Ja’far threw himself into work after the events of the first Sindria.
He couldn’t afford to think about the attack. He couldn’t think about Shaka. Couldn’t think about V- them.
Even now, lighting an oil lamp and settling in for a long night of work, he could feel the hot tendrils of anger choke him. His utter uselessness, his failure- shoved in his face by the mountains of bodies and the bloodstained walls- made his jaw clench and his vision turn red.
But he couldn’t think about it.
Emotion dulled him; he knew that. Even back when he was an assassin with- Even back when he was an assassin, his anger would get in the way of his kills, make them sloppy and rough. He’d stab a target multiple times listening to the roar in his ears and his victims’ choked off screams, rather than slit their throat under the cover of darkness, completely silent.
He used to tug down the bandages covering his mouth to spit on the bodies of failures, fellow assassins that were too weak. Fucking dumbasses. Got themselves killed on the easiest fucking mission. Shaka wouldn’t say anything, but approval of Ja’far’s words hummed off him in waves.
V- They didn’t deserve that. They didn’t deserve Shaka’s and Ja’far’s eyes on their crumbling bodies. They didn’t deserve the disrespect of a subhuman’s eyes on their corpses.
And now he was even less human than before, towering above Shaka and slicing his head off, growing scales across his chest, and sprouting new limbs with sharp nails like a lizard grows a new tail- god .
He couldn’t do that to them. He couldn’t think of them back when he was barely a human, much less now.
So he didn’t.
Every day followed the same cycle: Wake up, work until midnight, practice with magoi and his blades until the pressure behind his eyes threatened to explode into tears, pass out on his bed hoping for a dreamless night, rinse and repeat.
Don’t think about them. Don’t think about them. Don’t think about them.
He could feel the concern of the other generals on him, lingering glances at his eyebags and his slumped posture, gentle hands on his shoulders and offers of help.
(Why? Shouldn’t they be more worried about Sinbad?)
Screw that. He didn’t want their pity, didn’t deserve it. And if they wanted to scold him for his indecent vocabulary, unfitting for a lord’s vassal, what about it?
That was her main job, but now she wasn’t even around to do it anymore. Fuck. Fuck. Just thinking about it made tears of frustration sting his eyes.
He couldn’t think of her, either.
So he went on with his routine; just follow the routine, and it will all pass. Everything does, eventually.
Sinbad came back.
Miraculously, after a whole year , he came back.
Ja’far’s breath stuttered in his throat. Seeing him brought back memories of Sindria, of them , of howling into Sinbad’s back, of seeing her body like a fucking pincushion -
“I’m home,” Sinbad’s small smile was too much, and he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t, the self-hatred was gonna claw its way out of his throat- “Ja’far.”
His vision blurred- with what he didn’t know. Shock? Relief? Shame? Apology? Frustration with his own inadequacy?
The scrolls in his hand clattered to the floor, but he didn’t pay them any mind. He was too busy trying to sort out the whirling storm of emotions that threatened to fight its way out of his body in sobs.
Either way, he just had to get back into the routine. Routine, routine, routine. He could do this. There was no other way past it.
Almost every night his dreams were plagued by them. Giant what-if’s played again and again in his mind: What if they went to the warehouse earlier? What if he never left the organization? What if he’d taken Shaka’s offer to return to Sham Lash? Would they still be alive? Would they all still be alive?
Ja’far usually couldn’t sleep afterwards. The dizziness and the acrid taste at the back of his throat kept him up.
He busied himself with paperwork, letting numbers and calculations drown out the images of Vittel and Mahad clawing at his legs, pinning him down instead of Shaka, telling him “It’s your fault, chief. It’s all your fault.” Or the image of Rurumu raising a giant fist and telling him that she was a fool to consider him her son, then smashing him into the dirt. Good. It’s what he deserves.
Between the burning of his throat and his muffled sobs Ja’far wished with all his heart that he could be sorry, that he deserved forgiveness.
Having Sinbad back meant another pair of worried eyes raking over him, making his skin crawl. He felt dirty in the white of his robes, and the strings of his household vessel felt like the shackles of a guilty man.
