Alus writes him letters, of course. Arc's relieved and, he finds, a little embarrassed; it has less to do with the letters and more to do with the odd hopeful flush he feels on his face as he takes it from the moogle's hand. He's always felt a little awkward while the others get their mail – no one seems to have yet realized that there's no-one who would send Arc anything, at all, anywhere – and so when he approaches the mailmog he finds himself tentative, oddly reluctant, which he recognizes as a blend of embarrassment and not wanting to get his hopes too high.
But the moogle looks him over once and nods, and holds out a letter – the mailmogs are all ridiculously strict about delivering their letters only to the person to whom it is addressed; Arc would wonder how they knew, but since each mog lives in its town and, well, they're the Light Warriors, it is probably obvious – and Arc tries to pretend his heart doesn't leap into his throat when he takes the paper. He's just happy to not be forgotten; knowing that their connection was meaningful enough for Alus to write is important, somehow.
Arc, says the envelope. The script is thick and ornate: there are two joyful swirls spiraling outward from the A, and a number of thin lines and thick bulbous serifs dot and trace the three letters, creating a cryptic maze that's nonetheless perfectly legible; Arc has never seen his own name written this way, elaborate and lavish as if he's some noble, some prince, something special. He's just plain Arc and for a second he feels very queer, as if he's simultaneously feeling exactly like himself and like someone else entirely.
But the words inside, when he opens it, are in a much simpler hand, although they appear to be writ with the same ink as the envelope. The note too is simple, a few words of gratitude and update, and Alus' name. The prince's – king's – signature is simple, unadorned, and Arc looks again at his name on the envelope, and can't stop the smile from spreading across his face. His name deserved to be beautiful; that means something. He's touched.
The letters are brief, but there are a handful of them over time, which Arc appreciates more than he wants to think about. Alus speaks of Saronia, and recovery, and peace; his words are short and straight-forward, and his signature simple, and yet every time a letter arrives the envelope is decorated: Arc, says the next, in a bold block script with angles jutting from each stroke, the script a sculptor might use; Arc is painted across the one after in tall slender flourishes, each curve packed tightly against the next. Arc keeps all the envelopes – obviously he keeps the letters, but these envelopes are strangely precious.
Now that he's getting his own mail, Arc watches the others as they read their own letters. Luneth gets notes from home and hilarious updates from Cid and witty words from the four men in Amur, because everyone who meets Luneth likes Luneth, and his face lights up with that cheeky smile every time as he reads them aloud to the group. Refia gets letters from her father, and her face quivers as she reads them, equal parts exasperation and love, a recipe that Arc can only label as family. Ingus reads Sara's letters with a harsh protectiveness, snatching them away to read in private; but the soft look that crosses his face lingers, and Arc has seen him brush his fingertips across the page, gently, like a lover might touch his lady's cheek.
Arc thinks that maybe his reaction is somewhat like all of theirs, but also a little different too. He folds his letters up with care, and just once he traces his own name in calligraphy with his fingertips, wondering what Alus was thinking as he wrote it so carefully.
- - -
After it is all over the letters continue. Arc returns to Ur with Luneth, because Luneth, and because it's the closest thing to home they've got. He finds himself missing Refia and Ingus with an odd ache, after traveling in a foursome for so long – even after Refia makes her own first airship, spectacularly crashes it into the woods beside Ur, and spends three weeks wearing out her welcome as the worst bedpatient ever before Luneth loses his temper and walks her and her sprained ribs and her broken ankle back to Takka himself – but he thinks often of Alus, King Alus, in the world below them. The letters continue to come, bearing Arc patterned out in new ingenious ways – one is all short strokes and dashes; the next is one long line of script looping back endlessly upon itself – and Arc finds himself writing back, now that he has the time to do so.
Alus writes of peace and time passing and political fervor; Arc writes of his books (where he is trying to write down an account of their travels) and his studies (which seem somewhat lacking in scope, after traveling the world and calling forth fire and wind), and thinks nothing of it. He writes his disappointment at Ur's small library, and is pleasantly surprised when Alus' response comes in the form of a package: textbooks from Saronia, a history of the nation, with his name carefully embossed on the cover. His response is a month late as he loses himself in foreign history, and his next letter to Alus is overwordy, bearing both effusive thanks he hopes Alus can feel and a plethora of questions about the progression of the monarchy. Alus laughs at him on paper and sends more books – the next is a linguist's history of languages – and the lively intellectual argument that follows spans the better part of a year and runs three mailmogs to exhaustion, so Luneth tells him.
