Even though he shouldn’t have, even though he knew what lurked there waiting for his arrival, he’d gone to the Forest. He’d had nowhere else he could go before the panic got too strong. Couldn’t make it to any of his safe houses, to his old cabin, before his careful control snapped. Before his ability to just breathe fucked off to elope with his ability to determine what was memory and what was current reality. And with that kind of loss of control, he was a danger not just to those he still cared for but also to himself. So he’d blink‘ed to the Forest because it was closer, to this small grove just inside the tree line, far enough in that he couldn’t be seen but not so far in that he inadvertently woke up the things he was trying to avoid.
He came here because he was safe here. Even if he worried about what lurked in the depths of the Forest, it was more a worry for those in his care than it was for himself.
The grass was softer than he had expected as he fell to the ground when his knees gave out. He pressed his hands against his thighs, fingers curled so his nails bit into the skin through his breeches while he watched the warriors and soldiers of the Steward Corps scramble to dismantle their camp as quickly as possible. He wanted to help them, knew that he should. But he just had to breathe first. Had to settle his nerves. Because he had been prepared for a lot but Relyt flying at him like was not one of them. Not so soon after seeing Oiki again, not with the memories of the creatures that he had. Not when he was still healing from the damage left behind from his last encounter with the things.
“How could you!” He tensed as that voice snarled at him, watched as its owner flew towards him with a speed the Soul Healer hadn’t had centuries ago, grey wings bursting from his back in a shower of ice shards and grey sparks. He didn’t flinch, didn’t react outwardly as his most recent past reared up, blew apart its box, and swallowed him whole. He didn’t raise his hands to defend himself when Relyt grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and shook him, didn’t do anything but stare back at him, expression carefully blank. Just met Relyt’s fury with an icy calm that was nothing more than an act. An act and a mask to go with it that he had learned to master in order to survive a nightmare he’d thought he’d never see again after he’d killed Anislanzir.
“How could you kill sentient creatures that did you no wrong! That had willingly surrendered!” Relyt’s voice was a vicious rumble that shook the ground around them as his power rose to the surface like an angry river after the winter thaws and trickled out around them, only a hairsbreadth from becoming totally uncontrollable. “Where is the fairness in that?”
“They knew what was going to happen when they surrendered,” Rhyshladlyn answered, voice sounding flat as he fought to keep his fear from showing, as he fought to keep from reacting in any way to defend himself against the furious male before him. Even while the entire time he was screaming at his body to move, to yell, to strike out, anything but stand there and take it. Because here, among his Court, he was the predator not the prey. Here he could defend himself and not risk being beaten for it.
But still he remained immobilized by fear, fear that he had never thought would be caused by one of the Dhaoine he trusted never to hurt him.
“How? You never said shit to them!” Relyt barked, forearm muscles rippling with the strain of picking him bodily up off the ground, wings puffed up and trembling as they spread out to their full span. He fought to draw a deep enough breath without sobbing, without losing it entirely.
But as Relyt shook him again, Rhyshladlyn felt a whole new type of fear as the shadow that lived within him rose from the depths he confined it to and took over. Tried to tell himself he didn’t feel relief as it dislodged Relyt’s hold and sent the Soul Healer cartwheeling through the air with a cracking punch to the jaw.
“Fuck,” he hissed under his breath, bowing his head as he slumped forward, fingers sinking into the cool earth, flattening the grass as he did so.
He prided himself on being prepared for anything. But he hadn’t been prepared for Relyt’s reaction. Hadn’t been prepared for the way it made him feel, made him respond. And after seeing the Oiki, after recognizing them and the scent that coated them? After their presence recalled memories of the Cymerian that had given him a whole new set of nightmares to deal with? He should have known better. Should have run sooner. Should have dislodged the Steward’s grip the second it connected and gotten the fuck out of there. But he hadn’t been able to move. Hadn’t been able to do anything until that shadow took over and moved for him.
And it disgusted him.
Because sure, Relyt’s reaction had been bad and unexpected, but he had handled the sight of the Oiki. Had fought them and won without breaking apart. But the second Relyt threw that rage at him and bodily followed it? He hadn’t seen the Soul Healer qahllyn to him as his Steward. No, he’d seen the ghost of a nightmare made flesh and all he had been able to do in the face of that was freeze.
Eyes squeezing shut, he fought to push past the rising memories and the panic they brought with them. Fought to breathe past what felt like a vice wrapped around his chest. Fought to remember that he was safe, that this wasn’t Krijistan, that this wasn’t a century into the war but four and a half. That he had escaped, that he was free. That he didn’t have to ever go back, that there was no way he would.
And had Relyt not come at him like that with no warning beforehand? He would have been able to wrestle control over his memories, over the ghosts of a past he didn’t want and didn’t deserve.
