Ash and Incense

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/225647.html)

Fayz the Kind had not been having a very good day.

He clutched his basket of pamphlets tightly to his chest, eyeing the darkening sky with worry, as he walked the streets of Dolant’s Helm. He was not about to abandon his goal, however, knocking on door after door with a hopeful smile. Most times anyone bothered opening the door to him it would be slammed in his face as soon as he identified himself as a member of the Fellowship of Hope, and even the scant few who were polite enough to listen to him talk of the virtue of cooperation and friendliness didn’t seem interested in attending the Fellowship’s next service. No one had come to the last service aside from Sister Agatha, who attended any service no matter who was hosting it, and the old man who slept on the back pew, who didn’t care so long as it was warm and dry inside. There were so many people he still needed to visit but the weather seemed dead set on working against him.

He stood before the heavy double doors of the Warlock Munchausen’s tower and stared up at it, the clouds above its spire blackening further as another spring thunderstorm loomed. Everyone knew that the man dealt with hellish powers and was not shy in the slightest about it; he sent summoned demons out to pick up groceries with no regard for what anyone else in the Helm thought. Still, while his methods were questionable, he was said to be a jolly man with great love of life and all its pleasures, and the Fellowship could use one like Munchausen in its ranks. The young sura finger-combed his hair beneath his embroidered black hood, adjusted the goat-headed dagger at his belt, and rapped the huge leaden knocker on one of the doors.

No one answered.

Fayz counted to one hundred and fifty in his head before rapping the knocker again. This time the door slowly swung outwards a ways, revealing a feral-looking robed woman with her brown hair tied up in a bun. She blinked her slitted golden eyes slowly at him and flicked her tail curiously. Fayz had seen her working with the warlock before as an assistant, though her name escaped him. He beamed at her.

“Hello, ma’am! My name is Fayz the Kind, sworn poor-knight of the Fellowship of Hope, and I wanted to know if I could speak with you for a few minutes?”

“Do you have an invitation, Mr. Fize?” she replied, her voice calm and deep. Fayz pursed his lips.

“No, ma’am, and I apologize if I’ve interrupted something, but this really won’t take very long at all, I assure you. Also, um, it’s pronounced Fah-eez, but I’m sure it’s a name you don’t get much this far east!”

“We are entertaining guests this week. No one is permitted within the tower unless they have an invitation,” replied the woman. She looked Fayz over thoughtfully. “Unless, perhaps, you have been sent by the Render of Veils himself?” she added, cocking an eyebrow. He shook his head.

“I’m afraid I don’t know who that person is, ma’am. I can stay outside if you prefer! Won’t you spare just a moment or two of your time, or at least accept one of these informational pamphlets about our organization? If the issue of faith is troublesome, I assure you, we’re strictly secular these days—”

“No,” she said, cutting him off with a click of her fangs.

“Would you be interested in attending the sacrifice tomorrow, maybe? There’s a potluck after!”

“No.”

“Well, alright, but would you like to schedule a time when I might come back to share how the Fellowship can enrich the lives of everyone, and that’s everyone infernal or otherwise? Some time next week, perhaps?”

No,” she repeated, more forcefully.

“May I just tuck one of these in the knocker, then, so you can read it once your guests have left from their lovely time here, then?” he asked, lifting up the ring on the other door and moving to thread a folded pamphlet through it. The woman narrowed her eyes. Bright ribbons of energy fluttered around her head as her will focused on her unwanted guest.

“I. Said. NO!” she snarled, and Fayz was sent flying by an invisible blow to the chest, dropping his basket. He skidded along the ground and between the two lion-shaped topiaries that guarded the path leading to the front door. Their heads turned to watch him as he gathered himself up. He shook out his robes and looked up at the tower.

“Could I at least have my pamphlets back, please? I still have people to visit…”

The basket rocketed into him, knocking his breath from his lungs, and it exploded with papers when it struck. The tower door shut with a boom echoed by the thunder in the sky; moments later, the clouds ripped open and began to pour down on him in great watery sheets.

Near the outskirts of the city, fifteen minutes upriver of the sawmill, a little Lastlander-style house overlooked the base of the waterfall. Its owner sat inside in front of a crackling fire, stripped to the waist and playing a flute in time with the wind and rain. His curly-tailed dog dozed next to him. A soft rapping came at the door, almost, but not quite, soft enough to be drowned out by the wind and rain; the dog’s ears perked up and he chuffed at the sound. The knocking paused for a beat before continuing. The flutist put his instrument aside and stood, unfolding so gracefully that he scarcely disturbed a lock of his long silver hair. He opened the door with the casual confidence of a man who was never unarmed.

Fayz stood on the other side of the threshold, his black robes soaked through and a miserable expression painted on his face. He clutched his basket of ruined and sopping pamphlets to his chest even as their ink smeared and ran into a further illegible mess. His short indigo hair was plastered to his head, rivulets of moisture trickling across the deep blue markings that framed his pale skin and identified him as being of sura blood. While it was difficult to tell at first, not all of it was rainwater; his eyes were brimming with tears.

“H-hello,” he stammered. “M-my name is Fayz the Kind, s-s-sworn poor-knight of the F-F-Fellowship of Hope, and can I please come inside, Agni?”

Jamadagni Ashstep nodded wordlessly and stood to the side, gesturing for Fayz to come in. Fayz slouched through the door with a sigh of weary relief and collapsed in a wretched heap in the spot where Agni had been playing his flute. The dog trotted over to him and licked his face.

“You’re the first friendly face I’ve seen all day, Doufu,” said Fayz to the dog, who barked.

“You look like hell,” said Agni, his stoic baritone tinged ever-so-slightly with concern.

“I feel like hell,” replied Fayz. He shivered and wiped his nose. “Nobody wanted to take a pamphlet today, not even just to put on the side table and forget. Nobody even wanted to talk. Nobody even wanted to smile nicely! And now all my literature is ruined and I worked so hard on them and I don’t have enough money to make more! I just wanted to be nice to people but everyone’s so awful to me!” Fayz broke down into sobs. Agni stared at him awkwardly for a bit before walking around the distraught sura to put some tea water on to boil.

“So tell me about these pamphlets,” he said, reaching into the fire to stoke the coals with his fingers, sparks flaring up against his slate-gray skin as the flames blossomed outwards. He calmly ignored the heat. Fayz peered up at him.

“What?”

“Your papers. I will not be able to read one unless they dry out and the ink stops running. Tell me what they say.” He wiped his now ash-dappled hand on a rag hung next to the hearth. “In the times our paths have crossed before you have only told me a little about what it is you do in your cult.”

