[22:24] Over the coming weeks, Nayabaru came and went, partitioning the room as announced. The kavkem retreat became larger, a broad, generous, windowless crescent cut out of the overall hall, with the lights in their portion not quite dismantled, but brought under their control, removing all need for their tent.
Of course the Nayabaru could override their choice, but somehow even they understood it would be rude, and an agreement had been made that they would only ever turn on the light if Ryrha or Baishar were under some kind of investigation.
Valcen's office gradually became a better equipped structure at the opposite end of the hall, itself in turn bifurcated. The three sections had doors – all of them out to the sides of the hall, where their curves came together, though stopping just short of actually doing so. An additional door led from the central area to Valcen's office – but not to the retreat.
[22:25] Sometime in the middle of the refurbishing, Valcen replaced one of his eyes with the trinket he'd worked on with Terenyira. He was blind on the eye as it healed, absent at least once a day to see the specially trained Yeresoa that would help the nerves of his eye socket properly connect to the device. He explained he would do the same thing to his other eye in due time.
And in the middle of hall, the Nayabaru gradually built a contraption to Valcen's specifications.
It was clear it was meant to hold a kavkem. Specifically, it was meant to hold a kavkem quite firmly, with sturdy straps that could be tightened as far as the handler pleased. For a long time, it was the only thing there, a lonely promise of a less pleasant future.
[22:26] Then the Nayabaru brought ladders, lay cables, set up a scaffolding, and finally brought a scattered, failed sequence of devices meant to slot into the ceiling.
Baishar's formal duties were only so much of a distraction. Valcen had thanked them for each of the two batches of eggs they'd produced. He'd taken them into the part of his office he frequented less often, containing an idle incubator, and a selection of tools with which one could take an egg apart and put it back together without so much as a seam to show for it.
It was eerie, more so for the fine detail that he'd borrowed the technology from the Seklushia. He'd mumbled things about retroviruses, stem cells and neural preconditioning. So far, none of the eggs had survived. Unperturbed by the corrupt technology that had touched them, he took to consuming the failures, or offering them up to his kavkem assistants.
And then one of the devices meant for the central room passed muster and was slotted into its place.
One day, while Baishar had crowded himself into Valcen's office, letting Valcen narrate on his latest work, Valcen interrupted his musings on what Baishar privately considered 'the qidravem' – a metal device that would sit in the mind's of Valcen's future hosts, ready to hold Valcen and hand him the reins to the body – by gesturing to the invisible room hidden by dark blinds.
"Would you help me test it?"
[22:53] The question caught Baishar by surprise, his feathers puffing out briefly in agitation. "Test… it?" he repeated, the tone wary. Test the qidravem? "...Test it how?" Valcen's musings, moments ago seemingly so abstract, suddenly took a darker turn. "Don't you need… You don't have another body with the right kind of mind, yet?" He'd talked about that weeks ago; this was why he needed to tamper with the eggs. It wouldn't work on an ordinary kavkem. Or had he misunderstood that as well?
[23:05] Valcen flicked his muzzle, dismissing the line of thought. "No, not this," he commented, patting the table beside the incomplete device. "That," he said, clarifying with another gesture to the room. "Ryrha already was so kind to assist me with it first, but the verdict then was that I had to fix it."
It had no snazzy name yet, no kavkem mythological equivalent, and Valcen was clearly tired of using some name du jour that was just as opaque as 'it' would ever be.
Maybe they could coin one. Torunyema, perhaps, in tone and rhythm to be understood like some kind of passive but no less terrifying brother of Terenyira.
[23:45] ...Oh. That. His mind shifted gears to the other looming horror, the device Valcen had promised to use to help Terenyira, to help the Nayabaru. Test it could really only mean one thing — letting Valcen peer into his mind, read him as easily as a book. Assuming it worked. Which it probably did.
The unease was easily apparent in Baishar's posture, gaze shifting to the door beyond which it waited. He'd seen the device many times, he'd watched the Nayabaru set it up. It was all too easy to imagine watching a kavkem dragged in, strapped into it, held still as Valcen sifted through their mind. It was all too easy to imagine being in said hypothetical kavkem's place.
"I..." His eyes closed, and he swallowed hard. "...If you need me to test it." Try to trust him, if you can. His muzzle lowered, he took a few deep breaths. It's been long enough. Anyone outside I knew has moved on by now. "Then... I will." You will regret this.
In an urge to quell his doubts, he looked at Valcen again, gaze darting between the mismatched eyes. "It won't hurt?"
[00:01] "Not even slightly," Valcen assured. "Unless one of the straps pinches some of your feathers, that is. But there's nothing ever touching your synapses. Honestly, even if there were, they wouldn't report the intrusion. The mind is not a tactile organ." Perhaps a bit more information than strictly necessary, all too casually remarked upon. Finally, tone friendly: "It would help me a lot."
[00:19] Baishar closed his eyes again, pushing down the sense of nausea. Your mind won't feel a thing. Never mind the skull in the way. After a long moment, he shook his muzzle. "Okay," he replied, his tone still uneasy. This will help him. You've been looking for other ways to help, other ways to gain his trust. Here's one. He just had to get through this, surely it wouldn't take too long. "Just... tell me what you need me to do."
[00:35] Valcen's silent attention briefly drifted back to the incomplete qidravem, his artificial eye moving with the same grace the natural organ would have, nonetheless registering as alien; he'd decided against giving the ocular implant any particular finish except a coating to make it less abrasive, to let it move without irritation.
It stared at the world as a mostly grey structure, with its simulacrum of a pupil surrounded by a texture that made no distinction between iris and sclera.
"Follow me," he said, after a moment's consideration, easing himself past the workbench and to the door leading to the central area.
Come of think of it, if one were to look at the room from above, its outlines might be reminiscent of an eye – although with a grossly mishapen, cancerous pupil at its centre.
Valcen opened the door, nudging at it with his shoulder, coming to pause with his hip against the edge of the door, holding it open for Baishar, as that the mechanism that would automatically close it wouldn't smack against his muzzle, however slowly.
[01:19] Baishar obligingly turned and followed Valcen, trying to keep his thoughts in check. Trying not to think about what he was walking into. It's not going to hurt, he repeated to himself. How much is he going to see?
Worst case, he'd see everything. All his hopes, all his secrets, all his fears. All his struggles with trusting Valcen. All his fleeting regrets in agreeing to this deal. All his reasons for wanting to agree in the first place, all frustrated by his own lack of knowledge.
