Morning was just touching the Crystarium’s horizon, colouring the sky in hues of pink and orange as dusk lingered high above in the firmament. It was a nice view - especially so after enduring the eye-wateringly bright monstrosity it was before - and on any other day Aza would’ve admired it peacefully before beginning his day.
As it was, he was half-sprawled on the floor where he’d fallen over trying to get out of bed, scowling at his open window as his knee throbbed .
He wasn’t surprised. With all the excitement of slaying Lightwardens and getting into a dramatic bout of apocalyptic fisticuffs with Emet-Selch, Aza had completely forgotten time and time again to ask Feo Ul if they could oh so nicely visit Crisp back on the Source and pick up his monthly prescription. The adrenaline and the whole ‘my soul is splitting apart from the inside out argh fuck shit this is horrible’ had distracted him enough from the pain that were his fucked joints, until it finally came to this, only a mere day after saving the fucking First.
“Fuck…” he muttered into the floorboards, then slowly, painfully, using the bed as support, hauled himself into sitting position, his legs awkwardly bent before him.
The Crystarium was quite warm, more so now that the sun’s rays could touch the earth directly, so he’d only slept in a pair of light shorts. It let him see the pale scars peeking around the crease of his knee, the joint of his left one swollen to almost twice its size. It was always the left one. It bore the brunt of his weight when swinging his sword around, and he had forgotten to brace it too in his haste to bust G’raha out of Ascian jail, so running around the Tempest had been agony…
He gingerly rubbed it, wincing at the bruise-pain the gentle touch brought out. He didn’t have any pain medication left - definitely not his anti-inflammatories - and even if he did, they wouldn’t work instantaneously. He was out for the rest of the day.
Unfortunately, he had plans that day.
One last hurrah with the Scions, a day of celebration in the Crystarium, before G’raha sent him back - safely - to the Source tomorrow. While Aza could grit his teeth and endure for an hour or so, a whole day…? He’d end up crying by noon.
But he couldn’t bow out either! While the Scions were sort of aware that he was no spring chicken - even Thancred was a bit stiff now that he was just a year or two younger than Aza - they were still ignorant of the true depths of his… physical difficulties. He didn’t want them to know, that was he… well…
Aza looked out his wide open window, the sky more reddish now.
That was kind of a childish thing to cling to, though. His adventure on the First had let Aza reflect on a lot of things, especially when the Light had been ripping him apart. So many things he had been worried and ashamed over seemed so… petty, after the Light, after Emet-Selch, after Ardbert. When his friends stood by his side and declared their love for him, fiercely, deeply, even when he had been on the cusp of becoming a monster, when Ardbert had regained his determination to see things through to the end, it put a lot of things in sharp perspective.
Well. He couldn’t hide it. So.
Bracing himself, Aza painstakingly stood up. His left knee wasn’t bearing his weight at all, and his right one was extremely unhappy to be picking up the slack in its absence, but with grim, determined experience, he hobbled over to the attached bathroom. A hot bath might ease the pain enough for him to drag himself to Spagyrics and beg, grovel and plead for something to ease the pain.
It hadn’t helped.
It was just before the early morning rush when Aza was dressed and ready as he’d ever be for the day to come. It took him five times as long to slowly limp down the winding staircase from his room to the inn’s lobby, feeling sweaty and clammy from a fatigue only felt from chronic, unending pain.
“Good morning- oh dear,” the Manager of the Suites - who Aza was beginning to think never slept or had a name, for that matter - gave him a look of utmost concern, “Are you alright?”
Aza stared at him dully from where he was clinging to the stair banister in a death-grip, doubled over with his left leg lifted up so no weight could be put on it. He even forewent his greatsword, because not even his anxiety of walking about less than armed to the teeth was strong enough to overpower the need to avoid unnecessary pain. Besides, he… felt comfortable enough in the Crystarium to go without.
“...I’m just sore,” he said, gingerly setting his left leg down and biting back a grunt when the knee shook and throbbed from the weight, “Gonna go to Spagyrics now.”
