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Heart of Iron, Shield of Glass

Chapter Text

 


 

Though it was becoming easier to accept Fray’s tutelage in the ways of an art she had no intention of learning, still she refused to succumb to their bouts of righteous indignation.

That was not to say she lacked the want to simply smite those who did wrong, merely that it was rarely such a black and white situation; redemption was ever her goal. Execution was oft the end result, despite her best efforts.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“What more proof do you need to sate your own guilt?” Fray snarled from somewhere behind her. 

“I would be certain that I am attacking someone who deserves it, Fray.” Serella sighed, crouched down and rummaging through the refuse pile as she was. “I would not bring my steel to bear against an innocent man.”

“If you fear tainting innocence in this mount of sanctified shite, I assure you that your hands are clean.” They let out a snort. “And your time searching for all of this wasted.” 

Ignoring Fray for the moment, as she was often wont to do when they devolved into sputtering rage, she thumbed carefully through the charred letters, the singed journal entries, in the vain hope that she would find something that would redeem their target. 

Entry upon entry upon godsforsaken entry was filled with the details of the assaults, the murders, all done in the name of “cleansing the sacred ground of the Fury.” Itemized, as though it were a shopkeep taking inventory.

“Well?” Fray prompted in a huff.

Serella stood, but did not face them. Ignoring the distant migraine already thumping against the back of her skull she let the physical world blur in favor of the ethereal — and ah, but there it was, a faint trail of silver, aether rapidly fading. The author of such morbid scribbles had left some time ago. 

A dark, feral grin tugged at the corner of her lips.

“I am on the hunt. And my prey is not far.”

Her temples throbbed with the ache of seeing both the solid stone of the Pillars lest she lose her footing and the aethereal trail of her mark lest she let him get away, but she bade it no mind. Though she had only just begun to work alongside the Lord Commander to pursue those who labored at the detriment of the people, still she was starved for justice. She had not truly tasted it since Ul’Dah. 

And she was voracious.

Though her soul demanded nourishment in the form of retribution she was a patient predator, and stalked her prey as he bumbled about the stalls of the Crozier. 

“Now.” Fray demanded, their voice a low hiss that filled her head like smoke.

“Too many people.” Serella replied, and she all but felt the curse her mentor spat upon the stone.

She ignored Fray — she was good at that — and let herself melt into the crowd to better track her target.

“Tracking your mark like a bloodhound in the forests.” Fray mused with a huff. “Not exactly the skills of a Paladin.”

“Wasn’t always a Paladin.” She replied without removing her gaze from the back of her mark’s head. 

Her headache eased as she let go of the ephemeral trail his aether left behind. With visual, she didn’t need it. Scrawny little pig of a man he was, so cocksure that he didn’t have a mark upon his head that he not once looked to see if he was being followed, bought his cough syrup — a heavy dose of it, just like in his journals — and began to saunter toward Foundation. His own hunting grounds.

“He seeks a new target.” Fray warned.

Serella’s pace quickened. 

When they were in the stairwell, in light shuttered enough he could not anticipate her, Serella closed the distance. With a shuddering gasp she gathered the dark, spiteful rage within her, the need for justice and the want to protect, and pushed them out of her palm. The aether that formed from that manifested will, purple and pulsing and angry, found its mark square between her target’s shoulder blades. He tumbled down the steps, crumpled like discarded paper. Trash, beneath her power.

He whimpered and whined at the bottom of the steps, alive. Just as she intended.

“Wha — who goes—!” The monster cried.

“Was this what your victims felt like, I wonder.” She mused darkly when her feet hit Foundation. Fray hung back in the shadows, watching their pupil. “Caught unawares, ne’er seeing their demise coming before it struck.”

“You know nothing, villain!” The hog squealed. “I am the arbiter of the will of the Fury! My fire is the cleansing—” 

He scrabbled for his staff— ah, a thaumaturge. That would explain the fires. 

The heel of her boot met his wrist and pressed hard enough she felt his bones crunch beneath her. His wail pierced the stillness of the night. It would doubtless alert the guards; she had to be quicker than she liked, but such was the price of silencing him for good.

“The righteous need not fear death, for the Fury will welcome them into Her halls.” Serella recited the scriptures she had only recently learned. “If your crusade is as holy as you claim, then look forward to your just reward.” The Claymore, Dainslaiff, upon her back was unsheathed with a long, high note that sang a requiem for all those she was not quick enough to save from this filth. “You’ll be receiving it soon.”

“The guards approach!” Fray snarled, and there was a tone of panic she had not expected from them. “Let us be about it!”

“Help! Guards, help me!” The pig wailed. 

“I’m giving you the one mercy you don’t deserve.” She swung her blade high over her head. “A quick death. So start praying, and be grateful.”

Dainslaiff drank deeply of his blood as it sank into his throat, into the stone beneath him hard enough to sever his head in a meaty split of flesh from bone. The squelch was satisfying in a morbid sort of way, the soft noise a darkly pleasant contrast to the heavy clank of her blade digging into the stone, the wheezing scrape of its steel as she removed it. The rivulets of blood began to flow out from the body, and she stepped back to avoid it seeping into her greaves.

She watched him twitch in his death throes, and feasted upon the sight.

“We must away!” Fray seized her by the arm and ripped her away from her trophy — in time for the sound of many armored footfalls approaching to grow distant once more. Just as well, lest her soul glut upon her delivered retribution.

They split at the bottom of the bridge from the Forgotten Knight — Fray ducking down into the depths of the Brume to hide in the shadows, and she moving up the ramp, past the tavern, and back into the Pillars.

She didn’t stop moving until she was upon the Last Vigil, until she could catch her breath and walk at a leisurely pace, as though she had been nowhere else but right here and now. She took the time to clean her blade — a bloody cloth in her possession would hardly go amiss, hunter and fighter for justice that she was — and stepped into Fortemps Manor, and stole herself into her quarters to clean up. 

Despite the sweet taste of justice upon her tongue, she felt ill. For what that monster had done. For those she could not save. For who would doubtless be branded the heretic between the two of them, for no other reason than their methods.

“Ah, welcome home, my dear!” Count Edmont greeted her once she had stepped out from her room. “I must have missed you at the door! Come, come, are you hungry? Dinner is to be served.” 

“Ah, thank you my lord.” Serella smiled and bowed — in part out of respect, in part to hide what guilt she felt for lying. “But rest assured: I am full.”

Chapter Text

 


 

“Amongst the dead that were allegedly slain by your hand, there is one in particular that is most troubling.” 

Serella did not react to Aymeric’s comment; she knew of which he spoke.

“Oh?” She feigned ignorance all the same. 

The way his eyes narrowed told her he knew she was playing the fool.

“Countess Ystride de Cailignont. Know you that name?”

“The clergywoman who tried in vain to kill her daughter, and only cost the Temple Knights a thinned guard for her trouble.” Serella mused, a dark sort of satisfaction underscoring her tone. “Aye. I know her. Knew her.”

“You slew her.” Aymeric accused, his glare deep.

She recalled Sidurgu’s words to the monster that bore Rielle: ‘For everything that you are — that you have done — you are still her mother.’ 

Even now, a year on, Serella still disagreed.

“She tortured her own daughter.” Serella planted herself as a tree, unmoving. “Kept her in a cage. Forced her to drink blood. And when she was finally free? Hunted her down. Called her, ‘it.’ So you’ll forgive me not mourning her.”

The hard edge of Aymeric’s glare softened into a wince; evidently, he had not gathered that intel as of yet. Their investigation must still be digging through the mountain of evidence, then.

“She was found murdered in Twinpool—”

“And her death was not a murder, let’s make that clear.” She added. “When it was clear we wouldn’t hand her daughter over for slaughter, she demanded trial by combat. She lost. So Rielle’s guardian killed her when she tried to press her attack all the same.”

“And does Rielle’s guardian have a name?” 

“Didn’t ask for it.” Serella said, and technically said in truth.

There was a morbid sort of glee in watching Aymeric suck in a breath to calm himself, in watching him pinch the bridge of his nose to stave off a migraine. He wanted to investigate her for her ‘crimes’ as a Dark Knight? Let him. He had his duty, as she had hers. She would not apologize for it, even if it added to his pile of work. He knew the score when he decided to love her, fool that he is.

“If it is discovered that you did, in fact, murder Countess Ystride, her status as clergywoman would demand your execution as recompense.” He looked up at her then, eyes tired, aching, faintly shimmering. “Surely you knew that risk?”

“I did.”

“And yet you would throw yourself away so, in the even I cannot prove you were innocent?” He demanded, and she pretended the pinch in his expression did not bother her. “There will be calls for your beheading—”

“And will you call for my execution?” She asked him.

In his silence, she found her answer.

“Would you bargain for a lesser sentence?” His question caught her off guard— did he think she cared so immensely about living she would beg for her life?

“No.” She answered. He flinched. “And it should not come to that. I’ve done nothing wrong.” She gave a shrug. “But if it does, I will know that all my efforts alongside you wasted, so I would only ask you to have the stones to watch me die, if naught else.”

Aymeric did not look away as Serella left.

Chapter Text


 

Aymeric’s descent into slumber was so unexpected that for a moment he had feared someone had slipped something in his tea. 

One moment, he had been at the cramped, makeshift desk in his tent, bent low toward the dim lamplight. The next moment, his eyes were slipping shut in the middle of scrawling a letter…or perhaps only just getting out his stationary…it had been important, but the details were rapidly growing hazy. The more he tried to grasp at what he had been doing before, the more unclear he was of it all. Whatever it might have been, it was lost, try as he might to find it.

You’ll remember again when it’s important. Right now, it is not.

He did not recognize that voice— nor could he place its accent. Had he spoken to someone with such a voice before? 

We have spoken a time or two, mortal. You do not remember, but that is by design. 

“Who are you?” Aymeric heard himself ask, though even his own voice sounded distant.

To you? A dream. Ephemeral. Nothing more. But I suppose you need a name to call me, for as long as I want you to remember. 

With a flicker of light, he was solid again— and not alone. The being in front of him looked plucked out of a book from his childhood, all fluttering wings wild hair and unnaturally wide eyes. Though he had to remember how, he blinked in surprise. 

“A fae?” He asked before he could stop himself. 

“King of the fae, [mortal,] though you may call me Feo Ul.” Said the fairy, their autumnal colors bright against the fog of dreams.

“I do not understand. Why visit me, Your Majesty?” Aymeric asked, even as he wondered if using their honorific was his own etiquette or their influence. Doubtless a bit of both. 

He had not thought of fae, or what realm might house them since he was a child— and even then, war had demanded he let go of them early. What had prompted his tired mind to think of such a thing?

“I visit at the request of someone dear to us both— but dear in different ways. Though I call her something different, you call her beloved.”

His heart skipped a beat.

“Ella?” He whispered in disbelief. He had not heard a word of her since learning she disappeared at Syrcus Trench, whisked off to the First shard…although he could not recall how he knew that…

“Ahh, our first meeting!” Their eyes twinkled in amusement. “You remember! At least, a little. You shan’t for long, but I’m nevertheless pleased you did.”

“Is she alright? Has aught happened to her? What—” every question he had asked himself every night began to spill forth when Feo Ul held a hand up.

“You will understand. You need only listen.”

They waved their tiny hand, and Aymeric strained to hear anything in the ensuing silence. Just as he was about to ask what he was meant to listen to, voices began to drift in through the fog.

“Before I leave, I would ask a favor of you, Feo Ul.”

“Ella—!” Aymeric gasped. 

He became acutely aware of the weight of her hairpin on his head, glamoured to hide in his locks, kept there since he had last seen her. It’s weight was slight compared to every word he had ached to say to her since they had been made to part.

Feo Ul held a finger to their lips, and once more he swallowed his words.

“I don't…I don’t know how this will all end up. So I can’t…I can’t say goodbye. Not yet. There’s a letter for that, anyway— I trust you still have it.”

Aymeric’s heart pounded, even as dread filled him. That he lacked context did not matter; he knew what talks of farewell and letters and instructions meant.

“All I want for them…for him…is a pleasant dream. Something of their fondest memory. I just want to know they all had one good night of sleep while I’m still…me. Can you do that for me, Feo Ul? Please?”

“What—?” he rasped, even as his eyes searched for his beloved in the fog. “Do not…do not tell me you have a letter. I cannot—”

“It hasn’t come to that yet, rest assured. I come only to deliver a dream.” The fairy fluttered their wings. “But I cannae discern your favorite moment to dream of on my own. You’ve got too many of ‘em all bunched up together like a tangled up ball of [yarn!”]

“'Tis Serella’s doing, I fear.” Aymeric said softly. A heat began to grow behind his eyes even as he smiled. “She inspires the sort of happiness I did not know before her.”

“She once said she hopes she made your night easier.” Feo Ul regarded him with a strangely gentle expression. He likened it to what he imagined a parent consoling a child must look like. “I have felt how much you care for her…’tis a great relief.“ They twirled, then, in a burst of glitter and excitement. "Go on, then! Tell me all of this favorite [memory] of  yours!”

Only one? There were so many…but one did stand out, the more he thought on it.

“The night before she left for Gyr Abania…” Aymeric said, and though he knew he was still telling the tale he could not hear himself anymore. The more he focused…the more everything slipped away. His own voice, who he was speaking to, all of it faded away— and…who had that been, again? He was so sure he had been…

He had been…lying in a dark room, upon a plush bed in the quietest corner of the Carline Canopy, tucked flush against his beloved Serella. Her mismatched eyes glimmered with such a warmth that despite them both only being clothed by starlight he did not feel the night’s chill. The silence was soft—  though not as soft as their hands mapping out one another.

Idle talk had turned to a game of taking turns picking a scar their lover had to tell the story of. In part to better know one another, but more to allow for confession of their marks of survival, of the tales otherwise never told. 

It started inconsequentially, and started so by design: “What about this scar on your finger?” “I tried to bake when I was ten. What of the scar on your hand?” “I picked a fight in a pub but it’s okay, I won." 

The reward for each story was a kiss to the scar. She had started it, and starved as he was for touch and acceptance, he readily gave what he was given. When a dozen kisses had been exchanged, her expression shifted.

The tip of her finger traced along the scar that trekked along his arm, interrupting the muscle deeply. It was his largest— his most grievous wound.  

"This one?” Serella asked.

“A Dravanian got past my shield and clawed my arm.” Aymeric answered. “Though it healed, I could no longer carry a shield after that.”

“And here I’ve been making jokes.” She whispered, her eyes lowering in admonishment.

“You did not know.” 

“I should know better, being a Paladin.” She trailed kisses along his bicep, tracing the path of his scar up to his shoulder. “You must have suffered. I’m sorry.”

“You have naught to apologize for.” He reassured her. After a moment’s hesitation, his hand reached out, fingers smoothing along the three-pronged scar that slashed from her neck to her lips. “This one?”

With a rueful smile, she kissed his fingertips.

“Were you not so dear to me, you would get the same answer as everyone else: from my first act as a Paladin.” When his hand held her face she softened and kissed his palm. “But you are you, so I’ll tell you. From one of the beasts the Twelveswood set upon my village when I was a kid. I took a blow meant for Uthengentle.”

“When…? But you were only—”

“Only eight summers or so.” Serella confirmed. “But it was my choice to make, and I made it gladly.” She opened her eyes again, expression openly affectionate. “I’d make it a thousand times over again. It was my first step on my path to being an adventurer— and that path led me to meeting you. So it’s all been worth it.”

Overwhelmed, he pressed quiet kisses to the corner of the scar, near the base of her neck, and worked his way up. It gave him time to swallow the growing lump in his throat, to chase away the sting of tears before he could meet her lips with his— 

—Aymeric awoke with wet, sticky lashes and a crick in his back. 

He sat up abruptly with his love’s name upon his lips, his heart rattling his ribs and his every nerve feeling as though it were trying to push out of his skin. He must have fallen asleep— he had been just about to start a requisition order for his troops. He stared down at the paper, blank but splotched with drops of his sorrow.

Like a cracked dam, his tears would not stop, and though they did not overflow they threatened to utterly destroy him from the pressure. He had taken such great lengths to forget everything that he had lost to duty, everything she had given up in the name of the greater good. It had been easier. 

There had been a dream, but it was all unclear to him. Try as he might, he could not recall it. Forgetting did not mean him immune to the crushing weight of feeling as though he had lost something impossibly precious. Nor did it save him from the overwhelming knowledge of everything— every ilm of himself he had given Serella, every onze of her love for him— he had already lost.

Pressing his lips to the ring on his finger, he wished Serella goodnight, and waited until he could forget again.

Chapter Text


 

The accolades of the Warrior of Light had grown swiftly in Serella’s singular year of proper, registered adventuring. As her lofty accomplishments mounted and her star rose, the shadow she cast grew longer, darker, and completely encased her brother.

The Warrior of Light. Singular.

Implying that Uthengentle hadn’t been there, from the beginning. Implying he didn’t fight just as hard, didn’t care just as much. Implying he hadn’t saved her from a hundred different mortal blows.

On his darkest days and in the deepest pit of his cups, Uthengentle would wish he hadn’t.

He would wish he had never even reunited with his sister. Wished that he could just remember her as the selfless, caring, stupid little Ellie that had scrimped and saved her every coin to give him his dream. Not…not this vainglorious, self centered, gilded shitepile that thought she was better than everyone else and that they should just be grateful that she deigned to breathe in their presence, who hoarded credit for everyone else’s accomplishments for herself and her greed.

Because…well, that had to be it, didn’t it? It had to be because she had made sure no one knew who he was. That he wouldn’t go with her to report in their success— or collect the bounty in their early days— was surely not the reason no one knew him by face? It had to be her gatekeeping his glory! She was keeping him from rising above her!

That had to be it!

Because shifting blame to her was easier than accepting that maybe he had done it himself. All the times she had asked him to come with her, to come collect their reward and their glory and he refused had to be her fault, and not at all from his own anxiety. Somehow. Somehow, she had to have gone out of her way to not mention him. To keep his name off of every record.

Never mind that anyone who met him knew who he was: “Oh! Uthengentle!” They would exclaim, and for a moment, he would think himself at last recognized for his own efforts. “The Warrior of Light’s brother!” They would immediately follow it with. And every time, his heart would sink a little more. It made it easy to forget they had said his name at all. Which, in turn, made it easy to forget that Serella had made it a point to tell them.

By the time the Crystal Braves were formed, his heart was at the bottom of the sea. 

He’d been almost glad to receive the uniform— with all their red tape and Raubahn’s caution, Uthengentle felt held back, stifled by all the things everyone else was afraid of, it felt good to be a part of something that was going to take some real action toward everything wrong with the world. 

That Serella had her reservations only further encouraged him to don the blue garb. While spite wasn’t the most noble motivator in the world, it was a motivator. And when he found out that one of the Unit Commanders was an Ala Mhigan hero— Ilberd, was his name— why, his heart had practically soared

And Ilberd was such a sharp man! He quickly took notice of Uthengentle’s latent talent, saw how much better he was when he worked alone and away from his sister, and had even gone so far as to take him personally under his wing. Him! Uthengentle! Where Raubahn had made him earn every scrap of information about his time in Ala Mhigo, Ilberd shared it readily, and often. Where Serella would ask him to hold off until they observed a situation, Ilberd actively encouraged him to sink his axe into it. Why would he follow any other than Ilberd?