Truth be told, he didn't really want Valcen to know everything about him. Much as he wanted to trust Valcen... he didn't. Not completely. Not like Ryrha did, despite all the reasons she had to fear him. He didn't know how to make that dichotomy work.
And pretty soon, Valcen would see all of that. What would he say?
This was a test. A test of Valcen's machinery, yes, but also a test of Baishar. If he thought of it that way, perhaps he could stomach what Valcen was about to do to him.
Baishar leaned his flank into the door, taking the weight off of Valcen, signalling he was right behind him. His eyes were focused on the back of Valcen's head, ignoring the machine looming in the center of the room, banishing it to the periphery of his vision.
[01:44] And then they'd left the office, and as Baishar followed, the door brushed against his tail and closed behind him, leaving them alone in the – currently dimmed, but still much brighter than the office – lair of the Torunyema.
Had Baishar insisted on the ocular implant, perhaps the situation might be different – perhaps he could offer himself as the one using the machinery, with Valcen its subject. But it was too late right now; it was nothing they could switch on short notice, and short notice was what Valcen wanted if he was unwilling to wait for Ryrha's return.
[01:45] Of course he'd be anxious to get the whole thing running. No doubt the Nayabaru were breathing down his neck about it. No doubt any further delays threatened to paint him as a fraud, if the delays so far hadn't already greatly enkindled their suspicion. Perhaps Terenyira had had to insist on his freedom a few times since construction began.
But it still felt so strange that he'd be unwilling to wait a few hours, feeding into Baishar's concerns about a far more personal test.
This was it, then. The turning point, where fate would decide if he was worth keeping as a companion to a budding havnateh, or discarded back to his cell as waste.
"Thank you," Valcen said, his tone almost nauseatingly sincere as he gestured to the contraption. A padded, flat metal curve formed a horizontal support for a kavkem's belly and chest, rising up into a prong to support the neck, bifurcating to hold a jaw.
Chains of a variable length were anchored firmly to the ground, ready to attach to ankles and wrists, evidently to keep a victim's body from writhing.
And Valcen was clearly implicitly asking Baishar to take a seat.
[02:19] Baishar's gaze hesitantly followed Valcen's gesture to the machine, the Torunyema, to the frame designed to hold him. It's a trap! his instincts screamed at him. Don't go in! He grimaced, tried to subdue his instincts. The only way is forward. Just remember that. Remember that, if nothing else, he still needs you.
Trying to ignore the resemblance of the Torunyema to a machine designed to subdue kavkema, to a nightmare spawned by the minds of the Nayabaru's brightest Seklushia, he set one foot in front of another, approaching the machine. He clambered onto the support, cautiously resting his neck and jaw in the prong meant to hold them, trying to maintain a steady breath, failing to keep his apprehension from being blindingly obvious.
[02:37] A soothing voice promised an impossibility: "...relax. Nothing bad will happen to you." Forepaws touched at Baishar's mane near his shoulders, pressing feathers against the joints almost in a patting motion, while Valcen's muzzle hovered near his, sporting a concerned expression.
Finally, he slipped down, cautiously grasping at Baishar's forepaws, guiding first the one, then the other into one of the restraints with enough leeway to let him jerk back if he so pleased.
[03:52] Baishar bit down the urge to reply, 'I don't believe you.' It wouldn't have mattered whether he said it or not; if it wasn't already obvious to Valcen, it would be soon. Instead, he focused his attention on a point directly ahead of him, trying to keep his breathing steady. There was only a token resistance in his forepaws, his instincts quietly protesting the obvious trap he was being so politely guided into.
[04:35] The same polite gesture repeated with his ankles – then Valcen pulled them taut, pressing Baishar's chest and hips against their metal support, his limbs held straight.
No more backing out now.
Straps found themselves lashed and tightened about his ribcage and neck, then most meticulously at his muzzle, pressing his head down against the metal hold just shy of causing any pain.
Valcen rose to a stand, glancing at Baishar again, just as before, his expression still one of concern. "No pins and needles, no pain?" he asked hopefully, evidently wanting to verify that he hadn't pulled anything too tight.
[08:02] As his limbs were pulled taut, Baishar pulled in a sharp breath, an aborted whimper caught in his throat. There wasn’t any backing out now; there really was no way but forward. He managed to maintain his composure, only flinching slightly as one strap tightened around him... and then another... and another. Slow, meticulous, cautious.
As Valcen asked his question, Baishar shot a glare up at him. “...’m frn”, he grunted through the muzzle strap. Valcen, I appreciate your concern, a part of him wanted to say. He closed his eyes, trying to find something like calm. But for the love of night, please just get this over with.
[22:52] A pause, arduous amongst the tension, Valcen's alien, dual stare lingering on Baishar with an opaque expression. "Good," he said, softly, and swerved his gaze upward, raising his arms to hook claws into the device bearing down from the ceiling. A gentle tugging brought it down in a curve, visible to Baishar only as a second-hand motion of Valcen's elbows – right until it first matted down his feathers, then tapped in a soft whisper against the back of his skull. Cautiously, the point of contact slid down along his spine, until a greater area nuzzled against his head, ending as if in afterthought in a distinct pressure rested atop his muzzle between his eyes.
[01:37] The gentle pressure tracing down his spine prompted a shiver from the trapped kavkem, coupled with a sharp intake of breath. The device shifted silently into place, firmly cradling his skull. It was all too easy to imagine a thin needle piercing through the flesh of his neck, winding into his mind. It won't hurt, Valcen had promised. A moment later, the words of Terenyira from her long-ago visit came to haunt him: There's no pain, only inevitability.
Stop it, a part of himself declared. Valcen isn't going to do anything like that to you. He's just.... looking. Looking inside his mind. Baishar didn't really understand how it worked; Valcen had described it once as 'touching another mind', but he'd also said nothing would actually touch it... not that he'd notice. Maybe somehow the 'other light' that Valcen's eye could see would allow him to see through it...? He couldn't tell.
[01:55] ...or at least he claimed he wasn't going to do anything like that to Baishar.
Valcen stepped back ever so slightly, beginning a motion that first seemed almost absent-minded, as though he were about to lightly scratch the side of his muzzle.
Instead, his sharp claws ran up to his artificial eye; the pupil shifted to one side in a natural motion, exposing more of the sclera-equivalent. A claw felt against the surface of the implant, then sank into it a few millimetres. Almost instantly, as though in a defensive instinct, the entire surface turned dark, leaving Valcen with a featureless black eye.
[01:56] The paw withdrew, only to scratch almost idly at the underside of his jaw. His natural eye seemed to track something invisible, suggesting that the other was invisibly doing something similar, with neither of their motions corresponding to any real world representation.
