Before he has any say in it, Khadgar’s feet and ankles slip into the mud.
He doesn’t sink deeper than that, which is good. The party of three that watches him struggle seems uneager to pull him out. Wet sand slips into his boots and is absorbed into his woolen cape, potentially ruining both. Already the leather slushes and sops under his feet at his first struggle to get one leg free.
“Didn’t I warn you?”
Lothar watches at him from his high horse, a quirk in his brow. He has been waiting for exactly this to happen. On his snowfax steed he looks taller than he already is, and he occupies the saddle with an ease that escapes both Khadgar and the two guards behind him. "Killer of Demons. Guardian-To-Be," the knight sums up with great pleasure at the mage’s expense. “Fancy titles, boy. You’d think you’d know better by now.”
“I was just going to–”
“Yes. I’m sure you were. Get on your horse please, before you hurt yourself.”
Khadgar’s own steed is small and spotted. It is more a pony than a knight’s mount, tiny in size compared to the other horses that it tails a yard behind. In the case of danger, his horse is the first thing Khadgar will be expected to protect.
He starts about removing the wet sand from his clothes. Tugging off his left shoe, he shakes out the clumps of mud, and almost yelps when he unbalances himself.
Killer of Demons. A fancy title indeed, although one that Khadgar isn’t sure he can quite live up to.
Their company consists of him and Lothar, and two more warriors. None of them are happy to talk to him. Effectively, he is the third wheel, his horse small enough to be useless in any combat. But tonight the night is peaceful. Orcs haven’t been sighted for weeks, and the patrol that circles the south of Stormwind’s city walls proceeds with all the ease of a routine check.
“Remind me again why you are here,” says Lothar over his shoulder.
Lothar has been invited to join the patrol to boost troop morale. He is the Lion, the shining paragon of the Alliance; someone just a little larger than life itself. People see him and they want to follow him.
Khadgar feels clumsy in comparison.
But Lothar is not very chivalrous. And charisma, Khadgar snorts to himself with a glance at the man in question, that is something the man severely lacks.
See, Lothar has been invited. Not so Khadgar. All Khadgar gets for gracing them with his company is a mocking look up and down his mud-patched attire that shouldn’t make Khadgar–who reminds himself that he is an adult with a growing reputation of his own–feel like he wants to disappear.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Khadgar is, the moment that Lothar turns his attention on him, caught upending his right boot over the road.
“You.” Lothar gestures to him. “Here.”
Lothar always does that; make him feel like he should have stayed home. Being the new Guardian in training hasn’t changed that. Figuratively and more often than not literally, Khadgar is miles behind him.
It doesn’t bother Khadgar tonight. “There were stories of this plant in the market today,” he says. “And it’s supposed to be somewhere–”, he takes in his surroundings, then promptly reigns in his horse, “–around here! Wonderful.”
Under the copse of an old oak tree, on the other side of a pond, spreads a field of glowing blue lilies. The pond seems less than a foot deep. The sight is breathtaking even for him; a mage who is used to glowing fauna, toadstools the size of human heads and sentient crawler vines.
But unwilling to look like a fool again, he doesn’t wade through the pond, even if it’d clean some of the dirt of his clothes. Khadgar circles the water through the reeds along its far banks. “Wait up!” he calls to Lothar and the other man.
He hears an annoyed groan. “Really?”
The thing is, it aren’t the flowers that bring him here. Not to get him wrong, they are beautiful in their own enchanting might. What he heard of their potential shows promise. But Khadgar is really on this patrol because Lothar is. The flowers, well, the flowers are a good excuse.
They don’t see each other a lot these days. Something tends to always comes up, whether that are it the ins and outs of palace security or a mission for which he is gone for weeks. Lothar is an impossible man to spend time with. Last time, it was was the fortification of the barracks.
And Khadgar hasn’t got a lot of time either. People actually want something from him these days. Well, he looks around the company, other people. So Lothar could be a bit more happy about an old friend wanting to catch up.
Tonight, Lothar is here on the Queen’s request. Khadgar takes what he can get.
