He shouldn’t have been surprised that Rhyshladlyn had run and yet he was. But what surprised him more was the way Nhulynolyn’s face went blank, the way he lost focus almost as soon as Rhyshladlyn was out of sight. It was the same look he’d always gotten when Rhyshladlyn was using their connection to speak to him. The way Nhulynolyn’s face fell when the connection was severed, the look of abject grief that took the place of that blankness made his heart jump into his throat. But that grief was replaced almost immediately by anger.
“I swear, that male makes me want to do unspeakable things to inanimate objects,” Thayne grumbled with a roll of her eyes before she rubbed a hand over her face and he snorted before he could swallow the sound down.
“Can’t say that I blame you there,” he agreed.
“What did he say?” Bayls asked, clearly having recognized that blank look on her lover’s face as much as the rest of them had.
*She asks good questions,* Kitteia rumbled.
“He said he’s gonna return by dinner. The first time I hear his voice as my ké in centuries an’ that’s what he says to me, ‘I’ll be back by dinner at the latest‘,” Nhulynolyn snarled out, voice mimicking Rhyshladlyn’s perfectly before he hissed in a language that made Azriel’s ears ring and everyone else flinch.
He watched as the Other lifted his hand to catch a Line and go after his kè but before he could, Bayls was just there and Azriel wondered if she had somehow learned the same skill of blinking that Rhyshladlyn had. Though he knew it was more likely that she had just spent four centuries learning to anticipate Nhulynolyn’s reactions and to respond accordingly and with a swiftness that mimicked blinking.
“Nully, breathe. He has his reasons and you need to respect that.”
“That’s bullshit, B. I have respected his reasons; I left him alone for centuries di’n’t I?” Nhulynolyn replied but didn’t shake off the grip the Sinner had on his arm. Didn’t stop her from lowering his hand and breaking his connection to the Line. “I took a vow a’silence ’cause our voices are identical, I have avoided ever’one to make the burden a’the loss a’him easier, an’ he just fucks off again w’thout so much as an attempted explanation for any of he shit he’s done? Fuck that an’ fuck him.”
“Null…” Bayls pleaded and from the fond exasperation in her tone, he could tell this was an old argument. “You know as well as I do, probably better actually, that it isn’t that simple. Stop throwing a tantrum and try to think about this logically. You aren’t the only one that’s hurting,” she admonished, hazel grey eyes full of reproach that the Other couldn’t look at for very long. “Only difference being that he has spent centuries in solitude, trying to heal alone, and you haven’t.”
It was no less entertaining to watch someone who was barely over five feet tall stare down someone well over a foot taller than them and scold them so perfectly now than it had been when he’d first met the Sinner.
*I had thought you were exaggerating her abilities, Master,* Azuna commented as he ducked out of the tent, heading off to find a spot of sun to recharge in, moving silently in his incorporeal form through the camp.
Nope, he answered with an chuckle heard only across their shared consciousness, not even close. And it seems she’s gotten better in the years I’ve been gone.
“I share in your frustration, Nully, but is no one going to talk about how our Qishir just lost it not even five minutes ago because Azriel touched his hand?” Relyt interrupted before Nhulynolyn could do more than open his mouth. “Because I for one find that more than a bit odd. He should not have responded that way to the touch of his Companion.”
It was still odd for him to see the Soul Healer looking so sure of himself, standing so regally among seasoned warriors, though Bayls had spent as much time as Relyt becoming accustomed to fighting on the Fields. He could still remember the clean shaven, wide-eyed, proper-spoken male who balked at the idea of causing violence; the very same male who had gotten violently ill after he’d killed thousands with his Soul Wave during the raid on their cabin. He wasn’t the lanky male Azriel had met back then. Now he was muscled and carried an air of danger that Azriel couldn’t deny was sexy. Now facial hair darkened his chin and around his mouth and above his upper lip. Now the shadow of hair he had yet to shave brushed across a jaw that had gotten stronger over the centuries. Before him stood a warrior, a General that had earned his notches and then some. No longer was Relyt the conscientious objector he had been.
“I agree,” Thayne said, pulling Azriel from his reverie. “And whatever his reasons for not giving us an explanation before running off be damned, that was not the strong Qishir I saw vault the wall into Shiran City. And it certainly was not the Qishir that confronted my mother and wiped her out of Existence before a packed Hall after interrupting the Taking Ritual. That was a broken, lonely male and I for one am more than worried that there is something worse going on than what we’ve assumed all these years.”
