"“Content to admire you from afar.” Well that’s just bullshit. She wasn’t *content* to be admired from afar. She would rather not see him at all then be tortured by a buffered distance." --Mazikeen, written by Squirt
Help me out before I drown Save me now before I give up
A lot of cats had been let out of a lot of bags during the Midsummer Festival.
He had done a pretty terrible job of hiding his bear, overcome by the snow and the bears instinct to be one with its environment. Oceane has turned out to be Loess’s Queen which probably wasn’t a big secret to anyone else but to him had been a little shock. When he looks back on their first meeting, all the signs were there. The sure footed confidence, the regal air about her, they way she knowingly laughed when he had tried to evade her offer. Everything about her screamed monarchy, reminding him of the rulers he had once known before. In fact, when he really thinks way back, he can see a little Joelle in her. A true Queen, his fathers infamous lover, and although she hadn’t been thrilled with Ledger’s presence she had never been rude or unkind to him. She had always been what he thought Queens were suppose to be.
It seemed pointless now to not go to Loess. To not at least see the cave that she had spoken about. There was still an elephant hanging in the room so to speak, for his shifting wasn’t the complete secret. He knows if he is to stay here that he should tell her about the mental illness, of his anxiety and temper, of what had happened in the past. On the way to her kingdom, he tries. And fails. Each time the words start to rise, his tongue became thick and his mouth became insanely dry. The anxiety rose and only wavered when he finally gave up. He just couldn’t do it. Not now.
He wonders what she thinks of him. This mess of a stallion that she had somehow took pity on and brought home like a dirty stray (his assumption of course). It’s not a great feeling and it jolts him, realizing just how far his confidence and self-esteem had fallen. The muscles in his jaw seem to tense as he continues to spiral in his own head. Doubt creeping back into his mind, recalling it might be better to just disappear again. He couldn’t be hurt that way and he couldn’t hurt others either if he just didn’t exist. Despite the stormy thoughts that swarm him, one hoof steps in front of another and eventually they make it to Loess as a twilight sky spreads itself over the land, casting it in hues of soft purple and blue. Making everything in Loess’s dimming light look the same shade of color as it’s Queen.
The climate here is cooler with the autumn season but not as pleasant to him as the cold arctic chill of the Isle they had come from. The view however is stunning, rocky hilled mountains and deep carved sandstone canyons. He even catches ferns and vines that remind him of the old Amazonian jungle. The summers were sure to be rough for him but the nights at least would always be cold. Glowing blue flowers begin to illuminate as the sun sinks and he takes a slow deep breath in as he surveys it all through his one good eye.
There had been many places he had called home but none had ever seemed to fit or feel right. Not even in the black sands of Tephra with Ellyse or the Gate’s beloved tree (that had burned because he hadn’t been there to stop it and the old shame and anxiety comes flooding right back) Something does feel different here though. When he looks at this land, when he looks at her, he feels that hope fluttering again around his chest. The strange light yet heavy weight of glass reminding him that it could only be fleeting. Slowly he exhales again, nostrils flaring as he takes it all in and finally breaks the silence between them. “Where’s this cave you want to stash me in?” A slight smile given as he tries to joke but he is still wary and his apprehensiveness of this situation still lays as a heavy burden across his shoulders.
Oceane had been surprised, albeit minimally, when Ledger had decided to follow her home to the foothills. They had departed the Isle together, the Loessian Queen airborne until they reached the mainland to avoid dousing her feathered wings in saltwater. Once safely over the sea, she had landed with practiced grace upon the earth and walked leisurely with the polar bear shifter the rest of the way.
If anything, Leilan's Midsummer Fair had been an enlightening experience, but the opaline woman couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else hiding beneath Ledger's protective exterior. Certainly he knew she had interacted, as had many in Beqanna, with shifters on a fairly regular basis, but she doesn't rule out the idea that his inner-bear had once ruled him in much the same way Castile's dragon had, at the height of his downfall.