“Just a minute,” he calls back.
Lothar shakes his head. Khadgar doesn’t have to see to know it. The other two guards are less bothered by his curious interest in some glowing wildflowers. “It is true?” one asks, egged on by Lothar’s mockery. “About the demon?”
Khadgar stops. He doesn’t know what to say. Rumours have spread like fire. The official version, of course, is that Medivh has become corrupted and possessed by a great and terrible thing, and that his death could not be avoided. It is the true one. But some whispers have sprouted up behind his back. And twist it one way or another, Khadgar is the one who killed the Guardian. It gives him no joy, and it is not something he wants to boast about.
“Do you doubt it, soldier?” Lothar challenges.
“Of course not,” the man cowers. “Apologies. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
Both guards are silent for the rest of the night. The Queen will be less amused if she hears that her brother’s morale boost ended up with two chastised guards.
Khadgar keeps his eyes on the flowers he plucks, if only to cover up the smile. It is in the small things.
* * *
The very presence of Lothar fills Khadgar with a yearning to impress. Most of the times, that results in him making an fool of himself. So when he is asked to have a drink with them the end of their patrol–to crawl out of his own corner in the tavern, where he has unintentionally infused the air with magic while writing about the various uses for the flower and trying out some simple spells on it–Khadgar passes up on it.
“Don’t mind me,” he says. He tries come up with an excuse. None of them pass as a valid argument without him coming off as antisocial, so he just smiles and goes back to his notebook.
“Nonsense,” one guard waves it off. He is so inebriated it is almost painful to watch. “Work can wait. Come have fun.”
“That’s not–” how he has fun. Which sounds pretty patronising in his head, and so he doesn’t say it.
“The boy doesn’t drink,” Lothar fills in for him. “Trust me, others have tried.” He eyes Khadgar with a half-lidded smile that easily sets Khadgar’s insides alight. The heavens know how fond he is of what ale and intoxication look like on the other man. It makes him look accessible. But Khadgar certainly keeps that to himself.
“I just don’t like the taste of it,” he says.
Lothar smirks. “You’ve never tried it.”
“I’ve had it before.” And it did terrible things to his concentration. Trying to cure a hangover while personally on that same hangover is the worst.
“Wait until you try it for real. I’ll hear what you say about it then.”
Khadgar frowns. “Are we still talking about ale?”
Lothar’s smile curls to mischief. He knows he has Khadgar by the gills. “Have one with me. Let down your impossible standards for a night.”
And that’s when Khadgar knows it; it isn’t about the ale. He feels like a lamb being led to slaughter. Dread fills his gut. “Fine,” he relents. “One. And–”
The flower in his hands, still being infused with a blue stream of light from his fingers with his mind preoccupied, bursts into a cloud of tiny glowing seeds. He splutters and waves at the air to get rid of them. They stick instead to his already battered cloak and tangle in his hair. He is pretty sure he has breathed in a few of them.
A glare finds its way to Lothar. “Not a word.”
Of course, Lothar is barely containing himself. “A drink,” he raises his glass, “to the glowing boy.”
Lothar should know better than to piss off a mage. Khadgar takes three more flowers from the basket. He mutters a few arcane syllables, and releases them. They drift to Lothar. There, they burst into an ethereal bouquet.
Too late Khadgar becomes aware of what he himself is starting to feel. Breathlessness. Tingling. And not unpleasantly so.
He promptly douses the floating tufts around Lothar and sits down a few seats next to him, where he orders a large pint of beer and swallows it down as fast as he can. Alcohol is useful to put a stopper on a lot of things. Then he pushes the pint in front of Lothar against him. “Drink. Fast.”
A hitch in Lothar’s confused complaint tells Khadgar that the poison has taken effect in him as well. Khadgar pushes the pint against his hands more forcefully. He can’t allow himself the liberty of liking what he sees. If he could, he’d notice the enlarged pupils and the parted lips. The sounds that Lothar makes would distract him for sure. And then, deep in the undercurrent, he would see the promise of ferocity.
