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the spark before the dark.

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Kalea’s relationship with the Crystal Exarch—G’raha Tia, her Raha from the Syrcus Trench—had been in a state of suspension since they braved the depths of the Tempest. On certain things, there was an unspoken understanding—deeper than bone, harder than any steel—that they would always choose one another over any other, and that wherever they went, they went together.

And there was a certain comfort to be found in that level of closeness—and one Kalea treasured thoroughly.

And as such, she had no intention of endangering that which already was. What more could be said or done? No one had ever known her so closely, for he could tell what she was thinking at a mere glance.

Part of her duties as the Warrior of Light was denying herself that which she most desired. It was something she had grown perhaps too comfortable doing—and unsettled when she found it difficult.

And so she found herself fighting the ultimately selfish desire to grow closer to him. She wanted to be the one who knew him most intimately, who knew every part of his body as well as her own, so wound together there was little difference between he and she...

And as she has done so often, Kalea chokes down the urge.

Perhaps, she thought to herself, when things have settled down—for there was still the matter of sending the Scions safely home—they might be able to broach such a subject.

But as often happened, matters for Kalea Dalan grew to a head far faster than she could account for.

Captain Lyna has a steely glint to her lavender gaze as she strides up to Kalea. “Warrior,” she greets serenely, brandishing her typical Crystarium salute as she speaks. “I have a… well, a request to make of you. If you are amenable.”

Kalea blinks, her mind racing with whatever possibility it could be. Captain Lyna had never approached her in such a way. Were there difficulties amongst her troops? Another primal in the basement which needed quieting? “Of course. What does the Captain of the Guard need from me?” She smiles gently, lifting her head to meet Lyna’s cool gaze.

“It is a personal matter,” she says softly, “regarding my Lord Exarch.”

“Oh.” She frowns. “Is aught amiss?”

“No—well, not in so many words.” She shifts on her feet with that familiar dancer’s grace. Lyna was a living testament that there needn’t be any frippery or seduction to meet all the ideals of a dancer. “He has… overextended himself again, I fear. Never sleeping, skipping meals, all for the sake of this research he’s so damnably determined to finish.” She shakes her head. “I have caught him nodding off over his desk more oft than not. I have seen enough.”

“I have seen the same,” Kalea mutters, her sable ears folding down in discontent. “He does not know the meaning of moderation.”

“No he does not. And thus, I should like to take the matter into my own hands.” Lyna straightens as if to dispense orders to a regiment. “There is a villa called Clearmelt in Lakeland, host to hot springs with healing water. We send our soldiers there to recover from the trauma of war. Naturally, the Exarch has never stepped foot there. I have a mind to send him there for three days. And,” a small smile slips into her features, “if left to his own devices, he would merely attempt to work from his room. This is where you will come in.”

“Oh?”

“You and he are cut from the same cloth. And thus, I task you with ensuring my lord takes his respite, and he you.” She crosses her arms, satisfied with herself, then blushes. “I… I am not tasking you, so much as if you would be so kind—“

“I would be honored,” Kalea says quickly. “He is a dear friend to me, and I would be glad of the opportunity.”

She ignores the flash of heat rising up her cheeks at the suggestion of spending so much time in solitude with the Exarch.

Captain Lyna nods. “You have my thanks. If you have no objections, can you depart this afternoon? It would give him less time to find excuses, as he has time and time again.”

Kalea can’t help but laugh. The Exarch was stubborn to a fault when it came to taking care of himself. “Is there anything else I can do to assist?”

“Yes, actually.” And Captain Lyna smirks, looking down with teasing knowing on Kalea. “If you do not mind informing him yourself, I would be in your debt. That man would not deny his Warrior of Darkness any boon.”

His Warrior of Darkness.

His.

Oh, how sorely Kalea wanted that to be true.

Kalea collects herself, her tail lashing behind her. “Of course.”

Captain Lyna lingers for a moment longer, lips parted as if to speak, then she shakes her head.

“Forgive my impudence. Again, I am grateful you are here to help me take care of my lord.”

“He is lucky to have such a caring granddaughter,” Kalea laughs. “We shall depart at once.”

The Viis turns smartly to attend her duties, and Kalea cannot help but feel rather uneasy. How was Lyna so certain he wouldn’t refuse her? Not even Kalea herself could be that sure.

His

She shakes her head, walking quickly to the Dossal Gate.

 


 

The unfortunate circumstances they found themselves in did not truly sink in for G’raha even as the idyllic village of Clearmelt came into view. The buildings were exquisitely crafted, the grass lush and verdant, sprays of violas, oldroses, and lilies dotting every windowbox, the gentle susurrus of water weaving through the quiet, idyllic scene. It felt wild that such a place could exist amidst such cruelty, a living testament that there could be gentleness still in the face of such dramatic adversity.

Of course, how could he doubt that roses could bloom in violent conditions when Kalea Dalan herself stood beside him?

As loathe as he was to leave the Crystarium, he could not help but look forward to his time alone with the Warrior of Light.

“My lord!” One of the attendants rushes to them—a Viis youth who bows profusely. “We were not expecting you for some time!”

“Captain Lyna all but chased me out of the Crystarium,” the Exarch says gently. “The fault is mine. If there is—“

“No, no, please, take your ease! We will handle your belongings,” he says quickly, presenting a silvered platter with goblets of mulled wine.

Kalea accepts it graciously, sitting down at the veranda, canting her head to take everything in. “Strange, that such a place would exist here,” she murmurs. Her sable ears are alert with curiosity, eyes sparkling as she alights upon Clearmelt’s quiet, restful residents.

“It is truly a small miracle,” the Exarch agrees. He takes a cautious sip—the wine was cloying and sweet, but pleasant all the same. “I am grateful there seem to be less residents than usual.”

“Have you ever been here?” Kalea asks.

He shakes his head. “No, never. I haven’t the time.”

