Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, in, in, breathe out…
“D’you think I give two fucks that y’murdered millions?” Nhulynolyn’s voice was sharper than Sülknír steal as it swung through the air of Relyt’s tent.
He glanced up at the ice blue eyes he had missed being reflected back at him in the mirror when seeing his own was too much; looked into the face that, even with four hundred years between now and when he’d last seen it, was still so similar to his own despite the clear differences. Nhulynolyn had always been his rock, the foundation upon which he steadied himself when the Worlds rattled and shook around him. And the last four centuries had been horrible bereft of him and Azriel. He looked away just as quickly, unable to see the confusion that twisted his twin’s features, the pain that he could swear he felt even with the Shields and closed doors between them if only because it was so similar to his own.
But he didn’t answer because even if it wasn’t a rhetorical question, there was no answer he could give that would not make shit worse. No answer would suffice because Nhulynolyn didn’t have access to his memories, his emotions, his mind. And that lack of connection would only serve to make being understood all the more difficult. So he didn’t even bother trying.
“Cuz I don’t,” Nhulynolyn continued. “What I do care about is that y’left us to deal with the fallout w’thout you. We grieved w’thout you. Sure each’a us managed to find a partner t’lean on, but at the end’a the day? You’re our Qishir and you fuckin’ abandoned us!”
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in… and out, hold… breathe in, in, in, hold… breathe out.
“You abandoned me.”
Of all the things Nhulynolyn could have said at that moment, none of them would have cut nearly as deep as those three words. It struck harder than any of the guilt he suffered from Azriel’s death, from Anis’ death. It struck harder than the knowledge that he’d been betrayed by Azhuri from his birth, that no matter what he did in his life everything was already predetermined by Fate. And gods have mercy, but he wanted to destroy shit, wanted to cry.
But no matter how much he wanted to, he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, not here. Not now and probably not ever. The only reasons he had to cry anymore had long since come to pass and he had moved on from them as best he could. The rest? Well, there was no point crying over shit he had chosen to do and couldn’t find it in himself to care fully about. And as for destroying shit? Conveniently there was a major war going on that satisfied that urge rather well.
“You’re right,” he answered finally, staring down at the map table before him, arms crossed over his chest solely to keep anyone from seeing how badly his hands were shaking, how hard he was trying not to bolt. “I let all of you down, and I am sorry for that, but, Nully, you need to see it from my perspective.”
Nhulynolyn made a derisive sound and Bayls shushed him but it didn’t stop him from speaking anyway, “How can I when you’re still fuckin’ blockin’ us all from what’s goin’ on inside your head?”
Rhyshladlyn fought hard to keep from glaring up at him, fought to keep his eyes trained upon the map table. He could feel the stares of everyone around him, could all but smell their surprise and confusion, but he didn’t acknowledge it. There just didn’t seem to be a point. Anything he said wouldn’t be a defense or even an explanation, not in their eyes. No, it would just be a fucking excuse. They missed me, love me still, and “understand” but yet they condemn me for my choices all the same. Because sense. Plus he could say he was protecting his Others from the fractured disaster his mind had become after Azriel’s death, Shiran’s fall, and the Event, but they would only argue that it wasn’t necessary. Because the gods only knew his Court loved to argue that the things he did to ensure their safety wasn’t necessary.
Until they realized it was and by then it was almost always too late.
“What about our perspectives?” Shadiranamen asked since no one was willing to try and shush a Dhaoine who had that many teeth. He looked at her, an eyebrow raised as he took in the way she leaned a hip nonchalantly against the edge of Relyt’s desk, her own arms crossed under her ample chest, sapphire eyes unblinking. “Or is yours the only one that matters?”
Her words held far more bite than her tone did, feeling like fingernails digging into the soft skin at the bends of his elbows. He closed his eyes tightly, remembering the times she would sit with him at the lake or at the river edge by the cabin and tell him exactly how stupid he was being and why. But for all that she had never pulled any punches she had never made him feel less than. And that was why that even if he felt he had no one to turn to, he could and would turn to her. Because out of them all, she was not only the oldest, she also had the most experience which made going to her easier and much more sensible. But now?
That feeling that he could go to her about anything was gone and he didn’t realize how much he had come to depend on it until he no longer had it.
“I did not say that,” he retorted, clenching his jaw to keep from snapping at any of them. Tried to remind himself that they had every right to be upset, but treating him like a pariah was entirely uncalled for.
He had allowed for it initially, understood it even, forgave it as well, but by the Nameless’ giant swinging cock this back and forth scolding, this insult fuckfest, had been going on for several hours. Enough was enough. There was truly no goddamn reason it had gone on for this long without them making any head way. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t been trying to be reasonable, to answer their questions as best he could. But one wouldn’t know that with the way things had devolved.
