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Out Of My Head

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He had been hers for most of his existence. Her student. Her admirer. Her archer. Her soldier. Her confidant. Hers to use as she saw fit, hers to command. At the bitter end, he tried to be her shield.

Not a job for a bowman, that.

They got around him - Horde, Alliance, allies beyond such limiting faction allegiances. He fought his hardest but arrows shot over his head, spells twisted around him, his attention was diverted again and again by the blades harrying him from all sides. The battle was long, exhausting, and finally a strong blow to his leg had him falling to a knee. He rolled away from the sword that would have liked to cut off his head on instinct, away from the fighting. Before he could regain his feet, she screamed.

Deafening, stunning, a banshee in her full glory and then some. Her scream rang brutally around them all, sending champions to their knees, whiting out his vision with pain even as he struggled to get his legs under him. He wondered, briefly, if he would die - not due to a champion’s skill, but due to her own last, desperate bid to avoid death. He would do so, gladly.

Instead, the scream cut off with an enraged shriek and a barely-audible gurgle. His ears buzzed with the hollow rush of sudden silence before the thud of her head hitting the ground became the loudest, most final sound he’d ever heard.

He could have sworn the thud was echoing, at first, before he realized it was his heart pounding. Magic fueling the withered organ to move his dead, black blood around, to power movement. Movement. He had to move. Move, or die just like -

A blade came to rest at his throat before he could do more than shift his knees under him. He froze. Too late, too slow. He would die with her, in this thrice-damned place, so far away from home. He blinked. Home. When was the last time he had cared about a home? Why now, with cold metal kissing his neck? How disappointing, that he would die thinking idle fancies like any other idiot, praying for miracles or the reappearance of good things long, long gone. He let his eyes slide shut as the blade drew back, the faint tremble of it against his skin speaking to the tension in the arm that held it. Time for the killing blow.

“Hold.”

He snapped his eyes open, staring up at the veritable pillar of shining Light that had spoken. Paler than usual, blond hair lank with sweat, blue eyes as wet as the flushed cheeks beneath them. He stared at the human king. Surely he wouldn’t be taken prisoner? They couldn’t risk leaving him alive. He would never surrender to -

Why wouldn’t he surrender? What was left for him here? The woman he’d loved was dead, he had no care for the others under her command. He blinked again, confusion seeping in around the edges of his thoughts as Wrynn watched him levelly.

Why were there so many questions? Rattling around in his head, catching and holding on every crack in his line of thinking. Cracks which hadn’t been there before. He had never felt so certain, not minutes ago. He would never surrender, never admit defeat, never stop fighting until every last living person was dead and they were all free. Under the blows of a dozen champions he held firm. But now, with a single sword poised to slice through his neck, he wavered? Was he so irresolute, so quick to abandon what he fought for?

But what had he fought for? Her. He had fought for her. But now that she was dead he - he -

He shivered, though it had been years since the cold could make him do so. He looked back up to meet Wrynn’s gaze and found more tears had spilled. He swallowed before he spoke, an odd fuzziness creeping in where before had only been clear, cold certainty.

“What have you done to me?” he whispered. The words were weaker than he had intended, but he couldn’t seem to draw in enough air to say them any louder. Wrynn’s breath hitched, tears flowing freely down his cheeks, the picture of an overwrought, overextended man faced with yet another daunting task to perform.

After far too many seconds, Wrynn replied. “Freed you, apparently.”

A muttered curse from somewhere behind him, a burst of pain in his head, and everything went black.

-

Nathanos sat in his cell, mulling over what he had just been told. What had been described to him.

It had not been a bare second between Sylvanas’ death and his attempt to stand. Anduin Wrynn and a dozen champions had stood and watched as he had crumpled like a puppet with its string cut, mid-motion, and stayed that way for long enough for the healers to start moving forward into the fighters before stirring again. They had had enough firepower aimed at him to reduce him to bits of bone and leather in a second, had he attacked. Instead he had, to hear Wrynn tell it, stared blankly and dropped his weapons. It had been taken as a surrender.

He couldn’t remember dropping his weapons. But then, he couldn’t clearly remember picking them up before the battle, either.

There was rather a lot that he couldn’t remember, when he actually tried to. He couldn’t remember agreeing to most of Sylvanas’ plans, though if he had been asked before he would have said with absolute conviction that he had. He couldn’t remember what, exactly, he had been told to convince him that this was the only way to achieve freedom, but he had somehow believed it utterly. He couldn’t remember what, if anything, Sylvanas had said in response when he had told her he loved her.

His thoughts chased themselves in circles as the sunlight coming through the bars overhead shifted over the floor of his stone-lined pit. All of his memories felt half-there, like he had been dreaming while making them, and mixed the dreams with reality. But he hadn’t dreamt since he had died.

His hands itched to hold a bow. To shoot, to steady himself with the clarity of the simple, repeated motions. How long had it been since he had just shot, with no goal beyond the rhythm of it? Years, possibly. Time seemed fuzzy, now, indistinct. He could remember the clarity, at least. The certainty that what he was doing was right, was what she wanted. All that mattered was what she had wanted.

Nathanos blinked a few times as the sunlight dimmed suddenly. He looked up to see Wrynn’s concerned face through the bars above.

“Do you need to eat?”

What kind of question was that? Did he need to eat. He was a dead man, he didn’t need to do most of what he did. He could sit on a rock outside until the wind wore him to dust without any trouble beyond boredom. But it would certainly be nice to eat. Food would help fuel the magic working to repair his injuries, and the warmth of hot meat in his gut was always pleasant.

He licked his lips, debating the kind of honesty he should use. He felt slower than before, his mind considering so many more options before he spoke. Insults leapt to mind easily, but he doubted they would result in anything pleasant, and the idea of using them seemed oddly dissatisfying, now, unlike before. Wrynn squinted at him, concern bleeding from him as obviously as blood from a gut wound. It felt strange to witness. Uncomfortable.

“...For variable definitions of need, yes,” he settled on. Wrynn’s eyebrows went up, but he nodded.

“Meat, I assume?” He didn’t wait for a response, simply nodded to the side, presumably at someone Nathanos couldn’t see. A few moments and a careless gesture from Wrynn later, a bowl of beef roast was lowered through the bars, guided by a levitation spell.

Nathanos considered the security measures taken as he started to eat, ignoring the boy-king watching him for the moment. It was rather flattering, really. An oubliette wasn’t generally used for a prisoner one intended to speak to very often, but it was certainly secure. The bars were high enough up that he doubted he could reach them without a running jump, and the cell itself was too narrow to gain the required speed for that. The thick stone surrounding him was likely sunken into the ground, if not bedrock, so even if he could somehow pry the stones loose he’d never be able to dig his way out. Anything they gave him was lowered between the bars by a mage. They didn’t even have to worry about emptying the bucket he’d found in the corner earlier - it was rather handily enchanted to get rid of anything inside of it. He’d sacrificed a tattered edge of his shirt to the experiment, to be certain.

He flicked a bit of gristle into the bucket for his own amusement. It made an amusing sort of puff as it disappeared. He heard a snort from above him.

“Bored?”

He rolled his head back to look up at Wrynn, wondering why the fuck he’d been left alive instead of eliminated, since he obviously was seen as a threat. But perhaps better to not give anyone any ideas about efficiency and resource management when it might well lead to being destroyed in some painful fashion.

“Insanely. But I had presumed that was rather the point.”

Wrynn looked oddly… sad. He shook his head, surprising Nathanos more than he’d care to admit. “No, Blightcaller. The point is to see if my hunch was correct.”

Bitterness bubbled up, familiar and welcome. This, at least, was a feeling he was comfortable with. “A hunch? You want, what, to see how long an undead can sit still? See if we still shit? Feel the urge to pace? If we can go insane like the living can, cut off from everything?” He sneered, shaking his head. “Try asking, next time you’re curious. Far more efficient.”

Wrynn had gone a bit pink, but still mostly just looked vaguely upset. Nathanos resisted the urge to squirm, unfamiliar discomfort writhing under his skin at the sight. “No, none of that. I -” He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I am, for once, in a position where I can, maybe, not let history repeat itself. I’ve seen enough people die for actions done under another’s thrall. You’re an experiment, yes - but not for petty curiosity.”

