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Malus Domestica

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Deft fingers flick through a well-loved deck of cards. The tarot moves elegantly in Urianger’s practiced hands, his brow furrowed in deep concentration as he taps into the aether pulled from the heavens. Claran leans forward, rapt, as a single card jumps from the deck and into Urianger’s waiting palm. He turns it over. His brow furrows.

“What is it?” Claran asks, inching forward a little further. From outside the windows of Urianger’s house he can hear the pixies titter in mirth at whatever card Urianger drew for his reading.

Urianger’s skin turns a curious shade of pink. The pixies laugh harder. “‘Tis the… Lady of Hearts,” Urianger answers. He turns the card so that Claran can take it to examine. His fingers trace gently over the serene expression painted with great care onto the Lady’s face.

“What does it mean?”

Urianger coughs. Claran looks up, concerned. A sweat had broken over Urianger’s brow, his face flushed from his shoulders to the tips of his ears. He looks feverish. Is his reading… bad? His apprehension must show on his face, because Urianger’s eyes soften. “‘Tis a positive card, in this position,” Urianger reassures. “Upright, The Lady of Hearts portends an emotional connection, a draw between souls… Perhaps she fortelleth a revelation of love.”

Claran’s lips part slightly in awe. Urianger glances down, then quickly away. “But of course it may be interpreted in many different ways. To worry for things that cannot be changed is folly. Think not on the uncertainty of the future, but of the steadfast present.”

Claran nods, somber, as he takes Urianger’s advice to heart. He gently returns the Lady to Urianger, who replaces her with great care back into his deck. “Thank you for the reading,” Clarans says. “It was very enlightening! I think. It’s incredible how much we can learn just from the stars.”

“If thou wishes,” Urianger says slowly, shuffling through his cards once more, “I can arrange a lesson.”

The offer sends his heart leaping into his throat. The curiosity burns inside him. “Oh! I-If it’s no trouble—”

“None at all. ‘Twould be my greatest pleasure.”

The pixies outside laugh uproariously. Urianger hunches his shoulders up to his ears and stands abruptly, striding with purpose to the shutters to close them.

Claran has a sinking suspicion that he’s missing out on something important.

Chapter Text

Something between them hangs in the air, over their heads, beating down upon their skin like the Coerthan sun parting through clouds.

They feel it when their gazes meet, stolen across the dinner table, at meetings and briefings, when they pass each other in the manor halls and their hands brush and a spark travels through them both.

Haurchefant always smiles and Claran always ducks his head, dizzy with love and want, yet too afraid to give it voice.

He whispers an apology and lets Haurchefant pass. He cannot see the longing glances cast his way. It's impossible, he tells himself, for someone like Haurchefant is far too good for someone like him.

And the moment goes, noticed yet not acknowledged, and the things he needs to say beat against his teeth, thrashing like a caged animal desperate for freedom. He considers for a brief moment blurting out the words that hang over him, but the image of Haurchefant's lovely face mired in disgust churns fear in his belly. 

Claran bites it back and keeps walking.

Chapter Text

The Light burns.

The force that Claran had once blindly followed rends its way through his body, friend turned to foe. His knees crack against the hard floor as he collapses, retching, his throat seared by the white-hot light that his stomach forces out, trying to contain the spread— but it’s far, far too late. It’s in his limbs, in his lungs, his heart and his eyes, drowning out everything else, until all he knows is soul-wrenching agony.

“It’s not working!” Y’shtola cries. The Exarch grits his teeth and pushes forward, harder. A pulse of pure aether thrums from Claran’s form and knocks back his hood.

He… he knows that face. He thinks. Everything is so hazy, so far away. Scarlet eyes widen, pinpricks of color amongst the blazing sea of white overtaking his vision, his very being .

“We’re too late,” Ryne whispers. Their voices grow further and further away. Where are they going? Where is he going?

He doesn’t want to leave them. Not yet, not when he still has so much to do. Everyone’s counting on him to push through this, to contain this poisonous light, to save this realm and the next, over and over and over and over—

He’s so tired. His body aches. It wouldn’t hurt to rest, would it? Just for a moment. He can fight again when he regains his strength. His eyes slip shut but the white remains, painted permanently along the inside of his eyes. Liquid fire drips down his chin and splatters, sizzling, against the marble floor. He can feel it all inside him, bursting out, ignited like gunpowder set into his veins, cleansing him of his sin and making him perfect. He will be good and holy and he will bring Light into this wretched, dark world, and everyone will join with him and it will be bliss.

“Claran, no!” a voice cries, wracked with grief. He cannot recall who the voice belongs to, only that he loves them dearly, and he wishes they wouldn’t be afraid.

“It’s alright,” he breathes. His voice tangles with the essence of the others trapped inside him, guiding him to speak.

“You all need to leave now—”

The Light fills him to the brim and spills over. He hears a thousand cries of fear and pain— someone is screaming. It will be alright, he wants to say, but his mouth has sealed itself shut. His bones twist and creak and crack and the pain is immeasurable, devastating, wonderful.

He ascends. He becomes more, greater than he ever was before. His old skin sloughs away, shedded with the rest of the muck and filth, revealing beautiful marble beneath. His wings splinter through and spread and all of his eyes open. He can see so much. He can see the shivering forms of their aether, frozen with terror, as they try and beat against the inescapable wall of Light he has created.

“Don’t leave me,” he pleads. “Don’t be frightened. We can be together now, forever. Nothing will hurt anymore. You don’t have to fight. Let me take care of you. Let me love you.”

They struggle and they fight but they bend to his will in the end. Their magic sings in his veins as he embraces them, one by one. He consumes them all, even as they scream and plead, but soon the Light fills them and they sink into its warmth, just as he did. They are all part of him.

He’s not alone anymore.

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The eternal sun of Lyhe Mheg offers a welcome reprieve from the world outside.

Claran can almost forget his worries when he’s here. He sits cross-legged at a small table ladened with sweet treats and finger sandwiches and piping hot tea, in a house made of cookies and frosting. He thumbs lazily through a book about adventure and romance, allowing the breeze to play across his skin. Usually he is left alone while he’s here, sometimes with the playful company of a pixie braiding flowers into his short hair, but today he has a guest with him.

Across from him a small Miqo’te girl kicks her legs, staring at him wide wide, blinking eyes, her small hands curled around the stick of a lollipop nearly as big as her head.

He glances up from his book and smiles. “Are you enjoying your tea, miss?”

She ducks her head upon receiving his attention, but is not dissuaded. “Whatcha reading?” she asks. Her mouth is smeared with sugar.

“A fairy tale,” Claran answers. “About a beautiful princess and a handsome prince who goes on a journey to rescue her.”

Her eyes sparkle, interest piqued. Her ears perk up and her tiny tail twitches to-and-fro. Claran purses his lips to smother a laugh. She sets her lollipop down on the table and picks up her teacup. “That sounds nice, mister,” she says, her voice prim. She sticks her pinky straight out and takes a delicate sip.

She jerks away, her nose wrinkled, ears flat once again. “Ew!”

Claran can’t quite hold back his chuckle. “Perhaps cream and sugar would suit your tastes more, your highness?”

She giggles and offers him her teacup, watching as he pours delicate cream and gently places two sugar cubes into the foaming liquid. “This is a great tea party,” she says. “Are you a prince?”

Claran tilts his head to the side as he stirs her tea. No matter how much time passes, it always stays at the perfect temperature. “I’m afraid not, your highness,” he says. “Just a humble scholar. Perhaps your royal tutor?”

She wrinkles her nose again. “You aren’t gonna make me do school, are you?” she asks, huffing.

“Not at all,” Claran laughs. “A tea party is no time for a lesson. Perhaps, if it pleases her highness, I can read to her from my storybook.”

“Oh, yes please!” she gasps, her accent falling. She clears her throat and shakes herself, tipping her chin up high. “I mean, yes, that sounds lovely, my royal tutor.”

Her fit of giggles betrays her. She reaches forward eagerly as Claran returns her teacup. She takes another, more cautious sip, and hums in approval at the sweeter, creamier taste of her tea. 

Claran leans back in his chair and flips back to the first page of his book. He returns to the beginning. “Once upon a time…”

Chapter Text

A final blow sends Ilberd reeling back. The crack of Vervain’s gunblade lingers in the air, ringing through Claran’s ears alongside the din of battle cries and singing swords from the raging battle below. A nasty gash along his shoulder burns, but he shoves the pain back and away.

Ilberd drops to his knees, breaths ragged. It’s clear he cannot take another hit. Vervain steps forward, teeth bared in a fierce snarl, but Claran puts out an arm to stop him.

“It’s over,” he whispers, fighting back the tremble in his voice. “We’ve won. Come quietly, Ilberd. Call off the others and retreat before even more people are senselessly hurt.”

A dark chuckle joins Ilberd’s panting. He looks up, his eyes narrowed and grin sinister, blood dribbling from his mouth and staining his teeth red. “Still got a soft spot for me, eh?” he taunts. “Should’ve known it wasn’t worth it. At least you were a good lay—”

“Shut the fuck up!” Vervain snaps. A sick sensation churns in Claran’s gut and he swallows it back, despite the stinging shame burning in his chest. Vervain pushes Claran’s arm out of the way and stalks forward, murder written in every movement of his body. Claran catches him just in time, gripping the back of his coat until the threads strain in his grip.

He’s tired. He’s so tired.

“Enough,” Claran pleads. The tremble in his voice is enough to halt Vervain in his tracks. “I’m sick of all this pain. I just want it all to stop. Let’s just… take him and go.”

Ilberd laughs again, blood dripping from his mouth to the floor. “It’s too late,” he says. His eyes are so cold, so empty. Claran’s stomach drops. “Here’s a glimpse of what’s to come.”

The harsh clanging of metal on metal thunders through the air in a rapid wardrum beat, growing louder and louder with each passing breath. Ilberd smiles.

Then the screams begin.

All thoughts of Ilberd and Vervain vacate him as he darts forward, rushing to the edge of their platform to stare down into the courtyard. A pit of horror yawns inside him as the Ala Mhigan fighters, disguised as Alliance soldiers, are slaughtered by Garlean war machines.

