The wards warbled a soft announcement of arrivals and Azriel was out of his chair at the kitchen table and moving for the front door before anyone else had the chance to even register the wards had activated.
He was at the edge of the porch just as Thae’a and Adïmshyl touched down, Nhulynolyn landing right on their heels. Lycarn materialized at his left side and bumped a flank against his leg when his breath hitched at the sight of them. Absently he dropped his hand to the top of the ice wolf’s head, fingers threading through the fur there with the ease of familiarity and practice, his other hand reaching up to run across Malkuth’s scales where the snake was curled around his neck in his customary place. Thae’a looked up as she approached the cabin’s stairs, brown eyes dark and haunted and the sight of that look on her face made his heart clench. The sight of her eyes like that, drenched in blood he knew wasn’t her own, drove him to step away from Lycarn, vault down the stairs to the sands, and meet the Dreamweaver halfway, wrapping his arms around her as she collapsed forward against him, body wracked by soft sobs, uncaring of the blood she smeared all over his clothes in the process.
If he studiously ignored the fact that that blood belonged to his fellow qahllynshæ no one but his Others would ever know.
“I tried so hard, Az,” she hiccuped against his shirt, her hands grabbing up fistfuls of the material at his back. He just held her tighter. “I tried so hard but I just… I wasn’t strong enough to help him. Not on my own.”
“Nully!” Bayls’ voice was like a wave-snap against a rocky shore before she shot past them in a blur of movement. Nhulynolyn’s oomph as the Sinner female hit him in the chest with a growled, “Stop making me worry like that, you fuck!” made Thae’a giggle and lean away from him to look at the two who held onto each other with the strength loved ones only had when they had been certain they would never see each other again.
“Come on, Tee, let’s get you inside,” Adïmshyl’s voice was gentle as he put his large hands on his mate’s shoulders, green eyes bottomless as they met Azriel’s. He was surprised to see the Lupherinre looked utterly unruffled by the fact that his mate had sought comfort in the arms of another male, but really he shouldn’t be. He and Adïmshyl both knew Thae’a would only ever see him as a brother, that the Lupherinre was the only male who would ever hold her heart.
And that was to say nothing of how Azriel himself felt about Rhyshladlyn.
*”Smitten” isn’t a strong enough word to describe that bond,* Azuna chuckled, the sound wrapping around his voice like fire cracking as it ate at pieces of wood.
“I’m okay, Bayls,” Nhulynolyn whispered but his voice still carried despite that, his nose buried in the Sinner’s hair, “this blood ain’t mine.”
“He’s coming behind us. He wouldn’t let anyone else carry Rel,” Thae’a said, voice small in a way he’d never heard it and hearing it now, it made fear chase the sweat that dripped down his spine beneath his shirt.
“Is he…?” he didn’t finish the question but he didn’t need to because everyone knew what he was asking.
Thae’a didn’t answer him though, her voice clearly caught in her throat. Instead she just patted his chest and smiled weakly before letting Adïmshyl guide her inside, Shadiranamen and Thayne’s voices gentle as the females met them at the door.
“Yes, he’s alive, but barely,” Nhulynolyn answered, an arm slung around Bayls’ shoulders, tucking the female close to his side, his fingers tracing idle patters on her shoulder. “My twin was able to remove his wings entirely without doin’ more damage, but since Rel was out cold when he did it an’ hasn’t woken up yet, we don’t know if his mind is still intact.”
He frowned at the Other, noticing in that moment that for the first time since he’d met them Nhulynolyn looked truly identical to his flesh-and-blood twin. But it wasn’t because of their facial structure or features or anything like that; it was the look in the Other’s eyes, the darkness and tinge of hopelessness, the exhaustion that darkened the skin beneath those electric blue eyes that were at once terribly young and incredibly ancient. It was the way his jaw set hard against the rage that flushed his cheeks and had him chewing at his bottom lip, a tick he shared with his kè. It was in the way he met Azriel’s eyes, clearly afraid and filled to bursting with worry, but stubbornly refusing to let either of those things slow him down or stop him outright.
Bayls looked up at Nhulynolyn and Azriel’s breath hitched because he knew that look. Knew it because he’d seen Rhyshladlyn give it to him. Had memories of Rhyshladlyn giving it to Relyt. Had memories of his first mate giving it to him.
