The Coexistence of Regress and Progress (Rei Ginsei’s Saga vol. 2, Ch. 17)
December 28, 2018
A chapter of a thing! I hope you like it. Sabrael does what I wished I could do, probably what a lot of people wish they could do so stalwartly, but we all know what a big heart he has for being so small.
It was dark by the time Rei and Sabrael and Esbern reached the surface. Rei took a deep breath in through his nose. The smell of polluted canal water seemed nonexistent now that there was fresh air to breathe around it. He hadn’t seen Tauryon on their way out, but he wasn’t looking terribly hard. If he wasn’t in the inn, they would wait, and if an hour passed, he would leave Sabrael and Esbern and go looking. Talen-Jei, the Argonian Sabrael had been so taken with, recognized them and continued to be amiable. Rei thought there was a good chance he could slip him a few septims to keep an eye out. Not that he expected Esbern to do anything on the scale of Vallinalda’s exploits, but he couldn’t leave the old man alone, and he didn’t need an old man slowing him down.
Luckily, it proved to be a moot point. At first, Rei didn’t see anyone but rowdy, sweaty bar patrons when the entered the Bee and Barb, but when a couple of people parted ways, he noticed shoulder-length hair the color of rich, dark cherry wood.
“Tauryon!” Rei laughed, leaving Sabrael and Esbern behind and pushing through patrons to get to him. “Tauryon, your hair!”
“I was hoping it would’ve taken you a bit longer to find me,” his friend pouted as he rose from his seat and turned. “What do you think? I think she maybe went a bit overboard with the chin, but it’s not too bad, wouldn’t you- Xarxes’ quill, what happened to you? Your poor eye!”
“Occupational hazards,” he said casually, in defiance of the unusually sharp pain around his injured eye. “Tauryon…”
“It’s not that bad, is it?” Tauryon chuckled. “Why are you crying?”
“It’s more than I was expecting, that’s all,” Rei sniffed, wiping his tears with the side of his hand. “It’s like going back in time… That’s not how you looked at eighty-two.”
“I may have told her to smooth things out just a bit more.”
“You’re just as I remembered.”
Rei reached out and touched the smooth skin. His mind was filled with sun and the sea, the smell of honeysuckle, and the time spent with his best and only real friend. Tauryon’s hand covered his. Suddenly, he threw his arms around his friend’s neck and held him tightly, bending a little to lean his head against his.
“It’s like I never left,” he said quietly.
“You didn’t,” Tauryon answered, stroking his hair.
“Tauryon!” Sabrael cried as he caught up. “You look so pretty!”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been called pretty, but-”
“Now who’s this Altmer?” Esbern interrupted as Tauryon picked Sabrael up.
“Oh. Esbern, this is Tauryon. He’s our friend and ally.”
“How do you know?”
“He’s been my friend for centuries! I’m sure that doesn’t mean much, really, but, even for Altmer, four hundred years is a long time to be putting on a charade. At the very least I’d think boredom would cut it short, if nothing else.”
“I see. He certainly doesn’t look four hundred. Neither do you, come to think.”
“Daedric magic is strong. I traded quite a bit for my formerly eternal youth – my mortal appearance, among other things.”
“As for me,” Tauryon continued, “My vanity simply took a different path. Perhaps you know of the face sculptor in the Flagon?”
“You did that today?” Esbern asked suspiciously. “Vanity seems an easy excuse to justify something that could be interpreted as an attempt at subterfuge.”
“Would I have told you at all if that were the case?” Tauryon drawled. “Would my companions have openly expressed their admiration?”
“I suppose not. Well, come on, come on. We’ve no time to waste!”
“Is it imperative?” Rei asked. “The sun’s long gone, we’ve already had a very long day. If we set out now, we’d have to camp. We may as well just stay here for the night.”
“Slight progress is still progress,” Esbern insisted.
Rei traded looks with his companions. Tauryon only shrugged, leaving it to him.
“Alright,” Rei sighed. “Esbern, you’ll take the dun bay, Windy. Sabrael can ride with me. I probably have two hours before I’ll be completely useless, so if we’re going to do this, let’s do it now.”
They took the road west. Sabrael sat in front of Rei in the saddle as he had started dozing early on and Rei didn’t want him to fall. Now he was leaning back against him, snoring lightly, his emotional silence doing nothing to ease Rei’s own exhaustion. His right eye continued to hurt in an unusually ferocious way, and it had swelled so much that by now the skin was stretched taut and stinging. His chest ached. His arms were stiff, and the beds of his claws throbbed from the stress he’d put on them. His potions were helping the pain a little, but not enough, and Esbern wouldn’t stop nagging at them to hurry. He was saying other things, too, but Rei had long stopped parsing his words. They didn’t sound important enough to pay much attention to, anyway.
“Can you make it to Ivarstead?” he vaguely heard Tauryon ask beside him as they rode. They had long ago let Esbern lead as he rambled.
“I don’t know, Tauryon,” Rei answered. “I really don’t.”
“It’s only a few more miles.”
“Something tells me if we get to Ivarstead, Esbern will just want us to press on. I guess we might as well.”