He watched as Nhulynolyn sighed, one hand coming up to cover his eyes, the shame of ignoring the glaringly obvious clear in his body language. Bayls just watched the Other, the hand she’d put on the Nhulynolyn’s free arm sliding down from his forearm to his hand where she entwined their fingers. Relyt made a sound that he remembered from before he died; it was one that clearly said that he was surrounded by idiots and he wanted nothing more than to smack all of them.
Thayne was right, that hadn’t been the Rhyshladlyn they had all known. That had been someone else, someone that had lost so much, had lost everything, and had in turn worked to gain it back by destroying everything else around him. He knew the signs well; after all when he’d lost his wife and son, he had done everything possible to isolate himself, to make it virtually impossible for anyone to become attached to him, to get close enough that he developed feelings for them. Because they couldn’t get hurt if he wasn’t in their life.
He didn’t say anything but when Relyt looked at him, grey eyes filled with an emotion he couldn’t name and a plea that he could, he pushed off the map table and tried to ignore the way his knees felt weak. Tried to ignore that every part of him was worried that no matter what he did, the Qishir he had known was lost to him, to all of them, forever. Tried to ignore the way his stomach was dancing between his knees after watching Rhyshladlyn duck away from him and hide, sobbing and whispering he was sorry over and over again. Tried to ignore the spark of recognition that had ignited off when he’d seen Rhyshladlyn’s expression shut down before he’d caught a Line out of the camp; a recognition that had told him that it was like looking into a mirror that showed him his past just on a different face.
You taught me to have hope again, to open up to someone else, to love again. High Ones willing, I can do the same for you.
“I’ll go check on him.”
He didn’t have to see Nhulynolyn’s incredulous look, he could feel it. “An’ d’what, exactly?” the Other asked. “If he won’t talk to me, to Shadi or Xhesh, what makes y’think he’ll talk t’you?”
The question was a valid one and he tried to let that overshadow the hurt the words caused, the old wounds that he had thought remained in the After with his old body, with the echoes of a life he had left behind at the River crossing.
“Nully, do not fight me on this,” he met that incredulous look head on. “I may not be as old I used to be, but I remember Rhys. I remember how he thought. I learned him and his ways far before Azhuri’s spell keeping you two from each other was removed, after all,” he smiled crookedly but it didn’t reach his eyes. He looked away from Nhulynolyn to Relyt. “I’ll find him. Can’t promise I’ll get him to come back, but I’ll at least be able to make sure he’s safe to be alone until he comes back.”
“How do you know where he’s going, let alone that he’ll come back?” Thayne asked. “And how do you know he isn’t going to respond to you the same way that he just did or how he did when you both saw each other on the Field?”
“Because Rhys is nothing if not predicable when he feels he needs to be punished for something. And he promised to wait for me if I were to die before him, a promise I made to him as well, so I know he’ll return eventually,” he answered with a shrug. “I hadn’t planned to touch him unless he asks me to. I shouldn’t have done it before without his say so, but I acted on instinct before thinking it through.”
“That still doesn’t answer the question on how you know where he is,” Relyt pointed out with a raised eyebrow, the sass in that expression enough to nearly make Azriel chuckle, though he bit it back barely. Not that it stopped Lycarn and Azuna who were listening in from laughing in his stead, or Malkuth who was still slung around his neck from doing the same.
“I’ve seen the look he had before.”
Everyone frowned at him with nearly identical expressions of confusion. Okay, that’s just fucking creepy. They spend way too much time together.
*What was your first clue?* Malkuth snarked and he fought to keep from rolling his eyes at the snake.
“Okay, I’ll bite,” Thayne spoke up when he didn’t reply immediately. “When did you see it before?”
He closed his eyes as he searched for the Line Rhyshladlyn had taken, found it and reached up to grab a hold of it before replying, “He had the same look the day I died.”
And then he was travelling towards Shiran Valley and the obelisks that were all that remained of the Greywalker City that had once stood within it. He picked up speed as that expression of guilt-ridden horror and pain that had contorted Rhyshladlyn’s face after he’d touched the Qishir’s hand replayed in his mind. Vaulted over fellow travellers and darted around Line Carriages, heedless of the yells for him to watch where you’re going and to slow down. He didn’t have that far to go, not really, Fènwa was only one World over and down but he was worried that Rhyshladlyn would run again before he got there, before he had a chance to convince him to come back, to stay. Because sure Nhulynolyn had said that Rhyshladlyn was coming back by dinner, but Azriel knew Rhyshladlyn was better at running from what hurt him than he was at facing it. He was fantastic at communicating but getting him to the point where he started talking was the difficult part.