Her soft lips twist in a wry smile. “A hundred years and you couldn’t find time to make it out here for a day?”

The Exarch blushes. “P-Perhaps it was… some amount of resistance on my part,” he admits sheepishly.

“We shall certainly have to make the most of it,” she smiles.

He nods—trying to ignore the tightness in his chest at such an idea. “If you—I know Lyna asked you to accompany me to ensure I would stay but it is truly unnecessary, I would not wish to burden you—“

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Kalea interrupts, but there is only sweetness in her tone, light and teasing. “It is no burden, G’raha.”

He blushes. “You flatter an old man,” he murmurs, his tail lashing beneath his robes. Surely she could not mean such things—

“My apologies for the delay,” the attendant has appeared again, wearing a neutral smile. “Your quarters are prepared. If you will follow me.”

 


 

Kalea recognized the finer points from the Crystarium architecture—dark shimmering wood countered against heavy wrought iron. The lavatory is a lovely affair of white quartz and marble, the tiles fairly gleaming. Balcony doors, open to a small veranda and a table set for two. A clean, gentle breeze plays through the room. It looks like something from a dream, Kalea thinks to herself, her eyes sweeping over the grand bed. It was huge—preposterously large, with uncountable feathered pillows and clean white sheets.

“Is everything as you like?” the attendant asks gently.

“It is lovely,” Kalea beams, the Exarch nodding in agreement.

“Far more than adequate. And the second room?”

The attendant’s ears flick upwards in shock. “S-Second room?”

The Exarch frowns. “There are two of us—“

“Oh— oh wicked white,” he swears. “I cannot apologize enough, my lord, there must have been some mix-up... j-just a moment and I will—“ The Viis flips furiously through his notebook, the furrow in his brow growing heavier. “Perhaps if 207 and 209 are willing to share—“

“Exarch,” Kalea interrupts. Her face heats even as she speaks. “I would not wish to inconvenience anyone else, we can—“

The Viis looks immediately relieved, and Kalea knows she cannot back down from this.

The Exarch frowns. “It is no trouble for me if you are… amenable to such a thing, but—“

“Perhaps some extra blankets,” she tells the attendant, who is only too happy to depart to retrieve them.

The quarters are possessed of a large velvet sete—more than adequate for sleeping on. She sets her knapsack on it, her eyes carefully avoiding the bed.

Though the room was large, it still felt far too close for comfort.

“Kalea,” the Exarch says softly. “I apologize—“

“Nothing to apologize for!” she says quickly. “I… I am beginning to wonder if Captain Lyna only booked one room to begin with,” she mutters, thinking of the glint in the Captain’s eye.

He sighs, crossing his arms. “The very last thing I would desire is for you to be uncomfortable,” G’raha mutters.

“I have shared tighter quarters with all of the Scions,” Kalea grins. “It is no trouble. The couch looks more than comfortable enough—“

“You will be sleeping in the bed,” G’raha says quickly.

Kalea’s brows furrow. “This trip was meant to relax you. I have seen well how much you have overexerted yourself on my behalf—“

“And I would do all that and more to see you safe and sound,” the Exarch counters. There’s a certain danger in his tone; as if his word would be the final one on the matter.

But Kalea cannot help but push.

“G’raha,” she says gently, laying a hand on the bed. “Perhaps… there is a compromise.”

G’raha’s scarlet eyes flick to the bed, then to her.

She meets his gaze without wavering; would he reject her? Was this degree of closeness too much to ask for? Perhaps she should have acquiesced to a second room for his sake—

“I… Kalea,” G’raha manages—and to her shock, he flushes, cheeks pinkening and throwing the crystal on his pale skin into sharp relief, “I… do not object to… sharing the bed, but only if you are comfortable with such a thing—“

“I would not have suggested it if I was not,” Kalea says simply.

And it was true. Even if her mind would torment her with a hundred thousand thoughts, each more dark than the other—of reaching between the space to touch his bare skin, of him wrapping his arms around her, burying his lips in her throat—

She would suffer it all and more for him.

“Well!” G’raha stammers, his voice an octave higher. “Perhaps with that matter settled, we should avail ourselves to the amenities?”

And before she can say anything else, he disappears into the lavatory.

Kalea stares at the closed door, feeling a familiar heartache growing in her heart.

A respite it was, but it with the discontent between them, it would be far from restful.

 


 

After their evening meal—Kalea seemed entirely disinterested in conversation and thus G’raha kept his nose in one of the tomes he had brought, stealing glances at her from behind the safety of his book—they changed into the bathing clothes provided. Much to his horror, there was a pamphlet advertising a couple’s bathing area in which nudity was allowed, which G’raha quickly shoved in a drawer, hoping it wasn’t obvious how badly the idea flustered him.

This was certainly some manner of honeymoon suite, and the notion did not put him at ease in the slightest.

He nearly forgot speech entirely when she met him at the springs.

“Is something amiss?” she frowns at him, cocking her head. Her thick sable locks were piled atop her head in a messy bun, some tendrils framing her face with heartbreaking perfection as she considered him. Her outfit consisted of little more than a strappy top and similar bottoms, leaving nothing to his imagination.

Not that his imagination hadn’t already ran away with the vision before him.

“G’raha?” She prompted again.

He hadn’t forgotten to answer twice in a row. No. No, he could not be ogling his closest friend like little more than a piece of meat—

“—Exhaustion,” G’raha lies quickly. “F-Forgive me. The baths?”

She nods, the beginnings of a frown creeping into her face as he steps into the warm waters.

Their presence earns them a few askance glances, but for the most part, he feels something bordering normal as he sinks into the hot springs, trying to force the feeling of unease out of his bones. He felt no shame of his condition—if his body was torn asunder in servitude for her, he would be honored to wear the scars of his duty—but the glittering crystal set him apart from the usual folk, his status as the Exarch another matter entirely.

And accompanying one such as the Warrior of Darkness…

They were a matched pair in obscurity.

