"Obyron?"

The voice was quiet, but the pitch darkness in the bedroom almost seemed to make it louder, like a tomb's echo. Obyron rolled around, feeling the hot air's weight upon him. He stretched a hand out, like a spider, seeking out another; fingers entangled in the night. A beat. He squeezed, like he did when they were younger. A puff of air. Neb, he knew, was smiling.

"Something wrong?" Obyron whispered back. He could barely see in the penumbra, but he knew how Neb looked like, lying down, one eye squinted.

"Nothing, just." A pause. Obyron waited, then squeezed his hand again. "...You like him."

Obyron didn't say anything, at first. Finally, pointlessly —they both knew who Neb was talking about—, he simply asked, "Who?"

"Lord Zahndrekh." His voice was low. "You admire him."

"Why wouldn't I?" He was their superior officer, and more than anything, their Lord. He was supposed to admire him, wasn't he? Even if Lord Zahndrekh was… young, younger than Obyron, about Neb's age, really, but he seemed even younger; not less mature, but moreso more… naïve, was the word, shipped fresh out of their academy. Waging war, Obyron knew, wasn't an honor afforded to all. Not waging war at this scale, at least. But did war need to be waged by someone who still yawned while tired — sleepy — in the morning, and blinked owlishly at the campaign's map, standing but leaning onto his scepter—?

"Hello? Obyron?" came the voice from the cot next to him. "Before the end?"

"What?" Obyron snapped, a little too loud even for his own ears. He cringed at his own voice.

"You zoned out." Obyron thought what he heard in Neb's tone was amusement. "Thinking of him?"

"Of course not," Obyron lied. Neb saw through his words with a gentle smile; Obyron, somehow, knew this. He realized Neb had let go of his hand; he didn't seek it out again. Obyron sighed. "...I worry about him."

"Oh," Neb said. "So it's worse than merely admiring him."

"It's— not like that."

"What do you call it, then?"

"...I don't know," Obyron admitted. He couldn't very well tell this to Neb —he could barely admit it to himself—, but... he'd never felt like this before. The weight, the space Lord Zahndrekh occupied in his mind… He couldn't understand what it meant, but he knew for certain no one had made him feel like Lord Zahndrekh had made him feel, and quite possibly, no one would again. If he could've accepted this, he would've thought it unthinkable, primarily, and unacceptable; but secondarily, he would've found it terrifying. Something Lord Zahndrekh would call thrilling, exhilarating maybe, even, but all else he labeled that Obyron always called other things. Like, for example, unnecessary risks. Or strokes of dangerous genius. Or assassination attempts. But Obyron had no frame of reference, not really, for this sort of feeling —it wasn't quite the same one he'd always been told to call love—, so he just said, "I care about him."

And he immediately wanted to kick himself.

"Of course you care about him," Neb shot back, "it's our job to do so. I think you care for him."

"What's the difference?" Obyron flatly asked.

"We have to care about Lord Setekh, too. But you don't care much for him."

Obyron opened his mouth, but found himself at somewhat of an impasse. He couldn't say he cared for Lord Setekh, was the thing. At all. The way Lord Setekh spoke to Lord Zahndrekh, the way he looked at Lord Zahndrekh, the way Lord Zahndrekh looked at him… He was planning something, and Obyron knew it. And Obyron did not have to like a man to protect and serve him, of course, as to do otherwise when that was his duty would be treasonous (and that'd been drilled quite thoroughly into his head during his training, thank you very much); but Obyron simply couldn't lie. Not here, in the darkness. Not to Neb.

"I'm allowed to have preferences," he eventually came up with. "As long as they don't impact my duty."

"That is true." There was something airy to Neb's voice. "But you'd rather die for Lord Zahndrekh than for Lord Setekh."

"...I would."

When Obyron heard his next words, he knew Neb was smiling again. "And I suppose so shall I," he mused.

"So shall you what?"

"Die for Lord Zahndrekh." He said this simply, as if he didn't care. "If I must."

Obyron's mind shifted, like light's reflection upon a gemstone. He didn't say anything for a moment; then, he sook out Neb's hand once more, and when he held it, he squeezed. "Neb, you… wish to die by my side?"