“True, you didn’t say that, but your silence spoke it anyway.” Xheshmaryú’s voice was as monotonous as his word choice and in some ways that was far worse than if he had screamed or snapped at Rhyshladlyn like the rest had.
He made a frustrated sound low in his throat, hands coming up to rake through his hair as he muttered, “You’re not getting it.”
“Then explain it to us so we can try and understand why some of us spent decades worrying that one day we would go to bed wake up to find our loved ones wouldn’t ever wake up again,” Bayls offered, voice soft and steady but there was still a clear echo of countless nightmare-riddled nights.
He flinched hard enough that his thighs bumped the map table and one hand dropped down to steady it as he closed his eyes and tried to wrestle control over his emotions. Naturally he had known that they’d fear that one day he wouldn’t be alive and would take his Others with him, but did they truly think he wouldn’t try to stay alive? Did they truly think he wouldn’t give them some kind of warning before he tried to do the impossible?
Judging by the look on Bayls’ face, the answer was yes and the truth of that made his heart kick hard at his ribs, made the air in his lungs become to thick to breathe, and his hard won control over his emotions shook tremulously. Were it not for his Maestrx’s lessons on how to erect barriers and Shields that kept his emotions and the power tied to them contained even if he lost control, he’d have likely melted the map table at the least. His free hand pressed hard against where his pendants hung beneath his tunic, the ridges of the inverted pentagram and the rune circle familiar and steadying. Because even with those barriers and Shields, it was still dangerous for him to slip up. Especially now while so close to the Forest and the things that lived beneath its canopy, watching his every move and waiting. Always waiting.
“Bayls!” Thae’a’s voice had a bite to it that he had never heard before. “There is no reason f–”
“I had just watched my Companion die by my own sword,” he interrupted the Dreamweaver, eyes slowly opening to look at where his fingers curled against the table as gasps erupted around him. He knew they’d had a rough idea of how Azriel had died and Thae’a had likely recognized Mallacht before she’d run but he had never been around to confirm it. “An event foretold to me by my Patrons months, at the least, before it actually happened. And even knowing that, even remembering that, I still drew my swords. I allowed my father to yet again get the better of me. I had had enough of being tossed around and taunted and treated like shit. So I used the one thing I had over him: my swordsmanship. The one thing my father could never match me on was my dual wielding and in that moment? I had pressed my advantage and Azriel paid the price for it.
“But if I hadn’t drawn my swords? Azriel wouldn’t have died that day; wouldn’t have died after the torture my sire put him through because of me. I had to feel his Bond snap, had to hear his last breath, had to feel the second heartbeat that beat alongside mine stop. And af-after…” he paused, voice stuttering to a halt, and scrubbed a hand over his face, not caring anymore if they saw how badly he was shaking as he fought against the tide of memories that threatened to crest over his head and drown him. “Then I had actually see up close what the damage was. Had to see that even if Thae’a had gotten him out of the City? He wouldn’t have lived. Because I had waited. Because I had not gotten there soon enough. Otherwise? He’d have lived.”
“That’s not the whole of it, though,” Azriel murmured, voice a shock still after all this time without it.
Rhyshladlyn looked at him and nodded. “No, it’s not.”
“The fuck does that mean?” Thayne asked and he didn’t have to see her expression to know it was pinched with her confusion.
“It means that whether he died that day or not, he was going to die at some point and it would have been at the point of my sword,” he answered while holding Azriel’s gaze for a few more heartbeats before he looked down again. “He was engineered by Fate to be the key to my Awakening; for a Greywalker can only Awaken when they face an incredible, life-altering loss. And for me, that was Azriel’s death.”
For several minutes no one said anything which was a feat all on its own considering that they had everyone in the court present beside Alaïs and Adïmshyl; the former dealing with meetings she couldn’t avoid while the latter was on special assignment and wouldn’t be reachable for at least two more days. Thae’a had returned with Shadiranamen and Xheshmaryú who had been with the Dreamweaver and Lupherinre when news reached the two Otherborn from Nhulynolyn of his return and Azriel’s rebirth. But none of them spoke in the wake of his pause, none of them moved. And the silence of them all unnerved him, made his skin crawl in a way that reminded him too much of the quiet that filled the empty spaces of his own tent, that followed him from his nightmares to the waking World, that filled not just his head but the hollow space where his heart still worked to keep him alive but otherwise served no other functional purpose.
But as unnerved by it as he was, as much as it made every nerve in his body hit the panic button, he let it stretch, waited for anyone else to say anything. And when no one did, he continued, feeling like he was only making excuses rather than giving reasons and he hated it.
