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Snapshot Tales

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Aza thought the whole Soulmate thing was bullshit.

Everyone had a word, or a phrase, inscribed on the underside of their left wrist in flat, dark ink. It started as a greyish smudge on birth, then as they grew older the smudge would break into blobby words until finally, on your eighteenth birthday, you knew. The first thing your Soulmate would say to you. You knew and you had to stare at those words every day, every nerve intent on hearing them so you could be complete.

It was bullshit.

Most people’s were stupid little ‘hellos’ or ‘how do you like your coffee’ or ‘fuck off, prick’. Everyday phrases that could mean anyone could be your Soulmate. And, even if you did find them, Aza bristled at the thought that fate had already handpicked the person he was to spend his life with. He didn’t want that. He was sick and tied of being pulled around by a leash, under something else’s control. It was a petty feeling, he knew, but Aza stubbornly stood by it.

… also, it didn’t help that the words on his wrist were: "You’re under arrest.”


So, there weren’t much prospects for an orphan Miqo’te growing up. Well, outside of the Azim Steppes anyway. That land was unto its own, outside of Othard’s general government, and the moment Aza stepped into Yanxia with his sister at his side, he had a very rude awakening as to how life went.

To cut a sob story short, he became a smuggler and a mercenary to survive.

It was a sweet gig, truth be told. There were a lot of unearthed Allagan relics in Othard and a lot of disorganisation between the various City States as to who owned them. So, while Doma, Kugane, the Ruby Sea and the Collective Tribal Council of the Steppes all squabbled and argued and fought over who owned what archaeological site on this ambiguos border region, Aza would sneak in with a bunch of other fellow smugglers and walk off with whatever wasn’t nailed to the floor.

An oversimplification of a complicated heist, but that’s what he did.

Then he would oversee the transportation of the goods to Garlemald – but you needed to take the long route. It was too dangerous to take the land bridge, but it was easy to bribe a few Confederates, bypass Kugane and hop on a Privateer ship to Vylbrand or mainland Eorzea, so long as you had good enough connections. Aza had those connections, and he abused them mercilessly. He sometimes had to spill a few dangerous secrets and Garlean  patrol movements to his usual privateer connection (Carvallain de Gorgagne’s usual price to take over his hold with priceless Allagan artefacts… as well as a 25% cut of the profits, the asshole), but Aza’s finances and position were stable enough to take such risks.

It was why his Soulmate thing was such bullshit. Clearly, they were incompatible from the start if this Soulmate of his was arresting him for his livelihood. That was just his luck. A Soulmate who would want nothing to do with him. Not that it bothered him. He didn't care. It didn't hurt to think about. It just meant he could choose, who he wanted to spend his life with, if he ever chose. Lots of people didn't stay with their Soulmate, or found them, and spent their life with someone else or alone. They were happy enough. Content. Fine. 

Aza was okay with that. He really was.

...really.  


The thing was, Aza was very very good at what he did. He was never caught.

He knew the best routes to take through Eorzea to Garlemald. He knew who to trust and who to avoid within the various law enforcements of the Eorzean City States. He knew which Garleans would fuck him over just for being a ‘savage Miqo’te’, despite the Allagan treasures he gave them, and he knew which were good guys who were fuelled by scientific curiosity… or greed. Aza knew, and he exploited what he knew, and he survived, and he was never caught. He tried his fucking best to never be placed into the situation where he'd hear those dreaded words ("You're under arrest"), and know, and learn, his Soulmate. If he never met him, then it was easier to ignore his existence. 

So, he made sure he was never caught. 

Until one day he was.


The blizzard had come out of nowhere when he was driving a battered old Garlean Reaper Truck through the back roads of Coerthas Highlands. His usual route through Whitebrim towards Falcon's Nest was blocked by a landslide that had caused Snowcloak Pass to become utterly impassable. It meant Aza was stuck having to double back and try and find a way through Mor Dhona, which was very risky since that place was tighter than a Halonic Nun’s chastity belt when it came to customs. But he had friends there, he could swing it, he thought. He'd done it before, when Snowcloak froze over in Ishgard's harsh winters. 

But then the blizzard came and he was stuck sitting on the side of the road, the truck rumbling around him as he blasted the heater full on. He cursed at the shitty weather, digging his fingernails into the dark ink over the skin of his wrist, annoyed and irritated and tired. He was so sick of having to do this shit, really, but once you were in the smuggling business, you were kind of… stuck. You knew everyone who was involved in it, and therefore you were a risk to everyone involved in it. No one let you 'retire' from the business… unless it was to bury you in a shallow grave somewhere, of course. He wasn't afraid of knives in the night, but he didn't want to spend an already stressful life dodging law enforcement also dodging old business partners too. And Bluebird, they might try to hurt her, and...

Aza sighed quietly - and flinched when a bright light suddenly cut across the windscreen of his truck. Over the howl of the blizzard, past the thick blanket of snow, he could hear the dull roar of an Ishgardian patrol vehicle. He cursed. The back of his truck was loaded with an ancient (and inoperable) anti-aircraft Allagan gun that was worth millions on the Black Market… but very very very illegal to have! As in, imprisoned for ten years level of illegal. Oh, shit, he also had some tomestones too, fucking shit.

For a moment, he contemplated diving out of the vehicle and running into the blizzard, but he wasn’t that stupid. He’d get lost within minutes and die before the hour was out. Ishgardian blizzards were dangerous, even if you were dressed for the severe cold. No, he would have to try and… talk his way out. Or just succumb to the inevitable and see what happened. 

Someone knocked on the door of his vehicle, and resigned yet feeling oddly relieved, he rolled the window down.


Camp Dragonhead’s police station was very warm. It was also where Aza, once again, cursed the bullshittiness of the whole Soulmate thing.

Because he was taken into custody the moment the concerned Ishgard road patrol saw what was in the back of his truck. He was taken back for ‘questioning’ when he pretended to be surprised that his ‘delivery’ was illegal Allagan weaponry, and docilely went along, sweating buckets and trying to think of a good story that wouldn't have him jailed for ten fucking years. He had been dumped into an interrogation room while they combed through his vehicle, and after sitting alone for several hours anxiously fretting to himself, he walked in.

Tall, dark and handsome, Aza recognised the well-dressed policeman at once. The Lord Commander of Ishgard’s Law Enforcement, Aymeric de Borel. He had a few scandals attached to him, was considered a bit of a radical liberal and a maverick, but he was very very good at his job, and also very fair. He was also the boogeyman of the smuggling world, cracking down hard on smuggling routes and breaking up several well-established smuggling and trafficking rings. Aza felt like he'd been sucker punched in the gut at the sight of him, because it meant they knew. If Aymeric de Borel was here to question him personally, then he was Fucked

The first thing out of the Lord Commander's mouth, though, pushed his concerns into a totally different, and horrifying direction; “You’re under arrest, Mr. Iriq, for the-"

Aza didn't listen to the rest of what he said. He sat there, numb and terrified, realising how shitty his life was, how the Soulmate thing was absolute bullshit, staring right at this handsome Elezen with his stomach plummetting right down to his feet. No. No, it can't be... it can't be him. But he knew it was. Just like how he knew what the words on his wrist would say before he even looked at them, he knew this was his Soulmate. This was awful. Terrible. He wanted to cry, and his voice shook as he blurted without thinking; "But... you're too tall."

The Lord Commander rocked back on his heels, his mouth snapping shut and his expression going blank with shock. The sheer awkwardness of the moment, as they both realised, both knew, like a thunderbolt of horrified realisation, that the other was their Soulmate, was absolutely agonising. The silence stretched to breaking point between them, until; 

Aymeric de Borel, well known to be unflappable, witty and charming, stared right at him and said, “Oh, this is bullshit.”

Well, at least they had one thing in common as Soulmates, Aza thought hysterically, they both thought it absolute shit.  

Chapter Text

"You’re very bad at lying.”

“I am not,” Aza instantly shot back, then winced when Aymeric pointedly pressed his thumb into the dip of his wrist, “Ow- ah, not ow. I’m fine.”

“‘Not ow’,” Aymeric repeated, the corners of his mouth curving up as he gentled his grip around Aza’s aching wrist. Aza had a bit of an embarrassing tumble just outside Aymeric’s home when his foot caught a patch of black ice, sending him sprawling on the hard, stone floor. Aymeric had fussed, Aza tried laughing it off and ignoring the sharp ache in his wrist, and of course, Aymeric saw right through him.

“It’s a little swollen,” his partner hummed, rubbing his thumb gently against Aza’s knuckles. His large hand almost entirely covered his own, and his calloused fingers were pleasantly warm. Aza found himself reluctant to move, if only because during Aymeric’s fussing, he’d been bundled from the cold outside to snuggling up on the warm sofa in the sitting room, wrapped up in his fluffy blanket like a cat-burrito. It was good. He wasn’t moving even if a Primal landed on the roof. 

“It’s fine,” Aza mumbled, stiffly turning his hand to entwine their fingers together. His wrist was a hot throb of pain, sharp stabs shooting through his hand to the tips of his fingers, and up along his funny bone to his elbow. It wasn’t the worst pain he felt, though. Clinically, he experienced it for a moment... then shuttled the pain to the back of his mind when he realised that compared to being stabbed or breaking his femur, it ranked a low four on the pain scale. It looked swollen and there was a beginning of an ugly, dark bruise spreading from where the wrist met the metacarpals, but it was fine. Totally fine. 

“I can have the medic make a house call and-”

“Nooooo...” Aza groaned theatrically, “It’s just a sprain! You don’t call a medic for that.”

“Ah, so you admit you do have an injury,” Aymeric chuckled. 

Aza huffed at the trickery, but he found himself smiling. Aymeric was looking at him fondly, his mouth curved into a fond smile, and he was... very breathtaking. Aza felt his heart kindle with a very bone deep warmth, not quite passion but something... nicer. He couldn’t describe it. He just liked how the firelight caught Aymeric’s hair, his beautiful eyes, the affection in his expression, how his large hand held his, warm and gentle, half-curled against him on the sofa, just... relaxed. Trusting. 

“I can never lie to you for long,” Aza admitted quietly, his throat catching when Aymeric hummed and leaned in, and... 

“I’m glad,” Aymeric rumbled against his mouth, and then there wasn’t much talking after that. His wrist ached but... compared to Aymeric, the pain wasn’t really that important. Aza ignored it and focused on the warm mouth against his own, and happily sighed. 


Afterwards, a very sheepish Aymeric was scolded by the on-call medic when it turned out Aza’s ‘sprain’ was a very clean break, discovered when Aza found himself oddly incapable of bearing weight on it when they... well... 

Technically, he hadn’t lied. He hadn’t known it was broken, after all. 

Chapter Text

“Gods, I’m so cold. Aym, why did I let you talk me into this?”

“Because you’re a romantic sap at heart.”

Aza harrumphed at that, snuggling deeper into the thick blanket wrapped around him. They were sitting on Aymeric’s roof, or rather, the balcony set into the roof, snuggled close together. The tall spires of Ishgard stretched high above them, but they did nothing to block out the starry sky above, the glittering star stream of a distant galaxy splashed in a wonky line that stretched from horizon to horizon. It was rare for the sky to be so clear in Ishgard to so clearly see the stars, so Aymeric had insisted they stargaze for a bit. 

Aza, being that romantic sap Aymeric so accurately accused him of being, happily agreed - then regretted it five minutes in. 

It wasn’t all bad though. It was cold, but Aza was wrapped up tight in a thick, plush blanket, snuggled up against his partner by being curled up in his lap. He tucked his head under Aymeric’s chin, feeling his warm breaths tickle his ear, and could just about see the glittering stars overhead. They were a familiar sight - the Steppe had a very clear view of the stars, since it lacked the light pollution Eorzean cities had, but there was something special about looking at them with Aymeric. Something that made his insides feel all warm and fluttery. 

“Look, there’s the Spear,” Aymeric murmured into his ear, and pointed up at the sky. Aza squinted, but couldn’t see it. On the Steppes they had different constellation, so the bright, twinkling stars were just an incoherent mess, scattered about in the dark sky above, “Do you know the story behind that?”

“It’s the Fury, right?” Aza said, muffling a yawn into his blanket, “It’s always the Fury with you Ishgardians.”

Aymeric chuckled, a low, warm rumble that vibrated through his chest. Aza purred at the sound of it, “It’s the gate to the sixth heaven, where the Fury liv-”

“Called it.”

“Hush,” Aymeric poked him in the ribs, “It’s where the Fury lives, a palace of ice carved by her own spear-”

“Hold on, I’m sorry,” Aza couldn’t help but laugh a little, “The Fury carved a palace with her Spear? That’s just inefficient, isn’t it? What, was Byregot not available when she decided to make her own home?”

“It was a magical spear,” Aymeric said with all the dignity he could muster, but Aza could hear the smile in his voice, “She just pointed it at a glacier and it carved itself into a palace.”

“She intimidated it to take the shape she wanted it, you mean.”

“Exactly that,” Aymeric snorted, “No, the story says that the ice was formed from Moonbeams collected by Menphina.”

“Sort of contradicts the story then,” Aza said, “Either the Fury carved it, or intimidated the ice or whatever, or Menphina actually did using magical Moonbeams. Unless it was a joint effort. Gods, Eorzean tales are so weird.”

Incredibly strange,” Aymeric agreed, burying his face into his hair and nuzzling just behind his ear. Aza laughed softly at the ticklish sensation, shamelessly enjoying the gentle squeeze of his partner’s arms around him, “The Fury has a lot of odd stories,” he mumbled into his hair. 

“Mm, doesn’t surprise me,” Aza sighed, his breath misting before him in a cloud of white. He felt his eyes slide shut, smiling to himself. He didn’t feel all that cold anymore, “Tell me some.”

“As you wish, love,” Aymeric purred right into his ear, “This is a scandalous tale the Holy See banned, about the Fury and Menphina…”

Aza listened with half an ear, Aymeric’s low, warm voice hypnotising and lovely. He slowly dozed off, warm and comforted, in his partner’s arms, the stars above happily twinkling down at them.

Chapter Text

So, Aza made a very important discovery. 

Aymeric had kept a diary. 

He found it entirely by accident, honestly. He’d been digging through Aymeric’s collection of trashy romance novels, and found the plain covered book buried underneath ‘Halone And Menphina’s Love Palace’. He had, obviously, picked it up out of curiosity, noting its well worn spine and cover, and opened it up. 

And discovered a few pages afterwards that this was a diary

An old one, of about a year. It had Aymeric’s first meeting with Aza, and it was… fucking hilarious. Aymeric spent so much time commenting on:

1) Aza’s height (”I never knew Miqo’te were so small and compact. I expected something akin to a Coeurl, large and powerful, but instead it felt as if I faced a housecat”), 

2) His ears (”very delicate with a soft pink inside. I wonder if they feel like velvet? I had such an overwhelming urge to touch, I needed to cross my arms to stop myself. It’s probably rude to touch without asking”), 

3) His tail, (”is it awkward to sit in backed chairs with that extra limb?”) and,

4) His eyes (”a very intense gaze that cuts through you. This man is not to be underestimated. I should proceed cautiously in my dealings with him, until he proves himself trustworthy”). 

Aza stared at those words, blinking slowly as he realised that Aymeric’s first impression of him was wariness and fascination. There was no gushing of love at first sight, of how handsome he looked, or how cool he even was. Just… innocent observations from someone who had never before seen a Miqo’te. He felt weird disappointed. He kind of wanted, like, flowery poetry of how Aymeric was struck by his beauty and pined after him until Aza confessed to him. 

There was none of that. 

As he flicked through, Aymeric’s wariness turned into speculating of his intentions. There confusion over Aza’s lack of political acumen, wondering if he was affecting obliviousness for some scheme to gain influence somehow, then it turned into admiration of his actions and skill with the blade, then-

Aza paused when he reached the last entry. Not the last page in the book, no, there were plenty of pages remaining blank, but the very last entry. Unlike Aymeric’s earlier neat, delicate handwriting, swirling in that Ishgardian handwriting, this was jagged and rough, clearly written in the heat of the moment; 

It was all a lie. All of it. Those knights, all those centuries, they have died for nothing. It was all for nothing. What was the point of it all? For a power that yielded us nothing but centuries of grief? For the selfish ambition of a man long dead, punishing us a thousand years after? I must do something to put an end to such a senseless war. I must.”

That was it. There was no more after that. 

Quietly, Aza closed the diary and put it back where he found it. There was a disquieted feeling in his belly at reading that last entry, but he knew he wouldn’t mention it to his partner. That period of time had passed, and… well, he probably shouldn’t have been nosing through Aymeric’s personal diary.

Still… it made Aza wonder when Aymeric actually began to feel attraction towards him. The fact that Aza had been attracted to him before Aymeric developed feelings for him was… well… 

It didn’t matter. Aymeric loved him now, and that’s all that mattered. The past was the past. 

Chapter Text

Aymeric had been asked, often, if he was ever worried of Aza straying. 

It was a reasonable worry to the gossip-mongers that were the uneasy Ishgardian nobility. To their eyes, Aymeric had ‘shacked up’ with a Spoken race well known for their promiscuity and polygamy, and who spent weeks, if not months, away from Ishgard pursuing their own interests. Aymeric always dismissed those concerns - mostly because they were insincere, and also because his trust in Aza was as firm as bedrock. 

They both led busy lives. They were both independent and had their own ambitions and goals to pursue. The fact that they spent so much time apart was actually good, in Aymeric’s opinion. If he’d been forced to spend every day, and every night, with his partner, he was certain both of them would go mad. They both needed space, even from each other, but that was a difficult concept for conservative Ishgardians to swallow, who viewed spending as much time as possible with one’s spouse as ‘the thing to do’.

For Aymeric, it was just enjoying Aza’s return. For him, that was ‘the thing to do’.


“You grow ever radiant with each absence, love.”

“Oh, stop it,” Aza huffed - but he was smiling, his cheeks a cute shade of pink as he looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes. He’d cut his hair for this return, so short that it took Aymeric by surprise - but it looked handsome on him, especially with the streaks of silver now beginning to grow in at his temples, blending prettily into his soft, honey blond hair. 

“It’s true, though,” Aymeric said softly. They were lying in bed together, his heart still fluttering from when they made love only moments before, and, unable to stop himself, he ran his fingers through Aza’s shortened hair, “…you lied, before.”

“Mm?” Aza murmured, his eyes slipping closed as he leaned into the tough, “What’ve I lied about…?”

“You said you looked like a dork with short hair,” Aymeric said, “You don’t. You look beautiful.”

“Aym…”

“Handsome,” Aymeric continued, his mouth curving into a cheeky smile when Aza squinted one eye open to glare at him, “Radiant.”

“I will bite you,” Aza warned.

Aymeric chuckled, his fingers trailing from Aza’s hair and along the curve of his jaw. He was speaking the truth before. Every time Aza returned he looked more and more beautiful, breathlessly so. With each new scar, with each new grey hair, with the crow’s feet beginning to crinkle the corners of his eyes, laugh lines that showed how much happier his partner was now… Aymeric loved him more and more, to the point where he feared his heart would burst from it all. 

“I wouldn’t mind that,” he purred roughly, leaning in, “Would love it, in fact.” 

“Kinky weirdo,” Aza muttered back, but he leaned in too, and Aymeric’s hand cupped his cheek as their lips met in a warm kiss. 

No, he didn’t mind that Aza left him so much, and left for so long. For enjoying his return was always worth it, to know that whatever distance his partner travelled, whatever he saw, whoever he met, Aza would always return to him. 

Chapter Text

“I was under the impression you had aged out of my riding lessons, Bluebird.”

“I have,” Bluebird said boldly, standing as tall as her small form would let her, chest puffed out and hands on her hips. It was a posture her mother took often, especially when she was in a belligerent mood. Ghoa could already feel her mouth pull into an exasperated smile at the sight, “But I’m here as a bodyguard.”

“A bodyguard, hm?” Ghoa fought to keep the laughter out of her voice, her gaze slanting over the tiny Xaela child to Atani’s newest cub. 

She knew all about him, of course. The khatun had gathered everyone and warned them off about the skittish little ‘Catboy’ Atani had kidnapped and brought home. It was something everyone just nodded along with, since claiming lost children wandering dangerous areas was the done thing on the Steppe. If their parents reached out looking for them, you handed them over, but if they were true orphans or abandoned, then they were subsumed into the tribe - or were given to the Kahkol. Atani had obviously done the former. 

He was such a meek little thing, Ghoa mused, studying the hunched Catboy hiding behind Bluebird. He was far too skinny - that was the first thing she noted. His hair was a mess too - messily brushed and tied back into a low ponytail, his fringe hanging low over his eyes, and the clothes - clearly Atani’s old childhood wear put aside for Bluebird when she was older - just hung off him, lacking the muscle and bodyfat to properly fill it out. Ghoa clucked her tongue at the sight, and the little Catboy wilted at her seeming disapproval. 

Bluebird noticed, “Catboys are naturally small,” she said with all the confidence of a child that believed she knew everything, “And skinny and stuff, so don’t be looking down at him!”

“I’m not,” Ghoa sighed, shaking her head. She slowly squatted down, putting herself at eye level and gave the Catboy a friendly smile. The Catboy looked away, his ears drooping which… understandable. She wasn’t pretty to look at after taking a Buduga axe to the face. Her face was a mess of thick scars cutting messily over her left eyebrow and down to her jaw. It made her smiles distorted, and the sunken, empty eye socket made even Steppe children shudder. Still, she smiled as warmly as she could, spreading her hands and adopting a non-threatening posture. 

“It’s very nice to meet you Aza,” she said honestly, “Or do you prefer Coeurl?”

“Um, either’s fine,” the Catboy whispered to her, his voice raspy from either disuse or overuse. Slowly, his gaze lifted to her, and she had to hold her breath at those lovely eyes. Bright yellow, like a beast’s, with such an intensity to them that she had to school her expression. They were so strange… but fascinating. 

“Aza, then,” Ghoa said, “I presume Atani sent you over to learn how to ride?”

“Mommy said that you need to be gentle with him,” Bluebird butted in, speaking over what Aza started to mumble. The Catboy instantly quietened without protest, “You can’t be mean or nothing. He hasn’t ridden anything before, so he’ll be like a baby, but you can’t be mean to him.”

“I think I’m old enough to know how to teach a late bloomer, Bluebird,” Ghoa said dryly, though Bluebird didn’t seem to care at the mild rebuke in her tone, “I understand, I shall be very nice. You can tell your mother that.” 

Bluebird squinted suspiciously at her, crossing her arms as she tilted her chin mulishly, “I’m gonna make sure. I’ll watch.”

Some days, Ghoa wished Bluebird took after Aruci more than Atani. It was like dealing with her old khatun all over again. Rolling her eye, she glanced over at Aza who looked a little put out. Probably a bit of a blow to his pride to have Bluebird puffing up in front of him like a guard dog, barking and snapping at anyone and everything. Ghoa’ll fix that right up. 

“Have you ridden before, Aza?” she asked him, ignoring Bluebird’s huff of “I already told you!”

“… no,” Aza said warily, glancing first at Bluebird than her, “Uh, no, wait, once. I rode a pony here, but not really.”

“So you know how it feels to ride a pony at least,” Ghoa said brightly, “Alright, let me introduce you to your teacher then. He is very gentle and slow, and very good with children.”

“He?” Aza repeated nervously, but Ghoa was already standing up. 

‘He’ was Brenin, the oldest pony that the Iriq possessed. He was almost thirty summers, broad chested and with thick legs, his dark fur speckled with grey and a full, tangled mane. He was also incredibly lazy, placid and wouldn’t blink even if he had excitable children clambering all over him. Aza was anything but excitable, but Ghoa was sure that Brenin’s calm temperament would do wonders for the Catboy’s skittish, nervous demeanour. 

“Your teacher,” she introduced, patting the pony fondly on his shoulder. Brenin just continued chewing his cud, not even lifting his nose from the patch of scraggly grass he had found, “Brenin will teach you how to ride until you’re confident enough to join your agemates.”

“You’re putting him on Brenin?” Bluebird complained, “But he’s so… so old, and boring.”

“He’s calm and experienced,” Ghoa corrected, “I don’t know why you’re complaining, Bluebird. You’re not riding him.”

“People’ll make fun of him,” Bluebird grumbled. 

Aza didn’t seem to mind. He was giving Brenin an uncertain look, but Ghoa was pleased to see that he didn’t seem overly nervous. Brenin was fairly nonthreatening despite his stocky build. The only thing that should be terrified of Brenin were dandelions, in Ghoa’s opinion. 

“I don’t mind old or boring,” Aza mumbled, wincing when Bluebird shot him a betrayed look, “Um, really…”

“C’mon-”

“Bluebird,” Ghoa cut in, “Stop interfering. If you want to look after your brother, you won’t boss him around like that. It’s harmful and rude.”

Bluebird harrumphed dramatically at the scolding, giving her the stink eye, but she shut up. Aza looked tense, like he expected something else to happen, but Ghoa just turned to him with a smile to smooth over his nervousness. She knew of his history, the khatun made sure of that, so she resolved to keep her scolding to a minimum, and to use positive reinforcement over negative. A gentle touch, like with a skittish colt not yet broken in. Ghoa was good at that. 

“Alright, Aza, your first lesson: how to prepare your pony for riding. Now, this…”

Chapter Text

It was about two in the morning when Alisaie was woken up by Aza breaking into her room. 

Well, she didn’t know it was Aza at first. She had been dozing, half-asleep and groggy with dull pain and waning painkillers, her shoulder stiff from the bandages half-mummifying her. Her status as a Scion meant she had a private room within The Barber’s, Rhalgar’s Reach infirmary, but it meant there was no one else around when she spotted the odd shape slipping through the room’s narrow, slit-like window. 

The shape moved so quietly and smoothly, that at first Alisaie wondered if she was hallucinating it. Its eyes glinted like an animal’s, flat discs of gold, and the shape crept over to her, its eyes narrowed thoughtfully - when it was right next to her bed, she jerked to full alertness when she realised that there was a strange man in her room and she was just staring at him like an idiot! 

So, um, well, she could be excused for her reaction. Really. 

The man reached out to her, and adrenaline making her forget the fact that she was half-mummy and told not to do anything more stenuous than sitting up gently, she leapt to her feet and proceeded to punch her would be kidnapper - or assassin! - right in the nose!

It was when said kidnapper-assassin shadow yelped out a rather betrayed and agonised, “ALISAIE WHAT THE FUCK!?” that she realised she just decked the Warrior of Light in the face. 

Um. Oops? 


 

“Well, it’s your fault for climbing through the window!”

“Visiting hours were over, so I had to sneak in to see you,” Aza grumbled, sitting on the edge of her bed rubbing his bruised nose. Alisaie was privately chuffed that she managed to hit someone as skilled as Aza - also he deserved it. What did he expect, creeping into a young woman’s room without an invitation? He was lucky she’d been too groggy to think to stab him instead with her rapier - which was in arm’s reach, thank you very much.  

Still, that punch had been ill-advised. Her entire upper body was afire with pain, and she grimaced as she shifted against the pillows propping her up against the headboard. Her shoulder throbbed, a hot, stabbing pain that made her feel a bit sick. No doubt Orella was going to demand what she’d been doing to rip open her stitches and she will not hesitate to offer Aza up on the sacrificial altar if it meant avoiding another one of her lectures on taking it slow. 

“It couldn’t wait until morning?” Alisaie grumped.

“I’m leaving at dawn,” Aza sighed, “And with all that happened after… Zenos and all, I haven’t had a chance to properly see you, so… um, also…”

Alisaie watched in fascination as Aza fidgeted, looking uncharacteristically nervous. She was used to him being a cool, unflappable fighting machine, but Ala Mhigo, Azim Steppes and Doma had opened her eyes to the  myth that was the Warrior of Light. He was a very anxious, uncertain man, she realised. It confused her, since it clashed so much with her image of him but… it was better too, in a way. He didn’t seem so… 

So inhuman

She blinked out of her thoughts when Aza suddenly presented her with something. It was small and blocky, and in the dim-light she couldn’t quite tell what it was. A box of some sort, a cardboard once, and she gently felt along until she found its lid, lifting it… 

“Lyse said this was your favourite cake?” Aza said uncertainly, “I know the food here isn’t that great - not that it’s their fault, considering the state of Ala Mhigo right now, but I thought… sitting here, being bored and hurt, this could… be nice to have…”

Alisaie stared at the cake sitting in the box. It was a small slice, but it looked identical to the one she ordered frequently at the Bismark whenever her, Lyse and Y’shtola got together for their little gossip sessions. Aza was invited but rarely made it, and she felt… weird. Her stomach did a little flip and she was aware she was making a strange face, but couldn’t quite articulate the emotion she was feeling. 

“You didn’t have to,” she finally managed to say, “I appreciate it, but… why?”

“Ahhh, I feel kind of bad about how it went down with Fordola,” Aza sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, “I should have realised there was something fucked up with her before we engaged her. All that creepy… aether shit coming off her…”

“What?”

“Uh, nevermind,” Aza waved his hand, clearly dismissing the topic, “It’s just a ‘get well’ present, and a ‘sorry I didn’t see you before’ and, uh, yeah.”

