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Astral Fire, Umbral Heart

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Foreword 

"Only the deepest warmth, or darkest shadow, could pierce her umbral heart."

Or, "What if someone aggressively loved you exactly for being you, and that was literally all it took for them to love you, flaws and all?"

I never intended for this to become such a project, but at some point this story developed a rhythm, then a plot, and then became an excuse to use astronomical (and magical, meteorological, sacred, profane) concepts to explore my favorite azure foils.  Beware complicated, awkward, painful issues of the heart.  Beware eventual smut.

This whole experiment began as an FC friend "writing challenge" back in the winter of 2017.  I never really had a "storyline" in mind at first besides the "behind the scenes events" I imagined while playing Heavensward and beyond.  My Warrior of Light is a hyur Highlander/Ilsabardian (Garlean) half-breed with a lot of complicated emotions about her identity.  Also, Aymeric and Estinien (and a healthy dose of the Scions).

Thank you, as always, for reading.


 ☙ Table of Contents ❧ 


 ☄ Astral Fire, Umbral Heart 

  1. Foreword & Table of Contents
    Where chronology is more intensely relevant, I have prefaced it in the body of the text.
  2. Azure Reflection
    Occurs post-MSQ "Stormblood."  Estinien/WoL.
    A brief memory of the Warrior of Light, in the mind's eye of one Azure Dragoon.
  3. Insights, Unsettled
    Extremely small snapshot, quite soon after MSQ "Into the Aery."  WoL/Estinien.
    Our WoL having very inconvenient thoughts about Estinien.
  4. Confessions
    Directly post-MSQ "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."
    Our WoL is driven to confess her feelings for Aymeric.
  5. Inheritance
    WARNING: Lightly implied smut.  OC/OC.  Also, Garleans.
    Quite soon after MSQ "Stormblood."  WoL backstory & origins.
    After the events of Ala Mhigo and the Royal Menagerie, our WoL receives an unexpected Echo.
  6. Confessions, Pt. II
    A continuation of Ch. 4, "Confessions," regarding Aymeric/WoL.
  7. Third Eye
    Our WoL has a dream/reflection about her father.
  8. Mourning Tea
    Chronologically, a continuation of "Confessions, Pt. II."
  9. Confessions, Pt. III
    It continues. Aymeric/WoL.
  10. Verbiage
    Mild warning for Alphinaud having unrequited feelings for the WoL.  Alphinaud/WoL friendship.
    Alphinaud does some Alphinaud things.  Also falls in the "Confessions" chronology of events.
  11. Confessions, Pt. IV
    Fasten your seatbelts, the Aymeric/WoL train's a'comin' ...
  12. Waxless and Wickless
    WARNING:  Implied smut.  Estinien/WoL.
    A glimpse into our WoL's history with Estinien.
    Occurs in and around the events of MSQ "Into the Aery."
  13. Confessions, Pt. V
    Nightmares and memories of the recent (Heavensward) past.  Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    We return to the "Confessions" storyline.
  14. Impostor Syndrome, or Third Eye, Pt. II
    Some of our WoL's self-reflections, especially regarding her father.
    Chronology-irrelevant musings on her character and identity.
  15. Her Umbral Heart
    WoL feelings of angst post-Antitower, pre-meeting with Aymeric.  Falls in the "Confessions" chronology.
    In-game, this takes place between Dragonsong War MSQ "The Word of the Mother" and "This War of Ours."
  16. Mists of Feelings
    Occurs after the WoL meets with Aymeric following the Antitower. Falls in with "Confessions."  A bit of Aymeric POV, and interlude.
    Continues chronologically from the previous chapter, after the cutscene of "This War of Ours."
  17. Rime Wreath
    WARNING:  Strongly implied smut.  Estinien/WoL.
    A flashback within the "Confessions" series.
    A vivid memory of Estinien, brought on by the ending of the previous chapter.
  18. Shelter
    As dawn breaks, our WoL thinks back on a memory of Haurchefant, and a memory shortly after his death.
    Continues in sequence from the previous chapters, in the angsty time span after the events of the Antitower. 
  19. Divine Veil
    Our WoL tries to get a grip on the flooding angst.  Little does she know, Aymeric is standing by.
    Some exploration into my idea of Aymeric's inner world, and a bit of what he's been feeling.
  20. Aetherpact
    Mild warning again for Alphinaud having unrequited feelings for the WoL.  Alphinaud/WoL friendship.
    Our WoL enlists Alphinaud's assistance in restoring her peace of mind.
  21. Unceremonious
    Aymeric gets to see her again.
    Hot fluff, short and sweet.  Aymeric POV.
  22. Almost a Promise
    Aymeric and our WoL spend a smidgen of time together.
    On the way home, she reflects on her opinion of love to this point.
  23. Here and Now
    WARNING:  Hot, HOT fluff.  Aymeric/WoL.
    Calm, domestic moments with spice on the side.
    Samantha pays Aymeric an uninvited visit.
  24. Transpose
    Our WoL reflects upon some of the differences between Aymeric and Estinien.
    Something of an interlude and thematic swell.
  25. Synastry
    The second part of Transpose.  Aymeric/WoL.
    Our WoL confesses several more things to Aymeric. 
  26. Geirskögul
    WARNING:  Strongly implied smut.  Estinien/WoL.
    Another memory of Estinien, brought on by the stirring of recent emotions.
  27. Holy Spirit
    After the Grand Melee, Aymeric discovers a way to hasten his thanks.  Aymeric/WoL. Fluff, spicy fluff.
    Continues in sequence, around Dragonsong MSQ "Consequences,” “Choices,” “A Spectacle for the Ages” and into “For Those We Can Yet Save.”
  28. Spineshatter Dive
    At the Conference, Aymeric stands against the tangled shade of Nidhogg.  Aymeric POV.
    The gathering ends in blood and fear, but Alphinaud and Samantha find their hopes rekindled.  WoL POV.
    Afterward, Aymeric summons the duo to make a proposal.  WoL POV.
    Largely a novelization of in-game dialogue from Dragonsong MSQ “For Those We Can Yet Save,” “Causes and Costs,” “The Man Within,” and “An Ally for Ishgard.”
  29. Anticipation
    Mild warning for Aymeric having adult thoughts.  Aymeric POV.  Aymeric/WoL.
    Before they leave for Anyx Trine, Aymeric dares to make one more request.
  30. Parallax
    "Especially: the angular difference in direction of a celestial body as measured from two points on the earth's orbit." (MERRIAM-WEBSTER)
    Two objects in space prepare for collision.  Aymeric/WoL with some Alphinaud friendship and some Estinien angst.  WoL POV/Aymeric POV.
  31. Hallowed Ground
    WARNING: EXPLICIT.  18+ only please.  Aymeric/WoL, WoL POV.
    Confessions of love and bodies collide.  
    It's NSFW. Very NSFW. You have been warned.
  32. Clemency
    WARNING: Ever so slightly NSFW.  Aymeric/WoL.
    In his arms, she might dare to find hope and mercy.
    WoL POV, some Estinien angst, mainly short and sweet fluff.
  33. Requiescat
    And so that night, three adventurers from Ishgard again made camp amidst the nests of dragons.
    Continues in sequence, just prior to and during the events of Dragonsong MSQ “An Ally for Ishgard" and "Winning Over the Wyrm."
    Aymeric/WoL, with Alphinaud/WoL friendship, some much-needed humor, and another thematic swell.
  34. Freefall
    The final steps of faith.
    Continues in sequence, following MSQ events "Sohr Khai," "The Final Steps of Faith," and into "An End to the Song."
    Mild warning for descriptions of pain and gore.
  35. Knights Most Heavenly
    Continues in sequence from prior.  Alternate Titles: "Left Eye," or "The Bastard and the Cur."
    Mild Aymeric/WoL, Alphinaud/WoL friendship, and Aymeric/Estinien background.
    “To care for Estinien is to struggle.  Make no mistake when I profess to understand.”
    Mild warning for brief descriptions post-war and a nosebleed.
  36. Akh Afah
    Estinien/WoL.  Mixed third person omniscient.
    Takes place after the infirmary cutscene of MSQ "Litany of Peace," after Estinien's awakened.
    Her heart twisted with the gravity of all she feared to express.
    So many fractured, nameless feelings—but for one.
  37. Atonement
    WoL POV, starting her final journey toward resolution. 
    POV shifts later to my OC, Cassius, WoL's father.
  38. Excogitation
    In her quest for answers, Samantha confronts her past—including her first lover.
    Slight warning for strong implications of a manipulative, unhealthy, and probably inappropriate relationship.
  39. Adloquium
    Her heart swelled with so much love—
    She couldn’t stop the tears from rising to her eyes.
  40. Passage of Arms
    Estinien POV. Estinien and Aymeric discuss what needs to be done.
    For the span of several heartbeats, the only sound was the whisper of snowfall at the window—the somber brush of the wind.
    “You remind me of each other,” Aymeric finally supplied. “Ferocious and burning, but possessed of something kind.”
  41. Corps-à-Corps
    WARNING: EXPLICIT.  18+ only please. 
    Aggressive sexual content. Estinien/WoL, WoL POV.
    “This was the last time,” he lied. “I swear it.”
    She grinned bitterly, using her teeth to tug his bottom lip. “Actions speak louder."
  42. Akh Morn
    Estinien/WoL, fluff, hot, cold, angst, pining, forbidden, etc., WoL POV.
    A breath misted white by his lips. He moved a gloved hand to press the door between them, waiting for her to grant him entry.
    Together they stalled in deadlocked silence—neither one willing to budge any further.
  43. Circle of Scorn
    WoL POV.  Estinien/WoL, followed by Alphinaud/WoL friendship and humor.
    She puffed a hot breath into her cheeks and grunted.
    "Some fabled hero I am," she groused.  "Tactless and witless."
  44. Confiteor
    Estinien POV, Estinien/Aymeric, followed by WoL POV, Aymeric/WoL.
    "I have never felt for anyone the way I feel for you. 
    But Estinien— What he showed me— Somehow changed me. 
    If you made me melt, it was only because he tore me from the glacier."
  45. Coerthan Torment
    WoL POV, Estinien POV, WoL/Omniscient POV.  Aymeric/WoL/Estinien.  Drama, fluff, and humor.
    Good gods it was transfixing, the unplumbed history between them—silver-lined and cobwebbed, threading through and through together.
  46. Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka
    Aymeric/WoL/Estinien.  WoL/Omniscient POV.  Humor, domestic, fluff.
    A bright, blinding comet, slow-burning stardust, a flicker of unsettled moonbeams— Unexpected equilibrium; celestial symmetry.
    Even as a thrill of trepidation, of adrenaline surged down her spine, she felt somehow intensely at ease; like this unholy trinity was perfectly, unspeakably, unimaginably right.
  47. Plenary Indulgence
    WARNING: EXPLICIT.  18+ only please.  Aymeric/WoL, WoL POV.
    Insatiable desire and bodies collide.  It's NSFW. Very NSFW. You have been warned.
    “You must be the monster, then,” she submitted, overcome with a frisson. “Blessed or unblessed.”
  48. Dragon Sight
    WARNING: NSFW.  18+ only please. 
    Aymeric/WoL, Aymeric POV, followed by Estinien/WoL/Aymeric, Estinien POV.  Lots of sex thoughts.
    Estinien tensed his thighs; clenched his jaw against the freezing wind and the bloody, blistering truth—
    It hurt like seven hells to leave them.  And like a ghost determined to haunt him, he thought of sinking in that bed; of caging the hearts he cherished most, tight and safely against him.
  49. Firestarter
    Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Whether they were made entirely of excitement was up for debate.
    WoL POV, WoL/Aymeric domestic fluff, WoL & family friendship, and set-up for the next chapters.
    Some minor world-building on the matter of half-breeds in Eorzea; gently touches on Ishgardian xenophobia.
  50. Lustrate
    WoL POV, Family/Scions/Fortemps/WoL friendship, Alphinaud/WoL friendship.
    Tataru smoothed down the bodice; layered the crystal-studded skirts into place; perched on her tiptoes to inspect Samantha’s hair.  “Have a sit here and hold still while I fix your—Twelve, why in hells are you so sweaty?”
    “Does it get better? With time?"
    “Jealousy?” She took a breath against that question. “No. Not without practice."
  51. Between the Lines
    WoL POV. Lots of humor. Family fluff, friend fluff. WoL/Alphinaud friendship, WoL/Tataru friendship, WoL/Fortemps friendship, Aymeric/WoL/Estinien. More implied Alphinaud crushing on the WoL in an unrequited fashion.
    They arrive at the celebration. The guest list is enormous. The food and wine are abundant. 
    But where is the guest of honor? Will they meet him in the crowd, or on the dance floor?
  52. Tetragrammaton
    Estinien POV, Aymeric POV, WoL POV.  WoL/Alphinaud friendship, Aymeric/WoL/Estinien.
    Push, and pull—two magnets, harmonized; craving forever to cling and combine —
    Fire meeting fire, the twine of twin flames; two blazing wisps of stardust made of one and the same —
    — One, two, three.
  53. Fated Circle
    Estinien POV, followed by WoL POV. Friendship, followed by complicated comrade/friendship.
    That wild, rambling question; the one that filled every trellis of her mind.
    Yet for all it climbed and stretched and crept, it never left her closer to answers—
    My intentions?  "I’m tired of being alone—of being afraid and denying.”
  54. Intervention
    Dirty jokes and the dancing continues. Slightly NSFW, lots of naughty humor.
    Aymeric POV, followed by WoL POV. Aymeric/WoL/Estinien.
    "Last I checked, a man can only have so many hands.”
    “My own hand bores me. Serve me with yours.”
  55. Indomitability
    WARNING: EXPLICIT.  18+ only please.  Past relationship between WoL/OC, then Estinien/WoL/Aymeric. WoL POV.
    Alternate chapter title: Sexual Education In Eorzea.  Implications of consensual dom/sub relationship that became unhealthy (manipulative and controlling). A lot more insight into why Sam is the way she is.
    What would it be like, to have it all at once—moon and sun, beast and monster—running and chasing and loving, all the same?  She looked up at the sky, at the stars that glittered through rifts in the clouds.  The sun, the moon, and the stars. The three of them, a constellation.
  56. Brood Brothers
    WoL POV, followed by third person omniscient.  Dragon metaphors and stuff.
    Aymeric pulling her closer. Estinien settled behind her. Wrapped in a nest of warm satin, full lips at her brow, stern nose at her neck, strong arms overlapping, entwining—
    Her heart began to race, and she tried not to think about that particular memory.
  57. Prominence
    WoL POV, followed by Aymeric POV.
    Seeking meaning. Chasing satisfaction.
    Hurting and hungry and howling, hunting forever for fulfillment—
    Is it not a fear that plagues every one of us—the fear of being lost, or sidestepped, or forgotten?
    As of tonight, he was Speaker of the House of Lords ...
    For truly, if he was a dragon, then Ishgard was his lair.
  58. Ascend
    Short.  WoL POV.
    Poetic interlude and culmination of so many confessions of "I love you."
  59. Gravity
    WoL POV, Estinien POV, WoL POV. Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    All three of them were tied together now, an ouroboros of cherishing each other.
  60. Collective Unconscious
    Slightly NSFW, adult fluff.  Drunken group therapy.  Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    WoL POV, followed by third person omniscient POV and vaguely Estinien POV. 
    “Can I—ask about the nature of your—authentic and faithful companionship, now?”
    “Brothers in arms,” he mumbled gruffly, going ruddy.
    “More than brothers,” Aymeric corrected. "But Estinien prefers to keep his arms far away from me.”
  61. Celestial Intersection
    WARNING: SLIGHTLY EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  WoL POV, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    It was—unholy how she felt, tasting the malt of him and the smoke of the other. Unspeakable, unimaginable—potent and completely overwhelming. She was blurring, blending; smothered in a fragrance like pepper and wishes—like spice and the whispers of daydreams.
  62. Pas de Trois
    WARNING: EXTREMELY EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  WoL POV, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.  Behold the fabled heroes.
    All of them were in retrograde now, three stars twinned into one. All the threads were tangled—and yet she felt halcyon. There was no room for thinking, only the need to be undone. She curled against the moon and fused with the sun.
  63. Essential Dignity
    WARNING: EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  WoL POV, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric, also explicit Aymeric/Estinien slash.
    His hands on her neck trembled. A spark of something hopeful and tender kindled the fire in his stare.
    “Nothing would give me more pleasure,” he whispered, eyes smoldering like pale blue flames.
  64. Spirits Within
    Warning for implied slash, explicit slash, implied male/male sexual contact. 
    WoL POV, in the form of Echoes.  Estinien/WoL/Aymeric, and historical Aymeric/Estinien.
    “I know you still care for that boy,” she said firmly, her face very cold. “That bitter young man. But he is ill, Aymeric. Ill in the heart, and no measure of your—compassion, or anything else, can help him.” She took a sharp breath. “Only he can still whatever tempests stir inside him.”
  65. Maim and Mend
    WoL POV. An itty bitty bit of hot fluff. Also, tension!
    The Hero of the Scions is a person, but also their holy armament.  Is it safe to allow her this mortal indulgence?
    “These two years at least, all I have done is the bidding of others. All these favors, felling primals—using my existence as a weapon. Tailing those with far more know-how than me, waiting patiently for orders.  But now, the instant I decide to take something for myself, the wolves descend to bite me?”
  66. Danger Zone
    WoL POV. WoL & Scions, family conversation slice of life.
    “What would the worst case scenario be? Some sort of trifold emotional disaster?”
    “Trifold emotional, political, potentially aetherical catastrophe between a man with a tongue that wooed a horde of zealots, another man who is arguably several parts dragon, and a woman who could kill us all with the flick of her little finger.”  Thancred nodded, staring at the griddle.  “Seems perfectly safe and not at all dicey.”
  67. Palaver
    Estinien & Aymeric omniscient POV, followed by WoL POV. Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    "But do permit me to avow that, in whatever calamitous future you seem so intent on depicting, my affections for your Warrior of Light will remain unchanged.” His eyes were still cleaving her, hotly and slowly. “It will be entirely her discretion, to that end, to cast me aside or possess me.”
  68. Full Thrust
    WARNING: EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  WoL POV, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric. 
    “You both mean to kill me,” he decided, dodging the broadly-smiling kiss that Aymeric attempted to bestow.
    She wheezed out a laugh. “Only a little,” she teased, tucking hair behind her ears. “A very little death.”
    “La petite mort,” agreed Aymeric.
  69. Esuna
    WARNING: EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  Aymeric/WoL, Aymeric/OC and Aymeric/Estinien.
    “Allow me,” he offered, lips caressing the tip of her nose. “Perhaps I can paint some small portion of the picture.”
    “By all means,” she invited. She nestled an ear to his chest and sighed. “Spin a story for me, oh Silver-Tongued Speaker.”
  70. Asylum
    WARNING: EXPLICIT. 18+ only please.  
    WoL POV, Aymeric/WoL, literally just sex in the form of Purple Prose.
    Carnal. Animal. Natural.
    “I crave you,” he was saying, grazing teeth along a path to her ear. “You make me feel vicious—make me want to devour.
  71. Cover
    Mild warning for spice and references to sex.  A little hot, mainly just fluff. 
    WoL POV.  Aymeric/WoL, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric vibes.
    Blood and bone, breath and flesh—
    I love you, the hymn in her veins.  I wished for you.
    The whisper pressed at every stitch.  “Oh, how I wished for this.”
  72. Disembowel
    WARNING: NSFW.  Descriptions of hunting and masturbation. 
    Estinien POV, Estinien & Sadness, Estinien/WoL/Aymeric.
    The tears dried in paths on his face.
    He left them there, warpaint as he swept through the necropolis, stirring up his demons.
    Come to me. Torment me. Let me be smitten with pestilence.
    I shall conquer this.
  73. True North
    WARNING: Slightly NSFW for references to sex.
    Was not love a doomed thing?
    Doomed, his blood howled loud enough to drown him, calling the moon strung above—crescent, bowing, waxing bright—
    Fury, let them always be mine.
  74. Divine Right
    Bedtime stories with Aymeric again, this time about his mother.
    Her life was quiet.  Modest.  Meek and muffled as the volumes she tended.  "You are a sister, are you not?"
    "A sister, yes," Melisandre said dryly.  "In the sense of being born amongst brothers.  Though I presume you refer to the convent?"
    "Indeed," he said, puzzled.  "You mean to tell me—you are not?"


 ❦


 

Original Characters 

* A running list of characters I've created in Eorzea.
I will add more names & descriptions to this list as I finally write impressions about them.

My characters:

☄ Samantha Floravale — Awkward but deeply compassionate, this love child of star-crossed lovers is driven to prove herself, but troubled by the the fear that she'll never be enough.

Samantha grew up in the northern reaches of the Shroud, just far enough from Gyr Abania.  As a child, she studied literature and science under the expert tutelage of her father, and natural magicks under the rough instruction of her mother.  While nothing was wrong with her childhood, and her parents were very loving, discovering the truth of her father's heritage scared her blind, and she ultimately wanted nothing more than to escape it.  She enrolled in a White apprenticeship in New Gridania as soon as she was old enough and able.  She boarded at her apprenticeship until the age of eighteen.  Her various skills caught the eye of a professor, and he hired her to be his assistant.  When that tenure ended, she began her career as an "adventurer," slowly pursuing her ultimate goal of studying every known form of magick — but especially the dichotomy of White and Black.  Post-Calamity, she journeyed back to the Shroud to check on her parents.  Satisfied that they were safe, but still vaguely estranged from them, she remained in the Shroud for a very short time before feeling the urge to run away again.  She resumed her adventures, journeying to Ul'dah before she was suddenly "chosen" by Hydaelyn to wear the mantle of Light — much to her awe and astonishment.

♔ Bryony Floravale — Fiery, determined, and headstrong, this beautiful innkeep from the Gyr Abanian highlands accidentally stole the heart of an Imperial.

⚜ Cassius mal Magnus — A sassy and brilliant Garlean engineer specializing in medical magitek, Cassius found himself bewitched while stationed in the Gyr Abanian highlands.

Raphael "Rafe" Lemaitre — Strict and bookish, this Wildwood is known at the academy for keeping his students in line.  He serves as an esteemed professor of magick in New Gridania.

Melisandre de Borel — The Vicomtesse was never a woman to be trifled with.  Described as a force of nature by her dearest loved ones, her son completely adored her.  She passed away due to complications from an illness in her older age.

Esme de Amboise A highborn Ishgardian, her notable beauty and very keen wit solidified her reputation among her peerage.

 


 

Chapter Text


Around the events of Main Scenario Quest, "Stormblood."


 

Estinien Wyrmblood closed his eyes against the dry Highland wind.  Somehow, it reminded him of her. 

Was it a memory that tugged behind his eyes, or a dream his heart imagined?

He chuckled under his breath. 

Either way, it was his.

His to keep.

 


 

Stars' light streamed down on her shoulders.  From her vantage point on the walkways of the Pillars, she surveyed the airship landing below.

Though her back was to him, he could imagine the expression on her face: intent, focused, the line of the horizon in her eyes—vigilant and scowling.

He smirked.

As he approached, he chuckled, low under his breath.  "Come, my friend," he muttered, knowing that the low, dark tones of his voice would be clear enough to carry.  "The hearth of the Manor Fortemps is warm, and I have a mind to enjoy it."

There was a moment, a shocked pause of breath.  Then her soft, rasping laugh.

She turned to face him, eyes ablaze.  "Had enough of the snow, Ser Dragoon?"

As she spoke, the wind combed through her long hair, curling dark strands against the night sky.  A sprinkling of snowflakes caught, then melted.

Tall, intimidating.  At all times, severe.

But to him, she was something enchanting. 

His lips curved, the slightest grin visible beneath the lip of his visor.  "You forget that I was forged in this winter," he said softly, holding her gaze with his hidden eyes.  The joints of his armor clinked together as he took another step forward, closing the distance between them. 

Her dark stare twinkled and she stood her ground.  "Of course I haven't," she taunted, her breath rising in a white cloud.  She raised one sharp brow.  "How else did you come to be so—"

"Cold?"  He cut her off, grasping her elbow with steel-armored fingers.

Fire flashed through her expression and a smile tempted her lips.  "Very bold of you, Estinien," she warned, watching him intently.  She made no move to escape, even as he pulled her closer.  "Here?  Where any of the Lords might see?"

He could hear the hitch in her breath as he used his free hand to lift the visor covering his eyes.  "Let them see," he growled, tilting his face to close the final whisper of distance between them.

The touch of her lips was as soft as he remembered, but her voice was softer than snowfall.  "Estinien—"

 


 

He opened his eyes, banishing the vision.

But as he looked out on the stark Gyr Abanian horizon, a smile lingered on his lips.

 


 

Chapter Text


Mini snapshot, quite soon after Main Scenario Quest, "Into the Aery."


 

Moonlight streamed in through the stained glass of the Manor Fortemps.

That penumbral glow cast cool illumination on the sun-touched cheeks of the Warrior of Light.  Her black lashes fluttered as she scanned the art of the arching windows, her mind filled with thoughts that flurried much like the quiet snow outside.

She was not the type to distract herself with romance.  Maybe idle daydreams, stolen now and then; the thirst for something real, something different—but certainly never with "love" as she knew it.  As much as she cherished her duty, her Eorzea, the thought of something romantic—the love so commonly depicted in tales like her own—was one that, frankly, overwhelmed her.

Love was exhausting.  It never turned out as planned. 

Love was a hazard, a liability—a danger that, all too often, spiraled out of hand. 

Love, for all she knew, was merely something out of fiction; a fairy tale wish, never truly existing.

Strange, then—strange and unsettling—that thoughts of the Azure Dragoon should creep behind her weary eyes; that the dark grumble of his voice should haunt her memories.

His name pressed at her lips to be spoken, and she sighed instead, a line crinkling between her brows.

There was no time. 

No time for something like this.

 


 

Chapter Text


This scene takes place almost directly after the Main Scenario Quest "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."



The attending guard opened the door to the chamber, revealing the Lord Commander's unexpected guest.

The Warrior of Light strolled into the room.  As his gaze fell upon her, Ser Aymeric's stoic face brightened.  A moment of a smile lifted his lips. 

Though he spoke softly, the gentle, dark notes of his voice filled the chamber.  "Come in," he said kindly.  His eyes lit on the knights he’d been advising moments before.  "You may leave.  I shall send for you after."  As they exited in a chorus of plate mail and boots, he fixed her with his piercing stare.  "Pray enlighten me.  What matter did you wish to discuss?" 

He had come to know her as a woman of few words; presumed that any reason for private audience must be of great import.

Her dark eyes lifted to meet his.  The shadow of a nervous smile touched her lips.  "Ser Aymeric," she said, her voice very smooth.  Very practiced.  Then she gruffly cleared her throat.  "I visit you for my own purpose—but dare not waste your valuable time."

His brows lifted.  "Consider my curiosity piqued."  Aymeric examined her with renewed interest, his cool blue gaze lingering on the way her face now hardened; the way a faint line creased between her arched brows.

She cleared her throat again, much more awkwardly. 

"Perhaps you should reserve your interest—until you have heard my thoughts.”

Aymeric leaned back in his chair, keeping his attention fixed on her. 

"A vague and peculiar beginning," he murmured dryly, studying her expression.  "But do go on."

She took a breath.  Paused.  Closed her eyes.  Her long black lashes fanned against her cheeks—tan skin freckled and blemished by long hours spent questing in the sun— 

"You—" 

She scowled.  Took another breath.  Tried again. 

"You—are—unlike any man—in my acquaintance." 

Her voice was timid.  Soft.  Softer, perhaps, than he had ever heard it.

He studied her a margin more intently.

"I confess," she continued, trying to find, to parcel her meaning.  "I was reticent about you at first."  Her dusky eyes opened to search him.  "You project a convincingly icy sense of indifference."

The words brought light to Aymeric's stare and he chuckled.  He allowed the wry grin that lurked behind his lips to reveal itself.   "My friend, when one spends his days inured to wintry gales, and glacial dispositions to match, he learns to reserve his truths for those he has … more carefully measured."

She stared into his face. 

In the heartbeat of hush, her eyes smoldered with a sudden, violent warmth.

"I withdraw my first impression," she said, words coming fast.  "I have since learned that you are far beyond reproach."

There was another breath of stillness.  Something seemed to swell in the air; a tentative swish of static electricity.  It could have been a trick of the light, the dim glow of the candles that lit the room—but Ser Aymeric's cheeks appeared to darken.  "Beyond reproach?"  He shifted in his chair; at once felt some blend of flattered and completely undeserving.  "I assure you," he muttered, holding her gaze, "I am guilty of my share of reproachful things.  I can hardly accept such praise; least of all from the Hero of Eorzea—"

"Let me give it," she said quickly, interrupting.  "I am at a loss to say what I mean to more clearly."  There was a beat of silence as she took a breath to try, regardless.

“Ser— … Aymeric, I—” 

She trailed off.  The thought seemed to catch in her throat. 

For a moment, she could do nothing but stand there, staring, motionless.  Then she scoffed, shaking her head.  “I never was good at this,” she muttered bitterly, looking up at him through lowered lashes.  The barest touch of a hysterical laugh, creeping to snag on her tongue.  “I can banish a primal, yet words, of all things, fail me.”

Aymeric watched her with eyes that gleamed icy in the candlelight.  His voice was quiet.  “What is it you wish to tell me?”

She took another stiff, steadying breath.  “In the Vault,” she began, chewing the inside of her lip.  A muscle in her jaw fluttered.  “In the Vault, braced against the True Brothers of the Faith, I …" Again, the warmth in her eyes threatened to ignite him.  "To fight alongside you was to know the finest thrill of my life; to know the deepest horror.  I feared you might—"  She cleared her throat again.  Something seemed to go cold inside her, hardness reaching her face.  "This bitter impasse has taken so much," she muttered.  "The thought of losing you, too— …" 

The Warrior of Light braced her heels against the floor; clenched her jaw against some dark, unspoken terror. 

She swallowed, very hard.  "The thought of losing you is more than I—my heart, can bear.”

The candlelight flickered, and she fell silent.

For a fragment of eternity, both were utterly frozen.

When Aymeric spoke, his voice was very mild.  “You have come to me to express these sentiments.”

She stared at the floor.  “Yes."

He closed his eyes and sat in contemplation a moment longer.  “I am taken off-guard,” he admitted.  “I did not anticipate this.”

“Take it … take my words as you will,” she said, dismissive.  “I rarely feel this much devotion."  A heavy pause.  "I only wished to tell you the truth.”

When he looked at her again, his expression was earnest.  “And that I would never deny you.  Forgive me.  It is simply— I am not accustomed to such revelations.”

She smiled a gentle smile, ready to back down.  “Please don't let it trouble you,” she said swiftly.  “If I spoke out of turn, I gladly apologize.”

“Not at all,” he murmured, but his expression was strange.  Inscrutable.  “I am not … troubled.  Only surprised.”  The candlelight gilded his beautiful face.  He continued to study her, leaning ever so slightly forward.  “Please, do go on.”

For a moment, she was spellbound, staring.  “Go on?” she stammered, losing what little was left of her composure.  Her cheeks flushed and she averted her glance.  "Is that appropriate?"

“Is it not?”  He took a quick breath.  She could see the shadow of another rare smile behind his lips.  “I am shocked, truly.  Had I but known—”

“Forgive me,” she blurted, interrupting him, the color deepening in her cheeks.  She bowed.  “I should not have trespassed.”  Standing rigid, she shook her head as she turned on her heel, her heart pounding so hard she could feel the pulse in her neck.

His chair made a scraping sound and she knew he was standing, getting to his feet even as she walked away.  But her head was swimming.  She could hear the blood in her ears, feel it under her skin.  Her vision tunneled around the door to the chamber and she could think of nothing but the desperate need to escape.

That is, until she felt his fingers on her arm.

Then she could think of nothing but that point of contact.

“Samantha,” he said softly.  She couldn't remember the last time he'd used her given name.

She froze, her willpower torn between the touch of his hand on her shoulder and the sight of the door in front of her.

“I beg you,” he murmured.  “Do not be uneasy.”  His fingers were warm, the touch tentative and shy against her.  “I …”  He cleared his throat.  “That is to say, I—”

A knock sounded at the door and she nearly jumped out of her skin, swallowing the cry that pressed at her lips.  Reflexively, she turned to face him, and met wide blue eyes, much closer than expected.

His warm hand lingered on her shoulder and he held her gaze as he called out.  “What is it?”

“Lord Commander,” the attending guard began.  “You are needed as soon as you can be spared.”

“That's my cue,” she said, her voice rough and hoarse.  She made to step away from him, but his fingers tensed against her.

“I—” His eyes flicked to the door.  “Will expect you tomorrow,” he said quickly.  “At this time.”

She stared at him, speechless.

“Now," he said, moving his hand down to rest at her elbow, "Pray, accompany me out into the Congregation.”

 

❅ ☾ ✦ ☽ ❅


 

 

 

Chapter Text


The following sequence takes place soon after the events of  the Main Scenario Quest, "Stormblood."


Sweat.

The hot salt of it slicked her neck, tangled her hair, coated her lips as she panted for breath.

The terrain here was hard, crumbly, rough on her joints, but she pressed on, training her body to run through the strain.

Light glittered off the Lochs.  For a splinter of a moment, she closed her eyes, focusing on the heavy sound of her breaths, the acrid taste of exertion in her mouth.

The sun beat on her face.  The dry desert air seemed to suck the moisture from every pore of her body.

Gyr Abania.

She opened her eyes, taking in the crystalline gleam of saltwater beside her, the jagged crowns of breathtaking mountains that loomed and ensconced the stark, arid land.

This is my mother’s homeland, came the breathless thought.

My homeland.

Then her eyes screwed shut, pricked with tears, and she scowled against the Echo that itched to overtake her.

 

☾◈☽


 

Cassius mal Magnus thrust back the flap of his field tent.

He scowled up at the sun; pushed a lock of thick, white-gold hair from his forehead.  Callused, oil-stained fingertips brushed against the pearly third eye in the center of his brow, and he shook his head, squinting and clearing his throat.

Though blurred around the edges, his figure was as she always remembered it: Tall, proud, with the ominous, solemn beauty of a storm—

“Bloody Highland sun,” he grumbled to himself in a deep, familiar voice.  Then, even lower.  “I clearly overslept.”

Indistinctly, he turned to face his subordinates.  Field engineers of various ranks milled around the camp, poring over a small but impressive array of broken magitek devices.

He sighed and cleared his throat again.  Those closest to him finally roused and noticed his presence.

Immediately, the heartbeat of camp sped up.  Cassius rolled his eyes and took a breath.  “Something better be done,” he shouted, an edge creeping into his voice.  “Otherwise we’ll all have hell to pay.”

A night or so ago they’d received the shipment of faulty medicus equipment which, in all honesty, was beyond his meager team’s capacity to repair.  His superiors were well aware of this—delighted in it, no doubt—and Cassius knew the assignment for what it was: Just one in an ongoing string of tests meant to drive him to his limits.  But he was nothing if not determined.  He had a solid reputation for succeeding on scraps—a trait his peers seemed ever to despise.  “I hope my faith and instruction haven’t been misplaced,” he yelled, pointedly approaching his second-in-command.

“No, sir,” the Architectus Ordinum said quickly, saluting.  “We’ve made considerable progress, especially given the—circumstances.”

Cassius nodded.  “Well.  Good."  He met the younger man’s eyes and allowed his to soften.  “Excellent work then, lux Felicis.”

The second-in-command saluted again, masking the smile that threatened to break.  Hiding his emotions.  Cassius was more than familiar with that.

Obvious feelings were a luxury in Garlemald—one few, if any, could afford.  All too often, they came at cost of life.

“Now,” Cassius said quickly, much to the Architectus Ordinum’s relief.  “Give me your report.  We’re due to the Lord Provost on the morrow.”

 


☾◈☽

 

The shadows of the Echo suddenly shifted.

A small mountainside tavern fogged into focus.  The room was quaint, cozy; fashioned into the foyer of a modest cottage.  A rose garden blossomed tenuously out front, well-cared for and quite apparently loved dearly, an impossible feat without tender attention in this arid, inhospitable climate.

It was evening.  White-hot stars glittered in the pitch of the sky.  The warm tones of a fire illuminated the thick-paned windows of the cottage.

The Imperial Praefectus Architectorum stepped through the door, casting long shadows behind him.  Pale hair gleamed more golden than white in the firelight, slicked back from his forehead.

“Cassius,” acknowledged the woman behind the bar, the proprietor of the inn.  She was very tall, with eyes as black as the night behind him.  Those eyes took in every ilm of him, quiet and unforgiving.

He nodded in her direction, unfazed, gaze lingering hotly on her as he took his time crossing the room.  “Bryony.”

Neither one of them broke eye contact as he finally took his seat at the bar, the air between them immeasurably tense and electric.

“And what, dare I ask,” she began, quirking one fiercely arched brow, “Brings your black shadows into my bar tonight?”

Cassius barked a laugh, his icy stare glittering in the way he knew fell somewhere between menace and charm. 

“My dear girl,” he growled, hardly daring to blink, “Is that how you would greet your most regular customer?”

Now she laughed, too; silvery, but like a crow’s call all at once.  “Please,” she spat, but reached down to fetch him a glass.  She held his gaze.  “When did you become my most regular customer?”

As she poured his usual poison, he grinned, showing straight, perfect teeth.  “When did this—” he gestured around with one large, work-worn hand for effect, “Become a crowd?”

She narrowed her eyes as she handed him his drink, but took the bait.  Her eyes flicked fast around the mostly-empty room.  Only two villagers sat here tonight, far away in one dark corner, fear already filling their expressions as they glanced in the commanding engineer’s direction.  “It’s certainly not a coincidence,” Bryony hissed, meeting his eyes with renewed vitriol.

His smile only widened.  “Oh come now,” he purred.  “When have I ever been anything but pleasant?”

Her eyes flashed.  “Drink,” she spat.

Obediently, he obliged.  As he sipped, his eyes never left her face.

In the background, she noticed the other customers make their quiet, swift exit.

Bryony took her eyes off of Cassius to watch them leave, and couldn’t help the sigh that slipped past her lips.  A line creased the smooth, golden-brown skin of her brow.

His glass made a hollow sound as he rested it back on the counter.  “I believe you despise my presence tonight.”

She kept her eyes on the door as it closed behind her other clients, letting her expression grow fully sour.  “What could have possibly,” she drew out the word, letting it drip off of her tongue, “Given you that idea, Cassius mal Magnus?”  She said his name like it was a curse.  But she reached for his glass to refill it.

As her fingers closed around the tumbler, his palm closed around her wrist.  His skin looked too pale against hers, like something from another world.

Which, truly, he was.

“Bryony,” he said softly, with reverence, all callous banter and stiff persuasion gone.  His thumb stroked the soft skin just beneath her palm.

She snatched her hand away.  “Don’t start,” she warned, fixing her eyes on him.  They glittered down at him like black embers, vast as midnight.  “You know what my answer will be.”

He looked up at her with eyes the color of a wintry dawn.  “And you know you’ve bewitched me,” he muttered, leaning closer.

A slight flush colored her cheeks as she stared down at him, pressing her lips tight together.  “And,” she said quickly, hoping he couldn’t sense the pulse of her traitorous heart, “You know that means nothing anymore.”

He stood then, suddenly, but graceful and without a sound.  At his full height, he was taller than her, looking down with tense eyes.  He braced himself against the bar with both hands.  “Does it not?”

Her heart was fully pounding, and she couldn’t look away.  She made to speak, opening her mouth—but her throat was dry, her voice trapped in silence.  She was thankful for the counter separating them.

“Leave,” she finally gasped.  “Get out.”

His hands tensed against the bar for a moment and his eyes flashed cold fire.

But he took a step back.

“I haven’t paid,” he said, his dark voice quiet.

She kept her eyes fixed on his face.  “Get out,” she whispered.

His gaze lingered on her a moment longer before he finally turned, stalking slowly toward the door.  It was only when he’d stepped through it, letting it close behind him, that she left the shelter of the bar to run across the floor and lock it shut.

Except that he was waiting on the other side—and years of hauling magitek had fortified his body with layers of lean muscle.  She couldn’t hold the door shut against him.

And then the counter between them was gone.  And then he was pulling her into that disarming embrace, so gentle she could cry.  And then he was whispering those things he whispered so well—whispered like he’d whispered that night, weeks ago, when she’d taken him into her bed.  When she’d no idea he was one of them.  When all she knew was that she wanted to touch every secret place of him with her lips.

He ran pale fingers through her hair, long and glossy black like raven’s wings.

“Bryony,” he sighed, kissing the shell of her ear with tender lips.  “Please.  Let me love you.”

She closed her eyes against his scent of oil and fire.  Everything in her body was screaming for him, screaming yes, seven hells yes, and she was tired of fighting.  But even as her hands traced hungry paths down his back, the counterpoint in her mind rang, clear and bitter.  “It’s forbidden,” she said, her voice sharp with pain and desire.  “You and I both know it.”

His arms tightened around her.  “Then let us burn,” he growled, his lips moving to her neck.

 

☾◈☽


 

A new vision, blurry, like the edges were shrouded in tears.

Cassius, his fine imperial armor cast off, dressed plainly, a dirty scarf tied around his head.  There to cover his third eye.

And Bryony, tall and beautiful and lithe, with no way to hide the swelling of her belly, full and quickening with child.  She wore heavy robes, but the panic in her usually steely eyes was clear—panic soothed only by Cassius, holding her face in both hands, kissing away her tears.

The two of them, palms clasped together as they ran breathless through the highlands, taking with them only what they could carry.

Flashes of making camp, the forest thickening all around.  Cassius felling a beast for their supper.  Bryony smoothing a salve onto their bruised, aching limbs.

But when they held each other’s gaze, the love, the electric passion, burning only brighter.

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

The monochrome images stirred, color bleeding into them like spilled ink.

And the Echo was an Echo no more.

“But father,” a very small Samantha whined, pouting.  “I hate healing."  Her nose wrinkled.  "I want to fight instead."

The crow’s feet around the edges of her father’s friendly blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, belly-laughing down at her.  “My little Rose,” he bellowed, resting one big hand on the crown of her head.  “You can’t fight if you don’t know how to protect yourself.”

She scowled.

Her mother was laughing too, in that throaty way that sounded like birds.  “Come, Sammy, let’s practice a while longer.  Then I promise I'll show you some other spells I know—the ones like black magick."

Samantha wanted to keep frowning, just to spite them.  But she couldn't help the twinkle of excitement that brightened her expression—the rush she felt as she met her mother’s pretty black eyes.  She sighed, giving up.  "I'm just so bad at healing," she said quietly, crestfallen.  "White magick is hard.  I just wonder, you know?  If some other kind might be ... easier?”

Her parents’ eyes met for a quick moment.

“Well,” said her father, his dark voice suddenly serious, “You know I’ve got no magick at all.”  He tapped the bandanna he kept wrapped around his forehead in the way he always did when he was telling her something solemn.  “So it’s very important that you feed it along with your talents—all of them.”

Her mother nodded, her sleek black hair pooling around her shoulders.  “Trust me, you have every bit as much as I did at twelve," she said, glancing back at Cassius in reassurance.  "You just have to be patient.  It gets easier as you get older.”

Samantha groaned.  “But you always say that,” she grumbled.

"I do."  Her mother pinched her cheek.  “And you never listen,” she quipped, pinching harder.

Samantha couldn’t fight the laugh that spilled from her lips, fully dispelling her sour expression.  “Well," she sang, smiling up at her mother’s beautiful face.  "That's because I'm stubborn."

Her mother giggled, casting a sidelong glance at her father.  “That sounds like someone else I know,” she muttered.

“Who?” said her father, playing dumb, scratching his head.  He quirked one pale eyebrow, amusement twinkling in his eyes.  “You?”

Her mother punched him in the arm. "Cassius," she growled, but he was laughing that belly-laugh again, and Samantha was laughing too.

They were always, always laughing.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Her heart pounded in her ears as she doubled over, returning to the present, gasping for breath on the shore of the Lochs.

Tears were streaming from her face.

It was another voice, another memory now that pressed at her chest.

"For we who are born into this merciless, meaningless world have but one candle of life to burn.  I know you understand this. You and I are one and the same.”

She choked back the cry that threatened to tear from her lips.

"No," she growled, her throat raw, desperate to clear his taunting voice from her head.

Desperate to defy what she knew was the truth—sure and inescapable as the blood in her veins.

 


Chapter Text


The continuation of "Confessions," a series of scenes taking place directly after the Main Scenario Quest "As Goes Light, So Goes Darkness."


 

It was a restless sleep, peppered with nightmares.

I can banish a primal, yet words always fail me.

She spent the morning agonizing over everything said to Ser Aymeric, the words she'd heretofore promised never to utter.  What had possessed her?  Why had she done it?

The thought of losing you, too—it was more than my heart could bear.

Because, after Haurchefant ... after Estinien—her heart wrung tightly at the briefest, faintest thought.

Losing anyone else would quite certainly break her.

There were too many reminders of loss around her already.  Ridiculously, she snapped at Artoirel over breakfast, earning a shocked reproach.  "I daresay, my lady," he began, openly dismayed, and just as openly resembling his half-brother.  "Had I but known the steel of your tongue, I would have paid no heed to the staff across your back."

Count Edmont snorted into his tea, masking it quickly with a dry cough.

She should have laughed.  Would have, except that he sounded too much like him.  Too much like someone she would never touch, never see, never hear from again.  She could feel her expression turn sour and censured herself for bringing her own petty wounds to the table.  

To his family's table.

"Forgive me," she said, meeting Artoirel's gaze with what she hoped was a deeply repentant look.  "I beg you.  I ... am not myself today."

She excused herself with an apologetic glance at Count Edmont, who simply nodded in her direction.

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

As she stalked down the corridor to her guest chambers, she stifled all thoughts of their lost loved one.  But thinking on those she could still protect was unsettling in a different way, especially as the hour of resumption with Ser Aymeric approached.

Sitting on the edge of her looming four-poster bed, she yanked heavy wool stockings over her legs, scowling at her reflection in the mirror.

"You are a foul person," she said darkly, staring into her own eyes.  "Truly foul."  Her eyes flicked to the feather-crowned staff leaning against the armoire, and she could feel lines crinkle into her brow.

Fitting, really.  Foul and flare, fume and fire.

Bitter and burning as the magick she summoned.

She bunched up a thin silk petticoat to slip over her head, scoffing.  And now you must explain yourself to a man who's never done a foul thing in his life.

"I always push things too bloody far," she muttered to herself, smoothing the fabric down over her body.  The slip was ink-colored and soft, and she focused on the feeling of it against her skin for just a moment before applying the next layer of clothing.  Robes and belts and boot laces later, the woman looking back at her in the mirror was someone she could almost respect.  At least she looked composed.  She pulled the hood of her warm winter cloak over her head and tucked a pointed black petasos on top, securing it in place.

Maybe today it could protect her from more than just the snow.

Perhaps now it could shield her from her own emotions.

 


☾ ☄ ✧

 

Her breath came fast and her pace sped up as the Congregation of our Knights Most Heavenly came into focus.  The light outside was blindingly bright, intensified by freshly fallen snow.  She found herself loosing a sigh of relief as soon as she entered the dark, open chamber, blinking water from her stinging eyes.

"Ah," uttered the guard, bowing in her direction.  "Warrior of Light.  The Lord Commander is expecting you."

She bowed back, forcing down the sudden pounding of her heart, quickly wiping her runny nose.  "Thank you," she sputtered, painfully aware of herself.  "Please let him know that I've arrived."

He bowed again and turned to open the chamber, announcing her presence.

"Show her in," said a muffled, familiar voice.

She shoved her hands into the folds of her robe as she strode into the room; flinched as the door clicked shut behind her.  She forced her pace to steady and her shoulders to relax as she lifted her eyes to meet the blue ones staring at her from across the room.

"Welcome," he said softly, that shadow of a smile hiding behind his lips.  He stood from his chair, beginning to approach her.  "I do hope you are well today."

She swallowed a sudden lump in her throat, stopping several paces away.  "I am," she said, sincerely surprised to find her voice.  "And I hope the same is true for you."

He apparently held no reservations in closing the distance between them, stopping well within arm's reach.  She tried not to focus on the shape of his mouth as he spoke.

"I believe we left off on tenuous footing," he began, the smooth tone and charisma of his voice entirely the opposite of the previous day's stammering hesitation.  "For that, I would like to apologize."

She blinked.  "What?"

He held her gaze, unflustered.  "Unless I am mistaken," he continued, picking his words with care, "You wished to express a certain set of ... sentiments to me."  He paused.  She noticed as he wet his lips.  He took a breath, but never looked away.  "As I believe I mentioned, I am unfamiliar with such disclosures.  It is not—" A faint line creased between his brows.  "I find that I tend to inspire a certain ... formality," he muttered, his expression uncharacteristically uncertain.  "Which perhaps precludes more personal relationships."

She knew she should say something instead of staring at him in silence, but it was difficult to believe this was a real conversation.  "Forgive me," she said, trying to think more clearly, trying to derail him just a bit.  "Are you telling me that I am the only person who has ever felt devotion to you?"

And, indulgently, he laughed.  The sound of it, the light in his expression; it wrung her heart in a way she hadn't thought possible.  "Indeed, I am not," he conceded, but the sparkle in his eyes hardened to a solemn gleam as he held her gaze.  "But I believe what I mean to say is—well—that a certain devotion ... from you of all people ..."

He cleared his throat, and looked away.  "It is not often that I am at a loss for words."

Her heart flipflopped in her chest, a blush creeping across her face.  "Then are we to stand here in silence?" she said, chewing her bottom lip.  "Because I often find that words escape me."

He looked back at her with wide eyes and laughed again.  "I have noticed."

"Fantastic," she quipped, mortified to feel the blush on her cheeks growing hotter.  "Then you realize how disadvantaged I am in this situation."

There was a beat of silence as he took a breath, lowering his eyes.

"Quite the contrary," he said.  His voice was very warm.

She could hear her pulse pounding in her ears as he looked down at her with an unreadable expression.  It took every onze of her willpower to meet that gaze.

"I hold an advantage?" she asked, surprised by her own voice.  "How?"

The space between them seemed to shrink, his eyes staring through her.

"In every way I can imagine," he said softly.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

That night, she dreamt of rainfall in Rootslake, hunting frogs with her father, braiding daisies to wear as crowns across their foreheads.

Once, when she was little, she asked him about the ridiculous way he wrapped his head.  Never once had she seen the skin above his brows.

“I’ll tell you when you’re able to understand,” he’d said, the low notes of his voice dismissive.  But it had been strange enough, ominous enough, to stick in the back of her mind.

Over the years of her childhood she watched him carefully, wondering when he would slip; if he would forget the bandana, revealing that mysterious piece of hidden skin.

But he never did.

When Samantha came to her mother with questions, Bryony’s face darkened for a moment—quick, but not quick enough.  She laughed lightly and said in a voice far too casual:  “It’s not important.”  But then she looked hard into Samantha’s eyes.  “Trust me, my daughter,” and this time it sounded sincere.  “If it mattered, you would know.”

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

It was a rainy summer morning.  She was fourteen years old and had just woven the most beautiful flower crown of her entire life: Red and black roses with velvet-green ivy.  She was turning it around in her hands, admiring her craftsmanship, when big fingers stole it away.

“Father!” she cried, grasping helplessly at the empty space he’d left behind.  “Give that back!”

Cassius laughed loudly, his pale eyes sparkling down at her as he held the crown just out of reach.  “For me?” he teased.  “You shouldn’t have.”

She jumped up, swiping for it, coming back empty.

He laughed harder and nestled the flowers down over his thick, white-gold locks.

“There,” he sighed, very dramatic.  “Now I can finally be as beautiful as you and your mother.”

Though she couldn’t help the ugly laugh that tore from her throat, she still had a mission.  And somewhere over the past year she’d grown tall enough to reach the top of his head.

With one final, desperate lunge, she snatched back the crown, and her father’s bandana came along with it.

His eyes grew wide.  He covered his brow with the palm of his hand, but not fast enough.  She’d seen the pearly sphere, set into the center of his forehead like a jewel on a diadem.  And she knew exactly what it was.

“You’re an imperial,” she choked, the words catching in her throat, the rose crown slipping from her fingers.

“No, my pet,” he said softly, using the voice that reminded her of big warm hugs and bedtime stories.  “I am Ilsabardian.  I haven’t been an imperial for nearly fifteen years.”

Her heart was pounding as she stared at her father’s sharp, handsome features, confusion swarming in her heart.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she accused.  Though somewhere, deep down, the spark of realization, the sense that she’d always known, was hot and solemn.

“Because I knew this would happen,” he said, matter-of-fact.  There was a deep sadness flooding his expression and she could barely meet his eyes.  “And I never wanted you to look at me like this.”

She turned away like she’d been struck, gasping for a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding.  “But you’re one of them,” she said, unable to stop the stream of consciousness.

“I am from Garlemald,” he said calmly, and out of the corner of her eye she saw his hand reach down to pick up the crown.  “Just as these roses are from your mother’s garden.  But not a single one of them,” he murmured, touching each blossom, “Is the same as any other.  We are each of us as different as one day is from the next.”

She closed her eyes, hot tears dripping from the corners.  “But why,” she wept, the outline of her father's face blurred when she looked back up at him.  “Why you?”

“Because none of us can choose how it is we came to be,” he said sternly, reaching to grab both of her shoulders.  "But we can guide the hands of fate."  She blinked away her tears to meet his fierce gaze.  "All you need to know, my darling, is this.”  His eyes roved over her face, and he took a steadying breath.  “I love you and your mother more than my own life.  I knew what treasures I’d found in Eorzea.  And nothing in this world, not even my bloodline, could keep me from chasing them.”

A quiet sob guttered in her throat and he pulled her tight against him, hugging her close.

“Never, ever forget how much I love you,” he said softly.  “Promise.”

She buried her face into his chest.  “I promise,” she whispered.

 


 

 

 

 

Chapter Text


Chronologically, a continuation of "Confessions, Pt. II."


 ✦

 

When Artoirel entered the dining room the next morning, he was surprised to find his favorite breakfast tea fully brewed, warm, and waiting for him on the table.

Samantha was leaning against his usual chair, holding the sugar bowl and giving him a shy half-smile.

“What’s this?” he asked, meeting her gaze with curious violet eyes. 

Gently, she dropped one tawny cube of sugar into his teacup, as per his taste.  “Consider it atonement for the other morning,” she said, reaching over to pick up the pot.  She poured him a cup and stepped aside, gesturing widely to his seat.

He couldn’t help the grin that quirked up the corners of his mouth.  “In that case, will you not join me?  I would hate to enjoy this by myself.”

She pulled up the chair across from him, taking her tea with milk.  For a warm, familiar moment, they sipped in silence.

Then, as she nested her cup back into its saucer, she sighed.  “I miss him.”

The three words fell from her lips unbidden, punctuating the calm.

Artoirel ran a solitary fingertip along the lip of his cup.

“I do as well,” he finally murmured, resting his hand on the table.  His long fingers curled into a loose fist.  “So much that, at times—"

For a moment, neither of them spoke, letting Haurchefant’s absence fill the silence.

Out of the corner of her eye, Samantha noticed someone standing just outside the room.  She glanced over to see Count Edmont, his back to them, leaning stiffly against the doorframe.

When she turned back to Artoirel, he was looking at his hand, his lips pressed tight together, the muscles in his jaw clenched as he tried to contain his emotions.

A smile better suits a hero.

She reached over to cover his hand with hers, and her vision blurred.

Artoirel met her gaze.  His eyes were wet.  “I believe—he would not want us to mourn,” he said softly.

She nodded her agreement.  “But I think—” She looked down at the table; felt tears stream down her cheeks.  “I think he would not blame us for crying."

Artoirel made a soft sound.  When she looked at him, his tears were falling, too.

He clasped her hand tightly, meeting her gaze with red-rimmed eyes.

 


 

Chapter Text


 The "Confessions" storyline continues.


 

“Samantha?”  It was Count Edmont’s voice, coming from the foyer.

She was in the parlor, paging through a musty Ishgardian spell book she’d found gathering dust in the library.  She was glad for the distraction.  For the past half-hour she’d been struggling through a ruthlessly complex passage describing lesser arcana.  She blinked hard and closed the tome, calling out.  “Yes?”

His heels made a solid sound against the floor as he strode into the room.  “This letter’s just arrived for you directly,” he said, holding out a neat rectangle of parchment.

Her eyebrows rose as she looked from the envelope, up to his night-blue eyes.  “I can’t remember the last time I received correspondence,” she quipped, reaching over to accept the letter.  “Least of all delivered by the head of the House.”

He chuckled, shaking his head.  “I was intrigued by the seal,” he admitted with a note of embarrassment.  “But I shall pry into your business no longer.”  He bowed, excusing himself from the chamber.

Bewildered, she flipped the envelope over in her hands.  Nothing was written on the outside.

It was sealed with a dollop of vivid ultramarine wax, embossed with a stamp she didn’t immediately recognize.  With careful fingers, she peeled up the hard, flattened droplet and removed the letter’s contents: a single, snow-white sheet of paper, folded twice.  It was heavy stock, with some tooth against her fingertips.  She smoothed the paper between her thumbs and forefingers as she unfolded it.

The words on the page were written in extraordinarily neat calligraphy:

- - - - - - - - - - 

To one Mme Floravale;

I am writing to formally request
the Honor of your presence
at the Borel Manor
on the Fifth Evening of this Moon
at eight
to share tea and company.

With Warm Regards,
Aymeric de Borel

- - - - - - - - - - 

She read the invitation once.  Twice.

Stared at it for far longer than was necessary given the small volume of words on the page.

Forcing calm, she folded the paper back along its creases and nestled it into the envelope.  As she closed the flap, she examined the wax seal more closely, finally noticing the embossed "A" hidden among intricate curling filigree florets and fleur de lis.

It wasn’t until she was at her desk, retrieving paper and a pen of her own, that her heart started to pound.

She uncapped a well of midnight ink, dipping in a quill.

Ser Ayme— she began to pen, but her hand was trembling.  The brush tip tripped, leaving behind a shiny, dark swath.

She crumpled the paper, pulling out another.

Ser Aymeric; she penned.  Then she took a deep breath.

It would be my pleasure to join you on the evening of the Fifth.

Her hand was trembling.  She replaced the quill in the inkwell to prevent further casualties, then ran both hands through her hair.

Another deep breath.

Picking the quill back up, she finished:

I shall see you after dinner.

She chewed on her bottom lip as she wondered about the closing.  Uncrumpling the paper from before, she jotted:

Sincerely –?

Warmly –?

He’d already used the word “warm."  Maybe something else.

… With Pleasure –?

No.  She scratched that one out.  One pleasure was enough.

She crumpled the paper back up again, pushing it out of the way.  Then she put down the pen and stared at the words she’d written.

Ser Aymeric;

It would be my pleasure to join you on the evening of the Fifth.
I shall see you after dinner.

Biting her lip, she dipped the quill back into the inkwell.

With Gratitude,
Samantha R. Floravale

 


 

Chapter Text


Chronologically, a continuation from the previous chapter.


 

Every ilm of her body ached.

Just finish channeling to Ishgard.  

Then you can rest.

 ✧ ☄ ☽


 

It had been a long day of diplomacy, travelling from Gridania to Coerthas and back again.  And then the late buzz in from Alphinaud.  Some matter of business he’d wished to discuss at the Rising Stones, which ran over-long as expected.

Toward the end of their meeting, they were touring the long hall of the Solar at a very slow pace, side by side.  Alphinaud was speaking at length about some tangential event.  Although it was reasonably entertaining and phrased with his usual eloquence, Samantha was having difficulty staying focused.

“Forgive me, Alphinaud,” she interrupted, coming to a halt.  "You deserve my undivided attention, but at the moment, I cannot give it."  She turned her eyes to meet his surprised expression.  The room spun—the first throes of aethersickness.  “I realize this is very rude—I beg your pardon."  She closed her eyes and took a breath, overwhelmed by the sudden urge to sit on the floor.  Her stomach was starting to clench.  "I need to—sit down—”

“Upon my word,” he said softly, grabbing her elbow.  She opened her eyes to find him looking tensely up at her face.  “Why did you not stop me sooner?”

He snatched her hand and led her quickly to the greatroom, pulling out a chair.  With a tremendous amount of unnecessary fussing, he forced her to take a seat and went to fetch some refreshment.

“It is I who am at fault,” he said sheepishly, handing her a heavy mug filled with tea leaves and steaming water.  As she accepted it, he looked down at her with solemn, stormy eyes.  “You mustn’t allow me to continue waxing on like that while you suffer in silence.”  He shook his head, lowering his lashes, and a light blush colored his pale cheeks.  “It is all too easy to get carried away with you.”

That made her chuckle.  “Alphinaud, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings."  She rested her palm on his forearm for effect.  “But you get carried away with everyone.”

When he was embarrassed, he pursed his lips in a way that caused shallow dimples to appear in his cheeks.

“Perhaps,” he gracefully conceded, his eyes flicking back to hers for a moment.  “But I fear that, given the volume of time we spend together—”  He cleared his throat.  “It is almost certainly you who must bear the brunt of my unchecked verbiage.”

She snorted, squeezing his arm tight before leaning back in her chair.  The room still threatened to topple and spin at any moment.  "I hope you trust that it is typically my pleasure,” she reassured him.  She didn’t notice the blush on his cheeks deepen as she closed her eyes, and gave a tired sigh.  “But today, I'm afraid, has been anything but typical.”

 


 ☾ ☄ ✧

 

She was jarred out of her reflection by the sensation of solid ground beneath her feet.

Her breath plumed out in a white cloud against the darkness—and the edge of her vision gave the faintest pirouette.

She hunched over to quench it, shrugging deeper into her cloak as she made the final march across the Pillars to the Manor Fortemps.

 


 

Chapter Text


The "Confessions" storyline continues. 


 

It was seven forty-four on the fifth night of this, the Sixth Astral Moon.

And she was expected at eight.

Her blood rushed in her ears as she started the walk to the Borel Manor, pulling her cloak tight around her shoulders.

Outside, it was dark and biting cold, each breath bringing a bitter chill to her lungs.  The sky was overcast, clouds heavy with snow, and she could smell the smoke of so many fires, warming so many hearths.  If she’d learned anything during her time here in Ishgard, it was that there would be a storm tonight.

She shivered, walking faster.

Up to now, she’d done everything she could to avoid thinking about this night.  But, with the evening itself upon her, and the distance to her destination shrinking by the second, she could put it off no longer.

Tea.

With …  She shivered again.

What exactly were his intentions?

She scoffed.

What are mine?

If she had no answer for herself, she could hardly expect one from him.

She closed her eyes for a moment, shaking her head.

That was when the image of Estinien appeared, unbidden, against her eyelids.

With a shocked breath she looked back into the night, blinking away what could only be tears.

I can’t think of this right now.

Her breath plumed before her, thick and white, her heart skipping heavy beats.

He is gone.

She couldn’t allow herself the hope that, maybe, he could be saved.

Not now.  Not after—  

She tamped down every feeling, crushing them into a dark, frozen corner of her heart.

Keep moving.

And when she looked up, the entrance to the Borel Manor was within sight.

 


 

Waiting on the stoop, she shifted her weight between her feet, restless and unsettled.

Her breath caught as the handle clicked, the hinges creaked, and she was shocked to find Aymeric himself revealed behind the door.

“Welcome, my friend,” he said warmly, wearing an expression she’d never seen before.  His voice, too, was filled with something new.  Was it comfort?  Ease?  “Please, come inside.”

She stepped over the threshold in a rustle of heavy robes.  He shut the door behind her, and as she made to unfasten the cloak clasped around her neck, Aymeric reached over.

“Please, allow me,” he insisted, meeting her surprised glance with an earnest gaze.  Raising her eyebrows, she lowered her hands, allowing him to unwrap the cloak from her shoulders and hang it on the rack by the door.

“This embroidery is almost certainly Ishgardian,” he observed, casting her a sidelong glance as he arranged it neatly on a hook.

She nodded.  “It was a gift,” she said, slipping her arms from the fleece she’d worn beneath the cloak.  “From Count Edmont.  Though—”  She cleared her throat against the sharp twinge in her heart.  “I believe he was put up to it by his son.” 

She was not yet brave enough to say his name.

Aymeric inclined his head.  “Lord Haurchefant,” he deduced, saying it for her.

She shrugged the fleece off of her shoulders—shrugged against the pain, and closed her eyes for a moment.  “We were just speaking the other day of how he—"  There was iron in her throat again and she swallowed.  "He wouldn’t want us to mourn, but—”  When she looked up, Aymeric’s eyes were bearing down on her, suddenly full of concern.  Her heart skipped a beat.  “It happens at the slightest provocation.”

He reached out to take the fleece gently from her hands, where she’d been wringing it.

“I believe there is no shame in feeling so strongly,” he murmured, turning to find a second coat hook.  Then he cast her another sidelong glance.  “Though I suspect some part of you might disagree.”

He wasn’t wrong.

She wet her lips.  “Truthfully, I can’t say why,” she admitted.  “But I often—”  She paused, trying to come up with the right phrase.  “I suppose I’d rather be taciturn than utterly aflame.”

He turned full to face her, eyebrows high.  “I am shocked to hear this from the lips of an astral sorceress,” he said, a note of humor in his tone.

She quirked a brow back.  “Umbral as well,” she jibed, looking up at him through her lashes.  “You cannot have one aspect without the other.”

“Forgive me, but I have seen my share of ice,” he said softly.  “And you are far too warm to be shaped of it.”

On cue, a hot blush colored her cheeks.  She cleared her throat.  “I came here for tea,” she said loudly.  “Not to have my convictions called into question.”

He laughed, his eyes sparkling down at her.  “Come, then,” he said, offering her an arm.  “Let us retire to the parlor.”

She looped her arm through his bent elbow and, gently, he pulled her close.  With the warmth of his body beside her, she felt tiny, even though she easily stood as tall as his shoulders.  She chuckled, shaking her head.

He glanced down at her through the corner of his eye.  “What?”

“It’s not often that I feel so small,” she confessed.

They were approaching the threshold of a warmly lit room.  “Is this one of those rare times?”

She tilted her head.  “It is,” she said, allowing her voice to be soft.  “I’m not sure which I prefer.”

Whatever the case, she was strong and alive beside him—living and breathing together.

They were crossing into the parlor now.  “As long as feeling small does not equate to feeling unpleasant,” he said, glancing down at her.

“Certainly not,” she assured him.

It was a comfortable room.  Rugs with intricate designs lined the floor, arranged with high-backed armchairs that were upholstered in dark, soothing colors.  A fire crackled in the hearth.  Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with tomes and artifacts alike.  Back in the corner, toward a window darkened by the night outside, was a wide table; perhaps somewhere he read, or wrote letters.

He led her to a set of two armchairs, with a low table between them.

There rested a delicate ceramic tea setting, well-appointed with sugar bowl and creamer, and two cups and saucers.

When he spoke again, excitement made his voice hitch.  “I hope you have a taste for Ishgardian tea,” he said, his words coming in a rush.  “It is my favorite preparation.  Though of course it would be my pleasure to begin another brew for you if it does not suit your palette.”

“Luckily I’ve never met a tea I didn’t like,” she said, letting her eyes twinkle at him.

A smile spread across his lips and he took the seat to her left, putting him at a comfortable diagonal across.

“Then I am sure you will be pleased with this one,” he said softly, reaching to pour them each a cup.  The liquid was milky, rosy-tan, and fragrant.  She closed her eyes and breathed deep of the scent as he handed her a serving, smiling on reflex.

“Thank you,” she said, truly grateful.

He inclined his head to her, fixing her with those piercing blue eyes.  “No, thank you,” he began, cradling his teacup in one long-fingered hand.  “Quite profoundly, for accepting my invitation.  I do not often entertain company.  Not for lack of want,” he clarified.  “But rarely am I so inspired to solicit it.”

She took a sip of the warm, floral drink, allowing a flattered smile to lift her lips.  “Then I am doubly honored, to have earned something so valuable.”

He hadn’t broken her gaze, hadn’t sipped his tea; was only watching her with an inscrutable expression.  “The tea is to your taste, then?” he asked.

She nodded vigorously.  “Oh yes,” she said, letting every earnest feeling color her voice.  “It is delightful.”

It was a small smile that lifted the corners of his mouth, but one so warm that it melted her heart.

She swallowed hard.

“I must confess, I am—”  She paused, thinking of what it was exactly that she wanted to say.  Her eyes moved slowly across his face, tracing his figure in the chair.  He was dressed in a tunic of muted brown and cobalt, decorated with silver filigree, slung with a loose belt.  He looked almost slight without his armor, but something about that was doubly endearing.

He set his cup and saucer back down on the table to rest his arms in his lap.  “You are—?”  His gaze was quizzical.

“Surprised,” she said finally, also setting down her cup and saucer.  “To be here, with you,” she clarified.  “Especially after your disclosure about your history with more … personal relationships."

His expression softened, the look in his eyes unfathomable.  “I am surprised you are here, with me,” he leveled, and this time, his eyes took her in, moving slowly from her face, down her shoulders, to the hands folded in her lap.  “With you, there is an …ease.  A rapport that I do not often feel.  You shall have to forgive me for being so frank, but it is so.”  He shook his head, lowering his eyes.  “And pray excuse my inelegance.  But it is not often that I— … Rather, it has been quite some time since I have enjoyed such pleasant company.”

The blush on her cheeks was hot and undoubtedly obvious.  She lowered her eyes and took a breath.  “I was afraid that my admissions the other day— … Would have had quite the opposite effect.”  She chewed her bottom lip.  “But, here we are, sharing tea no less.”

“To put your mind even further at ease,” he said softly, “I have wished to share tea with you for quite some time.”

She looked up to meet tense blue eyes.  He was closer than expected, leaning toward her, diminishing the distance between them ever so slightly.

“I hope—” his voice faltered.  “I should very much like—to get to know you better.”

She held his gaze against the fluttering of her heart, feeling even more blood rush up to her face.  Then she chuckled, trying to still the uneven rhythm in her chest.  “You must let me know if I improve on closer acquaintance.”

His eyes were very warm.  It was unbearable.  “Some may say you are already remarkable.”  There was a gentle humor in his tone, as though he could anticipate her reaction.

And indeed, it made her laugh.  “All they see is the glory, Ser,” she teased, grateful to be momentarily distracted.  She gave him a conspiratorial glance.  “The shining façade of the 'hero.'  Whatever they imagine me to be."  She knew her eyes were burning as she looked up at him through her lashes, letting a spark break through, letting some part of herself finally come aflame against her will.  “But they don’t know me.  Not truly."

Rapt with interest, his lips parted ever so slightly.  “And could I know you truly?"

“Is that what you want?”  She was leaning closer to him now, too.  “To see beyond the fabled Warrior of Light?”

His eyes flicked between hers, and he wet his lips.  “I want to try,” he said, very earnest.  “And I am not accustomed to failure.”

She smiled, biting her lip.  “Then you may try,” she said softly.  “But I can make you no promises.”

He took a breath, holding her gaze.  Leaned ever-so-slightly closer.

She could see every color in his eyes, the flecks of ice and silver, cerulean and ultramarine.  There was the straight line of his nose, the arch of his eyebrows, the fall of the rook-black hair on his brow.

But it was the power of his gaze that pulled her in, scalding hot and fathomless; laying her bare, as though he could see straight through to her soul and unearth the secrets there.

“Forgive me,” he murmured.

And then, so gently, like something from a dream, one of his hands was touching her jaw, her neck; wrapping around to the base of her skull.

She could feel the way his fingers trembled against her, the delicate warmth of his breath on her lips.  “I—…”  He faltered, lowering his eyes, the tip of his nose brushing hers.  “May I…?”

The words caught in her throat.  She couldn’t breathe.  Her eyes squeezed shut and she immediately opened them again, desperate to witness this moment.

When she spoke, their lips brushed together.

“Please,” she whispered.

And carefully, he closed that breath of distance between them.

 


 

Chapter Text


Oriented around the events of the Main Scenario Quest, “Into the Aery.”


 

It started in the Mists, while they were negotiating peace with Nidhogg’s brother.

So many times, Hraesvelgr shut them out.  So many times, Ysayle and Alphinaud would walk in solemn, thoughtful solitude.

And so many times, Estinien would isolate himself from the rest of them.

 

☾ ❅ ☽


 

It was close to midnight.

Alone in his tent, Estinien sat awake, sleep eluding him as usual.

The small hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he sensed someone approach.  Hands reflexively found and tensed on the body of his lance, and he fixed his eyes on the mouth in the canvas.

The flap pushed back, revealing the moonlit face of the Warrior of Light.  Her long hair bunched around her shoulders as she hunched over and invaded his privacy.

“What are you doing?” he muttered, his dark voice tense.

Light flickered between her fingertips, drawing his gaze, and he noticed she was holding a tiny spark there.  She scowled over at him, her face illuminated by firelight.

“I can’t find Alphinaud or Ysayle, and I don’t want to be alone,” she grumbled.

Estinien closed his eyes against the words, stone-faced.  “I do not desire company.”

He could hear the soft rustling of her robes as she found a seat in spite of him.  “I don’t care,” she said.  “I know you can’t sleep.  Neither can I—and I’m selfish.  So here I am.”

Estinien opened his eyes to find her kneeling across from him.  The spark suspended in her left palm was now a candle’s flame, waxless and wickless.  

“Can you feel it?” he murmured, tilting his head toward the fire.  He watched it flutter, casting shadows in the tent.

She started to shake her head, then stopped.  “Well, yes,” she admitted, turning her dark eyes to look at it too.  It danced slowly, as only flame can do.  “It feels warm.”  A smile touched the corners of her lips.  “And of course I have to keep it burning, so I can sense it plucking at my aether.”  She studied the flame for a moment.  “But something this small, it feels like—”  She paused for a moment, thinking.  “—The tug of a single hair pulled taut.  Or a hangnail,” she added, making herself chuckle.

A smile somehow tickled his lips but he shook his head instead, watching as she used her free hand to unfasten the cloak around her shoulders.  Beneath it she wore a long plain nightgown that gathered in deep folds around her bare toes.  It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her in nightclothes on their travels, but it always surprised him; somehow too unassuming for a sorceress who could conjure fire.

She noticed his appraisal and nodded to the simple white shirt and trousers he’d worn to bed.

“I’m happy to see you don’t sleep in your armor,” she quipped.  “I was concerned.”

The grin hiding behind his lips broke to the surface for a split second, before the stony countenance returned.

“Too many moving parts,” he said quietly.

She smiled back at him.  Then she closed her eyes.

They sat together, listening to the sounds of the Mists around them; wind and silence, punctuated by the distant, heavy beat of dragon wings.

After a long moment, he heard her take a breath.

“I am sorry for intruding,” she said, her voice very soft.  “But I am happy for the chance to sit with you.”

He was surprised to find that his eyes had drifted shut; that a comfortable haze had settled over his tumultuous mind.  He looked up to find her studying his face.

“I …” he paused, meeting her gaze.  When he finally spoke, his dark voice was warm.  “I am … happy you are here.”

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

Scattered midnight moments, just the two of them. 

Brief and pithy; glimpses of childhood wishes, muttered descriptions of fears.  Breaths of nightmares, hopes, and dreams.

Long, hard days of negotiations—of fighting, of travel, of failure.

Then the fleeting peace of those sleepless nights, with just the breadth of the tent between them, filled with the curt comforts of their words, or the succor of shared silence.

They had similar souls.  Waxless and wickless, burning of their own devices.  Both of them taciturn, both aching, both ripped raw inside.

Both of them boiling just beneath the surface.

 


 ☾ ☄ ✧

 

The bloody business was done.  His armor was stained to prove it. 

Nidhogg was slain, but he left behind a swath of mysteries in his wake—and now only his brother, Hraesvelgr, could answer for them.

The pair departed the Aery into a crushing night, victorious, yet heavy-hearted.

He wanted to go to Zenith, to confront Hraesvelgr directly.  But at camp, the rest were weary.  Samantha’s eyes held a warning reflected by a glance at Ysayle, whose pale gaze flashed in Alphinaud’s direction.  And, though he hid it well, the boy was exhausted.

“Let us recover, then,” Estinien had said, his voice strained with the urgency he felt to keep going.

But, for Alphinaud’s sake, he wouldn’t.

He’d try to rest.

 

 ☾ ❅ ☽


 

He was wiping the last of the black wyrm’s blood from his chin when she burst into his tent, as always, uninvited.  A line creased in his brow and he’d wet his lips to speak, to tell her to go, that he needed to be alone tonight.

But she hadn’t stopped moving.

She closed all of the distance between them, near enough to feel her warmth. 

And then she grabbed his neck, his jaw.  Wide, burning eyes searched his face.

And then she crushed her lips against his.

He couldn’t breathe.  Every subterranean ache came surging to the surface, raw and metallic.

His teeth pulled at her bottom lip as he jerked away, making a harsh sound in his chest.  “What are you doing?”  His voice was quiet and clipped, but even he could feel the fire smoldering in his eyes.

She ran tensed fingers up to twine them in long silver hair.  “Just kiss me,” she hissed.

He hesitated for only a moment.

Then the callused flats of his thumbs pressed into her skin as he took her face in both hands, covering her mouth with his.

His teeth scraped to devour her lips, her chin, her throat.  Her hands scrambled for his neck, his shoulders, the curve of his back.  One hand unfastened the brooch at her collarbone and the cloak fell from her shoulders, crushed beneath her as he shoved her down.

She looked up at him, breathless, eyes wide, her hair spread in a dark halo against the ground.

Then his mouth was back on her throat and she gasped, checking the cry that almost tore from her lips.  Blunt teeth pulled at her earlobe and her eyes screwed shut.

Her fingertips were scraping down his spine when he resurfaced and he shuddered, breathing hard.  “We must stop,” he said, the words coming fast, raw and ragged in his throat.

She shook her head.  “Don’t,” she begged, dragging hands back up his shoulders to grip the nape of his neck.

His heart was pounding as he stared at her, from where he knelt above.  Everything in his body howled listen to her and his threadbare tatters of self-control were shredding apart.

“I want to continue."  His voice was gruff, husky with the proof of it.  He leaned down; pressed their foreheads together; took a coarse breath.  “But I doubt we think clearly.”

He felt the balm of her breath on his lips as she considered it.  Then the brush of her mouth on his cheek.  “I don't want to think clearly,” she whispered, hot on the shell of his ear.  “Not tonight.”

He closed his eyes tight.  The heat and tension ebbed, only to surge even higher.  He leaned back to fix her with a strained expression.  When he spoke, his voice was rougher than before.  “Is that wise?”

“No,” she conceded.  But she pulled herself up to kiss him again.

There it was; another crack in the surface; another torrent of longing so sharp he felt it curl his marrow.  He knew his lips were fierce, his grip painful, his teeth bruising the surface of her skin.  But she was opening these gates and she had a right to know the truth.

“I fear I will hurt you,” he said, to confess his final reservation.  “I—”  He cleared his throat, lowered his head; pressed his mouth against her neck.  “I fear I am a beast, only barely contained.”

Her hands flexed against his neck and slid slowly down his back.  Her lips beside his temple, she murmured, “I am not afraid.”  And then, in a tone he’d never heard before, “I have seen my share of beasts, Estinien.  Surely I can handle just one more.”

He pulled back to find her face flushed, lips swollen from his attentions.  And her dark, hooded eyes—the look in her eyes; it was enough to drive him mad.

His final thread of self-control pulled taut.

He took a thin breath; brushed open lips against her mouth.  “I gave you my warning,” he said, sinews tensed.

She kissed him, tenderly, taking his face in both hands.  “Then there is nothing more left to be said.”

 


 

Chapter Text

 


... and we return to the “Confessions” storyline.  


 ✦

 

Estinien was walking slowly, agonizingly slowly, to King Thordan's fallen sword.

He was going to pluck the eye from its hilt.

No!

She tried to scream, tried to move, tried to do anything, but she was frozen, forced back into the scene that haunted her nightmares.

Before she could stop him, he was holding the eyes in both hands.

NO—

When he spoke, his voice was tired.  The sound of it twisted her heart.

"With this task accomplished, my toils shall finally—be at an end.”

She knew what happened next.  Tried to close her eyes against it.  But this was her mind’s eye, and there was no escape.

A dark crimson blur of fear and pain.  The panicked throb of her heart. 

The terror spread like ash across his face.

The web, the heavy pulse—the writhing veins and sinew, binding the eyes to his limbs.

And the shade of Nidhogg, erupting from his body in a mist of blood and choking smoke.

 

☽ ❅ ☾


 

She woke, gasping, drenched in a cold sweat.

Wild eyes scanned the room, the familiar Ishgardian furniture, the colors of the House Fortemps.

She panted heavy breaths.  Threw the covers from her body.  Swung her legs over the edge of the bed to curl over her knees, clutching her belly.

Estinien. 

She sobbed, swallowing down the bitter bile in her throat.

Even through her heavy nightgown, the fingers curled against her stomach were cold as ice.

She pulled back to look down at her hands.  They were covered in a fine frost.

Gulping another breath, she closed her eyes.  Hot tears dripped down her cheeks as she channeled her aether, focusing it down into the pit of her stomach.

She reached for the astral aspect, waited for that familiar gnawing power.  And then the base of her spine warmed like an ember, pulsing heat, easing the umbral web that had settled over her body.

When she opened her eyes, the frost had already melted.

She flexed her fingers, wiped the tears from her face.  With a sigh, she released the fire-aspected aether from her belly.

The nightmare, again.

And after tonight, of all nights.

She closed her eyes again as warm memories, mere hours past, pressed against her eyelids.

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

As he pulled away, he was blushing, smiling, laughing softly.

“Forgive me,” Aymeric said again, and as he met her gaze, he gave a slight shake of his head.  “I— I cannot say what possessed me."

She could still feel the soft pressure of his lips and she was afraid to move, afraid it might banish the sensation.  But she couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

“Please, don’t apologize,” she said, surprised at the strength of her voice.  She’d thought herself breathless.

His expression was bashful, and absolutely enchanting.  “I do not mean to be forward,” he muttered, his voice soft.  “But I fear I—”  He cleared his throat, reaching for his tea.  “Is it quite appropriate to use the phrase ‘I could not resist?’”

That made her laugh.  It was a raw, ugly sound, and she blushed as soon as it left her lips.  But the smile on his face only widened, and that gave her some courage.

“Yes,” she said, meeting his eyes.  “Is it ever remiss to call someone irresistible?”  A spark of mischief lit her tone.  “Unless of course you don’t mean it.”

A blend of amusement and mild concern colored his expression.  “I assure you, my lady.  I am always sincere.”

She reached for her tea, quirking an eyebrow, giving him a solemn nod.  “If you say so.”

He was watching her with twinkling eyes.  “What was it you mentioned earlier?” he began, the phantom of a smile lifting the corners of his lips.  “That you came here for tea, not to be called into question?"

She smiled even as she bit her lip, and the twinkle in his eyes brightened.

He took a sip from his cup, looking at her through his lashes.

 


☾ ☄ ✧ 

 

She breathed, clearing away the edges of the memory.

Sleep.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Tomorrow is a new dawn.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

So often, she met her own eyes in the mirror and wondered:

Who are you?

Not always.  Never with any of the Scions. 

With them, she felt present.

Chastened beneath the sting of Y'shtola's sarcasm, the careworn bitters of Thancred's wit—

Humbled to patience by Urianger, escaping the reach of Tataru's grip—

Joyful while hugging Alphinaud into bear holds that flung him from the ground—

Temperate in the kitchen Fortemps on snowy, sunlit mornings—

Wanted in a tent in the Mists—

And she felt alive—completely living—beside the solemn, kindhearted paladin who kindled her tenuous faith.

But, in the moments when nothing stirred—when the calm was enough to smother her, the stillness enough to drown her—

In those moments, she felt like nothing.

Nothing more than another splintered fragment of stardust.

 


☾◈☽

 

Looking in the mirror, she saw the sharp angles of her father.

His nose.  His chin.  His eyes.

So many pieces of her were, truly, pieces of Cassius.  To think that she was made more of a Garlean than anything else—

It was something that scared her.  Haunted her, even as it filled some hollow, aching void.

He is my father.   My father loves me.

She closed her eyes, smoothed a hand across the plane of her forehead.

Flush.  Level.  Nothing to hide.

How many moons had it been since she’d seen them—seen him, alone, besides? 

Cassius who cast everything out—deserted the Empire for her and her mother—disavowed his castrum, rank, and heritage to cling to the love he discovered.  If she kept her eyes shut tight, she could hear his words from over an epoch ago:

I knew what treasures I’d found in Eorzea—and nothing in this world, not even my bloodline, could keep me from chasing them.

A shudder itched down her spine.  Tears pricked against her eyelids.  “Forgive me,” she muttered.

Forgive me for never accepting—for barely understanding.

She swallowed a sob.

Did love that strong really exist?  Her parents would have her believe it. 

But if the time should come, would she have her father’s strength?  Could she, too, give up all she'd ever known? 

And darker, quieter, more somber still—

Would she ever find a love so deep, so compelling, that she would strip herself of every shred of her identity just to chase it?

Did she deserve a love like that?

She opened her eyes to stare into her own, reflected in the mirror, dark shadows of her father’s.

As much as she ever resented him for hiding the truth—

As much as she hated the blood he gave her, the Garlean blood that pulsed through her veins—

As much as she wished to deny it—

Her father was one of the most authentic people she’d ever known.

He deserved, one day, to hear it from her lips.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


Takes place shortly after the cutscenes following the Antitower, ending just before the cutscene of "This War of Ours.”


 

It was very cold the morning after.

Dawn broke slowly.  The sun shed a thin, watery light over the snow-covered Coerthan Highlands as though it too wasn’t ready to rise, wasn’t ready to begin again.

Staring at the gates of Ishgard, she felt numb.  Completely hollow.

After a sleepless night of hard riding, she ached all over.  But her heart was too dark, too broken, to channel to any aetheryte.  She didn’t want to touch any fragment of the Mother.

Not now.

And so she rented mounts and rode, exchanging them at posts along the way, ignoring the stares of the stablehands.  They watched her like she was a creature from another world.  And she knew her eyes were hard and cold, brittle as the ice of her heart; the angles of her face made sharper with bitterness.  But she had no energy, no desire to soften reality.  She was broken all over again.  And so she turned the full force of it on everyone she met that night, beyond the capacity to care about impressions.

Let them see the truth of their Warrior of Light.

The words were like poison in her mind, and she closed her eyes against them.

Hydaelyn.  A name she’d once imagined with reverence, with gratitude.  A warm flicker of reassurance in her soul.

But that was before.  Before this unending agony, this pain, this senseless loss.  All for the sake of balance—for the sake of something supposedly greater.  Shards of sundered realities, of Light and Dark, of Man and Ascian, of Made and Unmade—

For those we have lost.   For those we can yet save.

The soft, kind features of a lovely face flashed behind her eyelids, and she gasped an anguished sob.  Minfilia.  The name must have escaped her lips because a puff of white came with it, bitter and stale.  Her chest seemed to crumple.  In her mind she felt the warmth of Horizon, smelled the salt of sea and desert.  She felt the phantom of a warm embrace—the shudder of her shoulders as she held her, laughing gently.  In her mind, Minfilia wore a grin that reached her periwinkle eyes.  Minfilia.  The one that made her feel welcome.  The first and dearest Scion she loved with her life.  So many honest moments, solemn talks, earnest laughs and bitter smiles—

No.  No more.  Her heart was crushed to dust.

But then came godsdamned Estinien, dredged up with the next solemn throb of it.  Manipulated by his own ambitions, consumed with bottomless agony, possessed by Nidhogg himself—

Her face twisted and she took a rigid step forward in the snow, as though that could stop the surging flood of memories.  But—

Oh, do not look at me so—

She stumbled, her knees buckling beneath her—

A smile better suits a hero.

She sank down into the cold, prickling snowdrift, and wept.

She wept for Haurchefant, for the way she never remotely deserved his sacrifice.  For Estinien, for utterly failing to salve his wounds.  For Minfilia, for being forced to abandon her to a distant, indeterminate fate.

She wept for Ysayle.  For Shiva and Hraesvelgr.  For Ratatoskr and Tiamat, for the whole First Brood.  She even wept for Nidhogg, damn him.

For a long, breathless moment, she wept into the snow.  Sobbed until she couldn’t tell if the cold she felt was from the unrelenting winter around her, or from the ice within her heart.