Kalea’s tail beats at the surface of the waters. “I am… struggling to know what to speak of,” she says softly. “Beyond our duties. Which does not seem… appropriate for such a venue.”

G’raha nods, sighing. “Our toils are all consuming and never-ending it seems,” he chuckles. “I quite understand.”

“It feels like an age,” Kalea sighs as she leans forward, twinning her water-logged hair over her slender shoulder, “since you and I stormed Syrcus Tower.”

G’raha shakes his head, adjusting his seat on the craggy shoals. “An age indeed,” he says, trying to keep his voice light even as he feels the weight of a century on his shoulders. “We have changed much and more, you and I.”

“I wonder,” Kalea hums, “if I am aught recognizable from when you knew me then.”

“If I did not know otherwise?”

“Mm.”

“Of course,” he says automatically. “You wear the signs of all which you have suffered, but no matter what, you will always—could only ever be Kalea.”

My Kalea, he thinks miserably, hating himself for it.

Surely—

Did she remember...

Or had she forgotten what occurred between them?

The way she smiled at him beneath the stars, tender and innocent beneath the yawning abyss of the night sky—

He could never forget those small, tender mercies.

“I am glad I am still recognizable,” she grins, her canines glinting in the dim evening light, a shade mischievous. “I would know you anywhere, G’raha Tia,” she says gently then—leaning forward to consider him with those violet eyes, levin-shot and shimmering. “Anywhere.”

He feels unbearably warm in a way that has nothing to do with the hot springs, feeling his heart beat wild and unfettered in the crystalline cage of his chest.

 


 

It felt strange indeed to see G’raha in such intimate circumstances. Returning to their room together, watching him shirk off his robe and reveal his toned chest, abdominal muscles flexing as he reached down to retrieve his clothes…

In short order, Kalea excused herself to the lavatory, if only to be able to breathe.

The bath was so deep she could soak to her neck, the hot spring water relaxing all the small muscles in her body as she settled down. The bath oils smelled of jasmine and bergamot, the humid bath air a wonderful balm as she tries to soothe her frazzled mind.

She was going to sleep in the same bed as him.

Sharing quarters with the Scions had been one matter—she had always felt familial with them, and never anything more.

But G’raha…

Well. Her feelings had never been quite familial where he was concerned.

Before, it had been almost easy to brush aside her feelings for him. There was always more work to be done, and their solitude had often been spent separately.

But now…

Well, it seemed there was no longer any room to deny it.

Kalea sighs aloud, sinking down into the baths to her chin. What was she doing? She didn’t even know if he felt the same—was this entire process just uncomfortable for him?

And here she was in the bath, trying desperately to not think about him, to not think about settling under the covers with him, his strong arms, mismatched and wrapped tight around her waist… how small would she feel pressed against him?

Kalea’s hand dips to her stomach, threatening to fall lower before she stops herself, gripping the edges of the bath. She couldn’t. She couldn’t allow herself…

With a sigh, she steps out of the bath and winds a towel around herself, searching for her…

Oh, gods no.

How had she been so forgetful? She’d completely forgotten her knapsack in her rush—along with her clothes.

Not that they cover much, she thought miserably. She’d packed without thinking, all her favorite thin, short sleeping clothes, comfortable and soft. None suitable for sharing living quarters with a dear friend.

Kalea cracks open the door. “G’raha?” She calls tentatively.

G’raha’s silver-teaked ear flicks upward; he was the picture of comfort, curled on the sofa with one of his books. “Is aught amiss?”

“Do you… mind bringing me my bag?” She asks sheepishly.

“Ah! Is there anything in particular—?”

“The entire thing, please.” She would die of embarrassment if he had to dig through her smalls.

G’raha promptly fetches it, and to her great horror, he turns bright pink upon seeing her, handing over the bag with his gaze averted. “Is there… anything else you require?” He asks gently.

Kalea can’t help herself. Not when he’s so abashed.

“You could help me dress,” she teases.

G’raha splutters.

“I—w-well, if—if you require—I could—“ he stammers furiously.

She smothers a giggle behind her hand. “I’m sorry, I was only teasing.”

He laughs, forced and wheezing. “Ah—a good jest. I’ll—well. I’ll… turn down the bed,” G’raha waves, closing the door for her.

Kalea sighs, holding the bag close to her chest.

Oh, it would be a long night indeed.

 


 

Raha wakes into a dream.

Clear morning light filters through the windows, casting sunbeams over the rumpled sheets. All is silent save for the gentle rustle of leaves, not even the splash of the springs could be heard.

He had fallen asleep facing away from her, he knew it. Crossed his arms with his back turned towards her, resolute in his determination to not make any untoward movements towards Kalea. The mantra of don’t move, don’t move sang him to sleep that night.

He had broken that promise in its entirety.

He can scarcely tell where he ended and where she began. Her bistre tail crooked over his hip, soft as silk against his bare skin, her head burrowed into his chest. He can smell her hair, and had to fight to resist the urge to bury his face in it, to take great big gulps of her warm, sweet, bright scent.

And her clothes…

Those pantalettes which had tormented him all night long had ridden up her shapely legs. One of the straps of her blouse had fallen down her slender shoulder, exposing so much skin, skin he wanted to kiss, to taste, to bite

She stirs against him, making a soft, sleepy murmur as she nuzzled closer still. Raha’s fist clenches; he was unbearably hard now, surely, with her thigh pressed against his groin, she could feel it. Horror and embarrassment climbs up his throat, leaving him stone still, heart rattling rebelliously in his chest.

Kalea shifts again; her arm winds around his waist, gripping his tunic tight, and then she looks up. Her eyes are half-lidded, plush lips parted in soft surprise. She licks them in one slow, torturous movement of her pink tongue.

Her dark lashes fall, and then she’s leaning forward.

He couldn’t say after why he acted as he did; his sense had entirely left him at that point, perfectly content to let the Warrior of Light do whatever she wished with him, be it punishment or reward.

