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: It has come to my attention that Aymeric is 32 in canon (I'm told this has only been out a few months when I had begun this chapter, I have an EXCUSE), and I am very, very upset. The main reason I haven't had Alphinaud and Aymeric discuss age in this is not knowing a reasonable figure, but really, I was thinking in the 25-28 range. Stupidly young and naieve, but still really, in our world at least, too old for a 17-year-old. I know I'm pushing it, really, I do. I try to mitigate the consent issues but there's only so much I can do, and Alphinaud is in fact pretty so there you have it. o.o But 32... I can't really work with 32. I don't know how to deal with it. For now... just pretend he's younger than that, if you need to, because to finish this it's what I'll have to do.


 

Only a few chapters to go now. :3


 

NaNoWriMo news:

Yes, I’ll be participating in NaNoWriMo again this year. Last year, I took a break from writing Bellyachin’ and other projects to devote myself to an original story with original characters. While I enjoyed the effort and learned a lot from my 60k success, I feel that the story is too flawed to be worth re-working it into a finished novel. Perhaps someday, but not now. Not when I have so many other wonderful ideas!

 

This is good news for you, because that means this year’s effort will be posted here—eventually! Because I’m going to use my 50k goal on completing the first draft of To Say No. November is going to be a gift to myself, a guilt-free chunk of time to devote to my favorite story, most of which is already laid out in my mind, waiting to be written. I can’t wait!

 




 

There was three kings into the east,

 Three kings both great and high,

And they hae sworn a solemn oath

 John Barleycorn should die.

   -John Barleycorn, version by Robert Burns




 

Alphinaud did not ordinarily remember much of his dreams. He was too focused on the day-world, on the things he meant to accomplish. From time to time, a dream might illuminate to him another angle of a problem he hoped to solve, or point out a worry he had avoided acknowledging. Other than that, he had a tendency to ignore them, even resent them. He much preferred to be awake, because the time he spent asleep did nothing to accomplish his goals.


 

This night was not much different. The things he dreamt were of little consequence and less sense. But one thing stayed with him, one key piece of his wakeful life that his mind carried with him even in idleness and insensibility.


 

Alphinaud was happy, no matter how deeply he sank into the warm blankness of the world beyond his pillow. He had what he wanted, and not even the nonsense of his restive mind could make him forget who held him in his arms.


 

Until he heard a knock at the door, and his dreams all blew away like a flurry of cherry blossoms in the spring.


 

“Wake up, Milord!” sang a familiar greeting, echoing in from the hall. “I'll be back in a few minutes with yer breakfast, so don't dawdle!” Junh was so petite that when she raised her voice, it tended to come out a little shrill and scratchy, as though it were against her very nature to be loud. The young politician had taken to welcoming her meddling, but this morning her well-meaning screeching filled him with dread.


 

It meant his tryst was ended, and it was time to become a different sort of companion for the knight at his side.


 

Said knight evidently did not expect the disruption. The moment the knock had sounded, he had begun fighting with the sheets, upsetting the secure oasis of warmth within their bed and flailing gracelessly onto the floor. Alphinaud responded rather more sensibly, scooting forward into the warm patch his lover had vacated and lighting the lamp by touch and a shard of crystal.


 

Then he leaned over the bed to look at his knight, settling his chin onto the corner of the mattress and smiling sleepily at the sight. Sadly, his lover was still protected by a trailing sheet, but he could still see quite a bit. His long, lean legs, the broad chest and flat stomach, the arms and hands that were capable of both strength and precision in equal balance. There was a purpling bruise on his shoulder, the mark of the bite Alphinaud had foolishly left the previous night. But it did not detract from his beauty, any more than the blush on Aymeric's cheeks as he looked up at his lover in embarrassment. And, perhaps, something akin to awe.


 

“She knows you're here, obviously,” said the younger man by way of reassurance. “She's just giving us fair warning. Sadly, it seems we do not have time for...”


 

The next words were cut off quite forcefully by the press of Aymeric's lips against his own, followed shortly by the reappearance of warmth against his side. The other man had recovered his pride quickly enough to lurch against him and then crawl haltingly back into bed, pressing him into the mattress and making him wonder just what it was that was so important to say.


 

He had been exhausted last night, so much that he had barely had the sense to drag the blankets back to bed with him. Now, his body hardly remembered aught but the pleasure the other man's touch could bring.


 

“I believe she said we have a few minutes,” murmured Aymeric into his ear. And as the larger man's weight was settled firmly atop him, he had neither the strength nor the inclination to disagree. His cock answered enthusiastically, like a dog who understood its master by the mere tone of voice. The husky growl of his lover's bedroom whispers made him throb with need, and it suddenly seemed worth the risk that Junh might interrupt them again.


 

At least this time, he knew, she would not tell a soul. “A fair point,” was all he could muster in response. The rest was mere encouragement.


