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Apex Predator

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When Aza came to from his unpleasant blast to Zenos’s past via the Echo, it was to Asahi’s expression of disgusted rage.

Ah, he thought with something ugly and hot beginning to choke him, Zenos fanboy.

“Everything about you,” Asahi hissed quietly, leaning in so close that Aza could see the pulse at his throat, “Your power, even your face, vexes me.”

“I can solve that quite easily with my blade,” Aza returned with equal quietness, but his voice was flat and cold and empty and Fray, because he refused to fully engage with this thing in front of him. Seeing Zenos again had been like being doused in freezing cold water – everything disconnected and went distant, and even Asahi’s voice was like white noise buzzing on the edges of his hearing. Zenos. Zenos’s fanboy. In his personal space. Near his friends. This is a threat. A threat. Threat. Threat. Threat.

Kill him now, Fray snarled, Crush his windpipe. Run him through. Break his skull. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.

“Go on, then,” Asahi murmured coaxingly, leaning back and offering him a terribly provocative smile, “Lash out like the beast you are, and imperil the successful negotiations. I am certain your friend, Lord Hien, would thank you for it.”

Unthinkingly, Aza’s gaze flickered over Asahi’s shoulder to where Hein was. They were standing a fair distance away by the Garlean ship, chatting amicably with the other two that had come with Asahi. They were too far to hear them, or to pick out facial expressions, but they would have a clear view if Aza acted upon the rage pounding harshly through him. To them, it would seem like Aza attacked out of nowhere – a clear violation of diplomatic protocols and ruining whatever chance Doma and Garlemald had for a peaceful prisoner exchange.  

Beast. Even the way Asahi said it sounded like Zenos, and it made his fur fluff out and his ears pin back, tail lashing from side to side in open aggravation. It seemed to delight the twisted little fuck in front of him, from how Asahi seemed so maliciously happy in the face of Aza’s powerless frustration. He must be aware that he could kill him in more than three different ways this close, but was so smugly assured that this ‘beast’ was leashed so tight that he stood there, openly fearless, as he baited the tiger.

Oh. Oh, the temptation was there to prove him wrong – but he couldn’t. He was not the bloodthirsty beast Zenos and his ilk thought him to be. He had risen above that destructive rage! Fray was proof of that, proof that though that potential existed, Aza chose to be better, and he will be better even if this pathetic, disgusting piece of shit in front of him dared to openly challenge him, dared to pant after Zenos and carry on his will in his own fucking presence and dared to exist-

His vision dotted with red.

“Well?” Asahi goaded, “Is your muzzle too tight, beast?”

Aza’s arm jerked in an abortive movement that made Asahi take a quick, cautious step back. Aza watched him with narrowed, gleaming red eyes, feeling that crackle of dark energy tingling the tips of his fingers. Fray was silent. Asahi looked not so smug now, but still viciously enraged, like he was insulted Aza dared to exist in his very presence and be threatening. He would take it.

“A good predator is patient,” Aza purred, “I can wait.”

They held eye contact. They stared this lesser prey down.

Asahi gave in.

“Mark my words, Saviour of Savages,” Asahi hissed, conceding ground and looking deeply unhappy about it, “There will be a reckoning.”

He marched off, and Aza watched him at every step, expression blank. It rubbed his fur all wrong to let that thing walk off without so much as touching him but, Fray was right; a good predator was patient. When they next meet, this political farce wouldn’t protect him and they would be clear-cut enemies. Aza will get his pound of flesh. 

The Garlean diplomatic team boarded the ship and departed. Aza looked away only once it was completely out of sight, hiding his trembling hands behind his back.


 

Aza left Doma very quickly after that.

He promised to be accessible for when the prisoner exchanged happened – thankfully Hien shared his concerns that Asahi was a creepy, untrustworthy little fucker and would no doubt have some tricky Garlean plot planned for this ‘peace process’. But he could not remain in Doma when he felt like this. Yotsuyu’s presence was driving him up the wall as well, as just seeing her face made him want to snap something in half with his hands – preferably her neck. He was incredibly disappointed that Gosetsu prevented her execution, even if that emotion made him feel deeply uncomfortable and conflicted considering the complicated circumstances involved in that particular mess. 

So, he went to Ishgard. Just for a day or two, he told himself. Then he can burn out remaining jitters on Soroban’s ‘business proposal’ and put this unpleasantness behind him.