He pushes himself backwards, putting a fulm of space between the two of them, finding himself out of breath and flushed. As if he couldn’t stop moving, Raha scrabbled out of bed, hurriedly brushing his hair out of his eyes.

“F-Forgive me,” he stammers.

Kalea sits up, her long hair spilling over one shoulder. She looks confused, hurt.

And before he can bring himself to regret it, G'raha turns and locks himself in the lavatory.

After a long, long cold shower, standing beneath the water and shivering so hard his teeth clattered, he could finally bring himself to face her. She was dressed in one of the robes provided, picking at her breakfast with unusual disinterest.

“I… hope you rested well,” Kalea says softly. She doesn’t look at him as she says it, instead speaking it down to the bowl of fresh fruit.

“I did,” G'raha finally speaks, his voice hoarse.

The silence stretches between them. G'raha wishes he could mend her ache, but he cannot bring himself to speak.

Kalea finally stands, wiping her hands on a napkin. “I’m going down to the private springs,” she mutters.

He watches her leave, feeling as if he had done far worse by pushing her away than not.

And that unsettles him more than anything.

He hesitates a moment longer, staring down at his uneaten breakfast. She deserved, at the very least, an apology, and a prompt one at that.

Praying he was making the right decision, G’raha follows.

 


 

G’raha settles into the waters opposite her, adjusting to sit on one of the rocky shoals. He had sat beside her yesterday, but much as this morning, there seems to be some amount of distance between them.

“G’raha,” Kalea says softly. “I… I consider you one of my dearest friends, and I could not abide something coming between that friendship. I fear I gave offense this morning, and I would like… to rectify it.”

“Offense?” His silver-tipped ears flick up in surprise. “Whatever for?”

Kalea huffs. “You acted like you found a scorpion in your sheets this morning without so much as a good morning. You need not spare my feelings.”

“I…” G’raha shakes his head. She wasn’t used to seeing his hair unbound. Had he not braided it this morning? Still damp from his morning shower, the sunlight dances across the scarlet-and-silver, catching her breath in her throat. It hurt all the more, how beautiful he was. She’d been stunned, well and truly gobsmacked when she saw his eyes watching her this morning, pupils wide and dark with…

…Well. Something she’d never seen in them before.

Something she wanted so badly to see again.

“I was not offended,” G’raha clarifies. “I was… surprised. And afraid.”

“Afraid? Of me?” She giggles. “Unless you’re an Ascian or primal—“

“Not of you,” he says quickly. A soft blush settles across his cheeks. “Afraid of… myself.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I was afraid of what I would do. If I would… act on impulse. Impulses which are foolhardy and misguided.” He shakes his head, his crystal hand splashing beneath the water. His crystal is mesmerizing in the water, glittering and reflecting rays of sunshine. “I apologize, Kalea. Truly. It was unseemly of me.”

“What…” Kalea cannot help but lean forward, “what… sort of impulses?”

G’raha’s cheeks darken, looking away from her. “They… do not warrant discussion.”

“I’m asking,” Kalea says, smiling. “We are friends, are we not?”

He groans. “You know not what you speak of, my friend.”

“Oh, I know what I speak of. I’m quite curious, especially now that you’re working to hide it so well.”

“Warrior—“

“Kalea,” she reminds him primly.

He groans. “Kalea,and the dark frustrated way  he says it ignites something in her, and she can’t help herself.

“What would you have done?” Kalea grins. “If sense left you entirely this morning?”

“It did, as a matter of fact, leave me entirely this morning. It is a small miracle I did not embarrass the both of us with—“

“—with what?

“Can we not simply move on? T-The fruit was fantastic this morning, I hardly knew the Crystarium could prepare such apples or—“

“I want to know.” Kalea stretches out a leg beneath the water, nudging him with her foot. “I don’t like secrets. And you’re keeping one, Crystal Exarch.”

His jaw tightens, a frown curling on his lips. He looks almost angry.

Gods above, she adored it.

“If you will not let me rest, the impulse was… i-inappropriate.”

Kalea arches a brow. “Oh? How so?”

“Surely you can use your imagination. It… has been a very long time since I’ve been that close with someone, and thus… well.” He finishes meekly, ears flattening.

“What would you have done?” Kalea whispers.

“You’re not letting this go, are you.” The Exarch seethes, eyes narrowing.

“Not in the slightest.”

“Fine.”

She’s aware of the splash of water, and then…

She finds herself cornered.

G’raha backs her against the rockface, his crystal arm braced beside her head, and the Spoken one…

… cups her cheek, tilting beneath her jaw to meet his gaze.

Kalea finds she can’t breathe.

“The things I would do to you,” Raha whispers—his voice is worn low, a dark growl that sends a levinbolt racing down her spine, causing her fingers to dig into the rock beneath her for a measure of gravity in his world, “were I any weaker of a man—not that it would require much.” Something of a grin curves on his full lips, and she wonders exactly how it would taste against hers. His long finger drags achingly slow down her jaw, skimming down the long column of her throat; could he feel her pulse, ragged and desperate beneath her skin?

Raha leans up to whisper into her ear, his breath positively scorching. “The things I’ve dreamed of doing to you, for all these years.” Kalea’s eyes flutter shut when his lips brush against the fur of her ear, devilishly ticklish. His finger is almost icy against her enflamed skin, following the water droplets down her sternum, skimming down the valley of her breasts. Kalea can’t breathe; her entire focus is narrowed down to him and him alone as his palm flattens against her chest. There was no doubt he could feel her heartrate.

And by the way his smirk widens, he wasn’t displeased by what he found.

Kalea licks her lips; she sees him track the movement, his scarlet eyes—dark as spiced wine—flickering down to her mouth.

“What if I… wanted you to be weaker?” she whispers. She raises her hand from the waters, trembling as she rests it on his arm, the firm muscle rolling beneath her touch as he tenses.

