Sleeping sacks, compressable to a manageable size.
Long underwear, one set for each rucksack.
Food, and now that enough Tempered soldiers had been rehabilitated to clear a path to the warehouse in the east district, there was even a choice. Jullus rummaged through the crate, squinted at the blocks of writing printed on the flat rectangles, and left the vegetable omelettes for someone else.
And, for each of them, one more pair of sturdy socks than seemed necessary.
The storehouse of the camp's scavengings provided a fair amount to pick through. The repurposed barrels were full of what useful things could be gleaned from the city's wreckage, though they gave it all a tang of ceruleum. It was a relief to be in here. Though Jullus spent the days in the subway station swearing that if he ever got warm again he would never give it up, how stifling the foreigners kept their rooms here had put the lie to that. The confident motions of his hands felt good as well. However else the world might change, the heavy things would always need to go on the bottom.
Hats were the difficulty. Jullus found one for himself quickly enough, but it took digging, feeling at the shape, and hunting through to the bottom of the pile before, with a "hah!" of triumph, he held up an orange knit cap like a dog showing off a rabbit.
"Have you found everything?" said a voice from the doorway. It carried, though it was soft. Early morning always had a certain silence.
"Near enough." Jullus tossed the hat underhanded at the shadow outlined by the glare of sun on snow through the doorway. "Try this, see if it fits."
The operation involved pulling down from above, rather than sliding on from the front. The knitted triangles twitched. "Perfectly."
Jullus knelt on the concrete by the two sacks. The tent and portable heater went into his. Cat-men were delicate, so he would take the greater share of weight. "Here, give me your instrument."
The equipment G'raha passed him was a box that had banks of dials and buttons on it and what appeared to be a two-pronged probe attached by an insulated wire. None of the elegance of Magitek, but it was compact enough to fit securely between two layers of undershirts.
"You fill these with snow," Jullus said, canteen in hand, "and hit the switch here to turn on the heating element. If you get the timing right you can keep it from tasting too much like hot tin, but in any case it's drinkable."
The cat-man came closer, nearly shoulder to shoulder. There was something both relieving and slightly disappointing about his companion on this mission being the least intimidating and most ordinary of the foreigners.
"Clever." G'raha fiddled with the switch a few times, as everyone always did. His eyes stayed there as he said, "Are you certain about this? Someone else could be my guide, if you need to rest—"
To stay still a while, and think on everything that had happened. (Glory, glory. You are the immensity. The fingernail of a greater will. Breathe the relief that choice is gone.)
"I know the area best and my hands are free." Jullus stood up and shrugged the rucksack onto his shoulders. "Let's go."
Barely ten steps from Camp Broken Glass the land was pure wilderness, with any pretense at civilization buried under a clean sweep of snow. Jullus stopped at the ridgeline and looked down at the glittering white. Under a sky made a startling blue by contrast, the land lay in soft folds that sloped down from the mountains, marked with flecks of green where the firs showed hints of their branches beneath the pauldrons of snow. The ruined highway was a suggestion of a fractured curve, blameless as a river. Even through tinted lenses the beauty of it made your eyes ache.
"It's already clean," he murmured to himself.
"Hm?" The Eorzean's voice lilted over the crunch of footsteps, closer behind than he had thought. Between hat, mask, and goggles, he was more patchwork cloth than man.
"This." Rueful at being overheard, Jullus gestured down at the gentle lumps in the bed of snow. "A week ago it was all chaos and rubble."
"Thus does an empire fall," G'raha said softly, and perhaps that wasn't meant for anyone to hear, either.
The descent down into the valley took all of Jullus's attention and the better part of the day. Finding the places where the snow was shallow and the slope wasn't too steep meant reading the fall of the land and comparing it to the picture in his mind of the valley in summer when the grass rushed up, eager to swallow as much life as it could in the few short weeks of its chance. On the steep slopes he was aware of the potential for accident but felt no alarm. After reality had fallen apart in front of his eyes, the dangers of beasts, crevasses, and avalanche were prosaic as a bowl of soup.
"About five hundred meters to the northwest," G'raha called when they reached flat land, waving his chirping instrument, and it was up to Jullus to earn his keep by getting them there.
Nothing on two legs could take the tundra in a straight line. The place he wanted turned out to be several detours away, including a doubling back where the road was blocked with wreckage, and by the time he was close enough to take his readings even Jullus's legs were aching. G'raha wouldn't last much longer before calling a halt for the day.
"The readings show an unusual density." The machine beeped ordinarily enough, but the Miqo'te's hands were wreathed in a yellowish glow that made Jullus's reflexes want to reach for his gunblade. He kept them still and kept his eyes on the foreigner's face. With his face coverings pulled down, G'raha's boyish features made him look like a raw recruit or an earnest new bank clerk. Focus on that, not on old notions of sinister savage magicians. "There could be all manner of unusual crystals underground distorting the flow of aether."
"I see," said Jullus, as if he did. Fortunately keeping watch didn't require much in the way of greater understanding.
In the end it was Jullus who had to point out that the sun was setting and that much longer fiddling with dials and making notes would see them both either frozen solid or eaten by wolves. The tent's shadow was a sharp triangle of black on the snow.
Inside of it a zip shut out the endless whiteness of the valley, and shut in a closer and more human quiet. Kneeling, Jullus took the bottle of ceruleum from his pack, filled the heater, and soon had it humming along.
"It's already getting warm," G'raha said, with gratifying admiration.
"Weaponry gets all the attention, but real Garlean genius is in the thermostat." Jullus started to shed some of his layers and stack them in the corner. "Give me your hands."
The Miqo'te paused in the midst of taking off his hat and giving his head a shake that made his ears flick about. He blinked. "What?"
"Anyone sloppy enough to skip checking for frostbite loses bits sooner or later." Jullus, proudly ten-toed, made an impatient gesture. "Let me see."
"Ah, right. Of course." G'raha slipped his hands from the gloves and held them out with an odd grace, as though about to play piano.
His hands fit neatly in Jullus's. They were fine-boned with neatly filed nails; no claws to speak of. They were cold and pink at the fingertips.
"You're all right for now," was Jullus's professional opinion. It came with a pointed look. "Even with good gloves you have to take care."
Hands warming between his, G'raha said, "I forget that I'm not made of stone."
After a moment's hesitation, Jullus said, "Can I ask you something? About..." He gestured toward his face.
