The way back from Fanow was a long one this time, winding from Yx'Maja through Slitherbough, and then dallying in every corner of the Greatwood before finally aiming towards the Crystarium. Countless reports needed direct investigation, preventing the shortcuts of either aetherytes or amaro. It seemed as if every glade and cave required someone to stop by and investigate it, ensuring that some new form of Ascian or Lightwarden had not somehow manifested and decided to set up shop.
The Warrior had made it back. Eventually. There had been more than one scuffle with the remnants of the Children of the Everlasting Dark, who -- if anything -- were even angrier now that the night had returned, insisting that it belonged solely to them and that all others should seclude themselves. He had missed, as always, a bowl of Runar's stew. By the time he had dragged himself to the border north of Fort Jobb, he had barely enough strength to cling to the reins of the amaro that had taken him home, grateful for the training of his steed to follow its memorized flight path without needing him to guide it.
There was still so much left to accomplish before the First could be set to right. For a mercy, the Warrior was glad he had begun to neglect his studies of magic; in their research of aetheric transference, the Exarch and the Scions had long surpassed what he remembered from various teachers in Eorzea, and any contributions he might have made had already been discussed. Though the awareness of how far he had atrophied was humbling, it did free him up to apply his other skills to the hundreds of different tasks now waiting for an adventurer to attend them -- most of which involved traveling to places, struggling against various forces trying to kill him, and then making it out alive.
As grueling as the work was, it was all still necessary. The diminished ranks of Sin Eaters had opened up new travel paths along with the skies; any merchants and explorers who sought to use them, however, rapidly discovered hungry beastkin who had already had the same ambitions. The dwarves of Kholusia had continued to cheerfully excavate various tunnels and had revealed unexpected technology along the way, and the qitari had returned to the Greatwood, digging up history in a literal sense. And then there was the business with Eden and the Empty, which was enough to make one start doubting their own wits after the manner in which Ramuh had manifested.
One thing was clear, at least: the sylphs would never forgive him if they found out.
But the conflicts remaining on the shard were no less potent, regardless of if they lay between different settlements or between man and beast. Despite the immensity of each victory they had seized, the basic practicalities of ongoing survival had not been erased. Life was awakening slowly across the First, but the deaths of Emet-Selch and the Lightwardens did not fill storage sheds and dinner plates. Other predators -- of all types -- would continue to move into the territory that the Sin Eaters had occupied. The survivors of the First still needed to find food, protection, medicine and shelter. That struggle would never be over.
And, wherever there was the need for one creature to live, there was inevitably the cost of something else dying in its stead.
Even with the Lightwardens gone -- the Warrior had to admit -- the First was still a remarkably convoluted place.
He arrived to the Pendants exhausted, dragging himself slowly up and down each stairwell. The whole trip was made on foot; he did not dare to risk an aetheryte transfer, lest his lack of focus end up transporting him in pieces across the entire Crystarium. When he passed the Manager of Suites, he managed a slight nod, and did not have the energy to answer when asked if he wished a meal sent up to his rooms.
His quarters, at least, were already lit, the window open and taking in fresh air. Setting his sword aside in its rack, the Warrior made it all the way to the nearest chair -- each step slow and methodical -- and slumped gratefully into it.
Sitting down was a mistake. What little strength he had vanished instantly, draining away as if the wood itself was a mimic in disguise, and he had just invited it to feast. He needed to wash -- to eat, to read some of his correspondences, make notes in his journal -- even though nothing seemed particularly compelling. Every part of him was sore. His muscles made slow flares of protest whenever he tried to move them, until the effort seemed futile from the start.
Instead, the Warrior stared up blankly at the ceiling, aware of the bells ebbing away as night slowly crept its way into his room and started to swallow him up with it: a spare suit of armor dumped upon a chair to be forgotten, watching the moon and stars cover the First with their presence.
He felt the whisper of Fray's arrival before the man took shape before him. Aether coiled itself into tendrils that congealed into basic pillars of form, sculpting a metal shell that gradually filled itself with the creature within. The gold trim on the dark knight's armor gleamed in the light. Even with the helm obscuring the man's features, the Warrior could sense the disapproval radiating forth; there was no force in all of Eorzea that could hide that.
Fray barely waited until he was more than a glimmer in the air before he spoke. "You look worse than after Hades got through with you."
The Warrior did not let the criticism humble him, true as it was. "Fray," he said softly, his mouth curving up fondly; he had the energy for that much at least, though little more.
The figure paused and then noted, patiently, "You know I'm not that man."
"You never seem to like it when I call you Esteem." It was still a good choice of a moniker, as the Warrior thought about it: esteem, self-esteem, his Esteem. A fond bit of wordplay. He'd been proud of it.
But Fray caught that thought -- along with the possessiveness of the phrase -- and the Warrior could feel the strength of the eyeroll that it evoked. Rather than bother to argue, the man reached up and yanked off his helm rather deliberately, revealing the lack of humor in his expression even as the contours of his shoulders were reshaping themselves, growing taller, broader. The shaggy cloud of his hair was equally askew, looking as if he had just tumbled out of bed: a reflection of the Warrior himself, though with eyes which shone like a pair of coins laid upon a burial shroud, sending the dead to their rest.
They were narrowed now, in open irritation; the Warrior felt the emotion sting his senses. "You should bathe first. Those fools in Eulmore were right about one thing: you stink."
The Warrior made a limpid kick of his foot, scraping the floor. "Will you disapprove if I fall asleep here in my armor?"
"If you mean, do I disapprove of you having as poor hygiene as that prat Estinien? Then, yes." Tossing the helm aside -- where it dissolved back into nothingness, unbidden from both their attention -- Fray continued to glare. "A thousand times, yes."
As much as the Warrior wanted to protest, he had to agree. He could smell the remains of Rak'tika on him like a tangible mass, rotting leaves and methane perfuming every ilm of his gear. "Pour some water over me. Enough can probably get in through my armor, and then I can drip the dirt out."
Fray snorted, turning his head aside; contempt prickled through the motion, needle-sharp, but then a soft burst of affection washed past, thrumming underneath the first like fingers running over the Warrior's heart. "Do you even have enough aether spare to continue granting me a form?" the dark knight asked -- but rhetorically, for he was already heading for the side door to the washroom, shoving it carelessly open with his heel before striding inside.
They had nearly missed the washroom altogether upon first arriving to the Pendants; the door had been cunningly designed to fit in with the paneling, so much so that someone had accidentally placed a table in front of it while setting up the room, leading the Warrior to rather nervously check under the bed for any sign of a chamber pot before eventually heading out to plead with the Manager of Suites. But -- in the end -- they'd had no lack of conveniences. The Exarch had set him up with quarters that had a separate bathing area, and even heated water in the pipes which supplied it, which meant not waiting for it to boil first over a fire. Luxury, really; the Warrior was lucky to not have to haul his own water from the nearest stream, laboriously filling up and then emptying a tub afterwards. It was folly not to take advantage of it while he still could, before it was time for the next fight.
He tilted his head back against the chair, half-drifting towards sleep as he heard Fray clatter around in the washroom. It did cost a certain amount of energy for Fray to manifest physically; the Warrior could feel the pull of it like hourglass sand leaving his body, hollowing him out further with each grain lost. There wasn't much excuse he could make -- it would have been less physically draining if he just staggered towards the washtub himself, dumping himself headfirst into the water to soak.
But every time he tried to rally himself to stand, he failed. The reason was there. The willpower wasn't. The days since Emet-Selch's demise had already melted together into one long, identical blur. Every ilm of his spirit wanted to simply lie down on the floor and not move again, even if it meant lying there until the centuries rolled on and the Crystarium decayed into ruins to entomb him.
If he simply shut his eyes here -- surrendering to unconsciousness -- then the next morning would inevitably arrive. Time itself would make his choices for him, demanding for him to get up once more and fight. All the Warrior needed to concern himself with was finding the strength to keep repeating it. Just a little rest would help. A few bells more of sitting there, that was all he needed. Another moment as he let his energy slowly recover, fully aware that the next day would be the same, and the next after that: a perpetual ache settling into his body, for it knew that even if it departed, he would simply invite it back again.