(Luneth seems happy enough in Ur, save for the few times a year he succumbs to wanderlust and goes venturing: once as a pirate down below, once on a wild airship-chase with Refia which ended in some ghastly fireworks and one finger that still doesn't work right despite Arc's best efforts in setting it straight, once as a fill-in for some of the moogles actually delivering mail. Once he stayed with Ingus for a month and learned how to dance and bow properly; once he returned with a bottle of something awful, and he and Arc snuck out into the woods and got properly drunk and Luneth confessed he'd spent three weeks in the Water Temple, and Arc asked after Alus, and they both threw up into the stream. As usual, Luneth's method of dealing with the aftermath of their adventure is throwing himself headfirst into things; as usual, Arc is more careful, more slow, far too reluctant and shy to make assumptions about Ingus' welcome, let alone to board one of Refia's monstrosities, and he doesn't dare invite himself to see any of their other friends for fear he'd be unwanted.)
Their letters slowly become anecdotes: Alus briefly, tentatively, carefully mentions having to stand up for himself in a meeting with his chancellors, who argue about tax and tithe rates and benefits, and how he wishes it were easier. Arc replies with reassurance, and somehow over the next handful of letters, his own worries dot the pages amidst their usual arguments (which by now are mathematical in nature and impossible for anyone else to follow; Luneth looked once and made the kind of face he always makes at green beans): his fears for Refia, who grows more reckless every year; his desires to study other parts of the world, to learn the other nations, to write; his concerns on Ur and its dwindling economy; his reluctance to impose himself on others, even his friends. He finds the concepts, only half-formed in his mind, coming into distinct crystal clarity on paper; and every time he fears he has overstepped, there's a response from Alus carrying something equally shy and intimate; there's no-one else I could tell, Arc, say Alus' words, and Arc starts keeping the letters in a locked treasure chest – not because he suspects anyone would read them, but because they are precious things to him, and deserve to be kept safe.
The letters he gets from Alus boost his confidence gently, carefully, the simple well-worded sentences doing what Luneth's brash insistence can't: he finally goes with Luneth to visit Castle Sasune and Ingus and Sara (they happen to come upon Ingus and Sara kissing, once, and Luneth makes the same green-bean face of disgust), and once he even goes to visit Cid by himself. Mrs. Cid made me a pie, he writes Alus contemplatively; maybe I've been too much of a coward, and too shy. I just really don't want to intrude.
Somehow months pass into years and the carefully-locked chest in the corner of his bedroom fills with intellectual debate, friendly reminiscence, and gentle introspection – and envelopes, dozens of them, all with his name laid out on the paper like artwork, like poetry: Arc, written in bold black and sharp blue and soft grey, written in lines and curls and shadows, written in a dozen dozen different styles, all lovely enough to be framed, a calligraphy Arc still hasn't found the equal to (although he may be partial to his own name as the subject).
Alus sends more books, and Arc – taking a deep, deep breath for courage before he gives the carefully-wrapped, twine-tied package to the moogle – sends Alus the first draft of the book he's written about their journey. To his surprise, after a few months, Alus returns a copy of the book – Arc has no idea what has happened to the original – with all of his thoughts and questions detailed in the margins of the copy. Their correspondence fills with Arc's storytelling: what Gungans are like, how the water looked over the entire surface of the world, how terrifying it was to travel beneath the surface of the sea. Alus gently asks about the curse of the five wyrms, and Arc finds the courage to put the words to paper, finally: after all of that work, and battle, and suffering, to be locked there staring at myself and unable to move? I will not tell you how terrifying it was. I do not want to share those nightmares. Alus doesn't ask again; he replies only, then I am glad I could help, to which Arc fervently writes back, As am I.
When Alus queries about airships and travel, wanting Saronia to have air power of her own, Arc sends Refia – her third model, three years after her disastrous first one (and two years after the second model no one will speak of) is all sleek silver fire, perfectly safe and brilliantly fast – and she comes back with gold for commissions and gifts for everyone and jewels in her hair – and a letter for Arc.
The name on the envelope is plain, simple, almost messy, the quick thoughtless scrawl of a young king: Arc. It is very obviously Alus' handwriting and just as obviously not his best.
It fills him with an odd sense of foreboding, but not a bad one: it feels like being on the precipice of something, tiptoes on a fence, but it still makes him nervous. He's been taking the time Alus spends on his name, on the artwork of calligraphy, as a sign that his correspondence is still wanted and welcomed; he's never done the same in turn because he lacks the skill, and yet he finds his fingertips tracing the letters of his name over and over, wondering what Alus was thinking when he wrote it.
He opens the letter carefully. There are only a few words inside. Please come to Saronia. I'd like to see you again.
