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    version 22: awakening


    SOCHI -- Year 207


    "He will inevitably decide that it all fell apart because he had orchestrated it and he will carry the blame like a stone in his chest, too. He will add it to the pile and perhaps, someday when there are enough stones to weigh him down, he will walk into the sea and let them drown him" -- Kensley, written by Savage

    [mature]  all my head’s to blame for all my heart’s mistakes, Wonder

    — I'll break you a hundred different ways —

    He tried to stay in Tephra.
    He tried to stay close to her, but there was always something imaginary that pulled him away. Something intangible and yet somehow powerful enough that it wedged a wall between her and him, and it seemed impenetrable, even though he knew he only needed to walk through the door in the middle of it.

    If only it could be that simple.

    After the land was scorched to the ground, and in the smoke and aftermath of the war, he had been able to overlook the relentless wanderlust to stay with her, and to make sure she was safe. But the more comfortable he grew with being next to her — even in the night, when he was empty and bare — the more an unrest began to build inside of him.

    When he finally leaves, when he finally disappears once more into the evergreen and the mountains, he isn’t sure if she will understand that it’s not her fault. The guilt of that keeps him away longer than he had thought possible.

    Weeks drag by, and where usually the solitude and quiet would fill him, he finds that he still feels hollow. When the smell of her was still clinging to his skin, a simple shift in the wind was enough to make his chest coil tight, but eventually, all traces of her wore off. Except in the night, when he only saw her face, when he sometimes thought he imagined the warmth of her next to him — a foolish thing to dream, since his bones have never been able to feel anything. Just as when they had first met she haunted every piece of him, until suddenly the solitude and the quiet is more maddening than what he can handle. It is not by chance that he finally returns to Tephra to find her.

    And he does, near the corner where they had first met, and a part of him is surprised, while the other part of him had known all along this is where she would be. Even though his face is impassive and hard, there is something different that smolders in his dark eyes; something alive but guarded, something trying to break loose while he fights to rein it back. “Wonder,” he draws himself alongside of her, unabashed even though he doesn’t touch her. He considers it, and maybe she can see it in the way his muscles flinch once he is next to her, but thinks that after his absence, she wouldn’t want it.

    There is a heavy pause as he stares at her, at the glowing ivory of bone across her forehead and armoring her brilliantly red body, and the pale green of her eyes as depthless and endless as the sea. And for a moment too long all he can do is look at her, as he stands there just as he had the first time, wondering what it would be like to just reach out and touch her. “I’m sorry,” another hesitation, another struggle to formulate his thoughts into words as doubt begins to spiderweb across his mind, “I’m sorry that I left.”

    — and I'll make you remember my face —


    She had grown to love their time together, even in the wake of a war that had changed everything. But change, as it were, did not always have to be bad. Slowly the land healed, families were reunited from their various corners of the island through whatever portal they had escaped, and she had learned more of the storm grey man who seemed to care for her like no one else before him had dared try. There were more days and more nights than she would’ve guessed, more moments and touches and soft smiles when he glanced away for a moment and her heart overflowed with gentle joy.

    But he was a wild thing, she had known that from the very start. Beautiful and boundless, in that way that all winged creatures are meant to be free. So it hurt when he leaves, hurts more in the night when she remembers the way they had sometimes slept tangled and so together, but she reminds herself of the wildness in his heart. Brigade is the same in that way. Wild and gone from her, but she knows one day the wind will carry him back to her again.

    Sometimes it is harder though, when Choke is gone exploring and her only company is that strange reflection staring back up at her in jagged pieces from the rippling waves. She is reminded how entirely strange she is, how she lacks the soft comfort of a woman, how though her skin is bright and beautiful like copper ore, it is also mutilated with bone and wound and blood that falls in tears across the chestnut and the white. Even her face is ruined by it, even her brow covered in the bramble of antler - though, recently, and for reasons unknown, small pale flowers have climbed in vines to tangle among the bone. In the safe secrets of her own thoughts, she finds them almost beautiful.

