She watched him pace back and forth under the awning that extended from the front of their tent, heedless of the way he was wearing a trough in the ground. The afternoon rains that usually hit Txiwteb World during the months leading up to proper summer poured down with an intermittent consistency, the rumble of thunder in the distance making her bones thrum, the canvas of the tent and the attached awning shifting and dipping under the rain’s onslaught.
It had been hours since Azriel had left to go find Rhyshladlyn, to make sure he was okay, to try and bring him back the camp, and since then she had watched Nhulynolyn’s face go blank several times as he conversed with his fellow Otherborn. Had watched him go unnaturally still, punch the air, flick his hands in complicated movements that sort of looked like Sinxhët hand signs but weren’t. Had watched a gambit of emotions cross that rugged face she had fallen so hopelessly in love with. If the silent theatrics weren’t the norm for him, she would have been worried.
Since they’d come back to their own tent, she had caught bits and pieces of their conversation when he’d snarl verbally. In those moments he’d look at her and his face would fall, electric blue eyes averting from her, the apology clear in his body language before he’d get pulled away again. He always felt guilty when he would converse with his fellows because unless he translated verbally what was said through their connection, she was left out. But it didn’t bother her, not really. And sure she didn’t know what all was being said this time and she didn’t ask, but then again she didn’t really need to. It was easy enough to figure out what he was saying, what information was passing between him and Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú, even without what little he’d bark out loud.
“Shad, d’y’think I’d fuckin’ be here if I knew where’n’t’fuck he’d gone?” Nhulynolyn hissed, voice breaking the monotony of the rain and distant thunder. She jumped, turning her gaze from the book she’d been trying — and failing — to read to look at him. He stood with in profile in the tent’s open doorway, right hand lifted to push the fringe that had escaped his braid out of his face, the strong line of his body making heat pool in her belly. Even when he was upset, even when he was furious, she still wanted him. Craved him like a prisoner craved freedom. “Az is with him an’ as that feather duster ain’t returned yet, I’ma assume that he found Rhys an’ they’re havin’ a chat.” He paused and rolled his eyes with enough force that his whole head tilted with the action. “Aye, Xhesh, I know that. Honestly, who d’you take me for?”
It was still a shock that he was talking this much again. Since Shiran City fell, since the Event, he had only spoken aloud to her, and even that was rare and only when their nonverbal communication wasn’t good enough to convey what he was trying to say or what he needed. Even during sex, he had gone all but nonverbal, and it was then that she’d missed his voice the most. But after this morning?
“B, we’re needed at Rel’s camp!”
She knew his voice, it was unforgettable, but hearing it so randomly, with just a tiny spark of urgency, not the full blown forest fire it usually was for him to bark at her like that without trying to get the message across in the Sinxhët hand language? It made her heart leap into her throat. Turning slowly to face him, hands frozen mid-motion of scrubbing dirt out of one of his shirts, she just stared at him.
“B, c’mon, we don’t have a whole lotta time,” he insisted, the urgency a little stronger now as he bounced from the sole of one foot to the other and back again, a clear sign he was nervous and agitated by that nervousness. What in the fuck is going on? “B…” he dragged out that letter, his nickname of her nickname, the only one in the Court to call her that, just a single note laced with a heavy dose of ‘hurrrrrry ugh’.
“Yeah, I heard you. Sorry,” she replied finally, shaking her head to dispel the fog of shock, snapped her fingers at his shirt to activate the cleaning spell on the basin and then stood to follow after him. “I’m ready.”
After this morning, after seeing Azriel and then Rhyshladlyn, after what they’d learned… she was honestly surprised Nhulynolyn was still talking, let alone this much. She had fully expected to be the only voice heard in their tent, that his only form of communication would be the hand language or writing shit down on the scraps of paper that littered all of their homes away from homes. But here he was, talking out loud consistently enough that there was just no way she could focus on anything else. And on top of that he was giving her insight to his conversation with his fellow Others, something he tried to do whenever they talked but didn’t always succeed.
And as she watched him stand there, rolling his shoulders to release the tension that had built up in his back during the argument, she shivered seeing the shadows of his wings against the backdrop of the rain that had picked up and was now a heavy enough downpour that it nearly drowned out Nhulynolyn’s words. Heavy enough that it was a wall of water that blocked out the rest of the World from the boundary of their awning and tent outward. She marveled in that moment at his beauty and his strength, marveled that it was at once just like his twin’s and yet so very different.
