Canach is still not used to the arid desert air. Even what little dew settles on the ground in the early morning evaporates in minutes when the sun crests above the horizon.
The days are long and hot and endless, and he regrets needing heavy armor to feel equipped to fight the way he does, especially given how closely he works with explosives. The bark armor weighs him down relentlessly, and though he doesn’t sweat quite the same way a human would, he does sweat, and the sticky sap against his armor only adds to his discomfort.
Suffice it to say, he hates it here.
His time in the desert is made bearable only by a few things. One: people in Amnoon are ridiculously easy to cheat out of their money. Two: no one here knows who he is or what he’s done, and to be without one’s reputation is possibly the sweetest feeling he never knew he craved.
Thirdly, the Commander has taken to wearing the vestments of the locals, and while Canach doesn’t consider himself to be a particularly lascivious man, there is something to be said for the pleasant enjoyment of someone handsome putting themselves quite clearly on display. That Cillian manages to stay cool despite the oppressive heat is only an added bonus.
So there are things to get him through the miserable days, fine. But the nights? The nights are an altogether different story.
The vast expanse of stars is unlike anything he’s ever seen, even in the seclusion of Southsun’s sandy beaches. Tyria is home to many gorgeous vistas, that much is sure, though he himself quickly tired of the supposed natural wonder of the Grove. Caledon Forest holds many splendors for those not rooted to it by birth, and for all he cares, they are welcome to it. The Shiverpeaks are cold, the cities are easy enough to disappear into (or at least, they were, once upon a time). Of course there are merits and downfalls to every place that he’s been.
But the stars, the stars? He feels as though he had never seen them before he stepped foot into the Crystal Desert.
He doesn’t need help to get through the nights. His hypervigilance has found pleasant company among the bitter winds and empty skies. When he wakes up, inevitably, after the shortest of naps, he makes it a point to check on the raptors and walk the perimeter of camp, excusing it as a patrol when, really, it’s just another reason to sit and stare up at the stars.
And so, it is another sleepless night in the desert.
They are close enough to Amnoon to not justify a rigorous watch schedule, so he doesn’t exactly have to pace around and check on the raptors, but Rytlock snores like a damned dolyak anyway, so any distance he can put between himself and the rest of the tents is a blessing.
He slips out of his tent quickly enough–there’s no need for all his usual armor and weaponry when he’s just making a round. If he just so happens to sit and nap with the raptors, their fangs and claws will make short work of any invaders adequately enough.
Canach shakes his head to himself as he stretches and rolls his shoulders. The mental gymnastics he takes so as to justify his lowered guard...if his past self could see him now, he’s sure he’d be disappointed.
But freedom has a way of dulling a blade. Or, well, not dulling, but honing only to the extent that it is needed. He doesn’t consider himself any less aware, or any less capable, but he is so fundamentally less on edge that even his breaths feel deeper, his blinking slower. He can go a moment or two without looking over his shoulder, or stopping to listen for an inevitable dagger slicing towards him. He’s still not quite used to it.
His head fills in the gaps where it can. Where he used to look for dangers, he finds details instead. The light chuffing of the raptors as they twitch and resettle amongst themselves. The silence of some crickets as he passes by their tuft of grass, only to start up again once he is safely out of reach. A thousand little moments to observe, and not all of them out to kill him.
He scoffs. He’s getting soft.
Cillian’s influence, no doubt. How it came to be that the killer of two elder dragons managed to make him softer is a mystery in its own right, but there was just something about that damned human that made him stop, sometimes. Made him shut up and listen, not for the sake of finding a weakness he could later exploit, not for the purpose of a witty retort aimed to harm or hinder, but simply for the sake of, well, listening.
When he glances over at the commander’s tent, he blinks, surprised. A soft yellow glow shines out between the tent flaps that flutter in the breeze.
Immediately, he stalks over. Slowly enough so that it doesn’t sound deliberate, of course; just a wayward nightly stroll that happened to lead over by this particular tent. He stands nearby enough so as to not cast a shadow, but close enough to hear...nothing. No battle plan conversation with Taimi, nothing at all, except...a faint scratching, meticulous and repetitive. Writing?
