The Crystal Exarch would have been lying to himself if he thought he wasn't spying on her. He didn't bother trying to convince himself otherwise. He knew he was spying on the Warrior of Light, and what's more, he actively enjoyed it. Not the lying part, he didn't like lying to her at all. The subterfuge was a necessary evil that brought him no pleasure, least of all to whom he was now lying to regularly--no, daily, at this point. It rankled him, ate away at his sense of self, both whom he knew himself to be, now, and the man he used to be centuries ago. He was many things, had been many things in his life--a passable warrior, a better scholar, and, finally, a powerful mage--but being a liar was a more recent development.
The Exarch didn't like it, of course, but neither did he like the worlds of the First and the Source being destroyed with its peoples annihilated. So he had justified his lies, and no one could convince him otherwise. He had no one to hold his counsel, and so he had to keep his own, out of necessity. No one could be trusted with the whole of his plan; the world in which the shared plan had been crafted no longer existed, and neither did its people, with a new future yet to be written, and he had to honor the sacrifice of those he had crafted it with, by being ultimately victorious. The Exarch knew he was on the right side of history, despite the fact that no one would remember him when he was done, but he was not doing this to build his legacy, only to ensure others had theirs.
As he would no longer be alive when his plan reached fruition, the Crystal Exarch took his pleasures where he could find them, and they mainly centered on watching the Warrior of Light. He was a fool for loving her, he knew that, but he couldn’t help it, not after several centuries alone. He cherished the moments he got to spend in his Warrior’s proximity, even though the Exarch knew he could not allow himself to truly get close to her, at least not in the way he wanted. Even physically, when he had to interact with her for the sake of his plan, he tried to keep his distance from Tetri as much as he could help it, keeping his phrases almost terse and with little substance, lest he betray any onze of indication that he knew her. He wanted her to know, that was the problem. The Miqo'te woman's presence near him strained his control on his best days. On his worst, it was all he could do to grip his staff and grit his teeth, fighting his urge to rip off the cowl covering his face, to show Tetri that he was not gone, that her dear friend was not dead or still in slumber beneath Syrcus Tower.
In his dark moods, when the Crystal Exarch avoided sleep in his Umbilicus chamber, hating the threads of Fate that bound him to his future demise, he entertained dark thoughts, thoughts of showing up to his Warrior's rooms in the Pendants, of begging her for her love. Of falling on his knees and pleading to have just one night with her, so that the memory of their love could follow him into the void of the Rift, comforting him as his soul was ripped apart. Those thoughts naturally led further, for his thoughts were all he had, and they were detailed. He would have her strip him, slowly, have Tetri unwrap his robes and cowl from him like he was her long-awaited gift for Starlight Festival, until he was finally naked and bare before her. He imagined the dragoon's callused fingertips on his flesh, tingling even where crystal had formed on his skin, imagined her fingers dragging downwards, low over his belly until they wrapped around his cock.
He always took himself in hand, at this point, shifting his robes over his hips to free his cock to the open air, imagining his soft palm was instead the rough, battle-hardened skin of his Warrior. He imagined she would be good at stroking him to completion by hand alone, her proficiency at the lance naturally translating to increased dexterity in the bedroom, but that was only an assumption. The Crystal Exarch would give nearly anything to learn the reality of having her, for real, even if it were just her hands on him, but he tried not to think those thoughts as he thrust into his hand, for his disappointment and frustrated longing easily destroyed his ardor. He would drag his palm along his entire length, slowly, sometimes licking the center of his hand first, imagining he was thrusting inside her wet folds instead, and that was always best, that was always what made him reach his peak. Nothing else did; the Exarch had tried for weeks, ever since he had successfully brought her to the world of the First.
Tonight was one of those nights where he watched her on his crystal screen in what passed for evening, yearning for his own release but holding himself back. He had been watching her sleep, watched her twitch in slumber in her bed in the Pendants. The Exarch rarely slept anyway; something about the Allagan magics that had kept him in slumber for centuries, plus the whole debacle of time travel, had apparently altered his mind for good, and he now hated sleep as it was. He much preferred this, watching over his Warrior on his crystal screen, imagining he could hold her in his arms, feeling the warmth of her body against him, inhaling her comforting scent, her breath mingling with his. He did not touch himself while she was like this, while she was sleeping peacefully, would not allow himself to, not when he knew the peace of sleep eluded even her. Unlike himself, the Exarch knew Tetri actually needed her rest if she was to fight her battles and win.
While he watched her sleep, it was easy for the Crystal Exarch to reminisce on their early days together. Even back when he was known as G'raha T'ia, and they had been just two adventurers exploring Syrcus Tower, he recalled that Tetri had struggled with frequent bouts of insomnia, a manifestation of the strain of her newfound duty as Warrior of Light. It was during their mutual inability to find sleep that they forged their bond of friendship, staying up late in each others' tents, drinking Gridanian wine and Ishgardian brandy, swapping tales like adventurers did.
It was during such times of idle pleasure that his Warrior of Light had given him the gift of her birth name, when they had both been deep in their cups and he had made an ass of himself by asking her questions about her upbringing in Thanalan that he knew she would rather not have answered. Yet, the purple-haired Miqo'te had honored his boundless curiosity, even still, entertained the folly of his youth while he had been a scholar, ravenous for any sort of knowledge, a hunger that served him well as a mage but not as a man. As a man, the Warrior of Light had inspired a different hunger in him, the hunger of the flesh, a lustful ache no food would quell, that no drink would stave away. G'raha had wanted her back then, too, had wanted to kiss Tetri, to taste the brandy on her lips, to swallow the gold of her laughter. He had wanted to be the Miqo'te man that could prove to her, once and for all, that they were not all as selfish and conniving as her Nuhn had been.
The Exarch put his crystal hand to his chin in thought, feeling himself fall deeper into his memories. Before joining the Circle of Knowing, G’raha had accepted the surname of T’ia without complaint or shame when he had come of age, uninterested in challenging his birth tribe’s own Nuhn. An intellectual and thoughtful person, even as an adolescent, G’raha had found the annual infighting over harem wives and Nuhn rulership distasteful and culturally backwards. The disapproval of his tribal members over his then-mismatched eyes was, he recognized in hindsight, just a further excuse to dismiss him from the tribe for good. It was an eventuality he had expected and, once it arrived, he found he in fact welcomed the opportunity to leave, in order to find his own path. Once he had declined the challenge from his own Nuhn, he had said his necessary goodbyes to his family and friends, taken his bow and quiver, and left with a spring in his step. Then his journey had led him to the Circle of Knowing, to Syrcus Tower, and, finally, to Tetri’s side.
Those first few days on the road by himself, G’raha had finally felt liberated from a warped tribal mentality that had never suited him. It was a feeling that had made him feel even closer to the Warrior of Light, for she, too, had left her birth tribe of her own accord, had struck out on her own, even claimed a new name for herself. More than that admiration, though, G'raha had wanted to love her, just as they were, with the springtime light of youth's first love blooming in his heart.
