Bellyachin'

BY : WonderMint
Category: Final Fantasy XIV > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1739
Disclaimer: Final Fantasy FFXIV: ARR is owned by Square Enix and based on the creation of Hironobu Sakaguchi. May they ever walk in the light of the crystal. I own no right to the characters and settings herein and seek no profit therefrom.

A/N: If you haven't seen it already, I've written a standalone Omake for Chapter 9 titled “An Acquired Taste” elaborating on Haurchefant's teasing about his past with Aymeric. It should not be considered required reading, but you may enjoy it nonetheless.

It's taken me a while to decide how I want bathing in Camp Dragonhead to work. Eorzea seems very European sometimes, but with a lot of little touches of culture that only make sense from Japan. Since I'd like my characters to be able to bathe, the Japanese solution seemed to make the most sense without trying to shoehorn in anachronistic western solutions or going crazy on historical accuracy. It's a Japanese game, I'm declaring we can have Japanese baths in more places than our own FC houses.

Fair warning, this chapter contains quite a lot of an OC. She was created purely for this story, and is in no way intended to steal anyone's spotlight. To make it up to you, this chapter also has warnings for mild Haurchefant. And in the next chapter, you will finally get to see more of Aymeric.

Some Girl: Thanks for letting me know you're reading! I'm happy you like it, and I hope I don't disappoint as it progresses.

Allora: Hooray, more reviews! I'm so happy! I'm afraid I don't know if the site has any cool features like that. I could drop you a line to let you know if I can remember, though.



 

After his bath, Alphinaud was feeling much revived and quite becalmed. After thinking over all Haurchefant had told him (while studiously avoiding any thought of the mad lord's past with his lover—nothing would come of that speculation save jealousy and revulsion and other, more awkward feelings), he came to the conclusion that he had nothing to fear. He would take matters into his own hands, speak with Tataru and the mousy maiden, and then put in calls to his adventurer friends to orchestrate an end to the Geomancer once and for all. He had to admit, the idea of having a hand in slaying the villain that had nearly killed Aymeric had a most satisfying ring.

He wondered, in fact, if he should accompany the party that did the deed.

He quickly dismissed the idea as idle wishmongering, fully aware that his own skills would likely hold the real warriors back, possibly endanger them. Endanger his lover.

But on the other hand, Aymeric had required his rescue last time. The thought of letting him go alone, out of his sight, filled him with an odd pang of dread, even if he knew full well there was not much he could do to assist. And then there was the strange specter of excitement, of standing by the noble knight's side and watching him swing his beautiful blue blade, cleaving their enemies asunder with grace and skill, perhaps even wild fury. He wondered if the man ever lost control of himself on the battlefield, and what it looked like, to see his knight with a grin like death and splattered with the blood of his foes.

He could not recall having been excited by bloodlust before, though it pricked a vague memory he couldn't quite place. Idly he wondered if he had spent too much time in the presence of barbarians, or if Aymeric just affected him on a primal level. Something about the restrained strength of the man, he reasoned. Either way, it was making his blood run hot.

He had studiously avoided thinking of the other man whilst he bathed, as the baths were not precisely private. As he walked back to his room, however, a blush was creeping up on him as well as other, more irritating signs of arousal. Now that Haurchefant had blessedly gone, he could surely afford a few moments of hedonism. He had yet to recall the previous day's encounter with the attention it deserved.

But his room was not private. He reached it to find the door hanging open. Truly, Alphinaud knew what that ordinarily meant, but it was an odd enough occurrence at this time of morning to make his paranoia resurface, and adrenaline burned away his musings like a purifying fire. He stopped at the threshold, peering around the doorjamb to confirm. It was indeed a maid sent to clean house, but of all the luck it should happen to be her. He could see the swish of her narrow brown tail as she bent to drop an armful of items with a clatter. That was probably Haurchefant's little stacks of plates and cutlery.

It was probably Haurchefant. As soon as he'd thought the words they became true out of their original context. The insufferable man had made his first move for him as if the lord had been teaching him to play chess! The nerve of the man. Of course this had some advantages, as it might not have been seemly for him to go fishing around the servant's quarters, and Haurchefant had every right. He could of course have enlisted Tataru...

But she was right here already.

In for gil, in for gold.

