It had been six hundred years since Azriel last felt this particular type of fear: the kind that left one numb and freezing but unable to so much as shiver to regain some warmth. He last felt it when he watched his wife and child be killed in front of him while he struggled in vain to reach them all while knowing he would never make it in time and that their deaths were his fault. He had sworn to himself and the High Ones who had touched him that very day that he would never put himself in a position to feel that way again.
And for six hundred years he had been successful.
Rather he was until the day Lulphé had come to him with rumors of barbarities being committed by the Lord King of the Sinner Demons in Shiran City, saying she had no one else she could trust to send in to investigate.
“I chose you for this task, Azriel, because if it turns out to be nothing more than rumors spread by someone who has a small tiff with the Lord King I need someone who is able to pull out cleanly and without leaving a trace. My usual covert messengers cannot do that, not like you can.”
And Azriel, High Ones See him, against his better judgement, against the way his instincts set off alarms of warning, had agreed. He was only supposed to stay for ten years at most. But between falling for Rhyshladlyn and refusing to give up on trying, in vain, to get Lulphé to receive his reports and his proof and let him try that bastard Anislanzir before a proper tribunal of every one of the eight Qishir that ruled over the individual Worlds and the Seven Worlds as a whole, ten years had turned to twenty to thirty. And before he knew it, sixty years had passed and he was looking up as Azhuri had come striding across the Great Hall, orange-amber eyes so like her son’s dark with worry and fear.
“Azriel, you need to come with me.”
“Aye, my Lady,” he stepped towards her, worry and fear roiling in his gut. “Are you unwell? Where is Rhyshladlyn?”
“Your presence is urgently required. Follow me,” was the only answer she gave and that anxious fear increased as one name echoed inside his head as he did as the Lady Queen bid.
He had felt fear then, too, but nothing like now. Not even when he felt Rhyshladlyn die for that brief heartbeat of time months ago did he feel this fear and if he had, it was drowned out by every other emotion at the time.
“How much did you hear?” he asked, wanting to know where he had to begin because he would tell his Qishir everything. He would divulge every minute detail they had never had the time to discuss in the nearly seven decades they had known each other, every tiny thing that had been pushed aside in order to deal with far more pressing things than discussing Azriel’s past and why exactly he was assigned to Shiran City by the Eighth Qishir herself. He would say everything, he would even speak of his deceased wife and his only child, of why they died, how, and he had told no one about that. Only one other living soul knew those details, those secrets, and she sat on the throne as the ruler of all within the Seven Worlds.
He wouldn’t hold anything back. He hadn’t meant to in the first place but not meaning to didn’t amount to much of an excuse or reason when it was something that important.
Rhyshladlyn raised an eyebrow, the movement slow and deliberate, as though he were taking great care not to move too quickly to avoid startling Azriel into running away like a skittish animal. That or because it was the Qishir’s only way of keeping himself under control. Which was far more troublesome of a thought than Rhyshladlyn thinking Azriel to be akin to a skittish animal facing down a predator. Because for all the times that Azriel had felt some kind of fear around the other male he had never been afraid of Rhyshladlyn. Afraid of what he was capable of doing? Yes. But afraid of the Dhaoine himself? No.
“I arrived in time to hear you begin to yell at her about what your father made her do to you and everything that followed that in your conversation,” the Qishir replied, voice devoid of any inflection, utterly toneless, eyes still glazed and vacant. “It’s truly a wonder you didn’t even sense me. Though, now that one thinks about it, it really isn’t. I would have been blinded to all else as well were it I having that conversation with one of mine own siblings.” Rhyshladlyn flinched at the accidental plural use of the word sibling, but didn’t correct himself. It was too soon for that, too soon to acknowledge his most recent loss.
And the guilt that had been swirling in Azriel’s gut increased several degrees, making it hard to keep down his midday meal, and he fought against the urge to rub at his chest as that guilt began to creep up along his ribcage, playing a discordant melody against his bones as it slithered across his lungs. By my namesake, I am a piece of work. He just lost his brother and I went and dropped this shit on him? I should have destroyed that fucking mirror without answering the damn call.