“It’s not a cult,” said Fayz, slightly wounded. “The robes and daggers and red candles and blood sacrifices and such are all very traditional.” He lowered his hood and wrung it out on a hearthstone, the water sizzling as it struck the heated rock. The halo of light that always seemed to be just behind his head, and which until now had been concealed by his robes, made the room subtly brighter, not quite illuminating but more enhancing what was already there.

“Everyone knows that the Fellowship has had its, um, more awkward historical periods, such as when our fine organization was still in the thrall of the Artisan and there was that dust-up with the Stevedorians and things were quite a mess for a bit.” Fayz cleared his throat nervously. “But that was several centuries ago and His Voltaic Majesty is quite dead now! We’re very happy being a wholly secular group interested in the happiness and betterment of all thinking, feeling persons in the world just for the sake of being good people!”

“Which is done how? Sitting in a circle and singing songs?”

“Yes, on Wednesdays!” If the sura noticed the bemused quirk of his host’s lips, he didn’t do anything to indicate it. Agni motioned for him to continue. “Well, rather, we would if anyone showed up but Sister Agnes, and she just sort of goes nuh nuh nuh instead of actually singing the words, and I think she’s only there in the first place is because she actually lives in the cathedral. But, er, I should probably back up a little, shouldn’t I?

“There are only a handful of tenets which compose the Fellowship’s philosophy, which we believe can coexist peacefully with nearly any reasonably altruistic mindset. These are as follows: be a worthy vessel for any rewards which you receive for your deeds, be trustworthy in both word and deed and be trusting of others in return, encourage unity in the hearts and minds of our fellows, and bring goodwill, peace, and prosperity wherever we go. Isn’t that fantastic?

“I suppose so,” said Agni, dreamily running his fingers through his dog’s fur. Fayz didn’t seem to mind his apparent disinterest.

“The idea,” he continued, “is that one doesn’t need to be tied to a divine power to be a good and wonderful person. Not that gods aren’t a valid way, oh no no no, but it’s just not a requirement to follow one to make the world a better place. And we also want to remind people who are a little too wrapped up in their faiths that they should be nice to one another! Because everyone really ought to be nice!” Fayz was starting to really get into his expositing. There was much movement of hands and his sodden sleeves sprinkled water droplets as he gestured.

“That’s why the Fellowship generally tries to avoid any more hierarchy than we need for organizational things, you know. We want to keep grounded with the little people and not get all mired down by politics and power and similar words. Well, those of us who are serious about the Fellowship, anyway. I know we’ve all heard about those bad seeds who give us such a nasty reputation, but that’s not the entirety of the group, really!

“Anybody can join, anybody at all, so long as they want to work towards a brighter tomorrow. We don’t have membership fees or anything silly like that! Or at least, the cell I’m trying to start won’t. We’re all in this together, ha ha! I’d explain this more at the potlucks if anybody ever showed up for those…”

“You sound like you’re trying to convert me,” said Agni.

“Well…maybe a little? I’m really focused more on spreading the good word that everyone can lend a hand to help out everyone else, but I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to join. You’re one of the only people in this town that even talks to me.”

“I shall think about it.” He eyed his visitor—and, more importantly, the puddle spreading on the floor around him—and sighed. The poor man had yet to ask for so much as a rag to sop himself. “Fayz. Your robes look like they’re bearing more than twice their weight in water. You may hang them up to dry if you like. I will get you a blanket.”

“That really won’t be necessary,” began Fayz, but Agni was already busily digging through a cedarwood trunk pushed up against the wall.

“I do not think it will fit you, but I can also get you a dry shirt to wear, if you would prefer to remain covered,” said Agni. He shook out a thick woolen blanket decorated with brightly-colored Lastlander folk patterns; similar ones were painted on the house’s crossbeams. “You are going to warp the floorboards if you keep dripping on them. I would prefer you did not. I built this house myself and I am rather fond of keeping it in good repair.”

“Oh! Sorry! I’m so sorry!” Fayz began struggling out of his outerwear, and it took a few tries before he had entirely extricated himself from it without strangling himself with his own Fellowship pendant. He wore a long, loose-sleeved tunic beneath the heavy black cloth, though while it reached halfway to his knees he still seemed a bit uncomfortable without his robes; the gray linen at least looked like it would dry faster now that it was no longer layered beneath ten pounds of wet fabric. He kept his sandals on. Agni traded him the blanket for the robe and took it outside to drip-dry on the porch. When he returned his guest was petting Doufu again.

“I’m really very sorry to intrude like this,” the sura said, the paler parts of his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. The unconscious physical reactions had an interesting effect on his two-tone skin. “I’m not going to be delaying your dinner, am I?” Agni shook his head.

“I do not eat much. Tea and simple foods sustain me, and I have more than enough of each to share. You are welcome to them, if you are still here by the time they are cooked.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you! That’s wonderfully generous of you, Agni, I really mean it!” said Fayz, his face lighting up with delight. Agni shrugged and began preparing a pot of tea and a separate pot of rice from the now-bubbling water.

“You are a guest. I will not let you starve while I sit on a full larder,” he said, his hands going through the motions of dinner.

“I…well, yes, thank you, that’s the sort of thing the Fellowship is all about, you know!” said Fayz, fluffing out his storm-matted hair beneath his halo. “If you’ve got any questions, by the way, I’d be pleased as punch to answer them. Knowledge is the source of true enlightenment, ha ha, and through learning we further approach purer divinity!”

Agni gave Fayz a long, thoughtful look as he stirred the boiling rice-pot.

“I do have a question,” he said, after an awkward silence.

“Please, go right ahead!”

“Does the Fellowship still practice human sacrifice?” Agni’s voice was tinged with the sort of mild, distant interest one might normally reserve for questions about the neighbors’ new cat, but Fayz still sputtered as though he’d been struck.

“Well, yes, we still have that particular bit of symbolism in our oeuvre, but no, nobody actually gets stabbed anymore, at least not if they’re a person.” The sura looked genuinely hurt as he explained himself. “We just ask if there’s anyone in attendance who’d like to be the sacrifice-in-potentia for the black mass, and assuming people showed up for it usually someone will get goaded by their friends to come on up and lie down on the altar in the altogether, and so long as there isn’t too much giggling it all works out just fine. I mean, they can giggle a bit, just so long as it doesn’t drown out the chanting. Then after everything’s done they’re allowed to put their clothes back on and we all file out to have tea and songs and frybread in the Fellowship Hall.”

“How do the serpent-shaped daggers with the goat faces on the handles promote friendship and kindness, again?”

“It’s all very traditional,” harrumphed Fayz.

“So is it true, the stories about the blood and such?”

“You make it almost sound bad that we’re trying to keep our heritage alive in this day and age.”

“You said I could ask you questions,” said Agni, scraping a bit of frothy starch from the edge of the cookpot. “Therefore, I am asking you questions. If you did not want me to ask certain kinds, you should have said as much.”