He had been with other lovers before, of course, and had even thought he was in love with some of them, men and women both. Yet it had not been this all-encompassing burst of passionate longing, so hot it felt like it seared him from within, making him burn with want to the tips of his ears and tail. G'raha had felt himself in freefall at the mere glance from the Warrior of Light, her touch on his arm or shoulder making him fight the urge to clutch the Miqo'te woman in his arms, to take her lips with his. If she had shared his sentiment (and if he had even dared to share it with her at the time), he would have thrown her to the floor of her tent and shared a mutually furious bout of lovemaking with her.
During the day he had busied himself with the demands of adventuring, savoring the group's discoveries in the Tower, but deep down he couldn't wait for nightfall to join Tetri in her tent, or for her to join him in his, to have that moment of cherished closeness with her, to savor the time she spent with him alone. G'raha had wanted to tell her he was in love with her. At night, when she left his tent for her own, when their heads were both still buzzing from the tartness of Ishgardian brandy, he tossed and turned in his bedroll, damning the confines of his personal destiny that demanded he follow the invisible currents of ancient Allag to their completion. To the secrets that he knew were his birthright, that damned crimson eye staring him in the face when he looked in the mirror, linking him to the inevitable. G'raha wanted to follow the Warrior of Light, instead! He wanted to follow her on her journey as her confidante, her comrade in arms, her lover.
To hell with destiny! he had thought, ears and tail thrashing as he fought to sleep, with a young man's logic, informed only by the frivolous logic of youth that has time enough left to make mistakes. I want to be with her! I love her!
Those thoughts of his were always followed by images of stuttering darkness, shadows closing upon his mind at the bridge between waking and slumber, and even back then he could swear he saw glimpses of a possible future, what would come to pass if he did not meet his destiny in the Tower. He saw Eorzea in ruins, its peoples dying, the jaws of sineaters closing around the distant, terrified peoples of the First. And so, G'raha had held his tongue and hid his feelings from the Warrior of Light after all, not because he wanted her any less, but because he could not bear to unleash that future upon them all by refusing to become what destiny demanded of him.
You have your duty, Tetri, he had thought as he made a final, bitter turn away from her, and I have mine. He walked up to the tower with a smile on his face that fell as soon as his eyes left hers, feeling goosebumps rise on his arms as the doors to Syrcus Tower gaped open to swallow him whole.
Knowing Tetri would live kept him from shaking as the great crystal and brass doors closed behind him, as he settled within the dead quiet of the tower's still walls, as the sleep of aeons enclosed his mind and body, with every vein and blood cell steadily filling with the magical power of the Allagan ruling family. Syrcus Tower became G'raha's chrysalis, and the butterfly of the Crystal Exarch was born the moment he awakened and emerged into the First, beginning the journey that would create the Crystarium and the long fight back against the sin eaters and their Lightwardens.
The Crystal Exarch grimaced as his mind resurfaced to the present moment, and he let his crystal hand drop to hang loosely by his side. He stared at his Warrior sleep, and felt his heart throb with longing that would never be fulfilled, full of love he could never share with the one he wanted most. He could not doom both of their worlds to destruction; he could not tell Tetri he loved her. The Exarch gripped his staff tightly in bitter frustration. If it had not been expertly made, of gold and brass and enchanted with a magic that was aeons-old, the weapon may have crumbled in his hand from how tightly he gripped it.
As the Exarch fumed in the bitterness of his centuries-long unrequited love, the temptation once again arose within him, to use his magic on the sleeping Warrior for decidedly unethical ends. He wanted to touch her mind with his magic, to touch her in some way, to dive beneath the surface of her sleeping consciousness, to experience her memories. By doing so, the Exarch could know Tetri further, know how she had grown and changed over the years, while he had slept in the tower, while the powers of Allag had created him anew. After all, as the Crystal Exarch he was not a friend to her, just a mysterious mage that had torn her friends’ souls from their bodies to the First, before taking her, too, across the Rift to his world by force. This was, perhaps, the only way he could touch her for real.
As soon as that thought arose, however, the Exarch choked down a wave of self-loathing, and he felt his ears fall flat against his head in revulsion. How could he want to do such a thing, to force his way into Tetri’s mind without her permission?! It was disgusting! He couldn’t do that to someone he loved, someone he cared about, his oldest and dearest friend! It was bad enough he watched her sleep, watched the dragoon move about the Crystarium and Lakeland while she completed the tasks he himself was asking of her! He was violating her privacy daily, spying on her, leading her on with his lies, in service to his scheme, and he wanted more from her, even still. The Exarch was certain that the younger version of himself would not recognize who he had become. And still, in his greed for Tetri, the Exarch could not force himself to stop, for he knew how it ended, even if she did not. It ended with his death.
Why can I not love you like this, Tetri, at least from afar? he mused, enjoying the look of deep relaxation on the Miqo’te woman’s face on the crystal screen before him, warring between his want to sink into her sleeping mind, and his sense of ethics and propriety. I’m going to die for you, soon enough. Can I not have even this?
He was a stranger to his beloved, though, a stranger in an even stranger world on the edge of complete collapse. She owed him nothing, least of all access to her mind and heart. He asked her to fight for him, to put herself and her friends, the Scions, in harm’s way in his battle to save the First (and, thereby, the Source and Eorzea) from the sin eaters. He knew Tetri was up to the task, that was not the issue. He had enjoyed battling with her in Holminster Switch, seeing just how vastly her fighting skills had improved, even as he had simultaneously mourned the massive loss of life as the village and its people had been annihilated by the sin eaters.
He did not get to battle often, but he had been at the crystal tower long enough to expend that much of his energy safely, and it had been worth it to unleash his wrath upon the infernal light demons, as well as to battle by Tetri’s side once more. Helping her slay the lightwarden had made the Exarch feel more alive than he had in years, watching her leap in the air, aglow with dragonfire, her deadly lance aloft and glistening with the blood of slain sin eaters. He had watched her land the final blow, killing the massive demon with a wild roar. He had watched as she had subsequently absorbed the lightwarden’s accursed aether, sending it upwards into the sky, rending the light of the Flood asunder with a mighty crack, returning the night to Lakeland once more! The sight had brought tears to the Exarch’s eyes; after centuries of scheming, his plan was bearing the fruits of hope for this blighted world! All it would cost to save them all, in the end...was his life, and Tetri’s respect for him.
At that thought, the Exarch frowned as he felt another wave of self-loathing rise up in his breast. He felt his ears flatten against the sides of his head in frustration, and his tail twisted behind him in muted anger as he revisited the memory of his Warrior’s recent return. When Tetri had returned to the Crystarium from Ahm Araeng just a few days prior, hand in hand with fellow Scion Alisaie Leveilleur, the Crystal Exarch had merely thought the two women to have a close bond of friendship, forged in the camaraderie that often naturally arose between comrades and adventurers, in war as well as exploration. Over the months since her arrival in the First, Alisaie had told him about the war to free Ala Mhigo and Doma from the Garlean Empire, a tale he had listened to with rapt attention. From her story, the Exarch had realized, with no small measure of satisfaction, that Tetri’s fighting spirit had not been diluted in the slightest by the struggle of the Dragonsong War in Ishgard. If anything, her experiences had only seemed to heighten her resolve during the subsequent struggle to free Doma and Ala Mhigo, as well as improving her skill with the lance and her leaps of dragonfire. It had encouraged his own determination to bring her to the First, certain that his Warrior was indeed the key to salvation of the First, and prevention of the Eighth Umbral Calamity.