“I can call for someone to visit you here instead,” the Manager of the Suites said, still giving him that concerned look, “They do house calls.”
“S’fine, I can make it,” Aza grumbled, then using a dose of aether to fortify his weak knee, limped his way out of the inn’s lobby. The Manager of the Suites protested at his retreating back, but didn’t give chase, so Aza felt he was in the clear. If Alisaie or Alphinaud came calling early, they knew where to be directed to.
Thankfully, there was barely anyone around to see his embarrassing, limping shuffle. A few bleary-eyed workers, people coming off a night shift somewhere, the odd Crystarium guard… one or two looked at him, and did a double-take at his shambling gait, but he waved off their concerned greetings. Going to Spagyrics, yes he’s fine, just sore, from saving the world, you know, he’s fine…
Gods. It was nice that so many people were genuinely concerned about him, but he just… wanted people to stop pointing it out.
Eventually, the soft green grass of the Quadrivium, much nicer on his sore knees and aching hips, gave way to stairs . Going up. To the wide open, stone-floored Exedra, which was considerably busier than the still sleepy residential area. He didn’t let it stop him though, grimly crawling up them and forcing himself to smooth his gait somewhat once he hit the open space of the Exedra.
His pride was such a horrible, stubborn thing sometimes.
When he finally reached Spagyrics, he honestly nearly wept with relief. The second his foot crossed the threshold, he devolved into that awful, hobbling limp, panting out a short curse as he looked about. Still early enough that the alchemy oven was unlit, with not a soul in sight, even behind the counter next to the door.
“Oh, sweetie,” Chessamile practically morphed out of the shadows the moment he thought he was alone, making him almost jump several feet in the air, “What is with that terrible limp? Suffered a sprain, have we?”
“Ah, no…” Aza stammered, admittedly off-kilter from her sudden appearance. The elderly healer had a pile of freshly pressed bed sheets folded in her arms - ah. Early morning laundry, “This is a, um, old problem. I just need some anti-inflammatories and painkillers.”
Chessamile gave him a long, piercing look. Despite her kindly demeanour, she had the same hawkish look in her eye Crisp would give him whenever she thought he was hiding an injury from her, “Well, I’m sure we have something like that knocking about. Go on, take a seat over there while I put these away. You look ready to keel over, dearie.”
Aza’s shoulders slumped in relief, and he meekly limped over to the waiting seat while Chessamile bustled off. Thank goodness… he’d been worried she’d insist on doing a check up on the ‘injury’..
That relief lasted, of course, until Chessamile came back a few minutes later and demanded just that.
Alisaie muffled a yawn into her hand as she drew to a groggy halt before Aza’s room, blinding knocking it. It was early - far too early considering how drained and sore she felt from their adventure into the Tempest - but once she was awake, sleep hadn’t returned to her. So, as Aza was normally up at this time, she felt she could wrangle him for an early breakfast until the others woke up.
At least, that was the idea. After several minutes of knocking and receiving no answer, she realised that Aza must have already left. Well, no surprise there. He was probably already at the Wandering Stairs, trading friendly insults with that Giott dwarf or mingling with that bounty hunter and his kid.
She shuffled off, her pace lazy, descending the stairs until she reached the lobby. She raised a hand in greeting to the Manager of the Suites, though paused when he stopped her with a worried frown.
“Miss Alisaie, sorry to stop you,” he apologised, “But I feel like I should tell you… about half an hour ago, Master Aza came through here looking rather unwell. He said he was heading straight for Spagyrics, but he looked so terrible, I’m worried how he fared making his own way there.”
Alisaie felt any remnant of sleepiness evaporate immediately, a spike of cold fear shooting through her. She thought Aza had been cured of the- well, no, no need to leap to conclusions. He had been under a lot of stress lately, and could simply be unwell in the mundane sense.
“Did he say what was wrong with him?” she demanded, her tone coming out sharper than intended.