She tucks the idea away for later and makes simple small talk with the flaxen man as they make their journey, entirely oblivious to his concerns about being a burden and filling him in on the politics of Loess, aptly avoiding the topic of her sons and Soran in the process. They had all turned out to be nomads, it seemed - and although Alcinder's scent had still been detectable on the winds of Icicle Isle, she still hadn't seen him when they were there, leaving the winged woman feeling a tad melancholic.
Her favorite blue flowers have begun to glow by the time they reach the comfortably familiar confines of Loess, welcoming her home with their bioluminescent blooms. “Let's go,” she laughs under her breath and rolls her amber eyes mockingly at Ledger's comment as she turns towards the north, guiding him easily towards Loess' larger canyons. As the sky continues to darken and thoughts of the Long Night rise unbidden in her head, Oceane finds herself plunged in a cold sweat, fearful that the sun may not rise again the next day.
When she speaks to Ledger again, her voice is tight with discomfort, but still warm in the presence of her new acquaintance. “You're welcome to explore all of Loess and the Southern kingdom, of course, but I suggest these canyons if you prefer your privacy.” The dry brush and hardened dirt turn to sandstone as they navigate the canyons in the dark, Oceane well practiced at finding her way through the familiar pathways. She leads him to the same place Lepis had first introduced her - a small cove with tall sandstone walls and its own basin where the canyon's winding river empties itself.
“Those shrubs are actually prickly pear bushes, though it may be too late in the season for the fruit.” Her lavender nose motions towards the low-lying foliage that grows around a gnarled fallen tree whose upper branches rest in the shallows of the pond, “There are quite a few caves in this area. And any wildlife you may come across are friendly, so please leave them be.” The snakes who call Loess home had been kind enough to assist Oceane and the other residents in the midst of the sun's absence, utilizing their infrared vision to help the equine navigate. It had been, perhaps, the most useful her zoolingualism had ever been - and since then, she'd come to an understanding with all of Loess' wildlife that her people would be unharmed by the predators as long as they, themselves, were unharmed.
“There are fish in the main river, though, that you may hunt if your alter ego is craving something more than fruit, grass, and berries.” She grins at him knowingly before falling into silence and waiting expectantly for the questions she's sure will come.
Help me out before I drown Save me now before I give up
It had been a strange feeling, shifting into his bear before her to cross the sea. After hiding it for so long, he hasn’t quite gotten over the shame of what he was even though he had finally made peace with it. He hadn’t been the most graceful swimmer either, his bear was clumsy in the churning waters after years of being unused. He’s quite thankful for her wings that keep her high in the sky and unable to watch his awkward ursine paws drag through the currents. Making sure to shift back into himself the moment he touches the shore again.
Oceane takes his silence in stride, filling it instead with updated politics of her kingdom. Names he doesn’t recognize occupy her ranks, her alliances, her enemies. As she talks, warm and amiably, that weird sensation caresses the cold glass of his heart. It’s a feeling that seems to glide across the crystal as if searching for a way to penetrate it, as if it might worm through the crack that was left at Ellyse’s betrayal. The thought of her instantly chases away whatever he had been feeling, replacing it with the old heat of flared anger and pain that burns with familiarity beneath the ragged X on his chest. His gaze darkens momentarily then forces her out of his head and focuses back on the opaline mare as she laughs and guides him through the canyons.
The Eclipse had not effected him as badly as it had others. He had always been hunted by monsters, they wore many faces, and with the help of the bear he was able to get through physically unscathed and no more emotionally affected than he already was. The trauma from his past was scarier than anything with gnashing teeth and claws. However he catches the sudden scent of sweat that breaks on her skin as the night grows cooler and his gaze narrows as her voice tightens despite seeming just as calm and collected as she always was. He looks around their surroundings again and for a moment he questions, as the sun fades behind the sandy crest of the canyon, if she was afraid of the dark. He thinks of the long nights spent awake avoiding sleep and wonders if perhaps they had something in common after all.
