Lying cradled in Arek's arms, Sanadhil knew, at a rational level, that he was safe, that nothing could hurt him here. But his child-brain, the one that gave him nightmares and panic, was still trembling, ready to take over at a moment's notice. Through their lingering attunement, he could feel Arek's worry, which only fed his own anxiety. He had told Arek things this night that he had never told anyone before, but there was still so much he had left unsaid, unexplained. The fear that Arek might ask him for more was overwhelming, even after the sex that had left them both so wrung out that they could barely move. He lay still, quiet, knowing that Arek would feel his fear and yet being unable to give voice to it.
When the door opened he twitched, startled. Dozilva slid into the room quietly, taking in the sight of her partners curled together on the bed. Sanadhil had been keeping to himself the past few weeks, so his presence there must have been unexpected, but she didn't comment on it, just began undressing, unbuttoning her shirt, letting down her cascade of white hair. "I sent the kids to bed," she said calmly, glancing over her shoulder at the two men.
"Thank you," murmured Arek.
Sanadhil could tell by the look on Dozilva's face that wordless communication was passing between her and Arek. They were talking about him, he was sure, not even behind his back this time, but right in front of him, just beyond his senses. "Stop it," he snapped. "I can tell you're doing it, so just... stop it." He felt stretched to the breaking point, and what would normally have been a minor annoyance assumed giant proportions. "Say whatever you're going to say out loud."
Dozilva tsked softly, casting aside her skirt. "We're worried for you, love, that's all. We want to help you, if you'll let us."
"You're just making it worse!" he lashed out. He knew it was irrational to blame them, but he couldn't control how trapped he felt, betrayed by their conspiracy. He struggled to sit up, to get away from them both before it got worse, the anger and terror from earlier flooding through his system again. Arek held him for a moment too long before letting him go, and San scrambled to the edge of the bed, not quite out of it, not yet, but clinging to that little shred of his own space like a life raft.
Dozilva came to sit beside him, not touching him, but keeping close. "Arek was just saying that you learned Taz has another daughter, in an orphanage, and this is what has upset you so much. He says it brings back bad memories from your childhood. He was only getting me caught up so I wouldn't have to ask you what was happening. Sparing you having to explain it all over again."
San nodded, unable to look at her, at either of them. He knew she was right, that they meant well, but he couldn't put those feelings into words. "I need..." he tried, then cut off, not sure what he really needed. He tried another route instead. "I can't talk about it. I can't do it."
Dozilva nodded. "There is something I could do... to try to help you let it out." He could feel her eyes on him, which usually would have been comforting but right now just made him want to squirm. "Remember when you helped me? I can do the same for you."
Sanadhil remembered the night vividly, even though it was twenty years later - during the months they were trying to conceive Taz, she had become withdrawn, depressed, but had been unable to explain why. He had been able to help her let out the secret pain she was hiding without even knowing what he was doing at first. It had been hard, but in the end she had experienced a relief so profound it had left both of them clinging to one another, sobbing, overwhelmed. He wanted that suddenly, wanted it so much, even though the thought of being laid open terrified him. "Yes," he blurted before he could overthink and begin to doubt himself. "I need that, please."
"All right," Dozilva agreed calmly. "Let me get my tools." She touched his shoulder briefly before rising from the bed and going to retrieve the box she kept on the top shelf of the wardrobe, safely out of reach of the children through long habit. It was wooden, from a tree that grew nowhere on this plane, polished from years of hands - centuries, maybe, San wasn't sure how many had owned it before her - flat and hinged, and she lifted it down almost reverently.
Sanadhil could feel Arek shifting on the bed behind him, and turned to face him. His angelic features were troubled, and San could guess why. Normally when Dozilva reached for her box of tools, Arek found it easier to be elsewhere - it brought back too many painful memories of his own. But San found he couldn't bear the thought of doing this without Arek there. He reached out to him, desperate for his touch again, yet trying to stay calm as much as he was able, to show he was still in control even if it was a lie. "Stay," he said, keeping his voice level. "If you can."
