Actions

Work Header

Wrought in Crystal

Chapter Text

Aden’s supposed to be watching a broody chocobo, making sure she takes to the eggs in her nest right, and much as he loves the birds he sneaks out one of Mam’s travelogues.  He’s not supposed to have them in the barn, too much danger of damaging them, but if he’s going to be out here all day….

The bird coos at him in that soft, motherly way only a broody one will, and shifts on her nest, ruffling her feathers slightly.  It’s a clear invitation, he thinks, and he hesitates for a moment.. then settles down next to her, careful of any eggs that might be hidden in the hay.  When he leans against her she makes a pleased trill, and immediately cranes her neck to start grooming his hair. Aden cracks open the book, trying to ignore the shifting and prodding and soft scratch of her beak.  But when she’s done he can appreciate the soft warmth of her large body, the gentle warks and coos, and lull himself into a sweet place free of anxiety as he begins to read.

If the birds like him so much, Ma and Mam can’t send him away like Da did.  They’d be upset .


 

Minfilia wends her way through the halls of the Waking Sands, asking after their newest member.  When the inevitable why don’t you call his linkpearl comes up she merely says, “That’s a good idea,” graciously, and continues on.  It’s rude , she doesn’t say, knowing that he should be in the building.  And impersonal. After their rocky start.. well, she cannot afford to be anything less than genuine and forthright.  And her gifts will not avail her so well over long-distance media.

She finds him on the quiet side of the building, in a small room converted into a secondary barracks of sorts.  Stopping in the doorway, she blinks in surprise at finding all of his gear stowed here now, and he himself perched on a high bunk at the back of the room--hadn’t Tataru assigned him to the other side?--and she wonders if that, too, was a mistake.  He reclines in the bunk against extra pillows pilfered from somewhere, a slender book open across his lap. Even with the bandages covering healing burns from his bout with Ifrit he looks more comfortable than she’s seen him so far.

Yes, she thinks to herself, perhaps they’d all read him wrong.  In his unguarded quiet her gifts show her not the dedicated soldier she saw before, but a thoughtful, introspective man, one who values solitude and a gentler camaraderie than many of their members can offer.  Their conversation can wait, she decides. Let the man have peace, and room to process the horror they accidentally put him through alone.

And let her have time to reassess her approach to this familiar stranger, this man her gifts cry must be part of their efforts.

 


 

Aden’s ears twitch at soft footsteps in the dust and scrub of Mor Dhona, and he knows who it is from the gait.  Moments later G’raha flops down next to him with a dramatic sigh, leaning back against the tree. Aden doesn’t look up from his book, even though he knows the man is waiting for a question.

“I think you might read more than I do,” G’raha says when he doesn’t get his way, bumping his shoulder against Aden’s.  It’d been annoying at first, physical contact unwelcome, but now he… understands .  If he’d been raised by other miqo’te this would be normal .  It feels right, the right kind of intimate for friends, unspoken and just outside his comfort zone.  He can’t explain that, though, that he wants his boundaries challenged, doesn’t want to be silent and uncertain forever.

“They send you away again?”  Aden flips a page.

G’raha doesn’t move, reading over Aden’s shoulder even as he replies.  “They’re taking readings and refused to let me go after what happened last time.”

“That’s chocoboshit,” Aden says.  He knows G’raha isn’t looking for logic, doesn’t want to hear you’re the most essential personnel on the survey from one more person.  Aden would hate it just as much were their positions reversed.

“But if you would accompany me….” G’raha doesn’t finish but looks up at him hopefully.

“Cid told me if I didn’t take a break he’d drug my lunch.”  Aden flips another page, ears canting in G’raha’s direction when he doesn’t reply right away.  Finally the man gives an indignant huff on his behalf and leans heavily against him once more, reading over his shoulder.

“Wait,” he says, “is this the new one?”

“Yeah.”

“How did you get it all the way out here?”

“Tataru sent it.”

He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and Aden wonders what’s going through his mind. He glances up from his book and thinks he sees the faintest edge of regret in his friend’s mismatched eyes.  “How far are you?” G’raha asks.

“Not far.  Want me to start over?”

There’s another moment of hesitation, this quiet side of his friend devoid of bravado that so rarely appears.  And finally, softly, “Yes, please.”

Aden thinks he knows that feeling too well, but he won’t pry to find out if it’s what it looks like to him.  He doesn’t want to talk about it, anyroad, if it is--to admit that sometimes his apparent stoicism is the memory of rejection and the worry that he doesn’t deserve the kindness of others.  But he thinks the reason G’raha talks too much is the same reason he talks too little, and he’s glad to help his friend smooth over the raw moment by flipping to the front of the book and starting over.

 


 

“You’ve been home, what, three bells?  And already I find you with another.” Aden looks up from his book, smiling softly as Haurchefant leans over his comfortable seat, reclining on a padded bench in one of the windows in the manor.

“They were here before you,” he says cheekily, lifting up his book for emphasis, “and they’ll be here after you.”

After me!”  Haurchefant clutches a hand to his breast, mocking distress.  “Already you plan to be rid of me! I am wounded to my core.”  He drops a knee to the side of the bench, lowering himself down to caress Aden’s cheek.  “I should have known I could never satisfy your voracious appetites.”

Aden laughs, unable to continue the mock seriousness.  “I could say the same thing about you .”

Haurchefant leans down to kiss him, insistent, and Aden loses himself in it for a moment.  But at length his lover draws away, leaving him to his book. “Don’t be long.”

He knows that when he’s inevitably up past midnight reading, Haurchefant will merely tease him and welcome him to bed by folding him in the warmth of his embrace.  The judgement is all in jest.

 

But in hindsight it’s the only time in his life he wishes he’d read less.

 


 

He closes the door to the small cabin behind himself, struggling to find his sea legs around the dizziness and disorientation whirling through his head.  Aden presses a hand to the wall, and has to follow it to the bed. He’s glad for the privacy. Glad Tataru argued so ardently for this. Outside he has to pretend at being whole and hale, intimidating to the pirate crew.  Here he can be alone. Weak. Nurse the half-healed wounds of his body and quietly pick at the festering scabs over his heart on their long journey to Kugane.

But today he doesn’t have the strength for it.  He drops heavily onto the bunk, straining uncomfortable over the edge to open the chest lashed to one end of it, and pulls out the first thing his fingers light upon--a battered old book.  Balm to soothe the aches of his mind.

He curls up on the hard bed, remembering all the places he could’ve been instead, and tries to forget for a little while.

 


 

An infirmary is not what the Exarch expects to see through his scrying, but there it is, dark stone walls and pale linens on the bed.  He frowns, leaning forward slightly. Had his actions changed the situation so much already? But--no, it is the Scions prone in the beds.  He flinches--his doing.

The subject of his scrying finally crosses the view of the window, carrying a wooden chair in one hand and a book in the other.  Aden pauses, tail swaying slowly, before he places his chair between the twins’ beds, facing out towards the rest of the room. No one else seems to be present at the moment, and he wonders if perhaps the remaining Scions are taking turns at keeping an eye on their comrades.  Would that he could tell them it’s hardly necessary beyond the upkeep of their bodies. Their time could be better spent elsewhere.

Aden sits, opens the book and looks around the room once more--is that a hint of nervousness he detects?  ‘Tis a familiar expression, that subtle anxiety the Warrior of Light tries very hard not to show--one he knew in his youth, and knows even better after his years of observation.

He understands why when Aden begins to read aloud to the unconscious Scions.  Aden’s voice is uncertain at first, but as time draws on it grows more confident, rich in its fullness.  He finds himself enraptured by it, drawing back his hood and freeing his ears to hear more clearly. Then he closes his eyes, and remembers a quiet afternoon spent under a tree in Mor Dhona.  This story is familiar, an earlier book in the series. He hasn’t read it in a hundred years.

The summoning can wait for one more story.

Chapter Text

It takes a long time to push through the thick, cottony haze of sedatives and painkillers to surface from darkness for more than an instant, and Aden blinks up at a dark stone ceiling, eyes gritty and dry.  His hands are barely coordinated enough to rub at them, more like a game of trying not to slap himself. It’s demeaning. He’s glad no one else is in the room.

As he pushes through to greater and greater awareness he realizes he’s numb.  He’s cold. Oh he can feel ( some of, try not to think about that too much) his body, the pain the subsiding drugs just barely keep at bay, threatening soon, soon you will groan and mewl in helpless weakness .  And the bed is piled high with blankets, the room kept warm with a cheery fire, probably too warm for his liking.  But he’s numb. And cold.  Like a stone in the snow. Like the bedrock scoured clean by whipping wind and grinding ice.  In a way it’s nice after the past few months, the torrent of emotions, the… highs and lows. He hasn’t had true clarity like this since… since…

“You… you are unharmed?”

He screws his eyes shut, clenches his jaw, but he just sees it there in his mind’s eye: shattered rings of maille around an impossibly gaping wound, the slick, dark red and other hideous colors of the parts of a man not meant to see the light of day in plain view.  How much of him was missing .  Just eat away by that lance of aether.  The stark, sick realization in the part of his mind that’s always analyzing, that won’t shut up : healing can’t fix something that isn’t there any more.  Can’t give you back an arm. Can’t restore your blood. Or your…

But he works a miracle every godsdamn day and twice on some.  If he’d studied it, if he’d been a healer, could he….

“F-forgive me….”

Aden is in two places at once when he opens his eyes: alone in this room, and kneeling on the airship launch at the Vault in the process of losing everything he has.  Aymeric grimaced in pain as he maneuvered Haurchefant to rest against his legs, heedless of the blood that’s godsdamn everywhere .  How can a man have this much blood in him, how can a man have this much blood out of him … It didn’t matter.  He locked his gaze to Haurchefant’s--too late, he thinks.  Too late. Steel was already clouding over with the end that must come.

Was this for naught?  Could he even die? He remembered what seemed like a lifetime ago, Merlwyb’s guns ringing out and the sahagin priest falling only to rise and rise again.  If he’d shoved Haurchefant out of the way, could he….

“I could not bear the thought of… of…”

Motion caught his eye, fingers twitching in what seemed almost to be a spasm, then lifting, reaching for him.  Aden seized that hand like a drowning man reaching for a line--like he was the one dying.  But he was. He wrapped both hands around Haurchefant’s in a vice grip, the ring under his gauntlet digging in painfully.  Haurchefant’s fingers wrapped around one hand weakly, the press of his touch light as a dying kiss.

He should’ve said something.  “Don’t go” or “I love you” or “Were any of you ever in the cloister if so marry us right fucking now” or “You fucking idiot”.  Anything .  But he couldn’t, throat closed up like he’d swallowed a heavy, cold stone and it slowly sunk down.  He’d been a child again, terrified to say or do the wrong thing lest someone leave him for reasons he couldn’t understand.  The first bargain: silence for an anchor. Do what he’s told, and always keep hold. But the leaving happened anyroad, and the silence betrayed him.

Aden clumsily throws an arm over his face.  Every choking motion meant to hold back a sob breaks through the haze of painkillers and sends a lash of pain down his spine from just above his tail.  That he feels it after the terrifying loss of sensation from his battle with Nidhogg-possessed-Estinien is no relief.

Could I be with him, if I’d….

He’d watched the light go out of his love’s eyes, felt his grip go slack, and felt only that terrifying cold stone.  Nothing .  It was-- wrong , everything he was screaming in revulsion, what was wrong with him, that he couldn’t grasp for the righteous anger he’d quietly carried all his life, or sorrow, or--  We still have work to do.   He’d cast about for anything , and there at the back of his mind lay the seductive power he labored to master even as he wielded it.  It was rage. It was power .  He’d reached for it while Haurchefant’s corpse still lay warm before him.  No, not that, we have a better way--   He didn’t know that voice, so like his own, but he knew Nidhogg’s dirge intimately.  It filled him, the way he imagined it had Estinien when they first met.

Aden saw red .

Could I have stayed like that forever, driven and thirsting for vengeance, if I hadn’t….

He’s glad no one is here to hear the sound of pain he makes on the next sob he fails to contain.  He’s glad no one is here to see him finally mourning after months of fighting.  It doesn’t feel real, as if Haurchefant will walk in through the door at any moment and sit down on the edge of the bed and then immediately apologize for jostling him when he’s so badly wounded.

He’s tired .  He’s tired of the anger, the blind rage, everything, and he’s glad for that cold numbness swallowing up the moment of grief.  Maybe… maybe it’s better this way. Everyone he’s allowed too close is gone.  The numbness means he won’t get attached, and the cold will keep them from drawing too near in the first place.

If I don’t feel for them in the first place… or if I don’t let them know, I won’t lose them.

It is the final bargain.  Aden writes on that cold stone the names of all he’s lost: his father who sent him away, the birth mother he never knew, a dozen Scions, those who might not’ve survived the bloody banquet, Moenbryda, G’raha, Minfilia, Haurchefant, Ysayle.  He waters it with his tears this one last time.

When your wounds are unbearable and you can no longer carry on, trust in me.  I will shoulder this burden for you.  It’s so like his own voice, and it speaks gently, darkly as he settles that stone where his heart should be.  The cold all but burns , like sticking bare skin to the face of Snowcloak.  For some reason he thinks of a little black soulstone with a heart of red tucked into his gear somewhere.  It’s an odd thing to consider now of all times. But even I cannot endure forever.  If you cannot heal this wound, we must find hands that will.