Pale strands of moonlight soon take the place of the fallen sun, illuminating the world she describes to him as they come to a halt in the cove. The gentle lap of the surf brings him back to the black sands of Tephra and he cannot stop the reactive snap of his tail against the soft glowing brand on his haunch as his anxiety begins to push heavily against his stomach like a weighted stone. Despite the haunted memory that frays at the edge of his mind, he can appreciate the beauty of this place. It was calm, secluded, and exactly what he needed. He should be safe here and in return others would be safe from his absence.
And still…. Still he’s hesitant. Not because he doesn’t want to be here but there’s a part of him that’s tired of hiding. Tired of pretending that he doesn’t exist. That whisper of hope floats through him, that maybe this was the first step in learning how to control all that anger, shame, and pain. Maybe he was worthy of redemption after all. His own self loathing is quick to return but the thought lingers longer than it usually does.
He’s been awfully quiet as he takes it all in. Not looking at her as he drinks in the actual possibilities of this place. When he finally does, there’s a softness to the hard ragged lines of his ravaged face and a warmth flickering in the gold flecks of his eye. He had never tried to eat or hunt as the bear, had always been too ashamed and disgusted with his ability. However the way Oceane addresses it as if it was normal makes him feel a little less self-conscious, maybe he would try it. Just to see. “I’ll do my best to not eat your friends.” He says solemnly although there’s a small smile curling at the end of his mouth. “What did the fish do to escape your protection?”
There’s another small pause as he looks back to where the tide flows back into the Oceane and his voice is low and husky as he finally speaks again, the empty socket turned to her. “I still don’t know why you’ve gone through the trouble… But I am grateful Oceane. I suppose I'm in your debt.” She does not come off as a ruthless ruler but she is a ruler regardless. Although she had been nothing but kind to him, it wouldn't be the first time a kingdom had tried to manipulate his bear in their favor. He hopes she will not ask him of this, hopes he hasn't misjudged her kindness for cunniningness. Pushing past those concerns, he focuses on a different one. Hesitating, keeping the good eye to the distance as he asks quietly, “Will you tell the others about me?”
The darkness in itself, and despite how very long it had stretched, had not scared Oceane. What had truly made it impossible for her to sleep was the possibility for dreadful things to happen to Loess and those who call it home. Countless nights had come and gone where she had been so sure that Breach (much more suited for the darkness than Oceane was, that one) was on her way with her pack to draw blood for Oceane's actions.
And so sure was she, when finally she was able to sleep, that she would awaken at the tail end of a nightmare to the presence of a Nau-Aibian arithmancer from her past only to fall into their torturous clutches once again. The dark can hide many things, she had come to learn, and the worst of all were her very own thoughts.
She tries to loosen the muscles at her shoulder and the tightness in her jaw as she continues to engage Ledger in a conversation about the canyons they have now arrived in, but her body will not listen and perhaps, without realizing, she is feeding off the anxiety that her companion now exudes. Fortunately, and despite his own nerves, Ledger still finds an opening for banter and the Loessian Queen responds with a genuine bout of laughter that seems to echo against the carmine canyon walls.
“I can't talk to them the same way I can talk to the other animals,” she answers truthfully, revealing the nature of her own magic, “Which... isn't the best reason, but I suppose it makes them seem less sentient.” She realizes as she says it that her rationale could seem barbaric, prompting an awkward and dismissive clearing of her throat as she turns her amber eyes to the flaxen chestnut who stands illuminated by the moon and the bioluminescent flowers alike.
She doesn't miss the way he keeps his own gaze turned from her, though any worry she feels regarding her response is soon brushed away as the man begins to offer his thanks. Respectfully, the opaline woman allows him to finished speaking but when he does she simply offers him the response she would have hoped to hear all those years ago, when she'd first run away from home. “There is no debt to be repaid.” She hopes he can hear the truth in her words and in the cadence of her dismissiveness. “What are we, without community? We all deserve to feel part of something without the weight of obligation or debts owed upon our shoulders.”
She falls silent beside him then, listening to the sounds of Loess with contentment. Ledger's question feels sudden, catching the sovereign unaware, but after a moment of thought she answers. “Not fully. They deserve to know we have someone new in our midst, though I will tell them you prefer your privacy. Your ability to shift is your information to share if you choose,” she assures him before waiting to see if his one-eyed gaze will meet hers again.
