A Christmas journey forces Ruwalk to change the way he thinks.(Ruwalk/Alfeegi)
Ruwalk ticked off the signs on his mental checklist. Alfeegi's office. Quarter to three in the afternoon. Sun shining brightly through the window. Ruwalk within a five mile vicinity. Uh-huh, must be about time for number eleven.
"Whose idea was this?" Alfeegi demanded, glaring at the pot plant with such loathing it should have shrivelled up and died on the spot. "Was it you, Ruwalk?"
Not that he was keeping track or anything lame like that (a mental tally mark quickly crossed itself out), but Alfeegi was in fine form today - which was really something considering how twitchy he was on a good day. Instead of filling him with good cheer, the extra costs and work the holiday season involved only seemed to further inflame his already volatile temper. Ruwalk and the miniature pine tree dropping needles onto Alfeegi's perfectly-cleaned carpet were the irritants of the hour. One had nothing to with the other, of course, but that had never mattered to Alfeegi. Proximity was all the evidence he needed; paranoia took care of the rest. What mischief Alfeegi thought he could get into with a completely innocuous Christmas tree he didn't know. Sometimes Alfeegi acted like he orchestrated holidays for the sole purpose of annoying him.
"It's a Christmas tree, Alfeegi," he said with as much patience as he could muster. "It's supposed to make you excited about Christmas. I absolutely promise it's all on the up-and-up."
Alfeegi looked dubious, which on him looked closer to homicidal. Ruwalk sighed, and called for a maid to remove the offending pine needles. Pacified somewhat, Alfeegi returned to his desk and put his quill back to his parchment, much to Ruwalk's relief - the way he'd been waving it around, he'd thought Alfeegi was going to stab his eye out with it. He was still mumbling under his breath when he thought Ruwalk wasn't paying attention, and since that was true most of the time, Alfeegi simply carried on as if Ruwalk wasn't sitting right there on his couch.
Snippets of Alfeegi's ramblings floated to his ears as he stretched back out on Alfeegi's couch with his book: mostly his trademark woe-is-me spiel about being cursed with incompetent co-workers and horrible plants bent on spreading their insiduous evil over his pristine floor; nothing new there. I'll be glad to get out of here.
"Wait, you're leaving?" he exclaimed, his book forgotten in the wake of this bombshell, which rated at least an eight and a half and trumped the discovery of Alfeegi half-sloshed in one of the city's seedier bars a few years back (who knew Alfeegi could even dance, let alone like that?) for sheer surprise. "What? Why? Since when do you ever leave the castle?"
Lykouleon had sent Alfeegi along with Kai-stern on one mission, as he was useful in seeing through disguise and deception. After that, they'd refused to travel together ever again, and the mayor of the township had written a very polite letter to Lykouleon informing him that in order to protect the welfare of his citizens, his "accountant" had had to be removed from the township, and had very politely enquired if Chantel had somehow managed to aggravate Draqueen. They'd be willing to make full reparations if so; there was no need to send someone to bully it out of them.
Alfeegi hadn't gone further than Dragoon since then. Privately, Ruwalk thought of him as some kind of very exotic hothouse flower: required a set of rigid conditions to function, tended not to cope so well when removed from his preferred environment, to blossom required cajoling, wheedling and flat out begging, not to mention an arcane ritual dance performed on the blue moon, naked, while praying to the great secretary to fly through the sky and deliver unto them fresh rolls of parchments and fountain pens. Alfeegi made it no secret that he thought foreign missions were a waste of his time. As far as he was concerned, the office was where he did his best work so that was where he stayed, bestriding his office chair like a throne.
In other words, anything that could inspire Alfeegi to pack his bags was going to be the event of the century, and he wanted to be in on it.
In response to his question, Alfeegi's expression darkened even further, if such a thing were possible.
"Regardless of what you may choose to believe," he informed him tightly, "I do have a life outside of work." He did? Since when? Was that also the same time he had supposedly gone on an actual date (he hadn't witnessed this himself, but had been informed by someone high up in the maids' gossiping ranks)? Perhaps Alfeegi didn't know "having a life outside work" actually entailed leaving the castle more than once every three weeks. "It is, however, none of your business." He stabbed his quill savagely into the parchment as punctuation.
Alfeegi couldn't have said anything less discouraging if he'd tried; his curiosity was definitely piqued. They'd worked together for a while now and managed to strike up some kind of rapport, right? Way he figured it, he pretty much had the right to ask what was going on; it wasn't fair of Alfeegi to hide such pertinent (see, he knew big words too) details from him.
"Oh? What's the big secret?" he asked blithely, and Alfeegi's fingers tightened around the quill like he wished it was Ruwalk's neck.
"If you really must know," and his voice made it very clear he was only sharing this information so Ruwalk would shut up and leave him alone (and possibly even go do his own work, hinthint), "I'm going to visit my grandmother."
"Huh." Ruwalk rolled onto his back to consider this, ignoring Alfeegi's wince when he propped his high-heeled boots up on his exquisitely embroided cushions. "I didn't even know you had any family left."
He'd never thought of Alfeegi as doing something so normal as having brothers and sisters and pets - although of course he must have, there was no reason for the thought to seem so strange. Alfeegi hadn't sprung fully-formed from a god's forehead, and he hadn't been born in Draqueen like Ruwalk had been; he'd had a human's lifespan before he'd taken up his post as White Officer. It just seemed like he'd been there forever, a steady, firm and mildly terrifying presence. Of course he had friends and family just like everyone else. He'd just never spoken about them.
With a slight pang of guilt, Ruwalk realized he'd never asked. Thirty years of -- well, a kind of friendship, and he didn't even know his mother's name. He'd chatted endlessly about himself, and Alfeegi knew about he and Lykouleon's favourite childhood hideout, the names of the first girl (and boy!) he'd kissed, the date he became the Yellow Officer... and everything he knew about Alfeegi could have filled one sheet of paper. White Officer Alfeegi. Enjoys calculating tax returns, reorganizing his filing system, collecting novelty paperweights and threatening his subordinates into submission with letter openers. Extremely dangerous; approach with precaution and preferably large bodyguard.