Sinbad’s gaze tore apart his hardworking, optimistic facade, scrutinizing every waver of his voice, every strained smile, like with one look, Sinbad knew that his head pounded constantly, or that the room spun and spun when he was just trying to put scrolls back onto the shelves. Or that food just tasted like ash, and it wasn’t really worth putting more than a few bites in his mouth before heading back to work.
Sinbad could tell something was off. He could always tell.
One day Sinbad stopped him in the middle of shelving newly reviewed transportation logs, placing his hands firmly on Ja’far’s shoulders. “Ja’far, are you alright? You’ve been-”
“Sin, I’m fine,” Ja’far didn’t want anyone to look at him, not when he was like this, clinging to the barest hints of humanity through fucking busywork, of all things. Not to mention the room kept spinning, and he was practically dead on his feet.
Sinbad’s eyebrows lowered and he opened his mouth, clearly to protest, but Ja’far roughly shrugged off Sinbad’s hands, too lightheaded and far away to care. He didn’t have time for this. His routine didn’t account for conversations. He hurried past Sinbad to his room, breath coming in short gasps.
He distantly heard Sinbad call out after him, but he was already sweeping through the tilting halls, trying not to sway and trip over his own feet. He made his way mostly through muscle memory, because his vision was useless with the way darkness hovered at the edges of his vision and small pinpricks of light kept flashing into his vision.
How shameful, a trained assassin trying not to stumble like a toddler taking his first steps. If he couldn’t even walk straight, how was he expected to do the one thing he was trained for?
He reached his room and quickly slammed the door behind him. The air was too thin, and his hands grasped at his throat uselessly as his chest heaved. He blinked spots out of vision, the shakiness in his legs causing him to lean heavily against the door. This was… Oh. He recognized this feeling from his days of training under Shaka. He was gonna pass out.
He slumped against the door and slowly slid to the floor, sitting with his legs crossed and his head between his knees. Squeezing his eyes shut, he faintly registered muffled noise behind him and a clattering right next to him. Oh, right. He’d brought the scrolls with him in his haste.
But nevermind that. Breathe in. He just had to take a moment… just a moment to calm his breathing down, let the blood circulate for a bit. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Wait for the tingling in his fingertips to fizzle out. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Let the dull throbbing in the back of his head grow softer. Breathe out.
He felt slightly better now, and he flexed the stiffness out of his fingers experimentally.
Alright. Time to get back to work.
He braced himself against the door and stood up, but then the room slipped out from under his feet.
Someone was touching him. Moving him onto his back and feeling his neck. What...?
He cracked open his eyes.
In the dim lamplight, Sinbad was hovering over him, eyebrows furrowed and lips pressed into a thin line. Ja’far’s mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton.
“Sin,” he swallowed thickly, “What…” He trailed off. Too many questions- he didn’t know which to ask first. What are you doing here? What happened? What’s going on? With great effort, he craned his neck to look around, noting the open door. Did he open the door for Sinbad? And how did he end up on the floor?
Sinbad hushed him softly. He slid an arm under Ja’far’s back and another under his knees. Ja’far was too tired to protest. And even if he wanted to, he could barely move, his head lolling and his arm dangling where it wasn’t pressed up against Sinbad’s chest. It was already so exhausting to keep his eyes open, and his eyelids fluttered, threatening to slide shut.
This movement, this closeness… it really reminded him of that day.
Ja’far squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to think about it.
“Ja’far,” Sinbad’s arm curled him inwards, closer to his chest. A note of concern tinged his voice. “How are you feeling?”
Ja’far grumbled and huffed in response, not paying attention to the sensation of being set on his bed, of Sinbad tugging the blankets around him. The ghost of a touch on his face, brushing aside his circlet and resting a hand on his forehead.
He knew Sinbad’s ploy- keep him awake to talk about whatever was bothering him, why he was working himself to the bone. He didn’t want to talk about it. He’d rather let the darkness take him, pulling him into a dreamless realm where he didn’t have to think about anything.
But that probably wasn’t going to happen.