Even the pains of his body subside in spite of the painkillers wearing off, and he drifts into a cold, black, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The second they’d let her up out of bed Alisaie had planted herself between Aden and Y’shtola, taking over for Lyse so she could finally go clean up.  It was… unnerving, to have two people she’d always considered indestructible out like lights to either side of her.  Y’shtola lay pale as the linens, nearly bloodless and barely breathing. Aden’s skin looked positively rosy by comparison, sheets slipped low enough to see the upper edge of the freshly healed wound, still red and raw looking.  When they cleaned him up they’d missed some of the blood, she realized, caught in the underside of his beard.

She sat there for a long time, tired but unable to sleep, before the chirurgeons stopped by once more.  More work to be done, and as she was well enough to be up and about they shooed her off. Alisaie reluctantly made her way outside, looking out over the smoldering remnants of Rhalgr’s Reach in the weak dawn trapped behind rain.

Something caught her eye, and she made her way around the lake, watching keenly as Alphinaud scoured the area of the battlefield half-stooped.  By the time she reached him he’d made a careful circuit of the area where Aden and the Garlean Prince had faced off and begun again. “Lose something?”

He straightened up rapidly, wincing at the sudden change in position.  “No,” he answered, a little edge of pain in his voice. She wondered how long he’d been at it, to be acting like he’d spent hours hunched over a desk.  “But there’s a,” he held up one hand and closed his index finger and thumb into a circle, “ring somewhere. Help me find it.”

“A ring?”  She crossed her arms, regarding him suspiciously.  “Some trinket you saw fall off one of our opponents?”

Alphinaud shook his head as he stooped again, squinting at the ground.  “‘Tis Aden’s engagement ring. He wears it on a chain around his neck, but when they loaded him onto the stretcher the chain was there and not the ring.  It must have fallen off when the chain was cut.”

“His engagement-- oh. ”  Alisaie uncrossed her arms, staring wide-eyed at Alphinaud for a moment.  She’d heard the story, of course. The whole world had. It’d seemed unreal in a way, even after meeting--well, Aden’s almost-in-laws, for lack of a better term.  But she’d been rather distracted, and proper Ishgardian manners meant they showed little of their grief to a guest in their home. The thought that there was a ring hadn’t crossed her mind, and now she felt foolish.  “...It must mean the world to him,” she said softly. And then, more boldly, “What does it look like?”

Alphinaud described it as she stalked up to his side, and they devised a search grid.  She even managed to cobble together a way to sieve the dirt, and they tore apart the battlefield like an archaeological dig.  They didn’t stop up until dusk, though the ring never surfaced.

They didn’t give up, stalking around bent over every time they visited Rhalgr’s Reach.

It was Alisaie’s last thought when acrid smoke made her limbs heavy, her body drowsy, stole the breath from her lungs and she just… laid… down….

We never found that bloody ring.  I wanted to see his face, when we….

 




It was the absolute last tool in his arsenal, his most prized possession and the surefire solution.  You should’ve started with this, you fool .  But he selfishly hadn’t wanted to lose it, to risk that using it as a focus for a summons might consume it.  Better it than all the trouble you’ve caused.

He didn’t need it for that, though.  He had a better plan now, after years of unexpectedly fortuitous failure, and one that should leave it intact.  The Exarch stood in the Ocular, staring down at a ring in the palm of his hand, dark as drachenmail and engraved with twining branches, a small sapphire and a small diamond embedded side by side in the band such as to be nearly flush.  It was rich and understated, elegant and practical for a man who faced so much mortal peril on a regular basis. The sort of gift one warrior might use to ask for another warrior’s hand in marriage.

He’d long hoped to leave it behind in some place where Aden might find it, after….   It would be the least he could do, the smallest way in which to express his gratitude, returning this lost, precious thing.  Bless the one who’d found it at the bottom of the lake, and bless the man who’d known it for what it was and seen to it that it would find its way to him if anyone ever took up Cid’s research.

“Please,” he whispered, closing his hand around it tightly, “I just need to speak to him.”  The Exarch closed his eyes, began focusing his will, the ring warming rapidly in his palm as aether cycled through it.  He’d always imagined he could feel the love and the sorrow radiating off it, some small glimmer of what his old friend must’ve regarded it with, and the spirit in which it was given.

And with this lost, precious thing he finally found Aden.

Chapter Text

When his spear shattered on the armor of a knight he reached out with his free hand and jabbed gauntleted fingers into a weak joint of plate, ripped the man’s gorget free and rammed the broken spearhaft into his throat.  More came while the knight collapsed in a cacophony of hideously wet choking noises. Aden tore the fallen knight’s sword from his hands, nearly as tall as Aden himself, charging forward to meet them with a bestial growl.

He profaned a path in flesh through holy halls, heavy boots ringing on stone between singing swings of steel and dying cries.  That cacophony made music , music the song within him surged to answer, the memory of another melody weaving throughout.  Blood soaked in through the joints of his armor, mixed with sweat and soaked his skin.  But it wasn’t enough. Even as a vicious strike caved in a knight’s armor into their flesh, down to bone , it wasn’t enough.  But gods , that’d felt good , the resistance behind that strike in his arms, the burn in all his muscles from putting that much weight behind a weapon.  A soft, lascivious sound interrupted that hungry growl, tongue darting out to lick the blood from his lips.

He reached the very height of the building but for her spires, fighting his way through the staging ground here, and the sword finally broke, blade shattering under the strain of nearly cleaving a priest in half.  Aden reeled on the last knight and recognized him. Even weaponless he broke into a trot, grinning, tail lashing sinuously behind him.  Oh, yes , to have a chance to kill him again --the Twelve were kind.  Aden shifted his weight, redirected his momentum as as Zephirin, untransformed, charged to meet him and swung.  He only got enough height to kick off the flat of the blade mid-swing, and on the way down rammed his armored elbow into Zephirin’s face.  Bone crunched, rather specific bone, and with the knight reeling from the blow, bloodied, it was a simple matter to hook gauntleted fingers into his armor to pull him down to the right height, to strike with the heel of his palm and ram the bone home.  The knight went limp in his hands, face barely recognizable.

Applause rang out, clear and slow, and the sound of heavy boots on stone in a familiar gait.  Aden’s head shot up, eyes feverish and alert, ears canted towards the sound.

“Good job.”  The voice sounded so like his own, and his gaze met mismatched eyes, one green, one amber.  Aden growled , but the shade gave him a wicked little grin.  It wore blackened drachenmail in the more modern style he’d eschewed as still too damn fiddly , but seeing it on the shade he realized it suited him.  “I think that’s every priest in Ishgard.  Every knight. Everyone who ever supported Thordan.”

The weight in his hands shifted, and Aden looked down to see he held not Zephirin by the leading edge of his pauldrons, but Edmont by his coat lapels, bloody and broken.  He dropped the body with an alarmed sound, sharp in his throat, but the illusion remained. The body hit the stone and bounced with a crack of bone.  “What the fuck ,” Aden breathed, unable to tear his eyes from the corpse.

“Well, even your allies and family were part of the system before you came here.  They all supported it. Helped it run. Patriots, the lot of them.” At the bottom of the stairs his shade stopped, standing at parade rest.  “We can’t kill everyone who contributed to his death without killing them, too.  But you already know that, somewhere inside, or we wouldn’t be here.”  His shade’s ears canted forward in a friendly way. “Feel better now?”

“Why the fuck are you here?” Aden growled, reaching down for Zephirin’s sword--he got Edmont’s cane instead, looked down and saw a little blood and tiny shards of bone spattered on the head of it.  He dropped it, swallowing heavily, and looked back up at his shade.

“They’re right to compare you to a dragon, you know.”  His shade began circling the staging area, arms still clasped behind his back.  “In power you are unmatched .  Beyond mortal ken.  And with each passing day you grow, boundless .  Perhaps one day that little trick you’ve learned will rival even the celestial brood,” he brought one arm forward, panning his outstretched hand across open air, “commanding the receptive hearts of even normal spoken in your own emulation of dragonsong.  Oh, then how terrible your wrath.  We shudder to consider it.”  That hand returned to his back, and as he continued around Aden saw the priests and knights here had also been replaced--there lie Artoirel, Emmanellain, Honoroit, with wounds he remembered dealing.  “Yes, you’re the veritable long-lost-son of Midgarsormr, but flesh and blood rather than scale and aether.  Or is it Nidhogg ?”

“You’re different from last time,” Aden challenged, trying to claw his way back to control of the situation.  If his shade meant to ignore him, he could play the same game, challenge it in the same way. His ears flicked.

“From last time , no.”  The shade’s ears flicked, too, tail twitching in a familiar gesture of calculated interest.  “From before , yes.  When first we met, I was… incomplete.  Fading. A memory burned into the soulstone.  Fray, I think?” Mismatched eyes glanced down, remembering, and Aden almost felt himself making the same expression.  “ Fray .  We like that.  It suits your battle-lust.  So perhaps I’ll keep his name.  Honor his memory.” The shade passed by Aymeric and Lucia, sprawled as if one had tried to shield the other, then Estinien, among a dozen other bodies he recognized.  “But we’re not here to talk about me. We’re here for you .”

“If we’re here for me then fuck off .”  A rumbling growl sounded under his voice, and his fingers ached for a weapon.  “Unless you’re ready to go another round.”

Fray laughed, a dark, unamused sound.  “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? And after all, that’s why we’re here.”  He returned to the base of the stairs and stopped, standing at parade rest once more and smirking at Aden.  “You’ve already had your vengeance in the waking world, but it fixed nothing in your heart. Feels hollow , doesn’t it?  You’re still cold and numb, and anger is better than the blackness waiting under that stone.”  Aden snarled, starting forward, but Fray continued on. “You keep pushing yourself though your body is broken because you need the distraction.  You can project your rage, your blame, onto whatever they’ve sicced you on this week.  But none of it really satisfies .  You know who you want it to be at the end of your spear.”  Fray brought both hands forward and gestured for Aden to look down.  He did, almost instinctively.

Aden’s heart stopped .  Haurchefant lay before him, as he had in death--but the spear piercing him through was not Zephirin’s aetheric lance, but the spear of Light, glorious in both power and aspect.  For a moment the bottom dropped out of-- everything , and Aden shook, a hairline fracture cracking across that cold stone where his heart should be.  It’s not real , he told himself without conviction.

“We know who you really want to blame.”

It’s not real , he told himself, but it… may as well be.  Haurchefant had died for him, but Aden could have done a hundred things to stop it, and he’d done nothing.

“We know you’re not just looking for someone to project onto.”

He’d done nothing .  And suspected now as then that, perhaps, he couldn’t die.  The blessing might not let him.  Which meant Haurchefant had died for--

“We know you’re not just looking for a distraction.”

But it wasn’t just Haurchefant .  Aden finally tore his gaze away, throat tightening.  He knew now this wasn’t really the Vault, knew that he’d find those heavy stone doors behind Fray writ in his own hand with a couple dozen names he could no longer say aloud.  Over the years he’d realized each and everyone one of them could have been saved, not a single one of them need be lost the way they had.  The already chill air seemed to grow colder, tongues of frost licking across Aden’s armor and drawing fanciful patterns.

Still, he missed Haurchefant so fucking much .  He missed having someone who could stand by his side in a fight, someone who knew him so well a glance or a gesture sufficed to communicate volumes of meaning.  He missed having someone to go home to, someone who would soothe his hurts rather than merely see them healed. He missed having someone who saw him as a person rather than a hero.  Someone he could be weak in front of without fear.  Someone who would challenge his boundaries and draw him out of his shell.  And-- gods , he was loathe to admit it, but he missed the intimacy , someone who would touch him without inflicting pain.  But he couldn’t let anyone else close enough for any of that.  He couldn’t live through the loss again.

Aden didn’t want to live through it the first time.

“Harken unto me, Aden Dellebecque, Weapon of Light .”  His head snapped up, gazing on Fray who stood at parade rest again, a more perfect reflection of him with each passing moment.  “We made a bargain. And I will keep it. Mark it well: you may keep those who love you distant, and not let them know that you feel for them in return.  I will help you in this, and I will bear the burdens of your heart when they are too much, just as I bear the burdens of your body.  But you must open these doors one day and face what lies beyond. And soon .  The strain is… damaging us.”

“We both know what’ll happen if I do,” Aden whispered.  “And everyone’s….”

“Counting on you,” Fray said.  “I know.” He blinked slowly at Aden.  “I know, heart of my heart. Even with me to bear the worst, it hurts more than any agony of the flesh.  But one day you must. And perhaps by then….”

Aden shook his head.  “It’s all I have left.  I can’t forget him--any of them--enough to… face it safely .”

“Then you must find hands that can heal you of this wound.” Fray said darkly.  “As I told you before. We have no other viable option. The coward’s way is unacceptable.  Seeking death on your enemy’s blade is unacceptable.” Fray held out a hand, and a blade of ice formed in it, tall as he was.  “Until then.” He walked back up to the doors, squaring himself before them, and planted the sword point down, both hands on the hilt like the statues that stood sentinel in Foundation.