And, okay, so maybe a clam was more forthcoming than Alfeegi, who alternated between pretending not to hear questions he didn't want to answer and throwing the offender bodily from his office if they didn't shut up. Alfeegi didn't talk about himself. Didn't talk about anything personal, really. He was notoriously private about any other emotions he had beside flashy but superficial shows of anger and irriation.
Alfeegi might not have answered him if he had brought the topic up anyway, but at this rate he was going to have his friend card revoked.
He considered briefly the ethics of getting into Alfeegi's personal file. His boundaries had always been flexible, and it'd be for the good of the both of them, really. Then Alfeegi shifted slightly in his chair and the ring of keys on his belt jingled. Of course Alfeegi had the key to the personnel files; Alfeegi had the goddamned keys to everything in the castle, probably including Lykouleon's personal quarters. Actually, that was a really disturbing thought, although it at least explained how Alfeegi managed to get him out of bed at six in the morning.
Besides, his file would probably be as depressingly sparse as his own run-down of Alfeegi's achievements.
"I generally don't see any need to discuss it," and that was Alfeegi all over: about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Ruwalk brushed the hint aside and steamrolled on, determined to at least fill in some of those gaps. How could you call someone a friend -and he did think of Alfeegi as a friend, even if it wasn't in the same way as Lykouleon- if you didn't even know if they had any family?
"So why haven't you gone before? I mean, I've known you for what? Forty years? And you've never mentioned any trips like that. The poor woman must think you've forgotten her."
"I would normally prefer to stay at the castle," Alfeegi agreed, and Ruwalk bit off a laugh; that was the understatement of the century considering Alfeegi's reaction last time he'd been invited on a mission, "but she wrote to me months ago and specifically asked me to come. She's quite old now, you see, and I imagine she wants to see me one last time before she dies."
Ruwalk snorted. "Some grandson you are."
A warning flag of red rose in Alfeegi's cheeks, and Ruwalk retrieved his book hastily and prepared to make an emergency exit, stage left. "What wouldn't I give to meet the woman who can make you jump on her say-so," he teased, and ducked through the door when Alfeegi threatened to throw the box of paperclips at his head.
Three weeks later, they were both standing on a snow-covered doorstep in northern Hyuray.
"Well, this is nice," Ruwalk ventured, with a gaiety he didn't really feel at all. For one, it was cold. And there were varying degrees of cold. There was pleasantly cool; a little chilly; cold, very cold, and then there was this "oh my god, my balls will never come out again" kind of cold. He could have sworn there were icicles forming in his hair. Not to mention, every time Alfeegi looked at him, the temperature dropped another hundred degrees or two. Alfeegi seemed perfectly composed aside from occasional twitches of suppressed annoyance, but he was wearing enough material to clothe a small village. Ruwalk stamped his feet in his thin boots like Alfeegi did to get his circulation going, and hoped the old lady wasn't deaf. Another fifteen minutes of this and his ears might snap right off.
And secondly, the exterior was hardly promising. The house, more a cottage, really, was small and dingy. Someone was obviously trying their best to look after it -the lace curtains and welcome mat showed signs of a caring touch- but there was no hiding the onset of decay. The outside walls desperately needed a fresh coat of paint, and he could almost hear the thatched roof groaning under the weight of snow and ice. Even the brass doorknob was tarnished. He knew Alfeegi was tight with his purse strings, but surely even he could steel himself to throw a little gold his old grandmother's way every once and a while. He sneaked a glance at Alfeegi.
While Alfeegi was doing a better job of hiding it than he was, the tightness of his mouth and the constant shuffling of his feet gave him away. Alfeegi was nervous. Apprehensive. Scared. It only made his nerves jangle more, and anxiety quietly began to gnaw a hole in his stomach.
Maybe he had decided too hastily after all. Let curiosity get the better of him and all. What was that phrase about the cat? Alfeegi liked to pithily throw it at him whenever he made a perfectly innocent enquiry about his social life.
Maybe he'd gone and invited himself not only somewhere he might not be welcome, but somewhere he wasn't that sure he wanted to be. Perhaps another Christmas spent hanging over Lykouleon's shoulder watching Rath play with his new toys would have been better than spending a month trapped in a shack with someone monstrous enough to frighten even Alfeegi.
Maybe she wasn't going to be too happy about the paucity of his visits after all.
Ruwalk whistled a few notes to calm himself, disregarding Alfeegi's glare. Really, how bad could one little old lady be? What was she going to do, club them to death with her walking stick? Okay, that couldn't be discounted (she was related to Alfeegi, after all), but in his experience all elderly women wanted to do was stuff him full of tea and biscuits and rhapsodize about the beauty of the old days. Smile in the right places and they were putty in your hands. Alfeegi's grandmother was probably some old dear who fussed incessantly over his hair and told him to relax before he had an aneurysm. Alfeegi hated that.
Somewhat cheered, he knocked on the door again. "Buck up, Alfeegi, you'd think you were meeting your undertaker by the look on your face."
"You've never met her before," he snapped, tugging at his collar and trying to smooth his hair down. "And take your hands out of your pockets, it's unseemly."
At least Alfeegi wasn't out of it enough to forget picking at him. He left his hands where they were and pushed on the door lightly with his boot. It swung away slightly, enough for him to stick his head in. "Hello?"
He was greeted by by a silence so absolute there was practically an echo. "Ah, she does know we're coming, right?"
"Of course." Alfeegi looked affronted by the mere suggestion that he might not have organized every detail of the trip. "Although I suppose she might have forgotten by now. Her memory isn't what it used to be."