Raha hesitates then, but Kalea doesn’t.

She reaches up, fisting his damp hair and tugging his mouth down to hers. Her mouth is open, panting, pleading, and he answers with a snarl, crushing his mouth against hers, tongue slipping into her mouth, and Kalea feels a fever overcome her that has nothing to do with the hot springs. How many times had she dreamed of this? How many bells spent agonizing over how the swell of his bottom lip would feel in her mouth, how he would taste on her tongue, the way her breasts flatten against his firm chest… and now she has the reality, and her fantasies pale in comparison.

They move in a frenzy. Raha’s arms come hard at her waist as hers lock around his neck, and with a splash they are scrabbling against one another, Kalea, by some miracle, hitching a leg over his hip and using her weight to push him against the rockface—the moment he’s seated, she’s clambering into his lap—he mouths at her neck, a soft whine slipping from his lips— gods above, that was a sound she’d never even imagined.

She wanted to hear it. Over, and over again.

“Kali,” he whimpers against her—she was straddling the strong column of his thigh, delighted by his solid strength, and her knee—

Well, if she wondered if she’d mistaken whatever was pressing against her this morning, that was proof enough.

His hips stutter forward against her, Raha’s grip on her growing nigh bruising. As if he can’t help himself, his hands skim over her, finding her breasts, slipping beneath to skim against her sensitive skin, her nipples pebbling at his touch.

Curiosity compels her to press tighter against him— and then his crystal hand hitches up her thigh and drives her down hard.

If Kalea Dalan had been told she’d end up humping the Crystal Exarch, her dearest friend G’raha Tia, in the hot springs with narry a thought to who might look in on them, she would have died of embarrassment on the spot.

She couldn’t find it in herself to feel the smallest inkling of shame.

“Don’t,” Raha chokes—he muffles a groan into her, his teeth digging into the soft flesh between her neck and shoulder. It’d leave a mark—and everyone would see. “Don’t stop, Kali—oh, Kali—

His fingers slip beneath her bottoms, so, so damnably close to where she wanted him most. There was no doubt he could feel exactly how wet she was for this. And perhaps that is the final thing which breaks him—he’s bucking against her shamelessly now, her own hips grinding down against his thigh. “Raha,” she whispers—

Her ears swivel up when she hears a branch break underfoot.

She’d never moved so fast in all her days. Kalea pushes herself back, scrabbling to put some clearance between her and the Exarch, sinking down til her chin meets the water.

“Ah, my lord! Will you be taking your lunch in the hot springs today?” It was the same helpful Viis from earlier, all long ears alert and eager to please. He wore no indication that he had seen that which had transpired only moments ago.

Raha smiles weakly. He looks almost composed, the ruddy flush on his cheeks easily attributed to the water—

But his fists are clenched beneath the waters, his tail lashing in a frenzy.

“Ah, I’m still full from this morning, but thank you,” he clears his throat. “Are you… hungry, Kali?”

Something about hearing her abbreviated name, the one he’d just groaned, spoken in front of an unsuspecting person…

I’m ravenous, actually, is what Kalea thinks, but she demurs. “I’m full myself,” she smiles sweetly. “A little tired, actually.”

She doesn’t miss how Raha swallows hard at that.

“Shall I escort you to your chambers?” The clerk suggests.

“I’ll stay behind,” Raha mutters, sinking further into the waters.

Kalea doesn’t feel sad—because she knows, she knows she finally has him precisely where she’s wanted him after so long.

And she wouldn’t squander her chance.

 


 

G’raha stays in the hot springs for another bell.

He spends the first ten minutes considering drowning himself.

Then he agonizes over how unfair it would be to Kalea.

And then he’s back to thinking about her, her, her, how warm and soft and alive she was in his lap, the way she tasted still lingering on his tongue, fresh berries and everything good in this world, her damp hair brushing his cheek—

He’d been embarrassingly close. Another moment longer and he would have doubtless spent himself like a juvenile from mere necking.

Perhaps drowning wasn’t entirely off the table.

He owed her ten hundred thousand apologies. This morning had been a mistake, but this? He was jeopardizing everything all for childish whims. He had spent a hundred years in self-imposed isolation, managed to keep the secret of his identity from her—

And it would be his own blood which undid all his work.

But…

She had asked him, hadn’t she?

And she’d kissed him first.

And that knowledge sets G’raha’s head spinning.

The waters felt far too warm. He eases himself onto the edge of the baths, struggling to catch his breath. If he went back to their quarters, she would be there, and then what would he do? Could he resist being so close to her? Now that he’d had a taste of her…

Gods above, he wanted so much more. He wanted to taste every ilm of her, to find out the precise way she sounded when she was close, to see how her body would unfold beneath him…

He shakes his head, finally making up his mind and returning to his quarters. By some blessing, Kalea is not present, although her intoxicating scent has made a home in their room, even the pillows smelling of her. To his embarrassment, he can’t resist shoving his face into them, remembering all too well how her soft body had felt against his—

“Enough,” he growls to himself. While she was still gone—and while he still had his senses—he would use his time wisely. He fetches the books he’d recovered from the spring’s small library, settling on the driest tome—a brief history of the hot springs around Clearmelt. The reading—and several cups of hot, strong tea—are a suitable antidote to the poison in his blood. He loses track of time, forcing his mind to stay on the task before him even as the sun begins to set.

G’raha starts when he hears the door, jamming his knee against the desk and cursing, his book falling out of his hands and onto the floor. “Clumsy old man,” he mutters, reaching down to pick it up—

And then he sets eyes on Kalea.

It was merely a fact that Kalea had the most splendid legs he had ever seen. And in a cruel twist of fate, she was not shy to show them off. He feels his breath catch in his throat as his eyes climb up her slender ankles, the shapely curve of her calves, and her thighs

And then he realizes just how short her dress is, and Raha has to steady himself to keep from falling out of his chair.

