Rhyshladlyn stared down at his hands where they rested on the map table, palms facing the tent roof. The irony of where he was sitting in Relyt’s tent surrounded by all of his Court save Thae’a, Adïmshyl, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú, staring at the map of Shiraniqi Desert and the notation where Shiran City had once been was not lost on him. The irony that his twin was reprimanding him for keeping this from them all while he stared at the most up-to-date rendering of his homeland made his lungs tight. Made bile rise in his throat as one hand flipped over and his fingers idly traced over the markings of where Shiran’s Watchtowers rose from the sands.
“You knew he was alive this entire time?” Nhulynolyn’s voice cut through the air and connected with his face with all the power of an open-handed slap. It broke against the wall of silence that filled the tent to capacity and then some. The accusation wrapped around those eight words shattered like glass against the doors he’d shut between them.
“Nul,” Bayls’ voice was soft enough that he almost missed it, and he could mentally picture her laying a hand on his twin’s shoulder, the touch meant to calm him. And perhaps it would have if Nhulynolyn wasn’t already so incensed. Once he reached this point, nothing short of proper closure could calm him again.
“No, Bay, I ain’t gonna calm down,” his voice was barbed but none of it was directed at the Sinner. No, each barb hit him and he welcomed them. “He owes us answers. I’m owed answers.”
Bayls sighed, heavy and hard, and Rhyshladlyn could tell by the sound that this was a conversation that they had had several times, enough that she had likely memorized the Other’s side of the argument.
But still he didn’t say anything to Nhulynolyn because the answer was obvious and already known. Of course he’d known Azriel had been alive this whole time. Of course he hadn’t said anything. Of course he had kept it a secret to himself. What was the point of trying to say otherwise when it would just be a lie to do so? What was the point of explaining his actions when it didn’t require a lot of to find the motivations behind them?
“You’re seriously just gonna sit there an’ say nothin’?” Nhulynolyn scoffed and slapped a hand down on the table making him flinch and everyone else jump. “Typical. Y’get bitchy when we keep shit from you, but it’s completely okay f’y’t’do the same t’us.”
“Nully,” Thayne’s voice was commanding but not forceful with it and he chanced a glance at her and regretted it immediately when he saw the sympathy and understanding in her crimson eyes. He looked back at the map instead, it hurt less. “To be completely fair, I also knew Uncle was alive and said nothing. Do not make it all Rhys’ fau–”
“–you don’ have an obligation to tell us shit, Thay,” Nhulynolyn interrupted, tone hard, “he does. And he didn’t say shit all. And I want to know why.”
I can’t tell you why, Nul. I’m sorry.
The silence was deafening both in the tent and in his head. Rhyshladlyn wanted to open those doors, to drop the Shields he’d carefully built over the years, to let his twin back in, to let him know in the way only an Other could all the reasons why Rhyshladlyn hadn’t told anyone Azriel was alive until today. Why he had hidden it away. He wanted to end that silence, the loneliness, but he couldn’t, and even if he could he wouldn’t. This was his penance. This was the least of what he deserved for the crimes he’d committed. For his failures.
It was the least of what he deserved for abandoning those who had trusted him enough to let him go despite not knowing he had no plans to return to them. It was the least of what he deserved for having to sit here and listen to Nhulynolyn snap and snarl at him like he was a fledgling who tried to learn how to fly by jumping off the old North Tower, for having to sit here and listen to the pain and the heartache that went unsaid in the quiet glances between his Court. It was the least of what he deserved for forcing them to rely more heavily on each other, to build the bridges that connected them without him there to set the foundation like he was supposed to.
His failure to save Azriel, to save his brother, to save himself, to keep any of the millions of residents of Shiran City safe from harm paled in comparison to his failure as a Qishir to his Court.
“Sorry will never be good enough! Sorry will never be good enough!”