So the Exarch had barely been able to fight the utter shock that had flowed through him, startling beneath his cowl as he had watched Alisaie pull the Miqo’te woman down for a passionate kiss, right in front of him in the Ocular! Tetri had startled, her long tail bristling, pulling away gently but insistently, blushing and squeezing the Elezen woman’s hand, and looking sheepishly at the Exarch, shrugging as if in apology for the two women’s brazen public display of affection. The Exarch had clenched his fists tight around his staff, his blood grown hot with jealousy and longing. Alphinaud had merely laughed, greeting his wayward twin with a hug.
“Dear sister,” he said, “it’s good to see you back, at last! Finally had enough of the desert?”
“Hello, dear brother,” Alisaie replied, returning her twin’s hug with a pat on the back before they separated. “And yes, I’ve had enough of Ahm Araeng to last several lifetimes, in fact. I especially won’t miss the dust covering every ilm of my person.”
“Indeed,” replied Alphinaud with a laugh. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, the open plains in Kholusia also left a lot to be desired. It was difficult enough to sleep on the open ground every night, let alone sneak into Eulmore.”
“Hmmm,” said his sister, looking him up and down with a mischievous gleam in her eye.
“Well, it seems like it worked out after all, Alphinaud,” she continued. “Not only did you get a nice new outfit on your journey, but from what I’ve heard from Tetri so far, it seems you had a good enough reason not to sleep well.”
Alphinaud blushed in embarrassment, his cheeks turning beet red. He rubbed the back of his head and laughed.
“Ah!--yes, well,” he said, stuttering and looking at Tetri, who smiled and shrugged at him, also blushing lightly, a light dusting of red covering her cheeks beneath her facial markings.
“Hello, Alphinaud,” she said, walking up to him and enveloping him in a tight hug. Alphinaud closed his eyes and clung to her, stroking her lower back lightly. The Exarch tightened his hold on his staff as he watched them embrace beneath his cowl, watching as Alphinaud dragged his fingers nearly to the base of her tail, before seeming to think better of it and taking his hands away as they stepped apart. The Exarch thought it was a familiar touch upon her, with a layer of concealed passion, more of a caress than the embrace of mere friends.
Did she take both of the Leveilleurs as her lovers, before they arrived in the First?! he thought, his jealousy simmering beneath his skin, unabated. Neither of them even so much as indicated such a possibility to me, in all the past year they have been here! Surely I would have known, otherwise! The Exarch seethed as he continued watching his Warrior’s tender reunion with her fellow Scions.
“I missed you, Tetri,” said Alphinaud softly, taking her hands in his, oblivious to the Exarch’s scrutiny as he looked deep into his lover’s eyes. Tetri smiled at him, her long ears twitching, and squeezed his hands gently, stroking the back of his fingers.
“I missed you too, Alphinaud,” she replied, leaning down to place a kiss on his lips. She startled again as Alphinaud deepened the kiss insistently, refusing to let her pull away, before relinquishing her lips with some reluctance, still holding her hands in his. The Miqo’te and Elezen smiled at each other, blushing and grinning like idiots. The Crystal Exarch fought an urge to scream, his tail thrashing beneath his robes. He took a deep breath as he watched Tetri let go of Alphinaud’s hands and turned to him, instead.
“Exarch,” she said, nodding towards him in polite greeting, her face still red, her lips swollen from kisses. The Miqo’te woman smiled at him, looking at him with a challenge in her ruby eyes, as if daring him to comment on her two exchanges with the Leveilleur twins, who also turned to look at him. The Exarch swallowed, choking down his angry jealousy. He forced a dry smile on his face, one that she and the twins could just barely see beneath his cowl.
“Tetri,” he replied, “welcome back to the Crystarium. I’m glad to see you’ve reunited with your fellow Scions.”
He nodded towards her, respectfully.
“I’m sure you’re tired from your journey, having been in Ahm Araeng for over a week’s time,” he said. “Your suite at the Pendants has been maintained in your absence. I’ve ensured everything is well stocked for you, and I’ve arranged dinner to be delivered to you later tonight. If you need anything, at all, please let one of the attendants know, and we’ll take care of it.”
“Oh, Tetri, yes, let’s go!” cried Alisaie, her azure eyes gleaming in excitement. She ran up and wrapped her arm around Tetri’s, looking up at her.
“You promised me that long bath, after all,” she said, and grinned wickedly at Tetri as she stroked a hand up the taller woman’s arm. “You also mentioned it’s big enough for two!”
“Ah--w-well, Alisaie, let’s--talk about this later, if you don’t mind,” said Tetri, stammering and blushing at Alisaie’s shameless flirting. Despite her previous words to Alisaie during their night together, it was clear Tetri was a bit shy under the Exarch’s gaze. Alisaie rolled her eyes.
“Alright, Tetri,” she said, “but let’s get dinner early, tonight, then! A hot meal beats dried rations out in the desert, any day!”
“Hey, Alisaie, I want to have dinner with Tetri, too!” said Alphinaud, running up to the pair and taking Tetri’s other hand in his. The Miqo’te looked down at him to find him grinning up at her beneath ivory bangs, his blue eyes gleaming at the excitement of seeing her again. “I spent the past week reading about the history of the Flood,” he said, “looking for clues about the use of magic in the First. I must say, as much as I enjoy research, I could sorely use a break from these past few days. Is it alright if I join you both?”
“Of course, Alphinaud,” said Tetri, squeezing his hand. “Dinner will do us all good, I imagine.”
“Great, that’s settled. Now let’s go!” said Alisaie, yanking Tetri towards the exit from the Ocular by the arm.
“Bye, Exarch,” she cried as she and her brother grinned at each other and rapidly hustled the Warrior of Light out the door so fast that her spear clattered against her armor.
“Hey, wait--you two…!” said Tetri, grousing in mild irritation, but it was clear she wasn’t as bothered as she sounded. She looked back at the Exarch apologetically as the three reached the doorway.
“Thank you, Exarch,” she said. “We’ll meet up soon to talk about our next steps!”
The Exarch nodded at the Warrior of Light.
“I look forward to it, Tetri,” he said, and then she was gone, as the Leveilleur twins pulled her through the doors, which slammed shut, leaving the Exarch alone once more.
The Crystal Exarch sighed as he focused once more on the present, raising his crystal hand to his chin in thought. Tetri had spent a few days on her own with the Leveilleur twins, having a well-deserved few days rest, and he had busied himself with his duties overseeing the Crystarium, in order to distract himself from thoughts of his Warrior. It had almost worked, and speaking with the citizenry he was responsible for protecting helped, but at night the Exarch had found himself once more consumed with his frustrated longing, as well as anxiety over his fate. Lyna stopped by most nights and ensured that he ate dinner, apt as he was to forget more often than not, as well as threatening him with a sleeping draught from Bragi if he didn’t sleep. He retired to bed, for Lyna’s sake, but tossed and turned, his mind endlessly racing. Then, at the same time Tetri and the twins met with him once more in the Ocular, Lyna had come bearing news of the attack on Holminster Switch, and the Exarch had found himself battling at Tetri’s side.
