For the first time in a long while, Aza lost.
It couldn’t even be blamed on a stupid mistake, or inattention, or even plain arrogance. Aza, driven to exhaustion, barely capable of lifting his blade, sweating like a cornered animal, gasping and wheezing and shaking – was bested by skill alone. He felt like an amateur flailing their first sword around in painstakingly slow and clumsy strokes next to the deadly elegance that was Zenos yae Galvus. His sword would blur, parrying and blocking every crushing swing Aza would lash out, and do so with contemptuous ease.
Was this how it felt like for normal men to fight me, he wondered dizzily, fear beginning to burn his throat. I can’t lose, he thought with growing desperation, struggling to parry Zenos’s sharp thrust that would’ve disembowelled him, as fast and vicious as a lunging snake. He staggered back a step, yielding ground, I can’t lose. I won’t lose. I won’t be weak. I won’t be weak. I can’t be weak-
Aza couldn’t turn his blade in time. There was a curiously cold feeling that sliced through his left forearm with a flash of too quick steel – then his sword tumbled from suddenly numb fingers, warm blood spilling in a bright red cascade as he realised – the bastard cut through his tendons-
Zenos, taking advantage of his stunned horror, promptly cut him open from shoulder to hip.
And that was how Aza lost: tumbling back, the air scarlet with blood, and Zenos’s empty, dark eyes staring down at him like he was worth less than dirt. The world swirled down into complete darkness.
Aza woke up gurgling and choking on blood. He could feel it frothing at the corners of his mouth.
“Easy, easy,” Alphinaud’s voice, faint with fear, whispered to him. His hands were on his chest, cool aether washing over him – so cool it was sharp and burned and Gods, oh Gods, that pain. He couldn’t stop the animal-like groan of mindless agony escaping him, and Alphinaud shushed him worriedly, “I have you, Aza. You’re fine- no, you will be fine… Gods, this bleeding won’t stop, there’s too much in his lung – quick, have you got the-”
“Phoenix Down and Company Tonic here,” Pippin’s voice now, brisk and curt, “It should stabilise him for-”
Aza couldn’t stay awake. The darkness took him again.
Aza came to with the taste of copper in his mouth.
“Hurry up with that stretcher!” Raubahn’s voice boomed over him, making his head ache. Everything hurt. His entire torso felt like a field of fire, and every short, wheezing breath cut with a raw burn, the aether sharp with hot and life and… ah. He recognised that smell. This pain. Fire. Phoenix Down.
“This was all I could do,” Alphinaud groaned exhaustedly somewhere above him, “If only Y’shtola… damn it.”
“He’s alive and breathing,” Pippin murmured, “That’s better than before.”
Aza tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. The air was choked with ash, people were moaning and screaming and dying around him, and he could feel his lungs tighten, fear gripping him mercilessly because he couldn’t move. He couldn’t. A pressure crushed his chest and for a moment, he remembered long, dark hair tickling his face, large hands holding him down by the wrists, an awful heavy weight- no. No, he wasn’t- no hands held him, but he couldn’t move no matter how hard he tried. He couldn’t feel his left arm. Couldn’t move the fingers. Numb. Like when tendons were cut clean through.
I can’t move.
The pressure was suffocating.
“Something’s wrong,” Pippin’s voice came from far away, like he was underwater.
I can’t move.
Helpless terror flooded through him at the realisation. People were around him. Someone was touching him now. The neck – fingers digging into his throat, the pressure was so tight on his chest he thought his ribs would snap apart, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe – hands were touching him. Hands were touching him. He could not move. He was helpless. He was thirteen years old again and he could not move. Hands were touching him. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t. Hands were touching him. His body wouldn’t respond. Everything hurt so much. Hands were touching him. Nausea and taste of blood and smell of ash and someone yelling above him-
“-n’t understand! Aza?! Can you hear me? You need to breathe! Breathe!”
Stop touching me stop touching me stop touching me, he wanted to scream, but all that came out was a strained, choked noise, the wash of cold aether dampening the burn of Phoenix Down and fear, so much fear, smothering him as he sank down, down, down…
Everything became jumbled after that.