G'raha smiled faintly. "Is it about the eyes?"
"Are they unusual?" Jullus said. He had thought the bloodred must be ordinary among the kind.
The lines of G'raha's smile deepened. "Is that what you want to use up your question on? You get one if I get one."
"It's about the ears, in fact." Rose-colored and fringed with fuzz, they were turned attentively toward Jullus at the moment. The embarrassingly childish notion had been bothering him for some time, and he would get no better chance. "I've seen others in hats and helmets with spaces for them as well, but can't they fold down?"
"Oh, yes, like this." The Miqo'te's ears lay back flat to his hair so exactly like an angry cat's that Jullus had to bite down the instinct to say shh, shh. In a moment they popped up again. "In a heavy helmet it can dull the hearing, but it can be comfortable under something light. It's rather like the difference between wearing mittens and wearing fingered gloves. Putting them back is meant to be for brief periods, when we're fighting or afraid. In fact, though I've never noticed this myself, some say it works the other way around; that having your ears held back too long can make you angry or afraid in itself."
Only animals are ruled by their bodies, said his mind's Lord Quintus, a man who by choice would never learn a changed world. Jullus threaded his fingers through G'raha's, seeking out lingering chill. His own muscles were beginning to unknot as the heater did its work, melting the weariness of the day's journey and making it easier to speak. "All right, your turn."
"Your third eye." Freed from the day's layers, G'raha's tail waved behind him. "Does it bother you to have it covered up under goggles all day?"
"No, it's not like ordinary sight, exactly. It's more that it enhances the sense of things in space. Even thick metal doesn't interfere with it. Here, look." Jullus turned his face away to fill his vision with olive green canvas. "Throw something at me."
"Go on, do it."
Something came into proximity at shoulder height behind him. Thoughtless, Jullus's arm shot out and grabbed it from midair.
"Like that," he said, holding up the sock. "Nothing to it."
Doubtless the foreigner's impressed and delighted noises were exaggerated, but they were rather nice to hear.
They ate buckwheat porridge and meatballs heated with the elements in the packet, warm and filling, both things that Jullus might never find less than miraculous again. The darkness gathered around the powerful little lantern. Fortunately Jullus had been warned that foreigners were squeamish about practical ways of maximizing body heat, so he knew not to suggest anything besides crawling into separate bedrolls before switching off the light.
There was no dark as pure as when the night was only a piece of cloth away. Jullus closed his eyes and listened to his companion's breathing. It was good to be warm and still. How long had it been since he had slept in a room with only one other person, before the inn repurposed as barracks in Camp Broken Glass, before the succession of other barracks in their varying shades of drafty and noisy, before huddling together on the floor of a subway car with the frailest and sickest at the middle?
Jullus fell asleep thinking of cats lying in the sun.
He jolted to himself in horror.
Darkness now, and a blank time before. His limbs were heavy and barely obeyed him. Jullus thrashed and kicked at the bonds holding him down and won his way to sitting up, gasping in the frantic black.
"What did I do? Did I hurt anyone?"
A rustle in the darkness solidified the world and brought him out of the noise in his head into silence. "Hm? Jullus?"
"The pig." His hands reached out and felt along the cloth that covered him. Cool and stiff to his hot palms. "The radio."
"It's all right." G'raha. His voice was urgent, though fogged with sleep. His shape was a cleaner black in the gray. "You're all right."
"This body is mine." As he breathed in deeply against his pounding heart, Jullus's fingers opened and closed exactly as he commanded. "These hands are mine. I am doing this."
With a sound of sliding cloth the silhouette rose and moved closer. His hand came to rest on Jullus's knee. "It's over. It won't happen again."
Even then it almost made Jullus smile that this small, meek creature was bold enough to make promises for gods. The wind was rustling the tent's walls, and the heater was making its low, steady rasp."Yes. I'm all right."
"Was it a dream?"
"No. It was...waking. That sensation of coming back to myself with time unaccounted for." The soundness of his body had been shaken, in the way of people who had had their homes broken into by thieves. A security that could no longer be taken for granted. Jullus made an effort to lighten his tone, embarrassed at having disturbed the privacy of his companion's sleep. "Though when I was woken from that I was confused for much longer by the flying pig."
He had seen those fluttering about behind the healers afterward, but the foreigners had all taken it so in stride that he had never quite found the wherewithal to ask.
"Ah, them." There was fondness in G'raha's voice. "Those are helpful creatures called Porxies. Their homeland is in another world, a land full of flowers and dangerously playful fae beings..."
He told an absurd fairytale then, one about a cursed king in a winged castle under an ever-bright sky, pixies constructing a playground for children's dreams and a scholar who tricked them into bringing him tea, until Jullus found sleep again.
The morning came brightly through the tent's canvas, and they didn't speak of it again. Jullus made tea, and G'raha, to his surprise, ate the infamously dense and unpleasant field bread without complaint. Outside the air was a fresh slap like an ocean wave, and the sun on the snow was as bright as the piercing blue above. Jullus's eyes watered, and he drew the aching air deep into his lungs. He knelt in the snow and pressed at the key points of the tentpoles to collapse the structure, packed it into its case, and hit the compression button before he put it in his pack and they were on their way.
"The going will be easier once we get to the lake," Jullus said.
"Oh good," said the orange hat just above the snow. Jullus grasped his hands and hauled him out.
The mountains showed iron-colored patches between the white, like ladies with slashes of color in their gowns. The path Jullus knew took them down the slope in a switchback that was reliably unblocked at this time of year. There were a few drifts of snow that had to be struggled through, and a place where the retaining structure had buckled and they had to climb, push, and haul one another over rocks that would have been a dead end alone. G'raha was light and climbed up Jullus's shoulders as easily as a stepladder, but he pulled Jullus up after him with a sturdy grip.
"There we are," G'raha said as they slid down the boulder's other side. "Just a little— oh."
He had caught sight of the lake. It was a great, flat expanse of aquamarine, swept clean of snow by the wind, like a mirror left forgotten in the midst of the hills and trees.
"I forget, sometimes, how beautiful my home is," Jullus said softly. "It's like a great beast that will let you close. It's ours because no one else wanted it, and I will never lose my pride in that."
"I can imagine it. Coming to a wild land alone, and making a hearth there."
Jullus's lip quirked. "Sometimes you sound like an old man."
"Ah. Well." G'raha gave an abashed look at his instrument, and his ears and tail leapt like fish. "The readings, this way!"