- - -
Refia's all too eager to fly him back down to the surfaceworld: Arc listens to the fast-paced tumble of words falling from her mouth and learns that she's spending most of her time traveling between the Floating Continent and the world below, bridging the gap between the world and opening up communication, trade, commerce. To hear Refia speak of it, it's a grand adventure – but Arc can't help but think of the nations below, and how they feel about the Shiva streaking through the sky above them, untouchable silver fire, and its impulsive, headstrong pilot. He's aware of the delicate politics involved because of his letters with Alus; Refia remains deliberately ignorant of any rules which might box her in, and Arc can understand how dearly she values her freedom, but he can't help but think of the consequences she may end up dealing with.
Refia has grown into a spitfire over the past four or five years: she's short but lean, almost all muscle; her hair is shorter than Arc's, swooping over one ear, and the color has darkened from her child's strawberry-blonde into a deeper, sharper red. Arc knows they've all grown – Ingus wears the armor of a man now – but some part of him fears the way they're growing. He thinks about how young they were when they were chosen by the crystals; he thinks about how much life they have left to them, and what they'll do with it. Will Luneth wander away one year and never return; will Refia burn herself out across the sky? Will he end up an old man in Ur, coming to terms with the limits of his small library, letting the world below him turn and change unseen?
No, Arc thinks, and the thought burns sharply within him. Surprisingly; he found his courage on their journey, but he hasn't had to call upon it so directly in a while, and he's a little alarmed at his own vehemence. No, he thinks again; I will not get lazy, and stay in Ur, and stop learning. Not when there are so many things to study and see and do. It feels oddly content, like a decision he isn't aware he needed to make.
But first, there is Alus. It feels somewhat strange that they haven't actually seen each other in years, with as much as they converse – it feels strange in a way where Arc feels like it should feel stranger. Should he be nervous? Because he isn't; this is Alus, his friend, who in the same letter once cited mathematical proofs in support of structured poetry and described his nightmares, Alus his friend who crafts his name in ink and makes it beautiful. Perhaps it is strange that two people who have not seen each other know each other so well, but that is just how it is: he knows Alus better than almost anyone despite how far away they have been. In a way, Arc realizes with some shock, he is closer to Alus than he is to this new, wild, rebel Refia; he watches her lean over the edge of the Shiva, her eyes sharp on the horizon, something between contentment and bitterness hovering about her mouth, and wonders again at how young they were when the crystals chose them.
If he feels like, in the secret shadows of his mind, where half-formed thoughts percolate unbeknownst to him until they come streaming out through his pen in his letters – if he feels deep down that perhaps they were too young to handle this, too young to bear the weight of the crystals and the fate of the world; if they were too young, at fifteen, then what about Alus, who took on only the weight of an entire nation at ten?
Arc is suddenly full of a strange pity: for Alus, for Refia, for all of them, for the way their childhood responsibilities are shaping their adult selves. He wonders whether King Alus is anything like the Alus that writes him letters.
But then Refia calls him over to show him her newest steering mechanism – she actually hasn't uninstalled the old one yet, in case the new one is faulty; she's learnt from her mistakes – and with her eagerness to share and his own curiosity at the engineering, it's almost like old times again.
- - -
They land in a clearing beside the castle; the scorchmarks in the grass tell Arc that Refia has perched here before. He watches her mutter her way through the shutdown sequence, and doesn't miss the way her fingers trace the joints and switches of her ship: it reminds him of Ingus, and the careful way he traced Sara's words, somehow – although he doesn't know why, because Refia's hands are confident and bold, very familiar and almost demanding. There's something about the same care and regard in it, though, and Arc thinks, Refia's marrying the sky – and then wants to laugh out loud at himself for his silly daydreams. It's not like Ingus and Sara are marrying at all.
By the time they gather their things – Arc's luggage, Refia's tools and items for trade from Ur – they've also gathered a small crowd of greeting. Four of the castle guards stand in pairs, each accompanied by a much younger knight, or squire, or page. One is leaning forward to speak with one of the guards, arms crossed and stature confident; the other is hovering nervously, scuffing his feet in the dust.
He lets Refia lead, because there's a sudden low burst of anxiety in his belly: these men will take him to his closest friend, who he hasn't seen in years, and he isn't sure why he's nervous but he is. Refia, unsurprisingly, strolls out the door with swagger and a grin, and Arc makes himself walk out behind her, out of the shadows of the Shiva. One of the guards gestures at him, and Refia's grin grows bigger, sharper. "He's with me, he's here for the king, it's okay," she tells him, as the two younger pages approach.