Arek hesitated only briefly, then nodded and drew San back into his arms. Their bond, strengthened by the touch of skin to bare skin, made San tremble as he was suddenly struck by Arek's fear, mingling with his own into a more potent brew. "How should we...?" Arek asked, and San realized he was speaking to Dozilva, not to him. That was good, because he didn't know the answer.
Dozilva came back to the bedside, setting down her box carefully on the table there. "Sit back with him between your legs," she said after a moment's consideration, "resting your back against the head of the bed. You might have to brace him or hold him down, but for now, let him find his own comfortable place." Arek followed her instructions, and San lay back against his chest, adjusting his position until it felt right. He could hear Arek's heart hammering beneath him, keeping time with his own.
The lid of the wooden case opened without a sound - she kept it well-oiled and pristine. Inside lay two rows of blades of various sizes and shapes, each designed and crafted for its own unique purpose by masterful hands. Dozilva selected one without hesitation, a straight, medium-sized knife, plain and simple. It fit her hand as if it had been made for her alone. She climbed up to straddle San, which normally would have aroused him, but this time his cock remained soft and his balls seemed to be trying to crawl back into his body.
When her skin touched his and Arek's, a third note was added to their attunement, one that was calm and composed. Trying to maintain such a bond with two partners had been difficult at first - it was denounced in the elven texts he had read as deviant, misguided - but they had learned to make it work, somehow. It often meant, however, being unable to tell which feelings belonged to which person, and San sometimes wondered if that potential for confusion was half the reason the ancient practitioners had warned against it. There was also the chance that it would weaken the bond between two life-partners to add a third, but so far none of them had found that to be the case. San sighed, relaxing slightly as Dozilva's soothing emotions layered themselves over his own barely-contained anxiety.
Dozilva lowered the blade, letting its flat rest against his chest, warming it to his body temperature. "It will hurt," she said, explaining to Arek as much as to him, "but the physical pain allows the heart to better understand its own hurts. Pain is part of life, never far away, and we have the strength to endure it, move within it, acknowledge it, and then let it go. You're going to let this go, Sanadhil."
San had a moment of doubt, fearing he wouldn't be able to do what she expected of him. "I can't," he began, but his words were cut off by the first smooth stroke of her knife, deep and swift, curving just under his nipple. The flash of pain drove the doubt from his mind, drove away everything except itself, making San gasp. Blood pulsed up from the cut, bright and red and shocking even though he expected it. He pressed himself back against Arek, instinctively drawing away from the source of the injury, but he couldn't escape - they wouldn't let him.
"You can," Dozilva said quietly. "Tell me about the place you grew up."
"In Wray," San managed to whisper. "Near the mountains. The priests ran it, for children whose parents died or just... didn't want them..."
Dozilva slid the knife through the slick of his blood, finding her next spot. "Which kind were you?"
San shut his eyes, not wanting to see what she was going to do. "Mother died," he said, "father wasn't there... didn't know, maybe..." The point of her blade sank into him, along his ribs, and he let himself take the pain, let it wash over him until he could speak again. "I didn't know that then, didn't know anything about where I came from. Just that I was different, wrong, bad."
"Because you weren't human," she said.
"Yes," Sanadhil gasped. "And small and quiet and just wanted to... be alone and read..."
"Don't lie," Dozilva said gently, pressing the blade into him for a third cut. "That wasn't all you wanted."
"No," he confessed. "I wanted to play with the other children, and... wanted to be normal... wanted them to like me..."
"Someone did, though, didn't she," said Dozilva. She didn't cut him again, not yet, but stroked her fingers gently against the wounds she had already made. "Tara."
San was shaken by the name - he hadn't expected her to see this deeply into him this fast, to pull out so many secrets at once. He didn't know how she had reached that conclusion - maybe something Taralynn had said to her once, it didn't matter. "Y-yes," he hissed through his teeth as Dozilva touched the edges of his broken skin. "She was my friend... only one... She was k-kind to me."
"Good," murmured Arek, stroking his shoulder. The touch was both distracting and comforting, helping to keep San anchored in the present. Arek's fear had swelled at the first sign of blood, but had receded somewhat now, which was a relief to San, who was having enough trouble handling his own emotions, especially those that surrounded Taralynn.