He took off across the snow and Jullus floundered to keep up. He couldn't see how a perfectly normal rock outcropping merited the excitement, but G'raha did a great deal of fiddling with the instruments and murmuring to himself that must have meant it was worthwhile. Jullus stood guard and watched the sky as closely as the wild creatures that occasionally moved on the horizon. It was meant to be clear for these few precious days, but a season that was going easy on you could just as quickly change its mind.
The device led them in a dance up slopes and down, toward the lake and away, out into the open and into the shelter of a stand of fir trees. In the last G'raha wove a maddeningly pacing path between the trunks until finally stopping short, tail waving like a maroon pennant on a white field. There was a protected place between roots where little snow had accumulated. G'raha swept it clear with his boot, then used the butt of his staff to break the rind of ice with a shattering retort.
"Look at that!" G'raha marveled.
"Hm. Yes." Jullus leaned over his shoulder to squint at the darkish glitter between the roots. "What am I looking at?"
"Earth-aspected crystals." G'raha knelt and broke a piece out of the ground. On a closer look the hollow was filled with a closely packed matrix of palm-length stones. Together they looked the color of soil, but a single one alone between the Miqo'te's gloved fingers had only a faint umber cast to mellow its transparency. "A cache this near the surface! Any places like this in Eorzea have been monitored and harvested for decades. This many at this aetheric density... in Cid's devices, they'll keep the camp heated for a month."
Before he could think Jullus said, "You mean Garlond the traitor?"
Luckily G'raha was too exuberant about the find to take offense. His tailtip made brush strokes in an arc behind him on the snow as Jullus held open a drawstring sack to receive their treasure. "Yes, the Garlean view would have to be different, wouldn't it. What tale do they tell you about him?"
Jullus's eyes shifted away, meandering over the grain of the tree's back in between its patches of frost. "A cautionary one about a tragic genius who chased knowledge too far and was brainwashed by savages."
It was a mixture of relief and indignity when G'raha laughed. "Nero must have missed that, or we would have never heard the end of it." He caught a glimpse of Jullus's face. A slow, inexorable grin spread over his lips. "Oh no. What? What do they say about Nero?"
Jullus busied himself with arranging the crystals in the bag efficiently, aware of how quickly his face could melt errant snowflakes. "They say tol Scaeva followed...they say things. I don't read that sort of— You see the tabloid covers at the newsstands."
The grin only widened. "Please tell me they are lurid."
Faintly, Jullus confirmed, "They are lurid."
They took the long way around to the hunting cabin that Jullus knew on the shore. "The ice is usually reliable this time of year, but this lake is notorious for getting thin patches and rotten spots."
"It's fascinating, isn't it?" G'raha trotted along in the wake the larger, sturdier man broke in the calf-deep snow. "You would think the ice-aspected aether would lie in a even layer, like a blanket, but instead the places where it's heaviest have their own sort of gravity that leaves some spots comparatively warm."
"I'll take your word for that. I've always thought of it as just another way the land can kill you if you're not paying attention."
"You sound proud." G'raha's voice was amused.
"I appreciate that it will try to kill you but there's reasonable ways to prevent it." The snow was a clean thing that belonged, not like ragesick despair rising in your gullet and eyes that reflected only how little you mattered. "It's nothing personal."
The cabin was a horizontal earth-toned line that became thicker as they came closer until it resolved into a staunch little box made of logs, with orange evening sun caught in the icicles hanging from the eaves. Jullus pulled the shovel from his pack to clear out a path down to the doorway.
"Wait," G'raha said. His staff was in his hand, the serrated crystal at the top a deep blue. "Allow me— that is, if magic does not unduly distress you."
In the blur of chaos on the retreat from the capital, Tullia had taken a slash in the calf from a maddened soldier. None of them had been ready for comrades to turn enemy, let alone a vicious enemy that cared nothing for protecting themselves. You had to strike so quickly. She had claimed she'd cut herself worse shaving, bound the leg up, and kept marching. By the time they were established in the station it stank. She had remained there huddled on the floor, streaks of livid red on her skin, sweating in the cold, while Jullus made mental catalogs of the simple medicines lined on the shelves of a half dozen pharmacias they couldn't get anywhere near. When Alphinaud knelt beside her she'd barely seen him. He had held his hands out, and in the light that flowed over the raw wound, muscles so locked in pain he'd forgotten how they looked otherwise had released, and she had let out a long, soft sigh.
"No," Jullus said, "it doesn't."
G'raha bent his knees slightly, as though loosening for a dance, and gave the staff an accustomed flick. A shower of sparks leapt from it like water droplets. They fell on the patch of snow that came halfway up the door and, with a rushing hiss, melted it down until a few moments later there was nothing but a dissipating cloud of steam and a puddle of water on the doormat.
The shovel went back into the pack.
"A useful trick," Jullus said, after only a moment, he hoped, of gaping like a bumpkin. The air was still warm as he stepped down to the door and input the code to get the key from the box beside it.
"I'm full of them," said G'raha.
A good yank opened the door into the darkened cabin. It was odd how the staid cold of still, indoor air was so different from the brisk cold of the air outside. It was the typical sort of place shared between several people, furnished with odds and ends from back rooms and Bona Voluntas shops. There was a bed with a floral coverlet, the usual unwanted lamps, dark wood shelves with a jumble of board games: Settlers of Corvos, BattleAirship. Would Jullus's heart never stop lurching when he saw a radio?
The first thing to do was to stomp on the mat and get the lights on. Closing the door shut out the sweep of the wind and made the space ring with quiet. Jullus knelt before the fireplace, with its oil painting of ducks flying up from a lake, and began arranging kindling.
He was glad these particular owners had foregone any mounted beast heads. He didn't much care for hunters anymore.
As he stacked the split logs, the bark rough and reassuring through his gloves, there were soft sounds behind him of G'raha taking off his boots, taking exploratory steps, and setting his pack down on the sofa. Jullus pulled newspapers from the box by the grating. Halfway to tearing out the sheets his hands went still. A picture of Emperor Varis stared out from the front page, his face as always looking as heavily forged as the crown above it. The headline concerned stability returning now that the troubles of the civil war were behind them. Another column was about rates of pig iron mining. It was from a month or two ago, this record of another reality.
"Are you all right?" said G'raha.