“No, we’re either camping here or we’re staying in town. You’re half asleep as it is.”
Rei sighed. “Esbern?” he called.
“Have you been listening?” he old man called back somewhat sharply. “I’ve been telling all of you important information about the peril we are all in!”
“With all due respect,” Rei answered, “it was not remotely easy getting to you. If you’ll notice, my eye is ruined, I’ve been enduring ribs that haven’t been allowed rest after being broken, and my muscles are so stiff I can barely move. Please forgive me if I’m not in the best state of mind to listen to very thick and arcane history.”
“That thick and arcane history is our key to surviving, Rei Ginsei! Now come on. I might have been locked away, but I remember enough to know we can get to Riverwood by-”
“Esbern,” Tauryon interrupted, “please understand Rei Ginsei and Sabrael both risked life and limb to find you and tell you of the danger. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to stop in Ivarstead at least for a few hours so that Rei can rest for more than a few minutes. All of us have been up since before dawn, besides.”
The old man grunted impatiently. “Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right. But only long enough for him to get back on his feet.”
Rei sometimes missed the weightlessness of a missing soul – he often did, considering the strength of his emotions – but one of the advantages he missed the most, or at least right now, was the inability to feel the emotional discomfort of total exhaustion. The effort of staying awake was almost more agonizing than the overall pain his body was in. Somehow, through some sort of divine providence, he was sure, he made it with his companions all the way to Ivarstead without falling out of the saddle and taking poor Sabrael with him.
Tauryon told him to go on inside; he would take care of the horses if Rei would only rent the rooms. Waking Sabrael was no small feat, and when he did stir, he was stuck in that void between sleep and wakefulness, his vocabulary reduced to mumbles and vague grunts. Tauryon struggled to help his almost-dead weight down just before Rei struggled to dismount, himself. He grabbed their necessities, including Esbern’s blasted books, and trudged towards the inn with Sabrael, with Esbern impatiently walking ahead.
Finally, the bed lay before him. He’d helped Sabrael out of his clothes and laid him down, and he attempted to tuck him in, only to have the little daedra immediately kick the covers off. He laughed imperceptibly and stood at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t do it. He needed a bath, but even taking his clothes off seemed like too much work. And so, he crawled onto the middle of the bed, fully clothed, right down to his boots, and fell asleep as soon as he laid down.
Tauryon awakened, shivering. Between him and Sabrael was the empty space that Celedaen had been occupying. He wasn’t terribly surprised. A lot had happened to him and around him: the pain and its various sources, and then having to put up with an old man’s irritable ramblings. He was very proud of Celedaen’s restraint, although he had to wonder if it was restraint or exhaustion; he’d never seen his lover so drained. And yet, he was still as restless as he’d ever been.
He rolled onto his back, thinking of those times back home when he and Celedaen would stay awake into the wee hours – at a tavern, in their shack, on the coast. He wasn’t a night person, himself, but when Celedaen was with him, he always hoped the night would never end and that he could just stay awake and laugh and talk with his best friend forever.
When he really needed someone to talk to, when he was fretting over something hard enough to miss out on sleep, there was always a good chance that Celedaen was awake. He would take a rope bridle and ride his horse bareback to the neighboring village and the Aedeus manse where he would conjure a tiny little light that would burst into hundreds of even tinier stars when it reached its apex by Celedaen’s window. If he was there, he would always open the window and throw down the rope he kept for just such occasions. It was a necessary evil as Arteano and Imaralda Aedeus reviled him and his family, and Arteano shared his son’s tendency towards fitful sleep. The silver lining to the situation, though, was the romantic ideas it put into Tauryon’s head. Celedaen would welcome him in, and they would talk, or sometimes nothing was said at all. Sometimes he would play with his magic while Celedaen watched or wrote. Sometimes Tauryon would fall asleep in a chair. He never woke up next to Celedaen, but he would always find himself covered with a warm quilt.
He never said anything contrary to his love. Why would he have? Celedaen was never, ever angry with him. Tauryon might not have always agreed with the things he said about this person or that, but it didn’t matter. When Celedaen needed emotional release, he came to Tauryon, and Tauryon knew how important that release was, and he could handle it happily and with no real effort. Since Vile, though, things had been different. Celedaen maybe needed him more than he ever had, and what had he done but lecture him? Military life and losing Aicanath had done much to temper his own impulsivity, and he supposed that made it easier to see it in others, and in the case of Celedaen, what he would have been easily able to see without any reference point, at all, was now quite a bit more magnified.
He licked his lips and looked over at Sabrael, reassuring himself that he was as thoroughly asleep as he ever had been. As he swung his legs over the side of the bed and gathered his clothes in the darkness, he acknowledged to himself that what he was thinking was what most people would call crazy and perhaps even wrong. Most people weren’t him, however, and most people didn’t know Celedaen the way he did. He hadn’t planned on his superficial age reversal being such a success. It made him cry when he looked in Galathil’s looking glass, and it made Celedaen cry with the certain breed of joy and relief that only friends as old as they were could experience.
