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here when you wake

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Death for Emet-Selch is an affair much like most of his long lived life. Haunted by ghosts of the past, too many echoing thoughts surfacing within a consciousness that lacks corporeal form within the lifestream.

No Emet-Selch exists here. At least not in any way he would be remembered.

As much as he remains himself – pooled aether too dense, too sure of its own command over this unfathomable plane of existence to ever be washed away without willing it himself – Emet-Selch drifts through nothingness. And thinks.

He has little else to do anymore, to fill these days without clear sense of time.

Emet-Selch spends much and more of that time thinking of him. The Warrior of Light. At once a hint of what he'd lost, wrapped up in that terribly broken, fragmented soul, and nothing more than a means to an end. S'idos Muth managed to become what most of those futile mortals could never hope to achieve: a threat.

A threat to be snuffed out and eliminated, heart-aching familiarity or nay.

It didn't matter that in Emet-Selch's moments of weakness he found himself taking too long walks by the miqo'te's side, answering every question the mortal dared to pose him.

Acerbic and more than lightly mocking by choice. Yes, yes, cooperation and reconciliation. But S'idos had slain Lahabrea. Made a mockery and more of their great work. No one said Emet-Selch had to be overly pleasant in his methods.

S'idos was barely more special, after all, than his eclectic band of raggedy tagalongs arrayed against yet another ne'er-do-well Ascian. Hardly worthy of being held to the title of Azem with anything but disgruntled grumbling. A shake of the head.

Nevermind the tugging desire to look back whenever they parted. The way any flash of copper hair caught Emet-Selch's attention until the color itself was enough to snag his eye. Rusted, truly. Awful. Boring. Yet entrancing all the same.

Emet-Selch stubbornly kept to that belief through curiosity breaching barriers. Wary, hesitant first touches. That initial kiss. The first time he and the Warrior lay together, oh.

It brings Emet-Selch's noncorporeal aether such smugness even now.

Corrupting the hero, even if it led to naught but pleasant afternoon diversions. There was pride in that.

And until the axe blade sunk in deep, Emet-Selch never truly believed he would lose their eventual confrontation.

He'd watched S'idos from the shadows. Seen the bard fight lightwarden one after another.

Of course he was a bard. The very instant S'idos first took up his bow and strummed its harp attachment – an altogether ridiculous weapon entirely – for a second Emet-Selch was struck with the image of a different impish grin. Lilac braid instead of a messy copper-blonde nest. The lilting voice one that wrung out his heartstrings and drove hands to tear down empires Emet-Selch had once helped build.

The past crumbled away like dust and so did the hero. Failing, failing like all the rest. S'idos was not Azem. Had never been. A fool's errand convincing himself any traces of the two people he loved still remained in this shattered world, but such did Emet-Selch's sentimentality also fail him.

The Tempest should have been the Warrior of Light's tomb. A watery grave on a lost shard, soon to be re-subsumed by light. But for that other spark – more fragile, more dim, a ghostly whisper of dawn's fading light.

Yet their combined conviction struck Emet-Selch low and away he fell.

Now he's here. Here to drift and here to think. And occasionally, to be pulled from this purgatory by those stubborn shards of Azem for some end or another. Emet-Selch shall not soon forget the accusation in Elidibus's tone nor his reaching grasp. But those are the affairs of the living. Here among the dead he has earned final rest.

Still, Emet-Selch – Hades – refuses to fade. Something holds him back.

Duty, perhaps. Despite waving the Emissary final goodbye, habits hard formed do not so easily break. And for so many untold years he toiled in the name of duty, to see his people alive again.

Freed.

If he has learned nothing else over this long, lonely journey it is that a life held in stasis, existing neither truly alive nor dead, is no mercy at all.

Salvation they breathed into the great Lord Zodiark. And salvation he did become. Yet the souls He held within strayed outside the lifestream, a time outside memory. Too many cycles of rebirth never renewing their souls. Never washing away the collected burden, the detritus of the old for new possibilities.

Perhaps duty is all that yet binds Emet-Selch to the living.

