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Power of Love

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It was during one of her late-night patrols through Castellum Velodyna that J’olhmyn stumbled across an uncharacteristically pensive M’hzet in a staring contest with a griffin.

She was half-tempted to ignore him and leave him to be inevitably mauled to death by the griffin slowly becoming more agitated at the staring, but she supposed Giff would get upset at having to clean the blood off of his prized griffin’s feathers. With a sigh, and bracing herself for M’hzet’s usual brand of stupidity, she wandered over to him.

“M’hzet,” she greeted flatly, “What’re you still doing here?”

M’hzet jumped, clearly startled, and spun to face her with a far too bright smile, “J’olhmyn! What are the chances of meeting you here?”

J’olhmyn squinted at him, “…I live here.”

“Oh, yes.”

They stood and stared at each other for a moment, M’hzet uncharacteristically subdued. It, quite frankly, gave her the creeps. She was used to him being so- so stupidly and stubbornly optimistic and determined, that to see him standing there looking put out made her stomach feel all wriggly. Yes, she was concerned, but only because he had slowly grown on her like some sort of infectious fungus, or a persistent, irritating little brother figure she was cursed to babysit for the rest of her life.

“Are you dying?” she asked bluntly.

“What?” That startled a laugh out of him – a rather high, nervous laugh, but it was something at least, “Me, dying? Perish the thought!”

“Hmm…” J’olhmyn narrowed her eyes at him, planting her hands on her hips as she leant in, “You’re acting weird, even for you.”

“I… ah,” M’hzet suddenly sighed, his entire body slumping in uncharacteristic despair, “I suppose I can tell you, J’olhmyn, since you deserve to know. I… have a crisis of love.”

J’olhmyn’s eyes almost dropped out of her skull, she rolled them that hard, “A crisis of love? Really? I thought your ‘Power of Love’ was indomitable or whatever you called it.”

“It is!” M’hzet cried, puffing himself up with his usual dramatics, “But- but it’s just- J’olhmyn, my love has taken a new shape! How can I be a Nunh when my focus has strayed from all the women I need to tend to for the sake of the tribe?!”

“Uh, what?” J’olhmyn was mystified, barely following, “What’re you talking about?”

“My love has shifted from those like yourself-”

“Oh, thank the Twelve,” she muttered.

M’hzet ignored her - or was so deep in his delusion he didn’t hear her, “And been enraptured by someone I so deeply respect! But, am I just confused? Have I mistaken these feelings for love? But then, have I always mistaken them and- what does that mean?”

“I… have no idea,” J’olhmyn said very slowly, like speaking to a dull-witted child, which, technically, M’hzet was. All those beatings over the years have probably killed what little wits he had left, “Talk like a normal person, M’hzet, who’s this amazing person you’ve supposedly fallen in love with?”

M’hzet, curiously, turned as red as his hair, ducking his head as he mumbled, “Aza.”

J’olhmyn felt her jaw drop. She initially thought she was going to have to endure M’hzet taking a fancy to an Ananta at worse, or a non-Miqo’te, to spark this kind of crisis not… not a man, and not Aza fucking Lynel.

“Aza,” she repeated, slowly, “The guy who you claimed was practically a brother to you?”

“Exactly!” M’hzet said frantically, “Could I be confused?”

“I think you’re very confused,” J’olhmyn said, still slowly overcoming her shock, “But I’m… kind of not surprised, weirdly.”

Really, M’hzet always seemed a bit overcompensating with his Power of Love talk. He was an idiot, she knew that, but maybe M’hzet just… had no clue what he was actually meant to feel, only forcing what he thought a Nunh needed to. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she warmed up to the idea. If M’hzet was of that persuasion, maybe he’d stop annoying all the female Miqo’te at Castellum Velodyna and actually mature into a tolerable Tia.

And it wasn’t as if there hadn’t been homosexual Nunhs before. So long as they passed on their traits to the next generation, it wasn’t unheard of for them to have a friendly romp through the Tia ranks who were also of that… persuasion in their spare time. M’hzet’s dream wasn’t unobtainable, still.

Though, J’olhmyn knew without a doubt his love, or infatuation or crush or whatever, was utterly doomed in regards to Aza. She saw how he looked at M’hzet with the kind of fondness you’d give stupid little brothers. He liked M’hzet, but he didn’t like like him, and J’olhmyn was kind of dreading the fallout to that disaster in the making.

“Not surprised?” M’hzet looked stunned, “J’olhmyn, are you saying, you always suspected my love wasn’t true?”

“…M’hzet,” J’olhmyn said, ignoring whatever he just said and stepping close, gripping him by the shoulders and making him stiffen in surprise as she leaned in close, “You can still be Nunh if you have feelings for men.”

M’hzet blinked rapidly at her, and then – his expression shifted slightly. He looked briefly vulnerable, unsure, before his usual determination firmed his expression, “Y-Yes, of course! I mean, I’d still do my duty for the tribe, making a strong generation, b-but, surely that means I can also support the down on their luck Tias too!”

“Yeah,” J’olhmyn said, letting go of him as she watched him just… run away with his new goal. Well, if anything, he was adaptable, she supposed? That was an admirable trait for a Nunh, maybe?

“Then it’s decided!” M’hzet clenched his fist in dramatic determination, looking at J’olhmyn with utmost seriousness, “For my first steps towards my new ambition as a Nunh who will love both women and Tia… I will seduce Aza!”

“Yeah, that’s a good id- what,” J’olhmyn spluttered, “You’ll seduce him?”

“I’ll show him the true power of my love!” M’hzet puffed his chest out proudly, eyes already twinkling as he thought of some no doubt crazy love plan, “He already knows about my trick with Garlean grenades, so maybe… I will prove it to him by surviving a cannon blast?”

I don’t think that would impress him!” J’olhmyn near-wheezed, envisioning M’hzet blowing himself into pieces from a Bertha cannon, “Look, you have the advantage of actually knowing him. What does he like?”

M’hzet looked doubtful, put out about his plan being rejected, but thought about it, “Well, I think… he loves animals. He has a sweet tooth. He enjoys watching sunsets and riding under a starry sky. He also likes poking bears and running away from them, to see how long they’ll chase him, and-”

“Wow, okay,” J’olhmyn said, genuinely impressed, “You… know a lot about him.”

“I deeply respect him!” M’hzet burst, “When he defeated me so easily when I was training to be Nunh, I wanted to know how he got his strength. So, I, ah, maybe… followed him around for a bit, and…”

“You stalked him,” J’olhmyn said, instantly becoming unimpressed, “Well, he probably knew you were doing that, so he tolerated your presence, I guess.”

“That’s a good sign, right?” M’hzet said eagerly.

Of pity and personal amusement, maybe, J’olhmyn thought with a grimace. Ugh, she shouldn’t encourage this, really. As much as M’hzet annoyed her, she didn’t want to genuinely have him suffer heartbreak. But… well, one of life’s most vital lessons, right?

“It’s a sign he… kind of likes you,” she said grudgingly, “But, he probably doesn’t see you like… that, M’hzet.”

“If I show him the depths of my feelings, he might change his mind!” M’hzet said with his usual bullheaded stubbornness, eyes bright as he fantasised… whatever he fantasised, J’olhmyn didn’t want to know. “I can imagine it… he’d be perfect in my tribe. Strong, charismatic and incredibly kind!”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t make him the Nunh of this fantasy tribe of yours?” J’olhmyn asked dryly, “He sounds more up to the task than you.”

M’hzet made a dismissive gesture, “Aza told me he has no interest in being a Nunh of any tribe. I think his exact words were ‘I’m not interested in entertaining a harem’, or something like that.”

“Ah, I think that means he’s one of those odd, monogamous types,” J’olhmyn pointed out, “You know, only mates with one person and one person only?”

“Which is why he’d be a Tia,” M’hzet sad patiently, clearly missing the point entirely.

J’olhmyn eyed him, and decided she was just going to watch this crash and burn from a distance. So long as M’hzet stopped bothering her and the other female Miqo’te, he could go do whatever he wanted. She sent up a quick, mental apology for unleashing him on Aza, who probably didn’t deserve it, but, hey, he ate Primals for breakfast. She was certain he could fend off the overeager advances of a confused, young Tia.

“Well, good luck, I guess,” J’olhmyn said, “Though I’m serious. Don’t blow yourself up with cannons. Aza won’t like it.”

“Not to worry,” M’hzet tapped his temple, smirking confidently, “I have another plan that’ll be sure to prove to him the sincerity of my feelings.”

“Uh huh,” J’olhmyn said slowly, wondering if she could be concerned… but, nope, washing her hands of this. Not getting involved, “Sure.”

With that she continued on her patrol, leaving M’hzet to scheme on his own. Aza tended to visit every other day, so hopefully his frequent absences would temper M’hzet’s… passions somewhat. Whatever happened, she was already certain it was going to end in tears, M’hzet’s specifically.

Oh well, she guessed it would be interesting to watch? In the same way as watching a bridge slowly collapse in on itself, that is.

Chapter Text

“Mornin’, J’olhmyn~”

J’olhmyn flinched at the sudden greeting all but purred into her ear, all her fur standing on end as she whirled around with a fierce snarl, “M’hzet, you-”

Aza stood in front of her with an annoyingly smug grin, clearly delighted at her reaction.

“Aza,” she amended flatly, planting her hands on her hip as she let him know how displeased she was, tail lashing from side to side. “I didn’t know you were the sort to creep up on young, defenceless girls.”

“You’re anything but defenceless,” Aza chuckled, leaning back on his heels slightly as his posture relaxed and loosened, chin tilted up in a way that exposed his throat. Such casual, laidback confidence suited him, annoyingly, and J’olhmyn could grudgingly see why M’hzet would trip after such a catch. Aza all but screamed ‘Nunh’ to any Seeker with eyes, and she couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t one. He was strong enough to barge into whatever tribe he so wished and carve out a position there…  

“Hrm,” J’olhmyn flicked her ear at him and pointedly turned away, back to what she was doing earlier – watching a bunch of greenhorn recruits squirm under Giff’s not-so-tender mercies as they were pushed through the training to care and utilise Griffins.

“Aw, I’m sorry,” Aza said insincerely, letting out a low, husky laugh as he moved to stand beside her. He was watching Giff as well, one ear cocked forwards in mild, lazy interest, “You guys need any help today?”

J’olhmyn set aside her petty annoyance and turned back to Aza, “Not much. We’ve got a lot more recruits and soldiers on hand to run a lot of the grunt work you were doing before. All that’s left is the more dangerous stuff.”

Those were the magic words. Aza refocused back on her, his eyes bright with what could almost be called childish excitement, “Oh? Dangerous? Like what? Monster hunting?”

“Yeah, monster hunting,” J’olhmyn said, giving him an uncertain look. She noticed that Aza always tended to pant after powerful foes to test his mettle on. She supposed it made sense – you had to be a particular brand of weird and crazy to willingly march off and fight Primals and topple occupation forces on a near weekly basis – but it was still unnerving to witness first hand. She was sure she could dump him in the middle of a Behemoth infested valley and he would be in paradise.

“Then I’m free to help,” Aza said, letting out a low, churring noise that signalled his satisfaction.

“Great, then Eshana-”

“Good morning, friends!”

Argh!” J’olhmyn almost leapt half-way out of her skin at the voice yelling right down her ear, just about fighting down the knee-jerk reaction to spin round and put her fist through the asshole’s head. She whirled round, thrusting a finger into an annoyingly familiar face, “M’hzet! I told you not to do that!”

M’hzet instantly leaned away, hands held up in a placating manner, “I just said good morning!”

Aza laughed, clearly amused by their antics, “Don’t worry about it, M’hzet. J’olhmyn’s just jumpy today.”

“Jumpy?” J’olhmyn slanted a glare at Aza’s direction, “I’m not jumpy. You two need bells put on.”

“No, he’s right,” M’hzet said, “You seem very, uh…”

J’olhmyn’s glare slid right back at M’hzet, her ears pinned flat against her skull, “Very what.”

M’hzet, wisely, did not finish his sentence, instead peeking at Aza almost nervously. Now that she was trying to glare a hole through his head, she noticed he was holding something in his hands, wrapped in a thick, brown parcelling paper and tied off with string. The oddity of it was enough to snap her out of her glowering, frowning down at it.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing.

“Oh, this?” M’hzet’s hands tightened around the parcel, as if to hide it, but his moment of hesitation was brief. He instantly puffed his chest out, forcing a confident smile on his face, “This is the fruits of my labour – a sign of the sincerity of my feelings.”

“Sincerity of your feelings…? Oh, you’re still doing that Power of Love stuff?” Aza asked curiously, looking annoyingly unruffled by M’hzet’s weirdness. He was peering at the parcel, his tail curved up with the tip flicking from side to side in open interest, “I’m guessing that’s for you then,” he said, nudging J’olhmyn playfully with his elbow.

“It’s,” M’hzet started, but he seemed to very briefly lose his nerve, his gaze dropping to the parcel in his hands. It was all morbidly fascinating to J’olhmyn, who remembered all too late about M’hzet’s unrequited crush on the man standing literally right next to her. This was going to go awful, she realised, understanding what M’hzet was trying to do and feeling deep, intense pity for him. 

“He’s doing delivery for the camp,” J’olhmyn cut in quickly, “The one thing he can’t fuck up, though he kept grumbling about it. C’mon, M’hzet, tell us who’s it for.”

M’hzet jolted, looking bewildered at J’olhmyn’s attempt to salvage the situation, but quickly pounced on the opportunity. “For you!” he half-yelled, thrusting the parcel out at Aza, “This parcel is, uh, for you.”

“Huh, really?” Aza blinked but easily took the parcel from M’hzet. He turned it over in his hands a few times, clearly looking for an address, and stared at it for a good, few seconds when he found none. “Who’s it from?”

J’olhmyn opened her mouth – but M’hzet beat her to it.

“From me, I… as I said, it’s the fruit of my labours. I remember when you helped me, that time, and before, so, this is a, um, a…”

Aza was watching M’hzet with a small frown, his gaze thoughtful. J’olhmyn wondered if he’d cottoned on already – was holding her breath in tense anticipation as M’hzet stumbled through his speech in a weird state of high-strung confidence, complete with wild gesticulating. She had no idea what he was trying to say, was certain M’hzet didn’t know what he was trying to say, but Aza took it all in stride.

“So, it’s a ‘thank you’ present?” Aza asked, when M’hzet trailed off, “Well, that’s nice, but you didn’t need to. It wasn’t a problem for me to help you out.”

“I wanted to,” M’hzet insisted, revitalised by Aza calling him ‘nice’, “And it’s not just as a ‘thank you’. It’s a representation of my respect and, and l…lo-ah- admiration of you!”

