I am awash with a strange concoction of joy, love, sadness, anger. Quite possibly leaning towards the latter. Not half as bad as I am?! I roll my eyes at the thought. “Easy for you to say, you big jerk.” And I say those words, something within me snaps, bottled-up anger swiftly replacing the hesitation I felt from a moment ago.
“Pardon me, miss?” he still played around, with that lingering quizzical smile.
WHAT?! “Don’t you dare ‘miss’, me. You know why I’m mad at you.”
“About that-” he offered sheepishly.
Grabbing him by the collar, I yell in his face, “what kind of scumbag toys with his girl’s heart for a year and doesn’t show up for their first date?!” My blood boils as fire courses through me, brewed from the condensed lamentations of a hundred heart-broken, anxiety-filled nights. Those amber eyes of his never looked prettier with their honey-oak accents, and yet I want to gouge them out so he can never look at me again.
Because my anger is but a feeble cover for my hurt.
White to yellow, orange to purple, blues and greens fading at the seams. Countless shades of warmth spread across a familiar sky. Witnesses to the same piece of art that we were beholden to every evening for the last month or so, it always seemed to cast a spell over us, or me at least. We sat on the edge of a cliff, but with the best view in the world, it made the everyday trek from camp worth it. I could watch it a trillion times and never tire of it, yet still never manage to paint it no matter how much I try. And I don’t want it to end.
I look to my left. Maybe he shared the same sentiment. Arms crossed over his knees, brows furrowed, as if he wanted to stare a hole in the landscape and disappear through it. Or his way of training for future staring contests.
He looks at me.
“Nope, I just lost a staring contest with a setting sun. A setting sun of all things.”
“Oh dear! What shall become of your reputation henceforth?” I exclaim in my most mocking impression of obviously-not-nobility.
“Ze shame, my lady, I kenot live it down! I kenot bear to be seen by zis vorld no more.” He replies in a part-tragic, part-playful, sing-song tone.
“Whatever shall we do, o Sir Aldor the Eagle-Eyed?”
“Fear not, Lady Sasha! Traverse the depths of night I shall, and restore my honor as the LORD OF ALL STARING CONTESTS I vill!” I loved that part of him.
“Ooooh! That sounds exciting, but what shall we do?”
“First I shall set off in the direction of zat cowardly ball of light!” he yells enthusiastically as he leaps onto his feet, wildly brandishing his rapier at said ball of light.
Infected by his burst of enthusiasm, I cannot help but leap to his side and strike a martial pose, the one Nika taught yesterday.
“So when do we start, oh noble sir?”
He sheaths his rapier, and we lock eyes for a heartbeat. I know.
“Sorry milady, zis adventure only has room for one.” he replies apologetically. “You don’t have to go, you know,” I counter. “And I’ll pretend Ravenfall can protect itself from Arcane Brotherhood.” he replies cheekily. “I could come, just help me convince Nika that I’m ready,” I offer boldly, masking my obvious concern with bravado. He doesn’t say a word, eyes tracking the fleeting quarry as it straddled the horizon, the shadow of the day embracing the world in grey. “That I can’t do, Red. With your level of martial skill, you won’t last two seconds in a fight.”
The words “try me” escape my mouth as I leap at him, my right arm arcing for his exposed neck. Strike fast, and more importantly, strike true, rang Nika’s advice, drilled into my head through countless hours of training. Brachial plexus, nerve bundle. Non-lethal pressure point. Direct strike results in numbness of arm and loss of balance. Hard to execute mid-combat, decent as an opening strike. Perfect for surprising and dis-arming opponents. Augment with mana to-
Aldor sidesteps my strike and shoves me in the small of my back. I’m sent flying, only to catch myself and face him. Rude. “Fighting dirty now? C’mon, Red.” A sad smile graces his features as he beckons me to stop. I cannot let him leave for that blasted keep on a suicidal mission, and yet I find myself throwing arcane bolts at him. Where my attacks should have struck him square in the solar plexus, was instead a puff of silver smoke. Only for him to reappear half a second later in my face and boop me on the nose. I laugh as I swipe at him, only to claw at another puff of smoke. “Aw c’mon!” I exclaim, sifting through my plethora of next moves to incapacitate, and if possible, embarrass him.