“Ah, not exactly,” the Manager of the Suites bowed his head apologetically, “He was, understandably, curt. However, he was alarmingly pale, and seemed to be having difficulty walking comfortably. His joints were rather, ah, stiff, and he was unsteady on his feet too.”
The Manager of the Suites seemed discomforted, and he should be, since he just described the late stages of Light corruption.
But no. Aza was cured. Y’shtola said so, Ryne said so. Alisaie clenched her jaw, stubbornly battering down the irrational fear bubbling up in her.
“I’ll go check on him,” she said, “It is probably nothing to worry about.”
The Manager of the Suites gave her a short bow, “Of course. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”
Alisaie nodded and set off at a brisk pace, even though she wanted nothing more than to run. Aza was cured , and it was more than likely that he had exhausted himself to sickness from the stress of almost turning into a damned Sin Eater . She felt guilty for not noticing this - he had been rather quiet and tired-looking yesterday, but she had assumed it had been from that wild party the Crystarium threw on their return from the Tempest. But maybe he’d been feeling ill since then and hadn’t said anything?
She let out an irritated snort at that. Of course he wouldn’t have said anything! Even when he was dying from the Light, he never breathed a word of his own discomfort until he was practically screaming in agony. It aggravated her, how he tried to hide his own pain because of… what? Pride? Shame? She didn’t know, but she was going to confront him about it soon enough. At this point she felt like continuing to turn a blind eye to it was just encouraging Aza’s self-destructive behaviour.
She walked to Spagyrics with her worry only growing. She had been stopped several times by concerned passersby who asked after Aza’s health. Apparently, he looked so ghastly staggering through the Crystarium some were worried he’d been ready to keel over there and then.
By the time she reached the infirmary, she was practically jogging. The early morning crowd was only just trickling in - family and friends visiting patients, botanists and alchemists delivering medicines, flustered medics coming to and fro. She didn’t immediately see Aza.
“Sorry, excuse me,” she asked the receptionist, who hadn’t noticed her arrival with her head buried in a pile of towering paperwork, “But has Aza come through here?”
“The Warrior of Darkness?” the receptionist asked distractedly, scribbling out what seemed to be a massive inventory list, “Oh, uh, yeah, he’s with Chessamile. He came requesting pain medication.”
Alisaie waited, but the receptionist didn’t seem overly concerned. So… it wasn’t Light corruption then? Well, of course not but… something in her relaxed, only to be quickly replaced with anger. All this worry because Aza didn’t communicate with them!
“Can I see him?”
“Um, yeah?” the receptionist mumbled, “In room two, through the door over there. Uh, try not to disturb the patients, though…”
“I won’t,” Alisaie muttered through gritted teeth, marching off.
Thankfully, no one stopped her as she slipped through the door into the examination area. It was a short corridor that split off into five different rooms - private areas for people to be looked over, away from the prying eyes of the rest of Spagyrics. She identified room two, and lingered near the door, torn between knocking or waiting impatiently out here to ambush him the second he poked his head out.
She paused when she heard voices beyond it, instinctively leaning in to hear-
“...no really fixing it,” Aza’s voice sighed.
“No, there really isn’t,” Came the reedy voice of Chessamile, “Oh, dearie, I had no idea it was this bad..”
“Well, this will ease the pain, but it is just masking the problem…”
Alisaie frowned, confused - before jolting upright guiltily when she realised she was eavesdropping. She didn’t mean to, but… she shook her head, stepping away before she gave into temptation and continued. She’ll ambush him after he was done.
When Aza stepped out of the examination room, the bitter aftertaste of painkillers heavy on his tongue and holding a small satchel of incredibly potent medicine, he was accosted almost immediately by a furiously worried Alisaie.
“Are you alright?” she demanded before Aza could even flinch in surprise, “With how some people were going on, I was expecting to find you on your deathbed!”
“Wh- what?” he stammered, clutching his pain medication close to his chest, hoping it was mostly hidden from view by his hands, “My deathbed? The hell are you going on about? I’m fine!”