Suddenly very thankful that he was in the habit of dressing fully after his bath, Alphinaud straightened and walked into his own room with all the dignity he could muster. He closed the door gently, not locking the bolt though he would have appreciated the added guarantee against interruption. She failed to hear him, bustling about to tend the fire now, tea leaves and ceramic castles being cleared away and the bed already made. Her short bobbed hair bounced around her jaw, drawing attention to her slender neck. She looked tiny and frail, and yet he couldn't quite shake feeling threatened by her, the one woman who could undo him and his lover with only a word to the wrong sort of person—or any person at all.

Alphinaud walked a little ways into the room, trying to move without conveying any threat, wanting to startle her as little as possible. “I received your message,” he said gently.

She didn't shriek this time, though she did panic. She turned toward him all at once, ears flat and eyes wide, and she dropped an entire armload of firewood straight to the floor. The quartered logs clattered to the ground and bounced onto her toes, and then she let out a little squeak of pain and hopped away from them, muttering “oooh, ow, ow, oooh!”

It was of course ridiculous, but the situation had long since lost its humor. “Are you quite alright?”

“Oh,” she finished, looking at him again in surprise. She was less afrighted now, in fact her primary cause of suffering seemed to be embarrassment. She put her full weight back on the injured foot to test it, wiggling her hips to emphasize the motion and causing her plain gray skirt to swish around her ankles. “Sorry 'bout that Milord. Seems I'm fine, don't ye worry 'bout me.” She gave him a cautious little grin, pointed canines and all, but managed not to look the part of the carnivore at all. In fact, the way her dark eyes darted to the door suggested that she was feeling rather more like the meal.

“That's... good,” he answered. He flailed mentally for a moment, trying to decide a course to proceed. “Please, won't you sit down? I believe we have a few matters to discuss.” He made no move toward the chairs, not wanting to approach her until he was certain she wouldn't bolt. Neither did she. Instead she stood awkwardly over a scattered pile of logs, eyes moving from them, to the door, to Alphinaud, to her cart by the door, then repeating the cycle.

Fair enough. He tried his more natural form of diplomacy. “Do you drop things whenever you're addressed, or is that a special service you provide for me alone?” He attempted to keep his voice light, but there was likely a tone of worry laced into it, moving his lips like the invisible strings of a puppet.

That did it. She reddened under his gaze, and he tried to smile, as foreign as it felt to him. It came out a tiny thing, and hopefully it didn't seem mocking. “No, no Milord, I just... well ye gave me quite a fright yesterday, ye see and, I feared...” She was looking anywhere in the room but at him now, eyes darting to the corners of the ceiling and even the freshly-made bed, where she scowled momentarily at a stray wrinkle.

“I'm sorry I scared you,” Alphinaud said seriously, suddenly afraid to hear her fear spelled out. “I won't hurt you. I just want to talk.” That was what Aymeric had said, he realized too late. He filed the thought away as quickly as he was able, consigning it to the back of his mind with the rest of his unease. “I take it Lord Haurchefant sent you?”

She straightened with relief, giving a little curtsy but still keeping her distance. “Yes Milord, the Master insisted that I bring ye breakfast personally. I see that ye've already taken tea,” she said with a little grimace, indicating that the lord hadn't improvised his manners merely to annoy him. Alphinaud quickly covered his mouth with his hand to stifle a quiet snicker, and the maid mimicked the gesture to emit an unladylike guffaw. The sound echoed a quick staccato beat across the stone walls, seeming to illuminate her nervousness more than her humor.

“The things you must put up with from him,” he said gently, only prodding a little. He felt a little odd criticizing such a loyal ally, but if it was what it took to draw her out, he would do it. And he had to admit, he was a little curious, as well as a bit peeved.

“Oh, sure-leh. We can always tell where he's been, he has so many nervous habits. Sometimes he'll take all the cushions off the chairs an' beds an' stack 'em on the floor. He collects all kinds of odd colors of ink fer writin' an' he's always spillin' 'em on his sleeves. Oh... I once had to clean a dried fish out of a cupboard that just wouldn't stop smellin'! We almost had to exorcise the stench!” She finally did move, now, motioning for him to sit as she retrieved his food, though her eyes never seemed to leave him.