There would only be sleep and his duty, and nothing else.
Luckily enough, Fray had more than enough opinions for the both of them. The man emerged from the washroom only a few minutes later with a tub of water in his arms, and towels flung over his shoulders. He dumped them all gracelessly on the ground beside the Warrior, and then halved the pile of towels, spreading several underneath the chair, and the Warrior realized that Fray was serious: he was intending to bathe him right then and there, even if it meant dripping all over the floor.
After fetching a second tub for rinsing, Fray hauled up a short bench, planting himself on it and draping another towel across his lap. He had changed as well, stripped down to a basic shirt and slops -- thankfully enough, for continuing to manifest a full set of plate would have likely drained the rest of their aether completely -- and hadn't bothered with the formality of footwear. Both tubs of water were left to merrily steam beside them both, fire crystals dunked inside to keep the temperatures hot. Between them and the heat of the nearby stove, the air was already warm.
"Gloves first," Fray ordered sternly, holding out a hand in demand.
The Warrior grimaced, screwing up his face reluctantly -- but Fray only made an impatient twitch of his fingers, and finally the Warrior had no other choice but to yield. It felt as if his armor had trebled in weight since he first sat down; lifting his arm towards Fray was like trying to upend a mountain, and he relaxed gratefully into the support of Fray's hands as the man began to work the lacings.
The buckles for the right glove and bracer went easily, even despite how the leather had bloated from moisture. Fray moved quickly to undo them, and then paused at the first tug on the gauntlet itself, feeling it resist him. He made a face, screwing up his expression in dismay. "You're still wearing rings under your gauntlets. You know how terrible that is for the fit."
It was -- both for the fingers and for the rings themselves. Even plain bands were dangerous. If a finger was too badly injured and began to swell, the metal could block off necessary bloodflow and be impossible to remove without cutting the ring off. The intricate bracelet wrapped around his right wrist earned a similar scoff as Fray uncovered it, though more for its potential for irritating the skin from trapped sweat or by sliding around during combat. The man checked the Warrior's arm for signs of reddening, and then tossed both pieces of jewelry idly onto the table like a set of worthless trinkets: a pointed gesture of disdain, as if their true destinations should have been a goldsmith's smelting pile.
Right hand naked now, the Warrior flexed it gingerly, feeling the cooler air pass over his skin. The motion was easy enough to perform without concern. But he winced when Fray went for the left side of his body, and Fray -- pausing long enough to give him a stern look -- freed that gauntlet more carefully, exposing the mottled, purpling bruise that spanned across the entire spread of the Warrior's fingers, sparing only the thumb with the livid swelling.
"It would have been worse without the gauntlet," the Warrior supplied helpfully.
Fray bared his teeth in disgust; like a thick stew burbling in protest, an mirroring bubble of sentiment rose inside the man, bursting in a wordless, half-formed insult before ebbing away into mere disapproval. "Is that meant to be any comfort?"
The ring on the Warrior's left hand was, thankfully, a jointed shell of metal, rather than a band with jewels or other decorations; the second layer of armor had protected the knuckle somewhat, and though the flesh had been pinched inside it, the circulation had not been choked. Still, it took several careful minutes for Fray to remove it, wiggling it carefully around the knuckle as the Warrior groaned against what felt like a dislocation in the making.
Then both hands were bare, freed of rings and gauntlets, the latter of which had already been lined up on the table. The Warrior stretched his fingers out gingerly, appreciating the freedom to move. Each joint felt stiff, the flesh swollen and clumsy. Rak'tika's swamps had completely saturated the leather of his armor, soaking in layers of humidity and mud; most of it would have to be replaced, unless he wanted to stink like a bog and attract every vilekin from malms around. The artisans of the Crystalline Mean would surely weep once he managed to bring everything to them this time to get cleaned, seeing what a mess he'd made of their newly-cut leather and stitching.
Fray's hands were still busy, as methodical as if he were a leatherworker himself, bent to dismantle the Warrior's armor instead of reconstruct it. He reached up to slide the heavy weight of the Warrior's earring free, careful not to tug on the lobe too hard, and then set the adornment down on the table. "What poor condition you're in. You should have called for my aid. I would have done a far better job of protecting you than this flimsy metal."
The Warrior had just enough strength to arch a defensive eyebrow at the ceiling. "My armor does an adequate job."
Fray glanced down pointedly, his eyes skimming the tapestry of injuries already visible, each bruise offering fresh dyes for the threads. "Does it. I suppose we'll find out soon enough. Arms up."
The buckles and joints of the chestpiece were next. Fray pulled his bench closer, arms going around the Warrior's body as he worked on the catches, and the Warrior leaned forward, briefly tipping his head against the solid support of the other man's shoulder. They were both fortunate that Fray already knew how the suit of Edengrace worked; the more complex that suits of armor became, the more buried their hazards. With one set of armaments, the Warrior had discovered that if he rotated his hand the wrong way while trying to get the gauntlet to automatically shutter closed into a sleek, form-fitting shape, it would instead try to fold up around the elbow and attempt to crush the joint. He had -- more than once -- nearly had his fingers severed by his own gloves.
"Arms forward now," Fray ordered tersely. His mind provided the slightest shove for emphasis, like a hand in the small of one's back, as if he didn't expect the Warrior to follow common sense on his own. Buckles clicked open in staccato. The chestpiece loosened and then came free from the Warrior's body like a dislodged carapace, a layer of clay being prised away from a buried artifact; then Fray promptly peeled off the leather padding and undershirt, leaving the Warrior's skin naked to the light.
Half-stripped, the Warrior slouched back against the chair, free to relax without a shell of metal to keep him upright like a brace. The air was colder without the insulation of armor trapping his body heat; the temperature difference was enough that he wasn't certain if he should be prepared to shiver, or if he must have been sweating all along. He felt even more boneless now, helpless to merely watch as Fray slid to the floor, and began work on removing his boots next.
This one was harder. The left side came off easily enough. But when Fray gripped his right foot by the ankle, the Warrior made a hissing sound despite himself, his back arching in a startled spasm that was hard enough to knock his shoulderblades against the wooden chair.
Fray instantly shot him a withering look; the Warrior felt the press of the man's mind begin to dig insistently at him for information. He tried a token deflection, dismissing the injury as a stubbed toe. It was swatted away immediately beneath the pressure of Fray's focus, like a lump of flan set to ineffectively barricade against a landslide.
Thankfully, Fray eased up quickly enough. As soon as he had learned enough of the nature of the injury, he shifted position, bracing the back of the Warrior's leg so that he could use both hands to pull the greave off, and then the rest of the boot. Pain hit like a queasy, hot jolt as the Warrior tried to ride it out, aware of how carefully Fray was trying to work around the joints of the ankle, and the blunt bend of the heel. He swallowed his groan; it rolled in the back of his mouth, fighting to get out again, and he thought desperately of the stark snows of Coerthas instead, pristine and empty and cold.
He was on the verge of panting when Fray finally slid the rest of the boot free, revealing the ugly blotch that had seeped across the Warrior's skin: a bruise that coiled around his leg all the way up the calf, the ankle itself puffed with swelling.
"I'm impressed," Fray drolled, sounding anything but. He studied the discoloration as if it were a new form of vilekin, one with parasitic traits. "You need ice for both your foot and your hand, not heat. I'll get cold towels for you after this and stoke the stove so you don't catch a chill, and then you can be liberated to drip all over the floor some more."
The Warrior attempted an airy wave that felt as convincing as a drunkard's kiss. "A few bells of rest and some more elixirs will do the trick well enough. At least the swelling isn't severe enough for you to have to cut the boot off this time."
Fray did not miss the comment -- this time -- and picked up the boot again studiously. Then he reared up and flung it, hard, into the furthest corner of the room where it promptly smashed against a cabinet and clattered behind one of the dressers, far enough out of reach that the Warrior would have to work to fish it out again. "Stop by the Spagyrics. You'll need real healing, you moonbrained fool."
"And they have real patients." Dropping his head back against the chair, the Warrior resigned himself to his fate of being shoeless for the rest of the evening. Not that he needed the excuse. He didn't have the energy to leave again, even if he wanted to; all he could do was stare up at the ceiling, and wait for the morning to come.