The air was cold when Tauryon stepped outside the inn door, and he pulled his coat around him closer. It was clear, though, and he looked up at the dark, star-speckled sky and smiled. The constellations were slightly different all the way up here, but they were there. He could just see the slightly bluer tinge signaling the eminent sunrise. Celedaen wasn’t anywhere immediately visible, but he remembered where he said he would be when he needed time to think about the rather tasteless things those monks had told him. When all the hideousness with Vallinalda started.
Tauryon shuddered and headed towards the little fishing dock where, surely enough, a figure sat, white hair and tail nearly glowing in the moonlight. Tauryon chuckled as he watched the tail’s tip twitch up and down, creating a tiny shockwave that ran about halfway up the length.
“Have I ever told you that it’s quite interesting seeing a canine’s tail that switches the way a cat’s does?”
Celedaen turned and smiled softly. “I’m a patchwork, what can I say? I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No,” Tauryon answered, drawing a hissing breath as sharp pains radiated from his knees as he lowered himself to sit. It wasn’t as bad as it had been, but it was bad. “Everything alright?”
“I hurt too much, is all. I don’t know how I managed to get what sleep I did.”
“Poor thing. Have you taken another potion?”
Celedaen shook his head. “I’m out. I was hoping I wouldn’t need to see a healer again this soon, but I guess I have no real choice. All the potions were doing was keeping the pain somewhat in check. But never mind my scrapes; how are your knees?”
“They’re mending as much as they’re able,” Tauryon said. “I doubt I’ll see much more progress in that arena, but that’s really my own fault stopping my routine the way I did. Nobody talks about the effects of stopping the rituals. Nobody wants to admit that the price for stalling time is that time will always catch back up, one way or another.”
Celedaen looked over at him with that rare look of concern he liked to think only he had ever seen in their youth. It made him melt, and, without thinking, he budged over enough to lean against his oldest friend. The warmth of a long arm around his shoulders was all he had ever wanted. It was one thing before his facial reconstruction, but now it felt fully complete, Celedaen’s physical differences notwithstanding. He wasn’t the old Tauryon anymore.
“You know that dragon said that I was forsaking my gift,” Celedaen said, apropos of nothing. “I feel like such an idiot. I never learned the third word of the Unrelenting Force shout, and I had completely forgotten the word I learned in Ustengrav until the dragon died yesterday. Even then, I’ve not thought to see what that word actually does.”
“I don’t think anyone can fault you.”
“There is no ‘maybe’ about it,” Tauryon insisted, snuggling closer. This was the way it should have been. Making his love feel better not just through listening and reassurance, but through a real, physical expression of affection. Things were going to be better. Things were going to be fun. “So what is that word, now that you’ve come to understand it?”
“It’s ‘feim‘,” he said. “When I found it, the word ‘transparent’ came to mind, but the dragon’s soul defined it as ‘fade’. To fade, a verb.”
“What does that mean? What’s fading?”
“Me, I think.”
“That’s still not terribly descriptive.”
“Well, one way to find out, isn’t there?” Celedaen asked, taking his arm back and placing his hands on the edge of the dock, on either side of his hips. He looked ahead, concentrating. Finally he took a deep, quick breath, and shouted, “Feim!”
Tauryon was expecting something more explosive, but what escaped Celedaen’s lips wasn’t a shout as much as it was an oddly distorted version of his voice, closer to a whisper – a whisper that was somehow still very loud – and instead of disturbing the things around them, he saw the air warp around his friend as he, indeed, became transparent and somewhat grey, like a fog given shape.
“What on Nirn…” Tauryon marveled as Celedaen looked at his hands. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Celedaen answered, smiling in the clever, somewhat unnerving way he did when something had grabbed a certain part of his mind.
Tauryon watched as Celedaen reached out and put his hand right through his chest. It didn’t hurt. “You’re not dead, are you?” he asked uneasily.
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s safe to say I’m at least like a ghost. From here it looks like I’m caught between two planes. Everything’s shifting. Gods, I really could have used this yesterday. Forget making things fly into walls; can you imagine how deadly this could make…”
Tauryon had been growing more excited with Celedaen’s realizations, but it pained him to see the hesitation in his joy.
“No, Celedaen,” he said. Slowly his friend was becoming solid again, his face betraying his frustration. “Don’t feel like you have to mask your nature, at least not from me. You are deadly, and you’re fierce, and you’re passionate, and that’s what made me love you.”
The knot in Celedaen’s long throat bobbed. “Apologies, Tauryon, but since Clavicus that hasn’t really been something I’ve gotten from you. I know you love me, and I know you’re happy to see me through to aiding our people, but – I’m sorry, I can’t think of any other way to say this – you’ve always sided with Sabrael.”
“I know, Celedaen, and part of it is because my love for your soul bond was born of protection from you. I told Sabrael that night how much I had been in love with you. I wanted to tell him I’d never been afraid of you, as well, but I didn’t want to make things worse.”
Celedaen turned back and looked down at the water. “He does rely on you for comfort when I do something that upsets him. It hurts me, if I’m honest, but I understand why he does. And I’m…I’m glad he has you. I wouldn’t want to be alone feeling that way with no one else to turn to.”
Tauryon sucked in his lips and looked down as Celedaen’s breath hitched.