Jullus dropped the paper back into the box and stood. "Yes. Of course." He gestured at the arrangement in the fireplace. "Would you do the honors?"
The sweep of G'raha's staff that set a blaze roaring to life was much more efficient than messing about with matches and kindling. That the sight of it made Jullus's breath jump was immaterial.
G'raha came closer and held his hands out to the blaze, and the tension melted from his body. "There's nothing in any world like a good fire."
Heat lapped against the front of Jullus's body. "If we use this instead of the mechanical heating, do you know what there will be enough spare ceruleum for? Hot baths."
"Twelve be praised!"
After some insistence - there were rules of hospitality that were ironclad - G'raha took the first. He vanished down the hallway to the back rooms, and for the first time in recent memory, Jullus was alone and with empty hands.
The fire crackled. Jullus's eyes roamed the room, drifting over the darkening sky through the windows. His choices were thinking over everything that had happened to him lately or reading a book about local plantlife.
Tundra lichen grew one half-ilm per year and was an important food source for many migrating birds.
The chill had been chased out of the main room when G'raha came back with a towel wrapped around his waist. Jullus went from eyes full of saxifrage to eyes full of a much more substantial torso than he ever would have guessed.
"It's freezing back there," G'raha said, "but it's worth it."
The hair low on his stomach was, Jullus's mind noted without being told to, the same ruddy color as his tail.
The back area was indeed freezing, despite the fire's best efforts. Jullus put as little time in between shucking his layers of clothing and sinking into the bath as possible. The water lay against his muscles, soaking the cold and the fatigue from him. When he emerged it was entirely dark outside and G'raha was in a circle of lamplight at the table, working at his notes, warmly dressed.
A hot bath, hot food, and a cup of hot tea made Jullus feel like a different species from the man who had walked in the door. G'raha ate one-handed while writing with a thoughtless efficiency that suggested a great deal of practice.
The phrase the geographica texts liked was the indolent Miquo'te. Usually there was an accompanying illustration of one of the great painters' works of cat-men and -women lolling on the tree branches of a primitive village.
G'raha's hand wrote with a quick precision, underlined now and then by a flick of the tail that was threaded through the ribs of the chairback. Non-Garleans didn't have the same awareness of or range of vocabulary for motion, as Jullus had found out when he'd baffled a Roegadyn by asking her to give a supply list to 'the man with the sandy hair and the rezky walk.' They had never had a little sister go through a phase of reading magazines with What Does Your Kinetic Profile Say About YOU? on the cover, chasing everyone through the house with "Do you get crenky when you're stressed? When are your movements flatter, in the morning or at night? Do you sit jarajara or plulle?"
Carefully, Jullus picked the memory up and put it away.
"We should sleep," he said, using the we that meant mainly you. "The area you're most interested in is near here, isn't it?"
"Yes, the lake and environs." The ears on top of G'raha's head swiveled subtly when he was spoken to. Jullus held his hands on his lap very still. "By my readings, there may be some treasure troves of ice-aspected crystals."
Jullus, whose fingertips were thawed for the first time all day, said, "I can't say it's very exciting to be hunting more cold."
"Oh, but it is!" G'raha's enthusiasm was guileless. "Food transport in chilled wagons and airships is going to be crucial for getting refugees fed all over the world while we recover. You'd be amazed how quickly things can spoil in Thavnair if you're not careful. I've run a city long enough to know that keeping eggs edible safeguards as many lives as slaying beasts."
Jullus couldn't keep the dubiousness off his face. "You've run a city? I thought you were a scholar."
"I'm, ah, something of an all-rounder." His tail flicked, and he went on quickly. "We can also use the formations of the aether to help in breeding cold-resistant crops. Greens, carrots - we have experts in carrots - chestnuts...Chestnut trees do surprisingly well in frigid places. Imagine planting them tomorrow, then roasting the nuts over a fire in a few years."
A few years, he said, as though it was imaginable, a briefer time than it took to be consumed by the past and leave nothing behind. As though it were not a tundra to trudge over, step by heavy step, full of places to lie down and close your eyes.
G'raha wrote in his notebook and murmured calculations as Jullus sat and watched the flames. He showed no sign of slowing until Jullus declared it was time to retire, and that he would take the back room. G'raha objected that as he had gotten the first bath, it was only fair that he take the colder room. Jullus returned that that would be absurd, as he was much more used to the cold, where G'raha rejoined that it was only thanks to his guidance that they had solid shelter at all, at which point they settled on sharing the front room's bed, on the grounds that it was large enough and on the mutual understanding that it was the only way to shut the other up.
It was perfectly comfortable with the two of them beneath the down comforter, the quilt, and the scratchy striped wool blanket that everyone had gotten from their grandmothers sandwiched in between where it could do no harm. The lights were out, leaving the faint glow of the banked coals and the shadows of a strange house. Jullus looked upwards, his eyes adjusting, finding the beams of the slanted roof. The wind leaned its shoulder on the windowpane, and there was G'raha's soft breathing.
Nearby in the darkness, G'raha's voice said, "I have to ask."
"Yes?" said Jullus, with trepidation held in check. Honesty was the least he owed.
"It is true that Solus zos Galvus loved the theater?"
A much easier question than Jullus had expected. "Oh, yes, famously. He had his own box at the Theatrum Magnificum. At every school play the instructors used to tell us, 'Work hard, and you may be performing for the Emperor one day.'"
He only realized he had said too much when G'raha said, "You were in school plays."
"One or two," Jullus demurred.
G'raha's shadowed shape raised up on its elbow. "You must tell me what you played."
"A brave soldier slaying an eikon that was terrorizing the countryside and devouring the livestock. We spent ages making all the tentacles out of purple paper mache. I mostly cared for the part where we all shouted 'Huzzah!'"
There was laughter in G'raha's voice. "A spectacle fit for the Emperor."
"Thankfully, no. He preferred melodramas and social comedies. They say he never missed a performance of The Sausage Seller."
"Do they?" G'raha settled back. "I wish I'd known that. I truly wish I had."
There was silence long enough to begin to fall asleep, if one were making the effort.
Jullus said, "All right. I'll never get another chance, and I have to know. Are your tribes really such dens of depravity?"
G'raha's laughter rumbled in the darkness. "No more than anywhere else, especially. Each has a Nunh who fathers children, while the other males either accept him, challenge him, or go off to seek their fortunes."
"Is that what you did?"