"What happened next?" Dozilva pressed, not letting him rest in that memory for too long. She took a moment to clean her blade on the sheets - he could hear the soft whisper it made - then brought it back to San's skin, low on his side, just beside the spot where she'd marked him when Dez, their youngest, was born. She avoided the old scar, deftly slicing around it instead.
Sanadhil waited for the throbbing to slow. He was already beginning to feel light-headed from loss of blood, but he knew it wasn't close to over yet. The only way out was to keep pushing through. "Some children got adopted... some were taken for apprenticeships when they got older. They told me I might get a scholarship to the Castalia, there are some set aside for orphans every year, and I was smart enough... " The lies still stung, even decades later. "A man came instead, picked out me and Tara... said we'd have work, training... maybe even still be able to go to school, if our masters said so... We were happy then, because we thought we'd get to stay together." Speaking so carefully was difficult, trying to keep himself from falling entirely into half-sentences and incoherence again, but it was a little bit of control he could still hold onto.
"Where did he take you?" Dozilva's questions were something else he could hold onto, guiding him through the maze, taking him step by step into his deepest secrets, and he reached a hand out to touch her thigh, needing to show her that he was still hanging on. She laid her palm, sticky with blood, over his hand, for just a moment before lashing out again, more viciously this time, but still controlled, still careful.
"Telorre," he gasped, the red haze clouding his mind, taking up all the pain of his memories and condensing it into a single slice. "The count's mines in the mountains, near his castle. They took Tara to the castle... me to the diamond mine." He tried to reach to his side to staunch the blood, but it hurt too much - he whimpered as he touched lacerated skin, bared flesh.
"You must have been scared," Arek said softly, taking his wrist and drawing his hand gently away from the wounds, holding it safe in his strong grip. "How old were you?"
"Don't know," San sighed, "not sure exactly... around twelve?" He had always been smaller than the other children, seeming younger than his true age, but he knew Tara had been still a girl, no more than eleven, and he was older than her. They were still young enough to play house together without it turning into kissing games, at any rate.
Dozilva's weight shifted slightly as she stretched up to reach his arm, tracing the blade along the thin wires of his muscles. "So you were sent into the mine. What was it like there?" San could only moan, words leaving him as the panic welled up once more. Tears leaked from beneath his eyelids, still squeezed tight shut. "Shh," Dozilva soothed him, "look at me. Open your eyes. You're here with us, we've got you."
San forced his eyes open with considerable effort, blinking, looking up at his mate of two decades, mother of three of his children, taking in the concern on her face and the bloody knife in her hand... Behind him was Arek, holding him close, and this was real, this was now, he wasn't back there, and he found he had words for it after all. "Hard to breathe, and dark," he whispered. "But I could see better than anyone else... and I was small, I could get into tight spaces the men couldn't... "
Dozilva nodded, keeping her face impassive, but he could feel her righteous anger through her skin. If it had been one of her children, her body was saying, she would have killed every last one of them to save him. She breathed slowly, making an effort to calm herself - her control had to be perfect if she was to keep her mate from serious injury through this process. "What else?" she asked when she could speak again without her voice trembling.
Sanadhil ran his hand over his face, the coppery smell of blood staining him everywhere. He sensed an unexpected burst of arousal tinged with guilt, and knew it had to be from Arek. His suspicions were confirmed when he felt Arek's cock stir at the base of his spine. I'm sorry, Arek thought to him, trying to draw back. His inner voice sounded fragile, full of shame, and San lowered his blood-slick hand to Arek's thigh, squeezing him tight.
It's all right, he told him, mind to mind.
No, Arek insisted, not after everything tonight... I shouldn't find you beautiful like this, so vulnerable... but I can't help it, I'm so sorry...
It was oddly reassuring to Sanadhil that Arek could still desire him even at his worst, but he knew the feelings this process was evoking in his lover must be difficult to bear, reminding him of times in his past when he'd taken unholy delight in suffering. He arched up to give him room to grow, then pressed back against Arek more firmly, the influx of desire and the hard length of his cock keeping him rooted in the now. I understand, he told him, and felt Arek's tension ease a little.
