He gripped the back of his chair, not entirely sure when he’d made it back across the hall to it. Not sure when the silence had been broken as both his Court and Thayne’s began chattering over each other, asking a slingshot of questions that he didn’t hear let alone pay attention to. Because at the moment his chest hurt like something heavy was pressing down on it. Like he was drowning. What the whole fuck.

And all he had done was speak the name of the City he’d seen through Relyt’s eyes. A City he knew without any shadow of doubt shouldn’t still be standing. A knowledge that was as old as his Self and as solid as his bones. But yet, reality didn’t match his words. The Records didn’t match his words. The maps drawn based on the Records didn’t match his words. And the mere possibility that his memories were wrong, that someone had messed with him or with the Records was incomprehensible. Was too much to take even just as a simple hypothetical.

So while everyone around him argued and discussed, he stared at the table like it held all the answers he needed, fingers curled over the chair’s back until he felt his nails pierce the leather, until Azriel’s hand touched his hip tentatively. Mismatched eyes were careful, distant but warm, when he looked at them. And gods if that didn’t make his chest hurt worse. Fuck him, but seeing how his Companion was there but not, with him but removed, made Rhyshladlyn want to scream and cry and break things. Only reminded him that for the first time in centuries, he felt trapped, screaming without a voice.

I have to get the fuck out of here. Stepping back from the chair and that touch that years ago would have calmed him instantly but now made him more tense, Rhyshladlyn turned on his heel and stalked to the doors. Pushed them open with more force than he meant to but couldn’t bring himself to care about. Part of him flinched hearing them slam against the wall and then bang shut on an eruption of calls of his name, but he didn’t break stride.

It was too much. The memories he couldn’t see fully, the way Azriel was beside him but not, the way Relyt made every instinct he had scream run before he hurts you again, the way everyone looked at him like he was a bomb about to blow at any second and none of them knew how long the fuse had been burning for or how long it had been before it was lit. Being inside a building that was made of stone and glass and steel, magick thick and cloying where it dripped down the walls and skipped across ceilings and floors, made him violent in a way that had nothing to do with everyone else and everything to do with himself and the feeling of helplessness that never seemed to go away. The number of guards that were spaced out across the Palace and the grounds it sat on, no more than was expected or necessary, but it felt like he was surrounded by them, never unseen, never alone in the one way he desperately craved.

All of it combined stole the air from his lungs, squeezed around his chest, and made his heart pound against his breast bone like it had a personal vendetta against the thing. So he pushed passed Dhaoine and ducked around corners and through doors. Dodged guards who had heard no doubt from Thayne or Alaïs that he had stormed out of the meeting hall and was running for who knows where or what, never mind why. Moved with a single purpose in mind: get out. A mantra that repeated over and over until it was nearly louder than the sound of his heartbeat thundering away in his ears.

He didn’t stop until he was outside, until his boots slipped over the grass of the Palace gardens, until the only sounds he heard were the singing calls of birds and the wind as it played among the trees. He took paths without seeing them, wandering aimlessly until he all but ran into one of the more elaborate fountains. Letting out a shaky breath, he leaned forward, bracing his hands on the railing that encircled it, feeling the coolness of the stone beneath his fingers and palms. Took solace in the gentle bubbling froth of the water as it poured down and over a carving of a winged Dhaoine mid-sword swing, face a riot of battle-rage. Stood there in the calmest place in the Palace, surrounded by gently moving water and birdsong, things he’d never heard frequently when growing up, and willed the tumultuous thoughts in his head to settle. Willed his heart rate to slow. Willed his breathing to return to normal.

Some shift in the air had him whirling around before he’d even thought to do so, arm raised but small hands caught his forearm before he could follow through. His eyes focused on Alaïs just as she doused the coldfire that had begun to lick up his hand. Read her signature and tried not to look too hard at how he was relieved it was his sister who had come after him and not anyone else. But that was precisely why she’d come, wasn’t it? Because he’d never been at odds with her. Never turned against her knowingly in fury or when he was out of control. So of everyone in the Court, in his Family, she was the safest to send to him.

I should probably feel guilty about that. But he didn’t. Not remotely.

Neither of them said anything as she squeezed his forearm once and let go. Stayed quiet as he turned back to the fountain and she stepped up beside him.

