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with the roar of the fire (my heart goes to its feet)

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“It will be tomorrow,” Helaine says conversationally over breakfast, and Feldar sprays hot tea all over his eggs.

Helaine serenely continues to eat as he coughs, sitting over in her chair by the fire. No wonder she hadn’t joined him at the table. Smug is a terrible look for a Seer, he thinks. Her face will get stuck like that.

“Are you sure?” He asks fervently. It’s been almost four years since he last saw Cray Ormoru, and almost one year since he first saw him in the fire, tall and broad as ever, but bearded and pale from his years inside, away on his own sorcerous apprenticeship. No longer a boy, but a man close to twenty, like Feldar.

He’d looked again and again, but it was like the fire had been teasing him. The moment he knew to look for it was the moment it no longer could be reached. It was weeks before he was settled enough to see anything of the future, and all of it mundane— empty snares later that morning, sweeping the ashes out of the fireplace in the afternoon, quietly chopping carrots for dinner— there was nothing in the flames of Cray.

Helaine raises an eyebrow at him, and he feels his face heat up.

“You’re right, of course, sorry,” he says, and quickly sets down his half-empty mug, shoveling the rest of his breakfast into his mouth. “I’m going to go ride with Gallant, I’ll be back after I check the traps, goodbye,” he says through the soggy eggs, and rushes out the door, despite it being about an hour early for his morning ride.

Helaine calls, “Mid-morning!” behind him, but he’s already past the pool and down the corridor, greeting the dusty rose of dawn.

He jogs to the shelter where Gallant and the plow horse stand side by side, munching on their own breakfast that Feldar had brought them just thirty minutes ago. He slides into the stall and plants his face in Gallant’s neck, breathing in the strong smell of horse and quietly trying not to panic. Gallant wickers at him and keeps chewing his oats.

Just how long had Helaine known, he wonders frantically, and then let him go on in ignorance? A week? A month? Since Cray left in the first place? But then, it doesn’t really matter, he reasons, because he’d have been completely useless the moment she told him, like he is now, and she knows that and he knows that, so it makes complete sense not to tell him until she did. He just kind of wishes otherwise.

“Tomorrow morning, Gallant,” he mumbles into the horse’s mane. “Cray comes back tomorrow morning.”

* * *

He looks in the pool.

Feldar knows he isn’t centered enough to get much more than a glimpse of a hint of something, but he’ll settle for anything at this point. Anything at all, because—

Helaine said Cray will be leaving again, almost as soon as he arrives.

When he had returned from the morning ride with Gallant, visions of catching up with Cray dancing in his head— showing him the woods, riding with him again, talking with him again— he’d stepped with light feet through the door, and she had been putting together a parcel of food big enough to last for many days of travel.

“What’s all this?” He’d asked offhandedly, taking the pheasants he’d caught to the prep area. Cray had done well for them, cooking on the road at fourteen, but Helaine had spices from her garden on hand. And butter. He couldn’t wait to show him.

“This is for Cray,” she’d replied. “For his journey home.”

“Shouldn’t that wait until he’s about to leave?” He’d asked. “If he’s only just getting here tomorrow, then—”

He’d frozen in place.

Helaine had turned a sympathetic look his way. Feldar blinked, then blinked again.

“…He’s not staying,” he’d realized. “Is he.”

“No,” she’d said gently. “I’m afraid we are only his first stop on his way home.”

Home. Feldar’s fists had clenched as disappointment washed over him in a wave, shocking, and heavy, and cold.

The pool is cold in his hands now, and he cups them, drawing water up from the bottom and resettling it at the top.

If you are using water, then looking into the past requires stillness, for the past is set and always will be. Looking into the future requires movement, for the future is ever flowing and ever changing. Some paths, however, are more likely than others. Some currents are stronger.

He pulls the water up from the bottom and pours it back in from high above, ensuring that the water in the pool swirls, eddies, flows. Then he flicks the excess water from his fingers, and as the drops scatter across the surface, he looks.

Gray eyes in a pale face, brown hair darker from the lack of sun, but windswept— the older version of Cray appears.

He’s thought about that bearded face a lot over the past year, turning over the sharper features, the cut of a hidden jawline. He only catches their meeting in snatches; red wine in a mug caught between them and about to spill; two hands clasped over the pommel of Gallant’s saddle; Cray’s hands clenching on fistfuls of white sand as it falls through his fingers.