“A fish? He'd stored his supper in a cupboard?”

“No, Milord, a raw fish, eyes an' all.” She gave another undignified laugh, though this one was closer to a giggle and she completely forgot to cover it.

Alphinaud almost giggled too, but at the last minute he stifled the sound and it came out more like a cough. She winked knowingly, evidently more at ease now. A tray was retrieved from her cart and set before him, stewed beans, eggs, and toast. Still she remained at attention, despite his invitation to sit. “I take it ye won't be wantin' any tea?”

Tea was good for the spirit, in the proper company. “Yes, if you please. I was quite unable to enjoy it earlier. Pray, pour some for yourself and take your ease. You're making me nervous.” He let her fuss with the water and the cups and the discarded firewood while he reluctantly turned to his meal. He heaped some beans onto the bread and chewed with some disdain, having learned to loathe the simple breakfast. Apparently it was a Coerthan favorite simply by virtue of their affinity for stewing things until they had lost their texture. For just once in his life, he thought, he wanted to be in charge of his own kitchen. If he had to make every meal himself it would be worth it just to avoid the foods he hated, even if all he could manage was thin soup and burnt bread.

Actually, it would probably have tasted a bit like this. He abandoned the plan and put more effort into his chewing.

At length the kettle whistled, and the maid poured the tea for both of them. She sat daintily on the chair as if she were afraid of soiling it with her presence, and looked at him a little nervously.

First things, he supposed. He swallowed his instinct for anonymity, assuring himself that it was far too late for that. He at least determined to leave off his family name, beginning to feel as if his recent actions were dragging it through the mud. Any more mistakes and he wouldn't be surprised if his grandfather decided to haunt him. “My name is Alphinaud. I'm something of a political refugee. What may I call you?”

“Junh, Milord, it's a pleasure to meet ye formalleh. The Master speaks very fondly of ye. We're all on strict orders to cater to yer every whim!” She blew on her tea a bit and relaxed into the chair, slowly seeming to forget that she had been uncomfortable on it, but still looking alert and wary.

“I see,” he said, not entirely surprised. A question occurred to him and it seemed suddenly much more interesting than the ones he really needed to ask. “And is there anyone else to whom he's extended this privilege?” Alphinaud turned the corner of his mouth into a sly grin to emphasize his intent. Gossip, after all, seemed to be the key to the maiden's confidence. It was strictly business.

Junh blushed prettily, bringing her hand to her mouth again in dubious imitation of a proper lady. “Well, let's see. There's yer lady friend,” she began, counting on her fingers and biting her lip to ponder. Alphinaud had to think for a moment to realize she meant Tataru and not a romantic interest. He hoped to gods she didn't mistake Tataru for his lover, but he wasn't sure he would be able to properly set her aright. “There's his family of course, 'specially his brothers. And... that 'venturer friend of yers, the one who's always hangin' 'round? He's very insistent that we keep a room ready at all times.”

Alphinaud's grin widened, his suspicion confirmed. She gave him a wicked little wink in agreement.

But she continued. “And... there's that handsome knight. The one ye rescued. Ser...” she seemed to be fumbling for a name.

“Aymeric,” he finished for her, probably a little too quickly, and too late he realized that she was watching him more closely than she should have been, with a little too much nerve for it to be casual. Of course he would know the name of the man he had rescued, but what level of familiarity was really appropriate?

The Miqo'te flashed her teeth at him in a wide smile, and this time she really did look like a carnivore. “Aye, that's the one. I've never seen anythin' like it, the way ye took off after him, with no hope o' returnin'. Except that ye did! Everyone was singin' their praises to the Fury, but I know the truth.”

Coeurl-like eyes narrowed in amusement, and Alphinaud's breath caught on nothing, as if he were once again choking on the frigid air of the storm. He kept his voice neutral and his expression blank. “Which is?” Carefully he took another bite of beans, hoping that dealing with it would mask any signs of his emotions when she answered.

“It was blind luck. Beggin' Milord's pardon, but ye should be dead an' the gods've nothin' to do with it bein' otherwise.” The beans failed to mask his surprise, instead sticking in his throat like glue and adding to his grimace. She laughed at him, a loud piercing sound, before soothing her voice with her tea. He had been so sure of what she was going to say that she'd caught him unprepared merely by not saying it. Alphinaud was beginning to feel he was losing his touch... if he'd ever had it to begin with.