Even at this distance the raw, potent concentration of so much pain and fear knocks the wind from Claran’s lungs and sends him staggering to his knees. He gasps, his breath trapped somewhere in his closing throat, as his entire being thrums with agony; his bones are crushed, his flesh is sundered, and he shares their thoughts and their pleas for mercy. His vision tunnels, fixed on the massacre below him, unable to wrench his gaze away despite how badly he wants to.

“Stop,” he whispers. Tears stream down his cheeks. He longs to scream and shout, to jump down into the fray and save as many lives as he could, but his limbs are frozen and his voice comes out cracked and quiet and pathetic.

He was too late. He failed so many of them. And now he has to accept his punishment— to feel their pain, to watch.

There are footsteps, voices; the pain paralyzes and numbs him, until all sounds come muffled through glass. His ears ring, his soul echoing each and every cry from the souls lost below.

“Claran!”

Vervain’s voice crashes through the glass surrounding him. A warm hand plants itself on his shoulder and draws him away from the edge, breaks his gaze with the massacre below. He falls back onto his forearms as a rush of wind soars past him. Yda lashes out, her mouth set in grim fury, and Ilberd leaps away to land upon the thin spire of a tower, his hands laden and burning with the power of Nidhogg’s eyes clutched in his fist.

“An ending to mark a new beginning,” he shouts. “My pain! My longing! You shall have it all!”

Their gazes lock as Ilberd stares furiously down upon him, speaking to him, and as their eyes connect Claran feels everything— all of Ilberd’s pain, his frustration, his grief, and he understands more clearly than he ever did before. He knows what Ilberd intends to do, the sacrifices he wants to make. “Don’t!” Claran cries, lunging forward, reaching desperately for Ilberd’s aether to pull him back onto the platform.

And yet, like always, he is too late.

Ilberd tips his weight back.

And falls.

Chapter Text

The jagged edge of broken metal catches on his skin. Claran barely registers the pain, only dimly aware of the blood dripping down his palm. He pays it no mind. It doesn’t matter. He continues to trace the fractured edges of the shield in his lap, mapping out the cracks and splinters, committing them to his memory.

He’ll never forget. Ever. If he did, it would mean losing him forever. Maybe if he seared the pattern of broken lines into his memory it would drive him to be stronger, to grow— to make sure something like this never, ever happened again.

His blood grows warm and sticky against his skin. The image shimmers and he’s coated in it, up to his elbows, and it isn’t his anymore, it’s Haurchefant’s, spilling out like a broken dam over the stone and marble and no matter how much aether he uses the wound just won’t close , it’s too much—

His cry rips from his throat. He grips the edges of the shield so tight it cuts into his palms, but he deserves this pain after he failed, after he allowed someone he loved so deeply to slip between his fingers. He hugs the shield to his chest and curls against it, covering it with his body.

Gods, did Haurchefant even know, in the end? He’d always been too much of a coward to say it. Maybe Haurchefant died believing that Claran hated him, that he wasn’t loved with every piece of himself he could give.

It’s too late now. Heavy sobs beat down on his body, squeezing his throat and his lungs. Each wail escapes from his mouth like monsters, clawing to be set free. 

It should have been him.

Chapter Text

Light spills warm and welcoming across his skin. It no longer sears, like it used to. He welcomes its embrace after so long spent in that white emptiness. Despite the ache of his battered body and bone-deep exhaustion, he smiles and laughs with the Scions, relieved to see them all safe after their arduous battle.

Well, almost all. There’s still someone missing— someone familiar, long seen yet not forgotten.

Slow, limping footsteps approach them. Claran peers over Ryne’s shoulder, relief filling his chest as the Exarch hobbles towards them. He’s injured, but alive, graciously whole and unbroken. The Scions turn in unison, silent at his approach.

His ruby eyes are focused on the floor, his ears folded back against his head. He stops, his lips parted around silent words. He lets out a slow exhale, his crystalline palm rubbing over his bruised skin. “Where to start…?” he asks himself.

“I believe I owe you all an apology.” His eyes flicker up, meeting Claran’s gaze for only a brief moment before returning to the floor in shame and guilt. “And, you… most especially.”

The Scions glance at Claran, as if awaiting his judgment. The Exarch lied to them— to him— but Claran finds himself lacking the energy to care. After all this time he’s tired of fighting, of being angry. He thinks back to their time in the Crystal Tower, with the young, surefire G’raha Tia, the laughs they shared and the agony of letting him go. To have him here, after all this time…

Claran walks forward, slipping between Alphinaud and Alisaie. The Exarch grips his wrist tighter, his ears drawing flat, his eyes squeezed shut. What does he expect? A reprimand? Dismissal? 

He gathers up the remaining fragments of his strength. His arms feel heavy, but he wraps them tight around the Exarch’s shoulders and draws him into an embrace. He feels the Exarch stumble forward, gasping, his weight sagging against Claran’s chest, every muscle beneath his hands drawn taut in surprise.

...Perhaps he should have asked first. It feels good— right. It’s been far too long. Claran missed him dearly. He buries his face against Exarch’s shoulder, taking in his scent, the swift rise and fall of his chest.  “It’s good to see you awake, G’raha,” he whispers.

The Exarch’s breath shudders out of him. His hands come up and rest upon the small of Claran’s back, between his shoulders. His cheek, wet with tears, presses into Claran’s hair. “Well… ‘tis good to be awake.”

Chapter Text

The sharp point of Gae Bolg sings past his cheek as he narrowly ducks out of its path. His skin stings with corruption, sizzling through his veins like fire. The egi of Ifrit charges forward beside him, brighter than the burning sun, but a single swipe of Estinien— Nidhogg’s— lance turns the egi into ash.

Estinien’s face contorts in rage, his teeth bared and sharp, his skin pulsing with darkness. Looking upon him opens that connection and Claran feels with horrifying vibrancy the agony of possession, hidden beneath layers of grief and rage.

He’s still in there. It had been so uncertain but Claran knew— he had always known. There is always another way.

“Estinien!” he cries. Nidhogg roars and lashes out again and the broadside of his lance catches Claran in the middle and knocks the wind from his lungs. He flies back, skidding across broken stones, his body battered by rubble. He scrambles back to his feet, head spinning. “Estinien, I know you’re still in there! I can feel you!”

Nidhogg charges him head on, and this time Claran leaps out of the way, but the assault is relentless. His reluctance to hurt his friend shows and Nidhogg takes full advantage of his weakness, driving forward over and over again until Claran’s limbs burn and each breath feels like fire.

He keeps going. For him.

“Fight it,” he pleads. His exhaustion catches up to him and he stumbles and Nidhogg descends upon him, shoving him down onto the ground. He twists to the side and the dangerous point at the end of his lance buries itself into the bridge beside Claran’s head. Nidhogg’s claw slams into his chest, pinning him beneath armor warped into wicked talons that dig deep into his skin. Claran opens his mouth to cry out but the breath stops in his throat as Nidhogg presses harder.

“The fool is gone,” Nidhogg hisses. “Thy pleas fall on empty ears. He is mine!”

He knows it’s not true. He hangs stubbornly onto his hope that Estinien can still be saved. He won’t rest until he sees it through, until his friend returns to himself, safe and alive.

He cannot fail again.

“Es...tinien…” he whispers, fighting to push through the unbearable pressure in his lungs. Pain shoots white-hot up his spine as one of his ribs snaps, but he pushes on, he has to. He reaches up, his hand trembling, and with what little strength he has left he places his hand against Estinien’s wrist.

The furious snarl on Estinien’s face flickers, for one brief moment, but to Claran it feels like eternity, and it’s enough. Estinien hesitates and the weight slackens and Claran digs deep into himself, feeling for that ancient power, letting it fill him up and up until he spills over.

He brings the fury of the Dreadwyrm down upon Nidhogg, and with a roar of pain the dragon reels back and retreats into the sky.

And the battle continues.

 

Chapter Text

Despite all their battles, all their trials and dangers they’ve faced head-on together— this is single-handedly the most exhilarating and terrifying step they have ever taken.

Despite his happiness, Claran’s clammy hands shake where he clutches Vervain’s arm. He feels overheated beneath his heavy gown. It is beautiful, decorated with delicate strings of beads, pearls, and lace, but his growing anxiety makes it stifling.

Vervain places a gloved hand over the one on his arm and squeezes gently. “Are you alright?” he whispers, before the doors open and signal their cue to walk down the aisle. Claran nods, jittery, and Vervain smiles.

“Just breathe with me, darlin’,” he says. His thumb strokes over the back of Claran’s hand. “In and out, just like that.”

Claran breathes with Vervain’s guidance until the shaking subsides and he can think clearly again. “S-sorry,” he mutters, embarrassed. He hopes Vervain doesn’t think he’s getting cold feet. There is nothing he wants more than this.

“You’re fine,” Vervain reassures. “Nervous?”

Claran nods. “I… I just want today to be perfect,” he admits. “I-If I trip going down the aisle or something—”

Vervain chuckles, bending down to press his brow to the top of Claran’s head. “Today’s already perfect,” he says. “Just by bein’ here with you.”

Gods, Claran loves him.

Outside the doors the music begins to swell. Claran inhales sharply and gathers himself up, smoothing out imagined imperfections in his dress and his hair. His franticness is quelled by Vervain, who presses warm lips to his cheek and soothes away all his worries.

“I love you,” Vervain whispers, pulling away as the doors open. “We got this.”

Claran steadies himself as friends and family stand to face them, welcoming them down the aisle with beaming smiles. As he takes that first step all his worries melt away, and all he can think of his how beautiful Vervain looks in the warm light of the chapel, of how wholly and unconditionally in love he is, and how much he looks forward to spending the rest of forever by his side.

Chapter Text

The first press of soft lips to his skin feels like fire. Claran jerks beneath Aymeric’s mouth, the sensitive muscles of his stomach twitching at the ticklish sensation, his brow furrowed and breaths ragged as he struggles to calm himself.

