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Throw Wide the Gates

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Lightning strikes in the distance beyond the floor to ceiling windows, and you inhale slowly, slower until thunder shakes the plains of Kholusia and you release your breath in a long, soothing sigh.

You have never felt more laughably decadent, curled up with a wine glass in your hand on a chaise overlooking the land as a cotton robe hugs your bath-wrinkled skin. The indulgence is absurd, but the Eulmoran mayor was insistent in flexing his newfound hospitality muscles for his most honored visitors. G'raha had ensured you that the man was thrilled to hear you would be accompanying the Crystarium council during their latest stay, but when you arrived only to decline the set of keys to your own assigned suite, you had never seen someone more flabbergasted and eager to please.

It all seems a bit much for what you're used to, but a moment of putting yourself in the mayor's shoes assures you that you would be acting much the same. Successor to a tyrant in a broken paradise, playing host to not only one of Norvrandt's most beloved rulers, but to the Warrior of Darkness? Anyone would want to make a good impression, and learning that the two of you prefer to share your accommodations must be daunting for a fledgling leader. You've heard yourselves described as the two most powerful men in Norvrandt, and that was even before night had been restored. Now it is no secret that to rouse the ire of one is to make an instant enemy of both.

Though you wish it were otherwise, kind smiles and happily pointed ears are not enough to ensure others that you are content, but you understand the viewpoint well enough. With how heavy the mantle of your title can be, it is comical how often you forget your importance to the public. A hero will inevitably be lavished with excess only fitting to their deeds, though you would be just as content to sleep on the ground in one of the abandoned shacks of Gatetown below. It would certainly be an incredible way to experience the storm, to feel the thunder shake and the wind howl.

It is in the name of diplomacy that you drink the mayor's expensive wine and utilize the provided bath oils. To leave such gifts untouched would be an offense. For the sake of politics, you endure. It is one of the more delightful trials you've faced in your days, you must admit.

The deep chime of the looming grandfather clock interrupts the lull of the storm. You glance over at it's ornate face. G'raha's last meeting should be ending soon. The Exarch has been hard at work striking deals and debating plans of action since the flock of Crystarium amaro arrived late yesterday afternoon. G'raha had returned late last night after enduring a social gathering with the mayor and all of the councilmen, and proceeded to promptly collapse into bed upon his return to you. Some nights at the Crystarium he doesn’t even have the need to sleep at all, snuggling up beside you only for the joy of it of it before departing to his study after you drift off. Here, away from the tower, G'raha needs his rest. Today he would likely be drained after the past ten hours of meetings, just like any living soul would be.

The clock finishes it's chime, and you figure you have at least an hour until the others arrive.

Perfect.

Just enough time to pamper a tired Miqo'te.

You abandon your view of the thunderstorm and return to the gaudy master washroom off of the bedroom. The pink and white marble edged with gold does not suit your tastes in the slightest, but the ruby red curtains and matching towels are nice enough, you think. The porcelain clawfoot tub has finished draining from your earlier bath, though some of the blue rose petals from the bottle of bath oil still cling to the sides. You set your wine glass down on the marble counter, then pull the lever to lock the drain before turning the gilded knob. Hot water begins to pool in the tub. Pouring some of the flowered oil into the downward stream, the air begins to smell more strongly of almonds, or something along those lines. Your nose is clever, but not for the finer things.

The sound of the key in the door catches your ear over the water. You scamper out to the lounge and abruptly wrap your arms around G'raha's middle while his back is turned to relock the door. He startles, not hearing your barefoot approach over the rush of the pipes.

"Oh! Hello there," G'raha says, turning to brush his nose against yours. "I had not expected you to be waiting so intently for my return."

You unhook the staff from his back and he turns in your arms, kissing you now that he can properly reach. It is brief but sweet, and the light in his eyes says that he most definitely does not mind your warm welcome.

"You've only ever used the showers here, yes?"

His brow furrows behind faded bangs. "Of course. A bath hardly seems an efficient use of time."

"That is not the point." You grab his hand and tug him towards the washroom, which spills enticing scents to beckon you forward. You toss his staff on the chaise along the way. It's heavy weight makes an indent in the cushion. "Come on. The others will be here soon."

G'raha follows along after you, but there is confusion in his voice as he says, "That is hardly necessary. I bathed this morning."

You release his hand to shut off the water. With your back turned, you hear him sniffing the air. The curious swish of his tail when you turn back around signals your impending victory over practicality. He offers no protest when you begin to unbuckle his robe, the product of your latest foray into Ronkan fabric. It makes you happy that he is always so grateful and pleased when you make something for him. What better way to develop your crafting skills than to help him expand his wardrobe, now that he isn't limited to what could conceal his race and telltale Allagan eyes?

While you will always prefer him in red, the mage's robe you slowly strip from him is one of your favorites: black and cinched with muted gold buckles that match it's trim, tied back at the open waist to reveal shimmering midnight blue beneath. The humble colors compliment his own body's adornments, but they do not dare outshine him.

His fingers catch in your bathrobe as you peel the heavy cloth back from his shoulders. "I take it you will not be joining me?"

"Perhaps when we are not expecting company. Though if you would let me, I would love to wash your hair for you."

G'raha's ears swivel back, and the color in his cheeks can't be attributed solely to the steam filling the air. "No one has ever washed my hair for me, at least that I can remember. Not since I was a tiny kit."

"Is that a no?"

"I did not say that. It sounds… nice, I believe."

"It is," you assure him, patting his hip. "Off with the boots."

G'raha chuckles and lowers onto the marble bench to unlace the knee-high boots he has become so fond of. "Is there someone I should be jealous of?"

You snort. "Hardly, unless you want to be jealous of Y'shtola when the flu got hold of me last year. I was sweating so much, they needed to clean me up once we got back to The Rising Stones. She drew the short straw on that one since she knew how to deal with our ears."

"I hate to think of you so unwell, but I am relieved it was her to take care of you." He pulls off one boot and sets to work on the other. "Tis likely the one benefit to her blindness. My eyes are still the only ones that know you in a state of undress."

You dip your hand in the bath and flick water at him. He flinches and laughs when the droplets hit his face.

"Do you still get sick?" you ask. "Not just the fatigue- the normal stuff."

"I'm still a man. I may not have as much flesh and blood left as an ordinary Miqo'te, but what remains falls ill all the same."

You dry your hand on his robe in your lap, useless a gesture though it is. In moments your hands will be knuckle deep in shampoo lather. "I'll have to learn what kinds of soup you like. Autumn made quite the appearance, so winter should be right around the corner. I'll make you soup and take care of you when you're sick. I've been told I have excellent bedside manner."

"I do not doubt it." The rueful look is one you prefer not to see on him, especially when he is taking off his trousers in front of you. He continues before you have to ask. "I shall have to hope you aren't on the Source when that inevitably happens."

"Then I'll come back."

He folds his trousers, setting them on the stool with his robe that he takes from you. "How? If I am ill enough to need a caretaker, I will be unable to summon you."

"I would hope you'd let me know before it gets that bad."

"And interrupt your mission? I think not."

G'raha peels off his socks with an awkward hop and adds them to the pile of clothes growing on the stool. You step forward and grab his wrist, pulling him to face you.

"I thought we were past this." When you see the way his ears flatten, you soften and reach to pet the furry points in unspoken apology for your harsh tone. "You are my priority. If you need me, I am going to drop everything and come running, even if you think my time is best spent elsewhere. I imagine you would do the same."

"I would," he concedes. "I only wish it were not all so complicated."

The weight of those words is too heavy for just the common cold. You feel his smile form under your lips as you press them to his cheek. "We'll figure it out as we go, one day at a time. We've done an admirable job of it so far, don't you think?" Slipping your hand south as he kisses you, you snap the elastic of his smallclothes. His surprise is muffled against your mouth, and he playfully nips your bottom lip to chastise you. "You should get in before the water gets cold."

G'raha steps out of his smallclothes and adds them to the stack before climbing into the tub. His tail jerks in surprise at the temperature when his toes hit the water, but he lowers down slowly until the water envelops him up to his necklace.

As he acclimates to the hot bathwater and sinks back into its embrace, you roll up the fluffy bath mat and place it at the head of tub for you to kneel on instead of the marble tile. G'raha leans back to dip his hair and ears, and they come up a darker shade of red, the white ends clinging to his neck. You tug on the clasp of his necklace. It offers little give, nearly tight enough to be considered a choker.

"Want me to take this off for you?"

"I would prefer if you didn't," he says, voice deep and hushed with growing relaxation. One of the blue flower petals from the bath oil passes in front of him, and it dances as he releases a contented sigh.

"I hadn't expected you to like it so much."

The cuff your gemstone fragment rests in stands in the sink, drying after a thorough scrubbing. G'raha had a long day, but you haven't exactly been idle either. With Gatetown emptied of its desperate poor in preparation for the upcoming renovations, its residents temporarily displaced to The Crystarium, to Twine, Amity, even Slitherbough- wherever had room to take them- there has been no shortage of work to accomplish. You and Alphinaud spent the better part of the day ripping up shingles that all but crumbled to dust in your hands, and prying off patches of plywood before he retired to his newfound artist's obligations.

Gatetown is filthy, rife with decades of misery, but it will recover. Things will get better. For now, the rain washes away the evidence of suffering, if not the memory of it.

You grab the bottle of shampoo from the ledge and pour out enough to fill the dip of your palm. G'raha's crystalline fingers absently bother the pendant at his throat as you begin to massage the fragrant gel into his hair.

"This is precious to me, even beyond the truth of its purpose. I know you left your village when you were still young, but surely you were old enough to notice how cold it could seem."

G'raha presses into your touch, clearly relishing the feel of your nails on his scalp. The hot water turns his skin a delightful flush of pink.

"I did. It was difficult not to," you say in short, sensing that he has more to tell you.

"Aside from between mother and child, my home was barren of affection. I imagine your village was much the same. The only love I witnessed was whispered in alleys or behind doors where the Nunh was none the wiser. Tias tempted abandoned mothers, or otherwise found comfort with one another. All of it was deemed forbidden. When I first ventured to Sharlayan, I could not believe the open affection that mankind was capable of showing one another. Love was not something meant for the shadows, but to be held to the light and made to shine. Sweethearts gifted one another trinkets to display for all the world to see. Bonded pairs wore their vows upon their fingers in declaration. To see that people were capable of caring enough to offer such claim, and that it was possible to care enough to wear that claim with pride… It gave me hope for our world. I had always been very much alone, but to know that wasn't the norm was a tremendous relief. At the same time… it was bittersweet. I knew it could never be mine. My eye sealed my solitude from the moment I was born. My own parents didn't even want me. Why would anyone else?"

It was a tale that had ripped your heart in two the first time he told you, after he had asked of your family only to learn that you hadn't had one since before you were capable of memory. G'raha had made no secret of his lacking social skills and the eccentricities of a boy with only books for friends. Perhaps you could understand a Nunh ignoring one child among the masses, but what G'raha's parents had done was unforgivable. The Nunh had disowned him at the sight of his red eye, claiming that he could not possibly be of his blood, then cast his mother out for her shame. The kit was left with little more than a note on the doorstep of a church the woman passed in her exile.

Years later, G'raha found a tattered family history of his sire's lineage in the local dusty archives of what would have been his village. His grandparents' first kit had been stillborn, his fragile life 'tainted by the mark of Ifrit'.

The one of his bloodline to bare the eye before him was dead before his father had been born. The man had never even known.

G'raha's voice as he speaks of it now is no longer detached as it once was, but accepting. Time may not heal wounds, but it lets you learn to live with the scars. You comb your fingers back through his soapy hair, and he makes a happy noise as you rub his neck at the bottom of every stroke.

"When I wear this, I am reminded that you want me in your life enough that you do not wish to let me go, even when you must. It is truly the most remarkable thing."

Not for the first time, you debate telling him that you had considered setting the stone fragments into rings, but they had come out too large to display in an appealing way on such a small setting. Not for the last time, you decide against it. The message is the same regardless of the medium.

You scoop water up in your cupped palms and let it spill down through his hair. Suds pool in bubbling webs that fizzle out across the surface.

It should bother you that you are being quiet again, but everything that you can think to say has been said time and time again, and you do not want your words to lose meaning by wearing them out.

This is how it always goes, how it has always gone. He speaks volumes and you hang on every word. You speak in footnotes and he delves into you to glean meaning that you always thought you had lacked.

There are no right words to say. Your instinct is to tell him he will never have to be alone again, but that would be a lie. You will die one day, either in bloody battle or as an old man while his young face watches you breathe your last. One day, you will break his heart. The tower will not let him go so easily. It is a subject that has not come up, but hovers just beneath the surface of deeper conversations. It is too soon to think of inevitable goodbyes when you have only just evaded a second one. If Emet Selch hadn't shot G'raha in the back and left the horrid pit in his crystal that still strains to heal, he would have opened the rift and walked to his death.

That's another item on the list of things you don't talk about. You'd discussed his moves and motives and granted him full forgiveness for his reluctant deception months ago, but you've never talked about just how frighteningly close it had been.

"I'm never letting you go," you settle to say, because it is both true and vague enough to encompass everything you are feeling, the joy and the fear, and scars of loneliness and heartache alike. You tug gently on the length of his necklace and let a more playful note rise into your voice as you say, "You're mine."

"With all that I am."

You pour out another dollop of shampoo and lather it between your hands, then grab his ears to slick his fur with it. He sits up straighter, arching to chase the hypnotic sensation of your strong hands rubbing back and forth, thumbs paying special attention to the thick bases of his ears. When you switch from light rubbing to a deep, almost rough scratch, a moan catches in his throat.

"How are you feeling?"

"Completely at your mercy." The low breathy pitch of his voice falls to a sigh. "You are unfairly skilled at this."

"There isn't much skill required. I just want to make you feel good. That isn't what I meant though." Coaxing him to tilt his head back, you set to rinsing the lather from his ears and the places it still clings to his hair. "We've been here for over a day now. You're not feeling weak yet, are you?"

"No, not yet. I am certainly not at full strength, but the night of sleep helped immensely. You needn't worry."

"I can't help it. We're not far from where I found you that day. You gave me quite the scare."

G'raha huffs. "You didn't even know it was me," he says with doubt, but his tone isn't bitter.

"Not for certain, but part of me did. I know you." You rinse away the last of the suds and lean forward to place a kiss on his temple. "You can't hide from me."

"Nor do I ever wish to again." G'raha nuzzles into your caress. "Believe me, I am well. As long as I sleep again tonight I should be quite fine for Rak'tika in the morning."

"I'll make you some tea before bed. I think there is a tin of loose leaf chamomile by the coffee in the other room. That should help."

"It should." He nudges your chin with his nose, giving you a tender smile. "Thank you."

A knock that is decidedly more forceful than G'raha's was bangs from the other room. The water splashes as G'raha turns toward the source of the noise. His wet ear smears against your cheek.

"I'm going to go ahead and guess that would be Thancred," you say.

"I believe that would be a safe assumption."

"I'll let them in." You squeeze his shoulder and rise to your feet. The bath mat unfurls with a snap when you shake it out from it's coil. The sound precedes another series of knocks.

"Be right there!" you call.

G'raha turns in the tub to look up at you, disrupting the water with a slosh that leaves behind a peaceful trickling sound. "Are you certain?"

With his skin kissed with steam and his hair a wet tousled mess as he reclines, G'raha looks just as debauched as you've left him on far less innocent occasions. Contributing to his moment of bliss, you hand him your half-full glass of wine from the countertop after retrieving your cuff and securing it to your wrist.

"Not such a waste of time after all, is it?"

"I admit, you have shown me the error of my ways."

You crouch to sweetly press your forehead to his as you scratch the base of his hairline, then glide your hand down the water-slick crystal of his neck. He soaks up the affection as though he will never tire of it. You will never tire of giving it.

"Take some time to relax. Come join us when you're ready."

"I will."

G'raha rolls onto his stomach and drapes himself over the side of the tub, resting his head in the crook of his elbow as he cradles the glass between his fingers. The tip of his tail pokes out of the water, creating lazy ripples with every contented tap. The small curve of his smirk as he looks at you before letting his eyes fall closed makes your heart do somersaults beneath your breast.

Your work here is done. With your hand still on the knob, you close the door behind you and pause to collect yourself. You bow your head and indulge in a private smile that flutters down toward your feet.

Thoughts of decadence shoved aside, there is nothing wrong with an occasional hard-earned indulgence. It is when indulgence becomes an expected norm that wastelands of human conscience like former Eulmore arise. You refuse to feel any guilt at accepting your host's hospitality as you work together to repair these broken lands. There is nothing but joy in teaching G'raha the pleasures of a stolen moment for a bath when the man so rarely does anything for himself.

You cross through the main room and open the door to find Thancred and Y'shtola waiting in the warmly lit hallway. Your fellow Seeker holds a small tower of covered trays that emit mouth-watering aromas that can be smelled even over the heady fragrances drifting in from the washroom. It's not much of a surprise that Thancred cradles a couple of dark glass bottles to his chest.

Taking the mountain of food platters from Y'shtola, you toss your head to wave them in. "Come on in."

Y'shtola thanks you and closes the door. Thancred looks you up and down, then raises an eyebrow at your bathrobe as he walks beside you to the dining table.

"I hope we aren't interrupting something?" His tone is only half joking as he sets the whiskey and mead out in a line. "You look rather cozy."

"You would have wanted to wash up too if you had joined me and Alphinaud out on the rooftops."

"Forgive me for wanting to give Ryne the time to explore the city as a proper guest instead of a prisoner." Thancred takes half of the stack of trays and begins spreading them out on the tabletop, leaving room to sit and eat. "I daresay she rather enjoyed herself. I hadn't expected that."

"Not all of us are so stubborn," Y'shtola says. "The people of this city are trying as best they know how to mend their ways. Twas not truly their own doing to begin with. As much as I loathe what Eulmore once represented, it is our ongoing duty as the Warrior's companions to keep an open mind. Tis not easy, but I do suggest trying."

Thancred scoffs. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"How noble of you to suffer a night in a suite fit for a king," she teases, then turns to you. "Thank you for the invitation, by the way. Our rooms are simply remarkable."

"I didn't need them." You shrug. "I'm glad the reservations could go to use, and we haven't been able to get together in a while. It seemed like a sound decision."

The next item you pick up as you assist Thancred is a more humble pan, the metal hot to the touch.

"That one is from Runar," Y'shtola says. "He made his famous stew last night and insisted I bring some for you to try. Apparently you boys bonded over cooking while I was unaware."

You peel back the edge of the foil and take a sniff of the hearty stew. Already the blend of spiced meat and chopped vegetables has you salivating as though you haven't eaten in days.

"I can't wait to try it," you say with an eager grin as you cover up the tray and set it on the table. "He couldn't join you tonight?"

She sighs and crosses her arms. "He wished to, but he insisted in going over preparations for tomorrow with The Night's Blessed once more. I assured him that we can handle a few stray fanatics without breaking a sweat, but he is accustomed to doing things his way. Let him. I am not one to argue with a man who has made up his mind."

"Oh, a lover's quarrel. How quaint," Thancred says, earning him a slap on the arm that nearly knocks the basket of bread out of his hands.

"Twas not a quarrel, and we are hardly lovers."

"I am not one to pry, Master Matoya-" Thancred begins, emphasizing her assumed title in the Hrothgar's accent. You smother a laugh.

"Yes, you are."

"-but were you not the one who said that you could never develop feelings for our friend here since you prefer your men with more muscle on their bones?"