More likely, he’d dream of that day and their bodies, wake up in a cold sweat with a hoarse cry on his lips, an empty cavity in his chest. He’d lie awake in bed, thinking of their faces and their bodies and his guilt and his humanity until he couldn’t bear the darkness anymore. Kicking himself free of the sheets, he’d stagger over to his desk and light an oil lamp, letting the chore of paperwork distract him.
He wanted to be wrong. He wanted to be wrong for so, so long.
He was right.
He was back in the warehouse, watching the Sindrian citizen’s head roll towards him. His eyes followed the blood trail, just like before, to rest on Shaka, surrounded by the corpses of Sindria’s citizens, their eyes and mouths gaping in silent screams.
The metallic smell of gore was all too familiar and seeing it painting the walls made his blood run cold.
Everything was still the same, the way they struggled against Shaka, energy swelling until it burst out of him, running down his face from his eyes and mouth. Looking over at Vittel and Mahad and seeing the same reflected on their faces. A bright white light, then nothing.
Nothing, except a booming voice that shook him to his core, burning, melting him down. The words rang in his ears, lightning household, become one, one, one. Even when he was swaying, looking down on Shaka. Even when he could see every movement before it was going to happen, smell the smoke of the corpses, taste the stink of fear that was coming off of Shaka in waves.
Even while killing Shaka, he had felt nothing. The way he killed Shaka was instinct: Identify threat, extinguish threat. There were none of the swirling emotions that plagued him for so long after the event, none of the bouts of lightheadedness, spinning rooms, panting breaths.
Cold. Clinical. The mere act of removing Shaka’s head from his body was just the fastest way to finish the job. If Ja’far had been in control, let his emotions run through the kill, he would’ve smashed Shaka into the floor like a bug until he was nothing more than a red stain on the ground.
Even at that moment, Shaka was more human than he was, eyes wide in shock and fear.
The memory played on and he was on two legs and normal-sized again, staring numbly at Shaka’s head in front of him. Its mouth began flapping open and closed, like a fish gasping for air.
Ah. This part was different.
Slowly, the blackened bodies of Vittel and Mahad began to twitch and come to life. Their eyes and faces were burned beyond recognition, but, somehow, Ja’far knew that they were watching him, raking over his unharmed figure, looking at his regenerated arm, at the scales on his chest.
Ash peeled off them and floated to the ground, carried by their raspy exhales. They stumbled towards him, dropping to the floor and crawling when their legs disintegrated into nothingness, leaving dusty trails behind them.
Ja’far was rooted to the ground, his legs anchored by fear. This couldn’t be all. There was no way that his dream would let him off with just this.
As he watched, Vittel’s skin lightened, the burnt crust softening and healing until it was no longer there. His expression morphed into a pout, tongue poking out in concentration. Ja’far blinked, and he was back in old Sindria’s Trading Company headquarters in Reim.
Vittel was flipping through scrolls, quickly marking off and checking through the paperwork. Ja’far sat across from him, feet dangling and double-checking Vittel’s work. Mahad was also hard at work, dutifully rolling up scroll after scroll that Ja’far had placed off to the side.
Vittel frowned, the scar on the bridge of his nose crinkling. He held up the scroll in front of him, showing it to Ja’far. The page was blank.
“Chief,” Vittel teased, a mirthful lilt in his voice. “Why did you give me a blank scroll to look over?”
Ja’far’s face grew warm. “Oh, that.” He laughed, trying to shrug off the feeling of mild embarrassment. He hastily snatched it from Vittel’s hand and rolled it up, shoving it into his sleeve.
Vittel laughed, a bright airy sound. God , how he missed that. “Chief, you should be more careful!”
The smile dropped off of Vittel’s face, and he stared unblinkingly at Ja’far, just like so many corpses have done before.
Oh, here it was.
Vittel opened his mouth. “Chief, I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you. Here you are, all in one piece, perfectly fine, and where are we?”
Ja’far tried to open his mouth, but the dream was suffocating him, gagging him.
“Could you even retrieve our bodies? Did you scrape us off the ground, did you even try to collect the ash?”
