All things considered, it was a terrible night for games. The beach was foggy and damp, and a cold breeze off the ocean brought salt spray and a chill that could not be kept at bay even with a thick coat. Wrathion stayed in his dragon form as long as he could. His human guise had no shortage of fabric layers to slow the cold, and he was resistant to extreme temperatures even in that form, but there was nothing that compared to a dragon’s hide when it came to protection from the elements. Anduin claimed not to be bothered by the cold, a claim that was called into question by his near-constant shivering. He rushed to help Wrathion collect driftwood, rubbing his hands together to warm them after dropping off each damp log. Wrathion warmed the gathered wood with his breath until the pile was steaming and dry enough to light, then arranged it into a rough campfire. Dragon’s fire would burn under worse conditions.
They didn’t have a lot in the way of shelter, just a small stone outcropping they’d found along the beach. It blocked out the worst of the winds, and when Wrathion got the fire going he could almost pretend it looked comfortable. Assuming his human form, he dragged in a larger log to sit on. Now he wouldn’t get his robes dirty, and Anduin wouldn’t have to make his leg sore by sitting in the cold sand.
“Thank you,” Anduin said, giving him a small, tired smile. He sat as close to the fire as he could, trying and failing to suppress his shivering.
Wrathion almost regretted issuing this invitation. Black dragons preferred it to be warm, yes, but even he had a much better tolerance for the cold than a human, even an especially tough human. Anduin was obviously uncomfortable. Yet his desire to avoid overbearing family members won out over the discomfort. For all the physical discomfort, he looked genuinely glad to be out here.
“Don’t mention it,” Wrathion said. He returned the smile, with some effort. “Shall we get started, then?”
Setting up a game of Jihui was a well-ingrained habit by now. He didn’t have to consciously think about the placement of each piece, his hands moved on their own memory to unfold the board and arrange every piece into their starting positions. He set the game up on the log next to Anduin, and took his seat on the other side.
“You can go first,” Anduin said, “since you came all way out here.”
“A flight of that length is nothing to a dragon,” Wrathion boasted. In truth, he was still small enough that flying from the Temple of the White Tiger to the Violet Rise had been a daunting task, but he wasn’t about to let Anduin know that. “Besides, this is all for you. You should go first.”
He had to look away then, because Anduin was looking at him so fondly that it was making his skin crawl with guilt. He was going to miss this, when he left. He hadn’t seen much of Anduin lately, but every time they spent time together it got harder to leave again. Tonight might be the last time he would see Anduin before the plan was set into motion. It might be the last time he would see Anduin at all, there was no telling what might happen in the future. He wouldn’t ruin it by letting on that anything was wrong.
“Wrathion?” Anduin reached across the board and tapped him on the shoulder. “Are you listening to me? It’s your move.”
“Yes, of course.” Wrathion glanced over his pieces. His last strategy had been a failure, but maybe with a few changes…
“Do you think you can at least try to work with me this time?” Anduin teased him. “We might actually win a game then.”
“In the real world, one doesn’t always have allies to work with,” Wrathion answered, delicately selecting a piece between two claws. “There must be some way for one player to win this game without aid. I intend to find it.” He set the piece down and sent Anduin a challenging stare across the board.
“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Anduin sighed and moved again. His usual strategy again, following all of Wrathion’s moves and working around them. He called it salvaging the situation. Wrathion called it sabotage.
A good game of Jihui lasted at least an hour, and this one was no exception. The fire had burned down to embers and the mist coming off the ocean had become a thick fog by the time Wrathion admitted that winning the game was a lost cause.
“I forfeit,” he announced, delicately picking his pieces off the game board and dropping them back into the bag. “You have thwarted my plans again, Prince Anduin.”
“Like that means anything,” Anduin said, rolling his eyes. “We both still lost.” He started to gather up his pieces, slowly, like he didn’t really want to put the game away.
“Do you want to play again?” Wrathion asked, surprised. It was getting very late, and it was even colder now than it had been when they’d begun.
