Asheran lay on his back in the tall grass, staring up at the night sky overhead. He had one arm tucked under his head; with the other, he dug up loamy, damp earth and ran it through his fingers. He had set himself a little apart from the others, still lit by the dim glow of the nearest campfire - but unwilling for the moment to return to its raucous, noisy warmth. He could hear snatches of conversation, laughter, what sounded like the refrain of a badly sung song. He let it wash over him. A seven-day left at most, and then things would change for him forever - one way or another.
He wanted to tell his parents, or tell Alyx - someone. But no one would be there while he Stood to witness his crowning achievement. Though, he acknowledged, there would be the others who had helped him, his friends, and there would be the Weyrwoman, and the look on her face when he Impressed would be an achievement in itself. He just couldn't disappoint everyone who had stuck their necks out for him. He wouldn't. So he reached for perspective, instead. He tried to clear his head, tried to work through contingencies. He felt - even now - keyed up for a fight. He wanted a fight, something simple and straightforward he could finish with his fists. He needed to burn off some energy - the sudden image of him in a Runner circle, doing lunges, made him laugh. He tossed up the wad of dirt in his hand and watched as Felix swooped down low to catch it out of the air, then wail piteously when she realised what it was.
"You dumb flit," he said warmly to the fat green firelizard, feeling suddenly more centered. "Who's going to watch you, huh?"
He couldn't ask Tyne. That would give it away.
There was rustling in the grass nearby. The light was growing dim, Garatt hadn’t expected anyone to be there, and sometimes you just needed to exercise a call of nature. It had seemed an easy enough matter just to head back towards the campfires, and it would have been if there hadn’t been anyone lying in the grass.
So, he headed back towards the fires, eyes on the light rather than the ground, and noticed Asheran about a millisecond after he fell over him, landing less than gracefully on the ground.
"Hey!" Asheran barked, rolling to avoid the falling body, and pushed up onto his forearms. Whatever brief peace he had gone looking for was broken; he felt annoyed, even if it was probably his fault for loafing around in the dirt like a sunning tunnel snake. "What gives?"
Above him, Felix tucked her wings in and dropped, dive bombing the interloper with hangry little noises.
Garatt yelped and covered his face with his arms, trying to protect himself from the firelizard. “Sorry! I-- I didn’t know you were there,” he apologised quickly, half-rolling himself as he tried to sit back up without getting attacked. “It was dark!”
"Garatt?" Asheran squinted, then slouched back on his elbows, feeling some of that hard annoyance disappear. You couldn't be angry at Garatt - it was like kicking a particularly helpless puppy. Felix, on the other hand...
"Felix, quit that - go find the… go find Kashara, she has food!" He shooed the firelizard away from the other boy and watched as the space where she had hovered grew lighter as she vanished - presumably to go look for the food that wasn't there. It was a trick that always seemed to work, much to his flit's eternal angst.
“Sorry,” Garatt apologised again, but it was at least easier to push himself back up to sitting without Felix flying at his face. “Just-- didn’t expect you there.” He squinted at Asheran in the dark, not entirely sure if he’d irritated the older boy. “I can just--go away again?”
Asheran lifted his shoulders up in a loose, light shrug, then flopped back onto the ground, aware of the dirt in his hair and streaking up the back of his clothes.
"No, stick around. I was just thinking about - uh." Not the Hatching that I'm definitely not going to sneak into. "Stuff." He glanced over toward Garatt, sticking an arm back beneath his head, and deflected:
"You okay?" He echoed.
“..Yeah.” And Garatt sounded almost surprised by that himself. “Yeah actually. It’s good here.” After days of feeling progressively more anxious and waiting to be pounced on for whatever he’d done wrong next, the relief provided by being somewhere no-one was going to shout was like an enormous breath of fresh air. He settled more comfortably, cross-legged, bandaged hand resting in his lap.
"Kinda reminds me of nights back home when my folks'd want some time for themselves. They'd send all of us out camping in the field - you know, guarding against rogue wherries or the like." Asheran's gaze sharpened after a few dull moments on Garatt's bandaged hand, drawn by the movement, and then he looked away studiously. He thought back - had Garatt had the bandages in class? Or when they spoke near the tanning vats? Or during their egg watching excursion in the stands? Had he been hurt when everyone evacuated then, or later? It seemed new - or Asheran had been unobservant, which bothered him on some level, because he was supposed to be looking out for the younger boy.
"What happened to your hand?"