"This definitely looks better than last time," Valcen commented, lightly.
Then he stayed silent for a span of time just shy of long enough to make him appear to have mentally drifted off elsewhere entirely, before he inhaled sharply, as though to break a spell on himself.
"Well," he said, folding his forepaws and looking straight at Baishar. "Calibration. Might you try to focus as exclusively as possible on the number 'one' for me for a moment of your time? The glyph, as well as the meaning, in your mind's eye."
[02:25] The sight of the claw sinking into the mechanical eye was made, thankfully, slightly less disturbing by the odd coloration — managing to be just far enough out of 'eye' territory to read as a machine for claws to touch. Still, the process wasn't exactly something he looked forward to, if he ever got such a device for himself.
Then the entire eye went dark, the pupil invisible. As soon as Valcen commented, there was a pang of fear writhing in his gut. He can already see it. He already knows what's inside. A moment later, Can he tell what I'm thinking? Long moments later, the thought: ...Valcen, can you hear this?
If he did, evidently, he wasn't letting it on. Calibration. There was something about that term, about the way he was using it, that didn't quite sit right with Baishar. Trying to calm himself, he did as he was told. Araz. He closed his eyes, imagined the glyph. Single. Unique. Alone.
[02:36] Again, the eyes searched through some kind of invisible structure, visual attention darting this way and that. A slow breath, almost contemplatively drawn out. Then: "Very good, thank you." With tone at once both absent-minded and intensely focussed: "In slow sequence, the same for two, twenty and twenty-one."
[03:05] Baishar dismissed the one and brought his mind around to two. He imagined tracing the glyph in the dirt, in a world that must've still existed somewhere outside these walls. Arash. Duality. Pairs. Two eyes, one original, one mechanical. Two kavkema, bound to the service of a budding Havnateh. Left and right, up and down, dark and light, old and new.
Araks. The one he'd visualized before inverted, seen from the other side. Six and six and six and two. Twenty kavkema was hard to imagine, all in one place, far too dangerous. Twenty of anything felt like a strange number — more than a handful, less than immeasurable.
Araz'ksaraz. It took a moment to parse as another name for Aras'haras, three-and-three-sixes. The two identical glyphs adjoined. The exercise was interrupted by a thought: Why is he doing this? How long is this going to take? That word came to mind again, calibration. Learning how to read his thoughts. What was Valcen seeing, in that eye as dark as a starless sky?
[03:16] The switch from number to number was visible in Valcen's manner, like a predator quietly tracking prey that scampered only curt distances, each time with some delay. And yet it was never one point that he seemed to focus on – regardless how simple Baishar might consider the thoughts he formed, they seemed to be all over the place, weaving a complex pattern.
Alternatively, there was a lot of metadata to take in that Valcen was learning to handle by using simple thoughts as obvious inputs.
[03:17] Finally, his muzzle swerved in pleased acknowledgement. "Something else now," he said, a minimalist warning that he was changing track. His attention visibly sifted through the otherworldly data he was seeing for a moment's distraction, then his tongue flicked across his teeth. "Ryrha – your emotional relationship with her, if you can."
[03:39] There was a long moment of uncertainty, confused by this new line of questioning. Where are you taking this? He inhaled, trying to keep himself centered. Ryrha. He could imagine her face, her scent. Comforting. She was able to take Valcen's occasionally horrifying ideas in stride, she'd volunteered for this earlier. She'd accepted her role more easily than he had, more easily than he probably could. Most of the time, he admired her for that.
Sometimes, it was frightening.
They didn't see eye to eye on some things. There were arguments, disagreements, concerns. It was complicated — he wasn't sure it could be anything else, under the circumstances. But she was strong, and kind, and compassionate; of everyone here, she was the only one he knew he could trust.
[03:47] Valcen's look of concentration deepened. With only a partial gaze to read, it was difficult to tell what exactly drove the very particular tension in his lips. Was he displeased by some detail he was seeing? Was he looking for something he wasn't sure was there? Was he trying to make sense of some of the thoughts layered through Baishar's mind that were unexpected?
Then his muzzle flicked upward lightly in an absent-minded dismissal. "Terenyira?" he prompted, his voice gentle in all disconnect with the mental image it invoked – if it was a clear emotion he sought, he was about to get one.
[03:57] It was a good thing that Baishar was properly restrained; the very name being uttered caused Baishar to jolt in the harness, limbs jerking against the chains. Eyes wide, scanning what he could see in front of him — he was faced away from the entrance from the main hall, though. The immediate thought, terrified: Is she here?
It took a moment for him to dismiss that thought; no, she wasn't here. He was pretty sure she wasn't here. Could she be here? Surely the Karesejat would want to see Valcen testing out his new machine.
Long seconds passed with no sign of her, and his rapid breathing slowly started to return to normal. Please don't do that again, he pleaded in his mind, uncertain whether Valcen could understand that thought. I don't want to think about her.
[04:19] Valcen disagreed. "No," he said, although whether in response to the specific mental request or just as a chiding was impossible to tell – in Baishar's vulnerable state, former was a crisp possibility. He exhaled some tension of his own and continued, in a tone of only slightly strained patience:
"I know it's unpleasant, but please focus. It's just a thought – you can't possibly tell me you don't have enough courage to picture her and the feelings she evokes. It can't hurt you." A pause. "But it can help me, if you hold onto it for longer than an tiny instant."
His forepaws had untangled and were hovering in the scant inches between them. For a moment, it became clear that Valcen's natural eye had fixed on Baishar's face, seeing him, crisply aware of his face – not nearly absent enough in whatever his other eye was seeing. The gaze was stern.
[04:37] It was all too easy to picture her — or rather, to imagine her. He hadn't exactly gotten a good look at her when she'd visited. Legs like long, thin, multi-jointed spears, ready to skewer him at a moment. The polite demeanor, a thin veneer of civilization atop a truth that screamed monster. Words that promised he would be fine; motions that promised torment for as long as she could keep him alive; a past that promised dissolution of everything he held dear, everything that was important.
Primal terror filled most of the emotional channels, threatened to overwhelm everything else. But a few other things might stand out. A sense of injustice, of cosmic wrongs that had to be righted. A burning hatred, the desire for revenge. Concern for others — for Tamachelu; for Valcen... and for an imagined, future self.
[04:46] Through all this, Valcen's expression was the same as it had been near the beginning – an analyst, regarding the world of Baishar's thoughts with scientific curiosity, concentratedly seizing upon the evidence his artificial sense was presenting to him, squeezing meaning from the representations, in disregard for the discomfort they represented.