“No, I don’t have time for another game. I’ll have to get back to the rise before someone comes looking for me.” Anduin swept all his pieces off the board in one movement. “Can we stay out here a little longer, though? I know it’s late but I don’t want to go just yet.”
“Of course we can.” Wrathion finished putting the game away and set his bag down on the ground next to the log. He could understand Anduin’s reluctance. The next day would bring him more of the same stresses and worries of the trial, and Wrathion had enough of his own concerns. This place they’d claimed for themselves on the beach was cold and dark and dreadful, but as long as they stayed there it felt like the rest of the world couldn’t reach them.
He put another piece of driftwood on the fire and watched the flames creep up the edges of it until it was burning steadily. Anduin leaned into the heat and sighed, his eyes closed and a peaceful expression on his face. Wrathion kept glancing over at him, but couldn’t look at him for too long. Whenever he did, words he could not say stopped in his throat and made him feel like choking. I’m glad we were friends. I wish things could be different. I don’t want to hurt you.
“Thanks for coming to see me,” Anduin said, finally pulling himself away from the fire and smiling. “How did you know this was exactly what I needed?”
Because I needed it too, Wrathion didn’t say. Every time he saw Anduin could be the last. He wanted to have as many final moments as possible. Instead, he puffed his chest out and said “I know everything, Anduin Wrynn. You’d do well to remember that.”
“I guess I would.” Anduin smiled at him a moment longer. Then, carefully, he moved into the space between them and wrapped his arms around Wrathion, burying his face in his neck.
Wrathion’s eyes widened. Unsure whether or not to return the gesture, he brought his arms up and held them in the air to either side of Anduin. “What are you doing?” He kept his question quiet, not wanting to sound angry, but it left space for a noticeable tremble in his voice and he cringed. He was supposed to sound confident, not nervous.
“I thought you knew everything.” Anduin was laughing at him now.
Wrathion frowned and put on an affronted tone, doing his best to ignore the way he could feel Anduin breathing on his neck. “If you’re just going to make fun of me, maybe I’ll leave.”
He regretted saying that immediately. I don’t want to leave. Returning the hug involuntarily, he closed his eyes for a moment and focusing on generating heat to stop Anduin’s shivering. Holding on too tightly would be suspicious, but it was taking everything in him not to grip Anduin with his claws and pull him as close as he could.
Anduin shook his head. “I’m not making fun of you. You’re just funny.” He pulled back slightly, looking off to the side and frowning as if he was considering something.
Wrathion opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, only to find it covered by Anduin’s. He froze, drawing in a shocked breath through his nose and smelling only Anduin. His hold on Anduin’s back tightened slightly, and he felt his claws catching on the fabric of his shirt.
A voice in his head was shouting at him that this was not something he should do. Flying out here tonight was already too much, and he was just making everything worse. You’re going to break his heart, he told himself harshly. As if betraying his trust wasn’t already bad enough. He needed to put an end to this, as gently as possible. It would make his departure easier on them both. Letting go of Anduin, he brought his hands up to separate them, but couldn’t find it within him to do it. When Anduin pulled back to take a breath, Wrathion grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him in again.
They wound up on the ground, dangerously near the fire. Every now and then embers would fly off the burning wood and land in the sand next to Wrathion’s head, leaving little sparks in his peripheral vision. Others swirled in the air over Anduin’s head, and he could tell himself that he was just burying his hands in Anduin’s hair to shield it from being burned.
He couldn’t leave, but he had to. The future of Azeroth was the most important thing, he couldn’t afford to let anything keep him from what he knew he had to do. He just wished he had the strength to do the kind thing and push Anduin away. Please forgive me, he thought, tugging at Anduin’s hair and feeling him shiver and press closer in response.
Or maybe it was because of the cold. Anduin felt as warm as the fire in contrast to the surrounding air. Wrathion’s thoughts all began to run together. His internal voice silenced, and he welcomed the break even though he knew it would return as soon as he left the island.
He let his head fall back onto the sand and watched their breath form thick clouds in the firelight, joining the smoke and floating away into the night sky.