“Do you have any that aren’t about the very, very, veeery traditional trappings the Fellowship uses?” asked Fayz.

“Not even the bone chalices?”

Especially the bone chalices. Those are good old-fashioned craftsmanship. You don’t see work like that anymore.”

“Yes, I suppose I have another thing to ask you, then.” Stir, stir, stir. “I have been wondering this for quite a while now. It is a personal question,” added Agni.

“Well, I suppose there’s no harm in you asking,” said Fayz. He fuzzled Doufu’s head and, taking the dog’s paws in his hands, addressed him directly in a mock-falsetto. “Do you fink dere’s hawm in asking, Doufu? Nooo, dere isn’t, because I can awways powitely decwine. We’re aww minding our mannews today, awen’t we, boy?” Doufu barked.

“You work long hours,” said Agni, grimacing and refusing to acknowledge the baby talk, “with no rest days that I know of for a town that could care less whether you remain alive or dead. You speak kindly to people who spit at you, and preach enlightenment to the dark. You move with a purpose that I do not think is entirely from your Fellowship. Why is it that you do what you do?”

Fayz was quiet for a long time after that. When he spoke again his voice was technically still the same, but it sounded far wearier, and while still that of a young man it came off as heartbreakingly old.

“It’s because I’m a sura,” he said, pointing at his markings and halo in turn. He was suddenly quite interested in staring at the ceiling.

“Yes, I was aware of your birthright,” Agni replied. “Made some unfathomable number of years ago to serve the gods, set upon the wheel of rebirth to constantly learn and grow and take wonder from the world. That is how the story goes in Lastland, at least.” He gave the rice a final stir before placing a cover atop the pot. “But that is like saying that a dancer dances because they have legs. It does not give a whole answer.”

“Well, you know…” Fayz clicked his tongue. “It’s the way of things for us: if we turn from that sort of thing, it breaks us inside, and coaxes us to grow wicked and rotten instead of wiser. But as the years turn into decades, it gets harder, you know?

“I’ve loved, dallied, married, sired and borne children, buried spouses and lovers and friends…the part that hurts is that I remember I did these things, but most of the time who they actually were is just so much smoke and fog to me. It’s the endless reincarnations that make it feel like everything is just a dream I had a long time ago. I’d be lost to despair if I didn’t focus on distant goals, or how I think people are still inherently good and worth serving, or how each time I start over I’ll learn something new I never would’ve imagined the last time.

“I’m so tired, Agni. I know it’s my duty to try and ease the world’s suffering, even if only a bit, and that’s exactly what I do every time I rise up from my own ashes. I’d like to know that at some point I’m going to be allowed to stop doing all this.” He sighed.

“I’m not going to go bad or ignore my purpose or stop trying to help people. I just want a world that doesn’t need me anymore.”

Agni surprised him, then: he tilted Fayz’s head upwards, brushed his hair to the side, and kissed him softly on the circle-shaped marking in the center of his forehead. Fayz sat back, blinking.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“You seemed like you needed comforting. I felt it was best to greet you as a kindred spirit,” said Agni, meeting Fayz’s eyes with his own in a brief but knowing exchange. He handed his guest a simple clay cup filled with steaming tea and smiled. “Besides, it does not suit you to be so grim for so long. Have something warm to drink and allow yourself to relax for a while out of the storm.” Right on cue, the sky was bleached white by a roaring bolt of lightning.

They ate and drank without speaking, letting the rain—and, though mostly drowned out by the storm, the rumble of the waterfall—provide a steady backdrop of sound. Doufu had his own dish of rice which Agni served with bits of shredded jerky; the two men shared some boiled fish that had been steeping in a secondhand amphora filled with some sort of thin brown sauce. Fayz had to give it a few bites before he was entirely used to the eye-watering taste. He was also the first to break the silence.

“Agni?”

“Yes?”

“I wanted to thank you again for, you know.” He gestured at his drying robes and the empty bowl at his feet. “This. The food and the shelter and so forth. It’s really, really nice of you. I mean, we’ve only really sat down and talked, what, maybe a dozen times since I came here? And that was forever ago. But you still gave me hospitality when I appeared out of nowhere and asked for it.”

“Anyone would do the same,” said Agni, helping himself to another bowl. “It is common courtesy.”

“See, that’s the thing! It isn’t very common for people to be courteous at all! Or did you forget the part where that fanged woman threw my basket at my head when I was trying to leave her a pamphl…” Fayz’s words died in his throat as he gestured to the now quite useless lump of damp, cheap newsprint. His face didn’t so much fall as plummet.

“Oh,” he said, his voice the tense and deadened tone of a man putting all his energy into keeping a cool head. “My pamphlets. They’re just one big blob of inky pulp after all of that, aren’t they. I’d worked very hard writing those, and doing all the woodcuts, and everything. Now they’re useless. I…I guess I’ll just figure something out.”

“How much did they charge you at the printing house?” asked Agni.

“Seventy-five gold pieces! Seventy-five! I’m lucky to raise even half of that in a year!”

“Is that it? I can give you that much. Twice that, if you want nicer ink.”

“…What?” Fayz nearly dropped his tea.

“You forget I was a professional adventurer for a while. In that line of work you find more coin than a sensible person could ever spend in their lifetime, and since I saved mine instead of spending it all on magic swords or other trifles…” He shrugged. “You are welcome to it, if you need some.”

“Now you’re being so nice to me I’m starting to worry.”

“Consider it the efforts of a man trying to balance out bad karma from years since passed,” Agni replied. Doufu’s head kept snapping back and forth between them like a spectator at a particularly lively game of hurley.

“I…I…” Fayz swallowed hard and fought to regain his composure. “Well, just so you know, we of the Fellowship never forget kindness done to us ‘with hearts wide open and strings unattached,’ and this sort of thing is exactly what the handbook means when it says that. I’m serious. You can look it up. There’s a footnote in the manual and everything.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” said Agni, hiding a smile behind his hand as he reached up to scratch at his modest beard. They listened to the rain for a while longer, Fayz letting his fingers run across the patterns of the quilt wrapped around him and only speaking when Agni leaned over the hearth again to put another log on the fire.

“Agni?”

“Yes?”

“What did you mean by ‘kindred spirit,’ anyway?”

“Ah,” replied Agni. He stood and gathered up their bowls, setting them off to the side of the water trough. After filling a bucket he began to rinse each bowl in turn. He stared out the window as he washed.

“I have always felt more kin to remnants of things than to things still vibrant and new,” he said, scrubbing at spots of fish sauce, “one who was not there for the beginning but will stand and watch the world’s light burn down. Perhaps it will tomorrow, perhaps it won’t for uncounted eons. Perhaps it will be a kind ending which leads to new growth, perhaps it will be a bad one that leaves nothing but salt and ruin.