Alisaie studied Aza, noting how he looked down at the bed covers and picked at the sheets, his ears tilted in that way Miqo’te did when they felt self-conscious. Aza was so awkward at socialising, she realised. Looking back on her interactions with him all through Doma and the Steppes and Ala Mhigo, she noticed that beneath his cool Warrior of Light persona he was… well, a dork. 

“You didn’t have to sneak in through my window to give me this,” she said, trying to be stern but couldn’t stop her mouth from curving into an amused smile, “You could have had Alphinaud give it to me in the morning.”

“Well… I guess,” Aza said slowly, and she realised he was blushing, “That was pretty stupid of me, huh?”

“Not stupid just… such a boy thing,” Alisaie chuckled, gently closing the lid of the cake. She’ll enjoy it in the morning and ignore whatever glares Orella gave her when she connected the dots, “Thank you, Aza.”

“No problem. Get well soon… and don’t pick on Alphie too much.”

“Stop sounding like my father and go away.”

“Cold,” Aza grumbled, but she saw him smile - and her stomach did that weird flip again, and she smiled back. He should smile more often, it suited him well. 

Aza slipped back out the window not long after that, and Alisaie stared at the box holding the cake for a bit before awkwardly placing it on her bedside table with her good arm. She settled as much as she could, her shoulder throbbing and aching but… she felt better. Weirdly. 

 She always thought Aza had been very unapproachable and cold upon first meeting, but she was pleased to see that he was a little like herself: prickly with strangers, but nice to friends. At least, she felt like they were friends. She hoped they were. 

Despite the pain, she found herself easily slipping into sleep not long after that. 

Chapter Text

““Now, I expect you to stay within sight of the Aetheryte at all times- no, Bluebird, don’t look at the cliffs. Those are off-limits.”

“But they’re still in sight of the-”

No.”

Bluebird sulked as Atani gave her a stern look, scuffing the ground with the soft soles of her leather shoes. You almost get kidnapped once by slavers, and suddenly you weren’t allowed to roam about the wilderness of the Ruby Sea. It was so unfair, and that meant everything was ruined completely and utterly. 

Or, so Aza assumed that was what Bluebird was thinking, looking at how she was jutting out her lip in an exaggerated pout. He twitched to attention when Atani’s focus swung onto him, and the broad-shouldered Xaela’s expression instantly softened, her warm smile making him perk up. 

“I want you to have fun,” she told him, reaching out and scratching behind his ears, “They’re having a fireworks show later, so try to find good seats!”

“The cliffs-” Bluebird began slyly.

“No,” Atani shot her down without glancing at her. With a gentle pat on his head, his Xaela mother leaned away and made a shooing gesture, “Get going you two. Go on. Mingle and and enjoy the festival - but stay close!”

“Yes, Mommy,” Bluebird sighed in total exasperation. She grasped his wrist and instantly pulled him away, “C’mon, there’s a guy who sells the best sweets for this.”

Aza had no choice but to be swept up in Bluebird’s charge. They moved from the rotating Aetheryte in the middle of Onokoro, and into the loud, glitzy stalls that had been set up shop around the large, open town centre. Being a small port town that mostly had cheap, wooden housing erected about the peculiar tower reaching high beyond the clouds, there wasn’t much space for the stalls to set up. It ended up becoming a colourful, trip hazard of a labyrinth, winding through narrow gaps between stalls, people squeezing past and laughing and chatting loudly. It was… incredibly overwhelming. 

“Um, Bluebird, I-I don’t…” Aza tried, but the noise around them swallowed up his timid mumbling. Bluebird just pulled him along, barging into adults and yelling at them to move aside. The majority of them did so with open bemusement, not bothered about the rude child, but some scowled and shot irritated looks that had Aza’s palms sweating and his tail tucking between his legs. 

“Here! It’s Eyepatch-man!” His sister declared, pulling him to a ramshackle stall. There was a man sitting behind it, a big Raen with an eyepatch and a grizzly look about him, dressed in the dull coloured robes of a Confederate deckhand. Aza eyed him warily, and the Raen looked back at him like he was an interesting zoo attraction that had escaped its cage. 

“Well, if it ain’t Atani’s lil’ bear cub,” Eyepatch-man drawled in a thick, alien accent, his dark blue eye lazily moving between them, “Who’s this Catboy you’ve kidnapped, eh? You shouldn’ be stealin’ kids just yet.”

“I didn’t steal him! He’s my brother,” Bluebird said proudly. Aza tried to shrink into his own shadow when Eyepatch-man gave him an intense, scrutinising look, “It was Mommy who stole him, anyways.”

“Huh,” Eyepatch-man said, looking alarmingly unconcerned at hearing Atani stealing kids, “She always did have a soft spot for lost cubs. Alright, brat, I guess you want the usual?”

“Yes. We want the sweets,” Bluebird demanded, “The weird ones.”

“You got money?”

Solemnly, Bluebird dug her fingers into her pocket and, not breaking eye contact with Eyepatch-man, placed two, copper coins on the stall. Aza vaguely recognised them as Qestiri Gil. 

“This should be enough,” she said primly.

Eyepatch Raen snatched up the Qestiri Gil, and Aza could see the faintest smile curling his mouth. He was clearly amused, and hiding it poorly, but Bluebird didn’t seem to notice, too busy pulling herself to full height and looking proud and adult. Aza felt like an ugly duckling standing next to her, deeply envious of how certain Bluebird was in her place in life. He tucked his chin close to his chest and lowered his gaze.  

“Hmm… more than enough,” Eyepatch Raen said, and reached underneath his stall’s counter, “Prepare for Onokoro’s famous dish…”“ 


 

They ended up sitting on the cliffs in the end. 

“Mommy won’t be all that mad,” Bluebird assured him around a mouthful of the sticky treat called ‘Kinako mochi’, “So stop freaking out, Crazyboy.”

“I am not freaking out,” Aza mumbled, sucking the sugary… stuff that coated the treat off of his fingers. It had an odd taste, sweet but mingled with something else. He wasn’t sure he liked it, but he didn’t dislike it, “I just, um… I don’t want… Atani to be mad.”

“You can call her ‘Mom’, you know,” Bluebird said, “It’s okay.”

Aza said nothing. He still felt all confused and unsure when thinking of Atani as… Mom. There was a part of him that wanted it, but at the same time he felt an irrational fear that the moment he accepted her as that, life would twist around and snap at him. He didn’t deserve nice things, is what life had taught him. 

But this moment was a nice thing. Maybe the cliff would crumble beneath them and they’d die, Aza thought grimly, peering up at the dusky sky. The moon was visible, as well as some bright stars, but the sky was a mix of dark to light blue. 

“The fireworks should be starting soon,” Bluebird continued, brushing her hands together, “They’re really pretty!”

Not long after that, the fireworks did start up. Bright explosions of golds and red and some of them made shapes, winding dragons and wolves and tigers, leaping through the sky and leaving afterimages in Aza’s vision whenever he blinked. So entranced was he that he didn’t notice Atani until she blocked the view by leaning over them both. 

“What did I tell you two?” she asked sternly, and Aza shrank back against the grass of the cliff in a nervous sweat. 

Bluebird just waved her hand, “Mooooommy! You’re blocking the view! You can tell us off after the fireworks!”

Atani rolled her eyes, but she seemed to amused at her daughter’s cheek to pretend being mad, “Oh, you cheeky brats. Alright, budge over for Mommy!”

Aza and Bluebird scooted over, and Atani plonked herself down between them. Aza tensed when her strong, muscular arm wrapped around his shoulders, and after a moment of hesitation, his heart thumping wildly in his chest, he leaned into her side. She smelled of leather, oil and faintly of a mild perfume that was pleasant and soothing. Slowly, Aza relaxed into the warmth, wondering when the axe was going to fall. 

He didn’t deserve nice things, but… 

He looked up at the sky above, the fireworks dancing across the stars, and felt that he couldn’t be blamed for wishing he did, just this once. 

Chapter Text

“Moooooooom~!”

“Bluebird!” Atani leapt up from where she’d been in the process of skinning a Baras, her hands bloodied and carving knife in hand - and beamed when she saw her daughter running through the ambling livestock surrounding her yurt. She was bigger than the last time she saw her, more muscular and confident.

Bluebird hopped to a half in front of her, her pale cheeks flushed from her no doubt mad dash through the Iriq encampment, “Hey, Mom! You’re rocking some grey hairs there.”

“Nice to see you haven’t lost your cheek,” Atani huffed, but she was grinning as she looked her daughter up and down. Bluebird had filled out nicely in the few years she’d been gone - strong and broad-shouldered, thick callouses on her fingers, a few scars peeking out from beneath her light, leather armour. Her daughter had taken after Aruci quite a bit in the height department, so she had to look up at her, which pleased her greatly. Bluebird looked like she could throw a Xaela man over her shoulder. Good. 

“Mom, if you wanted a meek child, you would’ve beaten the rudeness out of me,” Bluebird quipped, “We all know Aza’s the good one, anyways.”

“Hmm, true,” Atani couldn’t help but look past Bluebird. They tended to visit together, her children, but she saw no sign of her son, “Where is my little Coeurl?”

“Dealing with our mounts. He spoils Rations like she’s his baby, honestly,” Bluebird said dismissively, waving a hand carelessly, “But that’s good, because I get to tell you first without him interrupting!”

Instantly, Atani was wary, because Bluebird had that smile, the mischievous, shite-eating grin that always preluded her saying something that would shave another year or two off Atani’s lifespan. Last time she saw that grin, Bluebird had cheerfully told her that Aza went and fought a Primal by himself after being kidnapped by Beastmen. Aruci had to tackle her to the ground to stop her from marching all the way to Eorzea on foot.

“If you tell me Coeurl was fighting Primals by himself again…”

“He always does that, Mom,” Bluebird scoffed, “No, no, no. Mom, guess what? You know Aza?”

“Yes,” Atani said dryly, “I know my own child, thank you.”

Bluebird ignored the sarcasm, “Well, he’s all grown up! He has…” she leaned in, dropping her voice theatrically, “A fiancé.”

Atani stared at her, “What.”

“A fiancé,” Bluebird leaned back and clapped her hands, “He’s getting married with some Eorzean guy! I’m the Best Woman!”

WHAT!?”


Aza had only just finished unsaddling Rations when he felt a cold chill come over him, the Echo pulsing with ‘danger, danger, danger’. He froze comically, holding Rations’s saddle close to his chest as he looked about him. He was at the communal trough area, just a large field on the outskirts of camp where people kept their mounts to freely wander around, grazing and drinking from the water trough. A few Borlaaq sentries sat on horses to keep watch over them, but all of them were relaxed, so it meant no threat was nearby.

He frowned and carefully dropped the saddle onto the nearby tacking post, rolling his shoulders. Maybe it was just his imagination.

After checking that Rations and Big Bird (and Bluebird mocked his naming choice, seriously) were happy, he took off at a slow pace to drink in the sounds and sight of his home. The Iriq-Borlaaq encampment was as chaotic as he remembered, with livestock freely meandering between the widely spaced yurts, the men sitting in their crafting circles, the women sitting at the fires whetting their swords or fixing their armour, chatting lightly to one another. A few children were running about playing Prey, and Aza smiled as he had to side-step before a few of the kids bumped into him. The smell of dried grass, fur and wool, of fire and soot, oil, the wafts of meals being cooked in their yurts with opened doors… something settled over him.

It was like putting on a well-worn favourite coat or snuggling in a warm blanket when it was cold. Comfortable and familiar. This really was home.

He spotted Mom before she spotted him. She looked older the last time he saw her. There were more grey streaks in her short, dark hair, more wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, but she was still straight-backed and strong, still the big, powerful figure of safety that Aza had come to love in his years here.

He smiled, almost skipping the last few steps as he chirped out, “Mom!”

Mom looked from Bluebird, and the frown she’d been sporting instantly turned into one of love, “My little Coeurl! Look at you!”

Aza grinned, coming to a stop next to a smugly smirking Bluebird. His ears swivelled forwards, his tail curling up in happiness as Mom reached up and ruffled his hair. He purred, not caring that this was childish behaviour. He loved Mom, more than anything in the world, and Bluebird could sneer and call him ‘Mama’s Boy’ all she wanted, but Aza would never scorn a single hug or affectionate pat from her, ever, even when he was sixty years old.

“You have more muscle,” Mom said approvingly, pulling her hand away and rocking back on her heels, looking him up at down, “I think you might start winning your wrestling matches with Bluebird now.”

“Mom,” Aza huffed, rolling his eyes, “I haven’t lost a wrestling match against Bluebird in years.”

“It’s true,” Bluebird said grudgingly, “Though, ‘cuz you’re so heavy and you bite. Cheater.”

“Well, you punch me in the dick all the time.”

You knee me in the cunt!”

Mom laughed as he and Bluebird started playfully (and roughly) shoved at each other’s shoulders, “Kids, kids, c’mon. Stop that. You can play later. Now, why don’t you help me finish carving this, and we’ll go inside and catch up?”

“Yes, Mom!” They both chorused, and like they hadn’t left at all, easily slipped back into the old routine of home.


It was a little later, when they were sat around the table, drinking milky tea, discussing Dad’s newest role in facilitating crafting trade between the Iriq-Borlaaq and Doma, that Mom raised the question.

“So, Coeurl,” Mom said lightly, “Bluebird told me something interesting.”

“Oh?” Aza asked, glancing at his sister who started to grin widely. Feeling a shiver of foreboding, mentally running through all the things Bluebird would snitch on him for (a lot), he forced a smile for Mom who was giving him that look, “What was it?”

Mom put down her tea, smiled at him and went, “You’re engaged?”

“Ah…” Aza froze, like he hoped the lack of movement would have Mom forget he was there. No such luck. Mom just continued to look at him, and in the corner of his eye he could see Bluebird giving him the biggest shite-eating grin he’d ever seen. Fucking Bluebird. He was going to piss in her boots for this, “Um… well…”

“To a man you’ve been in a relationship with for four years,” Mom continued, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Aza hunched his shoulders and ducked his head, his ears drooping at Mom’s open disapproval. Putting it like that, it did sound kind of bad… but he had his reasons! Or, uh, it kept slipping his mind, and then he was worried what Mom would do if she found out he was in a relationship. She tended to get… overprotective.

“It was mostly, um… I don’t know,” he said weakly, pressing his fingers together as he stared hard at the table.

Mom just sighed, “Oh, Coeurl. Don’t look like that. I’m not mad.”

“She’s a little mad,” Bluebird whispered to him.

“Well, yes, a little mad,” Mom admitted, “But, I just want to know why you felt like you needed to hide this from me and Aruci. Is it because he’s a man? Eorzean?”

“No, it’s not that,” Aza sighed, “Sorry, Mom. I just, well, shit’s gotten crazy over there and… uh, I dunno. Anything could’ve happened. I didn’t want to tell you and then, something happened where… well, it wasn’t happening anymore.”

Bluebird grimaced, clearly understanding his meaning. As usual, whenever his mind lingered over Haurchefant, and that tentative ‘what if’ that could’ve been, his heart ached. But after so many years, after discussing it first with Lucia, then Aymeric, it was a very manageable pain. He dwelt on it for a moment, accepted it, and gently pushed it aside.

“I see,” Mom murmured, giving a small shake of her head, “Coeurl, you always worry too much.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, never mind,” Mom gave him a sly smile, her eyes glittering with mischief as she asked, “So, how is he?”

“Uh, what?” Aza blinked, “He’s okay? Kinda busy when I left-”

“No, love,” Mom sighed, exchanging looks with Bluebird. His sister rolled her eyes, and Mom grinned then looked back at him, “How is he? I mean, it’s best to be with a partner who satisfies you both emotionally, mentally and physically.”

It took a moment, but when it clicked Aza let out a loud, long ‘ewwww’, “Mom! Gross! I’m not telling you about our sex life!”

“They do weird shit!” Bluebird instantly butted in, “Like, Aza likes it when his fiancé cums in him and licks it out of his as-”

Aza shrieked and tackled his sister to the floor of the yurt. Their milky tea went spilling everywhere, and Mom howled with laughter as they wrestled on the floor, hard enough that she started crying. Aza was too busy trying to smother Bluebird with the floor.

“You can’t- argh- silence me!” Bluebird yelled, “I’ll tell everyone what a kinky fuck you are!”

“Just shut up before I smother you!”

“Never- ow! YOU BIT ME! MOM, HE BIT ME!”

“YOU’RE TELLING LIES! MOM, BLUEBIRD’S LYING!”

Mom just continued to laugh, leaving them to it.

Even after being away from home for years, it really was like they never left.

Chapter Text

The first time Aymeric laid eyes on the Azim Steppes, he was stunned speechless.

Being the tail end of the rainy seasons, the plain was alive with green. The grass rippled like calm waves on the sea when the wind gusted over them, and far in the horizon the Steppe was ringed with towering, dark grey peaks that put the Coerthas Highlands to shame. The Tall Mountains indeed, he thought absently, trying to catch all the details he could see from the mouth of the Ruby Sea tunnel they had just left from.

Close by was a group of heavyset, shaggy beasts that Aymeric didn’t recognise, mooing lowly to each other and guarded by a distant figure sitting on their horse beneath a lone tree. A well-packed, dirt track led from the tunnel to a settlement less than a malm away, and beyond that he could see the land swell in a large, yet gently sloped hill. Further than that, he could see some greyish structure that looked like a bowl, but it was too far away to make out any details. It was all just… breath-taking.

“That’s Reunion,” Aza said beside him, breaking him out of his awed staring. His partner was pointing at the settlement which from this distance looked like little pointed shapes with a squat wall surrounding it. Smoke was rising from the various shapes, presumably from fires. Despite the clear skies and bright sunlight, the wind carried a sharp chill not unlike Ishgard.

“Reunion,” Aymeric repeated, “Ah, that is the… ‘Qestir’ village you told me about?”

Aza laughed quietly, “It’s not a village exactly. It’s a trading hub run by the Qestir. It’s friendly to foreigners… so long as you’re polite.”

“I’m always polite,” Aymeric quipped, “I never forget my manners.”

Aza rolled his eyes, but his mouth was curved into a smile. Aymeric found himself admiring him instead, despite the beautiful and foreign landscape around him. They were both riding horses – Lord Hien had insisted on them enjoying the ‘full Othard experience’ when they left Doma and loaned them a pair of horses – and Aza looked utterly comfortable in the saddle. Whilst Aymeric was trying to adjust to sitting on a four-legged creature, instead of the more compact, two-legged Chocobo, Aza just oozed confidence and experience. He had even taken the stirrups off, complaining that he found them distracting more than useful and kept the reins somewhat slack.

“Aym,” Aza said, and Aymeric blinked out of admiring how his partner’s well-muscled thigh gripped his horse’s side to glance up at him, “C’mon, you have lovely scenery to admire and you stare at my boot instead?”

“Leg, actually,” Aymeric said with mock-innocence, “And it’s a very lovely leg. It just draws my eye.”

“Flirt,” Aza said fondly, and with a subtle press of his heels, his mount started at a comfortable walk. Aymeric followed suit, albeit with less grace.

The dirt path was well worn, so their horses easily found their footing on the uneven, undulating path. Aymeric’s gaze trailed over to the heavyset creatures dawdling next to the path. He didn’t realise how big they were until he passed one and was glad they seemed relatively placid. None of the odd creatures paid them any mind whatsoever, though he noticed the lone guard watching them intently.

“They’re Dzo,” Aza explained, catching his interest. The foreign word rolled off his tongue with ease, “They’re like, um, Wisent? Bison? Whatever Eorzeans call them.”

“I see,” Aymeric said. Their fur was shaggy and coarse looking – were they used for clothing, like Karakuls? Perhaps meat too. He reluctantly turned away and to his partner, focusing on more important matters than curious wildlife, “What are the Qestir like?”

“Nice enough,” Aza said, “They don’t talk, but so long as you know Qestiri you get along okay. It’s usually foreigners that struggle with them, unless a Xaela is willing to act as interpreter for them.”

“Qestiri?” Aymeric repeated, wondering how they had a language if they didn’t speak, “What is…”

Aza smiled at him, then gently tucked his horse’s reins into the edge of his saddle. Easily steering his mount with his legs, Aza lifted his hands and began moving them in strange ways, making shapes with his fingers and hands as he said slowly, each shape matching his words, “Qestiri is language of hands. Actions are considered purer than mere words by them.”

Oh, now that was fascinating. Sign language? Ishgard had a rudimentary form of it, militarised of course, but no one thought to base an entire language on it. He leaned towards Aza slightly in his saddle, tucking his own reins into his saddle as he lifted his hands, ready to imitate, “So, if I wanted to greet someone…?”

“You would talk,” Aza said, “Non-Qestir’s aren’t expected to speak with their hands. But knowing what they’re saying stops the conversation being one-sided, so… okay. Watch my hands. This is a greeting for friendly strangers…”


Aymeric was a terrifyingly quick study, Aza found. Almost at the gate to Reunion, and Aymeric already picked up a rough idea on how to identify the most common nouns and verbs. He’d probably mess up and confuse Qestir if he tried communicating with his hands, but he knew enough to kind of understand if the Qestir he was speaking to was annoyed or amicable towards him… or throwing insults, because of course Aza taught him the naughty gestures.

“So, this means ‘you’re like a dry cunt’,” Aza said, “You use it mostly for bitter people who suck all the happiness out of everyone around them to make them just as miserable.”

“Oddly specific description,” Aymeric said, looking thoroughly delighted and amused as he keenly watched Aza sign the insult, “I can think of several that fits it, though.”

“Yeah, like a good half of the House of Lords.”

“Half? You’re being kind. I’d say two thirds, myself.”

Aza laughed quietly, reluctantly putting a stop to his game of ‘teaching Aym foul Qestiri curses’ when they reached the outskirts of Reunion. The dirt path had widened into a large, flat patch of churned up earth, and a few people with their horse-driven carts stood around near the open gate. Reunion didn’t have strict immigration rules like Ishgard – foreigners could come and go as they pleased, with the implicit understanding that if they wandered off and got eaten by a pack of Gedan, it was their own fault – but the trading settlement had limited space, so they needed to stagger those that came to trade so a steady rotation of merchants switched in and out throughout the day.

The Qestir were known to be fair in their dealings, so the mood was relaxed, the merchants knowing their turn would come up at some point. Aymeric and Aza dismounted, leading their horses by the reins through the cluster of carts and restless horses towards the gate.

Two Qestir stood by it, dressed in their traditional wear and sporting their colours. Their faces and hair were covered by colourful shawls, leaving only their almond, dark eyes peeking out. Aza knew foreigners were intimidated by them, as their loose-fitting clothes and hidden faces made them inscrutable and difficult to understand – but Aza had been dealing with them for almost twenty years now, so he knew their ways well enough. People complained that they were stoic and cold, but honestly, they were one of the few most expressive people he’d ever known. You just needed to know where and how to look.

“Altana,” Aza greeted cheerfully, recognising the lithe Qestir on the left. She was a little taller than him but a lot more delicate looking, even beneath his billowing clothes. Aza knew she was a fast fucker and could kick like a mule. He continued in Steppe-Common, a rougher version than the Eorzean one; “You’re still on guard duty? What, did you punch a Buduga again? I thought you completed your remedial mediating training this time?”

Altana – actually Altantsetseg – lifted her shoulders in a shrug, her dark eyes squinting in mirth. The Qestir on the other side of the gate, a towering, broad-shouldered man that Aza didn’t recognise, mock-sighed, then lazily flicked his fingers in slang-Qestiri.

“Oh, Oronir. My mistake,” Aza chuckled, then turned to Aymeric who was watching the whole exchange with open fascination and curiosity. Unlike most Eorzeans, who tended to get mulish over other cultures, Aymeric was incredibly open-minded and eager to learn. It was why he loved the man, sometimes, “Tribal disputes.”

“I see,” Aymeric hummed, “That language…”

“Steppe-Common. I know, it’s a bit different to Eorzean but it’s quick to pick up,” Aza said, then turned back to Altana. She was giving Aymeric a curious look, “Oh. Uh, this is my, um, partner. Life partner. Taking him to see family.”

Altana brightened, then clapped her hands together in a very Eorzean expression of happiness. Her male companion quickly imitated her and even gave him the stupidest thumbs up he’d ever witnessed. Gods, they were making Aza feel a bit flustered.

“Yes! Okay! It’s good, um, so, we’ll be passing through now!”


Reunion was very different to anything Aymeric had ever seen before.

The closest comparison he could make was Tailfeather, but that hunting encampment had a very Ishgardian flair that Aymeric had recognised despite the towering forest shielding the camp from the sky above. It was a dash of familiarity in what should have been an adventure, whereas Reunion was entirely foreign. He loved it. The stalls, the foreign wares, the cacophony of dialects and accents and languages being tossed between merchants and customers. Aymeric felt like he couldn’t take in all the details fast enough, and if it weren’t for Aza holding his hand and pulling him along, he would’ve long since walked into someone staring at the fascinating scenery around him.

“Focus, Aym,” Aza chuckled, “Your head’s gonna fly off with how fast you’re spinning it.”

“I’m sorry. I’m just…” he trailed off a bit sheepishly, “Amazed. This place is fascinating and so lively! I’m curious to see how the Qestir run this trading hub, it looks so well managed…”

Aza rolled his eyes, “Only you would come here sightseeing and ask about their economics.”

“Understanding how other lands conduct their business is vital to shaping the most effective society for Ishgard,” Aymeric said with mock-primness, then admitted, “In short, I need to steal as many good ideas as I can from other city states, even if I’m only sightseeing.”

“You’re shameless,” Aza sighed, but he couldn’t hide his smile, “Well, you’ll have to wait until the return trip to terrorise the Qestir on their socioeconomics. We’ve got a schedule to keep, remember? We need to ride the rest of the day to the West, camp out under the stars, and reach home by noon!”

“Quite the distance,” Aymeric remarked, not at all put off by the thought of it. He wondered if they would go by that odd grey bowl structure in the distance. He wanted to know what it was – and no, it wouldn’t be the same if Aza just told him. He wanted to find out himself, “I thought you said your tribe visited Reunion often. Yet you’re oddly far away…”

“It’s rainy season still,” Aza said, “Our camp’s normally in this valley not far from here, just on the edge of Nhaama’s Desert, which floods a lot during this season. So, we move off into the mountains further West until the dry season kicks in. It’s a longer distance to travel for trading, but least we won’t drown from flash floods.”

“Desert?”

“Oh, right,” Aza pointed to the West, “That way is Nhaama’s Desert. A few tribes live in there… one of them, the Bairon, can live off their own bodily fluids to survive in the desert without water.”

“Bodily fluids such as… urine?”

“Well,” Aza coughed, “No one really specifies, but… yeah, I’d assume so.”

Between dying of thirst in a desert or surviving by drinking one’s urine, Aymeric supposed the choice wasn’t a difficult one to make, “What about the other tribes?”

“Well…”


It rained when they made camp, of course.

Thankfully Aza had found them a cluster of rocks hidden in the shadow of a round hill that acted as a shallow cave. It was one of the few shelters that littered the various travel routes across the Steppes. There weren’t any roads like in Eorzea, but there were routes that naturally followed along the bottom of the Steppes’ hills and rocky ledges. The one they were on would take them close to the Oronir and the Buduga, much too close for Aza’s comfort, but it would be the easiest one to reach the Western mountains and with his status as Khagan, he doubted they would harass him and his partner too much.

The Sun Throne was just an indistinct shape in the distance, practically invisible in the gloom the heavy rains brought, but it still made Aza feel tense. The cluster of rocks – slabs of smooth stone that were dark as granite – kept the water off, and though it was cramped and cold, Aza and Aymeric set up camp in their little shelter, their mounts huddled near the mouth of the cave with a spare tarp acting as extra shelter. Everyone was as dry as they were going to be, but with the icy rain and the lack of sun, the Steppe’s temperature plummeted.

Hien had enough foresight to gift them with horse rugs, having had first hand experience in the Steppe weather himself and understanding that Doman horses were not the hardy Steppe ponies with their thick, shaggy fur. The horses seemed fine anyway, and Aza was more concerned with his very achy joints that the chill aggravated.

The bedrolls kept them warm from the hard, ice-cold floor, and they doubled up on their blankets, Aymeric curled around him and radiating pleasant warmth. All Aza could hear was his partner’s even breaths, the dull roar of rain hammering against their shelter, the horses occasionally whickering softly. He could smell ozone and grass and Aymeric, and even if he was a little cold and lying on a hard, unyielding ground, he was… content. Happy.

“You’re purring,” Aymeric murmured into his ear, his voice low and warm. Aza shivered at the sound, curling his tail around his partner’s thigh and pressing back against his warm body with a smile.

“I’m happy,” he said, “And you’re warm. Mm, very warm.”

“Warm enough for you, I hope,” Aymeric said, and pressed a kiss against the back of his ear. Aza hummed vaguely, feeling his partner’s fingers skin, lightly, over his stomach beneath his silken undershirt, fingernails dragging gently over his abdominals. He shivered again, “Cold, love?”