 

He got extremely drunk, of course.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had you like this here,” Gribillont said conversationally, like it was common for Aza to be face-down on his bar counter at two in the morning. He was cleaning out a glass with an off-white rag, the only man out on the bar now that the majority of the knights had retired. Honestly, Aza didn’t even know if Gribillont even slept. He was always on the bar, no matter the day or time.

“Mmnff…” Aza mumbled incoherently into the stained wood, “Badsh’ff…”

“I see.”

Aza lifted his head enough to prop his chin on the bar, his gaze wandering over to the far corner. Sid and Rielle weren’t there, which he had been sort of banking on – they were one of the very few that had seen him at his worst, with Mirage, and were of course privy to the… to Fray and all that implied. He came here wanting to vent, really, maybe have someone nodding along to his violent intentions towards Asahi and how Yotsuyu was rude not to have the decency to drown – but instead there were no one but knights freshly returned from their tour of Ala Mhigo, and Aza didn’t want to trouble Aymeric with this.

“You don’t have to,” Gribillont said, “But I’ve been told I’m a good listener. Not much for advice though.”

“It’s st’pid stuff…” Aza slurred, forcing himself upright and gripping the edge of the bar when his head spun nauseatingly, “Urgh. ‘Nother one.”

Gribillont looked at him, “Are you going to be sick on my bar again.”

“…no.” Aza did that once, when was he going to let that go?

“Hmm…” Gribillont stared at him for a moment, then clearly decided it wasn’t his concern if the Warrior of Light wanted to get blind, stinking drunk in his bar. He brought up a bottle of beer from under the bar, and showed him the unopened seal at the top, far too used to Aza’s phobia of getting drugged/poisoned, “Is this about the Lord Chancellor?”

“Who?” Aza asked stupidly, before he remembered- “Whaaaa…? Noo, s’not ‘bout Aymeric. S’just… m’head’s dumb.”

“Right,” Gribillont said, cracking open the bottle and pushing it across the bar into Aza’s waiting hand.

“Cuz… y’know when, when bad stuff happens, and… the stuff stays and, and gets stuck in there, and… bad thoughts and feelin’s go there?”

“Right…” Gribillont said again, albeit slower and clearly not getting it.

“I almos’ stabbed someone today,” Aza blurted before he properly thought about it, “Like… because he… reminded me of, of the bad stuff, so… I wan’ed to… to…”

Asahi’s face flickered through his memory, that disgusted hatred, Zenos’s looming presence, that provocative smile and ‘lash out like the beast you are’ and Aza very nearly crushed the bottle in his hand. He forced himself to drink it instead, the anger still gnawing and biting at him like a dog with a bone. Go away, he thought miserably, I don’t want to think these things, feel these things. I need to be above them. I can’t be the barely trained beast straining at its leash, threatening to slip loose and bite. 

Gribillont took Aza’s confession quite admirably, considering he was sitting there with his sword well within arm’s reach, and just gave him a very long, considering look, “Did you stab him, though?”

“No. Still wan’ed to, though.”

“Well, there you go,” Gribillont said, “You didn’t stab him, even though you really wanted to. I won’t say I fully understand the situation or you all that well, but sometimes it’s the things you don’t do that are more important.”

“Yer right,” Aza said wryly, “Yer shit at advice.”

“I tried, so you can’t criticise me.”

Aza made a noise and went back to his drink. Gribillont left him alone after that, moving around him to start clearing down his bar. There were only a scant few people here, each of them equally inebriated as Aza, and he found himself slumping lower and lower and lower as the candles burned down and down and down until he was face down again on the bar, fingers loose around his near empty bottle and trying not to be ill.

‘Beast’, Asahi’s voice sneered.

‘Good, good!’ Zenos laughed, wild and crazed, ‘This is the beast I have longed to face!’

Aza fell into a fitful doze, one where he dreamt of ripping a laughing Zenos’s throat wide open and devouring, because he hated him and wanted him to choke and gurgle and not endure that dignified end he had and-

-someone was in his personal space.

The thought sharply intruded with an abruptness that knocked him out of the hideous nightmare he was in. He jerked upright and nearly toppled off of the stool when everything spun and sloshed about like a ship in a storm. A strong hand grabbed his bicep, steadying him, while Aza just barely squelched the knee-jerk need to stab the intruder.