“No matter the way, it will end. All things end. I have ended myself twice already.”

“The monastery, right?” said Fayz.

“Yes,” replied Agni with a nod. “One life before, one of wild habits and poor customs, which ended when I climbed the sacred stairs. One life while there, one of still thoughts and discipline, which ended with a visit from a wanderer who said I would grow better elsewhere. Now I am living the life after.

“It is my goal to have at least one more end, one where I transcend my mortal self and become one with the universe, that I might be a witness for the final smouldering of the world when its time has come at last, and presumably find my own end within this greater one.

“You, too, want one final good end. I can respect that,” said Agni, turning to face Fayz after placing the last of the now-clean dishes on a cloth to dry.

“That’s certainly a refreshing approach to fatalism,” said Fayz.

“Call it as you like. If nothing ends, there is no point to beginnings.”

“Whatever it is you people meditate on up there, it’s a lot less unpleasant than that awful nihilistic stuff preached by the doom-and-gloom life-is-meaningless crowd. You don’t get those out in Lastland, do you? I’d think they only like places with nice weather, otherwise you’d burn up so much energy draping yourself on things and weeping that no one will take you to the harvest dance that you’d bloody well freeze to death.”

“I take it the Fellowship attracts more than its fair share of those personalities due to the ‘very traditional trappings’ it has?” Agni asked, making little quotes in the air with his fingers.

“You have no idea. They get kohl on everything. And they never want to join the sing-along no matter how much I play my guitar at them.” Fayz took the opportunity to sulk.

“Quite a travesty.”

“I know, right? Really, even if you aren’t happy and you don’t know it you should have the decency to clap your hands a little bit. They also ate all the frybread before I could even get there after the service and one of them drew a dong on the wall with the sacramental unguents. It took ages to scrub the stains out. Do you know how hard it is to get blood and wine out of marble? The answer is very.

“Let this be a lesson to us all of the perils of philosophical nothingness: it brings wall-phalluses,” said Agni, who managed to maintain a poker face. He downed the last of his tea and reached for his flute he had discarded what seemed like an epoch ago.

“This is the most I have spoken in a very long while,” he continued. “It is nice, and I have missed it, but my throat needs a rest. If you do not mind, I am going to play again. It is good weather for it.” He did not wait for a reply, instead setting the flute to his lips and bringing forth the strange, haunting notes that Lastlander music so loved. It was the relaxed tone of a man not playing any given song, merely making music for its own sake, and soon it once again began to rise and fall with the cadence of the storm. Doufu crooned along in time with the flute for what must have been a quarter of an hour before he stretched, yawned, and retired to his place beneath the loft by the hearth. He curled up to sleep on the edge of his master’s sleeping mat.

Fayz listened, enraptured, the damp no longer troubling him. Agni’s dying-fire eyes glowed in the dim light as he stared into the thundering dark outside, small eddies of embers flickering across his hematite skin as they traced the lines of chi through his body; brood of cinders such as he were only rarely without illumination. He kept himself seated so still, his hands so steady, that he could have passed for a very cunning automaton. The not-song was over not with a crescendo or a flurry of notes but with a gentle, purposeful end, like an old and well-loved horse putting its head down for the last time.

“Agni?” asked Fayz, finding words once the tune had ended and the flute was returned to its stand.

“Yes?”

“Would you kiss me again?”

“Why?”

“Well, ah. To be perfectly honest, when I first met you I fancied you a little bit, and getting to know you hasn’t exactly dissuaded me from that. You’re the only person I can remember, and certainly the only one I’ve met in this lifetime, who I think actually understands me on some level. You actually want to listen to what I have to say! And also you’ve been giving me smouldering looks for the better part of the evening while pointedly not putting a shirt on. Don’t think I didn’t notice, because I did, and was just trying to be polite about it,” he added, primly.

Agni didn’t immediately reply but instead leaned over and brushed Fayz’s blanket away from his neck, gently running the tip of his tongue along the other man’s indigo skin; he traced the curvature of Fayz’s collarbone before moving up the side of his neck to his ear. He brushed his lips against the ear’s outer curve, then nipped at the earlobe. Fayz shuddered and made a small, happy sound in return.

“I think something can be arranged,” said Agni, his breath hot and smelling of wood smoke.

Fayz stammered wordlessly. The blush returned to his two-toned cheeks, a blossom of red beneath the blues. He touched his neck where his skin had been tasted and gave Agni an agonized look. Agni tilted his head.

“If I misunderstood, I am sorry,” he said, leaning back slightly but remaining close. “I had no desire to offend.”

“No! No, you didn’t get the wrong idea, I just…” Fayz swallowed hard.

“If you wish to stop here, we can do so,” said Agni with a half-shrug. “You are welcome to more rice in the morning if you are still here by then.” He moved to stand, but Fayz grabbed for his arm.

“Wait,” he said, his voice a bit less uncertain. “I don’t, ah. Mind the idea of fooling around a bit. But is this what you want? I just got caught in the rain at a bad time and this was the closest place I knew of where I could get out of the wet. You’d really…with me…just because I showed up from nowhere and asked?” Agni shrugged again.

“I need another reason?” he asked.

Yes!

“All right.” He closed his eyes and gathered his thoughts. “Your features are pleasing to me, your disposition is pleasant, and I can admire your dedication to a more perfect ideal. I would appreciate the company. And I have been curious for quite some time as to what your markings look like beneath your robes.” He opened his eyes again, meeting Fayz’s. “Mostly, however, it is because I would enjoy the pleasure of lying down with a friend, for however long we choose and going wherever our moods might take us. Is that answer good enough?”

“Yes…but isn’t that one of those worldly things that monks strive to ignore?” said Fayz, wringing his hands. “I mean, the idea sounds wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but I really, really don’t want to be playing the part of some sort of evil temptress. Tempter. Temptationeer? Bad influence.” Agni snorted at this.

“Fayz. This is not the monastery I left, nor are the others I trained with here. I have been alone for many years. I am satisfied with no company but my own and Doufu’s, this much is true. But it is still being alone.” His features softened. “And while perhaps my second self would have agreed with you, I have moved past that now.”

Agni stood up, reached for the exposed lip of the loft overhead, and pulled himself into its depths with effortless grace. His eyes glowed in the darkness.

“If you are uncertain, you may spend the night where you are. I will sleep away from you that you do not feel pressured into something you may not want. I do not mind if you use my sleeping mat so long as you do not wake up my dog. If you decide you want this, you may join me here. Ask for a hand to pull you up. It is your choice, and you need not make it now.” He pulled further back into the shadows without another word.

Fayz sat and thought for a while.