“I love you, Tauryon, please don’t think otherwise, but you’re not the same.”
He had known it was coming, and he took a deep, bolstering breath as he wiped the tears from his eyes with the base of his thumb. “The two most devastating events in my life were, first, Aicanath’s murder, and, second, your disappearance. In that order, Celedaen, just to be clear.”
“As it should be,” his friend nodded.
“Thank you. With that said, however, I may not have gone into solitude in mourning, and I may not have starved myself to the point of near-death, but I did mourn you deeply. And I didn’t eat for a long time. I never got to say goodbye to the person I adored most of all. I thought you would find me if things had gone according to plan. I knew the authorities were looking for you, but the last thing you said to me was asking me to wish you luck. And I know you, Celedaen, I knew you would say goodbye, so all I could think was that Vile had done something to you much worse than what he did.”
“I wanted to, I really did, but-”
“No, I understand why you couldn’t now, but back then…” Tauryon shrugged. “I know I’ve told you that I never stopped mourning you. Four hundred years. When Aicanath died, I was shattered in a way I don’t think anyone imagines that someone can be shattered. I certainly couldn’t have imagined it. I wasn’t the same after that. I can interrogate – I can torture and kill – with the best, but it’s different. I might not have killed when we were together, but I enjoyed helping you. I enjoyed your tales. Interrogation isn’t even the same as that. Aicanath’s death, the court martial, leaving the field for what amounts to a glorified desk job, it all amounts to a change in demeanor. Meeting Sabrael, who is so much like my Aicanath, made me want to protect him even after you were freed from Vile’s clutches.”
“Protect him from me, you mean,” Celedaen said, looking over with his reddened left eye.
“Rather, I wanted to make you more like the way I’d become. Tempered.”
“Why not? Even for all the happiness we’ve felt lately, you’re just like-”
“Stop!” Tauryon interrupted. “I was wrong. Seeing myself in the mirror broke something loose in my mind. In my heart. I thought I remembered the way we were, but obviously I hadn’t. I want to be your safe haven again, the person you always came to when you needed reassurance and care, the one you knew would never judge your or lecture you or make you feel like a lesser person.”
Celedaen’s breathing was slow as he studied him, and Tauryon tried to make his countenance as open as he could. It hurt knowing that he’d put such a dent in their relationship that Celedaen viewed him now the way he viewed everyone else. The distrust may not have been overt, but it was there.
“What are you not saying?” he asked finally.
Tauryon was startled by the question, although he wasn’t sure why. Celedaen’s paranoia wasn’t always paranoia; sometimes he could see through words better than the speaker themselves could, and this was one of those times, he was sure.
“What do you think I’m leaving out?”
“I don’t know specifics, I just know that you’re not this emotional over simply telling me you’ll allow me my fits. I wouldn’t dare speculate.”
“You are the way you are,” he said slowly, feeling out his thoughts. “I am aware that what I am about to say would rightly be viewed as abhorrent by anyone else, but you’re not ‘anyone else’. And, I doubt anyone else would have won my heart by doing the things you did, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have aided anyone else in the way I did you. You made me feel alive, Celedaen, a bored and idle young man who didn’t really want the life his parents laid out for him. When you spoke to me for the first time, my heart skipped, and soon I found all sorts of reasons to love you: you’re clever and charming and, even now, you’re very handsome. But most of all, even if it does come from a place of anger, you embraced something that not only gave you relief, but that seemed second nature. It was the thrill you expressed to me; how could I not help you, to claim a piece of that joy for my own?
“As I said, nobody in their right mind would feel that way about an indiscriminate murderer, but I did, and I do…at least when you’re not out to kill me or Sabrael.”
Celedaen smirked, and Tauryon sighed with relief.
“I understand why you did that, though,” he continued, “and that reason is, if not dead, taken care of, and I trust you. I want you to embrace that part of yourself again, Celedaen, and I want to help you do that, however I can.”
“What about Sabrael? The reason I can’t embrace it is because it hurts him.”
“However I can. I can help you feel properly happy and fulfilled and still be there for Sabrael when he needs someone, can’t I? Let me give myself to you as I did back then.”
Celedaen closed his one good eye and took a deep breath. “I would love nothing more than to go back to the way things were,” he said, “but Sabrael is my priority, hard as it honestly is to keep those traits you love at bay. At least let me think about it, but I need your assurance that I won’t run into another ‘Vallinalda Situation’. If I say that we should just keep things as they are, that’s how it’s going to be. Lectures, and all.”
“Absolutely,” Tauryon nodded. He was a little disappointed that his friend wasn’t as excited as he’d expected, but he could respect his trepidation. He was also a little proud of him for his new thoughtfulness, and he was even a little ashamed at the way he, himself, had run so hard into such a notion. “Regardless of what you decide, I won’t stop loving you.”
Celedaen looked back over, properly, smiling softly in that unusual cock-eyed way that only showed up when something particularly touched him. “Thank you, Tauryon.”
Tauryon closed his eyes and sighed with the calm that properly enveloped him, and when he heard the rustle of his lover’s coat and felt his warm breath, he parted his lips and returned the kiss as deeply as he could. Regardless of what Celedaen ultimately decided, he couldn’t stop his devotion. He wouldn’t.
