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Cruel To Be Kind (Not)

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Haurchefant’s grave always looked lonely.

Aza idly brushed the snow from the windswept stone, the cold biting into his fingertips as he let them linger. Out here, the tombstone was utterly exposed to the harsh elements and already the months of relentless wind and snow had mottled and pitted the stone. It would probably take a few years for it to be sheared smooth like the other graves, its occupant known only to those who still remembered him life and not long after that.

“You always become such a melancholy bore when you come here.”

Aza’s gaze didn’t waver from the smooth lettering carved into the stone, but he saw something shift in his peripheral. There was no noise accompanying the movement, though, no crunch of snow or creak of armour – not even the sound of breathing. Not that his companion needed such things.

“You don’t need to be here if you’re just going to complain,” Aza returned, finally looking at his companion.

Fray stood there like a black wraith, his yellow eyes almost glowing in the dark pits of his helmet. The edges of his outline seemed to waver, almost like a mirage, and the air stung with the acrid burn of dark aether. Aza could feel that exhausting tug somewhere in the core of himself whenever Fray manifested and he was half-tempted to sever the connection. The rebound would hurt and Fray would get snippy, but it would give him petty satisfaction of doing the equivalent of a door slam to the face.

“Not complaining, merely making an observation,” Fray said, prowling forwards. He left no footprints, and he skirted around Aza to stand on the other side of Haurchefant’s grave, blocking the view of Ishgard with his armoured body, “Though, we both know Haurchefant wouldn’t like you moping here for no reason.”

“I am not moping,” Aza snapped, “I’m reflecting.”

Fray tipped his head down, whispering sotto voce as if to Haurchefant’s grave, “Moping.”

Aza’s ear twitched, his tail giving several angry lashes before he forced himself to settle. Fray’s yellow eyes were intent on him, and he could practically see the mocking smile behind that helmet of his. He was aware how fucked up this was – Fray was himself and wasn’t even here, really, a figment of his fucked-up brain with him being the mouthpiece of both. But.

“Better than standing here alone, hm?” Fray finished the thought for him, reaching out the tombstone between them. Despite his callous attitude, his touch was gentle, lingering as he stroked the stone like one would with a lover, his head bowed enough so his eyes were hidden from view, “Even though you are alone. I’m not really here.”

Aza said nothing.

“This is a ‘could have been’,” Fray continued, “A what-if that’s lodged like a thorn in your heart. Does Aymeric know you come here so often? How your commitment threatens to wavers from regret?”

“Enough,” Aza turned away to look down the path he came up, seeing the dark shapes of Aevis in the distance. Fray’s gaze felt like a solid weight, “I’m committed.”

Fray laughed meanly, “Oh, yes, you really are. It’s your greatest weakness. Anyone flings so much as a shred of love your way and you lap it up like the starved dog you are, committing to their cause without really understanding it. Such an easy weapon to tame and use, with a few well-placed words and touches.”

Aza turned back to him, the barbs striking home despite his attempts to shrug them off, “Aymeric doesn’t view me like that.”

“No, he’s so deeply in love with you it’s terrifying,” Fray pressed both hands against the tombstone, leaning over it like a predator preparing to pounce, his yellow eyes gleaming brightly, “Terrifying,” he repeated, “So terrifying. You’re going to fuck it up, just like with Haurchefant, that’s what you’re thinking standing here.”

It really was unfair to have an argument with yourself, Aza thought irritably, especially when his other self was so free with his cruel tongue. He clenched his jaw, flexing his fingers to fight down the urge to rip Fray’s helmet off and beat him with it. That would just make things worse, because then he’d have to deal with his own stupid face smirking back at him and he was not in the right mental space to endure that particular brand of insanity right now.

“It could happen,” Fray continued lightly, straightening up, “Assassination, one lucky slip of the knife, or, even, perhaps, a repeat of this.”

He gestured grandly to Haurchefant’s grave, arms spread wide.

“You foolishly running onwards, leaving him behind to take the blade to your back. He would do it too, you know,” Fray lowered his arms, chuckling quietly in the back of his throat, “Aymeric would die for us and things… things are getting a little dangerous now, aren’t they?”

“What do you want?” Aza asked exhaustedly, lifting a hand to rub his eyes, “Or were you in the mood to emotionally abuse us today?”

“I feel you need a bit of a kick up the ass,” Fray said, “It’s a bit of an insult to Haurchefant to stand here, fearful of taking the next step, all because you’re scared this is going to happen all over again. It probably will, but that’s the price of your love, isn’t it? Isn’t that what you said, when you won between us?”

Aza let out a sharp breath. That was true, but that had also been before Haurchefant had died. Then, Aza had been assured that so long as those he loved was underneath his powerful and broad protection, then he had nothing to fear – he could endure so long as he and his existed. But then the Vault, then Baelser’s Wall, then all that fucking mess in Doma and Ala Mhigo and that conviction was chipped at, little by little, until Aza gripped tight at what he had left, terrified of it all slipping away like sand and leaving him like…

“Or, do you want to be like before?” Fray murmured dangerously, softly, “Because that was easier, wasn’t it? Safer. Sure, it was empty and lonely, but no one could hurt you.”