He almost said it, J’olhmyn thought faintly, glancing at Aza to see him staring at M’hzet in blank confusion. Despite her earlier determination to wash her hands of the matter entirely, she found herself rooted to the spot, her gaze flicking between M’hzet and Aza as she waited to see how this disaster in the making imploded… in the middle of Castellum Velodyna during its busiest hour, she realised in dismay, already spotting a few curious recruits, travellers and Anantas watching the situation unfold from a distance. Even Giff was looking over, his lecture forgotten.  

Oh, Azeyma, save her.

“Respect and admiration, huh?” Aza said quietly, refocusing on the parcel in his hands with a more serious expression. He cocked his head curiously, ears tilted fully forwards – and began to carefully unwrap it. J’olhmyn leant forwards, curious despite herself, and M’hzet was so tense he looked ready to start shitting out diamonds, all but vibrating in place as he awaited judgement of his gift.

The brown paper was pulled away to reveal a hand-carved figurine out of pale, ashy-white wood. It was a Griffin, rearing up with its wings outstretched, foreclaws flexed to slash downwards – it wasn’t the best work J’olhmyn had seen, but it was decent enough and clearly had a lot of time and effort put into it. It sat easily in the palm of Aza’s gloved hand, proud and defiant, and J’olhmyn slowly lifted her stare to M’hzet, flabbergasted.

He actually did it. He actually did something romantic and sweet. He identified Aza liked animals, therefore, he put time and effort into making a carving of an animal Aza liked. This was utterly mind-blowing… and annoying. Why didn’t he do anything this thoughtful when pestering her with his advances?

“I noticed you admired the Griffins a lot!” M’hzet said loudly, striking a pose that tried to convey confidence, though his nervous, uncertain smile ruined it, “So, I thought I’d make this. It took several tries, though, and I ruined a lot of wood blocks, oh, and I cut my fingers several times – but the sincerity of my emotions carried me through! I remained determined, which should be expected of a future Nunh!”

J’olhmyn’s stunned stare dropped to his hands, indeed seeing bandages wrapped around his fingers. She felt like she’d stepped into some kind of Twilight zone, genuinely touched by his dedication – and she wasn’t even the one he was wooing what the fuck.

“M’hzet…” Aza began, looking momentarily lost for words – then, he brightened. He smiled, openly pleased and happy, and it was such a beautiful expression that J’olhmyn and M’hzet blinked owlishly at him, “This is amazing. It looks so cute, I love it!”

“Cute?” J’olhmyn said blankly.

“You do?!” M’hzet practically shouted over her, “Ha… hahah, well, of course. I planned my gift out perfectly an- ow!”

J’olhmyn quickly lifted her foot from where she stamped on M’hzet toes, quickly cutting in before he ruined the moment with his blathering mouth; “What he meant to say is he’s happy you like the gift. Isn’t that right, M’hzet?”

“Uh, yes, right.”

Aza laughed, carefully wrapping the figurine back up in its brown paper and tucking it into one of the pouches at his belt, “Yeah, I really like it. Though, I feel like I need to return the favour somewhat…” he frowned thoughtfully, before perking up; “Oh, I know, how about you go on a hunt with me? You said you’ve gotten stronger recently, right? How about you show me?”

M’hzet stared, and for a moment J’olhmyn was worried he’d forgotten how to breathe – until he made a noise of overwhelmed excitement, “Yes! Ah, I mean, yes, I can show you! But it’ll need to be an appropriate opponent, worthy of our combined skills.”

J’olhmyn’s ear twitched, her gaze sliding over to Aza. He looked utterly amused and mildly puzzled, like he couldn’t quite understand why M’hzet was so excited – not the expression of someone properly wooed or who realised they just accidentally asked someone out on a Keeper-style date. Was he really that oblivious? Really?

“How about a Behemoth?” M’hzet continued, his eyes glittering as he drifted in some no doubt delusional fantasy of him aweing Aza with his martial prowess, and having him swoon into his mighty Nunh arms, “No, two Behemoths-”

“How about the Giant Salamander beast prowling the marsh,” J’olhmyn said flatly, “Since that’s what I was going to ask him to do before you distracted all of us.”

“A salamander…?” M’hzet looked put out, “Could that really be a good test of strength, though?”

“Hm, they’re pretty decent,” Aza said thoughtfully, “They’re voracious predators and will upend an entire ecosystem if they’re left alone for too long, but otherwise any skilled hunter can bring them down without much difficulty.”

“I think your sense of difficulty is badly skewed,” J’olhmyn sighed, “This Giant Salamander has already injured several patrols sent out to deal with it, so maybe you should just leave this to Aza, M’hzet.”

“No, I’ll handle it,” M’hzet said stubbornly, standing proud and tall, “I’ll prove I have the capability to fend off dangerous predators like this Giant Salami-”

“Salamander,” Aza corrected.

“-Salamander,” M’hzet amended without missing a beat, “With the Power of Love on my side, I’ll be able to vanquish it! I’ll be one step closer to achieving my dream!”

J’olhmyn just sighed, knowing a lost cause when she saw one, “You can barely handle hunting Gazelles by yourself, M’hzet…”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Aza cut in, eyeing the Tia speculatively, “A Nunh has to be able to protect their tribe from dangerous threats like these, right? So, this’ll be a good yalmstick for you. If you can’t defeat it, I’ll step in and help, maybe give you a few pointers –  and if you can slay it, well, then you’re well on your way to becoming a Nunh, right?”

“Exactly!” M’hzet nodded enthusiastically, “So, please, J’olhmyn, let me handle this threat! Aza won’t have to lift a finger!”

“If you’re concerned, you can come with,” Aza offered quickly, and when J’olhmyn looked at him with a frown, he gave her a cheeky grin, glancing briefly at M’hzet, “See how much M’hzet’s improved for yourself.”

J’olhmyn was puzzled for a moment, before- oh. Oh.

As if this mess wasn’t bad enough, Aza was trying to help matchmake – her and M’hzet! She narrowed her eyes at him into thin, angry slits, but Aza just blinked innocently at her, as if he was a pure angel who could do no wrong. She would’ve been irritated anyway, but she did not want to get dragged unwillingly into a demented love triangle where M’hzet was the only enthusiastic participant.

“I’m busy,” she said flatly, “So, you boys have fun splashing about in the marsh together.” 

With that she decisively walked off, ignoring the non-too subtle stares of the blatant eavesdroppers. She already got too invested – M’hzet was on his own for this part.

 


 

 

“Aw,” Aza said as J’olhmyn stormed off, “Guess she wasn’t in the mood.”

“That’s fine,” M’hzet said, feeling filled to the brim with nervous energy. A hunt with Aza… a hunt, where he’ll defeat a powerful foe and make him acknowledge his strength. A Nunh had to be strong enough to make their tribe comfortable and feel protected – and while the thought of protecting Aza was sort of laughable, M’hzet knew the first steps of his dream needed him to try and be on equal standing with his future Tia. He’s already proven he can be thoughtful and considerate with his gift – now it was time to make him witness his ability to protect, too!

Aza looked a little puzzled though, glancing at him with a raised eyebrow, “It’s fine she’s not coming?”

M’hzet nodded rapidly. Truthfully, he needed to get through this without J’olhmyn’s help. He did notice she helped him when he faltered, even if she looked frustrated whilst doing so, but M’hzet needed to be able to do this without his hand being held. Even if… being this close to Aza, being his entire focus, made his stomach do really weird things…

“You can tell her later how good I was,” he boasted, trying to use the old technique of playing confident to actually feel confident, “She’d believe you, I’m sure.”

Aza laughed huskily, and M’hzet tried not to shiver to the tip of his tail at the sound of it. It really wasn’t fair, how distracted Aza could make him just by existing next to him – but as agonising as it could be at times, it was also an amazing feeling. M’hzet felt like he could challenge a thousand Nunhs when Aza smiled at him and said something encouraging. He’ll do it – he’ll become an amazing Nunh and make a wonderful tribe, and Aza would be his right-hand man!

“Fine, fine, I get it,” Aza chuckled, “I’ll be sure to be lavish in my praises. Now,” he brightened, “Should we get going? We’ve got a salamander to hunt.”

“Yes! Prepare to be awed,” M’hzet said with all the bravado he could muster, “I’m not the weak little Tia you left behind at the Peering Stones.”

“We’ll see,” Aza said with a smile, moving off towards the gate with his usual swagger. M’hzet immediately followed, unconsciously lingering a few steps behind his future Tia to watch him walk. He moved with an assured confidence that made him positively green with envy, his playfully swishing tail catching his gaze and his swaying, curvy hips holding it. He had such a nice-

M’hzet quickly shook his head, pushing that out of his mind and hurrying forwards to walk beside Aza instead. Let’s not get ahead of himself. First, make Aza swoon by demonstrating his martial prowess, then he can watch his tail…

Chapter Text

“Hey, M’hzet! You sure you don’t need any help-”

I-I’m fine! I’m- ow, that stin-nnnnoesn’t hurt at all! H-hahaha!”

The Salamander hissed angrily, riled by M’hzet’s panicky laughter, and thrashed violently in the stinking marshwater in an attempt to trample him underfoot. But if a lifetime of struggling against things stronger than himself instilled a deep, nigh-preternatural instinct of when and how do dodge otherwise mortal blows. With a squawk, M’hzet scrambled over a half-rotten log, almost going ass over tea kettle from the speed of his desperate vault – just in time to avoid getting flattened.

“E-Everything’s under control!” he wheezed, flailing in the stinking marshwater as he tried to put distance between him and the Salamander. Ugh, this would be easier if it was on solid ground. Dimwold was a terrible, awful place, with squishy, sticky mud, foul smelling water, creepy atmosphere and not at all seductive. This was not going how he imagined it’d be!

Maybe he should have kept some of those grenades… lobbed them at the Salamander from the safety of a tree or-

No! What was he saying?! How was he going to impress Aza by doing something as cowardly as that? No, he needed to face this slippery (terrifying) foe head on, and slay it, and maybe Aza would be so awed by his brilliant Salamander slaying skills that he’d offer to help him clean up after splashing around in all this wa-

Eep!” he squeaked out of his daydream when the Salamander was abruptly on top of him, having put on a burst of unfair speed to try and gobble him up in one go. M’hzet dived underneath one of its squat forelimbs, spluttering as he all but face-planted into the stinking marshwater and scrambled forwards and away, hopping onto his feet to spin around to face the thing.

Right, okay, round two!

“Try going for the eyes!” Aza called over to him, and M’hzet glanced over to see the older Miqo’te lounging in the lower branches of a thick, gnarled tree, looking entirely relaxed and unconcerned about the fight happening in the marsh below. M’hzet was going to think that was because he believed in him for the sake of his ego, “Or the soft underside of its throat! You can do it, M’hzet!”

Oh, he did believe in him!

Resolved and emboldened, M’hzet fixed his attention back on the Salamander. It was huge and slimy, about five times the size of a Hyur with the fattest head he’d ever seen a creature possess. It wriggled in place, creepily twisting over itself to face him, its wide mouth open as it hissed angrily. Its mottled brown skin was nicked in a few places from M’hzet’s blade, but they were shallow wounds that only made it angrier, as opposed to doing a ‘death from a thousand cuts’ style that M’hzet was kind of hoping would kick in any time now please and thank you.

Go for the eyes… he thought. They were so tiny and beady, though, and he’d have to get far too close to that mouth. No, he’ll go for the throat! He’ll dive right under and thrust up in one powerful blow!

Fighting his self-preservation instinct that told him to dive to the side, he dived forwards as the Salamander surged towards him, its mouth open wide as it tried to snap him up in one big bite but-

M’hzet just squeaked under its jaw, his tail brushing against the underside of its chin as he hit the marsh water, briefly blinded by the foamy, dirty water being thrown up. Desperate to finish this off, he flailed madly with his sword, thrusting it up and feeling it jar when it sunk into – something- followed by something disgusting hot and wet splashing all over him and ew, ew, ew, ew~

The Salamander gurgled and heaved to the side and- oh… M’hzet gasped when his sword slipped right out of his grip, squinting his eyes open just in time to see the monster stagger to the side, its large, splayed foot lifted high over him and… coming… downtowardshimohshit-

There was a sudden flash of silver and black and M’hzet squeezed his eyes shut, flinching and anticipating the pain of being crushed to death. But after several seconds of him being, well, alive, he cautiously squinted an eye open, peering up to see-

Aza standing over him, his greatsword drawn with its tip resting in the marsh just ilms from M’hzet’s head, its silvery surface splattered with globs of dark red blood. He stared up at his future Tia, struck speechless as Aza stared down at the slumped over corpse of the Salamander with a mildly disappointed look, a thin splash of red painting a perfect line over the bridge of his nose. In the foggy, grey air of Dimwold, he looked almost otherworldly and beautiful and oh shit he really had it bad.

It was kind of strange, to have another realisation of how deeply his feelings went for Aza. It felt like getting hit by a Garlean grenade all over again.

“It was like slicing butter,” Aza sighed, shifting his gaze to his greatsword with what could only be called a pout, “How boring.”

“Wh…aaaaa…t…” M’hzet said in a slow daze, managing to push himself up on his elbows to look over and see – oh. The Salamander was missing an arm – coincidentally the arm that had been about to squash him flat.

“Sorry for barging in there, M’hzet,” Aza said, sounding very apologetic as he swung his sword over his shoulder in a show of tremendous strength, locking it against his magnetic sheath, “I didn’t know if you were going to roll away in time so I jumped in. I know you said you had it under control...”

“I-It’s fine. I thought I was- uh, I mean, I couldn’t have all the fun! It would’ve been a shame to drag you out here only to have you do nothing!”

If Aza saw through his bravado, he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, leaning down with his hand outstretched; “Haha, fair enough. C’mon, M’hzet, let’s get you out of the water.”

M’hzet felt like his heart was going to burst out of his chest – though if this was from Aza’s close proximity or his near-death experience, he wasn’t sure – and grasped his hand. It was strong and firm as he easily pulled M’hzet to his feet, and with a quiet tutting noise, Aza started brushing the worst of the mud off him.

“You’re completely filthy, M’hzet,” he sighed, grimacing at the thick layer of bloodied mud now on his glove, “Hmm, maybe we should stop by the river on the way back…”

“River?” M’hzet asked, going still. Was he really…?

“Yeah, you know the one that feeds into Dimwold. I usually bathe in there when I come round here because it’s pretty private and nice,” Aza suddenly gave a cheeky smile, “The bears keep people away.”