To think, Raubahn had been Uthengentle’s ideal. The more Ilberd vented frustration with how little the Flame General did for his home, the more Uthengentle realized how little Raubahn did for anyone but the Sultana. The more Ilberd voiced concerns about Serella’s dedication to the cause and pondered aloud over how much of her want for justice was out of reward rather than justice being the reward, the more Uthengentle realized his little sister was now no better than the mercenaries he had worked alongside in Vylbrand. 

A polished shitepile still stank the same. 

Still…they couldn’t be all bad, he had thought. Raubahn might be a slow and fat Bull, but he was still the Bull. He had earned that title, not bought it. Serella might be uppity and look down her nose as most people, but she’d started with all the right intentions. Uthengentle would remember the swell of pride from the way Raubahn had saluted him the first day he’d joined the Flames. He remembered trying to surprise Serella with his uniform— and Serella surprising him with her Maelstrom coat, and the way they had laughed themselves to tears over ale, realizing they had both wanted to pay homage to the homes their sibling had grown up in. 

He clung to that until the bloody fucking banquet.

Then the sultana was murdered— under his fucking nose. When Ilberd blamed Serella for the murder, it had become so much easier to believe from everything that he’d felt, everything Ilberd had said until that moment: he’d been shifting blame onto her for so many things for so long, of course this was her fault, too. Of course it was.

It was easier than thinking he had been wrong.

Chapter Text


 

Only the Mad King Theodoric would have a vault, within a vault, within a vault, and then shove all of his transformed and anguished relatives in them to guard the treasure he was hoarding from them in the first place, Uthengentle thought.

While all of the spelunking and fighting was plenty to keep his focus, he found himself scanning the floors and walls of every room, scrutinizing every nook and cranny he could, in the vain hope there was some sign of those who came before the Empire, those who had served— and died— under the broken minded tyrant.

At least a glimmer of the family he lost. Of the loved ones he couldn’t remember. Something to reclaim in their name.

His sister noticed him lagging behind and slowed her pace for him.

“I know you want to look.” She said softly so as not to be overheard by their two compatriots. “Let’s clear it out first so you can do so in safety. There’s some…thing…deeper in that’s making my skin crawl.”

When she shuddered, he took the hint; if the aether she was sensing was even half a stifling as the air surrounding them, he could only imagine what lie at the end of the myriad vaults for them.

Evidently, he couldn’t imagine it; he hadn’t been prepared to fight Theodoric himself.

And really, Uthengentle guessed he should have been expecting Theodoric’s own magic to betray him and make him a beast; the man inspired so little loyalty it wasn’t exactly surprising that even his own aether turned its coat.

Still, there was a strange sort of satisfaction that he was able to finish what his father had started decades prior. He only wished there was some semblance of Rhalgr’s Fist left to tell.

As Serella had promised, they worked their way back through the winding, convoluted tunnels and pathways of the temple while Alphinaud and Arenvald began to tally up what treasure they could of the main vault. 

Now that his focus was more honed on the hunt, Uthengentle’s senses were alight with awareness. Salt clung heavily and scratched in his throat. He wrinkled his nose in displeasure. With every step, he could practically feel trench foot setting in deep from the water that readily seeped in through his greaves. 

Undeterred, he continued hunting within the Temple of Skalla itself. An old, weathered engraving upon the wall obscured by an out of place statue of a griffin caught the corner of his eye as they neared their original entry point. Encouraged, he drew near the statue, hands smoothing along the surface in search of a false stone or some hidden passage of some description.

“Find anythin’, Ellie?” He called over his shoulder.

“Nothing.” Serella shouted back. Though he didn’t look behind him she sounded far away. “Is there something specific you’re looking for?”

“Just…something.” He huffed.

“Helpful.”

“I mean something from…I dunno, Rhalgr’s Fist, or something…” Uthengentle trailed off when his fingers skimmed a stone that gave, ever so slightly, when pressure was applied. 

Encouraged, he pressed harder on the small, oblong stone that made the griffin’s eye. Despite the faint wheeze of stone grinding against stone, it pushed into the statue with an unnatural smoothness— the stone must have just been a facet in a larger mechanism, then. 

As the wall behind the statue began to tremble, Uthengentle exclaimed over his shoulder, “Ellie? Might have something!”

By the time she had traipsed back over to him his hand was alight with mageflame and he was one step into the newly revealed space.

Even with the orb of light dancing over his palm, the dark within this hidden passage was thick. The air was heavy and stale, though the saltiness of the air in the Temple proper softened into a scent akin to moss, damn and clinging to his nose all the same.

“Is that…running water? Do I hear that right?” Serella said, and her ear swiveled and perked up when she leaned deeper into the passage.

Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t hear anything but the distant static of white noise. His attention was pulled, almost as if enchanted, by the markings on the wall— significantly different from those of the Temple of Skalla.

The symbol of Rhalgr, with paintings depicting warriors with fists charged with lightning. 

“Is this…what you were hoping for?” Serella asked softly. 

Uthengentle did not look away from the markings, even as his manic grin threatened to split his face in half. 

“Either Ramuh’s been worshiped here longer than Rhalgr…or we just found one of the havens for the Fist of Rhalgr.” When he glanced down the yawning darkness of the hallway, his grin only widened, and his nerves sparked with the energy of those that had come before. “And I mean to figure that out. Now.”

Chapter Text


 

Aymeric had scarcely taken his first steps to properly courting the Warrior of Light, and already he felt as though he were stumbling. 

How could he not, so thoroughly taken by her radiance as he was? So drawn to her warmth, so starved for her caress, how could he not drift dazedly nearer, as though he were a moth to a flame.

A fitting comparison: her first tentative, shy brushes of fingertips against the buttons of his shirt burned him, even through the cloth.

And he would love to say that it was only desire that coursed through him, only want and need and delicious ache that filled his veins with fire at the suggestion of her touch. He did not want the dread, the sharp spike of fear that permeated him, that hit him so hard in the chest he felt the air around him grow cold. He gasped against her lips, unprepared for the feeling of the frigid fingers of panic squeezing around his throat.

Though Serella’s touch burned, it was nothing to the searing ache of the scars he bore.

Not all of them, mind— most of them had been naught more than badges of honor earned on the field of battle. Those, he felt no shame for, even if he felt shame for why his nation had fought at all. But littered amongst those road markers for his career there were…others. Carved into his skin on his father’s order, gleefully etched into his muscles and mind for no other reason than to will him into betrayal. Reminders of his folly, not badges of survival but brands of his failure.

His cardinal sin of righteous indignation, its price paid in the blood of a dear friend.

Surely Serella would know which scars they were— they were deliberate, calculated designs in his skin, jagged enough to interrupt the muscle but patterned so as to be obvious compared to the more wild wounds of war. Even Charibert’s mageflame was more precise than the dragon flame he had been made to taste on the battlefield on purpose: perfect circles of mottled, discolored flesh where the focused magic had been held there until Aymeric had drawn his own blood biting his lip to keep from screaming—

“Dear one…?” Serella’s voice was soft, distant, but clear enough to pull him back from the Vault.

Returning to himself, Aymeric had not realized he had scrambled away from her until that moment, but awareness made him uncomfortably cognisant of the headboard of his bed pressing at his back, of his hands scrabbling to clutch at his shirt to smooth it down. Borel Manor. Viscount’s chambers. Bed. Safe. He cycled through his mind, desperate to reassure himself enough to remember how to breathe. 

“I—” He swallowed heavily when his voice cracked and tried again to speak, even as he was not sure what he could say to salvage anything she might feel for him. “Forgive me—”

“Nothing to forgive,” Serella quickly reassured him, her hands hovering in the space between them. She must have realized he felt trapped: she did not move to close the distance, but held out her open palms for him to take. He had not realized how much his hands were shaking until she anchored them, her thumbs smoothing over his aching, near white knuckles. “It’s alright. I don’t…don’t know what happened, but it’s alright.”

He wanted to bark a rough laugh because no, he would beg to differ. He was acutely aware of how quickly he had set fire to an otherwise perfect night— how their first night together was doubtless utterly beyond salvage for his cowardice. Even as his heart fluttered against his Adam’s apple he forced out the words to at least try to explain his utterly uncalled for fit.

“I was…startled. I know not why— ‘tis only natural for us— for this—”

“Nothing need happen—” Serella tried to soothe but he was already hastily nodding; he had to get the words out now before he choked on them. He had to explain.

“I know. I…there are…the chirurgeons did what they could for me after— after your timely rescue.” 

After the Vault. After I failed you all so utterly and spectacularly. He did not voice it, but he felt it keenly.

“…I know.” Serella said softly. He looked at her in alarm but her lashes fanned along her cheekbones when she lowered her gaze to their joined hands. Her thumbs did not stop their soothing ministrations. “I wasn’t going to press, but…no one limps so heavily from only being clapped in irons, dear one.”

Aymeric flinched— though he realized he was unsurprised. Much as he had tried to hide his injuries, he could only do so well on a broken leg, with barely held together skin that had been slashed and burned all over. 

Even now, he remembered the heavy, burning agony of a metal greave pressing down on his calf until it gave under the pressure, just enough to break it without forcing the bone through his skin; where Grinneaux had been adept at gouging out difficult to close wounds, Haumeric had been a maestro of malfeasance inflicted deeper than skin. All of them were practiced hands in thorough interrogation.

That did not mean he wanted anyone to see them. Not even her. Least of all her. 

“I don’t need to see them.” Serella spoke up, and gently pulled his mind back again. “Not ever, certainly not now. Not until you want me to.”

“You would be with a man buttoned to the neck for the rest of his days out of cowardice?” He spat before he could stop himself, and tasted regret on his tongue almost instantly. 

His nerves needled him further, enough that if Serella were not still holding his hands, he might have raked them through his hair out of anxiousness.

“I would be with a man that was clear with his discomforts, for so long as one of those discomforts wasn’t me.” She corrected patiently. “You have been clear.” When he let out a rough laugh, it felt more akin to a sob. “And there is more important intimacy than just sex— trust certainly comes to mind.” After a moment of mulling it over, she added, “cuddling is also wonderful. Highly recommend it.”

“Oh?”

“Have you never?” She seemed incredulous.

“Who would I have had?” He answered her question with one of her own. 

Though she looked utterly stricken on his behalf, she let go of his hands and held out her arms.

“You’ve got me, now.”

This time when he laughed it felt genuine, soft and tired as it was. Even as he sank into the circle of her arms he held her face in his hands.

“You are more than I deserve.” Aymeric said in the narrow space between them when he nudged their noses together.

With a hum, she brushed his lips with hers.

“Give me time, I’ll prove you wrong.” Serella replied, and though her tone was sardonic, her eyes told him, I’ll show you your worth.

This time, they took their first steps together.

Chapter Text


 

“Well, well, I never thought I would see more white in your hair than mine.”

Serella spared Emet-Selch a sidelong glance from under her hood. “I’m testing out a new look.” She replied flatly.

“Oh, I can certainly tell. It suits you. You’re positively glowing.” His smile was wicked— he saw how her aether looked, she knew, and given how Feo Ul had so lovingly called it, “a mess,” she doubted it looked alright.

“Ray of sunshine, me.”

“Truly, a Warrior of Light in more than name.” His smile, never quite out of the range of sinister turned just a shade more wicked. “Should you survive the coming Calamities, you would be a most impressive soul to get to know again.”

“I suspect you already know that version of me.” She said before she could stop herself.

His smile faded.

“I know who you were.” Emet-Selch said in a low voice. “And I have come to know this version of them more than I thought I would.” He tipped his chin up just to stare down his nose at her— a common thing for him to do. “Though you do not measure up, you nevertheless intrigue me.”

“Fascinating. And who was I?”

“More than you are now.” He said, and he might as well have worn his mask for how unreadable his expression was. “But just as foolish, I suppose.”

“So we didn’t get along even then, eh?”

When he didn’t immediately answer her, Serella was content to leave it be— had expected him to simply leave, as he had always done. That he startled her with his hand suddely taking hold of her chin and wrenching her face toward his infuriated her; she hadn’t realized she had let her guard down.

“Never you fear, my old-new friend.” Emet-Selch hissed low as he bent toward her. Though his scent of ice and Balsam fir was as familiar as an autumn evening, she felt nauseated for his nearnes. “What sins you have committed, regardless of when you were whole, or as a fraction of a fraction of who you should be…” His thumb stroked along the faintly plaster feeling of the pale skin of her cheek. She could not feel it. “…I have no doubt shall all soon be…Forgiven.”

“You seem confident of that.” She mused flatly, though made no move to extricate herself. She was not threatened.

“As well I should be. To my eyes, you and the Virtues of this world appear one and the same: pure, wretched Light. And how that will shape you is…most fascinating to me.” He glanced out of the corner of his eye— and she followed his gaze toward where the Scions were convening with those in Amity. “And what will become of them as a result will be certain to entertain.”

“You will not touch them.” She snarled, low and dark.

Emet-Selch opened his mouth to comment when he felt cold pressure against his neck. He glanced down, surprised that Serella had managed to slip a knife from her belt and press its blade against his throat in warning before he had noticed her move. 

“I will not.” He agreed, and let go of her face. “But perhaps you will.”

Her knife found no purchase when she pressed harder, as he had melted into the shadows once more.

Chapter Text


 

It was hard not to notice Serella running herself ragged.

The observation grew harder still to ignore the more times Aymeric saw it happen— and it had happened enough times for him to catalogue the signs and how far down her mental degradation had developed. 

Tiredness was, while not a constant state for his beloved, certainly frequent, though he had grown adept at picking up on when it started to devolve past simple exhaustion. When the nights turned sleepless and Serella turned to late night tinkering or reading while he poured over documents he brought home from work, he knew her spiral had begun. He had gotten better at catching it at this stage, better at masking his intervention as revelation of a need to care for his own health.

For a time, Aymeric had thought, however naively, that he had managed to curb the worst of it. That he had found her pattern and managed to disrupt it enough that she might know peace.

When Serella practically vanished to the Forelands and returned a fortnight later with unexplained wounds and a thousand malm stare, he realized she had only gotten better at hiding her more mild tells from him. 

As he had pressed a warm cloth to her bloodied knuckles, he silently swore to be more vigilant.

In time, Aymeric found more signs beyond the tiredness that he needed to watch for, even as he lacked the practice to soothe them away. The effects of her insomnia overlapped with her worsening mental state— or contributed to it, or perhaps both— but exhaustion led to fidgeting fingers that always needed to be occupied with something. The vacancy in her eyes would find new occupants in the form of anxiousness and agitation, turning to look at every movement out of the corner of her eye, every person she walked past, anyone who reached for her.

And Aymeric tried to keep her hands busy— if they lacked aught to hold, then they could hold his, he had reasoned, and though it had produced some short term results, Serella was always pulling away, muttering distractedly about how she was taking away from his focus, carrying on as she did. 

After the fourth or so time it happened, he finally asked what he had dreaded to know.

“Dear one, can you trust me with your weakness?” 

It was a question— nay, a plea— she had not been expecting. She had bolted upright, her mismatched eyes wide and her scarred lips parted in shock. 

Lest she outright reject him, he added, “Ella, you have seen me bent and broken, and all but at my lowest point. Through all of it, you never buckled under the weight of carrying me through it all.” When he reached for her hand he felt it trembling and fought down a worried frown. “Will you not trust me to do the same with you?”

When her expression crumpled, his heart flew into his throat.

“I want to.” She whispered like she was admitting an unforgivable sin. “But…but I don’t know how.”

Reassurances that she needn’t feel pressure for it felt petty and insubstantial, yet he spoke them into the crown of her head that night, and so many after.

He had hoped she would believe him when he said he wanted to be there for her. That he loved her. That nothing could make him stop loving her. That no matter what, she could come to him.

“I want to. I just don’t know how.” Serella would reply, every single time.

Before Aymeric knew she was a Dark Knight, he had wondered what had held her back. After he learned of it…he assumed he knew why.

Thus did he investigate the woman he loved endlessly to determine whether she was a child kidnapping, civilian slaying monster, or if it had all been misconstrued and twisted by the Theocracy. Given the insidious nature of every darkly gleaming facet of the church and it’s many, far reaching claws, it upset Aymeric how unsure he was of the investigation’s outcome.

Too far in his own head and with his heart too buried to fully understand what he had been implying, Aymeric said as much to Serella’s face.

And the Paladin—Dark Knight?— had taken the comment on the chin, expression stony and gaze distant. At the time, he had dismissed it as either proof that she felt no remorse for aught that had happened or a reflection of her acknowledgement of the professional space between them. As he uncovered more and more that she had been made to defend herself— or a child she had only come into contact with after her disappearance— he swiftly realized in ever mounting horror that she had looked at him no differently than she had every other person who she had wanted to trust, and had been right not to.

And though Aymeric wanted nothing more than to fix it…he knew not how.

Chapter Text


 

J’hbet might not have always found a good little rabbit to catch in his trap, but that didn’t diminish the worth of the hunt. 

And J’hbet…well. J’hbet was a good, patient hunter. 

How many little ones had he managed to catch wandering, alone, scared, and managed to convince them to hop into his awaiting claws eagerly? Too many to count, and it didn’t matter to him anyway. The hunt, the chase, the catch was all that mattered. They were grateful to him, his prey. Him, their savior, giving them a hot meal and a warm bed when they were lost and alone and cold. 

They always sang a different tune when he sold them the next day.

He wasn’t entirely sure which of the little rabbits were sent to work and which ones were sent to sell their bodies. He didn’t care. Coin was coin was glittering coin, after all, and he wasn’t paid to ask questions. 

He hunted more than just rabbits, of course— to keep his services diverse and his pool of income wide, he also hunted actual animals, those stalking around, cocksure in their protection from their precious Twelveswood. They never saw his arrow coming until it was already too late. For them, anyway.

His belt jingled with the hefty reward he had collected for another caravan’s worth of hunting trophies. The hard glares and hisses of disdain fell on deaf ears— what could anyone do to him? The Wood Wailers were content to leave him be, and the Adders were too busy for someone like him. His confidence was more than earned, far as he was concerned.

Not to let it be said he was rude, he gave the Wailer guarding the Wolf Gate a salute on his way into the Shroud. He had manners, after all.

Sure, he felt their glare warm the back of his head, but he paid it no mind. How could they touch him? If they were going to, they would have done it by then. He’d been doing as he pleased for years by then, surely this was a sign that the Twelveswood was fine with his actions?

J’hbet strolled down the path, his wandering aimless and his spirits high. Mayhap he would see if that outpost on the fringes of the Shroud was still operating; he always liked their Stingbrew—

Had he not heard the faint whistle of the arrow sailing toward him, it would have hit him in his temple.

He ducked, though he swore he could feel it whiz over the top of his head, just between his ears. There was a dull thunk— it must have hit a tree beside the path. With that wind, his nose picked up a faint scent of…cloves? Was that cloves? Fumbling with his own bow and trying to draw and arrow of his own with trembling hands, his sharp eyes scanned the tree lines. Travelling deep enough in the wood that even the sun could not reach him made for low visibility, but he could faintly see someone— or something— dashing across the higher branches of the treetops. Though it was too dark to clearly see the figure, it looked slight, almost like a young child, if he were to guess.

“C-come out!” J’hbet managed to shout around the hammering of his heart. “I see you there! You don’t scare me none!”

Only the rustling of the trees answered him. 

With eyes still trained on the treeline he walked backwards toward the tree the arrow had sunk into. When he blindly reached up to rip the arrow free, he was startled when his fingers brushed against parchment— and his eyes snapped to the arrow before he could think otherwise. 

A note, rolled around the arrow shaft and tied with a bit of rough twine. J’bhet half wondered if the archer had originally meant to nearly kill him, or if the note was just in case they missed. 