Ruwalk exhaled noisily. Great, so she was senile as well as deaf. "Well, I'm not standing out here any longer; I can't feel my toes." He shouldered the door fully open, revealing a small but clean hallway with a striped runner, faded from the heavy traffic of feet over the years. "Hey, we're coming in, okay?" Scraping his boots on the mat, he picked up his bags again (the bloody things weighed a ton) and shuffled inside.
"Ruwalk!" Alfeegi sputtered in his you-just-did-what tone of voice, usually heard when Ruwalk began to recount his weekend's escapades. For someone who had no problem chewing Lykouleon out in the dining hall like a fishwife, Alfeegi was easily scandalised. "You can't do that! We haven't been invited in yet-- Ruwalk!" and chased after him.
"Is that you squawking, Alfeegi? What have I told you about keeping your voice down inside?"
A birdlike apparition greeted him: an old woman leaning heavily on a cane and draped in a heavy shawl, which chivalry or no, Ruwalk was going to pinch off her if Alfeegi didn't shut the door in a few seconds.
He supposed this was his introduction to Alfeegi's grandmother.
She squinted up at them. "And who is this charming young man? Alfeegi, you sneaky boy, you didn't tell me you were seeing someone! Oh, dear, you could have written!" She pinched Alfeegi's cheek in a gesture Ruwalk guessed was one part irritation, one part affection, and turned to him. "Hello, love, and what am I to call you?"
A denial was on the tip of Ruwalk's tongue -we're not together- but she beamed up at him, all rosy cheeks and bright eyes and smiles, and it died a sudden death. He'd always had a weakness for women; had never been able to consciously upset one - apparently, their age didn't matter. He kept his mouth shut. Better to let Alfeegi field this one; he'd know how to handle his own grandmother.
To his surprise, a dull flush had spread over Alfeegi's cheeks, his mouth opening and closing without saying anything like a fish out of water. Ruwalk smothered a smile with the back of his hand. Okay, so the old lady was apparently batty, but a few eccentricities were well worth seeing someone put one up on Alfeegi.
"I'm Ruwalk," he said solemnly, offering his hand. She peered up at him -she was so tiny and bent she didn't even come to his shoulder- with the same tawny orange eyes as Alfeegi, and he was reminded of an owl. Her long white hair was bundled in a bun at the back of her neck, and wrinkles were trenches in the delicate skin around her eyes. She emanated a sense of immense age and fragility; her hand felt small and paper-thin in his. This was the woman who made Alfeegi sweat and freeze?
"It's a pleasure," she smiled, showing lots of small white teeth, and her eyes danced. He liked her on the spot.
Alfeegi seemed to have freed himself from his sudden paralysis. "We're not a couple!" he blurted.
Oddly, her face fell. "You're completely sure?"
"Completely and utterly."
"You're not even the tiniest bit," she measured with her fingers, "attracted to him?"
This must be where Alfeegi had learned to chargrill people from, although it was kind of maliciously fun to watch Alfeegi being the one raked over the coals for once. Plus, she was doing better than he'd ever done. Although, kinda odd to hear himself discussed as if he wasn't standing right there. He shuffled his feet and wondered if he should say something. Don't you think it would be a good idea to ask me as well?
"Not even the slightest." Alfeegi fixed him with one of his death glares. "I can't stand him, actually."
That stung. What was he, chopped liver? He might have invited himself along on this little excursion, but Alfeegi hadn't tried that hard to stop him, and Alfeegi was perfectly capable of tying him up and leaving him in his own closet if he really didn't want him to come. They'd even held civil conversations - with actual jokes! and laughter! and camaderie!- on the way down. When Alfeegi wasn't set on picking fights (and, okay, when he wasn't set on goading him, but it was so much fun), they got along rather well, he'd thought.
Not to mention that Alfeegi was totally lying about never being attracted to him. He knew it when he saw it, and Alfeegi had definitely been checking him out. Though that was before he'd discovered they were supposed to be working together. And before he'd discovered Ruwalk had a natural but completely accidental ability for pissing him off. Actually, that was before they'd so much as exchanged names, come to think of it, but there'd definitely been flirting of the trousers-adjusting variety going on there. It was heartening to think he could still reel in someone who'd turned out to be as cold a fish as Alfeegi, but hardly encouraging that his charms had been overriden by those of staplers and protractors. Still. It had been there, and he was pretty sure that if Alfeegi would just untwist his knickers a bit, it could be very easily rekindled.
"What a pity." Her face drooped momentarily, and then brightened, like someone had lit a lantern behind her eyes. "Now, Alfeegi, why don't you take those bags down while your friend and I get acquainted. You remember where the guest rooms are. Tea, dear?" She waved Ruwalk over to the table.
"Yes, please," he smiled. Alfeegi looked over his shoulder bitterly as he waded down the hall, weighted down with all their baggage. Oh, Alfeegi was going to get him for that later, and he was going to enjoy it too.
"So how long have you known my grandson for?" she asked, sitting him down in one of the cushioned chairs and pouring him tea in a china cup from a steaming silver teakettle.
"Mmm, a few decades or so," he replied absentmindedly, distracted by her hands on the teapot kettle. Their movements were sure and confident, smooth and easy, unlike the shaking hands of the elderly women he remembered. Her fingers were knobbled where athritis had nibbled at the joints, but she still looked like she could crush bone. He thought back a few moments. She'd already shown she wouldn't be pushed around; he wouldn't like his chances if he pissed her off.
"He can be hard to live with, can't he?" She filled her own cup and sat across from him.
Ruwalk laughed. "You could say that again."
She smiled, a little exasperated, a lot fond. "Still, you must get along well if he invited you to come with him." She winked and gave him a secretive, conspiratorial smile. He smiled back a little hesitantly. She was definitely fishing -obviously Alfeegi's complete and utter lack of subtlety was an inherited trait- and now it was becoming apparent why Alfeegi had been so jumpy earlier.
