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Them Dirty Bones

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The wind was blowing in from the south, bringing with it the stinging smoke of the fires the retreating army had started, in a futile attempt to slow the Alliance advance. It did serve to mask the smells of a city in turmoil, of blood and ozone and worse things.

Aethas bravely accepted the smoke with stinging eyes, instead of smelling what lay before him.

It was not supposed to have been like this.

Alleria had assured him that the Ren'dorei would hold back, that they would stay away from the Sunwell, lest it corrupt the very thing they were dependent on themselves. At least they had held that second promise. The Sunwell's light was still glimmering faintly on the horizon, uncaring of her people's plight once more.

Vereesa told him that there would not be much fighting once they reached the city, for the citizens themselves would be glad to be reunited with their lost kin, would see them as an opportunity to cast away the past and march with them into the future. They would lay down their weapons and let them in with little fuss.

Aethas walked past another void portal, one of the ways the advancing army had managed to penetrate so far, so fast into Silvermoon City, when those gates had remained closed. It tugged at his mind, an echo of what the elf who had cast this portal must be experiencing.

He was torn out of his reverie by the screaming of a blood elf woman, clawing at the fallen body of a man, laying bloodied on the ground as Alliance soldiers pulled her with them. She spat at them and they had to handle her roughly to make her come.

If they were supposed to be welcomed with open arms, then why were the streets littered with corpses again? Why were there living survivors led away struggling and cursing?

Aethas was glad for the hood, shielding his face from scrutiny, by blood elves and Alliance alike. The Kirin Tor tabard he still wore left him in peace for its neutrality, but right now it seemed to itch and burn on his chest.

It was not supposed to be like this.

He found himself stopping by the fountain in the Court of the Sun, numbly watching the blood of a fallen guard slowly color the water crimson. If he looked closely, he could see the faint cracks where the bench had struck it, those few years ago.

The reminder of the man made Aethas’ gaze travel upwards towards the Spire and his chest began to constrict as he saw the fallen guards lining the stairs.  Slowly he began to ascend, his ears picking up voices, some faint hope stirring in his chest. This had been where they all had headed, to end it all, while Aethas had stood back and watched.

The scene when he reached the entrance killed that hope before it could blossom. There were bodies here too, guards fallen where they had died protecting their leaders until the very end.

It was not supposed to be like this!

Aethas gaze roved the room, saw the gathered elves and men wearing tabards of Alliance blue, talking, cursing, standing around...

His breath stopped in his chest as his eyes took in the familiar features, now laid out on the ground. Red robes, black hair, red armor, pale hair. But the one his eyes sought out was the shape clad in blue, though even that had been stained with red, left outside the circle of onlookers, looking much like a Pandarian quillrat.

Fearfully he kneeled down, gently pushing away strands of golden hair to feel for a pulse. One eye opened at his touch and Aethas feared his heart would stop in his chest, but then he found himself, tearing away his glove to feel that weak pulse under his fingers.

He heard himself cry out, "He's still alive!", even as Halduron's eye fell shut again and blood began to bubble at his lips.

He would not be alive for much longer.

"Someone help him!" he cried now, finding in himself a strength he did not know he possessed as he began to lift the prone ranger off the floor, sending looks of desperation at those assembled around the other two bodies.

He recognized them all, they of the empty promises. Vereesa, Alleria, with Umbric by her side. The Kaldorei woman in her Sentinel general’s armor was familiar yet he could not find her name in his frazzled mind, but the look she shot him told him she would not be lifting any fingers for his sake.

They only stared at him and he felt anger lace into his panic, some part of him yelling at him to force them to help. A fireball could be an excellent motivator at times.

What made them speak was the new arrival by the door, standing beside the hulking form of Genn Greymane in his worgen form.

"Your highness," Alleria said, bowing towards the Alliance King.

Aethas grabbed for the last straw now presented to him.

"He is worth more to you alive than dead!" he called, aiming his pleading towards the young man who had not so long ago been a staunch supporter of peace.

Watching Aethas standing there, holding up the prone and bleeding form in his arms did cause the stern mask to fall off of Anduin Wrynn's face and the human began to walk towards him, his hands already glowing softly with light.

"No," it was Genn's hand, as much as his gruff voice which held the king back.

"But he is right," Anduin said, angrily. "It was not supposed to be like this."

Some part of Aethas stirred at the sentiment expressed by another person.

"They fought, they knew what was coming," Genn said.

Anduin's face twisted with conflicting emotions, until he finally spoke again.

"And there is something to be said about mercy," he finally said. "If you will not let me help him, then find a priest who will."

Genn let out a snort, a parent humoring an errant child, then he turned and walked outside, barking orders.

Soon a female worgen stalked inside, clearly displeased with the task she'd been given. She gave Halduron a look that could only be contempt, but then her light infused hands were placed on his chest.

Not a second too soon. Aethas had counted the beats of his heart until this moment, feeling them slow down to a trickle, but now, he could hear the change in the rhythm, growing slowly stronger.

And not just that, but the sucking wet sounds of Halduron's breathing were becoming deeper, less strained. Aethas found that his arms were shaking now, from more than just the strain of carrying the other elf.

"There," the worgen woman said, after she had let her light smooth across Halduron’s shoulders where she had roughly pulled out the arrows that sprouted from it. "He is no longer dying."

Aethas finally gave into the demands of his body and slid to the floor, carefully, lest he open some closed wound on Halduron's still ravaged body. At least Halduron would not die today. Tomorrow was no guarantee.

The weight inside his chest lessened, but only by a fraction. A little less blood on his hands. A little less blame to heap upon his shoulders.

When a few human guardsmen came to take Halduron away, the woman among them assuring him that he would be taken care of, there was no strength left in him to protest. He only followed a few steps behind, at least until he was back in the Court of the Sun, watching Genn whip the throngs of Alliance troops back into a semblance of order.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a troop of battle magi, a few of them bearing the same tabard as he. The sight made him feel nothing but shame.

It was not supposed to be like this.


***


Halduron had enough experience with mind altering substances to know when he was doped out of his mind. Right now, he was addled enough that the world appeared fuzzy around the edges when he opened his eyes. It could be nothing else save for some insidious substance in his veins.

Whatever herbal concoction they’d forced down his throat helped push away the encroaching panic and disorientation at the unfamiliar surroundings, casting them in fluffy, pink hues. It dulled the pain of healing injuries to a far away thing, nothing of concern at the moment.

The first thing that began to wear away at that comfortable fuzziness that was his world at the moment was when he tried to move his arms and found them restrained, ropes around each wrist, anchoring them securely to his ankles and the bed posts. No matter, he could hardly lift his head off the pillows right now anyway.

The next was the shape over by the door, a grey fuzzy cloud slowly materializing in front of his addled eyes into a guard, proudly displaying the lion of Stormwind on his tabard. The man shot him a look from across the room and Halduron tried to remember why there was an Alliance guard in here. Where was here anyway?

Why wasn't he in the Spire?

Where were the others?

Slowly the fog began to recede, though he tried to will it to stay, to keep him safe inside his cloud of ignorance. But it was too late.

Shards of memories pierced through his cocoon then; of that desperate ride through the Ghostlands, the Alliance vanguard at his back while he unloaded a full quiver at them.

Of burning trees, though it hurt him to do so, anything to slow them down, as he helped those fleeing north to the city.

Of making that final stand at the footsteps of the Spire, Lor'themar urging him to leave:

“They won’t touch Quel’Danas," as once friends and allies rained death on him.

He sucked in a breath, forcing the memories back behind closed lids and when he opened his eyes again he became aware of another person in the room.

The red haired mage was still wearing his Kirin Tor garb, clutching his hood in his hands, his freckles clearly visible in his pale face. When he caught Halduron’s eye, his eyes brightened and some color returned to his cheeks.

“Halduron!” he exclaimed, relief painting a smile on his face, though it did not reach his eyes. The mage made a fumbled attempt at reaching for Halduron’s bound hands, but he held himself back, sinking back in his seat, a cloud drifting across his features.

The memories pushed down on Halduron again and against his own better judgement he forced words from his parched throat.

“You have some nerve showing your face here,” Halduron snarled groggily. “Are you guarding me on behalf of the Kirin Tor?”

It hurt to speak, but he didn't mind the pain. It numbed him to other things he did not wish to dwell on.

Aethas looked stricken, the color draining from his face.

“N-No!” he gasped. “I found you…You were dying!”

The mage began to fumble with his hood again and one of his hands dug into the Kirin Tor tabard he wore, gathering it up in a balled fist.

“I didn't want this,” Aethas whispered, almost too low for Halduron to hear.

“Then maybe you should have stopped your Alliance friends before they breached the gates of Silvermoon!” Halduron snapped, pulling with some hitherto unknown source of strength at his bonds, feeling something sharp and jagged grind against his left shoulder.

“They wouldn't have listened!” Aethas cried loud enough that the guard in the corner shot him a look. Now that Halduron's mind had cleared he saw that the guard was a Kaldorei. Just lovely.

“They said it would not come to such violence…” Aethas mumbled as he stared down at his tabard, spattered with blood, Halduron saw that now.

The ropes dug painfully into Halduron's wrists, a good pain. Still, the pain was not enough to stay the next words out of his mouth.

“What about Rommath…and Lor'themar?” he said, forcing himself to look Aethas straight in the eye. “Are they rotting away in an Alliance prison?”

He saw the answer to his question plain in the expression on Aethas face, in how his ears drooped and his eyes filled with tears, though he still struggled to contain his emotions. Aethas had always been easy to read, his emotions always so close to the surface with nothing to mask how he wore his heart on his sleeve.

It was probably why he wore that hood, Halduron mused.

So, he had failed then. He hadn’t even succeeded in dying to save his oldest friend. Suddenly Halduron had a brief moment of sympathy for Sylvanas, as twisted as she had become in her undeath, for was this not very familiar to her own fall?

“At least you are alive,” a voice whispered inside him, though it did little to bring him comfort.

He wanted to scream, to rage, anything but let himself sink into the dark abyss that had wrenched open inside him. There were two targets inside the room at present. If Halduron fired at one of them he might offer him the oblivion that Aethas rescue had denied him, but instead he chose the other.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Halduron growled at Aethas, tugging again at the ropes that kept him bound. “Get the fuck out of my sight!”

Aethas face crumpled around the corners, his ears drooping forlornly, devastation clear in his gleaming emerald eyes. The arrow had hit its mark, yet there was little satisfaction in that, he found.

Halduron tugged harder at the ropes, nearing the limits of his strength and he could already feel the consequences in the growing throbbing from wounds torn open and bones not yet sound. Yet he still aimed one last barb at the mage.

“Leave, you damned traitor!”

The stunned Aethas finally stumbled to his feet, mumbling apologies as he went.

After the door had closed behind him, Halduron saw the mage had left his hood behind on the chair.

The Kaldorei guard was smirking at him. Halduron briefly contemplated antagonizing him too, but his strength had fled him, leaving only that gaping hole inside him. He somehow managed to wrench his left arm enough to send waves of pain through his body. The final one brought him back down into blissful unconsciousness.


***


Aethas teleported himself straight to his rooms in Dalaran as soon as he had left the healer, now filled to the brim with wounded Horde elves and Alliance troops alike. He staggered over to his desk, staring at the piles of manuscripts, reading his own annotations as if they had been written by another man.

It had only been a few days since he had thought this would be a diplomatic excursion, finally bringing his people back into a peaceful existence where they might be free from bloodshed and turmoil. How had he become so blind?

"Have you learned nothing from what Jaina did to you? From what they keep doing to us? You are a bigger fool than I first thought if you still think you can trust them."

Rommath's comments, full of venom, hurled at him after he'd come across him in the confused, but celebratory aftermath of the Siege of Suramar.

Aethas picked up the last thing he'd written, before he'd been called away.

"Inquire about the return of Felo'melorn, once everything has been settled in Quel'Thalas."

He almost felt sick reading it. Who was left now to accept it? Halduron?

Or would it be Alleria, standing proud inside the throne room? In front of the throne which Lor'themar had always refused to accept?

Aethas crumpled the document in his hand, feeling the tears he'd managed to hold back in front of Halduron return in force. Perhaps Rommath had been right about him all along.

"Oh, you've returned."

The voice made him turn around, wiping furiously at his face. Arcanist Ryanna smiled at him, yet there was something pensive in her glowing eyes.

"Is it true?" she asked. "Has Quel'Thalas fallen?"

Hearing it spoken by another soul made the truth of the matter settle much heavier on his shoulders. And he'd had a hand in it, even if he himself had not hurled a single fireball, or dispelled a single spell.

He found his words choking him, so he settled for nodding at his apprentice, who nodded gravely at him.

"I see," she said. "It pains me to say this, but I must ask of you to relieve me as your apprentice."

Aethas found that he was not yet numbed to any new pain.

"Why?" he heard himself ask, hating how his voice was close to breaking. "I thought you were content with seeking new knowledge here?"

"Oh, I have been quite happy here, reading through your libraries," Ryanna said. "It's just that...I can no longer profess to being truly neutral to recent actions. I have been compromised."

Aethas blinked at her in surprise, squeezing the wadded up paper in his fist into a tighter ball.

"I have become friends with quite a few of your Sin’dorei people," Ryanna continued. "And I find myself...angry with what has happened. And I have heard--"

She stopped herself, her elegant eyebrows coming together in a frown.

"But perhaps I should not speak too much here, not when I have heard magi with the Kirin Tor regalia on their breast express joy and delight at what happened."

Aethas felt something inside him constrict, the words Halduron had hurled at him coming back to haunt him. He could wallow in his own misery...or perhaps he could do something.

He took a step closer to Ryanna, placing a ward around them, shielding them briefly from prying ears.

"You can tell me," he whispered. "There is someone I wish to help...someone back in Quel'Thalas."

Ryanna's face brightened and despite the wards, she leaned in close, her warm voice tickling Aethas ear.

"I have heard it said, that there is an as of yet undiscovered network of portals that connects Suramar to Quel'Thalas. If it could be made to work anew, it could be utilized for covert transport, for those who wish to travel in...or out."

Aethas ears perked up, something almost like hope starting up in his chest. Was there yet time for him to do something to make up for past mistakes?

"I wish to speak of this matter with Oculeth myself," he told Ryanna. "If that is at all possible."

"I will mention it to him, as soon as I return to Suramar City," Ryanna said. "Expect a letter with his response within the next couple of days."

She raised her hand and with an elegant twist, she dispelled the ward and took a step back.

"As I said," she told him carefully, his gaze held firm in hers. "I hold no ill feelings towards you, but I feel the need to return home to Suramar. Perhaps we can still be friends."

Then she summoned a portal and left him to stew in the coiling thoughts inside his head. He knew the next couple of days of waiting would be a torment.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 As the days passed, floating in and out of consciousness, Halduron came to regret sending Aethas away, for his new visitors were far from welcome. The Alliance king, expressing the same sort of sympathies as Aethas, which mattered even less to him. Vereesa, though she did not say much. And Alleria, pleading to some better nature she professed to see in him.

At first, he feigned unconsciousness, but when Alleria had begun to speak of reclaiming the past and “necessary sacrifices,” he could bear it no longer and he fastened her with a glare.

“You weren’t even here,” he glowered at her. “Don’t talk to me about necessary sacrifices.”

How far his old heroes had fallen. Only the memory of his dearly departed mother prevented him from cursing her out as Alleria left his room. His prison.

For the most part they left him alone, with only the rotating guards and the frazzled healers for company. Halduron had to admit to being a bad patient, making life more difficult for the healers with their haunted eyes. On a bad day he would chase them away, even when the pain was so bad that his mind clamored for relief. He would try to apologize when they returned, but they never spoke to him.

The guards he tried to get answers out of, at first. How long they’d keep him there, if they would loosen his restraints a little. Never any answers. The Kaldorei, which he had come to call “Shaggy," from the unruly beard he wore, professed not to understand him. When Halduron spat a Darnassian curse at him, he looked so shocked Halduron felt good about himself for the first time since… since…

Halduron stared into the abyss inside him and pushed the memories away.

Some nights he lay awake staring out the window at the pale lights of Silvermoon outside, but stray words of rough Common drifting into his cell, instead of the familiar, lilting syllables of Thalassian. He wondered if Liadrin had made it out, if the Alliance had put out the fires or left the forest to burn to the ground. When he began to wonder what had become of Lor’themar’s body, if they had burned it properly, or just tossed it in some mass grave he had to wrench his left shoulder as far as it would go, until the pain forced blackness into his vision.

It was a night when he had actually managed to sleep, his exhausted body demanding its due, when he started awake to a hand covering his mouth. The tangy scent in the air hinted at a portal and in the pale light from his window he saw the visitor’s hair glow red as he leaned over him.

“Be quiet,” Aethas whispered in his ear. “The guard will be back soon, just nod if you understand.”

Halduron nodded, more out of idle curiosity than anything else.

“Can you walk?” Aethas whispered.

Halduron raised his eyebrows at him, but he nodded. At least, he thought he could walk, if it meant he could walk the hell out of here.

The hand disappeared from his mouth and Aethas pulled at the blankets covering him, exposing his wrists and a glint of metal in the dark revealed the blade before Halduron heard him begin to saw at the ropes. He let out a sigh of relief as he felt the bonds slacken, biting his own lip to silence the groan as he forced himself into a sitting position, biting harder to suppress the yelp of pain as his left shoulder sent out daggers into his body.

Aethas gave a frantic look towards the door, where Halduron could hear an exchange in Common. They wouldn’t be alone for much longer.

Halduron stumbled to his feet, with just a moment to feel awkward about the sick robes he was wearing before he felt that tug of a portal being weaved. Aethas reached out to grab onto his wrist and then they were falling, floating, whatever one wanted to call that queer sensation of being transported miles in an instant.

As soon as he stepped out of it, Halduron stumbled to his knees, his hands digging into wet soil, the scent of ashes and rain mingling with the scent of decomposing leaves and…yes, death and decay. This was unmistakably the Ghostlands. Looking up from his prone position merely confirmed what he already knew.

There were also the telltale features of an Amani Troll village, which meant they were somewhere to the far west. There were few Amani left now, but there had been reports of sightings of them as far away as Zandalar, which meant that this would be the last place they would come to search for them.

“Clever,” he told Aethas grudgingly as he leaned back against a crumbling rock effigy, willing the lingering vertigo to go away.