The rain rose and fell twice before he carefully removed his sandals, took a deep breath, and rapped on one of the painted crossbeams. Doufu snarfled in his sleep at the noise before falling still again.

“Agni?”

“Yes?” While Agni was out of sight his voice still sounded alert, which was promising enough.

“I definitely want to make love to you. Like, as soon as I get up there. You better not have been kidding about how I had time to think things over.”

“I am glad to hear that. If you will give me a moment—”

“No, no, I’ve got this,” said Fayz. He gripped the edge of the overhang, stretching up on tiptoe until he was certain both his hands were steady, and pulled himself up. It involved a bit of kicking and was hardly as elegant as his host’s movements, but Agni looked impressed all the same.

“I am trained as a warrior, you know,” said Fayz, slightly tangled up in his tunic. “If you can swing a sword, you should be able to do a single pull-up.”

“So I see,” said Agni, making himself comfortable in the furs and blankets piled there amongst the storage chests. “So, then. What is it that you most like? Whether me for you, or you for me, or some other action, I can find enjoyment in a great many things, myself.”

“I…don’t really know. I haven’t done anything in this incarnation,” said Fayz, his features falling. He nestled down at Agni’s side with a sigh. Agni kissed his nose, stroking his cheek with a charcoal-colored hand.

“In my first life, I enjoyed the company of many different people. Some had been with a dozen lovers, while others had known no touch before mine. They shared nothing but their desires. Take comfort in this fact: all of them were good in their own way.”

“But what if I’m not?” said Fayz. Agni silenced his complaint with another kiss, this one fiery and open-mouthed; his tongue sought Fayz’s, their teeth briefly clicking together in his enthusiasm, and his fingers dug into the sura’s shoulders. He didn’t bother concealing the growing erection that strained against his loose silk trousers, grinding it against Fayz’s thigh and growling with satisfaction when his attentions were returned in kind.

Fayz took the initiative then and pushed him gently until Agni was flat on his back, then straddled him, running his fingers through the pale hair that contrasted sharply with the rest of Agni’s chest. A few fine layers of fabric were the only thing separating them. His expression was equal parts nervous and eager.

“Well, ah. I did say that I’ve got a lot of lifetimes rattling around just behind my conscious thoughts, it’s just that I’ve forgotten all the good parts. You could, erm…help remind me?” He smiled hopefully.

“That I could,” replied Agni, pulling him down for another kiss.

Agni’s work-roughened fingers slipped under Fayz’s tunic and beneath the hem of his breechcloth, his hands cupping Fayz’s ass and squeezing it appreciatively. Fayz groaned into his mouth, redoubling his efforts to wear away the layers between them through sheer force of grinding. His halo cast odd shadows on the wall.

He pulled away again, this time shrugging off his tunic to reveal the patterns of light and dark blue that he usually kept hidden away. His pendant remained; Agni did not bother asking him to remove it. Fayz was, indeed, built on a sturdier frame than one might expect, and while his thews were not as grand as Agni’s, nor his torso as sculpted, he was hardly a small man. On anyone else his combination of fair face and broad shoulders might have looked out of place, like a doll’s head on a golem, but Fayz was—at least originally—a creature made by the divine in the shape of their choosing, and instead of a mismatch it gave him an air of gentle, durable strength. Agni’s gaze was as stoic and unreadable as ever, but there was no mistaking the way his cock twitched at the sight of Fayz in near-full display.

Fayz tugged at Agni’s sash, fumbling with the knot, and after a brief patch of difficulty he pulled the length of saffron silk free, tossing it aside to flutter to a rest atop his shed tunic. The trousers themselves were much easier: Fayz pulled away from Agni’s grasp to glide each pant leg down to his ankles, whereupon Agni kicked them off. In place of a traditional undergarment he wore what looked to be a single length of fabric wound around his waist and loins, and the careful binding was clearly not intended to keep an erection hidden. The outline of his shaft was clearly visible beneath the cloth. Fayz tugged lightly at the fabric, flicking his eyes to meet Agni’s. Agni nodded. Fayz needed no further goading.

It was something of an awkward procedure, since the needs of a martial artist involved varying amounts of support and freedom that resulted in things being a lot more complicated than they looked at first, but Fayz persevered, and soon he had Agni completely unwrapped. Agni’s cock was long and graceful and framed with smoke-gray curls, a good match for the rest of him, and it, too, occasionally flickered with chi lines. A bead of moisture already glittered at his tip.

Fayz gripped him near his base, Agni’s skin warm and smooth against his hand, and the hiss of breath between Agni’s teeth made Fayz’s own breathing come a bit faster. He began to stroke him slowly, sometimes flicking his thumb across the glans or against the contoured undershaft. Agni dug his fingers into the blankets. Fayz stretched out, half resting on the quilts and half resting on Agni, and used his free hand to tilt Agni’s face in for a kiss. When they pulled away Agni nipped at Fayz’s lip.

“I want to see you,” said Agni, hooking a finger into of Fayz’s breechcloth and giving it a tug. “This is in the way. But if things being hidden away is part of the game, that is all right.”

“I’m…it’s not as nice as yours is. Is that okay?” He slowed his touches. Agni shook his head.

“I see myself any time I bathe or step outside to make water,” he said. “It is nothing special. You, though? You I can only see if you want me to. That is no small amount of the appeal.” He rested his forehead against Fayz’s, his almond-shaped eyes—their black sclera making his orange irises look even more brilliant—mere inches from Fayz’s own. “Will you let me?”

Fayz closed his eyes to think, his strokes slower still but not quite stopping.

“My markings cover all of my body. All of it. You’ll laugh.”

“I cannot promise I will not, but that does not make me want to see you any less,” said Agni. He ran his hands along Fayz’s inner thighs, wetting his lips meaningfully as he rested the meat of his palms on either sides of the interfering breechcloth. “I can make it worth your while.”

“Well, so long as you’re sure, then…” Fayz rolled over, his back towards Agni, and with a little bit of wriggling parted ways with his last stitch of clothing. Another kick sent it in approximately the same direction as the rest of their shed garb. Fayz took a moment to gather his courage before rolling back, but when he did he had regained his sunny disposition. He framed himself with his hands like an artisan unveiling a newly-completed work. “Tada.”

His markings did, indeed, go all the way down: his shaft was dark, his glans light, and a vertical line of three dots marched along his underside. A few lighter bands encircled his cock along his first inch and a half of length. He was a bit shorter and a bit broader there than Agni was, much like the rest of him, and in spite of his previous reluctance he was as hard as ever. Each curve and texture was placed with a sculptor’s hand, while his pubic thatch was indigo and perfectly symmetrical. Gods liked fine details in their work.