    She and Choke stay in the place Nightlock had first found her, and while she would readily admit that it is because this corner of Tephra feels like hers, feels like home, the quieter truth is that she wants to make sure he can find them again. It is a thing that maybe should not matter to her as much as it does, but her heart feels tethered. To here, to him.

    There are weeks without him, too many days where her eyes catch on a distant shape in the sky and she pauses long enough to wonder, long enough to see as it flies closer that it is only a bird. Until, at last, it is no bird at all. Her heart catches in her chest, tripping and stuttering and tumbling across her lips in a faint, crooked smile she presses to his beautiful steel neck. He doesn’t reach for her immediately, but he is so stoic and so stern that this doesn’t surprise her.

    She is neither.

    She has learned to be vulnerable for him, to reach when he is less sure, to press her cheek to the warmth of a dappled neck and close her eyes so that she can know only him in such moments. No sky and no ocean, nothing but the heat of his skin and that wilderness smell, the flex of sinuous muscle as he undoubtedly clenches his jaw. He often catches his thoughts there between his teeth, working them over until he is done with them.

    He says her name and that smile falls to pieces on her mouth, so shy and so crooked, so unsure when she hides it against his neck. She is careful not to catch him with the tines of her antlers, careful not to smear bright blood over skin the color of steel-bellied storm clouds. But then they’re apart again and her eyes are on his mouth, on the words that don’t make any sense when they reach her ears because they imply something more than she deserves. He’s sorry, sorry for leaving, and she’s trying to understand it but there is some stubborn piece of her heart that just won’t let her believe that, maybe, she matters to him.

    Her eyes are so soft and so unsure when they lift to find his gaze, to settle against that shade of dark she missed so much. “It’s okay,” she’s whispering, reaching her nose out to brush against his, “you came back.” She aches to slip beneath his neck and feel him drag her close against his chest, aches to feel his lips wander so gently over the edges of her wounds in that way that only he soothes the ruin of her flesh. But she is so unsure, so desperately trying to ignore that whisper in her heart urging her on, because he hasn’t even said if he’ll stay yet. Hasn’t reached for her.

    But she does.

    She steps closer, reaches up with a new kind of tenderness to smooth the tangles of his forelock with the soft of her nose. Hesitates for only one thump-beat of her unsteady heart before she presses a kiss to his brow, another to the soft skin above the corner of his dark mouth. “Stay longer this time, okay?” The request is so gentle, so soft as her lips brush over the corner of his mouth and hesitate there for a beat, not even sure if she has any right to ask this of him, “I don’t want to have to miss you anymore.”

    i am brambles but i am tangled in your love


    — I'll break you a hundred different ways —

    She comes to him, she presses herself into his space, and as always, he is caught by surprise. He still doesn’t understand how she could possibly want him in any fashion, when he has always been poor company. He is quiet and distant, with too many thoughts and not enough words. He is stoic and withdrawn, but he also knows that she has seen the way how sometimes the things she says or does causes his steel-gray lips to pull into something like a smile. She had discovered that softer side of him – carefully concealed as it was. He still isn’t sure if he will ever be able to be entirely open with her, but guarded though he may be, she  knows him better than anyone ever has, or ever could.

    Where once he might have recoiled when she touches him, this time, he realizes that he does not even grow tense. Instead, he lowers his head into her lips, releasing the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding when she touches him on the forehead, and then the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t understand why she is so forgiving; he doesn’t understand how he can be gone for so long with no explanation and all she does is offer him that sweet smile and shy voice. There are so many reasons she shouldn’t have any kind of faith in him, and yet somehow, she does.

    He is quiet for a long moment, but in that stretch of silence, he pulls her in. He drapes his head over her neck, knowing that she will curl into him as she has before. His lips trail along the arch of her neck, through the strands of her mane, and the slope of her shoulder. They brush across the wounded skin and over the armor of bone, and he pays no attention to the way her blood sticks to his sterling coat in places. He simply breathes her in, filling himself with her familiar scent of metallic copper mingled with the sea.

    She had asked him to stay, and he knows he should promise her that he will. It would be the right answer, but it also still feels like something he can’t keep. There are so many things that he is — cold, distant, closed — but he doesn’t ever want to be the one that tells her something and then doesn’t keep his word.