A multitude of thoughts clicked together almost audibly in the back of Nathanos’ mind, guesses locking themselves together until they became certainties. He resolutely ignored them. They were, at best, based on unreliable information. At worst, on lies and manipulation. He twitched anyways, hard as he tried not to.

He turned away from the pity in blue, living eyes, methodically tearing apart his meal bit by tiny bit until he heard Wrynn walk away.

-

Wrynn tried to get him to talk a few more times. Scattered meetings filled with pointed questions and cutting statements and far too much empathy. Nathanos at first did his best to not answer, or only do so to start a battle of wits. After a few such visits he started speaking first, to get to the verbal sparring faster. At least it was entertaining, though it seemed to frustrate Wrynn.

-

Wrynn’s visits were irregular, as a rule. Never twice at the same time of day, or the same number of days apart. But three days was a rarity. Five days was vaguely concerning in a way Nathanos couldn’t put words to. Ten had him pacing the walls of his confinement like an agitated wolf, gritting his teeth against the urge to call for one of the guards stomping around the room above his head to ask just what in the devil had changed.

Two weeks, meticulously counted out by smearing a drop of his blood on the wall furthest from his bucket, had left him unable to do anything but think.

He thought about so many things so quickly that he felt dizzy, at first. His thoughts couldn’t settle. He focused on the rhythm of the metallic slide-scuff-clank of the armored steps above him, the faint murmur of the guards’ voices as they swapped out every four hours. He thought about how the guards had refused to speak to him, when he had finally barked out a demand for information. They would feed him, presumably they would act to prevent his untimely demise, but they wouldn’t entertain him and were depressingly immune to his jibes. So he thought about things he hadn’t thought of in years - questions.

What had happened to his hounds? Had they been killed? Imprisoned like himself? They didn’t deserve any of that. But then they hadn’t deserved to be raised into undeath, either. Why had he agreed to that? Why had he agreed to let Saurfang strike him in the middle of Orgrimmar? Why had he agreed to burning a tree full of hundreds, if not thousands, of elves? Why had he agreed to take his cousin’s body?

Had he agreed?

He couldn’t remember.

He paced. He counted the days. He thought.

On the twentieth day his legs gave out under him, and he wished he could produce tears. It would make the crying less awful, he felt.

Instead, the wrenching sobs had him emptying his stomach into the bucket.

-

Sticking his hand into the vanishing-bucket didn’t take his fingers off, he found. Disappointing. He picked the bucket up, idly wondering if it might do him the favor of taking his head off if he stuck it on his head. Then he wouldn’t have to think anymore.

“I intended for you to think about what I’d said, not befriend an inanimate object.”

Odd, how twenty-five days without hearing another human speak to you could make what had once been a bratty whine of a voice into a beacon of comfort. Nathanos was standing before he could think not to, bucket dangling loosely from his fingers. He opened his mouth to respond and found he lacked the air to do so. It took a moment to realize he had stopped bothering to breathe at some point and had to start that up again to speak.

“I was wondering if it would kill me to wear it as a hat,” he answered, voice even scratcher than normal from its disuse. Wrynn shuffled closer to the edge of the grate, and Nathanos could see his brow scrunch up as he peered down curiously. The first thing he’d seen beyond bucket, bowl, grate, and stone for nearly a month. He did his best to not think anything positive about the sight.

“It won’t,” Wrynn answered after a long pause. “Would you prefer if it would?”

Nathanos flung the bucket up at the bars before he’d truly recognized the rage that clogged his throat. The ringing clang of it hitting the grate added an unholy edge to his howl of rage. “YES, YOU SCRAWNY BASTARD!” he bellowed, stretching up futilely as if he could reach if he only tried hard enough, fingers clawing desperately at the air. Wrynn scuttled backwards with a muffled curse. “I would rather I had died, defending my Lady, sure in my cause! I would rather have died than be stuck alone in this silent fucking PIT!”

His stone hell echoed his own shrieks back at him and he clapped his hands over his ears to try and keep it out. It was too similar to her scream as she fought to live, but then the silence as he cupped his ears only reminded him of the hollow that opened up in his head when she died.

His knees hit the stone below him, then his hands. It was long minutes before he became aware of a faint sound from above him, and more before he recognized what it was.

Wrynn was humming.

Some kind of dirge, by the sound of it. Even, steady, slow, mournful. The tune wormed its way into Nathanos’ brain, writhed in the hollow space where her voice had been. He looked up at the grate and found Wrynn’s face closer than it had been - he was kneeling, now. Nathanos could see his knees at the edge of the hole.

Wrynn stopped humming at the end of the song, and the silence grew unbearable. Nathanos’ insides squirmed with the need to speak, but what would he say? Apologize for being upset he was imprisoned? Never. But Wrynn didn’t seem keen to speak, and the silence would drive him crazier than the solitude had. There wasn’t even the sound of the guards’ boots to focus on.

“You ruined me,” he muttered, wishing he had the energy to glare up at the boy. “You ruined everything that was me. How?”

Wrynn’s face screwed up in sympathy. It made Nathanos vaguely nauseous to see. “You haven’t put it together yet? Or do you just need more time with your thoughts to say it out loud?”

Nathanos shut his eyes and let himself fall onto his side. He rolled onto his back and clenched his hands into fists in the fabric of his coat before looking back up at Wrynn. “You left me alone on purpose. No distractions, just time to consider what you’d told me.” Wrynn nodded. “You would make a good Forsaken. You have the sadism down pat.

“I couldn’t think of another way,” Wrynn said. His voice was strong but he couldn’t hide his wince. Nathanos shook his head, sighing at the display.

“Apologizing for torturing a prisoner is not exactly effective, Wrynn.”

“Call me Anduin, Blightcaller.”

Nathanos shut his eyes tightly. Ridiculous. “I suppose you may as well refer to me by my first name.” He was ridiculous.

“Do you need more time, Nathanos?”

Damn him. “Damn you.”

“I’ll tell the guards to get you a new bucket. If you tell them you’re ready to talk, they’ll fetch me. Don’t lie, or that will never work again.”

The silence between the door shutting behind Anduin’s light steps and the door opening to admit the guards’ heavier ones had Nathanos curled into a ball, fingers tapping at the back of his head to keep the quiet away.

-

He had started with the intent to beat his record. He had ended on the seventh day with the crushing realization that that was only prolonging the inevitable and would only lead to larger and larger stretches of time left alone with himself and the buzzing certainties chewing away at his mind like corpseflies.

The guard had sounded surprised when she said she would fetch the king. He supposed they had expected him to postpone the inevitable as much as he himself had. Her partner had been terribly quiet for several minutes until he started whistling in boredom. It was awful, tuneless, and wheezy, but at least it was a song Nathanos found familiar. Some cheerfully-sung, depressing tune about one sister drowning the other over a man, if he recalled correctly. Always popular as a cautionary tale at faires in his hometown.

Anduin arrived with his customary soft tread and a quiet word to the guards, sending them on their way with assurances that he was more than safe. Nathanos laid himself out under the grate again, pressing the heels of his boots against the wall. It felt, somehow, more like standing to speak face-to-face than tilting his head back did.

Anduin settled on his knees by the grate without a word, hands tucked in his lap. He looked at Nathanos like an instructor measuring a recruit’s skill for a moment before speaking. “Would you rather ask some questions first?”

Nathanos nodded. He tried to ask the most pressing question first, but it died on his tongue. Perhaps he could work up to it. “What happened to my hounds?”

Anduin blinked, a pleased sort of expression chasing surprise across his face. “They’d been frozen in a mage’s ice spell early on in the fight. They tried to kill her when they thawed, after we knocked you out. We froze them again and gave them to Voss to handle. She seemed fond of them.”

Something in Nathanos’ chest loosened. Useless sentiment, but pleasant nonetheless. “My bat?”

Anduin shook his head slowly. “All of the direbats Sylvanas sent at us were destroyed.” He paused, as if he knew about the strange pain fizzing inside Nathanos’ ribcage and respected it. “I’m sorry.”

Nathanos wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “What do you intend to do with me?”

Anduin’s eyes were wet again. Nathanos hoped he wasn’t about to get cried on. “That depends on you, and what you tell me today.”

“She was controlling me, wasn’t she?” Silence. He hated silence, now. “She had me under some kind of… thrall. Like the shock troops from Silverpine. Do you think…” How to word this? How could Anduin even know? But he had seemed to know plenty about this, even that first day on the battlefield. He knew better than Nathanos how mind control worked. “Do you suppose she did it from the start? Or only after… or only once I was in this new body?”

