Dara stopped just inside the door.

The moment Dara stopped to catch her breath her dread enveloped her again, like a suffocating velvet cloak she had trailed behind her as she ran. She saw her husband across the room, but he was only half-​​dressed, and in the snowy light he was blue-​​white as a cadaver. The fire was out, and the air smelled chilly and strange.

“Thank you, Madra!” Vash cried. “If ever I wish to incite a revolution among the ladies, I know whom I shall take as my lieutenant!”

Dara laughed shakily and staggered forth.

Dara laughed shakily and stepped away from the door. The stale air swirled in across her teeth, and like a cat she smelled everything more clearly with her tongue. Vomit. Blood. Male sweat. Cold, damp ashes.

“She said you needed me, Shus,” Dara called past Vash to her husband.

He sat hunched over on their daughter’s bed, near a bright window – where her shadow-​​loving Shosudin ought not to have sat. If he were simply ill, she would have found him curled up in the far reaches of a blanket tunnel on their bed, like a badger in his den.

But he sat up – almost – and smiled.

He sat up and smiled.

“He needs you,” Vash scoffed. “There’s scarcely an elf in this place who wouldn’t say the same about his own wife!”

“If only they had known it was that easy,” Shosudin said.

He was trying to make his voice breezy to hide its hoarseness – she heard it at once. Her husband’s true voice was deep as caverns. Silent as he was by nature, she liked to make him talk and talk and talk so she could lie safe in the sound. Today his voice was thin as the wind blowing over the mouth of a cave.

Dara’s fear billowed about her body with every step. She tossed it back from her head and smiled.

She smiled so it would not show.

“I have only been away for four days,” she scolded. “What have you boys been up to in here?”

Shosudin muttered, “Nothing in here.

Vash interrupted, “Ah… how do the men say… an orgy of drunkenness?

Shosudin sighed. “We did not!

Dara laughed. That was all it was!

Dara laughed.

You went and got drunk with Osh and Paul!”

Shosudin groaned, “Never again!”

“He says that every time,” Vash smirked.

“I need you, Dara…” she moaned. “…to hold back my hair when I puke!”

Shosudin sighed again and shook his head.

Dara thought she saw an unhealthy flush to his cheeks

The hair that lay over his shoulders stretched taut rather than slipping forward, as though damp or clinging to damp skin. The bright light of the window made his face a shadow, but Dara thought she saw an unhealthy flush to his cheeks, and a sheen of sweat.

Her laughter faltered. “Shus…”

I would do that much for him,” Vash said. “Even if it is an awful lot of hair.”

Shosudin tipped himself over and pulled his legs up onto the bed after him, one after the other. The light spilled over his face when he lay back, revealing a starkly mottled flush on his white cheeks and breast.

“I suppose you would,” he muttered. The glimpse Dara had of his teeth was laced with blood.

“Shus, I think you’re bleeding,” she whimpered. “Your gums? Or your tongue?”

'Shus, I think you're bleeding.'

Shosudin sucked his teeth and grunted, unsurprised. There were shadows in the wells of his his eyes, deeper than the shadows cast by snow. Dara knew the color. He had drunk of someone else’s pain.

She looked to Vash for an explanation. Vash saw that she had seen, and he let his teasing smile drop like the mask it was.

He put an arm around her and said gravely, “Be good to him, Dara. He’s my hero today.”

'Be good to him, Dara.'

Shosudin huffed softly, apparently unable or unwilling to risk his usual equine snort. “He said he could have kissed me,” he grumbled, “but I told him I would rather have you.”

“That’s what I get when I don’t shave for two days,” Vash sighed.

“But what happened?” Dara whispered.

Vash shrugged, pulling her shoulder against his.

“He saved the life of a little girl the elf Osh loves,” he said. It was strange to hear Vash’s voice cloak such simple words in such solemnity. It made them seem a new style of poem that Dara did not know.

“The little baby?” Dara asked.

She watched the shadows lapping at her husband's ribcage as he breathed.

She watched the shadows lapping at her husband’s ribcage as he breathed: short, shallow breaths like ripples meant to distract him from some deep tides of pain within. She could not fathom how so much injury could have inhabited such a tiny body. She thought he must have raised that little baby from the dead.

But Vash said, “No, a big girl who has seen twelve or thirteen winters.”

He took a breath as if to launch into a long tale, but Shosudin cut him short with a curt, “Frostbite.”

Vash let his arm fall.

Vash let his arm fall.

Dara looked between their faces. Shosudin’s was still, but the raking light revealed it to be rumpled like windblown snow over his brow and around his eyes. Vash’s expression was as vague as a figure seen in a cloud.

“But why…” she whispered.

She could not understand why Shosudin would have done himself such harm for Osh’s sake. He had done less for his dear friend Paul and considered it a great sacrifice. Then he had coughed up blood for days.

“But speaking of little babies,” Shosudin said, “will you ask the elf Madra to send Llia up to us, Vash?”

'But speaking of little babies...'

Vash laughed and began to back away. “I was just about to feel superfluous, I swear! Shall I have dinner sent up?”