“A little,” Aza whispered, his breath visible as white mist. He rolled over in Aymeric’s arms, wriggled until he was almost nose to nose with him. His partner looked lovely – the chill brought a faint flush to his cheeks, the tip of his nose a little pink, his eyes heavy-lidded and dark but warm, his lips slightly parted, his dark hair inky black and soft and…

“Aza,” Aymeric rumbled, his fingers trailing feather-light along his hip, his voice lilting almost mischievously; “Want me to warm you up?”

“Yes,” Aza murmured, pressing in close. Aymeric’s fingers gripped his hip, pulling him forwards a fraction – he slid his leg over his partner’s hip, close, and warm, and…

He kissed him. Aymeric returned it eagerly.

It was slow and unhurried, but no less passionate. Aymeric swallowed up the soft, pleased noises he whined in the back of his throat, his hands lightly touching, exploring – his sides, his belly, the small of his back, the base of his tail, his thighs, base of his tail again, rubbing slow, maddeningly circles until Aza was panting hard against his mouth, groaning when Aymeric teased his bottom lip between his teeth, soothing the dull, bruising ache with his tongue and, and, and..

“Aym, I want- want… please…” he moaned breathlessly, as he was pushed onto his back, Aymeric kissing him almost sweetly on his chin, then his clever, fiendish mouth followed the vulnerable curve of his throat, lingered at his rabbit-quick pulse point, his fingers curling into the collar of his undershirt to nip, playfully, at his collarbone. Aza soaked up these touches with eager, quiet noises, the cave echoing them back to him, amplifying almost, and Gods, it was driving him crazy and…

And Aymeric went lower and lower, pushing his silken undershirt up to expose his belly, the warm blankets hiding him from view so he was nothing more than a shifting lump beneath them, and Aza blindly reached down, feeling his fingers curl into that soft hair, shivering and arching to the touch, belly tight with anticipation, biting his bottom kiss-bruised lip and…

And Aym pulled his breeches down and-


The morning brought with it a fresh, clean morning. The smell of ozone was strong, but the sky was clear of clouds and the sun was brightly shining, reflecting off the dew clinging to the grass so it looked as if the stars had been caught in those gently swaying stalks. Despite the lingering chill, Aza was in a glorious mood, a pleasant ache against the inside of his thighs where Aymeric had marked him over and over. He couldn’t stop smiling, heart brimming with total satisfied contentment.

They were still curled into each other, despite being an hour behind schedule, and Aza nosed against Aymeric’s jaw, breathing in his scent and wishing that they could have this more often. That they could just wander into the middle of nowhere and just… be together without the weight of Lord Commander or Warrior of Light crushing them back into reality. Aymeric made a quiet, sleepy noise at Aza’s nudging, and buried his face into his hair, reluctantly stirring awake.

“Aym,” Aza laughed, “S’time to get up.”

“Mm, no, I’m fine like this,” Aymeric mumbled into his hair, “One more hour.”

Aza was too weak-willed to argue that. He made a show of huffing in annoyance but knew Aymeric could feel his smile as he nuzzled into the crook of his neck, his lips finding the gentle curve of where his neck sloped into his shoulder.

Nothing wrong in selfishly enjoying this, Aza told himself. Besides, it was a good way to procrastinate from the family visit. Despite his excitement for it, he was also nervous. Dad would be easy to win over, he was soft as anything, but Mom… she was overprotective and could be a little intense. She was like Bluebird times a thousand, and Aza was worried she’d get carried away with her shovel talk, or too pointed in her interrogation or…

Aza flicked his ear, dismissing those worries and snuggled closer against his partner. He’ll worry about that later. For now, he was going to cuddle his partner, maybe rouse him for a fortifying round of ‘good luck sex’ and bully him out of the bedroll. If he imagined it hard enough, he could even believe that this was them being simple adventurers together… oh, wouldn’t that be amazing?

He pressed a kiss to Aymeric’s throat and settled, smiling as he let that little fantasy carry him off into a gentle doze.

Chapter Text

Aruci Qalli was in a bit of a slump.

He sighed heavily as he slouched against the rough bark of a low-bent, ancient tree. It was the only tree on a hill which overlooked a large patch of flat plain, its spindly branches drooping down in a tangle that resembled a very brittle net. No one knew how old this tree was, it’d been here longer than any tribe’s oral history, and it always looked half-dead, but it never withered. It sat crooked and leaning, sprouting the occasional off-yellow leaves and brown flowers, but it kept on living.

No one dared to cut it down. The aether here felt… settled, and there were many superstitious tales about it. Some said the tree was an arrogant Xaela who challenged Nhaama for her place in the sky and was rooted to the earth for eternity in punishment. Some said it was an old memorial placed before Xaela and Raen were two separate people, and that to destroy it would bring the Gods’ wrath upon you. Some say it was the remnant of an Elder God, withered and old and weak. No one could agree on the tale, so this little tree was revered and feared both, and left alone.

It meant it was a good place to sit and sulk in peace. Hidden in the shadows that its drooping, brittle branches gave, Aruci stared across the flat plain. His mind was empty of any and all inspiration. No matter how much he tried to force it, his imagination was as dull as dirty water, and trying to stir the waters for creativity just dredged up useless silt. Which, normally, would be okay. Everyone had dry spells when it came to creativity, but Aruci didn’t have time to endure a dry spell.

The Qalli’s Coming of Age ceremony was in less than four turns of the sun, and while everyone else preparing for it had already composed their songs and were practicing them, Aruci had nothing. Just a few odd words and a melody that barely sounded acceptable to his horns. If he failed to demonstrate the proper creativity that a Qalli man should have, he’d have to wait until the next Summer to try again, and that would be humiliating. Only the truly tone-deaf or ill-talented had to retake the Coming of Age ceremony. He might as well crawl off to another tribe!

A flicker of movement in his peripheral drew him out of his sulking and he went still, his gaze snapping to the flicker to see – a tiger.

It was a powerful, stocky thing, with bulky shoulders and rippling muscles beneath his dull orange coat. It was large enough that it could fit its jaws around Aruci’s mouth without difficulty or disembowel him with a slash of those massive paws, so Aruci remained quiet and still, relieved that he was downwind of the monster. Steppe Tigers were a challenge even for experienced warriors, and Aruci, on the cusp of adulthood and trained more as a crafter than a hunter, would die within the first thirty seconds if it tried to fight him.

He supposed he could climb the tree, but it was a low, skinny thing, and somehow he doubted the tiger would care much about being cursed by gods if it knocked the thing down trying to eat him.

Aruci frowned when he realised something off about the tiger. It was limping. Indeed, its flank was wet with dark blood, and it kept the weight off that hindleg. Dangling from its jaws too was some rough-leather pack, probably stolen from some unfortunate corpse. Aruci slowly shifted to squat on the balls of his feet, supposing that if it was wounded he could just run away. Steppe Tigers were powerful, but they were ambush predators and didn’t fare well against long-distance pursuits. It’d have to sprint up the hill too, so he could…

“…aaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!

Aruci and the tiger tensed at the banshee screech echoing across the plain. Bewildered and wondering if some evil spirit was descending from the sky, Aruci looked wildly around – only to see a lithe Xaela woman come charging up the hill the tiger had come from not too long ago, her armour proudly displaying the colours of the Borlaaq.

“YOU THIEVING FUCK!” the Borlaaq howled, spotting the tiger now frozen in place – probably too bewildered to react, “GIVE ME BACK MY JERKY!”

And in what Aruci could only describe as hunger-fuelled madness, the wild Borlaaq lunged at the Steppe Tiger with her fists swinging. He threw himself to his feet, torn between desire to intervene and desire to just watch this absolute disaster in the making, staring open-mouthed as the Borlaaq slammed into the tiger so hard the pair of them tumbled into the grass, rolling and tumbling over each other with shrieks and roars.

The Borlaaq was wrestling the damned tiger.

“GIVE IT!” she snarled, clenching her fingers into the pack and wrenching it hard. The tiger stubbornly clung on, twisting underneath her and smashing a heavy paw against her shoulder. Bright blood bloomed where its sharp claws tore through her huntress tunic, splitting the fabric from shoulder to sternum. The Borlaaq didn’t seem to notice, releasing the pack to try prying the tiger’s jaws open instead. The tiger batted at her again, and this time she flinched – then snarled, digging her fingers into its snout then-

Proceeded to yank the beast into an unforgiving headlock.

“DROP. THE. JERKY!” she roared, twisting them around to she was positioned at the beast’s back, choking it out as it uselessly thrashed on the ground. It was almost comical. The Borlaaq was tiny, smaller than the Steppe Tiger, but through sheer rage she was pinning it down and determinedly strangling the poor monster to death.

She was…

She was amazing.

As the tiger’s thrashing slowly died down, the pack tumbling from its slackened jaw, Aruci found himself staring at the woman with wonder in his eyes. Blood ran bright red rivulets over her tunic, the fabric split over to reveal pale, blood-streaked skin and the swell of her breasts. Her dark hair was in wild disarray, tumbling over her sharp, forward sweeping horns and framing a surprisingly delicate face that was twisted into a ferocious snarl. Her eyes were bright blue and blazing like a beast’s, her arms were thick with toned muscle and her body was tight and compact, with a thick, powerful tail. She was raw power, it was breath-taking to witness.  

There was a loud, sickening crack when the Borlaaq wrenched the tiger’s head, and the beast slumped, dead. With a breathless laugh, she climbed to her feet, standing triumphantly over the tiger’s corpse, bloodied and slick with sweat, a wild grin on her face. It was as if Nhaama herself had descended on the Steppe, terrible but beautiful and filled with righteous fury… or hunger, with how determined she’d been to get that jerky.

Aruci was instantly in love.

He watched as the Borlaaq gathered up her pack, slinging it over one shoulder before contemplating the tiger. She shook her head, but bent over, trying to arrange its hindlegs to drag it, and with a jolt Aruci realised she was going to leave. No, he couldn’t just let her walk away without at least getting her name! She may not think much of him, being a frail crafter and singer, but just knowing her name and holding that memory of witnessing such raw strength would be more than enough.

Forgetting entirely about the song he needed to compose, Aruci scrambled through the drooping tree’s brittle branches and half-tumbled down the hill, towards his Nhaama.  

Chapter Text

Aza was ten when Mommy taught him how to kill.

It was a cold day – the grass was crunchy with frost, and the air was so cold it stuck like needles in his throat when he took too big of a breath. He didn’t like it, he wanted to curl up under the blanket with Ala and continue teaching her how to play cat’s cradle (or rather, he wanted to watch her get determinedly more and more tangled up in the yarn until she was stuck, because it was really funny). But Mommy had said that this was an important adult lesson that he needed to learn, and Mommy promised that the moment he started becoming an adult, she would let him come along on hunts and learn how to hunt. So.

Here he was. He was squatting in a half-frozen bramble bush, its sharp thorns uselessly jabbing into the thick hide of his winter tunic. He buried his numb nose into the furry collar, squatted so his butt didn’t touch the ground, shoved his hands underneath his armpits and curled his tail so it rested in his lap. His winter coat was still growing in, so his tail was numb.

Mommy was quiet next to him. Her hair was just as pale as the frost around them, long and shiny and spilling down her back like a silver waterfall, her body lean like a half-hungry wolf. But they were all hungry these days. The winter was lingering longer than usual, and game was scarcer and sicker. The only reliable thing to eat was fish from the beach, and Aza was sick of fish.

“Alright, Azeyma’a,” Mommy murmured, her voice low and raspy and comforting, “I want you to stay right here. Don’t move, okay?”

“Okay, Mommy,” he said easily, his ears swivelling forwards curiously as Mommy slipped out of the bramble bush and deeper into the woods without even a whisper of a noise. She vanished into the trees and Aza was left alone. He didn’t mind it. He was used to being alone. It was just Mommy and Ala, and sometimes Mommy left them for days going hunting or… somewhere else. It got a little lonely sometimes, but Ala distracted him enough so it didn’t bother him too much. Mommy always made sure there was food for them, but it took Aza a while to learn how to cook it without it being half-raw or half-charred - and without burning his hands. But he learned it, and Ala was looked after just fine, so he didn’t mind. Really.

A twig snapped, and he instantly flattened against the ground. Thorns bit into his palms and pulled at his hair, his tail, his ears, but he ignored it, ears alert and eyes focused beyond his little bush. There was silence, not even a bird, the frost and thin layer of snow dampening noise. His breath came out as stark white puffs, and he slowly, very slowly, moved his hands so they covered his mouth, warming his freezing fingers but hiding his breathing.

A wolf slipped out from the trees with a rabbit in its jaws.

It was a skinny, manky thing. Its fur was matted and he could see its ribs. The smell of sick and wet fur hit his nose, and Aza wrinkled it, biting his tongue to stop the ‘ick’ noise from leaving him. The wolf was ill and starving, and the rabbit dangling from its jaws didn’t look much better either. Mommy said there was a bad illness going around the animals recently, which was why they ate so much fish, but they sometimes ate rabbits if they were okay – and on the odd occasion, wolves.

This wolf paused. It was a few fulms from the bush, its nostrils flaring.

Aza waited.

The wolf dropped the rabbit, stiffly, at its front paws, and its head swung towards him. One of its eyes was all swollen and red and gross-looking, but Aza still didn’t move, even when the wolf took a step closer, its head lowering as black lips peeled back to show off yellowed fangs, a wispy growl gurgling in its throat.

Aza waited-

-and Mommy appeared as silent as a wraith from the tree above, landing on the wolf with an almighty crack!

The wolf howled, crumbling to the floor, and Mommy was instantly on her feet, straddling it. The manky thing twitched and shivered, but it was still alive, its back bent all wrong and weird. Aza didn’t like it, but he crawled out of the bramble bush underneath Mommy’s gaze like he was meant to. Mommy didn’t smile much, but the corners of her mouth were turned up a little in what Aza learned to be approval.

“Good boy,” she praised, “You stayed still like I taught you.”

“I knew you were there, Mommy,” Aza said proudly, pushing himself to his feet once he was free of the bramble’s grasping thorns. He looked hesitantly at the wolf sprawled on the floor. One of its front legs were twitching, its eye rolling in its socket with its tongue lolled out. It looked like it was in pain, and Aza felt deeply uncomfortable about it, clasping his hands together before him and tucking his tail slightly.

“Um, Mommy…” he began.

“So, this is the lesson I wanted to teach you,” Mommy interrupted, her mouth twisting wryly, “You’re ten summers now, Azeyma’a. That means you need to learn how to survive on your own. That means you need to learn something… difficult.”

“Okay…” Aza said slowly, not quite understanding.

Mommy unsheathed the hunting knife from her belt and held it out to him hilt first. He knew how to use a knife – Mommy taught him how to skin rabbits and birds, but they were normally thin, skinny things. This was thick and hefty, and he had to hold it with two hands to keep it steady.

She then pointed at the wolf beneath her, “Kill it.”

Aza looked down at the wolf. It was making a very high-pitched, breathy noise that sounded like a whine. It looked very sad and pathetic, twitching and spasming in pain. Aza really didn’t like it, and he found his palms sweating in their gloves despite his fingers being numb from cold. He knew what death was – he wasn’t a dumb baby. He understood that Mommy killed animals to hunt them and to eat them. He skinned animals.

But they were already dead. He never actually saw them killed. He never did it himself.

“Aza,” Mommy said sternly, her tone demanding obedience, “I told you to kill it. It’ll be easier if you don’t think about it.”

“Um, y-yes,” Aza muttered, his stomach fluttering anxiously. He took a wary step forwards beneath Mommy’s hard stare, and he held the knife very hard between his sweaty, gloved hands, looking at the poor thing quivering at Mommy’s feet. He didn’t want to hurt it more than it was already hurting, so where… he wasn’t quite sure where to… stab? Cut?

Mommy’s strong hand clasped his own, and she squatted down until she was almost sitting on the wolf’s heaving side, guiding him to kneel down at the animal’s head. The wolf’s head gave an abrupt jerk, almost scaring the pants off him, but Mom firmly held him in place. His stomach was churning until he felt ready to throw up.

“Mommy,” he said in a quivering voice, “I don’t want to.”

“You have to,” Mommy said firmly, “After this, I’ll be teaching you how to hunt. You might have to make the kill yourself. Any hesitation, the slightest, and a creature like this will hurt you.” She let out a rough huff that was almost laughter, “One day, I might die myself on a hunt. I’d like to go to my grave knowing you can kill a crippled wolf at the very least. Ala will have to depend on your for survival.”

Aza avoided looking at the wolf when Mommy forced his hands to lower the knife to its throat.

“It becomes very easy,” Mommy murmured softly, looking somewhere beyond their clasped hand with that dark, faraway look she got sometimes, “Beast or man, it gets very easy. Now, watch, Azeyma’a.”

Even though he didn’t want to, Aza watched as Mommy forced the knife in his hands into the wolf’s throat.


Aza crawled under the blankets to see Ala had completely tangled herself up in yarn.

“I’m trapped,” his sister told him sadly, her limbs contorted into weird angles from probably trying to squirm free, “The string trapped me, Aza.”

“You’re just a dummy,” Aza muttered, but he helped untangle her until the yarn was in a messy pile on the floor and Ala went back to twisting the end of it over her finger. She was smiling blithely, her face pudgy with puppy fat, and she wriggled on her back as her amber eyes looked up at him. Her smile faded.

“Um, Aza?” she asked worriedly, “You look sad.”

“I am sad,” he said, and the lump he’d been carrying all the way back home almost choked him, “Mommy t-taught me, a… a hard lesson today.”

“Oh,” Ala said, not understanding. She dropped the yarn and held up her tiny, pudgy arms, “It’s hug time then.”

Aza hugged her without hesitation. She smelled like blackberries and dirt, she liked rolling in the bramble bushes, and Ala squeezed him as hard as her little arms could, her chin digging into his shoulder. He sniffled but swallowed it down. It had only been a sickly little wolf, he shouldn’t be upset, he told himself.

But the smell and stickiness and the way the wolf had thrashed afterwards… he pushed the memory away because it made him want to cry. It had been an adult lesson, one he needed to learn, Mommy said, so he shouldn’t be a baby about it. It had been horrible though. The blood had been really hot, and it went everywhere, like it had squirted out super fast from a tiny hole. It had gotten all over his tunic and gloves and made him throw up.

Mommy had patted him on the back and told him he’d get used to it.

His stomach flopped nauseously at the thought of repeating that horrible experience, but thankfully he had nothing left to heave up. He focused on Ala’s scent instead, the warm blankets around them, and remembered what Mommy said, that Ala would have to rely on him. Yeah, she’d rely on him. So. Maybe, if he got really good, really fast, at, um, killing the animals in hunts, then maybe Ala wouldn’t have to do that.

Because he tried to imagine Ala doing Mommy’s adult lesson and felt upset at the thought. Ala wouldn’t like it. She always tried to befriend animals, even rabbits, and he remembered before when she cried because a lizard she secretly kept as a pet died. Ala wouldn’t have to hunt ever if he got good enough at it. If he thought about it like that, he could try to stomach it, even if it upset him.

But Mommy also said ‘men’… why would he ever have to do that against people?

He tried to imagine that – but the only people he ever saw was Ala and Mommy, and his brain conjured up him jamming the knife into Ala’s throat and he violently ejected that thought before he could process it, shivering to the very tip of his tail. No, no, no. No stabbing people. It was even worse than wolves.

But something… faintly echoed, like a ripple of premonition. Like when you know you’re being watched by a predator in the woods. Like something looked at that horrible thought and tucked it away somewhere. He didn’t like the feeling of it.

So, Aza, uneasily, ignored it.


Five years later, the memory of it returned to him in the haze of shock, as Ala choked on her own blood at his feet, his hands sticky and warm.  

Chapter Text

“I think she should have a knife.”

“She is not bringing a knife to school, Aza.”

“A small knife,” Da amended grudgingly, and Sameh hid a smile by ducking her head as she pretended to tie her shoelaces. Da and Daddy were getting ready to walk her to her first day of school, bundled up against the snow outside, and they’d been having this argument since she’d been brushing her teeth. Da seemed to think she might have to knife-fight her way in between classes and fend of creeps on the way to lunch, and Daddy thought he was being silly.

“No knife,” Daddy said.

“Tiny knife?”

“No.”

“Yes.”

Sameh couldn’t stop the snort of laughter bubbling up, helping to dispel some of the tiny nervousness that had been sitting heavy in her belly since last night.

“What’re you giggling at, gremlin?” Da asked her, and when she looked up he was smirking at her. He was being ridiculous on purpose, she realised, and she shyly smiled up at him as she fidgeted with her shoelaces. She had to wear a pretty stupid outfit – nothing like the comfy, fluffy tunics Uncle Felyx and Auntie Bluebird buried her under – but Daddy had insisted that it was a uniform and everyone else would be wearing the same stupid thing, so she wouldn’t be the odd one out.

Only, she’d be the only Miqo’te. Everyone else would be Elezens. It made her nervous.

“You’re being silly,” she said, flicking her tail, “I don’t need a knife, Da.”

“See,” Daddy said a bit smugly.

“I need a sword,” she finished, and chanced a look at Daddy. He let out a sigh of fond exasperation as Aza laughed.

“Well,” Daddy said wryly, “I know a few children who would take a sword to school. Evidence of lordship and all.”

“Right, and Sameh is a little lord too, technically,” Da quipped, leaning down to ruffle her hair so hard her head wobbled. She whined and ducked to escape, “Heir to House Borel and whatnot. Anyone give you grief over that you can bop them over the head with your Ma’s sword.”

“Please don’t,” Daddy said, “Fighting is grounds for expulsion.”

I’ll bop them over the head,” Da said instead.

“You’ll be arrested for that, Aza.”

“Well, it’s not like they’ll bop themselves, Aym,” Da huffed, then perked up, “Oh, how about Rations-

Daddy interrupted Da by dragging him into a headlock, and Sameh heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes when they started doing a really childish playfight. That was either going to end in gross kissing or Daddy getting bitten followed by gross kissing, so Sameh ignored them and finished tying her shoelaces.  


It ended with gross kissing because of course. They were so disgustingly in love sometimes.

Sameh loved it. The kissing was still gross though.  


Ten minutes later they were walking to school, Sameh in between Da and Daddy and feeling more and more nervous with each step. It was snowing a little, and the ground was crunchy from where the grit was put down that early morning. The school she was going to was also part of the big spiky looking church that sat at the very top of Ishgard, and she was told that it was a school most ‘stuck up spoiled high-class brats’ went to, according to Da. Daddy said the same thing, but in a more polite way.

Because of who Daddy and Da were, she was allowed to attend that school – was actively encouraged, in fact, since everyone saw Warrior of Light and Lord Commander of Ishgard as her parents and expected big things from her too. She had to cram so much stuff about Halone that was tested in its entrance exam because it was mandatory to have some understanding of Her due to some dumb reason Sameh didn’t care about. She knew there were lots of nobles unhappy with her going, because of more dumb reasons she didn’t care about, and Daddy told her to expect to be tested harder than anyone else.

She pointed out that this was unfair, and Daddy said that it was, that he understood because he experienced the same thing when he’d been adopted by the House Borel family. Everyone wanted you to fail, to prove their stupid self-superiority right – in her case, that Miqo’te didn’t belong in the upper-class education system because they were stupid or too uncultured – so you had to work harder just to gain the same amount of recognition for those who barely worked at all. Daddy had told her she didn’t have to go because of that, that he could see if she could be home-schooled by some of Da’s Scion friends instead, but…

Well. She didn’t want to be chased off by some dumb spoiled brats. Sameh was tough as nails, Da said so, and compared to the other things she saw and endured, putting in hard work to put some dummies in their place wasn’t all that bad. She knew she could do it. In fact, she could be the best so no one could say bad things about Miqo’te ever again in Ishgard, and that other Miqo’te could do this super amazing schooling without having to have parents who literally saved entire City States strongarm the headmaster.

(Sameh knew that her application had been rejected at first, that Daddy had to tell Da to calm down and that he would deal with it. The next day she got her acceptance letter and when she went to the interview with the headmaster afterwards where he congratulated her on ‘winning’ her place, Daddy accompanied her and had terrified the headmaster in squeaky silence just by smiling pleasantly at him.

People always said Da was the scary one, but Daddy could be really scary when he wanted to be. Even Da listened to Daddy when he got mad)

“What’re you thinking about, gremlin?” Da asked her when she’d been quiet too long, “You still traumatised from us kissing?”

“Yes,” she said, “I see it in my nightmares.”

Daddy made a suspicious coughing noise that sounded a lot like laughter.

“Who taught you to be so cheeky?” Da grumped, but he was smiling so she knew he wasn’t that annoyed, “I bet it was you, Aym, you snarky git.”

“Me?” Daddy sounded so offended it was hilarious, “I am the model of good behaviour, thank you very much. She must have learnt it off you.”

“Hey, I’m the Warrior of Light,” Da drawled, “I can never be cheeky. It’s not in the job description.”

Sameh listened to her parents playfully banter with each other, pleased with herself, and idly kicked a clump of slushy snow as she passed it. Yeah, she thought, squeezing her parents hands tight, she’d be fine.


Da revisited the Knife Issue once they were in the school’s front courtyard.

“Look,” Da was saying, holding Sameh tight around the shoulders with one arm, and holding a small pocket knife with the other, “I’m just saying, if a Garlean assassin comes dropping out of the ceiling, this knife could mean life of death.”

“If a Garlean assassin comes dropping out of the ceiling, one tiny pocket knife won’t decide anything,” Daddy said a bit flatly, “Aza, stop giving our child knives. She doesn’t want one.”

Sameh, who had been eyeing a few of the other children milling in front of the school’s courtyard and noting how many of them looked twice her size and weight, said, “I think I want one now.”

“You were saying? See, Sameh knows what’s up.”

Daddy confiscated the knife.

“Aw,” Da said.

“Sameh,” Daddy said, the knife vanishing somewhere into his coat. He knelt in front of her, since he was ridiculously tall, and smiled at her, “You have your linkpearl, right?”

“Yup.”

“Any difficulties, you can call one of us at any time. Don’t worry about interrupting us, we’ll answer.”

“Yeah,” Da said, giving her a squeeze about the shoulder in a half-hug before reluctantly letting go, “If anyone gives you shit, beat them up.”

“Aza.”

“Tell the teacher,” Da amended with a wink.

“I will,” Sameh said, making a note to beat up potential bullies where there’d be no witnesses.

Daddy ruffled her hair, a lot gentler than Da, and stood up, “Behave,” he told her, “And good luck.”

Sameh nodded, her stomach fluttering like she’d eaten a whole cage of butterflies, and tried to keep her face very straight when Da tried to slip a pocket knife into her coat pocket without Daddy noticing. Daddy did notice. He confiscated that knife too.

“Aw,” Da said again.

Daddy curled his fingers into the collar of Da’s coat and hoisted him to his feet, keeping him in place like he was a misbehaving puppy, “Do you want us to walk you inside?”

Sameh hesitated but shook her head. She was nervous, but she was prepared. Daddy had made sure she was educated to the same level in between work, and Da expanded her knowledge even further on more practical things. She wasn’t the frightened little girl Da dragged out of the Ishgardian wilderness anymore. She could face down a school filled with snotty noblemen who’d look down at her for something as simple as her birth and race. She’ll prove them all wrong, easy.

“I’ll be fine,” she said brightly, “I’ll make you proud, Da and Daddy.”

“You already have,” Daddy said with a smile.

“Yeah,” Da added, “Show them who’s the best, gremlin.”

Sameh saluted, delighted when her parents laughed, and turned on her heel and boldly strode forwards, her stomach twisting with nerves, but her heart strong with courage and determination.

Chapter Text

 

Aymeric, Aza came to realise, was fucking terrifying on the battlefield.

He was also supremely, incredibly, and abso-fucking-lutely sexy as hell on the battlefield.

These two things are very much related.

Aza came to this near-fatal realisation mid-battle – a ‘routine’ patrol to the Falcon’s Nest bridge besieged by desperate remnants of Nidhogg’s brood. Too much staring at the graceful, powerful figure his partner made in the hazy mist of churned up, powdered snow, steam wisping between writhing, dark shapes. It ended up with a dragon getting a lucky bite on his thigh, which ow, but it was a tiny, half-grown thing, so its teeth pierced through his breeches and shallowly penetrated the skin. He shook the thing off, speared it on the end of his sword, and flicked it away contemptuously, his gaze sliding back over to Aymeric.

Aymeric had done away with the ornamental armour he wore in Ishgard – he looked almost drab in the simple but functional chainmail and steel breastplate, but it hugged his body well, and he looked hypnotically graceful as he deftly sidestepped and evaded the thrashing dragon horde’s intent on crushing him or biting him in half. Aymeric’s face was lightly flushed from exertion, his hair damp and frizzing from the snow and sweat, a small, thin line of blood across the bridge of his nose, his blue eyes bright from the raw aether churning and broiling around them.

Dragons were a resoiver of aether, even the tiny little dragonflies. Each dragon killed bloated the excited aether around them, until Aza felt almost drunk on it, sensitive as he was to the shifts and flow of it. Aymeric looked lovely to him in the haze of it. He was aggressive and graceful and powerful, the aether broiled, Aza’s blood sang from it. He would look at his partner from across the battlefield, distractedly bat aside a dragon, watch Aymeric very precisely decapitate the serpentine head from an Ampitheter and think I want to fuck him.

