Actions

Work Header

Fall from Grace: Archridge Academy: Year Five

Chapter Text

Sons of E'din: Archridge Academy: Year Five

596th Year of the Dominion of E'din

Gabriel: Age 16, Year 12, Specialization Year 1

Alex: Age 12, Year 8

Barachiel: Age 17, Year 12

Remiel: Age 19

Erem: Age 16, Year 12

Uzzi, Isa, Mace, Phrasa: Age 12, Year 8

Sophie: Age 19, Secondary Medic: Marut Hospital

Zak: Age 28, Post Graduate Healing Year 3

-Lorcasiel: Age 21

-Sera: Age 20

Nakia: Age 13, Year 9

Ar: Age 7, Year 3

Calendar

Spring:
Artisan
Beasts
Sun and Moon

Summer:
Tides
Predators
Harvest

Autumn:
Justice
Blight
Soldiers

Winter:
Descendants
Saviors
Wind

Every Month has 30 Degrees, broken into 6 days of class, 3 days off, and an extra 3 days off at the end of the month.

Weekdays Weekend
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30

Chapter Text

Spring came late the year Alex turned twelve. A chill settled over Archridge Academy, frosting the stone halls every morning as students rushed to their new classes for the year. Most of the Terran and Ahnnak could withstand the cold, but the Homm at the academy remained bundled in their winter layers well into the season.

The cold Alex felt was different. It clung to him, deep inside his chest, and even the joyful warmth of his friends couldn’t shake it.

The first two weeks passed in a daze. Uzzi returned to the academy after being suspended at the end of last year. He had maintained his studies while he staying with his sister, so he was able to progress to eighth year with his friends. Most of his scars were gone too, though he still burned hotter than he used to.

There was one scar at the back of Uzzi’s neck that wouldn’t fade, no matter how Sophie tried to heal him. It was where Alex had dug the shard out of Uzzi’s skin. It marred him, a permanent reminder of what happened when he lost control. Uzzi was a lot more careful now, and any time he got upset, they could find him soaking in the baths until he calmed down.

The familiar routine of class, dinner, and studying quickly fell into place. All of Alex’s friends were excited about this year. They were officially old enough to fly home on their own. That also meant they were allowed to travel to academy events outside the region.

“The first thing I want to do,” Mace said during dinner one evening, “is go to a Hunt. I can’t wait to watch one live.”

Her girlfriend, Phrasa, was leaning on her shoulder, a content look on her face. She used one hand to sign, keeping her phrases simple rather than move away from Mace to fully participate in the conversation.

We should all go.

Uzzi’s eyes widened and a grin spread across his face. “That would be awesome! We could all share a room! It would be like a party!”

Isa rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid, Inferno. They’re not going to let boys and girls share a room at the lodge.”

“Well, we could get two rooms. Side-by-side. And just party in one of them.”

Mace grinned. “Sounds like fun.”

Isa huffed. He always tended to take the contradictory side of any conversation, even if he agreed with the other person’s point. “Well, I won’t go if Alex doesn’t go. I’m not leaving him alone.”

“Alex will come,” Uzzi said confidently, then he looked at the boy beside him, whose long black hair hung over one shoulder while he ate. Uzzi added, “Right, Alex?”

It was too much to think of right now. Alex picked up his tray and left the table without a word. He heard his friends talking behind him, but none of them followed.

“Great, you upset him again.”

“Shut up, Isa.”

“Just give him time,” Mace urged. “He’ll talk to you guys when he’s ready.”

Alex left the dining hall. It wasn’t that he was upset with his friends. They had done nothing wrong. He just couldn’t handle any emotions right now. It was easier to suppress his feelings beneath a placid lake of emptiness inside him. He could hold them down, drown them all, and as long as he didn’t look too long at his reflection, he would be fine.

Pain arched through Alex’s chest. He stopped and leaned against the banister, allowing other students to pass. He acted as if he had only stopped to examine something near the waterfalls edge, even if he really just felt like throwing up.

When the feeling eased, Alex resumed walking back to his room. He could have flown. It would have been faster, but there was really nothing he wanted to return to. He even thought about skipping his room altogether and going up to stay with Nakia. She tended to ask more questions than Uzzi or Isa, though, and she was harder to ignore.

“Ahnnak Alexiel?” came a voice from the hall up ahead. Alex didn’t recognize the Terran. He wasn’t sure how she knew his name.

“Who?” he asked without inflection.

She swiftly came toward him. “Ahnnak Alexiel,” she said, as if confirming her suspicions. “Headmaster Iscriel sent me with an urgent request that you join him in his office.”

Alex stared at her with emotionless black eyes. “It’s late.”

“Urgency knows no time but the present. Come along. I’ll escort you.” She reached out like she would touch him, but he recoiled.

“I know the way on my own,” Alex said. He didn’t like being touched, especially not by strangers.

“Yes, of course, but I must insist. This way.” She waved her arm and Alex went with her, if for no other reason than to stop her from trying to grab him again.

The administration level of Archridge was along one of the higher levels of the academy. They had to fly up, but there weren’t many other students out at this time of night, especially not with the chill still holding to the spring air. They arrived quickly, and Alex was escorted into the Headmaster’s office.

“Thank you,” Iscriel told the scribe as she ducked back out of the office. He closed the door after her and then turned his attention to Alex. “Please, have a seat.”

“I’d rather stand,” Alex said. He didn’t like being alone in a room with a grown man, especially not when the door was closed and no one else knew where he was. He folded his arms over his chest and watched the Headmaster cautiously.

“Yes, of course, Ahnnak Alexiel. However you are most comfortable.” Iscriel went to this desk and flipped his long feathers back before he sat down. He pulled out a scroll from his desk. “Forgive me for calling you away so suddenly, but I’m afraid this couldn’t wait. I have a message from your father. He wants you to return home.”

***

For several minutes, Alex just stared. He was vaguely aware that Headmaster Iscriel had continued talking, but none of the words after the first made any sense.

Home.

He couldn’t go home. They couldn’t make him.

Could they?

“I want to talk to my brother,” Alex interrupted.

Iscriel folded his hands before him. “About that. Alexiel, your brother is a very busy young man. This is his first year in the genetic specialization and it is important he does not miss any of the initial instruction. Your father made it clear in his message that he only needed one of his sons to report to him. And since you are old enough to fly home on your own, I see no reason why you cannot assist, and help alleviate some of the burden from your brother. I’m sure Gabriel would appreciate the help.”

The careful control Alex held over the placid emptiness within him threatened to shatter. He did not want to go home, especially not without Gabriel, but he could see he had no other choice.

Headmaster Iscriel insisted.

Alex was to leave first thing in the morning.

He would be excused from classes for as long as the Isten Jequn needed him.

There was nothing Alex needed to pack, so when he returned to his room, he just climbed into his bed and lay with his face in his pillow. Uzzi and Isa came in, arguing about something meaningless, as they always did. Alex listened to them move about the room, and when Uzzi neared and hauled him self up onto the edge of Alex’s bunk, the black-haired boy tensed.

“I got you a dessert,” Uzzi said. “Sorry if I made you sad.” He dropped back down and joined Isa for a game of Stone and Sky, which Uzzi eventually won.

Alex watched them from above. Uzzi had brought him a mint jelly scone, which Alex liked, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat it. He watched his friends silently, wondering if he would ever see them again.

They turned off the lights and went to bed. Alex had trouble falling asleep, but when he did, he had dreams of closed doors and hands reaching out for him in the dark. He woke before dawn, no chance of falling back asleep, and decided it was time to go.

Chapter Text

Alex had to land twice on his flight back to the estate of the Isten Jequn. He knew the route. He had flown it once before with his brother, though on the return trip to the academy, Gabriel had been so injured he could barely stay in the air. They had stopped often.

Now, Alex’s wings were stronger, but he had also grown. He was easily taller than all his classmates, but his wingspan had yet to catch up. It might never. Alex was skinny, awkward, and clumsy. He always felt like he was off balance, whether flying or walking, and every time he thought he had regained control of his body, he would go through another rapid growth spurt and have to deal with the disorientation all over.

Around noon, Alex stopped by a bush with plump, red berries. He sat beside it to rest while he plucked the fruit from among the leaves. They were still a little bitter, but it wasn’t as cold here as it was at the academy. Plants were blooming across the countryside, unhindered by the chill that delayed spring in the north. The further south he flew, the warmer it would become. In fact, Alex couldn’t remember a time it had been truly cold in the jungles around Jequn’s estate. He remembered cold, but it had always been manufactured by the Isten when he wanted to punish him.

Frozen manacles. Frost covered skin. A spear of ice left to melt within his shivering body.

Alex stuffed a few more berries into his mouth, then stood, dusted himself off, and continued flying home.

***

It was late afternoon by the time Alex reached the dense jungle that surrounded his childhood home. The smell of green plants and decay filled him with a longing he wasn’t expecting. He had missed the jungle. No matter how often he used to visit the forest near Archridge, it just wasn’t the same.

Alex flew low over the trees, hand stretched down to touch leaves as he passed. He caught one and brought it up to his nose to breath in the rich scent while he flew on.

Home.

He wondered if he would see Hadasha again. More than the buildings in the valley, the jungle was where he belonged. The warm, tawny fur of the pardua was his home. That was what he missed, and he wished he could be happier to be returning to it.

The valley was where Alex expected it to be, but it looked smaller than he remembered. There was the manor, only two levels high. The roof was sloped to prevent the jungle rains from building up, unlike the flat roofs of the homes in Marut, which were used by Terran in the city as gathering places.

A silver spire stuck out of the top of the stables. Alex remembered a time when that had seemed like the top of the world. He flew down and landed upon it, giving himself a moment to catch his breath as he surveyed the rest of the valley. At the far edge, there were clusters of buildings he had always ignored before. That was where the servants lived when they weren’t performing their duties to the Isten Jequn.

The sounds of beasts rose up from the building below. Alex felt a pang of disappointment. The last time he had been here, he had released many of them. It had been impulsive, poorly planned, and ultimately meaningless. He didn’t regret it, but all the beasts had been returned. Well, except one. At least that stag was free, even if Jequn found a replacement.

The only thing Alex regretted was the pain Gabriel endured in his place. He never wanted his brother to be punished for him again.

As Alex touched the cold, silver spire, a memory of Gabriel returned to him. Alex had been small, walking out of the jungle. When he looked up, he saw wild silver hair and his brother balanced atop this very spire. Gabriel had flown down in a flurry of feathers. He had been short-tempered even then, and had carried Alex back to the manor when his bound legs prevented him from keeping up.

Blinking, Alex realized that had been the first Harvest Gabriel could fly home on his own. Alex had always pictured his brother as so much older and more mature, but the truth was, Gabriel had only been twelve, the same age Alex was now.

That had been the Harvest Gabriel discovered what Jequn was doing to Alex. That was the year Gabriel rescued him.

Alex clutched his chest, holding tight to the black medallion that hung under his shirt. He wasn’t the same helpless little boy that he was then. He had friends. People who cared for him and didn’t want to hurt him. If he could be half as courageous as his brother was at the same age, he could face Jequn. He could be brave. He would be fine.

With a deep breath, Alex opened his wings and coasted down to the manor to announce his arrival home.

***

Alex slipped off his boots beside the archway that led into the manor’s foyer. Light, gauzy fabric swayed in the warm breeze, and he thought he caught a glimpse of a dark shape beyond the entrance. When he pushed the curtains aside and entered, no one was there. The servants moved like shadows within the manor, never seen unless it was required of them.

“Hello?” Alex called. “I’m home.” He listened, though it was difficult to hear anything over the pounding of his heart. Maybe no one was there, but he doubted he would be so lucky.

Cautiously, Alex walked across the stone flagstones. He peered into the dining room, examining the long redwood table where all the meals were served. No one was there, either. He gave a shaky sigh of relief, then started toward the stairs.

From the second level, Alex heard light, quick footsteps. He froze. His mother practically floated down the stairs, her wings fluttering behind her. She reached the bottom and threw herself into his arms.

“Alexiel! My baby!” she exclaimed.

Alex was shocked. He stood there, wings stiff. His mother’s light blond hair floated in the air around them, tickling his cheek as her fluffy, white wings constantly fanned the air.

When had she gotten so short?

“M-Mother,” Alex gasped. He couldn’t remember a time she had ever hugged him.

Liliel pulled back from him, but kept her delicate hands on his shoulders. There were tears in her crystal blue eyes. “Oh, goodness, look at how much you’ve grown. I’ve missed you so much.”

“You have?”

“Of course, dear. Come, sit with me. I want to hear all about how you’re doing at the academy.” She led him over to the table, gliding across the floor with delicate flutters of her wings. She sat him at his usual place, then took her seat beside him. Her wings stilled. Her hair settled in soft waves around her pale cheeks. She smiled at Alex, though he realized she carefully looked at his hair and clothes. Anywhere except his eyes.

Liliel took Alex’s hand and held it in hers. “Tell me all about Archridge,” she said, smiling beatifically at him. Gabriel had her smile, at least when he was faking it.

“It’s fine,” Alex said. He refrained from pulling his hand away from her. Maybe she really cared.

“How are your classes?”

“Good.”

Her smile faltered, just for an instant. “The reports show you’re struggling. I know you passed everything last year, but if it’s too hard-”

“It’s not.”

“You can come back home anytime, Alexiel.” Liliel gave him her sweetest smile. She squeezed his hand. “We miss you.”

We.

Alex pulled away from her. “I like Archridge. I don’t want to come home.”

“Of course, dear,” she said, maintaining her composure. She folded her hands elegantly in her lap. Her wings gave a little flutter, moving strands of hair about her face again. “I just don’t want you to push yourself too hard. You know how I worry about you.”

“You do?”

“I am your mother, Alexiel. It is my job to worry.”

Alex examined her perfect face, trying to tell if she was sincere. She was just beautiful as he always remembered, like one of Nakia’s carefully painted dolls. Liliel didn’t seem to have aged at all since he last saw her, but then again, she was Terran. And, Alex was startled to realize, she was only thirty years old. That was just two years older than Zak, the boy Remiel was living with. Why had Alex always thought of his mother as so much older?

“Do you have friends?” Liliel asked.

Alex blinked and looked down, trying to resist staring at her more. “Yes, Mother.”

“That’s wonderful, dear. And do you see your brother often?”

Alex’s wings tightened against his back. The last time he spoke to Gabriel, his brother had been furious at him for ruining his course work. Anytime they saw each other in the dining hall after, Gabriel completely ignored him. “I see him sometimes, but he’s busy,” Alex said.

“No doubt,” Liliel said, and for a moment, her smile was filled with genuine pride. “Gabriel has done so well in the advanced classes. Everyone tells me how jealous they are that my son is so brilliant and handsome. Just like his father.” Her attention turned back to Alex. “I’m sure it must be difficult for you, being compared to him all the time.”

“Not really,” Alex said. Hardly anyone at Archridge even knew they were related.

“I could understand if the pressure became too much,” Liliel said. “You can come home if it’s too hard.”

Alex tilted his head, trying to see passed her fake sincerity. “I don’t want to come home,” he repeated. Why did she keep bringing that up?

“Alexiel, no one will blame you for failing-”

Abruptly, Alex stood. Liliel flinched back from him like she though he might hit her. “May I be excused?” Alex asked, struggling to maintain his composure. “Flying- It’s hard. The trip was long. I need to rest.”

Liliel touched her hand to her chest, eyes wide. “Y-Yes, of course, Alexiel.”

“Thank you.” He bowed swiftly and moved toward the stairs.

“Your father will be here for dinner,” Liliel called after him. “Please be presentable by then.”

“He’s not my father,” Alex muttered under his breath, then climbed the stairs and went to his room.

***

Nothing in Alex’s chambers had changed since the last time he was there. He walked through the sparsely decorated rooms, ignoring the expensive gems that filled his shelves. He recognized their value now, but that didn’t change what they symbolized. He still hated them.

When Alex reached his bed, he stared at it for a moment in disgust. The fabric was stained and crumpled. He knew what is was, and a crack appeared in his control. He lashed out in anger, flipping his soiled mattress onto the floor. It hit a table stacked with gems, scattering the diamonds and rubies to the floor.

Alex decided he liked how the floor looked with gems strewn across it like trash. He picked up the tall, metal candlestick in the corner and snapped it over his knee. He didn’t pause to consider how easily the hard metal broke, but began walking through his rooms, using the broken rod to smash shelves and send gems everywhere. He didn’t stop until he was breathless and his room was destroyed.

He felt a little better.

Alex tossed the bent candlestick aside and went to his bathing room. A steaming bath had already been drawn for him, though there were no servants present. He stripped off his clothes and sank into the water to relax before he had to endure the rest of the wretched evening.

Chapter Text

Dinner was served promptly when the sun went down. A servant tapped on the wall outside Alex’s rooms. “My lord’s mother requests his presence,” the cloaked figure said.

Alex finished braiding his hair and approached the servant. This was the first one he had seen since he returned. “Where’s Indara?” he asked.

“This one begs my Lord Alexiel’s forgiveness. This one is unaware of personal designations.” The servant bowed, then disappeared down the hall before Alex could ask any more questions.

Straightening the thin layers of his shirts, Alex took a deep breath and walked down the stairs to the dining room. For one servant not to know the name of anther wasn’t unusual, but Alex wondered why Indara wouldn’t come visit him when he returned. She had cared for him through much of his youth, though she hadn’t been the first. Maybe she wasn’t around anymore either.

Alex reached the bottom of the stairs and froze. Platters of delicious smelling food were spread across half the table. It was more than he had ever seen prepared, even when his brother visited home.

Liliel was there, carefully arranging the placement of the silver platters. She looked up and smiled when she saw him.

“Alexiel, I hope you’re hungry!” she said warmly.

He was, but he didn’t have much appetite in this place. “Are you expecting guests?”

“No, dear, this is all for you.” She motioned to the display. “I made all your favorites.”

He approached cautiously, as if it might be a trap. The food did look delicious, especially the twists of pasta and puffs of rotika. The vegetables were perfectly cut into bite-sized pieces. Alex could tell Liliel hadn’t prepared any of it. Her food always looked crooked and rushed, much to Jequn’s dismay.

“Thank you, Mother,” Alex said. He was tempted to eat a piece now, but he knew that wouldn’t be allowed, no matter how friendly his mother was behaving.

“Alexiel, why didn’t you change clothes?” Liliel put her hands on her hips. The movement of her wings kept her hair and skirts floating around her.

“I don’t have any others,” he said.

“Your closet is full.”

“They don’t fit.” He had checked after his bath. Everything had been too small. He chose to wear the clothes he flew in with, even if they were a little dirty.

Liliel’s perfect pink lips formed a pout. “Your father won’t approve of dirty clothes at the dinner table.”

“I can stay in my room, if you want.”

Liliel’s wings missed a beat. She huffed. “Well, I suppose he’ll understand. You have grown more than we expected after all.” She motioned for him to take his seat while she bustled off to the kitchen to collect more food.

Alex sat down, feeling out of place already. He placed his elbows on the table and hid his face in his hands.

When his mother came back out with a platter stacked with fruit, she said, “Elbows off the table. Sit up straight.” She almost sounded like herself. Alex complied and looked up at her. She sat the platter down across from him and resumed her cheery smile. “Please, dear. You know how better posture helps your digestion.”

“Does it?”

“I believe so, yes. Plus, it’s only proper. If you ever come to a party with me-” She stopped mid-sentence, unable to finish the thought. Alex knew she had no intention of bringing him anywhere with her. “Well, good manners never hurt anyone. I’ll be right back.” She hurried back to the kitchen, leaving Alex alone once more.

There was a thunderous crack over the valley, but Alex knew is wasn’t rain. He felt the vibration deep in his chest. His wings tightened against his back and he sat stiffly.

Jequn was home.

Was he expected to greet him? Would the man be disappointed that Alex wasn’t on the porch waiting for him? Was it too late to run away?

Heavy footsteps carried the silver-haired Isten into the manor. Alex’s chance to escape vanished.

“Alexiel,” came the deep voice from the doorway. “You’re home.”

Alex clutched the medallion under his shirt. He stood, hoping it wasn’t noticeable how much his legs shook. “Hello, Father,” he said, keeping his eyes downcast as he bowed to the man.

Jequn approached. His boots were heavy and covered in dust. He stood before Alex, silent for a moment as he appraised the boy. “Stand up straight and look at me,” he commanded.

Alex’s wings trembled. He straightened and looked up into the Isten’s ice-blue eyes. “Yes, Father,” he answered, feeling tiny despite the fact that he was now as tall at the man’s shoulders.

Jequn’s silver brow furrowed. He reached out and touched Alex’s chin, tilting his face from side to side. The man’s fingertips were chilled from the cold air in the upper stratosphere. His firm touch made Alex’s lower belly clench with fear, but he didn’t pull away.

“You’ve grown more.” The words were soft, almost sad. Jequn released Alex’s chin and moved passed him. He sat at the head of the table, snapping the long feathers of his six white wings back as he did. “Come sit with me,” Jequn said. “Tell me about your classes.”

Alex released a shaky breath, unable to believe Jequn had been so close and not hurt him. He could still feel the man’s cold touch on his skin, and he resisted the urge to rub it away. He composed himself as best he could and took his place at the table.

“Classes are going well,” Alex said when he was seated. He folded his hands in his lap and sat up straight, just as his mother would have wanted. He kept his eyes lowered to the table though. He could feel Jequn watching him, and he didn’t want to meet that man’s gaze if he didn’t have to. “I’m learning a lot.”

“Doubtful,” said Jequn. “I know the quality of instructors Archridge employs. They merely read aloud from books designed to appease the masses.”

Alex’s lips twitched, briefly revealing emotions he struggled to hide. He kept his face lowered. “I like reading,” he stated.

“I could have taught you to read,” Jequn replied.

“But you didn’t.”

Liliel entered the room at that moment in a swirl of fabric and fluttering wings. “My Lord Husband,” she exclaimed cheerfully. “Welcome home! I do hope your flight in was uneventful.” She stopped at his side and bent to place a kiss on his cheek.

Eyes narrowed, Jequn’s attention remained fixated on Alex until Liliel cleared her throat with a loud, “Ahem.”

“Yes,” Jequn said, promptly turning to face his wife. “My work kept me longer than I anticipated, but the winds were fair this evening. Perhaps they knew of my desire to return to you.”

What?

Alex stared at them, taken aback. He had never, never heard them speak to each other that way. Conversation between them had always been something barely tolerated and formal, full of venomous jibes and disdain.

“My heart soars to have you home with us,” Liliel gushed as she took her place between Jequn and Alex. She took each of their hands in hers and gave Alex a doting smile. “Both of you. It is like my family is finally whole again.”

Alex yanked his hand back and held it against his chest. “But Gabriel isn’t here.”

Liliel faltered. “Well, no… But he has classes at Archridge. That is very important.”

I have classes at Archridge,” Alex said, some of his frustration slipping out with his words. “Isn’t it important for me to be there, too?”

“Gabriel is an heir, Alexiel.” Liliel tilted her head and spoke to him like he was the stupid, defective child they always told everyone he was. “That’s different. You understand, don’t you?”

Alex stood and glared down at them both. “What am I doing here?” he demanded. “Why did you insist I come home?”

“Sit down,” Jequn growled.

Liliel raised her hands in a calming gesture. “Alexiel, please-”

“No! Whatever is going on- whatever this is! I don’t believe it!”

Jequn stood, and his wings bristled with a sound that made Alex want to run. “I told you to sit down,” he snapped.

Fuck, Alex thought, but he wasn’t brave enough to say the word before the Isten. He turned and ran for the archway off the foyer, but he had never been fast enough.

Jequn grabbed the back of Alex’s neck and spun him around. He picked him up and slammed him down on the table at the far end of the dining room. All the platters heaped with food near Liliel bounced, spilling fruit and vegetables across the red wood.

“You have forgotten your place,” Jequn snarled. He pinned Alex to the table, his hand wrapped around his throat.

Alex knew resisting was useless, but he scratched at the man’s skin with his grey nails. He had never even been able to leave a mark. “Let me go!” he gasped.

“You need a lesson on how to behave in my home,” said the Isten. There was a familiar click of metal as Jequn used one hand to unfasten his belt. He pulled the leather free from the fabric loops and released Alex, but there wasn’t enough time for the boy to escape before the first blow struck.

The metal of the buckle bit into Alex’s thigh. He screamed in pain, then rolled and tried to crawl away. The next two strikes hit Alex’s lower back and hip. Alex fell off the other side of the table and cowered beneath a bench. Jequn jumped over the table with a growl, grabbed the seat, and flung it across the room. The wood shattered against the wall. He raised his arm and struck Alex again, opening the boy’s cheek with the metal buckle.

“Jequn!” Liliel said sharply. She stood and slammed her hands down on the table while her white wings framed her.

With his hand raised over his head and Alex curled in a trembling ball at his feet, Jequn paused. “What?” he snarled at her.

Liliel’s wings lowered slightly, wilting under the ferocity of his gaze. “Remember our plan,” she said. “You promised you would let me handle him.”

Jequn bared his teeth and lowered his arm. He glared down at Alex and said, “Do not disobey me again.” The Isten stomped out of the dining room, heading up the stairs to his chambers.

Alex sniffled, still shielding his head and trying to keep his wings small. He remained there until Jequn’s footsteps faded into his rooms.

Liliel gave an exhausted sigh. “Get him cleaned up,” she said. “Don’t get blood on the floor.”

In an instant, half a dozen servants hurried into the room. Hands were on Alex, picking him up and moving him back to his seat at the table while others worked to clean up the spilled food and broken furniture. Alex flinched as a servant pressed a warm cloth against his cheek to wash the blood from his skin.

Liliel fluttered into view. “Well,” she said, looking serene, “that went better than I expected.”

“Better,” Alex mumbled. He hissed in pain and jerked back from the servant who dabbed at his wounds. There was a girl beneath the hooded cloak, but not one he recognized. She stared at him with emotionless black eyes, waiting for him to allow her to continue with her task. He clenched his teeth and nodded. She resumed dabbing at his blood.

“You always have to antagonize him, don’t you?” Liliel said as she plucked a sliced root vegetable from a nearby platter. She chewed while she paced, her fluttering wings carrying her lightly across the floor. “We could have had such a nice dinner. We practiced, you know.”

“Practiced?” He scoffed. “You’re faking it.”

Liliel paused and gave him a vexed look. “Of course we’re faking it. Did you ever really think he loved me?”

“No,” Alex muttered.

“Well at least you’re not completely stupid.” Liliel began pacing again. “I agreed to speak to you to help you see reason. You need to come home, Alexiel. He misses you.”

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care?” She turned on him. “How selfish do you have to be? Do you have any idea what I’ve been through since you left? The torments he’s put me through? Don’t you care about me at all?”

Alex stared at her in disbelief. He pushed the servant’s hand away from his face so he could focus on his mother. “Why should I care about you? You never cared about me.”

Liliel’s delicate hands fluttered up to her lips. Her eyes filled with tears. “Alexiel… How could you say something so cruel?”

No matter what she had done, Liliel was still his mother, and when Alex saw her cry, his chest ached. He felt like crying, too, but he managed to keep the tears at bay. “Mother, I’m sorry.”

“You are as selfish as your father. If I had known-” Liliel stopped, shaking her head. She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked at Alex. “Just come home, Alexiel,” she pleaded. “There’s no place for you in the world out there. It’s not safe. You don’t belong with them.”

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t belong here, either.”

“Then you never really loved me.” Liliel turned with a dramatic flourish of feathers and fabric. She vanished up the stairs in an instant, leaving her youngest son staring after her.

Alex sniffled and blinked away the tears that clung to his lashes. He turned his attention back to the servant who knelt before him, patiently waiting to resume her task. She watched him with dull black eyes. He wondered if that was what other people saw when they looked at him.

“Do you know Indara?” he asked.

“No, my lord Alexiel,” she responded.

Alex sighed. “Go ahead,” he said resignedly and offered his cheek to her again.

While the servant cleaned the blood from his face, Alex ate his share of the food on the table. He tried to figure out what he was going to do, but by the time the servant was done with him, he was no closer to a decision. He ate a couple more pieces of fruit then went back to his room to rest and recover. His visit home had only just begun.

Chapter Text

Alex lay on the floor of his gem scattered room. He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t know how he had ever been able to sleep in this place. Every creak of every floorboard had him on edge, listening with bated breath for footsteps in the hall.

It was still hours before dawn when he gave up on sleep altogether. He got up, shook out his wings, and brushed the dust from his clothes. Something his mother mentioned at dinner had been bothering him all night.

You are as selfish as your father.

The way she said it… she hadn’t been talking about Jequn. She would never speak of her Lord Husband in such terms.

She meant Alex’s real father.

No one ever mentioned the man Alex was descended from, not even Gabriel, who seemed to know more than he was willing to reveal. Alex had a thousand questions, and for once, he thought he knew who he could talk to for answers.

Silently, Alex crept out of his quarters and into the hall. He knew where he could step so the boards didn’t creak. It was much easier without the ribbon that used to bind his legs, but he still worried he would miss a step. He paused once, on his toes, wings spread to hold his balance, when the veil covering Jequn’s doorway swayed.

It’s just the wind, Alex told himself to calm his racing heart. The veil glowed from the candlelight within Jequn’s room, but there were no shadows on the fabric. An open window somewhere in the manor had probably caused the draft. Alex continued on with bated breath.

When he reached the other end of the hall, Alex quickly ducked through the dark veil that covered the entrance to Liliel’s chambers. He felt like he could breathe again, even though only a sheer bit of fabric separated him from the main hall.

Alex hadn’t been allowed in his mother’s chambers since he was weaned, sometime before his third year. He had no recollection of being there with her, but as he walked on, a vague sense of familiarity guided him through the halls. He paused at one of the doorways, peering into a dusty room filled with broken furniture. The ceiling was painted with stars, but the plaster had been gouged and scratched off in places.

A brief memory of that ceiling, still perfect, flashed through Alex’s mind. There was sun. The light fell on the short, wispy, silver hair of his brother. Gabriel laughed, creating dimples in his round, chubby face. He held Alex’s tiny hands and helped him toddle across the floor on uncertain legs. Their mother watched from the rocking chair, smiling affectionately at her sons.

The images vanished in the dust covered room as quickly as they appeared. Alex blinked and moved on. There was nothing there for him anymore.

Alex found the only room not covered in dust. It used to be a sunroom lined with potted plants, but now it was Liliel’s bedroom. A round bed hung from the ceiling beside the open balcony door. There was no one there, but the bed swayed slightly, much like the gauzy curtains in the light breeze. A vase of dried flowers sat on a table by the wall. The petals crumbled when Alex touched them, but they still smelled like honeysuckle.

“What are you doing here?” Liliel asked. She entered through the far archway that led to her bathing room. Her hair was still wet, and hung in a straight blond sheet down to her hips. Her wings were motionless. Even the light robe wrapped around her didn’t move.

Standing so still, Liliel looked lifeless.

Like she was empty.

“Mother, I want to talk,” Alex said.

“I am certain this could wait for morning,” she said crisply. She walked over to a vanity covered in glass bottles. Her long fingers selected one, and she dabbed the sweet smelling oil on her wrists.

“No,” Alex said. “It has to be now. I want you to tell me about my father.”

Liliel scoffed and looked back at him over her wing. “Your father? The only man who you should think of as your father is on the other side of this manor. He will be furious when he discovers you’ve come here without permission.”

“Please.” Alex stepped toward her. “I have to know.”

“No.” Liliel placed the bottle on the vanity with a sharp click and turned to face him. “Alexiel, I have always done what is best for you. I lied for you. I let them blame me for your flaws. I sacrificed the last of my honor and dignity just to keep you alive. I am the only one who has ever cared about you.”

“You?” Alex asked with a surprised laugh. He clutched the medallion through his shirt. “You traded me for your freedom.”

“Do I look free?” Liliel demanded sharply. Her wings fluttered with irritation, but her hair was too wet and heavy to move in the breeze. “I understand you’re frustrated. It is a cruel game my Lord Husband and his heir play with your heart. They have given you a false hope that you could ever exist in E’din as you are, but the knowledge you seek will only cause you harm when you return home.”

“I’m not staying here,” Alex insisted.

“I cherish Gabriel dearly, but he cannot win against the Isten. None of us can.” Her words were bitter as she stared out her open balcony. For a second, she remained lost in thought, but then she blinked and focused on Alex again. “Gabriel will return to Jequn the obedient, dutiful son I know him to be, and you will have no other choice but to follow. Unfortunately, it may be too late for you by then. You need to return home now, while Jequn may still be willing to forgive you.”

“What?” Tears stung Alex’s eyes. “How can you ask me to do that? You know what he’s done to me.”

Liliel’s lips pursed and her light blue eyes narrowed. The expression looked severe on her usually serene face. “Do not be naive, Alexiel. In this world, living at the side of an Isten is one of the greatest honors anyone can achieve. Do you have any idea what people would sacrifice to be in your place?”

Alex shook his head. He didn’t care.

“My own aunt tried to drown me when it was rumored I would be selected as his wife instead of any of her daughters. I was five. I married him at thirteen, but Jequn never loved me any more than he does those beasts in the stables. Our union was an archaic obligation for him, and I have served my purpose, both to him and to E’din, but you… He chose you.”

“You gave me to him,” Alex accused.

“To save you. He offered me no other choice.” Liliel turned her back on Alex. She picked up an opalescent comb from the vanity. “The devotion of an Isten is a fickle thing, and you risk his favor every day you are away from him.”

“I don’t want his favor,” Alex said. “I don’t want anything from him.”

“We both know that isn’t true.” Liliel gathered her wet hair over one shoulder and raked the comb through it. “This innocent act may be able to fool your brother, but I know who you really are, Alexiel. I’ve seen you waiting for his return. I’ve watched you go to him every time he calls your name.”

Alex’s chest hurt, like he had swallowed glass and it was ripping him apart. He could speak, but his voice was hoarse, barely on the edge of control. “I had to,” he protested. “You left me alone with him.”

Liliel glanced over her wing with thinly veiled contempt in her eyes. “You were never alone. You had those void-eaten servants tending to your every need.” She turned back to her vanity and selected a creme to rub into her skin, starting with her smooth cheeks. “How could I stand to watch what they’ve done to you? To your eyes? You’ve vacant and empty, just like them.”

“I’m n-not.” Liliel didn’t seem to hear him. His wings were trembling, no matter how tight he tried to hold them against his back.

“I used to see him in your eyes.” Liliel paused while she raised her chin and rubbed the creme into her neck. She gathered more and began working it into her shoulders. “Watching that fade away was like loosing him all over again. Knowing what you’ve become makes me wish you were never born.”

Alex blinked. Tears dropped from his eyes, and the last of his fragile control shattered. He picked up the vase and threw it at his mother. It missed her, but collided with the vanity and shattered the glass bottles and jars.

Liliel’s wings thrust her away from the broken glass. She placed her hand over her heart and looked at Alex with shock. “Alexiel, what-”

“I never asked to be born!” he shouted at her. “I never asked for any of this!”

“Alexiel,” she said cautiously. “Calm down. You’ll-”

“No!” he yelled. “You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore!”

Alex moved without thinking. In a heartbeat, he found himself across the room with his hand around his mother’s throat. He held her against the wall. There was fear in her eyes when she met his swirling black gaze.

“You owe me,” he said. He could feel her panicked pulse beating against his fingertips. “Tell me the truth. I want to know who my father is.”

Liliel’s breath came in short, scared gasps, but she had lived with Jequn long enough to know not to resist. “They called him Siel,” she whispered. “It was a fake name. I don’t know anything else about him.”

“I don’t believe you,” he growled.

“I swear it’s true!” Her hands raised like she would try to defend herself, but she didn’t touch him. “He came to events as a ward of some magistrate. He was idealistic, and romantic, and selfishly spoke of love, as if that was all we needed to survive.” Her light blue eyes shimmered with tears. “He didn’t understand why I couldn’t leave, and after you were born…” She swallowed hard, like the words were stuck in her throat.

“What?” Alex demanded.

“I looked for him,” Liliel said. “But he was gone. He married some Homm and moved to the eastern ridge. No one has seen him since.”

“He… married?” Alex had never even considered that his real father could be out there somewhere with a family of his own. The thought staggered him, and in that brief instant, he saw himself as he was, standing there with his wings spread and his hand on his mother’s neck.

Alex jerked back, appalled by what he had done. Liliel slumped and coughed. Her hands fluttered to her throat while she leaned against the wall and caught her breath. Her wings quivered over her.

“M-Mother, I’m sorry.”

Liliel glared at Alex through the wet strands of her golden blond hair. “Get out,” she hissed.

“Mother-”

“GET OUT!” Liliel screamed, loud enough Jequn undoubtedly heard.

Alex backed away. A hand closed around his arm. He turned, half expecting to see the Isten behind him, but he was only met with the dull, black eyes of the servant Indara. His relief to see her alive was short lived.

“My Lord Alexiel,” she said, squeezing his arm with the three remaining fingers of her left hand. “Our Lord Master cannot find you here. It is forbidden.” She pulled him toward the door.

Alex understood. He gave one last apologetic look to his mother, then hurried with Indara out the door. They ran down the hall. Alex didn’t bother trying to remain silent. There wasn’t time. He darted through the veil with Indara just as Jequn emerged into the hall.

“Liliel, I ask for one thing from you at night while I work, and that is silence. What is the meaning of this racket?” Jequn demanded.

Liliel had followed Alex and Indara to the hall. She stood in the archway to her chambers with the curtain pushed aside. She spoke, her voice full of fury. “Your son-”

Alex didn’t linger near the hall to listen. He ran further into his rooms, certain he was about to be in a lot of trouble.

***

Alex crouched among the gems in his bedroom, hands covering his face. His wings curled tightly against his back, shaking uncontrollably. What had he done? He had been impulsive and foolish, and for what? A few scraps of information about a man who would never know he existed?

His hands smelled like honeysuckle. Alex pulled them away from his face and stared at his palms. The lingering scent of the lotion Liliel used clung to his skin. It transfered when he grabbed her neck.

Why had he done that?!

Alex wrapped his arm around his knees and rocked on his heels. He was in so much trouble.

Indara crouched before him. She tucked his hair behind one ear. “My Lord Alexiel?”

“I messed up.” His eyes were puffy and red from crying.

“Disobedience is not allowed. Our Lord Master comes. This one cannot stay.” She paused. There was something strange in her voice when she said, “And neither should you.”

Alex raised his face to look at her. Her blank expression hadn’t changed, but there was something else there. He sniffled. “What?”

“This one will serve and die at our Lord Master’s pleasure, but that is not the place for you. There is no guarantee of safety beyond these walls, but there is certain pain within them.”

Alex stared at her, trying to read emotion in her dull eyes. “You think I should run away?”

“This one does not think,” she replied. “This one only obeys.” She touched his hand. “But my Lord Alexiel is strong. He can choose.”

“Where will I go?” Alex whispered.

“This one can offer nothing but a name overheard in the corridors between walls. To speak it may mean death.”