Matchmaking relatives were always a pain. Ruwalk remembered, not-so fondly, his mother's many lectures and exhortations that he find himself a nice girl and settle down. He'd never wanted to, not when there were so many interesting people out there; it seemed a waste to tie himself down to one.
Alfeegi, on the other hand, was married to his work more than anything else - if there was someone in his life he'd been very quiet about it. It was hard to imagine him in love or lust with anyone - though, he had to forcibly remind himself again, he would have been at some point. He was only beginning to realize how jealously Alfeegi had guarded his privacy and how little he actually knew about someone he thought he could have summarized in a single sentence not a month ago.
Alfeegi could be a stubborn bastard - scratch that, Alfeegi was a stubborn bastard; he resisted any attempt to nudge him in a certain direction out of sheer principle. He would not like, Ruwalk felt confident, being set up with a mother's vision of his perfect match. He'd heard him loudly denouncing the ladies of fashion at court ("They've never done a moment's work in their lives," Alfeegi sniped. "Utterly useless.") The people he could bring himself to be around for longer than five seconds were a short list.
"Actually, I invited myself," he admitted. "We haven't always gotten along the best." He studied his tea for long seconds, swirling the leaves in the bottom of the cup, before looking up at the cat-like eyes watching him intently. "I'm starting to realize I don't know him as well as I thought I did."
If she was fishing, then he was dangling the bait. It was just a question of whether she was going to take it or not, and he had no doubt. The fond little smile she wore when his name came up was an obvious sign.
"He keeps to himself too much," she fretted. "I worry about him up at that big castle. He's going to turn into his father one of these days, I just know it."
Ruwalk refilled their cups, inclined his head encouragingly, and listened until their tea went cold.
Alfeegi was waiting for him when he returned - after their conversation, she'd shown him to the bathroom and insisted he take a 'good hot bath, just to wash off the dirt of the road.' "Did you have a nice long chat about me?" he demanded sarcastically before Ruwalk had even got the door shut.
"Lovely," he said, drying his hair with a towel and taking a look at his surroundings. The guest room was small but immaculate - a large four-poster bed covered with a patchwork quilt, a vanity stand with a vase of paper flowers, and an old-fashioned desk with a stand mirror, the gilt edge worn dull with time.
"Don't go getting any funny ideas in your head," Alfeegi warned him, and huh, he'd never seen Alfeegi in his nightrobe before either; this trip really was turning out a string of firsts. "Grandmother is bad enough by herself; I don't need you bothering me as well."
"Hadn't occurred to me," he lied.
Only it had, of course. Listening to Eri recite the short list of Alfeegi's romantic entanglements -short, but still longer than he'd imagined: he supposed this was another area he'd been wrong about Alfeegi- had reminded him of the times he'd extolled the virtues of one woman or the other to Alfeegi. He'd never seemed interested. The only people Alfeegi seemed to want to spend any time with were Lykouleon, Raseleane, Cernozura and Tetheus. Kai-stern, sometimes. Him, sometimes.
He could scratch Lykouleon and Raseleane off the list for obvious reasons. Cernozura, maybe -they'd always got along well- but then again, Alfeegi never seemed to have regarded her as a woman, but rather a kind of extremely efficient and modern administrative machine (but wasn't that how he'd thought of Alfeegi?). Tetheus was a possibility from Alfeegi's point of view. Alfeegi highly respected the Black Officer, but if the idea of trying to matchmake Alfeegi was dangerous, then doing the same to Tetheus would be deadly. Besides, he seemed to live and breathe Lykouleon. He was friendly enough to everyone else, but there was little room in his life for any other. Kai-stern wasn't really around enough to form any long-lasting relationships at the castle, although that might work in his favour, since Alfeegi might remember him more fondly if he wasn't around to get on his nerves so often. And, well...
Well, as Alfeegi claimed the left side of the bed and promised to kick him out of bed if he so much as thought about taking more than his fair share of the blanket... it wasn't as out there as it might have seemed a few weeks ago, that was all.
The unfamiliar pattern of sunlight on the painted wall momentarily confused him when he woke up, until he remembered where he was. He was in Hyuray, of all places. With Alfeegi, of all people. Who was currently not in the room.
The old-fashioned clock face read just past ten. He'd slept in. Alfeegi would have been up for hours already, and indeed the pillow on the other side of the bed had already been smoothed down and the blanket pulled up. He hadn't even heard Alfeegi go out, but then, he'd been exhausted from the trip. Alfeegi might constantly bitch about the amount of overtime he was putting in, but Ruwalk had had a few of those late-night sessions lately himself, tying things up for the holidays - and Alfeegi's idea of 'budget travel' wasn't all that comfortable either, to say the least. He rotated his shoulders, feeling everything slide into place with a sigh of pleasure. They'd slept in some rooms half this size, and that wasn't even mentioning the places he'd flat out rejected.
He got a little lost trying to find the kitchen again - it was a small house, but the hallways were like a maze, and he wandered past the bathroom, what he assumed was Eri's bedroom, and a boxroom before he eventually stumbled into a tiny sitting room, where Alfeegi's grandmother sat in a rocking chair, grey head picking over an embroidery hoop. It was so pretty and perfect, like something out of a child's book, that he just leaned against the doorframe for a while and watched, half-captivated by her neat fingers and tiny stitches, a big, stupid grin spreading across his face.
He should have come to the country years ago. There was something in the lightness of the air, the relaxed pace, that lifted his spirits just in the short time he'd been here.
"Hi," he said a little sheepishly when she looked up, and hoping he hadn't already made a bad impression on her as a layabout.
"Good morning, love" she said cheerfully. "There's tea and toast in the kitchen if you would like breakfast."
"I'm fine, thanks," he smiled. "Where's Alfeegi?"
She waved her spare hand airily. "I sent him out to do some chores; he's probably in the woodshed." She gave him a crafty smile. "Perhaps you should go look for him."