Help me out before I drown Save me now before I give up
The sound of her laughter rings off the shadowed walls of the canyons and he wishes he could store that sound away in a box. Something he could open to chase away the demons that creep into his head and keep the nightmares at bay. He had suspected she could talk to animals that day in the Meadow but she confirms his theory now and he merely smiles at her as she considers the fish, catches the moment of what seems almost like guilt. “I understand. If it helps, I prefer my herbivore diet and can keep the fishing to a minimum.” The truth is that he’s never hunted at all but she hadn’t seemed perturbed by the thought originally and didn’t feel the need to correct it. There is something about the twilight mare that’s gotten under his skin. She doesn’t look at his wounds and brands with disgust or fear, there’s no pity in her gaze. She hadn’t even flinched when she had approached his bear. She treats him as if he was perfectly normal and he can’t remember the last time anyone else had done so.
When he and Ellyse had found each other, they had both been broken. The difference was that he could freely admit it while she constantly denied it. The red flags had been there from the beginning, she had been his father’s lover for gods sake. It had happened so fast and he had been so desperate for someone who might understand him, craving love like an addict only to fall for someone who battled their own addiction. It was hard to see the flaws and cracks in the relationship when he had never truly had one before, had no idea what to really base it on. If he had been more honest with himself then he would have admitted that they were doomed from the start. Two broken people can’t try and fix each other. He was never going to be Magnus and it had never been fair for her to try and make him so, it had been the elephant that they never spoke about but always lurked just behind the facade of happiness. The more he tried to hold on to her, the more she lied and denied to him and herself. He had known that her heart belonged to Dahmer long before she realized it herself, all the while claiming it belonged to him.
Knowing Oceane now, it's almost funny that he had ever mistaken the two. It had been her wings that had triggered those memories. But when he gazes at them, soft feathery blue, he doesn’t see Ellyse anymore. His dark eye studies her now, taking in the soft glow at the tips of her wings and knows that the brand on his chest and flank are probably bright with luminescence as well as the darkness settles in. The light of the moon caress the lines of her face and he can’t help but think just how wrong he had been before. There was a subtle strength in Oceane. She carried the weight of her kingdom and whatever secrets of her personal life with grace and dignity. He’s drawn to her like a moth to the flame.
The thoughts are pushed away viciously, shaking his head lightly and tossing his snowy forelock to the side. He had no heart to give, Carnage had seen to that. The price was far too high to try and get it back and nobody would want a glass heart that could not beat or feel the way it was suppose to. How was he to give that to somebody else and ask for theirs in exchange? Love was dangerous and cruel and could quite literally kill him if the crystal in his chest continued to shatter or crack. He doesn’t know why, why he feels these strange sensations in his ravaged chest when he’s around her. No, it was pointless to feel anything at all. All he can offer is a cautious friendship at best, he does not deserve more than that and she had already proved she was worthy of much more than he could ever give. If she wasn’t spoken for already, it would be surprising if she wasn’t.
When he speaks of debt, she quickly brushes it away and he can’t help but look back at her. Deep in his gut, he had expected as much but it was nice to be proven right regardless. “You’ll go far if you always hold on to that. I’ve watched many kingdoms crash and burn but most lacked your common sense.” He murmurs softly, studying her expression and giving a slight nod of his muzzle in acknowledgment of being released from obligation. Slowly his muscles begin to relax, the tension slowly releasing as he grows accustomed to the sounds of Loess and the soft sound of her breathing.
He looks back out to the now dark sea and the pregnant moon that hangs above it as she speaks again. As she speaks of his shifting. He knows he needs to tell her the full truth but his chest constricts and his stomach churns, the panic rising in his throat. “It’s not just the bear.” He finally manages, his voice more raspy as his mouth goes dry. Unable to look at her. He tries to get the words out but they refuse to budge. After a minute or so he manages to say quietly, “It’s difficult to explain. Hard to talk about.”