Aymeric glances up at him from beneath long, dark lashes, blue eyes piercing, and Claran’s gut twists in nervousness and need. “Is this alright?” Aymeric asks. Claran feels every syllable, every note of his voice. He’s about ready to burst into flame, or leap out of his own skin. It’s so much, in a place that’s so vulnerable.

Aymeric awaits his answer with saintly patience, his hands coming up to gently stroke the skin of Claran’s rounded belly. It is not a part of himself he likes— at all— and not one he ever expected anyone to fixate upon so intently. He is too soft and too round with too much give in his flesh, such a far cry from the hard planes of muscle on Aymeric’s own body.

“If you wish,” Aymeric mouths against his skin and bolts of electricity creep through him at the points where they connect. Claran shivers despite himself, goosebumps crawling over him. “We may stop at any time. It is not my desire to make you uncomfortable.”

Claran swallows. There he goes, ruining things with his own insecurities again. “I-It’s fine,” he says. He turns his head away and stares at the wall instead, unable to bear the shame bubbling up inside him. “I’m okay. You can keep going, if you want.”

There’s a pause as Aymeric assesses his honesty. He hears and feels a hum against his body. “You are radiant,” Aymeric says, firm and certain, and Claran gasps and moans as his lips and tongue pass over his skin. “Every part of you is beautiful,” he continues, scraping with his teeth. The sensations cast Claran alight and he writhes in need beneath the attention, his fingers twisted tight into the sheets.

He cannot stop the sob that breaks through. Aymeric grows still, running loving hands across Claran’s skin. Claran gasps for air, breaths tight and uncontrolled. “I-I’m okay,” he says, voice strained. “Please, please don’t stop, I just…”

He never imagined anyone could find him beautiful. Aymeric smiles, gentle and patient, and presses one final kiss to Claran’s flesh. “It’s alright,” he whispers. “I’ve got you.”

His lips travel down, down, down, to whisper words of worship.

Chapter Text

The bliss fades slowly like the receding tide, leaving him boneless as he slumps against the bed, taking in deep lungfuls of air.

Henbane collapses beside him, the bed bouncing with his weight. Claran lets out a breathless laugh as he’s jostled. Strong arms find his small frame and draw him into a close embrace, pocketed by warm skin and scales and soothed by the slowing thump of Henbane’s heartbeat. He turns in Henbane’s arms and places his palm against his chest, closing his eyes as he focuses on the rhythm.

It’s good to feel him here, so close. Like this he knows he’s safe and protected, that he’s loved.

“I love you,” Henbane says, cementing his certainty. Claran giggles as Henbane nudges him with his horns and peppers soft kisses to his face, tracing every curve and plane. He pays special attention to Claran’s round cheeks, the tip of his nose, and the bow of his lips. “That was so good. You felt amazing! I love you so much.”

Henbane laughs, eager and unashamed to show such open affection. He’s far larger and stronger but he holds Claran so gently, like he’s some precious piece of art, his hands stroking the skin between Claran’s shoulders and the small of his back. Golden eyes glitter with joy down at him.

“I love you too,” Claran breathes. He traces nonsensical circles into Henbane’s skin. “You felt good too. Really good…” His face heats with a blush at the admission, but he’s far too tired to mind. The pulse of Henbane’s heart beneath his hand and the protective embrace lull him into a lazy sort of half-awareness, drifting between sleep and consciousness. His eyes droop and he nuzzles into the crook of Henbane’s neck, murmuring sleepy I love you’s, and Henbane makes sure to answer every one in kind.

It isn’t long before Claran’s exhaustion catches up to him. He slips smoothly into an easy sleep, unburdened by bad dreams.

Chapter Text

The spell sucks the aether from his veins and leaves him winded.

He falls to his knees as it ends, fighting for air. His vision blackens at the edges and his body shakes, sweat beading along his brow and his upper lip. It’s as if he sprinted for one hundred malms, non-stop, without a glimpse of water.

Emet-Selch had put his all into these enchantments for a reason, after all. To be able to craft a whole city from nothing—  to make a whisper of a past so lifelike, yet forgotten in all minds but his own— took a great deal of will and strength and love.

He can feel it, tapped into the swirling source of aether that keeps the city from flickering away. Emet-Selch’s love and desperation and grief flicker in and out of his aetheric signature— another echo of something ancient that was lost.

But not forgotten. Claran will sooner die than ignore Emet-Selch’s final wish. He could feel it, as they stood on that threshold together, as he looked into Emet’s eyes and beyond, into his heart, and felt all the pain he held.

Claran will keep his promise. The most he can do now is reinvigorate the enchantments creating the glamor of Amaurot in its prime. He visits once a week to walk the empty streets, to make small-talk with the lingering ghosts and phantoms of long ago. It’s somehow… familiar, like a dream that fades upon wakefulness, only recalled in scattered, miniscule pieces, like the reflection of dust caught upon a beam of sunlight.

Claran sits on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the sprawling expanse of sky-scraping buildings and twisting streets. The image flickers for one brief moment, then takes hold, accepting the aether he sacrificed.

He will have to leave soon. His duties in the Source call to him, despite all the things that remain unfinished here. One day the aether he gave to power this mirage will run out and the image will fade. Then there will only be ruins, swallowed by the sea as it collapses back in on itself, and no one else will ever know the things that he knows.

He supposes it’s alright. Even if the image fades from life and memory, he will never let go of that smile he saw, and the promise he made.

He will remember them.

Chapter Text

“You need to be more careful,” Claran scolds. He holds his hand aloft, palm open, over a deep wound running the length of Thancred’s arm. It cut almost to the bone, from mid-bicep down to his wrist. Claran cradles him gently as he runs his hand, pulsing with aether, along the length of Thancred’s injury, guiding the wound to stitch itself shut. “It’s not too bad, thank the Twelve, but your muscles will need some time to recover.”

Thancred chuckles, confident and sly as ever. Claran glances up to catch a smirk directed his way. He blushes and ducks his head back down, his aether flaring brightly as he throws himself back into his work. Beside him, his faerie Lily twinkles in disapproval.

“Why do I need to be careful if I have you looking after me?” Thancred teases. Claran feels all the blood in his body rush to his cheeks, his head spinning. Is this… flirting? Is Thancred flirting with him? The thought is so incomprehensible that Claran’s hand goes sideways and the flow of aether sputters and dies. Lily flutters her wings and darts in to cover for him as he loses his focus.

“I-I,” Claran says smoothly, “I um… I—”

Thancred chuckles and leans his weight back on his good arm. Despite his nonchalance Claran can feel his pain skyrocket as the numbness from the aether begins to fade away. “Sorry,” Thancred says, his voice oddly soft and subdued, “too much?”

Claran can feel his heart beating somewhere in the back of his throat. “N-No. I just… Are you…?”

“Flirting? Yes.”

For a moment Claran worries he might pass out. His vision spins. “O-oh. Okay.” His mouth grows arid and a fevered sweat breaks out along his brow. He wets his lip as he fumbles to speak. “...That’s fine.”

Thancred watches him struggle with a mixture of concern and amusement. Lily chimes impatiently. “Are you certain? I know I can come off… strong, sometimes. If it is unwanted—”

“I didn’t say that,” Claran says quickly, before he can stop himself. His hands shake around Thancred’s wrist and jostle his arm, making him wince. “S-sorry! Sorry. I’m… I never thought you would… Th-that anyone would really, but least of all you, since you seem to prefer women, and I’m just…”

“Just… what?”

Claran’s voice grows small and quiet. He hunches his shoulders up to his ears and casts his eyes down. “Just me, I suppose,” he murmurs. He can’t fathom why Thancred would express an interest in him, of all people, when there are so many that are so much better and more attractive, and the thought stings more than it should since Claran is so used to having them.

“Claran.” Thancred shifts forward, bringing his good arm up to gently grasp Claran’s chin and direct his gaze back up. Claran’s breath catches. He’s so close, and his eyes are so warm and beautiful…

Lily reaches up and tugs hard on a lock of Thancred’s hair. He winces and leans back once again so Lily can work. Claran, caught in some sort of enchantment, leans forward, unwilling to part with the closeness between them. His body acts on its own and brushes their lips together. It’s a poor excuse for a kiss but it still sends sparks dancing up Claran’s spine and all those dark thoughts clouding his head part for something brighter.

Thancred smiles, his eyes narrowed, but before he can lunge forward for another Lily darts between their faces and chimes angrily at both of them.

“Ah, sorry,” Claran says sheepishly. She shoots him a huff and floats back down to finish healing Thancred’s wound. This time Claran joins her, the tremble in his hands subdued as he reopens his flow of aether.

“Perhaps later,” Thancred hums, “when my eyes stop crossing from blood loss.”

“...Later sounds nice.”

Chapter Text

Each press inside of him is like fire licking up his spine. Claran gasps into the bedsheets, sweat dripping down his fevered skin, painting trails of heat against his too-sensitive skin. It feels like an age since he was commanded to stay there, pulsing around the intrusion inside of him as Arthur lazily, achingly, fucks in and out of him.

“Good,” Arthur praises, and just that is enough to make Claran quiver and sing, his voice high and strained in his own ears. Arthur chuckles and thrusts forward harder, sending Claran face-first into the mattress, his weight overbearing and oppressive, and his answering cry of bliss and need is muffled by cotton. “Well done, pet. Just like that. Keep yourself nice and tight for me.”

Claran whimpers. Through the fog in his brain he manages enough coherency to clench himself tight around Arthur’s cock. The increase in pressure and stretch makes him shake. Arthur hisses, swearing under his breath as he increases his pace, his slim hips snapping sharply against the supple flesh of Claran’s ass. “Is that good?” Arthur asks, a note of breathlessness slipping beneath his calm, put-together tone. Claran is affecting him and the suggestion of Arthur’s pleasure amplifies his own. He wants to be good. He wants to make Arthur feel good. He wants to feel Arthur come inside of him.