Y'shtola senses the amused look you give her, and she turns her blind eyes away. "I also find it more practical to prefer men who do not prefer men themselves. ‘Tis a more economical use of my time. Speaking of which, why are we even discussing this?"

Her flustered blush is a novelty, and you cannot help taking one last jab. "It is as you said to me not long ago. You are smitten."

Thancred shoots you a glance of conspiring approval as Y'shtola groans, exasperated.

"I would have been better off spending the evening with Ryne and Alisaie," she mutters.

"Unlikely. I expect the ladies would show no mercy in their interrogation," Thancred says. "Besides, we have whiskey."

"We do," she admits wistfully, reminding you just how much you've missed casual nights with the Scions at The Rising Stones. You may have relocated and added some new faces to your ranks, but the sentimental tug is still there. Your family will not forsake you, neither in fight nor in festivity.

Thancred lifts the final container and places it into the neat display. Between everything, there will be more than enough for the three of you and G'raha, plus Urianger and Alphinaud whenever they decide to show up. You might even have leftovers for breakfast in the morning.

With dinner arranged and a stack of plates and utensils fetched from the cabinet, you make to open one of the bottles, but Thancred snatches it from you.

"Go put some clothes on, will you? I'll do the honors."

You shuffle off to the bedroom and quickly dress yourself in casual trousers and a simple cotton shirt you brought with you from the Crystarium. From the other side of the washroom door, G'raha sings a barely audible sea shanty from Limsa Lominsa's taverns that was - is - popular throughout all of Eorzea. You close the bedroom door when you leave to give him more privacy. If he is content enough to sing, you will suffer nothing to interrupt him, even if it is just wisps of conversation carried from the main room.

You emerge to find Y'shtola standing beside the chaise with her arms folded, looking out upon the thunderstorm, stray bolts of lightning striking the earth. "’Tis still a curious sight to see a proper storm after being here for so long. The light detracted from the raw beauty of the elements. I can only imagine how it must seem to those who were born here."

Thancred hands you a glass tumbler filled with two fingers of whiskey. "After what they have known all of their lives, I imagine seeing the dark they worship bare its teeth is quite the experience."

You take a sip from your drink. With your empty stomach, the smoky liquor burns all the way down, but not unpleasantly. "It will take getting used to for everyone. Even G'raha was stunned when the leaves started to fall last month."

Thancred picks idly at a crinkle of foil that wraps over the edge of one of the trays. "It still feels peculiar calling him that again after all these years of smoke and mirrors."

You begin to agree, though for you it is months rather than years, but your reply is derailed as you stumble over one word.

"Again?"

Thancred huffs his amusement and pulls aside the low collar of his shirt to reveal his neck tattoo in full- the prestigious sage's mark displayed for all to see. The base of the Scion eye peeks out from his sleeve, but you know now it is meant not for the Scions at all, but for those few among Sharlayan who cast aside their old ways of knowing and observing without interfering, and broke tradition to take up arms in an attempt to help make their forsaken world a better place.

"Your dear boy didn't confide in Urianger simply because he seemed most dedicated to the cause. Our paths have crossed more than once."

Your mouth hangs agape as you regard Thancred. Somehow the completely logical possibility had never crossed your mind. You'd heard Krile mention G'raha's name in passing while discussing the Students of Baldesion, but any possible connection to the Circle of Knowing had completely escaped you.

"Sharlayan is no small place," Y'shtola says with a smirk, "but most Archons tend to meet at some point or another. I did not know him well, but we were acquainted enough that we would say hello in passing."

"I ran into him in one of the taverns the night before his tattooing ceremony," Thancred says. "Bought him a drink to celebrate and he repaid my kindness by wiping the floor with me at cards."

"Tis a shame your skills as a tactician do not extend beyond the battlefield," Y'shtola teases with a coyly arched eyebrow. She drinks from her glass as Thancred sneers at her.

A part of you is jealous knowing that your fellow Scions had known G'raha long before you, that they have memories of him in a way you never knew. The better part of you warms at the thought of G'raha having a deeper connection to your found family than via your acquaintance. He is no Scion, but he is bound to them all the same by ink and memories of a land they once called home. It means more to you than you could have expected.

The bedroom door opens and G'raha emerges with a towel slung over his shoulder, dressed in similar attire as yours- a sleep shirt brought strictly for the benefit of your friends and a pair of knee-length trousers. His hair is tied back in a tight wet braid, though his bangs fall free in damp waves around his face that are frizzing as they dry. You see rather than hear him scent the air, the wind and rain outside too loud to hear a sound so delicate. His nose leads his eyes to the table, but the cloud of fragrant air that follows him guides your eyes to his skin. You wonder how soft it is after his soak, how his crystal feels after being treated with bath oils.

G'raha manages a bashful smile, lifting his gaze from the food to the Scions each in turn. "Good evening Thancred, Y'shtola. Thank you for the pleasure of your company this evening."

Thancred holds his arm out and G'raha steps forward to clasp hands with him. The two of them have become more friendly in recent months, which is more than can be said of Y'shtola. Her coldness towards the Exarch has warmed to brisk chill, which you think is more habit than anything. She has forgiven his drawn-out deception, but her prior distrust has left a lingering hesitance around him.

"I was starting to think you were incapable of looking even half this relaxed," Thancred says to G'raha, plucking at the sleeve of the Seeker's spectacularly normal shirt. The peaks and edges of his crystal show through the fabric where it hugs his body.

"My position hardly affords much time for relaxation," G'raha replies. "Though in truth I do not mind overmuch. Now that our efforts are bearing fruit and recovery has at last begun, I must admit, my work is far more rewarding than it has ever been."

"I take it things went well today?" Y'shtola asks, making an effort to break the thin layer of ice that stands between her and G'raha. He seems to be pleasantly surprised by her initiative.

"It could not have gone better. The forts throughout Lakeland will be assisting in training new recruits to replenish the Eulmoran army, which has been a primary concern the citizens are lamenting. We have also agreed on an exchange program, of sorts. I will be asking Katliss in the Mean to field volunteers from the disciples of hand to transfer here to assist in rebuilding the Derelicts and Gatetown, as well training willing citizens in their crafts. In return, the Crystarium will serve as home to some of Eulmore's more visual artisans- painters, dancers, and the like, to bring a more thorough variety of culture to expand on the city's preference for knowledge and literature, which I admit is largely due to my biased influence. There is still much to discuss in regards to trade, but I truly believe we have broken ground this visit."

Thancred takes G'raha's empty wine glass and fills the bottom with a splash of whiskey from the open bottle on the table. "All good things, my friend." Thancred clicks his glass to G'raha's. "Should you need my assistance with any of these initiatives, you know where to find me."

"I may take you up on that offer, in truth."

As the two of them discuss the need for assistance in training the new military recruits, a drop of water lands on your foot. You look down to see the tip of G'raha's tail beading with droplets as gravity carries them down the furry length. He doesn't acknowledge when you set your drink down to take the towel from his shoulder, but he does make an undignified noise of surprise when you grab his tail with it.

"You're getting water everywhere," you explain as you rub the towel back and forth along the sides of his tail, squeezing the end to draw out all of the water collected there. Thancred laughs as G'raha grumbles at your fussing.

"You should be happy that you don't have to deal with these problems," Y'shtola says, her voice bright with amusement.

"If I did, perhaps I would fit in better," Thancred laments with a roll of his eyes. "I'm surrounded by cats."

You toss the wet towel at Thancred and he nearly spills his drink as he reflexively tries to bat it away. You and your fellow Seekers share a laugh at his expense before you spare him by draping the towel over the back of one of the dining chairs.

"Not for long," you say, smoothing down G'raha's ruffled yet significantly drier fur. "Our Elezen comrades should be here soon enough."

"Did they say when?" G'raha asks.

"They did not," Y'shtola replies. "Urianger wanted to sit in on Alphinaud's portrait session. He said they would be over afterwards."

G'raha tilts his head as he looks eagerly at the spread of food on the table. "In that case, given that they did not advise the time of their arrival, it would not be rude to begin dining without them, would it?"

"Absolutely not," Thancred declares with enthusiasm, clapping his palm on the table. He grabs one of the smaller trays, perhaps only six ilms long, and hands it to G'raha. "That one is for you. Our friend here shared the disturbing news that you have never had sushi, so I had Ryne help pick out an assortment before I left her with Alisaie."

G'raha's ears flick as he accepts the platter and pops the cover off. A rainbow of raw fish sits in perfect lines between sticky rice and seaweed wraps. You can see his feline instincts kick in as his nostrils flare and his pupils expand just the slightest bit. His tail brushes your leg as it lifts in excitement.

"Thank you very much, Thancred. I will be sure to say the same to Ryne for her assistance when we see her tomorrow," G'raha says, and you can read him well enough to know the gesture has touched him more than a simple offering of food. The outcast boy with the red eye has at last found a circle of friends.

After quickly scoffing down a chunk of bread to pacify your stomach, you set to the task of teaching G'raha how to use the chopsticks you find in the cabinet. The mechanics pose no challenge, but the smooth surface of the porcelain offers no resistance and he struggles to grip it with his dominant crystal hand. Even after several futile attempts, G'raha is undeterrable. He transfers the chopsticks to his left hand and though the motion is stilted and awkward, he manages to lift a piece of sashimi to his lips. His eyes flutter closed as he savors the fresh salmon, humming in utter delight at the flavor.

"Save those noises for him, will you?" Thancred jokes over a bowl of stew.

Y'shtola chuckles beside him at the table, lifting her fork from her plate of roasted chicken and vegetables. "Oh, I do hope our friend is more impressive than a piece of fish."

You lift a rude gesture in their direction to a resulting round of laughter. G'raha leans into you as you drop a kiss in his sweet-scented hair, scratching the base of his tail where it pokes out of the back of his trousers.

"I prefer to keep such matters private," G'raha says, taking a sip from his glass as he readies his left hand to tackle the chopsticks a second time. "Though between friends it seems no breach of confidence to assure you that yes, he most certainly is."

Y'shtola bursts into giggles and Thancred lifts his glass to you in proud salute. You try not to acknowledge the heat in your cheeks and promptly knock back the rest of your drink. You set about fetching another, as well as a second helping of bread to dip in a bowl of stew.

You all feast and drink and share talk of recent endeavors. Each of you has had your hands full, and stories flow from everyone's lips as easily as the rain water sluicing down the grand windows you overlook. Thancred tells of the empty lands he and Ryne are poised to investigate, and Y'shtola speaks at length of the efforts to strengthen ties between Slitherbough and Fanow. Inevitably the problematic topic of the Children of the Everlasting Dark comes up, and you all agree to set aside talk of the violent fanatics until the morning when you make for Rak'tika to rid yourselves of the nuisance once and for all.

Plates are emptied and cleared away, left in the hallway for collection as instructed. There is a bit of everything left except for G'raha's sushi, and you help tuck the leftovers into the small ice chest provided in the room until they will be revisited in the morning for breakfast.

Once the table is empty except for glasses and bottles, Thancred turns to G'raha with a quirked eyebrow. "I have a question for you."

G'raha sits up straighter in his chair, pale cheeks adorably red with drink. "What is it?"

With his bravado bolstered by his three helpings of whiskey, Thancred reaches into his pocket and smacks a deck of cards on the table. "Do you remember how to play, old man? I daresay our rematch is long overdue."

G'raha's smirk is wicked as he takes the deck from Thancred and makes his first selection. He was never one to turn down a challenge or the opportunity for a game, and it seems your Miqo'te is just as competitive as ever. They pass the deck back and forth until they have each selected a full hand, and even through a century of rust, G'raha destroys Thancred at Triple Triad.

Best two out of three ends with Thancred giving up and passing the torch to Y'shtola. She manages to score a draw on her second hand when a reserved knock raps on the door.

"I'll get it," G'raha declares, passing you his cards as he slides out of his chair. You shrug, challenging Y'shtola to a round of Ascension while G'raha admits the latecomers with a welcoming 'good evening, gentlemen'.

Drinks are poured for the Elezen as they fill in the empty seats at the table. G'raha returns to find Urianger in his chair and pauses. Alphinaud moves his bag of art supplies and offers his seat in apology, but G'raha declines in favor of your lap. You happily pass your cards to Urianger so you can snake your arm around G'raha's waist. It's new for him to do this in the company of others. You attribute his boldness to the alcohol, but you're all still entirely in control of your faculties, only more relaxed while simultaneously more animated.

Urianger slays each of your fellow Scions in turn with his quick witted card play as Alphinaud regales you with snippets of his more interesting portrait commissions that break the monotony of tearing up the ruins of Gatetown and The Derelicts. You used to tease him for embracing the farce, but the wealthier citizens pay good money for Alphinaud's work which he then uses to help fund the repairs. Just this evening a young woman wished to be painted in a questionable pose on the dance floor of The Beehive to present to her fiance as an engagement gift.

"Wait," Thancred says, setting his drink down. "You're telling me you were late because your were painting a girl dancing on stage with one of those poles? Surely you know that in the event of such an occurrence, you require a loyal assistant." He puts his hand to his chest, fingers spread wide.

Alphinaud tosses a thumb in your direction. "He's my assistant. The lie wouldn't have gotten past the door."

Thancred sighs. His eyes widen suddenly and he points accusingly at Urianger. "What about you, then? You went to visit him. How did you get in?"

"Every aspiring artist doth require the occasional guidance of a mentor to ensure they stray not from their path to greatness," the stoic astrologian says.

Y'shtola snickers. "You haven't lifted a paintbrush in your life."

"Art is no fickle mistress. One needn't participate to appreciate," he replies with a small curve of his lips.

Thancred sighs dramatically. "Oh, now he's a poet."

"Wouldn't you know it?" Alphinaud chimes in with a cheeky grin. You channel Alisaie's spirit in her absence and give him a shove that nearly knocks him off his chair.

A few more rounds of Triple Triad circle the table. When the deck makes its way back to G'raha, he doesn't take it from Alphinaud. He has a far away look in his eyes, though not unhappy. You scratch at the uneven crystal of his hip through his trousers to get his attention.

"Raha?"

"Hm? Oh. I apologize. I was just-" His hand comes to his neck, gold-lined skin gliding over crystal almost as if he is trying to rub it away. "I have not had the opportunity to regard my old markings so openly in quite some time."

He was staring at Thancred's tattoo, you realize. The mark of the Archon, the same as on Y'shtola's neck and Urianger's cheek. He is surrounded by visions of the symbols he has lost.

"I often forget you studied in Sharlayan too," Alphinaud muses. The small Elezen has a glaze over his eyes after only two glasses of mead. He looks from Urianger back to G'raha, eyes narrowed in thought. "What color?"

G'raha frowns, then Alphinaud taps his fingers to his neck.

"Rolanberry," G'raha says, then watches with great interest as Alphinaud dives into his bag of supplies.

"I mixed this for earlier but we didn't use it all." The budding artist shakes a bottle of paint a little more purple than rolanberry to the discerning eye, but close enough at a passing glance. "It washes off, if you like."

G'raha's eyes grow wide at the implied suggestion. The protective part of you glares daggers at Alphinaud for bringing up a part of G'raha's life that he cannot get back, but then you see the man in your lap smile, red eyes shining as he nods. He unbuttons his shirt enough to tug it aside and bare his shoulder.

You unclasp his necklace and place it on the table. He looks at you with gratitude. It's such a part of him now that he had forgotten he was even wearing it.

"The eye was a russet color," you tell Alphinaud. He plucks a thin-tipped paint brush from the bag and removes it's cap.

"I think I can manage that."

The others return to chatting and you set your eyes on G'raha's as he closes them. You don't even have to ask to know he's lost in thought as the bristles glide over his neck, painting vibrant red over blue crystal. The arcane symbol takes form with strokes reminiscent of calligraphy. With how the sight of it takes you back to those days in Mor Dhona, you can only imagine how G'raha feels right now, how he will feel when he sees it. The G'raha Tia who had these symbols inked into his skin was a boy you never knew. How many years had passed between then and when you met? How impossibly proud was he as he endured the bite of the needle that would brand him with the mark of his achievements?

How many years was he able to look back on the proof of those accomplishments from his solitude in the tower before the last remaining proof of them was swallowed up by his affliction?

Alphinaud finishes the symbol on both sides of G'raha's neck and places the cap back on the brush, to be cleaned later when he is more of a mind to care. He fishes out a bottle of deep brown paint and a fresh brush, then sets to work on G'raha's shoulder. The eye forms more slowly, the pattern more intricate and symmetrical, which seems to require increased concentration in Alphinaud's easily inebriated state.

You had thought the memory of such things would rattle him, but when G'raha looks down at Alphinaud's diligent work on his arm, for a fleeting moment you see the age in his eyes, tender and nostalgic as though he were the old man he once claimed to be, looking back upon misplaced yet beloved photographs of times long past.

G'raha thanks Alphinaud for his work, then does not say much for the rest of the evening.

The hand on the grandfather clock reads later than you expected by the time conversation lulls and yawns begin to take the place of intoxicated laughter. Thancred nearly falls asleep on the chaise next to G'raha's staff, lacking the motivation to drag himself to the room next door until Y'shtola yanks on his arm with threats of leaving him to sleep in the hall. The Elezen Scions are in better shape than him, departing with good tidings until you reconvene in the morning.

G'raha disappears into the bedroom and you allow him a moment of privacy while you set about brewing a cup of chamomile for each of you. The taste doesn't do much for you, but you can't deny the relaxing abilities of the herbal blend.

After allowing the proper amount of time for the tea to steep, you stir in a drizzle of honey and carry the mugs into the bedroom. It is there you find what you had feared- G'raha cross-legged and shirtless on the bed staring at his reflection in the dresser mirror. The look in his eyes is one you've seen before but haven't yet learned to read, though it troubles you regardless of its meaning. He seems relieved at the distraction of your arrival, accepting the mug of tea with a touched smile.

"Where did it start?"

G'raha takes a careful sip of the hot liquid and cradles the mug in his right hand where his crystal is less susceptible to temperature. With his left, he touches the underside of your wrist where your veins burn blue through your skin. "Here," he says, tracing his fingers up along your arm until they reach your neck. You shiver, almost spilling some of your tea. "It stopped at my cheek after about forty years and has since been working its way down my body. Worry not. ‘Tis a slow enough process. You shall not see me turn to stone."

You open your mouth to speak, but no words come. He wipes away the pained set of your expression with the touch of his hand to your cheek, smiling gently as though it had been a joke and not the very real future that lies ahead.

It is best not to think about it right now, not when his mind is bogged down in the past. He withdraws his touch to bring his mug to his lips. You do the same.

"Should I have asked him to stop?" you ask.

"Alphinaud? No." He looks into the mirror again, turning his arm to regard the arcane eye painted there. The deep hue is stark against the azure of his body. "I shall wash them off in the morning, but for now I enjoy being able to see my old markings again."

"You seem more upset than anything," you counter cautiously, the unspoken question evident in your voice.

"’Tis difficult to put into words. Memory is not always without mourning, and mourning is not always an act of grief." G'raha looks down into his tea, tracing a crystal finger along the curve of the ceramic mug. The faint scratching sound it makes is nearly deafening. "Tis good to remember how it felt to fly before I clipped my wings."

You smother the instinct to comfort him. He isn’t hurting, and curative words will do nothing for him now. Instead, you offer him what you know he needs and slip an arm around his waist to encourage him to sidle closer. He cups his mug with both hands in his lap and rests his head on your shoulder, his ear slightly squashed between you.

“Will you be able to sleep tonight?”