“In a few hours,” Dara said. “Unless you’re hungry, Shus? And have Llia sent up in a few hours too.”

Shosudin hastily licked his teeth clean and grinned. “In that case, Vash, you had better have Dara’s dresser sent up instead. Or her un-​​dresser, if you please.”

“I don’t need a dresser to un-​​dress,” Dara laughed.

“Ah, but you need an un-​​lacer,” Shosudin said. He lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness, revealing how red and shiny were his palms. They looked as if he had clapped them down upon a hot stove.



Shosudin flicked the back of his hand at Vash and then hid both of his palms away again. “Vash can unlace you, love. He could use the practice.”

Vash asked, “Are you certain…?”

“Oh, I shall be watching,” Shosudin warned him.

'Oh, I shall be watching.'

“No, I mean, are you certain you…?” He waved his hand vaguely at Shosudin’s midsection before catching himself and hurriedly combing his fingers back through his hair as if it had been his intent all along.

Dara snorted and burst into laughter. “Are you certain?” she cooed. “Are we certain, Shus?”

'Are you certain?'

Vash faltered, “I simply meant…”

Dara pinched at his belly with both hands until he swatted at her and squirmed.

“Dara will make certain,” Shosudin assured him.

“Don’t worry, Vash,” Dara said. “I know just what he needs.”

“And… I don’t want to know!” Vash gasped. “Thank you, and good day!”

He began to back away again, and Dara pinched his cheek to drag him to a halt.

“One last thing,” she reminded him. She pointed back over her shoulder with her thumb.

“Oh, true,” he smiled. He wiped his hands on his pants like a nervous little boy. “I am not terribly good at this, you know.”

“How would you even know?” Dara asked slyly.

'How would you even know?'

“Ah… good question!”

“Don’t tease the boy, Dara,” Shosudin sighed. “Lest I take pity and invite him over now and then to practice.”

Vash said, “I wish you luck explaining to my father how my fingers came to be knotted up in your wife’s laces.”

Dara laughed, but she obediently swept her curls up off her shoulders and onto the top of her head. She had not considered how it might feel to have a strange elf breathing into her unbound hair, and she wished she had at least twisted it up into a bun beforehand.

But Vash, she realized after a while, was careful to hold his breath whenever he bent his head near her shoulder. His hands were both awkward and gentle, like a new husband’s, like a new father’s. Dara held her breath then, too, in helpless compassion and some slight shame. Merely because she would be separated from her husband for a few weeks, she had cried herself to sleep the night before.

“You needn’t pull the laces out entirely,” Shosudin said. “It isn’t like your vest. Just put some slack into them so she can pull it off over her head.”

'You needn't pull the laces out entirely.'

“See?” Vash laughed. “I told you I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You’re doing very well,” Dara assured him.

His fingers had twitched farther down her back than the length of her hair, and she let it fall. She decided she did not mind if he breathed a hint of its perfume.

“Why don’t you come back for dinner later when Llia comes?” she asked him.

“Thank you,” Vash said into the small of her back, “but I should probably spend the rest of the day with my father, if he’s still speaking to me.”

“You had better get to him before the elf Saralla does,” Shosudin said.

'You had better get to him before the elf Saralla does.'

“That also,” Vash sighed. He stood and pulled Dara’s loose gown from side to side over her waist. “Good enough?” he asked.

“Very good,” Dara said. Then, before she quite knew what she was doing herself, she slipped an arm around his waist and pulled him close to kiss his cheek. He smiled, but from so near she could see how much weariness had welled in his eyes.

“Your husband is watching,” he whispered. “But you do good to remind me to shave.”

'Your husband is watching.'

“Go shave,” she giggled. “Then perhaps even Shus will kiss you.”

Too late she thought the words could have seemed cruel to an elf whose ears were attuned to such cruelty. She wondered whether Vash’s were.

He slipped free of her arm and patted her shoulder. “Not while his wife is watching,” he said with a wink of one weary eye.

He turned to the bed and stiffly bowed, as though a king reposed upon it. He opened his mouth and took a sharp breath, but in the end he only nodded at Shosudin and said, “Thank you, and good day,” even as he turned away.

'Thank you, and good day.'

Dara wanted to call a farewell after him, but her husband was silent, so she decided silence was the right thing to do.

After he had gone and the sound of his boot steps had faded, she let her shoulders sag and sighed, “Poor Vash.”

“Don’t say that,” Shosudin muttered.

“Why not?”

“He deserves better than that.”

'He deserves better than that.'

Uncertain how to reply, Dara grabbed the loose waist of her dress in handfuls and began squirming out of it. Shosudin lay back on the mattress again, but as she pulled her gown off over her head, she heard him speak.

“Vash is not living his life to be pitied,” he said. “He is living the best, bravest, most honorable life he can. Instead of pitying himself, and going down to take a nap on the breast of a kisór slut, he’s going to go shave, and have dinner with his father, and endure a scolding I wouldn’t give a five-​​year-​​old, and then spend the rest of the evening trying to cheer up the old elf and make him forget his troubles for a time.”

