“You should be resting.”
Instead of turning to face his husband, Runaan canted his face toward the sky, closing his eyes and marveling at how he could still make out the soft blue light of the moon with them shut. “Was craving a bit of fresh air,” he said, and shadows preserve him, his voice still hadn’t recovered. It was still raspy and weak – even weaker than the rest of him. He sighed. “Feel the moon on my skin. Do something besides wallowing in bed.”
Ethari sat beside him in the grass, humming in acknowledgment. “You say wallowing. I say resting.”
“How many times are you going to chide me for getting out of bed?”
“At least once more.”
“Go on then…”
Ethari’s fingers found his, curling around them and squeezing tight. “You don’t need to push yourself, Runaan. You’ve proven your strength already – to me and everyone else here. You’re alive, and that on its own is…” His voice caught in his throat, thick with emotion that made Runaan’s own chest ache.
All that time he’d spent trapped, alone in the crushing darkness, not knowing how much time had passed or how much more he faced in the void…Ethari had spent that time mourning his presumed death. Locked in a different kind of hell.
He turned his palm up to squeeze Ethari’s hand back.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel like I failed,” he admitted. “I should never have been captured in the first place.”
“Well, it’s hard to argue with that,” Ethari said with a slight, familiar smile. “I would have much preferred you not be captured too.” He pressed his other hand against Runaan’s opposite shoulder, letting his palm trail down until it met the stump above the elbow. “But don’t think for one second that means I’d prefer your death.”
Runaan allowed himself a wan smile of his own. “I certainly hope you don’t wish for my death. It would make it awfully difficult being married to you.”
“Oh, shove it.” His palm pressed against Runaan’s cheek. “I lost you once. I’m happy…beyond happy to have you back. Even if there’s some of you…missing.”
Runaan’s gaze flicked down to where his other arm had been once before, where the band had wrapped tightly around his flesh to remind him of their mission. In the grand scheme, it had been a small price to pay. And yet…
“I can’t help but feel…useless,” he said, and before Ethari could say another word, he added, “I know, I know – you’re going to tell me it’s a waste of time to believe such a thing, that there are more important things than being able to fight. But I’m not…I’m not used to this, Ethari. Being weak. Being…fragile. I hate it.”
Ethari drew an absent-minded pattern on the back of his neck, parting his hair and drawing it forward to rest in front of his shoulders. Runaan couldn’t resist the urge to lean into that touch, even now. Even with shame and anger still thrumming under the surface of his skin. And still, Ethari’s soft laugh was as invigorating to him as it was surprising, lighting up his skin like the full moon.
“Don’t you remember the first time we went hunting together?” Ethari told him, and Runaan could hear the smile in his voice. “When you were bitten by that feversap spider on the first night?”
Runaan groaned. “Why in the world would you bring up that heinous night?”
Ethari’s fingers ran through his hair, again and again, slowly and methodically, until Runaan couldn’t help but let his eyes slip closed once more. “Because I remember it well…it was the night I realized I wanted to spend my life with you after all. It’s a treasured memory.”
“The memory of watching me throw up in the river while shaking and sweating with fever is a treasured one, is it?”
“I held your hair back while you were throwing up in that river and I thought to myself…I could do this again if it meant having this one with me.” He chuckled. “Not to say I particularly enjoyed that bit, but…the vows I took were for illness and health and everything in between.” His gaze softened as Runaan met his eye. “You’re not weak, Runaan. You never have been. Not then, and not now. And I’ll feed you and bathe you and hold your hair back while you’re sick as many times as I need to until you’re back to your old self. Because I know you’ll get there. I have faith in you. Always.”
Runaan’s chest ached as Ethari’s thumb brushed against his knuckles. Even now, after all this time, the feeling of him pressing a kiss to his shoulder and resting his head there made it almost impossible for him to breathe.
“I’m sorry,” he finally said. “For making you suffer.”
Ethari hummed. “It’s not as if you did it on purpose.”
“I didn’t know how much time passed while I was…” He swallowed, and Ethari squeezed his hand again. “…gone. It felt stretched…distorted. When I first saw the village again, it felt like a dream. Like no time had passed at all, and an eternity at the same time.” He pulled Ethari’s hand into his lap, wishing he could lay another on top of it. “ I thought of you. I wondered if…if you’d moved on. Found someone else.”
“You really think I could?”
“With enough time…I would want you to. I want you to be happy, not…not mourning forever.”
“I am happy,” Ethari insisted. “Runaan…I always knew that there could come a time when you wouldn’t return from a mission. I never liked thinking about it, but every day I would come to the pool just to see your flower floating there.”
Runaan could hardly bear the thought of it – the image of Ethari watching his flower sink under the surface of the water, realizing what it meant.
But Ethari spoke again before he could linger on it: “Everyone told me to be proud. That you’d died with honor. That it was better than Rayla, better than fleeing. But when they made her a ghost for it, all I could think was that I’d lost you both. Even if her flower was still floating and yours had sunk – you were both gone.”