 

Ordinarily he resolved his morning urges on his own. This seemed, all-in-all, a much more economical solution. Instead of searching the room for the bottle of oil, Aymeric merely spit into his hand and reached between them. It took more effort than anticipated to align their bodies appropriately, the problem eventually solved when the knight slid Alphinaud's legs over his and around his waist, leaning over and pressing their bodies together in a parody of their embrace the night before. Rather than moving against his arse, the knight was pressing against his cock, and the implications seemed new and scandalous, somehow dirty all over again.


 

That did not mean that Alphinaud was opposed. He merely wrapped his arms around his lover's shoulders, pulling him close, thoroughly convinced he would enjoy what came next.


 

The answer was the same thoroughly inescapable grip that had encased him the night before, wrapped around his length and squeezing him against Aymeric's own. The other man growled softly in his ear, low and rough, and the younger Elezen could not have been certain that his light-headedness was not from the sound alone.


 

The physical sensation was little different than the commander's hand alone had been. But there was another point of contact, hot and silky, and just as hard as he. Aymeric thrust against him in counterpoint to the movement of his hand, and the implications made his thoughts go numb and jelly-soft. Close, so very close. Such an intimate thing to share, one man to another. Last night Alphinaud had dominated his knight, made him tremble at his own touch. Now he felt embraced. They were equals, lovers, partners in crime. He could feel it in every shudder and stroke, hear it in every soft, senseless sound Aymeric groaned in his ear. He could taste it in every half-formed kiss, as their mouths sought blindly after each-other, caring little for the stale flavor of sleep but pushing beyond to the sweetness inherent in love.


 

It took little time before Alphinaud was gasping in Aymeric's embrace, clawing at his back with what little length of nail he hadn't yet bitten in distraction. He tried to keep his voice down, tried to focus. Junh would be returning at any moment. They could not dally, could not throw caution to the wind and lose themselves to passion. But it was precisely what they did then. And it was all he could do not to cry out for more.


 

Finally he did cry out, the slick, contradictory motions against his cock confusing him, making him feel like a pot that had boiled over and emptied itself to char over the flame. He was lost in a kiss then, breathing around Aymeric's lips in fits and gasps, but his lover felt him jolt and tremble, sealing their mouths together to catch his voice. Effectively muffled, he let it break. He shouted wordlessly against his knight's steadying tongue, spasming against the unrelenting movement until his lover, too, moaned achingly into his mouth.


 

If they had not needed a bath before that, they certainly did now.


 

Aymeric withdrew his hand, now thoroughly sticky with all manner of mess, and rested his forehead lightly against Alphinaud's own. He hovered there, not resting the full weight of his body, but pressed close regardless. It seemed to take him some time to reign in his breathing and flutter his eyelashes open again, staring dully into the space somewhere behind Alphinaud's head, unable to focus any closer without going cross-eyed. He appeared thoroughly sated, and completely at a loss for words, reduced to an air of bleary, unfocused affection.


 

“I... believe I was trying to say that you should go bathe,” said the younger man after a moment, tracing his hand gently over his lover's abused shoulder and enjoying the way Aymeric's eyelids dipped at the contact. “If you leave by yourself, none should think it strange to see you leave a guest room. I shall tarry here and bathe separately once you're safely gone.”


 

The knight, his knight, lifted his head just enough to nod, then rolled gracelessly away. “We will meet anew in just a few bells,” he answered quietly, the edge of his smile sweet and soft. “Do not think it so easy to be rid of me.” Then he sat up, and together they went about cleaning him up and clothing him enough to walk the halls without suspicion.


 

“I should heal these,” said Alphinaud regretfully, tracing his fingers over the bruised bite-mark and the scratches on the man's back.


 

“Did you heal your own?” Aymeric ventured in return, raising his eyebrow to regard him over his shoulder in sly amusement. The diplomat's hand traveled automatically to the joint of his wrist, where the bite had healed with naught but a smoky-dark line over the base of his thumb.


 

Alphinaud smiled sheepishly and nodded, not in confirmation but agreement. He edged forward imperceptibly, letting his forehead droop to rest against a broad back tacky with their night's exertion.


 

Unlike his chest and arms, there were remarkably few scars on the knight's back, the mark of a warrior who held no fear. He imagined the few thin lines he could see behind his shoulders and along his torso were all the result of accidents and childhood play. Though he was not too proud to sound the retreat to save his men, Aymeric was no coward. The young Arcanist would needs protect him with everything he had... if for no other reason than that the knight would be doing the very same for him.


 

A surge of protectiveness flowed through him, like the charge of magic, hovering around his breast where he imagined his heart to carry his feelings like the spark of Aetherflow.


 

Rather than discharge it in a spell, he tilted his chin forward to place a single kiss along Aymeric's spine.


 

The kiss the commander returned to him a moment later took rather longer, but they were able to disentangle themselves before Junh arrived. Clad in a soft robe and carrying his armor amongst a bundle of towels, Aymeric went to wash away the evidence of his crimes.


 

Alphinaud stayed to pay the price for him, enduring Junh's rosy smiles and cheerful bustle with more patience than he had thought he possessed.


