Thorn and Rath find themselves in an ever-worsening situation, with dire consequences.
"So, ya think they've killed eachother yet?" Mellka finished sharpening her Bio-Glaive (which never actually needed to be sharpened, she just enjoyed the routine) and took a deep drink of the bittersweet Ekkuni beer she was sharing with Ghalt and Reyna. Deande had taken a delicate sniff of the brew before wrinkling up her tiny white nose and shaking her head so vehemently her blonde waves bounced around on her shoulders. Instead she'd retrieved a fancy bottle of some dark red liquid from her quarters and was drinking tiny glassfuls of the stuff while she sharpened her Tessurim war fans. She'd said it was wine but Mellka thought it looked a lot like blood and couldn't be convinced otherwise, no matter what the spymistress said.
Reyna finished tuning up her laser pistol and set it down before taking a long drink of beer for herself, seeming to be reflecting deeply on the question, a frown on her face. Mellka laughed, "Damn Rey, it's not that serious." But the fiery glance the Valkyrie gave her with her one good eye shut her up fast. Maybe it was that serious.
"If Thorn and Rath can't find a way to coexist we're gonna have to let one of them go. Do you wanna to be the one to make that decision Mel? I don't think any of us want to be the messenger in that situation. And we will have lost an asset to our team on top of it! So yeah, I think it's pretty fucking serious." Reyna crossed her arms over her ample chest to further demonstrate her point, Ghalt reaching over to pat her shoulder.
"She's right, we downplayed it but Thorn's intolerance of Rath has been an issue, and he seems to take pleasure in taunting her into overreacting. It pulls their focus on missions and we can't afford that when it puts us all at risk. Sending them out with no backup but each other will force them to work together." The First Battleborn continued cleaning his UPR issue M8-R shotgun as he talked, his tone casual but somber, "I put a lot of thought into it."
Mellka blew a stray strand of her wild bangs out of her face, leaning her elbows on the table and making slow eye contact with each of them. "And what happens if they get attacked out there and can't figure their shit out? Or what if they try to kill each other for real since there's no one around to talk some sense into their dumb asses? We don't even have eyes on the ground down there right now!"
"Ekkunar's been quiet since the evac was completed and the fires went out. According to Nova there should only be wildlife and maybe a few stray thralls in the area to worry about, and they should be able to handle that easily. You're overthinking this Mel. I get that you're worried but they need this. We need them to do this." Reyna took another drink of beer as she talked and offered a refill to both of them, they happily accepted.
With her absurdly small crystal goblet held lightly between two fingers, Deande gave her own beverage a delicate sip, reaching with the other hand to smooth Melka's sleeve. The Eldrid elf reflexively flinched away from the Jennerit spy's touch, but if Deande noticed or cared she did not show it. "Melka, they simply need to work together, to overcome Thorn's misplaced distrust for Verod. You overcame your distrust of me after we got through the Heliophage together, did you not? And even the Captain has learned to trust me in spite of that whole torture incident-"
"Let's not rehash any of that now, okay?" Ghalt interrupted, clearly looking flushed with suppressed feeling. It was Reyna's turn to pat him but she said nothing. Deande cleared her throat and proceeded, "Well, my point was, we have all overcome some level of disliking for our fellow allies here, Thorn will simply have to do the same. She has put Rath's face on the suffering of her people, unfairly so – she must learn to separate."
Sudden anger flashed in the mercenary's heart as she sat up straighter, brushing Deande's touch away. "Why is it only Thorn who has the problem? Yeah her anger at him might be a little... misplaced, but I've seen the way that sword-toting peacock talks to her, like she's a mindless barbarian and he's a fucking emperor. He thinks he's so much better than us savage Eldrid, so much more civilized, all you fucking Jennerit vampires think that and I'm so sick of it! So in this case I can see Thorn's point, even if you none of you can." Not waiting to hear what any of them had to say, Mellka snatched her beer up from the table as she stood, ignoring the way it sloshed over the rim and all over her hand, storming out of the room. The doors were all pressurized and automatic, otherwise she would have gladly slammed it behind her. She'd meant what she said, but there really was no reason for her outburst. She did trust Deande now, and she agreed that Thorn needed to stop blaming Rath for nameless transgressions and venting her rage on him. There was just this feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach though... She couldn't shake it. It was making her edgy.
