Qifrey had been terrible with his sylph shoes, at first — could never get the circle to stay lined up quite right, not if he wanted to try to direct himself in any meaningful way, was always slipping and stuttering and jolting through the air as other kids his age zipped around with ease.
He gets better, eventually – with age, with practice, with regular use. But he never quite forgets the heart-stopping moment of slipping, midair, the feeling of the support dropping out from beneath him, the horrible lurch of his stomach as gravity caught up and started to pull him down.
Olruggio always caught him, then, even when they were barely a foot off the ground, but still — he never forgets.
I’ll have to tell him to change his lesson plan, he finds himself thinking nonsensically as he lunges to catch his apprentice, knowing full well the gash on the sole of his boot has almost certainly cut through the sigil. There’s a moment of weightlessness, just like he remembers, then gravity catches up and he should have let me learn to fall—
It’s a much longer way down, this time.
“—not saying we should stop going, just that maybe we should tell someone when we do, Qifrey, you could have gotten hurt—”
“I was fine! I’m fine, Olruggio, look—”
“—but you almost weren’t, and then what would we have done? Nobody would have known we were gone until lessons and it would have been days by then—”
“We both know that Beldaruit is just turning a blind eye,” Qifrey mutters, turning away from Olruggio’s furious gaze, “if he knew, if he really officially knew, we’d have to stop.”
“Would you just—” Olruggio grabs his hand before he can get too far away, tugs until Qifrey is facing him – “listen,—”
Qifrey doesn’t want to listen, he doesn’t want to look at Olruggio, doesn’t want to see the concern written across his face and know that he’s the one who put it there. Olruggio, who has never let Qifrey get away with avoidance once in his life, keeps talking.
I know,” he says, “I know, Qifrey, and that’s not – I don’t want that, you know I don’t. I just—worry. That’s all. If something happened—”
He’s being reasonable, Qifrey knows. It had been a closer call than he wants to admit – the adrenaline must still be lingering in his system, that must be why he snaps at Olruggio even when he knows he’s right, it’s unfair, but he’s so frustrated and he’d been scared and if Olruggio of all people starts to doubt him he doesn’t know what he’d do—
“Well, you don’t have to come, then! If you don’t like the way I’m doing it then just – just don’t bother, next time!”
He shakes free of Olruggio’s grasp, ignores the “Qifrey, wait—!” from behind him and storms back to his room – and ignores the knot in the pit of his stomach that tightens with every step he takes. Refuses to think about the desperation in Olruggio’s voice as he’d called after him. Refuses to turn and look to see if Olruggio is still there, watching him go.
His head hurts.
He doesn’t remember where he is – how he got here. He takes a shallow breath and is vaguely relieved when it there’s no sharpness to it, just an all-encompassing ache – no broken bones, at least. Probably.
It’s not much of a comfort.
“If something happened—”
Something’s happened, alright – he’ll have to tell—
He can’t hold on to the thought long enough to finish it. Too bad – it seemed important.
He’s – laying down? No, leaned against something. There’s water dripping on to his face – cold, prickling droplets. Rain, maybe, or maybe sleet is a better way to describe it.
He hates the rain.
If he could just open his eye he might be able to cast a spell to keep it off, but his head is throbbing and he’s not sure he wants to know what he’ll find when he finally faces the situation. He’ll just stay where he is a little longer—
Something shakes his shoulder, so careful he barely notices it. A small hand on his arm.
“-ster? Master Qifrey, are you alright?”
Qifrey blinks his eye open at the sound of his name. Everything feels hazy, slow to register. It’s dark, wherever he is, but not pitch-black. The faint light filtering down makes his head ache. He squeezes his eye shut again with a groan.
That voice again. Beneath the stabbing pain to his head that accompanies the noise, it sounds — young. Upset. Familiar. Qifrey squints his eye open again — a girl, just before him. She looks as if she’s been crying. He knows her, he knows who this is but it’s hard to think, she’s
Coco lets out a great shuddering sob and suddenly there’s a weight crashing into his chest; it takes him a minute to tie her motion to the feeling. He tests his arms carefully — still moving, at least, even if they’re sore – and brings them up to gingerly rest on her back.
“Coco — where — are you alright?”
“I’m okay,” she says, sniffling, “but you – the rain was so strong and then the mud – and I slipped and you – your head—”
She’s crying too hard for anything to be clear, and Qifrey can’t quite focus long enough to put a coherent version of events together. His head does hurt very badly – a careful probe of the most painful area makes him wince, and his fingers come away wet. It’s too dark to make out the color of the liquid on his fingers, but he’s fairly certain it isn’t rain.
He’d thought he was moving carefully enough so as not to alert her, but he must not have been, because Coco pulls back and frowns at him.
“I don’t think you should touch that,” she says – or at least that’s what he thinks she must say, based on her disproving expression. It’s hard to hear through the ringing in his ears.