His voice softened, blending with the wind and the crackling of the embers. "I was sent away for my safety."
From the care in his tone, there was no need to ask from who.
A moment later, G'raha ventured, "Are there stories about that? All our wicked ways?"
"Wildly creative ones. You should have seen some of the publications stuffed under my comrades' mattresses."
Amusement gave his voice a possibly imagined burl of purr. "And under yours?"
"I preferred the adventure ones, honestly. Miracle Escape From Ifrit's Inferno, Raiding the Gridanian Cult Caves, Cat-Men Ripped My Flesh."
"Your flesh. Extraordinary."
The bed had warmed to his body. Comfort always felt hard-won, in this land. Jullus breathed in the cooling air, felt the weight of the man beside him, and looked up into the rafters.
"I lied," he admitted. "I was an aldgoat."
"Stay in my path. If there is somewhere you need to get, tell me and I'll find the way. No matter how solid the ice appears, step only where I step. Understood?"
"Yes sir!' G'raha snapped straight, not an entirely impressive look when in so many thick layers, the teasing on his face somehow apparent in the ilms visible between goggles and mask.
"Apologies," Jullus said ruefully. "They were intense about drilling this into us. Nevertheless, it's no jest. The water will kill you."
The rest of the warning went as surely as a savage and with as little remorse, but G'raha was just as well without that part.
The sky was high and bright above them, as consistent a blue as fine paint. After carrying a pack for a while, leaving it behind in the cabin and carrying nothing but the gunblade on his back made him feel springy as a grasshopper. His goggles cut the glare of the snow-dusted lake from searing to merely brilliant. The wind harried a froth of snow across the surface, and Jullus stepped down from the shore.
The first step was the hardest. Jullus adjusted the weight he entrusted to his front foot, testing what angle it could manage without slipping, and was able to end up with both bootsoles firmly on the ice. He straightened his knees with some relief; it would not have sown confidence in him as a guide if he had fallen on his arse straightaways.
He held his hand out to G'raha as though leading him onto a dance floor. With a bow, G'raha took it and stepped down with easy grace.
It was like finding one's sea legs, Jullus imagined, though he'd never been on the ocean himself. Walking had to be rethought, remade into the shape of feet lifting and falling directly up and down with the minimum of sliding to tempt fate. They were not the only creatures out on the frozen plain; dark shapes dotted the line of the horizon, moving with the slow sway of significant weight. They were excellent guides to where the footing was most secure, but not terribly welcome company. Jullus relied instead, like any good Garlean, on the combination of practical awareness and good old-fashioned animal fear. The depth and cold hunger of the waters waited beneath them on the other side of the ice's rind, patient, ready to swallow them up and crush the life from them with an unfocused eye and no ill will.
G'raha's footsteps behind him were light taps that made Jullus envy the balance a tail must provide. A sudden tooth of resentment bit him when he realized that the cat-man would have been able to move faster on his own. Speed, he reminded himself, was not the object.
"North-northwest about a hundred and fifty yalms," G'raha called.
The first cache was a lucky one near the shore. The rest were not. Jullus picked their way across the lake that appeared an open plain but was in fact a web of narrow safe threads in between fathomless pits. Jullus's attention narrowed to the quality of blue-white in the step before him, the reflection of the light on the snow-dusted ice. At G'raha's signal he would stop and stand guard as the scholar took readings or collected tiny crystals to add to the pouch at his waist. He was a man of many pouches.
They spent much of the day weaving across the lake from one shore to the other, stopping long enough to eat some pate on crackers and those bars of dried fruit that looked like tar and tasted like sticky plums. Then masks back up and back to work.
As the sun began to decline, G'raha took readings while Jullus stood guard. The world was terribly open out on the ice, every compass point a direction of vulnerability, quick movement either impossible or a deadly risk. And yet it was peaceful beneath the sun and sky, with the white and blue of the world, the flecks of green of the firs on the distant shore. One could have been a creature roaming here forever. Before and after there were people with jewels in the center of their foreheads, before and after there was ink pulled into the shape Garlemald on a craggy-bordered area of parchment, there had been and would be these shaggy creatures roving there.
Inevitably, a beast took notice of the interlopers. A Jotunn in the distance raised its head, sniffed the wind, and lumbered in their direction, its gleaming horns muted through smoked lenses.
"Keep at it. I'll take care of this," Jullus said over his shoulder, and went out to set his feet where the ice was thickest.
He watched the creature heft itself larger between him and the horizon, his gunblade held out in front of him in the firm stance he'd been taught through a hundred practice sessions and a thousand swats on the leg with a switch, wind freezing his left side, and love for the place where he was standing crashed against him like a blow to the temple. Not the metallic love in unison that he'd tasted the tang of when he was saluting the standard and reciting the Loyalty Oath in thin high voices every morning in schola, not the refined and pure version of that that had filled him like a fist filling a glove and used him, not a pure thing at all but something that was inside him without replacing any of his substance, a love mixed into the mass of him like milk and brown sugar mixed into porridge. Beneath him the vibrations of the ice under the giant's footsteps carried through the soles of his boots into his bones. The Jotunn's flesh was gray and pebbled as the highway. Jullus stepped forward, pulled the trigger, and struck.
Battle was no love of his. What put strength in Jullus's arm as he fended off a swipe of the creatures claws was knowing that he stood between it and someone else. He had no especial eagerness for the risk of pain and injury, or for the strange way that time distended so that in one half-step to the side there was space to watch the way the beast's black upper lip wrinkled and to see the animal blankness in its eyes. The creature was only hungry, a feeling Jullus well knew. If it killed him it would be for good reason.
Jullus swiped out with his blade, drawing a shallow slash across the Jotunn's torso that bled sluggishly and made it grunt but not flee. Though these creatures were too determined to drive off with a scratch, they felt pain and had some sense of self-preservation, some caution in approaching this little hairless prey beast with its single cold claw, and it was possible for Jullus to minimize movement on the slippery ground and keep it at bay away from his comrade. The looming of a larger thing made animal fear yap its alarm, but it was nothing like the terror of a human being flinging their body at you like a hatchet, heedless, fearless. How many of them there had been in the ruins of the city, screaming glory, glory. He would wonder how the tempered saw their enemies, if he hadn't known that they did not see them at all. Jullus had come back from that oblivion, by timing and by luck. Someone had known he could be saved and had done it. In the time it took to jab his bladepoint toward the giant's heart he saw trails of footprints in the ashes, the roving sensors of masterless magitek, the defiant hope on the faces of the twins he'd led to their prison for the crime of offering help, the commander who had kept them all alive and had survived everything but rescue. What right did Jullus have to stand here?
