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Something I Can't Bear to Lose

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“Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.”
—G. K. Chesterton

So it’s finally come to this, has it? After so many long summers. He should still be the one in the armor. But here you stand… the wrong Sahra, still playing dress-up in his brother’s clothes. At least they fit a little better than they used to, these days.

The violet-maned figure in the swirling glamour chest mirror gazed back at me, returning my silent regard with an expression too unreadable to parse in the pale light of dawn.

As preoccupied as I was with my thoughts, and with the morning’s unexpected events, I hadn’t bothered to light the lamps upon my return to the Pendants. I couldn’t even recall what I’d said to the manager of suites by way of a greeting. All I remembered was dragging myself through the door to my suite, closing it behind me, and rushing to satisfy my sudden, compulsive need for the fresh air I’d left outside by throwing open the window as wide as I could.

The crystalline bluespirit sword at my hip felt heavier than it had since the day I’d first picked it up; the matching shield on my back weighed five times as much as the old man I’d taken it up to protect. My gaze strayed down to the former, watching the light play across its azure surface; the same familiar way that it played across Raha’s body on the rare mornings in which neither of us had pressing business to attend to. Perhaps the sword itself was only forged to invoke the resemblance — but I knew well what it represented in my hands.

Can you still recall the days when you thought that the sun itself had taken everything you ever knew and loved away from you? And now you’re head over heels for a bloody Seeker, of all things. To look at you, one would almost name you a Seeker yourself. Perhaps that old, wicked sun simply decided to return what it once borrowed by force. It’s almost noble, in a way.

How naive you were, back then. You thought you could save everything and everyone, like the hero from some Twelves-damned faerie story. Allaz and the others should have taught you better. Raha too. But… nothing’s changed, has it? No matter how many times you lose everything, no matter how many times you watch the world around you burn, you still fight. And just as they did in Raha’s future, others lift up their swords in unison to join you in your folly.

You always wondered why Allaz left the spotlight to you. Perhaps he knew what you would become, long after his presence faded from the world.

Or perhaps he knew that there would someday be another light to guide you instead.

Closing my eyes, I reached down and into the collection of pouches at my belt by feel alone, pressing my fingers into the thin, smooth band of metal hidden inside. What had started as a way to keep my idle hands busy several weeks ago had turned into something of a personal challenge for my goldsmithing prowess; Allaz used to do the same thing with carpentry during quiet moments. It seemed that a spare Allagan wootz nugget could in fact be alloyed with other, more pliable steels in order to produce something lighter than the original.

Only after I’d patiently worked it into an elegant bangle fit for an old man’s crystalline wrist did I realize what I’d made. And then I’d promptly shoved it as deep into my pouch as I could manage. I’d spent the intervening time failing to forget about its existence for more than a bell or two — and twitching at every mention of the word “promise” in casual conversation.

And lo! The sworn bachelor eats his inevitable crow, as so many have before him. It’s about time. That is, if you ever manage to pull your head out of your own arse before it’s too—

Opening my eyes to take in my armored reflection again was preferable to finishing that statement. I found myself glaring into the mirrored surface in front of me as my hand returned to my side, feeling scorched by the precious metal it had touched. Knowing what I wanted, as ever, was not the problem when it came to G’raha Tia. Putting it into words, though, was a different matter; I was yet three steps behind the beat of the dance in that regard.

And there were so very many reasons to hesitate, too.

Face it. He has more summers behind him than you’ll ever see. If the age doesn’t cause his sun to set, then there are his secrets. The countless unknowable costs of his journey to Norvrandt. The way he works himself to the bone. The insufferable way he stands in utter defiance of ruin with a smile on his face. He has ever been ripe to leave a widower in his wake. The coffin he’s built for you lies open and ready. All you need do is sign your own death warrant.

And the whole reason you swore off romance in the first place was because you couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving a grieving widow behind at journey’s end. Will you leave behind a grieving widower instead, then? For a second time? Your selfishness truly knows no bounds.

The sting of my own doubt, ever present and ever painful since the days of my earliest memories, attempted to flood my senses — but this time, it failed to resonate with the logical, reasonable part of my soul that accepted the worst-case scenarios I posited as a guarantee. Perhaps it was nothing more than the early hour playing tricks on me, but I suspected it had far more to do with the conversation I’d had in the Source mere bells before.

I had never expected to see the day when the Sword of Nald would look at me with such reverence — or was it fear? — in his eyes. I’d neglected my training as a gladiator, and as a paladin, for so long that I had thought he would forget my existence entirely. Shieldwork had never been my forte; the only swordplay I’d ever taken to was the duelist’s variety, employed to great effect by both my natural instincts as a red mage and the stage I’d left behind.

But then I’d come to Norvrandt. Born to the blade or not, it was impossible to stand behind Raha’s steadfast might — watching his ancient yet powerful body gracefully bear the weight of a ten-tonze shield that I had always whined about during all of my own attempts — and not be inspired. I’d thrown myself into mirroring his moves during quiet moments, but I hadn’t realized that I’d reached the pinnacle of the art until today; until Aldis had asked his damning question.

“Impossible… How? How did you become so strong?”

Since my victory over Emet-Selch, I’d found the opportunity to touch base with many of my old comrades and teachers in the Source, all of whom seemed to regard me with a new gravity as I attempted to explain my unexpected journey to another star. But Aldis had never been much more to me than a strong arm and a cautionary tale; a glimpse into a future in which I failed to practice due caution with the hearts and minds of the lovers that came my way.

Perhaps that was why it meant so much to see him stand before me, overwhelmed by the stark reality of everything that had changed in me since I’d left Eorzea. Hero though he was, in his own way, he’d only ever been an ordinary man to me. And that ordinary man, preparing to face me in combat, saw something in me that ran beyond the ordinary hero I’d been before.

Things have changed. I’ve changed. The things I’ve seen, the things I’ve fought for… the things I’ve lost. And… the things I’ve found, too. All of them have made me strong enough to stand against whatever is necessary to save this star. And it’s not just all in my head anymore. Others see it when they look at me. Perhaps all that pain and suffering… mattered.

The words I gave him in answer were the only ones I had, though they felt woefully inadequate to explain everything that had come before, and everything that would come later.

“I found something I couldn’t bear to lose.”

Someone wise once told me there are things we can ill afford to lose.

Broken by my resolve, he’d left me standing with Mylla as witness to his forfeiture. For my part, I’d watched him leave with a grip on the hilt of my blade that was tight enough to hurt.

Remember it, Aldis. How much time will you waste playing games with the First Sword? Are you prepared to wake up one day, or the next, to find her broken on some battlefield, too far away for your voice to reach? How long will you ask her to prepare herself for the day when it’s you instead? She could be your strength. She could be your answer. If you truly love her… then dare to be the man she believes you are. You never know when it will be too late.

In the end, he’d taken the unspoken advice, though perhaps not with the grace I had hoped after such a revelation. And I’d staggered back to Norvrandt by way of Mor Dhona with my heart in my throat, keenly aware of my own need to heed the advice I’d just given.

Time, where Raha was concerned, meant everything.

The rush of my jumbled thoughts slowed and then stopped on the precipice of that single fact; the only one that mattered, though the pain of knowing it did its best to dissuade me. I met my own gaze in the mirror just as the sunlight shifted to pierce the swirling glass.

I’m still insufferable myself. I fear I always will be. But I’m not the naive little boy I used to be anymore. Perhaps this will end in misery after all, but both of us know all too well what we’re risking, and we chose to risk it anyway. Neither of us deserves this chance… but it’s ours now. We would be fools not to take the happiness we’ve been offered.

Even if it amounts to nothing more than a single bell in the end.

In the mirror, behind the glare of the sun’s rays, I watched my reflection stand a little straighter and a little taller, setting his jaw as if preparing for a battle with a well-matched enemy. The man in front of me seemed confident, powerful, and brave, giving off an aura that brooked no argument and left no room for uncertainty. At first glance, he’d seemed like a stranger — but every breath he took came through my lungs; every beat of his heart came from my chest.

It was useless to deny it further. Perhaps Allaz would have worn it in a perfect world — but the armor I wore belonged to me. I’d earned that much, at least.

I glanced down to find that my nervous hands had taken up purchase in my pouch, stroking the surface of the wristlet inside as gently as I wanted to stroke the beautiful crystal and flesh that would soon bear it. But before that bell could ring, I’d have to find a suitable means of coaxing him out of his comfortable, self-imposed prison of a tower for the night — again.

And then, I would actually have to give it to him in the first place.

P-Promises and ceremonies won’t change anything. They’re only formal, legal acknowledgements of what we already feel for each other… and what everyone else has known for far longer than I have, to hear them talk. I hope the arcanists’ guild will accept his signature in absentia on the paperwork in the Source. It… might be a problem if he’s been declared dead for the purposes of bookkeeping. I can’t ask Thubyrgeim to shirk her duties…

Shite. I should have thought of this sooner.

I should have thought about the fact that I’m proposing to Twelves-damned royalty, too. Was the bloody Lord Commander of Ishgard not enough for you, Sahra? Thal’s bloody balls!

And yet, even as I thought it, the man in the mirror before me smiled, still radiant despite the storm in his weary soul. As with all challenges, he seemed to say, I will face this one with my head held high, for I know what it took to get here. Gazing into his eyes, I nodded in unison with him, pressing my fist to my chest to signal my commitment to the cause.

With the promise of my future and my growing acceptance of my own pride behind me, I turned and left my sun-dappled suite to bask alone in the remainder of the morning’s glow.

My destiny awaited with open arms.