“Yes, though not just yet,” G’raha says. “Would you mind sitting up with me for a short while longer?”

You place a kiss on the crown of his head. Before you have the chance to think better of it, you begin to quietly sing the sea shanty G’raha had serenaded himself with in the bath. Your voice is off key and cannot hold a candle to his lovely instrument, but it makes him laugh. That and the smile you feel against your shoulder as he relaxes more heavily into you are all that matters right now.

Hollow thoughts of flight and the stone that anchors him can wait until when the bright hope of morning comes.

Chapter Text

Runar offers you a steaming mug of coffee as he approaches your place beside the fire pit at the center of Slitherbough. "Cream, no sugar?" the Hrothgar asks.

You thank him and eagerly accept the cup of what might as well be your life's blood. "I'm surprised Y'shtola still remembers."

"It is you who does not remember," Runar says in a joking tone. "Master Matoya takes her coffee the same way."

The brew is delicious. It's the same blend that G'raha imports for you to drink in the morning at the tower, but something about having it straight from the source makes it taste even better. You attribute the difference to G'raha being a tea lover and Runar being a coffee connoisseur, but you won't be caught speaking a word of such things. Though G'raha's coffee brewing skills are lacking, he makes it out of love, and his will always be your favorite because of it. You imagine you regularly oversteep his tea, but he smiles when you bring it to him all the same.

G'raha sits on a log beside the fire, gingerly reslotting materia into his staff. He had removed his standard pieces as a precaution that morning and looked on with visible stress as you completed the overmeld he finally worked up the nerve to request from you. The various sets of custom gear you've gifted him with recently have earned you the trust he has never even placed in Katliss, his resident master craftswoman.

Perhaps he wouldn't have been so wary if you hadn't completed the task half naked in bed with a plate of leftovers balanced on your leg, but you know how you work best.

"Exarch, I do not wish to interrupt, but may I get you some coffee as well?" Runar asks, a more polite host than you could ever manage to be.

G'raha graciously declines and offers his thanks regardless. The Hrothgar excuses himself to check on The Night's Blessed who are holed up in one of the caves as they don their gear. While you watch G'raha at work, you can't help but think he could really use the caffeine, but you are trying not to be too overbearing with your worries. He took care of himself for lifetimes before he pulled you back to his side. You're still learning how to gauge his energy levels the longer and further you travel from home, but he has been doing this longer than you can even wrap your mind around.

You're about to offer help reattaching the materia to his staff- you've never seen a weapon with so many slots, hidden on the underside of the ornate arms- but your voice is stolen from you. The crimson glow from the small marble of crystalized Mako beneath G'raha's touch fuses with a radiant sunbeam that reaches down through the spiderweb of crawling branches above. His hand is momentarily transparent in the light, burning with an impossible shine as he completes the meld.

It is in quiet moments like this that you are able to recognize how otherworldly he has become. You imagine it would bother some, maybe even disturb them, but you find it endlessly fascinating. He thinks himself difficult to look upon, and while you understand his viewpoint, there are few things in the world you have ever found more stunning than the array of crystals that grow from the planet's energy. You know you're biased, but he is as beautiful to you now as he was when tattooed skin stretched across his taut muscles. He may not think it himself, but he believes it now when you tell him that you do, and that is more than enough.

"You really don't need all of those, you know."

G'raha smirks to himself as he inspects his work, making sure that each piece is secure. "Not today, no, but I needed all the help I could muster when we were up against foes that had the bite to match their bark." He smooths his hand along the length of the staff with the appreciation one shows a prized possession. "I am looking forward to fighting beside you once more. It was a thrill to stand as your shield in Holminster."

"I hadn't figured you out yet," you say in between sips of coffee. "Though perhaps that was for the best. I would have been too distracted by you to put up much of a fight."

G'raha laughs warmly. "I am a poor excuse for a paladin. Do not pretend otherwise."

"You kept me safe. There is nothing else I could have asked for."

"You were in danger. There is nothing else I could have done."

You sit beside him at the fire, your thigh pressed tight to his. His tail lifts in curiosity through the divide in his robe, and yours brushes against it. "You will not be my shield today," you observe as you touch one of the materia orbs that put up a particularly tough fight before it bent to your will.

"No," G'raha says, his voice low as he meets your eyes. His red irises are striking in the sunlight. "I will be your fire."

Breath catching raw in your throat, you lean into him and press your forehead to his temple. His hand comes to the hilt of your katana that presses against his side. You don't have to see it- you can sense the suggestive way his fingers wrap around the leather, you can hear the pommel shift as his grip tightens. You ache to kiss him, but there are too many people around for you to do so the way you want to.

He burns so brightly for you, both on the battlefield and in your arms.

"Darling," you say, dropping your voice to a hush. "I do suggest you stop, unless it is your aim to have me embarrass myself when I stand up."

G'raha bothers his bottom lip between his teeth, then returns his focus to his staff. "Forgive me. The sight of you in full armor has always had quite an effect on me."

You're fond of your new deepshadow gear yourself, but it certainly isn't the most sultry attire you've worn into battle. Then again, having fallen for an archer turned mage, you aren't the best judge of such things. Their armor tends to be more forgiving and less covered in metal plates and spikes meant to take a relentless beating.

Steeling yourself for the dregs at the bottom of the cup, you knock back the last of your coffee. "If you like, you can take it off for me later."

"Are you propositioning me?"

"Perhaps," you answer vaguely.

G'raha lifts an eyebrow at you, but his playful smile breaks through the serious guise. "Then perhaps I shall."

Flirtatious banter falls away when a rousing cheer carries out from the caves. A battle cry- the speeches must have been given indoors so as not to sound overconfident to the band of rebels approaching from the west through the Citia Swamps. Y'shtola emerges from the armory followed by Runar and a group of sufficiently but not optimally armored soldiers. The gear is the best the common folk can get their hands on in bulk, and it will have to do.

The soldiers stop in their formation to salute you. G'raha grabs hold of your wrist for support as you rise to your feet to properly return the gesture to The Night's Blessed. He bows with his staff held over his heart- the Exarch offering his strength both in spirit and in promise.

"We will wait in the wings for your signal," Y'shtola says to Runar as she taps the linkpearl in her ear. "One of our comrades will alert us when it is time." She turns to the soldiers with a stern nod. "Fight well, my friends. This ends today."

You stand with your fellow Seekers as Runar guides the soldiers of The Night's Blessed into the swamps to meet the remnants of The Children of the Everlasting Dark. Without Ranjit and the looming Lord Vauthry to point their misguided weapons for them, the religious fanatics of the night have become desperate. They were always a nuisance, but now they bare their rabid teeth, hell-bent on eliminating all who oppose them. Once they began attacking the settlement itself and posing a danger to the children and the elderly, Y'shtola decided that enough was enough.

Blood will be shed this day, but it won't belong to any innocents.

Y'shtola rambles off the locations of where your companions lie in wait to call in the last resort, as it were. The plan is simple enough: lure the enemy into a false sense of impending victory, then swoop in to snuff them out before they have time to realize they've been ambushed.

The first clashes of battle carry on the wind from the swamp. You close your eyes and try to tune out the familiar violence that you will never really get used to, but it only makes the screaming grip of G'raha's hand on your arm even louder.

He is waning, but you remain silent. You promised yourself you would if it came to this, no matter how much it hurts to bite your tongue. You refuse to bridle him with your fears when all you want is to set him free upon the winds he longs to soar.

He will be fine. Mt. Gulg and Emet Selch did far worse than two days away from the tower ever could and he still managed a godlike summon during your battle with Hades, but in truth that doesn't offer much reassurance. It took weeks for him to recover from those brutal days, and it was not easy to watch.

G'raha can handle it. A simple skirmish cannot do much to drain him. He will be fine, but fine is far from ideal.

You will watch over him and keep him safe. There is nothing else you can do.

Y'shtola touches her ear as the call comes in from Alisaie. G'raha squeezes your arm before he lets go, fingertips ghosting along the top of your gauntlet. He curls a finger around one of yours for a fraction of a second as he looks into your eyes, tired yet calm as you've ever seen him.

He knows that you know, and here he is comforting you.

The three of you sneak into the swamp just in time to see the smoke bomb erupt, shrouding the battlefield in chaos. Instinct takes over from there, setting a fluid dance into motion that you have been performing all your life. G'raha and Y'shtola lay down twin sets of ley lines as you sprint toward the explosive sound of Thancred's gunblade with your katana outstretched. The mages set to work on the cluster of minions, scorching them with flame and warping the gravity of the air around them.

The screams are easy enough to ignore. You hear them in your sleep so often they could be mistaken for a nightmarish lullaby. Evil lives taken are lives nonetheless, and you would feel haunted were you not so numb to it all. Warrior of Light and Darkness, and harbinger of death for those who dare defy what is right.

Beside the winding roots of a towering tree, Thancred grapples with their leader. Joelana the Unchaste growls like a cornered animal as the gunbreaker holds her at bay, restraining her from escaping to help her men. She may not have recognized him, but by the gods, she recognizes you. Her eyes flare with fear and rage, and she leaps back to make her final stand.

You and Thancred make quick work of it from there. She cannot hold you both back for long. He detains her with a ruthless defense as you deliver the finishing blow, unsheathing your blade faster than a blink as you slice clean through her armor. You make a point not to look in Joelana's eyes after the deed is done and her life bleeds away. It's easier to write these things off as a job if you don't see that last humanizing moment when someone realizes they're about to die.

The last of the Children fall not long after. Flames lick at the bases of trees and the flora growing from the surface of the swamp. Y'shtola extinguishes them with bursts of ice that melt and send slivers of steam into the treetops.

Runar rushes to attend to his soldiers, waving your Elezen healers along after him. It seems that Y'shtola has the stomach to see to the more difficult task. When you and Thancred rejoin the tattered fray, she turns to him.

"Have those that are well help gather the bodies," she says with a barely disguised snarl. "I would not see these monsters buried."

Thancred sighs. Cleanup is always somehow worse than the clash itself. He turns to you and says, "Well, let's get on with it."

It is a blessing that he doesn't wait for you. Once Thancred's back is turned, you feel the sudden clutch of a gold-ridged hand beneath your armband. G'raha says your name quietly, and his expression when you whirl around is not one of pleading or warning, but one meant to simply impart a message. The burning light of his eyes has dimmed, and the way he strains to focus sends a rush of panic sparking through your every nerve.

Two days was too much. Eulmore is one thing, but Rak'tika is too far for the tower's reach to find him. You knew it was too much, you should have said something-

"I fear that I may not be able to offer much assistance for the remainder of the mission," G'raha says. He blinks owlishly as though finally seeing you, and a gentle smile comes over him. "You did well."

He's alright, you assure yourself as you cast aside the selfish fear that threatens to paralyze you. He needs your strength right now, not your worry.

"So did you," you say, taking the staff from him and drawing him to your chest. The armor offers little in the way of comfort, but it will have to do for now. He doesn't seem to mind, from the way he rests his slight weight full against you. "You're so strong, Raha."

"I am sorry to be a bother to you. I only wished to fight alongside you once more." G'raha releases a shuddering breath that reverberates throughout his body. "Twas easier in Lakeland, I admit."

"You could never be a bother. Please, do not think that."

Y'shtola calls out orders to The Night's Blessed before coming over to interrupt what must look like a lover's embrace.

"If you two are quite done, then I suggest-" Her footsteps scuff the dirt as she comes to an abrupt halt. "Exarch, what has happened?"

She cannot see the faraway glaze over G'raha's eyes nor the way he props himself up against you, but you know she can see his aether. It must have dimmed rapidly since the conclusion of the battle.

"That is a story for another time," you say, looking over your shoulder at the concern that paints her face. The way G'raha tenses with what energy he has left, you know not to say any more on the subject. "We will retire to Slitherbough for the time being. You have enough hands to manage here?"

"More than enough. If you need anything, please call for me."

You nod at your friend, and the way her brow knits as she turns away to chase after the others suggests that she has grown more friendly toward the Exarch than she has led you and the other Scions to believe.

"Will it harm you if I teleport us back to camp?"

It's only a few minutes down the trail back to Slitherbough, but there's no way you are letting him walk and you will not draw further attention to his decline by presuming to carry him.

"No, not with your aether."

You wrap your arm tight around G'raha, hoping your gauntlet doesn't irritate him through the thin fabric of his robe. With his staff held low to the side, you let your aether swirl outward in violet waves as your feet lift from the earth. In a flash of light and a snap of thin air, your greaves crunch in the dirt beside the aetheryte. The sudden jolt makes G'raha's knees buckle and he collapses against you, half lucid as his hands scramble for purchase on your chestplate. You drop his staff without a second thought as you catch him.

"Forgive me," G'raha whispers on the edge of a ragged whimper.

"Shhhh," you coo into his hair as you scan the clearing that rests at the center of the caves. A young girl is the only soul brave enough to investigate the noise while the other children and their grandparents hide away until the rest of their village returns from battle. You meet her eyes over G'raha's head, and the frightened look you see there nearly breaks your heart.

"Is he going to be alright?"

"He is," you tell her. "He just needs to sleep for a bit."

"Where is everyone else?" she asks. "Are they going to be alright too?"

Present company offering no threat to G'raha's pride, you scoop behind his knees and hoist him into your arms. He melts against your armor, on the verge of succumbing to the call of sleep that is so desperate to claim him.

You offer the girl an encouraging smile. "You can run and tell the others that the battle has been won. The healers are patching everyone up and then they'll be home to celebrate."

She springs up on her toes, clapping her hands together as she bounces. "Really?"

"Really. Those bad men won't be bothering your village anymore."

"Thank you so much, sir." The girl runs up and hugs your waist with the enthusiasm only a child could manage. The simple gesture fills you with so much warmth that it casts a shadow over the chill you usually carry after a battle. She pets G'raha's tail as though he were a toy coeurl kitten when it curls and brushes her arm. "I have to go tell Nana!"

You watch her scurry off into the caves as her honey blonde hair dances about her shoulders. For now, your heart is light with the reassurance that you have done something good this day.

"Come on, Raha," you whisper, though you do not know if he can hear you. You aren't sure if you want him to or not. He needs his rest, but you pray that this time he knows he is not alone. More times than you care to admit, you've thought about just how vulnerable he was when you found him in Kholusia. No wonder he was so startled when he woke, and how relieved he was when he realized it was you.

You carry him into The Darker, a shallow candlelit shrine to the sunless sea. The cavern is empty, offering the privacy you had been hoping for, even if it is colder than you expected. You'll gladly sacrifice your own physical comfort to provide him the solace of solitude. The autumn sun cannot reach this temple of darkness, scattered flames illuminating the quiet space like stars.

A shiver shakes you, and you hold G'raha closer before you kneel and rest him against one of the more well lit walls. You pry off the cumbersome pieces of your armor- your gauntlets, the chestplate and belt, the dramatic shoulder guard- leaving you in the sleeveless shirt you wear beneath to protect your skin. You sit beside G'raha and pull him into your lap, cradling him against you with his head in the crook of your neck. Either asleep or otherwise, he is most certainly unconscious. The soft fall of breath on your skin keeps you from coming apart at the seams.

You are not far from sleep yourself when you hear the scuff of tiny shoes on the stone floor. When you open your eyes, you see the girl from before standing at the mouth of the cave, hugging a woven blanket to her chest.

"You said he needs to sleep," she says, holding the blanket out to you as she begins her timid approach. "This always helps me."

You cannot keep the smile from your face as she drapes the soft, heavy material over your outstretched arm.

"Thank you, little one. Make sure you tell Master Matoya that I said to give you an extra serving of sweets tonight, understand?"

She grins at you, gap-toothed and giddy. She whispers an excited 'I will!' that still sounds loud in the echoing chamber, and covers her mouth with an embarrassed palm before waving and leaving you and G'raha alone once more.

You shake out the blanket and pull it around both of you. It only takes moments for it to absorb enough body heat to offer a welcome buffer from the cool air.

Twelve bless that little girl, you think. If the First has children like her, there might be hope for the future of this world.

G'raha stirs against you, chasing the warmth of your body. If it were not for the reason that brought you here, this moment would be one you expect you might cherish. Between the candles and the chill held at bay by the cozy blanket as you hold him, this could feel downright romantic under different circumstances.

"I'm sorry I don't know what to do," you say in a hushed voice, though you know he isn't listening. "I wish there was something I could do to make this better, but I have no idea, and I… Sometimes all I can do is hold you and hope that it's enough. Not to fix things, but for you to at least be happy for a little while. That's all I want- for you to be happy. I love you so much. You're my other half, Raha. I feel whole when I'm with you. I only wish that I could make you feel that way too, but I'm not blind enough to think that I'm your only missing piece."

You comb your fingers through his bangs, brushing them back from his brow. His hood bunches up behind his neck and you tug at the creases to even it out. The motion reveals the span of his neck, and even in the faint candlelight you can see a smear of stubborn paint that wouldn't wash away.

Somehow, that is what breaks you. Your breath catches sharp in your throat and you let your head fall back against the cavern wall. Eyes closed tight, you focus on steadying the rise and fall of your chest even as a traitorous tear slips down your cheek. You remain as still and silent as you can manage, not wishing to disturb him from the rest he needs.

You lock away your selfish sorrow and pray that he dreams in stardust, impossible and infinite. Dreams can give him what you cannot, and you would not keep him from them.

It's unclear how much time passes before the pearl from the Scions' linkshell chimes in your ear. You touch your hand to the stone, and it's no surprise the voice on the other end of the connection is Thancred's. He may put up a tough front, but he is a more loyal friend than the others give him credit for.

"Is he alright?" are the first words you hear from him.

"He's sleeping," you tell Thancred, a non-answer of a whisper. "Y'shtola told you?"

"There wasn't much to tell, but yes, more or less. Where are you?"

You almost think better of it, but you tell Thancred of your retreat to the candlelit sanctuary. His concern is the only one you are undeniably certain stems from true worry for G'raha as a friend, not for you by way of the Exarch's wellbeing.

"Don't bring the others," you plead.

Not yet. You are the only one G'raha has confided in about his true connection to Syrcus Tower. If anyone else is to know, you want it to be on his terms.

"I wasn't planning on it. Y'shtola didn't tell anyone else yet. She is worried, but she thought she might upset him if she came along."

The familiar sound of teleportation shimmers through the link as Thancred disconnects his pearl. You hear a string of muttered curses and the sound of boots scuffing the dirt as he undoubtedly trips over G'raha's staff that you dropped next to the aetheryte. He brings it with him when he enters the cave. It's a strange sight to see your friend holding a mage's weapon.

"Don't want anyone else getting their hands on this," he says in a soft yet audible voice as he approaches. A grimace twists his face as he catches sight of the two of you. You thank him with a forced smile when he rests the staff beside the pile of your discarded armor before he sits cross-legged to face you. "What happened?"

"It's complicated."

"In translation: you know, but…?"

"But it's not my business to say."

Thancred blows out a frustrated breath, but the thin set of his mouth tells you that he understands your discretion. "I've never seen him like this."

"That is on purpose, I assure you."

You wriggle your arm free from the blanket and stroke G'raha's hair back again, looking down at his sleeping face. His nose crinkles when one of the loose wiry threads of the blanket grazes his cheek. His ear flicks, the tip tickling your neck.

"How are you holding up?" You glance over to find Thancred watching you. "Don't look at me like that. I know when that brave face you're wearing is just a mask."