Canach considers turning around, minding his own business and letting whatever nightly routines the commander has play out on their own time. But then the scratching stops.
So he takes a deep breath, strides toward the tent, and pokes his head in through the flaps.
“Can’t sleep, Commander?”
“Hmm? Oh, hello.” Cillian glances up briefly, the slightest of acknowledgements, before returning to his writing. There are papers strewn all over the floor of the tent, some in careful stacks and others spread out with small rocks holding them down upon the canvas. The bedroll is still rolled up, being used as a backrest, and Cillian’s made use of his pack as a makeshift desk that rests upon his lap.
Canach frowns and tries again.
“You know, there’s plenty of sayings regarding the early bird getting the worm, Commander, but I don’t quite think it counts if you simply stay awake until dawn.”
Another hum of acknowledgment from the man, though this time, punctuated with a small smile. For some reason, Canach takes that as a victory.
“So tell me,” he continues, “what is so important in these papers of yours?” He walks fully into the tent, now, choosing not to press the issue of insomnia any further. They both have their own reasons. They always have.
“Oh, nothing special. Mostly outpost reports I’m organizing. Logan still sends me Pact information so I can be aware of some details. Not quite the minutiae of troop movements, but information here and there.” He stifles a yawn and leans back against the bedroll.
“Hmm.” Canach doesn’t ask, simply leans down to pick up one of the papers and observe it closer. He’s half expecting a protest—this whole...whatever-it-is they have is built on banter, protests, and a pointed ignorance of their respective elephants in the room and skeletons in the closet, after all—but Cillian doesn’t say a word. He just sighs, and stares up at the top of the tent.
Upon seeing the entirely empty page, it clicks. Canach blames his exhaustion.
“You should know better than most, Commander, that of all people I am not particularly fond of mesmer tricks. Nor am I blind to them.” He crumples up the paper and tosses it at Cillian’s face, hitting him in the eye.
This elicits a bark of a laugh from the man who, while laughing, dissolves into dozens of sparkling purple butterflies until there is only a single one left. The space of the tent smells of mesmer magic, of flowers and trees and sweet things. The tiny purple butterfly hovers neatly in the center of it all.
“Of all the people to stumble into my tent, I suppose it had to be you.” Cillian’s voice sounds close, as though from the butterfly itself, but there is still a distance to it, as if he were speaking through a pillow.
I didn’t stumble , Canach thinks. I sought you out. Though of course he doesn’t bother to correct him.
“Well,” he says instead, “where might you be, then? Actually.”
There is something so deeply comical about the small butterfly sighing in the most resigned of ways that Canach can’t help but to chuckle.
“Follow me,” it says sleepily, flapping towards the tent’s exit. Canach does, more eagerly than he’d like to admit, but not before extinguishing the lanterns on his way out.
The walk takes longer than he expected, somewhere around ten minutes. In that time, the butterfly says nothing more, and Canach doesn’t try to make conversation. Eventually, the insect slows down, and by its faint purple light he can see its destination. The commander sits near the edge of the plateau they’d chosen to make camp on, propped up against a rock. Even from a distance he looks haggard, his hair disheveled, his more flashy robes abandoned for some warmer layers in the night. The butterfly returns to him and he dances it around his hand, twirling it between his fingers like a delicate coin. There is a flash of brilliant violet light as the butterfly shatters, and in the silence that follows, Canach lets his eyes fully adjust to the darkness.
It is a half moon, and the stars shine mostly unhindered, though he cares not to look at them now. Suddenly, they seem so deeply unimportant, aside from their gentle light with which he can see the commander clearer.
Cillian had been crying. In the moonlight Canach can only just make out his swollen eyes, the redness of his cheeks, the glimmer of tears still in his eyes. Not to mention the comical disaster masquerading as his hair.