“I--” Garatt flushed, but he’d had time to think of a story. “Obstacle course. Was hurting after. Healer said I’d strained the muscles.” And hopefully that story would hold when Cuylar did actually report it up.
"Well, it's wrapped all wrong for that. Here - let me see," Asheran pushed upright, sitting up beside the other boy, and held out his hand expectantly. He didn't know much about healing, outside of what he heard Alyx say occasionally and what they covered during his early chores in the infirmary, but he knew a little bit firsthand about muscle strains. "It's gotta be a lot tighter or you may as well not even bandage it at all. You got numbweed for it?"
Garatt’s face froze, all the anxiety that he'd thought had vanished rushing back. He covered the injured hand protectively with his right hand. “It’s okay. One of the Infirmary Healers did it earlier, numbweeded it and everything.’
Asheran paused, glanced from Garatt's hand to his face, then drew back with another of those casual shrugs, though there was a careful watchfulness about him, too.
"Alright," he murmured, feeling suddenly out of his depth. Something was odd here, but if Garatt didn't want to share, he wasn't going to bully him into an answer. Men had secrets; every Holder knew on some instinctual level that sometimes a man's problems were his burdens to carry alone, right? "You know if you ever need to talk about stuff, though, well, I'm no mind healer. I won't go passing stuff up wing if you tell me a cloud looks a lot like your... your mother, or something. I'm here to talk."
Maybe he was embarrassed about slicing his palm open on a harp string. What did Harpers do anyway?
The rush of relief at being left and the utter weirdness of that phrase made Garatt giggle - a little inappropriately but sometimes laughter caught you like that. “Wouldn’t know if it did,” he admitted, relaxing again although his right hand stayed covering the injured left from view. “Not exactly sure what she looked like.” Which shouldn’t really be funny but was too far removed to be painful, and sometimes you couldn’t help what tickled you.
Fuck. Asheran tried not to wince. Despite spending Turns at the Weyr, where broken families seemed to be the norm and not the exception, he always seemed to put his foot in his mouth at the first opportunity.
So he made a noncommittal noise deep in his throat and slouched back again, looking back up at the sky overhead.
“...Sorry.” It was easy to make Garatt apologise lately. He was so worried about losing the friends he had that just an odd look would do the trick. The laughter quickly dried up. “It's not funny really, I know.”
"Don't apologise if you didn't do anything to warrant it." Asheran glanced sidelong at Garratt, then leaned over to give his shoulder a friendly shove. "I'm the one put my foot in it, anyway. If anyone's supposed to apologise, it's me."
“It's okay though,” Garatt offered.”I mean. It’s not like I knew her to miss.” No one was shouting; it was safe to relax again. “It's like, if something happened to Auntie, I mean, my aunt,” he corrected the baby name self consciously. “that’d be just awful. But it's hard to miss someone you never knew anyway.”
"Yeah." That line made Asheran think of the clutch of eggs out on the sands again, though, which reminded him that he still hadn't found a sitter for his flit. "Hey, you said they were thinking of pulling you from Standing, right? What happened with that?"
“Oh.” Garatt looked sheepish. Absent-mindedly he started to pick at the grass, pulling up a few stalks to twiddle with. “I just uh. Got nerves, I guess,” he admitted, wishing he had an excuse that sounded more like ‘people got angry after I tried to heroically save someone from an angry gold dragon’. An excuse like that sounded a lot more manly than ‘I realised dragons are really big and have teeth and got scared’. “Tr’foshe thought it’d be better if I waited.”
"I got caught up with Flight stuff last clutch, during the seven-day prohibition," Asheran offered, assuming blandly it was somehow related, not so curious that he'd ask about the specifics. It was more polite to suggest that somehow Garatt was involved with a girl than just - well, just falling behind. He also didn't point out that despite his own Flight stuff, he had bitten his tongue until afterwards and Stood anyway. "It happens. I was wondering if you'd watch my flit for me, around then, Felix. She's a handful, but really sweet if you feed her."
“Is she the one who uh, got annoyed when I tripped on you?” Garatt glanced around, not exactly sure where she’d vanished to. “I’ve never looked after a firelizard before, just.. You know, normal stuff like dogs and runners. And cats, but honestly mostly those looked after themselves.”
"She's… She's a good flit, really. It just takes her longer to figure out stuff. All you'd have to do is feed her and she'd stick around." Asheran felt a little defensive about his dumb firelizard, especially when the muted frustration in the back of his mind signified that she still hadn't managed to work out yet she'd been sent on a wild wherry chase. "Plus, if you ever needed me to kick someone's … if you ever needed any help, I mean, she can find me anywhere. It's what they're good for, over canines and stuff. They're real clever."