“We needed a safe place while I work on the last stage of my exit plan,” Aethas said and he produced a bulky object from the sack he carried on his back. It looked strangely familiar.

“It’s a telemancy beacon,” the mage said, with a hint of pride in his voice. “Oculeth has told me how to prepare it, so it will go dormant once we go through. We don’t want it to be discovered and used by the wrong party…”

They gazed at each other in silence for a bit, until a flustered looking Aethas dug around in his sack and produced a cloth bundle.

“I hope these are the right size,” he said, handing the bundle to Halduron. “I have boots too, but that was all I could get at such short notice. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing,” Halduron snapped as he grabbed the clothes from Aethas, though he instantly regretted the venom he had injected into his words. This was a good thing, wasn’t it? He was no longer tied to a bed with an unclear future in the hands of the Alliance ahead of him.

And that Aethas seemed to have a plan… It was oddly comforting, in a nostalgic sort of way. For the longest time Halduron had been content to be a middling ranked ranger, just doing what he did best, while those above him told him what to do. When Lor’themar had appointed him Ranger General he was honestly terrified at first, but then he realized he would still have someone above him and that made it easier to rise to the task given to him.

“Thanks,” he heard himself say next, his mind a thousand miles away, as he slowly and laboriously began to pull on the garments Aethas had given him. The night was cold up here, in the foothills of the mountains and his sick robes were not made for outside use.

When he pulled the shirt over  his head, the sharp pain from his shoulder made him cry out and next he knew he had Aethas hovering over him as he lay splayed out on the wet ground.

“Are you alright?” the mage asked, tucking strands of hair behind his ear, his fleckles standing out in his concerned face.

“Just fucking peachy,” Halduron grumbled out, as the pain receded back into a dull throbbing.

“There will be healers in Suramar,” Aethas told him and Halduron shot him a look.

“Suramar?” Halduron cocked an eyebrow.

“Where else did you think this would take us?” Aethas said, holding up the telemancy beacon, a faint smile playing on his lips.

Halduron wanted to add some quip about how he hadn't thought as far as that, but his heart wasn't in it. Instead he leaned back against the crumbling rocks, not the most comfortable of pillows, but it would do and he willed sleep to take him. He didn't have to wait long.

 

***

 

Aethas watched Halduron sleep out of the corner of his eye as he worked, the beacon held securely in his lap. The tools he had borrowed from Oculeth lay on a silk cloth, rolled out next to him, fingers brushing its softness every time he reached for a new implement.

There was something comfortable and nostalgic about this, childhood muscle memory being brought back to life. His father had started to train him to do his craft from the moment he could hold a pair of tweezers in one chubby hand.

"Patience, Aethas," his father had told him, guiding his small, inexperienced hand with his own. "A piece of jewelry can't be rushed, you must let the material speak to you, to help shape it into its chosen form."

That wasn't so terribly different from what he was doing now, aligning circuitry and complicated mechanisms into where it needed to go for the beacon to work as intended.

Of course, Aethas' father's plan had come to naught that morning when Aethas had accidentally set fire to his pillow with that first uncontrolled fireball, shocking Aethas to tears. His father had put out the fire quickly and his mother had wrapped him in her arms, whispering soothing words into his ear.

"You'll do even grander things now than some trinket or bauble for a noble to wear, son," his father had said, as they'd seen him off before he'd left for Dalaran. Yet deep inside Aethas knew his father would have liked it if he'd remained with him, for those guiding hands to show him to how to make things of beauty that would last forever.

Aethas had falsely thought that his parents, much like the things they made, would remain forever. The Scourge had killed that notion.

He felt his hand slip, a panel inside the beacon sliding too far and an alarming hum started up. Quickly Aethas managed to undo his mistake and the noise stopped.

Aethas had written his parents, to warm them about the plague spreading through Lordaeron. Despite his pleading for them to seek a mage to take them to Dalaran they had remained in Silvermoon, where they both had died, where Aethas had found them after his frantic return, hoping against all odds that they had survived.

He heaved a sigh, staring down at the beacon in his lap. It did him no good to dwell on those bad, old memories.

"But," a voice whispered inside his head, "had it not seemed so familiar, bodies in the street, crying and screaming?"

"Shut up," he muttered to himself. "It wasn't the same."

Then why were his hands shaking so?

He clenched his hands into tight fists, feeling his nails dig into the fleshy palms of his hands. If he could just do this one thing, if he could get Halduron safely to Suramar, then Aethas would prove to himself that he still had the capacity for good things, that he was still, at heart, the same boy on his father's lap, crafting something lovely.

With a renewed sense of purpose, he went back to work.

 

***

 

Halduron's mind slowly drifted back to a semi-wakeful state. Even with his eyes closed he could tell that the sun had risen, for he could feel warm sunlight on his face. He could hear warblers and finches high up in the hills, feel the scent of warm pine needles. And he could hear Aethas, tinkering away at that device, just a few feet away.

The sound of metal on metal was oddly soothing, like hearing someone fletch an arrow, or string a bow. There was purpose in that, a purpose Halduron found elusive at the moment.

There were only the aches of his healing body and the dark thoughts he still fought to keep at bay, because accepting them would be to surrender himself to something far worse.

He finally opened his eyes and saw for the first time that Aethas was clad in robes, having forsaken his usual Kirin Tor attire. The robes he wore now were the same gold and crimson hued ones he had worn before their forces lay siege to Orgrimmar under Garrosh’s rule, that both matched his hair and echoed the colors of the Silvermoon banner. Halduron had thought then, that the mage had chosen a side, the side of his people, the Sin’dorei.

He had been wrong then, so was it not foolish to see some significance in Aethas’ choice of garb now?

From somewhere deep in his mind came a memory of hushed conversation, his fingers running through Aethas’ unruly hair, Aethas’ lips parting as he kissed him. This memory was harder to dispel, especially with the subject right in front of him.

Aethas must have noticed his stare for he raised his head from his work to look at him, smiling slightly. Halduron found it to be an accomplishment to not look away.

“I’m almost finished,” Aethas told him. “Do you think you can walk a bit further?”

“Just lead the way,” Halduron said, wincing as aching muscles were forced back into motion. He stumbled once and Aethas was at his side, a steadying hand at his elbow.

They walked slowly in among rocky crevasses, the hush of the wind the only sound, other than their own crunching footsteps. Every step jostled something unpleasant inside Halduron, but he let that center him and keep his mind focused on the here and now.

Finally Aethas let out a excited sound and after consulting a scrap of paper tucked into the arm of his robes he hunkered down on the ground, brushing away the dirt and dead leaves carefully.

There was a strangely symmetrical arrangement of stones inlaid in the ground, the recognition of what it was was startling. It was just like the ones Halduron has briefly seen during his sojourns into Suramar, working with the Unseen Path, that portal network that he had never seen the likes of before.

Halduron leaned heavily against a tree, avoiding his left shoulder, watching Aethas tinker some more with the device before he placed it at the center of the circle. Even though he knew what would happen, Halduron still could not contain the gasp as the portal flickered into life before him, revealing a wavering purplish landscape with elegant buildings on the other side.

"Are you ready?" Aethas asked him, suddenly hesitant to touch him.

Halduron nodded.

"I'll be right behind you," he said.

Even so, Aethas kept looking at him over his shoulder as he stepped through the portal.

Remembering what Aethas had said about the beacon going dormant, Halduron still had to take one last, long look at his home before he stepped through the portal. He tried to burn into his memory every tree, every rock and every bravely sprouting flower he could see. And as he stepped foot in Suramar again, he felt a cold hand squeeze down inside his chest and a question hung in his head like a noxious cloud:

Would he ever see his home again?

 

***

 

They stepped out not far from the Grand Promenade, where a crumbling gazebo like structure of fine stone overlooked a pond. From Aethas’ recollection, it had once been swarming with hungry reptiles that were now thankfully absent. The crocolisks had been replaced by two Shal'dorei guards in spellsword armor, who pulled themselves to full attention as they emerged.

“Welcome to Suramar,”said one in their accented syllables, eerily close to Thalassian. They both offered a curt salute. “Silgryn asked for you to be escorted to the Nighthold upon your arrival.”

“Can he walk?” the other guard asked, nodding towards Halduron.

He can walk just fine,” Halduron snapped, taking a brisk step forward, nearly stumbling on some loose rocks.

The two Shal'dorei glanced at one another, but before either of them could do anything, Aethas closed the distance between himself and Halduron. He did not expect Halduron to take the arm he offered, so when he briefly placed a hand on Aethas' shoulder, to steady himself as he stepped out towards the guards he felt heat rush to his face. Aethas desperately hoped it was not obvious to the guards, or Halduron himself.

"Follow us," was all the reaction he got from the Shal'dorei and Aethas found himself forced into a brisk walk to keep up. Aethas worried about Halduron's ability to keep up, but he seemed to be managing rather well.

Few words were spoken during the walk into the city proper, crossing elegant pathways and walking past well-maintained gardens. There were fewer Arcane Guardians patrolling now, but the low hum as one passed was a welcome distraction from the total silence that exuded from Halduron.

It was a relief when they neared the Nighthold, where there were more people milling about. It had cleaned up rather splendidly Aethas remarked to the guards, who simply nodded, grunting out a "yes" in response.

"With the help of the Horde," one of them added quickly.

Aethas found himself wondering if these two guards might have been Elisande loyalists, until it became obvious which way the wind was blowing. But then again, Aethas had been in the presence of murderers before, so he found that he cared little for the past histories of their current escort.

Silgryn met them out in the courtyard, outside the main building where Elisande had held her court, apologizing that it was he and not Thalyssra who was here to greet them.

"She is currently away in Orgrimmar, discussing recent events with the Warchief," he said, then, shaking his head he turned towards Halduron. "Allow me to offer her, and my own sincere condolences on what has befallen Quel’Thalas, Ranger General Halduron Brightwing."

"Thank you," Halduron said, breaking his silence and he took the offered wrist when Silgryn extended his own to be clasped in greeting. "But I don't think I'm Ranger General of much at all right now."

"I have arranged rooms for both of you," Silgryn continued without missing a beat, once more dividing his gaze between Halduron and Aethas. "I am sure you are both wearied and would like to rest."

As if on signal, a servant appeared at Silgryn's side, offering them both a low bow.

"Halduron might need the services of your healers..." Aethas began, but Halduron just shook his head.

"Just show me to a bed and I'm good," he said, nodding towards the servant.

"I hope we can speak more at length later," Silgryn told them, a smile curving his mouth. "But at present I must return to my duties."

Silgryn bowed towards them as well, a slight bow in farewell, an owl alighting from a nearby tree to follow him back inside.

Halduron had already set off after the servant and Aethas had to sprint to catch up. Perhaps he was as well as he claimed he was.

They walked inside another building, up a flight of stairs and the servant happily gestured for the second door on their right.

"For you, sir," he said, nodding towards Halduron. “I hope it will be to your liking.”

Aethas opened his mouth to speak, to say... well, anything, though his mind was annoyingly blank at the moment. Perhaps that was just as well, for what Halduron said next would have chased any words from his mind.

"What are you still doing here, Aethas?" he said, raising an eyebrow, a gesture that was puzzlement tinged with annoyance. "I'm grateful that you got me out, but...you should just head on back to Dalaran."

The rush of emotions made his words waver slightly when Aethas finally spoke.

"I can't!" he said. "At this point they'll have puzzled it out that it was I who pulled you out of Silvermoon, even though I tried to be careful."

Aethas sucked in a shaky breath, his gaze falling towards the floor.

"The status of the Sunreavers in Dalaran has been shaky, though it was improving...though after their own leader broke whatever pretense of neutrality still existed—”

He exhaled, taking another unsteady breath before he added:

“No, Halduron, I cannot just 'head on back to Dalaran'."

He shook his head and a mad sort of laughter threatened to erupt from Aethas. After all that he had done, after all the bridges he felt he'd burned to get back into Dalaran... And now he'd messed it all up again, burning that bridge he had fought so hard to rebuild.

Halduron was giving him a quizzical look, tilting his head to the side.

"As long as it's not for my sake you're staying," he simply said, a hand on the door to his room.

“I just hope Modera finds the letter and finds it in herself to…at least understand,” Aethas sighed.

“Understand?” Halduron said, his voice hard now. “Like she understood so well when our people were trapped in Dalaran’s dungeons about to be executed, or murdered in their sewers?”

He drew an angry breath, continuing before Aethas could respond.

“That you still consider her a friend, even after the Purge…”

“Modera is the only reason why I was not locked up with Kael’thas and the rest!” Aethas protested, his voice growing hard too, laced with the ice that was the school of magic he was the least adept at. “She could not stop the Purge, because Jaina—”

“Then she is just a coward,” Halduron spat and dove inside his room, closing the door behind him with a hard thump.

It took some moments for Aethas to gather himself, ‘at least he had said “our people” ’, but finally the servant with his eternal patience showed Aethas to his room. Or rooms really, he wasn't sure what Halduron had been assigned, but these were far finer than even his old quarters back in Dalaran.

Immediately Aethas found himself regretting that he had not managed to bring much of his possessions, for there was something impersonal about the place he now found himself in. It was lovely, as all Shal'dorei things are, and steeped in magic, as things had been... Were still, he corrected himself, in Quel'Thalas. But it wasn't his, this wasn't home.

Awkwardly he pulled out the books he had managed to stuff inside the bag, one his first textbook on magic, brought simply for sentimental reasons and the other the latest volume of his diary. He had sensed that he might need a place to jot down his wild thoughts somewhere, and he suspected he had been correct.

Then there was the final item he’d brought, still wrapped in its long cloth bundle, exuding a gentle warmth though the wrappings, the very thing which had surely cemented his self-inflicted exile. Aethas had wanted to show it to Halduron, but right now, it did not seem wise. For the moment he hid it under the bed. His unpacking done, he drew in a shaky breath and almost fell into one of the chairs.

Aethas head throbbed from lack of sleep and mana usage. He had been contemplating getting that rest Silgryn had mentioned, when there was a knock on the door.

“I heard you were here,” Ryanna said, walking inside as if they were her rooms and not Aethas’.

She showed him the bottle she’d brought, smiling almost wickedly at him. “I suspect you might need this.”

Before Aethas could protest that alcohol was the last thing he needed right now, she tutted and shook her head.

“This is arcwine, silly,” Ryanna said. “It might not pack the punch it used to, but it will sort out any mana deficiencies you might have in but a moment.”

Aethas managed to find a pair of glasses, holding them out for Ryanna to fill, before they both sat down.

“You were successful,” she said, sipping her glass. “Yet you seem like this is not so.”

Aethas took a gulp of arcwine, barely tasting it, marvelling at how it took the edge off his weariness.

“I am not sure how it would be,” he said. “But I did think I would feel more…accomplished.”

“Do you not have enough reason to feel so?” Ryanna said, taking another careful sip. “You did bring your…friend here.”

“Perhaps I thought he would be happier,” Aethas said, staring into the wine as if it held all the answers.

“After all that happened, Aethas? After all that death?” she asked him with an arched eyebrow.

He felt himself flush.

“I don't know,” he managed to grind out, face growing hotter, before taking another gulp of wine.

“You like him,” Ryanna said, her eyes widening with the realization. “You have feelings for him!”

“I do not!” Aethas cried, hearing the lie there even as the words left his mouth.

“It’s okay,” Ryanna said, gently patting his knee. “Just give him time.”

Aethas suddenly understood the saying about “drowning yourself in the bottle”, for he proceeded to do just that. He would welcome the distraction any hangover would offer.

 

Chapter Text

 

Suramar was beautiful, yet Halduron hated it.

He had no real objections to it, really, the rooms he had were perfectly adequate, the bed was soft and the food they brought him tasted fine.

In so many subtle ways, though, it was all wrong.

Though the city had the look of Silvermoon City in its glory days, before the Scourge, the colors were off. Too pale, a winter’s day compared to the warm, eternal spring of Quel’Thalas. The people were polite and kind, when he ventured outside, but they were not His People. The trees were elegant and the flowers fragrant, but it was not Eversong. Even the few animals he saw had something vaguely off about them. The magic in Quel’Thalas had altered its animal inhabitants as well, but this was that writ large.

All of these small things, not something too terrible on their own, but taken together were painful reminders of what he had lost.

And all through the night, his shoulder ached, tearing him from restless slumber whenever he rolled over, leaving him feeling slightly more bedraggled every morning.

At first he felt grateful that Aethas had yet to approach him again, with the embers of his anger still smoldering inside him, for he feared that his face with its Sin’dorei features would just be another painful reminder of the faces he would never see again. Yet, as the hours dragged on into days, with the pain as his only true companion, Halduron wished that Aethas would come by, to be that one piece of familiarity in this cold wasteland he found himself in.

When he was allowed good dreams, they had fragments of Aethas’ red hair, soft between his calloused fingers, while rain beat a soothing rhythm on tent canvas last seen on an enchanted isle.

 

***

 

Ryanna advised giving Halduron time, but time was something Aethas had an unfortunate abundance of in this strange city. Without much else to do, Aethas took to exploring.

Without any maliciousness left, all of Suramar City was available for his wandering feet, though his attention was often elsewhere. Repeating past mistakes in his head, plotting out ways he could make it better, the elegance of a city shaped by millenia of isolation from the outside world passed him by.

At one point he looked up and found himself in a bustling market, with merchants selling beautiful items and children playing at being arcanists while darting around the adults’ feet.

It all seemed so wonderfully normal Aethas almost wept, yet he thought he could see hints of what this people had been forced to endure not long ago. Merchants giving him cautious looks, parents grabbing the hand of a child, hastily leading them away.

Aethas stopped at a stall selling jewelry and unearthing some coins from his robes he bought a small bag of pretty rocks, glowing faintly blue in his cupped hands.

“One of you outlanders saved me from a demon when Elisande was getting desperate at the end,” the merchant said gruffly. “I gave you a good deal there.”

Aethas continued to wander, leaving the market until he found a more tranquil area to the south, though the buildings here showed the tell-tale signs of being restored recently. Standing in a courtyard, with soothing vegetation providing shade, gazing at a scorch mark that had been left on the wall he was approached by a straight-backed Shal'dorei.

“You look a bit lost,” he said, smiling at Aethas.