Azriel bowed his head, eyes closing tightly against the sudden burn of tears as he swallowed around the lump that had formed in his suddenly very dry throat, nerves screaming with the need to run because there was just no way that this could end well in any form. Rhyshladlyn was always very clear on what would break his trust in someone. This had to fall on that list somewhere.
Coupled with the guilt and fear, it was a wonder he was even still functioning coherently on any level with the mixed signals his body kept receiving from his obviously short circuiting brain.
But what could he say? What could possibly be good enough of an opener to explain why he hadn’t said anything, why he had kept his silence on the matter for so long? Because he knew for a fact that saying anything remotely like an apology would likely get him punched. Not that he didn’t deserve to be, but it wouldn’t be conducive to healthy conversation.
But like he always did, Rhyshladlyn sensed that Azriel was struggling and offered him a starting point.
“Why did you not say anything?” Rhyshladlyn’s voice quivered, eyes beginning to clear and Azriel didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad one. “How could you not say anything?”
“What would it have solved, Rhys?” he countered, eyes darting away from where he’d looked at the Qishir when he’d spoken, hands clenching into fists at his sides before he stuffed them into the pockets of his breeches for no other reason than to hide how badly they had begun to shake. “I was sent to investigate your father, to find the proof necessary to bring him down and place Anis upon the throne in his stead, provided your brother was not in league with your sire. But it came to be known to me that no amount of proof would see that un-male removed from his seat of power. Lulphé cared nothing for the suffering of Shiran’s people, the Sinner Demon race as a whole, or you and your siblings. You were all expendable, and gods have mercy upon me, but I had thought that perhaps just once she wouldn’t be the psychotic bitch she had always been and that that wasn’t how she viewed all of you. So I tried every day for years to get an audience with her. I called on that mirror you saw me with, I sent reports, I sent messengers. When I could afford to step away and my absence not be noticed, I pounded on the doors of her chambers and screamed at her to answer me when she refused to open them. The last time I left the City’s boundaries without you at my side until the day of my tribunal was the day your arm was burned,” he swallowed thickly, letting out a shaky breath as the guilt from all those years ago rose just as strong as it had been when it had been fresh, adding to the mixture already making it incredibly difficult to breathe. “You were left unguarded while I went to beg the sister who had ceased to be that centuries prior for an audience so that I may plead the case to save you and your siblings and your father’s people from his insanity and tyranny, and you were grievously harmed. I couldn’t stomach risking that again.”
“So… what? You’re telling me you didn’t say anything because it would have destroyed the hope I had built up that if I could only get the Eighth Qishir’s attention I would be saved?” Rhyshladlyn observed and shook his head, lips twisted into a sarcastic mimicry of a smile. “It would have been better had you destroyed that hope from the get-go, Azriel.”
He snarled, unable to help it, gaze snapping up to meet Rhyshladlyn’s startled eyes. “No, because then you wouldn’t have survived at all! And it was bad enough that I was responsible for the death of the first love of my life, I could not handle the mere idea that I could potentially be the reason for the death of the second.”
Rhyshladlyn blinked, clearly taken aback before he leaned forward, eyes narrowing, “Wait… how long have you been in love with me, exactly?” The I’ll visit the “I’m the reason my wife died” bit later went unspoken but Azriel knew it was there regardless.
Azriel chuckled, his smile faint and almost bitter but it was directed more at himself than the Qishir that held his heart.
“Since the day you refused to kill the new recruit who mocked you for preferring to be the one on your back and instead educated him, granted in front of everyone, why it was best not to judge something one had not tried,” Azriel replied and felt relief flood him when he saw Rhyshladlyn’s eyes clear entirely as the Qishir let out a low laugh.
“Ahh, that day was glorious,” Rhyshladlyn recalled, orange-amber eyes sparkling with mirth.
“That it was,” Azriel concurred, his smile still tinged with bitterness but it was sweeter after hearing him laugh. Knowing he had managed to brighten the male’s mood, even if only a little, always made Azriel happy.