 

Fortunately, the maid knew better than to ask questions. She merely served him his customary breakfast, leaving him a wide swath of personal space as she bustled about the room and clucked with delight. In the end, she seemed to have extracted all she had needed to know, merely from the way his lips would move without his will into a smile of sly contentment. Beneath his pyjamas, a blanket around his shoulders, and a mug of tea clutched to his breast more for the warmth than the taste, he could truly believe he had the courage to face any foe.


 

It was worth it to defend his love, no matter how much they risked in the process. No challenge was great enough to deter him. He simply didn’t care about anything that dared to stand in their way.





 

It was well, then, that Alphinaud had gotten the sentimentality out of his system early. Once he had broken his fast and bathed himself, he was already as a general on the path to war. He still carried the warm, irrational glow of young love in his breast. But he was a master now of his own body, as well as that of those he would command. He stepped into the Intercessory with his coat draped over his shoulders like a regal cape, head held high, lips stern and unyielding. Even the Warrior of Light seemed to flinch a little in surprise.


 

He was a different man.


 

Not from the hopeful virgin of last night, he understood. But from the childish, frail boy who had sought shelter in the Falling Snows. He had been too shocked and frightened to do aught but stare into the cloudy depths of his mug of chocolate, content to let his friends see to their future when he should have steered that course by his own hand. He had been so sure of himself when he had founded the Crystal Braves. But it was a false confidence, borne of privilege and pride.


 

His confidence now came from knowing well his limits, and exceeding them. When he stepped onto the battlefield today, it would be as a warrior, rather than one who assumed the power of those who, for reasons unknown, might pretend to lend him their own.

 

When he protected Aymeric, it would be with his own strength. The same hands that had retrieved his knight from the depths of despair, and the will that had secured his cooperation when every fiber of the man’s being had protested his involvement.

 

Everyone had assembled, all the pieces on the board. Haurchefant, the unpredictable Knight, sitting quietly at tables edge, eyes veiled over smugness and secrets. Lucia, the nimble Bishop, standing tall at Aymeric’s side, her gaze stone-steady like a statue whose featureless face saw only the future, lurking in the far corner of the room. Tataru, the sly Pawn, in her tall stool off to the side, inventorying her maps and notes and studiously avoiding his gaze. And one singular adventurer, the warrior Queen in their game of chess, smiling in gentle approval at him. Happy to see his resolve returned, it seemed, or perhaps merely happy to be in Camp Dragonhead once more.

 

At the head of it all sat Ser Aymeric, the precious King to his game. But seeing Alphinaud enter, the commander held his gaze for a moment, letting his serious diplomatic mask fade into a soft smile. Then he closed his eyes, unfolded his hands, and stood with deliberate grace. He moved to the right, opposite Lucia and flanking the chair like a throne. Taking the place of the guardian Rook and standing to respectful attention, it was a clear invitation.

 

Lucia made way as Alphinaud strode toward the chair in measured, confident steps. Internally, his stomach performed a small somersault as he sat down upon it. He had never thought to sit here. Never thought to usurp Aymeric’s place. Perhaps he had proven himself worthy, when he had clashed with the Lord Commander the day before. The knight had ceded the place to him willingly, for all to see. Alphinaud had effectively been Castled. He might as well have truly been crowned king, of Ishgard, Ul’dah, or Mooglekind.

 

He must have looked terribly small, sitting in a chair that towered over even Aymeric’s sinewy height. But it didn’t matter to him anymore. If the adventurer was surprised by the change of seating, only a grim smile remarked upon it.

 

“Thank you for answering the summons, my friend,” Alphinaud began, the meeting having been called to order the moment he had entered, by force of will alone. “In a day when those who have seized the reigns of power would seek to besmirch your name, you yet are the one light of hope we might always be assured will burn bright and true. This task may seem trifling. But the Geomancer stands, currently, against our safe refuge in Ishgard, and threatens to lay low the fortunes of the one voice of power who yet speaks wisdom in a lance of silence and intrigue.”

 

The Warrior of Light made little acknowledgment of the statement, but a pair of echo-deep eyes flickered, briefly, between Alphinaud and Ser Aymeric standing obediently beside him. For a moment, the diplomat wondered if his secret was plain for all to see. But the way the adventurer’s eyes narrowed in anger spoke otherwise, and Alphinaud smiled ruefully in agreement.

 

“My feelings precisely,” he said, leaning back and finding his ease in a chair built for one of twice his stature. “Ser Aymeric has been endangered once by him already, and dozens of knights have given their very lives in his pursuit. While it may be ideal to capture the fiend for questioning, I think it prudent to bring back his head… even should it suffer the misfortune of an untimely separation from his body.”


 

Maybe he had not meant to pronounce the words with such bloodless chill. But it was impossible not to take pleasure in the statement. Not now. Not when he was prepared to do it by his own hands, if necessary. From the corner eye he could see Aymeric twitch just slightly in what could have been surprise. But beyond that and the narrowed, bloodthirsty gaze of a warrior too strong to remember the taste of fear, there was little reaction to his declaration. None dared question his resolve.