It’s not enough, but it will have to be. He’s only seeing this at all because it’s happening so soon, his unskilled eye and unsteady heart only capable of seeing the immediate future. He’s about to sigh, to spill his breath over the water and let the images collapse— when a new scene unfolds. Cray, alone and on horseback, stopped in the middle of a wooded road. He pulls his sword from his sheath and lifts his shield high, expression wary but determined. Then the image is gone.

Feldar keeps his eyes wide open, willing for the tiniest bit to reveal itself, but the waters show him no more. Only his own desperate reflection stares back. Eventually he blinks, lids rough on his dry eyes, and he clenches his hands on either side of the pool with a heavy sigh.

“He’ll be fine,” he tells himself. “He always is.”

* * *

Watching Cray leave the second time was both easier and harder than the first.

The first time Cray left, Feldar had been convinced of his own ill fortune. That the bronze eagle was taking not only his one friend in this world, but his one chance at a future that amounted to more than begging in the streets, one eye concealed forever behind a dirty scrap of cloth; a short, miserable end to a short, miserable life.

He knew better now. Helaine would never have let that happen to him, hidden talent for divination or no, but at the time he had been devastated.

Now, having seen Cray again, with four years of good living under his belt, apprenticed to a Seer and a few tricks tucked up his own sleeve— now he was devastated for wildly different reasons.

Of course, he had some perfectly normal reasons to be devastated; four years apart, and Cray had found his father at last. He wasn’t happy with the truth, but the truth is seldom happy, and Feldar had started to suspect that Cray’s quest would be a tragic one since East March.

Cray had just finished his tale of cleaning kilns and casting bronze and summoning demons into rings, the tale of his failed apprenticeship but successful quest, when he asked the Seer what to do next. Helaine had refused to read the waters any more, and told him that he needed to find his own destiny. He had barely arrived, and already was leaving.

That was a perfectly normal reason. But there were others.

Namely, had Cray always been that handsome?

Cray had always been— healthy. Big, athletic, charismatic. He had a contagious smile that only became more valuable for its increasing rarity. A kindness and a cleverness that he couldn’t help but exercise. A serious devotion to chivalry and duty that put grown men to shame. Gray eyes like wet stone, like storm clouds, like spider silk.

And he had seen his image in the fire, in the water, he knew what Cray looked like with four years and a beard on him. Nothing unexpected, and Feldar knew it all added up to winsome, to attractive, to handsome but—

But never had he been devastated by that knowledge, before today.

I suppose I can’t ask you to come along.

He had to say no. And not just because he had a duty to Helaine that he wanted to see through— and he did, truly, want it. No hiding his mismatched eyes, no cringing away from every man who crossed his path. The boy with no future suddenly had every future. Or he would, if he stayed.

But he had to say no because he could still feel the press of that broad chest against his, folding him in. He still had the metal-edged scent of Cray in his nose, the scratch of Cray’s beard against his face, the warmth of Cray’s hand on his.

Feldar had never claimed to be wise. But he always tried to be careful.

No. I have my place here. I am content.

He had watched Cray leave with mixed emotions. There was a part of him, and not a small part, that yearned to saddle up the plodding old plow horse that shared the shelter with Gallant and chase after them.

Another part of him wanted to run in the opposite direction, to hide himself away, forever, so no one could look at him and his stupid, hot face and his stupid, obvious feelings.

And still another part, the part that won out, said, you’ll see him again. When Cray looks back at them over his shoulder, once, then twice, then when he rounds the corner and disappears, Feldar allows that part of him to turn him back inside.

I have never stopped thinking of you. I never shall.

He meant what he said. Both times.

So, it was easier to say goodbye. And infinitely harder, too.

* * *

But not so terribly, gut-wrenchingly hard as the following week, seeing Gallant trot back up the path to his stall, panting heavily, covered in dust, and saddle empty of its rider.

* * *

He wants to go, but Helaine stops him.

“I looked for him. All there is to see is fire, and open sky. He is hidden from my sight as any sorcerer— but he is not dead. And if you go now…”

Her mouth tightens to a line as she trails off, and Feldar looks away.

“Let me guess,” he says bitterly. “I will find nothing, and return empty-handed.” And brokenhearted.

She nods, and he tightens his grip on Gallant’s reins for one furiously anguished moment before letting the leather fall slack from his fingers. He loosens the straps and pulls them over the horse’s head, catching the metal bit in his hand. He swallows thickly.

“Fine. I won’t go. But will you— will you tell me? If you see him again?”

Helaine puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Of course.”

Later, he looks for himself, in the fire that cooks their dinner, but the flames hold no answers for him. There is no sign of Cray.