It’s not a fair enough warning but it’s all he can manage as he remembers the way his claws had raked over his own chest, over a branded X that could never be removed. Remembers charging at the child that had never asked to be a part of their drama. Remembers hurting an innocent by accident when he had been newly transformed. Remembers the dark cell, his father dead at his hands, Adaline is now screaming and shattering, and Carnage laughs softly as Ellyse and Dahmer curl into each other for comfort. It's overwhelming and his ears lace back, becoming hidden in the tangles of bleached hair. His breath comes sharp and quick and he steps away from Oceane as the panic lodges firmly within him, trying to hide the shame of his condition as he steps into the water until it laps against his belly, fanning the strands of his flaxen tail behind him like a bristled paintbrush. The one eyed man tries his best to let the water soothe away the weight in the pit of his stomach as he struggles to gain control again, struggles to calm his breathing and the rigidness that seizes his muscles.
Oceane is thankful when Ledger takes her explanation regarding the fish in stride ─ where he could have goaded her into feeling guiltier, he instead reassures her that he prefers a herbivorous diet. And whether or not that’s the truth or a simple white lie to settle her emotions, she appreciates his thoughtfulness nonetheless and offers him a sheepish smile in an attempt to wordlessly say as much. Suddenly struck with the notion that the random stranger she had happened upon hiding beneath a far-reaching willow in the Meadow has turned out to be much more amiable than originally anticipated, Oceane emits a brief and pensive hum.
Castile had possessed a voracious appetite, but it has been years now since the opaline woman had seen his massive shadow streak against the dry earth as he plummeted with tucked wyvern wings, only to rise back up into the sky with his ungulate quarry wrapped tightly in gargantuan, whetted claws. Her stomach could probably not handle such shrieking these days, though thankfully the waterbound vertebrates Ledger may partake in go unheard by Oceane’s zoolingualism.
She wonders, momentarily, what has become of the dragon king. Perhaps he had succumbed to his predatory-self long ago. He certainly had not been the type to hide for shame of his actions, so the only conclusion Oceane can draw is that there is nothing equine left to her former lover.
Soran is another story altogether ─ though troubled just the same. And when he had bid her farewell all those months ago, there was something in his eyes that made Oceane feel as if it would be the last time she would see him. It’s for him that her heart still lingers, though less so with each passing day. Love has never been the end-all-be-all for the Loessian Queen. Perhaps it’s a flaw ingrained in her, a product of her native land. Love is nice and lovely to possess, surely, but it has never provided her with fulfillment in the same way that her own achievements or explorations have.
When Ledger speaks again, it tugs her from one type of reverie and into another. Her smile remains, though perhaps he cannot see the melancholy that lingers within it now. “Truthfully,” she begins hesitantly but finds that she is comfortable enough to share this small tidbit, “I’m just trying to create something that I was never able to find in my motherland.”
She shares nothing else with him regarding this. It's more than she'd ever shared with anyone other than Soran.
Averting her eyes from his to avoid the feeling of vulnerability she finds blooming within her suddenly, Oceane's amber eyes focus on the glowing brand across the man's chest. She hadn't noticed it in the Meadow on Icicle Isle, but it hadn't been glowing there either.
The temperature of their conversation drops suddenly as Ledger tries to find words that refuse to spill. When he does speak, there is no mistaking the panic in his voice. Instinctively, Oceane's ears lay back and her amber eyes dart with agitation to the surrounding area, but when she realizes that Ledger has begun to speak again she settles and tells her attention back to him. “Ledger,” her own voice comes as a whisper as he sloshes into the basin. She follows to the edge of the water, taking a few strides tentatively until it laps at her hooves.
“Ledger,” she says again, this time calmly as her own ears find their way forward once more, “I don't need you to talk about it until you feel like you can.” She pauses for a moment, her concerned amber eyes searching for signs that he might hyperventilate and drown himself in the pool. “Tell me bits and pieces, when you can. And in the meantime, just give me your word that whatever it is you need to tell me won't harm you or the other Loessians.”