G'raha shifts in your lap to stretch his cramped limbs, his body shaking rapidly as sensation floods his waking body. You're spared from answering Thancred, but you make sure he sees the arch of your eyebrow over G'raha between you. The man is more intuitive and empathetic than he lets everyone believe. Perhaps that's one of his own masks he hides behind.

"I'm sorry if we woke you," you say gently as G'raha pushes on your chest to sit up. "I was trying to keep my voice down."

"It was not you." G'raha fists his hands in the blanket, and you can see shades of his old pout even through his groggy haze. "This blanket is rather itchy."

"It was a gift, so it will have to do for now. You'll have your furs when we get back to the tower."

His eyes come more into focus as he takes in the sea of candles and their hypnotic glow. When he notices your fellow Scion, he sighs. His weight slumps against you, but otherwise he is fully upright again.

"Thancred," G'raha says, his voice still weak and weary. "I apologize that you have to see me this way. I had hoped none of you would have to."

"You've kept enough from us already, wouldn't you say? No apologizing," your friend scolds with a grin. "You're one of us now, and we look out for our own."

"I appreciate your concern, truly. I suppose I owe you an overdue explanation in return."

"Only if you wish to provide one. I presume it is a private matter. I respect that, and I'm sure the others will as well."

"Tis more peculiar than private, seeing as you already know my history." G'raha averts his eyes to the shadows flickering on the wall. You can see that his mind has been made, but he grapples for the strength to follow through with his decision. "This is not something I am able to easily discuss."

You almost tell him that he doesn't have to, but the resolution in his eyes gives you pause. Instead you choose to squeeze his arm where you hold it, neither trying to dissuade nor encourage him, only reminding him that you are there for him whatever he might choose.

The phrases G'raha uses are nearly identical to the ones he used to tell you, the same carefully selected words saying just enough to tell the tale without giving away too much of the underlying truth. Thancred listens with rapt attention, but this time you are left burning with the question you have not yet worked up the courage to ask.

How?

The unknown crawls beneath your skin, and it will not be long before it starts to eat away at you. His altered body is a thing of beauty, but there are times when you become lost in your own mind as you watch him, and the haunting uncertainty weighs heavier than it should. As with all things, you will let him come to you. He will tell you when he's ready, if that time ever comes, but the respect you pay his privacy does little to silence the question that often claws its way too close to the surface.

Raha, what did you do?

Thancred is stone-faced, taking the information for what it is. If he is disturbed or shocked to learn that G'raha is a literal part of the crystal tower, he does an exceptional job of hiding it. Although it is evident that any crisis has been averted, he is still in a reactive mode where he processes facts without interpreting them. You normally only see him like this on the battlefield, but you are glad for your friend's calm demeanor.

"It sounds like we need to get you back to the Crystarium so you can recharge your batteries, then." Thancred turns to you, strictly business. "I'll go on ahead to clear the plaza. This isn't anyone else's business, and I would see it remain that way. Give me half a bell and you'll be clear to teleport in then transfer over to the Dossal Gate."

You smooth your hand over one of G'raha's ears and watch as his eyes flutter closed at the comforting motion. "How does that sound?"

He nods. His ear slips free from your grasp and you pet it once more, glad to see the way he reflexively chases your touch. "You would both have my utmost gratitude," he murmurs before blinking red eyes open at your guest. "You are a good friend, Thancred."

The breath Thancred takes is visible in the rise of his chest, but he holds back any sigh that may have been poised to follow. "'Tis a curious thing that happens when you let those around you see that you need help. More often than not, you're likely to receive it without even needing to ask."

G'raha's eyes widen at the words, and you feel him go still. He closes them again without hesitation, tight with reluctant emotion. He doesn't watch as Thancred pats his leg in an attempt at solidarity. No one comments on the way G'raha's tail thrashes, hitting your leg with a hard thump.

Pushing up from his knees, Thancred rises to his feet and dusts off his trousers. Nothing is said, but his silver eyes communicate more than any question could. You nod, still running your hand over G'raha's ear, and your friend returns the gesture before taking his leave from the cavern.

This is no burden, but it is still yours to bare. Love is not always the pretty thing that storybooks portray. It has fangs, but it is nothing you cannot face together.

"You are being quite loud," G'raha says.

You exhale more sharply than you intend, a mockery of a laugh. A brush of your lips against his forehead erases any illusion of anger. "Now is not the time to joke."

"I do not joke." G'raha opens his eyes to meet yours. "You are so tense. When you get this way, I swear that I can nearly hear your screaming thoughts."

"If you could hear them, they would not surprise you. I know you say I shouldn't worry, but I'm afraid it's not something I expect I'll ever stop." Hugging the blanket tighter around him, you rest your head atop his. "Do not think on it too much. We will speak when you are well."

He doesn't answer. You aren't sure how to interpret his silence, but he relaxes as the moments pass. With you, he is unafraid to show what he thinks is weakness, but you know it is only a side effect of circumstance.

You only have a few minutes before you have to redress in your armor to ready for your return to the Crystarium, but you let him rest. The agitated set of his tail falls as it curls against your leg beneath the sweep of his robes.

If he is weak, then you will be his strength. Come the morning, he will be rested and back to his normal self, and that comes close to setting your mind at ease.

It is as G'raha said yesterday, though. You only wish it were not all so complicated.

---

 

The kitchenette in Syrcus Tower smells incredible by the time you are through with your self-assigned task. You leave the pot on the fire to simmer while you begin pawing through the cabinets to find a pair of bowls.

Thancred's plan worked without any hiccups, and with how close you walked in step with G'raha, arms looped with his cowl drawn over his eyes to hide his fatigue, not even the gatekeep seemed to think anything was out of the ordinary.

Once you were hidden behind the privacy of the towering doors, you lifted G'raha and made a beeline for the often unused Allagan teleportation cube. He preferred to traverse the tower on foot, claiming it was the closest thing he came to exercise on most days, but today you needed to make use of the technology you hadn't given much thought to since the days when your thoughts revolved around dethroning Emperor Xande. One quick zap of aether brought you to your shared rooms and you tucked him in his treasured furs. Only once you heard his gentle snoring did you leave his side. Even then, you did so reluctantly, but you had a mission in mind.

A few quick hops between aetheryte crystals brought you to the markets to select only the finest ingredients you could find. Luckily your work with Katliss and her specialists had recently begun to include more culinary work, so the shopkeepers were unsurprised to see the Warrior of Darkness sifting through bins of vegetables with a focused face only worthy of battle.

With your haul now transformed into what you hope pays homage to the delicious soup you shared with your Ishgardian companions in The Churning Mists, you discard peels and wipe down counters so as not to earn yourself a scolding during morning tea time. When you stir the pot, the contents resemble Ysayle’s creation well enough that you are optimistic G'raha will enjoy it. He hadn't enlightened you of his favorites over your discussion of soup last night, so you went with one you remember fondly that made your stomach growl just to think back on. Sausage and potatoes heaped with a medley of harvest vegetables in a broth of stock thickened with mash- how could you go wrong? Admittedly you improvised the spices, but a quick sip assures you that you didn't miss your mark. Katliss would be proud of your progress.

You scoop out two servings and set them on a large plate for lack of anything better to carry them with. Two chunks of wheat bread make the finishing touch, then you put out the flame before shouldering the plate to free your hand to touch the teleporter by the door.

The room is empty when you arrive, nudging the door open with your backside as you hold the meal steady to keep from spilling. You stare at the rumpled bedding for a beat before your ear swivels, catching the sound of water from the washroom. Over the smell of dinner and your combined scent that clings to the blankets, you are able to pick out his favored soap. It does your worry-worn heart good to know that he is up and about.

After you set the plate down on the low dresser, you toe off your shoes and change into your lighter evening clothes. The tower is always colder than it should be, even more so now that winter is on its way, but the safe haven of your bedroom is always temperate. You expect you owe that saving grace to some marvel of Allagan technology.

You crawl into the nest-like mess atop the bed and grab one of the books from G'raha's table to occupy yourself until he joins you. It's a volume of an Eorzean encyclopedia. You flick through its pages, recognizing some of the historical discussion about The Twelveswood and promptly wrinkling your nose when your eyes skim over your name.

No matter what happens, that will always be strange. You're just you. It's beyond bizarre to think that some day schoolchildren will have to recite the dates of your battles, if they aren't doing so already. It doesn't feel like that long ago that you abandoned such normal youthful struggles to follow an adventurer's path.

You open to a random page to find that New Gridania is followed shortly by Nidhogg, and you clap the book shut. You couldn't tell anyone the date of that terrifying encounter, but you could certainly show them the scars.

The next page you open to is completely blank. You flip through to find the same thing scattered throughout the book.

"'Tis fascinating, is it not?"

You lift your head to find G'raha standing in the open washroom door, bare except for his necklace and cut-off trousers. He absently arranges the wayward tuft of fur on the inner edge of his ear.

"All mentions of the world I left behind were still in tact after the battle. It wasn't until you destroyed The Tycoon that the passages vanished."

All of the time and space travel talk admittedly hurts your head sometimes- you're no Baldesion Archon- but somehow what he says makes sense. "The last ties to that timeline," you venture.

"I believe so. I am still uncertain if it has been fully unwritten, but I am confident now that the future I left will be rewritten, if anything."

You set the book back on the table with the small treasure trove of other tomes. "As long as we edited out the unsavory bits, I'll take it."

"If you continue to provide your assistance to Estinien, I believe all shall be well. We have done our part here. Unfortunately, the rest seems to once again fall on your shoulders."

"What else is new?" You laugh to yourself, still watching as G'raha tries to tame his unruly fur. "Come here. Let me do it."

Rising to your bare feet, you meet him with a quick kiss on the forehead before fussing with the ear he always sleeps on. It's still a bit damp in places, but he did a well enough job toweling it dry that you need to wet your fingertips on your tongue to help pacify the troublesome patch.

The gesture is intimate enough that G'raha blushes. He's so comfortable with you lately that it's rare you get see the color bloom in his cheeks like this. Knowing that you can still fluster your shy scholar makes you inexplicably happy.

"Have I ever told you how much I love your ears?" you ask to distract him from his embarrassment. The words are already out of your mouth when you realize they will likely just exacerbate the endearing issue, but that suits you just as well.

"Not with words, no," G'raha says, hooking his hands on the waist of your trousers.

"They're so much pointier and expressive than mine. Before we were close, I was always afraid that I would make a fool of myself one day, watching you when you were in a good mood." You scratch behind both ears before resuming your work. "When you're really happy or excited, these things wiggle like you wouldn't believe. It's so damned cute."

G'raha peers up at you coyly and proceeds to wiggle his ears for you. You are helpless but to grin like the fool you always feared you would be, but he doesn't seem to mind.

"It might be time for a trim," you say, finally getting the fur of his inner ear to cooperate. "This must be really starting to bother you."

"I only just noticed, but I do agree. Though I had thought to save such time consuming activities until after I send you back tomorrow. I would prefer to enjoy your company while it is still mine."

"They can wait another day. I won't risk it while you are still recovering."

"I will be fine come the morning," he says stubbornly.

"Raha-"

"No," G'raha says emphatically, his ears turning down. "Were it any other reason I should be more than happy to keep you to myself, but on this I will not yield. If Estinien believes he found the makings of another factory, then I will send you by force to assist him if I must. I refuse to see the name of that which once took your life reappear on those pages. If I must sometimes live without you for a matter of months to prevent the light of my life from being extinguished, then I will gladly do so every time."

His sudden fervor takes you aback, and he notices. The grip on your waistband that had tightened loosens completely, and his eyes spring wide before turning to the floor. You follow his gaze to find his tail low between his legs.

"My apologies. I am in a rare mood today. It is not my intention to sour our remaining time together with my morose thoughts. "

You take his aimless hands that hang between you and thread your fingers through his. "You needn't apologize for having strong feelings about something, especially if that something is me. I will go, but you best believe I will be checking up on you as soon as I'm through the portal."

G'raha squeezes your hands, looking up at you. "I accept your terms."

"Good." You nuzzle your forehead into his. "Though I have one more request."

"What is it?"

"Am I correct in assuming that you are merely pretending not to smell the dinner I made for us?"

"I was attempting to be polite," G'raha says with a charming smirk. "It smells heavenly."

"You can eat as much of it as you like after you take this." You release his hands to withdraw a small round-bottom vial of vibrant red liquid. His nose crinkles in distaste as you place it in his hand. "It's medicinal only, just a minor strength tincture. Humor me, please?"

"You're becoming much like Lyna with her trips to the apothecary," he mutters dryly, turning the vial in his palm to watch the iridescent potion shimmer.

"We only do it because we care about you."

"And 'tis for your sake and hers that I stomach the swill." Without another word, G'raha uncorks the bottle and drinks it down in one gulp. He grimaces as he places the empty vial in your palm. "That has the most awful flavor."

"That's why it was an appetizer and not dessert. You get comfortable, I'll grab the food."

Part of you feels scandalous for eating in bed, but the only insects you've ever seen in the tower have been of the giant mechanical variety, so there's really no harm to any stray crumbs. You fetch the plate and offer G'raha his bowl, and the way his face softens when he sees the contents reaffirms your decision.

"You made soup," he says with something akin to amazement.

You hold your own bowl carefully and set down the plate heaped with bread at your feet. Grabbing the spoons you brought, you slip one into each of your bowls.

"I know you're not actually sick, but I like to think it's the thought that counts. There's few things good soup can't help fix."

G'raha seems to agree, and his appetite hasn't waned in the slightest. You tell him of the evening in Ishgard that you first enjoyed this meal, and of other parts of your journey that failed to make it into his books. You pair stories with scars and match names with fond memories, and for every answer you give he has another fascinated question waiting for you. He asks of Wyrms and primals freed from containment, and even of how your poor chocobo managed the first time he attempted to fly. 'Not well' seems to be the response he is expecting, but it makes him laugh all the same.

It isn't until you return from your trip to the kitchenette to put away the leftovers and clean the dirty dishes that you ask your own question. You climb onto the bed to sit across from him and pluck the book from his hands, making sure to tuck the fabric bookmark between the pages before setting it aside. He looks at you as though he knew this was coming.

"How are you feeling?"

"As Thancred worded it, my batteries are recharging. I am much improved."

"Good," you say, taking a breath as you watch him. "That accounts for your body. What about the rest of you?"

He nearly flinches, tearing his eyes from yours. "I do not catch your meaning," he says, though you know he does.

"You weren't yourself when you knew Y'shtola and Thancred were there. It was a different sort of pain, but I can tell when you are hurting. Please talk to me, Raha."

"'Tis better if I do not," he says with quiet acceptance. "I fear that I may raise my voice, and I would not risk you interpreting my frustration as being directed towards you."

You close your hand around the tip of his tail to force him to look at you. "I can handle it," you say, hoping to sound encouraging. "I'm not just here for when the sun is shining. I intend to spend the rest of my days with you. Not all of them are going to be good ones."

G'raha blinks once, twice, slow and purposeful, gathering strength and steadying himself. "There is so much that I have been feeling as of late. I do not know where to begin. Being with you has reminded me of myself, but until recently I had forgotten what a rash, greedy thing I can be. For all that I lacked, I made up for in fruitless desire. My ambitions burned brighter than my reach extended. Little has changed in that regard."

"But you have achieved so much," you say. "Without you, Norvrandt would have been lost to the light. Even now your work serves to better the countless lives left in the Flood's wake."

"Yes. My work has been my life, and I am proud of what my efforts have accomplished. I am grateful to be able to offer aid where it is needed. But… I am not merely the title that has been bestowed upon me. I have wants beyond what is expected from the Exarch. 'Tis a concept which I know you understand full well, my Warrior."

You release his tail and rest your hand on the muscled curve of his calf. In a way you cannot put into words, it would feel wrong to take his hands right now. You would take nothing from him in this moment, only offer whatever comfort your presence might bring him.

"And what does G'raha Tia want?"

He looks down into his lap, hands clutched tight with nails scraping crystal until they catch in the golden cracks. The corner of his mouth twitches, a bitter blight on a face that is normally so reserved. "I want to stand beside my fellow Archons as the equal I once was, not some frail creature to be coddled and pitied. I long to hold my own in battle without knowing that I will inevitably collapse like an invalid if the tower's light cannot reach me. But I suppose I have always been this weak. Even during our time with NOAH, I was not permitted to follow you into the tower. Perhaps it is only fitting that my body still bars me from joining you."

Here it is. You had been wondering when these suppressed thoughts would break through to the surface. On a normal day he would undoubtedly deny them, keeping them bottled up where even he need not acknowledge them. But G'raha is a man, not a saint, and a man can only bottle so much until he breaks.

"You are not weak. You know you aren't. I can assure you that the Scions do not think so either."

"I know, but these are feelings that I cannot fight. They continue to plague me, and I despise that my mind has become so selfish."

"There is nothing selfish about having wants. You said it yourself, Raha, you are still a man."

G'raha's nails click as they snag in his crystal, fingers curling into tight fists. He stretches his hands wide to look at the dramatically different colors, the way one glows in the room's dim light, the skin of the other red from being gripped raw.

"Your affection has served in part to quiet my disgust with my body, but that does not change the fact that it is my prison. And really, 'tis not so terrible, but today has worn on me more than most. I am weak, and oh, how I want."

G'raha's voice quivers, eyes beginning to water. He wrings his hands and gets to his feet before you can read whether his unshed tears stem from sadness or frustration. You watch as he paces to the wall and grips his arms in an attempt to hold himself together. A sharp inhale escapes him, a muffled cry breaking free.

"Tomorrow I will send you back to the Source, and I will remain here like a sailor's bride on the docks waiting for the tide to bring her love home. I accept that this is all that my limitations will allow, but I do not wish to be but a fixed monument by which you set your compass bearings!" His frustration mounts, bringing his voice nearer to a shout than you have ever heard it. When he turns to you, you have never seen him so distraught. "I wish to be your companion in all things, not only in name. I would see the future we spoke of under the stars become a reality, were I free to walk beside you where you roam. I long to grow old with you, not dread the day when I will wake for a second time to find myself in a world colder for the loss of you."

You cannot remain still any longer. You rise from the bed and cross the floor to take him in your arms, and he bows his head against your shoulder, fingers digging deep into your back.

"I want those same things for us, Raha, more than anything. I would give them to you if I only knew how."

"I know, but you cannot do everything, my love."

"For you, I wish that I could."

G'raha lifts his head to nestle it in the crook of your neck, his arms bleeding their overflow of tension until they fall to hold you around your waist.

"'Tis gift enough to know that you would try. I would not ask nor expect anything more of you. As long as I have you, I have need of nothing else. Forgive me if my selfish thoughts have made you think otherwise. This trying day has gotten the better of me."

"I know these are things that bother you, and with good reason. If I can do nothing but listen and be here for you, then that is what I'll do. We're in this together, never forget that."

He draws back to look up at you, searching for you know not what. His sorrow is burned away by the heat of his eyes, restless energy making him all but tremble.

G'raha grabs the scuff of your neck and pulls you into a searing kiss, the surprise of it making you gasp into his mouth. He seizes the opportunity and claims you with his tongue, drawing you ever closer as he slides his clawed fingers into your hair. The scrape is rough in contrast with the slow glide of his kiss and gods, you love it and he knows, your little minx.

Once he decides to grant you a moment to breathe, you take his chin between your thumb and forefinger. Shadows of his exhaustion still flicker in his eyes, but you also recognize a silent plea in their red depths. You have never seen him so worn down yet worked up, brimming with so many emotions that he cannot begin to make sense of them.

"What has gotten into you?" you ask below your breath, sweeping your thumb along his jaw.

