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Darkness surrounded him. He sobbed hopelessly into the deafening silence, unable to hear his tortured voice. His entire body ached and he felt as though he was suffocating, a crushing weight pressing against his chest from all directions.

Light gathered around him. A crescent-moon rose high in the sky.

No… Please, not again. He begged.

But his voice was silent, and the world moved without him.

He appeared in a soft meadow he didn’t recognize, dressed in his assassin gear. The background was blurry. Ethari stood in front of him, naked. He held two pendants in his palms and his gentle smile invited Runaan into his heart. Runaan tried to run towards him, but his body did not respond. He could only watch through his own eyes.

“Runaan, I love you.” Ethari’s soft voice echoed around him.

The young man held the pendant out towards him. Images of trinkets and gifts he couldn’t recognize flitted in and out of existence around them. He willed himself to look into Ethari’s eyes, but his body stared at the pendant.

“You have my heart, my shade. I trust you with all that I am.” Ethari whispered.

I love you, don’t let me go! Never let me go, Ethari!

But his mouth did not obey. He watched his own hand reach for a pendant and take it, examining it. Other voices echoed around him. Voices he recognized. A man and a woman. He couldn’t hear what they said, but he knew they loved him. And he loved them, too.

“It will protect you in the darkest moments when the grace of the Moon leaves your side. And it will remind you that I am here in its stead. My love will be with you, even when the moon is not.”

Don’t let me leave! I don’t want to use it! Stay with me!

“I cherish your heart.” Runaan’s own voice betrayed his will, “It is my most valued treasure. I will protect it with my life.”

Ethari’s sweet giggle rang painfully in his head.

“So serious, you.” A goofy smile spread across his face as he walked towards Runaan, “Not everything has to be a death sentence, you know.”

My life is a death sentence. Do not let me go!

Ethari reached out to him, both of their hands were now empty and the pendants had appeared around their necks as if they had been there the whole time. Ethari took his waist and pressed their foreheads together. The touch burned, but he could not move away. It was enticing, comforting, warm, loving. It hurt.

“You are the most beautiful person in the world, Runaan.” He muttered, warm breath ghosting across his lips.

Ethari was still naked, but now he had a pair of horn cuffs, gleaming as bright as the light of the half-moon above them. Runaan could feel his own pair of horn cuffs, and he was wearing only his pants and boots. He stared into Ethari’s warm, honey eyes. They danced with mischief and adoration. His body continued to move on its own. He wrapped his arms around Ethari’s neck, fingers gently tangling in his hair.

“I trust you.” Runaan’s voice whispered.

So make me listen! You know what’s right, don’t let me forget!

A lopsided grin graced his husband’s beautiful face. His markings glowed in the light of the moon and his weight pressed down comfortingly against Runaan’s torso.

“I sure hope so,” Ethari teased, “we did just bind ourselves together.”

Runaan’s own laugh felt like daggers digging into his skull from all angles.

“Just thought you’d like to hear it. I don’t say it enough.”

Ethari’s smile softened and he pressed his lips against Runaan’s, stealing his breath and shooting hot, passionate sparks through his entire body. They pressed against each other needily, hungry for more. The voices of the man and woman from before still whispered around them, loving, supportive. Neither of them seemed to notice. Runaan’s hands raked through his husband’s hair, urging him closer. Ethari held him tighter, kissed him harder. Runaan ached inside his own body. After a while, Runaan’s head turned to the side, pulling away from the intense kiss and gasping for air. Ethari chuckled, nuzzling against his neck and ear.

“You don’t have to say it. I know it.” He whispered, breath hot against his ear as he gently nibbled at the lobe.

Make me say it, Ethari! Make me say it so I don’t forget! Don’t let me forget!

Ethari pulled back and grinned at him, moving a hand to gently nudge his chin upwards to face him.

“I do love it when you indulge me, though.” He smirked, “Care to show me just how much you trust me, love?”

A grin spread across Runaan’s face alongside a deep, moonberry blush. He giggled despite himself.

“I thought you’d never ask.” He teased.

Ethari laughed, a deep, warm, lovely sound bouncing around in his head. He pressed their bodies together harshly, skilled hands traveling down Runaan’s sides to toy with his waistband above his hipbones.

“Oh, really? The boy who couldn’t even tell that I liked him when we were actively courting is calling me slow?”

Ethari descended upon him again, capturing his lips in a passionate kiss. Their hands raked over each other’s bodies, desperate to feel every inch of each other at once. The world was dark around him. All he could feel was Ethari’s warmth, his weight pressing down on him, holding him close. His mind was fuzzy and his entire body ached and burned, but his body never noticed. The warm voices of the man and woman echoed around him, and at some point, the weight of his lover disappeared without him noticing.

Ethari, make me come to you. Show me why I need you! Don’t let me forget why I fell in love with you, please!