Aden surfaced from restless darkness to find himself curled into a tight, aching ball on his hard, small bunk aboard the Misery , thin blanket wrapped tight around him and a book open on its face next to his head.  He didn’t have it in him to cry, Fray saw to that--just felt numb and cold, and… tired .  His ears strained for any sounds beyond the creak of the ship and the slosh of waves.  Hearing nothing other than the normal working sounds of the crew, Aden started in on what breathing exercises he could manage without uncurling, and slowly drifted back to sleep.

Blessedly, his dreams were bloodless.

Chapter Text

Lior is barely inside the door before his sister is there, grabbing his arm and tugging at him.  “Come on, come on--no don’t bother with all that,” she slaps his hand away from the release for his gauntlet.  “It can wait. Come and see.” 

He lets her drag him along with a little laugh.  “What’s all this?” It’s good to be welcomed like this, after everything.  After he’s been gone so long. To be wanted.  It’s enough to make him forget, for a moment, scrubbing the blood from his armor before debriefing.

Almost.

His sister lets go once they reach the parlor, tail swishing conspiratorily behind her.  Her middle daughter Eliane is on the floor playing with Aden, and Lior’s smile widens further at the sight of his son.  He’s a chubby, wiggly little thing, red hair broom-bristle straight and shot through with streaks of gold that still have yet to fade, skin permanently sun-dark like his mother’s, the little nub of his tail sticking straight out.  Eliane looks up, and smiles, showing off her missing tooth as she rapidly turns back to the babe on the floor. “Aden,” she has to pick up a toy and shake it before he takes notice. “Up, up!” The babe gets his hands and feet under him, standing awkwardly on all fours and pushing a few times like he’s doing the world’s strangest press-up.  Then the babe awkwardly stands up, reaching out for his Eliane’s outstretched hand.  “Good job,” she says. Then she beckons to the babe with a finger, gaining his attention again, and points Lior’s way.  “Your da’s home.”

Aden turns his head abruptly in that barely controlled way of young babes, mouth open and eyes bright, one amber, one green as summer grass.  He bounces once, putting his weight on Eliane, and grins with his whole face. Lior can’t help but smile back.

“He’s getting better at that.”

“Oh,” his sister says, “just you wait!”

“Aden,” Eliane says, and he turns back quickly.  “Have you got the zoomies?” The babe giggles, like it’s a familiar game, and Lior’s ears perk forward in curiosity.  “Have you got the zoomies for you da?”

Aden’s head whips around again, looking at him, ears shifting and his tail straining like it wants to lash but isn’t long enough yet.  Then he looks at the floor, like he’s measuring a distance, and Lior’s smile widens. The boy bounces once, twice, turning himself awkwardly, strains against Eliane’s hand, then remembers he has to let go first.  He pitches forward head-first and Lior lunges to catch him--but the child rights himself, little nub of a tail swinging to counterbalance, and runs to him.  It’s more of a barely controlled stumble-fall, more of a careen , but the child crosses the four fulms to him and softly thunks against his greave, wrapping pudgy arms around it.  “Da!”

Lior laughs , bright and loud, and carefully kneels down, carefully picks up his son, so delicate around his armor.  He wishes he didn’t have his tail bound up inside of it, so he could properly express his elation , but he’ll settle for lifting the boy high in the air and giving him a kiss.  “My boy! Running before he’s walking!”

“He took his first steps about a week ago,” his sister says, and even as Lior carefully puts his son down, unable to hold him safely in drachenmaille, elation and sorrow war within him.  “And if he keeps up all that bouncing he’ll be headed right for your ranks in no time.  Maybe you’ll be training up your own boy.”

“No,” Lior says softly, shaking his head.  He’s missed his son’s first steps for a mission, and not for the first time, not for the last, he thinks C’shala was right.  Perhaps… he should’ve gone with her, rather than fight to keep their boy. Fury preserve her, wherever she is. “He’s not going to be a soldier.  Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“He’s going to be a right built boy, already broad in the shoulders for a babe.  It’ll be proper.”

“You should be watching his eyes,” Lior says as Aden crawls back over to Eliane.  He points at the boy while finally releasing the catch on his gauntlet. “The way he takes everything in.  He’s going to be a bright boy. We’ve a scholar, not a soldier.”

“Mother will insist,” his sister says quietly, glancing to the doorway as if expecting to see the matriarch of the house appear at any moment.  “It’s traditional.”

“He’s not her boy,” Lior answers, just as softly.  “I’ll take him if I must.”

“What, a knight dragoon take a babe to raise by himself?  I know wardship’s not unheard of but he’s a bit young , Lior.  This is a different matter.  Who’ll watch him when you’re gone?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But I won’t see my son to an early grave like our uncle, or all the men before me.”

Or see his son miss his own future son’s first steps for war.

Chapter Text

When Lyse went looking for the Warrior of Light she looked up .  And sure enough, there she found him: sitting on one of the cliffs over Mol Iloh, staring out at the steppe.  She could guess at the route he’d taken to get there, but opted to wend her way around rather than go rock climbing today.  She needed the time to gather her thoughts, to consider and reconsider what she meant to say… and most definitely wasn’t stalling.

Mounting the cliff required a trivial bit of scrambling, and when she crossed the ridge of boulders and dropped down onto the ledge she saw his ears flick back.  He didn’t turn, of course--he never did if it was one of them. Someone had explained to her once that was quite rude , the way he did that even in conversation, that other miqo’te considered it dismissive.

Lyse paused, taking a deep breath after the manner of one of her exercises.  Despite the fact that Aden was an ally her body and mind were gearing up as if she approached a battle.  In a way she did, but not one adrenaline or quick thinking would help her win.  He didn’t reach for the spear on the ground next to him, but she noted the way the tip of his tail began twitching, a small, rhythmic shift back and forth.  She had his attention. How many years had she spent around him never knowing him? Thinking he was quiet and happy to follow them around? She’d even compared him to a lost puppy once, in private, and received a rather stern correction from Minfilia.  But since Papalymo’s… Since the Wall, she paid more mind to his body language. She’d recalled that bit about the ears in conversation, noticed how often he did it, turning only his ears towards a speaker rather than looking at them, and had become hyper-aware of everything else he did, looking for other clues, other signs he secretly hated them all.  Anything to give her an excuse.  It’d felt so darkly good to hear him scream when she’d been forced to rip his drachenmaille off him after his fight with Zenos, and she hated the part of herself that revealed.

She realized how foolish she must look, standing behind him doing nothing, so she drew up into polite conversation distance and said, “Everyone’s wondering where you’ve gone.”  They weren’t, but it was the first thing that popped into her head, and she mentally slapped herself. The tip of his tail stopped, spent a heartbeat still, then curled in a bit.  It reminded her of someone cradling a burnt hand from touching a hot pan. “Well,” she said quickly, afraid she’d cocked up right away, “not everyone .  Rather I suppose, no one’s really wondering, I just, er….  How’s the whole… khagan thing treating you?”

Aden twisted in place enough to look at her, leaning heavily on one arm.  Despite all of her attention she noticed for the first time that he looked lean in a way he hadn’t before the Bloody Banquet.  “Why are you talking to me?” Lyse startled, raising a hand to her breast and shifting back.  Her knee-jerk reaction of, what a bastard warred with a forced calm center.  She reeled those feelings in and really analyzed Aden.  His tone was flat, not accusatory, and perhaps… tired , yes, tired.  His normally bright mismatched eyes seemed glassy and dull, and his hair and fur didn’t quite reflect the sunlight the way she expected, as if it’d lost some natural lustre.  “You don’t have to.”

He was trying to let her off the hook, which she… appreciated, she supposed.  Lyse cleared her throat. “But I do. We’re… allies, aren’t we?” She couldn’t call them friends , not any more, not after everything that’d happened.  And the more she noticed about him the more she doubted she had ever been a friend to Aden Dellebecque.  The Warrior of Light, maybe, but not Aden.

“We are,” he said, still toneless.  He looked down, ears dropping. “I guess I should--”

“Don’t!”  She put a hand over her mouth as if she could recapture her shout, shocked at the volume of her own voice.  Aden’s head jerked up, ears pinning back at the sudden noise. Lyse lowered her hands and repeated, “Don’t. It’s… just don’t.”

“I need to say it.”

“But I don’t want to hear it,” she answered, wrapping her hands together and looking down.  “I don’t want to.... We’ve both said and done things we should regret. But we were both justified.  So let’s just start over, maybe.” She rubbed one hand over the back of the other, trying to soothe out the feeling of his skin and bone under her knuckles.  Of all the countless fights she’d been through, all the horrible but necessary things she’d seen and done, the hideous crack his jaw had made still rang in her ears.  Lyse closed her eyes, taking another deep breath, waiting for his answer.

Tataru’s teacup clattered gently against her saucer, and she looked up at Lyse with glistening eyes, a silent plea in them.  “I know he said something awful to you, and it’s not right. But he’s hurting, too. He’s been hurting for a long time. It’s no excuse, but… keep it in mind.  Try to understand.”

“Just like that,” he carefully kept emotion from his voice.  “Forget and forgive?”

She’d been too angry then, didn’t want to understand.  But they’d both lost the center of their world, had the universe shift around them in a mad reel without the time to mourn.  And since traveling with him here, she… understood. It was more than that. The burden the Twelve had placed upon him was too much for a man to bear, and with everything stolen from him that might offer him succor or help him shoulder it, he’d had only one option: stop being a man.  Be a stone. Then perhaps he could be the pillar that held up the heavens. “Not forget,” she said. “Just forgive.”

She regretted that she’d never gotten to know Aden, only the Warrior.  And now that he’d transformed into this… whatever it was, she couldn’t.  She couldn’t be friends with a stone. But she could work with a stone.  And a stone didn’t deserve her anger or her abuse.  It was just a stone, and couldn’t change its nature.

At length Aden said, “Alright.”  He sounded relieved, and tired, and turned back to his contemplation of the steppe.  Some part of her longed to ask what he was looking at, to know his mind, but she suspected he wouldn’t answer truthfully.  She’d lost her right to know those sorts of things, if she’d ever had it at all.

For the first time that felt like a tragedy.

Chapter Text

They met in the street amidst ringing steel and cries of battle, and Aden caught just a second of hesitation in Haurchefant’s warm greeting and stolen kiss.  Aden didn’t have time to think about it, as his lover joined their group and continued through the streets shoulder to shoulder with him.  Confident as he was in the abilities of his companions Aden was relieved to have Haurchefant at his side.  Everything they needed to say to one another about a fight they communicated in a gesture or a glance--that they were doing their best to merely incapacitate went without saying.  But there it was again, the next time they had a moment to speak and space to breathe.

“Something wrong?”

Haurchefant smiled, a soft, anxious little laugh escaping him.  “No, my love, nothing is wrong. Quite the opposite.” Haurchefant wrapped an arm around him, drew him close and pressed a kiss to the base of one ear.  “Aside from the obvious.”

Aden’s ears shifted curiously at that, tail twitching distractedly.  Haurchefant let go--it’d only lasted a moment as they still had several blocks to cover--and Aden wondered.  He wondered through Ysayle talking her people into laying down their arms, he wondered all the way back to Fortemps Manor, making a grimy, blood-spattered greeting to Edmont while they waited for Estinien to retrieve Aymeric so they could tell the whole tale.

“Come,” Haurchefant murmured to him, laying a hand on his forearm--forward, perhaps, but they were at home and everyone here knew, and if anyone judged ill that an elezen and a miqo’te found comfort in one another they dared not speak it for love of their family.  He caught that hesitation again, though, took note of the way his lover’s blue eyes scanned the room as if considering something. “They may be a while yet in arriving.  I’m sure you’re quite weary of that armor by now.”

Aden made no protests, let Haurchefant lead him up to the rooms they’d given Aden.  He’d long ago gotten over the idea that this was in some way demeaning to Haurchefant, that helping Aden with his armor was something a squire should be doing.  He could remove it by himself, but it was drachenmaille, and it took thrice as long to do a damned thing with.  At times he found himself wishing something would happen to it, grateful as he was that a suit had been secured for him and modified to accommodate his anatomy, and perhaps he could badger them into using the forging process for something simpler .  Heresy they’d say, surely, but he’d commit heresy a dozen times to be able to take his own damn armor off and not look like an upright porcupine. 

Aden’s rooms sat on a corner of the manor, overlooking the city, not terribly large but comfortably appointed.  Guest quarters, obviously, but he wasn’t exactly a guest any more.  A fire burned in the hearth, probably started just before they’d entered the building knowing the staff’s efficiency.  Haurchefant hesitated again just outside the door, the barest pause, then entered and stopped a few fulms inside the door, next to bench and a rack just for this purpose, where he began fussing with the catches on one of Aden’s gauntlets.  They’d have less of an excuse for this if Aden got his wish about the armor, and while he disliked the idea that staff cleaned it here rather than doing it himself, this… this was different.  Haurchefant always went about this task in an almost worshipful manner, and took obvious pleasure in it. Aden had thought at first perhaps it was something lewd he didn’t quite understand, but he’d since come to realize it was about sanctuary .  It was a metaphor made manifest.  Wherever this man was, the mighty Warrior of Light could shed his armor, and be cared for, and beloved for himself and not for his deeds.