Holstering his weapon, he took a few careful sniffs of the arrow. His nose had been correct: cloves, with an underlying flowery scent he couldn’t quite place. 

Hands still shaking with adrenaline, he plucked the twine free and let the arrow fall to the ground in favor of unfurling the parchment. Writ in some dark red stain of ink— or blood, he could not be certain— the note warned:

YOU ARE KNOWN TO THE WOOD. FIND A BETTER PATH, OR YOURS WILL END.

J’hbet was a good, patient hunter. He had caught many a little rabbit in his trap, and had earned his pay.

And now J’hbet was the hunted. He wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled or terrified.

Challenged for the first time, his hands would not stop shaking. His heart would not calm. His breathing grew shuddered and yet, all he could do was laugh. What started as a soft, wheezy chuckle rapidly grew to a wild, manic howl of uproarious cackling. 

“Is this all you’ve got? I ain’t scared a’ you! I ain’t scared a’ no one!” 

As he ran off, cackling all the while, he did not notice how he was watched by mismatched eyes, nor the bright teeth that pulled back into a snarl in the dark. By the time he had thought to look over his shoulder, his hunter was long gone. 

The first few days following the foreboding note, J’hbet operated with one eye over his shoulder, made a point to deviate from his usual routes, insisted on new meeting places for his clients— he had even avoided hunting altogether. His pockets could handle the break. He had seen to that.

After a week, he began to hesitantly take on more hunting— though only of animals, just to be safe. The less he was in the more populated areas, surely, the less likely he would be followed. 

But after a fortnight had come and gone, and still he had not been attacked again, he laughed at himself for being so worked up, and decided to go rabbit hunting once again. 

And oh, but he found a most promising little one this time; not quite into womanhood, this young Raen earned her coin dancing and singing not far from the Amphitheatre, delighting small crowds and passerby enough that they would offer her gil for a ditty or a dance. She moved like water and sang like a bird. 

She would sell well. 

So J’hbet waited, and mused over the gil he would make off of his new, young muse. Waited until the crowds thinned, waited until she packed up her lyre and dancing chakrams, waited until she began to leave Gridania proper. 

The moment she reached the deeper parts of the treeline, he would pounce.

His little rabbit must have realized she was being followed, however, as she took off in a sprint to get deeper into the woods. Fearful of losing his prey, he gave chase, lips already pulling into a grin.

The hunt was beginning.

When he left the starlight long behind him and the wood became an inky sea of black, however, he hesitated; the Raen, ivory scales still bright enough to guide him to her like a star in the sky, was all he could see, and if he was not careful—

In his hesitation, his hunter struck.

Her arrow struck him in the calf— as she had intended. He toppled over with a startled cry of agony, clutching at his leg like a wounded animal caught in her trap. Even as he wildly looked around for his assailant she remained perched upon the tree branch in a low crouch, watching him squirm, letting himself panic, just a little. It made the kill easier. 

She glanced over to find the girl who he had been tracking. When she couldn’t see her, she was satisfied that the marked girl had made her escape, and descended.

J’hbet seemed to not expect the young girl who revealed herself, bow drawn and eyes trained on his every twitch. Even though his writhing, he gaped at her through wide, disbelieving eyes. As if he couldn’t believe that the scrawny slip of a girl had managed to do what authorities hadn’t for years. 

“You?!” He cried. “But…but you’re a child!”

“No different from your victims, then.” The girl with the mismatched eyes noted flatly.

“I’ll kill you, you little bi—!” When she fired a second arrow it grazed his cheek enough to slice his skin deeply. Even through the copper scent of his blood, he picked up that same scent of cloves and flowers from before off of the arrow feathers. His stomach dropped. “No…”

“You were warned.” She drew another arrow. 

Before she could let her next shot loose, his neck seemingly sprouted a chakram, its steel glinting in the faint starlight that managed to trickle in through the treetops. He looked down at the weapon dug into the junction between his neck and shoulder, at the blood running down in rivulets, as if in disbelief. From the shadows, a dainty hand reached out, gripped the handle of the chakram, and ripped it across his neck. 

The archer girl didn’t even flinch when his blood splattered across her scarred face, instead peering at the other young girl curiously.

“You could have run.” She mused.

“I was going to kill him anyway.” The dancer huffed, wiping her weapon on the grass to clean it of blood. “He’d been following me since I was in the city. I’m not stupid.”

“I can tell.” The Elezen archer tipped her chin up and asked, “I can tell this isn’t your first time, either.”

“First time here, for what it’s worth—”

“Shh.” The Elezen girl pressed a finger to her lips, long ear perked. “You hear that shouting?”

At first, the dancer didn’t hear anything, but just as she was about to say as much, she began to hear the thumping of many heavy footsteps.

“Did this guy have friends?” She asked, already readying her chakrams.

“Not sure— could be Wailers that heard him screaming.” After a moment, the Elezen archer offered, “let’s get out of here, yeah? We can figure shite out later.”

“I don’t even know you—” The Raen began to argue.

“Serella.” The Elezen said hastily. “Name’s Serella. You?”

“…Zephina.” She admitted.

“Now you know me, now let’s not stick around to find out who that is, yeah?” Serella offered.

Though Zephina was not entirely trustful of the girl, the reasoning was sound. Not knowing that their fates were now inextricably tied together, they left into the trees and off the path with no more hesitation.

Chapter Text


 

Serella didn’t need to have come from an abusive home to recognize abusive behavior. She hated that she recognized it in the way Thancred treated Minfilia.

For some time now, at least since the bloody banquet, she had lamented that the lighthearted closeness she had shared with the rogue had been lost— though seeing how differently he carried himself now, with some years under his belt away from everyone, she wondered how much of himself had been lost to his grief. 

Much as she wanted nothing more than to scruff him by the back of his collar and beat some godsdamned sense into him for his mistreatment of the poor girl, she knew such action might inspire more retaliation against Minfilia. Though she knew (or rather, she hoped) it would never turn physical, that didn’t mean she wanted to foster more suffering on his young charge for her own self righteousness.

So despite every nerve in her body burning with the want to beat his poor behavior out of him, she took a page out of Uriangier’s book, and instead turned that energy into softness toward Minfilia. 

The poor girl seemed unsure of how to handle it, being treated with care, but all the same didn’t spurn the gentle words given to her. Instead, she readily took the opportunity presented by Wyd Lad to recover his invisible ink to ask to accompany the Paladin. Seeing an opportunity to give Minfilia a moment’s respite from Thancred’s scrutiny, Serella readily agreed.

Their task had been made all the easier for Minfilia’s involvement, and though Minfilia spoke harshly of her own shortcomings (in words that had been given to her by Thancred, Serella noticed with no small amount of fury,) she expressed relief that Serella was unharmed.

“I’m glad you’re safe, too.” Serella replied with a small smile. 

“I haven’t seen much actual combat, so I was a little nervous, but I’m happy I could help.” Minfilia’s already faint smile disappeared. “The Minfilias before me battled sin eaters as part of the Eulmoran army. But that had all changed by the time I was found. They held me captive so that I wouldn’t follow in the others’ footsteps.”

“You’ve done well, rest assured.” Serella tried to reassure her. 

The Oracle ducked her head, her expression hidden by the hair that fell in front of her face.

“I’d still be in my cell now had Thancred not spirited me away. When he found me, I knew nothing of the world. I didn’t know how to live, let alone fight. Thancred once told me that if the efforts to summon you failed, it would fall to me to face the Lightwardens. I realized then that it was the only reason he kept me close— as a contingency. The truth is, he can’t stand to be around me.”

“Minfilia—” Serella didn’t know what to say. She was just sorry Minfilia had been made to realize that, and that it was her friend that was doing this to the poor child. 

Minfilia looked up again, cloudy, luminescent blue eyes beseeching her to understand, her expression pinched in anguish.

“Because I’m not her. I’m not his Minfilia.”

She spoke it with such conviction that Serella wondered how long she had known that truth, and had accepted it even when she should have never been made to do so. Seeing Minfilia need to confess her heart’s woe, needing a sympathetic ear, she stayed silent as the Oracle continued to tell of an event she could not recall happening in Nabaath Areng, where the first Minfilia had stopped the Flood. Minfilia spoke of not recalling what had happened, only knowing who had spoken to Thancred through her. Of Thancred’s subsequent brooding and silence. 

“You aren’t her, but that's not a bad thing, you know.” Serella spoke up before the poor girl worked herself up to tears.

“I…what?” The Oracle blinked owlishly up at her.

“I don’t say that derisively: you are no one but yourself. No matter what anyone else says.” The Paladin took a needed, calming breath and continued, “But I don’t doubt that it makes you wonder, yeah? Who people are really speaking to when they use your name. Because it was someone else’s name before.”

“…Yes.” The Oracle whispered like she’d admitted to doing something wrong.

“So pick a new one, and I’ll use that.” Serella offered with a smile. Minfilia’s already wide eyes only grew. “A nickname! That’s what friends give one another, right? Nicknames?”

“I…wouldn’t know.” Minfilia said. “But…I wouldn’t even know what to pick. What would you call me?”

Serella looked her over, then, the sad but brilliant little girl who wanted so desperately to be loved that she had been made to misconstrue her use for her worth. Her heart twisted, knowing that she had been made to suffer so long. And yet, the nickname came to her easily.

“Little Light.” Serella offered. “How does that sound?”

“Little Light…” Minfilia lowered her eyes, thinking. “Little Light…me?”

“You and only you.” Serella confirmed with a nod. “So when I speak to you, you never have to wonder who I’m thinking about. I’m not comparing you to anyone. You’re you.”

“I…” A hesitant smile graced the girl’s features. “I like it.”

“Good! Come on, then, Little Light, high time we get back to the others—”

Though Titania interrupted their conversation with their wailing demands to be played with, and their obligations and the banishment of the Light took precedent for what felt like an eternity thereafter, Serella kept her word, only calling the Oracle Little Light. Nothing else.

Even Uthengentle had taken to giving her a nickname— though, “Pipsqueak,” was far less…pleasant, it still left the girl smiling a little wider than before whenever he called her that and playfully but gently mussed her hair. Her foster siblings had taken to calling her by her approved nicknames easily, and she had in kind warmed to them a little more each time.

At least, until she had her own true name.

Ryne had been reluctant to speak of nicknames for their insignificance after the long and winding road from Amh Arang to the remembrance of Amaurot, and clear back to the Crystarium in victory. Upon being given her own name— not Minfilia, not anyone but herself— Serella had stopped calling her, “Little Light.” Only Ryne. Only herself. While it might have been done out of respect…she missed her foster sister’s term of endearment more than she had thought she would.

It wasn’t until their path past the Empty and back into Amh Areng had brought them on the hunt for answers to push back the blight of the Flood that Ryne had worked up the courage to ask of it. When they were safely back in the Crystarium for supplies, she reached out a little hand to gently tug on Serella’s travel cloak.

“Hm?” The Paladin turned to look at her in mild surprise. “Is something wrong, Ryne?”

“No, not at all, it’s just…” Ryne suddenly felt incredibly silly, asking of this, given how much else was happening that was so much more important. And yet… “Why do you not call me…my nickname anymore?”

Serella turned to face her fully, the surprise on her face only growing. Ryne felt her face heat, and she ducked to hide her blush.

“I assumed you’d want to be called by your name— though I’m realizing I should have just asked.” Serella let out a chuckle. “I’m sorry, did you prefer it?”

“I don’t know,” Ryne admitted, feeling all the more silly. “I just know…I like having a nickname. And I miss hearing it.”

“I thought you would get tired of it, considering Uthen’s nickname for you.”

They shared a laugh.

“I even like that one a little. Just…don’t tell him I said that.”

“Secret’s safe with me. Now then!” She placed her hands on her hips. “I was thinking of stopping for lunch once we’ve got what supplies we need. Would you like to join me? My treat, naturally.”

“Are you sure?” Ryne asked hesitantly.

“Of course!”

“Then…I would like that very much.” Ryne said with a nod.

“Good!” Serella jerked her head towards the market stalls. “Come, then, Little Light. Let’s be about it!”

And so Serella’s Little Light bounced into step beside her, beaming as bright as her nickname.

Chapter Text


 

Even on his best days, Lord Edmont was reluctant to consider himself a good father.

That was not to say he did not try to do better—to be better—for his children, though he more often than not felt their burdens were because of him. That they all turned into upstanding knights—and better men than him, all—he felt was largely due to their own character, rather than what he might have imparted upon them.

Haurchefant…had been the best example of that.

Though he was reluctant to claim to be a good father, he was hardly absentee, and had quickly learned the signs of one of his children was under distress.

That Serella was adopted did not change that fact.

And he noticed—practically every time she came through the door—how her stress varied, if only just. Really, with the weight of the realm upon her back, it was a wonder—if not a grave concern—that her stress could increase at all.

So when Serella tried to slip into through the manor and out of sight with shaking hands and shoulders taught as a bowstring, Edmont’s first thought was that the world was ending. But when a second Calamity was not forthcoming in her tense and silent wake, he realized that it may well only be her world ending, and promptly took to preparing tea—and trying not to get in the staff’s way in the kitchens.

Half an hour later and holding a tray laden with tea and sweets Reinette, the head of the kitchens, had insisted he bring them with him, Edmont found her precisely where he thought she would be: the library, head buried in her sketchbook in front of the fireplace, seated on an overstuffed armchair.

As he drew near, his pointed ears picked up the soft scratching of her charcoal against the paper— she hadn’t even realized he was there yet, so focused on her drawing, he realized with a soft chuckle.

“Really, my dear.” He spoke warmly into the quiet of the room, tearing her focus from her sketch. “One of these days your neck will get stuck in such an odd angle, and then where will you be?”

“Turned just right of where I was before.” Serella answered with a teasing smile. She set her sketchbook and charcoal down on the small table beside her chair. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop in to say hello before I snuck in here, although,” her smile turned wry. “I suppose I didn’t do the best job at sneaking.”

“Of all the children I have had under this roof, my dear,” Edmont said with a chuckle. He set the tray of tea and snacks he’d gathered on the table and took a seat adjacent to hers. “None have managed to slip anything under my nose.”

“Not even Uthen and I?” She asked.

“Especially not the two of you.” He patted her hand gently. “I had thirty years of practice before I met the two of you.”

“Then it is likely not a surprise to you that I am not well.” Serella said, visibly fighting back a grimace.

“Have a biscuit, my dear.” Edmont said instead of answering, gesturing to the plate of sweets and comfort snacks. “Upon discovering you home and distraught, Reinette was sent into a fit of baking.”

“Bless her,” Serella said, instantly plucking a chocolate dipped cookie from the plate and nibbling on it. She scrambled a moment to add, “and the House, of course.”

“What has happened, Serella, to inspire such unease?” Edmont asked her with a concerned frown. “I have not seen you this upset since…well. In some time.”

Which was true enough — though she did not weep, she looked near on the verge of doing so, hands wringing in her lap, eyes darting everywhere but him.

“The inevitable, I guess.” His adopted daughter replied with a sigh and a shrug. 

“What does that mean?” When she did not immediately explain he reached over and gently took her hand in his. “My dear, will you not explain?”

She did, haltingly, reluctantly, she told him of her deeds in the shadows, of her service to the people of the Brume as a Dark Knight. She spoke of a child subjected to cruelty for no other reason than for being alive, of a mother who abused her power and her own self righteousness to inflict untold suffering upon her own daughter, and of how Serella had helped put a stop to it. That she had been a practitioner of Dark Arts, though she had not understood what that had meant until it was too late to go back.

Of how she was now being investigated by the man she loves. 

“I was called back tonight for a second testimony,” Serella explained quietly. “About what happened to the clergywoman.” She thanked him when he refilled her teacup. “I told Aymeric what happened, but…but he warned me if he couldn’t prove I’m innocent, I’d be executed.” At Edmont’s startled gasp, she hastily added, “He offered to negotiate a lesser sentence, if it came to that. I declined.”

“And so duty must precede love, must it?” Edmont asked bitterly.

“It must.” Serella insisted, surprising him. “I made him promise it would — we promised each other it would, when we first started courting.” She looked down at the teacup now occupying her hands. “They’re just fulfilling their duty. Really, that isn’t what bothers me. Please don’t think less of any of them.”

“I shan’t,” Edmont promised — and given how Aymeric, Lucia, and Handeloup were knights of immense conviction, he supposed that he should not be surprised. “Stalwart and just knights, all of them. But I know them well enough to know that what they are made to do is causing them no small amount of anguish.”

“I know.” She agreed quietly. “That’s…part of what bothers me.”

“Don’t let it.” Edmont dismissed with a huff. “I know they do only as they must, but as the youth are wont to say: fuck them.” Uncouth as the words might have been, they were more than worth the startled laugh it got out of his daughter. “Let them be miserable for a while. Halone knows you are.”

“I’m…I’m more upset that I’m upset about it.” She admitted. At his quizzical stare she tried to explain, “I made Aymeric promise he’d never put me above Ishgard. He’s keeping that promise. I’m glad he is. I’m proud of him for it, but…”

“But it still hurts.” Edmont finished for her softly. She swallowed thickly and nodded. “That is to be expected, my dear. This is no small matter — to be frank, I would be concerned if you were not upset!”

“Da…” She looked back up at him, and his heart flipped in his chest at the term of endearment. “What do I do? After all of this…how can we still…?”

“I won’t pretend to know how hard it will be to move passed this.” Edmont answered, and was only sorry his words would no be enough. “I have no experience in this regard. I only know that circumstances have forced the two of you to opposite sides — albeit temporarily.” After a moment, he laid his hand carefully on her cheek in fatherly affection. “But love always finds a way to work through the worst of it. So long as you remember that, I believe all will be well. But come what may, we will always be here for you.”

“…Thanks, Da.” Serella whispered with a half smile.

“You will never face the dark alone, my child, so long as House Fortemps stands.” He lifted himself from his seat and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Now, then — though the hour is late, I find myself still wide awake. More tea?”

Serella nodded, but when she moved to offer to see to it herself he waved her off and ushered her back into her seat.

Between being caught off guard by a matter Artoirel sought his counsel on, he was waylaid on his way to bringing back a fresh pot — but had not realized how long he had been away until he returned to the study. Serella had curled up on the armchair fast asleep, her face faintly red and puffy — and streaked with tears, he confirmed somberly as he neared. 

Draping a blanket over her and pressing another kiss to the top of her head, he paused only long enough to snuff out the candles on the table, take up his tray once more, and shut the door quietly behind him. Much as he might have meant his promise to her that she would not be alone, he only prayed to Halone that she could guide his children to reconciliation, one way or another.

Chapter Text


 

By the time the mortar fire and reverberating hum of incoming dropships dissipated into an oppressive silence, all that kept Estinien awake was the odd jostling and rumble of the Excelsior as they shuttled off toward Ishgard. After such thunderous adrenaline had pounded in his veins for much of the time he spent in the trenches of warfare, it had drained from him in a flood the moment they situated themselves below deck and felt the airship lift off.

He might have dozed off entirely, had he not been observing his riding companions. He watched, distantly dismayed at the distress his friend was in for the condition of his beloved.

Aymeric had yet to let go of Serella, and had instead sat with her cradled in his lap. Her head had lolled into the crook of his neck, and if he did not know better, Estinien would have mistaken them for consciously curling around one another as a show of affection, rather than one lover desperately clinging to what was left of the other.