“No,” Aza’s stomach turned at the thought. He could never return to what he was, not after Zenos, and he would sooner fall on his own damned sword before becoming the one who was left behind to endure alone again. He ran a hand through his hair, digging his fingers into his scalp and he squeezed his eyes shut, tentatively touching on that aetherical bond, tempted to just sever it…

“Oh, sure, crush me back down,” Fray sneered, “But I’m you, idiot. What I’m saying are things you already know, already feel. Deny it all you want, but this charade is getting a little pathetic now, don’t you think?”

“I’m-” Aza stopped, rocking back on his heels as he opened his eyes. Fray was looming over Haurchefant’s tombstone with his shoulders hunched, head dipped low – he reminded him viscerally of a vulture patiently waiting for its food to kindly keel over dead. “I’m afraid,” he finally admitted, his voice strained.

“Ah, there we go,” Fray tipped his head to the side, red eyes gleaming hungrily, “And?”

“I am going to fuck it up,” Aza snarled, “That’s what I do. The only thing I’m good at is killing things, fighting things, surviving, but everything else-”

“Excuses, excuses…” Fray sighed as if in disappointment, his eyes like burning coals – it hurt to look directly into them, “So what if you fuck it up?”

“It’s selfish,” he muttered to his feet, his eyes reluctantly drifting over Haurchefant’s grave. He remembered the early days, when he was still an adventurer famous only for his skill in killing Primals, and Haurchefant had been so charming and open – it began only as a curious fling, then Aza kept coming back, and coming back, and he… thought he loved him, a little. It had made him feel lighter than air to realise, because he hadn’t loved like that before, and it had been a warm, glorious feeling, and yet.

“It’s what living is,” Fray countered, “You remember that? Living? Not just surviving? I remember it.”

“You didn’t exist then,” Aza growled, lifting his gaze to glare straight into Fray’s burning gaze. The light left sharp afterimages in his vision, the red glow searing and making a pain throb, pointedly, behind his eyes.

“Now, that isn’t true,” Fray purred, “I’ve always existed. It’s just you never heard my voice before.”  

“Maybe it should have stayed like that,” Aza muttered bitterly.

“You don’t mean that,” Fray said gently, circling around Haurchefant’s grave. His steps were silent, the snow remaining smooth and untouched beneath his boots as he drew closer, eyes still that searing, burning red, wisps of black smoke puffing from the grate of his helmet, “If you never heard my voice, you’d still be that emotional doormat you’re still determined to be.”

“I am not-”

“Shhh, you are,” Fray stopped close to him, reaching his hand out, “But that’s why I’m here. You’re tired. Things have been very difficult.”

Aza stared, not moving, as slowly, Fray’s hand pressed against his chest, fingers stroking over his breastplate with the same reverence he showed Haurchefant’s tombstone, his eyes burning so bright it was like gazing into the sun, but Aza could not look away.  

“But remember,” Fray purred, leaning in close until his eyes were all he could see, his voice almost hypnotising, “I can help. If you’re tired, I can help. All you need to do… is… ask…me-”

“Aza?”

Aza startled, almost tripping over his feet as he staggered back from Fray and spun round to see – Emmanellain, without his manservant shadow for once, staring at him with a slightly worried expression. When did he-!?

“Oh, Emmanellain,” he returned when he realised the silence between them dragged enough to almost become awkward. He fought back the urge to look over his shoulder, to see if Fray was still there, and plastered a smile on his face despite his heart pounding frantically against his ribcage, “I didn’t hear you.”

“I heard… talking,” Emmanellain said very slowly, glancing between Aza and the grave behind him, “So I assumed…” he paused, his expression unreadable, before he smiled back hesitantly, “Ah, never mind. It must have been the wind. Strange sounds are common up here.”

“Ah, yes, probably,” Aza said weakly, feeling oddly claustrophobic despite the wide, open space around him, “I’m sorry, am I… I can leave, if you want. I’m… finished here. Talking to Haurchefant.”

Emmanellain, kindly, did not question his uncharacteristic stammering – that, or he was wary of actually asking about what he most likely witnessed. This wouldn’t be the first time he had caught him out of sorts near his half-brother’s grave, but each time, he did not ask about it. Kindness, or wilful ignorance, whatever it was, Aza was grateful for it.

“There’s no need to rush off,” Emmanellain bit his bottom lip briefly in indecision, “It is late, and you seem tired. You can rest in Dragonhead, if you’d like?”

The same offer every time. Aza didn’t even consider his response, “Thanks but I’m… I need to be elsewhere. Maybe next time.”

Emmanellain let out a short breath, the corner of his mouth curling up into a wry smile, “Of course. Next time.”

Aza ducked his head, then decisively took a step forwards. Emmanellain watched him carefully as he drew closer… then past him, walking away from the grave with an awful, twisting feeling in his stomach. Even though it was just himself, in his peripheral, he thought he could see a shadow, matching his stride step for step just behind him.

He determinedly did not look back.

 


 

“Is everything alright?”