"Okay," he said, finally. "Thank you." He seemed to consider whatever it was he had learnt from that particular mental image, a look almost akin to some abstract concern crossing his features, lingering for a moment, as though something seemed amiss or incorrect.
Then the respite ended, and Valcen reached to pat Baishar on the shoulder encouragingly, before speaking. "Now... me – and this situation," he prompted.
[05:13] Before he could stop himself, the first moment of feeling was resentment. Valcen had pressured him into this situation, and here he was, harvesting him for calibration. A moment later, as he realized what had happened, a wave of self-loathing washed over him. Stupid, he can read your thoughts. His eyes peeled away from Valcen, tried to avoid that bifurcated gaze.
A slow panic sank its claws into his gut. You're failing your test. Fear of rejection, of being found unworthy. Fear of being returned to a cell to rot forever. Fear of losing his one chance to make some kind of difference on a cosmic scale. It was worse than the fear of Terenyira, in its own way. Eyes squeezed shut, trying to keep it at bay, trying to breathe. He needs you, he tried to remind himself. You need to trust him. The words fell flat, empty, meaningless.
[14:34] Each whiplash change of emotion visibly rippled through Valcen, a subtle jolt of attention, the invisible focus of his gaze jerking about. A bewilderment, a hesitant confusion. Eyes blinking, trying to make sense of the froth.
And then they widened. A forepaw reached out automatically, slid fingers into the feathers of Baishar's right shoulder, resting a slim palm against the joint in a soothing gesture. The other, sinking a claw into the seemingly featureless black orb. The dark receding to reveal the grey texture. A nudge with a forepaw, pushing the torunyema away, then tugging at Baishar's muzzle straps.
All in silence, until Baishar's muzzle could slip free, Valcen could dip down to work his forepaws out of the restraints and his distrought tension finally brought forth laboured words: "Will- will you be all right?" across almost stern eye contact.
The phrase sounded like he'd wanted to stammer I'm sorry, but withdrawn it in sheer bewilderment as to what precisely he was sorry for, despite it being desperately true.
[20:44] The soothing gesture felt misplaced, but for the first few moments at least there was hopeful appreciation there. As the pressure on his skull vanished, and he felt the torunyema receding, the feeling twisted. He could almost hear Valcen's voice in his mind — You've failed. His eyes found Valcen, fearful and confused as he worked at the binding on his muzzle. There was concern on his features — concern for him? Or concern about finding his replacement?
The question felt out of place, apologetic and stern at once. What does that mean? Baishar bit down on his initial urge to bark back, 'I'm fine,' a desperate lie. He wasn't fine, Valcen knew he wasn't fine, lying about it would only make it worse. The truth would only confirm Valcen's suspicions. His gaze turned away from Valcen, and even as the restraints loosened, he didn't move, didn't try for a moment to escape the torunyema, fearful that anything he did would just give Valcen one more reason to punish him.
After a few moments, a quiet, broken voice in a deceptively calm tone replied, "You tell me." His eyes squeezed shut; he couldn't hold the tears back any more.
[21:12] Valcen's claws were at Baisher's ankles, loosening the restraints and slipping them off the distrought kavkem's limbs. As he rose back up, accompanied by a drawn out, distressed sounding exhale, Valcen leant across Baishar, trying to sling his arms around Baishar's torso to lift him gently and slip him off the seat and onto the ground beside the construct.
[21:48] As Valcen tried to tug him off the seat, Baishar's previously listless form finally found its drive. His arms wrapped around the support for his neck, blunted claws clinging to it; his right leg came up to Valcen's arm, scratching lightly and trying to push the limb away. He pressed his muzzle against the support, using it as an anchor, his one tether to mattering. If you want to get rid of me, you're going to have to fight for it, he resolved, his fear and self-loathing giving way to a desperate determination.
[22:00] The motions of both of them combined into an unfortunate jerk to the side, nearly dislodging Baishar in a way that would damage his joints for the instant it took for Valcen to realise what was happening; he let go instantly, jerking his arms back almost as if burnt.
"Baishar," he said, in a soft, gentle whisper, letting his muzzle swoop down to the level of Baishar's, pressed against the support as it was. "Listen to me." He stared at him. "You're not in danger." And, in pained afterthought: "Please don't cry, that's really not— necessary." A pause. Then, slightly helplessly intoned: "Please?"
[22:32] A single syllable of a humorless chuckle wrenched itself from Baishar's throat. "Not necessary," he repeated, plucking the phrase from its context and letting its meaning flower and spread, an algal bloom choking out all other life. He wasn't necessary. A distraction, a useless bundle of flesh and feathers, not even able to keep his own promise of absolute obedience. Bai'ioshar.
And now Valcen knew. He'd seen the disappointing mortal reality in his skull. Why was he acting this way? Was he trying to lessen the blow? What did it matter? This was not necessary. Softly, through the stream of tears, he offered: "I'm sorry." A long moment later, "I'm sorry I'm not what you wanted."
[22:49] "Baishar," the godfragment addressed him, still in that soft voice. "That's not what this is about. Did you think that was what this was for? Some kind of... test of your ability to handle this?" Still soft, gently probing. "Please don't cry. I'm not disappointed in you. Why would I be? You're allowed to be afraid.
"I just wish it hadn't hit you this hard. It wasn't supposed to." And then, part puzzlement, part humble in tone: "I'm sorry." For a moment, it hovered on its own; then he expanded, still soft-spoken, still patient: "I'm sorry I put you through that."
[04:27] The world tilted at an angle, faulty assumptions falling away, leaving an unsupported frame of mind behind. "...It... it's not?" A long pause, hovering somewhere between confusion and unease. It felt too good to be true. Trap, a part of him whispered. But he was too desperate to believe it might be true. "...Then why? Why ask me to do this, why not wait for Ryrha to return, if she's already volunteered? Are the Nayabaru that insistent, that it couldn't wait a few more hours?"
He shouldn't be talking this way, a part of him quietly observed. He wasn't in any kind of position to be arguing about this. Every word was another risk that Valcen would lose his patience with him, remind him of his role in things. As kind as Valcen was being right now, it was hard to forget the potent reminder Baishar had gotten on his very first day. Your purpose is what I decide it is.
"Why bother with this, pretending you care about a mortal kavkem who can't even manage to trust you? You've seen what's inside. Why wouldn't you be disappointed?"
[21:37] There was no abrupt answer to either question. Valcen let Baishar talk, almost as if waiting to make sure he'd finished— then a little longer, stretching the moment uncomfortably across the frame of Baishar's anxieties, an inscrutable, firm stare lingering on the fragile kavkem.