He felt Fray prodding both the bruise and his mind carefully, searching for any indication of a broken bone. "You cannot keep dosing yourself with medicines in hopes that your life will be sustained through a never-ending supply of potions."
"Not everyone has the same advantages we possess." The brickwork of his quarters seemed dark and dizzying, like the walls of a prison that had been twisted out of shape in a gravity spell. The Warrior wondered, suddenly, if it would fall in upon him; it seemed like a remarkably simple way to go. "'Twould be selfish not to allow them to aid first."
Setting his hands on the cuff of the Warrior's pant leg, Fray ran his finger along the inside of the fabric, loosening the fit. "No," he snorted, "they have their own advantages, ones you do not share. You would do well to let them exercise their own strengths upon occasion. Else, the only thing they will learn is how to best beg another for succor."
The leggings were inconvenient enough to try and wrestle off while remaining half-seated; several times, the Warrior thought about just giving up and telling Fray to leave them in place, hygiene notwithstanding. But the man was right. They had to go, or else they would simply get soaked, and the long process of leather drying on you -- clasped heavily around your legs, cold and sodden -- was a horrible feeling, one that reminded the Warrior of too many nights spent huddled by a fire, or crouched in a stream hoping for voidkin to slither past. It would be far more costly on repairs if he got them needlessly wet -- and Fray, he suspected, would be only too happy to simply cut them off the Warrior's body if given half an excuse. He wriggled as best he could, leaning his weight from one hip to the other while Fray yanked them indecorously off. Then the other man got hold of his smallclothes before the Warrior could protest, and wrenched them away too, dumping them on top of the rest of the pile to be sorted for washing and repairs.
And then he was bare, naked down to every ilm of his skin, and Fray was sitting back on the bench, eyeing him sternly. After a moment of deliberation, the other man scooped up the cloth rag from the water basin, squeezing out the excess moisture before holding out his hand imperiously, palm upturned.
"Very well," he announced, waiting until the Warrior tamely placed his injured left hand in his, and then angling it critically towards the light. The swollen knuckles were lined up in a purpling row like rejected jewels at a goldsmith's table, each deemed too flawed for further polish. "Let's begin here. Tell me: what did this protect?"
It was not a question about the gauntlets. Those pieces of armor had already been set aside. Skin and flesh -- a simpler form of defense -- had kept the Warrior's bones from shattering, but neither of those were what Fray addressed either.
The Warrior's armor had safeguarded him. But his wounds had shielded something else.
"North of Fanow," he began, watching Fray start on his smallest finger first, wiping it down carefully. Drops of water spattered on his knee, and past that onto the towels on the floor. "A viis was training her apprentice on a herd of deer. Both of them were archers, aye? But the apprentice fought with a pugilist's sensibilities. She was confident -- so confident," he laughed, ruefully, remembering the horrified disbelief that had gripped him upon watching the woman leap forward recklessly into the herd. "Rather than hang back, she charged right into the whole lot. Three stags had already set upon her before she had even set an arrow to string. I had to race simply to keep up with her and ward off their fury."
Fray snorted. The cloth moved over the Warrior's knuckles, gently daubing away the sweat and grime. "Deer."
The Warrior allowed himself a smile at Fray's derision. "Anything can be ferocious in the right circumstances." The deathmice of the Twelveswood had their name for a reason; he had underestimated them once early on in his journeys. Never again. "Scarce had we slain one of the herd before she was off to pick at another, rather than finish off the ones she had already aggravated. It seemed as if they were endless. I had to use every technique I knew simply to stay alive. Near the end," he admitted, as lightly as possible, as though nonchalance alone was enough to turn the entire tale into an innocent child's romp, "one managed to charge inside my guard."
It was a good thing that Fray had already switched to his right hand; the Warrior lifted his left one, mimicking the same instinctive block that had saved his skull from being bashed open. He could still remember those hooves coming down, sharp as a mugger's knives, driven by a pair of muscular legs that could splinter bone. The strike had been a crushing one. It had nearly broken him. "I didn't have any tricks left at that point, save desperation," he admitted. "Thankfully, I managed to deflect it in time. The results are as you see them, but the viis herself was unwounded."
The cloth was working its way down to the Warrior's right wrist, leaking hot droplets along his skin, and the Warrior wanted badly to pretend that it was a magickal balm that could erase all forms of damage that it touched. But Fray was right: the heat felt both soothing and aggravating, and the pain was moving steadily towards an angry inflammation. He would have to ice most of his body at this rate, not just his ankle. He would have to care enough to do so at all.
"Was it worth it?"
The Warrior did not answer immediately. Fray would have caught an arbitrary verdict if he had. Instead, he allowed his thoughts to wander to the way that Salmet Quickhunt had stopped once the rest of the herd had fled, and then -- turning back belatedly -- finally realized just how much danger she had invited. A ring of corpses had decorated the grass around them. In the center, the Warrior had gone to one knee, leaning against his greatsword as he had struggled to catch his breath, a stray trickle of blood painting the side of his face where the hoof had kissed along his scalp, only an ilm away from smashing his skull in.
He had witnessed the look of horror that had frozen her as she finally realized how many adversaries had taken up her challenge, coming in from her flanks even as she had only focused gleefully on the target directly before her.
Best recover your fletching, the Warrior had said, offering a weary smile as he had jerked his head towards the nearest carcass.
Salmut had stammered panicked apologies, and then equally-agitated thanks -- but it hadn't been her contrition that he'd been looking for. As the viis had gathered her courage back, she had made an abrupt, determined nod, her eyes still fixed upon him: acknowledging the awareness of where she had gone wrong, and the drive to improve upon it.
"Yes," the Warrior said aloud to Fray. "It was worth it."
Fray watched him for a moment, and then rewet the cloth, working up the Warrior's wrist. There was only a fistfull of space between the bruises on his hand and a second set that painted his forearm; the width of them coated the Warrior's skin as if he had dipped his hand into a dye vat and then had done a poor job of scrubbing afterwards. Blotches of angry violet mapped the aftermath of each blow, refusing to fade into yellows and greens. "And what is the rest of this nonsense from? Challenged the viis herself, did you?"
This one, at least, was easier. While the damage looked widespread, the impacts themselves had been made with a blunt object, and not the point of a hoof. The Warrior stretched out his arm to let it rest on the table, grateful not to have to hold it out extended and dripping. They were vivid marks, true -- but still only bruises. He wouldn't have even considered them worth noticing.
"Do you mean to take the measure of my sincerity through the proportion of my suffering?" he asked, bemused that Fray thought it worth investigating at all.
Rotating the Warrior's arm carefully to test for strain, Fray made a thoughtful grunt and then began the work of scrubbing down the skin from shoulder to wrist. "'Tis not the arrow wound itself which kills a hero. It is the infection which sets in, the blood loss that makes them dizzy later, dulling their reflexes so that they are too slow to block a blade. It is," he added sharply, flicking the washcloth hard enough to scatter water at the Warrior's face, "the effects of eating five Lightwardens and then imagining they do not somehow poison your belly later."
The Warrior winced, recoiling automatically from the spatter; he would likely never escape Fray's reminder of that, and for good reason. "Point taken. 'Twas only a treant, massive and enraged. Chantico, the Night's Blessed called it. When I came across it, it was engaged with two of their sentries -- they had only a spear and a bow between them, and naught else to shield from its blows. The seedkin itself held no surprises. Merely its vast strength, and its anger."
Fray looked unimpressed, soaking the washcloth once more before pressing it against the meat of the Warrior's arm. The temperature of it was hotter than before; the fire crystals were heating the basins unevenly, and the sensation was closer to pain than relief. But Fray took note, stirring the water up with a few swirls of the cloth, and then letting it cool for a moment before reapplying it to the Warrior's skin, holding it there to allow the heat to loosen the muscle rather than sear it.
"And the sentries?" he encouraged. "Were they safe?"
It was gratifying to turn back towards the conclusion of the fight, rather than continue to brood over the details of it. The Warrior watched as Fray checked how well his elbow could flex, bruises still smudged violently across the skin.
"They were," he said, a faint trickle of pride working through him, settling into his chest.