* * *

It’s impossible to ignore.

The grass seems to move like water on a lakeshore from the hordes of spiders running through it. The snakes in the forest have slithered out of their holes, and twine around each other in their haste. Nesting birds have taken raucous flight, and their call is like a thundering rally cry. The vines themselves crawl along the ground, across the road and over the hill, reaching for the northwest, and Feldar remembers what the sorceress Delivev Ormoru had said so long ago about “child’s tricks”.

Cray had a small brigade of spiders he’d been able to command, and after four years away, only one of them had been close enough to return to him. His mother was called the Weaver, and she never had to touch them to have dominion over every single one.

In the distance, smoke billows up on the horizon.

“What’s happening?” He asks Helaine.

“A sorcerer’s duel.” She replies.

In the chamber of the pool, they listen for a long moment to the distant rasping of vines overhead and the fluttering drone of bird’s wings.

“Do you see him?” He asks. She pauses for a moment.

Then,

“Yes.”

* * *

Cray comes back for Gallant.

Feldar doesn’t know whether to punch him, hug him, or kiss him.

For Cray’s safety, he doesn’t go with his first instinct. For his own safety, he ignores the last.

“You absolute idiot,” he hisses, wrapping himself around Cray. Cray just laughs and hugs him back, a new host of rings glittering on his fingers. Feldar tries not to melt into him, with middling results.

“What?” Cray says innocently into his ear. “It’s hardly my fault that Rezhyk tried to have me murdered. By my own father. And the only way to escape was to live in the demonic plane of air. How long has it been, by the by? It felt like two months, but Gildrum said that time passes differently there.”

“I last saw you four weeks ago.”

“And it took a fortnight to get here— only two weeks, then.”

“Oh, ’only two weeks’, he says. You’re terrible,” Feldar mutters into his neck, where the beard ends and soft skin begins, and tightens his hold.

“I’m ok,” Cray says gently, and Feldar shudders.

“Cray—” he starts. Then, “Cray,” and the relief is so strong he can’t help it, he exalts in saying it, in holding him, here and safe and alive.

Cray squeezes him one more time, then starts to pull away, and Feldar accommodates him though he’d rather stay there for— forever, probably.

“Come,” Feldar says after clearing his throat, and leads Cray into the arch of the tree and down the corridor. “Helaine saw you coming. We have food and wine, and a place for you to rest your head. Don’t think we’re going to let you go without explaining everything. What do you mean, ‘murdered by your own father’? I thought Rezhyk—"

“All in due time, I promise,” Cray says with a small smile, and Feldar’s breath catches at the sight of it. He coughs to cover it up and pushes open the door that takes them to the back rooms. “For now,” Cray continues, “I want to know whatever that is— it smells amazing. I suppose Helaine keeps you fed as well as busy?”

Feldar snorts. “More like I keep her fed. My lady would forget to breathe if she could.”

“I heard that,” Helaine says as she emerges from her rooms around the bend.

“And you know it’s true,” he retorts. “‘The truth is often hard to hear’—”

“I will not be sassed by my own apprentice,” Helaine says, taking him by the shoulders and firmly steering him to the cupboards. “Wine, if you please, Master Feldar, for our guest.”

Cray is snickering at the table, and Feldar smiles as he pours out three mugs, the tension from the last four weeks finally draining out of him.

“Do you see this, Master Cray?” He says, bringing the wine to the table, then puttering back over to the fire where the simmering butter sauce has been cooking their dinner. “How my mistress works me to the bone? I slave away, catering to her every whim—”

“As I recall,” Helaine interrupts, gathering plates and silverware for the table, “it was you who badgered me for that recipe, apprentice, and you who practically stripped my garden perfecting it. All with no prompting from me.”

“Feldar’s always been the kind to bluster so much that you’ll miss how hard he works,” Cray puts in with a sly grin. “It’s a very effective tactic.”

If Feldar’s face is flushed, it’s from the heat of the cooking fire.

“You both can go out and catch your own dinner,” he sniffs, and immediately belies his words by serving out three equal portions of greens with dried berries and chopped nuts, and spiced, buttered rabbit to their plates.

“This looks delicious, Feldar, thank you,” Cray says with hungry delight, and Feldar’s heart turns over in his chest. He pointedly ignores the serene smile Helaine is giving him from across the table.

“You can thank me by telling us what happened to you after you left,” he says. “You’ve been out of our sight from then until Helaine saw you eating dinner with us today.”