Allaz… if you’re out there somewhere… walk with me, my brother. Stand by my side. I want you to meet the man I plan to spend the rest of my life with. Bring Mama and the others, too.

I think you’ll approve. Most days… well, it’s easy to forget he’s an Allagan heir. He acts like a hundred-year-old kitten. But if you look just right, you’ll see it in the way he moves. In the way he speaks. In the way he never stops thinking about what he can do for the people around him. He’s amazing, just like you were. And he thinks I’m pretty amazing, too. Maybe he’s even right.

Don’t tell him I said it, though. He’ll rub it in my face for weeks.


“Raph’ir.”

He stood at the top of the familiar stairwell where I’d once spoken with Ardbert and Feo Ul after Emet-Selch’s fated gunshot, addressing my back as I sat on the floor. My legs hung off the edge of the roof, dangling over the rookery below, and the endless malms of purple trees framing it.

I didn’t need to see his face; even with a gap of several years between our first meeting and our eventual reunion, it was easy to tell from his tone that he was feigning annoyance — somewhat. With Elidibus running rampant in Ardbert’s body, and the Crystarium in a state of chaos, the boldness I’d employed to gain his attention for the afternoon was… unbecoming.

It was also necessary.

“Did you actually think that I would take this… double handful of utter nonsense for truth? I must admire your courage, at least, if not your handiwork. Pray tell me you are aware that the glue you used was meant for cloth, not parchment. A true villain would have been more thorough.”

As he drew close, he reached down to wave the ragged sheet of paper that I’d left on the closed door of the Umbilicus in my face. Up close, it was easy to see the flaw he’d mentioned. Several of the letters I’d cut out of my old, unneeded books and pasted to the page in order to form crude, haphazard words were missing. Those that weren’t absent were threatening to escape.

I took it from him without comment, reviewing the message I’d written. With so much of it gone, only the fact that I’d written it myself allowed me to do so.

CrYsTaL eXaRcH: i HaVe StOlEn YoUr RaBbIt. If YoU wIsH tO sEe HeR aGaIn, MeEt Me In YoUr SeCrEt GaRdEn. I wIlL bE wAiTiNg.

“It was all I had on me at the time. Can you blame me for not running all the way back to the marketplace to fetch Feo Ul? And I didn’t want to give them… ideas for new pranks.”

I heard him sigh behind me, but it didn’t take long for him to reach for the top of my head with his crystal fingers, ruffling my hair as gently as ever despite my antics.

“Lyna found it herself, you know. I have never heard her… giggle before. I should thank you for the opportunity, even if it was in poor taste. Your sense of humor appears to reflect your title, my Warrior of Darkness — though perhaps not your age.”

“Sorry.”

I meant it, even though the gambit had worked as intended. Over the last several months, simply asking him for his time and attention like a typical lover had resulted in more joy than I’d ever thought possible. That… had all changed with Ardbert’s return. Though I thought I had seen the last of Raha’s famously closed door, he’d started to reject a good three-quarters of my requests for entry, to say nothing of everyone else’s — even without me being a pest.

Understanding his desperation made it even harder to watch him do it.

I won’t be shut out again, Raha. Didn’t I tell you? Once was… too much. I promised I would trust you, but you’re not resting anymore. You’re not taking breaks. And… I know things are bad enough right now that you can’t. So if being the villain is what it takes to force you, then I’ve had a lot of practice at that since I came to the First. I’ll become what I must to succeed.

I didn’t need to say any of it out loud. If he hadn’t understood my intent, then the conversation would have been very different, and likely at the business end of his staff. A threat against Lyna was the only thing outside the Tower that he’d still take as seriously as a threat against me.

Using his staff for purchase, he lowered himself down beside me, betraying the hidden tiredness in his movements. His beautiful eyes had lost much of the youthful sparkle they’d boasted mere weeks ago. His robe looked dirty and wrinkled in places. The braid at the back of his head was a mess. If not for the fear and exhaustion, it could have been a good look for him, but all it did was drive the necessity of my decision home for me — both the obviously idiotic letter, and the reason I’d left such a thing in broad daylight upon his door at all.

“There. Now that I am settled, mayhap you will explain to me what has warranted this occasion.” Raha looked over at me, his tail flicking against my back like a third hand attempting to soothe a stubborn child. “Not only have you resorted to tricks that better suit the Faerie Kingdom, you are… wearing armor. And a shield. Consider my curiosity piqued.”

Twelve damn it. Shouldn’t I be the one comforting you, old man? I would rather have just invited you here normally, y’know. But there’s no time to waste anymore. It’s never been clearer to me.

My own tail snaked its way around his slender hips in a gentle, private embrace.

“I… had a chat with someone I used to know back in the Source this morning. I didn’t expect it to bother me so much, but the whole thing left me feeling like something was missing. I know it’s selfish of me to keep you. Others are standing in line. But… I couldn’t wait.”

“A chat does not require armor, the last time I checked. But perhaps it is only my age speaking.” I could feel his focus on me deepen, searching for possible injuries hidden from view; he knew me far too well for my own good at times. “Or perhaps you meant to delay my return to the Umbilicus this time by forcing me to remove all this armor for you? Such a spectacle in public might encourage more of the citizens to postpone their wanderlust, I suppose.”

Even as nervous as I was, the idea — and the subtle smirk that accompanied it — was far more tempting than I cared to admit. I made a mental note to keep it in reserve for a later date, taking the opportunity to steal a long, tender kiss instead.

“Heh. Still trying to use me to save Norvrandt, are we? And I thought I was the one that had grown too bold. I warned you it would rub off someday.”

In all honesty, fencing wits with him in that moment was what I desired most, even if my body would not have argued with more. The connection between us that I’d always treasured served as the sole, steady reminder in my head of his continued survival; the only thing I truly needed.

I looked down at him as he leaned over to rest his disheveled head on my shoulder, his tired gaze straying down to the crystal sword at my hip. After a moment, he brought his natural hand to rest on its flat surface, tracing the facets with a curious fingertip.

“Very well, then. I have other questions. However did you come by such a singular weapon and shield? I would not have considered simply breaking off pieces of the Crystal Tower for use in battle. Though… I would not have considered myself capable of missing you doing it, either.”

My laugh did not quite manage to disguise the sudden, unexpected fit of shyness that came over me with his words. I’d never even mentioned my recent interest in training as a paladin to him, much less that he was the reason for it. Judging from the way his ears twitched against me in quiet amusement, I suspected that I didn’t actually need to. It was only one hundred years ago that he’d taken up training in the art himself in order to someday protect me.

“It’s called bluespirit. The Mean taught me to make it, back before everything… changed. It attracts a lot of attention. I guess people must find it pretty or something.”

“So I have heard. Though, coming from you, I question the validity of the claim.”

His teasing words fell quiet for several moments as we sat together in silence, lost in each other’s company. Eventually I realized that one of my hands had found its way back into the pocket containing the promise wristlet I’d made for him. I thought I had already made my peace with the plan to propose in my mind, but now that the moment had arrived, I could feel my heart starting to race; swallowing against the sudden lump in my throat was difficult.

Of course, he chose that moment to speak again.

“It suits you. The armor, and… the rest of it, too. I would see more of it, sometime. But… I fear it has yet to explain the urgency that brought me here. I… am waiting, Raph’ir.”

I know. And you will not be waiting a single bell longer. Forgive me, Raha.

My fingers dug themselves into the thin metal in my pouch as my free hand moved to take his. Turning to face him felt as if it should have taken years. He looked up at me, clearly intending to make some quip about my distracting him from the subject — but whatever he saw stopped it dead on his lips. I watched his eyes widen ever so slightly, reminded of Aldis’ earlier reaction to me. It would take as much resolve or more to say what I needed to say.

“Everyone back in the Source says I’ve changed since you brought me to Norvrandt. But today… someone I haven’t seen for a very long time asked me how I’d grown so strong. If he’d asked me when we first met, I would have told him that I wasn’t strong at all. If I was, then I could have saved my family all those years ago. I would have been there to protect the countless lives that have been lost since I became the Warrior of Light. I would never have made the mistakes that I have. I… would never have let you leave the Source.”

The urge to argue with me was plain on his face, and oh-so-typical of his standard reaction to the doubts and fears that plagued me on a regular basis. I gave him no space to sate it.

“But when I thought back to everything that has happened here, I realized something. Alisaie asked you the same thing when we first brought the night back to Lakeland. Your answer served its purpose in throwing her off your trail at the time, but it also made me think. Even if I couldn’t have anticipated your reasons for saying it… I realized I felt exactly the same way.”

His grip on my hand tightened, much as I knew it would, and a quiet sadness rested on his recollective smile. As tired as he was, he resembled the man he’d been back then too much.

“There… are still things we can ill afford to lose. Even I did not yet know the full truth of that statement when I made it. I am glad she did not press me further.”

“She’s always been smarter than she thinks. Kinder, too. There’s a lot to be said for learning about life at swordpoint, even if books are sometimes a little safer.”

I gave his hand a gentle squeeze in return, and waited until I felt him relax before I continued. “Anyway… I didn’t want to fight him, but he insisted… right up until I gave him the same answer. And if he hadn’t walked away then and there, I might have lost my temper. After everything I’d been through, the idea of raising my sword against him just felt so… pointless.”

“You have ever been slow to draw steel, Raph’ir. Please tell me this is not a new revelation.” Raha was searching my face for more of an explanation. “It is your lot in life to put a hasty end to the battles that others start, or so you have said. In the latter, if not the former, you are much like Alisaie herself. I do not wonder why she looks at you the way she does.”