Watching him go about his business brought a faint smile to Aden’s lips, thinking back on where they’d started.  How long Haurchefant had been silently saying those things to him before he realized. And even though they both knew now what lay in the other’s heart, he didn’t stop saying it.  But this time Haurchefant seemed to be fumbling with the straps and the catches and honestly, Aden could probably do this about as quickly himself, maybe faster with the extra set of hands to help brace.  “Are you sure--”

“Oh, bugger all this, I cannot wait any longer.”  He pulled off the first gauntlet and dropped it onto the bench.  “I should have done this the instant you returned, but we were rather inconvenienced .  With everything going on if I keep waiting for the right moment we’ll be old and on our deathbeds first.”  Haurchefant fished for something tucked behind his sword belt and produced a small, simple box, which he opened and offered up as he went down on one knee.  It didn’t process at first, what was going on, seemed it must be some sort of joke--

“Aden.”  His attention snapped to Haurchefant’s face at that tone, serious, faintly trembling, husky with emotion.  “I wish always to be the fire at the hearth to which you return.” The ring inside seemed small in Haurchefant’s hands, but of course it would.  It was dark, the color of metal forged in the drachenmaille process, but it seemed unbelievable someone would do it for a ring .  Firelight caught on fine engravings of twining branches ‘round the band, and nestled amongst carven leaves sat a diamond and sapphire side by side, small, delicately faceted, nearly flush with the band.  “Would you do me this honor?”

For a moment Aden forgot how words worked, his heart in his throat.  Could he--? As the Warrior of Light did he… belong to himself enough for this sort of thing?  He looked from the ring to Haurchefant’s face, to those hopeful, uncertain blue eyes.  Yes, he decided, yes fuck anyone and anything that might indicate he didn’t belong to himself enough.  He tried to speak, but his throat was too tight, so Aden nodded dumbly.

Haurchefant slipped the ring on his finger and the box clattered to the floor as he rose and caught Aden in a kiss that seemed like it might never end.

 



Four days later the memory of that kiss burned hot on his lips, the ring cold and heavy beneath his glove as he growled at Aymeric, “I’ll have Ser Zephirin’s heart for what he’s done.”

Chapter Text

The moon was waxing the last night before G’raha Tia went to his endless slumber, heavy and near full, making for poor stargazing.  He went to the usual spot all the same, a crystalline cliff overlooking the water, to gaze out at the Tower. It sparkled and refracted beautifully, breaking even moonlight into soft sprays of prismatic light.  The whole world seemed still, and silent, and sleeping.

It was good, he thought, to leave it like this.  To leave it in peace, the Garlean Empire driven back from the Alliance’s borders, his friend with the backing of nations.  Surely there would be more adventures, things he would miss, but… he would wake to the brighter future forged by his companions.  And wouldn’t that be lovely, to see all that they had wrought in its fullness?

It did not ease his heart, even as he knew sealing the Tower was the right way.  He understood better than anyone now what the structure was made for--what it was capable of--and that mankind was not ready to make anything but a weapon out of it.  And they would not be wrong to do so, for a weapon could be a needful thing.

His ears shifted to follow Aden’s heavy gait as the man walked up, and his tail stilled.  Of course he’d be here--he’d be here any night he stayed with the camp, and they’d talk for hours until they couldn’t stay awake any longer.  What he wouldn’t give to have had a friend like Aden growing up.

How tragic to have found him only now.

Aden didn’t say anything, just took up a position beside, him, arms folded, trying to figure out what G’raha was looking at.  It was a familiar expression, a familiar game, one he didn’t need to play but did by habit. It’d made G’raha sad, when he figured it out, but he understood.

“That spot on the Tower right there,” he pointed, so Aden wouldn’t have to guess.  “Does it look like there’s a balcony of some sort, to you?”

“Maybe,” Aden answered.  “We’d have to get a glass to find out.  Have a look tomorrow, maybe.”

“Tomorrow, yes.”  Tomorrow, when everything would change.  Even as he leaned over and bumped his shoulder against Aden’s in a familiar gesture, and Aden leaned into it, he hoped the other man might forget him.  It was cruel, to be his friend, and then do this. Particularly now that he had Salina’s memories and insight to help him interpret the many things he’d puzzled out about his friend.  That they were too alike. His friend had about as many friends as he did, which was to say, few.

“...Are you alright?”

G’raha’s ears fluttered, but he didn’t dare look up for fear Aden might see the moisture in his eyes.  The man rarely asked that sort of thing, rather offering quiet, stoic comfort instead, the sort you could take or leave.  As he had with the book some weeks ago. He had to be careful, because Aden was the only person who could stop him, with a word or a deed.  “This will all be over soon, and I can’t shake the feeling that we will go our separate ways and never see one another again.”

Aden made a very soft, slightly breathy noise, one G’raha had never heard out of him before--and he’d developed quite the catalog of strange noises and their meanings in their short association.  “You could join the Scions, if you like.”

“I fear I don’t quite make the mark for martial prowess for such illustrious company.”

Godsdamnit , fuck what everyone else tells you about yourself, G’raha.”  He sounded exasperated, angry , and it startled G’raha upright, pulling away from him.  “You do whatever the hells you want to. You can be a scholar and a fighter, and fuck the lot of them,” he gestured with one hand over his shoulder, back towards the camp, “for acting like you’re made of glass, like you’re too--precious or some shit.  Everyone’ll treat you like that until you prove them wrong by walking through fire.”

G’raha laughed softly, hollowly.  He’d found a fine distraction, it seemed.  He wrapped his arms around himself. This wasn’t at all what he wanted to talk about, but if he said what was in his heart, his goodbyes, he would never leave.  “And how many fail to come out the other side?”

“It won’t be like that,” Aden said, voice calming.  “I’ll be with you.”

“To save me from danger?  Then how will I grow?” He turned, finally able to face Aden without tearful eyes, though some part of himself thought this conversation was--about something else entirely, and he couldn’t quite puzzle it out.

Aden leaned his head back, inhaling sharply, looking up at the heavy moon.  When he looked back down he uncrossed his arms, something raw in his expression.  “Do you know how many times, in the beginning, I wanted someone to save me ?”  G’raha stiffened, staring at him in shock.  “I wasn’t prepared for--Ifrit, or any of that.  But I had to soldier on, alone.  That’s how it’s always been, alone.  I don’t mean to keep you from growing, but I won’t put a friend through what I went through.”

Ah, and there it was--the deed and the word that could keep him from going.  The open hand he’d hoped to avoid. I will be your bulwark until you can stand at my right hand.   “And if I never quite make it?”

“I can already tell you you’ve got what it takes.  Conviction and drive are what really matter.”

Conviction.  Yes, he needed to maintain that, to face the morrow.  “I think our fates will diverge,” G’raha said. “But perhaps, one day.”

Aden’s stance shifted, his gaze flicked away and his ears fell, of all things--dejected ?  It only lasted a second before he assumed a neutral expression again, but long enough for G’raha to catch it without questioning his vision.  “It’s an open offer. If you walk in the door of the Rising Stones tomorrow or ten years from now, it’ll still be open."

G’raha laughed softly, not hollow at all this time.  It will be a little more than ten years, he didn’t say.  Instead he released the death grip he held on himself, and looked back at the Tower, lovely in the moonlight.  “Perhaps, if the fates are kind, I will take you up on that offer one day.”

Chapter Text

He hears the shouts a moment before the wind kicks up, an absolute maelstrom circling the battlefield, and looks for the source but can’t find him in the press of bodies.  “Aden,” crackles across his linkpearl, “there’s something--”   Y’shtola’s pearl cuts out.

They’re outside the area I can cover, I’m sorry, ” replaces her, a man’s voice, a familiar but seldom-heard mix of Sharlayan and Mhigan accent.  The Garleans have stopped fighting. Everyone has stopped fighting, turning to stare out at the wall of wind, at the pale glow eating away at it.  “I’m above the blast area, but it’s rising.”

Aden drops his spear to one hand, pressing the other to his linkpearl to respond.  “What’s happening?”

“Something’s… an explosion went off about a malm away not too long ago.  You might not’ve noticed it with all the shelling.  Everyone’s just falling over.”

“Aden?”  Alisaie and Alphinaud draw near, sword and book brandished and facing out from him, as if they’re trying to form up. 

He gives them a pointed look, then says, “See who you can still get ahold of.  I’ve got eyes on the situation. Stormcaller’s looking out for us.” He applies pressure to the pearl again, and asks, “What is it?  Gas?”

I can’t say for sure.  But it’s--hn--eating away at the wall.”   The winds encircling them shudder visibly, shrinking inward, and everyone inside draws closer.  “It’s… countermagic, maybe?  Anti-aether. I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Anti-aether?” Aden mutters, looking up to the wall of winds and the invisible force outside them, seen only as it crashes upon the barrier like waves.  He takes a deep breath and shouts out in as commanding a voice as he can muster, “Listen, everyone! The Empire has dropped some sort of gas outside that’s highly lethal.  Seems they’ve finally stopped giving a damn about anything but annihilation.” Murmurs pass through the group, some angry, some frightened, but no one challenges him.  Even their own troops know it’s possible, and most disconcertingly a few of them seem wholly unperturbed.  “This barrier won’t last long. If you have a means of getting out of here, do it.  Now. Any Imperial soldiers who surrender themselves at nearby aetherytes have my guarantee of safety from Alliance reprisal.”  Then he lowers his voice to speak to Alisaie and Alphinaud, who’ve drawn so close their shoulders are nearly touching. “Any luck?”

“Nothing,” Alphinaud answers.  “Not even Tataru, or F’lhaminn.”

“Likewise with Lyse and Arenvald,” Alisaie adds.  “Whatever is going on must be disrupting communications.”

“Or they hit Mor Dhona and Ala Mhigo simultaneously,” Aden says.  “Which means it’s a coordinated attack on the Scions.  Pick an aetheryte somewhere you don’t frequent.  They can’t hit everything all at once.”

“But what about all these people?”

Alisaie’s tone lances through him, sharp and hard.  “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll figure something out.  But you get out of here--we’re going to need somewhere stable to regroup, and if we can’t reach anyone else that means I’m counting on you two.”

“You’re not coming with us?”

“Stormcaller’s wall isn’t going to last forever.”  He points at the circle of winds, shuddering and contracting in an uneven march towards them.  “Maybe the blessing can counteract it. I’m going to buy these people as much time as possible, but I’ll be right behind you the second it looks like things are going south.”

The twins look at him anxiously, then each other, and nod.  It’s the best plan any of them have. “Right,” Alphinaud says.  “Idyllshire?”

“Idyllshire,” Alisaie agrees.  They both raise their hands at the same time, bowing their heads in concentration--

Someone screams, and they stop just in time to see limbs drop to the ground in an attempt to teleport gone horribly wrong--like parts of the person entered the stream of aether, and lost control of the rest.  For a moment all three of them stare, and the murmur in the crowd grows.

Fuck,” Alisaie says.

Fuck, ” Aden confirms.  He puts a hand back to his linkpearl as the soldiers begin to panic.  “Merrick, we can’t aetheryte out of here, and you’re the only person we can get a signal to right now.  I’m guessing you’re in a good relative position. I need--whoever is left. Anybody who can get any kind of aerial conveyance.  Alliance, Garlean, I don’t give a damn."

That might be difficult Seems pearls are only working if you’ve line of sight over the gas.  And right now I don’t see a bloody soul up but you and the people in there, and the ship that dropped the damnable stuff.”   Aden looks around, trying to figure out where the man on the other end of the line is--at elevation, obviously.  “I’ve already tried everyone I’ve got a frequency for.”

“Keep trying.  I’m handing you off to someone who can give you more.”  He removes the pearl, handing it over to Alisaie. “Give him every frequency you have, anyone who might be able to get us out of here.  And keep him talking, he sounds like he’s starting to falter.”

“On it.”  She doesn’t question, just sheathes her sword and takes the pearl and fastens it on next to her own.

“Alphinaud, do what you can to keep them calm.  If the barrier starts to retreat any faster, see if you can shore it up.”

“Right.”  Alphinaud nods, closing his book and slinging it.  “What will you be doing?”

“Something foolish,” Aden kneels down on the ground, digging his gauntleted fingers into the dirt, pressing his palms flat against it.  He wonders for a moment if he should pray, to the Twelve, to the Mothercrystal. But something tells him She will not answer. Something is different now.  He feels taut inside, in that place where he goes when She speaks to him, like the seal there is paper-thin and under great pressure.  His soul is a dam holding back something unknown.

The Echo has not beat one single warning since the barrier surrounded them.

So he fills that space with silent song, pours every onze of his boundless aether into it, and the ground beneath them vibrates with a deep thrum of power.  It will carry farther that way, perhaps bypass the anti-aetheric miasma.  Sending it through the well within his soul, maybe it will resonate through the Mothercrystal Herself, and if Midgarsormr has even a shred of power left to him--

A distant roar responds, and his ears perk, tail curling.  “Vidofnir’s coming,” he says.

“Wasn’t she with the Ishgardian contingent?” Alisaie looks up at him between giving out linkpearl frequencies to their man on the outside.

