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tales of radiance

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welp this kind of turned into a monster i wasn't expecting, so i've decided to list out the prompts by chapter with a short summary. a couple of them are NSFW so keep this in mind. the shippy bits are marked by pairing in the drop down box also.

some chapters do contain spoilers for 5.0, just fyi.

 

1. Voracious. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 9/Seven, age 10.

2. Bargain. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 9/Seven, age 10. Continuation of "Voracious."

3. Lost. Emet-Selch & Warrior of Light. In which an Ascian speaks truth but still holds his secrets close. 

4. Shifting Blame. MAJOR Shadowbringers spoilers.  Emet-Selch/Warrior of Light. The burden of responsibility at the end of it all. 

5. Vault. Warrior of Light & Alphinaud Leveilleur & Arenvald Lentinus. Two Eorzeans, one Garlean, and a mad king's treasure.

6. First Steps. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. Two defectors make their first real overtures of friendship.

7. Forgiven. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. A bottle of ridiculously overpriced wine and leaving the past behind.

8. Concession. Emet-Selch & Warrior of Light. Even ancient beings are capable of being wrong.

9. Hesitate. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 12/L'sazha aan Tia, age 13.

10. Foster. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 12/L'sazha aan Tia, age 13. Continuation of "Hesitate."

11. Snuff. General, Haurchefant Greystone & Warrior of Light. The Falling Snows and a troubled night.

12. Fingers Crossed [[NSFW]]. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. The advantages of trysting when neither of you wear heavy armor.

13. Wax. G'raha Tia/Warrior of Light. Gen. A boy, a girl, and an unrequited crush.

14. Scour. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia jen Laskaris, age 23. A wild Seventh Umbral Calamity appears.

15. Second. MAJOR Shadowbringers spoilers. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. In a world where the Eighth Umbral Calamity comes to pass, a dying man passes his hope - and his regret - to those who come after.

16. Jitter. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 14. Mostly flashback.

17. Obeisant. (not quite NSFW but a bit on the spicy side) Haurchefant Greystone/Warrior of Light. "Of you, my dear lady, I would be your vassal."

18. Wilt. General, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia bas Laskaris, age 16. Garlemald would have its pound of flesh from her, eventually, and the day has arrived at last.

19. Radiant [[NSFW]]. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. A man reflects upon a relationship he wasn't expecting to have. (Mostly softcore, but it's still not work appropriate.)

20. Bisect. Warrior of Light & Fray Myste. In which Aurelia discovers her mentor's true nature.

21. Crunch. Nero tol Scaeva & Gaius van Baelsar. In which Nero meets the Ultima Weapon.

22. Fragment. Emet-Selch & Warrior of Light. Some people just don't know when to quit.

23. Parched [[NSFW]]. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. Aurelia celebrates her thirtieth nameday. 

24. Unctuous. Gen, Warrior of Light backstory. Aurelia jen Laskaris, age 18/ Sazha oen Tia, age 19.

25. Trust. Haurchefant Greystone/Warrior of Light. Even the most powerful of white magicks cannot turn back the mortal coil.

26. Slosh. Gen, Warrior of Light backstory. The reason why L'sazha's letters stopped coming. Aurelia jen Laskaris, age 19/Sazha oen Tia, age 20. Continuation of "Unctuous."

27. Palaver. Nero tol Scaeva/Warrior of Light. Because someone asked me for a wedding and I'm a sucker for sweet fluff.

28. Attune. G'raha sets off on the adventure of a lifetime. Eighth Umbral Calamity.

29. Teambuilding. In which the Warrior of Light becomes an honorary member of the Garlond Ironworks, and all that entails.

30. Darkness. Stand tall, my friend. Emet-Selch & Warrior of Light.

Chapter Text

The fat sausage links fair gleamed in their casings under the noonday sun.

From his hiding place behind the stack of crates, Sev felt his mouth water. The boy licked his lips, tail lashing against his dirty legs. He imagined the meat, juicy and flavored with all sorts of spices and just ever so slightly smoky, maybe with a piece of fresh baked bread. At the thought of a proper meal, the tip of his tongue slid over his new sharp canines that he still wasn’t quite used to just yet. He’d only lost the last of his milk teeth two years ago.

Two years, he thought, surprised. Two years since Mum left.

At least, he was fairly sure that had been two years ago. Sev didn’t have the best grasp on time. Like many of Ala Mhigo’s smallfolk, the young Miqo'te largely knew the passing of the year by the turn of the cold months. But that sounded right. He’d dropped the first tooth not long before the old king had died, and not long after that the Northmen had come in their strange flying metal machines and impenetrable black armor. 

The Garleans, as they called themselves, had put the king’s council to the sword and sacked the city, and two years later they had the full run of the place. Not that it had especially changed his circumstances.

His thoughts turned away from his newly sharp teeth and back to the meat they wished to tear, as though his hunger had a mind of its own. The old man wasn’t looking in his direction at all! He was helping a woman with her purchase, a heavyset lady in fine linens and new leather that probably cost as much as the whole butcher’s stand.

Sev felt a surge of hope. If he was careful he could have what he wanted and no one would be the wiser. His prey was one of several draped over a piece of metal that had been hammered into the wooden pole. One good jostle would cause it to fall.

Why, I could just knock that old link right off its hook

He’d never have a better chance. Maybe if he just leaned forward as if he were trying to look at the wares…

“Hey!” the lady shouted in alarm. She’d chanced to look up just in time for the boy to lean in from the crates, his hand wrapped around one of the links. “Thief! Thief!”

Sev leapt back with a startled cry, nearly crashing into the crates he’d been hiding behind, and took off running with his prize clutched in one fist and the old man screaming for help at his back.

===========

Two bells later he had to admit to himself that he was hopelessly lost.

Once upon a time, he’d known the way back home by heart. When Sev was little, he always knew when it was getting time to pay the rent on their apartment. Rent week was when the larder was empty and Mum started taking her visitors. She’d hang a length of red cloth outside her door, usually the threadbare handkerchief she kept in the drawer of her ancient desk (which sat under the only window in the whole apartment), and tell him to go amuse himself outside with his friends. When she was done, the cloth would be gone and he’d go back inside and she’d be there waiting to send him to the marketplace and refill their larder.

My Seven, my last and best boy, she’d praise him. Such a good son. Then she’d hug him, her body damp through her homespun, as she pressed a small pouch of gil into his little fingers. Whatever Mum and her visitors talked about, she always bathed before she took her red handkerchief down from the door, and it was that he remembered, his nose full of the stringent smell of lye, and of the scents she liked to use in her bathwater.

Over the next year the red handkerchief had stayed up for longer periods, days at a time, even a sennight sometimes. At first Sev had gone hungry, more than willing to wait for Mum to finish her long visits. But finally he’d given in to his hunger, and sometimes the cloth would be removed from the door and sometimes it would not, and he’d had to dig out his own bolt-holes for sleep, or offer to share his food with one of the other kids in exchange, or. Something.

Then finally one day he’d come home and the red cloth had been gone and so had his Mum. None of their neighbors knew what had happened to her, whether or not the imperials had taken her away or where she’d gone or if she’d ever be back, and none of them particularly seemed to care. One woman had scowled at him and said ‘good riddance to that harlot’ and closed the door in his face, and Sev had been alone for good.

That first night, he’d curled up on the empty doorstep and cried himself to sleep waiting for her. Eventually he’d forced himself to let those memories fade and grow sepia-toned. He never did return to that little apartment in its old and unfashionable district, a mere stone’s throw from the slums where he now scraped out a living. There, the streets crisscrossed and meandered in strange ways into ancient taverns and alcoves so deeply hidden they never saw the blazing sun even in the heat of the day.

But this wasn’t the so-called 'Ala Mhigan District’ either. All he saw on either side were enormous mansions and iron gates and improbably green lawns.

So, it didn’t take Sev very long to realize he was lost.

This place was like an entire world apart from the rest of the city. He stood before a big stone fountain with fresh running water that gurgled prettily out of the top, splashing into a pool with little red flowers floating in it. It was surrounded by carefully groomed bushes and even a stone bench to sit and rest or just take in the scenery. The streets beneath his worn shoes were neatly laid brick lined with black steel, mostly new, free of potholes or chocobo guano, and lined with new trees.

People lived here, he marveled. In the days of the old king, the royals had all lived here. But they were vanished or dead or both and now the only occupants of these fine houses were wealthy merchants and imperial army officers. There’d be no one of his like within walls so grand, unless they were working the grounds as ser-

The loud, thumping rattle of multiple footsteps marching in tandem brought him out of his awed reverie. Sev froze on the spot, his ears laid flat and twitching. He knew that sound well enough: an imperial patrol. They were heaviest in the poor areas, but it seemed even the idle rich saw their share of Garlean steel.

And the patrol was coming this way; he’d be arrested for sure the minute they saw him, thrown in their gaol and left to rot if he was lucky. He knew exactly how he looked: a scruffy, dirty street child, cheeks flushed and golden eyes wild, tearing down the streets of the Palace (no, he self-corrected, that’s not right, they call it something else now) District with obviously stolen food clutched in one fist. There was exactly zero chance they would not know immediately what he’d done.

He would have run if he knew where to go, but he didn’t even know how he’d got here in the first place. The more he thought about it, the more scared he became.

“You! Boy!”

That voice belonged to a child. His head swiveled from side to side, seeking its owner and finding… no one in sight? Who was talking to him then? Was he imagining things? Was it a ghost? The old folk said the Mad King had killed lots of people, even his own kin; mayhap the streets here were haunted? What if-

He let out a sharp yelp as something hard popped him in the back of the head.

“Ow!”

“Pick that up and get over here! They’re coming!" 

He bent over to pick up whatever had been thrown at him and saw that it was some kind of red and green fruit that looked a bit like a pear. Then he saw the small hand waving at him. It dangled down from the branches of a low hanging old-growth tree that stood just behind a thick stone wall near one of the wrought iron gates. 

"Give me your hand, I’ll pull you up!”

The voice was young and rather imperious, as if its owner were accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. Still, Sev dashed across the street and extended his hand, and immediately found himself pulled up, bodily, albeit slowly– there was a small, pained grunt of exertion as they tried to lift him. He forced himself to stop flailing, bracing his feet against the trunk to assist. His shoes, worn down to tattered flaps, scrabbled at the bark for purchase and his tail lashed furiously, trying to help him keep his balance–but it only took a moment for his natural climbing instincts to assume control.

Once he decided he wasn’t going to just drop right back to the cobbled street on his arse in front of an imperial patrol, Sev let go of that sweaty little hand, crept towards the trunk, then carefully balanced his weight across the branches beneath his feet like rough and very uneven stair steps.

“This way,” the voice ordered, this time a whisper. “Don’t make any noise.”

He followed the child down through the tree branches, watching his steps carefully and trying to keep quiet and safeguard the only meal he’d probably get for the next handful of suns. Finally they were clear of the tree and crawling down the trunk to land in soft, manicured grass.

“There, boy. You’re safe here,” that small, oddly accented voice said, with a supreme confidence he wished he felt. “It’ll be another half-bell before they report in. As long as you’re gone before their shift change, you won’t get caught.”

Sev sat down with a small exhalation, cradling his ill-gotten gains (which were by now somewhat the worse for wear), and looked up to see the face of his rescuer. A very small Garlean stared back. Her hair was the color of honey, the sidelocks neatly braided, and her eyes were a very deep blue. She wore a fine pinafore dress beneath an apron currently covered in dirt and grass stains.

She also seemed to have noticed his confusion: that pale brow had knitted in a faint and curious frown, the wrinkle of it pausing just beneath the lower curve of her third eye.

“Boy?” she repeated. “Is aught amiss? Are you hurt?”

“I… n-no. I’m… I’m fine. I just…”

His stomach chose that moment to gurgle again, loud enough for both of them to hear.

“If you’re hungry, then eat something.”

“But these are raw.”

“Ew, not those.” She plucked the fruit he’d still had in one hand. “Here, you can have this. It’s a mango. From Thavnair. They’re good.”

He just stared at her. She stared right back, carelessly tossing the fruit (mango?) from one hand to the other, those impossibly dark blue eyes tracking over his face. Then she extended her hand.

“I’m Aurelia,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“I.. um. Sev.”

“That’s short for something? Some Ala Mhigan name?”

“Uh, no.” Sev stared down at the sausages in their casings, feeling small and foolish. “It’s, uh. It’s short for 'Seven’.”

“Seven,” the Garlean said, and her voice was flat and matter-of-fact in a way that clearly indicated she thought he was joking. “Right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That’s a really weird name,” she said bluntly.

“It’s not a weird name!” Sev snapped, stung by her dismissal. “Aurelia is a weird name. What does it even mean?”

“At least my name is an actual name!” She scowled fiercely at him and stamped her little leather boot-clad foot against the grass, lower lip thrust out. “Who names their kid a number? That’s just lazy!”

“My mum’s not lazy, your mum’s lazy!”

“My mama can’t be lazy! She’s dead!”

For a moment the two children glared at each other, Sev’s tail thumping viciously against the grass. 

Aurelia’s eyes looked a little too bright, and he almost asked her if she was going to cry before he felt the lump in his own throat and the prickling heat at his eyes, at the unbidden memory of lye soap and cardamom, and realized with horror that if anyone was going to cry, it was him.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. Thank you for hiding me from the ironhe-… uh, the soldiers.”

She shrugged, as if the entire argument meant nothing to her.

“Are you going to carry that thing around all day?”

“It’s not a thing, it’s food. It’s sausage.”

The Garlean girl’s delicate little nose wrinkled in distaste. “Whatever it is, it smells gross. I bet it’s been out in the sun too long.”

“It’s not gross.”

“It is too. If you eat spoiled meat you’ll get a sour belly.” She thrust a hand towards him. “Give it over. I’m throwing it in the bin.”

“But I’m hungry,” Sev whined. It earned him a huffed exhalation and a very dramatic roll of her eyes.

“Ugh, just– just follow me, you big baby. I’ll get you all the sausages you’ll ever want.”

=========

Thus did a boy named Seven meet a girl named Aurelia, and a hapless cook became utterly convinced that her kitchen was haunted by the vengeful ghost of Mad King Theodoric. Aurelia supposed they might have overdone things a little with the wailing and the creaking door-hinges.

The paring knife and half-dozen mangoes missing from the larder were more difficult to explain when Aurelia helped herself to a perfectly sizeable dinner that night, however. Her governess was perfectly well aware that she loved mangoes, was not herself Ala Mhigan, and therefore had no cause to believe in angry ghosts nicking sausages from the cold pantry. No matter how much Cook insisted otherwise.

But at least now, she had her first real friend ever. And that was worth a few stolen sausages and a night confined to her chambers without dessert.

Chapter Text

“You,” the auburn-haired woman said, “are in a great deal of trouble, lad. Do you know what imperial law states the penalty is for theft? Especially for repeat offenders?”

“But Aurelia said it was fine! She said I could come anytime I wa-”

“Don’t interrupt adults. It’s rude.” L'haiya dus Eyahri folded her arms across her bosom and stared him down with her piercing eyes. They were two different colors: one a golden yellow, the other a deep, burnished orange. It made him think of the color the sun made on the stone when it set in the evenings.

For his own part, Sev swallowed back his retort and tried to ignore the throbbing ache of his ear where the woman had dragged him through the back door of the kitchen and into the parlor. Aurelia had mentioned her governess could be strict, but she had completely failed to mention the woman was also terrifying beyond all reason.

“While we are talking about proper decorum, Mistress Laskaris is a scion of the imperial aristocracy, though she be young yet. And as such, you-” she jabbed a finger in his direction, ignoring his cringe, “certainly do not have leave to address her with such familiarity.”

“She didn’t say anything about any of that.”

“She shouldn’t have to say anything. You are aan, as I once was myself.” Some of the stony disapproval went out of her face, replaced by something like pity. “The rules of this land have changed, and you will need to learn how to navigate them if you’ve a wish to survive the boot on your back.”

“I didn’t ask for them,” he burst out. Angry tears burned his eyes and his fists clenched at his sides. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”

“Not a one of us asked for the Garleans to overrun our lands. All you and I can do is learn to live with the hand we are dealt. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he muttered, even though he didn’t.

“You can’t keep allowing her to pilfer food from the larder to give to you. And sneaking into the Administrative District like this… you’re going to get caught, eventually, by someone who will do much worse than give you a lecture.”

“You mean the soldiers.”

“I mean the soldiers. And the girl’s father does not have the sort of personal clout that would put a word in the viceroy’s ear. You would be left to languish in the gaol with barely a moment’s thought, and that is a hefty penalty to pay simply to hop a fence to the wrong part of the city.”

He stared at his feet, at the patterns woven into the nap of the rug.

“How long has this been going on? Have you been taking food back to your family, is that it?”

“No.”

“Who for, then?”

“Just myself.” He bit his lip and looked up at her. “I don’t have any family. It’s just me. I don’t…”

“Don’t what?”

“I-”

“Speak, boy.”

“Please don’t tell me I can’t come back.” It came out as a strangled sob. Hot tears dripped onto the carpet and blurred out the patterned nap he’d been trying to trace with his eyes. “She’s my friend. My only friend. She’s all I have.”

The woman - L'haiya - didn’t ridicule him as he’d expected, sobbing over a slip of a girl who he should have hated by all rights. She only watched, and he thought he saw something like understanding in those sunset eyes.

“You have to have a permit to access this part of the city,” she said. “A permit issued by legate administration, and signed by Lord van Baelsar.”

“I-I don’t-”

“Don’t interrupt.”

He fell silent, sniffling and wiping at his face.

“If you are aan, you must have either a work permit or a work-residency permit, and the latter requires the signature of both the viceroy and the household’s comptroller. Fortunately for you, I am the latter.” A tight smile crossed her face. “I first came into Lord rem Laskaris’ service in Dalmasca and have been with the family ever since.”

“Dalmasca?”

She waved her hand.

“A story for another time. But I see here a way we might mutually benefit each other.” At the blank look on his face, she released a sigh. “I think we can help each other get the things we want. I want Miss Laskaris to have a friend - one whose world view is not limited to the Empire’s. You need food and shelter, and are in need of a friend yourself, it seems.”

Not quite sure where this was leading, he nodded slowly.

“I think,” L'haiya said slowly, “that Lord rem Laskaris will be very surprised to hear that a young relative of mine has but recently arrived in the city, having lost his dear mother, one of my cousins. He knows I have been seeking a groundskeeper, so I shall let him know the position has been filled-”

“Miss,” he croaked, “thank you, thank you so much-”

“-by young L'sazha here.”

Sev blinked. She braced her hands on her hips.

“You must become L'sazha if you want my help. The choice is yours.”

“But- but I’m not Dalmascan. I don’t even know where that is.”

“Garleans know little of the customs of those they conquer,” she said. “His lordship is a well educated man and he would still not be able to tell an Ala Mhigan Miqo'te from a Dalmascan Miqo'te, nor will he think or even care to make the distinction. We are naught but savages, and that is all that will matter to him. That indifference, and my story, is the only protection I can offer you. All your basic needs will be provided, and you will have the pleasure of my charge’s company whenever it can be spared.”

“Aurelia- I mean, Miss Laskaris-”

“Is surprisingly good at keeping secrets when the need arises.” Gravely, she lifted a hand and held it out to him. “Those are the terms, lad. Do you accept?”

He stared at it, wondering if he could really give up the boy he’d been so easily. He remembered his mother’s hugs, the smell of baking bread- but he also remembered the red cloth, the days of hunger and loneliness, the spare hours when there was nothing at all.

Can I still be Seven if I’m also L'sazha? 

It was a question he didn’t know how to answer. Not yet. But maybe he’d find his own way, in the end.

The boy once known as Seven took the hand he was given, and shook it.

“I do.”

Chapter Text

He loomed over her, his slouch and affected boredom completely gone, and all Aurelia could think was that she had never seen Emet-Selch angry before.

Truth be told, she hadn’t entirely thought him capable. But his anger had brought him alive, animated the shadowed hollows and the sallow peaks of his angular face, and it changed him. Every muscle in his face had drawn taut, his teeth were bared, and his large golden eyes were so bright it almost put her in mind of molten slag.

“Where,” the Ascian bit out, “did you get that.”

She was so bewildered by such a mercurial change in a man who had struck her as otherwise utterly disinterested in the act of existing, that she couldn’t think of anything to tell him except the truth. 

“You dropped it,” she said hesitantly, holding out the pendant. “It… was on the floor of my room. I nearly stepped on it, and I thought…”

(I thought it reminded me of something.)

“Give it back,” he snarled, and in that instant she heard the man who had once been Solus zos Galvus. “Now.”

“Here, take it. But just so you know it’s-”

She hadn’t even seen him move. One moment it was dangling from the tarnished little chain, and in the next the chain was wrapped around the ivory silk of Emet-Selch’s glove while he glared at her as though she’d committed some frightful breach of social etiquette.

“-broken,” she finished lamely. “The unicorn horn. The tip’s sheared off.”

For a long moment he said nothing, but Aurelia watched the anger slowly bleed out of his face like a boil lanced and left to drain of its ichor. His mouth drew down into its customary soft downwards bow, and his shoulders sagged, and once again he was their reluctant hangers-on and annoyance-in-residence.

Or so it appeared anyway.

“If this was something precious of yours and I damaged it, I’m sorry.”

He waved off her apology with an impatient flip of his free hand. “Not you. This necklace was sundered along with its owner.”

She watched him as he traced the outline of the tiny sculpture with one gloved fingertip, pausing at the jagged space where the horn should have converged to a single perfect point. Her eyes were drawn to that spot and she saw then that it had been worn smooth, the edges long since weathered. As he said, it had been broken long ago.

“I assume you knew its owner.”

“Obviously.”

Without thinking she reached for it, traced her own fingertip across the surface. Blossoms of some sort wrapped gracefully about the carving, vines and leaves woven through the mane - and that was just what she could see, at a glance, with an amateur goldsmith’s eye. It would have been worth a fortune even in Garlemald, and yet she couldn’t help but feel like she knew about it. This had been custom made by someone with more skill than she could imagine.

She realized he had neither stopped her from touching it, nor had he drawn away from her, and that was a surprise. 

“It’s beautiful,” she said finally. “Did they like unicorns? Is that why this-”

An exhausted sigh, and this time Emet-Selch did pull his hand away.

“What?”

“You always ask too many questions, hero, and the wrong questions, at that.” But after a pause, he added: “Yes. She loved unicorns, in fact. Not terribly surprising; it was her first recognized creation. And one is always sentimental, I suppose, when it comes to their first love.”

Something in his voice had deepened, as he spoke of it. She happened to be looking at him, at the soft curve of his mouth, at the way his eyes turned almost gentle with remembered fondness. She wasn’t sure what to think of Emet-Selch: this strange man who could speak of millions of lives with such cold indifference and still have these moments of outright tenderness. 

And despite herself, Aurelia felt her heart skip a few beats, and wondered what it would have been like, to be adored by a man like this.

“She was someone you loved,” the Warrior of Light inferred, quietly. 

