As it turns out, I got dragged into some last-minute work of my own while I waited. The manager of suites needed a quick hand moving these dressers aside, and I’m not about to waste my standard dress reds on such an affair.”

When G’raha glanced in his direction, the man in question raised a hand in quiet acknowledgement. “My apologies, Lord Exarch. I will see to it personally that you are not disturbed this evening, as per the Warrior’s request. After this, of course.”

“Oh! I am in your way then. May I help, too? Two pairs of hands will make quicker work of this, I should think. I am no Warrior of Darkness, of course, but surely I can push a single dresser a few ilms to the left now and then. Unless… he means to stop me?”

Summoning every onze of my self-control, I fought down the urge to laugh as both he and the manager of suites turned their attention to me, awaiting my verdict.

Well played, Ser Exarch. Distracting us from your plight and normalizing your presence to the room at large in one master stroke. It’s no wonder you had everyone fooled about your true intentions for so long, myself included. You’re a dangerous man.

“Perish the thought, my friend. Just don’t throw your back out. A stay in Spagyrics will do little to benefit the Pendants, and we do have important business to discuss.”

At least, that’s what I'm saying out loud for the benefit of everyone around us. The only business I intend to discuss tonight requires far fewer words… and far fewer ears.

The determined, playful spark in G’raha’s eyes only cemented that thought in my mind as he grabbed the edge of his dresser and started to shove. My simple distraction had served to take the pressure of the moment off of us both, which was more than I’d dared to hope for when I first set it in motion. With a silent nod of thanks to the manager of suites for his aid, I laid my hands beside the Exarch’s and added my own weight to the force of his push, helping to slide the dresser into its new home — less than half a yalm away.

Six more to go, I guess, if only to keep the lie consistent. I hope he never finds out we didn’t actually need to move these in the first place.

I’ll have to make sure that he forgets this whole thing ever happened. Somehow.

Fifteen minutes later, we made our way down the hall that led to my suite, still trading silly barbs and egging each other on like the pair of kittens that neither of us had been for a very, very long time. Though I walked a step in front of him, leading the way, I found myself slowing my pace every now and then to catch a glimpse of his carefree smile. That routine had become the new normal between us — or the old normal, perhaps — since my return to Norvrandt, and it never failed to bridge the gaps between the inevitable moments of grief and fear with warmth.

Even at our unhurried pace, we arrived at my door far sooner than either of us anticipated. G’raha’s voice grew quieter in the middle of a friendly retort and faded into silence, his attention all at once divided between me and the stark reality of coming face-to-face with the closest thing I had to a personal estate in the First. As he glanced down at his feet, trying to collect himself, I shoved my own shaking hands into my pockets, searching for my key.

“So. Once the Scions are settled, we’ll have to come up with a way to show you my actual estate. But for now, though… um. Welcome home.”

The key I’d taken from the manager of suites for the night slid into the lock, and the door opened onto my familiar, comfortable suite. I stepped inside first, glancing around the room out of old habit. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that only the silence, the rattle of the tea kettle I’d left boiling on the stovetop, and the night air from the open window greeted me. Ardbert’s grin had faded a long time ago. Still, it wouldn’t do to have unexpected company tonight.

Turning back to the door, I found G’raha frozen at the threshold, a shy half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. His eyes were wider than I’d expected, considering that he’d probably spied on me many times through his magitek portal — but he stared past me and into the room as if he’d never seen it before. It took him a few moments and a deep breath to find his voice again.

“I… ah… f-forgive me, It is exactly as I requested. I wanted you to have the best possible view of both the city and Lakeland during your time here. But… you have made the room your own since then, too. I think a part of me always wondered if you could ever claim such a place as home, knowing everything that must have passed within these walls. You never cease to amaze me… Raph’ir.”

His gaze settled on my face again, and there was a tenderness to his expression that took me by surprise. It had been clear that he wanted me to think of the city as my own for a long time, but only the sandwiches he’d made for me had suggested that my suite itself meant more than just a place to lay my weary head at night. He’d put so much thought into everything.

He had from the very beginning, of course.

I stepped back toward him and reached out to take his natural hand into mine, pulling him toward me into the room. The unexpected motion, combined with the direct contact that always left both of us desperate for more, made him unsteady on his feet; he stumbled over the threshold and forward into my chest. In the time it took me to apologize, he let go of my hand and wrapped both of his arms around me. I needed no convincing to return the favor.

We stood there together in silence for a few moments before I realized I could use my tail to close the door behind him. I watched his ears twitch at the sound, but this time, he didn’t even flinch. Lost in the closeness between us, I understood; my own nerves had fled, too.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re far too easy to amaze? One of these days, you’ll have to let me work for it, old man. It’s unseemly to be so effusive at your age.”

He chuckled against my chest, shaking his head. “Spare me the lecture. I am not the one flirting with a man five times my elder. Though I suppose I am robbing the cradle.”

“Yeah. But in all seriousness… there were times when I wondered, too. At first, all I could think about was making my way back to the Source. But the people you’ve brought together in this city of yours treated me as one of their own. As you asked them to. Without you, they might never have accepted my help. Norvrandt might still be on the brink of destruction.”

As it turns out, it’s far easier to find a place to call home than I ever realized. Did you feel that way too, when you first came here? Someday, I’ll have to ask you.

“In that case… mayhap I shall consider both of my missions a success.” G’raha’s playful tone never lost its teasing cadence, but newfound pride crept behind and between his words. I opened my mouth, planning to use the interlude to redirect his attention to the sandwiches on the table, but he was faster to fill the silence — and what he said next left me speechless.

“So… tell me then, hero. With my noble tasks complete, what reward awaits my service to this realm? That is how these things work, I believe. I am eager to see it for myself.”