He really wanted to fuck him, fucking hell.


Aza lasted until some rudimentary clean up happened after the battle.

Knights were tallying wounded and dead, making sure the dragons lying brokenly on the ground were really dead, and Aza had to wander off behind a convenient jut of dark stone, out of sight, to calm himself down.

His thigh was smarting, the breeches damp with blood, but Aza considered the hot throb of pain and discarded it as non-life threatening. He pressed his back against the cold, dark stone, taking in a deep breath, feeling the aether only just beginning to settle from the hypercharged state of battle, his heart fluttering like a trapped hummingbird behind his ribs. Gods, it had been a while since he’d gotten so keyed up. But seeing Aymeric fighting and killing, combined with the wild aether of dying dragons, had made him want to- just. He had wanted to cast his sword aside and jump his partner there and then and fuck him into the snow, dragons be damned. He’d almost died a few times because he’d been too busy eye-fucking him from across the battlefield.

He knew what it was. He’d had it for a long while, probably long before Mom and Kugane and everything else. ‘Inner Beast’, some called it – except Aza kept his on the tightest, shortest leash, not giving it even an ilm to move because of shit like this. Moment it sense weakness or excitement, it made him lose his fucking head and act like some mindless beast. Too much aether, he decided, rubbing at his face and wrinkling his numb nose. He needed to bury himself in a snowdrift or something.

“Aza?”

Oooooor dangle another tempting slab of meat before him.

“Aym,” Aza dropped his hands, tilting his head back to smile almost lazily at his partner. Aymeric had cleaned up. The blood was gone from his face though his cheeks were still lightly flushed. Wise, considering what dragon blood did to Elezens. Though, Aymeric, as a dragon… unf, went something in the back of his mind. Ugh, what the fuck brain?

“Why are you hiding back here?” Aymeric asked him with a slight, worried, his gaze lowering to his leg, his eyes darkening. Right, that was still bleeding, “Aza…”

“Needed a moment to breathe,” Aza said, before Aymeric could start lecturing him. He could smell oil and leather and sweat and blood and Aymeric, and his heart was fluttering hard and fast all over again when he thought how only minutes before Aymeric had been fucking demolishing a dragon three times his size. He barely kept himself from panting, belly clenching with heat, and dropped his gaze as he carefully, by pieces, pushed that primal part of him down and deep, “M’okay.”

Snow crunched as Aymeric moved closer to him, hovered in that way of his that said he wanted to touch but wasn’t sure if it would be welcome. After a moment of hesitation, his partner leaned down, his gloved hand pressing against the nape of his neck – what he did whenever Aza was having one of his ‘episodes’, the gentle pressure and warmth always comforted him – except this time it just made him hyperaware of Aymeric touching him, and he bit the inside of his cheek before he did something stupid.

Aza looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes, could see Aymeric’s concerned face looking down at him, could see the perfect shape of it, his full mouth, dark, lovely eyelashes and bright, blue eyes and, and, and-

“Let’s sit,” Aymeric suggested gently, and sure, that sounded fine, Aza’s knees were feeling a little weak right now anyways.

With a bit of prompting from his partner, Aza was sat in the freezing cold snow, Aymeric knelt at his side, while he tried to viciously beat down the more primitive, bestial side of his brain that was screaming LEMME SMASH. No, libido, he was not fucking Aymeric behind a rock literal fulms from a battlefield where his retinue of knights were waiting for him!

Oh, Gods why did that sound so fucking hot.

“I noticed you seemed distracted during the battle,” Aymeric murmured, his voice a low, deep rumble that made him shiver right down to the tip of his tail, “Did something happen?”

“You,” Aza blurted, then wanted to smother himself, “I-I mean. No, nothing. I’m being dumb. Again. It’s nothing.”

“You’re not, Aza… come here,” Aymeric sighed, and he shifted slightly so he wasn’t kneeling but sitting beside him. Aza’s breaths caught in his throat when his partner gently coaxed him to curl into his side, arm over his shoulders, and he closed his eyes as he pressed his cheek against Aymeric’s chest. Leather, oil, and Aymeric. Copper. Blood. Sulphuric smell of dragons. All mixed together in a hypnotic cocktail. Heat clenched his belly tight again.

“You should have that leg seen to,” Aymeric told him.

“The snow’ll slow the bleeding, s’fine,” Aza mumbled, reluctant to move. His thigh was a hot throb of pain and the cold felt good on it, shifting to rest his weight more on his opposite hip, leaning more into his partner. His tail restlessly swished, “You okay?”

“Yes, not bleeding from anywhere unlike you.”

“Hmm…”

“Aza,” Aymeric said his name in that tone, that had Aza’s insides melting and feeling all gooey, “Love, what’s the matter? You’re acting odd.”

“Urgh,” Aza groaned, “It’s stupid…”

“Aza.”

Aza blew out a hard breath and mumbled, “You looked good. On, um. When fighting.”

“…thank you?” Aymeric said after a very long pause where he was no doubt thinking ‘well, duh, obviously, I am perfect and know it’.

“And…” Aza wanted the ground to swallow him up and devour him whole, “And, the aether… it got super charged up. All the dragons dying and all, and /I/ got charged up, and you looked good, and… smell good, and…”

“Ah,” Aymeric said, enlightened, then again, “Ah,” in a different tone, like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, “You liked what you saw?”

“Gods, Aym,” Aza groaned, sitting up from Aymeric’s side and clasping his partner’s face in between his hands. Aymeric was smiling at him crookedly, an amused curl to his lips that made him want to punch him and kiss him senseless, “Like what I saw? I liked it so much I want to fuck you into the snow right now.”

Aymeric looked at him for a good moment while Aza panted, his eyes dark and his smile taking on a different edge. It was mesmerising, and Aza found himself leaning in a fraction, his lips parting in anticipation as he recognised that look his partner was giving him. He groaned, quietly, needily, leaning in but… waiting…

“Mm, that does sound tempting,” Aymeric rumbled, and his gloved fingers gently stroked along the curve of Aza’s jawline, then curled at his chin, slowly, teasingly, drawing him in close. Aza was breathing fast, his eyelashes fluttering as his eyes closed, their lips touching in the barest of kisses, and…

“But later,” Aymeric whispered, and pulled him in closer for a more dedicated kiss. Aza was losing his godsdamned mind, panting and groaning when his partner mercilessly teased his bottom lip until it was kiss-swollen and bruised and aching in a lovely way – but gently nudged him back when Aza tried to press in closer so they were only nose to nose, “Okay?”

“Okay,” Aza whispered back, utterly breathless and dazed. Aymeric smiled and nuzzled him, then pushed him back so he was sitting in the snow instead of practically in his lap. Oh, he didn’t even realise getting that close.

“First, we should make sure that doesn’t get infected,” Aymeric said a mite wryly, giving Aza’s bleeding thigh a pointed poke. Aza stifled the urge to flinch, “Then we need to be rid of our entourage and see if you’re still in the mood.”

“They can plug their ears and turn their backs,” Aza muttered, just to be contrary.

“Mmhm, sure,” Aymeric rolled his eyes at him, “If you think you can contain yourself for that long, shall we…?”

“Only if you carry me.”

“You just want to steal a grope.”

“Do you want me to steal one?”

“…very well. Come here, love.”

Chapter Text

Aymeric had taken exactly three steps into their temporary accommodation in Falcon’s Nest’s (only) inn before Aza jumped him.

Luckily their accommodation was tiny, so, what could’ve been an embarrassing (and mood-killing) spill on the hardwood floor ended up being a clumsy, hilarious tumble onto the bed. Aymeric made a somewhat squeaky yelp of surprise – Aza laughing breathlessly as they hit the mattress, the whole bed frame creaking angrily in protest and wobbling a bit worryingly – slightly winded as he found himself flat on his back, Aza sitting on his stomach and leaning over him with a small grin.

Oh.

“Finally, have you alone,” Aza murmured, sounding breathless. His cheeks were lightly flushed, and not from the snow outside, and his eyes were dark, pupils dilated. His bottom lip was still a little kiss-bruised from where Aymeric had teased it earlier, and his gaze kept catching on it, his pulse picking up as he found himself smiling.

“There goes my question of if you’re still in the mood,” he chuckled quietly, “Though, I wish you waited a bit. I have a sword stabbing me in the side right now.”

“My sword is-” Aza paused his childish joke, realising Aymeric meant his steel sword which was, really, jabbing him hard in his side due to being crushed between him and the bed.  Aza’s sultry, dark stare was instantly became embarrassed, his partner pulling back as he kindly unhitched Aymeric’s sword from his belt and relieving that uncomfortable pressure pain, “Oh, shit. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Aymeric said, lazily stretching as Aza not so gently tossed the sword on the floor where it clattered noisily. He felt too tired to complain about the rough handling – the patrol had been exhausting, his muscles sore and aching from the long walk through the ice and snow, and the violent, dangerous mob of dragons they cut their way through. Twenty-nine dragons in total had attacked them, and Aymeric felt as if he’d fought every single one. Gods, he was getting old.

Aza glanced over at him, his mouth curving into a pleased smile, “You look gorgeous,” he said boldly, leaning down so he bracketed Aymeric’s head between his arms, their torsos pressed close – slightly awkwardly, since their breastplates really didn’t facilitate snug proximity, but Aymeric would take it.

“Hmm,” he smiled at the praise, tilting his head and amused to see Aza copy him, his hands coming to rest comfortably on his partner’s trim waist. Aza was looking at him as if he was the greatest thing to ever grace this star, which was both intimidating yet flattering. He’d basked under that look from the fight to the walk back, Aza practically eye-fucking him every step of the way. It made his pulse hot before he even stepped foot in this room. He knew his partner said he liked watching him fight but, really, if he knew it riled him up this much…

“I think I look dishevelled and sweaty,” Aymeric said, just to be contrary and because he really did feel somewhat filthy. He could feel the undershirt beneath his armour sticking to him, and there was a very faint tang of blood coming from somewhere – probably dragon blood caught in the chinks of the chainmail – and his hair was a half-frizzed, curly mess. He was the furthest thing from his impeccable Lord Commander persona.

“I know, which is why you look gorgeous,” Aza repeated, practically purring those words as a deep rumble in his chest. His partner bent his head low, his gloved fingers tracing the sharp line of Aymeric’s jaw, his thumb brushing oh-so-gently against his bottom lip, “You always look perfect, so when you’re like this, after killing dragons, smelling of blood and sweat…”

Aza dipped his head and Aymeric met him half way. The kiss was surprisingly gentle, despite the dark heat of want in his partner’s eyes. Aymeric made a soft noise in the back of his throat when he felt the barest prick of Aza’s fang teasing his bottom lip… only for his partner to pull away much too quickly, leaving Aymeric slightly breathless as Aza started to nose his way along his jaw.

“Good smells,” Aza murmured, lightly nipping his jaw with those too sharp fangs, rocking his hips against his belly. Difficult to feel through his chainmail and Aza’s leather breeches, but he knew his partner was hard and eager already, “Makes me just wanna…”

“Want to…?” Aymeric prompted roughly, his hands curling against the back of Aza’s thighs, fingers digging into where the swell of his firm rump began, encouraging him to rock a little faster. Aza was breathing hard, all but dry-humping him at this point.

“Want to just fuck you,” Aza growled, his voice so deep and primal that it made Aymeric shiver right down to his toes, “I want to, if you want…”

“I want to,” Aymeric said a little slower than intended, just because his mouth went very dry as he had to contain himself. The bed was creaking from the force of Aza’s movements, his stomach clenching as his partner grinded and humped against him firmly. He could see Aza’s tail lifting, arching, in what he had very quickly learned to mean in Miqo’te speak; ‘I want to have sex and I want to have it now’.

“Thank fuck,” Aza breathed, lifting his head and kissing him hard before he could react. They parted too fast, panting and light-headed, and Aza’s hands instantly descended on the buckles of his breastplate, fumbling and shaking, “Take this- get it off-”

Aymeric had never undressed so quickly in his life. He barely remembered having his breastplate practically ripped off him and his chainmail following suit (and, in fact, he could feel a broken buckle poking him somewhere under his ribs, something which he’d care about much later). Aza had managed to squirm out of his armour too, helped by Aymeric’s overeager hands, and then they were pressed close, naked, on the bed, Aza’s mouth pressing insistent, firm kisses against his mouth, his jaw, his throat

There was an abrupt, invasive thought that flickered through Aymeric’s brain, something like oh, fuck, did I even lock the door? But then he didn’t care about that when his partner bit his shoulder, the sharp stab of pain flirting so close with pleasure he let out a rough noise that could’ve been pleasure or pain. He couldn’t tell. Gods, he didn’t even want to.

“Shit,” Aza whispered, pulling away and rubbing that hot throb of pain-pleasure with the pad of his thumb. It felt wet and warm, “Didn’t mean to bite that hard. You good?”

“Mm, very,” Aymeric said a little stupidly, his nerves singing from the spike of adrenaline that bite brought. He could feel Aza’s warm breaths against his throat, and all he could think was how close those sharp fangs were to such a vulnerable spot, and he… really didn’t want to examine why that made his toes curl excitedly, his jaw tilting up a fraction as Aza pressed a very gentle kiss of apology against his Adam’s apple.

“Forgot you get off on pain…” Aza mumbled, letting his fang gently scrape over his pulse-point, almost making Aymeric loose his Fury-damned mind, before he sat up.

Aymeric made a noise of complaint, his hands pressing against the top of Aza’s thighs as his partner sat on his stomach. It was both the most beautiful and obscene he’d seen, that perfect body, well-toned, muscular, heavily scarred from years of survival and living, strong thighs spread and straddling him, the feel of him sitting his weight on his belly, and those eyes, those eyes that Aymeric fell in love with over and over again, hooded and dark with hot want and… Fury fuck him. Fury fuck him. Aymeric greedily drank the sight of him up, digging his fingernails just so into Aza’s thighs and avidly watching his partner’s lips part with a breathless little ‘oh’ of delight, and…

“You’re beautiful,” Aymeric said without thinking, “Exquisite. Perfect.”

“Aymeric,” Aza grunted, going a lovely shade of red, “Shush. I’m the one doing the seducing here.”

“And you can consider me thoroughly seduced,” Aymeric murmured huskily, letting his fingers creep up his partner’s strong thighs, feeling the powerful muscles tense beneath his palms, imagining them squeezing his waist tight, as they had done many times before, in the throes of pleasure. Aza’s body truly was a work of art: so perfectly proportional and toned – not too bulky, not too svelte, just… perfect.

Aza let out a short breath that almost sounded like a laugh. His smile was crooked but fond, and he gently covered one of Aymeric’s hands with his own, tugging it up and… ah. He obediently curled his fingers around his partner’s flush arousal, stroking slowly and unhurried. The tip was already damp with precum, and Aymeric couldn’t stop himself from smearing it with his thumb, listening to Aza’s breaths audibly stutter, his hips rocking into his slow, unhurried strokes, not forcing it faster, just… basking in it.

“I love your hands,” Aza mumbled breathlessly. His eyes were heavy-lidded, peeks of gold beneath dark, long eyelashes, a dark flush high on his cheeks as his lips parted, still kiss-bruised, “You’re so – nhhh… – fuckin’ good with ‘em… so good… you’re so good, Aym…”

It should be illegal to be this amazing, Aymeric thought faintly, his heart ready to explode into confetti at this… this. Aza arching his back, his thighs spreading as wide as he could, hips lazily thrusting into his hand, Aza looking at him, expression dazed yet darkly intent, panting shallowly as he whispered, murmured, purred praise that almost had Aymeric squirming under him. Only Aza could make something as simple as a handjob make him feel ready to melt from the inside.  

He wasn’t content with just this though. He wanted something a bit… more.

Aymeric distracted his partner with a firm stroke of his hand, squeezing gently and making Aza gasp sharply – and with a buck of his hips, a controlled roll, he tumbled them over, clumsily and with a displeased grunt from his partner – soothed by Aymeric immediately kissing his chest, his stomach, all the way down to his happy trail. He buried his nose into the coarse hair, breathing in the musky smell and sort of understanding Aza now – how a simple smell could just drive you to the edge.

Oh…” Aza breathed, his fingers curling in his hair and gently stroking, coaxing Aymeric lower, “C’mon, babe… don’t hesitate, jus- nnnh, yes…”

Aymeric didn’t hesitate. He eagerly took Aza into his mouth, flat of his palms pressed against his hips and feeling them shake from the effort of keeping still. Aza’s fingers clenched tight in his hair, almost painfully, his arousal hot and heavy against his tongue as he dipped lower, and lower, and lower, until…

“S’good, Aym, so, so good…” Aza was panting mindlessly, and it was that voice, whimpering and gasping, that spurred him on. He swallowed, hard, when Aza hit the back of his throat, fought not to choke when his partner’s hips jerked a bit too hard against his hands, forced himself past it as he slowly pulled back, then down, slowly, slowly, getting a good rhythm, a nice, lovely rhythm, tasting Aza, hearing him slowly but surely come undone, his praises slurring into rough, drawn out growls of pleasure. Aymeric loved it. Fuck, did he love it.

Loved it so much he slowly eased the pressure on Aza hips, just let him fuck his mouth as his partner’s trembling fingers clenched tight enough in his hair that it hurt – but his partner was right, there was something lovely about the pain when it came fast on the heels of pleasure, or his partner’s pleasure in this case. He couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. Aza was so close, so very close, could feel it in the taut muscles in his thighs, the way he was gasping and whining, the sharp taste of precum heavy on his tongue, Aza squirming and heels grinding into the bed, thrusting faster, faster, faster, mindlessly whimpering what how good he was, he was doing so good, don’t stop Aym, please don’t stop, please, please, please-

Aza’s orgasm was abrupt yet unsurprising.

Aymeric still startled at it, barely managed to swallow it down. Aza’s fingers were clenched tight in his hair, his hips shivering as he trembled through his orgasm, crying out loud enough to be heard throughout the entire inn, knowing their luck. Aymeric… Aymeric’s world shrank down to swallowing and trying to breathe, finding a bizarre, masochistic pleasure in the whole experience of Aza desperately clutching at him, thrusting hard into his mouth as he rode out the last waves of his orgasm, panting and shivering violently until…

“Nnfhg,” Aza groaned intelligibly, shuddering to a halt, “Fuuck…”

“Mn,” Aymeric slowly pulled away, his throat burning with a needle-sharp ache, and licking his lips clean. He managed to swallow all of it, he realised with some relief, too lazy to actually clean up properly. Slumping to one side, he rested his cheek on Aza’s thigh, feeling his partner still shivering from the afterglow, and smiled with utter self-satisfaction.

“You…” Aza half-slurred, his fingers relaxing in his hair enough to stroke. Aymeric looked up enough to see Aza peering down at him with heavy-lidded, dazed eyes, “Are too clever with your mouth.”

“Mmhm,” Aymeric hummed huskily, wincing a little at the ache. He was going to have a wrecked voice all day now, along with a sore throat to boot, except, well, worth it. It wasn’t as if he was going to be speaking to anyone until tomorrow morning, after all… “Happy you enjoyed.”

“Holy shit,” Aza looked more alert there, sitting up on his elbow, “Did I wreck your throat?”

“Thoroughly,” Aymeric rasped.  

“Oh no…” Aza looked so guilty Aymeric was forced to bite him hard on the thigh to get him to stop, “Ow! Aym, you little shit!”

“I liked it. It’s fine,” he said simply, too lazy and pained to have an extended conversation on his weird sexual kinks. He did kiss the bite mark he left though, content to use his partner’s thigh as a pillow. Aza just huffed at him, but resumed stroking his hair and massaging his scalp which was… very nice

“You’re such a masochist,” Aza muttered, settling on his back, still stroking his hair. A pause, then… “You sure you’re okay with it? I didn’t mean to… um, hold you there. I’m sorry.”

“S’fine,” Aymeric repeated, closing his eyes with a small smile, “You can make it up to me.”

“Uh, what, by lending you my leg as your pillow?” Aza retorted dryly, only to sigh when Aymeric made an agreeable noise, “Aym, you’re so weird. You sure you don’t want me to… return the favour or something?”

“No,” Aymeric was quite comfortable and pleased enough. True, there was the hot cramp of arousal low in his belly, but he couldn’t be motivated enough to do anything about it. Just… that had been pleasant enough for him for now. Also, he was very sore – not just throat-wise, but with his muscles and everything else. He wouldn’t enjoy squirming around too much and aggravating his throat right now, so… “Not in the mood.”

“Alright,” Aza sighed, and gave his hair a gentle tug, “But at least come up here. I wanna cuddle.”

“How about…” Aymeric rasped, “You come down here. I am the invalid here.”

“Nhaama’s tits, Aym, stop being a brat. C’mon, get up here.”

After much bullying and Aymeric pretending that he was struck by instant paralysis and therefore could not move, Aza had grumpily conceded to his demands and went down to him. It took a bit of awkward manoeuvring to free his thigh in the process, but it was managed and Aymeric was curled up with Aza using his chest as a pillow instead.

A companionable silence reigned… until;

“Your thigh was comfier.”

"I swear, I will push you out of bed...” 

Chapter Text

Aza was bleeding. 

He could feel the cuts stinging in his fingers, on his palms, where his hands slipped over the hilt of the knife when driving it into Master’s body, face, dick, everything, his everything. Over and over, his hands slipped, he cut, but he pulled it out and did it again. 

So, he was bleeding. 

The smell of copper followed him as he left Master’s room. He was naked, but the arterial splatter from Master left dark brown streaks over him like morbid body paint. His entire body was shaking, vibrating so hard he felt like his bones would shatter inside him. They didn’t. His body walked, he held the knife tight with a hand where his palm and fingers burned, blood dripping very quietly… 

drip. drip. drip. 

Free, free, free, something in his mind giddily said, and he couldn’t tell if the tight, swelling feeling in his chest was terror or delirious joy. Free, free, free, he was free now. He only needed to… 

Ala’s room was suddenly there. He didn’t remember the journey. There were scratch marks on his forearms now, and more blood. There was a vague memory of fighting someone - another one like him. Raen boy. Name wasn’t important. Old, was old. Loved Master. Was startled, “you killed Master? Oh no, no, Guards! GU-” then he stopped and gurgled because he had no throat but that was okay, that was okay, he was free now too. It was okay. It was okay. 

The door was unlocked. His hand shook too much for him to even open it, but footsteps echoed, and his heart sang because, yes, yes, finally, he can do it. He can get them out, and-

“Aza?”

It had been three months last he saw Ala. It had only been for five minutes, when Ala had looked at him uneasily because he had been upset and shivering from- Master. Ala had a different function to him. She wasn’t touched. She served in the kitchens and was safe. Because Aza did as he was told - or, did. Did. Now, though. Now.  

“Aza, w-what…” Ala’s hair was longer, tied up in Doman style, make up framing her large eyes and she was dressed in a very pretty, elegant kimono. So unlike before, when she would jump in the dirt with deer-skin tunics. He barely recognised her. She looked at him like he was a stranger, “What happened?”

“Master’s gone,” Aza said with a breathy, crazed delight in his voice. His palm was burning with pain. He could hear blood hitting the carpet at his bare feet. He could smell it. Ala looked at him, white-faced and terrified. He felt agitated. Why was she scared? “Master’s gone. We can- we can go. We can go.”

He reached out. 

Ala. 

Ala pulled away. 

“What did you do?” Ala whispered. Her voice was all wrong. Why was she speaking in that horrible Hingan language? Kugane accent? It was Ala’s face, but it was all wrong. This wasn’t his sister, something was snarling in him, terrified and angry, and everything felt like it was falling apart around him. The air was thin.

“I made him go away,” Aza said desperately, and he reached out again, stepped forwards - Ala skittered back. They were in her room now, “Please, Ala, I did this- we have to go home. I promised- remember? R-Remember, I promised, we would, we would go home, to Mom and-”

“I am home!” Ala yelled at him.

Aza stood there with his bloodied hand outstretched, staring at her blankly. Ala looked back at him with an expression he recognised. She was scared but defiant, tears clinging to her eyes, streaking her make up a bit - but it was an Ala expression. She’d make that face when- when… when?

“No,” he said flatly, “We’re not. We’re slaves here. That’s not home.”

“S-So what?” Ala sniffled, her gaze flickering over his shoulder, like she was gauging the distance, “I’m treated nice. I have nice things. We don’t go hungry anymore, or left alone anymore, and, and get to have things! You… if you did as you were told, you’d like it too. Oh, no, Aza, what did you do…? You’ve ruined everything!”

This was going all wrong, he thought wildly. She was meant to be happy? She cried when they came here, ‘I want to go home, Aza!’ so he promised- he… all these years, he… he endured for her, for that promise, and…

“I… ruined…” he repeated stiltedly, “No, I… I promised. I did…”

“I don’t want to go back!” Ala boldly stepped forwards, just ilms from his still outstretched hand, “You can go back to Mom and keep starving every winter, but I’m staying! I’ll find a new Master and be happy with him instead!”

“But,” Aza didn’t understand, “But, I promised-”

“I don’t care about the promise!” Ala yelled, tears streaking down her cheeks, “I was happy here, and you’ve ruined it! Why… you never even visited me anyway! You- y-you left me alone here, because you were - you- so, why now? Why do you care now?”

I’ve always cared, he tried to say, but the words were stuck in his throat. His heartbeat was thumping hard in his ears, his vision tunnelling to Ala’s pale, tear-streaked, angry face. He ruined it. He ruined it? But Master was dead now - he couldn’t touch him, touch them, they could… they could run away together and go home, back home, where it was safe, and… Mom. And… 

He let his hand drop. His palm was still burning. Blood was dripping on the carpet. He could smell blood. 

“Y-You always only, only think about you!” Ala cried, “W-When we first came, you’d do naughty things and I’d get punished for them too! You kept doing it! Then you left me! So, s-so I don’t care about you anymore, Aza! Y-You’ve ruined everything! I hate you!” 

His heart abruptly, completely, utterly shattered. 

Ala’s face gained a nightmarish quality to it. Her words were like a wave that was drowning him. Something dark, and ugly, started squirming into the cracks of his heart, and he felt very cold. Very cold. Alien. Something else rising inside him like a creature from the very dark deep. This was wrong, he told the something. This was wrong. I need to fix it. I need to fix this. I couldn’t have suffered for so long, for nothing, I need, I need…

“Okay,” Aza heard the something say in his voice. 

“I understand,” Aza heard the something say in his voice. 

“I’m sorry,” Aza heard the something say in his voice. 

“I love you, Ala,” Aza heard the something say in his voice. 

“Aza…?”

His palm was burning. 

And there was blood spewing on the carpet. 

And he could smell blood.

…oh.”

Chapter Text

Dalamud always looked so ominous.

It was an artificial satellite the size of a small moon, glaring red and menacingly trailing after Menpina around Hydaelyn. ‘Menphina’s Loyal Hound’, it had been called when they as a civilisation were young and ignorant, before they realised that it was a weapon of mass destruction contained within an artificial shell. The aether around it was always warped, prone to unstable flares and splutters, to the point where they had a whole institution dedicated to predicting and mapping those flare ups to warn incoming and outgoing star vessels so they weren’t reduced to superheated atoms.

It was a relic of a very ancient, reckless past – a relic that was still very much in use. Due to the way it was, ah, constructed, only a select percentage of the population could ever work on it. Only 0.01% of Hydaelyn’s population won the genetic lottery to withstand the Elder Primal’s influences slumbering within that ancient relic, and an even smaller percentage of that actually had the skill, intellect and will to be charged with its day to day running. Dalamud was, despite being a weapon of mass destruction, Hydaelyn’s only source of infinite energy.  

One of those very very very lucky few in charge of such an important, vital relic… was Aza.


“-ing naked when the snow falls around me! Drifting closer to the edge but She won’t have me!”

Aza hummed along to the song blasting through his helmet, idly tapping along the flickering Allagan display. The live support in the control room was still down, but considering that shit was over ten thousand years old and fine tuned for heavily genetically modified Allagan, it was never all that reliable. After an unfortunately incident a century ago where some poor sod asphyxiated to death, it was now mandatory to do maintenance work like you were ready to be spaced within the next thirty seconds.

“Wake up in sweat, full of regret, try to forget, these memories, lurking beneath, lost in a dream…”

The display flickered, and Aza frowned a little when the same error cropped up for the fifth time since his shift started. It was a minor thing – a miniscule percentage rise in temperature and aether harvesting, but it was really strange. There were no solar flares or weird space shit happening for aether levels to spike, so why…

“Unchosen paths, a broken path, forespoken wr- CHIRP. CHIRP. INCOMING CALL FROM FORWARD STATION: H A L O N E.

“Damn it, just before the best part,” Aza muttered, sending a pulse of aether to the linkpearl insistently chirping in his ear, “Yeah, whaddya want?”

“Aza,” a very pleasantly familiar voice purred, “Is that any way to greet your partner?

“Well, if it isn’t handsome!” Aza laughed, his mood buoying as he quickly adjusted the little error flashing across the Allagan display. It resolved itself and Dalamud stopped overproducing aether. He leaned on the console and made himself comfortable, his tail lifting in pleasure, “I thought you weren’t back from New Ishgard until the end of the year? Not that I'm complaining. I missed you, gorgeous.”