“It will be alright, my dear.” He tries to conjure up his most reassuring smile. “Head injuries always look worse than they actually are.”
It might even be true, he reasons with himself. He can’t see it. Even if it does feel – bad. Worse, probably, than Coco needs to know about.
She sniffles again.
“It’s all my fault, I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean to go off on my own, and after you and Master Olly both said not to—”
Qifrey’s breath hitches before he even realizes – Olruggio – that’s right – they’d been fighting, that must be why his stomach feels all in knots, Olruggio had only been trying to help and he’d—
“Well, you don’t have to come, then! Just don’t bother!”
He lets his eye flutter shut again. He just needs a moment, just to regain his composure so that he can apologize to Coco because—
“Please stay awake, Master Qifrey, someone will be here soon, Master Olly will come, you just have to stay awake until then—”
“No,” Qifrey says softly, angry words echoing in his head, “no, I don’t think he will.”
Olruggio doesn’t talk to him for the entire week.
Qifrey doesn’t try to talk to Olruggio either – he keeps his distance, pointedly avoids the places they usually meet up.
Beldaruit must notice. For all that he acts carefree, he’s no fool – would surely take note of something so unusual as Qifrey on his own instead of traveling in a pair. He keeps looking at Qifrey when he thinks Qifrey won’t notice – as if he might figure out what went wrong, as if it could be so easily fixed.
His gaze, even subtle, is piercing; by the end of the week Qifrey is certain Beldaruit has seen straight through him, knows he feels so guilty about the whole thing his stomach is twisted in knots. He’s noticed the concern creeping into his teacher’s expression, the way Beldaruit has been leaving careful openings in their conversation. Chances to talk about it, if Qifrey wants.
Qifrey doesn’t want to talk about it. Beldaruit would agree with Olruggio, anyways, and if he talked to Beldaruit about it he would have to tell Beldaruit, which is what had started the whole fight in the first place, and if he’s going to have a fight with Olruggio he’s not about to give up so quickly.
Besides, he doesn’t need Beldaruit to tell him he’s in the wrong. He already knows.
By the end of the week Qifrey isn’t angry at Olruggio anymore – he’d stopped being angry with Olruggio even before he fell asleep, the night they’d—well. He’s not angry. But he doesn’t – can’t – bring himself to face Olruggio, either.
Because he doesn’t know how to fix it. He’s not angry at Olruggio, and Olruggio had been right, but he can’t stop. Which means they’re at an impasse. He can’t give up, and that means he can’t do what Olruggio wants. Even if it means Olruggio will stay angry with him.
And he doesn’t know how to explain all of that to Olruggio, not in a way he’d understand.
Which is why, when classes are finally over, Qifrey leaves early, before it’s even dark, and takes a different route than usual. He doesn’t want to know if Olruggio would go with him, can’t stomach the thought of showing up to their usual meeting place and seeing only an empty street.
Qifrey hasn’t gone out on his own in years – not since Olruggio first found out. He doesn’t know if he could bear it, Olruggio not being there. So he doesn’t give him the chance.
A bang and a flash of light startles Qifrey from his half-sleep. He flinches and immediately groans with the effort of it – no broken bones, maybe, but he’s still sore.
“Sorry, Master Qifrey, I was just—”
He misses the second half of the sentence trying to clamp down on the wave of nausea that follows – the light, the noise, his sudden movement, he’s not sure what prompts it. He turns away from the sound, into the cool wall of rock behind him, tries to take slow, deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. The rock is cool against his forehead; he focuses on that instead of the way his head is spinning, the sour taste filling his mouth, the cold sweat prickling across the back of his neck.
Someone had been talking to him, someone young. Frightened. He can’t – he won’t—
It’s a long few minutes of holding perfectly still, breathing carefully, but eventually the nausea – doesn’t quite pass, but subsides, enough, anyways, that Qifrey can sit up again.
It’s still raining. He ought to cast something to clear it, maybe he’d feel better, out of the wet and cold, but – he can’t remember the sigils. He’s not sure where his wand has gotten off to, anyways, and doesn’t feel quite up to looking.
“I’m sorry, Master Qifrey, I didn’t realize it would hurt you to set it off so close – but I didn’t want to get too far away just in case and I lost my wand and I didn’t know what else to do—”
That voice again. He’d forgotten about it. It’s hard to hold onto anything, his train of thought keeps slipping away.
The voice. He’s heard it before – when he first woke up? Before then? It sounds — young. Upset. Familiar. Qifrey squints his eye open again — a girl, just before him. She looks as if she’s been crying. He knows her, or thinks he must, anyways, from the pang of concern that runs through him at the sight of her. Even if he can’t quite find her name, right now.
