The sun was long past set, but the temperature of the day remained. It laid over Cin, a heavy blanket, a physical presence he could almost see as he let his gaze drift upward, following the heat streaked across the horizon. Without the sun, the heat was no longer the brutal rhythm of rays beating on his brow. It was something calmer, thick as it wound around his senses.
He frowned, absently licking his lower lip and dwelling on just how quick the saliva dried on the soft skin there. Ahead of him he could see the other boys, playing in the water of the oasis, bright and clear in the full moon-light.They were noisy, as they often were, but he drowned them out easily enough through practice, folding his arms behind his head and turning his gaze upwards to the stars.
He only focused again when he saw a figure rise, Khehaic standing from the perch where he’d been dipping his feet into the water to come his way. The man settled down beside him, drawing his knees up and tilting his head to look him over.
“What’s wrong, Love?” He asked. Khehaic was always the most perceptive, Cin was beginning to figure out. Cin pursed his lips, shook his head.
“Eh, it’s not as bad as the afternoon. Enjoy it.” Khehaic smiled gently, squishing his bare toes into the sand, “Go swim with the other boys.”
“But even the water’s hot.” Cin furrowed his brows, “It’s been boiling in the sun all day. Feels like a bath. I couldn’t stay in long.”
Even then, as he had stepped out, he found he didn’t need to dry off. The winds tickled at his skin and whisked away the water before it could spill on the sand. It’d felt lovely, goosebumps prickling on his skin for a moment. But then it was gone.
“This is the worst month, it’ll be over soon.” Khehaic said, but all at once Cin didn’t want his platitudes, a scowl crossing his lips.
“How can you stand it? This shouldn’t be a place people live. It’s hot, and dry, and ugly, all of it.” He didn’t mean to say it, but once he started, he found himself unwilling to stop.
“It’s stone, and sand, and dust, for miles. Ugly, empty, nothing. It’s like death.”
He stopped, took a breath. Immediately he regretted his outburst. This was their home, and he was a stranger, even a guest of sorts. He parted his lips to try and apologize, but Khehaic turned his head to look around the horizon, laying a hand on Cin’s arm to still him.
Khehaic leaned forward then, up on his knees to starting poking through a nearby clump of bushes, dry and ratty like the rest of the plants that managed to grow through the sand and rock.
“You’ve been here a while now, haven’t ya, Cin? Long enough that things at first glance ain’t as odd to you, and you’re not scared anymore.”
Was never scared, the little child in Cin’s head said, petulant. But he said nothing, and let Khehaic talk.
“And so things have become familiar and you stopped looking so close. There’s this spot between the big-eyed wonder, that first time you see the dunes sprawling out to no end under the stars, and when you’ve been here awhile. When you’re tired of the strange and just wanna go home. I would feel the same way in your city, y’know? The mud, the smells, the fog- how do you go so many days without seeing the sun, Cin? Your city, it can be just as ugly.”
Khehaic’s brows raised a bit with a pleased little grin and he reached over to tug on Cin’s arm, drawing him over. He reached out his large hands, gently, and rubbed a thumb over the smooth bark of one of the bushes. There was a small dark shadow there in the wood, a single mar in an otherwise glossy expanse. And as Khehaic’s thumb rubbed, the wood parted, splitting open silently. Cin watched with furrowed brows as Khehaic scraped a thumbnail against the split, retrieving a small, smudgy coil of…something.
“This is an Ilkilas.” He said, holding out his cupped hands to show Cin. Cin leaned over. Khehaic rubbed a thumb softly over the head of it and it twitched, rolling over into his palm.
“They feed off the insides of these plants and sleep during the day, so you’ve not seen one before, I think. But watch.”
The breeze was drying it out as quickly as it had taken the saliva from Cin’s lips, as the creature unwound in Khehaic’s palm. As it dried, it brightened to shades of lavender and blue and then unfurled, limbs and wings and antenna.
It snapped into shape all at once, wings blossoming and sparking blue, lights flushing through the delicate veins of its wings. It was a bug of some sort, glossy like a beetle, but delicate and winged as a butterfly. It shone a luminescent blue, and Khehaic smiled as he lifted a hand to let it up into the air. It took off from his hand with an indolent little swoop, sparking blue and purple in the air above them. Cin watched. He didn’t even notice his own lips parted in wonder- or the way Khehaic watched him, instead of the insect.