The heat in his eyes was unmistakable, as was the intent behind his clever words. I’d been so busy trying to keep my own baser instincts in check — for his sake! — that I’d let down my guard. So much for the shy, star-struck kitten routine! Looking back at him, it took every onze of my willpower not to give him exactly what he’d earned right then and there — but I knew all too well that I’d invited him to my suite for more than a roll in the hay. As hard as I’d worked to pry him from the Tower’s clutches, my first priority had to be his health. It had to be.

One of us has to be an adult here. Even if it’s not the one that’s old enough to know better.

I leaned down to kiss him — meaning to soften the unfair, entirely unwelcome blow — but it proved to be the wrong answer in light of the situation. A wiser, less distracted man might have thought of that sooner. His grip tightened around me, and the hunger of his mouth against mine left me no room for protest. By the time I managed to come to my senses, my hands were buried in the back of his robe and his entire body was pressed against mine.

Through gritted teeth, I mumbled the words I least wanted to say.

“H-Hey. About that… reward. There’s something you haven’t done for me yet, Ser Exarch. One last task I requested of you earlier today, as you might recall.”

He did his best to mask it, but the flash of uncertainty that crossed his face did nothing to recommend the so-called high road I’d taken. I gazed down at him, a wistful smile on my own face, and leaned my forehead down against his. “Don’t get me wrong, old man. I… have every intention of singing your praises tonight. But I also swore to see you rest, G’raha Tia. While it seems that you’ve forgotten our arrangement this evening… I haven’t. Not yet.”

I felt him sigh against me, shaking his head — but when he looked back up at me, only affection remained in his eyes. “Stubborn to a fault… but you would not be here at all if that were otherwise. It seems I must content myself with that for now. Let me go on the record, though, as saying that this rest you have promised me had better be worth the trouble.”

I couldn’t help grinning in response. “I’m not sure it’ll live up to that particular bar, but I did work pretty hard to make sure you’d like it. I guess it probably has a lot to do with how fond you are of the Bismarck’s egg salad and tea. It’s… been a few bells since the last time I made it myself.”

Letting go of him, I stepped aside far enough to gesture grandly at the basket of sandwiches I’d left on the table. Though I’d failed to predict the direction of the last several minutes of our conversation, what followed after went exactly as I’d planned.

Ten seconds for him to stare at the basket, putting two and two together.

Five seconds for his face to turn its deepest shade of red.

Three seconds for his attempt at composure to break.

A moment for him to seek refuge in my arms again.

An eternity to replay the memory in my mind.

The thing I’d most forgotten about my encounter with G’raha’s sandwiches was the way that they managed to make time pass at a rate far exceeding good taste. Judging from the depth of the darkness outside the suite’s oversized window, it seemed like that quality had somehow rubbed off on mine. Sitting beside him, our stools pushed as close together as matter allowed, we’d lost ourselves in the swapping of stories that were new and somehow familiar to us both. The chance to hear about his journey through time, of course, had been my top priority.

I knew not whether the last few bells served to meet the conditions of the dream he’d outlined in Kholusia, but the smile on his face supported the theory, at least. The tired old man he’d been earlier that day had faded into the background to make way for the youthful eagerness that I seemed to bring out in his soul — though I could still see him every once in a while, in the moments when the story grew too long and painful for excitement alone to carry him through.

He still couldn’t tell me how I’d lost my life, back in the future that we’d denied. I’d thought, given the intensity of his grief, that perhaps he’d witnessed it with his own eyes — but it seemed more likely that the full story had been elided by his liberators in order to soften the blow. From his memories of the chaos that had befallen Eorzea in my absence, it was easy to imagine possibilities: the people I’d once fought to protect might well have torn me down themselves.

Even a Warrior of Light cannot bear arms against despair. And there is a limit to the places my words and deeds can reach, as much as I wish it were not so. I may know it in theory… but he’s seen it for himself. Standing in his shoes, I don’t think I’d have the words, either.

“Raph’ir? Have I said something upsetting?”

He was looking at me, concern taking up too much of the place where his smile had been. I shook my head and reached over to rest my hand on his leg next to mine.

“Not in the least. If you must know, I was thinking about how brave you’ve become. I’ll sound like the old man between us for saying it, but… I never imagined that the overeager bookworm I knew back in Eorzea would grow up to be you. I’m glad I got to see you shine, even if it wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I agreed to help you unravel the truth of the Crystal Tower.”

The sly grin he gave me chased away the shadows in my mind; I’d long since noticed the way his presence kept the darkest of them at bay. “I learned from the best, of course. And if not for your intervention, I might still be sitting around Saint Coinach’s with a book and a glass of wine. Cid may have had good intentions for the boy I was at the time, but I fear that my gift would not have allowed for such innocence much longer. It was… simply my moment to take the stage.”

“Heh. The role of hero suits you rather well, y’know. More than that brief stint as a villain, in my less-than-humble opinion. As long as it’s with you… I’m happy to share the spotlight.”

The act of saying it took me back to the lecture I’d given him months ago in the Ocular. In the heat of the moment, I’d focused too deeply on demanding his promise to live for me, for my own selfish sake. Though the Twelve knew I’d blurted out a host of things I’d needed to say in my overwhelmed state at the time, he deserved more than careless whimpers as thanks for everything he’d become in pursuit of me — and of a future worth the cost.

My eyes closed and my grip on his leg tightened as I steeled myself to speak.

“Hey, while we’re on the subject… um… thank you. For going so far to save my life. For growing into the man you are today. I thought I’d done you a grave disservice by failing to save the future, but looking at you now… you’re amazing, G’raha. I… wouldn’t have it any other way.”