"You. It is always you."

You take his shoulders and push him back against the wall with a gentle shove. He grabs your hips and pulls you with him, angling the hard trunk of your thigh tight between his legs. His bare shoulder clacks against the crystal wall, and you can see a dim refraction of its blue glow shining through him.

"Is there something that you want, Raha?"

"Perhaps." He presses full against your body where you crowd him, lifting a leg to twine behind your knee to draw you even closer. He brings his lips to yours for a kiss, but the way his hard length drags against your thigh has his mouth falling open, his eyes falling nearly shut.

The flickering flames of molten want that his kiss ignited spread like wildfire, but you do not succumb. You drop your forehead to his, trying to rouse your rational side to fan away the smoke and realize that the very real temptation before you is also a very bad idea.

"Perhaps you are meant to be resting."

"I am rested well enough." G'raha's pout makes an appearance before crumbling into something wounded and wanting. "Please. For you, I will beg if I must. Come morning, it may be months before I am in your arms again. I would end this day with your name on my lips. Make me think of naught but you."

There is no mercy for flesh and bone, his adoring desperation wearing down the last of your battered walls.

Time has not allowed the two of you the leisure and confidence to explore beyond wandering hands and instinctive rutting, but your inexperience is no detriment. You're no prude. Your ears and imagination work well enough.

"May I suggest a compromise?"

Curiosity flashes like a lick of fire in his eyes. "You may."

"You relax, as you should. I will see to the rest."

G'raha's confusion is evident as you take his hand and guide him away from the wall, turning to trade places with him so that his back is to the bed. You unbutton his trousers and push them down with his smallclothes, halting your advance until he steps out of them.

"What is it you intend to do?" he asks as the backs of his knees hit the edge of the bed. You motion downward with your eyes and he dutifully takes a seat.

"It wouldn't be as fun if I told you. Besides, I think you know."

You part his knees and fall to your own on the plush throw rug. He straightens at the sight of you on the floor between his legs, his tail lashing as he makes claws in the blankets around him.

"Surely you do not mean to-" His words fail him as the slivers of his pupils spring wide.

"Would you prefer if I didn't?" You close your hand around the base of him and grin while he loses the fight with whatever excuse had been forming in his mind.

"Only if you want to. I would not ask you to degrade yourself for my benefit."

"Degrade myself?" You laugh low in your throat, rubbing your cheek along the soft skin of his inner thigh. "What did they teach you in Sharlayan?

"There were no lectures on this subject, I assure you." He echoes your laugh, though it comes out as more of a strained breath at the sight of you on your knees for him. "My education extends to only that which I overheard in the taverns."

You hum in understanding. "Sailors and their sell skirts. This is no transaction. This is a gift, as much for you as it is for me. I want to know how you taste, Raha."

His fingers tighten in the blankets as you breathe hot on the sensitive skin you hold in your hand.

"May I?"

You look up at him through your lashes, mouth barely an ilm from where he needs you most.

All he can manage is a faint 'you may', but it is all the permission you need. Your virginal nerves set your heart racing in your chest, but you let them excite you rather than succumb to the intimidation. You nose the base of his beautiful cock, taking in the clean musk of his scent. It goes straight to your head, and almost without thought you lick a tentative trail to his tip, running your tongue along the thick ridge. The taste is much like the rest of him, if a bit headier, and your nerves dissipate by the time you reach his head, swirling a full circle around as you explore. He is so tense, knuckles white and eyes scrunched as he tries to make sense of everything new that he is feeling.

This is new for both of you, but you would rather see him caught in boneless bliss than fighting against sensation. Deciding that you have sufficiently charted your new territory, you close your mouth around his tip and lick into the delicate skin of his slit. A surprised gasp rips from him, its high pitch one you haven't heard before.

It is then that you realize that you are going to enjoy this very, very much.

G'raha spares a sharp cry for the gods when you take him full in your mouth, and he downright moans when you draw back, sucking as you hollow your cheeks. You have no idea what you're doing, really, but instinct soon takes over and all you can think about is the delicious weight and heat of him on your tongue and the desperate noises spilling from him, and how good it feels to be able to make him feel this good.

You release him with a wet noise that should be obscene, but isn't. He whines when you speak his name, not opening his eyes until you pry his hands from the blankets. "You can touch me," you encourage sweetly. "Look at me."

G'raha's gaze meets yours as you rub feeling back into his hands. He looks at you as though seeing you anew, wonder clear in the bright shine of his ruby eyes.

"How is it that you still find ways to make me come undone?"

"We've only just gotten started." You lean into G'raha's palm as he sweeps the hair back from your face. "I'm not finished with you yet."

This time he keeps his eyes on yours as you close your lips around him. His mouth falls open at the sight, his fingers curling in your hair. It is you who breaks first, unable to keep your eyes from falling shut at the drag of his nails and the blunt scrape of crystal along your scalp.

"I had always heard this spoken of as such vile sin," he says, turning his attention to your ears as you set a rhythm that has him relaxing at last, even as his leg rises from the floor to draw you closer, wrapping around the small of your back. His voice is wrecked, low and hoarse with lust and longing. "But there is nothing sinful in this. What I feel for you, from you is only holy. And your mouth-"

You tear a broken, wordless shout from him as you take him in so deep you feel him hit your throat. The sound is one you want to hear over and over, every day until the divines decide your days are done. You reward his beautiful cry with a moment of respite, laving lightly around his head while he groans and catches his breath.

"Your mouth is such blessed benediction, my love, I-" G'raha keens, tugging gently on your ears. The pull edges close to painful, a dull ache you adore almost as much as the way he begins to cant his hips forward in primal instinct. He lets go and begins to whisper fractured apologies even as he races toward completion, but you silence him and his needless caution by taking his hands and putting them back on your head, guiding him to use you however he pleases.

Just as he wanted, he finds his release with your name on his parted lips. You make sure he watches as you drink him down. The possessive heat in his eyes burns hot enough to consume you.

You kiss his inner thigh and smile up at him. "I hope I didn't do too poorly on my first attempt."

G'raha laughs and pulls you to your feet. You promptly pounce, tumbling together into the nest of furs. He is sated and growing sleepier by the second, but he thanks you with a tangled embrace and leisurely kisses as he learns the taste of himself on your tongue.

"Thank you," he says. "Not only for giving of yourself so, but for everything you do. You truly are my light in deepest dark."

"You're part of me, Raha. When you are happy, I am happy. When you are hurting, I ache as well. I go where you go, even if only in spirit. If you're not with me, know that I carry you in my heart." You run your finger over the pendant at his throat. "There is nothing I wouldn't do for you."

He is silent for a long moment, sinking heavier into the bed as you stroke his tail. When he speaks again, his words are not what you expect.

"I believe I have at last learned how to listen to your silences. In the morning, there is something that I wish to show you. You do not ask them, but the questions you have deserve answers that I have kept locked away for long enough."

You tamp down your curiosity for now, even though your questions now scream to be voiced. You let it go, leaning in to brush your lips against his forehead.

"In the morning," you repeat. "For now, just rest."

Chapter Text

You are, as a rule, not the soundest sleeper. Perhaps as a kit things had been different, but as a man the nightmares cling close and the frequent need to spring into action at a second's notice is too deeply ingrained for you to regularly sleep through the night. It's something you never gave much thought to until you began sharing a bed. You never expected that your troubled dreams would have the ill opportunity to trouble someone else, but on the rare nights that G'raha does succumb to sleep, you find that he often suffers the same haunted plight as you.

Life has left you both an ailing mess, but together you are mended.

Considering that you'll be setting foot in Eorzea before the day is done, it's a pleasant surprise that the nightmares do not rear their ugly heads. The gods grant you a night of rest that you hadn't realized you were so in need of. Yesterday had been long enough to numb your mind into a healing slumber beside your sleeping beauty.

You wake to the feeling of lips on your neck, kissing and mouthing an aimless journey from your jaw down to your collarbone. Were you not already boneless from rest, you would melt for him. Instead you hug him low around the crystal that corsets the small of his back, pulling him closer as you angle your head in offering against the pillow.

"Good morning," G'raha says against your sensitive skin. The tickle of his breath has you curling tighter around him, the fur throw that covers you tangling in a mess between your legs.

"This may be my new favorite way to wake."

His laugh echoes the rumble of your unused voice. He kisses your throat with reverence, then languidly works his way to his favorite place beneath your jaw where it is the softest, where he knows he can make you whimper for him.

He doesn't, though, not today. There is something different in the way he draws your skin into his mouth, something leashed in the way his teeth graze you, but do not indulge in a bite. He normally doesn't hesitate to reduce you to a needy mess when he dotes on you this way, but this isn't like his usual approach.

It isn't until you feel his crystal fingers anchor deep in your hip that it makes sense to your sleep-addled brain.

You're leaving again today.

"You want to mark me, don't you?" you ask, and G'raha practically trembles from restraint at your question, breathing shallow against your neck.

The instinct has mostly been lost to past generations, but it isn't completely unheard of. You were accustomed to seeing such things on female Seekers when the Nunh had cause to leave the village for an extended time, but the thought of wearing G'raha's claim while you are away…

Your head is too clouded to make much sense of it, but you know that you need it desperately.

"'Tis unsightly," he protests, still being gentle with you though you can tell his resolve is fragile. "I would not sully your beautiful skin."

"It's not unsightly if it's from you. Don't you want everyone to see that I'm spoken for?" You grin as you goad him, pulling on the crystal at the back of his neck. "Maybe I'll be home before it fades."

G'raha tries and fails to stifle a faint moan, the sound brimming with longing. He bites you then with a muffled growl, sucking your tender flesh into his mouth in a way that has you submitting to him completely, arching as he pins you to the bed. It's a slow, torturous play of teeth and tongue, licking away the sting with gentle laps before seizing you again.

He wipes your skin dry with the blanket and regards his handiwork. "'Tis faint enough not to draw undue attention, but I know it is there. That is what matters. Perhaps another time I shall be more thorough, but where you are for my eyes alone." He signs his mark with a lingering kiss, his fingers a teasing promise as they drift up your inner thigh to settle on your hip. "Is this how you feel when I wear the things you make for me? The sight of myself on you is more appealing than I had imagined."

You shift onto your shoulder and nudge him, rolling so that you're face to face on his feather pillow. "It's hardly the same. You should make me something, then you'd understand."

"My craftsmanship is no rival to yours," G'raha says with a humored lilt as he lets you gather him close. "I would not embarrass you with any creation of mine."

Lifting an eyebrow, you poke his nose just to see the way it scrunches, the way his Seeker arrowheads pull inward and up to his eyes. "I think you're being too humble. You're an excellent cook, and you make that salve for when your crystal is wounded. Not to mention you were able to meld your staff on your own, so you must have some advanced knowledge of smithing. Just because you don't spend your days toiling away in the Mean doesn't mean that you aren't a craftsman in your own right. I would be honored to wear anything you make for me."

He watches you, his eyes soft and his mouth turned upward in the faintest smirk. "I suppose it would bring no harm to undertake a more creative endeavor. Gods know it would do only good for my idle mind in your absence when endless diplomacy grows stale."

"Spend those dull meetings thinking about what you would like to see me wear for you." You smile, caressing the line of his cheek. The fragile bubble of your waking morning has you feeling giddy, and you wouldn't see it go to waste when you're both so perfectly content. "You may have turned away from the Crystarium's crown, but you will always be my Allagan prince."

The bitter taste of command was an acquired one for G'raha, and even now he shuns the stifling formality of his position whenever possible. But with you, the one who knows him as no other ever could, the mention of his royal blood doesn't make him turn. When he hears the words from you, it empowers him. When you bare your neck in submission, it awakens the Seeker in him that had no interest in tribal conflict and never dared forbidden dreams of finding a mate.

You remind him that he is mighty all on his own, that wounds needn't be signs of weakness, and that he is worthy of every dream he could possibly imagine. He doesn't need you, not really, but he wants you. He wants you as you are, gruesome scars and nightmares and pitiful singing voice included, and that is all you ever desired for your own. To be wanted without expectation of anything except your own imperfect love in return.

"If I am your prince, then what does that make you?"

"Whatever you want me to be."

He laughs with a touch of skepticism, but the gleam in his eyes is one of pure joy. "I shall have to keep that in mind."

You roll G'raha onto his back and straddle him, reminded through the fabric of your smallclothes that he had fallen asleep in the nude. Endeavoring to ignore what the morning has done to you both, you lift the fur throw and tent it over your head, shrouding you both in shadowed warmth. You let it rest on your head so you can grab his hands, lacing your fingers through his as you lean to brush your noses together. In your cocoon, you can almost swear that his eyes are glowing.

With a kiss to his forehead, you draw a sweet hum from his lips. In a whisper you say, "I love you," and he glows in earnest for you now, his smile illuminating the darkest depths of your soul.

This is how he should always look, carefree and so unashamedly happy.

"And I you," he replies.

"I know I don't say it enough. I'm sorry."

"You needn't worry over such a thing. 'Tis not in the way it is said, but the way it is shown. And the way you love me… well. It goes without saying that you do nothing if not fiercely. You give me everything that you are."

In the dim peace of your makeshift tent, you rest your forehead to his and close your eyes. The fur throw pools on top of G'raha's head and he laughs quietly, welcoming your closeness with a nuzzle. The extra layer provides an illusion that makes you forget the world beyond. It makes you braver, a little bolder than you normally find yourself when it comes to speaking your mind.

"Perhaps," you say, though your voice fails you and you have to stop to steady yourself. "Perhaps when I come home you would like to mean that not just in a figurative sense. If you will have me, I would have all of you. I have always wondered, always thought of what it would be like, but I… I want you. I want to know the feel of your body within mine. I want to give you everything, I want you to take it--"

You feel his stolen breath on your skin and open your eyes, thankful to find not even the slightest hint of misunderstanding in his. He frees his hand from yours to thread crystal fingers through your hair, coming to rest on the nape of your neck.

"Whatever is within my power to give you shall be yours, and if what you want is me--" The moment gets the better of him and he has to collect himself, the corner of his mouth turning upward in a nervous smile. "'Tis not something I know how to give, but it would be dishonest to say that I am not most eager to learn. Also, in the interest of being fully truthful, I would be remiss not to share that at times I have ached for you in the ways you speak of as well. I told you of my greed for you. I will love you however you will have me."

You grin down at him, placing a kiss to the quirked curve of his lips. "The feeling is mutual, believe me. Whatever you want, you only need to let me know one way or another. I assure you that it will be something I want as well. Just remember that I am no teacher, so I'm afraid we'll have to learn together."

"You say that as if it were a bad thing. To know that you have only ever been mine is…" He rubs his blunt blue fingers against your scalp. The dull scratch borders on hypnotic. "I still struggle to find the words to describe it."

"You don't need to. I already know."

The look he gives you is both adoring and desirous. There is a pensive glint in his eyes that you have come to know, and he recognizes your curiosity well enough that you don't have to ask.

"Growing up as we did, I knew I would never make an attempt at becoming Nunh, so it was foolish to dream of such desires, but as I'm sure any boy was, I… I was helpless to do otherwise, to put it plainly. But even in Sharlayan where attitudes were far more lax, my studies of Allag consumed me. I had time to think of scarcely anything else, let alone seek out a companion. But then my studies brought me to you, and meeting you put a face to my dreams. Oh, how sweet they were, how willing you were for me. I admit, I found my pleasure to thoughts of you even as I fought to work up the courage to pursue your friendship. I have had many years with you on my mind, but not once did I dare to dream that in truth you would be receptive to a nature like my own. But the way you let me bite you, mark you as mine, and how you want me… Even in this, you and I are perfectly attuned."

You can think of nothing to say to such a sentiment, but you respond all the same. Where your fingers are still threaded with his, you mimic the way you let your aether flow when you teleport with him. This time your aether heats warm skin instead of crystal, and he shudders a gasp, squeezing your hand with an urgent grip. He replies in kind, letting his surface aether meld with yours until there is a thin sliver with no end and no beginning, a perfect transition where for a brief moment, you are one.

G'raha receives your message loud and clear, cradling your head as he rolls you onto your back. He rests his hand over your scarred chest that hides your unblemished heart, then leans forward to kiss your cheek, long and almost unbearably tender.

"I believe it would be wise to see to breakfast before other hungers overshadow that for food."

"You are more appetizing. I can wait," you say, grabbing at the tip of his tail with your feet. He whips it away from your reach, sitting up in your lap.

"No, you cannot. I know how you become when you are late for a meal, and I will have nothing to do with it. Come on, up with you." He tugs on your hand and looks down at you with the narrow-eyed smile you cherish. "Regardless, I wish to kiss you properly, and I will not do so until I have freshened up in the washroom."

You let him go as he rolls off of your lap, bare feet landing on the rug. Your eyes fixate on the juncture of his back and tail, an exquisite line of crystal and fur that makes you ask the question most prominent on your still shy tongue.

"Can I join you?"

The look G'raha gives you over his shoulder is something you could only dream of, the coy curve of his tail in complete contrast with the straining muscles of his renewed archers build.

"Who am I to deny you what you wish?"

---

G'raha holds his teacup over the saucer with delicate grace, though it has been long empty. You wonder how the natural strength of his unnatural hand does not chip the porcelain, or if he has merely done this so often that his centuries-old hands have held as many Amaro chicks as they have launched deadly arrows, that he now leashes his strength without having to think.

You finish the last of your leftover soup and push the bowl aside. The grating slide of stone on the wooden table pulls G'raha's eyes back from his faraway daze, coming into focus on yours. He attempts a smile that sinks to the tabletop as he sets his cup down.

"Should I be concerned that you seem so nervous? I've seen a great deal of beasts in this tower, but none that I could imagine giving you pause."

G'raha shakes his head, more for his sake than your own. "No, 'tis not nerves. You will not be in any danger, you have my word. There are no beasts, only my own ghosts that I had deemed best left buried. Where we are going is actually one of my favorite rooms, but after my last visit I had no intention of returning. I suppose you could say it left a most unpleasant taste in my mouth, as it were."

"We don't have to go if it's going to upset you. You can just tell me instead." You rub his knee through the black trousers that hug his thigh like a second skin. He watches the play of your fingers over the fabric with a detached curiosity you don't see from him often. It can be disconcerting when G'raha becomes lost in his thoughts. For a man with the knowledge of a forgotten empire and the experience of a century suffered, he could be anywhere.

"It will be easier to understand if I show you. Besides, I do not believe that upset is the proper word for it. Unsettled, mayhaps. I expect that you know well enough what it is like to revisit a place where your life was nearly lost."

The tower hums dissonant to the rushing blood in your ears. Whatever expression decides to show on your face while you smother your protective instincts that scream loud in your veins and echo in your soul, he takes exception to it.

"Do not look at me in such a way," G'raha chastises, though his voice has a touch of humor in it. "You are the very personification of unsound decisions made for the benefit of others."

"It's part of the job description," you say wryly to gather yourself. It earns the chuckle you were hoping for, and you find the strength to laugh with him even as you try to shove aside all of the horrifying thoughts that threaten to form.

It's in the past, you tell yourself. You remind your heart almost like a mantra: he is awake, he is alive, he is yours.

"I had no choice. If I were to live to see our twisted worlds unwound, it was paramount to forsake all thought of myself and focus on that which I would yet achieve. Sometimes we are not granted the luxury of looking before we leap."

You opt for a tease to lighten the tension. "What, were there no instruction manuals in all of those books of yours?"