The battle had seemed to take a lot out of her, for once, and the Exarch had received reports from the attendants at the Pendants that Tetri was spending ample time resting from their ordeal in Holminster. From what he could tell from watching her at various times in his crystal screen since the battle, it was possible the Warrior of Light was experiencing additional physical fatigue from her absorption of the slain Lightwarden’s aether. As he watched her sleep deeply, the Exarch reminded himself to research effects of the Flood on personal aetheric fields in the coming days. As his plan progressed, he had to ensure Tetri’s aether remained intact enough to slay the rest of the Lightwardens. If there was some modification of his plan, he would need to implement it early enough to avoid suspicion by Tetri or the rest of the Scions.
The Exarch looked up, watching Tetri sleep on his crystal screen, snoring softly and twitching in her bed in the Pendants. Her face was smoothed out in relaxation, peaceful, without the weight of the world that her duty placed upon her shoulders. A strand of purple and white hair drifted across her forehead, almost covering the facial markings there, her hair messy from turning in her sleep. The Exarch walked up to the screen and placed his crystal hand on her image, his fingers itching to brush that lock of hair from her forehead. As he did so, he felt his magic press against her mind gently, the threads of his crystalline aether reaching out on instinct towards the Warrior of Light as his crystal hand came in direct contact with the tower. Tetri murmured wordlessly in her sleep at the touch, her ears twitching.
The Exarch yanked his hand back at once, as if burned. He had just told himself he would not do such a thing! It was bad enough the Miqo’te dragoon didn’t trust him completely as a result of his secrecy; he didn’t need to give her any additional reasons to refuse her trust, what portions were grudgingly given to him out of necessity. Yet, as the Crystal Exarch remembered watching Alphinaud and Alisaie kiss the Warrior of Light right in front of him, he felt his sense of propriety waver, his heart lurching with jealousy and the greed of his centuries-long yearning. The Exarch felt himself surrender to his wanting, felt his resolve crumble beneath it.
Perhaps just a moment or two, the Exarch told himself as he looked at her. This will change nothing, between us, if I touch her mind for a moment. He knew it was wrong, but he could not stop himself. His need was too great. As if in a dream, he felt himself walk forward on leaden limbs, reaching up with his crystal hand and placing it upon the image of Tetri’s face, once more. A surge of aetheric power flowed through his veins, rushing upwards through his crystal hand, and pressed upon Tetri’s sleeping consciousness gently.
The Exarch uttered a gasp of pleasure, closing his eyes and bending his head backwards, his ears flattening against the sides of his head as he felt his magic stroke gently against her mind. Her aetheric field shimmered in his mind’s eye, a kaleidoscope of colors, the intensity of her blessing of light shining through even the barest magical contact. Beneath it, the Crystal Exarch could perceive a roiling surge of magical heat, tinged blue and crimson, fierce and writhing serpentine across Tetri’s mind: her dragon soul! It was intoxicating, intriguing. Dimly, the Exarch felt himself shaking, his length hardening beneath his robes as he continued to touch her mind. He wanted more, he needed more of her!
He uttered a soft groan as he felt her aether reflected back to him at his insistent contact, as that same magical heat rushed through his mind and over his body, tingling over his skin, building his desire to a fever pitch. He thrust his hips into the air instinctually, now fully hard and throbbing within his smalls. The Exarch made no move to touch himself, however, overwhelmed as he was with his Warrior’s aether flowing over him. He thought, with distant awe, that this was the mere surface of her mind! What would happen if he pressed deeper?
He fought the impulse, briefly, before stroking once more against her mind, eager for greater contact between them. His ears twitched as he heard Tetri moan softly in her sleep, and the sound went straight to his cock, which twitched against his stomach in interest. The Exarch took a shaky breath, pressing his fingers harder against the crystal screen as he pressed his mind deeper into hers. He heard the Warrior of Light moan again as he felt the surface of her mind finally give, yielding to the insistent touch of his aether, and the Exarch moaned loudly as he felt her mind envelop his, his body resonating with pleasure as the aether of his beloved surrounded him. Heat and light surrounded him, washing over him with such intensity he thought he might come untouched, already near his peak from the sensation alone.
Then he was drifting along her mind, surveying her memories. Her recent trips to Kholusia and Ahm Araeng swirled about, images of her experiences shining like reflections in crystal. The Exarch reached forward for her memory of Kholusia first, wanting to feel what he had not glimpsed when he had watched her there. He touched that memory with his mind, sank into it--
-- Tetri sighed as Alphinaud moved into her again, and she wrapped her arms and legs about him, running her tail over his lower back, feeling him shiver in her arms. Impatient, she pulled him down with her dragoon’s strength, pressing his shorter body completely into her as he buried himself to the hilt inside her.
“Ah! Tetri…” Alphinaud sighed at the heavenly feeling of her body tightening around his, jolting as the Miqo’te reached up to kiss him softly on the mouth.
...the two Scions groaned together in abandon… --
--the Exarch jolted his mind back out of the memory as he heard himself gasp in dismay, the sound muffled as if hearing himself through a wall. So, she had taken Alphinaud as her lover, after all! The earlier feeling of self-loathing arose once more in the Exarch, his disgust with himself marring the pleasure he felt even as he remained immersed in Tetri’s mind. Even worse than feeling his Warrior’s enjoyment at making love to her fellow Scion, was the adoration the Exarch had felt from her towards the young Elezen. The Crystal Exarch had always wished to have that adoration turned towards himself, instead. Guilt and shame rose up within him, as he was starkly reminded of the love he would never have.
I deserve this, he thought, as he felt the sting of guilt dull the physical senses of his body, his ardor rapidly fading. I should not have done this, I should not have invaded her mind!
He loosened his hold on her mind, preparing to retreat, when he caught another reflection of memory, tinged red with the desert dust of Ahm Araeng. The Exarch reached forward despite his conflicting emotions, sinking into the memory, wanting one last glimpse of Tetri before he retreated fully--
-- “Everyone’s going to be able to see those,” said Alisaie, tugging on Tetri’s hair until the older woman raised her head to smirk at her.
“I know,” she said with a low growl. “I want everyone to see that you’re mine.”
“Including the Exarch?” replied Alisaie, arching her brows at her lover. Tetri burst out with a laugh, her tail waving through the air.
“Including him, that secretive bastard,” she said, nuzzling her thighs. “So what if he knows? He dragged you all here, including myself, caught us all up in this mess. This war. We’ve seen it all before. Let him stew, if my lovers bother him. I don’t mind watching him squirm beneath his robes.”
“He’s obsessed with you, Tetri. I don’t really know why.”
Tetri snorted, shaking her head slightly.