When Runaan’s eyes opened, he was naked. His head turned toward the heavens, admiring the beautiful full moon, shining lovingly down upon him. He felt its warm, comforting embrace. The full power of his arcanum pulsed under his skin. It made his body sore, made his skin crawl with the familiar sting of heartbreak. He felt the cool metal of the pendant over his heart like a dagger piercing his chest. His hand reached for it, enclosed around it, held it tightly. His eyes returned to the unfamiliar meadow before him. There, Ethari was playing with a young Rayla. They, too, were bare in the light of the moon, skin glowing with an ethereal vitality. His body was still, though he desperately willed it to move.

MOVE, damn it! Go to them, you fool! Ethari, make me listen! Make me understand!

The man turned towards him, a smile brighter than he had ever seen on his cheeks. The voices echoed louder around him, loving and calm, but he still could not understand them. All he knew was that he loved them more than ever, and they agreed. Rayla turned towards him as well, grinning wide enough to show all of her missing teeth at once. His cheeks rose in a soft smile in return. Runaan felt nothing but love and joy. His chest overflowed with pure happiness, and his eyes seemed to radiate adoration. It was agony. His body did not react, but Runaan wanted out desperately.

DON’T LET ME LEAVE, ETHARI! SHOW ME WHAT I HAVE! MAKE ME KNOW IT!

Ethari stood from the ground and approached him quietly, the warm smile never leaving his face. He stopped inches before Runaan’s sturdy figure and reached out gently to take his hands in his own. Runaan’s eyes followed them, watched as Ethari’s thumbs stroked his knuckles softly, then watched some more as Ethari brought Runaan’s hands up and placed them on his own shoulders. Runaan wrapped his arms around Ethari’s neck instinctively, and Ethari wrapped his own around Runaan’s waist, pulling their bodies flush against each other. Ethari lovingly brushed the tip of his nose against Runaan’s. Every touch burned his skin.

“What is it, Moonlight?” He asked quietly.

STAY HERE! NEVER LET ME GO! DON’T LET ME WALK AWAY!

“I am so happy.” Runaan’s mouth corrected.

Ethari chuckled softly, nuzzling him again.

“Took you long enough.” He teased.

Runaan rolled his eyes and pinched the tip of Ethari’s ear playfully.

“I’m serious.” He reiterated, “I am so extraordinarily happy.”

Ethari’s smile brightened gently. He pressed a warm, loving kiss against Runaan’s lips for a moment, before a small hand tugged at Ethari’s arm. They broke apart, sharing a knowing smile before turning their attention to their daughter. The voices were even louder now that she was close, and the love and warmth radiating from everyone around him only increased. He smiled down at her toothless grin.

“Come play!”

His mind began to buzz painfully, and he felt as though he was suffocating inside his unresponsive body.

No, please, not again.

Rayla ran off, fading into the fog of color that was the meadow.

No! Come back! I’m so sorry!

Ethari chuckled, and he felt himself chuckling as well. Their eyes met again.

“Well? You coming?” Ethari asked.

NO! DON’T DO THIS! I CAN’T HANDLE IT AGAIN! MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP, ETHARI, I’M BEGGING YOU! DON’T LET ME GO!

But time was moving without him. His body was moving without him. His head nodded as the meadow began to drain of color. The buzzing in his head was louder, ringing, bouncing around in his skull, and scraping along every edge of his mind. Ethari’s inviting smile was the last thing he saw before he took his arms away from his waist.

Runaan was falling. He didn’t know where he was. There were shapes and colors all around him. They moved and change too fast for him to make out. His eyes could not focus anywhere but could not shut them. All he could hear was screaming. It felt like his body was cracking and breaking apart. The pressure in his head made him feel as though he would explode at any moment. His stomach lurched violently but he couldn’t vomit.

Voices he recognized shouted deafeningly around him. Others from his home. Friends, colleagues, council members. He could not remember their faces or names. The man and woman from before were gone, replaced by the hopeless wails of a young girl and the quiet, lonely sobs of a man he loved. The other voices rang clearly in his mind.

“TRAITORS!”

“SHAMEFUL!”

“GHOST!”

“BETRAYAL!”

“DISHONORABLE!”

“BANISH!”

“RUN!”

He tried to scream, fight, cry for help, but his voice was just as silent as it always was.

Everything became still in a moment.

It was dark, the new moon silent above them. Runaan was fully clothed in his assassin gear once more, standing rigidly with his chin up and arms behind his back. Ethari was bare in front of him again, tears streaming down his face, desperately gripping the pendant around his neck.

“Runaan, please.” He whispered, voice trembling weakly.

“The decision has been made, Ethari. She is already approved.”

“You’re the leader of this mission, Runaan! You can still take her off!”