He landed in Shiraniqi Desert just on the edge of Shiran Valley in no time, feeling a sense of déjà vu prickle along his skin as he looked around at the sea of mummified bodies of those that had fallen during the first battle of the war, the one where he’d encountered Rhyshladlyn for the first time since he’d died. Rubbing at his arms he looked down into the valley and saw Rhyshladlyn walking among the Watchtowers, left hand idly tracing over them as he passed by, the barest hint of a melody dancing on the wind as he sang.
*Master Azriel, are you sure this is a good idea?* Lycarn asked.
It isn’t a bad one, he hedged and the ice wolf frowned at him.
*Relax, Lyc,* Malkuth murmured as he flicked his forked tongue across the underside of Azriel’s chin. *I’m still with him. If shit goes sideways, he won’t be alone.*
The ice wolf didn’t say anything else but a pulse of acknowledgement rumbled down their connection before it went quiet again. Rubbing a hand across Malkuth’s scales, Azriel took a step forward and through the barrier that thrummed softly all around the Valley’s edge, invisible until one was already on the other side of it. The memory hit him as soon as he was through.
“Do you remember me?” The emotion in that voice made his skin crawl in a way that wasn’t wholly unpleasant even though Azuna murmured that it should be; that that emotion was dangerous and he should be afraid of it. But try as he might, he couldn’t be.
“How could I forget?” Azriel answered, lowering his sword without thinking about it. He knew instinctively that even if they were on opposite sides of the war, the Qishir wouldn’t hurt him.
“Easily,” was the quiet reply, nearly lost to the din of the battle that raged around them but left them untouched, voice colliding with the Currents and shattering against them like ice breaking on the floor. It made him shiver.
He didn’t know how to respond to that besides to try and show he remembered the promise he’d made months before his death, a promise only he and Rhyshladlyn had known about.
“You waited for me,” it wasn’t a question.
“How could I not?” Rhyshladlyn answered it regardless.
Azriel smirked as Malkuth snickered from where he was draped around his shoulders, but the movement of his lips felt off, wrong almost. As though he shouldn’t be smirking, as though his face shouldn’t be responding. But he pushed the feeling away, ignored the whispers in the dark corners of his mind, ignored the prickling of those silvery-white marks on his skin.
“Easily,” he replied around that smirk that felt misplaced and felt a measure of satisfaction when Rhyshladlyn rolled his eyes. Even if it meant the Qishir looked away and didn’t look back, even if he didn’t get a chance to say anything else before Rhyshladlyn was darting away back into the fray of the battle, that moment of fond amusement had been worth it.
Shaking his head to dispel the memory, he carefully made his way down the dune and approached the Watchtowers, hearing their hums and chitters before he’d even made it a hundred feet into the valley. When he was close enough to make out the words that Rhyshladlyn was singing, the Watchtowers’ happy hums and chitters grew in volume as they recognized his signature and his power. He could feel them tracing across his qahllyn’qir and he let them. It felt weird being here when the last time he’d been this close to any of them, he had been searching for answers on how he’d died, but at the same time it felt right to be back. As Rhyshladlyn turned to face him, he smiled as another memory rose of when he’d found the Qishir standing at the top of the North Tower on his 88th nameday. And as those orange-amber eyes turned to him, he spoke the same words he had back then:
“I figured I would find you here.”
Rhyshladlyn huffed in feigned annoyance and turned back around to keep walking among the obelisks that rose up around them.
“Of course it is you that is sent to fetch me back,” he answered, nearly verbatim for what he had said all those centuries ago and Azriel laughed, unable to help it.
“Not so much fetch you,” he answered with a shake of his head as he jogged to catch up to the other male, “but mainly to check up on you.”
It felt like they had come full circle, felt like a piece of the puzzle that made up their combined lives finally fell into place. Whatever worries he had, whatever concerns he had about the Qishir that stood surrounded by ghosts he’d made and ones he hadn’t, face shadowed by days’ old beard growth, eyes dark and haunted by things he couldn’t begin to imagine, scars and god-Marks showing proudly where once he’d hid them, Azriel knew that they would make it through them.
Because Rhyshladlyn had waited for him. Because Rhyshladlyn was still here.
