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Shelter from the Storm

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Mere days ago, the souls living on the earth had been transformed into unmoving stone by the Goddess Ashera’s judgement, however, the skies remained ever changing. Their forces had been marching towards the Guiding Tower and attempting to avoid the Disciples of Order, when dark clouds had gathered and abruptly transformed into a storm. Elincia had ordered that they halt, despite her fellow commanders’ objections, and they had made camp.

Just in time, Elincia thought to herself as she listened to raindrops pelt the stretched canvas in a hard tempo. She stood within the medic’s tent, currently alone… which wasn’t so unusual. If there’d been a high number of injured Calill would’ve assisted her in sterilizing bandages and grinding herbs for poultices, while Reyson would’ve provided his soothing presence and voice for the patients. Yet they’d managed well enough from the last fight that no one needed a sick bed, so Elincia would likely end up sleeping in this tent by herself that night.

When it was first proposed that she be the one to man the medic’s tent Lucia had protested, arguing that it was beneath a queen’s station. Elincia had ended the argument by agreeing to serve as medic, since no one else in their small army was particularly adept at healing others with a staff. And she still remembered her childhood lived without pomp and ceremony, so occupying a tent that smelled of disinfectants and medicines was no hardship.

Thunder crashed above, the booming rumble causing her to jump. It had her looking to the tent’s entrance, which was securely tied shut. Elincia wished she’d managed to reassure the others that every army would’ve hunkered down same as they’d done.

Despite the practicality of waiting out the storm, her fellow commander— the laguz king, Tibarn —had insisted that the hawks and beasts scout the area. Her attempts at making them stay had failed once Ranulf had supported the idea. So while the beorc huddled in tents, the laguz were out in that mess checking for hidden threats. A noble gesture, if misguided. To so stubbornly insist, it was as if Tibarn always anticipated an attack, ever on-edge… likely because of the unfortunate events on Pheonicis not so long ago. She couldn’t blame him for being of a cautious mind to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

Brushing concerns aside, Elincia glanced about the tent and considered what else she might do to pass the time. She’d already put pillows and tucked linens around the single set-up cot. She’d already polished the crystals on their stock of healing staffs until they gleamed. She could count supplies, but that seemed pointless as she had done inventory just yesterday. If the world hadn’t ended and she’d been at home in Melior, there’d would’ve been unending paperwork demanding her attention— it felt like a waste not to do something. With a sigh she checked the filled kettles set to heat over the fire, the sudden storm had chilled the air quite a bit thus hot water would be preferable for a bath.

Suddenly, a particularly strong gust of wind caused the tent’s ropes to creak and there was a crash— not of thunder, but a weight making violent contact against something solid.

Elincia flinched upright, sleepiness abating as her eyes darted to the sucking sound of something dragging through the mud outside. Quickly moving to the chest beside the cot she retrieved Amiti, though held the sword in its sheath rather than bearing the blade. While it was unlikely that an enemy could fly unnoticed into the middle of camp, especially in this weather, she’d not disappoint Lucia or Geoffrey by allowing herself to be caught unawares. After a moment of listening through the patter of raindrops, she realized the direction this new sound was headed.

Taking a fortifying breath, she went to the tent’s entryway and undid the ties keeping the canvas closed. The moment it was fully untied, a rain-filled gust of wind blew the fabric wide open— revealing what just had dragged itself through the mud.

It was a bird more than twice the size of a full-grown man, sodden and covered all over in grime. Not just any bird, a hawk. And no normal animal would grow so big, it had to be a laguz. His huge head drew up and his hooked beak opened with a shrill, painfully-loud cry.

Elincia fell back a step, and apparently this upset the hawk. His massive wings flared open, the feathers spreading in a way that made him look even bigger than he already was. Her weariness burned away under a sudden rush of adrenaline, and she forced her body to remain still and not panic. While laguz were every bit as intelligent as beorc, their instincts sometimes dominated their logic— and the hawk tribe were made up of born and bred hunters. If she acted like prey, he'd react like any apex predator naturally would.