But Khadgar’s senses are already returning to normal. More for his own sanity than for Lothar’s well-being, he urges his friend, “Drink it now.”
Lothar upends the pint with his eyes firmly on the mage. When he is done, he puts it back on the counter with a thud and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Mind telling me what that was?”
Khadgar’s cheeks light up red hot. He is glad for the merciful dim light. “Nothing.”
“Look at you, you just drank a full glass without complaining. That was not nothing.”
But Khadgar can’t tell him. He’s ashamed of having been so careless as to cast the effects of a relatively unknown flower on Lothar before he knew its effects. Just like he’s ashamed of how the spell has affected himself. “Right, that’s enough for one night. I should go.”
“Go?” frowns Lothar. “Go where?”
“The castle?” Home, Khadgar nearly says. He doesn’t have a home anywhere; the castle feels like one.
“What are you hiding?”
The tavern smells of ale and sweat. Lothar does, too. It is so alien to Khadgar, who is used to candle wax and old wood. They have so little in common, he thinks. Khadgar prefers a warm fire and a book on his lap. He likes soup more than ale. With the drunken laughter of the other soldiers behind him, he feels stupid. Too young for their company.
“A poison,” he says, not without effort. “It’ll sap your strength, but it’ll make you feel like you’re in love first. I’m sorry. I only wanted to make you pay.”
“Huh, in love.” Lothar leans in closer, just like that. “Did you dream of books?”
“Honestly,” mutters Khadgar.
“No shame in thinking of books,” shrugs the other. “If that’s your thing.”
Khadgar leans his forehead on the counter, mortified. “Oh my god.”
“I’m just saying.”
“This conversation can’t possibly get worse.”
Lothar smirks. “Boy, it can get ten times worse.” He orders both of them another pint, and leans his upper body on the counter to whisper close enough for just the two of them to hear, “‘It’ll make you feel in love’? How about we just call it by its name.”
Lothar is right; it does get worse.
“You fed me aphrodisiac.”
“I didn’t know!”
“No, but you still did it.”
A glass of amber liquid is put on the counter in front of Khadgar. He ignores it. When the other guards pick up on Khadgar’s humiliation, he can practically taste their laughter at his expense beginning to build. They don’t mean ill. They would have laughed at one of their own comrades. Still, it is too much. Khadgar screws up his face and–
“You. Be silent, or leave.”
The guards stand perplexed. Khadgar blinks.
“You heard me,” says Lothar. Right there and then, he is every inch the Lion, not just a man in a bar. He speaks with so much authority to the guards that nobody dares speak back to him. But then he sinks back into his seat and pats Khadgar’s cheek–actually pats Khadgar’s cheek. “Honestly, you could just tell me if you need a teacher in the arts, you know.”
“The,” and the mage doesn’t know whether to laugh or be even more humiliated. Whether Lothar is even real. “the arts?”
Lothar only replies with a self-satisfied smirk. Once again, when he chugs down his ale, his eyes are on Khadgar, challenging him to something. Some of the glowing seeds still cling to his beard, like they stick in Khadgar’s dark hair. The two look more magical than the debased conversation they are having proves they are not.
Worse are Khadgar’s words when he is done with being the kid. “What makes you think I need a teacher?”
“Books are not humans.”
“You don’t know half of the things they write about.”
Amused, Lothar toasts to that. “You’re right. An honest mistake.” His eyes glance over to the flowers in the corner. Then he closes the distance to whisper in confidence, “Say, what would happen if we’d get out of here and you left those flowers here, and someone accidentally activates a few?”
“Highly, highly unethical things.”
“You are sure?”
“Are you challenging me, Lion of Azeroth? Because if word goes around–”
“One. I’m not asking for a lot.”
The virtues Khadgar tries to follow war with the side of him that hasn’t had fun in a long time. Activating those flowers isn’t noble. In fact, a bit of innocent fun could land him in a lot of trouble. A cloud of politics is working around him at all times, since he is officially in training to one day become an esteemed figure, the legacy of whom goes back far into the past. Having this bit of fun would practically be sacrilege.
But then, Lothar’s position is already one of power. And he seems to be making the suggestion in the first place.