Because the truth was colder still.

I failed them all.

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

When she stepped into the foyer of the Congregation of our Knights Most Heavenly, she was soaked through.  The knight attending noticed immediately, his eyes widening through the window of his helmet.

He gasped audibly and rushed to her side, escorting her to one of several fires in the room.  “My lady, please, warm yourself immediately.”

Too miserable to resist, and too exhausted to summon the assistance of her own astral aspect, she bent to the necessity and followed his lead.  “Thank you, Ser,” she muttered.

At the dullness of her tone, the concern in his eyes grew twelvefold.  He glanced up at a peer across the room.  “Ser Babineaux, please find something warm for Lady Floravale to drink.”

She wanted to refuse, to tell him there was no need.  She felt her muscles itching to dismiss him.  But she was too tired.

Instead, she sank against the hard wooden frame of the chair he dragged over, and accepted the tea and heavy blanket that were brought to her.

Silently, she warmed by the fire, slowly assembling a mask of indifference.

She was here per Alphinaud to consult with the Lord Commander, and it wouldn’t do to show her pain.

Not to Ser Aymeric.

Not just yet.


 

Chapter Text


 Continues chronologically from the previous chapter, after the cutscene of "This War of Ours."


☾ ✧ ☽

 

With a hollow, iron sound, the door swung shut behind the Warrior of Light, and the Lord Commander sank back down into his seat. 

He was deeply self-conscious, aware of the way his brow tensed; the way his gaze lingered on the path she took across the room.  He conjured the phantom of her in his mind’s eye and wished she still stood before him.

When she walked in, he felt overwhelmed—paralyzed by the shock of joy at the sight—impassioned by the vigor and conviction of his words.  He gave himself no leave to truly look at her, to consider the hints of dark circles beneath her eyes; to examine the way her slow, deliberate gait bespoke a lassitude he could scarcely imagine.

He noticed, but he had not paid attention.

Too focused he had been on his own whims and fancies—namely the tentative, if enthusiastic motion to request again her private company.  And at his offer, he certainly had not missed the shadow that crossed her expression.  Doubt began to whirl in his mind, but her nod, her smallish smile, had served to assuage his fears.

He pressed back the hair from his forehead, made a low sound in his throat.

What a fool he had been.

Resting one elbow near the paperwork spread across his desk, he held searching blue eyes on the door.  He stroked thumb and forefinger along his bottom lip, his brow knitting under the weight of his thoughts.

What must she have seen since last we met?

His heart wrung with bitter apprehension and its calm, steady, heretofore solemn beat fluttered with the urge to follow her from the room, to chase her down; to beg her to put words to that which he had seen, and not seen.

He closed his eyes.

Allowing himself to worry over her well-being was not a luxury he could presently afford.

But he stole a moment in the quiet candlelight to do so nonetheless.

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

Gasping against the cold, she stumbled through the streets of Ishgard, focused solely on the sight of the Manor Fortemps.

 Of home.

Her whole body ached, but the physical pain was nothing compared to that which returned to full force in her heart.

She felt Edmont’s stare on her as she limped through the door, followed by a swirling flurry of snow.  When she met his tense expression, he tilted his chin in the direction of her chambers.

“Rest, my dear,” he murmured.  “I beg of you.”

As she held his gaze, suddenly so warm, so paternal, her heart twisted in another way entirely.  His midnight blue eyes reminded her of another, much paler pair.

Father.

Moving quickly down the hall, she tamped back the feeling, far down into the familiar frozen corner of her heart.  Not now.  Not when every nerve was on fire.  Not when the ache in her soul was enough to swallow her whole.

I need time

Time to recover.

Her room was blessedly warm, a young fire crackling in the hearth.  No doubt word of her early arrival at the Congregation spread quickly to the Pillars, giving Edmont time to anticipate her return.

Bless the Count.  Bless him and this House.

Her throat closed up and she staggered to the foot of her bed, slowly sinking against the comforter.

With trembling hands, she unlaced dripping boots, pulled them from her swollen feet.  She peeled off cold, wet socks; rolled down the thick stockings that were only dry now at the top of her thighs.  Her teeth chattered as she shed her cloak and fleece and the long, heavy robes beneath.

Slowly, she removed each layer of clothing, until she sat, shivering, in her smallclothes.

And then, solemn as the dead, she pulled back the heavy blankets of her bed, and slipped beneath them.

Rest.

So she closed her eyes against the swirling tempest in her heart.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

She dreamt of ice, of gnashing teeth—of cold, sharp hands raking down her body.  A growling voice called to her from a great distance and she struggled to find it, squinting through the smothering darkness, her head too heavy, too heavy to turn.

Samantha, he moaned.  She pushed helplessly forward, her feet dragging like they were melting into the earth.

Please, he was saying.  Do not let me be abandoned.

She opened her lips to speak but her throat was dry.  Hot.  The words turned to smoke in her mouth, and she had to swallow them back.

She tried not to choke on the ashes.

 


 

Chapter Text


A memory of Estinien, brought on by the ending of last chapter.


☾ ❅ ☽

 

Outside, the midnight wind churned.  Flurries of snow swept high along the walls of the Manor Fortemps, piling between vaulted stone walkways and jagged rooftops.  One of the balconies held a row of young potted roses.  Blood red and dusky pink, they curled beneath a glittering rime.  Behind them, beside the doors to the bedroom, stood the body of an ornate lance.  Though it lay concealed in the shadows, the instrument was known, almost as well as its owner's title.  Bold of him to leave it where others might see.  Blatant, and shameless.

Beyond the doors, past the curtains of the windows and smears of snow tracked well inside, two people lay tangled in the bedclothes—arms and legs and sweat and skin.  The Warrior of Light crushed the gasp of her mouth to Estinien’s neck, an effort to stem the cry in her throat.  He buried his teeth in the flesh of her shoulder to stifle his own.

There would be a mark there.  They both bore signs of these fierce, furtive meetings—hidden aches and bruises in various states of healing, which frankly blended in with the scars from everything else.  This agony was sweet in comparison.

Like baring a wound to clean it, the pain they shared was sharp and healing—a release well spent.

Their racing hearts slowed.  Estinien made a sound low in his throat and slumped over her, giving the spot he’d bitten a tender, open-mouthed kiss.  “I have marred your skin too many times,” he muttered gruffly, unraveling himself from her limbs.

She gave a breathless laugh and sought his lips.  He accepted her slow and savoring kiss, rolling to his side to enjoy it.  She followed, and he draped one long, muscled arm around her—a practiced motion.  His callused fingertips ran along the curve of her hip, nesting neatly in the valley of her waist.

“I believe I’ll survive,” she said, tilting her face to meet the dark blue of his eyes.

Wreathed in dim moonlight, he was watching her, sharp and focused.  Nothing could make him lose his edge—not even the fog of succor that still warmed him.  He took a breath.  “No more,” he said darkly, his eyes flashing.  “No more of this.”

She held his solemn stare, quirking one dark, arched brow.  A silent question.

The hand in the crook of her waist twitched.  He hesitated much too long, sapping the words that followed of credence.  “I am in earnest,” he grunted, gruff and unconvincing.  He propped himself up with an arm, withdrawing the one that touched her.  His gaze was unblinking.  “We have allowed this dalliance to drag on long enough.”

Keeping her eyes locked on his, she lifted from the mattress and shivered.  The fire was out.  The heat of their joining was fading.  The air felt icy cool against the sweat that lingered on her skin.  She gathered her long dark hair behind her neck and sighed.  “You know I don’t believe you, Estinien.”

When she shivered again, his eyes flicked to the smoldering embers in the fireplace, then down to the bare plane of her chest.  He reached his free arm past her for the bedspread crumpled there, and wrapped it gently around her shoulders.  He let his palm linger on her skin; smoothed it slowly down her arm.  “Whether or not you accept it,” he began, staring deep into her eyes.  “This thing between us feels reckless.”

Samantha took a breath.

“Yes,” she conceded, just as he knew she would.  She pressed her lips together to consider why.  “Perhaps here in Ishgard, it grates against honor and obligation."  She took a breath.  "That, and—for my part—it’s been a long while since I’ve—”  She looked away, fast.  Hot blood stole to her cheeks.

Estinien watched her, stone-faced.  “Since?”

Her eyes froze on the darkened fireplace while she nursed her humiliation.

Since I’ve wanted like this.

Try as she might, she yearned for no one else.  Only Estinien—who had a bitter wreath of rime around his heart, at least twice as thick as hers.  Cold and fierce she needed, and cold and fierce she found.

Her voice, however, was weak and quiet.  “It’s been a long while since I’ve craved a man like this,” she admitted.

She could almost feel the burn of his eyes bearing down on her.  “Stop trying to distract me,” he grumbled.

“I’m not,” she snapped.  Shame, as hot as the blush before, crept down her neck.  “Don’t you think I’ve tried to resist?  Tried to slake this urge I feel to keep dragging you into my bed?"  She groaned.  “I don’t have the time or energy for this.”

He shuddered and closed his eyes.  He was accustomed to the cold; needed no bedclothes to mantle his shoulders.  This shiver was something different altogether.  “Fury save me,” he muttered.

Samantha took a shallow breath.  She dared to ask it.  “Am I alone in these feelings?”

“No,” he said, too gruff, too quickly, his voice too harsh.  He lowered his eyes.  “But ties themselves are treacherous,” he muttered.  “As you and I are well aware.”

It was true.  She steeled herself, nonetheless.  “I won’t let go of this,” she said quietly, mostly to herself.  Her voice was thick with fervor.  “I won’t let go of you.

Estinien faltered.  The heat of her words made him hesitate.

He wet his lips.  “Even if this—” he swept one arm between them for effect, “—must end.  Even if we never spend another night together—”  He paused.  “You must know I stand by you.”  He leaned close to her again, lifting a hand to grip her arm tight.  His thumb smoothed against the edge of her blanket.  “You won my allegiance long ago.”

Samantha shook her head, blinking fast against the mist that sprang to her eyes.  Seven hells.

“You fool,” she hissed, breathing hard.  “Of course I know that.”

She twisted free from his touch, only to move closer.  Her arms slipped tight around the warm, bare skin of his waist.  He folded her full against him in an instant.

Both were silent.  Their chests rose and fell with tandem exhalations.  The room filled with the sound of the wind, howling outside.

Her voice hitched in her throat.  She pressed her cheek against the warm sinew of his shoulder.  “You don’t understand.”

He rested his lips against the crown of her head.  “Then help me to learn,” he murmured.

She took a ragged breath, loud in the silence.  Her voice cracked.  “I need you,” she finally confessed, brushing her lips against the warm plane of his chest.

His voice caught to croak in the back of this throat.  “Why?"

She savored the salt of his skin, tasted the curve of his collarbones.  “To feel.”  She moved her mouth along the column of his neck—smoothed back the long, silvery hair that clung there.  “You and I—”  She closed her eyes.  “Feeling you like this … is the only way anything seems real.”

He was trembling, holding her tight.

“I can hold no such power,” he whispered.  “Not I alone.”

She lifted her face to meet hooded blue eyes.  His gaze was dark and vast as midnight.  “You hold power over me, Estinien,” she said, lost in his eyes.  “You, and you alone.”

Black fire flashed through his stare.  “Stop.”  He ground out the word.  Then he took her face in both hands and covered her mouth with his.

She could taste the words unspoken—the words he tried to deliver through lips and teeth and tongue.  She yielded to the pressure of his touch and found herself buried beneath him again.  The bedspread crumpled behind her back.  He left a trail of burning kisses down her neck, down between her breasts, returning to meet her eyes.

They were pressed flush together, skin on skin.  She could feel the tempo of his heartbeat, pulsing fast and hard—the gentle, urgent touch of rough, callused fingers.

His voice was clipped and dark.  “This is the last time,” he muttered, arcing above her, his hair a curtain of moonlight.  “I swear it.”

She knew it was a lie but nodded all the same.  “Then make it count.”  She hooked her legs tight around his narrow hips.  Every muscle in his body tensed and he took one sharp breath.

 


 

Outside, the wind churned.

Outside, cold and glittering, a rime of frost covered the roses.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


Continues in sequence after the events of the Antitower.


 

Cold light streamed in through a gap in her curtains.

Samantha opened tired eyes against the pale dawn, staring blankly at the doors to her balcony.

 


❅ ☾ ❅ ☽ ❅

 

“Amazing.”  Haurchefant bent down to touch a frost gilded blossom.  Messy, slate grey hair fell in a jagged fringe around his blue eyes.  “Such elegant creatures,” he marveled, studying the colors of the petals beneath the ice.

It was just past sunrise.  The rest of the Manor Fortemps was still asleep—Tataru and Alphinaud included.  From the first moments of her time in Ishgard, Samantha had settled into the habit of starting her days with Haurchefant—the only one of them who rose as early as she.

“I must remember to take them inside tonight,” she said, leaning half outside the doorframe.  She nudged the small snowdrift by the door with the bare toes that peeked beyond the hem of her nightgown.  “Luckily my roses don’t mind a good bit of snow.”

Haurchefant chuckled.  “A beautiful thing that tolerates the cold,” he mused, meeting her gaze with a sly, bright smile.  “That reminds me rather strongly of someone I know.”

She barked an ugly laugh—the one that fell somewhere between the crowing birdcall of her mother, and the bellowing guffaw of her father.  “Stop trying to flatter me, Greystone,” she scolded, reaching out an arm to smack him.  He dodged smoothly.  “And come back inside.  Our tea’s getting cold.”

They approached the sitting alcove by the fire.  The low table there was spread with a pot and cups and saucers, along with sugar and Gridanian honey—courtesy of her own collection of vittles.  Haurchefant began to serve, but Samantha swatted him out of the way.  He only wrestled her back to the couch, using one arm to restrain her.

Let me do it,” she gasped, cackling.

He body checked her down into the cushion, managing to delicately balance the teapot all the same.  “You are a guest in my father’s house,” he began, his voice taking on a pointedly pompous note.  “It is my duty as your host—”

“Oh, don’t you dare start with that again,” she groaned, ducking around his arm and heaping maple sugar into the cup he’d already poured—exactly the copious amount he preferred.

He glared at her brightly from the corner of his eye.  “That one was meant to be yours.”

“It’s yours now,” she said, very smug, pushing it toward him.  Then she held out her hand to receive the teapot.

Haurchefant sighed, giving in.  “You win this round, Mistress Floravale,” he muttered, passing it to her.  “Though I daresay you take your tea nearly as sweet as I.”

She chuckled, pouring a cup and spooning in several dollops of honey.  “Our teeth are going to rot out of both of our mouths one day,” she agreed, stirring.

“Then we should make sure to smile while we still can,” quipped Haurchefant, picking up his cup and saucer.  Samantha took hers in both hands and sank back onto the couch, him alongside her.  They each took a sip and closed their eyes.

“Ah,” sighed Haurchefant, his lips quirked in a small grin.  “Like drinking warm syrup.”

“Dangerously sweet—just the way you like it.”  She took another sip, then folded her legs up on the cushion and wedged her bare feet against the warmth of his thighs.

Haurchefant was wearing nothing but a loose nightshirt and trousers—his bedclothes—and hissed at the contact.  “By Halone your feet are cold!”  She cackled again as he shoved her legs away from him.  “Keep those icy weapons to yourself—or at least use some of that fire aspected aether to warm them.”

She crossed her legs beneath her.  “Why would I do that when I can use you instead?”

“As skilled as you are when it comes to my torture,” he teased, tilting his head to look at her through dark grey lashes, “I would greatly prefer it if you would refrain.  I am still half asleep.”

She quirked a brow at him and took another long sip of tea.  He did the same before resting his cup and saucer on the table before them.  Then he sighed and slouched back against the cushion.

Haurchefant stared up at the ceiling and took a breath.  “I am glad you are here, Samantha,” he confessed.  “You bring so much life to this house.”

She scoffed and rolled her eyes.  “Don’t tease me,” she warned.  “You know as well as I do how much I keep to myself.  If it wasn’t for you and Alphinaud, I’d almost be a shadow.”

He chuckled.  “I wonder at the way you perceive yourself,” he said, turning his face to look at her, smiling faintly.  “Because the woman I know fills this house with warmth and laughter, especially at mealtimes.  And teatimes, for that matter,” he said, counting on his fingers.  “And how often have I found you chatting with father or Artoirel in the library?  Fury knows the favors you’ve paid all of us besides.”  He turned his eyes to the fire.  “We cannot help but bask in the light of your presence.”

A hot flush swelled in her cheeks.  “I hardly deserve such praise and hospitality.”

“Nonsense,” tutted Haurchefant.  “I know I speak for the whole of my family when I say it has been our pleasure.”  He turned his eyes to her again.  “Perhaps you are the rose we have taken in from the cold.”

Samantha snorted against her embarrassment and shoved her toes into the crook of his knee.  He laughed loudly, pushing her legs away.

She folded her feet back beneath her and smiled to herself, almost privately.  “I can’t decide if you’re trying to flatter me again,” she muttered, taking another long sip of tea.

“You are very charming when flustered,” he admitted.  “Besides, I must find some way to pay back your torment.”

Embarrassment flushed her skin again and she gave a breathless chuckle.  “Abominable.”

“They do say all is fair in love and war,” he noted, letting his eyes linger upon her before turning them to the fire.  “I am sorely afraid it falls on you to become the front line of Ishgard.”  He was quiet for a moment.  “Let me do my part to keep you lighthearted, laughing and smiling to spite them all.”

The weight of his words, ripe with dimension, fell like stones in her stomach.  She swallowed hard, reaching for her tea to drown the lump in her throat.  “Thank you, Haurchefant,” she murmured, her voice very quiet.  “I don’t know how I earned such a steadfast friend.”

He turned warm eyes to face her.  “You deserve so much more.”

She held his gaze for a moment.  Each of them studied the other, the angles of their faces glowing warm in the firelight.

He smiled.  “I am glad you are here, Samantha.”

The ghost of a smile lifted her lips.  “I am, too.”

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

The mist of the memory lifted from her mind.

The shafts of cold sunlight outside dimmed, covered by clouds.

 


☾ ☄ ✧

 

Her same Fortemps quarters, in a memory some time after. 

It was well past midnight.  There was a quiet creak of the door.  Then, a rush of cold air as someone stepped inside, bringing with them a flurry of ice.

Though she kept her back turned to the balcony, she knew who it was.  It could only be him.  A stray snowflake tickled her cheek, and she curled in on herself beneath the bedclothes, remaining silent.

The room filled with the soft sounds of him disrobing—unbuckling his boots, unfastening his cloak, shedding the outer layers he’d worn against the cold.  Behind her, the mattress sank.  Then the bedclothes shifted as he slipped beneath them.  She felt cold arms in rough-woven sleeves slide to wrap around her.

Samantha flinched away from his touch, but he pressed himself tighter.

“You’re freezing,” she croaked, shivering against the cage of his arms.  Hot tears leapt to her eyes immediately and she blinked them away.

He hugged her close against him.  She gasped at the familiar pressure of his long body behind her, all hard muscle and sinew.  “You feel feverish,” he muttered.  His lips moved near her temple, followed by the feather soft touch of his breath.

Fresh tears sprang to her eyes, and the edges of her vision blurred.  One, two warm trails, tickled down her cheeks.

“Why have you come,” she asked, choking on the words.  “Why are you here?”

Estinien’s arms were a gentle vise around her.  “Because this world is cruel,” he said, his voice a dark murmur.  “And I did not wish for you to think yourself alone.”

They lay there together in silence.  She shuddered against her ragged heartbeat, against the flood of tears that wouldn’t cease.  And he held her, still and solemn.

Time ceased to matter.  For all she knew, it ceased to exist.  There was nothing beyond the cage of his arms, nothing beyond the wet salt on her lips.  Nothing beyond the cold, dark crevasse of her heart.

 

☽ ❅ ☾


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

She dragged the roses in from the balcony, one by one.

It was snowing hard—a violent storm in the making.  They wouldn’t be missing any sunlight this day, whether she tucked them inside or not.

The icy stone beneath her bare feet was so cold it burned, but she relished the discomfort.  It was almost invigorating.  The umbral aspect within her reached out, stretched down the veins of both legs to meet it.  Once she’d rescued every flower, she prowled on numb and tingling toes to the washroom.

How long had it been since she bathed?  The plumbing creaked as she turned the knob.  The sound of coursing water filled the bathroom, and she yanked off her nightgown and stepped out of her smallclothes.

She turned to face herself in the mirror.

Absolutely, unequivocally filthy.  Her long dark hair was matted and dull, laying in clumps around her shoulders.  Her limbs were smeared with confusing amounts of dirt, and her skin was course from sweat and travel.  Not to mention the smell.  Had she reeked like this the day before?  Had she been so repulsive in counsel with Aymeric?  A flush of shame began to rise to her cheeks, but she scoffed against it, giving her reflection a look of pure reproach.

Trivialities, Samantha.

Ones for which you can spare neither the time nor the energy—remember?

She grimaced.  Had she ever once concerned herself with Estinien’s opinion?

Her heart flinched to banish the thought.

No.   Think of him.

Confront the full truth of this.

“He is gone.”

Out loud, her voice was hollow.  Empty.  Drowned out and smothered by the rushing of the water.  The view of her reflection in the mirror blurred, and she felt hot tears streak down her face.

Estinien was gone.  Good as dead.

Her breath hitched.  But unlike the others, he was still living.

Barring some miracle—some method to wrest Nidhogg from his body—

No.

She slowed the whirling cogs of her mind.  It was wrong to risk that line of thinking.  Even if hope was meant to be a balm, these days, it made everything worse.  There had been too much loss for her to trust it.  Beyond that, it was a waste to wrestle with memories.

Thinking back on the past changes nothing.

But what lay ahead?

She swallowed hard, tasting iron and salt, and stepped into the bathtub.

 

☾ ✧ ☽


 

Aymeric de Borel was no stranger to fancy or fixation—nor immune to them besides.

In two and thirty years, he had encountered his share of fascinations. 

To own it, he guarded against them.

It had long been his wish to transcend worldly desires.  Even knowing now what he did about the primals, he still strove to forge his will and virtue into something beyond reproach.  He tempered his zeal to circumvent fanaticism—but, in some dark recess of his heart, he nearly understood how some could cross that line.  An ideal vision of himself stood enshrined in his mind's eye.  Would he stop at nothing to make it incarnate?

How often had he dreamt of becoming the divine veil of Ishgard?  In the deepest core of his being, he craved to protect her—to shepherd her people to a warmer, brighter horizon.  But these ambitions cast his plentiful shortcomings in high relief.

Try as he might to embody something unflappably beyond, he was a mortal man, plagued by mortal interests—alluring people among them.  A handful captivated his attention.  Some he even pursued.  But Aymeric was not the type of man to neglect his duty, real or imagined; and against the weight of his primary onus to Ishgard, many would-be liaisons crumpled.

To him, it was perplexing. 

Wherefore should he set aside all he held sacred?  Especially in some pursuit or proof of his affections?

Over the years, he received abundant praise for his beauty, of all things.  His beauty, a trait he had no choice but to possess.  He found many such admirations misguided at best.  Those who swooned for his appearance often met his habits and conduct—his inward self—with mystifying distaste. 

Wherefore should the traits he strove to nurture shut them down, stir them less than the unchosen curve of his lips and his brow?

Romance, therefore, was a truly bewildering realm—brimming with rules and cyphers and caprices that, for all his expertise, were troubling to navigate.

Even should he unearth some path through the labyrinth—even when he stayed the charted course, to arrive on the cusp of some coveted connection—the nature of his role as Lord Commander inspired an air of decorum, of stifling propriety that prevented most things intimate.  Laymen and courtiers alike approached him only on their best days, in their best dress, on their very best behavior.  Rarely did he feel he beheld the full picture.  Rarely did he feel he bore witness to the truth.  Aymeric was forced to conclude that, even under the best of circumstances, genuine depth with others in his life was nigh impossible.

And then he met the Warrior of Light.

She was—strange.

Well mannered, but clumsy.  Attentive, but often distracted.  Possessed of dignity and dedication, outwardly earnest, with distinct fidelity to both her companions and her cause.  Enthusiastic.  But behind her eyes—he could see it, he was no stranger to it—there lingered ice.

Fascinating, to say the least.

A wide breadth of events had passed since their first meeting.  Over that time, they shared no shortage of consultations—summits, talks, drily diplomatic transactions.  Discussions and assemblies filled with cautions, petitions, and rebukes, stretching far and wide into celebrations and bitter tragedies.

Now she was in Ishgard, serving as his aide—or perhaps it was the other way around.  In either case, he was afforded ample opportunity to seek her audience. 

At first, they treated solely as ambassadors—he for his people, she for hers; chasing the flicker of tentative alliance.

He came to glean small measures of the burdens she shouldered.  And all too soon, it happened.  Before he knew it, he was wondering after the woman herself, Samantha—her safety and health, her mortal well-being.

He wanted to be the veil of Ishgard, but ... perhaps protect the Warrior, as well.

The peril she faced was great.  Unimaginable.  And though she crossed the Steps of Faith with no shortage of steadfast allies, she bore so much of her charge alone.  How?  Why?   Was her sense of obligation akin, of sorts, to his—just as deep and thoroughly abiding?  Did she bear along with her any particular regrets?

When she came to him with her stumbling confession, the revelation of reciprocal enthrallment, something unfamiliar cracked to surge open inside him.  Suddenly nothing was enough.  Though they met and spoke exactly as before, his peace of mind was lost.

Flames within were growing—and he allowed it.  He fanned them, perhaps despite himself—perhaps against his very will.

And now, he held a cherished memory.  Like forbidden treasure, he kept it concealed, buried jealously inside a corner of his heart.

After all, the warm, glittering glimpse was his to keep—the legacy of one quiet evening, just before a storm, when he stole a firelit kiss.

 

☾ ✧ ☽


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Samantha balanced the empty glass of whisky on the table and sighed.  She slouched far back in her chair, her bleary gaze drifting to settle on the familiar face across the table.

Alphinaud was still nose-deep in his book—a tome he’d unearthed from the Fortemps library.

Plenty of time had passed since dinner—the meal itself a diplomatic affair.  She, Alphinaud, and Tataru had been obliged to flit between a scattering of stuffy Ishgardian dignitaries, carefully describing their activities in Coerthas.

Unlike Alphinaud, she wasn’t much for formal affairs—besides the excuse to dress in fine clothes.  Even now she wore her evening gown, reluctant to take it off.  Pitch black and glittering, it very nearly met with Ishgardian standards of modesty.  The neckline dipped to reveal nothing far below the delicate ledge of her collarbones.  And while the closure in the back was deep and sweeping, she sensibly hid it beneath the folds of a heavy stole.

Now, she slipped the wide stretch of fabric from her shoulders, piling it gracelessly onto the table.

Alphinaud didn’t budge, and she grinned at his unwavering focus.  Enthusiasm for literature, obscure or otherwise, was a pastime the two of them shared.

Petty conflicts aside, there had always been ease between them—many cornerstones of their friendship—evidenced, no less, by the peaceful way they currently coexisted.  These days, however, she knew she’d been more than aloof.

Samantha wondered if Alphinaud noticed.  Had he felt some rift, some unusual absence?  If so, he hardly let on.  His posture now was comfortable, his wide blue eyes rapt with interest, fixed intently on the text he deciphered.  He hardly seemed aware of her presence at all.

The train of her gown rustled on the floor as she crossed her legs beneath the table.  Her mind was warm, addled with liquor.  She had to concentrate to reach up and unpin her hair, plucking the deep crimson blossom from its place as an ornament.  Her head spun ever so slightly as she traced a forefinger along the soft, velvet petals.

Rose red.

Red, Estinien’s accursed, tainted armor.  Red, the stain on Haurchefant’s lips.  Red, the smoldering rage that yet lingered, searing deep beneath her ribs.

Dark thoughts.  Common thoughts, these days.

“Tell me, Alphinaud,” she muttered.  “And please, be honest.”  She glanced from the petals to the lamp that sat between them.  The flame there flickered and danced, pulling her forward.

She took a heavy breath.

“Do you still look up to me?”  She lifted her eyes to study him intently.  “After everything that’s happened—”  After this darkness creeps to fill my heart … “—Is there aught about me fit to admire?”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Alphinaud lifted his eyes slowly from his reading. 

He stared at her for a moment, a faint blush creeping to his cheeks.  He surveyed the table between them—the empty glass in front of her—the elaborate decanter of liquor nearby.  Watching her like she was a bird that might startle, he got to his feet and crept toward her.  Once he was close enough, he snatched the decanter from the table.  “I believe you have had enough of this for one night,” he muttered, taking it away.

A laugh bubbled to her lips, followed quickly by offense.  “Don’t patronize me,” she grumbled.  Then, under her breath.  “It was only a glass and a half.”

Alphinaud ignored her and busied himself putting the liquor back in its cabinet.  It truly was late.  Edmont had taken to his study.  Tataru was off gods knew where, and Artoirel and Emmanellain were their own beasts, with their own habits entirely.  Alphinaud didn’t care to know why they were alone—it was something he frankly enjoyed, under most normal circumstances.  But Samantha rarely plied herself with spirits, and when she did, her mind tended to fly to strange places.

Granted, diplomatic sorties were not her forte.  Perhaps she drank to ease some lingering distress from the Haillenarte banquet.  Still …  “It was three,” he quietly amended, crouched down low to replace the bottle.  “And you know very well that I am not patronizing you.”  He glanced back at her over his shoulder.

“You most certainly are,” she countered, giving him a hard stare.  “You know how condescending you can be.”

Affront flared up in his chest.  “I am not being condescending.”  She opened her mouth to argue, but he cut her off.  “I have your best interest at heart, Samantha, and—frankly, I believe I know when you are pushing your limits.”

She snorted and scoffed.  “I believe you are dodging my question, Leveilleur,” she muttered, using the rose blossom in her hand to point at him, punctuating her words.  “Which, by the way, is very out of character.”  She turned her eyes back to the flame of the lamp and stared at it dully.

Alphinaud stood up from the floor.  Thoroughly provoked, he strode back to the table, his face a mask of pure indignation.  “I am not dodging the question,” he protested, brushing back a stray wisp of snow-white hair.  “I merely thought—”  He cleared his throat.  “The hour is late.  Perhaps this conversation would best be held another time.”

Samantha turned to face him, fixing him with a demanding glower.  The candlelight reflected in her fierce brown eyes as she studied him.  “I want you to talk to me now.”

He faltered and froze like a fawn.  “I-I am unsure what to say to you,” he admitted, shocked to truth.  “I am unsure what it is you want me to say.” 

She was a lioness before him, strong and severe.

She barked a laugh, shattering the illusion.  “What I want you to say?”  She chuckled to herself.  “The Alphinaud I know hardly cares about blunting his words.  How could you pass up such an open invitation to indulge in unchecked verbiage?”  She pushed aside her stole and leaned over the table toward him.  “Tell me,” she began again, her voice catching very slightly.  “Do you still look up to me?”

Every muscle in his body was tense.  “How can I not?”  He sank down to his chair in defeat, swallowing to quench the dryness in his throat.  “Does not all of Eorzea?”

“I am not asking the opinion of Eorzea,” she bitterly qualified, lacing her fingers together.

In the dim lamplight, even as she pressed him, her hard edge was so much softened.  She suddenly seemed less fierce and more beguiling.  For a moment he was transfixed—cast back to earlier memories of the evening, when he glimpsed her laughing and smiling, stunningly elegant and refined.  How deeply he enjoyed witnessing that side of her—the girl—no—woman beneath the mantle.

He let his eyes drift to trace the glittering fringe of her neckline, her collarbones, the waves of dark hair that framed them.

He swallowed hard, staring down at the hands folded tight in his lap.

Should he reveal his frankest opinion?  To him, she was somehow more than mere ally or mentor.  More, even, than the closest of friends.  But those were private, preposterous feelings.  Feelings he was extremely careful to keep to himself. 

He might well be an adult in Sharlayan terms, but to her—nearly an epoch his senior—surely nothing far past a child.  And understandably so.  She towered over him in every way he could imagine—except, perhaps, political relations.  “You know very well how deeply I regard you,” he muttered instead, keeping his eyes uncharacteristically lowered.  “For your strength, and vigilance—”  And integrity, and passion.  “But beyond that, your devotion—to all who need you.”  He took a breath, lifting his eyes to meet hers.  “You are our Hero.  You bear yourself well.  From where I stand, there is nothing lacking.”

She held his gaze for a very long moment.  Again, his attention drifted—from the black arch of her brows, down the sharp line of her nose, to the stern set of her lips.

“What if I was not the Warrior of Light?” she asked, very quietly.  “What would you think of me then?”

He looked back into her eyes.  That, he could begin to answer.

“We are what we are,” he said gently.  “A sum of unique experiences, of the events of our lives.  You inhabit your role, as I inhabit mine; roles we occupy in manners that depend more upon chance than anything else.”  He paused.  Turn and turnabout was fair play, after all.  “What would you think of me, had I not been a Scion?  Had I not been the grandson of Louisoix?”

That earned him a tender smile.  He savored it, the way it revealed her solemn beauty.

“If you were not you,” she said, “—and I was not I … I suppose our paths may not have crossed.”  She lowered her gaze back down to the dim flame of the lamp.  “I am glad they did.  I am glad to know you, Alphinaud.”  She looked back up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Leveilleur or not.”

He felt his own lips curve into a smile—another blush begin heating his cheeks.  “I am glad to hear it,” he muttered.  “And I hope my words will be of some use to you.”

She laughed.  “They always are, my friend.  And abundant besides."

A fine consolation.  He fought the urge to look away.

“I—have noticed that you seem lost of late,” he dared to admit, buckling under the sudden weight of her stare.  He steeled himself to continue.  “Not in act or deed, but—”  How honest could he rightly be?  How much could he reveal of his observations?  “—you are not entirely yourself,” he finished lamely.

“No,” she agreed.  “I am not.”  Her eyes went back to the lamp.  “But I am working to return to some semblance of how I once was.”

He took a breath.  “We are all ever changing,” he said, the words coming faster than intended.  “You need not feel shame or consternation for the way that you must evolve to cope with—the unfolding of events.”

She looked down at her own hands, laced together on the table.  “Perhaps not.  But I feel it all the same.”

For the briefest flicker of a moment, everything fell away.  In front of him was neither the Warrior of Light, nor the oft intimidating sorceress he admired—but merely a vulnerable woman, lost inside herself.

Who would she be to him?  How would he treat her?

He lifted his right hand on impulse, intending to reach for hers.  Instead, he let it rest limply in front of him.  “I—am always here,” he said.  “That will never change.”

She unfolded her hands.  Brushed aside the rose blossom.  And then she reached across the table to cover his hand herself.

“Thank you, Alphinaud,” she said softly, squeezing his fingers.

 


 

Chapter Text


☾ ✧ ☽

 

Aymeric stood in the foyer of the Borel Manor, stiff with anticipation. 

Though his expression was stoic as ever, his eyes lingered on the door, tense and expectant.

“What is the hour?” he called, the soft, solemn tones of his voice carrying through the chambers.

The steward called back.  “Nearly midday, my lord.”  A pause.  “Do you believe your visitor will be late?”

Aymeric’s cool blue eyes flashed, a hint of amusement coloring his features.  “Not in the slightest,” he said, self-assured.  

She will come.

At that very instant, the chimes of his doorbell rang, echoing the chiming of the clock in the hall.  As his steward rushed to greet the visitor, Aymeric grinned openly and chuckled.

Punctual.

While he kept his eyes fixed on the entryway, a swell of excitement fluttered low in his belly.  He steadied himself—pressed the heels of his boots against the floor—swallowed down the heart that suddenly rose into his throat.

How long had it been since he’d felt this way; eager and aflutter?  It was a child’s feeling, young and innocent—a sensation he’d heretofore thought forever lost.

The steward opened the door.  Sunlight and snow flurries swirled into the foyer.  And there, standing in the sunstream, was the Warrior of Light.

His attention narrowed to the sight of her face—stern, sun-flecked, flushed from the cold—long black lashes framing sharp brown eyes.  “I do hope you can forgive me,” she was saying, flashing him an apologetic glance and struggling one arm out from under her cloak.  “I know my response came with little notice.”

He was rushing to her side, lending a hand with her fleeces, barely comprehending.  “I am always happy to receive you,” he said, hanging up her cloak and layers, hoping to ease her mind.  “Do not trouble yourself to abide by formality when my request was, at best, unceremonious.”

She laughed in that peculiar, contagious way that fell somewhere between braying and birdcall.  “Forgive me, Ser Aymeric,” she said, interrupting herself to stare severely into his eyes.  “But nothing you do is unceremonious.”

By the Fury.  Her dark gaze was, for lack of a better term, spellbinding.  Thank heaven his steward had left him to endure this torment unobserved.  “Come,” he said, eager to distract himself from the heat of her stare.  “I have drinks and provisions in the parlor.”

She wore a simple claret gown, cut to reveal only the barest whisper of skin.  Still, his heart stuttered to feel her arm slip around his—to feel the warmth of her body press so close to him again.  His blood ran hot, surely creeping in a flush up his neck.

Halone help me.

Then, as they began to walk through the hall, she asked it.  “What delicious Ishgardian things are you going to entice me with today?”

He took a shallow breath.

Fury strike and slay me.

“None too seductive, I assure you,” he deflected, immediately regretting his choice of words.  Onward and upward.  “Light hors d’oeuvres, befitting a purely political counsel,” he continued, allowing a touch of humor to his voice.  “And all of it accompanied by no small volume of Ishgardian tea.”

She glanced up at him again, fixing him with that dark, inviting stare.  “Purely political,” she echoed, lifting a brow.

“Of course,” he said tersely, glancing at the approaching arch of the parlor.  “Would you accuse me of something undignified?  Untoward?”

Her eyes flashed.  “You are perhaps the most toward person I’ve ever met,” she admitted.  “But that didn’t seem to stop you from kissing me the last time.”

Blood was certainly behind his cheeks.  “I-I cannot deny that it happened,” he said, stepping carefully over the threshold.  “You were, after all, a willing participant.”  The way he looked at her now felt timid indeed.

In the days that followed, how many times had he relived that moment?

How many times had she?

They were well in the parlor now, the pause too long for his taste.  Much too long for the rapid pounding of his heart, the pulsing of his blood.  Surely she felt it, close as she was.  But then, incredibly, she drew herself closer.

Now she glanced toward the empty doorway, the hallway besides.  And then she met his eyes.  The Warrior of Light took his face in both of her glorious hands.  Was she trembling?  Or was it he?

He could see her lips part—her stern expression soften.

“Aymeric—”

And then there was suddenly nothing.  Nothing but that yearning look in her eyes.

She was lifting to her toes but there was no need.  She could have asked him to beg, to kneel, to grovel at her feet, and he would have gladly obeyed.

Now nothing mattered but the taste of her lips—the taste he craved above all else.  The sweetest communion.  He bent down low to receive it.

And it was so much better, so much better than he remembered.

 

☾ ✧ ☽


 

Chapter Text


✦ 

 

On the table in the parlor sat a cooling pot of tea, by two empty cups of drying dregs.  Beside it, a silver tray, filigreed and filled with scattered remnants of simple local fare—a handful of stuffed button mushrooms, the remains of cold egg and leek salad, half of a flat and crumbling Ishgardian muffin, a cornerless wedge of savory Trapper’s quiche.

Hearty laughter came from a room nearby, muffled by heavy closed doors.  In the small library beyond the sealed doorway sat the Lord Commander and the Warrior of Light, cross-legged on the carpet, a mess of papers spread around them.

“As you can see,” he explained, selecting one of the sheets of parchment—a poorly drawn map, abysmal in quality.  “I am in desperate need of some replacements—ideally rendered by a more skillful cartographer.”

She was shaking her head, her face scrunched up in disbelief.  “Good gods that is bad,” she said, reaching for it.  “May I have a closer look?”

He lifted his eyebrows and handed it to her, nodding slightly.  “By all means.  Make your own brave attempt to decrypt it.”

Decrypt,” she hissed, swallowing another fit of laughter and squinting hard at the calligraphic diagram—the Dravanian Forelands, declared the cramped scrawl at the top.  “If I keep laughing like this, I won’t be able to see through the blur."

“That would be an improvement,” he muttered.       

Without thinking, she barked a laugh and shoved him in the arm.  A knight most heavenly was hardly a helpless target—the muscle of his bicep, even beneath the soft quilting of his sleeve, was hard and solid.  Still, his pale blue eyes widened, his lips parted, and he stared at her in stunned silence.

Shoving—or cuffing—or punching—was her gut response in these situations, a habit she perpetuated with Alphinaud and … other individuals she feared to call up at present.  But this was Aymeric—serious, stoic, solemn Aymeric—still something of a stranger, for all the wealth of words they’d exchanged.  Perhaps he wasn’t a fan of such horseplay.  She had no way to know.

“I-I apologize,” she stammered, willing to censor herself if only to preserve whatever tentative something was budding between them.

He was laughing without sound, shaking his head.  “No need,” he said, spreading fingers over the spot she’d touched in reflex.  The corners of his lips twitched into a smile.  “But you are quite strong for a sorceress.  By Halone, when I invited you to join me this afternoon, I had not thought to guard my physical integrity.”

She blinked.  The words spilled from her lips without thinking.  “But perhaps … you guard something else?”

He met her gaze.  Held it for a moment.  Suddenly his expression was reserved—almost shy.  “Might I be utterly frank?”  His voice was very quiet.

She raised her eyebrows.  “Please,” she said quickly.  “Always.”

He took a breath, studying her with icy blue eyes.  “It is nigh impossible to describe.  How foolish I was to think words my instrument of choice.”

He chuckled at the afterthought.  Then he continued.

“I am a diplomat,” he said softly.  “And I am loath to make grand statements.  There is power in what we say, and I am not keen to misuse it.  But make no mistake—since almost the very moment you confessed your regard, my mind has hummed with the thought of it.”

He lowered his eyes and sighed.  “Forgive me,” he murmured.  “This is tremendously difficult to speak aloud.”

Her throat was very dry.  She wet her lips and swallowed.

“Nothing to forgive,” she managed to say.

He looked back up at her with tense blue eyes.  “I am not of the habit of this,” he explained, leaning toward her to gesture with one hand.  “Intimate friendship.  Deeply though I may crave such a thing—” his gaze flicked briefly to her lips, “—I fear that I am ill-equipped to sustain it.”  The ghost of a smile lifted his lips.  “I can host a gala and lead a congregation of knights, but here now, alone with you—”  He took a shallow breath.  “I hardly recognize myself.”

She tried to remember to breathe.  When he’d leaned close beside her, the smell of him—clean and tempting—set something inside her on fire.  “Nothing about you is ill-equipped,” she muttered.  “I assure you.”

That urged a soft laugh from him.  “I would beg you reserve your judgment,” he said.  “For when you come to know me better.”

She looked deep into his eyes.

That sounded almost like a promise.

“I believe I can do that,” she said, her voice still uncomfortably weak.  “If it means our private meetings will continue.”

Now, his gaze was unbearably warm, his voice unbearably soft.

“That,” he confessed, “I wish above all else.”

 


 

Her heart fluttered as she trudged back through the snow toward the Manor Fortemps.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting the steely greys of the city in honeyed blushes and gold.

The rhythm of her pulse stammered and danced—whirled into flurries at the thought of the heat in his eyes.

How long had it been since she felt this way?

No—more than that.

Had she ever felt like this before?

She shoved her hands deep beneath the folds of her cloak and bent against the bite of the wind, considering it.

Her history with men was eccentric at best.  And given the unlikely story of her parents, who could blame her?  A Gyr Abanian woman and a Garlean engineer?  Not the best pattern to follow, regardless the details.  When it came to more traditional rules—like those of the realm of her upbringing, or Eorzea at large—her relationships stood somewhere in the margins.

There had only been one she really could count—well, one and a half, to be precise.

Then came the Calamity.  The years that followed held a powerful theme: recovery, retrieval, and reclamation.  Personal pursuits like love felt nonessential.

And what was love besides?  Whatever she’d come to learn of it was worth neither the time nor the effort.  So, she stole a few nights with men that she trusted, and kept moving forward.

Then, before she knew it, she began this business as the Warrior of Light.  New life, new friends, new misguided choices.

She snorted, her breath clouding up from her nose in a bright white puff.

Thancred.

There was something she hadn’t mused on in a while.

What a glorious misfire.  Since their first introduction, how many times had he tempted and toyed with her?  How long had it taken her to realize it was mostly in jest?   She could still recall the fateful evening—the sunset over Horizon as she pressed him, as she made her intentions very clear.

She remembered the way his warm hazel eyes widened in comprehension, filled with something equal parts curiosity and horror.

“By the Twelve,” he said, taken thoroughly aback.  The heat of his stare was both perplexingly seductive and filled with private astonishment.  “Had I known my attentions would have this effect—”  He cut himself off.  “Do not mistake me—you are lovely.  But with circumstances as they are—”  He cleared his throat.  “I should have taken more care to check my tongue.  It is my duty as a Scion to guide you in our cause, and nothing else.”

She was a touch taller than him—that Highlander-Garlean heritage.  Shame burned in her cheeks, but she planted her hands on her hips to spite it.  “I’ll take that as a ‘no,’ then.”

Had he been blushing, too?  What had he said?

The task at hand is far too momentous—we cannot afford to compromise our relationship.

The way she remembered it, he seemed to trip over his words.  It was probably just the fog of her recollection.  After all, Thancred Waters never stammered.

She laughed out loud at the thought.

I wonder if he even remembers.

Even nursing her rejection, it wasn’t hard to understand his perspective.  In hindsight, she was hardly more than a stranger.  Add the fact that they were freshly allies, working to save the realm—he had a solemn duty to uphold.

Then came Lahabrea.

She shivered.

She supposed she should be grateful.  At least she hadn’t propositioned him then—or she might have dallied with an Ascian.

The thought sent a seasick chill down her spine.

She shook her head, glancing up at the spines of the Pillars to settle her train of thought.  Tall and formidable against the blushing edge of dusk.

Beneath the weight of her obligation to Eorzea, she stopped seeking relief in others—in bed, at least.  Her tasks were too arduous, too taxing, emotionally and physically.

It was only here in the cold of Coerthas, grating against the chilly disposition of a certain gruff dragoon, that she felt the old, familiar pull—the tug of tension and desire that, try as she might to deny it, ended exactly as she feared it would: Thrust full into his arms and wrung to pieces.

She took a sharp breath of the icy air.

Almost home.  Snow was beginning to fall again.  She looked up at the last moments of the sunset—at the beautiful, painted skies.

I would beg you reserve your judgement for when you come to know me better.

She closed her eyes.  In her mind, a pale blue pair stared back at her.

Something about Aymeric was different.  He truly was unlike any man in her acquaintance.

He was earnest and kind.  Intense, but reserved.  All solemn passion, and bold, gentle strength.

Grate against him, she did not.

But something about him still set her aflame—kindled to life in a slow, smoldering way.

And somewhere, deep inside, the ice began to melt.

 

 ☾ ☄ ✧


 

 

Chapter Text

 


✦ 

 

The cup of tea was warm in her hands—the hearth before her radiant, crackling with twining flames.  She could hear the crisp sound of paper moving as Aymeric filed something away, close beside her.

It was late—impolitely late, if she owned the reality—and still storming outside, said a glance at the fogged, frosted windows.

She must have been a vision at the door.  Robed head to toe in black and maroon, dusted with a fine film of snowflakes, topped off with a wide-brimmed petasos and scarf to shield her lips—she still held her channeling rod loose and to the side in one black-leathered hand, struggling to strap it down across her back.

Gods only knew what the steward thought.  There she was, armed and uninvited, well beyond dinner or any reasonable excuse.  But after one long and pondering look, he welcomed her warmly all the same—retrieving her weapon, hat, and cloaks, and bidding her wait just a moment, to let him fetch the Lord of the House.

The steward knew her now, as they did at House Fortemps—not as simply the sellsword servant of Ishgard, or Eorzea’s Warrior of Light, but something ever so slightly more.  In this case, Aymeric de Borel’s particular friend.

He emerged from the back hallway with light in his pale blue eyes, moving quickly.  It took her breath away to see him so eager, so eager to greet her.

“Samantha,” he said, his voice caressing her name.  He was dressed in loose fawn trousers and a white linen shirt, wrapped about the shoulders with a trailing, fur-lined housecoat.  He smiled gently.  “To whom or what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Her face was still raw and tingling from the cold.  When she smiled meekly back at him, her cheeks burned.  “I wanted to see you,” she said plainly.  Somewhere off to the side, in the corner of her vision, the steward made his hasty exit.

The warmth of Aymeric’s expression could have ended the winter of Coerthas.  “I am honored,” he said, gazing down at her.  His left hand found her right.  “Come.  Join me in the study.  I have paperwork to attend, but plenty of books besides.  Surely one of them will satisfy your appetite for learning.”

She accompanied him back to the small library.  The low table there held a spread of quill and inkwell, files and papers, a long settee pulled close beside it.  A soft throw blanket lay draped along the spine—did he sleep here some nights?

He moved over to a shelf to gather something into his arms—a pile of books?  Had he set them aside specifically for—her?

As he turned back to face her, he caught her questioning eye and laughed.  “I know you have a mind for magicks,” he said by way of explanation, crossing back over to deposit the short stack on an open end of the table.  “But if reading is not to your taste tonight, I am in possession of some heirloom artifacts you might like to examine.”  He tilted his chin toward another shelf, where several curious items were collected.  “I am confident you will find them fascinating.”

Yes to books, yes to Coerthan artifacts.  She wet her lips.  “Please, don’t let me detain you from your work any longer,” she said, glancing at the papers on the table.  “I can occupy myself for hours with the materials you’ve provided.”

A soft knock sounded at the door, and Aymeric moved to greet it.

The steward, with a pot of tea, and setting for two.

 

✧ ☄ ☽


 

Samantha slowly paged through a tome from the stack he’d provided—a delightfully ornamental Ishgardian affair, fully illuminated, illustrating the changes of Coerthas after the Calamity.  She picked through passage after passage on wildlife, climate, and environment, each of which touched upon the vast aetheric shifts—the deadly arcane properties of cruel, omnipresent ice.

Beside her on the settee lounged Aymeric, reading and sorting his papers.  Now and then, he would bend his long body over to the table—filing this, fetching that—smoothing wide, long-fingered hands along the face of a document to flatten it on the table and sign it.  His quill made squeaks and scratches as he marked and notated, sometimes giving a hum low in his throat.  His focus was admirable.  He’d scarcely spoken a word since taking his seat.

She took a long sip of her tea.  Then she cast a slow and savoring glance at him.

Tonight, she would etch him into her memory—the way his brow knitted with the weight of his thoughts—the way he stroked his thumb and forefinger along his bottom lip to gather his focus.  She would never forget the fall of his rook-black hair, soft as feathers, across his brow—or the straight, noble line of his nose—or the delicate arch of his eyebrows—or the way his icy, fathomless eyes turned to meet hers.

“Is something the matter?”

She took a quick breath and shook her head, a graceful blush creeping up her neck.  “No, no,” she said quickly.  “Just—watching you work,” she admitted clumsily, chewing on her lower lip.

He lifted his eyebrows and grinned sardonically.  “Thrilling entertainment, I am sure.”

She gasped a laugh.  “I admire your focus,” she told him, nodding to the papers.  “Please, do go on.  I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

He stacked the papers in his hands and bent to file them neatly away, marking something in a ledger to the side.  “I daresay I could use an interruption,” he said, glancing back up at her.  “The focus you admire so much is perhaps more aptly described as a stubborn propensity to work myself ragged.”

That reminded her of the blanket behind them—the question that rang through her mind before.  “Do you sleep in this study sometimes?”

He pressed his lips together and scrubbed his thumb and forefinger across his chin, glancing away.  “Guilty.”

“Good gods, Aymeric,” she muttered.

He quirked a brow, meeting her eyes again.  “Tell me the strangest place you have slept.”

Her mouth opened in shock.  “How can I possibly—”  But the answer immediately sprang to her mind.  “Azys Lla,” she said firmly, trying to cast away the thought as quickly as it came.

Not now.

Aymeric’s eyes were wide.  “You slept in Azys Lla?”

She looked away from him.  “I did,” she muttered.  “But if you don’t mind—”  Her throat felt dry, brittle.  She swallowed hard—blinked against the sudden prickle in her eyes.  “I would rather not discuss it.”

He was quiet for a moment.  “Of course,” he said.  “I—cannot possibly begin to imagine—”  He paused.  “Let us remain in the here and now.”

She glanced back at him to find tense pale eyes searching her face.

Samantha smiled weakly.  “I would much rather observe you and share my reflections,” she confessed.

And ground myself desperately here in this instant.

His ice-blue eyes scanned her expression.  Even in such an intimate setting, his stare was cool and shrewd—an ilm away from cunning.  Only Aymeric could manage to look regal and daunting in little more than a loose pullover shirt.

As she held his gaze, curiosity softened his features.  “Dare I enquire?” he wondered aloud.

She kept her eyes on him and leaned back against the settee, cradling her cup of tea against the folds of her robes.  “Be my guest,” she invited, watching him carefully.

Now his eyes seemed to pierce straight through her—sharp, splitting her open, all the way down to her heart.  The echo of a feeling breathed through her soul.  Like baring a wound to clean it.

Slowly, he leaned back along with her.  “Tell me about your reflections, then,” he said, a tender demand.  “Tell me your thoughts in this particular moment.”

The intensity in his eyes was building, setting her heart to flutter.  She looked down at her half-gone cup of tea.  How could she explain it—the need to carve his likeness in her heart?

The dregs swirled slowly in her cup.

After so much loss, the urge to keep, to cling, to collect, swarmed to fill her heart.  And while even the barest glance at Aymeric called mind to his beauty—he was very beautiful, so much so at times that she wondered if she dreamt—it was not Aymeric’s beauty that drove her to cherish him.

He was solemn and earnest, thoughtful and warm.  More than that, he was here—safe and hale and quietly serving his beloved Ishgard.  Gods willing, she would protect him—and do nearly anything to ensure his preservation.

“I am glad that you are safe,” she finally said.  “And glad to be beside you tonight, late though it may be.”

The fabric whispered as he shifted against the cushion.  She looked up to find him facing her fully, his arm stretched to line the spine of the settee, displacing the folds of the blanket.  His hand was close enough to graze her shoulder.  “Full glad am I that you came,” he said gently.  “I—”  His voice caught unexpectedly.  “I wish for you to visit, whenever you please.”

She chuckled darkly.  “You might regret that invitation,” she muttered, smoothing her fingers against the curved sides of her teacup.  “Of all my titles, creature of the night is perhaps the most fitting.”

He watched her with a painfully warm expression.  “You are welcome regardless,” he pressed.

Aymeric seemed to think for a moment about his next words—to edit them before he spoke.  “I like to believe that I have some ability to discern the comfort of others,” he finally continued, his eyes roving her face.  “And after countless moments in your presence, I daresay you seem—very contented here.”

That almost made her laugh.

He was right, of course.  The ease she felt with him was rivaled only by the calm of the Manor Fortemps.  In either case, it was not the house that warmed her heart.

She loosed a light chuckle and lowered her eyes.  “It would be difficult to feel uncomfortable beside you, Aymeric,” she murmured.

His hand on the spine of the settee moved to brush her shoulder with one, two fingers.

A soft touch.  A shy touch.

She looked up to find him taking a breath.

“Tell me what might give you discomfort,” he said lowly, looking down at her with a pale and burning stare.  “That I may never allow it to happen.”

Her heart seemed to plummet from her body, searing hot.  Good gods.

She tried to collect herself, swallowing against the dryness in her throat.  “You do yourself a discredit to imagine you might even be capable of causing discomfort,” she said gruffly, looking down at her tea for a moment before downing the remains of it all at once.

His fingertips grazed her shoulder, then stilled against her in a gentle caress.  He was silent for a moment.

“I am only a man,” he finally said, his voice very quiet.  “And quite proficient when it comes to blundering, I assure you.”

She met his eyes.  “I think I will continue to reserve my judgment,” she said gently.  “And more than willing to bet that my capacity to blunder far surpasses yours.”  She laughed at herself under her breath.  “As I’m sure you have noticed, I am not—adept at minding my manners.”

He was leaning toward her, lifting his eyebrows.  “In the whole of our acquaintance, you have been nothing but polite and courteous,” he said, staring sternly at her, his shoulders confidently squared.

She pursed her lips.  “I am selfish, Aymeric,” she said, self-conscious.  “I came here tonight without a thought for you—or your work,” she said, gesturing to the table.  Her face burned with shame as she glanced back at him through her lashes.  “I wanted to see you, so I came.”

A delicate blush colored his cheeks.  “Much to my pleasure, as you surely recall.”

She flushed even hotter.  Holding his gaze, she spoke without thinking, her voice full of breath.  “You are far too kind to trifle with me, Aymeric,” she said, the words coming in a rush.  “Too generous—to set books aside, to cater to my whims—to quit your pressing work to speak to me thus.”  She took a faltering breath.  “To look at me thus.

Her heart was pounding.  She shut her mouth in embarrassment.  Aymeric’s hand on her shoulder flexed, moving slowly to trace a path above her collarbone—combing gently beneath the dark waves of her hair.

His voice was unbearably soft.  “Do you know what I see when I look at you?”

She trembled, not trusting herself to speak.

He watched his fingers as he twined them in the lowermost layers of her hair.  “You referred to the Vault before—when you aided me against the True Brothers of the Faith.  You moved with grace and vigor and—to use the word you gave to me—devotion.

He lifted his eyes back to hers.  Heat smoldered behind them, warmed his voice as he spoke.  “Wreathed in flame and rime, calling on energies sacred and profane—”  He took a shallow breath, something like reverence in his eyes.  “You, who lay low our false idols, were so very near to the divine.”

Warm fingertips pressed gently around the back of her neck, and she shuddered.

“In that moment, I knew beyond any misgiving,” he breathed, leaning closer.  “Beyond the faintest shadow, that this divine creature—that the woman at my side—would lay down her life for my cause.”  Ice-blue eyes pierced deep into her soul.  “Have you any idea what that means to me?”

The world around her dissolved, narrowing to the touch at the base of her skull—the irresistible face in front of her—the lips she was desperate to taste.

“More,” she whispered, dizzy.  “You deserve so much more than I could ever give you.”

She watched his lips part to take a halting breath.

“No,” he said, the softest exhalation.  “I am the debtor.”  His breath was warm on her skin.  He brushed his lips across hers in supplication.  “I have taken enough of you already.”

She received his kiss with an open, wanting mouth.  His lips, his tongue—more, more.

The teacup in her lap fell to the carpet with a dull thud as she folded herself against him—as he eased himself closer, both of his warm, wide hands sliding down her body.

Gods, it was like nothing ever before.  It was sinking, suffocating, drowning.

Down, down he pulled her—down against his lap, down to cover his body, down to smother his mouth.  She arched up to gasp for breath and he followed, panting hard and hot against her neck.  “Forgive me,” he said suddenly, his voice gruff.

She looked down at him through the dark curtain of her hair, pushing it back behind her ears.  “What for?”

His face and neck were flushed, his long, tapered ears tinted red.  His lips were still parted, and she bent down to taste them once more, drawing a low sound from deep in his chest.  “Fury,” he breathed, flexing his body up against her, opening his mouth.

For a long, slow moment, they drank deep of each other.  Then the clock on his desk chimed—one.  One in the morning.  Both were breathless, struggling to resurface.

So late.  But she hardly cared about the time.  She was buried deep in the warm haze they had created, with no wish to crawl back out.

Still, she propped herself up above him.  Red-faced, Aymeric smoothed a hand across his forehead, looking up at her with naked yearning in his eyes.  His voice was soft and covetous.  “Must we awake from this vision?”

Her heart twisted and rebelled at the thought, but she knew the answer was yes.

“I wish I could say no,” she muttered, folding back down against him—resting her cheek against the base of his throat.  She could hear his heartbeat, fast and ragged.  One of his hands traced a path up her spine.

She listened as he took a deep breath.  “Just a moment longer, then,” he said gently.

She closed her eyes.  “Yes.”

Let us remain in the here and now.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

To know Aymeric was to know warmth.

In all respects, he was kind and gentle.  Even his demands were mild and understandable: Would she care to join him if able?  There was much to be done; would she mind a tentative postponement?

If time could be spared, they shared treasured moments—books and tea and quiet conversation; ever-so-rarely a bruncheon or dinner; seldom a late-night glass of wine.  The Borel hearth slowly softened the hard crust of rime around her heart. 

Then there was the fire she somehow ignited in Aymeric—the way he made her melt in return. 

Gods, how she craved him.  She knew he felt the same.  But he held himself back at their meetings; sought nothing beyond their slow, savoring kisses, and the tender caresses that set her to smolder like flame. 

He made no effort to hide the hunger in his eyes.  There she saw tension and yearning—the silent invitation he resisted, and ever declined to offer.

When she was alone, she was haunted by the taste of his lips, warm and yielding; the shy, reserved touch of his hands.  It was a powerful change of the guard.  Estinien was all hard edges; demanding and severe, aloof and single-minded.  The moments he was gentle had been cherished and rare.  In all truth, Estinien embodied many of the bitterest things she’d come to expect from men—among them, utter detachment.

Whenever she began to feel desire, she therefore veiled herself in hardness and disinterest of her own.  Expecting selfish, unyielding demands, she herself became selfish and unyielding—a shield against pain and disappointment.

Aymeric was entirely different.  Solemn though he was, he did not burn dry and hot, taking and taking.  He met her with curiosity and enthusiasm, eager to simply be beside her.  There was nothing uncertain about his affection—nothing mysterious about him at all.  He laid himself utterly bare to her.

She wondered why he still refused to ask, to take what she would more than willingly give.  Perhaps he sensed some hesitation on her part, too—something holding her back. 

It was likely, because it was true.  She held herself back—and it begged the question why.  She had few reservations about taking the lead.  So why wait for him to make the move?

Perhaps that was simple enough—and again the refrain.

Aymeric was different

She wanted therefore to preserve him—to shelter the precious something between them—this fresh, unexpected, restorative feeling.  She wanted nothing to destroy it.

Never had she felt such softness, such warmth, such much-needed healing.

And still she wasn’t quite sure she deserved it.

 


 

Dusk was settling over Coerthas, casting the towers of Ishgard in shades of red and gold.

Samantha was dressed from head to toe in her travelling gear—cloak and scarf and wide-brimmed petasos.  She had only just returned from a summit at the Rising Stones, bid by Aymeric to attend him at the Congregation of Our Knights Most Heavenly.  He made one simple request: To accompany him on his walk back to the Borel Manor.  From there, she could choose to stay or take her leave—knowing that a warm hearth would be waiting either way.

She tucked herself away in a corner of the central room, with the goal of evading attention—at least until Aymeric emerged.  The knights on duty nodded to her respectfully in greeting, but largely left her alone.  Polite and encouraging though she was, she was also still known for her quiet disposition.

The door to his office finally opened.  A small group of armor-clad men escorted him slowly into view.  At the sight of him she stood a bit straighter—felt her heart pulse a bit faster—felt the weight on her shoulders lift a bit lighter.

Stern and tall, clad in his Lord Commander’s uniform, Aymeric was stunning.  He carried himself with distinctive demeanor—poised and strong, his back straight, his shoulders squared, his arms relaxed down by his sides.  He spoke between his men with confidence, no doubt eloquence, though she paid no attention to his words.  She focused instead on the vision of him, so impressive, standing there across the room—laboring still to etch his everlasting effigy in her heart.

Against her will, against her own better judgment, he was becoming a permanent fixture.  And now, more than ever, she could feel it—the fact that day after day, he grew yet greater; filling the depths of her heart like no man had ever done before. 

He was everything she dreamed a mortal being could be. 

He was everything she hoped to reflect in herself.

As he nodded to dismiss his men, his attention strayed.  He turned his head to allow his gaze to drift and seek her, slowly scanning the room.  The crystal strung from his left ear caught the light and glittered.  And then, from beneath the fringe of his lashes, his piercing blue eyes met hers.  His lips quirked into a slight, gentle grin. 

Fixing her with his gaze, he began the short trek across the room to meet her—the grin on his lips widening into a bemused smile.  “Must you always hide there in the shadows?”  His voice was low and teasing, filled with humor.

She shifted her weight and smirked right back at him, tilting the brim of her pointed hat.  She pulled down the folds of her scarf to reveal her lips.  “Did I not warn you that I was a creature of the night?”

He chuckled and shook his head.  “Come, join me,” he directed, bending an elbow to offer it.  She looped their arms together, the action so practiced it was nearly a reflex.  Then she drew herself close to the familiar, solid warmth of his body.  She tried to ignore the feeling of the other knights’ eyes upon them as they departed the building, out into the brisk and icy air.

“I hope your day went smoothly,” she said, savoring the feeling of the arm she clung to, the body of the cherished person beside her.

Aymeric noticed.  He drew his arm in tighter—pulled her even closer—or at least as close as her petasos would allow.  “Too eager was I to see you,” he admitted, his voice almost gruff.  “Why is it that the promise of something delightful causes time somehow to dilate?”

She laughed and felt her cheeks flush hot.  “A rare delight indeed—my presence as a chaperone through the looming hazards of Ishgard,” she quipped.  “Such a necessity.”

As they neared the edge of Foundation, a fair amount of people strolled the streets around them.  A few of them paused to gawk at the spectacle: The Lord Commander of the Temple Knights, with Eorzea’s Warrior of Light, strolling tenderly arm in arm. 

“By my consideration, it is,” he said gently.  She could hear a mist of longing in his voice.  “These days, our meetings are much too rare for my taste.”

Her pulse began to beat a ragged rhythm in her neck.  “Mine as well,” she admitted, the words dropping quickly from her lips.  “I—wish I could see you more often.”

The muscles in his forearm tensed and his voice dropped yet lower.  “Shall I beg for your extended company tonight, then?”

Faster and faster raced her pulse.  He couldn’t mean—not that.  Surely just the usual invitation of tea and books by candlelight, with a chance of furious necking.  She swallowed hard.

Perhaps now was her chance.

“There—is something,” she began, taking a sharp breath.  “Something I would discuss with you.  Though some aspects of the conversation might be—better suited behind closed doors.”

She could feel his body shift as he glanced down at her, likely in shock and question.  As the beginnings of the manors of the Pillars came into view, the streets were quite bare of inhabitants—but Ishgardian propriety was still a matter she didn’t entirely understand.

“Now I am dreadfully curious,” he muttered, his voice low and grumbling.  “And ever so slightly apprehensive.”

That made her bark a laugh.  “It’s nothing horrible, I assure you,” she said, as quietly as her own anxiety would allow her.  “Mostly a set of contemplations I—wished to deliberate.”

He was quiet for a moment.  “Behind closed doors.”

She took a breath.  “Yes.”

They took several steps in silence.

The sunlight was beginning to fade.  Now the streets were almost empty.  The few remaining pedestrians kept their distance as they passed, watching them intently, nonetheless.  As they moved yet closer to the Borel Manor, the wind that howled through Ishgard’s columns and battlements carried an icy bite, chilling the parts of her face that were exposed. 

Finally, he spoke.  “Dare I …?”

She laughed again, but her heart was beginning to pound afresh.  “It regards our relationship,” she clarified.  “The—nature—thereof,” she continued, feeling increasingly awkward.

“Ah.”  The sound of confirmation sat low in his throat.  “Very understandable.”  He paused.  Their footsteps on the frosted, cobbled pathway struck a solid, steady rhythm.  “I believe I too would like to have this conversation.”

She shivered.  Whether it was from the formidable chill of the air, or the promise of the discussion to come, she couldn’t be sure.  She simply clung to his arm and bore onward. 

“I plan to—well—” She swallowed hard.  “I hope that I might—explain myself, I suppose,” she said clumsily.  “But I warn you,” she advised him.  “It can be difficult for me—to speak of some things.”  No sooner had the words left her mouth than her throat began to close against the rest of them.  She focused instead upon the streets of the Pillars.  That is, until Aymeric began to speak.

“I will listen to whatever you wish to say,” he promised, leaning close to her again.  “But pray, do not feel beholden to me.”  She tilted the brim of her hat out of the way to find his eyes, warm and understanding, searching her face.  “I know well what it is like to bear burdens, of my own creation or otherwise,” he explained.  “And as you might recall, I wish more than anything to prevent your discomfort.”

The eaves of the Manor Borel were visible in her periphery.  She took a steadying breath and smiled.  “Let us have the conversation, then,” she said softly, against the raging blush on her cheeks—against the raging anxiety in her heart.  

Or, at least, as much of it as possible.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text

 


✦ 


 

She waited on the settee in Aymeric’s library alcove—their usual haunt.

Cloaks and hats and scarves had been shed.  He was pouring wine at the desk in the corner, dressed in the simple blue tunic worn beneath his armor.  She smoothed her hands down the front of the long white dress she’d picked for the summit, wrinkled now from her travels.

Aymeric carried two full glasses of red to the low table by the fire, setting one down on the surface.  “I thought we both might use this to some benefit tonight,” he murmured, taking his seat and turning to face her.  “At least without knowing exactly what needs must be said."

She held his eyes for a moment, desperate for relief—not through wine, or question, or conversation—but something else only he could offer.  And by the Twelve, he looked so handsome in the firelight, so warm and kind and inviting—though the expression he turned to face her was tight with trepidation.

Trepidation she’d created.

As the familiar urge to harangue herself rose up in her chest, Samantha tamped it down.  No.  Nothing was wrong with the way that she felt.  She was not drawn to his arms by anything base or depraved.  In fact, in fact, what she now wished to confess—or at least begin to confess—was something quite the opposite.

He stirred in her such myriad feelings.  He was perfect and pure and—Twelve preserve.  Everything about him made her want him all the more.

If she misspoke—if she drove him away—she would never forgive herself.

She wet her lips. 

“I don’t know where to begin,” she admitted, her voice cracking.  “There are—suddenly so many things I would tell you.”

He raised his eyebrows.  Pale blue eyes, fathomless as the wintry Coerthan sky, studied her face.  “Begin with the simplest,” he suggested, handing her the glass of wine he still held. 

She accepted it and took a long, indecorous sip.  He watched her with a mixture of amusement and apprehension.  Still, the steady presence of Aymeric in front of her, so close and so him, gave her the confidence she needed to heed his advice. 

“In that case—”  She took a shallow breath.  “Let me first reveal a bit of my past,” she muttered.  “And then perhaps a bit of my present.” 

Gods.  She hoped she wouldn’t regret this. 

Aymeric was very quiet for a moment, looking deep into her eyes. 

“I would be honored to listen,” he said softly. 

And so, she began with the beginning—her parents, Bryony and Cassius—and their whole gods-forsaken story.

He listened with rapt attention to the tale of the star-crossed lovers, drinking in every illicit detail.  The Imperial scientist, the expert in medicus equipment, bewitched by the beautiful, bold Eorzean innkeep.  The child they unexpectedly conceived and spirited away in the dark of a Highland night.  The love they nurtured despite the world around them, despite the lifelong brand of his blood and his brow.  To an outsider, she supposed it seemed romantic.  To her, it was simply reality—the source of the dark and permanent indignity she urgently wished to escape. 

“The Shroud was just far enough from Gyr Abania,” she explained.  “She gave birth to me there, where she could hide us both away—where no one would recognize his face.”  She stared down at the glass of wine in her hands and shook her head.  “They did their best to hide the truth from me, too, until my fourteenth year,” she muttered.  “Though I’m sure I guessed it long before then.”

Aymeric was sipping his wine in contemplation, setting it on the low table beside them.  “I am shocked you never spoke of this before,” he confessed.  At the look in her eyes, he chuckled and clarified.  “To me, at least.  You know very well that I am not a stranger to—confusion about one’s own heritage.”

That was true.  She cast him an apologetic expression.  “I hardly speak of it at all,” she said truthfully.  “To anyone.”  She took a shaky breath.  “It’s a source of too much shame.  But I had a feeling you wouldn’t mind knowing—and I wanted you to know besides.”

As though he could sense the magnitude of her discomfort—and it was likely that he could—he reached out both of his beautiful hands to clasp her shoulders.  “If you can forgive me for the sins of my father," he said softly, "Then surely I can forgive you for the sins of yours." 

His eyes were very blue, very warm.  Very kind.

Tears pricked at the corners of her vision.

Seven hells.  She had done nothing to deserve this.  Nothing to deserve him at all. 

“Aymeric, you are—” Her throat closed up.  She tried again.  “Far, far too good.”

He smiled gently and shook his head, releasing her from his grip.  “Only a man,” he said, an echo of words he once spoke before.  He reached again for his wine glass and toasted her with it.  “And subject to all of man's numerous flaws.”

She watched him take another sip—the way his soft, shapely lips pressed around the thin brim of the glass—the way his eyes glittered, never leaving her face. 

All things holy. 

She should stop talking and kiss him.  She should simply enjoy this blessed moment.  She should forget about everything residing in the past—although so much of it yet lingered. 

Something else now pressed at the back of her mind; a truth she both needed, and dreaded, to mention.

Was it right or wrong to tell him?  Was it kinder to leave him in the dark?

“I am thinking of something else,” she said quietly, forebodingly.  “Something else I feel—hesitant to reveal.”

The look in his eyes shifted, glimmering with confusion and curiosity.  “What is the cause of your hesitation?”

Should she admit it? 

“I fear your reaction above all else,” she said indeed, bracing herself.

His brow began to furrow.  “Why?”

I don’t want to scare you away.

She swallowed thickly. 

“I would tell you of a man in my very recent past,” she muttered.  “Because I would rather you know the truth, directly from my lips.”

Now his face was inscrutable.  He took a very long sip of his wine, seeming to consider this. 

“I would be a simpleton indeed if I imagined your history bereft of other men,” he said plainly, setting the glass back down on the table.  “But I wonder that you feel the need to so explicitly discuss one.”

She began to chew on her bottom lip, second-guessing her intentions, and Aymeric cleared his throat.  “Pray, do not censor yourself,” he muttered.  “I am not a jealous man—at least, not to my knowledge,” he allowed, giving her a significant glance.  “Merely—what I mean to ask is—must needs this information be shared?” 

Her stomach did a somersault.  “I feel like it does.”  

Something inside her kept telling her yes.

Yes, you fool.  Tell him.

“He was—someone you know very well,” she supplied.

Aymeric’s eyebrows lifted ever so slightly, and he caved.  “Who?”

Out with it then. 

She took a very deep breath.

“Estinien,” she muttered, avoiding his eyes.

Aymeric was utterly quiet. 

The silence crept in from all sides, dense and suffocating. 

“Estinien,” he repeated, his voice low and perplexed. 

Then the silence dragged on, much too long for her taste.

He finally coughed.  “Are you truly—serious?”

Blood flooded her face and neck, but she stood by the confession with conviction.  “It felt wrong not to tell you somehow,” she said blankly.  “Dishonest.”  The familiar feeling of shame tingled down into her fingertips, and she pressed them tighter against her wine glass.

She looked up to find Aymeric studying her face, calculations and revelations seeming to flash behind his eyes.  “By Halone,” he muttered quietly.  “I feel as though I should have noticed.  The way the two of you would sometimes regard one another—”

Hells consume her

Perhaps they already had.  Now she was burning hot, the palms of her hands clammy with sweat.  “I hope it isn’t disturbing information,” she muttered, jerking her wine glass to her lips, taking a large and choking swig—preemptively mourning the loss of him.

“Surprising and unbelievable,” he said quickly, clearing his throat.  “But hardly disturbing.  Truly, I can easily fathom that the two of you could find—common ground,” he finished, ever gracefully.  “His is the most reticent disposition I have ever encountered, and yours—”  He paused to give her a taunting look.  “Falls somewhere close behind.”

She was shaking her head in humiliation.  She lowered her eyes, dropped her chin; stared down at the half-full wine glass held in her lap.  Her face was blazing hot. 

Good gods

Something inside still nudged her to continue.

“It’s simply that ... if I am to—pursue you like this,” she muttered awkwardly, “I suppose I seek your most honest appraisal.”  She felt humbled low to the ground, nose-down, embarrassed beyond belief.  “I want you to know everything.”  She smoothed her fingers around the belly of her glass; traced them down the length of the stem.  She stared into the dark red pool of wine and prayed that her hands would stop sweating.  “I know I’ve told you this before, but you are unlike any man in my acquaintance, and—” She couldn’t ask for his honesty without continuing to be brutal with hers. 

She took one dry, shallow breath.  And then again with the truth of it.  “I can’t bear the thought of losing you too,” she said, her voice very quiet.

“You confessed this once before,” he said gently.  She was surprised at how quickly he responded. 

Samantha lifted her eyes.  He was—he was leaning so close.

He set his glass of wine on the table and lifted one hand to touch the side of her neck, the tips of his fingers brushing her cheek.

She shivered.

“I believe I understand now,” he murmured, his voice very soft. 

Her lips parted.  “About?”

He glanced at her mouth, then looked back up to her eyes.  “You have endured so much,” he said, his voice agonizingly kind.  “I beg you not to trouble yourself—not when it comes to me,” he said tenderly.  “I am the poorest of fools in your presence, I assure you.”  He swallowed hard, betrayed by the bobbing of his throat.  “You could cast me away like a cur, and I daresay I would come crawling back.”

It was suddenly very difficult to catch her breath. 

If there was ever a time for declarations—

“I must ask you a question,” she said, fighting the tremble in her voice.

Was it her, or was he moving closer?  The look in his eyes urged her on—urged her to ask him—

Her chest tightened.  She opened her mouth, and her tongue and throat felt dry as ash.  “Why do you not—take me to bed?”

His lips parted.  He opened his mouth in surprise and drew a quick breath, then closed it as his face flooded with comprehension.  “I had not—” He paused to collect himself, but his eyes—oh, how they smoldered.  Now his voice was dry, too.  “I did not dare to presume.”  His gaze flicked from her eyes back down to her lips.  “Is that what you wish?”

Yes. Seven hells, yes. 

Her face was tilting to his of its own accord.  She reined herself in, looking deep into his eyes.  “Only if you wish it, too.”

His hand on her neck trembled, reaching around to the base of her skull.  She could feel his other arm moving to touch the curve of her waist—his long, warm fingers dragging along the fabric that draped the side of her hip.  A spark of anticipation lit the careful calm of his expression, kindling deep in his eyes.  “I wish it," he breathed, pressing a gentle kiss to her lips.  "Indeed, I wish it."

Seconds away from losing herself, she remembered her glass of wine—now clutched between very unsteady fingers.  Her entire body trembled as she moved to set it on the table nearby, never breaking his stare.  When her task was accomplished, his fingers pressed against the back of her neck, drawing her attention back to him.  A silent demand.  A wonderful demand.  She tilted her chin to meet him and he covered her lips with his.

He tasted sweet, and soft, and bitter—like wine and expectation.  He kissed her slowly, hungrily, letting waves of pent-up desire crash between them.  She opened her mouth, desperate for more, but he pulled suddenly away.

She struggled to collect herself, sliding her hands around his slim waist.  “Is everything alright?”

Their lips were still a breath apart.  His eyes hooded, smoldering like pale blue flames.  “I—I might make a minor request of you,” he said, breathless.  “Would it be remiss of me to ask—to take this slow?”

She gasped a laugh.  “Of course not,” she said, clinging to him tightly.

Without hesitation, he closed the distance between them again.  A low noise swelled in his chest as he kissed her—harder, with the faintest note of desperation.  “You must understand,” he said, his voice halted, timid.  “I have not—taken a lover in quite some time.”

She kissed his lips, his cheek, the side of his jawline.  “So long as you mean to take me as one,” she said softly, kissing the base of one long, reddening ear.

He pulled her yet closer, to press his face against her neck.  His mouth was hot on her skin.  She closed her eyes in ecstasy as he kissed her throat, his voice a low, a coarse whisper.  “Nothing would give me more pleasure.”

Was this what bliss felt like?  Was this the reason for art and poetry—for song and dance?

She leaned back to look at him, as though she might consume him with her eyes, as though she might drink him down into her very soul.

I love you.

The words clawed at her throat for release.

But she couldn’t bring herself to say them.  Not that forbidden, unbelievable utterance.

I love you.

His hand brushed from her neck, down the length of her spine, meeting its twin at the small of her back.  He looked at her, too, like he might feast on her through vision alone, with eyes that burned pale and bright as diamonds.

She took a sharp breath.  Tears pricked the corners of her eyes.

I love you.

She folded herself against him; pressed her cheek against the base of his throat.

Her voice was almost inaudible.  “Aymeric, I—”

His arms encircled her tightly.  He craned his neck to press soft lips against her temple.  “Yes?”

She shuddered and sighed.  “Thank you,” she breathed.  “For listening."

 


✦ 


 

Chapter Text

 


 ✦


 

Now there could be no mistaking it.

Aymeric shared her feelings.  He felt the same.  Even knowing the biggest of her truths, he wanted her.  And barring his quite reasonable hesitation—his request to move slowly—their relationship would continue.

It was enough.  It was more than enough.  It was more than her still-fragile heart dared to believe.  Though she now crept alone into bed at the Manor Fortemps, Aymeric still too reserved to invite her, a sense of tentative relief cobwebbed through her veins.  It had been so very long since she relished the promise of tomorrow.

She sank down against her pillows, breathing slow and deep.  Now she was lulled by fresh recollections of his lips, the memory of his hands on her waist, and the unequivocal certainty that smoldered in her chest.

She, Samantha Rosalyn Floravale, was in love with Ser Aymeric de Borel.

There was no turning back.

 


“Save your concern.  I will consume the Eye ere I let it consume me.”


 ✦

 

In the visage of her dreamscape, Helix was a crush of metal and light. 

The sound of whirring and humming crowded her ears, buzzing loud and unruly as her thoughts.  Haurchefant.  Ysayle.  How many more beloved friends would fall by the end of this gods-forsaken struggle?

Her heart sped like a blur in her chest and, without thinking, she found herself searching for Estinien—picking his stern figure out by the edge of the Allagan platform.  She drifted to his side. 

He shifted his weight to gaze down at her, his dark eyes barely visible beneath the hook of his visor.  “Dark omens stalk to surround us,” he muttered.

Something fluttered in her stomach and she swallowed hard.  “So it would seem,” she agreed, gazing out on the uncanny horizon.  Azys Lla was wrong; unnerving, unlike anything she had seen before, or ever wished to see after. 

Then came the sound of someone else’s quiet voice behind them. 

“Samantha.” 

Alphinaud. 

She turned to find him staring up at her with eyes full of shadows.  “I cannot believe that she is gone,” he muttered.

Her heart wrung at his words—at the grief and slackness in his face.  On reflex, she took hold of his shoulders.  “Neither can I,” she said hoarsely, fighting the hitch in her throat.  There seemed to be a pallor to his skin, agony writ plain on his features.  “Are you well, Alphinaud?”

He shook his head.  No.  “But tolerable, I assure you,” he muttered quickly.  “Or will be soon enough.”

She could feel her brow tensing as she searched his face, glancing back at Estinien; then down toward the aetheryte, where Y’shtola spoke with Cid, Wedge, and Biggs.  “That may be,” she began, feeling less than well herself.  “But while I’m sure we agree that time is of the essence—should we not rest before proceeding?”  She glanced back out on the limitless horizon, a spell of dizziness surging down her spine.  “This place is strange and vast, and we could use some small measure of time to recover.”

Alphinaud took a breath.  “Let us recuperate,” he agreed, lowering his eyes.  “Then I might be stronger for whatever else we must face.”

Tears pricked her eyes.  Good gods.  It was Alphinaud’s pain that would break her.  She squeezed his shoulders gently.  “I am on the verge of crumbling myself,” she admitted.  In the corner of her eye, Estinien stiffened.  “There is no shame in grief, so long as we do not allow ourselves to drown in it.”

Alphinaud glanced up at her.  A spark of fierce appreciation danced in his eyes, before guttering abruptly.  “I shall inform Cid and Y’shtola,” he said quietly.

She nodded.  As the youngest Scion present departed for the others, Estinien turned to face her. 

His voice was very gruff.  “Are you well?”

“No,” she muttered, using her stare to trace the jagged lines of his armor, still stained red from Nidhogg’s blood.  “We have all been shaken today.”

A soft grunt.  “This war will take from us as it wishes until we end it,” he said darkly.  “But I will not scorn this respite—for the sake of the boy, if nothing else.”

She nodded again, her eyes lingering on his lips.  “Rest you well,” she said simply.

 


  

Alone at the edge of camp, she curled on her side, eluded by any sense of reprieve.

Instead she stared at the wall of her tent, magicked as it was to stand on the metallic platform.  Her ears rang with the omnipresent throbbing of machinery.  Then the small hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she sensed a presence behind her.

Her fingers closed around the body of her staff before Estinien’s low growl filled the space.  “It is I.”

Samantha sat up to face him, flicking a spark to life in her palm.  The light flickered along the sharp, stony angles of his face—his cloak and simple linen underclothes.  “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice soft and tense.

His eyes drifted to the small astral flame that danced between her fingertips.  He was silent.  Something swelled in the air between them as he paused.  “I have no wish to think,” he muttered, lifting his eyes to meet hers.

She could feel her pulse start to sprint as he knelt close by her, divesting himself of his cloak, holding her gaze all the while.  She took a sharp breath.  “Estinien.”

For a moment, he said nothing; only searched her with that stare of deepest, darkest midnight.

Then, very suddenly, his hands were on her waist—the distance gone between them. 

He brushed open lips against her mouth.  “Kiss me.”

The wickless flame guttered, casting them both in the dim blue ambient light.  Samantha sighed and combed her fingers through his long silver hair, staring deep into his scorching eyes.  The first kiss was tender.  The second, ravenous.  He shed his linen shirt and she smoothed her hands down the bare, corded plane of his stomach, earning a quiet groan from his throat.  He dragged his teeth along the column of her neck, a blunt but gentle pressure, and she swallowed the cry that pressed at her lips.

She could feel his mouth against the shell of her ear.  “Make love to me,” he breathed, the words clipped and husky in his throat.  “Take me through this.”

Everything inside her unraveled, narrowed to the ache of his demand.  Nothing else mattered.  She was a rush of heart’s blood, wanton and yearning, desperate to be twined with him.  Her hands dipped fast to his hips.  His palms slipped beneath the folds of her nightclothes, tracing a reverent path on her skin before lifting the gown from her shoulders. 

The body he pressed against her was hot, but still she shivered.  She scraped her fingertips down his spine and his breathing went ragged; she peppered his jaw and neck with hungry kisses.  “I wanted you,” she whispered.  “I missed you.”

He shuddered, meeting her stare with hooded eyes—sank back down to kiss her with tender lips. 

“And I you,” he murmured, low as a rumble of thunder.

 


 

Spent and caged in the gentle vise of his arms, she finally found her moment of peace.

Skin on skin, he cradled her from behind; smoothed his callused palm down the curve of her thigh and nestled warm lips by the crook of her neck. 

His familiar presence was lulling her to sleep when she heard the barest growl of his voice. 

“When this hell is finished,” he began, his words hot on her skin.  “I want you to remain.”

In an instant, her pulse was racing.  She twisted to face him, searching for his gaze.  “What?”

He lifted one hand, and his thumb trembled as he brushed it against her cheek; traced it down along the corner of her lips.  “You,” he murmured, kissing her gently.  He wrapped her up in his arms.  “I want you, and you alone.”

She shivered and stared deep into the raw, dark abyss of his eyes—vast and unending.  “Estinien,” she rasped.  She swallowed hard.  Mist flooded her vision and she blinked it quickly away, gripping him tight.

She was afraid to speak, afraid of absolution.  Instead, she took his face in both hands and covered his mouth with hers.  She brushed her lips down his neck, tasting the salt of his skin—kissing the base of his throat.  Pressed flush together, she could feel the tempo of his heartbeat, pulsing fast and hard. 

When he spoke again, his voice was clipped and gruff.  “You will never be abandoned,” he breathed.  “Not while I yet live."

 


"With this task accomplished, my toils shall finally be at an end.”


 

She sat up in bed, drenched in an icy, bitter sweat.

It was dark.  The wind had stilled beyond the walls of the Manor, somber and damning.  It took her a moment to realize where she was.  Then her stomach clenched, and she lurched to the edge of the mattress, stumbling to the washroom to sob and retch in the privy.  The remains of her dinner thoroughly dismissed, she washed out her mouth and stared at her reflection in the mirror. 

“I have to let him go,” she croaked.

I cannot cling to what I have lost.

A shiver wracked her body, and the dark eyes in the mirror hardened.