“She was.  I don’t know more than that was her, and she’s on her way.  You don’t have conversations like that.”  He stands, surveying the crowd once more.  Alphinaud seems to have done a fine job calming them down, but the barrier is--how long was he doing that?  “How’s Stormcaller?”

“The gas is advancing on his position,” Alisaie says.  “He estimates he only has a few more minutes, but he can keep it up in its current location for the duration.”

Shit.  Alright, this is going to happen fast.  Everyone!” They all turn, and for a terrifying moment utter silence falls but for the howl of the encircling winds.  Even the shelling had stopped at some point, the gunners probably dead at their canons. “We’ve got an evac incoming, and we’re going to need to clear some room for her to land.  And timing’s tight .  The caster holding this spell is about to be overwhelmed, but our ride will get here before then.  I want this orderly .  We’re soldiers.  Act like it.” He gives the Alliance soldiers a salute--and then follows up with an Imperial one.  Both sides return theirs.

How sad, Aden thinks, that it took something like this to make the Imperials and the Alliance put away their weapons.  They start clearing space, moving the wounded, and drawing uncomfortably close to the barrier. It holds in place, wavering but no longer shrinking inward, as that bright wash continues up the sides.

“Samnit! ”  Alisaie threw down Aden’s pearl, surging to her feet.  “Aden, he’s--”

She doesn’t finish before the winds abruptly dissipate, chewed apart by that bright wash of anti-aether.  It crashes over the soldiers, all gathered to make room for Vidofnir’s landing. Alphinaud pulls his book, and Alisaie her sword, and Aden raises a hand to join with his blessing in the manner he wielded it to defend others from Lakshmi, in the span of a single heartbeat doing their best with their combined magics to mimic Stormcaller’s barrier.  But it’s too late for the men they were protecting.

The blessing isn’t like a traditional skill at aether, it’s an extension of his raw soul, and Aden immediately realizes his folly as the miasma begins to crawl in.  With such an intimate part of him exposed it doesn’t need to touch him.  He jerks back like he’s touched a hot pan, but it’s already in him, bright and cold.  He collapses bonelessly to the ground, landing on his ass, slouched.  The twins shout, but he can barely hear it. Everything feels… heavy, and the exhaustion he’s carried with him for years bubbles to the surface like an artesian well struck.  In sudden, sharp clarity he realizes what that pressure inside his soul is, and he focuses everything he has on slowing the advance of the miasma, on keeping that dam strong.  If he can hold it back inside until Vidofnir arrives, maybe the twins can--

Something inside of him snaps, the seal cracking.  Aden wishes for the strength to cry--he isn’t going to die from this, not really, not in a way that will put him back into the cycle.  He knows with the bright, searing certainty of his blessing that this is a Calamity, and the exact form it takes, and that once the seal is broken the Light will truly redouble the strength of this horror.  Already it bolsters it insidiously, but he knows--he knows-- Haurchefant will not be waiting for me.

No one will be waiting for anyone who dies here.  He knows why they just… lay down. He wants to lay down himself.  But he knows now that the Warrior of Light must die for a Calamity to come to completion.  He knows for a single, terrible instant in his rejoining that he worked this magic long ago to thwart his old colleagues.

And that they’ve finally found the only way they can truly stop him.  Insurance, perhaps--the Mothercrystal will not have the power to bolster him after this one, anyroad.  It's overkill.  Or punishment, perhaps, for all the times he's fought them.

He whispers a word in a language this body has never spoken, a name, with all that remains of his breath.  “I’m sorry. I wasn’t enough without you.”

The seal breaks, and Aden, the Warrior of Light, and nine-fourteenths of the wayward Convocation member, because he is all three of these things at once , collapses, his mind an unending white hell, his soul stagnant as it becomes a font for the Light.  His fingers dig in the dirt reflexively, reaching for his spear, and he stares at the sky, unseeing.

 


 

In Mor Dhona another man dreams a different word, a different name, on his lips in a language his body has never spoken.  A forgotten fragment of soul settles into a place he did not know was missing, that name writ upon it, next to the part of him that has quietly and earnestly warred with admiration versus love for the man who was the Warrior of Light.  But he slumbers on, safe in his impenetrable fortress of crystal, unaware for now the source of the dream that has intruded upon his somnolence.

Chapter Text

“Aden.”

He tensed, hands clenching at his sides such that the joints in his gauntlets creaked.  Aymeric was not the first person he’d expect to rush after him upon leaving in silence, but he should have been on the list.  They’d had the world pulled out from under them at the same time, and if anyone was a…

No.  He’d made a bargain.

“Did you need something?” Aden asked, turning to look at him.  He didn’t add Lord Commander.  He wouldn’t use the f-word, but he could acknowledge they were beyond that level of formality.

Several emotions played over the elezen’s unguarded face, uncertainty chief among them.  Aden only felt strangely distant, He wanted to be alone. To think.

“What happened up there?”

Aden took a deep breath, and when he blinked he saw the fine spray of arterial blood, a garden of bright flowers. “Farewell, my first friend.  My enemy.”   Aymeric would hear soon enough about Zenos’ suicide, the catharsis of victory stolen from him.  The bloodlust Zenos had labored so hard to awaken denied.

“Your armor….”

Aden blinked at him in surprise, glancing down at himself for the first time.  Aymeric would not question blood or battle damage, it had been a fraught-- He lifted one hand, turning his arm this way and that so the metal caught the light in the halls of the palace.  He wore the drachenmaille he’d commissioned during his recovery from his first fight with Zenos: simpler, designed to be put on and taken off with ease by one’s self unlike more traditional armors.  The smith had taken liberties, of course, because it was drachenmaille and made for Ser Dellebecque, but the designs were nearly flush with the blackened armor, the accenting colors minimal.

Save it wasn’t blackened any longer.  It shone in the light, a dichroic effect, the rich, dark blue of deepest evening flashing across the surface.  He wondered which it would appear as in brighter light.

“I don’t know,” he answered, but even as he said it suspicion grew.  Many primals held mastery over their environment, changing the terrain to suit them as they fought, but Zenos in control of Shinryu had done something altogether different.  The platform they fought upon had not transformed, they had broken a barrier, Aden hanging on for dear life with his spear wedged between the false dragon’s scales.  That wash of aether had scoured him to his very soul, left nothing behind but his blessing and that cold, hard stone where his heart should be, behind which he had hidden all that remained for a brief moment.  This fight had changed something in him, awakened something by bearing down upon him with all the weight of a glacier.  He knew when now, but he did not know what or why. 

“Should I send a chirurgeon up?”  Or a priest , Aden added in his mind, but Aymeric would never make such an implication.

“To look at my armor?”  He dropped his arms to his sides and smiled.  It felt tight and hollow. “I think I’m whole, Aymeric.  You have other things to worry about, with securing the city.”

Aden turned and made his way further down the hall without giving Aymeric a chance to reply.  He had no room in him for talk, or companionship, or the concern of others. Zenos had seen to that.

He had only room for that cold, hard stone, and blood, and solitude.

Chapter Text

Arild waited nearly half a bell, until the child was truly, deeply asleep, before she stood from the bedside.  He wore a frown even in rest, tear tracks dried on his cheeks, and his ears pinned back. It broke her heart to leave him, because he looked so very small, and helpless, and alone.

She left the door ajar, stepped lightly on all the boards she knew might make noise in their creaky old farmhouse, and quietly pushed open the door to their bedroom.  Nadine sat leaning against the headboard, reading by lamplight, the flickering flame casting her chiseled features in stony starkness. “He’s sleeping, finally,” Arild said, closing the door softly behind her and leaning against it.

Nadine hesitated for a moment.  “That’s good,” she said, carefully.  Of the two of them Arild had more experience with children, what with how many brothers and sisters she had growing up, but that’d been long ago.  They’d been retired for nearly seven years now from their mercenary life, and settled into this quiet life readily. They’d never desired children, and yet here one was, this very night, and they could not turn him away.  “I never expected her to actually have children,” Nadine scoffed, putting her book aside.  “But clearly someone put up with her long enough.

“I never expected her to call us on our promise.”  Arild’s voice quavered anxiously--neither of them could say it all day, but both of them had wanted to.

“I don’t think she called us on our promise.”

A heavy breath escaped her, and Arild made her way over to the bed, steps light.  A letter several years ago told them their old friend had taken a job in Ishgard, and then they hadn’t heard from her again.  They’d never assumed something untoward happened to her, it was merely her way, to disappear and return as if nothing had ever changed.

But the stern elezen who’d brought the child to their door in the pouring rain had not been the sort of man C’shala would associate with by choice.  No, if anyone had sent that child to them, it was his father --a complete unknown to them.  It implied a number of things, and raised questions they might never find answers to.

“We’ll need to go into the city.”  Arild settled down on the edge of the bed, and Nadine wrapped an arm around her waist.  “I think he’s about--four, perhaps, he’s a bit small, but I don’t know how miqo’te children grow… he could be older.  This isn’t a good place to bring a child from outside, we’ll need to find a way to teach him… what not to do.”

“They let him in, love.  He’ll be fine.” Nadine pulled her back, and Arild let herself relax into her wife’s strong grip, the sure solidity of her.  “ We’ll be fine.  We haven’t come across something yet we couldn’t handle.”

“You’re right,” Arild said, closing her eyes.  “But this isn’t like fighting and exploring for coin, or running a farm, or anything else we can do by strength and guile.  We’re shaping someone’s whole life .”

“I can think of no one better to teach a child to have a gentle heart in the face of all the hardships of the world.”  Nadine nuzzled against her neck, and Arild bit off a little giggle at the ticklish feeling. “Or to be cunning, and witty, and bright.”

“And I suppose you’ll teach him that dreadful scowl and how to hit things very hard and bully people into doing things that are for their own good.”

Nadine laughed softly against her, other hand coming up to caress her hip.  “Those are leadership skills , love.”

Chapter Text

Aden woke to warmth, soft bedding, weight against his back, and it took a moment against the haze of sleep to remember where he was.  He cracked open his eyes to see a fire low in a stone hearth, a writing desk next to the bed with the pack he used when he went out collecting samples.  But this wasn’t his room. The arm draped over him tightened, drawing him close, and lips settled into his hair, between his ears. The bed smelled like…

Oh , right.  His pulse quickened as the haze of sleep fled, and he remembered with perfect clarity the slow verbal dance last night in which he’d finally, after months of warring within himself over whether or not what he saw was truly there, fallen into Haurchefant’s bed. The back of his knee twinged where the arrow had been cut out of it after the bloody banquet; it hadn’t hurt in a while, but it was no wonder, after last night.  They’d learned a few things about each other. Haurchefant liked to tease, for one thing, and Aden had no patience for it. He remembered growling something along the lines of if you don’t fuck me through this bed right now I’ll throw you out rock-hard in the snow, and resisted the urge to bury his face in embarrassment.  By the steady rate of his breath, Haurchefant yet slept.

For once he didn’t feel guilty about this sort of thing.  Miqo’te were made to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, a consequence of biology that nested nicely with their social structures.  But Aden hadn’t grown up tribal, hadn’t grown up around anyone who piqued his interest, and the needs of his body had never been anything more than an uncomfortable annoyance.  As an adult, it… wasn’t any different. There were a hundred things he could be doing instead, and truth be told would rather be doing.  A few minutes of physical pleasure was rarely worth the disruption.  He’d fallen into bed with a couple of people before, but always strangely regretted it afterwards.  It made his obnoxious body shut up, but it never really scratched the itch behind those urges.

This had been… different.  He felt at peace with himself. Sated.  Like this had been a long time coming, a natural conclusion.  Now he wondered what it meant for their friendship, if Haurchefant would want something more.  Aden realized, with some surprise, he was fine with that.  It seemed just as natural.

But they’d have that conversation in the morning.  For now he watched the fire go down to embers, and enjoyed the press of toned muscle against his back.

I could get used to this.

Chapter Text

Aden straightened his collar, checked all the buttons on his jacket, and fussed with his cuffs for about the twentieth time.  It wasn’t formal dress, just his usual work jacket, but it needed to look presentable.  Normally he wouldn’t give a damn , but--

“Got the jitters?”  All the fur on his tail stood on end and his ears pinned, head jerking around at Mujih’s voice.  He forced himself to calm as she smiled softly, and just nodded. “You’ll do fine. Everyone out there will just be excited to hear you speak.”

“I’m not particularly fond,” he had to swallow heavily to continue, “of being the focus of a crowd.  Or being in a crowd, for that matter.”

“You’ll have the whole stage of the amphitheater between you and the other botanists,” she said.  “So you won’t be in the crowd.  Just go out there, and be passionate, and you won’t even notice them.”  She smiled at him, crossing her arms and tapping her notepad against her opposite arm.  “To think, the mighty Warrior of Light, liberator of nations and vanquisher of gods, gets stage fright .  Don’t worry, I won’t put that in my article--but it would make you seem more relatable.”

Passionate .  He looked away from her, adjusted his collar again.  That stone where his heart should be felt even heavier at the word.  He couldn’t tell her where he’d stowed his passion, that he just went through the motions now.  “I don’t really give a damn about relatable.”

“I’d gathered that,” she said dryly, but smiled fondly all the same.  “Might I distract you to get a few words before your presentation? They’re still setting up your samples, so we have some time.”

