The bandersnatch’s blood swirled away in a red cloud as Thancred washed his hands in the pool. The beast lay dead several yalms away, prepared for him to trade with the Vath.
When the water cleared, Thancred looked down at his reflection. He hardly recognized the man he saw there. He’d turned as brown as he had been as a child living on the docks, and his hair looked overgrown, spilling over his eyepatch in a mess of white.
Something stirred in the brush. Thancred’s head jerked up, and he reached for the dagger he’d laid down on the bank to dry.
An Elezen man with dark skin and sleek black hair emerged from the trees, dressed in furs and leading a chocobo by the reins. He looked Thancred up and down, and Thancred suppressed a shiver--those startling blue eyes seemed to see right through him.
“You’re the one who’s been huntin’ for the Vath?”
“Yes,” said Thancred, his voice raspy from disuse, fingers tightening around the hilt of his knife.
The chocobo puffed its feathers and trilled. The man reached up and patted it on the beak.
“Shh, steady, girl. He means no harm. In fact, he’s about to put that knife down, if he knows what’s best for him.”
Thancred slowly set the dagger aside. The chocobo scratched her talons in the dirt, but she looked appeased. The man laughed.
“Thought you were about to start clickin’ and chatterin’ at me,” he said. “Name’s Marcechamp. I’m from the village o’er thataways.”
Thancred said nothing.
“If the rumors are to be believed, you’re quite the woodsman. My people say you took down a mighty beastkin with nothin’ but a rock. An’ no small amount of style.”
“Rumors,” Thancred said, “right.”
“Charmin’ fellow, ain’t you?”
Thancred almost snorted. Quite literally stripped of all the niceties of society, it just seemed pointless to pretend. He got to his feet and dusted himself off.
“And who might your people be?”
“The finest hunters and trappers this side of the Whilom, no offense to yourself. Who are yours?”
Thancred shrugged. “I assume most of them to be dead.”
Marcechamp squinted at him. “Tell you what. I’ll have Ardelle carry your prize and the three of us can go back to Tailfeather together. Feed you a proper meal.”
“You’re more than welcome to stay the night with me. I’d like the chance to speak to you. ‘Course, if you prefer it out here…” Marcechamp gave him a dubious look.
Thancred glanced back in the direction of his cave before following after him.
They walked awhile in silence, Marcechamp resting a hand on his chocobo’s back. He navigated with ease despite the dense canopy of the trees and the low evening light, and it was all Thancred could do to keep up.
“Do you trust everyone so easily?” he said at length. “I could be an escaped criminal, for all you know. You never asked my name.”
Marcechamp didn’t even turn, keeping his back to Thancred when he replied. “Well, we all have our reasons for leavin’ proper civilization behind. Yours can wait ‘til later.”
So he hadn’t always lived here. Thancred made a vague sound of acknowledgement.
Marcechamp seemed to guess at his thoughts. “Some of us fled to the forelands after the calamity. Farms froze over and they needed a new way to make a livin’. I’ve been here longer, but I was seeking my fortune hunting chocobos to take back to the See.”
“Yet you remain.”
“I s’pose you could say I found something more worthwhile.”
They arrived at the village as the sun was sinking beyond the mountains and Menphina rising full in the south. Thancred had spied on the tiny hamlet from a distance before but avoided going into it, opting instead to trade with the sort of beings who wouldn’t question his identity or allegiances.
There were still a few villagers outside, tanning hides or practicing archery on some targets. Everyone they passed called out to Marcechamp, and he smiled and waved back while Thancred shrank further into his shadow.
Marcechamp dropped the bandersnatch carcass off at a storage shed before stabling his chocobo.
“Goodnight, ‘Delle,” he told her as he covered her back with a blanket, and he kissed her on the top of her feathered head. Thancred hovered by the entrance, feeling oddly embarrassed, but Marcechamp paid him no mind, striding past him toward the direction of a small cottage.