“I was selfish, you know,” he continued, voice thick and heavy. “Everyone said I should be proud of you and ashamed of Rayla, but I couldn’t help but think of how much I’d prefer it if…if you both had run. I would have gladly become a ghost with you if it meant still having you with me.” When Runaan looked at him again, incredulous, there were tears streaking down Ethari’s cheeks, framing his rueful smile. “But I knew you’d never have run. You’re too stubborn. And I knew that being a ghost would tear you up inside.”
Runaan closed his eyes again. He couldn’t bear watching those tears roll down Ethari’s face. The pain he’d caused his beloved Ethari…it made shame and guilt burn hot in Runaan’s chest. But Ethari pressed his hand against Runaan’s jaw, turning his face toward him, like he could read his thoughts as clear as day.
“It’s like you said,” Ethari told him, pressing their foreheads together. “I want you to be happy. Always, Runaan. I want you to be happy.”
They stayed there for a long moment, until Runaan finally let out a shuddering breath and forced his eyes open. He found Ethari looking at him through one eye, the other still closed, a lopsided smile on his face.
“I also want you to stay in bed instead of wandering around in fields until you pass out from exhaustion.”
Despite everything – the weakness in his muscles, the shame roiling inside of him – Runaan laughed. “So it wasn’t just going to be once more that you’d chide me, was it?”
“I said at least once more, or did you forget?”
Ethari stood, holding tight to Runaan’s remaining hand and hoisting him up to his feet, leading him back toward the house. A cool breeze followed them, playing in Runaan’s hair the way Ethari’s fingers had just a short time before. Runaan breathed it in deep, flexing his fingers, reminding himself that he was free, that he was alive.
“You should eat something.”
That he had a husband intent on doting on him no matter how difficult he made it.
“If I told you I wasn’t hungry,” he hazarded, “Would you believe me?”
“Yes,” Ethari said, already grabbing a loaf of bread and an apple and laying them out on the counter. “But I wouldn’t listen.”
“I thought not.”
“Go sit down, you stubborn thing. Maybe if you meditate on your appetite you’ll find the will to eat.”
“Meditate on my appetite, hm?” Runaan mused with a small smile as he eased himself into the familiar old chair, still in sight of the kitchen. It was comforting, having Ethari in his field of vision. A reminder that this was real, that the smell of warm spices from the cabinets and the sound of Ethari’s knife against the cutting board weren’t just a pleasant dream.
“I have moonflower honey for the apples,” Ethari said in a sing-song voice, like he was trying to tempt a child to do chores for sweets. Ridiculous.
Runaan’s mouth watered anyway, his stomach growling and betraying him.
Ethari grinned. “I knew that would work.” He handily peeled the apple against the blade of his knife, cut out the seeds and core, drizzled it in honey before licking his finger. “Even if that doesn’t look like meditating to me.”
“You’ve already found my weakness. Meditation won’t do me much good.”
Ethari’s smile turned into a smirk as he rose a brow. “By weakness, do you mean me or the honey?”
“Fair enough. As long as you eat, I can’t really find it in me to be jealous.”
They sat side by side by the crackling fire as Runaan slowly cleaned the plate of its contents. The sweet honey and tart apples were almost good enough to make him forget the endless annoyance of having sticky residue left all over his fingers and lips, and Ethari laughed as he licked his thumb and pressed it against the corner of Runaan’s mouth to wipe some of it away.
Sticky fingers be damned, Runaan caught Ethari’s wrist there and leaned in closer, holding his gaze until their eyes slipped closed and their lips met. The last of the honey on his tongue mixed with the familiar smell of fresh cut grass and the floral oils he bathed with.
As weak as his body was, and as much as his mind had raced since he’d returned, kissing Ethari made him feel electric, full, alive. It was calm and safe, familiar and quiet. Perfect.
Even if he couldn’t cup Ethari’s jaw in his palms as he’d always done before, he pressed his one hand against his husband’s cheek as they parted, Ethari’s lips still pursed and his eyes opening slowly, lazily. “Not that I’m complaining,” he mused, “But I’ve been married to you for a good number of years now, and I’ve never seen moonflower honey make you do that.”
“The honey has nothing to do with it,” Runaan said.
“You’re sure?” Ethari laughed as he reached up to cover Runaan’s hand with his own. “Because you’re getting it all over my face.”
Runaan groaned, the sound turning into a laugh to match Ethari’s as he leaned forward, wrapping his arm instead around Ethari’s chest and resting his head against his firm shoulder. He breathed in deep, letting the familiar scent fill his lungs, reveling in how perfect it felt to have Ethari hold him in return.
He had almost lost this. Had spent so long in darkness that he’d nearly forgotten what it felt like. He could still feel it, the cold metal closing in on all sides, the stifling air making every breath feel like it would be his last, and the darkness – the crushing darkness – that felt so suffocatingly small and yet so terrifyingly endless.
“Love,” Ethari breathed, his hand combing through Runaan’s hair. “Easy now…I’ve got you.”
Runaan’s fingers curled against Ethari’s tunic, squeezing against the flesh underneath. It was soft, warm, not like the cold, harsh prison that had surrounded him for so long. And yet his body still shook like it remembered the cold.