“Whassawho’swhat?” Aza slurred rapidly, body tense with anticipation. Forgotten Knight, something clicked, he got drunk and it’s probably Gribillont touching you, you paranoid fuck.

“Aza,” Aymeric’s voice said, “What have you done to yourself?”

Oh. That’s not Gribillont.

“Bwuh?” Aza said blankly, turning his head to see what… could be Aymeric? Honestly he was seeing triple and everything was swaying far too much for him to know up from down, “Uhhh…”

Aymeric sighed and turned, “I’ll take care of this.”

“I can easily bundle him off to an inn room and keep an eye on him,” Gribillont said somewhere out of sight.

“It’s fine.”

Mystified, and wondering how long he had been snoring into Gribillont’s bar, Aza tried to pull his arm out of Aymeric’s grip. He failed, miserably, “Wait, no… m’fine. Jus’… I was… dozin’…”

“It’s four in the morning,” Aymeric said very carefully, and- everything about him was careful, Aza realised, with how he tugged him off the barstool and steadied him, with how his body language was, like Aza was some cornered animal liable to lash out or spook if he moved too fast or unpredictably.

Aza felt irrationally angry about this. He was not- he was not that.

“So?” Aza snapped, “There’s no rules about stayin’ ‘til four!”

“Actually,” Gribillont started.

This time Aza managed to shake Aymeric’s hold off of him, and he stood there on his own two feet, that day old anger coming burning back to the fore. He didn’t bother swallowing it down, “I don’t need t’go anywhere!” he said.

“Aza,” Aymeric started warily.

“No!” Aza yelled, and he could see Aymeric was actually startled at him raising his voice. Aza shouted a lot, but – rarely with such anger. He stood there for a moment, breathing hard and feeling that rage clamber against the inside of his ribs like an couerl trying to escape its cage, but he clenched his jaw shut instead, refusing to vent it out like it wanted to. Aymeric didn’t… no. He needed to be alone.

“I’m goin’,” Aza said, though he barely recognised his own voice, “Don’t follow me.”

There was a pause, and then Aymeric said neutrally, “Alright.”

He felt a lot more clear-headed as he walked out of the Forgotten Knight – luckily it had been empty, and that anger that had flared red-hot instantly soured into shame. He couldn’t believe he just lashed out like that. He had never yelled at Aymeric like that before, and he was ashamed of himself. This was why he didn’t want to visit – he felt all out of sorts and, fuck. Fucking fuck fuck.

The streets were empty at four in the morning as he made his unsteady way down to the Aetheryte Plaza. He didn’t know where he was going, exactly – he was too drunk to leave the city (the guards wouldn’t let him out anyway in his state) and definitely too drunk to teleport to somewhere else. He couldn’t trudge back to the Forgotten Knight and Aymeric’s place was definitely out. He ended up standing by the Aetheryte, cold and unsteady, with a curious kind of pressure crushing down on his chest and throat.

He stuffed his hands under his armpits, breathing in the sharp air and letting it out in short, stuttering breaths. He was normally better than this – much better. But that vision… Zenos had always brought out the worst in him, he could admit with some bitterness. After tasting defeat for the first time in a long time at that monster’s hand, something ugly and twisted had sprouted in him. Even just the thought of him made his blood boil, and it galled him that a majority of his nightmares featured that fucking monster.

Because Aza had never defeated him one-on-one. He needed a party to do it, and even more help when he merged with Shinryu. Zenos was… was a walking nightmare to him. No matter how strong he was, he couldn’t protect anyone from him, and couldn’t even protect himself. Zenos terrified him, and it angered him to be terrified because he shouldn’t be and, it shamed him to admit, but seeing that Echo vision prompted by Asahi had made him taste that fear again, brief and needling and shameful.

He wanted to break Asahi in half just for that. How dare he. How dare he.  

There was the sound of boots scuffing the ground behind him and Aza already knew who it was.

“I told you not t’follow me,” Aza said shakily, keeping his back to him because that pressure in his throat and chest was getting worse. No, he told himself. No.

“You’re also incredibly drunk and upset,” Aymeric said, coming up close but not touching him or moving in front of him. He didn’t sound angry, even though Aza had stupidly and thoughtlessly snapped at him, “Were you going to stand here for the rest of the night?”

“No.” Yes.