“And I missed you too, love," Aymeric returned with such warmth is made Aza's heart want to burst into glittery confetti, even if the crappy reception distorted his partner's voice. Seriously, it was good to hear his voice again! The Comm Buoys were still absolute dog wank between Ishgard's newest colony and Hydaelyn, so he greedily drank up every crackly word from his linkpearl, "I returned early as Haurchefant seemed to be handling its administrative and military duties well enough on his own despite the complaints of his ‘conduct’. He was performing well above the standard, to be honest.”

“Whaaat?" Aza gasped in utter outrage, "Who’s complaining about Haurchefant? He’s an absolute sweetheart!”

“Yes, he’s also pure and ‘best boy’, whatever that means,” Aza could practically feel Aymeric's eyeroll, “Unfortunately, his appointment to a rather prestigious position has ruffled more than a few feathers in the House of Lords-”

“Is this because he’s a gay bastard?” Aza harrumphed, “Have they forgotten that their stupid Prime Minister is also a gay bastard? There’re even photos of you being one all over the Aethernet," he adopted a sly, teasing tone, "I really like the drunken one. Y’know, the one where you’re caught groping my ass during that horrible dinner party?”

“Oh Gods, I almost forgot about that,” Aymeric groaned, sounding like he was in physical pain, “Mobbed by journalists for weeks after that, demanding to know all sorts of obscene details…”

“Yeah, I remember you having to do evasive manoeuvres every time you had to go outside. Funny as shit,” Aza sniggered and swept a bit of dust off the Allagan keyboard, taking care not to accidentally input anything. These things were unpredictable. As they were created to interface directly to an Allagan’s brain implant they tended to get confused if you rubbed your grubby hands all over them without keeping a tight lid on your ambient aether.

“So, what’re you doing on the forward station? I thought you would’ve been keen to go straight home?”

“Dalamud is being a little testy today, it seems,” Aymeric said, sounding slightly sulky, “We’re held here until it either calms, or travels to the other side of Hydaelyn, before we can board the landing shuttle.”

“And, of course, you decided to abuse your World Leader privileges to talk to your lonely boyfriend via the control room's comms?”

“I may as well cash in on some sort of privileges for all the torture my government puts me through.”

Aza laughed, pushing up from the console when that annoyingly, persistent little error flickered up again. It was beginning to worry him now. Dalamud was old as shit, so it was believable that program breaking bugs could start developing in the highly complicated system. Even after several thousand years of study, the only explanation magitek engineers and aetherochemical scientists had for how it worked was a shrug and ‘Primal Magic’?

A lot of unexplainable things were chalked up to ‘Primal Magic’… or the ‘Mothercrystal’.

Aza had to spend approximately seven years in Val University to even scratch the surface of how to work the damn console. He knew enough to identify minor errors like these, and to divert major disasters like the venting systems failing, or one of the Meracydian dragons somehow breaking free of their prisons and running amok. The last one was always the hardest – he always felt extreme pity for them, but the law was firm: if they weren’t in stasis, they had to be culled due to the danger they presented to the workers and Dalamud itself. If even one managed to rouse the Elder Primal, they were fucked. End of.

But those were easy issues to deal with, well within his power, no matter how mentally or emotionally draining. But if he was asked to really get into the technicalities… he was clueless. Dalamud was a work of art that was incomprehensible to anyone not Allagan – which was everyone, nowadays. Most he could do was try and mitigate the damage by engaging its thrusters and hoping to fuck he launched it far away enough that the resulting implosion wouldn’t totally wipe out all life in the solar system.

“Aza? You still there? It's quiet.”

"Oh, sorry," Aza gave a small shake of his head to clear the sudden cobwebs, "I was thinking."

"About...?" Aymeric asked with an amused lilt to his voice. 

"About..." Aza looked at the glow of the display with a small frown, hearing and feeling the whole structure around him groan and shudder. An ancient prison that held equally ancient prisoners in eternal torment. It was kind of sick they were still using this thing, really. He was struck with an odd, fleeting urge to force it into the sun - which he quickly discarded, because that would just break the Elder Primal free, who was unfortunately sun-proof (is that the word?) and able to survive in the vacuum of space. Still, he just didn't like the fact he was standing one floor above an entire hold crammed with Meracydians contorted into tiny stasis capsules, kept on the very cusp of consciousness in burning pain, to fuel the Elder Primal's existence. There wasn't anything they could safely do about it unless they broke themselves free, but it still felt all... wrong and made him feel kinda bad, more so today. 

"Just thinking how horrible Dalamud is," he said honestly, because he could never really lie to Aymeric, even if his partner was hoping for some light, easy banter, "About a month ago one of the locks on a Meracydian's stasis capsule broke and opened up. I always thought it were adults in there, y'know? But it wasn't. It was some dragon pup, just squirming in that stasis goo shit, all... deformed and in pain. I got rid of it like I was meant to, I mean, it was kinder to, right? But, it's still... the... I don't know..." he trailed off. 

Aymeric was quiet for a long moment, then; "...how many consecutive days have you worked?"

"I don't know," Aza said, and he felt mildly alarmed at that. He should know how many days he worked. He was meant to track that shit strictly, "Uh, seventy?"

"Long shifts too?"

"Twelve hours, yeah," Or thirteen? It was difficult to tell the time passing here sometimes.

"Is your superior still Y'shtola?" Aymeric asked, but he didn't wait for confirmation, "I saw her not too long ago on the station. I'll speak to her and have you placed on a mental wellness break starting today."

"What- no, Aym, c'mon, it's not that bad," Aza groaned, but... well, maybe his partner had a point? He had been sulking on here because he felt lonely and bored without Aymeric around, and everyone else was busy helping colonisation efforts beyond the solar system, adventuring and shit, while Aza was stuck in Horrible Space Prison. Only a certain type of person could really work here - it wasn't just the very rare gift of the Echo being a necessity, it was having the iron will to endure the strained, screeching edge to the surrounding aether as millions of lives existed in perpetual, pitiful agony all around you, it was enduring that almost sick, corrosive heaviness the Elder Primal exuded even in sleep. It was just... being able to endure. There was always a very real, dangerous risk succumbing to the Elder Primal's influence, Echo or not, if your will faltered for even a moment. While you wouldn't reach the mindless, slavish devotion most Indoctrinated people would, you were still at risk of developing violent paranoia, hallucinations and suicidal depression. Needless to say, Dalamud had a very high 'on the job' death statistic.

It did mean you had a lot of paid sick days. You were allowed to just take breaks whenever you felt you needed them, since it was proven space and time away from the Elder Primal's influence lessened its effects dramatically. But the whole thing still sucked. 

"You've lost track of your days, and you're sounding a little off," Aymeric said in that no-nonsense tone of his which meant Aza had already lost, "Quite frankly, I'm amazed it hasn't been picked up on yet. How long until your shift ends?"

"Uh, I have... two more hours?"

"One hour."

"Uh-?"

"I'll speak to you later, love," Aymeric said, "I need to hunt down Y'shtola."

"Aym-" Click. "Arrrgh, c'mon...!"


 

There was something unexplainably good about having your feet firmly on Terra Firma again.

Dalamud’s Caretakers tended to live on Forward Station Halone until they took a mental wellness break. Sometimes this could be months, or even years in particularly resilient individuals, for Aza it was six months since he last set foot on it, when he said goodbye to Aymeric at the shuttle station and not expecting to see him again for another year.

That was an unexplainably good thing too, having Aymeric back.

“New Ishgard is a cold planet,” Aymeric murmured, his large, firm hands gently kneading up and down along his back. He had insisted, even though he must be tired from his long voyage, and Aza was very glad he hadn’t rejected the massage. He could just feel all the tension that had accumulated from those six months on Fucked Up Moon Prison just melting away beneath Aymeric’s gentle touch. He never wanted those hands to leave again, “It can reach -32C on a regular business, requiring specialised survival gear to range outside of the settlements, but it has rich deposit of industrial minerals and ice that we can exploit. Haurchefant is very optimistic about its prospects, despite the, ah, harsh environment.”

“Mm…” Aza could almost imagine it. The needle-sharp smell of snow, the biting cold wind, the ice crunching beneath your boots… “Ice for… nearby stations?”

“That’s right. It will be a source of reliable water if we decide to range further,” Aymeric’s hands paused at the small of his back, and… ah, a gentle press of lips between his shoulder blades. Aza arched to the touch with a low, happy purr, “Do you want to visit it?”

“Mm, yeah,” Aza mumbled, “I wanna see it.”

It wouldn’t happen. Dalamud’s Caretakers were actively discouraged from leaving the immediate Solar System, but there was always that glimmer of hope. If, maybe, they got a large influx of prospective hopefuls, so it wasn’t just ten of them, endlessly cycling in and out and battling the encroaching pressure of the Elder Primal. When Aza had learned he had the Echo, he had been so happy, thinking he could be placed on the Exploratory Team, ready to help colonists in potential First Contact scenarios if need be and acting as force protection.

But he didn’t. Bluebird got that. He was shuffled off to Dalamud’s Caretakers when his Echo scores ranked the highest they’d seen in well over a millennium. It had broken his heart. You couldn’t exactly say no to it.

“One day,” Aymeric murmured against his shoulder, “You’ll see it. You’ll see all the colonies we’ve made. You will not be at Dalamud forever, love.”

“Feels like I’ll be there forever,” he mumbled against the pillow.

Aymeric bit him, gently, but he got the message. He huffed out a sigh that slowly transitioned into a low groan when his partner’s hands started kneading along his tense back again. He melted beneath his touch, and those dim, gloomy thoughts faded a little more into the background. Aymeric was right, he wouldn’t be at Dalamud forever. There was a strict retirement age of forty.

Three more years. He could manage that.


Approximately thirty-three million malms away, a tiny, insignificant ice moon in orbit to Rhalgr, the Red Planet, began to shudder.

Dalamud, as distant as it was, registered a spike of unknown energy within the solar system. Automatic systems began to warm up from millennia of disuse at the perceived potential threat, the ancient, complicated machine churning through dusty old programming to decide its proper course of action. The ice moon continued to shudder with such force that its surface began to crack, and Dalamud slotted the unknown event into its targeting solutions.

This was at 2300hrs, 16 04 102018. Last logged event was approximately 10000 years ago, when a cataclysmic tectonic event shifted the entirety of Hydaelyn’s surface. Dalamud was then placed into passive-mode when X A N D E C O N T R O L T O W E R went offline and no further commands were offered. Dalamud scanned for X A N D E C O N T R O L T O W E R and received no response. No response. No response.

At 0001hrs, 17 04 102018, the ice moon violently broke apart. The alien energy spiked. Dalamud calculated and considered. Scanning anomaly. Scanning… scanning… scanning…

0010hrs, 17 04 102018, unknown alien object emerged from ice moon. Energy spikes further.

0012hrs, 17 04 102018, multiple unknown alien objects arrive into solar systems at lightspeed. Alien energy signature violently dispersed. Unknown alien objects were U N R E C O G N I S E D, therefore default to last logged behaviour when confronted with unrecognised intrusion: A G G R E S S I V E P O S T U R E.

Weapon systems were sluggish with disuse. Dalamud increased aetherical input. Elder Primal’s consciousness rose by 0.2%. Within acceptable parameters.

0014hrs, 17 04 102018, targeting solutions complete. Alien objects still U N R E C O G N I S E D, still initiating A G G R E S S I V E P O S T U R E, conclusion is D E S T R U C T I O N O F I N T R U D E R S.

W E A P O N S Y S T E M A H K M O R N R E A D I E D.

T A R G E T S A C Q U I R E D.

A H K M O R N I N I T I A T E D.

F I R I N G.


Dalamud, a weapon of mass destruction, built at the pinnacle of the Allagan Empire in anticipation to assist them in dominating their immediate solar system, directed a controlled Ahk Morn through the vacuum of space toward the intruders. In a blink of an eye, it travelled multiple lightyears and speared through the collected fleet of alien ships that had leapt from the unknown, alien object with devastating effect.

It was a very bombastic First Contact with the Citadel Council.

 

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Bluebird felt so out of her depth with the hot mess that was her brother.

It was three in the morning and they were both sitting in the far corner of the Forgotten Knight. Only the hardcore alcoholics and depressed assholes were still mooching about here, keeping quietly to their own tables. It smelled like shitty ale and smoke and Bluebird hated it. She just hated Ishgard in general, with how it was grinding Aza’s spirit into dust and fucking them over with new dramatic shit at each turn. Aza had been getting better when they came to Eorzea, and now…

Her brother always had a drinking problem, but it was manageable. They just made sure to have one of them soberish with him at all times, and they weren’t afraid to wrestle him away from the bottle and bundle him into bed to sleep it off. This time Aza just… well, he’d been drinking, but Bluebird had no idea how much. She just found him like this, sitting at the table holding a half full tankard of ale and just staring at nothing. He hadn’t said a word when she sat down next to him, and he still hadn’t said a word or even moved after her staring at him for the past hour.

She recognised this behaviour, though she hadn’t seen it in a good, long while. When Aza was upset enough, he just… shut off. He blocked everything out and disappeared inside his fucked-up brain, thinking up fucked up things, and coming to fucked up conclusions that were so wildly wrong and damaging that Bluebird just wanted to beat him around the head until she smacked the illogical crazy out of him.

Even after all these years, seeing him at his worst, at his best, she just didn’t understand him. She couldn’t predict his moods or thoughts. One day he’d be fine, then something would just set him off and he’d brood or get quiet or weird and snappish, and it drove her nuts. It wasn’t his fault, though, she knew that. He tried his best, he had coping mechanisms, and they worked most of the time, but other times he had unhealthy coping mechanisms, and just tried to destroy himself and it was… exhausting to try and keep up.

Bluebird had no idea how he was keeping up with it.

It was a little after three when Aza stirred out of his blank staring, and Bluebird smiled tightly when his unfocused gaze slid over to her. “Oh,” he rasped, “Hey.”

“Hey,” Bluebird said breezily, acting like nothing was wrong. This was normally the best way to go, she found, even if she had to smile with gritted teeth and clenched hands, “Rough day?”

Aza made some vague, incoherent noise in the back of his throat, “Yeah.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

Aza looked back at his tankard and said nothing.

Bluebird took in a slow, deep breath, “Okay.”

She refused to sit here in silence again, though. Telegraphing her movements, she scooted her chair towards him, letting the legs scrape noisily over the floor. A few of the loser drunkards gave her irritated looks, but like she gave a fuck what they thought. Aza was looking at her irritably too, which she liked, because it was better than that creepy, blank staring. Irritated Aza was an aware Aza.

“Could you be any noisier?” he muttered.

“Yes,” Bluebird said, settling her chair next to his with a triumphant clatter. She bared her teeth in a wide smile at Aza’s wince, his ears flicking back, “Do you want me to do it louder? I can go back and do it again.”

“Don’t,” Aza groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. He looked drained, “What time’s it?”

“Three or four in the morning, thereabouts,” Bluebird rested an elbow on the table, her cheek pressing against an upturned palm as she observed her brother with heavy-lidded eyes, “You were doing that creepy staring again.”

“It’s not creepy,” Aza said, abruptly pushing his tankard away. Bluebird quickly claimed it for herself, before he changed his mind and decided to chug the whole thing. He looked… alarmingly sober, “And I was… thinking. Deeply.”

“Hmmm…” Bluebird dragged the sceptical hum out, “About?”

“Nothing.”

“You were thinking deeply about… nothing,” Bluebird drawled, “Geeze, Aza, are you saying you’ve got just empty air in between those hairy ears of yours?”

Aza grimaced, and Bluebird smiled a little more sincerely at the childish expression. He hated walking into traps like those.

“C’mon, tell me,” she ordered.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Aza said snippily.

Bluebird poked him in the ribs, carefully gauging his mood. Normally it was difficult to tell if he was in a ‘I will break your hand if you so much as exist in my close proximity’ mood or ‘ugh I’m not in the mood but fine I’ll tolerate you because I love you for some inexplicable reason’ mood until one made physical contact and had to rapidly save their fingers from being broken. Luckily Aza just glowered tiredly at her. Tolerable mood, then.

“Tell me,” she poked him again, grinning when Aza’s upper lip curled enough to bare very sharp fangs at her. It was like baiting an ill-tempered dog, she loved it. But, there was a time and place for Aza-baiting, and now wasn’t it, sadly, “Or I’ll start guessing.”

Aza watched her warily but said nothing.

“Fine,” Bluebird sat back in her seat, tapping her bottom lip. What had happened recently? Too many things, honestly. There was Estinien running for the hills without so much as saying goodbye. Thancred was back, edgier and broodier than ever, and so was Y’shtola, except now blind. Minfillia was one hundred per cent dead (in Bluebird’s expert opinion when someone says ‘she no longer has a physical body as she now serves as the Mothercrystal’s voice’, it’s pretty much the same as ‘she’s pretty fucking dead, bro’). Haurchefant had also joined the Dead Peoples Club, which was a shame because she never got a chance to rematch that arm-wrestling contest with him and win back her title as Having The Buffest Arms In Ishgard. The Warriors of Darkness were now a thing, being edgy tryhards and interrupting sexy dinner dates with sexy Lord Commanders…

Hmmm.

“Those Warriors of Darkness sure are cringey, huh?” she tried, “They’re so transparently bad at being, well, bad.”

Aza’s shoulders relaxed a fraction – damn, her blind shot missed, but she was rewarded with her brother’s mouth curving into a very amused smile, “You think so too? I almost gave myself an aneurysm rolling my eyes at them. So edgy.”

“Clearly not natural born villains like us,” Bluebird scoffed, “You’re more menacing after just waking up with serious bed hair.”

“Crisp says I’m a monster before morning coffee.”

“Ugh, a bitey monster,” Bluebird muttered, bearing many scars on her wrists and hands when she, in her stupid youth, thought it was fun to bait a just awakened Aza. She very quickly learned otherwise, “But they, uh, don’t bother you?”

Aza shook his head and started picking at a scratch on the table, “Well, they do, but… compared to Nidhogg imminently burninating the entirety of Ishgard…”

“Point,” Bluebird said slowly, narrowing her eyes – she skirted close to what was bothering him then, she could sense it, “They haven’t really done that much to us, have they? Well, they almost poisoned Alisaie, yeah, and interrupted your dinner date with the Lord Commander-”

There. Aza twitched.

Bluebird grinned broadly, “That’s it, isn’t it? The dinner date.”

“Bluebird,” Aza said in a very strained tone, “Drop it, please.”

“No,” she dug her heels in, scenting blood. When Bluebird saw weakness, she went for it no matter what, “Now, let me think on why you would be sitting here, sulking-”

“I’m not sulking!”

“-after having a dinner date with the hottest bachelor in Ishgard. From what I heard, you two were having a good time… even flirting, according to some…”

“Bluebird,” Aza hissed, starting to go a rather damning shade of pink. Bluebird’s grin eased into a very lazy smirk.

The thing was, while Bluebird didn’t understand Aza, she did know him. While she couldn’t follow the fucked up twists to his mind to see how he came to his stupid conclusions, she could kind of guess things or recognise certain behaviours and tells. This… the last time she saw him like this was when he and Haurchefant got half-drunk and slept together, and Aza had a near meltdown when he realised he liked him. Really liked him.

Aza was fine with casual flings… in a way. He was very particular, and only on certain days when he was in certain moods, but he did have casual sex. But that was it: it was casual. Anything resembling a relationship was treated as some terrifying thing that needed to be handled like it was an unstable bomb. Aza had too many issues to pin it on one specific thing, but long story short he had a veritable cocktail of traumas and issues that meant Aza and romantic relationships were as compatible as oil and water.

Still, Aza got cravings, she supposed. Everyone had a desire to be loved and cherished, even abused, scared children like him.

“He seems decent and he really likes you,” she said, gentling her tone, “I bet he’s the kind to write disgusting love poetry though.”

Aza looked away from her, putting his elbows on the edge of the table and burying his face in his hands.

“I can’t,” he whispered into his palms.

“Why can’t you?” Bluebird asked, then grimaced because she could think of several reasons why, “I mean, aside from the obvious stuff like, he’s the Lord Commander and blah blah blah?”

Aza dropped his hands, puffing out a short breath as he muttered, “Those are pretty big reasons why.”

“Well, yeah…” Bluebird trailed off. Right, the Lord Commander was more firmly in the public eye than Haurchefant ever was. While one could ignore what some bastard son of a noble was doing under his own roof out in the frozen countryside, the Lord Commander was always scrutinised and needed to keep a very impeccable reputation what with his opponents keen to sling mud at him. Taking a Miqo’te to bed would… ruin that, wouldn’t it?

“Just drop it,” Aza said, looking so worn down at the edges that Bluebird didn’t have the heart to needle him further, “I know it won’t go anywhere. So, don’t… please don’t speak to me about it anymore.”

Bluebird hesitated. It kind of rubbed her wrong to let Aza give up before he even tried but, she was also painfully aware that pursing Aymeric would hurt him too, if it went all wrong. Aymeric clearly liked him, you’d have to be fucking blind to miss the looks he gave Aza, the way his voice dropped an octave when he spoke to him – but Aymeric was also so utterly devoted to Ishgard that he was willing to kill his best friend to save it. If Aymeric had to choose a potential romance with the Warrior of Light, and serving Ishgard, Bluebird knew which one he’d choose.

Maybe it was for the best, for Aza to give up on this one?

This was so beyond her abilities to puzzle out, Bluebird thought exhaustedly. It was too early in the morning to try and figure it out. She’ll hassle Crisp with it later…

“Fine, I’ll drop it,” she said, mentally tacking on for now.

After all, while she was out of her depth dealing with Aza’s bullshit, that didn’t mean she shirked from it. As frustrating and confusing he could be, he was still her little brother… one that she genuinely wished to see happily in love with someone so they could help him out too. Bluebird was just one woman here, and she could only satisfy his emotional needs in one way. So, maybe, they could try with Aymeric…? Possibly, if she…

“C’mon,” she said, nudging her brother’s shoulder, “Let’s get you to bed. You can cry over your pitiful love life tomorrow.”

“Tactful as ever,” Aza grumbled, but he looked relieved at her dropping the issue.

How cute. If only he knew what she had planned.

Chapter Text

Full moons were always interesting nights. 

Aymeric was always peppered with questions regarding them, because he was one of the very few people who openly dated a werewolf. Questions ‘common knowledge’ such as, did werewolves go into heat? Did they shed fur everywhere? Aren’t you scared of being bitten? Is it true they drag dead animals back as gifts during full moons? Are they civilised

Aymeric’s answer was the same to each and every question: why don’t you get to know a werewolf and find out yourself, instead of asking such ignorant questions?

It was unfortunate that werewolves were scrutinised so heavily in today’s supposed tolerant society. Vampires and Werewolves still tended to hide their status for as long as physically possible for fear of being singled out, and that wasn’t getting into the other magical creatures that intermingled with Spoken races. It meant Aymeric was never short for work in the Magical Creatures and Spoken Relations Department (or McSad, as many members joked wryly), but it was still a depressing thing to realise. 

But this story isn’t about Aymeric’s neverending battle against Magical Creature prejudice. This story is about full moons. Specifically, full moons with his werewolf boyfriend, Aza.. 


It was a cold, rainy night, gusting strong enough to rattle the windows in their panes. In an old house like theirs, which sat on the very edge of a primeval forest and had a very unreliable central heating system, it normally meant a night where Aymeric and Aza bundled up, snuggled together and watched bad movies or complained to each other about their respective jobs. 

(Fondly, of course. As depressing as working at McSad could be, it was rewarding too whenever Aymeric saw progress advance a few ilms. Aza just complained for the sake of complaining, considering he worked his dream job as a wildlife biologist and frequently declared how much he ‘fucking loved it’)

Tonight was no different, except for one thing: it was full moon, which meant

“I think we need to get a new bed,” Aymeric commented lazily as said bed creaked ominously when Aza heaved his furry bulk onto it, “I don’t think it can endure your abuse for much longer.”

Aza’s snout wrinkled in a very wolfish smile, and Aymeric shifted to accomodate his partner settling down next to him. It amazed him, sometimes, how Aza’s compact five fulms became seven fulms of solid wolfish muscle. His fur was a sinfully soft, sandy gold (that yes, did shed everywhere), and Aymeric could never stop himself from stroking it. The only next best thing were the paw pads. Even though werewolves still had hands, albeit with wickedly sharp claws, their palms had the adorable paw pads. It was great. They were so squishy and soft to touch.

“Lovely as always,” Aymeric murmured as Aza rested his head on his chest and curled around him. His partner was blissfully warm, helping to fight off the sharp chill lingering in their bedroom. He rubbed behind one, velvety soft ear, and smiled as Aza purred. Even as a wolf, his partner was a Miqo’te through and through, “I don’t think I say it enough, love. You are a very handsome wolf.”

Aza stuck his wet nose under his chin and heaved a warm huff of air against his throat. Aymeric smiled, then laughed when his partner started to nuzzle him, the quiet thump thump thump of his tail hitting the mattress. 

“Adorable,” Aymeric chuckled fondly, gently nudging his partner’s nose away enough so he could kiss the tip of it, “What are you in the mood for tonight, love? Sleep, or…?”

“Mrr…” Aza blinked his beautiful, yellow eyes at him, then shifted so he was almost squashing Aymeric against the bed with his bulk, snout wrinkling in a very wolfish, cheeky grin. Any normal person would rightly be nervous at having such a sharp set of teeth bared so close to one’s throat, but Aymeric just felt thrilled. 

Oof, I see. You want to cuddle,” Aymeric said a bit breathlessly, shifting enough so he could breathe without his rib cage getting squashed. He wrapped his arms around Aza’s neck and buried his nose into the thick, shaggy ruff, snuggling close as Aza carefully held him tight, mindful of his inhuman strength. Werewolves were dangerously strong, and most injuries between Spoken-Werewolves was due to carelessness on the werewolf’s part, but Aza was always careful with him. Aymeric could count on one hand the amount of times Aza accidentally hurt him, and it was always something as minor as his claw lightly scratching him somewhere or being a little rough when nudging at him. 

One of those strong, clawed hands very gently ran along his back, and Aymeric found himself slowly drowsing. Contrary to popular belief, Aza tended to be lazy like this. He much preferred to snuggle or nap, rather than running wild into the woods, which suited Aymeric fine. There was no better feeling than curling up with a living, loving personal heater on cold, rainy nights like these. 

The bed creaked as Aza moved slightly, one muscular leg sliding over his hip, and Aymeric smiled into his partner’s ruff. Not just cuddling, then…

“You might have to get me in the mood,” he murmured teasingly into Aza’s fur, and let out a startled, semi-grossed out laugh when his partner’s response was to deliberately slobber his ear, “Urgh… Aza, that is the opposite of mood-making.”

Aza huffed out a laugh, then nuzzled under his chin in a much more romantic way while giving him the puppy-eyes. Aymeric instantly forgave him.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” Aymeric grumbled without heat, unable to stop a smile as he pulled his cheeky, mischievous but lovely werewolf boyfriend in for a fond kiss on the nose. 

Chapter Text

Aymeric jerked awake to the noise of a door slamming shut.

“M’awake, Lucia, just resting my eyes,” he half-slurred as he sluggishly sat up. There was a moment of confusion when he wondered why all he could see was off-white- then realised that the report he had been painfully enduring- er, reading, was stuck to his face. With a grimace he peeled it off, noting the lettering was all smudged by… oh, he must’ve drooled, how uncouth – and blinked blearily to see…

“Those are flowers,” he said rather stupidly to a very amused Aza.

“Your powers of observation never fail to awe me,” Aza said cheekily, because he was a brat, and adjusted the colourful bouquet in his hands. It was impressively large and vibrant, and it smelled lovely as his partner approached his desk, “But yes, these are flowers… for you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to be all romantic and stuff,” Aza let out a small huff of amusement, “Gods, Aym, are you still asleep?”

“I think I am,” he confessed, but gave himself a bit of a shake to dismiss the lingering mental cobwebs. He knew little and less about flowers, despite floriography being a thing amongst the noble Houses or Ishgard. It was heavily encouraged during one’s youth to court utilising a language of the flowers… a practice that had only become more popular since the flash-freeze Ishgard endured during the Calamity. Obtaining rare, exotic flowers was a sign of wealth and good connexions, and Aymeric had heard of more than one young and stupid noble almost impoverishing himself trying to purchase the perfect bouquet.

Aymeric, due to his circumstances of being a bastard and a member of a minor noble house, missed that slice of upper class culture. Not by choice but, well, he never let it bother him.

“It looks lovely,” he managed to say, squinting at the flowers and trying to place them. Unless they were something like a rose or a lily, he couldn’t tell what it was, so he was completely lost, “But, ah, what’s the occasion?”

“I just felt like it,” Aza said casually, fidgeting with the paper wrapping coiled snugly about the flowers’ stems. His partner’s eyes were lowered almost demurely, his mouth curved into a small smile with the faintest hint of pink to his cheeks. Aymeric found himself entranced, something warm and fuzzy melting in his chest as his partner peeked up at him with an almost shy smile, “Do you like it?”

“I love it,” Aymeric said instantly, too besotted to realise the words coming out of his mouth, “I love flowers.”

