AN- I blame Argenteus Draco. She's the one who got me into this fandom.
The LHM series is the only one I've read for Mercedes Lackey, and while the writing wasn't ohmygodamazing, her characters are heartbreaking, and so much fun. (Oh Van. I want to hug you, but I don't think you'd appreciate it, seeing as how I'm a woman and all.)
This little one-shot is about as dark as you'd expect, considering what happens to Van before he ends up in the kyree caves. It's Stef/Van, obviously, but I lovelovelove Tylendel, so...It felt a bit AU when I was writing it, but Argenteus says it isn't, and she knows the fandom better. Quasi-AU, I suppose.
Also, this is actually the first slash paring I've ever written. I never meant to turn into a bl/slash/yaoi/guys-fucking fan, it just sort of happened.
If you're out there and you read it, please review it.
The Length of the World
There is blood, and a silence so ugly it hurts.
Stef huddles in on himself, tries to push everything around him away. The smell is horrific, the air clogged with smoke, and there are pieces of—of people—
Vanyel's eyes aren't human.
"Stop," Stef screams. He is a Bard and the perfect words are always supposed to flow from his lips, but he isn't saying the right things now, when he really needs to. Oh Vanyel, Vanyel, tell me how to save you.
"Stop it," he begs. "They're monsters—they are—but you, you're not, you can't be. Please, just stop—"
"Who are you?" Van spits at him, and everything Stef has inside of him caves away to ash. "Who do you think you are…?"
[rainandenergyandpain, and terribleacidicloss, and there is endless air rushing around him as he falls—Staven—]
Stef wants to speak, but there are still no words.
"You aren't Tylendel," Van says coldly, and turns away. "Not my lifebonded. Not even a mage. There's nothing you can do for me."
- - - - -
Stefen screams himself awake.
It takes him a moment to recognize where he is: in the quiet, dark depths of the kyree caves. His room is small, meant for one; Vanyel couldn't…wouldn't…share a room. Hyrryl is standing in the corner of the round, earthen space, resting on all fours: her eyes reflect knowingly in the dim light. Stefen is afraid she'll ask him if he's alright, or what it was he dreamed about that was so terrible. He is afraid of having to tell her that he doesn't know.
He doesn't know why, in a nightmare about what happened to Van—oh Gods, I don't want to think about that—there should be rain and memories of a twin brother he never had, a loss he never knew. And why should he dream about Tylendel…that bastard who had Van's heart first?
Hyrryl makes a soft noise in the back of her throat. It's oddly comforting in a way…but the helpless ache inside Stef is too jagged to respond.
:He cries out,: Hyrryl Says in gentle not-speech, a brush against the back of Stef's mind that he still isn't used to. :I came for you.:
"I don't know what to do," Stef mutters. He feels useless and childish and bitter, because how can he heal Van? They've been clinging to the sanctuary of the kyree caves for weeks now (or at least, that's what it feels like; time can be difficult to recognize in this place) and things still aren't much better. Lover or no, he's still just Stefen…and what happened to Vanyel was…
It couldn't have been…bearable…
:It has been many days since you came here, Young One,: Hyrryl observes, her not-speech smoky in Stef's head. :You tire because you do not see the light. But you keep him alive, Bard. None other could do this.:
Stef hangs his head. "I'm not doing much," he admits. (It's easier than it should be to tell her this, but still. It hurts.) "I'm not—if 'Lendel was here, he'd probably…know what to do…"
Hyrryl widens her lips in the same canine smile Aroon first gave. :You needn't worry.:
Stef doesn't know what to say to that.
Hyrryl turns to pad out of the room. :Go, Young One. You will see.:
Vanyel is thrashing in his bed when Stefen reaches his room; the Bard felt sick the first time he heard Van moan, but by now he's become numb to it. He hesitates just within the door, feeling the familiar doubt: make noise, or stay silent until he reaches the bed? He doesn't want Van to think he's being snuck up on, but sudden noise might trigger bad memories…
He compromises by calling softly, "Van-ashke", using that pet-name Vanyel loves so much, as he moves across the room. This room is a mirror image of Stefen's (small, round, dirt floor and rock walls), and it only takes a few quick steps to reach the bed.