And Aza wasn’t the sort to fear sharing his space with bears when naked, M’hzet thought faintly, his mind kind of stalling over the realisation that his post-battle fantasy was actually coming true. Aza was going to help him bathe. Which meant, they’d both be naked – together. In the same space. Was this a sign his wooing was being accepted? Or was it friendly bathing? Oh, Aza was too inscrutable he couldn’t tell!

“M’hzet?” Aza suddenly leaned in close, and M’hzet made a noise like a trodden-on frog, “Are you okay? You’ve gone really red.”

“Fine!” he yelped, quickly hopping a few steps back and nearly landing back into the marsh water when he slipped. “Ahh, I mean, yes, just, exerted from that fight there. A bit of a walk will cool me down!”

Aza was eyeing him suspiciously, but he didn’t question his behaviour, “Okay, if you’re sure…”

M’hzet grinned at him, giving him a confident thumbs up, “Sure as anything. Now! Let’s go wash this muck off, eh? I don’t fancy trying walking all the way back to the gatekeepers stinking of marsh.”

The suspicion lingering in Aza’s expression eased at that, and he flashed a smile his way before moving away, “Yeah, I don’t want to smell you all the way back either. Oh, and, don’t forget your sword.”

M’hzet, who had been about to mindlessly follow after Aza, muttered a curse at the reminder and cautiously edged over to the Salamander. His blade was stuck halfway into its throat, and he gingerly planted his foot on its slimy skin as he tugged it out. It took a few forceful tries, but with a disgustingly wet ‘squelch’, his blade was free, though absolutely soaked right down to the hilt in sticky, dark blood.

He sheathed it with a faint feeling of pride though. Aza may have dismembered it to save him, but he dealt a fatal blow. So much for being weak! He fought it all on his own and won (kinda). He couldn’t wait until the next time he drifted past the Peering Stones, and telling the others there about his victory. No more sneers when he offered to go hunting Gazelles by himself, with them thinking he’d screw it up!

With a spring in his step and heart light with pleasure, M’hzet hurried after Aza who had already started to amble away. It didn’t go exactly how he planned it, but he must be doing something right with all this wooing. He’s proven he can be considerate, and that he can fight strong enemies and win, now… it was time to show how well he can take care of those part of his tribe!

Even if he felt more nervous about this part than facing down that Salamander. Just imagining Aza stripping off made him feel hot behind the ears, and he had to fight to keep his body language neutral, in case his future Tia thought him too lewd or forward if he did something like- like lifting his tail or goodness knows what else.

He can do it, he can do it…! The Power of Love will prevail!

 


 

Beside a suddenly bright red M’hzet, Aza just glanced at him in mild curiosity, utterly oblivious to what was going through his mind.

It was probably better that way.

 

Chapter Text

M’hzet was no stranger to bathing out in the wilderness. Before his acceptance in the M Tribe at the Peering Stones, he had no choice but to roam about on the outskirts on their territory, living off the land and surviving despite his own damnable weakness. But he knew the area well around Virdjala, where the safe spots were, where the monsters and beasts were least likely to stumble over you, etc, etc.

He knew almost nothing about East End. For one thing the area was too far away during the Garlean Occupation to just hop over there on a whim, having to take the long way round – and also, what was even there? Lush forestry as it blended into Gridania, but lousy with Garlean soldiers who’d be more than happy to harass a lonesome Miqo’te. Nope, M’hzet avoided East End like the plague, so he admitted to knowing little and less about the area – and after their jaunt in Dimwold, had no interest in learning more.

“Oh, come on,” Aza sighed at him, prodding him playfully in the ribs, “It’s perfectly safe. Relax.”

M’hzet wasn’t one to doubt Aza’s words, but he looked warily up at the towering cliff-face that had settled at the base of, glittering, clear water rushing at their feet. It was fairly shallow in the rocky bank, but the current was fairly swift and he could see where it abruptly deepened near the centre. Monsters lurked on the far bank too, reedy little Skimmers that flittered between the trees that crowded close to the waters. Skimmers were awful, but Aza barely paid them any mind, like they were just harmless insects.

…well, maybe they were to him, but… no, no, M’hzet. You defeated that Giant Salamander just fine. Skimmers should be easy after that, right?

“I am relaxed,” M’hzet said, planting his hands on his hips and puffing his chest out to try and exude confidence, “Just… thought we’d be further up river, is all.”

“Further up would mean we’d be too close to Castrum Oriens,” Aza said, unsheathing his blade to settle it against an outcrop of rocks jutting out of the cliff face. His magnetic sheath was unbuckled next, and M’hzet found himself staring as his future Tia just casually started stripping off, “We don’t want to be near there.”

“We… don’t?” he asked faintly, his gaze following Aza’s hands as they unbuckled his belt with its pouches attached. He forced his tail to stay still.

“Nope. It’s full of Ochu and Leshy and… well, I just don’t like it.” Aza’s smile turned wry, draping his belt over the crossguard of his greatsword. There was something dark in his gaze, but it was gone when he glanced back at him, “Aren’t you gonna strip off?”

“Oh… oh, yes, of course.”

M’hzet found his passion briefly subdued as he started peeling off his filthy tunic. The fabric was stiff with drying mud and blood, the belt tying it closed an absolute nightmare to wrench undone. But that wasn’t what was putting a dampener on his mood. It was that look in Aza’s eyes, briefly, and he wondered what happened at Castrum Ori-

Oh, of course. He was an idiot. The assault! Where Eorzea stormed the Wall and ousted the Imperials from it! Even those who lived in the wilderness like him heard about it – and saw. The lightshow and the smoke had been seen for miles, and M’hzet had heard tales how Ala Mhigans had died in the dozens from the battle. The Warrior of Light had been present for it and…

M’hzet peeked at Aza. He had his back to him, and M’hzet got briefly distracted when he pulled his form-fitting, dark gambison over his head, revealing the muscular, well-toned body beneath – and scars. There were… a startling number of scars.

His peek became a stare, tracing the jagged lines and precise cuts over Aza’s tanned back – and what looked like an old bite mark from some beast over his shoulder. He thought- Aza could be touched? But, he was so strong, and had thrashed him and everyone that crossed his path so thoroughly it was mind-boggling to think of anyone who could so much as scratch him.  

“M’hzet.”

M’hzet almost leapt out of his skin when Aza abruptly spoke, and he guilty lifted his stare to see his future Tia looking at him over his shoulder with a faint frown.

“It’s rude to stare,” Aza chided.

“Ahhh, sorry, I was…” M’hzet scratched his cheek sheepishly, “I was surprised. I didn’t think you’d have scars.”

Aza suddenly laughed, “Of course I have ‘em! How else would I be such an amazing fighter?”

“Ah?”

“Well,” Aza draped his gambeson over a rock, turning around to face him. M’hzet cautiously glanced at him and found his mouth turning dry. He was built. His stomach and chest were firm with muscle, his shoulders broad and biceps toned – even the pale scars cutting across his tanned skin just accentuated his natural handsomeness, “No one’s born with blade in hand and amazingly skilled. Hard work’s needed too.”

“You… make it seem easy, though,” M’hzet said distractedly, trying and failing to look away from Aza’s bare chest.

“Trust me, that’s after two decades of hard work,” Aza sounded amused, “Plus I have an unfair advantage…”

M’hzet managed to finally lift his gaze, his ear flicking in curiosity, “Huh?”

“Never mind,” Aza waved a hand dismissively, “Just know that you’ll get there eventually, M’hzet. You might have to get a few more scars and fuck up a little more, but just keep working hard like you’re doing currently and you’ll be like me, no doubt about it.”

M’hzet didn’t trust himself to speak, fairly certain he’d make some awful squeaking noise that would ruin the atmosphere between them. Thankfully Aza seemed to read it in whatever expression he was making, a pleased smile curving his lips before he turned away to take a seat on a rock.

“Just something to think about if you start struggling against strong opponents,” Aza continued, starting to unlace his boots, “Speaking of, I didn’t say well done for fighting that Salamander, did I? You’ve definitely gotten stronger.”

“Y-Yeah…” M’hzet said dazedly, feeling a little overwhelmed. He was aware he wasn’t the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but he knew that most people tended to think him a lost cause. He lost more often than not, struggled to achieve what little progress he made – no one really looked at him and believed he could do what he said he would. Well, except M’rahz Nunh, but M’hzet knew that even he was just being indulgent after swatting aside his numerous challenges with barely a hint of effort.

And here was Aza, the Warrior of Light, arguably the most powerful warrior to ever live… saying he believed in him.  

His heart felt fit to burst, and M’hzet came to the sobering realisation that his earlier declarations of love were so childish compared to this. He realised that he never really loved J’olhmyn, or the other women he met at Castellum Velodyne – no, just attracted, maybe really liked but… but right now, he identified that painfully light but warm feeling in his chest as absolute adoration for Aza. Oof, it was staggering just to feel it for one person, how was he meant to feel like this for an entire tribe? But… but at least he knew what it felt like now. He would work on it. He meant what he said to J’olhmyn, after all! He was going to be a Nunh who loved both women and Tia – and with Aza at his side, he could…

“M’hzet? M’hzet? Geeze, did you fall asleep on your feet?”

“Huh?” M’hzet shook himself out of his thoughts, focusing back on Aza who was looking up at him from his rock with mild concern. His boots were off, and he was sitting there with his feet in the water, seemingly content as he was.

“You zoned out,” Aza said, “Is there something on your mind?”

“No, nothing! I’m fine!” M’hzet said hurriedly, feeling oddly bashful. A part of his brain was yelling at him to blurt out everything he was feeling to Aza, try and wow him with the depth and sincerity of his feelings – but another, wiser part said that that was just asking to scare his future Tia off. What was J’olhmyn’s criticism before? He came on too strong and too obnoxious? No, he’ll do this right. He’ll play it smooth.

“Hmm…” Aza looked doubtful but didn’t question him on it. He leaned back on his hands, idly splashing the water with his feet, “So, how’s things with you and J’olhmyn?”

M’hzet frowned in puzzlement, peeling off his tunic and squatting down in the shallows to try and scrub the worst of the muck off. Hopefully it wouldn’t overly stain… “What do you mean? We’re fine.”

“Just fine?” Aza questioned pointedly. He was clearly prodding towards something, “I thought her opinion of you raised a little after that Qalyana business?”

M’hzet stared blankly at him, unsure of what he was driving a- oh.

Fuck. He’s an idiot. The last time Aza was here M’hzet was still gushing about wooing the women of Castellum Velodyna for his future tribe! Was that why he tried to invite J’olhymn to the hunt? To arrange a way for him to awe her? Oh. Ooooh.

“Ah, I… I’ve rethought my, uh, earlier feelings on her,” M’hzet mumbled, feeling a little on the spot.

“Oh?” Aza’s tone was mild, neutral. M’hzet couldn’t read it at all, and he squirmed in place, wondering if Aza was relieved or… even cared. He still didn’t know what his personal feelings were on M’hzet himself, only that he obviously liked him in some way. “You seemed pretty serious before.”

“I… um,” M’hzet focused intently on the tunic in his hands, scrubbing the muck out hard, “Well, I’m rethinking my approach on how to be a Nunh. And, ah, I need to be prepared to spread my love through the entire tribe, right?”

“Right,” Aza said, though he didn’t sound so sure, “The Nunh is the, uh, ‘breeder’, or something, with a harem?”

M’hzet paused and lifted his head, surprised, “You… don’t know?”

Aza suddenly looked discomforted, his ear flicking nervously, “Oh, well…” he seemed to dither for a moment, and it was such a strange thing to see on someone so confident that M’hzet could only stare, “I suppose I can tell you, since you lived outside of the tribe for a bit. Promise not to laugh?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” M’hzet vowed instantly, intrigued as Aza fidgeted in place. It was… cute and- no! Focus! Serious time! A Nunh needed to be able to listen and help his tribe with all their problems, even through emotional talks!

“I’m half-Seeker,” Aza admitted, “My mother was a Keeper who shagged some wandering Tia. So, I never actually grew up amongst a tribe. She didn’t exactly know the ins and outs of it either so… yeah, I actually have no idea how Seekers live. I don’t even know which tribe my sire was from.”

M’hzet sat back on his heels, genuinely surprised. Seeker-Keeper hybrids were uncommon, but not unheard of. They tended to look more Keeper-y than Seeker-y though, and Aza looked as Seeker as they came… except, looking at him closely, M’hzet could see that his canines were sharper than a Seeker’s would be, and his tail was longer and shaggier than a Seeker’s too. Just, little things that most people would overlook. It even explained why he never introduced himself with his tribal name. M’hzet just thought he was overly familiar, or was one of those rebellious types that changed their name upon leaving home, but…

“Oh, that explains a lot,” he said unthinkingly. It explained why Aza had initially been so puzzled over how to be a Nunh when they first met. M’hzet had been too concerned with his own problems to pay it much mind, and had almost forgotten it really, but now… oh, a lot of things made sense.

“Yeah,” Aza looked almost embarrassed, “So…”

M’hzet shook off his surprise. “I can explain things,” he said quickly, feeling touched that Aza would trust him with this information. A lot of Seekers tended to be disdainful towards those like Aza, as their sires were normally Tias. Of weak blood, they normally muttered, but M’hzet knew that to be a load of Chocobo shite just from knowing Aza. He was anything but weak. “If you have questions.”

Aza looked relieved, “Thanks, M’hzet. You have no idea how confused I’ve been whenever people bring Seeker stuff up. I normally have to bluff my way through…”

“Well! As a future Nunh, I need to know the ins and the outs of a functioning tribe,” M’hzet boasted, for once feeling genuinely confident. This he knew deep in his bones, as his father taught him a little, and his observations of M’rahz Nunh, helped him to develop an understanding of how a good tribe worked. He may be stupid, but even he understood that a tribe needed strong foundations if it didn’t want to collapse in on itself! “So, bluff no more! I’ll teach you all you need to know, until you feel confident you can be Nunh yourself!”

“I’ll pass on being a Nunh,” Aza said wryly, “I’m not interested in having sex with a harem all the time.”

“But it’s more than just sex,” M’hzet said quickly, “It’s about proving you can provide for the tribe, that you can protect them, that you can handle all their emotional needs. True, you need to help make a new, strong generation but, there isn’t a- a quota you need to fill.”

“I’ll still pass,” Aza said, “I’m not interested in having kids.”

M’hzet almost asked why, but the look in Aza’s eyes made him hold back. There was a story there, he could tell, and not a happy one. He quickly shifted the topic.

“Do you want to know what Tias do, then?” he asked, “In case you ever want to join a tribe?” Like mine, he didn’t add.

“Hmm… I don’t think I’d ever join one, but, okay, I’m interested,” Aza said.