Would that Serella were awake, Estinien might laugh at how sickeningly sweet the scene before him would be. As it was, she slept on, and Aymeric looked no less haunted for her proximity. With only his closed eyes visible for the way he leaned against Serella’s head, Estinien might have thought the Lord Commander were at rest, but he knew him well enough to not be fooled; the furrow in his brow told Estinien that Aymeric was praying.

Well. Praying and getting into his own head. Neither of which were helping aught but his own mental spiral.

“This seems a poor time to mention it,” Estinien spoke up in the rumbling quiet. Aymeric opened his eyes to look at him. “But the two of you cost me more gil than I should admit with your bullshite.”

It was a few moments before there was a flash of recognition in Aymeric’s gaze. “I take that to mean that you also contributed to that godforsaken betting pool?”

“We had it running for a year, you know.” Estinien huffed, and in a tone that gave away his displeasure, he growled, “Lucia won.”

“You are speaking of Lucia,” Aymeric responded, and the ghost of humor haunted his tone when he added, “’tis only surprising that you thought she would guess wrong.”

“I merely hoped to be close,” the retired dragoon said, sighing, “and though they come late, I would offer you my congratulations, in gladder circumstances.”

“And they would be appreciated,” Aymeric replied in a soft tone, “were she and I still technically courting.” Estinien must have looked as dubious and enraged as he felt because the Lord Commander was quick to add, “we are…not currently together, as her duties as acting Antecedent require her to remain neutral. Naught more separates us— and ‘tis only as permanent as her position.”

When Aymeric shifted his beloved in his arms Estinien caught sight of a gold band on his finger he had not worn before. Only duty, indeed.

“An obligation, then, and not a choice.” Estinien softened— somehow duty being all that held them apart did not surprise him.

“Just so,” Aymeric responded quietly, “I swore that I would wait.”

“She made you swear that?” Estinien asked as carefully as he could.

He remembered too many times in younger years when Aymeric would promise loyalty and devotion to someone who spurned him for it when they got bored. Doubtless Serella didn’t, as she was not like to do so, but he couldn’t stop his protective streak if he tried.

“She made me swear nothing,” Aymeric reassured him, and the corner of his lip faintly lifted into a weak smile. “I offered it freely.”

“…Fingers crossed she wakes soon, then.” Estinien said softly for lack of knowing what else to say.

“…Aye.” Aymeric replied in much the same way.

All the while, Serella did not stir, did not shift or move or even scarcely breathe. If Estinien didn’t occasionally check the rise and fall of her chest, he would almost take her for dead. He didn’t want to imagine Aymeric’s position, holding the lifeless body of the one he loved and hoping this wasn’t the end. He couldn’t fathom what thoughts were swirling in the Lord Commander’s mind.

“And she makes you happy?” Estinien asked softly.

It was an inappropriate time, and the least appropriate circumstance, but all he wanted was to keep Aymeric talking, distracted. He knew not what else he could discuss; somehow, asking how things have been was even more tasteless, given the hellscape they put behind them.

“Did you know what her name means?” Aymeric answered his question with another. A question he answered himself, “it means, ‘of the spring.’”

“I’m sure that’s relevant somehow,” Estinien said, and resisted the urge to purse his lips.

“She loathes her name, did you know that? ‘It seems lazy, given I was born in spring,’ she would say. I have oft told her that t’was fitting, as she brought spring back to Ishgard, but—“ he seemed overwhelmed in that moment, his voice cracking under the strain of his composure. He lowered his head to press his lips to her hair as his eyelids fluttered.  “—I was never upfront about what I meant, beyond speaking in jest for her name.” He lifted his head again. “I meant that when she stepped into my life, she brought with her a warmth and brightness I did not have. She always makes sure my desk has blooms from her garden; she has not spoken of it to me, but my steward tells that she has been working with him to restore the garden at Borel Manor. I think…I think she meant to surprise me with it, before all of this.” Aymeric took a shuddering breath. “She thinks I speak of her greenhouse when I tell her that she has filled Ishgard with flowers and spring, but I only spoke of how she made Ishgard home to me once more.”

“So she makes you happy,” Estinien said, his own smile slowly tugging at his mouth for how unsurprised he was.

“Yes,” Aymeric answered, and though he smiled too, his eyes shone too brightly for the dark of the cabin. “Immeasurably.”

Chapter Text


 

It had become an uncomfortable truth to accept, but Aymeric’s life was measured in little else but wax.

In the wax of candles burned to the quick, in the wax melted and pressed into a seal upon every missive he sent, in the way the moon would wax high in the night sky when still, still he would be working, in the heaps of wax his beloved would clean out from her beehives and turn into more candles for him to burn.

Even now, Aymeric could track the hours he should have been sleeping by the wax that dribbled lazily over the sconce of the candlestick at his desk. Tallying them up, he could quietly concede that they were too many, but so too, were his burdens, and so he ignored the crick in his back and the ache in his hand as he rallied himself to continue.

“I will come to bed soon— I need only finish these last few,” he distinctly recalled lying to Serella when she had sleepily checked in on him.

At the time, the candle had stood much, much taller in the candlestick. 

Clearer still in his mind was the small sigh of resignation she had breathed against his skin, arms she had tiredly draped around his shoulders loosening as if in defeat. He could not see her face, pressed into his shoulder as it had been from behind, but he felt her give up. As his stomach knotted around itself at the time he had scrambled to recall how many nights he had given the same lie, and when he found he had lost count he wondered at what point she had stopped hoping he would keep his word.

He tried even harder to recall the last time she had tried to stay up waiting for him, before she had given up on that, too. His own timeline was lost to him, obscured by all the wax he had spilled over it in all the hours he spent working.

“Alright. I love you.” Serella had said.

“And I you.” Aymeric whispered, and kissed her hand still on his shoulder even as his eyes never left the paper in front of him. “Pray go back to sleep— I will not be long.”

Silently, she kissed his cheek, and went back to bed alone. Again.

When he slipped in beside her that night, like so many other nights before, he pressed a smattering of kisses to her bare shoulder and just as many apologies into her hair as he drifted uneasily to sleep.

Even as Aymeric carried on as he always did— because his obligations would always, always be more important than himself, than them— he remained painfully cognisant of how little of himself he gave to his lover. How little, despite how much of what was left of her was his. 

And always did he resolve to make it up to her, to make time where there would not have been any to spare, and give it to her. Fury knew she deserved to know how much she meant to him, how much he cared, even as his focus had been locked on work.

Delegation did not come easy to Aymeric, however, and so that time was never made.

He had at least gotten better with expressing himself when they were together. When she was warm and alive in his arms he made a point to never leave her doubting how much he loved her, even as he feared it would not be enough. There will be time for us later, he would promise himself, and her. When they took to wearing bands upon their fingers, he became all but certain of it: they would have their forever. They need only fight for it a little longer.

And then she was no longer, “Ella,” but, “Antecedent.”

Through her tears as she told him goodbye she had tried to let him go. “You deserve someone who’s there to love you.” She wept, either unaware or uncaring of how unavailable he had been in their courtship. As if he had put forth nearly so much effort, had even thought to around his hyperfixation on his obligations.

However temporary the measure, it was still a measure put in place, and one that he must needs abide by. No longer hers yet wearing her promise, her shield on his hand all the same— his one act of defiance, his one selfish caveat. 

As the Scions slept and Serella led who still lived among the dreaming, Aymeric led his own men on the front line. As Serella had lie asleep, at first feared to have fallen in much the same way as her companions, Aymeric had prayed she would return, even as he had held himself at arm’s length when his prayers were answered. As Serella was whisked away from this star, Aymeric reminded himself that their promise was as steel, and carried on fighting that she might have a home to come back to.

When Aymeric took stock of what was left for all of his work, for however long they were tethered by titles and obligations, he found that all he had was all the wax he had burned in all the hours he could have loved her.

Chapter Text


 

“You want me to apologize…for mentioning that you have invested money in campaigns against restoration in the Brume.” Serella said slowly. “Am I understanding that right?”

“It is uncouth to mention on the House floor.” Said the member of the House of Lords, narrowing her eyes at the Warrior of Light. “In particular, ‘tis uncouth for one not of Ishgard to meddle in our affairs. I believe I am due an apology.”

“As are the people of the Brume, from one so dedicated to their continued suffering.” Serella replied immediately.

The Speaker of the House of Lords stifled a laugh behind his hand…as did the entirety of the House of Commons.

“Your glibness is unwelcome, and offends me, outsider!” The politican shrieked.

“Oh, did it? Hold on, I think I have something for that…”

All in attendance watched with rapt interest as she began to dig in her pockets for something. When what she was seeking was not found within, she removed her pack and began to scour its many pockets.

“What is the meaning of this, Warrior of Light?” The offended party demanded after a few moments of silence. “What are you searching for?!”

Serella looked up at her, mildly surprised at her impatience. She held her pack in both her hands and managed to maintain her wide eyed, mostly innocent expression.

“A fuck to give you.” Said the Warrior of Light, before she upturned her pack to reveal it to be almost entirely empty…save for a copy of “The Ratification of the New Republic of Ishgard and Her Laws,” which landed with a hard thmp upon the Senate floor. She picked it up and held it out in offering. “Looks like I’m out. Will this do?”

The politician’s face burned crimson as the floor erupted in laughter.

Chapter Text


 

Lucia’s instinct was rarely wrong.

Even rarer was the occasion in which she was made to doubt her instincts. Such a disposition came with years of training as a spy, decades of grooming under the Empire that honed her skills— and the entirety of her being— into a finely tuned weapon. That she now served under a different banner did not dull her edge.

So when she spied the Warrior of Light bundle herself in a cloak and walk with one eye over her shoulder through the Crozier and her instinct whispered “follow,” she did, and did so without an onze of guilt that she was suspicious of the woman who had come to be her sister. 

At least, she told herself she felt no guilt. She was still investigating the Warrior of Light, and such suspicious behavior was more than enough probable cause, Lucia could step outside of herself enough to acknowledge that. Her innocence would be determined no other way than information gathering, after all.

Officially off duty and out of her uniform regalia, it was easy enough for Lucia to slip into the crowd, to lighten her footsteps and track the heather gray hood that bobbed through the street at a steady pace. It was a little harder to keep distance; Serella’s speed changed intermittently, and on occasion, she stopped altogether to examine something near the stalls or the windows— and once those had thinned out, would stop to peer into the alleyways.

Was she searching for whoever had Rielle to warn them of the investigation? Was she on the hunt for the next target of her vigilantism? If either were the case…

Lucia stuck to the edges of the street to put as much space—and people—as she could between herself and her mark, though as they moved into Foundation and the street opened up wider, it became harder to remain inconspicuous; with less foot traffic and more empty space, tailing was becoming difficult. Still the Warrior of Light continued, out through the Arc of the Worthy. After a moment of debate with herself, Lucia continued in her pursuit.

If the open walkways and plaza of Foundation had made hiding in plain sight difficult, the Steps of Faith were near impossible for her to hide herself in—or they would be, if not for a timely caravan on its way out of the city. Her task grew more arduous in the enclosed space of the Gates of Judgement, but Lucia managed, walking close to the wall and dipping into the archer turrets every chance she got.

Suddenly, the Warrior of Light sharply turned the moment she was past the Gates of Judgement, as if she were trying to hide. Or because she knows you are tailing her, her instinct whispered.

That could not be—sharp though she knew the Warrior of Light to be, surely she could not—

Despite her caution, the moment Lucia neared the stairs leading to the Highlands she was met face to face with Serella, her hood down and arms crossed, leaning against the wall. The moment their eyes met, the severe look in the Paladin’s eyes dissolved into shock. Both women stumbled a step backward, both unnerved at the sight of one another.

“Lucia?!” Serella rasped.

The First Commander flinched and bit back a curse—she must be getting rusty. Before she could think to give the lie she rehearsed in her head of I mistook you, she watched the way Serella’s eyes darkened with anger and hurt.

“I can’t say I’m surprised you’re tailing me now.” She said in a dark but conversational tone. “I’m just shocked you’re that bad at it.”

Lucia felt her jaw protest at how tightly she clenched her teeth; it did not matter that this was a woman who was her friend — nay, family — in any other circumstance, as she had put that closeness out of her mind; she would not have her pride wounded by a Dark Knight that might have kidnapped a child.

“I will not apologize,” Lucia ground out. “For being suspicious of you when I am investigating you for suspicious behavior.”

“Then apologize for being shite at it.” Serella snipped. Lucia watched her hands clench at her sides. “What are you even following me for? Is it suspicious that I’m going to Camp Dragonhead of all places?” She demanded.

“T’was only suspicious because you made it so!” Lucia insisted, even as that unfamiliar feeling of doubt began to creep in.

“Are you truly trying to find a demon’s intent with everything I do under someone else’s orders?” The Paladin refused to back down, squaring her shoulders.

“It is always under someone else’s order, is it not?” Lucia pressed; her wounded pride be damned, she was hurting besides. Her shaking hands clenched into fists. “You are quick to turn to darker things and hide behind the shield of someone else’s order, someone else’s name. And why wouldn’t you—” the heat in her chest bloomed out to her face, and her rage inspired her to snarl, “you are no better than Livia.”

Her words seemed to echo in the ensuing silence.

The way Serella’s face went slack and ashen in dazed horror would have given Lucia pause on another sort of day in another sort of argument but with her heart bleeding as it was, all she saw was a weakness to exploit. This was a fight, after all, and she was not one for losing.

“You…you don’t mean that.” Serella whispered, her head shaking as if in disbelief. “You can’t mean that, Lucia—”

“Is it any wonder I so easily called you sister?” Lucia spat. “When I look at you now, all I see is her.”

Serella flinched and took a stumbling step backward as if struck. The one, solitary moment of twisted triumph Lucia had between Serella’s reaction and the weight of what she had just said settling in her mind did not last for the majority of the long, heavy silence that hung between them. Distantly, Lucia registered her ears aching in the howling wind but it was nothing for how cold her heart suddenly felt as the weight of her words began to sink in.

Livia had been…someone they did not discuss. In part because Lucia had insisted that the past stay there, mostly because she saw the way Serella’s face would often darken at the mention of her. She knew little else than that, but it had become an unspoken sore spot neither of them had wanted to acknowledge.

She had guessed well enough to weaponize it effectively, it seemed. Too well.

The First Commander’s stiff, defensive posture wilted, even as she reached a hand out tentatively into the yawning space between them. She swallowed the bile that came up with the shame at losing her composure so thoroughly. What hurt might have still been there was rapidly being consumed by the distinct swooping feeling of taking that one step too far off the precipice, and all she wanted to do was stop their freefall.

“I—“

“No—that—“ the Paladin sputtered, and the more she looked anywhere but in front of her, the further Lucia’s heart sank. She nodded sharply once, her expression unreadable. “You…you would know better than anyone, I guess.”

Watching Serella walk away felt like something irreplaceable and impossibly precious shattering beyond repair.

Chapter Text


 

Situating Haurchefant in a room deep within the chirurgeon’s ward took longer than Uthengentle might have liked, between the healers asking questions and Haurchefant’s own inquiries after the wellness of those who had been present at the Vault, but ultimately he had managed to wrangle the knight into bed, corral the chirurgeons into just doing their job, and slip out to leave them to their tasks with enough daylight to acceptably check in on the other knight in need of care.

He had questions for him, after all.

Lucia was kind enough to inform Uthengentle that Aymeric was to be found sequestered in his own quarters rather than the chirurgeon’s ward; moved for security, despite the Lord Commander’s own insistence that he needn’t require special treatment. He wondered if she had only told him because he had asked with his tome strapped to his hip and his fairy resting on his shoulder, but he wasn’t about to complain. With a word of thanks, he set off up the lift.

Uthengentle was surprised to find another chirurgeon still fussing over Aymeric upon his entry into the Lord Commander’s quarters, but had still planned for the eventuality all the same.

“I can take over from here,” Uthengentle said, hand snapping the holster of his book open. “There is sensitive information I have to share with the Lord Commander, and would request privacy, if you please.” 

He hated speaking so formally, but being in political circles for as long as he had been had certainly given him the lexicon to do so, and it seemed to be enough to encourage the chirurgeon to leave with a bow.

Aymeric tensed quietly when Uthengentle bolted the door once they were alone.

“Is aught amiss?” Asked the Lord Commander.

With a sigh and a whisper, Eos was fluttering over to Aymeric’s sickbed, gently situating herself beside his head on the pillow as she scattered healing magic across his form. Uthengentle approached leisurely, hoping to convey that everything was alright and that he didn’t need to panic.

“Just hoping we could talk while I look over your wounds.” Uthengentle replied casually. He hooked the toe of his boot behind one of the legs of a nearby stool to pull it closer before he took a seat and set his pack beside him. “Wanted to see how you’re holding up. Lot’s happened in a little bit of time, yeah?”

“…Aye.” Aymeric replied warily.

“Wasn’t prepared for Haurchefant to turn into a dragon, you know.” Uthengentle muttered, gloved fingers already thumbing through his tome in search of the proper incantation for diagnostics magic. “Not terribly surprised, mind, but wasn’t prepared for it. Just glad he’s alright, though. Scared the shite out of me, with that hole in his gut.”

Aymeric said nothing.

“…Having trouble breathing?” Uthengentle asked with a sidelong glance once he realized the Lord Commander was practically holding his breath. 

“No.” Aymeric replied, and took a deep enough breath to sigh as if to prove the point. “You were not the only one surprised with the day’s events.”

More focused for the moment on seeing to what wounds there were, Uthengentle didn’t immediately retort, instead seeking permission to push Aymeric’s open shirt aside to better spy what wounds needed stitches. Noting that the bandages beneath Aymeric’s binder were fresh, and doubtless what the chirurgeon had finished working on when he had entered, he focused instead on what burns and slashes existed on Aymeric’s abdomen. 

The Lord Commander had just begun to ease against Uthengentle’s careful prodding and healing magic when he spoke up again.

“Were you surprised that Haurchefant could turn into a dragon, or surprised that he did it in front of people?”

“…!” Aymeric tensed all over again.

To his detriment, unfortunately; one of his wounds that had only just begun to close tore, ever so slightly, and he jolted with a hiss of pain. Eos was quick to flutter close to the newly opened cut, tiny hands smoothing magic over it. Uthengentle murmured a soft word of thanks to her, even as he continued working. 

“Look, I’m not here to persecute anyone. An’ I don’t want to try and trick you into saying shite. That’d be fucking stupid.”

“You would not be the first to try today.” Aymeric quipped.

“I don’t doubt that. And I’ll thank you to remember that I’m not them.”

“…You have the right of it.” Aymeric sighed heavily and slumped back into the pillows propping him up. “Forgive me, that was neither my belief, nor my intent to imply such.”

“I’m asking these questions because you idiots are my friends, alright? I care.”

“I know.” Aymeric agreed quietly. “And ‘tis a sentiment returned, lest you wonder.”

“Good.” After a moment of debating with himself, Uthengentle sighed and continued, “Since we’ve established I’m not good with subtlety, and it’s already been a long day for everyone, I’m not going to beat ‘round the bush, or pretend I don’t have my suspicions. So I’ll just give you the chance to say it yourself:” He met Aymeric’s gaze evenly as he asked, “You’ve been exposed to dragon blood, too. Haven’t you?”

He felt Aymeric’s pulse jitter under his fingertips, even as his expression remained mostly neutral. 

“I know not what you speak of.” Aymeric replied, though his voice fair trembled. 

Uthengentle swallowed his disappointment — and hurt, he realized with a sigh— as he shut his book and leaned over to rummage in his pack for the other item he had kept discreetly in his pack. Eos drifted over to the book, shut and resting on the bed, and observed ponderously.