The man had the sort of look which meant he could be anywhere between forty and four thousand, as Shal'dorei (and for that matter, Sin’dorei) ages go. With what Aethas knew, it was probably closer to the latter.

Following Aethas gaze he also looked at the scorch mark, shaking his head lightly.

“When the Waning Crescent was rebuilt I asked that they leave that, so that we would never forget what we had to endure,” the Shal'dorei continued. “My name is Vanthir, by the way.”

“Aethas,” he heard himself respond, clasping Vanthir’s wrist in greeting. “Aethas Sunreaver.”

“You are one of the outlanders who fled here,” Vanthir said matter of factly. “Come, let me offer you a drink.”

Aethas wondered if he would spend much of his time here half inebriated on arcwine when Vanthir ushered him inside a building, then presenting him with a bottle.

“One of your people, ‘Sin'dorei’, helped me once, from a fate worse than death,” Vanthir said as he poured him a decent serving of wine. It smelled fruitier than the wine Ryanna had brought.

“After that, when Suramar was finally liberated with the help of you outlanders, I resolved that any Sin'dorei in Waning Crescent would be treated to my best vintage,” Vanthir continued, sitting down in a chair opposite Aethas’.

When Vanthir used “outlander” it sounded like a term of endearment, Aethas noticed, sipping his wine.

“If you need any help settling in here in Suramar, I would be glad to help,” Vanthir offered, a warm smile on his face.

“Thank you,” Aethas said, even as the reality that this might have to become home settled in his stomach like a chunk of Northrend ice.

At least the climate wasn’t bad.

 

***

 

It was becoming blindingly obvious that his shoulder wasn't getting any better.

The ache was there, even when Halduron didn't move his arm, and whenever he did, entirely by painful accident, his entire arm felt stiff, like it didn't quite belong to him.

“You need help with this, ” whispered a much ignored voice in his head.

Yet, when Halduron saw Aethas approach him one morning, as he stood atop the Grand Promenade, gazing down at the living city below him, his initial instinct was to leave. The weakness that had settled into his bones after he had dragged himself out of bed was the only reason he stayed put, and Halduron tried to hide how he kept himself steady with his right hand clasping the balustrade.

“Halduron,” Aethas began, glancing towards the ground at first, then peering up at Halduron beneath his shock of red hair.

“Aethas,” Halduron responded, turning back towards the cityscape, keeping Aethas standing to his left, shuffling his feet. He didn't have the energy or patience for whatever the mage was playing at.

“There is something I brought from Dalaran I want to show you,” Aethas finally said. “It’s in my room.”

Halduron sighed wearily. Whatever magical trinket Aethas had managed to pilfer didn't interest him much. Dalaran had not attracted him much even when his people had not walked their streets at their own peril, so there was even less reason for him to be interested now.

The expectant look on Aethas face did force him to make an effort to be polite.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Halduron told him, gaze somewhere far away. “I am sure anyone else here but me would have more to say about it.”

He had expected disappointment reflected in the mage’s freckled face, but he was not prepared for the indignation he could read there now.

“I don’t understand,” Aethas said, anger in his voice. “I haven’t tried to force myself at you, giving you space to… grieve...to…whatever you needed.”

Was that guilt Halduron felt rising up to the surface inside him?

“This is bad for me too,” Aethas continued, fastening Halduron with a hard look. “Why are you pushing me away like this? What is it that you’re so afraid of, Halduron? That we might—”

Aethas voice faltered, but he took a step forward, grabbing onto Halduron’s left bicep. And the pain that shot through his body like lightning shut out everything else completely.

Halduron knew he must have blacked out, because when he opened his eyes he found that Aethas was now looking down at him, concern clear in his softly green glowing eyes. The new throbbing of his forehead also suggested to Halduron that he had hit his head on the balustrade on the way down, further evidenced by the wet trickle of blood down his face.

A flustered Aethas, ears drooping in shame reached out a hand to wipe at the trickle and immediately froze.

“You’re burning up!” he exclaimed, his hand cautiously moving towards Halduron’s left shoulder.

“Don’t! Please!” Halduron heard himself gasp out, reaching for Aethas with his good hand, sucking in a shuddering breath as another wave of pain washed over him.

“You need help,” Aethas said, more to himself than to Halduron and before he could stop him, the mage had hurried to his feet and called the attention of a passing Shal’dorei guard.

It was somewhat embarrassing to be manhandled to his feet by the guard, then hoisted up into his arms when Halduron's knees buckled, but at the pit of his stomach there was something like relief blossoming. He'd done his best, but now it was out of his hands. Whatever would happen to him now, would happen.

The shame that did nudge out of him distracted him as he was carried away from the Grand Promenade, with Aethas hovering next him. Halduron focused on his face, trying to count each freckle there on his face, instead of the pain that shuddered through him with every step the guard took. He was carried inside a building without much ceremony and he heard Aethas do some more shouting. Soon enough he was helped inside a room by a pair of robed Shal'dorei.

Placed on a bed with practiced hands gently examining him, it finally dawned on Halduron that this could actually be pretty bad. The shocked look on the healer’s face as she pulled away his shirt to expose the ugly red swelling of his shoulder, and the long red lines snaking away from it told Halduron the rest.

"I am sorry," the woman said. "This will hurt."

Her careful probing extended to his shoulder and Halduron's world was reduced to blazing hot agony again.

Trying to breathe through the pain he was only vaguely aware of the discussions between the two Shal'dorei. Raising his head slightly he caught a glimpse of Aethas being consulted and the look on his face could only be described as stricken.

They seemed to have decided to let Aethas tell him the 'good' news, for he now shuffled up to his side, one hand picking restlessly as his hair.

"It's blood poisoning," Aethas said. "They think there's something inside your shoulder causing it."

"Wonderful," Halduron said, even as that sensible voice inside his head let out an I told you so.

"They need to cut it out," Aethas continued, eyes downcast. "If not..."

"You should have just left me to die," Halduron heard himself say and the moment the words left his mouth he regretted them. Not only because the almost grief-struck look on Aethas face, but...he hadn't really meant them, had he?

Before Aethas could slink away, Halduron managed to snatch at the sleeve of his robes with his right hand.

"Just...tell them to do it then," he said, and from somewhere within he found himself pull out a vague attempt at humor. "I've had a troll spear through the gut, and survived that just fine."

A hint of a smile tugged at Aethas' mouth, then he pulled himself away to speak with the healers.

The scent of medicinal herbs and the glint of the blade they were going to cut him with should have given Halduron enough time to prepare himself for what was to come, taking deep, steeled breaths as one of the Shal'dorei held him down. Yet, when he felt the knife cut into his infected shoulder he still screamed.

As some final act of cruelty, he did not pass out right away, and the last thing he saw before blissful oblivion, was Aethas blinking himself out of the room.

 

***

Aethas almost staggered back to his rooms, Halduron's screaming still echoing in his head.

He knew enough about blood poisoning to know that it was bad and depending on how deep the infection went... Aethas did not care to venture far down that path, for it was dark and lined with thorns.

Ryanna found him not much later, pacing the length of his sitting room, babbling to himself about how he should have seen it or at least been more adamant about making sure Halduron saw a healer.

"Stop this," she said, after she had watched him in contemplative silence for a good few minutes. "This changes nothing."

She finally had to hold out a hand to physically stop him and he felt himself melt into the embrace she offered him. Embarrassingly enough, that gesture was all it took for him to start shaking and it took effort to hold back the tears that threatened at the corners of his eyes.

"It will be my fault if he dies," Aethas heard himself say, voice unsteady.

She patted his back awkwardly, but not unkindly, then gently pushed him away to look him in the eyes.

"Aethas, you have done what you can," she told him. "Now it's up to him."

"For a bit he made it sound like he wanted it..." he told her, averting his gaze. "Like he wanted to die."

She tilted her head slightly, with a contemplative look on her face.

"Perhaps..." she began. "He has just felt very lonely."

"But you said—" Aethas began.

Ryanna let out a light laugh.

"Perhaps I don't have all the answers," she told him. "At least not when it comes to these sort of matters."

Aethas wiped awkwardly at his eyes, feeling his face flush.

"You outlanders...what messes you end up in," Ryanna said, shaking her head.

 

The healers had been grim faced when Aethas had returned later that day.

Yes, the surgery had gone well, the offending item, an arrow head, had been removed, the shoulder drained of foul liquids and treated as best they could. But, the infection had sunk deep into his bones and it would take time to purge Halduron’s body of it completely.

“It is up to his own will to fight it,” the other healer, a male, said. “If he wishes to live, he will. If not...”

He didn’t need to finish his thought.

Aethas was allowed a moment by Halduron’s bedside, watching his face, almost deathly pale beneath the flush of the fever, as he slept. He even dared to touch his hand for a moment, to once more feel those calloused fingers against his own.

Ryanna was right, he had done all he could for now, but this didn't make him feel any less restless. He had to find something to keep his mind occupied.

 

He found Oculeth puttering around his workshop, apparently busy enough that it took some time for him to notice Aethas standing there.

“Ah, why hello,” the old Shal'dorei said, peering curiously over at him. “What is it, young Aethas?”

“I was going to ask if you would make me your apprentice,” Aethas asked. “If that's not too bold of me.”

Oculeth raised an eyebrow, giving him an amused look.

“Was I misinformed that you are already considered an archmage?” he asked. “Is that not the title of someone advanced in their magical learning?”

“Ah, yes,” Aethas admitted, shuffling his feet slightly. “Yet, I believe there are still things I have yet to learn, like your telemancy, your advanced knowledge of portals.”

“You were intrigued by your first contact then,” Oculeth said, smiling widely at Aethas.

Before Aethas could respond properly, Oculeth had picked up an item off a bench and placed it in his arms. It was another telemancy beacon.

“The Warchief has asked me to have a look at the portals in Orgrimmar, and I believe she is expecting me,” Oculeth said. “Perhaps you can puzzle out what's wrong with that beacon before my return?”

As Oculeth slung a bag over his arm and made to leave Aethas found his tongue again.

“Wait! What am I supposed to do?” he called after the chief telemancer.

Oculeth smiled impishly over his shoulder.

“Now, now. I can't make it too easy for you, young Aethas,” he tutted. “You are, after all an archmage.”

Aethas considered yelling in frustration after Oculeth had left. But…perhaps this was what he needed. He found a chair and some tools, then he set to work.

Perhaps his father's old knowledge would come in handy now.

 

***

 

When Halduron first drifted up into consciousness it didn't feel quite real to him. Whether it was drugs or just the infection, he wasn’t sure. When he woke up to Aethas sitting beside him, however, it felt more like a dream.

He knew Aethas was talking, but to Halduron the words were fragmented, with only snatches registering in his befuddled mind. Things like “Oculeth” and “telemancy” and “teach”. Aethas smiled though, so Halduron supposed these were all good things.

What did push things over further into dreaming for Halduron, was when Aethas suddenly pulled out a sword, burning like fire. The look of Aethas there, his hair a red halo framing his face, matching the sword he held out made for a striking combination.

“Shoulda fought for us,” Halduron managed to slur past a misbehaving tongue. The Alliance would have shit themselves, he would have added, if he’d been able to work his mouth right.

The wavering of Aethas’ smile spoiled Halduron's lovely dream though, so he shut his eyes again.

 

When Halduron opened his eyes to a world that seemed more substantial, he was surprised by the initial wave of disappointment as he saw Silgryn sitting next to him.

"I was informed that you were on the mend," he said, hands clasped in his lap. "Thalyssra has been asking about you."

And who else, Halduron almost asked, but didn't.

"As soon as you are well enough, she hopes to see more of you," Silgryn said. "She wants to know more about what happened in Quel'Thalas and she feels the Warchief has not been entirely honest with her about the events as she's been told."

Halduron felt his face twist into a grimace at the reminder. As his body was finally, properly healing, it was a startling reminder that physical hurts were far easier to cope with than others.

"I hope I can provide her with answers then," Halduron said, reclining into the pillows.

"There was one other thing," Silgryn said. "I am training some fresh recruits at the parade grounds, by the Terrace of Order every morning. Perhaps once you are well you might care to join us?"

Silgryn rose to leave, as smoothly as a lynx rising up from a nap.

"I have heard much of your Farstriders," the Shal'dorei added with a smile. "Perhaps you might be willing to demonstrate for my students?"

Halduron felt something smoothe over ever to slightly inside his chest. For the first time in a very long time, he felt a real smile tugging at his lips.

"Find me a bow by then and I'll show you something alright," he replied.

 

Chapter Text

 

With a task waved in front of him, Halduron waited impatiently for the morning the healers let him leave their care. Even if he was still a bit unsteady on his feet, it felt like a small victory when he could walk himself back to his assigned rooms.

Flopping back on the settee in the sitting room, much too large for Halduron's liking, especially with only him to fill it, he reveled in the fact that he could move his left arm again without agony shooting through him.

The infection and his convalescence had left him physically weakened, but this was something Halduron could do something about in his own time.

He fiddled idly with the arrowhead the healers had dug out of him, it would serve as a reminder of what had almost happened to him. Perhaps he could make a talisman out of it, stringing it up and hang it around his neck. For the time being, he clasped it in one hand, letting it drive him onward as he pushed his body to recover.

Every morning he would set out for a walk, forcing himself to walk further and further every day. The first time he didn't get very far, standing winded and panting at the entrance to the Nighthold. He caught a glimpse of red hair, watching Aethas stroll by with a group of Shal'dorei, heading into the city proper. Fitting in, like Halduron supposed he would, even though he stood out among them like a sore thumb.

The next morning he made it to Astravar Harbor, gazing down at the comings and goings of the elegant boats the Shal'dorei used to transport goods from one end of the city to the other. If Halduron closed his eyes, he could pretend he was in Quel'Thalas, listening to the noise of the busy harbor as ships were made ready to sail the Great Sea.

His impatience got the better of him the next day when he somehow managed to push himself to walk all the way to the steps leading up to the Menagerie. Slumped on the stairs, leaning back heavily against the white stone, trying to catch his breath he caught sight of that familiar head of red hair approaching him.

"I saw you leave this morning," Aethas said as he approached Halduron, a bundle wrapped in his arms. What was it with Aethas and bundles anyway? Though hadn't the one with the sword been a dream?

“I guessed you might head over here,” Aethas said, as he carefully adjusted the bundle in his arms.

Halduron peered over his shoulder, up at the Menagerie walls. He could pick up the sounds of calling birds, then the roaring of some great cat. There was the scent of damp earth, but the kind that signified a cultivated garden, rather than the wilds.

“I suppose if you can’t find a real forest…” Halduron said, turning back to look at Aethas again, cracking a faint smile.

Aethas responded with one of his own, as warm as the color of his hair. Sensing that he wasn’t going to reveal the content of the bundle without probing, Halduron decided to play along.

“What’s in there?” he asked, nodding towards the bundle.

There was something almost impish crossing Aethas face as he approached, gently unfolding the bundle to reveal a sleeping cub. It opened a pair of glowing purple eyes, matching its fur.

A mana saber.

“Her siblings passed away recently,” Aethas told him, sitting down next to Halduron on the steps. The cub yawned, revealing a mouth that seemed nothing but gums yet. “Her mother has rejected her, after that.”

“That’s a pity,” Halduron said, reaching out a careful hand for the cub to smell. She batted lightly at it, and when she caught it proceeded to stuff one of his fingers into her mouth, suckling on it gently.

“Silgryn thinks she’s got the right fighting spirit though, so he wants to give her a chance,” Aethas said, gently prying away the cub.

“So, you’ve adopted a mana saber then,” Halduron said, raising an eyebrow.

“Actually…” Aethas began, eyes on the cub as he scratched under her chin. “I thought maybe you would be interested in looking after her?”

Halduron blinked at him, dumbfounded.

“I have my studies, after all,” the mage said, peering up at Halduron. “And telemancy is a complicated, but fascinating and also very time consuming subject. You also have more experience with animals being a ranger, I think.”

Halduron thought to protest, but…what excuse could he possibly have? And besides…

He found himself reaching out his hand again and this time the cub latched on immediately, a deep rumble emanating from its throat as her paws began to knead at his arm. Halduron could feel the hints of the cub’s first teeth, about to break through the gums.

“I think she’s hungry,” Aethas said, smiling down at the ball of fur still in his arms. “I know I brought a bottle…”

“Give her here then,” Halduron said, surrendering himself to this other task at hand, holding out his arms.

Aethas quickly shifted the warm, moving bundle over to him, and then he began to pat the pockets of his robes, until he produced a bottle with a whoop of triumph. The cub let go of his hand when this actual source of food was provided and soon Halduron found himself with a warm, content cub half snoozing in his arms, mouth still closed around the bottle. The warmth of this living creature seemed to sink deep inside him, continuing to smooth over those ragged edges that had cracked open inside him.

“Those are new robes,” he said, finally taking in Aethas’ new appearance.His robes were now adorned in pale violets and dark purples, trimmed with copper and brown.

“I thought I should wear what the other apprentice telemancers were wearing,” Aethas said, brushing stray saber hairs from its folds. “Though Oculeth didn’t think it was necessary.”

“You’re fitting in,” Halduron said, a statement based on observations, his emotions locked up tight.

“I supposed I should make an effort,” Aethas said, hands clasped loosely around his bent knees. “It gets lonely otherwise.”

Halduron let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, raw and ragged and he felt himself wrap his arms a little more tightly around the sleeping cub he was holding.

“I’ll check in and see how she’s doing,” Aethas said, reaching over to stroke the cub’s fur.

“Thas'alah,” Halduron murmured, as he gazed down at the cub. “That's her name.”

He looked up, locking eyes with Aethas.

“That's a lovely name,” Aethas said, smiling faintly at him.

 

***

The cub thrived in Halduron's care, as Aethas had suspected she would.

If he took the long way every morning so he could catch the ranger heading out with the mana saber cub in tow, who could blame him?

They made an interesting pair, Halduron struggling with a body trying to regain its former strength and a young saber, learning how to make sense of its limbs.

A brand new treat revealed itself to Aethas as he was heading for the market one morning some weeks later, crossing the Terrace of Order and spotting none other than Halduron speaking with Silgryn.  A group of Shal'dorei nearby tried and failed to look like they were not entirely focused on this pale Outlander that had just joined them.

“I see you finally found your way here,” Silgryn greeted Halduron warmly.