The lace ends just past her thighs—every small movement exposes a few ilms more of her silken skin, and Raha swallows hard at the thought. And it was thin. Thin enough he could see the outline of her body beneath the fabric, following her curves all the way up to where one strap fell off her shoulder, exposing the elegant line of her collarbones.

“Have you eaten yet?” Kalea asks primly, setting down a tray and a bottle of wine. The tray is piled high with grapes, slices of ripe melon, glistening berries and an assortment of cheeses.

Raha swallows thickly, struggling to find his voice. “I have not,” he manages.

“Excellent. Shall we take advantage of the balcony?” Kalea suggests. “The night air is lovely.”

Grateful for something to do with his hands besides imagining how her thighs would feel beneath them, G’raha takes two wineglasses from the cupboard and opens the balcony doors. Kalea was right as always—save for the gentle song of the cicadas, the evening air was brisk and peaceful, a welcome respite. Kalea scoots her chair close to his, her soft hair brushing his arm as she leans over to pluck a ripe strawberry from the plate.

“You’ve been ruminating.” It’s not a question; her eyes, dark as midnight, wrinkle with good humor as she places the berry between her lips. He can’t help but watch her take a bite, her pink tongue sneaking out to  lick the errant juice on her bottom lip.

Wicked white.

“I… feel that I have embarrassed myself,” G’raha manages. He takes a slice of cheese—yellow as sunshine with a sharp tang, if only for something to do. His stomach still feels far too flighty for food. “And placed our friendship in a… compromising position.”

“You told me once,” Kalea says softly, “that I gave you the courage to reach out. If this is not something you desire, then—“

“—there is nothing I have desired more,” G’raha interrupts.

Kalea’s eyes widen.

And then they narrow, and a soft smile plays on her full, plush lips.

And G’raha feels caught in his entirety.

 


 

The bottle of wine drains. The night sky shifts from lilac to darkest sapphire, and perhaps it’s the wine, or maybe how dizzy he makes her feel, but Kalea swears G’raha’s eyes glow in the darkness, firebright and warmer than embers as they regard her.

Their chairs draw closer to one another—who moved when, Kalea could not say. But his arm rests over the back of her chair, comfortable and familiar as his hand, as if moving with a mind of its own, toys with the strap of her dress, fiddling with it, adjusting it high before pushing it low, catching a lock of her hair and twining it around his fingers.

“You should dress like this more,” Kalea tells him. She tugs on his tunic—white and soft, the low V exposing the crystal spiderwebbing over his chest. “You look… different.

“Different than…?” G’raha prompts, fetching another berry from the plate. He presses it to her parted lips, and she happily takes it, unable to resist giving his finger a lick as she bites. His thumb presses against her chin before flitting back to the platter.

“Different than the Exarch,” she hums. “Less formal. More… more like the boy I met in the Syrcus Trench.”

G’raha laughs. She can feel the rumble of his mirth through his chest and she presses against him, delighting in the feeling. “Perhaps I don’t want to be considered a boy,” he teases.

She pouts. “But I liked that boy,” she complains. “He was sweet and brash and—“

—And kissed me like he loved me, goes unfinished.

“And I was rather found of young Kali,” he smiles—she hadn’t known he could smile like that, crooked and teasing, eyes heavy-lidded, his voice dropping into something as smooth and sweet as the mulled wine. “But you have changed, have you not?” As he speaks, her legs find their way into his lap—and he adjusts for her, hitching her thighs over his. “Just as I have.”

“How much has changed?” She asks tentatively. “Have… you… do you still feel the same?”

His hand on her thigh tightens, hitching further up her leg. He rests right where her nightdress begins, thumbing at the lace.

“Many things about me have changed,” G’raha whispers, “but that has not. And could never change.”

This time—much like the first time, all those years ago in the Syrcus Trench—Kalea cannot tell who kisses who first.

It is slow, testing, tasting. He tastes of wine and berries and the fresh night air and something else, something spicy which lingers on her tongue as she wraps her arms around his shoulders. Both his hands cradle her face, reaching upwards to tangle in her hair.

Kali,he whispers. Soft and reverent. She tastes the syllables of her name on his tongue, feels his enunciation as he kisses her, again and again. Heavens help her—she tugs on his tunic to draw him closer, nearly tipping him out of his seat in her rush.

“I need you closer,” she pleads. “Raha—

Her chair tumbles over when he lifts her into his arms. She yelps in surprise as he scoops her up, looking down on her with that cursed smile playing on his lips.

“Come,” he says simply.

And as if it even was possible to resist him, Kalea merely shivers as he carries her in to the bed.

 


 

For the first time, Raha loses track of time. It did not matter where or when he was—to hells with any of the matters of the Crystarium, of consequences of life or death—

None of it mattered. Not now.

Not when his Kali had settled herself in his lap, panting hot and heavy in his ear— “I’ve wanted you so bad, Raha—“ she cuts off into a trilling moan when he nips at her neck, squirming in his lap. “I haven’t stopped thinking about earlier—in the springs when you... did you almost—?“

“A blight upon my honor,” he rumbles, treasuring the way he can feel her laugh as he kisses down her sternum, finding every single freckle and favoring it with a kiss. “The things I would have done—“

“Do them now,” she breathes, her hands sliding down his chest, settling on his trousers. “I want to know exactly what you’d do to me, G’raha Tia. I want you to show me.”

She takes the lead then, unfastening his bottoms and dragging them and his smalls down his hips—he feels a little embarrassed at just how hard he already his, his cock bobbing in her small hand as she sinks down. He carelessly yanks off his shirt as her nails glide down his stomach, tracing the thatch of red hair which led further down.

“Please,” he whines—she had only finished undressing him and he could already hardly stand it, reaching for her desperately. “Let me… come here… please, I need you closer,” Raha begs. He turns her from her seat on his lap, bringing her backside toward him—

“You want to—?” Kalea stammers, hands pressed on his thighs for support. He can feel her tremble, how she shudders as he smooths his hand over the arch of her back.