He could only cough, choking on his words.
Mahad stood, towering over him. He clamped a massive hand on his shoulder and fixed him a look of contempt.
Footsteps sounded behind him. Ja’far craned his neck back to look.
Ja’far could spot other figures behind her, like Mystras, but they didn’t matter. Not when Rurumu was looking at him like that- with a serene smile on her face but a shadow of malice lurking behind the pulled lips.
Ja’far’s skin crawled. Rurumu raised a hand, the smile still on her face.
“Please, Rururmu,” Ja’far begged. He rolled the next word around in his mouth before testing it out. “Please, Mom.” Mom. Mom. He’d heard people say it before, desperate cries thick with emotion, escalating until being silenced forever.
Rurumu gripped him by the neck, throwing him to the floor coldly. There was nothing in Rurumu’s eyes, no emotion, no snarl, no fear. This was what it was like, Ja’far realized with a chill. This was what Shaka must’ve stared into when he was killed.
He jerked awake with a sharp gasp, blindly scrabbling for his blades. Rurumu’s hands were on him- they were gonna-
His hands clenched around his darts, they were at his bedside table, still here, still here.
Ja’far forced himself to breathe, one heaving, ragged breath after the other. Hot tears threatened to spill out, and he shut his eyes against them. He tangled his fingers painfully into the wires, relishing in the pain that told him that he was here and not there.
Ja’far gritted his teeth and took another breath, trying to take stock of the situation. His feet were tangled in the sheets, and the air was still too thin to breathe normally. His heart was pounding out of his chest, but he didn’t want to open his eyes. He wasn’t ready to face Sinbad yet.
A hand landed on his shoulder, and he recoiled in a full-body flinch.
“Hey.” Sinbad’s voice was hushed, as if he was trying to calm a wild animal, “Hey. Ja’far? You were… It looked like you were having a nightmare.”
Ja’far blearily opened his eyes, glancing to his side to see Sinbad sitting in his desk chair, now beside the bed. The oil lamp in Sinbad’s hand cast strange shadows that danced across his face and made his golden hoops glimmer. Why was he here? How long did he sleep for?
Too much. This was too much, and Ja’far groaned and threw an arm over his eyes, jumping in surprise when the cold metal of his blade smacked him in the face. Right, he was just gripping onto them for dear life. How could he forget?
Ja’far heard the creak of wood, and something tugged at the wires. The cold weight of the blade lifted from his face.
“Ja’far,” Sinbad untangled the first blade and pulled, the wire following and slipping out from between Ja’far’s fingers. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” His other hand balled the fabric above the sudden pain in his chest. “I just…”
Sinbad was silent for a while, uncurling Ja’far’s stiff fingers from his shirt and unraveling the wires.
He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve the light, didn’t deserve the gentle fingers freeing his hands, didn’t deserve Sinbad’s concern.
Ja’far didn’t understand any of it.
“Can-” Ja’far winced at the raspiness of his own voice. “Can you put out the light?”
The silence was oppressive.
He knew it was a strange request-Sinbad must be confused, judging from his lack of response-but the room dimmed anyway. Ja’far lowered his arm and took a steadying breath. Only soft moonlight illuminated the room.
It was easier to be honest in the dark, where he could hide among the shadows, couldn’t see the prying eyes on him. In the dark, he didn’t have to keep up appearances, didn’t have to pretend to be human.
“Sin, I…” Ja’far runs through several of the thoughts in his head, blurting out on the one at the front of his mind. “I’m sorry.”
“For…” Ja’far busied himself with pushing himself up into a sitting position, hanging his head and avoiding Sinbad’s eyes. He tried to think of an answer, he really did. He eventually settled on one that encompasses all of them. “For being so weak.”
“What are you talking about?”
New tears pricked his eyes. Did he really have to explain? “I’m weak,” he confessed to his clasped hands. He didn’t dare to say it louder than a whisper, as if saying it out loud somehow made his fears more real. “I failed to save them. I don’t even deserve to think of them.”