The comparison was somehow more flattering than I expected.

“Yeah. But the thing is… it was meant to be a friendly duel for old times’ sake. I shouldn’t have gotten so angry in the first place. And when I asked myself why I did… I found myself suddenly aware of all the reasons I’d never been able to stand him in the first place. He’s supposed to be a hero, but he wastes time the way a drunk pisses out rotgut, if you’ll pardon the phrase. He’s going to lose everything he cares about if he doesn’t wake up, and soon.”

“That is a shame. Mayhap he is the sort of person that must learn from the mistakes he has made, rather than the warnings of others — even if they do come from the Warrior of Light.” Raha’s soft smile was tender and affectionate — too much so for the subject at hand, I thought.

“You’re right about that. But as much as I hate to admit it… at the end of the day, I’m no better than he is, Raha. The only time I spare for what I want out of my own life is when I’m with you.”

My mouth committed to the rest of what I was trying to say, even as my heart and soul rejected it; speaking the words out loud felt as if I’d tempted the wrath of the Twelve. When they left my lips, they did so in an unplanned, mumbled rush, breaking on the last few syllables.

“And… I’ve already wasted too much of that, too. There… aren’t enough bells, are there? I’m not fool enough to miss the fact that at the rate things are going, there… may never be.”

I didn’t realize I’d closed my eyes until I felt him let go of my hand and lean over instead, wrapping both of his arms around me. His crystal hand gently guided my head and neck down toward his own shoulder, inviting me to rest in his place; I was in no state to argue with him. With wristlet imprints embedded deep in my fingertips, I slid my own arms around him in turn. The clock that had begun to tick endlessly in my mind the moment I’d returned his affections with my own seemed to chime off beat and out of tune, heralding the end of everything.

“So this is what haunts you, is it? I had thought you were too cheerful in the face of so much uncertainty these last few weeks. Pray forgive me. If I were less focused, and less afraid for myself, I might have noticed sooner. I… have left you alone for too long.”

Saying anything in that moment would have reduced me to the tears I adamantly refused to shed. If there was any hope of recovering my emotions enough to propose, I needed to get myself under control. I held onto him with everything I had, listening to the sound of his voice as he spoke quietly into my ear, his head tilted down against mine.

“Listen to me, my Warrior of Darkness. I swore to you that I would find a way out of this nightmare. You continue to do all that you can in pursuit of the same. Nothing has been… certain… for me in one hundred years, and it is less so now than ever. And knowing that, I… would not waste a single moment more than I must. I will not watch all that we have between us end, not after we have come so far. You are… too precious to me. Do you understand?”

I do. And… I still believe in you. If there is anything in this world, or any other, that we can do to ensure that this future is brighter than the one you opened your eyes to, then we’ll find it. Together. But… this dream could still turn out to be too good to be true.

My nod against his shoulder clearly wasn’t enough of an answer for him. I could hear his heartbeat quicken beneath me as he searched in vain for the right words to soothe my suffering. In the end, I pulled one arm away from him and reached again for the pocket at my waist.

“Raha. Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubts. I’ll fight until the very last to see this through, for you, for Norvrandt, and for the Source, too. But as long as the possibility of failure exists…”

My fingers closed on the wristlet one last time before bringing it out into the sunlight between us.

“…I want to know that I seized every chance I had left to tell you what you mean to me.”

As I opened my eyes to take in the view, his gaze shifted from me to the wristlet in my hand, studying the subtle pattern in the light. I felt his breathing slow and stop in a single moment of recognition. Then, and only then, did he start to swallow hard several times. What had once been a pause suddenly became a desperate search for air, and his arm tightened around me. It was clear from the lack of focus in his beautiful eyes that he hadn’t noticed the ear-to-ear smile that stole every last shadow away from his radiant face.

“Many lifetimes ago… when I was but a boy in the Source… I dreamed of handing such a token to my beloved, though I knew I had yet to meet the one who might bear it. And yet… I somehow never imagined the day when I would receive my own. P-Pray tell me it still means what it once did? A promise… to the Twelve, and… to each other?”

“Yeah. You haven’t been gone that long, old man.”

Despite the fear that had led me far enough to face the final moment of truth, the joy written on every inch of his body cut the darkness inside me away. As he looked up into my eyes, I found the strength to disentangle myself from his side and sat up straight, taking his natural hand in mine. Somehow, placing the wristlet into his palm and closing his fingers around it felt like the most logical, reasonable decision in the world, even as his lower lip started to tremble.

“Nothing is certain. Not for our worlds… and not for us. But you would make my future beautiful for all the time left in it by marrying me, G’raha Tia. I fear I have nothing to offer the heir of a fallen empire except a boy that once grew up in an ocean cave on the coast of nowhere, but… I know you’ll disagree. I would be honored to face my future at your side, if you’ll have me.”

“I see. And… if that is… all… that you are offering…”

I could not have prepared myself any less for the way he fought for his words through the tears he made no attempt to hide; for his smile that never faltered, for the way he clung to the wristlet in his hand as if it would vanish the very moment he relaxed his grip.

“…then I would have more to offer you in trade… than a boy that grew up in the pages of his books… wishing he had more to give to the world. But… I know you will disagree.”

“You’re damned right I’ll disagree. Loudly. Every bell. Until you understand that he’s all I ever wanted in the first place. Everything else… is so much more than I could have hoped for.”

Though part of me wanted to leave that smile forever untarnished, my own composure was starting to tear at the seams in watching him; finding strength in a kiss was the only viable solution. Judging from the eager way his lips joined with mine, it seemed clear that he agreed entirely — but it only served to leave both of us more fragile than we’d been before. Neither of us noticed or cared when we ended up in a tight embrace afterward, his fist still clenched around the simple metal band that had served to alter the rest of my life.

“Hey, Raha. I’m… not about to lose that argument to you. Not even if you become my husband. I hope you’re prepared to forfeit.”

His quiet laughter did little to disguise the sniffles he directed into my side, his head resting against my chest for support as my shaking hands found their way into his hair.

“What a… poor time for a jest. Surely you know, bonded or not, that I have no intention of losing now. I fear this… argument of ours may last… a lifetime.”

“So, um… that’s a yes, then?”

His cheeks darkened at my words, and I gazed down at him as he untucked his head far enough to glance at the wristlet in his now-open hand. The deep marks across his sweaty palm reminded me of the ones I’d worn less than a bell ago.

“I… you deserve more from me than empty promises and unknowns. Everything I have become, and everything I am becoming, one slow day at a time… how can I pledge myself to you, knowing what might lie ahead? You are… yet young. I could not bear to see you suffer, if…”

He couldn’t say it. But somehow, with him in my arms, I could.

“I would suffer more knowing I’d missed my chance for true happiness. Whether it’s five minutes, five bells, or five hundred years, I… could never regret this.”

I let him study the wristlet in silence, mulling over my words. The nerves that might well have spoiled the moment for me in another time and place stayed conspicuously absent. Though the inner battle between hope and caution that he waged in his mind remained all too familiar, I also knew the sort of man, and the sort of hero, he’d become. Any caution he’d ever displayed in his life came in service to the hope that had carried him through time and space; it was his birthright, and he’d stopped at nothing to show the world what he planned to do with it.

It’s what we do best, isn’t it? Defying the odds. Proving that the world can change, despite everything that dares to interfere. I’m finished with the mights and maybes. And… you are, too. If it were otherwise, then you would never have made it to Norvrandt at all.

Knowing his mind, of course, did nothing to make the rush of relieved joy less overwhelming when his beautiful smile returned and he found his voice again.

“It would seem we are in agreement. How… unusual. Though I must say, it does feel nice every once in a while. You… have ever given me the clarity I needed most.”

I felt him take a deep, shaky breath as he looked back up at me, meeting my gaze with his own. The steely resolve I’d worn before looked at home on his face, too, though the tenderness behind it was something new and special, reserved only for me.

“I… love thee… Raph’ir Sahra. Raphail Somnalune. By… any name or face that you have worn, past or present. And I would not waste a single moment more on possibilities. My answer is yes, a thousand times yes… and I believe I have held onto this wristlet of yours for far too long. It… belongs on my wrist, does it not? I would love to see it in its proper place.”

Something about the simple, matter-of-fact way he said it — along with the full name I hadn’t worn since childhood — left me shaken to the core, as so many of his past declarations of love had. I’d always struggled to put my own feelings into words, the way he did. What sounded so natural on his lips seemed so inadequate, so trite coming from my own mouth; surely there were better ways to express what I felt for him than mere love! And yet, they were words as old as time for a reason, spoken by even the philosophers of the past era he’d inherited.

Taking the wristlet back from him with trembling fingers, I leaned down to kiss him first, finding him all too ready to reciprocate. What started as a gentle, tender moment soon grew more heated and desperate; only when we paused for breath did I notice the wet streaks on my own face. Surprisingly, it never registered as a failure to compose myself in my mind; the man who would become my husband deserved to see what he’d worked so hard to win.

“You… honor me. The only thing that brings me more joy than hearing your answer is your smile, right now. I… I love thee, G’raha Tia. More… than anything in this world, or any other.”

It was the first time I’d ever said the words out loud, even if I’d said it in countless other ways; the effort left me redder than I’d expected. Seeing Raha’s shocked expression, though, more than made up for the embarrassment. As he tucked his face into my chest again, I thought I’d returned the favor by making him cry — again — but his eyes were dry as he clung to me in much the same way that he had so many months ago, when I’d first confessed my feelings to him on the floor of the Ocular. Only the curve of his contented smile remained to grace his garden.