So rather than giving into the impulse to retreat further, she instead stood her ground and spoke in an even tone. “My apologies for startling you, sir hawk. You came here for treatment, correct? I can help you, but you’ll have an easier time fitting inside the tent in beorc form.”

The huge hawk cocked his head to one side then the other, yellow eyes blinking while his mouth clicked closed. Finally, he folded his wings as the soft glow of transformation engulfed his body. Beak, talon, and feather were replaced with skin, hair, and a face she could read.

The laguz man was still covered in that layer of dirt caught in his both hair and the feathers of his wings, his clothing equally as filthy and drenched. His chest heaved with ragged breaths, the necklace of feathers plastered against exposed, damp skin, as he knelt in the mud appearing close to collapsing. Even in the chaos of the battlefield, she’d never seen the hawk king in such a sorry state.

“Tibarn!” Elincia dashed to his side, ignoring the sting of the cold rain and the mud seeping into clothes as she knelt beside him. “Allow me to help you stand so we can get inside.”

His face turned towards her, and after another hard breath he nodded. It was simple to take hold of his elbow, but when she reached her other arm to support his back— his voice hitched loudly as her fingers encountered feathers instead. She quickly withdrew with an apology, inwardly fretting that if his wings were injured she might’ve just made it worse. However, he didn’t seem to be in pain as he spread his wings again, this time for her convenience. Thanking him, Elincia gingerly reached until her arm was against his broad back, then finally encouraged him to stand while she braced him.

Pressed so close, she felt how his muscles drew taunt when he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. Despite her proximity, he hadn’t leaned his weight upon her. That he’d stood straight rather than swaying on the spot was a testament to the laguz's strength. Yet only at her gentle nudging did he move forward, into the tent and out of the rain.

 


 

Her hands shook as Elincia finished redoing the ties that kept the tent’s entrance closed. Behind her, a deep voice muttered profanities alongside the slap of wet fabric falling to the ground— Tibarn was undressing. The implication of it more so than the knowledge had a blush rising to her cheeks. Even when traveling with the Greil Mercenaries she’d never been alone with a man in such a state.

Yet she’d been the one to tell him to do so, to get out of those wet, dirty clothes. She’d poured the hot water from the kettles into a basin for him to rinse with, had put out handcloths and bars of soap. He needed to be clean before she could use a healing staff on him. Trapping particulates in the wound just meant later infection and since they weren’t in a life-threatening situation it was best avoided. Even if being in the same room as a naked man went against all of her etiquette and mannerly upbringing— it was her duty as this army’s medic.

Suddenly the thought of supplies struck her and once again her fingers reached for the tent’s ties. The moment one was undone and the fabric began to gape, noisily admitting the wind, Tibarn’s voice rang out, “What’re you doing?”

“I need to go to the bathing tent-” Elincia quieted as a large hand abruptly caught her wrist. Despite his rough words and wild looks the laguz’s palm and fingers were smooth, even more so than her own sword calloused hands.

“Don’t go out for trivial things, Elincia.”

“The Hawk King being soaked to the bone and catching his death is hardly trivial.” She protested, but at his unyielding grip sighed. “I suppose there isn’t much point to carrying towels in this rain.”

With that he released her wrist and moved away. Elincia’s face felt even hotter than it had been as she tied the tent closed for the last time that night. Still she found herself hesitating to turn around… and possibly see something that couldn’t be unseen. Especially when the sounds of water splashing began.

Keeping her face turned away from where she knew the basin to be, Elincia moved further into the tent and began to search through the materials for any cloth big enough to serve as a towel. By the time she’d found two modest swathes which might serve such a purpose, there was a final splash which was followed by a masculine sigh. From a glance at the ground it seemed Tibarn was no longer standing by the basin making puddles, but had instead climbed inside to soak in the water while it was hot.

“You were right,” Tibarn called out. “We should’ve stayed out of this weather. Not even those Disciples can travel in this mess.”