After all, Rhyshladlyn had done what no one else between the loss of his wife and the day he had strode onto the training fields of Shiran City’s garrison had been able to: he had made Azriel open up, had showed him how to love again and not be afraid, had showed him that being vulnerable did not mean one was weak, had showed him that weakness did not mean one was not strong. But most of all he showed him that the trauma of one’s past does not define them, what they do in the wake of it does. And he regretted not a single moment of their journey together.
For a few minutes they just stood there staring at each other, remembering thousands of shared moments and Azriel wondered if Rhyshladlyn was looking at those moments differently. Wondered if the Qishir was looking them over for the times when Azriel was absent without seemingly good cause, when he was possibly recording incidences for his reports to Lulphé. But most of all, he wondered if any of this information changed how Rhyshladlyn felt about him.
Because if he lost Rhyshladlyn, too, after everything, after falling so completely for someone again, Azriel wasn’t sure he would survive the loss this time. He’d barely survived the loss of his wife and child, still couldn’t handle even recalling their names and their faces though he had never forgotten either, without beginning to break apart at the seams. It was rare enough that he, as a pureblood Anglëtinean, had managed to find a second mate in his lifetime as the Race tended to mate for life and when their partner died, they either followed shortly behind or lived the rest of their days in solitude that was broken up only by bed partners who meant no more than the release they could provide. So to lose Rhyshladlyn after doing what seldom few of the Race had done by finding a second life mate? To lose Relyt and Nhulynolyn and the rest by default? It was too much to even hypothetically consider and gods but he really should have thought of that when he overlooked the plethora of opportunities he’d been afforded to tell his Qishir everything. But he hadn’t. He’d been a coward. He didn’t want to risk losing Rhyshladlyn and the family they had begun to build because he had never had something like that with anyone. After all he and his wife had only been married for a decade when she was murdered and their child was barely even five namedays old at the time of his death. It had not been nearly long enough, especially for someone whose blood kin had disowned him at an early age, leaving him homeless and without any protection from the mistreatment the Race often gave to those who did not meet its high standards of perfection and beauty.
“Daddy! Help us, please! Daddy!”
Azriel roared, the gold and red light falling from his eyes wickedly bright as his true face blew apart the glamour he used to mask it, wings beating at the air furiously as he held out a hand towards his son who was hollering for him. He was so close. Nearly there! But he knew that he wasn’t fast enough. He wouldn’t make it but still he beat his wings faster, willed his body to cut through the air, praying that he would make it time.
“Riel!” his wife screamed and the sound he made was guttural and animalistic as he watched Lulphé dig her claws into the female’s throat and pull it out, blood spurting everywhere. His screaming nearly drowned out that of their son before it was cut short when Lulphé separated the young’s head from his shoulders.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Lulphé and the rest of it?” Rhyshladlyn was saying and Azriel jerked himself out of his memories of the past and focused back in on the present. “I remember you mentioning the night my Qishir nature awoke that you had come to Shiran City from the Eighth Palace, but you didn’t elaborate. You had the perfect opportunity to say something then and you didn’t. Why, Azriel? Why did you really keep this from me?”
“I… I was afraid,” he whispered, looking away and down at his feet where his bare toes curled against the shingles of the roof.
“Of what?” Rhyshladlyn snapped. “That I would, what, judge you? Or spit in your face and denounce you? I was willing to put my life on the line to save you from a death sentence because my father decided to try and break me by accusing you of rape. But, yes, obviously,” Azriel didn’t have to look at him to know Rhyshladlyn had rolled his eyes, “I was going to send you away because your blood sister is a psychotic cunt who would love my father and get along swell as shit with him. Or that you had gotten on the wrong side of a Qishir who had every right to die and your wife and kid paid the price of it. Nameless’ great swinging cock, Azriel.”
He let out laugh that was all sharp edges, eyes still locked on his feet.