Help me out before I drown Save me now before I give up
He should have asked her what her vision was for Loess. What had been missing from her homeland. It would have been a better option, to find out more about her instead of trying to talk about himself. A question he would have to ask another day as the panic closes around his throat. He can hear his name, a soft whisper on her lips and a shiver ripples through him because it’s not Oceane’s voice. The muscles in his jaw tighten, teeth gritted against the onslaught of his anguish.
When she calls his name again, he clearly hears the twilight mare. It’s enough to start counting his breaths, allows him to refocus as he hones in on her words. Unable to form any of his own as the anxiety peaks. She wants a promise that he can’t make or keep. It had been foolish to think he could ever be part of society again. Already seeing this cove and this new friendship with Oceane slipping through his fingers. Her first priority was her home and her people, not a random vagabond she had found by chance. He doesn’t begrudge her that. In fact it only makes him respect her more. But now he knows this was a mistake, coming here and preying on her kindness had been a mistake. Holding on to hope had been a mistake.
“I can’t.” He finally manages after a few minutes have passed and he can breathe normally again. Turning himself to face her, water sloshing gently against his limbs as he comes slightly out of the surf. “I can’t promise that. I want to but I will not lie to you Oceane.” The weariness that follows the anxiety attack settles along the ridges of his face. Maybe it’s because he already failed to avoid the distress of his disorder or because he knows that all this is a lost cause anyways. Whatever it is loosens something within him just enough. “I would never hurt anyone intentionally. I don’t want to hurt anyone…or myself.” Not anymore.
He hesitates, trying to find the right things to say. “I had a… breakdown. After Carnage released me again.” His voice grows husky in remembrance, not even seeing Oceane before him anymore. Just the cell. Carnage. Ellyse, bleeding and wide eyed as he ripped himself apart, his blood splattering against black sand. The cries of his lost children in the distance. The failure. “I lost control.” He whispers, his gaze looking through her. “Sometimes I still hear and see things. Sometimes the anger is too much. I’ve been trying and it’s gotten better but…” He wasn’t fixed. He wasn’t fixable. How does he tell her that he goes for days without sleep because he fears his dreams or his mind refuses to release him? How can he explain what it had been like, living in Carnage’s cell (not once but twice) and being faced with the betrayal that broke his heart into a million pieces? How can she ever understand what it was like to live the life he had lived, one of constant rejection, abandonment, and pain?
It’s resignation that underlines his voice as he turns his gaze towards the cavern mouth beyond her. To the home he might have had. “You have a home to protect and people you love. I understand if I can’t be a part of that.”
She doesn’t move to his side to comfort him the way a lover or a close friend might, instead maintaining distance ─ the water licks at her turquoise hooves upon the bank while he rests belly-deep in the cool waters ─ despite the compassion that rings true in her soft, whispered voice. No stranger to the tightening of the chest or the way air seems to refuse to fill the lungs, Oceane had fallen victim to relentless and overwhelming anxiety attacks in her past, and to have someone invade her space to comfort her had always felt more suffocating than helpful.
And so she waits until finally Ledger’s breathing slows and his singular eye is turned in her direction before she gives him a small, encouraging smile ─ but his looks towards her hollowly, fixating on something beyond her that only his mind’s eye can see as he begins to tell her what he can without plummeting again into panic. Oceane is silent and still, lest any movement on her part distracts him from continuing or interrupts his train of thought, and with each passing moment her heart begins to ache for the man before her, at the resignation in his voice.
At the hopelessness that permeates from him and his words.
“Rest,” she says finally, her voice still soft at the edges despite taking a tone that gives him no other option but to concede, “for a few days. Allow yourself to be comfortable, and then we can see how you’re feeling.” Oceane does not retract her offer to allow him sanctuary in the northern canyons, and she’s suddenly struck with the bemusing notion that she has always possessed an affinity for those who may need to be coaxed towards permitting themselves happiness.
“You’re still welcome here, Ledger. But as I told you before, I will not beg you. The choice is yours, though I hope you decide to stay.”
It’s what would be best for him, after all.
“Sleep now, and we can chat after you’ve settled.”
She smiles tentatively before extending her luminescent wings, though she hesitates for a moment in case he has something else to say.
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