“Yes, this is very nice,” said Agni, cradling Fayz’s balls in his hand. “I am in your debt, Fayz. Tell me, how shall I make it up to you?”

“Ohhh my…” Fayz squirmed as Agni did something very specific with his thumb. “I, ah. I really like how you kiss me. Would you, um…mind using your mouth, you know, down there…so I can see if it’d be just as nice…?”

“I would be happy to.”

Agni bade Fayz to take his place lounging in the blankets, Agni stretching out on his belly between Fayz’s legs. He looped his arms around Fayz’s thighs to take hold of his ass again, nuzzling at his base and the skin around it. His beard rasped lightly against Fayz’s skin. Planting a kiss on the center dot-marking, Agni ran his tongue along Fayz’s shaft before taking the head in his mouth. It was hot, and wet, and Fayz whined with delight as Agni’s lips passed the last pale band before drawing back again. He lapped hungrily, tasting Fayz and tracing Fayz’s circumference with his tongue. Agni’s head set to bobbing up and down around Fayz’s cock and slowly, gradually, began taking more of him in. It wasn’t long before Agni’s nose was pressed into Fayz’s perfectly-shaped patch of curls, themselves heavy with the musky scent of a healthy young man mingled with a few subtle notes of incense. He dug his nails into Fayz’s ass, making him yelp, and began to deepthroat him in earnest.

The light in the house was dim already, coming only from the hearth, and the loft was darker still, but between Fayz’s halo and Agni’s fires there was just enough illumination to see by; Agni was too busy gulping and sucking to be looking around, but Fayz had the satisfaction of watching his saliva-slick shaft appear and disappear in rhythmic succession. For a man who had lived in a state of physical and emotional distance for several years Agni certainly knew what he was doing. Fayz let his head fall back as the sensation insisted on overwhelming his senses, his thighs beginning to tremble as he felt an orgasm drawing near.

“I’m very close,” he said, voice shaking as though he were close to tears. “If you don’t want me to, you should…you should…” He throbbed against Agni’s tongue. Agni only sucked harder, practically daring Fayz to come. Fayz gritted his teeth, and with another burst of meaningless vowels he teetered over the edge and erupted.

Agni gulped him gladly, each pulse spattering across his tongue and the back of his throat. He had nearly drunk it all when something went terribly wrong at the last moment. Perhaps he didn’t breathe correctly, perhaps his gag reflex remembered it existed, or perhaps it was something else, but he seized up and succumbed to a tremendous coughing fit at the last second, spraying Fayz’s stomach with the final few drops of unswallowed come before fighting with a case of hiccups. Fayz squawked in surprise.

“That was not supposed to happen,” said Agni once his breath returned. He looked up at Fayz, wiping his mouth awkwardly. “It has been years since I last was with someone. You must forgive me if I do not always recall the perfect way to perform an act.”

“I think I’m the only one allowed to worry about a rusty memory, thank you very much,” replied Fayz, and they grinned at one another. “Besides, it could have been worse. You could’ve brought up your dinner in my lap. That happened to me once.”

“Indeed? I am sure it was very funny for you both afterwards.”

“Well, yes, but pretend you’re me and you’re trying to recollect past lives and that’s what you get,” said Fayz with a chuckle. “Do you know how weird it is trying to remember how you like to have sex?” He watched Agni as he tidied up the last of the stray jism on Fayz’s belly, interspersing cleansing licks with soft kisses. Agni propped himself up on his forearms once he finished.

“Strange memories or no, I hope it was enjoyable up until the bit at the end. Using my mouth on someone is a thing I like to do a great deal, but this means nothing if they do not find pleasure in it.”

“It was good!” said Fayz, still boneless in the afterglow. “Oh, how it was good. So good I’m probably ruined for others for at least a lifetime or two. So good I might have been less shy about asking for it if I’d known. I hope I tasted nice.”

“You did. Curiously bittersweet, but it seemed a good match for your temperament, and you were quite good in addition to the novelty. I should expect no less from a sura.” He rose, his weight now on the palms of his hands, and pulled himself forward to be eye-to-eye with Fayz once more. The smell of burning leaves followed him. His erection nudged against Fayz’s still-tender cock as he continued.

“I am left wanting more. This much you can tell, I imagine.” He kissed at Fayz’s neck. “But if here is where you wish to stop, then here is where we shall. I do not judge.”

“There you go, talking like you’re worried I’m going to run off!” said Fayz with a laugh. He toyed with a lock of Agni’s hair, tilting his head to allow easier access. “I need a moment to recuperate, just a moment, but I want this. I can think of much worse ways to wait out a storm, like sitting at home with nothing to do but ironing out those awful pamphlets.” Agni gave him a friendly nuzzle.

“I was serious when I said I would help you fund a new set of those.”

“And you’re sure it’s not an attempt to buy sexual favors?” asked Fayz, tugging playfully at Agni’s beard.

“Oh no. Those I prefer to earn through more creative methods,” he replied, right before attacking Fayz’s ear again.

Fayz pulled him close, gasping, and his cock sprang to life once more as Agni lightly bit him. He melted at Agni’s touch. His ear was kissed, tasted, worried at; his throat received much the same treatment but writ larger. Sometimes the cord of his pendant was pulled at playfully. Rough hands with surprisingly dextrous fingers touched him, exploring, sometimes brushing against Fayz’s shaft or giving a nipple a cautious tweak. It wasn’t long before Agni simply threaded his fingers through Fayz’s hair and focused solely on deep, enthusiastic kissing, grinding ever so slowly against Fayz everywhere that it mattered. He tasted like char.

Their lips and tongues mapped one another until Fayz pulled away, short of breath. He turned away when Agni leaned in for another barrage and gasped for words.

“A-Agni, wait, stop…” he managed. Agni reared back in the blink of an eye, releasing Fayz’s head and looking puzzled. “This is wonderful, really it is,” continued Fayz, quickly, “but, ah. I don’t like making the other person do all the work.” He drummed his fingers against Agni’s muscle-knotted spine. “What do you want from this?”

“What do I want?” repeated Agni. “I can tell you this: I want you astride me, as we were when you first climbed up, and I want to feel your flesh against mine until we are both satisfied with it. Let me admire you from afar, or drink your breath, or any other thing, so long as we lie entwined together once we are finished.”

“Oh! Here I thought you’d want something difficult.” He shifted his weight, rolling them until Agni lay with his back against the quilts once more. Fayz sat up, hands braced against his thighs. “Like this, then?”

Agni nodded. His eyes traced Fayz’s every contour, taking in the crisp edges of his markings and the patterns that danced within his corona of light, before coming to rest on the sura’s sweet, timeless face. While none of his kind were truly children of the earthly realm, between his large nose and his high cheekbones he certainly looked like a son of the distant desert-scholars. Fayz preened a bit at the attention.