I opened my mouth again, intending to follow through on his request to try on the wristlet, but he shook his head against me, mumbling soft enough for only me to hear.

“Shhh. Let me have this moment… just for a little while. I would remember the sound of those words forever, and at my age… it will take focus.”

Unable to hold back a chuckle, I did as he’d ordered, losing myself in the way he fit in my arms and the weight of him against my chest. That much, at least, had not changed today — but even so, the new bond we shared made everything seem so much different than it had been before. The first moments of the rest of my life were upon me. And as I watched Raha fade in and out of the dazed, blissful, sleep-tinged focus he’d asked for, I felt as if Norvrandt and the Source had somehow collided; the spirits of my family had not felt so close since I’d lost them.

Thank you, Allaz. Mama. And the others, too. Do you see how beautiful he is, now? How happy he makes me? We’ll carry on where you left off. Perhaps the Sahra name will end with me, but… we’ll find other ways to change the world. We’ll make you proud. So look after us… him, most of all. He is… my family, now, too. He will be the place I call home.

My arms tightened around him as I gazed out into the fields of purple beyond the Crystarium gates, taking in the sight of the road that I’d once walked in order to find him — all at once aware of the fact that he’d once done the same for me, each day, for a hundred years.

Raha. I’ll have to work on saying it more often, too. Because I do… love you. And I will be damned if I let you forget it ever again.


“Hey, Master Somnalune. Or do you prefer Sahra? If you don’t open those lovely eyes of yours soon, the sun’ll dye your skin to match. For all I know, it’ll melt your crystal, too.”

I glanced down at Raha, unable to contain the playful smirk on my face despite my best effort. He stirred, muttering to himself, newly disturbed by the sound of my voice after what I guessed had been a little more than a bell; the shadows had not changed much since the last time I’d taken note of them. As much as I hadn’t wanted to wake him, I yet retained enough sympathy for his plight that it seemed cruel to leave him entirely unaware of the passage of time — and the wristlet I’d worked so hard to give him had not yet found its way to his wrist.

Don’t think you’re getting away that easily. Or did you want me to have to come up with another poorly-fashioned ransom note? I still don’t have the right glue with me, y’know.

The smile that had stayed on his face as he slept widened under his conscious control, and he looked up into my eyes, using them to help him focus on the waking world.

Another new name? I am too old for this. Perhaps you could be Raph’ir Tia instead?”

“Give me a break. That’s not even a name. It’s a title, and from some other star besides. Aren’t you the historian around here? You’re getting sloppy, old man.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you. I had forgotten the Keeper instinct to over-explain, particularly as regards the customs of my own people. Mayhap we are fine as we are after all. Though… I must admit to a certain thrill in hearing it anyway. Every once in a while, perhaps?”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

I let him sit up fully and stretch while he chuckled, taking quiet note of the same shadows that I had; even that intrusive moment of reality did little to dampen his mood despite my fears. After a moment, he turned back to me, reaching shyly for my hand.

“I… gather from this absurd exchange that I did not, in fact, dream that my Warrior of Darkness saw fit to hand me a promise wristlet. One forged from a very particular long-lost alloy, if I am not mistaken. I have seen enough of it in my studies to know it anywhere… though the usage of such in decorative applications has not been common since the Third Astral Era.”

“Heh. I guess you’re not as sloppy as I thought.”

No explanations were necessary as I leaned over and down to kiss him, taking as long as I dared in the process; my unmerciful teasing left its mark on him well enough, though neither of us had the patience or the time to devote to rewarding it. As I drew away, the need on his face was as much for the wristlet I’d promised him as it was for me — and I knew which one was more likely to afford me the chance to entertain him in a more private location later.

Once he’d caught his breath and opened his eyes again, I squeezed his hand and reached into my pocket for the last time, ready to give him his rightful reward at last.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I sized it for your crystal arm. Maybe someday it’ll become part of you more permanently… but until then, it seemed safest, too. And I thought it would highlight the way the crystal sparkles in the sun. I admit, that part was a bit selfish of me.”

“Hmph. As if that is the only advantage you have taken today.”

The playful pout on his face was the last thing I saw before absolute disaster struck.

My pocket held nothing but air and my empty, open hand.

S-Shite. Where did it go?! I had it first, but then he had it… no, he gave it back to me! And then… and then he fell asleep, and I… what did I… oh Twelve. I didn’t even go anywhere! I’ve been awake and sitting here next to him this whole time! Maybe it fell under us… or…

I had not, of course, proposed to a fool — at least, not when it came to reading a room. Watching me frozen in place, with my eyes as wide as saucers and my own lifeblood absent from my face, it took Raha mere moments to put two and two together for himself.

“Breathe, my love. It must be lost in these robes of mine somewhere. Let me just…”

A less terrified man might have taken the obvious chance to insist on searching every fold for himself, just to be sure — but as he took hold of his ornate staff and struggled mightily to his feet for the first time in a bell, the only thing I could think of was finding that wristlet.

I’ll search under every Twelves-damned rock in this city if I have to.

Elidibus can bloody well wait.


“Wait, wait. You’re telling me he lost the actual wristlet.”

Somewhere in the distance behind me, Alisaie was laughing out loud. Hard. I didn’t need to see Alphinaud’s elbow in her ribs to know that it was doing nothing to put a stop to it, either. Whatever pretty words I’d flattered her with earlier that day had been ill conceived!

With my knees planted ilms deep into the stinking mud, I glanced up at them, shading my eyes against the afternoon sun with the same filthy hand that I’d employed in digging through the rookery’s endless muck. Raha still sat with them and the others, resting as he offered his best explanation of the morning’s events. He’d insisted on joining the search at first, but once it became clear that his robes — and the entire roof — did not harbor any trace of his lost bangle, I’d ordered him back to work for his own protection.

If he hadn’t run into the Scions on his way back to the Ocular, I would have managed to suffer the indignity by myself. But of course, he was worried about me. And nobody had wanted to miss the chance to view the Warrior of Darkness arse-up in a field of mud — and worse.

Even armor won’t be enough to protect me from this stench. I didn’t need this much proof that amaro fill the same role as chocobos in the Source, really. Shite.

Y’shtola, for a mercy, had said nothing to me — but I could see the smirk she tried to hide beneath one of her delicate hands as she caught me glaring at her. Urianger shook his head beside her, looking as unfazed as ever. It seemed that mud was beneath his prodigious intellect. To her credit, Ryne had taken one look at my face and offered to help; Thancred had managed to convince her that a short break would better suit the Empty. Even if he hadn’t, I would have refused her; the situation was my responsibility in the first place.

How could I have been so stupid? I let the single most important thing in my life right now slip from my fingers like some kind of garbage. I should have kept it in my pocket until I knew I needed it, instead of making a big, bloody show of it like the fool I am. Like as not someone’s taken it and used it for scrap to make a lantern handle or something. It would serve me right.

My attention drifted back to the ground, but not before I caught a glimpse of Alisaie wiping at the edges of her eyes with one hand and clutching at her stomach with the other.

“I… am going to have to give that man a tip the next time I see him. I haven’t laughed this hard in years. I had no idea… and I’m sure Raphail didn’t tell him. You can’t tell someone you’re about to get hitched with only a nod and a smile.”

“Thou hast been dedicated to thine own pursuits of late. Recallest thou that mine own suppositions were accurate without the need for the scandalous gossip of which thou speakest.”

Urianger looked down at her in the same moment that her careless words reached my ears. I hadn’t realized I could get to my feet so fast wearing full protective gear; perhaps the absence of the shield I’d laid aside for the search contributed more to that than the sudden rush of rage-fueled adrenaline that shot through my veins and landed squarely in my crimson cheeks.

Perhaps.

What did you just say?!”

Only after I’d blurted it out did I realize that a second voice had echoed my own. Raha was standing too, his arms crossed over his chest — and wearing a shocked expression that I had to assume looked indistinguishable from my own. One of Alisaie’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline and her hands rose to her hips as she glanced back and forth between us.

“Oh, come on. The manager of suites said you looked like you’d swallowed a sin eater this morning. He was worried about you. Told us to check it out, just in case it was something serious. Even he couldn’t have guessed you’d propose. Or lose the wristlet.”

You’ve got to be joking. Coming from that meddling, good-for-nothing, top-shelf, world class bastard, worried is an excuse to poke his nose into everything that moves. But he can’t have figured out that I planned to propose by watching me. He can’t! I refuse to believe it! I didn’t spend years on the stage as a magician just to have some random innkeeper read me like a cheap tavern sign! I… couldn’t have been that obvious… could I?

Raha didn’t meet the desperate look I shot in his direction. He was far too busy objecting to a different, if not less important, part of the story. “If he sent you to observe us after witnessing Raphail’s departure… that was quite some time ago, was it not? Exactly how long have you been following our trail? I had assumed your timely arrival in the courtyard was a stroke of good fortune on my part, but the more that I think on it…”

A stray clump of earth detached itself from my knees and fell to the ground with an indignant thump. The sight of it was all Alisaie needed to burst into uncontrollable laughter again, leaving Alphinaud to step into the void she’d left in the conversation.

“I’m sorry. Please excuse her. I am afraid that your habits are… well known by the Crystarium after so long, my friend. Several people saw you leave the Ocular and head for the garden, not long after Raphail did. They were happy to point us in the right direction. It… would not have been proper to join you, of course, so we… er… we waited downstairs for you. At a distance.”