Anduin sighed, and it sounded pained. Unexpected. “I looked you over after the fight. There’s no way to be certain, but the magic was old, settled. But it had newer layers, too. I think she was able to strengthen her hold once you were in a body of her choosing.”

Nathanos swallowed against the urge to be sick. He hadn’t bothered to eat in a couple of days, it would only be unproductive and uncomfortable. “She tamed me. Like some kind of pet.”

Rage, hot and bubbling, roiled through Nathanos’ body and mind. How dare she? Worse, how could he not have noticed? Had he been so enamoured? So blind? So foolish?

But the worst was that he knew, knew in the cold, dark center of himself, that he had trusted her. Loved her. Followed her. Before any magic, before any compulsion, before any connection, before he had died. He had been a hopeless fool, and used like one by that… that…

“That witch!”

His roar echoed off the walls, mocking him.

-

Anduin visited regularly after that. Every week, like clockwork.

It was comforting, in a way. They would talk about anything from Sylvanas to how Voss’ retraining of his dogs was going. Nathanos spilled every secret he could remember in a series of fits of pique, from the names of spies to the locations of stashes to what he knew of her larger plans. Anduin taught him a couple of songs which a king likely shouldn’t know.

It was oddly like a friendship, considering the fact he was stuck in a hole and visited at the week’s end like Azeroth’s strangest form of prostitute.

He paced his cell in the middle of the night, listening to the guards breathe. He wondered if Anduin would laugh if he made a joke about how this was still saner than his last relationship, since at least Anduin wasn’t controlling his mind.

He decided not to, given he couldn’t be sure Anduin wasn’t. He hadn’t noticed the last time, after all.

-

He had forgotten to mark the day, again. He’d forgotten how many times he’d forgotten to mark the day.

He didn’t bother to ask Anduin what day it was, the third time he had these realizations. Months were months. He didn’t care to mark the anniversary of his confinement.

-

He wanted food again. It had been a while. He asked the guard and, surprisingly, they had some beef stew floated down to him within minutes. He ate it greedily, enjoying the colors and textures of the vegetables and the richness of the broth, creamy with barley.

He was debating if he should lick the bowl when everything went black.

-

He woke up in a different cell. This one was a square. It was the size of a decently sized inn room, three walls stone, the fourth vertical bars - though, given the walled-in space on the other side of the bars, he supposed it was more that an even larger stone room had bars running down the center of it. On the other side of the bars was a comfortable armchair, a small table with a drawer set to the side of it. On his side of them was near-palatial luxury, by his recently adjusted standards.

There was a bed beneath him, the mattress thin and stuffed with hay but covered in heavy, smooth fabric. A blanket was folded by his feet, a pillow lay under his head, a small table beside him. When he sat up he could see a chair on his side of the bars, as well, simple and wooden with none of the plush cushions or shiny leather of the one on the other side of the bars, but miles better than sitting on a cold, stone floor. There was a proper toilet in the corner opposite the bed, a sink beside it. But the most startling change in his circumstances was the window.

About two feet wide and three tall, the lower edge at his waist height, it was barred on the inside but beyond the bars were metal-lined diamonds of clear glass. Nathanos stood up and bolted to it, grabbing the bars tightly. The sunlight was warm on his face even through the glass, bright enough his eyes stung and his head pounded - though no doubt that was at least partially caused by whatever the guards had drugged him with to move him. He could see half of Stormwind from here, it’s multicolored roofs and glittering canals confirming his location, that Anduin hadn’t lied about where he was imprisoned. He could see trees in the distance, shading the hills that rolled out around the city. His chest clenched at the sight, even though bars and distorted by panels of glass.

Then his stomach roiled as he noticed some of the leaves were turning brown.

It had been late summer when he had been captured, and it had been a goodly number of months before he had given up on counting. He’d spent so long in that hole. Alone, except for silent guards and a chatty king. He’d told Anduin so many things… but was this truly any better than what Sylvanas had done? Imprisoned physically or enslaved mentally, was he forever fated to be someone’s property?

His fists clenched on the bars as a trickle of realization went down his spine. That he could think these kinds of thoughts at all proved that it was different. He could dissent. He could choose. He could lie to Anduin, if he wanted.

Could he? He’d half-wondered if Anduin had merely replaced Sylvanas’ controls with his own. That he could think such things implied not, but maybe his magics were more subtle. Blinders, rather than iron chains. He couldn’t risk lying about anything important - he wouldn’t risk a return to that stone pit of silence. But perhaps he could try with something else.

A bright blue bird landed on the window ledge, startling Nathanos from his thoughts. He reached out and touched the glass beside it, and encountered a humming, flexible layer of magic before his fingers touched the glass. But the bird still twisted its head to look at him, tracking the movement. When it cheeped and trilled Nathanos could hear it, only slightly muffled.

He watched the bird until it flew away to eat.

-

Anduin arrived like a summer storm striking a ramshackle hut the next morning. His jaw was tense, his hands curled into fists, his lips pale as he pressed them tight together. His eyes were sparkling, angry tears just barely held back. Even his hair seemed furious, floating slightly as if static-charged. The solid, wooden door leading into the room hit the wall so hard it rattled, and slammed shut on the bounce-back hard enough to shake Nathanos’ window.

Nathanos sat on his chair and tried to look as if this wasn’t extremely concerning.

Anduin collapsed into the armchair on his side of the bars with a barely audible snarl, then took a breath. He shot a glare back at the door he’d just come through, which only confused Nathanos more. If Anduin was angry with him, why would he glare back the way he’d come? If he were angry at something or someone other than Nathanos, why would he come here at all?

“Get into a tiff with the missus?” Nathanos drawled, desperately clinging to an attitude of lazy calm. As if Anduin being angry couldn’t take all of this newfound luxury away as quickly as it had been given.

“There’s not a -“ Anduin cut himself off with a huff, slumping down so he could hang his head off the back of his chair. “No. Just several irritating nobles and several more heads of various guilds.”

Nathanos did his best to contain his confusion, keeping his arms crossed loosely and refusing to let the desperation of his curiosity show on his face. “And you came here because…?”

Anduin lifted his head and smiled at him. It almost hurt, that smile, in a way Nathanos couldn’t quite place but felt was familiar anyway. “Well I had to make sure you liked your new accommodations. Sorry about the unconsciousness, but no one would let me take the risk of transporting you while awake.”

“Let? Aren’t you the king of this quaint little place?”

“I’ve still advisors to answer to. We can’t all be tyrants.” Anduin twitched as his own words seemed to register. Nathanos considered being offended, before dismissing it. It wasn’t as if it were untrue. Anduin leant forward as if trying to physically leap over the flicker of awkwardness. “So, everything to your taste? Aside from the bars, I suppose.”

Nathanos thought for a moment. This was a perfect chance to lie over something inconsequential. As a test, of course. Just to be sure. “I hate this chair,” he lied firmly, silently afraid this would mean the small comfort would be taken from him.

But there was no resistance in his own mind to the lie, no sign on Anduin’s face that he knew it was one. Instead he laughed, flushing a bit pink. “I did try to get one that matches this one put in your cell,” he said, patting the arm of his chair. “They told me that it could be dangerous. Springs turned into shivs, or something. I considered telling them that if you were that determined to kill me you could do it with a chair leg, but thought that might just end with you having no chair at all.”

The warmth in Nathanos’ chest was vaguely concerning, but undeniable. He could lie to Anduin. He couldn’t remember ever wanting, or being able, to lie to Sylvanas. Anduin had ordered him made comfortable, where Sylvanas’ orders lead only to pain.

It was strange.

“I just remembered another name,” Nathanos blurted, realizing the silence had stretched uncomfortably long. Anduin perked up, the pink fading from his face as he opened the drawer in his little table and dug out a pen and a pad of paper. Truthfully, Nathanos had remembered the name a few days ago, but given the spy had last been sent to keep tabs on a lesser target, not to eliminate anyone, it hadn’t been pressing and could be used to draw out these conversations.

But perhaps he didn’t need to have more information for Anduin to come speak to him - and the small lie was another comfort.

-

The first night in his new cell he found himself staring out the window, watching the moon rise and the stars grow brighter. The guards had yet to come in to douse the torches by the door, so his own broken reflection muddled the view. He did his best to ignore it, but as the lights outside the stockades were dimmed his reflection grew clearer and clearer, until it was like looking into a strangely lit mirror.