Somewhere, off-screen, Felix was eating rocks.
“Does that mean you’re going home or something?” Garatt’s brain finally caught up with ‘reasons you’d ask someone to watch a pet’. “Don’t firelizards normally just go wherever you go?”
Asheran had forgotten for an instant that Garatt wasn't in on the heist, and he had forgotten to think of something beforehand, so he paused for a moment, and then he improvised.
"My girl's wher doesn't like her when she gets, uh, proddy. He's liable to eat her." Lie, lie. It stung a little to not tell Garatt the truth, and he blew air hard out of his nose, leaning forward over his knees. "Just for a couple days, and there's this - she's not really a rider, Tyne, but she's good with flits. After that, if you run into any trouble, she can manage her."
“...Will she be proddy long?” It was a natural question. Not that Garatt wasn’t happy to have something to look after but surely proddiness didn’t usually last days. “Do I..” he waved a hand vaguely, blushing a little, conscious of stallions led to mares, and rams loosed amongst ewes. “..have to do anything?”
"Just a seven-day or so, I guess, but she won't rise or anything, she's just…" Asheran groped for the word he always heard gold riders use, only half aware after all this time what it really meant. "She's gravid. Just feed her whenever she wants it, and she'll be fine. Meat, fish, soup, bread, basically anything. I'll be back for her in no time, and maybe she'll help you sleep in the meanwhile."
If Asheran didn’t know what that word meant, Garatt did. He sat up a little straighter, eyes widening. “She’s going to have babies?”
Oh, suddenly a lot of conversations over the Turns made a lot more sense. Asheran palmed at his face, exhaled into his hand, then nodded with the weary resignation of a man digging himself in deeper and deeper - or, hopefully, also of a man who had a dumb flit preparing to make more dumb flits.
"Eventually? But not… She's just proddy right now, and she's… she won't clutch in your bed or anything." At least she was fat enough to look the part, he supposed.
“I can-- I can make her a nest?” Garatt offered, with more interest and enthusiasm than he’d shown about just about anything in Candidacy up to that point. “When my -- I mean, Auntie’s - cat was having kittens she wanted a nest.” She’d actually given birth in the shoe closet in the end which meant for a few days Garatt and his cousins had done without their boots. Still, right up until the point where she had decided to do that she had wanted a nest.
Asheran had opened his mouth to shut down the idea, but Garatt's enthusiasm stopped him. He'd been so down about things, and now he looked so… different, and what could it really possibly hurt?
"Yeah, that might be sort of nice. I mean, she's liable to, when she clutches, put them anywhere -" Why am I still talking about this?
"You ever think about getting a flit?"
“Auntie said I was too young and uh, there was never really a good moment to ask my father,” Garatt admitted. The truth was that his father tended towards the sternly formal to the point that requests seemed to dry up in his throat some time before he managed to spit the words out. “How long is it usually between, uh.. You know, proddiness and when they have the babies-- well, eggs I suppose?”
Asheran's mind blanked. Everything he knew about flits was self-taught, and amounted even then to very little. He gestured vaguely, at least managing to sound confident when he said:
"Oh, you know, it depends. It won't be too soon."
“Do you have to--” Garatt was very pink. A certain amount of matter-of-factness about farm animals had been drilled into him by his aunt sure enough, and his father and tutor had then spent four turns firmly reinforcing that these weren’t nice subjects to discuss. “Uh. Monitor which male it is?”
Why am I still talking about this? Asheran twisted to look at Garatt, then shook his head patiently, visible even in the low light.
"It wouldn't really matter, I think. She's just a green. Just feed her, that's it. Don't let her find me until I come back."
“I’ll look after her really well,” Garatt promised. “Your girlfriend’s wher is really fierce, huh?”
His girlfriend's wher was so unfierce that the lie stuck in his throat. He pictured the big, goofy, playful brown and shook his head.
"Not really. Just with Felix. He's real good around people, well-behaved, you know, she has him trained pretty decent. But he'd eat a flit in - he'd… Felix isn't too smart, she'd fly right up in his craw, and that would be that."
Then, looking for an excuse to stop lying his way into logical knots, he glanced at Garatt's hand again and found himself saying: "If you want help on the course, I can give you some pointers."
It was Garatt’s turn to look sheepish and he covered the bandage again with his good hand, trying to hide it. “Maybe when we’re back.”