She’s looking at him unhappily. He can’t place the expression on her face, she almost looks guilty, but that doesn’t make sense –
“It’s alright,” he says, aiming for soothing. Judging from the way her eyes well up he rather misses the mark.
“It’s not – you already got hurt helping me and now I made it worse and I can’t do anything to make it better, a-and—”
He reaches out before he can remember how sore he is, startled into action by her impending tears. It’s not like her to be so hard on herself. The only times he’s seen Coco – that’s right, this is Coco – the only times he’s seen her cry before were when she was—
Scared. But what is there for her to be scared of? She’d come back from the Dadah Range covered in dirt and scratches and bruises, but beaming – it’s hard to imagine her afraid of the weather, or the dark, or even her own wellbeing.
But she hasn’t made any indication that they’re in danger, that there’s anything out there besides rain, so he doesn’t know what she could possibly be scared of—
Her eyes are still on him, not making eye contact, fixed on a point just above his eye.
Not scared of.
“Shh, it’s alright,” he’s murmuring without even realizing it, arms still outstretched even though she’s out of his reach. “It’s alright, Coco, I’m – I feel better now. But you’re soaked through, come here, dear, you look freezing.”
She does, finally – her cloak is gone, and with it the sigils that would have kept her at least mostly dry; her dress beneath is soaked and splashed with mud. She’s shivering when he pulls his cloak over her shoulders. He’s not much warmer, sitting on the ground as he is, but she leans into his side all the same.
“That’s better, hm?” he says, pulling her closer, “It’s no fun getting rained on, I always thought. I’m sorry you lost your cloak, it would have kept you a little more dry, at least.”
“I’m alright,” she says softly, “it’s only water. It would have been – you caught me. I’m okay.”
He doesn’t remember catching her – still doesn’t quite remember how they ended up here, in the mud and the rain and the cold. But he’s fairly certain she shouldn’t have been with him in the first place, not if things could have turned out the way they did.
“I’m sorry for getting you mixed up in all of this, my dear,” he says, “it was foolish of me to come to the woods on my own – he was right, as usual—”
“The woods?” Coco looks up at him, confused. “Master Qifrey, we’re – not in the woods.”
“Oh?” He doesn’t know where they are. “That’s—”
He’s not sure if it’s good. On the one hand, Olruggio won’t be so mad, if they’re not in the woods. He hates going into the woods, hates when Qifrey does it. But it would be the first place he’d look. If he looked.
“He’ll look, Master Qifrey, I’m sure he’s already on his way.”
He hadn’t meant to say all that out loud. Any faint trace of calm he’d managed to coax out of her is rapidly fading away, he’s doing this all wrong—
“I’m sorry, dear,” he murmurs, reaching a careful hand up to cup her cheek. “I’m – not thinking straight. I just need to get some rest – just for a few minutes—”
She shakes her head furiously, but his eyelids are so heavy – he couldn’t keep them open if he tried.
It’s worse than Qifrey remembers, being out on his own.
It feels like it takes ages to get to his destination, without the challenge of coaxing Olruggio to spill the details on his latest contraption. He keeps turning to talk to someone who’s not there, words dying in his throat and leaving behind a sour taste instead.
For every conversation they don’t have he replays the one they did. It’s not as if there’s anything new he can glean from it – he’s gone back over it near-constantly in the days since they fought, trying to pinpoint when it went too far, if it’s something they can come back from.
Olruggio had been upset, yes, had even shouted – out of frustration at Qifrey’s stubbornness, maybe, but mostly out of fear.
Not many people are scared for Qifrey. If anything they’re afraid of him, the strange little boy with one eye that emerged from the woods, the boy who shouldn’t remember, the interloper, the one that doesn’t fit.
And Qifrey had repaid that fear – concern, care, his best friend – with anger, and when that had run out with icy silence.
They’ve never fought before, not really. Qifrey knows he can be difficult, mercurial even some days, but Olruggio has always been patient, too kind to let their bickering spill over into something more serious.
Qifrey doesn’t know how to stop fighting, now that they’ve started.
“I’ll show him,” he mutters, kicking a rock down the path and stubbing his toe in the process. “I’ll be fine.”
And he is, really, even when his lead turns up nothing and Olruggio isn’t there to tell him they’ll find something next time for sure, even when he slips off a mossy rock and scrapes his knee and rips his shirt at the elbow.
It’s fine when he stops for a late meal and attracts sidelong looks and outright glares in a way that never happened when Olruggio was with him. He’s fine when the rainclouds looming on the horizon suddenly threaten to burst, fine when he knows he won’t make it to the Great Hall before they do but refuses to spend another moment being treated like a barely-contained threat by strangers three times his age.
He’s fine when he camps out in the woods, instead, and they seem darker – or the fire less bright, less warm. When he takes ages to fall asleep, jumping at every stray rustling or crackling in the darkness outside his field of vision.