He scowled at the reflection, still unaccustomed to looking like - like this. He couldn’t quite reconcile it with how he had looked before, not while alive but while undead. Eyes sunken, face stitched, his mouth not even his own anymore. It was odd, seeing himself like this again. Or… not again. He hadn’t, even in life, looked quite like this. His face had been a touch thinner, a bit longer, and his hair had been -

His stomach lurched as he reached up to run his fingers through the dark brown hair. His hair had been redder, much redder. He’d forgotten, somehow, under the pressure from Sylvanas’ mind over his. This wasn’t his hair. Wasn’t his body. He’d taken it, stolen it, because she wanted him to. He’d taken his own cousin’s body, a boy who’d looked up to him, respected him. He left the window and laid himself out on the bed. He didn’t get up again until the guards had doused the torches. He made a point to avoid the window between dusk and lights-out from then on.

-

“May I?” A simple enough request, surely. Anduin handed over the fresh pad of paper - the original long since filled by the king’s scrawl - easily, without suspecting any other motive. Nathanos sketched out the face of the agent he didn’t know the name of, tearing the paper free to hold it up for inspection and to point out how her features may have been changed.

Anduin didn’t ask for the paper or pen back. He brought a new one with him when he came the next week without a word.

Nathanos idly wondered if that meant he’d noticed Nathanos kept it or not. But did it matter?

He went back to sketching Marris Stead. It filled the time. Looking at it on paper didn’t hurt as much as thinking about it did.

-

There was a light dusting of snow on his window ledge. He scowled at it through the panes of glass, annoyed beyond reason. How many times would he see the first snowfall through this window? Would he ever feel it on his skin again, hear the wind bluster through the trees?

His little blue companion landed on the sill, tweeting as if it, too, was annoyed by the snow there, though likely for a different reason. Would he ever touch another living thing again? He was alone. Locked in a box with no sight of ever being freed.

“Freed you, I think,” Anduin had said, before locking him in a cage. The sadistic irony would have been amusing, were he not the center of it.

He watched the bird for a few more hours, trying to imagine how it would feel if he could reach through the glass and run a finger over the puffed-up feathers on its chest.

The door into what he’d started thinking of as Anduin’s half of his cell opened with the near-silent whoosh of well-greased and over-spelled

hinges. He could tell it was Anduin just by the sound of his steps. He clenched his fists in the fabric of his coat, over his gut where he could feel realization settle like hot coals sinking through ash. He’d known Sylvanas by her footsteps, too. He’d cared to notice. His heart had leapt the same way at the sound of her approach.

He didn’t look as Anduin drew closer, peppy greeting a meaningless buzz in Nathanos’ ears. He couldn’t look. He’d always turned to her, always acknowledged her. The similarities piled up like panic in his chest, buzzing through his limbs and numbing his lips as Anduin’s voice grew more insistent, more worried.

The sound of Anduin rattling the barred center door and cursing broke the strange fog he’d settled into, and pained confusion filled the space it had taken up in his mind. He blinked against the burn of would-be tears as his lungs seized.

“I’d have to call a guard for the keys - Nathanos, what’s wrong -”

Nathanos spun, pressing his back to the wall beside the window and wrapping his arms around himself. “You said you had freed me,” he growled. Anduin froze, head snapping up from where he had been glowering at the door’s lock. “Such a clever little boy, so proud of himself for being so noble. Freeing the wretched slave, keeping it as his pet, locked up safe in a tower.”

Anduin’s eyes were wide, his face pale. He licked his lips in the brief pause before he spoke, tensing and relaxing his fingers around the bars. Nerves, or guilt? Nathanos couldn’t trust himself to tell, anymore. “Nathanos, I -”

“Do I look free to you, boy?” Nathanos snarled. He curled his fingers in the stitching along the sides of his coat until he heard the threads begin to pop. They were both silent for a while, until Anduin lowered his head and sighed.

“You’re right. You aren’t. I wish… I wish things were different.”

Nathanos felt something give in his chest. Anduin hadn’t given him excuses or sweet promises. Hadn’t smiled and charmed, or tried to convince him he was freer than he was. Hadn’t even scolded him and made him feel glad for what he got, or fearful of how much worse it could be. He’d given in. He’d said Nathanos was right.

His chest fluttered in an incredibly distressing fashion. He shoved off from the wall in a bid to ignore it, realizing too late that the move brought him closer to Anduin and stopping awkwardly in the middle of his cell would only look worse. He swallowed against the strange tension-pain-relief stuck in his throat and kept going until he was at the bars, close enough to Anduin he could reach out and touch him.

He didn’t.

“You could make them different,” he murmured, voice low, already knowing the response he would get.

“I can’t.”

“You won’t.”

Anduin looked up and met his eyes, shifting closer to the bars. The air between them felt solid, compressed, as if they were pressing against something to get so close and it was fighting back. Anduin’s jaw firmed. “I won’t.”

Nathanos let out a slow breath. He didn’t miss the twitch in Anduin’s hands as it ghosted over him. “Such a noble little boy, so proud of himself for being clever. Tricking the old dog into performing your new tricks.”

Anduin swallowed. “I am really, truly not.”

Nathanos couldn’t stop his lips from twitching, even as his chest clenched even harder. “Not what? Noble, or clever?”

Anduin smiled up at him, a gentle, slanted sort of thing. “Tricking you.”

Nathanos jerked back as if stuck, stepping away from the bars and turning away. He dropped his arms and moved back to the window, knowing he’d failed at pretending that hadn’t struck him where it hurt but helpless to do anything but continue the farce anyways. “Forgive me if I don’t trust my jailer so readily.”

There was silence again for a few tense moments. Nathanos watched the bird preen its feathers and told himself the sound of Anduin’s breathing wasn’t soothing. Anduin didn’t so much as shuffle his feet.

Enough time had passed for Nathanos’ shoulders to relax by the time Anduin cleared his throat. Nathanos turned just enough he could be certain Anduin saw the arch of his eyebrow, glancing over his shoulder to see Anduin watching him keenly.

“I, ah. I wanted to ask you a few questions about the goals of that last agent you gave me the name of. It might help us find them.”

“Very well.”

Nathanos sat in his chair, but Anduin remained standing as they spoke, hands dangling through the bars. If Nathanos were to lean forward, he could grab them. He didn’t.

Anduin left several hours later, and Nathanos could remember every word they’d said to each other. He could remember Anduin’s plan to find the agent, and agreeing it was solid. He remembered exactly what he’d been told to convince him that it was the best course of action, even though he had a few doubts which Anduin had addressed without rancor.

He wondered if he’d enjoy remembering what Anduin would say in response if he told the boy he loved him.

-

The next time Anduin visited him, he had a largeish, lumpy, cloth sack over one shoulder and a shit-eating grin. Nathanos looked up from his latest sketch - his avian companion in flight, looking as annoyed as he could make a bird’s face appear, just to amuse himself - and did his best not to laugh. “You look like a cheap, demented Greatfather Winter.”

Anduin shrugged the sack off his shoulder and into the armchair, grin losing none of its dementedness. “I don’t know about the Undercity, but most of Stormwind’s Greatfather Winters are cheap and demented. And sometimes drunk.”

He opened the sack and started poking about in it, so Nathanos set aside his drawing and stood from the bed. He’d only just reached the bars when Anduin turned, still beaming like an idiot, and held out a bundle of cloth.

“Even if you don’t sweat and aren’t doing anything, I thought you might enjoy being able to, well, change.”

Nathanos stared at the bundle. Judging by the fabric it was some form of trousers, a shirt, and a sweater. Anduin seemed to purposefully ignore his blatant confusion and stepped closer, shoving the bundle halfway through the bars as if expecting Nathanos to catch it.

Nathanos caught it.

“Go ahead, see if they’ll fit.”

Nathanos blinked, finding himself unrolling the clothes without really thinking about it. His guess had been right, but underclothes and socks had been included as well, and the sweater was far softer than he’d guessed it would be. Hesitantly, he laid the clothes over the back of his chair, then held each piece up to his body. He supposed they would fit well enough. But why the hell had Anduin given them to him?

He turned to ask, struggling to find the words to fit his confusion, to find Anduin looking at him with eyes gone so wide and sad that Nathanos nearly apologized on the spot.