That was the right thing to say. Aza brightened, openly relieved, “That’s great! I knew Ishgardians practised floriography, you see-”

The fuzzy warm feeling popped and Aymeric went still, realising where this was going.

“-and after asking around, found out it’s some weird courtship thing you guys do,” Aza continued, blissfully unaware of Aymeric’s glum realisation, “Since we kind of skipped all that stuff, I got to thinking that maybe we could try it? We have something similar in Othard, called hanakotoba, so I think it could be fun trying it out.”

Oh. Aymeric was fucked.

“Uh,” he began a mite awkwardly, frozen by the earnest, happy look his partner was giving him. There was no way he could say no. If he confessed to having no clue about floriography, he had no doubt Aza would become embarrassed and guilty for not knowing, and that pure, happy look on his partner’s face would go away and Aymeric would have no choice but to exile himself to the darkest cave this side of Coerthas to atone for such a terrible crime, “Well, I…”  

“Unless you don’t want to?” Aza asked uncertainly as Aymeric tiredly fumbled. His partner’s smile was fading, his ears drooping slightly as he sensed rejection, “It… it was just a stupid idea, um, forget it-”

“I want to!” Aymeric said quickly, almost startling Aza from the force of his near-shout. He coughed, then said a mite calmer, “Ah, I mean, yes, it… sounds fun. I would be more than happy, to engage in Ishgardian courtship with you, if that’s what you want.”

Just like that, disaster was averted. Aza’s smile quickly returned, and he held out the bouquet for Aymeric to take. It felt like accepting a heavy burden as he lifted it from his partner’s hands, though at it least it was a very pretty, pleasant-smelling burden that would brighten up his office. He couldn’t help but take a moment to admire them, that warm, fuzzy feeling creeping back in. There was something so… it was just a few flowers, but he felt as touched as if Aza had given him the sweetest compliment.

“You’re smiling,” Aza murmured, and Aymeric looked up to see his partner grinning at him, “I should’ve given you flowers ages ago.”

“I would have confessed my attraction to you a lot sooner if you had,” he teased lightly, his apprehension briefly forgotten, “But, love, thank you. No one’s given me flowers before.”

It sounded kind of sad when said aloud, but it was true. Despite being complimented as being handsome and pleasant-mannered, the other nobles never looked at him as worth anything higher than a bastard who stubbornly elbowed his way into a prestigious position that should’ve gone to someone with better breeding. While many noblewomen and noblemen expressed interest in a very casual tumble in the blankets, Gods forbid if they get caught courting him. Their reputation would be ruined, or it would be quickly revealed to be a very cruel jape to avoid social suicide… meanwhile Aymeric would be the butt of the joke. It had been… safer to avoid it entirely. He’d been too busy for it anyways.

Still. There was something nice about being given them. He felt he’d been missing out on a very simple, lovely pleasure.

He was brought out of his musings when gloved fingers gently curled under his chin. He looked up from the bouquet just as Aza leaned heavily across the desk, their lips meeting in a very brief kiss. He held the bouquet tight as they stayed like that, Aza pressing his forehead against his and gently purring in a low, lilting way that had him slowly relaxing.

“That’s their loss,” Aza murmured, clearly understanding what went unsaid, “And my gain. If you want I’ll bury you in flowers, handsome. I’ll give you so many, as much as you want, and everyone will be super jealous.”

More like they’d mock them behind their backs – the nobles could be unbelievably catty when they wanted to be – but, honestly? Aymeric didn’t care. The thought of Aza showering him in flowers made him feel as giddy as a youngster, and his heart felt fit to burst, even if it was such a silly, frivolous thing. He was finding that his relationship was mostly rediscovering silly, frivolous things he missed out during his youth. It was amazing.

“Then, I want a bouquet every day,” Aymeric purred, smiling when Aza laughed quietly, “This office is far too drab, and the bedroom could use some colour.”

“Oh, Gods, yes,” Aza pulled away with a warm grin, “Consider it done.”

His partner left not too long after that, parting with a sweet kiss and a murmured promise of a very relaxed night. Aymeric stared at the door after he left for a long moment, his heart still fluttering like a hummingbird trapped in a cage, a silly, stupid smile on his face. He was being a fool, but he didn’t feel any shame in it.

Then, of course, he came back down to earth, and realised that for every bouquet Aza got him, he’d need to give one in kind.

He looked at the beautiful flowers in his arms, realised he recognised none of them (but still appreciated them) and understood that he was thoroughly and utterly doomed. In situations like these, he would normally turn to Lucia, but a Garlean spy given the role as a simple knight wouldn’t be trained in the Ishgardian floriography culture. No doubt she knew a little from mere observation, but there was too much room for error. Lucia couldn’t help him here.

So, he called in the guard, asking them to hunt down the one person who could…


Artoirel took exactly three steps into the Lord Commander’s office, uncertain and worried at his sudden summons, when he found himself with an armful of flowers that proclaimed unending devotion and love and sexual desire.

The Lord Commander stood before him, grim-faced.

“… I’m flattered, but you’re engaged,” was literally the only response Artoirel could think to say.

“Aza gave me those,” The Lord Commander said, looking bewilderingly sheepish, “I, ah, was hoping you would be able to…”

Realisation dawned, and Artoirel managed to conceal his sympathetic wince. It was the similar snarls and traps Haurchefant encountered himself, growing up amongst them, and too late he remembered Aymeric’s parentage, his status, and that he never would have had cause to learn this significant slice of upper class culture. It made him wonder how Aza knew, but he quickly learned that the Warrior of Light was privy to the oddest of things.

“I can help,” he sighed, resigned to a very awkward night, “Do you know what these mean, at least?”

Aymeric’s blank look said all.

This was going to be a very long, awkward night.  

Chapter Text

Stone Vigil was a hot mess.

That was Aymeric’s eventual assessment as wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, his nose stinging with the near overpowering stench of dragon blood. With the revelation of Ishgardians carrying a trace of Dragon’s blood, it was standard practice for knights at risk of combat to cover their mouths and nose with a facial mask. Whilst it protected them from accidental ingestion, it made fighting a lot more uncomfortable.

Aymeric’s own facial mask was damp from condensation, and he irritably tugged it down beneath his chin, keeping his bloodied fingers away from his mouth. They were ambushed on one of the exposed corridors that led to the strongroom near the rear of the vigil, and he tentatively eyed the scorched stone and stress cracks running along the wall and floor where the dragons had barrelled through.

This corridor was going to collapse long before they finished fixing and reinforcing it. How many attacks had this vigil endured, now? They had reclaimed it due to Aza’s help, but the weakened walls, compromised foundations, as well as the insistent skirmishes, were making it more of a dangerous burden than a strategic reclamation. Their manpower was already stretched thin between the territory they already held and fulfilling their commitments to the Eorzean Alliance, that they couldn’t do anything more than keeping Stone Vigil by their mere fingertips. It was… frustrating, to say the least, to go through the depressing cycle of fighting back a dragon skirmish, fixing the damage done in said skirmish… only to go through it all over again a week or two later.

It was causing a lot of grumblings in the House of Lords, grumblings Aymeric could ill afford right now. He needed to find some way to break this vicious cycle…

“Lord Commander,” an exhausted knight pulled up next to him, drawing him out of his thoughts, “All men are accounted for and the dragons are completely routed. However, the corridor has taken extensive structural damage, so it’s been suggested by the engineers to relocate to a more stable location, sir.”

“Understood. Thank you, Knight,” Aymeric said distractedly. The knight saluted and dismissed himself – to be swiftly replaced with a much more welcome presence.

“Well, that was fun,” Aza said in the tone that implied it was the exact opposite, “I sure do love fighting dragons in cramped, narrow hallways while tripping over a hundred bumbling knights.”

“Yes, yes, you could have killed them all single-handedly,” Aymeric said with a quiet huff, “Unfortunately, they didn’t give us a chance to politely excuse ourselves from your magnificent presence.”

“How rude of them,” Aza tutted, slouching his shoulders in a near-comical exaggeration.

Aymeric looked him over, taking in his partner’s relaxed, satisfied posture. For all his belly-aching, he seemed to have found the fight invigorating enough to be in a good mood. There was blood speckled against his cheek, as well as thick, drying streaks of dragon’s blood smeared across his breastplate. The cloying smell of so much blood was beginning to make him feel ill, a nausea he ignored with some difficulty.  

“Anyway,” Aza said, straightening up and giving him a small smile, “I keep being heckled to move to ‘someplace safer’, so…?”

“The corridor’s structural integrity is unreliable at best, so, yes, best we move,” Aymeric confirmed, gesturing for Aza to start skedaddling. His partner did so, and they started to pick their careful way down the corridor. Debris and chunks of masonry threatened to trip them, and the cracked floor was slick with half-frozen blood and ice. Dragon corpses lay sprawled in the narrow space, all of them sporting the downy feathers of immature Aevis. Very young dragons, remnants of Nidhogg’s crazed brood.

It made Aymeric tired to think on it. He had naïvely thought that Nidhogg’s death would bring about the end of this, but the dragon’s brood stubbornly and insistently dashed themselves on Ishgard’s walls. They were too disorganised, too few and too weak to have any long-damaging effect, yet still they persisted. Did they intend to fight them down to the very last dragon pup? Didn’t they want peace at all, or was vengeance all they had left?

“You’re quiet,” Aza noted once they were two thirds down the corridor, “Something on your mind?”

“Mn,” Aymeric pushed those worries away, “No, I’m just tired.”

“Well, in that case,” Aza began, “We-”

DRAGON!” Someone yelled, then-

The warning came a split second too late. Before Aymeric even processed it, before he even had a chance to whirl on the exposed side of the corridor – the Vigil violently shook beneath his feet hard enough that he almost staggered into Aza. A grinding cracking noise thrummed all around him, the groaning of stone pushed to the very limits, a very, awful, lurching feeling in his belly when he felt the stone floor shift beneath his feet, pale brick dust half-blinding him from the force of whatever the hell just rammed into the corridor-

In that frozen split-second, Aymeric’s mind processed several things at once.

The monstrously huge Aevis determinedly clawing its way into the narrow corridor, having rammed headfirst into the structure with the blind, maddened fury of a rabid animal. The chips of stone flinging everywhere as its claws tore at everything. The cracks of stressed masonry literally falling apart. Hot embers choking the air. The abrupt, terrifyingly cold knowledge of there is a thousand fulm drop beneath our feet and-

And by pure, beautiful, sheer instinct, Aymeric blindly lunged sideways into Aza, just as the floor gave way beneath their feet.


Aza weighed too much.

It was an awful, terrifying thought to have in that moment. Aymeric’s shoulder was a hot throb of agony, strained past its limit as he balanced dangerously, perfectly on the very edge of the massive hole that just opened in the corridor. Around him was yelling and shouting and the furious, pained howls of a dragon. Aymeric’s mind frantically pushed away all that noise and focused on his numbing fingers clenched tight around Aza’s forearm, the way the edge of the half-crumbled floor dug into his belly, the way he could feel gravity plucking at him, trying to tease him over and to tumble into that fucking terrifying expanse of steel grey below. It was taking all his core strength and weight to stop himself from sliding forwards, helped by the fact that Aza did not struggle or flail or do anything any sane man would’ve done when finding himself a thousand fulms above ground.

“Oh, fuck, okay,” Aza was saying, his voice breathless and strained but calm. A dragon roared somewhere, “You’re good, Aym. You’re good. Just hold on.”

“I… am…” he forced out in a curt grunt, his free hand pressing hard into the stone when he felt himself almost slip forwards a damning half-ilm. His shoulder was on fire. He was losing strength in his grip. Fuck, he might’ve pulled something when stopping his partner’s very rapid descent, “Aza, I can’t… you’re t-too…”

“If you say ‘you’re too heavy’,” Aza laughed a little wildly, reaching up with his free hand to grip Aymeric’s bicep, “No, it’s good. I can- I can get myself up. Just- just stay like that, handsome, okay? It’s okay. Just stay there.”

The entire corridor felt like it heaved, masonry cracking somewhere out of sight. A flare of heat at his back, everything lighting up in a glow that reflected in Aza’s eyes. His partner was disturbingly calm. Aymeric was… calm. His mind compartmentalised everything, broken up into manageable chunks to deal with later. He focused on; Aza, his weight, his shoulder, the steel grey sky below their feet. Everything else was boxed up and put away. Later. Focus.

“I’m really sorry,” Aza said to him, “This is probably going to hurt a lot.”

Then, with an abrupt yank on his arm, almost making Aymeric’s vision go white with pain, Aza hauled himself up from sheer upper body strength alone, his fingers gripping hard into his shoulder, the other hand – the stone edge. Blindly, Aymeric gripped at him, shuffling back and half-dragging, half-holding as Aza scrambled and crawled over the edge onto solid ground. Semi-solid ground. Everything was still trembling.

“Phew! Okay!” Aza said shakily, giving him a wobbly smile, his face alarmingly pale, “It’s good. We’re all good. You did good, Aym, you’re amazing, holy shit, thank the Twelve for your fast reflexes, okay? Okay, so- oh, fuck, I forgot about the dragon-”

Aymeric, on his knees, still honed into that calm, focused edge, turned to see the Aevis reeling from one smart knight aiming a still functioning Bertha cannon into its face. It screeched, writhed, wildly spraying spluttering fire, sending knights scattering with shouts.

“Oi!” Aza roared, his near-death experience instantly forgotten as he leapt to his feet and charged forwards, “Fuck off, you stupid lizard-

Aymeric knelt there for a few seconds, then quietly stood on weak legs and gripped his sword hilt with a trembling hand. He took that moment, boxed it up, and put it into the back of his mind for later. He followed his partner a moment after, grip steady and sure on his blade.


It hit him when they were back in Ishgard.

He was sitting on the sofa of their living room, well, sprawled more like, bone-weary and his shoulder aching. He’d lightly torn a muscle, according to the chirugeon, and whilst a dash of healing magic recovered the worst of it, he was told to do only light exercise for a few days. Aza, of course, acted like his arm had been ripped off and stitched back on again, and refused to let Aymeric handle anything heavier than the house key.

Despite the fact he’d been the one to almost die today.

Then, it hit him.

It hit him that Aza had almost died.

This wasn’t anything new. Aza almost died all the time. But it was always out of sight, something he heard about and never really saw with his own eyes. He saw Aza, injured and limping, wincing from serious wounds but alive and well enough to grumble and whine about it. It was different to hear ‘Aza almost died again’, different than actually, physically, holding his partner from the very jaws of death, to know that if he had been too slow, or if his grip slipped, or if he fell over too, or if the dragon had turned its attention to them, or if, or if, or if.

It hit him, that Aza could have very easily been one of those. Aymeric saw many of them, during the height of the Dragonsong War. Of knights plucked up and dropped several hundred fulms, to dash against the rocks. Of ‘heretics’ forced to leap from Witchdrop and having their bodies paraded through the Holy See, lauded as loyal martyrs who proved their faith by willingly leaping into Halone’s halls (as if they weren’t thrown, begging and pleading for mercy). As Lord Commander, Aymeric had stood and watched far too many of those, seen to many of those, scraped up too many of those, and even after twenty years of witnessing them he still felt clammy and nauseous whenever he had to look at those broken things.

Because, they were never bodies at the end. They became smears, stains, pulp, rather than corpses. Even just thinking about it made his pulse unsettlingly fast. To imagine it as Aza-

Aymeric shifted to lie down on the sofa instead. He felt a swell of nausea rise in his throat, and he clasped his hands over his belly, feeling the fingers tremble as he very carefully prodded at that bone-deep fear. He understood himself. He knew how he worked through moments like these. He had a system to compartmentalise his trauma and feelings and emotions and work through them piecemeal by piecemeal. Only. He did that by himself. Normally.

There was none of that here. Aza was in the kitchen. He could hear him lightly singing in that lilting, odd language of the Steppes. For some reason hearing it made his throat clench up and he had to take a very deep, long breath. Eventually Aza will have to come out of the kitchen and will know something was up. Aymeric wasn’t hypocritical enough to hide it from him either.

Something prickled at him uncomfortably – Aza was messing up his routine, something said anxiously, but that wasn’t meant to be a bad thing, was it? No, it wasn’t. He should be relieved and fucking happy Aza was here and not a Fury-damned smear somewhere. Still, anxiety lingered and gave birth to guilt. It just tangled up together in a very confusing jumble and he found himself unsure on how to pick it apart. This was going against his usual system and he didn’t like it.

He didn’t know how long he spent staring up at the ceiling, very carefully pushing down the burning tight feeling in his throat and chest. It was, rationally, a silly thing to be getting upset over now. Aza didn’t die. Dwelling over what ifs was useless. He should just be content that it all ended well and, honestly, he needed to get a fucking grip.

Still, emotions and rationality rarely, if ever, went hand in hand.

It took him a moment too long to realise Aza wasn’t singing anymore. The very second he noticed that, his partner leaned over the back of the sofa and into his line of sight. He looked worried.

“Aym?” Aza said warily, “I called your name like, five times. Did you fall asleep with your eyes closed?”

“…no,” Aymeric said roughly, “I’m having a moment.”

“Um,” Aza wavered, clearly not expecting that, “A moment? Like, a bad one?”

“Yes.”

Aza said nothing for a moment, then went, “Okay. Budge over.”

Aymeric budged over, but there was barely any room on the sofa anyways when Aza climbed over the back of it and wedged in the narrow space. Aza was half-sprawled on top of him, but Aymeric curled his arms around him and pressed his nose into Aza’s hair and smelled the lingering smell of metal, oil, sweat and brimstone. It wasn’t a very nice smell, but it was an Aza smell. That was enough.

Aza gently nosed at the crook of his neck, his hand resting on his aching shoulder and very lightly pressed his thumb against the tense muscle. It ached, teasing slightly into pressure pain, but Aymeric didn’t mind. His breath caught in his chest, shuddering audibly.

“You upset about today?” Aza asked him quietly, tilting his head enough to kiss the pulse point in his throat, “About us nearly falling?”

“A little,” Aymeric murmured, hating how his voice came out all strangled, “I almost dropped you.”

“But you didn’t,” Aza told him gently, “You caught me. Okay? You caught me, it’s all good.”

“I know. I shouldn’t be upset, but…” Logically, he understood that he caught Aza and everything was fine. Emotionally, he kept imagining Aza as one of those smashed up corpses and felt ill and clammy at the near ‘what-if’. It was exhausting and annoying. Around this point he would find some work to tunnel-vision on and work himself to the point of falling into a dreamless sleep. Probably not a healthy way of dealing, thinking on it.

“… Lucia tells me,” Aza began after a short pause, “That sometimes our brains are dumbasses and makes you feel stupid things, but those stupid things are still valid. So, you might feel dumb for feeling upset about me almost dying, because, well, I’m obviously not dead, but it’s still a valid feeling. If… that is what’s worrying you.”

“Lucia said that, in those exact words?” Aymeric asked, finding a whisper of humour in him somewhere.

“Shut up. I’m paraphrasing, you asshole,” Aza muttered, then continued in a slightly nervous tone, “I just mean, um, I don’t think you’re stupid for being upset about it. And, I won’t judge. I’ll just keep reminding you that I’m okay, in case your brain forgets, and you deal with it at your pace, okay?”

Aymeric was quiet for a moment, briefly stunned. Lucia was a very good influence and an effective pseudo-therapist, what the hell. He needed to give that woman a raise.

“Alright,” he said, “I’m very upset.”

“About dropping me?”

“Imagining you… if you dropped.”

“Mn. That sounds like it’d be messy.”

“It is…” Aymeric said a bit listlessly, “I’ve seen many knights or supposed ‘heretics’ die from fatal falls. It is… it is never a clean death. Some, they must have died on impact. A grim fortune for them, I suppose, but the afterwards, is… for those who needs to pick up the pieces…”

Aza nuzzled his throat, distracting him from the very uncomfortable, queasy clench in his gut, “Let’s not talk about that,” his partner murmured against his skin, lightly kissing his fluttering pulse point, “It’s making you all clammy.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise,” Aza sighed, “S’okay, Aym. Maybe we should talk about something nicer? You need a break, it sounds like.”

Aymeric took a moment to consider if he wanted to do that. He felt too tense and weary to really… no, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He was too tired and sore, too mentally drained. A break was needed.

“…did you see Lord Dounon’s atrocious hat the other day?”

“Ugh, you mean that ugly fucking pancake that’s sitting on his head?” Aza scoffed lightly, “Unfortunately.”

“I almost broke a rib trying not to laugh whilst staring at it.”

They spoke a little longer on a few Lords’ unfortunate fashion choices, but eventually exhaustion began to win its war against Aymeric. He failed to stifle a yawn mid-sentence, his eyelids drooping shut. He was so tired, and he grumbled when Aza laughed and cooed at him and kissed the tip of his nose.

“Take a catnap, handsome,” Aza told him, “Then you can shower the stink off you, eat something and face the day a bit more refreshed. I can call Lucia over too, if you want.”

That actually sounded tempting… and leagues better than what he would’ve done if left to his own devices, which was work himself to exhaustion and wake up hungry and groggy and unhappy, “Are you cooking?”

“Yup. Gonna make pancakes – if you go to sleep now.”

Aymeric muttered about tyrants, but Aza just laughed at him and kissed his nose again.

Like this, it was easy enough, to compartmentalise, take a breath – and relax. The anxiety was still there, but… it was better. Just a little. Just enough.

Chapter Text

As always, Aymeric woke up at the crack of dawn.

It was to an empty bed, so he thankfully didn’t have to go through the torturous ordeal of untangling himself from Aza’s arms and slipping out without him waking up (impossible). He did so love his partner, but some days he he just wanted get to work on time without having to rush because Aza decided to imitate a rather clingy, amorous limpet.

The sun was just peeking over the twisting spires of the Holy See when Aymeric emerged from his home, dressed, fed and waiting for his coffee to kick in. His feet took him along the well worn path towards the Congregation of the Knights Most Heavenly (he needed to find a way to shorten that into something that didn’t sound so… cultish), the air almost pleasantly mild. It was ‘summer’ for Ishgard now, and that brought with it weak sunshine, gentle breezes and rain. It boded well for a possible thawing of the permafrost that clung to this land, though he doubted they would be able to reproduce their previous agricultural output for another few years yet.

The foot traffic was light this early in the morning, so Aymeric was utterly alone as he descended the steps from the Pillars to the lower levels of Ishgard. It meant he could break decorum a little and stifle a yawn behind his hand, feeling ragged to the bone. Gods, he always felt so exhausted when Aza wasn’t here. As distracting as his partner could be, he certainly slept easier when they-

-something abruptly jabbed him hard in his kidneys.

“Fuck-” he blurted in utter surprise, his foot slipping on the step and almost sending him on an embarrassing tumble, if not for the strong hand gripping his bicep. His lower back throbbed from the very painful jab he just took, and, face slightly red from embarrassment, regained his footing and turned to see-

“That’s another stabbin’ you coulda hand,” the ‘Mongrel’ smiled at him, all teeth, “C’mon, Lord Commander. I’ve told ya before about this route. Ambush points everywhere.”

Aymeric’s shoulders slumped, and Hilda kindly released his arm to give him a short pat on the shoulder, somehow making the gesture of reaching up not look too ridiculous.

“Lady Ware,” he sighed wearily.

“Hilda. I ain’t a lady.”

Lady Ware,” Aymeric repeated, just to be contrary and because he got some vindication at watching her wrinkle her nose in disgust at him, “Thank you for scaring another five months off my lifespan. How many deaths is that now?”

 “Two hundred an’ fifty somethin’ or other,” Hilda said, and jabbed him in the ribs again before he could move away, “Yer self-awareness is shite. It’s a miracle you ain’t been stabbed again, what with all them lords sharpening their daggers every time your back’s turned.”

“It probably has to do with the fact that you loiter in the dark corners they’d normally try to stab me from,” Aymeric said, his voice dry as dust, “The key to a successful assassination is not to do it with witnesses, you see.”

“Smarmy bastard,” Hilda said fondly, “Still, I can’t loiter in all the dark corners. I got a life outside of looking at your arse all day.”

“Duly noted,” Aymeric sighed, and inclined his head, “Walking the same way?”

Yup,” Hilda said with a cocksure smile, boldly moving in step with him as they continued their way.

It was a queer friendship, he knew, if it could even be called friendship. It wasn’t a conventional relationship in the slightest, an alliance of necessity to smooth over any snarls and tangled between the Temple Knights and the newly established City Watch. Several knights, and lords, were somewhat disgruntled at these lowborn peasants suddenly having the power to enforce the law. Whilst the City Watch tended mostly to petty crime, freeing the Knights for more high-profile and sensitive cases, it was still a scrap of power long denied to those at the very bottom. Friction was inevitable.

Yet, during the beginning years of their wary and necessary alliance, a strange camaraderie started to form between them. Hilda jokingly said it was because he was now part of the ‘Orphaned Bastards Club’, but Aymeric felt it was more because they both believed the same things… and they really enjoyed thumbing their noses at the stuffier lords sitting pretty in Ishgard’s fledging republic. There were stark differences between them, though. Aymeric’s position was always privileged, member of the Orphaned Bastards Club or not, whilst Hilda scrambled at the bottom of society since birth. Friction there was inevitable too.

But they made it work.

Yes, they were both stubborn and passionate and clashed – often – but Hilda had proven herself to be a valuable ally, instead of the dangerous enemy she could have been. She worked with him to ensure a level balance between the Knights and the City Watch, she was blunt and honest enough not to hold back to correct him on his assumptions on what the lower class needed, and, more importantly, she was loyal to a fault.

He could do without the mock-assassinations whenever he went to and from work though. At this point he had a feeling she was doing it more to mess with him, rather than increasing his chances of surviving another assassination attempt.

“I see Lover boy’s outta town,” Hilda said casually, “What’s he up to this time? Savin’ another damn country?”

“He’s gone fishing with some adventurer friends,” Aymeric said.

The look Hilda gave him was worth the early morning scare, honestly. The disbelief, the slight suspicion that he was pulling her leg, writ across her face was deeply amusing, “Fishin’.”

“Mm, that is what I said,” he said with mock-innocence, “Something the matter?”

“He doesn’t seem like the type to fish,” Hilda said dubiously, “Requires a bit of patience, don’t it?”

“If there’s a promise of food at the end of it, you’ll find him surprisingly patient,” Aymeric said, “Also he fishes with Imperial grenades.”

Hilda let out a sigh that almost eased into a laugh, “’Course he does.”

The rest of the walk to the Congregation was pleasant in Hilda’s company. She told him a little of what the City Watch had been doing, what assistance they could do with, and in turn Aymeric told her about the new bills being proposed regarding a government funding project to properly equip the City Watch. Hilda had taken that last thing with a wry twist to her lips, just as aware as him that that bill would be bounced around in the House of Lords for as long as their constitution allowed.

“Best leave ya here,” Hilda said briskly as they stopped at the Congregation, “When ya see Aza, tell ‘im to swing by the Forgotten Knight sometime. Haven’t had a drink with him in a while.”

“I’ll pass on the message,” Aymeric promised.

Hilda clapped him on the arm, her fingers trailing along his forearm and pressing a crumpled piece of paper – discreetly – into his hand. With a two-fingered salute, the Mongrel prowled off in that confident strut of hers, disappearing into the early morning crowd that had started to stir.

Aymeric closed his fist around the paper slowly and turned away, tucking it casually into his breeches’ pocket. Another perk to his friendship-alliance with the Mongrel was information that would otherwise be denied to a Lord Commander part of the ‘class system’ all the commoners hated. What people wouldn’t admit or say to the knights, they admitted to the City Watch. But, whilst the City Watch’s powers were limited, Aymeric had more clout and influence. It was always a balancing act to work out on what he could action, but it made his life so much easier.

Honestly, it would have been a harder ordeal rooting out corruption, if it weren’t for her.


“Sir. Sir.”

“M’awake,” Aymeric mumbled into his desk, not lifting his head even when Lucia sighed somewhere above him.

“Lord Artoirel is here to see you,” she said firmly, “To discuss the Adventurer’s Guild Proposal. Remember?”

Aymeric made a noise better suited to some deep-sea creature being pulled out of a loch somewhere. The fucking Adventurer’s Guild Proposal. The bane of his political existence and the thorn in the House of Lord’s side. The last debate on it had descended into petty stonewalling, where no one had come out smelling pretty.

(Aymeric himself hadn’t come out of that debate well. In a flash of white-hot, temporary madness brought on by sheer frustration at the inefficiency their government was stagnating in, he had ended the ridiculous shouting match by flipping the Speaker’s desk and verbally flaying everyone present. It was the first time he ever heard the House of Lords stunned into terrified silence. It was then that Artoirel had, warily, suggested that perhaps they should all take a break and cool their heads a little while someone replaced the Speaker’s desk.)

“Should I take that as you cancelling the meeting?” Lucia asked him flatly.

“I’ll take it,” Aymeric said wearily, propping himself up and massaging his temples. A low-grade headache was beginning to throb insistently behind his eyes. He was so sick of reading things now. He should have ran away with Aza to throw Imperial grenades into a lake somewhere.

Lucia didn’t move, giving him a long searching look.

“Sir,” she ventured carefully, “When was the last time you took a break?”