His bladepoint sank home, and Jotunn's roar dwindled to a wheeze. It fell to its knees with an impact that shook the ice, and Jullus pulled his blade free as the last of life left it. It was more difficult to get the weapon out of the flesh than it had been to get it in, and keeping his balance as he stumbled back a step left him no spare attention to hear the cried, "Jullus!"
He turned to see the Tursus already in midair. Opportunist reptile, the thing that often followed larger creatures to catch their prey unaware, jaws open at a hideous angle and lined with sawteeth that would have take Jullus's too-slow sword arm off at the elbow if a crystalline lance of ice had not speared through its gullet and taken it flying backwards, dead before it hit the lake.
G'raha was there, yalms away from the spot where he had been taking his measurements, footprints in the snow layer showing where he had run to get the angle for the shot. His staff was outstretched, energies fading from its tip, and his back was straight in a soldier's ready stance.
"Are you all right?" G'raha called, businesslike rather than panicked.
Jullus's lungs emptied themselves in a sigh of relief.
He was holstering his blade when he heard the crack.
For an instant nothing breathed. The hairline fracture below G'raha's boot drew itself on an unmoving world.
The ice beneath him shattered. His plunge was a streak of color against the white background. Droplets scattered to freeze in the moment that it took him to gasp at the shock of the cold.
Training sessions in the gymnasium. Teams, turns in the harness. Repetition until you no longer needed to think.
Jullus drove his gunblade into the thick ice some distance from the giant's corpse and engaged the locking mechanism. He made sure the blunt edge was toward the victim and pulled out the emergency cord from the handle.
"Hold on," he called. "I'm on my way."
"Don't!" G'raha cried. He his staff wedged horizontally across the edge of the ice, free hand gripping for what purchase he could get. "I'll get out on my own, don't take the risk—"
He tried to heave himself out. The ice crumbled away and he fell back, splashing droplets outward. With his eyes hidden behind goggles there was little way to tell if he was panicking. His mask had fallen and his mouth was open, breathing out rapid clouds of steam. The orange triangle-tipped hat was a beacon.
"Just stay there," Jullus said, and dropped to the ground.
He flattened his body against the ice. Weight spread, arms out in front, bent, feet pushing, half crawl and half slide. Ilm by ilm toward the goal of the staff. Seconds mattered. Every instant the water sucked away the warmth of G'raha's life. The marksmanship sergeant's favorite axiom: take your time in a hurry. The cord extended as he went, with a slow zipping noise. He kept his grip tight on the end.
Water lapped at the fragile edges of the hole. The movements G'raha made to keep the staff braced made fragments of ice crumble inward. Jullus was near enough to hear G'raha's breaths and the soft splashes as he kept himself afloat. His closeness was maddening, and with every ilm nearer him the ice grew less reliable and care more crucial. He was crawling out onto a plywood shelf above the pit. G'raha's hand was wrapped around the staff, near enough to count the fingers.
Slowly, damn you, Jullus ordered himself, teeth gritted, pushing forward with his booted toes. Slowly.
(Shivering in the gymnasium, sheepish beside an equally soaked comrade, the sergeant's voice worse when it was patient: "And what do we get if we charge in like Mister Hero?" "Two frozen corpses, sir!")
"Your staff," Jullus said. His fingers were stretched out in front of him, the other hand gripped tight on the cord's handle. "Get it toward me and hold on tight." And, knowing exactly how much he was asking: "You'll have to trust me."
Immediately, G'raha put as much of his torso as he could out onto the ice and thrust the staff out as far as he could reach. "The crystals—"
"Forget them! We can get more!"
Jullus braced himself, stretched until he thought his arm would give, and grabbed the staff just beneath its crystal crown. To his surprise it did not shock or burn him, but was only cold. With his other hand, a world away, he hit a switch on the cord's handle, and the retraction function began doing its best to pull him backwards. There was a moment of stillness and strain. Then, he began to slide.
It was a blessing from above that G'raha was light. From Jullus to staff to G'raha, they were beads in a necklace. The edge of the hole crumbled away once, again, and then thank the gods above held beneath G'raha's abdomen and bore him up onto solid ice. Once his dripping boots were pulled with a clunk onto the firmament, the cord's action gained momentum and went from a struggle to a yank, and both of them skittered and slid wildly across the surface until Jullus let go of the handle, the cord zrrped home, and G'raha tumbled soaked and shaking into his arms.
"You're going to be all right," Jullus told him, thumping at a wet shoulder. Relief thudded in him. "You did well."
G'raha gave a shaky laugh. "You did all the work."
"It's not far back to the cabin." Farther than he'd like. "Stay close to me, I'll get you warm."
Their struggles and splashes had denuded the ice of its snow-dusting for a yalm around them. Jullus struggled to his feet, pulled G'raha up, and retrieved his weapon. G'raha was soaked from the neck down, a deadly state on its own. His drenched coat and trousers hung heavily against him. Wrong as it was to see a tail attached to a Hyuran figure, it was wronger still for it to be bedraggled. Jullus chafed at the soaked fur with his own coat as best he could. G'raha hadn't been able to kick off his boots, which must have been like anchors in the water but would avail him now.
Just as they took the first step, G'raha grabbed at his waist and sighed when his hand met the pouch. "The crystals. I didn't lose them."
"That's what you're concerned about?"
"They're important," the shivering man insisted.
Jullus pulled him closer, to where he fit neatly beneath his arm. Cold water began to soak into his flank, and his body wanted to flinch away. He gritted his teeth and held G'raha more tightly. He felt terribly small in Jullus's grasp, with so little substance for the cold to burn through.
Roads grow shorter on returning went the refrain of one of Emperor Solus's favored operas, but retracing the track of their footsteps through the drifts took years. They shuffled an awkward, urgent, tripping pace across a path made shadowless by the snow's glare. The first step off the ice onto firm ground was a blessing, but there was still far to go. Knowing that picking G'raha up bodily and running would devour his strength and end up only slowing them down did not stop Jullus from having the urge to try it.
"Stay with me," Jullus said. "Tell me something, anything. Something academic."