But if he yet lives …

Her heart thudded hard in her chest.

I will do all in my power to save him.


 ✦


Chapter Text


Continues in sequence around relevant Dragonsong MSQ events:
"Consequences,” “Choices,” “A Spectacle for the Ages” and into “For Those We Can Yet Save.”


 

Between the unbidden frenzy of the Peace Conference and preparations for the Grand Melee, diplomatic business consumed all else.  Her dream of a tender tomorrow was caught in the undertow, the relentless whirlwind of war spurred to a tempest by shifting gears of change.

There was no time

No time, at least, for love—the ultimate law she’d forgotten.  Swept up in Aymeric’s fond caress, she’d ignored her own cardinal rule: There was no time for passing fancy, crimson or azure.

Time only for unwavering focus—for journeys through the frozen wilds of Coerthas, to hone her skills and temper her appetite.  Time only for fevered travel, breathless and aethersick, tended by a fraught and fretting Alphinaud.  Time alone in slumber, lured to sleep by thoughts of a Lord Commander’s careful lips, haunted in dreams by the abyss of a somber, smoldering, midnight stare.

Somewhere within that rushing tide of time, ever spinning … for all that was lost, there was yet something found.  Duty.  Determination.  Hope, fresh and flickering, stoked by the passion of her friends, steeled in the salvaged patchwork of her heart.

And so she took her place by Aymeric’s side, to rally Ishgard in the Grand Melee.  She savored the vigor of her companions—the thrill of battle in Raubahn’s eyes—the pride that swelled in Aymeric’s expression as he beheld her.  They returned to the capital wreathed in frost and sweat—merry, laughing, filled with the elation of victory.

In that instant, in that moment, in that fragment of time, she knew that she was where she belonged.

Would that one moment could last forever.

 



  

After their warm reception, she departed for the Manor Fortemps, craving a bath, her blood still hot and singing in her veins.  To emerge victorious from battle was a reward in itself.  But to have given Aymeric such joy, such pleasure … And the way his eyes had brimmed with admiration— 

Gods. 

It was as though her heart would never ache again.

“My dear friendI doubt I will ever be able to thank you enough.”

She was still humid from the washroom when the knock sounded at her door.  Samantha hastily wrapped herself in a dressing gown and made to answer, padding wet, bare feet across the room.  “My lady,” came a maidservant’s muffled voice.  “This letter just arrived for you.”

“I’m not dressed,” Samantha warned, tugging the front of her robe closed and yanking the sash tight around her waist.  She opened the door, peeking nervously down the hall.

Her pretty attendant laughed—fiery hair, eyes bright as the sky.  Antoinette, that was her name.  “I am come alone,” the girl assured her, smiling slightly.  “Count Edmont and the young lords are in the study.”

Samantha breathed a sigh of relief.  “Thank you, Antoinette,” she said, accepting the offered note from her tray.

The attendant smiled again, curtsied, and left.  Samantha closed the door and flipped the square of paper over in her hand. 

Ultramarine wax. 

Her heart began to stammer. 

As she broke the seal, trembling fingers brushed the pebbled texture of the decorative A—and struggled, somehow, to unfold the letter.

His neat calligraphy was cramped into a scrawl, perhaps rushed:

- - - - - - - - - -

Samantha,

An avenue occurred to me that might hasten my thanks.

Come to me tonight, past the ninth bell.  I will be waiting.

Your loyal debtor,
Aymeric

- - - - - - - - - -

She felt humid now in a way that had nothing to do with the bath. 

Samantha moved in a haze to the foot of her bed, sinking down slowly on the edge.  Her heart fluttered against the cage of her ribs.

I certainly made my intentions known …

But the thought of fulfilling them sent a shiver down her spine.  Was she truly ready, for the time that would inevitably come?  For the time he would invite her to finish what she started, and dare to cross whatever lines remained unbroken between them?

Would that time come tonight?

Time.

Always stolen, always slipping from her grasp.

 



 

The steward of the Manor Borel took her cloak and fleeces and brusquely stowed them away, leaving her standing alone in the chilly foyer.  She smoothed the bell sleeves of her heavy indigo gown and braced herself.

I will be waiting, he had promised.

“My lord is finalizing some materials for the Conference,” the steward supplied, returning to her sight.  “Will you accompany me to the parlor?  He expects to be finished quite shortly.”

She politely accepted, following the Borel steward to the familiar, cozy, dark-upholstered room.  Anxious, she traced her eyes along the tome-crammed bookshelves built into the walls; followed the elegant geometry in the rugs that cushioned the floor.  The steward began to busy himself with the hearth, and she darted over to help him, eager for any occupation whatsoever.  “Allow me,” she insisted, leaning over to help arrange the firewood.

He unbent himself and glanced at her in curiosity, lifting his hoary eyebrows.  It was clear that she was not to be gainsaid.  “As you wish,” he granted, conceding the duty to her.

When she was satisfied with the kindling, she inhaled through her nose, fixed on the hollow sensation of aether in her stomach.  The astral aspect was close to her today, sparkling, empowered—stirred by the Melee, hungry for more.  As the base of her spine began to pulse heat like an ember, she plunged her right hand into the hearth and called forth a thin plume of fire, bidding it manifest in the center.

The firewood burst gently into flame.  Behind her, the steward made a sound of grave approval.  Samantha exhaled, releasing her focus—her breath hot on her lips—then inhaled again to transpose the element.  Frost was beginning to tickle through her veins when she heard another voice.

It was the charming sound of Aymeric’s laughter, thick with enjoyment.  “The Hero of Eorzea, stoking the flames of my hearth,” he said.  “A rare delight indeed."

She pursed her lips.  Had he meant to spin a double entendre?  The steward made a hasty exit as she lifted her eyes to Aymeric’s, lifting one stern brow.  “I assume you refer to the fireplace.”

The doors to the parlor swung shut behind her host’s back.  He wore a shirt of sky-blue linen and muted grey trousers, covered by his fur-lined housecoat.  Even dressed in the simplest attire, he was heavenly.

Aymeric laughed again and took one step forward, pinning her with a dazzling, pale blue stare.  “Perhaps,” he teased gently, the tips of his long ears blushing dusky pink regardless.

She tried to contain a sudden, hysterical giggle.  She felt feather-light, almost giddy, as she looked at him through her lashes.  “Are you flirting with me, Ser Aymeric?”

He edged closer, private laughter reflected in his eyes.  “Conceivably,” he murmured, extending one hand.  “Have I employed myself correctly?”

The laugh broke free in a bark from her lips, and she slipped her right palm against his, squeezing the formidable frame of his fingers.  “If your goal was my shock and amusement, yes,” she said, her voice threatening to go breathless.  Chaste as it was, somehow merely the touch of his hand set her alight.

His eyes widened with awe, distracted.  “Your skin is still warmed by the spell,” he observed, glancing at their joined fingers.

“Yes,” she said.  She dared to stroke her thumb along the underside of his wrist.  His skin there was silken.  “You did interrupt my transposition.”

Aymeric’s eyes flicked back to hers, and he visibly trembled before collecting himself.  “I do apologize.”  Then he lifted her hand to his mouth, bidding her to shiver; brushed soft, warm lips just along her knuckles.  As he lowered her hand, his piercing eyes roved her face, and his lips parted for a shallow breath.  “That I dared to imagine this divine astral enchantress, standing champion for Ishgard at my side.”  Then, even softer.  “And yet it is truth—and yet, this day, it has happened.”

She was dizzy, unsteady.  It took every onze of her willpower to hold his gaze.  “I would champion your Ishgard again and again,” she said hotly.  Simply for the chance to fight alongside you.

Gods.  No.  She would do it simply for the warmth in his eyes. 

He could melt her heart twelve thousand times over. 

“Come,” he implored.  “There is something I would show you.”

He led her back out of the parlor, back down through the hallway.  Dim candles flickered in sconces along the modestly decorated walls, glowing softly in the deepening darkness.  Craving his nearness, she looped their arms together and moved as close to him as she was able.  They crossed back through the foyer, to a side of the Manor she’d never been before.  “Where are you taking me?”

Aymeric twined his fingers firmly with hers, strong and unbearably gentle.  He leaned down to smooth his lips against her temple.  “All good things come in time,” he hummed, quite unhelpful.  She could feel him smiling, but before she could will herself to do or say something clever, he was turning them down another path.

They passed a staircase winding up and up—another spacious, welcoming parlor—an entrance to the kitchen, dim-lit dining room, and study.  And then through a door, and then up some steps, and then to a small windowed room lit by a single flickering lamp.  It was filled with the smell of fragrant earth, and—

Her breath caught.

Flowers.

She stumbled to a standstill on the tiled floor, clutching his hand for balance.  All along the windowsills sat plants in pots and boxes, a small and unpretentious collection, lovingly tucked away from the cold.  “Aymeric,” she breathed, turning, awestruck, to face him.

The tenderness in his eyes was almost too much.  “It formerly belonged to my mother,” he explained.  “I have done my best to maintain it using the meager skills in my repertoire.  However, certain sources inform me that you possess quite the green thumb,” he said gently.

She was scanning her eyes across the small assembly of growing things—recognized aloe and ivy, mint and begonia.  There sat a lush dwarf lemon tree; there, a sweet-perfumed gardenia.  “Your sources were correct,” she said, still stunned, looking back up into his eyes.  A fresh swell of fondness brimmed in her chest. 

He raised his eyebrows, a smile tempting his lips.  “Look there,” he gestured, using his free hand.  “And pray tell me—is it not to your liking?”

She followed the line of his arm.  Propped up on a stand in the corner was a blossoming miniature rose, its petals a sunburst of peach, pink, and yellow.

Her heart leapt up into her throat.  Every thought turned to smoke. 

She tried to swallow, to breathe, to conjure anything to say.  “How—did you—”

“It came to my attention that roses are your particular favorite,” he provided, feigning indifference.  But she could hear the thrill of excitement crouched low in his voice; tentative triumph strung tight like a bowstring.  His words spilled out in a rush.  “I procured and tended this specimen in the hopes of coaxing it to bloom for you, before presenting it as a gift.  It seems that during the Melee—”

Her heart was pounding, the rush of her blood a deafening current.  There was no room for thought or contemplation, only the need to rake him into her arms and press her face tight against his neck.  His name on her lips was shallow, full of breath.

Somehow, it was the most beautiful thing.

It was the most beautiful thing that anyone had ever done.

His arms folded to hold her against his lithe frame, his mouth coming to rest on the crown of her head.  His voice was shallow, too.  “I take it—you are pleased?”

She inhaled sharply, making sound; felt blood rush up her neck to heat her cheeks.  “No one’s ever—” She cleared her throat.  “Done anything—more beautiful.”

That made him shudder with a chuckle.  She could feel the warmth of his breath ruffle her hair.  “You flatter me,” he said gently, hugging her closer.  “But it is yours.  You may take it home with you tonight, or come for it in the morning, if you wish.  Whichever is the lesser inconvenience.”

She leaned back against the sturdy support of his arms to stare up into his glorious face.

In the lamplight, beneath the dark fringe of his lashes, the colors of his eyes were molten silver and ice—infinite and abiding as the snowfall outside.

Somehow, she wanted to cry.

I love you.

Breathless, she lifted her chin.  He bent down to meet her with his lips.

And then all she knew was the touch of his mouth—the grip of his arms—the solid, yielding pressure of his body.  There was the smell of petals, of candles, of the faintest sigh of sweat on her skin.  And there was the rich, heady taste of yearning on his tongue.

Aymeric closed his eyes, panting a breath.  “How do I describe this feeling?”

“Please,” she begged, fingers tensed on his shoulders.  “Try.”

The eyes he opened were filled with aching; the words he spoke were hot, held low in his chest.  “You are in everything,” he said, kissing her cheek.  “Morning’s light.  The shadows of sunset.”  He dragged his lips to her neck.  “Every drift of snowfall.  Every spark of flame.”  He trembled.  “I think of you always,” he whispered.  “How can you come to be mine?

She combed her fingers through his rook-black hair, short and silken; pressed reverent lips to his forehead.  Nothing felt real anymore.  “As you are mine,” she sighed in supplication.  “I am yours.”

He shuddered again, his hands pressing her close.  His lips caressed her neck.  “Tell me—” The words caught in his throat.  He took another breath.  She could feel the warmth of it, delicate as a feather.  “Tell me again.”

Tightness swelled in her chest as thin tears slipped from her eyes.  Her mouth found his cheek, his chin, his lips.  Her words barely held sound, a breathless, faltering prayer.  “I am yours,” she whispered to his kiss.  “I am yours.”

His hands came to touch both sides of her face.  Their eyes locked together, soft and searching, something fragile between them. 

His fingers trembled.

“And as you are mine,” he repeated, the softest exhalation.  “So am I yours.” 

 



 

Chapter Text


Largely a novelization of relevant Dragonsong MSQ events:
“For Those We Can Yet Save,” “Causes and Costs,” “The Man Within,” and “An Ally for Ishgard.”


 ✦

 

Massive and spectacular, the white dragoness Vidofnir came to alight on the platform.  Aymeric bid the daughter of Hraesvelgr his finest greeting.  When she spoke, her voice echoed less through the air spread between them; more steepled somewhere deep in the confines of his mind. 

There they stood, man and dragon, descendants of the sires of this wretched conflict.

He steeled himself to bid the assemblage to hearken, spurred by an echo of words he spoke before.

To her.  To Samantha.  To his steadfast Champion of Ishgard.

There is power in what we say … and I am not keen to misuse it.

“Since the days of eld,” he began, strong and resolute, casting his voice across the crowd, “When the bonds betwixt man and dragon were sundered by our hand, our peoples have known only war.”  He turned to face his audience with solemn, searching eyes.  “Bloodshed without end, losses beyond counting—and still we fought.”  His voice dropped a measure softer.  “And still we fought.”  A pause, billowing wide to fill the silence; drifting aloft from the depths of his heart.  “Some wounds do not heal,” he acknowledged.  “The dead cannot be returned to us.  But we the living can yet choose another course.  Here and now, we can lay down this burden—this hatred, this vengeance.”  Vigor swelled in tempered might to fill his words, to drive them heavensward.  “Our forebears fought not so that we could die, but that we might live!  So let us honor their sacrifice and spare our children this death sentence.  Let us gift them a new legacy.  Life!”

Vidofnir’s staggering response echoed like soft, simmering shadows.  “Betwixt our peoples yawneth a divide deeper than the deepest abyss; wider than the widest sea.”  The dusk-red pits of her eyes glittered down at him like burning sunsets, twin chasms of knowledge, both ancient and damning.  “Generations will live and die ere this divide is bridged.  Knowing this, doth thy heart yet yearn for peace, son of Thordan?”

Aymeric closed his eyes against her magnum opus of a question; opened them to regard her with unfaltering resolution.  “Look now on the legacy we would leave to our children,” he declared, daring to allow a smile to his lips.  “A dream of peace, inscribed in stone for generations to come.”

He turned on his heel; lifted his right hand.  And thus, the stonework was revealed.

The crowd gasped in astonishment.  The dragoness turned to gaze upon the image; spoke in that uncanny voice, gone soft and mild with wonder.  “Father and his beloved, as they were so long ago.  Happy and at peace.”  Her eyes shifted back to Aymeric’s, resplendent with emotion.  “The dream they shared shall be ours once more.”

Never!

The outburst shocked the applauding crowd to silence, rousing murmurs of confusion.  But Aymeric—Aymeric had fast discerned the source.

His heart plummeted low, with speed to rival the crimson-stained dragoon—with force to challenge the plunge of his accursed weapon.  Vidofnir thundered and writhed in agony, her heart’s blood spurting to taint their nascent monument to hope.

Estinien.

There was no time for contemplation—only action.  “Your bow,” he commanded, taking the weapon of his nearest attendant.

The dragoness thrashed and struggled, and the shade of Estinien drove his weapon deep.  Vidofnir arced to the sky in a final cry of anguish, slumping down onto the platform.

Aymeric took brutal, deliberate aim at the shape of his wretched friend, the sinews in his body drawn tighter than the bowstring.

Estinien only watched him.

The loosed arrow flew true.  The bloodied dragoon merely lifted his right arm, spread his palm wide to receive it, and—the arrow—it connected and vanished in a mist of glittering embers, blood, and smoke.

There on his forearm an eye of Nidhogg was bound, lashed to his limb by a bruised, pulsing tangle of veins and flesh—the other, merged at the cusp of his left shoulder.  A web of corrupted aether swirled to consume Estinien’s stolen body, a dark crimson blur of thick, polluted essence.  As he stood upon the back of his quarry, his poisonous miasma took the shape of heavy wisps; a suffocating mist, dusk-dark and creeping, oily as smoke.

The eyes.

Both turned to fix on Aymeric as Estinien, too, tilted back his chin to gaze at him.

Swollen vessels crept up past his lips, up his cheekbones; stretched up to find his eyes, making them bleed with inhuman light.  He leapt with staggering grace to find a fresh vantage point, and the echoing snarl of his voice swelled, deafening, over the crowd.

“Child of Dravania!” he roared.  “Art thou grown so forgetful that thou wouldst forsake kith and kin, and consort with the spawn of Thordan?”  As Estinien spat and growled, something otherworldly echoed in the gravelly depths of his voice.  Something twisted.  “That thou wouldst dare contemplate peace!”

Beneath the lip of his visor, he fixed the audience with a withering glare.  “Hearken unto me, all of you!  The final chorus is nigh, and all will be held to account!  All will bathe in the flames of retribution!”

A bitter chill itched down Aymeric’s spine.  He heard brisk footsteps on the platform behind him—felt the arrival of a tense and steady presence—breathed the faintest fragrance of roses.

“Till the coming of that day,” Estinien cried, “Look you on your sins and despair!  For none shall ‘scape my wrath!”  The sickening discord of his voice rose on the final refrain.  “None shall ‘scape my revenge!”

And then, before their very eyes, the body of Estinien rose into the sky, and the shade of Nidhogg burst forth—the full, colossal form of the wyrm incarnate, wreathed in a plume of ash and cinders.

He soared far out on the Coerthan horizon, and the crowd began to clamor, to shout …

Aymeric turned his eyes from Vidofnir’s fallen body, to the lingering trail of smoke in the sky.

An oath fell, without sound, from his lips.

 



 

As Falcon’s Nest emptied, an uneasy, unsteady Samantha searched the dwindling crowd for the slight shape of Alphinaud.

Aymeric was gone.  After the nauseating climax of the Conference, he rushed fast to consult with Lucia and his Knights—but not before grasping her elbow and dragging her close, to press his covert thanks to her ear.  “Full glad was I to find you beside me.”

Nothing felt real.  Nothing, nothing.

Finally, her anxious eyes discovered a very pensive Leveilleur. 

“There they go,” he muttered, blank and defeated, watching her approach.  “The last of the guests.”  His expression was dark.  “Having come hither with hope in their hearts, they depart with hatred and bloodlust.”

He lifted a distant stare to meet her—took a sharp, shallow breath.  "Until the moment I saw him strike, I still held some small hope that what you had seen in Azys Lla was ... an illusion, perhaps.  But he acted without hesitation ... as did Ser Aymeric."

As Alphinaud continued, his eyes turned to the ground.  “For a mercy, Vidofnir’s wound was not mortal, or so Lucia tells me.  The dragon was spirited away to Anyx Trine to receive care from her brethren.”  He lowered his voice to a soft and earnest appeal.  “We can but hope her recovery is swift.”  Then he lifted his eyes back to hers, a fire burning within them.  “But such was surely Nidhogg’s intent,” he muttered, his gaze fierce and probing.  “To deliver a proclamation not only to the children of Thordan, but to his kindred.  ‘War is coming, and ye who do not stand with us stand apart.’” 

He paused, seeming to consider the heft of his next words. 

“She was an example,” he stated, the unadorned truth.  “A message to her brood.  Another instrument of his vengeance … like Estinien.”

The name pierced her heart; speared her through like a lance itself. 

It was his name, spoken aloud on Alphinaud’s lips—his name that suddenly sharpened the reality, honed it to a point—threatened to shatter her fast into a thousand umbral shards.

Estinien

He yet lived.  In shape if not in spirit.

But as her vision swam back into focus—as she looked back down into Alphinaud’s eyes—it was again his agony, not her own, that crept to fill the coldest pit of her heart.  She bit back the urge to sob, to shout, and reached instead to take his shoulders—to pull him into a firm embrace.

His arms grasped for purchase and it was Alphinaud who wept, silently against her.  Then the tears broke free from her eyes, and she struggled to breathe—struggled to cling to the ruins of her composure.

For one eternal moment, they clung tight together.

When they finally parted, her face was wet.  She wiped her nose on her shoulder and turned back to bloodshot sapphire eyes nonetheless steeled with resolve.  “When I said I wished to speak with you after the conference,” Alphinaud muttered, “I confess I envisaged rather happier circumstances.  If anything, however, this latest tragedy makes the need more pressing.”  He daubed his face dry with the back of his hand and stood a bit straighter.  “There are things I must say.  Not to the Warrior of Light, or even my fellow Scion, but ... to you, Samantha.  My friend.”

And so they left for the intercessory in Camp Dragonhead.  They shared a hot drink and faced bitter eyes toward the dark truth.  Haurchefant.  Ysayle

Estinien.

Alphinaud waxed on his musings about the meaning of it all.  Why we fight … and why we die.

And to her, he presented his answer—a riposte to fit the figure he had grown to become.  “I do not want to be a man who sacrifices his friends and family for a cause,” he declared.  “I want to fight for Estinien—and I want to save him.”

Samantha’s heart fluttered.

“When Nidhogg leads the Horde into battle,” Alphinaud continued, his voice strong and certain, “Ser Aymeric and his forces will do what they believe must be done.  That is their choice to make.  Yet even if Ser Aymeric is willing to forsake Estinien, I am not.”  He set his jaw.  “We must fight for him, for he is our friend and ally.  We may struggle, we may fail, but we must try.”

Her mind’s eye was drifting; recapitulating the whole of their time together.  She envisioned moments in the Mists—campfires and comradery—the smile on dear Haurchefant’s lips …

She spoke the words without thinking.  “We will find a way to save him.”

And Alphinaud, his fervor complete.  “We will.  I know we will.”

 


"Such is the infectious power of hope."


 

Together, Estinien’s champions sought consultation with Y’shtola and Krile.

Samantha was given another flickering fragment of anticipation—that perhaps his essence was all but smothered—that perhaps some small wisp of his will yet remained, submerged though it was in the limitless sea of Nidhogg’s rage.

He yet lives. 

In shape and desperately lingering spirit.

Silently, swiftly, the void in her heart swore an oath.  He will never be abandoned.

And yet, how could she dare to have hope?

There was so much uncertainty.  There always was.  Could his soul be excised from Nidhogg without tearing it asunder?  Was separation plausible at all?  Would the wyrm merely possess his deliverer, rendering their efforts for naught?

But Alphinaud—dear Alphinaud—was filled with such vigor.  His impassioned words brought the prickling sting of tears back to her eyes.  And afterward, Krile bid her to listen, her words tense with apprehension.  “Alphinaud is allowing his feelings for this dragoon to cloud his thoughts,” she said, stern and quiet.  “I worry he may do something rash.  Keep an eye on him, would you?”

Samantha almost laughed.  Alphinaud wasn’t alone.

But not one save herself—and now Aymeric—knew of her dalliance with their taciturn ally.  Krile could never have presumed that she directed her plea to one so strongly, and similarly, afflicted.

And while he yet lives … 

What had Alphinaud said?

“I will tear those foul orbs from Estinien’s armor and trust in the resilience of his soul—even at the risk of mine own!”

Yes.

So too would she—and apply the rest of her power besides.

 



 

Blood rushing with hopes newly kindled, Samantha and Alphinaud returned to the Congregation of our Knights Most Heavenly.

Aymeric had no news of Nidhogg or Estinien—instead an appeal of his own.  “I will speak plain,” he declared.  “Now that Nidhogg is possessed of both of his eyes, no mortal force we can muster will repel him.”  He paused, carefully considering his next words.  “That being the case, we must needs recruit an ally of equal strength.”

Alphinaud was shocked.  “You speak of Hraesvelgr.

“I do,” Aymeric confirmed.  “To whom else could we turn?”

For the first time this night, Alphinaud faltered.  “That he is Nidhogg’s equal I do not deny.  Nor can I name another.  But convincing the reclusive creature to do battle with his own brood-brother will be … How shall I put this?”

“It will be no small undertaking, yes,” Aymeric concluded, lowering his eyes.  “Estinien’s report was—most particular about Hraesvelgr’s unwillingness to involve himself in the affairs of men.”

Aymeric closed his eyes, his expression tense.  “But much has changed since your visit to Sohm Al, and if there is even a chance that the dragon may be swayed, I must plead our case.”  His voice grew coarse.  “Whatever price the dragon asks of me, I shall pay it—such was my oath to defend the people of Ishgard.”

He lifted his chin to face them again, solemn and absolute.  “Come what may, my friends, the battle with Nidhogg will mark the end of my tenure as the acting head of church and state.”  His gaze drifted between the two of them, staring deep into their eyes.  “Will you help me discharge this final duty?”

Alphinaud steeled himself.  He turned to face Samantha, who struggled to drag herself away from Aymeric’s fathomless stare.  Wordlessly, she nodded.

“We will, my lord,” Alphinaud offered.  “Though I fear our involvement offers no guarantee of success.”  He took a quick breath.  “Come then—we will depart at your leisure.”

Aymeric’s voice softened with relief, calm and quiet.  “Thank you,” he said gently.  “Both of you.”

He turned to Lucia.  “The city is yours, First Commander.”

She saluted gravely.  “My lord.  We shall pray for your swift return.”

The three of them took their leave, and outside in the main room of the Congregation, it was decided.

First to prepare.  Then they would away to Anyx Trine, in the Dravanian Forelands.

Vidofnir was waiting; Hraesvelgr beyond—an ally for Ishgard, slumbering in the Mists.

 



Chapter Text

 



 

Young master Leveilleur bowed politely and crossed the threshold of the Congregation, exiting into the night.  Ruddy-cheeked, he bent to brace his small frame against the biting snow, long wisps of his white hair coming loose.

From his post by the door, Aymeric watched Alphinaud depart with a soft, nostalgic affection, reminded somehow very strongly of himself.  He turned back to find Samantha close by, collecting her effects.  Preparing to follow, she lifted deft hands to fasten her Ishgardian cloak; settled the drape of it down to cover her long ruffled skirts, her sleek-fitted tailcoat.

The hall that sheltered them was not empty.  Knights performed duties.  Attendants stood guard, still and silent nearby.

But as he watched her lift and strap her feathered staff to her back, Ser Aymeric could think only of tasting her lips, stern though they were from the day’s twists and expeditions—envisioned his mouth against the flushed and glowing skin of her neck—dreamt of kissing the fringe of her long, dark lashes, thick with what could only be the salt of dried tears—

His brow tensed.  Subtly, he sank back against the obliging doorframe, deeply self-conscious—aware of the way his gaze lingered; burned scalding paths along her body.

What had incited this fervor, this thirst?  This swift and gripping need to possess?

His memory summoned to mind the Conference, every muscle in his body tensed on high alert.  There he stood, against that vindictive mockery of Estinien.  And then he recalled the faint, sweet scent of roses, rising to meet him as she too climbed the platform—facing the bloodstained dragoon despite her prospective wounds, standing sentry by his side.

Then there was the memory of gentle, callused fingers, combing through his hair; her soft and reverent lips pressed warm on his brow.  Her sigh was the holiest orison, her words consecrated and divine.

“As you are mine, I am yours.”

His blood pulsed a chant: She is mine, she is mine.  And as he watched her wrap a scarf around her chin, he could think only of the need to tug it down—to drink—to hold her, caress her, to press skin to skin—to drag his hungry and worshipful mouth to every hallowed place, and release her, release him, release them from sin.

By the Fury.

His heart throbbed and stuttered, his knees going weak.

I—

He pressed back the hair from his forehead, made a low sound in his throat.

There is power in what we say; but more, perhaps, in doing.  And by his estimation, the ritual stirring within him was among the most solemn of vows—an ancient invocation—a sacrament with authority well beyond comprehension.

His brow knitted under the weight of his thoughts.  But before he could ponder them further, the scent of faded smoke and roses teased his senses, eroding him, whittling him to the quick.  He could feel the heat of her body as she swept up very close, hovering by the door; reaching beside him to fetch her pointed hat.

After a day of dry diplomacy and dismal decorum, the urgings of his blood were heady, effervescent, settling somewhere high in his chest—coiling somewhere low in his stomach.

The hall was far from empty.  But his fingers twitched with the impulse to touch her, his restraint wearing thin.

Her skirts and trappings rustled as she poised on the threshold, flakes of fresh snow dusted like stars in her hair.  “Goodnight, Ser Aymeric,” she said, all business, all civility.  She held the brim of her hat like an aegis, her dark eyes searching his face.  “Rest well.”

His lips parted.  His hand flexed in the fingerless sheath of his glove.

And then somehow his thumb was stroking her bare knuckles—his palm smoothed around the frame of her wrist.  The urge to move closer drowned out all thought.  He pressed his lips by her temple and breathed his wicked wish.  “Stay.”

She stiffened, her voice an exhalation.  “Stay?”

“At the Manor Borel.”  The words spilled out, breathless.  “Stay with me tonight.”

She swayed, unsteady. 

His heart raced at her silence—at the gnawing, building ache in his veins.  Then he felt her whisper warm the length of his ear. 

Fury.

“First let me return to the House.  But then—” He heard the hitch in her throat.  “Then I will come to you.”

He trembled.  The hand that held her crept to find her palm; to press their fingers briefly together.  “I will be waiting.”

She squeezed his hand; stepped back to look into his eyes.  A surge of emotions ghosted her expression. 

Then she fitted on her hat and turned into the cold, disappearing in the snowdrift—a predilection, a prayer, a promise.

 



Chapter Text



 

She couldn’t catch her breath.

Not while she looked in Aymeric’s eyes.  They were the color of ice, but somehow burned hotter than fire.  And there was no breath to be found in the wind—not as she picked her way back through the Pillars, brisk flurries whirling all around.  At the Fortemps entrance, she stamped the snow from her boots and opened the door with tense hands.  Her pulse beat a ragged march.

“Samantha.”  A very tired greeting—Alphinaud’s voice.  He was hanging his cloak to dry nearby.  She shed her own mantle and strode to meet him, finding an obliging peg. 

His form beside her was small and downcast.  She leveraged a cautious glance at him, afraid to discover more pain—but for a meager consolation, all signs of discomfort were muted by exhaustion.  “By the gods, Alphinaud,” she thoughtlessly pled, hastily unwrapping her scarf; hooking it there with her shroud.  “Go draw yourself a bath and get to bed.

A sad smile tickled his lips.  He pushed back tufts of windswept hair and met her eyes.  “I doubt sleep will find me tonight,” he confessed, slowly pulling the tie from his long braid, beginning to unweave it from the bottom.  “But a bath is undeniably essential.”

She pressed a hand on his shoulder.  His blue eyes widened, and she felt her heart swell with something fierce and protective.  “Your words today were essential,” she told him, suddenly needing him to know how vital he had been.  “They—gave me hope again.”  Where I dared none.

A faint blush colored his cheeks before he quietly coughed, a shallow dimple pricked near his lips.  “I am glad for your support,” he muttered.  Then he averted his eyes.  “However, I fear our fellow Scions remain in want of further convincing.”

“And, gods willing,” she added, fixing him with a stern, severe stare.  “There will be time for that.”

His mouth pressed into a line.  “Gods willing,” he echoed soberly.  His eyes flicked back up to hers, searching for something.  Anything.

She squeezed his shoulder.  “You spoke bravely, my dear Leveilleur,” she said gently.  “Now you deserve to rest.”

Mollified, he tilted his head in solemn acquiescence.  “Thank you, Samantha.”  He reached up to pat her hand.  “Be certain you rest as well.”

Rest.

Her heart stammered, suddenly unnerved.

Where would she be resting this night?

A rush of blood warmed her face and she nodded, forcing a smile to her lips.  “I'll do my best.”  Then she turned on her heel and up the stairs to her room, to follow at least half of her own advice.

 



 

Chill wind whipped through his hair as he walked back to his manor, scattering the icy kiss of snowflakes across his brow.

Beneath his skin raced blood hot as a forge and a crucible heart that compelled him, move quickly.  He glanced up at the sky.  The solemn veil of evening was spread, studded with stars; patient pinpricks of light, ever abiding.

So, too, would he wait—for relief, for absolution—a show of resolve to mask the wild abandon his veins.

His own sharp exhale clouded white against the wind, and he chuckled.

This loss of control was certainly unbecoming.

It would not do.

At home, he drew a hot bath—tried to be soothed, to somehow compose himself.  But every nerve in his body itched with need and impatience.  The water was only a wicked caress, bidding him nearer to sin.  Further serenity fled; faster flew his iniquitous pulse.

No

It would not do at all.

 



 

She soaked awhile to warm her heavy bones; scrubbed the bitter day from her skin.  Her sweat, Nidhogg’s cinders, the paths of tears on her face—salt and ash, blood and dirt; all of it mingled in one thin cloud of grit.  And like a blow to the gut, her thoughts soared on frayed wings to ill-starred Estinien. 

Star-crossed, star scorned; he was celestial opposition, an occultation—a retrograde planet seen through the night, rising at sunset—but too lost, somehow, to be found.  She closed her eyes and permitted more tears; breathed a prayer to the lingering mist. 

Anything, anything, to ease the web of shadow on her heart—if for nothing else than the paladin waiting in the dark.  Aymeric; an astral flame that glittered, a bright blue comet trailing stardust.  Aymeric, a dazzling cosmic eclipse—an earthly star with brilliance beyond all description.

Her wayward heart thrilled and tremored as she dried herself to dress.

Still she felt daunted.  Unworthy. 

When did she become this person?  Meek, shy, and shivering; helplessly pinned beneath the weight of an ice blue stare?

Gods. 

She supposed she always had been, when it came to him.  Especially now, with reserve in the wind—but what assumptions, exactly, could be made?  Perhaps he merely wished for her presence, nothing more.

What was it he had said? 

“Stay with me tonight.” 

Something hot spread through her veins; spiked low in her spine.  The implication felt clear, heavy and ripe—but she wondered.  Just what would happen? 

And she was ill-prepared.  For once, she craved lace, but had no frothy bralettes—no gossamer skirts or skivvies.  Hand trembling, she picked a thin silk chemise; smoothed the ink-colored sleekness over her hips.  Next, an underdress with thick-buttoned bodice, long sleeved against the cold.  Finally, the overgown, sewn with whorls of dusky beads, lining the fastenings at her chest.

She turned to survey her reflection.  Was it overmuch?  The layers were heavy, practical for the snow—but openly hugged her right where she curved.  She combed her fingers through her long, dark hair, allowing it to tumble in waves down her shoulders, and for a fierce, fleeting moment, she admired herself, her dark eyes flashing.

Then she dragged a pair of stockings up her thighs and strapped back on her boots, her gaze catching on the glint of sunset blossoms by the window.  She moved over to the stand that housed Aymeric’s gift; clipped a full bloom from its branch—and before she left her room, she pinned it in her hair.

 



 

Chapter Text



 

Snowflakes whirled in the hair around her face, unrestrained by a petasos for once.  She checked to make sure his rose was still in place.  Then she scaled the stoop to the door and lifted one gloved hand.  Her fingers were visibly shaking.  She balled them into a fist and huffed a breath.

Calm down. 

Was this not exactly what she wanted?  An excuse for distraction, for nearness to him.  Perhaps even more.  And if nothing else—she might at last reveal how strongly she felt— 

Her chest wound up tight.  Her pulse began to race like she was fighting for her life.  The urge to flee crowded her bones and she frowned hard against it—bore her heels into the doorstep.

No. 

I will not run from this. 

This was love; perhaps real love.  Finally—finally—here in her grasp.

She closed her eyes.  Unclenched her fist.  Summoned every onze of her willpower and asked herself a question.  … Should she ring the bell or knock?  It was late; she didn’t want to wake the household—and again, he should be waiting.  Knocker it was, then.  She lifted the ring of heavy, engraved metal and let it fall once, twice—

The door swung open.  It gave way so quickly she nearly fell.  A reflex of hot aether curled in her belly and she gripped the side of the doorframe, dug the toes of her boots into the stonework—tried to remember to breathe.  He must have been waiting nearby

Then she made the mistake of looking up.

In an instant, her heart was in her throat; her pulse a chorus in her ears.  Framed in the lamplight, Aymeric stood in the entryway to meet her, tall and impressive—the effigy enshrined in her heart, come vividly to life.

Still regaining her balance, she had no way of knowing how, in that moment, his words tangled.  She only noted the measure of silence as his gaze caught hers—so pale, soft, and hungry.  It took her breath away to see him look at her like that; like a famished thing that might easily swallow her whole.

He was dressed in his housecoat and a long, buttoned robe.  The closure dipped low, exposing the base of his alabaster throat; she was desperate to taste it.  She gulped her heart down from where it choked her; wet her lips; willed any semblance of composure.  “May I come in?”  Her ears were ringing.  She was dizzyingly happy when her voice didn’t crack.

Her host’s eyes widened by the smallest of margins and he seemed to collect himself—to remember where he stood.  Aymeric stepped rearward on his heels, back into the foyer, extending one arm invitingly inside.  “I beg of you, yes.”  He lowered his chin to watch her through long black lashes. 

Her heart was sprinting again as she crossed the threshold, chased by a flurry of snow and the rustle of heavy skirts.  He seemed to fill the entrance as she passed.  When he moved to seal the door shut behind her, he trailed his clean, alluring scent in his wake—and the room instantly threatened to spin.  Every shred of moisture evaporated from her mouth.  She tried to focus on the cloak rack; tugged off her gloves and pocketed them.  How could he constantly have this effect?  What in seven bloody hells was wrong with her? 

She loosened her scarf with fumbling fingers; moved to unfasten her cloak—

Aymeric was suddenly pressed full behind her, his wide palms steering her knuckles before the words even fell from his lips.  “Allow me.”  Then his hands dipped down to open her catches.  He eased her closer against him, and her mouth became a desert.

He was tall and warm and solid and, gods, downright tempting at her spine.  He was a spark and she an ember he kindled.  Her knees began to buckle.  She tried not to think of it; of the heat of him she could feel even through her swaddling Coerthan layers.  But her breath came fast and shallow as he gathered the cloak from her shoulders; used the gentlest touch to nudge the fleece along with it. 

She imagined what it might be like to help him undress; revealing whisper after whisper of his skin—and then his careful hands brushed the nape of her neck, collecting the lapels there.  He slipped her wrappings free and leaned forward to hang them up, bending tight at her backbone.

Gods in bleeding heaven

Her face, still numb and tingling from the cold, burned with a rush of hot blood; blood that then hurried decidedly further south.  Had he any idea the effect of these ministrations?  Her legs were shaky, moments from liquefication—her thoughts were completely in tatters.  She was lost in the weight of his chest on her shoulders.

She was sick of thinking, sick of doubting; sick with this quicksand of torment.  He dropped back on his heels and she followed, sinking against him.  His hands caught her; he gripped her tight.  “Samantha?”

She tilted her head to find his throat, seeking his skin with the barest brush of her lips.  Good gods she wanted to taste him again. 

Without any hesitation, his arms folded at her waist.  The space between them was gone and he took a sharp breath; brushed an answering mouth to her brow, along a trail to her ear.  “I chilled a bottle of wine,” he said, his voice obligingly hoarse. 

Something thrilled inside her to know he was affected, too.  “Let’s please share a glass.”

He shivered.  His grasp tightened around her stomach.  “Yes,” he breathed.  Then he craned his neck to press a kiss to the edge of her lips, to the space just below them—

She took a breath of her own—then twisted to capture his mouth in hers.  The ache that spread between her legs was shocking, blazing as aether.  A soft, silken murmur purred in his chest, and he parted her lips to kiss her more deeply.  His tongue was still sweeter than anything else she could imagine.

Too soon, he made a grunt of halfhearted protest and broke away.  “Come.”  He disentangled her from his arms; clasped her hand and twined their fingers firmly together.  His breath tickled her temple.  She could feel his mouth curve with the slightest of grins.  “Necking in the foyer was rather not what I intended for this evening.”

She glanced up at him in surprise and laughed loudly, throatily—that ugly crowing bark inherited from her parents.  “It wasn’t?”  She squeezed his hand, not bothering to hide the searing blush on her cheeks.  “But we have such a talent for furious necking.”

He chuckled, a gentle, rolling sound that somehow crashed through her like levin.  He pressed his lips to her hairline.  “That I will not deny,” he agreed.  Then his voice dropped a note lower.  “And I very much wish to keep honing our talents.  Perhaps in a more—intimate setting?”

An electric tremble prickled in her spine, and her fingers twitched in his hand.  “By all means,” she managed, sure he could feel her quiver.

His fingers flexed against her knuckles and he dropped his lips to her ear.  “Permit me to escort you?”

The world around her dissolved, blurred so that he was the only exception.  She clung to his hand and nodded, all sound stolen from her throat; chased the connection of their close-pressed palms.  They strode quickly through the manor—up a gently winding staircase that stirred a brief and cloudy recollection.  But all she could see, really, was Aymeric. 

Her heart sang his name on repeat.  In the haze of this midnight reverie, he was her wildest dream incarnate; a spell of wishes and feylight; an ancient Ishgardian spirit, luring her in a trance.  Nothing in this world could stop her from following.  She would trail him forever, wherever he went. 

She was his for the taking.  His to possess.

They paused by the frame of a door.  It was unassumingly gilded and polished, carved with the faintest suggestion of ivy.  Now it was his turn to tremble.  He squeezed her hand to steady himself.  “My chambers lie beyond,” he provided, his smooth voice sharpened with the faintest edge of apprehension.  “If you—should you feel any misgivings, any whatsoever—”

She embraced the length of his arm; pressed her lips to the robes at his shoulder—nestled her face in his chest. 

Words, words.  Where was her voice? 

“Please,” she said, more a breath, less a whisper.  “Take me inside.”

He wavered one moment longer.  She could feel him move his head, perhaps to study her, but she was afraid to look up.  Then she felt him reaching and glanced to see his free hand push open the door.  Inside, a battalion of candlesticks flickered.  The walls were dark, the room spotlessly clean, upholstered in muted shades—all greys and blues, nearly white.  In the dimness she spied a table set with wine and fluted glasses.  There were armchairs, a settee, a desk stacked high with books and papers.  And there beyond, by a softly glowing hearth—her heart crept back to her throat—a wide, canopied bed, spread with pillows and blankets plush and fluffed, low and inviting.

His bedroom.  His sanctuary.

Aymeric led her across the threshold.  Then he closed the door behind them and turned to face her.

She slowly lifted her eyes. 

He met her with a wintry stare the color of comets and stardust, timeless and enduring; turned a tenderly captivated glance to the blossom at her ear.  “My rose,” he said gently, looking back at her. 

She felt pinned by the force of his attention, suddenly unsure if he referred to the flower.

“Yours, truly,” she said, wetting her dry lips.  Her heart skipped a beat.

Something in his gaze wound tense and tight with longing.  He released her hand to touch the petals with curious fingertips.  Then he took a breath and combed both palms through her hair.  She made no effort to hide the way her eyes rolled and fluttered—the way she began to collapse.  She clutched the front of his fur-lined housecoat and laughed, surprised by the sound.  “Where’s that promised potation?”

The eyes that roved across her face were fierce and searing.  “Come,” he muttered, pressing one lingering hand at the small of her back—leading her to the seats and low table.  She moved in a fog; took her place on the settee.  Her head was swimming already as she watched him pour two generous glasses of wine, white and sparkling.  She accepted her offered libation.  “I know not your opinion of brut and bubbly,” he acknowledged, sinking down beside her.  “But I hope that dry is to your taste.”

She lifted her glass, her wits completely scattered to the winds.  “You are to my taste,” she declared, and something bold and brazen billowed up against her ribs.  Finally.  “To the man who warmed my heart,” she said softly, glancing up at him from lowered lashes.  “Before he stole it.”

He perceptibly shivered.  She was afraid to define the look in his eyes now—too hot, too adoring.  Instead she took a deep swig of the wine—fizzy, buzzing all the way down.  She laughed and coughed and set her half-drained glass on the table, too amused to be self-conscious.

His expression seemed torn between thirst and delight.  “To the woman who sets me wholly aflame,” he said darkly.  She watched as he lifted his glass to his lips, taking a much more judicious sip.  But the look in his eyes was far from modest. 

Oh, hang the wine.  The need to be close to him had frayed her senses, heady and insistent.  She moved without thinking; slipped her arms around his waist.  “Are we here together, really?  Or is this all just a vision?” 

Truly nothing felt real.

He steeled himself with a breath.  His hand was very tense on the stem of his glass.  “I wonder the selfsame thing,” he admitted.  “Along with words my soul yearns to define.  What power drives you to my arms, above all others?”  His voice was more sacred than a prayer.  “Why it is I you have chosen.”

She shivered so sharply that he set down his wine—gripped her tight.  Aymeric looked at her with vivid concern and she laughed; pressed a very hot face against his neck.  “Isn’t it obvious?”  She wanted to melt into the fragrance of his skin; to utterly devour him.  She took a shaky breath.  “If only I could say it well enough—”

He pressed his lips to the crown of her head; breathed a warm exhalation.  “Leave me not in suspense.”

Gods

Something pulled taut behind her navel.  She was always sinking, always drowning, always helpless in his hands.  “Just how much I’ve wanted you,” she confessed, kissing the soft, warm skin of his throat.  “How much I’ve wished.”

Aymeric trembled.  He folded her into a tender, unyielding grip.  He spoke with a voice soft and covetous, his words burning her ear.  “For what have you wished?”

For you, her heart chanted.

For a love this deep to compel her forever, to the uttermost end of this star. 

Did she dare that hallowed confession?  The words bid to nudge past her lips, taking life of their own.  “I wished for you,” she told him.  She felt faint as she leaned back; looked up to meet eyes brighter than diamonds.  “I wished for you to love me.”

Aymeric took a halting breath.  Slowly, reverently, he smoothed both of his warm, wide hands down her body.  “Your wish has come to pass.”

Her heart stuttered, stuttered.  Faltered. 

Stopped.

She couldn’t speak.  There was no air.  Only blood, somehow rushing in her ears. 

All she could do was look at him—stare deep into those eyes bright as starlight.  Words.  Still they failed her.  But at the cautious joy, at the thrill he felt the same, she knew at least three that would not fly amiss.

She lifted unsteady fingers; unbuttoned the neck of her gown; opened the front of her bodice and watched his lips part for breath.  Then she reached for his hand—his blessed, beloved hand—kissed his strong knuckles, the flat of his palm, each of his long, lithe fingers.  She spread the wingspan of his grip, heel to thumb, to touch the silk and skin she’d revealed—to let him feel the ragged pulse of her stumbling, patchwork heart. 

He restored it.  This heart was rightfully his.

“It belongs to you,” she said, full of worship.  She sealed his palm tight to her chest.  “I love you.”  It was a blinding shock of relief to speak it, a chiming transposition in her veins.  His fingers tensed, firm on the give of her chemise, and she took another breath.  “I love you, Ser Aymeric de Borel.”

Something stretched and snapped in his eyes.

He lunged for her, his fetters unbound; his voice, very close to a rumble.  “My love,” he growled to her lips, gripping the back of her neck.  She swallowed the words from his tongue.  He unfastened the rest of her clasps, her gown left to droop at her waist.  Together they were a crush of fathomless yearning, greedy mouths, grasping fingers—

“Will you—”

“Let me—”

They spoke at once.  Then breathlessly laughed.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice gruff. 

Her smile hurt her cheeks.  She shook her head; tried to breathe.  “You first.”

He watched her with desperate eyes; drew a low, uneven breath.  “Will you—come to bed?”

Yes.  Yes. 

Seven hells, yes. 

Her throat was ash.  Her blood pulsed a chant: Make him mine, make him mine

She leaned away from him only to pluck the flower from her hair and unlace her boots, shucking them off with wobbly hands.  Then she lifted from her seat; urged him to a stand beside her.  The layers of her dress fell in a whisper to her feet.  Standing there in her shift and stockings, she reached for his housecoat—and with the help of his willing assistance, slowly began to disrobe him.  The candles revealed a well-made body more lovely than daydreams.  But lovelier still, the look in the eyes that watched her, gently aching.  

The plane of his broad chest was warm and porcelain, glowing in the dim amber light.  She moved incredulous hands to touch him, to trace the long lines of his collarbones; to smooth across lean and powerful muscles, tensed beneath soft, sleek skin.  Her fingers brushed his hipbones, the rest of him still concealed, and he gave a coarse shiver, snatching both of her wrists to halt her. 

His voice was rough.  “Let me touch you first.”

At his request, her hands fell slack.  She could only watch in awe as he moved careful fingers to the hem of her chemise, lifting pale blue eyes to search for permission.  “Please,” she begged.

He held his breath as his palms moved up and under, pressed firm against her skin.  Thumbs roughened by years of armed service swept up her stockinged thighs, up to brush the base of her breasts.  The flats of his fingers dragged down past her ribs, down to squeeze the soft give of flesh at her hips.  He let out the breath in his throat; eased himself close to press lips on her neck.  Gently, he lifted the slip from her body—helped her roll the stockings from her thighs.  She stood naked there before him, in body and spirit.  Aymeric beheld her with eyes that howled and brimmed with devotion, a wordless oath falling from pious lips.

She knew what those sacrosanct eyes must see.  Olive skin marred well with misadventures, so many of her marks more recently acquired.  Her body was crossed and hatched with faded and fading scars, dappled with brands from Baelsar’s blistering ceruleum, the pitch of Ascian wrath, and the searing heat of Nidhogg’s scarlet price.

But he beheld her like she was divine.  “This—is surely a dream,” he said softly.  “An apparition.” 

She was shaking again, but she wrapped her arms around him—pressed skin on naked skin.  At the contact, goosebumps covered her body.  “It might be,” she conceded, kissing his chin.  “But I could always pinch us awake.”

Aymeric laughed hoarsely and bent to scoop her from the floor.  She gasped and clung to his shoulders as he carried her easily through the room, an unbelieving smile on his lips.  He buried his face in her neck and she felt the heat of his blood in his cheeks.  “Allow me,” he purred, his words full of warm, exquisite promise.  And then her back was gently pressed on the give of a mattress—the soft, cool surface of freshly made bedclothes, smelling strongly, delightfully of him

She was desperate, desperate—desperate to remember every detail—but also smothered in a mist of unrelenting bliss.  His warm hands gripped the muscle and give of her thighs, urging them apart—and she felt him kiss a path down her stomach, down, down, down between.

Oh.

She struggled to breathe.

Was she the one dreaming?  Hot breath and soft lips savored secret places, and she writhed, cried out.  The barest touch of his tongue was enough to undo her—but he was completely relentless

Something fractured inside her, so sharp she saw stars.  She threw her head to the side and bit down on the bedspread, her whole body shuddering.  His palms on her legs were the tethers that held her to earth; his low sounds of approval almost enough to unmake her again.

No.  She sucked in a breath and combed both hands in his hair, tugging gently.  She looked to find him stilled against her, lifting hooded eyes to search and singe her.  He brushed an open mouth against her inner thigh, his tongue and teeth grazing her skin.  His voice was gruff.  “No more?”

She shook her head and swallowed, leaning up on her elbows.  “My turn,” she rasped, her legs still shaking.

He lingered a moment longer, closed his eyes, and—a shocked breath tore from her throat—bit her.  He looked too pleased, too wicked as she stared at him—as he licked his lips and rose to kneel obligingly above her, trembling ever so slightly.  “Your turn, then.” 

She tried to remember to inhale.  If it was torture he wanted … 

Her hands reached to smooth down his stomach, dipped gladly to push down his waistband— 

Oh.

There he was—the heavy, waiting length of him, achingly firm and impressive.

She looked up to find him watching, blushing.

Lust and anticipation raked molten claws down her spine.  She held his stare as she wrapped the velvet width of him in one loose, astonished fist, and a cry of pleasure caught in his throat.  Desperate, she rose to her knees; kissed his neck where his pulse drummed out of control, mirrored in the grip of her palm.  “I want to taste you,” she said, pressing her lips to his chest, his belly, his hips.  His breath hitched and stoppered as her mouth brushed him there

His skin seemed to warm at the touch.  She kept her grip and wrapped him in her lips—moved her fist to relish the feel of him.  He took a breath through his teeth, and as she swallowed half of him into her mouth, she looked up to meet scalding eyes—the docile, gentle knight, now unbridled.

Her tongue curled for a better taste, his fingers twined in her hair—and she fought the urge to whine as he eased her gently away. 

Not fair.

“Stop,” he panted.  He stroked his hands down her neck to brace against her shoulders.  His face was flushed red, the eyes he used to search her almost glowing.  “Will you allow me—”

His voice clipped and hitched on his words; his eyebrows knitted together.

He was speechless.

Oh.

The gnawing ache in her veins roared and twisted, utterly insatiable.  She leaned back against the bed and shivered, her heartbeat so loud it drowned out all thought—so loud that, surely, he heard it. 

She reached for him with willing, needing arms.  “Come here.”

The look in his eyes was hypnotic, fixed on her face as he moved to curl above her.  She spread her legs and he sank down between them.  The candlelight flickered as he knelt there, their bodies a breath from combining. 

He slipped one palm down the slant of her belly; touched her with the flat of his hand.  He watched as his fingers explored her, slipped inside her.  She arched and stretched beneath him; he used his thumb to make her struggle, gasp for breath.

She was empty, still so empty.  She lunged up to taste his lips.  She needed to feel him, be full of him.  His name in her mouth was a naked supplication.  “Please, Aymeric.”  She tried to slip an arm between them—to goad him, to lure him—but his hand grabbed her wrist.

He braced himself above her, bending close.  She could feel the hard arc of him pressed at her thigh where he bit her, waiting.  “Tell me again,” he said, dark and breathless.  “What you wanted.”

She took a dry breath; felt crushed by the cosmos of his stare.  “You,” she gasped out.  “I want you.”  She closed her eyes against the surge of stardust inside her; against the sudden blur in her vision.  “Please.”

He kissed her eyelids—used his lips to catch her tears.  “Look at me.”  A holy request. 

She obeyed.  His eyes were bright, tranquil as snow, but betrayed a thousand feelings, a swell of unending emotion.  He trapped her with that stare as he tugged on her wrist, coaxed her hand down against him—used their fingers to nestle him there—to stroke him full against that aching part of her that pined for him—

Her mouth opened in a silent cry and he claimed it with his lips—slipped just inside.  She gasped.  So did he.  She could feel him tremble.  Slowly, slowly, he sank to the hilt.  

Bliss, bright and blinding, split through her. 

She wanted to sob, to whine, to choke—but she could barely draw breath.  Her legs folded around him, and he surged with an answering flex, palmed the back of her thighs, pulled her so, so tight—covered her mouth with his lips.  They moved together and everything melted.  There was nothing but him, the fullness that tied them, the sound of him panting, the pulse of his hips.

When she resurfaced, his voice was thick; his thumb gentle on her lips.  “Look at me.”

Somehow her eyes were shut tight.  Her chin followed his urging and she opened her eyes, cursed herself for getting lost, desperate again to witness, to live forever in this rapture, this riddle, this oldest, most ancient ritual.

His face and neck were reddened, his long, tapered ears tinted too.  But it was his eyes that held the naked view of his longing—his eyes that somehow pinned her full deep, though he moved so intently within her.

He brushed their lips together and spoke in a voice full of truth, “I love you.” 

She was smothered by the weight of his hips, his stare—by the white-hot hum of her blood, singing for release.  She begged him, she pled; knew that only he could bless her.  Bliss pressed in a haze on all sides of her mind and she splintered to thousands of pieces.

She arched her back, gasping for breath.  Agony crossed his face as she unraveled, as he moved hard inside her.  He dipped down to exalt her sweat-slicked skin with panting, parted lips.  “Let the morning never come,” he prayed.

Her legs were a vise.  He thrust hard enough to move the bedframe, the crush of his hips almost bruising.  This bliss was devastation.  Nothing felt like this before.  Nothing ever would after.  Even so full of him, she wished to be nearer—to become his very breath.

His face was pressed at her neck, his breathing rough.  He was struggling, desperate to restrain himself—but his body was instants away from indulgence.  Gods, how she wanted to grant it.  She took the base of his ear in her mouth; traced it with her tongue.  She spoke again those hallowed words.  “I love you.”

The bed groaned in protest as his whole body stiffened.  His weight sank against her as he tensed, gasped a cry of shock.  He rode out the tide of his release with ragged, shuddering breaths, dragging his lips on her skin.

For a moment they rested in silence, broken only by the sound of hard breathing.  She felt happy and stunned, empty and tender; mixed with contentment, oddly unsatisfied.  He moved to free her from the cage of his weight and she rolled to watch him, propped up on an elbow. 

He stretched and sighed and met her eyes, and she wondered: did he feel the same?  Perhaps.  And perhaps she would never be satisfied now, always chasing this sensation hereafter.  With him, it had been different; no mere mortal rite of pleasure.  Through him, it was a sacrament, invoked and consecrated.  By him, it was somehow sanctified, made sacred.

She stretched and flexed too.  Sore.  Certainly bruised, with an aftermath to take care of.  An ironic smile tickled her lips and she laughed, couldn’t help it. 

His eyes glittered as he surveyed her, smiling back.  “What is it?”

Her grin was making her cheeks hurt again.  She reached for his face with both hands, running her fingers up his jaw, to his temples.  She smoothed the damp black hair from his forehead, and he watched her all the while, captivated.

“I was just thinking,” she began, letting her hands drift back down to his neck, “That the Lord Commander of Our Knights Most Heavenly is a little bit sinful.”

He laughed in surprise, gathering her in his arms.  “Perhaps a very little,” he accepted.

She made a sound of affirmation and studied him through her lashes, looping her arms around his back.  “I don’t know what I was expecting,” she confessed.  “But that was unforgettable.”

He kissed her brow, her cheek.  “It is only the beginning,” he promised, kissing her lips.  “If you will permit it to continue.”

She wanted to yell, to roar, to sing.  Instead, she curled against him. 

“I would like that.  I would like that very much.”



 

Chapter Text



 

Her dreams were a mist of smothering darkness. 

She was haunted by the heat of growling lips, the rake of rough hands at her spine.  Teeth dragged to scrape at her chest, and far away, she could hear the thunder of a voice, dark and distant. 

Not while I yet live.


 She woke in a cold sweat.

The give of the cushions felt strange, unfamiliar.  It was a wide, deep room, barely lit.  Cool blankets gathered at her waist.

She was naked

Samantha started, curling up from the mattress.  The slumbering drape of one strong, heavy arm restrained her.  Her fingers trembled to meet it, and the subtle, clean scent of him flooded her senses. 

Her heart stammered and soared.

Aymeric.

Memories of the evening rushed through her blood, and he made a soft sound, stirred by her motions.  She watched as he stretched and sighed in his sleep, not quite waking.  The bedclothes had bunched at his hips.  With the line of his torso exposed to the starlight, he looked like a painting—stunning, but defenseless—a creature distilled from romance and myth. 

The sight pricked her deep in the heart.

She held his arm gently.  Then she sank back down to press her cheek to the pillows, the better to study his beautiful face.

He slept very soundly—enough to make her jealous.  His long black lashes were fanned against his cheeks, his lips parted, so kissable as he breathed.  And Twelve, she wanted to kiss him; feared she would never stop wanting to kiss him.  The urge was so fierce, she took a breath.

Whatever happened, whatsoever befell her—wherever fate, or consequence, or Hydaelyn dragged her—she would never, ever forsake this.

But even as love bid her heart to grow wings, the relief of the evening was fading, making room for the faintest rankle of dread.  The hearth had dimmed.  The candles burned out.  It was good that one of them slept, for morning would come all too soon, when they would journey to Dravania to return to the Mists.

Her thoughts began to swirl and churn in flurries, soft and scattered.  The stardust and snowfall in her mind mixed with cinders—turned to smoke in her throat.  She had to swallow not to choke on the ashes.

The Mists.  Hraesvelgr’s domain.  The gales and levinwrought oblivion of the Aery in the distance.  She would ever remember that awful, fateful battle.  She would never forget its dark, doomed consequence.

The name of that spirit in retrograde swelled inside her, a spectral refrain—stifled by the pounding of her heart.

Here she was again, laid open, trussed and bound; holding fast and stubborn to someone she never intended to need.  Aymeric—so earnest, so gentle—so tenderly unbridled.  How soon would she lose him, too?  Or would this time, dare she dream it, be different?

Her heart twisted, blazed with resolve; fluttered to stoke her newfound hopes.

Aymeric was worth so much more than she could give him.  The more she reflected, the more she was perplexed.  How had she done it—earned his love and goodwill?  Would she ever fully merit his affection?  But one fact was indisputable.

She would do her best now to cling to this most precious, most mystical treasure.

 


 

She woke again to gentle hands at her waist; the brush of soft lips at her neck.

A chill prickled along every surface of her skin, and she trembled against him.  “Good morning,” she rasped, although it barely was.  The curtained windows showed only the faintest gleam of dawnlight cracked between them. 

He hummed in approval regardless; folded her close with his arms.  She covered his knuckles with the clasp of worshipful palms.  He was delightfully warm at her backbone, far better than any cushion.  “One of the best I can remember,” he was saying.  His voice was very husky, thick with sleep.  “Though I feared you might abscond in the night.”

She smiled and twisted to look at him, debating what to say.  But his eyes were so blue, bright as cloudless skies, and when he touched his lips to her cheek, every thought, barely crystallized, melted.

Had her heart ever felt so light?

“I am rather nocturnal,” she finally managed, clutching his wrists, vaguely self-conscious about her stale breath.  She let her voice fall a note.  “But I don’t want to escape you.”

His lips were at her neck again, and she could feel his coarse shiver.  “Thank heaven,” he purred.  The sound rolled low in his chest, thrumming through her.  She arched back against him in reflex and gasped as he molded at her spine, as his hands dipped slowly down—

There wasn’t any air. 

“Anyx Trine,” she exhaled, helping him touch her nonetheless.

“For the moment,” he promised, “We have enough time.”

 


  “But if it is folly to hope, I am content to die a fool.”


 

Chapter Text


Continues in sequence, just prior to and during the events of Dragonsong MSQ “An Ally for Ishgard" and "Winning Over the Wyrm."


 

It was almost painful to leave him.

Still, she disentangled from his arms.  The urgency to go, to keep going, strained her—was strong enough to chase the last sharp spike of yearning from her veins. 

“It’s time,” she feebly protested, still curled half against him, gripping his hands.  She could feel her brow tense as she kissed his wrists.  The sun brightened the grey gaps in the curtains.  The Dravanian Forelands awaited, the enemy somewhere beyond.  And time was running thin—for Ishgard, and Estinien.

Aymeric made a sound of agreement, laced, perhaps, with the barest trace of reluctance.

His sense of duty stood matchless in her eyes—sublime and prevailing.  Yet even so, he pressed warm, lingering lips to her cheek and sighed.  “Would that this moment could endure,” he lamented.  “But however sorely I am tempted to cling to it, I know you are well in the right.”  He kissed her cheek again.  “Long enough have we idled.”

Her blood itched in agreement.  Sloth was not a sin she often claimed.  For her part, she wrestled with greed near to glutting; urges insatiable and voracious—compelled to the crux to consume, and claim, and covet.  

But that would not stop her from fighting.

She gathered her courage; took a breath and left the heat of his skin.  Then she slipped from the blankets and up from his bed—padded through the chilly room to pluck her discarded vestments from the floor.

He stirred in the fringe of her vision as she hastily dressed, applying her layers with untidy efficiency.  As she struggled to button her bodice, he moved beside her to fetch his housecoat.  It too had been forgotten in desire’s crushing fist.

Aymeric shrugged his robe to shroud his shoulders.  In silence, they finished dressing, and when he turned to face her, she summoned every onze of her resolve to fix him with a steady stare. 

“If we win this,” she said, stepping forward, reaching one hand to touch his jawbone, “There will be time to idle after.” 

For some short span, she hoped.

Aymeric’s eyes glittered with adoration, fierce enough to steal her breath.  He captured her lips with a demanding kiss and smoothed the hair back from her temples.  “When we win this,” he amended, brushing his thumbs along her neck.  “When.”

 


 

Samantha departed Aymeric’s manor into the earliest breath of dawn, hopeful, yet heavy-hearted.

She lifted her eyes westward.

It is time. 

Time to return to Zenith, to face Hraesvelgr—and from there, Nidhogg.  She shivered at the thought of those eyes; the spectral tangle of blood and aether and sinew.  The great wyrm threatened the ruin of wrath undying—and now only his brother could answer. 

Samantha stiffened against the wind. 

For her part, she would gladly mantle this burden, finish this bloody business.

With Aymeric and Alphinaud, Hraesvelgr and Ishgard, she would put an end to Nidhogg and free Estinien’s spirit, threadbare and bloodstained though it may be.

 


 

Blessedly, the Manor Fortemps was still asleep.  She crept to her bedroom and rinsed in a cursory bath, spurred by a sickening, nervous thrill. 

Finality crackled in the air.  After so many moons of travel, of running, of fighting ...  She yanked on some smalls and knitted stockings.  They would win this.  She dressed in layers for travel, finished with tunic and chest piece—strapped on boots, shoved essentials in a bag—and no sooner had she tied back her hair than a knock rang from the hallway.

She grabbed her staff and swung open the door to find a determined Alphinaud, fully geared and dressed, his expression hardened with purpose.  “I hope you slept well,” he said firmly, bracing his feet—studying her with resolution in his eyes.  “Shall we be about it?”

Samantha nodded.  “It’s time.”

 


 

The journey through the Western Highlands was grueling.  Storms were blowing in, fresh snow piling high.  They drove on as fast as possible, of a mind to evade the worsening weather.  At Camp Tailfeather, they changed mounts, bartered rations, pressed on.  The storms chased them north as they rode to the roosts of Anyx Trine.

Vidofnir was well.  The mortals reaffirmed their stubborn purpose; the daughter of Hraesvelgr met them with censure, calling it folly.  But with a sigh, she gave them blessing nonetheless—to climb Sohm Al—to seek her sire once again.  She bid them go with no mild warning: Nidhogg’s minions were prowling, stirred by the shade’s return.

It was nightfall.  Their bodies ached with cold.  Before their ascent, they needed respite. 

And so that night, three adventurers from Ishgard again made camp amidst the nests of dragons. 

Beneath the buttresses of that grand tower, they huddled around a small fire—drank mugs of thin stew and crowded for warmth—rested their bones among Hraesvelgr’s lesser kindred before climbing the mountain. 

Cross-legged by the fire, Aymeric leaned a shoulder closer to Samantha.  He was wrapped well in scarves and fleeces, his cloaks pulled up high near his chin.  “It has been some time since my last thrilling expedition,” he admitted, his breath clouding at his lips.  A flush stained his cheeks as he glanced around at his companions, radiating fondness.  “But none before or imagined could begin to compare to this.”

They could hear the snuffling, growling, and wingbeats of wyrms, above and below, outside and beyond.  In the distance, something bellowed.  Alphinaud chuckled gently.  “Wait until the Mists,” he promised, lifting his steaming mug to his lips.

In the firelight, the eyes Aymeric turned to Samantha glowed and sparkled. 

Even here, he rendered her breathless.  The look on his face was one tangled with dread and bare elation, sharp exhilaration.  As she studied him, distracted, his gloved hand brushed hers—snatched it from where it lay lifeless between them.  She started a bit at the touch but gripped his palm tight; smiled and exhaled against the flutter of her heart.

Very close across the fire, Alphinaud’s eyes flicked down at the motion.  He looked at their hands, looked back up to their faces.  The briefest beat of silence swelled to deafen around them. 

Then he choked on his soup. 

Before either of the others could come to his aid, he was shaking his head, coughing, pressing a hand to his throat.  Samantha scowled and lunged to grab him anyway, but he flinched away.  “No,” he croaked, gulping.  “I am well.” 

He was not. 

His eyes were watering.  He gasped a breath and wheezed.  Aymeric was already at his other shoulder, pressing a hand around his back.  “Master Alphinaud,” he said lowly, his brow furrowed.  “Let us assist you.”

A watery-eyed Alphinaud frowned up at him and then back at Samantha.  “Twelve preserve,” he rattled.  He looked wounded.  “Why did you not tell me?”

His airflow was starting to smooth again.  She kept a hand poised just in case.  It wasn’t that there had been nothing to tell him, but— “Do not fault her,” Aymeric said, breaking her chain of thought.  The look he aimed to Alphinaud was repentant, his smile contrite.  “It was a very—gradual development.  It is I who should take the blame.”

She pursed her lips.  “No, let me take it,” she said quickly, bracing herself for the truth primed to fall from her mouth.  Alphinaud’s eyes were bitter and expectant.  “I was afraid to speak of it at all,” she muttered.  “For fear that whatever was starting would—stop.”

She could feel the sizzling heat of Aymeric’s stare but didn’t dare meet it.  Instead she watched as Alphinaud took a hoarse breath.  “I want you to tell me these things,” he groused, looking up at her.  “We are partners, after all.”

Samantha smiled in penitence.  “That’s very fair,” she allowed.  “Will you forgive me my mistake?”

Alphinaud glowered for a moment longer.  Then he sighed.  “I had hoped you might be more forthcoming with me after—” The words caught on the back of his tongue and he stopped himself.

Her heart marched into her throat.  “After?”

Alphinaud lowered his eyes and took another breath.  “Estinien.”

The name seemed to echo in the caverns of her mind.  He couldn’t mean—could he?

It was a secret.  She told not one, save him with wintry eyes there watching them both.  But for all his naiveté, Alphinaud was clever.  Moreover, Alphinaud was there—Coerthas, the Mists, Azys Lla.  How rude of her to assume he wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t read between the lines. 

She was humbled speechless, turning the angles, piecing it together herself.

“I was right, then,” Alphinaud muttered, searching her expression.  “I never knew for certain, but—” He seemed to carefully sift his words.  “The look on your face all but confirms it.”

Her pulse raced but the flow of her blood seemed to cease, to go cold.  “Alphinaud—” Her voice cracked.

The injury lingered in his stare, but he shook his head.  “It is of no matter now—and I have no wish to pry.”  He gave a rough chuckle and grimaced.  “But I do wish you would confide in me hereafter.”

She lifted wary eyes to Aymeric.  By the grace of the Twelve, he looked utterly unshaken.  How so much temperance was amassed in one man, she’d never understand.  “Though I cannot speak on the matter of anyone else,” he said graciously, “I would endeavor yet to accept half the fault when it comes to my involvement.”  His eyes moved from Alphinaud to Samantha, and back again.  “Would the two of you desire a more private audience?  I might gladly reconnoiter Anyx Trine.”

“Yes,” Alphinaud said, so quickly that Samantha didn’t dare to object.

Aymeric squeezed her hand very gently before releasing it.  He gave a grunt as he crouched to his feet, strapped Naegling to his belt, and rearranged his scarf.  “Very well then,” he said, smiling down at them.  “I shall return ere long.”

The pair of Scions watched as Ishgard’s acting leader vanished in the gloom, beyond the perimeter of the light.  As soon as his footsteps faded from earshot, Alphinaud’s mittened hand clenched her wrist.  She turned shocked eyes to meet a deadly, firelit stare.  “Samantha,” he hissed, low and simmering.  “Are you out of your wits?”

His strangling grip made her falter.  “What?”

“The Lord Commander of Ishgard and the Warrior of Light?”  He lifted his eyebrows.  “How could you be so heedless?”

Her throat felt dry, filled with ash.  Blood burned in her veins.  A racing heart swelled up against her breastbone, hot and aching.  “I love him,” she said plainly.  There was nothing else for it.

At the fire in her eyes, the finality, it was Alphinaud’s turn to falter.  “Seven hells.”

She wet her parched lips, debating what more she could say.  Clearly her crime was ever holding back.  “All my life,” she managed, her voice very thin.  “I’ve dreamed of loving like this.”  She could feel her eyes itch with the beginnings of tears.  Alphinaud’s face began to blur and she blinked quickly.  “I never thought I might find it, here of all places.  Please don’t blame me for giving chase.”

Wide sapphire eyes regarded her with sadness and understanding, a half-buried offer of comfort.  Still, he asked the very question she dreaded.  “What of Estinien, then?”

Her heart shivered with a cobweb of brittle umbral cracks. 

She swallowed hard.  “I had to let go of him,” she rasped.  “He was lost.  Is lost.”  Alphinaud opened his mouth but she made a sound of protest.  “I will never stop fighting to save him,” she said, over the soreness in her chest.  “I made that promise to you and to myself.  But no matter the outcome, Aymeric salvaged my heart.”  She lowered her eyes, took a sharp breath.  “It is his, therefore, now and ever.”

It was the first time she put it all into words. 

She felt burdened and relieved all at once.

Alphinaud searched her face.  “I know you must be in earnest, to give it so much voice,” he muttered.  “And I would not dare presume to proffer counsel on matters of the heart.  But I will not see you suffer again.”  His voice was mild, his expression strained.  “You were not well, Samantha.  For a very long time.”

“I know,” she grunted.  She looked away.  Her heart missed several beats.

For a moment, they sat in tense silence.  A dragon thundered in the distance.

She pressed her lips together tightly, felt her jaw clench and set.  “Trust me when I say I’ve thought long and hard.  Too often even against my will.”  She gasped a bitter laugh and stared at the gloom along the edge of her vision, fighting the urge to cry.  Her voice was very quiet.  “I told myself for so long that there was no time for love.  No time,” she spat.  “Bugger time, then,” she whispered.  “I will never hold myself back—not ever again.”

There was another beat of stillness before Alphinaud squeezed her wrist, very gently.  “Do you recall the night of the Haillenarte banquet,” he began.  “When you asked if there was aught about you still fit to admire?”

She took a shaky breath.  “Of course.  You said you felt it, then.  How lost I had been.”

“I did indeed,” he acknowledged.  “Yet dared not mention my suspicions, for fear of renewing your wounds.”  A very timid grin touched his lips.  “But do you remember what else I told you?”

Her eyes were prickling again.  She moved to grip his hand fully, pressing his palm in hers.  “I remember everything,” she assured him.

His throat bobbed.  It could have been the cold, but his face seemed to redden.  “You know then that I trust you,” he declared.  “And no matter how fate unfolds, I will stand at your side.”  His eyes were fierce and bright.  “Do not hold yourself back.  But hold nothing back from we who love you, either.”

The tears in her eyes flowed over.  “My dear Alphinaud.”  She wiped her nose against her shoulder and loosed a white puff of breath.  “How can you be so young and wise?”

He coughed and stammered.  “Wisdom is not what I would call it.  As my sister might say, it is more a determined propensity never to shut my mouth.”

Samantha barked a laugh and wrapped him in her arms.  “I’m glad you never shut it,” she said, holding him tight.

His laugh was very breathy.  “Never tell Alisaie you said that.”

 


 

When their missing companion returned, Samantha was stirring the cookpot while Alphinaud quietly slumbered.  He slept swaddled to the chin in his bedroll by the fire.

Aymeric was flushed from the frosty night air, his nose red and rosy.  He tugged down his scarf and moved to squat beside her, keeping his voice low and quiet.  “I assume all is well?”

She nodded, ladling another helping of stew into her cup.  She flexed her hand in invitation for Aymeric’s; he fetched it and obliged.  “I would be much worse off without his lectures,” she admitted, returning the mug to Aymeric’s palm, crouching to a sit.  She met his pale blue eyes.  Wisps of steam rose from the cup she pressed to her lips. 

As he watched her drink, he smiled.  Small and subtle though it was, the warmth reached his eyes.  “I am sure it means a great deal that you listen,” he said.  “It must be daunting to follow in so many shadows.”

She raised her eyebrows, swallowed her mouthful of soup.  “Shadows?”

“Yours and the Scions’,” he provided.  “His grandfather, Louisoix.”  His gaze became thoughtful and distant.  “Perhaps he even thinks himself in mine.”

She breathed against the sudden weight of that statement, nodding gravely.  “When you put it that way, it’s easy to see why he prefers to raise his voice.”

Aymeric turned his eyes to study the sleeping young man by the fire.  “His words have been heard.”  He shivered and fastened his cloak a bit tighter, exhaling a thin white plume.  “Would that we could say the same for ourselves on the morrow.”

Samantha swallowed the lump that rose to her throat.  Hraesvelgr.  She took a sip of hot broth to wash down her doubts.  “We will have the finest speaker in Ishgard by our side,” she said archly, hoping her eyes burned and sparkled.  “The white wyrm will have no choice but to listen.  Wasn’t it you who called words your ‘instrument of choice?’”

Aymeric grinned and gave a soundless laugh, loosing another cloud of condensation.  The look in his eyes crushed the air from her lungs.  Then his gloved hands were cupped at her cheeks, his mouth on her lips, and her wits and any words worth wielding were gone. 

She took his face in her palms and answered his kiss.

The breath he used to speak was very warm.  “I adore you.”

 


“But what is the ire of one great wyrm to a trio of self-confessed fools such as ourselves?”


  

In the morning, past the foothills, through the Mourn, across the great bridge that marked the gateway to the summit, Aymeric turned his eyes to Sohm Al and took a steadying breath. 

“It is time,” Alphinaud muttered.

Samantha clenched her fists.

It is time.



 

Chapter Text


Continues in sequence, following MSQ events "Sohr Khai," "The Final Steps of Faith," and "An End to the Song."


 

At Zenith they met the great wyrm—agreed to his challenge.  Thus were they borne on wings of wyverns to the trials of Sohr Khai, the twilit ruins of Ratatoskr’s dwelling.  Samantha would face Hraesvelgr himself, while Aymeric dueled Vedrfolnir, and Alphinaud, Vidofnir.

There in the everlasting sunset, their handpicked foes vanquished, the fallen brood-sister’s still-cynical brother issued a grave and singular blessing.  “That you yet stand is ready proof of your determination.” 

They dovetailed, then, as allies.  Together, they would banish Nidhogg's shade. 

As dragons and riders together, they flew—the would-be saviors of Ishgard.

And there, on the Final Steps of Faith, they struggled.

 


 ✦


 

Words were too weak, too thin to define what she felt.

Acts, too, were frail, infirm in the face of her fear and grief.

The white wyrm’s eye burned prehistoric with aether.  As it lanced through her spine, spellbindingly ancient, all she could feel was the infinite weight that fettered her.  Estinien.  Hraesvelgr.  Ishgard.  A thousand years of anguish, with so many fates combined. 

So much to hold in her two small hands.

Her sweating palm slipped on the chassis of her staff.  She gripped it more tightly.

She tasted salt and grit and ash, the iron of blood on her tongue.  Nidhogg’s cinders seared her skin as she brought his brother’s strength to bear against him.  With every onze of stinging aether she beckoned, she swore she felt a grumble of Midgardsormr’s thunder—a glimmer of Hydaelyn’s light.

Her soul began to sing with seeds of unbearable hope, and then—then the kernel was gone.  Scales and spines and sinews shuddered into the shape of a wretched winged dragoon. 

Her throat was raw, made ragged by the name she keened and sobbed.

“Estinien,” she crowed.  “Can you hear me?”

The beast in the titan of his body lunged to cut her down.  She gasped and bade profane energies to tug her out of the way—manipulated the aether between there and then, cobwebbing through it.

Nidhogg bellowed as she blasted him again.  She choked against her own tears as she cast out fire and ice.  The magnitude, the power—but would it be enough?  Would she ever be enough?  Her skin felt burned.  Hraesvelgr’s prickle of aether served to heal her, keep her stable—

He dove to strike her again.  She stumbled to safety, her mouth dry and sour.

Her mind crowded with smothering darkness.  She tugged on the threads of frayed memories.  There was a voice clipped and gruff, the vise of hard and heavy arms.  Nails and teeth and growls that curled in her marrow.  Dark eyes the shade of winter nights, sucking her in like an abyss—

This was not a dream. 

But she would not stop until he awakened.

Icy sweat slicked her neck.  She crushed her heels into the stone and grime and frost—swept her staff in a sizzling arc above her—molded aether to forge in the crucible of her spirit. 

“Not while I yet live,” she roared.

Flame bloomed in the center of his chest.  The titanic dragoon was wreathed in it—tongues of white and blue, collapsing to purple and orange.  The creature screamed in agony and she bore down again. 

“You will never be abandoned.”

A savage blaze engulfed him, devoured by a crackling web of levin.

Her lungs were charred.  Her muscles, rigid.  She could taste the sticking thickness of blood in her throat.  One wrong move—just one—and the essence that made her would crumple.  But gentle light nudged from within, beside the tingle of the white wyrm’s essence.  Samantha closed her eyes and a pair like pits of midnight stared back at her.

Take me through this.

A soul torn and twisted.  A blur of crimson fear and pain.

A sweat that felt like winter poured down her back, and she took a heavy breath.

Let this hell be finished.

 



 

Chapter Text



  

Long as she lived, she would never forget the sound of Estinien’s voice breaking back through his lips—the plea that came after.

“Finish me—now, while I have the beast subdued!”

There was nothing else.  No sensation but shrill ringing in her ears as she moved to meet him, Alphinaud by her side.  They found purchase on the eyes and then there was nothing but anguish.

“You waste your time,” Estinien bayed.  “Kill me!  It is the only way!”

Alphinaud’s voice came out as a sob.  “No!  You can’t die like this!  I won’t let you!”

Her hands burned with the miasma of Nidhogg’s aether.  For an instant she was convinced death had found her, for the vision in her eyes was that of Haurchefant’s face.  He smiled.  Brilliance drowned the world out, and Nidhogg’s essence erupted around them in an all-consuming swell.

His spirit was banished.

Estinien was free.

She resurfaced to find herself holding an eye—Alphinaud prone beside her.  And then came Aymeric’s horrified yell.  “The eyes!” he bellowed.  “Cast them into the abyss!” 

She behaved without thinking—strained every listless, aching muscle to rush to the brink of the Steps and cast the eye aside.

 


“Estinien is blessed to have such devoted comrades.”


 

The world felt more distant than the stars as she followed Aymeric’s slow ascent to Foundation, Estinien’s body held limp in his arms.  There was the taste of snow on the air, the people of Ishgard watching them return in deafening silence.

Something warm dribbled down her lips and she tasted copper.  Her nose was bleeding.

She lived a hand to pinch it and Alphinaud grabbed her other wrist.  “Samantha,” he said, with a voice thin and hoarse.  “Let me assist you.” 

Her head swam as she nodded.  Her footsteps scraped to a stop on the snow-dusted cobblestone, and he opened his grimoire. 

Alphinaud brushed his hand across the pages, as though he could siphon the spells between his fingers.  Then he took a breath and lifted the flat of his palm from the book to her temple.  He muttered something very quiet.

Aether like mint leaves and hyacinth spread against her senses, tingling through her skull.  The flood of relief, of sheer familiar comfort, caused sparks to bloom behind her eyes.  Tears crept down her cheeks and she gasped; had to catch herself from falling.  Alphinaud nearly dropped his grimoire to help her.  “Keep breathing,” he advised. 

She inhaled through the crusts of blood on her nose and her lips, training her eyes on his face.  She tasted heather blossoms.  "Thank you, Alphinaud.”

He pressed his palm against her cheek, another wave of his aether eddying through her.  “My strength is yours.”

 


"Ser Aymeric is never long from Estinien's bedside, and will send word the moment there are any developments."


 

It was late.  Another storm wound its way through the heavens, threatening to cover Ishgard in a fresh crust of snow and ice.

In the hours since the battle, Aymeric refused to rest.  He ordered his companions to do so instead, urging them back to the Manor Fortemps.  “My friends,” he said, noting with alarm the blood Samantha wiped from her lips.  “Allow me to keep vigil instead.”

The boy, the young man, scrubbed one hand down his face and sighed.  “I fear the moment we leave, he will open his eyes,” he muttered.  His voice was rough with exhaustion.

Samantha’s breath was thick.  “I fear the same thing,” she croaked, clearly stunned.  Her eyes were frozen on the wilted body in the infirmary bed.

Aymeric pressed stern hands to both of their shoulders.  “Go,” he demanded, something fierce in his chest.  His eyes flashed from Samantha to Alphinaud, pulling their gazes.  “You have my word that I will send for you if he awakens.”  They watched him with guarded eyes, trusting him, nevertheless. 

“At your insistence,” Alphinaud finally acquiesced. 

Samantha was quiet.  She could do nothing but stare, from Aymeric back to the bed.  The smaller Scion grabbed her wrist to urge her away.  They made to leave but glanced back once, thrice, before crossing the threshold.

At last, Aymeric took a vacant chair by the bedside and stared at the slackened face of his comrade.

“Forgive me for dismissing them,” he muttered to Estinien, moving his chair an ilm closer.  “But Master Alphinaud and Samantha were fading.  It felt remiss not to send them to sleep.”  Aymeric leaned his elbows on his knees; pressed his chin against folded knuckles.  He closed his eyes.  “Would that I could do more for you, my friend,” he murmured.

Would that I could play your savior again.

 


 

Though the pale-haired dragoon seemed dazed, he keenly surveyed the fallen dragon—noted with no small surprise the arrow piercing its eye.  Aymeric’s fingers tensed around his longbow as he emerged from his vantage point in the shadows. 

The other man started, casting him a stony glance and a frown.  “This is not the way to the Holy See,” he grumbled, smoothing a strand of silvery, salt-white hair from his face.

“I know,” Aymeric accepted.  Then he took a chance.  “But I thought the journey home would pass more swiftly in good company.”

Another brief glimmer of shock flashed through the dragoon’s flinty expression.  Night blue eyes seemed to take his measure then, studying him much more intently.  “You have my thanks, Ser...?”

“Aymeric,” he offered, feeling his lips curl with the wryest of smiles.  “And it shall be thanks enough if you remember my name.”  He raised his brows, allowing a whisper of humor to his voice.  “Though I shan’t object to a tankard of ale back in Ishgard.”

The dragoon’s eyes were tired.  Behind them, there lingered fire, and ice. 

But slowly, as Aymeric watched, the other man’s lips twitched in an answering grin.

 


 

He was laughing, dragging the long angles of his friend’s limp and heavy body through the barracks.  “You could make an effort to stand,” Aymeric taunted, bracing an arm at Estinien’s spine, laughing afresh as the dragoon drooped back down toward the floor.

His first few words came out in a blur, the rest only somewhat more intelligible.  “—excuse to save me again?”  He was wheezing with laughter; shuddering as he stumbled.  “Self-righteous.”

Aymeric chuckled and hefted him up again.  “Beg pardon?”

“Bloody self-righteous blighter and you know it,” Estinien groused.

Another voice came to meet them—a fellow Temple Knight, hurling curses.  “Keep your voices down, you damned wanking halfwits.”

Estinien raised his eyebrows and lurched to his feet.  He shoved the pale hair from his eyes and scoffed and growled.  “Mind your language.”

“That coming from the bastard’s stray pet,” the onlooker snorted.  The words found their mark.  Aymeric caught Estinien at the waist before he could lunge, the weight of the motion toppling both to the floor.  The third man laughed sharply.  “Best behave for your master, minging urchin,” he taunted, leaving another sprinkling of expletives in his wake.  Then he vanished back into his quarters.

A seething Estinien shuddered with rage. 

Aymeric pressed a hand flat on his shoulder.  “Pay it no mind,” he counseled, disentangling their heavy limbs and lifting to his feet.  He stretched down a hand to the other.

Estinien grimaced at the offered palm and grasped it.  “He called you—”

“A bastard,” Aymeric nodded, grunting as he pulled his friend to his feet.  “And that is what I am.”

Estinien’s brow creased and furrowed.  His voice was suddenly sober, though the scent of ale still came off him in waves.  “You would let him throw insults?”

Aymeric’s laugh was a breath through his nose.  “His words were very feeble weapons,” he dismissed.  “‘Minging urchin’ and ‘damned wanking halfwits?’” Aymeric gave a scoff.  “Our friend could use a lecture on creative innovation.”

“He called you my master,” Estinien grumbled, affronted.

“Uncreative,” Aymeric muttered.  “‘Keeper’ is far more apt.”

There was a moment of silence. 

Then Estinien burst loudly to laughter and elbowed him hard in the stomach.

 


 

“Not if you get yourself murdered," Estinien spat, utterly furious.