LISTEN TO HIM, YOU BLIND FOOL! YOU TRUST HIM!

“It is too late, we are leaving tomorrow. Even if there were time to find someone to take her place, I would not remove her from this mission.”
“Runaan, you aren’t thinking clearly.” Ethari reasoned, voice softening.

“You doubt my judgment?” Runaan accused.

The sound of his own pained voice masked by cold indignation ripped into his skull and tore at his heart.

YOU IDIOT! LISTEN TO HIM! ETHARI, MAKE ME LISTEN!

Ethari shook his head quickly, reaching a shaking hand out toward his lover and taking a careful step forwards.

“No, my heart, never!”

“Then what is this?” Runaan scowled.

Ethari took a deep breath. He approached Runaan slowly, carefully. Runaan allowed him to. Ethari rested a weak hand on Runaan’s bicep, squeezing gently.

“I do not doubt your abilities, nor your intelligence, my love. You are the most capable and intelligent man I have ever had the privilege to know. But…” Ethari’s watery, amber eyes flickered away for a moment, staring off into the darkness.

“But?” Runaan demanded.

Ethari sighed. He continued to stare into the distance for a moment longer before turning to meet Runaan’s eyes once again. A small, sad smile tugged at the corners of his mouth for a moment.

“Runaan, nobody could have expected they would betray us. It’s okay to feel hurt. I do, too, but-”

Runaan shrugged off his hand and shook his head aggressively, taking a few steps back. Distant memories of voices he could no longer recognize rang in his head, but only for a moment.

“No! I am not hurt! Those vile traitors mean nothing to me. I cannot be hurt by something I have no connection to.”

“Runaan, you know none of that is true.”

LISTEN TO HIM! ETHARI DON’T GIVE UP, PLEASE! MAKE ME LISTEN! MAKE ME SEE IT! DON’T LET ME DO IT!

“I’m not having this argument again. Rayla has made her decision.”

“You’ve made her decision, Runaan.” Ethari was losing his cool.

“Excuse me?” Runaan glared at him.

“Runaan, you know what I’m talking about.”

Runaan turned up his nose, sniffing defiantly.

STOP! STOP IT! LISTEN TO HIM YOU FUCKING IDIOT!

Ethari sighed in frustration.

“You aren’t doing this because she needs to, Runaan. You’re doing it because you want her to need you.” Ethari tried to explain.

Runaan’s glare darkened.

“How dare you accuse me of such selfishness? You, of all people, should understand why I do the things I do!”

“Runaan, listen to yourself!” Ethari begged, the tears flowing faster every moment, “I do understand! I know you! You are my heart, and you are the most selfless and caring person I have ever known! But you are hurting, love. I would never accuse you of being selfish! I know you better than that.

“What I’m saying is that you are in pain, and you’re afraid. You keep blocking everything and everyone out, trying to find an easy fix to make it all go back to normal as quickly as possible. And I admire your determination, my shade, I do,” Ethari reached out again, taking Runaan’s hands gently in his own and offering a sad, sympathetic look, “but love, it’s never going to go back. Even if you take her on this mission and she does kill the prince and the king, it won’t magically fix it. They’re gone, and we have to deal with it as best we can, but we can get through this together. We’ve never let anything come between us before, and we can do it again, but I need you here, with me, and we both need Rayla home and safe.”

Runaan scowled and yanked his hands away harshly, pointedly ignoring Ethari’s logic and sympathy.

NO! DON’T LEAVE YOU FOOL! STAY WITH HIM! ETHARI DON’T LET ME LEAVE, MAKE ME UNDERSTAND! PLEASE DON’T LET ME GO!

“No. This is what she wants, what she needs. You are wrong this time, Ethari. I am carrying out my duty to my people and my family, and this is where I am needed. This is what has to happen.” Runaan snapped darkly.

Ethari broke. The anger in his voice and on his face was entirely unlike him. Somewhere in the deepest shadows of his mind, Runaan knew Ethari would never be this way with him, but it didn’t make it feel any less real.

“No! Your duty doesn’t always have to come first, Runaan! This is our daughter you’re talking about! You would do this to her, to us, because of your fucking duty?”

Runaan remained silent, giving one last harsh glower before turning away from his husband.

“This is what has to happen.” He repeated sourly.

Ethari’s sobs became desperate. He reached out towards Runaan, trying weakly to follow him. Somehow, it almost sounded like his own voice calling after him.

“Runaan! Don’t you dare walk away from me! Listen to me, you blind fool! You are making the wrong choice! Don’t leave, please!”

Runaan only continued forward, into the darkness.

“RUNAAN! RUNAAN, DON’T GO! I’M BEGGING YOU, SEE REASON! DON’T LEAVE!”