 

“Timing is everything,” he continued. “Without the element of surprise, we place ourselves in grave peril. We will proceed to the entrance of the Ogre’s Belly, prioritizing swiftness over formation. Once there we shall regroup, splitting into two units. Yours,” he said, inclining his head in a gesture as much for clarity as respect, “shall take the vanguard, disarming any defense they hope to levy against us. They may believe their fortress inviolable, having, as they do, a blizzard at their beckon. But they may also expect to entertain an entire army. I am certain that neither eventuality should pose a problem to you and your friends.”

 

The adventurer nodded steadily, as though it were already fact. From his quiet place at the table’s edge, Haurchefant made a pleased, rumbling hum of agreement, eyes dancing to imagine it. Alphinaud nearly missed it, but he was sure he spied a swift, shy grin from the stoic hero. Lord Haurchefant caught it too, his face contorting suddenly in shock as though he’d reached into a biscuit jar and speared his hand into an entire chocolate cake.


 

It was nice, for once, not to be the one whose dalliances were on display. It wasn’t worth teasing the lord over it, not now. In that department, he was far outmatched. Though perhaps a few years by Aymeric’s side might hone his wit fit to compete with the both of them.

 

But he was more concerned with the sharpness of his steel, this day.


 

So he pressed on. “Once the way has been cleared, the second unit will move to secure the target. I am certain I need not tell you that the deed should be done by Ser Aymeric himself, but I see no harm in supporting him if necessary. To that end, I will be accompanying the second unit. Should circumstances change suddenly, heed my call. It is a mission of significant risk, with little hope for safe retreat if victory is not secured. As ever, only by committing fully may we find success.”


 

The truth of the words stung him then, a quick prick of panic in his breast. The adventurer was no stranger to the danger they faced. But now he was committing Aymeric to a mission that would likely mean his death if they failed.


 

It didn’t even enter his mind to change his course. He merely nodded in conclusion, glad that he was there to defend his lover. Dying in the attempt was not even an option. He would succeed, simple as that.

 

“I trust you have no questions?” he asked of the warrior whose eyes echoed his own determination. And in fact it had been pointless to ask. With a curt nod and a grim smile, the adventurer left the room, carrying Haurchefant’s attention like a flame pulling at the wings of a moth.


 

It was Lucia who stirred next, leaving her post by Alphinaud’s side and saluting her commander elegantly. Being so close to his side and in pride of place, the younger Elezen couldn’t help but imagine briefly that she was saluting him, as well. “All is ready, according to plan. We ride at your command,” she said, and then saw herself from the room at a signal from Aymeric.

 

Alphinaud was fairly certain he did not imagine the sly smile she cast upon him on the way out. Nor the smirk his lover beamed downward, once he dared to look up at the man that towered over his throne.

 

He was saved from wondering what it all meant by Tataru. “Um, Alphinaud, if you will but wait a moment… I have a gift for you,” she said, just short of shy and bright enough to light the room in place of the fire.


 

Lord Haurchefant’s smile was somehow even more dazzling. “Really?” he chirruped, clapping his hands together. “Splendid! As do I! But please, show us yours first!” He launched himself out of his chair in a manner that seemed to defy geometry, somehow appearing at Tataru’s side without having properly cleared the table’s rounded corner.

 

The king shared a small, secret smile with his guardian rook before vacating his borrowed throne. Together they made the journey round the table’s edge with considerably more decorum. Tataru had fished a wrapped bundle from beneath the table, bulky and soft like Alphinaud’s coat had been. She held it out to him, standing on her chair with lips pursed in an expression of hope and pride. The young diplomat noted as he took it that some of her tiny fingers were taped with bandages, or chafed red and raw.


 

“I had hoped to have more time to finish it,” she said in answer to his questioning glance, tucking her hands behind her and out of sight. “With our planned move to the Holy See, I had thought you might need something a bit warmer. But with your new habit of wandering into evil ensorceled blizzards, it seemed wise to hurry it up.” Her teeth mocked him crisply, even as her cheeks glowed warmly like apples ripe before the frost.

 

Alphinaud certainly deserved the scorn, though he was of no mind to correct his misbehavior. “Thank you, Tataru,” he mumbled, a little bereft of a better reply. “As invaluable a friend as you have already proved to be, yet never do you cease to surprise me.” While he knew her to be a woman of industry and great cleverness, it had not occurred to him that she would be capable of making him clothing by hand, of any kind.


 

He had not expected much—a scarf, perhaps? But when he unwrapped the bundle to reveal a myriad of blue and white felt, reinforced with leather and thick enough to keep out even a magicked blizzard’s chill, he was certain it wasn’t that. It was clearly a set of garments of tremendous quality, made of materials he hadn’t even names for. Thick felt, smooth, creamy leather, and every stitch in place. Amazingly, it was even augmented with Sharlayan technology, layered with aetherially-conductive components that served to increase the flow of aether and store it for later use.


 

Even made by hand, the materials should have cost a small fortune. Knowing Tataru, she had come by them some other means. But even imagining her bargaining with passing traders, or sending adventurers on dangerous quests for scraps of rare leather, he couldn’t imagine how she had managed to obtain a king’s ransom in fine goods.