“A name?” Alex’s wings spread. “What name?”

“It is forbidden. It is a name that will draw blood.” Indara squeezed Alex’s hand hard and looked into his swirling black eyes. “Sachiel.”

“Sachiel,” he repeated softly. “Who…?” He blinked. “Is that… my father?”

Indara looked passed Alex and listened. “Forgive this one’s haste. There is no time for farewell.” She stood and fled from the room, just as a knock resounded at the entrance to Alex’s chambers.

“Alexiel?” Jequn called from the hall.

“Don’t come in,” Alex quickly replied. He stood up and rubbed his face, trying to hide how upset he was.

“This is my estate, Alexiel. I can go where I please.” Jequn entered Alex’s quarters. He kicked aside gems as he walked down the hall.

Alex kept his back to the doorway, but he could tell when Jequn entered the room. There was a tension in the air around the man, but he didn’t seem angry. Not yet.

“Your chambers are a mess,” stated Jequn.

Alex curled his arms around himself. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It may be difficult to adjust to being back home, but this behavior is unacceptable. You invaded your mother’s chambers? You attacked her?”

“I just wanted to talk.”

The floorboards creaked as the Isten approached, but Alex was too scared to move. Jequn stood behind him. His fingers lightly traced the upper edge of Alex’s wings. It sent shivers down his spine.

“You can talk to me,” Jequn whispered in Alex’s ear. “You do not need to act out like this to gain my attention, little one.”

“I don’t want your attention.” Alex jerked his wing away from Jequn’s touch. “I only came home because Headmaster Iscriel insisted. I’m not staying.”

“Alexiel, you do not have to make this difficult. We have already lost so much time.”

When Alex didn’t respond, Jequn sighed and pulled the boy’s braid over his shoulder. He began gently undoing the long coil, until it lay like a silken black veil over Alex’s white wings. Jequn raised a lock of hair to his lips. He breathed in Alex’s scent like he had been deprived of air for years.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

Soft, gentle touches from a man who thrived on cruelty were so rare, Alex almost didn’t want him to stop. It was confusing. It made his chest ache, but he knew it couldn’t last.

“Gabriel says you’re not allowed to touch me,” Alex whispered.

“Gabriel lacks the conviction to do what needs to be done to take you from me,” Jequn replied. “An attempt at rebellion is a natural stage of adolescence, but it grows tiresome.” He gripped Alex’s hair in his fist and pulled his head back. “From both of you.”

Alex looked at the Isten’s upside-down face. He swallowed hard and dutifully whispered, “Yes, Father.”

“I want you to come home.”

“I want to stay at the academy.”

Jequn’s grip tightened, not enough to hurt, but like a reminder of Alex’s position. “You refuse me.” His gaze lingered on the gash across Alex’s cheek. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, but the skin around it had blossomed into a large purple bruise. “Are you mad I beat you for your disrespect at dinner? Is that what this nonsense is about?” He clicked his tongue. “I am allowed to punish subjects of my household when they break my rules.”

Alex’s neck was beginning to hurt. He swallowed again, feeling exposed and vulnerable. “Gabriel says-”

“Do not speak his name again,” Jequn threatened with a snarl. His temper flared and he roughly flung Alex aside by his hair.

The boy fell and lay motionless among the disarray of gems on the floor. The stones jabbed his hip and chest, but he showed no signs of his discomfort. His loose black hair spread like a fan around him, hiding the fear on his face from the man who loomed over him.

Jequn’s immense white wings rustled in irritation. “What you have done today is beyond the boundaries of my heir’s lesson. I may no longer care for Liliel, but she belongs to me, as you do. Forgiveness for this act will not come easy.”

Alex’s fingers closed around the fist sized gem under his chest. It had been cut to refract light and sparkle. There was a sharp edge to the stone.

Jequn opened his wings and crouched beside Alex, keeping his feathers off the floor. “The claim I placed on you lingers in your system, but I can sense no other has attempted to bind you. Gabriel really is a coward.” The Isten reached out and caressed Alex’s hip and thigh with a longing touch.

Alex tried not to whimper, but a small sound of distress escaped him. He tightened his wings against his back, trying to appear as small as possible.

“You will be vulnerable if you are not bound to this household.” Jequn’s touch slowly moved back up toward Alex’s waist. “It is for your benefit that I keep you under my protection.” His hand slid under the layers of the boy’s shirts to find Alex’s smooth, flawless skin.

A perfect canvass for what he wanted to do to him.

Jequn’s voice deepened, revealing an edge of lust with his words. “You will earn your forgiveness, Alexiel. A few days serving at my pleasure should be enough to infuse you with my essence once more, as well as remind you of the lessons you have forgotten.” He leaned lower and swept Alex’s hair back from his face. “You will remember you are mine.”

“No,” Alex whispered, the word barely a breath. He opened his black eyes and met the icy blue gaze of the man who haunted his nightmares. “I am not yours.”

Drawing on the well of fear and anger within him, Alex twisted, using his full strength to smash the gem in his fist against the man’s face. Jequn’s head snapped back, and Alex took that moment of surprise to roll away. He jumped to his feet, backing toward the windows along the outer wall.

The gem in his hand had fractured upon impact. It was useless now. Alex let the diamond drop.

Very slowly, Jequn turned to face the boy. There was a gash across his forehead. A rivulet of blood ran down his temple and cheek. Any visible compassion the man might have held for Alex had gone, replaced by a sadistic fury Alex was far more familiar with.

“Shit,” Alex whispered. He fled.

Chapter Text

Shit, shit, shit.

Alex was still small enough that he could dive through the window of his bedroom. His wings opened, catching him before he hit the ground. He sped off, panic and fear driving him as fast as possible toward the edge of the jungle.

The sky was grey from the coming dawn. It would be easier to fly over the trees, in the open air, but Alex knew he wasn’t fast enough. He would never be fast enough to escape an Isten. The dense branches and vines of the jungle were his only hope.

Behind him, the window to his room exploded outward in a hail of wood. The six wings of the Isten Jequn unfurled to their full span. With a thunderous crack, the man launched after Alex.

Folding his wings, Alex dove into the jungle. He flew when the gaps between trees allowed, but jumped off branches and kicked off mossy trunks when space was tight. He passed through vines unimpeded, letting his instincts propel him forward with desperate speed.

Passage for Jequn was not so smooth. He collided with the jungle as if he had flown into a wall. Branches cracked and trees fell, but still, the Isten pursued Alex. The trees gave way before him, splintering against the strength of his anger.

The jungle broke behind Alex. The sound grew closer. The boy didn’t look back.

The branch beneath Alex’s feet shattered before he could jump off. Splinters embedded in his leg as he opened his wings and frantically flew across the gap in the trees before him. He didn’t make it far. Strong fingers closed around his ankle, and suddenly, Alex found himself hurtling toward the mossy ground. He collided hard, all the air knocked from his lungs. It hurt, but he gasped and attempted to crawl away. He didn’t get far before Jequn landed beside him.

“How dare you run from me!” bellowed the Isten. He kicked Alex in the ribs, flipping him onto his back. “I will make you suffer for your disobedience in ways you can’t even imagine.”

The boy clutched his side, groaning. Something definitely fractured with the kick. Nothing was punctured, but the pain was acute and hard to dismiss. Jequn didn’t give him time to recover. He knelt on the boy’s chest and placed a hand around his throat.

“You belong to me,” Jequn said. A smear of blood stained the side of his face, but the gash over his eyebrow wasn’t bleeding anymore. A gleam of something glassy, like ice, sealed the wound. “You have no other purpose in this world except to serve at my pleasure. I will kill you before I let you leave me.”

“No,” Alex gasped, hands clutching Jequn’s wrist. “Let me go!”

“I am never letting you leave again.” He struck Alex with the back of his hand.

Sparks flooded the boy’s vision. He nearly passed out. In the moments he was too dazed to resist, Jequn adjusted. He straddled Alex’s hips and pinned his wings beneath his knees, effectively immobilizing the young boy.

Jequn hooked his fingers under the collar of Alex’s shirts. With a jerk, he ripped the fabric open, shredding the layers like parchment. The cord of the black medallion snagged and broke free from Alex’s neck, causing the Isten to pause. He held it in the air, letting it dangle from his middle finger. “What is this?” he asked with an air of accusation.

“It’s mine,” Alex said, stifling a sob. His head still swam. He swiped for the wooden disk, trying to grab it, but it swung just out of his reach.

Jequn backhanded Alex again. The boy tasted blood, and for several seconds, he couldn’t see. “You own nothing without my permission,” the Isten snarled. He shoved the medallion into his pocket. “Not jewelry. Not these clothes.” He tore Alex’s shirts open the rest of the way, spreading the fabric to reveal the boy’s thin, heaving chest. “Not even the blood in your veins.” His fingertips caressed the pale, exposed skin, lightly tracing a line to the growing bruises covering Alex’s fractured ribs. “Your pain and your pleasure are mine to control. You are nothing without me.”

“Stop,” Alex begged. “Get off me!” As his senses returned, he struggled to escape the touch of the man over him, but with his wings pinned beneath Jequn’s knees, he could barely move. His spine arched off the mossy ground as large fingers curled around his bruised ribs. Alex knew what was coming, but still he pleaded, “No, no, no, no.”

“You still think to resist me?” Jequn clicked his tongue with disappointment. He squeezed Alex’s injured side. The already weakened bones snapped under the pressure.

Alex screamed, making no effort to stifle his agony.

“Ah, shh, shh, little one,” Jequn cooed, but he didn’t stop squeezing. “You know I don’t like it when you cry without my permission.”

Fragments of bone ground together. A shard pierced through muscle and skin, spilling blood over Jequn’s fingers and onto the mossy ground, but still, the man didn’t relent. Alex shoved and clawed at Jequn’s arm, but any effort to resist him was useless. His grey nails slid harmlessly over the man’s flesh, revealing only a thin shimmer to his skin, like frost on stone in winter.

Alex howled and dug at the ground with his heels. “It h-hurts! It hurts!!! Let go! I hate you!”

“Calm down,” Jequn commanded. “Pain will make you stronger.” With one hand, he knocked aside Alex’s weak attacks as easily as he had when the boy was tiny. He continued the crushing grip on Alex’s side with the other. When he spoke again, his voice resonated with power.

Calm. Calm. Quiet.

The words came with a pressure that suffused Alex’s mind, but the scent of the energy was familiar. Alex had known it his whole life. It had become part of him the first moment Jequn took possession of his body, and every moment after. It was the Isten’s raw energy, undiluted and unrestrained.

The scent triggered memories of the soft moments between the pain, when the man he thought of as his father had held him against his chest and let him fall asleep listening to the beating of his heart. Alex remembered all the times he had been scared, and gone to Jequn anyway, because the man was all he had.

“Stop,” Alex whispered.

The power urged complacence. It sought purchase in his thoughts, seeking out his anger and fear. It wanted to control him, until he could think of nothing but pleasing the man whose palm pressed against his crushed ribs.

But it couldn’t. There was nowhere for the weight of the energy to adhere. Alex’s emotions had been deadened by Holloway long ago, and Jequn’s power slid through his mind like water through oil.

“Stop!” Alex repeated, stronger. “You can’t control me. Let me go!” He tried to scratch Jequn’s face, aiming for his eyes.

Jequn tilted his head back, making the thick coils of his silver hair rattle together while he easily kept his face out of Alex’s range. He released the boy’s bleeding side caught his wrists in his hands. “You continue to find ways to surprise me, my sweet Alexiel.” His words were soft, but there was an excited gleam in his eyes that was only matched by the cruel curve of his lips.

“I’m not yours,” the boy protested. “Let me go!” He struggled, but Jequn’s grip was like being bound in ice.

Jequn stretched Alex’s arms over his head and pinned his wrists to the moss. He leaned down and nuzzled against his ear. “I can still fix you,” he murmured affectionately. His breath was heavy and aroused, as was the hard length that pressed against the boy’s lower belly. “I can fix you, but I’m going to have so much fun breaking you again first.”

The Isten gathered both Alex’s wrists in one hand, so the other was free to stoke down Alex’s bleeding side. His fingers caressed the bruised skin, but didn’t linger. Alex should have been relieved, but the touch continued lower, over his waist and down to the thin fabric still covering his hips.

Alex jerked, uncontrollable panic rising in him. “No. Please, no.”

“Do you remember the chair?” whispered the Isten, his lips lightly brushing against Alex’s ear. “The time you thought to bite me?”

Cold fear shot through Alex’s body. He remembered. He had been impaled on a spike-studded rod and bound to a chair with just enough slack that he ripped himself open again every time he moved. Jequn had left him like that in a small, dark room for days, with only the sound of the blood that dripped from his body to mark the passage of time.

Jequn leaned back so he could watch the memory play out of Alex’s face. He bared his teeth in a sadistic grin. “This is going to be so much worse than that,” he promised. Then his hand slid into Alex’s pants and between his legs. While Jequn groped and explored the parts of the boy he had been denied for years, he lowered his mouth to his neck. He licked and nibbled as Alex’s bruised throat, up along his jawline, and to his earlobe.

Alex whimpered with despair. He stared passed the silver segments of Jequn’s hair to the sky above. There was more light. The sun was rising. How could the sun continue to rise when everything felt so hopeless?

Something about the way the sunlight passed through the jungle canopy caught Alex’s attention. A shifting mosaic of light danced over the ground as the trees swayed in the gentle breeze. Alex knew this place. He glanced around at the heavy gloom that still hung in the deep shadows of the trees, and he realized he was in his clearing, his sanctuary from all the torments inflicted on him throughout his childhood.

Tears rolled from the corners of Alex’s eyes and into his black hair. Why? Why did this have to happen here?

Fingers invaded Alex’s body. He cried out and arched up against Jequn’s chest. He squeezed his eyes shut tight while the Isten gently whispered, “Surrender.”

There was a part of Alex that longed to stop fighting and do what the man asked. It would be so easy. And maybe, if he showed he was really sorry, he could lessen the punishment Jequn planned for him.

But to submit meant leaving everything else in his life behind. Archridge. His classes. His friends. Remiel. He may never even see Gabriel again, if that was what Jequn wanted.

Alex had to choose.

It would be a lie to say the choice was easy. It tore through him, ripping apart the fragile emotional stability he struggled to maintain. He felt as if his heart might shatter, but in the end, Alex made his choice.

The decision broke the last of the control Alex had over the jagged fragments of energy within his core. The sharp edges of the power surged through him, filling him with a dark energy that sparked along his skin. Alex urged it toward his fingers, where it condensed at the tips of his grey nails.

Alex twisted his hand and touched that destructive spark of black energy to Jequn’s skin.

The Isten jerked back, sitting upright and partially pulling Alex up with him. He still held the boy’s wrists in one hand, but had removed the other from between Alex’s legs as soon as he felt that spark touch him. With a furrowed brow, Jequn watched the spark spread in black fractals across his skin. It traveled up his arm, leaving a thin, harmless layer of grey dust everywhere it touched.

The energy hadn’t hurt him. How could it not have hurt him?!

The spark spread under Jequn’s shirt, across his chest, and up his neck. It moved across his face in a wave. It was only when the black fractals reached the gash in his forehead that Alex realized what had happened.

The ice.

His touch had only affected the protective layer of ice Jequn wore like armor.

The wound oozed when the frozen seal disintegrated. A droplet of blood fell on Alex’s bare chest, splashing against his pale skin and the spreading bruises around his ribs.

Blue eyes shifted to meet Alex’s prismatic black gaze. “What have you done?” the Isten whispered, his voice filled with as much curiosity as caution.

In that heartbeat, the atmosphere of the clearing shifted. The calls of birds in the jungle around them fell silent. There was movement in the shadows of the trees, but it could have been a trick of the dim morning light.

A branch cracked. Jequn’s head snapped in that direction, alert and focused. Alex used the distraction to twist one of his hands out of the man’s grip and rake his grey nails across his cheek. He left furrows of blood in the unshielded skin.

Jequn’s enraged blue eyes turned back toward Alex. “You bastard little whore,” he snarled. With a flick of his wrist, he snapped the bones of Alex’s other arm, and the boy screamed.

A roar reverberated through the jungle. A huge beast with long, protruding fangs sprang from the dense branches, claws extended toward Jequn. The blow struck him across the face and knocked him to the other side of the clearing.

Tail lashing, Hadasha stood over Alex while she snarled at the momentarily prone form of the six-winged man. Alex burst into tears. He was so happy to see her. Holding his broken arm tight against his chest, he carefully stood. His body hurt so much, but that didn’t stop him from pressing himself against the fur at her neck and crying.

Hadasha paused her snarling to turn and sniff Alex’s wings. Her tongue flicked out between her immense fangs, ruffling some of his feathers, but he didn’t care.

“I missed you so much, Hadasha,” he sobbed.

Her attention didn’t stay on him for long. She resumed growling and turned to face the Isten once again as Jequn pushed himself off the ground.

Six wings radiated around the man as he stood. He took a step and stumbled, but a beat of his wings kept him upright. Two ice blue eyes glared across the clearing at the boy and the pardua, even though one of them stared out from gouged flesh that was little more than trenches of blood and broken bone.

“I’ll kill you,” came the rage-distorted voice of the Isten.

Hadasha stepped forward with a furious growl that raised her hackles with each snarling breath she took.

“No, you can’t,” Alex whispered, reaching out to her. His fingers passed through her thick, tawny fur, gathering a small clump of loose hair.

Hadasha’s tail flicked, smacking him in the face. Her rear paw lifted and felt out until she found where he stood beside her. She pushed him back.

Run.

Alex understood what she was trying to tell him to do, but he didn’t want to go. He couldn’t leave her, not like this.

Hadasha took her slitted, amber eyes off Jequn to look back at the winged boy. She bared her teeth with a low rumble. There was grey in the fur around her muzzle.

“I can’t,” he whispered. He backed up. “I can’t.” The words came with tears, because he knew he couldn’t stay.

Hadasha’s gaze softened. She chuffed and chirped at him like she used to when she insisted on licking him clean, even while he attempted to squirm away from her rough tongue. It was a sound from all those afternoons he woke surrounded by the warmth of her fur. All the times he had to leave her as the servants called him back to the estate. It was goodbye.

Alex’s throat was too tight to speak, but he didn’t need words for her to understand him. He never had. Hadasha knew he loved her, and he knew she felt the same.

With the clump of fur in his fist, Alex turned and leaped into the air, flying frantically for the gap in the trees where the morning sun filtered through the leaves.

Jequn roared with fury at the sight of Alex attempting to escape. His wings hit the air with a crack like a whip, and he sprang after the boy. His hand reached out to grab his leg again, but in the moment his fingers stretched into the dappled sunlight, Hadasha leaped. She caught the great feathered wings of the Isten Jequn as easily as she would any other winged creature that attempted to flee her. She gracefully twisted in the air, driving him back down beneath her immense body. Jequn landed with a crunch that was quickly followed by teeth sinking in to feather, flesh, and bone.

Flying as fast as he could, Alex broke through the canopy of the jungle and shot across the sky. His vision was too blurred with tears to see where he was going. He didn’t stop, even when a bolt of lightning split the clear sky far behind him and ended the battle between the Isten and the pardua.

Alex flew for as long as his wings could hold him in the air. He flew away from the estate of the Isten Jequn. He flew away from Archridge. He flew away from everyone he had ever known and loved, and when he could fly no more, he walked.

When the last of his strength left him, Alex collapsed in a muddy rut in an overgrown field and passed out.

Chapter Text

Gabriel stood at the foot of his father’s sick bed and rolled his broad shoulders, trying to alleviate some of the ache in his wings from his rapid flight home that afternoon. The strong winds had tugged strands of silver hair from the knot at the back of his head, and he absentmindedly tucked them behind his ears as he continued to stare at the body before him. He had come as soon as his last class ended, after Headmaster Iscriel presented him with the request from the Isten Jequn, but he had still been too late.

“How fortunate that you have a sibling who can share in your duties,” the Terran had said proudly. Gabriel hadn’t let him finish his asinine speech. He snatched the note from Iscriel’s hands and stormed off, leaving Archridge without a second thought. He hadn’t been dressed for flight, but his anger kept him warm the entire way home. He could only hope that in the two days Alex had been back, nothing bad had happened.

When he arrived, Gabriel quickly found his frail hope crushed. The estate was quiet, but a wide swath of blood streaked across the land and into the manor. Gabriel landed on the porch and ran inside without taking off his shoes.

“Alex!” he called, his voice bordering on panic. No one answered him. The useless servants were nowhere to be seen. The bloody trail across the foyer had been scrubbed off the stone, though it still stained the wood floor in the dining room and up the stairs.

His mother came to him first, emerging from the kitchen in a flurry of fluttering wings. She threw herself into his arms and sobbed. It took a moment to calm her down, but eventually, he got her to explain what happened. There were gaps in her story, but Gabriel knew well enough to fill in the blanks.

“No, you can’t,” Liliel cried as Gabriel started up the stairs. He brushed her aside with a wing and went up anyway. No one else tried to stop him as he entered the chambers of the Isten Jequn.

Fury radiated from the silver-haired Ahnnak, manifesting in crackles of electricity along his skin and feathers, but when he found the room containing his father, his energy fizzled and dissipated. To hear of a pardua attack was far different than seeing the damage, and Gabriel had only been able to approach his father’s bed and stare in stunned horror.

The Isten was alive and whole, in a way, but there were sections of his body that were little more than clear, gelatinous reproductions of what his limbs should have looked like. His entire right arm was gone, but the transparent fingers in its place twitched and moved, as they might if the Isten were merely sleeping. The opposite leg was missing around the knee, but the roughly severed lower half remained connected through the gel by tendrils of veins. Viscous fluid coated the clawed gouges in Jequn’s face and chest. It filled the hole in his gut, which gaped deep enough that Gabriel could see the steady pulse of the man’s heart in the cavity beneath his ribs.

It was horrific, yet there was something strangely fascinating and almost peaceful about the mangled body.

Flecks of silver light floated through the gelatinous form of the Isten, darting about like tiny fish in a stream. They reconstructed the damaged tissue cell-by-cell. Even as Gabriel watched, red veins and crystalline bone slowly extended. Cords of new muscle pulsed with each steady heartbeat, like kelp swaying in an ocean current.

The six tattered white wings of the Isten cradled each side of his broken body. Though his wings had suffered the least damage, some feathers appeared to have been ripped out in great mouthfuls. Many of the remaining quills were bent and broken, useless for flight, but they dropped free as new pin feathers emerged. Fallen feathers littered the floor beneath the suspended bed like a layer of fresh snow.

“You’re staring,” came the hoarse whisper of the bedridden man.

Gabriel startled. He hadn’t realized his father was awake. He didn’t know how anyone could be conscious in such a condition. The boy regained composure of himself quickly, though. Straightening his back and raising his chin, Gabriel said, “I hope you’re in pain.”

“Insolent whelp,” Jequn seethed. When his mouth moved, the fluid that coated the clawed half of his face oozed and dripped down his cheek. It landed with a wet plop on his chest, then reabsorbed into his skin. His ice-blue eyes were as sharp and judgmental as always, even amid the ruin of his face. “You dare disrespect me in my home.”

“Fuck you,” Gabriel replied venomously. “After what you’ve done, you deserve no respect. We had a deal, and you went behind my back. You called Alex home without me.”

Alexiel.”

“Don’t you dare correct me,” Gabriel snapped.

Jequn sneered and then winced. His breathing became shallow and carefully controlled, like he was managing immense pain.

Good.

“I did not call him,” the Isten rasped when he regained control of his breathing. “A request, to the Headmaster. One son-”

“I saw the letter,” Gabriel interjected angrily. “Don’t try to lie to me. You knew what Iscriel would recommend. You did this on purpose.” Gabriel tried to keep his wings flat against his back, but with every furious word, they opened further, remaining rigid behind him. “You brought Alex here, and then you attacked him. You deserve everything that happened to you. I only wish the pardua had killed you.”

“My death will not come at the claws of some beast,” Jequn murmured, “but the blasphemy on your tongue will see you flayed.”

Gabriel scoffed. “Do you think I’m afraid of you?”

Jequn closed his eyes, like the effort to speak was already exhausting him. “I will not be in this bed forever.” At the rate his body was recovering, Jequn probably wouldn’t remain in bed longer than a week.

“Then do your worst, Father,” Gabriel said haughtily. “I have seen what you’re capable of. I know you have no power over me.”

“Seen?”

Gabriel flexed his wings. He chose his words carefully, but spoke with a contemptuous sneer. “The Isten Elohim has been tutoring me in elemental sciences since I was seven. He shared a memory of you, so I could understand the potential of my abilities.”

Elohim,” Jequn said the name like a curse. “That man is a fool.”

“He taught me more than you ever have.” It was true, in a way, and it fed into Jequn’s rivalry with the other Isten.

“Anyone who spends immortality hiding behind the abilities they were given is worthless,” ranted the Isten. The clear gel coating his wounds vibrated like the surface of a pond in a rainstorm. “I will not have my son and heir resigned to such mediocre nonsense.”

“I will do as I please,” Gabriel retorted. “You cannot control me like you do everyone else. Your abilities are useless against me. The only reason I ever tried to appease you until now was to keep my brother safe, but you lost him.”

Jequn’s cold blue eyes glared up at Gabriel. The surface of his body became placid once more. “I am still capable of ripping you apart with my bare hands, my son.”

Gabriel knew he should take the threats of the Isten seriously, but he was too mad. “Where is Alex?” he demanded.

Alexiel.”

Through clenched teeth, Gabriel hissed, “Where is he?”

“My servants tracked him beyond the edge of the jungle.”

“Servants?” Gabriel asked incredulously. “He could be anywhere in E’din by now, and you sent those void-eaten husks to track him down?”

“They will find him. They will bring him back to me.”

“No. He is not coming back here, not ever,” Gabriel swore.

“Alexiel will always return to me,” Jequn said. “He belongs with me.”

“He is mine,” Gabriel snapped. “Do you hear me? Mine.”

“You have no claim in his blood,” said the Isten.

“He is my brother,” Gabriel growled. “That is enough.”

“Meaningless.” Jequn chuckled briefly, and the vibration sent ripples through the clear form of his body. The motes of light swirled and flickered within him, reflecting glints of color on the walls and ceiling of the room. “When my scent fades from him, they will know what he is. They will kill him, and you, my heir, are too much of a coward to keep him safe.”

“I am not a coward,” Gabriel snarled.

“We are both going to lose him.”

Fists clenched at his side, Gabriel said, “That is your fault. You ruined everything. I have been your perfect heir. You had no reason to break our agreement.”

“Perfect? You think you’re perfect?”

Gabriel didn’t like the condescension and amusement in Jequn’s tone. “I have done everything you ever required of me. My classes, my grades- everything is what you expected, and all I asked in exchange was for you to leave Alex alone.”

“Alexiel.”

“Damn you!” Gabriel shouted. “Alexiel. Do you even hear me, or can you only think of him?”

Jequn’s head tilted, pooling the gel in the deep gouges of his cheek. He observed Gabriel’s outburst like he would any tantrum the boy had as a young child. Calmly, he announced, “Alexiel would have made a better heir than you.”

A flash of jealousy and rage pulsed through Gabriel. He dug his fingernails into his palms. “Why? So you could fuck him at work?”

The unbroken corner of Jequn’s mouth curled back into a smile. It almost touched the four narrow scratches on that cheek, an injury so light it was almost healed. “No. To have him at my fingertips every waking moment would be a benefit, perhaps, but in truth, Alexiel is smarter than you.”

“What?” Gabriel snapped in irritation.

“Stronger, too,” Jequn closed his eyes and relaxed on the bed. “I should have cast you aside the moment I saw his potential. You are worthless to me, Gabriel.”

The boy’s white wings vibrated with anger. “I am your heir, whether you want me or not. The prophecy all but speaks my name. You cannot get rid of me, because I will be the savior of Ahn. You need me, you bastard.”

Jequn’s eyes opened enough that he could glare up at his belligerent son. “Prophecies are rarely so simple. I refuse to believe that after six hundred years of careful breeding, you are the best this planet can offer.”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe. The Isten cling to this planet like ticks on the back of some mangy beast. You’re desperate. You won’t risk the destruction of everything on Ter and Ahn for some petty grudge with your offspring.”

“You know nothing of my intentions.”

“I am blood of your putrid blood,” Gabriel retorted. “I know the truth of what you are better than anyone else on this fiend-infested planet. It will only take a word from me, and all of E’din will know what you’ve done. Do you think any Isten will be able to forgive that you risked the survival of Ahn for your own perverse desires? When they find out what you did to Alexiel, they’ll lock you up and never let you near him again.”

For a moment, Jequn appraised Gabriel with something like caution. “You would risk your brother’s life for the sake of vengeance?”

“There’s no risk. I’ll keep him safe,” Gabriel replied confidently. “From you and from them.”

Jequn scoffed. “You are as immature and ignorant as always,” he said derisively. “You have no idea what he is.”

Gabriel’s wings bristled. “I know his lineage. When I explain-”

“No, it is not that simple anymore.”

“What?”

The man’s brow pinched with sudden pain and he closed his eyes. He gasped. His breath caught in his throat, and for a moment, he remained rigid and still. When he finally exhaled, his voice was strained, but he said, “There is a distortion within Alexiel, and I fear it is my fault.”

Gabriel had never heard his father speak with anything close to regret for his actions. It caught him off guard. “A distortion?” he asked. “What are you talking about?”

“I only meant to keep him close.” Jequn spoke softly, barely moving his lips. His eyes remained closed. “I thought if I could desensitize him to my aura, he could remain with me beyond his maturation… I could keep him young and pure forever…” The man’s words trailed off. Gabriel realized the bastard had fallen asleep.

“Father. Damn it. Father?!” Gabriel reached out and shook Jequn’s arm. His skin was incredibly cold, but his eyes fluttered open at the touch. Gabriel pulled his hand back.

The Isten sighed and furrowed his brow. He looked annoyed at the disturbance, but continued speaking. “I miscalculated,” he said. “I treated Alexiel as Terran.”

“He’s Ahnnak,” Gabriel stated.

“Yes,” Jequn agreed, “and Holloway was not designed for the descendants of Ahn. He adapted to the effects beyond what should be possible. It corrupted his energy. ”

“You poisoned him.”

“I altered him to be more amenable to my needs,” Jequn replied without shame. “And I was successful, in a way. He is still capable of resisting me.”

“You’re sick,” Gabriel said with disgust. “He’s a child.”

“I cannot deny my nature, Gabriel.” Jequn gazed up at his son with remorseless blue eyes. “I did what I had to. The truth of immortality is that you cannot resist your base desires and instincts forever. You will understand one day.”

“No. I am nothing like you,” insisted the silver-haired boy.

“You are my shadow cast in starlight,” said Jequn. “You are a pale imitation of my power, but still of my form. You-”

A sudden jolt of agony bowed Jequn’s spine off the bed and snapped his jaw shut. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his chest throbbed like his heart would burst through his ribs. His sparsely feathered wings spasmed and thrust open. The gel sealing the wound at his side dripped as the glimmering lights within him surged to his core.

Startled by the convulsions, Gabriel stepped back from the bed, but cold fingers reached out and caught his wrist. Jequn clung to his son, weak and trembling. It would have been easy to break free from that feeble grip. All Gabriel needed to do was twist his arm away, but instead, he remained.

Even if he hated his father, it was hard to watch him contort in such agony. Gabriel took Jequn’s cold hand in his and held it while seizures wracked his body. At one point, the man’s heart stopped, and though that silence could have only lasted seconds, it felt like an eternity.

With one more painful spasm, Jequn heart resumed beating. The Isten collapsed on the bed, breathing hard. His body lay motionless. The surface of the gelatinous fluid smoothed once more and the lights resumed their calm, tranquil flow within him.

Exhausted, Jequn curled his six tattered wings against his sides. He looked up at Gabriel and squeezed his hand. “You cannot exist in solitude, my son,” he whispered hoarsely.

“Shut up,” Gabriel replied quietly. “I don’t want to hear it. Just shut up and rest.”

Jequn sighed and closed his eyes. “Your blood and seed will bind companions to you,” he murmured, “but you will learn that their loyalty is an empty addiction. There is no love… No fear… Just a lie of devotion and a promise of betrayal…”

The man’s words faded off as he drifted into unconsciousness. This time, Gabriel let him sleep. Even if he didn’t want to believe it, he knew some of what the Isten said was true.

It was infuriating.

Gabriel hated this man so much, but he hated himself more for still seeking his approval. How could he be so weak?

Confused and angry, Gabriel brushed aside his father’s feathers and sat on the edge of the bed. He continued to hold Jequn’s hand until well after sunset, when a servant entered the room.

“This one must tend our Lord Master,” she said, bowed low with her hood over her face. She sounded familiar, but Gabriel didn’t care enough to confirm. All the servants were useless anyway.

Jequn stirred. His eyes cracked open, but only slightly. Gabriel stood up and placed his father’s hand back on the bed.

“I’m leaving,” the young, silver-haired Ahnnak said. He turned his back on his father and shook out his wings. He folded them carefully, forcing them to stay flat.

“Gabriel…?”

Glancing back over his shoulder and wing, Gabriel brusquely asked, “What?”

“Alexiel belongs with me,” said Jequn. “He won’t be safe in E’din on his own. I need to find him.”

Irritated, Gabriel turned away. He clenched his teeth, making the muscle in his jaw throb. “You have done enough, Father,” he replied crisply. “I will clean up your mess. I will find him.”

“How?” asked the Isten.

“I am your heir,” Gabriel stated. “I will do whatever needs to be done.” He walked from the chambers of the Isten Jequn without looking back.

Chapter Text

“Ah! More! Yes! Fuck me!”

Erem’s sweet cries and moans filled the room as Barach pinned him to the bed and rammed his cock into his body. His boyfriend had been nothing but trouble this morning, from flirting with rookies in the enclave of the Hunt while Barach watched, to teasing and groping Barach beneath the table at lunch. All the little acts of mischief served one purpose, and that was to get Barach so riled up that he practically hauled Erem back to their dorm that afternoon to give the blue-skinned boy the attention he so desperately desired.

Barach pulled Erem’s hips back to him, sliding deep into that tight, slick hole as he stretched his boyfriend as far as he could take. The little whimpers and mewls Erem made when Barach filled him so deeply were maddening. He pressed himself against Erem’s back, between his spread wings, and curled his fingers around Erem’s throat. He sucked and nibbled at his blue skin, leaving a blush of purple bruises across his neck and shoulders.

“Please,” Erem whimpered, wiggling his hips against Barach, eager for more.

“You’re so greedy,” Barach murmured and nuzzled against his ear. He pressed his thumb into Erem’s mouth and let him suck on it as a distraction.

Erem liked sex rough. Most of the time, Barach was happy to oblige. However, if Erem felt he was being neglected, the blue-skinned boy would act out in order to provoke Barach. He would try to tease and taunt him until he was at the edge of his control. Barach had found that the best reprimand for such behavior was not to give in to his boyfriend’s demands, but instead force him to endure the type of gentle, slow sex that kept him at the edge of orgasm for hours. He had every intention keeping Erem in bed all night, until he was a desperate, pleading mess, willing to do anything to get off on Barach’s hard, thick-

“Ouch!” Barach jerked his hand back. There was a ring on teeth marks at the base of his thumb. Erem sheepishly grinned back at him over his shoulder. He had blood on his lips.

Alright, so maybe gentle wasn’t happening today. Barach growled low and held Erem down with a fist in his blond hair. He pulled out until only his tip remained in his boyfriend’s body. “Is this what you want?” he asked, his voice deep and husky.

Erem’s yellow eyes were wild with lust. He licked the blood from his lips. “Please.”

“Keep begging,” Barach told him. “I’m going to fuck you until you can’t walk.”

Erem moaned. His body tightened around Barach’s shaft, and then Barach slammed back into him. He continued at a punishing pace that left Erem breathless and pleading. It wasn’t long before Erem’s body began to quiver. Barach could sense the edge of his boyfriend’s first orgasm of the night, though he had no intention of it being his last.

Barach grabbed Erem’s wing and turned him over, rotating him on the large shaft within him. He leaned back, pulling the blue-skinned boy with him. Erem slid down, fully impaled on Barach’s shaft as he straddled his hips.

“Don’t stop. I’m so close,” Erem begged.

“You want it?” Barach kissed his panting blue lips. “Then fuck yourself on my cock until you come.” Barach spread his wings and lay back on the bed so he could watch the performance.

Erem bit his lip and glared down at him. His blue skin was flushed all over his body, though Barach had already left plenty of bruises across his neck and chest to add to that patina. “You’re such a bully,” Erem complained.

“Do it,” Barach commanded, because he knew that was what his boyfriend wanted. He raised his hips, thrusting up into Erem and bouncing him twice while the boy moaned.

Fuck, Erem looked so cute stretched and suffering like that.

Slowly, the younger boy began riding Barach’s hard member, gasping every time it slid back into him. His legs trembled, but he didn’t stop. He grabbed his own swollen cock and began stroking, though Barach quickly swatted his hand away.

“No. I didn’t give you permission to touch yourself.”

Erem gave a frustrated groan, but he didn’t attempt to touch himself again. He bounced faster and harder, driving himself toward his impending orgasm. He was so close. Barach could feel Erem’s body tighten around him. With one more bounce, Erem dropped his head back, moaned, and-

The door slammed open. Gabriel stormed into the room just as thick fluid spurted from Erem’s spasming erection and splashed down across Barach’s face and chest.

“Fiends take you, Gabriel!” Barach exclaimed, startled by the intrusion. “What the fuck?!”

“Get dressed,” Gabriel said. He picked up a cloth and threw it at Erem, who remained astride Barach in a shivering, post-orgasmic haze. “I need your help.

“Sure,” Erem agreed, grinning lazily. “Do I have time to get Barach off before we go?” He wiggled on Barach’s lap, though the appeal of the situation was rapidly fading.

“No, and I need both of you, so hurry up.” Gabriel turned toward the mirror and attempted to smooth the tangle of his wind-blown silver hair.

“Sorry,” Erem told Barach. He scooped some of his seed from Barach’s cheek and sucked it from his blue fingers. “I promise I’ll take care of you later.”

“Damn it, Erem, get off me.” Barach snatched the cloth from him and used it to scrub the mess from his face and chest. “I’m not in the mood for this shit,” he grumbled, both embarrassed and angry about the whole situation.

Erem laughed. He raised up and let Barach’s slick cock fall from his body. He tried to move toward the edge of the bed, but he hadn’t quite recovered yet. His legs trembled and gave way as soon as he touched the floor. Barach managed to sit up and catch him before he fell. Erem grinned back at him. “I’m fine.”

“Like hell you are.” Barach glared across the room at Gabriel. He kept hold of Erem’s arm so his boyfriend wouldn’t fall again as he attempted to stand. “What the fuck is this about?”

Gabriel turned back toward them and scowled. “This is about the future of E’din, so stop fucking around and let’s go.” He strode from the room with a dramatic snap of his white wings.