Alisaie said nothing for a moment, her eyes narrowed as she scrutinised him closely. He wasn’t sure what she saw, but she seemed dissatisfied, her mouth pursing as she planted both hands on her hips, thrusting her chest out in a way that was so painfully Bluebird-like it knifed Aza with a nauseous feeling of homesickness.
“You look terrible,” Alisaie said bluntly.
“Well,” he began, then paused. He remembered his thoughts from that morning, where he stared out the window and realised that his disability wasn’t going to go unnoticed by the others anymore. Alisaie was also like a dog with a bone - the second she clamped her figurative jaws onto something, she wouldn’t let go.
But it was one thing to quietly resolve to oneself to come clean, and another to actually follow through.
“It’s… nothing new,” he finally said, “Just, you know, these old bones getting a bit creaky.”
“Thancred’s the same age as you now, and he doesn’t seem to suffer as much as you,” Alisaie countered.
Aza winced, “Ah, yeah.”
“Aza…” Alisaie sighed, easing her confrontational stance somewhat, “I’m not… for a moment, I feared that the Light had… well,” she cut herself off, looking away uncomfortably, “It’s not serious, is it? Your ailment?”
“Uh,” Aza hesitated a heartbeat too long, “Not in a way that’s, like, I’m gonna die in a year or anything. It’s manageable.”
Alisaie gave him a flat, unimpressed stare, but she, thankfully, didn’t press him further.
“Perhaps we should delay our celebration,” she murmured, “You really do look terrible, Aza.”
He felt terrible too, and drowsy. The painkillers were kicking in, but it also made standing up feel so exhausting, his thoughts turning sluggish and lame. But, he felt awful at ruining their party because his body decided to be a piece of shit. It wasn’t fair on them, really. He could enjoy a day of agony for them - it couldn’t hurt worse than having his soul try to fly apart, anyways.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You’re not,” Alisaie scolded, “You can admit that you’re not fine, Aza.”
Aza shuffled awkwardly, avoiding Alisaie’s gaze.
“Aza,” Alisaie prompted, her tone an odd mix of impatience, poorly suppressed frustration and attempted gentleness, “You trust us, right?”
“Of course!” Aza looked up at that, “It’s just…”
Alisaie, miraculously, waited him out.
“Well, especially with how the First is, I thought I needed to seem, you know... “ Aza sighed, “Reliable, at least. But, the truth is, I’m practically a cripple. I ran out of my medicine Crisp gives me, ‘cuz she’s not here, and, I could ignore it for a bit, you know, with the Light killing me and all, but today, I couldn’t- I couldn’t even get out of bed, Alisaie.”
The last part came out in a frustrated rush, and he looked down at his feet, feeling thoroughly embarrassed. Alisaie looked up to him, he knew, used him as a standard to match up to - but she didn’t know that he was a wreck, both physically and emotionally. It was best she found out, before she started to emulate his bad habits too, but…
“Without these,” he waved his little bag around, the medicine inside rattling quietly, “I might as well be useless.”
Alisaie just looked at him calmly, “There’s no shame in needing medicine to stay functional.”
“But it’s-!” Aza stopped, shoulders heaving from a heavy sigh, “Not very… Warrior of Darkness-y.”
“Darkness-y. Is that a word now?” Alisaie smiled, but it looked a bit forced around the edges, “You know Thancred suffers from a severe handicap himself. Why would you think we’d judge you and not him?”
Aza shrugged, fidgeting with his bag. As he realised earlier, his fears were petty and stupid. That didn’t make their control any less strong, though.
“You are so…” Alisaie shook her head, “Come on. Let’s not have this conversation in the middle of Spagyrics.”
Aza jolted, having totally forgotten his surroundings - but thankfully, no one seemed to have overheard, and Chessamine was still in the room he just left. So, he nodded, and they slowly made their way into the infirmary proper. He was limping, knew he was heavily, and could feel Alisaie’s scrutinising stare as she watched him hobble, limp and half-hop his way out of Spagyrics and into the Exedra.