“Ah, but you are magnificent,” added Agni with a small smile. He reached to touch him, but Fayz held up a hand and shook his head. Agni raised his eyebrows at this, but folded his arms behind his head obediently.

Fayz angled his hips to rub their shafts together, gyrating slowly, and sighed through his nose at the feeling of Agni’s skin against his. He wrapped one hand around both their cocks to keep them from sliding apart. Each movement was measured, becoming more fluid as the last remnants of nervousness faded, and the longer he went the more obvious it was that he had intentionally chosen a technique that would not get either of them anywhere. He stroked dreamily, still perched on his knees.

Fayz had very soft skin for a man who talked so much about his time in the sands. The fingers of his free hand slid across Agni’s leathery hide and he grinned as he coaxed alternating purrs and hisses from deep within Agni’s chest. Soon he opted to tone down the teasing caresses and focus more on their cocks, his exploring hand resting against his thigh once again to help brace him upright.

He cupped his hand over their ends and squeezed, two moist spots of pre smearing against his palm, and bucked his hips faster; it was a different sort of feeling, still blatantly sexual but lacking the more direct contact they had shared before, and was just as unlikely to finish either of them off. His pendant thumped quietly against his sternum in time with his thrusts. The steady rattle of the rain was not quite enough to drown out the sound of their breathing.

Two long, friction-filled minutes passed before Fayz leaned over, his bracing hand moving from his leg to the blanketed ground, brushing his wrist against Agni’s side as he shifted his center of balance. Agni twitched as Fayz drew closer but kept his fingers laced against the back of his head as he had implicitly promised. It took a great deal of self-discipline to keep from breaking that agreement. Fayz smiled at him gratefully. They ground together like paired millstones. This new angle involved a great deal more contact than before, their cocks pressing together between their stomachs, and Agni growled in approval.

Fayz nuzzled at the join of Agni’s neck and shoulder, his pace slowing again; he was unable to hide a smile as Agni fidgeted at the change in tempo. He gave Agni another friendly squeeze, sliding his hand back to around their shafts to do so, before letting go entirely. Fayz gave his palm a lick and rubbed it dry on a nearby fur before resting it against Agni’s shoulder.

He admired Agni’s craggy shepherd’s features, taking in his broad and rounded nose and the gray whiskers fringing his chin that matched his eyebrows. Agni’s chi lines were most prominent around his eyes, giving him the look of a man weeping cinders. He had managed to brush his long hair back and away from their lovemaking, pinning most of it in place beneath him; this, if nothing else, was the mark of no small past experience. Fayz could see his own eyes reflected in Agni’s as distant sun-colored pinpricks. He bent down for a chaste kiss and felt a small, sly thrill at how obviously Agni was focusing on controlling himself.

They traded pecks, their lips barely touching, that would not have been out of place in a pastoral scene had they not been gliding against one another. Fayz kissed the chi trails on Agni’s cheeks, following them down one side and up the other, an act which Agni seemed less than thrilled with but did not shy away from. He closed his eyes as Fayz explored at his own gradual pace. He was still as hard as ever but his attention began, very subtly, to flag.

It was Fayz’s turn to be passionate, then, pale fingers threading through pale hair and his tongue parting Agni’s lips where it was eagerly met. This was enough for Agni, who wrapped one leg around him while pressing his fingertips into Fayz’s shoulder blades; he kissed back with urgency. Fayz pulled away again, holding Agni’s head in place against their makeshift pillow, and Agni’s panting breaths changed to soft cries of joy as Fayz attended to his throat the way Agni had done to him prior. Still their cocks pressed close and quickly, sword against whetstone, flint against tinder, blood hammering in their veins as they honed against one another. Their stomachs were moist from more than just Fayz’s sweat as they sought to outfury the lightning.

Agni was first to come, arching his back and calling out in a small but desperate voice as he rode out his climax, and had they not been so tight against one another he likely would have spilled onto the ground. Fayz milked Agni’s cock dry after the initial flurry before finishing himself off with a few deft flicks of the wrist. He whispered Agni’s name as he came for the second time that night, and while not as spectacular as his first display he still had more than enough to mingle with Agni’s offering.

They lay together exhausted, sticky with jism from the ribs down, and Agni held Fayz fondly while they descended from their respective heights. Agni ran a thumb through the worst of the mess and licked it off. Fayz repeated the action, keeping a stray bit of come from escaping, before snuggling up against Agni in a more comfortable—and less carnal—manner. Agni smiled at him and stroked Fayz’s hair with his unanointed hand.

“It was good?” he asked.

“Yeah, very good…what about for you?”

“Even had you not been the welcome end to a drought, I would remember you on cold nights.”

“Gosh, that much? Really?” said Fayz. “I, ah, I guess I really hadn’t forgotten everything after all.” Agni chuckled, the vibrations setting Fayz’s teeth to rattling, then laced his fingers against the small of Fayz’s back and closed his eyes again.

“Perhaps in the morning we can talk more. For now, I think rest is a fine idea.”

“Should we do something about, um. You know.” Fayz gestured at their still lightly-glazed bellies. “This business here, first?”

“If you prefer otherwise, I will accept it, but I think we can wait to take care of most of our passions’ remnants tomorrow,” he said, contentment curled around his words. Fayz briefly mouthed what Agni had said to himself, his brow knitted in thought.

“Agni?”

“Yes?”

“Do you always sound like a djinn someone let out of a bottle, what with all the if-you-prefers and such?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. I guess can live with that,” said Fayz, leaning his cheek against Agni’s shoulder.

Though the thunder still raged outside and lightning tore the sky, it was not long before the rain’s susurrus lulled them both to sleep.

The soft, lightly charred taste of Agni’s kiss on his lips woke Fayz from what he later described as hazy dreams of light through water. A few patches of his skin still stung from where Agni’s beard had been at its roughest and his stomach was sticky, but the rest of him felt warm and relaxed, snugly cocooned in blankets. Agni ran a finger along Fayz’s chin and regarded him fondly.

“You are awake?”

“Hrngh,” said Fayz. He pulled away from Agni’s embrace to stretch and crack his neck from side to side. “I think I’m getting there. What time is it?”

“Sunrise. I hope you are not late for any obligations. You looked peaceful.”

“No, no, that’s fine. I don’t schedule much in the mornings of days with evening services otherwise I’d be worn out before I so much as lifted a chalice, ha ha.” He rubbed his eyes. “I volunteered to pick up litter in front of the Grand Villa, but that’s not got any given timetable, really. I should probably be going sooner than later, though, or Lord Rausdauhern will find another excuse to shout at me and gesture rudely with his crossbow. Hopefully Sister Agnes isn’t worried about me.”

“I…Alright. You may break your fast before going, if you wish.”