Aymeric closed his eyes and leaned against the doorframe, ignoring the surge of anger pulsing out at him.  “You assume the worst,” he muttered.

“Keen to throw yourself to the wolves, you are,” the other was hissing, pacing the floor, worked into a frenzy.  The gravelly timbre of his voice was rough and grating.  “Do you think the Lords will let them follow you—you, the Archbishop’s indiscretion?”

“You forget I live among them,” he said gently.  “My mother Borel—”

“Your mother is old and meeker than a mouse,” he growled.  “Meeker even than you.”  His mouth pressed thin.  “I know the merit of your spirit and virtue, Aymeric,” Estinien muttered.  “But those you seek to impress care not.”

“I will lead the Congregation,” Aymeric promised, not sounding meek in the slightest.  “Mark my words.”  He took a breath.  “I would have you by my side when I do.”

Estinien was shaking his head, breathing hard.  “’Tis a fool’s errand,” he snapped.

“Let me be a fool, then,” he replied.  Something fluttered in his chest and he braced himself against it.  “Will you not stand beside me?”

“You saved my godsdamned life,” Estinien thundered.  He took several shuddering breaths.  “I would follow you into the abyss.”

 


 

The Azure Dragoon crossed his arms tightly, the tines of his armor grating together.  “The boy is worse than you,” he chided, ungentle, his prongs and spines cast in the candlelight of the Lord Commander’s office.  “Meek mewling pest, through and through.”

“Estinien,” Aymeric scolded, looking up from his papers.  “Master Alphinaud is an envoy and a Scion.”  He frowned fondly at his friend.  “Would you say the same of the Warrior of Light?”

“No,” he grunted.  His lips, the only visible part of the face beneath his visor, pressed into a line.  “She is tolerable enough.”

Aymeric’s laugh was silent, full of breath.  “High praise indeed,” he said mildly, paging through some parchment.  The remark was not a jest.

Estinien was quiet for a moment.  “She is stern and strong,” he muttered, taking slow steps across the room.  “She is a suitable ally.”

“Better and better,” Aymeric taunted, uncapping an inkwell.  “Did she best you in battle?”

He could almost feel Estinien’s grimace.  “I know not how to counter her black magicks,” he grumbled.  “But I will learn.”

Aymeric was grinning at the paper he signed, flicking his eyes back up to his friend.  “Let me know when you challenge her again,” he goaded.

Estinien scowled and stalked to the exit.  “I will be sure to send an invitation,” he barked.

 


 

Aymeric opened his eyes to study his slumbering friend.

“You are very well loved," he assured him.  With fond eyes, he traced Estinien’s brow, his cheekbones, his chapped lips.  “Worry not,” he promised.  “Your keepers will be here when you awaken.  I will make sure of it.”

Something scraped the floor behind him. 

He twisted to find a bleary-eyed Samantha, washed clean of grit. 

“I took a bath,” she said weakly, moving to his side.  “Alphinaud will be here soon.”

Someone by the doorway cleared their throat. 

The two of them looked up to find the Hospitalier Captain, staring firmly at them both. 

“If you please,” he muttered, stepping across the threshold.  “I would like to spend some time with the patient myself.”

 


 

If Estinien was brutal, then Aymeric was temperate. 

Together they were obstinance and understanding, outcry and reserve—opposite aspects set to orbit forever. 

The latter hoped the arms he pressed around her shoulders were gentle and forbearing.  “To care for Estinien is to struggle," he said.  “Make no mistake when I profess to understand.”

Samantha trembled against his chest, leaden to the touch.  “I am so far beyond it all now,” she restated.  “But if he awakens—”

“When he awakens,” Aymeric spoke to her brow.  “You will speak with him yourself.”

She moved to look up.  The eyes she fixed him with were red-rimmed, lined with dark crescents. 

Her voice was a breath.  “Thank you.”

A twinge of something feral and protective tore through his chest. 

He swallowed.  “By all means.”  He squeezed her tight, pressed his cheek to her temple.  “No matter what is said, I will love you."

 


 

Samantha was stern and strong. 

She too was made of ragged edges—another howling stray.

Then she stepped in the path of their orbit, and loved each in her soul-aching way.

One was lost, one was found—a stalwart heart who loved her all the same. 

And though he thought her like the other, so prone to snap and growl, she didn’t run away.

He kept her through her tumult, warm and safe—but now that hell was ended. 

Like a bird with wings at last mended ... Would she fly?

Or would she stay?

 



 

 

Chapter Text


“Where once I craved vengeance, I now crave rest.”


 

She lingered on the threshold like a shadow, waiting for the Hospitalier Captain to take his leave.

“Keep it short,” he warned her.  Captain Whitecape watched her sternly as he crossed her path.  “Loath as I am to leave the patient unattended, I will make an exception just this once.”

Samantha nodded quickly, casting her eyes down in what she hoped was deference.  “Thank you,” she said, her voice already brittle, already rasping at the edges.  She wet her lips.  “I would not dare press my luck.”

He simply nodded back, stiff and proper.  “Short and quick,” he repeated, closing the door behind him.

The latch clicked shut.  She lifted her face to search across the room—to finally settle her attention on the figure resting there.  Dark eyes locked with hers.  Through the scattered shafts of sunlight warming the air, illuminating glittering flecks of dust, Estinien held her stare.

Her chest felt unbearably tight.

“Welcome back,” she croaked, her throat dry as ash.

A solemn grin pricked at the corners of his lips.  Pressure swelled to fill his chest as he took a quick, grounding breath.  He could see her shudder, too, as she stood there, still so far away.

He swallowed the shock of words that suddenly crowded his throat, instead sliding one hand, palm up, along the thick comforter beside him.  “Come,” he murmured.  “Sit with me ere you spend all your short time in the doorway.”

She stumbled forward.  Took two faltering steps.  Then quickly, urgently, she crossed the room, the dark skirts of her robes swishing in whispers against the floor.  In a moment she was sinking beside him, lacing his fingers in hers without another beat of hesitation.

Her callused palm felt so familiar.  Too small to belong to his deliverer.  

He cradled it gently.

The tears were falling from her eyes before either one of them could speak, and he couldn’t help but loose a coarse and breathless laugh.  “Not you bloody too,” he said, leaning up to sit against his pillows, watching with a grave night-blue stare.

“Forgive me,” she mumbled, lifting her free hand to wipe her face.  Her cheeks were damp and flushed, her nose rosy.  She studied him with wide brown eyes, brimming with awe and shock.  “Forgive me.  I—never believed this day would come.”

There was a heavy measure of silence as they sat with fingers entwined.  He shifted, pointedly holding her gaze through the tousled silver fringe of his hair.  “As you well know, neither did I,” he said softly, with a hint of gruff reproof.  “Yet it is come.”

“You are here,” she whispered, as if he might vanish.  She looked hard into his eyes.  Her hand twitched in his palm.  “You are you.”  The pad of her thumb traced the ridge of his knuckles, and he could feel her start to tremble.  “So much has come to pass, and yet—” She took a breath against the painful swell in her heart.  Then slowly, very slowly, she leaned close; close enough to rest their foreheads together.

After a moment of hesitation, he eased into the contact.  Closed his eyes.  Allowed himself to breathe deep, to remember this forgotten feeling, while it remained within reach.  “I am in possession of myself again,” he proclaimed, and briefly, viciously savored that fact.  “But so am I changed.  As everything is changed.”

She closed her eyes too, against the warm press of his brow—against the soft growl of his voice—against the dizzying flood of sentiment coursing through her.  “Yes,” she agreed.  Her breath hitched.  Her heart twisted with the gravity of all she feared to express—words without sound; incomprehensible feelings, beyond all description.

Samantha could feel his breath on her chin before he pulled back to look in her eyes.  “You are changed,” he murmured, studying her face.  “Fierce and formidable.  You too have been wrought and levelled by the blaze of this war.”

Her face burned.  “You can’t possibly look at me and see that,” she griped, holding his dark stare.

He didn’t blink, his expression staid as stone.  “Defiled as I was by his shade, Nidhogg and I were as one.  You bested us both.”  He studied her carefully.  Reverentially.  “You are become a chilling foe.”

The blood drained from her face and she lowered her eyes; pressed her lips tight together.  “Do not make me think of that day,” she said darkly.  Her shoulders slouched against the haunting yawn of darkness in her heart.  “You asked me to take your life.”

'Begged’ is apropos.”  And as if by way of apology, he squeezed her hand in his.

A bitter smile pulled at her lips, but she scowled at him instead.  “Never—ever—ask that of me again.”

Gently, he laughed.  “I make no such promise.  The time may come when my fate is again in your hands,” he said, brushing the pad of his thumb against her wrist.

She cast him a reproachful glance.  “My hands have held more than their share of fates of late,” she muttered, disentwining their fingers—returning his palm to his lap.  “You can just as well keep yours to yourself.”

He flexed his hand and held her ireful gaze, quirking one pale brow.  “Says she who so desired my audience that she removed the chirurgeon from his watch.”

Temporarily,” she scoffed and snorted, avoiding his eyes.  “As if you would not do the same.”

“I would,” he gamely admitted.  And then, without thought or warning, words began to spill in tangles from his lips.  “To be near you like this, after—all this time.  To touch you—” He took a breath.  “It stirs me deeply.”  Another pause.  “There is much that feels unspoken.”

Her hand closed over his again.  “We—neither of us ever were much for words,” she conceded, graceful enough to blush at the implication.  Then she lifted her eyes to meet his solemn, stormy gaze.  “But—” Her voice faltered.  “I wish I could find them now.  For the sake of all that’s past.”

He held her stare through long silver lashes, unblinking.  “You felt it, then.  The same as I.”

Slowly, she nodded.

For a moment, he simply looked at her.  And then he smiled, rare and calm.  It reached the fathomless depths of his eyes; brought the sharp angles of his face into ephemeral, lovely relief.  She’d only seen it a handful of times.  It was gone suddenly as it appeared.  But now she felt his fingers smooth around the contours of her wrist, in the delicate way she was frightened to remember.

“You were the still in the heart of the tempest,” he purred.  “The rose taken in from the rime.”

She nodded again, afraid to speak the rejoinder. 

You were mine.

For even as her heart shuddered with the truth of those words, it shrank from them.

“I won’t deny my feelings—I have no wish to deny them,” she permitted.  Then she lowered her gaze.  “But it seems like a lifetime since we lost you to the Eyes, and everything is altered.”  She swallowed the lump in her throat.  “As you said.  We are, both of us, changed.”

From the blurred corners of her vision, she could see his curt nod.  “Even so,” he grumbled, clearing his throat.  “The past exists.  And it remains unchanged that, in you, I found respite.”  He paused, taking a quick, uneven breath.  “Respite I wish to be in return,” he muttered.  “If ever you should need me.”

Her mosaic heart winced and cracked at his words.  She met his stare—lifted trembling hands to touch both sides of his face.  Her eyes were searching.  “No,” she said, the air catching, her hands dropping back to her lap.  “No.”

“Yes.”  His voice was coarse.  As he held her gaze, the heat in his eyes became agony.  “You eased my pain once,” he said, very dark.  “I will do what I must to repay that favor.”

Her pulse sped up, her heartbeat thumping hard against her ribs.  “Nothing I did was a favor, Estinien,” she said with a furious, shaking voice.

He took a sharp breath, her fury echoed in his eyes.  “I owe you my promise,” he rumbled, hot with vigor.  “I will not abandon you.”

Everything burst through her mind in an instant, bare and molten.  Night upon night grieving bitter, careworn memories.  Day upon day spent salvaging the ruins of her heart, fitting pieces back together; struggling to leave him to fate undecided.  Agonizing heartache turned blinding relief—relief that stoked the embers of a flame she thought lost.

So many fractured, nameless feelings—but for one.

She took a halting breath.

“I loved you, Estinien,” she rasped, her voice cracking.  “You owe me nothing.”

His dark eyes flashed; the muscles in his jaw went taut.  “I owe you everything,” he hissed, taking her face in both hands.  “And, damn it allI loved you too.”

His thumb trembled as he brushed it on her cheek, traced it down along the corner of her lips.  Samantha flinched from the contact; snatched his hands to hold them still.  She stared into the rawness of his eyes—took a ragged gasp against the broken tempo of her heart.

“Fierce,” he growled, breathless, watching as she shoved his hands back down from her face.  “Fierce as the Fury.”

She felt the hot prickle of tears of regret.  “It’s time for me to go.”

“Then go,” he challenged, glancing down to the hands joined between them.  Her knuckles were white.  She clung to him, restrained him, afraid to let go—afraid to set him free.

Her eyes flicked up to meet his.  “Don’t,” she warned.

Estinien stared at her, stone-faced, his expression blank.

Slowly, she eased her grip.  His hands remained limp there on the blankets, slack and relaxed. 

That was when the knock sounded at the door.  Jarred, she jerked her head toward it, eyes wide.  “Time is up, my lady,” came the muffled voice of the Hospitalier Captain.  She opened her mouth to respond—and wide palms were back on her face, turning her to look at Estinien again.

She grit her teeth and glared hard into his eyes.  “What part of the word ‘don’t’—

He parried the rest of her reprimand with the crush of obstinate lips.  Then he pulled away suddenly.  She stared at him, openmouthed.  “That was to get your attention,” he explained, his voice a rolling shadow.  And then his fingers twined into her hair.  He pressed his brow against hers, met her gaze through his frost-colored lashes.  “And this,” he pledged, letting their lips brush tenderly together, “—is for saving my soul.” 

He kissed her very gently.

And then it was over.  “Now go,” he barked, leaning back against the pillows.  “Leave me to convalesce.”

She blinked at him for a moment, stunned.  He reclined, completely peaceful, as though nothing at all had happened.  Samantha cleared her throat, smoothed her skirts.  Allowed her expression to sour and laughter to color her voice.  “How wrong you were,” she taunted, getting to her feet, turning to cross the room.

Behind her, he made a low sound, giving in.  “What about?”

When she turned, he was watching her with scorching eyes.

She smirked.  “You haven’t changed at all.”

 



 

Chapter Text

 



  

The door to the office cracked open and she cleared her throat.

Hesitant, she glanced again at the attending knight—Ser Augustin, if memory could be trusted.  His chainmail clinked as he nodded her inside, watching through the window of his helmet.  “He is waiting for you,” he said quietly.

Her cheeks burned.  “Thank you,” she told him.  He bent at the waist as she passed. 

Samantha’s footsteps echoed through the chamber as she strolled to enter the room.  Eyes as bright as starlight fell upon her.  She pulled the door shut as Aymeric made to stand, feelings kindling in his face.  “Please sit,” she said quickly, crossing toward him.  “I’m afraid I’m—not staying long.”

The Lord Commander sank back down in his chair.  His armor glittered in the candlelight.  He fixed her with a penetrating stare, and a mask of tactful stoicism dropped into place.  “Pray, then,” he said gently.  “State your business.”

On the receiving end of that vacant visage, her heart ached strangely—like she’d been drawn back through time, moving in reverse.  “I need to travel to Gridania,” she said, hoping to coax some glimpse of emotion.  She nodded at the paperwork piled on his desk.  “And I’m sure you could forgo long interruptions.”

His cool blue eyes warmed by a margin.  He fixed her with the distant heat of his gaze, a flicker of tension warping his careful blankness.  “I beg you would enlighten me.”

She swallowed hard. 

“I spoke with Estinien,” she said.  “I thought myself beyond the past.  And yet—” The words felt like glass in her throat, made all the worse by his freshly strained eyes.  She struggled for air as her heart began to sprint. 

There was nothing to conceal.  She had been true to her feelings, past and present.  “And yet—it left me troubled.”

Aymeric simply watched her, very icy.  “I will not pry unless you wish it,” he said coolly, serenely diplomatic.  He offered nothing else; nothing but impassive and glacial indifference—his truths reserved for she he would more carefully measure.

Twelve. 

She could reach into the blazing jaws of death to wrest a soul from Nidhogg, but Aymeric’s unfeeling manner would end her.  She had to force herself to look at him, to hold that wintry stare.  Her next breath came together in pieces.  “I used to run from things that scared me,” she said.  “From anything like this.”  Her lungs burned like she was running even now.  “And for all that I’ve changed—for all that I’ve challenged—there are things I'm still racing to escape.”

She balled her hands into fists and threw every dread, every dream, every doubt into her face.  “I am sick of running.  But to know how to end it—to know how to finish—I have to go back to where it started.”  She stared deep into his eyes.  “Before the Scions, before Her Light; before I was even grown into a woman.”  

Something gentle broke to glitter through Aymeric’s gaze, and her voice caught on her tongue.  Tears prickled in her eyes before she could stop them.  She jerked her head to the side to keep them hidden.  “Before I can carry on, I must see my parents.”

Damn it all, the tears weren’t stopping.  She took several ragged breaths, wiping her nose on her shoulder.  

“Samantha—”

“Forgive me,” she blurted, interrupting him.  Her voice cracked.  “I will be back before long.”  She blinked her eyes and turned on her heel, her vision tunneled on the exit.  Her heart pounded so hard she could feel the pulse in her neck.

There was the sound of scraping—his chair on the floor.  She knew he was standing; heard the soles of steel-toed boots chase to meet her.  She could feel the crush of blood in her ears, in her chest, her mouth bitter at the urge she still felt to keep running.

His hands were firm at her shoulders, and the world tunneled again to that connection—at the body then pressed to her back.  “Do not be uneasy,” he pled, his voice warm at her ear.  “If I might relieve you of discomfort, I beg you would allow it—but do not leave me to suffer your distress.”

Gods.  Now she really was crying.  She dipped her chin to try to hide it.  “I’m my own source of distress,” she muttered, stiff in his grip.  “Please, don’t suffer—not on my behalf.”

She felt him take a breath.  “I cannot help but suffer on your behalf,” he confessed.  His voice dropped very low, tender and frail.  “Your heart may be mine, but so is mine yours.”

Her head spun.  That selfsame heart clawed at the cage of her ribs and she surged around to face him.

He was very close, his eyes very wide, writ with pain and adoration.  He was so exquisitely good.  Her lips were wet and salty.  She took his square jaw in both of her hands and kissed him on the chin; crushed her cheek against his neck.  “I love you,” she gasped.  “I loved him too.”  She pulled back to stare up at him, her throat sore and dry.  “In love I might begin to find the answers.”

 


 

The sound of her fist on the door was dry and hollow, like the feeling in her stomach.

But she was so desperate and tired—so tired of trying to escape.

While the acreage of their property had expanded, the bungalow never changed, save for the scars of repairs here and there.  Ducks and landfowl chattered in their coops.  The groves were heavy with fruit.  The yard was crammed with flowers, the gardens lush with produce, and all around wafted the smells of her childhood—oak leaves and conifers, wet grass, turned earth, and—faintly, floating just on the breeze—the sweet perfume of roses.  “Just a moment,” hollered a deep and familiar voice, and she stiffened.  He must be wrapping his face.

Her hands were sweating.  She wiped them on the front of her robes, and the door swung open.

There he was, tall and broad-shouldered, a little older—that godsdamned bandana tied tight across his forehead.  Even dressed in dirty slops and an apron, her father still called to mind the ominous grandeur of a storm.  She traced the angles of his face; the selfsame handsome ones he gave her, from brow, to nose, to jawline.  The casual greeting she prepared got trapped, sticking in her throat.

For a heartbeat, Cassius froze.  The first letter of her first name struck a hiss on his tongue.  A mist sprang to his pale blue eyes and he coughed, blinking it away, turning his face to hide the evidence—just like she would.  Her heart dropped to her stomach and she reached clumsily for his arm.  “Father—”

He winced at the contact; pulled back and nodded, per their routine.  “Your mother’s in her garden.”  His voice was very gruff.  He cleared his throat.  “I will fetch her.”  He began to move away, and her fingers hooked into the rough, dusty fabric of his sleeve.

“No,” she barked.  “No.  I’m—I’ve come to see you too,” she said, feeling heavy.

Cassius stared at the wall and slowly turned back.  For a long moment, he could only look down at her face.

All of the moisture seemed to fly from her throat.  “Is that alright?”

His face was like stone.  She traced the new lines that etched down his cheeks, the crinkles near his eyes, the pale skin freshly freckled and weathered from sun.  He took a breath through his nose.  “Come inside.”

 



  

Cassius Magnus was not a cold man.

Warmth, however, was essentially weakness in Garlemald, a fundamental flaw in the arctic of Ilsabard.  Cold matched well with Garlean incentives, especially the unstated mandate to hide all emotion.  Warmth, not so much.  But Bryony Floravale loved it—loved him for it. 

Bold, beautiful Bryony.  She loved him in the Highlands against her iron will.  She loved him in Gridania where they secreted away with their child.  And she loved him here in the cottage they built on sweat and courage.  Here where they gardened and dwelt, in the sun-speckled woods of the Shroud, his warmth served him very well—as did his knack for surviving on scraps.

Scrappy.  Like the daughter now returned to them—the girl he loved with every fiber of his soul.

Well.  Woman, now.  Warrior.  Wanderer.

But always his little Rose.

He took a shallow breath and stared at her across the worn kitchen table.  She wore new clothes—fur-lined, embroidered, very elegant, really—and had to strip herself of three or four damp cloaks, plus a fat pointed hat.  Her dark hair was wind-swept.  There was something like a burn, the width of a finger, down one cheek.  “You look—well,” he said, nervous.

“Take that damn thing off,” Samantha Rosalyn muttered, her eyes flicking to his bandana.

He tugged the dirty scarf from his head, combing callused hands through his hair—glad that it was still thick, if not more white now than golden.  He watched his grown up daughter stare at the center of his forehead, the pearly sphere set there, the accursed jewel on the diadem of his brow.  She crossed her arms, leaned back in her chair, and exhaled.  “I’m sorry.”

Sorry? 

His daughter, the Hero of Eorzea, sorry?

He was confused.  At first, he didn’t bother to hide it.  Rose pressed her lips together in the way she did when she was angry, and he schooled his face to stay calm.  If he knew one thing about Floravales, they were impossibly quick to ignite—and unbearably fond of scowling.  “For running away from you and Mother,” she continued, staring hard into his eyes.  “For being—so distant.”

Now he was scowling back at her.  “I’m not sure that I follow,” he admitted.  It hadn’t been that long since her last visit.  Well.  Several moons to be sure, but that was nothing unusual; not while she chased her magicks and ran with the Scions, thumping old fools like van Baelsar—he snorted.  Hells knew what else she was doing.  Although the fact she spoke with him right now was throwing him a loop.  “You’re alive and healthy and—you are healthy, are you not?”

She sighed.  She was struggling for words.  It wasn’t uncommon. 

“What I mean is—” She huffed through her nose.  “Well—I think I understand you better, now.”

He could feel himself squinting.  She squinted back.

He opened his mouth and was interrupted by an earsplitting bang.  “Is that my daughter?”

The door to the garden was swung wide open, the imposing figure beneath it framed in scattered sunlight.  Bryony Floravale glowered with force to rival a goddess, her voice dark and rough.  “About time you showed up,” she snapped, lunging across the threshold, hefting a basket of vittles and herbs under her golden-brown arm. 

Cassius always said she grew fiercer and stronger with time, but the woman hardly seemed to age.  Her black eyes glittered, so very, very pretty—despite the fury pulsing off her in waves.  He watched fondly while she scolded their wayward woman-child.  “What, dare I ask, made you grace us with your presence?”  

Rose turned to look at her and melted.  He tried not to pout.  “Hello, Mother,” she said meekly.

“That’s not an answer,” Bryony grumbled, slamming the basket down on the table, causing a root vegetable to jump out.  She perched her hands on her hips.  “Tell me why you’re here.”  She jerked her chin to Cassius.  “You made your father look pale.”

“I always look pale,” he remarked.

She turned the force of her scowl on him.  “Not that pale!”

“I came to apologize,” Rose was saying, raising her voice, her face twisted with something repentant.  Bryony glared at her and she struggled to continue.

Cassius snorted, laughed, and rose to his feet.  “Easy, my love,” he said, throwing an arm around his wife’s shoulders.  He met his daughter’s brown eyes.  “She’s here to talk to us, if I recall—though I’m still not sure what about.”

Bryony thrust a strong arm around his back, gripping him.  “Well?”  She stared at Rose hard.

She looked up at them both from her seat at the table, then fixed him with her eyes.  She cleared her throat.  “I’m sorry, Father,” she said very firmly.  “It took me all this time to realize—what it meant to you.  To be with us, instead of staying in Ilsabard.”  As he watched her, she blinked very quickly.  “When you told me back then, about us being your treasures; I was too stubborn, too scared, too young to understand.”

Bryony whistled low.  “You called us your treasures?”  She squeezed him at the waist.

Rose groaned.  “Mother please,” she grumbled.

Whenever Bryony laughed, it sounded like birds—throaty, silvery, cackling.  She threw her head back and her glossy hair shimmered, black and silver.  “What a face,” she teased her. 

Let me be serious,” Rose was hissing.

Cassius raised his eyebrows.  “Serious?  In this house?”

“She looks fit to kill me,” Bryony giggled, leaning against him.  She turned so her lips pressed at his ear.  “Cassius, I think my own daughter might kill me.”

Rose jerked up from her chair.  “I fell in love,” she snapped, scaring them silent.  She took a sharp breath.  “I never meant to, but I did.  And then I lost a dear friend—and then another.”  Her voice cracked.  “And then the man I loved—” Tears streamed from her eyes.

Cassius disentangled himself from Bryony’s grip and lurched toward her.  “My pet—”

Rose shook her head and cleared her throat.  “It’s hard to explain,” she rasped.  “He didn’t die—but he was gone.”  She turned her head to the side, wiping one cheek on her shoulder. 

Bryony tried this time.  “Sammy—”

Their daughter stiffened and shook her head.  "I need to say this," she muttered.

Cassius and Bryony both backed down.

Rose was quiet for a beat.  “My heart was so hard."  Before his eyes, she shivered so coarsely it seemed she might shatter.  “I felt so broken I thought it would kill me, frozen in the past.  But my friends kept looking forward, to those we yet could save—” She pressed her lips tight together.  “And when I dared to look up with them—” She shivered again; turned to stare into his eyes.  “I found an impossible treasure.”

Cassius reached for his daughter and she sank into his arms.  She was sobbing.  “You threw everything away—your history, your heritage—risked the very wrath of Garlemald for us.”  She shoved her face into his chest.  “I want to be like you,” she wept.  “I want to know what I want.  To be brave enough to chase it—without always itching to run away.”

He scooped her more firmly in his hug.  When he spoke, his voice was ragged.  “My dearest girl,” he said softly.  “My little Rose.”  He squeezed her and leaned back to look at her, barking a sudden laugh.  “Not so little anymore.”  His eyes felt hot and watery as he pulled her back in tight.  “So much pain you have endured.”

Her sobs were soundless now, but he felt the damp heat of her tears.  He blinked the mist from his own eyes and glanced at his wife, jerking his chin to the mess in his embrace.  Bryony bustled over to throw her arms around them both, sandwiching their daughter between them.

That made Rose gasp a laugh.  “I love you,” she croaked.  “I love you both—so much—”

“We love you too, you fine blooming off-to-save-the-world-and-get-yourself-broken longsuffering numpty,” Bryony grumbled, the vise of her arms pulling tighter.  Her voice softened a margin.  “Wish you would say it more often.”

Cassius held on to his girls—his brambly wife, his prickly daughter.  He was fit to burst with fondness.  “Let’s eat.  Drink.  Cry some more.  Keep hugging.  I don’t care.”  He laughed and tears tracked paths down his face.  “I love you both more than my own damn life.”

 



 

Chapter Text



  

“I like the sound of your ‘Sir Emmerich’ myself,” said her mother, lounging with her wine.  She took a leisurely sip.  “Seems to me like he’d make a very fine husband.”

Samantha’s face burned and she opened her mouth, but Cassius grunted loudly, pointing at her with the wine bottle.  “Fine fodder for nuptials or not, you went to quite a bit of trouble to save this Estinien’s life,” he muttered.  “Or soul.  Or existence.  Whatever it was—the way you put it, you nearly died for him.”

For a breath of silence, Samantha’s heart fluttered.  “If I had to,” she said.  “I would die for them both.”

Cassius raised his pale eyebrows.  “Then it sounds like you love them both,” he declared.  Bryony hummed staunch agreement.

“I do,” Samantha mumbled.  “I mean, I did.”  She groaned and shoved both hands through her hair, glaring at her parents.  “You two are supposed to be helping me, not somehow making things worse.

Cassius shrugged.  “I never loved someone in Garlemald.  Never would have,” he said simply.  Then he jerked his chin at Bryony.  “Not the way I was completely benumbingly befuddled by that one.”

Bryony scoffed and snorted.  “Your father didn’t give me a choice,” she added, elbowing him in the gut, making him wince.  “Or I should say,” she continued, staring pointedly at her daughter.  “You made the choice for me.”

Samantha scowled at her.  “But you loved him,” she argued.  “You could have run away with me even without him.  But you took him with you, and here you are.”  She lifted her hands to gesture around the room, at the night sky beyond the windows.  “You built all of this together, because you wanted it together.”

Bryony quirked one fiercely arched brow.  “What do you want then, my daughter?  The man you nearly died to save, or the man who saved your heart?”

 


 

It was a blindingly bright and balmy morning.

Her Coerthan cloaks were too warm, so she dressed in some of Bryony’s old clothes and checked her mother’s list of deliveries for the fourteenth time.  Samantha held the basket of produce in one hand and the carton of herbal tinctures in the other. 

She should have known she’d end up running errands.

Bryony had a knack for raw magicks, always nudging the most potent essence out of things.  Meanwhile, medicine—or rather, the science of medicus—was the specialty of Cassius in Garlemald.  Together they were an unstoppable force, at least when it came to folk remedies in the Shroud.

Samantha left a batch of veggies and tinctures on a doorstep and carried on.

Growing them was one thing, the herbs and flowers and elements.  Samantha loved it.  When she was kneeling in the dirt, her father liked to squint at her and shout: “Is that a little Rose in the garden?”  But learning the magick of growing—of healing—was a struggle.  She never liked it.  Not that she hated it, either.  It just never came quick to her, never felt easy.  Her father schooled her in the art of conceptual theory, while her mother passed down her old Highland witchcrafts. 

She checked the list of addresses.  Only three more to go.

Samantha loved learning—especially from her father.  Then she learned the truth—his blood, his origin—the sick recognition of something she darkly suspected.  She started running as fast as she could.  She left the house at fifteen; begged to board at a White apprenticeship in New Gridania.  Luckily, her skills were acceptable.  She finished at eighteen, and then caught the eye of the Professor.

Her brow beetled at the thought.  Out of sight, out of mind.  But every time she went home, she remembered—was never able to leave it unturned.  She made the second to last delivery and walked a bit faster.

Rafe.  Raphael, he liked her to call him.  Employer turned mentor turned— … She cringed.  Could what he was, in the end, even be titled a “lover?”  They did the things that lovers did, but was it ever love that she felt?  Whatever it was, it turned into obligation.  Day after day, she lived with dread—dread she would displease him, that he’d cast her on the street, that he’d ship her back to her parents.  There were never any threats.  Just an unspoken agreement that without him, she’d end up abandoned. 

She snorted, approaching the final doorstep. 

Gods, what fool she had been—a blind, young fool—mistaking the cage of his desires for affection.  It took her three years to break free.  Three years of wanting so badly to fly, to run, to do anything other than stay—but always too timid to defy him.

Samantha carefully arranged the last drop-off and frowned at the sky.  Eight years since she left the Shroud; seven since the Calamity.  That made six since the last time she saw him—since she cursed him down the depths of seven hells and made him promise to always regret her.

She took a breath and snorted against it.  Twelve.  That felt so big to her then.  But after all she’d seen and done since—from Ifrit to Baelsar to Nidhogg—

She shoved the empty carton in the basket.

Why?  She didn’t know.  She had all the answers she needed.

Still, she mapped that old path, and flexed her toes down to meet it.

 



  

Raphael Lemaitre was not a warm man.

Warmth was a weakness of spirit, and his pupils had a knack for finding weakness.  Thus, he kept himself cool and collected, never bending, never yielding.  If they caught even the briefest glimpse of him melting, he would fall from on high.  He closed his book and sighed and pressed knuckles to his temples.

It was exhausting.  Exhausting, and lonesome—even when he was surrounded at all times. 

He stood from the desk in his study and crossed to the window; leaned his forearm against it and stared out at the yard.  His eyes always drifted there first, to the roses she planted.  Why he kept them alive, he didn’t know.  They never wanted to bloom for him.  Not like they ever did for—

Her.

He stiffened.  No. 

It couldn’t be.  But it was.

 



 

She stalked up the doorstep and slammed her hand on the door.

“Rafe,” she yelled.  “I know you’re in there.  I saw you staring out the godsdamned window.”

For several breaths, everything was silent—aside from the ringing in her ears.  Then she heard the click of the latch.  She dug her heels into the porch and scowled.  The door opened to reveal him, ever the epoch her senior—now six years older than before, his long tawny hair all peppered with white.  He pushed a silvering lock behind one tapered ear, crossed his arms, and frowned at her.  “I thought you never wished to see me again.”

“Funny how life never happens as planned,” she groused, glaring up at him.

He blinked owlishly through his glasses, the hazel of his eyes catching green in the sunlight.  His gaze flicked to the empty basket at her hip.  “Distributing wares for your mother?” 

She nodded.  Then she jerked her chin at the roses still growing in the yard.  “I thought you hated those.”

He made a disgruntled sound in his throat.  “Funny thing about life and all that,” he echoed, his lip curling.  His eyes drifted down to her feet and back up to her face.  Then he shifted his weight and frowned harder.  “Why are you come here?  Are you not busy ‘ousting corruption’ and whatnot?”

“Just finished,” she muttered. 

His brow furrowed.  “And I factor back in how?”

“I came home to visit my parents,” she said, furrowing her brow just as hard.  “Ended up recollecting that time I gave you a lecture.”

She could tell he wanted to grin, but he wouldn’t.  He never did.  “Teachers make appalling students, you know,” he said blandly.  He uncrossed his arms to gesture inside, pausing for a breath.  “Did you want to come in?”

She laughed loudly and he grimaced.  “No.”

He leaned against the doorframe.  “What, then?”

She pursed her lips.  There was really nothing that remained to be said—not between them, at least.  Instead of thinking too long and too hard about that, she asked him the question that pulled her to his doorstep.  “Did you love me?”

He raised both of his eyebrows.  Oh.  That was an unexpected reaction.  “Pardon?”

She wet her lips and asked it again.  “Did you love me?

The eyes that searched her face unstiffened, and it reminded her of thousands of things.  A girl just barely grown into a woman, smart and shy and terrified—the stern and silent scholar in his office, offering her solace—struggling to win his affection—the heartache and sadness of rejection—the strain of clinging on to him when he kept bloody changing the rules.

Rafe took a sharp breath.  “You know that I loved you, Rosalyn.  Or is it ‘Samantha’ they call you now?”

Her heart stammered.  “My friends call me Samantha,” she said.  She thought of the chorus of their voices, and her heart swelled, full to bursting.  “And I think I prefer the way they love me.”

Somehow his eyebrows lifted higher.  “What?”

“Love,” she said sharply.  “How would you define it?”  She hoped she pierced him with her stare.  “You’re the professor, after all.”

His lips parted and he cleared his throat.  The way the words fell out made him seem like a machine.  “Love.  A noun.  A state, a feeling—romantic or sexual attachment.  Smitten, besotted, enamored.”  He looked uncomfortable beneath the force of her stare.  “Was it love you felt for me?”

She quirked a brow.  “Do you really want to know?”

He considered that for a moment—a split second, really.  “No,” he elected.  He shifted his weight again, otherwise impassive; crossed his arms tighter and straightened his back.  Then he issued an answering challenge.  “How would you define it?”

The words rang loud in her ears.  Like an arrow loosed from a bowstring, her heart flew due west—to mountains wreathed in snow and mist—to eyes bright like diamonds, like the pitch of an abyss—

And then it flew beyond.

She felt the warmth of Minfilia’s smile, Thancred’s rolling, raucous laugh.  She winced and grinned against the bite of Y’shtola’s sarcasm and paused for the verse of Urianger’s reply.  She felt aether like heather and mint leaves—her arms pressed to brace a cross comrade—the taste of thin stew among wingbeats of dragons—

She thought of her mother and her father, holding tight to their forever.

Her own stubborn heart was fit to split its mended stitches. 

“Love is a choice,” she decided.  “To choose tomorrow after tomorrow—to fight to keep making it better.  Love is laughing, and crying, wishing—together.”  Her chest felt light.  “Love is to dream of the seed of something good—and keep growing it forever.”

There were a handful of heartbeats—a bird warbling on the chimney.

“That,” Raphael Lemaitre said gently, “Was a lecture to remember.”

 



 

 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

“I call them ‘Deae Gratia’ and ‘Teiwaz,’” her father proclaimed, beside himself with pride.

She tried not to stare dumbly at the beautiful quarterstaves.  Both were polished to gleaming, wildly ornate, feathered and tasseled and set with smooth stones.  One was hooked and fashioned to cradle the suggestion of a planet.  The other was trimmed with brass and folded wings, twisted around a rose-colored bauble.  “Is that some of your magitek at the center?”

Cassius gave her an extremely vigorous nod.  He offered his gifts—decidedly Ilsabardian—one grasped in each hand.  “I precision tuned them,” he was saying, a little bit breathless.  His crow’s feet were totally crinkled, his teeth gleaming in a nervous smile.  “They should be suited to the full spectrum of your magicks.”

Bryony nudged an arm around her daughter’s back and leaned in close.  “He finished them start of the season,” she whispered loudly.  “He’s been holding his breath for you to come get them—though I doubt he expected to present them like this.”

No.  It was likely he didn’t.  Usually she avoided him, leaving her mother to play intercessor.

Samantha’s mouth twitched up in an embarrassed grin.  “Father,” she muttered.  She cleared her throat.  “They’re—incredible.”

Cassius cleared his throat, too.  “Well, come over here then,” he said, gesturing with both of his arms and the staffs.  “Let me put them on your back.”

He lashed them together with a wrapping and strapped them both beside the third she already wore.  They were unbelievably light—hardly adding to her burden.  She hefted her bags a bit higher.  Cassius finished pulling the ties and gave her a heavy pat for good measure.  “Use them well,” he said gruffly.

She hobbled around to find him with tears in his eyes.  He tried to hide his face.

Samantha barked a laugh and shoved him into her arms.  “You’re making me cry, too,” she muttered.

“Must be related,” Bryony clucked.  She sandwiched them both in her grip again.

Her father’s voice was muffled at her shoulder.  “You be safe.”

Samantha nodded.  Before she could say something, her mother interrupted.  “Come back sooner next time,” she demanded.  “Your father and I are getting old.”

 


 

She pounded on the door with the heel of her fist.  Hopefully he was home.

After several breaths, it opened.  Rafe was dressed in one of the suits he wore for the academy, his shoulders emblazoned with insignias, his hair pulled back with a ribbon.  He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and blinked down at her about twenty times.  “Why—”

Samantha shoved a small cloth sack into his chest and his elbows bent to hold it reflexively.  “Make sure the soil is draining,” she began.  “Give the roots at least two ilms of water per week, early in the day.  Keep the leaves dry—and the canes need hard pruning every spring.”

He stared at her like she’d sprouted extra heads.  “Are you telling me how to tend roses?”

“You haven’t the slightest idea how to care for them,” she said plainly, referring to roses and herself and everything else.  She poked a finger at the bag in his arms and continued.  “Feed them this,” she instructed, looking up at him sternly.  “Once per moon to start.”

He seemed vaguely transfixed.  He blinked a few more times.  “What is this?” he asked, tilting his chin toward the bag, forcing his eyes from hers to look down at it.

“Bryony’s compost,” she informed him.  “She always has plenty—you can ask her for more when you run out.”

His throat bobbed and he grimaced.  “I doubt she would enjoy that.”

“That’s what I said,” Samantha muttered.  “But she offered, and I quote, ‘as long as I get to kick him in the bollocks.’”

He grimaced harder.  “Somehow I feel less and less encouraged.”

Samantha shrugged.  “You know where to find her,” she said unhelpfully.  Then she took a step back and looked him up and down.  Stiff and formal, clutching his uninvited bag of fertilizer—his face looked a bit pinched, his glasses gleaming in the early morning sun, his hair gone grey at the temples—

After demons and dragons and Garlean disasters, he was the opposite of intimidating.  She shook her head and wondered how she’d ever been afraid of him.  She took a deep breath and looked him dead in the eye.  “Try to be happy, Raphael.”

At the force of her words and attention, the muscles in his jaw fluttered.  He swallowed.  “You do the same.”

She smiled gently. 

Then she turned on her heel and pointed west, charting a course back to Ishgard.

 


 

It was very late when she arrived at the Manor.

She tried to sneak inside, and a small person immediately plummeted against her.  Alphinaud.  His grip was pulverizing.  “When you said three days,” he complained, clutching firmly, “I was under the impression you were returning in three days’ time.”

Winded, she raised both of her eyebrows.  “I changed mounts several times,” she gasped, trying to explain, to keep her voice quiet.  “And moved a bit on foot.  You of all people know how much I hate to be aethersick—would you have me arrive at the doorstep green and ailing?”

He scoffed, releasing her from his surprisingly fierce grasp.  “At least contact Tataru by linkpearl next time,” he admonished.  His voice was a low grumble.  “For heaven’s sake, I have one of my own.”  He frowned up at her.  “You do still possess one, do you not?”

“Of course I do,” she snorted.  He looked so angry—her small, furious guardian.  Samantha was aggressively reminded of Estinien.  She laughed and bent to scoop him back into a hug, squeezing tight.  “I’m sorry, Alphinaud,” she said, very sincere.

He choked and coughed.  “That will do,” he said, patting her shoulder.  As they moved apart again, his eyes flicked to notice the triad of staffs at her back.  He searched her with a questioning stare, and she smiled.

“A gift from my father,” she said, unlacing her straps.  The quarterstaves glistened in the lamplight as she unwrapped them.

He studied every ilm of the weapons, his gaze sharp and calculating.  Alphinaud took a measured breath.  He looked at her with something shrewd in his eyes.  “What was your father’s occupation again?”

She tapped the edge of her forehead in the way Cassius did when he said something solemn.  “Confidential information.”

Samantha knew he suspected.  There had been enough conversations skirting the issue to lead to some meager understanding—understanding, that is, that she never spoke of it.  Still, he wet his lips.  “Hold nothing back, I said,” he muttered.  “But did she listen?  It remains to be seen.”

She barked a laugh and gripped him by a shoulder.  “I will tell you one day,” she assured him.  “Or I will let him do it.  But not now.  I hope you can trust me.”

Alphinaud sighed, but in his voice crouched a grin.  “Ever and always.”

“I beg your pardon,” a gentle, but commanding voice interjected.

Samantha and Alphinaud looked up to find Count Edmont, approaching from the direction of the study.

“Excuse us, my lord,” Alphinaud said quickly.  “We were just making haste to retire for the evening.”

Count Edmont de Fortemps moved toward them slowly.  His cane tapped soft, hollow sounds against the floor.  “Now, now,” he said warmly.  “None of that.  How many times must I tell you to call me Ser Edmont, my boy?”

The tips of Alphinaud’s ears reddened and he looked away.  “My apologies—Ser Edmont.”

The Count smiled down at him, then turned to Samantha.  “I am glad you are returned to us,” he said fondly.  “I admit, I hoped I might intercept your arrival.”  His dark blue eyes twinkled.  “How do your parents fare?”

Her heart swelled with so much love—from her journey through the past, this reminder of her present; the hopeful promise of the future.  She couldn’t stop the tears from rising to her eyes.  She was Cassius, through and through.  Samantha laughed a shallow breath.  “They fare very well, Ser Edmont,” she said, lifting a gloved hand to dry her cheeks.  She looked deep into his warm, caring gaze and her heart fairly soared.  “Forgive me,” she began, resting her gifts on the floor.  Then she turned full to face him.  “Might—might I—”

Count Edmont braced his heels and spread his arms—and meekly, she entered them.

“Come join us, Master Leveilleur,” Count Edmont suggested.

A tired voice called down from the stairwell.  “Is our lady returned?”

Emmanellain—accompanied by his bleary-eyed brother.

By the end of it, three lords Fortemps and two of their wards were linked by the arms.

“Where is Mistress Tataru?” someone asked.

Alphinaud answered.  “Always the Forgotten Knight.”

“Well,” Count Edmont blustered, holding his children tighter.  “We shall have to remember her in the morning.”

 


☾ ❅ ☽

  

Estinien’s boots crunched on the rime that lined the cobblestones.

He was still lightheaded—weak—cold even through the smothering layers of his cloaks.

A grunt escaped his lips as a cloud of white vapor.  He was accustomed to Nidhogg’s inferno, all-pervading, burning everywhere around and within him.  He shivered at the thought in a way that had nothing at all to do with climate.  Recovery was a process—from war or injury or the deepest depths of hell.  This he knew well.

But Estinien was impatient.

He hunched against the light snowfall, moving through the Pillars like an afterthought.

These streets were like home.  He knew every gap and crevice, every alley like the backs of his hands.  Moving through them was easy as gripping his lance—familiar as the flash of a pair of wintry eyes that sternly begged him to take care of himself.

Estinien snorted, angling his toes toward the Manor Borel.

Why his summons was so late, he was unsure.  But Estinien suspected.  He was terribly good at watching and waiting; listening in lieu of running his mouth.  Long as he lived, he would never forget the day he woke back to himself—Alphinaud mewling at the bedside, Aymeric and Samantha standing sentry in an instant.

His freshly rescued spirit wrung his heart hard enough to rend him, the fond rush of blood going straight to his head.  Those three beloved companions—the boy like a brother, the man like his keeper, the woman like something else.

He took a breath against the tightness in his chest.

From this bearing, he walked past the Manor Fortemps.  He braced himself against that, too—turned his eyes far up to the windows—was unable to stop himself from searching for hers.  Her balcony was missing one or two pots of roses.  He stood a bit straighter at that detail; stiffened at the gleam of the doors as they opened. 

The dim glow of the hearth inside framed her with light.

Samantha was made of hard edges, exactly like him.  But in the muted firelight, she was softened.  His footsteps dragged and stilled, and the breath in his lungs was suddenly trapped.  BewitchingThat was the word to describe her.  He found his air again and chuckled.  Fitting for a sorceress.

She was bending to fetch another pot of roses, dressed in long, dark nightclothes.  From his perspective, she might as well be robed in shadows.  He watched her as she hefted the snow-dusted vessel in both arms and carried it inside.

He could climb up to her.  His limbs still felt frail from time to time, but he knew his own strength.

Then again, Aymeric was waiting.

The doors gleamed and swung, and this time, she moved to the edge of the railing—peered out into the night.  She braced her hands against the stonework and surveyed Ishgard, her face turning slowly, slowly and—stopping.

His heart stuttered.  She was looking at him.

Estinien was fixed in place by her distant stare.  She raised one hand to bid a spark to life, and he could clearly see her squinting.  The wind whipped the dark, unbound hair around her face, the flame that fed on her aether ever burning, unaltered.

Slowly, he bent at the waist and bowed.

She seemed frozen there, unmoving—her unburning hand rising to her chest.

He shivered.  Then he tore himself away from her pull, from her spell, and pressed on.

 


 

Chapter Text


☾ ❅ ☽

  

“You love her, then,” Estinien muttered.

The Manor Borel was quiet.  Night was fully settled, its veil spread heavy over Ishgard.  The steward was gone to bed, all aides and retainers sent home.  Aymeric was dressed in something characteristically sophisticated, but simple—shades of gold and blue.  He sank down on the chaise in his study and lifted piercing eyes to his surly friend.  “Will you not sit?”

Beneath the withering, wintry force of that stare, Estinien felt narrow and mortal and bare.  He crossed his arms tighter; braced his heels solid on the floor.  “I have no plans to linger here,” he said, shifting his weight.  His long hair moved in a pale curtain around his shoulders, tamed against his plain Coerthan wear.  “I only came per your counsel."

Aymeric sighed.  He turned his shapely face to look at the fire and leaned elbows on his thighs—steepled his fingers and pressed his lips against them.  “Yes,” he abruptly declared, muffled by the nearness of his hands.  “I love her.”  The ice of his stare flicked back to Estinien, stark and probing.  “What does that change?”

“Everything,” Estinien grunted.  His jaw was stiff.  The dark eyes he used to search his friend’s face filled with something hollow, and he looked away quickly, swallowed hard against it.

The Lord of the House Borel was standing back up from his seat, very slowly.  He watched Estinien like he was a hound that might startle; made no sudden movements.  “Tell me why,” he said—a demand disguised as soft invitation.  He took a subtle step to close the distance between them.

Let me in.

Estinien angled his body away, tension churning in his chest.  “No,” he objected, stone-faced, staring at the wall.  The firelight reflected in his eyes and he stiffened.  “You know I lack the words.”

He was all action, little faith.  Aymeric’s gaze was unblinking.  “I am certain you have them,” he promised, his voice curled with the proof of a very dry smile.  “In addition, of course, to my patience.”

Estinien snorted, almost tempted to look at him.  But he kept his stiff posture and faltered.  Shame, damning and ashen as wyrmbreath, crept down his neck.  “You would not understand,” he said gruffly. 

He could feel Aymeric watching, unbearable.  “Then help me to learn.”

A sort of wild awe smoothed across Estinien’s brow—the synchronicity of a memory, clicking into place.

His eyes turned to meet a pair as bright as stardust. 

Then help me to learn.

 


 

“I need you,” she confessed.  Her soft lips were warm against his chest, leaving a hot burning trail.

The word caught on his tongue, no more than a rasp.  “Why?”

She was kissing his neck, his throat—combing her hands through his untidy hair.  His blood was on fire.  “To feel,” she exhaled.  It prickled on his skin.  “You and I—feeling you like this—is the only way anything seems real.”

 


 

Estinien was trembling.  He took a sharp breath against the drumming of his heart.  “She bade me to feel,” he said, gravel in his chest.  “From my bitter sea of torment, she—” He faltered and looked at the fire, his lips set in a grimace.  “She pulled me to the surface.”

He could almost feel the heat of Aymeric’s stare bearing down on him.  “A rare feat indeed,” Aymeric allowed.  “One even I could not boast.” 

Was it envy, somehow, in his voice? 

Estinien scoffed.  “Not for lack of trying.”  He finally met his friend’s eyes.  Aymeric was closer than expected. 

Both of them fell silent.

For the span of several heartbeats, the only sound was the whisper of snowfall at the window—the somber brush of the wind.  “You remind me of each other,” Aymeric finally supplied.  “Ferocious and burning, but possessed of something kind.” 

Estinien snorted and opened his mouth to make a scornful rejoinder, but his gentle friend stopped him; touched his shoulder.  He did not flinch away.  “Nay—I speak not in jest,” Aymeric said, gazing deep into his eyes.  “Clandestine though it may be, you are brutally tender inside,” he accused.  “And I daresay she perceived it same as I.”

The warmth of Aymeric’s palm was familiar as breathing.  Added to the truth of his words and the stare that flayed him open, he felt stripped to the quick.  He took a ragged breath.

“I could not escape her,” he whispered.  “She feared to be alone.”

 


 

An angel of death, wreathed in tears and soot and embers, a halo of golden flame.

The crowcall of her voice cried his name.

Estinien!

He surged with every subterranean ache.  Whatever remained of him strained against the shackles of Nidhogg that bound him.  He wanted to roar, to scream, to tell her to move, as the monstrous body that caged him lunged to cut her down.  But like the seraph of Fury she was, she vanished into thin air, threading a distance away.  Sparks glittered above her like stars and she glowed with the aether to end him.

Not while I yet live.

 


 

“I made a promise,” Estinien rasped, looking hard at the floor.  “A vow to her—to you—to Ishgard.  To the very soul of my brother.  And then I fell, worse than dead—part and parcel to him that would end us.”  He swiped his tongue across bitter, chapped lips; lifted a fist to press tight against them.

He was not a soft man.  He would shed no tears—least of all in Aymeric’s presence.

But now both of his dearest friend’s hands were moving to grasp him, gathering his shoulders, urging an embrace.  Estinien kept his feet planted and turned away.  “It was you who earned triumph by her side,” he croaked.  “To the victors go the spoils.”

Aymeric froze.  His voice was sharp and more biting than a blade.  “What?”

Estinien dared to look at him again.

By Fury the man was not earthly.  No living creature should be possessed of such unsettling eyes.

“You are alive,” said Aymeric, very near to growling.  “If that is not triumph—”  His voice cracked. 

Aymeric closed the distance between them himself, crushing Estinien into his arms. 

He could feel him shudder, feel the silent sob he uttered.  Estinien's heart skipped several beats and he closed his eyes; lifted timid hands to share the gesture.  There was another interval of silence before Aymeric pulled away, wiping his cheeks and his nose with the back of his hand.  “Forgive me,” he muttered, very rough.

Estinien swallowed against the sandpaper in his mouth.  “No need,” he managed.  Years of memories, their memories, were crowding his mind.  He felt something hot in his eyes and swiftly stifled his thoughts.

Aymeric cleared his throat.  Twice.  “You are a victor well as I,” he resumed.  “And she, and all of Ishgard.  You should enjoy whatever ‘spoils’ you desire.”

Estinien’s heart was still pounding, his mind a blur of many things.  “Not her,” he said, tactless but honest.  “Not when she is yours.”

“She belongs to no one,” said Aymeric sternly.  Even so, his voice was suddenly frail.

Uneasiness seethed to a froth in Estinien’s chest.  “But—”

Aymeric held up a hand.  “It is not our decision to make.”  Now his eyes, too, were empty and aching—hollowed out into a bright and churning abyss.  Agonizing compassion filled his voice.  “This outcome should be of her choosing.  So much has been declared for her already.”

Estinien took a shaky breath—spoke before he could lose whatever remained of his nerve.  “Allow me one night, then,” he pled.  “One night to go to her, as I did before.  And come what may—”

“Come what may, as ever,” Aymeric interrupted, looking at the fire.  “We will survive it together.”

 

☾ ❅ ☽


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

It was a fitful sleep she entered; feverish.

Bursts of old memories crowded the black of her mind.

 


 

She blinked her heavy eyes and was back in the Mists, early morning after the Aery.  The light was cold and bright and blinding, and she basked in it, a survivor.  She had weathered the searing blaze of Nidhogg, rescued her friends from his wrath—and endured the blunt punishment of Estinien’s body.

Sweat itched down her neck as she sparred with him, their long established habit.  Her form today was poor.  Then again, everything ached.  She could feel the crust of each scrape from the agonizing climb, every burn where hot wyrmbreath had touched her.  Beyond that, she felt every bruise and bite from her brutal new bedmate.  Dull pain throbbed, low and hollow inside her.

It felt good, to ache like this—revitalizing.

But her body was unused to it.  Inured to outward injury, yes; but she couldn’t remember the last time she felt the sweet anguish of a morning after.  Unwise of her to seek it now, in the wilderness of war, with Estinien of all people.

But she wanted what she wanted, and had no time for regrets.

He was fierce today, enlivened in spite of their exertions.  His lance grated against her channeling staff and they split apart, diving back together.  “You left before dawn,” he grunted, the mist of his breath very close to her face.  He was dressed in the heavy tunic and slops he wore beneath his armor, his arms bare, his hair a silver banner behind him.  How he wasn’t cold was a mystery.

She grimaced.  They were well enough alone, but a whisper of shame still stung her face.  Foul black levin prickled up to scorch his fingers and he jerked away, baring his teeth to answer her scowl.  “Alphinaud checks on me at sunrise,” she grumbled, weaving a comet spun of fire.  “He would have thrown a fit to find me missing.”

She hurled the flame and Estinien dipped to the ground, evading it.  His lip curled as he stayed low, muscles of his thighs straining against the seams of his trousers.  He lunged to swipe for her flank.  Surprised and distracted, she twisted to parry the blow and tumbled to the ground.  Victory buzzed through his expression and he thrust to take a final plunge.  She pitched to safety, yanking her layers of skirts to one side and crouching to her feet.

His eyes flashed as he watched her dodge away.  He used his tongue to swipe sweat from his lips and spun his lance to find a better grip.  He leapt toward her again.  “And tonight?”

She scoffed and snorted, bracing her heels in the hard terrain.  “What of it?”  An outgrowth of stone sprung up from the rock at her feet, catching his weapon.

He laughed, breathless—broke his lance free—arced gracefully to the side to land on fully flexed feet.  He was relaxed, smirking, energetic; his movements smooth and almost effortless.  “Will you join me?”

“Again?”  She barked a laugh and bid the stone to crumble to dust—sprinted out of the long reach of his spear.  “Are you not sated?”

He took a breath through his teeth and was at her side in a blink.  His words burned into her ear.  “I am never sated.”  Something jerked her to a stop, whiplash hard enough to make her taste copper.  Her head spun.  Their weapons were locked together.  She dropped one hand to pull free, but he followed, body checking her down to the ground.

They tumbled together.  She writhed and scrambled from the hand that vainly grasped to pin her, and thereby end the match.  Thwarted, he made a sharp sound of frustration in his throat and used his lance to vault back up. 

“Unfortunate,” she panted, pushing clumsily off the ground.  “To be so insatiable.”

He loped around her for an opening and she kept herself guarded, adopting a defensive stance.  “I did warn you,” he taunted, a note of something very, very wicked in his voice. 

She beetled her brow at him and scoffed again.  “Your beastliness is your problem,” she snapped, blocking the blow as he lunged forward.  He grinned as he brought his lance down with glancing force.  The metal of their weapons keened as it scraped together, and she bared her teeth, braced against his dazzling strength. 

Nidhogg slayer

Estinien took her breath away—made every ilm of her battered body ache.

He noticed.  His dark eyes hooded as she stared at him; as he issued his invitation.  “Surely you can handle me just once more.”

Something very hot flared low inside her and her legs buckled.  She stiffened against it, but it was too late.  He was bearing her down to the ground, making her bend.  She gasped with fury as the base of her spine shoved into the rocky Dravanian earth.  His knees pressed to pin by both of her hips, the weight of his body ensnaring her.

In the bright morning sun, his hair was a curtain of light.  He smiled down at her through the cross of their arms, thrilling with triumph.  “Corps-à-corps,” he growled. 

She huffed a fuming breath and transposed the fire in her veins, sending a burst of ice up to graze his neck.  Frost blasted his hair back in a glittering ripple.  He laughed loudly and hooked his body over her, something sinful in his eyes.  His breath was hot on her ear.  “Now I know how to make you helpless beneath me.”

She ground her teeth and threw her staff aside.  “You win this one,” she spat.  “Now get off.”

He rocked to his feet and stepped back, freeing her.  He offered her a hand and she grabbed it. 

Estinien leaned against the length of his lance as he helped her up—pulled her hard enough to crush them together.

He was warm, his clothes humid.  His lance clattered to the ground as his hands held her tight—as one rose to grip the nape of her neck.  He jerked to press lips against her throat and took a ragged breath.  “Come to me tonight,” he demanded.

Her legs were weak, boneless.  She scowled with force enough to feel her face twist, breathing hard.  The scent of his sweat was all around her.  “I will do as I please,” she muttered, the words snagging on her dry tongue.

His body trembled and he gripped her neck harder—as his mouth opened on her skin to bite, insistent.  “I will be waiting.”

 


 

The sound he made was guttural, thrilling down to where he pulsed inside her.  He groaned against the urge to spill already. 

Alone again on that mountain, they knelt to soothe their vicious ache, tangled together in longing and half shorn clothes. 

They were far from camp.  She braced her stinging palms in the hard earth and panted to catch her breath; gasped as he moaned and rumbled at her back.  One hand curved at her throat, a gentle collar.  “Only the beasts can hear us,” he grunted.  His open mouth dragged at her neck.  Soft tangles of his hair whispered to tickle her ears.  He flexed to pull her firm against his weight, crouched tight above her.

He moved more fiercely.  Lean muscle beneath rough linen thrust her down harder, dizzying.

Her back arched at the shock of his hot tongue and a sharp sound flung past her lips.  She realized it was his name seconds before she unraveled.  Everything blurred.  A hoarse cry of satisfaction escaped her and his breath caught, ragged.  He buried his face in her neck; crushed himself against her; chanted a blistering line of curses.

The din of their fierce coupling drifted to die in the wind.  He thundered his final bliss and she shuddered with every aftershock, trapped in the cage of his arms.  He buried his teeth in the sliver exposed of her shoulder and winced, hips jerking.  “Bloody hells.”

Smitten by the angles of his body, she felt crisp relief.  The cold wind whipped and she closed her eyes, afraid to move.  The air between them was warm and thick and her voice was barely a rasp.  “Hells indeed."

He growled a thin laugh and spread both hands down to catch in the folds of her clothes; pressed slow kisses to the tender bruises on her neck.  She twisted to meet his mouth with open lips, ferocious.  He answered, closing his eyes, kissing deep enough to swallow her soul. 

“This was the last time,” he lied.  “I swear it.”

She grinned bitterly, using her teeth to tug his bottom lip.  “Actions speak louder."

 


 

They kicked up dust as they sparred again, days later.

Estinien’s armor clattered as he fell back.  The tattered ends of her skirts and robes fluttered as she hunched over.  Aether wrung through the air, tasting shrill and electric.  Alphinaud coughed and moved from where he was watching, crossing arms at the front of his cloak.  “The two of you brawl like a pair of rabid animals.”

A hysterical laugh bubbled out of Samantha’s chest and she kept weaving her spell.  Estinien’s eyes flicked away from her in distraction.  “Stand back, boy,” he barked, lunging to interrupt her.

“I am not a fool,” Alphinaud snapped.  Even as he flinched away to take cover, he watched with morbid fascination.

Black flames spilled from her hands as Estinien succeeded in breaking her concentration.  She dispelled the energy and danced away from the stretch of his lance, manipulating the ley lines around her to dive through thin air. 

She resurfaced behind him.

Estinien’s face went slack with shock as Alphinaud shouted.  She grappled the tines at the back of his armor, shoving him down with the icy chassis of her staff.  Rime spread to pin him and he made a choking sound, forced to his knees.  She shoved a heel gently on his back and cackled as the ice cracked.  “Corps-à-corps.”

He snarled.  It caught like gravel in his throat.

Alphinaud was scrambling over, his eyes alight.  “Samantha—when did you master that aetherial manipulation?”

She was breathing hard, triumphant.  “I haven’t mastered it at all,” she panted.  “I saw an opening and I took it.”

“Impressive.”  Ysayle’s shrewd, measured voice, coming from behind them.  Estinien’s face jerked to glower in her direction and she laughed, like the glitter of icicles, like the tinkle of cold silver bells.  “I do love to watch you put him in his place.”

Samantha laughed again and Estinien grumbled, shoving himself out of his prison.  “Damn you all,” he spat, bristling.  He stalked away, trailed by the sound of their eager conversation—the three of them sharing the easy friendship that always escaped him.

He did not return, not even for supper.

 


 

Close to midnight, she found him—crouched at the edge of their favored mountain arena, armor shed, staring at the horizon.

Night was fully settled, the moon a silver crescent in the sky. 

Light, lunar and umbral, gleamed cold on the veil of his hair.  She moved toward him very slowly—watched him like he was a wild creature, seconds from startling.  He tensed at her approach and shifted away, back stiffened.  “Leave me be.”

She bent to sit down beside him regardless. 

Estinien’s jaw was set.  He kept his dark eyes shrouded from her, turned instead to the silvery semilune.

“Tell me why you are brooding,” she pressed.

He huffed a breath through his nose.  She could tell he was tempted to look at her, but he resisted.  “I am not brooding.”

“Yes, you are,” she challenged.

He scoffed.  “I suppose I should be glad for an ally that can best me,” he muttered, counting the stars.  “But I am not accustomed to being defeated.”

She could feel her brow furrow.  “That was by no means the first time I—”

“I know that,” he snapped, facing her abruptly.  His eyes were dark and blazing.  “I was a willing participant.”

They pinned each other with the force of their stares, silent for several long heartbeats.

“It was a mistake,” she said suddenly.  “We should never have—”

His hand was at her neck and there was pain in his eyes.  “No,” he snapped hotly, hurt.  “No.”

She wet her lips as she watched him.  He held her but made no motion closer.  She took a stiff breath.  “Estinien.”

His shoulders went stiff in answer.

For a long and solemn moment, they were locked by the eyes—burning together, waxless and wickless.

She leaned to press her forehead to his, and he exhaled.  His breath tasted warm and bitter and familiar; she moved her lips to meet it.  Beneath that splinter of moonlight, they shared a raw and thirsting kiss, converging in torment—yearning, as ever, to soothe their unhealing wounds.

She shivered as they parted and noticed he did the same.  “I know not how to counter your black magicks,” he said, his voice rough and searing—his meaning unclear.

She swallowed against the dry ache in her chest.  “Let me show you.”

Slowly, she took his left hand—wide and scarred and rugged.  He watched, breathless, as she positioned his fingers across a nerve and pattern; pressure points that made her spine start to itch.  “My father taught me this long ago,” she said quietly, urging the flat pads into her wrist.  “It intersects my aetherflow just enough to—”

His fingertips bore down to grip her and the air tore from her lungs.  She stared at him as he yanked her close; grappled her tight to his chest.  She could feel his ragged pulse.  He snatched the hair at the nape of her neck, and she gasped sharply as he bent her underneath him, stretching his body to cover her gently.

His hands were shoving up beneath her heavy layers, gripping her hips.  She heard his breath hitch and felt something hot and wet against her neck, quickly wiped away by his lips.  His voice was hollow with something unspoken.  “You would put your life in my hands?”

She moved to grip the ridge of his backbone and trembled.  Her mouth brushed the long shell of his ear.  “None better to hold it.”

He drew back to look down at her.  The cold light of the night rendered him with a halo of moonbeams. 

His lips parted, and he buried his face in her neck—buried the tears that fell from his eyes.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

A quiet rap on the frosted window of her balcony door.

Once.  Twice.

She was wide awake, chilled with cold sweat—stunned by the force of her somnolent recollection.

Did I summon him in my sleep?

The fire was out.  The snow had stopped.  The clouds were parted, leaving a starlit Coerthan night.  She blinked blearily at the beams of dim white drifting in through frosted windows, spreading like gossamer on the floor.  Her eyes fixed on the shadow outlined at the balcony—sharp angles cast in stark silhouette, a veil of shimmering moonlight behind him.

Estinien.

A likeness from her dreamscape resurrected, he stood there, waiting.

It had to be him.  There was only one figure so still and severe.  Only one aura so bitterly potent.  Only one man with the stubborn grit absurd enough to climb the towers and battlements of Ishgard—just to get to her.

A pause.  A long moment of silence.  Neither one of them moved. 

Then another soft drill of taps on the glass.

He would not utter words—would not stoop to beg for her attention.  Not any further.  There was only so far he was willing to bend.  And the longer she waited, she knew—the greater the risk of him leaving, perhaps this time never to return.

She took a steadying breath.

Slowly, she slipped from beneath the warm quilts of her bed.  Her long nightgown pooled around the bare toes she padded across the cold floor.  She shivered.  The streaming moonlight fell upon her face, and the shape at the windowed doorway tensed and stiffened, drawing up at her approach.

Just a few steps, and she could see him through the shadows.  His silvery hair was loose; shone bright with a halo of stars, as though it too was wrought of penumbral light.  Through the clouded glass, he found her eyes—seized her with a yearning look, dark blue as his backdrop of midnight.  In the depths of his stare smoldered cold fury and ravenous—

Hope.

A breath misted white by his lips.  He moved a gloved hand to press the door between them, waiting for her to grant him entry.  Together they stalled in deadlocked silence—neither one willing to budge any further.

Corps-à-corps.

Inside her chest, something twisted. 

She thought it would feel more transparent—thought the grime of ice and cinders would have melted, leaving clear, unclouded answers.  So much time had passed; so much loss and love and revelation.  Her journey should be at an end, her mind beyond any misgiving. 

Why, then, was it not?

Somehow, in front of him now, she felt her heart crack to glittering pieces—felt stripped to her bitterest shreds.  It was agony to imagine casting him out.  It was torture to think of letting him in. 

Estinien. 

She stared into the darkness of his eyes.

Losing him split her heart along its fractures; crushed her down to glints of umbral shards.  How long had it taken to mend her back together?  How many nights at the Manor Fortemps, lost inside herself—how many days pressing onward through her sorrow? 

And what of the love she found in that limitless dark?  What of the gentle embrace of the Borel hearth—of the arms of its heavenly keeper?  How many cautious meetings; how many timid, tentative touches had it taken to spark her back to life?

Aymeric

She owed her heart to his forbearance—loved him with every last scrap of it.  Soft and profound and abiding, what he gave her was utterly selfless, something she’d never, ever felt.

Samantha scoured the frame of Estinien’s face; sharp angles permanently preserved in her memories.  His breath fogged the air.  The wood and metal of the door gave the faintest whimper as he spread his hand against it, the look in his eyes whetted with the slightest edge of scorn.

What she felt for Estinien was something else entirely.  Gnawing.  Wounded. 

Bruised and hollowed and afraid of always hurting—of tearing them somehow asunder.

She snagged on that last thought; the root of every struggle.  And in that moment, not even the unbearable fullness borne by Aymeric’s hearth could stopper the yawning abyss that howled open in her heart.  All she felt was anguish—raw and singed to the quick—burning and empty and aching for solace.

She coveted all she had lost.  It was coveting that drew her hand to the lock.

She would never let go, not of anything.  Never again.

The latch fell away with a hollow click.  The door cracked open.  Cold air breathed into the room, smelling of ice and of smoke.  And then he was looming, electric on the threshold, the moonlight an aura around him, leaving her draped in the slant of his shadow.

She balked.  Her breath plumed to curl like a specter, doubt driving her to falter. 

“Why—” she began, as though she didn’t know.  She stammered and swallowed the vacant words that threatened, waiting instead for another absolution.

His shadowed eyes locked on her face.  The force of his attention cut to the pit of her stomach, like the sight of her tethered him to existence.  In one smooth, practiced motion, he shut the door behind him and turned the bolt, shedding his gloves and his cloak.  Estinien’s voice was dry as ash; his grave stare filled with naked hunger.  “You know very well why.”  The steel of his boots rang on the floor—two strides.  And the space between them had vanished.

His eyes were dark and unquenchably hot, but his fingers were ice on her nightgown.  Insistent palms grappled her waist.  He urged her closer; bent an unsteady body to ghost their lips together.  Long wisps of his hair fell, feather-soft, to tickle her face.  Now his voice was low and ragged, his words like the fringe of a tempest. 

“Kiss me.”

The touch of his hands; the taste of his breath—

A fierce, metallic compulsion rushed through her blood. 

She felt like a lost, starving animal, ransomed from famine.  Still, she closed her eyes; shook her muddled head.  “Estinien,” she rasped, her lips catching on his.  He flinched forward and she tilted her chin up in instinct; jerked away to pant for air.  “It can’t be the way it was—”

He grabbed her jaw and dragged his open mouth across hers; silenced her with one gruff reproach.  “Then let it be altered.”

The slope of his nose traced her cheek and she shivered. 

One chaste, gentle kiss.

He took a sharp breath.  And then she was trapped by the whole soft grasp of his lips—the hot lash of his tongue—the adamant clasp of hands and teeth.  The fever of his skin could be felt through his apparel, warming every ilm of the tense and trembling body pressed against her. 

He was bunching her nightgown up, up—smoothing greedy palms on her hips—

Her mind was swimming, her wits about to scatter.  “Estinien,” she huffed, dizzy, shrinking away.  She was shaking with the cold he’d dragged in, with the ancient fire relit in her veins.  She swallowed a thin lungful of air and fixed him with a frantic stare.  “Wait.”

He was bent, struggling for breath.  Beyond the tangle of his hair, the look in his eyes was wild.  For a moment he swayed toward her as though yanked by invisible threads.  Then he stiffened and kept his distance.

Her throat was dry.  She swiped her tongue across her lips—they were warm and swollen.  “Before—it was you.  Only you.”  Her voice was tight.  “But then I lost you—” The words caught like thorns in her mouth. 

I lost you.  I failed you.

Estinien was curt, but not a fool.  Easy comprehension crystallized in his eyes.  The thirst drained slowly from his bearing and he straightened to his full, impressive height, staring down at her.  His face was dull and brittle as a statue.

Her heart was heavy, skipping beats.  “I—” Stinging mist blurred her vision.  “You might have been dead

He closed his eyes tight.  Shook his head.  Flexed his left hand and smoothed it through his mussed hair.  “There is no need to enlighten me,” he muttered.  Though it was buried far down, very deep, she could hear the palest flinch of misery in his voice.

The taste of regret, bitter and brassy, filled her mouth.

“Would that I could go back—” Her voice cracked. 

No.  That was wrong.

He was watching her now, with a mixture of dread and—anticipation?

Her heart shuddered and she started over.  “Aymeric,” she said, wincing at the wilting look in Estinien’s eyes, at the tart and crushing pressure of guilt.  “When you were gone, he was there—where I was lost beyond saving.”

Estinien was very still and very quiet.  He watched with eyes like blue shadows—every staggering shade of night she could imagine.  “When I awakened, you arrived by his side.”  The muscles in his jaw tensed and he looked away.  “Trust that I made no small note of it,” he confessed.  “But afterward, you spoke to me in private.”  His voice caught in his throat and he cleared it.  “I dared to believe I was mistaken.”

The bones in her legs felt like water.  Of course he knew—

“I spoke with him erstwhile,” he continued, turning to glance at her shrewdly.

She backed up a step; braced herself on a chair by the hearth; closed her eyes against a sudden surge of vertigo.  “Why?”

“For permission to see you,” he said, his voice growing frail.  “Amid other sanctions.” 

Permission? 

She met the dark depths of his stare.  “Since when is Aymeric your keeper?”

Estinien bayed a very loud laugh, full of implication.  “Since before the winter of Coerthas.”

Before the Calamity? 

Her lips parted, her mind swarming.  How much did she still not know?

He must have seen the questions in her eyes, because he scoffed.  “It matters little,” he said.  “I am here tonight to accept your verdicts—if you would grant them.”

She felt more and more confused.  “What do you mean?”

“What you want with me,” he rumbled.  “With him.  With us.”

The wind beyond the windows whispered.  The air between them swelled with firm silence.  For several full breaths she struggled to think; struggled to make sense of his demand. 

But why?  Was she not searching all this time to reveal the very same—to expose what it was that she hunted?

In a way, the answer was everything.  All that she lost.  All that was yet to be found—

She winced at the thought.

“I don’t know,” she mumbled, her voice very rough.  She stared at her feet.

She heard Estinien shift his weight, listening intently, and she cringed.  Her heart started to pound. 

“I shoulder this mantle,” she continued, her pulse speeding up.  “This burden to Hydaelyn.  And I am proud to do it,” she insisted.  “I want to help this world; to make it new and different.  But—” She looked up at his face—traced every sharp, beloved angle.  “I lost you.”  She blinked the tears from her eyes.  “In chasing my fate, all that I love is cleaved from me.  Everyone I cherish becomes another sacrifice.”

Estinien’s boots made hollow sounds as he took swift steps to meet her.  He bent close; lifted one rugged hand to touch the side of her neck.  His voice hitched.  “Love is the gateway to despair,” he muttered, eyes roving her face.  “I learned that lesson long ago.”  His stare was hard and knowing.  His thumb stroked along her jawline, strong and steady.  “But you—” His breath caught.  “Aymeric and the others—even the rancor of godsdamned Nidhogg taught me that love is consolation and deliverance; the balm for the very wounds it leaves behind.”

She took a halting breath; sank against his touch.

“Now I cling to every grain of love I receive,” she confessed, gripping his hand.  “Hoarding like a miser.”  Blood rushed to warm her cheeks as his thumb traced a path to her lips.  She pulled away.  “But I cannot accept you when I won’t part with him.  It—would—be remiss.”

Estinien was silent for a moment.  Then, to her surprise, he gave a dark chuckle.  “You sound like his mouthpiece.”

She closed her eyes.  “I became more of his envoy in your absence—not to mention the time spent together.”

He chuckled again.  “That is exceedingly grim to envision.”  She scowled up at him with fire in her eyes and he openly laughed.  “Better, but—is this the mien you would wear to his summons?”

“No,” she grunted, glaring at him.  “Only for you.”

He wet his lips and unbent—took a step back.  “I know it very well,” he conceded, moving to retrieve something from the floor.  His gloves.  As she watched him tug them back on, wrap himself up in his cloak, she was overcome with a stuttering feeling.  Not quite pain, but something close.

He began to cross to the exit.

“In whatever was left of my awareness,” he said suddenly, his voice very low, “I never allowed myself to think of you.  Never to imagine a reunion.”  He paused to take a breath and glanced back at her.  “I shall conquer this,” he promised, turning to face the balcony door.  “All of this.  And far more quickly elsewhere.”

His fingers reached for the handle and her wayward heart leapt to her throat.  “Wait.”

He hesitated.  The outline of his body was bathed in moonlight, his hair a silver nimbus at his shoulders.  He turned his stark profile to view her from the side of his eye. 

Raw emotion propelled her forward—into the arms he readily spread open, the body that willingly accepted her embrace.  She folded herself tight against him.  “Will I see you again?”

Estinien chuckled, deep and dark.  His grip around her tensed and she felt his lips touch the crown of her head.  “I never could stay away.”  He smoothed the tip of his nose down to her temple.  When he spoke, his voice was very tender.  “Long as I live,” he said gently, “My life belongs to you both.”

She leaned back to look at him, searching his face—stretched up to press lips to his cheek.  The arms that caged her stiffened.  One of her hands crept down to find his, warm through the mesh of his glove.  She fitted her palm around it.  “Come,” she breathed without thinking.  “Rest with me before you go.”

His face went slack at the offer.  His hold on her loosed and she eased from his grip; twined their fingers to lead him through the room.  He trailed like a shadow, like a man still possessed—shed his cloak and gloves and boots like a reflex—slipped into the nest of still-warm bedclothes without a kernel of reluctance.

Estinien pressed his body tight at her spine and shivered.  With only clothes between them, she could feel every muscle, bone, and sinew—hard and achingly familiar.  His words were hot at her ear.  “I wanted you,” he whispered, smoothing his lips down her neck.  His voice was distant thunder.  “I missed you.”

She trembled; knew he could feel the way her pulse and body thrilled against him.  She gripped the arms he wrapped around her. 

Her voice was softer than stardust.  “And I you.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Fitted together like the shells of shed petals, their tandem breaths lulled them to sleep.

It was only when the first hint of dawn started breaking, lightening the sky, that she felt his long limbs stretch and stir.  “Don’t leave,” she said hoarsely, catching one leg with her nightgowned ankle.

The bed was cozy, but the room was cold; quiet, within and without.  The Manor Fortemps yet slumbered.  Estinien’s chest rose and fell at her back, slow and steady.  He bent to hold her firmly; brushed his nose along the waking pulse at her neck. 

His exhalation tickled like a kiss, warm and soft.  “I will do as I please.” 

She scoffed and burrowed over beneath the quilts to face him.  Somehow he was closer than expected.  His features were smoothed with repose, his hair an icy, unkempt crown.  In the mornings, he always had been handsome. 

“Stay,” she demanded.  Then she yawned very broadly.

His dark eyes softened.  His chin tilted down in snap reflex to scrub lips across her furrowed brow.  “Wherefore?”

She hooked her arms around him and pressed her forehead to his warm neck.  “I need to speak with you,” she said, muffled by the weave of his shirt.  “You and Aymeric, together.”

“What?”  He bodily cringed; she could feel his heart start to race. 

She curled back to meet his stare; braced her snug grip against his attempt to recoil.  “I want the three of us to discuss this,” she said, as sternly as her drowsy voice would allow.  “It seems like—I’m missing too many pieces with each of you alone.”

Estinien’s eyes were tight and reticent.  He studied her face.  “You are,” he grunted.  “But as I said, it matters not.”  He took a breath through his nose, held it, and eased it out.  “Aymeric loves you,” he quietly proclaimed, as though that settled it—now and evermore.

She could feel herself frowning through her half-rested haze.  “Do you not love me too?”

He wet his lips and faltered a very long beat.  She scowled at him harder.  “It matters not,” he curtly restated, clearly a lie, stiffening in her arms.  “’Twas agony enough to come here, knowing I might thieve what now is his.”

It was her turn to pause, mostly at his phrasing.  “Thieve?  As in burgle?”

Estinien coughed against what might have been the urge to laugh.  “Aye, thieve,” he grumbled.  “If Aymeric has laid some claim to you, I will not bar the way.”  He was avoiding her eyes now, his voice very low.  “He deserves every contentment.”  

The back of her throat was sour with something she feared to define.  She swallowed it down.  “And you do not?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line and stared past her face.  “He is the best man I know,” he muttered.  “All I fail to embody.  He ever will be.”  His voice was hot and hard and haunting.  “I could never hope to rival him, nor would I wish to.”

She spurred him harder.  “Why come to me at all, then?”

The muscles in his neck tensed and fluttered.  His eyes bore back into her like daggers.  “You would compel me to say it?”

“Yes,” she said, digging in.  She curved her fingers at his back for emphasis.

“Because I love you,” he spat, teeth gritted.  “Gratified now, wicked thing?”

No.  As much as she craved to know it, the fact pierced all the deeper.  She rattled like the fractures in her heart; wept tears like thin snowmelt.  She wiped her nose in the creases of his shirt, wrinkled and musty, the scent of him alluring and acrid as fire.

A pause where he took an unsteady breath.  “Are you crying?”

“No,” she croaked.  Her eyes were flooded.  A patch of wetness bloomed across his chest.

Gods tossing damn it,” he growled, trying to pull back.  “Would that I never—”

No,” she snapped wetly, bitter.  Her hands molded to his backbone and she clung to him.  “No.”

The pressure of her touch subdued him, but his heart continued to sprint.  She felt it thud hard at her dampened cheek.  “Go back to sleep,” he insisted, jerking his chin to the glow beyond the windows.  “The sun is risen.  Alphinaud surely keeps his vigil.  What would he say if he found us together?”

Her heart’s brittle umbral cobweb shivered.  “He would be aghast,” she agreed.

Estinien nodded, his ribcage swelled with a breath.  His hands hung at her shoulders.  “Let me go ere he comes.”

I have to let go of him.

Gods and hells, she was sick of that thought.

She clutched him tighter.  Gasped a stale breath against his drumming chest.  “Please come back,” she pled, trying feebly to slacken her miserly grip; shaking so badly she made the posts and headboard tremble.

Estinien doubled over, tucking her closer.  “I will.”  His voice was gruff.  He seemed to fold in on himself; to plait them together by the limbs.  His lips raked her jawline to part at her neck.  “Rest now,” he hummed, kissing her pulse.  He combed his hand through the tangle of her bedhead; dragged indulgent fingertips down the curve of her scalp.

The blur in her eyes was hot, but she released him—cringed as the mattress went lighter.  She wiped her face and crouched up on the cushion, cross-legged, watching him hunch to slip on boots and fetch his trappings.  He swathed and tied and buckled; pushed untidy hair from his eyes; turned to review her through long, frost-colored lashes. 

Twelve in heaven. 

How and why she lunged out of the bedclothes didn’t matter.  All that mattered was his mouth, breathlessly laughing into her hungry kiss.  “By the Fury,” he growled, briefly relenting, grazing teeth at her lips.  He pushed her back with stiff arms.  “Sleep and let me be, foul beast.”

“That’s my line,” she panted. 

He laughed again and held her at a distance.  “Go to bed.”

She writhed and huffed; hissed like the steam from an overfull kettle.  “I love you, Estinien.”

His eyes sparked and glinted with something reckless, raging to luster before it guttered.  His gloved fingers crushed into her shoulders as he restrained himself.  “I know.”

Her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths.  “Good.”

For one interminable instant, they were pinned there, scalded by the truth.

Finally, he took a stiff lungful.  “Bed,” he grunted, setting her free.

She wet her lips as she watched him, tense.  His blazing eyes flicked to indicate the furnishing beckoned.  Only when she sank to the mattress did he start for the doorway.  She paused.  “Look away and lie down,” he demanded.  She sighed and turned her back to him, slithering beneath the bedspread. 

There was rustling by the balcony—by her desk.  She went rigid.  “Estinien.”

Do not.”

She groaned with frustration; forced herself to crumple and screwed her eyes shut.

He was soundless as a snowdrift then, aside from the click of the latch.  She listened to the creak of the balcony exit; to the nimble footfalls of boots on the floor—felt the brisk howling wind breathe to ruffle her hair, trailing a scatter of snowflakes and smoke from Ishgard’s hearths.

Slowly, softly, the door sealed shut.

 

❅ ☾ ✦ ☽ ❅


 

It was morning, cold and grey, the sun on the cusp of the day.

Estinien was gone but the bedclothes still smelled like him—bittersweet.

Samantha kept her eyes closed against the thin light, against the tug of knowing.  She sucked a sharp breath to steel her weary soul.  The pungent tang of shame charred her tongue, and the weight of sheer reality whittled her heart down to slivers.

She could taste the salt of humiliation; clenched her jaw to bottle the scream, the moan in her chest. 

I love them both.

For time immaterial she lay there, tears wetting her hair and her pillow, repulsed by the sound of her dribbling sniffles—lanced by the talons of disgrace lodged deep in her stomach.  “You godsforsaken ogre,” she rebuked herself, scowling hard enough to wrinkle every ilm of her face.

How in seven hells had this happened?

How in all that was good and pure and bright?

When have I ever been any of those things?

Beneath the quilts, she curled at the waist; hugged her nightgowned knees to her chest.  In the warm cavern of the blankets, the faintest breath of him stirred back up—the musk that was only Estinien—and she crackled along every sizzling fissure.

Alphinaud’s knock from the hallway came like blessed clockwork.  “It’s open,” she called, hoarse.

There was a fleeting measure of silence.  Then the knob clunked, and the door sighed open. 

She was sure she was nothing more than a misshapen clump on the mattress, confirmed by the reedy sound made by her small custodian.  “Good gods Samantha,” he blurted.  She heard him slam the door, his footsteps swiftly approaching.  “Are you ill?”

She coughed and snorted and scrubbed her face with the edge of her pillow.  “No, I am well.” 

Just a colossal godsdamned idiot.

The mattress sank as Alphinaud perched warily beside her.  His hand gingerly touched her cocooned lair of quilts, landing on the slope of her shoulder.  His voice was nervous.  “Will you tell me what ails you?”

Her mouth was dry.  She swallowed several times; cleared her throat; lurched up to a seat and spooked Alphinaud’s skittish hand away.  He looked fussy and flummoxed and obliging all at once and it made her spit out a wet and croaky giggle.

His brow tensed and his lip curled in mild, sleepy affront.  He crossed his arms, wrinkling his nightclothes.  “Well?”

She blinked at him from beneath her mound of blankets and heaved a breath.  “I hope you realize how uncomfortable I am,” she said.  “I would avoid this conversation entirely had it not been for recent advice to hold nothing back.”

He swallowed hard.  “I know.  I—” He glanced at the windows; at the balcony.  Glanced overlong at the balcony.  He inhaled.  “I know.”

Her eyes flicked to follow the path his had taken and she froze—wheezed—mantled herself deeper in the bedclothes and inspected him through a beetled brow.  “What do you mean you know?”

His mouth opened and shut again.  He looked at the ceiling and the exit and the hands he wrung in his lap.  “I—awoke in the night—”

By the ever-loving grace of the Twelve

“—corridor when I thought I heard him.  Estinien, I mean—”

Seven rotting, bleeding hells—

“—Alisaie about eavesdropping.  I assure you, there was little to discern—”

Her heart was missing beats, her hands darting from the den of quilts to grip him by the shoulders.  She coughed out his name.  “Alphinaud—”

He shook his head dizzyingly fast, wisps of white hair swept askew.  “Nothing past muted conversation!”  His nose and cheeks went red and he grimaced, combing both hands to tame his cowlicks.  His thoughts spilled out in hurried disarray.  “The intrusion was never intended—it was only his voice, you know—very distinct—and had the larder been in the other direction—”

“Alphinaud.”  She squeezed his arms.  The air she was breathing felt paper thin.  “Calm down.” 

His shoulders rose and fell, and he watched her with eyes full of terror.  “Are you cross with me?”

That made her laugh, loud and ugly and astounded.  “No,” she said firmly.  She took another breath.  “Should I be?”