He didn’t need to ask how she’d found him. They were linked in the same way that he, Nhulynolyn, Shadiranamen, and Xheshmaryú were, only weaker. More distant. Like they shared a relative but it wasn’t a direct descendant line. He wasn’t her but his power fed the link that kept her alive, that gave her the ability to walk as any living Dhaoine would and could. But she hadn’t been a Dhaoine in centuries.

“You can talk to me, little brother,” her voice, high and melodic like their birth giver’s had been, soothed him further. For all that she sounded almost exactly like the un-female he’d murdered, Alaïs’ voice had never set him on edge. “What’s going on inside your head right now?”

That was the problem. He didn’t know. None of it was clear, only a jumble of foggy images and sounds and feelings. None of it followed a pattern, none of it had a foundation. The only constant was fury and fear and a Self-deep betrayal that made his hands tremble with the need to destroy. To bring such atrocity to the Worlds that all that was left afterwards was complete and utter–

“Desolation,” the second he spoke the word everything paused. The birdsong went quiet, the gurgling of the fountain became muted, and his thoughts froze.

“What?” For all that he could smell her worry, could taste the first trickles of fear, Alaïs’ voice remained steady. Her position didn’t change. She was as unshakable as her namesake.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so fucked up right now? I haven’t lived up to my namesake. But even as he thought that he knew it wasn’t true. He had lived up to his namesake, he just hadn’t finished the job. Whatever the fuck that means. 

He shook his head, one trembling hand coming up to push his hair from his face. ” I dunno, Al. Gods, everything is so fucked up right now.”

“Alright,” she braced her forearms on the railing, clear blue eyes tracking the water as it splashed into the fountain’s pool. “What’s fucked up?”

“I dunno where to even start,” he dropped his hand back to the railing and squeezed until his knuckles went white and the stone groaned in protest.

“Start where your thoughts are right now. Don’t worry about giving me a beginning point, just jump in. I’ll find my way from there.”

Gods but you’re amazing and none of us deserve you. 

If it had been anyone else who’d said that to him, he’d have locked his jaw and given the silent treatment in return. But this was Alaïs, this was the female who had done the unthinkable and took over the throne of the Sinner Demons and had held it, still held it.

So for all that he didn’t want to and felt like he wasn’t going to make any more sense out loud than he was in his head, he started talking. And he talked until his voice gave out and still he talked. He didn’t know what he said anymore than he had all those centuries ago when Azriel had stood beside him much like Alaïs was now, but that didn’t stop Rhyshladlyn from voicing everything he’d felt over the last forty years. Didn’t keep the betrayal, the fear, the need to destroy, the issues with Azriel, the way his instincts screamed about Relyt, the sense of purposelessness following the war from spilling out with all the force of a rushing river during the first spring thaw. Didn’t mean that every thought from the smallest, seemingly most insignificant ones to the larger, more terrifying ones, from falling passed his lips.

Because his sister was safe, always had been. Not once had anything he told her been shared without his permission. She’d never given him cause to think she wasn’t trustworthy. And the Nameless See him but he was glad as fuck for it in that moment.

Alaïs didn’t interrupt him, didn’t try and touch him or offer comfort. She just stood and witnessed him cracking apart, pieces falling into the fountain in the form of tears he hadn’t shed in centuries. When he finally fell quiet, the only thing she did was open their door and let him see and feel the truth of her response. Let him feel that she thought no less of him, that she didn’t think him weak or worthless, that she didn’t pity him. Let him see that he was as he had always been in her eyes: strong, inevitable, loving when possible and loathsome when not, worthy, her hero and her nemesis. He was her little brother and nothing would ever change that.

His knees gave out then and he dropped to the grass, the grip he had on the stone railing the only reason he didn’t slam his teeth into it on the way down.

Alaïs ran a hand gently through his hair, sending his hair-bells to chiming softly. “I’ll buy you some time,” she whispered. “Nully has been informed and he’ll guard the gardens’ entrance until you’re steadier.”

He opened his mouth to thank her but she teasingly flicked his ear before he could get his voice to work. Despite himself, he snorted. Her responding laughter was as pure as wind chimes, as grounding as the ritual drums.

“No need, brother mine. I know you love me,” he didn’t have to look at her to know she was smiling at him. “Plus it’s the least I can do after everything you gave me.”

He just nodded, unable to trust his voice. Her hand dropped to his shoulder, squeezed once, and left. And as her presence faded, as the sweet melody of her magickal signature became first distant and then silent, he pulled himself sighed heavily and wished that things were different.

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