Somehow, amidst Esbern’s endless nagging, griping, and general chattering, the party set off around mid-morning. It was far too late, the old man kept harping through breakfast, so much that Rei had to stifle a laugh when he felt Sabrael’s uncharacteristic annoyance and the nearly murderous stare he was giving a nebulous point in front of him as he chewed. The harping didn’t stop as they packed, nor was there any thanks given as Rei lugged his books again outside into a light so painful he had to almost completely close his good eye. Why always the right one? He’d much rather lose his night vision than operate nearly blind in the sun.
There was no helping it. He donned the hood he didn’t particularly like wearing, but even so, he asked Sabrael if he wouldn’t mind doing the driving.
“Can you handle going into Riverwood?” he asked his kirin quietly as they crossed the bridge over the White River.
“I don’t know,” Sabrael answered. “I’m sorry, Rei. I know you don’t need the inconvenience right now, not with your eye and with Esbern. I’ll go with you.”
“You don’t have to, beauty. Tauryon will stay with you if you need him to.”
“No,” Sabrael said after a moment. Rei felt the tightening of his husband’s chest and the reluctant resignation, but he also felt the bravery peeking through those uncomfortable clouds. “I can’t be a baby every single time we go through there. I can’t hope for a dragon to scare me into trying to help you just to get me from one end of the town to another.”
“I never thought you were being a baby, Sabrael,” Rei said, pressing his lips to the top of his kirin’s head. “Look how long it took me to set foot into moving water. Just considering facing your fear makes you braver than I ever was.”
“Didn’t you leave Summer-, er, Alinor on a ship?”
“Drugged so hard that I barely remember it at all. I don’t think that counts as facing anything. It might even be cheating.”
Sabrael giggled. “Okay. I’ll be brave and try to make it to the inn.”
“There’s no shame in turning around if you need to.”
“I’ll make it, Rei. You watch.”
Rei hugged him tightly, cherishing the feelings of strength and happiness coming from Sabrael’s heart.
“What did I do to deserve you?” he whispered without thinking.
“Did you have to do anything?”
“I don’t know. If I did, then I suppose it must have been something good, even if I’m at a loss as to what that could’ve been.”
He felt Sabrael take one of his hands and kiss it. Tauryon was, for some reason, now trying to goad him back into his actively murderous and chaotic self, but this little creature was the anchor he probably should have sought out over another rather disturbed boy who only too happily allowed him to run rampant across the island they lived on. That same boy had turned into a voice of reason that was something additional to keep him grounded – a good thing, if an irritating one. Now Tauryon seemingly decided he didn’t like being the voice of reason, either, and that missing tether was going to be hell to ignore. His friend may have said he’d back off if that’s what Rei wanted, but it seemed like one of those things that, when put to voice, was hard to dismiss entirely.
As they drew nearer to the north gate, Tauryon looked back from his horse. Rei realized he didn’t know its name, that nobody had made any mention of it since Ondolemar’s death, and he felt a little bad for it. The old girl hadn’t chosen to be handled by filth.
“Are you alright, Sabrael?” he called.
“I’m…” Sabrael paused to swallow. Rei felt his heart speeding, and he held his kirin close to his chest and tried to impart the rhythm of his slow breathing. “I’m alright. I’ll be alright.”
“You can do this, sweetheart,” he said. “Tauryon and I are both here, and we’ll keep you safe.”
“Just let me go,” Sabrael said as they rode through the gate. “Let me go, I don’t wanna be held here.”
Rei complied, putting his hands on the bundles piled on Baku’s shifting rump. It made him feel slighted, but he supposed he could understand; the last time they arrived in Riverwood, one of the more emphatic things Sabrael expressed was a sudden claustrophobia, and it wasn’t too far of a stretch to imagine that his little kirin had felt trapped when Vallinalda had gone after him. Or however she’d gone about her loathsome business. Still, Sabrael was persevering in spite of the fear and anxiety that Rei felt acutely in his chest.
“You’re doing well, beauty,” he said.
“What’s the hold-up?” Esbern yelled as he dismounted Windy.
A byproduct of Sabrael’s fear was an apparent tension that was making him unconsciously pull back on the reins and bringing Baku to a slow walk. Esbern had been so quiet for once that Rei had taken for granted that he’d stay that way. His impatience made his lip curl, and he had to try very hard to keep his reflexive anger in check so as not to add to Sabrael’s nerves. Nerves he had already been trying to calm by slowing and deepening his breath still further and trying to actively feel courageous.
“The ‘hold-up’, as you put it,” Tauryon said as they reached the hitching post, themselves, “is Sabrael facing a very real trauma that occurred in this very spot not two weeks ago. All you’ve done since we found you is gripe about this, that, and the other, and we’ve tolerated it as best as we can. The least you could do is afford us some modicum of patience and respect in kind.”
“Hmph,” Esbern grunted. “Delphine is the innkeeper you said, yes? I’ll go on inside.”
“Please do,” Rei said through clenched teeth.
“Rei,” Sabrael said in a high-pitched voice.