“Home at last,” he announced, holding the door open for Thancred.
Inside was a large room with bare stone walls, a small stove, and several beds made up, presumably for Marcechamp and a few guests. Thancred unbuckled his shoulder strap and set his belt on one of the beds while Marcechamp busied himself with making tea.
“Do you have anything else? I don’t mean to put you out.” He patted a pillow to find it full of down, probably from a chocobo. It was certainly nicer than a pile of leaves.
“Not unless you fancy a night in the stables.” Marcechamp poured hot water into the teapot and set the kettle aside. “Tea’ll be ready in a bit, if you don’t mind bitterdrake. I’ll put some stew on to warm.”
“Would you like some help?”
“Just rest for now. I’ll let you know when it’s done.”
Thancred fell backward on the bed and closed his eyes. Outside, he could hear the river running through the village, the creaking of the water wheel as it turned, the rustle of the wind in the trees. Owls calling.
He had to admit, it was pleasant.
“You fall asleep over there?”
Thancred joined him at the table, and Marcechamp ladled out two servings of a fragrant stew into wooden bowls.
“This was my girl’s favorite, afore she left the nest.” Marcechamp said. “Wonder how she’s gettin’ on these days.”
Thancred grunted, took a tentative sip, and then began to shovel it down with the fervor of a man half-starved.
“Easy, lad, you’ll swallow the spoon,” said Marcechamp, sounding concerned and a little amused. Thancred tipped the bowl and drained the rest of its contents, then slammed it on the table.
“Sorry,” he gasped, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I suppose I was hungrier than I thought.”
Marcechamp leaned his head on his hand, observing him. “Funny how you talk like a gentleman, but you’ve the manners of a wild hound. ”
Thancred felt his face heat up despite himself. “I… I do appreciate this. And I apologize for earlier, it was terribly rude of me.”
“Think nothin’ of it, lad.”
“Thancred. Pray, call me Thancred.”
After dinner, Marcechamp insisted Thancred finish his tea while he cleared the table, so Thancred sat and watched as Marcechamp stripped off his furs, leaving him in a simple black chemise and waist wrap. He had quite muscular thighs, no doubt from extensive training with chocobos, and they were decorated with twisting black tattoos that matched the ones on his arms.
Marcechamp caught him looking and grinned, and Thancred felt an uncomfortable stirring in his gut.
He had known for a long time there was something different about him-- he just didn’t know what. There were rude jokes in the taverns and on the docks, the whispers in the markets, but it wasn’t until he was whisked away to Sharlayan that he learned.
Not from any formal education, either: from harboring feelings for his roommate, to a furtive kiss in the library after hours, to discovering that if he wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar, he had to bury a fundamental truth about himself.
As such, his literary pursuits never included men. Physical evidence aside, the poetry never flowed in the same way; the words caught in his throat or blotted on the page.
“You play cards, Thancred?” Marcechamp’s voice cut through his thoughts, and Thancred looked up to see him fish out a triple triad deck from a box on the table.
Marcechamp split the cards down the middle and began to shuffle them with quick, practiced movements. “How about a match?”
In truth, Thancred was a deft hand at cards, although he thought it rude to sharp the man who opened his home to him so graciously. Without the usual tricks, Marcechamp proved a skilled and clever opponent, and the two of them played several intense matches before Thancred folded.
Marcechamp leaned back in his chair, grinning. “You might’ve won that last one if you weren’t so distracted.”
“I’m still trying to work out how I lost,” Thancred said with a frown. “I must confess that the local ruleset is unfamiliar to me.”
“Ha! Thanks for humoring an old man, then.”
Thancred squinted at him. Marcechamp didn’t look very old, but Elezen tended to show age later than other races. He did mention he had a daughter who was grown.
“It-- it’s nice. I’m glad for the company. No one tells you beforehand that becoming a hermit is a terrible bore.” He’d taken to conversing with nutkin, for Twelve’s sake.