Carefully, he smoothed over his shock with gentle amusement. “Those are bold words for a woman of Ishgard.”

She made a quick face of distaste. “I'm a foreigner here, ain't no better than an unbeliever. It's expected of me as long as I don't say a word against the Fury, an' I keep my nose to the floor.” She looked away a little nervously though, chewed her lip again with those strange pointed teeth as if she didn't really believe it. Uneasiness seemed to fill the room again, and she sat up straighter as if the air up there were easier to breathe. Suddenly her eyes shot from the safety of her cup to look straight into Alphinaud's own, a deep chestnut that made him long for the Twelveswood. “I meant it, ye know. I won't never tell. I know what it's like to live 'twixt the Witchdrop and the Inquisitor's axe. An' serving women ain't exactly a valued commodity much o' the time.”

Of course. He leaned back into his chair, shocked by the cruelty of it but not as surprised as he wished. Junh had been afraid not because she feared him, but because servants were inherently disposable, and he fought back a surge of bile at having briefly considered her so. She was not disposable. She was a person of great dignity and worth and he hated himself for thinking to harm her.

He let out a shaky sigh and forged onward, swallowing bile and guilt both. “So it was an unthinking reaction? I thought for a moment you'd seen a voidsent.”

“Er, yes. Though... I can see why ye'd have... reason... to...” she trailed off again, biting her lips and looking at all the things in the room that weren't Elezen. This time she made to wipe at the table where a stack of tea leaves had lain, though it looked as though she'd already cleaned it quite adequately.

“I must know, what precisely do you think my secret is?” He looked at her with seriousness, though he hoped he wasn't too stern.

She met his eyes, but still ducked her head a bit as if expecting a scolding. “Well, ye admit ye have a secret, so... supposin' there's that.” She took a sip of tea and remained silent, scanning the room.

Alphinaud felt the familiar sensation of warmth on his cheeks, which signaled not a blush but that he had unconsciously buried his face in his hands in exasperation. He could forgive her for discretion, of course, as it was the very quality he counted on her to exercise. He tried again. “I believe you, really I do. I just want to know what you think you're protecting. You might be wrong after all... or you might be right. I must know what I am facing.” He hoped if she were wrong he wouldn't have to correct her. He was fairly certain that his luck was not that good.

She looked at him for a few moments, squinting a little as she sized him up. Her expression became piercing and appraising, and Alphinaud wondered what he'd gotten himself into. It was like watching a puffer fish inflate, only he sensed she was far more deadly. “I should've brought somethin' stronger fer the tea. Aye, I'll tell ye.” She grimaced and sipped at it anyway, making a sharp face of dread as if imagining the ways her loose tongue could come back to bite her. “Well to begin with, ye were in a broom closet. That's pretty damned incriminatin'.” She fixed him with a pointed stare as if daring him to challenge the point.

“What if I had need of a broom?” This time he did flush a little, and the wry smile that crawled along the edge of his lip was at his own expense.

“Ye know as well as I do that nobody locks themselves into a dark closet for pure reasons. You knew that when ye did it, in fact, and whatever ye were up to took time enough to finish with.” Junh reclined in the chair with her mug dangling casually from a limp wrist, elbows propped on the arms of the chair. With the exception of the nervous way she chewed on her lip, she looked for all the world like an investigator, waiting for him to respond to her accusations as if she'd accused him of wielding a candlestick with malice.

He rather misliked the way it was going, but he would follow the trail of crumbs to the end. It was imperative he know how much danger he had truly invited. “Alright, so let's suppose I'll admit my reasons for being there weren't... pure as you say.”

Her act broke immediately and she blushed behind her cup, making him regret the admission as well as wonder why she had been unable to avoid it until then, speaking so frankly before. “Sorry, Milord, ye'r just so...” she blushed a little harder and waved her hand a little at him, waving away his attention and making him blush a little in return, in some kind of sympathetic reflex that he didn't fully understand.

He cleared his throat, resolved to ignore the interruption and refusing to think about his inexplicable reaction. “What does that say about whom I was with? Perhaps it was with someone of no consequence.” A sip of tea allowed him to pretend, for a moment, that the warmth in his cheeks was from the soothing drink.

