Azriel blinked blood out of his eyes, feeling his eyelashes stick together slightly as he did. His opponent crumpled to the ground as Azriel smoothly removed his blade. He stared impassively at the body.
He recognized the man, though perhaps boy would have been a more appropriate term. Azriel had once sparred with him, but that didn’t matter now. The Blood Rite was all that mattered. Finding Cassian and Rhysand was all that mattered.
Azriel couldn’t have told you how long he had been in the mountains; his life had become a cycle of fight-kill-sleep-survive. Keeping track of time was a luxury that Azriel could not afford.
Perhaps Rhysand was dead already, perhaps someone had put a knife through his heart the same way Azriel had now done to countless opponents. Maybe Cassian-
Thinking of Cassian made a strange, unknown emotion twist in Azriel’s chest. He couldn’t allow himself to think of his friend, it was a distraction.
Distractions make you weak. Weakness gets you killed.
Azriel wiped his long blade off on his thigh, slowly and cleaning off the blood and gore that clung to its shiny surface. He sagged heavily against the nearest tree, trying to calm his breathing, slow his heart that was still racing from the fight. His heartrate suddenly spiked again as Azriel heard a twig snap somewhere behind him. Azriel whirled around, drawing his blade up in the same motion, preparing once again to strike his enemy dead.
“Az!” and Azriel blinked, how did this opponent know his name? He blinked again, suppressing his fighting instinct. It was Cassian.
Azriel’s heart gave an unpleasant lurch.
In the time it had taken Azriel to process what was happening, Cassian had walked over to him and pulled him into a rough hug. Azriel could feel Cassian’s warm breath on his ear, he could feel the heat of his palm, even through the thick material of his gear.
“Cass,” Azriel choked out, voice hoarse from lack of use. Cassian gripped him even tighter and there they stood, two boys soaked with blood and sweat, clinging to each other. Azriel was distantly aware that they shouldn’t be standing like this, they were too vulnerable.
Move, Azriel told his body. You have to go or someone will attack. His body stubbornly refused to move, refused to unlock from Cassian’s.
Finally, Cassian released Azriel and took a step backwards. “Are you okay, are you hurt?” he asked, pushing his hair back from his face to stare at Azriel.
“I’m fine,” said Azriel, and he was, physically. “Are you?”
Cassian shrugged roughly and said “All things considered, I’m fucking fantastic.” Azriel felt a grin break across his face, in felt strange. His body had forgotten what a smile felt like.
“Any word on Rhys?” Azriel asked, remembering that the goal had been for all three of them to unite and fight their way out.
Cassian’s face fell slight, “Haven’t heard anything, but you know Rhys. He’s a fighter, he’ll make it.” He scrubbed a hand over his jaw, prickly with stubble. Cassian sighed deeply before continuing, “We need to keep moving, everyone’s been moving closer together in the mountains as the Rite goes on, he can’t be far away now.”
“If he’s not far away, that means neither are the others,” mused Azriel.
Cassian sighed again and looked around the forest. They were in the densest part of it, pine trees growing close together, but providing little comfort from the biting wind. The sun above was low in the sky, casting long shadows over Cassian and Azriel’s faces.
“We should find somewhere to camp, at this point in the day there’s little use in hunting for Rhys,” Cassian said, voice full of decisive authority. Azriel nodded in agreement, both because the plan was a good one and because there was little use in arguing with Cassian once he decided something.
“There’s a river that way,” said Azriel, pointing through the trees. “Water, and it’ll give us some protection, the river is too deep to be crossed quietly.”
“Lead the way,” said Cassian. Normally he would’ve continued, would’ve made a joke or started a conversation. Much like Azriel, interacting with others had become foreign during his time in the mountains.
Azriel and Cassian walked quietly through the forest, blades drawn and gazes wary. They hadn’t lived this long by being careless. It didn’t take them long to find the river, and when they arrived Cassian nodded approvingly at it. He knelt down by the river bank and cupped his hands in the water, using them to scoop water into his mouth, slurping loudly. When he was finished Cassian sat back on his heels and wiped his mouth on his arm, grinning at Azriel. “Bet you I can catch a bigger fish than you.”
Azriel laughed, “We’ve been out here fighting for our lives and you want to turn this into a competition?” he said incredulously.
“You’re just saying that because you know I’ll win,” and Azriel laughed again. Cassian was adjusting to being around people again much faster than he was.
They waded into the river and used their swords to spear fish out of the water, splashing each other as they did. It felt good, almost like they had come to the forest on purpose, come to be with each other.
Azriel shook off those thoughts. Distractions, distractions. Why would they have done that anyway? Why would Cassian want to come out here with him?
By the time they had finished fishing, the sun was even lower in the sky, golden light making Cassian’s hair shine and catching on his strong jaw. Azriel shook himself again, what were these thoughts doing in his head?
Azriel made a fire while Cassian cleaned the fish and by the time the sun had sunk below the horizon the two boys were eating dinner and warming themselves.
“You know,” Cassian began, breaking the silence. “The time we’ve been out here is the longest we’ve ever been apart.”
Azriel snorted, “Cass, we didn’t meet until we were 12. Pretty sure that was longer than the few weeks we’ve been out here.”
“Doesn’t count,” said Cassian simply.
“How’d you figure?”
“I hadn’t met you yet, I couldn’t miss you.”