But a private part of him, a selfishness he had thought strangled by his own hands, that night long ago, when words of departure and sacrifice first entered the air, that part of Emet-Selch knows differently.

That night forever more he lost the ability to regard the humble lilac with anything other than heart-rending sorrow. And though he patronized the arts throughout his long reign as Emperor of Garlemald, not one of the myriad voices he heard raised to song stirred more than the barest emotion in his breast, regardless of subject.

If Emet-Selch lets the pull of the lifestream take over, he damns Hythlodaeus to an eternity of deathless solitude. One sin he will not bear for the comfort of final peace.

So caught up in his thoughts, Hades nearly misses the blot of light sparking into existence. It gently buoys up against his aether with a playfulness so achingly familiar Hades finds himself constructing himself a form – a temporary shell – without truly thinking about it.

Solus zos Galvus. Created here possessed of little true substance, but enough that when hands descend over his field of vision from above and behind, they brush against aetherial created skin.

The touch of another. After so long. Feeling floods into Hades, heart caught in his throat. Breath hitching.

He hears it then, the soft, ephemeral laughter bubbling up just below his ear. Someone, no, he knows who, knows only one person with a laugh like that, tucks their cheek against the side of his neck and chuckles again.

Hades closes his eyes. Both sights, physical and aetherial, not wishing to perceive just how hollow he's left this husk behind him this time.

That his soul, in its eternal anguish, would summon a shade of Hythlodaeus even here. Continuing patterns that plagued Hades throughout life and now seemed to follow him into death.

Even the way the shade holds him draws on nostalgia. Of old days spent studying in the depths of Akadaemia libraries. Or rather, Hades studied. Hythlodaeus more often than not napped away their shared periods tucked up into his side, arms wrapped around him. Rarely did Hades ever share with him how pleasant he found those moments. Pieces of quiet and warmth, out of time. The soft rasp of turning pages and the occasional bright scent off Hythlodaeus's hair, which Hades indulged himself. When he was sure Hythlodaeus was truly asleep, and burying his nose amidst its softness would go unnoticed.

"Hades," Hythlodaeus calls, the way he remembers, lightly teasing in all things but never malicious, "here I find you again. All alone. Yet you still refuse to show me that handsome face of yours. Perhaps for them, hm?"

"We – I am alone here, as you so impudently pointed it out. Why is it," Hades continues, even as the shade withdraws his hands, "each time I summon you I find you more incorrigible than the last?"

The shade only laughs. Again. Impossible. Hades opens his mouth to tell him as such, more firmly this time, and instead the sudden immense brightness expanding all around him gives pause.

He opens his eyes. Straining at the light, the colors, every hue and combination he knows in his heart is so terribly familiar, Hades refuses to blink until he is sure.

Souls. Each and every one. The same souls he watched give themselves over to Zodiark en masse until he could no longer see clearly, vision blurred, wetness upon his cheeks as surely as Hades feels it now.

He exhales slowly, shakily, wiping the tears from his eyes so he might perceive clearly. Aetherial sight sharpens the blotchy blurs into separate streams again, all of them flying and swirling around Hades as if in greeting.

Some of them linger, floating near him, daring to brush up against his created form. The sensation of such touch, after so long, brings Hades weak in the knees, shuddering, gasping. If not for the shade ever supporting him, Hades might collapse and never rise again.

But no matter where he looks, how hard he searches in the endless streams flowing by, Hades cannot find him. Pale green aether dusted with shimmering celestial stars that so charmed Hades every time he laid eyes upon it.

Impossible. He was one of the first volunteers! Hades watched his ascension into Zodiark's arms until all hints of him, every last sparkle, faded away to nothing.

Behind Hades, Hythlodaeus kisses the side of his cheek, pressing his smile into his skin.

"Are you ready now, Hades?"

Impossible. And yet, the Hythlodaeus holding him so snug feels warm and solid. Real. Expectations he learned to dismiss as personal weakness, a trick of the mind his consciousness used to convince himself his shades were the genuine article.

Until Hades found the inevitable first flaw. His mind ever unable to determine the right brightness to set that twinkle of mischief in violet eyes. Mauve and lavender twining together just a touch too dull in hair Hades could never quite imagine with the messy elegance Hythlodaeus favored so. Laughter the same, soft chuckles, yet ringing false.