G'raha rises to his feet, taking your hands to tug you up with him. "If only things were so simple. My books have been my steadfast companions, but some things are best left unwritten." Seeming unable to help himself, he rises on his toes to steal a kiss. "Let us go. 'Tis a fair walk beyond the reach of the teleportation cubes."

"But the dishes-" you begin almost dumbly, but he puts a finger to your lips.

"-will be tended to later. I would not saddle you with chores on the day of your departure."

"If I help you, that means I can stay longer."

"Valiant effort, but I fear I must decline. We have precious little time to work with." There's a peculiar shine to G'raha's eyes as his tail lifts behind him and he pulls you away from the table. "Come with me."

As if you could ever do anything else.

A reluctant breed of muted excitement seems to overtake G'raha as he guides you through a short series of jumps from teleporter to teleporter, a stilted network that leads you away from familiar rooms as you delve deeper and deeper into the Allagan structure. With Syrcus Tower now more or less a second home to you now, sometimes you forget just how much of a wonder it is, how beautiful it is in its elegant design. Grand halls of crystal and stone, glimmering reaches of blue light pulsing like veins, ancient technology so advanced your mind can only interpret it as magic.

G'raha, though… Rammbroes and Cid may have halted his attempts to explore the tower with you while it was still filled with Xande's monsters, but where he once walked in your wake taking wide-eyes notes, the tower now kneels before its king. Doors open wide at a glance of red eyes, pathways unfurling at his feet to grant him passage.

Your scholar has always lived with his wandering mind in the past. To see it bow before him now in a future he has made his own makes your heart swell with pride and your feet slow their pace, happily humbled to let him lead.

Gods, he even wore his red archer attire trimmed with gold accents that makes him look so regal. This man is not weak, not by any stretch of the imagination, no matter what he thinks or says. He may have carried an unthinkable weight on his shoulders for the past hundred years and more, but the burden has not bent his back. He stands tall with shoulders back as he guides your descent.

You will call him king yet, even if it is in the seclusion of your arms with only you to witness his inevitable blush.

He is the lone flame within this frigid kingdom of blue and gray, the white ends of his hair the smoke that proves that even now, the legacy of Allag still burns.

You study the sway of his tail and hold out your hand not to catch it, but to let it brush across your palm. The tip flicks when it meets your fingers, but he doesn't pull it away as you know your own feline reflexes would demand. He turns to you with a smirk and offers you what you truly want- his hand to hold- and you take it, treading cautiously as he looks back to watch you make your way across a lightbridge that manifests with each step he takes.

Iron plating and scaffolding begin to cover the walls of the rooms your pass through like scales, a layer of imitation over art. Biggs' descendent and the others at the Ironworks you never saw were genius inventors undoubtedly, but although they managed a way to open the gates of Syrcus Tower, their craftsmanship could never compare with the raw beauty of Allagan technology.

"Now this looks familiar," you muse as G'raha takes you through a catwalk that overlooks a platform littered with shattered glass domes. The hounds they held were no match for you, but their alpha put up an impressive fight.

"I thought that might be the case. I do apologize again that I was unable to accompany you. I rather wished to, but at that point in my recovery I would have only been a hindrance."

"You needed your rest. It was nothing worth risking your health over. Nothing I hadn't literally seen before, really."

G'raha laughs softly and squeezes your hand. "Only you can say such things without sounding arrogant. Still, I would have liked to have seen The Tycoon again before the researchers disassembled it for their studies. We spent so much time building it."

Your mouth curls in interest. "You helped with the construction phase?"

"I did," G'raha says with exaggerated pride. "Though you would have laughed to see my beginnings in metalwork. My lack of finesse as a novice saw me mostly banished to making wall panels for the Cornice."

You doubt you would have laughed then, but you do now, imagining a younger, decidedly more petulant G'raha desperate to help after his research had been completed. He likely pestered Biggs until a hammer was placed in his hands. "I'm sure they're the best wall panels of the bunch.”

"Far from it, but your faith in my efforts is appreciated if not misplaced." His ears flatten back before flicking upright again as he wrinkles his nose. "I cut myself more times than I care to admit before I got the hang of it."

You lift his hand to your lips, clicking your tongue before kissing away the scars that might have once graced the skin now replaced with crystal. "How fitting that Allagan blood was spilled for the cause."

G'raha gives you a gentle shove as his tail whacks the back of your leg. "I improved, I'll have you know. Not all of us can be a master craftsman like yourself, but I managed to forge my staff with no assistance, so I believe I would call that progress."

Your jaw drops, and you have no intention of hiding your surprise. Stopping in your tracks, you grab at his robe, making him whirl as you pluck the gilded staff from the hidden harness on his back. "You're joking!" you declare with what can only be called glee. "Raha, you made this?"

He nods. "I did."

"I had wondered at it's maker when you spoke of doing the enchantments, but I hadn't pinned you for a smith."

"Only out of necessity, not by trade. All other staves I purchased or commissioned failed to withstand the degree of magic I needed to master. There was no alternative but to do it myself."

"Well, whether it was a labor of love or necessity, your work is incredible."

You take the time to truly appreciate the intricate design, the immense power simmering beneath the surface. Even from afar you had admired the unknown artisan's work, but now you do so to thoughts of G'raha's powerful arms hammering away attempt after persistent attempt because simply nothing else would suffice. It makes sense now that you have the puzzle pieces to put together, but that doesn't make you any less proud of him. You tell him as much, and he offers a pleased smile in return.

It's unfair how at a mere compliment from you he can shift from an imposing ruler to the boy you used to find napping with a book beneath one of the few trees Mor Dhona still holds claim to. 'Cute' isn't a term that frequents your vocabulary, but it undoubtedly applies to him. Half of you wants to kiss him until you memorize the sweetness of his full lips as they are right now, and your other half wants to kneel for your royal beloved and reenact the less morose moments of last night, to make him sing for you in these halls he bled to build.

You draw him in to brush a kiss to his hairline and he curls his hand around his staff, fingers falling one by one with purpose as he takes it back from you.

"Before you ask, no, I shall not confess how long it took me. I must insist on this one matter of secrecy. Let it be enough to say that persistence was a larger component than skill."

"It doesn't matter how you did it, what matters is that you did." You bunt your forehead to the crown of his head, then nip at his ear. "You never cease to surprise me."

"And you never cease to distract me." G'raha splays his fingers across your chest, taking the slightest step back from you to look into your eyes. The playful amusement you find in his makes you grin. "Though I believe I have yet one more surprise that you will enjoy. Come, we are nearly there."

He beckons you to follow once more as another swirling spiral of crystalline blue stretches at your feet, cutting down through the expansive hall that once thrummed with a sickly eerie aether that made your stomach turn. Now the air is crisp and cold as you are accustomed, and the reaches of Ironworks craftsmanship gradually fade into the looming hall above you.

Wherever G'raha is taking you, it is clear his emotions are conflicting. After his words over breakfast you had thought this to be a somber journey, but any sorrow or bitter memories visibly war with an excitement you only see from him when he obtains a new text or regales you with a particularly interesting piece of Allagan history.

The path of light at your feet stops at an inconspicuously normal stretch of stone along the wall as you hover high in the air. Balconies and ledges and sweeping crystal walkways wind into the gorgeous abyss below. You dare not ask of the dead end, watching instead as G'raha positions himself in front of you and closes his eyes, lifting his staff just before his chest.

"'Tis but a glamour. Even though only my blood can open the gates, I would have none even dream of finding them."

The wall dissipates in scattered shards that flicker into floating dust that is soon gone as though it had never been. G'raha takes your hand again, and you delve down, down, and deeper still, cool gray once again giving way to gleaming gold and azure.

The spiral staircase of crystal finds its base in what seems like a hallway, but you cannot see further than your reach. After only a few steps the darkness is all-consuming- a spell, surely?- and you can see nothing but the pale glow of G'raha's neck and the hand tucked soundly in yours. The dark does nothing to frighten you, but you have seen enough monsters lying in wait and your fair share of sudden drop-offs that your feet become more hesitant with each step.

"You know where you're going, right?" you ask, putting pressure on G'raha's hand. A hint of the trepidation you try to hide slips into your voice. Your bravery knows no equal, but there are times when your brain seems to lose sight of that fact. There's a difference between raising your sword against a formidable foe and the instinctive fear of not knowing if there will be ground beneath you when you set your foot down.

"Of course I do." He turns to you, and the way the faint glow from the crystal on his cheek illuminates his red eyes in the unearthly darkness makes your heart skip a beat. "Forgive my oversight. 'Tis still second nature after all this time."

G'raha taps the base of his staff to the floor. A dim ball of light surrounds you, permitting you to see the pair of embossed hands sunken into the tile at your feet. You know the symbols well- you could hardly forget the moment when the grand doors gave way for the clones of Xande's descendents after Cid nearly blew himself up trying to gain entry. The hands begin to glow that unmistakable Syrcus blue, and circuits of pulsing, peaceful light flow from their fingertips. Reaching ever outward, the wandering lines illuminate the floor, blue fading to an ethereal green.

You watch with wide-eyed wonder, sparing a thought to whether what you see is imbued magic or ancient technology, or if back then there was no such distinction. You find that it really doesn't matter. It is stunning either way, and either way you appreciate beauty where you find it.

The darkness surrounding you begins to fall away as the lines of light alter their course, angle shifting to climb and creep through the intricate geometric carvings in the doors all the way up to where they meet in a pointed arch. Bit by bit then all at once, the room is awash with warm light in this cold hall, radiating softly from where the sun is depicted in all its majesty. The source of all life on Hydaelyn shines down on you, on this strange room lit with blue and green and decked with gold, almost in imitation of her beloved world.

G'raha says your name in a serious tone that turns your head, his eyes never leaving the towering doors even as he addresses you. "If you were to heed my words only once more in all the days that lie before us, I would ask that they be these. Touch nothing beyond this gate save for myself. This world does not know you like our home does."

Hearing him call the Source 'home' is almost as jarring as the sudden roaring moan of the doors as he lifts his hand, letting the light of his birthright shine forth. Just as Unei and Doga did six years ago, G'raha's blood bids the tower to bend to his will.

The gates swing slowly wide. Your feet are rooted to the floor at the sight beyond, and G'raha turns to look at you then. He surely has that knowing smile on his face, but you cannot move to know for certain. It's as though you too are under his command, for it isn't until he takes your hand again that you are able to conjure any coherent thoughts. Your legs are made of stone until he softens you with a touch to guide you forward.

Swirls of ethereal green light twist up from the depths, cresting in glittering arcs before drifting down, curling with a mesmerizing grace you have never seen. It undulates in serpentine waves, reaching and crawling as if to crook a beckoning tendril to call you near. You've seen this before, but never on such a scale.

It is all you can do to hold G'raha's hand as you walk together toward the lifestream, pierced through by a massive stalactite of crystal at the center of the enormous room.

"It was never this active on the Source, nor when I first arrived on this Shard. The recent resurgence of life and the dimming of the Light seem to have done the planet well, as we had hoped." Beside you, G'raha laughs beneath his breath in near disbelief. "Is it not the most beautiful thing you have laid eyes upon?"

It would be impossible to disagree, but the word falls short in your eyes. The vision before you is nothing short of awe-inspiring, the breath of all life that ever was and ever would be.

"Has this always been here?" you ask, daring a look at G’raha.

"It has. Just as the crystal tower rises forth from the earth, so flows the lifestream. 'Tis here at this level where they merge."

You sputter a dumbstruck laugh of your own, unconsciously squeezing G'raha's hand as you turn your attention back to the dancing waves of life energy behind the safety of the railing that barricades passage beyond the crystal.

"It never occurred to me," you say. "It seems like the most inevitable thing when you say it like that."

"I had wondered on occasion during my studies at Sharlayan, but I never found any support for my theories. Allag never wrote of this. It wasn't until my second eye was bestowed upon me that I learned of it. Only the royal line may enter, and they went to great lengths to ensure none other knew of it."

"I do not doubt it. The magic that could be done if this energy were harnessed is-"

Your voice falls short. A surge of cold horror washes over you and for the second time today, your heartbeat falters.

G'raha senses you go still. His grip flies to your arm, tighter than you expect. "My pact is with the tower alone," he says in a low, unyielding tone. "I have no pride for what I did, but please know that I would never resort to such unholy magics."

"I know," you rush to say. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that you would. But this is all- it's a lot to take in, and I-"

His hand on your arm eases, fingers curling around you in a caress. "I understand. Whatever you were expecting, it was not this."

The flash of fear ebbs and you nod. As your breath begins to steady, you notice the slight tremble of his hand. G'raha shows no outward nerves, but his body betrays him. His ears swivel back in embarrassment when he notices how your eyes widen in concern. Before he can avert his gaze, you gather him in your arms. He goes with a cathartic sigh, dropping his forehead to your shoulder. He makes the sweetest sound of contentment at home in your embrace.

"Perhaps it is irrational," he says, "but I fear of falling from your favor. I do not think I could bear it."

You nudge his head with your cheek, earning yourself a swish of his bashfully low-hanging tail. "That's not going to happen, Raha. You know that."

"I do. In my heart, I know as much, but I am still so accustomed to listening to my mind instead."

G'raha pulls away from your arms and approaches the ledge with an air of surrender. He leans his elbows on the golden railing, his left hand worrying the crystal knuckles of his right. You follow and mimic his pose, looking out over the swirling lifestream and doing your best not to wonder just how far the chasm before you stretches down into the earth.

He inches closer to you so that your arms are pressed flush. His tail brushes against yours sporadically, embodying his troubles in it's ever-changing rhythm.

"So this is where it started?" you ask, hoping to settle his nerves by offering an easy entry into the topic that is gnawing away at him.

"Yes. I may not have resorted to darker magics myself, but those that came before me were not so noble. The tower has always had an innate affinity towards life energy and the knowledge stored within, but the ancients sought to harness it for their own selfish benefit. One of the emperors of eld spent ages crafting a spell that succeeded in doing so at the cost of his own life. The tower knew his aether from its eons spent within the planet, and welcomed it home along with the blood he spilled on this very floor for the control spell. Those henceforth born of his bloodline were recognized by the tower, able to command it. The rest is fate, as you know. Salina gifted her blood and secrets to my ancestor, and now I am all that is left."

You watch a winding wisp of green light float past, coming close as though it were curious. "Allag has had its fair share of monsters, men included. That doesn't mean you are like them."

"No, but I studied that man's work. There were times I thought I might go mad with the darkness I willingly drowned myself in. My mind was not a kind place in the first years after I woke. The misery I found in the Source, then coming to the First only to discover this ravaged world, all while knowing you had died while I slumbered… My studies certainly did not help matters. I worried I would become that which I despised."

The flicker of aether comes within reach, if only you were to stretch out your hand. G'raha reacts without hesitation, lifting a glowing palm between it and you. The green tendril circles his crystal hand almost in familiarity before he waves it away, sending it back in the direction it came from.

"But you didn't," you say emphatically, trying to think about anything other than the wistful way his eyes are shining and the way it breaks your heart. "Raha, you don't have a wicked bone in your body. All that I have ever seen you do has been for the benefit of others. You might have had to resort to studying forbidden magic, but you could never bring yourself to act on such depraved spells. I know that. I know you. Whatever you did before Biggs and his crew sent you here, it was only with the best intentions."

G'raha lifts an eyebrow at you. "What makes you think that I bound myself before my journey?"

It is your turn to look confused. "The recording from Biggs that the researchers found. I told you about it, remember? He said that your gift would allow you to become one with the tower to survive the trip."

He laughs, tipping his head to the side for a moment to reminisce. "At the time, that was merely a metaphor," he says. His voice is warm with tired amusement. "There were only traces left of Baldesion by the time the Ironworks woke me, so my manner of speech often left them scratching their heads."

You can't help but grin as you imagine G'raha's often flowery speech baffling a crew of muscle-headed metalworkers from a future with little need for eloquent academics. He already stuck out like a sore thumb with NOAH when Sharlayan was alive and well.

As quickly as your grin arrives, it fades. Gods, he probably thought he would wake to a world of wonder and advanced technology where he could thrive and feel at home in the destiny that fate had spun for him. Instead he stepped out of the tower into a burning world that saw him as even more of a stranger than the one he left behind.

You nudge his arm with yours. He nudges back, looking up at you with a soft smile. He knows you are trying to reassure him, to offer him some degree of comfort without fussing, and even if it isn't working, it's enough for him to know that you are trying.

"What I meant when I implied such a thing to Biggs was that the tower would offer me it's protection as it's keeper in the event that anything went awry. I had no intention for him to interpret it in a way that would become a premonition. What I told you is more or less the whole of it. It wasn't until I realized how early I'd arrived that I thought to resort to such drastic measures."

G'raha rises and crosses the starswept floor to the center of the railing where the pillar of crystal looms down from above. He reaches out, resting his palms on its jagged blue surface.

You want to speak, to say something to make this easier, to even just acknowledge that you are listening, but it wouldn't do any good. You know him well enough to tell when his eyes are open but what he sees is the past.

"The spell I created was an altered version of the one that was used for the royal bloodline. At the time it was the most difficult task I had encountered, but the binding seemed foolproof from every angle which I analyzed it. Using this crystal that is so inextricably attuned with life energy, I called upon the tower's might, drawing it's essence into my body as I surrendered a portion of my aether back to the lifestream in return to account for the imbalance. The spell was meant to weave my aether and the tower's essence together within my body, and it was working, but I realized too late that I failed to account for a crucial factor."

Pulling his hands back, G'raha grabs the golden railing. Beneath the soft skin of his left arm you see his tendons straining, his fingers turning white.

"'Tis as I said before. This planet does not know you, and it did not know me. How could I return that which had never been? I am foreign to the First. Instead of accepting me, the lifestream seized my aether as I was casting my spell as if I were a cancer. The pain was-" His crystal fingers scrape along the railing with the force of his grip as he exhales. "I have known no parallel to how it felt to have the aether ripped from my body, to have my soul torn at the seams from my mind. I was not strong enough to stop it. I remember my sight fading to darkness, and it was so cold, but in the moment I did not have the presence of mind to realize that it was a cold I knew as if it were kin. As I was still mid-cast, the tower intervened and flooded me with its energy to compensate for what was taken by the lifestream. It protected me, just as I had told Biggs it would."

G'raha scuffs the floor with the sole of his boot. Your feet carry you to him without your consent, and though he cannot bring himself to meet your eyes, he offers you a faltering smile that collapses into a grimace. "I am such a fool. Even as I was all but certain of my death, I had no thought for my own fate. All I could think of was how I had failed you all. The people of this world and our own, and you. It felt as though I took your life with my own hands, being unable to save it."

You touch his arm with ginger hesitation, drawing him to look at you. The shame in his expression cuts deeper than the devastating thoughts of what he describes. It rips gashes in your heart to think of G'raha alone at the mercy of ancient magic, suffering as no man should ever suffer, but this… No one with the weight of two worlds on his shoulders should be ashamed of a single stumble.

"You didn't know. You couldn't have. The spell may not have gone as planned, but it worked."

"It did, yes, but in the end, it worked too well. I knew it as soon as I came to on the floor and found the sliver of crystal embedded in my wrist."

You hold out your hand, watching and waiting as he releases the railing and rests his crystalline fingers within your calloused ones. His eyes widen when you bring the underside of his wrist to your lips, placing a featherlight kiss to where the Crystal Exarch was born. You cradle his hand in both of yours, holding it close to your chest.

"I don’t know if anyone has said this to you yet, but… thank you."