 

Alphinaud was not alone in his awe. Everyone had become chessmen again, stony and still save for the tiny pawn. The Lalafel wrang her hands anxiously and rocked from side to side in anticipation. Finally her anxiousness overflowed, the tea kettle in her heart whistling a shrill sweet song. She threw her hands in the air and jumped, balancing expertly on the chair as though it were a pedestal for her display. “Try it on, it won’t bite! Don’t just leave us in suspense!”

 

The king was provoked to movement, placing the long white boots on the table and unfolding the royal blue coat to his scrutiny. But Haurchefant was prodded too. “Yes, by all means, Master Alphinaud. Try it on! Show us how it fits you!” The lord grinned wide and crooked, his eyes pushed nearly closed from the brilliance of his teeth.

 

Had Alphinaud been able to see the mischief in his eyes, it was like he’d have been provoked to violence. As it was, he gritted his own teeth, pulling the coat closer to his breast as though to shield his nakedness from view, though he was fully clothed. “Perhaps once I have a moment to myself,” he bit, jackboots instead of petticoats and not a bit demure. “There is, after all, a lady present.”

 

The pawn had the good grace to laugh, a warm sound that bubbled from behind her delicate hand. She swung herself from the chair, singing out her decree. “Then by all means, don’t let me stop you! I’ll wait outside, the better to see everyone’s surprise!” Then she practically danced from the room, swinging her arms gaily at her sides as though a coronation awaited her at the far end of the board.

 

She paused at the door, shining her sunny face back at him in unbridled glee. “Don’t take too long,” she sang. “Or everyone will wonder what’s keeping you!” And then she vanished from the game altogether.

 

The young tactician might have felt in better humor at the jest, had Haurchefant not remained. He had settled himself backwards in another chair, hunching languidly over the backrest. He hid his grin behind folded arms, lurking like a stalking coeurl lodged high within a tree. Aymeric’s stance changed subtly at the metaphorical threat, on guard as though he truly expected the lord to pounce upon his lover and carry him into the night.


 

But Alphinaud was still a leader even if he had doffed his crown. He would have none of it. “I said a moment alone. Out with you,” he groused.

 

“If I’m to be declared a lady,” said Haurchefant slowly, pursing his eyebrows in thought, “I should at least be allowed to wear a dress. Aren’t you going to ask about my surprise?”


 

“No,” said Alphinaud, with as much flavor as a Limsan sea biscuit. “But I expect you shall tell me either way.” It didn’t take much imagination to realize that Lord Haurchefant would be difficult, so he revised his tactics. He gathered the clothing gently in his arms, placing some of it in Aymeric’s attentive hands. At the front of the room was a screened-off storage area, and it was there that he went to change. It took only the merest nod to his knight to prompt him to stand guard before the screen, though his eyes flickered regretfully over the younger man as though wishing for another chance to see him nude. But he soon turned away, having decided Haurchefant was the larger threat, or at least that he didn’t want to be caught staring. The tactician was left with just enough privacy to feel silly for making excuses.


 

So he laid out his precious acquisitions, absently shoving aside stacks of maps on the small, disorderly table. If he proceeded with planning and organization, he could minimize his exposure and get back to preparing for the very real dangers to come, rather than worrying about such trifles as nudity.


 

“You know,” said the mad lord from somewhere beyond, “I’m beginning to feel that I’m not welcome.”

 

Alphinaud was saved from having to answer by his faithful watch-dog. “That is because you make it your mission to cause offense,” replied Aymeric smoothly. “I haven’t the faintest idea what your adventurer sees in you.”

 

It buoyed the younger man’s spirits, just slightly, to have his knight defend him, even if it were a mere joust between friends. Thus freed from conversation, he went about stripping his shoes and then his stockings, to replace them with knee-length trousers and high leather boots that flowed beneath his fingers like smooth butter.


 

Haurchefant made a coughing sort of noise, which might have been disguised laughter or just an improperly-timed inhale. Then he recovered, punctuating his counterattack by the scrape of his chair against the floor. “Aymeric, darling, surely you don’t think that. It isn’t what you said when we camped together in the Western Highlands. Don’t you remember? Resting together ‘neath the stars, the scent of rolanberries wafting on the wind?”


 

Suddenly the air in Alphinaud’s lungs was too hot, pressure in his throat far too tight. He was filled with a sickly jealousy too volatile even to allow him to breathe, and his hands abandoned the straightening of his boots merely to prop him upright against the table’s edge.


 

What had they done under the stars? How fondly had they whispered together, how deeply had they drunk of the open air?

 

What had Aymeric felt, back then, for the madman who hounded him still?

 

He became aware of the knight moving slightly in the corner of his vision, but he refused to show more weakness by acknowledging his insecurity. Instead he bent once more, studiously ignoring the cautious glance Aymeric cast upon him, listening as though he were a mere observer in a conversation that didn’t concern him in the slightest.


 

Finally his lover replied, the dog’s final warning before the bite. “No. I believe I said ‘don’t you dare touch me, you addle-brained heathen,’ and as you failed to listen, I broke your nose. Arse.”