The maiden answered his question with no more fuss, and he was grateful. She kept her gaze turned away demurely, the subject matter having crossed the bounds of propriety long ago. “Broom closets are for servants. An' I mean fer the tumblin' too. No resident or guest would use one when they've a room to use instead. An' even if someone took a fanceh to one of us smallfolk, we're smart enough to know the way talk travels and how to avoid it. An' that means usin' yer own bed, as ye've the privilege of havin' one.”

“That's an astute observation,” he said, a little astonished by the depth of her analysis. She met his eyes again, flashing a shy little grin at his complement.

“It's common knowledge. Ye don't last long up here without pickin' up a few pointers. And that brings me to the final point. It's what ye would have done yerself, if'n ye didn't have some overridin' reason not to use yer own bed, possibly overridin' yer own rational sense besides. An' that would be... because of who ye was with. If they was, say, in so much danger just from the dalliance that ye were afraid of leavin' any evidence at all, such that even people seein' 'em enter yer room had ye spooked.”

Yes, he thought, that was the long and short of it. He noticed suddenly how tense he felt, listening to her winnow closer and closer to the secret that could mean Aymeric's death, but he took a deep breath and let it go. He believed he could trust Junh. It didn't stop him from wishing she'd get to the point and stop torturing him with it. “For the record, it wasn't my idea.” But he didn't deny it, and she grinned like she'd caught a fairy in her teeth.

“Aye, then, seems I'm right. And the only one ye've been acquainted with much recently who fits that description, besides the Master, who'd just take ye to his bed without any fuss, I'm sure...” Alphinaud blushed even more furiously at that suggestion, suddenly glad he had an adventurer to handle Haurchefant for him. The maid continued as if she had said nothing remarkable. “It's obviously that knight of yers. It's no secret ye're so attached to him ye've taken leave of any smarts ye once possessed.”

Fortunately, Alphinaud was already as embarrassed as he could possibly be.

“Hard to blame ye though,” she continued through his silence. His discomfort was apparently no obstacle to conversation. “He's easily the most 'andsome man in the north. Even with those funny ears o' yers, he's a looker. Of course, ye ain't half bad yerself, he could definitely do worse. Ye make a lovely couple, aye, very pretteh the both of ye... I know a few who'd give more than gil--”

Alphinaud had been wrong. He was definitely more embarrassed now. He felt the blush even in his ears, burning as if they'd been scalded by the implication lying beneath her words. At the last moment it simmered over into anger and he cut her off. “I don't believe that's any of your business. Pray do not speak of him that way, or I daresay you shall regret it.” The cool command had snuck back into his voice without even willing it, following his anger like a mountain stream. It was almost a relief to know he still had the ability.

Junh had seemed to be on the verge of saying something completely scandalous, but she obeyed the order and blushed like a beet behind her clawed hand. “Beggin' yer pardon, Milord, that was indecent. I'm not accustomed to speakin' with any but servants and smallfolk. Please fergive me.”

“Nevertheless, I appreciate your forthright analysis.” The young Elezen cleared his throat and tried to retain some of his professional demeanor, but his cheeks still prickled with warmth. “It's a sound conclusion.” He spent a moment lost in thought, unconsciously bringing his hand to his lips and running his teeth along the length of his forefinger, weighing the woman's sympathy and sincerity as he rested his head against his other hand and his bones against the chair. His breakfast looked back at him accusingly, unfinished and unloved.

He could at least make the best of it. Women had a way about them with these things, it seemed, and the maiden was remarkably sharp. “Tell me,” he began, swallowing the feeling that he never enjoyed her answers to his questions. “By your reckoning, how likely is it that others might reach the same conclusion?”

She hummed, tilting her head to the side and rapping her fist gently against her chin. Her eyes wandered around the ceiling again, another sweep for cobwebs that seemed to hone in briefly on a spot in the middle distance. Evidently she didn't feel the need to address it, returning her attention to him almost immediately. “The highborn, they've no imagination. Won't even think of it as long as ye make sure to keep from doin' anythin' stupid again.”

He bore the criticism with dignity and only a slight wince.