Refia gives the smaller of the two a hearty handshake, and Arc watches as the nerves in his face transform into blatant hero worship; "Told you I'd be back soon, Brin," she says, and then shakes the other's hand. "I brought your present, Al," she says, glancing pointedly over her shoulder at Arc, "now could I have some help with the rest of it?"
"Of course," says the taller of the knights. "Please help the lady unload," and he gestures at the airship, a graceful flick of the fingers.
"Yes, my liege," replies the first guard, and they all fall into place behind Refia as she heads back into the ship. Arc, startled, has to scramble out of the way, but his eyes are immediately drawn back to the taller knight – whose eyes have been on him from the start, who's still watching him.
Alus is as tall as he is, perhaps taller – Arc notes with a mental sigh that it's highly likely – and lithe; his uniform is well-cut, fitted to slender muscle, and trimmed with subtle piping the other boy's uniform lacks, now that he's looking more closely. He seems utterly at ease, standing there with his arms crossed and staring at Arc so intensely. His hair is even paler than Arc remembers, and his eyes are bright with amusement. Arc realizes he's been staring only because Alus' mouth has twitched up into a fond, inviting smile.
"King Alus," he says, finally remembering his own voice; he can't keep the resulting smile off of his own face.
Alus' face lights up, and he laughs, and starts forward; Arc lets his suitcases fall and suddenly he's hugging his friend, his best friend, his closest friend who isn't Luneth, a friend he chose; a friend who chose him in return. Alus is taller than he is by a fraction – which is and isn't surprising – but otherwise they're similar in bulk. Arc finds himself laughing too, and it's genuine, all the nerves gone.
Alus lets him go and there's a long minute where they stand there and just look at each other; there's a lot between them, years and words and secrets, and Arc suddenly remembers his name writ up in calligraphy with ornamental ink, and flushes a little at Alus' scrutiny. "It's good to see you," he says, and means it, because there's a strange intensity to seeing Alus after so long and knowing that every word on every page was written by those hands, a pen in those fingers. The thought is oddly intimate and yet Arc feels more proud of it than anything, as if he knows parts of this King the others don't.
"Let's," Alus begins, a little flustered: "Brinford, please take his luggage if you can. Lady Refia, will you be staying?" His gaze keeps returning to Arc in flickers, as if he's checking to make sure Arc is still there, the scrutiny both endearing and searingly powerful. It's a King's regard, and Arc feels himself standing taller beneath it, instinctively.
"Al," Refia calls from the airship, "if you call me Lady again I'll break both your arms."
"Lady Refia," Alus returns, "I would deeply appreciate if you could refrain from antagonizing my guards. They don't appreciate threats on my person."
"I will win Brin over eventually," Refia says, as she emerges from the airship with dirt on her face, her arms full of something wrapped in paper and cloth. She grins at all of them, and Arc watches her face brighten. "And then you'll come to regret it. I'm keeping a tally, you know."
Arc watches the byplay with a strange wistful kind of envy: not that he's ever been the joking type, but are these the sorts of things he has missed staying in Ur, with Luneth, with books; staying away from friends, from conversation, from connection? Refia's smile is easy and Alus' posture is relaxed and comfortable, and he suddenly wishes he'd left the village years ago to do this.
"The day you can get Brinford to stop calling you Lady," Alus replies, "I will begin to worry."
"What if I can get him to call you Al?" she shoots back, turning the full wattage of her grin on the younger page and giving him an overblown wink. The boy – Brinford – goes bright red.
"Perish the thought," Alus says, and they all laugh, and Arc is both charmed by their happiness and a little bit sad to be left out of it. But Alus' eyes flick back to him, direct and intent, and he can't help but smile at him anyway.
"Let's head inside, at least," Alus says; "Lady Refia, will you be staying?"
"No, Al." She shakes her head and hands her armful over to one of the remaining guards. "That goes to the smithy, they'll know what to do with it. Sorry," she continues, turning back. "I'm just here to drop off all of your presents. I'll be back this way in… a week or two? After Amur."
"Very well," Alus says, and Refia dodges his attempt at a handshake and gives him a hug, swift and playful.
She hugs Arc, too, and when she pulls away there's something in her face: her eyes are sparkling, and the look is both teasing and pleased; she glances between him and Alus as if she knows something he doesn't. The lines of tension in her face have faded, and her smile is relaxed and expectant. "Have fun, Arc," she says, as if she means to say something different – and kisses him on the cheek, much to his surprise. Alus laughs; Arc can hear Brinford making some kind of affronted squeak.