Cray laughs. “Alright, alright, but let me enjoy this excellent meal first,” he pleads, but launches into the tale almost immediately from there.

Feldar listens and asks questions when appropriate, all attention on Cray, rapt and aching because he’ll be gone again in the morning. He plans to soak in Cray’s regard for as long as he can, knowing that he doesn’t get to keep him.

* * *

The next morning, Cray wakes before him. He rubs the sleep from his eyes, and sees that the cot beside his bed—

(They had an entire back and forth last night over sleeping arrangements; Feldar had asked Cray to take his bed, since he’d be riding in the morning, and Cray had insisted that he couldn’t turn Feldar out to sleep on the hard cave floor. Helaine had made the point moot by pulling out a sturdy cot and an extra blanket, which Cray took as his due.)

—is empty, Cray nowhere to be found. Heart suddenly pounding, he tears out of bed and goes racing around the corner to the common room, only to see Helaine and Cray sitting innocently at the table, steaming mugs of tea in hand.

“Good morning, Feldar,” Helaine says, looking at him over the rim of her mug. Smug. So smug, her face will definitely get stuck like that—

“Morning,” he says, catching his breath, because it doesn’t matter. Cray’s still here.

“There’s a mug, and breakfast for you,” Cray says, amusement dancing in his eyes as he stands. “I took the liberty of feeding the horses, since it sounds like you’ve overslept. I’m impressed— normally waking before dawn? It used to take the better part of the morning to get you out of bed.”

He blinks at the mug Cray offers him, then at Cray, at the soft brown hair curling over his ears, and his head is still whirling. “I’ve since adjusted,” he says, and takes a sip. Honey and rosehip, the way he likes it. He can’t stop staring.

“Oh? Because you seem to still be asleep, my friend,” Cray says, and Feldar frowns. “You know I don’t mean anything by it,” he says, teasing, and claps a friendly hand on Feldar’s bare shoulder. He shivers involuntarily and tries to hide it by taking another sip of tea. Now is not the time for that.

“I still have my exercises to do,” Cray continues, oblivious to Feldar’s inner strife, and the fuel he adds to that fire by introducing the image of Cray with a sword in hand, muscles flexing in the morning light, “so why don’t you get dressed? Maybe you’ll be awake enough to help me with Gallant by then.”

He jolts, clutching at his mug.

“Right,” he mutters. “You must be off, if you are to keep your word. You have a lot of rings to make.”

“Just so.” Cray pauses for a moment, hand sliding down to cup Feldar’s elbow, and he feels every moment of it. “You know I’d like to stay longer, if I could,” Cray says, with that earnest crease between his brows.

Feldar sighs. “I know.” He gives Cray an arch look. “You’ll have to write to me, then, the next time you are spirited away to escape paranoid, murderous sorcerers, and save yourself the trip.”

“You can read now?” Cray says, genuinely gleeful, grabbing at Feldar’s shoulders and missing the point entirely.

He fends him off, affronted. “Of course I can!” He retorts. “You’re not the only one who kept a journal in the last four years, Master Cray, Helaine made sure of that.”

“Yes, I did,” Helaine smoothly interjects as she stands from the table. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some things to see to. As do you, I believe,” she says with a mysterious smile, then vanishes around the other corner to her own rooms. Feldar narrows his eyes in the direction she went, but he shakes his head. Whatever she’s plotting will come to light eventually.

“She’s right, as usual,” he says with half a smile. “I’d better get dressed. I’ll see you outside?”

Cray smiles back. “Of course.” The smile turns sly. “Maybe if you’re fast enough, you can join me, eh? You do remember the sequence they drilled into us at Mistfell, right?”

Feldar shudders at the memories of blocks and swings and constantly being yelled at to— keep that sword up, Master Sepwin! — and quickly turns back to his rooms. “I most certainly do not, good morning to you, and enjoy sweating like a pig!”

Cray laughs at his retreating back and Feldar convinces himself that he isn’t blushing.

* * *

He’s absolutely blushing.

By the time he comes out, fully dressed, breakfast scarfed down, mug washed out and put away, Cray is on the last set of exercises. He’d been both hoping and dreading that he would be out in time to see it.

Cray had removed all his rings and stripped off his overshirt, and the hard muscle in his arms is on full display, flexing and shining with sweat in the golden summer sun. It’s just not fair, he thinks with despair. Cray is leaving soon. Why give him more to torture himself with after he’s gone? Then again, he muses, face hot as Cray lunges forward with deep concentration, thighs working and stomach clenching, maybe I’ll be grateful for this in the coming nights.