Aymeric watched, trepidation and curiosity clearly warring in his eyes, as Uthengentle sat upright once more and lifted the dragon eye in his pack for the Lord Commander to see.

The reaction was immediate. No longer muted from the enchantments of Uthengentle’s pack, the eye’s influence exposed that which had been the Lord Commander’s deepest secret. 

When the Lord Commander sucked in a startled hiss, it was through now elongated fangs that peeked through parted lips. Widened eyes gaped at the Warrior with slanted pupils. As his chest heaved and his hands gripped the frame of the bed with enough strength the make the wood creak in warning, Aymeric could only struggle in vain against the eye’s power drawing out his own with its siren call.

“You sure about that, friend?” Uthengentle asked him quietly.

Chapter Text


 

Aymeric liked to consider himself an appreciator of the arts. In what spare time he had, even into adulthood, he had found enjoyment in theater, in the melodies of orchestra performances, and in the deft strokes of paint or charcoal upon canvas. Beauty in all its forms delighted him, though it was rare that he had the time to truly bask in it. 

Even now, tasting the tartness of his muse upon his tongue, he could scarcely steal a moment or two before he was expected elsewhere. 

But such limitations only deepened his ardor; for in such scarcity he was left with a sweet ache for more, to chase bliss with release and the softness that followed. That would come later, once he had managed to free himself from the confines of obligation and his airtight itinerary.

For now, he was more than content to wring every drop of ecstasy from between Serella’s thighs.

His beloved was a delight for every sense: her fingers were soft and sweet as they drifted through his hair, held his face, stroked his cheek, anything she could reach. Her taste was indescribably delectable, a delicate balance of tart and sweet only amplified by her heady musk blending with her chosen fragrance of cloves and lilies. The only thing sweeter than her taste was the sound of her sighs to his ears, breathy and low, soft music with an uneven tempo punctuated with praise only for him. But the sight above him, of her seated on his desk, legs parted for him to slip between, bottom lip swollen from her teeth sinking into it and eyes hazy and misty but still watching, watching him, with her hair tumbling and mussed from both their hands and her chest heaving with her desperate pants, was more lovely than any marble statue or oil painting he had ever beheld.

He drank her in deeply, in all the ways he could, and moaned in his own bliss.

“Would that I had the day to dedicate to your pleasure,” he breathed, teeth carefully scraping against her swollen bud in that way she had begged him to so often. “’Tis a shame this will have to suffice.”

He felt her shudder above him, around him, a moan of his own spilling unbidden when her powerful thighs squeezed, ever so slightly around his ears. 

“A-ah, a tragedy,” she hissed through clenched teeth.

Tragedy indeed; he knew how wondrously desperate, how achingly sweet her begging grew the longer he drew her pleasure out. 

“I fear I will not sate my needs ere I must leave.” He sighed against her before he lathed his tongue flat against her throbbing clit.

“Then — gods, fuck — sate mine.” She begged in a harsh whisper, mindful of the unusually bustling Congregation. 

When Aymeric wrapped his lips around her clit to do just that he could not bite back the moan that rumbled through him when her hand ran through his hair toward his ear to stroke its shell with her fingertips and thumb. The hand not gripping her thigh in a vice itched to press against the front of his own pants in search of some relief, but he refrained, instead gripping her hip hard enough he vaguely worried it would bruise. He knew his patience would be rewarded. 

“So good,” Serella sighed, her other hand resuming stroking his hair. “So, so good, Aymeric, please—!

She babbled through her release, praise spilling freely with every convulsion, and he drank in all of it, every hissed word, every shuddering gasp, every thrust of her hips against his hold, every tensed muscle of her thighs squeezing his head. All for him, all earned through his devotion to her altar. 

When she wilted from the overstimulation he rose between her legs to stand, hands sliding up her frame to hold her upright— or rather, upright enough for her to rest softly against his chest. With giddy giggles she managed to straighten, and with his help, slid off his desk, though she remained close for what few moments he had left to give her before he was needed elsewhere.

Aymeric was gentle in smoothing down her skirts, her hair, any sign that he had wrung pleasure out of every ilm of her. Softly obeisant, he gladly gave control to Serella as she began to straighten the lapels of his coat, adjust the pin marking him as Lord Speaker, and smoothing down his own tousled locks. 

It was a small thing, such affection in the lingering high of her release, but he basked in it, even as he ached for his own.

“A pity we haven’t the time for me to return the favor.” Serella mused, and he leaned into her hand when she cupped his cheek. “You’ve done so well for me, dear one.”

He barely suppressed his shudder at the praise — and really, telling her how much he liked it was both the best and worst decision he had ever made.

“I aim to please.” He replied smoothly.

“Do well out there, and I’ll aim higher.” She retorted with a chuckle and a kiss.

“As if you did not motivate me enough.” Aymeric sighed.

Serella laughed as she kissed the grinning corner of his mouth. “Go on, I’ll be out there to cheer you on.” 

Aymeric walked tall out of his office, his steps light and his heart at ease.

 


 

Aymeric had hoped it would be easy, pretending he was only speaking to the Antecedent as he rattled off what updates had happened during Serella’s time unconscious. Pretending that there was nothing else to mourn, and she was not his Ella, and he was not aching for her affection, aching to give affection in kind.

And really, until she had fallen in the midst of battle, it almost had been.

But there she was, in the same bed that had born Estinien in his time of recovery, eyes tired and aching, her body telling him of all of the neglect she had imposed upon herself in the time since they had parted.

It had been harder not to notice how she had clearly not been eating well, or sleeping well. That she had managed to isolate herself so thoroughly that even her own brother had felt less close to her for her newfound obligations. Yet, even through her mask he saw how she, too, was silently begging for their separation to end. Just for a moment. Only ever one moment. 

It was harder to pretend that he did not notice it, but still he tried.

“Oh! Before I forget, I was asked to deliver to you a message.” He spoke up, and hoped the cheer in his voice felt more genuine than it sounded to him, that his smile seemed less plastered and practiced and false than it felt. “When you are rested, you are to return home, where friends will be waiting for you.”

Serella’s brow lowered as if in thought.

“Home…?” She asked, confused — and by the Fury, but his heart sank when he realized he needed to clarify.

“The Rising Stones, Antecedent.” He reminded her as gently as he could.

He felt personally responsible for the way her eyes lowered. She said nothing. Somehow, that only made it worse, knowing there was nothing he could say in kind.

When he spared a glance down at her hands, fiddling in her lap, he spied the ring he had placed on her finger, only some two moons ago now. The glint of the star sapphire was reminiscent of the knife twisting in his chest, and suddenly he could no longer stay, not here, not in the same room as the woman he was no allowed to love—

“Now, if you excuse me, I must return to the front. May we speak again soon, under happier circumstances.” He said, rising to his feet. 

“Wait.” Serella said suddenly — and he felt her hand reach out and clasp his.

She had not touched him since duty had forced them to end things — they had no reason to reach out to one another since. The feel of her fingertips against his was slight, in the grand scheme of things, was hardly noteworthy, but it sent a shock up his spine, how acutely he felt his longing for her in that moment. To turn and sink into her arms and beg to be allowed to love her, titles be damned —

“Yes, Antecedent?” His voice cracked under every other term he would have rather called her. Ella. Dear one. Beloved. Anything but Antecedent.

“I would ask a favor of you.” She whispered, and already he felt his every conviction waver. “Were there anyone else, I wouldn’t burden you with this, but given my limited pool of people to turn to at the moment—”

Aymeric turned to look at her, really look at her, and saw that she had yet to lift her head, even as she had swung her legs over the edge of the bed to reach him in time. 

Softly obeisant, as he could only be with her, he knelt before her radiance. 

“Anything.” He whispered.

Serella seemed at war with herself in that moment, though after a moment’s hesitation, let go of his hand and fumbled with her hairpin. Though she practically ripped it out of her hair, she managed to clasp it shut again and hold it out for him to take.

“Where I’m going…I don’t really know where that is yet. Only that it lies beyond Syrcus Tower. I fear damaging something so important to me while I’m away, so…” she looked at him — she could not avoid his gaze, knelt before her as he was. “Protect it for me. It means too much for me to lose again.”

He looked back down at the offered hairpin, cradled in her left hand. When he reached out to take it, he covered it with his hand and instead turned her palm over. Peering up at her through his lashes he brought her hand up to press a kiss to her ring, and knew not what to make of her shuddering gasp.

“Your trust is well placed, Antecedent.” Just as quickly as he toed the line he once more stepped behind it, rising to his feet and gently taking the pin from her. “I shall keep it safe until your return.” He was stalwartly obeisant as he clenched his empty fist and pressed it over his heart with a bow to salute her. “May the Fury guide and keep you, Antecedent.”

“And you, Lord Commander.” She whispered.

Aymeric beat a hasty retreat from the chirurgeon’s ward, eyes stinging, steps heavy, and heart aching.

Chapter Text


 

Despite their many, many duties ensuring the youthful kingdom of Fae remained frolicing and free, Feo Ul was not one to let a bit of revelry pass them by. King of the Fae or no, there was too much merriment and too many festivities at the Chrystarium tonight to not send a part of themselves to partake!

The little shard of themselves they had sent to watch over their beautiful little saplings flitted to and fro, half in search of good food and drink to imbibe, but mostly scouring about for their saplings. 

It took little searching; merely following where the crowd was thickest and the shouts were the rowdiest, Feo Ul finally found one of the saplings— accepting a mug being pressed into his eager hands.

“Well, here you are, but where has my other sapling gone off to?” They asked with a huff, hands on their hips. 

“Ellie? Wasn’t feelin’ too good.” Uthengentle replied, words faintly slurred and cheeks deeply flushed. “Went to ‘er room, I think. Don’ worry, though! I drank all the booze for her! So she won’t get no s—hic—ker.”

With a flutter of their wings— and a strong suggestion he ease up on the drink— Feo Ul made for the Pendants.

Aware that their poor sapling might be less than pleased with a burst of light in her room after all that the poor dear had been through recently, Feo Ul instead flitted to the window and, upon confirmation that she was in and awake, tapped on the glass. 

Serella looked up from the letter she had been writing, weary eyes wide in surprise. Standing and leaning to flip the latch on the window, she let her beautiful branch enter with a gentle brush of the sweet night air. 

“Oh, my sweet sapling! Once I knew you were returned, I just had to come and see for myself that you’re hale and whole!” Feo Ul tittered.

Serella made a hum of agreement, even as she scrubbed at one of her bruised, exhausted eyes. 

“And look at you! Your aether’s all cleaned up and shining beautifully once more! Oh, I cannae begin to tell you how happy I am!” The fairy smiled in fond exasperation. “But all the same, you are not well, that much is plain.”

“I’m alright—”

“You are most certainly not!” Feo Ul huffed, stamping the air in emphasis with their foot. “Look at ye, swaying as a wee sprout in the breeze! Ye can hardly stay awake!” 

“I…I want to sleep. I do.” Serella admitted as though it caused her physical pain. “Can’t though. Not for lack of trying, but—” she cleared her throat. “It’s…hard to.”

“What ever am I to do with you?” They clucked their tongue in admonishment.

“Scold me for not asking for help?” Serella offered with a weary half smile.

“Even the most stalwart of saplings are wont to wilt without proper love and care.” Feo Ul said sagely. They fluttered close enough to press their dainty little hands to her face. “And you, my precious mortal, have not been properly tended to. Tell me of what keeps you from healing, and I will do all in my power to fix it.”

“…I want to be relieved that this is over, but it isn’t. Not really.” She spoke haltingly. Feo Ul spun to sit on Serella’s shoulder and peer up at her as she continued, “I can’t just go home and tell everyone that everything’s fine. It isn’t. The Scions can’t come home, so neither can I. Not really, at least.”

“Because of your for-now title.” Feo Ul recalled. “It haunts your beloved’s dreams.”

“…And mine.” Serella whispered. “Despite everything…I just want to run home and tell them that I’m alright. I just want to go home. Just for a little while.”

Oh, was that all? Such a simple thing to do. And here the Fae King had been prepared to attempt the impossible!

“Dreams oft take us to the place our hearts wish to be,” Feo Ul spoke up quietly, and wordlessly wove starlight and the suggestion of sleep into their sapling’s hair. 

“Rarely, in my case.” Serella mumbled, bruised eyes growing ever heavier. “S’mostly nightmares.”

“Not tonight, I think.” They reassured her, drifting off of her shoulder to float as she leaned over and settled into bed. Feo Ul lifted the corner of the duvet to cover their sapling for sleep. “Tonight you will dream of home.”

“I hope so.” Serella mumbled into her pillow, eyes already closed.

As their sapling nestled deeper into the blankets, Feo Ul was already whispering into another pointed ear another world away.

 


 

When Aymeric blinked his eyes open, his first thought was to wonder how he had managed to fall asleep at his makeshift desk again. 

Then his sight came into better focus, and every subsequent thought involved wondering where in the seven hells he was, because this warm but foreign apartment suite was most certainly not the dimly lit canvas tent he had made his makeshift quarters in. And the desk he had cobbled together from planks of wood and armory chests had given way to a well furnished table— and the seat upon which he had nodded off was a sturdy stool, rather than a creaky supply box. He stood abruptly enough that it clattered noisily to the ground as he spun to discern where in the name of the Fury he even was—

When he saw his beloved sitting up in the bed in the corner, all else ceased to matter.

Distantly, he realized that this was a dream— surely it must be. How else could he explain being here, in a place he had never seen before, with Serella in sleep clothes and scrubbing at her eyes.

When she gaped at him with wide, incredulous eyes, his certainty wavered.

“What…” She blinked once, twice, and even still seemed to not believe her eyes. “How did you get here…?”

Perhaps not a dream then— or not only his dream; his dreams were never so lucid, and the conjured version of her never questioned his presence, as he always dreamed of them home together.

“I know not where ‘here,’ even is,” he whispered, even as he gravitated toward the bed and sat down next to her. “And I care not.” At her incredulous stare, he elaborated, “I am where you are. That is more than enough.”

“I don’t even know how…” Serella said with a shake of her head, but they both gasped when she reached out to press her palm over his heart and they both felt one another’s warmth. “…But you’re right. It doesn’t matter. You’re here.” 

“So I am.” He whispered. “And for so long as I am, and no one can reach us…” he reached out and held her face in his hand, his thumb tracing along one of the jagged scars that ran along her lips, down her chin. She leaned into the touch. “Pray let me be yours again? Just for now?”

“Please.” She whispered into a sob. 

Aymeric’s lips were pressed into her hair before she had even finished uttering the word. He felt himself let out a breathy laugh— and he was gathering her in his arms, strewn across his lap, before he had even registered he had done so. It did not matter— what obligations they had lie in the waking world, and could not touch them here. Serella let out a watery chuckle as she cuddled as close to him as she could, arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders, fingers buried in his hair, and her face pressed into the crook of his neck.

“I feel as though I have a thousand questions,” he admitted against her forehead. “But I will settle for the most important: are you well?”

“I am now.”

“Then that is enough for the moment.” He squeezed her softly.

“I’ve missed you.” She half breathed against his lips— and oh, but he had forgotten how much he adored that feeling. “So very much, dear one. Even before I left, I missed you.”

“And I you. I love you.”

“And I you.” 

He kissed her then, at long last, and sighed at remembering the way she melted against him. Whether this was real or not— whether she was real or not— she felt warm and solid and alive in his arms, and he decided to make that enough, just for now, until he had his Ella forever again.

Chapter Text


 

Aymeric was not one for day napping; he simply hadn’t the time in his schedule, typically. Even on the rare day off that he had he felt it was a waste of what spare time he had.

So imagine his surprise when he found that, on a visit to Serella’s house, he was exhausted despite his best efforts. He had drank enough coffee to make his stomach vaguely hurt at breakfast, had splashed water in his face on his way out the door, and had even gone so far as to take the coldest shower he could tolerate, all in the hope that it would wake him up properly.

Which, to be fair, had produced some level of success—until he had stepped foot into Serella’s home.

She had invited him over for the night—though had encouraged him to stop by earlier in the day if he liked. Which he rather did; any hour he could get with her, he readily took.

He had not factored in how cozy and soothing her home was—and was by design, as she told it— with plush pillows, soft blankets, lush plants, and warm lighting in every room, he was no match for such comfort, and he was already nodding off before lunch despite his best efforts to rally his energy.

Serella had noticed—“Hard not to when you sway in place like that, dear one,” she’d said when he had not quite masked his surprise when asked if he was tired.

“I am tired,” he admitted, “but ‘tis nothing that cannot be dispelled when I sleep tonight.”

“No one stays awake that long when they’re that tired,” she countered, her hawkish eyes observing the obvious degradation of his mannerisms.

His hand fumbled with the tea cup she had offered him—his depth perception seemed skewed, damn it all—and avoided answering while he tried to get the rusted gears of his mind to move.

“I will manage,” he said—and really, that was the best he could offer.

“I’m sure you’d do much better if you napped a bit.”

“No,” he said stubbornly, “I am fine—and would not squander what little time I have with you.”

He took a drink of his tea and desperately hoped she didn’t see him fumble to get the cup to meet his lips directly. A dribble of tea sloshed over the lip of the cup for his stumble and gave him away when it ran down his chin.

“Flattered though I am that you’d forego sleep to spend time with me,” Serella said patiently, offering him a handkerchief to blot the tea off his face, “I would rather know you’re rested—but I don’t think you’ll listen to me and just go to bed.”

“I would not.”

“A compromise, then,” Serella said, shifting to sit further away from him on the bay window.

He thought to ask if she could stay near, but then she was pulling a book from the shelves the window was inlaid within and situating herself to lie along the length of the cushion-lined window.

“I picked up a book I thought might interest the both of us,” she said conversationally, “if you’d like, I could read it aloud while we cuddle?”

Aymeric sputtered at the suggestion, though felt foolish for it; it was not as though they had never cuddled before. Never mind that he was still a touch starved mess when it came to affection, he tried not to seem too eager to follow suit when she reached over and gently tugged on his sleeve.

He practically draped himself across her with little prompting, though there was a bit of shuffling as he tried to find a way to slot himself against her without sacrificing her comfort. Though it came with a deep flush blooming on his face, he found his ear pressed just below her collarbone as she sat propped up by a pile of pillows…and deeply, soothingly comfortable in a way he had not felt before, even before she had draped a warm blanket over the both of them to stave off the chill from the window panes. 

If Serella was nearly half as flustered as he was, she did not show it, propping her book up with one hand, the other idly running through his hair as she read softly. Aymeric struggled to recall a time he felt so at peace almost as much as he did to keep his eyelids open.

With the soft, low alto of her voice and the gentle caress of her fingers raking through his hair, it was a battle he inevitably lost.

When next Aymeric opened his eyes, he felt the sun through the window pane, only marginally shifted from where it had been when he had succumbed to slumber. A glance at the chronometer on the wall told him that only a few hours had passed, and t’was still before noon. He breathed a sigh of relief, even as he shifted carefully to look at his companion, oddly silent and still.

The sight of Serella quietly dozing in the muted sunlight stole his breath away. Though the day had been overcast she was still radiant, scarred skin aglow with warmth and happiness, her lips still quirked in a faint smile even in sleep. The hand that had been in his hair had drifted to his back and was largely still, though his subtle movements had stirred her just enough to encourage her thumb to idly stroke in small circles over his shirt. At some point, her book had clattered to the floor, forgotten, in favor of her turning closer to him. 