With all of my awareness focused on my words, I didn’t notice when he turned in his seat to face me, his natural hand covering the one I’d left in his lap. Only the soft thump of his crystal elbow meeting the table for purchase warned me he’d moved at all, and before I could open my eyes again, his cold, smooth fingertips were pressed against the side of my face, stroking my hair.

“Neither would I, my Warrior of Darkness. Though… mayhap knowing what I might have missed in pursuit of my goal gives me ample reason to reconsider a small part of it.”

I opened my eyes to find his focus entirely on them. The grin he’d worn had faded into a sort of studious neutrality, as if he were trying to read an important book and committing the details to memory for a later moment. Though I expected him to shift his position or look away from the sudden attention, he did neither; the gentle caress of his crystal hand never missed a beat.

“You seem to think quite highly of me, Raph’ir. And while I find it somewhat difficult to contain the joy that knowledge brings me… I believe we discussed a more tangible reward. Pray tell me I have fulfilled the ever-shifting terms of your convoluted arrangement at last?”

My hand, trapped against his leg, began to move further into his lap with the aid of his firm guidance. Suddenly, what had once been an intimate but still chaste attempt to comfort him became a clear and direct challenge. Patience had never been my strong suit when it came to matters of the heart, but as my surprise began to settle, I found myself all too aware of the fact that he was testing it — to an extent that threatened to surpass my inadequate limit.

What’s this? Hesitation? Come now, Sahra. You’ve taken less provocation than this from a perfect stranger. He wants you. He’s wanted you, and only you, for a hundred years. Why deny him his heart’s desire? Why pretend that you haven’t already undressed him with your eyes; laid hands on him over and over again by moonlight in the darkest of your selfish dreams? At his age, there will be some limits at first, but you can be trusted that far. Can’t you?

I felt my fingernails dig into his leg, my hands shaking. Knowing what my heart and body wanted was the farthest problem from my mind. If not for the depth of everything else I felt for him, it would have been easy to take everything he’d offered and more. But in the end, though my heart pounded in my ears and my breathing grew ragged, he was the most important thing to me. I’d come here to care for him, to protect him — not to lose sight of that goal.

Twelve damn it. I’ve warmed beds from one end of Eorzea to the other, but this is different. He is different. I want this to be right, to be perfect, to be everything he’s dreamed of. He’s still exhausted, and I… there’s no turning back for me this time. If I give him what he wants… it’ll be more than just my body. It’ll be my heart. My soul. My life.

I never thought I’d… want to fall so far so badly. Is this what all the bards have sung about for generations? Mama talked about it once, but never again. Four little letters—

A soft chuckle interrupted my racing thoughts, and my attention shifted back to G’raha, who hadn’t moved an inch in my absence. His fingers had come to rest in my hair, and the comforting gesture only served to make my hesitation all the more painful.

“Mayhap you find it easy to contort that charming face for the stage, but I fear you are an open book to me. Perhaps I have hidden so much over the course of my own journey that I can recognize it in you now… but never mind that. I have read much and more about your… ah… eagerness in past affairs of the heart. Your grip suggests that I am not unwelcome here. So, if I may hazard a guess, I would guess that you fear for my good health. Am I warm?”

You are entirely too warm for your own good, G’raha Tia.

Embarrassed, I let my hand relax its grip under his. Though I did my best not to overthink the minute distance between my fingers and the reward he’d asked for, I failed.

“G’raha. This is the first time you’ve been out of that tower in days. I… I know you’re tired, and I don’t want you to regret anything. Taking advantage of an old man would be—”

“It would be exactly what I want, of course.” The fire that had burned in his eyes had never left, but it glowed with a new intensity, “I am so very tired. Of being protected. Of the concern for my well-being. Of waiting. Am I still not old enough to know my own mind?”

His words were quiet and gentle, but they echoed in my ears like thunder.

“I have waited for more than a hundred years, testing the limits of my own body and soul in the process. I have kept myself from you all this time in the name of my duty to others. I never dared to enter this room alone with you until now, as I knew well what I would ask if I could. But I am not nearly canny enough to disguise my need for you any longer… and I fear that the only way I shall find the rest that we both know I need is this.”

His hand pulled mine over the last ilm of space between his leg and the hard, aching warmth I had longed for, still masked from view by too many layers of expensive cloth. His eyes closed tight as his face twisted with a combination of joy and unbridled pleasure; the quiet whimper of need he let out seemed loud enough to wake the entire Crystarium, to my biased ears.

“Raph’ir… please… I… beg of you…”

My lips found his without further delay, taking the last of the scattered breath that remained in his lungs and trading it with my own in quick, desperate bursts. Eventually his beautiful, unfocused eyes drifted open again as the rest of his body and mind centered on my hands, no longer needing his direction to take what they’d wanted all along.

Give him what he wants, then… what he’s earned. All of it. And when both of you are spent, you will have little choice but to take the rest you are due… together. It is a fine plan.

We did, for a mercy, make it to the bed before things went any farther. Alas, the window never did get shut, leaving the night sky of Norvrandt to stand as silent witness to our deeds.

I woke next in darkness, immobilized and surrounded by an unexpected heat. It took only a moment to unravel the mystery against the moonlight.

G’raha’s naked form was still pressed against mine with a force I hadn’t expected from such a tired old man. He’d pinned my arm beneath him with no regard for the weight of his body. His head was wedged beneath my chin, his ears lowered in willing submission to me. The steady, even rhythm of his breathing tickled my chest every time he exhaled. I’d long since removed the band holding his crimson braid together, letting his soft mane flow around his shoulders.

His hands were still clenched in memory of the now-distant pleasure we’d shared, too stubborn to let go of it even as sleep claimed him for the first time in what might have been years. In true Seeker fashion, he was hotter than the sun itself — in both senses of the word.