“Yes.”

“I can tell. You miss her very much.”

Like the great doors of the Crystal Tower, his eyes fell shut, and when he opened them again they were twin lanterns gleaming with a light that shed no warmth– as though someone had lit fires in a watchtower, with flames made entirely of darkness. 

They turned on her, those old, eldritch eyes. Then he spoke, and his words shook her to the core.

Miss her? I would flood every shard and shatter every soul in the Lifestream for her. I would sacrifice Lahabrea and Elidibus both to my master, were their souls the ones that would satisfy him enough to bring her back to me. She was worth ten of the souls of every single one of these fools.” 

Emet-Selch’s voice had sank to the barest of whispers. 

“And worth a hundred of mine own.”

He was lost in whatever memory he had brought forth, gone once again to a place she could not follow, and being small and mortal, she acknowledged this, and withdrew. 

When she glanced over her shoulder, expecting him to have disappeared to some dark alcove to amuse himself while she and the others carried on their various duties, she saw that the Ascian had not moved. He stood where she had left him, slouch somehow even more pronounced than usual, clutching a small broken pendant in one hand, and she could no longer see his face.

Chapter Text

(This wasn’t supposed to happen.)

Lightning crackles across the sky and shapes roil beyond the clouds, immense figures that shouldn’t be there, and the lanes of the city pulse with aether, and Hades–

–Hades staggers towards the form crumpled at the steps of the Akadaemia, lying strewn over a pile of rubble. Ambient aether prickles across his limbs beneath the black robes he wears, still converging here. He can’t think beyond the sight of her, the deep and gaping hole in him where her soul had once fit so snugly, like the last piece of a puzzle.

She used the city of Amaurot as her summoning circle. The entire city, with her own aegis as the channeling focus.

He thinks he should have known she would do something so reckless.

He stops. Kneels before her. Removes his mask – not proper, that. Not proper. But everyone who would have cared is gone, his Amaurot lies in ruins, and who is here to gainsay him now?

With a painful slowness, he can see her eyes track towards him. A tremulous smile twitches the corners of her lips.

“Mine too,” she says. “Please.”

Hades is already lifting the covering away before he can think about it. 

She is still aglow with the radiance of Amaurotine aether, the gathered life force of thousands of rebels against his master’s will–and he can see the strain in her soul from what she has done, the cracks in the flesh she wears. She is breaking apart.

His fists clench at his sides. He is shaking violently.

They’d had wind, of course, that there was another faction–one that disapproved of the Convocation’s course of action. And she had been so furious with him that he hadn’t even seen her since his master’s summoning, but it isn’t as though the Architect and the Warden have never fought all these centuries, isn’t it?

He’d thought she would come around in time, see that this was the only real solution there had been. They’d all thought that.

Of course she would come around. He loves her and she loves him, and she’s always forgiven him before.

(I should have at least remembered what she was working on here.)

||She betrayed us|| the hissing voice echoes in the back of his head, though it feels rather distant. He supposes it’s because Zodiark has other things to concern Him just now.

“You ruined everything, Persephone,” he says, the words harsh and rasping on his tongue, and immediately Hades wishes he could take them back. “We were going to bring them back. But you-”

“He can’t,” she whispers. “You would have had… shades. Empty shells.”

“He promised.”

“Of course he did.”

The last thing he truly wants is a fight, even if he can feel his own fury, his master’s fury, intertwined and indivisible, coursing through him like a poison. But he can hardly breathe through the weight he feels on his chest, and he is not sure which is stronger, his fury or his grief.

“And Her. What did She take from you? What was Her price for your defiance?”

The expression he sees there, beneath the pain, is sorrow. Regret.

“I don’t remember your name,” she says. Her head tilts slowly from side to side. “I know I should. But I can’t-… none of you. I don’t remember. It’s gone.”

Something hot tracks down his face and when he brushes his cheek, annoyed at the distraction, his fingers come away wet.

Unbelievably, she smiles. She *smiles.* And one of her hands reaches for him, touches his wet cheek. He wants to slap it away as Zodiark’s spite pulses through him still, gnawing at the edges of his aether and his consciousness, but what is the point of lashing out at a dying woman?

His hand folds over hers instead, his fingers lacing with hers. Hands that had been so strong, once, that had wielded every weapon in existence and some that lived only in her flights of fancy, limp and weak. 

Hades can taste the terror of his own impending loss.

“Please don’t cry,” she whispers to him. “I’ll save you. I promise.”

And then, still smiling, she lets out that breath and simply doesn’t take the next one. Her sightless gaze lies fixed on the sky. 

Upon Hydaelyn, her final creation.

Absurdly, he notices she is still wearing the pendant Elidibus made, and it breaks him. 

He can hear the shuffling footsteps behind him, someone approaching, Elidibus, he can feel the man’s aether but does not acknowledge him. He can only stare at the still face of she who had been part of his life for countless years. Cassiel, the Warden, the rebellious Fourteenth of their number.

The traitor.

His beloved.

(This is your fault.)

Hades gathers her into his arms. Not her, he self-corrects, just a shell.

Strangely, his eyes cannot seem to find focus.

(This was your fault, Persephone,) he screams, Zodiark screams. (Everything would have been fine if you hadn’t done this. Your fault. Your fault. Your fault.)

He remembers the therion, the horrific prophecy that had rumbled forth from its laughing maw.

You will welcome Death as a lover, Architect, it had said, with open arms, and Hades wonders if this is what it meant. If it is possible for a heart to break like this and still, somehow, be alive.

(your fault. your fault. your fault. your fault. your fault. your)

Alone in the broken ruins of a dead city, Elidibus’ hand resting on his shoulder, the body of a traitor in his arms, Hades weeps.

Chapter Text

“Arenvald,” said the Warrior of Light, standing knee deep in stagnant water, piles of jewels, and salt-crusted coinage, “did I ever tell you the story about the time my best friend and I scared my cook into believing that Mad King Theodoric was haunting my kitchen?”

“Uh, no,” the Ala Mhigan lad answered honestly, because she hadn’t.

“I think I remember hearing that one,” Alphinaud said. “Something about sausages.”

“Because I don’t think you quite understand, any of you,” Aurelia Laskaris continued, “just how utterly inappropriate it is for a Garlean to be looting the Ala Mhigan royal treasury. I mean so-called champion of Eorzea or not, you have to admit the optics here are bloody awful.”

“Oh, I don’t mind! I don’t even see you as an imperial, really. I mean, you’re one of the good ones.”

Aurelia decided to simply take that remark in the spirit in which she knew it was intended.

“Besides,” Arenvald continued happily, turning the now-emptied chest into a makeshift bucket to bail out some of the water, “I’ve wanted to go on an adventure with you for ages now. You get to see and do all sorts of things, and now I can tell the Resistance we found King Theodoric’s hidden treasure together!”

She couldn’t help a smile. Arenvald was one of the youngest Scions, and he reminded her keenly of a somewhat overeager puppy, sweet-natured and honest and forever eager to please. He was going to make some fortunate soul very happy one of these days.

Then she caught a glimpse of herself in a nearby mirror.

“… Seven fucking hells that is chimera ichor in my godsdamned hair.”

“Since when are you the finicky sort?” Alphinaud shook his head and dumped another pile of sodden gil on the relatively dry higher ground where he sat, his spindly legs dangling over the drop. “I’ve seen you covered head to toe in morbol guts before.”

“Alphie, you know this shite doesn’t wash out.”

“Please don’t call me Alphie.”

"Sorry, Alphie."

"Aurelia," he complained.

"I'll never do it again, Alphie, I swear."

She was chuckling as she said it, but after a moment she let out a sigh, one that he thought at first was long-suffering until he saw the pensive look in her eyes.

“...Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Just thinking about my friend. I wish he could be here to see-”

"The treasure?”

“That too. He promised me before I went back to the capitol for my schooling that if we both made it out of the army all right, we’d become adventurers. He’d have loved this.” She smiled. “I never quite felt like I belonged anywhere in the Empire, but Ala Mhigo was the closest I ever got to feeling like I had a home. And he was a lot of the reason why. I wish he could have been here to see... all of this, really.”

Arenvald squeezed her shoulder.

“Aye, well, I’m sure he’s here in spirit. And we’ll see that mad old Theodoric’s ill-gotten coin does some good for those who can still be helped. For him and for everyone else who never got to see Ala Mhigo freed.”

She relaxed, and a more honest smile spread across her face.

“But now I’m curious,” he continued. “What do sausages have to do with the Mad King?”

“Hmm? Well, that’s a story in itself. I was in my garden minding my own business when…”

Chapter Text

A single light still burned in the back of the Ironworks well after most folk would have sought their beds for the night, but Aurelia was accustomed to that. She was a fairly early riser herself, but as long as she’d known them most of the Ironworks crew kept odd hours. It was Cid’s habit to leave the responsibility of locking up to whomever was last to seek their bed.

Usually that was either himself or Jessie, and so the Warrior of Light shouldered the heavy oak door open fully expecting to see him poking about within the guts of some piece of machinery he’d recently stripped down.

Cid was not there and neither was Jessie. The man currently occupying the workbench next to the lathe didn’t acknowledge her entrance, but she could tell by his posture that it was not out of any kind of pique on his part; merely intense concentration on whatever project he had in front of him.

“You’re out late, Warrior,” he remarked aloud without breaking eye contact with his work, his words curiously muffled.

As she drew closer she could see why. Nero Scaeva wore a pair of goldsmith’s spectacles perched on the end of his nose and he was examining something between his thumb and index finger that looked like a very small tomestone, with a penlight clenched between his teeth. A light sheen of sweat dampened the curls on the nape of his neck–heat from the nearby lamps, most likely.

“You’re up late.”

“So I am.”

He didn’t seem displeased at her intrusion, though he didn’t seem particularly interested either. She shrugged off her coat and draped it over a hanger on the rack which included a small assortment of spare uniforms in varying sizes. Nero, as per usual, did not seem to care a whit for such mundane things as his personal safety and was himself very much dressed down, wearing only a thin linen shirt and loose breeches.

His feet were bare too, she noticed. “Shouldn’t you be wearing shoes in here?”

Nero sighed, setting his project carefully on the table and removing the penlight he’d angled in his mouth to look at her.

“Did Miss Jaye send you here to harangue me?” he snorted, though without the ire she’d have expected with a response like that. “I couldn’t sleep. When I can’t sleep, I work. Old habit. There’s little point in counting sheep or wearing holes in my floor pacing when I could be doing something productive.”

“Actually, I was looking for Cid. I don’t suppose he’s in? I was hoping to have a word before setting out tomorrow.”

“Garlond is not in, and as he is not currently in need of it I appropriated his bench. And his tools.”

“Doubtless that will irritate him, which I’m sure is half the reason you did it.” Nero didn’t respond to that, but it did break his focus long enough for him to shoot her a briefly conspiratorial smile. “I like the specs, by the by. Very scholarly.”

“I shall be sure to convey your compliments to their owner. The appropriately named ‘Biggs,’ I think.”

Aurelia found herself relaxing by ilms as they spoke. She was surprised not so much at how genuinely glad she was to see him so much as the fact he was here at all. Really, if not for his Omega search she’d half expected he would simply take off on his own again. Their last discussion back in the Reach had been emotionally exhausting, and if she’d learned one thing about Nero through all this, it was that he didn’t like dealing with anyone’s emotions, least of all his own.

Though she supposed they weren’t exactly confronting anything right now. This was little more than stilted banter.

She watched him work in silence for a moment or two, realizing that Cid was unlikely to return any time soon and she’d either have to go out looking for him – which really just didn’t appeal at this hour when she could be curling up in her own nice warm bed – or simply contact him on linkpearl in the morning.

“Is there somewhere I might be able to sit?”

He finally turned his attention away from the small piece of machinery to spare a somewhat wary frown in her direction, tilting the spectacles down his nose. “There’s a spare stool behind that rack, but I thought you said you were here for Garlond.”

“It’s nothing that can’t keep. I can stay for a bit,” she ventured, feeling immediately awkward for having suggested it. “…If you’re not opposed, that is. If I’ll be nothing but a distraction, then I’ll leave you to it.”

He seemed to consider this, slowly and absentmindedly rubbing the side of his face and leaving a small smudge of oil along his jawline, one he didn’t appear to notice. “No. No, I’ve done far more exacting work than this in much more chaotic spaces, you’ll not distract me. It’s just…”

Nero trailed off midsentence, staring at her until his scrutiny had become intense enough to make her uncomfortable.

“What?”

“…You really do want to stay?” What drew her attention, lurking beneath the suspicious note in his voice, was the slightly softened gleam she saw in his aquamarine eyes. It was something almost like hope. “To watch me work?”

You’re here for me and not for him? that look said.

“As well you should know by now," she said aloud, "I’m always interested in learning new things. I admit I don’t know much about magitek beyond the scope of a basic imperial education, so I’ve little of use to contribute on my own. But yes, I do. Why does that surprise you?”

“It’s rare that anyone takes much of a personal interest in aught of mine,” he shrugged. He didn’t quite seem embarrassed, but he wasn’t quite meeting her gaze either, and her suspicions were confirmed when Nero quickly returned his attention to the parts scattered over the table, poring over each one in turn as though he were utterly uninterested in whatever choice she might make. “Don’t feel obligated, by any means. I should hardly expect anyone who knows little of the finer points of my trade to be interested in the process, as it were.”

Ah, she knew this game. He was trying to offer her a reason to excuse herself. It was clear Nero assumed anyone would prefer Cid’s company to his own by default–and nine times out of ten he was probably correct.

It made her wonder just how many times over the years he had done this song and dance, and ended up alone. Whether he realized it or not, he had just afforded her a glimpse of the man that lay beneath that proud, self-serving exterior, without any need for her Echo.

She dragged the stool out from behind the coat rack until it was close to the edge of the big table, and seated herself right next to him.

“So,” she continued, “what are you working on?”

“I… erm. Ah. A communications- … device. A receiver.” He was quick enough to recover, clearing his throat to hide his momentary surprise and pin his defenses firmly back in place, but not before she caught that uncharacteristic stammer. His focus had returned, making it impossible to tell if the light flush he wore was from their sudden proximity to each other or simply the ambient heat from the table lamp. “Rather, a modification to same. I was able to retrieve spare parts from the castrum.”

“Surely you didn’t go all the way to Meridianum for that.”

“Of course not. Centri is a far more convenient locale–with far fewer vital components burned and/or catastrophically exploded beyond repair by a certain eikon-slaying someone who shall remain nameless.”

Aurelia rolled her eyes and shifted just enough from her perch on the stool to nudge him with her hip for that particular bit of cheek. She should have known he wouldn’t be able to resist at least one dig at her, friendly or not.

“I thought to improve upon the design. These devices are far from perfect but so long as you have access to a signal tower, say… from a nearby military installation,” he tapped on a small husk of lacquered casing with one fingertip, “theoretically speaking, you should be able to use it anywhere you like so long as you’re within range. Centri’s relays should serve well enough as a testing ground.”

“Right, but would that not be even less secure?”

“Perhaps an undertaking of this sort might be difficult for a rank and file architectus,” he scoffed. “Simplicity itself. Just some things to tweak here and there, and a small addition of mine own design.”

“Is it for your Omega search, or…?”

“In part. There’s precious little chance the XIIth’s Frumentarium isn’t intercepting Resistance linkpearl transmissions. Garlond and I can deal with them if needs must, but it’s damned inconvenient to dodge spies and bounty hunters if it isn’t necessary.”

“Then you’re worried the linkpearl isn’t secure enough.”

“I was listening in on yours for ages, my sweet.” He flashed her a toothy, wicked little grin. “Still do, sometimes.”

“Fascinating. I’m sure all those round table policy discussions I had in Ishgard were terribly titillating. So what are you planning to do with this other than enable your voyeurism? I see all the small bits and bobs-”

“Components,” he said, in a somewhat pained voice. “Warrior, I am a craftsman; pray do not refer to the tools of my trade as 'bits and bobs.’ It’s demeaning.”

“How so?”

“Should I call your reagents 'animal bits and plant bobs’ then?”

Aurelia sighed. She didn’t want to admit it but Nero had a point, sort of.

“All right, fine, I see all the components. What I’m not seeing is how you get from point A to point B. So show me.”

“As it happens, you came in just as I was about to start the first steps on this little endeavour." 

He gestured at something that sat next to his elbow. To her untrained eye it looked like a solid block of metal, wired to something that looked like naught so much as a cross between an inkpot and a heavily insulated screwdriver.

"I’m not sure I follow.”

“Soldering iron,” he said by way of explanation. “Watch.”

She braced her elbows on the table surface and leaned forward for a closer look, just enough to be close without intruding on his personal space. Nero didn’t seem to notice as he drew what appeared to be a piece of wire from a heavy wooden spool. He reached for the metal arm he’d attached to the side of the table with a hand-cranked vise and tilted it over his hand, then picked up the strange tool from its perch, running it carefully over a nearby sponge.

She had a moment to note that its tip even looked like an ink nib, before he pressed it carefully to a point on the tiny object and tilted the spooled wire along a point on the board that did not quite touch the tool itself. There was the distinctive smell of hot metal and resin, and a thin tendril of smoke rose from the tip of the iron.

Nero paused, noting her intensely focused gaze. He’d done this so many times over the years that the process had become quite comfortable - mindless muscle memory, really. He’d likely have had a laugh about it were it one of her Scion friends staring at him in such open fascination, but he was far too pleased to find himself the center of her attention to feel like teasing her about it.

“How do you know it’s done properly?”

“The shape the metal takes as it cools.” He squinted at it briefly before holding it up for her to have a closer look. "See where it tapers in the center?”

She hummed at that, peering at his work as though it were the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. He set the board on the table along with the other pieces he’d already assembled next to the lacquer casing, and after a moment’s thought he added: “Actually, I can teach you. If you like, that is.”

“What? Oh,” Aurelia hesitated, “I-I’d be too worried about breaking something…”

“There’s naught on this table that’s irreplaceable, tools nor components.” And he’d already put together the lion’s share of what he needed anyway, not that she had to know that. He ran the tip of the iron over the steel sponge, placed it back in its station, and stood. “Come sit over here.”

“You’re… sure?”

“I would hardly be offering otherwise.” Nero gestured at the stool. “Trade with me.”

After a curious glance from him to the quietly clicking iron, Aurelia sat down where he’d been before- then nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt his fingers thread through her hair. She felt slightly foolish when she caught movement in the reflection of a piece of metal on the wall and saw that he was pulling her hair away from her face and tying it back in a loose tail with a piece of string.

He reached for the stool where she’d been sitting and positioned himself to sit directly behind her, long legs stretched out along hers with her hips braced between them. She swallowed, feeling suddenly and very strangely self conscious. And warm. The lamps really were ridiculously hot; didn’t Cid have some sort of ventilation in here?

Seemingly oblivious to her discomfort, Nero leaned forward to reach for something on the other side of the worktable and she caught his scent, something almost like juniper, mingled with the familiar smells of machine oil and wood smoke. She forced herself to concentrate on the work at hand, resolutely staring down at the somewhat larger piece of that odd flat board she’d seen before- which, she realized after a moment’s study, looked like the salvaged innards of a tomestone.

“We’ll start,” he said, reaching for the iron once again, “with this.”

Chapter Text

For the first night in twenty years, the sun was setting over a free Ala Mhigo.

The sky over Loch Seld was as bright a blaze of glory as she remembered it, staring out over the darkening outline of the wind-carved hills from the secluded remains of the overgrown garden. If she shut her eyes, if she blocked out the happy shouts from within and without the city, she could almost pretend she was sixteen years old again, young and arrogant and invincible.

Almost–but not quite. She wasn’t that girl anymore, hadn’t been for a very long time now. Too much had changed, for better or worse.

She sighed, wrapped her arms around her knees, and hugged them to her chest. It hurt that she couldn’t feel the joy they did. And there was every reason to celebrate.

She thought about the shimmer of happy tears in Lyse’s bright blue eyes when she sang. The sound of all of those voices, that rolling broad lilt she’d always associated with the simpler, better parts of her girlhood, lifted to the heavens singing a song with a tune she knew but lyrics she had never learned. And she had felt… utterly alone. It had been the final realization that this wasn’t her home anymore than any other part of the Empire had been. And it wasn’t anyone’s fault, hers or theirs.

She’d been a child when she was brought here but she had still been a colonizer. A symbol of their oppression.

While she’d been full glad to lend them her strength, this was not her victory. It was theirs, and she knew it. So she’d made her excuses to a confused and very concerned Lyse and gone out for a walk.

She had gone to the old palace district, unsure what to expect, and had found only empty buildings, dark and silent. There were precisely two people she would have wanted to see, and one of them was long gone, and the other- … she still didn’t know what had happened to L'haiya. Didn’t know if she had passed away in the last decade, or if she had been killed in the fighting, or if she had remained in Ala Mhigo at all.

Is it really asking too much, Aurelia thought, staring through the bars of the familiar wrought-iron gate, wanting to feel like I belong somewhere?

Like have a home?

She had let herself in.

The gate had been unlocked and the house as empty as all the rest, either abandoned or looted. She didn’t even know if anyone had lived here since she’d left over a decade ago, and she didn’t stop to look. 

She meandered through the area that had once been the drawing room, leaving footprints in the dust that had gathered on the floor, and passed through the galley kitchen to the back door on her way. The koi were gone and the fountain was dry and filled only with weeds, but she had paid that no mind. Even lonely and abandoned, this place was familiar and more importantly, quiet. 

So when she heard the sound of something atop the street-facing side of the wall and the Echo did not raise the alarm, she didn’t react.

“You know, you are a surprisingly difficult woman to find when you do not wish to be found.”

Aurelia blinked. Straddling the stone wall, next to her old zelkova tree, was one Nero Scaeva, his eyes hidden by a pair of ridiculous-looking shades which he was already removing. He carried a bottle in one hand, and he raised it with a toothy, boyish grin flashed in her direction.

“There is quite the party going on in the city limits. Without as well, I daresay. The Reach is chaos.” Without waiting for her response he swung his long legs over the wall and let himself drop the last two fulms. There was a flat thud as his feet gracelessly hit the ground. “Were I you, I should be enjoying the fruits of my labors. Perhaps dancing a merry jig upon Zenos yae Galvus’ newly dug grave, may he forever rest upon stinging nettles.”

She winced at that, and did not reply. Nero seemed to take notice of her discomfort, for his smile faded somewhat.

“May I sit?” he asked.

“If you like.”

She heard his footsteps in the grass, then a soft grunt as he sat down at her side. He placed the bottle in his hand on the lip of the stone fountain so he’d have both hands free to work the laces of his plated jackboots loose. Aurelia watched, somewhat bemused, as he kicked them off, then removed the heavy leather vest and outer doublet. There was something familiar about the attire she couldn’t quite place; maybe he’d actually thought to disguise himself. She had to admit it probably wasn’t the worst idea he would have had, given the current mood of the city’s smallfolk.

“Much better.” Carelessly he tossed the glasses on top of the pile he’d made, rolled up the sleeves of his linen undershirt to the elbow, and reached for the bottle he’d set aside. “…You’re not a temperance sort, are you?”