Canach takes a hesitant step forward, then another, and Cillian scoots over to give him some room to lean against the rock as well. Grateful for the invitation, he sits down. Close enough to make out the man’s silhouette, close enough that, were he insane, he could perhaps reach out to touch him, console him in some way.
“I don’t mind the darkness,” Cillian finally says, by way of explanation.
“Avoiding being seen does usually work best at night, though I’ve never taken you for the skulking type.”
Closer now, his eyes finally adjusted, Canach can take in the rest of the scene. Caladbolg rests in front of them, carefully laid across a folded blanket. Cilllian hugs himself for warmth.
All at once, Canach catches himself as a hundred words bubble up in his throat and threaten to spill out. You’re incredible , he thinks, and bites down on the inside of his cheek. You’re powerful, beautiful, humbling. Kind and generous and compassionate. Everything I can’t be. Wouldn’t want to be, not when you’re right there, doing it better. It boils in his chest, this sudden wave of fondness, flutters and flits against his ribs like a thousand butterflies so desperate for air.
He imagines them dying one by one, falling deathly still in the cold grip of night, and the thoughts subside. It was all too trite, anyway. He wasn’t the sylvari on the commander’s mind.
At that revelation, an involuntary shiver courses through him and he hides it by crossing his arms.
“You’re cold,” Cillian states. He’s been watching him this whole time, Canach realizes, and he curses himself for not noticing sooner.
“I am perfectly fine, I’ll have you know.”
“No, your glow dimmed—nevermind, here.” Cillian reaches for the blanket where Caladbolg is resting and tugs it out from beneath the greatsword. With practiced delicacy, he then settles the sword gently on the sand.
Watching the way Cillian fetches the blanket with no hesitation, Canach can tell he’s glowing bright and fierce again, the warmth of his blush overtaking him.
When Cillian turns back around with the blanket, his concerned frown quickly morphs into a smirk.
“Well,” he says, “I guess your glow just seemed dimmer before. Come here.”
“Canach, please. What kind of a commander would I be if I let my guildmates freeze?”
“It’d make you a commander instead of a mother hen,” Canach scoffs. He is protesting, though not in earnest; just the right amount against something that secretly delights him. That was their dance, after all, their mutual denial of this...whatever-it-was, and Canach wasn’t going to be the first one to miss a step. When Cillian merely rolls his eyes and moves closer, wrapping the blanket over both their shoulders, Canach grumbles under his breath to keep up the charade.
He opens his mouth for another retort, but when Cillian settles his head against his shoulder, the words die in his throat. Cillian slumps a little lower, relinquishing every bit of his usual grace and bravado. He heaves a deep sigh and starts scratching idly in the sand. Canach frowns.
“How long has it been since you got any sleep?”
Cillian shrugs. “Recently enough.”
Canach grabs his chin and turns it to face him. Under close scrutiny, with the faint light from his orange glow, Canach can make out the dark circles beneath Cillian’s eyes. He’s not surprised he missed it in the daylight, since the man’s normally wearing his mesmer mask. The commander blinks, surprised. It takes him longer than usual to plaster on a smile.
“What, do I have something on my face?” He grins.
Canach says nothing, just hums in displeasure.
“Fine. Maybe three days,” Cillian admits.
Cillian scoffs. “No, don’t call me that,” he demands. At first he holds Canach’s gaze with a level stare, but slowly, ever so slowly, he tears his violet eyes away. Softer, this time, he begs. “Please don’t call me that.”
Canach frowns and lets out a long breath through his nose. He realizes with embarrassing clarity that his hand is still cupping Cillian’s face. He shifts to move away, but then Cillian moves with it, leaning into his hand ever so slightly, and that’s all it takes to root Canach to the spot.
He clears his throat. He traces Cillian's cheek with his thumb, grateful that he’s still got his eyes closed so he can’t see how much brighter his glow has gotten.
“Copper for your thoughts?” he ventures. When Cillian opens his mouth to speak, Canach cuts him off instantly. “And no deflection,” he adds. “I’ll have you know I’m a very rich sylvari, now. I’m willing to go through as many coppers as it takes.”