    Finally, with his mouth pressed against her neck, and then again caressing closer to her ear, he utters quietly, “You deserve so much better than anything I can offer you.” He clenches his jaw against that feeling that once more begins to well inside of him, rising like a wave that threatens to drown his ability to reason. Her smell, the feel of her curves against his, and the glitter of her sea-green eyes, they all have a way of working in sync to methodically work away at what little willpower he had. “But it doesn’t keep me from wanting you,” he says in the grit of his voice, pushing closer and holding her tighter all at once.  

    — and I'll make you remember my face —


    She pulls back enough to look up at him, and when she does there is new worry in those bright, bruised eyes. A wariness that bubbles up from someplace deep inside her chest. She can feel how easily he could hurt her, how these emotions are like a blade pressed to her throat and the handle sits patiently within his grasp. But she can also feel how she trusts him, foolishly, perhaps. How everything inside her urges her to lean into the blade, into this pain. After all, she is no stranger to it.

    But his words open a thin line along her skin, opening edges that are bright and red and stinging. It feels like being pushed away, makes her wonder if she misread his almost-smiles and the way he’s started dragging her against his chest, running those serious lips over the edges of bone and flesh. Her breath comes a little faster, that wariness shifting into fear, and that fear flooding her veins with a soft kind of adrenaline that pools in her chest. She turns her face from him, that antlered brow and the flowers that climb in wild vines as though to be closer to the sun, fights with an uncertainty of what to say, how to answer him.

    It isn’t a competition, it isn’t about better or worse. It’s about the way her heart contracts in her chest when he is suddenly gone from her, about that soul-deep ache when she wakes up from a dream full of adventures with his face, his voice, his careful touch to find that none of it was real. It’s about the moments in her days, thoughts and stories, the sweet things Choke does as he grows bigger each day, it’s the reflex to tell Nightlock, to share it with him. It’s the way her heart feels so soft and radiant when his wings stretch to fill her skies, when he lands beside her and all she wants to do is settle in against the warmth of his body as he draws her close and traces the curve of her cheek.

    The way he teaches her without meaning to, that she is not wrong.

    But these words catch in her throat, barbed and painful, and no matter how hard she tries she cannot force them to her lips. It isn’t until he speaks again, all grit and gravel as he presses them both together, holds her so firm against the beautiful heart beating in his chest that she finds there are new words, different words waiting on her lips. A confession that makes her feel so bare before him. “It doesn’t hurt so much when I’m with you.” Her life, her past, the truths that sit like thorns beneath her skin.

    And suddenly nothing feels close enough, not their chests pressed together or the way his neck drapes so firmly across her shoulders. She’s aching inside, unravelling, and for once it has nothing to do with all the broken pieces she’s built her life upon. She presses into him, and there is some new gentle wildness, like her heart is a bird in her chest and fighting so hard to be free from that cage of bone. But when she speaks it is still soft, still whispered like the wind that rolls off her bright ocean waves. “I won’t ask you to be anything you’re not, Nightlock. I just want you.”

    i am brambles but i am tangled in your love


    — I'll break you a hundred different ways —

    She is far more beautiful than what he could ever deserve. The flowers that laced her antlers, the seafoam green of her eyes, and the way she looked at him like nothing else mattered. He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t deserve her, or any of it. But he was too selfish to leave her alone, and too selfish to let her be happy with anyone else. All he could do was try to not break her, but he cannot help but to think that he’s already failing.

    When she presses closer into him, he can feel that almost imperceptible shift in her heartbeat. He can feel that wildness trying to break past the softness that is her, and it stirs to life something he had tried to keep caged ever since he had met her. He grits his teeth against it for a long moment, listening to her quiet voice, keeping his touch light as he continues to skim across broken skin and glowing bone. He should answer her; he should have something meaningful and reassuring to say, but they both know he has never been good with words. I just want you, rings like an echo in his head, and any train of thought he may have had is reduced to dust.

    He has wanted to make her his, but he has always refrained.
    But he knows, with every ounce of him, that he was done holding back.