"This way," Alus says then, and he reaches out to take Arc's arm and guide him back into the castle. When Arc glances over his shoulder to wave at Refia one more time, she's grinning that same grin as if she knows some kind of secret, but she waves back anyway.
- - -
Saronia is much like he remembers, although without the fear of war and the press of time and the insatiable pull-draw of the crystals on the edges of their consciousness, Arc can take more time to observe. She's an odd land: stone and concrete, forest and fences, water and walls, forces which seem opposite working instead in harmony together. The castle itself is grander than he remembers, and now that there's no crisis, Arc takes the time to appreciate the carvings in the corners, the designs pressed into the glass of the windows.
They are interrupted three times on their way to – wherever – by courtiers and chancellors with urgent questions for the King. Arc tries to idle away to the side and act invisible but by the third time he's pretty openly watching, because Alus is a brilliant King and it's like another page revealed in the story: the writing is the same but all of the phrasings are new, clever courtly words and thinking on his feet. Within the time it has taken them to walk down this hallway Alus has decisively ruled on a debate between what Arc assumes are two squabbling nobles, revoked a tax levy, and sent out support to assist in a fire in northwest Saronia. It isn't just the actions themselves, it's the way that Alus approaches every one with utmost confidence, as if he knows exactly what to do at all times. Arc thinks of a chest full of letters and holds them up to this king, soft and quiet but utterly assured, and he's suddenly curious to watch the king at work, to see how his friend became this ruler.
Alus laughs and touches his arm again to guide him down a side hallway, and Arc finds himself thinking of confidence. Luneth's confidence is a nod, a lack of fear, because Luneth's too quick to throw himself into something to fear it; Refia's is a brazen shout, to scare away the things she is afraid of. What he sees in Alus is somewhat like Ingus' confidence, quiet and enduring – but where Ingus is a knight following where he is led, Alus is the path himself. Arc wonders what his confidence looks like to the others – whether he has any, whether his careful wordings and intellectual theories have any weight at all, or if he just looks like a book-smart wimp like he used to.
"Here," Alus says as he opens a door. "Safety." He smiles as he says it, the corners of his mouth quirking up as if there's a secret between the two of them; Arc glances around the room and notes that it's some kind of study, and wonders whether this is where Alus wrote his letters. It must be, because the smile on his face grows even more relaxed, more pleased, as the door shuts. Arc takes a step forward, takes a longer look around. There's a long corner desk, spotted with both candles and lamps; papers have been gathered and sorted into stacks that must make sense to someone's eye. There are three bookshelves, all full to the point of exploding; books are piling up in the floor in creeping huddling stacks, too, slowly encroaching into the floor space.
"They won't disturb me in here unless the castle itself is on fire," Alus explains. "It's my workroom. It's the one place I keep strict rules about." He heads over to a corner, and pushes aside a stack of books and papers to reveal a chair, which he brings out and sets by the desk. "There's also," he begins, mostly to himself as he ducks behind the desk and roots around, then spots a covered tray resting securely on a double stack of books and sighs happily. "Food, and safe haven," he says, making a grandiose little gesture that seems so naturally, instinctively regal that Arc suddenly envies his innate grace.
"Thanks for having me," he says, suddenly not knowing what else to say.
Alus comes to stand before him; reaches out, takes Arc's hands in his own, and there's a single long moment where they stand there looking at each other: "I'm sorry," Alus says, randomly, and his hands clench tighter; his gaze is all over Arc's face. "I'm just glad you're actually here," he continues, and it's like he's trying to take in all of Arc at once; "it's hard to believe I haven't seen you in so long."
"I know," Arc says, and, "me too," although he isn't entirely sure what he's agreeing with; the words don't matter, though, because he agrees with whatever's written on Alus' face: this strange emotion, too warm to be need but too intense to be mere welcome. It's the same way he felt every time a moogle handed him a letter with his name on it, Arc in swirls and lines and devotion: one small meaningful connection cutting through the weight of their journey – the crystal-call always in their ears, the rush and ebb of light and dark at the edges of their dreams – a handful of small sentences; a friend calling him back from the mirror. It's there between them now: as it was in their mail, between every line they wrote, in the spaces of every letter, caught in the sharp lines of each A. Arc doesn't have to have a name for it to know he feels the same way.
His hands clutch Alus' hands, and then they're both laughing, somehow, because it's silly and stupid for them to have been apart this long and they both know it now. They both know what they mean to the other. They always have.