Azriel felt his breath catch in his chest, and he had to take a bite of his fish to steel himself before he could respond. “I missed you too,” he said quietly, turning to look at Cassian. He was giving Azriel a look that he couldn’t place, but it was so intense that Azriel had to turn away.
The forest grew darker still and stars began to appear in the sky above, twinkly brightly before either of the boys spoke again.
“I thought this would be different,” said Cassian and Azriel jumped slightly, he had already grown accustom to the silence again.
“What do you mean?”
“The Rite,” said Cassian. “I thought it would be noble, that I would feel brave. That’s not what it’s been like, it’s just been pain”
Azriel mulled this over in silence for a few moments before speaking, “You are noble.” He knew his words were too honest, too true for this moment.
Cassian shook his head slightly. He was sitting so close to Azriel that he could feel the heat coming off Cassian’s body. “I’m not, I’ve killed people I know, people I would’ve called friends, just to find you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Azriel quietly, the apology was a knee-jerk reaction to years of being an inconvenience. Years of being less-than.
“Don’t be,” said Cassian sharply. “I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would do anything to find you again.”
He didn’t mention Rhysand, Azriel’s mind commented. He said he would do anything to see you again. You. Not the man who will one day be his High Lord.
Cassian was giving Azriel the same unreadable expression from earlier, “I can never tell what’s going on in your head.”
Azriel opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again, unable to find the words. Cassian lifted his hand slowly, moving like Azriel was an animal that he didn’t want to spook. His palm cupped the hinge of Azriel’s jaw, long fingers brushing the hair at the base of his skull.
Azriel froze, unsure of what to do, unsure of how to react to this. His ever muscle had locked up, afraid that if he moved even a tiny increment, Cassian might stop touching him.
“Tell me if I’m reading this wrong,” said Cassian. And before Azriel’s brain could process those words, Cassian brushed his lips across Azriel’s.
That strange feeling leapt in Azriel’s chest again, but he stayed perfectly still.
Frowning slightly, Cassian pulled back and withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “Shit, Az, I’m so sorry.”
“What-“ Azriel started, “What was that? Why did you do that?” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“I thought you wanted me too, I’m sorry,” said Cassian again, the apology sounding almost frantic.
There was something fundamental Azriel was missing here. Something he wasn’t grasping. The gears in his mind spun frantically, trying to put the pieces together. Finally, he settled on a question. “Did you want to?”
Cassian laughed, uncomfortably loud in the stillness of the forest. “Yes,” now his voice was quiet compared to the laugh that had shattered through the cold air, “I wanted to kiss you. I thought that much would’ve been obvious.”
“Would you do it again?” Azriel asked. His own voice sounded strange to him, he wasn’t aware of making the decision to speak.
“Of course I would,” said Cassian.
“No,” said Azriel, desperately trying to make himself understood. “Will you?”
There was that unreadable look again, “Oh.”
This time Cassian’s hand settled on Azriel’s shoulder, steadying himself as he leaned in. When his lips met Azriel’s, this time Azriel didn’t freeze. He leaned into the kiss, one of his hands coming up to tangle in Cassian’s already-messy hair.
Azriel didn’t know how much time they spent like that, intertwined on the forest floor. When they finally broke apart, Cassian was breathing heavily and his lips were red. Azriel didn’t know where to look, didn’t know what to do with his limbs. He wondered if he should try to say something.
Cassian leaned back, stretching out on the ground. He grabbed Azriel’s shoulder and pulled him down so they were laying pressed against each other. Azriel kept waiting for someone to speak, but the silence remained unbroken. Azriel drifted off to sleep, into a tangle of dreams about fighting, about trying to fly when his wings were bound, about Cassian’s smile.
Watery morning sunlight stirred Azriel out of his sleep and he took an inventory of his body. Cassian was still pressed against him, sleeping deeply. Azriel rolled over onto his side so he was facing Cassian and leaned over to kiss Cassian gently.
He’ll push you away. He was just trying to relieve tension, he didn’t want anything. Azriel’s thoughts said. Why would he want you? You’re a just a freak.
Cassian blinked awake slowly and returned the kiss, the feel of it drowning out the noise of Azriel’s anxious thoughts.
“Good morning,” Cassian said, voice rough from sleep. Azriel smiled hesitantly. In silence they gathered their things and snuffed out the remaining ashes from the fire.
“We should follow the river,” said Azriel. “Maybe Rhys found it too.” Cassian nodded in agreement and they set off, side by side. Years of training and fighting together had made it easy to plan quickly.
The morning was cold and their breath rose around them like smoke, but the sunlight was brighter by the river bank, offering some respite from the winter chill.
“What was that, last night?” Azriel asked, knowing that he had to settle the matter before they reunited with Rhysand. If he didn’t ask about it now, he never would. It would become just another strange memory from the Blood Rite.
“It’s whatever you want it to be, Az,” said Cassian.
“We’re both males,” said Azriel quietly. “They won’t let us-“
Cassian cut him off, “We’re already bastards, this won’t change the way the see us. I’m yours, Az, whatever happens.” Cassian said it so simply, like it wasn’t the most complex thing in the world, like it wouldn’t bring them both nothing but more pain and suffering.
As they walked through the forest, Azriel let his hand brush against Cassian’s, their fingers intertwining.
They would keep fighting, they would find Rhys, and they would finish the Blood Rite.
And whatever the future held, they would meet it head on.