“They’re considered good luck. Old tales say they were the remnants of shooting stars from long ago. You’re supposed make a wish on them on them, if you see one. The dust of their wings can be used in healing salves.” Khehaic reached out to brush his thumb along Cin’s cheekbone, leaving a shimmery streak that glowed on his pale skin. Cin could just barely see it out of the corner of his eye.
“It isn’t so ugly, is it?” Khehaic asked, softly.
Cin shook his head, eyes still following the lazy loops of the insect’s travels. The dust was still raining from its wings, leaving a filmy haze in its path that glimmered in the moonlight.
“It’s lovely.” He said, softly.
“See? You just haven’t been around long enough to see what’s really here. Not yet. Try to look again.” Khehaic gave him a grin, ruffling his hair, and Cin looked back over the oasis. Really looked.
The plants there were green, heavy and dripping with leaves and overripe fruit in the moonlight. It made a sweet scent, when Cin stopped to think of it, the heat of the air turning the scent heady as he breathed it in.
The water nearly sparkled in the blue light of the moon, as the other boys splashed and played. Celyid and Rofaryn were mock-drowning one another, thrashing in the water and yelling out playful insults, and Celyid dove towards the brunet, bare limbs and a bare ass flashing momentarily in the moonlight before both of them went under.
The desert men were completely immodest about their nudity, H’rannith lounging out on a flat rock to the side of the water, legs dipped in, and Fayden splashing in the shallows by himself, eyeing Jevai as the man swam lazily in the deeper water, pale curls contrasting against the dark surface. They were lovely, lithe gods in a tableau, a painting of a moment in time.
And really, even the air felt alright, if he thought about it. There was something calming about the slight pressure of it, a warm blanket laid on his shoulders. It was the opposite of what he was used to, stepping out into the brisk, icy air back home. That was thin, and sharp; this was round and full, soft against him.
He took a deep slow breath, and when he exhaled he gave Khehaic a small, rueful smile.
“Thanks, Khe. I think I’m just…homesick.”
“You’re allowed to be. Now, come. Swim with us.”
As if on cue, the other boys’ noise levels raised, Fayden stomping his foot in the water at something Celyid had said before turning around to glare at Khehaic.
“Khehaic, get over here! Cel and Ro say they could kick my ass any day at towers and I wanna make ‘em eat their goddess-damned words, but H’rannith won’t put me up on his shoulders.”
“You are fat.” H’rannith said, tone as crisp as his shrug was lazy, closing his eyes.
“No, you’re just too fuckin’ scrawny- Khehaic– “
Khehaic chuckled, drawing himself to his feet and reaching out to help Cin up. Cin went to his feet and followed him to the oasis, and when Khehaic drew off his breeches, Cin did as well, stripping in the moonlight to pad his way over to the edge of the water.
Rofaryn and Celyid made catcalls to him as went; “Oooooh, newbie’s gettin’ nekkid everyone-” but Cin shook his head with a rueful smile and ignored his red cheeks as he settled into the warm water, leaning up against the rocks as Khehaic took Fayden’s hand to escort him into the deeper waters, the younger man visibly tense.
“You ain’t gonna let me drown, right Khe? I’ll fuckin’ haunt your ass. Water just like, spewing from my mouth and shit. You’ll never have dry boots again.”
“You’ve not drowned yet. I think you’ll be okay.” Khehaic replied, hefting the boy up onto his shoulders as Rofaryn did the same for Celyid.
Cin and Jevai moved to swim out of their way, leaning up against H’rannith’s rock. Cin gave a soft little sigh as he watched the boys fight, Jevai and H’rannith warm, calm presences beside him. H’rannith threaded a hand through Cin’s hair after a moment, petting absently as he started to slip into a doze despite the other boys’ screeches and cursing.
The water was warm, the boys were warm, and the air was warmer still. It was comfortable, calm, still. Lovely.
And for a moment, Cin felt like he was home.