Y’shtola’s smirk widened as her sightless eyes focused on the hidden aether beneath my skin. “Indeed. A veritable distance of half a yalm. Close enough, I daresay, to have heard the important parts clearly with our own ears. Subtlety has never been your strong suit, Warrior of Darkness — least of all since your tia ceased to wear his hood.”

Ryne took a step forward, her hand outstretched in pleading. “I told them we should have given you both the privacy you deserved, but… Thancred thought you might have need of us, and—”

Thancred flashed me an insolent grin that disproved her words. “Frankly, none of us had it in us to miss the big moment. Not even Ryne. Don’t let her fool you.”

As my eyes closed against the unexpectedly sudden flood of attention and embarrassment, my dirt-covered arms crossed themselves over my chest, and my teeth clenched together to prevent myself from saying anything I would regret. I’d anticipated and even welcomed having to weather it at some point later, once I’d gotten my bearings again — but with the wristlet missing and my carefully-laid plan falling apart at the seams, facing anyone, even the Scions, was too much to bear. I deserved to be laughed at. Alisaie was right. And yet—

Quiet footsteps approached me in the darkness.

“Well. It seems that I have been retelling a familiar tale, then. How very like the old man that I am. Pray forgive my meaningless repetition. If I had known, I might have spared you sooner.”

I opened my eyes to find Raha standing beside me, his body turned to face me; there was a protective gleam in his beautiful eyes, though the bemused smile on his face was just as comforting. The gentle hand that found its way onto my arm was his, of course; he’d intentionally chosen his natural hand for the task in order to ground me in the feel of his skin. Unlike mine, his embarrassment had already faded from view, leaving nothing but pride behind.

“I have no regrets. It is good to know that so many have taken an interest in us, especially in light of… recent events. And I am ever grateful to have such friends at my age. It did not have to be so, after all. Your lives still hang in the balance because of me.”

Seven pairs of eyes, including mine, narrowed at him — but he shook his head.

That subject still requires my attention, of course. And the sooner that Raphail finds my missing wristlet, the sooner I may return to it. Perhaps we ought to stop tormenting him, for the sake of all involved. I fear he has had a long day already… as have I.”

As ever, his kindness pulled me back from the brink of ruin. My jaw unclenched itself and my expression softened as I gazed down into his eyes, silently thanking him.

You’re right, Raha. I… am just as lucky to have such friends at my back. I used to think that losing my family meant that I’d never know the joy of having one again, but… they are a second family now, in their own way. They’ve seen me through so much. They helped me save you. If they hadn’t given their everything for the two of us, this would never have been possible.

I never planned to make this a public affair. But there’s no one else I’d rather share it with.

“Wicked white. If that’s what we’re going to have to stare at for the next bell, I’d rather get my hands dirty, if you don’t mind. How did you even lose that thing this far away?”

Alisaie, it seemed, had traded in her laughter for feigned disgust. The new smirk on her face as she watched us, though genuine, reminded me of Raha’s earlier comment; she had also grown and changed since coming to Norvrandt. I’d thought for a time that she might have developed feelings for me herself. Even though the summers between us would have done so eventually, my sudden engagement to Raha had closed that particular door for her in no uncertain terms. It was entirely possible that her comical performance disguised something far darker.

I should be gentle with her, too. She deserves a good laugh after all she’s been through. They all do, really. Who knows when we’ll have this kind of chance again?

“A pity. If Elidibus had not interfered, we might have gathered a search party or two.” Y’shtola’s chin lowered into one of her hands as she spoke. “Even Raphail has his limits. I could scan the area for aetheric residue that matches his own. If the wristlet is nearby—”

“I must respectfully decline.” Raha shook his head, his attention diverted from me at last by her words. “You are already at risk. I would not turn away those capable of performing a physical search, but to exert further magical force on such a task would be irresponsible.”

Y’shtola’s expression and bearing never shifted, but her gaze snapped back to him in an instant, setting off warning bells in my mind. I still hadn’t forgotten the tension between the two of them when I first arrived in Norvrandt; only the revelation of his plan had softened her heart toward his predilection for keeping secrets, and that had not happened so very long ago. “Twelve preserve us. For a moment, I thought that you had suggested caution. I must have misheard.”

I was close enough to hear Raha’s teeth clench as he prepared his own retort. Unwilling to add my own fuel to the fire, I dropped to my knees again, returning to my search. Following through on her threat to help me, Alisaie squatted down in the muck next to Alphinaud’s feet; it didn’t take long before he joined her, summoning Carbuncle to lend an extra pair of eyes to the task. Ryne scampered off into the distance, dedicating herself to a spot that nobody else had searched yet; Thancred shrugged and threw up his hands as he followed her.

Behind me, I heard Urianger step between Raha and Y’shtola.

“Kindly lay down thine arms, both of thee. G’raha, knowing our champion, is it not possible that this delay is but another of his ploys to gain thy obedience? Hast thou, perchance, given him cause to concern himself with thy health and well-being? ‘Twould not be the first time.”

I could feel Raha’s glare shift to the back of my neck, burning a hole through me. I froze in place with my hands in the dirt, trying to think of a way out of the spotlight.

Shite. Fine, maybe I deserve that assumption, but this time, I really didn’t—!

“Raphail. If you would be so kind as to swear to me — upon your very life, please — that you did not orchestrate this nonsense somehow without my knowledge?”

I paused for a half-second longer than he was willing to wait for my response. All at once he was behind me, his crystal hand in my hair; his grip proved to be far tighter than I’d anticipated as my mind scrambled to keep up with the situation I was in. I had no choice but to look up into his eyes as he pulled my head back and down, and what I found there was both a threat and a promise at the same time, regardless of what my answer turned out to be.

This would be a lot more fun if I wasn’t covered in bird shite. And if our friends weren’t standing around watching it. Alisaie must be as red as those eyes of yours by now.

“I swear. On my life. But thanks for the idea, Urianger. I’ll use that next time.”

Raha shook his head, but the danger had thankfully passed — though he didn’t bother to let go of me, either. “I thought as much. You will forgive me for double-checking, of course. It all sounded so very possible, for some reason. I had to be sure.”

“Uh-huh. Y’know, it’s kinda hard to look for a wristlet in the dirt at this angle, old man.”

His gaze softened as he studied my face. “Perhaps I might check with the Cabinet’s recordkeepers? If anyone found it while we were occupied, they might have turned it in. The Crystarium does keep lost items for a time, though the possessions of those taken by the sin eaters are eventually donated to help the suffering, if a next of kin cannot be located.”

After a moment, he spoke again. “If truth be told, I need no wristlet at all. It is enough that you asked me, my Warrior of Darkness. And it is enough that I said yes. But… you went to such lengths to make it for me. That is what concerns me the most.”

In the distance, Alisaie stopped digging in the dirt.

“Wait. He… made it himself? From… actual metal and everything?”

If I had been standing under my own power, I would have smirked at her, using my usual feigned confidence as a buffer against her faint praise. Instead, I ended up blushing as the rest of the Scions turned their attention back to me in the dirt, held in place by Raha’s hands.

“Um. I did study with the goldsmiths in Ul’dah. You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

Raha loosened his grip on me as he spoke. “I believe I did mention that earlier, yes. Perhaps you were laughing too hard to notice.” His words gave me enough time to see Alisaie consider a snarky retort before ducking her head, poring over the same ten ilms of unremarkable ground that she’d already studied several times with Alphinaud’s help.

“Hmph. How… cute. Is there anything you can’t do, Raphail?”

“Yeah. Plenty of things, actually. I can’t manage to find this Twelves-damned wristlet. And I can’t ask you to stay any longer to help me find it. Any of you. This is… stupid.”

I sighed and struggled to my feet for the last time, focused on Raha’s worried expression as he bent down to brush the offending dirt and grime from my knees. It only served to solidify the plan that was taking shape in my mind, even if I already loathed it as much as he would.

“Raha. You have work to do. I’m the last person that ought to be reminding you, but… you’ll blame yourself for wasting time if things keep going the way they have. It’s fine. We’ll try again once I have the wristlet back in my hands. And… thanks. I wouldn’t mind a little help from the Cabinet. If it’s there, I’m going to feel like a bloody fool for all this digging.”

I shifted my gaze to the others, taking a deep breath.

“And… um… thank you, too. All of you. Even if you were eavesdropping on everything we said. You’ve all been through so much, but you still never hesitate to throw yourselves into helping me. It’s more than I ever expected. It’s more than I deserve. I couldn’t have made it this far without you, and… I don’t say it often enough. Well… I don’t say a lot, most of the time.”

Y’shtola was the first to smile, chuckling softly to herself as everyone followed suit. Alphinaud stepped into the momentary pause, a warm smile at home on his eager face.

“I think I speak for all of us when I say that it’s good to hear your voice now.”

The lump in my throat made it hard to continue, but I persevered.

“Anyway… we all have too much to do. I think I’m going to take my own advice and rest for a little while. And then, once I have my wits about me, I’ll come back and start looking again. Maybe once night falls, the lights will help it shine bright enough to get my attention.”

I swore I wouldn’t wait any longer. But Raha’s right. The important part is that I asked, and… he accepted. If I can’t find that wristlet, I’ll have to make another. As many times as it takes. But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up yet. It has to be here somewhere! If I didn’t know better, I’d bet that damned manager of suites got his hands on it somehow. Of all the cheeky—

“Fine. You won’t hear me arguing.” Thancred shot me a fatherly grin over the top of Ryne’s head. “Just don’t forget to invite us to the wedding, I hope you don’t expect this to be a black tie affair. I left my cufflinks back in the Source.”