Barach glared after him, but only until Erem stepped away. The blue-skinned Ahnnak quickly dressed in a light wrap around his hips and a sash across his chest. He pulled on silk boots, but didn’t bother lacing them.

“Well?” Erem looked at Barach expectantly. “You coming?”

“Shit.” Barach angrily got up, got dressed, and followed his boyfriend out the room after Gabriel.

***

The three Ahnnak entered the administration level like they owned the place. The Terran secretary at the front desk got up to intercept Gabriel, but he shoved her back into her seat and marched by. Erem pointed at the Terran and shook his head, warning her not to get up again.

Gabriel threw open the door to Headmaster Iscriel’s office, startling the two men in the room.

“Ahnnak Gabriel!” Iscriel exclaimed, jumping to his feet behind his desk. “How dare you barge in here. I am in a meeting-”

Gabriel grabbed the shirt of the instructor Iscriel was meeting with and jerked him close. “Get out,” he commanded. He shoved the man toward Erem, who promptly hustled him out of the office. The instructor’s weak protests were lost as Barach closed the door. The large Ahnnak remained stationed there so no one else could interfere.

“This is completely unacceptable behavior,” blustered Iscriel. “How dare you-”

Gabriel sprang over the desk, grabbed the Headmaster’s shirt, and slammed him against the wall. “How dare I?” he asked with a low hiss. “Do you have any idea who you’re speaking to? I am the Ahnnak Gabriel, first born and heir to the Isten Jequn, and you are just worthless, low-born Terran scum. You are nothing. How dare you think to question me?”

Iscriel searched Gabriel’s icy eyes, visibly shaken. “Y-You are a student at Archridge-”

Gabriel slammed him against the wall and snarled, “I am an heir. You will speak to me with the same respect and deference as you would any Isten.”

“Y-Yes,” sputtered Iscriel. “Yes, s-sir. M-M-My lord.”

Someone tried to get into the room, but Barach flexed and kept the door closed. Erem’s wings gave an excited flutter as he eagerly watched the exchange between Gabriel and the Headmaster. Neither of them had any clue what Gabriel planned, but they were there to support their friend.

Whatever that meant.

Gabriel relaxed his hold a little, but his eyes remained cold. “You are never to withhold correspondence from my Isten again.”

“B-B-But I assumed-”

Gabriel backhanded the Headmaster with a slap that split his lip. “How dare you assume anything about the intentions and needs of an Isten!”

“Forgive me, my lord!” Iscriel cried. “It won’t happen again!”

Gabriel jerked the Terran away from the wall and shoved him toward the office door. “Leave. I want you to personally collect both Isten instructors at Archridge and bring them here.”

“B-But-”

“Don’t you dare disobey me again,” Gabriel snapped.

The Headmaster only hesitated a second more before he scrambled toward the door. Barach opened it enough for the Terran to slip through and then quickly closed it after him. He exhaled heavily. “Was that necessary?”

“Who cares!” Erem exclaimed. “That was awesome!”

Gabriel walked over and rifled through the Headmaster’s desk. “That Terran deserves worse. He’s completely incompetent.”

“So what do we do now?” asked Barach.

“We wait.” Gabriel found a few sealed scrolls in a drawer. He sat down at the Headmaster’s desk, popped a seal, and began to read.

Barach sighed and grumbled, “Great.”

Erem grinned, excited about the whole situation. “Don’t worry so much. This is fun!”

“Sure, fun.” Barach wasn’t anywhere near as enthusiastic, but he maintained his post against the door, holding it shut. He scratched behind his ear, and found something sticky. Brow furrowed, Barach asked, “Erem, is there come in my hair?”

His boyfriend laughed, but dutifully picked out the thick globs of missed fluid while they waited. When the Isten arrived, Barach was mostly confident he wasn’t wearing any more of his boyfriend’s semen.

***

The Isten Kasdeja and the Isten Elohim were escorted into the office by Iscriel, who had regained some of his composure while completing the task Gabriel assigned him. The Terran tried to appear dignified as he followed the two Isten into the room. He even started to protest when he saw Gabriel at his desk, but Erem grabbed the Headmaster’s arm. He shook his head with a little warning, “No.”

“Ahnnak Gabriel,” said Kasdeja, standing tall and graceful. The golden sheen to her smooth head gleamed in the room’s firelight. “There are more appropriate ways to contact us.”

“Forgive me, Isten.” Gabriel placed the scroll he was reading on the desk and stood. He neither looked nor sounded apologetic as he faced the two Isten. “I fear there is something grave I must discuss with you both, and I knew of no other way to maintain discretion.”

The Isten Elohim glanced about the room. Barach thought he saw a twinge at the corner of the man’s mouth when his sharp gaze passed over him.

Fuck, had he missed a spot?

Barach self-consciously rubbed his neck, happy to be standing at the door behind the Isten as Elohim’s eyes finally settled on Gabriel.

“What is this about, Gabriel?” Elohim asked.

The silver-haired Ahnnak came out from behind the desk to stand before the Isten. He raised his chin and spoke clearly. “My father, the honorable Isten Jequn, has been attacked.”

Headmaster Iscriel gasped and covered his mouth. His wings went rigid. Neither of the Isten responded so visibly, but Gabriel definitely had their attention.

“Four days ago,” Gabriel continued, “Terran Iscriel received notice from my father that he was in need of assistance at his estate. Without consulting me, Iscriel sent my brother, Alexiel, home to fulfill my father’s request. As you are all aware, Alexiel suffered from the wasting disease for most of his childhood. Our father cured him, but Alexiel is still barely capable of flying home on his own, let alone providing the assistance our father required. It was a mistake for him to be there at all.” Gabriel cast an accusing glare at Iscriel, then resumed speaking to the two Isten.

“My father and brother had gone into the jungle that surrounds the estate. Their work was interrupted by a pardua. The beast attacked without warning. Jequn-” Gabriel paused like the words pained him. He resumed speaking with a slight tremble to his voice. “My father held the beast back to allow Alexiel to escape, but the battle came at great cost to himself. It is only by the strength of his will and his devotion to Ahn that he survived. However, he was in no state to recover Alexiel after he killed the beast, and the servants of the estate lack the skill to track beyond the jungle. Alexiel is still missing.”

“Jequn recovers?” Elohim asked.

“Yes, Isten,” Gabriel confirmed. “I visited home as soon as Iscriel revealed my father’s original message, but I was already too late to avert the disaster that occurred in my absence. I’m sure you will understand my hesitancy to reveal the impaired condition of my lord father, but rest assured that he will fully recover in the coming weeks.”

“Weeks.” Kasdeja licked her golden lips. “His injuries were that severe?”

“Yes, Isten.” Gabriel inclined his head to her. “Yet despite the damage his body sustained, he could only speak of concern for the safety of Alexiel. As Jequn’s heir, I act in his stead when I request assistance in finding my brother. Alexiel was there when Jequn was attacked. He is undoubtedly scared and alone, but his mind…” Gabriel’s brow furrowed and he looked down. “Forgive me. There has been some difficulty with Alexiel during his recovery from the wasting disease. Even if our father was able to cure him, some of the effects linger. He becomes confused easily. I fear he may be lost and hungry, wandering through the wilds of E’din. He may feel some guilt that our honorable father was hurt trying to protect him. He may be afraid to come home.”

“I understand your concerns, Ahnnak Gabriel,” said the Isten Kasdeja, “and I appreciate your caution when revealing such events.” She looked around the room, her neck turning at an unnatural angle. She focused on Barach and Erem. “You are both Ahnnak. You understand that to reveal any weakness among the Isten is to risk all of E’din.”

“Yes, Isten,” said Barach with a solemn tone.

Erem smirked. “Won’t say a word.”

Kasdeja looked at Iscriel. The Headmaster bowed immediately. “I would die with honor for the secrets of the Isten!” he exclaimed.

Kasdeja’s lips pursed. “Your death is not required yet,” she said. “Just your silence.”

The Isten Elohim placed a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. Barach noticed his friend flinch, almost as if he expected to be hurt, but it only lasted a second. Gabriel looked boldly up at the Isten as Elohim spoke.

“Kasdeja and I will take steps to notify the appropriate authorities. Rest assured that the best trackers in E’din will be searching for your brother. He will be recovered.”

“Thank you, Isten,” Gabriel replied. “But I have one more request.”

Elohim smiled. “Yes, Ahnnak Gabriel?”

“I want Terran Iscriel to be stricken from all administrative duties at Archridge, pending a full inquisition to the man’s involvement with Jinn sympathizers in Marut. I deem his actions to be a direct attack of terrorism against the sovereignty of the Isten, and will not be satisfied until he has received the punishment he deserves.”

Iscriel audibly gulped. His eyes widened. Kasdeja tilted her head and watched him tremble. “Perhaps your death will be required after all,” she said.

Elohim laughed and ruffled Gabriel’s silver hair. “We’ll see, Ahnnak Gabriel. In the meantime, return to your studies. Your father still has high expectations for you. Let us handle everything from here. You’re dismissed.”

Gabriel bowed to the two Isten, then left the office with Barach and Erem following close behind.

***

As they marched through the empty stone halls, Erem skipped up beside Gabriel. “So what really happened?” he asked.

Gabriel scowled. “Jequn tried to rape Alex, and Alex’s pet pardua ripped him apart for it.”

Erem laughed in surprise. “Shit! Are you serious?”

Gabriel’s jaw tightened. He didn’t respond.

Erem whistled low. “Well, you better hope that whoever finds Alex brings him back to you and not your father.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Gabriel said. “I’ll do whatever I have to to keep Alex safe.”

“If you can find him,” Erem cajoled.

“He can’t hide from me forever,” Gabriel growled. He opened his wings and dropped through the archway into the gap.

Barach gave Erem a worried look, but his boyfriend only grinned and jumped after their friend. Barach sighed and followed.

This wasn’t going to end well.

Chapter Text

Something hot and pungent dribbled past Alex’s lips. He coughed and sat up, batting away the spoon containing the vile liquid. He continued coughing, though the convulsions made every part of his body hurt. When he finally had control of himself, he collapsed back on the bed, breathing hard.

A wrinkled, dark brown face appeared above him, lit by the crackling firelight across the room. “You are awake,” the old woman said. She was missing several of her lower teeth. Even if Alex couldn’t see her back, he knew she was likely a Homm.

“Where am I?” he rasped. His throat was so sore, he could barely speak, but she understood him well enough.

“You are in my cottage,” she said. “A farmer found you in his field and brought you to me. He thought you were dead.” She sat her bowl aside and got a couple of pillows. She placed them against the wall, then grabbed Alex by his armpits and helped him sit up.

Alex groaned a complaint, but he didn’t have the strength to resist her. She was awfully strong for a woman her size.

“There.” She huffed and sat next to him. “This will be easier to feed you.” She picked up her bowl and scooped up more of that disgusting liquid onto the spoon. She held it out to him.

Alex turned his head away. “Poison,” he insisted with a strained voice.

“Poison?!” she exclaimed. “You think I would go through the trouble of healing some broken little bird dropped off on my stoop just so I could turn around and poison him when he finally woke up?” She made a show of slurping some of the liquid from the spoon. She smacked her wrinkled lips and said, “See? It’s medicine. It’ll make you strong.”

Alex shook his head. “Tastes disgusting.”

“Wormwood, valerian, willow bark, and yarrow tend to be a little bitter, but I boiled it down with sugar. It should taste just fine.”

“I can’t taste sugar.”

The old woman paused thoughtfully. “Oh. Well then, yes, this will taste disgusting.” She held the spoon to his mouth again.

With a resigned sigh, Alex yielded and ate it. The mixture was syrupy thick and clung to his tongue. He swallowed it as fast as he could, but it still made him cough. She gave him another spoonful when he could take it, but it didn’t get any easier.

“Well done, little bird,” the old woman said when the bowl was empty. She sat it aside. “You will be strong enough to fly again soon.”

Alex leaned his head against the wall and swallowed repeatedly, trying to clear the rest of the awful taste from his mouth. “Who are you?” he asked. His voice came out a little stronger.

“I am a healer,” she said. “The farms a league west refer to me as Old Choxi, though I never did like the ‘Old’ part of that much.”

“You’re a healer?” Alex asked. He looked for wings against her back, just in case he had misjudged her.

“The best in these parts.”

“But you’re a Homm.”

“There’s more to healing than feathers and fluff,” Choxi said. “One-hundred-and-eighty years, and I still have deal with sparrows like you thinking to look down on me.”

“No, I wasn’t- I didn’t mean-”

“Ah, I’m just teasing.” The old woman smiled. “I know you didn’t mean any harm. Don’t work yourself up about. You’ll make yourself sick again.”

“Are you really a-hundred-and-eighty?” Alex asked shyly.

“One-eighty-two next autumn.” She patted the blanket over his legs. “Though in all my years, with all the misery I’ve had dropped at my door, I’ve never seen one quite like you. What brought you out to the mud at this end of E’din?”

“I, um-” Alex didn’t know what to say. How much of who he was was safe to reveal to a stranger? He lowered his eyes, but then had the startling realization that the blanket covering him had sagged down to his hips. He was completely naked beneath that thin woolen layer. He instantly jerked it up to his chin and stared at the woman with wide, black eyes. “Where are my clothes?” he squeaked with a hint of desperation.

Chuckling, Choxi took her bowl and got off the bed. She moved like every joints in her body ached. “They’re hanging out with my laundry, though I could barely consider those torn rags ‘clothes.’”

While Choxi went to the wash basin to rinse the bowl, Alex peeked beneath the blanket. There was a clean bandage around his ribs. He poked it, surprised that it didn’t hurt. Then he noticed that he was using his arm, the one he clearly remembered Jequn breaking in the jungle. There was no sign of the injury at all.

Alex looked at the old woman again. “How long have I been asleep?” he asked.

“Hmm… You have been here four nights,” she said. “Before that, I don’t know. Couple days, maybe. When Terim found you, you were nearly frozen solid in the muck. That’s who brought you here.” She glanced back at him. “Fortunate he did. Don’t think you would have survived out there much longer on your own, even seeing as what you are.”

“What I am?”

Choxi appraised him carefully. “A child of the red star. I’ve dealt with your kind before.” She turned back to her bowl and finished washing it. “Though most birds that fly this far from the colony are running from something. Considering the spots on your wings were only blood and mud, I doubt there’s much beyond these hills that calls to you.”

“My wings…?” Alex glanced at his white wings. They were as clean as the rest of him, though his feathers could stand to be preened. Someone had taken considerable care in washing him. “Who else knows I’m here?” he asked.

The old woman placed her bowl aside to dry. “Just me and the lad that brought you. Though you don’t need to worry about Terim. He’ll be in his field until Tides planting all his crops. Wouldn’t stop complaining about the two days he missed just by hauling you out here. But he would have had an even rougher time of it if you ended up dead on his land.”

Alex sat forward, holding the blanket up around his neck. “Even if I was asleep as long as you say, there should still be signs of my injuries. Bitter herbs and roots can’t heal like that.”

“My, you are awfully suspicious for one so young.” Choxi selected a hard roll of bread from the basket on the counter. She returned to the bed, though it was fortunate her cabin was small. The short distance was still difficult for her. “Would you feel better if I showed you my power?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

Choxi held the roll in one hand, where Alex could clearly see it, and waved her other hand over the top. The crust of the bread glowed like it was being filled with light. When she stopped, the golden glow remained for a moment, then faded into the bread. She offered Alex the roll. “It won’t hurt you,” she said.

He cautiously took it from her. “What…? How?”

“My mother had wings. My father didn’t, but his father did. Somewhere along the line, it just stopped getting passed down.” Choxi settled on the edge of the bed with a groan. Her joints creaked. “Now, the powers I hold might not be as strong as something you would find in a city of feathers, but I do well enough. I find plants in the hills that can heal, and I infuse them with my energy to make them more potent. I only help what is already there. Nature does most of the work.”

Alex broke open the roll of bread. It felt warm. The inside was soft and smelled delicious. “Is it safe?”

“Of course,” she scoffed. “There’s everything in that loaf that a young bird needs to recover. My energy only helps boost the benefits. It’ll get you back in the air soon. Unless you’d rather have more medicine.” She motioned toward the bubbling cauldron over the fire.

“No thanks,” Alex said quickly. He tore out a fluffy piece of the middle and ate it. He was relieved that it helped remove some of the leftover flavor of the medicine. He took another bite, and another, until his cheeks were stuffed full of the warm bread.

Choxi smiled. “Good lad. You will be strong enough to fly again soon,” she said. “Tomorrow we will mend your clothes.”

Alex swallowed hard and started to take another bite, but he was suddenly very tired. “Tomorrow…?”

“You will sleep now,” she announced. “You will feel stronger in the morning.”

Alex wanted to protest, but it was difficult to move. His limbs felt heavy. He struggled to keep his eyes open. His body started to tilt toward the edge of the bed, and there was nothing he could do to stop himself from falling.

Choxi’s strong, wrinkled hands caught him. She eased him back into bed and tucked the blankets around his body. “Sleep,” she said, and his eyes fluttered closed. Darkness surrounded Alex as the last of the bread dropped from his hand.

Chapter Text

Alex woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed. Sunlight streamed into the cabin through the open door. The fire in the hearth was low, but still glowing among the coals. The old woman wasn’t there, but a cup of water sat beside the bed. Alex glanced at it, suspicious, and left it alone.

Gathering the blanket around his naked body, Alex carefully stepped out of bed. His legs trembled, but he was able to remain upright. He walked to the door and peered out.

The hills of a green valley stretched endlessly toward the horizon. Wildflowers blossomed across the sunlit terrain, and towering conifers lined the snowcapped mountains to the east and north. The air was cool. Alex took a moment to breathe in the beauty of it before a melodic hum caught his attention.

Alex stepped off the worn porch and walked around the side of the cabin. The blanket dragged in the dirt behind him. The old woman was there, removing scraps of fabric from a clothes line. She folded each one with care, then placed it in a woven grass basket by her feet.

“Good morning, little bird,” she said without looking back at Alex. “Sleep well?”

“I didn’t have a choice,” he replied. “You tricked me.”

“No tricks. You needed sleep.” Choxi took another ripped shirt off the line and shook it out. “A sleep without nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” Alex squeezed the blanket to his chest where his wooden medallion should have been.

“You are not the first bird to come to me haunted by ghosts of misery.” She dropped the shirt in her basket, then removed the next from the line.

“Did I… say anything?” Alex asked hesitantly.

“The first night you were here, you cried with such anguish it almost broke my heart.” Choxi looked back at him. “I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself in your sleep. It was just a precaution, really. I meant no harm by it, but I am too old to risk whatever stray powers leak from my visitors in their dreams.”

“You thought I was going to hurt you?” It seemed absurd.

Choxi huffed. She turned back to the laundry and resumed folding the bits of fabric. “When I was younger and stronger than I am now, I had a bird land at my door. He was a handsome man of sandalwood hair and chicory eyes, and I let him warm himself by my hearth. I offered him food and companionship for the night, and he while he ate, he told me the story of how he got his spots.” She shook her head while she spoke. “His gleaming smile never faded as he detailed what he did to those women. Then he finished his meal and turned that smile to me. I was too scared to resist him, but he left me in the morning with the knowledge that it was only the meal I shared that spared my life.”

Alex pulled the blanket tighter around himself. He felt cold, far colder than the spring air of the valley.

Choxi dropped a folded shirt in the basket and continued speaking as if the story didn’t bother her. “Since then, I have not been so naive to judge a man’s intentions before he has eaten with me, just as I do not assume he can control his power in his sleep. Many of the birds who come here are broken, if not their bodies, then their minds. Some of them can’t be saved. Some of them don’t deserve to be saved.”

Wind tugged at Alex’s hair, and he turned his face toward it. The land behind the cabin was wild and untamed, but there were mounds in the dirt. Some of them were packed flat, nearly unnoticeable among the herbs and flowers that sprawled across the ground. Some of them were more recent.

“What do you do?” Alex asked the old woman, even though he knew the answer.

“I save the ones I can,” said Choxi. She placed the last of the clothes in the basket and braced it against her hip. She walked back toward Alex and her cabin. “Shall we have some breakfast?”

With one last glance at the unmarked graves in her back yard, Alex nodded and followed her back inside.

***

Old Choxi’s hands shook too much for her to sew, but she offered Alex thread and a bone needle and gave him space to stitch up the remains of his old clothes.

“You are not like the birds that usually come this way,” Choxi said while she stirred a vegetable stew for lunch. “Where were you going when you ended up in Terim’s field?”

“East,” Alex said. He sat near the door, focused on stitching two pieces of fabric back together. He had mended his pants first, grateful they were only torn from branches and rocks. He wore them and the bandage around his ribs, but nothing else. He didn’t like being so exposed, even if the day grew warmer beneath the bright spring sun.

“East? There is nothing east of here but the edge of E’din. That is not a place for you.” Choxi sampled some of the stew, then added a dusting of rock salt to the mixture.

“You’re not going to knock me out with that again, are you?” he asked while he made his careful stitches along the edge of the fabric.

“No, young bird. It is merely lunch. A full meal before you return home.”

“I can’t go back,” Alex said. “It’s not my home anymore.”

“Home is not so easy to forget,” said Choxi. “What do you think you will find beyond the hills?”

“My, um… A man.”

“A man?” Choxi clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “A specific man, or will any do? Because Terim could use the help on his farm if you need a place to stay.”

“No, I’m… it’s a specific man.”

“Oh? And how do you plan to find him?”

Alex held up his stitches to the light and tugged to check if they would hold. They weren’t as neat as anything Remiel made, but it was good enough. “I know he moved out to the eastern ridge within the last dozen years. He married a Homm.”

Choxi’s lips pressed together thoughtfully. “Hmm. That’s not much of a description.”

“He has wings,” Alex said, continuing to mend the shirt. “And black hair, like mine, but his eyes are blue.”

The old woman went very quiet. Alex turned to look at her, but she was watching him with a finger pressed to her lips. “Where did you say you were from?” she asked.

“I didn’t,” Alex resumed mending his clothes. He almost had one shirt mended enough to cover his chest. “And I’m never going back, so it doesn’t matter.”

“But the man you’re searching for, he has a name, yes? One you learned from your mother?”

Alex’s wings stiffened. He stared down at the shirt. The bone needle poked up through the cloth, but he didn’t complete the stitch.

“Uh huh. Thought as much.” Choxi resumed stirring the stew. “I might know of the man you seek, but he goes by many names. What is it you call him?”

“Siel,” whispered Alex, remembering his mother. Then he thought of Indara, and the name she risked herself to share. “Maybe… Sachiel.”

Choxi nodded. “Yes. I know him. He is two days north of here on a good wind. A week on foot. The journey is not easy.”

“But you can tell me the way?” Alex asked, eagerly looking up at her.

“Yes, but know that you are not the only one who seeks him. There is peril untold in those hills. The veil is weak in that area, and danger comes from both sides. You must remain cautious.”

“I will,” Alex said, excited. He finished his stitch and broke the thread. He jerked the mended shirt on and tied it about his waist. It was only a single layer, but he felt better with it covering him. “Tell me where he is, please.”

“After lunch. I will pack food for your journey if you agree to carry a package to Siel for me.”

“I promise,” Alex agreed quickly.

Choxi held up a wrinkled finger. “You cannot peek. It must stay wrapped and dry, no matter what.”

“I’ll protect it, I swear,” said Alex.

“Yes, I suppose you will.” Choxi smiled. “Come now, set the table. Lunch is ready.”

Chapter Text

Alex left Old Choxi that afternoon. She offered to let him spend the night and leave in the morning, but he felt that they would both be more comfortable if he wasn’t there. He thanked her for helping him heal and accepted the food she packed, as well as a sealed bag that he hung over his shoulder. He flew as far as his wings could carry him that first day, grateful for the energy in the lunch she provided, then walked along the ridge until sundown.

Choxi had given Alex a brown and white cape that covered his wings so he could stay warm while he walked. It also served to camouflage him against the rocky terrain. The old woman cautioned him about making a fire a night. He was to find shelter and use the cape to stay warm, and do nothing that could signal his position from the air.

Her instructions seemed strange. Alex didn’t hear or see anyone else during his journey, but he did as she asked. At night, he lay beneath the warm cape and nibbled on the biscuits and nuts she sent with him. He watched the stars overhead, trying to imagine what it would be like to finally meet his father.

Alex slept without dreams every night. He suspected it was something in the food Choxi gave him, but he was grateful all the same. Well rested, he woke before dawn each morning and continued his journey, though he still was not able to fly as much as he would have liked.

When the sun was high, Alex flew over the trees and hills to glide on the upper currents. With the sun at his back, he would be hard to spot from the ground, and he could coast to conserve his energy. The land that stretched below him was beautiful, but just as wild as the jungles around Jequn’s estate. At one point, Alex spotted a huge herd of woolly beasts with a single horn sprouting from their heads. They were massive, possibly as large as Hadasha had been, though they grazed from the grasses at their feet as they walked. Alex thought about getting closer, but he knew it was a distraction he couldn’t risk right now.

On the fourth full day of travel, just as the sun crested the mountain ridge, Alex found the river Old Choxi mentioned. He followed it upstream most the morning, growing increasingly nervous. If Choxi’s instructions were right, he would be there soon. What if this was a mistake? What if the man hated him? What if he was worse than Jequn?

Alex flew on. He had come this far, he had to at least see what he looked like. Maybe Choxi had sent him to the wrong person, and when Alex found him, he would instantly know it wasn’t his father, and he could leave without ever saying a word.

Maybe he would just keep going and fly right out of E’din.

Before noon, Alex saw the pine tree with the split top. He flew toward it and landed among the upper branches. His wings ached. He needed to rest anyway, so he perched there and gazed down at the valley tucked between the mountains and the edge of the forest. It was right where Choxi said it would be. The gentle brook sparkled through the green field, and in the center of it all was…

Was a house.

Alex crouched low on the branch and pulled his wings in tight as he examined the building. It was larger than Choxi’s cabin had been, but nowhere near as expansive as Jequn’s manor. The sides were made of stacked logs. Shuttered windows were open to the warm spring air. Smoke curled from the stone chimney, drifting lazily in the light breeze passing through the valley.

A plot of land on the southern side of the building had been cleared for a garden. There were wooden stakes supporting fragile green plants. Something moved between them, and Alex realized with a start that there was a person crouched among the vines. The boy caught a glimpse of white wings and black hair before he panicked and dove behind the trunk of the tree.

That was him.

Alex clutched at his chest, wishing he had his medallion to cling to. The sound of his heart pounded so loud, he was afraid it would echo off the nearby mountains. He pressed his back and wings against the sap-laced bark of the pine, not caring that it stuck to his feathers. He took fast, shallow breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.

“Papa, lunch is done!”

Alex stopped breathing entirely. He peeked back around the edge of the tree, black eyes wide.

There was a girl.

She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine. She had light brown skin and two thick, crooked braids. There were no wings on her back. She walked from the house to the garden, where a man stood to greet her.

“Thank you, Mieke. Here, take Molly inside with you.” The man handed the girl a gurgling, kicking baby. “She’s hungry. She tried to eat dirt.”

“So that’s why your face is so dirty!” the girl babbled at the baby as she took her and placed her on her hip. The two went back inside while the man turned and faced the brook.

“Girls!” he called, his voice resounding across the valley. “Come inside and wash up for lunch!”

There was giggling and splashing, and then three more young girls came racing across the field. They were wet and dirty, but grinning. Two of them appeared to be the same age, mirror images of each other, and the third was just slightly older. They ran up to the man and each handed him fistfuls of field daisies.

“Yes, these are lovely,” he told them with a warm smile, then the girls scampered inside the house.

For a moment, the man stood in the field alone, adjusting the flowers in his hand until he held them in a neat bundle. His large wings spread white and glorious behind him, sharply contrasted against the raven black of his long hair. He was very tall and very slim, and his dark blue eyes were looking right at Alex.

Shit!

Alex ducked behind the tree again, but his foot slipped and he lost his balance. He crashed down through the branches and landed with a grunt on the pine needle strewn ground. He didn’t give himself time to dwell of the pain before he staggered to his feet and hid against the thick trunk.

A dry branch cracked under a boot as the man entered the forest. Alex grabbed the cape Choxi gave him and threw it over his head and wings. He wanted to flee, but he had come this far. Even if he was afraid, he couldn’t run away.

“Show yourself,” the man called. He was close, just on the other side of the tree.

Alex slid around the trunk, trying to keep it between them. He took every step with as much care as he would if he were trying to stay hidden from Jequn.

The man stopped and examined the place Alex landed when he fell from the tree. He looked around. “I don’t appreciate visitors spying on me from the forest,” he said. “It’s rude.”

Alex clung to the cape shielding him and took a deep breath. He had to do this. He stepped out from around the tree and faced the man who might be his real father.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said softly. “I didn’t mean to spy.” He kept his gaze lowered.

The man tilted his head and looked at Alex, all covered in sap and twigs, hiding beneath a well worn brown and white cape. “Oh,” he laughed. “You’re just a boy.” He smiled and stepped forward. “You’re an awful long way from home. Did you fly all the way here?”

“Yes, sir,” Alex muttered. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the man.

“You must be hungry, then. My name is Sachiel. Would you like to come inside and share a meal with my family?”

Tears filled Alex’s eyes. He was too overcome with emotion to speak, so he just sniffled and nodded, then followed the man across the valley and into his home.

***

Five little girls sat at the dining table inside the house, and five sets of eyes stared at Alex when he entered. They were clearly sisters, all with the same light brown skin and thick black hair as the oldest. The baby continued squishing oatmeal into her cheeks as she watched him, but none of the others moved.

“Go ahead and place your things by the door,” Sachiel said. “Mieke, please set another place for our guest.”

“Yes, Papa.” The oldest girl got up and took another plate from the cupboard. She sat it on the table while Sachiel put the bundle of wildflowers in a vase by the open window.

Alex stood by the door, uncertain. He felt like an intruder in their home. Maybe it would be best if he left, before he did something he would regret.

Sachiel came over and smiled at him. “It’s okay. We have enough to share.”

Alex nodded and inhaled deeply. He removed the cloak over his wings with trembling fingers. While he folded it and placed it on the floor, one of the twin girls giggled and whispered to the other, “Look at his wings!”

Sachiel gave them a look with a raised eyebrow, and they quieted.

Alex took the bag Choxi had given him and held it out to Sachiel. “Here,” he mumbled. “For you.”

“For me?” Sachiel took the bag and carried it over to the counter. “Oh, it’s from Old Choxi. You met her?” He glanced back. “Is she doing well?”

Alex nodded and shuffled his feet, remaining by the door. The girls were all still watching him. He wished he had spent a little more time mending his torn shirt. He tried to smooth his hair down, but the sap and pine needles made that difficult.

Sachiel opened the bag and laid the contents out on the counter. There was a little book, a package of wheat flour, a bundle of fabric, and some mixed spices. There were also several hard little maple candies, which Sachiel showed to the girls. It was the only thing that turned their attention away from Alex.

“Papa, can we eat them now?” the second oldest asked excitedly.

“After dinner tonight,” he promised. “As long as you don’t argue with each other for the rest of the day.”

“We promise!” the twins squeaked in unison.

“Thank you for bringing this,” Sachiel told Alex. “Choxi doesn’t often send guests my way, but if she trusts you, then so do I. These are my daughters, Mieke, Millie, twins Malia and Mulin, and baby Molly. Girls this is… Well, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Alex,” he whispered.

“Just Alex?” Sachiel asked, glancing briefly at the boy’s wings.

“Alexiel,” he said, “b-but Alex is fine.”

Sachiel lifted the wooden bowl of boiled roots from the counter and placed it on the table. The four older girls immediately started to eat, while the baby continued smushing oatmeal into her mouth with her little fists. Sachiel tucked his long black hair behind his ear and smiled fondly at his daughters. Then he looked to Alex. “Come sit with us, Alex. I’m curious to hear what brings you out this far.”

Alex bit his lip and took a step closer. He tugged at the frayed edge of his sleeves, wishing he could just disappear.

This was too hard.

What had he been thinking?

Every voice in his head told him to run away, but he forced himself to look up at Sachiel’s dark blue eyes. Alex swallowed hard, and before his courage could abandon him, blurted, “You’re my father.”

For several moments, no one made a sound, except the baby, who continued sucking oatmeal off her hands. Sachiel opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, licked his lips, and tried again. “You think I’m your father?” he asked. His brow creased in confusion. “Why would you think that?”

“My mother told me a-about a man. Siel. That’s you… right?”

“I- well, yes, but that was only an alias.” Sachiel sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He could see that Alex was on the verge of tears, so he spoke gently. “You mother might have me confused with someone else. What is her name?”

With a sniff, Alex said, “Liliel.”

Sachiel blinked. His wings spread as he slumped back against the counter for support. “Liliel?” he whispered, blue eyes wide. He touched his fingertips to his lips, lost in thought. “Lily… I haven’t seen her since…” He looked at Alex again. “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Tw-” Sachiel’s eyes lost focus and his lips silently moved as he calculated. He broke from the daze after a moment and stammered, “B-B-But she was married. Why would- How did- It’s not-” He covered his mouth and just stared at Alex for a moment. “Are you really Lily’s son?”

Alex nodded and lowered his black eyes. “Yes. She told me everything.”

“Papa, is it true?” asked the oldest girl sitting at the table.

The second oldest scoffed. “Of course it’s true, Mieke. He’s got Papa’s hair and wings.”

Mieke turned on her sibling. “Lots of people have black hair and wings, Millie,” she retorted. “Doesn’t mean they’re all Papa’s children.”

Millie stuck out her tongue. “Not all. Just this one,” she said. “Look at his face. Papa would look just like that if he cried all the time.”

“Huh,” said Mieke. “You’re right.”

Alex’s cheeks flushed under the scrutiny.

“Girls,” Sachiel scolded. “Be nice.”

“Sorry, Papa.” The little girls attempted to appear apologetic, but they had made up their minds. The twins looked between their older sisters and Alex, trying to figure out what they missed.

Sachiel exhaled slowly, blowing a strand of hair back from his face as he did. He examined Alex again, then said, “You really are my son, aren’t you?”

Alex nodded and swiped his palm across his eyes before he could really start crying. “I am.”

Without warning, Sachiel stepped forward and pulled Alex into a tight hug. It was startling, but there was nothing malicious or expectant about the embrace.

For the first time Alex could remember, he felt comfortable being touched. He pressed his face against his father’s chest as tears poured from his eyes and his shoulders shook with repressed sobs.

“Welcome home, Alex,” Sachiel murmured while he stroked his son’s black hair. “Welcome home.”

***

Eventually Alex was able to stop crying. He joined his father and sisters at the table. He was too overcome with emotions he didn’t know how to process to speak, but none of them seemed to mind. One of the twins slid closer to him throughout the meal, until she was practically tucked under his wing. She looked up with bright, happy eyes. “I always wanted a brother,” she said, and hugged his arm. She clung to him for the rest of the meal.

That afternoon, Alex sat beside the garden with baby Molly while Sachiel and Mieke tended the new plants. Millie and the twins kept running off and finding flowers or interesting rocks to bring back to Alex, but they were too full of energy to stay in one place long. The baby attempted to eat nearly everything within reach, so Alex spent most of the time just holding her up and listening to her babble.

Sachiel sent Mieke off to play with her sisters when the little girl accidentally uprooted a carrot rather than a weed. He got the new shoot planted again, then brushed the dirt off his hands and came over to Alex. He lounged in the grass beside him, and held his arms out for Molly. The squirming baby tottered over to Sachiel and used his long black hair to pull herself up close to his face. She grabbed and pinched at his nose and ears, but Sachiel barely appeared to notice.

“You’re probably wondering about their mother,” he said while little fingers tugged at his cheek.

Alex nodded. He was, but it didn’t seem like something he could ask.

“She died,” Sachiel said. “Nearly a year ago, just after Molly was born.”

“I’m sorry,” said Alex.

Sachiel nodded. “We all miss her. Mara was an amazing woman.”

Alex pulled a blade of grass from the ground. “Was she… was she a Homm?”

“Yes,” said Sachiel. “She was beautiful and strong, just like our daughters.” He smiled at Alex. “I think she would have liked you.”

It was hard to look at Sachiel when he was being so kind. Alex focused on plucking more grass from the ground at his side. “Is it really okay if I stay?”

“Well… Won’t your mother be worried about you?”

Alex shook his head, but didn’t say anything. He wove the long strands of grass together with the flowers the girls brought him.

Sachiel quietly watched Alex while Molly continued pulling his hair and pinching his cheeks. He only moved his head away once, when she tried to put a finger in his eye. After a while, the baby teetered around Sachiel’s side and wiggled under his wing. He raised it enough for her to fit, then pulled it tight around her, cradling her in the warmth of his feathers. She nestled against his back and began sucking her thumb. She was asleep almost instantly.

Alex finished weaving a flower crown of yellow blossoms. He sat it aside and glanced at Sachiel. The man gave him a warm smile.

“You can stay with us for a while,” Sachiel said, “but I’ll warn you that when the girls see what you’ve made, they’re not going to leave you alone until they each have one.”

The corner of Alex’s mouth tugged up. He started work on the next flower crown while he sat beside his father and listened to the peaceful sounds of the valley.

Chapter Text

Over the next couple days, Alex adjusted to life with his father and sisters. They were all wonderful, even when the little girls started fighting about who got to sit next to him at meals. They dragged him all over the valley to show him their favorite places to play. The second day, Mieke, the oldest, helped him pick the sap and twigs from his hair while Millie regaled him with stories of the forts they built along the edge of the brook.

The twins heaped flowers in his lap until he promised to teach them how to make the flower crowns themselves. They wore every crooked crown and bracelet with pride, though Sachiel had to insist they take them off at bedtime. The twins still tucked them under their pillows, and wore the squashed flowers again the next day.

In the small house, there were three rooms: one for Sachiel, one shared by Mieke and Millie, and the other shared by the twins and the baby. Sachiel made up the long, rattan couch near the fireplace in the living area for Alex. It already had a feather-stuffed cushion, but he added blankets and a pillow. It was comfortable. Alex didn’t mind sleeping there, even if whichever little girl woke first would always come out and stare at him until he opened his eyes.

The only thing Alex found strange about the family was that each night, after the girls were tucked in bed, Sachiel left.

“Patrol,” Sachiel explained. “Just a precaution.”

For a few nights, Alex lay on the couch and feigned sleep when Sachiel returned. He listened to the way the man shook out his huge wings before entering the house. He heard the wooden bolt slide shut and heavy boots get kicked off by the door.

Each night, Alex held perfectly still when Sachiel walked barefoot across the room and paused behind the couch. Only after the man continued to his bedroom and closed the door did Alex open his eyes. He watched the fading fire, contemplating what he was going to do.

Alex liked being there. He wanted to stay in the valley, no matter what.

On the sixth night, Alex sat by the fire long after the girls were asleep in their beds. He clung to the brown and white cape wrapped over his wings and shoulders, holding it tight against his chest. He wasn’t cold, but he trembled as he stared at the crackling fire and listened for Sachiel’s return.