Thirteen and in Master’s bed, strong hands holding him down – but dark empty eyes stared down at him, droplets of red between them, a flash of silver, “pathetic”, on his knees as Master sat in the baths, hand on his head as he pushed him down, “you cannot move until I order it”, drowning, metal taste in his mouth, drowning, salt water, drowning, hot liquid on his fingers, Ala’s pale face looking at him, shocked, curled up naked and cold as his knees burned in agony, his legs useless, “freedom is a luxury you don’t deserve until you learn to obey”, peering up at the sky, legs whipped bloody, unable to move, he had to move, he could not move, Master under him, his face a mess and he with the knife, fingers burning from cuts, the hilt too slippery, Master pushing him down, Master with dark, empty eye sockets, Master cutting his knees’ tendons, Master telling him not to move, Master staring him down with empty eye sockets, Monster flashing the blade, Monster staring him down as he fell, Monster-
NO. NO ONE CAN TOUCH ME ANYMORE, he screamed, I’M STRONG. I’M UNTOUCHABLE. I’M-
“Pathetic”, Monster told him, cutting him open and-
-yelped in pain when Aza swung out at the thing leaning over him with the wild strength of a cornered, desperate animal.
“SON OF A FUCK!” Crisp howled as she staggered back, one hand over her nose, but Aza was already tumbling half-out of the bed, his legs collapsing underneath him when pain lanced through him so hard he almost vomited all over the floor. He crawled instead, blindly, until his shoulder hit hard, unyielding stone and he curled up in the corner, pain pain pain, but he had moved and he curled up and nothing was touching him and nothing was touching him and nothing was touching him.
Noise thundered around him. Crisp was cursing up a storm. Someone was laughing. Someone was moving towards him. Aza stared at the wall. He did not look.
“Coeurl,” Bluebird murmured to him in the language of home, “Coeurl. It’s Bluebird. C’mon. Look at me. It's fine, see? You're good.”
He didn’t look.
“Okay,” Bluebird sighed.
Aza did not know how long he stayed like that. He curled up tight against the wall, shivering, in pain so agonising his head spun and his vision greyed out a few times. Bluebird was sitting in front of him, out of arm’s reach, watching him and murmuring that soft, lilting song Dad would sing when Mom got in her wild moods. Bluebird hated singing, but she would do it when they were kids and he would get upset. He would cry, and she would call him a crybaby but sing for him anyway.
He didn’t know how long she sung for.
Eventually he had to crawl back into his skin no matter how dirty ad painful it was, and he stopped staring at the wall and looked at Bluebird. She stopped singing. Slowly, Aza picked out details of the room. A small, stone room, with a cot that Crisp was sitting on, the front of her white robes red with blood and a soiled handkerchief pressed against her face, Felyx sitting exhaustedly at a squat desk with a slab of rock as a pseudo-stool, his alchemy set strewn out with bottles of various potions around him, a trail of darkened blood leading from the bed to him, Bluebird sitting in the middle of the trail, brightly lit room with no shadows in the corner, no dark empty eyes looking down at him, it was a safe room, it was… safe.
Bluebird caught his gaze.
“You back?” she asked.
“…where am I?” Aza rasped. Dull pain pounded behind his eyes and his throat was raw.
“Rhalgar’s Reach infirmary,” Bluebird said warily, “Do you remember what happened?”
Dark, empty eye sockets staring him down as he died. Yes. He remembered.
Aza’s gaze slid from Bluebird to Crisp. The Conjurer was looking at him with a wryly twisted mouth and a clearly broken nose.
“I can safely say your left arm’s back to normal,” Crisp said lightly, gingerly touching the tip of her swollen, bruised nose with her fingers. Blood crusted her upper lip and her chin, but she didn’t seem to care, “That was a mean left hook.”
“It was beautiful,” Felyx yawned past his hand, slouched over his table and looking like this whole situation was utterly normal, “You sent Crisp, the immovable healer, flat on her ass. I hadn’t heard her curse like that in a long while.”
“Because I haven’t had my nose obliterated like that in a long while. I should have kept his arm ruined, ow…”
“Everyone shut up,” Bluebird snapped, then slowly shuffled closer to him. Aza tensed, “S’okay, Coeurl, just me. Look, let’s get you off the floor and back on the bed. C’mon, up. Up, you stupid crybaby. It’s just me. It’s Bluebird, m’kay. There we go.”