[21:38] Finally, slowly and softly: "I am going to answer that first question, in the hope that it'll also answer your second by proxy, because I don't think a direct answer to your second is going to help you." He let that sink in, made sure that Baishar had understood the nature of the impending two-fold answer, at least on paper.
"...Ryrha," he began. "Is a fine kavkem. She is very... scrupulous, shall we say. She would most certainly volunteer to test this with me as often as I asked it of her. But it would not be good for her, to be the only one driving this forward. She has anxieties of her own... and a gross disregard for them." Valcen's pitch became stern for a moment as he began to highlight the problem.
"I asked for your help because I don't want Ryrha to have another excuse to hurt herself. I'm going to tell you an anecdote now; I advise you keep it to yourself, not because Ryrha would be upset if she knew you'd been told, but precisely because she wouldn't, and it's not something you want to see.
"So let me tell you about Ryrha for a moment. Ryrha is a member of Dynash. Before the Nayabaru caught her, she was training to go out in a blaze of glory, blowing up some Nayabaru contraption or other. It's given her a truly powerful and far-reaching disregard for her own well-being.
"In me she sees some kind of harbinger of kavkem extinction, if nothing else. We've discussed it in detail. We've spoken about contingency plans, about assurances. She reveres me to about the same amount I make her sick with fear. We work with it.
"When I met Ryrha, she felt rather unworthy of the position I was offering her – not because she couldn't match the criteria I had set out for it, but because she knew they were trivial, and any other female kavkem could offer me the same.
"And since she'd only just been captured, she decided that she wanted to see, with her own eyes, the kind of life I'd rescued her from. Since the Nayabaru aren't particularly self-conscious about what they inflict upon kavkema, this was easy enough to arrange, and I let her watch what is, let's not put too fine a point on it, a very passionless rape of a different captive.
[21:39] "And that's not a nice thing to see, even if you're as blasé about reproduction as you kavkema tend to be. It's still a very clear violation. It hurts to watch. She did it anyway, and I was there with her, and I saw her reactions, and the hurt it caused.
"And when all that was done, it wasn't enough for Ryrha to just walk away. No. Ryrha decided that seeing it wasn't cathartic enough for her; she wanted to feel it. She wanted it done to her." Valcen paused, his expression subtly darkened, letting Baishar grapple with the implications.
"And thus I've taken to protecting Ryrha from herself, to the degree that is respectful, given her beliefs. And as far as this contraption you're clinging to is concerned, that means I'd rather alternate between the two of you than leave the focus on her."
[01:24] The initial silence was suffocating, every moment it lasted filling Baishar with certainty that he'd overstepped his boundaries once again. His gaze couldn't decide whether to meet Valcen's or to stick to the floor.
When the words finally came, they weren't filled with venom; they had the same patient tone Valcen had taken with him many times before, that of the stern teacher, sharing tidbits of knowledge. It took long moments for the response to sink in — the emotional content alone was a struggle to accept as real, even before he got to processing the words. 'A direct answer won't help you'? What was that was supposed to mean?
Baishar listened intently to the story, clinging to it as something to focus on outside of his skull. Some parts were unsurprising — Ryrha had at one point casually mentioned being of Dynash, and of course she saw him as Q'ur. (Interesting that Valcen didn't mention the name — though whether he was unaware of it, dismissive of it, or simply didn't want to bring it up to Baishar for whatever reason, he couldn't tell.) She reveres me as much as I make her sick with fear — that was certainly true.
As the story progressed, Baishar grew increasingly agitated, his mane puffing out in an instinctive mix of concern and second-hand distress. When it became clear the story was over, he shrank in on himself, trying to process the implications. The question danced at the tip of his tongue: 'Did you let that happen?' A long moment later, he flicked his muzzle upwards; he really didn't want to know the answer to that.
Valcen's conclusion stung at Baishar's gut. It was all too easy to imagine a continuation of that line: 'I'm trying to protect her, and here you're trying to get her to take your place. Do you think she'd enjoy having her private thoughts violated any more than you did?'
Some amanat you are.
He crumpled in the Torunyema's grasp, another dent in his battered self-conception. "I see," he replied, his tone hollow. His gaze turned blankly ahead, ignoring Valcen, ignoring the Torunyema, ignoring himself. After a long silence, he added, with a trace of hesitation: "...If you need to... continue calibration, I'm not going to stop you."
[23:58] "No." The answer came almost instantly. It was clear that strictly speaking, it was wrong – of course he still needed more data, he was likely going to collect a lot of it over the next few weeks. It held no pretense of being generally true – but it was true now. "But you need to get off that seat and we need to have a conversation about your aspirations.
"And for the record, you're terrible at blind obedience, I should demand a refund," Valcen added, miffed, but clearly joking, blinking across partly rolled eyes.
"In either case, though – I can accommodate your fears, but you're going to have to tell me what they are. I've been a bit busy lately, so I accept some blame for this glaring blind spot, but we're going to have to smooth this out, if we want to have some hope of working together. I do assume you do, in fact, want to work together?"
[01:01] There was a light flinch from Baishar at the joke about a 'refund'; evidently, still a sore spot in his mind. He's not serious about that, he reminded himself. ...I'm almost certain he's not. Despite that sliver of uncertainty, it was oddly comforting. Valcen was willing to joke about it; much as it might ruffle Baishar's feathers, it wasn't a threat. He wasn't about to get discarded.
Valcen's question gave him pause. Did he want to work with Valcen? The certainty with which he'd once held that belief felt so distant now. With conscious effort, he pushed past the barriers to introspection he'd hastily erected, found his way past the guilt and self-loathing, and discovered, to his surprise, that it had managed to survive after all. He clung to it, holding its truth close to his chest, embracing its gentle warmth.
"I do," he replied, peeling his eyes open to look at Valcen. He inhaled deeply, then let his breath out again, slowly. "I do," he repeated, gently pushing himself off the seat and into a stand, taking a few steps backwards, away from the Torunyema. He rubbed the thin layer of dried salt from around his eyes, taking a few moments to collect what remained of himself.
Finally, Baishar spoke again: "What specifically do you want to know? An inventory of my fears?"
[01:16] Valcen sighed, but softly so, the stormcloud expression from when he had sternly explained his stance on Ryrha with the anecdote dissipated into something far less tense. "If you insist on calling it that. I'd just like to have a chance of avoiding whatever is likely to upset you, or at least adequately prepare you when the matter can't be avoided."
Evidently, the horrific havnateh wanted to be able to calm Baishar down whenever he was having his mind flayed. How thoughtful. How pragmatic. How reasonable.
