Describe the same character twice. Once to hate, once to love.
“Well… he might just be Vahlok.”
The silence after Pantriss’ declaration fell into his stomach like a lead weight, and he felt a moment of pure fear like he hadn’t in so very many years.
The eyes of her mother, who had not minutes before been looking at him with interest, turned hard and cold. He could feel other eyes, around and behind him, do the same. It was all he could do not to flee the room right then and there. Already his eyes were quickly scanning the surrounding area, mind furiously working to come up with an escape plan. It wouldn’t be easy, unarmed, but he’d faced worse odds.
His muscles tensed, ready to move, but stopped when he caught motion out of the corner of his eye, as Ves came to stand at his side. In her wake the rest of the Immortals melded out of the crowd, coming to his defense despite the possible danger to themselves. Even Pantriss, though part of him couldn’t understand why, after what she’d done.
He didn’t even fully relax once the danger had passed, and everyone had gone back to what they’d been doing. The room didn’t feel welcoming anymore and adrenaline ran through him, dancing like tendrils of lighting through his veins.
This was exactly what he’d feared when he’d agreed to come to this party, if it hadn’t happened in the exact way he’d thought. He’d been sure someone would recognize him, know him for what he truly was, and hell would finally break loose. Everything would be different when his precious anonymity had been stripped away. But he hadn’t expected his own teammate to out him. Decades of hiding, of watching every step he took, gone in the span of a few breaths. Despite Aaran reassurances, it was impossible not to feel exposed, trapped.
He stalked away from Pantriss, needing to move, to calm himself. After a round of thanking his fellows he ended up at the bar, downing a pair of drinks without hardly breathing. Anger swelled despite himself, and it was all he could do to keep himself from rounding on Pantriss. It hadn’t been her place to expose him like that. He would have been more than happy to leave Vahlok dead and buried, forever.
But that was Pantriss, wasn’t it? Always speaking up even when what they needed most was stealth and subtlety, hammering her way through problems like a battering ram. She had no sense of why it could be better to lie and avoid the fall out. Sometimes her sense of honor and stubborn devotion drove him half mad. How the two of them had ever gotten on this long, he didn’t know. They were practically day and night.
It was only his danger sense that kept him calm in those moments. If he lashed out it would only confirm everything Pantriss’ mother already thought about him. He’d just be happy when this night was over.
The way his friends had come to his defense had helped calm him somewhat, and he took comfort from their nearby presence. Now that he’d had a chance to think about it he wondered how long had it been since he’d been able to say he had friends. No one else would ever had stood up for him like that. But they were only doing what he would have done for any of them.
Part of him had expected Pantriss to be the outlier, to turn on him when her mother did. She was still young and he’d always been able to tell she tried her best to impress her mother, and live up to her legacy. That much he could understand. Dranfel society was all about glory and great deeds, songs sung, and epics penned. He’d never been much the fan of all that, happy enough to leave it behind. But not everyone had that option.
Despite her apparently boundless confidence, he didn’t think Pantriss fully realized the extent of the amazing things she’d done in her life. From the very first day she’d impressed him, even as parts of her had driven him a bit crazy. Even after everything she was still trying to distinguish herself, outside of the shadow of her mother. Why wouldn’t she have left him and joined the rest that would have been happy to toss him in jail for the rest of his days? Tying herself to him would only ruin her chances.
But Pantriss had been no less quick to defend him than any of the others. She might have exposed him, but it hadn’t been done with malice. And, even more importantly, she hadn’t left him alone afterward. She’d never been the sort to leave her friends behind, no matter the situation, or how dangerous it was for her. Much like himself, she would cross galaxies to save a friend in need.
He’d found his center by the time she found him, and sat down to talk.
He knew, deep down, that he wasn’t going to be able to run away from his past forever, as much as he might have wanted to. Perhaps she’d done him a favor in tearing the bandage off now.
“Meet me in the memorial gardens in an hour.”
Her words settled into his chest, and he felt a sort of warmth suffuse him that he knew had nothing to do with the alcohol.
Not a half hour earlier he probably would have said no. Now he just nodded.
Ruhk walked the quiet hallways, part of him wondering if he was making the right decision, going to meet Pantriss in the gardens.
He’d never quite known what to make of her. Despite his former position he’d never particularly been the shining pinnacle of the Dranfel race. He’d just gone along with things, driven forward by his own moral code, letting his skill and strength speak for themselves. They’d brought him renown, titles, his position. But he’d always felt it was just dressing and, outside of his council glaive he hadn’t taken anything reminiscent of his old life off Xarzha.
Whereas he’d always been something of a outlier, Pantriss, in many ways, exemplified everything Dranfel. From her style of battle, to her music, the way she told stories, to her unwillingness to budge. It had screamed of everything he’d left behind, and he’d done all he could to put distance between them, at first. He’d been so sure she would never have understood.
But then he’d gotten to know her. The way she never compromised on her morals reminded him of himself. Her propensity for truth had been eye-opening. It was almost refreshing to someone like him, who lived far too long in the shadow. He’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be himself. Her light burned away the darkness, and eroded all the barriers he’d put up around himself.
Wasn’t she always the first to admit when she might not be able to do something? The first to throw herself into danger? The first to stand up for those would could not? Pantriss had her faults, but didn’t everyone? He hardly lacked his own.
He paused at the gates to the garden, a wall of tall hedges keeping him from seeing inside. He didn’t need to, though, to know that Pantriss would already be there, waiting for him.
What was she thinking right now? What would she say? There was only one way to find out.
Even so, he hesitated. There was still time to turn around and run. Everyone was still busy at the party. He could grab his glaive, a few other things, and be gone from here forever. He’d disappear again, just like last time. A new name, a new profession, a new life. He didn’t know what was going to happen from here on out. He didn’t who might be, even now, coming for his head.
Did he have the right to put Pantriss in that sort of danger?
But he already knew the answer. She was an adult, and a strong one. It wasn’t his place to make that decision for her, nor did he want to. If, one day, she decided he wasn’t worth it, that was something he’d deal with when the time came.
Yes, he could have run, but he didn’t want to anymore. He’d never thought this rag tag group would be where he’d find himself, where he’d find family, and more. He’d be damned if he denied what he felt when Pantriss’ face filled his mind.
He was a seasoned warrior who had slain Qu’ren. He’d fought by the side of Falkrid himself, was a veteran of so many battles. He’d left his entire life behind, carrying the weight and memory of a planet full of dead. Why, then, was he more afraid of walking through that hedge than he was of just about anything he’d ever done?
He drew in a few breaths, and and thought of Pantriss’ courage. Her spark, her light, called to his own and he felt his resolve firm. Squaring his shoulders, he stepped forward into the garden, to meet whatever future awaited.
If he was lucky, it would be side by side with the dranfel he loved.