“Runaan…tell me what you see.”
His voice was firm, but kind. Gentle. Runaan forced his eyes open. “A fire,” he said, letting out a shuddering breath. “Our wedding ribbons over the mantle…my bow…” A bow he would probably never draw again – he shook his head, took another breath, focusing on the feeling of Ethari’s hand against his back. “The window – the duskwillow outside is blooming. The doll Rayla made for you years ago is still sitting on the sill.”
“She still asks me to get rid of it every time she sees it,” Ethari chuckled, turning and nuzzling the side of Runaan’s head. “What else?”
His breathing was coming easier, his head spinning more slowly. “The table in the corner. Candles on the hearth. That damn sticky plate.” He glanced up at Ethari’s face again, catching his eye. “I’m so-“
“Don’t you dare apologize,” Ethari insisted. “I’ve held your hair while you were sick – this is nothing.”
Runaan managed a smile at that, surprising himself. “I missed you,” he sighed. “So very much.”
He hated how heavy his words were, how they were weighted down with his own emotion. But Ethari had seen the worst of him, the lowest moments of his life, and yet here he was, humming quietly in his ear while Runaan’s pulse slowed back to its resting rhythm.
Ethari leaned back, letting Runaan’s head rest on his chest as they stretched out as much as they could, legs tangled on the cushions and fingers intertwined. They lay in silence for longer than Runaan cared to count, watching the fire slowly burn down to glowing embers. Ethari’s hand combed through Runaan’s hair, a gentle, steady rhythm, breaking every so often to trace over his horns or flick the tip of his ear.
“You said that the first time we went hunting was when you decided you wanted to marry me,” Runaan mused some time later, breaking the quiet. “It was before that for me.”
“Oh?” He shot Runaan a crooked grin. “Was it the moment you first laid eyes on me?”
“No,” Runaan scoffed, smiling back. “It was the storm. The typhoon that swept through the whole forest, when we were huddled up together in the dark in your workshop, wondering if it was going to blow the roof right off over our heads.” His smile grew softer. “Do you remember?”
A splash of pink spread across Ethari’s cheeks. “If we’re thinking of the same night…”
Runaan’s brow rose. “I certainly didn’t expect it to go how it did.”
“You practically tackled me.”
“I’d wanted you for months. Can you blame me?”
“And I’d wanted you just as long. It could have happened much sooner if you’d just said something,” Ethari said with a laugh. “And in a proper bed no less. Would have been better than the floor-“
“I don’t seem to recall you complaining.”
“Well I was a bit distracted. You were very distracting.”
Runaan sat up, bringing his face level with Ethari’s and smirking. “And now?” he whispered before leaning in and brushing his lips against his husband’s. He let himself linger, let the kiss deepen, savored the feeling of Ethari’s mouth moving against his. He pulled away just enough to speak again, their lips brushing as he said, “Am I distracting you?”
“I want to feel you,” he said. “Can you blame me?”
“You’re still recovering-“
He was choosing his words carefully. He knew too well how much it would sting for him to suggest that Runaan was weak, after he’d already said it to himself so many times before. But Runaan felt anything but weak now. Different, yes – wounded and drained – but for the first time since he’d returned, Runaan felt whole.
“Look at me, my love,” Runaan said, and Ethari met his eyes in just a heartbeat. Runaan pressed his thumb against Ethari’s chin, eyes half-lidded. “I love you. I want you. I want you as badly as I did back then during that storm, and I can’t bear to wait a second longer, so please…”
He trailed kisses down Ethari’s jaw, feeling him sigh and his hands trailing down over his ribs, and by the time Runaan’s lips made it to Ethari’s throat, those hands were gently, almost reverently, undoing his tunic.
Then pushing him away, hauling him up, and suddenly Runaan was lifted off his feet. “In a proper bed,” Ethari insisted as he carried him toward the bedroom. “I’m not letting that go this time.”
Runaan laughed against the column of Ethari’s neck, arm hooked around his shoulders and lips pressed against his skin, never wanting to let go. Not now, not ever.
Ethari’s hands were rough and calloused as they made their way over Runaan’s skin, tracing over every inch of him as he peeled away piece after piece of clothing. He kissed the marks on Runaan’s shoulders and arm, dragged his lips down over his chest, took his agonizing time undressing them both until they were bare. He took him apart with his hands, with his fingers, with his mouth – shadows, his mouth – until Runaan arched off the bed and gasped.
He held him through all of it, whispered sweet things into his ear that Runaan would have scoffed at coming from anyone else, stroked his hair as he came down and settled into a deep, warm half-slumber as the moon dipped behind the clouds and a gentle drizzle started to patter against the windows.
Tangled in the sheets with the smell of extinguished candles and petrichor wafting around them, Runaan turned and pressed a kiss to Ethari’s shoulder. “Are you going to tell me again to rest?” he murmured, already drifting off.
“Do you want me to?” Ethari whispered into the crown of Runaan’s head before dropping a soft kiss there.
“Mm…just once more.”
“Sleep, love.” His thumb brushed against Runaan’s jaw. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Runaan did, and Ethari was.