G'raha's eyes spring wider still, but this time you see them begin to redden. "What?" he asks on a confused breath, his tone higher than you're used to.

"Everyone always gives me all the credit because I'm the one at the front lines, but they forget about the people behind the scenes orchestrating it all. Your name should be in those history books, G'raha Tia. You didn't just play a part in this story, you wrote it. Everything we did, none of it could have ever happened without you and all of the work you did, everything you sacrificed without even showing your face. So, thank you for fighting for this world, for believing in me. I will never be able to say it enough."

Tears form in his eyes but do not fall. You thumb away the drop threatening to spill from one of the corners and he bows his head, hiding behind the sweep of his hair. The soft noise he makes when your foreheads meet is both precious and pained, and he returns the comforting gesture in kind.

"The once is enough," he says. "'Tis more than enough."

"You've given enough. Raha, I-- I have to ask. You said yourself that you want this second chance at a future to be yours. Is there no way to reverse the spell?"

You feel him more than hear him inhale sharply.

"Even if such a thing were possible, you have seen how I become away from the tower's reach. There is not enough of my own aether left. I would never survive."

There has been enough talk of death and suffering. You release his hand and lift both of yours to scratch behind his ears in the way that always makes him melt. They perk beneath your touch, his arms winding around your waist.

"What if there was a way?" you ask in a whisper, letting the sudden terrifying light of hope you feel shine through. "What if you could alter the spell somehow? You could have your wings back, Raha. I could take you away from here."

"Such thoughts are best left for dreams. It cannot be done."

"With what you intended on Mt. Gulg, have you ever thought to try?"

He flinches, head snapping up to pierce you through with his stunned crimson stare. Behind him, the lifestream curls like an otherworldly halo. His silent bewilderment is answer enough, but you need to hear him say it. Of all things, this you cannot let go.

"Tell me. You say it’s impossible, but have you even tried?”

Graha’s ears fan back as he deflates. “No,” he admits, still dumbstruck. “No, there was never any reason to. I was not meant to survive.”

“But you did. Isn’t surviving reason enough now to truly live?”

He opens his mouth, but no words come. For once, the Crystal Exarch has been left utterly speechless.

“Maybe it is impossible, but that is a word I have learned to take with a grain of salt.” You try to pull him from his daze with an encouraging grin, tracing a finger along the uneven surface of his jaw. “I’m not asking that you dig out your old spellbooks just yet, but…. think about it while I’m gone, please? Think about everything you told me that you wanted last night. Think about crossing through that portal with me, back to Mor Dhona. This time I’ll be the one to kiss you beneath the stars at Silvertear Lake, and there won’t be anyone around to interrupt us.”

You kiss him now, slow and deliberate as G’raha shivers beneath your touch. He nips gently at your bottom lip as you draw back, pulling it between his teeth and releasing it with a stilted huff of breath.

He is shaken, the foundation of a century of self-perspective threatening to crumble.

“Let us take our leave of this place,” he says in an uneven tone. “I have allowed myself to dwell in the past enough for one day.”

Though it wasn’t a question, he waits for your lead. G’raha follows a step behind you as you make your way through the looming gates. You are aware of every sound his footfalls make in the echoing hall, especially when they come to a stop.

Looking over your shoulder, you see him watch the slow swing of the closing gate. They come to rest on the end of a deafening roar. With a dismissive wave of G’raha’s raised hand, he snuffs out the light from the sun at the center of the arch, drowning the room in darkness save for the faint glow of his body.

You dare not speak, but he takes your hand as he lights your way back to the main room, and you know that his silence is not your doing. Yesterday G’raha accused you of thinking too loudly, but you didn’t have the heart at the time to say that it was a trait you picked up from him. You choose not to say so now, either, instead letting him simmer in whatever thoughts are swimming in his brain.

For a second time, the keeper of the crystal tower has awakened.

---

G’raha lowers his staff, opening his eyes as the attunement completes. The portal shines bright as ever before you both, swirling with humming energy.

“Estinien is waiting for you,” he says. His tone is an accepting one, but it’s somber notes still make your tail hang low between your legs.

You’ve been through this a couple times already, but it never gets any easier. Each time you step through the portal, you leave a part of yourself behind. You ache for the loss, you ache for him as soon as your feet find Eorzean soil beneath them.

“I will be back as soon as I can.”

It’s a worthless platitude at this point. You hold no sway over time aside from the trinkets you wear that at least allow you to hear one another’s voice during your separation. Still, he laughs quietly to himself, and it makes the lie feel less ugly.

To your surprise, G’raha steps forward and lifts his hand to the portal. The light hisses when he touches his fingers to it and he snaps them back with a low rumble of a laugh.

“I have a proposition for you.” He turns to you with a hint of a grin. The sight of his smile breaks the sullen mood, and you can’t help but return it.

“Oh, do you?” You step forward to him, hooking a finger under the metal edge of the chestplate on his robe.

“I will do as you suggested and begin to think on what you spoke of, but only if you will do something for me in return. This is the first time that I feel it would be appropriate to introduce Eorzean holidays to the Crystarium, and I…” He glances down before looking back up at you with blush-tinged cheeks. “We have yet to share a Starlight Celebration together. With the current flow of the rift, there is a chance your return might be timely enough for the festivities.”

“You want to spend the holidays with me?”

Graha’s blush reddens, but he does not back down. “Yes,” he says firmly.

You pull him in for a kiss, loving the feel of his smile against your lips. “Your gift is already on my desk at The Rising Stones. I’ll have that dragoon sprinting at my heels if I must. As long as you keep me informed as to what day it is here, I’ll be home.”

His ears point upward, showing their owner’s excitement without consent. “I am full glad to hear it, but your company is all I wish for. There was no need to purchase a gift.”

“Then it’s a good thing I didn’t purchase anything.”

Graha sighs, pawing at your tail with his foot after it mischievously whaps his shin. “You made something, I suppose?”

“I might have.”

“You really leave me no choice but to do the same, then. This is most unfair.”

“If you want to be fair then you’ll have to obtain the materials yourself.”

His laughter rings out in the spacious halls of the Ocular, and he pulls you down until his breath mingles with yours. “Not a chance,” he says before he kisses you, and in that moment you know that this is your kiss goodbye. It’s not your typical parting, but for now, it is perfect.

“I will see you soon,” you say, because you refuse to say goodbye. The word is too final, too ominous for your taste. Farewell is for those who might not see each other again, and that is a possibility you refuse to accept.

Perhaps one day, you think, he might walk in step with you through the portal. For now this is enough. For now you leave him with curious hope in his eyes, and when you signal his riftstone as soon as you have feet on the Source- just as you promised you would- you can still hear the smile in his voice.

It’s never easy to leave him, but it’s easiest like this- when all that threatens to weigh your light hearts heavy seems to fall away, if only for a moment.

Chapter Text

It isn't often that you have to wait for him, but the Exarch is a busy man. You understand. With a city to oversee and a second one taken under his experienced diplomatic wing, it's a wonder he ever manages to sleep, even if it is as scarcely as he does. Even now with a holiday declared at the Crystarium, there is no rest for it's ruler.

You would wait for him forever, but the waiting is more rewarding knowing that G'raha's tardiness today is due to his newly assumed role as Saint Nymeia. How you wish you could have been there to see him and the crafters of the Crystalline Mean delivering their gifts- toys for the children, forgone everyday necessities for their parents. Shiny new pans for the culinarians at the tavern, fresh boots for the merchants who trek from town to town to keep shelves stocked.

There is something for everyone today, even for your altruistic better half.

The breeze drifting in from the lake is crisp, but it doesn't quite call for the scarf that winds your neck, nor the wool-lined leather coat draped over the knapsack set at your side in the sand. It's still autumn in Eorzea, but G'raha has assured you that winter is baring it's bitter fangs in Lakeland, much to the dismay of its unsuspecting denizens. You raided your dresser at The Rising Stones before making your way to Silvertear, determined to arrive prepared. Of course you could make a new set of seasonal attire once you return, but thanks to G'raha's time spent in the Mean during your absence, you've learned at his expense that it has quite the unforgiving draft. Shaking, shivering hands wouldn't lend well to making gloves you could already have in the first place.

You sit cross-legged on the lakeshore, holding his Starlight gift in your lap. It took longer to track down the wood for the bow than it did to actually make it. The hedge apple tree is renowned in your homeland for the strength of its lumber that is unparalleled for archery, but save for actually finding your way back into Islabard, it is borderline impossible to get your hands on. Luckily you were able to call in a favor with your dear friend Rowena who in turn was able to pull some strings while you were back in the First, and she managed to procure a length of your people's fabled timber for you to work with.

The recurve bow is simple yet elegant in its shape. The grip is modest and stained nearly black, but the limbs are tinted to look more like mahogany, in which you carved an improvised design. Initially you thought to find inspiration in the arcane symbols of Sharlayan or the Allagan architecture you now call home, but it didn't feel right. This is a gift from you to your beloved, not some token of homage to the aspects of his history that anyone who takes the time to know him in the slightest sense could conjure up. You made him something more honest, more personal- a gift of yourself, of the more intimate artistry you so rarely let show in your work.

The bow is a reflection of the one who will wield it: slight but powerful, beautiful yet unassuming. You wonder how different your finished product would have looked if you made it six years ago like you first wanted to- if it would be the same, or if the design would be more fitting of the boy you first fell in love with.

One cannot wrap a bow in holiday paper and rightly call it a surprise with such an obvious shape, so you do the next best thing. You unwind the scarf from your neck and twirl it around the wood, knotting it at the ends so that only the bowstring shows. G'raha will know what it is as soon as you step through the portal with it on your back, but you can at least hide the design.

Admittedly, you're nervous. Of the quality you have no doubt, but you hope he truly likes it, that he can sense how much of yourself went into it's making. There's been a piece of you in everything you've made for him, but this bow is something different. It's a gift unmade, a gift ungiven from your past that you could never let go. In a way you cannot word, it's like the closing of a book. This bow is the last wound that needs to heal. This time you made it to the holidays without anything taking him away from you, and you'll be damned if anything ever does again.

It's only been just over a week, but the absence of him is a growing void in your chest. If it weren't for how time passes between your Shards, it might not be so difficult, but it is a jarring thing to speak to someone in the morning and night, not even twelve hours apart, only to find that days had passed. G'raha tries to conceal the toll it takes on him, but you can see right through him.

It isn't easy, but for now it is all you have. His voice that was once only memory is now the melody that gives you strength when the horrors of the Empire threaten to slow your step. Estinien and Gaius have given you no shortage of grief over your occasional disappearances to speak with your mysterious partner in private, but you pay them no mind. Their jokes on your behalf are worth the way G'raha sang you to sleep after the Echo showed you the abomination in Estinien's memory, or how last night you let your restless hands wander in the privacy of The Rising Stones to the tune of his silken words so eager to welcome you home.

Between Black Rose and whatever that thing was, you are more than ready to be home, away from these nightmares and the soulless bodies of the Scions that taunt you even as they rest lifeless in their beds.

You feel a familiar warmth bloom from your wrist. Rolling up your sleeve to rest your hand on the stone in your cuff, you feel like a hopeless fool at the thrill that warms the rest of you. You miss him- it's as simple as that, and you refuse to feel ashamed. For years you've sacrificed your own happiness so that others could enjoy theirs, but you're working to bring it into balance.

"Hello, Saint Starlight," you say with a playful purr. The altered title was a necessity since the celebration's origins are so rooted in Ishgardian history and traditions of the Source, but you find that you prefer it anyway. It rolls easily from your tongue, and in a way you will not speak, you find that it suits the selfless leader just fine.

"That role has fallen upon Ryne for the remainder of the evening while I see to other business. She is quite taken with the holiday. I admit, I find it most endearing. Thancred less so, as he's been tasked to help Lyna with the gift wagon."

It isn't difficult to imagine the grateful girl throwing herself into a day of joy and good tidings. It also isn't difficult to imagine G'raha's ward enlisting Thancred as a pack mule, likely citing newfound fatherhood to guilt him.

"I'm other business then, am I?"

G'raha's laugh is soft, the low timbre of it palpable even from a world away. "They do not know you are returning today."

"You know, it sounds like you want me all to yourself," you tease.

"That does hold a degree of truth, but really, you only told me you were coming home just yesterday. I could not get the word to all of the Scions, so I thought to keep you a surprise."

"If I'm the holiday surprise, I hope they're prepared to be disappointed."

You hear G'raha sigh, punctuated by the ring of his staff tapping the floor of the Ocular. "Your friends will be delighted to see you. Truly, you should hold yourself in higher regard than you do."

A laugh escapes you unbidden, a bark of noise on the quiet beach. "Raha, think about what you just said. Perhaps you should consider your own advice before you offer it to others."

As the portal hums to life, your pulse begins an excited race.

"You are exasperating," he says. The fondness in his voice is pure contradiction.

"Says the one who decided I was fit for toying with before we even properly met. Really, you are making this too easy for me."

G'raha huffs. "You must forgive my failing wit. I have been distracted by thoughts of seeing someone again after he has been away for nearly two months."

Two months. It hasn't even been two weeks for you, and the thought of being at his side has you nearly vibrating out of your skin.

Your own wit falls flat. Any attempt at a jest would be betrayed by the way your voice falters, the thick longing lodged in your throat threatening to leave you mute. "I'm ready whenever you are. Bring me home."

The heat in your wrist grows cold, but anticipation scorches you like wildfire. In only a matter of seconds, you feel the air around you begin to thrum with that energy you have come to know so well. Whether it's G'raha's natural aether or the way the tower augments it, it's him. You have felt that energy beneath your skin as if it were your own, and it calls to you in shocks of crackling blue.

Untangling your legs, you push off on your knees as you stand. You shoulder your heavy knapsack, ignoring the way it bumps against your katana with every step, the hilt hissing out thin metallic clicks. With a final squeeze, you brace the wrapped bow in the sling on your back.

The wisps of aether spark around you. Lifting your hands, you let a whisper of your own energy radiate from your palms, and he finds you. Blue light whirls around you like an eager lover's embrace, a cloud of cosmic static enveloping your body.

The first time G'raha called you forth without you needing to make your way to the Syrcus Trench, it was a disarming thrill you had not expected. Now, you are at peace. You turn your palms upward and close your eyes, surrendering yourself to the way his reach surrounds you and seeps into your soul.

Bring me home.

With a crack of boundless energy, he does. Your blood still hums with the dissonant dark of the rift, but before you can even see, you recognize the way your boots sound on the floor of the Ocular, echoing and bright.

When your vision comes into focus, your knapsack nearly slides off your shoulder. G'raha stands before you in a deep red woolen coat, double-breasted and belted at his waist over his Exarch robes. The winter attire is becoming on him, you think, having only ever seen him dressed for warmer temperatures. He holds his staff level with the floor in front of him, busying his restless hands on the metal. The sight of him is a sweet enough balm after the days you're leaving behind, but what makes your mind go blank is the hat.

The festive red dream hat sits over one of G'raha's ears, flopping down to bop his cheek with the poofy white pom on its end. His ear twitches into a point when he sees the smile break across your face, making the pom bounce against the crystal along his jaw.

You drop your knapsack without ceremony or any regard for its contents. G'raha has just enough time to set his staff on his back before you throw your arms around him.

He holds you close around your waist, nosing at your throat as he rests his head in the crook of your neck. He breathes in deep, releasing a shaky sigh of relief against your skin. The fluffy brim of his hat tickles in the worst way, but you force yourself to ignore it. It's too precious for you to comment on and dare risk making him take it off. Your instincts ache to scent him in return, and you nudge the hat just enough that you can reach the bangs that poke out over his temple.

Overwhelming peace floods your senses at the smell of him. This is where you belong.

"You are simply unfair, you know that?" you say into his hair. "That stupid hat. I love it."

G'raha's arms loosen as he pulls back to look up at you. He takes the opportunity to comb his fingers back through your windswept hair, smoothing your ears down as he goes. When they spring back up, your earrings jingle. "If it is fairness you seek, you could wear it for the rest of the evening." His ruby eyes glimmer up at you with mischievous hope. "'Tis something I should like to see, I admit."

"In a little while. Let me have my fun first."

The shape of his smile as he kisses you is infectious. You grin, pulling him closer by the nape of his neck, fingers curling around the soft white fabric of the hat. What starts as a playful exchange melts into something slower, something that speaks more than words ever could just how much the time apart has worn on you both. The dizzying glide of his lips on yours, the hitch of his breath, and the way you can feel the heavy beat of his heart even through the crystal of his neck- in this, he tells you how much he missed you, and you hope he can hear your body telling him the same.

G'raha rests his head to yours, reluctant to surrender the closeness of the kiss even as its simmer settles. His hands snake up your back until his arm bumps the bow that hangs there, and his eyes widen. He pulls back and you see his gaze drift over your shoulder, just noticing the covered curve for the first time.

"Surprise? I'm sorry, I couldn't really do much to hide it."

He takes a small step back from you to get a better look at the scarf-wrapped bundle poking up from behind your shoulder. His ears wiggle again as he bites his lip, making the pom of his hat dance against his cheek. "Is that meant for me? The gift you spoke of?"

"Who else would it be for?"

G'raha is humble as the beloved Exarch, but with you he fails in his attempts to tame his curiosity. His tail swishes low within its layers of confinement, tossing the hem of his robes from side to side. You begin to reach behind you to retrieve the bow, but he stills you with a touch.

"We have some time before we are meant to meet the others for dinner. With the way the sky appears, I believe it might begin snowing soon. I thought perhaps we might retire to the throne room for our gift exchange so that we might enjoy the weather."

You read between the lines. Lakeland has been stuck in the same lackluster season since G'raha first arrived on this Shard. Your age-old Exarch still has the heart of the young historian you first met, and one hundred years is too long for such a passionate soul to spend without without watching a snowfall.

Instead of presenting G'raha with the bow, you set it down to scoop up your coat. Seeing no need for the sling, you unclasp it and slip it into your knapsack before shrugging into your sleeves. You loop your arm through the bow so that it hangs loosely from your shoulder.

"Let's go," you say as your offer him your hand. He smiles, lacing his crystal fingers through yours as you tug him along toward the nearest teleportation cube just beyond the Ocular's doors. This time you know where you're going, so you delight in putting a bit of spring in your step as you lead the way through the tower for once. He laughs as he scampers forward to match your pace, and the sound is as bright as the sleeping sun, enough to keep you warm even as a swirl of energy whisks you off into the cold winter night.

The stars of the sunless sea are shrouded by a blanket of muted gray. Even in the quiet of the evening, the gold spires and climbing crystals seem to glow- not brightly, but enough to lend a sense of magic and majesty that fills you with awe even after all this time. Around you, the moat that rings the regal floor has frozen. The enchanted waters that once flowed like time eternal are now bared to the elements, at the mercy of the world itself instead of the madman who thought to control it.

"This is where I would come to sing before you became my willing audience," G'raha says. Beside you, you feel him shiver as he adjusts to the sudden cold. "The solitude here is inviting rather than smothering. Even beneath the everlasting light, the view of Lakeland was truly a sight to behold."

"How do you find the view now, seeing it with the trees bare?"

G'raha looks out over the span of leafless trees and faded grass far below, a calm smile gracing the set of his mouth. "Disorienting, to be truthful, but I cherish it no less for the change. ‘Tis reassuring to see such a reminder that Norvrandt is moving on.”

“We all are,” you say. He gives you an intrigued look as your stride guides you hand in hand across the floor.

“Even you?”