“And assumin' that nobody starts to talk. And by 'body', I mean us servin' folk, those of us who're smart enough to guess what you've got goin' between the sheets. Fortunately the gossip ain't goin' that way right now, I can confirm it personalleh. An' I'll do my damndest to keep it that way, thank ye.” The face she made was so fierce he could have carved it into a mask to frighten children. Her lips were sealed closed but turned into a steep curving frown, with only the tips of her canines poking through. He nodded unsteadily, hoping to reassure at least one of them that he believed her.

She relaxed her expression slightly, and spoke the rest like ripping a bandage from a scabbed wound. Steadily, without mercy, but for his own good. “But the inquisitors... gods help ye if they even see ye in the same room.”

His blood ran cold, confirming what he already knew. They trod on dangerous ground.

She was staring at him again, frowning still but eying him with a sharp edge, as if she were measuring him up and her findings fell short. “An' I suppose ye need help on yer end, too. Aye, ye don't know the first thing about clandestine dallyin', do ye?” She narrowed her eyes and flashed a quick cutting grin, once again on the prowl. “I bet he's even yer first...”

Instead of blushing, he twitched and felt his lip curl into an unfamiliar snarl. He hadn't the Miqo'te's canines but the steel in his gaze was still enough to make her flinch. He had thought Haurchefant had been an uncomfortable ally to have, but this beggared belief. “If you have advice, I would hear it, though I warn that my patience is wearing thin.”

She giggled again, hiding again behind her hand but looking a trifle apologetic. “Of course, Milord, so sorry. But I have to ask... at the risk of... intrudin' too much...”

He raised one eyebrow and glared at her, cool and unimpressed and probably a bit petulant. He took a long drink of his tea, several degrees cooler than he liked it but nice enough. Tea was familiar and safe, or would have been if it didn't remind him of Haurchefant just now. It was if the man were toying with him still, reaching through time and drooling all over his tea leaves.

“D'ye love him?”

He blinked, and a little burst of fireworks went off in his chest, making it suddenly harder to breathe. Alphinaud knew as soon as the shock wore that he had the final answer to Aymeric's question.

“Yes.” He wasn't looking at her anymore, stuck instead staring into space in surprise at how easily the word came from his lips. Something heavy inside of him seemed to burst free and simply float away. It was like vertigo in reverse, making him feel light but steady in his chair.

That didn't mean that the knight loved him in return, of course. But he was certainly willing to risk an awful lot to be with him. Neither of them had cared about the consequences... neither at the gate nor in the cupboard. Yes, he thought. That was love, or so much like it that it made no matter.

“Aye. Then I'll help ye. I'm a fool fer romance.” And for some reason he couldn't quite place, her feral grin didn't frighten him at all.

 

It was after luncheon when he finally made his way to the Intercessory. Junh had exhausted his mind so thoroughly that he had wandered to the kitchens directly after their business had concluded, eating with renewed interest as soon as he could verify that no beans were involved in the meal.

He now felt invigorated, as if his cares had been dropped at the wayside and left in the snow. Far from a danger to him, her service would prove invaluable. In the end, all that had been required of him was a short missive, penned and given directly into the maid's hands. The only way in which it could be used to incriminate him was one he full well intended. If she kept her end of the bargain, he knew he would be hiring her away from Haurchefant. Her indecency and barbs were well worth her cunning, and he had precious few in his employ whom he could trust.

Speaking of. He had promised Tataru an explanation, and she would receive it.

He had rather hoped to do so in private, however. Alphinaud's face fell visibly when he opened the Intercessory door to behold the Lord Haurchefant, resplendent in his orange-lined chainmail and wild blue hair. He was sitting in Aymeric's chair behind the desk and scrawling wildly on a veritable nest of parchment in livid green ink.

“Ah, I wondered when you'd arrive,” said the lord, looking up at him from beneath his tussled bangs before returning to his scribbles. “That took rather longer than I expected. You haven't done anything I wouldn't do, I trust?”

The younger man blanched only slightly at the implication. When he responded, it was with bite but no venom. “Of course not, you insufferable cad. Though I assure you I would never use your behavior as a standard for my own actions. I have rather more decency.”