That was her first attempt at throwing them together, he noted with an inward smile. She was going to have to be more subtle than that.
He didn't actually believe Alfeegi would be out here. One, it was fucking freezing and two, he'd seen the papers Alfeegi had smuggled in in the bottom of his case. If he knew Alfeegi at all he was cozied up by a fire in the study calculating his beloved numbers. And three, nobody, but nobody, sent Alfeegi "to do chores" unless they enjoyed having their skin peeled off slowly with a letter opener while listening to a very long rant about the value of time in today's economy.
Once he was bundled up a bit more, though (as in, he could actually feel his ears this time), it was actually kind of pretty outside. It rarely snowed at the castle - and the times it did, he was usually too busy worrying about Lykouleon to enjoy it. Here, though, the snow glittered in layers of white frosting on the eaves and on ground, crunching under his feet as he walked, poached wholesale from a Christmas card.
He wasn't about to trade it for actual sun, but yeah, it was nice.
A very loud banging noise was coming from around the corner, the kind of sound a woodpecker on speed would make. What do you know. Alfeegi actually was doing chores.
He leaned on the frame of the lean-to casually and waited for Alfeegi to notice him (didn't want to startle him, not while he was holding a lethal weapon). A small, neatly-stacked pile of wood was already lying next to the block; Alfeegi was onto the last log.
Somehow, he'd known Alfeegi wouldn't sleep in or make himself relax, even it was the first day of his holiday. He'd been just as bad on the way down. "It's not a race," he'd said more times than he could count, and Alfeegi had just snorted and muttered a few choice words under his breath. Alfeegi was just helplessly productive, he guessed.
The rhythmic slice of the axe through the air transfixed him momentarily. He never thought of Alfeegi as graceful, really, more 'digustingly efficient,' but that was the word coming to mind now. Up, down, up, down, seemingly effortlessly, the smooth ripple of muscle betraying a strength most people wouldn't have guessed at. He, having been Alfeegi's practice partner for the last twenty years, knew all too well that Alfeegi had a grip like iron, and the tenacity of a bulldog. It was still odd, though, to see him engaged in such physical work. Alfeegi trained because he needed to keep in top condition, as he reminded Ruwalk every time six in the morning after a rather seedy evening seemed too early for a practice session, but actual manual labour?
He stuck his hands in his pockets, suddenly a little bit ashamed of himself. His callouses were from swords, not tools; the servants had taken care of all that for him. He had no place to talk, and anyone listening to him would think he was the worst kind of snob. Humbler beginnings were nothing to feel ashamed of. If he hadn't already learned that, Kai-stern would have knocked it into his head pretty damn quick.
He was almost startled when Alfeegi spoke. "If you're done lazing around, make yourself useful," and he thrust a bundle of jesus, really big sticks! at him.
He bit his lip and tried not to smile as he followed Alfeegi back into the house.
It was almost too easy to settle in. Despite Alfeegi's cracks that he never did any work anyway so this should be an extension of a holiday for him, he hadn't had any kind of real time off in ages, and he hadn't travelled for about as long. Kai-stern sometimes brought back souvenirs, of course, but that wasn't the same thing as being there himself.
He'd expected to get bored; had a stack of paperbacks stashed in the bottom of his bag for exactly that purpose. Shao was a small town - he wasn't even sure it qualified as a 'town,' more like a village; it could have fit into Draqueen several times over, and with enough room for the next village too. There could only be that many places to go, and he was used to living in a city so large even he didn't know what could be hidden away in its corners and alleys.
The town was laid out in neat lines of houses with old-fashioned thatched roofs and whitewash walls, some even with the proverbial white picket fence, lots of trees, their tops blanketed with the thick layer of snow that covered them almost year round, as Alfeegi had informed him. More like lectured, but anyway. The village square was where all the action was, and where he went everyday, when he felt like getting out of the house, or just like people-watching.
A new face was hot gossip, he quickly figured out. Most people didn't have a reason to venture this far north, and the villagers were hungry for information from Draqueen. Or someone new to spread rumours about. Lykouleon's heralds made sure important news got out over the whole country, of course, but as isolated as they were, Draqueen seemed almost a foreign country. The younger girls lapped up descriptions of the latest court fashions; older men and women enquired after one-time acquaintances.
Everyone knew Alfeegi, which was no longer surprising. That he was held in almost-everyone fondness did - although he was beginning to learn that many Hyurarians had fiery tempers, a spark that flamed inside them and warmed them despite the bitter cold. The women regarded him as a local-boy-done-good and spoke of him with almost familial pride.
Which meant, of course, they all wanted to know what he was doing up at the castle that he wasn't writing home about.
"Not one?" the woman with the red kerchief - Meli? Dammit, he was never going to keep all their names straight - asked.
"Not that I've seen." He shrugged. "But he doesn't talk about his personal life much, so he may be seeing someone and I just don't know about it."
The village women weren't satisfied with that answer, and to tell the truth, neither was he. Repeating I don't know over and over again was starting to get depressing, and he could tell they were disappointed. In him? They'd probably been excited that they'd finally got to meet one of Alfeegi's acquaintances -from what he'd learned so far Alfeegi had few true friends- only to be shot down when he wasn't what they were hoping for and couldn't tell them anything.
The thought made his heart ache a little. He should be able to do better, dammit; they'd lived in the same bloody building for years. Novelty paperweights came to mind again and he pushed them away angrily - there was more to a person than the number of decibels their voice reached when they yelled.
"I don't think he's really interested in the women he meets at the castle," he said slowly, thinking it out as he went. "Some of them are very nice, I mean, but... either they'd be terrified of him, or try to wrestle him down."
One nodded, and some smiled. "It's like that with all men of this village, yes?" The group dissolved into knowing laughter. "Too gentle and they will not respect you, too hard and they fight you." She winked conspiratorially at her friends, and he looked on as they shared a secretive glance, no doubt thinking back to how they'd managed to tame their own husbands.