He wasn’t sure he could do this.

The silence broke at the deepest hour of the night with a familiar flutter of wings. Alex bit his lip and rose. He moved closer to the door, then waited for Sachiel to settle his wings against his back and enter the house.

The man stepped inside, but paused when he saw Alex standing before him.

“Alex?” There was caution in his voice. “Why are you still awake?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” the boy said. He took another step toward the tall man, but he kept his eyes lowered. “I-I was waiting for you.”

“For me?” Sachiel slowly shut the door behind him.

Nodding, Alex said, “I want to stay with you. I’ll do whatever you want.” He forced his shaking, grey-nailed fingers to open and release the edges of the cape he held around him. The woven fabric slid over his wings and dropped to the floor, revealing his skinny, naked body. Alex forced his hands down to his sides, resisting the urge to cover himself.

“Alex-”

“Please,” the boy interrupted, desperate. He closed his black eyes as tight as he could. “I won’t cry if you don’t want me to. I can be quiet, even if you want to hurt me. I’ll be good, I swear. J-Just don’t make me leave.”

The cool night air still clung to Sachiel’s skin and feathers as he stepped toward Alex. It surrounded him like an aura. The shivering boy felt the chill caress his bare skin like a cold omen of things to come.

Alex tilted his head back, exposing his throat even as his pulse beat a frantic, scared rhythm. He offered himself in any way the man wanted to claim him.

Sachiel leaned closer. His long black hair smelled of clover and starlight. Fabric rustled. Alex tensed, waiting for Sachiel’s touch, wondering if it would hurt. He flinched when the heavy cape dropped back around his wings and shoulders.

Cautious, Alex opened one eye at a time, looking up at his father. “But-”

Sachiel tugged the cape closed around Alex’s slim body and fastened the clasp under his chin. “The only thing I want from you when I come home,” he said firmly, “is a warm cup of tea and someone to talk with.” He smoothed the cape over Alex’s shoulders and looked directly into the swirling black of his eyes. “Understand?”

Alex’s lower lip quivered. Tears dripped down his cheeks. “Y-Yes.”

Sachiel sighed and pulled Alex close. He patted the back of the cape comfortingly. “Good boy.”

Years of pent up anguish and pain broke through Alex in a sob that shook his whole body. Sachiel didn’t say anything. He just held Alex close while the boy clung to him, and patiently waited until the heartbroken cries had faded to weak, hiccuping gasps.

Alex sniffled as Sachiel guided him over to the couch. The man tucked a blanket around him with all the care he gave his other children, then poured two cups of tea from the kettle over the fire. He sat at Alex’s side. Sachiel stayed there long after the tea was gone. He didn’t say anything, even when Alex leaned against his shoulder and fell asleep.

Sachiel stayed with his son through the night, watching the fire until it was nothing more than smoldering embers.

Chapter Text

“I was a ward,” Sachiel explained one day while Alex helped him weed the garden. The man had Molly supported in his wing napping again while the twins were inside making bread. Mieke and Millie were down by the stream washing clothes, but from the sounds of their laughter, they were probably playing more than working.

“What is a ward?” Alex asked.

“It is a child who is given to a government official to be raised.” Sachiel used his forearm to brush his hair back from his forehead. “I was required to stay with the magistrate in Ganbik for a century and a half so they could ensure I received a proper education.”

“A hundred and fifty years? Why?”

“Well…” Sachiel paused and looked up at the clouds drifting in the blue sky overhead. “My father started a war. I guess they thought if they didn’t control me that long, I might end up like him.”

“Your father?”

“The Isten Chaitaan.”

Alex knew that name, but it took him a moment to place it. “Wait, that means you’re Ahnnak.”

Sachiel nodded.

“So I’m Ahnnak.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.”

“But your father…” Alex’s brow furrowed. “He betrayed E’din. They killed him.”

“That’s what they tell me,” Sachiel said. He moved down the row and tugged a stay weed from between the growing vegetables. “I was probably close to Molly’s age when I was sent to Ganbik. I don’t remember anything before that, not about my parents or my siblings. Ku-Oaxa and Magistrate Vikriel restricted what my tutors were allowed to teach me so I would stay compliant with their ideals. I wasn’t even allowed to use my name. That’s why I went by Siel for so long.”

“That’s awful,” said Alex.

“Yes, but I didn’t know any different. For my first century, I was barely permitted to leave the palace.” Sachiel placed a hand under his wing to support Molly and then moved into the next garden row. He crouched back down and continued weeding the plants. “Then Ku-Oaxa retired and Ku-Toh took over my guardianship. He eventually let me venture into the city under guard. During my last two decades of custody, they started allowing me to attend events with Magistrate Vikriel as ‘an example of how the pious devotion to E’din can rehabilitate a corrupt bloodline.’” Sachiel sounded like he was quoting someone he didn’t really like when he said that. He wrinkled his nose and huffed. “Not that anyone but a few Isten were even aware of who I was. Few years after that, I met your mother.”

Alex finished his row and started again in the one after Sachiel. “Did you know she was married?” he asked. He carried the uprooted weeds in his left hand as he went down the line.

“No,” said Sachiel, “but even if I had, I doubt it would have mattered. I had lived a sheltered life until then. I was idealistic and naive, and Lily… well, she was mature far beyond her years.” Lost in his memories, Sachiel plucked the leaf from one of the new plants and rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. “When Lily arrived at any event, she became this spark of joy that filled the room with light. She was more charismatic and beautiful than anyone I had ever met, and when I was with her, I didn’t feel like some nameless ward.”

It was hard for Alex to imagine his mother as Sachiel was describing her. Gabriel, maybe, but not Liliel, especially after the last time he saw her. She had been furious when she faced Jequn in the hall. Your son…

“I thought we were destined to be together,” Sachiel said, pulling Alex’s attention back to him. “Even after I found out she was married, I would have done anything for her.” He shook himself from his reverie and continued along the garden row. Alex silently followed suit. “One day Lily told me we were done. She never came back. I was heartbroken, of course, but there was nothing I could do. Every day got easier, but I still missed her.” He reached the end of his row and stood, sore after being crouched in the dirt so long. While he stretched his back, he kept a hand under Molly for extra support.

“A couple years later,” Sachiel continued, “I was released from being a ward. I quickly discovered how inadequate my education had been. I met Mara, and I didn’t think about Lily much after that.” He looked down at Alex as the boy finished the row. “But I want you to know I would have come for you if I had known you existed.”

Alex stood and brushed the dirt from his knees. He doubted Jequn would have let him go, but it was still nice to hear.

“Sachiel?”

“Yes?”

“Can I ask you something?” Alex looked up into Sachiel’s deep blue eyes. His eyes were the color of the sky at twilight, nearly dark enough to be considered purple. They were also very kind.

“Of course, Alex. Anything.”

“What are your abilities?”

“My abilities?” Sachiel pressed his lips together while he thought. “Well, I guess I’m not bad at art. I can draw just about anything I see.”

“No, I mean abilities, like energy manipulation.”

“Oh. That.” Sachiel smirked. “That was a part of my education that was severely lacking. It fell on the edge of what they considered appropriate for me to learn, and I never quite got the hang of it.”

“You can’t use energy? At all?”

Sachiel held up one finger, signaling for Alex to wait, then adjusted Molly under his wing so she was completely secure. He brought both hands together and rapidly rubbed them, then held his palms up. Sachiel wiggled his fingers and focused.

An iridescent bubble appeared between his hands. Inside, a storm of fire and lightning surged, while frost coated the inside of the orb. But when the bubble popped, it was all gone.

“That’s it?” Alex asked.

Sachiel dusted his hands off. “I can get by. I picked up a few tricks when I left Ganbik. Now in a fight-”

“But your energy isn’t black,” exclaimed Alex, his brow furrowed in frustration.

“Black?” Sachiel tilted his head, confused. “Why would my energy be black?”

“Because mine is.” Alex held up his fistful of weeds. He let a coil of energy seep down his arm. It condensed and skittered in black sparks across his hand until it found the plants. Alex opened his fingers as most of the weeds turned to dust.

“Whoa.” Sachiel nearly dropped Molly. He pulled his wing in around her again and bounced like he was trying to lull her back to sleep, but the baby hadn’t woken. It was a nervous reaction, like when Uzzi would bounce his leg before taking a big test. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Sachiel admitted.

“I didn’t get it from you?”

“Sorry, Alex, I don’t know where you got powers like that. My side, it’s, um, mostly kinetic. I pick up people’s movements easily, that’s all.” Sachiel saw that Alex was upset, so he suggested, “Maybe this is something you inherited from your mother?”

“No,” Alex sighed. “It’s not her, either.”

Sachiel appraised the boy for a moment. His nervous bouncing slowed, but Molly remained asleep under his wing. “Why don’t we take a break?”

“But the garden…”

“It’ll still be here tomorrow. Let’s go in and see if Malia and Mulin have made bread, or if they’ve just made a mess.” Sachiel grinned at Alex. The boy nodded, still a little disappointed that he didn’t have answers, but he followed Sachiel back into the house anyway.

The twins had made both a mess and bread, but they were happy to have Alex with them while they cleaned up.

Chapter Text

“Papa,” Millie sniffled. “I don’t remember Mama’s face.”

“Oh, darling.” Sachiel scooped her up into his arms and held her tight. It was late, and the girls were supposed to be getting ready for bed, but Sachiel carried Millie over to the fire. He took a handful of parchment scrolls off a high shelf, and then he sat on the floor with his second oldest daughter. “You’ll never forget her,” he said. “She will always be a part of you.” He adjusted her in his lap. The firelight cast his white feathers in a golden glow.

“But I don’t remember her smile.” Millie rubbed her eyes with her hands and leaned against Sachiel’s chest.

“She had your smile.” Sachiel kissed the top of her head. “You remember when you filled my boots with mud and I didn’t notice until I pulled them on and it squished between my toes?”

The little girl laughed despite her tears. “Yeah?”

“That mischievous little smile you had then was exactly your mother’s smile.” He chuckled and opened one of the scrolls. The parchment cracked a bit, but Sachiel spread it out on the floor so Millie could see it in the firelight.

Alex leaned over the back of the couch to peek as well. It was a charcoal sketch of a young, laughing woman. She was very pretty. She wore her short, curly hair in tight knots all over her head. Her dark eyes looked out of the drawing with a mischievous glint, like she had been captured by the artist.

Mieke and the twins came over as Sachiel opened another scroll. The page was covered in sketches of the same woman, some while she was sleeping, some while she was focused on another task. There was one where she was lost in thought, chewing on her thumb nail. Meiki stood behind her father’s wings, examining the sketched images. She put her thumb in her mouth and chewed on her nail just like the woman on the page.

“Mama was very pretty,” one of the twins said. Alex still couldn’t tell them apart. She crawled under Sachiel’s wing and sat on the floor by his leg. The other took a seat across from them, tilting her head to examine the art.

“Yes, she was,” said Sachiel. “And she loved all of you very much. She used to tell me how much she wanted a big family. We weren’t even sure it was possible, but then Mieke was born.” He looked back at his oldest daughter and smiled. “She called you our miracle. Every day, I still believe that.”

Mieke wrapped her arms around her father’s neck and hugged him. They continued looking through the scrolls. As each one opened, the woman drawn within got a little older. In one, she lay sprawled across a bed with her mouth open and a tiny baby under each arm.

“I remember that!” Millie exclaimed. “Mama was snoring so loud, I thought an ursal was in the house.” The girls all laughed.

Sachiel opened the last scroll. It was an image of Mara, very pregnant, braiding Meike’s hair while Millie and the twins played by her feet. They all gazed at the quiet scene, then the twin across from Sachiel asked, “Papa, why aren’t you in any of the pictures?”

“I drew them, baby.” He reached over and stroked her cheek. “I always drew when I was happy.”

“How come you don’t draw anymore?” she asked.

There was a touch of sorrow in Sachiel’s eyes. “It’s late,” he said. “Let’s get you all to bed.”

***

Alex stepped out into the warm spring air while Sachiel put his daughters to bed. The stars were beautiful in the valley tonight. The moon was full, and everything glowed. Alex spread his wings and turned his face up to bask in the moonlight.

He felt at peace.

Over a month had passed since Alex left Archridge. He didn’t want to go back. Life with Sachiel and the girls was wonderful. Alex had never imagined what it would be like to have sisters, but he loved those five girls more every day. Even when they squabbled, they were adorable. When he held baby Molly in his arms and looked into her dark eyes, he felt like he could do anything to protect her.

He wondered if Gabriel had ever felt that way toward him.

Alex lowered his wings. There had been a sound in the forest to the west, like a branch breaking. It wasn’t right, not at this time of night. The nocturnal beasts who lived near the valley were too small to make such noise.

A prickle of warning made Alex’s wings bristle just a second before he saw it.

Something large sprang down from the trees at the edge of the valley. It a heartbeat, Alex was standing face to face with a bulky man with festering breath. His face was bruised and scarred, but they were all recent marks. The man was a Terran.

“You’re smaller than I expected, Ferryman,” the stranger sneered.

Alex took an uneasy step back. There was something wrong about the man, but Alex couldn’t quite figure it out. Whatever it was, he knew he was dangerous. “Sachiel!” he called back over his shoulder. “Someone’s here!”

The stranger snarled at Alex, showing a mouth full of broken, jagged teeth, then shoved the slim boy aside. He marched toward the house.

“No, wait!” Alex exclaimed, scrambling back to his feet and running after him.

Sachiel stepped out just as the man reached for the handle. His wings opened, blocking the way in. Sachiel had a hard look in his eyes, one that Alex had never seen before. When he stepped toward the stranger, the man stopped. Sachiel was taller, but did not have the muscular bulk of the Terran man. Alex feared what would happen if they fought.

“You are not welcome inside,” Sachiel said in a cold tone.

The stranger bared his teeth aggressively and spread his wings in the bright moonlight. It was then that Alex finally realized what was wrong.

His feathers. They had spots.

The wings of the Terran man were covered with dappled spots and bands. They were light, like the fallow spots on a fawn, but they were unmistakable. Alex had only ever seen white wings on a person before, and he covered his mouth to stifle his gasp of surprise. Sachiel didn’t react at all.

“You’re the Ferryman, right?” the stranger asked. “Take me over.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sachiel replied. He took another step toward the man, forcing him to back away from the house. “If you want food, my son will prepare something, and then you will be on your way.”

Those spotted wings shook with fury. “You think I’m an idiot?” he spat. His broken teeth slurred his speech but did nothing to impede his threats. “I flew all this fucking way out here, and you are going to take me over these fucking hills, or I’ll rip out your throat and fuck your son in the eye while you bleed to death in the dirt.”

Alex trembled and started to back away from the man, giving himself enough space to fly if he needed to. He glanced at the house.

No.

He couldn’t run.

He couldn’t leave his sisters inside unprotected.

Alex stopped and he held his ground. He watched the exchange between Sachiel and the man, scared for more than just himself.

Despite the aura of menace surrounding the stranger, Sachiel appeared unaffected by the man’s threats. He glared down at the muscular Terran and took another step forward. He was practically touching his chest now. “You will leave,” said Sachiel, “either by choice or in pieces, but if you threaten my son again, I will make that choice for you.”

“Oh, will you, sweetheart?” The man sucked his jagged teeth and leered. “After all the rumors I heard of the hellspawn Ferryman, I expect more than some twig I could crack over my knee. I’m going to string your fucking guts through the trees, and then I’m going to split your son in half with my c-”

Alex wasn’t sure what happened. One moment, the two men were standing, and the next, the stranger was on his stomach with his face embedded in the ground. Sachiel held the struggling man there with a boot against the back of his head. Spotted wings beat frantically at the air, trying to hit Sachiel and knock him away, but he was always just out of their reach.

“I understand,” Sachiel said, his voice calm and quiet, “that you have had a long flight. The past few years have undoubtedly been difficult for you, but that is no excuse for your behavior. This is my territory, and you will play by my rules, or you will not play at all.”

The struggling of the stranger shifted from the desire to attack Sachiel to the desperation of a man needing to breathe. He strained, his spotted wings beating a futile rhythm in the air, but for all the man’s bulk, he was helpless beneath Sachiel’s heel. With an unmovable grace, Sachiel remained balanced on his head until the Terran began tapping the ground to signal his defeat. Only then did Sachiel release some of the pressure.

There was a huge gasp, where nearly as much dirt as air flooded the stranger’s lungs. Through his choked coughs, the man shouted. “Kill you! Fucking kill yo-” His curses became muffled as his face was shoved back in the dirt.

“Maybe you don’t understand,” said Sachiel. “There are rules. To have come this far, you must have heard those rules. And if you don’t know them, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to assume you’re a spy. Do you know what I do to spies? Have you heard those rumors? Because I can assure you,” he leaned in toward the man under his boot, “they’re all true.”

Alex realized his mouth was hanging open. He had spent weeks with this man. Sachiel was a devoted father to his girls and an endlessly patient man to Alex. Never once had he considered him capable of the vicious force he displayed now.

Gradually, the stranger stopped resisting. He became very still and opened his fists flat against the ground. His spotted wings still twitched over him, but he wasn’t struggling against Sachiel anymore.

“Let’s try this again,” Sachiel said after another moment. “I will let you up, and you will give me the polite, respectful responses I expect, or I will scatter your remains across the mountains.” He watched for any hint of resistance, then very calmly lifted his foot from the man’s head.

Shakily, the big Terran pushed himself up to his hands and knees. With each rattling breath, he coughed and spat wet dirt from his lungs.

Sachiel stood before him with a stern expression and his arms crossed over his chest. A breeze caught his long, black hair, and it twisted up into the wind while he waited. His white feathers appeared practically iridescent in the moonlight.

When the stranger started to stand, Sachiel’s brow twinged. That look was all it took, and the Terran lowered himself back to the dirt. He knelt before Sachiel, his feathers splayed across the dirt behind him.

Amazed, Alex watched as the menacing man bowed low and touched his forehead to the ground before Sachiel. “Beg pardon,” the gruff voice said.

“Go on,” Sachiel permitted.

The stranger leaned back so he was sitting on his heels. He ran his tongue over his teeth and sucked dirt from the jagged gaps. He was thinking, and it was clear it wasn’t something he had to do often. Sachiel patiently waited before him, but he never took his eyes off the stranger.

“I come in starlight to seek a favor,” the man grumbled.

“The stars offer no favors for the damned,” Sachiel replied. “To come this far is to seek death.”

The stranger’s dirty face scrunched while he thought. Alex realized he was trying to remember the next part. It was a script. If he messed up, would Sachiel really kill him? But if he didn’t mess up, then what? Would he come inside for tea?

The man licked his dirty lips and said, “To be damned in E’din is a fate worse than death. I seek freedom among the fiends. If the stars will not guide me, I b-b-”

“Beseech,” Sachiel supplied.

“-beseech you, Ferryman, to lead me beyond the border.”

Sachiel unfolded his arms. “A life in exile cannot be redeemed. I will deny you three times." He held up his last three fingers. "You are not strong enough.”

The man’s wings bristled, but he said the words. “I have no strength before the might of the Jinn. I pledge my body to their service.”

Sachiel nodded and lowered his middle finger. “You are not wise enough.”

“I know no truth before the wisdom of the Jinn. I pledge my mind to their knowledge.”

One finger remained. “You are unworthy,” Sachiel stated.

The dirty, broken man with spotted wings raised his chin proudly. “To die free among the fiends is more honorable than to die as a slave of E’din. I pledge my life to the ideals of the Jinn.”

“Then by the light of the stars, I will guide you.” He offered his hand to the Terran. “Rise. The Jinn await you.”

With only a little hesitation, the Terran took Sachiel’s hand and was pulled to his feet. Sachiel supported him until they were certain he could stand on his own.

“Wait here,” Sachiel instructed. “We’ll leave soon.” The man nodded, and Sachiel turned from him and walked to the boy watching in the yard. He leaned in, placed his hands on Alex’s shoulders, and looked directly into his black eyes. “I need you to go inside.”

Alex flinched when Sachiel touched him. How many times had Jequn grabbed him like this? How many times had he hurt him after? How could Alex trust that this man, who heclearly knew nothing about, was any different? How could-

“Alex.” Sachiel gently shook the boy. Dull black eyes focused on him again. Alex blinked rapidly, trying to clear his thoughts of the fog of fear that filled him. His pulse raced, but he held his father’s gaze. Sachiel gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s okay. Go inside. I’ll return before dawn.”

“B-But what if-”

“It will be fine,” said Sachiel. He squeezed Alex’s shoulders. “Go on.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex muttered. His father patted his shoulder, then Alex walked back to the house. He opened the door enough to step in, but before he closed it, he heard a flurry of wings from the yard. The two men were gone.

Alex shut his eyes and leaned back against the wooden door. He tried to control his breathing while he made sense of what happened.

“Are you okay?”

Alex opened his eyes. Mieke stood before him in her nightgown. She had nearly outgrown the thin fabric, but it still covered her down to her thighs.

“I’m fine, Mieke,” Alex insisted. He rubbed his face with his palms and pushed away from the door. “What are you doing out of bed?”

“I heard Papa fighting.”

It hadn’t been much of a fight, but Alex understood why she would be worried. “Sachiel is fine,” he assured her. “You don’t need to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” she said. She tilted her head and peered at Alex. “Are you?”

“I’m- I’m not scared,” he insisted. “I’ll protect you if that man comes back.”

Mieke stepped forward and took his hand. She squeezed it reassuringly. “It’s okay, Alex. Papa won’t let him come back. This is his job.”

“His job?”

Nodding, Mieke tugged Alex’s arm and led him over to the kitchen table. She nudged him onto a bench, and then stood on her toes to reach a tin of biscuits on a shelf. She opened it, took out two small treats, and then slid it back where it came from. She gave one to Alex, then sat across from him with the other.

“Mama taught me how to make these before she died,” Mieke said. “When it’s blackberry season, I pick as many as I can to make the jam for the topping.” She nibbled off a bit of the dry biscuit surrounding the dark jam.

Even is Alex couldn’t taste any of the sweetness of the berries, he took a bite of the treat. While he slowly chewed it, Mieke said, “Lots of people come to Papa for help. Some of them can be kind of scary, but Mama explained that they’re just lost. Papa guides them to where they’re supposed to be.”

“Over the border of E’din?”

Mieke nodded. “Mama used to help him. It was her idea that everyone who needed help would use a secret code, that way no one could trick them. My favorite part is when Papa says, ‘Then by the light of the stars, I will guide you.’ I helped Mama write that part.” Mieke smiled and nibbled a bit more off her biscuit.

“This doesn’t scare you at all?” Alex asked. “That man who was here, his wings- he’s dangerous.”

“The Ander?” Mieke chewed thoughtfully. “I suppose, but Papa would never let anyone hurt us.”

An Ander. Alex’s wings gave a nervous quiver. Had he really been near an Ander? He’d only heard of them and the horrible things they’d done, but Mieke didn’t seem concerned that a criminal like that had been so close to her or her sisters. She had too much faith in her father.

“Sachiel leaves every night,” said Alex. “What if someone comes while he’s gone?”

Mieke tilted her head and squinted at Alex. She was very astute for her age. “Why don’t you call him Papa?”

“What? I don’t- It’s not-” Alex stammered, caught off guard by her question.

“You’re his son, right? Well, you should call him Papa, too.”

“I don’t think I can,” said Alex. “It doesn’t feel right.”

Mieke pursed her lips. “Why? We’re family. You’re our brother. Or don’t you like us?”

“Of course I like you. I’m just-” Alex lowered his eyes and tucked his hair behind an ear. “I had a father already, and he wasn’t a very nice man.”

Mieke stuffed the rest of her biscuit in her mouth. “Well Papa is nice,” she said as she stood. “And he protects us. You should give him a chance. Trust him. I’m going to bed, Alex. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Mieke,” he replied, and watched the young girl go back to her room. He ate the rest of the biscuit, then moved to his bed on the couch, even though he had no intention of sleeping.

***

Sachiel returned to the valley at nearly the same hour of night that he returned from his usual patrols. The delay was just long enough for Alex to begin to worry and dream up all the terrible things that had happened to him, and all the terrible things that would be coming back to the house for the rest of them.

When he heard the familiar fluttering of wings land in the yard, Alex sat up. He stared into the fire, hands clasped before him, and listened to the man enter.

Over the past couple weeks, Alex had grown comfortable with Sachiel. He enjoyed preparing tea and waiting up for him to return each night. They would always sit and talk, either about the girls, Mara, or Sachiel’s upbringing. Sometimes Alex talked about his friends at the academy or his brother. He never spoke of Jequn, and Sachiel didn’t ask. He was patient. He knew Alex needed time.

Alex thought he understood the man he was truly descended from, but he realized he had been naive. He couldn’t blindly trust anyone. That was how people got hurt.

Sachiel entered the house, moving quieter than usual. He closed the latch and placed his boots by the door. He walked with cautious steps over to the fire. “Alex? Can we talk?”

“Whatever,” the boy mumbled. His black eyes remained fixated on the fire.

Sachiel sat at the far end of the couch, trying to give Alex plenty of space. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he said. “I usually meet travelers further away from the valley.”

“Travelers?” Alex glared at him from the corner of his eye. The firelight caught in his black eyes, making them shift and swirl in dark patterns. “They’re Anders. You’re helping criminals.”

Sachiel looked down, abashed. “Yes,” he said. “They’re Anders. But not all of them are criminals. Most of them just need help finding a place they can belong.”

“And that man? The one who threatened to kill you, a-and…” Alex couldn’t repeat what the man had wanted to do to him. He squeezed his hands together until his knuckles turned white. “That man just needed your help?”

“He did.” Sachiel couldn’t bring himself to look at Alex. He fidgeted and picked dirt from under his nails. “Men like him are scared. They have endured the worst E’din could throw at them, and they survived. He deserves a chance at redemption, where he won’t be judged for his past mistakes.”

“You mean with the Jinn,” Alex accused.

“Yes, with the Jinn.” Sachiel sighed and raised his wings so he could lean against the low back of the couch. “They are not the evil either of us were taught.”

Alex remembered all his lessons at the academy that covered the destruction the Jinn inflicted on innocent people in E’din. “But they kill people.”

“E’din has waged a war against the Jinn since the first ship landed on this planet. They’ve slaughtered thousands more Jinn than the Jinn have them.”

“But if the Jinn didn’t attack, everyone could live in peace. It’s the fiends’ fault so many people die.”

Sachiel pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alex, I know you’re being contradictory because you’re upset with me, and I know it’s difficult to understand, but fiends aren’t evil. They’re only protecting themselves against an invasion. This is their home.”

Alex’s brow furrowed. He looked back down at his hands. “I know they’re not evil,” he mumbled.

“What?”

“I know they’re not evil,” he repeated a little louder. “I… I knew a fiend. We were friends.”

“You knew a fiend?” Sachiel asked, eyebrows raised. “What kind?”

“Zvikwambo. I called him Bo.”

“Bo.” Sachiel said the name with a little smile. “The tribe from Zvikwambo is very serious and secretive. You must have been very close to this one if it let you call it Bo. What happened?”

Alex rubbed his thumb over one of his grey nails. “Someone… Someone I thought I could trust killed him. Bo wouldn’t have hurt anyone. He didn’t have to die.” Tears stung his eyes. He sniffled and blinked them away. He hadn’t been able to talk to anyone about the zvik’s death. No one would understand how much the loss hurt, and then losing Hadasha after that… It was like everyone he ever cared for was being stolen from him, and it hurt. “It isn’t fair,” he cried.

“No, it isn’t fair,” said Sachiel. “I’m sorry you were betrayed, and I’m sorry your friend died. It’s that type of injustice the Jinn seek to prevent.”

Alex glanced over. Sachiel seemed sincere. “I really miss my friends.”

“I know. I wish I could tell you that it gets easier, but the best advice I can offer is to hold the memory of the ones you lose close and live your life in a way that would have made them proud.”

“Is that what you do?” the boy asked.

“I try.” Sachiel sighed heavily. “The stars know I try. Some days are easier than others. Some days, I would give my wings just to see Mara’s smile again.”

“Can I ask how she died?”

“There was an accident a couple months after Molly was born. Mara was on her way to the village for supplies and got caught in a landslide. By the time I found her, it was too late. I couldn’t save her.”

“I’m sorry,” said Alex. “It’s not your fault.”

Sachiel shook his head and stared at the crackling fire. The blaze reflected like a funeral pyre in his blue eyes. “If it wasn’t for the girls, I don’t know if I could have gone on. Mara was my guiding star. She accepted me for who I am and showed me the truth about the Jinn.”

“She did?”

“Mara was born outside E’din. She lived among them for years.”

“But she was a Homm.”

“Yes. There are whole villages of Homm outside E’din. There are even places where Homm, Terran, and Jinn all live together.”

“But I thought…” Alex stopped. He didn’t know what he thought anymore. He couldn’t trust anything he had been taught.

Sachiel turned his gaze from the fire to Alex. “It’s not some desolate wasteland. There are many wonderful places beyond E’din. Most Jinn just want to live peaceful lives with their families. It is the armies of the Isten who give them no choice but to fight.”

“You’ve seen them? You’ve been beyond the borders of E’din?”

“Yes.”

“And you came back?”

“I did.”

“But how? Isn’t E’din protected?”

“The barrier is weak on this side of E’din. There’s a path through the mountains about a league north of here where the barrier is barely active. I can shield myself and those near me to pass through.”

“Shield yourself?”

Sachiel held up his hand and created that shimmering bubble again. It remained empty this time, but rolled across his fingertips like a glass orb. “I wasn’t allowed to practice elements unless I could hold them contained within a barrier. Ku-Oaxa had this big stick he use to hit me with anytime I slipped up. I feel it’s kind of fitting that the one spell they forced me to perfect is the one I’ve been able to adapt to resist everything they taught me.”

Alex watched the orb, mesmerized by how the firelight played off the glimmering surface. “Can you teach me?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Sachiel tossed the bubble to him. It remained solid as it fell into Alex’s hands. It was heavier than he expected. “I’ve never taught anyone before, and your energy might not be compatible.”

“Please?”

The corner of Sachiel’s mouth pulled back. “Does this mean you forgive me for what happened this evening?”

Alex thought for a moment, then said, “Will you answer one more question first?”

“Sure.”

“Why did you come back to E’din after joining the Jinn?”

“Because this is where I can do the most good. I haven’t been exiled like my brother, and-”

“Wait, your brother?” Alex’s eyes widened.

Sachiel stretched his arm along the back of the couch. His finger drummed a pattern against the wooden frame. “Yes, but... What do you know of the Isten Chaitaan?” he asked.

“He was a traitor to E’din,” Alex said, repeating what he’d been taught. “He started the war.”

“He also believed this planet already belonged to the Jinn. He felt that setting up the colony was a mistake.”

“Then why did he come to Ter?”

“He didn’t always feel that way,” Sachiel explained. “When Chaitaan arrived, his ship crashed in the snowy peaks in the distant north. There were no other survivors, and he was barely able to crawl from the wreckage himself. He would have frozen to death in those mountains if a tribe of ursalim hadn’t rescued him. They brought him into their cave where they were settling in for hibernation. They kept him warm and fed through the winter. He stayed with them long after the spring thaw to learn their customs and language.

“By the time he returned to the Dengir, he knew he had to stop the colony, because he knew the ascent of Ahn meant the destruction of every natural part of this world. But Tennin had already set up a stronghold. Chaitaan couldn’t stop E’din on his own, and he knew that if they ever doubted his loyalty to Ahn, he would be executed. So he worked in the shadows to resist them. He sent his heir beyond the borders of E’din to unite the tribes of Ter into a force that could resist the invasion. That’s who leads the Jinn, even now. They call him Iblis, the Light Bringer, but when he was born in E’din, he was given the name Setaniel. He’s my brother.” Sachiel raised an eyebrow. “And your uncle, I suppose.”

I have an uncle.

The thought was startling, and when the bubble popped in Alex’s hands, he jumped.

Sachiel gave Alex a crooked smile. “It’s late,” he said. “We can talk more tomorrow, if you want, but I think we should both try to get some rest before the girls wake.”

“Okay,” Alex said. He rubbed his palms across the fabric covering his thighs. The residual energy that released when the bubble burst made his skin tingle. “Um, Sachiel?”

The man stood and folded his white wings against his back. “Yes?”

“I, um…” Alex bit his lip and glanced up at his father. “I forgive you.”

“Thank you, Alex. That means a lot to me.” He patted the boy’s head as he walked by. “Goodnight, son.”

Alex watched Sachiel walk back to his room. When the door closed, Alex settled on the couch before the fire and pulled a blanket over him. With a whisper only he could hear, he said, “Goodnight, Dad,” then closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Chapter Text

The tavern at the edge of the road was crowded. Inebriated Terran and Homm shouted over each other, growing more boisterous with every round of drinks. The fire burned too hot for a room filled with this many people, but Catriel wasn’t there to enjoy the ambiance. He had tracked an Ander to this place. He found one of the man’s broken teeth among the gravel outside the door. Someone in this tavern knew where he went. Someone here helped him run away.

Catriel held a flagon of mead, but he didn’t drink. He didn’t have the type of personality that encouraged strangers to talk to him. That suited him just fine. He had other ways to get the answers he needed. He was on a mission, and he would do whatever was necessary to find his target.

It wasn’t entirely the Ander’s fault that he was so easy to track across E’din. He wasn’t an intelligent man. That was part of why Catriel picked him up off the street. He spent an evening smashing the Ander’s face in, then told him if he ever saw him in E’din again, he would kill him.

It was only natural that the Ander ran scared. He left a trail of teeth and blood behind him that eventually led Catriel here, to this tavern. The Ander was desperate to escape E’din, and he followed rumors of a path across the border, which someone like him should never be allowed to cross. He would have been executed at any of the armed crossing points for even trying.

But the sympathizers and traitors knew a way. They whispered it in code, and offered help to anyone who would pledge their allegiance to the Jinn. They smuggled people through a crack in the border, and it was Catriel’s mission to find it and seal it, whatever the cost. His commanding officers recommended him for this job. He wasn’t going to let them down.

A lean Terran with white wings entered the tavern beside a staggering woman covered in a cloak. He helped her sit at a table, then went over and spoke to the bartender. The cacophony in the tavern was too loud for Catriel to hear the exchange, but he could read their lips.

We’re looking for the Ferryman.

Catriel raised his flagon to his lips to hide his smile. He watched the two with sharp golden eyes. The woman was weak, but the man tended her with an intensity that spoke of guilt. Mother and son, perhaps. He watched when they were led upstairs to speak to the informant. They would find the answers they looked for here, just as that Ander had. Catriel doubted they would even know they were being followed.

It was only a matter of time before Catriel found his target. Then, he would complete his mission. He would destroy the Ferryman and seal the breach in the border of E’din, once and for all.

Chapter Text

“I want an update,” Gabriel demanded as he marched into Elohim’s office after class.

“Patience, young Ahnnak,” the Isten replied without bothering to look up from the black tablet he scanned. “All possible measures are in place to find your brother.”

“If that was the case, you already would have fucking found him,” Gabriel snapped. When the double pupils of Elohim’s eyes raised toward him, Gabriel grit his teeth and added, “Sir.”

Elohim resumed reading his tablet. “The spring rains make tracking difficult, but all military personnel have been notified of his disappearance. They’ll find him. They often find missing children while on patrol. Just be patient.”

“I’m tired of being patient,” Gabriel said. “I want to go look for him.”

Elohim finally put the tablet down and focused on the silver-haired boy. “You’re young, Gabriel, and I know you’re worried, but as an heir, you need to understand that you cannot do everything yourself. You must trust others to do their jobs, just as you must do yours. Right now, that means focusing on your studies.”

“Fuck my studies.”

“Language, Gabriel.”

“Sorry, sir,” he growled. “But I can’t just sit around here pretending everything is okay. Alex has been gone for six weeks. He could be dead.”

“And I will grieve with you if that is the case,” said the Isten without emotion, “but there is more at stake than just the life of one boy. Your father understands this. That’s why he returned to his duties as soon as he recovered. The common people of E’din cannot know how close to death he came. We cannot show weakness, and we cannot lose another Isten.”

“But I could-”

“No, Gabriel.” Elohim stood, signaling the end of the discussion. “Kasdeja and I agree that the best place for you is here, at Archridge, preparing for a future at your father’s side. That is where you are most needed, for all of Ahn and Ter, not just your brother.”

Gabriel scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. He knew there was no point arguing with the Isten anymore, at least not today. “When they find Alex, they’re going to bring him to Archridge, right?”

“If he is alive, yes. He was listed as truant from the academy to prevent anyone from bothering your father while he recovered, but I promise, you will be the first to know when Alexiel returns.” Elohim walked around the desk and approached Gabriel. “Now, since you’ve come to bother me a day early, let’s resume your lessons, shall we?”

“Fine,” Gabriel grumbled. One of Elohim’s eyebrows raised, so he corrected himself with a terse, “Yes, sir.” He unfolded his arms and held out his hands.

When Gabriel was young, he studied with Elohim to learn how to control his wild energy. At one time, he trusted and respected the Isten. That stopped after he discovered Elohim was in league with Jequn, but Gabriel still visited him. He didn’t really have a choice.

During Gabriel’s first few visits, they just talked. Elohim was surprisingly open about the current affairs of the Isten, at least more than Jequn had ever been. Gabriel suspected it was because his silver hair reminded Elohim of his father. There was still an odd distance and severity to the man sometimes, but after Gabriel has seen through his memories, he thought he understood him a little.

Even when Elohim broke his arm that first time, there had been no malice in the act, and he had tended to him fondly afterward.

When Elohim offered to give him additional lessons on advanced elemental manipulation, Gabriel accepted. He didn’t have to trust the man to learn from him. Besides, over the years, Elohim had taught Gabriel more about controlling his energy than his own father ever had. Part of that was because Jequn considered it an inferior skill. Maybe it was, but Gabriel decided to learn more out of spite, just because he knew it would irritate his father.

Well, that, and it gave him an excuse to visit the Isten Elohim without raising suspicion from anyone else in the academy.

“From the beginning, scaling up,” said Elohim, beginning the lesson. He produced a dense rod of ice from the air and waited patiently.

Gabriel took a deep breath and began channeling a steady stream of electricity between his fingers. His silver eyebrows furrowed while he concentrated. The voltage gradually increased until his silver hair stood on end, as charged as the air around him. He focused hard on the growing stream of energy, but even still, a stray arc broke from his control. It scorched a point on the ceiling, joining several other marks already there.

The rod of ice struck the back of Gabriel’s thigh. The boy cut off the voltage as he jerked forward. He rubbed his leg and glared at the Isten Elohim.

“Again,” the instructor said without any sympathy.

“Fucking Isten,” Gabriel muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, sir. Yes, sir.” Gabriel held out his hands and resumed his elemental lesson under the Isten Elohim’s watchful eyes.