 

The accusation was greeted with a sharp flutter of laughter, butterflies escaping from Haurchefant’s breast. “Ah, yes, but that was an accident,” he insisted, warm and wistful. “Your ire is merely another form of love. You’d never have let me bleed on you otherwise!”

 

As Aymeric’s only reply was a curt, angry rumble, Alphinaud was left to dress in relative peace.


 

He knew it was completely irrational to be jealous of his lover’s past. If Haurchefant had made him even the slightest bit happy, he should in fact be glad of it. But the biting reply had reassured him immensely. Perhaps, inwardly, Alphinaud needed to be Aymeric’s only lover, just as Aymeric was his. It was far too soon for commitments, for promises and forevers. But he was struck with a zealous need to have his knight, not merely in the present and the future but in the immortal past, and the strength of his possessiveness was nearly frightening to behold.


 

It seemed that, while no stranger to love any longer, Alphinaud still had much to learn. Perhaps he should take it as a blessing, then, that Haurchefant would continue to test his patience.


 

Of course, if he were truly honest with himself, he had learned much from the mad lord already. The thought was like an unruly fish in a net, bringing a wash of cold brine with its realization. Or perhaps it was the effect of having doffed his own tunic, ready to trade it for the thick white felt that Tataru had provided. He threw it on quickly and only then examined the buttons that were tucked behind the lining. It was so elegant that even the fastenings made him feel foolish. It was the strength of loyalty that Haurchefant had taught him. Of reaching out and trusting, even when it seemed there was naught to be gained by it.


 

They had all surprised him.


 

Aymeric first, awakening feelings that the young diplomat had once abandoned as a frivolous waste of time. Haurchefant had penetrated his paranoia, proving his worth as a friend and an ally, no matter how odd he seemed. Junh had proven a surprising ally, and now Tataru had revealed herself as a master craftswoman, as well as the undying comrade he had already known.


 

They were not Warriors of Light. But they all had a hidden strength and cleverness in them that shone out of the brilliance of their friendship. It was every bit as powerful as the light of the Mothercrystal, and required no Echo to hear its song.

 

Alphinaud had once treated men as tools. Pieces on a board, moving to his whim. Small wonder he had failed to truly master them. Small wonder they had plucked away his crown.

 

If he had merely opened his heart to begin with, he would have seen that the loyalty of his friends would never fail him. A smile wormed its way onto his face, though he fought it out of habit as he eased into the longer royal blue jacked, fine silver embellishments cool beneath his touch.

 

The gloves were the last items on the table, aside from the maps and papers he had displaced. They were black, and covered his entire hands rather than just his palms and wrists. He had come to prefer the old style. But in truth, Aymeric wore it far better.

 

Those selfsame slender fingers appeared in Alphinaud’s view, the knight approaching him quietly now that he was decent. “Let me help you,” he murmured, taking up the long white tie at his neck with careful concentration. When he had finished, it was knotted in a neat line over his breast, the style favored in Sharlayan and the Studium’s halls. Somehow the other man had known he would favor it.

 

It seemed the tactician was still smiling, because Aymeric soon took up the expression. Slowly, like a mirror fogged and sluggish with sleep. On the knight it looked even sweeter than it had felt, and then it became wide and lustrous as it took all of him in, pearly and pink with joy. He could have gotten lost in that smile, thought Alphinaud. He could have gotten lost in the warm look in his lover’s eyes, and the coy flicker of his raven-soft lashes.

 

“It seems I have grown so used to cold that I have forgotten what it was like to be warm,” said Alphinaud, feeling affection gather in his breast. Sill, the cold had served him. He counted himself a good deal happier for it, for all the foolishness it had inspired.


 

Cold, after all, was a wonderful excuse to be close to someone you loved.

 

He was not the only one who thought so. “Kiss him. You know you want to,” said Lord Haurchefant from far too near. Alphinaud snapped his attention back to the world around him, whip-quick, shattering the illusion that he and his lover had been cozy and alone. The interloper had crept closer to lean against the screen, a casual slouch that upset the chain-mail on his shoulders and made him seem ruffled, a deranged bird in a bad molt. Still, his smile was disarming somehow. Full of affection for them both, even as his eyes rested on Aymeric with that indecent twinkle in his plate-glass stare.

 

And then his grin was twisted to licorice and lemon drops, sliding to the side with the force of gravity as he tilted his head toward mischief. “Or I could do it,” he finished, batting his eyelashes at them both.

 

No, thought Alphinaud. Only Aymeric. This was between the two of them alone. Somehow in the stillness of his mind, the calm before the blizzard, he could see it clearly. He could see it in the way his knight’s eyes narrowed to violence long-contained, anger mixed with hurt as he turned toward Haurchefant. He could see it in the way the lord shifted his stance, feet planted securely, sadness behind his teeth.

 

This was a battle too, he thought, watching Aymeric gather his fury with a sense of detachment. He had merely been too mired in his own jealousy to see it. But now that his mind was clear, the tactician within was unleashed. He didn’t need to see the fist the knight made to predict that a blow was coming. Everything was laid out before him, pieces arrayed on the board.