Fray did not bother to praise him. Instead, the dark knight shoved his small sitting bench just far enough away to give them both more room, and considered what still needed washing before taking the Warrior's left leg and stretching it out like a beam between them, braced upon his thigh. Dozens of scrapes and gashs covered the skin. Flecks of dried blood -- clinging stubbornly to the hairs of his legs -- decorated the Warrior's leg like a handful of cinnamon tossed over a cake, clumped into still-forming scabs. "What about these wounds? Give me the story here."
The Warrior bit back a grimace of embarrassment -- a useless endeavor, since Fray would have felt it regardless of what he displayed on his face. "You already know," he pointed out matter-of-factly. "Do you truly wish me to describe the whole tale?"
It was Fray's turn to lift an eyebrow this time in concession; he dabbed at a few of the scabs carefully with the washcloth, taking care not to scrub them away. "What happened is different from how you feel about it. By all means -- tell me, with your own tongue, why you bothered with what amounts to little more than pest extermination."
Helpfully, the Warrior tried to shift his feet to allow Fray a better reach with the cloth, and only earned himself a sharp mental prod: hold still. "The Warrior of Darkness, slain by a rampaging herd of atrociraptors no larger than half-grown chocobos," he agreed. "What sort of fate would that be?"
He had hoped for levity to lighten the mood, but the look Fray gave him was unamused, eyes lidded as he reached forward to work the washcloth along the Warrior's thighs, spreading them further open with his hand as he wiped down the inner hollows of the hips. The rag was gentle as it ran down the Warrior's cock, his balls cupped in Fray's palm as they were sponged clean next. "The same sort of fate as if you'd died to Hades, I expect. The how of it hardly matters. People don't care what makes someone break -- only if it happens or not. Even then, it's only so they know to dig out the spare. They wouldn't criticize the manner in which you died. Merely that you had the rudeness to do so at all."
As painful as the atrociraptors had been, the wounds they had left behind were at least relatively straightforward: all cuts and nips, the flesh torn but without any risk of something broken deep within his body that would bloom into a lethal rot. The leggings had done an adequate job of keeping any of the beastkin from getting a full mouthful, which had also kept them from ripping chunks out of him -- far harder to heal parts of the body that were simply no longer there -- and they hadn't been able to hit a major artery. Conjury had done well to stem the bleeding. Even though the skin needed healing, there was not any sign of major infection.
Still, the fight had not been one worth putting to any ballad. Using a greatsword to swat down the tiny creatures had been like trying to use someone's front door to crush a fly: devastating when he could make each strike connect, but just as likely to miss with each swing. By the end of it, he'd had to flail wildly, and hope.
Fray only smirked as the Warrior finished mulling over the battle, and the Warrior realized that the man had simply pulled his thoughts out of him as during the recollection. He offered a lopsided smile back. "Naught to be done about it," was his verdict. "Greatswords are powerful, but get within their reach, and they're as vulnerable as any other long weapon."
"You have aether to shield you in close quarters for such moments."
"I do." The Warrior watched Fray chase a drip of water along his thigh, patting the moisture dry. "But it was bad timing."
The excuse was only half a lie. He'd already been injured by then, not even halfway back to the Crystarium.
He'd already been tired.
Fray said nothing to that, rinsing out the cloth and soaking it in fresh water again. "At least you've one good foot remaining." Despite the caustic edge to his words, the dark knight's hands were careful as they lifted the Warrior's right ankle, shifting his wooden bench closer so that he could brace the weight of it on his knees. "Which manner of beast was it that caused you to limp all the way back here?"
Like the shriek of a compressed nerve, reluctance suddenly reared in the Warrior's soul with all the ferocity of an inferno, flinging a wall high in his mind. It could not hold; he was as helpless to reinforce it as he was to attempt dismantling it himself, stone by stone. It was as if -- despite all of Fray's care -- the man had torn open one of the many scabs on his body, and now the Warrior was bleeding everywhere, all over the table, all over the rags. All over the floor. He'd been so weary fighting the raptors. He was so weary still, and he didn't want to think about the rest of his battles, not when he'd already been trying so hard to forget about how many of them had happened at all.
He'd fooled everyone else he'd met along the road back to the Crystarium. None of the sentries had tried to probe deeper into his health. He had smiled and deflected any questions as to his well-being, and they had all believed him when he had claimed that he was fine enough.
But he couldn't deceive Fray.
He opened and closed his hands once, painfully aware of how the dark knight was conscious of every stray emotion that coursed through him, no matter how stubborn or petty. "One of those vined plants in the swamp," he began. His voice felt thick. "Grown to absolutely massive proportions. I was doing a fair job of hacking it down, and then it snuck one of its vines in low, and snatched my leg. It pulled me straight off the ground -- I nearly lost my grip on our greatsword at that point, which would have likely been the end of me. It swung me around a bit. I suppose I'm lucky it didn't think to smash me against the dirt, or else I might be short a working leg, too."
Hanging upside-down, it had been a miracle that he'd managed to get enough leverage; even then, it had been for a hasty stab, and not a proper swing. Plate armor was well and good, save when its entire weight was being suspended from a single limb. He'd been lucky to escape without a dislocation.
Fray's scorn, at least, was reserved for his injury, and not his battle techniques. "Any medic would keep you off that foot completely until it heals. Knowing you, at least give yourself time to restore your aether before you try to mend it yourself, or ask for enough of a curative that you can get the swelling down. Else, you'll simply keep making it worse with every step you take."
The Warrior arched an eyebrow, trying to shrug it away with a witty reply -- but Fray, likely sensing the attempt, simply pressed his fingers lightly into the joint to check the swelling, and the Warrior's feigned nonchalance dissolved into a pained groan. "Was this worth it? Was this worth the injury?"
This one was harder to answer, as the Warrior had known it would be. The response everyone would have expected was simple: that it was vital to take care of threats in advance, before they grew out of control and claimed lives. The Warrior had intervened in such ways in the past. Adventurers were paid in coin for far less.
But no one had bid the Warrior to fight this time. It had been his choice to confront the seedkin -- and, in the end, it was his frustration as well. Mere belief in the rightness of his cause had been his sole justification. Removing the seedkin might have merely paved the way for another predator to rise in its wake. His actions might have even made matters worse in the long run.
"I don't know," he confessed. It felt awful to say out loud, admitting to what sounded like resentment -- but he had to, before it became rancor in truth, festering like a thousand cuts until it all broke out in a wave that darkened every action around him. Until Fray intervened again like a sword drawn at Whitebrim, screaming his anger at both the world and at the Warrior for allowing all of it to happen. "I don't know if it was worth it. I don't know."
He bowed his head gracelessly against his palm, feeling the ugliness of the confession tighten his chest, creeping along the back of his throat. The words were no easier to admit to now than any of his anger had been back when Fray had first given him a greatsword and said, listen to the darkness. None of the thoughts he strung together gave the emotions themselves any nobility. To be a hero was to fight without the desire for accolades -- but fighting alone, without any thanks, meant that you might only be fooling yourself into thinking the fight was necessary to begin with.
A false knight, crafting enemies out of pretenses simply so they could feel needed in the world.
Yet to follow that course of logic only spiraled further downwards: that to feel unappreciated at all was a sign of hidden selfishness, an unworthiness of the title of Warrior of Light. To serve mindlessly in silence was equally futile; doing so fostered entitlement in the same way as the merchant he had confronted long ago. And battles which went unobserved rarely had the chance to change the minds of others. If it only counted to fight where others saw it -- if it only mattered if others were able to observe, and understand -- then all the dozens, hundreds, thousands of fights that went unacknowledged in the world needed to be seen.
To fight alone, some might say, was a fruitless endeavor: the only battles that counted were the ones that gave others cause to appreciate the labors being performed on their behalf.
By that logic, the only battles that counted were the ones that people were grateful for.
It was a knot of contradictions, arguments that the Warrior could not defend without perverting his own beliefs into something self-serving, twisted further and further down until all of his actions were suspect -- and even as the Warrior tried to deny even the slightest hint of vanity, he felt Fray's fingers reach out to settle against his skin.
