It felt weird to be standing on the cabin’s porch again after being gone for so long. To be standing here looking out at the oasis and seeing first the lake and then the river instead. Seeing the bodies from the raiding party and then the smoke in the distance from Thayne’s army after Amèl had killed Anis and the entirety of Majik World. Like an after image when one closed their eyes after looking at something unblinking for a long time: there but not.
It felt weird that he could still remember Rhyshladlyn’s wail, could still remember the wing marks burnt into the wall above the bed. He’d never forget waking up to find Rhyshladlyn attempting to perfect the Working he had planned to perform after Oathing him and Relyt. Could still remember the smell of blood and skin and the insanity that had filled the front of the cabin when the Qishir was gifted his second set of wings. Could still remember the exact moment when Rhyshladlyn had learned that he and Lulphé were blood siblings. Could clearly remember the fear that had crashed through him when Rhyshladlyn learned that he had been sent by his sister to investigate Anislanzir only to be ignored when he tried to present her the evidence she had claimed she needed to move against the Lord King. He could still remember watching Rhyshladlyn collapse boneless and completely unresponsive to the ground after they’d rebuilt the cabin along the river following the raid.
All his other memories were spotty, coming in spurts and at absolute random. He knew that the majority of them that featured Rhyshladlyn occurred in Shiran City before they’d made their first escape and acquired the cabin, but those weren’t nearly as strong as any and all that he had of them in their shared home. Those were crystal clear and powerful enough to knock the breath out of his lungs, to keep him awake when he should be sleeping. Five centuries and a stint in the After hadn’t taken them from him, hadn’t lessened their impact.
But being back here at their shared home, now expanded and rebuilt to accommodate them all thanks to Relyt, was more intense than he had anticipated. There were millions of memories here, even if the hallways and bedrooms and living quarters looked different from what was in those memories, it didn’t matter. He still sifted through millions of flashes of a younger Qishir trying not to collapse under the weight of Fate’s mantle on his shoulders. Millions of flashes of a younger Relyt who was struggling with feeling emotions that he had been taught his entire life to suppress. Millions of flashes of Nhulynolyn starting a food fight with Shadiranamen with the female Other would talk shit about his cooking style. Millions of flashes of Xheshmaryú tossing his head back and guffawing when Rhyshladlyn would trash talk Relyt during a game of cards.
Being back here felt like the home he knew from those memories but at the same time it felt incredibly foreign to him.
And he didn’t know where to begin reconciling the two.
“Can’t sleep either, huh?”
He jumped and turned to look at Bayls who stood with her back against the front door, holding two steaming mugs, hazel eyes seeming to glow against the back drop of lights coming from the windows. She looked even smaller than she really was standing against the widened door, staring up at him with an expression he couldn’t read. He felt a sense of déjà vu seeing her standing there, like this wasn’t the first time he’d seen her with her back against a door, staring up at him with a look that was terrifying in its indecipherability. But he couldn’t place it and shook his head to dispel the feeling, slanting a soft smile at her instead.
“No,” he admitted with a shrug, feeling far too much like a fledgling caught out after curfew.
She laughed softly and nodded, like her startling him while he was pondering endless thought trains in the middle of the night instead of sleeping wasn’t new for either of them. And perhaps it wasn’t.
“Do you ever sleep?”
He turned from where he stood staring at the glowing City in the distance to look at Bayls who had a wool blanket wrapped around her shoulders, jaw set against her hatred of the cold that had started to creep into the desert nights the closer they drew to the Festival of Flesh.
“Yes, though not often of late, unfortunately,” he answered when she’d come to stand beside him.
“Does Rhys know?”
He shrugged one shoulder up and dropped it as he turned his attention back to the City, trying to ignore the way a dark sense of foreboding twisted in his gut whenever thoughts of the coming the raid resurfaced despite all his attempts to fight them back. It was part of the reason he was awake at this hour rather than sleeping like he should be.
“If our Qishir does know, he hasn’t said anything to me about it.”
“Maybe he’s waiting for you to say something first,” she spoke it like a statement but he answered it like a question.
“I’ll tell him tomorrow.”
Only he had never said anything to Rhyshladlyn.
“I brought you sweet tea spiked with mead, figured if nothing else it’ll calm your nerves enough to help you sleep,” she offered the mug in her left hand to him and he took it gratefully. It had just the right amount of soothing burn as it slid down his throat and he rumbled a purr of appreciation. Her laughter was bright and clear, bringing up a hazy memory of nights spent between the two of them just talking when sleep evaded them. She’d always laughed when he’d purr at whatever she’d brought for him. “Glad I remembered how to mix it properly.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve done this for me then?” he inquired, wanting confirmation that he remembered correctly as he took another sip, eyes tracking her over the rim of the mug.