“I hope that doesn't bother him,” Halduron said, gesturing for how Thas'alah sat with her eyes trained on the owl perched in a nearby tree. She let out an occasionally mewl of frustration, whipping her tail, when it stayed out of her meager reach.

“Oh, Kal knows to stay well out of the way of a learning cub,” Silgryn responded, making eye contact with the owl. It ruffled its feathers, as if he knew he was being complimented.

What errands Aethas intended on flew out of his mind when Halduron pulled off his shirt and took the spare blade Silgryn offered him.

“Might as well let you show off first,” Halduron told Silgryn who cracked a slight grin.

What followed next could best be described as a sort of dance, with two bodies moving in tandem, a beautiful flowing pattern that seemed incomprehensible to anyone not versed in its mysteries. That Halduron had, until fairly recently, been quite ill and bedridden did not seem at all obvious to Aethas’ untrained eyes, perhaps only hinted at when Halduron suddenly called a halt, raising his left hand.

"I have to ask," he said, between labored breaths. "Are you going easy on me?"

Silgryn offered Halduron a quizzical look.

"Did you wish me to?" the Shal'dorei responded, adjusting the grip on his sword.

Halduron grinned widely at Silgryn, then they came together again, blades clashing and limbs moving as they dodged and parried. Finally it was Silgryn who called a halt, seeing that Halduron had reached his limit.

"I must confess to being impressed," Silgryn said as he sheathed his blade. "I have heard it said that the Sin'dorei endurance is exceptional, but to see it in person...even after such an injury..."

Halduron was sitting down around the rim of one of the elegant arrangements of plants and bushes that lined the terrace itself.

"We have endured a lot," was all he said in response as Thas'alah seemed to view this as an invitation to pounce on Halduron's boots, worrying the leather with her small teeth.

"That said," Silgryn continued. "I do recall your mention of a bow, and I made some inquiries to recent allies."

Halduron raised his head. The curiosity in his gaze was clear, even from where Aethas was standing.

"You might be aware that unlike our Kaldorei cousins, the bow has rather fallen out of fashion here," Silgryn said, gesturing for one of the students, who jumped to the task, rushing off to fetch something. This something turned out to be a cumbersome long box made of pale wood, elegantly shaped in Shal'dorei fashion.

"Our Highmountain neighbors, however," Silgryn continued. "They are quite well-versed in this and I found one who would gladly comply with my request, after supplying him with the proper materials."

Aethas had to crane his neck to see properly and he was starting to feel rather foolish by now. But, even as a mage, he could tell the bows that Silgryn removed from the box were beautifully made, pale wood from the forests around the city, the design a meld of the curves of Suramar with the rustic nature of Highmountain. There was even a splash of reds and green on the bow Silgryn offered to Halduron and yes, the middle section of the bow appeared to be fashioned after the Tauren bowyer's idea of a phoenix.

Halduron took his time going over the bow, feeling every curve of it, touching the taut string experimentally, while Silgryn took a more relaxed stance with the second bow which he still held in his hand.

"I hope it is to your satisfaction," the Shal'dorei finally said and Halduron fastened him with an intense look.

"Yes," he told him, his hands still stroking the weapon almost lovingly. Oddly a strange shudder passed through Aethas' body at the action. "You can pass on my thanks to the one who made it."

"I shall," Silgryn said with a smile. "But perhaps you can give your thanks to my contact in person, as I have received notice that Lasan Skyhorn is to visit us shortly."

Halduron stood in silence for a while, until he seemed to have gathered his wits and offered Silgryn a grin.

"Now, perhaps, I can remind your people how to use one of these," he said, hefting his new bow.

"Of course," Silgryn said and produced a quiver of arrows, which he handed to Halduron without further ceremony.

Aethas slunk away as the students crowded around Silgryn to watch Halduron and disappeared out of earshot shortly after the first arrow sunk into the target with a thunk.

 

His side venture meant Aethas had to apologize to Oculeth for his tardiness. After his lesson, he headed out again for that errand he had completely forgotten about and then stayed on in the workshop to make up for lost time, even though he had been told it wasn't needed. It was much later that day when Aethas came upon Halduron again, standing not far from where he had confronted him that day when he found out about his shoulder.

The ranger had the bow slung against his back and the mana saber cub had been offered a broken arrow, its sharp head missing, to play with.

"I'm seeing Thalyssra tomorrow," Halduron offered as Aethas walked up to him. "Guess it's finally time for me to talk about it."

"Talk about what?" Aethas said, even though, judging by the sharp stab inside his chest, he did know exactly what.

"About Quel'Thalas," Halduron said, the last syllable drawn out into a sigh.

Thas'alah abandoned her plaything to clumsily leap up onto the bannister and began to pace back and forth in front of Halduron, butting her head against him every so often.

"I wasn't there, for most of it," Aethas admitted, the words leaden on his tongue. "I mostly saw...well, the aftermath."

“Lor’themar told me about the siege at Lordaeron,” Halduron began, peering over at Aethas. “How Sylvanas seemed to have planned to lose and...how to cause the most damage to the Alliance while pulling out.

“I remember telling him, that was a whole different situation, the Horde was cornered and after Jaina showed up on that magic boat...Well, it’s kind of hard to push back against that, especially after unleashing all that Blight on the battlefield. As shitty as that was to begin with.

But this, this was her old homeland. She died protecting it last time, surely she’d not let it fall again.”

Halduron’s shoulders tensed visibly and he turned his face away from Aethas.

“She pulled them back,” Halduron said, his gaze on his own hands, resting on the railing of the Grand Promenade, the rest of the city twinkling playfully at them in the dim light of the evening. “Once Sylvanas saw the Alliance forces would overrun us in the end, she pulled her support back.”

He raised his head, giving Aethas a look that broke his heart.

“She abandoned us to our fate.”

Thas'alah rubbed her head against Halduron's face, making a mewling sound and he pulled her into his arms, the manasaber cub nipping at his hair as she settled against his shoulder, a low rumble emanating from her chest.

“I’m sorry,” Aethas blurted out, trying to force all of his feelings into those three words. This time there was no response from Halduron.

When the ranger managed to free one of his arms, resting a hand on the bannister once more Aethas placed his own hand next to it. Then, after bolstering his courage he moved it, giving Halduron’s hand a gentle squeeze. To his great surprise, he felt Halduron squeeze it back.

 

***

 

Lasan Skyhorn was nothing if not loud. It was a trait Halduron kind of liked in a person and he’d gotten along rather well with the Tauren he’d engaged with at Trueshot Lodge. However, his position in Quel’Thalas had not given him much opportunity to interact at any great length with their Tauren allies in the Horde, so he tried to see this as an opportunity to compensate for that.

It was certainly a huge improvement to his more somber conversation with Thalyssra earlier, though after unloading some of it on Aethas earlier, it did feel a little easier speaking of it a second time.

“The Warchief offered me very few reasons for why she declined additional support from Suramar,” Thalyssra had said. “The implication was that, for the Horde, it was easier to…’let go’ and instead focus our resources on Kalimdor.”

“Losing the Zandalari fleet was a huge setback I am sure,” Halduron had said, trying to forget how he’d told Lor’themar “What does that matter to us? We have our own ships!”

The Alliance had burned those too.

“I heard you liked the bow we made,” Lasan said, slapping him on the back in what Halduron assumed was a gentle manner, for a Tauren. “I had to explain to Silgryn that you can’t use any old wood for a bow, as I am sure you’re aware of. I had Loren Stormhoof assist in the making of yours.”

Halduron sipped his wine, because the Shal’dorei seemed determined that no proper conversation could be had without a good vintage available. On the other side of the table, Singryn was in discussions with Thalyssra, while Oculeth seemed to devote the same intense contemplation to the food in front of him, as he did with his telemancing.

“I remember him,” Halduron said with a grin. “Carried a spear almost twice my height.”

“You should see what we hunt,” Lasan offered with a grin of his own. “Perhaps you should take that new bow to Skyhorn and see for yourself?”

“Is that an invitation then?” Halduron asked taking another sip from his glass.

“Of course!” Lasan said, once more proving that he had no concept of an ‘inside voice’. “I might even lend you Aviash to take you up the mountain!”

Halduron gazed hard into his wine, it was far nicer than anything he’d had back in Silvermoon, but somehow its taste seemed vastly inferior to the bottles he’d shared with Lor’themar. He felt his hand clench around the glass, fearing for a moment he might shatter it. With a strength he didn’t know he still possessed he swallowed down his grief with some more wine and looked up at Lasan again.

“I might take you up on that offer sooner than you think.”

 

The arrow flew straight this time, hitting the target a bit off center, but it was a huge improvement from the first time Silgryn had held that bow in his hands.

"That's more like it," Halduron told the Shal'dorei, as he leaned back against the tree. Thas'alah had managed to crawl up on the lowest branches where she could glower at the owl that was preening himself in the opposite tree.

"Keep your arm as relaxed as possible," Halduron said as Silgryn picked another arrow from the quiver. "Let your back do the work."

A number of Shal'dorei, as well as a certain mage at the far back, had joined the shuffling trainees for this unusual show, though Silgryn seemed unmoved by this.

"Lift your elbow a bit more," Halduron added as he watched the Shal'dorei draw the string back.

This time the arrow hit the edge of the center circle of the target, and a couple of particularly engaged onlookers began to applaud.

Silgryn shook his head, though Halduron was sure he saw a pleased smile curl the corners of his mouth.

"Surely there are more engaging matters elsewhere?" the Shal'dorei said, then shifting his gaze to the trainees, he added. "Like doing your drills, as I instructed."

The small crowd dispersed quickly, as the trainees practically leaped over themselves to grab their training swords and began to spar.

Halduron knew it was unbecoming and tantamount to bragging, but he couldn't resist firing off an arrow of his own. Seeing it thud securely into the very center felt him with a small sense of satisfaction.

"That is why in this matter, I am the student and you are the master," Silgryn said, placing a hand on Halduron's shoulder.

"Perhaps we should have a go with the swords," Halduron said. "To even things out, of course."

To Halduron's surprise the Shal'dorei's smile wavered and he gently pushed him a few feet off to the side.

"Thalyssra was not certain whether she should tell you this," he began and Halduron felt something cold descend in his gut. "But I felt you had a right to know."

Silgryn straightened up, but kept a hand on Halduron's back.

"There have been recent reports of Sin'dorei magi appearing in Kalimdor, begging for supplies," Silgryn continued. "The one in Orgimmar left too fast for anyone to think to question him, but the one that arrived in Mulgore told the assembled Tauren that he had been sent by Lady Liadrin."

Halduron felt himself suck in a breath, then let it out slowly.

"She's alive then," he said, the ice in his gut melting slowly, but not without leaving a mushy mess behind.

Silgryn nodded.

"As you can expect, Thalyssra was quite glad to hear of that, but also concerned for her situation," the Shal'dorei said.

"The mage didn't say anything about their situation?" Halduron heard himself ask.

Silgryn shook his head.

"My assumptions are that they are still in somewhere in Quel'Thalas, which is still under Alliance control," he said. "I can understand why they might not wish to telegraph their location to anyone within earshot."

"Worried about spies," Halduron said, feeling his fists clench and unclench. "It's a sound strategy."

"Yet, their pleading for supplies tells us that they are in need of help," Silgryn said.

"Are you expecting them to come here then?" Halduron said.

This time Silgryn nodded.

"Thalyssra is already compiling lists, from what she knows the mage asked for in Mulgore, and sending them to the city merchants."

"Silgryn?" Halduron asked the Shal'dorei. "You will tell me if they come here, right?"

"Of course, my friend," Silgryn said, his hand clasping his shoulder warmly.

Halduron felt himself wander back to the training area and grabbed a sword.

"I think I am going to need that sparring session myself," he told the Shal'dorei.

Silgryn nodded grimly and found his own sword.

 

After a couple of days spent in nervous agitation, Silgryn pulled him aside again.

"I know you worry," he told him. "But today I performed better than you at the bow and I know that is not proper."

Halduron thought to quip that the Shal'dorei had just improved that much that fast, but his heart wasn't in it.

The Shal'dorei seemed to weigh his words carefully before he spoke again.

"Perhaps... A few days away from here would be good for you," Silgryn said. "I did overhear your discussion with Lasan the other night."

Halduron did manage to speak now.

"Hard not to overhear him," he said, forcing a grin on his face, “with that voice.”

Silgryn's smile seemed equally plastered on.

"Either way, perhaps..." he began. "I can send him a message today, if you like."

Silgryn gave him a thoughtful look, before he added, "If any messenger arrives while you are away, I will come and collect you myself."

"Thank you," Halduron heard himself say, a sigh escaping from his lips.

As they said their goodbyes that day, Silgryn clasped his wrist a bit more firmly than usual.

"Take care,” the Shal’dorei said. “Know that you will be missed for the time you are away.”.

The smile Halduron offered Silgryn now was easier to manage. In fact, he was starting to look forward to the trip now, to be out in the wilds again, with just his bow and Thas'alah and...

He peered up at the nearby walkway and spotted that familiar head of red hair darting away.

There was one other thing Halduron needed to do.

 

“Come with you?”

Aethas looked at him in surprise, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. Their interactions as of late had mostly been limited to stumbling into each other after Halduron’s practice with Silgryn and the other trainee Shal’dorei.

Well, if one can could it stumbling, when Aethas seemed to have made a habit out of showing up to watch them most every morning and trying his best to not make it obvious what he was doing. Halduron felt oddly touched, a nice counterbalance to the occasional painful twinges as his mind sought to remind him of those he had lost.

“As much as you’ve been watching me spar with Silgryn and the others, you should know how to fire a bow yourself at this point,” Halduron said. “I thought that perhaps you’d want to put those skills to the test.”

Aethas was flustered, color rising all the way to the tips of his ears and Halduron thought he’d put an end to his misery.

“I’m joking, Aethas,” he said, urging a smile on his face. “But…I wouldn’t mind some company. If only to give me a second pair of eyes to make sure Thas’alah doesn’t get into something she can’t handle.”

The truth was that Halduron wasn’t sure he trusted himself to be entirely alone, not with all the warring thoughts in his mind, not with what Silgryn had told him. And certainly not with the realization that this was the first time he would be going hunting since Quel’Thalas had fallen.

“If you’re sure I won’t get in the way,” Aethas said, picking at the sleeve of his robes.

Halduron cocked his head to the side.

“Maybe don’t wear robes,” he suggested. “And… I hear it’s colder up in Highmountain this time of year.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Aethas wasn’t sure why it felt strange to be clad in shirt and breeches again, in his Kirin Tor garb he had worn them all the time. Perhaps that was why he felt so tense as he waited for Halduron.

The ranger tsked at the light fabric of his clothes and threw him a warmer cloak. He did nod in approval at the short dagger Aethas had strapped to his belt.

“I’ll find you some better boots in Thunder Totem,” Halduron told him before Aethas could protest.

The giant eagle that awaited them outside the Nighthold was not Aviash, the personal mount of Lasan Skyhorn, but it was awe inspiring all the same. The note the eagle had brought promised that once they got to Skyhorn, Aviash would indeed be there to take them back to Suramar.

"Take your time and enjoy Highmountain," the letter concluded, signed by Lasan himself.

Halduron managed to soothe the eagle into letting the mana saber get on its back, then after securing her with some leather straps which she announced that she had extreme issues with he got on himself.

"It's going to be a tight fit," he told Aethas, as he leaned back in his seat.

Aethas got on in front of Halduron and told himself he was not at all affected by how Halduron had to put his arms around him to hold onto the neck feathers of their mount, how his chest pressed into Aethas' back and how he felt Halduron's voice vibrate through his body each time he spoke.

Something of Aethas flailing thoughts must have escaped his control for he heard Halduron ask him, lightheartedly,

"You're not afraid of heights, are you?"

"N-no!" Aethas squeaked out and he heard the amusement in Halduron's voice when he replied.

"Of course."

Aethas pondered defending himself, but he didn't trust himself to not just dig himself into a deeper hole in the process.

It was a relief when they finally landed in Thunder Totem. Aethas experienced in person what he had been told so many times beforehand: it was colder up here. He pulled his cloak tightly around himself and raised his hands to his face, summoning enough heat to keep himself warm.

"Just stay there for now," Halduron told him as he walked over to one of the merchants that lined the huge tower construct that was the Highmountain capital. Aethas walked over to the banister and gazed out over the valley below.

Highmountain was breathtaking, reminding him somewhat of the Grizzly Hills in Northrend with its tall pines and rugged terrain. From what he could see Highmountain was all tall peaks surrounding the valley below, where a river ran through it.

"It is beautiful, is it not?" rumbled the caretaker of Thunder Totem’s great eagles. "The Rivermane are attempting to undo the damage Dagrul did to their home after he stole the hammer."

The Tauren gestured for a small collection of buildings Aethas could just make out right by the river.

"Though the work is going slower than it should be," the Tauren continued, "with many braves away fighting the Warchief's war."

"That’s a pity," Aethas said. "Perhaps we can be of some help?"

The Tauren let out a laugh that seemed to shake the sturdy floor Aethas stood on.

"Well, I suppose you could ask if there is something for you to do, when you get to Riverbend," the Tauren said. "I see your friend has a bow, you could hunt and help fill the tribe's bellies."

As if on cue, Halduron returned, handing over a pair of boots to Aethas.

"Well, we were advised to stay away from the mountains to the south of Thunder Totem," Halduron said. "The snows were deep this winter and in some places it's still knee deep for a Tauren."

Aethas blanched.

"So, it's down to Riverbend then," he said, sitting down to pull on his new boots.

"You should know your friend just offered your services to the Rivermane," the Tauren said with a grin.

"You did, did you?" Halduron said, cocking an eyebrow at him.

"They are trying to rebuild, with their warriors away fighting the war," Aethas said lamely.

"Your friend has a good heart," the Tauren said, clapping Aethas on the back as he got back on his feet, causing him to nearly fall to the ground again. "Do not feel forced to help out, I have heard your people have fallen upon hard times as well."

"Yeah, we have," Halduron said and Aethas could see Halduron's face tense up, his eyes growing distant.

"We should go then, right, Halduron?" Aethas said, gently placing a hand on Halduron's arm.

The ranger shook it off, taking a step forward.

"Yes, we should go," Halduron said, almost mechanically and started walking towards the elevator, Thas'alah padding along next to him with a concerned look, for a mana saber.