“What was I afraid of?” His voice didn’t sound right, like it was off, shaking as it was around the edges, his accent slipping out around random syllables. “I was afraid of falling so completely for someone again that the loss of them could be the end of me and then actually losing them, for whatever reason, because of something, anything, I did or didn’t do,” he admitted, only slightly shocked at how easy the answer came. But then again, he really shouldn’t have been.
Talking to Rhyshladlyn had always come so easily, so naturally. He had never wondered if he could discuss something with the Qishir, only if doing so at certain moments was prudent and wouldn’t risk upsetting him in a way that wasn’t conducive to the continued safety of everyone around them. Which only made his fear all the more ridiculous.
“You mean after your wife and child,” Rhyshladlyn elaborated, adding a lilt at the end that made it sound like a question even though they both knew it wasn’t.
Azriel let out a shaky breath and nodded. It had been centuries since he lost them both but the pain of that loss was still as powerful as it had been when it was first conceived. And in the moments when their memories so ardently refused to remain confined to the prisons he’d crafted for them, it took every ounce of will power he possessed not to drown under them.
“When did you realize that I was on the same level as they were where loss was concerned?” Rhyshladlyn probed and Azriel had to swallow the urge to snap at him to leave it be, that he did not wish to revisit these memories. They hurt well enough in their special boxes buried deep inside his heart, he didn’t need, nor want, them hurting at the surface, outside of those boxes.
But he owed Rhyshladlyn an explanation. Even if giving that explanation meant dredging up long buried moments of his past, he would speak them, bring them out into the light once again, and pray that they wouldn’t consume him. Though he trusted Rhyshladlyn explicitly and did not doubt for a second that the Qishir would not let him fall victim to his past any more than Azriel had allowed Rhyshladlyn to fall victim to his.
“The day Azhuri came to me in the Great Hall and told me that I was needed. I had never quite seen that particular type of fear in her eyes before that moment and I felt the first stirrings of my own because all I could think before she even spoke to me was Rhyshladlyn and that I had to get to you. It was all consuming. And the second I felt the waves of your Call as a Qishir looking for his qahllynshæ? I knew I was gone,” he said after long moments of gathering his courage to speak. “I hadn’t felt that way in centuries and it terrified me but I couldn’t ignore your call, I couldn’t not give my Answer even if doing so might damn us both.” He lifted his gaze to find Rhyshladlyn staring at him with a look the Anglëtinean didn’t really have a term for in any of the languages he spoke. But it was strong that Azriel felt it vibrate along his bones and leave an ache in its wake. “I knew then that come whatever may, I wouldn’t give up on you, I wouldn’t walk away. No matter how terrified I was of the past repeating itself, I felt like it was worth the risk.”
Rhyshladlyn didn’t say anything, just stepped over the peek and sat down just on the other side of it. After a long silence he whispered, “Was it worth the risk?”
Azriel turned where he stood so he was facing the same direction as Rhyshladlyn and sat down, legs extended out along the slope of the roof, hands pressed flat against the shingles to either side of his hips as he leaned forward slightly.
“I believe so, but then moments like this happen that make me wonder, make me worry,” he said candidly. May as well lay it all out on the table and pray the table doesn’t explode in my face.
“Worry about what?” Rhyshladlyn sounded genuinely confused and Azriel snorted almost too softly to hear.
“Worry if you’ll walk away from me,” Azriel shrugged one shoulder as though he were nonchalant about it when they both knew he was anything but that. He was as open and as vulnerable as he could be and it felt odd. His race wasn’t known for laying their feelings out into the open like that, it was a sign of weakness to them. To show that kind of openness, that kind of vulnerability, was the ultimate sign of trust for an Anglëtinean because it could all to easily be used to hurt them.
Rhyshladlyn made a sound low in his throat that conveyed how utterly unlikely was to ever happen in response but Azriel kept staring out at the sand dunes that surrounded their little oasis on all sides, unable to look back at the Qishir, unable to let him see what he looked like just then as unguarded as he was. The last person to see him like this was his wife and she had died less than a year later. Azriel wasn’t one to adhere to the few superstitions the Race was known for. But the one he could easily see having some semblance of fact to it was the one that stated that if the events of the present were in any way similar to those of the past, one must do everything in their power to do things differently. And that meant keeping Rhyshladlyn from seeing his face, from seeing the look of unadulterated love and devotion and sorrow and fear that he could feel warring for control over his facial features.