“Hardly.”

“Excellent, because I am not about to let a Suhd Viandja go to waste.” That ridiculous grin was back. “And I’ve not yet sunk so low as to drink the entire bottle by myself.”

Aurelia took the bottle from him and stared at the label. She almost asked Nero how he’d gotten his hands on a wine this rare and expensive and decided it was probably best if she just didn’t ask at all. After a moment she passed it back. “The thought is appreciated but I don’t- I’m not interested right now. Maybe later.”

A shrug. “Then I suppose you have the privilege of watching as I guzzle a ten million gil rosé like a fifty-gil Ilsabardian posca.”

“Nero, I’m really not-”

“I don’t allow Garlond to engage in his ridiculous self-pitying nonsense and I’m certainly not going to give you a pass for same. Talk to me.”

Aurelia glared at him. He gazed steadily back, and she was the first to look away, busying herself with pulling up enough of the weeds around her that she had a comfortable place to sit and tossing the uprooted places into the fountain behind her. Knowing perfectly well she was stalling for time.

Once she realized that he was not leaving her alone, and was in fact more than willing to wait her out, she let out a sigh. Try as she might, Zenos’ dying words wouldn’t leave her. They fluttered about the dark chambers of her mind like restless ghosts that could not be bestilled.

“He said we were alike.”

“Hm?”

“Zenos. He said we were alike.” She clenched her fists at the memory and felt the sting of her nails digging into her palms. “He asked me to accept him-”

“What did he know about you?”

“What?”

“Did he know anything about you? Anything at all? Other than the bits everyone in the civilized world knows?”

“Scaeva-”

“Did he even know your name?”

“Implying that you ever care to use it.”

“Funnily enough, we do not happen to be discussing me at present. Thus your point, while valid, is not germane.”

“All right, well, if this line of questioning is quite finished-”

Those bright blue eyes rolled practically into the back of his head. “The man faced you on the battlefield… what, a brace of times? And had the astonishing arrogance to declare you a kindred spirit simply because you lasted longer than ten seconds? I would advise that you take his words with a grain of salt. Possibly an entire pillar.”

“But what if he was right?” Instead of the measured response she’d expected, he began to laugh. She swatted his forearm with a fierce scowl, but he didn’t stop; he just leaned back, bracing his weight against his hands, and his laughter echoed against the darkened windows and dirt-caked stones of the old house. “What- why are you laughing? I’m being serious!”

“I know you are, sweetling,” he gasped, “that’s why I’m laughing.”

“Great. Bloody terrific,” Aurelia huffed. She rolled away and let herself flop onto the grass, pouting at him. “I’m glad you find my existential crisis so godsdamned amusing.”

“Before you returned to Gyr Abania,” he managed between chuckles, the bastard, “you rang me over that long-distance receiver prototype we put together while very deep in your cups, and was it for some dire emergency or news that these Doman friends of yours had been captured? No, no it was not. You rang me to cry over a stray kitten you and your friends found in some Kugane alleyway.”

Her face colored. She (vaguely) remembered that.

“In my defense, I didn’t realize just how strong Hingan rice wine could actua-”

“Literal crying. Actual tears. I compromised a castrum’s signal tower so that the eikon-slayer could drunk-dial me from Othard in the middle of the night to sob across two thousand malms of ocean and continent about ‘toe beans,’ whatever the hells that is.”

“…Are you trying to be funny?”

“I’m always funny.”

“That’s debatable,” she grumbled.

“At any rate, my point being, and yes, I did have a point– crossing blades with a madman doesn’t have to hold some greater underlying meaning about man’s conscious embrace of our inherently violent nature, or whatever tiresome and self-aggrandizing monologue he chose to inflict upon you.” Nero paused mid-speech to uncork the bottle, raise it to his lips, and tilt it back for a long draught before he continued. “Meanwhile, you are sitting here consumed by guilt because you’ve taken some absurd notion that he might have had a point. The very fact it worries you should tell you he was wrong.”

“I just… I don’t want that to… is that really how everyone looks at me?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Certain.”

(This is who we are! This is all we are!)

“I’m not a beast." Her voice cracked like cermet fired in an industrial kiln overlong, brittle and harsh.

"I know,” Nero said quietly.

“I’m not like him.”

“I know you’re not.”

“…I think I feel in the mood for a drink after all, if you’ve enough to share.”

He smiled. “I believe I can spare a glass or two.”

Aurelia sat up, leaned against the fountain, and took the bottle. The warm weight of his arm had settled across her shoulders, but it was not unwelcome. 

Despite the fact it was a warm night and she was still sticky with sweat, she leaned into him as she tilted the bottle back, resting against his side. A warm body was certainly more comfortable than unyielding masonwork, and she could feel the fingers that had been draped over her shoulder idly toying with a stray bit of her hair.

For a long time she was content to just sit like this, the two of them watching the last light of the sun fade from the sky, admiring the fantastic colors it had left in its wake. A flock of white water-birds took flight at the sudden sound of thumping and the whistle of exploding fireworks overhead, fired from the Porta Praetoria cannons across the loch. They rose aloft as one on soft wings beyond the walls of the city, calling to each other as they fled the sounds of jubilant humanity.

“Aurelia?" Her name, so very rarely spoken by him, pulled her attention away from the fireworks. Nero was still staring at a fixed point in the sky, platinum blond hair haloed in scarlet-streaked blue and encroaching twilight, and she realized he was very pointedly not looking at her. "I assume you’ll be staying in Gyr Abania for some time?”

“Are we making small talk or are you actually asking me to stay?”

“…You know perfectly well what I think of small talk,” he said testily. “Perhaps instead of answering my question with a question, a simple 'yes’ or 'no’ might suffice.”

“Then say what you meant to say and stop dancing about it.”

There was a trembling pause between them. He sighed.

“By the seven hells, woman.” His voice was perfectly even, but she saw the tension in his body. He’d already steeled himself for the rejection he clearly expected was imminent. “I am operating upon the hope that at the very least, after all these months, I might have done something to finally earn your forgiveness for what passed between us in Mor Dhona.”

She gave him a long and unflinching stare. And then, right as his eyes began to shift nervously away from her face, she kissed him. His mouth was soft and warm and he tasted of ridiculously expensive wine. It was quite nice so she decided she really ought to kiss him again, just to seal the memory of it in her mind’s eye. When the second wasn’t enough she kissed him a third time.

The hand that had been stroking her hair paused in surprise, then cupped the back of her head as he responded in kind, small featherlight touches of his lips that ran together like water.

“Far be it from me to object, mind you,” he murmured against her mouth as she pressed her brow against his, “but what’s this all of a sudden?”

“I can stop if you like." 

She felt the soft huff of his breath against her mouth as he laughed mid-kiss. Her fingers teased at his thick curls, gave them a light tug, nails scraping very lightly along the back of his neck- and she heard that laugh catch in his throat, a soft, ragged and quite undignified sound that vibrated against her lips.

"Consider yourself forgiven.”

Chapter Text

“Emet-Selch,” she said.

He didn’t register surprise, or turn around at the sound of his name, not that Aurelia had expected him to do so: he was looking up at the sky very intently, arms folded across his chest. He was still wearing that ridiculous ceremonial coat, completely ill-suited to the warm and humid climate of the Greatwood, and she had to wonder how he put up with it. Unless despite his insistence to the contrary, he was merely taking this form to amuse himself.

She said none of this, simply coming up alongside him to stare up at the stars. As it had been in Il Mheg and in Lakeland, she felt a certain euphoria in seeing it, in watching the stunned joy in the faces of the people to behold a sight no one in this land had seen in a hundred of their years. It made her current discomfort worth it, the faint sense of nausea and the initial pain that had lanced through her chest mostly memories.

“So this is what the people here call the sunless sea." 

Emet-Selch said nothing, though she felt his gaze drift away from the sky to fall upon her at last. As if she had not noticed his silence, she hummed softly to herself, closing her eyes for a moment to enjoy the cool night air before she continued. 

"I learned to read the stars the way the Sharlayans do, a bit. But it’s… different here. There’s a reverence that’s almost worshipful. It reminds me of-”

“Surely you did not seek me out to make small talk, hero.”

Aurelia could hear the sneering undercurrent in his voice and thought at first he meant to take his leave as he had the first time they’d encountered the Night’s Blessed, perhaps with one of his flippant and derisive little waves. Did he truly not wish to interact with her, or the others, she knew Emet-Selch could have hidden himself away as long as he desired– he’d already done it countless times.

“No,” she said.

“And yet here you are, chattering away inanely. Cooperation does not make me your friend nor your confidante.” The slouching man paused, then shook his head. “…But just this once I shall humor you. Yes. You like the stars. Watched them as a girl, or wished upon them, or something of the like, I suppose?”

“Wishing upon a star would avail me nothing, unless I’d a convenient pile of crystals nearby-”

“Such cynicism! Ah, but you are a daughter of Garlemald, after all. I forget myself.”

Aurelia rolled her eyes.

“What I meant to say, if you would let me continue, is that I’ve always found a comfort of sorts in the night.” She curled her hands in the material of the long skirt she currently wore, her eyes seeking out the familiar patterns of constellations in this alien world. “It… strips away pretense. Everything and everyone are equal in the darkness, all considered. I suppose that is why it’s so closely associated with chaos in this world.”

“…Mm. An unusually insightful sentiment, and one even I can appreciate, at that. Will wonders never cease.” Emet-Selch tilted his chin towards her just enough to catch the sheen of one golden eye, reflected torchlight flickering in its depths. “Though it is not one I would have expected from a woman who bears the so-called ‘Blessing of Light’.”

The stiffness in his body had not lessened a whit, despite the droll and relaxed cadence of his voice.

“You’re right. I didn’t come here for small talk.”

“You don’t say,” the Ascian drawled.

“I came to apologize to you.”

“Oh? Did my earlier gesture finally convince you of my intentions?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Perhaps I lack the breadth of your knowledge but I am not a fool, for all you appear to believe otherwise.”

“Still my adversary, then. I should expect no less.” Her words seemed to have broken their silent impasse. Emet-Selch’s smile, as usual, never quite reached the murky depths of his eyes. “You are laughably predictable in some ways, Warrior of Light - or perhaps I should say 'Darkness’. Predictable, and noble. And terribly dull.”

“I am not come to the First to provide you entertainment, Emet-Selch, so do not mistake my words or actions as an attempt to impress you.” Aurelia was careful to keep her voice measured and even. “But given our… arrangement, the very least you should be able to expect from me and the others, despite our ideological differences is some small measure of civility.”

“…Well?” he asked, when she paused in trying to find her words. “Go on, hero.”

“What you did for Y'shtola made me realize that I have been unfair to you. I’m sorry.”

His smile faded, replaced by that strange expression once more, the one she could never quite read.

“Apology accepted. Though I trust you will at least believe what I told you.”

“I do.”

She thought about the pictographs on the cave walls, the wrenching sensation in her heart when she had beheld the image of a burning city she knew she had never seen. She recalled the forlorn look on the man’s face as he explained the images to them - the death of a civilization, the loss of his god, the loss of his world - and thought maybe she understood him a little better.

Then again, maybe not. Loss and grief had eaten their own holes in her heart over the years, but they had never been so black or so deep that she could consider the path he walked.

“Emet?”

“Hm?”

“When you look at me, what is it that you keep seeking?”

There was such a long and awkward silence that she finally glanced away from her study of the stars to look at him, wondering if he’d found the question impertinent–only to discover that she had instead caught him by surprise. His eyes were very wide and very startled, black brows knitted in open consternation, mouth slightly slack.

“Every time you look at me, if you’re not telling me what a fool I am, you always seem like you’re looking for something.” She hesitated. “I thought at first it was physical attraction, but then I remembered that you’re an Ascian, so obviously-”

“Obviously I wouldn’t harbor interest of a more prurient sort? What an odd assumption.”

“What?”

This time it was his turn to roll his eyes, complete with a long-suffering sigh.

“I am endlessly amazed by this long list of things you believe we supposedly do not do. Eating, sleeping, feeling. Making friends. Making love. Do you do those things?”

“What?” Despite herself, she felt her cheeks flush scarlet at the Ascian’s candor. “Of course I do. Why w-”

“Then there is your answer,” he scoffed. “Do you truly think that we spend our every waking moment lurking in the shadows, menacing the smallfolk and whispering lies into kings’ ears? Complete with ridiculously overwrought ominous laughter? Perhaps paired with an evil monologue or three?”

“Wh- I shall have you know that Lahabrea did every single one of those things. In most cases, he did several of them all at once.”

To her surprise, rather than bristle, Emet-Selch laughed. He laughed.

It was a soft, bright sound that was actually quite… lovely?

“…Let the record show I stand corrected." 

 

Chapter Text

“Aurelia,” came the frantic hiss from the ground now well below her feet, “get down here!” 

“Don’t you mean ‘young mistress?’“ she said a trifle coldly, glaring down at him with undisguised resentment in her ceruleum-blue eyes.

“If L'haiya sees you–”

“Of course she will, that’s why you’re standing watch.”

“Come on," L'sazha complained, "why are you being like this?”

Her best friend was shifting from foot to foot, tail lashing violently with his unease. His diamond-slit emerald eyes darted between her and the big house, his ears lying flat and close against his head, flickering unhappily. 

They only had a bell before dinner was set on the table and her father came home from his shift. Once he arrived, L'sazha would have to go eat in his own area in the back of the house with the other servants, and she wouldn’t see him until tomorrow, and she didn’t want him to leave until he could see her get all the way up the huge old shade tree near the front gate.

Something even he couldn’t do.

She wanted Sazh to see so he would know she was every bit as interesting as that stupid older Miqo’te girl with the fluffy tail she’d caught him gawping at while they were at market yesterday. He’d almost dropped the basketful of mangoes she’d passed to him to carry, because he was too busy staring at that dumb common girl with her dumb dark curls and her big brown eyes and her smile that was so much prettier than Aurelia’s, and her much larger-

Why, you’re jealous! Jealous of a savage, at that, just listen to yourself-

Angry and embarrassed, she squashed that flash of insight immediately. Obviously she wasn’t jealous of a girl like that; that would just be silly. In fact, that girl was immaterial, she decided. Irrelevant. The point was, Sazh was her friend. Hers. And she wasn’t going to sit there and watch him make eyes at some girl without reminding him of what was right under his nose.

Her foot shifted on the branch as she hoisted herself up another few ilms.

“You’re going to get stuck up there and Elle’s going to kill us both.”

“I’m almost there.” The branches up here were thinner and she sensed they would be treacherous, so she tried to move carefully. Another step and she’d be at the top. She could practically touch it. “Just one more-”

“Aurelia, come on, just come down and let’s go ins-”

At that moment the fragile green branch, overtaxed by the pressure placed on it, gave way beneath her outstretched hand. It bent and splintered beneath her palm, scraping off a layer of skin and upsetting her precarious balance. The sudden drop pitched her center of gravity backward, threatening to throw her from the tree and onto the stone pathway. 

A wave of sharp, ugly panic twisted her stomach. Rather than try to leverage herself the opposite direction or even reaching to grab the trunk like she would have done otherwise, the girl hesitated, her fear freezing her on the spot. 

Aurelia released her hold on the topmost branch with a frightened gasp. At the same moment, overtaxed from the strain, her foothold disappeared entirely, cracking apart under her foot and dropping away in a rustle and flurry of leaves. 

The girl registered her best friend’s shout of alarm only moments before the ground came rushing up to meet her and something in her arm gave with a wet snap.

Chapter Text

Aurelia hadn’t realized just how loud a ticking chronometer could be until it was the only sound in the room.

She sat in her bed with her head bowed, clutching her coverlet with her good hand. The medicus had immobilized and set her broken left arm, with very stern instructions not to attempt any use of it for the next fortnight, while her father and L'haiya had both looked on in stony silence.

At first, there hadn’t even been any pain; she had felt nothing save the lingering imprint of remembered terror. She’d sat up from the grass as L'haiya sprinted out the door without bothering to make sure it latched behind her, the pupils in her odd-colored eyes blown wide, shouting her name, and without pausing had gathered Aurelia into her arms and carried her inside. Beneath his dusky skin Sazh had gone pale and was near tears, wringing his hands and sitting on one of the drawing room chairs without speaking to her as the room was filled with the sounds of the chiming linkpearl.

Father had been furious. Aurelia didn’t think she had ever seen him so upset.

The pilus prior had promptly seen fit to inform her that if she had enough spare time to climb about in the trees like one of the savages in the southern jungles, then she certainly had time to devote to her studies while her injuries were on the mend – in her room, until further notice – and furthermore, she would be packed off to the capitol where her Uncle Janus and Aunt Marcella would straighten her out if she couldn’t learn how to behave like a proper young lady.

L'haiya’s face had grown tight and cold during his tirade and Aurelia wasn’t sure what to make of it other than tacit agreement.

She’d known she was going to get a fearsome lecture from her governess the second she had the chance; every ilm of the fur in the woman’s bottlebrush tail had stood on end, and it had swished back and forth with such rapid agitation that it kept thumping loudly against the couch as the medicus worked. But for now L'haiya seemed content to let her young charge stew as she stared at her from the far side of the bed, and Aurelia sincerely wished she could just sink into her pillow and disappear.

Finally, the Miqo'te broke the impasse with a low hiss.

Aurelia bas Laskaris. Have you taken leave of your senses entirely?!”

“I-”

“Do not. Talk.”

Eyes watering, she cringed, staring down at the floral pattern on her coverlet. She could hear the floorboards creaking as L'haiya paced to and fro.

“Your family has made it clear they expect you to be able to sit the entrance exams to the secondary school of their choice within the next four summers. You are far too old to be clambering up trees and playing in the dirt, and yet I take my eyes off you for a half-bell and that is precisely what you are doing, and you frightened poor Sazha half to death in the bargain! What in the seven hells possessed you to do such a stupid, reckless-”

That hot jealousy she’d felt the day before came flooding back, rising like bile in the back of her throat. “I don’t care if I scared him,” Aurelia spat bitterly. “He deserves it, panting after that aan girl in the marketplace like some savage in a rut-”

L'haiya’s sunset-colored eyes went flat and cold.

“What,” she said, her voice dangerously soft, “did you just say?”

The girl’s chin snapped up and she glared at the Miqo'te in a rare show of defiance. “You heard me.”

Aurelia had never seen that look on her governess’ face before. Calm, shuttered, and utterly unreadable.

“I suppose I did,” she said.

And then, that bland expression never flinching for a moment, L'haiya slapped her.

The hot sting of the woman’s palm impacting her cheek was secondary to the shock and hurt Aurelia felt. L'haiya had been part of her entire life. She’d been her wet-nurse. She had been there for Aurelia’s very first steps, taught her to read, listened to all her hopes and dreams, had taken care of her during her mother’s final illness.

In Aurelia’s twelve scant years of life, L'haiya had never once laid a hand to her in anger. Never.

Until now.

Aurelia stared at her in astonishment. She could see her own surprised hurt mirrored in her governess’ eyes—along with a fury that she realized she had never seen only because she had never before been allowed to see it. And that, she realized slowly, was the look she’d seen in those same eyes not a bell past, in the middle of Father’s lecture. When he’d made mention of-

Savages.

“You didn’t like it when I hit you,” L'haiya said very softly, “did you?”

Slowly, unable to think of anything to say, Aurelia shook her head.

“Do you like feeling small and humiliated? Lesser?”

Again, a shake of the head. Her dark blue eyes welled with tears.

“Then don’t you ever. Ever. Call anyone a ‘savage’ ever again. Do you understand me?”

“But-”

“No buts.” The woman made a slow, soft, trembling inhale. “That is an awful thing to say. And I think you know it’s an awful thing to say or you’d not have said it.”

“I… but F-Father says -”

“Your father says a lot of things that he shouldn’t say, but he does as he pleases because there is no one of his rank willing to countermand him. He thinks there is a natural order of things, and that I, and Sazha, and the people of Ala Mhigo and Eorzea and beyond, are beneath you and him.” L'haiya leaned forward, grasped her shoulders, and gave them a hard shake. “You are not better than me because you are Garlean. You are not better than Sazha because you are Garlean.”

“I don’t…” she whispered, “I’ve never thought like that about-”

“If you’re going to say you don’t see us as Miqo'te, then do not finish that sentence.”

The anger she’d felt was gone and all that it had left in its place was an awful, mortifying shame, the sort that pooled in the back of the throat and made it hard to swallow.

“I have done my level best to raise you the way I was told to raise you. But your father did give me some leeway to do so in the manner that I see fit. You are not better nor worse than a single solitary person on this star, and I will not let you float through life treating me and mine like possessions or pets to be owned and subjugated. You are in your rank by naught save a happy accident of birth. You did nothing to deserve that, and even the least of the smallfolk are your equal.”

“I-”

“If you ever utter that word in my presence again I will write it on your forehead and walk you through the marketplace for every man, woman, and child in Ala Mhigo to see. Perhaps if you feel the humiliation that we are made to feel every time one of your people calls one of us a ‘savage’, you might think twice before opening your mouth in the future.”

The girl tried to speak, to say anything at all in her defense, but she had none, and all that emerged was a wrenching, remorseful cry. She collapsed against her governess, her tears wetting the woman’s fine cotton shirtwaist. The pressure sent a dull throb up her hurting left side, through the potion the medicus had made her drink, but she was able to ignore it.

A broken arm was nothing to L'haiya’s disappointment in her.

“I’m sorry, Elle,” Aurelia cried. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I was just upset, I wouldn’t- I-… please don’t be cross, Elle, please don’t hate me, please-”

After a few moments of her broken sobbing, there was a long and resigned sigh. She felt a weight sink into her bed shortly before an arm wrapped about her shoulders and pulled her in for a snug embrace. It only made her cry harder, and she doubled over until her head lay in L'haiya’s lap, curling around the heavy cast on her left arm with her knees tucked into her chest.

Right after Mama died, she’d had bad nightmares, and she used to curl up with L'haiya like this for comfort. She couldn’t remember the last time…

“Relia, my sweet sunshine girl,” L'haiya said finally, and she felt a gut punch of sorrow at her old nickname, one she hadn’t heard since she was very small. She felt her fingers carding through her hair. “I am disappointed because I thought I raised you better than to be spiteful. But I don’t hate you. I’m angry because you frightened me, and no one likes to be frightened. Is this about J'syla? The girl at market yesterday who was selling the star fruit?”

Mutely she nodded.

“Oh,” came the answer, then, laden with a meaning Aurelia didn’t really understand: “Oh.”

“I don’t want him looking at her like that,” she whispered. “She doesn’t even know him. He’s my friend.”

There was a soft laugh over her head.

“What?” she said defensively. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, darling. Sometimes I forget you’re starting to grow up, that’s all.”

Aurelia felt her eyes drooping shut at the soft, repetitive sensation.

“I know that one day I shall have to give you up to the world,” L'haiya said much more softly, “and you will be exposed to all of its hardships and sorrows and struggles. I know I have no choice but to let Garlemald have you someday. But I refuse to let you become callous or cruel. The world is full of too much heartache as it is. All right?”