His lover's eyes are wrenched closed; beads of sweat cling to the pale skin of his forehead as he groans. Van's physical injuries have long since healed, but his emotional…he looks horrible, all tense and unhappy even while sleeping. Stef doesn't see why Hyrryl has so much faith in him, when it's been so many days and Van still looks like this! He remembers how calm and loving Van is—was—used to be—and wants to cry. Can't we go back to that?
:Not if you lose your head. He needs you now more then ever, so you're going to have to bear it.:
Stef glances behind him to see Yfandes, pure and magnificent even in the room's weak light. She strides in with her head held high, but all Stef can think is that he hopes Van doesn't wake up and notice her tail again. (The first time Vanyel saw the leftover stump, he crumbled right to the ground.)
He acknowledges Yfandes's presence with a slight nod, before turning back to Van. "Vanyel," he murmurs again. "Van, wake up. It's a dream, it isn't real." He puts a cautious hand against the Herald's shoulder.
Van's eyes snap open. For a second, it's obvious he doesn't know where he is or who he's with: his face is a mask of anger and hatred and revulsion (and fear). If Stefen had any sense, he'd step back—but he's too in love, so he keeps his hand on Vanyel's shoulder and hopes that he won't end up fried by magic in a minute.
Vanyel's beautiful silver gaze darts around the room and finally falls on Stefen. He gives a shuddery breath and sits up.
"Stef," he manages. "I didn't realize you were…"
Stef smiles brightly at him. (Van isn't the only one good at hiding behind masks.) "Couldn't sleep. Kinda hot. Wanted to check up on you…" Van's smile is tiny, but the fact that it's there makes Stefen's smile real. "You were having a nightmare. I, uh, didn't want to wake you, but I figured…well, anyway. I'll bother someone else with my insomnia if you want, let you get back to sleep—"
"No." Vanyel grabs his hands, voice strained. Stef starts with surprise; it's been days and days since Vanyel really willingly touched him…
"If you could just…" Van shudders. Stef's stomach twists; when Van lets his hands drop, he shifts over and carefully puts his arms around his lover. Thankfully, the Herald doesn't try to pull away, but rests his head against Stefen's chest.
Don't be stupid, Stef reminds himself. Quit focusing on how good it feels to hold him. You're here to help him, not to get carried away with your own—
:You're being too hard on yourself, Bard,: Yfandes interrupts. :I'm as eager as you to see him like this.: She wickers. :The next time he lets you bed him, I might have a party.:
"I'm going to throw something at your horse, Van," Stefen grumbles. Van gives a weary chuckle ("I can only imagine what she just said to you"), and 'Fandes snorts indignantly. Stef is about to pass out with joy: Vanyel laughed, even if it was a tired laugh…he laughed, and he's in Stef's arms, and the room is so warm and dark and comfortable…
"I want you to stay," Vanyel says after a moment, in a strangled voice. Stef nods, but Van keeps going anyway: "I need…"
"Of course I'll stay, lover."
"Oh, Stef," Van whispers. "You're so…willing…to put up with me."
"Why wouldn't I be? I told you, ashke," Stef says. "I'm always going to put up with you."
"But—the things I said to you before…"
"Van, it doesn't matter—"
"The things I said to you before the…attack…" Van closes his eyes briefly, his sculpted features reflecting a deep, eternal sting. "Insulting you because you weren't a Herald, telling you that you didn't know what you were talking about—Stef, you were right, about everything. I was just too arrogant and blind to realize."
"When…when those men were—"
"Stop it, Van!" Stefen pleads. "You don't have to force yourself to talk about this!"
But the Herald continues on in a quiet voice, stubborn as always. "I kept thinking how glad I was that we'd argued, that you'd managed to run off. If you were mad, then—then I figured you wouldn't come after me, and those bandits…wouldn't be able to find you too." He shudders. "I wouldn't have been able to survive seeing that."