He didn’t need to sleep. He’d reminded me over and over, every time I’d paused for half a moment to let him breathe between cries of pleasure. And yet, there he laid, cradled in my arms like a kitten of five summers, well beyond the grip of the waking realm — exactly as I’d hoped. Up close, the long lashes of his closed eyes drew my unfocused attention. How had it taken me so long to notice them? What kind of fool had I been, all those years ago?

They say that love is blind. I guess I got that much right, at least.

The azure crystal threading through the skin across his bare chest gleamed in the moonlight, and I reached for it with gentle fingertips, tracing the delicate patterns I’d memorized in my mind. He couldn’t feel my touch through the crystal, or so I’d learned from careful experimentation over the course of the night. I’d thought our shared reaction to the sensation of skin against skin to be a romantic excuse for basic desire — but it seemed that the natural parts of his body overcompensated in response to their dulled cousins when touched.

Fortunately, he’d fallen for an adventurer. Learning each and every aspect of his body, whether shining crystal or sweat-soaked flesh, would be a pleasure.

Heh. You know what, Sahra? You might just be the luckiest sonofabitch on this star. How does that feel for once? You, of all people. How many of those fine folks outside would kill you in cold blood for a chance like this, Warrior of Darkness? They’d give you anything if you asked. But did they know you wanted this? Did they know what you would come here to learn?

Either way, it was too late to pretend at regrets I didn’t have. He had chosen me first — which meant that I hadn’t taken anything that wasn’t already mine. That made all the difference.

Leaving his crystal markings behind, I laid my free arm back down on top of him, guiding my hand down the length of his back until it came to rest on his hip. Pulling him closer against me was a selfish, villainous act worthy of the Warrior of Darkness, and I reveled in it. Despite the unholy hour — we clearly hadn’t slept more than a bell or two — and the tiredness he’d passed on to me with his eager hands and hungry mouth, my body and mind had plans of their own.

I’ll blame it on Menphina. That… will be easier than finding the words for how much I love this Twelves-damned idiot of an old man. G’raha Tia… what have you done to me?

My rough handling, of course, did not go unnoticed. His aimless hands twitched as he reached for me without ever opening his eyes, and I listened close to the words he mumbled in his sleep.

“Raphail… ah, no… Raph’ir… j-just resting my eyes… I will… hold a moment…”

He still doesn’t remember to use my birth name sometimes… but it’s fine. He only had a hundred years of practice calling me Raphail… in his sleep and otherwise, I suspect. I can live with it. Or I can always spend the rest of this lifetime trying to remind him.

“You’re asleep, G’raha Tia. And next time, might I add — don’t argue with me when I tell you to rest, you stubborn chocobo’s arse. I can’t afford this kind of privacy every night, y’know.”

I whispered it into one of his folded ears, but his only answer was a tiny, almost inaudible snore. For a mercy, he remained too asleep to see the grin that spread across my face.

Against the ungentle urging of my restless body, I did my best to collect myself and settle my thoughts, closing my eyes and basking in the feel of him by my side. It was new and unfamiliar, somewhat awkward and childlike at times, but still everything I’d ever needed. My waking at all hours of the night didn’t speak ill of him in the slightest — it had been a particular failing of mine for most of my life, and even more so since coming to Norvrandt.

Even more so knowing he was sleeping in my arms.

Still, I’d worked hard to get G’raha settled. It wouldn’t do to wake him.

Focused as I was on trying to calm myself into joining him, I failed to notice his natural hand reaching for me again until it made contact with my leg. His gentle touch brought back all the scattered memories of our earlier desperation, and all hope of rest fled; the ache between my legs left what remained of my judgment wanting.

“That aim is pretty impressive for a sleeping man. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re pretending to be asleep. And you wouldn’t do that… would you?”

I brought my free hand up along his bare back and neck to bury my fingers in his mane, gripping him hard enough to tip his head back, bringing his face level with mine. His crimson eyes opened to a half-lidded, dazed state, and the breath he’d been taking caught in his throat.

Evidently I’d misjudged, and he had been asleep — but that all changed in a matter of moments. His cheeks darkened a shade or two in the moonlight as he took note of his hand’s position and the state he’d put me in, but he never missed a beat; I should have expected no less from him.

“Pray forgive me. I… must have misplaced a dream or two. This so-called rest of yours is bad for my health, it seems. Mayhap I should take a momentary rest from resting.”

“Twelve damn it.” I reached for his hand in vain, only to find his fingers already tracing the length of my throbbing member in the dark. “An hour… is not what I had in mind.”

“I see. So you will be stopping me, then. Unless you intend to… forfeit this game of ours. That would be most unlike you, would it not, my Warrior of Darkness?”

His grip tightened as his eyes met mine, and in that moment I knew that I’d never had any chance of winning; that losing was the only path forward, much as it had been the first time we’d met. Nothing remained in me that wanted to argue, even in jest; only the urgent, overwhelming need to press myself deeper into his hands carried weight.

“F-Fine. You win. But… if you’re not going to sleep, then… just don’t stop. I need you… and gods as my witness, I’ll never let you go again… G’raha Tia.”

Between the rhythm and pressure of his hand, and his quiet laughter in response to my words, I lost track of the embarrassment that came with such vulnerability, though I could still feel it in my cheeks. As I’d feared — and hoped — it seemed that things had changed between us again this night, and only for the better. As my body began to tense beneath him, he leaned down over me, pressing my back into the bed beneath us; his lips brushed along the edge of my ear.

“Worry not, hero. As it happens, I have become… rather fond of sleep after all, so long as I do not have to do it alone for another night of my life. But… pray keep that promise for me, and I shall endeavor to do the same for you. Always. Losing you again was never my desire.”