It’s just – different.
It’s been a long time since he’s been so lonely.
It’s cold again when he wakes up, and wet. His fire must have gone out. His whole body is sore from sleeping on the ground; he doesn’t remember it being so bad, before.
The fires never went out when Olruggio made them. Some contraption, probably, which might be cheating. Qifrey would ask him about it, if they were talking to each other—
It hadn’t just been the wet and the cold and his aching head that woke him. There’s a voice – young, upset, familiar.
Not a voice – two voices, in conversation. It had just been him and Coco, hadn’t it? He has to get up, she could be in danger, even if the low murmur responding to her sounds terribly familiar—
“...confused,” she’s saying, her words drifting past half-heard as he struggles towards consciousness, “thinks you’re fighting, something about going off on his own? You not coming with him anymore?”
And then Olruggio is kneeling in front of him, eyes dark and concerned. “Oh,” Qifrey says, “Olly — I didn’t — I didn’t think you’d come. I’m sorry.”
Olruggio’s face softens at that, sad — he reaches out a hand that carefully probes Qifrey’s head, eliciting a hiss of pain and a wince.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Qifrey. Of course I’m here. You’ve hit your head, that’s all – sorry, I know, I know, I’m almost done,” he breaks off when Qifrey flinches at a particularly sore spot. “I’m going to help you up—”
He must hear something in Qifrey’s ragged breath, because he follows Qifrey’s gaze to where Coco is still watching, eyes wide.
“Alright,” he murmurs, low enough that only Qifrey can hear, “you’re right, of course you’re right.”
He stands and Qifrey immediately misses him – the way he’d shielded the wind, but more so his careful touch, the warmth of his fingers skimming along Qifrey’s scalp. Olruggio has been patching him up and getting him out of messes as long as he can remember. It’s a relief to know that he’s here to get him out of this one, too.
But Olruggio doesn’t go far, doesn’t even leave Qifrey’s field of vision.
“Coco,” he says, crouching down before her to drape a thick cloak around her shoulders, “the others are waiting just up there – why don’t you join them? We’ll catch up.”
He points to a staircase carved from the stone that Qifrey doesn’t remember being there, last time he checked. Coco looks back and forth between them, uncertain – the staircase, Olruggio, Qifrey. The staircase again. But her eyes keep dragging back to him, like she’s afraid of what might happen if she looks away too long.
“Are you sure—”
“I’m sure, Coco. Agott brought you a great big thermos of tea, I’m sure you must be cold, soaked like that.”
She shakes her head miserably. “I’m not – he—”
Qifrey can’t see her face very clearly, not when he can barely keep his eyes open. But he can hear the way her voice cracks, her quiet hitched breath.
“I know,” Olruggio says, soothing. “He kept you warm, right? That’s good. That’s our job, Coco. It’s alright – he’ll be alright. You did well, getting us here. Now it’s my turn, ok?”
Qifrey can’t hear much after that, just Olruggio murmuring to her, quiet and calm, his voice even. Like there’s nothing wrong, like this was what he expected, like he’s got everything under control. He’s much better at it than Qifrey is, being reassuring – Qifrey can tell from the way Coco eventually pulls her face from where she’d buried it in his shoulder and nods.
“Ok, Master Olly,” she says, voice small. She looks over her shoulder at Qifrey one last time, just before she goes. He tries to give her a reassuring smile; he can’t tell whether or not he’s managed it.
“Agott brought tea, hm?” he says when Olruggio comes to crouch in front of him again. There’s a moment where he thinks Olruggio might smile, but when he looks at Qifrey his expression is serious, almost grim. “I didn’t mean to frighten her.”
“I know,” Olruggio says, sighing. “You never do.”
Qifrey doesn’t get a chance to ask what he means.
“I’m going to try to get you on my back, but I might need some help. Do you think you can do that?” At Qifrey’s slow nod he offers up a smile that’s tight around the edges. “Good. Tell me if it hurts, alright? We’ll take it slow.”
There’s something off about the way he’s talking – slow and careful, tone gentle and reassuring. Almost like how he’d been talking to Coco.
Not almost – exactly like how he’d been talking to Coco.
For Olruggio to be trying to calm him down – it’s only then that Qifrey realizes it must be worse than he thought.
“Olly,” he looks up sharply at Olruggio, fighting through the way it makes his head spin. “What—”
“It’s alright – I wouldn’t lie to her. You’ll be alright,” he says, still soothing, the ‘I’ll make sure of it’ unsaid but clear all the same. “Come on, Qifrey, let’s just get home first.”
It’s – harder than he thought it would be, getting up. With Olruggio’s help he’s able to stand but it makes his head spin, he has to hold back another wave of nausea as Olruggio rubs small circles on his shoulder. It’s a relief, at least, that he doesn’t have to pretend anymore – not that he’d been doing a particularly good job of it in the first place.