“He can get in line, then, I suppose,” she said. “If he has questions about me, he should ask me himself. If we didn’t need the Exarch to get us all home, I wouldn’t trust the man to tell me the truth about anything. He has too many secrets, Alisiae. I don’t like it. So let him know. I’ll enjoy watching him squirm, and you should too. In fact, I’m going to make you squirm, right now!” --
--The Exarch severed his aether from Tetri’s abruptly as he relinquished his hold on her mind, briefly checking for any lasting damage he may have caused, before yanking his consciousness out of hers as fast as he could. He found himself back in his body, panting, leaning on the crystal wall before him where he normally placed his crystal screen. He could feel his body covered in a thin sheen of sweat beneath his robes, and his stomach churned with nausea over what he had seen as the Miqo’te man regained his bearings. He felt the burn of tears building in his eyes, felt them drift down his face as his heart grew numb with shame and guilt at what he had done.
So, Alisaie was also her lover, then; the Exarch couldn’t say he was surprised, all things considered. He had expected as much from the two women’s passionate kiss on the day of their return, but still, he had wanted to deny the truth of what he had seen. He hadn’t wanted to accept yet more evidence of what he couldn’t have. The Crystal Exarch knew deep down that he shouldn’t have been jealous of the Leveilleur twins. They were Tetri’s close friends and comrades in arms, veterans of the same wars and battles as the Warrior of Light. They had been fighting by her side at every turn, while the Exarch had slept in his crystal tower awaiting the end of their worlds. They had a bond of love and trust he had never known with the dragoon, even as G’raha T’ia; his destiny had kept him from growing closer to Tetri.
No matter how he viewed his previous friendship with the Warrior of Light, it was now clear to the Exarch that he would never obtain her trust, let alone her love, especially not the kind she felt for the twins. The Crystal Exarch had done nothing to build trust between them, and Tetri had every right to be suspicious of him. Still, for all that her mistrust of him was well deserved on his part, her words she had spoken about him in her memory had wounded the Exarch to his core. He uttered a sob of anguish, then, the crushing loneliness he tried to keep at bay rising up to smother him, and with it, self-doubt.
Everything he had worked towards, thus far, for the very salvation of their worlds, rested on his ability to be strong enough to shoulder his personal burden of secrecy towards his Warrior and her Scions. The Crystal Exarch had never felt as weak as he did in that moment; in the past two hundred years, he had never felt more despondent. He took a shaky breath before stepping back, his grip on his staff steadying him, walking backwards until he could see Tetri still asleep on the screen before him. He could see she now had a small smile on her face, perhaps from the memories he had plucked to the forefront of her mind. The Exarch felt himself tremble, crying silently in guilt-ridden grief, gripping his staff even tighter as he stared at the woman he loved. He felt his latent jealousy and self-hatred bubble up into a tide of anger.
"Let me stew, Tetri?" he muttered, feeling his rage boil over, wanting to hurl his staff against the wall and see it shatter, shaking all over. "Stew over you and your lovers? Over your newfound 'love?' Why should I, when those two clearly have no idea what real love is?"
His voice growing louder, the Exarch was glad he had waited until the dead of observed evening to have his meltdown, knowing he could not deal with it any other way, could not help watching Tetri even still. Watching her sleep with a smile on her face, a smile he hadn't caused, could never bring about, filled him with rage, and the Exarch let it overflow.
"Let me stew. By the gods, the godsdamned nerve! I'm the one who loves you, Tetri!" he shouted at her image on the crystal screen, feeling his crimson eyes fill with tears.
"Don't you see that?!” he cried out. “Don't you hear it in my voice when we speak? I'm the one who's going to DIE FOR YOU! I'm going to die and you're going to be the last thing I see! And you're going to hate me for lying to you, that's all you'll remember, but you'll be alive, and I'll be dead, because I LOVE YOU , Tetri! Godsdamn it, godsdamn you! Why are you doing this to me?! "
The Crystal Exarch fell to the floor, letting his staff fall and clatter to the ground beside him, and crumpled over, weeping, his voice so hoarse he could no longer speak, let alone scream further. He folded his arms over his head, sobbing, his tears soaking into the folds of his cowl, the ache of his loneliness and unrequited longing making his heart throb with pain. For the first time, he longed for the abyss of the Rift, so he would be free of the misery of wanting someone he could not have. To be free of his personal hell that was loving the Warrior of Light.
* * *
The Exarch awoke alone on the floor some time later--approximately four bells from when he had collapsed into a stupor from his grief, from what he could tell from the thrum of the tower’s magic about him. In addition to being the seat of his power, his sense of time was most accurate when he was enclosed within the tower walls. Normally, this always brought him a sense of distinct empowerment, but as the Crystal Exarch slowly clambered to his feet, bending down once more to retrieve his staff, he felt nothing except completely drained, physically as well as emotionally. His eyes itched from crying, his throat hoarse from shouting. The Exarch sighed to himself in irritation, his red ears twitching as he straightened out his robes and pulled his cowl over his face, hiding his features once more.
The crystal screen was blank, having lost the connection with the Exarch and his magic when he had fallen asleep. He considered it a small mercy, having no desire to see Tetri’s face and be reminded of the violation he had inflicted upon her by entering her mind without her consent. She was likely up and about, anyway, perhaps even spending time with her Leveilleur twins. At the thought, the Exarch fought against another wave of bitter guilt at the memories he had inadvertently witnessed, and made for the Umbilicus where he kept his private collection of books. He had no intention of leaving the tower today, not after what he had done, and he didn’t want to see anyone else, especially the Warrior of Light and her Scions. More sleep was out of the question; his previous “nap,” while not ideal, had given his body enough rest for the meanwhile. The Exarch resolved to research the effects of accursed Light aether on personal aetheric fields, as he had reminded himself to. Once settled at his desk in the Umbilicus, surrounded by his tomes, the Miqo’te man began to feel more like himself.
Saving both of our worlds, as well as her life, will surely make up for it, he told himself, and the truth of that statement allowed the Exarch to refocus his attention, remembering the cause and meaning of his struggle, though his guilt remained, and he knew it was deserved. It was still a mistake-- his mistake--but Tetri was the only individual who could give him forgiveness for that particular slight against her, in addition to his lies. He had checked on her, quickly, before he had left for the Umbilicus, and she had been eating breakfast (or was it lunch?) with the twins, smiling and laughing with the two Elezen in her room. The Warrior of Light seemed none the worse for wear as a result of his illicit foray into her mind, and that made the Exarch feel a bit better, though not by much; the fault of violation was still his own.
I may as well earn her forgiveness, he thought, and concentrated on the task before him, opening a book from his pile of nearby tomes. Several more bells passed in such a matter, as the Exarch lost himself in scholarly pursuit of knowledge. He found he still enjoyed it, though his days in the Students of Baldesion were long over. Despite the appeal of his endeavor, this particular avenue of research had yielded little fruit: so few people of the First had survived the initial arrival of the sin eaters, that there was few observation by magical scholars on how the demons’ Light aether affected individuals who remained alive after such an encounter, save those who were summarily turned into sin eaters themselves.