The pace of his stroking intensified, and I lost all further touch with coherent speech and the means necessary to form it. All the stories he’d read had done far too much to educate him on the intricacies of my body, it seemed — or perhaps his claim that I was an open book to him extended well beyond my facial expressions. The possibility somehow managed to thrill and terrify me all at once. All I knew for sure was that his closeness and his touch were doing as much and more to save my weary soul as Ardbert’s sacrifice had, months ago.

It was only what he’d wanted, of course. And I would be damned if I didn’t make sure that I fulfilled each and every one of his desires to the utmost.

The moment did not last as long as I hoped, in the end. He’d found me too far gone already for more than a few short moments of inevitability — but it was yet another case of losing in order to win. With him, I had little need to maintain the facade of mastery over my own emotions. As he reduced me to a breathless, pleading shell of a man in his gentle hands, my lips mouthed his name, and my eyes shut tight in preparation for what I knew would be an explosive climax.

He knew it, too, it seemed.

“I am with you… Raph’ir. My Warrior of Darkness.”

Reaching blindly for him, my shaking hands grabbed onto his upper arms as the rest of my body drowned beneath multiple waves of searing, inescapable heat.

When logic and reason returned, I laid beside him in silence, catching my breath as the last few tremors of pleasure raced through my body. Propped up on his crystal shoulder, he was watching me, lost in his own thoughts; caught between the triumphant smirk of knowing he’d bested me, and the intense study of my face that he’d put to use during our dinnertime chat. The color in his cheeks when he woke had disappeared, leaving only the calm, quiet satisfaction of taking what he had always wanted — I knew it well from my own face, not so long ago.

Only when my hand found his again did I discover the mess I’d made of the bedsheets, of myself… and of him, too. Looking the Pendants’ housekeeper in the eye again would take time.

“S-Sorry. I… guess I really needed you. Um… needed that.”

His smirk faded at my words, allowing his tender focus to take over. It seemed that his taste for the game had dwindled too, at least for the moment.

“Ha. And everyone tells me so often that I am the one that apologizes too much.”

Despite the mix of dazed pleasure and newfound exhaustion that haunted me, I couldn’t help laughing at my own expense. He wasn’t wrong, of course. And in the moment, it reminded me loud and clear of how similar we both were — like two halves of a much larger whole. I let my eyes slide closed again as his crystal fingers traced gentle pathways through my hair.

“Thank you… Raha.”

At first, when I said it out loud, it seemed like a mistake; a lazy omission by an overtired mind. But as his heartbeat quickened and his body froze in place next to mine, I realized how easy it had been for me to make the leap in the first place. On some level, I’d stopped hearing the tribal prefix of his name ever since the day he’d disappeared from my life for the first time. I’d done the same thing with my many brothers and sisters by Seekers before him; it seemed only natural to do away with formalities in such a close relationship.

But… he wasn’t my brother at all. I knew that more keenly than I ever had before. He was more: the hero I’d always pretended to be, the dearest friend that a man could ask for, and the proud owner of both my body and my heart, all at once. In light of that, calling him Raha felt… right.

Shite. Looks like I’m going to have to explain the whole naming thing to Alphinaud, too.

As introspective as I’d become, it took me a moment or two to notice the silent drops of water falling onto my chest from somewhere above me. My eyes drifted open again to find G’raha — or rather, Raha, now — still leaning over me, his head ducked toward me in a useless attempt to hide the tears that streamed down his face and chest and onto me. Stupidly, my first thought was that I’d overstepped my authority — but of course, I was in no frame of mind to think at all.

“Raph’ir… w-what did you just…? No, this is… I am… still dreaming. I must be. A-And… if that is the case… then I would be honored… if you…”

His voice was so thick with emotion that I almost missed his words, but I didn’t need to hear any more than the basic request he’d made. How tired was I, to have forgotten the way the sound of his own full name still left him breathless? Shortening it as I had was bound to leave a lasting impression — I’d marked him as mine by word, as well as by deed.

Knowing that changed nothing except my desire to repeat it in a more intentional fashion, even if it would leave him sobbing like a kitten newly out of his mother’s womb.

Wrapping my arms around him, I pulled him back down next to me, letting him bury his wet face in my chest. His entire body trembled as the vain effort he’d been making to hold back crumbled away in my embrace. With a smile on my face despite — or because — of his tears, I let one of my hands drift up to the top of his head, slowly caressing his lowered ears with gentle fingertips.

“I’m afraid you're very much awake this time, G’raha Tia. And I hope you won’t object if I call you Raha from now on. It would honor me too.”

His nod against me was almost imperceptible through his shaking sobs, but the sudden tightening of his grip on me in the exact moment that I said his name was anything but.

“There is… nobody I would rather hear that name from… than you, my Warrior of Darkness. Pray use it when you are with me… and I shall treasure it… always.”

The moonlight outside attended the contented silence that stretched between us after that. The long wait for him to settle in my arms, still overwhelmed with joy and yet too tired for further discussion, was everything that my own exhausted mind could have asked for.

In the end, we each found our way back to sleep, our arms and tails entwined around each other as if our lives depended on it — and they did somehow, or so it seemed to me. The idea of endlessly drifting between his world and a world he could never return to felt as terrifying as the possibility of losing him one more time to the call of the future.

My fears for this night had been well justified. My life had ceased to be my own when Hydaelyn first chose me; now, the small part of it that I yet claimed for myself was shared, too. My heroic journey, such as it was, could only continue if we found a way for Raha to stay by my side. If that dream could be realized, then the future we’d fought for — the future I’d died for, once upon a time — was worth everything we’d sacrificed to attain it.

