It was well past midday when he returned to the small camp, grumpily wiping sweat off his brow, having forgotten that Majik was cooler in the morning and evening, freezing at night, and hotter than a forge at midday this time of year. With a hiss, he peeled his sweat-soaked tunic over his head, wringing it out before he draped it around his neck as he stuck his tongue out at the wards when they flicked at him. It was childish of him, but he was exhausted and not just physically so he figured he was excused.
Movement around the side of the tent near the river had him reaching over his shoulders for his blades, fingers curling around the leather-wrapped hilts just as he recognized Azriel. With a shaky chuckle, he vanished his swords back out.
“I was just about to come searching for you,” the Anglëtinean said nonchalantly with raised eyebrows, wiping his hands on the towel tucked into the waistband of his pants, chest bare and hair still wet. Must have just finished his morning dances.
He appreciated that Azriel didn’t immediately comment on his jumpiness. It would happen eventually, it always did, but right now wasn’t then and he was grateful for it. If only because he didn’t think he knew how to explain the entire Anis is back thing as well as the Anis had started talking to things that weren’t there and then disappeared from where he’d left him thing without sounding fucking insane.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, trying not to notice how water droplets dripped slow and teasing down Azriel’s bare chest. He walked over to the boulders they’d moved closer to the fire pit for makeshift seats and sank heavily down onto one, curling his hands around the ends of his rolled tunic, tugging on it absently to feel the pressure against the back of his neck. “I got distracted by my thoughts and then I realized it was hot as fuck and how long I’d been gone.” He glanced at Azriel who was watching him with his head tilted to the side, mismatched eyes intense and narrowed. “Kinda surprised you didn’t come looking for me sooner.”
Azriel laughed softly, shaking his head as he pulled the towel from his pants and rubbed at his hair as he sat beside him just close enough that Rhyshladlyn could feel the warmth of his skin that had nothing to do with the noonday heat and everything to do with the power that thrummed just beneath the surface. Being near Azriel had always been intoxicating, even before he’d come into his Qishir nature and everything that had followed. Now? Now it was a thousand times more potent than it had ever been and being in close proximity to the Anglëtinean made concentration nearly impossible.
“I will admit, I’d thought about it, but I knew you’d return eventually. And if you had need of me, I was but a Call away,” he replied, still rubbing at his hair in an effort to dry it, giving Rhyshladlyn time to take him in properly.
He didn’t have as many scars in this lifetime as he had before he’d died and for some reason that always shocked him. Even though it didn’t make sense, Rhyshladlyn had expected Azriel would be reborn with the scars to prove he’d suffered and survived the torture Anislanzir had subjected him to. But he only had those that were expected of a young, well trained warrior fighting in a Worlds War, small nicks and wounds here and there, tiny silvery scars that were only noticeable in certain light when the shadows played just right across them. Only the thirty-three warrior notches that marched up his spine, bright and gorgeous and glowing the color of his eyes against the backdrop of his skin, were the most noticeable scars he had.
Gone was the bone-deep twisted flesh at the bolt of his left wrist where he’d nearly lost his hand in a training match gone awry.
Gone was the line that had interrupted his hair just above his forehead where an Eagle Shiftkin had nearly scalped him.
Gone were the lines that had covered the thumb, index, and middle fingers of his right hand from where he’d burned them nearly to the bone when a rope had snapped on a build in his homeland and he’d scrambled to grab it before the forty-storey scaffolding it had been holding up had dropped the nearly hundred workers on it to the ground.
Gone was the circle of scar tissue at the curve of his chin from where he’d blown apart a pair of shackles when he’d been captured by Imènian priests intent on trying to “cure” him of his “sinister” ways and a piece of the metal had thunked him in the face.
But despite that Rhyshladlyn still knew him.
Still knew the body that moved with the muscles only a dancing warrior possessed, lean rather than bulky. Reminding him of cold nights and warmer mornings spent tangled in each other, chasing the ghosts of their pasts away.
Still knew the mismatched eyes that held the same incredible intelligence, that missed nothing, that they had the first time he’d ever seen them on the training fields of his father’s palace. Reminding him of how all one ever needed to know about Azriel’s emotional state could be found out just by watching those eyes.