He’s glad Olruggio got his hint to send Coco away – it means she can’t hear when Qifrey can’t quite bite back a cry as Olruggio finally hitches him up his back because it hurts now that he’s warmer and the numbness is fading, means she doesn’t see the way he curls into Olruggio, gasping, as Olruggio mutters a steady stream of “sorry, I’m sorry, I know, that was the worst of it, I’ll be careful—”
Qifrey turns his nose into the nape of Olruggio’s neck, breathes slowly until his head stops throbbing – he smells familiar, like baking bread, the smoke from their fire, like sun-dried laundry and a little bit of sweat. “It’s fine,” he manages eventually, “I’m – can we go home, Olly?”
Maybe it’s the rain, or the way he’s recently been reminded that most of his body aches, but his voice sounds small even to his own ears. He feels more than hears Olruggio’s breath leaving him in a rush.
“Of course,” Olruggio says, sounding suddenly exhausted, “Let’s go home.”
The girls are waiting for them up above, anxiously peering at them from a ledge as Olruggio slowly makes his way up. Qifrey tries to summon a smile for them, can feel that it comes out more weary than anything else.
“It’s like they think I’ll drop you,” Olly huffs under his breath, somewhere between amused and offended.
“I know you won’t,” Qifrey says, “you never let me fall, Olly. But that wasn’t good — everyone needs to know how to fall. Did you know – I scraped my knee, that time in the woods. It took ages to scab over, I had forgotten. I wouldn’t have fallen if you’d been there. I would have been careful, for you. Or – you would have caught me, if I hadn’t been. But I wouldn’t have learned my lesson.”
It rumbles through his chest when Olruggio hums thoughtfully. Humoring him, probably, but thoughtful all the same.
It’s quiet as they walk – just the crunch of stones beneath Olruggio’s feet, the soft murmur of the girls up ahead. It’s raining, still, Qifrey can hear it, but it’s not falling on him anymore. A relief. Olruggio’s back is solid, steady. He’s careful when he walks, so that Qifrey isn’t jostled; the gentle sway of motion doesn’t even make him nauseous, just tired.
Olruggio is always so careful – with him, with everything. Qifrey doesn’t deserve it. Him. Warm, steady Olruggio.
He turns his head further inwards – his nose must be cold where it presses into Olruggio’s neck because Olruggio sucks in a startled breath, then:
“Did I what?”
“Learn your lesson.”
“Oh,” Qifrey says, and frowns, trying to remember.
“Never mind,” Olruggio sighs, “you’ll only make your headache worse.”
Things get hazy after that, although Olruggio won’t let him fall asleep, keeps forcing him into slow, fuzzy conversations until suddenly they’re back at the atelier, familiar spires climbing over the horizon.
“I am sorry, you know,” Qifrey murmurs as Olruggio eases him onto a bed, “for going off on my own.”
The bags under Olruggio’s eyes look darker than Qifrey remembers; his whole frame seems to sag as he sits beside him. Qifrey wants to reassure him, although he’s not sure of what. His hand is so close, if he could just get the energy to move his fingers—
“It’s alright,” Olruggio sighs, “I can’t begrudge your reason, this time. I never could.”
The hand pulls away, out of Qifrey’s reach – he watches it as Olruggio scrubs it over his face, exhausted.
“I’m glad you’re here, Olly.”
Olruggio takes a harsh breath – he must have been cold, too, because it sounds like more of a sniff – and looks at Qifrey for a long, slow moment, suspended. Between the dim light and his rapidly-darkening vision Qifrey can’t make out his expression. “Get some rest, Qifrey.”
The bed is warm and comfortable, and smells of home – Qifrey is out within moments.
He’s warm when he wakes up – warmer than he expected he would be, even. His fire sigils are fine, but they never seem to last quite as long as Olruggio’s—
Qifrey sits bolt upright, the sudden jolt of adrenaline clearing away the last traces of sleep because it’s almost as if—
Olruggio is there, sitting across the fire, arms crossed and glowering.
“You did the sigil wrong,” he mutters, “your fire was about to go out by the time I got here.”
There are deep bags under his eyes, and he’s looking at Qifrey as if he might be able see through his robes to any injuries with sheer force of will alone. Qifrey’s never been so glad to be scowled at in his life.
“Maybe I wanted it to go out,” he says, trying to school his features into something less relieved.
Olruggio huffs, irritated. “You did not.”
“Did too! It was supposed to wake me up. It was a – a timed release so that you get cold and wake up but there’s not any noise.”
“You hate being cold,” Olruggio says, frown caught halfway between grumpy and thoughtful, “you wouldn’t have done that on purpose even if it is a good idea – with a few modifications—”
Qifrey can feel the corners of his mouth twitch up, giving away the game. Olruggio catches him, of course.