Aza shivered when Bluebird grabbed his arm, but he obeyed when she gently urged him to uncurl and climb to his feet. The pain was so bad his stomach rolled with nausea, and Bluebird had to support him when his legs wobbled, the bandages across his torso sticky with fresh blood and stark, red lines dribbled down his thighs.
“He’s opened himself up again,” Crisp sighed, pushing herself up off the bed and out of the way as Bluebird half-carried, half-dragged him to it. He staggered weakly, “Okay, Felyx, another dose.”
“Another? He’s already past the upper limit-”
“Who’s the certified doctor here? It’ll be fine.”
“You never finished Conjury school! You were kicked out!”
Bluebird ignored their squabbling as she eased him down on the bed, her gaze flickering to his chest with a worried pinch to her mouth. Aza was too light-headed and numb to really care though. He lied down on the bed, grey eating into the edges of his vision, with Bluebird smoothing his hair back from his face with a rough, calloused hand.
“No one’s gonna touch you while I’m here, little brother,” Bluebird whispered to him so softly only he could hear, “I’ll sit on the end of your bed and stab anyone who tries, okay? Remember, your big sis is here, so don’t be scared.”
He believed her.
“Okay,” he mumbled, his eyes already drooping shut.
Sleep came easier and he dreamt no dreams.
He woke up to a whispered conversation.
“-thing you should tell us?” Krile’s voice murmured, whisper-soft.
“Nothing that’s any of your business,” Bluebird said frostily, “Aza just had a bad reaction to all the potions and tonics and shit you shoved down his throat, is all.”
“I know what the symptoms of potion-sickness looks like,” Krile said, not cowed by his sister’s unfriendly tone, “I also know what a traumatic flashback looks like.”
There was a long moment of quiet. Bluebird was sitting on the bed, and it creaked when she pushed her weight forwards. Aza struggled to pay attention. He was too exhausted to focus on the conversation, and the words sounded almost like gibberish, his ears hearing them but his brain struggling to pull out the meaning of them.
“He was so distressed he became insensible,” Krile continued when it was clear Bluebird wasn’t going to reply, “He couldn’t breathe. What little he managed to say… was he ever… did he-?”
“Don’t,” Bluebird cut in, “Don’t ask that.”
“You know,” Krile’s voice was utterly flat.
“More than you,” the bed rocked a little. Bluebird must have stood up. Aza fought the fuzzy grey exhaustion and tried to open his eyes. He only managed to flutter his eyelashes, “Alphie?”
“He… hasn’t connected the dots. He’s still inexperienced in… those things, thank the Twelve,” Krile sucked in a sharp breath and held it, before letting it out, “Raubahn and Pipin, however…”
Bluebird sighed quietly, “Fuck’s sake.”
Krile said something, but at that point Aza lost his fight with unconsciousness. He drifted off again.
Aza woke up to complete silence.
Instantly he jolted up, only to double over with a gasp of agony when his vision flashed white. He clutched at his belly, fighting down bile as he breathed through the pain until it dulled. A line of fire cut across his torso, and he squinted down at himself to see soft white bandages wound around his chest and stomach. Little speckles of dark brown peppered it, with a splotch of widening red spreading just above his navel. Opened up the wound.
For a dizzying few seconds, he didn’t know where he was or what had happened.
Then he remembered Zenos. He remembered losing. He remembered the haze of pain and terror, his memories a blurry smear of unintelligible colours and noises. His mind instantly shunted that away, in a corner, out of sight, and Aza let himself go distant and cold.
He pushed the blankets off his legs.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
He stood up.
It hurt, but the pain was muffled and dull. He ignored it. He had breeches on, but the air was cool and made him shiver. He wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but he wanted to be standing. He felt too vulnerable sitting in bed. Standing was good. He limped around the bed. He found his boots at the foot of the bed, dried blood crusted on the metal toecap and soaked into the ankle cuff. He pulled them on anyway. His breastplate and gambeson were nowhere to be seen. His sword was gone.