“Fuck,” Claran sobs. Arthur lets out a harsh growl and knots his fist into Claran’s hair, hauling his face out of the sheets. The pace rockets forward as Arthur takes tight hold of his hips and drills him hard, slamming in and out of him at a pace that sends Claran tumbling headfirst into bliss.

He draws even tighter, skirting that edge of ecstasy. Arthur’s hand slips from his hip and presses hard against his throbbing clit. “Not yet,” Arthur whispers. “I have not given you permission, have I?”

Claran whimpers and shakes with need. “N-No,” he answers as his body screams for relief. “No, I… I’ll wait, I can… I can do it.”

Arthur chuckles, dark and smoky and hot. “Can you?” he asks, a mocking lilt to his voice as he continues to pound into Claran. He squeezes his eyes shut against the onslaught and holds back the oncoming tide of pleasure as best he can.

Arthur’s fingers begin to rub quick, relentless circles against Claran’s clit. His eyes snap open and he rocks forward, but the hand in his hair keeps him in place. “Gods!” Claran cries, helpless, as the sensations threaten to overwhelm him. Arthur grunts and huffs, moaning softly under his breath.

“There are no gods here,” he murmurs. The grip in Claran’s hair turns gentle, petting through the strands in reverence. “Just me.”

Despite his best efforts, Claran comes hard, shaking and weeping with it, writhing on Arthur’s dick with bliss that borders on agony. Despite his slip he can feel heat spilling against his insides and hears a deep, guttural moan as Arthur reaches his peak.

He slackens in Arthur’s grip, held up only by the strong arms around him. His eyes droop as his mind slips in and out of his reach, overwhelmed by the intensity of their play. He feels pleasantly floaty, almost non-existent, dimly aware of Arthur guiding him to lay on the bed, and the warmth against his back.

“Well done,” Arthur says. He kisses the top of Claran’s head and squeezes him gently. “Take as much time as you need to return.”

Chapter Text

It’s freeing not to worry anymore.

Every day in Il Mheg passes by in bliss. From sunrise to sunset— and even a little further— he plays with the pixies and watches over their mischief, smiling and laughing and reading them stories. With his newfound, gifted power he can stay here with them forever, leave the shackles and weight of his responsibility behind.

Let someone else take on his mantle: someone more worthy, more eager, and less prone to failure. He had grown so tired over the course of his journey, and to be free of constant fear is all he needed.

He disappointed so many when he left. He could still see their faces in his mind, recalling with picturesque perfection the hurt in their gazes as they turned away and left him. The rest of the world is still shrouded in Light, after all, and though they may struggle or fail at least he is safe here, with the other pixies to laugh with, until the Light returns to claim them all.

Just a little longer… until then. For now, he can make do with what he has.

Feo Ul hovers beside his head and pats his cheek. “Titania,” they whisper, drawing him from his trance. “The others want to play pretend. Won’t you come and tell us your stories, my sapling?”

Titania smiles and inclines his head. “Yes, I do think… A day out of the castle will be good,” he says. He raises himself up with only a few flutters of his wings, his staff close at hand as he drifts between the stained glass arches and out into the sunlight. The day is warm and perfect, and the pixies waiting in the courtyard of his home fly in loops and circles out of joy upon their king’s arrival.

They bow as he passes and fall into place behind him, twirling and laughing. He can feel their glee. He allows it to carry him up, to lighten his soured mood. The images of his friends’ mournful faces clear from his mind until all that is left is the sun. “What story shall I tell today?” he asks, and the pixies clamor for him to tell their favorite story, to play their favorite game.

He watches them play dragoons and dragons, defeat an imagined empire, and slay the shimmering phantoms of monsters and beasts that he conjures for them.

He cannot help but remember, but he will not allow himself to regret.

Chapter Text

It feels like an age passed since they had last seen each other.

As soon as he received orders to meet with Hien— after all this time— Claran couldn't contain his excitement. The journey back to Doma was spent in torturous anticipation. Will Hien remember him? Did he think good things? It's been so long and so much has happened…

Finally seeing Hien standing against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, whole and healthy and smiling, was far too much for Claran to bear. All thoughts of what if vacated Claran's mind in one instant. His body carries him forward and he goes, darting across the space between them.

Hien turns, his eyes growing wide as Claran barrels into him. Hien stumbles back, his strong arms winding tight around Claran's waist. He laughs and easily scoops Claran off his feet, twirling him in a circle. Claran's heart leaps into his throat and he laughs breathlessly, exhilarated and relieved.

How could he ever think that Hien would forget him?

"Hello to you too," Hien chuckles. He returns Claran to his feet, but his hold does not loosen. He brings up a palm to cup Claran's cheek and draw him forward. They kiss, chaste, spilling words of longing and love between them.

Yugiri clears her throat, her gaze politely averted to the sky. Claran pulls back and buries his face against Hien's shoulder, burning with embarrassment.

After a moment to calm down before he bursts into flames, Claran draws carefully from Hien's embrace. Yugiri glances at him, mild surprise flickering across her face.

Claran offers her a sheepish smile. "I…" he averts his eyes, staring instead at the horizon just beyond Yugiri's head. "I'm sorry. I missed you. A lot."

Yugiri smiles warmly. She steps forward and takes Claran's hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze. She is not one for overt shows of affection, and the small gesture says so much. Claran squeezes back, enjoying the warmth of her hands against his own.

Gods, he missed them both. The hot sting of tears prickles behind Claran's eyes. Hien comes to his rescue, placing an arm around Claran's waist and tugging him in close. "Come then, to the Enclave. We have much to discuss." Hien's smile turns mischievous as he leans in, his voice low, sending a cascade of shivers down Claran's spine. "After a few drinks, of course."

"Your responsibilities come first," Yugiri reminds, her brow furrowed. "There will be time for catching up later."

Hien sighs dramatically.

Chapter Text

Two strong hands encompass the curve of his waist, broad palms against his skin, coarse and calloused. Raubahn's hands are so large— or, more likely, Claran is so small— that his fingers touch against the dip of Claran's spine. 

He watches Claran intently, sweat gathered on his brow, dark eyes warm and soft. He easily lifts Claran's small body, guiding him up the length of his cock. Claran goes, gasping, his breaths thick in his throat as the rigid length inside him glides smoothly along his wet walls, igniting fire in his veins. As he reaches the broad head Raubahn pushes him down and lifts his hips up until they are flush together, filling Claran completely once more.

It's slow and torturous and each long drag back and forth feels like forever, but Raubahn had insisted on the gentle pace out of concern for their difference in size. Claran barely has to move himself. He settles for rocking his hips to and fro, grinding down on the cock stretching him open as Raubahn lifts him up and down and thrusts his hips upward into the tight heat embracing him. It hits him so impossibly deep and stretches him wide, aching and burning inside him. The slow pace makes him squirm with need, his body twitching, muttered pleas falling from his lips like stars from the sky.

"You're doing well," Raubahn praises. His voice is so low Claran can feel its rumble in his chest, crawling hot down his spine. 

Claran shivers and wets his lips, his breaths quick and heavy in his lungs. "You— ah— you feel… so good," he admits with only mild embarrassment, his inhibitions loosened by the creep of molten pleasure in his veins. He aches. Tears build in his eyes as he tries to roll his hips back, to encourage more, but Raubahn's grip is too secure. "I— Raubahn, please."

Raubahn hums and sits up, a hand between Claran's shoulders holding him steady. He presses a kiss to Claran's cheek and the rough scratch of his beard makes him giggle and squirm, especially as his kisses continue downwards.

He discovers a sensitive spot above the fluttering beat of Claran's pulse and sucks, and soft laughter returns to moans. Raubahn's hips jerk upwards, pushing in harder than before, and his cock presses perfectly against a spot inside Claran's heat that makes stars dance in his eyes.

The pace quickens, finally, and the relief feels like bliss. Raubahn thrusts up into him, breaths puffing hot against Claran's neck. The slap of their skin is dwarfed by the rising volume of Claran's cries, his soft voice breaking around the edges of gasping moans. His head spins, his body overheats, and the pleasure coils inside him, drawn tight like an arrow ready to loose. He bears down on Raubahn, clenching tight, his body trying to draw his cock in deeper, faster, as Raubahn pulls him down to meet every upward thrust of his hips.

It wasn't enough, but now it's too much. He feels his peak rapidly approaching and claws at Raubahn's shoulders in pure desperation. "I c— oh, Raubahn I— I'm—"

"Go on." Raubahn encourages him with words and more passionate thrusts. "Come."

It's more than enough. Claran cries out as he comes hard, his pussy clenching tight. Fireworks rocket through his nerves and burst in bright points of light. His body spasms with it, writhing in Raubahn's certain hands. Raubahn keeps fucking him, grunting and groaning against his skin, milking his hypersensitive body for all it can give. With a sob he comes again and it almost hurts. His thighs shake and draw tight against Raubahn's thighs, instinctively trying to close.

Raubahn chuckles in his ear, his voice strained and heated. "Are you close?" Claran asks. Raubahn nods, panting. "Please," Claran whispers. His hands go to Raubahn's hair, petting through with a soft touch. He can barely string a coherent thought together but he knows that he wants it— needs it. "Please, Raubahn, I want to feel you. I want it. Please come inside me, please— ah!"

His pleading was enough. Raubahn growls against him, his thrusts erratic and uneven as he focuses entirely on chasing his own release. Raubahn reaches down to rub his clit and his overworked pussy aches beautifully, his walls fluttering where he's still clenched tight around the rapid push in and out of him. His body, already pushed beyond the threshold, climbs rapidly once more towards ecstasy.

"Yes," Claran gasps, pawing at Raubahn. "Yes yes yes— just like that, just— fuck— I'm… again…!"

Raubahn groans loudly as he bottoms out and spills deep inside Claran's heat. The sound of Raubahn's voice and the splash against his insides pushes Claran once more over the edge, his body quaking with it.

He goes limp, his mind hazy, and he falls forward against Raubahn's broad chest. Raubahn gathers him up tight in his arms and presses kisses to his hair, rubbing his skin to chase away his goosebumps. "Tha' was bloody amazin'," Raubahn slurs, his accent thickened by his exhaustion.