One can’t hurt.
* * *
The morning hammers into him with the force of a brick.
Khadgar opens his eyes and promptly decides that he doesn’t want to. His whole body is in pain. Worse, his mouth is ashen, his skin is sweaty and no amount of good intent will cure the headache he finds himself cursed with.
He just had to get talked into drinking again.
It takes him an hour to freshen up, and then an hour more to wash the cloak and the boots. The seeds of the love plant are first to go–he vows never to set foot in that meadow again–and then off comes the mud.
Night has fallen before his headache has weakened well enough for him to try anything arcane. So when he goes outside for breakfast at sunset, his clothes are dry and clean like nothing has ever happened, and he looks and feels fine, but he is famished.
On the floor in front of the door lies the bent shape of a flower.
And last night comes back to him.
Something flickers awake in Khadgar’s chest. He picks up the sole survivor of the bouquet, the rest of which was fed to the flames. It was supposed to be magicked and released onto any random person, except they never got around to that. Khadgar had to get up from his seat too fast after drinking several pints of beer. He had to get himself floored.
He picks up the flower. For fond memories, he draws up its magic to distil the essence into a vial and corks it. In time, it’ll be a lovely memento to remind him of a fine evening spent with a good friend.
Bread and milk break his fast in the Gilded Rose among men who have settled in for the night. Khadgar listens to their stories while he doodles forests and mystical meadows in a linen-bound book, in between lessons to practice his handwriting. It has to be good for when he starts writing books of his own.
As he draws a picture of the vial and the bog, then a faceless man in armour astride a pale horse, he hears that Lothar has left the city on a visit to Ironforge.
A good friend and just that, he thinks, and he tries to hide his disappointment.
Later that night, he entreats the vial to the Queen, so that she may pass it on to Lothar. Because Khadgar doesn’t need a flower to remind him of the man, and he’d like it to remind Lothar, so that they won’t be strangers when their separating paths happen to cross.
* * *
Ironforge turns into other missions, which turn into leading an army on the plains.
The city of Stormwind is in spring when the Lion returns and the land celebrates welcoming back its champion and its victors.
As per the Queen’s request, Khadgar evokes rose petals from thin air during the march into the city. He conjures up fireworks at night. He is responsible for a lot of pointless displays of magic. The people love it, but he feels like a cheap entertainer. Later, he proceeds onto the things that do matter. He visits the wounded to alleviate pain where he can. He sleeps not until the next day, and only because he is too exhausted to stand up.
Then comes the Queen’s speech for the people, which Khadgar is also asked to attend. He stands in a corner of the platform, hands folded, while the children ceremoniously laurel a restless Lothar.
War, Khadgar can feel it, is still in his blood. Lothar is brimming with an energy despite his losses. And Khadgar can’t do anything about it.
The festivities are planned to last three days. When he can, Khadgar chooses not to participate in as many as he can by secluding himself in a tavern not far from the edge of town. There are responsibilities he has to take care of while the city rejoices, but he needs to finally for once get a hold of the laws of levitation. He has been putting it off for months.
He hasn’t been able to focus for almost as long.
His solitary peace is not to last. A messenger of the Queen bequests him to join them for the banquet in the palace later the night of the third day. The people, she writes, would like to see the man who has done so much for them.
He is the man who can conjure up rose petals. Khadgar smiles at the irony; her kind words alleviate the fact that his only contribution to the battle has been after it has already been fought. Khadgar is nowhere near good enough to serve the Alliance at the level that Medivh managed–but as always, she just encourages him.
And so he ends up at a rowdy banquet seated next to, unsurprisingly, the Lion himself.
“You’re awfully quiet,” says Lothar casually over stripping tender meat off chicken bone.
His energy is still surging. Khadgar is sure Lothar will crash if he doesn’t hold himself up. After weeks of living under constant threat, the civilised world doesn’t suit him.
“I forgot how much you love it when I speak.” He says it coolly, but when he glances at Lothar, there is the hint of a smile.
The best part of the evening is the one where it is returned.