Ja’far could feel Sinbad’s disapproval and clenched his hands tighter. Yeah, that’s right. He deserves that, too.
He pressed on, “I don’t deserve to even think of them, not then, not now.” He laughed bitterly. “I wasn’t human then, and I’m sure as hell not now. I mean, sure, I had two arms and two legs and a brain and a heart, but I wasn’t human . I-” His voice was cut off by the bitter taste in his throat, throttled by the feelings of shame shame shame-
He dug his fingers into his palms, but he couldn’t draw blood. His nails were dulled by the hours of obsessive filing, driven by seeing sharp nails, no, claws , sprouting out of his right hand.
Ja’far blinked, snapping himself out of the memory. He glanced at Sinbad, gauging his reaction, but he couldn’t make out his expression in the dim light. Maybe that was for the better. “You know, back when I was an assassin, I would-I- Ja’far couldn’t speak. The lump in his throat was too much, the shaking of his hands from squeezing too hard was too much, Sinbad’s judgement was too much.
Sinbad's voice cut through the darkness. “You don’t have to say anything.”
Ja’far’s gut dropped at the familiar words. Fuck, why did Sinbad have to say that?
Sinbad spoke again. “What do you mean?”
Ja’far realized with a start that he had said it out loud.
“I-” Ja’far begins, “It just-” Ja’far pressed his hands into his face. “It reminds me of Sindria.”
“I couldn’t do anything back then. If I did better, they would still be here. Vittel, Mahad, Mystras, Rurumu.” He hadn’t let himself speak their names since the last time he saw their faces. Alive, that is. The coil of self-loathing settled in his gut. He pressed his hands harder against his face until stars burst under his eyelids. “Fuck. I never told you about how the fight against Shaka went, huh?”
Sinbad was silent. Fuck it. He might as well get it all out, kill this weight on his shoulders with a quick slash to the throat rather than slowly drag his knife, listening to it sputter and gasp for breath.
“Shaka was a magoi manipulator, he taught us assassins everything we knew. From how to disrupt someone’s magoi, to how to remotely control our darts, how to take in and give magoi. He…” What the fuck was this feeling? Did he feel some sort of twisted loyalty for his former boss? Adoptive father? Abuser? “He was terrifying.”
“Yeah, Hinahoho and Pipirika told me that was how he killed Mystras. Manipulated the magoi inside him to destroy him from the inside out.” Sinbad’s clipped voice felt like a slap across his face.
Ja’far’s next words died in his throat. He saw the body, but always assumed that he’d been stabbed to death. A snarky part of his mind unhelpfully supplied: Well, that makes it three of them that died of magoi related causes. He immediately clamped down on that thought. God, what kind of sick monster was he?
Ja’far didn’t know what to say, so he filled the silence with more words. “You probably saw this in the warehouse, but under his cloak, he was this skinless freak of a thing.” The image of the blackened head with its three gaping holes rose to his mind unbidden, and he swallowed past the taste of bile. Pathetic. An assassin that wanted to throw up at the sight of gore.
“He was extremely fast and powerful. Took Vittel’s arm. Took my arm.” He unclenched his fingers and tugged his hand free. He held his side, remembering the mind-numbing pain from an arm that was no longer there. “There was no other way. We held onto Shaka and transferred his magoi into our bodies.”
Ja’far paused, scrabbling through his memory for what happened next. This was usually where his thoughts became fuzzy and distorted, shifting between a commanding voice and suddenly looming over the warehouse. The shame squeezed around his neck like a noose. Fuck, he couldn’t even remember Vittel’s and Mahad’s last moments clearly.
“There was an explosion… I think.” Ja’far didn’t remember the moment itself, but the scorch marks on the ground, the charred bodies, and the hole in the ceiling was pretty damning.
Sinbad made a hesitant noise of affirmation. “There was… a light, we could see it all the way from the land bridges.”
A snarl rose in Ja’far’s throat before he could even stop it. “Oh yeah, admire the light show as we all blow up, don’t you.”