Considering Lucia helped to micromanage his stuffed to the gills schedule, she should know exactly when he took a break. Better than he, anyways, where the days just blurred together in some nightmarish ordeal of holding a fledging republic together by his fingertips. Whilst it was more stable than it had been initially, somehow that meant more work bubbling up as people actually became efficient enough to start, well, working. Instead of just focusing on reshuffling their budget and trying to dismantle the Ishgardian war machine, they now had to juggle foreign policy, trade routes, commitments to the Eorzean Alliance, commitments to the Scions, immigration, social reforms, military reforms, economics, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Aymeric just didn’t have enough hands to manage it all.

“You tell me, Lucia,” he said in a rare show of snippiness, “When did I last have a break?”

Lucia straightened up and said, rather coolly, “Three months ago, sir, for half a day.”

Aymeric rubbed at his face and pinched at the bridge of his nose, letting out a very long exhale, “Right.”

“…I think,” Lucia said in a very neutral tone, “That you need a break, sir.”

Aymeric looked at the papers sprawled over his desk for a long moment. What had initially filled him with passionate determination now made him feel an intense dread. He was burnt out, he realised, and stressed to a cracking point, if his embarrassing blow up at the last House of Lords session was anything to go by. “Yes, I think so too.”  

 “Conveniently,” Lucia continued, “An invitation from Lord Hien of Doma arrived this morning by Postmoogle. It seems they wish to express their gratitude for the contribution Ishgard made towards their reconstruction efforts. It asks for you explicitly by name.”

It was a testament to how tired Aymeric was that he didn’t immediately make the connection, “This is convenient…?”

“Sir, this is a thinly veiled attempt to curry further favour with Ishgard by inviting you to their city to be spoiled and bribed,” Lucia said bluntly, “While the other City States also made contributions to Doma, the engineers and architects we sent have been integral to rebuilding their city and their destroyed castle. No doubt they will want us to continue loaning such expertise until they no longer need it, and to do that…”

“Ah,” Aymeric said, enlightened, “I see.”

“I already sent an acceptance on your behalf,” Lucia said, proving that she was an angel sent down from Halone Herself. If Aymeric weren’t so exhausted, he probably would have gotten down on his hands and knees and thanked her from the very bottom of his heart, “I’m certain the Warrior of Light will be happy to accompany you.”

That was all well and good, except, “But, who will tend to my duties in the interim?”

“I can handle your Lord Commander duties, sir,” Lucia said, and inclined her head towards the door, “And I am sure Lord Artoirel can handle your Speaker duties, as he is your political second in command. You should start learning to delegate.”

Aymeric processed this for a long moment. Then;

“Lucia,” he said gravely, “Have I ever told you how much I appreciate you?”

The faintest curl to Lucia’s lips betrayed her smile.

“Yes, sir,” she said warmly, “You tell me every day.”


All things considered, Artoirel handled his sudden burden with good grace.

“You need the break,” Artoirel told him firmly, “I was beginning to worry that you would crash and burn before you started delegating.”

“I wasn’t that bad, was I?” Aymeric asked, although a sinking feeling in his belly told him that, yes, he had acted a bit like a control freak. He couldn’t help it. He had sweated blood and tears to get Ishgard to this point, and he was terrified that it was going to be cocked up by petty greed and ambitions running counter their fledging republic. There were so many things that could be taken advantage of – were being taken advantage of, where corruption could fester and grow if one took their eyes off it for too long, where their government could collapse in on itself like the unstable house of cards it was and erupt into a destabilising and bloody civil war.

Aymeric wanted this to go well. He needed this to go well. Yet… he was also falling into the trap of thinking it’d only go well if he micromanaged every single possible bit of it, which… which wasn’t all that different to how Father had ruled Ishgard. Just like him, he was all but strangling the government by gripping it so hard. The realisation felt like a knife to the gut.

No, wait. A knife to the gut would have been better, actually.

“You… need to delegate a little, yes,” Artoirel said diplomatically, “But no one can deny you have Ishgard’s best interests at heart.”

Aymeric rubbed his forehead, biting back ‘the Archbishop also had Ishgard’s best interests at heart’, because that was going to go down an emotional rabbit hole of father issues that Artoirel didn’t deserve to sit through.

“Right,” he said instead, bottling up that emotional upheaval for later. He planted his hands on the papers on his desk and pushed them forwards towards his soon-to-be-intensely-suffering-replacement, “In which case, I deeply apologise for the hell I am about to put you through.”

Artoirel looked briefly pained, though the expression quickly cleared into one of grim, determination.

“I’ll endure it,” he said.

Really, Aymeric sincerely hoped Artoirel won the next round of elections for the Speaker position. He was, apparently, a far better politician and man than he’d ever be. That was a bitter pill to swallow, surprisingly, but it was mostly relief Aymeric felt.

Lucia was right.

He was burnt out.


Lucia kicked him out of his office before it was mid-afternoon.

“Go home,” she told him, and physically blocked him from getting back in his office. After being soundly out-manoeuvred and cowed by Lucia’s stern glare, Aymeric had no choice but to slink back home feeling oddly out of sorts. He had no looming deadline he had to grind towards, no bills or proposals he had to manage, no patrol reports to review or inspections to prepare for or… anything. He felt almost adrift, and he barely remembered the walk back home.

(Hilda would have been scandalised at his lack of self-awareness. He was probably lucky she didn’t chance upon him. She might have drop-kicked him)

He spent his abrupt dearth of free time not preparing for his journey in less than two days’ time – but by lying on his living room floor. It was, actually, a very comfortable floor, and he now saw why Aza lied down on it so much. It was firm, but not uncomfortably hard, and was doing wonders for his aching back. Maybe he should make this a thing. Just spend an hour lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, slowly dumping all the white noise in his brain so he felt semi-human again.

This was the state Aza found him in a few hours later.

“Aym,” his partner said, standing at his head and smelling faintly of damp and mud, “Are you having a moment?”

“Lucia kicked me out of the office,” he informed him, still disbelieving about that. Grateful, but disbelieving, because the last few hours had been blissful, albeit accompanied by the low-grade anxiety of knowing that he wasn’t doing anything productive, “To take a break.”

Aza laughed at that, crouching down. He was smiling, an adorable grin that flashed his sharp canines and made the corners of his eyes crinkle. Aymeric dreamily admired that lovely expression for a long moment.

“I told you that you were working too hard,” Aza chided him gently, “Did you just lie here the whole time?”

“Yes,” Aymeric said shamelessly, “How was fishing?”

“Great. We annoyed a kraken and fought it.”

Aymeric hummed quietly, finding himself smiling a little stupidly at how genuinely pleased Aza looked at that. Only he would find fighting a kraken a good outcome of fishing, “Did you win?”

“Of course!”

Not long after that he had an armful of Aza, stripped naked with his brine-smelling clothes in a pile next to the sofa. The smell of damp and mud still lingered, but Aymeric still inhaled it and found that tight knot squeezing his belly slacken and relax. No matter how stressed he became, he could always count on Aza just… making it right again. True, he brought his own challenges from time to time, but, Gods, they were worth it.

“You have a dopey look on your face,” Aza commented, the pair of them nose to nose, “I bet you’re thinking of something very schmoopy.”

“Mmm…” Aymeric smiled lazily, “I’m thinking about how much I love you.”

“Sap,” Aza muttered, but his cheeks were a little pink and he was smiling, “You always think about that.”

“Not always,” Aymeric said, “Sometimes I think about how beautiful you look. Or how amazing you are. Or how many Chocobos you’re going to adopt when we retire-”

“Fifty,” Aza said instantly.

“More like one hundred,” Aymeric said wryly, “Like you’d stop at fifty.”

“Point.”

“In short,” Aymeric concluded, “I think about plenty of things… but it is mostly about how much I love you.”

“I can see that,” Aza said, giving him an odd smile. For a moment, it looked as if he was going to say something, but then just sighed and closed his eyes, “I love you too, Aym. Even if you are a sappy dork.”

A companionable silence fell on them then. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable. Aymeric just basked in the warmth of his partner’s body curled against his own, the press of his forehead against his own, the tickle of Aza’s hair against his nose and bottom lip, just… listening to him breathe, feeling him in his arms, here, existing, slowly, Aymeric could feel the lingering tension in his body just…ease away.

Yes, he definitely needed that break. He hadn’t realised how bone-weary and burnt out he was until now. A few weeks longer and he might’ve self-destructed entirely, jeopardising everything he worked for and causing the problems he feared would happen, just from stubbornly micromanaging everything.

Doma would still be work, but it’d be relaxed work. He would have to schmooze and make friends, but he wouldn’t have to also juggle a thousand other things simultaneously. It’d be good for him to just decompress and figure his own life out, before wading back into the thorny battlefield that was Ishgardian politics.

“What’re you thinkin’ ‘bout?” Aza asked him sleepily.

“… work,” Aymeric murmured, kissing the tip of his nose, “You’ll find out later.”

“Hrm,” Aza was content with that, and he watched as his partner slipped off into a dozing slumber. He looked adorable. It was amazing how loving someone so much made even the simple act of sleeping seem like the most sublime thing on the planet. Aza was right, he was such a sappy dork.

For the first time in a while, his worries about Ishgard were… the furthest thing from his mind.  

Chapter Text

“By majority vote,” Artoirel said in a quietly apologetic tone, “You have been nominated as Ishgard’s official ambassador to Kugane. You are expected to report to your new posting by the end of this month, sailing schedules permitting.”

Lucia drew in a sharp breath through her clenched teeth. Aymeric ignored it. He did not flinch, kept his expression one of cool neutrality as he quietly absorbed the blow Artoirel had delivered him. He should be grateful that this had been done in the privacy of his office, and not in the very public space of the House of Lords session he was meant to be attending in the next hour. Artoirel himself looked rumpled, as if he had ran here the moment he heard Aymeric had returned from his inspection of Dzaemel Darkhold.

He shouldn’t be surprised. There had been many debates on who to send as part of the contribution to diplomatic mission in Kugane. The Eorzean Alliance had established an embassy there, eager to try and secure a foothold there to allow better communication and diplomacy with their new Doman ally, and sent the call for each City State to contribute. Various names had been drawn up in both Houses, but Aymeric’s had been bandied about the most.

Logically, it made sense: he was charismatic and well known for his political acumen. He also had a genuine interest in expanding Ishgard’s foreign ties, was friendly and culturally sensitive to foreigners, and was one of the loudest supporters for the Eorzean Alliance – and had several enemies in both Houses that would enjoy neutralising him by sending him as far away as physically possible without launching him into space. He had already proven himself too troublesome to cleanly assassinate.

Aymeric folded his hands on his desk, very carefully compartmentalising his personal feelings on the matter and forced himself to regard it with cold calculation. In all honesty he was impressed at the cunning of this plan – he had been aware there was a voting session whilst he was on inspection, but as it didn’t pertain to any high-profile proposals or legislation, hadn’t paid much mind to it. If he had known…

Well, what could he have done? From the sounds of it this had been a plan long in the making and the votes already decided before the debate had even begun. The majority of Ishgard’s MPs wanted him out of Ishgard and causing trouble for other people. He should, in fact, look at this as an opportunity. He was already coming to the end of his term as Speaker – he had been elected twice, already, and their constitution stated that one could only do two consecutive terms at a time – and he had been considering whether to revert to being mainly the Lord Commander or becoming a full-time politician.

It was a prestigious position, on paper. He should be honoured that he was chosen to represent Ishgard and strengthen their ties with their allies.

He should be.

(he wasn’t)

“I see,” Aymeric finally said, when three full minutes of silence stretched between them, “Thank you for informing me, Lord Artoirel. Should I assume that my presence is therefore not needed in the upcoming session?”

Artoirel dipped his head, “Correct. It has been decided that I will carry out the remainder of your duties until the next Speaker is chosen in the upcoming month.”

Aymeric relaxed a fraction at that. At least his exile hadn’t wrenched a hole open for the likes of Lord Dounon to slither into, “Am I able to nominate a successor for Lord Commander, or has that too been decided without me?”

Artoirel winced slightly at that, “If you are able to nominate a successor that meets the Houses’ approval in the next week-”

“Lucia,” Aymeric said instantly.

Sir,” Lucia protested, “I am-”

“More than acceptable,” Aymeric said shortly, “Lord Artoirel, if the Houses’ have a complaint on my successor, feel free to direct them to myself. Notwithstanding her origins, she has proven herself time and again as a loyal soldier of Ishgard, unflinching in her service and diligent in her duties. I will accept none other as my successor, if only because she has been carrying out the Lord Commander duties on my behalf for the past few years so I know she can do it. She has proven herself.”

A grim kind of humour flickered across Artoirel’s face as Lucia stood in stunned silence, “I am sure no one will protest, sir.”

I will protest,” Lucia said immediately, “Sir, my place is at your side.”

“You would be better served here, Lucia,” Aymeric said, “I refuse to relinquish this seat to someone who would abuse it. I know I can trust you with Ishgard and the Temple Knight’s best interests.”

Lucia wavered, but after a pause where Aymeric met her gaze evenly, her shoulders slumped and she inclined her head with a soft, unhappy, “Understood, sir.”

“I shall leave you to your preparations, Lord Commander,” Artoirel said, rising from his seat, “I wish you luck in your new position.”

The door that clicked shut behind the departing Artoirel sounded damningly final. Silence reigned again, until slowly, Aymeric pushed his seat back and stood up.

Lucia watched him with wary eyes, “Sir?”

“Pardon me, Lucia,” he said with a strange, unsteady sort of calm, “I need a moment to collect my thoughts. Please take over my duties until I return.”

“… yes, sir.”

Aymeric barely remembered the walk back to his home. His mind was too busy spinning over how he had been exiled from a home he had shed sweat, blood and tears over for all his life. Should he be surprised, though? From the moment Lord Borel had raised him up from one of the many unwanted, faceless orphans that clogged up the Brume, Aymeric had always had to viciously fight and defend his place in a world that was determined to shut him out, had always had to dig his heels in so he wasn’t tossed aside. No one had believed he would amount to anything more than a low-rank knight – and even then, that had been considered too good for a bastard like him. But he had proven them wrong – had forced them to look at him and admit he was better than his peers who came from good stock.

That did not come from being passive and earnest. Aymeric had to be more ruthless, more calculating and smarter and stronger and more skilled to achieve his goals. He had crushed more than a few noble hopefuls under his heel to claw his way into the position of Lord Commander, and while he was eventually, grudgingly, acknowledged… he was never accepted.

He’d gotten complacent, he realised. He thought things had changed enough that he could relax into a position he made himself and not worry about having to continuously prove his worth to remain there. He was elected! They wanted him there! They wanted him there!

Hah. What a lie he told himself.

When he reached home, he stood in the front hallway for a long while, feeling adrift. He should start getting his affairs in order. He needed to see if he could transfer his funds from the Ishgardian bank to whatever the equivalent was in Kugane, he needed to find which ports directly travelled to Kugane, he needed to pack and what was he going to do with this house? Should he place everything in storage? Last he heard the diplomatic mission in Kugane was a three year posting, but what if they just continuously renewed his place there? He’d never come home and then what? There was so much to consider in so short a time – transporting his belongings would have to be done the slow way, by ship, even if he possessed just enough anima and aetherical control to teleport to Kugane. Though it took a lot out of him and he had to take a day to sleep it off and-

Aymeric closed his eyes and stopped his thoughts, taking a deep, long breath.

He couldn’t believe he had been exiled.

Realising he wasn’t going to get anything done, Aymeric sat down on the bottom step of his stairwell and stared at his hands. If this had happened differently, if this had been a choice of his, he knew he would be excited and eager to carry out a diplomatic mission in a foreign country. But it wasn’t his choice. It was a thinly veiled rejection, of the Houses coming together and saying ‘thanks for everything but we don’t want you here anymore so go be someone else’s problem’, and that…

That really hurt.

Aymeric gently prodded that hurt for a moment and sighed. It sounded childish even to him. No doubt there were more than a few who genuinely thought he was the best man for the job, who probably thought he’d be overjoyed at such a posting, but emotions rarely took logic into consideration, so he was left with a throat-clenching, chest-tightening ache that he had to breathe through slowly.

He’d get over it, he told himself as he rubbed roughly at his face. He always got over it. He just needed to think how this would be a delightful change of pace, and how it opened so many new opportunities and experiences for him. He would enjoy it, the initial pain of sorting his admin out aside, and it might, potentially, mean more time with Aza-

-shit. Aza. Aza hated Kugane.

It felt like a stone had dropped hard into the bottom of his stomach. Aza refused to go to Kugane unless it was absolutely vital for work or to fulfil a favour for a friend. If Aymeric was trapped there full time, would Aza go against his understandable and visceral hatred of the place to visit him? Even if he did, would Aymeric even ask him of that? It seemed cruel, and he couldn’t force Aza to be somewhere he hated. He would hate it, Aza would hate it, and they’d be equally miserable.

For a very brief, desperate moment, Aymeric was actually tempted to do something drastic like commit political suicide and force the Houses to elect someone more ‘proper’… only to realise that they’d probably send him anyways as punishment for whatever he did. He anxiously stood up, paced the width of his front hallway, and sat down again, feeling a caged animal.

He should call Aza.

Forcing himself to push away his unsettled emotions and focus, he tapped at his linkpearl, reaching for his partner’s frequency. He was at Camp Dragonhead today, helping Lord Emmanellain with some task or other, so the connection should be stable enough without enduring static-

“Hello?”

“Aza,” Aymeric murmured, feeling his stomach do something very weird and potentially medically unhealthy, like it couldn’t decide whether to twist or sink, “Hello, love.”

“Aym?” Aza’s surprise was understandable. Aymeric only tended to call his linkpearl for long absences or emergencies, “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“I’m-” he found himself incapable of finishing. He was fine, but also not. He also felt inexplicably foolish. Aza was supposed to be back by dusk, and it seemed ridiculous to call him in the middle of work simply because Aymeric’s feelings were hurt over a reassignment. It wasn’t pressing, or an emergency, and could very easily wait for that evening when Aymeric didn’t feel so raw about it.

“It’s nothing,” he said instead, “I’m sorry if I distracted you. I’ll speak to you to-”

“Bullshit,” Aza interrupted sharply, “Aym, you sound really fucking upset. What happened? Do I have to kill someone?”

“I- do not sound upset,” Aymeric said unconvincingly, because he sounded strained even to his own ears, “No one needs to be killed either.” Unless Aza was willing to eliminate the entirety of Ishgard’s government, that is.

(Terrifyingly, Aymeric knew Aza would do that, for him, but it was best not to dwell on those things)

“You sure?” Aza’s tone gentled, “C’mon, tell me what’s wrong. I’m just sitting here watching people fail at mining, so I can talk. You won’t be bothering me.”

Fail at mining? “How can you fail at mining?”

“Easily, if you’re a Camp Dragonhead knight, apparently. They keep fucking up the extraction of darksteel,” Aza sighed, “Amateurs, honestly. I’m gonna wait for a few hours before putting them out of their misery.”

Aymeric was half-tempted to ask about how one exactly ‘fucked up the extraction of darksteel’, but that would be procrastinating and both of them knew it. Aza would indulge him, but Aymeric really shouldn’t try talking circles about this. He took a moment.

Aza patiently waited. On his end he could hear the soft crackle of the aether connection, distant, muffled shouts and the howl of a strong wind.

“… I’m… I’m no longer the Speaker of the House of Lords,” Aymeric finally said, surprised at how much it hurt to say that aloud. It was more real when he actually said and acknowledged it.

“You’re… how?” Aza gasped, “I thought you had another two months!”

“It seems,” Aymeric muttered, his voice brittle, “That the Houses unanimously agreed that I would be better served in Kugane as Ishgard’s representative in the Eorzean Alliance’s embassy.”

“They’re kicking you out of Ishgard!?” Aza hissed, understanding immediately, “They can’t do that! You’re the reason their government isn’t a steaming pile of shit right now! You single-handedly-”

“I cannot claim all the credit for Ishgard’s recent successes,” Aymeric said tiredly, “I’m not that arrogant to think the government revolves around me. No, I…” he paused and then continued with a conviction he didn’t feel, “I have fulfilled my purpose here, and can… do more in Kugane. It’s fine. It’s a prestigious position to have and they clearly think I can do well in it. It… it will go well.”

“…” Aza sighed, “Aym, you don’t have to lie to me.”

Aymeric felt awful. He wanted this conversation face-to-face. He should have waited, “I’m not lying.”

“You are,” Aza said firmly, “You’re upset, so be upset. Why else did you call me? C’mon.”

“To give you the good news?” Aymeric croaked out.

“You didn’t even try to sound sincere then,” Aza said, unimpressed, “Look, I’ll come home right now-”

“You hate Kugane,” Aymeric blurted.

“What?”

“You hate Kugane,” Aymeric repeated, “So, if I’m there… you-”

“Gods, Aym,” Aza sounded like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or yell at him, “Yeah, I hate it, but… shit. I won’t let that stop me from visiting you or hogging your blankets. You’ll have to pry me out of your bed almost every morning, same as usual.”

“But,” Aymeric began and… faltered, because that part of Aza’s past was always a taboo subject, “Your history…”

“Was over twenty years ago,” Aza murmured so quietly Aymeric almost didn’t hear him, “I… I’ll be okay. For you, I’ll be okay. I mean, try to have your living quarters as Eorzean as possible and don’t start dressing like a Doman, but… yeah, it’ll be fine.”

Aymeric wavered, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Aza sounded like he was smiling, “You’re totally worth a bit of discomfort, handsome. You just gotta be extra distracting whenever I visit, okay?”

“Easily done,” Aymeric said with unspeakable relief. That was one burden eased from his shoulders, at least.

“Was that the only thing that was upsetting you?”

Aymeric hesitated, but confessed, “No. I’m… there is more.”

“Okay,” Aza’s voice was gentle, “Let me show these guys how to mine, and I’ll be home within the hour so we can talk properly, alright?”

“Alright,” Aymeric almost whispered, “Don’t needlessly rush. I can wait.”

“Pfft. No, you can’t. You’re more important to me than a bunch of stupid rocks. Go make your birch tea shit and go relax. I’ll be with you soon.”

“It’s not ‘birch tea shit’,” Aymeric grumbled, “It’s-”

“Love you, handsome!” Aza cut over him cheerily, and made a noisy kissing noise down the line, “Talk to you soon!”

“Aza-”

‘Click!’

Aymeric lowered his fingers from the linkpearl at that rather rude hang up and sat there for a moment. He felt, surprisingly, a little better. The hurt was beginning to slowly give way to simmering, ugly resentment and indignation, but Aymeric put a lid on that for when Aza came home and stood up.

He still felt adrift. He still felt as stunned as if he’d just taken a knife to the back, but… at least he knew Aza would still be with him, every step of the way. And he’d recover from this. He always bounced back from shit like this, from people determined to declaw him and render him harmless. He just needed to brush the dust off his more… ruthless tendencies.

Deep breath. Exhale.

Good.

With his head lifted high, Aymeric made for the kitchens to make his ‘birch tea shit’, to prepare for his new political battlefield. 

Chapter Text

Fifteen minutes into a Kugane ‘diplomatic function’ as Aymeric’s plus one Aza hit his limit.

His partner was off schmoozing, a necessary evil that left Aza unsupervised at the buffet table and alone amidst a sea of far too interested strangers. After enduring the horribly familiar Hingan décor, music and chatter, and having to evade no less than twenty attempts to be pulled into uncomfortable conversations (interrogations) with cunning diplomats and socialites alike, Aza decided to do a tactical retreat with a plate full of cake underneath the buffet table. The table was draped in a long, thick tablecloth that brushed against the polished floor, so Aza felt no shame in huddling underneath it like a child the moment no one was looking in his direction.

I thought I could handle this, he thought glumly as he nibbled on a very sweet dumpling thing he didn’t recognise. The hall this function was hosted in just screamed UPPER CLASS HINGAN and it made every fibre in his body try to recoil into another dimension. The sights, the sounds, even the smells, all combined into an awful, terrible echo that made his throat clench and his stomach turn. Aymeric had told him he didn’t have to come, that he’d understand if he rejected the invite, but Aza had stubbornly dug in his heels and boldly declared that he’d be fine, and… well…

Guess he was still a cowardly weakling, when it came down to it.

Aza licked the powdered sugar off his fingers, deciding that the upside to cowering under a buffet table meant he didn’t have to worry about being all polite and well-behaved. Tataru had all but manhandled him into his current clothes – the Scion shirt, jacket and trousers she made him all those years ago, recently tailored so it hugged every curve of his body attractively. It caught Aymeric’s attention, Aza had to practically shoo him away to go socialise when they arrived his partner had been that fixated on him, but it also caught everyone else’s attention, which did absolutely nothing for his shot nerves.

He spent a very comfortable ten minutes just lounging under the buffet table, slowly demolishing his pile of treats whilst turning half an ear to the conversations filtering, muffled but audible, through the heavy tablecloth. Something about being round food had people chatting with open candidness, and he picked up a few useful titbits that he could pass along to Aymeric and the Scions later. Speaking of…

He perked when he heard a snatch of his partner’s name, and, picking up his plate of food, he ungracefully but silently butt-shuffled further down the table until he was sat in the perfect spot to eavesdrop;

“-ch a handsome face!” a woman’s voice gushed in Doman Hingan. Her words were a little slurred, “I could stare at those eyelashes of his all day. They are fatally attractive! And that mouth. Ohhh, I just want to nibble his bottom lip…”

“Don’t forget his voice,” another woman sighed, “It’s so orgasmic. Could you imagine how he must sound, if he murmurs your name in the throes of passion…?”

“Oh, I bet he would purr!”

The women giggled, and Aza couldn’t help but grin a little. There was always a smug, pleased feeling that kindled in him whenever he caught people extolling Aymeric’s physical virtues. His partner was very attractive and sexy, unfairly so at times, and it was Aza’s honest opinion that Aymeric deserved to be swooned over and admired by all and sundry – from a very respectable distance, of course. Aymeric was wholly his, only ever had eyes for him, so Aza was perfectly content with the gaggle of admirers that giggled and ogled in his wake.

 

He continued to munch on his cake, listening to the women (raunchily) espouse Aymeric’s attractiveness and hypothesised sexual prowess before they wandered off, laughing a little tipsily. Aza made a mental note to tell Aymeric that it was apparently ‘common knowledge’ that he had a eight ilm dick and the flexibility of an acrobat, if only because he knew he would get an absolute kick out of it.

Another ten minutes passed, and Aza was contemplating resurfacing long enough to replenish his dwindling cake supply when another conversation further along piqued his interest. He bum-shuffled closer.

“-rson to weaponise sex appeal,” a man was growling in curt Imperial Garlean. Something about it sounded familiar, but Aza couldn’t place a name or a face to the voice.

“You have to admit, it is effective,” a woman murmured in accented Garlean. Aza didn’t recognise the dialect, “With a face like that, it’s no wonder he relies on charm and seduction to lure and hold the fence-sitting Kuganites. They are weak against pretty things.”

“It just seems so shallow,” the man muttered, “Aye, he’s clever by half, but if he’s just flashy looks, then what threat is he, really?”

“What threat?” the woman laughed harshly, “He led a successful coup and acted, however brief, as a benevolent dictator. I think it’s safe to assume he is dangerous, politically, especially if his own government exiled him to Kugane of all places. He’s not just pretty smiles and flirty glances.”

“I heard the Scions led the coup,” the man said irritably, “With that ‘Warrior of Light’ of theirs. Perhaps those ‘pretty smiles’ of his secured their support? It’s said that he bends over for that Eikon-Slayer on a regular basis, which, fair trade, correct? Spread your legs for that saviour of savages and get a City State in return.”

“Careful,” the woman whispered, “Remember your surroundings.”

“Fuck my surroundings,” the man angry-whispered, “Are we seriously ignoring the fact that Ishgard sent the Eikon-Slayer’s fucktoy as an envoy? Are they mocking us with that? That manwhore spreads his legs for that fucking monster, and we’re meant to make nice-”

The pair walked away, still angrily whispering to each other. Aza frowned, a little unsettled about that. Did the Garleans really think Aymeric as nothing more than ‘the guy our greatest enemy fucks’? That was so… insulting. Aymeric was dangerous in his own rights, and it rubbed his fur all wrong to imagine anyone calling him a manwhore. How fucking rude.

Aza made a mental note to break into the Garlean Consulate and take a shit in their swimming pool again. That always pissed them off.

The party crawled on after that. People continued to gossip and whisper to each other over the finger foods the buffet table offered, but none of it held Aza’s interest for long. Stuffed full of cake, bored and drowsy, Aza ended up sprawling on his back under the table, eyes closed as he dozed fitfully. Around him the chatter rose and fell like an undulating wave, and it made things… okay. It was like a comforting drone of white noise, buzzing dully and making him slowly relax, fraction by fraction, until…

“Ah, so this is where you disappeared to.”

Until Aymeric’s voice drifted over him. Oh?

“Aym…?” he mumbled sleepily, squinting his eyes open. It took him a moment, but he spotted his partner kneeling half under the table, the tablecloth lifted over his head so that the bright, loud colours of the hall silhouetted him. Aza could still see Aymeric’s face though, smiling at him with a gentle softness that had his heart do something embarrassingly squishy and probably fatal.