    There is a new hunger behind his touch now when he presses his lips to the top of her neck, when his lips drag past the tangled strands of her mane, following the curve of it until his caresses land on her shoulder. He moves then, their chests no longer touching but still pressed firmly to her side as his exploration continues further back. The slope of her withers, across the ridges of armor over her ribs, and the sensitive, wounded skin in between. He is still careful when he touches the broken, bleeding places; even as his lust fills him up and fogs his brain, there is a part of him that remembers to not hurt her, and he clings to that.

    He takes his time touching her, letting his lips linger in certain places, letting his breath fan across the expanse of her skin, and the feathers of his wings brush along her sides. Until he is at her flank, and his touch is following the curve of her hip, traveling down, down, down, until his lips find the delicate skin of her inner thigh. For a moment he closes his eyes, struggling inwardly to keep himself quiet. He has never paid much attention to the other mares that he took beneath him. He has never spent the time touching and exploring their bodies, he never paid attention to how they reacted to his touch, or if they even wanted him. But with her, he is hyperaware of everything; every breath, every sound she makes, the way her skin might flinch, or whether she moves away or towards him.

    When he finally cannot hold himself back any longer, he rises, gripping her carefully with his front legs. His teeth find the long locks of her mane, and with all the gentleness he can manage he pulls her back just as he sinks himself inside of her. The feel of her elicits a groan that rumbles from his chest, the sound lost in her neck, where his mouth rests against her skin. “Wonder,” he murmurs her name with a softness that is not usually there, reaching to press his lips again to her neck, and then along her spine. He is mindful of the way that he moves, slow and rocking,  and of how his legs are resting against the broken skin that borders the armor around her ribs. He tries to be careful, he tries to tame himself down to keep from hurting her, but eventually, he succumbs to his own selfish needs.

    His teeth again find her mane,  pulling her closer and holding her tighter as his thrusts become harder, more insistent. The silver of his skin darkens to a steel gray, his breath hot against her back, trying to fight off the mounting tension that is building inside of him. He has wanted her for so long, and there is a part of him that wants to make this last, that wants to push them both to the brink of what they can handle, until they are both dizzy and spiraling. He fights himself, for as long as he can, until that tension finally finds its release. He shudders and grips her harder, burying his face into her mane with a guttural groan, and for a long moment, he stays like this. His head rests against her shoulder, his dark eyes closed as he fights to steady his breathing, before he finally, slowly, slides from her.

    Wordlessly, he presses into her side, his skin still damp from exertion, his mind still clouded. He wants so badly to say something to her, to let her know everything that he feels, but the tangled web of emotions and feelings refuse to put themselves into words. And so all he can do is once more drape his neck over top of hers, and draw her close to his chest. His heart thuds against its cage, and finally, with his guard down, he murmurs quietly, “I am completely yours, Wonder.”

    — and I'll make you remember my face —


    She is a statue beneath his gentle explorations, frozen at first in a tremulous kind of uncertainty and then locked there again by a soft realization that turns her blood to feathers in her veins. “Nightlock,” she whispers, at once so fragile and so breathless, turning her head to watch him discover every inch of her body. Every ridge of stained bone, and the motes of raw skin around them, every strand of copper hair and even the ones that fade abruptly to bone white. She can’t close her eyes, can’t even blink for fear that doing so will disturb this moment, disturb the tension building between them that feels like anything but. She reaches for him, finds it so impossible to be still when his lips are so soft against her skin and every nerve ending is surging up like a heliotrope in the light of his sun.

    “Nightlock,” she whispers again, and the word is transforming on her lips, no longer a name but a prayer. She murmurs it against the silver of his hip, leaves it in a kiss over that point of bone beneath hard, lean muscle and then trails lower to leave more in the hollow below. She wants to give him more, wants to explore him as he explores her, claim every inch of this beautiful body with her smiles and her kisses and those lips curved in the shape of his name. But she’s trembling, breathing hard like her ribs are being crushed around her heart and everything is coming out in small gasps.

    Except it doesn’t hurt, this falling in love.
    And maybe that’s because she’s still too busy falling.