***

“You’re late,” Barach said from the chair he lounged on in Gabriel’s room. “Why are you limping? I thought you didn’t have your lesson with Elohim until tomorrow.”

“Shut up,” Gabriel snapped and kicked the door closed behind him. His legs hurt from the multiple welts across the back of his thighs, but he didn’t need Barach pointing it out. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”

“Erem is in detention. Daily Hunt practice doesn’t start until next month. Where else would I be?” Barach picked up the ragged book that lay open across his chest. He resumed reading, though he had read the damned thing so much it was a wonder he didn’t have it memorized.

“I’m not in the mood for company,” Gabriel said. He tossed his course books onto his desk beside the stack of work already waiting for him. He had been admitted to the biochemistry and genetic manipulation specialization this year, and the coursework for that one class was twice the load given to him in all his AC classes over the last four years. The rotating teachers were relentless, as if they wanted the students to fail. One of the second years students said it got easier, that they were just doing that to weed out the students who weren’t serious, but Gabriel couldn’t risk failing. Everyone had too many expectations of him.

Besides, Alex would come back eventually. Gabriel refused to give Jequn any more reason to retaliate against them.

“I don’t really care what mood you’re in,” said Barach as he turned the page of his book. “Erem is worried about you. You’ve been obsessing over Alex all month. You need a break.”

“And you need to mind your own business,” replied Gabriel. He jerked his shirt off and tossed it aside. “Both you and Erem.” He untied the front of his pants and shoved them down over his hips. The fabric brushed over the welts on his thighs as it fell, and he sucked in a sharp breath of pain.

Damn Elohim.

Angry, Gabriel kicked his pants to the wall. He stomped naked into his bathing room. His dorm had a full-sized, raised pool this year, large enough that he could be entirely submerged in it if he wanted to, wings and all. He flipped the faucet on and let the hot water rush into the stone basin. As he stepped in, he kept his wings raised over the back edge of the pool and slowly sat. The heat surrounded his sore body.

Barach leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. “You’re pushing yourself too hard,” he said.

“I’m fine,” Gabriel snapped. He gripped the edge of the tub as the water surrounded his thighs. The ice Elohim used hurt when it struck, but it also left blisters of frostbite across his skin. The welts felt like they were on fire in the water. He took shallow breaths through clenched teeth until the marks were finally submerged, then leaned back against the slanted edge of the pool and closed his eyes.

Fiends, he hated the Isten. All of them. Every last one of the six-winged bastards.

“Gabriel, you’re exhausted,” said Barach. “You can’t keep this up. The extra lessons with Elohim on top of your specialization-”

“I’m not going because I want to,” Gabriel interjected. “It’s a cover. Elohim is the only one who will tell me about Alex.”

“He pushes you to use your power until you can barely stand.”

“I’m getting stronger. I can take it,” he said dismissively.

“You’re going to snap again.”

Gabriel glared at his friend. “Go away, Barach.”

The older Ahnnak rolled his dark eyes. “I’m not leaving. You can’t tell me what to do. I’m not one of your groupies.”

“At least they’re useful. What purpose do you have, except to annoy me?” Gabriel flicked some water at him.

Barach scowled as the droplets hit his face. “You need a break, Gabriel. The last time you snapped, you nearly broke Erem’s wing. I won’t let you hurt him again.”

Gabriel sank down in the water, getting the feathers closest to his back wet. “I said I was sorry about that,” he muttered against the surface, forming half a dozen little bubbles with his words.

He hadn’t meant to hurt Erem. It happened about two weeks after Alex went missing. He was stressed out and lost control.

“Erem may be quick to forgive you, but I’m not.” Barach pushed off the wall with his shoulder and walked over to the pool. He crouched down beside Gabriel’s face, completely serious. “You can’t take Erem into Marut alone anymore. He took the blame for that fight, even though you attacked him, too. He’s in detention for the rest of the month because of you.”

“That was his choice.”

Barach’s expression darkened. A glint of red flashed through his eyes. Gabriel sullenly looked away. “You know Erem would do anything for you. Did he tell you what his father said?”

“Harut? No.”

“As long as Erem has detention, he can’t come home on the long weekends. If he gets into another fight before the Harvest, he’s not allowed to come home for the break, either.”

“That’s not fair,” complained Gabriel. “The ocean means everything to Erem. Harut can’t forbid him from going home.”

“Yes, he can,” stated Barach, a twinge of annoyance to the words.

“And what about Ar?” Gabriel demanded. “Is he stopping her too?”

“Harut has already arranged an escort for her. He’s serious, Gabriel. You need to promise to stop making Erem come with you into fights.”

“I don’t make Erem do anything,” Gabriel retorted irritably. “He-”

Barach put a hand on the top of Gabriel’s head and shoved him underwater. He held him down, patiently waiting while Gabriel struggled. Water sloshed over the sides of the pool as his white wings thrashed beneath the surface. Gabriel hadn’t been able to take a breath before he was submerged, and the longer Barach held him down, the more desperate his resistance became.

For all his growing power, Gabriel knew elements were useless against Barach. Any surge of energy would only make him stronger. Plus, at the moment, Gabriel would likely only end up hurting himself. Fire wasn’t an option. Any bolt of electricity through the water might irritate Barach, but it would certainly short-circuit Gabriel’s brain long enough to make him helpless. And ice… the last thing he needed was to be locked in solid ice, waiting for someone to defrost him. He was at Barach’s mercy, which wasn’t a place he liked to be, even when his friend was in a good mood.

When Barach finally pulled Gabriel back up, the silver-haired boy coughed and swore with every choked breath. “You fucking asshole! I’m going to rip your wings off and feed them to the fiends!”

“Promise me, Gabriel. Promise you won’t bring Erem into Marut alone again.”

“Fuck you! I hope you choke on a fiend’s warty cock, you motherfucking-” Barach started to push him back down again, but Gabriel quickly exclaimed, “Wait! I promise! Fiends, Barach, I fucking promise!”

“Good.” Barach let go of his silver hair and casually sat beside the edge of the pool. “If you want to go into Marut again, I’ll escort you, but if you get into a fight, you fight on your own. If it starts to go bad, I’ll get you out of there, but you’re not dragging Erem into this anymore.”

Gabriel slid low in the water and glared at Barach over the surface of the pool. After a bit, he raised his head and asked, “When did you become such an asshole?”

“Do what I tell you the first time and it won’t be a problem,” Barach replied calmly.

Gabriel glared for a few more moments, then pouted and muttered, “You got my wings wet.”

“I’m sorry,” answered Barach. He pushed his wet hand through his hair, spiking it up. “I’ll help you preen before dinner.”

Gabriel nodded and sank back in the water. “Thanks.”

***

Erem met them in the dining hall. He was late, but Barach had already picked up an extra platter of food for him. Erem squeezed onto the crowded bench on the other side of Barach, and immediately started complaining about detention.

“I never thought I would say this, but I miss Crispy,” he said around the rice ball stuffed in his cheek. “That fiend-taken Yorikkiel is so strict, she won’t even let me nap during detention. Just because she was appointed as Interim Headmaster by the Isten Marut herself, she thinks she’s so fucking special. Any idea when the Crispy’s investigation will be over?”

“No,” said Gabriel. “And I don’t care if Iscriel ever comes back. I hope they send him to Mahat.”

“Ugh,” groaned Erem. “I don’t care about him either, but fiends, I can’t take four more years of Yorikkiel. She’s going to drive me insane.”

“You could avoid her,” Barach suggested. “Stay out of detention.”

Erem huffed. “Yeah, cause that’s likely. Hey, did they have any more of those sesame buns?”

“They were out,” Barach said. He reached over and took the sesame bun from Gabriel’s tray and handed it to Erem. “You can have this one.”

“Hey!” Gabriel exclaimed. Barach glared at him, and he sulked. “Fine. Yeah. I didn’t want it anyway.”

“You sure?” Erem took it from Barach.

Gabriel waved it off dismissively. “It’s yours. Koha just saves food for me sometimes. I didn’t ask for it.”

“Maybe if you didn’t flirt with her every time you go through the line, she wouldn’t feel the need to save extra food for you,” said Barach. Gabriel didn’t like his tone.

“Who cares why she does it,” said Erem. “You’re so lucky, Gabriel.” He happily ate the sesame bun.

“Lucky,” Gabriel scoffed. He rolled his eyes and picked at the remaining roasted nuts on his tray.

Koha ran the kitchen at Archridge. She was old for a Homm, but all it took was a few warm smiles and a compliment about her hair for her to start saving food. Sometimes, she even baked fresh treats to give to Gabriel before he left the dining hall.

It wasn’t his fault she was as susceptible to his charms as every other girl at the academy.

Barach didn’t have to be such a jerk about it.

“So, Gabriel, are we going to Marut tomorrow?” Erem asked, leaning forward to see him around Barach.

“Sure,” Gabriel replied.

“I can’t tomorrow,” said Barach. “We’re taking the Hunt to the forest to run drills. We won’t be back until late.”

Erem shrugged. “We can go without you. No big deal.”

Barach’s dark eyes caught Gabriel’s gaze. The silver-haired Ahnnak sighed. “How about we go into Marut the day after tomorrow?” he suggested dully. “So Barach can come with us.”

Erem looked between them, lips pursed. “Yeah. Sure. Okay. If that’s what you want.”

“Great,” Gabriel muttered. He flicked a baobab seed off his tray, and it shot across the aisle to hit someone in the back of the head. He heard the yelp of pain, but didn’t bother to apologize.

Barach gave Gabriel a small nod of thanks, then turned to Erem. He touched his chin. “There’s a bit of food on your cheek,” he said softly. He stroked Erem’s blue skin while he wiped it away. “How’s your wing?”

“It’s fine,” Erem said. His yellow eyes were bright as he happily looked up at Barach.

Fiends, they were sickening to watch.

It wasn’t common knowledge they were together, so they were constantly coming up with excuses to touch each other in public. Most of the Hunt sitting at the table around them knew, but that was because it was hard not to notice how worked up Barach became when other people talked to Erem. No one mentioned it, though, at least not where Barach could overhear. They just treated Erem with caution and respect, much like they treated Gabriel when he had been with Lorcas.

Lorcas.

At the thought of the Terran, whatever appetite Gabriel had remaining vanished. “I’m done,” he said as he shoved his tray away and got up. He briskly walked from the dining hall with his wings rigid behind him.

He needed to get out of this place.

As Gabriel passed, Erem turned away from Barach’s gentle touch. “Wait up!” he exclaimed. The blue-skinned Ahnnak shoved the rest of his food into his cheeks. He jumped up and chased after Gabriel, leaving Barach at the table alone, looking incredibly annoyed.

Gabriel reached the stone path outside the dining hall and leaned against the railing overlooking the gap between the two sides of Archridge. The sun had gone down, but the air was still humid and warm. The stars above were bright and beautiful, but Gabriel couldn’t enjoy them.

He was too angry.

It vibrated through him in a way that made him want to punch something. He wanted to fight, to feel the sharp impact of fists against his body so he could lose himself in the pain and forget the stupid ache he felt any time he thought of Lorcas or Sera.

“You okay?” Erem asked, his words muffled by all the food stuffed in his cheeks.

“I’m fine,” Gabriel replied. He didn’t look over as his friend leaned on the banister beside him. “You didn’t have to follow me if you weren’t done eating.”

Erem swallowed the rest of the food in his mouth. He licked his lips clean, then said, “Nah. I was done, too.” It was a lie, but Erem usually lied about the reasons he wanted to follow Gabriel. “Why don’t you want to go into town tomorrow night?”

Gabriel shrugged. “I’ve got other plans.”

“With who?”

“It doesn’t concern you, Erem.”

“Did Barach say something?”

Gabriel raised his wings in a non-committal shrug. “Why didn’t you tell me about Harut?”

“What about him?” Erem asked.

“That he’s not going to let you come home this Harvest.”

“Oh. That.” Erem sighed and rubbed the corner of his mouth where a little food remained stuck to his face. “I don’t think he really means it. He just thinks I’m setting a bad example for Ar.”

“Isten don’t usually make threats unless they’re going to follow through,” Gabriel said, speaking from personal experience.

Erem laughed. “Yeah, I know. But the only reason he said anything at all is because my mom is upset about it. She worries, like I’m still a kid. But if I do get in trouble again, I’ll just talk to Harut about it. He’ll understand. It’ll be fine.” He looked over at Gabriel. “You should come home with me this Harvest, too.”

“I can’t leave the academy if Alex is still missing.”

The look in Erem’s yellow eyes was too close to pity. “If he’s not back by then, he’s probably not coming back.”

The corner of Gabriel’s eye twitched. “Fuck you, Erem.”

“C’mon, I didn’t mean it like that,” Erem said.

“Then how did you mean it?”

“I just meant you can’t keep worrying about the kid. The Isten will find him. He’ll be fine.”

Gabriel shook his head. Erem’s misguided attempts at solace didn’t make him feel any better. “I’m going to find Ilac and Priya. I’ll see you later, Erem.” He shoved off the railing and started walking away just as Barach emerged from the dining hall.

The older Ahnnak still looked annoyed. That was good. For as irritating as he’d been lately, he deserved it.

“Hey, where are you going?” Barach called after him.

“The library to get laid!” Gabriel shouted back over his shoulder. If Ilac was there, he knew she would drop whatever she was doing to join him. If she wasn’t there, he was certain he could find some other willing girls among the stacks of books and scrolls.

Before Gabriel reached the arch, he overheard Barach behind him. “I never thought I’d miss Lorcas,” the big Ahnnak grumbled to Erem. “At least then I knew which bed his ass would be pinned to every night.”

Erem made a sound of agreement, but Gabriel didn’t hear whatever else his friends said about him as he snapped open his wings and flew up to the library.

By the time he left that night with Ilac under his arm, he had plans with two different girls tomorrow. Sex might not be as distracting as fighting, but it was a close second, and if it irritated Barach, even better.

Chapter Text

It was difficult to keep track of days living in the valley, but every night, Alex watched the moon wane. As the end of spring approached, the curve of light reflecting off the moon’s surface steadily shrank. Tonight, it would be gone completely. There would be no light in the valley except the brilliant swirl of starlight.

A new moon, Alex mused. The beginning of the moon’s growth toward light.

It would be beautiful.

But night was many hours away. The valley was peaceful, but with five young girls to take care of, there was always something to keep Alex busy through the day. Sachiel didn’t ask for help often, but Alex joined in with all the chores. He didn’t feel right about living with his father and sisters and not doing things to help, even if he knew they were capable of taking care of everything without him.

At first, it was little things. Helping with the garden, watching Molly while Sachiel chased after the other girls, washing dishes, foraging in the forest with Mieke and Millie.

Then Alex offered to cook one night. He couldn’t taste all the seasonings, but he knew what went together by the way they smelled. The kitchen didn’t have a lot of spare ingredients to work with, but he threw together what he could. Sachiel had almost seemed embarrassed to ask Alex if he could cook again the next night, but Alex had been so happy to see everyone enjoying his food that he agreed without hesitation.

Mieke helped him most often in the house. Even though she was still just a little girl, she felt some responsibility for her siblings, being the oldest. She wanted to help take care of them in place of their mother. She still got distracted and silly sometimes, but she was always reliable when it counted. She knew a lot more about taking care of a household than Alex did, though there were still some things her mother hadn’t been able to teach her before she died. Mending clothes was one of them. The other was how to take care of the girls’ thick, curly hair.

That morning, Mieke had helped Alex finish meal preparations early. They were having a stew, which could cook slowly over the fire all day, giving them time to complete other tasks. They sat outside by the brook, one twin before each of them. Alex had Mulin, who was the more outgoing twin, and Mieke worked with Malia, who was quieter, but more thoughtful. Any time the twins got in trouble, it was usually Malia’s idea, and her twin was only happy to go along with it. It had taken Alex a while to be able to tell the twins apart, but once he did, he wondered how he had ever gotten them confused. Their energies felt like polar opposites, though they complimented each other perfectly.

“Ouch!” Malia exclaimed, jerking away from her older sister.

“Hold still, Mal! I lost the braid!” Mieke struggled to pick up the tight braid where she lost it.

“It never hurt this much when Mama fixed my hair,” the young girl complained.

“Well I’m not Mama, and if you keep moving around, I’m just going to cut all your hair off,” Mieke retorted.

Malia pouted. Mulin giggled at her twin. “If you’re bald, no one would mix us up.”

After sticking out her tongue, Malia said, “If I’m bald, you’ll have to be bald, too. We’re twins. We have to match.”

“Nobody needs to be bald,” Alex said calmly as he continued twisting the tight braids through Mulin’s hair. “I’ll help Mieke if she needs it, but your sister is doing great. It’s important to learn how to protect your hair so it can grow strong and healthy.”

Mulin tilted her head back to look at Alex. He almost lost the braid, but he kept it pinched between his fingers as he followed her movement. “You’re the best at braiding. How did you learn? Your hair is like Papa’s, all straight and smooth. I bet you never need to braid it.”

“I still braid my hair so it doesn’t get tangled in the wind while I’m flying,” he said. He gently nudged her head back down so he could continue. “I have a friend at the academy who has hair like yours. Her curls grow in even tighter, though, so she keeps it braided when she’s away from home to keep it protected. I used to help her like this sometimes, too.”

“Who helps her when she’s at home?” Malia asked with her head tilted so Mieke could work on that side easier.

“I think her family,” said Alex. “Maybe servants. She’s a princess, so she has a lot of people around her to help.”

“A princess?” Mulin bounced before Alex and he had to wait for her to calm down before he could continue. “Oh, I wish I was a princess! Then I could tell everyone what to do, and I’d never have to go to bed if I didn’t want to!”

Alex smiled. “That’s not quite what being a princess means.”

“It is,” Mulin insisted. “Millie read it to me from a book. It has to be true.”

“The stories in books are all made up,” Mieke said, finishing off her braid with a twist of string and a wooden bead. “Papa says we can’t believe everything we read.”

“Then I don’t know why we have to learn to read at all,” said Mulin.

Malia looked at her twin, momentarily free from having her hair worked on. “It’s so we’re not dumb when we leave the valley.”

“Why would we ever leave the valley?” Mulin retorted.

“So we can get married and have kids, like Mama,” said Malia.

Mulin scoffed. “No way. I am never having a baby. You remember how loud Molly used to scream after she was born? I couldn’t sleep. She was so annoying.”

“You were annoying when you cried, too,” said Mieke. She slicked her fingers with the pine nut balm Alex created for them, then repeatedly ran the next section of Malia’s hair between her fingers until it was perfectly smooth. “Mama and Papa still loved you after you were born, even though you cried twice as much as Mulin.”

“You still cry,” added Mulin.

Malia glared at her twin. “Only when Millie pushes me.”

Millie, unlike her sisters, preferred to go off on her own some days. She was only a year younger than Mieke, and she resented that her older sister got to tell her what to do. Sometimes, she got really mad and yelled at the other girls, but Sachiel never scolded her. He just took her aside and talked with her until she calmed down. Sachiel explained that Millie was having trouble coping with the loss of her mother, but he made sure she always knew he was there for her.

Alex finished off the last braid in Mulin’s hair. “There. All done. How does it feel?”

The little girl jumped up and bounced around the field. The wooden beads in her hair clacked together, making her laugh. “I love it! Look Mal! Look!”

Malia started to squirm. Just over half her hair was done. “Not fair,” she whined.

“I’ll help finish,” said Alex. He walked on his knees over to Mieke’s side and helped her with the last few braids. As soon as they were done, Malia shot off after Mulin, and the twins ran around the field laughing.

“Do you want your hair rebraided?” Alex asked Mieke. She had two braids that split her thick hair, and though Alex had made it tight, the braids were still starting to come loose.

“Yes, please,” Mieke said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to be as good at this as you.” She smoothed down the dress she wore, which Alex had altered from one of her mother’s old shirts so it fit properly. She folded her legs beneath her and sat in the grass where Malia had been.

“It just takes practice,” Alex said. “You’re doing very well.”

“I don’t think Millie will ever let me fix her hair.”

Alex began unbraiding one of the loose sides. “She seems happy with her hair short.”

Mieke sighed and picked at the grass by her knee. “I guess. It’s just not fair. Papa lets Millie do whatever she wants. I bet she’s up a tree somewhere right now, reading one of those old stories. Probably getting sap on the pages. Papa never makes her do chores.”

“She has chores, too,” Alex reminded her. “And your dad always makes sure she finishes them before she goes off to play.”

“He’s your dad, too,” Mieke replied.

Maybe, but Alex still wasn’t comfortable thinking of him like that.

Before Alex could reply, Mulin and Malia came running back over. “There are travelers!” one exclaimed.

“From the forest!” shouted the other. They both pointed to the southwest. Alex saw them in the distance. Two people, standing at the edge of the trees.

Alex quickly tied off Mieke’s hair, leaving the braid unfinished. “Take your sisters. Go inside. I’ll find Sachiel.”

“What about Millie?” Mieke asked as she jumped up and grabbed each of the twins’ hands.

“I’ll find her, too,” Alex assured her. “Go.” If this was another Ander, he did not want them outside.

Mieke sprinted to the house with her little sisters. Molly was still inside for her afternoon nap, and hopefully they wouldn’t wake her when they went in.

Alex flew north to find Sachiel. The man had his hair tied up and his shirt off. His pale skin glistened with sweat as he chopped logs into firewood.

“Sachiel,” Alex called, landing beside him as he brought the ax down on another piece of wood. It split in half with a crack. “There are strangers in the valley.”

Sachiel left the ax embedded in the stump. He fanned his wings to cool his skin and untied the shirt from around his waist. “Where?” he asked as he used the fabric to dab the sweat from his face.

“At the southern edge of the forest. Two of them.”

“Wings?” Sachiel asked.

“I didn’t notice,” said Alex. “They were too far away.”

“Where are the girls?”

“Inside.”

“All of them?”

“Millie took a book into the forest.”

Sachiel raised his chin and scanned the trees. “There.” He pointed to the northwest, where the brook fed into the river. “Go find her. I’ll deal with the travelers, but bring her back to the valley.”

“Yes, sir.” Alex flew off immediately. His heart beat fast, but it was more from adrenaline than from fear. He knew Sachiel would take care of everything, but Alex still didn’t want to leave Millie alone in the forest.

The girl was right were Sachiel said she would be, about halfway up a spruce tree, reading a book. She startled when Alex landed before her.

“You need to come home.”

“Don’t sneak up on my like that!” she exclaimed. She put a leaf in the page and closed the book. “Why do I have to come back?”

“There are strangers in the valley,” he said. “Everyone else is already inside.”

“Oh.” Millie’s anger at being startled faded to concern. “Does Papa know?”

“He’s going to talk to them now.” Alex crouched on the thin branch beside her, keeping his wings open for balance. “Don’t worry. Sachiel will take care of it.”

Millie bit her lip and looked at Alex. She had greenish brown eyes, lighter than her sisters’. She looked a little wild, like she belonged among the trees. “I don’t want to go back yet.”

“Sachiel asked me to bring you home.”

She shook her head. “No. I’ll wait.”

“Millie, please.”

“I saw him once,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“When someone came who wasn’t supposed to be here.” Millie clutched her book to her chest. “I saw Papa snap his neck. I heard it. I was supposed to be in bed, but I thought it would be okay if I peeked, just once.”

“Millie… He’s not going to hurt anyone if he doesn’t have to. He would only do that if he needed to keep you all safe.”

“I know,” she murmured and looked down. “It was just scary. I don’t want to see Papa fight again.”

Alex thought while he balanced beside his little sister. He didn’t want her to be scared, but he didn’t know what to say. What would Gabriel have done if he was here?

“How about I carry you?” Alex suggested.

“What?” Millie peeked up at him.

“I’ll carry you back home, and if it’s too scary, you can close your eyes and hide your face in my hair.”

“Really?”

Alex nodded. “I can fly very fast. We’ll be home and back inside before you know it.”

Millie chewed at her lip again, and then nodded. “Okay.” She stood up on the branch, keeping her balance even without wings. She took his hand, but paused before she came closer. “Are you sure you’re strong enough to carry me?”

With a crooked smile, Alex said, “I’m stronger than I look.” He picked Millie up, adjusted her while she pressed her face against his neck, then jumped off the branch and flew home.

***

Sachiel was still at the edge of the forest talking with the two strangers when Alex got Millie inside. The little girl’s cheeks were flushed from the brisk wind and she wobbled a little when Alex sat her down.

“Did you fly with Alex?” Mulin asked, rushing them. She tugged on her older sister’s patched shirt. “What was it like?”

“Fast,” Millie muttered a little breathlessly. “Really fast.”

“I want a turn!” Mulin whined.

“Hush,” Alex said gently. “We’re all going to stay inside until Sachiel says it’s okay.”

The girl pouted. “And then you’ll fly with me?”

“We’ll see,” Alex said, not wanting to make a promise he couldn’t keep. He still didn’t like touching people if he could avoid it, even his sisters. The contact didn’t bother him as much as it used to, but it could overwhelm him quickly if he wasn’t careful.

Even while flying with Millie, a voice in his head had declared, Drop her. Ashamed that he would ever think such a thing, Alex had clung to his sister tighter and flown faster. He was just as thankful as Millie when they landed at the house.

“They’re coming this way,” said Mieke, perched on a chair by a window. “There’s a man and a woman. Papa is bringing them to the house.”

“Really?” Malia climbed up on the chair beside Mieke, though she could still barely see out the window.

“I’m going to lay down with Molly,” Millie muttered. She took her book with her into the baby’s room and closed the door.

Alex was slightly apprehensive that Sachiel would bring anyone to the house. They could be dangerous. “I’m going to go outside,” he said. “See if I can help. Stay inside.”

“I want to come too,” Mulin whined, tugging at the edge of his tunic.

“Stay,” he said, using the same tone Sachiel did when the girls weren’t supposed to argue.

Mulin jerked on his shirt again. “But I wanna come too!”

Alex frowned. That hadn’t worked at all. He tried reason. “It could be dangerous.”

“I wanna stay with my brother!” Her grip was so tight on his tunic that it creased the fabric. She was getting upset. Apparently reason wasn’t an option.

Bribery it was, then. “I’ll tell you a story about a pardua tonight before bed.”

Mulin froze, looking up at him with wide brown eyes. “A pardua?”

Alex nodded. “But only if you stay inside until I tell you it’s okay.”

He could see her weighing her options. “Okay,” she agreed a little sullenly. “But it better be a good story.” She let go of his shirt.

Alex smiled. “I promise.” He ducked out the door and closed it behind him before she could change her mind.

Sachiel led a man and a woman closer. The woman appeared to be in pain, and the man at her side helped her every step of the way.

“We’re really sorry about this,” the man said. “I know we were only supposed to approach at night, but we just couldn’t wait.”

“I understand,” said Sachiel, though he didn’t appear entirely happy about it. “Here, this my son.” He motioned Alex closer, and the boy met them in the yard before the house.

“Hello,” Alex said quietly while he examined the strangers. They didn’t appear threatening. The man was gaunt, like he had barely eaten in the last month. The woman beside him was very pale and sickly. Sweat beaded her brow and her eyes remained unfocused. They were both Terran, though a cloak covered the woman’s shoulders and wings.

“Children, out here,” the woman muttered with a dreamlike tone. “How awful.”

“Hush, Mother,” the man said. He looked at Sachiel apologetically. “She’s still recovering.”

Sachiel nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. “You should have waited until she was stronger to make this journey.”

The man’s brow pinched and he quickly shook his head. “I couldn’t. How could I let her stay in a place that would treat her like a criminal? They sent her to Mahat because of me. Because she wouldn’t tell them where I was. What they did to her… It’s my fault. We couldn’t stay.”

Sachiel sighed. “I’ll feed you before we attempt the crossing. You’ll need your strength. Son, please bring tea and two bowls of stew.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied. He went back inside while Sachiel took the strangers around the side of the house to the outdoor table and benches.

“Help me get food,” Alex told his sisters as they swarmed him at the door. “Quietly, please.”

The girls looked like they were about to burst with questions, but they moved quickly, getting a complete meal on a tray for Alex to take out to the strangers. Apparently, they had done this before, though probably not often.

Alex balanced the tea, bowls of stew, and dry rolls on the tray. Mieke got the door for him, then closed it after he was out. Alex carried the tray over to Sachiel, who took it from him and placed it on the table before the strangers.

It was fortunate Sachiel took the tray when he did because Alex would have dropped it. The woman had taken off her cloak. It lay on the bench beside her, revealing the patchy, deformed wings hanging from her back. Her feathers were sparse, but in the bright sunlight, Alex could see the pale umber spots that freckled the barbs along the vanes.

She was an Ander.

Molly’s cry broke through the stillness of the valley.

“Children. Out here,” the woman muttered again. “How awful. Don’t you know there is a monster in these hills?”

“Hush, Mother,” the man said, then held a spoon to her lips to feed her some of the warm stew. She slurped at it, but some of it dribbled down her chin. He dutifully wiped it off.

Sachiel looked back at Alex. “Go inside. I’ll come talk to you before we leave.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex said obediently, then went into the house to help his sisters calm Molly.

***

After the strangers finished eating, Sachiel brought the bowls back in the house. He took Alex aside while Mieke and the twins put together two travel packs. Millie remained in the bedroom with Molly, pacing back and forth with the baby on her hip while she recited a story aloud.

Sachiel closed the door to his bedroom. He spoke low, using the tone for flight. He didn’t want his daughters to hear.

“Something is wrong.” Sachiel took his sword from under his bed and strapped it to his hip.

“Those two?” Alex asked. It was still a little difficult for him to speak at length in the subvocal tones. He wished Sachiel knew how to sign.

“No. It’s something else. The forest feels off.”

“I don’t understand,” Alex said.

Sachiel tightened the sword belt around his narrow hips. “I will try to be back before dark, but they’re not going to be able to fly. Keep your sisters inside. No one steps outside for any reason tonight.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex replied.

Sachiel squeezed Alex’s shoulder, then opened the door and went back to the kitchen. He took the bundles of food from Mieke, placed a kiss on the foreheads of the three girls in the kitchen, and left.

After Sachiel guided the strangers from the valley, Millie and Molly came out of the bedroom. Alex looked at his five sisters, and they stared back at him expectantly.

“Um… We need to stay inside,” he said.

“All day?” Mulin whined.

“Just until your dad gets back.”

“That’s going to be all day,” she said with a dramatic pout.

“It might be,” said Alex, “but after dinner, I’ll tell you a story.”

“What kind of story?” Millie asked. She switched Molly to her other hip.

“About the pardua?” Mulin asked, remembering his promise from before.

“Yes,” said Alex. “And a stag. About how they were friends.”

The other twin frowned, skeptical. “How can a pardua and a stag be friends?” asked Malia.

“You’ll have to listen to the story to find out,” Alex said. Then he smiled at the girls and helped them set the table for dinner.

After the meal, when everything was scrubbed clean, Alex sat with his sisters around the fire. He was hesitant to speak of Hadasha at first. Her loss still weighed heavy on his heart, but the fascination the girls had for his pardua gradually helped him relax.

At Archridge, when he couldn’t sleep at night, he used to imagine the adventures Hadasha and the stag had while journeying across E’din. He knew it was silly, but it had helped distract his thoughts from the darkness that plagued him at night.

The stories seemed to help distract the girls, too. They listened well into the night. When the sun set and Sachiel still hadn’t returned, Alex allowed them to convince him to tell more. Everyone was more anxious than usual without Sachiel there, even baby Molly, so Alex held her in his lap while he spoke. She clutched his long black hair in her little fist while she sucked her thumb, just as she often did with her father. It calmed her enough that she eventually fell asleep in his arms.

The four older girls were tired as well, but far less willing to go to sleep. It was getting late, too late for them to remain up to wait for Sachiel, even if they wanted to. They argued with Alex when he insisted it was time for bed, but he bargained with them, agreeing to tell more stories another night.

Finally, hours after sunset, all five girls were soundly asleep in their own beds. If Alex listened closely, he could hear their soft, steady breathing from the other side of their closed doors. It was comforting, in a way, but also terrifying. Right now, he was all they had to protect them. What if he couldn’t do it? What if he failed and one of them got hurt?

An uneasy feeling filled Alex. Sachiel had been right. There was something wrong with the forest tonight. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep until Sachiel came home safe.

Kneeling on the couch, Alex folded his arms across the back edge and rested his chin on top. He stared forlornly at the door, waiting for his father’s return.

Chapter Text

Over the weeks Catriel tracked the Terran traitor and his Ander mother, they never once suspected they were being followed. The woman was still recovering, and the grueling pace her son pushed her toward the border didn’t ease her suffering.

Such misguided nobility often only led to more pain.

It had occurred to Catriel several times during the nights he watched them sit around their feeble fire that he could capture the Terran at any moment and turn him over to E’din to face justice. Isten knew a man like that deserved it. He was a Jinn smuggler who valued his own traitorous hide more than the wellbeing of his devoted mother.

He was an appalling waste of feathers.

The Terran had been given every privilege and freedom offered to citizens of E’din. He had a mother who loved him, who sacrificed herself to protect him, yet he still turned against E’din and the Isten.

The only consolation Catriel had as he watched the man tend his exhausted mother was that neither of them would likely survive their first interaction with the Jinn. The cruel fiends would inevitably devour them both the moment they stepped beyond the border.

It was a fitting fate for a traitor.

The morning finally came when Catriel could sense the border. He fell back, giving the two a few hours head start in their travels. He wasn’t worried about losing their trail. It would not be difficult to track them through the underbrush, even if they chose to fly as much as their exhausted wings would allow.

Honestly, they were not his main concern anymore.

The border of E’din was close. The weight of the barrier hummed in the air. It was thinner here certainly, but still present. No living thing could cross.

Nothing, except the fiend known as the Ferryman.

Rumors always held some glimmer of truth, but if any of the whispered tales were to be believed, the Ferryman of the Jinn was a fiend of enormous proportions who carried traitors through the barrier in its gullet. It would have claws to rend the rock as it scaled the high mountains that rimmed the eastern border of E’din. It was supposed to be terrifying.

Of course, in Catriel’s experience, he found people tended to over-exaggerate things they personally viewed as impossible. Even his fellow soldiers, who often came face-to-face with fiends in battle, told stories of the simple creatures after that enlarged them to nightmarish proportions. The tales made the victories of E’din over the Jinn seem all that more valiant, but they were just stories.

However, there were Jinn even the soldiers didn’t speak of. Mostly because the ones who faced those foul creatures never returned to tell the tales. Fiends so powerful, so devastating, it was impossible to even speak their names.

Perhaps the Ferryman would be such a fiend.

Catriel proceeded with caution.

The sun slowly set at the soldier’s back as he followed the path the traitor and the Ander wove through the tall forest. Stars emerged overhead as the last rays of sunlight died at the edge of the world, but there would be no moon tonight, just a void in the sky where the moon should be.

It was a good omen.

The night of a new moon was the perfect night to Hunt.

Near midnight, a valley appeared before the mountain range. Catriel landed in a tall pine tree and peered down at the babbling brook which wove through the valley like a black ribbon on the moonless night. It cut a swatch through the land, passing near a small house and well tended garden.

How strange.

What manner of person would live this close to a place where dangerous fiends were known to frequent?

The sharp, golden eyes of the soldier scanned the land below. Broken grass revealed the path his quarry walked across the valley. He saw where they had gone, leaving to the north, at a parallel path to the mountain range. They had not entered the house, through they had neared it, perhaps to beg for food on their journey. Not that it would do them any good. The Jinn would have them soon.

The dark sky only seemed to accentuate the silence of the valley. Catriel lingered in the tree, pondering his options. It was likely that whomever lived in the house with the curl of smoke rising from the chimney knew of the Ferryman. They might even be in alliance with whatever manner of creature it was.

Then again, it could just be a hermit who valued their solitude. If Catriel delayed his pursuit to interrogate them, he could lose his chance at capturing the Ferryman. If he could slaughter the fiend in action, breaching the barrier with the traitor and the Ander, he could solve all of his problems at once.

Just as he had come to a decision and opened his wings, the soldier’s senses picked up on an incoming presence. He tensed, not so much as breathing. He saw a glimmer of white, barely visible in the starlight, and recognized wings.

Perhaps this was the owner of the house.

With a skill honed over centuries of military training, Catriel quickly withdrew his energy from the air around him. It sank into his core like a stone, leaving a void around him that filled with the shadows of the night. His heart rate slowed until it was imperceptible. There were no beings of Ter who could sense him like this, not unless they were close enough to see the gleam of light reflected in his sharply slitted eyes.

But then it would already be too late for that unfortunate creature.

The soldier perched on the tree and waited.

***

What landed in the valley mere moments later was not quite what Catriel had been expecting. Some unkempt vagrant, perhaps, dirty and tangled, barely recognizable as a son of E’din. At worst, Catriel expected an Ander who had taken refuge at the edge of the world, too cowardly to face the fiends himself.

What Catriel didn’t expect was a man with wings as white as the snow-capped mountains that edged E’din and hair as black as the moonless sky.

He was gorgeous in that way that made Catriel’s heart skip one of its slow, quiet beats. His chest ached with fear and longing. Fear, because he could not risk compromising his mission for any reason, and longing, because he could not help the feeling that filled him.

As a soldier, it was not exactly forbidden to form relationships beyond the required camaraderie of a squad, however, any weakness brought on by such intense attachment had been beaten out of Catriel and his fellow soldiers at an early age. The service to E’din required a lot of sacrifices, especially from one as grateful for the opportunity to serve as Catriel.

The black-haired man scanned the trees around him cautiously. He ruffled his white feathers and settled them against his back in a half-distracted manner. It was like he knew he was being watched, but that simply wasn’t possible. Catriel was good at hiding. No one-

A heavy gaze locked on Catriel’s position.

“Show yourself,” the winged man commanded.

Irritation ruffled Catriel’s crisply preened feathers. His wings didn’t make a sound, though, since they were tended with the same rigorous care he gave his weapons. Oiled and sharp, he could fly and kill from above without alerting anyone of their impending death.

Yet this man sensed him.

Catriel took a deep breath, allowing his heart to resume its normal rhythm and his energy to ease the shadows from around his body. It was difficult to consider a man so beautiful a threat, no matter the situation, so he dropped from the tree and flew down to speak to him.

“Fair winds,” the soldier said by way of a neutral greeting. He was a little startled by the man’s height when he landed before him.

Tall, thin, and delicate, he appeared as if he had never worked a hard day in his life.

Pampered.

That was the word one of Catriel’s commanding officers used to describe such civilians. It fit this black-haired man.

A long sword hung from a sash at the man’s narrow hips. The weapon only enforced Catriel’s assumption about the man’s tender upbringing. It appeared to be one of the fragile, filigree ceremonial rapiers common among the upper classes in the Ganbik region. Paired with the man's height, it would undoubtedly be a effective weapon against most threats in the wilderness, but it was still just a toy. Against Catriel’s extensive military training, it was practically useless.

Silently, the black-haired man regarded the soldier. His eyes were serious and the color- oh, Catriel desperately wanted to see the color of his eyes in daylight. They were shrouded by the dim night around them, but something about the grey tones hinted at a deep blue Catriel thought he might want to drown in.