Raha’s response was glib enough to fool anyone but me, though he reached over to take my hand in his, unwilling to leave until the very last. It had been difficult enough to convince him to go back to the Ocular the first time; I didn’t look forward to doing it for a second.

“As it happens, marriage here in the First is a rather simple affair. We have not had the resources necessary to perform grand ceremonies since the Flood. Our signatures and a witness for each of us should suffice for Moren’s records, though I suspect he will be glad enough to invite six if Raphail and I are the ones asking — and I would not deny Lyna her place by my side as well. Attire befitting a library ought to be less of a challenge.”

I glanced down at him, surprised. Despite my lengthy stay in the First, I’d failed to notice that particular custom for myself. It made sense, and I had to admit to myself that it took some of the pressure off of the moment for me — but like most Eorzeans, I’d always pictured the Sanctum of the Twelve as being synonymous with weddings. Getting him there, of course, was an idea too foolish even for me — but I’d assumed there was something similar in Norvrandt.

Damn. I was so looking forward to seeing him in a tuxedo. And… out of one, too.

Of course, he could read my mind. Had I ever truly hidden anything from anyone before? In light of recent events, it seemed as if I’d spent my life as a hero pretending to be a magician instead of the other way around. As he squeezed my hand and murmured loud enough for only me to hear, however, my concern for such details disappeared right along with his wristlet.

“Worry not, my Warrior of Darkness. Even I cannot pledge myself to you wearing the same robe that I have worn for a hundred years. I fear it would provide… little challenge these days.”

Heh. He’s right enough there. I’ve timed myself for fun, and… let’s just say those gloves are the hardest part to take off in a hurry. Fortunately, it’s not always necessary to bother.

“Er… perhaps we should take our leave now, dear sister.”

I didn’t realize the grin I’d directed at Raha had turned obscene until Alphinaud spoke up. Considering the lack of explosiveness in his reaction to our engagement, someone must have explained things to him after all, but I had not had the chance to do so myself; one glance at Alisaie’s carefully-averted gaze and widening smirk told me everything I needed to know.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself, dear brother. You know where to find us.”

As she gave us a lazy wave over her shoulder, the two of them disappeared into the distance before heading their separate ways. I made a mental note to double-check the legal drinking age in Norvrandt later; evidently I was well past owing her at least one drink for the explanation, to say nothing of everything else I’d asked of her today alone.

I may not have a need for further bedfellows… but true friends have ever been far fewer for me. I’ll have to make sure she knows what she’s worth in the days to come. Alphinaud, too. I never thought I’d see him comfortable in his own shoes and changing the world at the same time. He sometimes wears it even better than I do, too. Heh. Where’s the justice in that?

At some point, Thancred had stepped in front of Ryne, who had her hands on her hips as she tried to peer around him at the two of us. Despite his concern, nothing but her trademark curiosity reached her eyes. I ran my free hand through my hair, giving them both a sheepish grin in a weak attempt to lower the temperature in the room.

“Safe travels back to the Empty, you two. I’ll still be around if any new developments arise, of course. Just don’t ask me to remember my battles with the primals on my wedding day. I’m… honestly concerned about what you’d find in my head.”

That makes two of us.”

Thancred’s dry wit was enough to earn him a questioning look from Ryne, but he shook his head and gestured toward the Crystarium gates.

“After you, of course. As always.”

Ryne’s face lit up at his words, and I couldn’t help but notice the change in her bearing since she’d first gone to the Empty. Given enough time, I had every faith that she would leave her mark on the future of Norvrandt — and yet, time was as much a factor for them as it was for Raha and me. She and Thancred would be good for each other as long as he could stay by her side; that much gave me peace, even if their inevitable farewell already loomed on the horizon.

“We’ll see you later! I hope you find your wristlet!”

And then they too were gone, leaving us alone with Y’shtola and Urianger. For her part, Y’shtola gave us a brief smile, her earlier tension with Raha already forgotten.

“Fare you well, both of you. As it happens, I have my own business to attend to. I believe Runar said something about another pot of stew, and… I seem to have run out of excuses.”

Both Raha and I opened our mouths at once, intending to congratulate her — but she turned her back on us, her eyes closed in what was clearly a refusal to discuss the situation any further. Before I had time to think of a new clever retort, she’d left the rookery entirely.

I’ll be damned. It’s about time. Though… I hope it isn’t too late for the two of them, too. I don’t blame her for holding back, knowing she’ll have to leave someday. If I couldn’t go between the Source and the First at will, I’d… probably still be doing the same thing with Raha. Neither of us would have said anything to each other. We could have ended up as strangers, or… worse.

With that thought in my mind, it was far harder to look Urianger in the eye than I expected. Though it had taken me more time than I wanted to admit to forgive him for his role in Raha’s clever plan to steal the Light from me, I had thought that the anger had finally passed. Even though I couldn’t fault him for his commitment to the picture of a brighter future that Raha had painted for him, or the perspective that the cost of one life was worth more than millions, he’d agreed to deceive me, knowing Raha would die, all the same.

He couldn’t have known how I felt back then, but that still doesn’t excuse the matter. Even if Raha had only been a friend, or a stranger that I once helped along the way… Urianger should know better than anyone the value of knowledge in making such a heavy decision. And yet… to tell me would have meant destroying the work of lifetimes. I… don’t know what I would have done in his place. And that terrifies me more than anything that I’ve been through so far.

The surprisingly tender look he leveled at the two of us served to remind me that he’d already lost his own chance at the happiness we’d fought so hard to protect, too. Standing next to Raha, that bitter truth was enough to cut to the quick.

“Thy path is chosen, then. Full glad am I to know that it continueth on.”

Unlike the others, it was Raha he spoke to, not to me. It seemed that my face had managed to betray me yet again. I glanced over at Raha to discover unshed tears brimming at the corners of his eyes; his grip on my hand had turned painfully tight. It made sense as soon as I thought about it. Urianger had been his confidant of the highest order. It couldn’t have been easy for him to ask such a thing. It couldn’t have been easy for Urianger to agree, either.

“Yes. And I have every faith that this adventure will end in a better place for all of us than it did when I first conceived of it. Raphail has… ever had that effect on me.”

The smile I wanted to give him in response never quite reached my lips.

I’m not sure that Urianger will agree with you. I was in the room on the day Moenbryda fell. What good was I to him then? If I had been faster, or stronger, or smarter… no, that’s nonsense, and I know it. We both would have died there, had she failed to act. She made a lifetime of difference in a single moment before she left the world. Like you wanted to.

If I’m being honest… I’d make the same choice myself. But now, I have one more reason to think twice before I decide that the cost is worth the price.

Urianger smiled for us, in the end. He rested a hand on Raha’s trembling shoulder, giving me a slow, deliberate nod. “May you ever walk in the light of the Crystal. Seekest thou the joy that hath departed my future. That alone shall aid in the balancing of mistakes that I have made.”

My own hand tightened around Raha’s as I struggled to speak.

“Urianger. You didn’t… I mean, I know you were trying to… look, what I’m trying to say is that I forgive you. You don’t have to—”

“Thy words ease something of my burden. And yet… I would give all of myself to hear them from another’s lips. Pray excuse me.”

He left us standing in a painful silence, still clinging to each other as the amaro flocked to their afternoon feed; as their Zun keepers came and went about their daily business. After a few moments, Raha dragged his unoccupied arm across his face, scrubbing away the wetness he’d tried to hide with his sleeve. I brought my free hand up to help him with the last of it.

“Hey. You’re still late to work, old man. Didn’t I tell you?”

I said it gently, with all the affection I felt for him at the forefront of my mind, but even as fragile as he was in that moment, the way he narrowed his eyes at me promised that I was in for every onze of the fight I’d feared. His bravery — and stubbornness — never ceased to amaze me, even if his voice still shook beneath the weight of Urianger’s guidance.

“Hmph. I suppose you think that I am going to trust your word as regards that rest you promised to take? You will wait until I am gone, no doubt, and then you will throw yourself into the dirt once again, hoping that nobody will see you do it. I would… stay with you instead. Urianger was right. I would not see this joy we have fought for replaced with endless toil so soon.”

“Raha—”

As I braced myself to argue against the very logic I’d hoped for weeks to hear — ignoring, for the moment, that he was absolutely right about my intentions — a dark, feathered shadow approached me from behind. The sudden wind following in the wake of its plumage drove my tail to distraction. Glancing over my shoulder, I spied a familiar face in avian form, studying the two of us with clear black eyes that shone with curiosity — and a hint of suspicion.

“Oh. Hey, Skip. Sorry I forgot to visit this morning. I had a lot on my mind.”

The amaro tilted his head to one side, considering my words. Though our blossoming friendship had been one of the many factors that encouraged him to open both his heart and his beak to the Crystarium, I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the idea of hearing him speak in the same ordinary way that people did. And yet, against all odds, he’d proven to be quite the conversationalist during my down time. It seemed that my search had strayed into the middle of his lunch break.

“So I have heard. The city speaks of you in loud whispers today. I can hear it from my pen. Bethrik tells me this man is important to the city, and to you. But I have never seen him before.”

Looking over at Raha, I found him watching Skip with wide eyes reminiscent of the eager expression he so often wore when delving into some new or taxing subject in the Cabinet of Curiosities. The stubbornness and sadness had both fled from his face the minute the amaro’s voice reached his ears. His own tail stiffened a little, though, betraying his rare uncertainty; he’d propped his staff up against a nearby fence, leaving his hands free in welcome.