Helpless against the swell of affection in his heart, his hand moved of its own volition to stroke the apple of her cheek. Her sleepy smile widened, and even as she did not wake, she nuzzled against his hand. With a soft smile of his own, he cupped her face and slid up enough to press a kiss to her forehead. In his weakness, he confessed his deepest secret, one he feared her finding out too soon:

“I love you,” Aymeric whispered against her hair. “So very much.”

His heart stuttered against his ribcage when Serella let out an unintelligible but happy mumble, though as she turned to fully curl against him, he let out the breath he had been holding. His secret safe for a little longer, he cuddled into the blanket and used the time it took for him to fall back asleep to practice how to hold her closer.

Chapter Text


 

Loneliness had set in early, insidious and quiet, pressing on the back of Serella’s mind from the moment she realized she had the Echo. 

It had become more bearable as she had found a few others like her— her brother among them— though with their varying sensitivities and manifestations of the blessing, it hardly felt like they understood one another any more than one without the Echo might. Growing quickly aware that none of the others seemed overtly affected by theirs, Serella kept her sensitivity to herself.

At least, until she couldn’t.

It was impossible to hide her symptoms when she couldn’t even predict an attack— and that’s exactly what it was, far as she was concerned, for how suddenly and unexpectedly she would be rendered nonfunctioning. When the Echo presented her a memory of the past, it did more than just show her what had happened; she lived it. Her only warning was her eyes rolling into the back of her head of their own volition, then suddenly she was wrapped in the skin of another, spoke with the voice of another, suffered the fate of another, until the Echo decided to let her go and leave her a pile on the floor. 

No one really spoke of their ability around her after her first episode. The loneliness consumed her again.

And Serella told herself that she didn’t need anyone to understand. She had managed to convince herself that just having other people have the Echo at all was enough— because even if they looked at her with the same pity as anyone else, at least they didn’t need to be told what happened when the Echo struck her. Surely that meant she didn’t have to feel alone?

At least, she had fooled herself until she had met Ysayle Dangoulain.

Her supposed enemy, Lady Iceheart had stood her ground even as Serella had slain Fenrir in its own den, had then turned her blade on the blue garbed wraith of a woman that nearly blended entirely with the ice cavern around them before she heard the Lady speak.

“Hear…feel…think…” Ysayle had whispered, and though she had not so much as lifted a finger, Serella was disarmed.

Though it was some months and endless tragedy before the two of them would meet outside the battlefield and at last speak face to face, Serella had been tempered by Ysayle’s pleas to their shared Blessing. Shiva had been easy enough to defeat— so absorbed in her love for Hraesvelgr, she had not thought to harken to their shared power. Serella could separate the two, even if Ysayle could not. 

What mattered was that there was someone else who understood. 

Their shared journey, one point upon which their paths would bisect and perhaps intertwine, was a blessing all its own; as they spoke— not as enemies, but as equals— the Lady Iceheart thawed beneath the Paladin of the spring. They spoke at length of how they grew up in the wilderness, in the shadow of a home that had spurned them and stole all they loved. Serella had not been prepared for Ysayle to understand not only her Blessing, but her Burdens, and it was not long before the two were braiding crowns of Dravanian wildflowers as they chatted over a bubbling stew at camp. 

Haltingly, Serella admitted how debilitating her Echo was. How when it struck her she had to remember how to breathe and lock her muscles to keep herself upright, and even then only had marginal success. How she would feel disoriented, disconnected from her own body. 

Ysayle spoke of her own visions— how often they could render her mute, staring vacantly and trying to recall how to order her body to obey her. She spoke of the nausea that cramped her stomach, how even in her visions of Shiva, she no longer felt herself, but as someone else— someone she identified with more. How her own Sainthood left her dysmorphic, and highlighted what aspects of her were not Shiva.

When Ysayle reached for her hand, Serella at last knew what it felt to not be alone.

Which is why, when Hraesvelgr had no qualms with shattering Ysayle’s heart of ice with his indifferent revelations of her false Sainthood, her own misunderstanding of who she was and the purpose for the dark shade that she had accepted into her bosom, Serella refused to leave her alone. 

Spring wrapped her stalwart arms around fragile Winter as she shivered in her own cold, and let her fall apart in warm company.

Perhaps it was the soft blooms that had begun to peek through the cracks of Ysayle’s frozen heart that inspired her to call the heretics away from Ishgard, even after the dark truth of the war had come to light. And it might have been those petals of sweet softness that had flourished with their strengthened bond that had moved her to embrace the cold and throw herself between her newfound companions and the Empire that dogged them. 

Perhaps it was the loving warmth of Spring that encouraged Winter to fall, alone.

Motive did not move death, however. Kindness did not inspire the Lifestream to give what had been taken away. And Hydaelyn was not stirred by loss enough to save this daughter— for she had served her purpose.

The paths of Spring and Winter bisect but once, after all.

And like the passing of winter, Serella did not immediately lose every piece of Ysayle— Hraesvelgr had thrown himself into the fray just long enough to bear her into the fight and clear an opening for them to stop the Archbishop, and even as she fell the fractals of ice that lingered were enough to mark her fading presence. Serella had to make the lingering cold in the air count for something. She had to make the dissipating frost matter.

And she had. Until she had lost Estinien, too.

On a dead ship in dead air that felt of nothing, with no one left, Serella fell to her knees and screamed. She screamed until her throat split and she tasted the copper of her own blood on her tongue. She screamed until even her voice left her.

Though she was not the only one to mourn, none understood how deeply Serella took Ysayle’s loss. Not even Estinien, who had been moved to offer the departed Iceheart flowers of his own, in his own time. A moment of understanding bore a lifetime of loneliness, an instant of shared blessing twisted into an unbearable burden.

For Spring and Winter meet but once, at Winter's death, and never more.

Chapter Text


 

Rare was it that Haurchefant found himself back within Ishgard proper—and rarer still that he found himself at the Last Vigil.

Coming to the Fortemps Manor almost never happened.

And yet, here he was, stepping into his father’s home—his father’s, his brothers’, never his—and speaking with the Lord of the House.

His father seemed to divine that the pleasantries that they exchanged were merely a precursor, an excuse to check in on the wards of the House—while their conversation was warmer than it had been in some time it was still brief, with Count Edmont directing him to where their wards had been resting. Though they parted a touch awkwardly, there was a mirthful twinkle in the Count’s eye as they parted—something Haurchefant had not seen in his father since he was a boy.

Truly, a fuller house suited the old man, he thought with a warmth in his chest and a spring in his step as he checked in on his most recently acquired friends.

Two of them, at least, he realized when he only saw Alphinaud and Tataru in the library. He happily chatted with them a while, asked how they had been faring given the circumstances. He asked after Serella and Uthengentle, but neither of the Scions had been around the Manor for the better part of the day, so they had told him. He didn’t wish to take up much more of their time, as it was clear their thoughts were elsewhere, and so he did not linger—better to not be here, anyhow.

The air had barely had a chance to hit his face and the snow adequately crunch beneath his boots when his sharp hearing picked up a voice—toward the bannister overlooking Foundation.

“All stations, all stations…”

He paused at the bottom step leading out of the Manor and turned toward the voice—with a start, he found Serella standing alone with her back to him. Had he not heard her first, he would have likely missed her entirely—she was so still out at the bannister that he almost mistook her for a newly installed statue.

He moved closer, intent on greeting her in that same jovial manner he always did when he picked up the rest of what she was saying, and his steps slowed.

“All stations, all stations,” Serella spoke. “This is Serella Arcbane of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn…are there any other Scions out there getting this?” As he neared, he heard the emptiness in the radio static she received as a response. “Can anyone hear me?”

Only the white noise of the lonely radio waves answered her.

She let out a curse, and he heard her fiddling with something—likely changing the station or trying to clear the signal a bit—and he decided that now was likely a good time to step in, before she grew lost to her frustrations.

“Is there aught I can assist with, my friend?” Haurchefant asked in an almost too bright voice.

Serella turned to face him, looking a mite like she had debated lopping the head off the next person to approach her only a second beforehand. Unphased, he took a spot beside her, leaning against the railing. From there, he could see the device in her hands—sure enough, a radio. Beside her sat what he recognized as a signal amplifier—he knew them from the ones his troops had when they deployed on patrols that took them particularly far from Camp Dragonhead.

“Ah, Chefant.” Serella’s tired voice warmed when she realized it was him. Her posture softened, as if her entire being sighed in relief that it was him. He faintly wondered how many in the city had already accosted her for aid—or something more politically insidious, as was the city’s wont. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you coming—“

“Think nothing of it, my friend!” He said, his tone more conversational but no less bright.

He felt pleasantly warm at hearing the nickname—Alphinaud had told him she had a tendency to give nicknames to people she trusted and considered friends, and to be considered such felt like the highest of praise.

“No, no, I shouldn’t—“ She cut herself off, pinching the bridge of her nose with her free hand. “I shouldn’t just be…ready to pop off at the mouth with everyone, especially not you.”

“You are human, above all else, Serella.” Haurchefant said softly, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I will never begrudge you for that.”

“I know.” She said, giving him a tired but genuine smile. “That doesn’t mean I want to just go off at every frustration.”

“What has you frustrated?” He asked, removing his hand from her shoulder and crossing his arms. “Perhaps I could be of assistance?”

“Perhaps,” Serella said, holding up the radio. “Know anything about how to get an amplifier to clear up the static?” She frowned in thought. “At this point, I don’t know if the static is because no one can hear me, or if there just…isn’t anyone there at all.”

Her expression told him she knew which was more likely.

“I confess, I owe you my sincerest apologies,” Haurchefant answered her after a moment. “For I have no expertise in such a field.”

“You don’t owe me an apology, Chefant.” Serella reassured him, though her smile did not reach her eyes. “That you offered is enough—“

“Do not lose hope, Serella!” He suddenly burst with enthusiasm as a though occurred to him—perhaps a bit too much, some might say, and some might be wrong, as far as he was concerned. “For I know of someone who might be just your man!”

“Oh?”

“Ser Stephanivien!” He said, holding up a finger. “Head of the Skysteel Manufactory—if anyone might be able to assist in clearing out that signal, I daresay he might!”

“That’s,” Serella’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that, actually.” She paused for a moment, and nodded as if to herself. “Yeah, that might actually be good—I’ve been meaning to speak with them anyhow.”

“Interested in Machinistry, are you?” Haurchefant asked.

“After a fashion.”

“Well,” He waggled his eyebrows. “I have quite the contraption you could take a look at in—“

“Your bedroom?” Serella guessed, already grinning.

“Well!” The Fortemps Knight gave a mock harrumph. “How forward of you, Warrior of Light—but if you are interested, I certainly shan’t—“

“No thank you.” Serella said flatly, even as she beamed at him.

“Augh!” Haurchefant gasped, clutching at his chest and throwing his other arm over his eyes dramatically. “You have wounded me most mortally, madam!”

“A pity.” Serella said, fighting to keep a straight face and laying her free hand over her heart solemnly. “I shall be sure to let everyone know you died as you lived, Chefant.”

“Gloriously?” He ventured, peeking through the splayed fingers still draped over his eyes.

“Like an overeager fool.” She threw her head back and laughed.

“Truly, your japes cut me to my very heart, Serella.” He sighed and straightened himself. “One of these days, I daresay you will be the death of me.”

“Perhaps, perhaps.” She looked a touch pensive, and that just would not do, he decided, draping an arm around her shoulders in a friendly hug.

“Pray smile, Serella.” He said softly. “It better suits a hero.”

“Hard to.” She admitted, leaning against him slightly. “Just…looking out at all of this,” she gestured out into the foggy abyss, where the rest of the city lay beneath the dense mists, out of their sight—just like the nobility prefers. “And hearing nothing from any of them…” her shoulders slumped. “Feels like I’m isolated.”

“Ice-olated?” Haurchefant grinned.

“Well,” she couldn’t fight a smile as she looked up at him. “I did receive a cold reception.”

“How true!” Haurchefant threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Even still,” he let out a soft sigh and squeezed her shoulder. “I fear that very icy reception is precisely why I do not tarry here overly long.” He stepped away from her. “I am bound for Camp Dragonhead. Might you be joining, or shall I be ushering you inside the House, free from the cold?”

Sparing a glance at one of the many chronometers that dotted the Pillars, Serella blanched. 

“You mean to fight the snow this late? Surely you can stay in your own house?” She guessed.

“Ah—!” He failed to hide his wince fast enough. Clearing his throat, he hoped his reputation for silly babbling would work in his favor once more. “I fear House Fortemps is simply too grandiose for my tastes— yes, much too much red, if you ask me, and hardly adequate numbers of unicorns about—”

“Let’s head to Camp Dragonhead, then.” Serella said gently, already bundling her cloak about her. “The sooner, the better.”

“You need not come with me—” He tried to reassure her.

“Oh, I know. It’s a choice, brother mine. So, shall we?” She asked with an incline of her head. “I would ask you to lead. I’m still…getting used to the city’s layout.”

“Woefully lost without me, you mean?” Haurchafant’s spirits lifted instantly, and they fell into step once more. 

“Naturally, my friend!” Serella agreed with a laugh.

The crunch of snow beneath his boots felt far less lonely with a second pair joining in, and their laughter echoing in the cold.

Chapter Text


 

The moment his shield broke, Haurchefant knew he would not survive the blow. He was…fine with that. As a knight, he had to be— though knowing he protected his friends, his siblings, was more than worth the price of his life. 

What did surprise him was how much more it hurt to hear those around him call out in anguish as he fell.

Ahh, but he was only fallen for a little while; Aymeric had him propped up in his broken arms in no time at all— oh, but he really should refrain from such exertions, the poor man had looked so battered when they found him…

Uthen, dear brother that he was, was knelt in front of him in an instant, hands glowing even brighter than the hole in his ch— ah, yes. The hole in his chest. He was dying. 

“Ellie, press his chest— gods, try to push the wound shut!” Uthen instructed his sister.

Their sister. Their tired, hurting, stalwart sister, whose trembling hands steadied as she moved to do as instructed. Their efforts were valiant— they were valiant— but Haurchefant knew better. The chirurgeons of Camp Dragonhead would oft speak of the quiet, painless calm that oft came in the moments before death, of what their patients had spoken of in their final moments.

Serella choked on a sob when his hand came up to clasp both of hers. 

“Chefant…” She whispered, agonizingly aware of the same truth that he was privy to: this was goodbye.

“Ellie, the wound!” Uthen, dear Uthen, was not ready to accept it. Ever the fighter for those he loved, his brother. Haurchefant hoped he’d work things out with their sister in the end. “Easy, alright? We’ve got you, I’ve got you—”

“Uthen…’tis alright.” Haurchefant wheezed around the copper taste that filled his mouth. 

All who gathered paled at the sight of him— he imagined he had just coughed up blood. Rather unseemly, but there was little for it, he supposed. 

“Ellie…” Haurchefant whispered, squeezing her hands. She sobbed. “Pray tell them…I died as I lived.”

“Gloriously?” She asked, voice as watery as her eyes. 

“Like…an overeager fool.” He replied with a huff of laughter, though it was harder to now. The noise that left his sister was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Pray…do not look at me so.” His fingers were beginning to disobey him, loosening their grip on her hands. “A smile…better suits a hero.” 

Serella gave an incredulous laugh— what tears she had tried to keep in fell upon his face when she shook her head as if in disbelief.

“I’ll tell them all you were magnificent, Chefant. You’ve always been.” She promised. “You glorious, sweet, overeager fool.”

The last of the breath in Haurchefant’s body was spent in a laugh.

Chapter Text


 

Merlwyb was a woman with a schedule about as flexible as steel. 

By zero five hundred hours, the Admiral was up, dressed, and coordinating ship routes and one fourth of the Alliance’s troops with only two cups of coffee working through her system. Though Ala Mhigo was retaken, to completely remove their presence would only create a vacuum that would permit the Empire to simply take back what had only just been wrenched free from them, thus it fell to the Alliance to provide support for the fledgling freedom Gyr Abania had hard won. A difficult, but not impossible task, so long as there was nothing else that required her undivided attention.

Before zero eight hundred hours, Merlwyb had a multi-national military conflict on her hands.

And at first, she had been prepared for it to be some cocky private that had gone and picked a fight with someone in one of the other Alliance militaries — she had been prepared for a lot of chest thumping and posturing on the newly restored Alliance’s first real outing as a four-nation unit.

So it came as something of a disappointment when she saw Storm Captain Serella Arcbane had beaten an Adder Sergeant bloody…and had needed half a dozen or so people to rip her off of him after. 

Kan-E-Senna seemed keen on working through it that day, because of course she did, the elegent and never tired Elder Seedseer. Rising from a bed of flowers and welcoming the day with birdsong must pay off for her.

Thus did her office find itself with three additional occupants — one Elder Seedseer and her wounded, clearly anxious Sergeant to the right of her desk, and her Captain on her left, calmly stood at parade rest. 

“I thank you all for taking the time to come to this meeting.” Merlwyb managed through grit teeth.

“I am eager to see a satisfactory conclusion to this issue.” Kan-E said diplomatically, though the look she gave Serella was one of tired disappointment.

“Oh, so am I.” Serella said agreeably with an emphatic nod. 

You need to remain silent, Captain.” Merlwyb snarled. “After the complete fiasco you’ve created with this, the very least you could start with is an apology.”

“Quite right. So!” Serella turned toward the battered Adder Sergeant, who despite being nearly two fulms taller than she, cowered under her plain expression. “Are you sorry?”

Something about the haughtiness in the Captain’s tone made Merlwyb’s control snap

“You beat this man bloody, and you expect an apology from him?!” The Admiral howled. “Everyone else has taken a vow of silence on what happened — save for that you had accosted him with no provocation—”

“—And if those accounts were from his friends, of course they said that. They’re in the Adders, too; none of them think they did anything wrong.”

“I know not what tone you are aiming for, Storm Captain, but I mislike your implications.” Kan-E-Senna replied coolly. “I would press for an explanation for your behavior.”

“Your Sergeant…oh hells, what’s your name again?” Serella crossed her arms.

“F-Flambeaux,” the bruised and bloodied Sergeant managed to squeak through the way his face swelled. Merlwyb was, frankly, impressed he had any control over his facial muscles at that point.

“Flamebeaux, thank you.” Serella said amicably, still with all the poise of a lady discussing the weather at a salon. “Sergeant Flambeaux seemed content to run his mouth at length during clean up at the Praetoria. Ran his mouth quite a lot about our newly rejoined Ala Mhigan brothers and sisters, point of fact. Things I wouldn’t repeat because those aren’t words good people say.” 

When Merlwyb turned all of her rapidly mounting ire upon the battered party, he continued to shrivel. 

Undeterred, Serella continued, “And really, none of his friends were telling him to stop. So I said it. I told him to stop.” She shrugged. “Now maybe he didn’t realize it was me that had told him to not be a racist little tree fucker — no offense, Elder Seedseer—”

“…” Kan-E said nothing.

“—He might not have realized it was me that said it, because he stood up and started shouting about a fight. His exact words were— and do correct me if I’m wrong, Sergeant Hothead, but wasn’t it, “why don’t you say that to my face, you cowardly little cunt.” Didn’t you say that?”

With a whimper, Flamebeaux nodded.

“So I came up and told you again, to your face, to stop being a racist little tree fucker. I said you were getting your only warning, and whatever happened after that was your own responsibility. Didn’t I say that?”

“You did.”

“And what did you say?”