Valcen stepped around his contraption, left forepaw trailing its edge like a guiding rail, glancing at Baishar with a burning curiosity and concern, both. It wasn't the first time Valcen had looked at him with concern, and it wasn't the last time that concern felt misplaced given the context. But presumably, such was the nature of fears.
Once stood across from Baishar, a cautious but decisive motion brought up his right forepaw, the flawless, untampered claws, and the narrow palm of his hand sought to settle in a gentle gesture of contact against the base of the side of Baishar's jaw.
[01:56] Valcen's expression was unnerving; a curiosity about his greatest fears, a concern about... what? He couldn't tell. You could just as easily use what I tell you against me, a piece of him silently observed.
As Valcen's forepaw drew close, there was a small flinch from Baishar, uncertain what this was meant to do — but otherwise, he remained still, allowing the gentle contact of the palm on his jawline.
...if he was going to enumerate his fears, he might as well start with the most relevant, the one that spawned this mess he was now in. "I am afraid," he began, voice soft, his gaze dropping to avoid Valcen's. "That... you will find me unworthy. That I will overstep some boundary I cannot see, or I will fail some test, and that... as punishment, I will be discarded as useless to you, or something worse will happen."
[02:05] Valcen processed that for a moment, blinking slowly across the pause. As he contemplated an answer, he let his forepaw wander through Baishar's plume fleetingly, a gentle if absent-minded gesture, if somewhat disconcertingly close to his skull – a problem not for social reasons, but just because of what he'd just gone through.
[02:06] Then he let the forepaw drop again. "I can't guarantee I won't," he said, calmly. "But I think it's very unlikely. The boundaries I have are all fairly clear – don't try to kill Ryrha, don't try to kill me, don't sabotage my work, and in the off-chance I share truly dangerous secrets with you, don't share them with Tanak or Terenyira." He let his tongue wander across his teeth in thought.
Then: "There are no tests. What do you think I would have to gain from trapping you in some circumstance and then discarding you based on some trivial detail? I don't have time for petty Nayabaru games like that."
[02:50] Under ordinary circumstances, the gesture might have been soothing — and to some extent, it was. Unfortunately, the degree to which it was unnerving eclipsed that. There was a brief fear that Valcen might use this opportunity to sink his claws into Baishar's skull, find a more visceral way of 'touching his mind' — thankfully, quickly discarded.
There was a long moment of reflection after Valcen's answer. The comment that 'there are no tests' prompted a puzzled look from Baishar. That can't be literally true, he thought. There would be tests, he was certain; they may not be intended as such by Valcen, but they would be there. The path was never straightforward. Perhaps the statement was itself a test.
His mind returned to the rules Valcen had enumerated. Don't kill Ryrha, don't kill Valcen, don't sabotage his work, don't share secrets. It all sounded far too easy. So easy that it couldn't possibly be a complete list, in fact. He'd already run into one such. "Don't forget my place," he added, tone suspended between fearful and helpful. A moment later, more quietly, as if to remind Valcen of his own words: "Don't ever speak to you like I did on my first day."
[02:58] Valcen's expression darkened in irritation – evidently he considered the 'reminder' a nonsequitur. "No. If you do that again, it means I stop letting you anywhere near my technical work. It doesn't mean I cut off your contact to Ryrha. It doesn't mean I'll feed you to the Nayabaru, to suffer at their behest."
[03:21] The response left a knot of anxiety in Baishar's gut. Valcen had never specifically said what would happen if Baishar had ever repeated that mistake; Baishar had been too cowed to ask at the time, and he'd never brought it up since. His gaze focused intently at a point on the ground, as he worked his way through the fresh emotions, wrestling with potential responses. Finally, he replied, "I think... I might be more afraid of that, than of the Nayabaru."
[03:39] The statement visibly rippled through Valcen as surprise. As the seconds passed, his flustered state gradually transitioned into irritation. "Really? You'd rather have your skin lacerated than be excluded from my work?
"You'd prefer to go blind from having your eyeballs burnt out of your skull very gradually, to being confined to playing only the role of gene donor to my schemes?" Valcen asked, bitterly and incredulously, his facial expression enough of a grimace to be vividly apparent even despite the limited pliability of kavkem faces.
[03:40] Dark thoughts whispered through his mind, visible as fleeting hints of helpless resentment:
'So you too have a blatant disregard for yourself, and I should start assuming this is a general kavkem affliction?'
'What a fine thing to reveal to someone you purportedly have no trust for, who might take the opportunity to mistreat you, now secure in the knowledge you won't really fight back.'
'You don't know what you're talking about; you have no appreciation for the pain the Nayabaru can put you through.'
But instead of voicing any of those thoughts verbally, Valcen asked, through an only barely tempered glare: "Why?"
[04:47] As soon as the words had left his mouth, Baishar had had a sinking feeling that it was the wrong thing to say. Indeed, as Valcen went on his tirade, the pit in his gut only grew worse. He shrunk in on himself, his gaze still intently avoiding Valcen's. His old friend resentment crept into his thoughts, whispering he won't understand, he already thinks you're too stupid to help.
A tense silence hung in the air after Valcen's question, stretching onwards as Baishar struggled with himself, with his own hopes and anxieties. How could he put it into words? How could he explain himself, to the burgeoning Havnateh interrogating him?
There was no turning back, now. Hesitantly, he formed the words. "Because... if that happens... then this would all have been for nothing." For a long moment, it seemed as if that would be his entire response, before he found more. "Either way, it would destroy what little hope I still have of mattering. Of making a difference. Of..."
His eyes squeezed shut, closing out the world, focusing on his own breathing. You're going to reveal all your plans to a Havnateh, in the hopes that he will look kindly on you. Several long, uneasy breaths later, he managed to find a thread that could work, the path to some kind of mutual understanding.
"Tamachelu needs help," he said, quietly, his tone back to something like calm. "She has needed help for eons, and who could help her? Maenona is too distant and passive; Garukaron has no reason to intervene; and Tkanetar..." He trailed off for a moment, his mythological framework here frayed after Valcen's remarks some weeks ago. "...Is Tkanetar," he managed, somewhat lamely. "You yourself tried, and I thank you for that." His eyes opened, seeking Valcen's, a moment of earnest, if fearful, appreciation on his features.
"...But aside from that, all she has had to help her are kavkema, in a battle against a Havnateh." He offered a wry, thin-lipped smile. "What good is that? What can a kavkem hope to do against the Karesejat? We're powerless against her. We can support Tamachelu, but none could truly call us allies.