“You don’t want them, do you.”

Nathanos squinted at the boy, words finally lining up properly in his head. “What gave you that impression? They seem… serviceable. I just fail to understand why you’ve given them to me now, after months of being perfectly content to see me in the same thing day after day.”

The soft flush over Anduin’s cheeks told Nathanos the boy likely just hadn’t thought of it, which made sense, especially given that Nathanos himself had told the boy he barely even needed food. But the boy’s nerves were amusing anyways, given said boy was a king facing his prisoner.

“Ah. Well. I just thought… Well, you weren’t trying them on.”

Nathanos blinked at him as slowly as he could manage, and then glanced pointedly around the cell and its utter lack of dividing walls, privacy screens, or any other means of hiding ones body as they changed clothing. And then he waited.

It took a solid ten seconds or so, but Anduin’s flush brightened to an obscene-looking red and he stepped hastily back from the bars. “Oh! Well. I. I meant - well the sweater, at least -” He made to sit on the armchair, then leapt up as if burnt when he sat on the sack, which still seemed to have quite a bit in it. “ - not that you have to, of course, if you don’t -”

Nathanos wasn’t sure if he was driven by spite, amusement, or the perverse urge to see how red the boy’s face could get. But he had his coat shucked off his shoulders before he truly thought the movement through, and the way Anduin’s voice halted mid-breath sent a surge of triumph through him strong enough to have him unbuttoning his shirt as well. He undid the buttons, watching Anduin’s face get redder with each one, and got about halfway through before thinking that this might be a bad idea.

He dismissed his own concerns and let his shirt fall on top of his coat. Anduin’s eyes skittered over him, then away, then back - never higher than his throat, never further away than the coat on the floor, never gone longer than a moment. Nathanos took a moment to play out a scenario in his head: undoing his belt, his fly, standing nude and proud and walking to the bars. Would Anduin move away? Move closer? Which would Nathanos prefer he do?

Anduin’s hand twitched towards the bars, the tiny motion breaking the gossamer threads of consideration and sending a flush of shame through Nathanos’ gut. He jerked the new shirt on almost violently, and felt a kick of adrenaline in his chest at the soft catch of Anduin’s breath beside him. He noted the soft green of it as he did up the buttons, and wondered if Anduin had just guessed that he liked the color or had seen something about it in his head.

He focused on the clothes to try and forget what he’d just done and the distressing implications of it. The shoulders and waist were a bit wide, but the fabric was comfortable. Well-tailored, expertly woven. Better than he’d ever worn before, and that alone bothered him in a way that felt good and awful at the same time. The sweater was even better, and even worse, loosely knit wool spun so softly he had to fight the urge to bury his face in it as he pulled it over his head.

He spun in place as he finished, arms spread wide in as over-done a presentation as he could manage given the circumstances. Anduin hadn’t moved, his blush no paler and his eyes no less wide. It gave Nathanos a thrill and made him feel ill at the same time.

“To your liking, your majesty?” The sarcasm dripped from his tongue easier than ever, and his forced grin felt more like a trapped animal bearing its teeth. But Anduin bit his lip as he seemed to refocus on the here and now, and though his face was no less red his smile was the same as always.

“It’s your liking that matters, Nathanos, but yes. I’m glad they fit. Hopefully the rest does, as well.”

“The rest?” Nathanos asked, letting his arms drop. Anduin’s only response was the return of his initial demented grin, and then Nathanos was being handed item after item of clothing through the bars.

When the sack was empty Anduin sketched out an awkward bow before saying he hoped the trousers fit nicely, and then he left.

Nathanos stood in the center of his cell for a long, long while before he finished changing into his new clothes. He folded his clothes, old and new, neatly before stuffing his old ones under the bed and stacking the new ones on his little bedside table.

-

He was on his bed again the next time Anduin came by, in grey trousers and a blue shirt and soft white socks, without boots or belt. Anduin’s face stayed pink the entire time. It was satisfying, somehow.

He felt more focused without the weight of his coat on his shoulders, and he showed Anduin the sketch of the blue bird flying annoyedly and smiled at how Anduin laughed. He didn’t realize until after Anduin left that the visit made two in a row that they’d discussed nothing of importance.

-

Nathanos was certain, now, that Anduin was using no method of mind control, or magical influence, on his person. He could lie to Anduin. He could annoy Anduin. He could argue with him, fluster him, surprise him, make him laugh. He could throw accusations at him and be met with a discussion or a reasoned response. He’d not been threatened, beyond the passive knowledge that he was a prisoner buying his life with information and reform. He’d not been harmed since he’d been brought to Stormwind.

His information was valued, but no longer required. Much of it was out of date by now, and what wasn’t was generally minor. Anduin still asked for his opinions on certain things, generally those matters relating to diplomacy with Voss’ Forsaken or combating what splintered factions remained of Sylvanas’ loyalists. But Anduin still visited him at least once every week, often more than that, even if all he did was complain to Nathanos about idiots or listen to Nathanos talk about the birds he saw out his window, or stories he’d never thought anyone would be interested in hearing.

Nathanos stood by his window, watching the people milling about under the midday sun, bundled up against the cold, and considered his existence. His cage was comfortable, his mind free. He had a… friend, of sorts, though calling one’s jailer a friend was a level of pitiable he’d never thought he would reach personally. He was brought a washbasin, food, and more journals and pens if he asked. He’d mentioned being bored and Anduin had had a guard deliver several books, and the guard hadn’t even seemed angry about having to do so, just bored herself.

There were worse lives.

There were also better ones.

He sighed, pressing his head into the corner of the window sill. He eyed the trees in the distance and longed to walk between them. It had been so long since he’d been able to run, or to shoot, or to practice with his axes. He would be painfully out of practice, if he were ever allowed use his weapons again.

Allowed. That rankled. But it was his punishment, wasn’t it? He’d killed. He’d destroyed. He’d done more than enough to earn a death sentence, and instead he was… bored. Alone.

Well, not entirely alone. He had his kingly jailer. He sneered idly at the clouds moving overhead, soft white tufts that threatened nothing. He wasn’t being magically influenced by Anduin, but did that make this infernal buzzing in his chest at the thought of him better, or worse? He’d heard stories of captives becoming obsessed with their captors. Perhaps he didn’t even need to have a spell cast on him to make himself someone’s slave.

He brooded a while, before that, too, grew boring.

Fuck, but he hated being bored.

-

Starting a fight with Anduin to relieve his boredom had been a very bad idea.

Sticking to the argument out of pride and panic had been an even worse one.

Grabbing him by the shirt had been the worst of all - not because he’d been thrown back into solid stone by a lash of Light so strong it made his back teeth burn, but because of the flash of wide-eyed hurt and unshed tears that he’d seen before he’d been sent flying.

He stayed where he’d fallen until the sun went down, then longer still, until the lights went out and there was no danger of seeing his reflection in the window. He chewed at the insides of his own cheeks, the urge to find Anduin and - and something so strong it physically ached. But he was locked in his comfortable cage, and he’d chased Anduin out of it with his own words, his own actions.

He stood in the middle of his room and waited, wondering when the guards would come. When he would be put down like the rabid hound he’d shown himself to be, useless and dangerous. When the sun came up and still no guards came he sat in his chair and watched the door, placing and losing bets against himself on how long it would be until a guard came. Until Anduin came. Until Anduin came, guard in tow, to lead him to the executioner.

He was a dead man. He could wait a very long time, doing very little, aside from being bored. He sat in his chair and stared at the door as the sun set again, and rose again, and set again, and wasn’t bored. Only worried.

Starting a fight with Anduin to relieve his boredom had been possibly the stupidest idea he had ever had, but it had been effective, he supposed.

He kept waiting.

-

Anduin came back exactly a week later. The same time of day that he’d arrived the last time, even. He entered calmly, no idiot grin or frustrated complaints or moodiness of youth or rapid-fire questions. He met Nathanos’ eyes levely as Nathanos stood, and he sat in his armchair a healthy distance away and asked if Nathanos had been well with the kind of empty politeness that Nathanos had always hated with a passion and never quite understood the use of.

He understood the use of it now. It made him hate it more.

“I’m sorry,” was less painful to say than he’d thought it would be. Anduin’s utter shock at hearing him say it was more painful than the expected derision, somehow. Nathanos’ pride niggled at the back of his mind, but it was far less than the roar it once would have been.