That had Elincia reflexively glancing back at him. Her gaze landed upon the scarred muscles of shoulders, so she hastily followed the strong column of his neck until she looked him in the face. Wet, curling strands of dark hair clung to his forehead and cheekbones, along his strong jaw line. His features were rugged, yet undeniably handsome.

Turning around and not allowing her eyes to wander, she asked, “Are the other laguz safe?”

“Yeah, we found a cave, barely big enough to stay dry in. Ranulf promised to stay until there’s a break in the storm, then they’ll return here.”

“Why didn’t you stay as well?”

He paused a moment, shaking the remaining beads of water from his wings, before he replied, “I didn’t want you to think we disappeared and worry.”

“I would’ve waited.” Elincia ignored the slow smile curving his mouth and chided. “You hurt yourself!”

Tibarn shook his head. “No. Got tired, dirty, and cold on the way, but you’ve taken care of two problems already.”

Tibarn’s eyes hadn’t turned away from her during the entirety of the conversation, yet now there was a new heat lingering behind the exhaustion in his eyes. It had Elincia averting her gaze, falling instead on the wings behind him— the expanse of which were too big to fit in the basin. She saw that the earlier rinsing hadn’t removed all the grime from the inner-feathers and with the way many of them were skewed it was difficult to tell if he’d torn anything. If he’d broken a flight-feather or pulled something it would need tending.

Taking another, steadying breath she met Tibarn’s gaze again. “Do you need help with your wings?”

“You know how to preen feathers?” Although his brow raised skeptically, his smile remained.

Elincia nodded, confidently. Since she’d begun riding her grandmother’s pegasus, she’d learned the grooming required— wings included. While his wings were not precisely the same, they were structurally similar enough she’d know what to do. Without waiting for his reply, she ducked down to the chest beside the cot and retrieved a bag with items for grooming. Walking back to the basin, Elincia showed him the soft cloths, a flask of oil for his feathers, and a set of washbowls.

Yellow, exhausted eyes turned from the items back to her face and something in his shoulders relaxed. His wings which had been gathered close fanned out— muscle flexing under tanned skin as he spread brown, creamy-tipped wings in clear invitation. Elincia set a chair behind where Tibarn reclined and between his wings, placed her grooming bag beside it, and filled a washbowl with soapy, warm water then set about cleaning both his wings.

The process was tedious, since she had to cleanse the grime from all the delicate places, carefully work so as not to add damage. She also inspected his feathers for cracked shafts or ragged pinions. Despite the state she’d found him in, his wings were in surprisingly good shape. A few feathers were cracked but would be fixed with healing magic. Unfortunately, she also found a broken flight-feather that dripped blood, so was forced to remove it and stem the flow with ointment.

Fully occupied with the work, she assessingly ran her fingers down one cleaned wing— and a noise came from the back of Tibarn's throat that had Elincia sitting back in the chair and remembering just who those wings belonged to.

“Is something wrong?” His wings flexed as Tibarn shifted enough to glance back at her, his voice rougher than it had been just a while ago.

Elincia shook her head, too embarrassed to ask if her touch had bothered him. Instead she set down the washbowl and soiled cloth and picked up a clean cloth and the flask of oil. At the sight of the items Tibarn turned back around, reclining again against the basin and spreading his wings for her inspection.

Dabbing the soft cloth with oil, she studied the dull feathers in front of her. The oil had to be spread lightly and evenly, once again she worked slowly. This time however, she didn’t miss hearing the faint noises of relief Tibarn made— evidently that earlier noise hadn’t been from discomfort. Ignoring how hotly her face had flushed, Elincia determinedly oiled every feather. Only with that task accomplished did she set her rag down and reach forward, using her fingernail to scratch lightly at the base of one of his feathers.