It was a terrible thought to have, completely against everything crucial to Catriel’s mission, and he scolded himself for it.

Weakness would not be tolerated, and if he was ever going to redeem himself to E’din, he had to focus on his mission.

“I am looking for someone,” said the soldier. “What is your name?”

“I have little concern for names,” replied the black-haired man. “Why have you come here?”

His voice was deeper than Catriel expected, edged with caution, but no fear. He appraised Catriel with the same calm demeanor the soldier attempted to portray. His stern gaze passed over the military issue harness and weaponry worn around Catriel’s chest and hips, but if he recognized the significance of the gear, he didn’t reveal it.

“Two people might have passed this way earlier,” said Catriel. “Have you seen them?”

“No,” the black-haired man lied. An unpleasant thought wormed its way into Catriel’s head. “And I do not take kindly to unwelcome guests in my territory. I’m going to ask you leave.”

Nonchalantly, Catriel’s fingers touched the pommel of the reinforced blade at his hip. “But I am certain they came this way,” he said coolly. He took a casual step to the right. “I’ve been following them through the forest a while now. They’re criminals, you know.”

With an easy grace, the man mirrored his movements, touching his rapier and stepping, all the while keeping himself positioned between the soldier and the house. It was intentional, but carefully done, as if he didn’t think Catriel would notice.

“It does not matter what you accuse them of,” the man said with a twitch of contempt at the corner of his mouth. “I have not seen anyone.”

“Oh, but I think you have.” Catriel smirked. “I think you’re quite aware of why I’m looking for them, too. I think you helped them. And I think you know how to find the Ferryman.”

With a flash of silver, the black-haired man lunged with the long rapier. He was fast and graceful. Beautiful to watch. Had Catriel not been as experienced as he was, he might have even been skewered through the chest by the blade, as the man clearly intended.

As it was, Catriel simply twisted out of the path of the thrusting metal, caught the blade between his palms, and used the man’s own momentum to leverage the weapon out of his hands. It popped into the air and spun. A half step and a stumble left the man unarmed and exposed before Catriel. The soldier caught the disarmed blade and pointed it calmly at his opponent’s slim throat. Those deep eyes widened slightly, the first hint of emotion Catriel had from the man. A little bit of fear, perhaps. That, or anger.

Fiends. I can see the stars reflected in his eyes.

“Give me your name,” Catriel demanded, dismissing the intrusive thought angrily.

Scowling, the man relented. “Siel.” He said his own name like a curse. It was likely a fake name, as such a man was too high class to be branded with something so short, but it was a start.

“I am going to ask you questions, Siel,” Catriel informed him, “and you are going to give me the answers I seek. The Terran and the Ander who came through here are traitors. Any attempt to conceal their whereabouts will mark you as a traitor to E’din. Cooperate, and you may just keep your life.”

Even at the point of the sword, the black-haired man was composed. “You are not welcome here.”

“Maybe you don’t understand your position.” Catriel pressed the point of the blade against that pale throat, drawing a dark pearl of blood from his skin. “Tell me about the Ferryman,” he demanded.

It happened fast. The man twisted to the side of the blade, caught it between his palms, and leveraged the metal in a way that simply popped it out of Catriel’s hand. It spun in the air and was caught by Siel with the same grace and skill Catriel showed mere moments before.

The point of the blade hovered in the air before Catriel’s throat. “I understand my position just fine,” said Siel. “There are rules, and you are trespassing.”

To be disarmed so easily, with a move he himself had taken decades to master, almost startled the soldier. It had taken years of training and countless visits to the medic when he failed before he came close to perfecting the maneuver.

Yet this Terran who hadn’t even begun to show his age around his eyes performed the technique perfectly mere heartbeats after seeing it the first time.

It made Catriel grin, baring his teeth with a wicked pleasure.

He knew what this man was, and he no longer had any reason to hold back.

“Ah, I understand now,” said the soldier, still smiling down the length of the ceremonial rapier. “I know your kind.”

“I have no kind.” The blade didn’t waiver.

“But you do. I trained with Terran like you long ago, back before the Isten who guided your lineage betrayed E’din. I know what you’re capable of, and I know how to defeat you.”

“You know nothing of me,” Siel said through clenched teeth. “This is your final chance to leave.”

“Is it?” Catriel raised his hands, almost as if he would be surrendering. “You know, assaulting a soldier of the Isten is a serious crime. They’ll have your wings.”

“Only if anyone survives to report it.” Without another warning, Siel lunged with the rapier, but Catriel was prepared. He hadn’t been lying about training alongside Terran like this man, though that had been over a century ago, back before the official lineage was disbanded. However, he still remembered, and his skills were far greater than any natural ability this pampered, untrained Terran might have been born with.

The battle was brief. It had to be. If given time to observe an opponent’s moves, those born with a kinetic ability could replicate or counter any physical fighting style. Catriel wouldn’t give him that chance.

He moved in, sidling alongside the blade as it narrowly missed his ear. With a wing, the soldier knocked the rapier out of the man’s hand and used the momentum to place a firm kick to his jaw. Siel stumbled back, unarmed, but he immediately dodged Catriel’s next kick.

That was what Catriel was relying on. He took the opening the man gave as he dodged and knocked his legs out from under him. A white wing snapped out as Siel fell, connecting with Catriel’s face, but the brief burst of pain wasn’t enough to distract the soldier from his goal. Only once he got Siel pinned on the ground with his hands shackled behind his back in regulation, energy-suppressing manacles did the soldier pause to examine the damage.

His nose was bleeding.

Huh.

It had been years since anyone made him bleed.

Catriel looked down at the restrained man struggling beneath his boot. He had allowed this man’s allure to distract him from his mission.

It wouldn’t happen again.

“We’re going inside,” Catriel said sharply. “I have questions for you, and I will make you talk, one way or another.”

***

The man wasn’t happy about being escorted into his house, but after a couple sharp blows to the head, he was in no state to protest. Catriel held a dagger to his pale throat while opening the wooden door, then pushed the man through.

“Da-”

A tiny squeak cut off the words of a skinny boy waiting on the other side of the door. He stumbled back, awkward and lanky limbs sending him tumbling over a bench by the table. Wood scraped across the stone as the boy landed in a tangle of long legs and fluffy wings. Siel cringed at the noise, the movement drawing blood along the edge of the dagger at his throat, but neither he nor the boy made another sound as droplets of red rolled down his chest.

Great, Catriel seethed. A child. Of course there had to be a child.

It wasn’t that Catriel disliked children, it was just unfortunate to run into one in his line of work. They were innocent. They didn’t understand the way the world worked yet, and they didn’t deserve what was going to happen to them.

“Go sit by the fire,” Catriel commanded, glaring at the trembling boy. He angled the dagger against Siel’s throat so that the boy understood what would happen if he disobeyed.

Scared black eyes looked between man and soldier, seeking some kind of reassurance. None came. With a small nod signaling his intended obedience, the boy untangled himself and crawled out from under the table. He stood up, downy soft wings tight against his back.

“Don’t hurt him, please,” he whispered.

“Go sit down,” Catriel commanded again. The boy flinched at the sharp tone, then went over to a bench by the fire and sat.

Once the child was out of the way, Catriel forced Siel across the room. He sat him down on a chair on the other side of the fire. Before either man or boy could react, the soldier gabbed Siel’s head and brought it down to meet his rising knee. The boy covered his mouth to stifle his surprised scream, and the burst of pain kept the man disoriented long enough for Catriel to secure him to the chair.

Rope. Catriel always carried plenty of reinforced rope. He tied the man’s chest and wings to the chair tight enough that his white feathers bent at sharp angles. He left his arms in the manacles behind his back, but attached each ankle to a leg of the chair. Siel was still blinking away the pain of his broken nose when Catriel finished.

“There.” Catriel used the sleeve of the man’s shirt to wipe the blood from his dagger. “It’ll be much easier for us to talk now.”

“I have nothing to say to you,” the man growled, his voice low and angry. In the firelight, it was easier to see the blue in his eyes. He was beautiful. He could have had an easy life in the court of some Isten, if his bloodline wasn’t so tainted.

Pity.

“Ah, who said I wanted to talk to you?” Catriel raised an eyebrow and glanced back at the quivering boy sitting on the other side of the fire.

“No, leave him alone-”

Catriel touched his dagger to his lips. “Shhh. I won’t hurt him if you both behave.” As Catriel walked backward toward the boy, he watched the desperate way the man struggled. The ropes creaked, but remained secure. Siel could do nothing but helplessly watch whatever the soldier intended to do to the boy.

Assured that the man was appropriately restrained, Catriel turned his attention to the scared boy staring up at him. “What is your name?” he asked, using a gentler tone.

Light from the fire reflected in strange, swirling patterns in those wide black eyes. “Alex.”

“Are you an Ander?” Catriel examined the boy’s half grown wings. The downy feathers appeared white.

“No,” the boy confirmed.

“Alexiel then.” Catriel paused. Something about that name was familiar. The soldier’s mind raced.

Black eyes. Black hair. Preteen. Kind of sickly looking.

It clicked.

“Ahnnak Alexiel,” Catriel announced, startled by the realization. “First generation descendant of the Isten Jequn. Current status: truant.”

“Truant?” the boy asked, thin black eyebrows raising in surprise.

“You are on an unauthorized absence from Archridge Academy. How fortunate I found you.” He bowed slightly. “I am Catriel of the Unborn, Secondary Flight Officer in Aerial Combat Unit Six-Two, serving for the Defense of E’din. When I am done here, I will escort you back to your Isten.”

The boy stood, wings opening in a panicked flutter. “No! I won’t go back. You can’t make me!”

“You will do as you’re told.” Catriel flipped his dagger around and touched it to the underside of the young Ahnnak’s chin. He tilted Alex’s head up with the point of the blade. “I found you safe, Ahnnak Alexiel, that does not mean I will return you as such. Accidents have been known to happen to children close to the edge of E’din, especially in times of war.” By the way the boy’s eyes widened, he understood Catriel’s intended meaning. “Now sit down.”

The boy sat, folding his wings tight against his back.

Satisfied that they had an understanding, Catriel sheathed his blade in the harness under his wing. “Children are innocent, but you have to learn. I will not tolerate lies or disobedience. Understood?”

Alex nodded, his bottom lip trembling. He understood.

“Leave him alone!” Siel hissed. He jerked at ropes hard enough for the chair to bounce and tilt. “He has nothing to do with this!”

“But he’s here.” Catriel walked back over to the struggling man and placed a firm foot on the chair between his legs, holding it down. He leaned in and stared into Siel’s furious blue eyes. “Kidnapping a child of the Isten is a crime punishable by death. I came here to find the Ferryman, but if you don’t help me and tell me what I want to know, I will have no choice but to drag you back to Mahat with the boy to face justice.”

“I will never help you,” the man growled, blood bubbling from his broken nose with each frantic breath.

Catriel smiled. “Everyone talks eventually.”

“P-Please,” cried the tiny voice from the other side of the crackling fire. “Don’t hurt him.”

The soldier straightened and looked back at the boy. He was fidgeting, tugging at the hem of his threadbare tunic. How long had he been here? The report marked him missing since the end of Artisan. That was nearly two months ago. Even if he was only here half as long, that was plenty of time to corrupt a young mind.

“This man kidnapped you and held you hostage,” the soldier reminded him.

Alex shook his head rapidly. “He didn’t.”

“Then who brought you here? An Ander?”

“No. I came here by myself.”

“Alone?” The boy nodded. “You got lost?” Catriel’s eyes narrowed. “Or you ran away?”

There was a moment of hesitation, then Alex said, “I ran away.”

Hm. That was a different matter entirely. “How long have you been here?” Catriel pushed away from the chair and returned to the child.

“I d-don’t know. A few w-w-weeks.” Alex watched Catriel’s approach with trepidation.

“Have you seen anyone else pass through this valley in that time?” asked the soldier.

Briefly, the boy’s gaze flicked from Catriel to Siel. “No.”

Catriel sighed, disappointed. “Children should not lie,” he said. “You can be forgiven, but you must learn.” He sat down on the bench beside Alex and held out his hand, palm up. “Give me your hand.”

The boy quivered with fear, but he obeyed. He placed his hand, palm up, on top of Catriel’s hand. Blue veins lined his nearly translucent skin. It was almost summer, but the boy was cold.

Cold, and soft, and light, like he needed nothing more than a hot meal and a warm blanket.

Catriel extracted a thin stiletto from the sheath on his thigh and thrust it through both the boy’s palm and his own, pinning their hands together.

From the other side of the room, the black-haired man spewed a stream of vile curses, but Catriel had little interest in him at the moment. He watched the boy’s reaction. The metal that bound their hands together was thin and sharp. Several seconds passed before Alex appeared to even recognize what had happened.

When he did, he gasped and reflexively tried to jerk his hand back, but Catriel didn’t budge. The wound opened slightly, allowing their blood to drip down the length of the dagger than jutted beneath their hands. The boy forced himself to remain still, staring with wide eyes at the metal that secured him to the soldier.

“Now,” Catriel said, voice calm even as their blood mixed and pooled between their hands, “I’m going to ask you again. Have you seen anyone else pass through this valley?”

“Y-Yes,” the boy whispered, black eyes focused on the metal cross-guard resting on his palm. Blood slowly rolled down the blade and splattered on the wooden bench between them.

Drip, drip, drip.

“Did a Terran and an Ander come through here today?”

“Yes.”

“Did that man over there talk to them?”

Alex started to turn, like he would look to Siel for the answer. Catriel tapped the pommel of the stiletto, not enough to cause more injury, but enough for the boy’s attention to snap back to the vibrating blade. Catriel asked his question again.

“Y-Yes!” the boy answered promptly this time, breathing fast.

“Did he help them?”

“We gave them food!”

“And after?”

“Th-They left.”

“Left? Where did they go?”

“I don’t know,” the boy replied.

“That answer is not good enough,” said Catriel. He grasped the handle and pulled it slowly toward Alex’s fingertips, widening the gash through their hands.

The boy sucked in a sharp breath, eyes wide with pain. “The trees! North!” he exclaimed.

Catriel released the blade, allowing it to settle against Alex’s palm once again. The blood dripped from the point of the dagger faster.

Drip-drip, drip-drip.

“Did they go alone?” asked Catriel. “Or did this man lead them?”

Alex hesitated, his eyes filling with tears. “He took them,” he whispered.

“Do you know where, exactly?”

“No,” said the boy, shaking his head. “I always stay here.”

“Have there been others in the area, before today?” Alex nodded. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he didn’t sniffle or whine. “Who?” asked the soldier.

“A man during the last full moon.”

“Describe him.”

“H-He was big. He had broken teeth and spots on his wings.”

“And this man helped him?”

The boy nodded, tears continuing to slide down his cheeks, almost matching the pattern of blood falling from the point of the dagger. “Yes.”

Did he cry because of the pain, or because he thought he was betraying some misguided notion of honor?

Catriel scowled. “Helping people like that is a serious crime. They deserve no pity. The man who came during the full moon was an Ander. A murdered, a thief, and a rapist- do you know what rape is?”

The reaction Catriel got from the boy was not at all what he expected. Alex laughed. It was a harsh sound with no humor to it, completely unfit for a child so young. Emotionless black eyes looked up at Catriel, even as his tears still stained his flushed cheeks. “I know what rape is.”

Catriel tilted his head, processing that dark bit of information. “Him?” he asked, motioning toward Siel, who looked no less angry, but was far more subdued in his confines on the other side of the hearth.

“No,” Alex stated firmly.

Catriel nodded and resumed his questions. “When the Ander came, did he speak to Siel?”

“Yes.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know.” Catriel started to reach for the blade, but before he could touch it, Alex quickly added, “The moon. They spoke of the moon.”

How strange. “And after?”

“They flew away.”

“Where?”

Alex raised one wing in a noncommittal shrug. “Up.”

Catriel’s lip twitched. He almost smiled. Cheeky brat. “One last question. Have you ever heard of a fiend called the Ferryman?”

Meeting Catriel’s sharply slitted gaze, Alex said, “Never.”

There may be more information to extract from the boy, but for now, it was enough. With a quick yank, Catriel removed the stiletto from their palms. He flipped the blade around and presented the hilt to Alex. “If that man ever touched you or did you harm, by the grace of E’din, I grant you permission to plunge this dagger into his heart.”

Alex cradled his wounded hand against his chest, staining his shirt with blood. He stared at the offered dagger, then looked up at the soldier and shook his head. “No. It wasn’t him.”

Satisfied with that answer, Catriel stood and used the edge of his shirt to clean the blood from the blade. He placed it back in its sheathe on his thigh. “Very well, young Ahnnak. You have been most helpful.” The soldier returned to Siel. “See? That wasn’t so difficult.”

“You bastard,” Siel snarled. “Untie me so I can shove every single one of your weapons up your a-”

The soldier backhanded him. His head snapped to the side, long black hair clinging to his bloody face. “Watch your language,” warned Catriel. “There’s a child of the Isten present.”

Siel spat blood on the floor. “People like you disgust me,” he sneered. “You speak of false nobility, but your kind is always the same. Cowards hiding behind the decrees of sanctimonious, corrupt tyrants.” Siel turned, glaring while firelight reflected in his eyes. “This world would be better with all of you purged from it.”

Catriel smiled. “What do you know of the world, Terran? You’re barely more than a child yourself.”

“I am no child.”

The soldier leaned in, maintaining his smirk. “I see it in your eyes. You’re immature, crying about nobility and justice while you cower at the edge of E’din. You’re just a simpering, over-indulged brat who fell for the lies of traitors and fiends.”

Siel lunged forward as if he would attack Catriel, but the ropes held firm. “You know nothing of who I am,” he spat.

The soldier grabbed his chin, holding firm to that pretty face. “It is not too late for you. You can still return to the light and truth of E’din.” He ran his thumb along Siel’s smooth jawline. “I could personally oversee your redemption. Just give me the Ferryman.”

Siel glowered up at him. “You want the Ferryman? Release me, and I will gladly watch you ripped limb from limb.”

Catriel clicked his tongue. “That is not a very helpful answer.” He struck Siel again, this time with a closed fist that rocked the chair back on two legs.

“Stop!” Alex jumped off the bench and flew at Catriel.

The soldier spun, ingrained defensive instincts guiding his reaction. He grabbed the boy by his throat and lifted him overhead. Alex’s little wings flapped uselessly behind him as he clung to Catriel’s wrist.

“Forgive me, young Ahnnak,” said Catriel, his teeth clenched in irritation. “I am not very good with children. I’m sure you understand.”

The boy’s face was starting to turn red. “You can’t hurt him!” he gasped.

“Why?” Catriel demanded.

“He’s my father!”

The house fell silent. For several moments, the only sound was the sporadic pop and crackle of logs in the fire.

Catriel stared at the struggling young Ahnnak he held over his head, trying to make sense of the boy’s words. “The Isten Jequn is your father,” he reminded him. Hadn’t the report said something about him being simple?

“No.” Alex squinted down at Catriel, his expression pinched in pain. “This man is. Siel. Sachiel. He’s my father. Please don’t hurt him.”

Alex,” the black-haired man groaned, his resistance fading in a heavy sigh of disappointment.

Catriel looked between the two of them, noting the similarities in their appearances. Their long black hair was an obvious connection, but a lot of people had black hair. That alone wasn’t enough, but as Catriel compared them, the truth became more obvious.

Same bone structure. Same jaw. Same tilt to the eye, just at the corner. Thick black lashes. Long limbs.

A mouth that begged to be kissed or hit, it was difficult to tell which.

The only obvious difference between the two was the black of the boy’s eyes.

Catriel place Alex back on the ground, but didn’t release his throat. “You’re an Ahnnak. A registered descendant of the Isten Jequn.” He stated it defensively, even as his mind struggled with the truth.

“My mother had an affair,” said the boy. “She tried to lie to Jequn, but he found out.”

“So you’re not an Ahnnak?” Catriel looked from the boy to the man bound to the chair. His thoughts collided together, disordered and frantic. What name had the child called him? It was familiar somehow. It hummed through his mind like the buildup of electricity before a thunderstorm.

Meeting Catriel’s sharply slitted gaze, the bound man answered, his voice proud despite all the blood on his face. “He is an Ahnnak, as am I. We are descendants of Chaitaan.”

It struck Catriel like lightning. He remembered. The information flooded his mind like a deluge of rain after the breaking of a storm. It was a tiny little footnote in history, but Catriel had been there. He had stood at attention with the surviving members of his squad while the Air Marshal read the decree which proclaimed the end of the War with the Jinn.

…The infant child, Ahnnak Sachiel, third descendant of the treasonous Chaitaan, shall be given to a loyal magistrate to raise in the image of E’din, repentant of his father’s sins…

Catriel looked at the bound man again.

Siel- no, Sachiel.

He wasn’t a Terran. He was an Ahnnak. A quick calculation put him around a hundred-and-fifty years old, but he was so ignorant and sheltered, he might as well have been a child. He had no idea what he had done, getting involved with fiends and Anders. He had no idea how severe the punishment to his crimes would be.

The soldier jerked his hand away from Alex’s throat so he didn’t accidentally crush it in his frustration. The little bastard. “Why would you tell me this?” Catriel demanded.

“I don’t want you to hurt him anymore,” said the boy, rubbing his bruised neck.

“But he’s- and you’re-” Catriel stumbled over his words.

“Yes,” said Alex, unnervingly calm. “But no one else knows. No one has to know.”

“What do you mean?” asked the soldier.

“If you leave my father alone, I will return with you right now.”

Sachiel strained against his bonds. “Alex, no-”

“It’s fine.” The boy gave him a small, crooked smile. “I’ll be okay.”

Catriel ran his hand through his short-cropped hair. His thoughts struggled to keep up with the layers of information he was processing. “And if I bring you both in to face justice?”

Alex looked up at Catriel, the black of his eyes swirling in eerie patterns. “If you do anything to harm or endanger Sachiel, I will tell the Isten Jequn that you know the truth of who I am- that I am not his son, and how he has lied to all of E’din for the last twelve years about my true lineage.”

Catriel knew the pride of the Isten. He was fully aware of what they were capable of. “He would kill me to keep that secret,” he said softly. “But why? Why continue such a lie at the risk of E’din. Why-”

Dark light shifted in the boy’s black eyes, his expression hard. Catriel recognized those eyes. There were the eyes of someone who had seen too much pain.

Catriel understood then. He knew why the Isten Jequn had chosen to keep this boy, and he knew what returning would mean for the child.

“If I had offered you the dagger to use on the Isten Jequn, would you have taken it?” asked the soldier.

Without hesitation, Alex replied, “Yes.”

Fuck.” Catriel pressed his fingertips against his temples and began pacing the room.

This was too much.

He was just a nameless soldier, enlisted at birth to serve E’din. Even before he was demoted, a decision like this would have been well above his rank. His mission brought him here to deal with fiends and Anders, not potentially treasonous accusations against an Isten.

Catriel stopped pacing and glared at the boy. “This is a trick. You’re lying to me.”

Alex held out his bloody hand, palm up. “If you think I’m lying, stab me again.”

The soldier’s feathers bristled at the flippant remark. This child was trouble. More trouble than he was worth, but as much as Catriel wanted to believe otherwise, he wasn’t lying.

The options were bleak, his mission already a failure. He couldn’t return to E’din empty handed, but submitting Sachiel and Alex to the authorities wasn’t an option either.

At best, Catriel would be complicit in returning the boy to the whims of a deviant. At worst, they would all be executed for slander against an Isten. The descendants of Chaitaan might have a chance for redemption, but for someone like him…

No. The existence of this black-eyed child practically guaranteed his death. Jequn would ensure it.

Of course, there was another option. If he killed them both now, no one would ever need to know the truth. It would be an tragedy, but such things were common in times of war. As long as there were no witnesses…

Catriel’s internal debate over the morality of the situation and the demands of his duty to E’din were interrupted by a soft, fussing cry. Everyone froze, wings stiff. Neither Sachiel nor Alex breathed. They stared at Catriel, waiting for his reaction to the sound that drifted out from one of the closed doors down the hall.

A baby.

Suddenly, all the hushed curses and whispered pleas made sense. They weren’t alone in this house. No matter what Catriel had done to them, neither Sachiel nor Alex had yelled or screamed. They barely raised their voices. Even Sachiel’s rage had remained filtered through clenched, bloody teeth.

But now, he watched Catriel with wary blue eyes, his expression guarded.

It was fear. Real fear that made Sachiel look older.

More mature.

More dangerous.

Maybe Catriel had underestimated him.

Shuffling feet and a soft hum joined the baby’s cries. The voice was young, still half asleep itself, but the gentle melody soothed the infant, gradually lulling it back to sleep. Little footsteps carried the other child back to bed, then everything fell silent once more.

For several tense moments, no one moved. The fire crackled and popped, but everyone waited for the soldier to react.

Children, Catriel seethed in irritation. Of course there had to be children.

Catriel shook out his wings, trying to appear more in control of the situation than he felt. He wasn’t entirely certain this was the best decision, but he turned to face Alex. “Collect your things,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We’re leaving.” He removed a metal key from a pouch at his hip and tossed it to the boy.

“Right now?” Alex asked as he caught the key.

“I’ll be outside. Don’t make me wait.” He had no doubt that the boy was clever enough to understand the threat, so the soldier left the house without another word.

Outside, the moonless night no longer felt like an auspicious omen. The darkness felt heavy, like the dread coiling in Catriel’s gut.

He was abandoning his mission.

No matter what reason he gave, they weren’t going to be happy about that. So much for redemption.

The front door opened. Alex stepped out, wiping his cheeks with his forearm. He held the manacles and key in one hand, but nothing else.

“Where are your things?” Catriel asked sharply.

Alex shrugged and lowered his gaze. “I don’t own anything.”

Catriel took the manacles and key from the boy and returned them to their pouch. “Fine. Let’s go. Keep up.” He opened his wings and grabbed Alex’s bleeding hand. Ignoring the boy’s bleat of complaint, he launched into the air, pulling Alex after him into the starlight.

Chapter Text

The jagged soldier flew silently, but his grip ensured Alex’s stayed at his side. He held Alex’s wrist, just above where he had stabbed the boy’s hand. Neither of them were bleeding anymore. Their wounds had sealed with a blister of new skin, though the flesh within remained torn. Alex’s hand throbbed with a dull pain that matched the rhythm of his aching wings. He focused on it, almost entering an exhausted trance as he continued flying at the soldier’s side.

Catriel.

The soldier was all sharp angles, from his slitted eyes and high cheekbones, to the bristle of dark blond hair atop his head. Even his white wings appeared sharp, every feather as crisp as a dagger.

When he entered the house with a blade pressed to Sachiel’s throat, Alex instantly recognized the weapons harness worn by the stranger. It was the same style the guards around Archridge wore. It was obvious the man belonged to the Isten.

“Don’t leave.”

Sachiel’s pleaded words came back to Alex. The boy’s fingers had trembled as he unlocked the manacles around his father’s wrists. “You don’t have you go with him. I’ve seen him move. I can defeat him. I’ll-”

“Please. I have to do this,” Alex whispered. “Tell my sisters I’m sorry. I promised them more stories, but I can’t.” The locks opened and the weight of the manacles fell into his hands. “I can’t stay. If I do, more people will come looking for me. You’ll all be in danger because of me. I have to go.”

With a pulse of shimmering energy, Sachiel flexed and broke out of the ropes restraining him. He stood and knocked the chair aside before pulling Alex into a hug. “This is your home,” Sachiel insisted. “You belong here.”

“I’m sorry.” Alex sniffled and looked up at his father. “Bye, Dad.”

Sachiel’s brow pinched in pain. Even if he wanted Alex to stay, part of him had to understand that this was the only way to keep the girls safe. Accepting that hurt, though, more than any injury the soldier had inflicted on either of them.

“This isn’t goodbye forever, Alex. My son.” Sachiel stroked his long black hair, his touch kind and gentle. “I know you’ll come back to us.”

Tears filled Alex’s eyes. His throat was too tight to speak, so he just stepped out of Sachiel’s embrace and left the house behind. He couldn’t even look back to see if his father watched him go.

He just left them all behind.

Everything good he had ever dreamed of having for himself.

It was all gone.

When sunlight poured over the horizon at dawn, Alex and the jagged soldier were still flying. Alex could feel the warmth of the sun on his wings, but they were high enough that the atmosphere around them remained cold. The constant chill made his bones feel heavy. Alex realized he hadn’t slept at all last night. He was emotionally drained and physically exhausted, but the soldier showed no signs of stopping.

The strain on Alex’s wings was too much, even when he tried to conserve energy by coasting alongside the soldier. The relentless beat of the man’s crisp wings pulled him along, but it did nothing to ease his growing fatigue.

Alex wanted to land.

He wanted to sleep.

He wanted to go back home with his father and his sisters and never see the jagged soldier again.

“Keep up,” the soldier called back, and Alex grumpily resumed flying.

By the time midmorning came, Alex had finally had enough. He twisted, pushed off Catriel’s hip with his boots, and jerked his tender hand free of the soldier’s grip. He dove down, attempting to fly as fast as he could away from the man, but he was too tired to get far.

The soldier swooped down and roughly tackled the boy from above. They tumbled through the air until Catriel got Alex pinned to his chest, then he thrust open his wings for a slow descent.

Alex was too exhausted to struggle. He knew it was pointless, anyway. The soldier was strong. Alex was just grateful he didn’t have to fly anymore.

Catriel landed on a rocky hillside and hefted Alex over his shoulder. He carried him into a shallow cave. Something snuffled about inside, but Catriel bared his teeth with a snarl, and the small creature scampered off. There was no scent of whatever originally hollowed out the cave. It only smelled of stone and dirt.

The soldier dumped Alex at the back of the cave, then stood before him with his wings spread and his arms crossed. “Are you going to run from me again?”

Alex sat up and glared at Catriel. “I’m tired. I’m done flying.”

The muscle in the shoulder’s jaw twitched. “Children,” he said, using the word like a curse. “You promised you would go back. The sooner I return you to where you belong, the sooner I can be done with you.”

“I can’t fly anymore,” Alex snapped, too tired to continue being afraid of the soldier. “My wings hurt.”

“Don’t whine, boy.”

A surge of irritation pulsed through Alex. He didn’t have the energy to keep his emotions hidden. “I’m not whining. Jequn used to snap the bones in my wings so I couldn’t fly away from him,” he said bluntly, almost enjoying the way the soldier flinched at his words. “He stunted my growth. I’ve only been able to fly for a few years, and I’m still not strong enough to go long distances.”

“Fiends, Alexiel,” said the flustered soldier. “You can’t speak that way about an Isten. Mind your tongue.”

“Why?” the boy asked snidely. “You already know what I am. I don’t have to hide anything from you.”

“Because the less I know, the better my chances of surviving will be after I hand you over.” Catriel rubbed his temple. He was a dangerous man, there was no doubt about that, but he wasn’t as heartless as he attempted to appear.

“Do you know what he’ll do to me?” asked Alex, wrapping his arms around his knees.

“Yeah, I have an idea.” The jagged soldier shook his head and sighed. “But it doesn’t matter. Neither of us has a choice.”

“You could kill me.”

The soldier scowled at the suggestion, but Alex wasn’t joking. It would be a better fate than what awaited him back with Jequn. “Shut up and get some sleep,” Catriel told him. “We’ll resume flying this afternoon.” He turned and briskly marched to the entrance of the cave to stand guard.

As much as Alex would have liked to find a way to escape, he was just too tired. He muttered a few unpleasant things after the soldier, things his brother was fond of saying, then lay down in the dirt and fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

Chapter Text

The boy looked smaller when he slept, all curled up in a ball with those fluffy little wings folded around him.

So innocent.

So peaceful.

It was distressing.

Catriel knew what he was supposed to do. Alex had even agreed to it. So why was he feeling so conflicted?

Maybe there was a reason the Isten Jequn kept the boy’s lineage a secret. A real reason, something pertinent to the continued safety of E’din. Maybe it wasn’t a secret at all. Maybe all the other Isten already knew. What right did Catriel have to question the intentions of beings so great and powerful?

But despite his years of trained obedience, the soldier knew life in E’din wasn’t as simple as the rhetoric made it seem. The Isten were the protectors of E’din, but they weren’t flawless. His own existence proved that.

Catriel felt a feather shift out of place in one wing, but he welcomed the distraction. Swiftly, he found the offender, ran his fingers down the shaft, and then meticulously reset the interlocking barbs in proper order. When everything was in place, he slicked his fingers with an oil from his pouch and applied it to the feather.

Perfect.

Sharp.

Orderly.

Everything as it should be.

Catriel sighed and looked at the scrawny boy sleeping in dirt.

It wasn’t right.

How could he live with himself if he didn’t do something to help him?

Then again, Catriel probably wouldn’t live much longer, one way or another. Once the Isten Jequn suspected he knew more than he should, he would be permanently silenced.

A death in the service of E’din or the Isten was supposed to be an honor, but Catriel found no honor in this.

Swearing at his own foolishness, Catriel opened his wings and leapt into the air. Alex was exhausted. He would sleep long enough for Catriel to hunt and build a fire.

After that, they would talk.

The soldier had no doubt that he was going to regret this alliance.

Chapter Text

Alex woke to the crackle of a fire and the smell of burning flesh. He sat up abruptly, eyes wide. The jagged soldier crouched at the mouth of the cave, tending a small fire. He adjusted two sticks leaning on a brace over the blaze. Skewered on each stick was the headless, featherless body of a bird. Their skin crackled over the heat.

“You’re awake,” the soldier noticed. “Good. Dinner is ready.”

Nervous, Alex crept closer to the warmth of the fire. It was completely dark outside. A thin layer of clouds had even blocked the stars. Why had the soldier let him sleep so long?

“What do you mean, ‘dinner?’” Alex asked, looking at the dead birds warily. He was very hungry, but he had never eaten meat before. He couldn’t imagine eating something that had once been flying around.

Catriel took one of the sticks and gave it to the boy. Alex held it uncertainly. “Do not refuse what another creature has sacrificed for your own survival,” the soldier said. Then he took the other stick and bit a huge chunk of flesh from the charred breast of the bird.

Despite everything he had ever been taught, the smell of the seared meat was enticing. Alex hesitantly brought it up to his mouth and sank his teeth into the juicy flesh. Grease dribbled down his chin. The skin crackled as he bit through it. The muscle was tender and hot, and worst of all, delicious.

Alex tried not to think about it too hard as he swallowed and took another bite of the meat.

“So why did you really let my father go?” Alex asked between bites.

The soldier’s golden eyes briefly glanced toward him. There was something familiar about his slitted eyes, like Alex had seen them somewhere before. They were almost like Hadasha’s eyes, but he knew that wasn’t it. Hadasha had been kind and compassionate. This soldier definitely wasn’t that.

“You agreed to come back with me,” Catriel said. “It was a fair bargain.”

“I don’t get to lie to you,” said Alex, holding up his wounded hand. “Why do you get to lie to me?”

The jagged soldier ripped off a huge chunk of meat and slowly chewed it while he stared at the fire. After he swallowed, he said, “You’re right. I apologize. We are no longer in a situation where lying to one another will be acceptable. I left Sachiel there, despite his crimes-”

“Crimes?”

“Aiding the Ferryman as an agent of the Jinn and traitor to E’din.”

“Oh.” Alex looked down at bird carcass. Were the crimes worse if Sachiel was the Ferryman? He was afraid to ask.

“So,” Catriel continued, “despite his crimes, I left him there because I don’t believe your father is corrupt. Misguided, maybe, and a little naive, but he’s not past redemption.”

“Sachiel isn’t naive,” Alex said defensively.

“He is.” The jagged soldier sucked a cord of charred muscle from the bird’s wing and chewed. “He seems like a man who got mixed up with the wrong crowd. I remember when the war ended and we learned the fate of the traitor’s descendants. Sachiel was just an infant. He had no part it any of it, and even now, he is still too young to really understand what it means.”

“Young?” The remark surprised Alex. “How old are you?”

“Three-hundred-forty-something,” said the soldier.

“Oh.” There was no grey in the soldier’s hair or creases in his skin. Alex hesitantly asked, “Does… Does that mean you’re Ahnnak?”

Catriel shrugged. “Ahnnak, Terran. None of it matters. I am one of the Unborn, and I’m a soldier. I will serve E’din until I die, whether that’s tomorrow or a thousand years from now.”

Unborn. Alex had heard him use that term before, when he introduced himself. “What does Unborn mean?” he asked. He picked some of the cooked meat from the bird’s corpse and popped it in his mouth.

Catriel held his partially eaten bird back over the fire until more of the skin crisped and blackened. He ripped off another chunk of seared flesh and ate it.

“Unborn…” He chewed a moment. “It means that, as far as E’din is concerned, I don’t actually exist. I am the unwanted offspring of a prostitute, and I was sold to the military shortly after I was born.”

“You don’t know who your parents are?”

“No.” Catriel noisily sucked a bit of gristle out from between his teeth. He picked at what remained with one of his nails. “One of them was probably Ahnnak, though. I figured that out when I was about two-hundred, and hadn’t started to age like my squad mates.”

“So, if you’re Ahnnak, that means you have an Isten.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Catriel said firmly. “I belong to the military, and that’s it. Whoever I might be descended from doesn’t matter. I serve E’din. I obey orders. I keep my head down. I do as I’m told.”

“Except you let Sachiel go.”

“Don’t make me regret that more than I already do, Alexiel.”

“I would prefer if you called me Alex.”

“And I would prefer not to be decapitated for disrespecting the offspring of an Isten. We can’t both get what we want.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Catriel gnawed every last bit of flesh and muscle from the bird’s body, then started snapping open bones to suck out the marrow.

“I have to know,” said Alex, though he was afraid of the answer, “were you searching for me when you found Sachiel?”

“No,” said the soldier.

“Then why did you know about me?”

“You were listed as truant.” Catriel tossed a finished bone into the fire. “Truancy is often caused by kidnapping or murder. Sometimes it’s just a child who runs away, but more often than not, it’s because something bad happened. It’s common for soldiers on patrol find those victims, so we all tend to keep track of the list.”

“Are there a lot of children listed as truant?” Alex asked.

“We’re a nation at war. Yes, it’s a long list.” He flung another bone into the fire.

Alex picked at the remaining flesh of his bird. “You say you hate children, but you still try to help.”

“Children are innocent,” said Catriel. “They must be guided. They should not be subjected to the horrors of this world. You should not be subjected to the horrors of this world. So, yes. I hate children. It is never pleasant when I find them in my line of work.”

“But you still stabbed me.”

“I would not do anything to you that I would not do to myself,” the soldier said, holding up his hand with its matching wound.

Alex frowned. “That doesn’t make it okay.”

“You will heal.”

“I know I’ll heal,” said Alex, annoyed by the soldier’s attitude. “A clean cut between the third and fourth metacarpal will fully seal within four hours of the blade being removed. Internal bruising will begin to recede at fifteen. Within two days, severed nerves, blood vessels, and muscle will be fully reconnected, providing full motor usage of the hand once more.”