Anduin stared at him a moment, before standing and moving to be as close as they had been the last time, within easy reach. His voice was soft and confused when he spoke. “Why are you apologizing?”

It was Nathanos’ turn to be confused. “I - what the devil do you mean, why? I started a fight, I grabbed -”

“Nathanos, I threw you into a wall.” Nathanos waited, but that seemed to be all the explanation Anduin thought was required.

“To remove me from your person, yes. I recall. I’m glad you came back, I - “ Nathanos swallowed, shoving his pride away much like he’d shoved his coat under the bed. “It’s… painfully boring, in here. You are… less so. Far less so. I was. Concerned. That you wouldn’t return. I’m of limited use, now, so there would be no need -”

“Light,” Anduin muttered, looking oddly as if someone had just done irrevocable harm to something small and fluffy in front of him. It was intensely uncomfortable for Nathanos to look at. “Nathanos, I am sorry. You think I didn’t know you were trying to rile me up? You’re not subtle. I just - I reacted. I hadn’t expected you to grab me. I didn’t think you would want to be near me afterwards, but it’s not like you can leave, so I -”

“Why would that matter?”

Anduin stopped like a kitten scruffed mid-jump. “What?”

Nathanos stared at him, confusion and something softer wrapping around him so tightly he felt like he might smother in it. “Why would it matter if I didn’t want to see you?” It made no sense. None of this made any sense. He’d been prepared to grovel, to bow and scrape, and hopefully scrounge up some shreds of their easy conversations again. He’d been prepared for Anduin to cast him aside, leave him to an eternity with his window and his bird and his three soft sweaters and the same ten books.

Instead, Anduin was sorry. Anduin had been concerned about his wants. Anduin didn’t seem to grasp that he held, and would always hold, every ounce of power, here, so long as Nathanos was behind these bars. It made no sense.

Anduin’s face smoothed out by increments as they stared at each other. Finally, he glanced down, taking hold of the bars between them. “You think I want to… keep you in here? To see whenever I want, like some strange pet?”

“You’ve given me no evidence to the contrary. I had assumed this was a life sentence.” Nathanos swallowed down the kick of hope in his throat. “Was that… presumptuous of me?”

Anduin looked up, eyes wet. “More than a little. I - “ He laughed, short and bitter. “I was unkind, I suppose. But I don’t want to give you false hope. I’ve been using the information you’ve given me as proof you’re no longer a danger to the Alliance, Nathanos. I could pardon you tomorrow, but you would be in danger the second you left the Stockades. Genn, Tyrande, a good number of the general populace. They wanted you executed, and still do. It’s been slow going, but I never wanted to just let you rot in here. I just needed to know if you were free of the controls urging you to violence, and then I needed to prove it, so you wouldn’t be shot the second my back was turned.”

Nathanos stumbled backward and sat in his chair. “I - I’ll be free, some day?”

Anduin grimaced. “Of course you will, I -”

“Don’t ‘of course’ me, you impertinent brat,” he hissed, tearing his eyes from Anduin’s distressed face to stare at the floor. “You locked me in a hole, then a cage, you, what, gauged how reformed the bad, bad man was by how willing I was to spill all my useful little secrets?” Nathanos ran his fingers into his hair and tugged, using the pain to center his whirling thoughts. “Would it have ruined your little plan to tell me? Thrown off the results of your grand test? I might’ve only told you to free myself, rather than to right my wrongs. Am I close, your majesty?”

“I - it was the only way I could think of to -”

Nathanos scoffed. “Of course it was. A decent enough method, too. But your results are skewed, boy. I didn’t tell you anything out of the goodness of my heart. I told you out of spite, to fuck over any lingering master plans she might have had. Then I told you them just to keep you coming back, because I was bored. Then I wracked my brain for a few more, just because I wanted to please you.”

Nathanos cut himself off, locking his jaw so hard his teeth clacked together. Anduin was silent a moment, before breathing in with audible shakiness.

“Nathanos…”

“Get out.”

“Nathanos, I -”

“I said get out, Anduin,” Nathanos bit out, suddenly exhausted and unsure as to why.

Anduin hesitated, but then moved away, halting but without argument. He’d just started to open the door when Nathanos snapped his head up. “Wait.”

Anduin turned, too-quick, too-eager. Nathanos swallowed hard, only able to hold Anduin’s gaze for a moment before he had to look down again.

“Come back… tomorrow, if you can. I - “ He swallowed. “I accept your apology. But I need to think.”

Anduin nodded, rapid and near-manic. “I accept yours, too. Your apology, I mean. Not that you need -”

“Get out.”

He got out.

-

Nathanos stared at his reflection in the window. He’d drug his chair over to it when it was still bright out, so he could sit as he stared at the trees and thought. A small, petty comfort, but he’d felt shaky on his legs from a mix of dizzying confusion and shock-inducing hope.

He’d resigned himself to his comfortable cage and his jailer companion and his damned avian object of fascination. His drawing and his reading and his socks-sans-boots. Freedom, now offered, seemed… daunting. Unreal. Insane. He would be hated, on both sides. Every side. But perhaps less so than he expected, given the work done on his behalf by Anduin. Or moreso - traitors were traitors to some, no matter the reasoning. Nevermind the bitch was dead and had betrayed him first.

Would he be expected to remain in Stormwind? Would he want to leave? Where else would have him? Would Anduin hand him a bow and lead him to the city gates and tell him not to come back?

No, that wouldn’t be like Anduin. If anything, he would keep Nathanos too close, and Nathanos might end up in little more than a larger, even more heavily gilded cage. Would he even be allowed weapons? But it might still be better than his current one. Perhaps with time he could work his way to more freedoms.

Nathanos scoffed at himself, watching a single snowflake’s slow journey down from the sky. Would he beg for treats and a belly rub next?

The thought of rolling belly-up for Anduin sent a flash of heat through him. But that was even more foolish than hoping he might be allowed his bow. Foolish, and low of him, somehow. He felt vaguely like he was insulting the boy just thinking it. But if he weren’t a prisoner… and Anduin had turned such a fetching shade of red just looking at his chest.

Foolish. Worse than foolish. He would be let go, forgotten about, and if there were any gods interested in helping him then he would be left in peace and forget the boy eventually, himself.

More likely this damnable infatuation would linger and he’d end up chased down and dead, as well as foolish. The gods had never favored him. But at least, even worst-case, he would get to run through the woods one last time.

He sighed, folding his arms on the windowsill and resting his head on them. He needed to calm himself and think about what questions he would ask Anduin tomorrow - and how to hold his temper while he asked them.

-

Anduin best resembled a puppy hopeful its master had forgiven it for chewing up a pair of boots when he returned the next morning, barely opening the door and sidling around it as if he was failing spectacularly at stealth, or worried that someone would try to sneak in after him. It made Nathanos feel warm and fond, and for once he didn’t squash the feeling immediately. He’d already admitted to wanting to please the boy like some misbegotten hunting hound, and he’d long given up on the notion of pride, much as it tried to rear its head now and then. Anduin dragged his armchair up to the bars and sat down, knees almost squeezing between them with how close he pressed, and hands loosely wrapped around cold metal as if he needed something to do with them.

Nathanos moved his own chair over to mirror him, so close he could feel the gentle heat off Anduin’s skin where their hands were a mere couple inches away. He dismissed the urge to press their fingers together.

“So, I assume you’ve thoroughly ruined my reputation, then,” Nathanos started, and Anduin laughed brightly, leaning in even closer, shoulders relaxing. The shift in position made Anduin’s fingers ghost ever so slightly against Nathanos’ knee, and suddenly all Nathanos could focus on was that barest contact and the open relief and happiness on Anduin’s face.

“More like given you a new one, I hope.”

He swallowed hard, fighting the gut-deep urge to lean in and - and do things he shouldn’t. “Ah, I see. Well then. What would you ask of me, from here on? What limitations do I have to look forward to?”

Anduin sobered. “I don’t want to get your hopes up. But I’ll do my best to see you settled where you like. Voss believes you weren’t entirely to blame and is willing to help, too, if you - well. If you’d rather not stay in Stormwind.”

Nathanos studied the face so close to his a moment. “I’m not a good man, Anduin. Don’t delude yourself on my account. Influenced or not, to blame or not, I don’t lose sleep over the hundreds I’ve slain.”