“—but you’re not going to distract me so easily,” he says, scowling again, “because I know you didn’t mean to.”
“I could have!”
It’s easy to bicker with Olruggio, easy to let him scold and scrutinize Qifrey like he’d been gone months, not a few days. Qifrey hadn’t known it could be so easy.
The relief bubbling up in his chest at seeing him is too strong for Qifrey to be bothered by the way Olruggio hauls him up by the hand and brushes the dirt from his cloak – fussing he would ordinarily bristle at, gladly accepted.
“You’re alright, though?” Olruggio finally asks when they grow quiet, tentative. His hands have come to rest on Qifrey’s shoulders, a faint pressure Qifrey could slip away from, if he wanted to.
He doesn’t move.
He isn’t sure how to answer. He’s unharmed, anyways, aside from the stinging of his knee, but he feels off-balance, shaken.
“I’m glad you’re here, Olly,” he manages, eventually.
Olruggio opens his mouth, shuts it again. Looks away, face going red.
“Well,” he says, “that’s—I’ll come with you next time, then.”
Qifrey doesn’t say anything – isn’t sure what he could say. Olruggio must read some meaning into his silence, though, because the tips of his ears turn darker.
“If—if you want me to, I mean. And if not, that’s—you don’t have to let me come but I made this—” he shoves something into Qifrey’s hands – “just in case. I hope you take it with you, at least.”
Qifrey can feel himself staring but Olruggio’s said too much – he doesn’t know where to start.
“What is… it?” he asks instead, buying time. “A contraption?”
Olruggio has handed him a tube of some sort, just small enough to hold in one hand. Qifrey tilts it curiously – something moves inside, although he can’t tell what. One end is hollow; when Qifrey peers inside he can see a tiny sigil – fire, and something with wind, although he can’t make out the details.
“It’s – a signal, I guess,” Olruggio says, “just in case. You would just crush the hollow end against something – the sigil combines with the end of the tube to complete the circle and send it up.”
“So you don’t even need a wand – you made this?”
“Well,” Olruggio says sheepishly, “just in case. And then I could – find you. Or at least try.”
He’s not quite making eye contact, as if he’s embarrassed
“Olruggio, that’s – you’re—”
It’s too much. Qifrey had been trying to give himself time to think, to figure out what to say by distracting Olruggio with the discussion of his contraption – usually a foolproof way to redirect the conversation. He hadn’t expected this.
But then, maybe he should have – Olruggio can’t help being painfully honest no matter how he’s communicating, but he’s always preferred action to saying a thing out loud.
“Thank you,” Qifrey says softly, “really, Olly.”
Olruggio opens his mouth to respond – probably to say something like ‘it was nothing’ or ‘you don’t have to’ or some other dismissal, polite and wholly untruthful. Qifrey knows Olruggio’s slow, careful work, knows that, for all his genius, this still would have taken him a long time.
“But I won’t need it,” he continues, before Olruggio can try to play it off, “since you’ll already be there, anyways. If you’re coming with me?”
Olruggio stares at him for a moment, like he’s not sure he can believe what he’s hearing, then a slow smile spreads across his face and Qifrey knows they’ll be alright.
"If I’m coming with you,” he says, mocking – “of course I am, don’t go getting any stupid ideas in your head! I’ll always—”
The fragments of the dream-memory are already slipping away as Qifrey blinks sleepily awake. It’s a fight to reach consciousness, like swimming against the tide. Everything feels heavy, slow.
Familiar robes block out into his vision: Olruggio, pressing something to his head that stings, but only distantly. When he notices Qifrey’s eye is open Olruggio goes to pull back but seems to get stuck halfway, like he’s caught between stepping away and coming closer.
“Oh,” Qifrey says, barely aware of it, “you really came – I thought maybe I’d dreamed you. I did, I think.”
Olruggio stares at him a moment longer, scrutinizing, then shakes his head as if it’s not worth it to try to figure out what, exactly, Qifrey is talking about. Finally he moves, sinking to sit beside the bed with a sigh.
“You hit your head, Qifrey. Coco sent up a flare – of course I came to find you.”
“Mm.” The light in the room is dim, which Qifrey appreciates – the pain in his head isn’t so sharp, now, but he can feel a headache lurking behind his eyes. It’s hard to tell what time it is with the light blocked but everything feels still, quiet in the way the atelier usually only is late at night. “You’ve been doing that for a long time, now. Is this—your room?”
It’s too dark to tell for sure, but Qifrey thinks he can see color in Olruggio’s cheeks. “I thought it would be quieter, away from everything.”
“Mm,” Qifrey hums in agreement, already fading. He’s being pulled under again, slow and unavoidable. “And you’re here – that’s better, too.”
Whatever Olruggio has to say to that, Qifrey doesn’t hear.