Claran hums in agreement. He leans back, craning upwards to gaze at Raubahn's relaxed expression. He smiles, his heart dancing in his chest, as he cups Raubahn's cheek and draws him down into a sweet kiss. 

"Handsome…" Claran mumbles. He laughs deliriously as Raubahn blushes and squeals in delight as his sides are ticked in revenge.

Chapter Text

The soft pads of Lobo's fingers drift down the smooth curve of Claran's spine. Goosebumps crawl along his skin, ice clouding through his nerves at the ticklish sensation, as Lobo taps every notch of his spine. He arches against it, pressing himself tighter against Lobo's mouth as he does. His lips part in a soundless gasp, plump lips nipped and bitten. Lobo's tongue delves into the open cavern of Claran's mouth, exploring eagerly. Their tongues brush together and Claran shivers and moans, his soft voice swallowed by the hungry press of Lobo's lips to his own.

Lobo breaks the kiss with a hum. His lips find instead the give of Claran's rounded cheeks, his brow, the tip of his nose, and both shadows beneath his eyes. Claran giggles beneath the affection, squirming in Lobo's lap, until large hands find his hips and hold him still.

Lobo kisses the softened curve of Claran's jaw. Claran sucks in a breath, lashes fluttering, as sensitive nerves bloom hot in response. Lobo kisses down his neck and each press of his lips sparks more heat, pulls trembling exhales from his throat. The flat of a hot, wet tongue glides across his skin and Claran shivers, his hands trembling as he grips tight onto Lobo's shoulders. Teeth scrape against his pulse and he hears Lobo growl in warning before he assaults Claran's flesh, nipping and sucking until a bright red mark flares angrily to the surface, certain to bruise. Claran cannot hold back his keens and moans, his sensitive skin delighted by the simulation. An ache settles heavy between his legs and he squeezes his thighs together to abate it. 

Lobo pulls away when he's satisfied. Claran pants, trying to recover from all the sensations swirling inside him. Burning arousal bubbles and simmers in his veins. He shifts his hips and Lobo squeezes them, his intense gaze knowing.

"More?" he asks. His leporine ears flick in interest.

Claran bites his lip and looks away. He nods.

Lobo makes sure to kiss every ilm of him.

Chapter Text

"She is dangerous," Hien insists. Claran looks away, his lips drawn into a tight frown, the hem of his robes clutched tight in his fists until his knuckles turn pale.

"How can you be so certain?" he asks, his voice small. He stares holes into the paper door, beyond which Yotsuyu— Tsuyu?— sits in her room and plays with a porcelain tea set. "Do you not trust Gosetsu's word? Do you not trust me?"

"It is her I do not trust, Claran. You are kind, far too kind, and I fear your judgement in this is—"

"Is what, Hien?" Claran whispers harshly. His hands tremble. "I-I know I can be too easily trusting, but this is… this is different. It would be cruel to… to punish her. She's like a child. "

"How can you be certain?"

Claran clenches his jaw, wishing desperately that he could share his Echo, how it connects him to people, that he could let Hien feel what he feels. He's so… alone. "I just am," he says, his voice trembling with barely restrained emotion. He steals a glance in Hien's direction. His eyes soften, the furrow in his brow smoothing away, but he is not convinced. It's only right that he place the safety of his people above all others, but…

"I cannot protect her forever," Hien says gently. He leans forward and takes Claran's hands in his own, squeezing gently. Claran tries not to flinch. "Once she is discovered there will be a cry for her blood. She has hurt too many."

"I know." Claran stares down at their entwined hands. Hien's palms are rough against his. "You… you do what you must, as a leader. If it comes down to that I will do what it takes to protect her. I-If I'm wrong, and she's still… then you may place the blame on my shoulders."

"Claran, that's—"

"Please. Please." He squeezes Hien's hands as tightly as he can and looks up, forcing himself to meet Hien's gaze. It's open and terrifying and he shakes with it, but he must. Hien must see what he sees. "Trust me," he pleads.

Hien's broad shoulders rise and fall with one deep breath. He strokes the soft skin of Claran's hands with his thumbs. "Alright," he says. "I will keep her safe. For you."

The tension vacates Claran's body. He slumps forward, suddenly exhausted, and Hien opens his arms to catch him. "Thank you," he mutters. His hands come up to grip at Hien's clothes, his face buried against his chest. "Thank you."

He hopes he is right.

Chapter Text

Soft golden sunlight filters through the cracks between the curtains and spreads like warm honey across Claran's bare chest. Haurchefant chases the light with his fingertips, skimming gently over the shivering skin of Claran's sternum, the cadence of his heartbeat playing in swift staccato beneath his touch.

His hand drifts lower, over Claran's ribs, and he hears a sharp intake of breath. Claran tries not to squirm too noticeably, to no avail. Another experimental poke makes him giggle.

"Oh?" Haurchefant hums. Claran stares up at him, doe-eyed. "My dear Warrior of Light, my darling star, are you, perchance… ticklish?"

Claran swallows nervously. He feels like he's about to be eaten alive. "I… uh. Um. Maybe a little?"

Haurchefant looks as if it is his nameday. Claran tries not to sweat. Haurchefant presses his palms together and bows his head in solemn supplication. "Thank you Halone for this gift," he whispers.

"Haurchefant, what are you—" Claran squeaks as Haurchefant's fingers begin a rapid dance up and down his ribs. He writhes, laughing breathlessly as Haurchefant's devilish fingers chase him no matter which way he turns. He squeals when Haurchefant pinches his sides and grabs at the soft give of his belly, pushing at him until he shakes with laughter, the muscles beneath his stomach convulsing.

"H-Haurchie!" Claran pleads, unable to catch a deep enough breath through the unrelenting assault. He feels dizzy. "O-okay, okay, that's enough! I can't—"

Thankfully Haurchefant stops before he passes out. He takes in deep gulps of air, his body shaking with lingering sensitivity, bubbles of laughter trailing from his lips. Haurchefant gazes down at him in reverence. "Forgive me, I got carried away," he says. He stoops down to press a sweet kiss to Claran's brow. "I fear I have become addicted to the sound of your laughter, my dear."

Claran slaps his hands over his face to hide his furious blush. Haurchefant chuckles, content with kissing the backs of his hands until he is coaxed out.

Chapter Text

It was so dark, so cold. Fear twisted thick and poisonous in Claran's lungs, strangling his breath as he fought his way through knee-deep snow. His labored breaths fogged in the air in front of his face and steamed up his glasses. He couldn't see beyond the endless ocean of white  interlocked at the horizon with a pitch black, starless sky.

He ran endlessly. Even when his limbs screamed out in pain, he kept running, clawing at the air to pull himself along.

There came a wretched scream from behind. His body seized in terror and he pushed himself harder, faster, as the wind howled and picked up snow into a swirling vortex of white. He couldn't see the sky or the horizon he ran toward. His strength failed him and Claran collapsed into the snow, gasping for air as he scrambled to right himself.

It was upon him.

And he was there again. A monstrous skull grinned down at him, its maw filled with teeth, dripping and slimy with poison turned to slush by the voting cold. Its presence sapped the very warmth from his chest.

"I will take great pleasure in tearing you apart," it hissed in an echoing voice, agonizing in its familiarity. Its massive hand pressed against Claran's stomach. Its talons curved inwards, shredding through his clothes like butter. Claran shivered as the cold pierced his skin. "Oh, Lilac," it whispered. "You'll be good for me, won't you? You always were so good for me."

It pressed down. Its claws broke through Claran's skin and with one swipe it tore him open and all Claran felt was agony. His lips and his fingers turned blue and he was cold, so cold, and he hurt so much—

He woke gasping. The scars slashed permanently into his stomach throbbed with phantom pain. He scrambled upright, clawing his shirt up to check that his insides weren't on his outside again. He pressed his palm to his uninjured stomach and shook.

"Hey," Vervain said softly. "Hey, honey, it's okay. I'm righ' here. You're home, you're safe, no one's gonna hurt you."

Claran swallowed thickly, trying to control the rapid pace of his breathing. "I-I'm home," he echoed. He reached out blindly and Vervain obediently took his hand and held it tight, even as Claran squeezed as hard as he could. "You're here. You're here."

"I am," Vervain said. "Was it him again?"

Claran nodded, closing his eyes to fight off the rising tide of panic that threatened to overwhelm him.

"Can I hold you?"

Unable to summon the words, Claran leaned over. Vervain gathered him in his arms and pulled him in close. Claran pressed his head to Vervain's chest, listening to his heartbeat and the soft rhythm of his breath.

He wet his lips and tried to summon the will to speak. Vervain's fingers carded soothingly through his hair as he rocked Claran back and forth.

"V-Vervain…?"

"Yeah, darlin'?"

"Can… can you make me some tea?"

Vervain chuckled. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of Claran's head. "Course. C'mon, we can watch the sunrise together."

Vervain stood and helped Claran out of bed, supporting his weight as he balanced himself on shaking legs. He felt safe and warm. The cold and pain from that night was nothing more than a memory. He was okay. "Thank you," he said. "I… I'd like that."

Chapter Text

For the first time in what feels like a lifetime, the blindfold of Light plastered over Claran's eyes is broken.

His exhaustion shrinks to a fleeting whisper at the back of his mind. Hades is gone, his friends are gone, everything is quiet and still and bright. He blinks as a figure comes into clear focus, a point of darkness in the endless Light, a sad smile crossing his handsome face.

"You've fought hard," Ardbert says. "You've done more than I ever did— than I ever could do."

"Don't say that," Claran pleads. He stares up at Ardbert and steps toward him, reaching out, though he knows the action is hopeless. "You did what you thought was right."

"What I thought was right was my world's undoing," he says. "But I can make it right now. I can do something good— by helping you."

The finality in Ardbert's voice makes Claran shake. He steps forward again, trying desperately to break that yawning distance that always stretched so far between them. Ardbert is his friend; he understands more than anyone else how it feels, what Claran has to bear. He knows what Ardbert must do, what his duty calls for, but it doesn't hurt any less. "I don't want to lose you," he admits.