Over the centuries as he had aged, Nhulynolyn had slowly begun to look a little less like his twin. Where his twin’s facial features were all high cheekbones and sweeping, sharp lines, Nhulynolyn still had those same high cheekbones, but his lines were rugged and squared, lips set in a nearly permanent pouting snarl. Though the similarities were still there, and if one didn’t know them well, if one didn’t see them from the front and was able to see the eyes that separated them, it would be difficult to tell them apart. But she could see that Nhulynolyn’s shoulders were broader now, that his body had less of that soft curve that Rhyshladlyn’s did and was more streamlined, more thickly muscled than his more lean and lithe twin. Even with his hair sweeping just past his shoulders, the red of it brighter than Rhyshladlyn’s more muted auburn, Nhulynolyn had grown into a male that, while he had an identical twin, it was hard to see that mirror image between the two of them anymore. Then again she had also watched her lover do his level best to erase that reflection as much as possible. Because that reflection had only served to remind him of what he had lost, had only served to remind everyone around him what they had lost.
And some changes had happened almost subconsciously. After Rhyshladlyn had left them, she had watched her Otherborn lover change in a way that was not just physically. His laughter had all but died, his quick-thinking jokes and sharp-edged humor had become muted. After they had buried Azriel, he had become quick to anger and even quicker to violence. But never once did he turn that anger and that violence on her or anyone who didn’t deserve it. And even if he had? She’d have forgiven him because she understood his anger and his need to break things for the satisfaction it would bring. Because she understood that grief manifested in the need to destroy everything else so that one wasn’t suffering in their own pain alone; even if that wasn’t how it worked, logic was usually the first thing overlooked when one was suffering loss. He had also become far more unforgiving than he had been when they’d met but she didn’t begrudge him that either; she understood the reasoning behind it but even that understanding didn’t stop her from hating that it had happened.
Then there was the way his presence had grown that had nothing to do with the size of his muscles or even his height. It was in the way he commanded attention just by walking into a room or onto a Field or into a camp. Wherever he went, people looked at him and they listened. Just like the rest of them he’d had to take on a piece of the mantle their Qishir had born the entire weight of alone. But out of all of them, Nhulynolyn had taken on his extra duties, had grown into his new position, into his new presence and the intensity it held, with grace and an ease that belied how difficult she knew it had actually been for him.
They had all had to mature and grow in a way none of them had expected would ever be necessary. Though the unexpectedness hadn’t stopped them from doing so, hadn’t even slowed them down. The Great Mother and Father only knew that, if anything, it had given them all the more reason to succeed if only to be able to show Rhyshladlyn that they could take care of themselves, that he didn’t have to protect them all the time. That he could come home and stay, that they had the watch for him.
But sitting in their tent and watching while Nhulynolyn gestured wildly with both hands, lips moving silently as he continued the heated discussion with his fellows, she wondered if Rhyshladlyn would ever return to them. He didn’t mean to waste away and die, otherwise Nhulynolyn and the rest wouldn’t still be living and thriving. After all, it was the kè that gave life to the lifeless; so, without Rhyshladlyn, Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú would die. Maybe not right away, but it was an eventuality. But despite not communicating with them, despite not letting them return to their incorporeal forms and rejoin his body, Rhyshladlyn kept the links that fed them life from his Self open so that they were never in any danger of dying. Though for the first few decades, it had been a very real fear that had seen her flying awake screaming at all hours of the night from nightmares that had felt far too real. And for that, she had her own bone to pick with the Qishir.
Because he knew what it was like to lose the love of his life so he should know better than to dangle the fear of that exact same thing happening to someone else in front of them. Not when they didn’t deserve it.
Sighing heavily, she marked her place in the book and set it on the table next to her chair and rose to her feet, stretching as she stood up. The movement caught Nhulynolyn’s attention and his gaze was heavy as it rested on her, his expression clearing as he dropped out of the conversation probably mid-word. It wouldn’t have been the first time and she could just see Shadiranamen throwing up her hands in frustration as Xheshmaryú grumbled something like, “They’re fucking again, aren’t they? Gods aplenty. It’s rude to sign off without a goodbye, you gorgeous bastard!”
“Staring is rude in some cultures,” she commented with a fond roll of her eyes.
“Not ours, though,” he retorted with a smile that was more lascivious than it was innocent and it made her shiver.
“You’re an Other,” she raised an eyebrow at him, hands coming to rest on her hips, “do you even have a culture like the Sinners do?”
“Prob’ly,” he shrugged, “but even if we don’t, I can make one.” He winked at her and she guffawed.
“You should come inside and get ready for dinner,” she said as her laughter slowly faded away.
“We still have hours until dinner,” he commented, making it sound like a question as he turned, the rain falling behind him a soothing albeit intense backdrop. In that moment, he looked more like his twin than he had in centuries and she wondered at that. Wondered how even though he’d kept his facial hair neatly trimmed and styled, even though he wore his hair long and kept back in a braid the majority of the time that he could look so much like their Qishir. Wondered if it was just the intensity he held now, if it was just the way she could see the shadows of the six wings he’d only ever physically manifested once in the years she’d known him against the backdrop of the rain-scattered sunlight. Wondered not for the first time if it was the way his magickal signature was nearly identical to his twin’s, with the only difference being that his was the color of shadowfire whereas Rhyshladlyn’s was the color of coldfire.