Cillian laughs, though it sounds restrained; his shoulders shake with the sound, but weakly, as though something is resting on them that he can’t quite shake off. Finally he leans away from Canach, leaving his hand holding onto nothing. Canach quickly pulls it back, and finds himself missing the warmth. He focuses very intently on the image of crushing a butterlfy underfoot. The feeling fades.
“I’d like to see how many coppers it would take, then,” he says, looking out at the stars. He shifts so that he’s facing away from Canach, using his shoulder as a back rest. Easier not to meet his eye, he supposes.
Despite the biting desert cold, the silence chills him worse. They sit like that for so long that Canach almost falls asleep. Sitting at the commander’s side, even if they’re both somewhat worse for the wear...it makes him feel safe, protected. Strange, considering this was the very man that kicked his ass and landed him in prison not too many years ago. With a sleepy determination, his thoughts wander back to the day they had fought, and he is trying to compare the commander’s current armor to what he wore back then when he is suddenly pulled out of his reverie.
“I was raised to think that the gods were as real as you or I. That they had just left, one day, for reasons unknown.” Cillian’s soft voice fills the air. Careful not to move enough so as to disturb the man, Canach shifts to bring his knees up to his chest and rests his arms over them. He stares at the dark peaks in the distance and waits for Cillian to continue.
“I never really believed in all of that. My faith was...sub-par, at best. My adopted family never forced me to worship on a regular basis, and my belief in Lyssa was only due to the fact that I was pretty sure my use of magic was hinged upon it. But now they’re real , and nothing makes sense.”
Canach blinks. He never knew that Cillian had been adopted. He carried himself with such nobility, he just assumed that he was born into that life. There had been plenty of opportunities to snoop into the truth of the matter when he was with the White Mantle, but something had always stopped him. Knowing it now, well, it didn’t change anything, but it explained plenty. How dearly he holds onto Dragon’s Watch, how he so desperately makes a family around him everywhere he goes.
“I didn’t believe in gods, but I believed in people. And that belief, that faith, that…naivety, I suppose, got shattered just the same. By Caithe,” he spits her name, ”and I’m unsure if I’ll ever forgive her, regardless of how close she is to Aurene.”
There’s another long silence. Cillian sighs, and Canach can hear him scratching something into the sand.
“By Braham,” he finally says. “I know he’s got his reasons, but it hurts just the same. My gods exist, they left for their own reasons, and we’re alone. People I thought I knew best were here, and then they left, for their own reasons, too. Everyone, every thing ’ s got their own selfish motivations.”
Cillian turns around to sit shoulder to shoulder again. He’s got the strangest forlorn smile on his face, an odd, surrendering kind of thing that makes Canach shiver again.
“Even you,” he says, his gentle violet eyes staring daggers at him. Not in malice, but understanding. “I can’t fault them for that. Can’t fault you for that. But I can’t help feeling like I’m carrying this alone. Like everyone is so caught up in their bullshit they can’t see the bigger picture, or maybe they flat-out don’t want to. And all I have through all of this are the thoughts and emotions of a baby elder dragon to keep me company. And I’m tired, Canach. I’m tired.” The words fall out of his mouth like dying butterflies, so soft and sweet and fragile. Canach considers how many of them he's imagined crushing underfoot, and swallows hard to choke down the guilt.
Canach flounders. He sits there, opening and closing his mouth like a fish, searching for anything to say. The crickets fill the space where something comforting is supposed to be, and after a while, an owl hoots to fill the void as well. Where is his wit when he needs it, where are the words that are supposed to lessen the blow, or salve the soul? Instead, he reaches out blindly to find Cillian’s hand and squeezes it once. He doesn’t wait for a response, merely stands up from underneath the commander’s resting head and readjusts the blanket over his shoulders.
“Good night, Cillian,” he whispers. “I’ve got watch til dawn, try to get some sleep.”
You’re not alone, he means. You have me.