So, M’hzet told him. It was a little later, when his tunic was drying on the rock, and he was in the middle of washing the worst of the filth off his trousers, telling an interested Aza on how Tias helped with the childcare, that he realised he felt perfectly at ease. He wasn’t blustering or faking confidence – he was just talking about something he knew about, and Aza was listening whilst lounging lazily on the rocks, occasionally splashing the water with his feet or tail. It was… comfortable. Nice.

M’hzet made sure to remember the feeling. This was what he wanted to achieve, with him and his future tribe. A complete state of belonging. It still felt a long way off but… Aza seemed to think he could do it. He had to do it.

He also fell a little more in love. Just a little.

Chapter Text

The sun was beginning its slow descent towards the horizon when M’hzet and Aza returned to Castellum Velodyna.

J’olhmyn was half expecting M’hzet to be dragged in by his ankle, beaten up and despondent over failing to properly wow and awe his infatuation – instead, when she hurried to meet them by the gates when the lookout announced their arrival, she was amazed to see M’hzet not only in one piece, but looking as chipper as a Chocobo in a gyshal greens field, gesticulating enthusiastically as he spoke to Aza about something.

“-nd that is probably why they were very standoffish to you,” M’hzet was saying as they drew closer, “From the sound of it, you unintentionally- oh, J’olhmyn! Hello!”

“M’hzet, you’re alive,” J’olhmyn said blankly as she looked him over. There were a few scuff marks on his clothes, as well as bloodstains, but judging by the lack of open wounds they weren’t his. He was remarkably… untouched.

“He dealt with the Salamander all on his own,” Aza said, clapping M’hzet on the shoulder with a smile, “I didn’t have to do anything except yell encouragement from a tree.”

“A tree?”

M’hzet looked like he was going to spontaneously combust, his face turned that red, but he had the stupidest and proudest grin on his face, “That’s right. I killed the Giant Salamander without any assistance. My martial prowess has improved greatly over the past few months as you can see!” he boasted, though she noticed he gave a quick glance to Aza, his ear flicking slightly. A little white lie then, she deduced, but as Aza said nothing she wasn’t going to call him on it. If the Warrior of Light wanted someone to take credit for his work, then she wasn’t going to stick her nose into that mess.

“Uh huh…” J’olhmyn said slowly, her gaze shifting between the two of them. They seemed pretty cosy, she noticed. Aza had let go of M’hzet shoulder but they were standing close enough their arms were touching. Aza, she had noticed, never let many people that close to him if he had room to shift away, so it was very telling. Did that mean M’hzet’s advances were actually working?

It boggled her mind, trying to pair up M’hzet and Aza, the Warrior of Light. It was just plain bizarre. What could Aza possibly see in a walking disaster like M’hzet?

“Well, I guess that means you get the reward,” she finally said, pushing those thoughts of her mind for now, “Congrats.”

M’hzet preened – then paused, blinking in realisation, “Re… reward?”

“Yeah,” Aza glanced at him in open amusement, “You get paid for this work. What, you think I did it for free?”

“Oh,” M’hzet suddenly looked a little uncomfortable, “Did I poach the reward from you? Ah, in which case, J’olhmyn, I-”

“Completely deserve it for doing all the heavy lifting,” Aza cut in, his tail swishing from side to side impishly, “Don’t worry about it, M’hzet. J’olhmyn, I’ll go on ahead and tell Eshana he’ll be claiming the reward. Don’t let him refuse it because of something like honour or whatnot.”

“Wait, I-!” M’hzet protested, but Aza was already walking off, whistling loudly and clearly ignoring him.

J’olhmyn eyed his retreating back speculatively, waiting until he was clear out of earshot before slanting her gaze to M’hzet, “You two seem close.”

M’hzet immediately began to fidget, scratching behind his ear, “Ah, do we?”

“Mmhm…” J’olhmyn watched him for a moment, seeing how M’hzet’s gaze drifted after Aza, his tail curving upwards slightly before twitching to a halt and forcing itself back down – she wondered how long he’d been suppressing that bit of telling body language, she thought wryly. Honestly, and M’hzet was acting like he wanted to be the Nunh in that potential coupling.

“Did you two kiss?” she asked bluntly.

“W-Whaaaaaaahh- no!” M’hzet spluttered, waving his arms as if warding off a divebombing eagle, “No, we, um, haven’t… he’s been, difficult to read…”

“Really? Because it seems clear he’s comfortable with you,” J’olhmyn said, “He let you in his personal space. He doesn’t do that with a lot of people. You two must’ve done something.”

“Oh, well, maybe…” M’hzet squirmed in place, “We were naked together a few hours ago and got to talkin-”

Naked,” J’olhmyn gaped.  

M’hzet nodded, scuffing the floor with his foot, his cheeks pink, “Yes. We got a little filthy after the battle – Dimwold is awful, by the way – so we went to the river to clean up. Nothing happened,” he hurried to add, though he sounded a little put out about this.

J’olhmyn processed this for a moment.

“…how big was he?”

M’hzet made a strangled noise, “J’olhmyn! I didn’t look-”

“M’hzet.”

“…decently sized.”

“Hmm…” J’olhmyn couldn’t help but smirk at him. It was such a peculiar position to be in, with M’hzet blushing and spluttering instead of doing his stupid macho fake-bravado shit – she liked him a lot better like this, truthfully. It was kind of cute. “But nothing happened?”

“We just spoke,” M’hzet muttered, kicking a loose stone.

M’hzet managed to get them both naked and within touching distance… and all they did was talk. Typical. Still, she was a little envious. Aza looked like he would have a delightful body to gaze at, and M’hzet got to stare at it in all its glory. Clearly the world was deciding to give him something nice in life for all the thrashings he endured over the years.

“So, the Salamander,” J’olhmyn asked casually, “Did you really kill it?”

“I did!” M’hzet puffed his chest out, grinning confidently, “It wasn’t all that difficult for me. It was slippery and lumbering, but I jabbed it like this and like that, and hyah!”

He mimed out the battle with an invisible blade, jabbing at thin air, and J’olhmyn sighed in exasperation. He looked so stupid, but, if he was telling the truth, then she could allow him that bit of grandstanding. He needed to take a few pointers from Aza on how to gracefully describe his victories though.

“In which case… I’m impressed, M’hzet,” J’olhmyn said only a mite grudgingly, “I thought you were still the weedy little Tia that came bumbling through not that long ago and was going to get flattened. Looks like you proved me wrong.”

“Well,” M’hzet stopped his flailing, his cocky grin softening into something almost bashful, “It’s mostly thanks to the Power of Love. With Aza watching over me, I had to win, so I did! It was an amazing feeling, J’olhmyn! It wasn’t awful or painful at all, like with the grenaa-ah, uh, I mean-”

“The grenades thing was a stupid way of going about it,” J’olhmyn said flatly, “I think that was why Aza kept tossing them at you, just to hammer it home.”

“He did seem to find it really amusing…” M’hzet sighed dejectedly, but instantly perked up, “But no, J’olhmyn, it’s wonderful. I had a revelation, when we were in the river together, and I realised I never really loved you or the women I pressed my childish advances on.”

“You- what,” J’olhmyn stuttered, genuinely taken off guard. She had hoped M’hzet would have matured – or start chasing after male Miqo’te and left all the women alone – during this whole fiasco, but to have it happen in the span of a day. What the hell did they talk about in that damned river?

M’hzet nodded solemnly, “I know they’re blunt words, but they’re true. But don’t worry, J’olhmyn!” he threw her a thumbs up, “Now that I know how genuine love feels, how it empowers and focuses me, I’ll make sure to develop it naturally with all the women and Tia of my tribe!”

…oh, nevermind.

“You can’t force love, M’hzet,” J’olhmyn said flatly, “And that’s not how it works with Nunhs-”

“It does,” M’hzet, suddenly serious. J’olhmyn paused in surprise, “As a Nunh, you need to love your entire tribe. Not just to mate with the women to create a strong generation, but to make sure they’re protected and provided for. I forgot that, but Aza reminded me of it.”

J’olhmyn rocked back on her heels, stunned, “M’hzet…”

“So! I’ll need to rethink my approach,” M’hzet continued, cupping his chin in an exaggerated thinking pose, his previous seriousness evaporating, “Perhaps what I did with Aza? Find out what they like, give them a gift… ah, but shouldn’t I start feeling love for them first to do that? But then I’ll need to approach them before and, hmm…”

J’olhmyn watched him for a moment – then sighed in fond exasperation. Even if he matured a little bit, he was still the same ol’ dumb M’hzet. Still, her interest was kindled. If he kept that belief in mind when making his tribe, maybe he wouldn’t be a half-bad Nunh, so long as no one minded their kids being absolute boneheads.

“I’ll leave you to figure it out,” she said, aware she already wasted enough time standing here chatting, “Remember to pick up your reward from Eshana.”

“Yes, yes,” M’hzet muttered distractedly, still lost in his head planning… who knows what.

Shaking her head, J’olhmyn left him to it. So, he was still going to pester the women around here to join his tribe, but from the sounds of it, he might pick up new material other than proving his ‘strength’ by having someone lob grenades at his head, which might prove interesting. Though, would he wait until he bagged Aza? He seemed oddly fixated on him… maybe M’hzet was one of those weird monogamous types and didn’t even know it yet.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Chapter Text

The sun was just beginning to peek over the golden Griffin statues when M’hzet managed to drag his sore, aching body out of bed.

It seemed the battle with the Salamander exerted him a little more than he thought, because his muscles were sore and stiff as he sluggishly limbered up by walking the length of Castellum Velodyna several times until he was no longer cross-eyed from sheer grogginess. He watched as the Castellum stirred awake from its low activity night shift, Anantas and Ala Mhigans beginning to bustle about in a way that M’hzet found comforting. He had lingered so long in Castellum Velodyna that it felt more like home than his place in the M Tribe at this point. He wasn’t quite sure what to think about that.  

By the time the Castellum was in full swing, most of the stiffness had been eased out of M’hzet’s aching legs, and he started towards the far gate leading towards Peering Stones. He was feeling hungry, and he felt fairly confident that he’d be able to succeed in an impulsive Gazelle hunt after proving himself on the Salamander. He could hunt one and maybe drag it back for Aza’s inspection? He heard he liked Gazelle stew, and while M’hzet wasn’t a master cook, he could try…

“Oh, so this is where you slinked off to.”

M’hzet flinched in surprise, so deep in thought as he was, and turned to see – M’zitku. A huntress of great renown in the M Tribe, and someone who deeply disliked him for reasons he… pretty much deserved. She was unbelievably beautiful, leggy and strong and M’hzet admitted he, er, pestered her quite a bit when he still had that childish view on what love was. Unlike J’olhmyn, she didn’t have the boundless patience needed to tolerate him, and M’hzet was more than familiar with her sharp tongue.

“M’zitku,” he greeted, keeping his tone cheery but himself wary, “What a surprise to see you here.”

“Hn,” M’zitku sniffed at him, tilting her chin up in a way that made it seem she was looking down on him despite being shorter, “I’m working,” she said pointedly, “Which you seem to be slacking off from, lazy Tia.”

M’hzet felt his irritation flare, his ears flicking back a fraction – even if what she said was true. He had been loitering around here, as opposed to helping the tribe out, but it was to better himself! That was helping the tribe out in the long run, right? “I am working,” he tried to boast, but his voice came out a little weaker than he liked, “In fact I just recently slew a terrible monster plaguing the patrols. A Giant Salamander!”

M’zitku’s flat look spoke volumes.

“Tall tales again, M’hzet? Honestly, I don’t know why the Nunh tolerates you sometimes…” M’zitku muttered, flicking her hair over her shoulder in an elegant move. It used to awe him – now he just felt aimlessly annoyed. “It’s probably because you loitered in the wilderness by yourself for too long. A bit of pity for someone who lived off hunting rabbits-”

“I hunted bigger things!” M’hzet protested, but he found his confidence wavering beneath M’zitku’s disdainful look. It had been difficult to survive by himself in the wilderness, but he still survived. He hunted small game, foraged for food but- he clenched his fists tight, puffed his chest out, trying to firm his confidence as he forced out; “Besides, I have been improving myself, so that when I’m Nunh-”

“You’re still banging on about that?”

“-I can safely provide for my tribe!” M’hzet finished, feeling his face burn. He felt agitated and flustered – whenever J’olhmyn prodded or teased him, that was fine because she also worried about him. She was, tentatively, hopefully, a friend. M’zitku on the other hand hated him, and every insult she pressed against him was sharp and well-aimed. But a Nunh needed thick skin, so he swallowed his budding humiliation down like it was a stone lodged in his throat, refusing to look away from M’zitku’s flat look.

“Normally, I wouldn’t fault a guy for trying to use that as an ambition,” M’zitku said a mite delicately, “But you, M’hzet, are somehow allergic to competence. You can try all you want, you can ask all the women you like, but you will never be a Nunh. So, why don’t you settle for something easier for you to achieve, like, I don’t know, staying as a Tia and providing for the tribe that way? You’re good with kids, at least.”

“I can be a Nunh,” M’hzet said stubbornly, tilting his chin proudly.

M’zitku sighed at him, like he was being a quarrelsome child, “You’re terrifyingly persistent, I’ll give you that. But stubbornness means nothing if you can’t translate that into actual improvement. M’hzet, just give up-”

“Oi, what’s happening here?”

M’hzet and M’zitku both jolted when J’olhmyn abruptly barged into their conversation. M’zitku’s lips thinned at the interruption, but M’hzet felt a deep sense of relief – and then shame. If he needed someone to fight his battles for him, that wasn’t very… Nunh-y, was it?

“Ah, J’olhmyn, um, I’m just talking with a fellow M Tribe,” M’hzet cut in, hoping to head off any awkward confrontations. J’olhmyn shot him a look.

“Talking, huh?”

“I was giving him some friendly advice,” M’zitku said, not looking cowed when J’olhmyn slanted that look in her direction, “If you know him, then you’ve probably had to endure his delusion of becoming Nunh, right? I was just telling him that it’s best he sticks to being a Tia. He’d suffer less disappointment that way.”

M’hzet found himself holding his breath when J’olhmyn’s frown intensified, finding himself both eager for and dreading her response. She had suffered his unwanted advances, but she also witnessed his new revelation and supporting his new ambition as a Nunh who loved both Tia and women. Or, he thought she did. She didn’t aggressively protest it now that he was thinking about it. Oh, what if she did share M’zitku’s opinion? He found himself feeling oddly and intensely gutted at the thought.

“He did make a nuisance of himself when he arrived here,” J’olhmyn said after a pause, “But I think he’s improving just fine to be a Nunh.”