“–stop that,” Azriel’s voice pierced the silence and made it come alive, his voice slip-sliding across Rhyshladlyn’s skin, a balm all on its own. One that called to that secreted part of his Self that demanded he finalize the Bond from his side, that he take on the same mark that Azriel bore with such grace and acceptance. Demanded he Speak the Oath he’d swallowed the day Azriel had voiced his own in a desperate bid to survive. “Stop beating yourself up.” He didn’t look up at the Anglëtinean but he didn’t have to. He knew the expression he wore, he’d seen it thousands of times before, both before his death and in his nightmares after it. “Rhys…” A plea, a demand, a prayer. But he couldn’t look away from the map his fingers still compulsively traced over. He couldn’t look into the eyes of the one he had craved for centuries and denied himself. Because even though Azriel had never done anything but encourage him to better himself, to believe that he was worthy of love and happiness and safety, to believe that he was everything his sire had told him he wasn’t, Rhyshladlyn had spent too long away from that influence. And old habits always died the hardest.
“C’mon, Rhys,” Bayls this time, for once speaking reason where his twin didn’t. It was weird in its oddness and he didn’t know how to handle it. So, naturally, he ignored it. “Let us help you, for once.”
He couldn’t look at or answer any of them because Hujiel had been right. He had killed Azriel. Sure, Anislanzir had been the one to kick Mallacht down the hall towards him, but that never would have happened if Rhyshladlyn hadn’t drawn his swords. So the fault would always be at his feet. He had killed the tens of millions of Dhaoine that hadn’t been able to make it out of Shiran City, never mind the tens of thousands of both his father’s army and Thayne’s that hadn’t made it out of the valley in time. Even if his own actions were in response to those of his sire, or the lack of actions as it were, it didn’t matter. He’d had a choice and he’d made the wrong ones.
And he had been punishing himself for it since that day. It was why he hadn’t buried Azriel, why he had left and not looked back. It was why, even now, he was making plans to run. Was making plans that as soon as he was able, he was going to leave again. Even though he knew none of his Court would judge him for the decisions he made, not once they’d heard his reasons, it didn’t matter. He was still going to run from them, still going to abandon them. Because he was afraid. Afraid that no matter how valid his reasons, they wouldn’t be good enough and just like he’d been the reason he’d lost Azriel, he would be the reason he lost all of them.
And the thought of the hypothetical of that alone was enough to keep him quiet.
They can’t die or get hurt because of me if I’m not in their lives.
A hand covered his, effectively stilling his tracing fingers and he stared at it, recognizing the qahllyn’qir that glowed softly just beneath when Azriel’s skin met his, and seeing them made the memory rise unbidden and with more power than he had expected. He succumbed to its waves and drowned in it with a sob that got choked off in his throat as the World tilted and blurred.
He didn’t remember leaving the room, didn’t remember how he got into the hallway or crossed it until he was kneeling beside Azriel’s body, beside the corpse of the male he loved. It didn’t look like him anymore, hadn’t for awhile. And he wasn’t surprised by that, had expected it after Anislanzir had taken him hostage, after the threat the Lord King had issued to Lulphé. But what Rhyshladlyn hadn’t expected was that Azriel’s qahllyn’qir were still visible, still humming and glowing with power despite how their Bond had snapped with his Crossing.
Eyes tracing every inch of those markings as Shiran City whined and screamed around him, as the alarms shrieked through the air, as the rumble from millions of Dhaoine fleeing the City shook the ground, Rhyshladlyn pulled Mallacht from Azriel’s back and set the sword aside. He would collect it and its silver twin later. With shaking hands he used his magick to try and close as many of Azriel’s wounds as he could, whispering soft nothings the entire time. As though his Companion weren’t in the After but merely unconscious. As though all he had to do to see those beautiful eyes look at him again was to Heal him just well enough to get him to Relyt, to get him out of here.
But it didn’t work, it wouldn’t work. With a soft sob he refused to acknowledge when the heartbeat he was desperate to hear again remained still and absent, Rhyshladlyn shifted them both so Azriel’s face was tucked in the crook of his neck, shoulder braced against his chest, the rest of the Anglëtinean’s body resting in his lap. Tears he thought he no longer had the fluids necessary to shed fell down his face as he rocked them back and forth. When one of Azriel’s hands dislodged from where Rhyshladlyn had placed them on his lap and landed on the back of his, Rhyshladlyn let out a sound that made the City heave around him.
“Don’t worry, Azzy,” he whispered into the Anglëtinean’s blood-soaked hair. “I’ll get you home. It’s going to be okay.”