“Ah, you must be Skip! May I call you that? Raphail has told me much about you. I am glad to have the chance to meet you, unexpected though it may be. I am… often occupied at this time of day. It is difficult work, but people tell me that it helps make this city better for others like yourself, and so I do it anyway. Raphail asked to speak with me, though, and now I am here.”

Heh. If you want to call it asking instead of blackmailing, old man, I won’t stand in your way. I’d hate to give him another reason to fear people again after all this time.

Skip bobbed his head up and down, which I knew from experience served as his form of laughter. “Raphail said once that he does not speak often to other people, only amaro. It must be because you are a breeding pair now. That is what Bethrik told me.”

For a mercy, I’d found the one sentient being in the entire Crystarium that was incapable of taking my suddenly crimson face for an answer. I raked my free hand through my hair, doing my best to roll with the unexpected sucker punch as Raha laughed harder than I’d ever seen him laugh before. If there was any justice, it was the fact that his own cheeks matched mine.

Twelve damn it. How fast does word travel in this city?! When I get my hands on that manager of suites, he’s going to wish he’d never met me! Bethrik… you really couldn’t have come up with a better way to explain the concept of marriage to a bird?! Skip’s old companion must have been too young to teach him. And I thought Alphinaud was going to be the problem here…!

Skip glanced back and forth between Raha and me, clearly baffled by our reaction. I did my best to take several deep breaths before I answered him. “That’s… one way of putting it, yes. Maybe we’ll talk about the, um, particulars… another time. The point is that you can trust Raha here the same way you trust me. Maybe you can even give him a ride sometime, if Bethrik says it’s safe. He’s older than he looks for a human, so you’ll have to be gentle. No tricks or fights.”

“I… would like that very much.” Raha’s laughter had finally faded, leaving behind a quiet shyness that I hadn’t expected from his initial warmth. He shifted his grip on my hand to my arm, glancing up at me for a moment before returning his gaze to the amaro. “I fear that now may not be the best time for a pleasure flight, though. We are searching for a missing metal wristlet. Perhaps you have seen something small and shiny fall from the sky?”

Skip’s bright eyes focused entirely on Raha.

“One of the older amaro found something small and shiny on the ground today. Bethrik said it would make a nice gift for Raphail and put it on my back. That is why I came to see you. It is here somewhere. I carried it carefully. Let me just—“

He ruffled his massive feathers, as if trying to shake off an annoying insect. Somewhere in the heap of warm, soft darkness that made up his body, something small and delicate dislodged itself, falling to the muddy ground below with a plop and clink that seemed to echo around us for malms. I was on my knees and wrist deep in the mud before Skip or Raha could react.

As my fingers closed around Skip’s precious gift, it was my turn to fight back tears. After carrying it for so long in my pocket, letting it bear the brunt of every nervous moment of my life over the past several weeks, I’d know the feel of Raha’s wristlet in my sleep.

The city too, it seemed, had given us its blessing.

Raha’s smile was as beautiful as it was the first time as I brought the filthy wristlet out of the dirt and into the light. Skip, however, cocked his head at me, concern creeping into his voice.

“Have I displeased you? Bethrik told me that this gift would make you and Raha happy. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe I should have kept it for myself.”

“No. That is… not true, my friend.”

Though I’d told Raha about Skip’s harrowing ordeal at human hands, I hadn’t gotten a chance to remind him, or to explain the length of the path still ahead of the amaro. Skip had come so very far in Bethrik’s company, but it would take more than a few months to fully integrate him with the other amaro — to say nothing of every handler in the Crystarium. The hands of strangers still unsettled him on occasion; hands very like the one that Raha was reaching toward him.

But as I held my breath, preparing for the worst, Skip never even flinched while Raha gently patted his head. It was, of course, the same way he’d responded to me when we’d first met.

I might have known. You’re nothing if not full of surprises, Ser Exarch. I guess I’m not the only savage beast those hands can tame, huh?

“Your gift has made Raphail and I so very happy. You have my deepest thanks, Skip. Please give them to Bethrik as well… though I fear he will not know me as Raha. Everyone in this city except Raphail calls me the Crystal Exarch. When we are not alone, you must do the same.”

Skip glanced at Raha and bobbed his head up and down again. “A secret. I am fond of secrets. People have so many of them. I will keep this secret for you and for Raphail. But for now, I must go. Feeding time will soon be over. Bethrik is waiting for me.”

Clutching Raha’s wristlet to my chest, I managed to find my voice again. “T-Thanks, Skip. You’ve… done a good thing today. I’m proud of you. And I’ll come and see you again tomorrow. Maybe Raha can come too… if only for a few minutes. I’m glad you two get along so well.”

The amaro blinked at me one last time before puffing out his chest and ruffling his feathers again, this time in what I could only guess was a gesture of pride.

“Be sure to wash yourself later, Raphail. You look like a human, but you smell like an amaro. I almost mistook you for one of us when I came to meet you.”

As he sauntered off toward his stable in the distance, I made a mental note to thank him for giving me the chance to hear Raha snort out loud in amusement. It was a fair trade for Lyna’s giggle at my foolish ransom note, or so I thought. If it were any other time and place, I might have pretended to be annoyed, but the only things that mattered in that moment were the wristlet in my hand and the old man standing in front of me, resplendent in the afternoon sun.

I reached down without taking my eyes off of him, planning to use the thin shirt beneath my armor to clean the mud from the wristlet — but Raha crossed his arms over his chest, trying his best to feign his trademark pout beneath a smile that wouldn’t allow it to stick.

“After all that has happened this afternoon, you would waste further time on such details? Mayhap you meant my wristlet to be an advertisement for your skill with a lapidary hammer.”

“You saw it. It’s been all over this rookery. And I can’t promise you exactly where it was found, either. There are worse places than amaro backs, old man.”

I knew I was struggling to keep my voice even as I knelt before him in the dirt. Beneath the overwhelming sense of relief was the absolute knowledge of just how tired I was after the long day I’d had. What I wanted to do was bury myself in his chest and let him care for me as he always did — but with the wristlet in my hands again, I wasn’t about to settle for further delays.

It seemed that Raha agreed, though not in the manner I expected.

“It was found right where you dropped it. And in the process, it brought me closer to the friends that I have made here. It brought me a new one that I never expected. I am a historian, in case you have forgotten. The dirt of my own city will be a fine memory of this moment until I can wash it myself. And… I refuse to stand here for another second without seeing it on my wrist, dirty or not. You will lose it again, and someone did suggest to me that I am already late for work.”

“B-But… it smells like a—”

He shoved his crystalline wrist in front of my face before I could finish, the full weight of his beautiful smile resting on my shoulders. Somehow, the entire world seemed to stop around the two of us, and for once, it had nothing whatsoever to do with his Twelves-damned Tower.

“I am tired of waiting, Raph’ir.”

So. This is how it’s going to happen, is it? After bells of searching through mud and amaro shite. Smelling like a stable. Knowing that your friends watched it all happen in secret. Knowing what you’ve had to do to get here. Knowing what might still happen, someday. You’re no hero, Sahra. You’re a mess, and you know it. He deserves better than someone like you.

As I looked up into his eyes and reached for his arm with fingers that shook hard enough to risk dropping his wristlet in the mud again, I returned his smile with my own, leaving my inner voice of doubt no further room for comfort. I would have no need of it in the future before me.

Yeah. He does deserve better. But he wants me. Even the parts of me that aren’t heroic. And if that’s what he wants… well, I always lose in the end, don’t I?

In one fluid motion, I opened the clasp on his wristlet, laid it against his wrist, and fastened it again, half expecting the entire thing to explode on contact. But as I glanced down at the azure wrist that wore it, all I could think about was the way it made him shine even brighter beneath the grime; I hadn’t known such a thing was possible. The entire day, though, had been little more than a chance to make the impossible possible. How else could he have said yes?

Still holding onto his arm, I pressed my forehead against the cool knuckles of his crystal hand and closed my eyes as my cheeks slowly darkened and my voice caught in my throat. Whether it was meant to steady him or myself, I wasn’t sure and didn’t care — and it failed, regardless.

“Fine then. I guess you’re mine now… Raha. You asked for this, y’know. I won’t have it said that your Warrior of Darkness failed someone in need.”

“Y-You… could never fail me, Raph’ir. Not if I lived for a hundred lifetimes.”

He was already sniffling above me despite his earlier smile; I didn’t need to look up to know what that meant, nor did it take long for me to realize that I suddenly couldn’t care less about the smell or the filth that still clung to me. As I stood up and pulled him into a tender embrace, there was only the feel of his warmth against mine, the gentle breeze that brushed his hair into my face, and the long, slow kisses between us that proved my claim that he was mine, once and for all; or perhaps I was his instead. Either, or both, would have been acceptable to me.

Heh. Some might call you a crybaby, old man… but you’re worth it. If I keep holding you like this, I… might actually believe I’m everything you think I am and more.

Somewhere in the middle of his tears, he managed to find his voice.

“Y-You do… stink… by the way.”

Resting my head against his, I let my lips brush against his ear. “I know. I did warn you. And now you stink too. Please tell me you don’t think that’s my fault somehow.”

His watery laugh only widened the grin on my face. “Perhaps… a bath is in order before I go back to work. I would hate to put all those important documents in the Umbilicus at risk.”

“Mmm-hmm. So much for just washing up later. You’re impatient, y'know. Did you want to share that bath? You could join me for a quick soak at the hot springs in Clearmelt.”

He shook his head against my shoulder, but there was no mistaking the gleam in his tired eyes. “And you say that I am the impatient one. Though… that was what I had in mind, yes.”