Aymeric didn’t sigh or say anything really. Too late Aza remembered that he had seen quite a few of his low points, had woken him up to him shaking from many a nightmare, and, though he never asked about their contents, probably understood what they were regardless. Aza lowered his head, chin close to his chest, taking pains to draw in a long, steady breath.

“Sorry,” Aza said roughly, his shame winning over, “I didn’t mean t’snap at you.”

“I know,” Aymeric said, “It’s fine.”

No it isn’t, Aza thought miserably. Aymeric was one of the few good things to happen to him, and he thoughtlessly lashed out at him like the beast he was, because he was annoyed and upset at a perceived slight. He managed to, somewhat, hold his temper when face to face with Asahi, but let it slip with a loved one? What messed up logic was that?

“Let’s get out of the cold,” Aymeric continued, and his hand gently grasped Aza’s bicep and made him turn around. Aza kept his gaze downwards, didn’t look Aymeric in the face. “Where do you want to go?”

In the deepest hole this side of Eorzea and beat the fear out of himself, “Yours is fine.”

Aymeric pulled him along. The walk wasn’t… awkward as such, but Aza felt too tense and wound up to properly enjoy the late-night walk through Ishgard. It was looking a lot better than last time, he noted in a desperate attempt to distract himself from his own thoughts. The stonework of damaged buildings and statues were fixed, and even the general atmosphere felt more alive. As there was no longer a thousand-year-old war hanging over everyone’s head, the pervading sense of grim gloom had no hold here.

Aymeric’s home was pretty much the same – it was with a weird jolt low in his belly that he realised he hadn’t been here in months. Aymeric only recently returned to Ishgard from Ala Mhigo and Aza had been busy with Doma and the whole… Yotsuyu drama to visit since then. It was dark and quiet when they entered, and Aza was feeling a dizzy kind of exhaustion start creeping up on him. He barely remembered walking through the front door and into the bed he eventually found himself in.

“Sleep,” Aymeric murmured at him, his low voice a comforting lull that Aza couldn’t help but obey, “Everything is fine.”

It most definitely wasn’t, but Aza appreciated the sentiment all the same as he drifted off.


 

Aza was on his knees, his lungs burning as his body tried to force itself beyond his limits. His stamina was puttering out, and his hands almost slipped on the hilt of his blade as he used it like a prop, heaving himself onto shaking legs as Zenos walked lazily towards him.

The firelight cast eerie shadows over Zenos’s mask, the eyeholes black pits as Aza mustered every drop of strength in his body to lift his blade. The greatsword’s weight was a disadvantage now, his muscles screaming from exertion as he widened his stance, hefting it up, meeting the advancing monster head on even as the beginnings of terror start scratching at the back of his throat.

Zenos tilted his head, an alien, quizzical gesture, taking a longer step, body bending forwards slightly in preparation for a strike- charging forwards far too fast, far too fast, and Aza didn’t even block or parry – no time before Zenos ran him right through and there was blood and pain and he was on his knees and Zenos leaned over him, no mask, smiling that bloody smile and-

“Goodbye, my friend,” Zenos said and smiled and dug the sword in deeper, twisting it until Aza saw stars and tasted copper and, “My enemy.”

Then Zenos stabbed him. And stabbed him. And stabbed him. And stabbed him. And.

And he woke up soaked in sweat with his hands clutching at where he could still feel Zenos’s blade buried deep, his breathing loud and fast in the quiet of Aymeric’s bedroom. He was shaking, he realised distantly, and he felt sick and disgusting and like someone had scraped out his insides until he was raw.

This was why he rarely drank nowadays – it gave him the most fucked up nightmares.

Aza made himself sit up, scraping his hair back with a shaking hand as he realised he was alone. Sunlight was pouring through an open window, the chattering noise of Ishgard in full bustle drifting through. He hoped he hadn’t made any noises. Last thing he wanted was people commenting that someone screamed in Aymeric’s home.

He took a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds, then releasing it one slow, albeit shuddering, go. Then he did it again and a few more times besides, slowly feeling his heartrate drop to something less manic, the twinge of pain echoing through his chest easing. That scar from his first encounter with Zenos was well healed – any pain from it was psychosomatic.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when the door abruptly opened and submitted Aymeric into the room. He was dressed in casual-wear, a simple plain white shirt with dark trousers – and was carrying a glass of water.