Catriel’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t need one of your academy lessons. I know how long a knife wound takes to heal.”

“I didn’t learn that at the academy. I know from experience, because Jequn liked to make me bleed.”

“Oh, for fucks sake,” Catriel swore and flung the rest of his bird carcass into the fire. “That bastard.”

“Mind your tongue,” Alex replied mockingly. “You can’t speak that way about an Isten.”

Catriel glared at him, annoyed at having his words thrown back at him. “Listen, brat, my death comes with a word from your lips. I’ve decided it is in my own best interest to keep watch over you. The longer you go without anyone discovering what you really are, the longer I live.”

Alex tilted his head. “What?”

“I’ve decided I’m not returning you to your Isten. You’re listed as truant from Archridge, so it’s reasonable to assume that I would bring you there. And after, I’m going put in a transfer to stay with you at the academy so I can monitor you, make sure you don’t slip up and say something stupid to get us both killed.” He ruffled his crisp feathers, then let them settle again as he looked back at the fire. “I’ll keep you safe.”

Alex’s brow furrowed. “You? Why?”

“Don’t ask so many questions,” the soldier grumbled.

Alex watched him for a few moments more, then held out his stick with the rest of his bird. “I’m full. Do you want more?”

Catriel’s slitted eyes focused on the remains. He took the stick, muttered a soft, “Thanks,” and began eating. Alex sat quietly until he was done, then they put out the fire. Together, they resumed flying, their course altered toward Archridge Academy.

Chapter Text

Alex didn’t have to ask Catriel to stop very often. The soldier took lots of breaks on their flight back to Archridge. Honestly, probably more than Alex needed, but he was in no rush to return to the academy.

Plus, it gave them plenty of time to work out their cover story.

“You’re skinny enough,” said Catriel one afternoon as they rested in an apple tree, eating the fruit. “Everyone would believe I found you wandering the woods lost for two months, eating nothing but berries.”

“Yeah,” Alex muttered. “They would believe that. I’ve done it before. Not the lost part, but I’ve gone off on my own a few times.”

“I’m not surprised.”

A quail popped out of a bush below them and pecked at the bugs on the ground. Catriel’s attention focused on it, the glint in his eyes sharp. That look made Alex uneasy.

“Hey,” he said, and threw an apple at the soldier. “Leave it alone.”

Catriel caught the fruit and glared at Alex. “Why?”

“You don’t need to kill beasts for consumption when there’s food around us.” He motioned to the fruit-laden tree.

“There’s a thrill in the hunt, little Isten,” said the soldier. “It’s addictive. I hope you never need to develop the taste for it.”

Alex knocked another apple from the tree. It fell to the ground, startling the quail. The bird flew off in a frantic flurry of tiny wings.

“No more killing for food unless there’s no other option,” Alex said firmly.

Catriel hissed low and bared his teeth in annoyance, then took a big bite of the apple Alex had thrown at him. “There? Happy now, you bossy little brat?”

Alex nodded. “No one eats meat at Archridge. You need to blend in if you’re going to stay there.”

“Hungry people eat what is available,” Catriel replied. “Don’t be naive. Besides, I’m not the one who should be worried about blending in.”

“I blend it,” Alex retorted, mildly offended.

“You, little Isten, are the weirdest child I have ever met.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Stop telling me what to do.”

They glared at each other again, but this kind of bickering had become common between them. Alex didn’t feel any real animosity toward the soldier, and for some unfathomable reason, he felt like he could trust him.

After a while, Alex jumped up to a higher branch and found another apple that looked edible. He lay over the branch on his stomach, with his legs and arms swinging free and his wings open above him. “Hey, Catriel?” he called down to the man beneath him.

“Hm?” the jagged soldier grunted, not bothering to look up.

“Do you think I can go back to visit my father and sisters sometime?”

“As slow as you fly? Doubtful.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

“Well… If I get stronger? And faster?”

Catriel examined the apple in his hand. “If I tell you no, are you going to try to do it anyway?”

“Maybe.” Alex thought about it a little. “Probably. Yes. I don’t have class all Harvest.”

“You want to return to a man who is assisting a fiend I’ve been ordered to destroy.”

“You don’t have to come.”

Catriel hissed out a sharp breath. “Like I’d let some incompetent brat like you go anywhere on your own.”

“So you’ll fly home with me?” Alex pestered.

“We’ll see,” said the soldier, which Alex had found to be as good as yes. He happily ate his apple.

***

The western forest appeared on the horizon late that afternoon. Soon after, Alex spotted the cliffs of Archridge. From this high up, the tall rock edge almost appeared flat, as did the city on the plateau behind it.

Alex flew up beside Catriel and pointed to the fissure in the rock where the waterfall had worn away the stone. “Archridge,” he called, using the low flight tone with some difficulty.

Catriel’s lips barely moved as he responded, but his voice resonated clearly through the air. “I see it. By the time we descend, it will be sunset. Are you ready to be found?”

“If I say no, can we go back?” Alex asked, only partially joking.

The soldier rolled his slitted eyes and adjusted the angle of his wings to begin his slow, steady descent. Alex attempted to glide smoothly after him, but still needed to work twice as hard as the soldier to fly down to the academy.

They landed above the cliffs of Archridge before the sun set. The shadows of the flight stones stretched across the ground, darkening the fresh grass that grew from the once blackened field. Alex was surprised by how quickly the spring growth had retaken the charred ground. The scars from Uzzi’s fire were barely noticeable anymore.

Catriel folded his wings and held his hands up. He looked into the shadows. “Secondary Flight Officer Catriel of the Unborn, ACU62.”

Alex looked up at the soldier, then followed his gaze to the shadows. He was startled to realized someone was there. It was one of the academy guards. How had he not noticed him before?

“State your business, soldier,” the guard stated as he stepped into the fading sunlight.

“I found one of your truant students while on a mission. Requesting permission to escort him to the commander in charge.”

The guard looked at Alex. He recognized him. “Fiends. Yeah. We’ve been searching for that one. We can take him from here.”

Alex stepped a little closer to Catriel. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt nervous that the soldier might leave him alone with anyone else.

“Forgive me,” said Catriel, “but I’m going to have to insist I turn him in myself. The child is still a flight risk.”

The guard grunted. “Fine. Permission granted. Report to admin on fourth down, southern edge. The current administrator is on leave, so request Yorikkiel.”

“Understood.” Catriel touched Alex’s arm and guided him to the edge of the gap. They flew down. When they landed on the admin level, the soldier paused and met Alex’s gaze. “Ready?”

Alex took a deep breath and nodded. The air felt heavier here, like it would suffocate him, but as long as he stuck to their plan, he would be okay.

They walked through the doors of the administration level together.

Within minutes, they were in Headmaster Iscriel’s office, but instead of the aging Terran man, they were met with a winged woman with short black hair and a crisp linen suit.

“I am Interim Headmaster Yorikkiel, fifth generation Ahnnak of the Isten Marut. I am in charge while Headmaster Iscriel is away on business,” she announced as she walked around the desk to greet Alex and Catriel. “State your title, please, soldier.”

“Catriel of the Unborn, Secondary Flight Officer in Aerial Combat Unit Six-Two, serving for the Defense of E’din.” He saluted her. “Ma’am.”

“You have my gratitude, Catriel,” she said, returning the salute. “Thank you for returning our student to us. He’s been missing for two months. We had begun to fear the worst.” She turned her attention to Alex. “Alexiel, you made us all worry. You can’t run away like that.”

Alex lowered his gaze. It wasn’t hard to play the part he had been given. He was to let Catriel do most of the talking, and just act shy and scared. Considering he always felt shy and scared around new people, that wasn’t a hard act at all.

“He hasn’t spoken much since I found him,” said the jagged soldier. “I wasn’t sure how long he was alone out there.”

“Please,” said Yorikkiel, motioning to the benches before her desk. “I would appreciate a briefing on the situation.”

Catriel took a step, then reached back, grabbed Alex’s arm, and pulled him along, too. “Sit,” he commanded, placing the boy on the bench. He sat beside him.

Yorikkiel took a seat on the other side of the desk. She unrolled a scroll, dipped a quill in ink, then prepared to write Catriel’s report.

“My mission brought me to the eastern plains,” the soldier began.

“May I ask what your mission was?” Yorikkiel asked while she wrote the initial line.

“Sorry, ma’am. It’s classified.” Yorikkiel nodded, so Catriel continued. “I found traces of a person living in the woods. I thought it might have been my target, so I followed the trail. After two days, I located the source. This boy. At first, I thought he was one of the local village’s children-”

“Which village?” she asked.

“Singrea.” It was one of the villages they had flown by on their way back, but it was far enough from the edge of E’din to prevent anyone from figuring out where Sachiel’s valley was.

“Please, continue,” Yorikkiel said after she noted the name.

“When I got closer, I recognized the description of the Ahnnak Alexiel, but before I could speak to him, he attempted to escape. I pursued him, captured him, and got him to confirm his identity.”

“He ran from you?” Yorikkiel asked, glancing at Alex.

“Yes, ma’am. He was scared, practically as wild as the beasts that inhabit that region. It took some time to get him to trust me, but eventually, I convinced him to follow me.”

“And how did you manage that?” asked the Interim Headmaster.

“I offered him food, ma’am. Which is often the best method for taming a wild beast. That, and a firm hand when they step out of line.” Catriel looked over at Alex, his golden eyes sharp. “Isn’t that right, Alexiel?”

Alex shifted and fluttered his wings, keeping his head down. “Yes, sir.”

“You had to discipline him?” Yorikkiel asked, watching the exchange.

“He’s skittish,” said the soldier, raising his chin and looking at her. “There are times in war when a potential flight risk can cause more harm to a squad than an attacking enemy. It’s disruptive. It must be dealt with promptly and without remorse.”

“But he is a child, not a soldier,” said Yorikkiel.

“Children must be guided so they can grow to serve E’din, as we do,” said Catriel, his words full of conviction.

“Yes, I suppose you are right,” Yorikkiel agreed, and wrote a few more lines of script on the scroll. “Well, this is not the first record we have of trouble with this child.”

“He has run away before?” asked Catriel.

“Yes.”

“And your institution allowed it to happen again, even after he became a known risk?”

Yorikkiel put down her quill and glared at Catriel. “This is an place of learning, not a training compound. Children need freedom to grow and explore, just as much as they need structure and guidance.”

“So you lose your students often?”

Lips pursed, Yorikkiel continued to glare at Catriel another moment before she crisply said, “We do not lose our students. The Ahnnak Alexiel is the son of an Isten, but there were complications that delayed his emotional and physical development. He had a dedicated tutor for years to help him adjust, but he still needs more time.”

The soldier snorted. “Sounds like he needs a dedicated guard to keep him in line.” Catriel stood and snapped his fingers. Alex immediately stood, too. “I am going to be submitting a request for reassignment to this facility. I find your security structure lacking. The children of the Isten deserve better protection than you’re offering them.”

“I assure you, soldier, that we do not need your input.” Yorikkiel stood, her wings puffed with irritation. “I am grateful you returned Alexiel, but-”

“Submit your report, ma’am, and I’ll submit mine,” Catriel interrupted. “Good evening, Interim Headmaster. I will be returning the boy to his residence now.” The jagged soldier turned and walked from the room, and Alex obediently followed along after him.

***

“Do you think it worked?” Alex asked when they were in the hall.

Catriel silently ruffled his feathers and then settled his wings against his back. “That woman has no real power here. She’s an extension of her Isten, put in place to project the semblance of control. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble getting my reassignment approved.” He looked over at Alex. “Especially since you’ve got a history of getting into trouble.”

Alex shrugged. “I need to be alone sometimes.”

“You run away again, and I’ll be serious about that ‘firm hand’ business.”

“Fine,” Alex griped. “I won’t run away without you.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“You know, I think Uzzi is going to like you,” said Alex as he continued walking. “He always wanted to be a soldier, and-”

Catriel stopped in his tracks and grabbed Alex’s arm, jerking him back. The boy fell silent as a messenger ran around the corner.

“Ahnnak Alexiel?” the girl said breathlessly, her wings fluttering to cool her down. Alex just stared at her. “I was instructed by the Isten Elohim to give you a message as soon as you returned. You are to present yourself to your brother immediately.”

“That’s it?” asked Catriel. “That is the whole message?”

The girl nodded. “I tried to catch you while you were still in the office, but you left before I could reach you.”

“Understood, child. Return to your duties.” The soldier shooed her away like he would a bothersome insect. After she was gone, Alex remained very still and quiet. “Well?” asked the jagged soldier. “Shall we go meet your brother?”

Alex nervously licked his lips, then muttered, “Gabriel is going to be so mad at me.”

Chapter Text

Gabriel held his face in his hands. Even with his eyes closed, he could still see the chemical symbols and equations burned into his vision. It streamed by as if he was reading the scrolling text on one of the tablets of the Isten. He had been at this project for hours, and had not made nearly as much progress as he would have liked. He needed a break.

Leaning back, Gabriel stretched out his wings and raised his arms over his head. His groaned as he extended himself, alleviating some of the ache through the muscles in his back. He had been hunched over this damn desk far too long.

Erem was supposed to be coming by tonight, and for once, Gabriel was looking forward to the chaotic distraction his friend offered.

He stood and entered the attached bathing room to clean up and wash his face. The splash of water was refreshing, but the reflection that stared back at him in the hazy silver-backed glass still appeared tired. There were dark shadows under his eyes. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept well. It was probably the last time he got knocked out in a fight.

As Gabriel patted his skin dry with a small towel, he heard a knock. He froze, his eyes locked with the piercing blue gaze of his reflection.

Six. Steady. Beats.

“Alex.”

Gabriel dropped the towel and ran to the door. He flung it open, fully prepared to kick the ass of whoever knocked if this was a prank. Still, hope cast his eyes low, about chest level, as high as his brother should have been.

That wasn’t right.

Slowly, Gabriel’s ice blue eyes scanned up the thin, dirty body of the black-haired boy at his door. When he met Alex’s black eyes, he was almost looking straight ahead.

“When the fuck did you get so tall?” Gabriel demanded, but he reached out and grabbed his little brother anyway. He pulled him into a tight, desperate hug.

Oh, fiends, I never thought I’d see you again.

“B-Brother! Can’t breathe!” Alex’s little white wings fluttered behind him. He struggled, but Gabriel didn’t want to let him go yet. He pressed his face in Alex’s hair, breathing in the smell of dirt and sap and… What was that? There was something layered beneath his usual scent, something sweet and a little metallic.

Was Jequn’s mark on him already fading?

A man standing beside Alex cleared his throat. Gabriel hadn’t noticed him, and his embarrassment at being caught with his brother immediately shifted to an anger which he projected at the stranger.

Gabriel pushed Alex behind him and glared at the man. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Secondary Flight Officer Catriel, serving for the Defense of E’din,” he announced. “I am the one who found Alexiel”

Gabriel examined the soldier. He was armed like he was going into a Hunt alone. The way he carried himself, he could probably win. He was all sharp edges and angles, even the slashed pupils of his eyes. There was definitely something dangerous about him, and Gabriel didn’t want him anywhere near his little brother.

“Thanks,” the silver-haired boy said crisply, “but I’ve got him from here. You’re dismissed.”

The soldier didn’t leave. “Forgive me, my lord, but I will be in charge of Alexiel over the next few months, until he is no longer considered a flight risk. I am not leaving him unattended.”

“He isn’t going to run from me,” Gabriel replied irritably. The soldier didn’t respond. He just stood there, waiting and watching. Gabriel scowled, but before he could tell the man off, Alex finished smoothing his rumpled shirt back down and touched Gabriel’s arm with his grey-nailed fingers.

“It’s okay, brother,” Alex said. “Catriel said he’s going to help. I trust him.”

Gabriel grit his teeth. “I’ve told you not to call me that.” He grabbed the back of Alex’s neck and hauled him into his bedroom. The boy went along without resistance. “Stay,” Gabriel said to the soldier at the door.

The man actually had the audacity to look passed Gabriel to confirm with Alex, who stood in the room, rubbing the back of his neck. Alex gave him a slight nod, and the jagged soldier said, “I’ll be waiting in the hall.”

Gabriel slammed the door shut in his face and activated the seal. He doubted it would hold long if the soldier really wanted to come in, but locking him out was still kind of satisfying. At least the man would have to make some effort if he wanted to barge in.

The soldier was a complication, one Gabriel definitely didn’t need right now.

With an annoyed flutter of his wings, Gabriel turned toward Alex. His brother continued to awkwardly rub the back of his neck and avoid his gaze. Standing in the dorm room like that, it was even more obvious how much Alex had changed. How could he have grown so much? It hadn’t been that long since Gabriel last saw him… had it?

The ache in Gabriel’s chest told him that any time apart was too long.

Alex flinched when Gabriel walked over and threaded his fingers through each side of his dirty, black hair. Gabriel tilted Alex’s head back, forcing the younger boy to face him. Those void-stained black eyes widened when Gabriel leaned in, and for a second, Alex tensed.

Their foreheads touched.

Alex gave a shaky sigh of relief and closed his eyes. His hands rested lightly on Gabriel’s wrists, and for several quiet moments, the boys just stood together, sharing the breath between them.

“Fiends, I’ve missed you,” Gabriel whispered. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?”

“I didn’t mean to make you worry,” Alex replied. He opened his eyes.

Gabriel leaned back so he could clearly see his brother’s dirty face. “What did you think would happen? You went home without me.”

“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “Headmaster Iscriel told me I had to.”

“And you didn’t think to check with me first?” Gabriel asked with a harsher tone than he intended.

Alex lowered his gaze, looking guilty. “Sorry.”

Gabriel sighed and ran his fingers through Alex’s hair again, tucking it behind his ear. There was a twig caught in the strands, which he untangled and flicked away. How long had it been since Alex last bathed?

“I’ve taken care of Iscriel,” Gabriel said, softening his voice. “Even if he comes back, he won’t be a problem again. Anyone Jequn tries to contact at Archridge will come to me first. They’re going to leave you alone. But the next time we go home-”

“I’m not going back,” Alex interrupted.

Gabriel’s brow furrowed. “Alex, I’m not going to let him touch you again,” he said, attempting to reassure his little brother.

“No. I’m not going back,” Alex repeated defiantly. He pulled away from Gabriel and took a step away.

Gabriel lowered his hands to his sides, resisting the urge to reach out for him again. “Alex, you know we have to maintain an image of allegiance with Jequn to avoid suspicion. That means visiting home sometimes.”

“I don’t want to go. I won’t.”

The corner of Gabriel’s eye twitched. “Don’t argue with me, Alex. Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused by running away? Where have you been anyway?”

“I…” Alex hesitated a second, then raised his chin and said, “I met my real father.”

For several stunned seconds, Gabriel could only stare. “You what?” he whispered, barely able to speak. There was no air left in the room. The floor felt as if it had dropped, leaving him falling without any hope of catching himself before he was crushed beneath a mountain of stone. Gabriel’s wings opened as if they could stop his descent, and remained rigid behind him.

“I found my dad,” Alex explained while he fidgeted with the edge of one tattered sleeve. “I talked to Mother and she gave me his name.” There was a buzz of fallacy about the statement, but Alex continued speaking too fast for Gabriel to pinpoint it. “After I escaped Jequn, I met this old woman, and she recognized him and gave me directions. I found him. His real name is Sachiel and he’s very nice. He let me live with him, and he has five-”

“WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?!” Gabriel yelled as the weight of the world snapped back on him with a surge of rage.

Alex wilted, looking tiny and scared. “B-Brother?”

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” He began pacing, furious. “No. Of course you don’t. Fiends take you, Alex. How can you be so stupid?! I had everything under control, and you ruined it.

“Gabriel, you’re scaring me…”

“You should be scared, you dumb little shit!” he snarled. “Do you know what will happen if people find out you’re not Jequn’s son? If they find out who you’re really descended from? They’re going to take you away. They’ll probably torture you and kill you. And if they don’t, Jequn will. He would rather have both of us dead than risk anyone finding out what he raised.”

“‘What he raised?’” Alex asked with a perplexed tilt to his head.

Gabriel stopped pacing and glared at his brother with intense blue eyes. He hadn’t wanted Alex to know, but now he could see that he had no choice. He had to tell him. “Your real father? Sachiel? He’s the son of the Isten Chaitaan, the traitor who started the war. His brother rules the Jinn.”

Without any sign of surprise, Alex said, “Oh. That. I know.”

Gabriel blinked. “What?”

“I know. Sachiel told me. But it’s okay, he-”

The nonchalant way Alex accepted being descended from the most treasonous, corrupt bloodline in the history of E’din pissed Gabriel off. His temper flared and he grabbed his little brother’s arm. Before Alex could protest, Gabriel hauled him across the room, flung him face down on the bed, and began hitting his upturned bottom.

“Don’t you fucking speak that name again!” Gabriel yelled as he spanked his little brother.

“Ow. Ow!” Alex exclamations of surprise quickly changed to cries of pain. He kicked and beat his wings, but Gabriel didn’t stop.

Furious, Gabriel pinned Alex down and continued beating him until he could feel the heat radiating from his tender backside. Something distant, like banging on wood, threatened to interrupt Gabriel’s anger, but he was far too mad to focus on anything but the rush of blood in his veins and the pained yelps of the boy beneath him.

By the time rational thought returned to Gabriel, Alex had stopped struggling. He just sobbed into the blankets, and when Gabriel released him, he slid off the bed and crumpled to the floor. Heavy tears laced his thick, black lashes as he continued to cry.

Alex looked so pitiful.

Gabriel felt as if his heart was being crushed in his chest by the claws of some great beast. At that moment, more than anything, he wanted to fall to his knees and apologize to his little brother. He wanted to hold him, and comfort him, and promise him he would never hurt him again.

But he needed to make him understand.

“I don’t want to hear another word about Sachiel,” Gabriel said sharply. “If they take you away, there’s nothing I can do to keep you safe. Not from the other Isten, not from Jequn. You are my responsibility, so you will do what I tell you. Got it?”

Alex didn’t respond. He just sniffled and swiped his wrist across his face, streaking damp dirt across his cheeks. Gabriel reached down to stoke his hair, as he had done a thousand times before when he needed to get his brother’s attention, but Alex flinched. He jerked back like he actually thought Gabriel was going to hurt him again.

A spike of anger shot through Gabriel. He roughly grabbed the front of Alex’s shirt and pulled the insolent boy to his feet. Holding him close, their noses practically touching, Gabriel growled, “I own you, Alexiel. Do you understand me?”

Alex’s stubborn, tear-filled eyes glared back at him with something verging on rebellion. But he answered as he should. “Y-Yes,” he whispered, his lower lip quivering, “I understand.”

At that moment, a surge of power crackled through the ward on the door, shattering it with a raucous bang. The door swung open, and the soldier stood in the center of the frame with his wings spread. Stray arcs of energy skittered across his dagger-like feathers. His golden eyes practically glowed.

“Sir,” the soldier said with no respect to the word, “I am going to ask that you unhand my charge.”

Gabriel’s lip curled back in a sneer. The insolence of such a man was unforgivable, but maybe he could use him. “Where did you find Alex?” he demanded, still holding his brother close as he glared at the soldier.

“In the woods. Alone,” the soldier lied so smoothly that it barely registered as fallacy.

“If I hear a word otherwise, I’m going to order that your tongue be ripped out every week for the rest of your damned life. Do you understand me?”

Catriel bared his teeth aggressively, but said, “I understand, my lord.”

“Take him.” Gabriel shoved Alex toward the soldier. “Get him out of my sight. I don’t want to see him again unless I call for him.”

“As my Lord Isten wishes,” the soldier said with a condescension that made Gabriel’s wings bristle. Catriel caught Alex when he stumbled, but Alex immediately jerked away from him.

The black-haired boy turned back toward Gabriel. “Brother, I’m sorry. Please don’t-”

“Shut up, Alex. Just leave.” Gabriel turned his back on them both. “But soldier?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

Gabriel clenched his fist, trying to contain the arcs of lightning that popped across his skin. Contemptuously, he said, “If he gets hurt, it’ll be your wings.”

“Understood, my lord,” Catriel said with a low growl. He touched Alex’s arm, getting his attention enough to guide him out the door. They left the room as fresh tears dripped from those void-blackened eyes. It pained Gabriel to let him go.

They weren’t far before another voice filled the hall. “Hey, watch where you’re going,” came Erem’s scornful rebuke. In another moment, the blue-skinned Ahnnak strode into Gabriel’s room with only a passing glance at the open, unwarded door. “Who the fuck was that?”

“Alex,” Gabriel replied.

Erem held his hand flat, about hip-high. “Alex? Like, little Alex? Your Alex?”

Gabriel’s wings flared. He grit his teeth and growled, “My Alex.” The electricity arced off his skin.

“Huh.” Erem swept his hand back through his blond hair. “Fiends, he’s grown.”

Gabriel gave a frustrated roar, picked up the plush lounge chair, and threw it across the room. It broke against the shelves, sending books and scrolls scattering across the floor. Gabriel threw the bench next, then flipped the bed and snapped the wooden frame. He smashed the table last, beating it against the ground it was barely more than splinters.

Once all the furniture was broken, Gabriel stopped, fists clenched and breathing hard. His wings remained open, vibrating with the fury that continued to course through his veins.

Erem had merely watched the destruction of Gabriel’s room with a raised brow. He put his hand on his hip. “You know, I thought you would be happier about Alex coming back.”

Gabriel spun on him and stomped over. He got in Erem’s face. “I’m going to Marut. If you follow me, I’m going to kick your ass.”

“You can’t go by yourself,” Erem replied.

Without any warning, Gabriel punched him, knocking the blue-skinned Ahnnak to the floor. While Erem lay on the stone, rubbing his cheek and looking up with surprised yellow eyes, Gabriel snarled, “Don’t you ever tell me what to do again.”

“Yeah. Okay,” Erem agreed quickly.

Gabriel sneered down at him, then stepped over his friend and stomped out his room. He stormed through the halls with static crackling through his feathers. No one else got in his way. He left Archridge and flew to Marut to start a fight.

If he was lucky, maybe it would kill him.

Chapter Text

Catriel got Alex away from that room as quick as he could without picking the boy up and flinging him over his shoulder. It wouldn’t help right now, and as jumpy as Alex was about being touched, it would probably make things worse. They walked swiftly through the halls while Alex struggled to stop those damn tears.

Even when Catriel stabbed the boy when they first met, he hadn’t cried like that.

It was distressing, and it annoyed Catriel, because he wasn’t supposed to be getting attached to this cursed child. But after days of traveling together, he couldn’t help but like the strange, curious boy.

After they left the restricted dormitories, Catriel pulled Alex into an alcove off the main hall. “We can’t walk around like this,” the soldier told him, putting the boy in the corner where no one passing could see him. “Get yourself under control.”

“I’m trying,” Alex cried in frustration, continuing to rub his eyes.

“What did he do to you before I came in?”

“Nothing,” sniffled Alex.

“It didn’t sound like nothing.”

“He was just upset.”

Catriel scowled. “He hit you. That little son-of-a-Isten hurt you, and you’re making excuses for him?”

“He’s my brother,” the boy said. He pressed his palms against his eyes.

“I’ve known people like him. He’s a violent menace, and you need to stay away from him.”

“That’s not a problem, b-because… because he doesn’t w-w-want me around anyway!” Alex’s words turned into a heartbroken wail that brought more tears streaming down his face.

Fiends, kill me now, Catriel thought as he realized that seeing Alex cry made him want to go back and kick that silver-haired brat’s ass. Of course, attacking the heir of an Isten would get him demoted, at the very least. Probably even exiled.

Not an option.

“Damn it, stop crying.” Catriel grabbed Alex and pulled him close, hugging him to his chest. The boy struggled a bit, but Catriel just squeezed and held him tighter. “Stop it, Alexiel. We’re not leaving until you can walk through these halls without making a spectacle of yourself. Just calm down and stop crying.”

Gradually, Alex did relax. It helped that Catriel held him so tight he could barely breathe, but the boy managed to get himself under control. He was probably smearing snot and tears on Catriel’s tunic, but that was a problem he would deal with later.

“He hates me,” Alex muttered, leaning against Catriel’s chest.

“I don’t think that’s the problem,” the jagged soldier grumbled in response. He released Alex, but as he stepped back, the boy caught sight of his hand.

Black eyes widened. “You’re hurt. What happened?”

Catriel held up the injury in question. His hand was burnt. The skin of two fingers had melted together while the rest of his flesh was red and blistered. “That damn ward. Took more energy than I expected to break through it. Who the hell puts a ward like that on their bedroom door?”

“Gabriel.” Alex wiped his face one more time. No fresh tears dripped from his eyes, but his pale skin remained red and blotchy. “I think he learned it from a book.”

Catriel hissed low. That ward mimicked traits found in some of the highest level protection wards used in Mahat. There were still flaws to its construction, but for a child to pick up any of it from a book…

It reaffirmed Catriel’s suspicion that the silver-haired Ahnnak was something to be cautious of.

“I’ll be fine,” Catriel said, lowering his hand. “Now, if you’re done crying, let’s go find your room. I need to determine if it’s secure before I head north to Esh and submit my report.”

Alex blinked a few times and nodded his head. “I think I’m done. But Catriel?”

“Hm?”

“What am I supposed to do if you don’t come back?”

“Don’t draw any attention to yourself,” the jagged soldier said. “And stay away from your brother.”

Alex swallowed like there was a lump in his throat, but he nodded again. “Okay.”

They walked back out to the hall and flew down to the boy’s dorm room.

***

“Alex! You’re back!” The boy that sprang at Alex moved like the explosion of flame after throwing water on a grease fire. It too fast, and Catriel reflexively grabbed him and pinned him to the stone wall of the room shared by the boys.

“Catriel! Let him go!” Alex shouted.

“He’s a threat.”

“He’s a friend!” Alex kicked Catriel in the shin, and though it didn’t hurt, it was definitely irritating.

The jagged soldier dropped the fiery boy, who coughed and scrambled back startled, but much calmer. That was good enough for now. Catriel took stock of the rest of the room. There was another winged boy sitting in the pit of pillows, slack-jawed. He didn’t look like he was sure if he should celebrate Alex’s return or prepare for an attack. At least he had the sense to remain seated until he figured it out.

The room held three stone bunks, a stack of barely used course books, more clothes on the floor than in the closet, and an array of board games that probably saw more attention than anything else in the room put together.

It was what Catriel expected from children that age. There was no threat in the room, except from the other boys.

Alex helped the fiery boy off the floor. “Uzzi, are you okay?”

“Yeah, Alex…” He looked at the soldier cautiously. “Who is this?”

“Catriel. He’s a soldier. He’s nice, but don’t move too fast around him.”

“Yeah. Got it.” Uzzi smiled nervously at Alex. “I’m really glad you’re back. I missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too.” Alex smiled at his friend, and it was the most genuine expression Catriel had seen on the boy’s face all day.

“Where were you?” Uzzi asked. Before Alex could answer, he continued with a barrage of questions and statements, hardly breathing between them. “Why didn’t you tell us you were leaving? I woke up and looked everywhere after you were gone. The first class instructor told us you’d been called home. Why’d you have to go? Is it true that a pardua attacked your Isten? Was it your pardua? Were you hurt? Is that why you didn’t come back?”

While the fiery boy overwhelmed Alex with questions, the boy in the pit cautiously stood, keeping his eyes on Catriel. He walked over to his roommates, but only when he was beside them did he look away from the soldier. “Uzzi,” he interrupted, “Leave Alex alone. Whatever he’s been through, he’ll tell us when he’s ready. Can’t you see how tired he is?”

Ah, so this one was the voice of reason out of the three.

Uzzi turned on him. “Don’t tell me what to do, Isa.”

Both boys’ wings puffed like they were rival starlings squabbling over territory. Standard behavior for that age, except Alex seemed to be their point of contention.

So maybe it wasn’t reason. Just jealousy.

“That’s enough,” Catriel said with the tone he used when commanding new recruits. All three boys stopped speaking. Alex was the only one who didn’t look terrified as they faced Catriel. “Present your name and lineage.” He pointed at the fiery boy.

“U-Uzzi,” the kid stammered.

“I can’t hear you,” Catriel barked. “Speak up!”

The boy stood straighter with eyes shut tight and arms pinned at his sides. “Yes, sir!” he nearly yelled. “Uzziel! Son of Medic Zoliviel and Terran Uthariel!”

Medic?

“What is your focus?” the soldier asked.

One flame colored eye peeked open. “What?”

“Are you a healer?” Catriel growled, making the boy go rigid and close his eyes again.

“No, sir!”

“It’s fire,” offered the boy from the pit. “He burns everything.”

Catriel snapped his fingers in Isa’s face and pointed to the ground. “Twenty push ups for speaking out of turn.”

The boy balked. “You can’t make me-”

“NOW.”

The boy dropped and did the push ups. He had good form. He was strong. It was clear he had done a lot of heavy manual labor through his life.

“-Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.”

The boy got back to his feet, lips pursed in skeptical irritation. He didn’t say anything else until Catriel requested, “Name and lineage.”

“Isaiel. Son of Terran Ygriel.”

“Father?”

“Unknown,” the boy answered with a hard look in his eye.

“What is your mother’s occupation?”

“Forrester. Lumber processing.”

Catriel nodded. That would explain why he was so sturdy and strong for a Terran of his age.

Last was Alex, who was just watching with a unreadable expression in his black eyes. Even after traveling with him for days on end, Catriel still found it difficult to tell what he was thinking. He wasn’t predictable, and that could be a problem.

“Well?” said Catriel to Alex. “Name and lineage.”

“Alexiel,” the boy responded flatly. The black of his eyes shifted, reflecting like the sheen of light on oil. “Son of the Isten Jequn.”

They held each other’s gaze for a moment, then Catriel said, “This room is secure. I’ll speak with the academy guards before I go to give them instructions, but until I return, you will not go anywhere except this room, your classes, and the dining hall.”

“What about Marut?” asked Uzzi.

“The Isten?” Catriel’s slitted eyes shifted to the fiery boy.

Uzzi’s brow furrowed. “No, the town. That’s where Remi is. He’s been so worried about Alex-”

“Who is Remi?” Catriel demanded.

“Nobody,” Alex said quickly, taking a step toward Catriel. “He’s just a friend who used to go to the academy. I’ll write him a letter.”

The black-haired boy was trying to hide something. Catriel frowned. “Alexiel-”

“I promise I won’t leave the academy until you return,” said Alex. “I’ll be good, so you better go before it gets too late to fly back.” He started pushing Catriel toward the door.

The soldier let the boy move him out of the room. Once they reached the hall, Catriel turned and bent low, getting close to Alex’s face. “Alexiel, be careful,” he whispered. “Those boys-”

“I’ll be fine,” Alex insisted. He held up his hand, the one Catriel had stabbed, even though there was no mark remaining. “Promise.”

The jagged soldier nodded and stood straight. “I’ll return as soon as I can. Just… Don’t talk to people too much.”

“Not a problem,” Alex said with a huff. “Be careful, Catriel.”

“You, too, child.”

The door closed and Catriel walked down the hall alone. Something about the name Remi was familiar, though he couldn’t remember where he had heard it before. Well, he would deal with that issue when he returned.

For now, he had to report to Esh. His mission was a failure, but with some luck, hopefully General Laeshiel and Wing Commander Torkaiel would grant his transfer to Archridge. He had recovered the lost son of an Isten, after all.

Chapter Text

Barach scoured most of Marut before he located Gabriel. He was too late. His friend was a bloody mess, but at least he wasn’t alone. Ombri sat beside him in the alley, checking the tenderness of his own bruised jaw while Gabriel’s slurred rambling continued on.

“-and I can’t ever make a mistake. Ever. I’ve got like- like- like, five? No, no, it’s seven. Seven girls I’m sleeping with right now. And they each think they’re special, because if anyone put the pieces together, they’d figure out I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m doing.” He took another swig from a glass bottle of alcohol then handed it to Ombri. “Fiends, you’re so lucky. You just get to fight whenever you want. The way those assholes ran when you snapped the leg off that table and started swinging…” Gabriel chuckled, but it brought pain to his ribs. He winced and clutched his side. “Amazing,” he gasped, disregarding the injury. “I didn’t need your fucking help, though.”

“Uh-huh,” said Ombri with a disinterested mumble. He took a drink from the bottle, then handed it back to Gabriel. He looked up as Barach dropped into the alley from above and landed with wings spread wide. The Terran swallowed nervously while Gabriel seemed oblivious to Barach’s presence. “Vice-Captain!”

“You found him,” Barach said. “Thanks, Om.”

Ombri started to get up, but Gabriel grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. He held on to him with a possessive gleam in his ice blue eyes. “Go away, Barach. Ombri’s my new best friend. I like him. He listens. He doesn’t tell me what to do.”

Barach grit his teeth, his relief at finding his friend alive quickly shifting to anger. “You’re fucking drunk, Gabriel. What the hell were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that you’re a coward and you’d try to stop me.” Gabriel upended the bottle into his mouth, guzzling it while he lay his head back on Ombri’s shoulder. The knuckles on his hands were raw and bloody.

Ombri gave Barach a pleading expression and mouthed the words, Help me.

Barach walked over and snatched the bottle away from Gabriel, spilling what little remained over his head before flinging it away. The glass shattered against the far wall.

“Hey!” Gabriel exclaimed.

“Shut up.” Barach pulled Ombri off the ground, jerking him out of Gabriel’s grasp when he tried to hold on to the Terran. Gabriel slumped and fell sideways, too drunk to even catch himself. He lay on his wing with most of his silver hair spread across the filthy alley.

“Fuck you, Barach,” Gabriel groaned, reaching out for him before he closed his eyes and lay still.

Barach watched him while Ombri dusted himself off. Gabriel hadn’t passed out, but he definitely wasn’t in control of himself at the moment.

“What happened?” Barach asked the Terran weapon.

“Found him.”

“Where?”

“Fighting the Pack.” Ombri ran his hand back through his hair. “He’s insane.”

“Yeah, I’m aware.” Barach scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. “Give me your report.”

Through several halting sentences, Ombri explained how he found Gabriel when he heard fighting in the yard of an export warehouse. Gabriel was attempting to take on several members of the Pack, a small gang in the area, but he was fighting them on their own turf and he wasn’t doing well. Ombri recognized his silver hair from a distance and flew it to help. Fighting together, the two of them managed to chase off most of the Pack before anyone was severely hurt, and then Ombri got Gabriel out of there before reinforcements could arrive.

He had done everything he could to help, and Barach was grateful for his teammate’s assistance.

“Thank you,” Barach said. “I’ve got him from here.”

“You sure?” asked Ombri, glancing over as Gabriel groaned and rolled onto his back. “Something he said-”

Barach grabbed the front of the Terran’s shirt and pulled his attention back to him. He locked eyes with him, completely serious. “You will not repeat a single word of anything the Ahnnak Gabriel spoke of tonight or any other night. Do you understand me?”