"You won't lose me." 

Ardbert takes his outstretched hand. Claran gasps, tears springing to his eyes as Ardbert's warmth encases his own, solid and whole and here. Ardbert smiles and pulls him in close, an arm finding its way around his waist. He sinks into the embrace, clutching at Ardbert desperately in an attempt to commit every part of him to memory. "I honestly did not expect that to work," Ardbert chuckles.

"I'm glad it did," Claran breathes. He does not know how much time they have here, before the stillness passes and throws him back into the fray. There's still so much he needs to say. "Ardbert, I—"

A finger against his lips silences him. "I know," Ardbert whispers. His hand goes to the back of Claran's head, fingers running through his hair. "Let's not make this goodbye, yeah? I'm not leaving you. I'll still be here, wherever you go." He cocks a grin, his hand moving to Claran's cheek. "Can't get rid of me that easy, can you?"

The tears finally spring free. His throat tightens and he swallows back the rising surge of grief. "Y-yeah," he breathes. "Thank you, Ardbert. For everything."

In lieu of an answer, Ardbert leans forward and draws Claran into a longing, desperate kiss. Claran presses back as warmth blooms in his chest and spreads through his body. Something slides into place and he feels whole again, like there was some part of himself missing that he never could see. His hands, once grasping at Ardbert, instead close around the pommel of a brilliant great axe, still warm from someone else's palms. He lifts it as if it weighs nothing.

It's time to finish this.

Chapter Text

It's one of the bad days today.

They come fewer now, at least, but still more frequently than he prefers. Sometimes they stay away for weeks, months if he's lucky, but they always resurface, hungry and clawing, dragging him down to that dark place that swallows him whole and leaves him feeling empty and numb.

He can't even summon the will to cry, though he longs to. Perhaps it would be good for him to cry, to release all this emotion bubbling up inside him. He doesn't cry. He sits, silent, in bed. The others know when it gets bad and try so hard to offer him paltry comforts. Henbane convinced him to sit up against the pillows, instead of lying on his back all day,  and draped a thick blanket over his unmoving shoulders; Arthur pressed a cup of his favorite tea and a new book into his hands. He never opened the book. It still sits in his lap, waiting for him. His tea is cold now. He never tried to take a sip. He just… sat there, motionless aside from the stubborn beating of his heart and breath.

Why can't he be better for them? He's so ungrateful, so broken inside. They deserve better than him. So much better. One day they'll realize how terrible he is and they'll leave, just like all the others did, and he'll smile and wish them well and accept it, because he couldn't bear to burden them with his presence any longer.

They'd be happier without him, anyway. All he wants is for them to be happy.

There comes another knock at his door. Claran says nothing. He smells sweet pastries, apples and cinnamon, and knows without looking up that Vervain has come to waste his time too. His empty stomach rumbles, but the thought of eating makes him nauseous.

"Hey, darlin'," Vervain says. His voice is gentle. It's the same voice he uses when speaking to spooked chocobos or crying children. Claran feels pathetic. "I brought you some food. You didn't come down for breakfast or lunch, so I figured a snack in bed would be fun. I made your favorite, by the way. Apple tarts."

Claran stares vacantly into his tea as the bed dips with Vervain's weight. He gives a slight twitch of his head and angles himself away, unable to summon the strength to tell Vervain to stop trying, to give them to someone more deserving.

"Honey, ya gotta eat somethin'. You haven't eaten since yesterday. It's not healthy."

Claran shrugs. Does it matter? He's perfectly content with wasting away. It's probably for the best, anyway. He doesn't need to put on any extra weight, he already looks so— 

"Claran!"

The sharpness in Vervain's voice startles him. He jolts, his teacup rattling in his hands and spilling over his wrist. Always so clumsy, isn't he? He can't do anything right.

Vervain's hand brushes across his wrist and the shock it sends through him breathes some life back into his motionless body. "Don't," he breathes, his voice weak and cracking. "Don't. You should leave."

Vervain pulls his hand away and doesn't try to touch him again, but he doesn't leave. "I'm sorry, honey, but I ain't leavin' you alone like this. You're scarin' me."

Oh, he's frightening Vervain with his behavior now. He's such a terrible husband. If Vervain had someone better, someone less broken, less annoying or ugly or stupid, maybe he would be happy, maybe he wouldn't be scared. Gods he's horrible. He should save them the trouble and leave, he should just crawl somewhere dark and just curl up and— and— 

"Honey, calm down. Breathe."

Claran doesn't realize he had worked himself into a panic until Vervain's voice draws him from his own thoughts. His breathing is strained and harsh, his throat constricting around his air. His head spins. Black creeps into the edges of his vision. Static crawls under his skin. He shakes. He feels like he's dying.

"I-it's for the best," he whispers. "You deserve better than me."

"I— honey…" Vervain slips off the bed and Claran's heart rockets into his throat, pounding hard in his ears. This is it, it's happening, Vervain is leaving and it hurts so much, but he can't be upset because he deserves it.

Vervain kneels before him. His eyes, fixed stubbornly upon his cup of tea, refuse to shift to him. In his periphery he can see Vervain's worry written upon his face. He does look frightened. How terrible.

"Claran," he says firmly. "I am not leavin' you."

"I wish I could believe that."

"It's true. Whatever you're tellin' yourself in your head, it's wrong. You've got it all wrong. No one's leavin', Claran. We love you. I love you."

Claran smiles ruefully. He grips his teacup so tightly his knuckles turn pale and the porcelain digs into his skin. It almost hurts. He needs the pain. "You think that now," he says, allowing his thoughts to come to surface, "but one day you'll grow tired of me. You'll see that I'm not good for you and you'll leave. It's okay if you want that, though. I want you to be happy."

"I'm happy with you."

Claran bites down hard on his lip. Vervain watches him carefully and leans forward. This time Claran offers no protest as Vervain maneuvers his fingers and draws the teacup from his hands. He slips his hands into Claran's instead, holding them gently, line he's something fragile. "I married you for a reason," he whispers. Like this the only place he can look is at Vervain's kind face, into those beautiful celeste eyes. It's too much. Claran turns his head but Vervain shifts and moves right back into his sight. "Please look at me, honey," he begs. "I need you to look at me, I need you to hear me."

Claran looks because he isn't strong enough to say no. Vervain's brows hang low over his eyes. Claran looks into them despite the fear and discomfort and finds nothing but kindness and sincerity.

"There is nowhere I'd rather be," he whispers. Claran wishes he would stop. This hurts more than anything else. It's agony. "There's no one I'd rather spend the rest of my days with. I love you no matter what, through good days and bad ones. No matter what your head tells you. Nothing will ever stop me from loving you."

The first tear comes with silence. Claran squeezes Vervain's hands as tight as he can. He can't look away from Vervain's eyes. He's almost… it's right there, right in front of him, dangling just out of reach.

"I'm sorry," he says, his voice shaking.

"You don't have to be." Vervain squeezes his hands in return and smiles. "I'm here for you. Always."

The rest of his grief bursts out of him. He pitches himself forward and lets out a wretched cry. Vervain rises swiftly to meet him, catching Claran in his arms and holding him tight. Claran clutches at his shirt and wails against his chest, his body wracked with each wave of pain that crashes into him.

"I'm sorry," he sobs, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay," Vervain whispers. He rocks Claran in his arms and pets his hair. "I'm right here. I'm here. I love you."

This time, he believes it.

Chapter Text

The collar of his shirt feels far too tight around his throat. Claran swallows, sweat beading along his skin. The weather outside is frightfully cold, but inside is sweltering. He can barely breathe. He wipes the sweat off his palms discreetly beneath the table. Aymeric catches the movement and glances up, offers him a charming smile.

Claran's fork slips from his limp fingers and clatters to the floor. Claran jumps, his whole face burning, as he bends down to retrieve it. Gods, he's a mess. He's making a fool out of himself. The one chance he has to be alone with Aymeric and he's ruining it by being, well, him.

At least Arthur talked him out of wearing the Alpine coat. If he showed up to dinner wearing the same outfit as his host… he may as well have walked off into the abyss.

He straightens to find that a servant has already replaced his fork with a clean one. Dejected, he places its fallen brethren on the immaculate, thousand-thread tablecloth that likely costs more than his house.

"Are you quite alright?" Aymeric asks, his voice soft and worried. "You've barely touched your food. If it is not to your liking—"

Claran shakes his head rapidly, his glasses threatening to fly off. "N-no! It's delicious, really! I'm perfectly fine, I promise."

Aymeric regards him with a frown, his brows low over those piercing blue eyes. Claran has to look away and take deep, steadying breaths. "You are not the only one who can read emotions, Claran," Aymeric says. He reaches out imploringly, his hand resting upon the table as he leans in close. "If there is something bothering you, which there is, I would appreciate it if you told me. I do not want my esteemed guest to feel uncomfortable in my home."

It's unfair how kind Aymeric is to him. Claran chews on his lower lip, warring with himself. He opens and closes his mouth. Giving voice to his own feelings is always far more difficult than it should be.

A servant comes to his side and offers him a bottle of wine. Claran nods sharply, once, because he is going to need it. 

"I'm just… I'm nervous," he manages. Instead of facing Aymeric properly he watches the servant pour his wine into a bulbous crystal glass. He recalls the last few times he accepted wine and fights off a sudden chill. Aymeric would never…

"What for?" Aymeric asks.

"I… uh. This, I suppose." Claran leans back in his chair. The servant delivers him his wine glass and Claran scoops it up and takes a very undignified gulp. "I don't want to mess anything up. I'm scared. I like you far too much and I fear that the more you come to know me…"

Aymeric chuckles and Clarans eyes snap to him, aghast. "Ah, forgive me," he says, "but I have the same fears as you."

All Claran can think about it how lovely Aymeric's smile is and how desperately he longs to hear him laugh again. "Ah. I… I suppose it is a little funny."