"Th-th-the fallen civilizations—" That his teeth were chattering was good. It meant his body was making an effort to warm him. It was good. "—the fallen civilizations of, of the Source are Allag, Meracydia, Nym, Amdapor, and Mhach. This c-can be remembered with the d-d-device all mortals need ample meals."
"And gold." Jullus fixed his eyes on the upper edge of the drift ahead of them, where a fragment of brown became, to knee-weakening relief, the cabin's eaves. "Look, we're almost there."
Exhaustion made his legs want to fold at each of the last few dozen steps, and he could not imagine what greater efforts it cost G'raha. But at last the door was there in front of them. Jullus's right hand was a half-frozen paw where it was latched to G'raha's side, so he fumbled at the knob with his left, and they dragged each other into safety.
Just the absence of the wind and the scant warmth that lingered from the morning felt like gifts from above. Jullus hauled the door shut with a rattling slam, let go of G'raha, and moved rapidly to the fireplace. The most pressing crisis was over but they were far from out of the woods.
"Get those clothes off," he ordered as he knelt down and grabbed for kindling. He had no idea if casting fire took from the magician's own heat, and this was no time for research. There was still some heat lingering there, and his hands made short work of lighting matches and getting the wood into a blaze.
Jullus stood, and saw G'raha standing in the middle of the room, dripping on the rug.
"Ah," said G'raha.
Jullus barked, "Which do you want to keep, your modesty or your fingertips? Hurry!"
That got him moving. While G'raha stripped off his soaked garments Jullus pulled off his own cold, wet outer layers until he was down to his dry smalls. He retrieved a towel, tossed it to his comrade, then got into the bed with a curse at the cold sheets on his bare skin. His body would serve to warm it up while G'raha dried himself. For a moment G'raha stood in front of the fireplace, shivering, before climbing into the bed.
Jullus wrapped his arms around him. "Seven hells," he hissed against the urge to yelp and flinch back. "You're a block of ice."
"S-s-sorry." G'raha curled into a ball and pressed against him.
"It's hardly your fault." Jullus moved his hands quickly across G'raha's back. Despite what he'd said, warming the core of him had first priority over the extremities. He was a small and compact man, though more muscled than he appeared. The cold must have cut right through him.
"I mean for all of it." He pulled the blankets more tightly around his bare shoulders. "Falling. C-causing such trouble."
"Don't be." Jullus took a breath of warming air that went to the bottom of his chest, his heartbeat beginning to slow as the heat began to work on his comrade. He smiled faintly. "It's the first time in weeks I've been certain I was doing the right thing."
"Ah. You of all people had little firm ground on which to face the end of the world."
"It made sense, in a way." Jullus rubbed circles on G'raha's back, working warmth into the cold flesh. "If the Empire could fall, why not the rest of it?
G'raha murmured appreciation and pressed his forehead against Jullus's shoulder. A fierce shiver passed over him, and he held on more tightly. "Yet you've done what was right. The twins...they spoke of the collars, and the orders that bade you use them. You hesitated."
The valiant gunbreaker of the posters, shielding a child from hordes of fanged and clawed Elezen. Two faces, powerless and fearless, looking steadfastly up at him.
"I can't say what I would have done in the end." Jullus's gaze slid away to the quilt wrapped over G'raha's shoulder. Bitterness tinged his voice. "I could have punished cowardice. Not courage."
They were silent a while then. Snow fell outside the window as the light failed, and the room faded to firelight. Jullus's heartbeat was learning that the danger was past and the man in his arms was safe from the chill that would have taken him. He took a deep breath and released it.
In his embrace, G'raha stiffened a moment and said, "Oh."
"Wh..." Jullus began, before realizing. Warmth slowly stained his face and worked down to his shoulders.
G'raha's laugh was a puff against his skin. "And you were being so steadfast."
"A simple task while you were a comrade in need of medical care."
The playfulness and quiet daring in G'raha's glance made Jullus's breath catch. "Am I something else now?"
"A handsome naked man," Jullus admitted.
"You're taking it rather well." G'raha was examining him curiously, which reddened him further. "Has this happened to you before?"
"Cold conditions make for close quarters among comrades. Unruly members are a regular hazard. Just, ah, ignore it."
The corner of G'raha's mouth twitched, along with the maroon flicker of an ear. "That is the duller option."
Jullus felt his heart quicken. "Comrades have been known to lend one another a hand."
"I don't think you want mine anywhere sensitive at the moment." They were resting at the small of Jullus's back and, indeed, still icy. His face drew closer until his forehead was resting against Jullus's, and his breath was warm on Jullus's cheek. "But there are ways, and there are ways."
It took only a loll of the head to meet his lips, and Jullus felt him smile before he began lazily to kiss back. His body pressed against Jullus's in a strange, undulating way that began with his chest and shoulders and carried down through his stomach to thighs and calves, making a wave of himself. Heat followed where he touched. Jullus slid his tongue against the seal of G'raha's lips, and as they parted he pressed his body forward in answer. The brush with the merciless ice had given G'raha a hunger that Jullus understood: a hunger to be seen, to exist to someone definitively. An answering need had rested in Jullus ever since his own moment on the ice in the face of despair and the crown prince's blank disinterest; since the knowledge that his death would be not merely certain but barely noticed.
Jullus gripped the edge of his undershirt and pulled it upwards, a movement made both more difficult and more urgent by G'raha's unceasing motions against him. It tangled in his arms before he managed to get it off and thrown onto the floor. He pushed the smalls off his lower body as G'raha's arms caged him, his scent surrounding him. G'raha barely allowed him to do it before pressing his body against him, and the shock of his warmth on bare skin made Jullus bite in a gasp that G'raha kissed away from his mouth.
"Gods," Jullus said, "I've been trying to ignore how lovely you are."
G'raha laughed, a vibration he felt throughout the front of Jullus's body. Color dusted his face. "I'd nearly forgotten how it feels to desire freely."