Without it, I would cease to be a hero. I would cease to be a man. I would be nothing more than the wretched shell of a monster that Ardbert had given his life to prevent.

The days ahead would no doubt tax us both as we searched for that miracle with all our might. But one thing was certain above all others — we would find an answer.

We had to.

Waking up next to Raha by sunlight was little different than it had been by moonlight, though the harsh rays invading our privacy made me have to squint to see him at all. He hadn’t moved much since the middle of the night; he was still as close to me as he could get without melding his own body to mine. Through gentle inspection, I discovered the strands of his crimson mane that lay closest to his face were still damp from the tears he’d shed.

Idiot. Keep acting like that and you’ll make me cry too. Maybe we were better off arguing about useless things. Like coffee orders. Or aethersand hide-and-seek.

As I watched the sun slowly march across the room — and across his bare flesh, left exposed by the blanket we’d kicked off at some point during the morning heat — I decided that neither option was a bad one. Both meant spending more time with him.

Moments after I arrived at that conclusion, I felt him shift against me, his face scrunching up in what I mistook at first for a repeat of the pleasure I’d shown him that night. Then he murmured something under his breath, right up against my chest, to clarify.

“Raph’ir. Your breath… stinks.”

Ah, so romantic… wait. What did he just—?!

My tail betrayed my irritation well before my mind had time to process its arrival. It was true that egg salad was not the sexiest of bedfellows, but that hadn’t stopped either of us from tearing at each other’s flesh like a pair of wild coeurls mere bells before! Narrowing my eyes at him, I shifted myself backward to a more respectable distance, taking the opportunity to huff self-consciously into my own elbow to double-check his assessment.

It’s not that bad. Did you think the Warrior of Darkness just rolled out of bed every dawn smelling like fresh fangpaste, old man? Do you think yours is any better?!

I was about to say as much out loud until I noticed the growing smirk on his so-called sleeping face — and the way his tail managed to lazily evade every twitch of my own. This time, there was no doubt in my mind that he was far more awake than I was.

“Good morning to you too… Raha.”

I had to admit, if privately, that the devilish glint in his beautiful eyes as he opened them was a masterful defense against anything I might have done in response. It did not, however, keep him from flinching at the sound of his shortened name.

“Ah. There we have it, then. I thought perhaps I had dreamed the entire thing after all, regardless of your pretty words. Yet here I am, still willfully misusing the bells I might have spent finding succor for the Scions… and the same nonsense that floated through my ears remains. Mayhap this is one of your many parlor tricks at play?”

I leaned across the gap between us, answering the question first with a kiss. Despite his earlier complaint, there were no further objections in the moment.

“I’d love to explain it to you, but it seems the quality of my breath is wanting. Who would wish to offend the charming Ser Exarch, in light of his esteemed presence?”

He laughed as I drew back, rolling over onto his back with a sigh and a smile that seemed to light up the room ten times greater than the sun ever had.

“Come now, Raph’ir. I had thought honesty to be one of many virtues a hero would laud. And, while I yet dare to be so bold… I fear that both of us are in need of a bath. You are far warmer in bed than I would have guessed from those cold hands of yours.”

“Really. And here I thought it was your fault. You’re just full of surprises this morning.”

I rolled over onto my own back, closing the space between us again and letting my words linger in the open air. After a few moments, my hand inevitably found its way over to his.

“Here. Is this cold enough for you, old man?”

When I looked over at him, his radiant smile had softened into something that could best be described as content. It took me a few moments to realize I’d never seen him fully relax before; perhaps nobody else ever had or would. And for one of only a handful of times in my short, complicated life, the rush of pride in a job well done filled my veins.

“I would accept nothing less. And if you know me well enough to call me Raha… then I daresay you know that as well.”

“Mmm-hm. But thanks for confirming the guess all the same. It makes my life a lot easier.”

We laid there in silence for some time, lost in the touch of each other’s hands and the slow tick of the wall chronometer in the distance — but as I knew it would, the reality of the day’s arrival soon began to creep into the forefront of our minds. Though I’d always intended to keep him overnight as my guest, I had been certain he would find a reason to leave early; I’d failed to prepare myself for the possible necessity of letting him go after a successful evening.

You’re the one that always used to leave at dawn, Sahra. And you know you’re damned proud of failing to do so this time, even if you do have to be the better man. Time waits for no one… not him, and not you. So reward his good behavior. Maybe you’ll get to see more of it.

“Hey, Raha. I think that privacy I paid for might have ended a bell or two ago. I… shouldn’t keep you any longer. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but if I’m going to have to share, then I’d rather wait until I can have you all to myself.”

I watched as he glanced over at the open window, a slight flush creeping into his cheeks. “I-Indeed. I have the utmost faith in the manager of suites, but we have not done much to aid in our own misdirection, it seems. If anyone asks about my presence here this morning, I will claim that you and I had… more to discuss. I fear that Lyna may not be so easy to dissuade, though.”

As he spoke, I could see the smile that I had treasured start to falter.

“You speak true, Raph’ir. You should not keep me any longer. And I should not keep you. So much remains to be done. Our stars have need of us. But…”

He tightened his grip on my hand as he turned to face me again.

“My heart yearns to remain by your side. So… please, trust in me. All that I do, I do to see Norvrandt at peace, and our friends restored to the lives they once led. But above all, I do it in the hope of someday having the chance to spend more nights — and days — like this. I felt that way before, but… after tonight, I refuse to settle for anything less. Do you understand?”

Though his ears were lowered in silent pleading, I couldn’t miss the intensity in his eyes; others had often spoken of such firm resolve in my own. Seeing it for myself, I no longer wondered why they all seemed to follow my whims. Though the road ahead would be long and painful, it was so Twelves-damned easy to believe him that I couldn’t help but accept his words as truth.