“It’s the spot…”
“Do you need to leave?”
Sabrael’s breathing was speeding, and empathetic numbness wiggled into Rei’s fingers.
“No, I can do this,” he answered, his words spilling from his mouth so frantically they almost merged into one single sound.
“Sabrael, there’s no shame in-”
“Stop!” he interrupted Tauryon’s reassurance. “That makes it worse just help me down please please. If I can get in I’ll be okay I know I will please.”
Tauryon’s face betrayed a hurt, but Rei offered him a reassuring smile. His friend took a deep breath and held his arms out. Sabrael, meanwhile, only let himself be held just long enough to touch the ground with his feet, and as soon as they did, he pushed himself away from Tauryon and bolted towards the steps leading to the inn’s porch and finally through its door which he slammed behind him. Rei felt relief slam hard into him just as hard, and he couldn’t stop the accompanying laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Tauryon asked as Rei dismounted.
“It’s just Sabrael’s relief at making it inside,” he said. “I’m feeling his laughter.”
“So it did make him feel better?”
“It would seem so. I hope you didn’t take his reaction too much to heart. It wasn’t personal.”
“I know,” Tauryon sighed. “It still stings, nonetheless.”
“It does, I know. Come on.”
Rei put his hand behind his lover’s head and leaned down to kiss him, smiling as Tauryon relaxed.
When they entered the inn, Rei saw Sabrael leaning back against the wall to his left and grinning, beaming, even. His cheeks were glowing with satisfaction and pride, and as soon as Rei turned to him, he rushed into his open arms. Rei picked him up and returned the hard kiss, ignoring the flare of pain in his sides as best as he could.
“I did it! I did it, Rei!”
“I’m so proud of you, Sabrael,” Rei said. “You faced your fear better than I ever could.”
Sabrael grinned and pulled him closer so that Rei felt his soft cheek against his neck.
“I suppose we should go and get this over with,” Rei sighed as he let Sabrael down. “Don’t want the old man to have a heart attack over this.”
“Or do we?” Tauryon drawled.
“It’s about time!” Esbern snapped as they walked into the hidden basement. “What on Nirn were you doing?”
“Making sure Sabrael was properly calmed,” Tauryon said.
“Well I hope it was worth it, you lollygagging around,” Delphine said. “It doesn’t surprise me that weak little fop would be afraid of the nothing that’s outside.”
Before he realized what he was doing, Rei was in front of Delphine with his hand around her neck, lifting her up and slamming her against the wall. A collective cry of shock erupted from the other people in the room, and Sabrael’s sudden fear struck him like an arrow from the heaviest bow he could imagine, but he didn’t care.
“I would have the world die a thousand deaths before I tolerate your abuse of my husband,” he snarled, pressing harder against the top of her throat as she scrabbled against his hand with her nails. He felt himself being tugged on from behind, but it wasn’t too much work to fight against them. “Don’t think for a second that I’m above killing you right here, consequences be damned.”
Delphine was making desperate gagging noises as her eyes bulged and her lips began to turn blue.
“Are we clear?” Rei whispered.
Delphine managed a snarl of her own, clearly fighting her pride. Rei slammed her head against the wall as he continued to fight against the efforts to pull him away, against the dull roar of panic around him.
“Clear,” she wheezed, “you’re clear, let me go!”
Rei took his hand away and let her drop unceremoniously to the floor. Delphine clutched at her bruising throat, coughing enough to make herself gag. Esbern relinquished his grip on Rei’s arm, and Sabrael, so terrified Rei felt ill, adjusted his hold to hug his other arm, shaking. Tauryon…
Rei looked back to see Tauryon standing serenely apart from the others, smiling almost imperceptibly. He had to stop himself from laughing giddily. This was, indeed, what his friend had been promising him, what Rei said he would need to think about. There was conflict, still – the happiness he felt as Tauryon reclaimed the role he’d taken as a youth, and the abject fear of his precious kirin that would be better handled by Tauryon’s calming presence.
He swallowed as he placed his hand over Sabrael’s head, trying to fight fear with comfort.
“Now,” Tauryon said, “what have we made this rather obnoxious journey for this time?”
“You would goad things along when your friend nearly committed murder?” Esbern exclaimed.
“Oh, but I thought this was absolutely imperative, that every moment wasted brings us closer to annihilation?”
Rei cackled through closed teeth, his cheeks aching from grinning. Conflict or no, nothing could really quell that sort of exhilaration.
“Shut up,” Delphine snapped hoarsely, using the wall to push herself up. “I guess, if nothing else, we have a Dragonborn willing to fight.”
Esbern sighed with exasperation. “I suppose that’s something. Now, as I’ve been saying, the prophecy is coming to pass. Alduin is here, and he will continue raising his kin until mankind is wiped out, and the world meets its end. His revenge for what happened many ages ago.”
“So you’ve indeed been saying,” Rei said. “What’s our plan? I assume you must have some idea on how to stop this. I certainly hope we haven’t wasted our time for what amounts to an unsolicited history lesson.”
“I know much about the Blades’ history, but I do not know exactly how Alduin was first defeated. Our best hope is to find Alduin’s Wall – an artifact carved by the Akaviri under the instruction of Reman II that depicts mankind’s victory over the dragons.”