“Your knees?” she guessed.
“Yeah, and my hips, and… everything else,” Aza mumbled, “I feel like a giant bruise.”
If Alisiae wanted to say anything further to that, she was cut off from a distant shout of their names. They both looked over to see Alphinaud racing over from the direction of the Quidivarium, and Aza almost groaned. Ugh, he was regretting telling that innkeeper his whereabouts now.
Alisaie had the gall to look amused, “A slowpoke as always.”
Alphinaud was out of breath by the time he reached them, trying and failing to maintain a dignified posture as he gave Aza a worried once over.
“I had… had heard you were… unwell,” he panted, “And thought…”
Aza sighed, starting to feel awful now. Of course, so soon after he was ‘cured’ of his terminal condition of Light corruption, no wonder they had leapt to the worst conclusion on hearing him being so unwell he’d willingly go to a doctor without prompting. He really shouldn’t have said anything. In fact, why did he say anything? Normally he would’ve just left the inn without telling the Manager anything, or find a secluded corner to curl up in misery, rather than go seeking for medical help.
Then again, he found himself thinking, saying, doing things he normally wouldn’t since Ardbert and he had merged. Maybe there was some bleedover happening there, and from what he witnessed in the memories of his companions, Ardbert was far more into healthy communication and openness than he was. Was it a terrible change? Probably not, but it made it no less unnerving.
“...I’m sorry,” he said, that awful feeling only growing when both Alisaie and Alphinaud stared at him in surprise for the apology, “It’s not the Light, that really has gone. It’s just a medical condition I have that, I, um, ran out of medicine for.”
“Medical condition…?” Alphinaud frowned, “I never knew you had a condition.”
“Well, I’m embarrassed about it,” he sighed, “Stupid, I know, but, uh, well, anyway, I’m fine. I have my medicine so… yeah.”
Alphinaud and Alisiae looked at him, then at each other. Clearly some level of twin telepathy occurred in that long stare between them, because they both nodded and turned back to him with exasperatedly fond expressions.
“If you’re sure it is mostly handled…” Alphinaud said, “You do look terrible, though.”
“I said that too,” Alisaie interjected.
Aza just groaned, “C’mon. I’m fine - well, okay,” he quickly amended when Alisaie scowled at him, “Mostly fine. I feel like shit, but I’d rather sit with you guys and be half-miserable, than languishing in bed being mostly miserable. Okay?”
“Hmm…” Alisaie gave him a doubtful look.
Thankfully, Alphinaud was much more accommodating, “You should have something to eat before being banished to your room, at least,” he said with some humour, “Think you can manage to the Wandering Stairs?”
“I’m not decrepit,” Aza huffed, “I can make it.”
“We’ll see,” Alisaie said darkly, making Aza give her a worried look.
But then he was bracketed on either side by the Leviellur twins, sandwiched almost, so that if his knee suddenly gave out, he would undoubtedly be caught by one of them. His pride rankled slightly, but it wasn’t as needle sharp as it normally was. Ardbert really had mellowed him out, huh?
You need to lean on them more, something in the back of his mind sighed wearily, Didn’t you learn anything from our journey?
Aza ducked his head a fraction, hiding a smile in the collar of his jacket. Well, he was always a slow learner when it came to these things, especially without Bluebird helping him navigate the scary world of socialising, but…
Since coming to the First, Aza both had to stand on his own two feet, and rely on other people. It was terrifying, but rewarding, and so many things were put into perspective. The Aza who left the Source all those months ago was different to the Aza he was now - in more ways than one. He wondered how Bluebird, how his FC, how Aymeric, were going to react to him, because even he could see the change in himself.
But it was… a good change. Yeah, he felt good.
So, Aza lifted his head and, with a playful grin, slung his arms around Alphinaud and Alisaie’s shoulders. They both made surprised noises, but laughter soon followed, and, there, that exact moment, underneath the rising sun, his body aching but his heart light...
It felt right.