From there it's easy to sit down and fall right into conversation as if it hadn't been five long years – only it's more, now, to actually see his friend and hear his voice. Alus says he has an accent, but of course Arc is used to the short light vowels of the Floating Continent – to him it's the Saronians who can't pronounce creek and roof correctly – and it turns into a discussion on linguistics. And between the sentences Arc can't help but watch Alus, learning the new parts of a friend he's already familiar with. Alus gestures a lot with his hands, long slender fingers pointing and waving and speaking their own language; when he gets particularly amused or agitated about a point there's a faint blush that rides his sharp cheekbones, obvious against his pale skin. Arc watches, intently, curious at every gesture – the way his eyes crinkle at a joke; the way he bites his lip when thinking – and at some point he catches himself and stops speaking mid-sentence and flushes, because it's as if he's running his fingertips over words on a page and wondering what they mean.
"Are you reading me?" Alus asks, his smile quirking. "You are, aren't you? Like some sort of textbook?" He looks amused.
"Like you're a letter," Arc corrects him, before he can think of how ridiculous that sounds – but then Alus nods as if he understands it, and Arc decides to just continue on rather than dwell on it.
Alus in turn can't seem to stop touching Arc, just faintly, as if he can learn by feel this person he hasn't seen in years. Arc is almost glad of it; he wouldn't dare to freely touch any one of his acquaintances, let alone a King, but it's helping to anchor him somehow, helping to fill in all those spaces and illustrate all those words. It's just brief – the press of fingertips on Arc's arm as he makes a point, a quick tap on his thigh for emphasis, once a curious look and a thumb across his freckles – as if Alus is somehow checking the work before him as they sit and speak, making Arc familiar again under his hands. Arc wonders whether he should bother to wonder; it's so obviously something Alus needs, something he's doing with care and concern, and his thumb as it brushes over Arc's cheek is a little sign of trust and confidence – if it were anyone else Arc might be bothered, but it doesn't bother him now because it's Alus. His friend: the one friend he chose, regardless of life circumstances and the call of the crystals, regardless of years apart; the one friend who chose him. It doesn't make Luneth and Refia and Ingus anything less, but it does make Alus something more, Arc thinks, and when Alus reaches out next and his fingers trail Arc's shoulder, Arc reaches up and catches his hand, and clasps it. Alus' eyes go wide and his breath catches a little – as if he's surprised to be caught at this game; as if he didn't even realize what he was doing – but Arc just squeezes his hand and then lets go and gives Alus a grin.
"I am glad to be here," he says. "Thank you for inviting me." Because he isn't sure he would've dared on his own, even though now that he's here he can't quite believe he didn't dare years ago.
"I figured I should make it obvious," Alus says, smiling, teasing, and Arc laughs, mock-offended and swatting away the gesture Alus makes towards his arm. He's surprised when instead Alus' fingers stray towards his face: touching at his temple, then the ends of his hair, then brushing his cheek again. Alus' smile is playful but there's something solemn and reverent behind it, something deep as oceans; it's gone in a flash, and then Alus stands up and sighs, holding out a hand to help Arc up as well.
"We can't stay in here forever or someone will break the rule and come to the door," he says. "The price I pay for having a safe haven is not abusing the luxury."
"Perish the thought," Arc says, teasing a little bit, trying it out, and Alus laughs aloud and grins at him fondly.
"We don't have to go do anything specific," he explains, "I just need to be accessible sometimes. Most of the time," he adds ruefully, shrugging.
"It's certainly alright," Arc says emphatically. "I don't expect you to be able to drop everything just because I came for a visit!"
"Well, about that," Alus begins, but then there's a bowing courtier at their elbows, wanting to know where she should put the visiting delegate from Replito, and Arc becomes a shadow to the King of Saronia, eager to watch his friend in action.
- - -
That night there is a dinner in his honor. It's no big occasion, but bigger than Arc is used to, even after visiting Princess Sara: the tables are arranged in long lines and Arc sits at the King's right. They're full of chancellors and advisors and nobles whose names he has no hope of remembering. Instead, Arc smiles at everyone and enjoys the meal and watches Alus: continuing to read this story, to study his friend like a history.
King Alus is quiet but not shy, terse but not rude; his chancellors are more than happy to carry on conversations with and around their esteemed visitor – the historians especially are plying Arc with questions about his journey every time there is a second 's pause in the conversation – and the king seems content to watch and to listen. Arc does not mistake it for a moment as boredom or lack of wit, because Alus' gaze is alert as he lets his women and men talk and tell stories. Occasionally Arc will be talking or listening himself and he'll glance up to find Alus watching him closely; he notices neither one of them can keep from smiling a little as their eyes meet, even mid-sentence. He also notices that few at their table will talk to the King directly, although they all listen and answer when he speaks; Arc therefore makes a point of directing his stories to Alus, when he is talking, because that doesn't seem fair.