"It was nice talking to you..." Aethas began, as he turned to leave. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

"Nait, friend, my name is Nait," the Tauren offered. "Sun and moon light your way."

When Aethas had caught up with Halduron down in the belly of the great tower, he found the former Ranger General talking to one of the monstrous looking vendors. Drogbar, that's what they were called, Aethas reminded himself. He saw Halduron tuck a bottle of something inside his pack and then turned to Aethas as if their last exchange hadn't happened, a smile back on his face.

"I think I have the last things we need," Halduron told him. "Though I feel bad spending Silgryn's money like this..."

"He wanted you to have it," Aethas said, lamely, shuffling his feet in his brand new hiking boots.

Halduron nodded, though he still looked thoughtful as he tucked away the pouch of coins into his pack.

"Well, if we are heading to Riverbend, we should take the Path of Water out," Halduron said.

"We don't have to—" Aethas protested, but Halduron shushed him.

"It's fine, Aethas," he said. "Feeling useful is one reason why I wanted to come here."

With an over excited Thas'alah leading the way, they left Thunder Totem, and with a gust of brisk air they were welcomed into the embrace of wilds of Highmountain.

Halduron seemed to relish it, taking long deep breaths as they stood on the end of the walkway leading in and out of Thunder Totem.

"Come on," the ranger said, grinning at him as he set off, letting Thas'alah lead the way. Aethas happily followed.

High up on the tower city that was Thunder Totem it had been hard to accurately assess the damage that had been dealt to the home of the Highmountain’s Rivermane tribe.

For instance, some of the structures that Aethas had seen had been part of the destruction that Dagrul had caused, creating spires and rocks to shoot up from the ground, playing havoc on the residential structures that had nestled close to the river.

As he walked between these spires made of rock and crystal, some part of Aethas could admire the beauty in them even as he shuddered at the devastation they had wrought.

Halduron had found a bulky Tauren male hauling off chunks of rock to clear some space and he was gesturing towards those few buildings still standing. Aethas hurried to follow as the ranger made off in the indicated direction.

They found the leader of the tribe, an elderly looking female speaking with another elder white muzzled Tauren and they received surprised stares at their arrival.

"I confess I am surprised to see your kind here," the female Tauren said. "What brings you here to Riverbend of all places?"

Halduron offered her a bow.

"Admittedly, I am here for purely selfish reasons," he began, and Aethas could see the female Tauren offer the ranger a curious look. "But, I did hear up in Thunder Totem that you were struggling a bit here, so I thought I should ask if there is anything we can do to help."

Aethas felt slightly guilty for his inclusion, for a pessimistic voice inside him wondered what help he could truly be.

The female Tauren's face softened however.

"There is much work to be done," she said, gazing towards the laboring Tauren. "I am very grateful for anyone willing to offer their assistance."

"Halduron Brightwing," the ranger offered, as he offered his hand to the Tauren chieftain.

"Jale Rivermane," the Tauren said, clasping Halduron's much smaller hand in hers.

"Come on, Aethas," Halduron told him and Aethas forced himself into full attention. "Let’s see if we can't find some of that game Lasan bragged about here."

"There is fish in the river too," Jale said, peering at Aethas. "There should be bags of fishing supplies down by the river dock."

Aethas nodded gratefully at her as he hurried after Halduron's retreating back. It was like the ranger was trying his best to run away from something.

 

The river from which the Tauren tribe and settlement had surely taken their name was an angry roiling mess, probably caused by excess water from the ongoing snowmelt. It made Aethas feel less than enthused about the task he had decided on. Though, if he had to choose between trying to be a useful hunter and attempting to pull something out of the rapids, then he felt the latter might be less dangerous for his own health.

He found himself a safe spot to perch on, some tall rocks near enough to the water where it seemed to nearly overflow the river's banks. It also just happened to give him a nice view of the rest of the surrounding area, and most importantly, allowed him to track Halduron.

Aethas could see the ranger climb up rocky cliffs, coaxing the mana saber to follow him, saw him bent low to track and occasionally disappear behind trees and budding shrubs. Therefore he heard more than saw the commotion when a large elderhorn bull appeared between the trees, angry and ready for a fight. Aethas heard Thas'alah let out a yowl, heard Halduron bark an order at her, then he caught a glimpse of Halduron with his bow nocked and ready to fire. The telltale thrum of a bowstring, once, twice, thrice. Then there was a loud crash which made Aethas hold his breath, the fishing pole in his hands all but forgotten.

There was a rush of relief when he saw Halduron appear from behind the trees up ahead, bow in hand, with a proud look on his face.

"Thas'alah had a good first hunt," the ranger said proudly. "She's guarding our kill right now."

"That's great," Aethas said, trying to match the enthusiasm he saw on Halduron's face.

"It's also a big kill, so I wondered if you wouldn't mind coming along and help me carry it back," Halduron said.

"Yes, of course," Aethas told him, feeling a bit sheepish over his own half-hearted attempt at being a hunter and gatherer. "I don't think I am a very good fisherman."

"Well, I think you have something biting right now," Halduron told him, peering over at where the bobbing float was, which was now continuously being pulled far under the water by something.

Aethas let out a yelp and began to tug at the line, which had the effect of causing what was on the other end to tug bag, violently. If Halduron hadn't been there to grab onto his belt, Aethas would have found out exactly how fast the river flowed right now.

"I've got you," Halduron grunted, holding onto him. "Just reel it in, slowly."

That was easier said and done. It seemed like the more Aethas pulled, the more whatever was on the end of the line, pulled back and when the thing in question first reared its head over the surface, he nearly lost his hold from the shock.

“He’s huge!” he heard himself gasp at the crimson scaled monstrosity which he’d somehow managed to hook.

“Just show him who’s boss,” Halduron grunted as he tightened his grip around him. Aethas tried not to think about this close proximity as he kept pulling at the fishing line. It was actually a relief when there was a terrible crunching snap and the fishing rod broke clear in two, sending Aethas falling backwards into Halduron.

“I’m sorry!” he heard himself call out as he stumbled to his feet.

Halduron seemed less bothered by it than Aethas, for he merely shook himself off like some big dog and brushed the dirt and dust off his clothes.

“Well, that’s a pity,” the ranger said when he was done. “Want to come help me carry this, then?”

Aethas just followed, so he’d have something to present to the Rivermane chieftain, besides a tall tale of a fishing story that ruined some of their fishing equipment.

 

If the days in Highmountain were cold, then the nights were even colder. By the time the elderhorn had been brought to Riverbend and disposed of properly, the sun had been setting and an apologetic Jale had directed Aethas and Halduron towards some caves a bit away from the village.

“Sadly, we don’t have the extra room for visitors, recovering as we are from the Legion’s invasion of our lands,” she said. “With blankets and fire, you should be comfortable there.”

With that, Aethas found himself peering up at the night sky, a warm blanket wrapped around him, while a fire warmed him from the feet up. Halduron was picking at the remains of their dinner, a stew made from trimmings from the elderhorn, occasionally taking a sip from the bottle Aethas had seen him purchase from the Drogbar, while Thas’alah stripped the last bits of meat off of one of the elderhorn’s large bones, rumbling happily all the while.

“I can’t remember the last time I watched the stars,” Aethas said, watching his breath mist in the cold air.

“Hm?” Halduron turned towards him, pushing aside the empty bowl of stew and taking another sip from the bottle.

“I mean, obviously I’ve noticed the stars before now,” Aethas continued, begging the rising flush to go unnoticed in the flickering light from the fire. “I just…haven’t actually looked at them closely in a long time, not since…before Argus appeared in the sky.”

Halduron let out a snort. “Yeah, that kind of stole everyone’s attention for a while.”

Aethas leaned all the way back, head propped up on a rock, marvelling at how many little pinpricks of light there were up there, winking slowly down at him. He heard Halduron let out a sigh somewhere to his left.

“I remember…way back when I was a fresh ranger,” he began in his low rumbling voice. “Me and Lor’themar, we used to keep each other company when one of us had a night watch, we’d find a good vantage point and come up with new names for the constellations we saw.”

Aethas turned his head to peer over at Halduron, who was gazing up at the sky with what seemed a thoughtful expression on his face.

“If these are the same stars as over Quel’Thalas…” Halduron began. “That there, is the Angry Lynx, and that one, that’s the Running Hawkstrider. That one’s the Drunken Ranger.”

Aethas heard Halduron let out a low chuckle at that one.

“I remember Lor’themar saying, ‘well, it looks like you up there’,” Halduron continued. “Couldn’t really argue with him, especially ‘cause the reason I was on night watch that time was because I had shown up late and hungover. Lor’themar had had to cover for me and...”

He heard Halduron suck in a shuddering breath, then let out a weak, nearly inaudible “shit”.

The silence that followed was strangely unnerving and when Aethas pulled himself up into a seated position again he saw Halduron sitting huddled up in front of the fire. And his shoulders were shaking.

“Halduron?” he asked, carefully moving a bit closer. And that’s when he heard the sounds, choked and stifled.

Was he crying?

Aethas froze, his outstretched hand hovering a foot or so from Halduron’s heaving shoulders. He should do something, he ought to do something, but what suggestions his brain offered crashed together like waves on the sea in his mind. Finally he decided his brain had screwed things up enough and shut it down. He sat down next to Halduron, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

He felt Halduron flinch for a moment, then he leaned heavily into the embrace.

 

***

 

What bulwarks Halduron had tried to build up inside him had now ruptured, overflowing their banks like the river that flowed not too far from here, hidden in the darkness. It felt appropriate, sitting here alone, being swept away on the tides of his own emotions with nothing but the stars for company.

The stars and the memories. Those very same things he had tried to protect himself from, but that were now drenching him to the bone.

Mostly they were faces, moments frozen in time, like some mage’s enchantment, often of much better days spent outside in Eversong, hunting, tracking trolls, going on endless patrols, camps under the stars and drinks shared in front of fires and in warm rooms. But also of bad times, fighting side by side. They were hectic memories of them rushing back to Silvermoon City, the blood still streaming down Lor’themar’s face. Conferences and confidences in the newly re-christened Sunfury Spire, then watching the smoke from Kael’thas funeral pyre rise high up in the evening air.

Halduron dug fingers into his thigh as he felt the phantom pains start up in his right hand, from where their bloodied palms had once met that one morning. It had been a stupid thing to do, really, what with the risk of infection out in the wilds, but they’d been young, their bodies only just starting to fill out with lean muscle.

Lor’themar looking at him with his old eyes in his young face as they clasped bloodied hands together.

He’d always had such old, serious eyes, Halduron remembered. They had only gotten more pronounced with time, especially after he’d finally fully donned the mantle of Regent Lord after Kael’thas betrayal.

It had been this somberness in his friend’s eyes...eye, that had compelled Halduron to maintain his more playful attitude over the years, to be a counterweight to his more serious friend.

But without Lor'themar left to balance him out, what did that mean for him?

Unmoored, drifting without anchor, Halduron felt himself reach out for the warmth that was Aethas, suddenly there next to him. Halduron’s right hand flew out to find Aethas’ hand and he clung to it like a man drowning.

 

Halduron awoke to sunlight through red hair, burning copper in his field of vision.

It took him a few seconds to remember, then it suddenly made sense why Aethas was curled up next to him under the heavy blankets, a warm body on this cold morning.

Somehow Halduron had resisted wrapping his arms around the mage while he slept and Aethas had almost curled up around himself, as if he was trying to make himself as small as possible.

It was a startling thought, but as he gazed past that shocking head of hair, out at the landscape outside the mouth of the cave, colored by the light of the rising sun, he found himself taken by the beauty of it all. His brain's insistence to constantly compare all things to his lost home had somehow lessened.

This was not Quel'Thalas. It never would be, but it was a beautiful place all the same and, what scars it bore from recent conflicts only enhanced that which had been preserved.

Carefully, so as to not disturb Aethas, Halduron extracted himself from the blankets, rubbing life into his arms as he paced the area looking for firewood.

Halduron had the thought, that Lor'themar would have loved this, getting away from his duties to just enjoy the wilds again and though it did cause something painful to clench inside him, his grief had been become something manageable. No longer a gushing torrent, he felt like he could hold it in his hands and it would not get away from him.

He would live on for all of them, he decided, as he teased the kindling into burning life, which greedily began to devour the firewood.

Perhaps when Liadrin's emissary found its way to Suramar, Halduron would be ready to accompany them back to their people, to do what he did best.

The smoke from the fire rose up towards the rosy morning sky and Halduron felt his heart follow it up there.

 

Chapter Text

 

Jale had objected, but Halduron insisted on helping them with their more strenuous tasks. He surprised the Highmountain tauren with his tenacity after rolling up his sleeves and getting to work. He helped them clear away rubble and free some of the buried buildings that had once been part of Riverbend, though his small build, compared to that of the tauren, meant it took longer for him. Aethas joined him, which surprised Halduron, as the mage didn't look to have the build for heavy labor.

Haduron tried not to stare too hard at the mage while he carried stones that looked far too heavy for him. Afterward, Aethas walked up to him, an impish smile on his face, and whispered in his ear.

"I'm cheating."

With Aethas closer, Halduron saw the faint sheen of arcane about him and before his eyes, Aethas made a stone slowly gravitate up into his arms.

"I don't think they care how it's done," Halduron said with a laugh, before he continued working.

He was proven right, as the Riverbend tauren thanked Aethas just as much as Halduron, while he wiped the sweat off himself quickly, before he'd get chilled by the cold breeze blowing from the water. The only skeptic was Thas'alah, as the mana saber kept watching the gravity defying rocks with a faint sense of hostility, while her tail whipped back and forth.

After a shared lunch, Jale relieved them from their duties and gifted them with warm blankets and packets of smoked fish for their continued travels.

“Be careful when crossing the river,” she cautioned them. “The banks can be treasonous this time of year. Find a shallow place, with sturdy roots binding the earth.”

“Do you want to visit Trueshot Lodge?” Aethas asked as they followed the southern banks of the river. The mage levitated a small rock into his hand, a look of deep contemplation on his face before throwing it into the rushing flow of the river.

“I don't know,” Halduron said. “I worry what I will find there. Or not.”

He peered over at Aethas, kicking dust from the river bank into the waters below.

“Besides, I don't know if they’d allow you there,” Halduron added quickly.

The way Aethas tried to hide his relieved expression was almost cute in a way.

Halduron felt a flush begin to creep over his face, which made him pause. Taking advantage of his hesitation, his mind fed him new, but perhaps not unwanted images.

Aethas’ upturned face, an identical expression of relief on his face, his freckles standing out in a pale face. Halduron’s arms around his shoulders, comfort offered on a cold day. And the rain, always the rain overhead, with thunder rumbling in the background.

This new assault on his mind, though far more pleasant, nearly made him stumble over poor Thas'alah, who yowled in protest.

This meant nothing, he told himself, just his mind forcing memories on him from a time not long ago, but long forgotten. But...

Why did it feel like he was lying to himself?

Halduron kept walking, hoping Aethas hadn’t caught on to his hesitation and the mana saber let out another loud yowl to remind him she was still there.

 

Fortunately, the bridge to the other side of the river had survived the winter. Halduron had a moment of indecision about whether to turn left or right. The left would eventually take them down to Highmountain’s rugged coastline and last time Halduron had been here it had been infested with the Legion, demon worshipping tauren, crazed spirits, and feral gigantic reptiles. While Halduron was not one to shy away from any action, he seemed to have lost his reckless, near-fatalistic streak sometime last night.

“Come on,” he told Aethas, leading him to the right. They followed the pebbly north bank of the river, back towards the east.

The going was slow, with some patches left in the shade slick with treacherous ice, but when they came around some cliffs and were greeted by warm sunlight, it was tempting to just stop and bask in it. Here the ground was already alive with the first spring flowers, bravely struggling through the hard soil. Aethas’ hair was set ablaze by the rays of the sun, a fetching vision in the rocky landscape that surrounded them and so similar to the one his mind conjured earlier.

“This isn’t so bad,” the mage said, turning towards him, his smile matching his hair.

“No, it’s not,” Halduron agreed. He brushed away Thas’alah’s paws as she tried to dig out the package of dried fish from where he had tucked it inside the outside pocket of his pack. She grumbled out her displeasure, but gave up.

They passed the site where the dwarven hunter and his entourage had once had their camp, leaving only the tombstones of those who had turned from hunters to the hunted themselves. The notorious game hunter had long since relocated to Zandalar and that was all Halduron knew and had bothered to find out. He didn’t care for that sort of hunt anyway.

The sun’s progress across the sky did remind Halduron that it would soon dip towards the west. For a moment he pondered stopping at the old campsite for the night, as it was nicely protected from the winds that did still whip about the landscape.

“What do you say about stopping here for today?” he asked Aethas. To his surprise the mage was strangely upset.

“W-what, no!” Aethas cried, flicking his ears back, a flush coloring his cheeks. “I can keep going for as long as you!”

Halduron blinked in surprise.

“Alright then,” he told Aethas, trying to soothe the mage. “I wasn't implying anything.”

Once they hit the part where the river curved to the left as it met the cascading rapids that would lead up to its source in the mountains, Halduron wished he’d pushed to stay. If they wanted to keep going they would have to find a way to cross the river again, for the rocky climb on this side looked near suicidal.

“I can do this,” Aethas assured him.

His voice implied he was less certain of this fact.

Honestly, Halduron wasn't all that certain himself, but then he felt Thas’alah paw at him again, in a way that did not seem to have anything to do with food. He watched her bounce off towards the river bank, stopping once to yowl at him.

“Hey, Aethas,” he said, smiling. “I think she’s going to help us cross.”

Thas'alah paced up and down the bank, then she braced herself, leaping across the waters to a log. Another powerful leap and she was across. She looked proud of herself, in a fashion that reminded Halduron of smug magisters, as she sat yowling at them on the other side.

When Halduron saw Aethas’ doubtful face he raised an eyebrow at him.

“You could always blink across,” he told the mage.

“It’s not that easy,” Aethas said sullenly. He stomped over to the place where Thas'alah had crossed, then he let his gaze roam up and down the river and his face brightened.

“I think I see a more narrow place!” he said, hurrying a bit upstream.

Halduron followed Aethas’ gaze and his progress and saw the outcropping that the mage was aiming for. Just as Aethas made himself ready Halduron realized what the outcropping was.