He wakes a few more times, but never completely – just enough to note the sensation of something cool pressed against his forehead, a conversation at the edge of his hearing. The pain isn’t gone but it’s hazy, far away. Someone carefully undoes the fabric around his neck, the clasps of his cloak, slips his boots off.
The bed dips. A warm hand slides over his. Then he’s asleep again, and finally, he doesn’t dream.
The first thing he hears are voices, hushed whispers that are trying to be quiet but not quite succeeding.
“—hasn’t woken up for anything more than a few minutes yet, Coco,” Olruggio is saying, “and he’s still very – still. But if you really want to sit with him—”
“Please, Master Olly, I promise I’ll be quiet.”
Qifrey pushes himself slowly up to his elbows, wary of the soreness he can feel lurking at the edge of his awareness. His vision is a little blurry without his glasses but he’s fairly certain it’s just the two of them, Olruggio’s tall figure bending slightly to speak with Coco.
“No need for that, my dear,” he says, clearing his throat lightly when his voice comes out rough and faint, “I’m quite awake.”
One moment Coco is a blurry figure at the door, the next she’s crushed into Qifrey’s side, holding on just this side of too tight – he doesn’t think she notices his wince, but Olruggio certainly does.
“Alright, Coco, let’s give him some space to sit up, at least,” he chides gently, and gives Qifrey an assessing look over the top of her head, the kind that promises a talk in the future.
Qifrey turns his attention to Coco, who’s backing up to sit just next to him on the bed. It’s hard to pick out the specifics, hard to work out which conversations were real, but he suspects he doesn’t want to fully remember everything he said to Olruggio just yet.
“I’m glad to see you, Coco,” he says, with a smile he hopes is less forced than the last time she saw him. He looks her over – she has a few new bruises but looks otherwise unharmed, and her robes are clean and dry. “You’re unhurt?”
“Yes, Master Qifrey,” she says, “Sinocia checked when she was here. And you—”
He shows his head for her careful inspection. “All patched up, hm? Thanks to you, I hear.”
“Oh,” she says, “no, I mean, it was mostly – it was Master Olly’s contraption, I couldn’t—”
“I hope you weren’t about to say you couldn’t do anything,” Qifrey interjects before she can finish, “you did wonderfully, my dear. I know you must have been very frightened.”
She nods against his shoulder. “At first it was like at Serpentback Cave – but then you didn’t wake up and when you did it was—”
She breaks off with a shudder.
“I know,” Qifrey says, “I’m sorry for scaring you like that, Coco. You were very brave.”
The story comes out in patches – the routine errand out to refresh some beast repellent glyphs a few towns over, a sudden storm, a mudslide. It’s still a blur; he’s not sure he’ll ever fully remember. But Coco’s voice gets steadier the longer she talks, and eventually he gets her talking about what Olruggio’s had them working on while he was asleep – modifications of his original seal, and: “it’s so hard, did you know that he was our age when he made it?”
“He was,” Qifrey agrees, looking over her head to where Olruggio is still standing by the bed, looking flustered. “He’s rather good, isn’t he?”
Olruggio scowls at him.
“He’s amazing! It looks so simple but it’s actually really complicated, I keep getting stuck,” she enthuses, “and all of his sigils are so neat!”
“Well, why don’t you all bring your things in here? I’d like to see what you’ve made.”
She perks up at that, eyes wide and hopeful. “Really? Is that alright?”
“Mm,” he nods, “for a little while, anyways.”
She goes to get up, then hesitates.
“Was there something else?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head before darting forward to give him another shy sideways hug. “Just – I’m glad you’re okay.”
Then she’s gone before he can say anything, and it’s just Olruggio, watching him with an expression that’s slipped from annoyance to bemused acceptance.
“Sorry,” Qifrey says awkwardly, after they’ve looked at each other for a while, “I forgot – I didn’t mean to turn your room into a classroom.”
“That’s not – it’s fine, Qifrey.”
Another beat of silence. Any levity Coco had brought to the room fades with every long second of Olruggio’s heavy gaze, pinning him in place.
Finally, movement – Olruggio rubs his eyes with both hands as he sinks to take Coco’s place on the bed.
“There was a gash straight through your boot – did you know that? So deep it cut into your foot. And still – Coco said you didn’t even stop for a moment.”
“I – remembered what it was like to fall,” Qifrey says, “how afraid I always was. I didn’t want—”
“I know,” Olruggio says wearily. “I know. It’s just – you looked bad, Qifrey. Worse than you were, according to Sinocia, but—”
He breaks off, like he can’t quite finish the sentence.
“Oh,” Qifrey says, taking in for the first time how drained Olruggio looks, the bags under his eyes, the way his beard is even more rough than usual. Coco wasn't the only one he'd frightened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“Well,” Olruggio says after a beat, “you’re awake now – so you should be through the worst of it. She’ll come check on you tomorrow, she said, or later tonight if she can. But she said if you woke up today you’d – you’d be alright.”