He grimaced again and seemed to deflate.  “It—that is—” The redness leached to his ears and he gulped.  “I had only my suspicions, as I mentioned heretofore.  But—there were some mornings I swore I spied him on the rampart by my window—”

Her ears were ringing.  Like a punch to the gut, his words stole her breath.  “Why did you not tell me?”

Rosy-eared and torn between a bitter grin and a frown, Alphinaud grumbled.  “Now you know how it feels.”

She gasped soundlessly and cleared her throat three times.  She felt like at least five hells had opened in her body.  Maybe six.  “Twelve have mercy,” she muttered.  Her stomach squirmed.  “I—can’t begin to tell you how mortified—”

He tried to talk over her.  “I beg you would not fret—”

The ringing turned to shrill droning.  She felt seasick.  “To think you knew—all this time—”

His hand weakly scrunched at the bedspread by her knee.  “Purely assumed—it was not my place to meddle—”

Samantha took a sharp breath.  “By the gods, Alphinaud—are you cross with me?

He raised his eyebrows.  “What for?”

She blinked several times; felt pressure in her chest.  “For being—” Unprincipled?  Repulsive?  “—out of my fine bloody wits?”

That made him grin weakly.  “Were you ever about them to begin with?”

She laughed and tears leaked from her eyes.  “Gods damn it.”  Alphinaud watched as she used the fringe of her blankets to dry her face; as she tried to take her own instruction and quiet herself.  She puffed a hot breath into her cheeks and grunted.  “Some fabled hero I am,” she groused.  “Altogether tactless and witless.”

Alphinaud scoffed.  “Mayhap as regards such nonsense as trifles of the heart,” he said generously.  “Which exist to baffle us all, I daresay—and of which I am extraordinarily ill-equipped to counsel.”  He scowled.  “Nothing ever comes of my farfetched fancies, as Emmanellain loves to remind me.”

That made her snort.  “Give it time,” she said, poking him fondly in the chest.  “And stop listening to Emmanellain.  You will live your due share of it.  Though,” she added, much fiercer, “For your sake, I wish you much better luck and decisions than mine.”

His chuckle was breathy.  “I believe we are all doomed to poor choices when it comes to affection.”  He stared at his folded hands.  “If the selection is even ours to make.”

She mulled that over and chewed on her lip.  “The heart can be a beast,” she acknowledged, the one caged beneath her breastbone beating in time.  “But where dealings with another are concerned, the choice should always be yours.”  His eyes were still downturned; she tilted her head to frown and try to catch them.  “I know not what you have suffered—but if you ever feel truly coerced, that the power is out of your hands—run, do not walk, from that person.”

He lifted his gaze back to hers.  “Consequence of experience?”

She nodded.  “When I was—your age, actually—I fell in love with a man,” she began.  “Or so I thought.”  Her eyes drifted and she stared at the wall past the white-tufted head; envisioned a stiff and formal professor, blinking distantly through his glasses.  “He prized what he desired me to be.  Not me.  Not truly.”  She focused back on Alphinaud’s bright, engrossed face. 

“What he desired you to be?”  He sat up a bit straighter.  “How do you mean?”

She wet her lips against the unpleasant taste on her tongue; tried to think of ways to condense the story.  “I was hardly a woman,” she muttered.  “He was an epoch my senior—much too old for me then, but I wanted what I wanted.”  Like always.  She chuckled bitterly.  “He was happy to provide, until he wasn’t.”

Alphinaud watched her patiently as she tried to parse through her words; tried to make them into a moral.  “I was growing—changing,” she continued.  “Blooming, some might say,” she said, laughing at the metaphor, leaning into it.  “I was wild and thorny and grasping, and he was—not.  He tried to keep me rootbound in a vase when I longed for a garden; when I dreamed to trail across all of Eorzea.”

“He stifled you, then,” said Alphinaud, vaguely irked.  “What a cretin.”

She snorted.  “He had no idea what I needed,” she concluded.  “Because he didn’t care to see.”  She took a firm breath.  “After that, my mother told me, keep your eyes open.  Search yourself and others.  Find every flaw; bare your ugly, bare your all—change only for the better, for those who love you will love you regardless.”

Alphinaud hummed ironically.  “Seems a simple concept; and quite in line with holding nothing back.”

She barked and shook him gently.  “Which as you know is more difficult in practice.  But I am trying.”

His cheeks pinked and he timidly smiled; cleared his throat.  “You are succeeding.  And thank you for sharing your tale.”

She shrugged heavily.  “I would have told you before, but—well, tactless and witless, remember?  I can be a very poor raconteur.”

He puffed and chuckled.  “You have much improved since first we met.  But speaking of the matter at hand,” he added, full of insinuation, “What will you do?  About—how did you put it—baring your all?”

She wet her chapped lips; filled her lungs with a fortifying breath.  “Speak with Aymeric, of course.”

Wide sapphire eyes examined her with measured endorsement, the faintest bramble of concern.  “And Estinien?”

“I wanted to speak with them both at once,” she grumbled.  “But Estinien was—unenthusiastic.”

Alphinaud snorted loud enough to choke.  “Why am I not surprised.”

“Because you also know him too well.”  She huffed through her nose; shivered with another surge of desperate embarrassment.  “I’m sorry you heard anything,” she muttered.  “I’m sorry to expose it—to involve you somehow.”  She scrubbed the heel of her thumb across her eyebrows and sighed.  “Please—please don’t tell the others.  Not yet.”

“Twelve forfend,” he said, voice cracking.  “That you would even think me capable of betraying your trust in such a fashion—”

“Not in the slightest,” she assured him.  “Just—” Her throat was brittle.  “I feel mightily ashamed of myself.  That’s all.”

Alphinaud’s palm patted her blanketed arm.  “No need.  It is oddly heartening, when all is said and done,” he began, a peculiar look in his eye.  “To know how very flawed you are.”

She gasped harshly and scowled at him, shoving him away from her.  “Abominable.”

He was tumbling over, laughing throatily.  “Those who love you will love you regardless,” he chanted.

She hunched up from the bed and pushed him down with one hand.  “Keep laughing, Leveilleur,” she growled.  “I’ll know what to ask next time I talk to Krile.”

His eyes went wide with horror.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Alphinaud’s vigil at sunrise was always followed by snoozing the rest of the morning. 

Once he left to do that, Samantha busied herself getting ready for the day.  Bryony and Cassius sent her back to Ishgard with a stash of wares and goodies, and she had a strong mind to take a bath with her fresh batch of rosehip chamomile soap.

She drew the hot water, sank down into the tub, and closed her eyes.  Aymeric had to be apprised.  There was nothing else to be done.  If he wasn’t neck-deep in meetings—a ubiquitous risk—she would go to him today.  And then perhaps, perhaps, she might start finding better answers.

The soap made a creamy, fragrant lather and she used it to scrub every ilm of her body, working it into her hair.  She ducked beneath the water to rinse and thought of Estinien again—who in hells knew what he was doing, off to master his heart or his head or whatever it was he swore to conquer.

He told her he loved her; assured he would return.  He was not a soft man, but he did keep his promises.  That gave her some measure of comfort as she toweled herself off and dug through her clothes to get dressed, yanking out a long maroon dress.

Perhaps she should write a letter to Aymeric; something to warn him she was coming.  She was leaning on the dresser, hefting stockings up her thighs, when she glanced to her desk to consider it—and her eyes caught on a new piece of paper folded there.  She scowled and moved closer.

It was a sheet of her own stationery pulled from the stack—plain, unadorned with anything aside from her initials.  As she reached to unfold it, she noticed her pen was aslant in its stand, the inkwell uncapped beside it.

Her pulse scrambled into her throat as she flattened out the unforeseen missive.  It was decorated in a loose, unpracticed scrawl that, oddly enough, reminded her intensely of Aymeric’s.  She scanned her eyes across it and felt her heart dive straight to seventh hell.

 

- - - - - - - - - - 

Find me in Dravania.

- - - - - - - - - - 

 

☾ ❅ ☽


 

Chapter Text


☾ ❅ ☽

 

The fierce wind whipped to freeze him, and he bowed his head against it, closing his eyes.

There in the blackness of his mind, another pair opened to meet him—dark-burning starfields that dragged him back, tempted him to retrograde.  The struts of fresh ice around his heart groaned, perilously thin, ready to snap at the slightest pressure. 

A flutter of rage curled in his stomach.  He hunched to quell it; breathed deep of air that smelled of looming snowfall.

First Coerthas.  Then Dravania.

There where it began was where he would end it.

 


 

“And what will you do if she follows straightaway?” 

Aymeric’s question was sober, incisive.  The depths of his pale blue eyes were watchful, but he was exhausted.

His meticulous grooming and dementedly beautiful face hardly betrayed it.  But Estinien knew him, better than anyone living.  The candles at his desk were cooked down to stumps.  His papers and files were vaguely disarrayed.  The back corner held a tray with two mismatched teacups, distinctly empty, incrusted with dregs. 

“She will come to you first,” Estinien growled, armor complaining as he shifted his weight.  “And you will detain her.”  He jerked his chin at the uncharacteristic mess.  “Sleeping?”

The chair groaned as Aymeric sank into it.  He sighed; scrubbed the heels of both half-gloved hands over his eyelids.  The hair mussed up from his forehead.  “No,” he admitted, combing soft black cowlicks back into place, the gentlest downfall in his expression.  “There is far too much to be done ere I am instated.”

“You could refuse the position,” Estinien suggested, thoroughly unhelpful.

All too predictably, Aymeric grunted with displeasure.  “Would you care to take it in my place?”

Estinien snorted.  He leaned his lance at the wall beside his shorn helmet, and lunged to collect the teacups, shouldering his way out of the office before his friend could utter protest.  Halfway through the door, he called back.  “Spare candles?”

Aymeric grunted again.  “Scullery closet.”

In the hallway, he passed the bleary-eyed steward, who offered him a bow and a yawn.  “Does he require anything?”

“Breakfast,” Estinien rumbled.

The gaffer turned on his heel to trail him down the kitchen hallway.  A small, soft thing aggressively headbutted Estinien’s shins, and he paused, piling the teacups in one hand.  The caretaker passed him while he stooped to pet the cat.  It purred as he tickled its long-whiskered chin.  “Run along,” Estinien hummed, scratching its sleek, narrow haunches.

Cups in the sink, he found the candles high on the shelf exactly where he remembered.  He fetched three of them and loped back through the antechamber, snagging a tin of biscuits from the pantry.  He popped it open and shoved one his mouth before resuming his path through the hall—custard cream, Aymeric’s favorite.

That was when the doorbell chimed.

Fury blind and bless it

How long had he lingered here, seeking benediction?  His wild eyes scanned the walls for a moment, as though that could make time rewind.  He stole back to the study soft and swift as a shadow—slipped the tin of biscuits on the desk and the fresh candles down beside it. 

Aymeric was peeling up the wax from the candelabrum.  “She is come.”

“I must go.”  Estinien lurched to retrieve his helmet and weapon and satchels.

“Doubtless she would treat with us both,” pressed the other, disturbingly discerning as always.

“No,” Estinien barked, holstering the lance at his back.  He twisted and tucked his hair at his neck, sheathing his face with his helmet, clipping it firmly in place.  He shouldered the straps of his supplies.  “I tire of speaking.”

The steward poked his head into the study.  “My lord,” he muttered.  “The Warrior of Light is arrived.”

Aymeric stared at Estinien with tense, pleading eyes.  “Stay.”

Estinien’s heart buckled and fluttered.  “No.”  He set his jaw.

Aymeric’s eyes went dull.  He took a breath and turned to his attendant.  “I will go to her soon,” he said, very warmly.  “Pray—prepare her some tea in the meantime?  Anything she desires.”

The steward bowed obligingly and closed the door behind him.

“Go, then,” Aymeric muttered, his eyes flicking back to Estinien.  “Flee and leave me to suffer.”

Estinien’s breath hitched.  “You will not suffer,” he thundered.  “She refused me.  She loves you."

“And you,” he rejoindered.  “Else you would not run from her.”

He stiffened at the jab, the joints of his armor rasping.  “I will not deny you pleasure,” he grumbled.  “I will stifle this accursed damnation and return for your instatement.”  He stalked to the exit; plotted a soundless escape sidestepping the parlor.  “Try to rest.”

Aymeric sighed as he opened the door.  “Would that I could for us both.”

 

☾ ✧ ☽


 

Wisps of cold Coerthan wind rustled her skirts as she balanced on yet another threshold.

Snow dusted her cheeks with icy kisses.  She took a heavy lungful of chill morning air to brace herself, feeling the frost prickle her nose—tasting the smoky exhalations of so many hearths.  The door swung open to reveal the steward of the Manor Borel, his hoary eyebrows raised high. 

“Lady Floravale,” he stammered, taken aback.  It was still very early.  “Have you business with my lord?”

She grinned apprehensively and rocked heel to heel; lifted a nervous hand to the scarf at her throat.  “Unannounced.”

Less unusual.  The steward bowed and took a step back.  “Do come inside,” he invited, collecting himself.  “I fear a bitter storm is brewing.”

She craned her neck to look at the sky.  Grey clouds billowed in the near distance, and she laughed weakly—wondered where Estinien roamed.  “So it seems.”

Aymeric’s home was warm; fragrant in a way that always reminded her of wax and honey.  As she crossed into the foyer, she took a deep breath and unstrapped her quarterstaff—stepped out of the path of the attendant, who closed the door against the whipping wind.  

Samantha leaned her weapon at the rack; turned to meet hands outstretched to take her wrappings.  “My lord is in his study, tending—pressing tasks.”  He smiled politely and helped her shrug free from her cloak and fleeces.  “I will make haste to announce you, but pray be warned; he may not yet emerge from seclusion.”

“Of course,” she said quickly, a hand darting to the rose pinned at her ear.  Lopsided, wet with snowflakes.  “I would never dream of interrupting.”

She was escorted to the parlor.  There, she took an awkward seat, perched uncomfortably on the edge of an armchair.  Stiff-backed, she surveyed the room.  It was familiar in a way that pressed at her insides—shrine to so many soft, happy memories.  It was a sanctuary warm and zealously cherished; a sacred place yet to be tainted. 

Samantha swallowed hard against the brine in her throat. 

There is power in what we say, he once told her.

Words.  Would that this morning, she wielded them well.

She was dazed, mutely rehearsing, counting designs in the carpet when the door swept back open.  Her hopeful eyes lifted to the steward.  Apology was writ through his expression.  “I regret to inform you that my lord is quite engaged at present,” he said, bowing.  “He will attend you soon as he is able.”

Her chest felt tight. 

Gods.  What was she doing?  Interrupting Aymeric amid obligations to Ishgard?  Who in seventh hellfire did she think she was?  “Thank you for announcing me,” she said, trying her best to smile brightly.  “If it would be better for me to leave, I’m glad to do it.”

The steward shook his head.  “No indeed.  My lord is eager to see you.  Would you care for tea in the meantime?”

She lifted her eyebrows.  “Yes,” she breathed.  “If it isn’t any trouble.”

“None at all,” he assured her.  “I shall return very shortly.”

 


 

The infusion was rich and delicious.  Coerthan brew was always delightful. 

At some point, however, she stopped tasting it.  She was on her fourth or fifth or maybe seventh helping when the door creaked cautiously open.  Her posture was hunched as she watched him enter, her lips frozen on the rim of the teacup. 

The toe of a long, tapered boot crept into the room, followed by the trail of a beautiful gilded coat—and then his gracious, godly face.  She snagged on the gleam of his gaze, wintry and wistful and mildly weary, and her heart thrust a hymn in her mouth.  Aymeric, my Aymeric, my Aymeric—

She choked on the sip of tea she was taking and set it aside.

Coat tinkling, he moved more quickly toward her.  She held up a hand.  Her heart thrashed to gag her, making her hoarse.  “I hope I’m not interrupting—”

“Not at all.”  His dark, crisp voice spilled over her.  Soothing autumn windfall; a balm she hadn’t known she needed.  The eyes he used to search her were cool and gentle.  “You are always welcome.  Always.”  There was something else he wanted to say, betrayed by the bob in his throat, the ardent graze of his stare. 

He smiled and took a careful seat across from her instead.

The smell of tea and candles and Aymeric de Borel stirred in the air, and she trembled. 

She forced her lips to curve and thought she might split into millions of pieces.  Every ilm of her soul was on fire.  “I need to talk to you,” she said, the splinters of her heart embedding in her neck.  “About Estinien.”

Aymeric’s voice was calm.  Excruciating.  “By all means.”  She watched his broad shoulders rise as he took a full breath—steeled himself to say something.  The buttons and embellishments on his coat were dazzling in the lamplight.  “You still love him, do you not?”

The words plucked the shards from her neck and shoved them down to her stomach, but somehow, the fact that he said them wasn’t surprising.  Her head spun.  Of course he would steal the truth from her lips before she could speak it.  “I’m not sure I ever stopped,” she muttered.

Aymeric looked tired but understanding.  Knowing.  He grinned grimly.  “Do we ever stop loving, once we start?”

Above the rush of her blood, her focus drifted; caressed the holy shapes of his face.  Tense pale eyes framed with black lashes.  Brow and nose and mouth to rival an angel.  But finer than anything she could see was the stuff he was made of—goodness earnest and endless and infinitely enduring.

I never deserved him at all. 

“Never,” she said, desperate to kiss him, desperate to remember the question.  “Not—unless something stops us.”

He studied her in answer, cautiously tranquil.  “It takes strength indeed to quell a loving heart.”  He folded his arms at his lap, interlacing his fingers.  Patient.  “Why, do you think?  Why does love take hold of us so?”

Surely he could see the way she struggled—the way the words became hot briars in her eyes.

But he was serving her, guiding her—giving her cover through the burning brush.

Clemency. 

Mercy.

She gripped the cushion of the seat to keep from fainting—tried to use his intercession—reached back through her mind for the edge of a blessing.  She stumbled across the conclusion she reached in the Shroud. 

“I think love becomes a prayer.”  She gripped her knees and closed her eyes; thought again of her friends and their solemn decisions.  “The wish to grow and fight for the better, alongside those who wish it with you.”  She opened her eyes to look at his blinding glory; the man who made her trust in love again.  “Love grips us like a promise—gives us warmth to hold forever.”

Aymeric closed his eyes.  “A wonderful invocation.”

Silence billowed between them then, so thick it had a taste. 

Her voice cracked.  “It’s my fault,” she croaked, staring at the floor like she’d been gutted.  “My mistake.  I thought I let him go.”

“No.  I cannot fault you.”  His voice was low, a pensive murmur.  “He was torn from your eyes, in the splitting of an instant.”  He paused.  “Now he is returned, as though risen from the grave.”

“But he is gone away again,” she said numbly.  Her voice was dry as ash.  “His own going—another fault of mine.”

“I know.”  Silence returned as she looked up; as Aymeric glanced out the window.  “He advised me ere he left.”

A jolt of surprise crept down her spine, jarring, shocking her like levin.  “Did he?”

Of course he did.

Aymeric nodded.  He smoothed a gauntleted hand through his tousled black hair—bare fingers.  “Just past sunrise,” he said, sounding drained.  His shoulders hunched very slightly.  He was so tired.  “He has a tendency to report to me prior to making decisions.”

An echo of Estinien’s words stole through her mind.  “A part of your being his ‘keeper?’”

“Indeed,” he accepted.  There was a glimmer of humor in his smooth timbre.  He turned to face her, mildly astonished.  “How came you to discover our intimate jest?”

She filled her lungs with a question and steadied herself against it.  “What exactly persists between the two of you?”

He gave a breathy chuckle.  His lips curled into a dry, sphinxlike smile.  “Plenty.”

She was struck with a mix of curiosity and intrigue and something forcefully beguiling.  Her hair stood on end, relieved to be distracted.  “Am I—in the middle of something?”

He laughed at that, his expression unbearably soft.  “No indeed,” he said, leaning over his knees.  His eyes roved to scour her face.  “Formidable though you may be, my profoundly treasured friend, not even the Warrior of Light could sunder the Bastard from the Urchin.”

Samantha leaned back in her seat, thoroughly sidetracked.  Her blood was ablaze with captivation—a thousand more questions.  “I smell a story or twelve.”

Aymeric seemed to reflect, to deliberate.  Then he smirked and described that first indenture—the young dragoon and the dragon, its deadly jaws diverted by the bowman’s well-aimed arrow.  “Ever after, our fates have been bound, in blood and in brotherhood.”  Aymeric crouched further on the cushion; pressed thumb and forefinger to his lips.  He searched the carpet with icy blue eyes.  “Though I speak of it but seldom—due in no small part to his obstinate urgings—Estinien is extraordinarily dear to me.”  His voice was abruptly imbued with preternatural warmth, a quality uncommonly witnessed.  He grinned slightly, privately.  “He can be aberrant; at all times bitter and intense.  But I believe he loves, too, with a singular intensity he rarely admits.”  He lifted his gaze to survey her and took a leaden breath.  “It is his custom to conceal the depths of his affections—to run from them, even.  He prefers instead to exhibit loyalty or devotion by other means.”  His eyes glittered.  “Even with me, his manner is guarded; and I have dared to consider myself his dearest cohort, though perhaps I now flatter myself on that account.”

If Aymeric has laid some claim to you, I will not bar the way.

He is the best man I know.

“No,” she said firmly, the words a shining spearhead in her mind.  Her heart surged and brimmed to color her voice.  “You are dear to him above all others.  I have never seen him bow or answer to anyone else.”

Aymeric grinned at her wryly.  “Can you not think of at least one other?”

Her face burned and she bent deeper into the armchair. 

“No,” she said, absolutely, unequivocally sure of it.  “Not the same.”

Both were silent for another long moment as she finished arranging the fresh information.  She shelved it with whatever precious else she knew of their crotchety comrade.  “You protected his life and earned his commitment thereafter,” she finally said.  “I must have done something of the same.”

Aymeric hummed.  A reminiscence pressed at the back of his eyes.  He scrubbed his thumb and forefinger back across his lips.  “Your joint triumph at the Aery was one he recollected to me unusually often.  Thrice, I believe; which for Estinien is tantamount to any heated declaration.”

The Aery.  Of course.

She could feel herself flush again with mortification. 

Aymeric’s eyes sparkled perceptively as he studied her.  “He was thoroughly impressed with you,” he added.  “Awed, I believe, by your blessings, but also somewhat befuddled.  I teased him quite cruelly at the time; something about a ‘moth to a flame,’ if I remember correctly.”  He leaned forward on his thighs; propped his chin on his hands.  “From the look in your eyes, I can see my words fell not far from the mark.”

Her heart was racing with the sudden, all-encompassing urge to flee this conversation.  She swallowed hard and flexed her heels into the floor. 

Bare your ugly, bare your all. 

“The Aery was when—our relationship changed.”  She felt a dizzy flutter in her stomach to admit it.  Her eyes bore down at the narrow toes of her boots; she slanted them to knock together.  “I relied on him beside me.  That feeling became a power beyond reckoning.” 

Her heart wrung to retrace it—the sizzling tempest of Nidhogg’s lair; the scarlet infernos she smote with her aether.  Then there came the molten frenzy of moments stretched after; the pain of him cloven and fused to their foe.  The moons upon weeks she spent dousing her grief. 

“It is easy to rely upon him, if he permits it.”  Aymeric’s voice sparked to ripple her thoughts.  “Estinien is a strong and faithful partner—when he chooses to be.”

There was substance, memory in his words, falling like hot iron between them.  She wasn’t sure if she should press—if that was allowed or even acceptable.  Her struggle must have been etched across her face because he laughed heartily.  “I have a penchant for waxing fondly,” he continued.  “As you are well aware.  But Estinien dislikes it.”  He shook his head, but there was tenderness in his eyes.  “I endeavor to respect and prevent his distress; else I would be glad to delve into my insights.”  He wet his lips and his brow furrowed slightly.  “As it is in this moment, I fear I may have already betrayed his confidence.”  His eyes darted between hers, hot and searing.  “Though surely if you are involved, there can be no restraint.  But you must forgive me; I appear to be parading my proclivities regardless.”

Her throat was tight with a notion unfamiliar—a sense of something voyeuristic, like she shouldn’t be listening.  “You are safe with me, Aymeric,” she said, wincing at the way her voice cracked.  “I hope he knows he is, too.”

He watched her intently, but she could tell he yet drifted; that his thoughts arced somewhere else.  “I wonder,” he said, his voice a murmur, a drone.  “Had I not summoned him last evening—had I concealed the truth of my regard for you—would he have remained in Ishgard?”

It felt more like a rhetorical question, but she wet her lips to answer.  “I doubt it.  He is often ill at ease.”

“That is true,” Aymeric conceded, the bulk of many years behind his affirmation.  “Though he did declare to us all that he now craves rest.”  He made a discontented sound.

She rubbed the ridge of her knuckles across her lips, thinking.  “As much as he wishes for respite, he has difficulty finding relief.  Or satisfaction.”  She could feel shame prickle her neck but decided to ignore it.

Aymeric raised one dark eyebrow, his eyes flicking assuredly to notice.  “I am privy to his struggles," he said drily.  "Though for all our closeness, throughout your comradeship together, he conveniently neglected to mention the extent of his involvement with you.  Hence my shock upon that revelation, as you must recall.”

So few secrets between them.

She swallowed a lungful of air, distracted by a question.  “How did you do it, then?”  She was surprised to hear herself ask it; not entirely sure, at first, what she meant.  “Handle his absence, I mean?  Face what might have been his certain death?”

Aymeric examined her at length before responding. 

His stare was sharp.  Dissecting.  “When he was lost to us,” he muttered, “I admit, I shielded my sentiments.  So would he wish it.”  He took a breath through his nose and shifted his weight; flattened his palms on the thighs of his black trousers.  “Though fealty binds us, Estinien and I are creatures of eminently separate devices.”  He folded his arms in his lap, restless.  “We seek to reach agreement ere conclusions are drawn, but all too seldom is it found.  Thus do we trust and esteem each other’s choices, notwithstanding.”  He took a deep breath and loosed it.  “Ever have I known his path to be treacherous.  Ever has he survived.  But had he been cleaved from me fully, I can say with great conviction that my grief would have been … —absolute.”  He turned to the floor and closed his eyes.  “It pains me to think of it, even now.  He has become such a fixture; I can scarcely imagine life without his ungentle approbation.”

Deep and abiding adoration built to billow in the air, emanating from Aymeric warmly as breath from a young fire.  She was bewildered, enchanted—could feel tears sting her eyes.  She blinked quickly.  “Why did you not tell me before—that you cared for him like this?”

“I did not wish for my connection with him to interfere with you.”  He gave her a smoldering look.  “I own it as a blunder.”  His chest rose with a thin inhalation.  “As readily as you confessed your own attachment, you deserved, all along, to know of mine.”

The cogs in her mind were whirling as she watched him, as she assembled this new and arcane knowledge.  Aymeric and Estinien.  The two of them, so different.  The love they embosomed, alike.  Still so much unbeknownst to her, and yet still she was endeared to them—bloody both of them—with force enough to drown her. 

Perhaps even more so, now.

She filled her lungs with bald courage and decided to confess it.

“I have never felt for anyone the way I feel for you.”  The words came soft and heavy and easy, like the emotion that rushed to his eyes.  “But Estinien—” She took another breath.  “What he showed me—somehow changed me.  If you made me melt, it was only because he tore me from the glacier.”

Aymeric’s stare was blistering, fathomless, laying her bare. 

She forced herself to hold it.

“My monstrous heart rots for you both,” she stammered.  “But it deserves neither.”  Her exhalation was shaky.  “I won’t come between you,” she said, looking away, rocked by the crushing tide of blood in her veins.  “I won’t be this hellbent ogre.  I will walk away instead.”

In her periphery, Aymeric stiffened.  The crystal strung from his left ear swayed and sparkled.  She lifted her eyes.  Something savage tore through his expression, fevered and untamed.  He tried to stifle it.  “Is that what you desire?”

She was dazed by whatever crossed and lingered in his face.  “No,” she admitted, lightheaded, stunned to truth.  “I—” She cleared her throat to try to banish the cinders of shame plastered there.  “I’m afraid of losing you.  Both of you.”

For a moment he was utterly still. 

Shadowed by the fringe of his dark lashes, his unblinking eyes shone like diamonds, molten hot.  He shifted his weight.  Spread his hand at his lips.  “I can speak only for myself,” he said through the cage of his fingers, holding back his mouth.  “But on that account, you should know my proclamation.” 

Then he stretched to lean forward, very slowly; unpenned himself carefully, like a vicious, volatile animal.  He dragged his hand down his chin and took a breath through parted lips.  His voice became blackest velvet. 

“Shall I tell you, in this instant, what it is that I desire?”

Oh. 

She was almost scared to invite it, this sinful foretelling.  But she was transfixed by the heat of his stare.  The overwhelming authority of his attention plunged through her like the fuller of Naegling itself, and she answered.  “Yes.”

His eyes blazed with blue flames. 

“I want to use my mouth,” he purred.  “To melt the fear, that toxin, from your tongue.”  He pushed his hips forward in his seat; enough to brush their knees together.  The contact spiked through her like lightning.  “I want to soothe you,” he continued, a croon, the strum of a bowstring.  “Cover you, convince you—with my body.”  His left hand crept to skim the skirts on her leg, and the base of her spine was an ember.  “I want to assure you, by every conceivable measure, that I will exalt you to all hells and back.”

Then his fingers curled to grip her thigh, hard and fiercely insistent.  She drew a ragged breath.  Her blood burned in every wicked place and the world around her tunneled to his eyes.  “Aymeric,” she rasped, grabbing his hand, making his palm grasp down even tighter.  “But would you, truly?”

He spread his legs to slide to the edge of his chair; ensnared her thighs with his.  She felt the clasps of his long boots catch on her calves.  Then both of his hands were on her knees; both wide palms hot enough to warm through his gauntlets, through every layer, to stir the skin hidden beneath. 

“It is strange,” he murmured.  His eyes were hooded.  He sank forward, his hands tracking slowly up her thighs.  “Long did I fear this might happen—that we would find ourselves tied to the same irresistible other.”  She could taste him, tempting and hypnotic; the veil of his breath like a tonic on her lips.  “But what is there to dread in this warm and welcome spell?”  He tilted to brush their noses together, something in his eyes wound achingly, alluringly tight.  “If you can have no objection,” he sighed, “Neither can I.”

Her air was coming thinly.  She shivered with the urge to gasp and whine and take communion

“But Estinien,” she said weakly, grazing his open mouth.  “He—wrote to—”

“Dravania?”  He rocked their brows together.  His rook-black hair was soft against her forehead, shielding his eyes.  “He told me.”  He trembled; tilted his chin to mold their lips together.  The plush, gentle pressure almost made her split in half. 

She gripped his wrists, stilling his hands where they hooked at the apex of her thighs. 

His fingers dug deep at her robes.  The tips of his thumbs dipped down, down.  So close they were—so close to the part of her that roared for him to touch her.

She kissed him and gently eased his hands away.

He watched her with eyes that howled with defiance, pale and scalding.  He struggled to retain composure; left his thighs where they firmly bookended hers.  The petulant look on his face was so jarring that she panted a laugh.  “I have to find him,” she said.

“You do not,” he grunted quickly.

His protest made something flare inside her.  “Oh?”

“He wants you to know where he runs.”  He dragged himself closer.  “He always runs,” he said, caught between a groan and a grumble.  “Let him run for now.”

To that, she could strongly relate.  "No need to chase him?"

Aymeric's big wrists flexed at her thumbs.  "Trust me."

She did.  She pushed his hands to his lap, nonetheless.  “You still have work to finish.”

He huffed and almost pouted.  “I do.”  He took a heavy breath.  “I have dallied long enough as it is."

“Then let me go, too,” she suggested.  “Before I become a disruption.”

His eyes searched her hotly.  Both of his hands gripped her face before she could stop him, his knees pinning her in place.  He used his mouth to part her lips; used his tongue to crush her full of his taste.  She crumpled and swallowed; sipped a breath from his lungs; supped of him, the sweetest sacrament.

Somehow, they slipped from the cushions to kneel between the chairs.  His strong legs entrapped her.  Her back arched against the seat.  She gasped for air and craned her neck to escape his hungry mouth; he dragged teeth down her exposed throat.  “Stay,” he groaned, dark and rough.  “Oh, stay.”

She tried to catch her breath and pressed firm hands at his shoulders.  “Finish your work,” she panted.  “I will be back.”

He made a sound of bitter objection.  His mouth stopped at the meet of her shoulder and neck.  His lips and teeth parted, his tongue flat against her skin, and he bit her, hard and bruising.  She gasped sharply, jerking back.

Gods,” she hissed, astonished, pushing him away with stiff arms.  The irony of the motion was not lost on her.  Indignity trickled down her neck to realize exactly how Estinien must have felt earlier that morning.

His face flushed immediately, redness spreading to the tips of his ears.  “I apologize,” he muttered, his eyes vividly repentant.  He moved to release her.  “I will not hold you hostage.”  He crouched to his feet and stretched a hand down to help her.  She gripped his gauntleted palm and he pulled her easily from the floor. 

Unconsciously, she rubbed a thumb at the place that he’d bitten, scowling up at him.  “That hurt.”

The color across his cheeks and ears deepened.  He cleared his throat.  “Customarily I—restrain myself.” 

Deadly curiosity prickled through her body to imagine—that this entire time, he had been restrained.  Desire spiked down, sharp and aching.  She backed away from him quickly and he gave her a rueful grin.  “I’ll save my questions for later,” she said, arching her eyebrows.

His hands pressed at her waist; pulled her into a tight embrace.  His open mouth grazed the shell of her ear.  “I would be glad to provide a demonstration,” he offered.  “If you announce the hour."

Her bones were gone.  If it wasn’t for his grip, she wouldn’t be standing.  “Get back to work,” she hissed to his neck.

“Give me a deadline,” he deflected.  His palms crept down her back, down to curve at the top of her thighs.  He crushed their hips together.  “Motivation to finish.”  He pressed firm kisses at her hammering pulse.  “Incentive to bed.”

A coarse tremble rushed to her toes and she coughed out a whimper.  “Dinner, then,” she surrendered.  “Enticement to make sure you eat."

He curled every ilm of their bodies together, the gilt of his coat catching at her robes.  “Oh,” he breathed, his mouth open at her neck, his tongue hot and wanting.  “I have an appetite for something very enticing.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Aymeric told her to trust him, and trust him, she did.

What she did not trust was the storm that, quite literally, rumbled in the distance.

She was wreathed in her cloaks and perched on the doorstep.  Aymeric’s arms pressed her back to his chest.  She squinted up at the angry, darkening sky; caught her whipping hair with the palm that didn’t carry her quarterstaff.  “That’s not good,” she muttered.

“No,” he agreed.  She twisted, tilted her neck to look at him.  His eyes were lustrous and wary in the muted morning light, fixed on the bellies of the storm clouds.  She followed the line of his attention.  West. 

As the pair of them watched, a vein of singeing levin streaked across the horizon, burning a trail in her eyes.  Then came another and another, and deafening, bloodcurdling thunder.  She prickled with electricity and lunged from the brace of his grip. 

Twelve,” she hissed, bearing down on her staff. 

Estinien.

Aymeric made a grim sound, no doubt thinking the same.  She spun on her heel and found him scowling, decision hardened in his eyes.  His hand found her forearm.  “Wait for me in the foyer,” he commanded, urging her back inside.  In a heartbeat, he was gone—vanished down the hallway.

As he sprinted deep into the manor, thunder growled and groaned.  Samantha’s legs itched with the need to go and go quickly.  She wrung her lip with teeth and drew blood; felt her stomach clench and flip.

When Aymeric jogged back into the reach of her sight, he was shouldering the scabbard of Naegling, a thin pack across his back.  “We will find him as conditions permit,” he said firmly, yanking a heavy stack of cloaks from the rack.  “Help me?”

She scrambled over.  As he fastened his belt, her shaking hands snatched and draped and pulled, folding his layers tight together.  He swayed and jerked with each buckle and strap, her assistance hard and efficient.  “And if we don’t find him?”

Aymeric heaved a steely breath, grabbing both of her hands.  “We will find him,” he decreed.  “But we must make haste.”

 


☾ ❅ ☽

 

Estinien huffed a breath through his nose and it clouded stark white—bent his creaking joints against the birthing bellows of a blizzard.

Damn it all.

Slowly, steadily, he put malm upon malm between him and the Pillars.  Between him and them.  But his near-capture at Aymeric’s manor set his plans to discomposure, topsy-turvy as the office of his friend.  He left thinking only of evasion—not how best to take his leave

He huffed another breath as lightning blanched the sky.

Fierce, unfeeling Fury.

Much as he shrank at the notion, it was time to regroup.  The tempest bled with lash upon lash of hot levin, streaking bright.  He closed his eyes against the blinding phantoms in his mind and was cast back to the gales of the Aery. 

The manacutters

Forgotten at the Manufactory, fashioned to pierce the levinwrought windstorm—

Would that he thought of them sooner, to help him slice through this

Now, as fate would have it, the writhing skies drove him back.  Worse yet, in the bittering cold, his body ached with the absence of Nidhogg.  He gritted his teeth against the inexplicable want for that pestilence—that damnable, in-burning fire.

He turned his toes to Falcon’s Nest and cringed with defeat.

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

The manacutter whirred and wheezed as she steered it far starboard.  She chased after the second sailing chassis, the one that housed Aymeric inside.  “He can’t have gotten far,” she yelled, gloved palms already cold on the handles, grateful her hair was tied back.  “Falcon’s Nest?”

“If he listens to his wits,” his voice shouted in agreement. 

The two of them arced through the heavens over Ishgard, through the biting squall. 

Flurries of snow were thickening, greying out the sky.  She bent her spine to bear down against the strengthening wind.  It stole her breath.  It was freezing.  She plucked at the astral aspect to warm her and heard the magitek core of her quarterstave hum to life.  Precision attuned.  Heat easily bloomed in an aura all around her, pulsing behind her ear.

She exhaled.  Bless you, Father.

They whipped past towers and statues, through the rapidly worsening weather.  Falcon’s Nest came up abruptly.  She cranked to the side; craned her neck for any signs of him in the square.  Snowflakes stung her eyes, crusted her lashes, melted to drip down her nose.  Nothing. 

She searched wildly for Aymeric in the sky.  Finding him at least, she piloted close as she dared.  “I don’t see him,” she barked.

His voice was muffled even as he strained in volume.  “Neither do I.”

Levin bright enough to blind them seared overhead.  She flinched at the throb and crackle of aether; at the deafening crack of thunder it beckoned.  With a waltzing of throttle and rudder, she tilted back out into the Highlands, tracking the easiest path.

In the edge of her sight, Aymeric split off to sweep a wider perimeter.  He passed almost beyond the fringe of her vision, and her heart gave an uneasy stutter.  It would be a whiteout soon.

As conditions permit.

She dove the manacutter close to the ground.  The fuselage skirted fresh snow, sighing and spitting.  She leered into the icy gloom, drawing up a ragged breath.  She screamed Estinien’s name.  The fading suggestion of Aymeric’s voice echoed with the same, somewhere out of sight.

That was when she heard a third shout, quite close to her left.  She reeled the brakes and sank port so sharply her manacutter hissed into a snowdrift.  She leapt out—dove knee-deep in snow, crisscrossed with wind and biting frost.  “Estinien?”

Nothing. 

She tore her staff from her back and thrust it out beside her, casting a glancing blast of flame into the smothering white.  A towering figure surged into her periphery and she lunged toward it, careful not to lose her grounded vehicle. 

His body was warped and bowed in thrall to the blizzard; his armor was crusted with ice.  She used her palms to melt it, to warm him.  He made a disgruntled sound.  “My fate,” he croaked bitterly, drowned by the wind.  “Your hands.”

She thrust an arm to grab between the tines at his back and rattled with fury, dragging him to the manacutter.  There was whirring overhead, and she squinted up to find Aymeric.  His hooded silhouette was coated in a layer of rime.  “Quickly,” he yelled.

Samantha helped Estinien fold his long body into the cockpit and crouched in above him—a tangle of legs and knees.  “Hold on,” she demanded.  In the corner of her vision she saw one arm hook to grip the side of the chassis.  The other gripped her.  “Not what I meant,” she yelled, cranking up the steering.  She lurched back as the sails pulled them up to the sky—suddenly grateful for his anchor.  “My fate, your hands, then,” she joked, her voice cracking.  He held on tighter.

Port and aft, Aymeric waited.  Lighting split through the sky.  “Follow me,” came his muffled shout.

Together they flew back to Ishgard, blazing a swath through the storm.

 


❅ ☾✦☽ ❅

 

Estinien sat and pouted by the fire.

Armor cast aside, his hair and plain underclothes were all clinging damp—a sight to behold on his lean, broad-boned frame.  “Like a drowned rat,” came Aymeric’s voice, returning from the hallway, a thick blanket rolled between his arms.

The jest was in fondness, but Estinien harrumphed and crouched lower on his stool.

Aymeric, too, had shed his outer trappings, dressed head to toe in blue-trimmed black.  His footsteps were silent, his feet clad in socks.  “I did tell you to stay,” he continued, his tone warmed into an ironic reprimand.  He smoothed his own damp hair from his forehead and strode through the room, closing the distance between them.  Aymeric started to stretch the blanket over Estinien’s hunched shoulders.

The grumpy victim of Coerthas flinched and spluttered and shoved away the contribution.  “Get off of me you buggering—”

Samantha reentered the parlor, balancing a wide tray of tea and warm victuals.  Her brows beetled at the tableau: Undead dragoon on a stool by the fire, half-sodden in snowmelt, red-faced, concave, and frowning.  Lord Commander stilled above him, wet black hair smoothed back, bent at the waist, fluffy blanket half-unfolded.  “Gods damn it, Estinien,” she grunted, stalking over to set the platter down on the table nearby.  She poured some tea and glared at him.  “Take his bloody blanket.

A smug sound from Aymeric as he resumed his effort to nurture.  Coverlet now draped and tucked around him, Estinien turned the force of his bitter scowl on Samantha.  She offered him a steaming drink.  That, for some reason, he reluctantly accepted.

Aymeric crossed his arms and gave Estinien a vacant look.  “You meet her aid with little resistance.”

Estinien stared back at him dully.  He took an overlong sip of his tea.

Samantha groaned and scrubbed a still-cold hand down her face.  “If the two of you keep acting like Alphinaud’s left arsecheek, I’m going back to the kitchen.”  They were a rare pair indeed, bickering like this after braving a blizzard—

“You insult the boy to compare his arse to that,” Estinien spat, jerking his thumb at their host.

Aymeric was unfazed.  He moved over to peruse the provisions; poured himself a cup of tea; lifted the lid of a dish to find soup.  Savory fragrance billowed to flavor the air.  “Simone’s carrot and coriander,” he hummed, replacing the cover.  “Estinien,” he said sternly, and the other jerked to look at him.  “Make sure you drink this.”

Estinien’s lips twitched and sneered as he silently mocked the words ‘make sure you drink this.’  Meanwhile, Aymeric smoothed a palm across Samantha’s chapped knuckles.  “Watch him while I fetch some dry clothes?”

She nodded, fixing her own cup of tea—flexed her fingers under the touch of his hand. 

Estinien took another loud sip and complained under his breath.  “Like hells I need watching.”

Aymeric was gone again.  Samantha crept up to the radiant fire.  She shivered as she warmed herself, also damp and drying.  “You almost got yourself killed,” she muttered, leaning by the hearth.  She shivered more coarsely.  “Again.” 

“And yet here I am blessedly living,” he growled, glowering up at her. 

Her lips curled down and her windburned nose tingled.  She rubbed it and sniffled.  “You say that like a curse.”

He huffed a breath.  “I wish to be far from this place.”  He slouched beneath his blanket, balancing his teacup.

She took a sip of hers, rolled her eyes, and swallowed.  “So gracious,” she said, sarcastic.

Estinien stared at the fire.  “Save your derision,” he groused.  “Fate unfolds as you desire.”  He grimaced at the crackle of kindling and shuddered.  “The three of us, here together, as though trapped by Halone herself—”

She scoffed in agreement.  “Who are we to argue with the whims of higher powers?”

Thunder crashed outside.  Estinien was silent, the firelight painting his brow.  He drank pensively from his cup.

Watching him, her mouth became dry.  She swallowed and took a stiff breath.  “I, for one, am glad we found you.”

The woolly cocoon around him swelled as he inhaled.  He kept quiet. 

His hair was drying in loose, tousled waves, silver limned golden by the flickering blaze.  Molten reflections danced in his dark eyes.  She let her weight sink against the mantel and studied him; allowed herself, guardedly, to memorize the sight. 

Estinien, warm and safe beside her.

The pressure of her stare drew his gaze.  They took mirrored sips of tea and searched each other’s faces.

Samantha’s neck prickled with the sense of someone else watching.  She glanced at the door to the parlor and found Aymeric ducking his chin into the clothes that he carried, hiding wistful eyes.  “I come bearing garb for the invalid,” he announced, very wry.

Estinien quaked and she wondered if he struggled not to laugh.  “I am not unwell,” he coughed instead, stretching his bare toes out toward the fire.

Aymeric crossed the room in several swift strides, looking grand and slender and handsome all in black.  He piled the folded garments at Estinien’s feet like a sacrifice.  “Best make use of these lest you become so.”  He lifted his pale eyes to Samantha, then.  “Would you like apparel as well?”

Taken mildly aback, she blinked several times.  “Me?”

He grinned lopsidedly.  Gods.  Only he could grin like that and make it so mindlessly beguiling.  “Aye, you,” he said, the nominative falling from his lips with bare, hushed devotion.  “The skirts may puddle a touch at your feet, but I daresay my mother was not that much taller—”

She choked on her protest.  “I could never—”

Estinien grunted harshly, drawing notice.  “Take his bloody offer,” he muttered, echoing from before. 

Samantha’s eyes were tense as she turned them back to Aymeric.  “If it isn’t disrespectful—”

Estinien grunted again.  “My lady Vicomtesse de Borel will turn in her grave if you refuse him,” he explained, staring up at her intently.  There was something astoundingly warm in the recess of his voice.  He took a deep breath and looked back at the fire.

Aymeric extended a hand.  “Come with me,” he said gently, eyes sparkling.

“And leave him unattended?”  She gave Estinien a pointed look, still stunned by his evident affection.

“By the Fury,” Estinien grumbled, punctuated aptly by a rolling of thunder.  He jerked his chin at the snow-packed window.  “Where in the world would I presume to wander?”

Samantha faltered for a moment regardless.  Aymeric flexed his hand.

Finally, she slipped her palm in his.  His fingers trapped her knuckles and she followed him out of the parlor, clinging tightly.  Together they strode through the manor, toward the winding staircase.

All air was stolen from her throat as she cast to so many nights back, back to the time they last drifted upstairs.  In this moment again, all she could see, really, was Aymeric—his lissome, doting figure, leading them all from disaster.  Her heart stirred to race at a hazy recollection; a midnight enchantment, a brief spell of feylight, a wild wish incarnate.

Now again, that warm, hallowed spirit led her to a door, this time inlaid with lilies.  “Her chambers,” he provided, glancing back with soft eyes.  “Estinien speaks the truth—she would want you to be comforted; all the better with belongings from her closet.” 

Samantha’s heart stuttered with something solemn.

Vicomtesse de Borel, your son is an angel among us.

He opened the door.  Her room was dark, a shrine to her passing.

“A spark, if you please,” Aymeric said to Samantha, squeezing her hand.

She stretched out the palm he wasn’t holding.  Between her fingertips, a tiny ember flicked to life; a dancing, wickless flame.  The fluttering glow brought ghosts of shapes to life—the curve of a duvet, the posters of a canopied bed.  She glanced to Aymeric.  His beautiful face was gilded with light.  “There,” he beckoned, pointing out the prongs of a candelabrum.

With the help of her spark, dusty wicks rasped ablaze.  He dropped her hand and took a candlestick to light a chorus of others.  As the room brightened, she could see it was furnished in shades of teal and cream, clean and mild.

Aymeric was back at her side.  “This way,” he said, twining their fingers together.

More lilies carved around the closet.  He pulled the doors open wide.  A battalion of dresses hung there—glittering, gilded and gleaming—skirted coats and furs and fleeces—long silken nighties and dressing gowns trimmed thick with lace.  There, in the folds of her wardrobe, a powerful, personal part of the Vicomtesse de Borel yet persisted.

Tears pricked Samantha’s eyes.  She swallowed hard and tried to prevent them.  Her stomach writhed with discomfort, the sense of invading something preposterously private.  “I feel like this is wrong,” she whispered, staring at the floor.

Aymeric tilted his chin to find her eyes, and his lips parted.  He folded her in his arms without a second thought.  His voice was a gentle croon at her ear.  “Do not be uneasy,” he begged her.  One hand pressed her close to his chest; his lips, a gentle kiss on her crown.  “Maman would be smiling, would that she escorted in my stead.”

He pulled back to look at her.  His thumb brushed an errant tear from where it clung to an eyelash.  “I am so sorry you lost her,” she rasped, caught on the love in his eyes—the unbearable tenderness rushing down to meet her.

“Only in body,” he said quietly, leaning to kiss her brow.  “She lives on—quite strongly in this house.”  He looked around at the gently lit room, his face radiant with fondness.  “I feel her touch in every chamber, let alone in the bowers of my heart.”

The bowers of his heart

Well could she imagine his heart as an arbor; a grove of shaded boughs to shelter all that dwelt there.  Would that she could stay so blessed.  She slipped her arms snug around his waist and held him tightly; pressed her cheek at his breastbone.  “You are an angel,” she told him.

He gave a breathy chuckle, his heart a butterfly’s flutter.  “And now I feel her laughter.”

 


 

With some minor hunting, they found a modest, traditional frock.  Drawn though she was to admire them, Samantha insisted against the more elaborate.  “I’m weathering a blizzard,” she said, carefully folding the sensible selection in her arms.  “Not simpering about in a ballroom.”

“I should dearly love to see that.”  Aymeric glanced back as she trailed him to the exit, something burning in his eyes.  She crowed an ugly cackle and waved a hand to quench the candles.  The smell of hot wax tracked them out into the hallway.

“Certainly not,” she disputed, her cheeks heating at the thought.

“Oh, but I do,” he pressed, hooking her arm at his elbow.  He slanted down to deliver words to her temple.  “I will have you know that I have been called a ‘skilled dancer’—per the review of most lavish appraisal.”

She lifted her brows as they crossed to the stairs.  “I am not a skilled dancer,” she said drolly, taking the bait.  “But I would love to hear more of this so-called appraisal.”

Aymeric swaggered a bit.  “Merely the finest lords and ladies of Ishgard,” he said, pretentiously unpretentious.  He watched her through the corner of his eye.  “But particularly the ladies.”

She scoffed and her lips pursed with a bemused grin.  She gave him a sly look and shook her head.  “Do mine ears deceive me, or is Ser Aymeric de Borel trying to make me jealous?”

“Not in the slightest,” he lied, his tone full of lively jest.  He pulled her ever closer; puffed out his chest.  “Though I daresay he would enjoy a dance with you—two left feet or no.  Perhaps at the banquet to ordain his unanticipated political appointment?”

She hummed thoughtfully.  “The Warrior of Light and Ishgard’s Speaker of the House of Lords,” she muttered.  Her brow furrowed.  “I can already hear Alphinaud rebuking me.”

Aymeric laughed loudly and they began their descent back to the parlor.  “It would be quite the topic of tête-à-tête,” he agreed.

“Incredibly scandalous,” she added.

A rumbly voice rolled up from the level below them.  “I know not of what you speak, but kindly count me out.”  They whirled down from the mouth of the staircase and there Estinien was, arms crossed at his chest, dressed in what could only be something of Aymeric’s.  He looked very fine in the blue-and-silver embroidery, though his face was crinkled into one enormous scowl.

“We were speaking of my inauguration,” said Aymeric, patting the flat of his free hand firmly on Estinien’s chest.  “Which, need I remind you, you promised to attend.”

Estinien might as well have been made of stone for all he moved when Aymeric touched him.  “And I will be there,” he huffed.  His eyes flicked desperately to Samantha.  “As you had better be, too.”

“He will cling to you all evening,” Aymeric warned, something impish in his eyes.  “He despises formal events.”

“So do I,” Samantha said, lip curling.  “But at least we’ve some time to prepare.”  Then she cleared her throat and displayed the Vicomtesse’s gown like the holy talisman it was.  “Excuse me while I go to the washroom and change.”

In her absence, the pair of old friends returned to the parlor.  Estinien’s eyes tracked to Aymeric’s socks and back to his face.  “Are you not humid with snowmelt?”

Aymeric observed his own fleecy toes and flexed them; shrugged his shoulders.  “I am tolerable,” he declared, looking back up through his lashes.  “And far more concerned with the tending of my houseguests.”

Estinien snorted, blazing a path to an armchair.  “As ever,” he sighed, slouching into the seat.  He watched as Aymeric dragged a third chair to the arrangement and perched on the cushion, heaving a breath.

Aymeric stared at the window.  The glass was opaque, plastered with ice.  A sound murmured in his chest as he considered a sudden question.  “Do you suppose a raging blizzard is excuse enough to delay my obligations?”

A laugh of raw and wicked pleasure escaped Estinien’s lips.  “Mark my words,” he bayed.  “If you so much as attempt to return to that office, I will throttle you.”

From the doorway, a low, rasping cough.  They turned to find her standing there shyly, her hair a dark mane made wild by the weather.  She was dressed in the Ishgardian frock—shades of beige lined with ruffs of fawny fur.  The ends were longish on her legs, but not folding overmuch. 

Aymeric grinned with delight.  “It fits you!”

She hefted the skirts in her hands and nodded, padding over to join them, her toes bare.  “Very warm, too,” she noted, piling herself into the remaining chair.  She smoothed her hands reverently down the bodice.  “Your mother had fine taste.”

“She was a fine woman,” Estinien murmured, closing his eyes.

Samantha looked at him in speechless commendation.  “Did you just say something nice?

“He loved her very much,” Aymeric clarified, earning a look of reproach from the man in question. 

“I do possess the gift of language,” Estinien snapped, stiffening in his chair.  Then he took a breath and rearranged his shoulders—watched the toes he spread to press on the carpet.  “As a mother she was to us both,” he continued.  “For what was I but one late foundling, a stray made her ward all the same?"  He flexed and pointed his feet, the grey hems of his trousers bunching.  "All but adopted, in deed if not in name.”

Samantha looked from the hush of peace in the storm of Estinien’s eyes, to the raging adoration in Aymeric’s.  “By Halone,” said the Bastard to the Urchin, his eyes roving over his much beloved friend.  “She would live and die again in bliss to hear you say that.”

Estinien made a gruff sound but offered nothing more; only looked at his toes, dug into the carpet, his face a measure more relaxed.

Samantha’s heart was pounding.  Good gods it was transfixing, the unplumbed history between them—silver-lined and cobwebbed, threading through and through together.  It glittered, almost corporeal in the air.

“I miss her,” Estinien suddenly muttered.

Aymeric loosed a heavy sigh.  “As do I.”

Both turned to stare at the fire.

In the silence purred distant thunder.

At long last, Estinien wet his lips.  A note of private mischief swiftly ghosted his expression.  “If she did live again, she would be incensed,” he said lowly.  “To find you espoused to your office despite her best urgings.”

It was Aymeric’s turn to slouch in his seat, lightly scoffing.  “She knew who she raised."

Samantha was piqued by implication—by the word ‘espoused.’  Did Estinien speak of that most common and abiding of parental undertows, the longing for nuptials?  “Do I want to know?” she asked.

Estinien howled a laugh, cunning in his eyes, and Aymeric slouched more deeply.  “Only that she wished for him to wed a maiden more obliging than Ishgard,” he said, casually and almost unkindly.  He stretched his legs and sneered at the way the tips of Aymeric’s ears went red.

“Fury strike and slay me,” Aymeric grunted, leveraging a fierce glare at his assailant.  He hunched back up to lean across his thighs and stare broodingly at the floor.  “’Twas not for lack of trying—”

“No,” Estinien agreed, interrupting.  “You obliged them all away.”

Aymeric grunted again and flushed dark enough to rival a cabernet.  “She would have seen you marry, too,” he deflected, jerking his chin to glare up at Estinien.  “And you were a great deal less than eager.”

Estinien tossed his head and snorted.  “Nothing could induce me into matrimony,” he said resolutely.

This was all so intensely entertaining that Samantha felt not even the slightest smidgen of distress.  In fact, she felt inanely detached from the conversation.  Probably odd considering the nature of her experiences with the participants …  But in all honesty, marriage was not a topic she thought of very often—not a state she plausibly expected to enter.  Not as the Warrior of Light.  Not in antiquity, either, as Rafe had been her only offer, and the thought of being tied to Raphael Lemaitre forever was one that still set her insides to writhe.  “I never expected to enjoy such a comedy routine,” she jeered, crossing her legs and raising her eyebrows.

Both men turned to face her, then, both sets of tapered ears flushed red and rosy.  “What of your knowledge on the topic, then, Madame,” Estinien growled, and that made her burst into tears of laughter.

“Heavens and hells,” she reviled.  “Nothing too remarkable.”

But now both were deadly curious, and she cringed beneath the weight of their stares.  She swallowed hard and immediately regretted diverting their attention.  There’s the discomfort.  “I-I was with a man when I was younger,” she stammered.  Unlike them, she could not speak in ancient riddles and tongues.  “He wanted to marry.  I did not.”

Aymeric’s expression sobered, teeming with questions.  Estinien’s grew more wild.  “This is a revelation,” he announced, glancing to Aymeric in wordless interrogation.

“One to me as well,” the other answered.  The eyes he used to examine her were icy and gentle and unironically obliging.  “Pray, do not feel beholden to share if it conjures bitter memories.”

“It does,” she admitted.  “But I’m willing to share.”

As she wet her lips to begin, for all his loudness of objection to the subject, Estinien’s face was ablaze with anticipation.  “His name was Raphael,” she muttered.  “But I called him Rafe.  Mainly because he hated it,” she said under her breath.  “He was—is a professor of magick.  I was his assistant before … things changed.”  She pressed her lips into a line and glanced at the fire; watched the flames warping and weaving.  “He was twelve years my senior.”  She scoffed and rolled her eyes.  “I was young and senseless.”

She turned back to face them.  Aymeric scrubbed his thumb and forefinger across his lips and slanted in her direction.  Estinien sprawled back in his chair and held her with a dark-burning stare.  “Well?” asked Estinien, surprising her again.

What more was there to say?  What really?

“My middle name is Rosalyn,” she supplied, for some inexplicable reason.  “He called me that.  Raphael and Rosalyn,” she recited, syllables lilting.  “He liked the way it sounded.”

There was a beat of silence.  The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, the constant hushed hissing of snowfall.  It seemed that the thunder was finally sated. 

Aymeric’s eyes were strained as, strangely, he struggled for something to say.  “Rosalyn is a beautiful name—”

“Oh hells bugger it, Aymeric,” Estinien grunted, shoving at the other’s knee with one bare set of toes.  “Surely you see that she hates it.”

“I don’t hate it,” she contended, very calm.  “My father calls me Rosalyn, too.  Rose, more often.”  Her ribs seemed heavy against her breath, against the next comment that threatened.  “I think it would be fine, to be called by that name—by someone else who truly loves me.”

The way Aymeric beheld her then was almost palpable, unfurling like petals to meet her.  It felt the same as a tightly tucked bed on a cold winter night.  “You need not search very far to find that, my dear friend,” he said gently.

Estinien, however, looked the beginning of uncomfortable again.  “Let us not discuss that,” he requested, scrunching his legs back beneath him, avoiding everyone’s eyes.

“I wager we are all exceptionally aware of your intent to avoid that conversation, Estinien,” said Aymeric blandly.

She shrugged.  “I am happy to discuss or not discuss it, but more than that—I’m hungry.”  And as if it were crouched somewhere in sole preparation to answer, her stomach loudly snarled.

That made Aymeric laugh.  He glanced at Estinien.  “You drank the soup, did you not?”

“That soup was mine,” Estinien grumbled.

“Yes it was,” Samantha agreed, looking at him archly.  “Would that you swallowed your pride along with it.  But if memory serves,” she continued, slowly facing Aymeric, “I believe that you still owe me a meal, and the promise to eat one yourself.

On cue, Aymeric’s face and neck flushed rolanberry red.  He cleared his throat and stood up quickly.  “Upon further consideration,” he began, his ears so bright they seemed to be glowing, “I find myself eager to exchange my clothes after all.  Beg pardon.”  He exited the room in a very big hurry.

Estinien’s eyebrows tracked far up his brow.

“Do not tell me,” he prefaced, solemn as the grave—seething with curiosity.  “But what did you do to him?”

She felt her cheeks burning hotly, but loudly scoffed and snorted.  “It was more the opposite.”

Estinien’s eyebrows beetled back down.  “By the Fury I beg you would not tell me.”

She did not.  But now that she thought of it again, she could feel the bruise throbbing low on her neck.  Between her hair and the prim décolletage of the dress, it was hidden, and for that she was sure they all were grateful.  On a whim, she wet her lips to make Estinien uncomfortable in another direction.  “Why will you not let him wax fondly?  What exactly happened between you?”

Estinien faltered so severely that he dislodged from his seat, shifting several ilms.  “Aymeric and myself?”

She echoed his rejoinder from before.  “Who else in the world could I presume to refer to?”

He scowled at her and shoved a hand through his long hair.  It was completely dried now, silvery white in the firelight and becomingly disheveled.  “Nothing happened,” he said, dodging her eyes.  His voice was very thin.  “Not beyond … everything else.”

“How vague,” she quipped.

“Compel me not to speak of the past,” he muttered, bitter.  The dark blue eyes he turned to her were burning pits of pitch.  “I fear the portrait I would sketch will render neither one of us justice—nor well depict the present.”

She was silent as she sifted his meaning.  It was more than understandable, to bear lament or regret for the past.  She bore her share, too.  But she was sure that nothing he could say would dismay her.  Not her.  After facing dragons and Ascians and having the shreds of her heart sown between two paragons of Ishgard, she was sure she could handle it.

“I don’t want to make you do anything, Estinien,” she said firmly.  “But I would know more of the pair that I love.”

Something in her words made his eyes melt by a margin, surprising her again.  His face at large remained stony.  His chest rose and fell with a steady exhalation.  “I run,” he said simply, as though there was no truth more telling.  He searched her with a stare vast and gripping as moonless midnight.  “As you learned in all the times that I fled—the moments I stole ere I crept from your bed.”  He took another breath.  “I run.  But I never abandon.”

Long as I live, my life belongs to you both.

He must have run from Aymeric, too, then—or perhaps he never stopped.

She was looking deep into the abyss of his eyes when their absent companion returned.  Aymeric's skin was cooled back to golden.  Now he donned garments of crisp dark charcoal, the barest shade lighter than black.  “I do hope that I am not interrupting,” he said bashfully, ruffling a bare hand through hair like rook feathers.

Estinien forced a languid stretch in his seat, aggressively resembling a feline.  “Our precious little Rose was only wringing me for answers,” he droned.  She jerked to face him.  His eyes sparkled viciously at the shock that crossed her expression.

“Seven hells,” she grumbled.  “I never should have told you.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

It was midday and the blizzard was lulled—for the moment.

Aymeric used his last forkful of quiche to mop up the ends of his luncheon, scraps of cheese and shallots.  Samantha washed hers down with a third cup of milky tea.  Estinien piled a halved and crumbling muffin with butter and quince and used it to point at the timid glow beyond the window.  The sun, straining to be seen behind veils of swirling clouds. 

“Should we not survey the damage?” he said gruffly, cramming the bread and jam and butter in his mouth.

Joined by the steward and one of the day staff—Genevieve, Genny, Samantha remembered—they ventured to the foyer.  The entryway was nippy, cooled by the weather.  Aymeric prized open the door.  Snow piled thickly in a barricade at the steps, several fulms high.  He scraped it with the edge of his sock-covered toes.  It was dense, but it crumbled.

It was still bitter cold out, flurrying steadily.  Every bit of Ishgard they could see was frosted thickly in white.  The sky was grey, oddly bright in the glittering gleam of the rime.  The wind was greatly lessened.

But this was Coerthas.  Ice loomed in the air, sharp enough to taste, to freeze their very eyelashes.  The chill of wintry aether that whorled its way down her spine told Samantha that the threat of inclemency menaced and lingered.  “I doubt the storm is over,” she muttered, chattering, rubbing her nose. 

Aymeric hummed in thought as he briskly reconnoitered.  “Far from it,” he agreed.  “And yet, ’tis not the worst I have witnessed.”  His eyes were tense and reflective.  “Mayhap this drift can be cleared ere the snowsquall resumes.”  He made a noiseless decision and turned on his heel to jog to the scullery.  Estinien lunged to make chase and loped after him.

They returned wielding shovels.  Estinien hoisted several at his sides like long weapons.  He grunted as he doled them out to the household, offering one to Samantha.  Together they dressed again in boots and cloaks and gloves, and they toiled; wrestled rather successfully to open a gap to the street. 

Time ticked by.  The flurries stayed compliant.  Other inhabitants of the Pillars—or servants hired from Foundation, as it were—came to scrape and scoop beside them, heaving fallen clouds into high-hulking piles.  It was hard, frank labor.  Aymeric could not have returned to his papers if he willed it.

But fate was a capricious mistress, and as soon as a path partly through their quarter had been cleared, the sky started tumbling down again; fat clumps of biting, icy slush.  People trickled back indoors.  The day staff of the Manor Borel timidly approached their Lord Aymeric for leave to go home early—timid only because they could predict his distress. 

Sure enough, his brow crinkled at the notion of sending them off in the weather. 

Aymeric offered accommodations and disclaimers.  “By no means are you under obligation,” he assured them, his gaze flicking briefly to Estinien and Samantha.  “And never would I dare to deny access to your families.  But I fear that conditions will worsen in the night, and I am loath to dismiss you to peril when there is more than ample lodging to be had.”

“I would stay, milord,” said Genny, her heart-shaped face torn between gratitude and apprehension.  “And am glad for the kindness.  But as ye said—me boy’s at home with me sister—and both afeard of storms something awful.”

Snow fell thick but gently.  Aymeric’s eyes were soft as he released his aides one by one, each scurrying homeward while the sky yet held its breath.  Before Estinien could slink away along with them, Aymeric dragged him back inside.

“Under no obligation, you said,” Estinien grumbled, stumbling into the foyer, tracking snow.

Aymeric frowned.  “They have homes and loved ones elsewhere to assess,” he said brusquely.  “I believe yours are here.”

Estinien reddened and scoffed.

As she knocked the snow from her boots, Samantha’s thoughts flitted to the House—Tataru and Alphinaud, Edmont and his sons.  She chewed the inside of her lip.  “I might have too many homes and loved ones in Ishgard,” she muttered, turning nervous eyes to Aymeric.  “I wonder about the Manor Fortemps.”

His eyebrows lifted and bunched in concern, and his grip on Estinien tightened.  “Surely beneath the wide eaves of that House, they remain warm and safe,” he said, reassuringly.  “But if you wish to go to them, you should.”

She faltered.  Her eyes tracked to watch the snowfall through the window—to trace the deep path they had gouged in the white, already filled with a thin, fresh layer.  “I will stay,” she decided, turning back to Aymeric.

In his face was something cautious, but bright.  “Stay only if you wish it,” he said, earning a glance of hot accusation from Estinien.

“I wish it,” she said quickly.  And as she met them, Aymeric’s eyes wound tight with worship. 

 


 

The wind was picking up again, the light waning fast when they sat, at last, for dinner.

Aymeric begged his live-in staff to join them, but Simone—the culinarian—tittered a laugh that reminded Samantha very strongly of her mother and clapped a parental hand on his shoulder.  She was much older.  “As milady liked to say,” Simone began, turning to set the last of the foodstuffs, “Yer a mite too obliging, me laddie.  Er—milord.”  She crossed the room to elbow the steward.  “Rémy and I fare fine enough without ye.”

They left for their wing of the manor, and the trapped-together trio took the table.

Aymeric uncorked a bottle of Bordeaux and poured out three generous glasses.  They passed around platters.  There were savory cured meats and hard cheeses, cold vegetables; leek casserole au gratin and eggs that had been deviled.  There was a haunch of rosemary mutton and a pot of hot carrot and coriander soup, served with baguettes that smelled distinctly of yeast.

Estinien tore half a loaf and passed it to Samantha.  She tore into the crust with her teeth.  Aymeric chuckled and furnished his plate with haricots verts and mutton and spiced potatoes, in vigilant portions.  He used his fork and knife to curate and gather.  Meanwhile, Estinien snorted, using bare hands to pile his bitten-off hunk of baguette with shreds and shavings of meat.  “Hells alive, Aymeric,” he grunted, reaching for the pot of brown mustard.  “You shoveled as hard as the rest of us.  Eat like a soldier.”

“With force and speed enough to turn my stomach?”  Aymeric chuckled again and chewed another carefully measured bite.  He daubed his fine lips very politely with a napkin; sipped primly from his wine.  “I think not.”

Estinien shrugged.  He tucked into his slab of bread and flesh with savagery to rival a rabid coyote.  Sauce and jus smeared to stain his nose and chin.

Samantha almost choked on her mouthful of soup.  With so much time stretched between now and their travels, she’d nearly forgotten what it was like to watch him eat.  Ravenous, untidy—when he was this hungry, at least.  He noticed her staring and his gaze flashed to meet her, napkin balled up to scrub his face.

“I see you still feast like a monster,” she said tartly, lips to her spoon.

Estinien took an enormous swallow of wine to wash down his slovenly gorging and bared his teeth at her fiercely.  “A beast, if you remember,” he adjusted, eyes gleaming.

She scoffed and downed half of her glass as Aymeric loudly cleared his throat.  “Do attempt to keep the meal contained to the table,” he advised.

Estinien bared his teeth at Aymeric this time and snagged the bottle of Bordeaux from under his nose, swigging directly from the neck. 

If an eyeroll could be called fond and forbearing, Aymeric did just that.  Then he pried the bottle away from Estinien.  “Much though I know you love to imbibe,” he said sternly, “I beg you would refrain in my house.”

“Best I recollect,” Estinien countered, “You cruelly compelled me to stay here tonight.”  He flourished his fast-draining wine glass in a mock toast.  “In drink, I begin to find peace with my fate.”

Samantha barked and Aymeric grunted in displeasure.  But in truth, they were comfortable, lighthearted.  Here in this manor, Estinien was relaxed; not quite tranquil, but certainly the best imitation she had ever seen. 

Then again, as night advanced, Estinien always did seem more serene—quieted, soothed, his own tempests tempered.  Night did the same to Samantha.  They were cut of one cloth; two flighty, nocturnal creatures.

Aymeric, however, was not.  Halfway through his plate, and his exhaustion had risen to the level of his eyes, spilling slowly over.  He set his knife and fork down and yawned widely; tried to hide it with his napkin.  “Beg your pardon,” he said, still yawning.  “I fear—I am more fatigued than I thought.”

“Sleep,” Estinien ordered.  “We will wash up.”

Aymeric studied his unfinished meal with a long and weary stare.  “In a moment,” he said, gaze flicking up to dart between them.  “I made a promise to consume this,” he said, looking at Samantha.  “I will rest when the task is completed.”

 


 

After assigning them each a spare bedroom, Aymeric had been shooed, somehow, to his chambers. 

Estinien helped her pack away leftovers and scour the dishes.  For a man who spent most of his time in a state of disheveledness, he was exceptionally good at cleaning.  She told him so, and he snorted.  “Honest work,” he said simply, drying the last spick and span salver.  “Sculleries always need hands.” 

He wiped his with a washrag and pinched a mostly-gone bottle of brandy from the kitchen before summarily dismissing himself.  Samantha kept her tongue to herself and christened her own interim boudoir.

On entry, much to her chagrin, she found a soft nightgown folded on the dresser.  It had been left for her use, carefully provisioned.  No doubt another old possession of the Vicomtesse.  Gods bless.  Cloistered all night in the hollows of Aymeric’s manor, surrounded by relics of the far and recent past—not the least of which Estinien himself

Her mind was on fire in twelve different ways.  Sleep fled to a very great distance. 

A bath would be helpful

The washroom, however, was also suspiciously well-equipped.  The counters were covered in mounds of plush towels, fragrant soap, sparse but noted bottles of luxurious oils.  There was even a bowl of fresh herbs and flowers by the sink—cuttings, perhaps, from his indoor garden.  If Aymeric was trying somehow to pamper her indirectly …

She grimaced, afraid it might be working.

She drew a hot bath to warm her limbs and distract herself; sank to soak and addle for a very long while.  Her body ached from the ride of the day—from manacutters and dragoons in distress, to shoveling piles of ice.  She lathered a washcloth and scrubbed every ilm of her body; scrunched her damp hair up to dry.  Wrapped in a towel, she sat and wicked by the hearth near the bed.

She shirked the offered nightgown for her long, wrinkled chemise, finally dried from the snowmelt.  She shrugged it over her shoulders and thought that surely the Vicomtesse would understand.  It was all too strange, this day in the life.  Strange, when she longed for something plain and familiar. 

Peculiar.  That was how she felt.  She wedged beneath the bedclothes and stared at the fire.

Three souls lost in a serpentine labyrinth—for her part, a tangle she chose to be mislaid in.  She laughed scornfully at herself, the sound stark in the quiet of the room.  The wind howled outside, and she huffed a breath.

She closed her eyes.

Tucked against the mattress, she was drifting to sleep at long last when she heard the knock on the door.

Eyes wide open, her heart trilled between dread and frustration. 

She knew the likeliest suspect.  She was prepared to scold one or the other.  But she was also exhausted, with zero motivation to get out of bed.  Her legs and arms were leaden.  Whomever it was, he could show himself well enough. 

“It’s open,” she called, her voice very hoarse. 

Several heartbeats passed before the door clicked and creaked open.  Several more before the primary prediction hunched into sight, long silvery hair ashine in the darkness like the specter of a halo.  The front of his shirt was half undone, laces astray, a long measure of warm olive skin showing. 

Estinien shuffled the ball of his foot along the carpet in silence, and Samantha huffed a sigh of affectionate exasperation.  She hunched to prop herself up on her elbows.  “You can’t sleep.”

They both knew it was true.  With a jerk of his head, he confirmed her suspicion, nonetheless.  “You?”

She grinned bitterly.  “Was just about to when you knocked.”

His shoulders slumped with a husky exhalation.  “Accept my apology, then.”

Thoroughly awakened now, she crouched to a sit and sighed again.  “Did you come here to join me?”

He stiffened slightly.  “Of a fashion,” he said, very strangely, dark eyes meeting hers.

Peculiar.

She tilted her head in question and he paused.  Then he stretched out a hand, flexing it in a way that clearly said come hither.  She blinked, intensely perplexed; heaved a breath of puzzled surrender and slipped her feet from the welcoming heat of her duvet.  Her toes touched the cool floor.  The simple flat ends of her dark chemise fluttered at her knees as she crossed to the door.

Face to face, Estinien offered her his wide, callused palm.  “Come with me,” he beckoned.

Too weary to ask why, she slipped her hand inside it.

Together they moved through the cold, darkened hall.  She recognized nothing in the gloom, no familiar shapes or angles.  Nothing for several strung-together heartbeats, racing to a verse in this moment of mesmerizing midnight. 

But Estinien walked with purpose, sure and steady. 

He knew where he was going.  He knew the path well.

They came to a stop at the frame of a door and she squinted; noticed unassuming gilding and polish, the barest suggestion of ivy.  Her pulse sang loudly in her ears as Estinien turned the knob to Aymeric’s bedchamber very slowly, very quiet.

The door cracked open.  He urged her to follow him through it.

Her heart was racing, sprinting, pounding.  Why did they come here?  What was the reason?  How would Aymeric answer the sight of them, a pair of lurking monsters creeping in the night, crawling through his quarters in the pitch of witching hours?

The room was lit only by the soft-glowing coals of the hearth.  The shapes of his bed were limned thinly in amber.  She followed the press of Estinien’s self-assured fingers, spurred by dreadful curiosity, the wondering throb of her heart.  As if in a trance, he lured her through the silken dimness.

Her pulse thudded faster at the sight of Aymeric, sound asleep, swathed halfway in blankets.  He was bare to the waist, an idol of gold and alabaster, his beauty completely magnetic.  As the distance between them all dwindled, he stirred; surely sensing their presence.

Pale blue eyes fringed in black lashes opened to behold them.  A flicker of something wistful and bewildered crossed his drowsy face.  His lips moved to make sound, but only breath escaped.  He tried again.  A noise of enquiry hummed in his chest.

“Sleep,” said Estinien, the growl of his voice so soft it was nearly a purr.

Aymeric’s heavy lidded eyes glided between them.  He slipped an arm from the covers and reached in their direction.

Slowly, Estinien bent to sink to the edge of the mattress, dragging her down along with him.  Together they perched there on the precipice of something unknown, unexplored, hitherto uncharted.  Two nocturnal beasts searched the dream-dazed eyes of their keeper, seeking the shelter of his wings, awaiting his sacred absolution.

Aymeric’s hand brushed Estinien’s knee, slipped to snag at the fringe of her chemise.  His hazy eyes caught on her face.  Pinioned by the pull of that hooded, icy gaze, she leaned toward him.  His fingers curled at her elbow and eased her closer, further; folded her down to fall beside him, nesting her into the bedclothes. 

At her back, she felt Estinien follow, his weight settling, long and slender, against her.

With some sighing and shifting and shuffling, they were wrapped in white satin.  Aymeric’s lips were at her brow, Estinien’s nose at her neck.  At her waist, their arms overlapped to entwine, plaiting all three of them together. 

A bright, blinding comet, slow-burning stardust, a flicker of unsettled moonbeams—

Unexpected equilibrium; celestial symmetry. 

Even as a thrill of trepidation, of adrenaline surged down her spine, she felt somehow intensely at ease; like this unholy trinity was perfectly, unspeakably, unimaginably … right.

“Stay,” Aymeric prayed.

Estinien’s arm stretched to fold them all tightly together.  Aymeric’s leg hooked to catch behind her ankle.  She could feel the slopes and angles of them both, pleasant and tired and gentle, her body ensnared between like a balm to allay and anneal them.

In that cozy nest of limbs, sleep caught up to her so quickly she thought she might have been dreaming all along.  As she spiraled, very swiftly, she would never have remembered the words at her ear, low and loving and otherworldly tender. 

“Stay with him,” Estinien breathed, the brush of his lips like the hint of a kiss.  “Stay for him—and for me.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Dawn, thin and grey, pressed at her eyelids.

The give of the cushions felt luxe and unfamiliar.  It was a wide, deep room.  Cool blankets gathered at her hips.  She curled and stretched on the mattress and her foot rubbed against an ankle clothed in nightpants; a body that stirred at her touch. 

Drowsy arms reached to detain her.  Strong, wide hands that felt like tentative promises crept around her waist, and the subtle, clean scent of him flooded her senses.  Every nerve in her backbone flared and came to life.

Aymeric.

It was the morning.  She was in his bed

She craned her neck but knew it already—Estinien, as always, had fled.

But Aymeric—Aymeric was here.  She rolled on her side to regard him, and he held her, quietly watching.

He made a low and unbelieving sound, rich and sweet as honey.  “I thought it surely a dream,” he said softly.  He traced her face with bright, half-lidded eyes.  “Specters of my wishes.”  He leaned his nose to her jawline; stroked a hand through her bedraggled tresses.  Hot lips traced a savoring path down her neck and his whole body trembled.  “Full glad am I,” he crooned to her collarbone, warm and dark and husky with slumber, “To find you awaking beside me.”

For a long moment, they lay there, twined in a sideways embrace.  She raked her fingers through his soft, dark hair.  He wove their legs together, twinning his arms at her back, gripping with all of his limbs.  It felt so good, to be held like that—tenderly fettered. 

The antithesis of being let go.

She was glad, too—mystified, exhausted, and altogether ecstatic to be seized so wholly, so dearly.  It surprised her.  “If I could,” she confessed to his brow, a sudden truth bubbling, unbidden, to her lips, “I would wake like this forever.”

The thought made her warm by every measure—a certainty, absolute.

He would never be gone in the morning.  She would never want to leave.

Aymeric’s arms gripped her tighter.  He curved to graze their mouths together, without regard for morning staleness.  His breath came shaky and shallow.  “You truly mean that,” he murmured, voice cracking—a declaration, a question.

She nodded, nuzzling him with her nose.  It was a fact.

He swallowed a note of raw delight, a rush of blood reddening, warming his face.  His lips pressed insistent kisses to her chin, to her cheeks.  Heavy hands smoothed down the gauzy silk at her spine, down her lower back; paused at the creped fringe of her chemise. 

It was scrunched up at her hips, wrinkled and risqué.  His reverent touch skimmed past it to ghost the top of her thighs—faltered for a moment to realize she wore nothing else.  Aymeric’s breath stoppered and his fingers spread nervously to grasp her, there at the slope of her backside. 

To feel him touch her like that—so shy again, so staggered—she quaked so severely the bed shook.  Heat spiked down to pool deep in her belly, the rush so abrupt, so intense she gasped for air.  She pressed her blushing face to his neck in reflex.

Oh.

This was what she wanted. 

This.  Him.

He began to pull away.  “I apologize—”

She grabbed his slackened hands and pressed them back against her.  “No,” she croaked, hot on his skin.  “Please touch me.”  She inhaled thinly; loosened her hold on his knuckles.  “Only—only if you want to.”

He was utterly still for a moment, his breath coming sparsely.  She was stiff with anticipation.  Then the clutch of his fingers resumed, very timid, and her blood began to warble.  Gently, he used his hands to ease her legs apart, and slid his knee between them. 

She gasped again, more sharply than planned—sank against the solid column of his thigh.  His muscles were tensed beneath the crumple of his trousers.  He bent his leg up to caress her bluntly, right there

The weave of his nightclothes swept against her, and her throat became a desert.  She whimpered and writhed and suddenly felt his mouth, hot and hungry, at her ear.  “Since that morning,” he told her, breathless, “I have dreamt of this; of waking together.”  Soft lips scorched a trail down her neck, down to the meet of her shoulder where he bit her.  He stroked his tongue across the bruise, moved his knee, and she trembled.  “I cherish that night; how sublime, how like heaven it felt.”

His leg was gone from where it touched her, leaving the space there much too empty—then his palms dragged down the backs of her thighs.  He hooked her knees to fit his slim waist between them, tugged her close; rolled his hips to notch them together, ache to ache.

Through the sole layer that confined him, she felt him; hard and warm and trapped there, straining the front of his trousers.  He panted for air as he ground the firm ridge of his arousal against her.  She could feel everything

What flimsy nightpants, she thought.  She wanted to rip them off. 

The flat of his tongue and his teeth on her neck, he used a brittle voice to implore her.  “Will you—allow me to bed you again?”

Her body tremored in vicious assent; her hollowness, actually painful.  Everything narrowed to the need of his request, soft and guarded—the pressure of his hips—the glorious pledge of fullness swelling between them. 

There were no words, and she needed them badly.  She tried to catch her breath; tried to find him with her mouth.  He tilted his chin to mold their lips together and she swallowed every hallowed taste of him he gave her.  She snaked them closer, more tightly; wriggled to feel the caged length of him pulsing, flush against her. 

It was still less a word that left her, more a huffed exhalation.  “Now?”

He grunted desperate affirmation—leaned back to fix her with eyes that flashed, blue and pale and patient.

Searching for permission.

She lunged for his mouth; tugged his bottom lip between her teeth and shoved a hand down the taut line of his stomach.  Past the crease of his hips, her thumb hooked to slip open his waistband, the flat of her palm slithering under.  Oh, gods— 

He arched his back and stifled a cry when she stroked him.  Relentless, she took his width in her open hand and felt him twitch in her grip; dipped her fingers low to feel his total, ready offering.  He bit back a guttural rumble and bucked his hips; pitched to bury his lips at her throat. 

You provoke me,” he groaned, scraping teeth on her skin, shivering coarsely.  “You would make me roar and be wicked.”

Yes.  She wanted him unpenned—wanted to see that feral creature again. 

She swallowed hard and stole his line.  “Shall I tell you, in this instant, what it is that I desire?”

It came out hoarse, but he froze beneath the force of it, the might of his own words bent against him.  She wondered if he was scared to invite it, her profane foretelling.  But he was transfixed by the heat of her stare.  The smothering inferno of her attention plunged through him like levin, and he answered her, breathless.  “Tell me.”

Her mouth was dry with triumph.  Astonished, she palmed him from heavy hanging root to tip, and he moaned obscenely.  “I want you to be wicked, Aymeric,” she begged him, gripping harder.  She leaned to kiss his neck, where his pulse thrilled, uneven and unbridled.  “Please, oh please, be wicked with me.”

He throbbed fiercely in her grasp and angled one hand to touch her in reprisal. 

Dizzy, she gulped down a whine as long, deft fingers cupped and delved.  Two curved to slip inside her, too easy.  Eyes pale and searing watched her, unblinking; he held his breath and moved to stroke her, so deeply.  Her body made lush and irreverent sounds and a fresh whine broke free. 

He kissed her cheek; exhaled, ragged and burning, at her ear.  “Now?”

The fit of his fingers was nothing compared to that in her fist.  “Yes,” she rasped, closing her palm around him one more time, sensual flesh and skin like firm warm silk and velvet, reveling, boastful, immodest—

His hand was gone from where it touched her.  The air caught in his lungs as he struggled to unfasten and yank down his trousers.  And then he was freed, bowing above her, waistband drooped at his knees.  She felt her own slickness on the hand he used to press her beneath him. 

His weight pinned her.  His stare made her helpless. 

She bent her legs to spread them, wide and willing.  His breath hitched as he keenly dipped between.  The heavy arc of him swung like a pendulum to meet her.  He gripped the base in his hand, stroking the tip of what he would give her along the cusp of softness aching to receive.

Both of them moaned.  She couldn’t stop the cry that tore from her throat, the urgent appeal that came after.  “Now,” she sighed, lifting and tilting her hips.  “Aymeric, please.”

He used his hand to align them, their warmth and wetness mixing, impious and tempting.  His bright eyes were hot and hooded, lust strung through them like lightning in a blizzard.  His lips parted, air coming fast.  “Tell me again,” he panted, dark and breathless, instants away from abandon.  Still he curbed and held himself back, every corded muscle tensing.  “Tell me what you wanted.”

You,” she cried.  She rolled her hips to take him by an ilm.

He gasped and surged, hips flexing, hilting him completely.  And gods the bliss of it, the joining, the brimming way he filled her.  Somehow it was better than she remembered.  It was absolute divinity, primordial sin.  Nothing, nothing, nothing felt like him. 

She arched up from the mattress to meet him, to accept his earthly, empyrean gift.  The sound he made was ungodly.  Both hands trapped her there for the taking, and so he did—rough and in earnest.  Sharp sounds of pleasure tore from his lips as he well and truly ravaged her.

Seven hells.  She enfolded him in her legs.  “Fury,” he hissed.  His mouth at her neck was fevered.  The space between them had vanished but still he struggled to end it, to blend their very existence.  “Forgive me,” he panted.

Euphoria split her to the quick.  She wanted to laugh and howl and scream in pure elation. 

She raked her hands down his spine, arced to fold him closer; thrilled in the pulse of his movements, the brutal pace of his hips.  So ruthless, so ravishing, so rapturous.  She wished she could always be tied like this, to feel savage, sacred agony ever after. 

“Don’t stop,” she cried, something coiling, cinching, sparking on embers within her.

He grunted at the plea, body flexing, pumping deep.  “I want to bed you forever,” he growled.

And that undid her.  She was broken, shattered, unmade to molten pieces.  She gasped in dusky satisfaction, writhing, begging for more—and he gave it, kept giving, kept filling and filling and filling

She cried out again as he hunched to seal their bodies together, teeth on her skin, sheathed to the base as he kept going.  Wickedness, transcendence, unrelenting consummation.  “Once more,” he demanded, gruff and dark.

She ached and whined and unraveled again at his command, every muscle quaking and straining.  His name in her mouth was an unholy vesper.  “Oh, Aymeric—”

He shouted as he crossed his own threshold, hilted full and far inside her.  His hips jerked and jerked and jerked and he groaned wantonly; panted with haste and with ebbing, with every hard wring of his release. 

He shuddered with shaky breaths as he sank down against her, unstiffening, untensing.  His air came more steadily, and he stayed there, heavy above and inside her, even as he softened within.  His lips dragged a hot trail to her ear.  She could feel him smile.  “You like it when I sin,” he observed, husky.