“I reckon,” he said, turning back to her fully this time with a calmer expression.  “But leave the plant puns for your actual writing, not for your interview.”

She snorted, uncrossed her arms and flipped open her notepad.  “Leaf… the…”

Chapter Text

The first mistake the Ul’dahn contingent made was sending the letter to Tataru rather than to House Fortemps.  The second was the request to make a semi-public display of the event bells before the grand melee. The third was permitting a representative of Lolorito to conduct the exchange.  Aden read the letter three times, eyes wide in disbelief, one hand braced against his forehead with his elbow on the desk. “What,” he said, waving the letter in Tataru’s direction, “the fuck.”

“Lucia told me they sent one to Aymeric too.”  She poured herself tea from a service a servant had brought in on her arrival, and then planted herself in the most comfortable chair in the room in spite of the height.  “You should confer with him before you make any decisions.”

“He’s not going to like what comes out of my mouth.”  And neither will you .  A plan began forming in his mind, something the other Scions would hate .  It flew in the face of everything Minfilia strove for in the end.  But a lot of good neutrality had done them. He’d make clear it wasn’t about the Scions.  That it was about him .

That’d terrify everyone much more, anyroad.

 


 

Aden wore his drachenmaille, the whole set, visor over his eyes and the only true hint it was him in the armor his tail.  It was a small affair, attended only by nobility and representatives from each of the city states while their heads tended to other affairs (but for Aymeric, whom he had requested attend), but enough that there’d be gossip--and he’d made sure there was a reporter.  He stood at parade rest while Lolorito’s representative made a little speech about what a boon the Scions were, and what a tragedy had befallen them, and a lot of sucking up in general.  Then she asked Aden to step forward, and as he did so two assistants approached with the armor and spear they’d stripped from him during his arrest at the bloody banquet.  It’d all been cleaned and mended, and by now he’d bled so many times he could scarce recall where the stains should’ve been.

Aden stoically listened to her formal apology, read aloud from a letter written by Lord Lolorito.  He made a point of looking past her, and made it obvious despite the helm obscuring his gaze from everyone present.  When she finished the two assistants offered him what they’d stolen from him.

Rather than move to accept it Aden clicked his heel, and the two knights he’d known would be sent along as Aymeric’s guard stepped forward, taking it for him.  Without acknowledging the assistants or the representative Aden turned on his heel and closed the distance to Aymeric.  The knight carrying his spear handed it to him--so that he had not accepted it from their hands.  He’d planned this carefully, every motion and every word a statement on its own.  He stopped in front of the Lord Commander, removed his helmet and placed it at his feet as he knelt--then offered up his spear with both hands.  “I return to Ishgard what is rightfully Ishgard’s, by birthright, by discipline, by sanctuary, and by sacrifice.”

Silence rang through the chamber, deafening.  Aden resisted the urge to smile, maintaining a serious expression for sake of theatrics.  He could almost hear them squirming, fretting over what had gone wrong, what did this mean , had the Ishgardians planned it--well, one of them had.

And that was what this was really about.  Settling the matter of which country the Warrior of Light belonged to.  In whose arsenal that spear rested. The others had missed their chance, if they’d ever had it at all.

“Do not kneel before me, Warrior of Light.”  Though Aymeric’s tone remained neutral Aden saw the flash of anger in his eyes.  They’d have a chat about this later, but Aden didn’t give a damn.  He rose, and only then did Aymeric accept the spear.  “Ishgard requires not your obeisance.”


 

 

Aymeric angrily gestured the two guards away as they reached his office, slamming open the door and reeling on Aden the instant it closed behind them.  “What was that?”

“Thank you,” Aden answered, grinning--a bit predatory, Nidhogg’s song as ever ringing through his blood, “for helping me say fuck you in the most meaningful way possible.”  Aymeric stared at him, something between aghast and angry, so Aden pointed to a particularly choice blank space on his wall.  “I think you should hang it there.”

Chapter Text

He yet thought of himself as Marques the first time the word came to him, watching Aden sit in one of the pews of the church later at night when everyone should be abed.  He sat with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, head bowed down to touch them, and at first Marques thought he sat in prayer. Then the young man sat up, shoulders still slouched, looking down the pew to the darkened windows.  His ears hung low as they could, the tip of his tail visible beneath the seat, motionless. Everything about him seemed… wilted .  It struck him as a strange word at the time, but none rang truer, especially as he grew to know Aden.  He looked like some once-vital tree uprooted from its native soil and nurtured to maturity, only to be forgotten in the fuss over the rest of the garden.  The branches would provide shade even when bare, and who had time to look up at the leaves?

Cid came to see that look many times over the years, to see it worsen as war wore on Aden's body and stole more and more from him, and oblivious as he could be he noticed how carefully Aden kept it from others, even the Scions--even Alphinaud .  But in their travels he had many occasions to catch Aden alone and unawares, when he thought he had snatched a moment of solitude, because such were the situations in which they found one another--away from their usual company, both more and less guarded.  Sometimes Aden noticed him and immediately the look vanished. But sometimes he didn’t, too deep in thought, and Cid quietly retreated.  They never spoke of it.

As he sat poring over his notes on Alexander, an empty bottle of whiskey on his desk and two glasses, one many times empty, one full, the thought kept distracting him.  That look. And the pain he’d helped Aden push through and conceal with his invention. All the dangerous things he’d ushered Aden unto. If an apparently painless, quiet death hadn’t been a mercy by the time it came.  Cid wondered if he’d made the right choices, not for the world, but for that young man sitting in that pew, adrift and as yet unaware just how much of the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.  Perhaps they should have spoken of it.

He looked up and aside, to the darkened windows.  Perhaps they all should have thought more of what was best for that young man, and then merely trusted him to carry them through.  But he could change that, with this new work.

No, he thought suddenly, and with no small amount of sorrow.  No, he couldn’t.  He couldn’t do anything to ease his friend’s burdens, because he wouldn’t recall this dark time without him should the plan work, and would continue behaving as if it were none of his business unless Aden chose to make it his business.  But he knew who could, and there would be no one better suited to the task.

He'd never been much of a gardener, anyroad.

Chapter Text

A thin sheen of sweat glistened across permanently sun-kissed skin in the firelight, toned muscle rippled beneath him with every roll meeting the thrust of his hips, his lover’s hardness yet untouched between them.  It seemed almost heretical, to even think of interrupting the sweet chorus of flesh meeting flesh and soft gasps, but the words spilled past Haurchefant’s lips anyroad. “You look radiant.

Aden laughed beneath him, a low, soft sound, darkened and husky with lust.  “You have a funny idea of dirty talk.” His mismatched eyes focused out of their pleasured haze, sharp as his spear, and a teasing quirk curled his lip.

Haurchefant grinned wickedly in response. “Who could profane the temple of you with blasphemies?”  Aden made another soft, amused sound, and Haurchefant slowed his rhythm, hunching over to catch Aden’s lips in a kiss before he could respond with sarcasm.  He slid one hand down along Aden’s flank, reached around behind him to grip around his tail and lifted. For all Aden’s strength, how dense his form with muscle, it was little trouble for the elezen to manhandle him when he allowed it.  He shifted Aden’s hips, and caught the smaller man’s gasp in a kiss as it allowed him greater freedom to change his angle, removed some of Aden’s ability to meet him. “What fool would utter a single thing other than worship at your altar?”  He left Aden’s lips to kiss at the corner of his jaw, brushing over the edge of his neat, trim little beard, always softer than it looked. Then down his throat, tasting his pulse. Aden settled one hand on Haurchefant’s shoulder, the other reaching behind him and twining into his hair as if to encourage the pilgrimage of his lips.  He tried to say something again, but Haurchefant changed from shallow thrusts to slow, deep, punishingly hard, and words broke off into a throaty moan, hand fisting in his hair reflexively.  He didn’t let up until he’d wrung several more of those lascivious sounds from his lover, pushing him to the very edge, only retreating to a gentler pace when it grew too much for him .  “ Radiant .” he repeated, twice as confident.

Aden gazed up at him dazedly, heaving for breath as he slowly backed off of the high Haurchefant had denied him.  His fingers still tangled tightly in Haurchefant’s hair, as if he’d forgotten about his grip entirely. He blinked slowly, and Haurchefant leaned over him again to kiss him gently back to his senses.  “Why,” he breathed, “do you say things like that?”

Haurchefant pulled back just enough to search his face, to note the faint flush to his skin that could have been lust, or could have gone with his question.  It’d been a question , gentle and small, not deflection or insistence that he keep going.  “Because,” he smiled warmly, “they are true. And I wish you to know this truth with every fibre of your being.  If I must tie your tongue with hymns for you to hear my fervent prayers… then so be it.” He leaned down, nuzzled against one of Aden’s ears and murmured three words that would have surprised no one.  They didn’t surprise Aden, either, but that taut body tensed beneath him, and a soft, breathy sound escaped him, needy in a new way.

He worked his way slowly back up to that punishing pace, plying praise with the touch of his lips and sweet words.  Aden did not laugh or deflect again, only answered with sounds of need growing in volume and frequency until Haurchefant’s free hand closed over his neglected hardness and worked him until he came undone with a full-throated cry that left his voice broken.  Haurchefant followed seconds later, bottoming out hard once, twice, and then spilling into him with his name a needy plea.

Chapter Text

The doors slammed shut with a resounding, final clamor of stone on stone, and the noise jarred him to his core, startled him out of his confident stance.  He turned and stared at them, eyes wide, ears and tail slack. The effect was… immediate .  How stifling this grand hall felt.  How cut off .  Before he realized it he took two stiff, halting steps back towards the door, reaching out his hand…  And then he brought his hand up, pressing the heel of his palm against his forehead.

G’raha panicked when Aden crossed the threshold, knowing he couldn’t do a damn thing to stop him if he objected, but the sequence was already begun, he only had exactly long enough for his goodbyes before the doors began to close.  “Don’t--”

“Shut up, you godsdamned moron.”  Aden made a sharp gesture with one hand, stalking up to him full of predatory grace, tail thrashing angrily behind him.  He stopped so close G’raha leaned back slightly, afraid the man would grab him by the collar. Instead he hesitated, uncertainty clear in his otherwise steely gaze, then swept G’raha into a fierce hug.

It felt like the way his father had hugged him the few times he’d seen him since leaving home, that crushing, barely-restrained emotion with no other outlet of seeing someone dear to you after a long time.  But this was different. Acknowledgement, maybe, of everything that’d passed between them, spoken and unspoken. Farewell and welcome back in one--because Aden wouldn’t be there to say the latter. Aden pushed back just enough to bow his head and press his forehead to G’raha’s, a surprising gesture from a man who’d never had a tribal upbringing and rarely displayed emotion.  He had to breathe deeply to keep tears from his eyes, only now remembering to return the hug.

“You’ll do fine,” Aden said, voice soft and confident.  “Whatever awaits you when those doors open again, whatever you decide to do with your life, you’ll do fine.”

Now all he could remember was the press of that man so close to him, and the sorrowful, hopeful look in his eyes just beyond the threshold.  G’raha wanted to sear that image into his mind, to remember it through all his years, his last vision of the man who had become his best friend.

He felt as if those doors had cut his heart perfectly in half.  He’d known it would hurt, but not this much .  But it was too late now--for doubts, for turning back, for giving in.  G’raha tore himself away from the doors and made for the stairs, for the long climb up to the throne.

Chapter Text

“Thank you for coming down.” Minfilia put aside her correspondence and stood from her desk.  Tataru may be a secretary, but no one in the Scions deserved her respect more, even if it was a bit formal between friends.  She gestured for Tataru to close the door behind her.

“Is something wrong?”  Tataru asked, clearly reading her tension.  So Minfilia forced herself to relax, and gave the woman a small smile.

“No, nothing is wrong.  I merely wish to respect our most recent recruit’s apparent desire for privacy.”  Minfilia opened up the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a slim folder, then rounded the desk to hand it to Tataru.  “Per our previous discussion. I trust you’ll dispose of the documents once you’ve made the necessary adjustments with our support staff and provisioners.”

Tataru accepted the file with a smile, opening it and beginning to skim the contents.  “Did Thancred say anything about this?’

“He didn’t take me seriously at first,” Minfilia said, raising a hand to her mouth to conceal a little laugh.  “But in the end all he said was it was the strangest reconnaissance mission he’d ever been on, and then he did it without complaint.”

“I can see him now,” Tataru grinned, flipping to another page, “hiding in the bushes, watching our new friend as he goes about his day off.”

“I don’t think he hid in any bushes!” Minfilia laughed brightly, the image leaping to her mind easily.

Tataru finished reading, as the report was exceptionally short, only a couple of pages, and frowned thoughtfully.  “Why didn’t he say anything?”

“He is too polite,” Minfilia answered, lowering her hands to clasp them in front of her.  “And thinks it is no one’s business, and that he does not deserve special treatment.”

Tataru huffed at that, clearly upset.  “But I asked him if he had any dietary restrictions.  I ask everyone , you know that.”

“‘Tis not a matter of necessity, I think, but a matter of preference.  To be quite honest, I find myself rather surprised more of our members from the Shroud aren’t like this.”  Minfilia inclined her head slightly. “Though I admit, it does seem odd for a miqo’te, even a non-tribal one, to prefer a low-meat diet.”