Runaan’s body continued to move without his own consent, walking into the darkness until he could no longer hear Ethari’s - or his own - desperate cries for him to return. He walked for a long time. It was quiet at first. He could hear nothing but what seemed to be his own footsteps. As he continued walking, a painful ringing began in the back of his mind. As he walked further and further from his love, the ringing grew louder and louder. Voices he could no longer recognize began to scream around him. He wanted to cover his ears so badly, but all he could do was continue forward into the dark abyss before him. Suddenly, as the screams became deafening, all sound stopped, and the world burst into life around him.

Runaan was naked, and now fully in control of his body and voice again. His skin burned. Everywhere he looked he was surrounded by violent flames twisting and turning. A new moon hovered above him. The emptiness of its dark face seemed to mock him. His head rang painfully with the screams of his fallen team members. Every word Rayla had said in the hours before that gods-forsaken mission drove themselves into his head like daggers. The unrelenting chaos around him was too much to bear. He desperately reached for the pendant hanging around his neck, but it disintegrated into minuscule particles of light and faded away before he could lay a single finger on it.

“No, no, no! Please! Please come back!” He begged.

His hands shot to his head, seeking the cool, silver wedding cuffs around the base of his horns. But they, too, disappeared before he could feel them in his grasp. An unbearable ache coursed through his body like the fires that surrounded him, hot and violent, starting from his chest. He felt as though he was suffocating. He dropped to his knees as he released a broken, grief-wracked sob.

“Please, blessed moon above, just let this end! Make it stop! I cannot take anymore!” He pleaded, staring at the dark sky above him as tears streamed down over his temples and dripped onto his shoulders.

When he looked forward again, he noticed the familiar dark gap across from him between the flames. He stared forward for a moment as the figure came into view. Ethari stood in front of him, several meters away. He was fully clothed, but his horn cuffs and pendant were nowhere to be seen, and his face was blank as if Runaan had been ghosted. Another horrible sob ripped its way out of Runaan’s chest.

“Ethari… please… I’m so sorry.” He whispered, voice trembling.

He knew how this would end, but he couldn’t quite remember. All he knew was that he was in immense pain, and Ethari was the only way to make it stop. He rose to his feet weakly, his entire body shaking violently as he took a desperate and uncertain step toward his lover. He reached out to him.

“My darling heart, as always, you were right.” He finally admitted, “She wasn’t hard enough for it. I misjudged her in my desperation for a solution. I allowed my pain and my fear to control my mind and body, and I made the wrong choice.”

Ethari did not have a single reaction to his words. His heart ached, and he was becoming more and more desperate by the moment. His skin felt as though it would melt off his bones at any moment, and every inch of his body and mind was in agony.

“Ethari, please. I know I hurt you both. Nothing causes me greater misery than the realization that I hurt you in such a horrible way when you were already in pain, that I was not there for you and Rayla when you needed me the most, that I dragged our daughter into my crazy scheme to attempt to fill the void in my heart. I should have listened to you from the start. Please, please, bring me home. I just want to go home.”

Ethari remained silent and still. Though he could not see his eyes, the empty stare of his faceless husband bore into his chest and burned his insides. The fires surrounding them were growing more and more violent by the moment, as were Runaan’s panicked thoughts slamming against the weakened walls of his mind. He started trying to approach his husband, walking slowly at first. When he didn’t seem to be getting any closer, he began running.

“Ethari, please! I’m sorry! I know nothing I say will repair the damage I’ve done, but don’t let me go! I can’t bear it any longer, take me home, my love! I’ll do anything!” He cried out, tears flowing down his burning cheeks.

His outstretched hand burned. His entire body ached. The flames were closing in on him now, and the shadowy figure of Ethari was no closer. Runaan watched in horror as his love began to turn and walk away. He broke into an urgent sprint, begging his body to carry him to his husband before he lost him. The deafening screams began to echo in his mind once again.

“ETHARI! NO, DON’T LEAVE ME! PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME BEHIND! I HAVE NOTHING LEFT BUT YOU! I NEVER SHOULD HAVE WALKED AWAY! PLEASE TAKE ME BACK, PLEASE!”

But Ethari never turned back, and Runaan stared on in agony as his beloved vanished into the flames and away from his view. Runaan did not stop, though. He continued to sprint to where Ethari had left him, screaming and crying out until his throat burned and he felt like he was choking, but he made no progress. He ran and ran and ran until every inch of his body ached and tore, and then he fell out of exhaustion. The flames closed around him, the screaming stopped, he rested on his hands and knees.

Darkness surrounded him. He sobbed hopelessly into the deafening silence, unable to hear his tortured voice. His entire body ached and he felt as though he was suffocating, a crushing weight pressing against his chest from all directions.

Light gathered around him. A crescent-moon rose high in the sky.

No… Please, not again. He begged.

But his voice was silent, and the world moved without him.