She took a sip of her own drink and smacked her lips, eyes pulling away from his to look out over the oasis as she nodded. “It took me a couple weeks to figure out that something stronger than tea and coffee worked best for you. Problem was figuring what alcohol to mix in.”
“I’m guessing there were several mishaps?”
“Oh shit, yes. Gods it was bad,” she giggled, hands cupped around her own mug, a ghost of an expression slipping across her features. “I’d bring you something to drink every night you couldn’t sleep, like, I just knew when you couldn’t because I couldn’t either. But that was back before the war started… before we bur–before you d–… yeah. Yeah, I used to a lot. Not always that version,” she jerked her chin at his mug. “Took me a bit to figure out that that one worked best.”
He heard her stumbling over trying to say before they buried him, before he died and he realized belatedly that more than just Rhyshladlyn and Relyt had been effected by his loss.
Sure, from the stories of the aftermath he knew that Thae’a had survivor’s guilt because she had run after he’d fallen.
He knew that Adïmshyl had mourned not getting to know him more before the opportunity no longer existed.
He knew that Thayne had had to bury him and her mother; that the guilt of siding with the Qishir who killed her mother while denouncing her mother for being at fault and simultaneously missing Lulphé was slowly tearing the female apart.
He knew that Nhulynolyn and the rest of Rhyshladlyn’s Others had wanted to break down the doors and Shields their kè had erected between them, but didn’t want to risk harming Rhyshladlyn any further than he already had been.
He knew that Jaro felt like he had failed his father because he had been asked to protect not just Rhyshladlyn but Azriel as well.
He knew that Bayls struggled not to blame everyone for the loss of her best friend. For out of everyone in the Court, he remembered that they got along the best; that it had come naturally and easily to them.
But for all that he knew that and more, seeing it stumbled around, seeing it keeping the Court up and twitchy with it? Was something entirely different. And if he had trouble reconciling the way the cabin felt like home and yet not, it was nothing compared to trying to reconcile the way Bayls sounded just like she did in his memories yet completely different. Almost like she was still mourning him, despite him being reborn.
“I am sorry, Bayls Qaeniri,” he whispered, voice carrying in the silence that stretched between them and filled the thick, humid desert night. It wouldn’t be enough and he wasn’t the one that needed to apologize, but Anislanzir was forever lost to them as was Lulphé, so it fell to him. High Ones only know why I feel guilty for my own death like I had a fucking hand in it.
She raised an eyebrow and snorted at him. “For what? Not your fault that goatfucker was a piece of shit and got in one good shot cuz Fate demanded it.” She shrugged as though it didn’t bother her but he knew better.
He could read it in the way her jaw clenched, the way that tiny movement pulled her ears back. He read it in the way she wouldn’t look at him while she said it, the way her back tensed with the need for her wings to naturally give away what she truly felt. They may not have had all that much time spent in his previous life as friends but he still knew her. And despite the almost half a millennium that had passed between the last time he’d seen her and now? She hadn’t changed. Not really.
“You still blame me,” he said quietly, gently. Prodding only because he suspected that she hadn’t said as much to anyone in five hundred years and that wasn’t remotely healthy. “I wouldn’t have been in the position to die if I’d not sacrificed my freedom for Rhys and Rel to get out of the City with the rest of you.”
Bayls tensed hard, every muscle in her body locking up and he watched as the frightened young Sinner female he’d first met became the fierce, furious warrior she had grown into. Those hazel eyes turned to him, full of fire set in a face that was harder than steel, and he wondered not for the first time how Nhulynolyn kept his wits about him with such a female at his side. She didn’t advance on him but she didn’t need to. Her words did it for her.
“Yes, I blame you and I hate myself for it. Cuz what’s the good of bla-blaming you when you d-dying wo-would h-have happened anyway-way? Huh? It’s stupid and I hate it and I wish you had ju-just, like, stunned that fucker and run with Rhys and Rel instead of b-being all heroic and shit,” she set her mug down with a loud thunk on the porch railing and sighed heavily. She turned away from him too look down at her mug, her hands gripping the railing to either side of it with enough force that he could hear the wood groaning in protest. It had been a long time since he’d heard her stutter and knowing it was because of him that it rose up again made guilt swirl hot and heavy in his gut. “Why, Azzy? Huh? Why did you play hero? Did you know what was going to happen? Did-did you wa-want to die?”