“Boo!” I react to the sound from behind, only for him to poke his waiting finger into my right cheek. He chuckles. I catch the offending limb and summersault over him, jamming his arm behind him as I complete the lock. “Oh, no you’ve got me,” he exclaims in his trademark sarcasm as he follows up with another puff of smoke. I turn behind instinctively, readying an arcane bolt right as Aldor re-materializes in front of my right hand. Triumphant, I jam my glowing hand into his chest and smile broadly. He flashes a bold smile and raises his hands up in the phoniest show of defeat I have ever seen. Ugh, I can’t wait until Nika will teaches us Misty step (Quick teleportation spell), then I’ll boop him in the face. The thought of that made me smile.
“Oh no, you’ve got me. Again.” That playful sarcasm was if nothing else, so him.
“No leaving on my account, you hear me?” I warned playfully.
“This is quite literally going nowhere. Truce for now?”
“Truce. For as long as this stays,” I chuckle.
“Maybe you can join me in a year’s time.”
“Yeah right. Like Nika would ever let that happen,” I scoff.
“You never know. Aerin could come if she wanted, and from what I see, you’re catching up to her.”
“At least she had some sense to not go. Doesn’t mean you should.”
“No can do, Red. Contracts are contracts, there’s more than my honor on the line here.”
“You could always ask to reconsider the agreement, you know,” I offered cheekily.
He was right, the Arcane Brotherhood were nothing if not crafty and vicious, and he was probably overconfident and quite possibly in over his head.
Aldor gently places his hands on my shoulders as I look into those amber eyes. And for the first time, I notice the honey-oak accents in his irises. I spend fifteen years knowing this guy, and only now I notice them. How did I even miss that?
“You know you’re doing a pretty bad job of convincing me to stay, right?”
“Easy for you to say, maybe because you’re doing a bad job of staying yourself.”
We stare-off with each other. For a moment, or twenty, I didn’t care about winning. I wrap my arms around him in an embrace as I concede. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. Death was certain, and him leaving for good just felt wrong. I feel my heart being sundered, a void hollowing out my naïve soul as the world around us faded to grey. He could have beaten me and left, but we stayed for now. Please keep it this way. Selfish of me, I know. Stupid dumb-ass contract.
“Of all the people, you know me best.”
“Can’t think of anyone better.”
“The Lord of Staring Contests is pleased with said sentiment~”
I chuckle. He touches his forehead to mine. I notice eye-bags earned from late night discussions with Nika. The sight stubble from not shaving in days. The bare noticeable bit of hair sticking out from his left nostril. Just how much of him did I not know of, and never will if he left? God, I want to etch these details into memory, every single one of them. Those amber eyes lock onto mine as we gaze into each other’s abyss, clearly having stolen a slice of eternity to call our own. I imagine us dancing in amber hallways, feeling naught but comfort and warmth in his grace. He places a hand on my cheek. Coarse and pitted with calluses from all the training, any other girl would have winced, but I didn’t mind. These hands belonged to the Lord of Staring contests after all, and I didn’t want them to let me go. And I notice that glimmer in his eyes, one that he reserved for other girls in the past, one that I was familiar with but never expected to see up close and personal.
“Just wanted a gander at this pretty little lady in front of me before I leave.”
“And you can, if you stay,” I added cheekily as we share a laugh.
“Close your eyes,” he whispers, a sincere smile on his face as he tilts my head up.
The world fades away as my eyelids shut him out.
My lips tingle. Sensation. Touch. Coarse, like his hands, but warmer. Gentle, loving. My lips embrace his, and we moved. He pushes and I pull; back and forth we go in a bizarre dance. Warmth fills my body, and it takes me eight full seconds to realize what our mouths were doing to each other.