Anduin didn’t so much as flinch. “I think that you insisting I know that makes you a better man than you think, but yes, I am aware. But I have also met far worse than you, and know the difference between those who can be redeemed and those who can’t.”

Nathanos leaned in closer. “Is that what you want, boy? To redeem me?”

Anduin smiled slowly. “Among other things.” He drew back, but not far enough for his fingers to lose contact with Nathanos’ knee. “But before that, there’s a few things we should discuss. I don’t know if it would be safe for you outside of where I have control over who comes in or out. You might need to stay within the Keep and it’s grounds for… I don’t know how long.” Anduin paused, looking somewhat apologetic. “And I won’t let you and Genn try to kill each other when you’re both in residence.”

Nathanos settled forward, elbows on his knees. “Try?” he drawled.

Anduin’s eyes narrowed. “Or succeed.”

“What are the odds of any of this actually happening, Anduin?” Nathanos asked, forcing himself back from the lure of getting a rise out of the boy. Anduin glanced away, and Nathanos felt dismayed resignation into his stomach like a stone.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Anduin replied softly, making Nathanos arch a brow. “Or like that.” Anduin sighed at him, or possibly the world at large. “It isn’t a question of if I can. As you’ve so helpfully pointed out before, I am the king. It is a matter of if I can do this in a manner that doesn’t end with unpleasant consequences for both of us, especially you.”

They watched each other for a moment, before Nathanos decided to voice what had been chewing on the back of his mind all night. “You could keep me here. Or, if that’s… uncomfortable for you, you could have me quietly moved somewhere in your keep, or even elsewhere, and lock me in away from all those pesky consequences. It would be easier.”

Anduin didn’t miss a beat. “It would be. But it wouldn’t be freeing you, now would it?”

“Still so keen to save me, little lion?”

“Don’t call me that,” Anduin bit out, fingers moving to properly hold onto the fabric of Nathanos’ trousers.

“What,” Nathanos mocked, heart speeding up. “My saviour, or little lion? I’m afraid one’s rather literal, and the other’s too fitting not to have stuck already.”

Anduin’s nostrils flared. “I don’t want to be your saviour, I want -” He cut himself off with a click of teeth. He swallowed, and Nathanos found himself fascinated by the bob of his throat. “To be your friend.” Liar, Nathanos’ mind insisted, even as he told himself hope was a fool’s errand. “And I’m not little.”

In a fit of daring the likes of which he hadn’t felt up to since his mind had been clouded by a control spell, Nathanos let his eyes drag up and down Anduin’s body, slow and measuring. Anduin was fidgeting and pink before Nathanos met his eyes again. “Is that so?” he muttered, smirking. “Smaller than me, by the look of you.”

“A bet we can settle once you’re out of those bars,” Anduin shot back, before he flushed violently.

Nathanos grinned. Foolish. Foolhardy. Stupid. His heart was beating harder than it had in years. Better than a hunt, better than a kill. “What do I get when I win?”

Anduin’s eyes hooded briefly before he cleared his throat, fidgeting again. “I could get you a puppy,” he drawled out sarcastically. “But you won’t. What do I get when I win?”

Nathanos licked his lips. “I could think of a few things.” He hummed, then froze, suddenly needing this to be less serious, to end any talk of bets and deals and promises. One thing at a time. “Perhaps a stool, to be as tall as you seem to think you are? That might help with your delusions.”

Anduin blinked. “Tall…? Oh.” He coughed, face imitating a tomato, and straightened his spine. Nathanos found himself both mourning and relieved by the loss of contact as Anduin’s fingers left his knee. Anduin muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ass, and Nathanos chuckled. “We should… we should focus on what we need to do.”

“Indeed,” Nathanos murmured. But he didn’t lean away, and before long their knees were pressed together through the bars, and neither moved away.

-

His life would, they worked out, hopefully end up going something like this:

His involvement in the recent security and diplomatic stability would be made more widely known, along with Sylvanas’ penchant for mind control - perhaps slightly exaggerated, if Anduin saw the need.

He would be released with minimal fanfare, as quietly as possible.

He would stay primarily within Stormwind Keep, advising the king on matters of diplomacy with the Forsaken and combat against other undead. After showcasing his good behaviour, he might find himself working with SI:7, neutralizing threats he was uniquely suited for, given his general condition of not being alive could be a great asset in instances where it would be dangerous for the living… such as cases where it would be a hindrance to need to breathe.

Quick, quiet, and tidy. In summary, easy to ruin. Any misstep and he could find himself on the wrong end of torches and pitchforks, Greymane’s claws, or worse, and Anduin might well be unable to help him. He’d have to pray that Shaw’s loyalty to Anduin would keep the poison from Nathanos’ veins, and that no one loyal to Sylvanas stole into the Keep.

Nathanos found himself practically leaping at the idea, and was proud of himself for only the smallest bits of his eagerness being fueled by warm fingers and flushed cheeks and wide, blue eyes.

-

Long, slow days. Sketching, reading, watching, waiting for Anduin’s visits to spark something more than mild interest. Boring nights spent dabbling in unnecessary sleep and mildly more successful meditation, sorting through the dwindling amount of confusion in his head. It went on, and on, and on.

The city slowly grew more white with snow, then more colorful with lights and bits of evergreen and blood-red bows. One morning Nathanos woke from a determined doze to an enchanted sled flying past his window, pissing off his blue bird something awful. He laid in his bed and fought back the distress at the knowledge of what month it was, how long he had been here, how slow this plan of Anduin’s was.

He fought to both hold onto and not be driven mad by an urge to prove himself that he hadn’t felt since he was alive and out-shooting elves in Quel’Thalas. But instead of wanting to prove himself to just one person, he found himself with a new itch to prove himself to a whole swath of people. From small-minded nobles to village idiots, he wanted to be known as something other than a weapon, a walking, talking tool of destruction. He wanted to be known, at least among some, as an archer again. A fighter, a soldier.

A dark, oft-ignored corner of his mind whispered the word honor at him, and he scoffed and got out of bed. There were daydreams, and then there were delusions.

-

Anduin had come and gone the day before, toeing the line between banter and flirtation, leg bouncing with idle energy when he deigned to sit down. Nathanos had wondered, but opted to not ask if Anduin was unwilling to tell.

He was having a staring contest with his bird, debating the inanity of naming it given the likelihood that it might end up in an alley cat's stomach before he got to the same side of the bars as it, when the door to his cell opened. He turned, surprised, to find Anduin shutting the door behind himself. Nathanos’ heart leapt - back-to-back visits were rare, and usually mentioned beforehand. Better still, Anduin was dressed with none of his usual tassels or sashes, though the fur at the collar of his coat was mark enough that he was no peasant, no matter what he thought dressing in all brown achieved. He had a strangely shimmering bag clutched in one hand, a single key in the other, and he practically danced over to the door to Nathanos’ cell.

Nathanos met him at the bars, breath unsteady before Anduin had said a word. They both stopped, eyes locked, and Anduin’s manic grin softened to something that made Nathanos’ chest ache.

“I have good news,” Anduin said, tilting his head and fairly twinkling up at Nathanos.

“Oh?” Nathanos asked, like an idiot. But it was worth it to see Anduin laugh and lift the key like it was some hard-won prize. Anduin’s hand was shaking faintly.

“Are you ready?” he asked, tone an oddly serious mis-match with how visibly excited he was. Nathanos paused, suddenly unsure. After so long waiting, so long caged, was he? He hadn’t been free for the majority of his life. But Anduin was bright and expectant, and they had a plan, and he had that itching buzz under his skin to prove himself again and he had missed it.

“What do you think, brat,” he answered, and Anduin chuckled at him like he’d done something cute before making a shooing motion with the hand holding the key.

“Step back, the door opens inward.”

Nathanos stepped back, and Anduin didn’t look away from his face until he fumbled the key trying to unlock the door and had to look down. But then a twist, an echoing clack, and the door swung inward, leaving a neat rectangle of… absolutely nothing between Nathanos and Anduin’s grinning face.

Anduin did a little shimmy from foot to foot, then lifted the bag he held and shimmied it, while Nathanos was still trying to process seeing Anduin without bars in his view. “I brought this, for your things. It could probably fit everything in the room including the bed if we tried, Jaina enchanted it years ago, so whatever you want to bring…”

He trailed off, looking at Nathanos oddly. Though Nathanos supposed he had started, given he had been staring at Anduin since he showed up. Nathanos shook his head, reaching out for the bag and failing to hide how his hands trembled. “Thank you, Anduin.”