 

The tactician acted.

 

The Lord Commander’s fury would not refuse his lover’s hand, snaking out to grasp his jaw and turn his face as though he guided a chocobo by the reigns. Aymeric started, shaken from his anger to stare instead in wonder at the man who held his love and attention.

 

Having diffused the danger, Alphinaud then stood on his toes to lurch into the older man’s grasp, wrapping his arms around his neck and pressing their lips together. It should have been bittersweet. It should have been soured and dusty, a relic of Aymeric’s past that neither of them could toss away. But it was mild and clean, softening as the other man gathered him closer and accepted his kiss.


 

He lingered there only a moment more before lowering himself back to the floor, savoring the confusion on his knight’s face and the way his arms loosened their hold only slowly, only in response to his gentle backward pull. He didn’t want to be released, but it needed to happen. Only now. Only for a moment.


 

Only to demonstrate his trust.

 

“It’s alright,” he said gently, turning now to include Haurchefant in the soft beam of his smile. “Say whatever needs be said. I shan’t stop you.”


 

Then he wormed his way free of the taller man’s grasp and backed fully away, watching carefully with stilled breath and a hopeful heart. As though he had offered a captive bird up to the sky, and waited for it to take flight.

 

Haurchefant was still that bird, an awkward fledgling, legs and wings in every direction and beak wide agape. The lord stared after Alphinaud’s retreat in wonder and a little fear, before lurching forward and burrowing into the vacated space in Aymeric’s embrace as though refusing to fly from his nest. The knight was too astonished to do aught but hold him, stroking his back as he cast his confusion between Alphinaud and the ridiculous man in his arms.

 

“I was afraid to love you,” gasped Haurchefant all of a piece, his face buried somewhere deep in Aymeric’s cloak. “It was easier to make you hate me. Provoking you was safe. I knew where you stood. I knew you wouldn’t leave me just for being an insufferable git.”

 

Aymeric spared one last bewildered look at Alphinaud, who had settled against the briefing table’s edge. He nodded, hoping his smile was more reassuring than sardonic.

 

Understanding dawned on the knight, conflict glittering across the surface of his eyes before they closed, like a meteor shower in the night. He threaded his fingers into Haurchefant’s storm-tossed hair, leaning closer and relaxing his scowl into something akin to pleasure. “I never truly hated you, you know that very well,” he said softly. “You made it so difficult to be at ease. If you had only trusted--”

 

“I needed you to hate me,” choked Haurchefant, sounding a bit wet around the edges. “I was used to that. I knew you cared. But it frightened the dickens out of me to think of growing dependent on anyone’s love. Even if you never betrayed me, things had a way of… I could not trust to fate. I took what happiness I could… and left the rest. Pray forgive me for leaving your feelings aside as well. You deserved far better, truly.”


 

Alphinaud caught Aymeric’s gaze once more, though it had grown misty and distant, veiled with grief. It was hard not to be moved himself, compassion easily besting the jealous rage he’d ordinarily have had great difficulty fighting off.


 

Compassion for two men, his friend and his lover. And compassion for the young fools they’d been, fearful and embittered in ways Alphinaud had only begun to understand.


 

To the man that stood before him, wiser for his trials, Alphinaud gave another nod. Slight, but decisive. He shaped his lips into the ghosts of words, bereft of living voice. “Go on,” he mouthed, his sugar-coated smile just a touch sour. He could allow this. He needn’t fear. He had faith in Aymeric’s love, and Haurchefant’s unconquerable friendship.


 

At the very least, it would bring some ease to their hearts. But Alphinaud was the tactician, and he played against his own fears. Haurchefant was not his enemy, but rather the yawning expanse of years that separated the two men’s hearts. By giving ground, he showed not weakness, but strength.

 

Aymeric’s cautious kiss was the final blow. Haurchefant whimpered into it, wriggling in the knight’s sure grasp as though seeking to magnify the effect of his embrace. They were tangled now, knotted together like their shared past. Reliving the memories that had borne them thence, carrying them to Alphinaud’s dispassionate judgment and final binding decree.

 

He would have thought himself jealous, beneath that cool exterior. He would have thought himself angry, possessive, frightened of losing the man who had become as important to him as Eorzea itself. But he was not. He was filled with calm. With warmth and a sticky sort of sadness that gathered at the corners of his eyes. His smile crept wider around his face, winding and narrow and treacherous.

 

He was happy for them. Happy and something more. A little giddy. A little thrilled to see his lover kiss another man, and know his claim well safe for it. He could allow it. And in that acceptance was peace, and joy, and fresh daises blooming in his heart.

 

Perhaps a little lust, as well.


 

The knight’s dark lashes flickered, accompanied by a low, mournful sound. Then he withdrew, breath heavy but muted, lips red and tongue between his teeth. He guided their foreheads together with a firm grip still tangled in the other man’s hair, nodding at his soft whimpers and blinking slowly at the light. “Then I won’t forgive you,” he said, his voice at one with his sigh. “I don’t think I could leave off pretending to hate you if I tried. But I don’t need your assurances any longer. That heartbreak is healed, if sore.”