"That's enough." The man's hand was a firm pressure on the back of his head, covering the fragility of his spine. The force of his will in the Warrior's mind was the same: a heavy grip that refused every impulse towards self-recrimination, saying no again and again. "We're almost done. Turn around, and let me finish your back. Don't bother to move the chair," he ordered, already standing up. "Use the table to lean on instead."
Granted the welcome reprieve, the Warrior started to move without thinking -- but as he twisted around, focused solely on guiding his sprained ankle safely underneath the furniture -- a fresh pain shot through his body, radiating all the way from the base of his spine to the top as the muscles spasmed in protest.
He dropped back against the chair, all interest absent in ever moving again. "I'm clean enough," he claimed, attempting to catch his breath. "We can skip that part."
But it was far too late. If Fray had been quick to notice the Warrior's pain before, he was even faster now. Like fingers pressing at a bruise that had gone deeper than flesh, deeper than bone, the dark knight's mind dug into him, catching at each wisp of memory, no matter how small. The Warrior tried to wave him off, obfuscating it all beneath a cloud of indifference, but without any luck: Fray was already glowering at him, the man's suspicions confirmed.
"Your back," the dark knight repeated, each word a soft, slow command. "And then, you will tell me all about it."
Scooping up one of the pillows from the bed, Fray laid it on the table for padding and then flicked a towel across it, shoving everything else aside in a clatter of empty bottles and trinkets. "Here," he announced, adding another layer of towels for the Warrior's arms to rest upon. "That will help. Keep the pressure off your hand."
There was no excuse not to move; even so, the Warrior took more care this time as he turned around, shifting in place on the chair to keep from bumping any of the other injuries. He felt Fray's hands brush his back for support -- and then stop as the rest of his back was revealed to the light. Slowly, the other man's fingers traced downwards, pausing just to the left of the spine where an inferno ache was simmering, dangerously close to the kidneys. It felt like a bruise, though the Warrior hadn't seen it yet in a mirror directly. Even though Fray's fingers barely applied any pressure, it still felt as if the skin was alert to the slightest points of contact, ready to scream.
Fray considered the damage, circling the pad of his thumb over the mark even as his attention pressed into the Warrior's mind. "This one. Here. Speak."
Even though there was no purpose in it, the Warrior tried to push back -- but there was nothing to resist. Fray's mind had already slipped away, shuttering itself back into the abyss where the Warrior could not easily reach. "Take it from my thoughts," he replied, letting the cowardice of it twist around him as he lowered his head against the table. "'Twould be faster that way."
But Fray ignored the attempt at deflection, as pathetic as it was. "You have managed to share the story of everything else. Now it's this one's turn. What did this protect?" he insisted softly, cupping his hand over the bruise like a warning.
"Not enough." Staring bleakly at the cotton towels piled beneath his arms, the Warrior made a limp shake of his head. "It did not protect enough."
He fell silent again, but not out of aversion this time. It was difficult to gather his words in order, dredging them out of the muck he had shoved them relentlessly into in the back of his mind. He hadn't wanted to remember any of this fight. He'd shoved it all aside to consider later, he'd told himself -- which had meant, secretly, never.
Except that Fray was here, and Fray knew exactly what the Warrior was intending: to try and contain the entire blame of it as his own, a pearl of sin hoarded away where no one else could see it, distending his innards like the sullen lump of a tumor.
He could not lie, either. Not to someone who was already entrenched within his soul, reading the memory back as easily as a picture book penned for children.
The Warrior buried his face into the cloth wrapped over the pillow. Even with his voice muffled, he knew Fray could understand him, picking each syllable out of his mind before he even finished forming it aloud. "There was a skirmish between the Night's Blessed and a few of the remaining Children of the Everlasting Dark. It was... worse than the deer." An understatement. Even saying it felt like swallowing mouthfuls of grit, bog-silt settling into the crevices of his teeth and the bed of his tongue. "We were fighting in the water, all the way up past my knees. It made everyone sluggish, impossible to move through -- and the Children knew it. Nearly every one of them was an archer or mage, with lancers otherwise for reach. Trying to fight in that was like wading through snow. Every time I tried to close the distance, it always seemed as if I was too late."
He didn't want to say any more. It bordered on insult to try and explain away the dead. Like his earlier reluctance, it seemed better to abandon the conversation entirely than to allow it even a single sentence more -- but there was no place to flee to that Fray could not follow.
He twisted his fingers into the towels. "That wasn't the whole of the problem. The bog was not too deep, but it was deep enough. Whether it was a Night's Blessed or Child, each person fell into the water when they were struck down. They fell," he repeated, "and then, they began to drown."
It hadn't been obvious at first. The battle had been chaotic enough to take up all the Warrior's attention, but then one of the Blessed had pitched face-first into the waters beside him and hadn't come up again, even though part of his mind had kept telling him they were fine, they would surface any moment now. When he had gone to his knees to drag the woman up, she had already seemed pale with death. The water she had vomited out when he had thumped her hard on the back had been brackish, laced with mud and decaying weeds.
"When I realized what was happening, I tried to haul those who were already unconscious upright, to shallower waters." Their robes had been heavy in his hands. Waterlogged, the fabric had pulled the wounded down like a set of manacles chained around their entire body, even as they had struggled to stay upright, choking on the swamp. "But we were so far in and -- I tried to pull all of them out, no matter which side they were on. At that point, it was madness for either side to continue fighting. But the Children set their arrows on me, and one of their lancers came up behind me while I was carrying one of the fallen out and I -- they caught me by surprise."
He was speaking faster now, flat and emotionless, plowing through each memory mindlessly like following flags on a race course, flinging himself towards the final goal in hopes of respite. "Their spear hit me while my arms were still full. It hit the joints and was deflected into the muscles instead of away." Edengrace looked impressive; the cunningly jointed scales which ran along the spine offered superior flexibility, at the tradeoff of creating other vulnerabilities. Thanks to how the metal curved into itself, the weapon had driven that much deeper, its full impact funneled directly into the Warrior's body. "It knocked me off-balance. The lancer tried to drown me -- she got me into the water, lodged her spear in my chestplate to hold me down. By the time I managed to drive her away, the fight was already over."
He stopped there, abruptly, hitting the end of the facts themselves and finding nothing else save his own guilt to plunge back into, as if he were also a half-asphyxiated, dying thing being dragged out of the mud and forced back into life again. "I don't know who won. No one did. The waters were so murky. I couldn't... find all the bodies."
"You weren't responsible for them." It was the first time Fray had spoken up in protest of any of the efforts. The dark knight was a formless voice at his back; he wasn't touching the Warrior anymore, standing just out of sight. "You saved what you could. They must be willing to take action for themselves."
The Warrior took in a shaky breath; it tasted like bile in the back of his throat. "I could have saved more." He knew how much like Myste he sounded. There were reasons that the child had been compelled to take form: this was one of them. This was the same path that led there. "I could have -- "
The pressure of Fray's hand settling against his neck was as molten as one of the washcloths might have been against the bruise staining the Warrior's back: a presence that invited the very flesh itself to burn, incited further by every broken blood vessel seeping beneath the skin. "You saved enough."
Immediately, the Warrior drew breath to protest -- and then shut his mouth again, shuddering underneath the grace of those words. It was a forgiveness that Fray had offered him before, to him and to Myste, and that the Warrior had offered back to them both. He had given it to others on countless occasions. It had always felt too selfish to grant it to himself.
He remembered -- remembered or felt, or both -- an echo from Fray's heart that reached into the center of that ache, and stripped away the debris of a dozen half-formed excuses, a hundred castigations.
It weighs as it should.
The Warrior hunched his shoulders. His back bent in a curve over the table as the span of Fray's palm rested upon him, pressing firmly against his spine like an anchor. The barrier of Fray's body dulled the light between him and the glow of the lamps above: a living shadow that coated the Warrior as Fray regarded his turmoil quietly, refusing to look away.
"Breathe," was all he said.
The Warrior listened. The abyss rose beneath him like a sunless ocean as Fray pinned him there above it, neither submerged nor escaping its reach. Without any care for mercy, the dark knight dredged up every scrap of memory he could find, starting with the swamp and working all the way back to the viis and her herd of deer. Piece by piece, blow by blow, Fray methodically laid out and acknowledged each of those failures for what they were: bearing witness to everything the Warrior did, everything the Warrior thought and felt, even when no one else had seen it.
