Klauen hooked his hands behind his head, his gaze tracing the ceiling of his cell for what had to be the ninetieth time since his entrapment. It was far more faceted than his previous cell, but the light playing over the jagged facades of the four rock faces that formed the walls of this cage only held his interest for a brief period of time.
He was sprawled out on the single piece of furniture that occupied the cell; a thin mattress fashioned out of straw and a threadbare blanket. The Stahlborn was surprised they’d even bothered with that much, considering how many glares he’d been tossed since he had arrived here.
Animosity lined every inch of these caves, permeating every cavern and crevice. From where his cell had been hewn into the rock, he’d been able to hear every one of Verraten Eisen’s words – his hatred, his fury, his cry for the execution of Klauen’s siblings.
The Stahldritten had turned over on the floor of his cell and tried to press the words from his mind.
He had been roused by screaming the next time, the sound of it echoing from the cavern and layered with agony. He’d seen the loyal soldiers of the Iron Faithful filtering past the corridor his cell breached onto as they’d filed into the cavern, and seen a team of them lugging a stretcher down the corridor away from him.
He’d heard nothing more from them after that, except to hear them drag what sounded like a body down the corridor that branched off his. Klauen’s imprisonment had been solitary since then, and he’d fidgeted aimlessly as the hours wore on, restlessly searching for something to fill his starved mind.
The manacles that bound his wrists in short chain made exercise a challenge, and robbed him of one of the few luxuries he had left in here. He could only be glad that he hadn’t had to suffer through Herrin or Kuren’s presence since his arrival here.
He was roused now by the sound of chain links sliding against metal, and rolled over to watch a hand fumble through the grated door inset in the rock face adjacent to where his mattress lay. He didn’t bother coming up to a sit until the lock had been removed and the door opened wide.
The figure ducked under the low doorframe, stepping into the cell. His wandering silver eyes found Klauen immediately, and then the Stahldritten was leaping to his feet, his manacled hands clenched into fists.
“This is low,” Klauen muttered, his tone streaked with fury and pain, “even for you.”
A brow creased the man’s appearance, and Klauen’s chest stirred at the expression on Blair’s face. It was so genuine, so lifelike; he could almost imagine, for a brief instant, that he hadn’t felt the warmth leech out of the Eisen’s body.
“What are you talking about?” the figure asked, and the sound wrenched at Klauen’s eardrums, prying his lips apart as they sighed with regret and agony.
“Fuck you,” he whispered, and repeated it with more vehemence. “Fuck you, Kuren. Stop this.”
“Kuren?” Blair repeated with another frown. “Kuren Rotehre?”
“FUCK YOU!” he bellowed, taking a wrathful step forward and finding that he lacked the conviction to move any closer to the figure. Even if he was an illusion, he was still a bittersweet one. “This is cruel, even for you. What can you possibly gain, you sociopath? What do you want this time?”
“Klauen,” the figure said, a hint of hurt in his tone as he stepped forward. Klauen blanched and backed up, causing Blair to falter. “Klauen, what–”
“I know you’re an illusion,” Klauen whispered, feeling tears prickle at the corner of his eyes. In the back of his mind, he wondered how long it had been since he had cried. He blinked and forced his voice to fortify. “I know you’re not real, but I want you to be.”
There was earnest in his tone this time. “Klauen, I’m not an illusion.”
Something broke in him then, something that had his knees collapsing to the stone floors beneath him and his spine ricocheting back into the jagged rock behind him. “Please don’t do this, Kuren. He’s fucking been through enough. Please don’t do this to him.”
The figure surged forward then, and Klauen yelped a half-concocted scream, raising hands to fend off the illusion as Blair’s arms surged around his shoulders and encased him. He embraced the terrified Highborn, pressed his face into the crook of his warm neck as Klauen shuddered wide eyed, his gaze tracing the freckled constellations upon his collarbone that he knew so intimately.
“I’m real,” Blair promised, breathing hard and hot into the crown of his head, shifting to kiss his forehead. “I’m real, okay? I’m here. I’m really here.”
Klauen raised shaking hands to his chest, fisting hands in the material of his shirt, revelling in the heat that the Eisen produced, and the muscles that rolled, and the freckles that spotted his bare skin. His vision swam with tears, and he buried his face into Blair’s shoulder, crying earnestly.
When his sobs had finally quietened enough for him to form steady breaths, Blair pried himself away from the shivering Highlord, sitting back to meet his eyes. There was a crooked smile on his lips, one that spoke of familiarity.
“You’re alive,” Klauen croaked, and Blair laughed, tears sprinkling his gaze.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you this distraught, Klauen,” Blair teased, but it lacked his usual biting sarcasm, marred by emotion too thick to disguise.
The sound of his name in Blair’s mouth was a benediction after all these months, after losing him, after watching him die in the snow for Klauen’s pride. The Highborn’s heart sank somewhere into the pit of his stomach as guilt washed over him afresh.
Pain contorted Klauen’s face into a grimace. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know– I couldn’t–” He gulped harshly, dragging in sharp inhales of air. “I couldn’t stop her, I didn’t know she would– I’m so, so sorry. I–”
Blair embraced him again, pulling back to press their foreheads together, a firm hand on the back of Klauen’s neck. “Look at me,” he ordered, and Klauen’s silver orbs fixed on him like he was the last being on the planet. “None of what happened was your doing or your fault, you hear me? None of it. I don’t blame you for any of it. And I don’t want you blaming yourself, understand me?”
Klauen nodded reluctantly, but he could see Blair didn’t buy his contrition. The lowlord sighed and closed his eyes.
“It’s over now, anyway,” Blair said quietly, and a chuckle tugged his lips into a smile. “I’m alive. I’m alive and I’m here, and I’m with you. Mothers, I’ve missed you.”
“You have no idea,” Klauen whined into the crook of his neck, pressing a soft kiss to the warm skin there. He doubted the sensation of it could ever dull in his opinion. Blair was alive.
“So tell me, what did I miss?” Blair asked coyly, grinning like his old usual self, and the sight was enough to have tears of joy bubbling at the corners of Klauen’s eyes again.
“Who cares,” Klauen gasped, pressing a shower of kisses into the lines of Blair’s neck. Blair seized his neck in one hand, pulling him forward until their lips met, and Klauen relaxed into the line of his body, contented.
When they pulled back for air, Klauen laid his temple against Blair’s shoulder and let his eyes sink closed. “You’re alive,” he whispered, and smiled.