Alara had again surprised him; more accurately, she had impressed him with her dedication to overcoming what she termed “career-inhibiting weaknesses.” Although she’d been curious as to his “errand,” she hadn’t pressed. She wouldn’t. Not with the task of making conversation about her father’s success as king to strangers. She’ll have to keep her face stoic to avoid suspicion—even up here, the villagers know there are three royal offspring.
He tied his lute case onto the horse’s back and mounted with ease—much unlike his younger self. Gods, every action is a reminder of him. I can’t believe I’ve made it this long without buying another bottle of argonel or running stark-naked mad through the palace. I’m resigned, I suppose. Nudging his mount into motion, he set out on the North road. But these last years have been harder than most. He was the exact age Vanyel had been when they first met, now, and he didn’t have nearly so much duty to drown himself in. Or perhaps I’m weaker, in my way of dealing with grief. Unlike Vanyel, he hadn’t cut himself off from the world—or from other lovers. That’s a question of nature, really. He never felt the same need for touch that I do—that I always have. But it hasn’t been as remedial as I would have hoped. Mainly, all the affairs did was remind him of how positively hollow any relationship would be in comparison to a lifebond. There was that one Healer I really thought I might have loved, if I had never known Van. Yet even that relationship faced the inevitable death by comparison.
The trees were looming in closer now, the path narrowing, and he knew he was approaching the southern entrance to the true forest. The boundary was marked by a small wooden sign, and two tree necks embracing high overhead—he could just make them out now, rising above the rest of the leafy canopy. Nerves mounting, he resisted the urge to kick his horse into a gallop. This was treacherous path, even on foot; the roots seem hell-bent on grabbing an ankle or a hoof and twisting it sideways into the ground.
There it is. The signpost. He’d almost hoped he’d pass it and Vanyel would appear, as if by magic, taking his horse’s reins in his oh-so-delicate hands—but he saw it, his horse walked by it, and all he heard was faint rustling and birdsong. Maybe the note was a fake—a poor trick. He knew it was foolish to come; he’d known that every time he’d come before, only to sit in the middle of the foreboding trees with an increasingly sharp ache in his heart. And these trips never make it better, only worse…
A half-candlemark in, he stopped his horse and tied her to a tree. No sense in continuing. I have no idea where I’m ‘supposed’ to go, and riding around Sorrows in circles is a great way to spend a cold, blanket-less, very lost and lonely night. He pulled out some bread and soft cheese from his saddlebag, brushed off a tree stump, and sat down to wait. No more than another candlemark. I have to be back tonight.
The bread was still warm, and surprisingly good. He dove into his lunch with an eagerness that surprised him—I haven’t eaten all day—and he rose only to pull out the bit of cold ham the cook had slipped him this morning, with a finger to his lips and a whisper about him looking thin enough to simply disappear.
He was hungry enough not to notice the strange shift in light through the forest trees, the seeming increase in the brightness in the sun, and the motes of dust coalescing together until—
“You always did know how to enjoy a good meal, ashke.”
The voice was so achingly familiar, he dared not raise his head. For fear there is no body to the sound. “Benefit of being a street rat.”
That warm chuckle, then, and the feel of breath on his cheek, so close he finally mustered the courage to raise his eyes—
-- and meet limpid silver ones, real enough to shine with shared pain. “Oh dear gods, it is you.”
A very solid-looking Vanyel stood and smiled at him. “Expecting someone else?” His eyes brightened with merriment. “Another resident spirit?”
“I—just, no, but Van—“ it was unreal, too unreal, and his words spilled out. “Why so long? I must have come here ten, twenty times, praying for even a whisper, even a hint that the promise stood, that I was fulfilling it, that I might have the smallest sliver of a chance to see you again. And now…”
“Here I am, seeming as if by magic, seeming as if I could appear at will?” Vanyel’s smiled faded and his expression saddened. “I can’t, ashke. I couldn’t. I didn’t even know you were here those times, or that you ever came. It’s the forest that pulls me back from the beyond. The forest chooses, and I must come.” He gestured around him. “Whenever somebody is in danger in the boundaries, I’m called, and I can bring myself into material form for however long is necessary. Sometimes it’s been weeks, sometimes only a candlemark. This time—I’ve been helping a boy from Easthaven. That’s how I knew you were there, how I was able to get a message through.”
