55

“You always did like to sit on rocks all broodin’ an’ shit.”

He was smiling before he’d even finished turning his head from the river he’d been watching for the last hour or some. Smiled wider at the sight of Nhulynolyn standing beside the rock he’d been sitting on, blue eyes sparkling with mischief and mirth, hands tucked into the pockets of his breeches, the muscles in his arms rippling as his fingers tapped out a melody only his twin heard against his thighs.

“Well, when you look as good as I do at it, may as well do it as often as possible,” he replied with a chuckle.

Nhulynolyn hummed and jumped up to sit beside him, pressing his shoulder against Rhyshladlyn’s, the warmth that wafted off the Other akin to sitting too close to a campfire but he didn’t pull away. Just turned and looked back at the river, content to sit in easy silence basking in the presence of his twin. But that easy silence didn’t last. Too soon it twisted with things they hadn’t gotten to say to each other before it had been too late to share them. Things Rhyshladlyn didn’t want to share now because it would mean this was permanent. That he had really lost the one Dhaoine who had been with him from the very beginning.

But when that silence got too sharp edged Rhyshladlyn sighed and dropped his head onto Nhulynolyn’s shoulder, careful not to touch him otherwise. Took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Was only marginally surprised to feel the press of tears against the back of his eyes.

“I can’t lose you, Nul,” he whispered, voice half drowned out by the shouts and laughter and drumming from the campsite behind them. Even the sounds of the river water rushing over the rocks that dotted its bed almost overshadowed his words. “But… I can’t… I can’t bring you back. Not that I haven’t tried. Just it isn’t working for some reason.”

“I know, twin of mine,” Nhulynolyn kissed his head, making his hair-bells let out a single sharp, mournful chime, the first noise they’d made in years it felt like. “You aren’t going to be able to bring me back,” he tensed, intending to look at the Other but stopped when Nhulynolyn continued, “an’ that’s okay. You’re not supposed to bring me back.”

“What?” he spluttered, the need to cry increasing with each passing minute. He reached for Nhulynolyn’s hand and felt part of him settle out when his twin laced their fingers together, squeezing tightly. “But I’m the living twin? I should be able to bring you back easily. So long as one lives, the other isn’t truly dead.”

“I can’t explain it right now, twin o’mine,” Nhulynolyn replied. “I’m only here to tell you that you can’t stay here with me. That it ain’t you who’s supposed to bring me back.”

“I–” he started to protest, feeling indignant anger swell hot and thick in his chest because fuck that.

“No, Rhyshladlyn,” the Other cut him off. “You have to go back. You aren’t supposed t’be here yet. The Worlds need you, now more than ever before. Cuz there’s major shit goin’ down an’ ain’t no other Dhaoine better at savin’ the Worlds than you.”

“Fuck that,” he snarled and jumped off the rock into the cool waters of the river, kicking at the small rapids that formed around his legs. Still kept his eyes off his twin on some instinct that told him that if he looked everything would be lost and he wasn’t about to question it or risk it. “Fuck saving the Worlds, Nully! Fuck being anything for them. I need my twin, my First Other. Bayls needs her mate. Alaïs needs her brother. I can’t be asked… to b-bury…” his voice broke and he turned his back entirely on the Other, hands on his hips as he swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. “I cannot bury another brother. Especially not you.”

“Hey,” Nhulynolyn jumped down behind him but Rhyshladlyn didn’t turn around, couldn’t bring himself to see the face he’d been careful not to look at too closely when the Other had appeared beside him. “Hey, Rhys… come on.” Strong arms slid around his waist, pulling him back against the strong line of the Other’s body, chin hooking over his shoulder. “It’s okay, my twin. It doesn’t feel like it, not even close, but it is okay. It will be.”

“No, Nully, no it won’t,” he replied with a derisive snort and shook his head before he pressed it against the Other’s own, hands hesitantly coming up to stroke Nhulynolyn’s forearms. “How can it be? In nearly nine hundred years I’ve never been without you. How am I supposed to start now?”

“You spent three hundred years alone, Rhys,” Nhulynolyn reminded him. And with those words the memories Rhyshladlyn had been fighting to hold back rushed in and consumed him. He choked out a sob and sagged in his twin’s hold but Nhulynolyn didn’t let him fall. “You suffered atrocities that made what our sire did look tame in comparison. You survived a betrayal that would have killed a lesser Dhaoine, never mind a lesser Qishir. An’ you did it all without me. Without any of us.”