With a sound like a drowning man breaking the water’s surface, Rhyshladlyn came to awareness and found himself wedged between the couch and Relyt’s desk, legs drawn up to his chest, chin tucked over his knees, arms wrapped over each other on top of his head as his tears burned molten tracks down his cheeks. He was keenly aware that everyone was staring at him, that Azriel was gripping the edge of the map table as though it was the only thing keeping him upright. That Bayls was barely two feet away, mouth forming words that he couldn’t hear over the roaring in his ears. That Relyt and Nhulynolyn were staring at him with identical expressions that made his skin prickle.
“Rhys?” Bayls’ voice broke through the roaring in his ears and he frowned at the high pitched whining that replaced it, wondering what in the fuck could be making such a wounded, pitiful sound. “Hey, your Majesty?” He blinked and looked at her, feeling confused. How did I get from the map table to here? “I need you to breathe for me, okay? Just focus on that.” Nameless’ balls, that sound is coming from me.
“I am fine, Bayls,” he replied as he rose slowly, shakily to his feet. He had to get the fuck out of here. The tent was too small, the air too thick with things unsaid. He just needed a few minutes to himself, to resettle, to get his footing back, and then he’d answer any questions they had. But not right now, not just yet.
No one moved to stop him until he was nearly to the tent’s entrance and suddenly Nhulynolyn was standing right in front of him, blue eyes like ice, arms crossed over his chest, hair that was long enough to brush across his shoulders coming out of the braid he’d put it into, the wayward strands curling against his face in the humidity.
“No,” his twin hissed, “you are not runnin’ again. You are gonna sit the fuck down an’ answer our questions. After that? I don’t care where you go.”
With a shaky sigh he rubbed a hand over his face. “What do you want me to say, Nul?” He asked as he spread his arms wide, tone flat and devoid of the emotion that was making it hard to breathe properly.
“I want y’t’tell me why you didn’t tell any’a’us that Az was alive!” Nhulynolyn barked, advancing a step. “I want y’t’tell me why y’only returned t’us now! I want y’t’tell me why me an’ Shadi an’ Xhesh still ain’t allowed in that head’a’yours! I want y’t’tell me why Az just touchin’ your hand made y’run an’ wedge yourself between the couch an’ desk! I want y’t’tell me my self-forced silence was worth somethin’!”
Rhyshladlyn looked away, his own arms crossing, hands cupping his elbows, thumb nails scritch-scratching over the skin there, a tick he had developed when the memories were too strong for him to ignore when awake. It usually helped but not this time. This time it did nothing to slow his rapidly beating heart, to ease out his sharp and shortened breathing, to calm the panicked need to run. If anything, it only seemed to make it all worse.
I have got to get out of here.
“Your Majesty,” Relyt’s voice was filled with an understanding that Rhyshladlyn didn’t deserve, that was a lie, because Relyt couldn’t possibly understand why he was hesitating to say anything, why he had run, why he still wanted to run. “We’re only trying to help you and if you don’t confide in us, we are left to operate blindly.”
“And you know as well as we do that us operating blindly where you’re concerned is nothing short of a recipe for disaster,” Azriel added.
Fuck the both of you and your sense making.
Closing his eyes tightly, he took a deep breath and let it out slow, fighting against the tears that pricked his eyes. He blinked out of the tent before any of them could say anything else, before he could be grilled for more information.
I’ll be back by dinner at the latest, he sent in a one-way communication to Nhulynolyn. I just need a moment right now. I’m sorry.
If his twin gave any response, he didn’t hear it through the Shields he slammed back into place and added more defenses to. If anyone spoke verbally to him, he didn’t hear them because by the time he’d finished giving that explanation to Nhulynolyn, he was reaching for a Line. And in seconds he was on one and aiming straight for the one place he hadn’t spent more than a few minutes in since the day he’d brought Azriel to Relyt for the final time before he’d abandoned his Court and his Others.
He needed to repent, needed to be punished for his crimes, for his failures, for the damage he’d done, but he was too powerful for even the collective power of the Worlds to really touch him. And the only two in the Worlds that could touch him wouldn’t. Not in the way he needed, in the way he deserved.
So he did the next best thing.
He went home.