Like everything else, a bit left of center.

But the Hythlodaeus who finally releases him, who awaits when Hades turns around, lacks all of these false markers.

Bathed only in a gentle green glow, shining brilliantly.

Hythlodaeus's smile grows, head cocked at an impish angle. "There you are, my dear." Hades, overcome with emotion, remains silent, leaning into the hand cupping the side of his face. The thumb smoothing away fresh tear tracks. "Short hair, Hades? Though it suits you, of course. But I do wonder, why brown?"

It really is him.

And with Lahabrea, with Elidibus vanquished. The few remaining Ascians untethered and rudderless, assigned to disparate shards so far apart from each other.

S'idos.

Anger this means Zodiark no longer exists in any sense of the word wars with the humbling gratitude in Hades that Hythlodaeus pulls him into a hug as he crumples to uncertain ground, clutching himself and covering his face as the sobs finally come.

Hythlodaeus says nothing. Not even the soothing nonsense Hades imagined when he created his shades at the brink of delirium, only able to find rest in false embrace. He lets Hades cry it out, the solid pillar against which his world leans, petting through his hair and stroking down his back.

"Well now, that was quite the display of emotion," Hythlodaeus murmurs, when Hades finally quiets. "How do you feel? Would you like to rest? I will be here when you wake, Hades, never fear," he chuckles softly, giving up his fingers to the ironclad grip that swings up to snatch them close.

"Perhaps a story to pass the time, then."

Hades peers up at him, sensing there is more he isn't saying. It's like no time has passed between them at all.

Hythlodaeus drops a kiss into his hair. "Until that curious familiar shows his face here, yes? You weren't hoping to leave this world before then, I hope. We made a promise."

"S'idos isn't Azem."

"And I broke my vow of returning to the star with you both," Hythlodaeus reminds him gently. "It is not the same, true. But would you not say he reminds you of Admetos, in ways?"

Hades sighs. "If you insist," begrudgingly, and then, "but a story, you demand? Any tales of mine would drive you from my side, Hythlodaeus. Aghast."

Hythlodaeus clucks his tongue at him, releasing him and relocating in front. Hades blinks, at the nudging insistence he seat himself in the empty void and open his legs for Hythlodaeus to crawl in between, arranging himself comfortably against Hades's chest.

"When I knew awareness inside Zodiark, it was akin to a waking dream. But you know me, Hades." Hythlodaeus pats the side of his knee, "I perceive well what remains hidden. I pieced together enough, in patches, half remembered conservations, and glimpses. Of Elidibus, and other Convocation members."

Hades stares off into the distance. By now all of the souls have departed far off into the great beyond, leaving Hades and Hythlodaeus to their solitude. To think, while Hades built empires and watched them fall, Hythlodaeus dreamt within Zodiark, cognizant still through the years.

Hades should have ventured out to Zodiark's prison more often than he had.

Hythlodaeus links their hands, as if sensing his rising guilt. "I remember you as well, dearest. When you spoke to Zodiark with such conviction in your voice, I heard." He gives a quiet little laugh, but there is a sobering element within. "Your voice centered me. Helped me remain…myself, amid the roiling tug and press of souls within. There were so many."

This too, Hades finds difficult to process. But Hythlodaeus shrugs off any focus on himself, as ever, pressing on.

"Yes, Hades. A story. Fill in the gaps of my memory. The things for which I wasn't present. Whatever awaits, know that I believe in you now as I did then."

Hades can only trust in the certainty with which Hythlodaeus speaks. He will allow him no less.

"But I wish to hear everything. Your little joys. The simplest things that made you happy."

Far and few in between, Hades thinks, but does not say. He will share the scant number anyway.

"The places you visited, Hades. The people. Everything."

Hythlodaeus always watched, when the world remained whole and unsundered, taking in and observing his surroundings in detail. To be out of the loop for so long, how torturous.

Hades sighs dramatically, but loops his arms around Hythlodaeus's stomach. He settles his chin atop the crown of his head. Indulgent, as always.

And begins to find the words.