M’hzet and M’zitku stared at her in varying states of disbelief and surprise.

“He slew a monster that injured several of our patrols all by himself yesterday,” J’olhmyn said, conveniently leaving out that Aza had accompanied him on that mission, “And before that, helped us repel an attack by the Qalyana and protected the Warrior of Light himself from serious injury.”

M’zitku blinked, “What?”

“What?” M’hzet echoed, still stunned.

“Why are you saying ‘what’, you bone-headed moron?” J’olhmyn snapped, reaching out to yank his ear. He yelped, “I’m trying to prove you’re not totally useless and you just say ‘what’!”

“Ow ow ow sorry- ow! I mean, thank you, J’olhmyn!”

“Hmph,” J’olhmyn mercifully let go, turning back to M’zitku with her hands planted on her hips, her chin tilted confidently, “As you can see he’s still an idiot, though. But I’d rather have a strong, kind Nunh with rocks for brains, than some unreliable asshole. Wouldn’t you agree?”

M’zitku’s gaze shifted from J’olhmyn to M’hzet and back again, her expression entirely unreadable, “I suppose,” she said neutrally, “But it’s clear you’re both friends. You could just be lying on his behalf…”

“I can vouch for everything she just said.”

Aza, out of nowhere, scared M’hzet halfway out of his skin when he just appeared at his shoulder without even a bit of noise. He went ramrod straight, tail fluffed out, but managed to hold in the startled yelp that wanted to break free. From the corner of his eye he saw Aza smirking, no doubt deeply amused about the effect he had.

“Who-” M’zitku began, looking irritated, before recognition dawned, “The Warrior of Light?”

“Yup,” Aza said with cheerful casualness, “M’hzet helped me out against the Qalyana attack. Without him, I would’ve been seriously hurt.”

That was a lie, M’hzet thought in mild dismay. He may have helped draw the bulk of the enemy away, and helped shield him from the powerful fire spells, but Aza had made the entire battle look like a joke. Any stray Anantas that swung his way were cut down like chafe. He had no doubts Aza could have probably handled the entire thing by himself and only come away with scratches. He really didn’t want him exaggerating things just to make him look good.

“And he did kill that Giant Salamander by himself,” Aza continued, “Though, he was almost squished by it when he did the killing blow, so I had to help him out with that…”

J’olhmyn turned to him with a frown, “You didn’t say that yesterday.”

Aza just shrugged, “It didn’t seem relevant to mention. He did kill it by himself. I just made sure he wasn’t crushed under its falling corpse.”

J’olhmyn turned that frown onto M’hzet, “You didn’t mention that yesterday!”

“Um… it slipped my mind?”

J’olhmyn’s narrowed stare promised later retribution, but she held back as she turned back to M’zitku, “Whatever. In any case, M’hzet’s doing just fine improving himself to become Nunh. Even if he’s a bone-headed fool.”

M’zitku leaned back on her heels, her expression neutral, “Well, if he has someone as strong as you vouching for him…” she murmured, giving Aza a speculative look, “Perhaps I was being overly harsh.”

“Just a little,” Aza said with a smile – but it didn’t seem friendly. It noticeably warmed when he directed it towards M’hzet though, “Anyway, M’hzet, you up for some hunting? I could kill for some Gazelle stew right now.”

M’hzet, absolutely eager to escape this situation, because he felt very and dangerously choked up, practically yelled an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

“Great. Well, nice meeting you… whoever you are,” Aza said to M’zitku, waving his hand dismissively before all but frog-marching M’hzet away, “And I’ll talk to you later, J’olhmyn!”

“We’re gonna have words later!” J’olhmyn yelled at their retreating backs, but Aza ignored her, his hand firm on M’hzet’s shoulder as he insistently pushed him forwards. M’hzet had no choice but to obey, the pair of them walking until they were out of the Castellum gates and standing on the dusty road winding towards the Peering Stones.

M’hzet turned to him the moment they stopped, “Aza, you didn’t have to-”

“I did,” Aza interrupted gently, his expression unreadable as he looked at M’hzet. “You try very hard, M’hzet. I couldn’t stand by and let someone try to talk you down like that, even if they kind of had your best interests at heart.”

Yes, because M’zitku didn’t say those things out of pure malice. She disliked him, was annoyed by him, but in her eyes, she probably thought she was doing him a kindness. She only ever saw him when he was a childish failure… he still was a childish failure, though, just one making stubborn improvements, millimetre by millimetre.

“Thank you, but…” M’hzet paused, unsure before saying firmly, “But I’d like to defend myself in the future. I-I’m grateful, but, if I need someone to rush to my aid because someone says something mean about me, then, that’s not strong of me at all.”

“Hmm…” Aza smiled at him, “Not strong? Why, it’s a strength to have friends ready and eager to come to your aid, M’hzet.”

M’hzet wasn’t quite sure how to refute that, and instead blurted; “But, but you lied for me!”  

Aza tilted his head, his expression now curious instead of offended, “When did I lie?”

“About the Qalyana!” M’hzet, for some reason, felt upset about this, though he wasn’t sure why. Because it implied pity? That Aza pitied him so lied for him? He didn’t want that! “You didn’t need my help, not really… and you certainly wouldn’t have been hurt without me!”

“Ah, I see,” Aza shook his head, “M’hzet, I was telling the truth. I really would’ve been badly hurt if it weren’t for you.”

“But-”

“Physically fighting those Ananta, I could have done with one arm tied behind my back and blindfolded,” Aza continued, like M’hzet didn’t just try to talk, “But those spells? My armour and aether can only protect me so much. Without you there to add to my defence and soaking up some of the damage yourself, I would’ve been worn down eventually. I could have actually died.”

M’hzet rocked back on his heels, genuinely stunned, “You could have…”

“But I wasn’t alone. I had you guys with me,” Aza smiled at him, brightly, “And that also gave me the determination to make sure I didn’t lose. If I fell, then you would have been next, and I refuse to ever let that happen. The desire to protect is… a powerful motivator, M’hzet.”

M’hzet thought abruptly of his father, cursed to eternal petrification, all to defend the tribe that he was no longer the Nunh of. The desire to protect was indeed a powerful motivator, but, also, not something that inspired a long-lived life. Something squirmed in his stomach at the thought, though he couldn’t identify the emotion.

“Don’t worry about it,” Aza said, “Let’s just hunt some Gazelles, okay? I’ll show you a quick and easy way to kill them.”

M’hzet hesitated – but he knew he didn’t have the mental stamina to question Aza on what he just said. He wanted to hunt a Gazelle on his own, though, to see if he could do it – not have Aza teach him how to do it. It would lose its impressive impact if he presented a hunt after being taught how to by the person he was trying to awe.

“I’d like to try by myself first,” he said, “I want to see how much I’ve improved from the last time I tried.”

Aza eyed him for a moment – but shrugged, “Alright. I’ll be just behind you, ready to help when you need it.”

When, not if. Aza believed he could be Nunh, but even he was expecting to help out. Well, he was definitely going to prove him wrong. M’hzet was going to hunt a Gazelle, successfully, without any help, and he was going to cook him the best Gazelle stew he ever had, and Aza would be impressed and amazed. That was his plan, and M’hzet was going to achieve it!

“You won’t even have to lift a finger!” he boasted, striding off the road and deeper into the plains. Aza indulgently followed him, “I will find us the biggest, juiciest Gazelle, and make us a lovely meal, and-”

“You can cook?”

“I can learn!”

“Ah…”

Aza sounded wary of that. Well, M’hzet will surprise him. He knew how to roast meat – how difficult could it be to make a stew? Not very, he was sure.

Chapter Text

Gazelle hunting was not… going well.

Usually, the M Tribe had two different ways of hunting Gazelles. If alone, they normally used archery to take it down at range, which required pinpoint aim as the beasts were very resilient and quick to flee when wounded. If you did not bring down the Gazelle in one or two hits, the prey was lost forever. M’hzet, who rarely, if ever, carried a bow with him, did not use this method.

The other method required teamwork. One tribe member would chase the Gazelle, shepherding it into an ambush where it would be brought down swiftly, as deadly as a pack of wolves. As M’hzet was alone, ah, that is, he didn’t want Aza to help him, he couldn’t use this method either.

When he was alone in the wilderness, before joining the M Tribe, M’hzet normally relied on snares or traps to capture his prey – since he normally caught things like rabbits and the like, this was fine. But Gazelles, well, unless he wanted to spend to entire afternoon digging a pit trap, M’hzet couldn’t do traps either. But, surely, he could still hunt it, easy. He’d seen Aza do it with that monstrous greatsword before. He’d provoke them into charging, then decapitate them in one swing the moment they were close enough. WOOSH. Faster than the eye can see. Dead.

M’hzet… was failing miserably at this tactic too.

At the moment he tried it on three Gazelles, and three times he had been knocked flat on his ass, the beast sprinting away once it was satisfied he wasn’t getting up any time soon. Three times he bruised his tail, his ass and his pride under Aza’s watchful gaze. His future Tia had taken position in another tree – the gnarled, dried out ones that grew in this dusty plain – lounging with his tail idly flicking from side to side.

“Maybe you should try another tactic,” Aza called out to him, as M’hzet painfully got back on his feet, rubbing his tail as he watched his latest prey bound off into the distance.

“I-I can do it,” M’hzet assured him, patting the dust off him and planting his hands on his hips. But his earlier confidence, that he had been so pleased to feel and be genuine about, was horrifically shaken. Maybe M’zitku was right about him… “I just need to be faster! And, uh, have more practice!”

“Hmm…” Aza eyed him but didn’t press the issue. M’hzet wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.

Because, he wanted to impress Aza, to show him that he can do this by himself, that he is self-sufficient, that he can provide for his tribe – their future tribe – and that he would never have to worry. But at the same time, a little seed of doubt was sprouting in him because, what if Aza just didn’t care? What if he was just coming along because he found M’hzet’s attempts very amusing and cute? He ruthlessly squashed those thoughts, though, because hadn’t Aza defended him and said he believed in him? He just – had to try harder, that was all! Hard work was not a foreign concept to M’hzet!

He scanned the horizon for anymore Gazelle – maybe he should focus on an elderly or sickly one… - when Aza, without warning, hopped out of his tree.

It was like watching a coeurl wake up, honestly. Aza stretched languidly the moment his feet were on the floor, his shoulders audibly popping before he shook himself off, his heavy-lidded gaze lazily scanning his surroundings. M’hzet found his Gazelle-watching abandoned as he watched him instead, entranced.

“Hmm… okay, M’hzet, I see what you’re doing,” Aza said, making M’hzet start guiltily, “You’re trying to copy me. That would work… if you’re using a greatsword, which you’re not.”

“Ah…” M’hzet had nothing to say to that.

Aza turned to him, his mouth quirked into a small, charming smile, “Greatsword’s are made to take down charging cavalry, so they’re perfect to kill Gazelles. But you’ve got a short sword. I’d be very impressed if you managed it with that because I doubt even I could do that.”

“I’m sure you could…” M’hzet muttered.

Aza chuckled huskily, “Well, maybe I’ll try it and see. But what I’m trying to say is you gotta adapt your methods to what weapon you have at your disposal. Here.”

He moved towards him, unsheathing his blade. He made it look effortless, as he swung the massive thing over his shoulder. He stopped before him and offered its hilt to him.

“Take it.”

M’hzet gaped, genuinely taken aback, “T-Take…”

“C’mon,” Aza wriggled the blade tantalisingly, “Just pick it up and see if you can swing it around some.”

He felt like he was being set up for something, but M’hzet reached out and grasped the hilt. It was smooth and comfortable – padded leather – and he hefted it from Aza’s hold. It was… heavy. He grunted from the sheer weight of it, feeling it pull at his shoulders and arms, but he quickly adjusted it, shuffling his feet into a wider stance until he had the thing firmly grasped and steady in his hands. It looked even bigger held out in front of him – the width of the blade was such that it almost blocked his view of everything.

Very nice design though, he noted absently. There was a snarling Behemoth incorporated into the blade, with swirling designs along the length of the blade. Must be a nightmare to get the blood out though.

“Hmm…” Aza looked… pleased. “Wow, most people topple over when they try picking it up. Good job.”

So, he was being set up! But M’hzet couldn’t be annoyed about it because Aza was smiling at him proudly, and M’hzet all but glowed beneath the approving stare. It was getting very tiring holding this blade up though… “H-Haha, this is, ngh, n-not too bad! Though, it is a l-little heavy…”

“Yeah, you need to work a certain set of muscles to properly wield it,” Aza said, reaching out and thankfully relieving him of the weight. Compared to M’hzet laboriously heaving it about, he just casually flipped it over his shoulder like it weighed nothing, the click of the magnetic locks on his sheath activating. “But a bit of brute strength is needed to, which it seems you have.”

Aza eyed him for a moment, scrutinising. M’hzet tried not to fidget.

“If you want to try my method,” Aza said slowly, like he was still on the fence about what he was going to propose, “I guess I can… teach you how to use this.”

M’hzet almost protested – he said he wanted to do it on his own! But, Aza said he’d teach him to use the weapon, not the method of Gazelle hunting itself… and he remembered that proud look Aza gave him when he hefted the weight of that greatsword by himself and felt something warm and bright in his stomach flutter. He wanted him to give him that look again, and if he did well…

And the weapon did look very intimidating. M’hzet imagined him with it – a big, strong Nunh with the strength to swing around a blade larger than himself… oh, he really liked that. He really, really liked that! He saw how people stared at Aza whenever he started fighting with that monstrous weapon – admiration, amazement, interest… yes, M’hzet could do with that too!

“Yes, please!” M’hzet gushed, “Teach me, master!”

Aza twitched like he’d been stung, “Don’t- call me master.”

“Ah,” M’hzet scrambled to redeem his mistake, “Mentor?”

“Just Aza, you moron,” Aza chided, reaching out and flicking his forehead. He yelped, “I’ll just be teaching you the basics, anyway, then the rest you have to do on your own. It’ll be a lot of hard work too, okay?”

“Hahah! I never shirk from hard work!” M’hzet boasted – which was true. He had to work hard for every skill he possessed. Natural talent did not like him, sad to say.

“I know,” Aza smiled at him. His gaze flicked to the side, “So, with that out of the way…”

M’hzet followed his gaze to where a Gazelle was tugging at a clump of dried grass at the roots of a bent over tree.

“You want to get this one,” M’hzet said in resignation.

“Just for today,” Aza assured him, “Then the next one is yours. Now, watch carefully. This is how you kill them with a greatsword.”