He found a pale white cotton tunic tossed over the back of a wooden chair instead. He pulled that on, just for a layer to fight off the chill. He stood there once he was dressed, staring out the window. It just showed a dark beige stone wall. Nice view. He could tell it was night, though.
He left the room.
No one was standing guard, but the air carried a sharp hint of disinfectant, alcohol, stale blood, and sweat and salt. The hallway was dark, lit by a lone, flickering crystal lamp clumsily hammered into the wall. Doors lined the hallway, and Aza limped down the length of it. It opened up into a bigger room, crammed with cots upon cots, every single one occupied by a man injured or dying. The smell was worse here. His stomach clenched tight, bringing a pain so sharp he had to press his forehead against the cool, stone wall and swallow several times before he vomited or passed out or both.
It passed. He moved on.
It was like being in a dream, kind of. He walked, dazed and distant. No one spoke to him, though his eyes could see a few people squint at him as his silhouette passed them. He exited the room and into what he recognised as the front room of the Rhalgar’s Reach Infirmary. A few cot beds had been crammed in here too, and there was an unfamiliar conjurer slumped over at the potions table, dead asleep. Rhalgar’s Reach stretched out past the pillars that made up the infirmary’s front.
Aza walked on.
He didn’t know where he was going. Rhalgar’s Reach was ruined. People were picking amongst the charred, flattened tents, grim-faced and weary. A few bodies were lined up, ratty blankets or ripped up pieces of tent canvas thrown over them. Aza walked past it all, up until he reached the water’s edge of the pond that sat in the centre of Rhalgar’s Reach. He looked down.
A starry sky met him, as well as his pale-faced reflection. His eyes were flat and empty, and Aza did not recognise the person he looked at. He was strong and untouchable, but right now he looked vulnerable and weak. The back of his neck itched, feeling exposed without the comfortable weight of his sword on his back, without the breastplate protecting his heart. Rhalgar’s Reach was so open, and so many people were milling around, as dead-eyed as him as they buzzed over tents like flies over a carcass.
A passing, almost crazed thought flickered through his brain – I bet they smell your weakness now, I bet they know you’re vulnerable now, I bet they’re no longer scared of you now, I bet they’ll try to hurt you now, I bet, I bet, I bet – and he curled his fingers into his sleeves, mindlessly digging his nails through the thin layer of cotton as he felt a tight pressure on his ribs. No, stop it, they do not sense weakness – and he was still strong. He could kill anyone here. He could. Anyone touches him, anyone, he’ll kill them, he’ll kill them-
He flinched, for a moment unsure if he thought that – or if that was Fray or- no, it was Bluebird. His sister cut a small, shadowy figure in the dark, her blue eyes reflecting the moonlight above. She was familiar though. Still, she kept a respectful distance, her expression unreadable in the gloom as they stood at stared at each other for a long, silent moment.
“… you should be resting,” Bluebird finally said.
“I’ve rested,” Aza rasped, his throat feeling like sandpaper, “I needed to walk now.”
“Right,” Bluebird said doubtfully, and took a cautious step forwards. When Aza didn’t flinch, she took a few more, until she was within arm’s reach. She didn’t touch him though, “What’s going through that crazy brain of yours?”
I’m weak, everyone’s seen I’m weak, people can still hurt me, I can still be touched, Aza looked away over the pond. A gentle breeze made it ripple, and it was nice to look at the stars’ reflections twinkling away over the dark, opaque water. I wonder how many bodies they had to fish out of there, he wondered idly, letting his gaze travel to the pond’s banks. Bodies lined the left side.
“Aza,” Bluebird pressed, then, “Coeurl.”
“I don’t want to talk.”
“You want to stare out over the lake instead?” Bluebird scoffed at him, then reached out and touched his arm, “Lo-”
She jerked back in time to avoid him lashing out at her face. She quickly took several large steps back, her hands up in a non-threatening gesture as Aza snarled at her, the noise guttural and barely human. For a brief, red-hazed moment, he wanted to break her in half – how dare you touch me! – but he stifled it with difficulty, breathing short and shakily as Bluebird stared at him wide-eyed. A tense silence fell on them, broken only by Aza’s growling, shuddering breaths.