Aza looked up from where he had curled up in the armchair with one of Aymeric’s ridiculous erotic literature books. It had been a quiet night, one where Aymeric was busy reading through legislative but was kind enough to share his space with him while he read – honestly, it had been rather pleasant. But now Aymeric was giving him a rather keen stare from his own seat, frowning like Aza was a rather frustrating puzzle refusing to be solved.

“Um, yes?” Aza said uncertainly, “Why?”

“Hm…” Aymeric studied him for a moment, his paperwork forgotten in his hands, “You seem a little… reserved today, that’s all.”

Unbidden, Aza recalled his morning at Haurchefant’s grave and fought to keep his expression even, “Oh. It’s nothing. I… visited Haurchefant today, that’s all.”

Aymeric leaned back in his set, his frown softening a little, “I see.”

“Really, I’m fine,” Aza insisted, suddenly inexplicably worried that Emmanellain may have said something, “Just… a bad day. But it’s fine.”

Aymeric started to look a little amused – in a tired, sad sort of way – and he set his paperwork aside on his coffee table, “Could you come here?”

Aza paused, unsure, but Aymeric waited patiently, his body language open and relaxed, and finally he set his book aside and stood up, slowly padding over to his partner. He felt oddly vulnerable – the space between his shoulder blades itched from the lack of weight from his weapon and armour – but he willingly let Aymeric reach out to him once he was close enough, getting tugged gently onto his lap.

“I won’t judge you,” Aymeric murmured to him, once Aza got himself comfortably curled up on his lap, “You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” Aza said quietly, tucking his face into the crook of Aymeric’s neck, feeling his partner gently run a hand over his thigh, “But it’s just a bad… feelings day. That’s all. I don’t need to bother you with that.”

“I don’t mind if you do,” Aymeric rested his cheek against his hair, heaving a sigh that tickled his ear, “Actually, please do bother me.”

“You say that now…” Aza mumbled, half in jest, trying to push down the memories of this morning. They were petty, fearful insecurities, and… he worried, if he gave voice to them, Aymeric might actually consider it a lack of commitment. Why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t that be insulting? Wouldn’t he be hurt? No, Aza was committed. He was. “I don’t know, I’m just… mrrnghff.”

“I’m not familiar with that emotion,” Aymeric said dryly.  

“Yeah, me neither,” Aza sighed, “I’m sorry.”

Aymeric was quiet for a moment, Aza could practically hear him thinking, and he waited with an odd flutter to his stomach. Then; “What book were you reading?”

A bit puzzled by the non-sequitur, but not questioning it, Aza answered slowly, “Um, the… the pirate one. With the two Hellsguard lasses.”

“Ah, that one… with the sea serpent island plot?”

“Yeah,” Aza found himself relaxing, “I’m only up to the part where they got marooned on the island. Dancing Wolf’s only just started to realise she wants to scissor me timbers Cresting Wave, though.”

“Interesting turn of phrase…” Aymeric chuckled, tugging Aza a little closer into a shameless cuddle. It was kind of adorable, sometimes, how quick and eager to snuggle his partner was – but it was nice. Such open, freely given affection was a balm to Aza, and he greedily basked in it whether he deserved it or not.

“Mmhm…” Aza smiled, “I like it so far. You have good taste.”

“Thank you,” Aymeric said with mock-primness, drawing a laugh out of Aza, “Hmm, I think we should have an early night. Truth be told, I’m procrastinating from the rest of my work.”

“What, that paperwork not exciting?” Aza asked teasingly, his gaze drifting over to the thick parchment. The writing was cramped and squiggly and he instantly forgot whatever he was reading the moment his eyes passed over it. Wow. That was incredibly dull.

“More like excruciatingly boring,” Aymeric muttered, shifting slightly and then – standing up whilst hugging Aza tight against his chest in a princess carry without a word of warning. Aza made a small noise of surprise, and Aymeric groaned quietly in exertion; “Oof. Have you gotten heavier?”

“Rude,” Aza wrapped his arms around his neck, “You’ve just been getting lazy, stuck behind a desk all the time.”

“Sadly true,” Aymeric confessed cheerfully, beginning the slow, careful journey to their bedroom; “I think you may need to thrash me around the sparring ring a few times.”

“Masochist,” Aza tutted, but he kissed his jaw, nosing along it affectionately, “But sure, I’ll be happy to, when you have the time.”

“I’ll make some time for you,” Aymeric promised, “Hmm, perhaps sometime next week…”

Aza relaxed against his partner, closing his eyes as he let the remainder of his bad feeling get buried deep. It was moments like this that made him feel awfully guilty for his flashes of weakness with Fray. Love was painful, but in these moments, it was amazing and… he really did not want to lose this. Not like before. Not like with Haurchefant. It would destroy him. To lose his little family and this little dream he was carving out for himself…  

No. He wouldn’t. He’d protect this. He wouldn’t be the one to be left behind, this time, an awful, selfish thought that he knew he’d hate himself for. He was going to fuck it up, maybe, but he’ll make sure it’ll just be him that’ll suffer from it.

He curled closer against Aymeric, as much as he could, and he felt his partner tighten his grip around him in response, murmuring something low and soft in his ear. It sounded like ‘I love you’.

Terrifying. There was no way he could lose this.