M’hzet hurried backed away several steps and to the side, more than aware of how this was going to go, and watched as Aza let out a sharp, piercing whistle. The Gazelle’s head jerked up, its ears flipped forwards – normally, they ran away at this point, but Aza unsheathed his weapon and did… M’hzet wasn’t sure what – it was as if the light glinted off his weapon in a way that instantly drew your eye, and the Gazelle snorted and tossed its head in agitation, clearly not liking it.

“C’mere~” Aza crooned, his voice a low, throaty purr. It made M’hzet shiver all the way down to his toes and he had to think very hard about something incredibly unsexy before he embarrassed himself.

The Gazelle charged. It lowered its head, hooves pounding against the cracked, dusty earth as it rapidly swallowed up the distance, but Aza waited, calmly until-

SHLITCH!

M’hzet flinched when Aza’s blade flashed upwards, faster than he could track. A spurt of blood, the Gazelle’s head rolling neatly on the floor as its body clumsily stumbled past Aza on wobbling legs before – crumpling just short of M’hzet. It hindleg spasmed as it went through its death throes, and Aza casually flicked his blade, getting the excess blood off it.

“See?” he said, sheathing his weapon, “Easy. None of this stalking them across the wilderness shit.”

M’hzet curiously toed the corpse, noting how clean the cut was. Aza’s blade hadn’t even jarred when it hit the spine, incredible…

“Your first attempt will probably be a bit messy,” Aza admitted, “But messiness is part of the fun, sometimes.”

Yeah, M’hzet could envision his attempt being a disaster, like all his first attempts were. Knowing his luck, the blade would get caught in the vertebrae and there would be blood everywhere. So messy… and not at all fun. But, Aza had weird tastes.

“Alright, let’s haul this carcass back,” Aza said, “Then we can have some stew!”

Which reminded him! “Yes, I’ll make you the best stew you’ve ever had!”

“Ah… haha, yeah…” Aza said, looking oddly worried. “Maybe I can make it-”

“No, no,” M’hzet shook his head and even crossed his arms in a big ‘X’ over his chest, “You killed the Gazelle, so I’ll cook it! It’s only fair!”

“…okay,” Aza sighed. Honestly, what did he look so worried for? Oh, did J’olhmyn tell him about the jerky incident? Well, M’hzet had learned his lesson from that disaster, and he wasn’t completely incompetent! He did have to survive and cook by himself for a good few years, so he knew how to make edible roasts and the like… stew was just like a roast with water, right?

Right. It should be no problem.

 


 

 

“I did tell you about the jerky incident, right?” J’olhmyn said to a sheepish looking Aza.

“He just…” Aza sighed heavily, “I felt bad saying no.”

“Mmhm…” J’olhmyn eyed him for a moment. She understood what M’hzet meant now, when he said Aza was difficult to read. She was sure she had him pegged as someone who just found M’hzet kind of amusing, like a pet that could do a funny trick, but he was getting oddly invested in M’hzet’s development into a Nunh. It made her wonder if he had an ulterior motive… though what that motive could be, she was clueless. Aza obviously didn’t have designs on usurping whatever tribe M’hzet would make, because Aza could easily make his own without little to no effort, but neither was he putting out vibes that he wanted to be a Tia in M’hzet’s tribe, so… J’olhmyn was at a loss.

And since J’olhmyn hated being clueless, she decided to be blunt – best to do it now when there was little chance of M’hzet popping into their conversation.

“Why are you even bothering with him?”

Aza went still, like he’d been struck, and his face went very neutral, “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” J’olhmyn continued, not daunted by the slight flattening of Aza’s ears, “M’hzet is a weakling. A determined, stubborn weakling, who might one day be Nunh, yeah, but… it’s a bit weird for someone like you to pay an interest in him. What’s your angle?”

“Maybe I just want to help him out?” Aza suggested lightly, but he was hiding something. J’olhmyn could read it in his body language – Aza had been lingering around non-Miqo’te for too long if he didn’t bother hiding that.

“I call bullshit,” J’olhmyn said flatly, “Aza, I like you. You’ve helped us out a lot but…” she blew out a short breath, grimacing, “But M’hzet’s grown on me, like a fungus or something. He’s like a puppy you just can’t get mad at, okay? And he really looks up to you.” He’s practically in love with you, she did not say, though she desperately wanted to, “So, so if this is like, some game or something to amuse yourself until you get bored, we’re gonna have an issue, me and you.”

Aza watched her without any emotion in his expression. It was… incredibly nerve-wracking, like she was being eyed up by some predator. J’olhmyn liked to think she was made from stern stuff, though, so she met Aza’s flat stare with a fierce one of her own. Aza, she realised, always acted like he was from another planet, sometimes. His true thoughts and feelings were incredible indecipherable if he felt like being difficult.

“Hm,” Aza finally muttered, “Well. At first I found him amusing.”

J’olhmyn felt indignation flare, though she squashed it because, “At first?”

Aza made a face – he looked irritated, and he started fidgeting with his vambraces. He was restless, like he wanted to pace, but was containing himself for whatever reason, “He reminds me of… someone.”

“Someone.”

Aza was agitated now. His tail was lashing, his ears were fully back, but it didn’t seem to be directed towards her, not fully, “It doesn’t matter. I’m not playing with him, that’s all you need to know.”

J’olhmyn was tempted to press… but instinct told her that would be stabbing a sleeping coeurl awake, and she was leery of ever seeing Aza in a proper mood. She backed off after giving him a suspicious look, and said, “Fine. But I mean it when I say he looks up to you.”

“I know,” Aza muttered. He looked unnerved about this, weirdly, but it lasted for only a moment. Like water of a duck’s back, his earlier agitation just melted away, poof, stuffed down, which was incredibly disturbing to watch, and he was back to normal. Well, ‘normal’ for Aza, “Anyway, I better go make sure M’hzet isn’t mangling our meal. I do want to eat.”

“Uh huh… he should be fine, if it’s stew,” J’olhmyn said, still watching him carefully. He looked composed, though, even if the fur on his tail was still fluffed out, “Good luck, though.”

Aza nodded and walked away, and J’olhmyn looked after him thoughtfully.

M’hzet reminded him of someone, hm? Depending on that ‘someone’, that either meant M’hzet was going to be very happy… or very heartbroken.

Chapter Text

It had been exactly five days since Aza promised to teach him how to use greatswords, and he had been absent for all of them.

M’hzet was put out – even if he understood why his future Tia had upped and vanished so soon after their Gazelle hunting. Someone called him over the linkpearl, some sort of ‘S-Rank Sighting’ over in Los Noscea, and after apologising profusely, Aza had fled before M’hzet even finished his Gazelle stew! He had worked so hard on it too, and J’olhmyn had even expressed surprise that it was decent! Oh, if only that S-Rank had decided to stay unsighted for a few hours more, he would’ve had Aza in awe over his cooking ability, and then maybe…

So yes, M’hzet sulked for those five days.

“This is somehow even worse than your flirting,” J’olhmyn said flatly, standing over him as he lay, sprawled out and despondent, on the floor of the Castellum, staring up at the bright blue sky, “M’hzet, why are you in the middle of the bridge? You’re blocking foot traffic.”

“Aza still hasn’t come back,” he muttered.

“Twelve save me from lovesick fools,” J’olhmyn sighed, bending over and grabbing his arm. He groaned as she bullied him onto his feet, then yelped when she didn’t hesitate to start hauling him up by the ear. He very quickly became cooperative, “M’hzet, if you’re gonna pine, at least be productive while doing it! Go practice hunting Gazelles, or whatever.”

M’hzet sulked, but J’olhmyn was merciless. She bullied him all the way to the gate and literally booted him past the doors. He very nearly tumbled flat on his face from the force of her kick.

“And don’t come back until you’ve shaken that mood off!” she yelled at him, before striding back into the Castellum.

M’hzet dithered on the edge of the bridge, rubbing his smarting rump as he considered his options. He supposed he could practice Gazelle hunting some more – what was it Aza said? Adapt your hunting to your weapon of choice? He supposed he could do that… but even the memory of his wasted Gazelle stew made him grumpy, so he decided a nice, long patrol around the M Tribe’s territory might do him so good. Familiarising himself with the land that his father once tended to always did help him to put things in perspective. 

It was about an hour in, as he ranged in the Striped Hills, that his day got very much worse.

 


 

M’zitku smiled as she watched her daughter successfully set up a snare trap under her close supervision, reaching down to pat her child on the head in congratulations.

“Well done,” she purred, squatting down to better examine the trap. It was simple and straightforward – one any M Tribe child could make. It was built to catch rabbits or large lizards and their like, and she saw no issues with this one. Her daughter, M’kiki, beamed up at her.

“So, so, it’s okay?” M’kiki asked her.

“More than,” M’zitku ruffled her hair and straightened up again, grinning widely, “I think it’s time for you to move onto your next lesson…”

M’kiki gasped loudly, her excitement barely contained as she bounced on her toes, “You mean-!?”

“Archery,” M’zitku confirmed, almost laughing when her daughter cheered loudly, leaping about like a coeurl kitten. She was only eight summers, a bit young to be plucking at the bow, but M’zitku still had her training bow from when she had been a child. So long as M’zitku watched over her as she trained, she saw no issue in letting her start a bit early.

“But remember,” she reminded her child, “You have to listen to everything I say, understand? Archery isn’t a game, it’s a way of life, a way to sustain yourself and protect your tribe. You will be learning a weapon, and you’ll treat it as such.”

“Yes, Mama!” M’kiki chirped. M’zitku doubted she really understood her words, too young, really, but so long as she got “don’t stab myself in the eye with the arrow” part of it, M’zitku supposed she’d come to understand in time.

“Alright. Now then, let’s collapse this trap. You remember how to do that?”

“Mhm!”

“Show me.”

M’kiki was half-way dismantling her trap when M’zitku heard an annoyingly familiar voice call out. M’hzet. She almost sighed, but remembering her encounter with him almost a week ago, stifled her irritation as much as possible as she turned to watch his approach. M’kiki perked up, distracted from her trap. She always did like M’hzet, finding his outlandish tales and bumbling antics funny – for that reason alone, M’zitku tolerated most of his nigh-comical failings.

“M’hzet,” she greeted, “Hunting, are we?”

“Patrolling,” M’hzet said proudly, puffing his chest out in that stupid way he always did when trying to look confident. Though, he didn’t seem to be forcing it as much as he usually did. She had noticed he seemed more… settled and calmer, than before. Perhaps that tribeless Miqo’te, Aza, was a good influence on him. “All is quiet within M Tribe territory today. Oh, hello, M’kiki!”

“Hello, M’hzet!” M’kiki waved to him, “I made a trap!”

“So, you did!” M’hzet said, peering down at the half-undone snare, “Oh, a rabbit snare! That’s really good work for such a young girl! You’re very clever, aren’t you, M’kiki?”

While those words would sound patronising from any other Tia, M’hzet was always the odd one in that he always sounded so genuine and earnest. M’zitku couldn’t help but smile as M’kiki grinned bashfully under the praise. She didn’t lie when she said he was great with kids – he was practically a born caretaker. If only he would see that… she felt he’d be a lot happier within the Tribe, if he focused on his strengths, rather than trying to be something he wasn’t born to be.

“We’re returning to the tribe now, M’hzet,” she said, deciding to be a little nicer to him. She realised she’d been a bit harsh on him recently – deserving, back then, when he kept inanely flirting and asking her to join his non-existent tribe, but now… well, she could give him a second-chance, “You haven’t been round in so long, you should come with us.”

“Yeah, come with us, M’hzet!” M’kiki insisted, “Everyone else misses you!”

‘Everyone else’ being the kids, of course. Quite a few adults were probably relieved to see the back of him, M’zitku realised with an uncomfortable feeling.

“Oh, well…” M’hzet seemed to hesitate, probably more than aware of how everyone really felt about him, but he faltered underneath M’kiki’s hopeful look, “Well, alright! But you should finish dismantling your snare first.”

“Oh, I forgot!”

M’kiki returned to her snare with vigour, and M’zitku eyed M’hzet. He looked… hmm…

“Is something the matter, M’hzet?” she asked in a quiet tone, so her daughter wouldn’t overhear.

“Hm?” M’hzet looked at her distractedly, “Oh, no, it’s nothing. Just, uh, one of those days. Ha…”

A poor liar as usual, but if M’hzet didn’t want to tell her, she wasn’t going to force it. She stifled her idle curiosity, setting back on her heels to watch her daughter finish up the dismantling. It didn’t take long, and as soon the parts of the trap were tucked away into her bag they were off, walking through the Striped Hills towards the Peering Stones. 

However, in the wake of Ala Mhigo’s liberation, the Striped Hills had become a hotbed of banditry and raiders – preying on those returning to their homeland carrying all of their possessions on them. The Velodyna Gatekeepers and the Resistance based in Rhalgar’s Reach did all they could to protect the main roads and paths leading to it, but this far out in the hills, where the tall, craggy outcrops of rocks could hide many a bandit clan from the prying eye of the law?

People became lost, or, they would pause on the side of the road, and strike out into the hills to catch game and the like – then they were easy targets.

M’zitku liked to think she wasn’t an easy target… but with M’kiki and a Tia who was lucky not to stab himself with his own sword when drawing it? She definitely was then. 

So of course, this was when they blundered, quite stupidly in retrospect, right into a bandit ambush.

 


 

“Afternoon, J’olhmyn!”

“Ugh,” J’olhmyn twitched, stifling her shriek at the low, purred out greeting practically breathed down her ear. She was getting better at sensing whenever this asshole was close, she thought darkly, turning around and settling a flat, unimpressed stare Aza’s way.

“Oh, you,” she said snidely.

“Someone’s in a bad mood,” Aza hummed. He looked a little windswept, like he’d raced here at full speed from somewhere. Probably had, knowing him, and though he was speaking to her, his eyes were scanning the Castellum curiously, “Where’s M’hzet? I kind of dumped him in a rush a week ago, so I should apologise…”

“He’s out,” J’olhmyn said, “Hunting Gazelles or something, I don’t know.”

“Oh,” Aza frowned, “Really? Because I came from that direction and didn’t see him.”

“He might’ve gone for a patrol instead,” J’olhmyn suggested, oddly feeling a little worried that M’hzet ignored her advice and did something else. Well, he had been in a right strop, so… “He does that if he’s upset, sometimes.”

“Upset?” Aza zeroed in on her, frowning intently, “Why’s he upset? Did something happen?”

“Uh,” J’olhmyn leaned back, slightly uncomfortable at the sudden, intense attention, “No- well, you know how M’hzet is. He struggles a lot, and sometimes even his inhuman optimism flags a bit. He’s just a bit down in the dumps today.”