Dara slowly folded up her gown into a loose bundle, stunned to hear her taciturn husband make such a speech without prompting, and with such a hoarse throat.

“I simply meant he must be lonely…” she said. “He tries to be everything to everybody, but who dries Vash’s tears when he cries?”

'I simply meant he must be lonely.'

Shosudin wiped his hand over his face and muttered into his palm, “I don’t believe Vash has any tears left to cry.”

He lifted his hand away and said to Dara, “He could have done things differently, and had his wife, and perhaps even kept Paul here, too, but he did what he thought was right, and that’s more important to Vash than getting what he wants. He gave the elf Iylaina a choice, which was more than any other elf ever did for her. And more than anyone ever did for him. He’s my hero, Dara. He has sacrificed more of himself out of love for others than any elf I know.”

Dara laid her knee on the edge of the mattress and leaned over him. “I was thinking the same thing of you just a moment ago.”

'I was thinking the same thing of you just a moment ago.'

Shosudin snorted and blinked his eyes as if jolted awake, either startled to discover himself the author of such a long monologue, or surprised to have implicated himself at the end of it.

“And he did hold my hair when I puked,” he muttered. “Which is more than I ever did for him.”

Now that they were alone, Dara would not be so easily turned aside. “Who is this girl?” she asked.

'Just a girl called Crow.'

“Just a girl called Crow,” Shosudin sighed.

He lay back and pressed the feverish fingers of one hand over his eyes. Dara stroked feather-​​light circles over his shoulder with her fingernails, waiting.

After a while he added, “An orphan girl who has made herself unwelcome at so many houses that she somehow ended up at Paul’s. Vash only met her a few days ago, and he told me then that he was worried the elf Osh had gotten attached to her too quickly. And coming home today, I found myself telling him he had.”

“Sounds like more than just a girl,” Dara murmured, trying to lead him on.

“Just a girl,” he said firmly. One dark eye peered out at her from between his fingers, unblinking. Dara knew when a conversation with Shosudin was closed.

She lifted her other leg up onto the bed and wriggled her body tightly against his. Her shift clung to his damp skin, and she could feel his fever as if it were hers.

She stroked her cool hand over his forehead and hair, and he sighed deeply, as she knew he would. She caught his breath in her mouth and breathed it in, lifting a first flake of him up, light as foam, out of his mire of pain.

She caught his breath in her mouth and breathed it in.

“If I had known it would be this easy…” he whispered as he breathed a second time.

“I don’t want you hurting yourself simply to see us a few weeks more,” Dara scolded softly. “Life is long enough for that.”

“Not only a few weeks,” he insisted. “If we, ah… make certain now, then I shall have you and Llia all winter…” He kissed her once and then made her chase after his lips with hers as he talked on. “…and have you and Llia all spring… and have you and Llia all summer… and in the autumn,” he concluded with another quick kiss, “I shall have you and Llia and another small elf, name and gender to be determined.”

'I shall have you and Llia and another small elf.'

Dara laughed silently. Her husband’s breath was so much sweeter when he smiled.

“And then, next winter, I shall ask Vash to find me another person to heal, and we shall begin again.”

“Oh, shall we?” Dara asked. “Just how many children do you plan to have?”

'Just how many children do you plan to have?'

“I should like to have at least five, and outdo my dad.”

Dara shook her head. “Shus, you are such a revolutionary.

I am?” He laughed breathily against her cheek. “Who’s the elf presently straddling her husband’s hips without the Shalla’s permission?”

Dara tried to giggle, but she was beginning to feel the terrible weight of his pain in her shoulders, even if she knew he would not let her feel the pain itself. In silence she stroked her face over his and kissed him with her breath.

“You remind me I need to shave,” he murmured dreamily. “Which I cannot do at the moment with these hands.”

He slipped one hand beneath the hair on the back of her neck to demonstrate. It felt as if he had only just lifted it off the surface of the stove.

He slipped one hand beneath the hair on the back of her neck to demonstrate.

“I cannot braid your hair either, love,” he whispered. “We shall look like a blessed funeral in here.”

“But be so happy,” she said.

He snorted in agreement. After a moment he added, “But at least you can wipe these off.”

He gently pushed her away and brushed one hot thumb over her cheek – over the sparkling, stylized teardrops the ladies applied to their faces during these seasons of separation.

“No more tears,” he whispered.

He frowned at her face for a moment and then inspected his hand. He licked the pad of his thumb and tried again to wipe the little spots away. Dara giggled.

'What is this stuff?'

“What is this stuff?” he asked. “How do you get it off?”

“It doesn’t come off with water,” she said. “Otherwise we would wash them away with our true tears.”

He inhaled sharply, drawing Dara more deeply into his body than he meant, until she broke the scummy surface of his tide pools of pain. She shuddered, and he breathed her out softly again, until they were only two bodies lying side-​​by-​​side in a cloud of mingled breath.

“No more tears for us two,” he said. “Life is too short for that, Dara. And love is too long.”

'No more tears for us two.'