A short, high-pitched gasp informed him of Tataru's location and emotional state. She was sitting in a chair across the desk, unremarked due to her height and relative inoffensiveness. Hands were thrown over her mouth, thoroughly scandalized, face turning something like the maroon of her feathered cap. Perhaps he oughtn't have let all of his annoyance free at once, but it was too late. And it had been quite satisfying.

Haurchefant merely stopped the scratching of his quill, and gave Alphinaud his full attention, a gentle smile on his lips that shewed clearly in his expressive aqua eyes.

“It's alright, Tataru,” Alphinaud said, though he aimed his words at the older man, ire having lapsed into a playful teasing tone. “I suspect he's quite used to it. We've apparently become rather close of late.”

“Mutual interests, yes,” the mad lord murmured warmly, placing a green-stained finger to his lips in a motion of secrecy. His smile curled into an evil smirk. “Has the young lady been initiated into the mysteries of our order, or shall we continue speaking in riddles and jibes purely to annoy her?”

Alphinaud resisted the urge to hit him then, reminding himself that he knew people who could do the job much better. The man had a point though. “I had rather hoped to have some privacy, as this is a rather delicate matter.” Tataru was looking at him with those big lavender eyes, an air of good humor and a touch of relief on her ever-cheerful features. She was apparently unable to keep from grinning at the lord's antics... or possibly his. He smiled back, somewhat sheepishly.

“By all means then, don't let me stop you.” But instead of leaving, Haurchefant merely went back to his scratching, not even writing now but drawing large, looping shapes on a blank page.

Of course it was too much to ask. Alphinaud rolled his eyes and sat in another chair, relieved at least that the other man already knew what he was about to reveal, and had gotten most of his teasing done with.

And he sat, grinding his teeth and staring into space. Words didn't seem to wish to come forth, and she only looked at him curiously for some moments.

“Well?” she finally prompted, cocking her head to the side like a curious opo-opo.



“Just tell her,” Haurchefant scowled, as if it were a matter of no import. The day's weather perhaps, or a recipe for rolanberry pie.

Alphinaud coughed, ostensibly to clear his throat but in actuality to prompt his vocal apparatus to action.

“I have been... seeing... Ser Aymeric.” He had hoped to word it neutrally enough not to show any emotion, but instead he felt his face catch fire with raw shame. He suddenly felt like a harlot, the admission making him viscerally guilty of actions that had seemed so right at the time. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, ducking his face behind his hand once again. “Dear gods...”

“You what!? You can't be serious!” He could see her staring at him with incredulity from betwixt the shield of his fingers, looking between him and Haurchefant and back again. A glance toward the older man confirmed that he was grinning rakishly, but it was obvious there was no joke behind his teeth. “You are serious. You really mean to say that you've been... you are... you're with... he's a man for Thal's sake!”

“I am quite aware of that,” he said flatly, body flashing hot just from the words, not even having to resort to memories. “And yes. Completely serious. Absolutely, deadly serious.” He demonstrated the fact with a hard scowl and a steady gaze, even through the ever-present blush.

The Lalafel was a chatterbox, a fussbudget, and a busybody all at once. Words escaped her in a rush, like a kettle that had boiled over. “So this is what you've been keeping from me? 'The raven has flown,' and all that? And after you gave me such a scolding for telling him you hadn't eaten, the nerve! I thought you said you needed him to respect your strength, and now you're... you're... fraternizing! What if someone finds out?” Mounting worry escaped her expressive face to tangle her fingers in a knot.

Alphinaud saw red for a moment, accompanied by an unexpected flash of vertigo as anger overtook him. “If we are found out then he will die. Our diplomatic fortunes can burn for all the difference it makes.” She appeared quite shocked at the outburst, even a little frightened. He closed his eyes and breathed through his nose for a moment, calming himself and remembering she meant no ill. When he spoke again it was with the voice of one made helpless by the winds of fate. “Truly, 'twas you who caused it. It was then that he began to pursue me, though I doubt he truly had it in mind. Regardless, it's done, and I would have it no other way.”

An odd sensation behind his eyes made him look to Haurchefant. The man was regarding him queerly, chin resting on his hands. The smile was gone now, his eyes narrowed searchingly, as if he could look right through the younger Elezen and peer into his heart. It was almost a silent question, one he knew the answer to. Alphinaud nodded slowly. They shared a solemn moment, in which he made to hide nothing, feeling almost naked beneath the lord's gaze. The older man wasn't accusing him, he slowly realized, but actually impressed at the level of his devotion. Like the sunrise, the lord's lunatic grin returned, lighting his entire face and making even his shoulders twitch with joyful energy.