Nhulynolyn squeezed him and stepped away, one hand pressing against his back when Rhyshladlyn made to turn and look at him, stop him, watch him, he wasn’t sure exactly. But that hand on his back stopped him short, kept him looking across the river at the expansive grasslands that spread endlessly in front of him. Kept him from outright ignoring the instinct that had told him not minutes before that it wasn’t safe to look at Nhulynolyn anymore, not here. Felt the blood drain from his face when he realized where he was, realized why Nhulynolyn was trying to send him back, why it was his twin who had come here to greet him.

“This is no different,” Nhulynolyn’s voice was the gentlest Rhyshladlyn had ever heard it. And it made his teeth itch because it was all wrong. This wasn’t his twin but the gods aplenty and surrounding See him, the signature didn’t lie. “Not really. So you can do this, Rhys.”

“But back then,” he pressed back against that hand, not fighting it just testing its strength, Nhulynolyn’s conviction to keep Rhyshladlyn from looking at him as tears he’d been holding back finally slipped down his cheeks, “I knew you weren’t dead. I knew that if I could only escape, could only rid myself of that collar, that I’d get you and Shadi and Xhesh back. This isn’t like that. This is worse, Nul. This is permanent.”

“Nothin’ is really permanent for you, Rhys,” the Other said softly, voice filled with longing and grief. Rhyshladlyn’s heart broke to hear it and his tears fell faster. Remembered in that moment that Nhulynolyn had lost so much more with his sacrifice than the rest of them had.

“Tell me how I’m supposed to live without you. How am I supposed to face Bayls knowing that it’s because of my failure that she’s had to face an honor guard, that she will have to speak your pyre rites and watch your body burn? How the fuck is all of this going to be okay?”

“It will be okay cuz there’s no other option, Rhys,” Nhulynolyn answered. “But you have to go back. I ain’t make the rules on that, I’m just the messenger.”

“I…” he swallowed and rubbed at his face and the tears that streaked down it, spoke from around his fingers, voice muffled by his palms. “Are you… are you at peace at the least?”

“Go home, Rhyshladlyn. Our family needs you more than me right now.”

He whipped around as anger drowned out the warning to keep from doing so, but Nhulynolyn was gone, there was just the River and the grasslands. Not even the campsite he’d seen when he’d first opened his eyes here was in sight anymore. Growling in annoyance he rubbed a hand over his face, then through his hair, then along his sternum before he turned around and looked at the other side of the River. Felt his chest grow tight as the grasslands faded away to reveal his and Azriel’s bed in the Eighth Palace. Watched as two Healers bustled around his body checking on the work done to reknit his heart and the wound that had revealed the damage done to the organ.

Blinked and saw Xefras and Azriel standing sentinel to either side of the door. Xefras was green along the jaw, weaving slightly on his feet, the wrappings that covered his abdomen pinkish from the blood that seeped from the wound that marred the skin there. But the Dragaen didn’t waver, his eyes clear and focused, his awareness on high alert; the silver-white of his qahllyn’qir writhing and dancing as it cooed softly from the proximity to Rhyshladlyn’s physical body. Azriel was stiff and pulled within himself, eyes dark in a way they only were when the Anglëtinean was faced with a decision he didn’t want to make but knew he had to make regardless. The orange-amber of the tattoos that marked where his qahllyn’qir had been stood out in stark relief against his pale skin, a loud reminder of what Azriel had once been to him, what he no longer was and never would be again.

They stood so close but with a yawning chasm between them. Living proof of two separate times in his Fate-cursed life. Azriel his past and Xefras his future with Rhyshladlyn the present that linked them across the boundless reaches of Time.

“Go home, Rhyshladlyn.”

With another growl, this one more of a sigh than anything else, his tears blurring his vision, Rhyshladlyn stepped carefully across the River onto the other bank. Closed his eyes and reached for that vision, for reality, and the Worlds that he’d been so ready to leave behind. Still was, if he was being honest with himself. But Nhulynolyn, or whatever that had been that had worn his twin’s likeness, was right. The Worlds, his Court, his family, needed him alive more than he wanted to be with his twin. Needed him to help mend the wounds Lílrt and his followers had dealt them. Needed him to bring true Balance back.

So for all that he didn’t want to, he reached for that reality, for that life. Felt his fingers breach the Veil and curl around the thread of life, frayed though it was, that still made his heart beat, and went tumbling back through the darkness into his body. Came awake with a sobbing cry of Nhulynolyn’s name and the realization that he no longer felt empty.

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