You could have been faster against that treant, the Warrior heard: a methodical litany reviewing and agreeing with his own self-condemnations. Your form there was careless. That was a swing you could have easily blocked. Yes -- you could have done a better job of it. That choice of opponent was a mistake.
Yet at the same time, after a memory had been reviewed, Fray set it aside. Each verdict was passed. Each matter was done. They were merely facts after the making of them, and the Warrior -- tentatively, with the same fearful unwinding of a muscle being coaxed to untense -- exhaled out a long, shaky breath, feeling the poison of it slowly drip out of him. Thorn by thorn, he let each of his own damnations go before they could bury their infections deep enough to fester, leaving new cysts in his heart that would rupture and spread their poisons freely.
He could recite words of redemption a thousand times to himself, trite phrases that could have their veneer stripped away to reveal only cheap justifications -- but it was different coming from Fray. Another person might err on the side of kindness, believing the Warrior if he claimed he had been too tired, too distracted. Fray could tell exactly how much of that might have been merely an excuse. The dark knight was not someone the Warrior could lie to, even by omission. Fray would simply pick through those very same memories like a culinarian at market, turning over each glossy fruit and exposing the blight on the other side.
And that meant that Fray's forgiveness of it was equally absolute.
With one final, slow exhalation, the Warrior felt his shoulders begin to relax. This time, he let it happen. He was even more tired than before, but this time in a good way: the festering murk of guilt and sorrow was beginning to seep away without the threat of an immediate return. He sighed into his arms, wordlessly grateful as Fray took the palm away from his back, only for the dark knight to replace it with the warmth of his mouth as he laid a kiss against the exposed skin.
"I should be the armor that you bear," Fray murmured, pausing long enough for a second kiss, and then a third. Words alternated with wet heat. "You should dress yourself in me, let my skills protect you. You would never get this wounded to begin with if I was always with you. If you had me as the shield between you and the world, then there would be naught which could ever harm you so."
The sensation of Fray's mouth was making it hard to think. Each time that Fray's lips touched him, the Warrior felt his nerves skip in a sudden twitch of arousal: an unfortunate side effect of calming down enough to respond to the comfort of Fray's presence. His body was already starting to wake up sleepily to the concept of something other than exhaustion. Now, it wanted more.
"You're not a suit of mythril that I can just pick up and buckle on," he tried to laugh, but then a stray note slipped free like a bird escaping its flock, making the noise short and brittle with longing.
If anyone else had been tending to him, he might even have been able to hide his own interest. As it was, Fray flicked his eyes up from where he was gathering the wet towels off the floor, slinging them over his bench in a sodden pile. "You shouldn't exert yourself."
"Does that mean you'll do the exerting for me?"
The slyness in his voice came out sounding more wistful than the confident seduction he would have liked -- but the hopefulness in his mind would have betrayed him anyway. Fray regarded him diffidently as the man fetched another towel; then he tossed it aside, the corner of his mouth crooking in a smirk.
"If that's the case," he whispered, the purr of his voice dropping deliberately low, even as his fingertips reached out to walk themselves along the Warrior's neck, "shall we see how well you can wear my weight upon your back?"
Without bothering to wait for confirmation, Fray's hand skimmed lower. His wrist brushed the Warrior's ribs and then slid around, palm flatting upon the Warrior's stomach, fingers just brushing the curls of hair leading further down. Then -- as brightly as a flame dancing in the abyss itself -- the Warrior saw the mental image of that hand moving lower, a clear vision of Fray wrapping his fingers around his cock and beginning a long, confident stroke, teasing every ilm along the way.
The Warrior made a strangled noise before he could stifle his own interest, but it was too late: Fray had already noticed the reaction on more levels than one.
"Well," the dark knight said dryly, lifting his hand back up again so that he could tap the back of his knuckle against the Warrior's cheek. "Look who suddenly has energy now."
The Warrior swallowed hard, trying not to curse the fact that Fray's fingers were nowhere near where he wanted them to be instead. And he did want it, the feel of someone's hand on him as more than a passing accident or the clinical care of a chirurgeon -- he felt starved for it suddenly, for the simplicity of someone else being with him simply for the enjoyment of being there. To have someone touch him as a person instead of as a duty, part of a task they had to fulfill or enemy to defeat. As himself, and not the Warrior of Light, whose every desire and interest revolved around the salvation of the star -- and nothing else.
It hurt him the longer he thought about it, taking shape in ugly ways that he didn't want to put a definition around, for enough of them were already being made on his behalf. He'd hoped that the emotions alone would be enough to communicate his intent -- but Fray was unmoved. The man had gone quiet in his listening; his thoughts were still, obscured within the darkness.
It was hard to catch his breath. The Warrior swallowed, mouth dry. "Fray," he began, even as the flicker of a dozen impulses began to glimmer in his mind: embers to a greater hunger, each one inviting a different combination of options to pick and choose from, a feast of invitations for Fray to sup upon.
"Say it out loud." At last, Fray lifted his gaze from the table, turning those golden, mirthless eyes towards him: mirror to his own in every way, save in nature. "Else your words will remain bottled up forever, and hold none of them accountable for it."
The Warrior's protest lost its teeth even before he could make it bite. "It's not that," he clarified hastily, fumbling through the jumbled slurry of his own thoughts. "After all of that, I simply want..."
He stopped again, grimacing, the wave of embarrassment milder now that he had already bared so much of his guilt to be scraped off as thoroughly as the grime he had carried back from the swamps. He had to say it. He knew he had to; Fray wouldn't let him rest until he did. Their arrangement allowed for nothing less, if only to prevent a similar fiasco as Whitebrim, where Fray had truly thought that the only way to stop the Warrior's own self-destruction was to seize his life by force.
Fray was still watching him. The man did not bother to voice the sentiment aloud, but the Warrior felt the moth-quiet whisper flutter between their hearts: You know I won't judge.
"To feel good again." The Warrior's hands moved on the table, folding themselves closed in denial of his own request, even as he felt the corner of his mouth pull into a rueful curve. "Only for a little while."
At last, Fray stirred. Through the distance between them, the Warrior could feel a faint warmth returning once more, trickling through the abyss. "There's no shame in asking me for help when you need it. I thought we had both come to that understanding long ago."
They had. The Warrior had made the decision not to accept Fray's offer back in Whitebrim, but he had never forgotten it. It would be easy to simply let go.
But this was different. This was simpler and far more daunting all at the same time, like trying to voice a mountain into existence. It seemed too foolish of a request for anyone to bother with. A little, laughable thing.
"Fray," he asked, taking a deep breath as he struggled forward through the question. "Could you... be here for me, right now?"
Despite the intimacy of their bond, he still didn't know if the other man would refuse or accept. He could sense a rustle of interest in the abyss, like a beast slinking through the night -- but that was all it was. Unlike Fray, he was a novice when it came to reading the connection between them. The dark knight had always kept his own counsel. Nothing the Warrior had ever done had changed that.
Then Fray stirred at last, coming to his own, private decision. "The world brings you such pains, and you give yourself to it so freely," he remarked. His fingers were moving down at last, his weight sliding onto the chair behind the Warrior as he bent a knee against the Warrior's thigh, pressing close against the damp skin. "I should be jealous of that -- save that I am the one who can grant you some pleasure when no one else is able."
The Warrior started to try and answer, but Fray's hand had reached his cock, fingers wrapping around the soft shape of it affectionately before beginning a few firm, lazy pulls to bring it to attention. Each stroke finished with the pad of his thumb rubbing across the head, the folds of the foreskin not yet pulled back completely, and the Warrior felt it begin to respond with small jerks as it woke in response to Fray's knowledge of how to handle it.
"Keep going," he pleaded, tilting his hips up to try and give Fray a better angle, his knees spreading further apart. "It's not nearly enough."
He felt Fray's other thumb run down his spine, and then press into the curve of his ass. "How much?"