Neither of them said anything or moved for what felt like hours but Azriel knew it was only minutes. But the quiet that had fallen between them wasn’t awkward, wasn’t tense even if he still felt wracked with guilt and the soft echoes of that fear. Just as he was about to break the silence, just as he was ready to start talking about his past, to start from the very beginning like he should have when he first met Rhyshladlyn, Relyt’s voice called up from the ground: “The food is ready whenever you two are done having your spat. Finish up soon so that it does not go cold.”
Behind him Rhyshladlyn snorted, loud and hard, and Azriel found himself loosing a shocked giggle. Guess that answered his question about whether the rest had heard him yelling at Lulphé.
“Shall we?” Rhyshladlyn asked, laughter dancing around his words.
“Yes,” Azriel said and glanced sidelong over his shoulder, just enough for Rhyshladlyn to catch a glimpse of how open he was and how grateful he felt that the Qishir hadn’t pushed for more than what he had. When Rhyshladlyn nodded once in acknowledgement, Azriel looked forward again.
Rising to his feet in one fluid motion, he brushed his hands off on his breeches and rolled his shoulders to loosen the stiff muscles there. With his expression firmly back under his control and returned to its normalcy, he turned to face his Qishir, holding out his hand with a shaky smile. “Mind doing the honors?”
“With pleasure,” Rhyshladlyn smiled, slow and sadistic, slipping his hand along Azriel’s and blinked them down into the sitting area of the cabin to the shocked shouts of their family.
“Fuck! Warn a guy before you suddenly pop up like that! Gods aplenty, you nearly killed me!” Nhulynolyn barked, one hand pressed to his chest, eyes closed dramatically.
“Like you’ve any room to complain,” Shadiranamen laughed, “you do that to people all of the time.”
“Exactly! That’s me doing it to other people, not other people doing it to me,” the Other shot back with a whine. “Anyway, though, as I was saying: come here, twin of mine. Tell us all about your trip. We missed you. Did you bring us back presents?” Nhulynolyn babbled, holding out his hands and making come here gestures as Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes fondly as he laughed in response.
Azriel held back as Rhyshladlyn waded in among them, accepting hugs and greetings and ‘welcome back’s, giving a few answers to his twin’s rapid fire questions when the Qishir was given the chance to. He just watched how the male he had fallen so hard for moved with a confidence and ease not many could pull off in any situation, how he paid the same amount of attention to Xheshmaryú as he did to Relyt and to Shadiranamen as he did to Nhulynolyn. He committed to memory how happy Rhyshladlyn looked in their home, surrounded by their family, how content he was even though the Worlds outside those walls were falling apart and were doing their damnedest to drag them along for the ride. But right then, the impending war, the death of Anis, the retribution of the Ancients, the details of Azriel’s no longer quite mysterious past, none of that mattered. What mattered was the here and now; the laughter and jokes and smiles. What mattered was the warmth that bloomed hard and fast in his chest, burning away the last of that fear, the last of his doubt and his guilt.
High Ones, what did I do to be blessed with this male? And how is it he keeps finding ways to forgive us for our mistakes? He wondered. No answer came, not from his gods at least.
Instead it came in the form of Rhyshladlyn turning to look at him with a brilliant smile, eyes alight with mirth and the love the Qishir so obviously had for him as he held out a hand and said, “Come on, Az, join us!”
And he did, unable to keep the answering smile off his face as he took Rhyshladlyn’s hand and allowed himself to be pulled up next to him, praying all the while that his superstitions and worry was for naught and that he wouldn’t lose Rhyshladlyn as he had his wife and son.
Please, whatever gods still hear my prayers and care anything for me, for us, don’t let me lose him.