“Stop, Aethas!” he cried as the mage blinked. “That's a—!”

Aethas materialized straight across the back of a barely awake, but still very angry bear.

“Go back!” Halduron cried and it was clear the mage was just about to do that.  Before he could act, the bear reached out with one powerful paw and swatted Aethas straight into the rushing river.

The only sensible thought that forced its way into Halduron’s mind was that it was fortunate that the damn bear cared so little in the end that it went right back to sleep with a huff.

Halduron sprinted down the riverside, desperately trying to keep an eye on Aethas.. He jumped over rocks and fallen branches, following Aethas splashing and struggling form in the water as it was carried away by the current. Without thinking much about the consequences for himself, Halduron jumped in.

The water was terribly cold, more so than he would have ever expected. Upon submerging, Halduron was hit with a feeling much like being punched in the gut by an over enthusiastic orc, something he’d unfortunately experienced on more than one occasion.For a moment he lost his breath and had to bite his tongue to regain his focus. Halduron reached out just in time to snag the hem of Aethas’ shirt as he came floating by. Fighting against the pull of the stream, they somehow managed to reach the other bank, clinging desperately to the hanging roots of a big tree.

Gasping for breath, Halduron slowly pulled the both of them up onto the river bank, all sodden leathers and wool clinging to his body. A worried Thas’alah danced around them, yowling her anxiety in Halduron’s ear. There was reason for her anxiety, as soon as he was out of the water, Halduron realized how incredibly cold he was. Every stitch of clothing he possessed was now soaked and wet with icy river water.

“Shit,” he spat, as he felt his body start to shiver violently. Adding to his worries was the fact that Aethas was pale and unresponsive, blood seeping through the gash from the bear’s claws across one shoulder.

At least he was still breathing.

“I’m sorry, Aethas,” Halduron mumbled. “Guess we’re going to Trueshot Lodge after all.”

It was the only place close enough where they both could get warm and dry. Halduron could only hope that what people remained would be welcoming, or Aethas would be in serious trouble.

Fighting the shivers and tremors that wracked his body, Halduron ran as fast as he could while carrying Aethas’ limp form in his arms. He slipped over icy rocks and tripped over roots, and once he fell to his knees when his boots slipped in mud. There was a terrifying moment when he thought he wouldn’t be able to get back up again at all. Then he bit his lip until it bled, forcing himself to get up again. This was a damnably stupid place to have it end, after everything he’d been through.

Halduron nearly wept with relief when he walked past the first guard tower uncontested. Never before had he been so happy to see Trueshot Lodge this woefully unprotected. There was a moment of fear as he walked up to the main hall, wondering if he’d come in to find the whole place locked up and cold, because at this point he doubted he had the energy left to even make a fire. As he pushed past the unlocked doors to feel the familiar warmth of the large, roaring fireplace, he heard a familiar voice call out his name.

“Is that…Halduron Brightwing?”

And there was the bulk of Loren Stormhoof, approaching him with an incredulous look on his muzzled face.

“My friend and I took a little swim,” Halduron managed to grit out. “Thought we’d come here to warm up, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not!” the tauren exclaimed. In but a moment, Halduron and Aethas were helped to the great fireplace in the corner.

Loren stomped off (but it might not have been stomping, for a tauren) only to return a few minutes later with a pile of warm blankets and a first aid kit, which he deposited at Halduron’s feet.

“Warm up slowly,” Loren cautioned, nodding his great antlered head. “I’ll see about getting you something warm to drink. I am afraid not many of us are left here to help you and your friend, forgotten as we are in the war.”

“I have something of my own in the meantime,” Halduron quipped between chattering teeth and produced the bottle that had miraculously survived the trip down the river.

Loren just snorted at him, before he turned to leave again.

Halduron tried not to dive for the blankets instantly. Instead, he steeled himself against his urges and made sure Aethas was wrapped up before he was. He took a good swig from the bottle, savoring how the drogbar brew warmed him slowly from the inside.

His own blanket wrapped tightly around himself, Halduron carefully pushed away Aethas’ blanket and wet shirt to fully expose the claw marks on his shoulder. It didn't look quite as bad in the light from the fire, but he still gave it a careful cleaning, using a splash of liquor from the bottle to burn away anything that remained in the wound.

To Halduron's relief, his ministrations caused Aethas to stir. The mage let out a grunt and groggily grabbed at the blankets and Halduron smiled at how he tried to curl up more under their warmth. After wrapping the shoulder in clean bandages, Halduron offered Aethas the same kindness he had given him the night before and rearranged their blankets so that they were bundled up together.

“At some point we have to get out of these wet clothes,” Halduron said. “But for now… “

He offered the bleary eyed but more alert Aethas the bottle and the mage took a careful sip, flinched, then took another, longer swig from it.

“I’m sorry,” Aethas croaked out. “I messed things up again.”

The mage took another trembling pull from the bottle, huddling close to Halduron.

“You had a bit of bad luck, that’s all,” Halduron said. “And hey, maybe now we’ll be shoulder scar buddies.”

He cracked a smile at Aethas who quickly flushed red, averting his eyes to the fire. They passed the bottle between themselves in companionable silence for a bit, then Aethas let out a choked sob.

"You're too nice to me," he said, taking a shaky breath. "I don't deserve it."

Halduron frowned, taking possession of the bottle lest Aethas spill the rest of it.

"Everything I have done lately have always ended in disaster for everyone around me," the mage said, chest heaving. "It's no wonder I was left to babysit the Vindicaar on Argus. I’m sure I would have allowed the Legion win if I'd been tasked to do anything else! Perhaps even helped them!"

Aethas hugged his sides, shifting himself away from Halduron.

"Now I've destroyed Quel'Thalas too!" he cried.

Halduron managed to make a grab for the mage before he could wriggle away. Aethas’ hands still felt much too cold for his liking, so Halduron trapped them within his own, trying to rub warmth into them. He could see the pale purple of Aethas’ bones through his too-pale skin.

"Stop talking like that," he told Aethas. "You..."

Halduron let out a deep sigh.

"You have your good heart, and belief in others, that's what's been guiding you all this time," he said. "It's not your fault if you put that trust in the wrong people, people that let you down."

"I let you down," Aethas said, his shoulder slumping.

"You were guided by what you felt was the right thing to do, for the big picture," Halduron said, gently nudging Aethas into looking up. "I can understand that now, even if...that big picture didn't get us anywhere near where you wanted it to. A good heart isn’t a flaw."

Aethas let out another quaking sob again, trying to pull away.

"Come on," Halduron soothed. "You have to get warm."

He quirked an eyebrow at the other man.

"Aren't you fire mages supposed to have internal heaters or something?"

Aethas slowly turned back to look at him and the next thing Halduron knew, the mage had pressed his mouth against his in a sloppy kiss.

It might have been pleasant, but for the circumstances and the fact that Aethas reeked of alcohol.

"Geez, how much did you drink?" Halduron asked, as he gently pulled away.

"I dunno," Aethas said and now Halduron could see he was swaying slightly.

Halduron let out another deep sigh as realization hit. "You're a lightweight, aren't you, Aethas?"

"'m not light at all," he said. "Un-unless... I cast falling...slow spell."

Aethas waved his hands in the air and from the tang of ozone in the air, Halduron could sense the magic at work.

"Aethas," he cautioned much too late, for now the bottle was floating up towards the ceiling.

"'m sorry!" Aethas gasped, which sent the bottle flying to hit the approaching Loren Stormhoof square in the forehead.

"Ow," the tauren said, before the bottle bounced off his arm and shattered on the floor next to him. Thankfully, the tauren seemed mostly unbothered by it.

"I'msorryI'msorry'msorry," Aethas babbled and Halduron had to still his flailing hands, for he was afraid he'd cast something else without meaning to.

"My friend has had a bit too much to drink," he explained to the tauren, who nodded, then offered him a smile in response. “Too little for us, but I’m not sure he’s ever drank much in his life.”

"I did not know your friend was a mage," Loren said. He placed the tray he'd been carrying on a table next to where they sat on the floor.

"He is," Halduron confirmed. "I hope that's not a problem."

"Not at all," Loren said. "It gets lonely around here, so I welcome any and all company that is friendly."

"'m friendly," insisted Aethas in a muffled voice.

Loren let out a chuckle and said, “I’m sure you are,” before offering Aethas one of the steaming mugs on the table.

"It's tea," the tauren  said. "I think you should drink this, then get some sleep."

 

After hot tea and baked bread, courtesy of Loren, they finally peeled off most of their wet clothing. Halduron bundled Aethas up in several blankets by the fire, which helped abate some of his shivering. Halduron found himself wearing nothing but his undergarments, wrapped in a blanket of his own, as he sat by the fire and shared another bottle with Loren. The tauren felt honorbound to replace the one he had inadvertently broken though he’d been smacked in the head with it by Aethas.

This was weaker though, made for companionable sharing and not for getting drunk. Perhaps, Halduron thought, he should have given Aethas this.

"The Kaldorei left first," Loren said as he stared into the fire. "Then the Forsaken, then... One by one, they were pulled away, by war...by conflict and hatred. That which I had hoped we'd left behind with the Legion gone."

"You'd think we'd learned something," Halduron sighed. "But I guess war just comes too easy for us."

"Too easy for some," Loren said, turning to gaze at him.

Halduron took another swig of the bottle as it was passed to him. He found himself wishing it was stronger.

Loren got up to throw another log on the fire, sending sparks shooting up the chimney.

"Perhaps it is not too late to learn?" he said as he sat back down, with a grace that seemed impossible for someone of his bulk.

As Halduron gazed over at Aethas’ sleeping form, his ears flicking restlessly in sleep, he began to wonder if he hadn't already started learning something.

 

***

 

Aethas awoke to his tongue sticking to the back of his mouth and pain shooting like needles into his eyes and skull from some unknown thing. It took him a while, but then he realized it was sunlight, streaming in from a nearby window instead of Rommath exacting his long awaited revenge on him.

He let out a groan and tried to turn away from it, but the movement made shards of pain explode in his head. Another groan escaped him, then he felt someone touch his shoulder and warm steam wafted into his face.

"Here," he heard a voice say. "Drink this."

Aethas managed to dig out a hand from the confines of his blanket to clasp the cup. He clumsily drink most of it without spilling, though some of it did end up on the blankets wrapped around him. He felt the worst of his discomfort ease within minutes and he was able to sit up.

Halduron sat next to him with a concerned expression on his face.

"I never should have let you have so much of that drogbar brew," the ranger said, shaking his head. "I should have known it would be too much for you."

"It's fine," Aethas croaked, acutely aware that he was still almost naked within the blankets while Halduron was dressed.

He was hit with a sudden, terrible realization.

"Halduron?" he asked, frantically. "Where are my clothes?"

"Oh, they're mostly dry by now, want me to get them?" Halduron said, still not quite getting it.

"No, no! But also yes," Aethas began, trying to think with a brain that still felt half-muddled. "Did you find something inside them?"

He tried to keep his voice from rising into hysterics, but it was hard.

The look of realization on Halduron's face was a relief, like a cool bath on a hot day.

"Oh, there was a packet, tucked into a shirt pocket," Halduron said and got up, returning with a sad looking lump of paper. It had dried into something that looked it would disintegrate at too rough of a touch.

Which it did, once Aethas began to tear violently at it. When he saw the twinkle of silver and blue remaining within it, he let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

Halduron gazed curiously down at the items now nestled in Aethas' hands, elegant silver curves dotted with blue stones that seemed to have a glow of their own.

Aethas peered up at Halduron and felt his face flush.

"They're earrings," he said. "For you."

Halduron blinked in surprise.

"For me?"

"I've seen you fight with the other Shal'dorei... And they all have such pretty jewelry," Aethas said, knowing he was starting to babble. "And I thought... You should look the part, I mean... like them."

He managed to look directly at Halduron, at the blue of his eyes beneath the glow, shifting now from green to gold from the Sunwell’s energies.

"So I made these for you," Aethas said. "In my spare time, in Oculeth's workshop..."

There was awe in Halduron's eyes now and Aethas sucked in a breath as he carefully picked up one of them, handling it gently in one hand.

"Can you put them on?" Halduron asked, a hint of eagerness in his voice and Aethas felt a smile spread across his face.

"Of course."

Yet, Aethas found his hands were shaking as he carefully slotted the fine metal over the tips of Halduron's ears. Once he grazed the soft skin of one ear and Halduron's ear flicked lightly, as a reflex. But the earrings did fit him perfectly, the latches keeping them securely fastened.

"Do they pinch you at all?" Aethas asked anxiously.

Halduron flicked his ears again, rolling them slightly at the base.

"Nah," he said, turning to smile up at Aethas. "I hardly feel them at all."

The ranger reached up a hand to gently touch the jewelry where they sat, covering the tips and resting against the outside slope of his ears.

"How do I look?" Halduron asked him.

Aethas bit his lip, trying to keep his flush from spreading.

“You look amazing,” he said.

 

Chapter Text

 

After the worst of Aethas’ hangover had passed, he’d gotten properly introduced to their host (instead of assaulting him with a flask). He was allowed to wander the main building of Trueshot Lodge at his leisure while Halduron helped the tauren cook a midday meal for all of them.

It felt strange to be allowed to visit a place previously so barred to him and so mysterious. Aethas knew about other places dedicated to those of a certain calling, like the Chamber of the Guardian for magi like him, (though he’d had to work to gain access to that, to his shame). It was now another thing now torn up and ruined by his recent actions. But to actually see one other such place…

He felt a bit like a criminal burglarizing someone else's private sanctum, even though he was only looking. The anxiety slowly drained out of him as he gazed at the historical remnants from those of Halduron's calling. The anxiety in him was instead replaced  with the feeling like Aethas had been allowed a peek into some private corner of Halduron's mind not yet revealed to him. The weapons on the walls were all tools made for killing but also for survival in harshest of places on this planet, and had their own sort of savage beauty to them. Like Halduron himself, Aethas thought, face growing hot.

Aethas was more taken aback by the trophies of killed animals, for it seemed an expression of boastfulness that he didn't much like, of pointless killing. He was especially disturbed and saddened by the head of a red dragon, gazing mournfully down at Aethas from its mount on the wall. This had once been a sentient creature, now nothing more than a piece of furnishing in a forgotten lodge.

It made Aethas think about the fleeting nature of life itself and how death inevitably would strip them all of what made them special in the first place. It made him think of the war that raged far outside these walls, driving people of all races away from what was truly important; home, hearth, the people they loved, driving them hand over heel into the maw of death, turning them all into eyes staring sightless down or up at the world they once thrived in.

Aethas found the guilt surge up in him again, for who was he to judge the man or woman who had once felled that majestic creature that once soared the skies above them? Through actions, both direct and indirect, he had made his own contribution to the pile of staring dead.

He turned away from the wall of trophies gratefully when Loren Stormhoof announced that the meal was ready.

The baked Highmountain salmon with wild herbs and crusty bread was just on the edge of what Aethas’ stomach managed to handle (and not on the good side of that edge), but he still picked his way slowly through the plate placed before him. He contented himself with listening to Halduron and Loren talk, tales from their time together as part of the Unseen Path, what seemed a lifetime ago now. Now and then, Aethas looked up from his plate to see Halduron smile at the tauren and watched the earrings glitter softly in the light from the fire.

They had just about finished up, Aethas hastily offering himself up to help clean the dishes after their meal, when the shutters began to rattle and the large building creaked softly. Loren left to fetch water and when he returned he had a grim look on his face.

"I am afraid you will have to extend your stay here," said Loren. "There is a storm coming, and it looks bad."

"Lucky us, eh, Aethas?" Halduron said grimly, offering Thas'alah the scraps from his plate.

"How bad is bad?" Aethas asked the tauren, waiting for the water to heat up.

"Some of the worst winter storms here come at the end of the season," Loren said. "If we are lucky, we can still get out in the morning."

Aethas felt himself pale, fussing endlessly with the warming water, inevitably being too eager and inattentive and thus succeeding to burn himself on it.

Halduron shook his head as Aethas yelped, stuffing his burned finger in his mouth by pure reflex. The mana saber let out a rumble and tried to comfort Aethas by licking at the leg of his pants. Perhaps he'd spilled some salmon on it.

The storm bore down on them, hard and fast, quenching the pale sunlight that could make it past the shutters and forcing them to light the lanterns along the wall, Loren throwing an extra log on the fire, making their shadows dance along the walls, where a multitude of glass eyes stared down at them.

"We'd better stay close to the fire," Loren said, "and far away from the windows, in case the winds crack open one of the shutters. "

Aethas tried to hide his pleasure when Halduron invited him to sit down next to him with Loren at Aethas’ other side, the mana saber a warm weight draped over Aethas and Halduron's laps. Walled in between two warm bodies, with the rumbling weight of Thas'alah over his legs, Aethas could block out the groans and creaks as the storm battered the lodge like a furious ogre with a club.

Anxiety surged up whenever there was an unusually hard crack or rumble from outside, making it hard to relax properly. Still, some part of Aethas slowly pulled him down to sleep, worn out as he was. He was jerked back to full wakefulness when there was a hard rap on the door and a cry from outside.

Loren bolted up, followed closely by Halduron, but it was the tauren who first reached the door. He wrenched it open and sent an icy gust of wind howling inside, blowing out the torches by the entryway and knocking down a few lanterns. Halduron hastened to right them before they could create a disaster.

Inside tumbled a shape in a colorful cloak of red, trimmed with gold, her exposed ears revealing herself to be a Shal'dorei.

"Syrenne!" Loren called, helping the distressed elf fully inside and then forcing the door closed once more.

The Shal'dorei herself, for so she revealed herself to be, cast off her sodden cloak and stalked up to the fire, shaking off the concerned tauren.

"I'm fine Loren," she said, warming her hands on the fire. "I was the fool for thinking I could outrun the storm, I should have taken the hint and turned back when my eagle refused to take me further than Cliff's Edge."

"How is B'Dynn?" Loren asked, as he helped Halduron relight the torches and then fetched more blankets.

"Sore that he could not come with me this time," the Shal'dorei said with a smile.

Halduron approached her hesitantly, an anxious sort of eagerness on his face that Aethas had not seen before.

"Is there any news from Suramar?" he asked her, his hands fidgeting at this sides.

Syrenne turned her gaze from the fire to face the ranger, then shook her head sadly.¨

"No, Halduron Brightwing," she sighed, taking a blanket from Loren. "There is no news, at least not the sort that I expect you were waiting for."