"Not... not as we are." His gaze turned back down, focusing on his forepaws; he stretched his blunted claws out to grasp at something invisible. "But... we don't have to be as we are. You know better than anyone how to overcome the limits of flesh; you were a god, and I know you will become one again." Baishar closed his eyes again, inhaled. Trust him, if you can. "And I know that... if—" He hesitated, remembering Valcen's words. "—If you will allow it, if I may humbly request... if I am able to prove myself, if you would find me worthy of doing so... with enough knowledge and dedication, it is a path I too could follow."
[16:45] Valcen's stare persisted through Baishar's explanation, although something was clearly happening behind those eyes, the outrage from moments lost in a turbulence of confusion, hope and sympathy, packed tightly against each other like streaks of colours mixing into ever tighter swirls.
Softly, gaze slipping almost imperceptibly out of phase, easing through Baishar, Valcen said: "You want to help Evenatra directly." The syllables gently pattered against Baishar's mind, tentatively linking themselves to Tamachelu even without any elaboration.
[16:46] And yet, it was absurd, exactly as the kavkem had already implied. Kavkema, helping a Threadwielder? Even just the inferential distance between the mythology-driven world view of most kavkema – and Baishar in particular – and a fraction of the knowledge stored in the Threadwielder Commons seemed impossible to bridge.
Translating a text book on algebra into a canine tongue did not teach your dog mathematics.
And yet dogs were useful to humans. Dogs could be loyal, hard-working, and had teeth to rend chunks of flesh from any danger that threatened their master. Trained dogs could easily best any uneducated counterpart.
Yet the first fired bullet would put an end to such an alliance, because dogs did not understand guns, couldn't really understand the threat they pose – learn to recognise them; learn that they represented danger; but unlikely to truly grasp how to avoid being its target.
But what if you could teach your dog what a gun was? What if you could make it understand trajectories? What if you could rewrite its spatial perception to have an instinct for such a thing?
[16:47] Valcen's mind was caught up in the neural structures of a kavkem brain, proof it could be done. Certainly, it was a highly modified brain, built to his specifications, strictly designed for Threadwielder use, but here he was, physically not all that different from Baishar.
This brain was crude, but enough for Valcen to feel functional – enough that he thought he could bootstrap himself back to a creature with fluent access to the Commons, a creature that could visualise the dimensions of Thread.
Baishar wanted the same thing, without any comprehension of what it was he wanted. Necessarily without any comprehension of what it was he wanted. If he comprehended it, its acquisition would merely be a waste of time.
And Valcen was in the unique position to give it to him.
Almost shell-shocked from the revelation that he might be able to craft his minion into an ally if he did it right, from his own understanding of the possibilities, gaze distant still, Valcen said, calmly: "I don't know if I can get away with giving you what you want – it may not seem that way, but my freedoms are much more tightly controlled than they superficially appear."
With an eerie softness, a gentle matter-of-fact observation, he continued: "And if you honestly want to pursue that path, you need to understand that what you are going to become is not going to be you in any sense you would from your current perspective consider appreciable."
[18:15] The name 'Evenatra' gave Baishar pause, his head tilted to the side in curiosity. Another name for Tamachelu? Or perhaps... for what she was destined to become? He couldn't imagine it as anything else from the context. Evenatra. It was a tricky name to pull apart — 'venat' was a clear contender for part of it, though what a goddess of qanu had to do with the night sky was anyone's guess.
At the very least, it was a soothing name. Baishar gave a tentative nod, a confirmation of what he thought Valcen meant.
For a long moment, Baishar watched his patron, trying to gauge the invisible thoughts in his mind. He's not angry, a hopeful strand of thought pointed out. Perhaps he hasn't yet judged you unworthy. Another, more cynical interpretation: Or perhaps he's just pondering how to use this against you. Or perhaps Valcen was simply surprised, hadn't yet understood Baishar's aims. Your Torunyema still needs work, Valcen, a part of him snidely pointed out.
When Valcen finally replied, the response threaded a wire of mixed elation and concern through Baishar. Can't get away with it. He wanted to do it — or was willing to consider it, at least. He could do it. The concern was whether it would be permitted by the Nayabaru, by the Karesejat — something that Baishar hadn't anticipated. But that at least was a problem that could be solved.
Valcen's quiet warning was almost a relief — terrifying, but at least it was a terror Baishar was familiar with. Though this was the closest he'd ever been to the real thing. Taking a deep breath, with practiced calm, he replied: "I had no expectation that it would."
Baishar closed his eyes, tugging at the strands of memory. A moment later, he recited, voice a low whisper: "The Progression inevitably hurls us toward the incomprehensible, every potential transformation looming like a threat, a harrowing disfigurement. We shed our souls like dead skin. Resistance is a dangerously soothing balm; The Progression will not stop for us. Stand still and it will reach back to consume you, as it already has our fallen brethren."
[18:16] Baishar opened his eyes again, looking up at Valcen. "I can endure that which is necessary. I do not expect to make the transition intact; I recognize that as impossible. If a soul... if my soul must be rent and reformed to become as a god, that... is a worthy sacrifice."
[18:40] There was a flicker of annoyance at the word 'god', softly cascading into a more general, but less intense annoyance at what must be his recitation of some Dynashari ryrhakenem.
[18:41] It wasn't beyond Baishar to understand that annoyance. If a bird somehow made itself understood and asked him to make him a god – a kavkem, in that analogy – it would be an obviously strange way of wording it. But in Baishar's defence, he didn't know what else to call what he aspired to be, other than first nateh, then havnateh.
"Threadwielder," Valcen said, finally, subduedly. "It won't help us in talking about this if you keep calling us 'gods'."
[18:42] His gaze finished its journey, coming back full circle and settling back on Baishar quite lucidly and intensely. "But we weren't done with your 'inventory'. I don't want any more surprises. Tell me what else I need to know."
[20:07] Baishar dipped his muzzle in apology. You're not interested in our stories, he thought. The fumblings of mortals, trying to understand you, trying to emulate you. It must be frustrating. The name Valcen gave, 'Threadwielder', raised more questions, the foremost among them being 'what is Thread?' — but they could wait. "Become as a Threadwielder, then," he said, a tone of reverence with a small trace of confusion.
His gaze lowered to the ground as Valcen demanded he complete his task. What else do I fear? Well, so long as they were on the subject... "To be honest... I do fear it," Baishar replied, his voice very quiet, little more than a whisper. "The transition. The path ahead." He grimaced, shook his mane lightly. "But that is my own failing, and one I am equipped to handle. I don't believe you need to concern yourself with it.