Still knew the voice that wove music around words that were rich with intonations and emphasis that he was incapable of hearing when others spoke. Reminding him of the songs they’d sung together around the fire pit, playing music and dancing and enjoying the simple company of each other and Relyt and Rhyshladlyn’s Others.
Still knew the magick that danced with his own, teasing and insistent in a gentle way, full of crystalline brilliance and clarity. Reminding him of when he’d Heard Azriel’s Oath and in an effort to save him had Spoken an Oathing Sacrifice instead.
But he hadn’t memorized this body and all the scars and blemishes it had earned in the centuries they’d spent apart. Realistically he knew that was his fault, he’d known Azriel had been reborn for a while but had held back on saying anything, on finding him. And his excuses were just that, excuses. But the fact remained that he hadn’t felt worthy of the Anglëtinean. Especially since he was the reason Azriel had died in the first place. Especially after everything he’d done since that horrible day, after everything he hadn’t done but should have.
Fingers brushed his forearm and he jumped, blinking away the shapeless memories that had clouded his vision as he focused on Azriel who was staring at him with a look of naked concern. The gentle pulse-pulse of his power across their link as Azriel read his emotions and his surface thoughts wasn’t nearly as invasive as it should have been.
But then again, Azriel had always been able to get away with doing things that Rhyshladlyn would have destroyed anyone else for merely suggesting. It was part of what made Azriel his Companion. Among other things.
“Rhys, talk to me.”
And that was all it took. It was all it ever took. An earnest look, genuine concern, and the knowledge that Azriel had seen worse, had done worse even, for him to open up.
He let out a shuddering breath and started talking. His memories weren’t in order, too jumbled from trauma and struggling to survive when all the odds were stacked against him, so he didn’t try and follow any particular order. But he didn’t need to because Azriel understood. Nameless prevailing, I will never deserve you.
He spoke about falling for Iköl, about the camp where he’d been held prisoner, and the atrocities he’d suffered there. Spoke about the horrors he’d seen on the Fields and off them. Spoke of the things that kept him up at night, that made eating even when he was hungry all but impossible. Spoke of the scars he hid with glamours far more powerful than the ones he’d worn before the war had begun. Spoke of his worries, his fears, his nightmares. Spoke of the aftermath of Azriel’s death, of how he had held his body in the hallway of Shiran’s Temple before he’d pulled the City beneath the trembling sands and condemned every living thing to a cold, lonely eternity. Spoke of his attempts to Heal Majik World, to rebuild it and bring it Balance again.
He spoke of his worry that the jars of Selves that Xitlali had collected in Ryphqi City weren’t going to be used to destroy someone or bring something through the Veil but rather for something far more sinister than that. He spoke of how he hadn’t slept in weeks, how everything hurt, how he was confused and anxious. He spoke of how he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something important, that whatever it was was the key needed to answer the entire shit with Xitlali and her fucking jars and how the Hounds found them and the Oiki attack and Zhalharaq being attacked, the Oathing Sacrifices and everything else.
He spoke until his voice went scratchy and tears burned hot and shameful down his cheeks as one hand twisted and played with the chain that hung around his neck. And still he talked.
And Azriel listened to all of it. Listened and held his free hand, thumb brushing incessantly across his knuckles, energy calm and soothing. At some point Nhulynolyn and Bayls had stumbled out of the tent, bleary eyed but they perked up when they realized he was talking. Thankfully they didn’t interrupt him, just sat down on the other side of the fire pit and stayed silent. He didn’t look at any of them, just stared at the ground between his feet, focused more on the way Azriel’s thumb felt brushing across his knuckles, on the gentle acceptance Nhulynolyn trickled across their connection. He glanced up once and only once to try and get a read on Bayls and simultaneously regretted it and was thankful he had at the look of angered sympathy that lightened her hazel eyes.
“The worst part of it all though?” he whispered in the thick silence as the sun sank closer to the western horizon. “The Anointed One has someone in this Court who is working for him…but I feel like I’m fuckin’ going insane and can’t trust what I’m actually seeing,” he swallowed thickly and pulled his hand out of Azriel’s to rub at his face. “Because how the fuck else would those Hounds’ve known where to find the cabin? How else would Oiki had known I would be at the Steward Corps’ camp that day? Just….” he sighed heavily and waved a hand in a vague gesture, unable to find the words to articulate what he was thinking and feeling at that moment.