Sinbad stood up so fast the chair knocked back, and Ja’far’s hands flew to his mouth. He knew, they both knew that they were mourning Mystras when Sinbad was at the land bridge. Why did he always lash out? Why was he like this?
“I’m sorry, I-I’m just messed up- Ja’far couldn’t stop the tears this time, and they rolled down his face, hot and choking. What right did he have to cry? He grabbed his pillow and buried his face in it, muffling the keening noise that the tears tore from his lips.
Sinbad’s blurry form hurried past the bed and into the faintly lit hallway, leaving Ja’far in the dark with only his thoughts and tears.
When Ja’far woke, eyes puffy and sore, he swore that he would no longer crack like that, no longer show his emotions on his skin like a chameleon, but rather show them like a crocodile shows its tears. If he wasn’t human, if he was a monster, he might as well be a useful one.
They conquered dungeon after dungeon, Ja’far taking out rows upon rows of enemies.
Zagan’s dungeon was different. It was close to the location of the second Sindria, but most of all, it rejected Sinbad, saying that he already had enough power.
One of the generals came up with the idea- if Sinbad only carried one djinn’s equipment and was accompanied by only one household member, then maybe Zagan would let them in. And between the two of them, they’d be strong enough to conquer a dungeon.
But still- no dice.
Zagan’s dungeon staunchly remained closed, and on the way back to Sindria, a Rampaging Unicorn had caught them by surprise, knocking Ja’far down into the dirt and throwing Sinbad somewhere far off, out of commission.
Ja’far turned to focus on his opponent, ignoring the scraping of dirt and gravel against his cheek.
Grasped tightly in his hands, the blades were glowing. The booming voice in his head came again, and Ja’far took a deep breath, preparing himself for the words, the electrifying pain that broke him down and built him up.
The hoarse shout broke Ja’far out of his trance and his head snapped towards Sinbad. Blood streaked down his face, and his eyes were wide. With what? Fear? Surprise?
“What are you doing ?!”
No- that definitely was fear, bordering on hysteria, even. Ja’far could practically taste it in the air, just like he did that time with Shaka.
The blades glowed brighter, insistently so, and the voice in his head crescendoed until everything else was drowned out.
Ja’far tensed up, his back ramrod straight and head snapping to the heavens. The mind-numbing pain washed over him. It was like being stretched upwards; his assimilation form coaxed out of him like a snake out of its basket by a snake charmer. He could feel it- the scales creeping across his chest, the nails sharpening into claws, his mind screaming with a singular instinct to kill kill kill-
A hand clamped over his wrist. And- silence.
Ja’far started, eyes flicking to the point of contact. An arm with claws and scales holding another.
Ja’far couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight. “What…”
“What do you think you’re doing? The hand around his wrist clenched, but all Ja’far could feel was numbness. “Why are you-”
The Rampaging Unicorn screamed, but it was cut off by the crash of lightning. Ja’far faintly heard a splash, as if something large had fallen into the water.
He failed last time, why wouldn’t Sinbad let him finish it this time?
Why was he stopping him? Wasn’t this all he was good for?
“Please,” Sinbad breathed out, “Don’t go where I can’t follow.”
Ja’far looked into Sinbad’s wide eyes and his gut twisted, words rushing out unbidden. “Okay, I’m sorry, I understand.” The faces of Rurumu, Vittel, Mahad, and Mystras flashed before his eyes, and Ja’far gritted his teeth. “You too, Sin.”
“Don’t go where I can’t follow. Please.”
Things were okay for a while. But things changed. They all changed, in all sorts of manners- technology, clothes, closeness.
Ja’far and Sinbad drifted further and further apart, and Ja’far could tell that he no longer was Sinbad’s number one advisor, his number one confidant. That there was someone else there, lurking in the shadows.
He was begging, begging for Sinbad not to become God, to leave him, to turn his back on the promise that they made.
But Sinbad went. Then- bliss.
The next time Ja’far saw him was on the coast of Sindria, the purple of his hair in kelp and the glint of his eyes in the sunlight reflected off the water’s surface.
“Ja’far,” the waves whispered.
And Ja’far always, always followed. So, he followed.