“It was you.”
“Well, Bandit delivered it for me.”
“Bandit?” Stefen raised an eyebrow.
“That’s what he calls himself. Somebody’s bastard, and mage-gifted to boot. His powers are uncontrolled—he killed a sheep and ran away before he could do more serious damage. I found him near freezing to death by the east entrance.” Vanyel’s expression lightened and he smiled. “He kept saying how he wanted to get back to town in time to hear Haven’s greatest bard perform. I couldn’t help but ask him who that was, and he said your name…”
“…and it seemed like more than coincidence,” Stefen finished, his heart beating faster than he thought it could without exploding.
“Yes,” Vanyel whispered. “I couldn’t believe it—that I might see you, here, before the end, still so many years away.”
Stefen couldn’t tear his eyes away from Vanyel’s as he stood, shakily, and stretched his hand out to touch what was, unmistakably, solid flesh.
“You really are here.” It was a statement, not a question, and as he drew his hand up the familiar contours of that arm, he saw goosebumps smattered in its wake. “Seemingly in the flesh.”
Vanyel looked at his arm in shock and jumped backwards. “I—felt that.” He wrapped his arm around himself, as if expecting his hands to pass through, and looked back up at Stefen in astonishment. “This is not the way it usually is.”
Closing the distance between them, Stefen reached his arms out gingerly, as if he could break what he was touching, and wrapped Vanyel’s form in them. “Can you feel that?” he murmured into Vanyel’s ear.
His form seeming to fall into Stefen’s, Vanyel nodded, very slowly. His eyes met Stefen’s in wonderment, forced to believe.
Stefen leaned in to capture his mouth, caution giving way to the need not to lose this time, I need to feel him—I need to know it’s true, that I will have him someday. Oh gods, don’t take this from me, just give me this once—
Vanyel’s mouth opened under his, as warm as a living one, and Stefen restrained himself from moaning in sheer postponed want. There was nothing for their hands to do but slip under each other’s clothes, undoing buttons, whispering words of silliness—“Must you be in Whites even as a ghost—“ and “It’s not winter season, Stef, do you really need so many layers—“ until a pile of red and white cloth sat next to their suddenly naked forms.
For a moment, their hands ceased exploring, and they simply looked at each other. Stefen met Vanyel’s slightly amused expression curiously. “What is it?”
“You’ve changed, love.”
Stefen crossed his arms defensively. “In twenty plus years, yes.” He looked down at himself before favoring Vanyel with a wry smile. “For the worse, I’m sure.”
“I like it.” Vanyel’s smile was almost shy. “I always wanted to grow old with you…”
“And I with you.” Stefen reached out his arms and folded Vanyel into them. “I’m sure you would have been a dashing old man.”
Vanyel chuckled against him. “One of the advantages of ghosthood, I suppose. I’ll never have to face wrinkles.”
“You had a few.”
“Very few,” Vanyel qualified. He shook his head. “You always were impudent, love.”
“Oh, Van. I’m no longer a child, you know.” Stefen pulled back and smiled to soften the words. “It’s odd…”
“…You wonder whether I still know you?” And Stefen imagined Vanyel felt the same pang he did, even as Vanyel himself spoke the words. An ache more than words, more than the half-question, half-statement, an ache of moments, words, pains, truths, and all bits of life together lost. An ache of the unfightable, unchangeable injustices of their world. “I do.”
Stefen smiled and relaxed back into him. “And I still can’t help but fall into your words.”
“I never thought of myself as eloquent.”
“Wise,” Stefen qualified, and drew a hand through the silvered hair, marveling that it fell in real silk strands through his hands. He chuckled, then. “And here we are, naked in the forest.”