“You got me a gift,” Lothar says.
“The flower.” He gestures at the crowd. “We never did get to see what it would do to a tavern of guards.”
Khadgar hums to himself. “It’s yours now. You can waste it on a couple of strangers if you want.”
“Hm.” Lothar breathes out. “Any stranger is good. It’s been a while since I had some fun.”
And that’s not really the response Khadgar was going for–or what he meant by ‘strangers’, for that matter. His smile smooths out into a polite nod that is distant on so many complicated levels that Lothar, who lives in the here and now, can’t pick up on it. “It’s yours. Do what you want with it. Unwind.”
Lothar leans back into his throne. His eyes follow a dancing girl. “You’re a terrible liar.”
And as they follow her weave in and out of the crowd, and Khadgar feels with every twirl how their paths are splitting further apart, he knows how very right Lothar is.
He gets up and pats his companion on the back, and then he finds the girl and talks to her. Lothar’s eyes are on them; Khadgar knows they are. He points her to the Lion like he is a messenger and she can’t refuse the offer he confers. Considering that it is Lothar, and Khadgar is very similar to the girl in what she wants, he knows that she will go up to him to have all the things that he will not.
He busies himself elsewhere for a while. He observes the joust going on between Prince Varian and one of the squires. Then he spends time engaged in a conversation on the history of Karazhan.
And when it is deemed acceptable, he retires for the night.
A last glance at the throne, Khadgar’s chest constricts when he finds Lothar there alone, his lips a flat line. His expression is a dark thundercloud.
It is not his problem, he tells himself.
* * *
Khadgar is in only in his nightshirt when Lothar makes it his problem.
There is a rap on the door. Anyone can tell it is Lothar by the agitated continuity and the clang of too much armour. The noise is irksome. It also does not stop after ignoring it for two minutes.
So when Khadgar opens the door, he makes sure to look very annoyed. It comes out instead as feeble. And he fidgets. Not, he curses himself, the effect he was aiming for. “Yes?”
“I have no idea what is going on in your head, boy.”
Except Lothar doesn’t look angry. In fact, he bears no semblance to frustration other than one with himself. There might be the hint of ale to enhance it. Not enough to make him annoying; just enough to make him human.
“I don’t know the answer to that myself,” Khadgar says in earnest.
“Are you angry with me?”
“No.” There is much stress on that single syllable. “Maybe.”
“I’ve been gone too long.”
“Too long,” confirms Khadgar.
Lothar inspects him, and a familiar grin slowly appears on his face. “You’ve grown.”
And Khadgar splutters. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Lothar grants himself entrance into his humble room. He looks around and sits himself on Khadgar’s small bed. No doubt it is nothing compared the four-poster in the royal chambers, and yet tonight, Lothar oddly looks like belongs here. Granted, the room may lack a few more swords and a shield or two for his taste; it has far too many scrolls. But here.
He looks really, really good on his bed.
Khadgar doesn’t know what business Lothar has in his room, and neither does Lothar, apparently, because he gets up again and then he looks at him, and says, “This’d be easier if you were a lady.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Lothar rolls his eyes at him. Finally, something familiar. Unfortunately, that is also when Khadgar becomes aware of how little space Lothar is leaving between them. When he looks up, Lothar is crowding his vision.
And then the distance becomes impossibly small.
“I don’t know!” Khadgar blurts out. “I said I knew, and I know the theory of it, but I don’t–”
“But you want to, right?” smirks Lothar like he finds all of this more entertaining than he did a second ago. “Look at me.”
And Khadgar does.
He forgets to breathe.
Lothar is too close. His eyes are alight with something that makes no sense. Khadgar swallows it all up anyway; to be the focus of a man who so painfully represents all of Khadgar’s physical distractions where there ought to be focus only on the arcane is as confronting as it is heady.
He doesn’t know where Lothar picked up on it. He has been careful with his affections. And he doesn’t quite know what is happening to them, now. At some level, it feels like they have always been moving towards this moment.
The instance that Lothar’s mouth seeks out his own, Khadgar loops his arms over his shoulder pads and draws him in.