Asheran misread the sheepish expression, and pressed on bullishly, leaning forward again: "Couple points, real quick. First, no matter how good you are, you're gonna fall off the first half dozen times, no matter what. That's because you're a smart guy, you're a thinking man, right? No matter how many times you think you understand, you'll fall off because there's nothing to think about. It's pure muscle memory. You just have to keep doing it over and over until your body learns and your head forgets. No thinking, just… You basically sleepwalk through it. Body reacts, mind goes under. That's probably where you mess up."
He reached out again, this time to poke Garatt in the forehead.
"You can't learn it from a book."
“..I’m not smart,” Garatt was surprised enough by the first part of that to just stop and listen a minute, ducking away from Asheran’s finger. “I just read a lot. That’s not smart, I just-- sometimes it’s easier than people.”
"You're smart. Maybe you're too smart to see it, but that's what trips you up, I think. You overthink stuff that should be really simple." Asheran wasn't having any of that modesty bullshit from him now. More and more he was realising that, though they both nominally came from holds, they had been raised in radically different ways. Reading wasn't something dumb people did for fun. Shells, before he'd come here, the smartest person he'd even known had been his own father, and his father had never been remotely literate. Reading was something Harpers did; reading for fun was something rich Lord Holders did.
"Got it? You're smart, just… you get tripped up by it."
“I’m really really not.” Garatt rarely doubled down on anything, particularly of late. Apparently this was the topic he chose to dig his heels in on. “If-- If I was smart I wouldn’t even have a problem with the stupid essays, I could just be.. One of those people who write them in five minutes and then they’re perfect and no-one complains. I wouldn’t even be behind if I was smart!” Instead of which it felt like most of the CandidateMaster team was constantly breathing down his neck.
When he'd say something stupid, his brothers would punch him. Asheran considered that strategy, but discarded it with the understanding that maybe Garatt needed something more abstract and delicate, instead. So he opened up, instead.
"I didn't even know how to write, or read, when I got here. It's hard, and I can't bloody well even understand how you do it for fun, Garatt. My eyes hurt, the squiggles go all dumb. Nobody's good at essays, that's just… It takes me candlemarks sometimes figuring out stuff, right? But once I do, I just stick with it until everybody agrees with me. That's more about just persuading people. I bet as soon as they say you're wrong, you go with it, right?"
“No, I don’t, I--” Garatt’s chin was jutting out, his expression stiff in an effort to keep it under control because he was not, not, not getting upset over this again. Not in front of Asheran, who right now he’d do just about anything to make sure he preserved his good opinion of him. He took a deep breath, both to try to calm himself and to try to explain.
“Reading is just-- it’s words, okay? It’s just remembering what words look like. Once you know what they look like enough, you can do it fast. It’s like.. Like talking, you don’t have to remember what words sound like to listen to someone, you just--you know. It’s just practice, and doing it longer. It’s not smart. Smart is-- if you can read it or, or hear it and then make it work for someone else, that’s smart. And I, I can’t, the words come out wrong, or I forget what I’m meant to be saying or--or I get some other thing that I don’t know what it is wrong and--” He took another breath, “--and half the ACMs hate me because I can’t do any of them right and they think I ought to be able to, and I’m not even meant to be here, ‘cause they weren’t going to let me come because I couldn’t catch up, and-- and I think my father mostly wishes he had got ‘round to having a second son who didn’t just stare at him when he wants to know what-- what stupid crop is good for, for a certain soil type or something and-- and don’t call me smart!”
Okay, so not quite so good at being calm at the end as at the beginning. He looked down at his hands, good one holding the bandaged one so tightly it was starting to hurt, and made himself let go.
Okay, Asheran thought as the rant washed over him. That didn't work. I'm going to have to hit him. He sized up Garatt, listening but not focused, trying to figure out how best to jar him without actually hurting him. Shoulder jab? Shove in the side? His brothers would go for the gut punch, mostly because it'd rarely bruise and he couldn't cry tunnel snake to their ma, but he didn't think Garatt would handle getting hit in the stomach very well. Maybe the upper arm, but he was so weedy --
"Wait, back up. You weren't allowed to come? How did you sneak in? We rode on dragons."
When you were saying it to someone else, ‘one of the ACMs was mean to me so I cried in front of the Candidate Counselor and he said I could come’ didn’t sound anything to be proud of. Garatt went red. “..Tr’foshe overruled them,” he admitted in a mutter, “because.. It doesn’t matter.” He stared at his hands, injured one still held protectively close.