“Tell me to stop and I will,” Raha grates—the very last of his restraint. “But… gods, Kali, that dress…”

 Kali’s tail arches as she cants her hips back.

Please,she all but purrs.

He rucks her thin shift up past her hips, spending far longer than he should kissing the errant moles on her backside, listening to her soft moans, delighting in how her body contorts for him—she was made for him, and he was molding her, she moves exactly as he wants—

And he settles back onto the pillows with a contented sigh once she settles on his mouth.

Finally.

 


 

In such a position, it would be expected that both partners would give as good as they got. And Kalea certainly had every intention of returning his affections, but—

She simply couldn’t.

Perhaps it was simply how long she’d yearned for such a thing—fantasized about that mouth, his mouth, how perfectly shaped it was for kissing the innermost parts of her—but Kalea, much to her own embarrassment, can do little else but weather his storm.

Raha is insatiable. He takes and gods, gives, greedy, hungry, ravenous. Situated between her thighs, he shoves her dress and smalls out of the way carelessly, leaving long, sloppy kisses on the tender skin of her upper thighs, humming his affirmation—nuzzles into the wet heat between, and he moans, moans like he’s the one getting pleasure from this, when he glides his tongue all the way up her before settling down to feast again.

Her nails dig into his thighs, lashes fluttering closed as she bucks against him— “By the Twelve, Raha,” she sobs, hair falling into her face as she bows, broken by him, broken by that mouth and that tongue. “You are—“

He makes a muffled sound—it sounds curiously self-satisfied—before his hands, crystal and Spoken both, spread her apart like an open book.

“Beautiful,” she hears him mumble, followed by sloppy, wet kisses, loud and smacking. “Mine—Kali—

She had barely touched him—her hand encircled his length feebly, barely able to wrap her fingers around it—she found herself wondering if she could even take it all, her insides clenching—

And then one of his fingers, slick and chilly—the crystal one?—dips down to her center, slipping inside her just to the first knuckle, and Kalea loses what little control she had entirely.

She pillows her head on his strong thigh, corded muscle tensed as he slips inside her, humming his affirmation when her muscles tighten around him. “Tight little thing,” he rasps, “look at you, all for me—“

His arm wraps hard around her waist and brings her down onto his waiting mouth again.

She arches back against him, whimpering as he slowly drags his finger out—a second joins the first and she keens, throwing her hair back as she rocks against him. He hadn’t seemed to notice in the slightest that she’d been unable to return his efforts—she was reduced to merely leaving sloppy kisses on his thighs and the base of his cock, falling back limp again once he curls his fingers—

“That’s my girl,” he purrs when she yelps.

He finds his rhythm there, his tongue swirling and sucking her swollen pearl as he fucks her, slow and long and hard with his fingers— “I want to die like this,” he tells her, “tasting you, pleasing you—“

Seven hells, she thinks—or does she say it aloud? Her senses had entirely left her as she’s unable to stop herself from riding his mouth and fingers—she was so close it was almost terrifying, as if she could feel the precipice, and the fall would end her.

He was moving now—his hips bucked up into nothing, a drop of precum collecting on his tip—his cock twitches in her grip. “Want you to come for me,” he mumbles against her—the m is a wet smack against her. “Please, please—come in my mouth, Kali, let me taste you

Her body stiffens, nails digging hard into his skin as her spine goes rigid, arching as far as she can—

She leans down to lick the wetness on his cock, and just as she reaches her climax, so does he.

She shouts; “Ra…ha…!” a broken, shrill sound, chanted over and over as she rides him desperately—she feels his muffled moans, and with barely any stimulation, he comes undone beneath her, hips spasming desperately as his spend covers her breasts, her mouth—she licks the salty seed from her lips as she rides the coil down, his length still twitching.

“Are you…” she gasps, seeing just how much of his cum had covered her breasts and neck, “.. alright, Raha…?”

He laughs breathlessly, kissing her thigh affectionately. “I believe I owe you an apology,” he pants. “I… my stamina is not… it seems I was a little overexcited…”

Kalea tumbles off him, humming her contentment as her lips find his again. He tastes like her, musk and sex, and perhaps he can taste himself on her, because his hand is a vice in the tangle of her hair, keeping her close as his tongue tastes every crevice of her.

“I owe you a thank you,” she laughs. “That was… by the Twelve, Raha…”

He looks at her curiously, a small, coy smile playing on his lips. His eyes are as dark as mulled wine.

“We can retire,” he says softly, “if you are tired…”

And as he speaks, his hand steals down to her center again, stroking the slick covering her thighs.

“… but I wonder if you would indulge me,” he grins.

Kalea happily acquiesces.

 


 

Raha had never spent a day in such complete, utter bliss.

Healing waters, indeed. He felt almost a new man, knitted whole by the waters and fine food and, of course, Kalea Dalan herself.

His worst fears were made manifest, and he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

Only after she was thoroughly satisfied, whining “please, Raha, let me sleep!” as he tumbled her into the sheets again, did they rest.

And in the morning, her bare flank pressed inexorably against him, Raha could hardly help himself.

“Again?” she gasps as he slipped a finger into her—still slick from the night before, blessedly warm—it’s so easy to nudge her thighs apart, to slip himself inside, like she was made for him, made to be fucked, made to be pleasured.

“I find I can’t help myself,” he mumbles apologetically into her neck. There are a half-dozen ruddy lovebites littering her neck. They’d have to heal them before they left, for she didn’t own any clothes which covered them—and he privately decides to leave more where no one would see.

It takes no effort to slide inside her, seamless and frictionless and sublime. She arches back against him, grabbing his free hand and sliding it over the warm weight of her breast.

“You’re insatiable,” she complains. “A brute.”

Her tail coils around his thigh as she takes him down to the hilt.