It wasn’t just for the bag, and Anduin knew it. It wasn’t enough, and Nathanos knew it. But it would do, and Anduin made a vague shooing motion at him again to tell him to get on with it. All of Nathanos’ clothes and papers, his latest round of books, and his old clothes minus belt and boots fit into it neatly. Then it was just a matter of sliding on his belt, tying up his laces, and walking out the door.

He found himself frozen at the bars, Anduin expectant on the other side of the unobstructed space. All he had to do was walk forward, but his mind insisted this wasn’t real. He had been knocked unconscious when Sylvanas died. He would come to in a moment on the executioner’s block or as a champion’s sword came down on him. He had died and he’d realize it the moment he passed through the doorway. He was still in the Undercity and had inhaled an alchemist’s latest concoction and hallucinated the last decade of his existence.

But Anduin was looking at him, eager and expectant, and Anduin could see him, like he could always see him. He could see far more than Nathanos wanted him to, and so Anduin held out his hand with a gentle half-smile and waited until Nathanos haltingly took it - and then tugged Nathanos forward, until he was past the bars.

Nathanos sobbed as soon as the bars were fully behind him, and Anduin’s long, warm fingers wrapped tight around his and squeezed until Nathanos caught his breath and squeezed back.

“You kept your word. You freed me.”

Anduin made a noise the likes of which Nathanos had only heard from dying men and pulled at their joined hands again. “Not - not quite yet. Come on. Let’s go, it’s a long walk to the Keep.”

The guards didn’t stare as they walked past, even though their king was holding a dead man’s hand. They just fell into step behind them until they reached the Stockade’s exit, where a handful of guards turned to look before the majority seemed to dismiss them entirely, though one or too glowered balefully at Nathanos before returning to their tasks. Far less trouble than Nathanos had expected, and as Anduin led him through the vast double doors and into the city proper, the realization that this was happening washed over him like a bucket full of warm water poured slowly over his head.

He was free. In danger, technically, and somewhat contractually obligated to the Stormwind crown, but - he was free.

Anduin turned to fuss around one-handed in the bag Nathanos still held, coming up with a cloak that he somewhat awkwardly slung over Nathanos’ shoulders. Nathanos helped with his free hand, grateful for the silent allowance of his weak need to keep holding on for the moment. Anduin lifted his hood, neatly hiding his features from a casual observer, and beamed up at him before heading off towards the Keep in the distance. Nathanos continued to cling to Anduin’s hand like a child as they made their way along the canals.

They were lost in the crowd in minutes, the anonymity of numbers shielding them better than any spell. Over a bridge and the blue roofs and bustling crowds of the trade district suddenly surrounded them, and Anduin pointed out a few points of interest that Nathanos already knew from intelligence reports but had never seen properly. The going was slow, and the afternoon sun slowly faded to twilight by the time they were most of the way through Old Town.

There were fewer people here, especially as it grew dark, and Anduin spoke more as they walked. Nathanos didn’t know which was worse for his raw nerves, the crush of bodies or this new openness. But he listened with half an ear as Anduin rambled until Anduin gasped, sudden and terrifying in it’s unexpectedness.

Anduin spoke before he could panic too much. “I’d almost forgotten!”

“What could possibly be so bad to have forgotten that you felt the need to give me a heart attack?” Nathanos hissed, trying to bring his frayed nerves to order. The brat grinned at him, squeezing his hand gently.

“Happy Winter Veil! It’s the day of, today. I should have brought you a present, but well, I got so excited about -”

“Anduin,” Nathanos interrupted flatly, staring at him as if he’d grown another head.

Anduin blinked up at him. When Nathanos said nothing else, because words were nothing compared to the rush of feeling in his chest at this ridiculous, idiotic man exisitng in front of him, Anduin squeezed his hand again. “Yes?”

“You - a gift. You truly think you should have gotten me a Winter Veil gift -” Nathanos spat out the words, “- on the day you get me out of prison.

Anduin smirked up at him. “Obviously.”

Nathanos stared at him until he went a bit pink in the face, and longer, until he shifted from foot to foot, boots scraping at the snow on the cobbles. But the brat’s smirk didn’t drop. It didn’t even falter.

It was likely another bad idea. A terrible, awful idea, which could well get him killed. But he couldn’t be fucked to care about how bad an idea it was just now, because Anduin’s cheeks were pink and his eyes were bright and Nathanos was free and Anduin was smirking at him over thinking he should get a Winter Veil gift beyond his freedom.

So he bent close and kissed him before he could talk himself out of it.

Anduin’s smirk disappeared into a quiet gasp under Nathanos’ lips, and Nathanos braced for the coming burst of Light that would send him slamming into the side of the stone house behind him. But he’d braced in the wrong direction, and he stumbled as Anduin’s hands came up under his cloak and clenched tight in the fabric of his sweater, pulling him forward.

They shuffled and stumbled for a moment, regaining balance, and then Anduin was pressing up again, leaning into Nathanos’ chest to kiss the corner of his mouth. Anduin huffed a laugh, cold nose brushing Nathanos’ cheek, and Nathanos hummed questioningly as he tried to figure out what kind of world he’d found himself in where the object of his affections pulled him in and kissed him back and laughed against his skin.

“I think I’ll take that as my Winter Veil present,” Anduin said, nuzzling Nathanos’ cheek before stepping back. “But we should get you settled in some before there’s any more of that.”

“Too noble by half,” Nathanos growled - or tried too. It came out disgustingly fond-sounding, even to his own ears. Anduin laughed again, hands clenching and releasing in Nathanos’ sweater like a kitten kneading.

“Are you certain of that?” he whispered, and something about his tone made Nathanos shiver the way the snow couldn’t. “Maybe I’m just selfish, and want you to do that again when it’s because… well.” He cleared his throat, smoothing out Nathanos’ clothes as he stepped back.

“Because what?” Nathanos asked, exasperated and suddenly tired of being outside, of questions, of everything that didn’t involve Anduin pressed close and touching his skin.

Anduin looked up at him, content and achingly honest. “When it’s… when we’re both certain it’s because I’m me, and not because I’m the only person you’ve spoken to in -”

“Don’t tell me how long,” Nathanos bit out in a rush. Anduin nodded, reaching up to rub at the back of his own neck. Nathanos sighed. “But I… see your point.” He couldn’t help himself, though, and reached up to cup Anduin’s cheek.

“Nathanos…” Anduin said warningly, but Nathanos leaned in anyways.

“Once more. Write it off as my… present.’

Anduin sighed against his lips as Nathanos finished leaning in, but didn’t even try to pull back as Nathanos kissed him again - and a few more times, gentle but sure, because he was nothing if not one to take advantage of what favor the gods showed him.

When he pulled back Anduin’s lips were redder than his cheeks and his eyes were dazed, but he still managed a half-hearted scowl. “That was more than one.”

“Mmm, was it?” Nathanos muttered, and Anduin cursed at him before stepping back. “Happy Winter Veil to me?”

“You’re a bad, bad man.”

“I did warn you.”

Anduin took his hand again, smirk back in place as if Nathanos had never chased it off. “That you did. Come on, we should get going. If we’re too far off schedule they might send someone looking for us.”

They went. Nathanos spent the rest of his Winter Veil being eyed suspiciously by royal guards and fitting his meager possessions into a room twice the size of both halves of his cell as Anduin babbled about buying him things as if nothing in the world would make him happier, even when Nathanos told him not to bother. In between his ideas he would pop in and out, conferring with this or that person about subjects that all parties involved made certain Nathanos couldn’t overhear.

-

When Nathanos was finally left alone, he opened one of the several windows and waited. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, but when a small, blue bird landed on the sill and tweeted at him discontentedly, he wasn’t surprised. Maybe Anduin would have some suggestions for what to name it.

He settled on his bed as the bird tucked its head under its wing on the bedside table. “What about -” he started, and then laughed as his bird interrupted him with an angry peep. He’d always disliked birds, too many bad memories of carrion feeders in the hazy days between his death and being freed of the Lich King’s control. But this one was about as far from a buzzard as one could get, and Nathanos felt something like understanding in how it could leave through the open window at any time and never come back, but it stayed anyways.

He managed to sleep a little, that night. In the dim light of pre-morning, he thought he might even have dreamed.