“That it is. Mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
Marcechamp took out a small pouch, pinched some of its contents into a paper and rolled it between his fingers. He lit the cigarette and breathed in deeply, smoke curling around him in lavender tendrils. Thancred watched, transfixed.
“Fogweed,” Marcechamp explained. “Helps take the edge off before a hunt. Here.” He passed the rolled up paper to Thancred, who took a drag. The acrid smell made his eyes water.
Gods, he couldn’t help himself. “Seems a bit late in the evening for hunting.” He gave Marcechamp a sly glance as he handed it back and their fingers brushed together.
Marcechamp arched an eyebrow, and for a sickening moment Thancred thought he had misread what this was, the way Marcechamp had smiled at him earlier-- “Do you know how we break a wild bird in, Thancred?” he asked.
Thancred shook his head.
“They need a firm hand, aye, but you have to talk sweet to them. Let ‘em know you’ve got their best interests at heart, an’ before you know it, you’ll have ‘em eatin’ out of your palm.” Marcechamp blew a smoke ring thoughtfully, his mouth forming a perfect ‘o’ shape. “You still seem a mite skittish.”
“Are you calling me a wild chocobo?” Thancred asked, amused.
“I’m not callin’ you a tame one,” said Marcechamp. He tapped his cigarette. “I’d say you’ve been by yourself for too long.”
“Feelin’ like you wanna talk now?”
Oddly enough, he did. He felt a loose-limbed ease with real food in his belly and the strange scent of the fogweed hanging in the air.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“I’m curious how you ended up here.”
Thancred owed the man something, at least. He thought for a moment. “I was part of a-- an organization, shall we say. Nothing untoward,” he added quickly. “A band of performers.”
“Explains the clothes. What did you do?”
“Hm… knife tricks.”
Marcechamp nodded. “I imagine you’re good with those.”
“Not good enough. One of our lot sold us out to bandits on the road, and we scattered in our attempt to flee. I ended up here.”
Marcechamp’s sharp blue eyes never left his face, and Thancred was struck with the uncanny sense that Marcechamp could tell he was lying. If he did, it seemed he wasn’t going to bring it up, and for that Thancred was grateful.
“I should have seen the double-cross coming, but I did not,” he continued, “and now they are gone and I must live with the consequences.”
As he finished his story, a wave of grief swept over him: for the Scions, for his friends, for the years stretching out before him that he would spend alone. His very worst fears, all realized in one terrible night.
“Hells.” Marcechamp exhaled. “You’ve caught your share of misfortune, haven’t you.”
Thancred was silent.
“You want my advice?” Marcechamp asked, extinguishing his cigarette in the ashtray on the table.
“Stay in Tailfeather for now. I don’t much care how good of a hunter you are, it’s only a matter of time before you run afoul of somethin’ in those woods you can’t handle.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Thancred, aiming for a light tone and missing. He winced hearing the hurt in his own voice. Be careful, Thancred. Don’t overexert yourself, Thancred. We don’t want something to happen to you again, Thancred.
Their worrying didn’t matter a damn bit now. In all likelihood, every last one of them was dead, and he was too far away and too weak to do anything about it. At least in the forest, he couldn’t hurt anyone but himself.
“I’ve been doing this nigh on twenty summers, and I wouldn’t put some of my best out there for more ‘an a fortnight.”
“Your best?” Thancred said. He hadn’t missed the way the villagers responded to their return, but he didn’t think--
“Aye.” Marcechamp slumped a little in his chair, as if the weight of responsibility settled back on him for admitting it. “They’re mine. I’m the closest thing to a leader Tailfeather’ll tolerate.”
Oh. So that was the reason he’d been invited. Thancred swallowed down the absurd disappointment caught in his throat. “You want me to work for you.”
“No! Yes.” He waved his hand. “You’re a damn good hunter, from what I hear. But I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I daresay I have no intention of joining you, and I shall take my leave now. Lovely chat.” He stood. Marcechamp rose as well, catching him by the arm.