You nod as you stall your step, turning your eyes to the faint sliver of a moon whose glow fights its way through the clouds. “I always wanted to be an adventurer, but I never wanted to be— this. This all was... quite unexpected. I thought that I might become a warrior of note at one of the guilds, go off on a journey or two every once in a while, but still have a home to return to. A family, maybe.” A sigh escapes you, a failed smile making the corner of your mouth twitch. “I thought there would be a balance, but there never was. Not until now. If someone had told me this time last year that Syrcus Tower would be the closest thing to a home I’ve ever known, I would have laughed until my side was in stitches, but it’s the truth. This is what I’ve always wanted. You are what I’ve always wanted, Raha. I’m moving on to the life I’d always hoped for.”

G’raha’s eyes shine for you, pure joy woven with the undercurrent of disbelief that still drifts through him. There is something new in the way he watches you, something he tries to hide as he opens his mouth to speak, but closes it quickly as he averts his gaze before bringing it back.

“Your family is most untraditional. Surely this is not what you imagined for yourself as a kit?”

Our family,” you correct. “I never imagined anything beyond being happy for a change. They might be untraditional, but I am not exactly a traditional man.”

"No, you most certainly are not." He laughs as you cup his free ear and brush your lips against it's folded shell. "I must say, you are in high spirits this evening."

"I missed you, and I have to say I've been looking forward to this day for a long while." Releasing his ear, you let your hand fall to the limb of the bow resting on your shoulder. "I wanted to make this for you back then. Until you kissed me, I feared we might go our separate ways after the tower. If that were the case, I had thoughts of visiting you for Starlight, maybe courting your favor then after I'd had the time to work up the nerve."

"You have always had my favor," G'raha says with a purr in his voice. "Though I would have liked to have seen Krile's reaction to the Warrior of Light appearing on our doorstep seeking me, of all people. She would have been beside herself at my expense."

"As if being an Archon is something to scoff at." You give a rough tug on the lapel of his coat in reprimand. He bats at your chest in return, letting his fingers curl in the fabric of your shirt that shows beneath your open coat. "I hadn't met her at that point, but I imagine she would have been happy for us after the teasing got old. She is now, at any rate."

"She was a good friend," G'raha says with fond reminiscence.

"She still is. Who knows? It might not be long before you see her again."

He takes a purposeful breath. The sigh he releases is far from encouraging.

"Have you not given it any thought?" you ask cautiously, putting your all into keeping any disappointment from your tone.

"Quite the opposite. 'Tis not something I can stop my mind from returning to, but to actually act upon such thoughts is another matter entirely. It would be unforgivably selfish to seek such a solution when I still have yet to find a way to send your companions back to the Source. Until I have done so, any research for my own benefit would feel like an insult to all they have done for this world. I cannot do that to them. I will not."

The recent discovery of the aetheric abnormality plaguing the sleeping Scions' bodies has certainly not helped matters. You cannot disagree with G'raha's stance, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept. Here you are, free to walk between worlds, yet everyone you love is trapped. It makes your blood burn with the unfairness of it all, makes you feel helpless, completely at a loss as to how to lend a hand to either cause. The First may be your chosen home now, but that is not a decision you will make for your friends. Even should the Scions wish to remain on this star, you would have them do so whole, and by choice.

"You've spoken to them?"

"Yes. I relayed the information you provided several weeks ago. Our research efforts still fail to bear fruit."

"And what of you?"

For a moment he struggles to catch your meaning, but then his ears fan back and you see him swallow the lump that's been forming in his throat. "I told them all the truth of my condition, same as I told Thancred. I felt it wise not to share anything further."

You unhook his hands from your shirt, threading your fingers together with his. The gesture softens the ache in his eyes. "There's no need to tell them everything just yet, but it might not hurt to ask their opinion. If you've reached a dead end on one path, I don't think they'll fault you for beginning down another. It may even help you sort out your thoughts. A step back could offer the clarity you need."

"Even asking such a thing would feel like a betrayal after everything that I have done. I do not think I could bring myself to do so."

G'raha's frown is at odds with the festive hat drooping from his ear. Tonight is meant to be a celebration, not an elegy for what could have been and what might never be. Tonight is a night for wonder and possibility and love between friends and family, and even though you had the best of intentions, you feel like a heathen for taking his smile from him. You give it back by stealing his hat and pulling it down over one of your own ears.

"We'll worry about it another time," you say as G'raha reaches to adjust the angle of how the brim rests in your hair. "Never forget that they care about you, though. They may not always show it, but they care."

"I know, but such things are easier to believe when you say them. 'Tis not that I don’t trust them, but you are more honest with me than I tend to be with myself. I know you wouldn't lie to me."

"Never."

G'raha lifts the white pom out to the side and releases it, letting it fall against your cheek. The sight and sound of his laughter is brighter than the Starlight bells you remember from the Source.

"You were right. I do like the sight of this on you."

"Well, if I'm wearing it, I might as well give you your gift, shouldn't I?" You capture his hand before he continues playing with the fuzzy tuft and use his distraction to smooth down his hat-mussed hair. "Come, sit with me."

The ledge of the platform makes a perfect seat now that the moat has frozen. You lower yourself to the edge with your legs angled out to the side, your boots resting on the sheet of ice that leads to Xande's throne. G'raha mirrors your position. His knee pokes out through the opening in his coat, resting against yours through his robes and the cotton of your trousers.

With the bow in your lap, you suddenly feel foolish. You're the soft-spoken adventurer who first thought to make a gift for the brilliant Archon who stole your heart, the Warrior of Light brave enough to stand up to primals but terrified at the thought of making yourself vulnerable in a more personal sense.

"I only made this during my recent visits to the Source, but if things had worked out differently, I would have done so six years ago." When you see his smirk, your ears flick back at your error. "By my count, at any rate."

"Six years is a long time from any perspective," G'raha says kindly, though you know you cannot fathom how long has passed for him.

"I guess you're right," you say softly. "Well, either way… Happy Starlight from the boy you fell in love with. He really wanted to give this to you."

You present the bow in offering and G'raha holds out his hands, fingers curling around the scarf as he accepts it from you. His eyebrows lift, taken aback by the weight. "And what of the man that boy has become?"

"He knows a mage like you probably doesn't need it anymore, but he hopes you like it anyway."

"I am only skilled with magic due to my connection with the tower," G'raha explains as he unties the knot at the top of the first limb, then the second at the base of the other. "You know that my heart has always favored the bow."

You study G'raha's expression as he pushes the scarf away with a sweep of his crystalline hand. It falls away, pooling in a coil on the ice. His red eyes widen, and he shifts the bow to rest in his right hand so he can feel the texture beneath the skin of his left, his fingers following the intricate carvings.

"You used to draw like this in the margins of my research notes. It drove me mad, but I could never bring myself to scold you. 'Twas always so beautiful. I could never tell you how happy it made me to have something from you to keep, even if it was just scribbles on a page." G'raha's touch along the bow is adoring, the set of his mouth a tender smile. His finger curls along the curved ends of the limbs, and you are nearly jealous of your own creation. "To have those drawings preserved in such a way… This is incredible. I claim no knowledge of carpentry, but as an archer I can tell that the work you have done here is without equal, both in beauty and in strength."

Warm relief fills you at his words. On the inside you are preening, but on the outside all you can muster is a quiet, "I'm glad you like it."

"And I am glad you did not have the chance to give this to me at my residence in Sharlayan. As I was then, I likely would have embarrassed myself with excitement."

"But then I could have kissed you to make you forget about being embarrassed," you suggest with an impish grin.

G'raha hums as he considers the thought, running a finger along the bowstring. "Or you could do so now instead of daydreaming."

His nose is cold against yours when you press your mouth to his. You savor the shape of his smile and the way it tastes, the sublime contrast of the heat of his mouth with the chilled touch of his crystal hand on your neck. It is colder than his skin, you notice absently, more susceptible to changes in temperature than feeble flesh.

"Thank you," he says against your lips. "I will cherish it always."

Your nose twitches as you feel a frigid pinprick on your face. Turning your head skyward, you find the first snowflakes beginning to fall, the start of a gentle flurry. You've seen enough winter weather in your days that it does nothing to faze you, but G'raha… This is the first snowfall that the Crystarium has witnessed, and the first it's leader has seen in over a century. His gaze is fixed on the sky in wonder, and were it not for the innocent grin that spreads across his face, you would worry over the glossy shine that overtakes his eyes.

You let him have this much-deserved moment. Even if he is overwhelmed, his happiness is pure. The way his eyes drift closed as the snow graces his skin is catharsis unlike any you have ever seen. Norvrandt is moving on, and so is he, daring to live a future he never dreamed of even as he rediscovers these simple forgotten treasures from his past.

Eyes landing on the discarded scarf on the ice, you pick it up and warm it with the friction of your hands. You loop it snug around G'raha's neck, but still loose enough that it doesn't add any pressure to the pendant that rests at his throat. He angles his head for you and gives you a thankful look when you wind it around his exposed neck, but when you reach to adjust a stitch that snags on an uneven ridge of crystal, his hand quickly flies to capture your wrist.

"I'm sorry," you say in both concern and surprise. "I didn't mean to startle you. Are you hurt?"

"No, not in the least. 'Tis not your doing." G'raha's hand closes around yours, lowering to rest on his leg between you where the snow falls in kisses of white that disappear once they touch the fabric. Beneath the spread of his robe you see the shape of his agitated tail settle.

"Are you sure? If it's because I didn't make the quiver yet, I was saving that for your nameday."

He eases with a soundless laugh at your levity. "Yes, I am certain."

"Then what is wrong?"

The ragged breath G'raha takes is audible in the stillness of winter twilight. "Nothing is wrong. I am merely out of my depth." His thumb sweeps over your palm, the crystal a dull scratch you've come to crave. "I mean to give you your gift, but my nerves are attempting to best me."

"You really did make me something?" You grin at his nod as he watches the play of your hands. It's this same anxious tick you've come to know from him, but this time you take part. "There's no reason to be nervous. If you made it, you know I'll love it."

"You might." There is a stretch of silence before he squares his shoulders and lifts his eyes to yours, red irises startling in the backdrop of blue and clouded gray. The determination you find there seems misplaced, but it soon falls away, giving rise to reverence. "When you asked that I make something for you, I was at a loss. You are a man who can create whatever he desires, were it not already bestowed upon you with your other numerous accolades. I could give you nothing of any real worth that couldn't be obtained at the hands of another. I strained to think of what I might offer you that no one else could. Then I remembered our discussion from the morning we last woke together, and I could not stop remembering. You said that you would be anything I wanted you to be, and reflecting on such a notion revealed to me that I have no care for what you are, so long as you are mine."

G'raha releases your hand to reach behind his neck. He digs under the bundled scarf to unclasp a small chain you hadn't noticed. The delicate ends slither loose when he reaches inside his coat to remove it. Your entire body goes still at the glint of gold in his palm.

Within a heart's beat, you know what it is. You know what it is but your own pulse is pounding so loudly, so insistently in your ears that you cannot think, you cannot breathe. The falling snow could freeze you in it's cold embrace and you would fail to notice.

"I thought that this might be preferable to a mark on your neck," G'raha says. He slides the ring from the chain to rest in the dip of his palm. The clink of metal on crystal rings out to you with the clarity of a bell. You hear your own muffled whimper, but you don't care. You don't care about anything except the way he looks at you when he says, "I know not what the days before us will bring. Your duties may carry you far, but I ask that you stay with me, always. If not by my side, then in my heart and on my hand, when I cannot have yours to hold."

You utter a soft cry of his name, and his ears pin back as he tears his eyes from yours, looking down at the band.

"It is not much, but if you would like it, then it is yours. It has always been yours."

"Do not speak of yourself that way," you find the voice to say, even though it shakes. "You are so much. You are everything to me."

G'raha meets your gaze, and for a moment you're brought back to a much warmer evening when he asked if you would allow him to be your companion. He had the same vulnerable look then, half hope and half resigned to impending rejection. The question is much the same now, but like the man who asks it, the question has grown.

"You're my closest friend," you continue, choking back the swell of emotion that threatens to silence you. Lifting your hand to cup his cheek, you urge him to look at you, into you, bearing everything you are for him to see. "My home. My love. Don't tell me that it isn't much when it's everything I've ever wanted."

"Even this?" G'raha asks. His words are barely a whisper. A snowflake catches in his eyelash, and you brush it away with a fingertip. "You would call me your husband?"

A joyous laugh bubbles past your lips. "Yes," you tell him. "I would like that very much."

The meaning is not lost on him- you can see it in the flare of his eyes. Even after all the years that stretch behind him, whether due to the gift of his eye or through sheer determination, he remembers that night just as clearly as you do. Just as when you said the words to him for the first time beneath the summer starlight, he burns for you like the sun. He smiles that beautiful, unchecked smile of his that you adore- eyes thinned to lines that nearly meet his tribal markings above a wide show of teeth.

This time, it is you who kisses him. The warmth of his worshipping touch and your burning heart banishes the cold of the softly falling snow, of the past days spent in bitter conflict a world away. He takes your hand as you take his face in yours, overwhelmed enough to do little else but deepen the kiss while he slides the ring onto your finger. The metal is still warm from its concealment against his chest.

You ache to be closer, to simply hold him. As your mouths meld and he releases your hand, you move the bow from G'raha's lap and climb atop him to take its place. His giggle tickles your lips as his legs awkwardly shift to accommodate you, your knees pinning his robes in a fumble of cloth and limbs until you're both finally comfortable. You cling tight to him, arms wrapped around his shoulders as you bury your face in the juncture of his hair and ear.

"Where is yours?" you ask. His ear flicks against your cheek as the material of the dream hat rubs the sensitive fur. "The gems have to be from the same stone for the enchantment to work."

"The remaining pieces are safe with Katliss. I would hardly presume to make my own eternal bonding ring when my intended is also an accomplished smith."

Hearing the words spoken aloud breaks the last of your fragile composure. Working around the scarf, you thread your fingers beneath the base of G'raha's braid to cradle him closer to you. The blunt edge of your ring presses into his scalp. His breath escapes in a shudder against you as a weak sob wracks your body, making the pom of your hat fall against his forehead. He lets go of you only long enough to bat it aside with a soothing chuckle.

"Forgive me your tears. 'Twas never my intention to weigh you with another title, but once the thought occurred to me, it would not leave me be."

Shaking your head, you rub your face into his hair, smearing the damp patches beneath your eyes. "I never thought I could have this. I forgot how much I wanted-" You lose your voice to a ragged sigh, but the way he tightens his arms around your waist says he knows. He cranes his neck to kiss your cheek.

“I do hope the ring is to your liking,” G’raha says, balancing tenderness with a touch of mirth. “You once told me it was your favorite color, though I realize you probably meant it to tease me.”

You unwind yourself from him, bringing your hand between the two of you to study the piece of jewelry for the first time. It is unassuming- a two-tone band of pale gold lined above and beneath with platinum, subtly etched with a stark geometric pattern and inlaid with three triangular rubies, the largest at the center pointing down in opposition to the smaller stones at its sides.

“Red has always been dear to my heart, though I can't imagine why.”

“It shall forever remain a mystery.”

Laughter rings from you both, crisp and refreshing in the vast open air. You wipe your eyes dry with the backs of your palms. “Oh gods, everyone knows, don’t they? I’ll be walking into an ambush when we go to dinner.”

“You will not. I know how you loathe the attention, and ‘tis not like I would declare my intent. You are my heart, not a conquest. This is for us alone.”

“And Katliss?”

“She was my lone accomplice, though quite willing. It was remarkable how quickly she found the discarded versions of your facet rings once I elaborated on my reason for requesting them. I am glad to see my calculations on the size were correct.”

“It fits perfectly,” you say, flexing your fingers as you roll your wrist. “You really outdid yourself. It’s beautiful.”

The rubies shimmer even in the ghost of moonlight that peers through the falling snow, just as his eyes shine as he watches you.

“Happy Starlight,” G’raha says with a soft caress of your name. You return the sentiment and follow it with a kiss that does not steal your breath, but returns it to you. Beneath the softness of his lips you can finally breathe again. All of the nerves and tension and aching longing fall away, leaving you with nothing but love for the man you now know you will one day call husband.

Your blood hums in your veins, your heart yearning as you cup his face to kiss him deeper.

“I’ll give you your ring in Mor Dhona,” you say against his lips. G’raha's eyes flutter open from their daze to regard you curiously. “At the lake, at the tower, I don't care. I will take your hand where this all started. The Scions will be our witnesses.”

“What if we can never return?”

“You will. All of you will.” It feels like the truest thing you know as you press your forehead to his through the tilted hat. He nuzzles you in return, soaking up the soothing gesture. “Trust me.”

“I have always done so. I do not intend to stop now.”

On the whisper of wind that graces the throne room, you hear the faint beginnings of a tune plucked from a harp. The melody is unknown to you, but the feeling behind it is undoubtedly suitable for the holiday. A violin soon joins, followed by the sweet song of a tenor whose words you are unable to discern from this height. You likely wouldn’t be able to hear anything at all if it weren’t for your sensitive ears.

“The festivities are beginning,” G’raha says. He rubs your leg with a pat to signal for you to stand. “There is something you must see.”

Reluctant as you are to remove yourself from his lap, his sudden eagerness makes you comply. He grabs his new bow and pulls you along with his other hand to the edge of the gilded platform. He urges you to be cautious, stepping out onto the ring of ice. Together you shuffle carefully, nearly slipping from the worn soles of your boots. The Crystarium comes into view as you grab onto one of the golden spires.

Every dome and treetop below is lit with strings of brilliant white light. The shapes are nearly impossible to distinguish at this unfathomable height, but the picture it paints is no less than stunning. Fort Jobb is no exception to the decorations, and neither is the Ostall Imperative across the plains of Lakeland. In the distance, even Eulmore is looking more seasonably festive as opposed to its usual opulence.

You hear a shriek followed by giddy laughter. G’raha winces.

“I believe that was the Crystarium’s first snowball,” you observe.

“I suppose it was inevitable,” he laments.

“How much do you want to bet that it was Thancred?”

He makes a pensive noise, his thumb idly tracing over the pattern of the bow in his hand. “It is possible, but I would not discount Alisaie. She was quite cross with me during one of our recent group discussions. I could imagine her seeking mischief.”

“Care to elaborate?” you ask with a laugh.

“I do not, though I have no doubt that someone will tell the tale this evening.”

You gather him close to your side as you admire the glittering lights below, a peaceful beacon of life and celebration calling you down from the forgotten throne room.

“Ready to go?” G’raha asks of you with a gentle smile.

“Almost.” You smooth your hand over his hair, just the slightest bit wet from the dissolving snowflakes and more than the slightest bit ruffled. “Let me brush your hair first. I made a mess of it.”

He arches into your hand, grinning when you scratch at the base of his hairline beneath the scarf. “I do enjoy when you do that.”

“How’s your tail?”

“Well enough, but a brushing would not be amiss.”

The tail in question lifts excitedly beneath his robes. How he ever kept that thing under control while he concealed his identity is beyond you, but perhaps he trained himself to do it. Perhaps he still does, but you prefer to think that he is so free with you now that he shows his emotions to you without thought.

“That can be arranged,” you say.

“I could return the favor, if you like.”

Your own tail perks at the thought, briefly rubbing against his. He catches the tip playfully between his crystal fingers before releasing it to lift your hand to his lips.

“Come, my love," he says. "Let us warm up for a spell before we join our family for Starlight dinner.”

G'raha places a gentle kiss on his creation that claims you, and like the Crystarium far below, your heart sings.