“Hujiel had been right with his accusations. I am responsible for the deaths of everyone in Shiran City,” almost absently the fingers of his left hand traced around where the lines of Shiran Valley lay on the map. “The City didn’t fall beneath the sands because I lost control nor did it fall because of some old booby-trap that engaged when I Awoke. It fell because I made it, because I chose for it to. As the Greywalker tethered to its Heart Watchtower, I Called to the power of my ancestors’ homeland, and then scattered it. They are all dead because of me.
“Sure I raised the Towers later as a way of marking the land for the graveyard it is, but I also could have raised the City again… not that it would have mattered. No one survived its sinking but myself and Azriel. But still, I left the bodies of millions trapped beneath the sands without proper burial and without their families ever knowing closure. And what’s more?” He lifted his head and looked at his twin who stood directly opposite him, the Other’s face pale, eyes wide.
“I don’t care. Nameless prevailing, I try to, I tell myself I should. But the only thing about that day, that night, that I give two flapping shits about is that Azriel died, that he died because of me, because no one who had the ability to do shit to prevent it stepped up. And I could not face any of you in the wake of that failure, in the wake of not feeling any remorse for wiping out so many people without so much as a second thought.”
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, hold…breathe out, out, out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in.
“So yes, I abandoned you all, and I’m sorry for that. But I had to come to terms with what I had done, what had happened, on my own. I had to find answers for the questions you all would eventually ask and at that time? I didn’t have them. I was a mess, I could hardly function in the wake of Az’s loss, in the wake of what I had done for the loss of him. For fuck’s sake, I couldn’t even bury Azriel myself! I couldn’t even get him cleaned. I was just a kid, I hadn’t hit adulthood yet,” he shook his head and waved one hand in front himself before dropping it and sighing heavily as he looked back at the table, eyes tracing over Shiraniqi Desert’s boundaries, marking where Ryphqi City stood, where Shiran City had been, where Ikqir and Hagirqi Metropolis were as he tried to will back his tears.
“I was a child who had been forced to shoulder the burden of the Worlds and then some, who was the reason the love of his life was killed. I was a child who was the reason his older brother had died a horrible, painful death; who killed his birth giver for using him as a way to keep her husband away from her and her firstborn children. I was a child who was told that to Awaken into his true heritage, the one person he loved and valued above even his own life had to die. A child who didn’t know if any of the others he loved were at risk for being Fate’s pawns.” He sighed heavily and shook his head with a dark, derisive chuckle. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t understand, and I was so scared. I was a walking potential death warrant for all of you and I just couldn’t take the chance that Azriel wasn’t the only one who would die because of me, because of what I am, because of what Fate needs me to do. So… I ran.
“And I can say I am sorry until I am old and dying, but that won’t change what happened. I can rehash everything I’ve done, all I’ve gone through, in the last four hundred years, but that won’t solve shit. Because we are still at war. And while Thayne and Al are making some progress, at least Al is with getting the Sinners, Ancients, and Anglëtineans to side with each other versus fighting against themselves and me, it isn’t enough. So if any of you have an issue with my absence and what I’ve done, either get over it or meet me in the training pits and we’ll beat it out of each other and move on. Otherwise? We’ve got a war we need to win and soon.”
He looked around at all of them, holding their gazes long enough for them to nod their acknowledgement before he’d move on. Finally he settled his gaze back on Nhulynolyn who stared hard back at him.
“That’s nice an’ all, but when are y’gonna let us back in, hmm?” the Other asked, one eyebrow arched high, every line in his body taut and angry but Rhyshladlyn knew how to read him, even with so much time spent apart. His twin wasn’t angry, he was scared and he was hurt, and with that came anger to burn it away, the only safe emotion either of them had ever been able to feel.
“Nully… I can’t. Not yet.”
“Why the fuck not?” Nhulynolyn hissed back, slamming his fists down on the table, making it and the rest of them jump. “Why are you being so fuckin’ stubborn about that? We’re your Others, for fuck’s sake! We’re supposed to be able to know what you know, feel what you feel, have that immediate connection where there are no secrets. Our sole purpose is to provide you with the very shit no one else can; not even the Bond made by a Blood Oath can provide what an Other can to their kè.”
He knew it was a bad idea, knew it the second Nhulynolyn had hissed at him. Knew it when Bayls turned and pressed her hand against the Other’s chest, eyes wide as she stared up at him. But his resolve cracked and even though he knew it was a bad idea, he didn’t fucking care. Not anymore. Nhulynolyn wanted to know why he could’t engage their connection again just yet? Why he shouldn’t even when he wanted to with a desperation that scared him? Then he would show him.