Aymeric tips his head in agreement. He improperly leans across the wide table and Claran gasps as their fingers brush together. "I like you too," Aymeric says simply. Claran is enamored with the pink blush dusted across his high cheekbones. "I find you extraordinary."

Claran takes a long, deep breath, and knocks back the rest of his wine in one go. Aymeric blinks in surprise. Claran probably should feel ashamed, but gods does he need it.

Chapter Text

The fire leaps and crackles merrily in its hearth. Rain and wind lashes the windows in their frames, but the howling gale outside cannot intrude. Claran sits curled upon the sofa, dressed cozy in a thick lavender sweater and a long white skirt, and knits confidently through a ball of thick yarn. Although it does not snow in La Noscea, the winter months still bring a chill and foul weather— though the patter of rain against their house and the stillness inside make him fond of such storms. He works through a comfortable silence, lulled by the crackle of the fireplace and the rhythm of his knitting.

Vervain comes around the side of the couch and sits with a great huff of air. "How's it comin', sweetheart?" he asks casually. He throws an arm around Claran's shoulders and Claran picks up his yarn and scoots himself closer, until he is nestled against Vervain's side.

"Good," Claran answers. "Really good."

Vervain's hand rubs over his shoulder. "I'm glad. You looked so damn cute over here."

Claran's face turns hot, but before he can respond, another weight sinks against his unoccupied side. "For once, Vervain, we agree on something," Arthur says. He crosses one leg primly over the other, unbothered by the fire's heat, even in his three-piece suit. "You are just adorable."

Claran has the distinct impression that he's being ganged up on. He averts his gaze to his knitting and huffs, "I don't know about that…"

"But you are!" chirps Henbane as he hurries to the couch. He plops down on Vervain's other side and his mass jostles all three of them at once. His great scaly tail thumps happily against the upholstery. "We like seeing you happy! You look so cozy and warm and cute…"

Of course they were all watching him. Claran uses his unfinished scarf as a shield to hide his bush. "Listen to Henbane, darlin'," Vervain says, laughter in his voice. "He ain't ever wrong."

Henbane giggles happily and presses a kiss to the top of Vervain's head, between his flicking ears. Claran glances discreetly at Arthur and sees warmth and love in those forest green eyes as he watches them. It's always there the strongest when he thinks no one is watching him.

Claran's heart squeezes tight in his chest. He is suddenly stricken— not for the first time nor the last— by how fiercely he loves them all. Their laughter, their smiles, their love… he would give everything to protect them.

The walls of their house may keep out the cold, but the warmth that fills him is for them. Here, he belongs.

No matter where he is, they will always be his home.

Chapter Text

Hot, sticky fluid travels in a meandering line down the center of his chest. It leaves a simmering trail as it goes, its temperature bordering the edge of pain. Claran's quickly drawn breaths jostles the drop and the lines it paints upon his skin becomes uncentered. The Exarch leans in quickly with his rough tongue to catch it. The heat burns against Claran's skin as he chases the trail of sweet chocolate back to its source.

Thancred chuckles above them. His fingers return to the bowl of melted chocolate in his hands and dip inside. He watches with a smooth, hungry smile as he holds two coated fingers above Claran's chest, and lets it cascade down onto his skin.

It lands, molten, against a nipple. Claran hisses, his brow furrowed, nerves frayed and open. It doesn't burn, but stark heat against his sensitive flesh makes him shiver from head to foot. The Exarch dives back in as soon as the chocolate begins to cool. His soft lips and clever tongue lick and suck Claran's skin clean, teeth scraping over the delicate pink bud until Claran gasps and moans. Exarch pulls back and licks his lips, satisfied.

"How does it taste?" Thancred asks, amused.

"Lovely," Exarch purrs. His tongue swipes over his lips and Claran cannot help but follow the motion. "The chocolate is nice too, I suppose."

Thancred laughs. He paints a stripe of chocolate across his mouth and pulls the Exarch into a mesmerizing kiss. Claran watches, aching, shifting his hips in an attempt to alleviate the ache building in his core. The Exarch sighs, his tail curling, and Thancred pulls away with a sly smile. He holds up his chocolate coated fingers and the Exarch dutifully allows Thancred to smear his lips.

"Why don't you give him a taste?" he says.

Exarch's eyes turn to Claran in hunger. He stares at the Exarch's mouth, keeping himself as still as possible as he waits for his kiss. Exarch cups his cheek tenderly in his palm and guides him into a soft, tender kiss, his mouth open to coax Claran's tongue to explore, to taste. He moans against the Exarch's lips, drowning in his sweetness.

Another molten hot line burns down his chest. Claran shivers, clutching helplessly at Exarch's arm as Thancred drags his fingers in one smooth motion along the length of his torso. Exarch smiles against Claran's lips and breaks their kiss to follow it once more with his tongue.

This time the path does not stray. His ruby eyes bore into Claran's as he goes slowly down, further and further. Claran's breath stills in his chest and Thancred stoops down to grip his chin and direct him into a fierce kiss. Chocolate smears against Claran's cheek. Thancred swallows the cry that falls from his throat as Exarch licks between his legs. His hands hold Claran's swollen folds open, forcing his thighs still as he drags long, wet lines against Claran's heat. He shakes with it.

Thancred pulls away to look down and Claran moans far too loudly into the open air, his voice high and breathy and cracked. "I don't recall putting chocolate there," he quips as Claran writhes helplessly in his arms.

"Mm, no, you did not," Exarch says. His lips move and his voice vibrates through Claran's sensitive skin. His eyes glitter with a ghost of the mischief from his youth. "But it tastes even sweeter here."

"Does it now!" Thancred gasps playfully. He releases Claran and moves down his body. He takes hold of Claran's thighs and spreads him apart, opening him up further. He stares in rapture at Claran's pulsing heat. It takes every ounce of Claran's willpower to not hide his face. "May I have a taste?"

"By all means."

Thancred dives down. His fingers drag chocolate against the delicate give of Claran's inner thighs and his tongue plunges into Claran's hole. "Oh!" Claran gasps, his hips shaking as sensation burns fire through him. Their tongues tangle with each other as they pass each other, taking turns to lick him open. Claran throws his head back and cries out, gripping in agony at the pillows. There's a tongue inside him, licking along his walls and fucking him, and then there's a tongue rolling and lapping at his clit, lips closed and sucking around him. He keens and cries out, tangles his fingers into the sheets, writhes with pleasure so intense it almost hurts. Tears gather in his eyes. It's so much. It's so good.

"Ah— ah, coming! Coming!"

His warning makes them double their efforts. He shakes apart with a sob. His body draws taut as they guide him through it, bleeding out every last drop of pleasure his body can spare, until he goes limp and twitching against the sheets.

Someone's tongue goes over his pussy one last time before withdrawing. He shivers. "You truly have impeccable taste, my friend," Thancred says with mocking severity.

Exarch laughs and pets Claran's thigh. "Thank you. I do have a particular fondness for sweet things."

Claran whines and covers his face with his hands.

Chapter Text

The day is warm and calm, with a gentle breeze and fluffy clouds to pepper the blue sky.

A sense of dread sits somewhere in Claran's belly. He picks at his breakfast slowly, staring into his plate. Perhaps, if he takes too long, then maybe…

"Claran, dear, you need to eat." His mother says. He jumps and nods quickly, and forces a bite into his mouth.

She sighs. Her warm palms rest on his shoulder. "I know you're scared," she says gently. "But I also know you want this."

Claran swallows. He does, really, but the thought of leaving them… They're his family. But like his siblings he needs to leave the orchard eventually, to spread his wings, or something like that.

Part of him worries that they're looking to get rid of him.

He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes the thought away. His parents love him dearly— he knows that. It was his decision to go in the end. He wanted to expand his horizons, to learn everything he can. He wanted to travel to Limsa Lominsa and join the Arcanists' Guild, to learn from the masters what he has only been teaching himself through books. The mere thought of all the things he can learn stir the need to get up and go.

Then why is it so hard?

"We'll still be here if you ever want to visit," his mother says. She bends down and presses a kiss into his mop of mousy brown hair. "I know it's hard, dear, but I know you can do it. You're more capable than you give yourself credit for." She pulls away, her eyes wet, and smiles. "I should know, after all, I raised you."

Claran swallows back the lump in his throat. "Don't cry, ma," he pleads. "If you cry, I'll cry."

She exhales and wipes her eyes on her apron. "Sorry, sorry. It's a happy day! I'm just so proud of you, dear."

Claran manages a weak smile as his eyes burn with tears.

"Oi! The wagon's here, son. Better get going before your boat leaves without you."

Claran nods and shovels more food quickly into his mouth. He stands and wraps his arms around his mother, squeezing her tight. "Thank you," he whispers.

She pets his hair. "Be safe," she says. "I love you."

"I love you too." Claran kisses her cheek and lets her go. She sniffles into her apron, smiling and waving as his father leads him out the door. 

He claps a calloused palm onto Claran's shoulder. "We'll be alright, son," he says. "Don't you forget to write now. And eat three meals a day."

"I know, pa."

"Stay sharp. Don't go talking to any strange sailors."

"Yes pa."

"And keep your chin up. You can do this. We're confident in you, you gotta be confident in yourself."

They stopped in front of the chocobo-drawn carriage that would take Claran to the docks, to the boat, to a strange city with stranger people. Claran struggled to hold back his tears. "Thank you, pa," he whispered.

"No need to thank me son, I'm just doing my job." His father flashed him a gruff smile and pressed a kiss to Claran's brow, scratching his skin with stubble. "Be safe."

"I will."

He waves goodbye as the carriage rattles down the dirt path. He hugs his bag close to his chest and leans over the edge to watch as the farm grew smaller and smaller, until it was lost behind the trees.

 

Chapter Text

It hurts again.

The unwanted memories flood his mind and pull him from his paltry attempt at sleep. Every time he settles and closes his eyes those old, terrible images flash against his lids; blood on marble, a piercing light, a smile, a hand clutched tight between his own as it goes limp and…

Pain curdles in his chest. Claran sits upright, breaths shaking, and scrubs at his face with his hands. He hates when the memories come back, unbidden, like a ghost. Perhaps he deserves it. It's better that he doesn't forget.