“All right,” she mumbled, and she felt a soft kiss pressed against her temple, just above her ear. “M'sorry.”

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she continued. “I just didn’t know what else to do, child. There’s a light in you, and I don’t want to see it go out before it can begin to shine.”

Aurelia had no idea what to say to that. So she lay still and let her foster mother’s touch and the lingering drowsiness from the potion carry her into sleep.

Chapter Text

The blizzard had not abated.

Wind howled around the corners of stone and mortar, the sleet slapped icy grit against the windows, and within their temporary lodgings at Camp Dragonhead Aurelia Laskaris sighed and ran her fingers through her hair as she stood watch over her companions. Tataru lay deeply asleep; Alphinaud tossed and turned restlessly. He had unbound his hair for sleep and it lay spread over his pillow like filaments of moonlight.

She wished she could sleep but the memory of Nanamo’s face, the pain and the terror before she’d collapsed, was etched on her eyelids every time she shut her eyes.

I should have seen. I should have known.

Aurelia rubbed wearily at her eyes, glancing at the flames that flickered in the fireplace.

Haurchefant had been more than generous to offer them aid with barely a thought for any repercussions – Revenant’s Toll and its now-hostile Crystal Braves lay but a scant score of malms to the southeast, after all – but she couldn’t help feeling lonely. She couldn’t stop worrying about the others, couldn’t stop worrying if Cid and his crew were safe. Couldn’t stop thinking that if she’d spoken up sooner about her misgivings, Wilred might still be alive.

Nanamo might still be alive.

But there was no changing the past. She could wish all she wanted and her wishes wouldn’t bring anyone back. The Calamity had taught her that much. And in the meantime, she didn’t feel like being alone with her thoughts.

She should put the light out and go to bed, but she would find no rest tonight.

With a long look at the nearby snuffer, Aurelia picked up the lone candle that burned on the table for light and quietly let herself out of the room instead, tiptoeing down the hall and wincing at the freezing stone against her bare feet until she came to a stop before the door to the lord’s private chambers.

Haurchefant answered the door so quickly she thought with some amusement that he must have been waiting for her knock.

“Come in, my friend,” he said, then frowned at her state of dress. “You should not go without footwear in this chill lest you catch one yourself. Come, sit by my fire and make yourself comfortable.”

“How,” she began a trifle hoarsely, then repeated, “how did you know I would pay a visit?”

His smile was gentle. “Because for all that Master Leveilleur spoke of the events in Ul'dah,” he said, “you did not speak a word yourself, and yet I could see you had plenty on your mind. Certainly more than you were willing to speak before your young comrade, who was in need of good cheer at that moment.”

“Thank you for everything. I can’t even begin to-” She swallowed. “I-I’m so sorry to impose. I know it’s late.”

“We are friends, are we not? Your presence is never an imposition. For you I would stay awake all night if needs must.”

“Haurchefant-”

He took her cold hand in his much larger, warm one, and squeezed gently.

“I would shoulder your burdens,” he said softly, “did you find me worthy to do so. I only wish to aid you in whatever manner you deem fit.”

Incredibly, Aurelia felt a flush burn her cheeks. That soft smile on his face did not waver.

“Come, my friend! Snuff out that little candle. There is light and warmth aplenty at my hearth. Should you wish to speak of your troubles, or simply your adventures–I will listen to all you say with bated breath.”

She gave him a shy, cautious smile.

“Only if you also promise me more of that hot chocolate.”

Chapter Text

“You know, sweetling,” the lips just at her ear murmured, and she shivered pleasantly at the heat of his breath on her neck, “I had never before considered the true advantage of tumbling a combat healer.”

“Do I even want to ask?”

Aurelia felt that soft mouth stretch into a grin she knew all too well, at the same time one of those machina-roughened hands found their way beneath one of the open darts of her robes to slide over the top of her thigh-high stocking, and straight into her smalls.

“All of your conveniently located access points,“ Nero said. 

She let out a sound that started out as an exasperated laugh- and faded into a soft, strangled whimper when he applied just enough pressure to spread her open and claim his prize; she’d been almost embarrassingly wet before he’d even touched her.

"Cheeky git." 

Her fingers dug into the surface of the makeshift worktable, gathering white-knuckled handfuls of her own robes in the process. She heard the exasperation in her voice but she also heard the amusement, and beneath that the heavy current of her own desire. 

“A scurrilous reprobate,” he said, not sounding apologetic in the slightest, “that’s me.”    

"If Cid comes back in here and, ah, finds you defiling the research area instead of going through this data, he’s going to have kittens.” 

"You mean defiling it again.” His fingertips made slow, small circles over slick flesh, lazy and repetitious. She let her head tilt back against the stone wall adjacent with a dull thump, her hips rolling into that maddening touch and her knees folding, ankles already hooking around his waist. “We’re the worst-kept secret in the Reach and you know it. If Garlond is that desperate for a show then he can stay for all I care.”

He was teasing her, of course. Bastard knew all her buttons.

“You have a quarter bell, at the most,” she gasped, “before he comes back in here with that batch of tomestones." 

There was the telltale sound of a loosening belt buckle and the rustle of clothing, and those stroking fingers ceased their torment just long enough to tug her smallclothes aside. Another access point, she thought with vague amusement, and oh by the godsdamned Mother Crystal fingers crossed that poor Cid didn’t choose that exact moment to make his appearance. 

Nero, for his own part, laid a curiously chaste kiss to her brow. That devious grin of his hadn’t budged an ilm.  

"Then we had better make the most of our time, love,” he said, and slid into her so smoothly her breath caught.

Chapter Text

“You realize I could fetch you a lamp, G'raha,” Aurelia said as she watched him light another taper and set it on Rammbroes’ table. “I know for a fact Cid can spare a lamp and the ceruleum to light it.”

“Please don’t worry yourself on my account,” came the airy response. “I am well accustomed to making my journal entries by candlelight, Lady Laskaris. ‘Tis the nature of long-term travel, with which I assume you have some acquaintance yourself.”

“Just Aurelia, if it please you. I haven’t stood on ceremony since I left Garlemald,” she said drily, “and I wasn’t all that proficient at it even then, or so my uncle took pains to remind me at every opportunity.”

“But you are highborn, and it shows in your manner and your deportment.” He reached for the quill sitting in the ink pot at his elbow. “There are things circumstance cannot take away from you, nor erase the things that went into making you who you are.”

Undaunted, she folded her arms over her bosom and gazed at him steadily.

“Do you not cease and desist in referring to me as a lady, I shall start calling you 'Master Tia’ no matter how much you mislike it.”

G'raha only grinned at her, his hand paused in the act of lifting the pen. “Our names do not work the same as yours, so that threat has little effect.”

“Duly noted, Master Tia.” That made him laugh hard enough he nearly knocked the ink pot off the table. He was able to catch it, but only just, and not without a mumbled curse under his breath. He made a show of checking its contents, briefly (albeit playfully) glaring at the woman who’d distracted him. Aurelia responded only with a raised brow. “…Dare I hope my point is made, then, Master Tia?”

His thoroughly unconvincing scowl gave way to a smile and a soft chuckle.

“All right, all right! Very well, my friend. Aurelia it is then-”

“Thank you.”

“-but only if you agree to call me Raha." 

She blinked as he tapped the quill on the lip of the pot and the scratching sound of the tip against paper filled the small tent. Confident that he had her attention, he continued.

”…Unless you feel I am taking undue liberties, of course- but you and Master Garlond have proven yourselves staunch allies to this cause. And you… I am glad to call you friend.“

"Because I mend your hurts and bring you food,” she scoffed, but she was smiling at him.

“You do far more than that,” he said, very softly, not even quite sure he had spoken aloud. She was not by any means the most beautiful woman G'raha Tia had ever seen; there were countless women he’d met in Eorzea who could have claimed such more easily than the Warrior of Light. But that smile was like spring’s warmth to cheer a cold hearth, and it drew him as he suspected it had drawn others.

He was grateful that the fall of his thick red hair and the relatively dim light of the candle, its scarlet wax dribbling onto the surface of the table from the edges of the taper like droplets of blood, ensured that she could not clearly see his face. He knew he was blushing.

Unaware of his inner turmoil, Aurelia sighed aloud, somewhat ruefully.

“As much as I would love to continue our chat, I should seek my bed,” she said. “Tomorrow we open the Tower, and I have some matters to discuss with Cid and… other involved persons. This undertaking will be risky enough as it is.”

“I see.” He could not help a touch of disappointment that she was leaving, though he concealed it as best he could. “Please be careful. Master Garlond is very concerned about his presence here.”

He’d personally found the tribunus laticlavius to be surprisingly affable, if even more eccentric than G'raha himself. But Master Garlond, clearly convinced the man was up to something, had said that he was most dangerous when he was not taken seriously. That had been enough to put G’raha on his guard.

“I mean only to find out what game he’s playing at,” she said with a shake of her head. He looked at her doubtfully, but still smiling, she only shrugged. “I’ll take every precaution, I promise. But if he’s going to make himself a third wheel no matter what Cid has to say about it I’d rather have some idea of what to expect.”

G'raha nodded. “In that case, tomorrow, then. Good night, Aurelia.”

“Good night, Raha. Mind you don’t stay up too late.”

He felt the weight of her hand on his shoulder, the light squeeze, and then she was gone. G'raha Tia exhaled, setting the quill back in its pot and running his fingers through his hair, loosening it from the confines of its short braid. She was right, of course, though he didn’t know if he would rest tonight or not. 

Embarrassing, he thought. That was what this was: embarrassing, to feel this strongly for a woman he had really only just met in the flesh, like he was still a young kit. And, he thought with a wince, after he’d decided to play such childish tricks on her in the beginning! 

Regardless, G'raha Tia silently vowed to keep this foolishness to himself. No one else need know the true scope of his feelings- least of all the Warrior of Light.

Chapter Text

(What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
     — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.)
–Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

 

It was mid-afternoon, yet the land looked as though it were full dark.

The Carteneau Flats lay shrouded in shadow as the two armies faced each other across the field. Overhead the sky had taken on a decidedly ominous cast of red and black, as the crimson orb that had plagued her dreams of late descended towards the star. As it continued its slow descent it turned the ever-present cloudbanks over Mor Dhona to a boiling stew.

Dalamud, now terrifyingly close, was so large it filled the sky. 

Several bells had passed since Eorzea’s allied city-states and freelance adventurer companies had sounded the charge, and the tribunes had given the order to fire upon their front lines–and the battle showed no signs of abating, were the sounds from without the infirmary pavilion anything to judge by. The din had been chaotic and overwhelming at first before the sheer scope of the noise had finally dulled her ears, become background noise, something almost but not quite mundane: the desperate roar of humanity, dying on both sides of the field.

There was a short series of muffled sounds, a series of flat, sharp reports fired into the air in a way that made her eardrums twinge unpleasantly. The acrid stink of burnt ceruleum fuel rankled her nose and burned her throat. She let out a dry cough, placing the sound at last: one of the vanguard warmachina had fired mortars into the Maelstrom ranks, somewhere not too distant.

“Laskaris! Look alive and bring me that infusion! Red bottle on the top shelf!”

A sudden explosion shook the ground and sent a quick blast of heat and ash through the ceruleum-coated canvas flaps of the pavilion tent.

The medicus stumbled, nearly losing her footing before she was able to catch a nearby support. She clenched her teeth, heart pounding. She’d not been in a proper fight since she’d enlisted, had not expected to see any action at all in truth, all things considered. And then the VIIth Legion had been deployed to Eorzea, and she had found herself first in Castrum Novum, then here in these desolate plains on the edge of a massive escarpment overlooking a lush rainforest—one whose beauty she couldn’t even appreciate.

Her first battle, and ‘twas like there would be plenty more, and she could ill afford to show cowardice in the face of it.

As she gathered the syringes another explosion rattled the reagents on the makeshift shelves. Aurelia had to lunge forward, quickly catching a stray alembic to keep it from jittering off the metal surface of a nearby supply table and onto her foot. Weak cries of alarm echoed from the rear corners of the pavilion, where the medical teams with healing magic labored over their patients.

“We need more of the salts!” bellowed the tall, grizzled salt-and-pepper man in his chirurgeon’s whites, swiping the sweat and grime away from his third eye and off his brow with the back of his sleeve. Cassius lux Rossi was the senior chirurgeon over her cohort, a hardened veteran who’d served in the imperial army since before she was born, and his tone brooked no argument. He watched her with his sharp, severe gray eyes as she hurried over with the supplies, shouting orders to the assembly of medicus teams working furiously at their stations. “Third Cohort, put your backs into it! You’ve the aether to spare, no reason to clutch your pearls over a little tremor!”

“We’re running low on reagents for the antiseptic, milord,” she said, placing them on the table in front of him.

“We’re running low on bloody everything,” came her superior’s terse retort. It was tinged with strain, however, and Aurelia realized he was as tired and frightened by the circumstances as anyone else. The chirurgeon ran a hand through his greying hair, cut regulation-short. “There’s naught for it now; no way in hells is a supply transport making it to us through this godsdamned mess. We’ll have to make do. Now stay alert; they’ll need us to go out and collect wounded soon.”

Aurelia tried not to wince at that. Hearing the battle was bad enough; she really didn’t want to see it, but she knew better than to say so.

“Hand me that bottle. The green one.”

She did. He shook it, paused, then began to work the cork from the opening.

“Damned pigheaded Eorzeans,” Cassius grunted as he gave it a twist. There was a pop and the tube was opened with little effort. He took one of the syringes and began to coax the plunger back, the liquid swirling into the tiny opening of the needle. “You’d think this lot would’ve seen reason and surrendered by now. Were it not for their sellswords we’d have taken this hells-forsaken scrap of land the moment the first castrum went up. Don’t suppose it means much in the end. Once Lord van Darnus takes the field, they’ll see their folly soon enough. Especially with the XIVth’s reinforcements.”

If he takes the field,” Aurelia murmured. Someone said the legatus hadn’t actually been seen in nearly a fortnight, and that was odd because Nael van Darnus was fond of catching his forces unawares with surprise inspections. But there was some operation only the higher-ups knew about at Novum; if he’d have been anywhere he’d have come there. It was all very strange.

And those dreams you’ve had lately aren’t?

Resolutely she shoved that question into the recesses of her mind for later consideration and suppressed a sigh. Were she to be honest, nothing had seemed to go right since the Legion had set foot in this godsforsaken place.

“He will,” her commander said rather sharply, “and we’ll make short work of these barbarians, mark me, girl. He—oh hells, what now?” A miqo'te man in a pot helmet had thrust his head through the entrance and was waving to signal the chirurgeon down. “Don’t stand there flailing at me! State your business.”

“We need your people!”

“I’ve no medics to spare. If you can wait–”

“Due respect, sir, but it can’t wait. Enemy thaumaturges’re ripping the warmachina to pieces. There’s two reapers out of commission from short circuits, a third crushed five men underfoot when it fell, and one that went up in flames just now… it’s a right mess out here.”

Cassius sighed again.

“Very well. You there, let the pilus priori know we’re sending people. Laskaris, Shifting Sand – you two go on and join the active unit, and for pity’s sake don’t forget the alchemics. 'Tis like you’ll need them for a few of those poor bastards. Don’t let those men leave the heavy lifting to you two either. They’ve working arms, they can haul that field kit about.”

Aurelia had no time to pin up her hair; she barely managed to twist her braid back into a hasty bun before she had to yank her helm on and sling the heavy squad kit across her body on its coated leather strapping. No magical flames would be able to sear it, and that was by design, for some of the reageants and alchemics they used were quite flammable.

The runner who’d been sent for the medicus team flung open the pavilion flap without ceremony. He was already breaking into a sprint, heading towards the melee. The others ran close on his heels, Aurelia straggling a couple of fulms behind as she stared with horror at the battlefield through the protection of tempered glass. Dead and wounded from both armies littered the field, crumpled upon the ground with their tattered standards at half-attention and their armor and weapons in ruins.

The exoskeleton of a magitek reaper a scant few yalms away was wreathed in flame, probably the source of the explosion they’d heard a few moments ago. She heard shrieks of terror and pain, high-pitched and frantic. Her footsteps faltered for only a moment before there was a loud popping noise as the rivets gave beneath the heat, and then—nothing.

She realized she’d just heard the last agonized moments of a man as he was cooked alive, and squeezed her eyes shut.

A heavy hand fell on her shoulder, making her jump with a strained gasp and clutch at her field kit. It was only the squad leader, doubling back to see why she had not followed.

“Let it go,” Luca rem Manius said, not unkindly. “Worry about the ones we can still save. This way. Watch your step and if there’s another salvo, take cover.”

Aurelia hurried after him, trying not to trip or step on the mangled corpses that littered the field. So much blood had been shed that it had mixed with the dirt and formed a coppery, stinking sludge under their feet. The biohazard filters their engineering teams had worked into the standard-issue helm she wore kept out most of the stench, but her stomach turned all the same.

A flash of lights and shouts not a quarter-malm ahead, and the whistling thumps of mortars and anti-magic guns, told her the fight still raged apace. The senior medicus seemed to pause mid-step, glancing back at her over one bulky shoulder.

“This is your first deployment, isn’t it?”

Although she could glimpse nothing of his expression, the weary droop of his shoulders and his businesslike demeanor belied his words. She began to speak and then realized she’d forgotten to switch on the speaker. Hastily she toggled the communication array so that he could hear her. “Aye, ser, it is.”

“Thought as much. First battle’s always the roughest. Make sure to keep your wits and your strength about you,” he said. “You’ll need them all before our work is done. And take it from an old hand at this—don’t try to eat anything tonight. It’ll just come right back up, trust m-”

The surge of scarlet uniforms came from nowhere, the angry roar of Eorzeans cresting at them like a wave. Swearing, the pilus drew his weapon, and that was the last Aurelia saw of him. She stumbled backwards, the kit digging into her shoulder, as a unit from her cohort met them with gunblade and aether of their own, and she realized with an icy stab of misgiving that she was alone-

And then the scraping sound of shearing metal filled her ears.

Slowly, forgetting the chaos around her for the moment, she looked up into the sky. A brilliant arc of bright blue lights flickered over the surface of the crimson moon in a pattern that was as beautiful as it was unnatural, outlining the curvature of Dalamud’s sphere. The lights grew brighter, thicker, as the moon seemed to shudder and separate and—

–crack apart.

A piece of shrapnel, lengthwise as large as an imperial dreadnought, shot out of the bottom curve of the crimson moon. It didn’t drop down onto the plain below so much as puncture it, blasted into the earth like a chambered round fired out of a gunblade.

With that single massive blow it cratered the earth around its landing, and a blinding wave of dirt and debris rose in its wake, flying a good quarter-malm away from the point of impact. The resulting shockwave took Aurelia off her feet and sent her flying backwards to land in the stinking mud, near the corpse of a man in Maelstrom regalia, draped over a chocobo. Clutching her bag, she struggled to regain her footing, impaired by the weight of her armor.

Something had changed. Something was different. It took her a few moments to realize why: for the first time in many bells, an ominous hush had descended upon the plain.

Fear formed a hard, cold stone in the pit of her belly, and her skin prickled painfully. It felt like every hair on her body was trying to stand on end. The silence was a weight on her breath, pressing against her lungs, pinning her feet to the ground and leaving her limbs paralyzed, unable to take any action. The medicus swallowed thickly past the sudden lump in her throat, the rapid triphammer beat of her own heart drowning out all other sound.

This was not a respite, but a prelude.

“Pilus?” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.

And then the silence was broken at last.

CRACK!

CRACK!

CRACK!!

Above, the sounds echoed as the interlaced blue lights widened, then flared white hot, and fire-roses blossomed in their wake as what she finally realized were interlocking metal joints gave way under the pressure of whatever it was that had lain dormant inside the gargantuan sphere.

The ground beneath her feet rumbled ominously—and then she saw the dragon that loomed at the moon's zenith, an oracle of oncoming disaster. Massive wings, their breadth spanning the size of an entire city, were outlined in horrifically clear detail against the crimson and gray of the clouds overhead.

A piercing roar split the skies and shattered the silence.

Stabbing agony lanced through her ears. The Garlean clapped her gauntleted hands to the sides of her helm and dropped to her knees in the muck with a pained cry. Everything about that awful sound tried to drain the will from her limbs, sapping her strength, divesting her of the ability to do anything but tremble in place. It was the unbridled fury and hatred of a multitude of dragons, echoing down over countless millennia, powering the thing in the sky.

The eikon burst forth from the guts of the moon with a mighty roar, shattering the remains of Dalamud into fire and aether.

Shrapnel pelted down in a deadly rain upon the battlefield with a series of high-pitched whistles, slamming into cliffsides and soldiers alike, tossing them into the air like indifferently maintained toys. Now there was noise aplenty – noise, and fire, and thunder, and the grinding roar of falling debris. Terrified screams erupted from Garleans and Eorzeans alike as the lines of the Grand Companies and the VIIth Imperial Legion broke and scattered like frightened ants before the might of the vengeful creature that had emerged from its prison.

Before Aurelia’s horrified eyes, a huge chunk of warped, flaming metal slammed into the hillside that had housed the infirmary pavilions, setting them ablaze almost immediately. Overhead, the eikon shrieked its battle cry again, mingled rage and triumph. Pinpoints of fire streaked through the tortured sky, launched from the points of its wings, exploding upon contact with the land, scouring everything it touched.

“Retreat!” someone close at hand cried. “Save yourselves!”

Whether it was a legionnaire, an Eorzean, or even one of the sellsword adventurers, Aurelia couldn’t tell. Not through the smoke and the fire and the loud groaning rumble beneath her feet and the utter chaos that had enfolded all of them. Completely blinded now, unable to see sky or land, she ran, trying to find an escape route. If she could find somewhere to shield herself from the blasts, she could be safe. But there was no safety here, not in this eviscerated hellscape.

Something was hurtling through the air towards her. She saw something metal. Black. 

The object slammed into her, head, back, legs. A searing pain lanced in a white-hot bolt through her hip to her ankle, down her left side-

-and then there was nothing.

Chapter Text

========================================
THE DRAVANIAN HINTERLANDS - YEAR 48, THE EIGHTH UMBRAL ERA
========================================

 

Winter was coming fast to this part of the world. There was a bite in the air that could not be ignored, and the retired president of the Garlond Ironworks shivered, pulling the heavy coat tighter about his shoulders as he tried his level best to ignore the biting pain even that small action brought him. It felt like someone had put ground glass in the small joints of his swollen fingers.

He knew he was old – fourscore and two years, in fact. He hardly needed the reminder these days. 

But he was thankful that the journey was nearly done. Idyllshire, the last free city in Aldenard, lay just ahead.

Sparsely inhabited and protected naturally against most invasion, the scourge that had left most of Eorzea a blighted wasteland had not been felt as strongly in Dravania. There were wild and dangerous creatures here, and toxic plants that could not be consumed but by and large the aether here, while quite thin, was not as unstable.