"As much as I can manage." Fray's fingers felt good holding him like that; leaning forward precariously on his forearms, the Warrior tried to shift more of his weight onto his good leg, giving him the leverage to try and straighten up into an easier position. Even then, his body hated having to pause for that long; his hips kept trying to push forward, fucking the ring of Fray's fingers clumsily. "Enough to forget all else, save you."
Fray slowed, starting to make an answer -- the Warrior could hear him draw breath for it, gathering a similar sternness together in his thoughts -- but then the Warrior made another push, allowing the burst of pleasure to wash over him as the head of his cock rubbed along Fray's palm, and Fray finally made a strangled grunt and let go.
He pulled away from the Warrior as he grabbed for the few remaining dry towels. "Lean on these," he urged, wadding them up so that the Warrior could brace his arms against the extra support, adding to the pillow pushed into his chest.
As he adjusted himself on the impromptu padding, he could hear the clatter behind him as Fray searched through the supplies -- likely for an oil that would not inadvertently do more harm than good. Thankfully, the medicinal supplies had their liniments clearly labeled. The pillow wasn't exactly the best height; he tried to wedge the towels partially beneath it, groaning when he accidentally leaned on his swollen wrist.
"You'll have to be careful with me," he warned, only to hear Fray's snort.
"Did you think we were about to put Eulmore's brothels to shame?" Leaning forward over the Warrior's shoulder, Fray slid one of his hands back into view, glistening with oil. Teasing a fingertip across the slit of the Warrior's cock -- smearing the fluid that was already beginning to leak out -- the dark knight glanced meaningfully at the Warrior's swollen knuckles. "You're injured. That's the whole point of this. So relax, and let me take care of you."
There was a brief moment where the Warrior tried to figure out what to do about his ankle, but Fray solved that problem too by turning the chair around -- a practical enough solution -- with the back of it still angled to the side so that the Warrior could use it for support. He braced his shin against it, concentrating on the task of simply finding a decent balance; he felt humorously like a table with two of its legs cut short so that it wobbled every time a cup was placed upon it.
Just as he managed to prop himself up successfully without straining either his ankle or wrist, he felt one of Fray's hands settling on his ass -- thumb parting him open -- and then a fingertip gently massaging his entrance, working a coating of oil around the puckered flesh before beginning its slide inside.
His brain stopped mid-thought. Fray was slow and methodical as he worked, coaxing the tight muscles to loosen in a steady rhythm, filling the Warrior by patient ilms with no signs of rushing. A second fingertip pushed forward alongside the first, seamlessly joining in the motion. The dark knight left the Warrior's cock alone this time -- too difficult to try and reach them both at that angle, not without accidentally toppling them off the chair -- but his other hand moved up to brace against the Warrior's hip, another point of contact for him to lean into, and the Warrior pressed gratefully against its support.
He shifted his weight before Fray could feel compelled to manage both tasks, bracing himself as best he could on his elbow, and dropped his good hand down to jerk his cock in the same rhythm that Fray was using on his body. He heard himself groan as Fray's fingers skimmed against his prostate; his eyes drifted closed of their own accord as he relaxed into each thrust, the force as steady as a metronome. Familiar fingers were inside his body, safe and experienced with where they knew his limits were. Fray's hands were on the reins now, dictating what came next. Fray was taking care of him.
Yet somehow, it wasn't enough. That synchronicity of that stimulation was happening to him alone; he could come like this, he knew he could, Fray had brought him off countless times in this fashion. But even as the Warrior bent against his own arm, panting into it, he could feel that same tension taking on a different urgency. He wanted the sight of Fray flushed with arousal, the taste of the man filling his mouth; he wanted to feel the strain of his muscles as Fray's sharp, harsh cries rasped against his ears, as helpless as the Warrior to resist his own pleasure. He could not stop thinking about any of it, and with each added urge, his own relief seemed that much further away.
He squirmed against Fray, suddenly frustrated with how carefully the dark knight was moving inside him, refusing to go any rougher than a lazy, rocking pace. "Let me have you," he begged, bold in his admission; he'd already come this far, and there was no need for secrecy with someone who could read your very heart. "I want your cock in me, Fray, the whole godsdamned thing."
Fray paused; the Warrior could hear him snort derisively. The man's free hand reached out to trace the perimeter of the bruise upon his back -- before swatting the Warrior's ass so lightly that it didn't even sting. "That would aggravate your injuries," he warned. "How do you imagine I'm to perform such a feat without repeatedly jostling your muscles?"
The Warrior made a breathless laugh, shoving back deliberately against Fray's fingers as he felt them slide inwards even deeper. The knuckles of the man's hand were bunched against his skin, slick with oil. "Good. If I am to hurt, then at least give me cause for it."
His pulse felt too rapid as he waited for Fray's decision, feeling the man silently trace the fingers of his other hand down the Warrior's thigh. It felt as if his appetite had already bucked completely free of its reins: he needed to have the feel of Fray's body underneath him, the sturdy wall of the man's hips slapping against him, their groans intermingling along with their seed as the Warrior stroked both of them off at once with their cocks tight in his fist. His legs hooked over Fray's shoulders as the other man gave as deep as he could, both of them frantic with the drumbeat of the other's need. Fray's weight coming down hard with every thrust, fingers digging fiercely enough into his legs to bruise, even as the Warrior tried to spread himself wider for more, more.
He let his imagination paint every piece of it in as vivid detail as he could manage -- and then he pushed those images back towards the other man, crowding his own thoughts with lust until there was no room to breathe without moaning.
Fray cursed once: an exasperated objection with no words to it, but which already had gone ragged in an equal hunger.
"Hold steady," he ordered, placing his hand on the Warrior's hip as he slid his own knee on the chair behind him, taking care to check the placement of their bodies as he lined them up, hips to legs to hands. The Warrior felt the blunt head of the other man's cock rubbing against his entrance as Fray splayed him with his fingers, holding him exposed to the light -- and then, wonderfully, the thick mass of it as Fray finally pushed inside.
It was a little too fast after all; he could feel the burn of it as Fray's cock stretched him out further, widening the ring of his muscles beyond what his fingers had prepared. But it was a manageable pain, one he had the measure of -- and one that did not matter, for no one lived or died by it. No great consequences would be left scarred in the earth if either one of them made a misstep here. There was only the presence of Fray working his way into his body, and the Warrior reminding himself to relax, to enjoy it.
Which was getting hard enough as Fray got further into him; the Warrior made a choked gasp of appreciation as Fray made another small shove, and rubbed directly up against his prostate. He barely had enough time to finish shuddering before the dark knight rocked into him again, laying the simmer of a smirk across the Warrior's soul with the same warmth as the man's hand.
"And how good does that feel?" he asked -- insolently and unnecessarily, for it felt like the Warrior was dissolving into a pool of raw sensation, which was proof enough.
Fray was already so deep that the Warrior could feel the man's thighs brushing against the backs of his own. Despite that, the dark knight was still handling him with painstaking care, moving no faster than his fingers had. "I think there's still a ways to go," the Warrior replied, just to be contrary, and then impatiently leaned forward before trying to jerk his hips back: a short, awkward jolt as he tried to fuck his own body harder on Fray's cock, straining for the friction being stubbornly denied him.
Both of Fray's hands immediately tightened on his hips. "Slow," he warned in reminder.
"Gods," the Warrior gasped back, and clenched as hard as he could while reaching back to claw for Fray's waist, trying to pull him even deeper, even though it meant half-rising off the table in order to do so.
He caught Fray off-guard, which was a delight in of itself; the man drew in a gasp of air, and his next thrust was rougher after all, the calculated rhythm beginning to fall apart. There was just enough room for the Warrior to be able to reach for his own cock again, fishing one hand down around the edge of the table -- and oh, it was good like this, his own stimulation being fed in a loop to Fray, who repeated it back with each thrust forward. The slide of the Warrior's hand around himself was a mirror to how his body was tight upon Fray, hot ripples of sensation echoing back and forth like a shout cast between canyon walls, reverberating until every noise they made blended in together with no distinction at all.