Looking a bit dejected, Halduron sat back down in front of the fire and Thas'alah hastily reclaimed his lap for herself. The ranger began to run his fingers through her fur and filled suddenly with an urge to offer some comfort of his own, Aethas dared to move a bit closer to Halduron, close enough even, that their legs brushed.

"What news did she mean?" Aethas asked, as Syrenne and Loren continued to talk over their heads.

"Liadrin is alive," Halduron said, after a brief thoughtful silence. "She's been asking for help in Kalimdor, and I was hoping...waiting for her or someone sent by her to turn up in Suramar."

Aethas felt his heart skip a beat.

"And... You would want to go back with them?" he said, hating how his voice began to waver.

Halduron nodded.

"If I could do something...to help our people," he began, voice low in his chest, "To get revenge for Lor'themar if nothing else..."

"I understand," Aethas said, knowing it for the lie it was, for inside his soul screamed out in anguish, knowing that he'd be left behind in Suramar, while Halduron rushed away, to perhaps finally turn himself into another sightless corpse.

"Please," he heard himself say, his hand clutching at Halduron's arm. "Just...let me know before you leave, when you do. So I can say goodbye at least."

Halduron offered him a curious look and his voice sounded more curious still when he finally responded.

"Of course."

Outside the storm continued to howl, sending occasional dustings of snowflakes down the chimney to die instantly as they hit the warm air from the fire.



***

 

The storm raged itself out by the time the sun had risen above the horizon. To everyone’s relief, it had already started wearing away at the mounds of snow the storm had left in its wake by the time they dared to crack open the door outside.

Halduron hadn’t seen proper snow in a mortal man’s lifetime for Quel’Thalas’ eternal spring, so he was actually a bit excited to experience this novelty which had covered the grounds outside Trueshot Lodge in an inch thick layer of snow. Even his time spent there during the Legion’s invasion had not yielded snow like this.

Also excited by this brand new experience was Thas’alah, bounding outside with the enthusiasm reserved for the young and growing. After she had first prodded the snow with a hesitant paw to test her mettle, she leaped into the first mound of snow the wind piled up deep enough to nearly swallow the mana saber whole.

With a smile curling the corner of his mouth, Halduron watched Thas’alah romp around, making quick dashes, then stopping to pounce at some branch or twig the snow buried.

“Once she grows big enough, she would make a fine mount,” Halduron heard Syrenne say, where she’d walked over to join him. “Come to me then and I can show you how to best get her used to carrying you on her back.”

“She’ll really grow that big?” he asked her, watching the Shal’dorei woman’s face soften in a smile of her own.

“With enough love and care, yes,” Syrenne said with a nod. “She could grow as big as my B’Dynn.”

Halduron let his gaze drift back to the mana saber, marvelling that she might actually grow to such a size one day.

“She will need to have absolute trust in you,” the Shal’dorei continued. “A mana saber does not easily take to a rider on their back.”

Thas’alah came bounding towards Halduron, rearing up to plant two soggy, wet paws on the pants of his legs. The snow caked underneath her paws soaked through Halduron’s pants in seconds. She let out a yowl and rubbed her head against his hands, nuzzling them and leaving trails of drool, before she dashed off again, to leap into another pile of snow.

Syrenne let out a laugh.

“I can see she already trusts you,” she said. “You will make a formidable pair in the future!”

Halduron chuckled, brushing the snow off his pants before it soaked into them any further. He was stopped from doing anything else when a snowball suddenly hit him square in the back of his head.

He cast his gaze around him to see where it came from but in the spot from which it should have originated, he saw only a flicker of purplish blue hovering in the air.

“Aethas,” he grumbled good naturedly as he shook his head, then bent down to collect his own ammunition from the snow on the ground.

The next missible grazed his shoulder and he had enough time to turn around to see the mage vanish in another blink. Halduron took what he knew of a mage’s range and planned out his counter attack.

One snowball he hurled at where he expected Aethas to be headed, then, with a grin of triumph he caught Aethas with a second snowball just as he returned to his point of origin. Aethas let out a yelp and let flames lick his hands in a fire spell, but not fast enough to avoid his face pelted with slushy wet residue.

“That’s not fair!” he cried, his freckles vanishing in the flush of his cold face.

“Neither is blinking!” Halduron pointed out as he readied another snowball.

Thas’alah was getting excited by this new game and when Halduron threw his snowball at Aethas she leapt for it, managing to force it to the ground at Aethas’ feet.

“I think she’s on my side,” Aethas said teasingly as he began to mold another snowball between his hands.

“Traitor,” Halduron told the mana saber, who ignored him and instead crouched up on the ground in anticipation of the next hurled projectile.

When Aethas lobbed another snowball at Halduron, who ducked to the side, he was proven wrong when the mana saber neatly tackled that one to the ground as well. She worried at it until it had been reduced to nothing but mush.

“I think she might just be on her own side,” Halduron said, as Thas’alah took off again, darting through the snow, a purple streak amongst the white. Aethas’ response to that was another snowball hurled at Halduron’s chest.

It landed with a dull thump and Halduron shot Aethas a hurt look. The mage quickly blinked away, but another snowball soon came flying from behind a tree.

“So that’s how it is then?” Halduron called and gathered some more snow.

The sun did its work though and it quickly shrunk the amount of snow available for new ammunition, so soon enough Halduron found the ground around him scraped bare and the exchange of snowballs ground to a complete halt.

Thas’alah had by now tired, as all young animals do, and was now basking on a rock, her tail flicking lazily. Halduron found himself wandering restlessly, kicking at remaining piles of melting snow and though the projectiles from Aethas had long since ceased he still walked cautiously around the trees the mage had used for shelter.

There was no need for his caution, for he found that Aethas had long since abandoned his post, instead moving to settle down on his own rock, gazing off into the storm altered wilderness that was Highmountain. Halduron found himself moved by the scene in front of him, the sun above setting Aethas’ hair ablaze, the pale fabric of his shirt making it glow like a halo around his body. The mage made for a very attractive figure where he sat, the surroundings merely enhancing it, instead of highlighting the fact that in some ways he did look out of place, more fit for a library than a forest.

Halduron tore his gaze away and it fell instead towards the ground nearby, where Aethas, in a surviving patch of snow had scribbled something. The mage had obviously infused the lines with some arcane enchantment, for what he read there in the snow was the Thalassian word for “Hope”, glowing a soft blue that seemed to linger as the surrounding snow melted away.

It became a welcome distraction, when Loren walked over, casting a look of his own towards Aethas where he sat, but then turning his full attention on Halduron.

“I expect you will want to leave soon,” the tauren said. “Though I have half a mind to put you on my eagle and send you straight back to Suramar. Storms this time of year come in four and threes, then the season turns fully towards spring. Or, that’s how the saying goes.”

“I think Lasan expects me to make it to Skyhorn at the very least,” Halduron said, feeling his gaze drawn back towards Aethas again, who still hadn’t moved.

“Well, then let me fly you to Skyhorn,” Loren offered. “If another storm hits while you are there, then you will be close to shelter, instead of caught out on the river plain, or the coast, where the winds will freeze everything to ice.”

“Alright then,” Halduron said, turning to look at Loren. “I can’t say I’m too used to this sort of treacherous weather… Perhaps I should see it as a bit of a learning experience.”

He cracked a smile at the tauren who slapped him lightly on the back, than walked away, turning his attention to the sky. As Halduron watched, a large shadow appeared and a great eagle, Loren’s own mount began to slowly make its descent.

The slight commotion of the eagle’s landing had brought Aethas out of whatever reverie he was in, for Halduron saw him turn towards them with a look of curiosity.

“We’re leaving,” he told Aethas, who slid off the rock with more grace than Halduron had expected. Perhaps he wasn’t as out of place as he first thought.

“Where are we going then?” the mage asked as he walked over. Halduron couldn’t help but notice him kicking over the remains of the scribbles he’d left on the ground earlier.

“Loren is offering us a shortcut to Skyhorn,” Halduron said. “He thinks it might be too dangerous to hike there, since he fears there might be another storm coming soon.”

Halduron studied the mage’s appearance, feeling a painful twist in his gut.

“Though… if you want to head back to Suramar, I am sure he could let you go there first.”

Aethas actually looked shocked.

“No!” he blurted out. “I don’t need to be sent off like some pampered noble!”

Then it was Aethas turn to look hesitant as he added, “As long as you can endure my company, that is…”

“I don’t endure it! I-I enjoy it, quite a lot,” Halduron heard himself say and then he turned away, fearing his face might betray more of what he felt.

 

***

Aethas tried to enjoy the flight over to Skyhorn, focusing less on Halduron’s body pressed up against him and instead gazing out at the landscape as they travelled. There was still the queer rush of air against his ears, ruffling his hair, but the view was nice, and from up here he could see that there were still white patches left, even after the sun had worked on it for all of the morning. It filled him with a weird sort of nostalgia for Dalaran, of walking outside to snow covered streets, feeling the thrum of arcane through his feet as he went about his business. Would he ever get to feel that again, he wondered?

Quel’Thalas never had days like that, where a snowflake was rare and actual snow covering the ground was an anomaly. But he assumed he would be as welcome there, as he was in Dalaran now.

He pushed away his gloomy thoughts as the eagle slowly dove towards the gathering of buildings that was the Skyhorn settlement, clinging to a rock outcropping which thus made the name a rather apt description of where it was.

“Lasan is not yet back,” the eagle tender told them as they got off their mount. “But he should return within the next day or so.”

“That suits me just fine,” Halduron said as he untied Thas’alah from the eagle’s back and both animals looked grateful that this ordeal was at an end.

Halduron looked at Aethas with a grin.

"What do you say to some mountain climbing?"

The ranger then turned to the eagle tender, gesturing for the peak rising above the village.

"Would that be the actual Skyhorn?"

The tauren nodded their antlered head and smiled.

"It is, but as we see it, it's not much of a mountain," she said. "It might prove a nice challenge for you however."

Aethas peered up at the peak, poking up through the trees and wondered if it might prove too much of a challenge.

The female tauren reassured him with a light pat on the back.

"You can easily walk the entire way to the top," she told him. "You may have to be cautious for other reasons though. We have had harpies try to re-establish a foothold there, even after trying to... Dissuade them of that."

"Duly noted," Halduron said, hefting his bow carefully and checking his supply of arrows.

He stopped to send Aethas a cautious look.

"Are you coming then, or do you want to wait here?"

"I'm coming!" Aethas blurted out, color rising to his cheeks. He silently hoped he would not regret it.

 

Around the Skyhorn, some of the snow still lingered, leaving the ground frozen and hard in the shade.

"Careful!" Halduron cried out, as Aethas slipped on a treasonous patch of black ice, nearly falling in an undignified heap, but for the steady grip of Halduron's hand on his arm.

It felt like Aethas' arm was on fire, long after Halduron had let go of him and he found himself rubbing it absentmindedly.

The only one who seemed to take this whole trek lightly was Thas'alah, who dashed ahead to leap on snow crusted leaves which she sometimes stuffed in her mouth with a happy growl. After the third time Halduron gave up on prying them out of her mouth and left her to it.

"If she gets sick, she might hopefully learn a lesson," he told Aethas.

Below them, the village seemed to diminish with each step they took and Aethas began to feel embarrassed by how winded he was getting, while Halduron was chugging along like he did this every day.

'He climbs all those steps in Suramar every day,' a voice reminded him. 'While you take the arcane lifts.'

With stubborn determination Aethas decided to give it his all and somehow managed to overtake Halduron, who had stopped for a moment, resting against a tree as he peered up towards the approaching summit.

"No need to rush!" Halduron called after him, with a wide grin, but Aethas barely heard him for the beating of his heart and the rush of blood in his ears.

Maybe that was why he didn't hear the flap of wings, the coarse cries, and the crumpling of branches as a group of harpies dove for his head.

"Aethas! Look out!" Halduron cried as he first harpy aimed her claws at Aethas face. Exhausted from his mad rush it was all he could do to duck to the ground, so all she grabbed was a clawful of his hair.

He cried out as he felt her talons bite into his scalp, tearing out a tuft of his hair in the process.

When the second and third one reached him, Aethas managed to weave his shaky arms into casting a barrier and the harpies shrieked as they were repelled. And then they started casting some foul magic of their own.

Aethas hurried to follow suit, firing off a chain of arcane missiles at his two assailants, as he backed away slowly, but then a missile of something or other, cast by another harpy hit him from behind, ruining his concentration. His barrier fell.

With growing dread he blinked backwards, stumbling and tripping as he went, and the new harpy took this opportunity to slash at him, with talons and claws, as Aethas desperately grabbed for his dagger.

The harpy crashed to the ground, twin arrows sprouting from her chest. Aethas looked up to see Harduron lowering his bow, a grin on his face, offering him a salute. Then the icy ground seemed to slide out from under him and even Halduron’s ranger reflexes could not save him from toppling off the side off the, quite definitely a mountain, they called Skyhorn.

Aethas reacted on pure instinct, blinking once more to close the distance and grabbing onto the falling ranger, leaving Thas’alah yowling in alarm from the crumbling ledge. At least the mana saber had enough sense not to leap after them.

“What are you doing?!” Halduron screamed over the rush of them falling, falling, the rocks looming threateningly below.

Aethas didn’t waste the breath in responding, though what was there to say, really? Instead he furiously cast slow fall, mumbling the incantation over and over like a mantra, praying to the Light and whatever else that this would work. He shut his eyes, bracing himself for the impact.

The ground met them with a dull thump, instead of the bone-crushing crash that Aethas had feared, expected, dreaded. So surprised was he that his ploy had worked that he barely reacted when Halduron grabbed hold of him, face beaming.

“Holy shit!” he called, more like a boy after being thrown into the air by his father, than someone who had almost, nearly fallen to his death. “Holy shit!”

And when Halduron suddenly kissed him, Aethas felt like he was falling again.

 

***

 

“Halduron?” Aethas gasped as he pulled away, a flush painting the mage’s cheeks redder than what the cold had done.

Halduron's brain worked madly to explain himself, how he'd been high with the rush of his own survival, filled with gratitude for the rescue, just plain excited to be alive in this place, but they all fell flat to the startling realization that he could no longer deny. He had kissed Aethas because he had wanted to. Had wanted to see what that mouth tasted like without the taste of alcohol burning away on his tongue.

As his words failed him, he pressed his lips against Aethas again, hoping that the mage would not pull away from him as he had done and he was quickly rewarded when the mage deepened the kiss, a low moan escaping his lips.

It was only a lack of breath which finally did force them apart and for a moment they lay there on top of each other where they had landed, breathing heavily as they gazed into each other's eyes.

Aethas lay there on top of him, a pleasant weight against his and from the hard shape he felt pressing into his hip he almost wanted to quip if that was Aethas' dagger right there or if the mage was just really happy to see him. Halduron was glad he kept his tongue still when the mage smiled shyly at him and reached out with a hand to cup the side of his face.

"I didn't think..." he began, almost averting his gaze, before he seemed to gain some extra control over himself and bore into him with an intense look. "I didn't think you would feel the same way. About me..."

"Feel how?" Halduron heard himself ask, even though it seemed like a silly question right now because... wasn't it somewhat obvious? Or maybe he just really wanted another taste of those lips and wanted Aethas to just stop talking for now.

He was quickly rewarded as Aethas covered his mouth with his own and they fell immediately into a deep kiss and now Halduron was moaning too, wrestling some control over the situation by wrapping his arms around Aethas, fingers scrabbling to find purchase on buttons and fastenings on the mage's clothing. It was only when Halduron was half hard himself, when he felt the snow soaking into his pants, getting into his boots and he could hear Thas'alah yowling at him nearby that he thought to stop.

"Maybe..." Aethas gasped out, his shirt untucked enough to reveal a sliver of pale freckled skin, a trail of short hair the same color as that on his head disappearing into the waistband of his breeches where his erection was now straining against the fabric.

"Maybe not here, right now," Halduron finished for him as he forced himself away, his own erection throbbing almost painfully against his breeches.

As if she wanted to offer some comfort to him, Thas'alah arrived to lick his face with a rough tongue, which did quench some of the fire burning inside him rather efficiently. The sound of Aethas laughing next to him helped a bit too.

"When we're back in Suramar," Halduron promised, as he pushed the mana saber away. He punctuated his statement by reaching over to cup Aethas face, caressing the pattern of the freckles there, then kissing him, with a bit less passion this time.

The smile that blossomed on Aethas face would have to sustain him until then, Halduron told himself, but it was damnably hard to keep his hands away despite what he'd said.

All the way back to the village of Skyhorn their hands brushed and more than once Halduron had to stop Aethas to place a kiss on a more than welcoming mouth.

"Suramar," Aethas breathed as they broke apart and Halduron had to re-establish control over himself.

It became harder, when Lasan arrived, loud and bone crushingly friendly as he'd been last time they'd talked in Suramar. Halduron was almost grateful, when Lasan let slip some news of the situation in the wide world, of the continued conflict and how troubled some of the other leaders were, for those snippets did quench Halduron's passions for a time.

“How did you find Highmountain?” Lasan asked Aethas, who glanced over at Halduron before he responded.

“Beautiful and...very educational,” the mage said, before he hid his face in his cup of tea.

Sleeping side by side in Lasan's own hut, he felt Aethas reach out for him and in that touch of their hands, Halduron could feel a promise form. Perhaps this was what he had needed, what had been here all this time.

 

The moment Atiesh landed in front of the Nighthold, Halduron managed to contain himself just enough to untie his pack and Thas'alah, before he fell upon Aethas like a ravenous lynx on his prey.

Aethas was not some victim however, by the way he began to grind against Halduron, pushing him against one elegant wall. It was the stares of some passersby which forced some sense into them and Halduron quickly led the mage away, towards his rooms inside the Nighthold.

After Halduron had finally pried the door open, all his focus was on Aethas, the warm body in his arms, the mage already pulling at his clothing with eager hands. Halduron could only hope he had closed the door properly behind him as he half led, half stumbled into the bedroom where they let every last stitch of their clothing fall to the floor like autumn leaves in Eversong.

And when Aethas first came with a shuddering cry, it was Halduron's name on his lips.