“And where is this wall?” Delphine choked.
“If my sources are correct, it’s located in Skyhaven Temple, the old home of our order. That is located here,” Esbern said, indicating a place on the map Delphine kept on the table in the center of the room.
“The Karthspire?” Rei asked.
“Are you sure, Esbern?” Delphine asked. “I’m sure you know that’s a collective of Forsworn? Has been for far longer than the years you spent hiding away.”
“Forgive me for saying so,” Tauryon said, “but I have no real desire to take on an entire tribe of those people if what I’ve heard is true. They’re ruthless, and surely there will be far more of them than there are the five of us.”
“I suppose we’ll have to try,” Delphine sighed. “I know Skyrim pretty well, and if memory serves, there’s no real way around it. Best to set out now, then, and get it over with. We can travel there together, or we can go separately.”
“I think you know the answer to that,” Rei said. His grin was gone, his annoyance was back.
“The feeling’s mutual. It’s probably best we split up, anyway. We’ll meet you at the mining camp nearby. Don’t dawdle. Come on, Esbern. Let me pack my things. I don’t think I’ll be coming back here.”
Rei watched as they pushed by and ascended the stairs. He could’ve killed her. Maybe he should’ve. Tauryon would’ve been understanding, but on the other hand, he really didn’t want to cause his husband more pain. There was also the fact that he’d then have to fight his way out of town lest he wind up in a prison. Why was everything made up of compromises?
“Rei, you know you didn’t have to do that,” Sabrael said with a shaking voice. “Not over me. I understand why you did it, but couldn’t you have just stuck with words, instead?”
Rei cut his eyes over to Sabrael, realized what was happening, and tried to stuff his upset into the back of his mind.
“Celedaen sees himself as your protector, as he should,” Tauryon said. “What would you have done if somebody had said something so terrible about him?”
Sabrael pulled away from his embrace and looked over at their lover, taken aback by his uncharacteristic rationalization. “I’d say something, of course, and I’d probably raise my voice, but…Rei, didn’t I try and keep Ondolemar off of you before I had to kill him?”
“You did, beauty,” Rei said quickly. “You did, and it was the right thing to do.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes. Even if I’d wished you’d have kept your distance from him. I’ll do better next time, I promise.”
Rei looked over at Tauryon as Sabrael hugged him. Tauryon held up a hand and bowed slightly.
This was going to be difficult.
“Rei?” Sabrael asked when they were out by the horses. Tauryon had gone to the general store to see about a new blanket for Ondolemar’s old mount. “Is Tauryon upset with me?”
“Of course not, sweetheart,” he answered. His hands shook slightly from the residual anxiety Sabrael was feeling being back outside.
“He basically said I shouldn’t have felt the way I did. He sounded the way my mother always did when she chided us for something. Before, when you’d do something that upset me, he’d be more gentle. It was like he was calling me ungrateful.”
“He’s irritable right now, that’s all, between exhaustion and dealing with that walking corpse. I’m sure it wasn’t anything more than him offering what he could and missing the mark. Just as we all do from time to time.”
“I’m glad you stood up for me, anyway.”
“Of course I would. Why in Oblivion would I lie about something like that?”
“I think it’s just me feeling off-balance,” he said. After a short pause he asked, timidly, “Do you think I should have killed him sooner?”
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Rei answered. “I would have tried to weather the abuse. I only wanted for your safety.”
“And I just wanted to keep you safe as you always have me. I might not like feeling your anger, but I do appreciate your protectiveness.”
Rei smiled and brushed Sabrael’s hair back with both hands moving along soft cheeks. Tauryon might have reminded him of the past, but Sabrael made him long for a future. A future he would make happen.
Rei rode with his husband and their lover towards Rorikstead, which is where they had been instructed to go in order to reach the camp Delphine had mentioned. Go west and past Rorikstead, take a dirt path to the Old Hroldan Inn and keep going. Can’t miss it.
That’s what they said.
And now nobody was saying anything. Rei rode with his hood pulled far down over his eyes, and, while he was trying hard not to cry, and trying harder not to just scream in impotent rage, he wasn’t trying to mask his emotions. Not from Sabrael. Not from anyone. Even Tauryon was keeping his distance.
They had gone to Whiterun City to see if Rei could be healed. The priestess grudgingly took him in, though it seemed slightly less hectic than it was before, and she saw to him as best as she could. The ribs were fine, more-or-less. They were only ribs. He could breathe more comfortably now, anyway. But his eye, arguably his better eye, couldn’t be saved. What mending the potions did was all wrong. The priestess said that they were from a bad batch, in all likelihood. It wasn’t just a black eye, as it happened. The bone on the outside had been badly fractured. Potions could heal wounds, but if they weren’t mixed in just the right way, it was all too easy to wind up with something that might dull the pain, but also prove detrimental in other aspects. The bone around his eye had unevenly grown together. The pain he’d been feeling wasn’t just because the tissue had been so thoroughly tenderized; the bone was growing into the socket.