The look the Sinner female gave the Other in that moment was pure, unadulterated love and every inescapable, confusing emotion that came along with it.
Azriel felt like a perverted voyeur watching as Bayls lifted a hand, cupped the Other’s face, and tilted it so he was looking at her.
“Hey, I’ma head inside and help get things ready for when they get here, yeah?” Her words said one thing but Azriel knew as well as Nhulynolyn no doubt did that she was really asking if the Other would be okay if she left his side. Was asking if he needed her to stay right where she was because she would in a heartbeat if he did. She would remake the entire Worlds if he asked it of her just like he would do the same, if not more, for her.
High Ones See and Keep us all should they ever lose each other.
*For we would be hard pressed to survive what they would visit upon the Worlds for that loss,* his Others agreed in tandem.
“Yeah, B, that’s fine,” the Other answered, a small smile dancing on his lips. It didn’t fully reach his eyes but it sent sparks off in them and that was apparently good enough for Bayls.
“I love you, you stubborn bastard,” she whispered as she stood on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips.
Nhulynolyn snorted as he met her halfway. “Damn right you fuckin’ do, now get your fine ass inside.” He swatted her ass for emphasis and Azriel fought hard to swallow back the snort of surprised laughter that rose in his throat.
He succeeded, if only barely.
“Watch your hands, boy,” she scolded teasingly as she rolled her eyes and shook her head before climbing the cabin stairs.
“Make me,” the Other replied cheekily as Azriel followed her up the stairs and pulled the door closed behind her after she shot a rude single-finger salute to her lover who just laughed in response.
“Tee wasn’t able to read him?” he asked once he heard Bayls speaking with everyone else inside, genuinely curious as Nhulynolyn climbed the stairs to the porch and moved to sit heavily in one of the rocking chairs. The Other stiffened, looking around with a frown of his own before he promptly stood up and moved down two chairs before sitting back down.
“I sat in Relyt’s chair by accident,” he explained when he saw Azriel’s raised eyebrows. “As for Tee gettin’ a readin’ on him…” he shrugged and flapped a hand, “she offered after Rhys finished his work, but my twin wouldn’t let anyone else touch Rel. I wasn’t even allowed to get close enough to help Rhys lift him off the street.” The Other dropped his face into his hands and hunched his shoulders as he leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees.
“If that’s not got you all bothered and freaked like this, Nully, then what is it?” Azriel prompted when the Other didn’t say anything for several heartbeats.
“How do you know I’m freaked about somethin’?” Nhulynolyn shot back, slanting a narrowed eye look at him.
Azriel rolled his eyes. “I may have only been alive for a couple centuries or so in this lifetime, but do remember that I know you and your twin rather well. So I can read you much like your female can,” he answered. “So spill. What’s got you so twisted up?”
He figured it might have something to do with how Relyt was only in this mess because he’d stepped in to protect Nhulynolyn. Or maybe that if Relyt had been even a half-step slower, Nhulynolyn likely wouldn’t have made it back to Bayls. By the High Ones, any answer similar to those would have been expected.
“He has eight wings, Az.”
That was certainly not one of them.
I did not hear that right.
*No, I think you did,* Malkuth replied. He flicked at the serpent’s tail where it had slid from around his neck to hang down his chest in retaliation for the Other’s sass.
“Who? Relyt?” he asked and closed his eyes tightly the second the question was out of his mouth. Because of course Relyt didn’t have eight fucking wings. High Ones prevail me.
*I don’t think even They can help you with that monumental fuck up,* Lycarn commented with a snicker as he brushed against the back of Azriel’s knees.
“No, my balls,” Nhulynolyn snorted as he shot Azriel an amused look. “But y’know who shouldn’t have eight fuckin’ wings? My twin. So how does he have the eight wings he was born with when last I checked he only had four because the other two had been ripped out by dear ol’ dad? It isn’t possible.”
Azriel had nothing to respond to that with as he walked on shaky legs to the chair between Nhulynolyn and Relyt’s empty one. He dropped into it with less grace than he was aiming for, but seeing as how he couldn’t feel his knees, he figured it was excusable. Lycarn snuffled at his hand before taking on his incorporeal form again with a burst of chill wind that made Azriel shiver.