She laughed, less a bark, more a hard and throaty rasp.  She craned her neck to take his lips in her mouth; to stroke their tongues full together.  He moaned mutely into the kiss and she drank it like a sacrament.  “Very much,” she told him, and his lips grinned against hers in jubilation, in repentance.  “The most perfect sin—the sweetest, most saintly depravity.”

He kissed her chin, her nose.  “Madness is what I would call it,” he breathed, plush lips skimming down her cheek.  “Torment.”  He nipped at her neck, dragged himself away to survey her.  His wintry eyes were blazing.  “Unending torture.”

“More like the peak of mortal pleasure,” she sighed, combing both hands through his sweat-damp hair.

His eyes rolled back and he loosed a self-satisfied breath.  “You flatter me,” he purred.  He lavished her mouth with more kisses, his neck and face thoroughly reddened.  “But do continue.”

She laughed and smoothed the black hair from his forehead; traced both long ears with her fingers.  The tapered tips were hot with the blood that rushed to tint them.  Aymeric’s breath came faster.  “Ah, that feels heavenly,” he murmured, eyes closed, focused on the sensation.  He twitched where he lingered inside her, still soft and spent from their joining—

“I see,” she said, raw glee at the edge of her voice.

He laughed without sound and dragged the tips of their noses together, smiling shyly.  His eyes were white-hot.  “Have you the slightest idea how fantastic you are?”

She cackled.  “For being a disciple of sin?  For touching your ears?”

“No,” he said, darkly, lowly, sweetly.  He kissed her lips again.  “For taking me with all of my demons.”

She pressed her head back into the cushions to stare at him in bald confusion.  “What demons?”

“Estinien and Ishgard, for the biggest,” he said plainly.  “But there is also my—” He struggled to find the word to describe it.  He cleared his throat.  “Carnal intensity?”

That made her bark.  “You mean godlike sexual prowess?

He flushed more furiously and pressed his face at her neck; skimmed an open mouth across her skin.  “Oh, you flatter me.”

She was deadly curious, sensing more history.  “What makes you call that a demon?”

He shivered and drew back again to look down at her, blushing, almost timid.  “My inclination to—enthusiastically express my affections, verbal or otherwise, is not always met with approval.”

Customarily I—restrain myself.

She craned her neck to kiss his chin.  “I love it,” she said firmly, hands gripping the nape of his neck.  “I love your passion; the way you show and say what you feel.  I always have—unrestrained or otherwise.”

His eyes were so adoring then, she felt heat build and swirl in her marrow.  He propped himself up above her to cover her mouth with slow, deep, exultant kisses.  Finally, he eased them apart; moved himself up and away from the bedclothes.  He stood and stripped the trousers from where they still snagged on his legs, looking at her in question.  “Bathe with me?”

She nodded so fast she made herself giddy, struggling out of her chemise.  Then she froze and cupped a hand fast between her legs.  “I—don’t want to ruin the bedsheets—”

He turned on his heel.  In the dim, eerily white morning light—surely it was still one giant snowdrift outside—she watched his shapely bare outline, chiseled porcelain, disappear into the washroom.  He lit a handful of candles inside and returned very soon with an obliging washcloth.  He handed it to her, and she implemented it between her legs, stretching up from the bed.  She felt her cheeks flush.  “May I go in for a moment alone?”

“Of course,” he said.  His eyes were filled with a blending of adulation and something eminently harder to describe.

She darted past him to close the door and relieve her bladder, folding the helpful washcloth by the hamper.  Wicks flickered on the counters, parading along the wall of the tub.  Her brief hygiene sufficiently finished, she granted him entry.

Naked and trimmed by the light of the candles, he truly looked like a graven image—an idol of myths and of daydreams, a beautiful, ancient spirit.  “You look like something I’m surely forbidden to touch,” she said, reaching for him anyway, worshipful, sacrilegious.

He smiled and wrapped an arm around her as he bent to plug the drain, cranking the knobs to draw the bath.  Water surged into the deep basin.  He stood to brush lips at her forehead.  “Only an incubus itching to fill you with his seed,” he said.  It was a quip, but the words dripped with truth, base and primal.  It sent an answering flame to the sore and aching empty between her legs, stirring again her insatiable desire.

She chuckled and shivered, and he held her more tightly; smirked down at her dryly.

“You are not an incubus,” she said.

He hummed as he sat at the edge of the tub, pulling her into his lap.  She laughed with surprise; he combed her hair across one shoulder to nip at the side of her neck.  He bit her, gentle but insistent.  “A vampire, then,” he said, stroking her skin with a hot lave of his tongue.

She trembled and scoffed.  “Still too nocturnal,” she grumbled, twisting to face him.  “Last I checked, I was the creature of the night.”

“Nocturnal you may be,” he declared.  “But not nearly wicked enough to be a monster.”  He stared into her eyes, smoothing both palms up her belly.  “I still possess all of my faculties,” he murmured, brushing his thumbs across the slopes and inclines of her chest.  “You weave a very poor enthrallment,” he lied.

She was pinned by his stare—by the way she could feel him begin to harden again.  Lust blazed to melt her, low and hot, and she chuckled darkly.  “You must be the monster, then,” she submitted, overcome with a frisson.  “Blessed or unblessed.”

He made a sound of humored concession and tilted his chin to the swift rising water.  “After you.”

She slipped from his lap and into the bathtub.  He made to follow, and her eyes caught shamelessly on the apex of his thighs, where he was standing half-mast.  On impulse she gripped his hips with both palms and dropped to take him in her mouth.  The taste of them both on her tongue was secular and indulgent.

His breath hitched and he swelled harder at her lips before sinking away, down into the water.  “I invited you to join me in the bath,” he scolded, voice cracking, bending his knees to pull her back into his lap.  “Not join me in the bath.”

The basin was filling up just past their hips.  She leaned her spine at his chest and grinned to feel his hands begin exploring her body, one dipping to stroke between her legs despite himself.  “In the bath, after the bath,” she sighed.  “Both.  I don’t care.  As long as you keep touching me, I don’t have the wits to think clearly.”

He turned off the water.  She felt him reach down between them and twisted to watch him stroke his now raging arousal, bracing it in a loose and expert fist.  “Such an appetite,” he taunted, eyes catching hers and flashing.  She lunged for his lips and he met her with his tongue; gripped her arms with both warm, wet hands.  “I want you out of the bathtub, then,” he said into her mouth.  “I want to taste you.”

They stepped out together and he picked up a towel; dried her himself before lifting her onto a counter.  Dumbfounded, she watched him, wide-eyed, as he spread her legs and bent his face between them, meeting her with his tongue again.

Her hips bucked at the touch and she whimpered.  He held her more firmly; made a rough sound of approval and licked, using flat and tip, full lips to suck and kiss.  She struggled and he pinned her in place and slowly, so slowly, he made her unravel. 

His name on her lips was a hoarse echo in the chamber; her legs were boneless as he helped her back to the floor.

The question she asked was raspy, too.  “My turn?”

He shook his head before she could reach between his legs again; folded the towel at the rug on the floor and urged her to kneel there—knelt behind her.  He molded his front to her back and pressed lips to her temple.  “Bend over.”

Oh.

Her face flushed as she obeyed, leaned on hands and knees.  She felt him crouch to press his broad chest at her shoulders.  The tip of him flexed to caress her and she gasped as he sheathed himself quickly, hard and urgent.

He went so deep.  Almost too deep, this way.  He coughed out a groan and rocked his hips, and she thought she might split in half—and not necessarily the good way.  “Ah, gods,” she grunted, wincing forward, and he stopped at the motion, at the cringe in her voice.  “It—it might be too much like this.”

He pulled back so fast; moved to find her eyes.  He took her cheeks in both hands, his face a mask of sheer horror.  “Did I hurt you?”

What a godsdamned angel.  She couldn’t help but laugh and kiss him. 

“No, not at all,” she assured him.  “But—maybe we should take that angle more slowly.”

He looked much too distressed to try that again.  Clearly disgusted with himself, he combed both hands through her hair.  Eyes like hard diamonds roved her face for signs of some unspoken dilemma.  “Let us stop, then,” he said tensely, “Before I do something worse.” 

She laughed again and took the wilting width of him in her fist—stared into his eyes as she stroked him.  “Sit down.”

Almost without hesitation, he sank to the floor, holding her gaze.  She rose up on her knees and moved to straddle him.  His air came faster.  A flush crept up his neck to redden his ears, and the girth in her hand pulsed to attention all over again.  She positioned herself above that upward surging arc, and he took a heavy breath, watching her intently, eyes scalding hot.

She used her hand to nock him against her, and sank slowly, slowly down.  He gave a shallow moan as he slipped in ilm by ilm, and she threw her head back at the sensation; melted at the way he reached up so firmly within her.  “Aymeric.”

He gasped and rolled his hips up in answer, gripping her thighs, pulling to ply her down tighter.  It was sublime—paradisiac devastation.  She choked on the urge to cry and flung her arms around his neck, erasing all distance between them.

He lunged to his knees; hugged her close and moved with rhythmic intemperance, with animal abandon.  He dragged his mouth down her neck, over her shoulder, chained in that desperate embrace.  “How good you feel,” he panted, finding her mouth with a sloppy, frantic kiss.

She stroked her hands through his hair and tasted his lips as she rode him, swallowing groan after groan from his throat.  “I can’t get enough of you,” she breathed, a divulgence so solemn it ached.  Even full of him now, sore from him prior, she knew she would never have enough.  Not enough moments strung together; not enough time.  Still too much of a schism between them, the Keeper of Ishgard and Warrior of Light.

Knowing that made her hurt all the worse.

She crushed her taste in his mouth and he opened his lips to receive her communion, ready and willing and wanting to take all she offered.  “I love you,” he said, the words a velvet orison.  “I want you now and ever.”

Sweat-slicked and wreathed in the light of the candles, they clung to each other like creatures that might die if they parted.  Together they were swept into a whiteout like stardust, like the sharpest, brightest, most unforgiving throes of Coerthas. 

When they made it to the bath that time, they managed to finish, uninterrupted.

 
☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


☾ ✧ ☽

 

Aymeric de Borel was no stranger to fancy or fixation—nor immune to them besides.

Steam misted from the basin, fragrant with her scent—sweet sweat and roses.  His nose grazed the shell of her ear; his hands moved in reflex to grasp her.  His palms dipped beneath the glitter of balmy ripples, down the candlelit slick of her skin.  The pads of his fingers followed the hards and gentles of her body; caught on subtle, wrinkled creases of her scars. 

Wreathed in flame and rime, calling on energies sacred and profane—
You, who lay low our false idols, were so very near to the divine.

He trembled.  Soft water lapped the edge of the tub.  Worshipful thumbs gripped the give of her waist to urge her closer against him.  She went slack at the touch; pillowed her spine at his front, her head at the crook of his shoulder.  Her warm, damp, thoroughly earthly cheek fell to bless his chest.  He tilted his chin to observe her—caught the glint of dark, adoring eyes, burning hotly up at him.

His heart stammered and leapt.  He wondered if she felt it.

It was dizzy, this feeling.  Did she feel the same?  Spent and spent again, and still a smolder crept in his blood, crouching, waiting to burst into flame.  His mind was a blur and then their lips were together, open mouths twining, slow and easy but still boundlessly yearning.

It had been quite some time since he had taken a lover.  Not for lack of wishing, or even lack of trying.  Hardly for lack of those that begged and applied.  Amid the courts of Coerthas, there was plenty of sin to uncover—or find between the covers, as it were. 

But he was not disposed to more casual relations.  Twixt Aymeric and Ishgard, sin had little room to prosper.  And those that he courted—some with haughty highborn minds, unaccustomed to being rejected—were largely indisposed to come second to Ishgard.

So, Aymeric de Borel avoided sex—an act he sidestepped for myriad reasons.

An act he craved for myriad more.

Most often, most telling, he dreamed simply for endearment—the whim to be beloved by a partner, well and truly treasured, thereby joined in flesh in bonded crescendo; not seek that bonding first in the chaos of bed.

In addition, very frankly, sex scared him.

The carnal could persuade him, had power over him, and he hated being out of control.

He never left the tendency untempered.  Well did he know the danger of unrestrained want for authority.  But aching and desire were often so unpleasant.  Urgent.  Overwhelming.  It made him feel like he was toppling, distressingly helpless—trapped, somehow, in the burn of his own skin.  It was a sensation that rendered him desperateand desperation was intensely unbecoming.

Yet desperate he was—desperate to be kissed and clasped and lost in another, desperate for the heat of that closest embrace …

Oh, he craved as much as he feared it.

He was almost glad that, in the past, Ishgard barred the path.  She defended him, shielded him from the threat of animal danger with the walls of her mettle.  Never did he suspect that Ishgard herself would escort him to the arms that now held him, that bid him to tender dissipation.

His divine mortal indulgence had turned in the bath to face him.  Wrapped yet in their heaven and basking in the glow, his body was much too soothed to please her.  Still, he slinked his hips down beneath, down to allow her to pin him. 

This woman, this spirit, so mystifying and magnificent.  He had her willing flesh, and yet the need to take her, to possess her, drove him almost mad.  A spark of something feral sputtered in his chest; the dogged impulse to lead her again to highest mortal bliss, to swallow his name in rapture from her lips.

As though that could claim her as his.

He trailed his open mouth across her chin; savored another silk-and-satin kiss.  Then he sank to meet her dark-burning eyes.  They were filled with such elation.  “How I have wanted you,” he breathed, before he realized he was speaking.  “How I still want you.”

How I want you to be, everlastingly, mine.

“You have me,” she said, and it was almost enough. 

She snaked her arms tight around him.  He watched the sleek, wiry muscles move beneath the curves of her skin and he shuddered—realized this was only another beginning.  The beginning of something that left him deep-burning and utterly petrified.

Such a strong and naked compulsion, such an acutely convincing need.  There at the crux flanked between love and lust, at that sweetest intersection, he had found her, yearning desperately for him.

Her hands tracked cooling water up his neck, up to his freshly washed hair.  She stroked her fingers through it slowly, the tips of her nails grazing his scalp, and he stifled the sound that rose in his throat—flushed at the prickle that sizzled through his weary pelvis.

Halone help me.

She pressed her face against his neck and huffed a soundless chuckle.  He could feel her lips curve into a smirk on his humid skin.  Her voice was raspy and aghast.  “The water’s not even cold yet—”

He gasped a laugh through the heat that scalded his cheeks; kissed every ilm of hers that he could reach.  “Pay no heed to my cruel and feeble flesh,” he begged her.  “Much as it pains me to confess it, I—cannot control myself.”

She skimmed her grinning lips along the curve of his shoulder, and he tremored.  “Wasn’t it you who asked to take things slow?”

“Indeed,” he hummed, smoothing the tip of his nose at her jawline.  “In an effort to protect you from myself.”  His own mouth itched with a grin and he let it spread wryly, tipping back and tilting her to look into her eyes.  “A monster, remember?”

Her throaty bellow, peculiar and contagious.  She pressed their brows together and he grinned more widely.  “Gods and hells, Aymeric,” she snorted, scrubbing his lips with her mouth before she leaned away.  “If you keep calling yourself a monster, I’m going to kill you.”

“You should,” he sighed drily.  “Before I maul you to death.”

She coughed at him in frustration and shoved him with the heels of both hands, causing the water to wildly thrash.  Her palms were preternaturally warm.  He could tell she was biting back a giggle, her face tense and twisted with the effort.  “I swear—

But she cut herself off at the way he was smiling—hard and wide enough to hurt his very jaw.  He was speaking again, without thinking.  “For so long—for years I was convinced—” His hands were at her hairline, raking back her dripping mane.  “Never did I dare to imagine I would find you.”

Her eyes fluttered at his touch and she looked at him in question.

He pulled every measure of love he could muster to his stare. 

“Surely you remember,” he said softly, gripping her shoulders, drumming up the memory.  “With you, there is an ease,” he recited.  “A rapport, a connection that, heretofore—” His breath caught.  He moved one hand to stroke the backs of his knuckles at her neck; summoned another remembrance of words to his lips.  “I am not in the habit of this,” he murmured, very tender, eyes roving her face.  “And daresay ill-equipped as ever to sustain it.  But alone with you—” He pressed their foreheads together.  “I hardly recognize myself.”

She kissed him gently; nudged them, nose to nose.  Her face was warm and flushed.  “Those are old words,” she muttered.  “Words I’ve thought of over and over.”  He felt her smile, felt her skin burn hotter.  “You asked me to reserve my judgment, for when I knew you better,” she reminded him.  “And I stand by what I said.”  Her voice was hard, a note more wicked.  She gripped his waist with her knees and repeated her verdict.  “Nothing about you is ill-equipped.

He tried to remember to breathe.  When she moved above him in the basin, the brush of her skin—smooth and tempting—set something inside him on fire.  The reach of his longing incarnate strained and stretched to meet her, and he kept his appalling body pressed tight to the floor of the tub. 

“So you say,” he said drolly.  “Plenty of time to change your mind.”

She tossed her head and barked a laugh so hard and so ugly it charmed him.  “I’m pruning,” she announced, bracing the flat of her palm at his neck.  Her thumb and forefinger idly traced his left ear.  “Let’s get out.”

The ache between his legs pulsed a chant: She is mine, she is mine.  And as he watched her lift from the bath, he could think only of the need to tug her back down—to pin her—to mark her, caress her, to stroke her in sin—to drag his starving, savage tongue to every sacred place, and make her beg him to—

By the Fury.

His heart throbbed and stuttered, his knees going weak.

The water babbled and sang as she stepped out, careful to drip only on the bathmat.  Quickly, she fetched her towel from before, mopping the wet from her body.  Then she draped the cloth at her waist and thrust a hand to him.  “Are you coming?”

That made him laugh, soft and brittle.  “I beg you would ignore me,” he warned her, surprised that as a tide of blood surged to color his face, that which swelled between his legs did not lessen.  He stood from the bath and her stare drifted straight where he expected, to the damning evidence of his utter unbridling.

He saw the way her lips parted—the way her eyes widened—the way she coughed again, this time in unhidden consternation.  “Twelve have mercy, Aymeric,” she muttered, choking on a laugh.  “I don’t know whether to be flattered or concerned.”

“No need to invoke all Twelve,” he said, subtly sardonic, swathing in a towel.  “I did beg you to ignore me.

 


☾ ❅ ☽

 

The chassis of the manacutter whirred to deafen his ears, and Estinien tensed his thighs; clenched his jaw against the freezing wind and the bloody, blistering truth.

It hurt like seven hells to leave them. 

Estinien ached.

It rotted deep in his belly, like acid ready to retch—the cranking of refuse not meant to be eaten—the heave of his gut, made sullen with ale—the vile sludge of Nidhogg, wrenched like hot slime through his pelvis.

It felt like sacrilege to think it, to liken them to him.  But wretched, blasphemous heresy, it felt exactly like Nidhogg—like something uncanny yet possessed him, making him bend.  Even now, with every bramble of his essence, he still felt some piece of himself twisted in that bedroom, clinging to them like a greedy, ashen phantom.

Estinien huffed a breath through his nose and it clouded like smoke against the clearing sky.

Damn, damn, damn it all to the slagging seven depths—

Malm upon malm between him and the Pillars.  Between him and them.  But he still felt the warmth of their beloved bodies in his arms, their shapes, their breathings—his whisper.  Stay.  Slinking from that room in the pitch of darkest morning, just another shadow, he thought only of escaping.

Not that he might ever regret it.

He huffed again as the clouds above him parted; squinted at a sky pale blue as wintry eyes.

Wry.  Watching.  Waiting.

Fury, fickle and facetious.

The gears and sails droned as he helmed along his westward path.  Coerthas was a blur of white.  Hard crusts of ice were made smooth by the glittering drifts of the blizzard.  He scoffed to think it was a metaphor for him—or might have been, if he stayed through the night. 

If he met them in the clearing of the morning.

The thought made every bone and muscle tense and he reeled the throttle harder, dipping toward Dravania.

He did what had to be done.  What needed to be done.  He swept his tongue across his chapped lips.

Long had he known how urgently Aymeric yearned—yearned in secret years before this, for something to treasure and keep—something other than Ishgard to cherish.  And Aymeric urgent was something to witness; something, in fact, to be feared.  From that man’s urgings, great things had been nurtured.  In many respects, Aymeric was a force of nature.

Could Estinien say the same about himself?  Beside Aymeric, was he whetted, or sculpted, or whittled?  

Years of moving beside it, against it, Aymeric’s unabating vigor.  His own resolve seemed thinned in that shadow.  Like a boulder engulfed in a flood, he stood, unmoving and deep-rooted.  But he knew, at some point, he might shrink, he might crumble—he might be forced to surrender.

Worse yet, he almost yearned to. 

Yearning was his oldest bedfellow; for vengeance, reprisal, an ending

If he kept himself away—if they remained in Ishgard—he could defeat it.  He could stand and stay the charted course.  At least, up until the buggering political banquet.  He promised Aymeric he would attend it.  He coughed in self-loathing.  Something unbalanced wormed down his spine at the thought of it—reuniting.

His gloved palms were sweaty on the steering.  Gods damn it no.  He was stronger than this.  He would go, and he would resist.  He was an expert at resistance, after all; at coping, at survival.

Survive he had, again and again.

He held firm despite the tugging, despite the ebb and flow—despite the pull of two heavenly bodies that threatened to alter his orbit.  And though he could battle the drag of their gravity, he could not escape the truth.

He loved them.  He loved Aymeric more than himself.  He owed everything he valued that existed to that man—would tail him right and blithely off a cliff if he beckoned.  Aymeric was the closest thing to family, to more, he authentically had.

Until her.

Ice prickled his brow as he watched the horizon, tracked his path close to the Forelands.

They could chase him, if they wanted.  He made sure they knew where to find him.  But was that what he wanted?  What did he plan to do, if they followed?  Open his arms?  Snap and growl and berate them?  Surely that was not tempting.  Surely he was not tempting.  And desperate as he was for relief, for any licking of wounds yet unhealing, so many were his, self-inflicted.

Estinien felt shackled by his feelings.  Absolutely cursed by them.

It was as though he loved them both so much now that he feared, somehow, to touch them.  That touching them would break them, like so much else he touched.  But oh, would that he touched them.  Would that he tasted that succor again; that reward for his long-suffering silence.

Hell and damnation. 

He flew past the last crusts and clefts of his homeland’s prehistoric mountains and, like a ghost determined to haunt him, he thought of sinking in that bed; of caging the hearts he cherished most, tight and safely against him.

How might it feel to be caged with them again—to be trapped together

He pressed his heels into the floor of the fuselage and stopped his train of thought.  His head spun at the tangle of memories, things he forbid himself to imagine, and his blood rushed wayward.  He clenched his jaw against the urge to roar into the sky and choked out something like a sob. 

 


 

Estinien Wyrmblood was no stranger to fancy or fixation—nor immune to them besides.

In two and thirty years, he suffered his share of distractions.  Disruptions.

He bloody hated it.

Lust was a liability.  Anything beyond it, likely far worse. 

But gods damn him, sex was his weakness, and remarkable people transfixed him like a weapon.  Would that he could resist it, being awed or impressed.  Would that he could be unassailable, above a worthless, groveling urchin; above a bristling, slavering wolf in the clothing of a man.

Once, he wished to transcend worldly desires—to be something other than mortal.  But after knowing Nidhogg, after feeling the limitless hurt of undying, burned to a scar in his marrow, at least he now knew the aches of mortality were blessings—even if they still stood ribboned to the bollocks in curses.

How often had he dreamt of revenge?  In the deepest core of his being, for most of his long-waking moments, he had craved it—to slay the hulking monsters that killed all he loved.  Strangely, that journey was ended.  Without vengeance, now, to whet himself upon, all he could see was what he yet lacked.

What he, Estinien, wanted to possess.

Even when his own nigh-immortal vengeance consumed him, he was plagued by that earthly concern; that unending legacy of flesh.  He kept to himself to avoid it, the urge to take lovers to bed.  A lover, he was not.  He was good only for fighting—for fierce, furtive fumbles with trauma left behind. 

Against the weight of his lust for reprisal, his other lusts crumpled.  All the better.

He was a beast, barely contained.

Aloof he became, to deter the lusts of others—and it was amusing whenever he found himself hunted.  Amusing in part because he paled next to him that he shadowed, the godliest creature in Ishgard. 

All eyes on Aymeric, pining and sighing.  It never failed to make Estinien howl.  And when the hot darts of their futile affection all too often missed the mark—when those would-be lovers saw that they yet paled beside Ishgard—frequently, Estinien received their frustrated attentions.

That made him howl all the louder.

Beautiful, he was not.  Striking, by more of a fraction.  Self-assured and arresting, by broadest measures and bounds.  But beauty, in the strictest sense, was never something that he offered.  All the better for it, he supposed, because at least then he knew he was wanted—beyond the gruffness and grating, the bluntness that roughened his throat.  If past all that, they still crept to his bed, at least he knew he had done his best to stop them.

Aymeric always begged him to smile. 

By Halone, Estinien—it renders you blessed. 

Knowing that Aymeric loved it, Estinien smiled even less.  He kept it to himself, to use only for him.

With everyone else, he oft bared his teeth—but never did he smile.  Not even for his lovers, if lover was ever the term for it.  He was always so glad to escape, in the mornings, to sever every would-be liaison; always frantic to flee from their fettering grips.  And after one night, he was almost always finished—never remembered what made him begin.

Courting was a game for courtiers—diplomats and politicians—and that, Estinien was not. 

He had no time to traverse such trivialities.

And even if he felt the thin temptation to continue, to return to the tangle of one unnatural attraction—even if he dared to imagine an alternate ending—the urge to escape ever surged back to rend him.  Thus was he barred from anything more intimate than sex, a lament that made Aymeric chuckle.

My friend, only you could find detachment in that most personal act.

But then, he found distance in all things communal.  Unlike Aymeric, he had no ease of comportment with others.  He was, in fact, an unsociable creature, untamed and unused to that warmth.  But that was for the better as well, because he hated being noticed.  Aymeric dragged him to ballrooms and assemblies and he was content to blend into the wall.

Rarely did he enjoy the presence of others.  Rarely did he feel the need for company.  By the Fury, he fled even from Aymeric, ignoring the way it chagrined him.  Estinien was forced to conclude that, even under the most inviting circumstances, genuine depth with others in his life was essentially impossible.

And then he met the Warrior of Light.

She was—bizarre.

Quiet and solemn, but somehow always laughing—that codding, cackling snort.  Often blithering and boorish, but blessed with abilities that baffled him.  Kept her eyes on everything, except when distracted.  Dignified, determined, devoted to every sodding jagoff in the chaos—especially that little nitwit of a blighter Leveilleur.  She was so earnest, so faithful to her labor—cautious and able and shite-eating enthusiastic.

But there behind her eyes, he could see it—it molded him, too—there lingered ice.

Remarkable, to say the least.

At first, they were nothing but allies—him chasing retribution, her standing, inexplicably, for Ishgard.

Aymeric would like her, he would be impressed—

So many things to drag them, ilm by ilm, together.  And then one restless night in the Mists, she slipped into his tent uninvited, making him grin, bringing him sleep.  Ever thereafter, with the briefest look, the barest gesture, she offered him things he never expected

He found himself waiting for her to come to him at night, for her to sit there in the quiet by his side.

Him.  Estinien.  Waiting.

For her, he bent and bowed.  For her, he wondered and doubted.  He found himself watching her, in awe of her—the struts of ice around his brittle heart crackling whenever she turned to meet his stare.

When had he ever sought the contact of another—when truly?  When had he ever rightly craved it?

And yet, he wanted her.

It made him furious.

He sparred with her over and over—grated their bodies in combat.  Jogged through the Mists.  Scaled malms of rough terrain around Moghome.  The exertion was cleansing but never enough.  Never, never, never what he wanted.  He nursed his wounds in solitary silence, desperate for relief; hunted sorry beasts to slay for supper.  And whenever he returned, there she was to help skin them—there, in the end, he always found himself back by her side.

Strange, the way he craved to be near her—her nearness.  Strange, the wish that she would touch him.  If her hands grasped his neck, would he not pry them off?  Would he not bristle at her embrace, bridle at the brush of her lips by his mouth?

And yet his body burned with the smell of her—her skin, her sweat, her fire.  How many times had he licked his lips and realized he yearned to taste her?  How often had he drowned his aching body in waters, cold and quenching; gasped and drained at the grip of his own fist?

Together they conquered their trials; together they tempered the Aery.  Together, in that cyclone of thunder and levin, they faced and felled Nidhogg.  Together.  Never in his time left living would he forget the sight of her, standing there above him.  He brandished the Eye; she cleaved the inferno, dark eyes cast back to find him in terror and devotion

Devotion to him, to protecting his life.  A life for which she would lay her own aside.

And then—and then.  That dark, fateful night.  She burst into his tent to set his nerves alight.  The rough of her palms on his jaw; the flame of her eyes like a pyre.  The blaze of her mouth set to melt upon his lips.  The air became smoke in his throat.  There was nothing but her flavor.  Nothing but hell in his veins pulsing lower, wrenching him, burning him, gripping harder than his fist.

He scorched her with bites and with kisses; struggled as something thawed open, every instinct in his body howling, she is mine.

Self-control in threadbare tatters.  Crack upon crack in the surface.  Torrents of longing to curl in his marrow.  His lips were fierce to drown her, his grip hard and bruising, his teeth coaxing marks to her skin.  He was wild and ungentle and oh, how he craved her—how badly, how madly he craved to be tamed.  His hungry kisses painted her dark and dusky, swollen hot.  The look in her eyes was hooded and hollow and oh, how he wanted to fill her.  He knitted against his last thread of restraint and oh, the white-hot way that it snapped

Staggered bodies pressed together.  Half-swallowed groans in his throat.  Clawing, feasting, skin slick on skin—sweat-tangled limbs—two twin-burning embers, melded together.  The breath he growled into her mouth tasted of succor.  And for the first or second time he dared remember … he came back.

He returned to that sweetest, most helpless of hells—thirsting for more, thereafter, and after.  The blinding need within him never faltered; flared to melt him, even in Ishgard.  His resolve was in ashes, desire a blazing inferno—and he allowed it.

Did he hide the truth from Aymeric to deny it, himself?  Why did he not tell him?

And then the pestilence of Nidhogg engulfed him.  Never did he dare to believe he would survive it.  But he did.  He did, and he returned, and he loved her all the same.  Loved his Bastard too, in his cold, hardhearted way.  And now, he held a cherished memory.  Like forbidden treasure, he kept it concealed, buried to covet in a corner of his heart.  The warm, glittering glimpse was now his fondest dream—

The legacy of one quiet evening, in the midst of a blizzard, when both were his to keep.

 

☾ ❅ ☽


 

Chapter Text


 ✧ ☄ ☽

 

Out of the bath, she felt sore and still tired and hungry.

She obeyed the gnawing in her stomach and wriggled into her crumpled chemise—directed the question quite loudly at Aymeric, because it was truly, in large part, his fault.  “Time for breakfast?” 

Aymeric shrugged a billowing undershirt over his shoulders, lacing it up across his chest.  The room brightened by a degree, and his pale blue eyes flashed from her to the window.  Light outside.  Far more than before, and far less grey.  “That puts me in mind,” he muttered, tucking the tails of his shirt neatly into his pants.  “Come with me to check on something first?”

She brandished the wispy, wrinkled, knee-length hem of her chemise and stretched out a very bare leg.  “In this?”

He grinned broadly; the tips of his ears went bright red.  “Fair,” he conceded.  He crossed over to his wardrobe and pulled out a fur-lined housecoat, sweeping back across the room to purvey it to her.  “Will this suffice until we retrieve your apparel?”

She snatched it from his hands with greedy fingers; wrapped it around her body like it was an extension of his arms.  She fluffed the collar and buried her nose in it, feeling very bold and very attached to him.  The fur tickled her chin.  She took a deep breath—clean, subtle, alluring.  Aymeric, through and through.  “Lead the way to my bedroom, my liege,” she affected, blushing and thrusting out a limp hand.

He laughed loudly and grabbed her wrist, pulling her close to kiss it.  Wintry eyes sparkled.  “As my lady commands.”

 


 

Dressed back in her own clothes, now dry from the day prior, she followed Aymeric into the foyer.

He hefted her cloaks and things from the rack; helped her arms through the first of them.  “I want to survey the manacutters,” he explained, sidling in front of her.  “I suspect our dear Estinien may have—acquired a bright idea in the night.”  He paused in the process of shrouding himself to fasten her buttons. 

She swatted his hands away and almost laughed at how strongly she reminded herself of her mother“Put on your own,” she berated, cheeks prickling, jerking her chin to the pile of scarf and wrappings strewn at his elbow.  “Do you think he took a manacutter?

Aymeric nodded, hooking a fleece at his neck; smirked at the way she instantly started affixing his buttons.  “That I do.”

When they were sufficiently shielded against the cold, they opened the door to the bright, clear morning.

The clouds were parted, great gossamer hunks of them drifting through a sea of crisp, pastel blue.  The street was a river of white that glittered like fallen stars.  Samantha snorted at the sloppily shoveled trail that led down from the steps—curved up to the wall of the manor.  It went straight for the place they stashed the cutters.  “Looks like you were correct,” she said, pulling her scarf a bit higher at her lips.

Aymeric grunted easy confirmation and lunged outside.

They loped to follow the crudely cleared track around the side of the building.  Sure enough, beneath the eaves of the sideway—sheltered from the blizzard, in the loosest of ways—one manacutter was missing.  A shovel was leaned near the crates beside the other.

Mist clouded from his nose as Aymeric sighed.  “An efficient method of travel,” he admitted.

She scoffed and snorted.  “He’s likely to the Forelands by now, depending on whenever he left.”

The snowdrift under the eaves was only a few ilms high, the lone remaining manacutter a breeze to retrieve.  The two of them coaxed it out of hiding.  “Best return this to the Manufactory,” Aymeric muttered, thinking out loud, fixing her with a sudden, taunting gaze.  “Unless we have a mind to use it.”

“I’d much rather have breakfast first,” she said plainly, not even beginning to untangle the threads in his eyes.

 


 

After restowing her mantles and fleeces, Samantha tried her best not to run the length of the foyer.

Aymeric lagged at the cloak rack, shedding his coverings and trying desperately not to laugh.  “Remind me never to stand between you and a meal,” he jested, hanging up his scarf, deeply entertained.

She rocked on her heels and glanced back at him.  “Not even a blizzard could keep me from eating.”

He strode to catch up with her, his hand meeting the small of her back, and they continued down the hallway.  “Pray tell me what could, so I might wield some self-defense.”  He leaned to her ear and lowered his voice.  “Perhaps another trip to the bathtub?”

She blushed and scoffed and cuffed him gently in the ribs with an elbow.  Then the steward emerged from a doorway nearby.  She did her best not to lurch away from Aymeric as Rémy addressed them, bowing politely.  “This missive arrived for you early, my lord,” he said at once, extending one gloved hand.  Little more than a folded piece of parchment flipped up between his fingers.

Aymeric accepted without hesitation, his face lit by a small, kind smile.  “I thank you, my good man,” he said fondly, absently unfolding the letter.  “I think I may safely presume Estinien departed slyly in the night?”

Rémy bowed again.  “As pertains the matter of Master Estinien,” he said, in the same way one might speak blandly of the weather, “I believe my lord will find that missive very relevant.  Breakfast is served in the dining room.”

As Rémy dismissed himself, Aymeric raised his eyebrows and focused intently on smoothing out the paper.  Samantha resisted the humiliating urge to poke her nose in to read it.  His business, not mine.

His eyes flicked across the page very swiftly.  His shapely black brows gathered in the vaguest of ways and he took a sudden breath.  A mask of tactful stoicism slammed into place.  She watched as he read whatever was written all over again, then refolded the paper, pocketing it.

After seeing, feeling the warmth of Aymeric so extremely, she was struck by the contrast of his coldly consular expression.  Blank, serene, glacially indifferent.  It was a face she knew very well—the first and still most common one he wore.  The one that made her initially mistrust him.  “Is everything alright?”

He dipped his chin by way of a nod, his eyes cast down the hall, penetrating but unfocused.  “Not to worry,” he said, turning to face her.  Feelings kindled to banish the ice from his visage and she almost jumped to feel his thumb on her jaw.  “Let us away to our breakfast.”

 


 

“Can I ask you a question?”

It was her own voice, but the words made her fork falter, stilled beside her eggs.  She was comfortable, relaxed, and so the phrase left her lips on an instinct—the cadence, an old, forgotten reflex.  She chewed the inside of her lip to hide her melancholy grin; ignored the creaking tremor that rattled a dusty shelf of her recollection.

“Whatever you wish,” Aymeric was saying, surveying her across the table.  His eyes were truly the very same color and vastness as the sky outside.  They glittered perceptively, missing nothing.  “Is aught amiss?”

A breathy laugh.  “No,” she said, but that wasn’t quite true—at least not in her opinion.  “Not in the typical sense,” she adjusted, using the side of her fork to portion another bite of egg and chanterelle.  “Just thinking unexpectedly of an old friend.”  She trailed off, uncertain if she wanted to continue.

Aymeric looked at her quizzically; wet his lips.  “Do forgive me for asking, but—ill-fated?”

Too many of them were—too many people she cherished, now gone beyond her reach.  But in this case—

She speared the waiting bit of breakfast and stared at her plate.  “It’s a story.  Not the longest,” she admitted.  “I only really knew him for a season.  But remembering what happened—” Her stomach wrung in a sudden knot to think of him, alone in that Tower.  She pushed the memories back into their corner.  “I would much rather speak of it sometime else.”

“By all means,” Aymeric offered, very readily.  She looked back up to find his eyes searching her face, tender and worried, nonetheless.  “Would you rather save your former question as well?”

“No,” she assured him.  She took a sip of her tea to clear the lump in her throat and closed her eyes.  “I wanted to ask about Coerthan customs,” she said.  “Specifically something I probably should have asked you long ago.”  She opened her eyes to find him watching her, thoroughly intrigued.  “How wrong is it,” she finally said, less a formal query, more a wondering aloud, “For the two of us to be together?”

He wasn’t quite taken aback.  A look of something half-tense crossed his face and he straightened in his chair; schooled his manner into some mild echo of his vacant, practiced, political bearing.  His eyes, however, glinted.  “I suppose I could spin my own premise,” he began, dry with a postscript of wit.  “But would rather you elucidate.  Do you speak in terms of accolades, or of our anthropologies?”

She chuckled obligingly and lifted her eyebrows.  “Anthropology.”

Aymeric stirred his tea; watched her from beneath his eyelashes.  Beyond the notable heat in his stare, his face was carefully serene.  “It is not—encouraged,” he said, courteous, gracious as ever.

She took a huge, deliberate bite of her food and stared at him expectantly.

He coughed and dug into his omelette.  “As doubtless you are more than aware,” he said, no little significance in his voice, “The peoples—bloodlines of our world are not—consistently compatible.”  He seemed very slightly to stumble on the words.

Ah, yes.  The old half-breed talk.  The star-crossed reason her parents stuck together—the reason that Ishgard called Hilda a Mongrel.  “A bird may love a fish,” she said, glancing at the ceiling.  “But where would they live?  Would they have a healthy child?”  She quirked a brow at Aymeric to make sure she was on the right track.

He swallowed his bite and nodded.  “Here in Ishgard, persisting so long in seclusion—” He daubed his lips with a napkin.  “Disapproval of the match descends—or was begotten, as it were—from a time when procreation was not only essential for the survival of our nation, but the primary, religious purpose of partnership.”

She lifted her teacup to her lips in preparation for another sip.  “Is that still the case?  Religiously, I mean?”

He hummed darkly, low in his chest.  “For the most part, I would say yes,” he supplied, taking a sip of his own tea.  His eyes—crystalline, twinned wintry skies—glittered as they flicked across her face.  When he spoke again, it was solemnly in jest.  “In terms of religion, we are living, quite plainly, in sin.”

She tried not to snort and choke on her tea, setting the cup down quickly.  “I suspected as much.”

“Might I ask you a question in return?”  The way he solicited her was very soft and gentle, matching the look on his face.

“Of course,” she said, packing her fork with egg and mushroom, watching him in anticipation.

He took a quick breath while she chewed her bite.  “When it came to your family,” he began, sifting, parceling his words.  “To your parents—” He cut himself off and seemed to waver.  “Forgive me.  As it lifts to my lips, it feels much too invasive.”

She shook her head, swallowed, coughed.  “Aymeric,” she rasped.  “How many times do I need to assure you—” She cleared her throat behind her napkin.  “Nothing you could say or do could ever be invasive.  If, for some reason, it is,” she said, pointing her fork at him sternly.  “I would be sure to let you know.”

His chest rose and fell, and he grinned weakly.  “Allow me to begin again, then,” he prefaced, taking a sip of his tea.  He closed his eyes, silent for a moment.  “You were—your parents only child?  Rather,” he opened his eyes to look at her again, dreadfully curious.  “You were the reason they married, but did they wish to—have another?”

She stared at his eyes.  Glanced out the window.  Clear blue beyond the bulwarks.  “They tried,” she muttered.  Words rose up like sand in her mouth; felt strange and brittle.  “But I doubt they expected it to happen.  And my mother tried to explain it, but before I knew—about my father, I mean—it was impossible for me to understand.”  She was struck by a memory of Bryony and Cassius in the rose garden, staring wistfully up at the clouds.  “It was never in the cards for them.”

When she turned back to look at him, Aymeric was watching her, engrossed with compassion.  “I can imagine,” he said, very meek, very mild.  “But I would never dare presume to comprehend.”  He reached for his tea; observed her through his lashes.  “Given my own origins of existence, I suppose you might say I am something of a proponent of adoption.”

Logical.  His eyes were unbearably warm, unbearably full of something else.  She set down her fork and flourished her teacup, trying to lighten the topic, to unearth a small kernel of humor.  “Meanwhile my origin shocked my parents so intensely that they ran away and married each other,” she quipped, taking a giant sip.

Aymeric chuckled cooperatively, tabling whatever she saw in his face.  “A grisly fate indeed,” he said dryly.

That made her choke out a laugh.  “Not for them,” she permitted.  “But maybe for others.”  She remembered their conversation the day before, with Estinien—about their own near scrapes with wedlock.  “I seem to recall you mentioned trying,” she said, as casually as she could manage.  “To enter the marriage state.”

His ears were immediately red.  “I have, in fact, made some historical measures of attempt,” he responded, the tempo of his answer like the prologue of a dance.  The blush was deepened in his cheeks, making the pale of his eyes all the starker.  “Did you wish me to tell you the details?”

She shifted in her chair, vaguely, oddly uncomfortable.  “Well yes, because I’m nosy,” she acknowledged.  “But not so much that as it’s—” She paused and squinted and wondered if it would be strange or convicting to say it, exactly what leapt to her mind.  She decided to say it anyway.  “How are you not married?

He was such a shade of red now she thought he might combust.  He cleared his throat and pressed an elbow on the table; scrubbed his lips with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes gleamed at her with a tempest of tangled-up feelings.  “As I have related,” he stammered, “Despite your insistence to the contrary, in my dealings with courtship at large, I find myself—not so able to sustain it,” he finished, avoiding the term ill-equipped.

She folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.  “I am truly perplexed about this,” she said plainly, crossing her legs beneath the table.  “And please make me stop if this seems at all forward, but—are you not the most eligible bachelor in Ishgard?”

He watched her hotly.  “If this seems forward, she says—the woman from my washroom.”  She suddenly had the impression of him lunging across the table to eat her.  Her heart sputtered in her chest as he took a shallow breath.  He pinned himself hard to his seatback, keeping his eyes on her.  “Much though I endeavored to quit my bachelor status,” he said, his stare piercing, “Would-be partners treat me very strangely—stifled by propriety, too timid, too demanding.”  He paused for a moment.  “In the end, all tend to wither at my vows to Ishgard.”

She tried to wet her lips, to swallow the dryness from her throat.  “I love your vows to Ishgard.”

“I know you do,” he said fiercely.

Something crackled, magnetic between them, and she tried to inhale.  “So—you stayed a bachelor,” she continued, above the static in the air.  “Locked away with Ishgard, alone in your manor.”  It was like the setting of a fairytale.  He grinned wolfishly, following her breadcrumbs, and she thrust up a hand.  “No monsters

His eyes glittered with laughter.  “But the preamble was so enticing—”

“There are plenty of stories of damsels in towers,” she rejoindered, flicking a finger at him.

“And plenty of dragons in Coerthas,” he agreed.  He grinned more broadly.  “Would that make you my dashing hero?”

She picked up her fork and started collecting a heaping bite.  “Maybe,” she said, considering a piece of mushroom.  She looked up at him from beneath a beetling brow.  “But then again, I appear to be everyone’s hero.”

He chuckled.  “Eorzea and Ishgard, the fell beasts that keep us—”

“Don’t forget Estinien,” she said shoving the fork in her mouth.

Aymeric choked on a laugh and then sighed.  “Halone help me.”

 


 

She left after breakfast to return the manacutter and give him time with his work.

He insisted that she stay, very civil, but she insisted, again, against disruption.  “I’m not running,” she promised, feeling the need to remind him.  There in his office, behind the closed door, she hooked her hands at his neck.

He sank to melt against her and wrapped both arms at her back.  “I know,” he breathed.  He bowed to kiss her, and still her knees buckled.  She gripped him for balance; he stroked a hand through her hair.  “When will I see you again?”

“I need to return to the House,” she said, her mouth grazing his.  “To check in with Count Edmont and the Scions.”  She leaned back to look up into Aymeric’s eyes.  “You could always send an invitation?”

He grinned and chuckled.  “Would that I could simply keep you here,” he said, skimming his lips on her nose.  “But I do have a great deal of business to finish ere the week ends.”

“Send me an invitation,” she maintained.  “Or call it a letter.  Either way.”  She lifted to her toes and kissed him on the cheek; raked back the black wisps from his forehead and met his sparkling eyes.  “I like getting letters regardless.”

The way he looked at her was sacred and profane.  “Await my summons, then,” he surrendered, molding their lips back together.  “I would by no means deny you any pleasure.”

 


 

The door to the Manor Fortemps clicked shut very loudly, echoing up the staircase.

Almost immediately, Alphinaud was in the foyer.  He raised his eyebrows at her as she methodically stripped off her cloaks and hung them on the rack.  “For all that you assure me you listen,” he began, crossing arms tight at his chest, “My linkpearl rang not once amid that blizzard.”

She snorted with chagrin.  “I—I confess, I didn’t even think of it,” she muttered.  “Using the linkpearl, that is.”  She smiled apologetically.  “I did think of you though—I almost came back in the calm spell—”

He scoffed and sighed and frowned very mildly up at her.  “Almost?”

She could feel herself flushing and turned away to hide it.  “We had to fetch Estinien from the Highlands—”

What?”  His voice cracked.

“He’s quite safe now,” she said, looking back at him.  “Or, well, he was last night—” Alphinaud’s face started changing colors and she coughed.  “We stayed there at the manor,” she began to explain, and he cleared his throat to interrupt her.

“Did you speak with them both, then?”

Her nose wrinkled.  “Not really—”

Alphinaud groaned.  “By the Twelve—

“Estinien—” She hesitated to blame him, but …  “He had no desire to talk about it.  He—”

“Samantha!”

A very small body came up to greet her.  “Tataru?  Good gods it’s been too long since I’ve seen you.”

Tataru laughed loudly and propped her hands on her hips.  She wore some rosy version of traditional Coerthan wear, likely something she fashioned herself.  “If you would quit gallivanting all around the place, you might catch me at breakfast,” she lectured, swinging an arm and a finger.  “But beyond that I have been quite busy.  By the by, I need your moniker for our respondez s'il vous plait.”

Samantha stared down at her in open confusion.  “Beg pardon?”

“For the gala next week,” Tataru clarified, rearranging her petal-colored hair.  She scowled a bit.  “You are aware of the gala, are you not?  For Ser Aymeric’s instatement as Speaker—”

“Yes,” Samantha coughed, interrupting.  “Yes, I am very aware of it.”  Alphinaud’s eyes were burning into her.  She could almost feel the questions he still wanted to ask.  “You mean to say our response—to the invitation—you need me to sign it?”

Tataru nodded.  “That very thing!  All three of us will be going, as wards of House Fortemps.  Isn’t that exciting?”

Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.  Whether they were made entirely of excitement was up for debate.  “Yes,” she gasped out.

“I know how little you enjoy such events,” Tataru continued.  “But not to worry.  There will be food and drink and so much dancing—” She clasped her fingers together and sighed, something downright dreamy in her eyes.  “Surely even our stern and scowling Samantha will find something to smile about.”

Speaking of smiling, she forced one to her lips.  “Thank you for taking care of things as always, Tataru,” she said, and meant it with all her heart.  “Truly I don’t know what I would do without your constant supervision—”

“Oh, none of that,” Tataru said, flapping one hand and blushing a bit.  “Only keeping up with my job.  Now,” she said, and she brought her palms back together with a shockingly loud clap.  “Both of you, follow me.”

 


 

Edmont and his sons were in the study, taking tea. 

Together they signed the response and chatted, whiling away the late morning.  Time drifted into the afternoon, and Edmont begged them all pardon to return to writing his memoirs.  Samantha was trying to sneak away to her room when Alphinaud ambushed her, looming to the staircase out of nowhere.

She almost jumped out of her skin.  “Good gods Alphinaud—”

I want to know what happened.”  He cleared his throat.  “Well.  Not everything.  A very brief review will suffice.”

“Come with me, then,” she grumbled, shooing him up the stairs in front of her.  Her heart was racing, her palms hot, a reflex of burning aether curled like iron in her belly.  “And don’t sneak up on me like that.”

At the hearth in her room, she used the lingering astral aspect to start the fire, transposing her veins back to stillness.  Then they curled up on one of the couches.  Sitting there with Alphinaud, she struggled to find a place to begin.  “Much of what happened was private,” she finally said, staring at the flames.  “I hope you will forgive me if I keep things—broad.”

“I beg you would,” he said zealously.  “The less specific the better.”

She barked a laugh.  “You want to know, but you don’t want to know.”

“Exactly,” he muttered.

She chewed on her lip as she thought again.  “Yesterday morning, Estinien left,” she said simply.  “I went to speak with Aymeric, and that was—illuminating.”  She looked out the balcony window.  “He had work to finish after; I was on my way out—and then came the storm.  Both of us guessed at Estinien’s waypoint and went to find him, before the weather could take him.”

“Heaven forfend,” Alphinaud muttered.  “And the three of you returned to the manor, and stayed the night?”

She nodded.

“And he had no desire to discuss it?”

“Not at any length,” she said.  “And he left sometime before morning.”

Alphinaud huffed a breath.  “What of Ser Aymeric, then?”

She blushed quite hot and quite plainly.  She folded her hands in her lap and stared at them keenly.  “I—am under the very strong impression that—everything between us persists and continues.  As before.”

“Well,” Alphinaud said gruffly, acknowledging her words.  “Good, then, I suppose—as long as the both of you are happy.  I hate to say ‘excepting Estinien,’ but if it was truly his decision to so pointedly evade things, then that is a hell of his own choosing.”

Samantha snorted bitterly and coughed out a laugh.  “I believe he endures his fair share of that.  But—” She took a thick breath.  “I know for a fact that he will be at the gala—for Ser Aymeric.”

Alphinaud raised his eyebrows.  “Estinien?  At the gala?”

“So he said,” she continued, lifting her hands.

“If that be the case,” Alphinaud muttered, thinking out loud.  “Tataru and I will be there, with the Lords de Fortemps.  You will be there.  Estinien will be there.  Half of Ishgard will be there.  And Ser Aymeric will be the man of the hour.”

The butterflies in her stomach were growing progressively more panicked.  “That is correct.”

The voice that Alphinaud spoke with next could only be described as one of malicious anticipation.  “That will be an adventure.”

 
☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

She was a nervous wreck.

Primal creatures of terror, she toppled with Hydaelyn’s power.  Garlean schemes she helped burn to ash; a boastful legatus she stomped and made cower.  Not even rage made incarnate in Nidhogg could rightly withstand her.

And yet it was a struggle to reassemble the evening gown from the Haillenarte banquet.

After hefting on her bustier and trying to fasten the clasps of her dress for the nineteenth godsforsaken time, she groaned in frustration at the mirror.  Her dark brown eyes met her reflection and seethed.

She let all the damned contraptions sag down around her waist and grimaced.  “For hells’ sake!”

A knock at the door.  “The party is nearly ready to leave, Samantha.”  Alphinaud, smug and collected.  “Are you quite alright?”

One week.  One week of his dustings of thinly veiled comments.  One week of him trailing around like a gremlin, impish and mocking and absolutely exhausting.  If she somehow made it through the night, she was going to wring his scrawny neck—not really, but metaphorically— “Actually,” she said, trying to collect herself, trying not to perspire already, “Could you pay me a kindness and send Tataru in here?  I need a hand.” 

A pause of silence while he presumably did her bidding.  Presumably.

She stood there, breathing much too hard, and then came another curt knock on the door.  “Samantha?”  It was Tataru.  Bless.  “Alphinaud mentioned you might need—”

Holding the front of her dress up with one set of fingers, Samantha skulked to the door like an ogre and banged it open.  She hunched her head out into the hall and caught a glimpse of a white ponytail fleeing around the corner. 

Trembling, she turned to Tataru.  “Please help me.”

A dazed stare from her diminutive friend.  “Ah.” 

In an instant and with unnerving strength, Tataru shoved her, knees buckling, back into the bedroom.  The tiny receptionist of the Scions darted over the threshold and slammed the door shut behind her.  She was dressed in a sheath of shimmering pink silk, the color of palest flowers.  “Pull me up a chair,” she demanded, waving Samantha to follow as she ambled to the mirror. 

The Warrior of Light obeyed her wrangler.  Standing behind her, boosted by the accommodating cushion, Tataru Taru surveyed every ilm of Samantha Floravale with disturbingly shrewd eyes.  “Let’s start over, shall we?”

With much huffing and muttering to herself—and much indignity on the part of her living mannequin—Tataru expertly hooked and laced Samantha into every maddening underthing.  Then she eased the gown back to drape where it covered, pinning all the buttons lightning-fast. 

Tataru smoothed down the bodice; layered the crystal-studded skirts into place; perched on her tiptoes to inspect Samantha’s hair.  “Have a sit here and hold still while I fix your—Twelve, why in hells are you so sweaty?

After a few more moments of fussing—and powders and rouges and liners produced from gods knew where—another knock sounded at the door.  “Departure is upon us,” Alphinaud announced, bossy and muffled.

“Finished,” Tataru said softly, patting Samantha’s cheek.  Her eyes were gentle, reassuring.  “You look lovely.”  Then she stiffened and shouted as she started for the door.  “On the way!”

Samantha stood from her seat, slipped her feet into her dress shoes and swayed for a breath, glancing at the mirror.

For the span of several heartbeats, she hardly recognized herself.  Bright red lips, long black lashes.  Dusky eyes rendered lighter, more like amber by the shadow, smoky on her eyelids.  Tresses pinned to cascade across one shoulder, a mane of dark, curling waves.

She was … pretty.

So was her gown.  Pitch black and glittering, it made her look like a splinter of midnight.  Crystals like onyx dotted the train, hissing whenever she stepped, and the fabric itself was like wearing sleek darkness.  She brushed a hand across the neckline, drooping just below her collarbones, and twisted to survey the deep and sweeping back.

Right

She swished over to her desk to retrieve her heavy stole—paused to clip a blossom by the window—pinned the sunburst of peach, pink, and yellow in her hair. 

Then she followed Tataru out into the hallway.

Alphinaud sighed with relief as he turned to face them.  “Thank the gods you finally—” His eyes tracked up to meet Samantha’s and his voice cracked.  Whatever else he planned to say simply stalled in his mouth.

He was dressed in a crisp new suit—white, black, navy—embroidered finely, long tails swishing around his tall boots.  His snow-colored hair was coifed to swoop across his forehead, the length tied back in a low plait.  He looked very dashing. 

She would have told him so under normal circumstances, but she wasn’t about to tell him now.  Not when he’d spent the last seven days being an absolute hellion.  She cupped a hand at her hip and gave him a scathing glare.  “Thank the gods we finally what?”

His ears were going pink.  “I—that is—” He coughed and cleared his throat and stared at her.

Then he promptly turned on his heel for the stairs.

Tataru grunted.  “Well then.”

They followed Alphinaud’s blazing path down into the foyer.  He was jogging to the place all three Lords de Fortemps were standing, chatting by the door, wrapped in their fine House mantles, red and black.  Count Edmont peered over at the staircase and broke out into a very wide smile—a smile that reminded her intensely of Haurchefant. 

“Very good,” he said approvingly, eyes flitting between Samantha and Tataru.  “Welcome, my dear ladies.”

Samantha bent and curtsied politely.  She began to stride over to the coat rack but was interrupted by Emmanellain, who offered her a flourishing bow and a simper.  “Samantha, old girl,” he said fondly, sweeping one of her hands to his lips.  He brushed her knuckles with the barest suggestion of a kiss and sighed loudly.  “You do look celestial this evening.”

She barked in surprise.  “Thank you, Emmanellain,” she accepted, squeezing his hand.

In the corner of her eye she could see Alphinaud shrugging on his cloak, levelling a fierce and surreptitious leer at them.

As Emmanellain retreated decidedly in Alphinaud’s direction, Artoirel approached.  His violet eyes shone at her as he smiled, very mildly.  “Spirited though my brother tends to be,” he said quietly, politely kept between them, “He speaks the truth.  You are lovely.”

She gripped his shoulder and gave him a gentle smile in answer.  “Thank you, Artoirel.”

Tataru joined her at the rack as they wrapped themselves in their scarves and fleeces and heaviest shrouds.  Gloves and hoods in place, the party filed through the door and down the steps, and into the frosty, smoky sunset.

 


 

Halfway through the Pillars, Tataru absorbed in conversation with Artoirel, Edmont lecturing his youngest about some matter of conduct, Alphinaud cautiously stepped up beside Samantha.  He pulled his scarf from his lips and took a breath. 

“I—apologize,” he said, the words clouding out in a white mist.

She looked down at him stiffly for a moment.  Then she dropped her attention to the street, extremely aware of her treacherously high heels.  “For acting like an absolute gremlin all week?  Worse than a gremlin?”

He huffed an exhalation through his nose.  “Yes,” he hissed.  “For exactly that.”

She scoffed.  Sure enough her heel caught on an uneven cobblestone and she saved herself from falling.  “Well,” she grumbled, flexing her traitorous ankle, “At least you have the grace to admit it.”

They walked in silence for several billowing breaths, following the Count in mantled procession.  Samantha actually had no idea where they were going.  The celebration was to be held in some venue near the cathedral, heretofore unentered—by her, at least. 

“It was wrong of me to tease you,” Alphinaud muttered, after some length.  “I truly cannot fathom what it feels like, to be in your predicament—not in any respect.”  He sighed heavily.  “I—I suppose I must feel some version of—jealous.”

She glanced at him again through her lined and curled lashes.  He was blushing aggressively, avoiding her eyes.

“That is a normal feeling, you know,” she said, trying not to start a sermon.  “And,” she continued, somewhat to herself, “Often it strikes us in the strangest of ways.”  She sighed, too, then—drawled her closing statement.  “I suppose you could say I understand.”

Alphinaud hunched under his cloak, shivering a bit as the sun kept setting.  “Does it get better?  With time?”

“Jealousy?”  She took a breath against that question.  “No.  Not without practice.”  It was something of an instinct, jealousy.  A reaction like glee or like hatred.  “Many feelings are a reflex,” she told him.  “Reactions.  Or, at least, that’s what I’ve come to realize.”

“Reactions can be managed,” said Alphinaud.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “And I think they usually should be.  But only with awareness and insight.”  She laughed at herself, warm white condensation.  “I’m by no means skilled at taking that advice.  Once again, we discuss a theory far more difficult in practice.”

Alphinaud laughed at that, too.  “Such is the burden of the Scions,” he said, casting her a dry and subtle glance.

She grinned at his wit; squinted up at the dusk, coyly blushing—at the glowing, darkening skies.  Then, beneath her heavy layers, her hair stood on end to remember Hydaelyn’s voice.

Hear.  Feel.  Think.

Alphinaud was silent.  Samantha trembled, but not from the cold.  She turned to the street, picking her footing. 

“Life is a riddle,” she said, not quite meaning to speak it aloud.  She felt the urge to continue regardless.  “A riddle to which—I don’t think we have the answers.  But if we listen, to ourselves, and to each other—”

The back of her neck prickled, and she looked up at the sky. 

High above, where the dark of night was seeping, a star streaked bright and molten.

She shivered again, thinking of Her.

“If we listen and allow ourselves to feel,” said Alphinaud, picking up her slack.  “And reflect upon those feelings … That seems like a decent place to start.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

The air was thick with pomp and wax and expensive perfume—vanilla, myrrh, jasmine.

They meandered from the cold outdoors and into the cloying lobby.  A swell of posh voices around them droned and clamored.  Fine apparel glistened from every direction; silks and velvets and gemstones, armor polished to brilliant, hair tied back with veils and ribbons, furs and frills and frothy lace— 

Coerthan tradition was conservative, devout; but there was something decidedly immodest about the display—not to mention the fact that it was stuffier than ever.

A manservant was weaving his way through the crowd, taking cloaks.  He turned to Samantha.  “Coat check?”

Grateful, she allowed him to help her be free of wrappings.  She reached down to help Alphinaud, too, and he parried her hand away.  “Do not,” he said, belligerent, glaring up at her.  He un-gloved, un-scarfed, and un-mantled without assistance.

As the manservant left with their trappings, she adjusted her stole at her elbows and glanced around the chilly antechamber.  White marble floor and columns.  Several archways dimly lit by a flickering chandelier.  There were so many people, milling and chatting. 

She was suddenly, intensely, self-conscious. 

Both of her hands lifted to tremble at the wild tresses across her shoulder, picking through the ends of her curling mane.

Alphinaud’s hand pressed, timid at her back.  His voice was low and earnest—and didn’t crack in the slightest.  “You are stunning, Samantha,” he said, almost smoothly.  “Do not fret.”

She laughed, breathy, and glanced down at him.  “That’s not entirely the source of my distress,” she began, draping her arm affectionately at his back.  She gripped his shoulder.  “But thank you for saying so.  And since you did admit to being such a menace, I think I’ll tell you what I thought at the manor.”  She cleared her throat for dramatics.  “You look very dashing tonight, Leveilleur.”

He dimpled and reddened and coughed into the fist that didn’t touch her.  “Well.  Thank you.”

“Oh, capital,” came Emmanellain’s jaunty voice, out of absolutely nowhere.  Also divested of his cloak, he peacocked over to Samantha’s other side.  He hooked his arm at her spine rather emphatically, scaring away Alphinaud’s hand.  “Jolly good crowd this evening,” he said, lifting his chin, combing back his wispy black hair.  He peered around appreciatively.  “And not even to the ballroom yet.  I daresay our old sport Ser Aymeric will have to keep his wits about him.”

Samantha chuckled, holding on to Alphinaud.  “I have faith, in him of all people.”

“As do we all.”  A low voice, looming up behind them.  Count Edmont.  “Emmanellain,” he said, even lower.  Cautioning.  “I beg you would unhand the lady and escort her more appropriately, if you will.”

Emmanellain’s arm withdrew like he’d been burned.  He coughed.  “Pardon.”

Alphinaud asked the question Samantha was thinking.  “Where are Tataru and Ser Artoirel?”

“Tied up with an acquaintance at the coat check, I believe,” Edmont provided. 

A less familiar male voice piped up behind them.  “Count Edmont!  By Halone you look remarkably well this evening.”

“Count Baurendouin,” blustered Edmont, turning to face him.  “The same could be said for you, my friend—”

Haillenarte, old chap,” Emmanellain bellowed, wedging away from Samantha and into his father’s budding conversation.

Her head was already spinning.  It was the same with every ball, every banquet—salutations and banalities, platitudes in endless repetition— “And thus was our best available escort inescapably detained,” Alphinaud bemoaned, under his breath.

Samantha snorted and looped their arms together.  “Shall we go on ahead of them, then?”  She was desperate to move, to do anything other than stand there.

“Let us, please,” Alphinaud pled, gesturing to an archway across the room.  It was decorated in curtains of gold and cobalt blue, colors that were quite suspiciously de Borel.  “I believe that marks the way to the ballroom—but do forgive me if I turn out to be mistaken.”

Venturing out on their own, the two of them dove into the sea of chitchatting lords and ladies.

Their heels clicked on the marble as they walked.  Her skirts hissed where they swept behind her, grazing Alphinaud’s boots.  Her heart stammered as she heard a strain of violin wafting on the air—as she looked at the number of people. 

So many, talking and laughing—already drinking

Would that she had a drink. 

Still nervous, Samantha readjusted her gown—happy that even in the dimmed lamplight, it sparkled.  Displaced as it had been by Emmanellain’s forearm, she shrugged the stole more widely at her shoulders.  She hoped the naked plane of her back was at least mostly concealed, vaguely convinced that showing so much skin might be considered degenerate.

They crossed beneath the archway, into a cavernous gallery.

Seven hells.  It was the ballroom.  Seemingly without end, ceilings stretched up, vaulted high past stained glass windows.  The hall was carpeted but for the dance floor.  Hangings and swags of blue and gilt fluttered all around—chandeliers twinkled and shimmered—a string quartet crooned an alluring warble.  The air was warm and golden, romantic in the candlelight.

A frisson chilled her body.

They passed tall alcoves with tables and chairs; a long buffet that offered lavish refreshments.  Barkeeps tended counters and waiters carried trays of hors d’oeuvres and libations.  The guests were still so dense.  Samantha felt increasingly tense, despite her chaperone’s earlier assertion. 

She gripped his arm harder.  Alphinaud hissed.  “Less crushing, if you please.”

“I’m afraid we’ve lost Tataru forever,” she announced, bordering on nauseous conviction.  There were barricades of towering, long-eared, oppressively fragranced figures all around.  Not even her formidable heels could leverage her quite to their height.  Highborns, indeed.  “I can’t see a damn thing.”

Alphinaud glared up at her from his vantage point below.  His face was pink, his voice drenched with sarcasm.  “And you presume that I can?”

“If you like,” she said, calming her panic with coolness, “I can provide you with an instant growth spurt.”

He was glowering up at her in minor insult and confusion.  The train of her gown rustled as she bent to peg her hands at his waist, hoisting him up above the crowd. 

Payback.

He wheezed and hiccupped, his voice cracking up and down.  “By the Twelve, Samantha—”

“Can you see anyone?”

He struggled savagely, shoving at her arm to punctuate the words.  “Put me—down.”

She relented.  A fast-breathing Alphinaud smoothed his coattails and cast a frantic glance around.  None of the dignitaries near them budged or even blinked, far too distracted with spirits and each other.  “No one noticed,” she assured him, craning her neck.  “Did you catch a glimpse of anyone we came with?”

“No,” Alphinaud spat.  His face was bright red now.

She perched a hand on her hip.  “You didn’t even try, did you?”

“If I had a bit of warning instead of being heaved overhead like a javelin—”

There you are.”  A miniscule figure plummeted toward them, squeezing past the legs of a nearby laughing couple.

“Oh, gods bless,” Samantha breathed, staring at Tataru in honest relief.  Without thinking, she scooped the tiny Scion up into her arms and hugged her much too tightly.

Tataru squealed indignantly and giggled.  “Let go of me so I can show you to the table!”

Freed from the crushing grip, Tataru moved her arm in a signal arc.  “Our place cards are over there,” she directed.  The masses were parted enough to reveal an alcove opposite the musicians’ dais.  Artoirel was seated at the table, enjoying a glass of wine.  He saw them all glancing over and offered a well-mannered handwave.

Samantha had to force herself not to run there.  Alphinaud seemed to be of the same mind.  They moved across the dancehall at what was doubtless an unseemly pace.  A smile touched Artoirel’s lips as they approached.  “If the looks on your faces are any indication,” he pleasantly quipped, retrieving the wine bottle from its placemat, “Would you be so kind as to pass me your glasses?”

They took their chairs; he obligingly poured.  She picked up the card that marked her seat.  It was heavy stock, lettered in gold: Samantha Rosalyn Floravale.  The ink glittered when she tilted the paper in the candlelight, imbued with scintillant mineral.  It matched the centerpiece of the table—a bowl of gold baubles, gilded laurels, and a circlet of squat, flickering candles. 

Artoirel handed her a glass filled with a velvety red. 

The wine was very good.  Wine was always an essential part of these assemblies—perhaps the most essential part, as far as she was concerned.  As she sat there, slowly calming down, Alphinaud kept eyeing the onzes left in her glass. 

“I don’t plan on drinking to excess,” she said, pursing her lips.

“Good,” Alphinaud muttered.  “I certainly would not recommend it.”

 


 

Then the feast began.

It was a banquet, after all. 

The canapé medley arrived with flutes of fizzing champagne.  Salmon mousse came after.  Crab and oysters were served with lobster bisque, and by the time the main course was in front of her, Samantha was surprised she had the room in her stomach to even look at it.

Tender lamb, winter greens, starchy root vegetables; hearty Ishgardian fare.  There was a salad digestif and an impressive array of soft and hard cheeses.  And finally, when she was sure beyond a doubt she would explode, crème brûlée, profiteroles, éclairs; eggnog and hot chocolate, served in troops of dainty demitasses.

She was tempted to forgo dessert entirely, but Tataru kept making her take a bite of everything.  “You have got to try this!”

Emmanellain was in staunch agreement.  “Some of the finest cuisine to ever pass my lips,” he acclaimed, sipping his eggnog.

Samantha stared at her tiny cup of chocolate and groaned.  If only Hydaelyn’s blessing extended to her stomach.  Quite vividly, she had a vision of Haurchefant, beaming at her and laughing.  Like drinking warm syrup.

“Are you quite alright?”  Alphinaud’s voice.

“Overfull,” she muttered, of both food and reminiscence.  Her tightly laced underthings were probably unhelpful.  She leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath, glancing across the table at Edmont.  He gave her a pitying grin.

“Novice mistake,” he tormented her, merciful, gentle.

She laughed weakly.  “A full course dinner and a ballgown, foes to bring me to my knees.”

 


 

Her stomach and recollections were behaving themselves by the time the music swelled.

Couples began to migrate to the dance floor, and her mind itched with a week-old danger.

Though I daresay he would enjoy a dance with you—perhaps at the banquet?

Her heart fluttered at the fear he might make good on his threat.  But, between their nervous arrival and the distraction of eating, neither heads nor tails of the guest of honor had been seen.  Not by her, at least.

Honestly, it shocked her.  Firstly, because she assumed it would be easy to spot him—Aymeric being Aymeric.  But, then again, it really was an overwhelming horde of guests.  It seemed like half of Ishgard, exactly as Alphinaud said.

Secondly, and a part of her simmered with shame to admit it—even just to herself—she assumed he was eager to see her.  It had been a week since their last meeting.  She half expected him to make a point to come seek her in the chaos. 

But that was ridiculous.  Now that she examined it, hot disgrace bloomed in her face.  This event had nothing to do with her at all.  It was the banquet for his investiture; his first official political event as the Speaker of the House of Lords. 

On behalf of Ishgard, he took the appointment—and on behalf of Ishgard, he was here tonight.

In the end, all tend to wither at my vows to Ishgard.

She sank lower in her seat—ached with the certainty that pricked in the back of her mind.

Never deserved him.  Never.  Never, ever will.  No better than the rest of them at all—

“Ah, Samantha?”

Alphinaud.  He was standing beside her—he was the one who had spoken.  Emmanellain was staring at him with a look of intense anticipation.

She blinked several times to clear the self-hatred from her mind; briefly searched the rest of the table.  Edmont was gone.  So was Tataru.  Artoirel was furtively—reading a book?  Had he brought that with him from the manor?

Alphinaud cleared his throat and spoke again.  “Would you—like to take a turn about the room with me?  Merely a stroll—”

Emmanellain scoffed loudly.  “Oh Alphinaud, Halone bless it—ask her to dance, you fine blooming idiot!”

That made Samantha burst into lighthearted laughter.  “Did you want to dance with me, Alphinaud?”

He coughed in surprise.  “No.”  Emmanellain made a hacking sound in the background, even louder.  Artoirel was watching the proceedings in amusement.  Alphinaud flushed very brightly.  “I mean, yes, but—no.  I had a mind you might like a tour of the ballroom, and I know how much you loathe dancing—”

She scooched her seat several ilms backward and got to her feet.  “I would be happy to dance with you, Master Leveilleur,” she said pompously, slipping the heavy stole from her shoulders.  She piled it gracelessly onto the chairback.  It would only end up falling and getting in the way.

Alphinaud faltered and froze like a fawn.  “Y-you—would?”

“Why not?”  For him, truly, she would do it.  Though as she towered over him now, she did chuckle at the image.  “You really could use a growth spurt, you know.”

His face was a generous shade of crimson, like the wine now empty beside them.  “Only you or Alisaie could manage to compliment and insult me all at once,” he grumbled.  He bent his elbow and offered it to her all the same.  “To the floor, then?”

She hooked her arm through his.  “Lead the way, my charming little gremlin.”

Emmanellain was laughing.  Artoirel wheezed into his napkin.  Alphinaud thrust his shoulders back and drew himself up as tall as he could, posturing slightly.  “Follow me, oh blessed Warrior of many, many failings.”

On the smooth and polished dance floor, her skirts whispered like windblown sleet.  Given their tremendous difference in height, the stance had to be adjusted.  “Take my hands,” she suggested, glad the strings yet plucked a gentle waltz.

Alphinaud continued to blush very fiercely as he grasped her hands in his.  “Do you know the steps?”

Her eyes flicked to the partners on the floor around them, tilting and twirling.  One, two three.  Back, glissade side; front, glissade back.  “Yes,” she declared, looking back down at him.  “I think I can manage.”

He took the lead, and they were dancing—laughing, when she almost immediately stumbled and tripped.  “Apologies,” she said through her grinning teeth, surprised to find that she was genuinely enjoying herself.

Alphinaud was smiling, watching their feet.  “Not at all.” 

The rhythm resumed.  Simpering like a couple of numpties, the two of them gamboled around their corner of the dance floor, his plait and coattails swaying, her gown swirling and swishing.  He was very fleet footed, hopping from heel to toe with all the grace of a ballerino.  “Alphinaud,” she said, his name falling from her lips in open praise.  “You are really quite good at this.”

He laughed breathlessly, his face still red.  “I have attended my share of cotillions.”

By the time the last hum of melody ended, Samantha was extremely impressed.  They slowed to a standstill.  Alphinaud dropped her hands and scratched the back of his head, glancing up at her shyly.  “Thank you, sincerely—I never truly expected—”

The rest of the breath in his lungs left his body in a gasp as she crouched down to scoop him into her arms.  She hugged him tightly, fondly, and released him.  “Thank you for being a wonderful partner, Alphinaud,” she said, meaning it in every way—as friend and as Scion, custodian and faithful companion.

As she gripped him by the shoulders, she could tell he understood.  His sapphire eyes sparkled with potent adoration, and he took a steadying breath.  “Shall we tour the room, then?”  He wet his lips.  “Perhaps catch a glimpse of the supposed honoree?”

The pure, unpretentious, innocent delight of moments prior was rapidly engulfed in smothering butterflies.  Was that what he had intended?  “If you wish,” she permitted, swallowing hard against the resurgence of her nerves.

He examined her with a ration of befuddlement.  “Is that not what you wish?”

“Oh.  No—I mean, yes, I do wish it,” she faltered, biting back a laugh at how her cadence echoed his.  She offered him her arm, and he took it in a bent elbow.

Together they departed the dance floor and began a slow amble, a meander through the crowd.  They moved toward the reaches of the room not explored yet, far away from their table.

“Truly, you seem very on edge,” he observed, keeping his eyes on their surroundings.  Searching.

They passed several alcoves; dodged more sets of dancers beelining for the floor.  “I am,” she eventually admitted.  She took a breath.  “I feel nervous to see him,” she continued, looking up at the lofty chandeliers.  “Both of them.”

They picked their way past a group of people chatting.  “Mayhap they feel the same,” Alphinaud proffered.  “Were I in such a position, on either side—I imagine I would be in shambles.  Though,” he allowed, somewhat to his own chagrin, “I cannot imagine Ser Aymeric ever losing his composure—and Estinien would never be caught in such a state.”

It was a fair assessment.  “But they are mortal all the same,” she added, as they took another corner.  The masses were particularly dense here, and she tried to tame the way her apprehension raged in response in her stomach.  “And the only two people who can answer, rightly, how they feel.”

Alphinaud made a sound of agreement as they managed to bob and weave through the people.  In another type of waltz entirely, they glissaded past the tall figures, around another table, and then the multitude was behind them and her heart seemed to plunge from her body.

Aymeric and Estinien. 

There they were together—Aymeric mobbed by people, Estinien at the wall just beside him. 

There they were, the wardens of her soul and her body. 

Aymeric looked like a young god.  His uniform was a variation on the same most heavenly theme—black and cobalt blue, gilded gold and glittering.  His hair was groomed and styled, pushed half back from his forehead; rook-feather black and lustrous.  As he turned to schmooze another courtier, she caught a glimpse of his face— masked in patient demeanor, schooled to icy genteelness.

And if Aymeric was a young god, then Estinien—Estinien was his living will, incarnate and hallowed and polished to gleaming.  His hair swept like wings to cover his eyes, silver-white; clean and coifed, pluming curling ends past his shoulders.  And like wings upon his body, down to the crux of his feet, he wore a suit of dazzling silver—sleek trousers, shining white waistcoat, dress coat with embroidered lapels.

Estinien was propped at the shadow of a column, arms crossed, watching the crowd and waiting for their posh intruders to leave.  Once they were briefly alone again, Estinien leaned ever so slightly to Aymeric’s ear, lips moving as he whispered something—certainly scornful and derisive.  Aymeric chuckled and shook his head, giving him a cautionary side-eye.

She could see his lips form the scolding: Estinien, no.

Her attention flicked back to the shadowed subject of his reprimand, and—

Somber, smoldering, vast as an abyss—pits of dark-storming pitch—eyes bitter blue like moonless midnight were spearing her, lancing her through.

The stiffness started at his jaw as his gaze roved, slow as molasses, down her body.  Then he tracked a blazing path back up to her face and stared at her, hard and unblinking.  The stretch of his long body went rigid where it buttressed the wall, motionless from wide, square shoulders to toe tips.

Aymeric moved to grip Estinien’s elbow with one black-gauntleted hand, smiling, laughing at something he wanted to say.  He turned and leaned to speak into Estinien’s ear, but Estinien was still watching her.  His lips were set sharply, his face staid as stone.  He took a firm breath and jerked his chin at an angle.

And as though it wasn’t hell enough to be pierced by eyes like tempests, a pair of eyes like calm, clear mornings, like winter skies cut with brightest dawnlight, flicked over to witness.

Aymeric froze.  His lips parted, his eyes widened by a margin—his blank, enduring mien tore open for one blinding moment, interrupted.  Past the rip in his veil she saw something wild and writhing, coiling, twisting, unwinding.  His coat glittered as he took a quick breath and flogged his face back into submission.

The sprawl of the floor was yet between them and she could feel heat from them both, flames licking

“Ah, there they are,” said Alphinaud, his arm twining hers more tightly.  She glanced down at him in shock, her throat dry with her own ashes, and he cocked his head up in question.  “Shall we?”

Glad the curtain of her hair hid her face from their stares, she coughed and gulped and grimaced and gripped Alphinaud’s wrist like a vise.  Her voice was so quiet it barely even came out.  “Alphinaud—please, do not leave me.”

Eyes of sapphire traced her face, reflecting facets of fondness.  His thumb touched her knuckles and she tasted the gentlest flavor of mint leaves, hyacinth, blossoms of heather.  Relief, sheer comfort, bid sparks behind her eyes.  “My strength is yours,” he promised.

Together they trooped forward, funneled through rifts in the crowd; one pair marching to close the distance to the other—an ogre and her gremlin, a monster and his hound.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


☾ ❅ ☽

 

Sorceress, enchantress, witch so bewitching—

Red lips, eyes like embers.  Dark dress draped like shadows, trailing on her figure.  Never had he seen her so blackly entrancing. 

Never, never, never

Mine, mine, mine—

Alphinaud escorted her, finely trimmed himself.  At arm length away, the boy released her and swept into a bow.  His air of decorum was spotless as a lordling.  “My esteemed comrades,” Alphinaud addressed, a balanced blend of pomp and genuflection.  “Ser Aymeric.  Ser Estinien.  It is a joy beyond words to find you both so remarkably well.”

She followed suit.  “Ser Aymeric,” she said to his beloved Bastard, bobbing with a curtsy. 

Her eyes flew to possess him next; gripped him by the very scars of Nidhogg, harder than the bollocks. 

Oh, grip me, burn me, tame me, demon witch—

“Ser Estinien,” she offered, with the same obeisance.  No frilled discourse or stand on ceremony. 

Purely her, barking his name.

Spine tensed tight, he tilted to bend.

 


☾ ✧ ☽

 

In the corner of his eye, his Urchin curved, soundless, to respect them.

Master Alphinaud and Samantha

She, his tellurian angel—in every morning’s light—

Sternly stunning spirit of starlight—in every drift of snowfall—

Ah, sweet seraph of shadows, of scintillating sunsets—in every spark of flame— 

As You are mine—

Aymeric tipped at the hinge of his waist and lashed the thing that stirred inside him—volatile, vicious; gnashing always to grasp her—forced himself to bow politely, to both the same—

—oh, I am Yours—

“My dear Samantha, Master Alphinaud,” he said, stoic and glacial.  He used the tongue he kept for conferences, silvery smooth and Mercurian.  “Your attendance tonight is a much revered blessing.”

 


☾ ❅ ☽

 

She laughed, throaty and rasping.

It was a hex, a spell, some sharp occult magick—

Oh, laugh into my mouth, you wicked, evil creature—

“We never would have missed it,” she assured Aymeric, eyes hot, for a moment, on his face.  “And we come at the behest of so many,” she deflected, eyes like singeing amber cinders drifting back to him.  “I am glad to see you made it, Estinien,” she said archly. 

Jinxing, devilry, malediction, arcana

Cleave me, thaw me, lash me to the pyre—

“I am not in the habit of breaking my promises,” he rumbled, wanting his words to set her on fire.

 


☾ ✧ ☽

 

“I admit,” said Master Alphinaud, eyes on Estinien, chiming in with good humor, “I was—a bit above mildly astonished to learn that you would be joining us.”

Aymeric was glad for the way the quip made him grin; the way it served to rend him from the monster.

He clapped the flat of his hand on Estinien’s back, firmly, fondly—gripped him by the ribcage.  “’Twould be a dull evening indeed without the drolleries of my right hand man.”  He threw Estinien a glance from the side of his eye and was met with the expected degree of vitriol, virulent and scathing.  Aymeric grinned at him slyly.  “What would we do,” he continued, a note lower and wryer, “In the absence of you to lampoon us?”

Estinien snorted cooperatively.  “Survive well enough.”

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Nothing felt real.  Nothing, nothing.

Her ears were still ringing, but at least that had improved since the start of the conversation. 

Maybe this was why nobles discussed the inane—to keep the topic painfully simple.  Maybe it was meant to avoid the need to think.  She grasped at straws.  “Did the two of you manage to eat?”

Aymeric smiled, so warmly.  “We did indeed.  Much though I insisted against an extravagant dinner, a banquet is a banquet—and so long as the guests have been pleased, I will consider the evening a raucous success.”

A loud scoff drew her attention to Estinien.  “Only you could be obsessed with the pleasure of others at your own bloody damn banquet,” he grumbled, half under his breath.  He looked like he almost wished to strangle him.

“Speaking of which,” Aymeric continued, without missing a beat, “I trust the two of you have enjoyed yourselves?”  His eyes flicked from her to Alphinaud and back again, searching; hoping for confirmation.

Oh, his stare, like a cosmos of snow and of stardust—

She nodded in acquiescence.  “Very much.”

“And plenty of enjoyment yet to be had, I imagine,” said Alphinaud, very obligingly.  “This venue is spectacular—did you have a hand in selecting it?”

That made Aymeric laugh.  “Not in the slightest,” he informed them.  “I have been much too engaged with matters of the office itself.  But happily those who beseeched for my instatement are possessed of most excellent taste.”

Samantha glanced at Estinien.  He looked repulsed, by the conversation or something else, she couldn’t tell.  Likely the conversation.  She directed her next question to him.  “Have you enjoyed yourself tonight?”

The look in his eyes was a resounding no.  “’Tis difficult to enjoy oneself when the prospects are scarce.”

“Good gods, Estinien,” Alphinaud blurted, and Estinien’s stormy gaze moved to behold him.  “Upon my word.  The prospects are varied and pleasant indeed.  Between food and wine and dancing?”  Alphinaud crossed his arms and frowned at him fiercely.  “I could never be so fastidious.”

Estinien snorted.  “Such an emphasis on dancing,” he noted, the definition of vigilant.  His dark eyes glinted with malice.  “And have you enjoyed some dancing tonight, Master Alphinaud?”

From the side of her eye, she could see Alphinaud blush from the start of his necktie all the way to the uttermost tips of his ears.  “As a matter of fact,” he said tartly, courageously, holding Estinien’s mischievous stare, “I have had the pleasure of an exceedingly fine dance partner tonight.”  He dimpled with boldness as he huffed out a breath.  “Thank you very kindly for asking.”

Between Alphinaud’s words, Estinien’s building delight, and the dreadful irony of the situation, Samantha realized she was smiling.  Then she realized she couldn’t stop smiling—not even as she drew the heat of both azure stares.

“And why,” continued Estinien, full force of his mystified focus now on her, “Pray tell, are you grinning like a ninny?”

Aymeric looked utterly bamboozled in the background.  Samantha snorted—and then she was giggling hysterically.  Beside her, Alphinaud cracked and joined in.  The two of them doubled over in uncontrollable laughter, coughing and wheezing and very nearly crying

She blinked up to find Estinien scowling, teeth bared in bewilderment.  “What in the living hells—

Oh, but Aymeric—Aymeric, master of insight—Aymeric was collecting, assembling every particle of information.  His lips curled in a smirk.  His eyes sparkled.  “Master Alphinaud,” he said wickedly, one black eyebrow quirking.  “I beg you would enlighten us on the matter of this exceedingly fine partner.”

Alphinaud choked and gasped and failed to catch his breath.  Samantha pressed a comforting hand at his shoulder and cleared her throat.  “It was I,” she declared, and at Estinien’s expression—wild and absolute scandal—the urge to chuckle almost killed her.  She rattled against it.  “Trust me when I say that the pleasure was mine.”

Alphinaud glanced at her in bald and silent admiration. 

Estinien looked like he was struggling to breathe, and Aymeric’s expression was wickeder by the instant.  “Well, well,” he hummed, his eyes fit to cleave her like Naegling again.  “And here I was, under the distinct impression that this was one pleasure you could well forgo.”

“Only when it comes to celebrities,” Samantha said, more smoothly than she felt.  She hoped her eyes were as fierce as she wanted them to be.  “Merely attempting to minimize my public transgressions.” 

“Last I checked,” said Aymeric, eyes half-lidding, the fuller of his attention driving straight through her, “This was my banquet of honor.”  As though pulled by some unseen power, tugged at the end of some thread, he took a step closer.  “Suddenly I believe I might fancy a dance.”

Right on cue, Alphinaud blurted.  “The two of you?”  He spluttered on the unspoken words she knew he wanted to say—that it would cause an outrage, that they were out of their wits

“My good Ser Aymeric,” rolled a smooth voice.  Count Edmont ambled up to join them, cane tapping a march on the carpet. 

Propriety back in place, perfectly self-possessed, Aymeric turned to face him.  “Count Edmont,” he hailed, a spark of deep and genuine admiration in his eyes.  “Full glad am I to see you.”

Count Edmont bowed politely.  “I beg you would allow me to extend congratulations, my dear boy—for all you have accomplished on behalf of our fair Ishgard.  Nay,” he amended, puffing out his chest.  “I daresay—all you shall continue to accomplish—”

Alphinaud gripped her wrist.  She glanced down at him.  Now was the time for an escape, and she knew it.  “Beg pardon, Sers,” she said, curtsying quickly, ignoring the way Estinien’s eyes bore into her with all the power of his blistering obscenities.