The sheaths were crumbling in a sign of new growth, so he must have molted recently. For a moment Elincia debated if she should continue as this sort of preening took a great deal of careful handling, yet the noise that rumbled low in his chest sounded like he’d enjoyed it. Then the way Tibarn flexed his wings and shifted to give her better access swayed her decision. Checking each feather, she carefully scratched at the bases and then dusted the remains of the sheaths off.

Once one wing was finished she rolled her shoulders for a moment, striving not to dwell on how distracting those little rumblings he kept making in his chest were. Yet the break had her noticing something else she’d almost missed. The way Tibarn had fully reclined with eyes closed, his head had tilted, his chin had dipped forward, and his shoulders were more relaxed than she had ever seen them.

Smiling to herself, Elincia adjusted her posture and set about oiling and preening his remaining wing. It was best to preen before applying oil, but she’d forgotten to check initially. This time she made sure to get it right and not rush.

 


 

Steam no longer rose from the water in the basin by the time Elincia had finished Tibarn's wings. Fully cleaned and freshly oiled, his feathers gleamed like polished amber by the firelight. Her shoulders ached and knees cracked as she stood, arms full of the used supplies. As far as she saw, Tibarn didn’t move from his recline. After setting the items down somewhere unobtrusive, she washed the oil from her hands and regathered the swathes of cloth she’d found earlier.

“Tibarn, the water’s gotten cold.” He stirred as she approached, so she set the folded cloths on an edge of the basin. “Here are towels.”

“You should take off those clothes, Elincia.”

Her gaze darted to Tibarn’s now open eyes and she fairly squeaked, “Pardon?!”

“Your leggings are muddy from when you knelt beside me. Or did you forget?” He raised a brow wryly.

Did he have to phrase it that way? Elincia’s face was heated by a blush. With how involved cleaning his wings had been, she had forgotten. Though following his reminder, she noticed just how clammy her feet and lower legs felt in the damp clothing and soiled slippers. Her mouth was dry, so she swallowed before replying, “Very well. While you dry off, I’ll change.”

Elincia turned and strode away before he could say anything further, only stopping when she was safely ensconced within the curtained corner where her personal items were stored. The damp, dirtied clothing was changed out for her nightgown, a long linen garment that had a high collar and fell to her wrists and ankles. Considering the lateness of the hour wearing this only made sense, but some deeply ingrained decorum had Elincia fidgeting over the fact a man would see her in bedwear. An extremely modest nightgown, nothing to be embarrassed about! She mentally chided, then grabbed the laundry hamper and forced herself to attend the medical tent’s guest.

The sight that greeted her as she emerged from behind the partitioning curtain, had her freezing in her tracks like a startled rabbit. Tibarn stood away from the basin on safely dry ground, with only a towel slung low along his hips. He had stretched his arms high above his head, as both his wings languidly fanned out— causing the coordinating muscles in his back to shift and roll under scarred, sun-bronzed skin. What a magnificent sight he made.

As arms his lowered and his wings folded against his back, his head turned towards her. “What’s that basket for?”

Effectively snapped out of her daze, Elincia answered, “The dirty clothing.”

She went passed him, determinedly not staring again at his half-naked form, and quickly gathered his discarded clothes into the hamper. Since no one would make camp rounds before the storm broke, she set it near the basin and its surrounding puddles to contain the mess somewhat.

After a fortifying breath, she turned around and kept her gaze trained on his face. “I’m afraid I don’t have any fresh clothes here that’ll fit your stature.”

“Don’t worry, I’m still drying out. I’ll send for another outfit later,” Tibarn shrugged. He then reached up, fingers beginning to comb through his dark hair.

“Wait,” Elincia rushed back over to her private corner, retrieved her hair brush, and offered it to him. “Please use this.”

Tibarn looked from the brush to her and back again, before he gently plucked it from her grasp. Yet in the next moment his other hand grabbed hers and he tugged her towards the cot. Elincia didn’t resist when he sat down and pulled her down beside him, but protested, “Tibarn, what-”

Words caught in her throat as the knot of her updo was undone and big, warm hands gently gathered the locks of her hair. The tone of his voice was amused and indulgent as he said, “I want to return the favor, and you don’t have wings.”