In a different tome altogether (his fifth of the evening), the Exarch read of some mages, three centuries prior to his arrival in the First, that had observed a shift in aetheric fields after closely watching those lucky few warriors who were capable of slaying a sin eater. However, such a shift was concluded by those same mages to be due to the proximity of the person to the sin eaters’ warped aether, and the aberrant shift quickly cleared after the sin eaters had been slain. The Exarch grumbled to himself, biting the thumbnail on his hand not covered in crystal. It looked like, as he had surmised so long ago, that there was no way to otherwise clear the accursed aether of the Lightwardens from Tetri, once she had already absorbed it, besides taking it himself into the Rift. Such aether was simply too powerful, too corrupting, on the aether of the soul. He had hoped for otherwise, hidden in one of his books, but so far it was all for naught. The way forward remained the same: his death, for Tetri’s life. His end, for the survival of the First and the Source.
I am still in the right of things, he thought to himself. With Tetri’s help, we can still prevent the Eighth Umbral Calamity! The Exarch sighed in resigned exhaustion, closing his books and getting up from his desk. He didn’t regret the hours he had spent researching; on the contrary, despite the lack of findings that he had originally wanted, reading the recounts of the savage brutality and merciless hunger of the sin eaters had strengthened his will to see his plan through. As a result, the Crystal Exarch felt calmer than he had in the past day, his self-doubt nearly evaporated. All of this merely confirmed that this wasn’t about him or Tetri alone. It would take a concerted effort between his powers, the Warrior of Light, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn, and Lyna and their allies, to ultimately save their worlds.
As the Crystal Exarch walked into his bathroom and drew himself a bath in his large marble tub (being heir to the Allagan empire did have some perks, after all), he reminded himself that he was an adult, not a lovesick youth haunted by desire. His love for the Warrior of Light was unrequited, but that did not mean that loving her was wrong. The fact that he still loved her, at all, meant that his transformation into the Exarch had not erased his previous identity entirely, something he had always feared upon waking to see crystal embedded deep in his skin. That he still possessed the capacity for love, meant he would ultimately have the strength to hurl himself into the Rift. Loving someone didn’t always mean there was a happy ending; it would have to be enough for the Exarch to know that he loved his Warrior, and their worlds, enough to give his life to ensure their combined survival. He could do nothing else, had exhausted every possibility.
He stripped from his robes and entered the bath, hissing as the heat of the bathwater surrounded him, the crystal encasing his flesh amplifying the sensations as he sat gingerly on the bottom of the tub, his red tail waving behind him, his tail tip peeking upwards from the surface of the water.
Did I expect her to just wait for me to somehow be alive, he thought, to emerge from the tower unscathed at some future time, and take up our friendship where we had left off? The Exarch continued admonishing himself as he cleansed himself with sweet-smelling soaps he had bought from Bragi weeks ago.
Did I expect Tetri to refrain from taking others to her bed, forgoing the comfort of a lover, while she fought multiple wars and battles? Is the danger of the wilderness, the chaos of the battlefield, not just as crushing as my loneliness in this tower has been to me? Of course she will take love where she can find it! I have no right to expect otherwise!
The Exarch shook his head, feeling his ears twitch against the sides of his head, as he caught himself nodding off in the bath. He was thinking in circles, now, far too deep in his customary obsession over the Warrior of Light than he preferred to admit. The pleasure of touching Tetri’s mind, of being immersed in her consciousness, and the subsequent shock of experiencing her memories of loving the Scions, had drained the Crystal Exarch of most of his personal energy for the rest of the day. He managed to towel off finally and drag himself to his bed, suddenly feeling every one of his several centuries of age, and collapsed upon the cool sheets, leaving his robes on the floor. The Miqo’te man fell asleep in short order, too exhausted to even dream.
* * *
The next day, the Crystal Exarch awoke refreshed. He grudgingly admitted that perhaps Lyna was right that he did not sleep enough. He skipped breakfast after donning his robes, drinking a cup of the dried lavender tea that Lyna had brought him. As he steeped the leaves for a second cup, admiring their purple color, he was reminded of one Miqo’te dragoon’s hair, the shade of which was nearly the same shade of lavender and ivory. The Exarch sighed to himself, feeling particularly pathetic. He could not avoid her forever! It was time to simply get over his ill-warranted obsession with the fated savior of the First. He had taken Tetri and her friends here by force; he had a responsibility to ensure they got home. What she did in her bed was her own business; he should never have considered looking into her mind in the first place, let alone performed such a deed. The Miqo’te man took a deep breath to center himself, then drained his cup of tea before taking his staff and heading to the Ocular.
On his way, the Exarch’s red ears twitched beneath his cowl as he felt the arcane threads of his power suddenly thrum off-kilter, and he gripped his staff firmly, frowning, attempting to isolate the cause. The warp and weft of his magic thrummed in unease as it swirled through the tower, and subsequently in turn through the crystal embedded in the Exarch’s skin; something was up, though he knew not what. The ancient mages of Allag, in their quest to control the very chronological heart of time itself, had specialized in locating points of fate-changing events in spacetime, what the scholars of the day had termed “moments of novelty.” For those attuned to such magics, the Exarch included, a novel event could be felt in the present moment like an echo from a possible future, a discerned ripple in a pond from a stone that had not yet hit the surface of the water. Depending on actions taken in the present, the course of a timeline could be changed or adjusted by the one who discerned the novel event in the first place.
The Exarch grimaced as he walked briskly to the Ocular, applying his brilliant mind to picking apart the aberrant thrum of this new moment of novelty as he did so. He was not all powerful; he could not see the nature of the future event, only feel its impact from his present. In his mind's eye, the Miqo’te man could see the possible event only as a cloud of nebulous mist, devoid of form, but causing the crystal in his skin to thrum with the energy of the same temporal shifts he was working to control in his efforts to avoid a future Calamity. Whatever this was, it could not have come at a worse time. He wanted to reconnect with Tetri and the Leveilleur twins to discuss their next plan of attack against the Lightwardens, and he had hoped to get Tetri alone for at least a quarter of a bell, to somehow make amends to invading her mind. He was sure he could be abstract enough, but it was important to the Exarch to apologize, all the same. G’raha T’ia, the man he used to be, the man who had bonded with Tetri back at St. Coinach’s, would have wanted it to be so, and thus he wanted to as well. The Exarch wanted to heal the rift within himself before it was all over, and he knew the Warrior of Light was the key to doing so.
With his mind full of whirling thoughts, the Exarch rounded the corner of the Ocular in a hurry, his robes fluttering about him, intending to utilize his crystal screen to measure the threads of arcane spacetime to pinpoint this aberrant novelty, instead of spying on his Warrior. He came to a stop in front of the screen, raising his staff, feeling power rush through him, the crystal side of his body tingling with energy, when the doors to the Ocular opened. The Exarch startled at the sound, whirling about, his ears twitching beneath his hood, and on instinct he bent his head slightly, so that his cowl obscured the rest of his face from view.