"Yes." A liquid admission; crystalline, fragile, white-hot with the weight of emotion. "But it doesn't matter much, as long as you don't mind either way," Neb added, his voice for the most part kept together.

Months ago, weeks, even, Obyron would've returned the sentiment. He would've returned it with strength born out of years of knowing each other, strength born out of commitment, out of obligation. Out of having been together since they were children, of having met when Obyron shooed away Neb's childhood bullies, barely a few years older, himself. When Obyron had been drafted, Neb had followed him. When Obyron had come out of his first battle unscathed and Neb merely broken-limbed, what, a decade ago?, both of them had celebrated together, messy drunken weeping to the deaths of their comrades and of their youth. They hadn't ever needed to promise each other life, they'd already given it, unspoken; but now Neb was giving Obyron his death, and yet he wasn't a condition in Obyron's.

Not anymore.

"I love you," was the only thing Obyron could tell Neb. A broken, silly little admission, meaningless without offering. Like an altar.

...There was an adult who lived near Obyron and Neb when they were children, who'd spent all her money on drinking and gambling, and had kept promising and promising her taxes for later to their lords; eventually, their men had shown up at her doorstep, and had made an example out of her. Neb's choked-up, barely-audible whine, his lack of response to Obyron's words — they made an example out of him.

"...I'm sorry," Obyron told him, uselessly.

"It's alright," Neb, dear Neb, told him, so quietly Obyron had to strain himself to hear him. "I still want to die by your side."

Neb tried to take away his hand, but Obyron caught it again. "Why are you so sure you'll die first?" Obyron tried, desperately. "What if I die first, and you don't die for a long time?"

"That won't happen," Neb whispered. "I don't know how — call it a rib feeling — but I know you'll live for a long time. Longer than you expect." He squeezed Obyron's hand. "Longer than either of us expects, I figure," he added, almost as an afterthought. "You've got the kind of soul that lasts."

His words, so pleasant at first glance, cut deep into Obyron's heart. "We'll die together," Obyron promised futilely; not even he believed his own words. "We will."

"And will Lord Zahndrekh be there?"

"I—" Of course. Of course he would be. There could be no other way.

"I thought so," Neb muttered. "You'll die for him… because you can't die by him."

Obyron's eyes widened. "Neb, he's our superior. I can't— we'd…"

"I know, I know," Neb falsely reassured him. He squeezed their interlaced hands. "You won't live long enough to die by his side. You'll make sure he survives, anyway. You'll die for him if you must, for that." The bitterness was carefully cut out of those statements. It would do Neb no good if he expressed resentment out loud towards a superior, and it would do Obyron no favours to inspire revolt among his peers. Regardless of whether it was done willingly. "But if you could."

"If… if he wasn't my superior," Obyron whispered. "If he wasn't Lord Zahndrekh."

"If he was just Shanh," Neb continued for him, low. "Your childhood friend."

"Neb—"

"If you could take your final breath holding his hand. Not a soldier, of course. Not in the battlefield." Neb's hushed voice was feverish. A stubborn slap in Obyron's face. "If you owned a farm, maybe, though it was mostly his idea, or mostly yours. And you waited for him during the day as he toiled away on the fields and you cared for the animals, and you were there at night when he came home, and he held your hand as you ate together the dinner you'd made—"

"Neb!" Obyron's tone rose. He felt sick. "That's enough."

"But you would. Wouldn't you?"

Obyron had no answer for that. Because he would.

"As I thought," Neb said.

"It doesn't need to change your wish," Obyron said, like a criminal marching towards execution. "You can still die by my side."

"Even if you don't die by mine?"

"Even if I don't."

Obyron knew, in the darkness, that Neb was smiling, weakly. He could see it in his voice. "That's good to hear, then. ...We should sleep. We've got an early morning ahead of us."

"We should." You should rest, Obyron wanted to tell him, and in the morning forget all this— all this pointless talk of Lords as farmers and of growing old together, and of succumbing to the tumours together… and of dying by each other's side.

Obyron let go of their interlaced hands, and he heard Neb turn around so his back faced him, and he turned around, too, in the dark. The sweltering heat hadn't abated, but it wouldn't occupy so much of Obyron's mind, now.

"Goodnight, Obyron," Neb told him softly.

"Goodnight, Neb."