Aza didn’t look all that assured, but he stopped staring at her like he was trying to glare a hole through her head, “Oh, I see… I’ll go catch up to him, then. Where does his patrol route go?”

“M Tribe territory, which is, uh, Velodyna, around the Striped Hills, then following the river back down to Peering Stones,” J’olhmyn recalled uncertainly. It was a fairly big area, but she didn’t pay much attention to it. The Gatekeepers patrolled the entirety of the Fringes anyway, even if it made their forces beyond stretched, “Oh, and be careful in the Hills. There’ve been reports of petty bandits out there.”

Aza rolled his eyes, “Oh, bandits. How scary. Pfft,” he flapped a hand at her, “I’ll be fine, but thanks for the warning. I’ll see you later, J’olhmyn.”

“See you,” she said, watching him stride off with long, purposeful strides. She supposed it was good that he’d been so worried about M’hzet being upset? But still, that had been scary. She felt like she was going to spontaneously combust from the force of his glare…

But oh well, maybe M’hzet will stop pouting with his lovely Aza back. She’d take him fumbling with his infatuation than deal with him moping about the Castellum, sighing and huffing like some lovesick spirit.  

Chapter Text

M’hzet had been idly listening to M’kiki chatter about what kind of bow she wanted for her Coming of Age ceremony when he heard the rough scrabble of boots over loose shale. His ear flicked towards the source of the noise, and he noticed M’zitku doing the same, and with a frown he scanned their surroundings, seeing nothing but rocky hills loom over them. He heard nothing now, and would have passed it off as his imagination if it was just him, but if M’zitku also heard…

“M’kiki,” M’zitku said, cutting into her daughter’s chatter, “Come here.”

Confused but obedient, M’kiki drifted from M’hzet and into her mother’s waiting arms. M’zitku picked her up, held her close against her chest and lengthened her stride slightly – prepared to sprint at a moment’s notice. M’hzet dropped his hand to the hilt of his blade, alert for anything. He had heard that there were bandits living in the Striped Hills now, Ala Mhigans who had been loyal to the Garleans during the occupation, now turned out into the wilderness and abandoned by their previous masters but hated by the rest of their countrymen. It was only due to the stretched nature of the Velodyna Gatekeepers and the Resistance troops that they managed to thrive for so long out here.

But, they tended to avoid the Miqo’te. They knew that messing with one meant the entire tribe turning out for retribution. Still, M’hzet had a bad feeling, and his bad feelings tended to be right more often than not, so he kept his hand on his hilt and his ears flicked fully forwards in alertness, keenly watching for anything untoward.  

“They’ve been growing more desperate as of late,” M’zitku murmured to him, her lips barely moving, as if she read his mind, “The Nunh was planning on dealing with them at some point, as they had one or two altercations with the tribe recently.”

They had? M’hzet didn’t know this! Though, he had been avoiding the tribe recently, and so probably missed the news. He felt uncomfortable at that.

“I’ll protect you and M’kiki, not to worry,” M’hzet told her with a confidence he half-felt. He thought about the Salamander, with its rapid, twisting lunges, and thought that compared to that, normal, desperate Ala Mhigans should be easy enough to subdue, even if there were a few of them. How hard could it be?

M’zitku looked doubtful, but thankfully didn’t voice them. She just hugged her daughter tighter, who was looking a little worried now, clinging to M’zitku’s jerkin and chewing on her thumbnail. Well, that wouldn’t do.

“M’kiki,” M’hzet said, “What do you want to do when you get back home?”

“Um…” M’kiki hesitated, but warmed up to the idea of conversation, “I want to go bug hunting.”

“Oh? Still going for the stag beetle?”

“Mhm.”

“Well, I know a few bug hunting tricks,” M’hzet said, actually, thankfully knowledgeable about this subject, “I’ll be able to show you how to get that stag beetle.”

Really?”

“Shush,” M’zitku cut in abruptly, her head turning sharply, “There’s someone here.”

M’hzet paused, listening and realising they were walking in between two looming hills – their walls steep enough to be craggy cliffs. He almost cursed himself for mindlessly leading them down his usual route – fine on a normal day, but if they were potentially being ambushed by desperate bandits, this was a terrible place to be. Without M’kiki, he and M’zitku could have clambered up the cliff faces easy enough at least – but M’kiki gave them a massive handicap. M’zitku couldn’t climb with her, and as a child, M’kiki wouldn’t be as swift as an adult Miqo’te. He was so stupid!

He was proven correct the moment that thought crossed his mind when, as he and M’zitku walked exactly halfway through this narrow, short path between the two hills – three men stepped out to block the end.

M’hzet glanced behind and saw three others there too. Trapped. 

Oh. Wonderful.

 


 

Aza frowned as he kicked over the ashy remains of a campfire.

Still warm, but not overly so. Probably put out several hours ago.

It clearly wasn’t M’hzet, but neither was it the campfire of a Gatekeeper or a Resistance Member smoke-signal. Aza idly circled the camp’s remains, picking out bits of leavings and trash and finally decided that this belonged to a third party – possibly one of those bandit groups J’olhmyn warned him about. A fairly small group, probably no more than six or seven, and lightly armed – he was sure those pirate gangs in La Noscea would find them very cute, but…

Aza stopped by the campfire again, his tail swishing contemplatively.

They weren’t his target, right now, but neither was he happy to just let them continue roaming these hills, preying on innocent travellers returning to their long lost homeland. There was also the fact that M’hzet apparently regularly patrolled through here, and while that idiot had potential to be strong and self-sustaining one day, he was still a bit too… vulnerable, for Aza to be comfortable in letting him risk running across bandits by himself.

No, M’hzet needed to be stronger. A lot stronger. Aza remembered the feeling he had a week ago, when M’hzet had failed hunting his second Gazelle – he had fallen flat on his face, had sat up and rubbed the dirt off his nose with a pout, his hair a slight mess, and had felt an old, bittersweet fondness that- it hurt. It hurt a lot. But it was a good, cathartic kind of hurt. Looking over someone bad at hunting, giving them pointers, watching them bounce back despite their failures? So familiar… he needed to protect that familiarity. He refused to fail it again.

He dragged his boot through the ash, watching it disintegrate and flutter in the breeze. He smiled grimly.

For his own self-forgiveness, he was going to help M’hzet become Nunh, and a good hunter. But for that to happen, he needed to remove any hindrances to that. Bandits… he could use them to sharpen M’hzet’s claws on – but Spoken were very unpredictable. Dangerously so. Not like animals. No, killing bandits and their ilk will come later, when M’hzet could hunt Gazelles fine on his own. For now, they were an intolerable risk. 

He turned away from the camp, marching onwards. He’ll kill these bandits first. Just to get rid of a potential threat.

 


 

M’zitku was stiff next to him, clutching her daughter tight with her mouth twisted into a thin, unhappy line. Her bow was strapped to her back, but he knew she wouldn’t let go of M’kiki unless she absolutely had to – which meant it was up to M’hzet to protect his fellow tribe members. Him, verses six bandits.

His heart started to flutter nervously, and his palms were sweating, but he reminded himself – Giant Salamander. The Qalyana. If he fought against those and won, then he can do this. The narrow passageway worked against them too. They could only filter in one at a time to effectively swing their weapons, so M’hzet would only have to fight two at a time – on either side of him. Uhh, well, it was better than all six dog-piling him at once!

None of them seemed to have a bow at least. He hoped. Please don’t let any of them have a bow.

“Hello, Miqo’tes,” One of the bandits rasped. He was in the group in front – quite large and muscular, with his face hidden behind a bandana covering his mouth and a turban his hair. All the bandits were like that, probably to make it difficult to pick them out of a crowd whenever they went unmasked, “Been out hunting, have we?”

“No,” M’zitku spoke before M’hzet could open his mouth, “Training. We have no food to give you, bandit.”

“That’s too bad,” the bandit sighed – he must be the leader, “The lads were looking forward to having something to eat.”

M’hzet hesitated, wondering if that would be that, then. If they were hoping to mug a meal off them, then perhaps they would leave them alone? That hope was dashed when the bandits, as one, drew their weapons – shortswords, daggers and knuckle dusters- oh, there was the bow…

“Guess we’ll just have to take up that creepy fella’s unsavoury proposal. Kill the bloke, he said he don’t care for male Miqo’te. Just grab the woman and her kid.”

“M’hzet, take M’kiki and run,” M’zitku hissed, trying to shove her child into M’hzet’s arms.

What?” he hissed back, “No! You take her and run! I’ll hold them off!”

“They’ll kill you! You’re useless at fighting!”

“I’ll protect you,” M’hzet vowed with all the confidence he could muster, even if his hands trembled as the bandits began squeezing into the passageway. He hid it by grasping his hilt tight, drawing his sword in one smooth go. M’zitku stared at him, her face pale, “Now go, climb the cliff as fast as you can.” 

“You,” M’zitku stopped, seemingly realised that they were just wasting time, and nodded grimly, “I will tell everyone of your bravery, M’hzet.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said, his voice a little higher pitched than he liked, “I’ll tell them myself. Now go.”

M’zitku turned away and, with M’kiki held tight in one arm, jumped up the cliff and began to scale it as rapidly as she could. The bandits started shouting – M’hzet saw one of them, the one with the bow, in the rear behind the leader and a broad guy with a very nasty looking knife, draw back – aiming for her leg, a crippling shot, and M’hzet took in a very deep, bracing breath. 

A Nunh had to protect his tribe, even at the detriment to himself. He remembered his father, remembered how M’rahz told him of his sacrifice – to protect the tribe, he threw himself into a hopeless fight he knew he could not win, but would ensure his tribe’s survival. This wasn’t anything as dramatic as that, but M’zitku and M’kiki were part of the tribe, and M’hzet had to give it his everything, like they were the entire tribe itself. Even if he felt anxious and frightened – he pushed past it, like he pushed past everything, and grimly charged forwards.

 


 

M’zitku was panting by the time she staggered down the hill, her limbs burning from her rapid climb and subsequent sprint, M’kiki clinging tight to her neck and shivering in fright. Her stomach hurt – guilt, she felt awful for leaving M’hzet behind, but, her daughter came first – all children came first, in the tribe, and M’hzet did the correct thing. It still hurt. For such a weakling, he held such bravery, and she loathed herself for every cruel word she ever spoke to him, no matter how irritatingly delusional he was.

Body of a Tia, heart of a Nunh, as they said.

She slowed to a walk, to give her legs a break, and was rounding a rocky outcrop when she stumbled a halt. Someone almost walked into her.

“Oh, hello,” Bright, yellow eyes blinked at her, and the short, tribeless Miqo’te from the Castellum, Aza Lynel, the Warrior of Light, peered curiously at her, “Are you ok-”

“Help him!” she burst, taking Aza by surprise judging by how he reared away from her, “Bandits- they ambushed us, and, M’hzet, the fool, he is fighting all of them by himself to save my daughter-”

What,” Aza’s voice was flat and cold, and a deep, primal instinct inside of M’zitku told her to go still and quiet, barely daring to breathe beneath the Warrior of Light’s sudden, dark glare, “How many.”

“Six,” she breathed out, still frozen beneath his predatory stare, “There were six.”  

Aza snarled – a wordless, low, guttural noise that made all her fur stand on end. “Where.”

She pointed, but before she could even open her mouth to give directions, he was off, barging past her to sprint the way she came with long, galloping strides that would put the swiftest member of their tribe to shame. M’zitku stared after him, long after he had vanished, her heart racing. She… she felt like she just came nose to snout with a savage coeurl – one that only just decided not to bite her throat out on a whim.

“M-Mama,” M’kiki whispered tremulously, “Who… who was that? H-He was scary…” 

“…no one,” M’zitku shook off her shock, taking half a step after him, concerned about M’hzet, before forcing herself to stop. Her only consolation was that Aza was fond of M’hzet. Whatever he was… whatever creature… it was fond of M’hzet. She shivered and turned away, jogging back towards the Peering Stones, to inform the Nunh of the bandits’ recent boldness – not that she thought they would be a problem soon after this. The look in the Warrior of Light’s eyes spoke of a fatal retribution.

 


 

M’hzet… did not think this through.

He coughed breathlessly, on his knees and curled over the burning agony in his gut. He lost the moment the knife found its way into his stomach – he just, he tried, but he couldn’t ignore the pain, couldn’t fight the greyish dizziness crawling into the edges of his vision. Each inhale brought a stab of lightheadedness that made him want to puke, and it was sheer, mindless stubbornness that was even keeping him halfway conscious at this point.

“Fuck sake,” the bandit leader spat, “Seriously? It took us ten minutes to take down one bloody Miqo’te!”

“T-The passageway was too narrow!” Someone whined in a nasally voice, “I told you we should have jumped them further along.”

There was an abrupt, meaty thud and a cry of pain. M’hzet listed woozily to the side, his eyes squinting shut when he tasted copper in his mouth.

“And I told you I’m the leader! This woulda been fine if someone hadn’t bloody missed! How could you miss!? This is like stabbing a fish in a bowl!”

“He threw gravel in my face! I can’t aim with pebbles in my eyes, can I?”

Their voices were all beginning to blur in an incomprehensible slur. M’hzet sucked in a sharp breath, forcing himself to focus, his hand not curled tight against the wound in his stomach mindlessly groping the floor for his dropped blade. If he… if he just… took advantage of their distraction, he could…

“Hey, what’s he doing-?”

SLITCHT!

There was… a grossly familiar noise. A wet, sliding noise that brought to mind a Gazelle stumbling over its forelegs, its head rolling on the floor. Slowly, feeling like his head was going to roll of his shoulders from too fast a movement, he looked up with unfocused eyes to see…

The leader sliding apart in two neat pieces, his insides… oh…

The nausea M’hzet felt was not solely because of his gut wound there.

HOLY SHIT!”

Everything got confusing after that – moving too fast. Everyone started running around, feet kicking up dust and pebbles and, M’hzet bowed down again, squeezing his eyes shut, breathing around the throbbing, nauseating pain in his gut – he could smell something sickly and metallic, and if he opened his eyes he could see the dust clump together from blood – not his. But slowly, he realised, things had become eerily quiet, no more shrieking and yelling, no ring of steel or metal biting into something meaty. Just…

“M’hzet?”

Aza was kneeling in front of him, his face gentle with worry and concern. There was blood all over him.

“Shit,” Aza hissed, looking at his stomach and going so white he looked ready to faint, “Fuck. Okay, that’s- that’s not fine. That's- again? Not again, shit, not- not again."

He looked a little pale and worried. His hands were shaking too, M’hzet realised groggily, a little bewildered at this. Aza… scared? No, that didn’t… make sense. He was fearless and brave but, now… no, he couldn’t be scared. M’hzet reached out, shakily, grasping Aza’s bicep and gave him one of his confident smiles.