He spit out the sip he’d taken while she was talking, choking as her last few questions registered. Coughing hard he set his mug down and stared at her while trying to remember how to breathe despite the liquid in his lungs. Malkuth materialized and slithered up his body to his customary spot around his neck, tail flicking hard against his back clear the liquid in his lungs. Bayls eyed the serpent but said nothing about him, though she did take a step back at Malkuth’s appearance.
“High Ones have mercy,” he muttered when taking in air didn’t burn quite as bad. “I didn’t want to die, of course not!” He swallowed hard, tilting his head back to try and draw in an unhindered breath before continuing, willing his accent to soften so he was easier to understand. “Did I sense that something horrible was going to happen if I distracted Anislanzir and got captured? Yes. Did I know what it was? No. But I certainly didn’t want to die, not even fucking close.”
“Rhys did…he knew what was going to happen,” Bayls voice was soft, tiny and he hated hearing it like that. It brought up memories of when Rhyshladlyn was so much younger, when Azriel had first gotten to Shiran City. How small and quiet the Qishir had been, even in private when it was just the two of them, even when he’d grown to trust Azriel explicitly. It had taken decades for Rhyshladlyn to become comfortable and blossom fully.
“What?” he spluttered, not believing he what he was hearing. His Qishir had known what was going to happen the whole time? Then why the fuck hadn’t he done anything to stop it?
“His Patrons told him the day They called him back to Shiran City when Anis died. That’s why he was so cagey, why he was acting weirder than normal,” she answered as he cursed and jerked a hand through his hair. “But he couldn’t say anything, couldn’t stop it. They only warned him because They knew if it happened without a warning, he’d go nova in a way that not even They could save the Worlds from.”
He shook his head and sighed, one hand rubbing along Malkuth’s scales, enjoying the texture on the pads of his fingers. Of all his Others, the serpent was the one that took corporeal form the most often, at least around other Dhaoine. When he was sleeping Lycarn and Azuna would each take one side and keep his temperature perfectly balanced while Kitteia would guard them all and Raynfa would wing through the skies.
Bayls said nothing else and he didn’t press to fill the silence. Instead they stood side by side, sipping their respective drinks, staring out into the night. Neither moved or said anything until Azriel felt the dawn’s approach in his bones and shifted just enough for his joints to pop and crack, for his muscles to resettle.
“For what it’s worth, Bay, I’m sorry,” he kept his voice soft, kept staring at the oasis, kept staring at it until he saw a lake littered with bodies, until he saw a river dotted with rocks and Rhyshladlyn sitting on one of the larger ones at the river’s edge. “I didn’t mean to hurt you or anyone else. I only meant to keep our Qishir alive, to keep him safe. I truly believed that I would be saved in time, that Anislanzir wouldn’t risk killing me, especially when Rhyshladlyn accepted my Companion Oath. Had I known I wouldn’t survive? I would have done it all differently.”
Bayls’ laugh was just as soft as his voice, holding none of the bite it should have and somehow that made it worse.
“No, you wouldn’t have, Azzy. I heard your Oath same as everyone else that day,” she turned and looked at him with a smile that was so much like the one Rhyshladlyn used to give him when he was younger, before everything went to shit, that it made his heart clench as his breath stuttered. “Above everything and everyone else, you value Rhys’ life and safety and happiness. And even if that means sacrificing your own, you will do whatever it takes to make sure his are protected and allowed to flourish.” She drained the last of her mug and cracked her neck before pinning him with a look he couldn’t entirely read but that didn’t stop him from feeling its power regardless. “But hear this, Azriel, don’t go doing that shit again. Rhys won’t survive it, he barely survived the first go. And remember that Rhys didn’t just lose a Companion that day, we all lost someone when you crossed the River.”
He blinked dumbly at her as she turned on her heel and walked back into the cabin, the door closing with a muted click behind her. He stared at the door for several minutes, brain stuttering as it tried to comprehend that someone far smaller and far younger — technically — than him had just scolded him to such a degree. That not only had they scolded him, they had done it in such a way that he didn’t realize the sting of it until after they had left.
*Well, she’s certainly a firecracker,* Malkuth commented and Azriel barked a startled laugh, shaking his head as he picked up his mug again and turned to watch the sun rise.
Now there’s an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.
*Master?* Lycarn called and Azriel tilted his head back towards the cabin.
*Rhyshladlyn is awake and assembling everyone to discuss what to do about the Selves being gathered in jars over breakfast. Your presence is requested.*
Closing his eyes, he drained the last of his spiked tea and scrubbed a hand over his face. I’m coming.