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Aymeric said warmly, though it didn’t hide the concern in his gaze as he took in Aza’s no doubt terrible appearance. He could still feel himself shaking, “Are you alright?”

Aza stared at him for a moment, “…not really.”

“Yes, that was a stupid question,” Aymeric sighed, standing next to the bed and holding the glass out, “Drink this.”

It was a testament to how exhausted and mentally drained Aza was that he took the glass without giving it another look, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Aymeric asked carefully, staring at him pointedly until Aza started sipping the water. It didn’t taste funny, so he guessed Aymeric wasn’t trying to drug him with some sort of sleeping powder.

“For last night. This,” Aza mumbled into the glass, “I didn’t mean to get so drunk, or snap at you, or…”

“I think we covered that last night,” Aymeric sighed, and then sat down on the edge of the bed. He said nothing until Aza finished his drink of water, then, “Did something happen in Doma?”

Of course, Aymeric wouldn’t know the specifics of what triggered Aza’s bout of stupidity. He stared into the empty glass.

“There was some… unpleasantness with a disciple of Zenos,” Aza said, sounding remarkably calm despite how even the thought of Asahi made his stomach curdle, “And all that drama with Yotsuyu coming back from the dead playing innocent, and I know it’s no excuse, but-”

Aza stopped and rubbed a hand over his face, thinking back to the shore, where he felt that black rage urge him to run that creature through. He nearly flinched when his nightmare reared up, Zenos leaning over him and running him through, and forcefully ejected the image from his brain before he dwelt too deeply on it.

Aymeric gently snagged his hand away, holding it and giving the fingers a squeeze. Too late Aza realised he was still trembling slightly, and he mentally cursed his body for betraying him so much. In battle he could channel that fear into a fierce desire to live – while he had been terrified of Zenos, he could mask it behind the ferocity of his attacks, but here, where there was no enemy but his anxious mind, the fear felt claustrophobic and toxic. He couldn’t physically fight it and it left him uneasy.

Aymeric was rubbing his thumb over his knuckles, and it helped a little, “Do you need to be anywhere today?”

“No,” thank fuck, Aza did not say. He felt terrible, and not from his awful sleep either. He really was hungover to hell and back and if he had to get up and move he might just quietly keel over and shuffle off the mortal coil instead.

“Stay here,” Aymeric said, letting go of his hand and patting his leg through the bed cover, “For a few days. My hours are far freer back here in Ishgard so I will be able to spend more time with you.”

Aza felt deeply and incredibly guilty then, “Oh, no, Aymeric, I don’t want to trouble you-”

“It won’t be any trouble,” Aymeric said firmly, “We had this argument before.”

Aza meekly gave in, not having the energy to rehash such an old and constant argument between them either, “I… alright.”

“Good,” Aymeric looked relieved but also worried, probably because Aza hadn’t kicked up his usual fuss over troubling him with his petty emotional issues. After a brief pause, he leaned in and kissed him on the forehead, giving him a quick behind the ear too, “Now go back to sleep. I will be just down the hall in my study.”

The idea of sleep made something anxious crawl through his belly, but that might just be the hangover so Aza nodded, handing off the empty glass, “I’ll shout if any Garlean assassins come crawling through your window or something.”

Some of the worry in Aymeric’s expression eased at that remark, “I will endeavour to rush to your rescue in that event.”

Aza managed a smile, and after Aymeric gave him one last lingering look, as if making sure he wasn’t going to die of some mysterious illness/injury, left him alone. Aza listened to his footsteps until they stopped and then leaned back against the pillows.

His sleep was going to be disrupted for a few days now, he thought irritably. He had done so well since Zenos died, and now Asahi dragged everything back to the fore. Inconsiderate Zenos fanboy. Next time they met, he was definitely going to make him pay. Now that was an anger Aza didn’t mind kindling, even if he kept hearing that sneered ‘beast’ hissing in the back of his thoughts.

Beast. Well, if Asahi wanted a beast, then Aza will make sure he was one he couldn’t hope to hunt. Apex predators recognised one another, and Asahi wasn’t one. He wasn’t Zenos, even if he sounded like him. Nothing but an inferior, greyed out copy. Nothing to fear. Everything to hate.

Yet when Aza drifted off, it was to a dream of Asahi on his knees, struggling to stand, as Aza lazily strolled towards him. Then he ran him through and stabbed him again and again and again.

It was not a satisfying dream at all.