Claran presses his hand tight to his mouth to muffle a sob. He squeezes his eyes shut as tears trickle down his cheeks. The agony grips tight around his heart and refuses to let go, reminds him mercilessly of his greatest mistake, his regret.

"Hon…?"

Vervain stirs from sleep and sits up, yawning, rubbing his hand over his eye. He blinks sleepily at Claran.

"S-sorry," Claran whispers, fighting back the tremble in his voice. "Go back to sleep."

"Are you alrigh'?"

"I… I'm fine."

Vervain does not possess the unique empathy Claran did, but he still reads Claran like an open book. He wraps an arm around Claran's shoulders and pulls him in close, until his head rests upon Vervain's chest. "Talk to me," Vervain says. He holds Claran tight and rubs soothing circles into his arms.

"I…" Claran bites his lip. It hurts too much to even speak about. It takes all of his willpower to force the words out, more for Vervain's sake than his own. "It's… him. Again."

Vervain nods in understanding. "It wasn't your fault," he says with certainty. "Still isn't."

Claran grunts in lieu of voicing an insincere agreement.

"I mean it."

Claran finches. "I-I know you do. It's not… I should have been better, I shouldn't have gone forward, I should have been strong enough. If it wasn't for me, he would still be—"

Vervain's grip on his shoulder tightens. "Stop that," he says. "Stop talkin' about yourself like that. It ain't your fault— the people who were to blame are long dead. We saw to that."

Claran turns his head to hide his face against Vervain's chest. He shakes, and Vervain squeezes him tighter. "Why does it still hurt so much?" he whispers. "If it's not my fault, then why does it still keep me awake?"

"Because you can't forgive yourself." Vervain lowers his head and speaks into Claran's hair. "It still hurts 'cause you still think it's your fault. It keeps comin' up 'cause you're usin' the memory to punish yourself for his death."

Claran sobs against Vervain's chest. He hates this. He hates how right Vervain is. "I can't forget," he says. He shakes his head and smears his tears across Vervain's bare chest. "I can't let myself forget. I can't let it happen again. I can't make the same mistakes. If I lost you—"

"And you won't. You won't lose me. You won't forget him. Torturin' yourself over it isn't goin' to help. You gotta let it go. What if it was me? What if I was the one he saved? Would you blame me for his death?"

Claran swallows. "...No."

"And no one blames you. Then why is it okay for you to blame yourself?"

Claran does not have an answer. Not one that Vervain wants to hear, at least. Not one that won't break his heart.

"I'm sorry," he whispers.

Vervain hums. He combs his fingers through Claran's hair in long, soothing strokes. "You got nothin' to apologize for."

But he does. He bites his lip and holds it back, but he knows that despite what Vervain says, he could never forgive himself for what happened. He nods and says okay and promises to do better, but it's all hollow, all empty.

He remembers the blood, the light, his smile. And he lets the pain come.

Chapter Text

A pile of mail lands before him on the table. Claran glances up from his morning tea and hums a note of thanks. Vervain stoops down to press a kiss to his cheek and Claran happily leans into it, a smile across his face.

They go through their mail in comfortable silence. Claran drinks his tea as he reads through every letter. He gets his fair share as the Warrior of Light: status updates and reports from various organizations, requests for aid, invitations to parties from bold strangers (politely declined), messages of gratitude and of condemnation.

He allocates most of his morning to them, taking care to reply to each one with a careful, heartfelt message. To those with praise he gives thanks and well-wishes, and those without he asks them what they need from him, what he can do better.

There's a massive responsibility on his shoulders, after all. He wants to do right by them.

He's sorting through several reports from the Twin Adder when another envelope slips from between them.

He blinks and lifts it carefully. The paper is light, unlike the dense parchment from Eorzea. A missive from Doma, perhaps?

On the front is only his first name, scratched in messy handwriting with some dark ink. Vervain, seated across from him, looks up from his coffee mid-sip, his brow furrowed. "Who's that from?"

Claran turns the letter over in his hands for an address. Nothing. "I… I don't know. It doesn't say." He slips his fingers beneath the crudely done wax seal to break it.

"Careful," Vervain says.

Despite his caution, the letter proves to be… just that. Claran removes the message and carefully unfolds the paper. Something clatters out onto the table.

As soon as he starts to read, tears spring hot to his eyes.

Claran,

I'm keeping my promise to you. I know this is coming later than you anticipated, but finding a place here with adequate parchment that won't charge me up the arse for it is more difficult than you think.

I am fine, before you start fretting. It feels good to travel again. As much as I enjoyed the subterfuge your Scions requested of me, it is much more freeing to choose my own path. A stance we differ on, if your enjoyment of being an errand boy still remains.

I think perhaps I will set my sights next on those mysterious South Sea Isles you harp on about. You spoke with such wonder about the birthplace of arcanism. I will notify you if it lives up to expectations. Perhaps I will arrange for a package to be sent as well. Expect something from me soon. But do not make a habit of opening unmarked mail.

Perhaps when your duty no longer shackles you, just as mine did, then you can see it all for yourself. Travel would suit you well.

You'll have to excuse the suspicious nature of my message. I suspected if I had addressed it properly, Vervain would use it as kindling before you had a chance to read it.

As a peace offering I have enclosed some sun-dried squid for him to sample. It is not cheap.

Try not to die any time soon. I will expect a reply. Do not worry about an address. I will find it.

Regards,

Estinien

Part of the letter is blotted by the cascade of tears streaming down his cheeks. Vervain quickly moves behind him and hunches down to read over his shoulder as Claran hiccups and sobs. "The fuck," Vervain grumbles, "I wouldn't burn a letter from someone you care about. He's a prick but at least he squared up and kept his promise."

He snatches up the piece of squid and takes a cursory bite. His eyes light up. "Oh shit. Okay, yeah I forgive him."

Claran manages to laugh through his tears. "I-I'm just… so happy… he's okay. He s-sounds good. Better. I'm happy for him."

Vervain sighs and wraps an arm around Claran's shoulders. "I know, honey. Here, try a bite."

Claran obediently takes a nibble of the squid. It's good, salty and lightly spiced. He imagines Estinien eating this too, wherever he is, happy and free and unburdened.

Claran starts crying harder. Vervain pats his shoulder.

Chapter Text

He was… dead.

Or at least it felt like death, as he floated through a vast, open space, filled with black and infinite stars, dancing lights and a beautiful, towering crystal, pouring light and warmth and love into his heart.

He knew Her from his dreams. She drew him close, until he could reach out and touch the smooth slope of glittering crystal floating alongside him in the abyss.

Hear, she whispered. Feel. Think. Her voice echoed in his mind like bells, like a choir, like screams. It was the Calamity. Life and death and falling stars.

His consciousness stretched and became infinite, filling the empty space around them, gathering in every corner of their star. He looked through Her eyes and for one brilliant, infinite moment, he was Her, and she was Him.

She narrowed Her focus onto a tiny grotto on a beautiful sunlit island, where the aether gathered and swarmed. She directed his endless gaze to the three microscopic figures standing within. Two stood, at war with each other, and the third lay motionless and empty. The pain of one gathered in dark clouds around his form. He felt agonizing loss and righteous fury. Blood splattered the dusted stone and he heard a cry, a plea, the loss of hope and the encroaching black of pure, utter despair. From the other, he felt… nothing.

There was someone he loved, and someone who harmed. The aether from the crystals gathered in the cave pulsed and sang with unfocused energy as the chain broke, as the sacrifice offered was not taken.

The third still waited, still empty. His brown hair faded to a bright, snowy white. He stared at himself, at his own corpse, and knew he had to go back. She pushed him through to the space he left behind. The unguided aether flurried in the air, panicked, and retreated along the only connection available—

Into him.

And he heard. He felt. He thought.

He breathed.

“No!”

He stood. The aether gathered in his limbs. The broken siphon meant to turn him into a monster refused to obey and hungered ravenously for more. It sucked the aether from the air and filled up this new, infinite vessel— but as he returned to his mortality, the bottle became stoppered, and the pressure within built and built. It did not hurt.

He turned to look at them, these figures he had watched from afar. He remembered them. There was Vervain— sweet, warm Vervain, so strong and now so broken, clutching his bleeding stump of an arm and gazing upon him in grief and hope and love and fear.

And there was Cyneric. Angry, frustrated, cold Cyneric, who promised him love, that he would never be alone again; who sacrificed him for power he did not understand. How could he have been so blind?

“You ruined everything!” Cyneric roared. Aether gathered in his palms, but his own magic would not obey him. It drained from his veins like the very breath from his lungs and sent him to his knees.

It rushed into Claran instead. He did not want this magic. It was far too cold, and he was too full.

With a wave of his hand, he sent it back. The energy pressurizing inside him exploded outward. The blast shuddered the cave walls and knocked Cyneric and Vervain flat onto their backs, unconscious. His ears thundered with the immense release and his mortal body threatened to tear itself asunder as the massive amount of aether he absorbed began to vacate him just as quickly as it came. He gasped with it, eyes wide, and he finally felt pain and fear.

He had no time to linger over what he experienced. Panic seized him and he darted forward, his feet slipping on the blood-soaked rock. He dropped to his knees beside Vervain’s limp and bleeding body and took him into his arms. Vervain’s face was ashen, his lips pale and breaths short. It was only a matter of time before Claran was left empty and the exhaustion took him too. He still had time, still had some lingering notes of power at his disposal.

He pressed his hand to Vervain’s amputated limb and focused and pleaded. The aether rushing out of him finally had a guide and it rushed through the channel he created, tempered by his will to soothe, to mend. His palm glowed with warm light as he knitted Vervain’s broken flesh together. The bleeding stopped, and the pain that marred Vervain’s face slowly faded away.

Claran sighed and let go. The borrowed aether lingering in his veins finally escaped and dispersed back into their crystals. He slumped forward, his body exhausted and weak, against Vervain’s chest.

Unconsciousness took him soon after. He listened to the steady sound of Vervain’s heartbeat.