"He should not be by himself," blue-cap said, shaking her head.
"He needs a good woman to take care of him," another said firmly.
A chorus of ayes went up, and Ruwalk slipped away as they started to talk amongst themselves, listing names of unmarried daughters and nieces, and debating whether they would suit Alfeegi or not.
It was a decent walk back to the house, and he had time to think as he went, idly kicking over piles of snow along the way. Listening to them talk in such a manner had bothered him for some reason he couldn't quite put a finger on.
"I'm back," he called as he closed the door, only to be immediately shushed by an annoyed Alfeegi.
"Grandmother's trying to nap," he whispered.
"Sorry," he mouthed back, and hung his cloak up on the rack.
The kitchen was warm, and not just because of the weak sunlight filtering through the shutters. The woodstove glowed brightly, and the good, wholesome smell of bread and herbs permeated the air.
"God, that smells great," he said, breathing deeply.
Alfeegi looked somewhat mollified, but still a little suspicious. "Thank you."
"Wait, you made this?"
And, seriously, he was going to have a heart attack one of these days if Alfeegi didn't keep springing surprises on him like this. He'd never thought Alfeegi could make anything other than a sandwich or a cup of coffee, which appeared to be what he lived on the eighty percent of the time he didn't come down for lunch. God knows the only vaguely culinary-related thing he was good for was pouring wine, although he could make a mean omelette.
"No, Ruwalk, it magically appeared out of thin air," Alfeegi said quite seriously, and holy shit! That was an actual attempt at a joke!
"Ruwalk? Are you okay?" Alfeegi asked, with something very like concern in his voice, taking his oven mitts off.
No, he wanted to scream. I'm having a bloody epiphany! I am most definitely not okay! I am so very very far from okay I am in an entirely different league of un-okayness!
"Sure," he said instead. "Can I have a piece of bread?"
Alfeegi shot him a disapproving look. "You have to wait until it cools first," but he cut off a corner for him anyway.
Christmas crept forward slowly, and Alfeegi seemed to relax even further as the days went on. A box of Christmas decorations was produced from the attic, and he and Alfeegi spent one afternoon hanging them according to Eri's directions.
Professional designers had always done the seasonal decorating at the castle, and although theirs were more polished, he thought as he scrambled up the ladder again to pull the Star of David straight, it was much less fun than actually doing it yourself.
He hadn't collected pinecones or made a paper chain since he was a child, and doing it brought back a flood of old memories of big family Christmases -- but that was all before he'd moved into the castle, and although Lykouleon's family had welcomed him with open arms, and god knew he loved Lykouleon like his own brother, it had never been quite the same, the least of which was because their nurses wouldn't let them climb anything taller than their heads.
"A little further to the left," Alfeegi said.
"Like that?" He tilted the corner infinitesimally.
"Perfect," Eri said, smiling, and he climbed down the ladder gratefully - as the tallest person in the house, all the climbing had been -ahem- delegated (not that he'd had much choice but to accept with those two) to him; he was beginning to get a very good idea who Alfeegi's role model was - and his head felt a little dizzy from spending so much quality time getting friendly with the ceiling, which was very low and he had the bruises to prove it. "I think we're nearly done."
Alfeegi looked doubtful, probably trying to identify that one little detail he'd missed, but to him, it did look pretty close to perfect: snow piled up against the windowframes, red and green candles flickering, open fire roaring, fresh scent of pine from the tree they'd cut themselves that morning. That had been an adventure all of its own - although not, he amended, stretching a very sore shoulder, one he was in a rush to repeat in a hurry. "Nearly?"
"There's just one little thing," she said and winked, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
"Grandmother," Alfeegi said, with frustration, but no real heat.
Ruwalk let them bicker, content to fade into the distance and observe for once. Alfeegi was gesturing animatedly; she was waving his scarf at him and trying to get his cap onto his head at the same time; he laughing and pushing gently, eventually giving up and stepping outside to go fetch whatever it was that she wanted.
Moments like this made him wish he could draw - he'd quickly forgotten the lessons about life drawing his tutors had drilled into him as a child, along with (unfortunately) a good amount of the rest of it. Kai-stern drew a good likeness and took a sketchpad with him on all his journeys, and often sent back envelopes full of sketches of exotic local fauna, as well as the people (the palace's one camera being roughly the size of three people, wasn't exactly something that could be stowed away neatly in one's knapsack). He wanted to immortalize this moment, pack it away in his head just so he'd know it had happened, bring it out for a rainy day.
"Penny for your thoughts," she said softly once the door had snicked closed behind Alfeegi.
"Hmmm? Oh, nothing," he said, and turned his head away, watching the snow slowly bank up against the window.
"Wake up! Wake up, already, for the sake of all that is good and holy in this land!"
"G'way," he mumbled, burrowing under his pillow to get away from the evil voice. A few more hours sleep. It wasn't too much to ask. Daylight hadn't even started infiltrating his eyelids yet. It was far, far too early for any sane person to be awake - and definitely too early for any Ruwalks who were starting to doubt their own mental stability.
"Don't think I won't drag you out if you make me," the Evil Voice threatened, and oh god, it was Alfeegi, wasn't it? He was the only one sadistic enough this side of the Kainaldian border, and he also happened to be the very last person he wanted to see at the moment. His thoughts had kept him awake for hours last night, tossing and turning - and Alfeegi's soft breathing only inches away had only exacerbated the situation.
"This is your final warning," it threatened, and about five seconds later his cozy nest of blankets was ripped apart and he was soundly deposited on the floor.
"I hate you so much right now," he mumbled, trying to find the duvet without actually having to open his eyes. It was freezing, as always, but that hadn't, uh, deterred certain parts of him from greeting the morning with more than appropriate joy.