Chapter Text

“What time is it?!”

Jessie jerked upright from her exhausted slouch over her desk in time to see Cid rushing up to her open door.  She quickly ran her hands through her hair, trying to look like she hadn’t been here all night waiting for him to finish his project, and scowled.  “Don’t you have a chronometer in there?”

“An accurate sense of time was interfering with my ability to concentrate,” he said with all seriousness.  “What time is it?”

She glanced over and read off, “Three bells in the morning .”

Damn , they won’t let me in to see him this time of day.”

Her scowl shifted into a grimace.  That project.  “Is it done, then?”  It had potential to really change the lives of many people, but at the same time it was all Cid had worked on for weeks .

“Finally,” he said.  “We need to test it, but I know it’s ready.  We should leave for Ishgard, by the time we arrive--”

Jessie shot up from her seat.  “Absolutely not! Chief, get some sleep .  He’s not going anywhere.”

It took another ten minutes of arguing before he agreed.

 


 

Two days later Cid’s heart pounded in his chest as he helped Aden affix the twin devices and made a few last minute adjustments.  Aymeric stood nearby, and a chirurgeon hovered somewhere behind him. It was the Lord Commander’s idea to set him to this task in the first place, and the source of all the medical records he’d required.  They’d kept correspondence the entire time, without Aden’s knowledge--a dirty thing, to go behind their mutual friend’s back, but a necessary one.  Aymeric’s visceral description of the chirurgeons’ attempts to get Aden walking again had been more than enough motivation.  He’d seen Aden in a terrible way before, and known the man to be stoic at every turn. Mewling in pain and begging for surcease were not phrases he had ever expected to read in reference to the man, nor did he wish to ever do so again.

Healing couldn’t restore what wasn’t there , and Nidhogg’s blow rent muscle and sinew apart, shattered bone, frayed nerves.  The first report, while he yet lay recovering from the consequences of the chirurgeons’ treatment-- that had been harrowing enough--had said he would not walk again without assistance.  But the Warrior of Light performed miracles on a daily basis, and once the chirurgeons realized he was continuing to heal, they’d reassessed the situation.  He’d walk again, unaided--but it might be tomorrow, Hydaelyn willing, or it might be five years from now.

They didn’t have five years to wait if Garlemald caught wind of the Warrior of Light's state.  Not if they could do something to help.   He didn’t need to walk unaided, if Cid could create something that would shore up the failings of his healing body and make that assistance something he didn’t need to occupy himself with.  A device that would help him brace, help him balance, maybe even help mitigate some of the strain his fighting style would put on the recovering injury by redistributing it. He’d never made anything like it before, but necessity was the mother of invention--and the way Aden’s own preferred fighting style converted physical and aetheric force back and forth, redoubling or mitigating as necessary, made for a perfect model.

“All ready,” Cid said, drawing away from the edge of the bed.  Aden took a deep breath and with agonizing slowness moved his legs to hang off the side of the bed, already covered in a sheen of sweat and jaw set in pain by the time he managed it.  Then he carefully scooted forward until his feet touched the floor, engaging his arms more than his core.  Aymeric stood at the ready, offering a bracing arm for Aden to grab hold of--something he’d apparently done many times, serving as Aden's bulwark through all this.

This was the moment of truth.

By the way Aymeric braced as Aden rose to his feet Aden put most of his weight on the man, quite literally pulling himself upright.  His tail hung limp and useless, his ears nearly flat against his skull, and he swore viciously.  He stood like that for a moment, holding on to Aymeric's forearm with both hands, gasping for breath at the effort it'd taken to rise.  "Well," Aymeric said wryly, "we're already doing much better than last time."

"Yeah," Aden gasped, head bowed as if the effort of holding it up was too much when combined with everything else.  "I think I can...."  He carefully let go with one hand, then the other, and Aymeric stepped to the side, giving him room.

Aden took one shaky, unsteady step forward, and broke out into a pained, wheezing laugh.

Chapter Text

G’raha had thought little of it when the quartermaster for the expedition assigned the Warrior of Light to his tent.  He’d been the odd one out, after all, and there was room for a second cot, and they’d hit it off quite well so it seemed a reasonable assignment.  Aden had declined to stay with them other times, with Mor Dhona so close, but their evening chats after forays into the Tower drew on longer and longer until it finally became unreasonable to wander back to town.

In retrospect, he should’ve thought more of the look a nearby pair of Ironworks employees gave him while he agreed to the assignment, somewhere between amusement and horror.  He’d dismissed it utterly at the time, with other things on his mind.

Now he lay curled in his cot, hands fisted in the covers, tail wrapped tense around one leg, trying to calm himself by breathing slowly and deliberately.  Once he’d heard about a technique assured to get one to sleep, something about touching the tongue to the hard palate and breathing a certain way--

“Somethin’ wrong?”  Soft, rough with sleep, so gently concerned.  G’raha’s head shot up, and he immediately regretted it.

Outside moonlight reflected off a hundred surfaces, redoubled and made glittering brilliant.  Enough filtered through the thick canvas of the tent to paint the vision across the room in stark clarity.  Aden sat upright on his cot, strong arms braced behind him, blanket pooled low around his hips. He was a lovely man, enough to put thoughts in the mind of anyone so inclined even in full armor.  Out of it he was divine , every angle of his body wrought in muscle, sleek like one of their people and as the fine body control needed for his fighting style dictated, but somehow more as well, a little broader, and much more deliberately built, honed by combat and hard labor.  Just enough of the fullness of youth clung to him to make the hard planes of muscle as inviting as they were intimidating.  The blanket draped dangerously low as he leaned forward, revealing momentarily the shapely v of his abdomen that led down to…  G’raha felt his skin flush with heat, tearing his eyes away only to fix on the curve where Aden’s shapely body transitioned to firm buttocks, the curve of his tail and the patch of fur tapering off to skin around it.  His hands twitched, and he fisted them tighter in the blankets, trying to drive off the eager suggestions of his imagination of what that curve would feel like beneath his hands , what that body would feel like in motion against his.

“Can’t sleep,” he forced out, glad that the dark washed out the color in his cheeks.  “Think I’ll… step outside. Read for a bit, maybe.”

Aden made a quiet, sleepy noise of affirmation, one that made G’raha question what how his voice would sound husky with lust, and he had to leave now if he wanted to preserve any dignity.  He rose carefully as Aden flopped back onto his cot, and noted with equal parts mortification and great interest that the man did not pull the blanket back up.  Aden’s eyes were closed, his ears limp at rest, and for a split second as he stood there admiring the man G’raha considered reaching out --

He fled into the moonlight outside in his bedclothes, one hand clenched into a fist and pressed hard against his mouth, tail twitching furiously and ears swiveling at any tiny sound, terrified someone would see the hardness tenting his shorts.  But of course no one was awake inside the camp at this hour, save the guards posted around the perimeter.  He slipped back into the shadow of one of the tents, out of view of the patrol route, and shoved his other hand down into his short to wrap around his hardness as he sank down to his knees.

Shamefully, he worked himself to thoughts of his colleague, his hero , and his--yes, if he was honest with himself, friend , they had fallen into it so easily.  He bit back a little moan, digging his teeth into the fist still pressed to his mouth, at the memory of readying for bed and turning around to see Aden stripping out of his shirt, then his underthings, so shockingly shameless--as if entirely unaware of the incredibly erotic image he presented in motion .  G’raha slowed his strokes, oversensitive from laying there for nearly two bells hard and trying not to rut into the mattress.  He’d lain with many lovers in Sharlayan, free and easy with his affections as many claimed their people to be, and he imagined now all the best moments of those experiences--but not with those he’d actually lain with.  No, he imagined plying his lips against Aden’s length, swallowing around him and reveling in the tightening of Aden’s fingers in his hair, the needy twitch of his hips as he restrained himself from thrusting.  Not quite bringing him to completion, leaving him wanting, pleading, then pushing him down against the cot, taking his time opening him up, those soft sounds he made at times rather than speaking rolling into moans and half-spoken snatches of G’raha’s name.  Then finally, finally, sinking into that tight heat, feeling that taut body writhe against him, fucking Aden steadily through his orgasm and chasing his own pleasure in the man’s body as he hung on that sweet line between overstimulation and pleasure. Searing tension built in him, kissing his way down along Aden’s neck and coming undone, in a white-hot heaven, teeth scraping against the skin of Aden’s shoulder--

G’raha came hard in his shorts, stifling a shout with his teeth digging so hard into his hand they’d surely leave a bruise.  He sat there for a long moment heaving for breath, coming down from his high, the night uncomfortably chill against his lust-fevered skin.  Closing his eyes he shuddered, shamed that he’d done that, shamed that he’d be walking back into that tent to that lovely man, who had no idea what he’d done to G’raha, who trusted him as a friend.  And he’d still be naked .  G’raha’s cock twitched in his hand at that thought, and he swallowed a little whimper of distress.

Morning couldn’t come soon enough, and he had all night to figure out an excuse to get one of them assigned to a different tent.  He couldn’t let his lust strain their friendship, and he couldn’t endure another night alone with the man.

Chapter Text

Minfilia rifled through Tataru's desk, wishing the secretary was in, because of course today of all days she'd need ledgers to conduct correspondence.  She staunchly refused to call her on her day off, and so found herself biting her tongue against swearing when the door to the Rising Stones opened.  She abruptly straightened up, and tried to look like she hadn't been ransacking Tataru's desk, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

An absolute mess walked through the door, two pairs of boots squelching with every step, and she covered her face against the smell.  "By the Twelve, Aden, what is that?"

Two miqo'te stood before her, one her familiar friend, covered to his waist and one arm slicked in a thick, stinking, half dried mud.  The other she didn't recognize, but he was caked in the stuff, hair slicked down with it and only a few patches of pale skin showing, one red eye and one blue glittering bright through the muck where it'd  been wiped away from his eyes. His ears hung low, and his tail hung heavily behind him.

"You know that swamp full of malboros down near the Castrum?" Aden unslung his spear, miraculously clean, and leaned it against the bar.

"I've heard of it," she answered, regarding the stranger and how every ounce of him exuded petulant misery.

"My friend here found out throwing himself under a spray from one is just as bad as getting hit by it."  She could imagine it now, Aden wading through the mud to pry the shorter man out of it and slipping, half dragged down himself.  "This is G'raha, by the way. G'raha, Minfilia."

"I wish circumstances permitted me to say it's a pleasure," G'raha said, the mud doing little to obscure his adorable pout.

"You're one of the Students of Baldesion, are you not? And Aden's companion in this expedition Cid dragged him into. I've heard quite a bit about you…."

Behind all the mud he looked slightly mortified, and Aden conveniently seemed to notice at exactly that moment, "It's drying.  Come on." He wrapped his muddy hand around G'raha's arm and led him off to the showers.

 


 

Minfilia determined to corner him for a conversation before he left, so she lingered in the bar, finding things to busy herself with. A full bell passed, and she worried she'd somehow missed him, so she peeked in on them to find the room absolutely steaming, both of them seated on a bench outside the semi-sectioned off stalls, Aden wearing a pair of loose trousers and G'raha only a conveniently placed towel.  Aden sat behind him, straddling the bench, working dried mud out of G'raha's tail. They conversed quietly, but still loud enough she heard it from the doorway.

She'd never seen Aden in so intimate a situation, or so comfortable.  He smiled as he spoke, a soft expression barely curling his lips but lighting his mismatched eyes. G'raha for his part seemed a bit flushed, pale skin blotchy from both scrubbing and embarrassment.  With the mud gone she noticed his archon tattoos, and cursed fate that everyone was out on some business or other today. But then perhaps it was a blessing, with no one here to tease Aden over this obviously close friend.

Her gifts told her much and more lie behind G'raha's soft replies, the flush in his face and the play of tension versus relaxation across his body, but what or how much she couldn't say. Some sisterly instinct in her cried out to corner him and question him, but she closed the door and let them be.

Something told her, in that mysterious way of the blessing, that it was the wrong time to meddle in this affair.  The scene seemed achingly familiar in a way that made her long for something or sometime she could not recall. It would sort itself out, whatever it was, and nothing she or anyone else did would change that.

 

Chapter Text

The blindfold stole his sight, the ropes his ability to touch back--but those restraints freed him, too.  From taking in enough information to analyze his situation, from questioning am I doing the right thing .  Of course that shifted to listening for the soft sounds of a heavy body moving across the bed, to questioning do I look appealing to him, am I aroused enough, what if he expects me to use the word what if I need to and I don’t realize it--

“I can hear you thinking, my dear.”

Aden smiled anxiously, made a soft sound approximating his usual huff of a laugh.  “Can’t gag my brain.”

“We’ll see about that.”

He flinched from the first touch, gentle, a fine leather glove tracing the shape of his collarbone, the hollow of his throat.  It vanished for a long time, and his ears strained for any sound but the crackling fire in the hearth. For that long moment he sat there in anticipation, holding tense against the ropes.  He’d just begun to relax when the next touch came, the palm of the glove skimming across the hard planes of his abdomen, and he tensed again. Even these gentle touches, even knowing it was his lover's hand clad in leather, stirred some deep seated instinct in him.  To flinch, to draw away, to fight. It did every time. It always had. He'd long blamed it on his self defense training with Nadine, the reflexes she'd hardwired into him, but he knew… Aden knew it was more than that, some soul-deep memory out of conscious reach that associated touch with pain.  Something buried deep down in him, underneath the place in his soul where the blessing blossomed up and nestled around the core of him. He expected to be hurt, even in comfort. To need to make war even in peace.