Although the land hadn’t changed so much as to be completely uninhabitable, the overgrown streets of the old Sharlayan colony were a notable exception, and so Cid was also thankful for the relative safety of the old mana cutter, chilly wind nipping at his cheeks or not.

He stared down at the linkpearl in his hand once again before tucking it away. Tuhni Aliapoh, the matron who ran the orphanage in town, had been the one to call him; Nero had asked her to let him know that “the book is finished.”

Cid knew what that meant. He didn’t have much time left.

Of course it was just coincidence, he thought. All the same, it felt as if the completion of his own grand unifying theory two years past had been some unspoken catalyst: a cue to let time and ill health begin to catch up with all of the surviving founders of the Ironworks, one by one, now that they had finished what they had set out to do.

His best friend’s spirit was willing and his mind still sharp, but the mortal coil had its limits and it had been scarcely a year later when the chirurgeons discovered the malignant rot lurking in his body. Terminal, Master Scaeva, the chirurgeons had said. It’s spread too far. Nothing we can do but make you comfortable.

Most men would have taken the news of their impending demise poorly, Cid thought. Fallen into a depression, tried to bargain for their lives, something – but the temperamental old man had instead only seemed annoyed by what he perceived as everyone’s “incessant hovering,” as he’d put it, in the wake of the news. Cancer or no, he didn’t care to be mollycoddled and insisted he’d be fine if they would just get out of the way so he could finish his godsdamned book before he kicked off for good.

Cid wasn’t fooled, of course. Even the day they’d shared their toast, the age lines in his old friend’s face had not carved so deeply into his flesh. Still, he’d hoped against hope that there would have been more time, for both of them. This was not a day he had ever looked forward to seeing.

Inevitable though he knew it was.

~*~

Matron Aliapoh answered the door and led him upstairs to the modest apartment Nero kept over the orphanage. Along with Biggs, she remained at his side during the ascent, making sure he could navigate the steep steps without falling. It embarrassed Cid to know he’d grown so physically frail that something as simple as a staircase now posed a credible challenge, but there was little help for it.

One of the children caught his eye and waved, smiling without any particular recognition in her eyes, and Cid smiled and waved back with his free hand. Many years ago the Ironworks, as part of their initial efforts to bring peace to the land, had donated part of the Scions’ remaining assets to erect the very building they now stood in, as part of a trust in their name.

It had been Wedge’s idea, and he knew Aurelia would have approved. The Warrior of Light had ever had a special place in her heart for the Aliapoh sisters and the lonely children living here in the organization’s struggling early days, and he could think of no better way for them to have honored her memory.

An old and familiar sadness crept up on him at the thought– though it didn’t hurt as much as it once did. Time had placed a balm over that wound, aided by the salve that was the small light of hope they had all vowed to safeguard.

Tuhni opened the door, gave them a solemn nod, told them to let her know if there was aught they needed. Biggs sat down in a nearby chair, and it was left to Cid to open the door to his friend’s bedchambers.

Nero looked about as bad as Cid had expected. He’d always been slender, and now he was a shadow of even that, his pale and wasted frame propped up against a generous pile of pillows with a thin coverlet draped over his body. He was so weak he could barely move, but he managed to tilt his head towards the door at the sound of footfalls. Those hawkish eyes, however, were as sharp as ever when they finally cracked open.

“So you did decide to visit after all,” he rasped irritably. “Another sennight and you’d have found me a grave man indeed.”

Cid couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Even half-dead, the man was given to his absurd jests.

“Save your energy.” He sat down in the nearby desk chair with a heavy sigh, rubbing his eyes. The journey, even made by mana cutter, had exhausted him. “Matron Aliapoh said you told her you finished the book.”

“Indeed. I wrote the last sentence just this morning. The manuscript is on the desk.”

“Cutting it down to the wire, aren’t you?” Cid offered a wry, sad smile. “A procrastinator to the end. No wonder you always came in behind me.”

One hand, trembling visibly, lifted an ilm or two to make a rude gesture at him before it fell limp. Nero lay still for a very long time and just as Cid had started to worry that he might have actually expired right there in front of him, the other man stirred once more with a soft sigh that wavered into a pain-wracked groan.

The sorrow Cid felt ran deep. Nero had dogged his steps since they were both boys, and as eccentric and temperamental as he was, he had also become a surprising source of stability for the Ironworks: unswervingly loyal, a driving force and support behind Cid as he worked on his theorycraft. His constant presence, while occasionally infuriating, had helped to make existence in this broken world bearable.

And Cid was about to lose him. He felt his breath hitch.

“Garlond,” came the mumble from the bed, “are you sniveling?”

“The word is grieving.”

“Kindly do not. That noise is bloody hideous and I’ve a raging headache as it is.”

“You’re dying, Nero.”

A weak snort. 

“Your powers of observation remain as peerless as ever.”

Why he was in any way surprised that Nero Scaeva could manage to be insufferable even on his own deathbed, Cid wasn’t sure. 

He pinched the bridge of his nose, swallowing back his sadness with some effort. "One would think you might be a bit less sanguine about all of this.“

Nero’s head lolled over the pillows in Cid’s direction. He exhaled once more, but this time it was with impatience rather than pain.

"There are two likely outcomes to this mad plan of yours. One, it succeeds. In a best-case scenario, the Warrior of Light also succeeds - yes, my reputation as a man of reason notwithstanding, I have every faith in her - and none of this ever comes to pass, in which case all of this will have been naught but a possibility. A harmless and thoroughly academic thought exercise at best.”

“Two,” Cid reminded him, “we fail.”

“Correct.” Nero’s shoulders moved up, then dropped down in an approximation of a shrug Cid knew all too well. “In which case she is not saved, history as we lived it continues unbroken, you and I never know the difference either way, and the world continues to rot to its end by ilms.”

Unsure how to respond to that, Cid said nothing, and for a few moments the pair sat in the contemplative silence they’d both grown accustomed to throughout their long years of acquaintance. He took one of the hands lying on the coverlet to find it limp and hot, and Nero stirred from whatever reverie he’d been in.

“Garlond,” he said, “do you remember Wedge’s final words?”

“I try not to think of that day overmuch.” Cid’s grip on his walking stick tightened. It was true. He didn’t, not that he could forget it if he had tried. It was Wedge’s death that had started them all down this fateful path.

He glanced at his friend to see him staring resolutely at the ceiling, the corners of his mouth trembling. Tears stood unshed in pale blue eyes.

“…I have thought of little else,” Nero said.

A half-forgotten memory rose to his mind’s eye, the immediate aftermath of those hellish first days after Black Rose had scoured the Gyr Abanian fringes. They had been the ones to find the Scions - and Aurelia - that day in the Reach. Cid still remembered with painful clarity the expression on his friend’s face as he boarded the Excelsior with her body in his arms, like a groom carrying his bride across a threshold. 

Upon their return, and her burial, Nero had disappeared without a word. A sennight later, worried about his safety in the wake of the chaos that had engulfed Mor Dhona, Cid had gone looking for him. He had found him sitting on a ledge in front of the slumbering Tower, unharmed, with one of her soul crystals clutched in one hand, staring morosely at the sealed doors.

Nero had returned to the Ironworks with some coaxing (and a stringent argument), and alongside Cid and the others had thrown himself into their new mission for the sake of that small sliver of hope that they might, someday, find the means to undo this horror by saving the Warrior of Light. And ever since then, he’d been back to his old self in all ways but one: in all the years afterward, the Warrior’s true name had never again crossed his lips. 

Cid had never pressed him on the subject. He understood that it was grief, not indifference, that had made of her a forbidden subject except in the most superficial of discussions. 

He squeezed that hand, carefully, hoping the attempt at comfort was implied.

“All we can do is trust the young ones. And hope.”

“Hope has ever been all we have left to us, Garlond. My consolation prize is the knowledge that she will be waiting for me, one way or another. For my own part, I hope that should a better history come to pass, it is my better self that prevails.”

A smile, as faint as it was sorrowful, tilted his lips, and his eyes fell shut.

~*~

When he left Idyllshire the following morning, Nero was still asleep, not having stirred once, not even to take a glass of water. As far as Cid Garlond was ever aware, he was the one to hear his old friend’s last words. The sharp blue eyes he had known so well never opened again.

Two days later, Nero Scaeva was dead.

~*~

Two centuries after Cid’s seminal theory was completed, and long after Cid himself had passed, the doors of the Crystal Tower opened at last.

Its slumbering guardian emerged expecting a bright future only to find a world broken beyond repair, the keepers of all mankind’s dwindling knowledge now but a small but determined team of scientists who called themselves the Ironworks. They came before him with the thoughts and dreams of their founders, and the hopes of all who had ever placed their faith in the Warrior of Light, a woman who had long since passed into legend.

Through a reflection, locked now in the distant past, a traveler far from his home in every sense imaginable reached through time and space to save a world’s lost hero.

In the deepest and most secret bowels of his study lay a book from a doomed future, written by a man who had not loved that hero half as well as he would have wished. His regret lay bare upon the first page, a single sentence written before he had set his pen aside for the last time.

For she, it read, who was never second.

Chapter Text

Aurelia returned from her drawing lesson in the garden to find the parlor and most of the staff within in a state of panicked disarray. L'haiya was shouting orders at the hapless maids, dust cloths were flying everywhere, and she could hear Cook banging in the kitchen. Blinking, she removed her hat and swiped a forearm across her sweaty brow as she passed from the sun porch into the parlor.

“…What in the seven hells?” the Garlean girl said aloud, forgetting that her governess was in earshot. 

But the Miqo'te didn’t react. She was too busy directing a pair of burly men to adjust the position of the piano.

“Over there, you lot! Put your backs into it.” One of L'haiya’s hands were braced on her hips, the other impatiently shoving her bright auburn hair out of her face as her tail twitched in agitation. It was the look she so often wore when lecturing Aurelia about some shortcoming or other. “Mind the Nagxian vase in the corner! That’s Fifth Astral, his lordship will have all our heads if it’s broken.”

“Elle, what’s going on? What’s all the commotion?”

The smaller woman seemed to see her charge for the first time. Aurelia was becoming quite tall, standing nearly a head over her caretaker already– although her height hardly made her intimidating. She was but fourteen summers, baby fat still lingering in her face and her curves still more a suggestion than a reality. Her sudden growth spurt over the last few moons had rendered the young Garlean lanky and awkward, and she had been the terror of the drawing room for months.

“Aurelia! Thank the Twelve.” L'haiya grasped her wrists. “You need to go upstairs and change. Your nicest afternoon dress. Quickly!”

“You’d think the Emperor himself were coming to visit us with all this drama,” she began with a smile, one that slowly faded when she saw the grim press of the woman's lips. “Wait. What?”

“You jest, girl, but the viceroy will be dining with us this evening. We received a missive while you were in your studies.”

Aurelia nearly choked. 

“Wh-why? He has a whole palace to-”

“Does it matter? Legatus van Baelsar has requested informal audience with your lord father and no one tells the Black Wolf his timing is poor.” L'haiya lifted one of her curls and studied it critically. “We’ll make you as presentable as we can under the circumstances. Go. Draw a bath and wash the sweat off you.”

=

She stared at her half-finished plate with growing consternation, fighting not to nibble on the ends of her hair.

The man at the end of the table was hardly the dashing figure she imagined most army officers to cut, but there was something imposing about him all the same. He complimented L'haiya on the meal (though that had surely been Cook’s doing) and spent most of his time engrossed in discussion with her father about mundane matters without the city walls, so at least his attention wasn't on her personally.

Well, Elle had said this was supposed to be a meeting with her father.

“Aurelia,” L'haiya whispered from behind her, “it’s rude to pick at your food in front of guests and Cook will be upset if you don’t eat.”

"Sorry," she mumbled. Everything smelled lovely but she was too jittery to taste much of it. Knowing that both Elle and her father would be cross with her if she didn't at least try, the girl reached slowly for her tableware.

“Have you thoughts on the matter to offer, Mistress Laskaris?”

Aurelia was thankful she had not picked up the fork because she knew she would have immediately dropped it from startlement. 

She looked up to find the full attention of piercing, hooded pale hazel-gold eyes – like a wolf’s – fixed on her face. The legatus’ expression was one of mild and polite interest at best, but she sensed both a keen intellect and a hardness under that surface, someone who was even more accustomed to command than Father and who was much, much better at reading people.

Especially children like herself.

With effort, she smiled and shook her head.

“I, ah–I’m afraid that adminis–administrative matters are not– I am not familiar with such, my lord.”

One of those heavy brows lifted, and she tensed, wondering if she had given offense.

“They do not interest you?”

“In all honesty, my lord, no. I am-” She hesitated. “I am studying botany. The- the flora of the Empire and its provinces.”

“I see. And do you much field work, young mistress?”

“Where I can,” she confessed. “I’ve a journal I keep for my drawings of all the plants I’ve encountered for myself, and all their effects.” She also had several pages of notes she’d taken from some of the older women in the aan quarters, old folk remedies using those same plants. She did not mention this, however, because Sazha was her willing accomplice, and L’haiya didn’t know she sometimes slipped out of the administrative district unattended. 

“A hobby, my lord,” her father said, his smile tight. She plunged on, ignoring what was clearly a warning look not to waste Legatus van Baelsar’s time.

“I’m… I wish to be a chirurgeon,” she explained, “and I am told the entrance examinations for most schools are very stringent. I find the study soothing but also very enlightening, and I assume it can only help to have knowledge of such matters for focused study.”

That unreadable look relaxed into a smile.

“Ah,” he said. “A well-spoken young lady. You’ve a budding medicus in your midst, Julian.”

“So it would appear, my lord,” her father answered, though Aurelia knew full well they had barely discussed aught of her personal interests. Medicine and botany did not interest her father any more than the training exercises of the cohorts interested her.  

“Once you enlist for your service, young mistress, perhaps I will become a more familiar face.”

With a polite smile, she inclined her chin respectfully as she’d been taught to do, and with naught more to say those keen eyes shifted focus back to her father. 

Aurelia had to bite back the sigh of relief when they did. Whatever test she suspected that was, she knew she’d passed it.

~*~

The Vault was freezing cold and she was alone, and despite being the so-called Warrior of Light, Aurelia wished that Alphinaud were here.

She was not unaccustomed to private audiences, and even if she had been there had been so many in the last year that most of the shyness had been flensed from her. The leaders of the Eorzean Alliance were just people, and some of them she even counted as friends.

Had counted as friends. Assuming she wasn’t on a fugitive’s list elsewhere, as well. But she hadn’t been so desperately nervous to meet a political figure since she was fourteen years old and had met the viceroy for the first time. A man whom, fifteen years later, had faced her in a duel and lost.

“Come on, come on,” the Garlean said softly. This was no time to be thinking about that.

It really wasn’t, because she didn’t know why she’d been summoned by the leader of Ishgard’s Church. That was the real difference. Every other time she’d responded to an official request for her time, she’d known well beforehand the reason. By the reactions of Haurchefant’s half-brothers a personal summons was supposedly a great honor, but she had misgivings aplenty.

Aurelia wasn’t as certain as they that the man would be well pleased.

Those were two of his personal honor guard she’d defeated in Tataru and Alphinaud’s trials, after all. She had no idea if trouncing those two awful men would be the final straw to get them all tossed out the front of the city gates in disgrace, or what the Archbishop wanted at all.

The door opened, and an elezen in the garb of a Temple Knight bowed deeply; the mythrite chain of his coif gave a little chime as the small metal links struck each other.

“His Holiness will see you now, Warrior of Light. Come.”

She nodded, and out of half-remembered habit more than anything else, smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from the front of her robes and followed. Eyes lingered upon her as she did, glances that were a mixture of curious and appreciative, as she passed into the deepest recesses of the Vault.

Chapter Text

“Another storm, yes. I shall return anon, but his lordship is concerned for the safety of all and would have me set out once the wind is past.”

Aurelia let out a contented sigh and set the linkpearl aside on the nearby side table. After that was done, she turned her attention back to the warm weight on her bare chest. 

One of the most obvious advantages of having established good relations between the Scions of the Seventh Dawn and the knights of the Coerthas central highlands was the relative leeway she was given to visit Haurchefant at his cold and remote outpost. Of course, it was done mostly at her leisure when she wasn’t on some errand or other. But given the Ishgardians’ extremely obvious regard for the Warrior of Light and the way she had stepped in to aid them with Shiva without even a moment’s hesitation, and given their reputation for prickly inhospitality to nigh everyone else, not even Alphinaud was inclined to stop her from her frequent jaunts into the snowy foothills.

Alphinaud, she knew, even preferred it. If the Scions could establish more inroads to bring Ishgard back into the fold of the Alliance, so much the better, whether it be done through official diplomatic channels with Ser Aymeric or through rather more informal ones with Lord Haurchefant.

But advantages there were aplenty besides, such as the privacy her reputation afforded the two of them.

In some ways, Coerthas reminded her of home – the few good parts of it she could remember, anyroad. Blizzards didn’t bother her, and she enjoyed the cold even when the wind outside didn’t howl and rattle at the expensive glass and whistle around the stones of the keep.

But at the minute, there was a storm, and she was disinclined to leave before it had abated. Currently that sharp wind was accompanied by ice, and she could hear the gritty slap of sleet with each gust that bit at the fortress’ outer walls.

She ran her fingers through Haurchefant’s hair: a light bluish silver, thick, and fine as silk beneath her fingers. Her shirt was on but unbuttoned, and she felt him press a slightly damp kiss to the edge of her sternum, directly between her breasts.

Days like these didn’t just make venturing out into the Coerthan wilderness undesirable, but actively dangerous. Which to her mind was so much the better, really, because it allowed them quiet afternoons like these to themselves: enjoying each other’s company while the rest of the barracks lay in slumber, occupants piled together for comfort. Haurchefant would always see to his paperwork first – like herself, the lord of Camp Dragonhead was nothing if not dutiful – but once his work was done, he’d join her, for conversation, for hot chocolate, or… well.

Whatever sport they wished to make, to while away the cold hours.

“Commander Leveilleur knows you’re here?” the Elezen murmured.

“Mm. I told him the storm’s too bad to risk leaving.”

“…I confess I’m surprised he didn’t point out that you could simply use the aetheryte to return.”

She laughed.

“He knows I hate using them. Travel by aetheryte doesn’t bother me now half as much as it used to, I suppose because my aether control has improved so, but it still gives me awful headaches on occasion. You’re right, I suppose I could. But I don’t,” she said bluntly, “and I don’t feel like explaining to him or the others why.”

In truth, she didn’t feel like explaining much of anything to the Scions these days.

Nero’s decidedly acidic observations that day before they’d entered Syrcus Tower for the first time had truly angered her, but he hadn’t been wrong, and she knew that was part of the reason it had struck home. The Scions, especially Alphinaud as of late, *did* seem to take her strength and her sense of responsibility for granted. The tribunus had been entirely correct about that much, had – much to her own bewilderment – seemed genuinely frustrated beneath his mockery.

And she couldn’t deny the bitter pall of resentment she felt at the realization that out of all of the people who seemed able to see her instead of the hero’s pedestal, it was someone who shouldn’t have given a damn one way or another, rather than the people who were supposed to be her friends. Oh, he wasn’t the only one, to be sure. Cid Garlond had ever seen her for who she was, had offered her his own space as a shelter from the constant deluge of requests.

The man whose bed she now lay in was another.

Sensing some of her distress, Haurchefant propped himself up on one elbow and leaned forward to peer curiously down into her eyes. One hand was left to wander where he willed it (or insofar as she would give it permission), and his crystal-blue eyes were dark with concern.

“My friend, is aught amiss? They are your close associates, and yet I can hear your discontent. Has there been a falling out between you? Should I reconsider our association with Revenant’s Toll?” A shadow crept into his expression. “…They’ve not mistreated you in some fashion, have they?”

Aurelia sighed and shut her eyes.

“No, it’s… I… I’m not really being fair, Haurchefant. I know I’m not. Minfilia is under considerable strain, herself, and Alphinaud I worry is attempting to singlehandedly solve a problem years too old for him, and there’s more I’d rather not get into. But-”

“But?” he pressed, when she didn’t say anything for a moment.

“….Sometimes I want to recapture the freedom I had when I chose to become an adventurer. When the only thing that was important was the next new horizon and the sights beyond.” One of her hands fretted at the coverlet beneath her fingers. “I went to Ul'dah intending to expand my medical knowledge for certain, but also because I had never seen Thanalan, and I thought that if I could never return to my home then I might as well see the southern lands with my own eyes. But then… things happened.”

“Ifrit happened.”

“Yes. And almost before I knew it people were calling me a hero. I feel like a fraud on a good day, Haurchefant, and on a bad day I just want them all to bugger off and leave me be. Some people are still immensely kind and grateful, but others just see me as a wall between them and the beastmen.”

Haurchefant had kept his counsel, seeming content to run his hand over her belly and thighs as she spoke. There was a warmth there, simmering just under the surface like coals that had not yet gone to embers, and on a different day she might at that point have decided to kiss him rather than continue her litany of complaints. It would, she thought, certainly have been more productive.

You did all this to yourself and no one cares to hear your whinging, a part of her sneered.

But the floodgates were open and she could not stop.

“Sometimes I wish I had never agreed to join the Scions,” she confessed softly. “I know, it’s an awful thought, but-”

“Not awful,” he said. “Human.”

“Perhaps.”

“All of us have had those thoughts from time to time. ‘Tis the hardest thing in the world, to stay when you are saddled with a duty you do not want. I know from long experience. And yours…”

When he had trailed off for a handful of seconds, Aurelia opened her eyes and blinked up at him. He offered a smile that was just a little bit rueful.

“Yours, dear lady,” he continued, “is a great burden indeed. I would worry about you did you not weary of its weight from time to time, and I know even heroes need a refuge, which is why I offer mine own modest lodgings freely. But this too will pass. You say you wish you could run away, but you would not do so if pressed.”

Biting her lower lip, Aurelia rolled her head to one side and stared at the grey light in the window, listened to the ice slap against glass. “How do you know?”

“Because adventurer or not,” he said, leaning forward and pressing his lips just above her third eye, “you are brave and responsible. I have never known you to run from aught you consider a job that is yours to be done.”

“I wish I could.”

“But you won’t.”

“No,” Aurelia said, “I won’t. Because as much as I mislike it, there is no one else.”

There was no response to that save the obvious, so she hadn’t expected him to answer:

“If ever you do weary of your toils, you can make Ishgard your home.”

“Ishgard would not have me.”

“I would make it so. Did they see in you what I saw, you would be welcomed with open arms.”

“Oh? Would I be able to remain at Camp Dragonhead for all time?” She laughed, her dark blue eyes twinkling with mirth as she flopped back onto the pillows and grinned at him. “Should I be the lady Lucia to your Aymeric, then? Your resolute and ever loyal second?”

Haurchefant did not laugh in return. His hand had shifted to her hip, stroking along the outer curve of one of her thighs, ghosting over her skin in a way that caused gooseflesh to prickle up her limbs. Her nipples were taut and aching, and now she wasn’t entirely sure if it was due to the lingering chill of the room after all.