He’s utterly enamored with her when they finally break their fast—she eats greedy and messy like he’s never seen her before, spearing tender pieces of salmon. Raha can barely stomach food—there’s something unlocked in him, something he didn’t know he possessed, only suspected. And food would not satisfy it. 

He manages to bury it deep down when Kalea suggests—groaning as she comes to her feet, giving him a scolding look which he cannot help but treasure—a dip in the private springs. “I can barely walk,she mutters.

“I apologize for my carelessness, Warrior of Darkness,” Raha says with overblown formality. “Shall I carry you down?”

She rolls her eyes, and he has to fight his regret at seeing her don her swimclothes and robe. “As nice as it would be,” she simpers, “I think I can manage.”

Kali acquiesces to a massage in the springs—he works the knots out of her tense shoulders and back, listening intently for all her little hums and noises and soft sighs of yes, just like that. She is putty in his hands at the end, relaxing bonelessly against his thighs as he draws her hair down, working upwards to massage her scalp and ears.

“Can I… do something for you?” Kalea asks, turning in the waters to look up at him. Her hands rest on his knees, eyes like fresh-picked lilac wide and innocent.

Raha is silent. He’s listening closely for anyone who might come by soon… but this early in the morning, it seemed they were the only ones in the springs.

“You can, actually,” he smiles.

He drops down into the waters beside her, and before she can protest, he sits her on the edge of the springs. Water droplets dot her bare, flushed skin, sliding down her full breasts, her taut stomach. He wants to taste every drop. And he would, if she let him.

She blinks down at him, nose wrinkling in confusion.

“What are you—?”

Raha unties her bottoms, one and then the other. “I wonder if you can do better about keeping quiet than this morning,” he teases. His hands still on her thighs. “Although,” he says gently, “if you are still weary—“

Kali scowls.

Her fingers thread in his hair as she shoves him down.

“Be quick about it,” she retorts—and breaks into a full-throated moan when he kisses her thighs.

She unfolds like an evening primrose for him, her legs hitched over his shoulders, toes curling and heels digging into his back as she whispers, “Fuck, please—!” Her coarse language is deliciously at odds with how beautiful she is, panting and flushed as she spasms around his fingers.

It is a small miracle no one stumbles upon their tryst in the springs.

He promised her after he’d behave himself better, even as he wiped her slick from his chin with the back of his hand. She teased him for it. “You say you’ve changed,” she told him as he retied her swim bottoms, “but this is the Raha I remember.”

He felt a small measure of clarity that afternoon, even able to focus on his texts as Kali availed herself to the baths again.

“Raha?” She asks him. “Can you be a dear for me?”

He hadn’t planned on anything—really. Sincerely. He had used and abused her body countless times in the last sun alone. He was more than content to simply enjoy her company.

Kalea’s long, lean legs drape over the edge of the bath, gleaming with oil. The perfume from the baths makes his head spin, as does the way her lithe body disappears into the piles of soap suds.

“How can I be of assistance?” Raha says primly.

Kalea stretches her legs before neatly folding them. He watches the way her thighs flex, how her hair is liquid dark against her skin as it drapes over her bare breast.

“You can undress, for a start,” she smiles serenely.

He hesitates. “You said you were—we need not—I am perfectly content—“

“Are you?” She stretches a hand out, smoothing it over his stomach, fingers digging into his trousers. “Your body says else, my lord.”

My lord.

He is as hard as he has ever been as she tugs down his trousers.

Healing waters, indeed.

 


 

Kalea feels a measure of sadness as they collect their belongings from the inn. The last three days had felt like a blissful dream, and one she was reticent to wake from. A dream in which G’raha loved her, in which he wanted her in all the ways she’d wanted him, in which there were no duties or titles or star-devouring Calamities to tear them apart…

She wants to ask him if this is where the affair ends—after three blissful days, would they simply return to normalcy?

But as G’raha packs her bag for her, folding her clothes perfectly and neatly, plying her with strong tea and breakfast—she can’t find it in herself to break the fantasy they’d created.

Indeed, even as they walk through the Exarch Gate together, Kalea finds herself rendered mute.

“Ah, my lord!” Captain Lyna jogs from her post with surprising speed. “You’ve returned!”

“So I have,” he smiles. “’Tis good to be home. I trust everything was well while I was away?”

“Surprisingly quiet,” she affirms. “The Crystarium is truly an independent entity, just as you desired. How was your respite? I trust it was…”

And to Kalea’s immense horror, Captain Lyna’s eyes drift down to her neck.

She can’t help but clap her hand over the bites that were no doubt showing from the hem of her tunic.

“… restful?” Lyna manages.

The Exarch pats Kalea on the back good-naturedly, entirely oblivious to the exchange. “Quite. Thank you for granting me the convalescence. Whether I wanted it or not… I certainly need it.”

Captain Lyna smiles, stepping aside to let them pass. “Then I have fulfilled my duty.”

The Exarch chats effortlessly with passerbys as he escorts her back to the Pendants. If he was as concerned for their fate as Kalea was, he did not show it. Indeed, the respite seemed to have done some good for him. He looked a little younger, less weary, merely wielding his staff rather than relying upon it.

Kalea finally finds her voice when they stand upon the threshold to her quarters.

“Exarch—“ she blurts, then corrects herself. “Raha. I… what happened in Clearmelt… was that… are we…?”

G’raha stares down at her curiously, searching her features.

And then, perhaps he sees what he was looking for, because he smiles at her, a full stretch so much like the boy she'd fallen in love with all those years ago.

“I have some matters to attend to,” he tells her softly, “and then… I will see you tonight?”

He takes a strand of her hair and tucks it aside, cradling her cheek gently.

Kalea nods fervently.

And he leans down and kisses her, soft and tender.

“Thank you,” he murmurs, before waving her goodbye and turning back towards the Tower.

Kalea watches him leave, her heart swelling in her breast. This didn’t have to end…

… He felt the same as she.

And perhaps that was all she had ever truly desired.