Not to use his hands made for an interesting challenge. Jullus caressed with his body instead, pressing forward against G'raha's insistent push, as G'raha's compactly muscled body flowed into the space against him like water and chased the chill away with his eager heat. The brush of one cock against another was half accident at first. The jolt of pleasure put energy into Jullus's limbs and made him pursue it, gripping G'raha's shoulder for leverage as he slid his thighs against his. Their movements were hasty and inexpert. Suddenly G'raha rolled on top of him and pinioned him to the bed, thumbs pressing into his collarbone, arched tail lifting the blankets above them, and rutted against Jullus with his full weight. His slitted pupils were wide and vastly black in the firelight. Jullus rose up against him, and by trial and the heave of their hips they found an angle that made for a satisfying wrench of pleasure, and that made G'raha's breath roughen in answer. His ears moved with the rhythm of his body. Jullus's cock was caught against the heat of G'raha's firm stomach, brushing against the dense softness of his hair. He pulled him down by his shoulders, urging him not to hold back and to give him all he had. Then G'raha's movements became slow and profound as he fit his cock against Jullus's and rolled his body in a long unfurling motion, his face pressed against Jullus's shoulder, mouth open and exhaling hot breaths against his skin.
"It's all right," Jullus said, hand finding G'raha's hair and burying. "Bite."
Hesitation, for an instant, then the sting of teeth. Jullus let out a cry and stopped any attempt at control of his pace. His hips jerked up raggedly against G'raha with a rough burst of pleasure, and wetness splashed against his stomach. Then, as his thighs trembled with his release, he watched G'raha's eyelids flicker and his mouth go slack, face lost in concentration as he pulled in rough air. Jullus swayed against him, and G'raha's back curled so that the seed arced through the air before falling hot on Jullus's skin.
G'raha collapsed onto him with a weight that made the bed shake, and Jullus laughed, stroking his shoulder. "Easy, now. This is an antique."
"Oh, you're not that old. But do you want to know a secret?" With a twitch of maroon ears, G'raha leaned in and nipped him. His tail moved beneath the blankets. "I am."
Jullus found that a part of him had been expecting this. "That explains much."
A sated smile played at the edges of G'raha's mouth. "Does it?"
"You move like no one I've ever known before." Jullus's breaths made G'raha rise and fall above him like a ship on the ocean. "A hint of grume and tillock...no, there was someone. A neighbor, an old man I used to know. He would move like that on dry spring days when his joints weren't aching. With surprise that it was so easy."
G'raha said, "Would you like to hear of my adventure?"
First, Jullus insisted on being a gentleman. He ventured out of the blankets to wet and warm a cloth, then cleaned the both of them, enjoying the way G'raha sighed and leaned into his hand. Satisfaction had made his companion liquid. He spread their wet things out to dry on chairs before the fire, checked that the pouch of crystals was safely on the table, and only then climbed back into bed and said to the man who settled into his arms, "Tell me."
He did. As long and strange as the tale was, Jullus could see that he was getting an abbreviated version , like a children's edition of War and Further War. A world cursed with endless daylight, monsters that made monsters in their wake. A hundred years of exile, the fate at the end of the classic stage tragedies. A body turned to stone in an enchanted tower. He could imagine a time in the past when he would have strained to believe it. While the fire crackled to embers he listened, and only now realized how much he had craved this combination of safety, privacy, and someone to talk to.
"You built a city," Jullus echoed, "alone and in a hostile land."
"Not alone. Far from it. The people of that world became friends, family." He smiled faintly in the low firelight. "You would like Lyna. She is a protector, like you."
"You shall not distract me from how incredible that is. The logistics alone." Jullus had some idea of what it took to keep a legion on its feet, and what happened in the lack. "You could have thrown them to the wolves and pursued what you wanted."
"Shut myself up in my tower with my books?" G'raha's fingers, warm now with exertion, stroked across the hill of Jullus's shoulder. "Lyna would not have been the only one to kick in the doors and drag me out by the hair. Selfishness is never so easy as we think. Instead I indulged in following in the footsteps of my home."
That hope had remained with him, in a world unimaginably distant. "How strange it must have been to return."
"I never expected that I would. It was a discovery all over again." His face rested against Jullus's chest, and he closed his eyes. "Everything has been. Over one hundred years alive, and I am no better than anyone at guessing what tomorrow will bring."
As frightening as the idea was, he sounded more curious than alarmed. Jullus watched the firelight make patterns in the knots of the ceiling beams and let himself wonder.
Light fell through the window onto the bed in a rectangle that was precisely full of G'raha. It lightened the blues of the quilt as it lightened the red of his hair to a dusty rose. Did all cat-men sleep with such artistry? His breath was long and even, his hands nestled between them, and Jullus, finally, fell to temptation.
The ears, being so much larger than a cat's, were firmer to the touch. The grain was slippery under gentle stroking, and the very edges were trimmed with short and satiny fur, like a lord's robe. As Jullus ran his fingertips along the edge, transfixed, G'raha's eyes slowly opened, found him, and closed again. His head knocked against Jullus's hand.
Snow had fallen in the night and left a white blanket out the window under a piercingly blue sky. As silent as the morning was, Jullus felt the reverberation against his body before he heard the rumble that came in soft, constant waves.
"What are you thinking of," G'raha said, his voice burled with sleep, "with such an intent look on your face?"
Jullus's thumb stroked the outer edge of an ear. "It's maudlin, I warn you."
"I'm sturdy enough for it."
The morning air made the hairs prickle on Jullus's arm. The room was smaller in daylight, with its rag rug and its rocking chair. The chill made the warmth of the bed more delicious, as though it were a kept secret. "I was thinking that if I had died there, I would never have felt this."
"Mhm." G'raha pressed his face against Jullus's pectoral, and his body shifted in small, comfortable movements. His yawn was impressive and showed none of the fangs that rumor had promised. Propaganda, once again. "Strange, isn't it, to know the exact moment that the story might have gone on without you."
"If it had not been for those who held you here." Jullus had, now, the mystery that when better and stronger men and women had been lost, a part of him he could not name had looked at his death and turned away.
G'raha said, "I will not say anything so lamentable as that it makes each day precious."
Jullus's fingers delved to the base of G'raha's ears and scratched gently at the downy fur. "I will not say that it does not."
They were gracious guests. Before leaving the strangers' house that had given them shelter, they cleared away their traces, folded blankets, and chopped fresh wood to leave in the hearth basket for the next set of travelers in need. At the doorway Jullus paused and gave G'raha a firm kiss, just to discover if it was still possible. He caught the flick of a tail out of the corner of his eye before he pulled down his goggles.
They emerged into a white world of dazzling sunlight and cold that stole the first breath from Jullus's lungs.
"I'll clear the way," Jullus said over his shoulder. G'raha's orange hat bobbed with his nod. He waded forward and they struck out, two spots of color cutting their way through the snow.