Asheran followed Garatt's stare to his hands, and he focused on them as he slowly, carefully worked back through their conversation. There were secrets, after all, and then there were secrets. He hadn't seemed all that enthused about the obstacle course advice, the bandaging was off, maybe there were a dozen smaller tells he had missed. Maybe it was an overreach, but going with his gut instinct hadn't really failed him yet - except for all the many myriad times it had.
"Tell me how you hurt your hand."
He thought about his father, and tried to put that same iron will into his own voice.
“I..” Garatt was wishing he’d picked a different story already because apparently he’d decided to lie to an obstacle course expert and now he was going to have to firstly describe a nonexistent accident in a believable fashion and then probably be told how not to repeat it. “I--slipped on the.. Climbing thing, you know the big one? And I-- probably wasn’t holding onto it right with my, my left hand but then it was taking my full weight.” Wait, would that have hurt his hand or his wrist? He wasn’t sure any more.
That was Mister obstacle course expert. To say Asheran practically lived there after his first failed Stand would not have been that much of an overstatement - so it was with a mixture of confusion and disbelief that he said:
"The ramp? With the rock wall? Wait, are you talking about rope?" He cocked his head to the side like a quizzical canine, picturing the course, trying to work out what "the big one" translated to. Also, if it was his hand that was hurt, a compression bandage for bruised fingers was worthless - and a strain would have… immobilised them? Maybe? With tiny little sticks? If he had hung from it, he'd probably have hurt his wrist, right?
If Garatt had said he'd twisted his wrist reading a book, turning too many pages or something, he'd have believed him without question. But this?
"That," he said quietly, not unkindly, "sounds like wherry teeth." Which, muddled metaphor aside, aligned pretty closely with bullshit.
The truth was that Garatt tended to slog through the obstacle course slowly, usually somewhere near the back of the pack, but without actually falling off all that often. The truth was that he’d never actually stopped to think about this stupid lie before offering it and now he couldn’t actually remember a suitable obstacle.
He should have said he’d slipped and gotten a rope burn. That would have been a far better lie and he had his mouth half-open to attempt to talk his story around to that when Asheran called him on it. And he stopped, mouth still half-open, going slowly red, trying to work out if it was better to double down or move to a new story somehow.
"Let me see." Asheran held out his hand, then qualified the (let's be real, here) demand with: "I won't touch it, promise. Just look."
Just like that, Garatt had been demoted from faux-brother to basically my sister's babies.
Garatt shook his head, still trying to hide it under his good hand. “...if.. If we take the bandage off I wouldn’t be able to get it back on right?” he offered, half a question, reaching desperately for any excuse going now.
Asheran, like usual, saw only solutions.
"So we find somebody, you know, an apprentice healer who tagged along on the trip. It's just bandages for a strain, how hard can it be?"
And then yet another person would know. “No!” Garatt blurted, horrified by the idea. “I just..don’t want you to.” Good excuses had run right out. Five minutes before Garatt had been relaxed and chatting enthusiastically about firelizard care. Now he was clutching his hand, eyes darting around, looking for a way out of this conversation.
Asheran exhaled hard through his teeth, staring at Garatt - clearly wanting to push the other boy into an answer, a better answer. But with a low oath he pushed up to his feet instead, pacing back and forth restlessly.
"Fine, but if -" if what? They weren't kin. Garatt might have become his latest project, but he wasn't going to torment him just to find out who his latest tormentors were. So he gestured vaguely, the motion a blur in the growing dark, then turned his gaze back toward the campfire.
"Shard it, then. I'm gonna head back to the fire. If you wanna meet Felix, I can call her back."
It would be a few minutes before Garatt’s heartbeat settled, before that quick panicky feeling of ‘he wants me to tell, I can’t tell, he’s going to make me tell’ stopped feeling like it might choke him. What would happen if he had told he wasn’t sure; only that Asheran was likely to be angry, and however he might think he would help M’ayen had all the power here. Some way or another, if Asheran knew, something bad was likely to happen.
He’d watched quiet and wide-eyed as Asheran paced, all out of reasons beyond please don’t ask. It took a moment for him to follow the older boy to his feet when invited. “That would be good,” he agreed cautiously, but his voice had gone small, stiff and polite, infused with a wariness that hadn’t been there before.
I can't let myself get distracted by this right now, Asheran thought, keyed up in a way he had been trying to avoid, and he made his way back to the fire, jaw clenched against anything else he might say to the younger boy. Focus.
He tried to clear his head. He failed.
Blackadder: I mean, what about the people that do all the work?
Baldrick: The servants.
Blackadder: No, me; *I'm* the people who do all the work.