“No,” he said. “I already have a second. To you, my dearest lady-” His hair tickled at her neck and his teeth grazed her collarbone, a hot and pleasant sting. Aurelia made a tiny pleading noise in the back of her throat, squirming at the contact, already seeing the mark that would bloom beneath her robes. “-I would be your vassal.”

“You cannot, you lovely fool,” she whispered, kissing the soft silver crown of his head. “You are pledged to your nation and to your house, not a defector with no nation left to call her own.”

Haurchefant’s hand on her legs moved inward, gently coaxing them open, and she felt the tips of his fingers on the sensitive inner flesh all the way down to her toes. 

“I would pledge myself to you anyway. I would serve you as I serve the Fury Herself.”

She took a shaking breath; he was but ilms away from where she actually wanted him, but even that urge was secondary to her hunger for his soft words.

“I am not of your people, Haurchefant. Perhaps once I was a lady, but I no longer even have a house.”

“You need no house, though I would gladly give you mine if you wished it,” he murmured, his lips moving just below her navel now, “and you are wrong. The truth of what you are, the things that made you what you are, cannot be taken from you.”

G'raha Tia had said something similar, she thought.

“And neither can those things which were not given to you by your birth. You are kind, and you are just, and you are compassionate. You are not only a hero, but the greatest lady I have ever chanced to know,” he said. “The fairest roses of all the High Houses pale before you.”

She wished keenly she could see herself through his eyes, or G'raha’s. If any gods existed in this world, the Garlean felt as though she could spend the rest of her life trying to atone for her people’s cruelty and still never shift the scales. Her eyelids stung with tears she tried with effort to swallow back.

A rough palm, gentle, framed her face. 

“I promise upon my faith in the Fury, and upon my faith in you, that my sword and shield will always be yours – whenever you have need of them.”

He had returned to hover above her prone form, his wandering hands stilled for the moment. His eyes were soft and reverent.

“After all, dear lady,” he whispered, “a knight lives to serve.”

Chapter Text

The flowers were dead.

That was the first of her failures, she knew. The most trivial of them, to be sure, but she knew her aunt well enough to know it would be marked against her. In her own way, Marcella het Laskaris was every bit as much an autocrat as her husband, and even more hidebound by social propriety. She’d make her disappointment known immediately. 

You want to be a chirurgeon but you can’t even preserve a floral arrangement? I suppose it’s not to be helped, given your father let you run wild with the southern savages, but we’ve work to do if you’re to make a suitable match.

To say Aurelia was not looking forward to her landing was an understatement.

She was glad she’d at least thought to press the last of the rare Althyk lavender from her little garden into a sachet, as a keepsake of sorts. The small bouquet of tea roses that had been intended for her father’s funeral had long since wilted. Aurelia was uncertain if it had been the bitter chill that had killed them, or if it was something else, but it hardly mattered either way, now. They had looked a bit pathetic yesterday, and when she’d awakened this morning all she’d been left with were withered thorn-studded stems and sadly drooping blooms, glittering and brittle with frost.

She’d used one of her spare scarves to gather the petals. At least she could spread them over his coffin when it was placed.

Spring had long since come to every other corner of the world in this month, but the sharp bite of winter still lingered in the upper reaches of the continent, a bleak grey that only grew more widespread the farther north they traveled, as grass gave way to permafrost and plain gave way to hills gave way to bare granite summits.

By the time the airship had breached the high mountain pass and came within sight of the capitol, the black steel spires of the imperial palace could scarcely be seen for the thick blankets of snow that fell from the sky, and the city of Garlemald itself was only visible by the firefly sprawl of magitek-powered street lamps.

It was a sight that sixteen-year-old Aurelia bas Laskaris had not seen since she was a toddler.

She hated it instantly.

When they’d left the first time… well, Aurelia didn’t remember it, of course. She’d been barely three summers old, little more than an infant. All she had was the vaguest of sensory impressions. The scent of her mother’s rosewater and the soft, warm cloak she’d been bundled in, one she hadn’t needed for the latter half of the journey. Father had been commissioned under the IVth, which made its seat of power in the Dalmascan Estersands, so there had been no need there for heavy coats.

She remembered keenly a pair of strong arms and that was how Aurelia knew it wasn’t her mother. Mama couldn’t have carried her then; Mama was already far too frail. It was L'haiya who had held her in her arms, soothed her when she grew fitful. Just as it had been Elle who carried her on the transport into Ala Mhigo, when Father had accepted a commission from the new viceroy because he wished to leave behind his memories of her mother.

But Elle hadn’t come this time. 

Elle had abandoned her in the end. Just like Sazha, when he had left her in the night without a word of farewell to report for his draft last summer. He’d written for a while, but after the first few months the letters had stopped coming altogether.

So, she was returning to the capitol to face her family alone.

Angrily she dashed tears from her eyes. Slim shoulders and back ramrod-straight beneath her heavy coat, the girl stood alone, her black-gloved hands clutching a half-crushed piece of parchment.

She didn’t even know why she still had it; she could have burned it in the hearth as she’d wished to when she had received it. The summons stated in no uncertain terms that she would be finishing her education in the capitol, and there were to be no more extensions or excuses.

Aurelia,

My brother had previously expressed that you seek to become a chirurgeon when last we discussed your studies. 

The best opportunities for such lie in the capitol and to that end, I have made arrangements for you to sit the entrance exams to the Imperial Magitek Academy’s biomedical program at summer’s end. 

Should the proctors deem your best efforts unfit, you will enlist for compulsory service, as I fully expect a young woman of your age to possess the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the gens.  Your lady aunt and I shall send a retainer to fetch you upon your arrival in the city, whereupon we will attend your father’s service as scheduled. 

We look forward to your prompt reply.

-J. van Laskaris.

She knew this letter for what it was: a door closing behind her, trapping her in a gilded cage with a black steel lock.

She was thankful for the mourning reeds she wore; the black lace veil and bonnet concealed most of her face from the openly curious eyes she felt on her frame as she peered out the frosty bay windows of the transport, and her silent fury could easily be mistaken for grief. 

She’d tried to rip it in half but L'haiya had stopped her.

(Elle…)

“I’ll not be returning, girl,” Elle had said, her voice flat and angry. “Your lord uncle has made it abundantly clear what he thinks of so-called 'savages', and he makes no secret of his distaste for me in particular. Now stop that crying and sit still so I can arrange your hair pins.”

“You can’t just leave m-”

“I most certainly can,” the Miqo'te said, in a tone that silenced her immediately. “That decision is not yours to make. Lord van Baelsar has offered me a position in the palace as a civil servant. I will be perfectly fine. See to yourself.”

When the girl only stared at her with huge, tear-filled eyes, Elle had sighed heavily, and put her arms around her shoulders.

“I told you,” she said, “that I would have to let Garlemald have you someday. Do you remember? It was the night you broke your arm falling out of that tree.”

“I… yes, but-”

“That day has come, young mistress. You’re no longer a child, and this is where we part ways.”

Elle’s lips had trembled despite her blunt words, and her hand had lingered on her charge’s cheek for a brief moment before Aurelia had flinched out of range of the woman’s touch, slapped her hand away, and stormed out of the room.

But it hadn’t been before she had seen the hurt in the Miqo'te woman's eyes.

Wilted. Her childhood, withered and black and grown still on the stem. Just like Father’s roses.

And she had no one to blame save herself. She regretted it still, and she would have given anything to make it right again. Elle was the closest thing to a mother she had, and she was cold, and she was lonely, and she was so, so afraid. 

It was a child’s reaction, she knew. She wanted her mother. But it was too late to call back what she’d done, and now L'haiya was thousands of malms south, in Ala Mhigo. There was no unraveling the skeins of her fate. For better or worse her future, as bleak as it looked, lay with Garlemald.

When the call came to disembark, Aurelia was first off the transport, silent and dry-eyed beneath the elegant drape of her mourning veils.

Chapter Text

 

==

The few Eorzeans who associate with a certain consulting associate of the Garlond Ironworks do so in spite of his reputation.

This fact does not come as any particular surprise to Nero Scaeva, nor to anyone who knows him. Even in Garlemald, where he was known as one of the Empire’s most brilliant engineers, his reputation preceded him. Temperamental, arrogant, highly eccentric, very difficult to work with, most people said. Not half as personable as Master Garlond but very nearly as knowledgeable and skilled, good enough provided you’re willing to deal with his personality and pay exorbitant amounts for the consult.

As a result there are precious few who know him beyond his smug, somewhat caustic public persona. Most see a walking ego in love only with himself and the dead war machines of the ancients, and for his own part Nero is content to let them make all the assumptions they like, so long as she knows better.

Still, he considers himself a man of reason, one more interested in cerebral pursuits than aught else, and a sworn bachelor who highly values his independence.

So he can’t quite figure out when he became domesticated. Because at some point along the road their arrangement took on a life of its own and turned into a very comfortable routine, one he enjoys enough that the house feels subtly wrong without her presence in it.

When they’re not ships passing in the night on their respective jaunts, Aurelia putters around the house with her botany journals or one of her countless books, and he putters around his own work area while keeping a watchful eye on whatever stew or cassoulet he’s left to slow cook on one of his worktable hot plates (Garlond used to give him endless shit for this, but in his experience one heating element is much like another). Nero had three older sisters determined to make sure he didn’t starve the second he set out on his own, so his cooking is Ilsabardian peasant fare to be sure. He’d be more self-conscious about it if Aurelia weren’t such an awful cook. 

And, truthfully, it’s a bit reassuring to know that she isn’t good at everything she touches.

They’d started out giving each other polite space, but over time that was quickly abandoned for convenience’s sake. Now their projects of choice have gradually moved into the bedroom with them - one might call it nesting behavior, he supposes, given all the clutter that’s collected; his piles of schematics, her reagent samples, books scattered haphazardly over the floor.

And at night they might sleep or they might not, but anyroad, the point is that at some juncture the notion of himself settling down in any shape, form, or fashion went from laughable to comfortable and he’s just really not sure exactly when or how that happened.

Though maybe it doesn’t really matter when one gets right down to it, and maybe he doesn’t really mind that much, because one of his favorite pastimes is watching her make love to him. Sitting astride him as she is now, plush thighs bracing his hips as she takes him into herself over and over again, bathed in the ambient light of her old ceruleum desk lamp, the small flame guttering low on the wick.

She is not what one would consider a beautiful woman. And yet in passion she always glows, from without and within, the most radiant and glorious thing he has ever seen. Her wheat-blonde hair is haloed by a soft corona, those long and silky filaments of gold brushing his face and his chest in a rhythm that matches the sure and steady roll of her hips.

His ears catch the soft and ragged sounds of her pleasure as she leans over him, braces her arms against the pillows on either side of his head and buries her face in the crook of his neck. Those small sounds gradually take on a frantic urgency and as she curls close to him he finds himself awash in her scent: her sunlight and her lavender, warmth and light and growing things. 

He gives back as much as she is willing to take before she lifts her head to press her brow against his and he is gazing into dark and unfocused blue eyes. He has seen this woman in many different places, in many different ways, over the course of their acquaintance. Defector. Adventurer. Scion. Warrior of Light. Liberator. Slayer of eikons, some call her; the Black Wolf’s Bane. 

But those are words; they mean nothing to him and they never have because they are titles, and Nero has ever had little use for titles. Titles describe things she has done, not who she is.

Where other people see the Warrior of Light, an idolized and untouchable version of their best selves, a figure to be revered (and perhaps in time worshipped), Nero Scaeva sees only Aurelia Laskaris, mortal and frail and vulnerable and needing.

And beloved.

And it is with that thought he is lost in her at last, as she shudders around him and he seeks his own end.

Chapter Text

On further reflection, she thinks perhaps she should have seen this coming.

It’s been nearly three months since she found the crystal- since she accepted an offer she knows damned well would have gotten her summarily exiled from Ishgard if not taken on a short journey to the Witchdrop-  and began to learn how to harness what Fray calls the darkness. Using the aetheric manifestation of her own anger to guard others, and to inflict pain. 

Not only on her enemies, but also herself.

Every time Aurelia has communed with Fray she has come away feeling sick and uneasy at the end of it. 

She cannot help but think to herself that something about it feels similar, though not quite the same, as the biting chill of Zodiark’s aether. It puts her in mind of the Chrysalis, of Nabriales and of Elidibus, and of poor lost Minfilia– and she wonders if her decision to ‘master the darkness within,’ as Fray had put it, was truly wise. 

But she also knows that given the chance to turn away, she would not have done it. Emotionally exhausted and utterly emptied of all save her anger and her survivor’s guilt and the unrelenting grief for the sake of a lost love, a lost chance- 

She had made her choice, for better or worse.

And now, standing before her mentor in front of all Whitebrim, half a dozen injured knights cringing at her feet, she has been given cause to regret it.

“You had the sword, you had the soul crystal, but what you wanted was someone with the knowledge to guide you along the path. A woman who could say and do the things you would not. Have I not,” Fray hisses, that husky voice and its guttural accent sharp and biting, “been good to you? Have I not given you all I promised?”

“I never asked you to do any of those things,” Aurelia snaps, her own temper straining its leash. “I asked you for naught save your tutelage.”

Fray is not deterred.

“Did I not help you to hear the whispers of our very soul?”

She is not sure what to do or say. The strange woman has never been what one would call serene, or patient, or even personable really, but right now she seems overwhelmed by the bitterness that Aurelia has always sensed simmering just beneath the surface.

And then, without warning, Fray’s body collapses like a marionette cut loose of its strings.

Even before Aurelia registers the gasped cries of alarm at her back, she feels the blood in her veins turn to ice at the sight of the figure that rises in its place. 

The woman before her is clad not in a temple knight’s coif, or a sellsword’s gambeson, but in colors she knows (remembers) far too well. Scarlet, black, silver-trimmed tabard with a familiar triple-link insignia, and strapped to her back is a wicked-looking greatsword where a standard-issue gunblade should be. 

And the dark blue eyes that stare back into hers, mouth twisted into an uncharacteristic rictus of anger, are unmistakably her own. 

Dark aether billows around that armored frame, riotous and cold, whipping viciously at anyone and anything in its range.

“Damn you,” Aurelia Laskaris snarls, “open your eyes and look! Do you see now? Do you see?

Chapter Text

Gaius van Baelsar stood with arms folded, as outwardly impassive as ever, watching the young magitek engineer contemplate their secret in silence. Most of the architecti and engineering sorts he met, especially those who made their work in research and development, were intimidated when addressed by a legatus, particularly one as famous as the Black Wolf of Ala Mhigo.

This one had barely bothered to introduce himself to Gaius upon his arrival, instead making a beeline for the dig. 

Without even a glance at his back, he had immediately removed his opaque sunglasses and gone down into its bowels with an almost insouciant ease: navigating the steel scaffolding on surprisingly nimble feet on his way to the main console and springing about the depths of the excavation site to examine aught that had caught his eye. 

As though he were a Miqo'te, rather than a tall and lanky Garlean.

Well, his primus architectus had warned him the man was eccentric.


“I cannot do this work alone, my lord. To crack the launch codes alone, even just to perceive the inner workings– that could take months. Years.”

“We don’t have years, Severus. In lieu of twoscore years of study, what then would you suggest?”

“An expert consult. If he were still with us I’d recommend Cid nan Garlond for this job. But since you can’t get him, well…” Severus mal Amatius heaved a sigh, visibly wincing. “…Hells below. As much as I hate to even bloody suggest it, you’ll want Nero sas Scaeva.”

Gaius lifted his brows.

“Sas?”

“Joined the army instead of the Academy; his choice, apparently. But if it’s experimental Allagan weapons you need sorting – and from what little we know of this one it was very experimental – he’s your man. He ripped apart about half a dozen decades-old assumptions about Allagan aetheric weapons in two papers while he was still a student. If you need a more recent example, he was responsible for the Agrius’ on-board lightning cannons, and the work he did with Garlond as a student provided the basis for the improved aerodynamics, so that was-”

“Little good that it did us in the end.”

“Ah. Quite so, my lord,” the architectus had said, clearing his throat. “At any rate, provided you can actually work with him without welding his mouth shut just for some godsdamned peace, whatever project you’re wanting to entrust to him is safe in his hands. He’ll have his demands from you-”

“Most specialists do.”

“-but he’ll see the job done. It’s why he comes recommended.”  It was also why the man was able to charge private investors ridiculous sums for his consult on their expeditions, mal Amatius mused sourly, though he kept that to himself.

Gaius had smiled wryly at the man, sweating heavily even in the cool air of his rarely-used office. That anxious expression had reformed into a scowl.  “I sense a ‘but’ lurking in that statement, Amatius.”

“Permission to speak freely, my lord. Do you want my honest assessment?”

“By all means.”

“Scaeva’s an arrogant shite,” Severus mal Amatius had replied bluntly. “An arrogant, cocksure little shite, who will absolutely drive you and me and the rest of the legion bonkers. He cares naught for rules unless they’re his own and he doesn’t share his projects. We’ll work with him if that’s what you truly want, but only if we’ve orders.”

“You don’t have to like him to work with him, but I’ll not have this project dissolve under infighting. If you cannot work with whomever I choose-”

“We will,” the architectus said, with clear reluctance. “You will not be disappointed, my lord, I swear it.”

And now he stood here, watching this highly recommended expert mop the sweat from his brow. 

Nero wiped his hands on the kerchief before tucking it away, gazing with a fixed intensity down into the thirty-yalm hole they’d made in the ground. The silence stretched uncomfortably from seconds into long minutes, and finally Gaius could hold his tongue no longer.

“Do you plan to speak to me anon, tribunus, or shall I have considered this a wasted afternoon?”

Like as not, anyone else would have stammered out an apology for wasting his time. That of course did not happen, and he was no longer surprised to see that no apology would be forthcoming here. The engineer tilted the ridiculous shades he was wearing a few ilms down his face to stare back down into the dig again, still studying its contents. Gaius saw a bright, hard shine of open fascination – of fixation – in those frosty eyes.

“Well?” he prompted, a trifle impatiently.

“I would not be much of a self-proclaimed expert,” was the younger man’s rather dry response, “if I did not recognize the Ultima Weapon when I saw it. I’d assumed you would have preferred a completed assessment for your efforts here rather than cursory guesswork, my lord. Was I mistaken?”

“No, but if you knew it on sight, I shouldn’t think another examination to have been necessary.”

“I needed to ensure it was the real thing. The Allagans created several prototypes, none of which were viable and thus consigned to various testing facilities to be lost to time. I’ve come across perhaps three or four of them over the years, and the flaws in their design have always evident upon further examination. This model, however, appears to be the genuine article used in the war with Meracydia in Third Astral.” A broad, somewhat vacuous grin cracked across the blond’s face, making him look several years younger. “Quite the find, my lord. I would suggest you gift your engineering teams with a hefty bonus.”

So far, so good. Gaius nodded in approval.

“What say you? Can she be put to use again?”

A long pause.

“It will not be quick,” Nero said at last. “And it will not be easy.”

“If you mean it can’t be done-”

“My lord, surely you did not have me brought from the capitol to insult me,” he scoffed, as if the notion were the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard, and Gaius was beginning to understand why mal Amatius had warned him about the man’s personality. “Certainly it would present a problem did you intend to leave matters for your primus architectus. I did not say it could not be done, I said it could not be done quickly. There is a difference.”

“Then explain it to me.”

“The infrastructure used in Garlean magitek and Allagan magitek are not fundamentally compatible without extensive work, my lord. The Allagans, for all their technological advancements, were at their core a magic-using society, and we most assuredly are not. That said, we can make her operational again, provided we create a workable bypass for some of the older protocols that assume the user must needs have the ability to channel aether. And she’ll require a complete retrofit of all her on-board weapons systems including wiring, power sources, restoration of the chassis, diagnostics on the-”

“Yes, yes, very well,” Gaius interrupted, raising gauntleted hands in concession. He was many things but an engineer was not one of them, and he’d only understood maybe half of Nero’s tirade. “If you think you can complete the work yourself, and can coordinate with my teams to see it done in under a year’s time, then I’ll file the transfer paperwork you requested. And if you can do even half of what you suggest, the laticlavius is yours.”

Something in that grin turned hard and savage. 

When he finally did wrench his gaze away from the contents of the dig, the look Nero sas Scaeva turned upon Gaius van Baelsar was, he realized, hungry.

“I’ll do one better than that. Nine months, my lord,” he said. “Give me nine months and I shall have this beauty ready to sing for an empire once again.”

Chapter Text

Agony pierces through her chest, radiating outwards, and the Lightwarden of the First Reflection can only think that she is thankful the others are not here.

Catching herself before she can fall, she doubles over and braces herself on trembling legs, coughing and retching blood that has no color. It looks like liquid sunlight, she thinks vaguely, squinting at what little of it she can actually see. The spatter pattern against the pristine stones with their utterly precise geometric arrangements is almost as beautiful as it is monstrous. 

She can feel the change in herself, one she struggles to ignore.

The urge to consume aether strains endlessly against the leash of her will. She can feel the hideous ache of it twisting itself into her very bones, roiling under the surface of her skin like magma. It burns in her, it hurts, and it has nowhere to go but out. Once it does, she will be gone. The Light will destroy all traces of her humanity and leave only horrifying purity in its wake.

But she won’t let it. Not yet.

Even though she holds her form together with the tattered remnants of the Blessing and the sheer force of her own will, she is just spiteful enough to want to make sure that Emet-Selch is in close proximity when she turns. If her death destroys him, she thinks bitterly, wiping at her mouth with another painful little cough, all the better.

She takes a few tentative steps forward, searching for the lip of the bench she can sense a few ilms away – Light poisoning has rendered her nearly blind, but by either mercy or miracle her third eye still retains its function – and lowers herself on stiff and aching joints onto the marble surface.

For now, she’ll rest. Just for a minute, to catch her breath, to muster the wherewithal to keep everything inside her, before she continues on her way.

~*~

It’s always something in the color of the soul, as faded as it is.

Over countless reflections, over a thousand thousand ages, over all of the permutations of Light and Darkness, there has always been that intangible something. Emet-Selch could pick her soul out of the sea of endless fragments that makes up the Lifestream were he called to do so. If he had no eyes to see, if he lost his corporeal form, if she did- he would still know. In thousands of years he has never once been wrong.

Nowadays he prefers to be alone, to work alone. Usually. He had sought the presence of the others in the beginning, when the pain of his loss was still too fresh to bear without the company.

When it becomes too much, Emet-Selch sleeps, and in his long years and decades (and sometimes centuries) of slumber, the Ascian loses himself for a time in dreams of tall spires and endless halcyon days of peace, bleeding one into the other like ink soaking into vellum. Of wonders that no eye has seen since the sundering.

Since Zodiark shattered, and all of the souls of the people Emet-Selch knew and loved splintered along with Him.

So, he’d known the second the dying Warrior of Light came into his domain. 

Her death will be slow and extraordinarily painful, and she has failed in every sense of the word. 