She reached up to smooth back her two-tone hair, realizing a second too late that her hand was wet with beer. Fuck Oh well, she'd smell like an Ekkuni tavern for awhile. What she really needed was a good workout, or a good laugh. And definitely more beer. Where was Boldur when you needed him? If anyone would understand how Mellka was feeling right now it was the Ekkuni dwarf, Thorn's adopted Grandfather.
Mellka set off to find him.
He was aware of his body before he attempted to open his eyes, feeling something soft and spongy underneath him while his cheek rested on something like a cushion. A cool breeze was touching his back, his bare skin prickling pleasantly at the unexpected sensation. Bare skin? The sudden realization that his armor was stripped off sent a shock through him, his eyes snapping open as he commanded his body to equally snap to attention. He'd just begun to lift his head and gather his legs underneath him when the pain set in, sending him collapsing back onto his stomach with a gasp. A strong hand came to rest on his shoulder to hold him down there, a familiar growling voice coming from behind him, "Idiot, lay still or you'll make things worse. I'm treating your wound." He would know Thorn's strange Aelfrin accent anywhere.
His eyes began to adjust to the space he found himself in. It was dark, well past nightfall he would guess, but he couldn't see the sky to help him judge more accurately. No campfire burned, the small area lit instead by a dim blue luminescence originating somewhere above them. Ekkunar's forests were known for their bio-luminescent plantlife, he would bet that was the source. The wide dark leaves arranged underneath him as a makeshift bed may have even been sourced from the same plant but his knowledge of such things was admittedly limited. What he could be certain of was that he did not like being laid bare and unarmored in front of Thorn, being made to look weak and needful. Memories of the fight with the Varelsi advance party came flooding back and he felt the prick of shame that he had failed to stay on his feet afterward, failed to take his enemies down alone. If she had shown up even a minute later...
Rath stubbornly cut that thought down. Who knows what would have happened. What did happen was that once again she'd allowed her obsessive anger to jeopardize the mission. It was completely unacceptable, and if he could get up he would certainly tell her so. But now there were a few more pressing matters at hand.
"Where are we?" He was gruff, unhappy that he was relying on her for such information. She was probably loving it.
"You passed out, I built a travois to haul your heavy ass back here to safety so I could try to heal you. There are no UPR services down here anymore until they are reestablished, and I can't get Nova to respond when I hail. I think there's some kind of atmospheric interference. So I'm doing this the Eldrid way."
Rath balked and tried to shift, but damn she was strong for a woman so slight, pinning his shoulder so he couldn't turn over, She hissed "Stop struggling or I'll let you bleed to death!"
"But you are no Miko! And it's just a scratch, I'll be fine! Let me up you savage witch!"
Her fingers dug into his shoulder hard, and he felt her hair brush gently against the back of his neck as she leaned down close to his ear, her voice a rasping whisper, "I swear by the fallen light of Eshteni that if you don't shut your Jennerit mouth and let me work I will finish you off myself." He could tell she meant it, but all he could focus on was the way her breath felt warm against his skin and her scent, green and fresh like a sapling in spring bloom. He felt momentarily dazed by her closeness, then felt a wave of disgust with himself for having such a thought – the only explanation was he must be concussed as well. A head injury, definitely.
"Fine," Rath finally snarled, annoyed that he couldn't look at her as he did. "Do whatever you've going to do, but make it fast. We have a job to do, if you're ready to work that is."
Thorn clenched her teeth but said nothing, biting back the retort on her tongue, knowing anything she said at that point was only going to start a fight and in his condition that would only exacerbate things. She needed him healthy so she wouldn't have to explain herself to Ghalt, not because she cared what happened to him. If it were up to her she would have let that Varelsi veil walker have him.
That thought made her flinch a bit internally. She didn't like Verod Rath or what he stood for, his prideful arrogance and flippant discounting of her people made her seethe with rage, but was she truly the sort of being who would let another die for her own selfish satisfaction? Would it satisfy her rage to see him die? It was, in truth, the Varelsi who were responsible for the darkening of her homeworld, Eshteni, so as much as she hated Rath shouldn't she hate the Varelsi more? She did, there was no doubt of that. And deep in her heart she knew, she would never have let those Varelsi kill him without at least trying to intervene.