“But you think y’know who it is,” Nhulynolyn’s voice was a shock after hours of being the only one speaking. It was a question but spoken like a statement of fact.
When he looked at the Other he wasn’t surprised to see his stony expression, wasn’t surprised to see the orange-amber flecks that danced in his electric blue eyes, a sure sign that he had sunk deeper into their shared consciousness than Rhyshladlyn had been readily aware of. He was even less surprised when his twin kept speaking and hit his fears right on the head.
“That’s what’s got you so worked up cuz if it were still just a big ol’ myst’ry on who it is you wouldn’t be feelin’ like…” his twin waved a hand up and down the length of him and Rhyshladlyn snorted.
“Yes, but I don’t want to speak the name until I’m certain that’s who it is,” he answered and sighed, hand reaching for Azriel who caught it easily and without a single breath of hesitation. As their link flared he smiled, feeling like he was able to breathe again. “Because if I call them out and I’m wrong, the real traitor will know I’m close and do the gods only know what. But I do know it isn’t anyone here.”
Bayls’ expressed went from concerned little sister to furious, ready to kill warrior in the span of a heartbeat. He didn’t have to look at Azriel to know what expression his Companion wore. He could feel it in the way the air between them cooled by several degrees, the way it contorted as he fought back the urge to display his wings. Nhulynolyn just met his gaze steadily and nodded, understanding and accepting his answer, willing to help in whatever way Rhyshladlyn needed. But for all that they reacted the way he expected, the way he had only been marginally worried that they wouldn’t, he was grateful they didn’t press him for a name.
Mainly because he doubted he’d be able to speak it even after he had solid proof. It was just too much to even think of hypothetically.
“That’s why you scattered everyone back to their posts, isn’t it?” Bayls asked, leaning forward, eyes wide and filled with the glee she got when she figured out a particularly difficult puzzle. “You put everyone back on the game board to see how they’d react and where they went.”
He smiled at her, proud that she caught on so quickly, especially when he knew Azriel and Nhulynolyn hadn’t gotten there yet.
“Yes, though less where they went and more what they did when they got there.” He shrugged one shoulder, scooting across the boulder so that his right shoulder was flush against Azriel’s left one, needing more physical contact than what their hands provided. “Because it is what you do when you think no one is watching that speaks greater volumes than what you do when you know you’re being watched.”
Nhulynolyn hissed out a soft curse, pushing his hair back from his face and tucking it behind his ears. “This shit is proper fucked. I just can’t see how any’a’us could possibly be a fuckin’ traitor.”
Bayls pressed a kiss to Nhulynolyn’s bare shoulder, sharing a look with him that spoke volumes and made Rhyshladlyn feel a glimmer of hope for the future. It was good that they had found each other. He still remembered when Nhulynolyn had asked for his help in wooing Bayls, how he’d been so certain it’d be a one hit wonder that would end with him moving on just like the majority of his couplings. But something about the Sinner female had sunk in deep and refused to let go. And he thanked all the gods for it because he doubted that Nhulynolyn would have survived his absence otherwise.
But where his twin couldn’t see how any of them could be a traitor, he could. Because he had seen the things this war had done to Dhaoine, good healthy minded Dhaoine, and the atrocities that could come from that. By the Cliffs, he’d lived as the receiver of some of those atrocities.
He just prayed that for once, his instincts were wrong.
“So what now?” Azriel asked as he pressed his forehead against Rhyshladlyn’s temple, his breath a soft shoof across his ear. “Do you have a game plan?”
“Yeah, though it isn’t much of a plan really.”
“We’re jus’ gonna wait for somethin’ else to happen, aren’t we?” Nhulynolyn asked and Rhyshladlyn laughed, unable to help it, at the way his Other sounded like a petulant fledgling.
He didn’t answer but he didn’t have to, they already knew it as well as he did. There wasn’t anything any of them could do but wait it out, wait and see what happened. He just prayed that when whatever was going to happen came to pass that it wasn’t something he wasn’t prepared to handle.
Though knowing his luck, it probably would be.