"It was always hot," he said aloud, looking up to Dozilva, who was waiting patiently. "There was food, but not enough... and mine always got stolen, I couldn't protect myself... so hungry all the time... in the dark, diamonds shining like lying little stars, and they made me… made me..." He choked on the torrent of memories, terrible moments he had managed to block out until now, but which had been festering beneath the surface, brought back to light by the body-memory of a man pressed hard against him...
"What did they make you do?" Dozilva asked quietly, sliding the knife blade along the other side of his body, cutting into the soft flesh between ribs, flaying him open until all he knew was how to bleed.
"...touch them," he sobbed, "for extra f-food sometimes, or just so they wouldn't beat me more, and they did things that hurt and I didn't understand and I t-tried to get away but they caught me and took me back there... and Tara..." He gulped, trying to catch his breath through the pain and panic that were racking his body, trying not to fall into a fit of coughing that would shred his lungs and split open his wounds.
"Hold him," Dozilva instructed Arek, who wrapped his arms tight around San's body, clutching him close. Sanadhil struggled for just a moment, then gave in and just wept, wept for himself, for the friend he hadn't been able to help, for his partners who had somehow managed to put up with him all these years, for his children who hadn't had as much of his love as they deserved, for the newly-discovered grandchild who was alone like he had been, for all of them.
When the storm of tears began to subside at last, Dozilva was waiting. "What happened to Tara?" Sanadhil shook his head, not wanting to go on, but knowing there was no choice. "She lived," Dozilva reminded him gently. "She's safe now. What happened then can't hurt her anymore."
"But it can," San tried to explain, "it does, it never stops. They took her to the castle to work as a maid, but that's not what she really was... I didn't know then, I thought she was better off than me... I saw her the few times they brought us to church for holidays and she always had pretty clothes, ribbons in her hair, looked like she had enough to eat, but I could tell something wasn't right... I thought she'd forgotten me, but she didn't, she never did... When I had the chance to leave, I asked her to come with me, and she said no... I didn't understand why... she told me later that she asked them to let me come work in the kitchens, but they wouldn't, that wasn't what I was for... and I would have been there to protect her, maybe, when they started... started using her... trying to b-breed her like an animal... and I was gone by then, when I should have been there for her... "
Dozilva stroked his feverish, sweating brow. "You didn't know," she told him, as she would comfort a miserable child. "And even if you had known, there was nothing you could have done for her then. You got away, you saved yourself, that was the right thing to do."
San wanted desperately to accept that what she was saying was right. He wasn't thinking clearly anymore, too much blood lost, too much pain... All he could manage was a feeble nod that left his head hanging forward, too heavy to lift again, but it was enough.
Dozilva took his wrist, feeling his pulse, thready and weak. "We're going to take this all away now," she told him, glancing to Arek with a sharp nod.
Arek laid his hands across San's lacerations, incanting the spell that would heal them. Sanadhil felt them seal themselves, the pain immediately subsiding. The sensation of having the agony suddenly lifted from him was exhilarating, leaving him far too light-headed to move. Dozilva cleaned her blade carefully before putting it away and shutting the lid of the box once more. She eyed the mess they had made of the bed, and cast a short spell of her own to clean away the blood before crawling back in beside them. "You did very well," she murmured, stroking San's chest, so recently laid open under her knife.
"So brave," Arek added, kissing the top of his head. His cock seemed to have subsided, mercifully, as San doubted any of them were in the right frame of mind for sex just now. For his part, all he wanted to do was lie there and never have to get up again. That was unlikely to happen, though, with the problems that were still before them to deal with.
"The little girl," he began, his voice raspy from crying, "Ilyana..."
Dozilva put a finger to his lips. "Tomorrow," she told him, "we will decide what to do. It may be the easiest thing is to bring her here. But now, you should rest."
Sanadhil knew she was right, and as the emotional high drained away, exhaustion replaced it. "Come here," he said to Dozilva, rolling over and holding out his arms to take her in them, stroking her hair, regaining a few shreds of control. "Thank you," he whispered to her, "that was just right," and felt her glow with pride and relief at his praise. Arek nuzzled up to him from behind, and he knew that lying between the two of them was exactly where he needed to be.
"Stay?" he asked them both.
"Of course," Dozilva reassured him.
"Always," added Arek. It was the last thing he heard before slipping off to sleep.