But she could not help but revel in seeing him laid low and at her mercy, his pride and armor taken from him, his weakness on display. It even made her crack a smirk as she mixed a poultice from scavenged herbs to apply to his raw wound.
After a long moment, as if he'd been thinking about it, he spoke in a more subdued voice, calmer, "Where are my katanas and my vestment?"
That was something Thorn understood. She would feel naked and alone with Kreshek by her side and her custom Eldrid bioweave armor on her back. Any warrior worth their salt would feel that same connection to their weapons and armor, that made sense to her and it might be the first clear common ground she had found with the blademaster.
"They are sitting at your feet."
He immediately stretched out a foot to feel for them, and when he rested a toe on the edge of his vestments he left it there, as if to reassure himself of their presence. That almost made her smirk shift into a real smile. Almost.
"This is going to hurt," she warned him, the poultice was done and ready to apply. She'd prepared it just as Boldur had taught her, mixing all the right ingredients at the right time, infusing it with just the right amount of her own energy and vitality – she may not have been a healer but she'd been taught herblore by the best botanist the Eldrid had to offer, and she trusted that tutelage even if she had never had to actually use it before this moment. It would work. She believed it would work.
Rath tensed in anticipation, but pain was nothing to him. "Do it."
She nodded, though he couldn't see it, and scooped the dark green mixture out of the small stone bowl and rubbed it between her hands, feeling the building heat of the magic it contained. It would burn his skin like hot liquid fire but leave no mark, and close his wound almost completely if it worked the way it was supposed to. It had been applied to her leg once by her adopted Grandfather after she'd cut herself badly during a training excursion – she would never forget the maddening pain of it.
"Rath, don't scream."
Her voice was soft and she sounded so sincere, almost caring, and it made his chest lurch in an odd way. Instinctively he felt like he wanted to say something then, to assure her that he was Verod Rath and could handle having a little leaf juice smeared on him, no need to worry about him. That intention died fast in his throat however as she applied the poultice to his back and he instantly understood her warning. Fiery pain seared his back like a brand being pressed deep into his flesh, burning and melting the tissues surrounding the wound until the were liquid and flowed back together, closing the space. The agony made him dizzy, and he bit down hard on his lip to stop the reflexive need to cry out in pain. He would not give her the satisfaction.
Thorn spread the poultice slowly and deliberately across Rath's wounded back, letting it do its thorough work. It made her fingertips almost unbearably hot but she knew that discomfort was mild at best compared to what he was feeling right now. To his credit he did not make any noise except for an initial gasp, followed by deep breathing that expanded his lungs in his broad chest. He maintained control and focus the way a trained warrior would, his self-discipline both evident and impressive. Having such a positive thought about him made her want to slap herself.
The heat faded from her hands, and from his back too. Rath gave a long exhale while his body went limp – he'd been holding himself incredibly tight for the duration of the treatment, relaxing only when the pain slipped away. She retrieved a cloth of plantweave from nearby and gently wiped away the excess mixture, revealing fresh new skin underneath. There was no trace of the grievous wound he had suffered save the long strip of shiny, blushed flesh that had replaced it. Warmth would linger in the cells there for a few hours and it would remain sensitive and tender to the touch for a few days, but he would be fine. He was healed, Boldur's teachings had served her well.
Rath remained silent as she lightly ran her fingertips over the area, prodding and massaging to check that it was properly solidified and resilient but flexible as real flesh should be. It responded perfectly, the job was done, but she found herself mesmerized by the lines of older scars and curves of muscle on his smooth back, running her fingertips over those as well with a feather-light touch. He had the body of a warrior, there was no denying that.
"Turn over," Thorn commanded firmly.
The Keeper of the Blade barely heard her, he was awash with sensation that threatened to render him unconscious yet again. The extreme fluctuation from burning pain to her gentle touch on his back was maddening, almost too much for him to take. But he didn't want her to stop, it was such a soothing thing after what that poultice had done. Yes, that was the reason. It had to be.