His voice is tight; Qifrey takes a surprised breath.
“Olly.” He won’t look at Qifrey, gaze fixed firmly on some point on the floor instead. “Olly, look.”
He doesn’t move. Qifrey grabs his hand, brings it up to cup his cheek. “It’s alright. I’m alright. You found us.”
Olruggio swallows, hard. Like he’s steeling himself.
His voice is a rasp that sounds every bit as tired as he looks. His eyes are dark, almost haunted when he finally raises them to make eye contact.
“When I saw that flare, Qifrey—”
Qifrey makes a noise of wordless encouragement as he turns into Olruggio’s palm, lips resting against his pulse point.
“I didn’t think you’d ever use it, not really. So I never thought about how it would feel, seeing it. That it would mean you were – and I wasn’t there.”
“You were there, though,” Qifrey murmurs. “In the ways that mattered. It was you who made it, after all. It’s because of you that Coco had a way to get help. That we’re safe.”
Olruggio takes a long, slow breath, lets his hand fall from Qifrey’s cheek to rest lightly on his chest instead. Qifrey can feel him watching the rise and fall of it as he breathes.
He imagines it – how he would feel, if he’d seen a distress signal sent up by Olruggio, if he hadn’t known what he would find on reaching it or if he’d be able to reach it at all—
It would have been unbearable.
“I missed you that time, you know. I don’t think I ever told you that.”
Olruggio’s head snaps back up at the non-sequitur; his mouth is half-open, like he wants to say something but can’t find the words. Qifrey can feel his cheeks heating the longer Olruggio looks at him.
He’s not sure what he meant. He’s not sure why he said it, just that suddenly he needed to – needed Olruggio to know.
“I just mean I was glad you came. Then and now.”
It’s close enough to the truth – that Qifrey thinks he’d be lost without Olruggio, more than he already is. That he doesn’t know what he’ll do, when Olruggio can’t come with him anymore.
That he’ll miss him.
“Well,” Olruggio says, coloring, “I meant what I said, back then. I will. I always will.”
Qifrey bows his head; he can’t bear to look at him. Eventually he hears Olruggio sigh again, feels his forehead come to rest against Qifrey’s shoulder.
Qifrey isn’t sure how long they sit like that, Olruggio leaning against him as if all of his strings have been cut. Olruggio’s room was the right choice – it’s quiet, comfortable despite looking like it shouldn’t be. He’s done something to block out the light from outside and though the fire is glowing it’s a dim, gentle warmth. Qifrey can hear his own breath and Olruggio’s, gradually slowing.
He’d gotten ahead of himself – he doesn’t need to think about it yet, leaving. There’s still time. Better to stay in the present, to soak up everything while he still can – the warmth, Olruggio’s steady breathing, the familiar smell of his soap.
“The girls will be back soon,” he murmurs into Olruggio’s temple; Olruggio only hums in agreement.
Qifrey recognizes this version of him – he’s pushed himself too hard, has only been staying awake by sheer willpower and the virtue of remaining in constant motion. Now that Qifrey is awake, now that Olruggio is sitting – he’ll crash soon. Qifrey can picture his eyelids drooping, struggling against the inevitable. It’s a sight he’s seen many times before, after all.
“You should get more comfortable, if you’re going to fall asleep,” Qifrey warns.
Olruggio just waves a hand in dismissal, tilts his head into the crook of Qifrey’s neck. “’m not going to fall asleep,” he says, and Qifrey has to fight to contain a laugh when he hears Olruggio try to stifle a yawn.
Qifrey lets one arm come to rest on Olruggio’s back, absently traces shapes there with his thumb and listens to Olruggio's breathing grow ever slower. No need to dwell on what’s to come – Olruggio’s sleepy breath against his skin deserves his full attention.
The girls are chattering as they come in. Qifrey raises a finger to his lips over Olruggio’s head.
He watches as they each survey the scene in turn – an assessing look at him, checking for any obvious signs of something wrong, then, after being satisfied he really is awake, a sweet smile for their sleeping Watchful Eye.
“Should we wake him up..?” Tetia asks, “it’s just that he’ll get such a crick in his neck—”
“But he looked so tired—”
Their debate will inevitably wake Olruggio up, none of them is capable of keeping to a whisper for long. Instead of trying to quiet them, Qifrey lets their discussion drift through the room, only half-listening. For all he’d said he wanted to see what they’d been working on, Qifrey is getting awfully drowsy himself. The soft rise and fall of his students’ voices, the familiar smell of ink and paper in Olruggio’s room, the gentle firelight – everyone safe, together. He’s home.
And Olruggio’s warm weight pins him in place, holding him there – catching him again, without even realizing it.