The Qishir made a soft sound deep in his throat, glancing at him out of the corner of his eyes before focusing his attention straight ahead again.
“Azriel, you shouldn’t be here…” he said at length, coming to a stop before the tallest of the obelisks, the one that stood in the center of the circle made by the other six.
“Oh?” he queried, raising both eyebrows as he crossed his arms over his chest. “And why would that be?”
“Because this is where you died.”
The answer hit him like a punch to the gut but he didn’t let it show on his face when the Qishir turned to look at him. Of course he had known this was where he’d died, that this was where his body had been buried, albeit not for very long. But to hear Rhyshladlyn say it? He hadn’t expected the wave of unnameable emotion that hit him.
“And? It is not like I haven’t been here since then,” he answered with as much nonchalance as he could muster. Judging by the way Rhyshladlyn’s expression went flat he wasn’t entirely convincing.
“You were near here, yes,” Rhyshladlyn turned back to the Watchtower they’d stopped in front of and reached out to press his fingertips against the sleek black stone in much the same manner as a parent would touch the cheek of a sleeping child. “But not here, not at the base of the Watchtower where you took your last breath. Where I in turn murdered millions for the loss of you.”
Azriel rolled his eyes skyward, sending a prayer to the High Ones for patience before he stepped up behind the Qishir and reached around him with one arm, slowly reaching for the other male’s hand. He gave the Qishir ample time to see him coming, to move away. But when he didn’t, Azriel slowly pressed his palm against the back of Rhyshladlyn’s hand, laying his fingers in the spaces between the Qishir’s. The stone felt cool to the touch, the humming of it growing louder as the two of them touched it in tandem, as it recognized who he was all over again. Thankfully this time it didn’t give him a replay of his final moments, of those that followed after he’d crossed the River.
“I have visited this site since the day you met me on the Field, Rhys,” he kept his voice soft, speaking slowly and carefully. “I came here for answers that no one else could give me, that no one else would give me. The Towers were very helpful.” Azriel paused and let out a shaky breath when Rhyshladlyn leaned back against him, the warm line of his back familiar and new all at once. “I saw how you fought Anislanzir, I heard what you said to your father while you beat him to death. I know what you did here, how you sank the City before getting me out. I know why you raised the Watchtowers but left the rest of Shiran buried beneath the sands.”
Rhyshladlyn shook his head and moved to step away but Azriel wrapped his free arm around the Qishir’s waist and held him in place. He ignored the choked off sound the Qishir made as he gave a weak attempt to break free of his hold.
“Whatever you think you deserve punishment for, Rhys, you don’t. I am sure that the reason you buried this City, why you took the lives of the millions who were still within it when you did so, is valid enough. You have spent four centuries repenting for that, four centuries destroying yourself for it, and it’s time to stop.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he leaned forward and pressed his lips against Rhyshladlyn’s ear, voice hushed, pouring all the love he still had for the Greywalker into the words, “I forgive you.”
The Qishir made a broken sound that broke his heart as his knees gave out. Azriel followed him to the ground, not once letting go of him while Rhyshladlyn sobbed and shook apart in his arms. He just kept whispering over and over that he forgave him.
And he did. He knew that Rhyshladlyn had buried the City because the idea of seeing it, of being reminded any time he was nearby or passed over it of all the memories he’d shared with Azriel here had been too much. Azriel knew that the Qishir had been so angry at his death, at the series of events that had led up to it, that he had murdered millions in a single act of fury, in a moment of weakness where his control snapped. And he didn’t judge Rhyshladlyn that. He forgave him for it because how could he not? He forgave him because if their roles had been reversed and it was Rhyshladlyn who had died instead of himself? Azriel would have destroyed the Worlds until nothing remained.
So, as far as he was concerned the Worlds had gotten off easy if all Rhyshladlyn took as retribution was Lulphé’s life and the lives of those Shiranites who hadn’t gotten out in time.
“I forgive you, Rhyshladlyn. I always have and I always will,” he murmured into the Qishir’s bell-laden hair. “And anyone who thinks you are undeserving of forgiveness can fucking fight me.”
The responding laughter and the way Rhyshladlyn turned in his hold until he could wrap his arms around Azriel’s neck, not caring that Malkuth was still there, was worth every ounce of worry, every heartbreak, every horror, every sleepless night, every wound, every death — both the literal one and the figurative ones — he’d suffered before and after meeting the Qishir.