Yfandes shifts in the background, looking as agitated as Stef feels. But just as in his dream, the Bard doesn't know what to say: now, when he needs his words more than ever, he is tongue-tied and worthless…
Those demons, he thinks furiously. Those animals! What they did to him…! Van's the strongest person I know, and they still managed to…
(He remembers the bloody fire-light in Van's eyes as he forced that one bandit to impale himself on his own blade, and shivers.)
But I don't blame him!
(Remember: the half-destroyed building. The dried blood staining the floor, the walls, the front of Vanyel's shirt and the seat of his breeches. That stinking harness…!)
Stef grits his teeth, forces himself to lock those thoughts away for now. He doesn't want Van picking up on his anger and stressing any further.
"I'll stay with you, Van-ashke," he says aloud. The room is still warm and dim, and he lets a sleepy sort of peace take root…tries to send some of that peace over to Van as well.
And for a while, it does seem to work. Vanyel rests in Stef's arms (Yfandes, at a hesitant mind-request from Stefen, slips out to give them some privacy); everything starts to feel a bit more right. The Van sighs something about them having to avoid being so close once they leave the kyree caves (his usual fear of his lover becoming a target), and Stef is so busy enjoying the warmth of the room and the warmth of Vanyel's body that he doesn't even get upset, doesn't even think, just gives a bleary nod.
And says dreamily: "Tell you what, we can have another fake-fight and this time I won't twist your ankle—"
The Herald stiffens. His eyes widen with a strange mixture of alarm and yearning. Despite the fact that Stefen's so much younger, without even knowing why, the Bard gets this image in his head of a teenage-Vanyel with bright, scared eyes…
"How did you know that," Vanyel demands. There's such an odd sound to his voice now. "How did you know about my fight with Tylendel?"
"I, ah. Savil told me," Stef says lamely. "I thought it was a funny story."
Maybe because it makes sense, maybe because he's so tired, Van doesn't question it—he nods, and the strangeness leaves his eyes and voice. A rattled Stef starts murmuring gentle bits of song to him for a while, and eventually he falls asleep. For the first time in a long time, he looks content. His young lover pulls away.
Stefen stands in the center of the room, troubled.
Savil never told him a thing.
Time moves by, unhurried by the darkness of the kyree caverns. Days feel longer, older here; sometimes that's a good thing, and sometimes it's unpleasant. There is a world out there, as strange as that's starting to sound, and it's waiting for Herald-Mage Vanyel to show himself...
Vanyel leans back, resting in the largest hot spring Stef could find within the caves. The Herald's eyes are shut, though he isn't sleeping. Behind him, trying idly to think of lyrics for a song about Hyrryl, Stefen sits resting against a wall with his legs stretched out. His attempts at song creation keep getting waylaid by thoughts of Van sitting mostly-naked in the water.
(I will be the first Bard to compose a song too dirty to sing, he decides.)
"Van-ashke," he calls over. "There room for two in there?" He always makes sure to ask, these days.
Van smiles, doesn't open his eyes. "Plenty."
Stef doesn't need to be told twice: he slips off his shirt, decides to err on the side of caution in keeping everything else on, and splashes in next to Vanyel.
"Lord and Lady," he yelps a second after that, "It's hot!"
"A hot spring with hot water?" Van muses. "How odd."
Stefen splashes him in the face. "Herald Vanyel, is that any way to talk to a talented and handsome Bard such as myself?"
"Hm…no, it isn't. So tell me…" The Herald opens one eye. "How can I make it up to you, talented and handsome Bard Stefen?"
Stef knows he's grinning like an idiot. He doesn't really care. "I have some ideas." He heaves a dramatic fake-sigh. "But who are we kidding with this handsome Bard routine?" A pout: "You're the one everyone fawns over. Herald Vanyel, so attractive—"
Just like that, the mood changes.