“Sit down. Fury’s sake, it’s too dark to go out alone.”
Thancred did not sit down. Instead, he stepped closer, until he was right in Marcechamp’s face. Or rather at his chin, glaring up at him.
“Are you proposing to come with me, then?”
Marcechamp didn’t let go. “I’m proposin’ you wait until dawn before you go traipsing off. Stalkin’ the woods like a bleedin’ terror,” he growled. “‘Course I had to bring you in.”
“Of course,” Thancred echoed. They were close. He could feel Marcechamp’s every breath.
“Don’t think you can distract me with your roguish wiles, either,” he said, his hand closing around Thancred’s forearm, thumb pressing at the inside of his wrist.
“I hardly intended to.” In fact, Thancred found himself unable to pull away, or look elsewhere, or do anything but stand there blushing like a fool while Marcechamp held onto him.
“You look like you wanna kiss me. That’s all.”
Thancred swallowed. “It’s not all, but it’s a start.”
They met in the middle. Marcechamp’s well-trimmed beard scraped his jaw. Thancred’s mouth parted for him, and he made a small, startled sound when Marcechamp reached up to stroke his jaw.
“Like that?” Marcechamp asked.
“I didn’t know,” said Thancred, barely above a whisper. “I didn’t know that you would want this.” That you would want me.
“Hard not to notice when you’ve been givin’ me the eye all night.” Marcechamp trailed his fingers over the mark of knowing on Thancred’s neck.
Thancred flushed, his heart thudding against his ribs. “What would your hunters say?” he asked, and he meant for it to sound joking, but his voice cracked a little. He reached out to touch the bare skin of Marcechamp’s shoulder, the tattoos there just as sharp and beautiful as the rest of him.
There was no law against loving men in Ul’dah, but Thancred had always been careful regardless, eschewing romantic attachment in favor of the occasional tryst at a discreet inn. Only ever in the city proper, nowhere close to the Waking Sands. Some of the Scions had known, of course, but it was always wiser not to mix business with pleasure.
“That don’t matter out here, lad,” Marcechamp said softly, and Thancred fought back a clever retort and kissed him instead, Marcechamp’s lips sweet with whatever paint he used to color them. Thancred dragged his thumb over the scar beneath Marcechamp’s eye and Marcechamp’s grip tightened on his wrist.
“Pretty thing,” Marcechamp murmured into his mouth. “C’mere.”
It wasn’t a performance; there was none of the guilt or anxiety. Kissing Marcechamp felt good, it felt right, and Thancred leaned in so the line of his body met Marcechamp's.
“However you want me,” he said.
“Good,” said Marcechamp. He smoothed Thancred’s hair with his hand, petting him like one would a dog. Thancred melted into the touch, his jaw going slack and his eyes closing, and Marcechamp pulled at Thancred’s hair gently, tilting his head up to look at him. “Tell me where to touch you.”
Thancred made a noise in the back of his throat, almost a whine. Marcechamp dipped down to kiss his collarbone.
“I don’t-- oh, by the Twelve.” He had always been a man of words, but finding them at the moment was proving rather difficult with Marcechamp’s teeth at his neck and his hands all over.
Thankfully, Marcechamp was able to intuit from the way his hips moved against him. “Here?” The pressure of Marcechamp’s palm at the front of his trousers near enough made him sob.
“Hold on a moment.” Thancred reached up and tugged Marcechamp’s hair free of its tie. It fell over his shoulder in a dark wave, soft in the moonlight.
Marcechamp put his lips to Thancred’s ear and hummed his approval, then hooked a finger under the band around Thancred’s neck and pulled. “Let’s move this to a bed.”
With Thancred’s fumbling help, Marcechamp shed his waist wrap and pulled his top over his head.