“Just… a little scratch to the stomach,” M’hzet forced out, somehow managing to box up the pain somewhere so he could talk without feeling like he was going to heave all his inside out, “D-Don’t worry, Aza, it’ll… it’ll take more than this, to bring d-down a Nunh.”

Aza looked at him, his gaze distant and looking through him, before he breathed out an unsteady laugh, "You're such a dumbass... okay," his gaze focused, he looked- more there, "Okay. I'm- I'm going to pick you up now."

M’hzet had had… many fantasies of Aza picking him up, but this sadly was not like what he imagined. He groaned when Aza hauled him into his arms, the movement jostling his wound something fierce, his vision flashing white. Aza murmured apologies to him.

“Don’t worry, you did good, Hzet,” Aza told him, and judging by how everything started moving weirdly, he must be jogging, “Really good. Six guys by yourself? No one can call you a weakling now.”

But I lost that, he thought faintly, but he felt too tired to really contest it. Pain aside, this felt really nice, being in Aza’s arms like this. Even if Aza sounded scared – he didn’t like that, he noted detachedly. He’ll… try to solve that, later, when he could think…

When he could…

Chapter Text

Aza was freaking out.

Just a little bit.

He could admit that much to himself, as he jogged as carefully as he could over the remains of the animals he just dispatched and out of the narrow passageway. M’hzet had gone quiet – way, too quiet – and his stomach was a sticky red mess of blood and- it was- very. Too familiar. In a bad way. He could feel that awful, cramped feeling behind his ribs, that made everything feel like it was crushing in and spinning, but breathed through it because there was no Crisp here, to take over when he lost his damned mind over his friends’ injuries, speaking to him casually as she tended to the wounds – ‘Aza, it’s just a scratch, stop fussing’ – there was just him here, now, and M’hzet was relying on him.

Why didn’t he bring Rations along? He hated himself for his lack of foresight – he left her at the stables on the Castellum, having ran her ragged to get back here quick, had thought a nice, leisurely stroll through the Fringes would be fine, especially on the way back with M’hzet in tow. But no, he was a moron. A fucking idiot. He should have-

Well, no point dwelling on that now.

Aza lengthened his strides once he’d cleared the cramped passageway, sprinting as fast as he could with M’hzet in his arms – he was heavy – bearing east for Rhalgar’s Reach. It was closer, the infirmary there was better than at the Peering Stones and even Castellum Velodyna, what with actual trained doctors and alchemists there, and Aza felt more comfortable there in general. Lyse was there – oh, right, Lyse was there. That was good. M’naago too. It’ll be fine. A thirty-minute jog, accounting for terrain, still within the golden hour. It’s all good. He’ll get there and M’hzet will be fine. All good. Fine. 

He kept telling himself that as he ran, because the alternative didn’t bear thinking about.

 


 

Lyse groaned as she fought the urge to grind her forehead into the table.

Leading sucked.

Well, no, it didn’t suck, but there were days when it felt like it did. Ala Mhigo was still a bit scattered, still a bit uncertain, still feeling like she was holding it together with nothing but prayers and glue. There was so much to fix, so much to do, and while Lyse wasn’t afraid of rolling her sleeves up and getting right to it, even she was beginning to flag. She just wanted one day where she wasn’t buried underneath people asking where they’d get the resources to do this, or so and so doesn’t like this can they do that instead, and oh, isn’t she putting a bit of preference over them over us? It was enough to make her pull her hair out!

Or their hair out! Lyse missed the days when most of her problems could be solved by punching it really hard.

“Bad day?” M’naago’s voice washed over her, and she grumbled something incoherently into the table in response.

“I guess you don’t want these missives, then,” M’naago continued, her voice carrying a hint of laughter, “This is from the Ananta- oh, the Velodyna Gatekeepers, in fact, about the bandit issue in the Striped Hills…”

“They’re still a problem?” Lyse sat up, combing her fingers through her mussed hair. With a grimace she realised she’d smooshed her face into the parchment strewn over her desk and smeared some of the ink. Oh, she forgot she’d been writing something…

“You’ve got ink on your nose,” M’naago said idly, not looking up from the papers in her hands, “And yes, though my father says he’s thinking of intervening on that. They are intruding on M Tribe territory and have been harassing some of our members.”

“I can see- hm… well, maybe I can spare some…?” Lyse muttered uncertainly, trying to scrape up her mental tally of troops. Quite a lot of them were securing the main routes to and from Ala Mhigo, clearing the monster nests the Garleans had let spawn during their occupation, outing any lingering sympathisers and hunting down spies, assisting in reconstruction and keeping an eye on the Qalyana in case of any Primal spawning- ugh, she really didn’t have the forces to spare.

“Don’t worry about it, Lyse,” M’naago told her. Lyse looked up at her and felt a little lightened at her friend’s warm smile, “I’ll take care of this little problem.”

“Thanks, M’naago,” Lyse sighed, “What’re the other missives?”

“Let’s see… oh, this one is about the Saltery on the Lochs. Looks like Lord Lolorito’s investments is going well-”

“Lady Lyse!”

Lyse and M’naago focused on a young, greenhorn of a recruit sprinting up the path to her ‘office’. It was just the large table underneath a cloth tarp, nice and open and easy to approach – something Lyse actively encouraged, and even told everyone to stop calling her Lady Lyse and just Lyse, but while the veterans indulged her, the new recruits looked at her with too much awe for such casualness.

“What’s wrong-” She paused, groping for the young Highlander’s name, uhh, shit, she was still learning all of them, “Brand?”

If she got the name wrong, the recruit didn’t say anything. Panting, he straightened up with a salute and said, “T-The Warrior of Light has arrived!”

Lyse blinked, a bit nonplussed. Aza came and went often and as he pleased, and while she knew a lot of her countrymen stared at him in open-mouthed wonder, it never really culminated in them sprinting to her, yelling that he had arrived, like heralding the advent of some divine being. She frowned, “Um, yes? And?”

“He’s-” The recruit seemed to pause, as if trying to pick his words carefully, “He’s, um, very angry.”

…okay, now that was unusual. Lyse stood up, her frown becoming more pronounced, “Angry? In what way?”

“In, uh, an angry way?” The recruit said uncertainly.

Well, she supposed that was a stupid question. She exchanged puzzled looks with M’naago, trying to wrack her brains on what upset Aza this time. He tended to get moody, every so often, if someone from Clan Centurio sniped an S-Rank hunt, or something – she tended to glaze over whenever he went off on one of his infamous hunting rants – but otherwise Aza never got angry. He became intently, and quietly furious, in a way that spoke of a blade to the gut in the very immediate future. Lyse, obviously, had never been on the receiving end of that anger, but she had witnessed it towards Zenos, towards various Garleans and others, and the majority of them were very very dead now.

“I wonder what…” Lyse shook her head, “Okay, thanks for telling me. I’ll go calm him down.”

“Oh, also,” the recruit stammered, “Um, someone has been submitted to the infirmary from the M Tribe. The Warrior of Light brought them and-”

“What? Who?” M’naago snapped, the fur on her tail fluffing out, “Who was hurt?”

“I-I don’t know, uh, I think the Warrior of Light called him, M’zit? M’hzet?”

“M’hzet? Oh, seven hells,” M’naago cursed, clearly recognising the name, “No wonder Aza is in a snit.”

“M’naago?” Lyse queried, a bit lost now, “You know what’s happened?”

“Ah, yeah,” M’naago ran a hand through her hair, grimacing, “Someone from the Gatekeepers told me M’hzet and the Warrior of Light are… very friendly with each other,” The way she said ‘friendly’ carried implications but Lyse couldn’t puzzle it out. Probably one of those Miqo’te double-speak things, “M’hzet’s a bit of a klutz and an idiot, but he’s hardy. Nothing short of a cannon blast could put him down. How did he get hurt?”

The recruit looked like he was about to shrug, but thought better of it at the last seconds, making him look awkwardly hunched with his shoulders half-risen, “Ah, um, I don’t know. The Warrior of Light was, um, not very clear. Something about bandits and, uh, I think he said they’re not a problem anymore? I didn’t… catch it…”

Yeah, Lyse bet they weren’t a problem anymore. If there was anything she learned about Aza, it was that he didn’t suffer injuries or insults to his friends. She bet those poor bandits were nothing more than chopped up pieces dotted across the landscape at this point.

“Problem solved,” she said grimly to M’naago, “Alright. Okay. Thanks for telling me. I’ll make sure he doesn’t trash the place.”

The recruit saluted and raced off again. Lyse sighed.

“Well, this will be interesting!” she said, a little worried. She never had to calm Aza down from one of his snits before. He normally vented it on whoever fucked him off, which was, usually and thankfully, an enemy that needed to be eliminated anyway, “Are you coming with, M’naago?”

“I should check on M’hzet,” she said, nodding in agreement, “Lead the way, ‘Lady Lyse’.”

“Arrrrgh, M’naago! I told you not to call me that!” 

“Heheh.”

 


 

Lyse had been expecting Aza to be doing something dramatically angry, like tossing chairs or stomping around, with how Brand had raced over to her. But when she turned up at the infirmary, she was sort of disappointed to see that he was sulking by the wall, glaring a hole in the floor. Well, he was also covered in blood that very clearly wasn’t his, which was intimidating if you weren’t used to the sight on him (Lyse was so very used to it), but otherwise he just looked grumpy.

“Aza,” she greeted as she approached, not flinching when that dark, intense glare shifted from the floor to her, “I had a very scared recruit rushing up to me, telling me you were angry.”

“I’m not angry,” Aza said angrily.

Lyse stared at him, with M’naago as her back up. Underneath their twin, unimpressed stares, Aza relented.

“Okay, I’m fucking pissed,” he muttered, kicking viciously at a rock. It clattered wildly along the floor, out of view, “Fucking bandits.”

“I heard a friend of yours was put in the infirmary?” Lyse asked conversationally, leaning to the side slightly to peek between the pillared doorway. She couldn’t see anything useful, like this mysterious M’hzet, but Aza still looked agitated at her peeking.

“Yes,” he said, like the word was forced out of him, “Apparently he was with… I can’t remember her name… M’zit… M’zitku and her daughter, when they were jumped.”

“Are they fine?” M’naago asked, clearly worried, “M’kiki is only young.”

“They’re fine,” Aza drawled, his tone becoming derisive as he glanced at M’naago, “Unscathed, in fact. Thanks to M’hzet stupidly taking on six bandits all by himself to make sure they could run away and abandon him.”

M’naago went stiff at the heavily implied insult and Lyse felt the tension practically triple.

“Um,” she began.

“M’hzet did what was expected of him,” M’naago cut in coolly, “You can’t say anything, Aza, as you would have done the same.”

“That’s different,” Aza snapped back, pushing off the wall as he started to shift in an aggressive posture, his tail lashing from side to side. M’naago mirrored his body language. It was like watching two coeurls squaring up to each other, “I’m strong. I can handle six guys.”

“I bet you can,” M’naago muttered.

Aza hissed – outright hissed, that low, sharp noise Miqo’te only did when really angry, and Lyse stepped in between the two of them, flinging her hands out and almost smacking them both in the face.

“Stop!” she yelled, “Both of you! Stop!”

They stopped.

“M’naago, that was uncalled for,” Lyse said, pointing at her friend, then whirled around and smacked Aza lightly across the breastplate, “And you! Just because you’re worried and upset, doesn’t mean you can insult M’naago and her tribe!”

Aza looked mulish but Lyse stared him down. As expected, he back down, leaning against the wall with a quiet ‘hrm’ noise, his ears flattened. “Sorry,” he ground out, “I spoke out of turn.”

“So did I,” M’naago returned, equally recalcitrant but at least more cooperative.

Lyse blew out a harsh breath. It was like managing the different factions of Ala Mhigo again, “So,” she said, desperate to push the topic onto slightly less dangerous waters, “M’hzet a friend of yours?”

Aza looked at her. He looked… defensive, “Yeah.”

“J’olhmyn said you two seem close,” M’naago added, almost suspiciously, “You’ve been paying him a lot of attention.”

“So what if I have?” Definitely defensive.

“M’hzet doesn’t seem your type,” M’naago pointed out, “He’s clumsy, weak, and not very bright. I would’ve thought he’d be an annoying hindrance to you, considering most of your friends are on equal standing with you, combat wise. It's... suspicious.”

Lyse frowned at this rather unflattering description of M’hzet, and it was clear Aza was unhappy with it too, “He tries his best,” Aza said, “He’s not naturally talented, but he’s a hard worker and doesn’t let failures bog him down. I can admire that. He’s nice, to hang around with and help out. Calming. That's all.”

M’naago still looked suspicious, and Lyse remembered the odd emphasis she had put on ‘friendly’. Wait, does she think…? No. Aza, last she checked, was utterly and single-mindedly faithful to Aymeric of Ishgard! She doubted he’d be fooling around with some random Miqo’te behind his back, no matter how endearing!

“I’m sure he’s a nice guy,” Lyse cut in, giving M’naago a warning look. Needling Aza right now wasn’t needed. M’naago subsided with a quiet grumble, “Is he okay? What was his injury?”

“Gut wound. Doc says he should be fine,” Aza said, slouching against the wall and looking away, “It- wasn’t as bad as I… thought it was.”

Not as bad as- oh. Haurchefant, she realised guiltily. Aza must’ve- she remembered how he’d been, when Y’shtola had fallen, how Alphinaud had to send him running around Rhalgar’s Reach to keep him busy, even when Aza had been near crippled from his own injuries, just to keep his mind focused and not… drifting to other things. Lyse remembered not understanding Aza’s odd behaviour then, but later, when Y’shtola was better and she spoke to her about it, she told her and… well. She tried not to bring it to attention, right here in the middle of the crowded Rhalgar’s Reach.

“I’m sure he’ll be as good as new!” Lyse said, “Now, I doubt lurking around here, scaring people is going to help him, so why don’t you clean up a bit, Aza? You’re, er, very bloody.”

Aza looked down at himself, as if only just realising his current condition, “Oh, I didn’t notice.”

Yeah, he had definitely had an ‘episode’, as Y’shtola called them, “Come on. Let’s go.”

Aza grumbled, but he didn’t resist Lyse strongarming him away from the infirmary and practically frog-marching him away. M’naago, she noticed, remained behind, probably to check on M’hzet for herself and to no doubt interrogate him on whether he and Aza were like that. Lyse doubted it. Aza only had eyes for Aymeric, she was certain.

It was all a misunderstanding that would be cleared up soon, she was sure.