The bliss of it washed him clean. The Warrior arched his back, his knee sliding raggedly on the chair as he tried to keep that perfect angle between them. Fray was moving faster despite himself, panting open-mouthed as he struggled not to forget self-control. Each careful thrust sent an uncomfortable jolt into the muscles of the Warrior's back, but the other sensations that rolled through him were good enough to make it worthwhile. Aggravated twinges pulsed in both his hand and ankle, tightening his shoulders -- but they were merely pain now, and not emblems of efforts and failures.
He could forget them. He could let them heal.
After another thrust that scraped the chair across the floor, Fray paused long enough to correct his footing, leaning harder on his knee. "I'll send you to the Spagyrics after all, and you can say you fractured your ankle the rest of the way," another thrust, "by swiving," a deeper stroke this time, holding it inside the Warrior for emphasis, "your inner darkness."
"Yes, excellent, that sounds quite reasonable to me," the Warrior agreed, a little breathlessly; it was getting harder to think at all, let alone speak. In his mind, he could feel Fray's spark-bright arousal from seeing him like this, sprawled out and succumbing willingly to his own desires, sweat trickling over his back. Each gasp that he made aloud was a prize for the dark knight to savor, a treasure as the Warrior allowed himself to think only of the bliss rolling through his body instead of any of its agonies. He was spread open so completely like this, with Fray touching him from every side -- working him over relentlessly with his hands on his body, the heavy weight of his cock spearing him, his fingers spreading over the Warrior's soul, whispering you did enough, you did enough -- and underneath the flood of stimulation, the Warrior had no choice but to surrender to it, losing his grasp on anything beyond the immediate moment and all the ecstasies it offered.
Through it all, the Warrior barely caught himself in time as his fingers began to speed up, automatically mirroring the same pace that Fray was following; he couldn't stop jerking his cock as Fray rutted up into him, both of them drowning together willingly in the shared pleasure that suffused them. Like a distant thunderstorm, he could feel the dark knight's climax building -- but lagging noticeably behind, struggling to get all the way there. The delay was no surprise: each of Fray's thrusts was restrained, moving more shallowly than the man would have preferred. It would be difficult for him to come like this; too much of Fray's attention remained bent upon protecting the Warrior's injuries.
Fighting back a curse, the Warrior gripped his cock hard around the base, struggling to clamp down on the orgasm trying to rush its way to completion even as he longed to bring himself over the rest of the way.
"Fray," he managed to gasp, both a protest and a warning, in case the other man had somehow missed all the signs. "I'm close, I'm almost there. How can I help?"
He felt Fray stop, going rigid all over as the man fought against an equally fierce desire to continue. The dark knight held himself in place, trembling against the roar of their twinned need; the only action he allowed himself was a brutal tightening of his fingers on the Warrior's body, keeping them both from any stray movements.
"My name," he growled, voice rasping in desperation, betraying just how much he needed to spill over too. "Say it again. Call for me. Call out my name."
The harsh roar of it sounded angry, vengeful in its demand -- but underneath, the Warrior could hear the honest wish that empowered it, a desire no less in need than his own.
"Fray," he panted back, offering the honest begging of it freely, like another piece of armor peeled away to free him from its burden. "Fray. Gods, yes, Fray. Fray."
He lost all words there as Fray's hands tightened on his hips, the dark knight resuming his thrusts more erratically as they both lost control; the Warrior's hand slid frantically over his cock, unable to keep himself from completion any longer. Fray was there beside him -- in his heart, his soul, their bodies pressed together so tightly that there was no room for anything else. The other man's thoughts were beginning to scatter too, forming like fractals of color before melting away again: a kaleidoscope of impulses that were all intent on driving the Warrior's nerves into a frenzy, heightening that stimulation well past the breaking point, and utterly unwilling to stop.
And then it was the Warrior's own body that was shaking apart, all restraint falling away as if it never mattered to begin with. He was distantly aware that his voice was crashing into a formless, staccato cry -- like waves shattering on the shore, his coherency shattering with them -- but his soul had no such limitations.
I need you, Fray, it continued for him. I have always needed you.
He felt Fray climax only moments before he did; it was impossible to tell which of them finally pushed the other one over, too caught up in the gratification they were bringing to the other to bother with patience any longer. He came as well with a moan of relief, his mind still crying out the man's name even as Fray made one final push and held himself there, giving a hard grunt as he finished spending himself. His thoughts flooded into the Warrior as well, a hot wave of love and hunger -- but also everything else that he refused to show up front so readily: a vulnerability of longing that was deep enough to break him, and the distant, baffled confusion that he could feel that way at all.
The Warrior reached for that devotion as if it were honey being poured across his soul, even as he shuddered with the force of both their orgasms, pleasure spiking one last time as it teetered on the edge of overstimulation. Fray's cock was still thick and full inside him, as deep as he could get, even as each twitch of friction seemed to draw the final seconds of it out even longer, pleasure looping endlessly between them with no sign of burning out.
Then it passed, and they were both panting in the aftermath, reminded of the boundaries between their bodies once more. Fray slid out of him -- but only to promptly sprawl back against the Warrior's body, huffing soft breaths against his hair. He splayed his hands upon the table, arms awkwardly wide to keep from leaning on any of the Warrior's injuries, forehead pressed against the Warrior's temple.
They lay together for a bit, still half-kneeling on the chair as they caught their breath. The air of the room felt cooler against the Warrior's bare skin; a regrettable side-effect of so much exertion as the sweat began to dry on him, along with other fluids.
Shifting his weight to one arm, he reached out to trace his thumb along the back of Fray's hand. Their bodies were tangled gracelessly together, their minds still soft with exhilaration. His heart was open, wide and welcoming, satiated by the presence of Fray filling him there, too: the other man's thoughts were unguarded, pooling through him like the heavy weight of a pile of furs being laid over him, the furnace of his soul no longer searing to the touch. In those moments, the Warrior could always catch a glimpse of the feeling which always simmered there at the core of those flames, no matter how the dark knight tried to hide it: a faint, perpetual frustration that he could value something so naive, so vulnerable, so infinitely irreplaceable that he could not imagine a world without that creature in it, for no other world could ever hold meaning again.
It was unfolding now, still faintly disgruntled by its own existence, like a bird spreading wings it had forgotten it possessed; Fray was frowning at it peevishly.
I love you too, the Warrior thought as he let his eyes slip shut drowsily.
In the darkness, he felt the soft, startled jerk of Fray's heart -- so hungry for those words each and every time they came -- before the man bent down and kissed him.
Before they could get lost in it a second time, however, Fray hauled himself upright and pulled away, refusing to become distracted. "Now you truly need a bath," he groused -- but his hand was tender as he stroked it across the Warrior's hair. "A real one, with proper soap. Get moving. After that display of energy, I won't tolerate your excuses a second time."
The Warrior bit back a laugh, which rapidly became tinged with chagrin: he'd have to remember to clean off the floor, and likely the underside of the table. Possibly more. He had no desire for the staff of the Pendants to discover that mess. "You're just as filthy," he grinned. "Aether or no, you'll simply have to join me in the tub. Otherwise, the next time you manifest, you might still be coated in sweat."
The look Fray gave him was scathing. He scooped up one of the last few wet towels from the floor, squeezing it out over the basin as it dripped. "And if you fall asleep there? I suppose the Champion of Eorzea no longer has any fears of drowning in the bath, but assassins tend to prefer a state of undress in their victims."
Pushing himself up from the table, the Warrior finally tried to test his limbs again. His right knee was stiff now; both sides of his body ached when he tried to stand up properly, negotiating his injured hand and ankle around the chair. He stifled a groan as he gingerly set his left foot against the ground, seeing how willing it was to bear his weight. "How can I be worried? You'll be right there beside me, after all. What better protection could there be?"
It was more the sentiment behind the argument than the rationale itself that might have convinced Fray; either way, the dark knight's frown lessened fractionally, fading into mere disapproval. Mollified, the dark knight slung the damp towel over the pile on the bench and came back to the Warrior's side, steadying him. "How much does it still hurt?"
The Warrior laughed as he leaned heavily against the table, resting between both it and Fray's support. Deftly, he caught one of Fray's hands up and brought it to his mouth, pressing it briefly against his lips in gratitude.
"Far less," he promised, his smile feeling warm all the way through: reaching soul as well as body. "Thanks to your good care of me."