 

Haurchefant hummed contentedly, a wistful breeze at autumn’s end. “As long as you always hate me, then I shall be content.” Then he pushed, wiggling now to free himself from the gravity of his past. Pushing softly, not too sorry to win free.


 

Aymeric let him go. From the softness of his smile, it seemed he too had buried his regret.

 

Then Haurchefant filled Alphinaud’s vision with the insistent brilliance of the rising sun. It blinded him briefly with panic, making him freeze briefly, as though playing at death. But the lord’s lips merely landed on the younger man’s brow, a kiss as innocent as any could be. “I hope that you shall grow to hate me too, in time,” he said sweetly, before drawing back to grin, bright as morning fully dawned.


 

“I don’t foresee any difficulty in that,” replied the younger man drily, with a hint of lemon in his mouth. Haurchefant lifted his arms as though to launch into an embrace, but Alphinaud stopped him with a frown and a raised finger. The lord obeyed, unable to refuse the wisdom of the king that had granted him such gifts. “Though I shall have to resort to murder should you think to kiss either of us ever again,” he finished, just to make his point absolutely clear.

 

“Of course,” Haurchefant replied, laughing as he mocked a bow. “If you’ll excuse me then, I have one more farewell kiss to give. Don’t take too long! I still have that gift for you. And if you dawdle, I shall have to make up some excuse for your delay--”


 

Aymeric stopped him, shooing him from the room with a grip on his shoulders and a shove toward the door. “Keep your filthy tongue to yourself, if you please,” he said, no heat there any longer save a lingering warmth.

 

Haurchefant turned back only long enough to waggle that tongue in mockery and glee, and then he, too, was gone.


 

They were alone. Which meant they could be one again, a brief press of bodies and lips that struggled to be close enough. Alphinaud was surprised by his thirst for the other man, the way he clawed against his shoulder and failed to find a secure hold. Aymeric read something of his intent and found his own solution, grabbing him around the waist and pushing him to sit atop the table. The knight nudged between his legs and turned toward a kiss, putting every thought and feeling he had into his embrace. It wasn’t domineering. But it was protective, an expression of his devotion and his loyalty, dispelling any doubt about his love.


 

Alphinaud had no doubts any longer. He hadn’t need of them. He had everything he needed, anymore.


 

His knight spoke first, pulling back just far enough to run his lips reverently over Alphinaud’s brow, as though placing blessings and wards instead of kisses. “You surprised me,” he said, nervous laughter lurking deep beneath his quiet words.

“Not too unpleasantly, I hope,” murmured Alphinaud against the knight’s shoulder, where it seemed he could not insinuate himself near enough for his liking. “He spoke to me of his regrets, a few days past. It seemed something he wished for but hadn’t the courage to do. I do not know the whole of it, but I am glad to see it done.”


 

“You let me kiss him,” said Aymeric, quite unnecessarily. He peppered his own kisses along the younger man’s jaw, as if to apologize for his obedience.

 

Alphinaud bristled, became a hedgehog trapped in the other man’s steady grasp. “I did not let you lie with him. I have struck a pre-emptive blow and ended the whole matter, and now I may rest assured that he is happy and you are mine and mine alone.” He let himself enjoy a moment of irrational, possessive glee, gripping his knight all the tighter while the other man laughed softly in his hold. The sound was glorious against his ear, all echo and strength, a deep and sensuous melody. His, he thought. His lover. His knight.


 

At length their task imposed itself, wedging itself between their thoughts until their greed for affection became its own sort of sin. They relaxed their hold slowly, taking but a few more kisses as they drew apart. Alphinaud took his lover’s offered hand and eased himself from the table, never dropping it as they walked regretfully toward the door.

 

Aymeric stopped before they reached it, even as the younger man reached toward the handle with his unencumbered hand.

 

“I’ve told Lucia,” he said abruptly, then ducked his eyes to hide from Alphinaud’s look of scandal and scorn. But the rook soon met his king’s gaze once more, with the courage of his conviction. “You are not the only one entitled to his own council. Think of it as the price of my acquiescence to your plan. This is the only way I might be at ease, while you accompany me into danger. She will stay by your side, and I shall needs worry less with her to guard you in my stead.”


 

The tactician’s scowl did not abate, mispleased to have been out-maneurvered at his own game. Worse still, it made perfect sense. Aymeric would be at far less risk, either from attack or from discovery. But he did not have to enjoy it merely because it was logical.

 

“Very well,” he said tartly. “But you shall pay the balance later.”

 

Aymeric’s sharp eyes narrowed at the challenge. Then Alphinaud was trapped, pushed solidly against the door as the other man licked indecently along the length of his ear. “I should certainly hope so,” he whispered, a husky rasp on the edge of his tongue, wet and catching in his throat.

 

Then he pulled back and opened the door, breaking the spell and sending them back into the wild world without. “I’ll look forward to the accounting,” he said with a grin, and then he was striding around the corner, the Lord Commander once again.

 

Neither of them doubted it would come to pass. Love would see them through this battle, and beyond.



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