They turned on their heels and fled.

She was breathing hard as she gripped Alphinaud by the hand.  “Thank you.”

He clasped her palm in answer, quiet.  She looked to find his jaw clenched, swallowing hard.  “Gods,” he finally gasped out, wide eyes focused on the floor.  “Twelve forfend.  The tension could fairly be cut with a knife—”

And then, in one instant, a comedy of hells fractured together.

First, a laughing, ruddy-cheeked aristocrat crashed into Alphinaud, wineglass in hand.  Samantha lost her grip on her companion and stumbled forward, betrayed by her shoes, carried by the force of her inertia. 

As Alphinaud’s assailant drunkenly tripped over himself to apologize, a crush of bodies rushed to the dance floor.  In the air, warm and scented with food and myrrh and candles, she heard the music warble—the prelude to a traditional Coerthan dance.

Carried by the tide of eager Ishgardians, Samantha bobbed for a gap in the masses.  No luck.  Her heels clicked on the polished floor, and, frantic, she searched for Alphinaud—found a pair of wide, sapphire eyes, and hissed for him again, not to leave her.

He was instantly swallowed up by the crowd.

Highborns around her packed into arrangement, buzzed and heady with excitement.  People were laughing, giggling, pressed at her sides.  But the Warrior of Light was stiff with horror.  This was a dance to which she knew none of the steps.

Anxiety lashed in hot bands at her chest.  Against the grip of her nerves, those scalding brass briars, her feet flexed with the urge yet to run.  Aether burned at her palms.  She took several steps back on the tips of her heels—searched, breathing heavy, for some way to fly.

And then, all at once, there was something electric nearby.  Something intense and alive.  Up and down the sprawling dance floor, she saw the heads turning; felt bodies shifting to face her—

Not her. 

Right behind her.

A hand pressed at her waist, wide and warm and gods—

It was Aymeric, and his smell—a fragrance like every lost wish, like every daydream blurred her senses; made her blood start to sing and her knees start to weaken.  His fingertips caught on the small, glittering stones woven into her bodice, and hells

It was him they were watching, the man of the hour—and now all eyes in the room were on them both.

Like a doll on a string, a wind-up marionette, she tick-tick-ticked to face him; tipped her chin back to meet his stare.

Aymeric was radiant, a puppeteer from paradise itself.  Her breath was gone at the look in his eyes; the way they melted, softened.  His lips split into a happy and dazzling smile.  He leaned down to her gently, his nose pressed to her temple. 

“May I have this dance?”

Every thread in her body went taut.

It was dizzy, this feeling.  Did he feel the same?  Her mind was a blur, her pulse humming fast enough to drown her.  He pulled back in one luxuriant movement, regal and refined, raining blessings with eyes far more splendid than diamonds. 

Partners kept their positions, lined up on either side, casting them endless sly glances. 

Her throat was dry.  “I—don’t know how—”

His right hand nudged, spread at the small of her back, the full, broad wingspan of his grip.  “Keep your eyes on me,” he said, tilting close.  As though anything else was even possible.

He literally held her in the palm of his hand. 

Flustered, she flashed him a smile.  “I’ll do my best.”

He smirked at her in answer.  Inclined even closer, to speak in her ear, using a low voice only she could hear.  “This dress has no back,” he purred in a whisper—

Pulling hard on her unseen strings.

She could feel her face heating up, surely red.  “That is, in fact, the fashion.”

Aymeric dragged the palm that held her slowly up the bare line of her backbone.  His left skimmed down to find her right, limp by her thigh.  Strong fingers wove to grip hers tightly, and he issued a command.  “Take my shoulder.”

Her heart stammered and skipped several beats.  She followed his direction, smoothing the flats of her left fingers at the decorated slope of his lapel.  “Like this?”

He shrugged to situate her grip more precisely, and smiled in satisfaction.  “Perfect.”

Closed position.

The first bars were playing.  The piano trilled in syncopation; a chiming more glittering than ice.  The harpist plucked a slow trio of notes—a waltz after all—and a chorus of violins strained to join in.  

The bodies around them were swaying and then, and then, Aymeric took his step forward. 

She rocked back along the foot that matched him, skirts hissing on the floor.  “Good,” he hummed, watching, eyes aflame.  His hand urged her to follow as they stepped to the side, one sweeping motion—skirts and coattails—back and glissade—

Front, glissade back.  She glided where he led her, stepping forward as he tilted. 

“Wonderful,” he purred.

One, two three—and then they were spinning.  The butterflies in her stomach rushed to her chest as she swirled along in his arms, leaving the crowd of other dancers.  The room was a haze of nothing beyond him.  She dared to look back in his eyes—dared to lose herself for one instant in that soft-burning sky.

Push, and pull—two magnets, harmonized—craving forever to cling and combine—

The thumb at her back strummed the stretch of her spine.  And then he pressed her closer, and they rejoined the promenade.  He leaned his lips to her ear.  “And once more.”

Her heart jumped, and they were waltzing yet again—one, two three—pull, glissade, push—twirling outside the troop of prancing bodies—pulled back close, chest to chest.

Lips parted, she gazed up at him, helpless; met a look of unadulterated exaltation. 

Oh, Aymeric— 

She could feel herself breathing fast, caught against him; and then the music changed.

In the splitting of an instant, he slunk back.  Her hand slid from his shoulder, tracked the length of his black-and-gold arm.  Fingertips together, he gripped her left hand—lifted her wrist—pulled to cross her under and slanted his chest to her backbone. 

Twisted and breathless, she turned sideways, to catch his dazzling stare.  He flashed a rakish grin before unwinding—spinning her free to catch her by the knuckles.

He prowled in a circle to whorl her back tighter; took both of her palms in his hands.  He held her wrists high and watched as she mirrored; slipped one of her hands to drape at his neck and then— “Hold on to me, Samantha” —he dipped her, bowed to follow, fingers spread at her back.

The holy face above her was flushed, glowing, lined in the lamplight.  His hair was fluffed and ruffled at his forehead, curling at half-reddened ears.  Her mind and body pulsed with every thought of him aloft—every moment she had ever been beneath him—  

The tempo stalled again as they righted, something inside her coiled tight.  Aymeric set her loose and adrift, and her head was still spinning, hypnotized

“Beg pardon,” thundered a dark, familiar voice—and a hand coarse with scars snaked her wrist.

Another set of strings went stiff entirely.

She was tugged down a sleek arm garbed in silver and white, swept back to meet shadowy eyes.  Estinien stole her in a slinking swagger.  Aymeric watched them slip away, pale stare flashing with delight—and then the masses mobbed to observe.

“Follow your instincts,” said Estinien gruffly, tossing back his silvery hair.  Then he took her hands and yanked them to his hips. 

She dug her fingers in for purchase.  “I won’t spar you on this dance floor,” she growled under her breath.

He laughed, hard and low in his throat; lunged one hand to the small of her back.  Rough fingers scraped her skin.  “You lead, I will shadow.”

Her neck prickled as she picked a sharp step.  He crept back at once with the grace of a cat.

Foot to foot, slip and drift.  Leg to leg, slide and slither.  

Hip to hip, they traced a half moon through the room.

Saunter, sneak, swish—such an easy connection.  Fire meeting fire, the twine of twin flames.  Two blazing wisps of stardust made of one and the same.  Bodies that knew every ilm of each other, they strutted in orbit together, hurtling around one white-hot center of gravity.

Estinien’s eyes flashed up and she followed the line of his sight.

Aymeric. 

Wry.  Watching.  Waiting.

Estinien sent her in retrograde, down the end of one long arm; caught her with firm fingers—dragged her back fiercely—tossed her leg astride his hip, to angle them flat together.

Her mouth gasped open in soundless shock.  Long white hair tickled her shoulders and neck.  He bared his teeth at her and dipped quickly away, flinging one palm out in a gesture.  Estinien was swallowed by the mob as the audience applauded, and then—a wide hand at her waist—

As Aymeric sidled to start her into a box step, the laugh that tore from her lips was hoarse, all words completely forgotten.  It was as though the crowd around them vanished, even though she knew they still lingered.

He meandered them half across the dancehall, wearing what was almost a sinister grin—and as he wound her into a closer embrace, she found her voice again.  “This was more of a thrill than I expected.”

They rocked, push to pull.  His earring swayed and twinkled, and long black lashes shadowed the bright of his eyes.  “Glad to be in attendance?”

She nodded, the butterflies inside her crowding her ribcage.  The violins slowed on a stanza.  Her pulse stuttered in time to each rubato of piano, each touch of glissando—each pluck of the harp strings thrummed in her blood. 

Left hand clasped his shoulder; right gripped his palm.  All the threads were tangled—and yet she felt calm.  There was no room for thinking.  Only the need to pull herself closer—to look into the sun.

She pressed her cheek to his chest, and heard the metronome of his heartbeat.

One two, one two, one two—

The spread of his fingers at her back held her firmly in place.  The tip of his nose, warm at her temple.  “And how would you appraise my dancing?”

She hummed, wrapped up in the music of his existence, her patchwork heart singing to answer its master.  She clung to his lapel as though she needed it to survive.  “Far beyond reproach.” 

His pulse sped up as he laughed in surprise.  He held her more tightly as he recited words long past.  “I can hardly accept such praise—least of all from the Hero of Eorzea.”

“Oh, let me give it,” she sighed.  They rocked more slowly, in pace to the gentling rhythm. 

One two, one two, one two—

When he spoke again, she felt it through his chest.  “You do realize,” he began, several notes lower, “Much though I adore it,” a rumble, darkly hitched, “A fair portion of Ishgard watches on as we sway here like lovers.”

She pulled away from the grip of his living tempo and slanted to meet his gaze; kept her voice clandestine as a whisper.  “And?”

His eyes hooded.  Close as they were, she could feel his breath come faster.  The words he spoke were a purr meant only for her.  “And I never want to let go of you again.”

Her heart flipflopped.  “If you never let go,” she said, husky, “That would be quite the topic of tête-à-tête.”

He chuckled, but his voice was soft and covetous.  “Must I let go?”

Everything in her rebelled at the thought, but she knew the answer was yes.  “I wish I could say no,” she muttered, snaking their fingers completely together—daring to reach for the base of his throat.  Her thumb covertly brushed his pulse where it thrilled, now uneven. 

His hand traced a path up her spine.  He took a deep breath.  “Just a moment longer, then,” he said, tilting her low in his arms.

She could see every color in his eyes, the flecks of ice and silver, cerulean and ultramarine.  There was the straight line of his nose, the arch of his eyebrows, the fall of the rook-black hair on his brow.

It was the power of his stare that ever tied her; the power of his gaze that laid her bare—the force of his attention that transfixed her, pierced her soul to know the secrets there.

If only she could kiss him, here and now.

If only, now and ever.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


☾ ❅ ☽

 

The nobles tended to give him a wide berth as he passed.

All the better.  He had no time to entertain them.

Still, his romp across the dance floor with her had attracted unwanted attention.  But, he reasoned, if Aymeric cast that gamble, if Aymeric ventured to make such a spectacle of himself, well—he, Estinien, could never be outdone by Aymeric

Someone dared to block his path—to address him, to ask him a question. 

He blinked slowly down at the trespasser.  Ah.  Emmanellain de Fortemps.  “Ser Estinien,” the gawking young lord began, “In the name of Halone—what possessed you to engage with our dear old girl in such a manner?”

What possessed him, indeed.

“Ah, but—oh—do forgive my choice of words—”

Damn sodding halfwit.

A rich question coming from Emmanellain.  The boy reeked always of ineptitude. 

But Estinien had respect for the House—and the Count had shown him formidable hospitality— 

Estinien exposed his teeth in imitation of a grin and honeyed his voice.  It came out sickly sweet and sharp as a dagger.  “Beg pardon, Ser Emmanellain,” he growled, glaring hard at the highborn lad.  Brave of him, he had to admit, to bluster up the courage to approach.  “But I need air.”

He prowled away quickly, heading for the entrance of the ballroom.

Just a breath of air while they danced; then he would return. 

Unlike Aymeric, he had no wish to reconnoiter.

He crossed beneath the arch to the antechamber, hooked the corner, and slammed into someone small.

All the hells damn it—

Shock as he saw who it was.  “Alphinaud?”

The boy was clutching his stomach and cringing as he regained his balance, swaying slightly.  “Gods—”

Estinien grunted and grabbed him by the shoulders, helping him steady.  “Apologies,” he muttered.

Alphinaud shook his head; squinted; loosened and adjusted his necktie.  He did not look well.  Estinien winced at the flutter of sheer alarm that crowded his stomach.  “By the Fury—Alphinaud, did I hurt you?”

The boy shook his head again, but toppled one step to the side.  He frowned up at him. 

“Are you made entirely of bones?

Estinien snorted and pressed a hand at his back.  “Bones and grit,” he huffed, glad for the blast of Leveilleurian derision.  “Come.  Let us find you a seat.”

There was no shortage of crannies and niches in this bloody building.  He escorted Alphinaud to one such curtained corner, beneath a painted window, and the two of them perched on the hidden bench.  Estinien took a breath and studied his young comrade in earnest; tried to sound more mild.  “You do look ill.”

“I am well,” Alphinaud assured him, wide eyes flicking up.  “Merely winded.  That, and rather dazed that I could endure two such collisions in so short a span of time.”  He gestured to his lapels and sighed.  “I was only just in the washroom magicking out the wine—”

Estinien raised his eyebrows.  “Caught a spill, did you?”

He nodded.  Then he grimaced. 

For much too long a moment, Alphinaud was quiet, seeming to struggle with what he wanted next to say.  The wind outside moaned and apprehension swarmed in Estinien’s intestines.  Alphinaud finally took a breath. 

“Might I ask you something?”

Estinien’s heart said yes, for the boy just like a lost brother.  His mind and gut howled no

“That depends upon the question,” Estinien qualified, gruff.

Alphinaud took another breath.  Let it out.  Swallowed, a bob in his throat. 

The alarm in Estinien’s stomach transformed into terror.  He glowered and opened his mouth to stop him, to definitively refuse, but Alphinaud held up a hand.  “I apologize,” the boy offered.  “It is purely—I thought this would be a simple matter, to ask it—but it is most certainly not.”

Dreadful, wary curiosity bubbled up Estinien’s spine and he scowled to stopper it.  “Speak your mind,” he demanded, knowing full well what he invited.

Alphinaud gulped and did so, very softly.  “Do you—love her?”

There was no need to speak a name.

Estinien closed his eyes against the shock of calm, of stunning silence that overwhelmed him.

Astonishing.

Long had he suspected the boy had some inkling.  Given their closeness, it would not surprise him in the slightest if she, too, had shared.  Some measure, at least.  “That is an extremely personal question,” he smoldered, well beneath a whisper.

He heard Alphinaud take another reedy breath.  “I am aware.”  A pause.  “Are you cross with me for asking?”

“No.”  Almost to his awe, he was somehow not.  He did, however, open his eyes to look down at him, cold and sternly.  “What, pray tell, inspires you to ask this?”

Alphinaud coughed but continued.  Courageous.  “I ask because you are my friend,” he said plainly.  “And Samantha—” He paused again.  Candid tenderness filled his expression.  “She is perhaps my dearest.  Particularly in the absence of Alisaie.”

Another tranquil silence swelled between them as Alphinaud thought of his sister. 

Estinien’s heart gave a subtle, sentimental flutter. 

Kind and caring Alphinaud.  May the Fury guard your gentle soul.

The boy took another heavy breath; kept the voice that followed low and careful.  “From Samantha, I heard some ration of a story,” he bravely began, despite his blushing.  “The tale of a man who once loved her, who fled in the midst of a blizzard.”  Estinien opened his mouth in horror but Alphinaud raised his palm again.  “I suppose, in a sense, my question stems from that—why you fled, why you evade her—the record both past, and at hand.”

At the stark invasion of his privacy, some quake of anger finally cracked open and stirred, low in his belly.  It was yet tempered by the love he felt for him, this fine boy—this loquacious young man, responsible in such large part for his salvation.

“You speak of but one chapter,” said Estinien, low and snow-quiet.  “Of a yarn that stretches very far back.”  Alphinaud was solemn, attending him gravely.  Estinien looked him up and down, and sighed.  “You, my boy, are yet too young—too tender to understand.”

Very nearly pouting, Alphinaud crossed his arms.  “I am an adult,” he insisted unconvincingly.  “And as I have said to her, so many times, I would never dare to proffer counsel—but I have the right to support my dear friends.  Especially as pertains to their happiness.”  His eyes glittered fiercely.  “I daresay you have endured enough suffering.”

Something brutally affectionate coiled to bite him and he barked a laugh to quell it.  “Alphinaud, your words betray you.”  He shook his head and chuckled.  “You are softhearted, through and through.”

“And why should I not be?”  Alphinaud challenged him aggressively.  “I have learned a fair share in our travels.  I know now how foolish I have been—in the past, by many measures.  And no doubt will I play the fool yet again.  But,” he said, shifting his weight, squaring his shoulders, “I daresay my soft heart might be the reason—might be the reason you yet survive.”

Well.

With that, even Estinien could not argue.

For several breaths, they surveyed each other, long and mildly.  The boy blushed a bit redder.

“Know that I thank you, Master Alphinaud,” Estinien finally said, reaching for his shoulder—gripping the slender frame with all the fact he could muster.  “For caring.  As I hope you have known since well before that clash on the Steps.”

“I have.”  Alphinaud swallowed hard again.  Undaunted.  “And on behalf of caring, I beg you would answer my question,” he pled.  “For her sake, as well as for mine.”  He wrung his slight hands in his lap and dropped his eyes.  “I would do all in my power to help you—both of you—find true contentment.”

The laugh that left his lips was sharp and much too bitter.  Estinien coughed it back before it could continue.  “Contentment was ever beyond my grasp,” he said flatly.  But now a question pricked at the back of his mind.  A question many times wondered, but never, ever answered. 

He took a gamble and asked it. 

“You speak of caring and contentment,” Estinien began, “As it relates to your inquiry.  Do you imagine, then—that with her—I could find it?” 

The wind churned outside, and his heart ached at the thought of it.  Contentment.

Aymeric deserves every contentment.

Alphinaud searched his face, cautious.  “That sounds very much like a matter I dare not advise,” he said quietly.  “But I will say that I believe in love—or what I have come to know of it.”  His words were full of conviction.  “Love is, almost always, an adequate answer.”

A clamor interrupted them, then, from out beyond the curtain; a parade of clicking heels, fast-approaching from the ballroom.

Both Estinien and Alphinaud tensed at the sound. 

“Oh, absolutely,” rang a posh female voice, speaker unknown.  “Can you imagine?  Ser Aymeric de Borel and the Warrior of Light?”  A scoff.  “She does have gumption, I will give her that—to even look at him in such a manner.  But I suppose one must have gumption, to be cursed with such a fate.  I would never dream to cross her—”

The bones and grit in Estinien’s body stiffened by every possible margin.

“Would that the Vicomtesse still breathed,” a second lady said, passing very close now.  Estinien braced his hands against the bench, bristling.  “Powerful though she may be, I daresay she would cross her—certainly aghast beyond the grave, to know the boy she kindly raised could think to touch an outsider—”

The heels were just outside the curtain, rippling shadows visible on the floor.  The wood beneath Estinien gave a faint groan as the heels of his palms bore into it.  Vile, swiving gorgons—

“Did you hear that?”

Alphinaud’s hand was at his forearm very quickly.  Estinien slackened the pressure; closed his eyes and clenched his teeth together.  Vapid, thoughtless, asinine hags

“Must have been the wind.  It is frightful cold out tonight.”

The clacking retreated down the hallway, aiming for the powder room.

When the sound of heels was gone, Alphinaud took a breath.  “I suppose that means something happened in the ballroom,” he began, softer than a whisper.  It was more of a statement than question.

Rage still simmered in his stomach, but Estinien nodded.  He tried to crush the urge he felt to chase down those rancid slags and melt them; thought of her and Aymeric instead.  “They were dancing when I left,” he rumbled.  He took a breath.  “I danced with her as well,” he added, for the sake of being exhaustive—to spare the boy more surprises.

Alphinaud pressed his thumb and forefinger to tightly closed eyelids.  “Twelve preserve.”  He exhaled, long and heavy and drawn through his nose.  “And I broke my promise not to leave her.”

Another flutter of something ruthless in Estinien’s heart—fearsome and dark and overwhelming— 

As did I.

“It would be best for us to return to the party,” Alphinaud was saying, concerned and unhappy.  “Tataru might need our assistance with damage control.”

Estinien looked at him in pity.  “I only cause damage, Alphinaud,” he muttered, supremely convinced.  “By no means should I ever be involved in controlling it.”

Alphinaud scowled at him.  “You expect me to believe this from the man that conquered Nidhogg?”

Conquered?

He squinted and glowered.  “I was possessed—”

“And you resisted,” Alphinaud argued.  “Your will was strong enough to cow him, if only for a moment.”

A jolt, a memory of his own voice, as though out of body, crashed through his mind—

Finish me—now, while I have the beast subdued!

He …

He looked down at his hands. 

This is not your hand, wyrm!

Turned them slowly on the knuckles, palm up, to examine.

His hands covered in scars.  His hands, belonging to him.

He, Estinien, the man that cowed Nidhogg —

— stared at Alphinaud in wonder.

The boy merely raised one pale, self-righteous eyebrow.  “Come, then,” he beckoned, getting to his feet.  “I fear that if we linger, those ladies might return to pollute our ears with more absurd rusticities.”

Alphinaud rose from his chair, the lamb with the heart of a lion.

And Estinien—wary, careful, inquisitive—

Like a tentative foundling, he followed.

Followed Alphinaud, the boy that stood up and refused to let him die.

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Physiology brought their dance to an end. 

All the wine had to go somewhere, after all.

Slowly, she disentwined herself from Aymeric and, at the last moment, remembered propriety.  “I beg you would excuse me,” she said, offering a curtsy, aching to stay.  “But I’m afraid I need to—powder my nose.”

Aymeric grinned openly at the euphemism; let her slip, for now, from his fingers.  “Go have a powder, then,” he said, so like a croon, like a song.  His half-lidded stare still held her, soft and very warm.

Samantha dragged herself away from his eyes and to the edge of the dance floor. 

She had to beg more pardons from the guests that surged to grill her.

The Warrior of Light and Ser Aymeric?  And what of Ser Estinien? 

Was there something more?  More to the story?

She was ready to grovel for directions to the restroom. 

A kind older lady took pity, herding her away.  She detailed the path very clearly.  Back through the arch to the lobby, then down the hall by the coat check.  “You will see a pastoral landscape of the Highlands,” she promised.  “A very pretty painting.  The door beside it is well marked.”

The painting was pretty, indeed—snagged her sharply for a moment. 

Coerthas, lush and green and alive, before the Calamity.  Her heart wrung with nostalgia that didn’t belong to her, the itch of the Echo, before her bladder compelled her inside.  A pair of ladies were leaving—eyed her strangely on their way out.

She was washing her hands when someone else entered; dried and looked up to meet a very familiar face.

“Lucia!”  The name left her lips in a half-stifled cry.

Unarmed.

Lucia wore a long, pale ballgown that shimmered, hugging every angle.  Lace stole down her arms like hoarfrost; matched the headdress on her brow.  She was stunning—an image made, truly, of starlight.

Beautiful.  Delphic.  Inviolable.  Samantha had imagined many words for the Garlean—a transplant, just like her father.  “Samantha,” Lucia said quietly, her voice like steel and satin.  She stepped closer.  “Might I speak with you a moment?”

Her heart began to race—in fear, in awe, in timid admiration.  She wet her lips and nodded, not trusting her own voice.  Lucia, the uprooted spy—a flower that needed cold earth to survive—blooming to thrive in this winter, budding to life by his side—

Samantha met a pair of emerald eyes framed by lashes like ice. 

“What are your intentions with Ser Aymeric?”

Oh.

She stared at the pink of Lucia’s delicate lips, and her ears started ringing with the question.  That wild, rambling question; the one that already filled every trellis of her mind.  Yet for all it climbed and stretched and crept, it never left her closer to answers—

I love him, I love him, I love him—

Her pulse was a waltz, her voice a darkened whimper.  “My intentions?”

Lucia nodded.

A girl in black born of Garlean seed stared at one in white wrought of Garlean shadows, and together, they tangled in silence.

Something hard, almost sad, bent to shine in Lucia’s eyes, and Samantha cleared her throat.  “Not now,” she croaked.  “Not here.  Not where others might listen.”  She tried to breathe.  “Ask me again somewhere private.”

The emerald hardness softened—a minor consolation.  “I understand,” she said, keeping her voice low.  “But assure me one thing, ere I go.”  She took a long step closer; close enough to brush against her—silk on silk, petal on petal.  Lucia dipped to her ear, tapered fringe of hair tickling her shoulder.  Freesia and vanilla.  Samantha shuddered with a nervous thrill. 

Lucia’s command was like stardust in her ear.  “Tell me if you love him.”

Samantha’s eyelids fluttered with the weight of just how much she truly did.

Oh, so much, so deeply— “I do.”

Two words left her lips with all the force of worship.

Lucia drew back.  She looked down at her, lush green gaze veiled by long, lovely white.  “Good.”

And, just as quickly as she entered, the white Garlean blossom of Coerthas was gone.

Dark grafted hybrid left behind, Samantha tried to catch her breath; pressed a hand to her throat and exhaled.  Her blood pulsed a ragged march, a fever fit to set her on fire.  She glanced at herself in the mirror—smoky eyes, ruby lips—skin flushed crimson from her cheeks down her neck, to the sliver revealed of her chest—

If Tataru hadn’t done such a fine job of painting her face, she would have splashed it with water.

Instead, she stood there, staring into her own eyes—brown, cast amber by the shadows, lashes long like the black legs of spiders—and willed herself to be calm.

She combed her fingers through her hair, half fallen, half wild.

What were you expecting?  You danced with him in public, at his gala of honor—

A breath puffed her cheeks.  In front of half of Ishgard.  Of course Lucia saw you—

She braced her palms against the counter.  Everyone that matters to him saw you—

The door was opening again.  She pretended to dry her hands and avoided the eyes of the interloper, feeling them burn her already—almost tasting the questions this new stranger wished to ask her.

Samantha brushed past in a rush, excusing herself.  As she left, the train of her gown sighed and rustled on the floor.  She stalked down the long corridor, heels clicking, heading for the lobby—wondered what awful, dreadful, godsforsaken thing might happen next—

And someone grabbed her. 

It was so forceful, so unexpected it took her air away.  She found herself jerked behind the shadows of a curtain—a bay window with seats beneath domed, snow-fogged glass—

The voice that met her ears was outraged and bitter and all too familiar. 

“What in bloody hells was that about?”

A snort of weary shock crept up her throat.  Surprised but exhausted, she turned to face him, blinking his face into focus.  His name tumbled from her lips in bare astonishment.  “Thancred?”

She hadn’t even realized he was present.  Had his features not been stamped for perpetuity in her miserly sentiments—albeit one muffled, cobwebbed, long-abandoned hallway—he would be almost unrecognizable. 

Long hair, bleached ash-blonde, fell loose around his face; set free from his lately favored plait.  He wore a pale left eyepatch tonight, to match his grey-and-silver vestments.  He looked like a highborn.  By the gods, he looked handsome. 

Handsome, and unquestionably indignant, scowling at her with strength to rival—well, herself. 

“Explain,” he demanded, voice low and dark.

Her eyebrows tracked so high up her forehead she thought they might fly off.  “Explain?”

He jerked his white-gloved thumb at the curtain and flicked an open palm back in the direction of the ballroom, grunting.  “Whatever that pissing display was.”

She blinked a few more times and frowned back at him, bizarrely affronted.  “Pissing display?

His arms lunged to strap across his chest, dislodging his cravat, and he glared at her harder.  “The dancing,” he spat.  “And before you get clever—not the one with Alphinaud.”  His lips were stiff.  “I refer, of course, to the most vaunted woman in Eorzea, dancing with only the two most eminent figures in Ishgard.”  His nostrils flared and his visible eye glittered with blunt indignation.  “If you could even call it dancing, when it was clearly—clearly not just.

Her chin tilted slowly as she squinted, wetting her lips. 

“Thancred,” she cautioned, under her breath, thick with implication—

No,” he said firmly, with pointed exasperation.  A touch too much exasperation.  “Not that.  But yes, in the sense of untimely attentions.  Yes, in the sense of conflict of interest.”  His uncovered eye stared, hard and knowing, into hers.  “Yes, in the sense of duty, far too momentous to compromise.

Her heart fluttered with defiance and shame. 

First Lucia, now this—

“I feel like I’m dancing all over again,” she grumbled.  She bent to peek past the curtain.  Not one person to be seen.  She twisted back to face Thancred and dropped her voice an octave lower.  “Stop mincing your words and say what you mean to say to me.”

She could see his brow tense as he checked his own volume—as he smoothed one gloved hand through his hair.  He leaned to her ear for a moment, and his words came out as a sizzling whisper.  “You are playing with fire, Samantha,” he warned her.  “Far beyond the ken of your magicks.”

The breath she huffed in rejoinder was hot and guilty.  She scoffed, but no words came.

She was speechless, because he was right.

For a moment they stood there, stiff-backed, close in their stillness.

“It’s wrong, you know,” she finally said, about something alike, but else entirely.  “To always deny yourself.”

The words struck them both; pierced her as much as they did him. 

Thancred took a sharp breath.  “Sometimes it’s best to deny,” he said fiercely, piercing her deeper.  Then he spoke more quickly, more vaguely, ever more ambiguous.  “I never meant to let anything happen.  Not with you.  Not that anything was wrong with you at all—”

“You told me,” she muttered, interrupting.  “Not once, I might add.”

As they locked eyes in dead silence, she knew they both remembered—their abridged ending.

Years ago, together in the storeroom, crushed against the wall of the Sands.  She could still feel the shape of his body, how he pulled them astray; the dizzy way he swayed when he jerked himself away—

 


 

“Wait,” he grunted.  He pitched and staggered, digging his palms into the brick.  Beneath the fringe of his short-cropped, silvery hair, his soft brown eyes were wide, his cheeks very ruddy. 

She pitched too, chasing the loss of contact.  Her lips were still warm from the skin they just pressed—the place on his neck, beside one mark of Knowing.  Her head spun from the gentle, recent weight of him, from the subtle, lingering rush of his scent. 

Leather and patchouli. 

Too breathless to speak, she stared firmly into his eyes and gripped him by the waist, hoping he could see the question in her face. 

Why?

He cleared his throat.  Once.  Twice. 

“I told you before,” he muttered, looking very much like he did not wish to repeat it.  He sank back against her in spite of himself.  “It would compromise our rapport—as Scions.”  The gaze he levelled was hot and intent, ready to negate him.  His lips curled in a grimace.  “Our professional relationship,” he continued gruffly, perhaps to convince himself.  “Which, might I add, we cannot afford to compromise.”

Since arriving in Thanalan, there was nothing she loved more than listening to him rattle, waiting for the deft jabs and twists of his wit.  Her palms gripped him stubbornly, tighter.  She pulled herself close to lean on him again; smoothed her lips across one Sharlayan tattoo.  He shivered, and she suddenly found her voice.  “If you mean to convince me to stop,” she began, her arms hooked stiff at his back, “You should say it.”

He groaned and shoved his hands to the wall even harder. 

He was exactly her height at this angle, when she gently slouched.  “We should stop,” he grumbled, leaning their foreheads together all the same.  “Before we do anything regrettable.”  His breath was a blistering whisper on her skin.  “The longer we linger like this, the more I doubt I will be able.”

She tilted her chin to brush their mouths together, wanting one more taste.  He made a sound low in his throat.  His hips pinned her to the wall and his plush lips parted to kiss her very deeply.  She knew he was a man of myriad talents—but this kiss was completely unfair.  Astonishing, perplexing.  Seductive

It was over as soon as it started. 

“No,” he said sternly, forcing himself away.   

She almost pouted.  How many times had he tempted her, toyed with her?  And now she knew it wasn’t in jest—that beyond a rogue shadow, they shared at least one intention. 

But no was no, and so she backed down.

His hazel eyes filled with something equal parts duty and lament.  “Promise to forget this,” he demanded, stepping back, the heat of his stare again a contradiction.  He almost tripped over his words.  “This moment—this lapse in judgment—never happened.”

She inhaled sharply, doubtful. 

But he was her friend, and she respected him.  “Whatever you wish.”

 


 

She stared hard at the eye she could meet, dispelling the haze of memory. 

“Nothing really happened,” she reminded him.

He chuckled thinly.  A muscle fluttered in his jaw and he held her stare.  “I know.”

“You told me to forget it—”

I know,” he grunted.

She pursed her lips.  “Then why does it matter—what fires I play with?”

Because you are a Scion,” he hissed, lunging close again.  Leather and patchouli.  She forced herself not to flinch away from his scent, from the flinty, violent look on his face.  “You are a Scion, as I am a Scion, and our onus is to something far greater.”

He was right, he was right

I shoulder this mantle, this burden to Hydaelyn—

“I am proud to be a Scion,” she hissed, almost soundless.  She dropped her chin and studied the folds of her dress where they draped around her feet, black and glittering.  “I will always be a Scion, Thancred,” she continued, lifting her eyes back to his watching gaze.  “Always.  But I’m tired of being alone,” she said hotly, a prickle of rawness, of accusation in her throat.  “Of being afraid and denying.

A shock of something guilty, empathetic crossed his stony face. 

Then the guise fell back into place. 

“Tread carefully,” he warned, instead of something kinder.  He reached one gloved hand past her to part the curtain, and she craned her neck to look too.  Still unnoticed.  “I spoke in jest before, about the way Ser Aymeric beheld you,” he muttered, leaning back.  “But gods help me if love was not exactly what I saw tonight.”

She kept her lips sealed as she turned to face him, unwilling to offer denial or confirmation.  Informing Lucia was one thing.  Apprising Thancred was decidedly different.

Thancred sighed.  “Twelve help the poor bloody bastard.”

Samantha gave him a sour look. 

He sighed again.  “No dig intended.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


☾ ✧ ☽

 

Everything inside him itched to find her, to touch her again.

Before their dance, he successfully ignored it—or had done a fair job of pretending.  For Ishgard, for the sake of decorum, he set her aside; talked and treated with every lord and lady that approached him, skillfully simpering.

Now, he could hardly think past the urge to follow her out of the ballroom

Could hardly see past the crowd that mobbed him. 

“Ser Aymeric,” a gentleman muttered, taking him boldly by the shoulder.  “Tell me, my good fellow; what exactly is the nature of your relationship with the Eikon Slayer?”

Aymeric blinked slowly, coolly; deferentially tilted his chin.  “Mistress Floravale is a deeply valued comrade and friend,” he provided nonchalantly.  “Indispensable to myself and to Ishgard alike—”

“What of the dance you just shared?”  A young lady, strawberry blonde and very excited.  Her cheeks were pinked with romantic sentiment, her hazel eyes set to sparkle.  “Such fine and intimate dancing is rarely to be seen—even at a wedding!”

A smooth tilt of his shoulders allowed Aymeric to face his smaller second assessor.  He gave her his most dazzling smile and she visibly swooned.  “My fair mademoiselle,” he said genteelly.  “I thank you for your gracious compliments.  Insofar as intimacy is concerned—”

“You are a bachelor, are you not?”  Another woman, far closer to his age.  She was eyeing him through a veiled circlet, very hungrily, indeed.  “As the sole heir de Borel, surely your honored parents would wish you to be courting in earnest; especially on the cusp of such a prominent political endeavor …”

He turned to her next; selected a warmer, more beguiling expression.  Color crept up her neck, the projected effect.  “Given the delicacy of such endeavors,” he said smoothly, “For the sake of ambassadorial propriety, my lady could hardly expect such a public disclosure.”  He looked at her through serenely catlike eyes.  “I daresay all will be revealed in time.”

People mobbed him all the fiercer, the clamor of questions coming faster.  Aymeric strummed the harp of his tongue and verbally tipped and twisted; twirled and turned and promenaded.  Rhetoric was, after all, his most well-rehearsed ballet—words, his instrument of choice.

Even so, it was exhausting.

A gap appeared in the crowd, and he saw his redeemer approach. 

“Ah,” he breathed, eyes alighting on her face.  “Lucia.”  Abject relief filled his blood as he beheld her, his First Commander; as she parted the horde to address him.  He kept his face very carefully calm.

“Lord Commander—my lord Ser Aymeric,” she corrected, politely.  “Might I claim that promised dance?”

Her words were chosen on purpose.

A very fine detective, to his rescue, after all.

Eyes widened all around them. 

Lucia as well?

Did he promise to dance with his every lady comrade?

Surely Ser Aymeric would not be so boastful—not trifle with so many at once—

“I would be delighted,” he said honestly, obligingly.  He took a step toward her and she offered her arms in tribute; he took her right in his left and grinned at the touch of her left on his shoulder.  They dipped away from the questioning mass, and he was back out on the dance floor.

“Halone bless you, Lucia,” he said quietly, once they were sufficiently alone.  “What would I do in your absence?”

She smiled, sphinxlike, aloof.  “I pray we might never learn the answer.”

She was truly stunning tonight, and he told her.  “My guardian angel, in every sense of the word.”

Her cool smile warmed slightly and so did her cheeks.  She averted her eyes, color so like the fields of Coerthas before this accursed winter.  “Do not praise me so readily,” she advised him as they swayed.  “In delivering you from your captors, I would fain cross-examine you just as closely.”

He laughed, breathy, unsurprised.  “Is that so?”

She nodded.  “You attract the most taciturn disciples,” she said dryly.  Suggestively“Between Ser Estinien, the Warrior, and myself—my lord must sorely be in need of more lighthearted conversation.”

He spun them around another verse and laughed, very loudly.  “Between the three of you,” he began, toeing another set of steps, “The conversation has never been lacking.”  He looked at her more gently, then, a note more shrewd and dissecting.  “And are you in approval of my latest devotee?”

The briefest bramble of feelings rose to her eyes, and she swiftly packed it down.  “I am,” she acknowledged, very simply.  “I have always liked her.”  She took a breath that made the lace of her neckline glitter like a snowdrift.  “I daresay she is in thorough approval of you.

He pulled Lucia closer to twirl and whirl; moved his face to her ear to ask, quiet.  “You spoke with her?”

“Briefly,” she admitted, hair tickling his cheek.

He dipped her.  “I saw you make chase,” he confessed.  “I presumed you had your reasons.”

Lucia gave a tiny nod against his cheek as they righted.  “I wanted to discover her intentions.”

A detective, indeed.  His heart stilled.  For a moment, he was frozen.  “And?”

They resumed dancing, but for another breath, Lucia struggled.  “She dared not answer.  At the sight of me, she seemed—” Lucia sifted her words.  “I would say she seemed daunted, but is that not preposterous?”  Lucia’s eyes unfocused, her stare far away.  “The Warrior of Light, unsettled by me?”

Aymeric drew back to look at her in contemplation.  “Not so preposterous.”  They glissaded, side to side.  “If Estinien is my right hand,” he said plainly, “Then you are my left.  Last I checked,” a shade wryer, “A man can only have so many hands.”

“Last I checked,” Lucia challenged, leaning back to his ear, “Your hand might not be what she desires.”

Aymeric could feel his blood go wayward, his composure threatened for a moment.  “Appalling,” he said, low in his chest.  He spun her down his arm and away from him.  She twirled back to look at him in coy discernment.

“Heart was an option, you know,” she taunted.

He knew the tips of his ears were blushing in rebellion.  Traitors.

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Thancred melted his way back into the shadows while Samantha skulked for the ballroom.

People cast her furtive glances, but blessedly, no one approached.  Their attentions were much too focused on the dance floor, where—she noticed—Aymeric and Lucia spun in slow pirouettes.  They were talking intently.  As they swished a lilting half-turn, Lucia caught her gaze.  Another half-turn, and Aymeric faced her.  He smiled warmly.

Conflict of interest.  Playing with fire.  Far beyond ken of your magicks—

Against echoes of Thancred’s warnings, she grinned timidly in answer; turned her toes to the table Fortemps.

Artoirel, Emmanellain, Edmont, Tataru, and Alphinaud were all present at their place cards—plus a hastily added person.  A person in silver and white, made of sleek, long limbs and palpable frustration.

Looking stony and thoroughly subjugated, Estinien crouched in a seat between Alphinaud and her empty chair.

In an old and effortless reflex, she rushed to his side; sank down in her spot to the right.  She squinted at him, and then reviewed the others.  Tataru and Edmont were chatting quietly, Artoirel and Alphinaud watching in apprehension.  Emmanellain seemed entirely focused on emptying his wineglass. 

Under the shroud of the tablecloth, buried from view, a huge hand struck to clutch her thigh.  She swallowed a gasp of surprise and scowled at Estinien sharply.  He tilted to face her—looked down his nose—raked his free hand through his pale, tousled hair, met her eyes, and—gripped her tighter

Ass. 

His fingers felt like talons, warm and hard and cruel even blocked by the shield of her skirts—

“I believe Lucia is doing far more to mitigate the matter than any one of us could,” Edmont was saying, low and solemn.  His cunning eyes tracked a path to the center of the room, where the Commanders still capered.

Covertly, Samantha tried to kick Estinien away—hissed as he held fast, pinning her leg to the chair.

“Ser Aymeric is not a fool,” said Tataru, combing back her tresses and craning her neck.  “He knew the repercussions of asking our dear Warrior to dance.”  As she said it, she glanced at Samantha; quickly did a double take.  “Are you quite alright?”

“No,” Samantha grumbled.  Under the table, as slyly as she could, she clenched and clawed with one stiff hand—a vain attempt to peel off the stubborn, hidden fetter.  “Apparently I’m involved in a scandal,” she said vaguely.  Estinien snorted, earning a glare from everyone.  Samantha frowned at him aggressively, nails digging into his knuckles.  Then she turned to the others in desperation.  “Why is he even with us?”

“Damage control,” Alphinaud provided, crossing his arms.  “I invited him.”

Samantha deadpanned back to Estinien.  He turned his stark profile and avoided her eyes, hand still clamped at her thigh.  She aimed the next question pointedly at him and jerked her unseen knee for emphasis.  “How in the world is this controlling the situation?”

“Well,” Tataru reasoned aloud, investigating Estinien from above her own shelf of crossed, pink-sleeved arms, “He is a known friend of House Fortemps.  Alphinaud suggested we chat here at the table, visible to the public, to establish Ser Estinien’s favorable acquaintance with us all—not merely you, Miss Samantha.”  She huffed out a doubtful breath.  “But given our prickly colleague’s reputation—”

“Those prancing peacocks care not one whit for my activities,” Estinien snapped, losing his patience.  “Nor would they dare to test me.”  His thumb dug in hard against a pebbling of Samantha’s crystals, indenting the beds of them into her flesh.  He jerked his chin at Emmanellain, and his eyes glinted with slight amusement.  “Only your Ser Emmanellain had the bollocks to approach me.”

The lord in question looked up from his glass and flushed a bit.  “Well,” he fumbled, clearly flattered by the implication of being bold and daring.  “The dancing was a bit vulgar, was it not?  Unrefined at best—”

Artoirel cuffed him on the elbow and Emmanellain flushed brighter, but Estinien interrupted.  “I do as I please with whomever pleases me,” he grumbled, flashing a brutal and unrepentant glance at Samantha.

Well.  So much for preventing exposure. 

Estinien stared at her forcefully as he continued.  “Were it not for Ser Aymeric’s particular invitation, I would not be in attendance at all—as our Miss Samantha well knows.”

Defeated, Samantha sighed through her nose and turned to Tataru.  “What I believe Estinien means to say is that he’s only at the table right now because—” She looked at him through the corner of her eye.  “Well, either because he wants to be, or only because Alphinaud invited him.”

Estinien grunted something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like agreement. 

Alphinaud made a noise of dull and tolerant aggravation.  “That seems a fair translation,” he allowed, rolling his eyes.  “Thank you kindly for sleuthing out the gist for us.”

Speaking of sleuthing.  Samantha blurted her next words to Tataru without really thinking.  “Did you know—” She lowered her voice as a postscript.  “Did you know that Thancred is here?”

Tataru nodded.  “Of course,” she said bluntly.  “I specifically requested his surveillance.”

Oh.  Well.  Right

A bodyguard. 

Given their experiences with banquets— “That makes sense.”

“All we need to do now is survive the remainder of the evening,” Alphinaud muttered, bitter humor—clearly on the same train of thought.  In this case though, with any luck, he referred to metaphorical survival.  His eyes flicked deliberately between Estinien and Samantha.  “Ideally without drawing any more undue attention to ourselves.”

Samantha bit back the urge to crow and cackle, leg tensed beneath Estinien’s unnoticed, unrelenting grip. 

Fat chance of that.

“The wine is out,” Emmanellain suddenly broadcasted, draining the bottle into his glass.

“In that case,” Samantha volunteered, eager to do anything but sit there.  She looked at Estinien on purpose.  “Why don’t I get up and fetch us a new one.”

He grimaced but released her.  Free, she scooted back in her chair and fluffed out her skirts—winced at the way she could still feel the press of his fingers.  “Does the head of the House have any requests?”

“Red, if you please,” said Count Edmont, smiling up at her.  “Thank you my dear.”

She nodded, turned on her heel, and crossed to the nearest counter of refreshments.  A friendly garçon helped her pick and open a Bordeaux; offered to serve it himself.  “Allow me to bring it to the table, milady?”

“No need to trouble yourself,” she said gently, accepting the bottle—and the pressure of a hand at her back almost made her instantly drop it.  Familiar fingers spread low at the bared stretch of her skin.  Oh, gods no—

The dark, enthralling voice that plucked her deep within, silken with pleasure. 

“Is that a Bordeaux?  Very fine selection.”

Samantha gripped the neck of the bottle tighter.  She steeled herself and turned to look up into Aymeric’s eyes.  Beautiful blue, blessed, beloved, bright— “High praise from the guest of honor,” she said, voice cracking.  She cleared her throat.  “How was your dance with your First Commander?”

“Lovely indeed.  Lucia is a most excellent partner, as accomplished in the ballroom as she is in battle.”  Aymeric offered the palm that didn’t touch her, beckoning for the wine.  “Do allow me to carry that.”

She pouted at him.  “Are you inviting yourself to the table, too?”

He lowered his lashes.  “Guest of honor, remember?”

How could she forget.

They strolled back the short distance together, meeting a glare of reproach from Alphinaud. 

Tataru raised her eyebrows.  Emmanellain brimmed with jaunty elation.  Artoirel seemed blankly astounded.  Aymeric set down the wine, pulled up a chair beside the bewildered Count Edmont, and immediately engaged him in gracious conversation.

Tempered by Aymeric’s presence, Estinien almost seemed ready to behave—but nothing stopped him from snatching her leg again as soon as he was able.  She made a muted sound of exasperation and seized the wine bottle, overserving herself.

Emmanellain looked impressed but Alphinaud’s voice was a scolding.  “Samantha—”

“Surviving the evening,” she announced, bringing the very full glass to her lips.

“Pour me one that heavy,” Estinien demanded, squeezing her thigh in punctuation.

She swallowed her gulp of dry red and glared at him.  “Don’t you have hands?

His dark eyes gleamed like black ice.  Slippery.  Treacherous.  He held her stare and grazed his palm along the folds of her skirts; skimmed and dragged until his fingers began to land somewhere very inappropriate.  “As far as I know.”

What had Aymeric said? 

He will cling to you all evening. 

“Use your own hand, then,” she spat.  Alphinaud choked on something in the background.

Estinien leaned close to her a moment.  Long white hair tickled her cheek.  “My own hand bores me,” he said gruffly, kept low between them, well under his breath.  “Serve me with yours.”  He leaned back and his eyes went even darker.  She was grateful for the layers of her dress as his fingers curved intentionally higher; as his arrogant gaze said several saucier, filthier things. 

Words kept quiet or not, the way Estinien beheld her was loud and clear—as was the invitation.  He was ever a beast, a wild thing heeding his instincts, without the slightest regard to politeness.

Aymeric was doing a fine job of ignoring it and focusing on Count Edmont, but she noticed the way his lips twitched—against the urge to laugh or frown, she couldn’t say.  “Stop harassing me,” she hissed to the animal, “And then I’ll decide about serving you a glass.”

He looked at her through lashes the silver of hoarfrost and took a slow breath. 

Theirs had always been less a courtship, more a fierce mating dance.  Merciless and primitive—sparring, wrestling, rugged and ruthless.  They gripped and they grappled, waiting to see if the other would give.

Something in the night of his eyes was wound tightcoiled and twisted and twined around tighter than anything ever before.  For all his demurrals—for all his hard edges—for all his insistence at being let go

His thumb hooked at her hip line.  The flats of his fingers ghosted the seam of her thighs.  And then his hand was gone.  His stare lanced through her, sharp and pitiless as a weapon.  “Corps-à-corps,” he purred, yielding, lacing his fingers on the table.

She took his glass and poured.

 


 

At long last, the party was ending.

Aymeric left them beforehand to traipse a final lap around the room—rond de jambes, polonaise.

Samantha slipped her stole from the back of her chair and up around her neck.  As she twisted to arrange it, she caught a glimpse of him returning, weaving through handfuls of guests that trickled toward the entrance.  Coupé-jeté en tournant

She was stunned to stillness for a moment, just to see him—blue and black and golden—long and broad and lissome—hells and highest heavens, all somehow at once.  Stunned and stunned again by him, every hallowed time.  And he was looking at her as he marched; enfolding her in eyes like a cosmos of starlight.

The heat of his stare, beneath long black lashes—dark hair soft and glossy as feathers—square jaw strong as it was gentle, framing full, parted lips—divinity incarnate beside her.  Chassé, relevé—

Fortemps and friends began to lift from their seats, and Samantha saw his tall body move to bend with haste behind her—plié, arabesque—smelled him more than she felt him.  Rapture.  A hand nudged her right palm beneath the table.  A piece of thick paper pressed into the cage of her fingers.  Adagio, passé—

Aymeric’s whisper at her right ear.  “Open it outside,” he commanded.  “Only for your eyes.”

In a flash, he was several steps away, his proximity more distant.  Dégagé

She clutched whatever epistle he’d given, heart thrumming ragged in her chest.  She took a quick breath through her nose and glanced up at the rest of the household—chattering, finding their feet.  Beside her, Estinien watched intently—pas de trois.  He shifted his hips to move a bit closer and gripped her leg beneath the table again.  Petit battement—

His hot breath at her left ear.  “Do as he says,” he muttered roughly, long wisps of hair kissing her face.

Then Estinien, too, was standing.

She willed her pulse to slow and wrapped her stole around her shoulders.  Estinien was sauntering over to Aymeric.  His silver coattails and trousers shimmered in the light of the chandeliers.  He was a sliver of the Fury, sharp as a spearhead—his mane so gorgeous, like moonlight cascading down his back.  She wondered if she’d ever see him trimmed so finely again.

Aymeric the Sun turned to face his glittering Mercury.  “Defend me from hostile engagement?”

Estinien snorted so loudly it made Alphinaud jump.  The hound clapped a hand on the wide shoulder of his keeper and affected a cheeky translation.  “Do you ask me to escort you to the manor?”

“Indeed,” Aymeric droned, pale eyes bored and relaxed.  “Pray help guard my virtue.”

Graceful as a swan or a mouser, Estinien swaggered into a deep, pretentious bow.  His hair rippled in a curtain down to tickle the carpet.  “As you wish, my fair maiden,” he growled.

Aymeric draped an arm at Estinien’s spine and laughed loudly.  His voice was droll and extremely sarcastic.  “Much obliged, my sweet and gentle man.”

Estinien bent back up to a stand, tossing his hair behind his shoulders—sneaking a glance at Samantha.

The beast and the monster loped across the floor together, linked by arms to the back.  The departing crowd faltered as they passed, no doubt torn by the urge to run from Estinien and be dragged into Aymeric’s gravity.  Samantha laughed under her breath. 

Mercury, sending the stars into retrograde.

 


 

Outside, cloaked and gloved and mantled, she snuck away beneath an eave to read the letter.

Her fingers trembled as she unfolded it.  Aymeric’s elegant script, scrawled in swiftness:

- - - - - - - - - -

My Beguiling, Bewitching Beloved;

I beg you would come to me,
Tonight, as soon as you are able—
Soon as the revelry is ended—do not tarry at the House—
Come to me instead—Come to me, Stay with me—
Honor my summons—

You did request an invitation.

Yours, Helplessly, Always,
A.

- - - - - - - - - -

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

It was snowing, just a flurry. 

At a glance it was impossible to tell how late it was—especially given the veil of the clouds.

The procession Fortemps descended from the venue.  The lords were dressed in their House red and black.  Tataru was wreathed in her fluffy Coerthan mantle.  Alphinaud looked impossibly wide beneath the heavy drape of his cloak.  The six of them started their frosty track back through the Pillars, and Samantha’s breath came faster, thinking yet of Aymeric’s letter.  When had he written it? 

She did request an invitation, but—

Do as he says.

Did Estinien—have something to do with it?

A fresh memory of him, lifting like a swan from genuflection, silver suit glittering, long pale hair tossed behind his shoulders like a mane made of moonlight—throwing her a glance from the side of his eye.

No.  Not possible.  He had been at the table with them the whole time; or at least the remainder of the evening.  How could he have known about some hastily scribbled summons?  He must have issued his demand to her in general—delivered another concession to Aymeric.  What was it he had said—

I could never hope to rival him, nor would I wish to.

She hunched beneath her layers and scrunched her brow against the cold.  He had said that.  She remembered that all-too-recent morning preceding a blizzard very well.  But, as they did so often, his actions tonight negated his words—his grip beneath the table—the way he spoke and looked at her— 

The way he danced with her tonight, thigh to slinking thigh, hip pressed flush to hip.

She needed no words or letters to know that if she found herself alone with Estinien tonight, he would beg her to tame him in bed.

“Is aught amiss?”  Alphinaud, bobbing up beside her. 

She grunted.  “Alphinaud, please,” she grumbled, glancing down at him.  “Don’t pretend to be daft.”

He chuckled thinly and blushed.  “I was making an attempt at politeness, but I will take that as a yes.”

She huffed a cloud of air through her nose.  The letter was private, but as of tonight, the gist was quite public—especially to Alphinaud, her first confidante.  “What do I do, Alphinaud?  What do I do now?

That made him laugh in earnest.  “I can offer no answers,” he said, breathy.  “In no way do I envy your dilemma.”

She snorted a lungful of sharp, icy air, and coughed.  “Thanks for nothing, then,” she teased him.

As they walked several more heel clicks in silence, her thoughts descended again. 

Was it not meant to be simpler than this, love and mortal courtship?

She knew sex, at least, was meant to be simple; merely one strong instinct, to connect and carry on.  Natural and animal, bonding and offspring—that’s all it was, in the end.  With offspring, legacies survive.

More of her breath misted white against the cold dark.  She was the offspring of Cassius Magnus and Bryony Floravale, and boy was that ever a legacy.  Her parents loved each other frankly, against implausible odds.  And they celebrated their love in every conceivable facet—sometimes to their surly daughter’s red-faced oh my gods not in front of me chagrin. 

Bryony was brazen—not a bashful woman.  Cassius was shyer, sometimes grave and Garlean

Even so, growing up, Samantha received several joint lectures on love and on sex.  Beautiful, barefaced Bryony, brimming with cautionary tales.  “Safety, my daughter,” she pontificated, wagging a finger.  “Learn from our blundering ways.”  Cassius nodded awkwardly in the background, making Samantha cringe.  “Strange illness can linger in the groins.  And even should you trust them, take special care with men.”  Together Bryony made them all chant it, and Samantha always croaked with mortification.  “Seeds of the flesh grow as seeds of the garden—”   

She could feel herself grimace just to remember.

Then, of course, she found out about her father, and that topic was extended—pregnancy, wanted, unwanted—her own story of origin as an unexpected child.  “It is not unheard of,” Bryony told her, unusually quiet.  Cassius was somewhere out of sight.  Garleans and Eorzeans could sometimes procreate.  It was rare, however; often the outcome of crimes.  This bred the desire to hide the ugly truth—and if they were discovered, star-crossed offspring of these unions were almost always pariahs.  Luckily, perhaps, hybrid children resembled their mothers more strongly, allowing them to blend into society.

It made Samantha feel lost inside herself, to know how she happened.  It made her feel like she shouldn’t even exist.  She knew her parents loved her, loved each other, and that was a stroke of luck.  But she ran away regardless.  Samantha ran to find another life, to find another meaning—to become a mage apprentice.  And there at the academy, the world began to open.  It was vast and very strange.  There was so much more to be had.  So many people, so many thoughts and expectations

In the city, where she gained some room to blossom, she found herself dreaming of love and maybe sex.  And so, there were fumbles with friends—other students, here and there—midnight jaunts through the dormitories, giggling at the thought of being caught

She grinned and shook her head to remember—blinked up at the snowflakes in the sky. 

Nothing big ever happened, not that she cared.  At the time she thought it was doubtless for the better, because creation of unplanned children aside, sex seemed to have some dark, ungodly power

In New Gridania, in the academy, people used sex to claim and to barter and haggle, mistook it for all kinds of things—love too often included.  Sex seemed quietly painful, a torture of mind and of body; a way to get oneself snarled and tangled, caught between flesh and soul, rootbound in the primally divine.

She would never be a victim of sex, she decided.  She would be far smarter than that.

Samantha snorted so loudly it made Alphinaud flinch.  White breath escaped his lips.  “Beg pardon?”

“Nothing,” she muttered, forcing a bitter grin down at him.  “Just thinking.”

Funny how life never happens as planned.  Funny thing about life and all that.  Because there, at the end of her apprenticeship, stirred the beginning of something else.  There, in her last weeks at the academy, a stern and silent scholar caught her eye. 

Oh, the ProfessorRaphael Lemaitre, that was his name—expert in artifacts and archaeological arcana.  Even now, her heart fluttered to evoke how she thought of him then.  Smart and handsome and quiet; she snuck into his seminars now and then, just to hear him talk.  The way he spoke set her soul on fire.

She scowled at the midnight skeletons of the Pillars.

He began to notice her, there in the back of the room; an uninvited watcher, gobbling down his lectures.  But oh, she had wondered, did he notice?  Did he see the way she saw him?  She drank every ilm of his face and his body—sharp, attentive features, cheekbones, jaw, and chin; long hair flaxen and tawny, always pulled back with a ribbon; hard eyes like gold or like hazel that made her want to tremble—

 


 

The very last pupil was gone from the room, and she realized she was staring.

Staring as, slowly, he mounted the steps.  Staring as, slowly, he strolled to her seat at the margin of the auditorium.  “Pardon me.”  His voice was like wisdom and brilliance, thrilling down her spine.  He stood there, tall and straight as a statue, looking down through the frames of his glasses.  “Are you a student?”

Her throat was dry, so dry.  “Yes,” she croaked, hot and cold all at once.

He was unmoving.  “But not one of mine.”

She took a breath and shook her head.  No.

He analyzed her for a moment in silence.  Shifted his weight.  Pushed a stray piece of shiny blonde hair behind one tapered ear.  He crossed his arms and quirked an eyebrow.  “Thinking of taking the course?”

She tried to say something shrewd, to move, to do anything.  All that happened was one tiny shrug.

He tilted his head; inspected her face.  His dignified lips pressed together and twitched, perhaps caught between grinning and frowning.  “You do need my permission to audit the class,” he said, remotely amused, forthright, aloof, and professional.  “I cannot allow you to listen without it.”

Her heart marched a ragged rhythm in her chest.  Gods he was so handsome this close.  Stunning as a sculpture made of knowledge and beauty and power.  What could she say to him?  What should she say?  “Can I have it?”  She blushed and almost choked.  “I mean—your permission—” 

Well, that was certainly something.

He searched her eyes firmly, unshaken.  “If you like, I can begin to draw up the paperwork.” 

Oh gods, his stare would kill her, shades of sun and summer— “Would you?”

He nodded.  “Come with me.  What year will you be rising?”

Oh.  Her heart fell from her body.  “Actually, I—” She wrung her hands in her lap and glared down at them in anguish.  “My apprenticeship ends this term,” she muttered.  “I won’t be here next year.”

“Ah.”  She could feel him gazing at her impassively.  “What was your name again?”

She never introduced herself.  Her face felt hot. 

“Rosalyn—Samantha Floravale,” she stammered, looking up at him.

One sharp bronze eyebrow, arching high above his spectacles in question.  “Rosalyn or Samantha?”

What was the clever thing her father liked to say?  She held the blank gaze of the Professor and tried to wet her chapped lips.  “A rose by any other name,” she quipped bravely, feeling her face go up in flames.

His eyes glittered like sunbeams in springtime, and something shifted inside her.  “Rosalyn it is, then.”  He uncrossed his long arms and offered her a hand.  “Raphael Lemaitre.  Do you take coffee, or tea?”

Her heart would explode any instant.  “I like tea better,” she rasped, staring at his palm.  He flexed his fingers in invitation, and her eyes flicked back up to meet his.  Now she was sure he was near to smiling. 

“Well?” asked Raphael Lemaitre.  “Care to join me?”

Oh gods—oh yes—

She did.

And that was how it began, over sips of tea and coffee, her pulse sprinting lap after lap.  He asked what she studied, and she told him—natural magicks.  He asked what she planned to do next, and she faltered.  He asked and he asked.  She told and she told.  He almost, almost smiled.  And then the sun was setting, and he made another offer. 

“I could use an assistant,” he said, glasses gleaming.  “Would you care to try it?”

And Twelve how fast it all happened—in suns or in moons, she couldn’t truly remember.  Student to assistant to tenant in his house—surely a conflict of interest.  It all came in bits to her now; tatters and fragments of memory.  The beginning felt beautiful, once; a whirlwind of magick and wishes and trembling, secret whispers. 

Early on, perhaps too early, she brought him home to meet her mother.

Bryony thought he looked older, the Wildwood man.  Quite tall and quite attractive, yes, and seemingly well-employed—Raphael Lemaitre, scholar and professor, he said, adjusting his thin glasses—Rafe, insisted Samantha, giving him lost, moony eyes—Rosalyn, under his breath, condescendingly, possessively caressing her hair, you know how much I loathe it when you say that

Samantha willingly withered, and her mother immediately despised him—scorned the way he clipped her poor, besotted daughter.  Bryony Floravale hated Raphael Lemaitre from almost that very first moment.  But Floravales were Floravales, and if Samantha was anything like her mother, she wanted what she wanted, and that was that.

Love was meant to be kind, to be patient, to be wide and vast and rain blessings like the sky

Not petty and paltry.  Not plucking and pruning

Bryony knew this was not love.  And so, Bryony tried to equip her ill-fated child against at least one disaster.  “You should always take precautions.”  She gave her daughter every secret—recipes for teas and tinctures—seeds and roots to chew.  Apothecary magick was a branch she well knew.  Thenceforth, if there was even an inkling of sex on the horizon, “Drink your brews, chew your chews, and mutter every incantation.”

Never cast a spell without preparing—never go to bed without a plan.

 


 

Bent over the edge of his desk, blonde hair mingling with dark.  “Beg me for it, Rosalyn.”

“Oh Rafe—Raphael—please—”

Ink-stained fingers dragged down her sides; hooked up under her skirt and eased her pantalettes down.  A well-practiced motion.  Her back was caged beneath his heavy, slow-breathing chest—beneath the long front of his blazer.  “You have better words than that,” he whispered, mouth against her ear.  The flats of his fingers slipped up between her thighs a moment to taunt her.  “Beg me like the good girl you are.

She arced against him in shame and in aching, and he was stiff as a statue.  “Raphael,” she sighed, trying not to moan, hurting with how much she craved him.  Her voice cracked and she struggled to control it.  He hated it when she was loud.  “Please—I want you so badly—”

His belt buckle unlatching; a muffled rush of fabric.  The tip of him stroked her, then, slow and enticing.

His lips at her neck, long blonde hair in her eyes.  “This?” 

She whimpered and twisted to kiss him, and he pulled his face away.

“Yes,” she gasped, wanting to whine.

“Beg me better, then,” he demanded, low and soft, mouth at the back of her skull.  She writhed in rebellion and he used his weight to pin her to the desktop.  “Behave yourself.”  Again, she felt him stroke her, there where she ached.  “Convince me you deserve it.”

Filthy words pressed at her lips in surrender—the things he liked her to tell him—

Every time she spoke them, it made her feel dirty.  But for him, she would do it.  For him, she would obey.  For him, for the drunk bliss he promised, she behaved. 

He might as well have kept her in collar and chains.

What she mistook for love became even more of a cage—tainted, hard and fast—too fast, too soon, with how long they stayed together.  Things done once in joy turned, swift, to obligation.  Whispers of innocent wanting darkened quickly to sharp, creeping dread.

His voice was always so measured, so carefully exact.  Only flesh on flesh did she ever see him crack.  “No one but I can ever touch you,” he told her again, simmering, moving inside her.  “No one.”

“No one but you,” she mirrored in a sigh, haze swelling all around them.

He moved harder.  “Only I can look at you, Rosalyn—say it to me now.

“Only you,” she gasped, sparks behind her eyes.  “Only you, Raphael—”

He pressed his lips against hers to drown the hot moan in his mouth, to hide his broken composure.  Greedy, she took the kiss all the same—the kisses he gave were so rare, anyway—

“Rosalyn,” he breathed, smoothing back her hair.  “You are mine.”

 


 

His strange little flower, he said. 

A rose so strange she surprised him, that she made him always beware.  “Plait your hair in public.  Be cautious what you wear.” 

So strange, so stunning, that only he could love her.  No one else would ever dare.  He said he wanted to wed her, Raphael.  Wanted to keep her forever, to bottle her in an extract, to hide her in a veil— 

It was hard to understand.  Why did he want her, when she hardly ever pleased him?  Why did he want her, when she caused him such distress?  Why did he want her, when she was the thorn in his side—the thing he was always, always aching to suppress?

“Our children would be marvels,” he told her, gifting her a kiss.  “Our greatest collaboration.”

Samantha never spoke it out loud—least of all to him.  But secretly, somewhere cold inside her, she believed her hybrid flesh was less than fertile ground.  Seeds being seeds and all that, they needed good soil.  In a large way she doubted her garden would ever be fruitful.

But oh, the thought, sometimes, of being a mother

She avoided her father when she returned to the Shroud.  But always, always, she ran to her mother.

“You have to get rid of that man,” Bryony spat, breaking her silence.  “You have to get rid of him now.”  She grabbed her daughter by the shoulders, wild black eyes on her face.  “He is choking you, breaking you, Sammy—clipping too deep to the quick.  Prune a bloom too much and it will die.

Samantha shivered and knew her mother was right

“I’m afraid,” she whispered.  Too afraid to deny him.

 


 

It took most of a year to weed herself free.  They were together, in total, the better of three.

But he let her go, at the end of all the fighting.  He let her go—and for once, the professor was broken.

Before she could regret it, she ran.

The Calamity came thirteen moons after.  She was working on finding adventures—on growing, steadily, slowly.  Samantha trailed her roots across Eorzea, seeking out riddles and magicks.  But after the horror of Dalamud, she stopped dead in her tracks to return to the Shroud, to check on Bryony and Cassius.

Her parents were safe, but others were dying.  So many people there needed her help.  And so, for a time, she stayed behind; moved back in at the cottage and worked beside her parents, healing.  White magicks.

A knock on the door late one morning; a low, stern voice from outside.  A voice that made Samantha’s stomach want to writhe out of her body.  “Bryony, are you in there?  I finished the enchantments you—”

Robed in a filthy stained work dress, Samantha slammed the door open, wiping hands on her apron.  A stiff and formal professor almost fell to the ground.  He was dressed in his suit, groomed and bespectacled— “Rafe?  What in the seven godsdamned hells—

He winced at the profanity.  Composure cracked, he blinked down through his glasses.  “Rosalyn?

Bryony’s palms at her shoulders, yanking her back and away.  “Lemaitre,” she barked, shoving out a swarthy, callused hand.  “Give me my commission right now and stop talking to my daughter.”  Taken aback, he fumbled fingers into his pocket and supplied a small spellbook, still staring between them in shock.  Bryony hissed.  “Stop putting your eyes on her too, you damned bleeding dimwit—”

“What are you doing here?” Samantha asked, stepping back into the entryway, mouth half agape.

Rafe looked about as close to slack as possible, uncomfortably wound as he was.  “I—” He cleared his throat.  “Given my research and skillset, have been called upon for succor and—” Crack upon crack upon long jagged crack.  His brow furrowed.  “What are you doing here?”

Bryony shoved herself between them again, pointing one dangerous finger at Lemaitre.  “Here to help her fellow man and poor mother, I thank you very much,” she growled, whipping her apron.  “Now mind your own business and get your big dumb buggering bollocks off my doorstep before I kick them.”

Samantha edged around her mother’s formidable frame and squinted.  “But what are you doing here,” she pressed.  “Here at my parents’ house?

Now he looked more than uncomfortable.  “Bryony hired my assistance.”

Words could not describe the shock Samantha felt as she turned to her mother.

What?”  Bryony perched hands on her hips, indignant.  “People need help—and he keeps fine erudition locked somewhere in that mind—even if he has no idea how to access any decent common sense.”

“Gods and hells,” Samantha muttered.  She winced as old, cobwebbed stardust stirred inside her. 

Her mother caught a glimpse of something moony in her eyes and coughed noisily.  No. 

Samantha turned back to Rafe in spite of it.  “Have you been helping my mother this whole entire time?

Raphael Lemaitre was hard, but also clever.  He could see the moons and stardust rising, too.  Something in his face unstiffened very slightly.  “Yes,” he said firmly—honestly, too.  “Yes, I have been.”

“Still a bloody tomfooling ignoramus,” Bryony accused sharply.  Loudly.  Desperately

“Probably,” Samantha agreed, tilting her head.  Her eyes tracked down every ilm of his body.

Rafe cleared his throat again.  “Would you apprise me of your travels?  I kept a tin of that black tea—”

He couldn’t even finish asking.  “I would love to.”

Bryony groaned and threw her hands at the ceiling.  “By Twelve and by Rhalgr I fine swiving tried.”  She glared daggers at them both and stalked back into the kitchen, flinging open the garden door, yelling to Cassius in the yard.  “Beware—the professor is back.”

 


 

As they walked to his house, he drifted closer to her side. 

Still stiff, but different energy; something slightly more electric.  “I thought I might never see you again,” he confessed, glancing down at her, thin spectacles flashing.  His hair glittered golden in the daylight.

She shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him.  “So did I,” she said plainly.

They took several more steps in silence.  She felt him examine and appraise her.  “Your hair is grown longer,” he noted.  “And lighter and wilder.  And your cheeks appear far more befreckled.”

She barked a laugh and raised her eyebrows, squinting at him slyly.  “That’s what happens when you step outside the library.”  She eyed him again, up and down—scholarly face, same old glasses, long tawny hair tied back in a tail.  “You look exactly the same.”  Her heart stuttered.  Handsome.  Despite Calamity, inward and out, he seemed unchanged.  “Still keeping to yourself?”

“I am,” he admitted frankly, keeping his green-and-gold eyes on the road.  “Still teaching.  Still reading.”  She studied his profile as they walked, catching his side-eyed glance.  “And you?  Are you … Keeping to yourself?”

She knew what he meant by the question.  Knew her answer might change things

But she wanted what she wanted, and— “Yes.”  That was that.  They rounded a corner, and there was his dwelling—academic and modest and Gridanian, and also completely the same.  Her roses still grew in his garden.  The sight of them made her bones feel strange.  “I’ve been by myself this whole time,” she continued.  “Aside from some friends that helped me on my travels.”

He stood a bit straighter, then; walked a bit lighter—caught her with a look that so briefly betrayed him.  You are mine.  As they opened the gate and scaled the front steps, he cleared his throat.  “Friends?”

He paused at the door, and her pulse, just like a butterfly, fluttered.  “Just friends.”

The long fingers he used to write his dissertations closed to turn the handle, and he beckoned her inside.  She passed him and swept through his scent; old tomes and dust and grimoires, clean clothes and clean skin.  He closed the door behind her and turned the lock in habit.

The living room was dark and spotless and scholarly as always.  She took a deep breath of the must of books mixed with his musk.  Then she shucked off her boots in a reflex that almost, almost, almost made him smile.  He slipped his shoes off, too; padded ever so closer—

She turned to face him, hooking a dark, tousled wisp behind her ear.  “Tea, then?”

He took a breath.  Stiffened.  Tilted gently at the spine.  A piece of his pale hair fell loose.  “Rosalyn—”

Her heart was pounding at the hint in his eyes.  “Yes?”

He stared at her hotly through his glasses; hotly through hazel that looked like sun-and-springtime.  One hand.  One touch to start at her shoulder, to skim down the length of her arm.  His fingers curled around her limp palm and he faltered, long bronze lashes lowered.  “I apologize,” he told her.  “For what I did to hurt you.  I never meant to cause you any harm.  Never.  Never.

Her ears were ringing as he looked back into her eyes.  Her hand was tense in his grip, her blood like a fever.  “Say it again,” she whispered, voice cracking.  “Say it again, Raphael.”

His eyes were hot enough to melt her.  “I apologize,” he said, a bit darker, gripping her hand a bit harder.  She took a sharp breath, and he took a step closer.  “I apologize,” he exhaled.

Her eyelashes fluttered.  She felt weak.  And then he sank to his knees in immolation.

Gazing up at her, lifting his chin, his hair gleamed flaxen and golden—the crown of a martyr.  He held her hand and implored her.  “Let me show you,” he said, breathless.  “Let me take you in my arms and show you precisely how much I—”

She was crashing to a kneel, thighs astride his hips, throwing her arms at his neck and pulling the tie from his hair.  “Rafe,” she moaned, combing both hands through his loose blonde locks.  “Oh, Raphael—”

A bitten-off groan in his throat.  Both palms dragged down her body, caught in the layers of her dress.  “Rosalyn, kiss me,” he begged her, and her wish was his command.  His mouth was stern but soft and she molded hers against it; kissed him with wild and frantic abandon.

Lips and tongues and breath intermingled.  He was winded, near moaning, near losing control.  Both of his hands grasped her waist and he dipped her; pressed her to the cold floor underneath.  Her knees spread wide—the skirts of her robes parted—he dropped down between them and curved his hips against her.  “The bedroom,” he panted, fingers hooked at her thighs.

They stumbled up the stairs, hand in hand; tumbled into his bedroom and collided with the mattress.  She scrambled on top of him and he flipped her to the side; pinned her hard with his hips.  She found his mouth with her lips and he groaned.  Oh, she made him do that—

“Rosalyn, touch me,” he begged her, eyes wild.  She lifted her hands to take his spectacles, folding them onto the nightstand.  Then she pulled off his blazer; unbuttoned his vest and his shirt; chased the skin she revealed with her lips.  When her fingers reached his belt, he threw back his head and sighed.  “Ah—

Familiar.  That’s how he felt.  Hot and familiar and stiffer than ever.  She stroked him, easy as breathing, and he coughed out a sharp sound.  He used both hands to shove down his trousers and free himself.  Rafe knelt to slide his naked length against the cloth of her smalls, and she could feel him pulsing.  “Tell me if you want this,” he grunted.  “Tell me now.”

“I want it,” she rasped, reaching down.  His fingers were already there, shoving the fabric aside.  She gasped at the firm prod of his arousal but felt no shame at all—and then he was in her.  She wailed and he groaned; he moved deep inside her. 

He dragged his lips at her neck and breathed so much harder.  “Oh gods, I missed you,” he panted, hot at her skin.  He was holding her so closely, tangled in the bedsheets; locking them together, within and without.  He combed fingers down the nape of her neck and kissed her again 

Oh, how he kissed her

She dragged her hands through hair like dark sunlight and took his taste inside her mouth. 

No pretense.  No control.  Nothing but them.  This is what I wanted,” she told him, smoothing her thumbs by his eyes—spectacles off, so vulnerable, so beautiful.  She stroked her fingers along the shapes of his face.

He brushed their foreheads together and she felt his brow knit.  His hands pulled her thighs much more tightly.  Oh, oh— “I feared you might have died—” His voice hitched.  “Oh, my Rosalyn—”

“I’m alive,” she promised.

And for once, in his arms, she well and truly felt it.

 


 

At first, it seemed fine.  At first, it was really very different.  They were always good at teamwork, always good at collaboration.  And between his spells, her magicks, her parents and the garden, they got a fair bit of healing done in Gridania.  Unfortunately, the healing didn’t apply to Rafe himself.

“You’re that talented mage, aren’t you?” 

She looked up from pulling weeds to find a man about her age, standing by the shrubbery.  Red-haired, Midlander, bright with delight.  She wiped the sweat from her brow; walked up in curiosity.  “You saved my brother’s life,” he told her, offering his hand through the fence.  “I wanted to thank you in person.”

She blinked several times.  “Oh—of course,” she stammered, taking his palm in hers.  She shook it firmly.  “I’m not sure about the talent, but I’m glad I could help.”  She smiled very kindly.

He blushed and laughed, grinned and shook his head.  “So am I,” he said, voice cracking.  He cleared his throat.

Her grin was fading, her stare stern and questioning.  “Are you alright?”

He nodded quickly.  “I’m sorry,” he muttered, fair cheeks going ruddier.  “It’s just—when he mentioned a daring adventurer—you’re a lot prettier than I imagined.”

That made her bark out a laugh.  “You can thank my parents for that,” she said dryly.

“They would surely be flattered.”  Rafe looming up behind her.  One of his arms restrained her waist, tugging her back against him—back into the cage.  His voice was a dark warning to the other, and she thought she could hear the jingling of chains.  “What was your name?”

That night, she could tell he wanted to blame her.  She could almost read the indictments that pressed behind his spectacles.  Too warm, too friendly, as always.  Your clothes were too revealing, too alluring in the garden.  You spoke with him too kindly.  You spoke with him at all—

Forbidden fruit, so sweet to swallow.  She should have known that it was doomed. 

“As they say,” she muttered, her voice very dry.  She started for the door.  “Old habits die hard.”

“No, no,” he begged her, chasing, cracking open.  “I know I can be different—please.  I can learn.”

Teachers always did make appalling students.

 


 

“Samantha,” muttered Alphinaud, very concerned.  “Are you quite alright?”

She blinked down at him, grimacing.  “No,” she said, honest.  She wiped the thin tears from her face, sighed, and took stock of their surroundings.  They were almost home.  “Just thinking of that cretin I told you about.”

Alphinaud raised his eyebrows.  “Whatever for?”

She tried to give it a smidge more insight.  “Faith and love, I suppose,” she conjectured, her breath a white cloud.  Fact of the matter was, after Rafe, before the Scions, she rarely trusted others.  Whenever she liked someone, she curbed it—and seldom thought of taking bedmates.  Seldom sought them out, besides.  She stopped believing in love after that, but sometimes, she imagined. 

Sometimes she dreamt of a love that would find her, vast and bright as the sky.  And if she owned it, she wished; wished for someone to love her, just as wide.  A love to dare and risk for.  A love that learned and tried.  A love that would let her be thorny and grasping—a love that would let her be wild.

Estinien was wild, and that helped uncage her.  It was plain enough with him.  Two lonely, frozen creatures that clawed their way together; a fierce and basic instinct.  Raw and rough and healing, together they licked the dirt from wounds still bleeding.  A terrified prowl through the wilderness, but she had the moon to guide her; one shining, bristling beast, singing thunder.  He was ever untamed—came to her for grapplings and scoldings and left, untamed again.  He fled from her bed every time—only to come skulking, slinking, silently, back.

Love was meant to be patient, raining blessings like the sky.  And with Aymeric, she felt it; wide, warm vastness—a monstrous authority, broad enough to steal her very breath.  With Aymeric, she was always somehow rousing, always somehow stunned, always caught up urgently in wishing.  Overwhelming and intense, with him, she got what she dreamed ofbut always in measly amounts—cool water in a desert, needed and refreshing, slipping, somehow, from her fingers.  His love was a waltz through a ballroom held spellbound, daring to look at the sun.

The Warrior of Light thought she knew all there was to know about sex and love besides. 

But tonight, as her breath plumed the air of the Pillars, she was blinded with fear and surprise.  Never in her life had she loved—never truly.  And now she loved two good souls all at once; two opposite aspects of one sacred brightness.  Never in her life had she dreamt this might happen—

Astral fire, umbral ice. 

Taking quick gulps of frigid air, the House came into view, and she transposed.

What would it be like, to have it all at once—moon and sun, beast and monster—running and chasing and loving, all the same?  She looked up at the sky, at the stars that glittered through rifts in the clouds.

The sun, the moon, and the stars.  The three of them, a constellation.

A nervous laugh pressed at her lips; stolen words slipped past them, under her breath.  “What is there to dread in this warm and welcome spell?”

Edmont was opening the door.  She could feel Alphinaud looking up at her, his face catching the light of the hearth inside.  “What spell, Samantha?”

She began to unfasten her cloak.  “The most difficult one in existence,” she muttered, stepping inside.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

They knocked the snow from their boots and stowed their wrappings, one by one.

“Well,” said Tataru, shaking tiny wet white bits of ice from her mantle.  “I believe we’ve all had enough excitement for one evening.”  She shivered.  “I, for one, am going to pour myself one very large brandy and get to bed.”  And with that, she started for the kitchen.

“A fine idea,” Emmanellain agreed, slurring a little, lurching to follow—

No.”  Artoirel grabbed his brother by both shoulders and steered him to the staircase.  “No brandy,” he advised, helping Emmanellain start ascending.  “Only bed for you.”

Edmont chuckled, exhausted, shaking his head.  He leaned his cane in its stand with its companions, stretched, and sighed.  “Sleep sounds like an excellent idea.”  He yawned and covered it with a gloved hand, very politely.  “If you will excuse me,” he said through his fingers, blinking several times, “I will be in my quarters upstairs.”

Samantha nodded to acknowledge him.  “Rest well, Ser Edmont.”

He gave her a bow and turned for the landing.

Suddenly, with force enough nearly to knock the wind from her lungs, she went lock jawed with anxiety. 

Bed and brandy for them.  What, exactly, for her?  She fumbled and dropped her gloves on the floor; scrambled to pick them back up; shoved them into the pockets of her hanging cloak.  Alphinaud was watching very shrewdly, slowly unwrapping his fleeces.  “You seem nervous,” he observed.

She wet her lips and laughed.  Her throat was dry as a desert.  “Scandal, remember?”

He made a sound of allowance but stared at her harder, picking some hooks for his trappings.  “What could be better for scandal than going straight to bed?”

Gods damn it Leveilleur—

“You do know how much I love sleeping,” she said unironically, shrugging off her stole.  Sound sleep still found her all too infrequently—and came far more easily when she wasn’t alone—

Aymeric pulling her closer.  Estinien settled behind her.  Wrapped in a nest of warm satin, full lips at her brow, stern nose at her neck, strong arms overlapping, entwining—

Her heart began to race, and she tried not to think about that particular memory.

Instead, she draped her heavy stole across a forearm and bent to peel off her heels.  When her aching feet touched the cold stone floor, she almost wept at the distraction; at how good it felt.  The umbral aspect inside her stretched down the sinews of both legs, cooling.  She hooked her shoes on two fingers and glanced at Alphinaud again.  He was staring at the coat rack, hanging up his things, his face very red. 

She scowled at him in concern and used the words he’d spoken earlier.  “Is aught amiss?”

“No,” he croaked.  He glanced back at her like a frightened rabbit.

“Then why are you red as a rolanberry?

He coughed and cleared his throat and grimaced.  “Samantha."  He sounded aghast.  "That dress has no back.”

She laughed at him in true shock and cupped her hands at her hips, shoes dangling.  “Not a new development,” she began, reminding him.  “I wore this dress to the Haillenarte banquet.  You seemed to have no qualms with it then.”

He set his jaw and started unbuttoning his tailcoat, staring at the ceiling.  “I could be mistaken—” He loosened his necktie aggressively.  “But as I recall, you kept your shawl swathed around you that evening.”

She was grinning uncomfortably, slightly appalled.  “I only took it off tonight to dance.”

He muttered something under his breath, untying his hair, unplaiting it.

“What was that?”

Fierce sapphire eyes flicked back to glare at her.  “Only to dance—at a diplomatic banquet.”  He combed his hands through his hair stiffly, long snowy wisps of it catching at his shoulders.  “I daresay showing that much skin might be a scandal in itself.”

To the credit of her grace, she flushed a bit too.  After all, she was Bryony Floravale’s daughter, and first to admit a poor hand at propriety—Ishgardian or otherwise.  That aside, she frowned with stubbornness and the scars of rusty old wounds.  “I can wear whatever I damn well please,” she grumbled.  Then she scoffed.  “What happened to ‘you are stunning, Samantha?’

His voice was ferociously outraged and several notes higher.  “You are! —I mean, you were—” He coughed.  “You were wearing the shawl when I said that.”  He stared at the grout in the floor for a moment; tried to breathe and compose himself as he shrugged off his suit coat, holding it by the lapels.  He pushed back his bangs and turned to face her, red-faced, squaring his shoulders.  “I do not mean to imply that you, of all people, should abide by a dress code.  But in cases such as these—perhaps a bit more delicacy would not be—”

“—Remiss,” she finished, raising a hand.  Blood rushed to her face as well.  “Manners were never my strong suit.”  Alphinaud looked like he agreed, but with some effort he stopped himself from saying anything damning.  “With any luck,” she continued, “Aside from our dance—all eyes were on Aymeric regardless.”

Alphinaud was chewing the inside of his lip, unthreading his necktie from his collar.  “Speaking of eyes on Aymeric,” he mumbled, “I did happen to notice him whisper something to you ere we left.”

Her heart was pounding, pulse rushing in her ears.  He waited for her to say something, and when she didn’t, he continued.  “He appeared to secret something to you under the table—”

She tried to swallow the drought in her throat.  She couldn’t lie to him.  “He did,” she admitted.  “But it’s a—”

“Private matter,” his turn to finish.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled.  “You did beg me not to be daft, so I suppose it would be careless not to speak my mind.”  He took a breath, paused, and looked across at her with something like desperation in his eyes.  “Go to bed,” he said gently.  “Upstairs."

His stare said more: No more scandals.

Her ears were ringing, her jaw still locked.  Well.  That was speaking his mind, alright.

Quite honestly, in a very big way—not that she would admit it to Alphinaud—she was afraid to do anything other than go to bed upstairs.  “That’s where I was headed,” she said, not a lie.  Not quite the whole truth, since she was still so unsure of her intentions.

Alphinaud’s eyes were strained.  Doubtless he could see the hint of deceit she was hiding.

But she was his friend, and he respected her.  “Then I shall leave you to it,” he said, turning reluctantly to the stairs.

Whatever it was.

 


❅ ☾ ✦ ☽ ❅

 

Like Icarus losing his wings to the heat of the heavens, Estinien shrugged off his borrowed tailcoat and returned it to the lender. 

“No.”  He shook out his mess of silver hair, and it shone in the light of the fire—tousling more of his feathers.  Then he bristled and began to unfasten the row of small buttons down his shimmering vest.

Aymeric was undecorated.  Now he wore a high-necked blue shirt and black trousers.  He draped the shed tails beside his wardrobe and watched his friend vacantly.  “I beg you would,” he repeated, low and adamant.  He brandished a hand for the waistcoat Estinien stripped—more fine, luxurious plumage, melting off his lean torso—

Aymeric ignored the way the shelled underbelly was shoved at him.

No,” Estinien barked, unhooking his trousers.  He flung them down his long limbs in a heavy rush of fabric, stepping gracefully out of them.  Bare-legged, the tapered sag of his shirt provided some meager concealment, but he was unabashed.  He crouched down on strong thighs to scrunch the disrobed slacks between his hands.  “I will return to Ishgard soon enough,” he grunted.  “Summon me then.”

The Lord of the House hardly flinched as the silver pile of cloth nearly slammed him in the face.  He coaxed his dark hair back across his forehead and wet his lips.  “Be that as it may, I would have you stay tonight,” he specified.  Again.  “Travelling this late is inadvisable, given the weather.”  Calmly, he shook the pants legs flat to expertly crease and fold them.  “Moreover, I presume we can expect an addition to the party.”

Still bottomless, Estinien glared at him and stalked to the dresser.  He retrieved a pair of plain linen trousers from the surface; tugged them up the muscled columns of his legs.  “All the better reason to leave,” he contended, fastening the waistband, letting the ends of his shirt droop down over.  “She should find you here alone,” he declared, loosening his collar.  “I have unfinished business in Dravania.”