“Ah, Feldar!” Cray calls after finishing the last lunge. He jogs over to him, sword finding its sheath. Feldar holds out the waterskin he’d brought for Cray like it will protect him. “Thanks,” Cray says, and takes a long drink before pouring it over his head, dragging a rag Feldar hadn’t noticed over his face to wipe away the sweat. Mercy, please, he begs— but since when has the universe ever offered him mercy?

“You know,” Cray says, fingering at the collar of Feldar’s shirt, and Feldar could die, right now. “It’s nice to see you wear something of your own. My old clothes used to swamp you.”

Feldar snorts at the memory. “I think they still would,” he says, and then has to bite the inside of his mouth at the thought of tugging on one of Cray’s shirts, still warm and huge and smelling of him. He stifles the insane urge to giggle.

“Ah, good, you’re both just about ready I see,” Helaine says and Feldar jumps, feeling weirdly caught out for no reason at all. He’s so dismayed at himself that he almost doesn’t notice, but when he does, he sucks in a sharp breath.

Helaine is leading Gallant by the reigns— and the plow horse. Both are saddled and ready to go.

He looks between the Helaine, and the horses, and back to Helaine. He goes both hot and cold at once, which is disorienting and leaves him light-headed. Absently, he wishes he had the waterskin back so that he had something to hold onto.

“What’s this?” He hears himself ask. “Why…”

For a moment, he makes a terrible assumption. Seeing Helaine with both horses saddled, he can only think— she doesn’t want me anymore. For one terrible instant before Helaine opens her mouth, he sees his worst fears come to pass. You have no talents, she’ll say, you are not fit to be my student.

“My dear apprentice,” Helaine says instead, smile full of mischief, and Feldar can suddenly breathe again. “I have an important task for you. Please deliver this missive,” here, she shows him a letter sealed with wax that he takes with numb fingers, “to my friend, Delivev Ormoru. You will find her at Castle Spinweb, in the great forest to the northwest of here. I believe,” Helaine says with twinkling eyes, “that you’ll find an excellent guide in her son.”

Feldar’s head is spinning. Cray is grinning ear to ear, and he slaps Feldar on the back with a hearty laugh, then laughs harder when he has to grab Feldar by the belt to keep him from toppling over. He stumbles upright, and Cray goes to gather up his things with a new spring in his step.

Feldar looks at his mistress.

“I thought…” he trails off, unsure how to give voice to his fears, and her expression softens.

“My dear Feldar,” she says, gathering both reins in one hand so she can set a hand on his cheek. He leans into her cool palm. “I saw Cray’s departure today, and this time, he was not alone.” Feldar bits his lip, eyes suddenly hot and itchy.

“I will be here,” she says, “awaiting your return. There is time yet for your training. Think of this as an exchange, an opportunity to see more beyond what our sight provides. Delivev Ormoru is a kind soul, if a solitary one. She will not turn you away, especially after seeing you with Cray.”

Feldar had listened with an elated mix of homesick gratitude, each word making him miss her already— but at that, he furrows his brow.

Glassy eyes narrow with suspicion, voice thick but indignant, he asks, “What’s that supposed to mean? Are you meddling? Didn’t you say you were too old and wise to meddle anymore?”

Helaine just smiles and hands him the reins to their horses, in time for Cray to come bounding back over.

“This is wonderful!” he crows as he suddenly grabs Feldar around the middle, lifting him up off the ground in a bear hug that Feldar feels in his toes. Thankfully, Cray sets him down before Feldar can do something embarrassing like squeak, or swoon, but that beaming face inches away from him is almost worse. “I’m so excited to show you Spinweb, all the rooms and books and the tapestries— my mother is an excellent weaver, you know.”

Feldar is about to open his mouth when Cray suddenly gasps.

“You can meet my parents!”

Feldar blanches. Delivev Ormoru he has already technically met, through the weave of an enchanted spiderweb. And Cray’s father was Gildrum— a fire demon. He can’t decide at this moment which of them intimidates him more.

“G-great,” he gets out. Cray’s parents are going to see him and they are going to know. This is going to be terrible.

But Cray is lit up from the inside, smiling at him, and he’s brilliantly, headily alive, and Feldar softens. He would follow Cray anywhere, forever.

He meets Helaine’s laughing eyes over Cray’s shoulder, and yes, she definitely saw this coming. She is the worst. He goes to get his things. No doubt, he thinks, catching himself smiling, she’s already packed for him.

Seers. Terribly smug, every last one.