He’d taken a malicious pleasure in the expression on her face when she realized she had become the instrument not only of her own destruction but the very world she had come to save, and had fully expected her to succumb to despair. Anyone else would have done.

(You had done,) comes the whispered, hateful thought, one he pushes away furiously to the back of his mind.

But he has miscalculated, much to his immense displeasure. 

This particular iteration of Hydaelyn’s Champion is a Garlean–and like every Garlean Emet-Selch has ever met, she is powered by sheer bloodyminded spitefulness. Four days later, she is still, somehow, if only barely, maintaining the physical integrity of her soul against the corrupting force of primordial Light through naught else.

Emet-Selch admits to himself that his own oversight, like as not, has allowed the events of the last five years to come to pass. The vast majority of her race has no innate ability whatsoever to channel aether–even less than the pitiful, paltry efforts of most mortals–so it certainly had never occurred to him to think that Hydaelyn would select one of them as Her champion. 

Although— he really should have known she would prolong her own death throes just to make some absurd point.

Still-

=

“Please,” Hades said, his voice decidedly pained, “do not tell me you are planning on actually using this.”

“Hm? Oh, of course not, dear, it’s purely hypothetical.” His wife hummed over her equasions, muttering something to herself, a frown knitting her brow. In the privacy of her workshop she’d removed her mask, and it lay carelessly atop a pile of books detailing Halmarut’s theorems. “A thought exercise in terms of scale, nothing more. I doubt I could even get a permit for its creation. It would require fully half the city’s ambient aether to create something of this magnitude, at the very least.”

“Then save it for the flights of fancy, hmm?” He kissed her on the cheek, his lips curving in a smile. “I should hate to have to rebuild the Akadaemia after the Warden took it into her head to attempt the summoning just to see what would happen. Your aegis raised enough eyebrows.”

She laughed.

“And you, Emet-Selch, can save your stuffy lectures for the late-night Convocation minutes.” She reached up and flipped his hood back, and before he could utter a protest she’d already given his snowy hair a friendly ruffle. “Come, let’s decide what to make for supper.”

=

A crisp snap of his fingers, and the tableau of his own memory disappears before his eyes. The apartment, made of recollection and aether, lies cold and empty once more.

No, he tells himself.

Do not do this. Do not. She disappointed you just like all the others did. Best to put her and this dying world out of its misery. A mercy killing. Best not to hold onto hope. Best not to think how much more complete this one is, or how much more like her she is than any of the others that came before.

(Best not to remember the night she almost called you Hades.)

A fragment, and yet he cannot help but feel her death added to his ever-growing pile of regrets.

Staring down at the street below through the window, watching her slow, staggering gait towards the Capitol building with tired amber eyes, the Ascian sighs. He'll be taking a very well-earned nap, he thinks, once he's ushered this world to its end.

How tedious.

Chapter Text

“What I want to know,” he said, peering at the label on the bottle, “is how you managed to get your hands on a 1532 Léa Monde Valens. Could set yourself up as a wine… seller… and retire from adventuring.”

“Vintner. They’re called vintners, not wine sellers.”

He made a careless motion with one hand. “Same shit, different pile.”

Aurelia swatted at him and missed. 

“You’re drunk.”

“As a lord,” he agreed, without any rancor. “Which is to say, only somewhat.”

“So… do we have any left?”

“Fortunately for you, my sweet.” He paused, lifted the bottle, and perched it atop his ribcage. “See? Not a drop wasted.”

“What- there’s naught left, you silly bastard. Look, it’s empty.”

“Is it?” He blinked somewhat owlishly at her, then tilted his head forward just enough to squint at the bottle. “Oh. So it is.”

“We should probably quit while we’re ahead anyroad, before we're actually drunk,“ she said, but let out the most regretful sigh he thought he’d ever heard from her. 

At least in the last five minutes. 

Nero propped his weight up on one elbow, braced his fist against his temple, and grinned down at her. "That’s alright,” he said. “I may have another gift for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Can’t say yet.”

“Mm, a secret.” Aurelia stretched her arms over her head and pointed her feet to tiptoes with a soft yawn. “I have one of those myself.”

“And what might that be?”

“I might tell you if the price is right.”

“You’re charging me for information? That’s your first mistake.” He leaned forward and planted a kiss on the tip of her nose; the scent of wine hung on his breath, though not overpoweringly so. “While you could probably sell the remains of that bottle for as much as your house cost, I’m afraid that’s all the payment I have on me at the minute.”

She tugged him towards her by the collar and leaned in until his ear was a hairsbreadth from her lips, and whispered: 

“I’ve got plenty more where that came from. Half dozen bottles down in my cellar.”

He laughed, the sound soft and deep and sweetly vague, and proceeded to body-check her. She returned his gesture with enough force that she lost her balance. Since she was still clutching a handful of his collar - and Nero had hardly been expecting a sudden lapful of Warrior of Light - she pulled him along with her, both cackling all the while. 

The pair hit the grass beneath them with a graceless thump that surprised them enough to cut the laughter into abrupt silence, turned their heads at the same moment to stare at each other, then began to snicker again.

Aurelia rolled onto her back to stare up at the night sky, her bare toes curled in the cool, dew-kissed grass. 

Mayhap it was just the wine, but she was feeling especially light and happy tonight. Most of her past namedays had passed with little comment or fanfare, especially after her father’s death, and there hadn’t been much cause for celebration in the years since the Calamity. This was the first time since she was a child that she’d genuinely enjoyed herself.

She hadn’t actually expected Nero to agree to split a bottle of wine and watch fireworks with her rather than spend another late night sifting through his notes on Omega. He had shown up on her doorstep with flowers and a little nameday cake that she was very surprised to discover he’d made himself. Which was terribly sweet of him really, given she hadn’t made any plans other than “watch fireworks and maybe get a little drunk on supposedly rare Dalmascan wine.”

He rolled over and braced his elbow in the grass alongside her ribcage, peering down at her. “Something on your mind?”

“Oh- I was just thinking how much I’ve enjoyed myself. I know that as nameday celebrations go this isn’t terribly interesting, but thank you for playing along.”

His mouth slanted across hers in a kiss that was much more slow and lingering, and much less playful than the one before it. What surprised her was the way his brow came to rest against hers, third eye pressing against hers and his chin tilted to the side a hairsbreadth, just enough to rest his lips against the corner of her mouth so he could kiss her there too.

“…What was that for?”

“Nameday kisses,” Nero said, as if it were obvious. “You get thirty total, one for each year. That’s three down, twenty-seven to go.”

“I thought it was spankings you were supposed to get on your nameday,” she said. She didn’t recognize her rather blatant innuendo until it had already left her mouth and his brows had lifted so high they practically took flight, and heat bloomed across her cheeks. “…I mean. Ah.”

“That can be arranged,” he drawled. “Perhaps after we’ve cracked another bottle. I currently find myself feeling a bit parched.”

“All that wine and you’re still not done?”

She sucked in a sharp breath at the scrape of his teeth along the column of her neck, the damp downwards trail of wet kisses he left on his way to her collarbone, then across that expanse to place a kiss on each of her shoulders. Just as suddenly he moved to sit up, all the close warmth of him gone, and Aurelia let out a small and disappointed whine. Her skin felt as though he’d set it afire, warm and prickling gooseflesh, and her nipples had pebbled beneath the soft cotton of her dress.

“That’s seventeen and eighteen,” he said.

She startled at the roughened warmth of his open palm on her knee. The smile Nero currently wore was that lopsided, mischievous grin that he always gave Cid when he was about to prove himself Hydaelyn’s most insufferable git, but his eyes had taken on an intense and hungry shine, and something inside her clenched at the sight of it.

She’d been expecting him to do something, just from that smouldering stare. But the pressure of his lips and the light scrape of his stubble along the sensitive flesh of her inner thigh was still enough of a shock that she let out a tiny yelp, squirming in place where he’d all but pinned her to the ground.

“Nineteen.”

Scaeva, for the Twelve’s sake-

“Hush. I’m thinking,” he said, almost absently, and kissed her again in the same spot. He’d braced himself between her legs with one rough cheek pressed against her thigh, blunt fingernails scraping very gently along her outer flanks from her knees to her hips. “Twenty.”

About what, exactly, she wanted to ask, but she kept getting caught on the slow tingling sensation of those nails dragging across her skin. Her heart sounded thunderous in her ears, and all the dizzy humor of the evening had been set aside for the nonce. 

Those deft hands paused on her hips, long fingers sliding beneath the sides of her smallclothes – not to inflame but to explore. Mostly. The slow and maddening stroke of his thumbs tracing the ridges of her hip bones made her painfully aware of his relative proximity to other things.

His eyes met hers.

“May I?” he asked, the question almost absurdly polite given their current positions.

Aurelia swallowed, the sound seeming to drown out even her heartbeat, and nodded.

She heard the rustle, felt the slight friction of them as he slid the fabric with an obvious and deliberate slowness down her legs, and continued on his path. This time the kisses moved slowly upwards, with him murmuring his current count between each one until he had her anticipation nearly at fever pitch-

-and then it never happened. Instead she felt his mouth on her hipbone, the sweetly pleasant sting of a little nip.

“Thirty,” Nero announced. 

It was the most absurdly cheerful tone she’d heard from him since he’d got one over on Cid, joining the Ironworks.

Aurelia scowled at him with all the ferocity she could muster. He was wearing the same stupid, insolent shite-eating grin now as he nuzzled her lower belly with his cheek, just above her mons.

“You godsdamned tease,” she accused him, annoyed at how breathless and vulnerable she sounded in that moment, “you did not just-”

As it happened, Nero had simply been waiting for her to get good and annoyed - and distracted - before he made his move, right in the middle of her tirade. 

She felt the soft heat of his breath almost in the same instance as she felt the slick, hot, and shockingly intimate slide she wanted right where she needed it, and the sound she made was like nothing she’d ever heard come out of herself before.

Her back snapped into an arch, fingers knotted deeply in a handful of thick blond hair, hips twitching against him with each of the slow and even strokes that laid her open. She was so desperate to ground herself that she did pull his hair, once, and the reward she earned for it was a soft and very satisfied rumble right up against her core.

“Fuck,” was all she was able to manage, in a hoarse and shaking voice, and that made him redouble his efforts until all she could do was writhe on the grass. Never mind the Ascians or the Empire; she was going to die right in the middle of the Shroud, murdered by Nero Scaeva and his godsdamned mouth.

It was not terribly long before Aurelia felt the telltale pressure and a blossoming heat, knew she was close, and then he took her clit into his mouth, suckling once, twice, and it was her undoing. 

She let out a trembling cry, every muscle taut and trembling, fingers digging furrows into the grass as she rode out her climax. 

There was a soft, pleased sigh between her legs as he lapped carefully at her through the series of small shocks that followed, releasing her only when she whined from incipient overstimulation. 

Once she’d managed to catch her breath, moving sluggishly on limbs that felt through the afterglow as though they weighed about ten tonzes apiece, she pushed herself up on trembling arms into a half-sitting position to glare down at a man who looked utterly satisfied with himself.

And utterly unrepentant.

“What?” Nero was all wide-eyed innocence, except for his smile, which had turned positively feral. "You can’t forget the one to grow on.“

"You scoundrel. You absolute gremlin." She was laughing weakly. She couldn’t help it. Gods, he really was the worst man she’d ever met. "Have you had your fill, Master Scaeva, or are you still parched?”

“Not sure,” he said. “I think that question might warrant a bit of investigation.”

Yes, she decided as she dragged him towards her for a kiss, this was definitely the best nameday she’d had in years.

Chapter Text

L'sazha oen Tia had never liked Tycho rem Ceneaus.

The pilus prior was the typical sort of middling command one found in the imperial legions, a younger son from a minor noble house not set to inherit from his family. It meant he’d got his commission through rank nepotism, like as not, and was more a social climber than aught else.

Elle would have sniffed down her nose at the man and called him a lickspittle toady, and Sazha would have wholly agreed. Every last soul aboard ship knew rem Ceneaus had gotten where he was by eating every cermet-plated arsehole between Garlemald and Meracydia. It certainly wasn’t for his leadership abilities.

But like him or not, the man oversaw the cohort, and it wasn’t as though he were unique. Sazha, knowing that as a conscript he’d have to deal with the man’s like nearly anywhere he went, wisely kept his own counsel.

Nigh ten summers spent working in an imperial household had taught him the value of circumspection, at least.

So when he was singled out for petty indignities and small punishments, he accepted them in silence. Kept his head down, said “ser” and “my lord” and scrubbed the castrum floors with his own toothbrush and ran the extra miles and aught else he was asked – or ordered – to do.

None of that had ever gone into his letters to the capitol. There was little point in bothering with a litany of complaints, not when everyone knew the wheat-counters read their letters home. There was little enough Aurelia could do to aid him anyroad, being saddled with her studies and an autocrat of an uncle who had seen fit to “squash the savage out of her." 

Or so he’d overheard the man say the one time he’d ever chanced to meet him.

Sazha missed her. 

He missed the ridiculous trouble she used to get him in, the late nights sitting in her garden talking about any subject that came to mind. A world of taboos sat between them, not that she had ever been minded to care about them.

Let’s go south, Aurelia had said when she’d found out about his draft. When I’ve done my service and you’ve done yours. Your sword and my medicine. We can go adventuring together.

He’d shushed her immediately. That was defector talk, and there were far too many listening ears even in the administrative district of Ala Mhigo for him not to worry that an impulsive girl’s chatter would get back to the wrong ears.

And as much as the Miqo'te wished he didn’t, he still loved her, his first and best friend in the world.

No one had ever told him how difficult it was to hold a girl close to one’s heart while trying to keep her at arm’s length for her own sake. As long as they both remained in the Empire, there was no future for a pureblood and an aan together, whether she understood that fact or not. 

Better that at least one of them had the common sense to mind it.

But he could still wish her well and he could still worry, because she was a sweet and gentle soul and Garlemald was a cold and harsh place, and he really didn’t know how she was going to survive it. 

Unless she turned as harsh and cold as those icy and unforgiving steel spires, and he couldn’t bear the notion of that happening to her.

Twelve, you watch over children, fools, and drunkards. Keep her safe. Please.

He looked coolly upon rem Ceneaus’ smirking face, the bellend, Sazha thought with contempt. Without a word, he took the metal pail of grease that had been thrust in his direction, and made his way out into the cold rain lashing the deck as he’d been bid.

And like the rest of them, failed to mark the tall sails of pirate ships approaching in the mist.

Chapter Text

She's always trusted in her ability to heal others.

As the Warrior of Light, Aurelia Laskaris is many things to many people, but first and foremost she is a healer: a chirurgeon to be precise, trained within the halls of one of Hydaelyn's most prestigious schools of medicine. Even before she came into her ability to use aether -- that rarity of rarities among her people -- she was confident in her knowledge, and as a white mage she can bring back from the brink even the most grievously injured ally.

Until this moment it has never occurred to her that white magic too has its limits.

There's so much blood, spattered across his armor, across her robes, across the icy stones of the Vault's rooftops, so much of it, so much, so much, and all the aether at her command is flowing into him and that horrible gaping hole in his midsection just won't close and she can't breathe through the horror of impending loss.

No, no, no, her heart keens, on and on and on.

That godsdamned Zephirin can't just have killed him just like that, she can save him, she-

"Oh," he whispers, "do not look at me so," and the heavy gloved hand on her cheek breaks her from her panicked trance. "A smile better suits a hero."

Aurelia lifts one shaking hand to cover it in turn.

I failed you. My love, I failed you. You trusted in the Warrior of Light and she - I - failed you. I'm so sorry.

He smiles at her in gentle encouragement, this man who has always been the better part of herself, everything she has ever wished to be to others. A faint stretch of bloodied lips, without any accusation or malice; naught but a simple and pure relief that he was able to safeguard her welfare. And, as ever, the purity of his love and his faith in her shines through his mortal shell as surely as any Blessing.

She squeezes his hand through the thick leather, trying to impart her warmth to him, some mote of comfort, some small breath of hope that she might be able to turn back this fate, even knowing what a lie it would be were she to speak it aloud. She cannot. She can see from the distant look in crystalline eyes and the greying pallor of his skin and his lips that for all her efforts, he is passing.

The wave of grief and self-loathing that follows in the wake of that knowledge nearly breaks her. Nearly. Aurelia is able, only just able, to maintain her composure.

A smile better suits a hero, he says. So, she smiles. It is a pitiful, broken thing, but she smiles, because it is all she can do. Because in the end, he should at least be able to trust in her love for him.

Haurchefant's fingers move just enough to tuck a sheaf of her hair behind one ear as he smiles back, and for a brief moment the world seems to stop, as if even the trembling pallid light of the setting sun is standing vigil over the first man she ever truly loved. Her shield. Her knight. The hand over hers is warm and heavy, but there is a cold, dark ball of ice in her chest.

His last breath escapes him in a soft and contented sigh, and the Garlean feels a numbing chill and a deep, fathomless anguish sink into her heart. 

She knows better than to trust in potions or elementals now.

Chapter Text

It was a commonly held assumption that the imperial army’s fighting force was the best in the world.

Sazha oen Tia snorted to himself every time the subject arose in the mess halls and barracks late at night as the purebloods of his cohort argued amongst themselves, their attitudes towards the Empire running the gamut as it did between “I don’t really like compulsory service but that doesn’t change my obligations” to “Garlemald is the greatest nation in the world and you can’t change my mind.”

Conscripts like himself knew better than to involve themselves in those sorts of discussions.

He was of the former persuasion, of course, though he kept those opinions close to his chest. Even then, he felt he was being perfectly objective to think that the Empire’s strength was its technology and its sheer numbers, not the actual quality of its soldiers' martial prowess. You didn’t need to worry all that much about tactics or surpassing skill, if your opponents were farm boys or nomadic tribesmen, or people who didn’t have running water much less industrial automata and heavy metal-plated airships, and you were just throwing every warm body you had at them.

But still, one couldn’t deny that some of the amenities and innovations enjoyed even by the lowliest aan infantryman appeared near-insurmountable to an outside eye. Carbonweave was such a devastatingly effective protection that he hadn’t realized that Garlean heavy plate of the sort worn by pureblooded officers had weak points, really.

At least, not until he saw Tycho rem Ceneaus die. 

The last he saw of the pilus prior was the shocked – and somehow still petulant – expression on the Garlean’s face as the man stared down at the newly-made hole punctured in his chest with incredulous fury, right before the blade neatly severed his head. A series of shocked gasps and sighs erupted when the body crumpled bonelessly to the deck. 

“Right, then,” the man on the other end of the cutlass shouted, a revolver brandished high in his other hand. “Now that’s done: any bleedin’ one else wants a fight, you’re welcome to it if you’re that keen to die. But as we’ve an entire fleet at ‘and and you whoresons ain’t in imperial territory any longer, I’d advise you lay down your arms.”

Sazha glanced to and fro at the frightened and unhappy faces around him. Along with the small handful of conscripts remaining after the short but vicious skirmish, he threw down his weapon and put his hands in the air.

The transport ship lay dead in the water. The sound of the waves striking its hull were the only immediately audible sound other than the wind gusting in his ears and the hollow footsteps of the boarding enemy against cermet. He kept his head up and his hands visible, giving them no excuse to cut him down, though he knew it likely.

The revolver aimed at his face relaxed and a heavy hand clamped on his shoulder, roughly turning him around and shoving him starboard.

“Hands on the back of yer ‘ead,” a man barked at him. “Get movin’. The captain’ll decide what’s to be done with you lot.”

He stumbled onto the crude makeshift gangplank to follow after the others, single-file.

The wind blew and the waves crashed against the hull of the frigate, and he saw only a brief glimpse of cold, hostile faces before his captor shouted at him to get below decks with the others. 

It was dark and cold. Dirty water in the hold sloshed about his ankles, and the bench he sat on as the manacles were clamped over his wrists was little more than a piece of wood hastily repurposed, and the only light was that which crept through gaps in the tarred caulking.

(Relia, I’m so sorry. I can’t keep our promise.)

Far from anything resembling home, sure he was about to die, Sazha thought of Ala Mhigo.

He thought of a girl with honey-colored hair and dark blue eyes, telling him they’d go adventuring when he’d served his time. He thought of the lavender flowers she grew in her back garden and of the scent of fresh-cut mangoes. Red flowers in spilling fountains. The dry heat of Gyr Abania rising from sandstone and the salty smell of Loch Seld and the sight of the waterbirds taking flight over the city walls at sundown.

Closing his eyes and leaning back against the wet boards, L’sazha Tia lapsed into an uneasy doze, and left his old life behind.

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you’re actually letting me go through with this,” Nero said yet again, resuming his agitated back-and-forth pace about the cathedral vestibule. He’d worried his cufflinks undone for the third time in the last half-bell, and he still hadn’t managed to get his cravat fastened. “You’re supposed to save me from my matrimonial fate, and here you are consigning me to it instead.”

“You did this to yourself. Hold still.” It took him a few tries but Cid was finally able to intercept the other man’s circuit over the ancient stones of the church long enough to grasp him by his wrists. “And stop fidgeting with your cuffs, this is the last time I’m fixing them for you.”

“This is all your fault, you know.”

“…How is this my fault?”

“Well, I don’t bloody know, but clearly it’s your fault, Garlond. Otherwise that makes it my fault, and I don’t like that.”

Cid almost laughed, but the wild shine in those eyes told him that would be extremely unwise. He hadn’t seen the other engineer this anxious since he was a young boy; Nero was such a tightly controlled man under most circumstances that it could be difficult to tell what was actually running through his mind, but in this instant the stress had worn down his emotional defenses, and the poor man was perilously close to panic.

So, he decided to pick a fight with him.

“You gave her a ring, bent the knee, the whole nine yalms. What did you expect her to do, turn you down?”

“Yes! No. I… don’t know.” His fingers twitched, obviously wanting to go right back into his hair or to his cuffs, but Cid slapped them away and kept working at the fabric. “The Warrior of Light has any number of admirers and assorted hangers-on, you know that.”

“So she does. And you’ll notice she isn’t marrying any of them.”

“And if something goes wrong? If she decides this isn’t really what she wants?” At his exasperated sigh, Nero snapped, “It could happen and you know it.”

“What could happen?”

“She could simply leave me at the altar, for one.” Cid did laugh, then. Nero shot him a withering glare the likes of which he hadn’t seen since their Academy years, and he noted with satisfaction that the other man had mostly stopped fidgeting with his cufflinks.

“Tell me you aren’t actually being serious, Nero. This woman has seen you at your absolute sodding worst. You were her enemy once. You tried to kill us-”

“Point of order, I was not trying to kill her. Or you.” A pause, then the ghost of a smirk. “Perhaps I might have liked to singe your short hairs a bit. The notion of hauling your arrogant carcass about the castrum in one of those claws like a scruffed kitten was half the appeal of deploying them in the first place.”

Cid rolled his eyes.

“Thank you for making my point for me. As you’ve so helpfully demonstrated, Aurelia knows what a pillock you are. She’s seen it for herself.”

“I am not a pillock.”

“Yes, you are, Nero. And she knows it and she still said yes. That has to be worth something.”