    His lips find her inner thigh and she bows her antlered brow so breathlessly, closing her eyes and tucking her nose against her own shoulder. She can feel the heat of her breath there, feel those little aching huffs that move her chest like the swell of crashing waves on the shore. She feels entirely weightless, feels untethered by his touch until it is all she is aware of, all she knows - until his weight settles against her back and she is undone by him.

    She cries out softly when he pulls her back into the curve of his hips, cries out again when he sinks inside her and her body spasms painfully around him. “Nightlock,” she says again, more whimper than whisper as she eases back into the crook of his body. She is surprised by the pain though, turns her head until those delicate lips find the leg that grips her side so carefully, until she feels his mouth against her neck, against her spine. Hears him murmur her name against her shoulder with a groan that sends electricity humming beneath her skin, makes her forget all about the stinging pain. In its place something else builds inside her, a half-lidded haziness that grows with each thrust, each squeeze of his legs pulling her back and into him.

    And then it’s more, like something is building in him, too. Like this hazy pleasure coursing sunshine through her veins in spilling into him. She gasps, huffs softly against each thrust until her voice is a knot in her chest and the sound on her lips is a breathless mewling she can barely hold inside. There are no more wasted seconds on worries that she isn’t good enough, isn’t beautiful enough. That these bones and this blood and the weight on her shoulders makes her something he could never love so openly. They are things that seem silly now, so unimportant compared to everything else.

    She cries out again, soft and aching at the tension building between her hips as he grips her mane and drags her back beneath him again and again, at the way sunshine turns to ecstacy, a world awash in light and fire. She isn’t aware of the markings the race up along her back, bright gold rosettes that gleam like ore buried in the copper of her skin, isn’t aware of anything but the moment that they race towards together until they are falling, falling, and she is a symphony of soft sound as her body tightens in waves of spasming pleasure around him.

    When he lays his head against her shoulder, she turns her face to him, brushes endless kisses across his nose and his face and the soft whorl beneath his forelock. Anything she can reach until he dismounts and she can reach everything, can press in against his side and remember the beautiful weight of him against her back, the ecstacy of pain and wild pleasure he sowed so carefully inside her. The ragged way she breathes makes it impossible to say anything, but she doesn’t need words to tell him she loves him, doesn’t have to say it for him to understand. He moves to hold her again and she all but pushes beneath his neck to claim her place against his chest, against the beautiful heart that beats her favorite song. She feels his lungs move, feels him take a breath to speak, but the words that fall like stardust on her ears nearly blow her away.

    I am completely yours, Wonder.

    She blinks, her breathing no less ragged than it was in the moments before as she tries to make sense of such an impossible declaration - something that feels too big for where it settles in her chest, carving a home out. But in doing so it frees the words that must have been trapped there because they surge to the lips she presses to the hollow of his mouth as if they’ve always been meant for there. “And I’m yours, Nightlock. Always.”

    She kisses his mouth and his jaw, traces a line of them down his throat as though each faded silver dapple is meant just to hold them. When she moves to press her lips to the steady beat of his heart, something inside her stirs. A thought or a feeling, a memory of the future. She pauses, leans closer to close her teeth over the sensitive skin there, and then soothes it with another kiss. But that pull is still there, like a tether in her chest knotted and strong and binding her to him, binding them by the deep feelings they share together. She inhales sharply, pushes her nose against his chest and closes her eyes because something tells her she must. An impulse that feels like a moment remembered. A moment from the future.

    “I love you.” She says, and the confession (the promise) lurches from the lips she presses to his heart to bury itself in the silver and faded-steel dapples. When she opens her eyes again, shades of teal ocean-tides and impossible skies, she finds the image of her flower-wreathed antlers settled amidst the gray of his chest. She blinks, stunned and, though she cannot possibly explain it, so immensely satisfied. She touches her lips to it, tastes the sweetness of his skin as though doing so might share its secrets with her. But instead all she feels is a blossoming warmth over her own chest, a heat that pin-wheels in soft cobwebs over that bright copper skin. When she looks to see what that feeling is, she finds the image of Nightlock’s wings unfurled in all their feathered beauty across her chest.

    i am brambles but i am tangled in your love


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