“That sounds like a great idea. Where’d my tunic go?” Fayz began to peel back the layers swaddling them. It took him a few strata before the pile of discarded clothes revealed itself.

“Thank you for staying,” said Agni, watching him search. “Sleeping next to another person is a luxury I have seldom enjoyed.”

“Really? Even in that first life of yours, the one where you had all the fun?”

“That tended to involve scrambling out of windows or sneaking back from the high mountains a lot more often than it did sharing rest.”

“Egad, I’ve bedded a delinquent. I’d best eat quickly before it rubs off!” Agni didn’t respond to that.

There was no ladder leading down from the loft, so after pulling on his clothes Fayz hung himself off the edge before dropping to the floor in a bit of a heap. Agni seemed to flow from one place to the other when he descended; he had chosen to dress himself in no more than the complicated linen wrappings that granted him some small amount of modesty. His demeanor had a sudden edge of coldness to it that hadn’t been there during dinner, or their tryst, or all of five minutes ago.

There was still plenty of water in the downstairs reservoir and they both freshened up for the day with little fanfare. A clean cloth and a small cake of oilsoap banished the remnants of the night’s recreation, and Agni put water on to boil while Fayz retrieved his robes and sandals. Breakfast was rice and tea again. Doufu awoke halfway through the wait for the water to boil and yapped happily at them, earning him a pat on the head and a piece of smoke-cured fish. The pair ate in silence, not even chatting lightly as they had for part of the previous evening’s meal.

After rinsing his cup and bowl in the washing trough, Fayz shrugged into his robes, threading his pendant through the neck hole and tucking his ceremonial dagger back in place at his belt with a certain finality. Aside from a mild case of good-morning hair he certainly didn’t have the air of a man who had spent the previous night making love to a quasielemental entity. Agni gave him the same staring-through-him look he tended to give most people, the one that until the night before Fayz wasn’t sure Agni could do anything but. Fayz suddenly was aware of the gap in the conversation.

“Uh…yes. Thank you for the meal. And keeping me out of the rain. Especially that part,” he said, trying not to sound too forced.

“You are welcome.”

“It was pretty nice to see your dog, too.”

“I am glad. I am sure he enjoyed your company, as well.”

“Well, er.” Fayz chewed his lip. It was as though he was speaking to an entirely different person from the one who’d spoken of the rightness of endings and had held him until morning light, much less the one who had gently kissed him awake. “This is getting a bit weird. I should probably be going, shouldn’t I?” He turned to leave, but the sound of Agni’s voice stopped him.

“Fayz. Wait.” He stood, took Fayz’s hand and turned it palm-side-up. Placing a pair of stamped platinum coins in the center of it, he closed Fayz’s fingers around the bright metal. “A gift from a friend, given freely. For your beloved pamphlets. Use what’s left over however you will.” Fayz opened his mouth to complain but Agni shook his head. “If you recall, I promised you this. I have everything I need to live a good life already. You will no doubt do something much more useful with it than a man who saves for a rainy day that never arrives.”

“It was certainly raining like blazes yesterday!”

“That it was.” Agni released Fayz’s hand and looked off into the distance, leaning against a brightly-painted doorpost. He adopted the distant, slightly grim like a man preparing for bad news as he continued. “You may come back, if you like. You may ask for hospitality, or for company, or for a lover’s hand, but you are bound to none of these. If you would prefer to never speak again, I will accept it. I will say nothing of this to another unless you wish me to.”

“You are used to clandestine encounters, aren’t you,” said Fayz.

“Yes. The ideal is to leave no trace,” replied Agni, still not meeting his eyes.

“Well, you know, there is something to be said for the mysterious type, ha ha,” Fayz said, attempting a cheery smile. Agni ignored him.

“As you said, this has dragged on strangely,” he said. “I suspect I will present myself poorly if I keep you here longer. I will say this much: if you so desire, I would gladly see you again.”

“Oh! Of course! Of course. I’d be happy to. I don’t know when, and there really isn’t enough space in my quarters at the cathedral for…you know…but maybe we could have a nice dinner at the White Hart sometime? Doufu can come, too.” He beamed, this time genuinely. “And, ah, while I might not necessarily go advertising that we’re a little more than friends, if somebody asks, I’m not going to exactly say no…”

The chill in Agni’s demeanor lifted. His expression remained the same stoic mask, but he seemed less tense than before.

“That is…a satisfactory agreement, yes. We can determine details later, perhaps at one of those ‘potluck’ things you keep speaking so highly of. I do not know if I am meant for your Fellowship, but I will see it with my own eyes, and think fondly of you regardless. You are due a little good karma of your own, Fayz the Kind.”

“So I’ll see you this evening at the Cathedral of All Gods, maybe?” asked Fayz. “Don’t forget to bring something tasty to share with everyone if you’re coming to the dinner portion! Please not a hotdish. Everyone brings a hotdish.”

“I will bring rice,” Agni replied. Fayz nodded cheerfully.

“Well, that’s just great, then! I’ll see you after the sundown sacrifice!” he chirped. He tucked the platinum coins away and smoothed down his robes to better look the part of a poor-knight. The basket he upended into the grass, leaving the wad of gray and half-dried paper to tumbled into a lump that Doufu immediately began to dig at.

Fayz shuffled his sandaled feet, loitering on the front porch in the post-rain damp. It took him a few moments of exaggerated stretching and throat-clearing to find the words he wanted.

“Agni?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think this will, um. Go anywhere? The thing we’ve maybe got.”

Agni exhaled deeply, the breath of autumn waiting for an inevitable winter.

“Perhaps things will change,” he said. “Perhaps nothing will work out as expected. Perhaps another end will come and remake things, as they always do. But until then, I think I will still plan to be present for the true end of it all. I will watch as things are finished, and then I will await whatever comes next, if there is anything that does. I will witness the final breaths of the world.” He kissed Fayz across the threshold and gave him a small smile. “And perhaps I will have good company.”

“Maybe by then we’ll have figured out how to do the oral thing without you getting the hiccups, ha ha. I mean, you know. Assuming.”

“Perhaps that, as well.”

“And maybe next time there’ll be less talking and more making out, eh?”

“Do not push your luck, Fayz,” said Agni, allowing himself a smirk.

They shared another kiss and let their hands touch for a few moments before parting once more, Fayz waving over his shoulder as he navigated the porch steps. He made his way down the trail leading back towards one of the Helm’s outermost roads, stopping only to give Doufu a final scratch between his pointed ears. The muffled strains of flute music came once more from the little house by the waterfall, but this time it was slightly less melancholy as it played Fayz off. He whistled to himself, his empty basket swinging gaily from the crook of one arm, as the sun began to rise on a hazy but promising new day.

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