The meal winds down, and Alus' light touch on his arm grabs his attention: "I need to go take care of a few things," his friend murmurs, "but I will have Brinford show you to your rooms so you aren't waiting."
"Oh," Arc says, "really, don't worry about it. I'll be fine."
He follows young Brinford through the hallways and up the stairs in one of the towers, into what must be a guest chamber: his suitcases are lined up beside the bed, and the sheets are turned down, and there's a fire going. Brinford shows him how to run the bath and the icebox where they've left him snacks – Arc wonders whether he's getting special treatment as a friend of Refia's – and then leaves him alone to truly explore. The first thing Arc notices are the books; there's a small but respectable shelf in here and this must have been Alus' doing entirely, because it's full of volumes they've discussed in their letters: R. Harvey's Letters of Physicks Parts A and B, three volumes of poetry from the Golden Age, S. Drake's Metaphysics of Eidolons, and what looks like a very old collection of Doga's writings. Arc makes himself unpack his nightclothes and take a quick bath before he touches any of them, but he soon gets lost in Harvey's first letter on the conservation of magical energy, and he's just stood up to look for paper where he can detail his counterargument to the point Alus was making three months ago when there's a knock on the door.
"Are you awake?" Alus asks, and Arc smiles and remembers the night they met five or so years ago. But when he opens the door it's this Alus, tall and teenaged and looking surprisingly exhausted.
"You're not entirely wrong about Harvey's first letter," Arc greets him conversationally, "but I was just now looking for something to take notes on because you are wrong about the extent of variability. I just read that section again and he says quite clearly that repeatability can be poor."
"Perhaps you're right," Alus murmurs as he follows Arc into the room and shuts the door behind himself. "However, you're also wrong about one thing, because R. Harvey was a woman."
"If you have a history on R. Harvey that you've been keeping from me, I demand you share immediately," Arc says excitedly. His eyes follow Alus as he sits down on the couch and leans his head back; he presses his hands to his eyes and then stretches his arms out along the back of the couch, long lines trimmed in neat piping. "Okay, not immediately," he amends quickly. "You look…" He isn't quite sure what word to fill in there, because it isn't as if he has a significant set of data on how Alus looks at different times of the day, and the unfinished sentence falls neatly into a strange pocket of silence between them. Tired is the first and most obvious one, but his eyes are tracing the sharp lines of his friend's trim jacket and softened somehow comes to mind: drained; relaxed. He almost asks whether Alus wants to have a bath but bites his tongue immediately; surely the King has a much nicer suite, even if he has no complaints about this one.
"I'm sorry," Alus says, sitting up. "This is no way to welcome a friend who has come so far out of his way to visit."
"It's not a big deal," Arc says, and as Alus shifts himself on the couch he comes to sit down beside his friend. "I mean it. I know you've got a lot of work to do, a lot of things you take care of every day – you've told me about it – and really, I'll feel bad disrupting your day, or somehow making more work for you." He feels suddenly, strangely, out of place in a way he didn't earlier that day: Alus is King, and he knows enough of his friend's burdens to know that being a king does not in fact mean you can do whatever you like. He reaches out to rest his hand on Alus' shoulder, a gesture that surprises them both – Arc with the familiarity, because it somehow feels natural. He wonders whether Alus is surprised because no one dares offer the King any comfort.
"I have a proposal for you," Alus begins, "and I'm very sorry if I've assumed too much, but it seemed to fit so very well, and I'm hoping you'll say yes anyway."
He pauses, and Arc laughs, and says, "Well, I'm not saying no yet," and Alus chuckles and shakes his head and looks a bit more alert than before.
"See," he continues, "I've a series of projects I've been trying to get done, but there's nowhere near enough time for me to learn what I need, to make good decisions. And I know you've been saying you want to study the world, you're interested in learning, and we have quite a library here so it would be a good place for you to start, and having a project would be something you could do when I am busy, and we could work on it together when I am free. You'd be a sort of …advisor, really, you could learn the things I don't have time to read about and then advise me on where's the best place to build a bridge, or whether we've got a good metal for airship hulls, whatever you're interested in. And you could stay… stay here," he says, stumbling over the words slightly. "For maybe longer than you'd intended, but it might work, right?"
Arc blinks. He isn't sure what to do, what to say: it isn't that it doesn't fit, because it's so close to what he wants he's almost afraid to look at it. It's the sudden and strange thought that he – an orphan from Ur, a cowardly boy from a small town – could be of use to a nation as grand as Saronia, to its King who has held the throne since he was ten: it is a little too much to take in.