The tension in the room seemed to evaporate as the morning fog. Alphinaud's skin almost prickled with the cool relief, and Tataru smiled sweetly at him, perhaps understanding something of the silent exchange.

“Alright,” she said, her large eyes going a little misty and the edges of her smile crinkling with feeling. “I'm happy for you. Love is... love is a good thing. It doesn't matter whom it's for. As long as you don't go charging off to your death again, that is! I was beginning to fear you were losing your mind for a bit there.”

There was a bout of snickering from behind the desk. But Alphinaud ignored it and gave the Lalafel a little smile, warm and relieved. “Thank you. I'm sorry for keeping it from you. I have had problems with trust lately, and the stakes are quite high. But you deserve my confidence, and I should have been more forthright.”

“Charming,” said Haurchefant, dismissive with his words but not his affectionate expression. “How fares our wayward maid, then?” He looked like a coeurl with cream, languid and harmless now as he slouched in his chair, shuffling through his mess of paper.

The young diplomat thought for a moment at how to answer. “She makes the fifth member of our conspiracy,” he replied, and Haurchefant scowled. “Quite on her own initiative, I might add. She's too clever by half.”

A glance to the side confirmed that Tataru was following the conversation with veiled curiosity, but content to keep her nose out of it. Unlike Haurchefant, the woman had discretion, and he was thankful for it.

“I see. Is it quite safe for her to be here, then?” A blot of ink smeared across the other man's hand and he licked at it with his tongue, turning it green and making him wince at whatever flavor the ink carried. Then he licked it a second time, removing most of the remainder of the smudge.

“... Yes,” Alphinaud replied, hesitating more due to the sight than the surety of his answer. “It carries some risk, but I believe her trustworthy. More to the point, I believe she can be of some help.” And that was all he was willing to say about it.

Deliberately ignoring the question forming on the lord's raised brow, he changed the subject with as much subtlety as a goobbuey in the garden. “What's all this about, exactly?” He indicated the papers on the desk with a twirl of his finger, encompassing what now made up several only slightly disorderly piles.

Haurchefant gave him a little grin and let the subject drop. Evidently he believed the younger man had embarrassed himself enough for now. “Intelligence,” he replied, the word sticky with enthusiasm.

“Is that so,” Alphinaud couldn't help muttering.

The lord narrowed his eyes in warning but didn't let it stop him. “This is all I know about the Geomancer and his movements. Aymeric has provided some of it to me directly, the rest comes from my own contacts and the camp's scouts.” At the latter he gestured to one of the piles of documents, written with ordinary black ink and composed in neat parallel lines.

“And... those?” Tataru pointed to a smaller pile with the large, abstract pictures Haurchefant had recently drawn, and Alphinaud was not entirely sure he wanted to know.

“Maps.”

“Ah,” she said with a wince. Of course he wouldn't simply bring out a real map. It would have been so much more accurate and detailed, after all. Perhaps even informative.

Haurchefant winked at him, reminding him that he never quite knew when the man was being daft on purpose. “Send out your calls to your tame adventurers, Master Leveilleur. Loathe as I am to admit it, I would feel much more at ease should Ser Aymeric have the protection of the Warrior of Light at his back.” He flashed a tight frown, his conflict warring across his face in full view. Alphinaud could only nod, glad that the man wouldn't fight him on the issue.

“I have sent for more up-to-date intelligence already, which should arrive within a few days at most. We can begin as soon as all the players have gathered and we have confirmed the location.” There was steel now in his eyes, making them suddenly chill and deep as a frozen lake, and his broad mouth was so devoid of humor that it seemed to belong to another. This was the face Lord Haurchefant de Foretemps shewed to those who harmed the ones he loved.

“Make ready.”

“I fully intend to,” replied Alphinaud, nodding to Tataru, who seemed to share his grim resolve. Quill and linkpearl were his true weapons, and he would use them to slay the man who had hurt his lover. Not even the stones of the earth and the wind in the sky would stop him.



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