Propping myself up on my elbow, I reached over and pulled him close, stroking my fingers one last time through the mess I’d made of his fiery hair.

“I understand. And I will wait as long as I have to for that. But don’t think for one bell that I won’t come up with new ways to force you to open that damned door if you’re overworking yourself. If this future you’ve saved has a place for us, then I must insist that you join me there.”

“It is a deal, then. That… is one arrangement we can agree on.”

This time, he was the one to lean in and kiss me, and I lost myself so deeply in his lips that I almost didn’t notice when he pulled away and sat up with a deep sigh. I let him search for his clothes across the floor and struggle to pull them on in silence, sharing in his regret — keenly aware of all the similar impressions I’d made on other lovers over the course of my life.

Perhaps this is what I deserve, after all these years. It was so much easier to be the one that got away, as long as I never made promises I couldn’t keep. But now, here I am, letting him go with no idea when we’ll make time for this again. If he disappears again, I—

As he sat down on the bed next to me to lace up his sandals, his eyes met mine, and a shy smile crept onto his face as he rested a hand on my shoulder.

“That look ill suits you, you know. I do have every intention of returning. And I do mean to do so more than once or twice per summer. One night will never account for a hundred years apart. There are… still things I need from you. I pray your pocketbook can bear the weight of my suffering.”

The promise in his words and the playful jibe combined to halt my rapid descent into grief; he’d learned that trick from me, and must have used it countless times to give others hope during his long journey through time and space.

I truly am an open book, it seems. How did I ever manage without you?

Feeling braver, I returned his smile with my own.

“Let me worry about the gil. And rest assured that I’ll be looking forward to our next date, too. If you think that I’m finished with you, then I’ll have to prove you wrong the hard way. Though… I think maybe you’d enjoy that.”

His heroic attempt to stand up, clear his throat, and leave all at once before I noticed the scarlet in his cheeks failed, in large part because he’d forgotten to actually lace his sandals. Laughing, I tugged at the end of his tail as he ducked his head in embarrassment — and silent acceptance of my claim.

“Oh, sit down, old man. I’m just giving you something to think about for next time. Right now, you’re getting dressed and going about your day like a proper hero. And what’s more, you’re going to let me help you instead of twisting yourself into knots like you did behind that dresser last night.”

I thought I heard him mutter something playfully uncharitable under his breath, but as I thought he might, he sighed and obeyed the order with a helpless shrug. It didn’t take long for me to haul myself to my feet and kneel in front of him, sizing up the detailed assortment of hooks and laces with a practiced eye. The costumes I’d worn for the stage had featured similar patterns.

“F-Fine. I believe I mentioned yesterday that you are far too distracting, my Warrior of Darkness. It would seem that you take pride in that fact, too. How childish.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m not the one blushing like a kitten because a gentleman suggested engaging in some physical fitness for the first time in a century. We can’t let those old muscles atrophy now, can we?”

I glanced up from my work to find his handsome face contorted into an amused pout that did nothing to disprove either of our observations. Chuckling, I gave up on teasing him and focused my attention on the last few ilms of lacing, making sure to double-tie the ends to prevent future accidents — not that I was convinced he’d ever truly had one in the first place.

As I finished, he looked down at me, a quiet look of surprise replacing his pout.

“Given what I know of your history, I should have guessed, but… you are quite the capable manservant, Raph’ir. You have done in five minutes what would take me three times as long.”

“Heh. What sort of Warrior of Darkness would I be, if I couldn’t manage to tie a sandal or two? If my work is ever done someday, maybe I’ll have a future as an ordinary cobbler.”

I looked down again, preparing to stand up — but to my surprise, he reached out toward my face. All at once, I found my chin resting in his hands as he graced me with his deep, studious gaze one last time in the morning light.

“Forgive me, but… in that, at least, you are demonstrably wrong. Disagree if you must… but I fear that nothing about you will ever be ordinary to me. Never forget that, Raph’ir. My love. Carry that knowledge with you… until next time.”

Stunned by his sudden adoration, I didn’t manage to move or find the words to respond until he’d already stood up and left the room, closing the door to my suite behind him with a gentleness that only seemed all the louder for its silence.

Struggling back to my feet, I made it as far as my bed before my knees buckled and the weight of everything that had happened since the day before collapsed on me at once. I sank down to the edge of the mattress I’d shared with him only a moment ago, my hands shaking harder than they had at any point during the night and my eyes brimming with tears I dared not shed.

I… never wanted to be more than ordinary. But being yours, being graced with your light… if this is what it means to be extraordinary, then I will wear that knowledge with pride. All that I have done, and all that I will do, will shape the future I want to share with you, too.

I will count the bells until the next time. Don’t keep me waiting. Please.

I sat there, listening to the ambient sounds of the city outside the open window and watching the sunlight play across the trees, for what seemed to me to be an eternity. Then, and only then, did I find the strength inside myself to get up, get dressed, and fire up the tea kettle I’d put to good use the night before. There were people to help, both in the First and the Source — and the sooner I threw myself into my tasks, the sooner I would see him again.

By then, perhaps, we’d have the answers we needed to make things right for the Scions.

It was a foolish hope, of course. But I wanted so very badly to believe it.

And so I did.

Later, as I made my way through the lobby to return my key, a pair of unfamiliar voices caught my attention. The two Hume women in line ahead of me — Eulmoran sisters near my own age, by their appearances — were chatting with the manager of suites in an otherwise quiet moment. Overhearing their spirited discussion regarding the particulars of their stay the night before would not have required significant effort from the other side of the room.