He should be thankful, the priestess had said. If he’d waited much longer he could’ve fallen ill to a bad infection. She did manage to reverse the swelling and the bruising, and she somehow trimmed the growth back, but his eye was lost. Crushed by his own face. It had to be removed.
And now he rode his beloved Baku, relieved that the sun was properly falling so that he wouldn’t be as blind and in pain. For the hundredth time, he reached up with his right hand and moved the pads of his fingers over the bandage, feeling the give marking the empty socket. People had likened him to a beast and a demon, and all he could think was that it was lucky that he was neither, because if that was all he was, Tauryon’s hand would’ve been bitten off the second he moved to comfort him, and even Sabrael would’ve been thrown to the floor.
“R-Rei?” Sabrael ventured, his voice cutting through the silence like a knife.
“It’s not all bad, you know, right? You can see in the dark better than anyone!”
“I DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE DARK!” he shrieked, loudly enough that Baku reared and surged forward. Rei felt bad as he reined him back in, stopping him altogether. Baku wasn’t the one trying to make this situation less serious than it was. “I’m not your lantern, I’m not some filthy creature of the night! I would sooner have two perfectly normal eyes than this nonsense Clavicus bestowed upon me, because if I did, I could still fucking see! Or, you know, I could’ve stayed with my master and this could all have been fixed! I have been stabbed, bitten, crushed, burned, and everything in between, and those were always able to be fixed!”
“Don’t, Tauryon, just don’t,” he said. “Neither of you know what this is like. So kindly save your platitudes.”
“Is it a platitude to remind you that there are two people here who love you?”
Rei felt his lip curl. Tauryon was right, and he hated him for it. “I thought you weren’t going to lecture me, anymore?” he sneered.
“Rei, stop it!” Sabrael said sharply.
There it was again, the courage peeking through the fear. That, of all things, made Rei’s chest relax, even if it was only slightly.
“I don’t know what you meant by that, but why are you angry at us? We’ve only been trying to make you feel better.”
“Maybe I can’t feel better right now,” he said sullenly. “I don’t know if I ever can.”
“I know it’s probably hard, considering what I feel from you, but my love doesn’t help, even a little?”
Rei finally dropped the reins and slid his hands over his cheeks and to the back of his neck. He took a deep breath and closed his one good eye, trying to relax, trying to open himself back up.
“I know how you sometimes get consumed,” Sabrael said carefully, “and your feelings drown everything out. Your eye might be gone, but we’re here, we’ll help. That’s what we all do for each other, right?”
Rei glanced over towards Tauryon’s silhouette and licked his lips.
“You’re right, Celedaen, we don’t know what it’s like losing a limb or an eye,” Tauryon said. “And so we can’t understand. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t or won’t help you adjust. I didn’t mean to sound lecturing, my love, I really didn’t, but surely you understand what I was hoping to convey.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. I just don’t like being made inferior.”
“We weren’t doing that,” Sabrael said.
A sob finally broke free. “No, but those bastards down in the Ratway did. I know what I am, but I like the sun! It keeps me warm and it’s the only thing from Alinor – the only part of Alinor – that I took with me when I left home.”
“Celedaen,” Tauryon soothed.
“You took the moon and stars with you, too,” Sabrael offered.
“I don’t like them. Not really.”
“Because maybe if someone had read them before I was born, if my parents had paid more attention as they tried, maybe I wouldn’t be the way I am. Maybe I could’ve made them happy.”
“Weren’t your parents chosen by the stars?” Tauryon asked. “Mine were. Every noble’s parents that I know of were joined that way, and I’m the only noble I personally know of who didn’t. Arrangements aren’t always the best thing. Some couples learn to love each other. Some just play around outside their marriage. Some, like yours, fight against it every step of the way.”
“What’s your point?”
“Even if you had been born under more favorable conditions, your parents would still be the same, wouldn’t they?”
“And you wouldn’t be Celedaen. I might not have fallen for you, you might not have set in motion the events which brought your Sabrael to you, we probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
Rei looked down and took a deep breath through his nose. He remembered what Azura had told him, that he was who he was. Gods, what he would do for an encouraging word from Her…
“He’s right, Rei,” Sabrael said quietly. “You’re not perfect. None of us are. But maybe that’s part of why we love each other.”
Rei shivered, even though it wasn’t that cold. Twilight was properly setting in now, and he was better able to see the features of his loves’ faces. He roughly ran the sleeve of his coat under his nose. It wasn’t something he normally did, but he just suddenly felt so small. Like a child again.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.
“You’re going to let us take care of you,” Tauryon said. “I know how you feel about that, but I know you’ll feel better if we all work through this together.”
“I just want you to keep being brave. It helps me feel grounded.”
His kirin’s smile grew ever clearer, and his heart swelled with the feelings of happiness and relief Sabrael gave to him.
This was agonizing, and it probably would be for a long time. His outburst had let out a lot of the pain, though, and he knew the two men who loved him so much were right, and he knew they would be by his side for as long as the gods saw fit. Azura was the prince of fate. This had to be the right path. He couldn’t think of a better one that he could’ve taken. And, he supposed that just because a path was the correct one, it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be pain. This would be hard, but he was certain he could adapt.