The first pull of the brush through her hair was careful, no yanking on snarls or too harsh of pressure. All the strokes that followed shared that same consideration, and soon Elincia relaxed into the brushing. She didn’t protest even as he set the brush down and carded his fingers through her hair, his fingertips circling along her temples and behind her ears in a light massage. He continued to her nape and then down her neck, touch firming as he went. Her shoulders that had been aching and tense loosened under his careful ministrations, and Elincia had to hold in sighs.

She lost track of time, and the laguz man massaged the base of her neck and the curves of her shoulders to his own satisfaction. Only once that firm circling ceased, those hands burying into her hair to begin a loose braid, did Elincia’s eyes flutter back open. Shifting enough to look over her shoulder, she asked, “Where’d you learn…?” Trailing off, unsure of how to word what’d just occurred.

Yellow eyes looked up from the braid in his hand, and his mouth curved into a smile. “Herons have even longer hair than yours, and I’m their keeper. Though I was surprised that you felt just as delicate in my hands.”

Immediately, Elincia’s thoughts turned to those white-winged laguz. Graceful and almost ethereal, with golden tresses as thick as capes. She recalled how Leanne’s touches had been feather-light, with hands more finely-boned than any beorc could boast. That Tibarn would compare her to them felt almost irreverent.

So, she turned to face him more fully, the movement causing the finished braid to slip from his fingers. “Most people aren’t made of as stern of stuff as the Hawk King.”

His smile stretched into a grin. “But I know the Crimean Queen has a spine of steel hidden by her soft beauty.”

Elincia swallowed at the frank compliment, remembering how this laguz man had said similar things that day she’d stood unarmed between two armies. The way he’d looked at her then, it was the same heat banked in his gaze now. She couldn’t look away, even as she demurred, “For the good of my people, I mustn’t bend.”

“You needn’t. Others will understand their place under you.” His words would’ve made her blush, if Tibarn’s jaw hadn’t cracked wide with a sudden yawn.

“Apologies, I should let you rest.”

She started to move off the cot, but he scoffed, “Where’re you going? This is the only bed.”

Tibarn’s arm curled around her waist and abruptly drew her back against him. Elincia stifled a shriek as he laid back, his wings snapping out for balance. Then they were laying down on their sides with his broad chest to her back and his arm still looped around her. His wings rustled, stirred a breeze up around them, before stilling.

Tibarn quietly asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t beorc nestle to share body heat?”

Elincia had read about the practice of bed-warmers in colder regions and remembered how she’d often shared quarters with Mist while traveling with the Greil Mercenaries. Yet even while traveling through Daein, she’d slept alone. There was only one cot set up, the night air did still hold its chill, and she hadn’t soaked herself— so the suggestion wasn’t completely without merit.

Yet Elincia had to clear her throat, before asking, “Won’t Reyson be worried about you?”

He laughed, a full rich sound she also felt through vibrations against her back. “He’ll be happy to have a strict minder out of sight. Reyson has never appreciated my hen-pecking.” Tibarn pulled up the blanket and settled her more firmly against himself. “Now, enough of your fussing. We both need sleep.”

One of his big, dark wings stretched up and then curved back— covering both of them. The drape of his feathers wasn’t heavy, more gently enfolding, and the fragrant smell of oil and a wildness that was uniquely him was almost soothing. His solid body behind her provided more heat than the blanket. Within a few moments, the arm slung around her went lax and Tibarn’s breathing evened with sleep, the quiet sound almost drowned out by the continuous patter of rain.

His curled wing enfolded them both with shared warmth and Elincia felt the movements of his chest as he drew breaths. Despite the brief shock, her muscles were still loose from his earlier massage and surrounded by Tibarn's wings she couldn’t help but relax into the heat of him. A warmth spread throughout her body and her skin tingled. Elincia gave a sighing shudder and found herself content to be held. To not be alone.