“Elder Seedseer, all she’s trying to do—” the Adder Sergeant tried to face his commander to whinge some more.

“I would hear your answer, Sergeant.” Kan-E-Senna cut him off stonily.

“I…I said you couldn’t touch me.”

“Because…?” Serella pressed, and though they were across the room from one another, the Sergeant wilted under the heat in her gaze. 

He opened his mouth to try to speak and all that came out was a raspy whine. After he cleared his throat, he repeated himself, “I said…I said you couldn’t touch me because you were a half-breed who never learned her place.”

And…?” Serella encouraged with a circular motion of her hand.

“And…I said I’d put you there.” Flamebeaux shuddered. “But I didn’t realize you were the Warrior of Light — you didn’t look like the pictures!”

“If your behavior is dictated by the social clout of those around you, then you already know that what you believe is wrong.” Serella returned to parade rest and looked at Merlwyb as though she were the only other person in the room. “Punish me as you see fit. I’ve already won, far as I’m concerned.”

Though Merlwyb was still angry — beyond angry — her ire at least had multiple targets now, and she fixed her hard glare at her Gridanian counterpart.

“I imagine you’ll handle yours?” She said tersely.

Kan-E-Senna nodded, and even the Admiral had never seen the Elder Seedseer practically hook someone by her cane and get them moving before, but the Sergeant’s behavior had inspired such Academia Headmaster mannerisms within his Matron that Merlwyb would snort with laughter about it later.

Then it was only her Captain and herself left in her office.

Serella straightened; she wasn’t foolish enough to think her noble reasoning got her out of trouble, then. Good

“While I can’t fault your reasons, Captain,” Merlwyb said coolly. “I expect more from you.”

“Shouldn’t we expect more from our neighbors?”

“We should, yes. But Vylbrand is hardly in a position to comment—”

“I wasn’t speaking as Vylbrand—”

“I don’t get that luxury, Captain!” Merlwyb screamed loud enough her voice cracked. “I can never not be Limsa Lominsa. My word is the word of the sea — and if something comes to pass to take out my Second and myself, it falls to you to become that voice. And if that voice is seen as intolerant to your allies, it will sound no different than your enemies. Your message will get twisted against you. Take my word on that.”

“I think I got my message across.” Serella said, shrugging.

“Be grateful your message speaks for none but you.” Merlwyb rasped, though even clearing her throat did not bring her voice back as she pressed, “I thought as a First Lieutenant with two squadrons of her own had already learned that lesson.”

“I also learned that there are times I speak outside of my titles, because my morals are consistent regardless.” Serella replied, offering Merlwyb her canteen. “Water. You seem parched.”

Merlwyb’s anger fizzled. She accepted the offered canteen with a slump of her shoulders. The water felt good on her tongue — and the metallic taste from the canteen was oddly nostalgic in a morbid sort of way for her.

“Much as I know you understand that, Captain, your actions reflect the Maelstrom regardless.” Merlwyb spoke up in a much clearer voice. “So though I agree with the reasons for your behavior, I still have to punish your actions, unfortunately. Deck swabbing for a week — and I want you to take the time to reflect on how you might better punish such actions from those around you.”

“I’ll carry myself more softly going forward.” Serella huffed. “Next time, I’ll just ruin his career.”

“That’s my girl.” Merlwyb laughed, and made a mental note to follow up with Kan-E just to really make sure punishment was handed out accordingly.

Chapter Text


 

It seemed only natural for the group of them to get together for tea, once they had all been restored and reunited. With how they had made it something of a routine to catch up between the primals and logistics of their day to day, it was only meet that they would come together to break bread — or tea in this case — and learn who they had all become for their experiences. To come together in love and healing, to move past their deepest betrayal.

And Y’Shtola misliked how much she dreaded it.

She made no secret of the loss of her eyesight — and that it had been the price for the magic that had bore her and Thancred away from the aquaducts beneath the Ul’Dahn palace. Even if she had attempted, upon her own inquiry, her fellow Scions told her that her eyes had lost much of their aquamarine hue, looking more as frosted glass, as if to match how poorly they were seen through. 

Still, she had learned to function in the weeks after awaking. Her aether sight helped maneuver around people or combat, and even without, her training as a conjurer had helped her to move while feeling the world around her. It was not perfect — she still struggled with the loss of so many mundane things she had taken for granted, so many hobbies and interests that were either no longer accessible as she knew them, or a key aspect of them had been lost that she as of yet lacked the supplement for. 

Time, Y’Shtola would remind herself. Time would work with her.

Time was not on her side when it came to food, however; dishes that had been a favorite of hers were now nearly unbearable for her, for reasons she was largely unprepared for. A simple stew with a hearty broth, once a savory comfort food eagerly enjoyed with soft bread and a cup of tea was now overwhelming in its scent and texture; even spooning the broth to her mouth, rather than enjoy the taste of meat and vegetables, all she could feel was how unctuous its texture was for the animal fat in the broth. Even trying to wipe her face with a cloth, all she felt was oil for so long afterward she needed to bathe to be free of it. Even deconstructing it, the texture of meat was just oily with chew.

She managed. Bread, fruits, and vegetables were more than enough. If she required more protein, she found nuts to be particularly satisfying — and blessedly dry — and she made it work. It was enough. She knew it would get better with time and proper adjustment to her new life, and really, that was the mantra that kept her spirits up.

Cafes were practically out, for their overwhelming scents, and it stung Y’Shtola’s pride to have to say it at all. Serella seemed to take it with grace, and had reassured her that the gathering was to be in the Rising Stones.

“I don’t think we’re much up for venturing too far, after everything.” Serella had said quietly.

Y’Shtola agreed, and thus they all gathered in the Rising Stones once again.

Though typically a, “girl’s only outing,” given the circumstances, all who wanted to be there were present — though given availability, that really only meant Arenvald, F’lhaminn, and Uthengentle had joined them.

“Have we enough cups?” Alisaie asked suddenly. “I’m only just realizing we’ve never had to worry about that.”

“Not enough in the same set, but certainly enough cups,” F’lhaminn reassured from somewhere behind the counter — at least, that was approximately where Y’Shtola heard her. “Would you mind setting the table? I’ve yet to run down to the larder.” 

“Oh, give your feet a rest, F’lhaminn, I’ll see to that,” Serella spoke that time, and there were footsteps nearing the table everyone had begun to gather at, following the sound of a chair scooting across the stone — she must have gotten the songstress to at last sit down. “I’ve been meaning to take stock down there, anyroad. Y’Shtola, mind coming with me? I could use a hand.”

Biting back a hiss of frustration at the cacophony of people trying to offer to help her instead, Y’Shtola instead opted for mild reassurances as she rose from her chair. 

“I would be glad to. Shall we?” the sorceress replied with a gesture of her hand.

“We shall! Right this way, then!” Serella’s voice was quiet but bright, and Y’Shtola followed her clacking footsteps.

The temperature dropped in that way it did when they walked down the hall and into the larder. The muffled noise and musty quiet was oddly pleasing for Y’Shtola, and she took a moment to linger in that stillness.

“Thankfully, Hoary Boulder worked out that uneven stone in the floor a bit back, so we don’t have to mind our footing too much.” When Y’Shtola found Serella’s voice too distant, she quickened her pace a few steps to close the distance.

“‘Tis something we have put off.” Y’Shtola mused. “There were more important things to concern ourselves with.”

“True enough — I think he just wanted to keep busy, really.” Serella replied, though the end of her statement sounded strained. The sound of a heavy door swinging open confirmed that she had just opened the larder proper. “There we go. Now, then! What are you feeling for food?”

Y’Shtola’s stomach lurched, even as she conjured many a food that had been a favorite in her mind. 

“I would not be the one to ask.” She tried to argue.

“I’d say you are — I don’t want to make something that’ll make you sick.” Serella insisted.

Y’Shtola paused. Ah, and she had wondered what had inspired Serella to ask her for help in the larder. She had wanted privacy for this discussion.

“Y’mhitra told you?” She asked carefully.

“She worries greatly, often, and aloud. Uthengentle is a good listener.” 

“I see. And where do you come into the equation?” Y’Shtola crossed her arms, feeling defensive.

“Uthengentle can’t cook, and I’m halfway decent at putting two and two together when he speaks between the lines.” Serella replied, if a touch bashfully.

“He can’t cook?”

“He set fire to a pot of water.” Serella deadpanned. “And his crowning achievement was caramelized oranges.”

“That sounds rather pleasant—”

“He’d been trying to make orange juice.”

“…Ah.” Y’Shtola laughed before she could stop herself. “So he is simply not permitted to cook.”

“Our insurance wouldn’t cover the destruction.” 

They dissolved into giggles, safe in their soft silence and one another’s company.

“I don’t know what you’re going through, and I can’t fix it — but I think I can make something you’ll actually want to eat.”

“I am not starving myself, Serella.” Y’Shtola muttered with pursed lips.

“I know you aren’t — you can’t, with your spellcasting.” Y’Shtola nodded. “But you also aren’t enjoying food. You deserve to.”

The tension that thrummed in the space between Y’Shtola’s shoulders unwound itself, and she went lax with a calming breath. This was different than everyone falling over themselves to help her unasked with things she was more than capable of handling — and something that she could actually use help with.

“Something sweet, perhaps?” She chanced. “Though for the moment…some textures are too…greasy for my liking. And some scents make me faintly nauseated.”

“Okay, sweet but mild, and isn’t oily.” Serella mused, and the sorceress could hear her rummaging in the shelves. “How about…crepes? With some nice vanilla cream and sliced fruit?”

“Delightful.” Y’Shtola said with a happy hum. 

She had not had the time for making, or even seeking out, such confections, and even those that were sold involved her exposing herself to the cloyingly saccharine scents of patisserie shops or chocolatier shops. Even that thought was enough to make her stomach flip unpleasantly.

“Great! Mind carrying this for me?” A small sack was pressed into her hands. Flour, she realized when she felt the soft, powdery residue against her fingertips.

“Is this all I am meant to carry?” She asked with an arch of her brow.

“I’m bringing all the fruit we’ve got — trust me, you’re doing me a world of good.” 

“This seems an odd moment for sentimentality, but thank you for this.” Y’Shtola said haltingly. She saw Serella’s aether still. “I will…improve. This is temporary.”

“Wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t.” Serella said matter of factly. “I didn’t track you lot across nations and through the Lifestream itself to leave you to struggle alone. That’s not what any of us have ever been about.”

When Y’Shtola smiled, it felt more genuine than it had in months.

“Right you are.” She agreed, and the two stepped back into the light, back to their family.

Chapter Text


 

Of all the things to interrupt Aymeric’s review of what reports and testimony had been gathered thus far, he had not anticipated an interruption would appear in the form a witness asking to speak with him privately. The guard had noted that said witness was a young girl who refused to give her name, but had made the point to mention the Warrior of Light by name in her request for an audience. 

Warily intrigued, he permitted her entry. 

Aymeric had been told it was a young child, but it still caught him off guard how diminutive she seemed surrounded by the towering walls and furnishings of his office. He made a point to soften his posture of the perpetual tension in his shoulders; he was not a threat to her, and the last thing he wanted to do was scare her.

“I bid you welcome, though you have me at a disadvantage.” He greeted her, and gestured to one of the chairs to encourage her to take a seat. “I am Aymeric. Might I know your name?”

The girl remained standing, and though she fair trembled like a leaf she tipped her chin up and clenched her fists as if to steel herself. Aymeric fought a wince— he hoped he was not making her even more uncomfortable than she already was.

“Before I give you my name, I want to talk about the Warrior of Light.” She said, voice shaking alongside her. Perhaps it was the light green of her hair, but she seemed to grow ever paler the longer she stood there. “It’s important that I talk to you about her.”

“We can— though I would ask you to please sit for concern of your health.” He said, deliberately softening his voice and holding his hands out placatingly. “You look pale. I would not want you to faint.”

The girl stilled as if caught doing something wrong, though after a moment of scrutinizing him, she took a deliberately calming breath.

“…Okay.” She finally said, though had to awkwardly dangle her feet over the chair when she sat. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Now then, you wished to discuss the Warrior of Li—”

“You’re investigating her.” That she didn’t ask spoke of how poorly kept such a secret had been— or barring that, if Serella had spoken to her.

“I am investigating…a series of events she took part in.” Aymeric answered carefully. He was not one to tip his hand when it was not warranted, and though she was a child, that did not mean he could treat without care. “You told the guard at the door that you were a witness. What is it you saw?”

“I wanted to give testimony— but I wanted to give you more proof to clear her, too.” The girl took a deep breath. “But…doing that means I have to tell you who I am, but…” she seemed hesitant.

“Is there concern for your safety in revealing your name?” Aymeric asked hesitantly, even as he refrained from jumping to the only conclusion he could think of as to her identity.

“I’m not going to be taken to an orphanage. Or to…to relatives, if I even have any left. I won’t let you take me anywhere.”

“What—” Aymeric floundered, unprepared for the sudden shift. What had made her think he was going to—?

“I told Si…my guardian…where I was going. What I was doing.” She looked down at her hands in her lap, wringing and wrenching one another in a tangle of nerves. “He tried to talk me out of it, but he respected my decision.”

“You are in no danger here—” Aymeric tried to reassure her in earnest.

“My guardian is a…a very powerful swordsman.” The girl snapped her head up to look at him, bright apple green eyes wide. “He trained with the Warrior of Light. And if he does not hear from me by sundown, he swore to raze the Congregation to the ground to get me out. So I’m…I’m not going with you, no matter who I am or what you want with me!”

Well, well. The bafflement on Aymeric’s face cooled into something between understanding and being mildly impressed.

“Though I suspect I already know who you are,” he began, and the poor girl took to trembling all over again. “I would put your fears at ease: you have my word, as Lord Commander of the Temple Knights, that you will be free to come and go under your own power. You will not be held.” 

“…Okay.” The girl said uneasily, and really, though it was smart of her to be wary, Aymeric truly had no intention of detaining her at all; even if he lacked the empathy he had for her situation, he was not going to risk losing what information she might have, information that might crack everything wide open.

“Why take such a risk in the first place?” He asked her carefully. “There was no guarantee of my agreement.”

“…Because Serella means a lot to me.” The girl quietly replied. “And…and she speaks so highly of you. Says you’re trying to make Ishgard more fair. I trust her. I want to trust that she’s right about you, too.” After another moment of fidgeting, she hesitantly broached, “you…said you think you know who I am?”

Aymeric suspected that telling her that her features were very reminiscent of her mother would be...insensitive. Especially if even half of the claims Serella made against Countess Ystride held any truth to them.

“I would not presume— I could well be wrong.” He erred toward polite respect rather than mentioning deceased parents. He suspected they shared more common ground than he might have otherwise thought. “Please, might you introduce yourself?”

“…” The girl clammed up once more, but tried again, “I’m sorry…not until after I show you. Not until you see.”

Before Aymeric could ask her what she meant, she pushed her sleeves up just high enough to expose her wrists. The sight of the smoothed out, pink scars wrapped around her wrists sent such a visceral, reactionary need to protect and seek vengeance for her in that moment that he nearly lost his composure, felt the ache of his own wrists and the flames of his indignation. Remembering what rash, emotional action cost him last time, he clenched his hands into fists in his lap and took a calming breath.

“I am Rielle de Caulignont. And my mother did this to me.” She said, and her eyes bored into his. “My mother did this and so much more to me. She hurt me and hunted me and told me I was less than human—” tears welled in her eyes and still she stared at him imploringly. “My mother…she used to love me. Then she didn’t. But…but my guardian does. Serella does.” Her lip quivered. “Don’t…don’t punish her for protecting people. Protecting…me. Please.”

“Did Serella free you?” Aymeric asked quietly.

“No, I didn’t know her then.” The girl shook her head. “There was another man protecting me…but he died getting me away from my mother.”

Between Rielle and what information they had pieced together from death certificates and court documents…it was as Serella had told him. At least, insofar as Rielle was concerned. She did not kidnap Rielle, then— and really, he was not surprised, even as he was flooded with relief.

His relief could wait, however; the poor girl was still crying, staring down at the marks on her wrists. It shattered his heart, seeing someone so young forced to endure that which even he struggled with.

“It took insurmountable courage for you to carry on after such an atrocity. And more still for you to come here alone.” He did not look at Rielle as he unclasped his gauntlets. “I am only sorry you were made to feel such cruelty. No one deserves that agony— certainly not you.” He rose from his seat and rounded the desk to carefully, slowly kneel in front of the girl. “I am glad, however, you found those who love you. Oft, they are what carry us through the darkest nights.” A bit bashful at speaking of her, even as they were now, he could not help affectionately adding, “Serella taught me that, too.” 

When Rielle opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, he offered her his own wrists for her to examine in kind. Even now he winced at the bands of pink skin so smooth it faintly shimmered on his wrists. Though they were larger than hers, they matched as grotesque monuments to undeserved punishment.

“What…?” Rielle whispered eyes wide as saucers.

“My father gave the order that marked me thus.” Aymeric explained. “I…even now, I struggle with what was done to me. What drove my father to such cruelty.” He slipped his gauntlets back on and smiled. “Serella, and people much like her, have held me up when I stumbled. I am glad to know that it is so for you as well, even as I am sorry you were made to suffer at all— and I thank you for reminding me.”

“I was right to trust you.” Rielle whispered almost to herself, even as she tugged her sleeves back down. “You know. You see.”

“I do. Now, then.” Aymeric straightened and held out his hand. “What say you we work as one to piece everything together?” Rielle shook his hand eagerly. “Good. Let us protect her this time.”

And thus, their work began.

Chapter Text


 

For the first few hours that Serella lie on a cot in the Barber’s, Uthengentle was able to keep himself busy enough to distract from his thoughts. Even outside of Serella, there were wounded with bandages that needed replacing, ailments that needed easing, poultices and salves to be brewed, and healing to be done. But eventually, he was more or less ordered to sit down and keep his sister company as she slept.

He hated that it was Raubahn that asked it of him. Mostly because that made sure he couldn’t just say no.

Which brought him to his current predicament: Serella was still asleep, in obvious agony despite the pain draught, and he was sat in a chair pulled up to her bedside, keeping her company and sitting on his hands like he was ordered to.

Or, it felt that way, rather; he still helped keep the sweat off her brow and checked her pulse, kept watch on her temperature and made sure she was as comfortable as he could make her and if the General came over to complain, Uthengentle would remind him that none of those things counted as magical healing, and just hope his concussion didn’t make him too slow to dodge if the Bull charged.

“Arcbane,” said General greeted him, startling him out of his thoughts.

“General.” Uthengentle made to stand when Raubahn raised his hand and shook his head to encourage him to stay seated.

“No need for titles here, lad.” Raubahn’s low voice rumbled like thunder. He stepped further into the canopied area Serella was kept in and let the cloth fall to afford them some privacy. “How is she?”

“Stable, but hasn’t woken up, yet.” Uthengentle answered. “I’ve checked her pulse and her temperature—her fever broke a couple hours ago, and—“

“And she’ll wake up when she’s well enough to,” Raubahn cut him off gently, “how are you doing?”

“The concussion isn’t bad.” Uthengentle answered, this time adamantly focusing on Serella to avoid looking at his commanding officer. “Head’s a little fuzzy, but I’ll make it otherwise—“

“That’s not what I meant, Uthengentle.” Raubahn spoke in a hushed voice, mindful of the sleeping Paladin. “Speak plain, lad—I would know your thoughts.”

“…Nothing good in there, boss.” Uthengentle muttered. “I…I’m angry but I don’t…I don’t want to be.”