“Okay,” Bluebird said without a shred of emotion in her voice, “Okay. No touching. Got it.”
Aza eased out of his combative posture, feeling his heart thunder hard against his ribs. Bluebird’s fingers had felt – he felt ready to crawl out of his skin at her touch and- he felt red-hot panic and… he quickly looked away, curling his hands into fists and hating himself. All these years, and he was still the wild, cornered little animal Bluebird picked up from the beach. So, filled with fear. So weak.
I want Mom, he thought, homesickness hitting him so sharply it felt like being knifed in the gut. Even in her fifties, Mom was the strongest person he had ever met, who would fight off anything threatening and protect him. He wanted to shelter in that familiar shadow now. He wanted Mom. He felt another stab of shame. Weak. Weak weak weak.
“… Aza,” Bluebird murmured, “Please talk to me. You’re acting like… c’mon. I don’t know how to deal with you like this.”
“I don’t want to talk,” Aza said shakily. The pressure was back on his ribs.
“We don’t need to talk, then,” Bluebird said, “Let’s… let’s go sit somewhere. Okay? Let’s go sit.”
Bluebird bravely stepped forward with a stubborn tilt to her jaw – she didn’t touch him though. She gestured, she shuffled as close as she dared, making Aza shy away, back and back, until they reached a cluster of broken rubble piled next to the pond’s back. Aza sat on it at his sister’s urging, his stomach a white-hot brand of pain.
The front of the tunic had a large splotch of red now, and it was damp to the touch when Aza touched it, the tips of his fingers stained a pale red. Bluebird looked at it with her lips pressed into a thin, white line.
“I thought you stopped doing that,” Bluebird said quietly.
For a moment, Aza thought she meant the whole being traumatised and crazy thing, but he noticed she was looking at his hands, and he looked down to see he was scratching angry red lines over his wrists. He quickly stopped, curling his fingers tight against his palms and squeezing his eyes shut. Fucking hell.
“I have. Did,” he wetted his dry lips, feeling queasy – and not just from pain, “I’m… I’m sorry, Bluebird. I didn’t mean to… to try and hit you.”
“You did, but it’s fine, I shouldn’t have touched you,” Bluebird said briskly, “Remember when we were kids, and I tried to wake you up from a nightmare?”
“Yeah,” Aza throat felt tight and his ribs tighter. He struggled to swallow, and his voice came out all scratched and thick, “I bit you.”
“Scales still don’t grow right where you did,” Bluebird said ruefully, extending her arm. On her wrist, white scarring of a bite mark circled the side of her wrist, her scales growing awkwardly around the scar tissue, “You meant to do that too, but I remember you cried for hours after it, ‘cuz you felt so bad.”
Aza remembered. He bowed his head.
“You ran off too,” Bluebird continued, lowering her arm and letting her fingers trace the scar on her wrist, “Mom had to hunt you down and found you hiding in the middle of a sheep’s flock. When she dragged you back, you came up to me still bawling like a little baby and couldn’t even stop long enough to say ‘sorry’. I think you cried so hard you threw up. It was pretty amazing.”
“No,” Bluebird shook her head, “It’s fine. Just saying, you’re not much different to when we were kids. Still a little crybaby who cares too much.”
Aza’s eyes did sting, his vision blurry as tears clung to his eyelashes. He lowered his head, shame burning the back of his throat, and sniffed, “T-The Warrior of Light, isn’t… I’m not meant to be weak, anymore. I shouldn’t have… have lost. Everyone’s gonna think…”
“No one’s gonna think anything, and if they do, I’ll fucking knife them,” Bluebird said bluntly, “You lost. You lost horribly. You got fucking destroyed. But, so what? The moron let you live, and now you’re gonna show him that was the stupidest thing he could’ve done… unless you’re just gonna sit here snivelling like a little crybaby and not do anything about it.”
Aza hunched in on himself, “I-I’m not snivelling…”
“S’okay if you are,” Bluebird softened her tone and dared to inch closer. Aza looked up at her from beneath teary eyelashes, “Just… afterwards, don’t let this fuck you up, okay? Anyone picks on you for not being a super perfect infallible Warrior of Light, your big sis will take care of it, okay?”