Tetri strode in towards him, alone, clad in her full armor, the gleaming metal spear of Liberator at its customary place at her back. As was her habit, she eschewed a helmet or visor; Tetri had told him once, at St. Coinach’s, that she preferred to go without, so as to avoid any gaps in her field of vision whilst mid-jump. According to Tetri’s own account, the dragoon had trained extensively to adapt to a helmetless fighting style, both in the Lancers’ Guild and later with Ser Estinien Wyrmblood, the Azure Dragoon of Ishgard, as they had journeyed together in the wilds of Dravania. The Exarch forced himself to appear relaxed, his whole body tense beneath his robes and cowl at his close proximity to the woman he was not quite ready to see. Nonetheless, he forced himself to nod in greeting as the Warrior of Light closed the distance between them, until she was mere ilms away from him.
“There you are, Exarch!” she said, her ruby eyes bright with excitement.
“Ah, Tetri, good afternoon,” he said with some cheer. Nervous or no, the Crystal Exarch was always happy to see her, and it had been several days since he had done so. He could not help feeling the bolt of satisfaction that ran through him as she said his name.
She gave a small wave with a gauntleted hand, her purple ears twitching.
“I apologize for barging in without notice,” she said. “The Crystarium guard outside said you might have been busy, but as we aren’t connected via linkpearl, I wanted to stop by to talk directly, so he let me in.”
“It’s not a problem, Tetri,” said the Exarch good naturedly. “I had been performing some research here in the tower for the past few days, and I figured you and the Leveilleurs could use the extra respite after our battle in Holminster. I had meant to reach out to you and the Scions later today about meeting to plan our next steps.”
“Ah, yes, about that,” she replied, a frown appearing on her face, and the Exarch watched her ears fold against the sides of her head, a Miqo’te display of stress. “Lyna contacted me through linkpearl from the keep, out at the Ostall Imperative. It seems that Vauthry’s forces have taken a young girl that was traveling with Thancred, that new ‘partner’ you mentioned a few weeks ago. Her name is Minfilia.”
She sighed, running a hand through her close-cropped hair. No doubt she was pondering the connection between this mysterious girl, and her lost Antecedent of the Seventh Dawn, Minfilia Warde. The Exarch bit his lip; according to his overall plan, it was not yet time for Tetri to know more about the girl and her special role in the First’s collective fight against the sin eaters. More importantly, though, the Exarch believed it was not his story to tell. Thancred had been traveling with Minfinila for most of the five years he had been in Norvrandt, and he would surely want to inform Tetri about it in his own words once they were reunited.
After his experience in Tetri’s mind, after having felt her emotions regarding the Scions, he wanted to avoid getting between them, if he could. The Warrior of Light’s feelings towards the Scions--the Archons that comprised the group whose souls he had pulled to the First--were varied and complicated: affection, fondness, attraction, and a fierce protectiveness, wrapped in a thin web of denial. Nonetheless, the Exarch knew that Thancred, Urianger and Y’shtola were also important to Tetri, just as much as Alphinaud and Alisaie. The meaning of her mixed emotions was for her to figure out; the Exarch felt bad enough he knew such personal feelings from his Warrior, and was prepared for a more hands-off approach going forward.
“The twins have already gone ahead to meet Lyna at the keep,” said Tetri, oblivious to the Exarch’s musings. “They’re waiting for me. We’re going to stage a rescue and get Minfilia back, hopefully we’ll be able to run into Thancred in the process. I figured since Lyna and her squadron are coming with us, I should let you know beforehand.”
The Exarch nodded in acknowledgement.
“Well then, I thank you for coming to tell me in person, Tetri,” he replied. “Together, I have no doubt you will be able to retrieve Minfilia. My scouts at the Imperative will keep me apprised of the situation. In the meantime, I will continue my research here at the tower, to ensure we can gain an advantage over the Lightwardens.”
Tetri nodded at him, still frowning, regarding him with a serious look that she usually got right before a battle. The Exarch turned back to his crystal screen in dismissal, wanting her to leave so that he could continue examining the moment of novelty that still thrummed throughout the tower, making the crystal in his flesh tingle insistently. He could not allow anything to get in the way of his plan! He ran the fingers of his non-crystal hand over his staff, waiting for the telltale sound of the doors closing behind his Warrior to begin his spellcasting, but silence remained: she was still standing behind him!
The Exarch ground his teeth in annoyance. He wanted her to leave, he was not ready to see her! Would her tortuous hold over him never cease?! Before his anger could fester, he heard her speak.
“Exarch,” she said, her voice firm, and the Exarch knew it was a command to face her. He did so, turning towards the dragoon with no small measure of resignation, and looked at the woman he loved, that he wished he could just forget. Tetri narrowed her ruby eyes at him, tilting her head as she examined him from head to toe. The Exarch felt unnerved at her scrutiny, feeling her gaze like a physical touch on his body, and he bit back a moan at the sensation. It was the closest he had ever come to being touched by her directly, since his transformation, and he suddenly ached with longing. He took a shaky breath as she suddenly stepped nearer to him, and he gripped his staff to steady himself. What was she doing now?!
“Exarch, I--” she said, and stopped, peering into the darkness of his cowl. The Exarch stared back, unable to move, suddenly terrified she would see his face and put his plan to save them all in ruins. The two Miqo’te stood frozen for a few moments, then Tetri laughed softly, a blush blooming in her cheeks beneath her facial markings.
“I’m sorry, Exarch, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, shrugging at him, the movement jostling her spear lightly against her back.
“It’s just--lately, I’ve been concerned about you,” she continued. “I got used to talking with you regularly about what’s going on, and then you disappeared for a few days. I understand you rarely leave the tower, and after the battle in Holminster I was worried you had outdone yourself. Lyna has told me you rarely take care of yourself as well as you should--a habit we both share, by the way.”
She smiled, and the Exarch smiled back, a small thrill of glee moving through him despite his better judgment. She was concerned about him, thinking of him!
“Ah, yes,” he said, laughing a bit in response. “Although I have since fully recovered from the battle we shared, I will fully admit that Lyna is correct in that regard. I often get caught up in my research, and tend to forgo sleep. I...sometimes forget to eat, too, though please don’t tell Lyna I said such a thing. Otherwise I will never hear the end of it, upon your return!”
Tetri gave an undignified snort of laughter.
“Don’t worry, Exarch, your secret of irregularly skipping meals is safe with me!” she said, tapping her heart over her cuirass, and the Exarch’s heart ached in response. That was not the kind of secret he longed to entrust to her. Her abrupt kindness towards him was both a wonder and a torture, pulling the Exarch back towards Tetri just when he wanted to push her away. He opened his mouth, then, meaning to fill the space between them with something, though he didn’t know what, when he saw Tetri startle, giving him a look of concern, her ears swiveling towards him.
“Exarch, what happened?” she asked, a tone of worry in her voice.
“What do you mean, Tetri?” he asked, confused about the sudden change in her demeanor. Tetri sighed in frustration, closing the distance between them before the Exarch could even blink. He stepped backwards, but she reached out with lightning-quick reflexes, grabbing his crystal hand in hers, careful not to catch the pointed end of her gauntlets on him.
“What are you doing…?!” the Exarch cried in shock, her hold on him cementing him in place where he stood, terrified of accidentally knocking the hood off of his head if he moved any further backwards.