His body, Thancred noticed, was covered in scars, and it made him feel less self-conscious about his own. He wanted to trace each one with his fingers and tongue, to chart the path of the scar that wound around Marcechamp’s lithe torso, or follow the marks that looked like claws on the side of one powerful thigh.
Thancred undressed himself quickly, stripping naked but for the bandana covering his eye, and Marcechamp looked him over in turn, admiring and unmistakably hungry. Thancred sat back on the bed, conscious of how heavy his cock was between his legs.
“Perhaps I should tie you up,” Marcechamp said. Thancred let out an involuntary noise and Marcechamp laughed, low and warm. “I’ve a lasso or two lyin’ around. You’d look good in rope.”
He knelt in front of Thancred, taking hold of him in a work-rough hand.
Thancred arched up to meet him, moaning and spreading his thighs, and Marcechamp circled the head with his thumb, smearing the precome there until Thancred’s cock was flushed and glistening.
“Sounds so sweet,” Marcechamp said, looking up at him with eyes bright. “My name on your lips. Thought it would.”
Marcechamp leaned in and took the tip in his mouth, rolling it on his tongue, and Thancred honest-to-Twelve whimpered, tangling his hands in Marcechamp’s silky hair.
It was strange and unfamiliar, the way Marcechamp touched him, as if he was devoted to Thancred’s pleasure alone. There was an gentleness to their coupling that Thancred had never experienced before, and he wanted Marcechamp so badly his chest hurt.
“Stop,” he finally gasped, feeling his cock bump the back of Marcechamp’s throat, “Marcechamp, please, or I’ll come.”
Marcechamp pulled off, mouth wet and swollen, a flush over his high cheekbones. “Other plans for you,” he said, his voice ragged.
Thancred reached down and squeezed the base of his prick, feeling somewhat lightheaded. He was unsure how long he would last at this rate.
Marcechamp straightened and went to the cabinet. He returned with a small bottle, the contents of which he spilled over his fingers.
“Alright?” Marcechamp leaned in and kissed him, long and deep.
“Yes.” It was alright, because he was there to guide Thancred’s head and his hands and to tell him what to do.
Thancred obeyed and drew his legs up close to his body, and Marcechamp settled himself between them, pressing his thighs apart and up.
“Breathe, now. That’s it.” Marcechamp rubbed a slick finger back and forth over him before pushing in. He moved with care and purpose, and Thancred had to throw an elbow over his mouth to stifle a cry.
Marcechamp’s other hand slid over his chest to play with his nipples, rubbing and pinching at the stiff flesh. He bent to tug at one with his teeth, tongue flicking over it, and Thancred jerked, hips bucking in a vain attempt to find relief for his aching cock.
“Gettin’ impatient?” Marcechamp asked.
Thancred stole a glance at Marcechamp’s length, thick with need and leaving a wet trail where it bumped against his stomach.
“Are you?” he asked through gritted teeth.
“I could do this for ages,” Marcechamp said, and then his other hand was at Thancred’s hip, holding him down, preventing him from thrusting back. “Until you’re too hoarse to speak.”
His fingers twisted deeper, opening him up. Thancred’s breath stuttered.
“Is that what you want?” Marcechamp asked.
“Tell me, Thancred.” The way he said Thancred's name, gods. Like spoken verse.
“Fuck me,” Thancred turned his face up to him, pleading. “Please, fuck me.”
Marcechamp cursed, jerked Thancred closer by his calves, and lined himself up. The head of Marcechamp’s cock pressed against him and he sank inside with a groan, clutching at his hips. Thancred drew a shaky breath.
“It’s been a while-- oh --” He couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything but grip the sheets tighter and squeeze his eyes shut as the sensation of being full overwhelmed him.
“I can tell. Fury, you’re so tight.” Marcechamp pushed in further and stilled, his arms trembling with restraint where they were braced at Thancred’s sides. His teeth bit into his lower lip.
Thancred placed a steadying hand on Marcechamp’s back.