"I..." His gaze turned to the Torunyema, the device looming in the center of the room, insidious reminder of what he'd just been through. It's going to happen again, you know. He'll pry open your mind and look inside. "I'm afraid of that. Of... what it represents for the kavkema." But that's not why you're afraid. "And... of what you'll see with it. That something you see will ruin my chances at... at following the path I've chosen."
[20:08] ...There was something else in there, too. Something he was still trying to work up the nerve to mention, that so far he'd successfully avoided. No one said creating an inventory of fears would be an easy task.
[21:19] Perhaps Threadwielder was no better a word than god if Baishar was going to continue to use it in the same way. No matter; it was different enough that Valcen at least saw a chance in weaning Baishar off the idea that there was anything mystical to it.
Valcen let Baishar finish the latest additions to his list of anxieties and let them sit for a while, before deciding to join them, easing himself down until his haunches rested on his heels. Unconcerned, he tucked his arms in under his chest and peered up at Baishar.
"I'm sure I'll see many things I won't like," he conceded, soft-spoken and factual. "And I doubt I can do anything to fully put your mind at ease about that," other than perhaps literally changing you mind a few months down the line once I have the tools for that, "but I hope you understand that I factor that in.
[21:20] "Aside from being the one who designed this contraption, I also have the unflattering role of its gatekeeper, for as long as it's feasible. Anything it tells me is between me and the machine. I'm the filter. I want to be the filter. That implies a certain amount of informational self-control; which is actually easy if one has the right expectations."
Uncharitably, his expectations had hardly prepared him for Baishar's panic, so why would anyone assume him better equipped to handle kavkema with pure resentment for him? But perhaps that was the idea. Perhaps he was anticipating pure resentment and helpless rage from his future victims. Perhaps it had just been Baishar that had caught him off guard.
Perhaps it was just Baishar who was unusual.
Or perhaps Valcen's entire line of reasoning was dangerously fragile.
"What else?" Valcen asked with a stern patience – despite physically looking up at Baishar, somehow managing to come off as imposing.
[19:06] Baishar pressed his lips into a thin line, still digesting Valcen's response. After a long moment, he lowered his muzzle apologetically. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand — it's one thing to filter information from the Nayabaru; do you intend to filter information from yourself as well? Are you saying that if you know what to expect you can...what? Ignore it? Not let it affect your judgment?"
[19:33] Valcen's air adopted a mild weariness as he listened to Baishar's objection.
With an air of tried patience that we was nonetheless willing to give, he said: "I'll let you know, in the interest of honesty, that I find you remarkably vexing. In one breath, you ascribe godhood to me and my kind, in the other you question whether we have the required maturity to overlook insulting or uncomfortable truths.
"But in short, yes. Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Or, if you prefer a more subtle distinction, I think I can temper my judgement so it only plays out in vivid consequences in my head." He paused. Then, with a trace of amused irony, mingled with a hint of a predatory air: "You know, like right now."
He ran his tongue across his lips, then said, almost with the same tone that he'd used before: "What else?"
[20:28] Baishar shrunk back, scolded. For a brief moment, he considered a retort — 'I'm not trying to question your abilities, I'm trying to understand your explanation', perhaps — but he bit it back. Not useful.
The implication that Valcen was vividly imagining inflicting 'consequences' on Baishar didn't exactly help his attempts to trust the budding Havnateh — the budding Threadwielder.
"I—" There was a moment of internal struggle; he turned his muzzle over his shoulder, staring at the door for a long moment to ensure they were alone. He turned back to Valcen, meeting his gaze only briefly before looking downwards, intimidated. Quietly, still uncertain, he replied: "I still have family, outside." At least, I hope they're outside. "...My mother, her followers." Implying his mother was a ryrhakenem; perhaps explaining his nearly-single-minded devotion to his cause.
"They've... probably moved on." He certainly hoped so. "I hope I don't know where." A pit formed in his stomach. Quickly, he added: "We're not a threat to the Nayabaru; we're not Shyilun or Dynash. We don't have the time to become threats to them." Mortal lifespans, mortal constraints. "They don't... I don't want to lead the Nayabaru to them."
[20:37] Valcen visibly softened, lucid of the effort it took Baishar to speak of this concern in particular. Revealing one's ties to kavkema to the one kavkem-bodied individual whose sole formal purpose was to uncover them for his Nayabaru captors-or-allies could not possibly be easy.
Family meant something very different to kavkema than to humans. A group, then, tight-knit, willing to assist each other. Friends, if one were to use a human term for them.
"Forgotten," Valcen said in firm acknowledgement. "In perpetuity." A promise.
[21:02] Baishar sucked in a breath, then slowly let it out, a sigh of relief. "Thank you," he whispered. A moment later, tears of relief began to spill from his eyes. "Thank you," he repeated, taking a step closer to Valcen, sitting close to him, and pressed his face against the mane of feathers. This means a lot to me, a distant part of him observed. How long have I been hiding this fear?
[21:58] For a moment, Valcen simply let Baishar nuzzle up to him, then cautiously untucked his arms and slid them around Baishar's shoulders. Hugs did not translate very well to kavkem physiology, but the meaning was the same, and Baishar's posture made it easy enough. He rested his right paw against the back of Baishar's neck, his left on his back between his shoulder blades.
[22:29] The gesture was met by a light shiver, then an appreciative nuzzle, a gentle nipping at Valcen's shoulder. A forepaw brushed against Valcen's upper arm, blunted claws tracing gently along the feathers. For once, it felt as though all his anxieties had dissolved; as if this were the one support from which all other fears hung like dangling pinecones, suddenly snapped. There were, at least, some things he could trust Valcen with; and this was one of them. A promise.
This didn't guarantee their safety, of course. The only 'guarantee of safety' a kavkem could ever have was ut, the welcoming embrace of the void. But it meant they were in no more danger now than they'd ever been in before; he wouldn't be the one who caused them suffering. Under the circumstances, it was the next best thing, and he would gladly take it.
[22:55] After a few more moments of simply holding Baishar, a physical support for his emotional catharsis, Valcen poked the tip of his muzzle into Baishar's mane, nipping at the feathers, then muttered softly into the fluff: "Are you going to be okay?"
[23:11] There was a moment of silence, as Baishar peeled himself out of his thoughts to consider the question. Was he going to be okay? It was always an uncertain thing; a question whose answer could never be fully known. Nonetheless, the answer was quick to crystallize in his mind, to accumulate certainty. He took in a breath. "Yes." A moment later, with a confidence he found surprising: "Yes, I'm going to be okay."