It spirals out of control just like that.
Lothar is hard metal against pliant skin. He is ale and of smoked wood from the festivities in the throne room; both scents are a little distracting, here in Khadgar’s bedroom, but Khadgar takes it. All the textbook graphics from the libraries he has studied in come back to him; how inadequate they are in describing the heat that pools in his chest and loins.
Heavy gauntlets rest on his hip. Iron plates creak and grind with every move.
Khadgar tries to take them off. “Why are you wearing this much armour?” mutters he in between Lothar sequestering him against the wall, taking as much as he needs, and Khadgar giving as much as he can. Where Lothar is power, Khadgar is adaptability.
“I’m in the lair of a powerful mage,” argues Lothar.
“You’re the Lion. You’re not supposed to be scared of anything.”
“Oh, I am very scared of this one.”
Khadgar can’t help but laugh. Lothar is right; he does learn. This thing they are sharing is far more captivating than anything a spellbook can teach him. He wants more.
One gauntlet comes off. Then the other. The straps of Lothar’s breastplate are being undone with shakier hands, before Lothar catches them. “Shoulder plates first.”
“I knew that.”
“Sure you did.”
“You do it, then.”
It takes loosening a strap here, taking off a piece of armour there, and then Lothar’s armour is on the floor. In reality it takes much longer than that, but Lothar is so adept at it–distracts Khadgar so easily with that knowing grin and that raised brow–that it happens before Khadgar can tell himself to breathe.
And then, with all the possibilities and all the implications of their unclothed selves, it should be awkward for a man without experience like himself; a man who knows how to proceed from books that only ever feature a man and a woman.
It is not. “Stop thinking, boy,” says Lothar, before he douses the single candle in the room, casting them into midnight, and kisses him again.
Khadgar is almost offended. Hands tug his waist close against a solid chest, Lothar’s unarmoured body now strikingly more corporeal, while he strains to utter the single arcane component that will flare up the candle to light. Except Lothar’s hands are really quite distracting when they tug him towards the bed and hoist his robe up to his waist to map naked skin with warm hands.
Khadgar gasps. And that is when he understands the use of the dark, and all the lack of potential embarrassment. Khadgar’s cheeks can flush without having to be aware of them. He can fumble with Lothar’s tunic and his shaking hands are misconstrued as need rather than nervousness.
And Lothar knows all that. The man waits exactly long enough for Khadgar to take off the last articles of clothing between them before he pulls him down onto the ominously creaking bed, the size and sturdiness not fit for two men, to pin him down into the sheets under his naked bulk.
And Khadgar loses all coherent thought.
* * *
Come dawn, the room is empty.
The bed wasn’t made for two. And Khadgar knows it before he opens his eyes, when he wakes up under familiar sheets on the same comfortable mattress and he can stretch his limbs comfortably; Lothar is out. The festivities are over, and he has to work. He is gone on another mission.
He draws himself under the sheets when he remembers all of what has gone down in this bed.
He remembers Lothar’s hands. More and more brazen, until they draw gasps and finally utterly desperate whimpers from him. The grip of his fist, when he coaxes Khadgar into completion.
Khadgar remembers flaring the candle back to life the instant he catches his breath long enough to have the presence of mind for it, even if his concentration lacks. The flame flickers madly. But Lothar is staring at him. There are many wild emotions in that one look, and Khadgar laughs breathlessly and wraps his legs around the man’s hips and pulls him in. He surprises himself, too.
When Khadgar finally cleans himself up and moves into his clothes to to make something of his day, there is a letter on the floor.
Routine check of Deadwind Pass, it says in the most unacceptably awful handwriting he has seen in a long time. They really need to work on that. Might be able to detour to Karazhan on the third day, if you can teleport yourself there.
Can he teleport himself there?
Khadgar pours himself a cup of milk from the palace kitchens while he goes over that question. He greets the Queen when he catches her in the same kitchen quite by chance. She must see it in the way he is unable to control his smile.
He is the new Guardian. There is so much he intends to learn.
Can he teleport himself?
It’s not even a question.