“Go on,” he said. “You’re not going to break me.”
Marcechamp moved, and the blurred mixture of pain and desire gave way to pure pleasure. Thancred’s entire body shuddered around him and Marcechamp bent to capture his mouth in a heated kiss.
“Please, oh gods,” Thancred gasped. “Marcechamp--”
“You’re lovely,” he said. “You’re perfect.”
He put Thancred on his back, trapping his cock between them. Thancred cried out, begged, gave himself over to the feeling of strong arms pinning him down and handling him with tenderness while Marcechamp spoke pretty words into his ear.
“Are you close?” Thancred asked, looking up at him. Marcechamp’s brow shone with sweat, his eyes dark and unfocused. Thancred lifted a hand to his cheek. “I want you to come inside.”
Marcechamp swore and began to pick up his pace, fucking Thancred hard into the bed. “Hells, Thancred, you’re-- ah-- ”
Thancred clamped his thighs tight around Marcechamp’s waist as he spent, feeling the rush of heat inside him, burying his face in Marcechamp’s shoulder.
Marcechamp withdrew and Thancred’s cock twitched at the feeling of his seed leaking out of him. He pawed at Marcechamp’s arm, frustrated and needy, and Marcechamp gently gathered him up. Thancred let himself be cradled against the other man’s chest, Marcechamp’s fingers closing around his length.
“You’re safe here,” he said, his voice rough, “I’ve got you.”
A relaxed warmth came over him and Thancred went limp in his arms, nuzzling Marcechamp’s neck as Marcechamp covered him in soft kisses. It only took a few moments before Thancred was coming in his hand.
Sated and sore, Thancred curled up with Marcechamp stroking his hair. He soon fell into a dreamless slumber, and for what was perhaps the first time in weeks, he did not wake until morning.
“So,” came a voice from the doorway. “I take it there was little for you to do in Ala Mhigo with our busybody warrior running around."
Thancred stiffened in his chair, remembering he’d taken off his eye patch for the night, but he relaxed once he recognized Y’shtola’s voice. It used to be they could sense one another’s approach-- nowadays her quiet step caught him unaware more often than not. “I know the Stones are not the same without me.”
She merely shrugged.
“I missed you, too,” he said. “Feels less lively without Lyse, though, doesn’t it?”
Y’shtola sat down on his bed, tail swishing back and forth behind her. “It is not that I dislike it here. I detest recovery,” she said and folded her hands in her lap.
He nodded sympathetically, turning back to his desk and shuffling the parchment around.
“Are you working on a song?” she asked.
“This, my dear Shtola, is a letter.”
“To one of your sweethearts?” Her tone grew businesslike, as if his romantic pursuits were a diplomatic matter, and he grinned despite himself.
“Something like that. A man from Dravania. He helped me soon after I first arrived.”
At the mention of Dravania, a shadow crossed Y’shtola’s features. Though almost a year had passed, she still blamed herself for what happened that night, as surely as he did.
Thancred cleared his throat and continued. “I, uh, left rather abruptly the next morning, and I’m afraid I made him quite concerned for my well-being. We met again when I returned to the forelands with Lord Aymeric. Marcechamp gave me a scolding that would put Papalymo to shame, and the two of us have been exchanging letters since.”
That was the short of it, anyway. He left out the more salacious details, like the night he left the honorable Ser Aymeric in a nearby hunter’s hut while Marcechamp had Thancred in his bed. Repeatedly.
“Marcechamp, hmm? I should like to meet this fellow.” Y’shtola tilted her head. “You could invite him here, you know.”
“I know,” he said, and smiled at her.
After discussing more of the developments in his absence, she bade him goodnight and returned to her room, leaving him to his letter. On the other side of the wall, he could hear a faint clinking of glasses and the hum of conversation as the rest of the Scions enjoyed a peaceful evening.
Still smiling, Thancred dipped his chocobo-feather quill into the inkwell and began to write.