Aymeric strode over, set the suit down, and grabbed Estinien by the taut bicep.  “You have unfinished business in this house,” he accused.  His comrade went rigid at the contact, hackles fully rising.  “Stay this night,” Aymeric demanded.  “Leave in the morning.  But speak with us first.  Treat with us—for her sake, if not for mine.”

The gentler lord surely knew that his ungentle friend's quota for favors was overly met. 

Predictably, Estinien’s shoulders lifted with a breath so deep and so stiff it made his whole body seem to mantle like a raptor. 

Dark eyes, cold as midnight, flicked to glower at Aymeric’s hand—and his voice became a challenge, sharp and unforgiving as ice.  “For her sake?”  He writhed away from Aymeric’s fingers in revulsion, throwing open his dress shirt, breathing harder.  “What in seven swiving hells is that supposed to mean?”

He was near to spitting.  Aymeric made no move to back down.  “Do not play the fool with me, my friend,” he began, his dark voice solemn and quiet.  “You know well that she would wish it.”  He set his jaw.  “She spoke of the feeling like rotting, Estinien— ‘my monstrous heart rots for you both’ —”

And yet it was I she refused,” Estinien snapped.  His nose wrinkled into a foul, truly feral expression.  He thrust his shirt up over his head and hurled it to the ground.  “To her, I went that night, and she made her bloody decision.”  He snarled, naked to the waist, shoving a finger hard at Aymeric’s broad chest.  “You.”  A growl, a jab, a series to the sternum with his forefinger.  You she chose—you she wants—you—

Aymeric gripped him by the knuckles and loomed to his full height.  They were inequal by a sliver, Estinien the merest mite longer and taller; but Aymeric’s authority compelled him, somehow, larger.  “You begged me to detain her,” he defied, the wings of his voice stirring shadows.  His pale eyes narrowed.  The air became electric, gravid with the threat of physical contest.  “And then you nearly perished in a blizzard.”  Aymeric took a breath to calm himself, shaking his head, pushing Estinien back—

“And what if I had?”  Estinien’s voice was raw and bitter, irrational.  He tore his fingers away from the grip of his dearest friend.  “In no reality do I desire to compete with you, Aymeric,” Estinien spat, hard and hot and haunting.  “You are the better man.  You are all I fail to embody—

The better man was provoked and ready to bellow. 

Aymeric’s palms clasped Estinien’s shoulders like the claws of a dragon and he took a ragged breath through parted lips.  “Who stood for Ishgard in the Aery?”  His voice rumbled.  “Who felled Nidhogg in my stead?”  Aymeric lunged forward, shoving Estinien back, paler thumbs pressed into swarthy skin like long talons.  His gaze was wrathful, biting as midwinter.  “Who flew to Azys Lla and became him, only to throttle the wyrm from the reaches within?

Aymeric roared then, far more chilling than thunder.  “Tell me, Estinien.”

The beast was breathing hard, transfixed by the stare of the monster.  “It makes no matter—”

“It was you,” Aymeric shouted, trembling, tears in his pale eyes.  “Your hand ransomed Coerthas.”  The tears streamed down his face and he gasped.  “Own yourself, Estinienown the great deeds you have done.”  Rook-black hair mingled with silver as he crushed their foreheads together.  Aymeric bared his teeth.  “How many times must I say it out loud,” he hissed, voice cracking, eyes screwing shut.  “I would be nothing without you.”

Estinien rattled a breath.  He grappled Aymeric’s arms, hissing through his own clenched jaw.  “You would—”

I would not.”  Aymeric leaned back to look at him, his eyes like tempests of brightness.  “Not half the man—not were you never beside me.”  The wet trails on his face glittered like scales in the glow of the hearth.

Black and silver, light and dark.  The souls of unlike brothers, in harmony, united.

Together they stood there, linked white-knuckled at the shoulders, rocked by steadying breaths.  The fire laced Estinien’s tan skin with golden, flickering edges, casting the shuddering motion of his ribcage into high relief. 

Slowly, he leaned their brows together again. 

Air escaped Estinien like the last flight of an untethered specter.  “I will stay.”  He closed his eyes.  “For you.”

Aymeric closed his eyes, too.  “Stay because you wish to,” he amended.  “But never speak to me of dying so vainly again.”

 

☽ ✦ ☾


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

Up in her bedroom, she stoked a fire in the hearth and drew the balcony curtains.

I beg you would come to me,
Tonight, as soon as you are able—

Hard thudding of her heart.  Focus. 

Samantha buzzed with nebulous anxiety and propped her high heels by the wardrobe.  Then she struggled out of her oh-so-scandalous dress.  Luckily, there was no need for Tataru to help her escape it.  Even in a state of feeling vaguely emotionally compromised, the whole ensemble was far easier to disassemble.

She draped her stripped black gown on the chair by her desk and sighed—watched the midnight skirts deflate and glitter.  The clock was struck twelve.  The dream was ended.  Her mouth tasted stale, the slightest bit sour with wine, and now that she was garbed in nothing but smallclothes, her skin felt cold and sticky with overlooked sweat

She stretched her arms up over her head, sniffed an armpit, and winced.

Soon as the revelry is ended,
Do not tarry at the House—

“Well, Aymeric,” she grunted out loud, under her breath.  Since nothing felt real anymore, mostly on account of him, she decided she would tarry as long as she needed—especially for the sake of not smelling repugnant.

Afterward, wrapped in a towel, vapor was chasing her out of her washroom when someone knocked at her door.

I swear to gods, Alphinaud— “Just a moment.”

Sure enough, his muffled voice from the other side.  “Of course.  I beg your pardon.”

She ambled over to her dresser and rummaged out pantalettes and a chemise; thrust them over her humid skin.  Then she hobbled around the chamber searching for a housecoat.  She found one in the bathroom.

Samantha was knotting the tie at her waist when she opened the door.  Her hair was dripping.  Every ilm of her body was clammy.  She blinked down at the tufted crown of Alphinaud’s head with open discomfort.  “Yes?

He was dressed in one of his long azure nightshirts and pants, wringing his hands, keenly examining the carpet.  “There was something else I wished to tell you—something I would have mentioned sooner, but—well, privacy is a concept I do aim to respect—”

Much as her face crinkled with frustration, fondness and forbearance spread in her chest.  This gremlin.  She huffed a heavy breath through her nose and stepped aside to allow him entry.  “Come on in, then.”

Alphinaud shuffled into the room on quiet, slippered feet, heading directly to the alcove by the hearth.  Cross-legged, he balanced on the settee and watched as she moved over to join him.  She sank on the cushion to his left, her gaze tired and expectant.

He cleared his throat.  “First and foremost, I wanted to apologize.”  Then he took a breath.  “Truly, I—” His voice cracked with embarrassment, with shame and defeat.  “I am to blame for what happened.”

Samantha blinked down at him in astonishment.  “How in the world—”

He held up a hand, stilling her tongue.  Wide eyes of a clarity so like sapphires traced along her face, nervous and determined.  “It was I.  I who served as your escort—I you begged not to leave you.”  He swallowed hard and wrung his hands in his lap again, staring down at them.  His brow knitted.  “I swore an oath to myself to aid you this evening and I failed.”  He scoffed quietly, and his voice became hard and sarcastic.  “After all, what could be more important than mopping spilled wine from my lapels—”

She gripped him firmly by the shoulders, fingers catching at the warm fleece of his sleeves.  “Alphinaud, no.”  He looked up at her with dogged regret in his eyes, and she shook her head.  “As much as I appreciate the sentiment, what happened tonight was not your fault.”  She jostled him gently on the last three words and let him go.

“But I was in the washroom when it happened—the dance.”  He grimaced, determined to hold himself accountable.  “Too flustered by the collision with that gentleman to properly think.  I could have imagined a way to prevent it had I not—” 

No.”  Her brow furrowed and she wet her lips.  “Ser Aymeric threatened to dance with me before,” she added, crossing her arms.  “Nothing could have prevented him.”  Of that, she felt extremely certain.  She grinned and plucked at the straws of her own humiliation in a weak effort to amuse him.  “Wasn’t it you who said that the tension could be cut with a knife?

His grimace turned into a strained smile.  “Indeed.”  He cleared his throat again.  “Which brings me to my next confession.”

Her eyebrows rose.

He took a breath.  “On the way back from tending my sodden lapels, I ran into Estinien,” he muttered.  “Hence his invitation to the table.”

Understandable, but—there was clearly something else he wanted to say.  She looked at him in question.

Alphinaud swallowed and took a thin breath.  “I—may have—asked him—if he still loves you.”

Dull ringing in her ears.  Fuzz and static blurring her mind.  It was difficult to comprehend, Alphinaud asking Estinien if he— “—what?”  She leaned back, stunned, bewildered.  “You— what did he say?

Alphinaud winced and grimaced again.  He blushed and affected a low, grumbling impersonation.  “That is an extremely personal question.”

Samantha coughed and snorted at the caricature, choking on a laugh.  “Gods.”  That sounded just about right.  “Alphinaud.  What in hells compelled you to do such a thing?”

“Because I care very much about you,” he declared, cheeks going pinker.  “And your happiness—and Estinien’s happiness—and Ser Aymeric’s too, I suppose.”  He chewed on the inside of his lip.  “After all that has transpired, I daresay you three have endured enough suffering—Estinien, perhaps, in particular.”

Her entire heart fluttered and wrung in agreement; ached along its knit-again seams and crevasses.  So much loss.  So much pain.  Good souls gone.  Lies exposed—long-lying truths, unsought-for, discovered.  A nation founded on mendacity, heralding Aymeric to mend it.  Grief to be found in death and living alike, but it would be beyond selfish to compare any ration to what Estinien endured. 

Only he had been possessed.  Only he had borne witness to Nidhogg’s eternal torment. 

She took a heavy breath.  “What did he say about that?”

Alphinaud shifted his weight.  “He was very uncomfortable,” he admitted.  “Kept insisting I was too softhearted to understand—” His face reddened.  “But he did thank me for caring.”  Then he sighed and stared into her eyes.  “I worry that Estinien—” He struggled to find the words, to shape his conclusions.  “I fear that he believes contentment will always elude him—perhaps now more than ever.”  He looked at the fire then, pushing a piece of long white hair back behind his shoulders.  “I wonder if he flees from you for the selfsame reason.”

She could feel her face scrunching.  Memories, glimpses, crushed behind her eyes—

A gruff new ally, quiet and aloof, garbed almost always in dark drachen armor.  A sleepless comrade on their journey, unveiled hair like moonlight, possessed of brutal, solemn kindness.  A mighty, taciturn companion who sparred her on the mountain, who stood by her side; who crept back with her to Ishgard and through the balcony door, so many, many nights—

She tried to remain in the present.  “You believe Estinien runs because—” She frowned, hooking a piece of damp hair behind her ear.  “Because he thinks contentment will elude him regardless?”

Alphinaud tapped the back of his thumb at his lip in contemplation.  “There is assuredly some wise old adage or proverb on the matter,” he muttered.  “But not mine to conjure now.  Nevertheless, are not we all afflicted in some manner?”  His eyes flicked back up to hers, very stern, white lashes vibrant in the firelight.  “Is it not a fear that plagues every one of us—the fear of being lost, or sidestepped, or forgotten?”  His shoulders heaved with a breath and he looked back down at his hands.  “Indeed, if the end is to be something painful, why not avoid it altogether?  Love can act as a balm or a festering blister, depending.”

Her heart stuttered.

A scarred, callused hand at her neck.  “Love is the gateway to despair,” Estinien told her, gruff voice hitching, eyes like midnight roaming her face.  His stare was hard.  Knowing.  The pad of one heavy thumb skimmed her jawline, steady and strong.  “I learned that lesson long ago.  But you—Aymeric and the others—even the rancor of godsdamned Nidhogg taught me that love is consolation and deliverance; the balm for the very wounds it leaves behind.”

Caught up in the sway between anguish and relief, that fine, fraying edge …

“He runs because he fears being wounded,” she decided.  “Because—”

A chill prickled along every surface of her skin.

He runs because we are the same. 

Seeking meaning.  Chasing satisfaction.  Bruised and hollowed, nursing old scars.  Afraid of always aching; afraid of weakness rending them asunder.  Raw to begin with, split to the quick—waxless and wickless, burning on empty—hurting and hungry and howling, hunting forever for fulfillment

But where she came to covet and hoard love like a miser, Estinien fled out of fear he would find it.

She took a leaden breath.  “I think I always knew this,” she said out loud.  “Because, for all our differences—he and I are made of many matching pieces.”

Alphinaud nodded in mild agreement.  “To an extent.  And undoubtedly why you perform well as comrades.  I would argue, however, that you are a great deal more convivial.”  He paused and did some math.  “Then again, I have known you much longer—the better part of what will soon be three years.”

She chuckled and felt awash with a tremor of nostalgia.  “Has it been that long already?”

“Nearly so,” he confirmed.  He stared up at her while she tried not to drown in the urge to call back and remember, to lose herself, all too easily, in more thoughts of the past.  Still.

“Amazing,” she murmured, looking at the fire—feeling the soft tug of its aether.  From Ul’dah and Mor Dhona, to Coerthas and Dravania.  Another frisson swept through her body, and she barked a laugh.  “Did you ever imagine, when we met back then, how far we would come?  That we would cross the very Steps of Faith to Ishgard?”

“Not at all,” he said, his answering laugh very breathy.  “Which, conveniently enough, reminds me of the last thing I wished to tell you.”

She leaned back against the cushion again and steeled herself.

Alphinaud squared his shoulders.  “While Estinien and I were talking, we—happened to overhear a conversation.  A reaction to what was transpiring in the ballroom, as I came to find out.” 

Samantha quirked a brow.  “Go on.”

“Highborn ladies, discussing the notion of you and Ser Aymeric as a couple.”  His lips pursed as he chewed the inside of his cheek again, nervous.  “The way they spoke, it was nigh unthinkable—some outraged mention of the way you merely dared to look at him—”

In an instant, she was dizzy—blinded by something savage and primal, like rage.  “The way I beheld him?”  She shivered with revulsion at the thought of minding her gaze; at the thought of someone else presuming to dictate how she looked at him.  “I believe I can put my eyes on him however I want.

“I daresay you can,” Alphinaud agreed.  “You are the Warrior of Light—” He suddenly faltered.

“What?”  Beneath the red that swarmed in her mind, the fiery aether that curled in her marrow, she tried to calm herself.  She took a breath and willed frost to her bones.  “Carry on.”

He obliged her.  “It was—clear from the way they were speaking that, regardless of your title, the match might not be favored kindly.”  His voice was gentle, but his eyes were notably apprehensive.  “I admit that my knowledge on courtship in Ishgard is lacking, despite Emmanellain’s attempts to enlighten me.  But the cultural disdain for outsiders is known, far and wide.”

She was aware.  As Aymeric would say—

“It would not be encouraged,” she grumbled.  “For us to be together.”

“So it would, quite vividly, seem,” he muttered.

A small measure of silence stretched between them.  The fire flickered.  Tongues of flame licked and made soft sounds; bits of wood crackled.  Wind and ice faintly hushed against the window.

Up until this moment, Thancred’s was the only material feedback she encountered.  Despite his assurance to the contrary, she stubbornly, perhaps arrogantly believed his interference to be bitter—and biased. 

Now, above the irritation she felt, above the obstinate, animal need to prove that she could have what she wanted, she understood, a bit better, why the air at the table had been so tense. 

She snorted and felt her lip wrinkle.  No wonder Estinien clung to my leg like a bur.

At least she knew he would never care about the opinion of Ishgard.

“I am sorry to cause you distress,” Alphinaud muttered, avoiding her eyes.  He was still so eager to apologize, to take some fraction of responsibility.  “But—as I have mulishly insisted upon involving myself, I—wanted to keep you abreast of my findings.”

She sighed through her nose and planted a palm on his shoulder, gripping stiffly.  He looked up at her face.  “I am not distressed,” she told him, hoping to make him stop his damned handwringing.  “Not by you, at least.”

A breath puffed into his cheeks and he let it out slowly.  “Good.”  He grinned, small and meekly.  “I do have your best interests at heart.”

She knew it to be true; mustered warmth into the smile she aimed in return.  “I think I safely speak for all of us when I say thank you—Estinien and Aymeric included.”

And then, with blinding force, she thought of the letter.

Honor my summons—
You did request an invitation.

Her lip was raw where she chewed it.  Balcony curtains drawn, well past midnight.  Panic began to set in.  Would Aymeric be offended if she stayed at the Manor Fortemps?

Best interests at heart.  Conflict thereof.  To go, or not to go

Alphinaud’s forehead was tensing, clearly reading her expression.  “Of what are you thinking?” 

A weak cackle left her lips and she looked at the fire again, an effort to mask her emotions.  “Everything,” she said.  “As Tataru put it, perhaps I’ve had enough excitement for one evening.”

“Time for bed, then,” he said firmly, getting to his feet.  “I have intruded long enough.”

They walked to the door together.  As he stepped out into the hall, she gave him a feeble smile. 

“Sleep well, Alphinaud.”

 


☾ ✧ ☽

 

They preferred to end brawls over ale.

Wine was far more abundant in the Borel cellar—so they opened a bottle of that, instead.

Estinien sprawled on the couch in the parlor, glass in rugged hand, sufficiently lulled for the moment.  His posture was smug and self-possessed.  Open.  Calm.  Vulnerable.  It gave Aymeric no small measure of satisfaction to see him like that; to witness his evident comfort. 

Only you could be obsessed with the pleasure of others at your own bloody damn banquet—

Aymeric smirked and shook his head, sipping his own glass.  Estinien was rarely easy, rarely relaxed.  But here in the manor he was, plain as day—even though he might never admit it.

“The hour grows late,” Estinien muttered.  “And the weather, as always, is rubbish.  Are you certain she comes?”  His beige pants were wrinkled, his long nightshirt unbuttoned—another borrowed garment.  He sighed with beastly annoyance, and the long valleys of sinews and scars on his half-bare torso flexed.  He downed most of his wineglass.

Mayhap not so tranquil after all.

From his chair at the desk by the window, Aymeric turned to look outside. 

The streets were glazing, snow begetting fresh piles.  He pressed a hand to one icy pane.  Condensation fogged beside his fingers, and he drifted in contemplation. 

Change was upon them.  Perhaps the events of the evening upset her.  Perhaps she was now overwhelmed.  She was not adept at politics—a fact she readily acknowledged—and yet here he was, sweeping her well into his mess of them.  Publicly.  Visible, indivisible to Ishgard.

Tell me what might give you discomfort, that I may never allow it to happen—

Discomfort and dread.  The danger of being divided, the Keeper of Ishgard and Warrior of Light.

The monster stirred inside him—something sleekly unwinding.  She is mine, she is mine, came the fell and savage bellow.  Dark and foul and protective.  He felt his brow crinkle and pressed his lips to quell it.

She had seemed tense at the table—worsened, no doubt, by his dear brooding Urchin’s persecutions.  But the Urchin only came at the Bastard’s behest, and anything Estinien did, therefore, was beyond his rights to censure.  She admonished him well enough.

Estinien never disturbed him.  Their brotherhood was involuntary, like the heart that pulsed in his chest.  Sustained without effort or insight, Estinien was virtually a part of him.  Individual, yes.  He did as he pleased, leaping and sprinting, jumpy and aflutter.  Distant though sometimes he fled, Estinien was always, everlastingly, there.  And so like the pulse of a heartbeat, unconsciously needed, Estinien would never disturb him, unless Estinien was dead.

He went cold at the thought and promptly banished it.

No.  Beyond his penchant for reckless decisions, it was not Estinien that caused Aymeric distress.  It was, quite sullenly, Ishgard.  And as he watched the frost thicken in the street, what worried Aymeric then was a dread just as freezing. 

As of tonight, he was Speaker of the House of Lords—his most prominent appointment, the throne he never chose.  But his constituents knew he could hardly say no.  Not Ser Aymeric de Borel.  Not to the future of Ishgard; not to a chance to serve, and someway shape it.  And so, he was shackled to the chair. 

He felt his blood thicken, mouth bittering at the thought of it.  Then again, it might have been the wine.

For truly, if he was a dragon, then Ishgard was his lair.  He could no more abandon his roost of steel and stone than end the winter of Coerthas.  But would the rabble of the horde cast his consort from the aery?  Despite what seemed to be ardor, was she reeling wingless, wreathed in the rime of the tempest—dissuaded, like the rest? 

In the end, whenever it came, would he be alone with the bones of his wishes in the nest? 

“It is well within her rights to refuse my bidding,” he said, braced against truths that felt all too inevitable.

Frustrated by the long silence, Estinien scoffed and glanced across the room.  The stiff grin on his lips was some blend of pitying, merciless, and unrepentant.  “But not within mine?”

Aymeric met his gaze with a dull side-eye.  “Unlike you, she willingly honors most of my invitations.”

“I willingly honor,” he argued, sneering.  Another sip of his emptying wine, dark stare cast to the ceiling.  “When it happens to suit me.”

Aymeric sighed a bland chuckle and turned back to the window.  “Quite.”

The hush that spread between them was serene, then.  Aymeric surveyed his hazy view through the glass.  Frost and ice whispered; the fire in the hearth made rippling, breathy sounds. 

Estinien spoke again, his rough voice several shades softer.  “You should rest.  I can keep vigil.”

Aymeric watched the cold street, and fondness bloomed warm in his chest.  “I am rested well enough,” he said truthfully.  He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the pane—light, narrow eyes, all too easily filled with his emotions.  How much training it had taken, to obscure the heart so often worn above his vest?  “Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I wish to enjoy your presence as well?”

Estinien snorted.  “Never,” he grunted, sarcastic.  The soft sound of agile bare feet on the carpet, lightsomely crossing the floor.  Estinien snagged the wine bottle from its place on the desk, refilling his glass.  “Another snifter?”

Aymeric pushed his glass over in answer.  Wine was poured.

On the sill of the desk now, Estinien sat—a hawk or a wyvern, seeking a ledge.  “I despise waiting,” he announced, profile stark in the firelight.

Aymeric smirked at him, lazy—lifted the brim of his glass to his lips.  “What a surprise.”

Silver hair shimmered as Estinien tipped his chin, examining the bookshelves nearby.  “You moved some old tomes and artifacts,” he muttered, shrewd gaze landing on empty spaces.

“Now housed in the study,” Aymeric provided, the fragrance of liquor dense on his tongue.  “An effort to provide some amusement for Samantha.  Her visits all too often come hand in hand with my work.”

Dark eyes like the night-blue belly of a storm cloud, flicking to twinkle at him mockingly.  “As I told her, exceedingly grim to envision.”  He laughed darkly.  “The two of you reading and slowly decomposing.”

Aymeric chuckled under his breath.  “Since when is reading tantamount to putrefaction?

“Putrid way to pass the time,” he insisted in a snarl.  “Engage her in swordplay instead.”  A thought crossed his face very suddenly, vicious in his eyes.  “Have you ever sparred with her in combat?”

No.  Alongside her, but never as rivals—

“In fact,” Aymeric admitted, oddly abashed, “I have not.”

Estinien twisted to face him, positively gleaming with delight.  He looked for all the world like a wyrm that had cornered its quarry.  “That would be a sight,” he rumbled, low in his throat.  A wide smile stretched across his lips, then—the kind of smile he kept in reserve, the kind he knew was distinctly compelling. 

Aymeric smiled in reflex on answer, happy to see that hallowed expression.  “Shall I issue a challenge, then?”

“If she ever shows up tonight,” Estinien growled, laughing.  “And only if I am invited."

Aymeric quirked an eyebrow and could feel his own eyes glitter.  “Only if you are invited?” 

Estinien flinched and clearly saw the error of his ways.  He opened his mouth to make an amendment, but Aymeric interrupted, wearing a sinister grin.  “How long did you plan on extending your visit?”

Estinien crossed his arms and scowled ferociously down at him.  “Cruel.”

“Wicked,” Aymeric corrected, lifting his glass.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

At the foot of her bed, she sat there, frozen.

Her ears were ringing.

Why? 

It was simple to answer, to step and change in time.

A night spent breathless, spinning in their arms—

Impossible treasures, her fire and rime.

Was Ishgard there to steal them—her blessed and sacred arcana?

Her heart roared to whirl in rejection—

They are mine.

She raked her hands through half-dried hair and stared at the hearth, breathing fast and ragged.

Front, glissade back.

Hip to hip, half a moon through the room—

Am I alone in these feelings?

No.

You will never be abandoned.

Back, glissade front.

Push and pull, cling, combine

She was staring at the sun.

And as you are mine—

I am yours.

One two, one two, one two.

Two nocturnal beasts, in orbit with their keeper—

Wry.  Watching.  Waiting.

Nothing felt real past the reach of his wings.

What were her wishes?

I wished for you to love me.

What were their wishes?

Your wish has come to pass.

She was reeling in freefall, longing for gravity—

No matter what is said, I will love you.

Longing to coil, the heat of twin flames—

Strut and hurtle, slip and swish—

Follow your instincts.

Gratified now, wicked thing?

No. 

She was twirling, and nothing made sense, except—

I love you.

Nothing made sense except that

She closed her eyes, dizzy, revolving in retrograde.

It was wrong, was it not? 

Something greedy and grasping and backward? 

The pluck of a harp, the glissando of piano.

The tight yearning strings of three lonely violins—

But what is there to dread in this warm and welcome spell?

If you can have no objection—

Her monstrous heart twisted. 

Neither can I.

Not even the Warrior of Light could sunder the Bastard from the Urchin.

One two, one two, one two—

One, two, three—

Pas de trois.

Her pulse sang like a metronome, hallowed and profane.

You felt it, then.  The same as I.

Yes.

I love you.  I want you now and ever.

I feel the same—

In love I might begin to find the answers.

She took a faint breath.

At the balcony window, she drew back the curtains. 

Her hands were shaking.  Snow was falling. 

Through a gap in the clouds, a belt of stars glittered.

Unexpected equilibrium— 

Celestial symmetry.


☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

The House was dead asleep.

Still, she kept her movements quiet.

Concealment spells were not her forte, but tonight, she would try one. 

She took a deep breath and gripped the small scepter in her pocket.  Her whispers willed a hasty incantation.  A ripple warped the edge of her aether, stitching together in pieces, and the air encasing her shimmered like oil on water, reflecting a mimicry of her surroundings.  As the sound within and without her muffled, her ears popped and crackled. 

Success.

Still, she crept through the door with the touch of a mouse.

The wind was bitter and biting, whipping through stray tangles of her hair.  She was hooded, wrapped, layered well in practical dress and heavy fleeces.  She shivered nonetheless—at the squall in her heart, at the icy gaze of Ishgard that watched despite her enchantments.

She could almost feel the city leering as she stepped across the threshold.

Behold the fabled hero. 

Whatever happened tonight would be fateful, said the sharp tingle in her veins.  Whatever happened tonight would be vital, to keep on moving ahead.  And whether it was lucky or unlucky, for the sake of her heart, there was nothing she hated more than standing still; than wallowing in naked stagnation.

Successful escape from the manor.  A layer of fresh, untracked snow on the doorstep.  The prints she left behind betrayed the only mark of her passage.  Then she was down the frosty stoop and onto the street.

The flurries were sighing and solemn, but she was even more electric; petrified.

No petasos tonight—only cloak and cowl.  The scepter in her pocket, but no weapon on her back.  Beneath the brim of her hood and the folds of her scarf, she hunched against the cold, skulking through the alleys.  If anyone noticed her, going to his manor—

If anyone caught her, it might spell a disaster. 

But she was his, helplessly, always, and this was soon as she was able.

The thought of Aymeric propelled her through the shock.  She was caught in the tow of his incandescent gravity, the wish to look up and meet his eyes.  She thought of sinking in bed and of staying, of sleeping full through the sunrise.  And if the third one was present, well—that would be a surprise.

She tried to keep herself hidden, even above her aetherial camouflage.  Providentially, so many moons in this city had taught her so many pathways.  And so many visits to see him, sometimes at very strange timings—

Well.  She owned her part in the scandal.  As Alphinaud said:

How very flawed you are. 

 


☾ ❅ ☽

 

There were too many godsdamned chambers in his house.

Nooks and alcoves, parlors and studies.  Aymeric stowed them all with blankets, the rooms that contained books or desks.  Estinien knew this.  He knew this well, chiefly since Borel was a bonehead who never took care of himself.  Hardworking, and more—determined to run himself ragged.

And he had the nerve to lecture Estinien on running.

The great tossing teabrain kept quilts and pillows and odds and ends of slumber armed in so many rooms of the house, all in the case of emergency.  Critical emergencies, such as falling asleep in the midst of perusing some treatise or discourse or writs of importance or whatever the shite he did all the time.

Estinien was fetching one such woolen monstrosity out of some cranny or another, hefting it back to the hallway.  Then the hair on the back of his neck prickled, a very peculiar pricklethe prickle that happened now, somehow, whenever she was near.

After Nidhogg, peculiar things happened inside him all the time.  He was sure it had something to do with his aether, and by and large he hardly minded.  As long as he was himself and alive

With the grace of a tomcat, he loped beneath the archway to the parlor.  Fleetly he stalked on fast, noiseless feet to silently mantle and tuck the coverlet at Aymeric’s shoulders.  The dingbat mumbled and sighed at the attention, dozing at his desk, beautiful face pressed slack to the forearms folded on the surface, damned ‘rested-well-enough’ dimwit

Prickle.

Estinien jerked to stare through the glass of the window, combing back his hair.

There was nothing he could see.  Not truly.  Nothing his eyes could bodily perceive.

But sure enough, he had the feeling that someone, cloaked, was there.

 


✧ ☄ ☽

 

She gulped cold breaths of icy air as she snuck up the last doorstep.

Her hand tensed around the scepter in her pocket, and she debated.

End the spell now, or within?

As she was standing there, worrying her lip between her teeth, the door opened to reveal—

“Estinien?”

His name left her lips in a shocked, broken gasp, muted by the threads of invocation swathed around her.

Dark blue eyes gazed down directly at her; directly met her stare, no less.  He grunted.  “Bizarre.”  He cocked his head, pale hair shifting all to one side.  “The sensation of you there is inimitable, but—” One arm lashed to grab her, fast and exact as an adder.  His palm clasped her shoulder like the maw of a viper.

Immobile on the stoop, she coughed in disbelief, a snort caught halfway to wild, soundless laughter.

And three, they say, is a crowd.

Chasing the drag of his hand, she crossed into the manor, and aside from the thrill of divination in her bloodstream, nothing felt strange.  Nothing could feel more natural, in fact, than stepping into the reach of his body heat.  Above the wax and honeyed autumn of Aymeric’s foyer, she smelled Estinien; wine and smoke, complex and peppery.  He was always warm before, but tonight he seemed radiant, somehow warmer. 

He freed her to shut the door behind them.  She dispelled the enchantment.  Her ears crackled and she stretched her jaw to yawn, pushing back her cowl, raising her eyebrows at her unexpected answerer.  “Good evening.”

Estinien was blatantly entertained.  “Greetings.”  He swept into a bow, haughty and magnificent, and another whorl of his spicy fragrance unfurled to meet her.  He spoke low and quiet, words coming out in a nasally noble smolder.  “I beg you would allow me to escort you to the parlor.”

Her face twisted in amusement as she took his measure.  He was dressed in plain houseclothes, loose beige slacks and a long, unbuttoned nightshirt.  He looked calm.  He looked relaxed.  He looked—happy

He straightened up from his showy salutation and pushed long hair behind his ears; patiently watched as her eyes roved down his body.  Long-suffering.  Smug and conceited and lazy.  He smirked, gaze hooded, his voice the lowest, smokiest growl.  “Enjoying yourself?”

She scowled up at him sharply and hissed a whisper.  “I wasn’t fully expecting to see you.”

“But you halfway were,” he purred, baring his teeth in something half-naughty, half-grimace.

She huffed out a sigh of surrender and peeled off her gloves.  “Halfway,” she gruffly admitted, cramming the mitts in her pockets.  She started unwrapping her scarf.  “Where is he?”

Estinien jerked his chin to the hallway behind him.  “Asleep at his writing desk.  Come.”

“Let me take off my things, first,” she grumbled, struggling out of her cloak.

Estinien lunged up to assist.  Callused hands deftly, efficiently, familiarly stripped her overclothes.  Her fleeces and wrappings were stored in record time, and she laughed under her breath.  She made a display of adjusting her basic burgundy gown, glancing at him from the side of her eye.  “I thank you, my good Ser,” she drawled, her best imitation of pomp.

He smiled wolfishly.  “Madame.

His feet were bare, so she unlaced her boots and left them by the cloak rack.  Estinien waited until she was in line with his shoulder before he started walking.  She wet her lips and craned her neck up at him; ever the head and-then-some taller.  “What are you doing here, exactly?”

He gestured both sets of scarred fingers down the long, lean, quite visible plane of his physique.  “Aymeric lent me the ensemble for the party,” he supplied, sauntering there alongside her.  “As you see, I humbly returned it.”  He watched her slyly, posturing, clearly inviting her to admire him again. 

Humble, indeed.

She scoffed and ignored the offer, lifting one eyebrow instead.  “And?” 

“And,” he growled softly, keeping his voice down in the vaulted hall.  “Then he begged me to remain.”  He angled himself a bit closer, long wisps of soft hair swinging down to graze her face.  “Thus, here I am.”

She stilled to give him her best deadpan expression; stared up at him through fine, swaying tangles of white and palest silver.  “Because you love to obey that commandment,” she said dryly.

He halted beside her and flashed another grin down. 

Sincere, not mocking in the slightest.  The expression melted his face into something quite stunningly handsome.  How many grins had that been, now?  “Wine was provided, among other incentives,” he rumbled.  Something glinted cruelly in his dark eyes.

She snorted as gently as she could and resumed walking.  “Are you referring to me?”

Estinien shrugged idly, causing the open tails of his shirt to shift and flutter.  “Your words, your supposition,” he pointed out.  A look of vicious taunting.  “Is it your wish to be considered an incentive?”

“If that’s what it takes.”  She stared up at him sternly.  “Anything to keep you safe, in Ishgard or otherwise—as opposed to blustering around risking your life in the name of ridiculous nonsense.”

He stiffened a bit at that, but oddly, didn’t argue.  Eyes blue as the night outside watched her from beneath thick, frost-colored lashes.  “Playing his mouthpiece?”  Somehow nothing about the accusation was spiteful.  “He shares the sentiment.”

“Good,” she muttered.  “At least you follow his advice.”

He huffed in mild annoyance but couldn’t rightly dispute it; turned to train his eyes back down the hallway.  The arch of the parlor was almost in sight.  When Estinien spoke next, his voice was like smoke again, low and hazy.  “He would wish you safe as well, and you know it.”  And, lower than a whisper, she thought she heard him say: “As would I.”

Her pulse stuttered.

Silence.  A handful of slow, steady heartbeats strung together. 

Their footsteps were soft on the floor and her breath was stiff in her chest.  It was an impossible dream, that wish—to shelter any one of them at length from threat and peril.  Each of their fates were tied up in knots with it, dangled ever after near the wanting craw of death.

But maybe— Just for now…

His feet were bare beside her stockinged toes.  Estinien was soundless as he padded, his grace something straight out of legend.  Since that first nervous shudder of arriving, his unforeseen reception at the entrance, she felt nothing but blessedly good to be nearby him—nothing but a sense of this is right.

Shoulder to shoulder.  A sharp shard of stardust and a moon gleam.  They were a pair of flighty, mighty creatures, beholden to none.  And yet they rambled through the night to answer, nonetheless, to another—the mightiest, heart of them all.  Gold and black and tranquil, the sun in an eclipse. 

Aymeric contained a cosmos inside him, and they were drawn in.

If he was the center, what were they?  Estinien, fleet-footed Mercury; she, burning hotly as—Venus?

First and second, faithfully fostered; caught in the stretch of his wingspan.  Beasts of war that fought on his behalf, and always came orbiting back.  And were he not tethered to the Pillars of Ishgard, she knew he would join them in the fray.  Aymeric, ready to take to the skies or shroud them in the nest; to shield or embosom them, depending. 

All three of them were tied together now, an ouroboros of cherishing each other.

She shook herself out of her reverie.  The parlor was imminent.  The soft glow of firelight bloomed on the floor beneath the doorway.  Before they crossed within reach of the threshold, she braced herself without thinking; sidled closer to her partner.  Estinien came to a swift and instant stop. 

“I am here for him,” he told her, turned to incline to her ear.  Then the weight of his body urged her gently to the wall, and he sloped himself closer.  His voice, like cinders, simmered.  “But I am here for you besides.”  One hand gripped her wrist, knuckles big and swollen, rough and scratchy and rugged.  Warm.  His thumb traced the base of her palm.  “You bewitched me tonight,” he complained, words caught like gravel in his throat.  The tip of his nose and his lips skimmed her cheek.  Long, shimmering hair curtained down around her face, and he took a halting breath, hot and ragged.  “Threw a hex with that dance and that dress and cursed me all over again.”

She laughed without sound, thin and gasping.  “Damn that dress.  I never should have worn it—”

His voice was burnt to nothing, open lips at her ear.  “Would that you still wore it.”  She heard his air come sharper, and then he jerked himself away without warning, hooking around into the parlor.

She blinked several times against the crumbling sensation in her legs.  Shook her head.  Scowled.  Marched along in after.  The faintest scent of pine; birch and cool maple.  Warmth and golden light washed over her, spreading from the flames in the hearth.  Couch and armchairs in dark soothing colors.  Low table with empty, used wineglass.  And tucked back in the corner, toward a window frosted by the winter outside, a wide desk decorated with the finest adornment in the room:

Aymeric himself.

Estinien was halfway across the carpet; woodsman stealing over to rouse the sleeping beauty.  And beautiful he was, even slouched there in slumber.  His soft black hair curled to veil his forehead, face like a seraph pillowed sidewise on his forearms.  His broad shoulders were draped in a thick, woolen quilt.  On the desk by his elbow was an open bottle of wine, and another dirtied glass.  She winced and a stone of guilt, hot and metallic, dropped into her stomach. 

How long had they been waiting for her to arrive?

With the same lupine grace from the hallway, Estinien loped up to the ledge of Aymeric’s desk—perhaps more wolf than woodsman.  He slid to perch there on the corner.  Samantha approached behind him; watched as Estinien reached out, very slow and very gentle, to smooth the back of his hand across Aymeric’s shoulders.  Reverent, respectful, a rite of raw affection—

Blood rushed to her face and her heart fluttered, skipping heavy beats.  It was a chaste and wholesome gesture—nothing of Eros about it at all.  But somehow the way Estinien touched him was so intimate she felt like she shouldn’t be watching.

Aymeric stirred, slowly rising, long black lashes fluttering.  His brow knitted and creased as he squinted; scrubbed the knuckles of one bare and hallowed hand at his eyelids.  He shivered and dragged the fluffy blanket tighter around him, blinking up at his awakener.  “What is the hour?”

Estinien tilted his body to the side to reveal her.

Eyes like comets and diamonds fell upon her and widened.  “Ah.”  Sleepy, Aymeric smiled, nonetheless wryly.  “I see,” he hummed.  “The witching hour.”

Blushing even harder, a sharp cackle burst forth from her lips, half snort, half titter.  She was powerless, smiling in answer, face split so widely it hurt.  “If the two of you keep calling me a witch, I swear—”

“Fine line between swearing and cursing,” Estinien quipped, casting her a glance from the side of his eye.

Her nose wrinkled in transparent hysterics.  She could feel herself fume at him, caught between a hoarse laugh and a glower.  Everything was whirling to unravel, to thread back together again.  Surreal.  Estinien slunk down from his post on the desk.  Aymeric unfurled his long body from his chair and stretched to a stand, sliding the quilt from his shoulders.  Blue shirt on his chest, silver fastenings dazzling.  “Finer line yet betwixt curse and consecration,” he crooned, folding the blanket, eyes twinkling to exalt her.

Estinien crossed past her, wreathing her in spice.  He headed for the couch by the hearthside, and her heart missed several paces.  Her blood was near to racing.  She struggled to control it; to wrest some rule back over this bizarre and all-too breathtaking waltz of fate. 

I decided to come here tonight.  This is what I wanted.

Still.  She swallowed hard.  Forced herself to hold Aymeric’s white-hot stare and jerked her chin at Estinien.  “I’m surprised you managed to convince him to stay,” she said, her heart a butterfly, pounding.

“I admit to minor coercion,” Aymeric confessed, moving toward her, mild remorse written plainly on his face.  And oh, there was his scent, consummate comfort, captivation—cool and clean and confident

Estinien scoffed and snorted and tossed his head like an unruly stallion.  “Coercion my arse,” he barked, sinking down on the couch, curling his legs up underneath him.

“Oh?”  Aymeric paused and turned to him, a dry and devilish grin bent on his full lips.  He narrowed his eyes.  “Do you mean to imply that you remain here willingly?”

Estinien opened his mouth in protest but Samantha had a question, thank the gods.  Anything to distract her.  “How did you coerce him?”  

“I had to lash him with my tongue,” Aymeric drawled, eyes half-lidded.

Estinien made a sound of indignation and the blood was immediately back in her face, hotter than ever.

After a clear pause for effect, Aymeric glanced back at her, mischief in his expression.  His dark voice was a contrast, bland and solemn.  “A lecture to remind him of truths that should be self-evident.”

Estinien made another sound, drawing her focus.  He was bristling, hackles rising.  Eyes dark as midnight glowered at the lord of the manor.  “I am well aware of my truths,” he contended, voice bitter, lips stiff.  “As I was to begin with, long before your so-called tongue lashing.”

“And yet,” sighed Aymeric, leaving the thought unfinished.  He draped the folded quilt at the back of an armchair across from his glowering friend, then tipped his chin to face her.  “Would you like the rest of the wine?”

She was standing there, frozen. 

Much though more drink might relax her— “I’ve had enough for one evening.”

“Good,” Estinien muttered, avoiding everyone’s eyes.  “I finished it already.”

Aymeric chuckled and sank into the armchair, shaking his head, aiming a gentle look in her direction.  He let his knees sprawl and relax and stretched out a hand.  “Will you not sit?”

“Sit with me,” Estinien demanded, very brusquely.

Samantha raised her eyebrows and wavered in hesitation.  She glanced from the couch back to Aymeric, who looked like he was biting back a laugh, or at least a malicious grin.  “By all means,” he said, holding his open palm in gesture crosswise to the half-occupied settee.

Cautiously, carefully, like Estinien was a wild animal that might attack, she crept to the edge of the long cushion and piled herself down beside him.  He sneered at her and laughed, somewhat sour.  “Off to a fine start, this is,” he grumbled, glaring daggers at Aymeric.

“Allow me to facilitate, then,” he offered, squaring his shoulders.  He folded his hands above the lap of his black trousers, took a breath, and closed his eyes.  When he opened them, his face was schooled into a mien halfway politically indifferent, halfway intimate.  “Samantha,” he said, voice warm, eyes roving her face.  “We are at your disposal.  Tonight, to the best of my understanding, Estinien is willing to partake in the conversation—that is to say, the discussion that, heretofore, he has been so intent to avoid.”

Her heart drummed and stammered as she turned to her right, inspecting the participant in question.

Estinien looked stony but subdued.  He arched his back against the cushion, took a breath through his nose—stretched up his arms, tipped his chin to the ceiling, and sighed.  “That is correct,” he submitted, hair webbed bright on the dark blue fabric.

As the tamed-for-now beast rearranged himself on the sofa, she wet her lips and summoned up some courage.  Samantha faced Aymeric and her cheeks prickled with disgrace.  “You refer to the discussion about me being a greedy, rotten, miserly ogre?”

Estinien snorted.  “Ogre?

“Indeed,” said Aymeric, watching her sternly.  His pale eyes glittered.  “You are not an ogre, Samantha,” he said, a measure more quietly, embers in his voice.

“But I am,” she argued, rather fiercely.  Her spine stiffened and she threw her shoulders back; tossed her hair like Estinien.  “In none of the stories does the hero woo both the damsel and the knight.”

In her periphery, Estinien jerked to look at her.  “What in the hells—” He was frowning.  “What kind of tongues are you speaking in, woman?”

“Fairy tales,” she clarified, crossing her arms.  She could feel her brow beetle as she spun the allegory.  “In the end, it’s always one or the other—the hero and the damsel, the damsel and the prince—”

“The monster and the hellhound,” Aymeric corrected, leaning over his thighs.  “The witch that cast a spell—”

Hellhound?”  Estinien combed a hand through his hair and scoffed, a show of being affronted.  “What bloody happened to the knight?”

Aymeric was relentless.  “We were weaving a metaphor, Estinien—”

Dark blue eyes filled with brittle reproach.  “I am not a godsdamned imbecile you big buggering dimwit—

“I was trying to be serious,” Samantha said, over the backbiting.  Something inside her meandered, then; a recognition of overly familiar embarrassment.  She was slammed suddenly in the gut by how strongly they reminded her of— Oh.

Oh, gods no.

“Samantha?”  Aymeric’s voice, very concerned.

She knew she looked stricken.  She could feel it in her stomach.  She choked on the horrified laughter that bubbled up her throat and almost fell to the floor, doubling over.  “Nothing,” she gasped, snorting, suffocating the thought.  “Ignore me.”

“Better and better,” Estinien groused, slumping back on the couch.  “Productive dialogue, this.”

She gulped several breaths and tried to collect herself as Aymeric studied her with a bemused expression, slanting vaguely in her direction.  “Do you require some manner of assistance?”

“No,” she coughed.  She shoved both hands through her hair and slouched back on her own side of the couch.  Her face was burning.  “I think—it’s difficult to believe this is happening,” she decided, chewing her lip, glancing at Estinien in particular.

He exhaled in a growl and rolled his eyes.  “Not making the best of it, are you?”

“We can always continue with the parable,” Aymeric suggested, intervening, playing intercessor again.  His eyes sparkled as he laced his fingers together and sank deeper in his armchair.  

“Let me try again without it,” said Samantha, clearing her throat.  Her cheeks were forever aflame.  The rest of her body prickled, all over, with nerves.  She gripped the thick layers of claret at her knees and stared at the backs of her hands; peaks and valleys of her own marred knuckles.  She spoke above the roaring in her heart this time.  “I told Aymeric before, how I felt about the two of you—and before you get offended,” she said, seared by the heat of Estinien’s insulted glare, “You didn’t want to talk about it.”

He made a disgruntled sound but said nothing else.

She took a breath through her nose and flexed her fingers, watching the bones and tendons move beneath her skin.  “I never believed in love, before,” she said, and her voice was very quiet.  “Never felt it really before this, since I was always far too bitter.”  Her eyes drifted up to Estinien.  He was watching her with an almost pained expression.  “You made me feel something, so strongly,” she told him, staring deep into the pitch of his gaze.  “So real, I almost tried to fight it.”  Then she flicked her glance to Aymeric, to find his soft, unbearable, sky-blue eyes.  She gathered a shaky inhalation.  “You made me realize that the feeling—was actually, truly, love.”

Although he was still as a statue, she was struck again by the illusion of Aymeric lunging, pouncing to close the distance and consume her.  He pinned the base of his spine to his chair and watched her intently, lifting one hand to encage his mouth.  “For that I am glad,” he murmured through his fingers, smoothing his thumb across his lips.

Beside her, Estinien took a ragged, audible breath.  “Fury blind and bless it,” he grunted.  He was shaking his head, raking back his hair.  His ears were fully red now, eyes ablaze, watching her hotly beneath the silver veil of his lashes.  “And so you persist in loving the both of us.”

Her throat was dry and aching with shame, but she nodded, very shyly.  The fire flickered and popped in the hearth, and her voice cracked.  “I love you both so much that I—” Heavens and hells.  She blinked the blur from her vision and scoffed at herself.  “It is what it is, and I’m willing to kill it if I have to.  I would die myself before I let anything happen to hurt either one of you.”

Estinien tensed; Aymeric shifted his weight.  “A sentiment shared between each of us apiece,” the Speaker said boldly, hands on his knees, adoration raging through his face.  Estinien offered a gruff sound, dry as ash, but otherwise refrained from comment.  His jaw was rigid.

“So,” she said, voice trembling, braver than she felt.  “Where do we go from here?”

For a heartbeat or three of silence, all that could be heard was the whisper of wind at the window, the soft pitter patter of snow and ice on the glass.

“The both of you are well aware of my feelings,” supplied Aymeric, breaking the hush with the music of his voice.  Dark.  Gentle.  Fierce.  “If I could—” He cleared his throat; looked at the fire.  “If it pleased you—I would keep you here beside me."

Her heart hitched at the thought, in a way that threatened to make her dissolve.

A nearly irresistible offer.

That left Estinien. 

Two faces filled with expectation turned to stare at him, and he avoided their eyes. 

“I have no wish to stay cooped here in Ishgard.”  Estinien hunched over his folded legs.  Discomfort hardened his expression and a muscle fluttered in his neck.  He scoffed.  “The pair of you drive me mad enough to rival an undying wyrmking,” he grunted.

“Good to know,” said Aymeric briskly.

Estinien glared at him, face twisted up in palpable frustration.  He tilted down his chin to hide behind the wings of his hair.  “Know, then, that I love you,” he grumbled, hostile and cowed by their attention.  “But in no way does this change my rapport with either one of you—and do not compel me to say it again.

It was enough.

Aymeric took a shaky breath.  The tears in his eyes were plainly visible before he lowered his lashes and blinked them away.  “Forgive me, I—” He swallowed hard and covered his mouth with his palm.

For a moment, everyone faltered, overcome by their warden’s moment of weakness.  The sun, the moon, and the stars pulled into alignment; a trinity of gems in a sacred, celestial circle—

“What does this make us, then,” Estinien muttered, dark and tartly.  “Some accursed devil's triangle?”

“Or three bloody damn stooges,” Samantha grunted, voice frail.

Wild laughter broke to fracture between them.  Tears streaked down Aymeric’s face.  Estinien crumpled over the arm of the couch.  “Were you calling Aymeric a damsel before?”

“Monster,” Aymeric insisted, weak with titters.

Samantha was struggling to breathe, sliding off the cushion.  “Did you call Estinien a hellhound?

“Better than an ogre,” Estinien snorted.  “And you called yourself that.”

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

The vote was unanimous:  More wine.

Aymeric hunted down bottles from the cellar.  One was opened.  They spilled a great deal more laughter, hushed-as-best-as-they could.  And then they were at their posts again, half-drained glasses in hand, when the lord of their hearts and the manor cleared his throat. 

Two nervous animals looked up from their libations as he led them—as he directed the tone of their next conversation.  “In cases such as these,” he began, voice very measured and judicious, “I believe the established mode is to take the lay of the land.”  He laced his fingers together in his lap.  From his solitary armchair, Aymeric beheld his captive audience; two creatures crouched there on the couch, his cabinet in this unexpected conference.  “It may be best to cobble together some boundaries and come to a mutual understanding.”

Aymeric, the pillar, and clearly the foundation.

Samantha took a deep breath.  “Before I ask, I think I already know the answer,” she muttered.  “But have either of you—” She cleared her throat.  Blushed.  Smoothed her fingers down her wineglass and took a hefty sip.  She could feel herself grimace at the pool of crimson in her chalice.  “Have you ever been a part of such an understanding?

Estinien snorted so loudly she jumped.  “Hells no,” he grunted.  He leaned against his armrest of the couch; stretched his legs across the length of the cushion.  His huge, heavy feet landed in Samantha’s lap and she frowned at them.  “People disgust me,” he declared.

That made Aymeric laugh.  “Everything disgusts you,” he amended, quirking a brow at the view.

“Including you,” Estinien proclaimed, flexing his toes and raising his glass.  He tried to touch Samantha’s face with the ball of one foot and she smacked it away, glaring at him.

“You disgust me,” she grumbled.

“Estinien likes to be disgusting,” said Aymeric, watching them from above the rim of his own glass.  “He became repulsive in an attempt to scare away others.”

She met pale blue eyes in question and Aymeric merely smiled.

“Let them run,” Estinien growled, clearly proud of himself.  He shoved the pads of his toes in the crook of Samantha’s neck.  She shivered with revulsion and gasped, slapping his leg.  He grinned like a cat.  “Weak constitutions make me sick.”

Samantha pried his bare and crusty foot off of her and scowled, pinning it down on the couch.

“To return to the previous topic,” steered Aymeric, wetting his lips.  “Any and all of my past understandings—rather, interpersonal engagements—have followed sets of shifting rules and strictures all their own.”  His cheeks pinked, the faintest tinge of humiliation on his face.  He cleared his throat.  “A diplomacy ever encrypted, something of an impassable labyrinth.  Well do you know how unversed I am in such matters—intimate friendship, courtship, relations besides—”

Relations and courtship are two different matters,” Estinien sneered.

“Aye,” sighed Aymeric, finishing his glass.  “And, by my determination, similarly treacherous.  I could never enter into them so glibly as you.” 

Estinien scowled and shrugged, giving a threatening flex of his toes.  “I know naught of courtship.  And of the ruins of my relations, well—” The glance he threw between them was sharp as a lance.  “I have little to say about that.”

Aymeric’s cheeks flushed darker.  Eyes cold and bright flashed to fix first Estinien, then Samantha.  He surveyed her through his lashes.  “Indeed.  For better or for worse, at long last, I believe some manner of—spark has been enkindled.”

Stares like nightfall and morning bore down on her at once.  The force made heat pulse through her body.

Twelve.  How were they always stealing her air?

Then the feeling was promptly dispelled, because Estinien was stifling laughter and trying to comb his toes through her hair

“By the gods, Estinien—” She fought valiantly, cuffing at his feet, and he nearly suffocated on his own smothered chuckles. 

“I knew that he would like you,” Estinien purred, curling up to drain the rest of his snifter.  He set his glass aside on the table to focus entirely on using his toes for torture.

The gaze Aymeric turned to him was slow-blinking.  “Would that I had known you liked her as well.”

“Hard to keep you abreast while I was possessed,” he said, lips stiff with concentration, trying to press a sole at her throat. 

Aymeric was stretching up from his chair to pour himself another glass.  “As far as I know, your possession of her was established long before that.”

Samantha made a sound of extreme frustration.  She took Estinien’s ankle in her hand and shoved him so hard he fell from the couch.  “Why did you not tell him?”  She glared at the pile of open shirt and long limbs and silver mane on the carpet.  “I thought Aymeric was your dearest friend.”

Estinien pushed the hair out of his face and scoffed.  He rolled over to meet said friend at the wine bottle.  “He is,” Estinien insisted.  The Urchin pushed over his glass and the Bastard, predictably, obliged.  Then the beasty sighed loudly, lifted the wine to his lips, and emptied it all down his gullet at once.  “But I wanted to keep you to myself.”

Oh.

She wondered if all three of them felt something like it, the hard knot that wrung in her gut.  “Relatable,” Aymeric stated, toasting his drink while Estinien poured another.  “Alas, I daresay exclusivity is far beyond us now.  While the past is in the past, and the future is unknown, to be sure—it remains undoubtedly ours, to envision and create.”

Well said.  How unsurprising.

“What say you, Samantha?”  

Estinien, crouching back over onto the couch.

Her eyes flicked between them, hellhound beside her, monster standing at the table.  “I am also cursed with the urge to possess,” she muttered, staring down at her almost empty glass.  “But I never presumed—never expected to keep either one of you.”  Her attention flicked to Estinien.  “Especially not you.”

The beast seemed deeply placated, dully amused, teeth grinning over his filled-again chalice.  “Oh?”

“I have no wish to dally with anyone else.”  Aymeric, volunteering his opinion.  His voice was firm.  “For his abundance of misgivings, Estinien has ever been my most faithful, authentic companion.”  He looked down at him fondly and Estinien grunted and stiffened.  Then Aymeric’s eyes glittered at her, hot and steely, from his vantage point above.  “I never expected to find another.”

She gazed up at him a moment, silent and spellbound.  Then she tore herself away from the power of his stare, distracted by the echo of a question.  “Can I—ask about the nature of your—authentic and faithful companionship, now?”

Estinien huffed; scowled so much his mouth nearly fell from his face.  He was visibly strained, lips pressed together tightly.  “Brothers in arms,” he mumbled gruffly, going ruddy. 

“More than brothers,” Aymeric corrected, turning back to him with some mixture of ancient ennui and affection.  “But Estinien prefers to keep his arms far away from me.”

Estinien’s nostrils flared and he rolled his eyes, and Samantha was on the edge of her seat, heart rushing, drumming, wondering.  Curiosity and intrigue, forcefully beguiling.  Aymeric and Estinien looked at each other and seemed to decide something.  “I ran,” said Estinien flatly.

Aymeric was nodding easily, thinking.  “We fare far better as friends.”

“His mother would have killed us,” Estinien added.

“That is true.”  Aymeric was still clearly compiling something else to say, pressing his lips at the edge of his glass.  “‘Twas a complicated situation,” he finally sighed.  He sank back into his armchair and pushed the hair from his forehead.  “I am not—” He tilted his glass; watched the wine swirl inside it.  “It is not so easy for me, to engage in physical relationships.  Not without an emotional attachment.”  His eyes were nostalgic and thoughtful.  “Estinien is rather the opposite.”

In fact, case and point, Estinien was grumbling something under his breath about bloody emotional attachments and shaking his head.

Not an ideal combination.  She chewed on her lip and scowled.  “Is that what you meant—when you spoke of waxing fondly?  Estinien … dislikes your affection?”

“Despises it,” Aymeric insisted.

Estinien made a discontented sound and pouted.  “I do not despise it,” he mumbled.

“Nothing he hates more,” the Bastard continued, ignoring him.  As Estinien glowered at him in silence, he mused thoughtfully for a heartbeat.  “Differences aside, it is far beyond taboo here in Ishgard to engage in such an affair.  I consider it a blessing to find myself—drawn just as easily to the so-called fairer sex.”

“Little do I care about people,” Estinien grunted.  “Little do I care about sex.  But in the case of him,” he jerked his chin to Aymeric, “Brothers in arms, but not in the arms of each other.”

That made her snort.  “But maybe in the past?”

Estinien scoffed.  His face was permanently reddened now, likely from the wine as much as the topic.  “He would just as soon have all the arms in the room on him at once.”

On cue, Aymeric turned a dark shade of cabernet, and averted his glance.  “It is not an unwelcome thought,” he admitted rather timidly, well under his breath.  “But, in the interest of keeping my degeneracy under control, I would never dare presume to solicit such an … event.”

Ringing in her ears.  She was struck by the brazen image of him, reveling, boastful, immodest—an idol bared to the skin, worshipped by the two of them.  Pale blue eyes slitted, red-faced and watching; the wickedest, most sinful divinity, flushed and sculpted and golden, his loyal servants kneeling at his feet—

Her blood rushed south, and she struggled to breathe.  “W-would you?” 

Gods and hells that was her voice

What was she asking—

It was cracking

“Would you want—both of us at once?”

Several things happened in his face.  First, that sense of something unpenning, velvet and voracious.  His eyes blazed like blue flames as he wound himself back, reeling in tightly.  A mask descended over the turmoil beneath his expression, dimming the heat in his stare. 

His face was still red. 

“It makes no matter what I desire,” Aymeric stated, pointblank, as though that was that.  His shoulders rose and fell with a strict, steady breath.  “My desires are of negligible importance.”

Estinien’s wine was gone again.  “Your desires are important you twit,” he grumbled, getting up to pour himself another glass.  He was snorting and scoffing.  “Always with the flogging and autoflagellation—”

Aymeric winced but held fast.  “My own pleasure is the least of my concerns,” he said determinedly.  “My aim in any endeavor—” A cough.  “In endeavors such as those—” He cleared his throat.  “There is—great satisfaction to be had in—bringing delight.”

Dizzy.  That was how she felt. 

Maybe she needed more wine, too. 

Estinien’s voice was singsong and drunken and sardonic.  “There is great satisfaction to be had in bringing delight,” he derided.  His face was fully wrinkled.  “What in the hells is wrong with you?  Will you not let yourself be delighted?

“I have!”  Aymeric coughed again.  “That is—to say—” His brow furrowed.  “I should not have to explain this to you again,” he grumbled under his breath.

“I was with a man once who cared very little for anything but his own delights,” Samantha decided to contribute, breathing weakly.  “He wanted to control everything.”  She lunged for the wine bottle.

His fingers dragging through her hair, plaiting it gently.  It felt good when he touched her like this.  Loving.  “I want to protect you,” he said, his voice low and soft.  “I want to keep you safe and healthy.”

“He picked the clothes I wore,” she muttered, crimson glugging into her glass.  “The food I ate—the very people I conversed with.”  She closed her eyes.  “I want to make sure that I—”

What?”  Estinien spat out the word like a curse.  He set down his snifter before he could break it, hands fisted, knuckles white.  “What absolute shite eating twat of an arsecheek dared,” he roared that word, “To tell you what to bloody eat?

A snort escaped her, breathy with hysterics, but he was deadly serious.

Quite literally deadly, she was suddenly afraid.

“That professor she mentioned before, perhaps?”  Aymeric.  “Raphael was his name?”

Estinien was shaking and she grabbed him by one big knee.  He jerked to face her, breathing hard enough to shudder.  “It was years ago,” she said.  “Almost an epoch since I met him.  As my mother would say, the man’s a moronic tomfooling ignoramus.  Not worth your thoughts or anything else.  I only mentioned it because—his was the last big understanding I was ever a part of, before this.”

A hush descended as the word bounced between them again.

Understanding.

Aymeric took a breath.  The diplomat, reining them in to the main idea.  “Shall we assemble ours for certain, then?  An understanding more specific than accursed devil’s triangle?”  Two faces turned to him again, and he raised his eyebrows and blushed.  “You wish for me to decide it?”

She took a breath.  “Please do.”

He looked between the two of them, and something fragile and covetous swelled behind his expression.  “I want you both to be contented—”

Estinien groaned and rolled his eyes.  “And we want you to be contented, you forlorn holed-away dullard—which, might I add, is the entire bloody reason I left in the first place.”  He slammed the heel of his fist against his forehead and hissed.  “Fury fickle and facetious knows how swiving hard I tried—fine damned godsforsaken clods in hells in a codpiece—"

She blinked at Estinien several times, ignoring his colorful profanity.  “But what about you?”

Estinien’s hand clamped like a vise on her thigh, unexpected.  As she choked back a cry of surprise, he took a sharp breath and glared at Aymeric.  “I want the two of you to stay alive,” he rumbled, intent.  “Because absent, I will be.”  He looked at the carpet, then.  “Promises and commitments were never mine to make,” he muttered.  “But both of you belong to me.”

 


❅ ☾ ✧ ☽ ❅

 

They opened another bottle of wine.

Maybe two.  No one knew what time it was anymore. 

She could hardly keep track of what she was thinking.

“Fine,” Estinien spat, sighing heavily.  “Yes.  I like it in your manor,” he grumbled.  He was taking up the entire couch with the slink of his body, head pillowed in her lap.  “I like to lollop about in your manor, Ser Aymeric,” he caterwauled.  Sloshing and noshing.

She stroked her fingers through long silver hair and ugly-laughed, and Aymeric—who was sitting on the floor now, cheek against her knee—turned around sharply to face him.  He propped his chin up to scowl, an ilm away from his brow.  “Then why in the name of Halone do you never stay?” he complained.

“A man needs freedom,” Estinien slurred, shoving Aymeric’s forehead with the heel of one palm.

Aymeric groaned in mock frustration and scoffed, rolling his head on the edge of the cushion.  Samantha grunted.  “I doubt he ever tried to trap you, you numpty,” she said, wiggling the tip of Estinien’s regal, shapely nose with one forefinger.

He snapped his teeth at it.  “Hands to yourself.”

“Says the lump with his head in my lap,” she snorted, flicking him in the forehead.

“I am not a lump,” woofed Estinien, swatting her fingers.

Aymeric rubbed his face on her leg.  “Let me switch places with him,” he begged, rising on his knees.

“No,” Estinien barked, shoving him away again.  “You had her all this bloody time.”  He started caterwauling again.  “Who stood for Ishgard in the Aery,” he sang.  “Who felled Nidhogg in my stead—

“Oh, shut it,” Aymeric whined, clawing his way up—shoved down by Estinien again.

“Who flew to Azys Lla and became him—

Aymeric harrumphed and Samantha moved her swatted-off hand to tangle in his hair instead.  Rook black curls soft as feathers snagged between her fingers.  Aymeric arched up into the touch like a cat and moaned softly.  Estinien laughed at him.  “Needy,” he accused.

“Guilty,” Aymeric admitted, tipping back his chin to divert her attention; to rake his lips across the lines in her palm.  She cupped his face gently and smiled down at him; met worshipful eyes like blue starlight.

Estinien cackled.  “Dumb clodhopping mooncalves.”

Samantha flicked him in the forehead again.  “Ass.”

 


❅ ☽ ☄ ☾ ❅

 

They were all on the floor now, in front of the fire, backs to the carpet, staring at the ceiling.

She wondered if the room was spinning for them all.

“Persevering.”  Aymeric listed one more trait, making a sound as he stretched.  “Most certainly.”

Samantha pursed her lips and squinted at the rods of the curtains.  They seemed to be wobbling.  “Persevering for you.  Stubborn or pigheaded, for me,” she qualified.  “Estinien is inflexible.”

A palm full of scars and calluses spread across her face and she tried to bite it. 

Unapproachable,” Estinien growled, lifting his ragged hand away from her gnashing jaws and above his face to inspect it.  “Intimidating, for another.”  He chuckled.  “So many times, a highborn came mewling.”  He aped a haughty, infantile voice.  “Oh, Ser Estinien, tell me—why does he always look so cold?  What could he ever be thinking?

Aymeric sighed through his nose.  “Cautious, then,” he hummed, his voice a bit quieter.  “But nonetheless compassionate.”  His knuckles brushed the back of Samantha’s hand, and she gripped his palm tightly. 

Estinien grunted in disagreement.  His lips made a sound when they parted and Aymeric lurched over to slap a hand across his mouth.  “Brutally tender inside,” Aymeric insisted, hissing when Estinien’s teeth found purchase on his flesh.  “You cannot deny it.”

The silver beast growled and jerked his head to dislodge the monster’s claws. 

“Lonely,” Samantha said, beneath the tangle of their limbs.

Both Aymeric and Estinien stilled and turned to face her.  She crouched up to sit and stare at the fire; slid her stockinged feet a bit closer to the hearthstone.  Her toes flexed.  “I know you both are lonesome, same as I.”  Her voice was bald and plain.  Then she shivered.  She folded her knees to her chest and propped her chin on them, pulling her skirts to her heels like a blanket.

Aymeric hunched up beside her, and Estinien followed, not to be outdone.  The three of them stared into the flames and thought in silence for a moment.  “Solitude was ever my bedfellow,” Aymeric muttered.  “I believe Estinien calls it being reclusive.”

“I am the recluse,” owned Estinien, reaching his bare toes toward the hearth.  “You are a cloistered old hermit.”

Cross-legged, Aymeric leaned back against both palms; pressed a shoulder to Samantha.  He crept one hand along the floor behind her, toward Estinien.  “Locked away with Ishgard, alone in my manor,” he said, quoting something spoken before. 

She supplied the next part, words muffled by the press of her chin on her skirts.  “Plenty of stories of damsels in towers.”  She took a deep breath, fire reflecting in her eyes.  “Plenty of dragons in Coerthas.”

“Puts me in mind of Anyx Trine,” Estinien grumbled. 

He glanced between them.  Samantha, withdrawn to curve over herself.  Aymeric, wanting to comfort them both.  The Urchin huffed out a growl and thrust his arm behind his Witch, grabbed his idiot Bastard by the forearm, and dragged him over.

 


✧ ☾ ❅ ☽ ✧

 

“If you could have anything you wanted,” she asked them, “What would it be?”

Samantha was drowsy from the wine, but Estinien was sobering, still wide awake.  He propped himself up on his elbows.  They were cross-hatched together now, overlapping, her legs folded at his side, the back of Aymeric’s head on his stomach, her cheek on Aymeric’s chest—

Aymeric’s answering chuckle was soft and silken, rumbling through Estinien’s sinews, resonating deep in his marrow.  “Obvious answers aside?”  As he spoke, Aymeric skimmed a thumb down her jaw and the line of her neck, tracing the frame of her shoulder. 

“Rest,” Estinien said, very quickly, before the wine could finish wearing off.  His chest rose and fell with a breath.  Aymeric’s hair tickled his skin as he tilted his face to look up at him—cool blue eyes filled with gentle interrogation—and Estinien avoided his gaze.  Estinien focused, instead, on the hearth.  “Contentment.  No more toils.”

Samantha conspicuously stiffened. 

Aymeric curled to hold her in a reflex, and she took a strident breath.

Estinien turned to find her looking right at him, something haunted in the depths of her stare.  The taste of blood and smoke filled his mouth; an echo of terror, burnt ash in his stomach.

With this task accomplished, my toils shall finally—

His jaw tensed as he realized what he said.  He bent toward her, reaching a hand, and she grabbed it, lurching forward.  Aymeric sat up to follow, buzzing with alarm, spreading loose arms to drape around them both—

She crumbled into Estinien’s chest and sobbed.  Wept.  Moaned feebly like a child.  “You—” She gasped sharply, doubling over, folding her hands at her stomach.  She shuddered with horror and revulsion.  “I—couldn’t stop you—”

“It is over,” Estinien reminded her.  He was uncomfortable but he held her very tightly; pressed his lips to the top of her head.  “Nidhogg is gone.”

At the bare skin of his breastbone, he could feel her clenching her teeth against the tears, trying to stop.

“Does she—” Aymeric, beside himself with concern.  He gripped Estinien’s shoulder.  “Of what is she thinking?”

“The Eyes,” Estinien muttered, and she racked with an unspoken cry, choking it back.  He shifted his body to hold her more closely; opened his limbs to fold her, flush, to him.  He felt Aymeric’s tentative hands at both of his shoulders and leaned forward to encourage him.  Air escaped Aymeric’s lungs as he took them both into the reach of his arms. 

The three of them locked in an embrace.

 

☾ ☄ ✧


 

Chapter Text


✧ ☄ ☽

 

She jolted out of a dense and dreamless slumber.

Eyes fuzzy, nose stuffy; her body was curled on hard carpet.  A hoarse sound escaped her as she stirred against the floor, blinking the blur from her vision. 

The perfume of fire and wine lingered in the air.  Her cheek was stiff, propped against warm, bare skin—swarthy with a dusting of fine, silver hairs.  Estinien.  His familiar muscle and sinew served as her pillow, wrought in shapes very long-and-well-studied.  She squinted and grimaced down the taut lines of him and realized she’d drooled in her sleep.

Samantha wiped her mouth with the back of one hand.  Then she sighed through her nose and tried to sit up.  She pressed a palm against her living cushion for leverage, and her fingers caught in his undone lapel.  Estinien wheezed.  “Fury,” he grunted, gripping her wrist to still it.  He hunched to a sit and ran his tongue across his teeth.  “Too much wine.”

She made a broken sound of agreement and folded her legs to a kneel.  Heavy arms restrained her from behind.  She twisted to find Aymeric, long black lashes fluttering, half-awake. 

“Impossible,” he croaked.  His weight was heavy at her shoulders as he tried to move.  Then he crushed his face at the back of her head and laughed gruffly.  His breath was warm on her neck; the scent of it, bittersweet.  “Halone,” he lamented.  “The room spins.”

The three of them shifted apart but stayed close.  The fire was dimmed.  Still, it was burning, and the night was pitch black beyond the window.  “Still some time before dawn,” she mumbled, her own mouth sour.  She shivered and clenched her jaw against the throes of fading liquor.  “Water and a bedroom might be welcome.”

Aymeric propped himself up on an arm and combed back his ruffled hair, squinting.  He was bleary-eyed, the paleness of his stare all the brighter for it.  “There is a pitcher to be had in my chambers,” he said, hoarse.  Then he flushed deep red.  “Not to imply a solicitation,” he stammered, looking between them.  He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders, willed authority back into his drowsy face.  The silver tongue flexed above the last stand of the spirits.  “The guest rooms are yours for the taking, but I freely admit that I—particularly enjoyed the last evening we found ourselves together.”  He lowered his lashes, and his voice lowered, too.  “You are more than welcome to join me.”

Samantha blushed hotly.  It felt more peaceful than a dream, to rest between them that night.  What was the point of hiding her desires—especially while the wine yet gave her confidence? 

“I would like that,” she said, seconding the proposal.  Still, her voice came out timid, frailer than expected, hearkening back to meeker times.  She trembled, and one of Aymeric’s arms wrapped around her.  She loosed a weak breath, assured by his touch.

They tilted their faces to Estinien. 

To her relief and gentle amusement, the man of stone instinct and impulse went ruddy, tinted from sharp cheekbones to ear tips.  “’Twas I who made the damned thing happen,” he groused, lurching up to a crouch.  Every muscle in his stomach flexed as he forced himself to stand.  He glared down at them, towering overhead.  “Though the plan was to leave you two nitwits together without me.”

She could almost hear the smirk in Aymeric’s voice, rumbling low behind her.  “What was it you said—” Aymeric paused for effect.  Her heart thrilled at the way his hold on her tensed; the way his fingers spread to grip her.  “Will you not let yourself be delighted?

Estinien coughed and grumbled under his breath.  “Get your arses off the floor,” he muttered, stretching an arm down to help them.  Samantha was glad for his powerful tug as she and Aymeric struggled to their feet, hands tangled to brace each other.  Once they were all upright and well-balanced, Estinien crossed his arms and stood rigid.

Their host cleared his throat.  Beneath the swoop of his dark hair, Aymeric’s face became so red it truly seemed he might combust.  His back stiffened, blue shirt shifting with the draw of a brisk lungful of air.  “Let us retire upstairs, then.”

By way of answer, Estinien flourished a palm toward the doorway and grimaced.

Aymeric inhaled sharply.  He smoothed both hands down the front of his black trousers.  Then he turned on his heel and started apace for the hallway. 

Across the threshold of the parlor, the corridor was cold, the foyer colder besides.  Samantha shivered, following their trailblazer.  There they were, a trio of arguably the most indomitable figures in Ishgard; a trinity tied together in tentative tenderness—

And she had feeling all three of them were terrified.

Six stumbling feet scaled the stairs in silence.

She focused on the shape of Aymeric, leading the way.  He was grand in blue and black, the frame of him poised and broad and strong.  Still she lagged, dizzier than ever.  The wine was fading, replaced with a haze of giddy hesitation.  Intuition, weaving an advisement—be careful.

Beside her, Estinien swaggered up to match pace.  Shoulder to shoulder again, open shirt dangling, one of his hands grazed the small of her back.  He seemed oddly sober. 

“You look pale,” he whispered, teasing, bent to her ear.

They turned onto the landing and she frowned up at her leering tormenter.  “You’re insufferable.”

Silver hair tickled her face as he grinned down like a wolf.  Never sated. 

She sighed and moved a bit faster to escape him, coming up to Aymeric’s left.  He felt her approach and stretched a palm to grasp her, twining their fingers together.  “Water, indeed,” he muttered, mouth dry.  A wry glance down at her.  “Any chance you can conjure some now?”

“If you open a window,” she said unironically, “I can melt the ice.”

He laughed and scrubbed his lips at her temple.  “Have I mentioned that I love you?”

Her head spun.  “Several times and more,” she quipped, breathy.

“Not nearly enough.”  His brow furrowed then, and he craned his neck back.  A loud whisper.  “Estinien.”

A grunt from the background.

“Have I mentioned—”

Do not,” Estinien smoldered.

 


 

Aymeric’s bedchamber was dim, glow in the hearth charred to embers. 

No candlesticks were lit.  In the thin radiance, the walls were very dark, blending out into nothingness beside the curtained windows.  In what could be seen of the room, there were the vague shapes of his armchairs and settee, his well-stocked desk.  She caught a glimpse of the withered specters of their costumes from the banquet, black-and-gold and silver, beside the armoire. 

The keeper of the boudoir waited for his guests to file inside.  Then he shut the door and crossed the carpet.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, his gait was stable as he headed for the nightstand.  There in the gloom, beside the wide canopied bed—room for three, at least—was indeed a large decanter of water and a glass.

Samantha listened to the sound of him pouring and was slammed with the question: What in hells might happen next?  She tried to throttle it, since the answer was, rightfully, nothing.  Nothing at all but sleeping, since—well, weren’t they too smashed and exhausted to—to what, exactly?

What did they want?  What did she want?

The back of her mind itched with a whirlwind of definitely not nothing as she busied herself with the fire, stoking it ablaze.  She scowled at the flames.  Gods damn it, no.  How would that work?  She heard tale of it, the triad, the ménage à trois.  But was that even—between her and them—what would they—where— 

Her thoughts filled with half-spun images, face blazing hotter than the hearth.  Far worse, she felt the searing heat of someone watching.  She looked up, lightheaded, to find Estinien leaning against the mantelpiece.  He had an all too knowing look in his flinty eyes as he studied her, very intently. 

Stop,” she barked, glaring at him.

His lips curled into another shite-eating grin, embers glinting in his stare.  “Stop what?”

“Staring at me like that,” she grunted, prodding the kindling with the poker, disturbing a whorl of sparks.

Estinien shifted his weight, his gaze bearing into her harder.  “Wherefore?”

She huffed.  “Because you—” She huffed again and grumbled.  “You look like you want to devour me.”

Nothing changed about his expression at all.  In fact, it got worse.

She set the poker down and lunged to cuff him in the stomach, and he leapt away, laughing.

“Both of you, come drink this.”  Aymeric’s demand.  The glass made a hollow sound as he set it back down, perched at the edge of the mattress.  He unclasped his collar, rolled his shoulders, and exhaled.  Samantha stalked over to obey him, glad for wholesome distraction.  But even with Aymeric, she should have known better—especially standing there in front of him, well within the span of his grasp—

No sooner had she finished her last sip than he wrapped both arms around her.  He pulled her rearward into the sprawl of his lap and she howled.  “Aymeric.”  A fresh wave of vertigo made her wince.  “I was doing such a good job of not being sick.”  She braced both hands on the solid thighs that bookended her; closed her swimming eyes against the sight of Estinien, who was strolling over, chortling without sound.

Estinien took his turn right there with the decanter, forgoing the goblet—shook his head as Aymeric bent his face to dote athwart her shoulder.  Full lips nuzzled her cheek in full view of their vindictive observer; black hair tickled to caress her brow.  Aymeric said nothing, only softly, somberly sighed. 

“You both make me sick,” Estinien announced, guzzling straight from mouth of the carafe.  He licked his lips and set it back down.  Then he shrugged off his shirt and dropped it to cover their faces. 

Aymeric shuddered with a chuckle, his attentions undeterred.  Under the warm drape of the veil that smelled strongly of their companion, he curled to find her mouth.

It was—unholy how she felt, tasting the malt of him and the smoke of the other.  Unspeakable, unimaginablepotent and completely overwhelming.  Every ilm of her skin was prickling.  Her lips parted mutely in a gasp and he met it with another; and then gods, she was lost in his tongue

Every thought melted, dissolving to mist.  Her blood was singing, her bones crushed to dust.  Memories of the evening bloomed in her wine-addled mind as Aymeric filled her with his bittersweet flavor.  Both hands pressed at her belly, wide and warm and gods—she was blurring, blending into him; smothered in a fragrance like pepper and wishes—like spice and the whispers of daydreams—

The unmistakable sound of cloth hitting the carpet, followed by a flat and husky voice.  “I need a bath.”

Her breath came fast as they parted, caught up.  The world was confined to Aymeric’s mouth, to the heady space beneath the shroud.  All the better, because she assumed Estinien was currently undressed, and she had no idea how to react to that.  She hardly had any idea how to behave at all anymore.

“Take a bath, then,” Aymeric permitted.  His eyes were locked with hers, their lips still nestled together.  His wintry stare was hooded, and she gazed at him, helpless; drowned in his blatant, boastful, unbashful exaltation.  “You know the way to the washroom.”

Estinien grunted and made no other noise as he presumably crossed the floor.  Then, from a slight distance, his voice cast back to them.  “Try to keep your clothes on,” he said, dripping with satire.  Then the sound of a door, opening and latching back closed.

Aymeric took a breath.  “We should ready for bed,” he said hoarsely, removing their curtain.

He grinned at her lopsidedly, black hair all bedraggled with static, and gods, she was struck again at how mindlessly enticing he was.  “We should ready for sleep,” she specified, throat parched with implication.

His crooked grin widened.  “Sleep would be the wiser choice,” he hummed, urging her to stand.  As he rose along with her, she tried to ignore what she nonetheless distinctly perceived at the lap of his trousers; tried not to stare as he pulled off his shirt.

All the moisture evaporated from her mouth.  Her fingers faltered and froze at the first clasp of her dress and she tried to remember how to breathe.  Good gods his beauty was boundless.  Unfading.  Unfair.  The man was surreal—truly an idol of worship willed somehow to life.  There was the susurrus of water streaming in the bathroom, and she fumbled as she tried again to unfasten herself. 

Aymeric noticed, smiling almost shyly, self-conscious.  He combed a hand up her cheek, through her hair, down the back of her neck.  “Might I assist you?” 

Her heart was roaring.  Wordlessly, she swept her tresses to the side and twisted to grant him access. 

Gentle thumbs nudged the row of her buttons apart; opened the stiff fabric at her back.  The pads of his fingers brushed the stretch of backbone revealed, bare above the dip of her chemise.  There was a pause.  Then she felt his warm lips on her spine.  A coarse tremor rushed through her, electric.  “How I wanted to kiss you like this,” he sighed, slowly dragging his mouth.  “To show them all how you affect me—”

Oh. 

The words rumbled through her, straight to her pelvis. 

His lips were hot between her shoulder blades as he finished unbinding her bodice.  Then he eased down the décolletage of her gown.  The heavy sleeves drooped, and she shrugged her way out of them; slumped to allow the bulky layers to wilt to her waist.  The sound that escaped him then was truly sordid; the hands that swept to palm the thin silk at her breasts devoutly wicked.  He removed them right away, as though he’d been burned.  “Forgive me,” he grunted. 

Her throat was ash.  In the background was the clear and vivid sound of sluicing in the bath.  Was it wrong, that she wanted Aymeric to touch her?  Was it wrong to want him in this instant—to truly not mind about Estinien, or Ishgard, or anything else?

But it was more than not minding.  After all that had happened tonight, she almost wanted an audience.

Let them watch.  Let anyone see her take what she wanted.

The vaguest thought of it set her completely aflame.

She unpieced her apparel, slouching out of everything but her chemise.  Then she turned to face him, bared to the short, crinkled hem.  She tried to find her voice above the cinders in her mouth. 

Words rose to her throat, a quiver of stolen arrows.  If you can have no objection—

It was impossible to speak, but the distance between them was slim.  She shaved it even slimmer.  The lace-limned incline of her chest grazed his bare skin, and her thumbs traced the angles of his shapely, well-made frame—the beguiling creases of his hips.  His brow knitted as he watched her; his lips parted in a thirsty breath.  Her fingertips skimmed the band of his trousers.  “Where do you keep your nightclothes?” she asked, unlatching his belt.

His eyes were heavy lidded, scorching her inside.  “The dresser there.”

She took his hand and, quite like a dream, they drifted over.  “Which drawer?” she asked.

He positioned himself tight behind her, luxurious mouth at the nape of her neck.  “Top left.”

Her hand shook as she gathered up the knob, dragging it open.  Neatly folded, practical attire, shades muted in the firelit dimness.  “Any preference?”

His thumbs brushed the rungs of her ribcage; dragged down to the top of her thighs; curled up beneath the creped fringe of her hemline.  The tip of his tongue traced the shell of her ear.  “Whatever you like.”

She steadied her weakening knees and carded through the clothes until she found a clear set of pants.  They were soft and pale, something like flannel.  She made her selection and shut the drawer; turned again to face him.  He dipped to take her lips in his—a silken, savoring kiss, rich and tasting of yearning.  Her hands pulled open his belt.  She unlaced and unfastened the clasps at his lap and he was shaking, barely restrained.  His teeth were hard on her neck and she bit back a cry.  “Careful,” she whispered.

He licked the tender mark and wrested himself back under control.  “My apologies.”

At his waistband, his hands covered hers.  His black trousers rustled as their overlapped fingers shucked them down.  She dragged the legs all the way to the floor to kneel at his feet, and he took a shallow, ragged breath.  Red-eared and red-faced, he looked down at her like he was quite literally in agony. 

“This is torture,” he muttered.

She laughed under her breath and helped him step into the nightpants; slowly pulled the fabric up over his thighs.  It was impossible to miss the display at the apex—heavy, aching, waiting—but she kept her eyes locked on his dazzling stare.  Her face burned as her fingers brushed against him.

“I’m not entirely sure how I feel about—” She jerked her chin to the washroom.

Her hands were too shaky, too wanton to tuck and lace and fasten.  He helped.  “That is fair,” he said, confining himself, voice nonetheless rough and dusky.  He leaned their noses together; grinned rakishly at her lips.  “Would it be entirely untoward of me to fault the wine?”

She barked out a throaty rasp.  “Very untoward.”

He hummed in thought; closed his eyes and kissed her—kissed her and kissed her, again, in lavish supplication.  “I love you,” he vowed in exhalation, slanting them together.  Both palms tracked down her sides and he held her, pinned her gently to the dresser.  Her thighs bent to clasp him, and his hips jerked, self-control broken for a moment.  He took a clipped breath, beautiful face flushed and radiant, framed by the glow of the fire—rocked them brow to brow, his hair tousled and disheveled, curled at the tips of his ears.  Aloft and beneath, blessed heat inside her, coiled so tight.  “I love you, helplessly.

She smoothed her cheek against his and tilted her lips to one long ear.  “I feel exactly the same, and I want you, so badly.”  The length caged between them gave a fierce throb in answer.

He gripped her harder and sighed.  “I know,” he said, darkly, lowly, sweetly.  His voice was almost a moan; his breath a hot rush at her neck.  He nipped her there.  “But alas, there is an old demon in my bathtub—and I would rather not be heckled and jeered on his return.”

She crowed out a cackle because it was true.  If he caught them like that—

“We would never hear the end of it,” she croaked, hooking her heels at the back of his knees.

He rolled his hips and groaned.  “Ah,” he panted.  “M-Mayhap—” He sloped to kiss her, insistent, and then forced himself to back away.  “Sleep,” he gasped, offering a hand.

She followed her idol of myths and midnight reveries crossway to the bed, hypnotized, eager to trail him.  If after tonight, his trance was unbroken—well, she was sure that now, it would never, ever, shatter.  Her lips twisted with a grin and she shook her head.  “Incubus.”

He bent a knee and slipped onto the downy curve of the duvet, making it fold like tufts of meringue.  Narrowed eyes like cold, early mornings glittered back at her.  “Come again?”

She lingered at the edge of the mattress, simpering.  “You heard me.”

The shape of his mouth was devilish as he sank to lounge at the pillows—as he pulled her down with him.  “Seraph of shadows,” he crooned, reclining, opening his arms.  “Spirit of sunsets and smoldering seduction.”

She crawled to slip within the welcoming spread of his limbs; let him fold her against him.  Then she climbed to straddle him, smoothing her hands down his bare, tempting skin.  “Fiend,” she breathed, bowing to kiss the column of his throat.  “Monstrous and vicious and keen to be unfettered—”

He gripped her, held her in place as his hips lurched up harshly in answer, in testament.  Beneath the black veil of his lashes, his eyes were plainly molten.  “Enfeebled by the starlight of a cruel and sinful angel,” he purred, lifting his chin in a needy invitation.

She found his pleading lips with her mouth.  Her blood hummed when he pulsed between her legs, and she shoved her face against his neck, giddy.  “We really are completely debauched."

“Wicked, remorseless,” he said, voice shaded.  “Menaces to society.”  He smoothed his palms down her back; hooked her legs to align their hips more firmly.  She latched on in a reflex as easy as breathing, and his eyes half-lidded as he brushed their lips together.  “Corrupted irredeemably.” 

The door to the washroom opened, capturing their hazy attention. 

Naked and gleaming and wreathed in curls of white steam, Estinien swaggered out.  He was toweling his hair.  He was toweling nowhere else.

A blistering feeling split through her, the levin of memory.  How many moons had it been since she’d seen him?  The vista was vivid but dusty with cobwebs; one of those things packed very far back, shelved away deep to shirk the pain that came with remembering.  To see him again, after the weight of tonight—she felt slammed with