If it was any other time and place, I would have been overjoyed to reciprocate his feelings. But I cannot. And with that realization, a deep, raw surge of cold rushes up from the pit of my stomach, herald to a wave of helplessness. I fight the urge to be anywhere else, because I needed to be here for him, and yet I pull away. I can’t bear to face him, let alone bask in his lighthearted presence. My stomach knots. I do not deserve this, because all I can do from this moment on will only hurt more. Taunt each other with a life we could have had, and leave nothing but memories of a fleeting moment to grasp, only for it all to fade into regret.
“That’s dirty, you scoundrel,” I mutter, barely hiding all the frustration I felt. My heart pounds in my ears. Forget honor, I don’t want him to go on that suicidal mission, and I sure as hell do not want our last moments together filled with sadness. He reaches for my hand.
“Why me?” I ask weakly.
“You know it better than anyone else.”
I am at a loss for words, and it takes me two heartbeats pass to reply, “Since when..?”
“Always, Red. I always have.” That’s a lie. It had to be. He had that entire month, no, fifteen years to tell me and he didn’t. It had to be a lie otherwise. But I see it in his eyes, I feel it in that honest smile, and deep down I know, that he knew I knew. The truth coming from his lips, and that warm, sad smile? The sincerity pouring out of it hurt. As if he knows, Aldor pulls my head to his chest. I bury myself in it. Warm, and trembling, yet strangely comforting. I savor it, for it was possibly my last.
“You idiot.” I mumbled.
“Of all people I care about, there’s no one like you.”
“Of all timings, you had to pick right here and now.”
“Because I’m not half as bad as you are. You’d chew me out forever otherwise.” Now that was a lie, but it comforted me.
“Takes one to recognize another, you coward.”
“What can I say? I learnt from the best.”
“I’m telling Nika.”
“Not if the brotherhood get me first.”
“Don’t jinx it, you idiot.”
“I’ll be back.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep-”
I choke. I don’t want to lose this, no, my bundle of fun and spontaneity. I don’t want to lose the pure, stupidly good-for-nothing boyish-charm that made him unique. I don’t want to lose the goof he transforms into when he eats his shellfish. I don’t want to lose our staring contests that I cannot win. I don’t want to lose him. The pain in my heart alchemizes into tears. NO! I cannot taint the moment further with my anguish. I cannot afford sadness. I cannot-
“When have I ever broken a promise, eh?”
I force a smile as I burrow my face deeper in his chest.
“You sure know how to break a girl’s heart.”
“I have no regrets.”
Why now of all times?
I repress my anguish. Not here, not now, but my eyes argue otherwise.
“We both know that’s a lie.”
Don’t do this to me.
I feel his reply. Tears in my hair, flowing down my face and mixing with mine. We stole a slice of eternity, but the cruel world came around and demanded its inevitable return.
Stop it, please!
“Fireworks, pineapple pies and first round of drinks on me. Baldur’s gate, next Highharvestide.”
“Don’t forget roast chicken and extra caramel shortbread for the idiot who’s staying,” I add.
Stop making promises you can’t keep-
“I’m looking forward to seeing the most beautiful girl in the world again.”
“And I’m looking forward to hugging the biggest idiot in the world again.” The words brim with a thousand unspoken things as I play along; the feeling was mutual. He pulls away and plants a kiss on my forehead. In return, I peck him on the lips.
He picks up his backpack. It’s our farewell, and I’m barely keeping it together. I grasp his hand for one, last, time.
“I’ll miss you, Al.”
“Me too, Red.”
“You’ll be in my heart, always.”
Our hands part as he leaves.
I wave him goodbye as he hops off the ledge and disappears in a puff of silver smoke. I keep waving even after he leaves, holding my body up to numb myself from the aftermath.
Stupid world! Stupid civilization! Stupid Nika! Stupid Aerin! Stupid contract! Stupid brotherhood! DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!