Van's eyes darken; he stares at something Stef can't see. "So attractive to everyone," he echoes in a flat hiss.
Stefen's insides ice over at his lover's words, at the dead expression on his face. The hot water freezes against his skin. He's jolted by a flash of self-hatred—such a stupid thing to say!
"Gods, Van, I didn't mean it like that," he begs. "I—just—"
But Vanyel is too quiet, too distant. He shakes his head and stares into the water with an expression Stef can't read. Eventually he asks in a soft voice to be alone for a while, and Stef pulls himself out of the hot spring, stumbling out of the room on legs he can no longer feel.
:He is going to need you, Young One.:
Hyrryl rises to all fours and walks over to Stef, who is sitting on his bed, slumped against the wall, feeling sick-hearted and sad.
:Be patient,: Hyrryl Says. Her not-speech is gentle, but floats firmly against the Bard's personal fretting. :He must find his way through all that has happened. The journey will be long, and he will need you with him. He will need your help.:
"I can't help him," Stefen groans. "I'm just making everything worse!"
:I must disagree.:
"I'm…I don't know what I'm doing! Half the time I feel like I don't even know who I am anymore."
:You are Bard Stefen.:
"Mmh." Stef stares at the ground, pensive. "Hyrryl, what do you think happens once you die? Van says you meet the Shadow Lover, but, um…what about after that?"
It can be hard to tell when Hyrryl smiles, sometimes. Right now is one of those times—her expression is unreadable.
:Does not knowing bother you?:
"It doesn't bother me, exactly, it…" Stef hesitates. "It's just, I feel like Van knows so much more about everything than I do. He's Herald-Mage Vanyel! And it's not like I'm his first love, he lifebonded once before. To Tylendel."
:Ever the same.:
"What does that mean?"
Hyrryl blinks her dark, reaching eyes. :Its meaning is known already. By the Hawk-Brothers, and by my people as well. Not yet by Van.: She eyes him again. :Perhaps by you. Do you take the power of a lifebond so lightly?:
Stef opens his mouth in confusion, but never gets any words out. Hyrryl's eyes widen, and suddenly there are whispers in his head besides her not-speech, suddenly his mind and memories are crowded—
Realization hits him, hard and fast. It leaves him with his head roaring and his stomach in painful knots. Hyrryl really thinks that he's Tylendel…!
It can't be, that's insane! Lord and Lady, that's…us, the two of us—that isn't even—I'm Stefen!
:Bard Stefen,: Hyrryl agrees, :who cannot remember his early past.:
"My early…my childhood?"
:Yes. You told me this.:
"That doesn't mean anything! I wasn't born until after Van's first love was dead!"
:Directly after. Bard Stefen, born of mysterious circumstances during unsettled times. Herald Vanyel's lifebond—:
"This is ridiculous. Gods…" Stefen feels unhinged. "Tylendel killed himself, a long time ago! That's part of the reason why Van didn't want to be with me at first, he was still getting over his first love! Who wasn't me!"
:But he is with you now.:
"Because," Stef growls, "he fell in love with me. I know lifebonding twice is rare, but—"
:A bond as strong as the one shared between Vanyel and his first love cannot be dismantled at will.:
"Fine. So he can't ever love me as much as he loved Tylendel—" Stefen stops himself. He doesn't like the words he's saying…what's more, he doesn't believe them.
"That's not true," he says after a moment, slowly. "I know it isn't. He loves me just as much…"
Hyrryl tilts her head, gives another maybe-smile. Still, she is silent. Stef looks at her, at the room, at his hands. His voice is filled with wonder now.
"He wouldn't be with me if he didn't love me. And I…"
[Van-ashke—rainandlossandStaven—he always thought he was too old—rainanddarkness, play-fighting in the mud…always hated those clingy female friends of his…Vanyel…]
:Young Bard?: Hyrryl's not-speech pours against Stef. Her Voice is a calm oasis in the center of his stunned thoughts.