He didn’t answer Nhulynolyn for several minutes while he stared out across the sands at the retaining wall that was half in shambles, though not nearly as bad as it had been. Even if he had Relyt should have been able to easily handle its rebuilding had they not been so busy fighting and arguing at every possible turn.
His vision unfocused as he stared past the wall and the memories it elicited to the sand dunes in the distance, utterly at a loss as to where he could even begin to process this latest information. But the gods only knew that he probably wasn’t supposed to process it, just accept it and move on, because his Qishir was nothing if not utterly unpredictably dramatic.
The Qishir’s orange-amber eyes flashed with mischief as he leaned down, tucked an arm behind Relyt’s back and under his knees before he lifted the Soul Healer off the long couch like he weighed nothing. Relyt snuffled softly in his sleep, tucking his forehead against Rhyshladlyn’s neck, one hand lifting to fist itself in the Qishir’s shirt over his heart.
“Let’s get to bed, shall we?” Rhyshladlyn asked him as he stood in the living room of the cabin holding their third without a single ounce of strain despite how Relyt clearly outweighed him.
“Let’s.” It was the only logical answer he could give.
And the right one if Rhyshladlyn’s brilliant smile was anything to go by.
“I don’t know how it’s possible, Nully,” he answered after having spent far longer in silence than he’d intended, lost in his memories. He scrubbed a hand down his face and sighed, leaning back in the chair, one leg stretching out to press his foot against the porch railing, using it to set his chair to rocking in a controlled back and forth. Malkuth’s tail tickled as it swung across his chest in idle, gentle sweeps. “But he did get one set back when he had been trying to perfect that Working for when he Oathed us, remember? Maybe something similar happened.”
“Yeah, but there’s not been a single instance similar to that in the Worlds since that day,” Nhulynolyn replied.
Azriel shrugged. “I’ve got nothing, Nul, I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” the Other answered with a sigh. “I just hate that for all the good we’ve done, somehow we still keep gettin’ handed the short straw.”
“And it’s on fire,” he commented absently.
Nhulynolyn guffawed. “Ain’t that the gods’ Truth.”
They didn’t have to wait long before the wards warbled again, heralding the Qishir’s arrival just before he dropped from the Line, his primary set of wings flaring wide to slow his descent before stowing with a soft snap once his feet were safely on the sand, arms cradling Relyt to his chest in much the same way he had in Azriel’s memory. But instead of the Qishir’s eyes being filled with a mischief that sped his pulse and warmed his blood, they were dim and glazed, the front of his body soaked in blood no doubt from carrying the Soul Healer. Instead of Relyt’s body being soft with sleep, it was limp with unconsciousness, every muscle loose and wobbly. The juxtaposition of the present with his memory was enough to make his stomach swoop unpleasantly. The guilt and despair that clung to the pair was a scent so potent that Azriel flinched and fought not to cover his nose, and it certainly didn’t help his swooping stomach.
He waited until Rhyshladlyn was over the retaining wall before he vaulted over the porch’s railing, too impatient to bother taking the stairs, and closed the distance between them.
“Here, let me take him,” he said when he was nearly within arm’s reach, careful to keep his voice soft, pitched low and nonthreatening. Despite that Rhyshladlyn still startled, wide eyes swinging up to look at him, like he hadn’t expected anyone to be waiting for him. “Easy, my Qishir, easy. I mean only to help. Let me take Relyt. You’re home now.”
Rhyshladlyn didn’t say anything just nodded and held Relyt out towards him, helping him settle the Soul Healer in his own arms. Watching how the other male moved with precise, almost mechanical movements made his heart break.
Because this wasn’t the strong Qishir he had fallen in love with, that he had Blood Oathed to, that he had died for, that he had searched out upon his rebirth.
No, the Rhyshladlyn that stood before him, gently tucking a stray strand of hair behind Relyt’s ear with slow, carefully movements like he was afraid of being caught and punished for doing so, was the scared, broken fledgling he’d met when he’d first arrived in Shiran City on a mission that his sister had had no intention of seeing completed.
And by all the gods in existence if Rhyshladlyn didn’t kill Xitlali he would.