When Haurchefant gave him what he expected, thumb brushing too hard over a bruise, he leaned into it.  That one was from the Vanu, mostly faded. A gentle caress followed, across the plane of his hip--at the same time lips fell on another bruise across his ribs, mottled and dark, kissing hard.  He didn't know which way to go, assaulted on both sides, pain and comfort. He tugged on the ropes, wrapping his hands awkwardly around the lead tied above his head. It gave him some leverage, but Haurchefant gripped his hips in both hands and pushed him back down.

"None of that.  You are mine for the moment, my dear.  If you must be your own again, you know what you must do."  He paused, as if waiting to see if he'd say it, fingers digging right into a bruise on Aden's flank.  He'd slipped and fallen hard, not then used to the old, smooth ice here. A stupid, mundane injury.

Aden breathed a little easier, that pressure a grounding sensation.  “Shall I continue?” He nodded, unable to speak around a throat tight with anxiety.  He wanted to be broken of it. He wanted to be touched, in comfort, in pleasure , and not flinch from it.  And he trusted no one else with the secret of his desire, or to help him bypass that soul-deep instinct.

Chapter Text

It seemed, of all the many wounds Ishgard yet nursed, by far the most ridiculous thing the newly formed House of Lords could possibly debate.  And yet here he was, a handful of suns out of the infirmary, trying not to splinter the wooden armrest under his hand in a death grip.  Everything still hurt , and His Lordship who had the floor’s voice was like sandpaper, and the lingering strains of Nidhogg’s song colored his thoughts even with the wyrm finally laid to rest.  He tried to think of anything other than standing up and bashing this chair over his head, letting the man have his piece in a civilized fashion.  But whether or not he could convince a tailor to line this formal jacket with chainmaille was an insufficient distraction.  The last survey report from Churning Mists he’d read was an insufficient distraction. 

When the floor opened again Aden’s body rose from his seat, ears pinned back, before he had a conscious thought to stop himself.  His tail would’ve lashed were it not currently fixed in place at the base and sedated to prevent just that, but Cid’s device kicked in--he felt the uncomfortable hum of aether -- to help compensate in his balance.  The chamber fell silent, all eyes on him.  He knew the gossip well enough: that the seat was ceremonial, an honor paid to the most recent member of the peerage for his many deeds in the name of his long-lost birth country, for his many sacrifices.  His name had been put forth after the formation of the parliament, suggested by the House of Commons and passed unanimously while he yet lay half-dead and the chirurgeons unsure he’d ever walk again.  And if he did--well, he was the Warrior of Light, and surely he would be too busy to bother. They’d never expected him to show up .

And Aden hadn’t been sure he would, either.  Politics had been Minfilia’s strong suit, and he himself at first too meek and then too full of passionate rage to conduct himself appropriately.  But this was his home , it always had been, and he’d… he’d found himself here, and lost himself again.  He’d sworn his lance to Ishgard. And they’d given him a way to turn his destructive nature towards rebuilding .  If he could help heal the nation by yelling at someone, well… that sounded quite alright.

Best think of a rebuttal before you reach the floor.   He made his way down, felt a bit ridiculous standing before all of them.  He must look like a child playing dressup, even with everything tailored to his size--the gathered peerage were by and large elezen, of course, with only a scattering of hyur who’d gained their lesser titles by merit.  Each of them was somber and stately as he looked over them. He rarely thought about his own appearance, but he felt it keenly now, how he must seem with his naturally flamboyant coloration, something rarely found among their people.  He wondered if it would prevent them from taking him seriously.

No, the ears and the tail do that just fine .

They were staring.  Time to act--he was a soldier in a different sort of war here, and he would strike a decisive first blow.  “With all due respect, Your Lordship, you and everyone else privately holding that sentiment are bloody godsdamned cowards.”

 


 

“...And that’s how I convinced them to amend the immigration bill and send it back to the House of Commons.”

Bells later he finished the story in a private room at The Forgotten Knight , surrounded by people who’d been eager to hear the aftermath of his first day in parliament--perhaps the first time he’d had all of them in a room at once.  Stephanivien stared at him in open shock, and Joye hid a smirk behind a drink from her mug. Leveva nodded approvingly, idly shuffling her cards. Hilda leaned back from the table and howled with laughter.  Sid looked like much of the proceedings had gone over his head-- much , but not all.  “So you won an argument with a bunch of nobleman by starting a fistfight?”

“I didn’t start it.”  Next to him Rielle scoffed, plucking at the rip in his jacket as she healed his black eye.  “Someone else did to defend my honor. But I finished it.”

“To think,” Hilda wheezed, “we been doin’ it wrong this whole time!  Spot of fisticuffs’ll get things done, aye! Now that you bastards’ve done it no one can call us uncivilized!”

That broke the tension, and they all bubbled with laughter and concern by turns.  Aden looked around the table, glad to see his associates getting along. He’d wanted this, before, and never had the time for it.  But now….

Plastering on a soft little smile, Aden turned his gaze away.  Surrounded by allies in good spirits and celebrating his victory he should feel… something.  Pride, surely, and it was there in the small measure he ever allowed himself to feel it. Camaraderie, hearthfire warmth of good company… he only felt cold instead, and heavy where his heart should be.

It was better, this way.  He wouldn’t feel so alone in the dark if he felt this alone in a crowd.

Chapter Text

Aden staggered to his feet as the hulking, black-skinned nightmare beast bore down on him once more.  It withstood everything he had, and his right arm hung limp at his side, blood slicked across his face from a cut on his scalp.  He could feel one eye swelling shut, and he’d done something to his hip.  Carefully he kept ahead of its advance, backing away and dodging as it swung at him, looking for an opening.  The beast offered none, and the Echo availed him no special advantage. It was a screaming, continuous pulse of threat in the Echo, and the fine edge of dark power had sustained him so long it sputtered weakly when he called on it for power. 

Aden dove under a blow only for the thing to redirect its undulating, abyssal bulk and intercept him, batting him across the platform.  He rolled to a stop near the edge of the ruined tower, looking out at Amaurot. That sickening sensation half-Echo, half memory overwhelmed him with the disorienting feeling that he had been here before, doing exactly this.

The Echo screamed, out of synch, out of beat, and he rolled, bringing his spear up with some difficulty braced in both hands.  Summoning up the last dregs of that fine edge of dark power felt like it dropped the floor out from under him, stopped his heart immediately.  Ice built across the spear haft, turning it into the flat of a blade. He caught the gaping, ragged maw on it, managed to deflect the bite that would’ve taken his head from his shoulders--then it clamped down, showering him in splinters of ice, and ripped the weapon from his hands, rearing back to throw it.

It was enough.  Aden scrambled up on his good elbow, tried to get enough purchase to rise, and opted instead to scoot unceremoniously off the edge, plummeting into the chasm below.  With the last of his strength he brought his good hand up, concentrating his aether home send me home take me--

Home wasn’t specific enough this time.  As his form dissipated to aether, seeking out the correct aetheryte, he felt his soul pulled in three different directions.  One jerked him across the Rift, another towards the nearby aetheryte in Amaurot, and a third--before he could tell the direction something cracked, the lines where Ardbert had pulled him back together straining under the pressure.  He screamed before the shift stole his voice and plunged him into darkness.

 


 

The Exarch abruptly looked away from Moren, back towards the Tower, ears twitching.  The defense systems were firing, something he was very well attuned to out of necessity, but in a… strange way.  There wasn’t a threat inside the Tower, or in the Crystarium, and yet the Tower registered something and started funneling energy to-- him , here in the Cabinet of Curiosities.

“Is e-everything well?”  Moren clutched the tome they’d been discussing to his chest.

“No,” he answered, ears swiveling for any clue, ears darting around.  “There’s something--”

There it was, a familiar thread of aether, all the dead nerves and unfeeling crystal in his body coming alive.  The Exarch gasped at a sudden rush of energy through his body, grabbing at the railing to keep his balance, and the soft tone of an aetheryte materializing an individual sounded.  Aden appeared not five fulms from him, in open air off the balcony. Armored, bloodied, distressingly limp .  The Exarch blinked, unsure what had just transpired.  Aden careened towards the floor with immense momentum, as if he’d been falling from a great height, leaving the Exarch with barely any time to shout the incantation to slow his fall.

Aden still impacted one of the tables below hard enough to shatter it and lay in a heap amidst the splintered ruins, unmoving.  “Go tell Chessamile we’re coming!” The Exarch shouted, and he flew down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time.

He recognized the dark power clinging to Aden’s form, felt for a pulse, and finding none swore and poured a truly massive burst of healing magic into him.  The man bucked beneath his hands, sucking in a harsh breath as his eyes flicked open and rolled, looking for a threat. Gods but he hated that power, much as he understood it kept Aden alive.  Keeping his crystal hand pressed to Aden’s chest to feed him a steady stream healing aether, sussing out his injuries, he reached up to caress Aden’s cheek with his spoken one.  “‘Tis alright, I have you.”

Aden went limp again, heaving for breath, and reached up with his left hand to cover the one on his chest.  Even despite the gauntlet he felt it, normally unfeeling crystal alive with sensation at the nearness of the man who’d imbued a part of himself there moons ago.  A harsh, wheezing laugh escaped Aden between gasps, and he squeezed the Exarch’s hand weakly. “I guess this is home now.”

As the meaning dawned on him the Exarch’s eyes widened, his ears canted forward.  Aden leaned into the touch of the hand against his face, eyes slipping closed, lips parted with the effort to breathe.  Parts of the Tower could function as an aetheryte, and apparently what they’d done counted just enough.  He wasn’t sure if he should be indignant that the Tower had treated him like an aethernet shard and redirected Aden to him.  Instead he settled for grateful, and relieved.  Warmth bubbled up in him despite the circumstances.  Home.

Chapter Text

Among the many arcane wonders and marvels of architecture the Crystal Tower held a number of mundane secrets as well.  The private quarters, for one: palatial, fit for the emperor who had once ruled there. Private baths attached to them were of a similar stature, a heated pool of continuously filtered water sunk into the crystalline floor, ringed in steps and fitted in gold, large enough to swim in passed for the ostentatious ablutions.  He’d had little use for such opulence, opting for more functional facilities in the Tower, save for a few misadventures in teaching Lyna to swim.

Now he found himself grateful for the outrageous setup.  Raha kept a steadying hand on Aden’s good arm, the other wrapped to the other side of his hip, and eased him down into the water.  A soft, flat sound escaped him when the heat of the water met his healing injuries, and his tail curled along the arm wrapped around his waist as if avoiding the water for as long as possible.  But they settled down on the steps smoothly enough, and while Aden dunked himself Raha twisted around to snatch the soaps perched on the edge.

He sat up just as Raha turned back, sweeping sopping fringe out of his eyes with his left hand.  The water around them already tinged with the black ichor and dried blood stuck to his skin. “I can do this myself.”

You don’t need to , he didn’t say, but Raha heard it, and smiled gently.  Perhaps one day they’d be past this formality, each of them insisting the other need not fret.  “Can,” Raha echoed, “not must .  Long have I desired to ease your hurts in mundane ways, and expected not the luxury to do so.  Pray indulge me, love.”

Aden’s shoulders shook once with a short, soft huff of a laugh, a beautifully familiar sound.  “Only if you will permit me the same.”

“‘Tis a vow I will hold you to most solemnly.”  He began wiping away the grime, touch gentle around mottled bruises aged by healing magic.

“Which part?”

“Both.”

He moved back a step when he got to Aden’s hair, and took his time with dried blood and strange black ichor, now the consistency of tree resin.  It took several cycles of soaping and rinsing, slowly working the gummy substance out of Aden’s hair, and he discovered before long just how much Aden appreciated the gentle drag of fingers across his scalp, the soft accidental touches around his ears.  Aden leaned back into his touch subconsciously, and they shifted once or twice trying to find a more comfortable position for how long this took.  Finally Raha retreated to the edge of the pool. The mighty Warrior of Darkness sat reclined with his head cradled in Raha’s lap, cheek pressed against his thigh and utterly pliant to gentle nudges directing his head this way or that, making a low, contented sound deep in his chest that passed dangerously close to a purr.  Raha grinned the whole while, and responded in kind for a time--the crystal had not yet overtaken so much of him that he couldn’t, but it’d been so long he’d forgotten he could.  It felt good.  His tail curled forward to flick against Aden's shoulder, and the man reached up with his uninjured arm, gently stroking the tip with his fingers.

"Do you remember that time I spent a bell and a half cleaning mud and morbol oil out of your tail?"

"'Twas mortifying," Raha answered, still smiling as Aden shifted just enough to peer up at him with his green eye.  "I spent most of my time trying not to let on I was half-hard the whole while.  That you sat behind me and the work was so involved were my only saving graces."

Aden smirked.  "I suppose I should make up for that."

"I should find that most agreeable another time," Raha said gently.  "But for now... I am more than content."