"Get dressed," Alfeegi's voice said, nudging his thigh with his foot. "We've got things to do." He said things in a way that meant a ten-foot to-do list, and that meant getting up and going out into the snow and slush and tramping around the village while Alfeegi did god knows what for three hours and bitched at him for not keeping up with his breakneck speed.
"Give me fifteen minutes," he said, got himself vertical and started looking for a clean pair of trousers.
Alfeegi decided, thankfully, that he'd bullied him sufficiently and left, leaving him alone to sink down on the bed with his head in his hands, trousers forgotten.
Somewhere along the line things had changed, and he'd gone from mild irritation and friendly joking to something... else. It was tempting to write off the sudden desire to be Alfeegi's errand boy as some kind of exotic and esoteric disease, but that didn't seem as funny as it would have a month ago, not after he'd shared a bathroom with him, cut wood and carried water with him, made dinner with him.
Fought by his side. Worked with him every day for the past forty years.
Somehow he'd never realised - he wanted...
Oh, this was the most pathetic thing he'd done for at least ten years, but he did it anyway, sliding his hand under his waistband and stroking, wondering what it would be like if - if Alfeegi- if he-
Oh god, it could be so good.
Ruwalk finished the day out by collapsing into what he'd come to think of as his easy chair, while Alfeegi, fuelled by six cups of coffee and sheer bloodymindness, went back to cross the last few things of his list and do other, secret Alfeegi-things he probably didn't want to know about. The fire was warm, the snow-covered window disgustingly picturesque, and all he really wanted to do at the moment was curl up and pretend it didn't have to end.
Less than five days from now they'd have to leave for Draqueen. No chance Alfeegi's conscience would let them stay any longer than their proscribed vacation time. Another month on the road, and then back to work again... He'd never been one to take the inevitable return from holidays with any kind of grace, but this time, the mere thought of leaving this little cottage and village he'd come to, well, love was an almost physical sadness.
They'd go back and everything would be the way it was before, sniping at each other and working in equal amounts. Except, not. Not for him, anyway; Alfeegi, heartbreakingly, wasn't showing any signs that he'd like to upgrade their relationship. Maybe they'd be able to get along a bit better, a little more friendlier than before, and somehow that just made him feel worse, because he'd had a little taste of what they could have, and Alfeegi's return to his usual professional emotional aloofness might be more than he could endure.
Not to see him first thing in the morning, not quite awake and his hair still rumpled from sleep, drinking coffee like it was the elixir of life, or dry and put away while Alfeegi washed the dishes, or casually lean against him on the couch while he read in the quiet firelight; all the stupid little things that suddenly meant a whole lot.
One day before Christmas, four before they left, and time was flying. Three weeks seemed to have slipped away in a lazy, pleasant haze, and now that the end was upon him, he was starting to worry. As in, he was about to lose it on a grand scale.
The jig was up. Eri was onto him. She'd been giving him the eye for the past few days, so he'd stuck even closer to Alfeegi, and that just made her raise that eyebrow an inch higher, like she was putting that away in her mental filing cabinet; another thing Alfeegi had inherited... He felt relatively sure he could trust her not to give him away, but whatever way you sliced it, there just wasn't a tactful way to say hey, I'd really like to nail your grandson.
"You. Sit," she said finally, after another day of careful, noncommital avoidance, her tone infused with exasperation, and then she all but manhandled him into a chair; geez, the old lady had a grip like iron. He suddenly felt very unsafe, his skin prickling all over.
"Talk," she ordered, her busy hands pouring them both a cup of tea.
It had started like this, three and a half weeks ago, with her piping hot jasmine tea and those little homemade sugar cookies he hadn't had since he was a kid, and he'd let too much slip even then. If he'd had no hope then, he had no chance now, so he decided to just go with it and with any luck he wouldn't say anything too embarrassing, or that was going to get him slapped, which he didn't doubt for a second she would do.
"There's nothing to tell," he said, idly stirring his tea. That much was the truth, anyway.
"Please." Eri snorted. "I was young once, you know." Her face softened, and he recognized the wistful look that meant she was lost in memory again.
"I..." he began, and then stopped, not sure what to say. "It's..."
"All ever I wanted was for him to be happy," she said very quietly.
Such a simple declaration shouldn't have been able to make his heart ache the way it did.
"You don't think he is?" Damnit, damnit, damnit. He could see where this conversation was heading, and it was not going to be pretty. He was such an idiot. Why hadn't he seen?
"I think he likes his job." She curled her fingers around the handle of her teacup a little too tightly. "I think he appreciates all of you and your friendship."
She gave him a sad little smile. "I think he's lonelier than you think."
Oh. Oh. He looked down at his teacup a little (a lot) guiltily. He'd never noticed. Thirty goddamned years, and he'd never noticed. Had stopped inviting him out the first dozen or so times he'd said no. Never asked whether he had someone back home, seriously, outside of office ribbing. Had just assumed Alfeegi was a natural loner and was fine with his social life, or lack thereof.
"He never said anything," he said finally, raising his head back up to meet her eyes.
"This is my grandson we're talking about," she said with a small curve of her lips. "He's never found it easy to let people close." She took his hand. "He likes you," she said.
Ruwalk managed a small laugh which sounded bitter even to him. "I don't think Alfeegi is interested."
Her brow folded into a frown. "I would think you, of all people, would know better," she said vehemently, letting go of his hand and snatching his cup away, almost breaking the teacups as she loaded them into the sink.
He could feel himself flushing in shame, his stomach churning uncomfortably.
"Of course," something cracked ominously, "Alfeegi cares for you. Do you really believe that if he hated you, if he couldn't stand you, that he would spend anymore time around you than he had to?"
"Do you think he would have brought you here if it meant nothing to him? Why not another?" She turned to him, and her eyes were very bright. "Have you actually asked him how he feels?"
"No," he said very, very quietly.
"No. I didn't think so. Most people don't," and his heart broke, just a little. "Do you know how long it's been since he had any kind of relationship?"