“Shameless. Not that I mind, of course. It’s a good look on you.”

“I learned from the best. Blame yourself, if you must.”

As our usual banter continued to morph into a clear plan for a physical resolution to our plight, a stray movement in the distance near the courtyard caught my attention. Two figures leaned against the wall, looking in our direction; a tall woman with her arms crossed over her chest, layered in red and dark metal, and a man her own height, clad in a dark shirt and white vest that I knew I’d seen somewhere before. It took me longer than it should have to notice the familiar Viis ears atop the woman’s head — and the shite-eating grin on her companion’s face.

Shite. Lyna must’ve gotten worried about Raha. He’s been gone for quite a while. But with friends like that, who needs to worry about enemies in the shadows?

“Raph’ir. That… is the manager of suites, if I am not mistaken. Standing beside my granddaughter. That scowl… why is it that I suddenly feel like a boy of five summers about to be scolded by my elders for playing too long in the sun? I told her there was no cause to worry when I left, despite your… handiwork. Has she been following us this whole time as well?”

“To be fair, old man, don’t worry is exactly the sort of thing that makes the rest of us certain that we need to be worried, when it comes from you.”

I grinned at Raha, ignoring the dirty look he shot me in response. In the distance, the manager of suites had the audacity to point at us, sealing the deal with a smug wave in our direction. Lyna shook her head at him, but even from so far away, her glare across the rookery was enough to melt the both of us where we stood. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and saluted as I contemplated exactly how I might have died in Raha’s dark future.

I felt myself letting go of him, my earlier irritation at the manager of suites breaking through what I’d thought to be the finest moment of my personal existence.

“She must have been looking for you. He tipped her off, like he tipped off the Scions. If she’d been here the whole time, then we’d have seen her before now. Which means that she just got here recently. And she’s been watching us flirt like the idiots we are for the last quarter bell. That bangle on your wrist has… basically confirmed his claim without us needing to say a word. From her perspective, we must appear to be irresponsibly late for our curfew.”

I’d expected him to be guilty, or perhaps even embarrassed, but a slow sigh escaped his lips instead. “As if I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to meet with you. I suppose I am known now for my clever plans — even those I never set in motion myself.” His gaze fell on me again, but regret lingered in his beautiful eyes. “I would tell her everything… but…”

“But you smell like an amaro’s arse.”

He nodded. “Just this once… I would do as my heart bids me first. Mayhap you are rubbing off on me more than good taste recommends, my Warrior of Darkness.”

I was about to ask him what he meant, but he stepped forward with purpose, picking up his staff from where he’d left it against the fence. Before I could react, several things happened at once.

Lyna took two steps toward us, a lecture already forming in her eyes.

The manager of suites turned on a heel, no doubt heading back to his desk.

The other half of my heart waved to Lyna before disappearing in a flash of brilliant light.

And then a strange but distantly familiar feeling enveloped my body, leaving the outermost edges of my skin tingling. I didn’t have time to worry before a pair of invisible hands tugged at the back of my shirt, still untucked from my prior attempt to clean Raha’s wristlet. The childlike chuckle in my ears explained everything far faster than his words ever could have; the gentle brush of his invisible lips against mine set my body on fire.

“Clearmelt awaits. Let us be off.”

In front of me, I watched Lyna blink at the place where she’d last seen us. She rubbed her eyes for a moment, double-checking her own vision, before shaking her head wearily and throwing up her hands in defeat. The lack of urgency in her response, at least, suggested we weren’t desperately needed for the next bell or two, which put my mind at ease.

We are going to be in so much trouble when we get back, old man. But after that nice, long soak, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure your bravery is rewarded.

You can consider it a little preview of the rest of your life, if you’d like.

His invisible crystal hand grabbed mine, pulling me onward toward our shared destiny. Without further objection, I let my husband-to-be drag me through the rookery and past the city gates, his wristlet brushing up against my skin as we walked together; the melodic hum of a long-forgotten tune in his beautiful voice followed us as we went.

Whatever the future held for us, it was worth it for that moment alone.


Two hours later, as I made my way back to the Pendants with dripping hair and a smile worthy of Raha’s best, even the necessity of interacting with the Twelves-damned manager of suites wasn’t enough to sour my mood. As he led me down the hallway to my room and opened the door, I fought off the urge to tear into him by thinking about the way Raha had playfully shoved me under the water the minute we’d arrived; the way that one kiss had led into the next without pause for breath. Making love in full view of the other pools would have been a ridiculous notion if they hadn’t all been empty in the middle of the afternoon; he’d chosen his timing well.

Either that, or the smug bastard that stood between me and my room had run interference for some reason. But why would he have avoided making a further spectacle of the two of us?

The manager of suites grinned at me as he bowed and stepped out of the doorway, completely unaware of the direction of my thoughts — or so I thought.

“Your room, sir. Have a pleasant evening. It looks as if you must have already.”

“Heh. No thanks to you.”

I crossed the threshold and was about to close the door in his face when he chuckled under his breath. The sound was akin to every villain I’d ever met in my tenure as a hero.

“Beg pardon. I’d thought the glare you sent me at the rookery to be a misunderstanding. Captain Lyna was most concerned for our Lord Exarch’s health, you see, and—”

“Don’t give me that.” I crossed my arms over my chest, giving him my best scowl. “You told her. You told the Scions. You told everyone. And one of these days, when I’m feeling less charitable, I’m going to find out how you managed to figure out my plans. The hard way, if necessary.”

I reached for the hilt of my sword as a threat — but in light of the day’s events, the motion reminded me too much of Aldis, and I shoved my hand back into my now-empty pocket instead.

As distracted as I was in that moment, I failed to notice when he started to laugh.

“That much of a mystery to you, is it? If that is all you require, sir, then permit me to give you an answer now. Though… I fear you may sleep sounder at night without it.”

My eyes narrowed to slits as I watched him. “Try me.”

“There was a man that stumbled into my lobby this morning, wearing armor quite like yours. The singular blade and shield he carried were remarkably similar as well. I thought it rather odd, you see, given his typical preference for dueling blades and red attire. Then, as I showed him to his room, he mumbled something under his breath about planning to ask for the Lord Exarch’s hand in marriage. I assumed the worst sort of drunkenness, as anyone would in my position, but… perhaps some small part of me detected a fragment of truth in his slurred words.”

W-Wait. He can’t be serious. Was I truly in bad enough shape to have just… told him myself? A perfect stranger? It was so early… I still don’t know how I managed to even make it to Eorzea in one piece, never mind all the way back to my room. I even thought, at the time, that I didn’t remember what I’d said to him when I got back. Thal’s… balls.

This time, it wouldn’t have taken a professional to read my face. The manager of suites grinned wide enough to show every last tooth in his mouth.

“I was concerned enough that when the Scions stopped by to ask after you, I felt it prudent to mention that you seemed out of sorts. Further speculation, you understand, would have been rather unprofessional. I take it they must have followed up on the information.”

One of my hands made its way to my hip. “Hold on. Even… even if I did tell you myself, you knew they’d follow after us. Couldn’t you have just said I was fine? And that doesn’t explain how everyone else found out, either. Bethrik knew more than he should have, and… the sheer number of people that stopped to congratulate me on the way here was…”

“For that, you might have to ask the young woman with the rapier. Her voice reached a rather unexpected octave when her brother made an offhand joke that perhaps you planned to propose. I daresay the entire marketplace caught wind of it. Word travels so fast here — particularly as regards the fates of our most esteemed heroes. Or did you forget?”

Alisaie… and here I thought you had a stronger constitution than a couple of Eulmoran hags. Sounds like Alphinaud didn’t need to be told. Maybe we’re even on that drink after all.

“So you’re saying that everyone was just… waiting to hear this, then.”

“That, my esteemed guest, would be an understatement. Would you believe that I managed to double every last gil of those so-called privacy bonuses you paid me over the last few months just by betting that you’d be bonded inside of a year? Nutsy was strongly in favor of your inevitable demise instead. I told him he was a fool. And now, he’s a poor fool. Thanks for that.”

Oh. Now I get it. Not only do you get to meddle with an airtight alibi… you have a personal interest in making sure that Raha and I tie the knot as soon as possible. I should be furious, I suppose. And yet I saw how happy he was, knowing that everyone cared so much. Even if it was all self-serving, you came through for us. You were there when we needed you.

When he asked you to treat me as your own, you… listened.

“Well. Looks like you still owe me a drink or three, I’d say. With my own money. Shouldn’t take me long to freshen up. This armor is getting pretty heavy, if I do say so myself.”

The manager of suites laughed, his shite-eating smile returning to his face.

“Very well. I shall meet you at the Steps, then, sir. We can drink to your upcoming nuptials, and to my newfound fortune. Whatever happens to this city next, we will be ready — and if not, I can die a happy sinner, knowing I knocked back a pint with the Warrior of Darkness himself.”

As I went to shut the door one last time, he paused, putting an unexpectedly gentle hand on my shoulder. For a single moment, his smirk faded into something natural.

“He used to smile a lot less, or so my granddad told me. Always looking to the path in front of him instead of the one under his feet. Most of us figured he was lost in a dream or worse, even if he seemed to handle the city’s day-to-day affairs well enough. But looking at him now, you’d think he was half his own age. Make sure he stays that way. For all of us. Raph’ir.”

My mind went blank at the definitive sound of my birth name on his lips, and my heart stopped in my throat — but by the time I’d found my voice again, he was gone, leaving me standing alone in the doorway of my open suite, my mouth agape and my hands shaking.

I… think I’m going to need those drinks far more than I did before.