“…I suppose,” the engineer groused.

“She’s not going to leave you standing in the vestibule,” Cid grunted, pulling the silk tie around the taller man’s neck as taut as he could manage without choking him, then arranging the knot. “She’s just running a bit late, that’s all. It happens- don’t you dare touch those cuffs.”

Nero scowled, but his hands dropped back down to his sides.

After a few moments spent in silence as Cid examined his work on the cravat with a critical eye, he finally said: “I’m happy for you. You know that, right?”

“Don’t get sentimental. I’m barely keeping my breakfast down as it is.”

“Shut up, you great lout, I’m talking.” He busied himself pinning the Nymeia lily back in its place on Nero’s lapel; it had fallen askew with all the pacing. “We’ve known each other since we were boys and in all this time, I never thought you’d take interest in anything that wasn’t related to magitek. But you weren’t happy in the Empire any more than I was, and lest you think otherwise I know full well that was why you didn’t warn anyone I’d planned to defect. I never understood why you stayed.”

“You know very well why I stayed.”

“Aye, I do now, for all the good it ever did you. You’re happier as a defector than you ever were as a tribunus. Not the least of those reasons being you finally found someone willing to put up with you, and out of all of the women in Eorzea – hells, Hydaelyn – of course it had to be the Warrior of Light. I’ll give you this, you never did do anything by half-measures.”

Nero hesitated, then offered him a rueful, lopsided smile.

“On that much, I suppose we are in agreement.”

Cid reared backwards, clutching his chest in mock surprise. “Hells below, did we actually reach consensus on something? Does this mean marriage might actually turn you agreeable for the nonce?”

Agreeable? You think a walk down the aisle with the woman I love means I shall march in lockstep with you, Garlond? And risk destroying the fundamental underpinnings of our relationship? Perish the thought.”

Nero’s smile had stretched into that toothy, idiotic grin he normally hated, the one the man used when he was getting ready to tease. But this once, just this once, Cid Garlond grinned back at the cocksure git that passed for his best friend in the world.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Oh, she’s here!” someone gasped out in the foyer. “And the Count’s with her! Places!”

There was the sound of hurried whispers and the patter of feet, and the rustling sound of silk, followed by the deep creak of the doors opening on their ancient hinges.

“I’m going to be ill,” Nero muttered, and further inspection revealed that he was shaking from head to toe. Somehow, Cid marveled, he was actually vibrating in place, as though he were an idling combustion engine.

With a short laugh, he took the man by the elbow and held him fast–both to keep him from making good on his threat, and from bolting for the door like a spooked animal. 

“Just mind you don’t ruin your bride’s dress if you are,” he said, “because she’s coming into the foyer as we speak.”

Cid just so happened to be looking right at his friend’s face as aforementioned bride entered the cathedral with Edmont de Fortemps as her escort. He was glad in retrospect that he did, for he was rewarded with the quite remarkable view of watching a man fall in love all over again, in real time.

It was in his eyes, he thought. Despite being rather passionate by nature, Nero was not outwardly expressive when he did not care to be - lessons, Cid assumed, he’d learned during his wheat-counting days. But those frosty eyes had turned bright and soft and warm, like the spring sky at midday. He had stopped shaking, and the tension in his slender frame had all but disappeared.

All he appeared to see in that moment was the Warrior of Light–who was herself, admittedly, quite a vision. Jandelaine had overseen her preparations personally, being a good friend of hers, and the eccentric aesthetician had outdone himself this time in every sense of the word. He had arranged her hair in a long spill of golden curls over one shoulder, interwoven with orange blossoms and forget-me-nots secured into myriad small braids throughout her coiffure. Combined with the lavish, lace-trimmed dress she wore, it was a sight to knock the breath from the lungs.

The old Count was murmuring something to her, something that made her smile, laugh softly, and kiss him on the cheek with the sort of familiar fondness reserved for parental figures–that was right, he remembered; in the eyes of Ishgardian law she was technically a Fortemps, though he was fair certain that the man’s fatherly affection for her was in no wise any sort of mummery.

Edmont dropped his arm from hers and stepped back, leaning on his walking stick. She approached the two men on slightly slowed, hesitant footsteps. Her eyes were fixed on Nero, and they were very blue and very wide.

After a moment, she smiled her usual smile- albeit with perhaps a touch of shyness- and Cid heard an exhalation at his side.

“See?” he said. He released his death grip on Nero’s arm. “You’ll be fine. Now go see to her. If you need me then give a shout, but I don’t think you will.”

Almost instantly, it seemed, it was just the two of them, the sound of retreating footsteps, and a closing door. Music played from the hall beyond, muffled and ponderous, and they regarded each other in a sort of awed and awkward silence.

Then Aurelia grinned from ear to ear and started to snicker in a decidedly unladylike fashion.

“Gods,” she blurted. “I feel ridiculous. Look at me. I look like a window advertisement for lampshades sold to bored Ul'dahn housewives.”

“You didn’t have to say yes when I asked, you know.”

“Of course I did. I couldn’t very well turn you down after you were half-dead from panic just trying to ask at all. As it was, you almost immediately started trying to talk me out of it.”

Nero glared at her. “I was nowhere near that bad.”

“Oh yes you were. You were being very reasonable about it all, too, coming up with a half dozen perfectly good reasons why I’d be stark raving mad to even consider accepting your proposal.” The edges of her smile softened. “But anyroad, we’re here now.”

“So we are,” he said.

There wasn’t much left to say that hadn’t already been said, and Nero wasn’t entirely sure he could find the words to say even if that weren’t the case. He could feel the anxiety creeping up on him again by ilms, running its invisible fingers up his spine. 

She must have noticed; he saw her expression darken a bit with her concern.

“Are you all right? You don’t look well.”

He began to say of course I’ll be all right, let’s just get on with it, but what came out instead was:

Seven hells, all this godsdamned palaver for two rings and five minutes of vows. Are you quite sure you’d not rather elope?”

“Right,” Aurelia snorted. “We can run away to Dravania and get married by the moogles. Though I’m not sure ‘now you may kiss the bride, kupo!’ is terribly binding in the eyes of the law.”

“And I don’t know that goblins actually have marriage traditions of any sort, so I suppose that settles it. Bugger.” He ran a thoughtful hand over his currently clean-shaven jaw.

“I suppose we’d best–oh, Nero, wait!” She reached into his pockets, heedless of his sudden flush. “Your gloves.”

“…I’d hoped you might forget about those.”

“No, you have to wear them, at least for the first bit. Here, hold out your hands, I’ll put them on.”

Biting back a sigh, he obediently held out his left hand.

She bent over his forearm, one of her slim healer’s hands bracing his wrist delicately as she slid the kidskin over his fingers, smoothing it out with the deft and gentle touch of a woman well accustomed to such trivial luxuries, and it struck the engineer then just how strangely intimate the act was. Such a simple thing, the act of putting a glove on his bare hand, but something he knew no one else would have done in quite the same way.

Once she’d fastened the little pearl-button closure to fit the glove properly, Aurelia lifted his hand, and placed a small kiss to the smooth skin of his inner wrist, where the base of his palm met leather. Intimate, indeed. He swallowed, hearing the sound of it click in his ears.

“Hand me the other one?” he asked.

She did. Hastily he slipped the remaining glove onto his other hand, hoping she wouldn’t notice how much she’d flustered him.

“You know,” she murmured, her grin edging into something almost wicked, “that kiss would have had the ton all aflutter and speculating, back home.”

“Would it?”

“Mm. Absolutely scandalous in polite society, as it happens.”

“Us? Polite society? And here I thought we were just a couple of especially dodgy imperial defectors borrowing Saint Reymanaud’s on a lark.”

Aurelia’s soft laugh echoed against the stones beneath their feet. 

“I think that Halone, on the wild off chance she might actually exist beyond the fond hopes of the masses, would be willing to forgive a couple of godless heretics just this once given their history of service to Ishgard,” she said. “So, Scaeva- are you ready for us to go make an utter spectacle of ourselves in front of the assembled leadership of an entire continent?”

Beneath the finery and the fuss and bother of the event, he could still catch that lavender scent about her, and her smile was the same smile it had always been–the smile he especially loved to see when he knew it was meant just for him. Bit by bit the not-so-secret fears he’d harbored that she might renounce him publicly at the altar, or simply not show at all, dwindled to nothing.

For all his outward self-assurance, Nero knew he wasn’t really worthy of her: not just as the Warrior of Light, but as the very mortal woman she was. He was painfully aware of that fact, had always been aware of it. But that said, neither was anyone else he could have named. As Garlond had said, she had her choice and she’d chosen him, and that had to count for something.

Besides which, he loved her. And maybe that was a place to start.

With that thought squarely in mind, he held out his hand, and let her clasp it in her smaller one.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he said aloud. “Shall we?”

She nodded, still smiling.

“On my count,” she said. “One, two-”

And beneath the Fury’s watchful gaze, Nero Scaeva and Aurelia Laskaris stepped across the threshold together, hand in trembling hand.

Chapter Text

“There’s still time to turn back if you’re not willing, Master G'raha,” Biggs said.

Having completed what final preparations there were to make, the rest of the crew had left. Now it was just the two of them, staring down into the gutted remains of Syrcus Tower. The air prickled heavily with generated aether, swirling over their skin and causing each individual strand of hair to stand on end.

Far, far below, down an impossibly long drop, past the deep green haze of ambient aether – more than any had seen since the Seventh Astral Era – lay the final product of Cid Garlond’s masterwork, the combined theses of his peers, and decades of study.

G'raha said nothing for a long time.

“Not a single one of us would fault you if you refused,” the Roegadyn continued gently. “This is a one-way trip. We don’t have the means to pull you back once the reactor’s set into motion, and once you’ve fallen back into the timeline, you’re there for good.”

He knew. This was goodbye to everything he’d ever known, one way or another.

G'raha tucked his books under one arm and reached for the heavy, ornate staff with his other, the staff he’d discovered during his own explorations of the Tower. He still didn’t know the extent of all of the Tower’s inner workings, but he knew that the staff would allow him to control his own trajectory. Where the Allagans had used voidsent pacts to send the Tower wheresoever their Emperor had wished, the Ironworks’ retrofit would let him move the Tower through time and space simultaneously.

The volumes he held had been selected from his personal collection deep within the Tower, and he’d read them so often he knew most of them by heart.

Cid Garlond’s unified theory of temporal displacement and rift travel, largely transcribed from his personal datalogs and observations while working with the Warrior of Light, and the glue that brought all the disparate pieces together.

Edmont de Fortemps’ Heavensward memoirs, G'raha’s personal favorite, in which the Count had detailed the Dragonsong War and its culmination in the Scarlet Summer that had preceded the next Calamity.

Nero Scaeva’s Magiteknical Aetherology in the Third Astral Era, in which he had posited that the Tower’s purpose was to act as an aetheric conduit that bypassed the energy drain on the land by absorbing and converting solar energy for large-scale magical workings, and the varied means by which this energy might possibly be harnessed in the modern age. The Allagans, he theorized, had learned well their lessons from the Burn.

Wedge’s Enchiridion Papers, so named because parts of the Lalafell’s observations on time travel and paradox theory had been lost in post-Calamity unrest for nearly threescore years before their chance rediscovery within the ruins of the old city of Ishgard. They’d been deep within the bowels of the ancient Scholasticate, itself buried under several fulms of stone and ice, and an Ironworks-funded archaeological expedition had stumbled across them.

All of these seminal works, written by the most brilliant minds of the Seventh Astral Era, greater men than himself who had loved Aurelia Laskaris as deeply as he did in their own separate ways.

All of them vitally important contributions to what he knew was the Ironworks’ final magnum opus. Should Cid’s overarching theory of simultaneous temporal and spatial displacement turn out to have any kind of fatal underlying flaw—that would be it. The world had degraded so far and so deeply that without the Tower as an energy source to make the jump, they no longer had the means for another attempt. 

Two hundred years of work, he thought, put into motion in the hope that all of this horror was reversible– that there might still exist a way to save Aurelia from her fate. And none of them knew for sure if it would work. There could be no test runs.

It would have to be enough. He would have to be enough.

G’raha let out a shuddering exhale, blinded by sudden tears. He wasn’t sure if they came from the grief that had been his constant companion since the Ironworks had opened the Tower and bid him awake, or if they were from fear. 

He’d always wanted to have his own adventures, and he thought he’d made peace with the fact that it was not to be– that his fateful connection to the Allagans would place him in a deep sleep. And now this was it: the chance at a great adventure of his own, the adventure of literal lifetimes.

A chance to be part of a folk hero’s legend, and he was terrified that it would end in his abject failure.

“Master G'raha?”

“No. I’m not turning back,” he said, his voice rough. He swiped at his eyes with his staff hand, and offered the big man a smile that he hoped was more confident than he felt. “This is something that only I can do, I think.”

“It’s,” Biggs swallowed, “we know it’s a terrible lot we’re asking. Mayhap too much.”

“Not at all,” he said, still smiling. “The price is one I pay freely.”

It was. Sacrificing a continued existence in a broken world for the chance to make things right again: he could think of no greater gift to give her, than to be the culmination of one world and two hundred years of love.

Because he loved her too, whether she had known it or not.

“All right. We’re closing the doors again. Once you’ve completed the attunement through the Umbilicus, all you should have to do is tell it where - and when - to go.” The eighteenth president of the Garlond Ironworks hesitated… then placed his hand on G'raha’s shoulder and squeezed. “Safe travels, you lucky bugger. Sure wish we could be there to see if old Cid’s mad plan works for you or not. If it does, you just tell the Warrior of Light that the Garlond Ironworks send their regards, eh?”

“I’ll do that.” He choked back grief for them, too – for these courageous people damned to this lost world, who would never know the fruits of their labor, who if he was successful would not exist at all. This wasn’t just his sacrifice. “Thank you, Biggs.”

The hand fell away. G'raha heard the loud, hollow echo of receding footsteps fading out of earshot. After long minutes there was a creaking and a loud boom, as the Tower doors fell shut for the final time.

He was alone once more, this time with the fate of an entire world in his hands.

And she carried this burden for so long, without complaint. How she ever managed on her own-

He entered the last working lift in operation and once he had arrived at his destination, he stepped into the antechamber. The retrofit on the Tower meant that many of its extraneous functions had been removed and that energy diverted to the reactor, and the great hall was dark and empty save the glow from the massive crystal at its center.

G'raha set his books down on the floor next to the console. He took a deep breath, adjusting his grip on Xande’s staff. His palms were clammy and damp.

Once activated, the teleportation would be near-instantaneous, and if they had succeeded, he’d be setting foot into a world even Aurelia had never seen before. The thought was sobering, but he couldn’t deny a twinge of excitement beneath the sadness.

(I’m no hero, my dearest friend. But for your sake, I will follow in your footsteps, and endeavor to be one.)

And G'raha Tia reached out to grasp his destiny.

Chapter Text

A pair of familiar voices echoed through the impromptu workshop within the caves of the Reach, growing gradually louder as their owners once again devolved into an argument. Within the tunnel leading to the aetheryte, Jessie Jaye stood next to the Warrior of Light, clutching a mug of coffee in her hands and blinking sleepily in the morning light.

"Honestly! It's like watching a pair of overgrown boys." Jessie rolled her eyes. "So, would you be willing to consider my request? I know the Chief would really appreciate the help.”

“I don’t want to be in the way,” Aurelia said, “and I wouldn’t be comfortable asking for payment from a friend. And there’s my work with the Scions to consider-”

“If you like, I’ll mark you down in the books as a...” Jessie paused, then after a moment’s thought, tapped her chin with her index finger and said, “Freelancing consultant. It’s Nero’s current title, so everyone would know you’d just be lending a hand and haven't joined the Ironworks proper. This expedition will go far more smoothly if they aren't at each others' throats all the time, and since you appear to manage Nero remarkably well I’d rather have you on your terms."

"Well... I shall certainly try to convince him to behave himself, but I'm afraid getting reactions out of people just brings out his inner voidsent," Aurelia said with a rueful smile. "Nero loves to tease, and Cid takes his bait altogether too often."

As if to prove her point, a voice rose in exasperation, heedless of the curious stares drawn that direction from Resistance soldiers:

"And furthermore, I'd appreciate it if you would kindly stop calling me 'Garlond' in front of the crew. I have a name; you've even used it a time or two."

Very slowly Nero pivoted on one heel, that stupid shite-eating grin plastered on his equally stupid face. It was clear by the dawning horror in Cid's eyes that he had realized too late his blunder in giving the other man more ammunition.

"Terribly sorry, Chief! You are correct; 'Garlond' is entirely too informal.”

Cid held up a warning finger.

“Nero.”

“Perhaps I shall call you by your given name, then. What was it again?” 

“Nero don't you bloody dare-”

“...Ah yes, now I remember! Cidolfus.” The tall blond snapped his fingers, as if something had just occurred to him. “How could I ever have forgotten such a unique name?"

"Nero!"

"Why, whatever is the matter, Cidolfus? Do I detect a hint of self-consciousness lurking beneath that arrogant facade of yours? A vulnerability? A dark secret pertaining to your utterly ridiculous name?"

Scowling and sputtering in frustration, Cid hurled the blank tomestone in his hand at the other man's head.

All things considered, Cid’s third eye made his aim as terrifying as any other pureblooded Garlean. Were it any other man that throw would have hit him square in the face and cracked his glasses, and even then it was a near miss, the former tribunus catching the object mid-flight in his left hand. 

Nero, however, didn't seem at all bothered. He was laughing loudly, head tossed back and the curls of his unruly hair shaking along with the bouncing of his shoulders: clearly he was delighted that he'd been successful in annoying his old colleague into losing his composure.

"Temper, temper! I should file a complaint," he cackled, flipping the tomestone between two fingers, still grinning like an idiot. "Creating a hostile work environment is the sort of thing that would have had you summarily demoted were you in the army, you know."

The shorter man was scowling fiercely. 

"Oh, do shut up. It's bad enough I'm stuck with you, it's like dealing with a child-"

"A child who can still think circles around your pitiful self, Garlond, I shall have you know. Just how long did it take you to get yourself up to speed on the Crystal Tower once I figured everything out for you?"

"You'd not have got into the Tower at all," Cid thundered, "if you hadn't had Aurelia and myself to do all the heavy lifting for you! Who was it that figured out how to disarm the Sentinels?”

"And there they go again," Aurelia sighed. “...All right, I’m convinced. I’ll do it.” 

“Brilliant! You won’t regret it, I promise.” Jessie cast her a cheerful grin, then lifted a fist and held it out. 

The Warrior of Light chuckled, made a fist of her own, and bumped Jessie’s with it.

“Besides which, they’re always like this,” the deputy president continued. “You’ll get used to it soon enough. Welcome aboard.”

In companionable silence the two women sipped their Boilmaster coffee and watched the pair of magitek engineers continue their spirited bickering. The more things changed, apparently, the more they stayed the same.

Chapter Text

 

Darkness was flensed from the ocean floor, and an Amaurotine nine-fourteenths Rejoined stood in the midst of the dissipated illusion.

A few fulms away, its blade deeply embedded in the fractured concrete skeleton of the Capitol building, was the weapon of light the Convocation’s Warden had used to strike him down. Her soul, the soul he’d recognized and loved as much as he hated, burned as steadily and brightly as it had before, the fractures in her aether sealed.

Slowly, the Architect lifted his hands to toss back the cowl of his robe. After all he had done, after all she had done, the very least either of them deserved was to stand within the last vestiges of their lost homeland as equals once more. 

The Fourteenth’s grave and unflinching gaze fell upon him in just the same way it had the first time they had met.

(-the first in her lifetime, at least.) 

As it did every time he looked at her, something inside him wrenched and caught painfully: an old, old grief beating against the walls of its prison like a caged bird’s wings buffeting against brass bars. And yet for the first time in eons, the man who had once been called Hades looked upon the mortal incarnation of his lost love free of any rancor.

Hades raised his hands, staring down at them, bemused as much by the fact she had managed to dispel his glamour by her sheer force of will as by the gaping hole the Light had torn in his chest. 

They were trembling.

He had experienced death throes before, of course, each time he had been on the verge of shedding the husk he wore to traverse to another, and another. But this unsteadiness was not the result of mortal weakness. He could feel the cracks in his soul, the spreading agony as that concentrated beam of primordial light slowly fractured his aether into shards. There would not be a next time, and the realization filled him with a deep, blossoming relief. 

She spoke then, into the stillness and the silence.

“I’m sorry it came to this, Hades,” she said, her voice on the verge of breaking. “But some things cannot be regained once they are lost. That is the truth she wanted you to see.”

The Light that had roiled within her was spent and her face was pallid with exhaustion, but her posture remained as upright and resolute as ever, though the expression she now wore was one of infinite sadness. He knew she would fight on if he forced her hand. 

If he wished it– and he did not. After so many long and bitter years, so many games and schemes set into motion, so much blood shed on behalf of this dream, he had lost the desire to continue. The grief was there, the grief for what was lost had not abated in the absence of that black despair,

(out of all them he’d ever faced, across all of the reflections he’d walked, all of the countless incarnations spawned, she was the most like-)

(“O goddess, born of mine hopes and dreams-”)

but there was a peace beneath it that he’d never felt before. 

Perhaps she would prove more resilient than himself, should the strength that trembled these vestigial fragments of her soul be any indication of the potential that lay within her. One could only hope.

In the meantime- there was enough time for one final, important request. Just one. 

Hades smiled at her, fond and sorrowful, with a gentleness he’d long forgotten. 

“Remember us,” he said, the sound of his voice fading into a whisper as his aether dissolved into light and wind. “Remember that we once lived.”

~*~

It was those words she remembered when she returned from the Source to the Tempest, alone. 

Her footsteps echoed loud and hollow as she approached the steps of the Capitol building, staring up at the immense structure. In her arms lay a bouquet of Nymeia lilies, a traditional Gridanian offering to bring peace to the dead.

Aurelia didn’t believe in the Twelve, and that included the legend of the Spinner. But it had felt like the right thing to do, to acknowledge the lives of a people that had once been hers, so very very long ago.

“I can’t be sorry for your death,” she said aloud. Shades passed by her, mostly unawares, and she was glad for the lack of acknowledgement. “I can be sorry for its necessity. If I am truly the last, then I shall try to do as you asked.”

Things could not well be left as they were. She had to find a way to bring the others home, back to the Source, now that the crisis was over. To that end, she had come to Amaurot one last time.

Emet-Selch – Hades – had nearly killed her. He had nearly destroyed this world, had destroyed so many others. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to hate him. He had done countless terrible things, but his reasons had been so very mortal.

She had spoken truly to him. She wished it hadn’t come to this. But just as darkness had returned to the First, a man lost in his grief had returned to the light. 

So, Aurelia thought, some good had come out of it all, in the end.

“Goodbye, Hades,” she said. “I am glad that we could part as friends once more.”

She laid the flowers upon marble steps he had designed thousands of years ago. Overhead, filtered and refracted through the deep waters, shimmered a barest hint of light: not a Flood, but the dawn of a new day.