"You were a Light Warrior," Alus tells him, and the tone in his voice brings Arc back into himself: it's part stern and part urgent and almost incredulous; Alus is looking deep into his face as if he can read Arc's thoughts, as if everything Arc is feeling is writ between his eyes. "You were a Light Warrior, you've traveled the world, and you're one of the brightest men I've ever talked with. And you're my friend – I know I would be able to trust your advice, it wouldn't be partisan or political and you wouldn't just tell me what you thought I wanted to hear." He sighs. "And we debate things; do you have any idea how difficult it is to find someone willing to tell a King they're wrong?"
Arc looks back at Alus, and this time to his surprise it's his hand coming up to Alus' face; his fingers land on his friend's cheek and he isn't really sure what the gesture is even supposed to be, but Alus' eyes flicker shut in gratitude so it must be okay. He brushes some pale blond hair from Alus' forehead, idly, letting his hand follow its instincts. "You're never afraid to tell me when I'm wrong," Alus says, and Arc can't help but laugh. His hand falls back into his lap and Alus' eyes open to watch him.
"Well, I won't apologize then," he says, and it comes out surprisingly sassy, and Alus laughs with him, more of the exhaustion falling away.
"Arc," Alus says. It's strange to hear his name in Alus' accent, the one brief sharp syllable, knowing Alus spent hours drawing its lines and sounds out on envelopes again and again. "I don't want you to stay unless you want to – if you just want to visit and go home, or go somewhere else, please stay as long as you wish and then do so. But you should know… You would be incredibly useful to us here, if you're willing to help me. I would love to have you stay."
"Of course," Arc says, instantly, "I – I'd love to; your library is unbelievable, and you're right, I've – I've been wanting to travel more, to study more, Ur is just so small – if you're sure I won't be an imposition?"
"Not an imposition," Alus says. His smile is broader now. "Saronia welcomes and invites you."
The phrase is so kingly, so noble, that it catches Arc's breath in his throat: suddenly every line of Alus is regal, and he's again aware that there's a royal scion in his room; he just touched the king's face. "Then yes, my—" he stumbles over it, wanting to say my liege but well aware that Alus isn't his king, he's Arc's friend. "Yes. I'll stay for a while, at least. Having new things to study will be fun. And it'll be nice to be able to catch up more."
"Good," Alus breathes. "Thank you."
"Thank you," Arc replies, but he's grinning when he says it. "And Saronia."
"She has no idea what she's getting into," Alus murmurs, returning the grin, "but her King thanks you for her." He stands up and stretches his arms above his head; the piping on his jacket makes a flattering silhouette. "I'll leave you for the night," he says. "I hope you sleep well."
"You too," Arc says.
Alus stops at the door, and his gaze is intense, and the smile is a little longing and a little sad when he says, "You can… call me Alus. Not King Alus, not my liege. Please." It suddenly strikes him how much older Alus looks: he’s been reading the pieces all day, but now he sees years of maturity in his face: sharp cheekbones, wise eyes, the lines of his mouth. Alus is still younger than he, but this is no boy before him.
"Alus," Arc says softly, as if trying it out. On one hand it feels odd, because he can still see the regal lines in his friend; on the other hand, it's how all the letters were signed, and in his head he knows their friendship it like that. "Okay, Alus," he says again, and he knows he isn't imagining the surprising longing in Alus' eyes even if he doesn't understand it. "Not Al?"
This turns Alus' smile upwards, back into his amused grin: "Maybe someday," he says, "it might be better coming from you. Good night, Arc.”
His name still sounds special on Alus' lips and Arc thinks of decorative calligraphy and envelopes. "Good night, Alus."
The door closes. Arc falls back onto the couch and thinks of everything and nothing, and then he gets up to frantically continue his search for paper and ink – which is in the small desk in the corner of the room that he missed in his excitement. He sits down not to write out rebuttals on the laws of physicks; he starts a letter to Luneth.
He knows Luneth won’t mind or care – he and Luneth are brothers, and Luneth likes to have him around but doesn’t need him there at all, and so he starts the letter out eagerly describing what he’ll be staying in Saronia for. It just figures that your adventures would all be in a musty old castle reading books, he can already hear Luneth saying in his head, but Arc doesn’t care. Wild flight suits Refia and aimless wandering is for Luneth, and loyal service is Ingus’ path; for him, it’s books and learning and Alus, and that’s an excellently suitable adventure for him.
He folds the letter up and sets it atop the nightstand. He knows there’s a reliable mailmog here; he’ll send the letter tomorrow morning.