 

Chapter Text

 

The curving walls of Halduron's bedroom had no windows, an architectural oddity that made sense considering Suramar's perpetual darkness for ten millennia. Oddity or not, Aethas had no way to tell the hour when he slowly roused himself from slumber.

Slightly groggy, he managed to startle himself into full wakefulness by the warm body right next to him.

Halduron was still asleep, curled up slightly on his side, with his left arm draped over Aethas’ waist. The events of the day before before came back to Aethas in bits and pieces and, the warmth rising in his body had very little to do with embarrassment. Instead, it had its source in simple contentment, simple happiness. He thought Halduron looked rather content, too. Even in sleep, his face was similar to the one he'd worn for much of their adventures in Highmountain and Aethas felt loathe to disturb his easy slumber.

The temptation to once more let his fingers trail across Halduron's body grew to be too much and he carefully, testing his theory on what a light-sleeper a ranger was, reached out to touch Halduron's arm. His fingers traced the swell of his muscles and lingering on the raised welt of the new scar on his left shoulder. There was only a twitch and Aethas pulled back, though not outside of the warm confines of Halduron's arm, but the ranger's eyes did not open.

Not until there was a low rumble from ground level and the bed rocked every so slightly as Thas'alah jumped onto it, letting out a yowl. No matter what kind of sleeper Halduron was, it was hard to remain sleeping with a mana saber prodding you with its large paws it hasn't quite grown into yet.

"Hey!" Halduron let out, the sleepy quality of the newly awakened in his voice.

Thas'alah shoved her muzzle in his face and let out another mewling-yowl, ending in a rumble, deep in her chest.

"Yes, I am up now, thanks," Halduron told the mana saber, pushing her away, though a smile was tugging at his mouth.

There were no signs of surprise on his face as he looked over at Aethas, the same apology in his eyes that Aethas had seen in those parents whose child had misbehaved using their fledgling magical talents. Halduron sat up, grabbing Thas'alah by the scruff and giving her a good scratch, speaking to her much like an exasperated guardian.

"You know and I know that you can get in and out of that hallway window just fine," he muttered to the mana saber. "You don't have to ask my permission."

Thas'alah offered him a headbutt, laving at his face with her tongue, before she hopped off the bed again with another yowl.

"I hope she didn't wake you," Halduron told Aethas after she had sauntered out of the room.

Aethas shook his head, though his eyes never left Halduron.

"I love you," he blurted out and had a moment of intense fear at Halduron's reaction.

There was no shock, or upset on the ranger's face though, just a mild sort of bemusement.

"I'm sorry...it's stupid,"  Aethas said, face turning away from Halduron's gaze. "I shouldn't have said anything."

The ranger lay back down and gently guided Aethas’ face back towards him with a hand on his cheek, his thumb reaching up to stroke Aethas' cheekbone.

"It's not stupid," Halduron insisted, his voice a low rumble in his chest, not entirely unlike the mana saber.  Halduron leaned in to kiss him once more and whatever embarrassment Aethas had left in him leaked out with the blissful sigh that escaped his lips when Halduron pulled away.

"It's just..." Halduron began and that was something oddly bashful about his face. "I've never had anyone tell me that before. Not like that, anyway."

Halduron leaned in for another kiss and Aethas felt like he was floating, like that first time Halduron had kissed him in Highmountain, even though they'd both been dirty and sweaty at that point.

"Like how?" Aethas heard himself say, when they came up for air again.

"So...earnestly, like you really mean it," Halduron said softly, resting his forehead against Aethas’ own. His breath was warm and slightly stale, but Aethas didn't mind it. No doubt his own was as well.

I do mean it , Aethas wanted to say, but his words were smothered by another kiss, as Halduron pressed in closer and he could feel Halduron growing hard against his hip. Aethas felt his own cock respond and things probably would have turned more towards a repeat of yesterday’s activities, but for a sudden and hard rap on the door, a voice crying out through the wood paneling.

"Pardon me, but the First Arcanist wishes to notify you that a visitor has arrived from Quel'Thalas. He is asking for Halduron Brightwing by name."

They both flew from the bed in comical tandem, scrabbling for their discarded clothing, strewn about the floor and under the bed, in the case of Aethas’ rumpled shirt and mud-stained breeches. Aethas saw only hints of Halduron's face as they moved about the room but he thought there was hope there.

"I should find a robe...to look more presentable," Aethas heard himself say. "I will join you downstairs."

"Yeah, do that," Halduron said, his voice distant as he hastily pulled on his own breeches. Their eyes met as Aethas weaved a lazy teleport spell, his rooms were right next door, and he thought he also read trepidation in Halduron's eyes.

"I'll be quick," Aethas promised and then he winked out of the room.

 

Aethas froze as he entered the reception chamber a Nighthold guard had led him to.

“Hathorel!” he cried out as he saw the other mage standing there in front of the others gathered in the room; Halduron, who turned to meet his gaze and Thalyssra and Silgryn standing a few steps in front of the ranger and Hathorel.

Aethas knew Hathorel had always taken pride in his appearance, perhaps more so than others, therefore it hurt to see his blond hair in slight disarray and his clothing dirty and worn. Guilt welled up inside him as he was forced to recall their last meeting, in the days leading up to what would become the Alliance victory in Quel’Thalas, his old friend storming out without even a glance behind at him, proving how deep the rift opened up between them during the Legion invasion went.

Hathorel had been proven to be the one in the right though.

When Aethas finally found the courage to meet Hathorel’s gaze, he was not surprised to find it cold and hard.

“At first I did not believe those rumors we heard, that you were here also,” Hathorel said. “But before I always trusted your judgement, and that was proven false also.”

Aethas flinched, turning away from Hathorel’s stare, about to bolt out of the room, but then Halduron spoke up.

“I already vouched for him,” the ranger said sharply. “He has as much right to be here as I am.”

Only then did Aethas cautiously approach Halduron, though he could feel Hathorel’s eyes on him the entire time.

“Well, then,” Hathorel said. “This is what I came here to deliver.”

He produced a folded up piece of paper, which he handed to Halduron without much ceremony.

“I was told not to return until you had read it, and given me your response to it.”

Halduron shot the other mage a curious look, then he cracked the coarse  seal on the missive and opened it.

As Aethas looked on in trepidation, he heard Halduron suck in a harsh breath, then the color drained out of his face. The ranger seemed to go over the message multiple times until his arm fell limply down to his side.

“He’s alive,” he whispered, just loud enough for Aethas to hear.

Halduron gazed at the letter once more and then he turned to Aethas, grabbing him harshly by the shoulders, crumpling the note in his hand in the process.

“He’s alive!” he repeated, voice raised to let his words reverberate in the room.

“Who?” Aethas croaked out, then regretting it immediately as he thought he could read the response in Halduron’s brightly glowing eyes, suddenly so full of life.

“This is our code,” Halduron said excitedly, glancing towards the crumpled piece of paper. “Only me and Lor’themar know of it.”

The ranger then quickly turned to Thalyssra and Silgryn, and the three of them were soon engaged in excited conversation.

Aethas was himself momentarily forgotten and as he sought out Hathorel’s gaze again, he found himself finally driven away from the room.

With Lor’themar alive still, Halduron would not need him anymore. He would surely return to Quel’Thalas in short order now, leaving Aethas here with his shame and guilt, eating away at him.

Already the events of their Highmountain trip, and waking up next to Halduron in his bed this morning felt like a far distant dream.

 

***

 

Halduron was halfway through discussing the Shal’dorei troops Silgryn had already committed to the cause and were going over how many more might be willing to join when Magister Hathorel cleared his throat noisily to get his attention.

“I do apologize, but I am expected back in Quel’Thalas and should like to know what to tell the Regent Lord upon my return.”

And that was when Halduron realized that Aethas was gone.

“Tell him that he can expect me soon, I just have to arrange my transport first,” he told Hathorel before he turned to leave, giving Silgrin and Thalyssa his apologies, then leaving the mage with a confused look on his face as he hurried out of the room.

 

Halduron had searched through half the city it felt like, when he finally found Aethas, all the way over at Siren’s Vigil, perched on one of the swings in the playground there

The mage’s face lit up when he saw him, but those flames were quickly extinguished and his gaze fell down to the ground again, as he kicked the swing into lazy motion.

“I am happy for you,” Aethas said as Halduron lowered himself cautiously into the swing next to Aethas, wondering if it was made to handle someone of his size and weight.

The mage swung lazily back and forth two more times before he spoke again.

“I expect you will leave soon,” he told Halduron, throwing him a fitful glance. “You must be so eager to finally return home.”

Aethas braced himself to push the swing into motion again, but Halduron reached out a hand to hold fast to one of the chains, causing the swing to jerk back and forth before it came to a full stop.

“What are you talking about?” Halduron said, a frown forming between his eyebrows. “Quel’Thalas is your home too, isn’t it?”

Aethas stared into his lap, his knuckles white as his hands clutched at the chains of the swing.

“You saw Hathorel, heard what he said. Halduron, no one wants me back in Quel’Thalas!”

The mage raised his head then, giving Halduron a tearful look.

“I’ll be fine here, don’t worry about it.”

Halduron heaved a sigh, kicking at the dirt beneath the swings.

“Aethas,” he said, reaching over to drape an arm over the mage’s shoulders, pulling him towards him. “I want you in Quel’Thalas.”

The look Aethas shot him was all surprise mingled with hope, the same word he’d once written in the snow up at Trueshot Lodge.

“Truly?” he asked, the fire back in the way he looked at Halduron.

“Of course.”

Aethas let his hands fall into his lap and somehow Halduron managed to bring him close enough to rest both arms on his shoulders, turning his face towards him for a kiss.

“I wouldn’t have been here to receive Lor’themar’s message if not for you,” Halduron said after they broke apart, Aethas still warm and close to him. “You believed in me, so I believe in you.”

“I just wish I could make it all undone, what happened,” Aethas croaked, face buried in his neck.

“You can’t undo the past, Aethas, but you can help me fix the future,” Halduron told him, Aethas’ hair tickling his nose.

“I’m not sure how I can help though…”

Halduron let out a low hum.

“Perhaps you can help by getting me to where Lor’themar wants me for starters. And…then I need to figure out how to get all these Shal’dorei spellblades up there to be of any use.”

He felt Aethas shift next to him, lift his head from his shoulder. When he gazed into his eyes, they were full of shining purpose.

“The things Oculeth have been teaching me…” Aethas began. “Do you have coordinates, for where you need to be?”

“There were some numbers, but I didn’t remember what they were…” Halduron said.

The mage let out an exasperated sigh.

“Tell me you still have the message?”

“I left it with Thalyssra, I think.”

“You think?!”

The look of angry upset after the despondency earlier was such a sharp contrast that Halduron could not help but laugh, which only deepened the upset look on the mage’s face.

“It’s not funny, Halduron! I will need those numbers!”

“I’m sorry!” Halduron croaked out and then pressed another kiss to Aethas’ lips.

They were interrupted by a shy tug on Halduron’s sleeve.

“Excuse me, mister?”

Halduron broke away to see a gaggle of Shal’dorei schoolchildren huddled just a few feet away, their leader standing next to him.

“Mister,” he continued. “Can we use the swings now?”

Aethas flushed a color that matched his hair and Halduron pulled him off the swing and away with him, still laughing despite the mage’s protests that it wasn’t very funny at all.


 

*** Some time later***


 

The light from their torches flickered along the walls, ancient carvings made visible as they passed them. Aethas let his free hand trace them, feel the work of hands thousands upon thousands of years ago, now left to rot here in the darkness.

Now and then he slipped on the uneven, crumbling steps, the scabbard of Felo'melorn cutting into his side, reminding him of the responsibility he now carried with him.

A few steps in front of him Halduron walked, tracing the carvings on the wall as he did, turning then to speak to Hathorel.

"These are the Amani catacombs, aren't they?" he asked. The flicker of the torches made the earrings he still wore gleam softly, as well as the armor pieces Silgryn had gifted him before they left.

"You are both right and wrong," Hathorel said, without slowing or stopping. "This would have become part of the Amani catacombs, had the Amani been left to continue their work."

"Guess this is another thing we have to thank Dath'remar and our Highborne ancestors for," Halduron said, as his hand dropped to rest on the scabbard of his sword, another gift from Silgryn. Thas'alah rubbed her sleek body against Halduron's side, peering up at him with her softly glowing eyes.

"We were certainly grateful to come across it," Hathorel said, as he finally stopped, his hand seemingly groping along the wall for something. Finally, there was a click, followed by a dull thud and a part of the rock wall seemed to slide away, revealing an opening.

Hathorel then turned to look at them, the semi-darkness shrouding his features.

"As far as we can tell, this was meant to be a tomb or some other chamber of significance. It was half finished, but we managed to make the door work as it should."

His gaze rested on Aethas, and for a moment the torchlight lit up his face; thoughtful eyes, with a furrow between the eyebrows. Less judgement now and more curiosity than earlier, to Aethas’ great relief.

"I think the Grand Magister will want to see what you brought," Hathorel told him, as he finally averted his gaze.

Aethas found one hand clutching the hilt of Felo'melorn, the other clasping the bag he'd brought, the beacon he'd used to get them here resting on top of the others. He could only pray to what powers toyed with their lives that Oculeth had been correct in trusting Aethas with this precious cargo.

And then Hathorel led them through the opening and into the large chamber beyond.

 

***

 

There was light here, and warmth.

Halduron was surprised to see so many warm bodies sharing the space. To his great joy and relief, he recognized several Farstriders: Helios, who now walked with a limp, and lieutenant Dawnrunner, restringing her bow in a corner, together with another couple of rangers, one of them raising a hand in greeting. Thas'alah was a taut bundle of anticipation by his side, her whiskers almost vibrating and with a gesture he let her roam the room as she pleased, trusting her to return once she'd seen her fill.

There, in the very center of activity, he saw him.

Red robes, much too neat and clean for this grubby environment and his pale hair made up neatly with its usual top knot, the rest of it framing his face, which now sported a new scar.

"Lor'themar!" Halduron cried, as he strode towards him. "You bastard!

He threw his arms around him and he felt Lor'themar return the gesture.

"You twice damned ass," he continued, pulling away far enough that he could see that Lor'themar had grown his beard out, long enough to put into a neat little braid. "I thought you were dead!"

Lor'themar had the decency to look apologetic, letting his gaze drop to the floor.

"I am sorry for that," he finally said, lifting his head again and Halduron reflected he looked better than he had expected, which said a lot considering not long ago he had thought him lost forever.

Halduron pulled Lor'themar towards him again, for a moment pushing away his ill feelings and just savoring the fact that his friend was alive and though the course of his life was still altered, it had somehow found its way back on a more familiar path. Halduron could work with this.

"Rommath thought it necessary to maintain the story of my demise," Lor'themar said, once Halduron had released him again. "I was to become a rallying point for our people, and for them only. For the Alliance, I had to become a ghost, attacking from beyond the grave."

Halduron crossed his arms over his chest, giving Lor'themar a thoughtful look.

"You know, that's not a half-bad idea, for a mage."

"Considering your character, I wonder if I should see that as the highest form of praise."

Halduron turned towards the familiar voice and what initial sniping comment was to have been hurled at his favorite verbal sparring partner died when he saw Rommath approach.

He was missing an arm.

Rommath followed his shocked gaze, towards the scarred stump that was the remains of his left arm and just quirked an eyebrow at him.

"By the Sunwell, have I finally managed to quiet the great Halduron Brightwing?"

With that Halduron found his voice again. "I guess I am just jealous you came out of this with the best battle wound."

The ragged robes Rommath wore still hid most of his face, but by the glimmer in his eyes Halduron could tell he was grinning under his cowl.

"Grand Magister?"

Aethas had stepped out of the shadows, reverently holding the oblong object before him and a few steps in front of Rommath, he pulled Felo'melorn from its scabbard, fell to his knees and held it out, hilt first towards Rommath.

"I present to you, the heirloom of the Sunstrider dynasty, taken by my hands from its last wielder, Lyandra Sunstrider, given over to the Tirisgarde to be used against the Burning Legion, then to seal the sword of Sargeras, in the wound of the land that was once Silithus. And now the sword Felo'melorn is yours, if you would have it."

Rommath's face seemed frozen into an unreadable mask as he clasped Felo'melorn in his one hand, lifting it up to let its light bathe over those who had assembled around them.

The moment seemed to stretch out, taut as a bowstring, then Rommath's hard eyes seemed to soften. He turned towards Aethas, his harsh words a contrast to the way he looked at the younger mage.

"What is your purpose in coming here, Sunreaver? I don’t recall Lor'themar summoning you here as well."

Halduron had already prepared a defense for Aethas, had repeated it in his head over and over on the trek here, how Aethas had helped him, and how the mage’s newfound knowledge of portals could be very useful for their cause. He felt the mana saber return to his side, sleek fur under his fingers and she yowled softly in encouragement.

But there was no need for it, for Aethas had martialed his own defense.

"I came here to offer myself and any Sunreaver still here who wishes to follow me in service to you, Grand Magister, in any way you see fit."

Aethas shot a quick glance towards Hathorel and with that, he bowed deeply before Rommath. Halduron knew what it had taken to do that much, to offer Rommath so much of his bare throat.

"Well, then," Rommath said, turning to glance at Felo'melorn again, still glowing warmly in his hand.

Then he managed to shift the sword slightly in his hand, and offered its hilt back to Aethas.

"With my current...impairment, I find it easier to focus on my casting instead of wielding any weapon," Rommath said. "Perhaps you will find a better use for it than myself."

Aethas looked shocked, even pale in the light that bathed him as he took the sword out of Rommath’s hand and Halduron took a step towards him, reaching out to clasp Aethas empty hand in silent support, while Thas'alah did a figure of eight dance between their bodies, nearly tripping them both up.

Lor'themar broke the silence with a bark of a laugh.

"You make an interesting pair," Lor'themar said, grinning at them. "You look half-Shal'dorei and Sunreaver..."

"And you look like a king," Halduron blurted out. That made the grin on Lor'themar's face falter.

"I look the part I need to be right now," Lor'themar said somberly, as his gaze roved about the room, at all the elves assembled there. "For our people."

Then the grin was back and Lor'themar turned to gaze at Halduron as he was wont to do whenever some new plan was afoot.

"Tell me, old friend: are you ready to retake our home land?"

Halduron grinned in response.

"Do you even need to ask?"




Fin(‘al)