“You want to know why? Truly?” he pressed, jaw clenched as his instincts screamed at him. He had thrown up the Shields and shut the doors to Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú when Mallacht had gone sailing through the air down that hallway on sheer instinct. Because he had known Azriel’s death was coming and had braced himself accordingly. He had done his level best to prepare himself for the sudden, total loss of having his Oathed Companion taken from him in such a violent, horrific manner. But his Others? They hadn’t known and therefore hadn’t prepared for it. And the pain he felt at Azriel’s loss? It would have been amplified a thousand fold for his Others.
“Have I been speaking in another fuckin’ language this whole time or something?” was the clipped, sarcastic reply and Rhyshladlyn glared at his twin.
“Don’t you dare say I didn’t try to warn you,” he growled, pointing a finger at the Other before he dropped the Shields and kicked open the doors, staring hard at Nhulynolyn as everything he’d held back flooded their connection.
He probably shouldn’t have enjoyed the way Nhulynolyn’s face paled then went a sickly shade of green as his eyes widened. Just as Bayls opened her mouth likely to ask if he was okay, a high pitched whine of a sound, the closest to a scream Nhulynolyn was capable of issued past his lips. A thud disrupted that whine as Xheshmaryú’s knees hit the ground, violet eyes closed, hands clenched around handfuls of his shirt as he rocked back and forth, breathing ragged. Shadiranamen had slapped one hand down on Relyt’s desk, gripping the wood of it hard enough that it splintered and cracked; she let out one short burst of sound before falling silent as her eyes glazed over and she stared into the long distance, unaware of any of her surroundings.
Blinking, he looked over at Relyt whose grey eyes were wide, face twisted with shock.
“Stop it, please,” the Soul Healer added when Rhyshladlyn’s attention was fully on him. “You’re hurting them.”
He hummed and at the very least closed the doors between himself and his Others. “I told them. It is not my fault they decided to challenge that.”
“Who the fuck are you anymore?” Bayls bit out, voice filled with danger.
He scoffed. “Oh, you’re going to get pissy with me? Seriously?” He waved a hand at Nhulynolyn who was leaning forward, palms pressed against the map table, breathing erratic, sweat beading across his forehead. “They demanded I do that despite my warnings, despite me telling them no. Any consequential pain and suffering they feel as a result is not to be laid at my feet. I ran from you lot due to that. I ran to keep from exposing you all to that. I Shielded them, blocked them entirely, to keep them safe. But it wasn’t enough. It never is. Because none of you ever fuckin’ listen to me the first time.”
Bayls’ mouth snapped shut with an audible click of her teeth as she looked away from him. He didn’t like yelling at them, didn’t like hurting any of them but he didn’t have any other choice at this point. They wanted him to give them answers, even when he warned them that those answers would only serve to bring them pain, and then wanted to get pissed when those answers did exactly what he said they would. Just… ugh, how the fuck am I supposed to even function properly when they are literally a bunch of stubborn, walking contradictions? Nameless prevailing, I am too old for this shit.
Thae’a was the only one who spoke up in the ensuing silence but when he heard her question he looked at Azriel because he knew it had come from his Companion, knew that he spoke the words even though it was with Thae’a’s willing voice.
“Will you be staying with us?”
He watched the hope shift across a face that was far younger than the one from his memories. Watched Malkuth’s scales ripple where he hung around Azriel’s neck and open eyes that matched his master’s to look at Rhyshladlyn. Watched as the air rippled and shimmered behind and around Azriel’s legs as his Others took their incorporeal forms.
Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe–
He couldn’t lie and say he would when he didn’t know. If he left them now it wouldn’t be an act of choice but rather an act of Fate. If it was better for him to stay removed from his Court, from his family? Then he would do so. Even if he was tired, even if he wanted nothing more than to stay among them; to heal with them at his side and he at theirs. But he couldn’t lie.
“I’m going to try.”
Azriel’s smile was blinding and with its emergence he saw the Azriel of his memories and his heart skipped several beats before kicking back up at double the speed.
“That’s all I, all we,” the Anglëtinean waved one hand to indicate everyone in the tent, “will ever ask is that you try.”
I have never once deserved you.
Before he could open his mouth to say something else, before any of them could, a high, piercing sound blasted through the camp, sending the Currents to tumbling over themselves as they screamed. He was moving before the alarm had stopped, Azriel and Relyt flanking him as the rest of the Court fell into step behind them with an ease that spoke of a consistency that spoke of several centuries spent together.
He’d worry later about what it meant for the war that their enemies were attacking their camps now despite the unspoken agreement. For now, he was just happy to have something to legitimately take his frustrations out on.
And if he had his Court fighting at his back and sides again? All the better.