“C’mon now, Rhys, don’t be like that,” that voice was like poisoned syrup and he wanted to rip the fucker’s throat out so he didn’t have to hear it anymore. But he couldn’t make his hands obey the order, to follow through on the want. “Y’know you like this. Don’t lie.”
“I hate it, I always have,” he spat back, knowing that doing so would only make things worse but he didn’t care anymore. He was just so tired.
He watched as the green eyes he had found so enticing the first day they’d met darkened with anger while his face never lost the serene expression it had had for the last several hours. It was a tactic that always tripped him up because he never knew which was the real emotional response and which was the trap waiting to spring as soon as his guard was down.
“I told you not to lie,” the other male growled and moved towards him, pulling on the leash attached to the Oiki pup’s collar as he did so. “You know I don’t like it when you lie.”
“No, please…” he sobbed, the sound pulling him from the memory with a jerk, because he hadn’t spoken that at the time, hadn’t said anything at all. No, he had just laid there like a weakling. He hadn’t fought back or tried to run. Only thing he had done was scream when the pup’s claws had torn down his right shoulder blade and across his left ribcage. Had sobbed when its knot had been ripped out of him, when that Cymerian bastard had–
Rhyshladlyn made a broken sound as he pulled a hand back from the grass and punched it back down, the trees around him whining as the ground trembled from the force of the blow.
“You’re weak and pathetic.”
He paid them no mind as he punched again.
“You’ll learn to show me proper respect if I have to beat it into you.”
“No one is going to want you. You’re broken and disgusting and a liar.”
“Do you honestly think your Companion will still love you when he’s reborn? Because if I were him, I wouldn’t.”
Kept punching until his fist was a raw, bloody mess, until the muscles of his arm and the left side of his back ached and were rioting with it. But he ignored the pain, ignored the way his body protested. He didn’t stop because if he did, he’d drown. Used the pain to ground him in the present, to push those memories and their phantom pain and their panic back into the boxes he’d buried them in. Even though he knew that wasn’t how it worked, even though he knew it was pointless to try, he still kept punching.
Kept punching until his arm gave out on him and then he just switched to his right. Until it was about to give out just like its twin but he didn’t stop. Didn’t dare. Was too afraid of what would happen if he did.
Kept punching until he felt something encircle his waist and pull him backwards so his fists couldn’t reach the ground. He howled and flailed but a hand clapped over his mouth to silence him and he realized it was arms that had wrapped around his waist, that it was a chest he was being held against. And he fought all the harder as dark laughter thundered across his mind, blurring the lines between reality and memory. Clawed and screamed as his magick swung out in lieu of his fists, responding to his fear and his desperation.
“Rhys! Rhys!” A grunt sounded as Rhyshladlyn’s elbow connected with something, probably ribs by the way the next words sounded a touch breathless. “Fuck, Rhys! I need you to breathe! I’m not here to hurt you! It’s me, High Ones blast it all, it’s Azriel!”
Azriel. He stopped struggling immediately, eyes opening to look down at the legs that had hooked over his own to keep them from kicking out, at the wings that had wrapped around them both. One bleeding, shaking hand came up to touch the wrist of the hand Azriel had pressed against his mouth and the Anglëtinean pulled it away. Rhyshladlyn turned it over to see his Oathing mark, to trace it with his fingers and knew it was him. There was no faking that mark, no glamour was powerful enough.
“That’s it. You’re safe, I won’t hurt you. Just keep breathing,” his voice was deeper than it had been in his old life. Now it was a rumble that Rhyshladlyn felt deep in his chest. Even though that voice was a low baritone now versus the rich tenor that it had been, it still engulfed him in a sense of home and safety. It always had and he doubted that there would ever be a day when it didn’t. So he did what Azriel bid him, he breathed in deep and let it out as slow and steady as he could. Pretended as he did so that his face wasn’t marked with tears and his hands didn’t ache and sting, that his throat wasn’t raw from screaming. “Good. That’s good. I’ve got you, you’re safe. Just keep breathing.”
He didn’t know how long they sat like that, with Azriel holding him and him absently petting the Anglëtinean’s Oathing mark. But it didn’t matter. Because it was just like before the war, before Azriel had died, before Rhyshladlyn had abandoned his Court and run. Before everything else that had followed. It was peaceful. And yeah, he probably should be questioning how he hadn’t sensed the Anglëtinean’s approach, how he didn’t feel his magick brushing along his own or how he couldn’t read Azriel’s magickal signature. Should have been disturbed by how he didn’t hear the sweet cooing of the Anglëtinean’s qahllyn like he usually could, like he had even when he’d seen him hours ago in the camp. A singing call that was like an addiction he had to fight not to indulge in or it would consume him.
He should be worried, should be questioning this thing wearing Azriel’s face at the end of one of his swords, but it felt so good to be held by him again that Rhyshladlyn pushed it aside to examine later. For now he just wanted to sit in the companionable silence he had missed so dearly over the centuries. For now he just wanted to feel at peace, even if it was a lie, even if it would never last.