“You’re going to hurt your back, sleeping there,” Aymeric chided him quietly, but he scooted under the table and let the cloth flutter back down behind him. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, Aymeric just barely fit under the table, but Aza didn’t mind as he reluctantly sat up – only to be immediately pulled into a very firm, but very welcome hug.

“My back s’fine,” Aza half-yawned into Aymeric’s shoulder, squirming enough to seat himself comfortably in his partner’s lap, his thighs bracketing Aymeric’s waist, his knees pressed against the floor. Ah, yes, much comfier than the hard, unyielding floor. Lovely, “Mmm, s’time t’go?”

“Almost,” Aymeric rested his chin atop of his head, and Aza’s ear twitched when his partner’s warm breaths tickled it, “Another hour and it will be polite to leave. Did you spend the whole party here, love?”

“Mmhm,” Aza hummed, “I ate a whole cake to myself and eavesdropped on people.”

Aymeric’s laughter rumbled deep in his chest. It was intoxicating to listen to, “Overhear anything interesting?”

“Lotsa people think you’re sexy,” Aza said shamelessly, turning his head a fraction to let his lips brush over the column of Aymeric’s throat, “S’common knowledge your dick’s eight ilms, by the way.”

What- oh, goodness,” Aymeric let out a very unflattering snort, “Eight ilms? That’s not an attractive size.”

“Yeah,” Aza agreed drowsily, “No way you’d fit in me at eight.”

 “Oh, really…?” Aymeric made a very playful, mischievous noise then, “Mouth or…?”

“Both,” Aza nipped at his throat, smiling when Aymeric swallowed thickly in response, “I’m only small, y’know.”

“Not where it counts-”

Aza pointedly bounced in Aymeric’s lap, smirking when his partner stuttered to a choked halt when Aza jostled against a very sensitive spot. Aymeric’s arms tightened around him, briefly, and Aza oh so innocently nuzzled the crook of his neck, his hands pressing lightly against Aymeric’s shoulder blades in an equally innocent cuddle.

“Aza,” Aymeric finally murmured, his voice a little hoarse, “That was mean.” 

“Don’t know what you mean,” Aza purred mischievously, “I was just adjusting myself.”

“Adjusting,” Aymeric muttered, only to groan when Aza bounced again – well, more like enthusiastically rolled his hips, pressing intimately and firmly close as he drew out the friction. Aza could feel his partner react almost instantly, and feeling that was, goodness, made his belly clench so hard and hot he almost moaned.

“Gods,” Aymeric’s sounded delightfully breathless and strained, “In public? You little deviant…”

“Technically,” Aza purred, just to be a little shit, and gently kissed a messy line along the column of Aymeric’s throat as he murmured; “We’re under a table, out of view, that just so happens to be in public. So, if we’re quiet, and subtle, we can…mm, spend the hour nicely…”

Aymeric made a short, huffing noise at that, which very quickly transitioned into the sweetest hiccupping moan Aza ever heard, barely stifled when Aza started to slowly, yet firmly grind against him. Aymeric’s fingers curled into the back of his shirt, wrinkling it, before slowly, sliding down until he was cupping his firm buttocks, coaxing him to grind that little bit harder, closer…

There was something so fucking delightful at feeling his partner stiffen against him, grinding and rocking against that firm bulge until Aza was panting shallowly from the intoxicating friction between them. Aymeric’s fingers dug hard into the meat of his ass, forcing him to keep a relentless hard, fast pace between them. Aza muffled his groan into the crook of his partner’s neck, trembling to the very tip of his tail as Aymeric panted out the quietest yet most obscene moan into his ear. Fucking hell.

This was spiralling faster than Aza thought. It was just the effect Aymeric had on him, though. Moment he touched him, moment Aymeric held him like this, panted like that, moaned and grunted and humped against him like some rutting beast, all restraint just went flying out of the window. But, while Aza could get away with suspicious stains on his trouser front because he was well known to be slovenly, Aymeric… well, he’d have to give goodbyes soon and to do that with potential cum stains…

Honestly, Aza deserved a fucking medal for having the capacity for some level of critical thinking at that point. With a whine, he forced himself to stop, to pull away – Aymeric, with a strained noise, let him go, his hands stroking from his ass over the tops of his thighs. His partner’s face was so temptingly flushed, eyes dark, his expression so… fuck, that look should be illegal.

“Aza…?” he murmured.  

“Sorry, babe,” Aza said breathlessly, scooting off Aymeric’s lap, but immediately bending low, his hands smoothing over the insides of his partner’s thighs and pushing them apart, “I wanna – can I, with my mouth…?”

“I should say no,” Aymeric muttered even as he started spreading his legs for him, leaning back on his hands and politely holding still as Aza’s hands fumbled at his belt, “But Gods, I don’t care for propriety right now. Yes, you can use your mouth.”

Aza laughed huskily, pulling the belt loose and gently thumbing the button open. Despite their earlier franticness, he was careful and slow as he nudged Aymeric’s trousers and underclothes down his hips a few ilms, coaxing out his firm, hot arousal and gently, teasingly so, pressed a kiss to the very tip of it.

Aymeric drew in a very sharp, long breath.

“Remember…” Aza mumbled, lips brushing against the tip of his partner’s cock, “You need to be quiet, okay? Get too loud and…”

“I’ll be quiet,” Aymeric said, his tone openly strained. Aza looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes, studied his partner’s flushed, aroused face, the way he was biting his bottom lip in anticipation, body tense and almost trembling from the force of it, the way his hips shivered beneath his palms… Aza very carefully committed that to memory.

“We’ll see~” Aza purred, planting his palms firmly on Aymeric’s hips and pressed another kiss to the tip. He drew in a deep, long breath through his nose, scenting his partner’s musk before, slowly, he parted his lips and lowered his head – carefully, gently, making sure not to accidentally scrape his sharp fangs over the sensitive organ.

Aymeric’s breathing picked up sharply – but he was quiet. Aza’s ears pricked forwards, alert, drinking in the sound of people moving around their table, chatting and oblivious to them, oblivious to Aymeric trembling, flushed and panting and eager, and Gods, it was fantastic. Aza made a soft noise as he took as much as he could, Aymeric hitting the back of his throat and making him swallow thickly before he choked. 

Nh-” A short, bitten off gasp. Aymeric’s fingers clenched hard in his hair, but not painfully, and Aza exhaled slowly as he pulled back… then bobbed his head low, taking in a little bit more now, pull back, down, more, pull back, down, more… again, and again, until…

Until Aza’s nose pressed into the dark curls at the base of Aymeric’s cock, breathing in the thick smell of musk, swallowing thick around the arousal hot and heavy against his tongue, feeling Aymeric tremble so violently beneath his hands he thought he was going to come undone at the seams. Aymeric was panting so short and fast, each exhale shuddering enough it was almost a moan, almost the beginnings of his name, almost a whimper, a whine, a beg.

Well damn. Aza kind of wanted to hear those things, but that would ruin the quiet rule, won’t it?

Aza pulled back, gently rubbing his hands over Aymeric’s tense, shivering thighs. He dragged it out, until his lips were kissing his partner’s very tip, lapping up the precum beading there. Aymeric groaned something too low and quiet for him to understand, his trembling fingers stroking through his hair until Aza was purring happily.

“Good so far?” he rumbled softly, blowing on the damp arousal and grinning when a shiver went right up Aymeric’s thighs at that.

“V-Very,” Aymeric breathed, and dug his fingers just behind Aza’s ears, rubbing just enough to make Aza melt, “Feel as if my ribs will break, trying to be quiet, but-”

Aza dipped his head and wrapped his lips around his partner’s cock again, delighted to hear Aymeric stutter to a panting moan. He loved surprising him like that, loved making his cool, calm demeanour melt away into this flustered, eager and wanton man. Aza shifted his hands from his thighs to his hips, gently coaxing a very slow, careful rhythm as he began to bob his head, Aymeric’s fingers curled tight into his hair, urging him lower

Really, it was fucking great Aymeric wasn’t the eight ilms those drunk ladies giggled over. Aza could barely swallow what he had now, the back of his throat beginning to feel raw, his jaw aching as he let his partner fuck his mouth with barely controlled thrusts. But as uncomfortable as it was, Aza fucking loved it too, hearing and feeling Aymeric gasp and tremble and slowly, slowly, slowly tense and shudder and-

Ahh, Az-nh…” Aymeric’s voice was so strained, struggling to stay as quiet as a breath, that Aza burned the sound of it to memory for a lonely night, “I’m, v-very close, t-to…”

Aza dug his fingers into Aymeric’s hips, to let him know he heard. Normally Aza would pull away and finish him with his hand, but since the point of this was to maintain complete cleanliness, Aza boldly bobbed his head low, swallowed Aymeric whole and pulled back just enough, throat relaxing-

Aymeric made the most perfect and obscene whine-moan right in the back of his throat before he came with a violent shudder.

Mm-” Aza grunted when his mouth was suddenly filled with hot cum, pinning his partner’s hips down as he determinedly swallowed and sucked and panted around the twitching cock in his mouth until it was over. When it was, he pulled away with an obscene wet noise, licking his lips to catch what he missed, which was… a lot. Hey, he was messier than Aymeric, okay?

“Gods,” Aymeric muttered, and Aza looked up from where he was still half-sprawled in his lap to see his partner giving him a heavy-lidded, satisfied look, his cheeks flushed and mouth curved into a little half-smile that had Aza’s belly go all hot and tight, “You got it everywhere, love.”

You got it everywhere,” Aza rasped, giving up and just wiping his face with his sleeve. Sorry, Tataru, “I’m not a master cumeater like you, pervert.”

Aymeric chuckled quietly, and gently pulled at him, coaxing him upright. Aza did so with some huffing and grumbling, and kindly tucked Aymeric back into his trousers once he sat comfortably in his lap.

“Is your throat sore?” Aymeric murmured softly, leaning in to lick up a spot of cum Aza had missed at the corner of his mouth. Aza shivered to the very tip of his tail at feeling that, letting out some weird, breathy grunt without meaning to, “I didn’t mean to be rough with you, love.”

“S’cuz you’re too big as it is,” Aza mock-grumbled, relaxing when Aymeric just pressed light, fluttering kisses against his mouth, cheeks, jaw, even nuzzling him like some giant, over-affectionate cat, “You weren’t rough. Never are, babe.”

“Hmm…” Aymeric rested his chin atop of his head again, arms tight around him, “Do you want me to…?”

“Nah,” Aza nosed his partner’s throat, breathing in the mingling scent of fading aftershave, wine and light sweat. It was a very nice smell, “I can wait until we’re home.”

His own arousal had faded, and while his pulse was still fluttery, while he could feel the stirrings of interest clench low in his belly, Aza could definitely wait. After that near silent blowjob, Aza kinda wanted to be a little loud, sore throat or not. Maybe even have Aymeric be a little ‘rough’ for once, fucking him hard into the bed and… Aza forced his mind elsewhere, when he felt his trousers tighten too much at the naughty fantasy.

“If you want,” Aymeric kissed his temple, politely ignoring the erection he could no doubt feel pressing against his hip, “Well, love, it might be a bit too early to be considered polite, but shall we make our goodbyes?”

“You mean, you make your goodbyes, and I’ll get the taste of cum out of my mouth with another plate of cake?” Aza corrected cheekily, “Sounds good to me.”

Laughter rumbled in Aymeric’s chest, warm and lovely, “Fine, fine. Gods, I still can’t believe we did that.”

Aymeric left, not too long after that, though Aza had to practically pry him off with a crowbar. His partner got so clingy and affectionate after sex, which was great normally, but not when Aza was eager and impatient to leave. He distracted himself with some more cake, kindly handed down to him by Aymeric when his partner ungracefully left their little table safe haven.

You know, if this was how all the diplomatic functions in Kugane went, Aza could see himself starting to like them. Granted, he may start being known as the weirdo hermit who huddles under the buffet table, stuffing his face with cake, but if it involved some cheeky stuff too… well, he might start getting comfortable enough to accompany Aymeric with his schmoozing.

Maybe find those rude Garleans from before and be absolutely fucking obnoxious to them.

Feeling pleased, and excited, and happy, Aza waited for Aymeric by having his cake and eating it too.

Chapter Text

“C’mon, Aza, stop being a baby and get in already.”

Aza eyed the river warily, still sitting on the rocky shore with his toes only just barely curling over the edge. There was less than three feet separating him and the waist deep water, and the current was slow and gentle. The sun glittered off its surface, and occasionally he could see the silvery flash of fish darting between rocks and past Bluebird’s shins. It looked, to put it bluntly, lovely and perfect to go frolicking about during the muggy summer of Yanxia.

Except looking at it filled Aza with nothing but dread. Anything deeper than his knees always got his pulse fluttering and stomach knotting, and that was fine. The Steppes rarely had anything too deep to wade through, and you normally forded it on horseback anyways – anything deeper the Xaela tribes avoided or found bridges, natural or man-made, to cross. When they visited Onokoro, they did it on the boat and he was comfortable enough on those. So, Aza never had to confront his wariness of deep water, and that was fine.

Not anymore. Doma was lousy with rivers, and the resistance fighters the boss contracted them too practically lived in the fucking things to slip past Imperial patrols and the like. Boss humoured his wariness for exactly one week before ordering he’d get over it or find a different group to work with. Considering they were ass-deep in Imperial territory with no other mercenary groups as survivable as this one… yeah, no, Aza had to get over this.

“Aza,” Bluebird sighed, “C’mon.”

“I’m building up to it,” he said, wriggling his butt against the mossy rock he was uncomfortably perched on, flexing his toes on the edge, “I’ll do it.”

“Yeah, when I die of old age,” Bluebird said scornfully, but she waded closer. She had stripped down to nothing but her underwear, her armour and weapon neatly bundled next to Aza, and she was starting to freckle where the sun kissed her pale skin, “Budge over, baby. Lemme sit down.”

He obligingly scooted over, and Bluebird climbed out of the river to sit next to him, her thick tail thwacking him in the hip accidentally-on-purpose.

“You’re not a kid anymore,” Bluebird said, “You gotta stop being scared about shit.”

“Yeah, sure,” Aza drawled, “I’ll just stop being scared. Thanks for the advice, Bluebird.”

She punched him in the shoulder hard enough that he almost toppled over, “Letting yourself get stuck because you’re scared,” she clarified, “Only babies stop and cry when they’re frightened. Adults suck it up and try anyway.”

Aza rubbed his shoulder, understanding what Bluebird was getting at – it didn’t help his frustration any, because logically he knew this situation was safe. The river current was gentle, it wasn’t that deep, and Bluebird wouldn’t let him drown. But still, he remembered the burn in his lungs, the helplessness as dark depths pulled him down after the sinking ship, the way his vision greyed out until he lost consciousness. To this day he still didn’t know how he got to shore…

“I’m not going to get over this within minutes,” Aza grumbled sourly, envious of Bluebird’s natural fearlessness. His sister just plunged headfirst into shit without a care, and he had only ever seen her legitimately scared three times in his life. Mom said it was because she lacked sense, which was probably true, but Aza still envied her for it. Must be nice, living life without being terrified of almost everything in it.

“No, you just gotta tolerate it enough that you can wade through this without freaking out,” Bluebird said, and she planted a hand on his shoulder, digging her heel right in, “Look, I’ll help you out… like this!”

And then she shoved him.

Into the river.

“Blu-!” he yelped, only to get a mouthful of water the second he hit it face first. He flailed wildly as he went under, his palms scraping against the rough riverbed before he wrangled his instinctive panic enough for him to fucking stand up. He clawed upwards, gasping wetly when he broke the surface and coughed up the water he inhaled, nose and throat burning and eyes stinging.

He almost fell flat into the water again when a strong hand slapped him between the shoulder blades rhythmically, helping him cough up the water until he was wheezing pathetically.

“There, see?” Bluebird said cheerfully, gripping him by the scruff of his neck when he was done, so he couldn’t turn around and fucking deck her, “You’re fine.”

“H-Hate you…” Aza coughed, rubbing at his aching chest as he squinted at the water lapping about his waist. He was shivering with adrenaline, and extreme distress, but Bluebird’s grip was strong and anchoring, and the longer he stood there, half-panting, the more his nerves eased up fraction by tiny fraction.

“You’re fine,” Bluebird repeated, more soothingly this time, “Got a big lungful there and you’re not keeling over dead – not that I’d let you anyways. Do you know what Mom’d do to me if I let you drown in fucking Doma?”

Aza grunted, “No one would ever find your body.”

“Exactly,” Bluebird let go of him and playfully shoved his shoulder, “You look like a drowned rat, by the way, with your hair plastered down like that.”

Aza slanted a look her way, seeing the way his sister leaned on her heels and smirked at him. He loved her, but Gods, there were times where he wanted to punch her nose in. He wouldn’t win a wrestling match here, though, she wouldn’t hesitate to shove his head underwater until he was literally crying for mercy, so…

He muffled another cough into his hand, half-turning from Bluebird as if to wade back to shore, “You’re such a bitch- hah!”

Bluebird squawked when he lunged into action, successfully catching her off guard as he body-checked her just as he hooked his foot around her ankle and pulled. With an enraged screech, his sister toppled underwater, and Aza ran for his fucking life- or, as fast as he could run in waist-deep water anyways.

AZA!” Bluebird howled as he frantically clambered out of the river, his sister resurfacing like a vengeful kelpie behind him – fuck, even a fish was flung into the air from the force of her lunging out of the water! “GET BACK HERE YOU LITTLE SHIT!”

“What’re you mad about!? You’re fine!” he yelled over his shoulder, snatching up his clothes and sword and making his escape, “Just a lungful of water, Bluebird!”

“ARGH!”


 

So, that day didn’t really help with his fear of deep water. If anything it compounded it, considering how determinedly his sister tried to drown him once she caught up to him!

(It was only once he got the Kojin’s Blessing years later that he truly started getting over his fears. After all, difficult to be afraid of something you’re literally immune against)

 

Chapter Text

It was a dry, dusty day near Nhaama’s Retreat, the distance white sands of the desert almost shimmering beneath the glare of the cold morning sun. Aza squinted against it, shielding his eyes as he held his pony’s reins loosely in one hand, letting it bend its neck nuzzle hopefully at the barren soil. The khar zud had well and truly sunk its claws into this region, meaning that the Dotharli raiding parties were out in force and seizing anyone they crossed paths with. With no water to be found in or around Nhaama’s Retreat, the desert tribes were spilling inwards, deeper into the Steppe, to take by force from other tribes which Nature was withholding.

Not that it’d help. The rest of the Steppe had frozen, the grass trapped beneath an impenetrable layer of ice – a starvation of a different kind that the desert tribes were dying from.

“See anything?”

Aza turned away from the white sands, blinking sunspots out of his vision as he focused on Bluebird beside him, “Nothing. Well, no Dotharli at least.”

Bluebird grunted at that, slouching lower in her saddle. She looked almost grey, having recently recovered from an awful illness that had swept through the Iriq-Borlaaq during the onset of Winter. Truth be told, Aza would prefer his sister to rest back home while he made the journey to the One River, but Bluebird had insisted he needed her to look out for him, and once she got an idea into her head…

“Keep an eye out for the Torgud. They blend in with the sand,” Bluebird said, digging her heels into her pony and urging the tired beast onwards. Slowly, they travelled into the desert, the air sharp and cold enough to cut into the lungs with each breath. It cast everything into an odd haze, his misted breaths melding into the white sand sprawled out in uneven dunes. In the far distance, to the east, he could see the shadow of the Dusk Throne, sinking deeper into the desert with each passing year. He used that as his landmark, keeping it to his left as they approached the mountains to the south, towards the mountain pass into Doma.

No words were exchanged as they rode. Noise carried here, and with just the two of them they wouldn’t stand a chance against a raiding party or a patrol from another tribe. It made the journey feel longer than it should, the silence tense as their ponies snorted and huffed through the soft sand, and when they finally reached the mountain pass the sun had risen to its zenith.

“I swear,” Bluebird whispered through chapped lips, her teeth audibly chattering as they started through the pass, “If their river is frozen solid too…”

“Should be warmer,” Aza mumbled, “Least, closer to the sea.”

“We are not travelling all the way to the coast,” Bluebird snapped, wincing when her voice bounced back obnoxiously at them.

Aza waited until everything was silent again before he whispered back, “It’s too dangerous to go all the way to the coast. The Iron Men’ll snatch us.”

Bluebird made a face at that, no doubt remembering the stories Khudus brought back from the Qestir: that the Xaela should avoid travelling to Doma and her territories, lest they be snatched by the ‘Imperials’ squatting there. Anyone suspicious, even if they were nothing more than innocent hunters or traders, were kidnapped and spirited away to never be seen again. It was a big blow to the Iriq, whose livelihood was tied with its trade to the northern Domans, and so they had to… adjust.

“Or shoot us,” Bluebird grumbled, “We’re dealing with those ‘Resistance’ people, after all.”

Aza hummed quietly. They couldn’t trade openly with the villages and farmsteads on the borders of Doma anymore, so this was how they adjusted. Resistance fighters were flush with rice and food for the moment, settled so far out into farmland and rural areas, they weren’t in want for food. What they were in want for were things of a more logistical nature: weapons, armour, arrows and the like.

Initially there had been some sneering superiority over it, but unsurprisingly being an underground resistance movement meant it was difficult to keep up a high-quality, functioning forge with an equally skilled blacksmith and armourer. Whilst the Xaela were viewed as ‘savages’ by their Doman and Imperial neighbours, the Iriq’s craftsmanship was grudgingly deemed acceptable by them. So, food and animal feed for weapons.

“Remember, if we’re stopped let me do the talking,” Aza said, “Your Hingan is awful.”

Bluebird grumbled but didn’t contradict him. Her Hingan really was terrible. They’d be pegged as suspicious foreigners within seconds the moment she opened her big mouth, if they were stopped by an Imperial patrol.

“Okay,” he said, the moment he saw the light at the end of their tunnel, tightening his grip on his reins. Now came the dangerous part, “Here we go. Remember: no talking.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bluebird sighed, “Let’s get this over with.”

With that, they trotted out of the mountain and into snowy land of Doma, quiet as wraiths and just as cold.

Chapter Text

Around Aza, the temple creaked and groaned.

Well, perhaps ‘temple’ was too generous a term, but that’s what Crisp called it when they slunk into the dilapidated, half-crumbled building nestled in a dense woodblock, exhausted and soaked to the bone from the freezing rain outside. There were three of them – there used to be eight that morning – and the mood was quiet and low as they huddled under the shadow of a half-rotted statue of a tiger that crouched on an altar.

“Well, this is fun,” Bluebird muttered. Her bottom lip was split, angry red and half-scabbed over, “Freezing to death in a shitty shack.”

“We’re not freezing to death,” Crisp sighed, nudging together a bunch of dampish kindling she managed to scrounge from the ‘temple’ they were squatting in. Aza watched dully as she gently coaxed the aether at her fingers to ignite, crackling flames reluctantly catching onto the kindling and casting strange shadows around them, “See? We have a fire.”

“A really sad fire if you ask me,” Bluebird said, gingerly pressing the tip of her tongue against her split lip, “Argh, shit. That stings.”

“Stop licking it, then,” Aza said, reaching over to push her half-heartedly, “Idiot.”

“You’re an idiot-”

“Children,” Crisp interrupted, “Don’t.”

They both quietened. Aza glanced about them in the silence that followed, taking in the half-collapsed roof, the spots where water dripped through and formed scummy puddles on the cracked floorboards, the way shadows flickered and danced in his peripheral from the flames. Even the statue’s eyes caught the firelight, the cut glass wavering with a dull, orange glow, making it seem lifelike. It gave Aza the creeps.

“The moment the storm stops,” Crisp spoke suddenly, “We’ll have to move. I don’t want to chance the Imperials catching up to us here.”

“Do they even know this is here?” Bluebird grumbled, “We found it by accident. Practically blends into the wood.”

“Doesn’t matter if they know it’s here or not,” Aza said, “If we found it, so can they.”

Bluebird groaned but didn’t argue. She looked drained – hell, they all did. Aza was aching in places he didn’t even know existed, and he probably looked just as terrible as his two companions. Crisp was covered almost head to toe in thick, cloying mud, her long, silvery hair matted together in ugly clumps, with a dark bruise overtaking her left eye and her cheek slightly swollen. Bluebird looked like she just finished a headbutting contest with a Dzo, her lip split and both eyes bruised, a cut over her nose completing the picture. If he remembered, she had headbutted one or two helmeted Imperials, actually succeeding in goring one of them with her sharpened horns…

It had been a mess from the start, though. Boss had ordered them to stage an ambush on one of the Imperial supply routes along the Glittering Basin, and under the cover of this storm, at dusk, it should’ve been easy. Except they were doing it with the Resistance Fighters, and whilst some were skilled veterans and ninja, there were also green boys, eager to fight for their country but lacking the steel nerve needed for an ambush and… too early. It had been sprung too early, and now the group of eight seasoned mercenaries that was sent to bolster the Resistance was down to three, battered and bruised and hunted.

Aza didn’t know what happened to the fighters they were with. The moment he saw the tide turning he grabbed Bluebird and bolted, with Crisp opportunistically fleeing with them. Some would call it cowardice, the Doman Resistance definitely, but Aza thought it common sense. Out on the Steppe, if you bit off more than you could chew, you spat it back out. It was simple sense. Why die when you can run away and come back stronger?

It was a shame about the other five, but they had been too slow or already dead. Aza didn’t know them that well, either, so luckily, he didn’t have to contend with any guilt about their passing. He had long mastered the art of only emotionally investing in those he cared about, if only because it was easier to deal with this shit if other people were just… there. Marionettes that interacted with him long enough to be of use before walking out of his life again. They only became people once he made an emotional connection, and that was a long, slow process.   

Crisp said it was a sign he was a budding sociopath, but Aza called it survival. His heart only had so many pieces to give away now, so he horded what he had with an envy that would put a dragon to shame.  

“I hope the Kami of this temple is watching over us,” Crisp murmured with an odd tinge of wistfulness to her voice, “I mean, it’s very dry here, isn’t it? Considering…”

“The roof is still intact here, that’s why,” Aza said, unwillingly to be roped into Crisp’s faith. Gods have been dead to him since he was a child, “Speaking of…”

Stiffly, he leveraged himself onto his feet, ignoring the way stiff, achy muscles pulled and cramped from the movement. He navigated around Bluebird, who was now curled up next to the fire like some humanoid lizard, and towards a fallen beam close by. It was half-rotted, and was wet to the touch, but it was easy enough for him to plant his foot against it, bolster his strength with some aether, and tear up a good chunk of the wood. Splinters bit into his fingers, but he ignored the pain in favour of getting some warmth.

“Here,” he said, returning with his bundle of rough wood, dumping it next to the fire to be fed in with some aether assisted burning, “Since the Kami can’t be bothered to warm us up itself.”

Crisp gave him a look, but she let Aza’s disrespect slide as she picked up a wood chunk and started drying it out, “You’re always so cold, Aza.”

“You need to be cold to survive here,” Aza said, sitting next to his sister. Bluebird looked like she was half-asleep, and she grumbled only a little when he scooted closer, lifting her up enough so she could use his thigh as a pillow. Her horn dug into him uncomfortably, but he endured it, “Thought you’d know that by now, Crisp.”

“I’m a healer. It’s in my nature to prefer warmth and compassion,” Crisp said wryly, “Besides, I don’t think coldness is needed for survival… it’s an imperfect defence mechanism that should be temporary at best. It’s lonely and fearful and, yes, lets you keep a distance from things that might hurt you – but it never lets you grow.”

Aza said nothing to that. It was true, after all.

“That’s not sustainable, Aza,” Crisp said, tossing the wood chunk into the fire, her aether helping it catch, “To enjoy life, you have to suffer its hurts too. To be happy, you have to let yourself be unhappy too. You need to build good, strong emotional bonds with people to help you endure and grow from those hurts, so you become a happier, better person.”

“I have Bluebird,” Aza said, and privately added ‘and Mom and Dad’, “I don’t need anyone else.”

“Bluebird won’t be there for you forever,” Crisp said very mildly.

Aza knew that, but he didn’t want to think about that. So, he turned his head away from Crisp, a clear dismissal of the conversation, and stared up at the tiger statue staring down at them with its odd, glowing orange eyes.

“Well, we’ll see if you understand what I mean eventually,” Crisp hummed, “Boss says we’ll be in Doma for a long while. Anything can happen in that time.”

Like more failed ambushes that might actually end in their deaths? Aza didn’t voice the bitter, morbid thought, an odd twang of homesickness hitting him in the gut. Gods, he really wanted to go home, but Bluebird was stubborn about making a reputation here, to strike out and become famous mercenaries and…

Wherever Bluebird went, Aza went. His happiness and mental wellbeing hinged on her living well and being happy. It was always easier, anyway, to be swept up in Bluebird’s wake and follow her, to do as he was told, like the good little dog that he was. Easier. Comforting, in a way that was visceral and made him hate himself a little.  

He closed his eyes and let his head duck a little, listening to the crackling flames and the creaking of the temple around them. It took a long time for the storm to abate, and despite the fire roaring throughout that rainy night, Aza didn’t warm up once.