"I think…" he begins. Stops. Begins again: "I can't believe that…that 'Lendel is…I mean, I don't really remember being—I don't think I was…"
:The soul is the same,: Hyrryl Says with some certainty, :and the life is not. You are correct…he is not you, not fully. You did not live his life, you do not share his past. But the two of you are connected—are two halves of the same soul. No doubt that connection sometimes leaves you feeling too full…gives you wisps of memories you don't understand.: Her not-speech feels dreamy. :The world around us is so much more than we realize...it remembers the times before us, the times ahead. In its own way, it is endless. It remembers what everyone else forgot. Including your lover's lifebond.:
"And you just happened to remember?"
:I became aware. I, too, was reminded, when I saw you appear before me.: It's obvious she's smiling now. :Vanyel's lifebond would not leave him so easily…so it—so you—returned, to be by his side. Ever the same.:
Stefen just sits, and listens to his breathing…
:There you are!: Yfandes appears in the doorway, and gives her mane an impatient toss. :Blast it, Bard, I've searched half the caves for you. Checked your room, you weren't here—:
"I, um, went for a walk to clear my head…"
:And left me chasing all over the damned caverns, trying to catch up.: She snorts. :My Chosen needs you with him.:
"He…" Stef falters, "asked me to leave."
:And the minute you did he regretted it, I can tell you that. Go back and be with him. Neither one of you wants to be alone.:
Stef finds himself standing up. Shaky and unsure, he glances at Hyrryl— "But, Yfandes, I think—I think there's something about me—"
Another mane toss. :Good Gods, boy, will you get going? Before I kick you all the way there!:
(There's really not much one can do when faced with an angry Yfandes but to go along with what she says. Stefen goes back to the hot spring.)
Vanyel is sitting against the wall when an uncertain Stef comes in. The Herald mostly just looks tired, but there are traces of pain breaking through.
Van looks over. Relief removes the pain.
"Stefen," he says, "I'm—Gods, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you to leave."
Stef shakes his head. He makes his way over to Van and sits down, shifting to get comfortable. Van, after a moment's pause, curls against him with a sigh.
"That's better," the Bard announces, louder than usual, trying to cover up a nervous edge. Hyrryl's theory on his soul's origins has left him reeling.
Vanyel, what would you do if I used to be…
"I really am sorry," Van repeats, interrupting Stef's overcome train of thought. "I've been thinking…it's not fair to you, having to put up with all of this. You don't deserve me taking my anger out on you."
Stefen listens to him, but his lover's voice feels so far away. Right now the Bard is too distraught to focus—except distraught isn't the right word. He's actually….well. Stefen doesn't know what he is, what he feels like. Not right now.
[Tylendel. Vanyel. Rainandlaugterandeverythingsowarm]
"You've had nothing to do lately but deal with my…problems. It's not right."
It can't be true. But…
["I'll never ever leave you, lover. Don't worry about that."]
Lifebonds are so strong, they don't just break and reform. When your lifebond dies, you're empty. And Vanyel was empty…until he found me. Or maybe I found him.
"If you—if after this, you want to go back without me, I wouldn't blame you. There's no reason for you to keep risking your life…"
Both times, I found him.
"There's all the reason in the world, ashke." Stefen finds himself smirking, finds his thoughts controlled.
"Stef…" Vanyel shakes his head. "You are so…"
"Van," Stefen says. "I'm not going to leave, so quit worrying. Just close your eyes and rest for a while. I'll stay whether you think I should or not."
There's silence as Van does as he was told. Stef thinks back—as far back as he can—still isn't sure—wonders…
"I'm glad you're staying," Van murmurs. "I like hearing your voice."
Stefen sees his chance, and makes up his mind.
"I'll tell you a story if you want," he begins. "I need to start acting like a Bard again anyway. I'll think you'll like this one…I hope you will."
"I know I will."
Stef smiles to himself, and inside he prays to every God he knows… "Just relax for now." I've got a lot to tell you, lover. "Just listen."
And an exhausted Vanyel does.