Aza slowly nodded, “Okay.”
“Okay,” Bluebird hovered for a moment, then asked uncertainly, “Can I touch you?”
He wasn’t sure. He was still on edge. “I don’t know.”
Bluebird sighed and rocked onto her heels, planting her hands on her hips, “Fine. I get it. I’m all sharp elbows and scratchy scales. If I was Aymeric, you’d probably tumble into my strong, manly arms weeping.”
The ridiculousness of her statement drew out a wobbly laugh from him. It made his stomach hurt, but it was worth it, “I’m not a trashy romance novel heroine.”
“Y’sure? ‘Cuz you have the whole ‘beautiful crying’ thing down pat. You never ugly cry, it’s unfair.”
“You know why,” Aza muttered. Master Musa never liked ugly criers. He rubbed at his eyes, his throat and nose feeling tight and stuffy. He felt awful and tired and in pain and just… mentally and emotionally tapped out. He didn’t want… the morning would bring the Scions, he knew. They’d look at him, and the silent question would be in their eyes, ‘how could you lose?’ He didn’t want to endure that.
“I don’t wanna be here,” Aza admitted quietly. He could say such things to Bluebird, even if it made him feel lower than a squirming worm, “They’re gonna… they saw me…”
“Yeah, they did,” Bluebird sounded a bit grim, “But, I’ll be there when they see you. Alphie and Alisaie… well, I think they’re just gonna be happy to see you’re still kicking. Lyse… I dunno, she’s pretty upset about Y’shtola and the old man, Fred or whatever his name is. Krile… she… she won’t say anything. I think.”
Aza uneasily rubbed at his wrists, remembering the conversation he half-heard. “Krile… I woke up before. She was… talking…”
Bluebird tensed subtly, before making herself relax, “…yeah. She had some… thoughts.”
Aza nodded and didn’t ask anymore. He didn’t want to know.
“C’mon, lil’ brother,” Bluebird said, “Let’s get you back to bed.”
He obediently pushed himself onto his feet. He wobbled, and Bluebird made as if to catch him, but quickly shied away before she made contact. Aza steadied himself, a dull ache pounding behind his burning eyes and black spots shivering in his vision. He blindly held an arm out, knowing he wouldn’t make it back by himself.
“You can touch me now.”
“Thank fuck,” Bluebird gently grasped his upper arm. He shuddered, his skin crawling, but he endured it. It was his sister. It was fine, “Okay, let’s go nice and slow.”
The walk back was in silence, but Aza felt less of a mess this time. He was still raw and terrified and shamed, but… he felt a little better. Bluebird was right, he was still a little crybaby. He kept getting moments where his throat would close up and he wanted to curl up and sob his ugly little heart out. But he didn’t. He swallowed the lump down, willed the burning in his eyes away, and thought, I’m still strong. I won’t cry.
But once they were back in his own private room and Bluebird helped him into bed after tugging his boots off, he felt…
“Bluebird,” he whispered into the dark, lying on his back in blinding pain. His sister paused somewhere over him, “Can you stay?”
“Sure thing,” Bluebird slid onto the bed next to him. Close enough to feel her warmth, but not touching, the bed dipping towards her weight. Aza remained on his back, his chest afire, thinking back to Zenos’s dark, empty eyes looking down at him, remembering; “pathetic”.
He was pathetic, but… he’s always been pathetic. From the moment Master crushed his spirit beneath his heel, to now, picking at his shattered reputation of Man Undefeated. Aza was used to being a terrified weakling. But. Master was dead, had died in a pitiful way, crying and begging for mercy, and Zenos will be the same. Aza will make it so. He’ll make him be the pathetic one. Aza won’t be content with anything else.
Letting such dark, murderous thoughts help him lock away his crybaby self, Aza drifted into an uneasy sleep.
In the end, Zenos’s death had been unsatisfying.
He smiled when he died. He’d been content and pleased. Aza remembering screaming in raw, animalistic fury when Zenos crumpled to the floor, blood spilling from his opened throat, that awful, malicious little smirk on his cruel face. He died on his terms.
He died with dignity.