“How did you know where to find me?” he asked after what felt like hours spent in silence, just staring out at the flurry of activity at the camp, his voice hoarse and scratchy.
“I sensed you were in distress,” Azriel answered with a nonchalance that seemed so incredibly out of place in the moment.
“How? I’ve got all links blocked.”
Azriel chuckled, the sound the same one he used to make when Rhyshladlyn was missing something glaringly obvious. It rankled just as much now as it had back then because Azriel had loved making him learn shit on his own, even if it took way longer than it needed to in the process.
“You sent out a Call and I Answered, just like I always have and always will.”
But I didn’t? He frowned and was about to say as much when the other male sighed softly. He stiffened as Azriel leaned forward to hook his chin over Rhyshladlyn’s shoulder, free hand waving over his broken and bleeding knuckles, Healing them. He frowned all the harder because that kind of Healing ability was something Azriel had never had.
“I won’t ask about the memories you were dealing with or what caused them. Neither will I press for you to talk to me. But when — if — you’re ready to talk? I’ll be here,” he murmured, the sincerity in the words making Rhyshladlyn’s chest ache, distracting him from the wrongness of the entire thing. Azriel pressed a kiss to his cheek before he pulled away and stood, brushing off his breeches before turning a smile on him that made his knees weak. A smile that was full of hope and darkness in equal measure, that lit up his eyes and was all gums and laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, the same smile Azriel had given him just days before he’d died.
But he’s not old enough yet to have developed those lines. His heart stalled for a beat then picked up at double the speed.
“I’m going to get back to camp so no one comes looking for me,” he explained before turning and heading for the tree line, his voice sounding off but Rhyshladlyn couldn’t place how or even why. Only that it was.
“Azriel–” he snapped his mouth closed hard enough that his teeth clacked together. What was he even going to say? There wasn’t really anything he could say to the other male. Not now. Not after knowing he was alive this entire time and not once making contact with him. Not after he had abandoned them all, but especially Relyt. Not when everything had gone so wrong so quickly and he didn’t even know where to start picking up the pieces. But that wasn’t even it, was it? He had no idea how to talk to this Azriel, to the one that was reborn after such a horrific death, after the horror story that were his final decades of life at Rhyshladlyn’s side.
But even so, he knew that the Azriel standing before him, that was walking away, wasn’t the one he had seen a few hours before when fighting the Oiki. He looked right, but he wasn’t.
“It’s alright, Rhys-kyn,” Azriel called over his shoulder. “I won’t tell anyone where you are.”
“Why would I care if anyone else knows where I am?” he asked, frowning before he just blurted, “Why are you acting so fuckin’ weird right now?”
The smile Azriel shot him over his shoulder wasn’t one he’d ever seen on the Anglëtinean’s face and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
“Come on, Rhys. You already know the answer to that.”
And then he was gone and Rhyshladlyn found himself blinking sluggishly as he stared sideways at a nearby tree, grass tickling his nose, roots digging into his ribs and hip. Groaning, he shifted so his arms under him and pushed up, stomach dropping out as he saw his still bloody and torn knuckles. What…? That doesn’t make any sense. Azriel just Healed them.
Looking up at the camp, he noticed that it was almost entirely dismantled, the sun having fallen low in the sky, rapidly approaching sunset. How had he lost so many hours? And where was Azriel? He’d just watched him walk off. What the fuck is going on?
He stood up, brushed himself off, and made for the camp. He knew he had no reason to be afraid, not here, not anywhere really. But fear still trickled down his spine, still licked along his ribs and danced feather soft touches across his nerves. Even as he told himself that he had likely overstressed his mind and collapsed, that what he’d seen had been an odd dream of sorts, his mind’s way of protecting him, he knew it was something far less benign than that.
That trickle of fear became a stream when he made it to the camp edge and the first Dhaoine he saw was Azriel who caught sight of him and ran over, heedless of the potential danger of doing so.
Azriel who had always walked towards him, even when he was at his most dangerous, when everyone else around him walked away.
Azriel who he felt coming like a storm building in the distance, whose magick slid along his with a sultry purr.
Azriel whose magickal signature was intertwined with his own, the thrum of their Bond and the Oath that linked them, however one sided it may be, like a second heart beating alongside his own.
Azriel who had always questioned him on everything when everyone else hesitated. Much like now, when the Anglëtinean held his hands and looked over his torn open knuckles, lobbing question after question without giving him time to so much as draw breath to try to answer let alone actually answer.
“You weren’t just in the Forest with me?” he interrupted, needing to know, needing to hear the answer even if he already knew it. Even if a part of him knew that the answer Azriel would give would do everything but make him feel less afraid.
And sure enough, when Azriel looked up at him with eyes filled with worry as he shook his head and frowned, that stream became a fucking river.