"Thirty years!" She was almost shouting now, fists clenched in balls by her side like she was barely stopping herself from taking a swing at him. "Three decades of working! At this rate, he's going to turn himself into his father, and none of you will care!"
"His father died, didn't he." It was a statement, not a question; he already knew what the answer was going to be. Damn, why hadn't he seen this coming?
"When Alfeegi was thirty-nine." She seemed to sag into herself, her energy drained from her by the outburst of emotion. "Jiira died from the fever the year before. Alim threw himself into his job and I cared for Alfeegi. He worked himself into the grave a few years later."
Oh god, it made sense in the worst kind of way. No wonder Alfeegi was such a workaholic. It was all he knew.
"Is there... is there anything I can do?" he said hesitantly, long moments later.
Eri sighed, and leaned forward in her chair, gripping his hand so tightly it almost hurt. "Tell me. Do you --can you-- love him?"
It seemed to take an eternity for the words to reach his mouth. "Yes."
"Hey," he said softly so as not to startle him.
"Hmmm?" Alfeegi looked up from his mass of ribbons and cards. "Oh, can you give me a hand with these?"
"Sure," he said, and loped into the loungeroom, sleeves rolled up and prepared to tackle the bloody carnage of Christmas.
For three people, they seemed to have used up more than their fair share of wrapping paper. The entire stack sitting neatly under the tree were Eri's; she'd scolded Alfeegi roundly for his extravagance ("whatever am I supposed to do with all this, you naughty boy?"), though it would have been more effective if she'd been able to stop smiling while she said it. Alfeegi had already spirited his away; hell, he'd already packed his entire bag, a feat of organization that was far, far beyond Ruwalk. At least he'd seemed to have liked his gift. Ruwalk'd had really no idea -what do you get for an accountant who lives like a monk?- until he'd wandered down a twisty little alley and into an antique bookstore.
He hadn't written a note inside the cover. Too nervous.
He'd been guessing like mad, but apparently poetry made Alfeegi smile, and that had been worth the undoubtedly "raised by 30% when the owner saw how much gold he had in his purse" price tag.
He was starting to discover how far he'd go just to get Alfeegi to smile.
"Are you nearly done with that, or are you just going to grin at it?" Alfeegi demanded, and he realized he had the ribbon from Alfeegi's present clenched in his fist.
He had to make himself let it go and not surreptitiously slip it into his pocket (how old was he again? Not mooning over your first crush here, Ruwalk, let it go, let it go).
"Thank you," Alfeegi said, not sounding grateful at all and giving him one of those weird, suspicious looks that asked if he'd taken any cocktails of illegal drugs within the last twenty-four hours. "Here, you can take this box out."
"Can do," he said, aiming for careless and cheerful and even managing not to snatch his hand away when their fingers brushed and an electric current ran through him, and he'd picked the box up and was halfway through the doorway with it before Alfeegi caught up and yanked him back.
"What is going on with you?" he -well, not so much asked in that worried, friendly kind of enquiry, but more in 'you are going to tell me and if you have any secrets you don't want me to know then that's just too bloody bad' kind of questioning, only sans thumbscrews. Not that Alfeegi needed them to make people talk. The sour taste of panic welled up in the back of his throat.
"Nothing," he said, pasting on a smile that felt insincere even to him.
"Please." Alfeegi snorted. "I would have to be blind, deaf and drunk not to notice that you've been acting strange lately, and being that I am none of those," he crossed his arms and looked serious, "Don't give me that crap. Talk."
"Can we just not?" he said desperately, his palms beginning to sweat.
"No," Alfeegi said and took a step closer like he was preparing to throttle it out of him if he had to, and Ruwalk cast around in desperation for a distraction -a stray ribbon; a crooked decoration; he'd even welcome a demon attack right now, any time, guys!- and... fuck, they were. Standing. Under. The. Mistletoe.
The universe might as well just swallow him up right now and be done with it.
"What?" Alfeegi said warily, and grabbed his wrist. "Don't even think about it; you're not getting out of this that easily."
And, damn it, Alfeegi was too close now, his hand hot against his wrist, their boots touching. He could almost count his eyelashes; he had a small scar under his eyebrow he'd somehow never noticed and he smelled so, so good, something that was sharp and spicy and uniquely Alfeegi.
Too close to hide; he just knew it was written all over his face, and Alfeegi's eyes widened - and you know what? Screw it. Alfeegi was going to kill him anyway, so he might as well go out on a high.
It seemed like the easiest, most natural thing in the world to lean down and kiss him. The softness of his lips took him by surprise -why had he thought his mouth would be hard?- but he'd thought so wrong about so many things, hadn't he? They should have done this years ago; should have been with him; should have seen...
He kept it chaste and undemanding, just resting his hand on Alfeegi's hip and cupping his jaw gently, even though his blood was pounding so hard he was sure Alfeegi could hear it, even though he wanted nothing more than to make up for lost time and show him how good it could be.
He hadn't even realized he'd closed his eyes until he felt, not heard, Alfeegi relax, and finally, finally, Alfeegi was kissing him back, and his mouth opening under his, warm lips and soft, slick tongue.
It lasted forever and not long enough. Alfeegi stepped away from him, hand almost reflexively going to his mouth like he didn't quite know what had just happened.
Crap, he had to say something before Alfeegi got the wrong idea and ran off, but his brain just wouldn't engage; he was still busy cataloguing every last detail in case he never got to do this again: the tender skin of his inner wrist, the shape of his mouth, the softness of his hair.
"You never said anything," Alfeegi said with just the slightest note of breathlessness, and he was hearing that right, wasn't he?
"Yeah, well." He shrugged. "It kind of took me a while to work it out."
"Idiot," Alfeegi said, and then, "Come here before I hurt you."
Wrapped up in each other as they were, neither of them noticed Eri quietly closing the door, a sneaky little grin on her face.