She checked the time on the mini-sundial that sat on the desk, spelled to catch the sun’s location even if it wasn’t under direct sunlight.
“The dial says otherwise,” she commented, waving her fingers at it. “We’ve got thirty minutes, an hour if you make us late.”
His eyes darkened around the edges, pupils expanding and contracting with his breaths, and she raised an eyebrow at him, lips twisted into a smirk. Even after centuries, he only ever had eyes for her. Even after centuries, despite her new scars and her nightmares, despite her body being more muscular than it was soft even when in her female form, a look was all it took to have him ready and begging to feel her around him. It was an ego boost, that was for sure. But they didn’t have the time for him to take her apart and her to return the favor, not in the way they both needed. She didn’t have to say anything regarding that though, he read it in the subtle shifts of her expression, in her body language.
“I’m content to play later, luv,” he said, crossing the distance between them, large hands coming up to cup her cheeks, smiling in a way he only ever did for her. The sight made a pang of loss dart across her heart; of all the casualties in the war, she hated the loss of his wit and his jokester mentality the most. “I always worked better w’thout a time limit anyhow,” he added with a wink and she laughed.
“True,” she agreed, pecking a quick kiss to his lips before ducking out of his hold and crossing to the back of the tent near their shared bed. “Dress a little warmer than usual, babe. It’s supposed to be a bit chilly tonight,” she said as she bent over to pull her lighter jacket from her travel trunk.
She yelped when she felt his hands curl over her hips as she straightened up, hands clenched around her jacket, feeling the hard line of his body pressed against her. His deep, throaty chuckle made that heat from earlier expand from a simmer to a blaze and she whimpered, unable to help it.
“I’m not worried ’bout the cold,” he replied, teeth gently nipping at her neck, “I’ve got you to keep me warm.”
“Always the charmer,” she answered before swatting at his hands and darting away before he could grab her again. “Seriously, Nul, dress warm. We’ve gotta go.”
His expression sobered, the desire there clearing but not completely. “Fine,” he grumbled and searched for his own jacket, a knee-length leather number that fitted his form like a second skin and doubled as armor when the magick woven into it during its making was activated. As he put it on, letting it settle over his shoulders, she donned her own jacket and pushed her hair out of her face after flicking the hood back off her head. When she looked back at Nhulynolyn he was staring out at the falling rain, an expression twisting his features that she couldn’t entirely name.
“Nully?” she queried softly as she gently brushed the back of his hand with her fingertips. “What’s wrong?” she elaborated when he looked at her.
“I was too harsh on Rhys,” he answered after several minutes spent just staring at her, something he had taken to doing with ever increasing frequency in the years since Azriel’s death and Shiran City’s fall. It was something she didn’t question and never begrudged him. Instead she’d just grown accustomed to it, it was just something he did now; a new quirk to replace those he no longer had. “I can’t even imagine losin’ you an’ he lost his equivalent. Yeah, it’s fucked that he abandoned us an’ n’matter the reasonin’ for that, I’ll still be pissed at him for it, but…” He shook his head with a sound of frustration and looked away.
She slipped her hand around his, smiling when his fingers automatically slotted between hers and squeezed.
“He understands, Nully, I’m sure of that,” she smiled at him when he looked back at her. “Are Shadi and Xhesh coming?” she asked, not caring that the change of subject was obvious.
Nhulynolyn looked grateful regardless as he nodded. “Yeah, should be arrivin’ here any minute now.”
They made their way out of the tent and towards the awning’s edge, still holding hands.
“Al coming with them, too?”
“She wanted to but she has a big meeting w’the Generals of the Eighth Army an’ her own that she can’t back out of,” Nhulynolyn answered as they stood staring out at the falling rain that was slowly letting up. “Shadi and Xhesh said she’d be tryin’ to get out here in the next couple days to see Azriel if nothin’ else.”
She hummed and squeezed his hand again. “Everything will work out, babe.”
He smiled at her but didn’t seem convinced. “I hope you’re right, B. I hope you’re right.”
Nhulynolyn’s face went blank again just as the rain softened to a barely noticeable drizzle. She raised her eyebrow at him, waiting patiently until he turned his head and looked down at her, one corner of his mouth lifted. It was not a happy expression.
“Time to go. Everyone’s back.”
She squeezed his hand again as they stepped out into the drizzle and headed for Relyt’s tent. I wish I could tell if things were better now that we have everyone back or if it’s worse… Glancing sidelong up at the Other who walked beside her with a pride that made her heart soar, his head held high, jaw set in an unforgiving line, eyes seeing everything even if they never moved off a point directly ahead of them she thought about how he had spoken more in the last several hours than he had in centuries. Perhaps its both. After all, there is a balance to everything.
She just prayed that that balance wouldn’t do more damage than what they’d already suffered. Because if there was one thing she knew for certain in this stupid fucking war, it was that the Grey Court had suffered more than enough.