“We slept well enough, thank you. Though I must say, the walls here do seem a bit thin. Not that I’m complaining, darling. It was quite the show. Perhaps I should bring a gentleman or two myself sometime. Such inspiration does not strike every evening!”

The manager of suites stood at attention, directing his usual shite-eating smile toward the elder of the two and letting her threats roll off of his back like so much water. He did not seem surprised when her younger sister interrupted her in turn, sparing him the need to reply.

“Oh, must we discuss the sordid details, dear sister? You may be the sort to listen at keyholes, but some of us are cut from finer cloth. We ought to have simply closed the window and—”

Keyholes? You wound me. Anyone with half an ear could hear! And you were the one that recalled the name we heard. It sounded so exotic that it simply slipped my mind.”

Something about the way she said it drew my fading attention back to her words — and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up at the same time. I tried not to stare as the younger of the two puffed out her chest with pride, somehow maintaining her maidenly blush.

“I do have a gift for these things. And whomever this Raph’ir is, he must be quite the prize, and quite tired this morning, too. With that sort of stamina, he must be fighting fit. I’m jealous.”

Well. I don’t mean to brag, but now that you mention it…

Masking my sudden urge to laugh out loud with a calculated yawn only served to remind me that I was indeed tired — much to my chagrin! Fortunately, the manager of suites had the situation under control, if only by his own lack of knowledge. His trademark smile faded to a studious frown as he flipped through the ledger containing the names of his guests for the evening. It didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t actually bothering to review them at all.

“Forgive me, ladies, but perhaps you misheard. I would be happy to issue a formal complaint, but I fear I have no guests here under that name. It was a rather busy evening, you understand. Perhaps the gentleman in question was simply nearby. The night breeze carries much across the city now that everyone leaves their windows open — much as it does in Eulmore, I am certain.”

The younger sister scowled, unwilling to accept the plausible but flawed explanation for what she knew she’d heard — but the moment, for a mercy, had passed. Or at least, I thought it had until the elder woman spoke up again, aiming to fill the awkward silence.

“In any case, darling, I only hope those amorous lovebirds didn’t disturb the important meeting last night. I heard the Crystal Exarch was here to meet with the Warrior of Darkness himself! Can you imagine such shamelessness? Right under their noses?”

Her sister, switching to a conspiratorial smile that would have looked at home on the manager of suites himself, let out a lengthy giggle pitched for a girl half her age.

Well, you didn’t hear it from me, of course, but I’ve heard much and more about the two of them. Have you ever noticed how closely they stand to one another? And everyone knows the Crystal Exarch waited longer than anyone for the Warrior to arrive. It’s almost indecent!“

The manager of suites made eye contact with me at the exact same moment that I coughed politely into my closed fist, making no attempt to hide the grin that slid onto my face. Alerted to my presence by the sound, the two sisters turned to face me — and proceeded to freeze somewhere in the first two beats of a pretty half-apology that they meant to excuse their chatter. The younger of the two turned as red as my coat, stealing all the color from her sister’s face.

“Ah, no. Pray excuse me, ladies. I was so eager to hear more of your fascinating theories that I forgot myself. Please, do continue. And might I add that I am most pleased to see that my dear friend has such concerned visitors to ask after him. I shall be sure to tell him the next time I see him.”

“Th-th-that will not be necessary, begging your pardon, W-Warrior of Darkness, sir!” To her credit, the older woman took the lead, sinking down into an indelicate curtsey that almost knocked her off her feet. “Y-You’ve done so much for Norvrandt, even if things certainly have changed for Eulmore since your arrival. We hope you had a pleasant stay. That… is what we meant to say, I am quite sure. D-Do give Master Alphinaud our regards, won’t you?”

Grabbing her stunned sister by the hand, she muttered a flustered farewell to the manager of suites before dragging the younger woman out of the lobby far faster than I would have thought possible in such long skirts and tall-heeled shoes. Finding myself suddenly at the head of the line, I redirected my grin at the manager of suites as I handed over my key.

“Pardon the wait, sir. I am afraid that we’ve had several reports this morning regarding some… disturbances last night, as you may have surmised. I did inform every guest of our special circumstances during check-in, but it would seem that I missed a few stray indiscretions. Was your meeting with the Exarch affected? He seemed to be in a hurry when he left this morning.”

Oh, I assure you that he was very, very affected. But I’ll keep that to myself.

“As it happens, our business kept us entertained well into the early hours of the morning. I heard nothing unwelcome, nor did he. Maybe we missed it by falling asleep in our books.”

The manager of suites nodded sagely, his expression returning to its usual smirk. “Full glad am I to hear it. Please do let me know if you require further privacy, of course. I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement as needed in the future, too.”

Yeah, I’ll bet you’re eager to pry my Twelves-damned wallet open again. What have you gotten yourself into this time, Sahra? Best hope the Exarch has a fondness for poor men.

Saying my farewells for the day, I left the manager of suites to his own devices and stepped out into the city, unable to shake the amusement that still clung to my face and heart. Next time, I would have to make sure to find some way to keep G’raha quieter — or invent my own wild story about the mystery man named Raph’ir and his countless dalliances at the Pendants. Either, given the right attention, could be an endeavor worthy of the Warrior of Darkness.

It was only after I left that the manager of suites glanced down at the double fistful of noise complaints he’d received, half of them featuring my birth name — a name that should never have made it to Norvrandt in the first place. He didn’t need to wonder why they all came from the quarter of the building surrounding my suite, or why the Crystal Exarch and I had been the only souls for malms that hadn’t noticed the disruption. There was only one possible explanation.

Fortunately for G’raha, and for me, he was a professional.

He tossed them into the aqueduct behind him and left for his afternoon break.