"Turn over damnit! I need to check the claw marks on your chest now." This time he registered her words, and rolled up onto his side so he could sit up in place. Such a simple change of position altered his entire perspective on their location and the moment. He could see her now, bathed in the dim blue light of the giant blooms in the tree stretching out over their heads. She'd dragged him to a small grove probably not far from where he'd been fighting for his life, it was naturally sheltered from outside view by the huge triangular plant fronds that grew at the perimeter and all the way up the the trunk of the tree. These fronds were what she had made his cot from, and several of them rolled together served as a sort of pillow. It was not uncomfortable by any means, just unusual to him. The light of the tree's blooms made her hair somehow look even more white so it was practically glowing, her eyes absorbing it so they gleamed brightly. She had removed her own armor, revealing just a plain black bodysuit that clung to her agile form and left both her shoulders, arms, back, and lower legs exposed to the cool night air, her skin impossible smooth and luminous. The Ekkuni warpaint was washed away from her face, leaving her looking startlingly young and sweet. It was a dangerous illusion.
His swords and armor lay just where she'd said, her own armor a few feet away at the base of the tree. She'd stripped him of everything but his leggings, worn underneath the fauld of his Bladekeeper's Vestment – even his feet and head were bare. He watched as her eyes went straight to the Jennerit tattoos that marched up his forearms, lingering there on them as if they reminded her of who he was. And he found that his eyes stayed on her face, studying her as she leaned forward to close the meager distance between them and put her hands on his exposed chest, inspecting the slashes and scratches he had accumulated throughout the duration of the fight. He already knew that none of them were severe and didn't require attention, but he found the protest to her ministrations stuck in his throat. Such a curious feeling. Rath did not stop her.
Thorn could immediately see that the scores on his chest were minimal and already beginning to heal on their own, there was no need for her to look him over further. But her curiosity was piqued now, she had to admit, she had wondered more than once what his body looked like under all that rigid armor. The musculature was well-defined and firm, his skin smooth and pale, and there were scars here too, both faint and obvious. His waist was narrow, his abdominals notably cut, his long arms elegant but strong – Rath's body was impressive, simultaneously reflecting age and youth.
Slowly she withdrew her hands and looked up at him, taken aback to find him watching her intently. There was no apology in his face at being caught looking, of course not. He was such a prideful creature, she doubted he'd ever apologized for anything in his life. His chin was so severe, his mouth more frown than smile, a hawkish nose, a pronounced brow, and deep-set eyes that glinted red even in near dark. There weren't many who would call Verod Rath a handsome man, but something in his face, his form, stirred her. It was impossible that she could feel attraction to him. Right?
A dark line running from his lip caught her eye: blood. He had bitten his lip hard enough to draw blood when she'd applied the poultice. Reaching out to wipe it off was an instinct, done without thought for the patient currently under her care, but the way he froze as she touched his face made her freeze in turn, an awkward explanation tumbling out of her mouth, "Oh, there's just a little, uhm, blood there... On your lips, er, your mouth, was going to..." What was she going to do? Just wipe it away. Yes, that. Of course it was just that. Instead she let her hand fall back to her side. He could wipe it off himself. Her confusion and the way her chest had tightened when he looked at her was infuriating!
She turned abruptly away with a disgusted scoff, mostly directed at herself but he didn't need to know that. "You're fine, get some sleep. We'll go back out on patrol together in the morning." Rath still said nothing but there was a nearly invisible smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth. It made her want to punch him.
He laid down on his side, facing away from her and pulling both his armor and his blades up close beside him. Thorn wanted him to say something, anything, and the need made her feel weak and humiliated and angry all at once. What was he trying to do? If he wanted to embarrass her he was succeeding, not to mention succeeding in turning the fragile truce between them back into open verbal warfare by making her feel so stupid. The fact remained, though, that she had screwed up today in not being out on patrol with him to do her job, and he had that on her. She wasn't going to give him anymore ammunition tonight.
Pointedly ignoring him in turn, Thorn leaned across his body and placed a ration pack of water in front of his face, then gathered Kreshek up and moved toward the tree that guarded their little clearing – she never slept on the open ground if she could help it, plus being up high would give her an advantage if anyone or anything came near their camp. She chose a branch midway up, making sure she still had a good line of sight on her partner on the grass. If he wanted to play that game she could play it too. She'd smother him, not leave him alone even for a second until this fucking mission was overwith, so he'd have nothing to say against her and she could throw it in his face that he'd needed her protection. Good plan.
And below her, when Rath reached out for the water and took a long drink, Thorn smiled despite herself.