I crumple onto my knees. Utterly alone, my sundered heart bleeds into the sunset, staining the sky blood-red with the anguish of a hundred shattered dreams. I want to reciprocate his feelings with all my being but he’s gone. I want to go with him but I cannot keep up. I yell at the cowardly ball of light for not roasting me where I stand and freeing me from my troubles. I wail into the wind because it cannot embrace me the way he did, leaving me alone in the void where he once stood. I am utterly powerless, too weak to stop or help him, or mend my broken heart. Pain greater than ever wracks my chest, the emptiness inside made all the more poignant with what once was. I desperately wish for the impossible, because it was better than the despair in anticipation of the inevitable solitude.
He who put the red in my sunset is gone, and I lament that we were never more than a memory and a regret. I cry on, the mess of my sundered heart reflected by the world around me: faded and grey.
And I remember why I hated it all. The boy whom I grew up with; the man who broke my heart into a million pieces; the lad whom I wanted to give my heart to with stood right there; and I hated all of him. This was no time for his excuses or apologies; I was consumed by an overwhelming need for him to feel my pain.
“Do you have any idea how hard I trained for Nika to even consider sending me north to look for you? Do you have any idea how anxious I get every time I think of you? And what do I get? You ignore every letter I send, stand me up on our date, and I don’t get so much as a whisper all this time!”
“I was cut off, alright? What was I supposed to do-”
“This is the part where you zip it! Don’t get me started on how long it took for you to admit that you love me! FIFTEEN YEARS, YOU COWARD, FIFTEEN YEARS! I would have said yes if you admitted it earlier, and we would have been happy together, dammit! But no, you HAD to break it to me before you go and almost get yourself killed in Ravenfall! Do you have any idea how many nights I spent crying, praying to Tymora that you didn’t end up dying?”
“I’m sorry, and I wish things were different-“
“AND I WISH YOU DIED HORRIBLY SO I DON’T HAVE TO FEEL THIS WAY AGAIN!”
I let the words hang, hoping they would poison him.
Instead of dropping dead or leaving, he embraces me. My bottled-up agony and hurt from the past year expelled, I relent as fatigue and injury catch up to me as I crumple like a piece of paper. “Why?” I weep openly. He rubs his hand in my hair, the only kind of voodoo that worked. As if he knows my thoughts, he pulls me closer. “I’m so sorry, Red,” he whispers. I cry unabashedly as I cling onto him, searching for proof that this indeed was the Aldor that I knew and loved, returned to me six months late from his year-long suicidal assignment. I wail defiantly because we were unbelievably fortunate to still have each other.
He continues his voodoo as I exhaust my supply of tears into his shirt. The spring breeze carries our sorrows upward into the sky as we stand frozen in time, comforting in the other’s presence.
Ten moments pass. Wrapped in a bubble of tranquility, free of the machinations of an outside world, we hold each other. “I’ve missed you so much,” he whispers. “Not as much as I have, Al,” I whimper as I push forward. He gives, and we fall, having stolen a slice of eternity for ourselves again. I comfort in his presence and he in my arms, two weary souls having found sanctuary in each other, relishing a peaceful moment, grateful to be alive and in love right now. I inch my face closer to his as we color the moment with the broken tension of a heartfelt reunion. My eyes lock onto his amber whirlpools, and the world fades away as he reciprocates. A gentle touch on my lips, teasingly so, and for three heartbeats we play. Then we explode in rush of heat, our lips rushing to make contact, eager to explore each other. Mouths push and pull as tongues made love to each other in a symphony that we understood. Hands explore bodies as we re-attempt to cement curves and features into memory, edges and boundaries blurring where one began and the other ended. A mutual warmth expands within me, washing away all thought, communicating a thousand unspoken sentiments through the simple, sensuous act of kissing. Just as lovers do, we did, but for real this time. Whole. Complete. Perfect.
And the world came to collect yet again. Out of the blue rang Nika’s half-amused, half annoyed voice. “Oi! Grab a tent and be done with it ya stupid lovebirds!” I turn to look at her just as Aldor guffaws uncontrollably, apparently having no shame for our present situation. I didn’t care that both of us were a complete, unabashed mess on the grass, instead I blow a raspberry at my mentor in cheeky bid to secure privacy. She chuckles, shakes her head and disappears back into her tent. And we laugh as make haste for the wagon that I call my bed.