“Anger isn’t always a bad thing—you know that better than most, Warrior.”

“Yeah, but it’s only good when you control it.” Uthengentle frowned deeply. “I didn’t. Not back there.” With a gesture to his sister he muttered, “S’how she wound up like this.”

“What do you mean?” Raubahn asked.

That’s right, Uthengentle recalled that Raubahn had been occupied with pushing out the other imperials while he’d charged the crown prince. He wouldn’t have any idea how they got to this point.

“I was…I was so angry, seeing them do as they please to…” When his throat closed he sniffed and looked to the table with chirurgeon’s supplied littering it. “Never mind.”

“Uthengentle.” Raubahn rumbled in a quiet, patient voice.

For a moment Uthengentle was a boy of ten summers who was looking up at his Da while trying not to cry over a skinned knee. He often forgot that Raubahn was a father, too.

With a sigh, the Flame General moved to ease himself to sit down at the foot of the bed Serella slept on so that they might be at eye level. He watched Uthengentle calmly as he offered him his hip flask and said, “Talk it out with me. Like all your other reports.”

“Other reports aren’t personal, General.” Uthengentle sighed, even as he accepted the offered flask.

“I’m your commanding officer,” he said, his tone soft but brokering no argument. “I can’t expect you to look to me for leadership if I cannot offer you guidance—or at least a sympathetic ear.” He encouraged him with his hand almost encompassing Uthengentle’s shoulder when he clasped it. “Talk to me—if I have to make it an order, then it is.”

Uthengentle took a drink from the flask, mildly surprised at the strong, saccharine taste of desert fruit on his tongue. Cactus tea, he realized as he swallowed. It was only then that he realized that he had neglected to eat; he felt the tea slosh uncomfortably in his empty stomach.

“I’m angry that I got as angry as I did.” Uthengentle admitted slowly. Raubahn nodded. “Seeing those…those bastards in a place that meant so much to my old man—to me—“ he shook his head. “I couldn’t…I didn’t know how to deal with the sudden anger. It’s…it’s never gotten like that.”

“It’s a powerful thing, Berserker’s rage.” Raubahn said knowingly. “And grief…robs us of sense and self when it catches us unawares.”

Raubahn looked down at where his arm used to be. Uthengentle did not; he felt responsible for that, too. He instead focused on gently sloshing the tea Raubahn’s flask. It’s weight shifted back and forth in his palm, the motion an oddly grounding focal point.

“Was it like that with you, too?” Uthengentle asked quietly. “Where you just…you don’t…you can’t think.”

“’Tis a roaring in your ears, a fire in your veins,” Raubahn said as if he plucked the words from Uthengentle’s jumbled thoughts. “You don’t see; you just act.”

Uthengentle looked from his sister over to his beloved anima, slumbering in his little wind up body atop the weapon that had housed him. The axe blade was cracked, the sharp edge shattered where it met Zenos’ blade. The jagged edges of the ruined axe head scraped against Uthengentle’s every thought; as soon as the room didn’t spin when he moved too fast, his first order of business was to track Gerolt down, get him wasted, and for him to teach him how to fix the anima weapon. If this was going to be a regular occurrence…

“I’m angry at what it took to get me to calm down.” He winced. “That’s…probably a bad thing.”

“What did pull you out of it?” Raubahn asked.

“Mjalle was…panicking.” Uthengentle said slowly. “When the healer panicks, I tend to perk up, but that wasn’t enough. I was still furious. Then…then she said Serella wasn’t breathing.”

“That would do it.”

“And it did.” Uthengentle answered matter of factly. “I didn’t even realize I was in some hot water; I just pulled out my book and started casting healing spells.”

“You began my physikal, you mean.” Serella grumbled into her pillow.

Raubahn let out a deep, startled belly laugh. Uthengentle gave them both a baleful glare with no real venom behind it. 

“Why was I ever worried about you?” He grumbled to hide his relief.

Chapter Text


 

Tonight, Aymeric continued to promise himself at every missed opportunity. Tonight, at last…

His promise to keep, his question to ask. Kindling that had kept his breast alight with flames of ardor he knew not what to do with, had not known what to do with since he had felt the first spark that had set him ablaze. He had not even realized what had happened to him until he felt consumed whole, though by then he could do little but welcome it.

Even as Aymeric could not precisely place when it had happened…he had long since been unable to pretend he felt aught but love for Serella.

It had been folly, of course, to imagine that they would be free of interruption for the evening; with the hero of the hour attending the first celebration of a free Ishgard was to guarantee there were no small amount of people vying for her attention, wanting to share a drink, to offer thanks. She took it with grace, though had steered free of drink for the night, he noticed.

He himself was hardly any more free; poised to become the new Lord Speaker for this fledgling Republic, in conjunction with being the Lord Commander that had worked with the Warrior of Light to end the war once and for all, what attention he had already managed to garner with the nobles had only grown in intensity. He half wondered if he would bruise where they would grab at his arm, his shoulder, anywhere socially appropriate— if such a spot even existed, really. 

Understandably overwhelmed once they had inevitably been separated, Serella had retreated to one of the shut balconies…though had asked him to join her.

“If you like,” she had hastily added with a furtive glance around. “I’m certainly not going to demand you find me.”

“I would ever follow you, Mistress Arcbane.” He had reassured her with a smile.

His only detour had been to track down his cloak; an outside balcony was still frigid, despite the fire crystal laden lamps that splashed a warm glow about the pristine marble. Though the glass on the doors had frosted somewhat, her radiance was apparent to him, even with her back to him, even in the dark of nightfall. Haloed by aetherlight, she seemed heaven sent, garbed in gown and gloves of midnight, punctuated by the glittering stars of what jewelry she had worn— and her restored hairpin, carefully holding her hair up in delicate pleats.

A vision of the Fury herself: scars and splendor, strength and softness. Stalwart as ever, yet sweet enough to grant succor, were he to only ask.

If only he could will his legs to move…

Even as he worked himself up to joining her, his mind raced with every moment that led to this, every almost and could have been that had landmarked their road to this moment.

It had been easier, he had reasoned at every turn, to avoid confessing his heart. To avoid asking after hers. To keep himself distant, he filled the space between them with talking. He was adept at it, so accustomed to being made to do so in political situations. At first, it had been naught more than a practicality: he needed to know her, to trust her, given that they would be working so closely together.

At some point, it had evolved into more. It had become a want to speak with her, to know more of Serella, beyond her title. It became seeking out reasons to invite her to speak with him, or fall into step beside her when she would beckon him to do so if they were going the same way — or when he would let her think they were headed the same way, that he might speak with her regardless. It became growing happily distracted, wandering some half malm away from their original destination, eagerly speaking of interests and exchanging books to read.

They had said so much to one another in the time they had known each other. Talking with her had always been so enjoyable— so much more than he had ever anticipated. Somehow, talking led to yearning, led to aching for more. It made him want to let her know him. 

So Aymeric talked even more about things of no consequence, to try to bury his wants beneath his words for lack of knowing what else to do with them.

It was hardly the first time he had used palaver to protect himself. It had simply startled him when the why of such shields had occurred to him, where she was concerned. 

But now…now there was so little left for him to use to hide. Fewer reasons still to do so. The hand free of his cloak moved to idly run a finger along his lip, and his mind took wing to the Churning Mists, to when every word between them had mattered so little against her kiss. None save his promise not to ask…

That Serella had told him he need not keep such a promise was…encouraging. Frighteningly so. Enough that he had felt his resolve crumble a dozen times over ever since, even as he had held fast to the remains. For she would not attempt to coax the question from him if she felt different than he, surely…?

He need only ask. He had naught else left to do. 

With a deep breath and a hand smoothing down the front of his coat, he stepped through the door.

Chapter Text


 

Even after all this time, Serella struggled to attune to nature.

It had been a prerequisite for her to become the Paladin she had always dreamed of being. Certainly, she had more than taken a shine to the sword and shield, but conjury? Taught to her by a padjal in the Twelveswood, of all the godsdamned places?

To attune to such a thing would be to trust the wood that robbed her of everything, once.

Every time she tried to under E-Sumi-Yan’s patient tutelage, all she could hear was the splintering of wooden planks, of panicked screams of villagers, practically feel her nose fill with the dust and dirt kicked up in the wake of the beasts that had charged her little village on the edge of the woods, on the order of the Twelveswood, all because they didn’t obey fast enough.

Unaware of her trauma, her mentor had pressed her, once, to push past her initial resistance. “The wood will let you in, child, you need only breathe—”

When she heard her father calling out for her, she screamed in agony.

Despite everything…she had managed to learn enough to pass by E-Sumi-Yan’s exacting standards. She half suspected it was done out of pity for her…after she had to explain why hearing the wood had been so traumatizing, he had taken a decidedly softer approach with her training. And though it had been far from perfect, it didn’t have to be in order for her to become what she had dreamed of. Perhaps he knew that, and settled for what she needed, rather than perfection.

The moment Serella had her Paladin soul crystal and Valiant armor, she celebrated by burning her conjurer’s gear and drinking as much as she could stomach.

And that had been that, or so she thought. Convinced that healing magic would never be within her realm of attainability, save for the Clemency blessing she had been taught, she instead focused on what other magic she might learn. Thaumaturgy and Arcane summoning were a bit easier to grasp, though she understood quickly that she would not be able to master either. So she mastered what she could of her training, and made that enough.

And she had been…mostly fine with that. It didn’t make her less acutely aware of her incredibly limited use in combat…but she didn’t work alone, so that was fine, surely? She had mastered the bow, was a Paladin head and shoulders above many in the ranks, and was learning how to properly be a pugilist. She was versatile...wasn’t she?

Then the losses mounted around her. The bodies piled up. And she became painfully, uncomfortably aware of how little she could do to mitigate that. 

After losing Haurchefant— and almost immediately after, losing Ysale and Estinien— finally the losses were too much. She needed a moment to breathe, even she could concede that, after how poorly she had handled herself afterward.

With the assurance that she was well enough to leave Ishgard under her own power (and a fervent, repeated promise to Aymeric to contact him if that changed,) she made for the Twelveswood. 

Bitter though the pill would be to swallow, surely she could force herself through the mental hurdle of losing everything and everyone she loved and just accept the wood as a necessary evil, right? If it meant she could protect people better, could heal people and save them from the things she let slip past her shield, surely just jumping into her past trauma feet first would be fine?

A pretty lie, but hey. If it kept her from losing more people— or at least, fewer people than if she continued to go without healing magic— then so be it.

“Unhand my grandfather!” Cried a voice from deeper in the wood, off the path.

Serella pulled on Ullr’s reigns and strained her hearing to pinpoint its source. Someone was in distress— the hows and whys could wait. Her own problems could wait. When a startled cry of pain carried to her, she found which direction it came from, and steered Ullr straight toward it.

Far enough into the thicket that they were not visible by the road, she at last spied them— there was a woman draped in starlight motif robes and long lilac hair trying to aid a lancer. Judging by his spear, he was of Gridania— though the knight guarding both of them wore distinctly Ishgardian chainmail. Intriguing, but it would have to wait; Serella quickly realized what was going on.

Dismounting and moving over toward the trio, she watched the group ahead of them warily. An old man in robes similar to that of the lilac haired woman was crouched before three people in bandit’s tunics, sneering down at them with weapons drawn.

“Ah, feisty. We’ll fetch a fine price for that one from the pleasure barge captains.” Drawled the Duskwight woman who led the group of ne’er do wells. 

“You won’t get any of them if I’ve a say in it.” Serella spoke up, her sword and shield drawn.

Though the robed woman looked startled, the knight Serella moved beside gave her a nod of acknowledgement. “Ah— the House Fortemps ward. Your help is welcome, Mistress Arcbane.”

Even as she gave him a nod, her eyes did not stray from those who held the woman’s grandfather captive. 

“Grab the old man. These wizard types carry on them all manner of begemmed baubles and golden trinkets.” Snarled the bandit leader, her eyes hawkish from behind her mask.

One of her three underlings seized the old man by his arm.

“Up, or I’ll toss you to the snakes!” He demanded, and the group watched in horror as they began to drag him away.

Serella’s mind reeled. Her bow was still in her saddlebag, to take the time to reach it and draw would spell death for the poor old man. She could toss her shield, but any follow up attack would be too slow to protect him. There was her thaumaturgy…but with only rudimentary spells, she wouldn’t exactly do much good. Every solution she could think of was too slow to guarantee the hostage would be safe.

Had she looked toward the captive, she might have noticed him toss a glimmering gem toward her before they began to haul him away.

“You want to see the old man again, you’ll leave us the girl. Try anything, and he’s dead.” The leader said, her eyes never straying from Serella’s, as if she had her figured out before Serella had even moved.

Knowing when she was beat, the Paladin grit her teeth but sheathed her blade. 

“Wait!” The lilac haired woman called, but they were already cresting the hill, out of sight. 

The trees shifted in the breeze, and a glimmer from within a small patch of grass caught Serella’s eye. As the poor woman grappled with her grandfather being kidnapped, Serella drew near to the faint golden glimmer. 

It was such a perfectly smoothed out stone that for a moment, Serella had mistaken it for a gem that had fallen out of its setting. The shine on it as she knelt down to inspect it, however, was unmistakable. 

A Soul Crystal.

“Was this your grandfa—?” Serella had begun to ask, as she had reached for the stone.

The moment her fingertips brushed the smooth surface, everything around her grew cloaked in darkness.

And…and it didn’t frighten her. Somehow, she knew, as surely as she knew herself, that it was nothing but the comfort of night that shrouded her eyes. She would find herself in the dark. The stars had always lit her path in such times, and they had never once led her astray.

Sure enough, little pinpricks of light, brilliant and beautiful, glittered like gems strewn about a wine dark sea. Some connected and formed constellations, but now…now she could see the image those stars formed. The expanse of the known and the unknown surrounded her in its comforting, cooling shadow. Familiar, but powerful, it thrummed through her and around her. It was as if she could see and understand everything in that instant, even if she could not process it. Rather than frighten her, it calmed her; the stars always showed her what she needed to see in the dark.

When she opened her eyes again, though everything was exactly as it was before she had picked up the stone…she understood on an intrinsic level that everything had changed, even if she couldn’t see it in the light of day. 

More aware of herself and her surroundings again, she realized she had stood up again, and turned toward the trio that had been left behind, her hand extended to offer the soul crystal to the robed woman. 

“Grandfather’s soul crystal…” She murmured as she drew near. “Why would he leave it here, surrendering any power he might have had to free himself from those bandits?” The hand she had reached out to take the crystal back paused. “Unless…you were the one he saw in this reading before we left hte Old World…but that was more than a moon ago! My grandfather scried from the cards that he would serve as the bridge for countless souls to be passed to another…might you be that other…?”

“I know nothing of these cards you speak of, but I can…I don’t know. It feels different.” Serella looked up. “Even with it being daylight out…I can see the stars.”

The woman gasped. 

“These men of the forests are careless. Tracking them will be no difficult feat. I shall follow and strike before they have time to regroup in numbers.” The knight spoke up.

The woman held her hand out to him as if to beseech him to be silent. 

“The stars have spoken.” She said, and somehow, Serella believed her, even if she couldn’t understand what they were saying. “They have laid their path not before you, but before the adventurer here.” She turned back to Serella. “You.”

“Serella.” The Paladin introduced herself.

“You. You must take the Soul of the Astrologian and place it near your heart.” She said, and her voice had lowered as if to give softer instruction. “Listen to the tales of those who walked before you, and know their jounreys as you do your own.”

“But what—”

“As for the tools you require and the knowledge needed to wield them, I, Leveva, shall see to those matters.” 

Leveva smiled then, encouragingly, and any trace of fear she had harbored before had vanished. 

Serella did as instructed, closed her eyes, and let her soul attune to the stars. She listened to the whispers of lives lived before her time, felt the wash of healing magic, starlight washing away the blood and the agony of those who needed succor. For the night is calm and quiet, ideal for restoration.

Somehow…it felt like homecoming again.

Chapter Text


 

It was a rare night where sleep was warm, comforting, and dreamless, and Serella let herself sink into it as deeply as she could. Submerged in a swathe of plush pillows, blankets, pets, and limbs, she was encompassed by warm softness and everything that mattered most in the world to her. Would that she could never wake, a part of her thought as she sighed deeply.

A gentle but insistent shaking of her shoulder only just jostled her out of her deep sleep—though not enough to bring her entirely into wakefulness, either. Someone needed her, she tiredly realized, but then, when didn’t someone need her for something?

“Ella?” She heard her lover call to her, and even in the depths of her sleepiness, she could hear the alarm in his voice.

Was it an emergency? Had something happened? But she was so warm and happy and so very, very tired…but if he needed her…

Serella managed to make a barely intelligible noise that half formed his name at the end but still could not muster the energy to open her leaden eyelids. Gods, how exhausted had she been before coming to bed without realizing it, she wondered.

“Serella?” Aymeric’s voice was clearer then, and in her state of semi-alertness, she could hear the faint tremor in his voice then. “Dearest, can you look at me?”

Finding his request odd while her mind still struggled to catch up with her, she blearily did as he asked, blinking the last vestiges of sleep away.

When she found his eyes, wide, terrified in the dark, everything clicked in her mind.

“What’s wrong?” She asked, hoping to still play the tired fool in the hopes he would talk to her about what haunted him.

For she could guess, in the way his trembling hands cupped her face, in the way his eyes searched hers. Given how few Scions remained among the waking, it was hard not to know. She only hoped he would find enough ease to give voice to his fears.

Aymeric let out a shuddering sigh and curled atop her, his forehead against her temple.

“’Tis nothing,” he said—tonight was not the night, it seemed. He turned his head to kiss her cheek. “’Tis nothing.”

It wasn’t, they both knew. It was just nothing they could do anything about.

“I’m here,” Serella said softly, her hand coming up to card through his messy curls.

“I know.” 

He did not sound convinced.

Wrapping her other arm around him, she anchored herself to Hydaelyn for one night longer, if only to stay in his arms. Pressing the issue would only hurt them both; she could only offer him so much comfort, and he would come to her when he was ready to work through it.

“I’m here.” She said into his hair again. His arms tightened around her.

It was all she could offer him. She hoped it was enough.

Chapter Text


 

There was sanctuary in the shadows cast by the pale moonlight that spilled into their inn room, an intimate succor in which they softly found one another. A blanket of quiet shrouded them in the deepest corner of the Carline Canopy that Miounne could find them, and though the air was still it was still sweet with the scent of an encroaching storm.

Fresh from the baths with hair dried from the wind Serella stood at the window swathed in a sweater and gazing out to the earthen pathways the wound through New Gridania. Her thoughts seemed loud in the silence, though she supposed that was only because she felt her own anticipation for her lover’s return aching so keenly in her chest.

When the door opened and the shadows scattered away from the light that came from the hallway she did not move; she knew it was exactly who she was waiting for in the way he let out a quiet, happy sigh at the sight of her. She locked that sound in the deepest recesses of her heart to take with her on her journey tomorrow; it would soon be all she had of him for the foreseeable future.

For tomorrow, the dawn would carry Serella beyond Baelsar’s Wall and into the fires of liberation. Aymeric, anchored in the frigidity of ice and politics, could only hope to follow in due time.

But that was to be in tomorrow’s light. In tonight’s darkness, the starlight peering through the window introduced scars and skin to lips and fingertips. In their shadowed sanctuary, the light was not welcome, and could not reach them, could not steal her.

In the shadows, they were home.