“Hold still, please,” said Tetri, pulling his crystal hand up towards her face. The Exarch felt his heart skip a beat; his crystal hand burned where she held it, and he could feel the heat of her fingers even through her gauntlet.
“Exarch, your hand,” she said, peering at the crystal on his fingers. “Here, along your knuckles, the crystal there--it looks...well, chipped. ”
Before he could ask what she meant, he watched her gently run the fingertips of her other hand along his knuckles, and the Miqo’te man shook at the touch, overwhelmed. He felt her fingers catch along a point, and--yes, it did seem like there was a small scratch there, a chip in the crystalline fibers that had woven over his flesh. The Exarch realized he must have scratched himself in his collapse on the floor the other night. He felt himself blush underneath his cowl, feeling stupid about his earlier outburst.
“Ah, so it is,” he replied, his voice shaking only a little. “My apologies for scaring you, Tetri. It is an accidental scratch, suffered in my customary forgetfulness during my activities. New crystal will grow over it, and my hand will be good as new. I will heal as well as anyone, I assure you, though I am aware it seems strange.”
Tetri nodded and swallowed, staring at his face, the sound audible in the quiet of the Ocular. She had not let go of his hand, though she let it drop until their hands were linked between them. She stroked the chipped knuckles again with her other hand, and the Exarch bit his lip to keep from gasping. He could not take much more of her touch on him!
“You really don’t take care of yourself, do you,” said the Warrior of Light, a hint of affection in her voice. “I’ll have to help you change that.”
She walked even closer to him, until they were mere ilms apart, and he could feel the heat of her body through her armor and clothing. The Exarch was now visibly shaking at her closeness to him, unable to stop. He turned his head to the side, unable to bear her look of affectionate concern any longer, lest he become lost in her eyes once more, and do something he would regret.
“You’re shaking, Exarch,” she said, and stroked his crystalline hand again. He took a shaky breath.
“Y-y-yes, I am,” he replied.
“Does it hurt?” she asked him, and he shook his head as well as he could while facing away from her.
“It is not pain that’s causing me to shake,” he said softly, feeling unburdened with the honest comment, and Tetri gripped his hand tighter.
“I--I’m sorry, Exarch,” she replied, “I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that. Not without asking you. I know that you’re wary of being touched, but--I got worried you were injured.”
She moved to let go of his hand, but he turned his palm upwards, linking his hand with hers so that she was unable to let go of him completely, feeling the metal of her gauntlet bite into his crystalline skin.
“It’s alright,” he said quietly, looking askance at their linked palms. “I--I liked it. I liked that you were worried about me.”
He hadn’t meant to say it, but now that he had, he didn’t want to take the words back. It was like Tetri’s touch upon his skin was unlocking the deepest yearning of his heart, cutting through his emotional defenses and subterfuge like they were made of paper.
“I’m sorry, too, Tetri,” he said, and dared to look up at her. Her face was uncharacteristically unguarded, a soft, vulnerable look on her face as she gazed at him.
“I’m sorry for all of this,” the Exarch continued. “Our world needed you, you and your friends. I needed you. I know this war was not your choice, that I've caused you more trouble when that was the last thing you needed, after everything that you had experienced back in the Source. I can only beg for your forgiveness, for any slights against you that I’ve committed, no matter what those may be. I promise you, I will do all I can to make this right.”
Tetri nodded at him, smiling gently.
“Thank you, Exarch,” she replied. “I know you will. Apology accepted, and all that. I apologize if I’ve been...distant from you. I’m finding it difficult to trust, especially when I feel like secrets are being kept from me. And you are one of the most mysterious people I've ever met.”
“I will consider that a compliment, Warrior of Light,” he said, and was rewarded with her laughter.
“Good, it was meant to be,” she said, chuckling. “But seriously, Exarch...if we’re going to win this war, we need to work together. Please don’t feel like you need to keep things from me.”
“I...will try, Tetri,” he replied. “That is all I can say. I wish I could promise more, but as you said, this is a war. Leaders must decide which information to share, and which to strategically withhold, until the time is right. I know you can understand that. I just ask for your patience. I will reveal all that I know to you, and the Scions, in due time.”
Tetri pursed her lips in annoyance, her displeasure plain, but she nodded, squeezing his hand.
“I suppose that will need to be enough, for now,” she said. “I must go, Exarch. I am already late to the Imperative, I expected to leave half a bell ago. Please, take care of yourself as best you can, in the meantime. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“I will, Tetri,” he said, and moved to pull his hand from hers, but she held him fast. He watched in slow motion, his breath caught in his chest, as Tetri raised his crystal hand to her lips. With agonizing slowness, she pressed a gentle kiss on the chipped part of his knuckles. The Exarch trembled at the contact, and just as he did so, a flash of light formed in his mind’s eye. He felt the aberrant energy caused by the earlier moment of novelty shift. In his mind’s eye he saw the novelty entwining itself into the threads of spacetime binding him and the Warrior of Light together, visible as strings of light, filaments of potentiality that were rapidly solidifying to his magical senses, merging into reality, becoming fated to occur in the timeline he was creating!
It’s us, he said, breathing shakily as Tetri finally pulled away and let go. The moment of novelty was our locations in spacetime merging together, a direct intertwining of destinies! What had changed in the timeline was them. There was a confluence between them, now, binding them together on a temporal level. He reached out with his magic and saw that the shift had fully evaporated, crystalizing into a future that had both Miqo’te inexorably linked, visible in his mind’s eye as a shimmering blue strand of soul aether connecting them both together.
Seven Hells, the Exarch thought as the Warrior of Light gave him a final wave and a bright smile, before running out the doors to the Ocular. He watched the great crystal and brass doors slam shut, leaving him alone once more. Only this time, his heart was racing with excitement, for he knew there was a deeper meaning to the arcane powers now binding him and Tetri together. The topic of confluences was one of the first elements of Allagan time magic he had studied, in preparation of implementing his plan of restarting the timeline and avoiding the Eighth Umbral Calamity. Every individual had their own location in the fabric of spacetime, leaving a sort of imprint caused by the resonance of their soul aether. A mage who used time magic, like the Crystal Exarch, could see these resonances, and could measure their path in their mind’s eye, able to see influences on one’s possible destiny. Normally, an individual progressed forward in linear time, with their resonance appearing in a straight line, and regardless of friends or family, this did not change.
A confluence, however, was a merging of individual resonances in spacetime: a definite merging of destinies, where a person’s path forward in time became locked with another’s, unable to be removed or altered. At a greater scale, with millions of individuals locked together in deliberate temporal spellcraft, entire civilizations could be nurtured, created, or destroyed with such magics. The time mages of Allag, seeing the potential for abuse by their Emperor, who had owned plenty of destructive magics already, had secreted away this knowledge in their libraries, the few tomes of which had survived the fall of their civilization and made their way into the tower, and subsequently into the Crystal Exarch’s hands.
On a large scale, confluences were not ideal, but for individuals, a confluence normally arose out of two possibilities: two people becoming spouses...or two people becoming lovers.
The Crystal Exarch’s future belonged to Tetri, and hers belonged to the Exarch.
She just didn’t know it yet.
For the first time in two centuries, the Exarch had no idea what to do.