“Y-Yes, Vice-Captain.”

“Good.” Barach smoothed down the front of his teammate’s shirt and gave him a warm smile. “He’s drunk. He rambles sometimes. Doesn’t know what he’s saying. But if I ever thought for even a second that you might spread untrue rumors about the Ahnnak Gabriel, I would end your career with the Hunt.” He patted Ombri’s shoulder. “In a very permanent way.”

Ombri swallowed hard. “Understood, Vice-Captain.”

“Thank you. Enjoy the rest of your night.” Done with the Terran, Barach walked over to Gabriel and lifted him off the floor.

“Ugh, I’m going to be sick,” bemoaned the silver-haired boy. “Stop spinning.”

“Shut up, Gabe.” Barach gathered his limp body into his arms and spread his wings. He gave one last nod of thanks to Ombri, then jumped into the air and flew back to Archridge before anyone else could see the pathetic state of the heir to the Isten Jequn.

***

Back in Gabriel’s dorm room, Barach carried his whining friend into his private bathing room. He kicked the faucet on with his heel while ignoring Gabriel’s pitiful complaints.

“No bath. No bath. Just sleep.” Gabriel pushed against Barach’s face with his bloody hands.

“Damn it, Gabriel, stop it.” Barach swatted his arms away and stood him upright. He started undressing his inebriated friend. “You’ve already caused enough trouble tonight.”

“I don’t ne-” His words became muffled as Barach pulled his shirt off over his head. The silence was welcome, though brief. “-r help. No one asked you. Go away.”

“You punched Erem tonight. You think I’m going to forgive you for that?” Barach tossed the shirt aside as he linked his arm around Gabriel’s bare waist to keep him from falling. His skin was so damn smooth, even if he was covered in boot shaped bruises.

Damn idiot.

“Figures he would fucking tattle to you,” Gabriel grumbled. His head drooped backward, exposing the long line of his neck. As Barach leaned down to unfasten his slacks, his mouth came perilously close to that pale throat. He could smell the sweat on Gabriel’s skin and the sweet blood pulsing through his veins. Barach breathed in the scent of him through his mouth, and it was nearly intoxicating.

Unceremoniously, Barach dumped Gabriel into the bath as soon as the silver-haired boy’s blood-stained pants hit the floor.

Gabriel sank. After a moment, he surfaced, sputtering water. “Fiends take you!” He coughed and glared at Barach as diluted blood dripped down his face and chest in pink lines.

“Don’t say another word, Gabe, or I’m going to give you a black eye you won’t be able to hide in any of your classes tomorrow.”

Gabriel glowered at him, but even drunk, he knew better than to argue.

Barach crouched beside the bath as it continued to fill. He grabbed a bottle of soap and flipped off the cap. “You’re lucky Ombri found you. If it was me, I probably would have let that gang maim you before I stepped in to help. Isten know you deserve it.” He tilted the bottle, letting it pour onto Gabriel’s head. “You’re such a little shit, Gabe. One of these days, you’re going to get what you deserve.” Barach sat the bottle aside, then roughly began scrubbing his friend’s silver hair.

The Ahnnak didn’t make a sound, though he did wince a few times while Barach washed him. He spat out water after Barach dunked him to rinse the soap and blood out. When he was cleaner, Barach could tell that most of Gabriel’s injuries were superficial. They’d barely be noticeable by morning.

Barach emptied the dirty, blood-tinged water, then grabbed Gabriel and hauled him out of the bath. He wrapped him with a towel. “Erem told me what happened,” he said while he briskly dried his friend off.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Gabriel lowered his face, avoiding looking at Barach.

“Did you talk about it with Ombri?”

“Of course not,” he griped. “At least… I don’t think I did.”

“If you want to keep your secrets, you shouldn’t get drunk.”

“I’m not drunk.”

Barach opened his arms, releasing Gabriel completely. The other boy immediately started to tilt. His wings opened, but did nothing to stop him from falling.

“Fiends! Fuck!” Gabriel put his arms out, ready to hit the floor, but Barach caught him.

“If you’re not drunk, you’re brain damaged, Gabriel.” He stood him back up and kept hold of him. “Did you take a lot of hits to your head tonight?”

“A few…” Gabriel closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Barach’s chest. “Doesn’t matter. Don’t need you. Hate you. Hate everyone.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t blame me for your bad life choices.” Barach wrapped the towel tightly around Gabriel’s body, then scooped him up and carried him to what remained of the bed. Most of the broken sections of the furniture had been moved aside by Erem earlier, leaving the mattress on the floor. Not very dignified, but functional. At least if Gabriel rolled out of bed tonight, he wouldn’t hurt himself falling.

The silver-haired Ahnnak didn’t struggle as Barach lay him down and tucked the blankets snugly around his wings and body. He seemed to be fighting to stay awake. Maybe it really was brain damage.

“We’re going to talk about this tomorrow,” said the older Ahnnak.

“Nothing to talk about,” Gabriel muttered, closing his eyes.

“Alex is back.”

Gabriel groaned like he was in pain. “Fiends. Don’t say that name.”

“What? Alex?”

Gabriel groaned again, confirming it.

“I thought that was what you wanted. You’re supposed to be happy he’s back, not running around acting like you just failed all your classes.”

“He found his father,” Gabriel proclaimed remorsefully.

“His father?”

Had he heard that right? Alex’s lineage was always a sore subject, one of the few topics Gabriel refused to elaborate on. Honestly, Barach had begun to doubt the man even existed.

“He was living with him, like he was happy with him.” Gabriel pressed his hands to his face. “Fuck. What have I done?”

Barach looked around the room. “Besides break all your stuff? I don’t know, Gabe. What did you do?”

“I hit him,” Gabriel whispered, trying to muffle the words beneath his palms.

Barach sighed and crouched down so he was closer to the bed on the floor. “Did he deserve it?”

“No.”

“Then apologize.”

“I can’t. I can’t! He has to understand how stupid he’s acting-”

“Yeah, I can’t tell that you two are related at all.” Barach rolled his eyes.

Gabriel glared at him through the cracks in his fingers. “I’m serious, Barach.”

“So am I, Gabe. Maybe it’s time you consider other options.”

“Barach, I swear on this Isten, if you-”

“Just shut up and listen to me, Gabe.” Barach waited to see if his friend was going to interrupt again, then continued with his suggestion. “Maybe it’s time you let him go.”

“Like hell I will. He needs me-”

“You just said it yourself. He was happy with his father.” Gabriel silenced, looking sullen. Barach sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “You can’t claim him, Gabriel. You know you can’t. Not as a servant, not as a lover. There is nothing you can do to bind him to you that would keep him safe from Jequn. You know I’m right. But if you give him to me-

“Never.”

“-IF you give him to me and let me claim him as a Terran servant of my household, I can keep him safe. My mother might not be happy about it, but she wouldn’t stop me, and your father wouldn’t interfere with the household of another Isten-”

“For fuck’s sake, Barach! Alex isn’t a Terran!” Gabriel sat up, his blue eyes manic and bloodshot. He swayed, like he might pass out, but somehow remained upright.

“If he’s not Terran, then what is he?” Barach demanded. They had argued about this before, but it always felt like Gabriel was just in denial of the facts. Alex was Terran. He was going to grow old and die before the turn of the millennium, if not sooner. There was nothing they could do about that.

“He’s Ahnnak,” Gabriel repeated, as he had before, but this time he added, “His father is a first generation Ahnnak named Sachiel.”

“Who?”

Gabriel’s lip curled back in a contemptuous sneer. “Fiends. Don’t you read anything but fiction?”

Barach ignored the jab. “Am I supposed to recognize the name?”

“There’s a tome on my bookshelf.” Gabriel pointed, and they both looked to the empty wall where the bookshelf had been. The splintered remains were on the floor, along with all the books and scrolls that had once been neatly displayed. Gabriel frowned, a crease forming between his silver eyebrows. “It’s black leather. Gold embossed lettering. About the War with the Jinn.”

Barach stood and walked over to examine the debris on the floor. He kicked aside some of the books until he found the one Gabriel described. He brought it back to his friend, who had managed to remain upright in his absence, though looked noticeably paler for it.

“Lay down,” said Barach as he sat on the edge of the bed. He nudged Gabriel’s forehead with a finger and watched his friend collapse back onto the pillow. Gabriel looked irritated to be laying flat again, but he didn’t try to get back up. Barach opened the book. “What am I looking for?”

“Toward the end, page one-eighty-two. Third paragraph.”

Barach flipped through the pages until he found the passage. He could tell Gabriel had referenced it often. The top corner of the page was creased, like it had been earmarked once. Some of the finely written ink was smudged, too. It must have meant a lot to Gabriel when he was younger. He wasn’t usually so careless with books now.

Well, except when he was mad.

Barach read the passage.

He chewed his thumbnail and went back and read the passage again.

Just to make sure he understood the context, he read the whole page. He skimmed the chapter, taking note of the official seal of the scribe verifying the authenticity of the tome.

It wasn’t just a history book. It was a formal transcription of the decree from the Isten Tennin at the end of the War with the Jinn, including all records related to the dissolution of the estates of the traitors to E’din.

“Gabe…” Barach looked up from the decree. “Where did you get this?”

Gabriel’s eyes were closed, but he wasn’t asleep. “I stole it from Jequn’s library,” he muttered.

“You what?! Why- No, forget it. It doesn’t matter.” Barach shook his head. There was no point arguing with such brazen stupidity. “Why do you think this… this… Sachiel has anything to do with Alex?”

Gabriel scoffed, not even bothering to open his eyes. “Because I researched it, Barach. Obviously.”

“Don’t be a smart ass, Gabe. Explain.”

One blue eye cracked open. “Are you serious?”

“You want me to believe you? Then tell me why you think you’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” the silver-haired Ahnnak replied stubbornly.

“So explain it.”

He closed his eyes again. For a moment, Barach didn’t think he was going to answer, but then Gabriel said, “I cross-referenced the social record of events my mother attended with the census data taken from magistrates over the past sixteen decades. It was simple after that.”

“Simple?” Barach balked.

“Out of every ward registered to a household, there was only one man I couldn’t eliminate by region of origin or genetic incompatibility. He had a falsified name and record, but I found the decade he joined the magistrate’s household, subtracted that from the year he was released as a ward, then compared that to the treaties of the decade. One-hundred-and-fifty years is a severe sentence for any political ward, and since the time frame fit the War with the Jinn, I started with war criminals first.” Gabriel fluttered his hand toward the book Barach held. “Any idiot could have figured it out after that.”

Barach scowled. “Then why didn’t Jequn know?”

“Because he’s an opportunistic bastard who likes to make everyone around him suffer.” Gabriel rolled onto his side, too exhausted to pull his wing out from under him. “I don’t want to talk anymore. I’m tired. Leave me alone, Barach.”

“Fine, but this conversation isn’t over. We’re going to talk more tomorrow.”

“Nothing to talk about,” Gabriel muttered. “I fucked up… It’s all my fault…”

As Barach watched, Gabriel’s breathing slowed and evened. He had passed out, whether from exhaustion or head trauma, Barach wasn’t entirely sure. It didn’t matter. Gabriel would have a headache in the morning regardless, and be his usual intolerable self.

Then they’d talk, even if Barach had to beat it out of him.

Barach left the room and flipped the manual lock. The energy barriers would have to be reset on the door, but Barach made note to look into who broke them in the first place. He had a feeling that person might be a problem in the future.

Chapter Text

While far from the dangers found at the border of E’din, the training compound in Esh attempted to maintain the same vigilant guard routine as any of the front line forts. It wasn’t the immediate threat of Jinn attack that kept everyone on schedule, but the knowledge that most of the young recruits within the compound would be transfered to the front line when they passed basic training.

If they passed basic training.

Catriel arrived in Esh just after the guard changed during the second shift of dinner. He landed before a round-bellied Terran who still had grains of rice on his cheeks.

“Good evening, Soldier.” Catriel crisply snapped open his wings and then folded them against his back, regulation style. Perfectly even and precise, with no unnecessary flutter.

“Secondary Flight Officer,” sputtered the surprised man. Well, boy, really. He couldn’t be more than thirty. That barely qualified anyone as an adult, even a Terran. “I didn’t- I mean, of course I wouldn’t- I mean, your mission was classified, no one would…” His cheeked reddened. “I mean, welcome back, sir.” He saluted.

Catriel returned the salute. “You have rice on your face, Soldier.”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” The young Terran swiped his hand across his face, removing the remnants of his dinner. “Um, sir… shall I send word to the medic to expect you?”

“Medic?”

“Your hand, sir.”

Catriel had nearly forgotten about the injury. His skin was still red, but the scar tissue surrounding his fused fingers had begun to flake off. He would been fine again in a few days, even without medical attention. “No. Not necessary.”

“Can I ask how it happened?”

"A seal backfired when I broke it,” said Catriel, placing his hand behind his back and under his wing. No point drawing more attention to it that he had to. “This is why you should always pay attention to your disarming lessons."

The young soldier nodded, eyes wide. "What was the fiend like?"

“Dangerous.” Catriel remembered the way the Ahnnak Gabriel had grabbed Alex. “I’ve never wanted to hit anything more.” The young guard was eager to hear details, but Catriel didn’t have time to waste with him. “Where’s Wing Commander Kai?”

Disappointed, the Terran shrugged and said, “Probably with Laesh.”

General Laeshiel, Soldier. You’re going to get your wings clipped if you keep disrespecting your commanding officers.”

“Sorry, sir,” replied the soldier, properly abashed. “General Laeshiel has been working late recently. If I had to guess, I would say they are still in the offices. Do you want me to send a messenger to announce your arrival?”

“No, that will be unnecessary. Thank you.” Catriel had hoped to speak with Kai alone before he gave his official report, but that didn’t seem like it was going to happen. “Return to your duties, Soldier.”

“Yes, sir.” The young Terran saluted Catriel as he walked to the edge of the stone tower, opened his wings, dropped down to the military compound.

***

If that guard hadn’t said anything, Catriel probably wouldn’t have been so conscious of the damage to his hand, but as he glided between the buildings, he could feel his skin itch. Scratching at the healing skin would only draw more attention to the injury, so he did his best to ignore it.

The highest ranked commanders at Esh each had offices in the records building near the north end of campus. The administrative staff, while being officially enlisted in the military, were not trained for active combat roles. They were scribes and accountants mostly. Practically civilians. When the first dinner shift started, most of them were done for the night, and would not resume their duties until the following dawn.

So when Catriel entered the records building, he was not at all surprised to find it empty. Daylight was fading, and candlelight could only do so much to hold back the dark from diligent workers who labored over desks, coping tedious details from ledgers and scrolls all day. It wasn’t a job Catriel envied. He would take fresh air and fiends over this tedious drivel any day.

The second floor of the building held the offices for the commanders. General Laeshiel, though relatively new in his position, had the second largest office available. The first was reserved for General Noriel, who spent most of his time in Lemuria giving reports on the training efforts taking place at Esh. Nobody blamed General Noriel for his absence, though. He was four-hundred-and-three. He was a respectable Terran who had devoted his life to the service of E’din, but his age made travel far more difficult than it once was.

That left the weight of the daily responsibilities of Esh on General Laeshiel’s shoulders. It was demanding work, but he handled his position with all the grace and dignity expected of an Ahnnak. Far different than the cocky and brash young soldier Catriel once fought alongside in the war, but perhaps part of that was due to Kai’s influence. Before Kai joined the military a decade ago, Laeshiel hadn’t had much interest in promotion.

When Catriel arrived on the second level, he noticed a young Homm recruit outside the door holding a basket from the mess hall. He whistled low, getting the girl’s attention.

“Is that for the General?”

Her eyes widened. She was new enough to Esh that she didn’t recognize him beyond the insignia on his harness. “Y-Yes, sir. It’s dinner.”

“I’ll give it to him,” Catriel said, holding out his hand for the basket.

“No, I shouldn’t-”

“Now.” At the firm command, she handed it over. “Thank you,” he said, nodding to her. “You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir,” she muttered, then quickly shuffled back down the stairs and out of the building.

When she was gone, Catriel raised his fist and knocked firmly on the door. He heard the grumble behind the thick wood and recognized the surly voice.

“I said just a minute!”

Catriel knocked again, a little harder, and was rewarded with stomping footsteps and the door yanking open. “Did you not understa- Catriel! You bastard!” Laeshiel’s irritation at being disturbed shifted to joy and surprise as he recognized Catriel. He grabbed him around the neck and pulled him into a tight embrace. “What are you doing back?” Before Catriel could answer the General’s question, Laeshiel’s emotions shifted again, back to irritation. He shoved Catriel back from him. “Why haven’t I received a report from you in weeks?”

“It’s complicated,” the jagged soldier replied. He offered the basket to Laeshiel. “May I enter, General?”

Laeshiel scowled. Formalities between them were reserved for the presence of other soldiers or civilians. They only used them in private if something was wrong. “Come in,” the General replied, taking the basket and opening the door more.

“Thank you, sir.” Catriel stepped into the room. The General’s office was well furnished with plenty of desk area to lay out maps, track troop movements, and stack the endless pile of requisition scrolls awaiting his approval. The higher in rank Laeshiel climbed, the more paperwork played a part in his duties. It seemed miserable. Laeshiel wasn’t alone completely alone with the work, though. The four Wing Commanders stationed at Esh helped where they were needed, especially in the daily management and training of the troops. None was more dedicated than Kai, though.

As expected, Wing Commander Torkaiel, or Kai as he was fondly referred to on the base, was in the office with General Laeshiel. He stood at the other end of the room, fastidiously checking the buttons on the side of his uniform top. He looked up when Catriel entered, his green eyes brightening with surprise. “Secondary Flight Officer Catriel! You’re alive!”

“Was there ever any doubt, Commander?” Catriel linked forearms with the young man and shared a quick embrace. Kai had only been enlisted for the past decade, but he was astute and clever. He possessed an ability to see weakness in others, but instead of using that skill to tear people apart, he helped those under his command overcome their flaws. He was a favorite among the soldiers of Esh, and that included General Laeshiel.

However, despite Kai’s rapid promotion to Wing Commander, it was doubtful he would be permitted to rise much further. Like Laeshiel, Kai was descended from the Isten Abbadon. Their service and their loyalty was almost mandatory in their line, but besides the fact that the two men were cousins, they couldn’t have been more different.

Kai was lean and bronzed, while Laeshiel’s light golden skin stretched over his broad chest and muscular physique. One had vibrant green eyes, and the other an eerie pink like the color of washed out blood. Kai kept his brown hair shaved on the sides, allowing only a few tousled curls to grow on top, but Laeshiel wore his long, burgundy hair like the honor it was.

The General was an officially recognized descendant of the Isten Abbadon, and had certain rights that were not extended to other soldiers, one of which included being allowed to have long hair.

Kai only had his reputation and pride.

There was not much hope for more recognition for Kai, due to his unclaimed status, but his arrival at Esh had ignited something in Laeshiel. Back then, Laeshiel had been a Squadron Leader, like Catriel. The burgundy-haired Ahnnak had been brash and careless with the lives of those under his command. He relied on his connection to an Isten to maintain his position with little thought to his future or anyone else’s.

It was a mindset Catriel understood all too well.

But then Kai arrived.

At first, Laeshiel had every intention of bullying the young Ahnnak. He tried to make Kai’s life miserable, whether out of jealously or boredom, Catriel wasn’t sure, but Kai tolerated it with a silent stoicism that only infuriated Laeshiel more. The younger Ahnnak never reported the bullying.

Then, after Catriel returned from a mission with his own squad, the one that nearly got them all killed, he found that Laeshiel had changed. Catriel still wasn’t sure what had happened, but before he left, his comrade had been discussing his plans to harass Kai over the coming weeks, and after, Laeshiel would fight anyone who even looked at his cousin wrong. It was like he was an entirely different person.

For the first time, Laeshiel was striving to succeed and gain some control over his life. Perhaps Kai had fixed something in him, some flaw that had been holding Laeshiel back, but Catriel never asked. He had had other concerns back then. It was strange to think that at the time Laeshiel was applying for a promotion to Wing Commander, Catriel was being demoted for negligence.

Not that he didn’t deserve it.

When Kai stepped back from Catriel in the office, he quickly examined the jagged soldier from head to heel. It was always difficult to determine how much detail the green-eyed Ahnnak saw when he did that, but from the look on his face, Catriel knew what Kai was going to say before he said it.

“It’s nothing,” Catriel blurted before the Wing Commander opened his mouth. “Don’t worry about it.”

Kai’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You’ll go after.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Don’t make me pull rank.”

“Fine,” Catriel agreed sullenly. “I’ll go.”

“What’s going on?” asked Laeshiel after he cleared off enough of a low table to set the dinner basket down.

“Your Flight Officer hasn’t eaten yet,” said Kai, walking over to help unpack the food. “He’s been traveling all day. He’ll join us for dinner.”

“Only if he gets your share,” teased Laeshiel, oblivious to the true topic. He stepped back and allowed the Wing Commander to finish setting up the meal. “So, Catriel, how did the mission go? Did you find the Ferryman? What kind of fiend was it?”

The jagged soldier shifted, trying not to reveal his uncertainty, but Laeshiel had known him long enough that he could tell something was wrong. The General’s expression hardened as Catriel asked, “Do you want the official report now or later?”

“I want to hear that you tracked and killed the Ferryman,” said the General, slipping into his authoritative role.

This would have been so much easier if Catriel had been able to speak to Kai alone first. He had a way of coaxing Laeshiel through difficult topics.

Catriel raised his chin and met Laeshiel’s pink gaze. It bruised his pride to admit, but he said, “My mission is incomplete. I failed to locate the Ferryman, sir.”

“Damn it, Catriel!” Laeshiel stomped his foot and thrust out his wings. He began pacing back and forth before the jagged soldier. “Do you have any idea what favors I had to call in to get you on this mission?”

In fact, Catriel did. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Apologies are for civilians, Secondary Officer,” Laeshiel snapped. “You’re a soldier. You do as you’re told.”

“Laesh,” came Kai’s soft rebuke. He stepped up alongside the General and lightly touched his arm. “Are you going to let him explain what happened, or do you have a few more lectures you need to get out of your system?”

Had anyone else spoken to a General that way, they would have been met with a sharp reprimand or a whipping. However, Laeshiel didn’t even bother arguing with his cousin. He just exhaled heavily and rolled his eyes. “You can explain yourself while we eat,” he grumbled, then went to take his seat on a cushion next to the low table set with food.

Catriel gave Kai an appreciative glance, then followed them to the table.

New recruits were often drawn to the Wing Commander’s patient and helpful attitude, while the General had a tendency to terrify anyone who stepped out of line. It was a carefully balanced act, but veteran soldiers stationed at Esh knew who was really in charge. Kai never overstepped his rank in public, but in private, Catriel had witnessed a couple arguments that left Laeshiel devastated for days. Laeshiel really cared about his cousin’s council, and couldn’t stand when Kai wouldn’t speak to him.

There were some rumors about the two men that left Catriel wondering about the true nature of their relationship, but even if something like that was true, it wasn’t any of his business. He had known Laeshiel since the war. Whatever Kai had said or done to get the burgundy-haired Ahnnak off that self-destructive path toward death was worth it, because despite their current difference in rank, Laeshiel was the closest thing Catriel had left to a friend. He wasn’t ready to lose him, too.

Without asking, Kai loaded a plate with nutrient-dense, jellied biscuits and handed it to the jagged soldier. After the absurd restrictions the Ahnnak Alexiel had placed on his diet, Catriel was grateful for the food. He barely chewed the bites he stuffed into his cheeks, and both Laeshiel and Kai allowed him a few minutes of silence to eat before they began asking questions.

“Well?” Laeshiel finally asked, deciding Catriel had eaten enough to no longer be starved. “Let’s hear your report.”

“Yes, sir.” The jagged soldier swallowed his mouthful of food and place the other half of the biscuit back on the plate. “The mission brought me east on the heels of a target I thought might lead me to the Ferryman, but I got sidetracked near Singrea.”

“Sidetracked?” complained Laeshiel. “Do you have any idea-”

“Hush,” urged Kai, handing Laeshiel another piece of fruit from the basket. The General took it with a glare, but didn’t argue.

There was no point delaying any longer. Catriel straighted and held his wings stiff as he revealed, “I located the Isten Jequn’s missing descendant in the forest a league east of the town. I returned him to Archridge two days ago.”

“Wait, you found the Ahnnak Alexiel?” blurted Kai, his green eyes widening.

“You know him?” asked Catriel, a little worried his plan might not hold together if Kai questioned the boy.

“I’m vaguely aware of his history,” said Kai, giving a dismissive wave of his hand. “I read the reports and assumed he was dead.”

“He was alive and whole when I left him, sir.”

“Who kidnapped him?” asked Laeshiel.

“He was alone,” said Catriel.

“Alone?” The General’s pink eyes narrowed in suspicion. “He’s been missing for weeks.”

“He got lost.”

“Lost.” Laeshiel huffed in disbelief. “That child is a first generation Ahnnak. Priceless as a hostage for the Jinn. Do you really expect me to believe he survived in the forest by himself that long? Who had him?”

“No one, sir,” insisted Catriel, though it grieved him to lie to Laeshiel like this. “When I found him, he was practically feral. I fear he’s, um…” Catriel hesitated, trying not to meet either of his commanding officers’ gazes. “I think there’s something wrong with his mind.”

“Careful, soldier,” Laeshiel cautioned with a low growl.

“Forgive me, sir. I mean no disrespect to the Isten of his lineage.” Catriel lowered his head in a subservient bow. Even if it was a necessary part of their ruse, he was aware of how much trouble he could get in if the wrong person heard him speak that way about a descendant of an Isten.

“I just don’t want to see you demoted again,” said the General. “You’re a good soldier, Catriel, but you need to keep your priorities straight.”

“Yes, sir. But there’s more.”

“What?” asked Laeshiel, already suspicious.

Catriel glanced up with his sharply slitted golden eyes. “I believe the Ahnnak Alexiel is still a flight risk. I’m requesting a transfer to remain at his side at Archridge until he comes of age.”

The General stared at him in confusion. It was Kai who spoke. “You think he’s still in danger.”

“Yes, Commander.”

“You’re fond of the child.”

It was almost an accusation. Catriel looked away from the astute Wing Commander. “I serve E’din. As General Laeshiel said, a first generation Ahnnak is a priceless hostage for those who support the Jinn.”

“But it’s more than that. You want to protect him,” observed Kai. “You think he’s going to run again.”

There was no point lying to Kai. “Yes, Commander. If I’m not there to stop him, he will.”

General Laeshiel leaned across the table, his burgundy hair falling over one shoulder. He glared at Catriel. “Are you seriously asking to abandon your mission to find the Ferryman so you can go play matron for some child?”

Catriel nervously ran his tongue over one of his sharp teeth. “It’s just a temporary transfer-”

“Damn it, Catriel!” Laeshiel swept his hand across the table, flinging all the food and plates across the room. He stood up and started pacing while Kai frowned at the mess. “I procured a recommendation from Tennin himself to get you on this mission,” Laeshiel ranted. “This was your chance to redeem yourself!”

“I’m sorry, sir. I know the timing on this isn’t optimal-”

“Optimal?!” Laeshiel stopped, turning to face Catriel. His wings opened, puffing up like he was ready to fight. “We are facing an unprecedented threat to the border of E’din. I supported you because I thought you understood that.”

“I do, sir,” insisted Catriel. “The destruction of the Ferryman is my only priority, but the boy- Alexiel- I have reason to believe he was seen in the forest.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Ander I was tracking passed through the area the young Ahnnak was hiding. If they had accomplices in town, Alexiel may have seen them. It’s possible he could identify the Jinn smugglers helping the Ferryman in that region.”

“Do you really think that’s possible?” asked Laeshiel.

Catriel shook his head. “The boy is an unreliable witness. However, even if he wasn’t recognized at the time, once word spreads that the Ahnnak Alexiel was located in that region, they’ll figure it out. It’s possible the Jinn will seek retaliation.”

“Retaliation?” Kai’s attention returned to Catriel, the mess on the floor forgotten. “He’s just a child.”

“He is the son of an Isten,” Catriel reminded the Wing Commander. “It would be a great victory for the Jinn if they could eliminate him as a potential threat.”

Laeshiel crossed his arms over his broad chest. “If you’re concerned about his safety, we can assign other guards to him. There’s no need to waste your skills on the boy, no matter his lineage.”

“Yes, sir,” said the jagged soldier, “but when- sorry- if the Jinn sympathizers come for him, I believe I may be able to use them to trace the supply line to the Ferryman.”

“Secondary Flight Officer, do not tell me you are plotting to use the son of an Isten as bait,” accused General Laeshiel, his brow furrowed.

“No, sir. Of course not, sir.” He paused a moment. “But-”

“Absolutely not!” he shouted.

“Laesh,” said Kai, rising and stepping over to the General. “Let’s talk about this.”

“Don’t tell me you agree with him!” Laeshiel glared down at Kai.

“You know I would never do anything to put a civilian child in danger, but we should at least consider our options. You said yourself how important finding the Ferryman was.”

“Not like this, Kai.” The General stepped toward the bronze-skinned Ahnnak and reached out to touch his arm. It was a familiar gesture. Intimate. Catriel found something interesting to stare at on the ceiling.

Kai’s voice lowered as he leaned closer to his cousin. “You recommended Catriel to this mission for a reason. He’s the best you have.”

“Yes, but-”

“You need to trust him. He won’t let anything happen to Alexiel.”

Laeshiel sighed heavily. “Why do I always end up listening to you?”

“Because you know I’m right.” Kai’s smile was quick and bright. The General returned it, then became serious again. He approached Catriel, who quickly got to his feet and stood before him.

“I’m going to approve your temporary transfer,” said Laeshiel. “I won’t remove you as the active agent on the Ferryman mission, but I want to be clear. Your priority is protecting the Ahnnak Alexiel.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” Catriel gave him a quick bow.

“Stop bowing. Fiends. Don’t make me regret this, Catriel.”

“Only as much as I regret teaching you how to properly hold a sword,” replied the jagged soldier, sharing a quick, companionable grin with his old friend.

Still smiling slightly, Laeshiel punched Catriel’s shoulder. “Old bastard. Your new orders will be in by dawn. Get out of here, and go get some sleep. You’re going to need it.”

“Thank you, Laesh.” Catriel bowed once more, just for formality’s sake, then Kai escorted him to the door.

When they stepped into the hall, Kai dropped his voice low enough that Laeshiel wouldn’t overhear their conversation. “I have a favor to ask.”

“Yes, Commander?”

“No, it’s personal.” Kai glanced back into the room, almost like he was nervous. “My little brother lives in Marut.”

“Brother?” After a second, Catriel remembered. The Wing Commander had two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother. It was cruel that their parents intentionally cast not one, but three Ahnnak into their unfortunate situation. At least Catriel’s birth was accidental.

“He’s a complete idiot,” said Kai, a little furrow between his brow. “Just no common sense whatsoever. Maybe it’s my fault. I wasn’t the best brother to him growing up, and now that I know better, I’m stuck at Esh until my probation is lifted. I can’t ask Laesh- he’s already done everything he can to help- but if you hear about an unclaimed Ahnnak getting into trouble…?”

“I’ll do what I can,” promised Catriel.

“Thank you,” said Kai, clearly relieved. “Just don’t tell him I sent you. The last time I saw him… well, we didn’t part on the best of terms. I wouldn’t be surprised if he still hates me.”

“You have my word.” Catriel placed his fist over his heart.

“I owe you, Catriel,” said Kai. He patted his shoulder. “But if you let anything bad happen to my brother, I’ll make your life hell.”

For a split second, Catriel saw a glimpse of the ruthlessness lurking beneath the Wing Commander’s kind and friendly demeanor. He swallowed hard, keeping his wings tense. “I understand, sir.”

“Good.” Kai have him a warm smile. “Now go see a healer and get your hand fixed. If I don’t see your name in the medic’s records tomorrow morning, I’ll have Laesh approve your transfer, but you won’t like where you end up.”

“Yes, sir.” Catriel bowed.

With that, Kai returned to the office. Before the door shut, Catriel heard his berating, “Laesh, if you think for one second that I am cleaning up that mess-

Thankfully, the door clicked shut.

Catriel exhaled slowly and let his wings relax. Whatever their relationship, Laeshiel really had his hands full with that one. Maybe Kai was just exploiting his cousin’s fondness for him. Maybe there was some truth to the rumors. Whatever the case, it was none of Catriel’s concern.

The jagged soldier left the records building and went straight to the medic. There was no point risking his commanding officer’s wrath if he could avoid it.

Chapter Text

The first chance Alex got to escape Archridge Academy, he ran away.

He didn’t plan on going far, just up to Marut, but he still dodged the guards around the perimeter of the academy. It was strange. He felt like he had been away from Archridge for a lifetime, but everything there remained exactly the same. Same routines, same shift changes, same openings to slip through unseen.

The world continued on without him in it.

Logically, Alex understood that, but this was the first time he had really been faced with the evidence of that fact. Even his friends had continued their lives in his absence. Sure, they worried about him, but they also continued to worry about their classes, tests, and whether someone else liked them or not.

Apparently Isa had dated some girl while Alex was gone, but they broke up after a week because she said something awful about Uzzi. Isa told her, “No one gets to say that about Uzzi but me.”

It was all very odd.

Isa and Uzzi still argued with one another, but there was another layer to their friendship now, something like loyalty. Then again, maybe it was always that way, and Alex had been too wrapped up in his own mundane little world to notice.

Everything felt different now. It was hard to explain, but it was like there were cracks everywhere. Cracks in the stone and in the ground. Cracks in the air. Cracks on people’s faces- around their eyes, across their smiles, in all the lies they told each other constantly.

Alex tried to ignore the unsettling feeling, though he wanted to scream the truth and watch the fragile world of lies shatter around him.

He knew better.

He wasn’t supposed to draw attention to himself while Catriel was away. He just needed to resume his daily routines as if he had never left Archridge. The less he spoke, the better. Uzzi was more than happy to drag him along and hold one-sided conversations, catching him up on everything that happened while he was gone, and Alex put up with it.

For about a day.

After the peace and solitude of the valley, the stress of returning to life at the academy was too much. Alex thought he could handle it by himself for a couple days, just until the soldier returned, but the anxiety of being back quickly overwhelmed commonsense. Every time he saw a flash of silver in the summer sun, he jumped and hid in the shadows, barely able to breathe. He told himself Jequn wouldn’t come for him here, but that didn’t stop the thoughts of Gabriel.

It still hurt.

Being hit by his brother wasn’t so bad. Alex would have endured beatings a thousand times worse if it meant Gabriel wouldn’t have looked at him with such contempt and betrayal.

Alex clutched his chest and landed in an alley lit only by the grey light of dawn. He found the darkest corner and leaned against the stone walls, trying to breath past the pain.

“Control yourself,” he whispered, staring up at the strip of sky between the Marut buildings. “Don’t slip. Calm down.”

Gradually, the feelings eased. Alex didn’t want to lose control here. If he could just make it to Remiel’s, maybe Sophie or Zak would be there. Maybe they could do something to alleviate the constant ache in his chest. Their healing energy had always helped sedate him. It was like basking in warm, peaceful sunlight.

Alex wished he knew how to do what they did, so he could drown out the pain himself.

People walked by the end of alley, but no one glanced toward the black-haired boy hiding among the shadows. The markets would open soon, and everyone seemed determined to find to best deals as soon as possible. Alex decided he could walk the rest of the way to Remiel’s place. If he was focused on avoiding people in a crowd, maybe it would keep him from thinking about other things too much.

The busy streets were fragrant, filled with the scent of people, spices, and food. It was amazing how so many people could live so close together. The Homm and Terran mostly ignored Alex as he slipped through the crowds, but a couple vendors called out to him. He was tempted to stop and take some of the offered food, but he hadn’t brought any money with him. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself by revealing who he was, even if that got him free meals in the past, so he hurried on.

Maybe Remiel would let him cook something for all of them again. He liked doing that.

When Alex arrived at the building Remiel, Sophie, and Zak purchased together, the shop on the lower half was still dark. Maybe they were asleep or working shifts at the hospital. Alex stopped before the steps and examined the new placard hanging over the door. It featured a gold-embossed emblem of a spool of thread surrounded by two stalks of the heart-shaped silphium plant. It was pretty, but it looked expensive. Hopefully that meant Remiel’s main business was going well.

There was a reason Alex had avoided Catriel’s question about who Remiel was. He didn’t think the strict soldier would approve to the side business Remiel picked up last year. It wasn’t exactly legal, though while Alex was there, he would probably request another elemental bracelet for himself, just in case. His last few strands had been used to entertain his little sisters, but it hadn’t seemed so bad to be without the elements back then. Now, he was afraid he was going to need them.

The front door was unlocked, despite the shop being closed. Alex slipped inside, allowing his eyes a moment to adjust. He thought he heard something from the craft room where Remiel worked on all his current projects. Maybe he had woken up early to finish a design for a customer.

Alex wove his way between the displays of soft, luxurious fabrics, caressing the material as he passed. It reminded him that he needed new clothes. Everything he had now was too short or tattered beyond repair. If he asked Remiel, he knew his friend would come up with something, probably even before Alex left today. It would be nice to wear something that fit and covered his skin again.

The craft room was empty. Alex peered around, noting the addition of a few dress mannequins draped with fabric. They were almost eerie in the gloom, with their faceless faces. Alex approached one, curious about it’s construction, but as he examined the facsimile of a person, the door behind the shelves opened. Alex startled and ducked low, but light flooded the room. Remiel and a Homm man exited the hidden smuggler’s alcove and immediately saw Alex’s wide-eyed form.

“Alex!” Remiel exclaimed. He bound across the room and gathered the startled boy into his arms, squeezing him in a way that made Alex’s wings stick out at weird angles. “You’re alive! I never thought I would see you again!”

As happy as Alex was to see Remiel again, there was still a strange Homm in the room with them. Alex squirmed and wiggled, but Remiel held tight. “Remi, let go!” he gasped.

“Never!” Remiel nuzzled his face in Alex’s hair until the Homm on the other side of the room loudly cleared his throat. Finally, Remiel eased his hold on Alex enough that he could breathe. “Ah, Tirq, you remember Alex, right? Oh, fiends, put that damn dagger away. I swear on the Isten that if you shed any blood on my merchandise I’m going to make a leather bag out of your hide.”

The Homm sheathed his weapon. “Yeah, I remember Alex,” he said. “He was that brat you followed around at Archridge. He better not say anything about me being here.”

“He won’t,” Remiel assured him. “I trust Alex.”

“Uh huh.” Tirq didn’t sound convinced. He closed the hidden door and made sure it latched. “Just don’t forget about our deal.”

“Don’t worry so much.” Remiel resumed examining Alex’s face. He pinched his cheeks as he cooed, “Fiends! Look how much you’ve grown again.”

Tirq shook his head and adjusted a heavy, plain bag on his shoulder. “I’m serious, Remi. Don’t get lazy. We have orders to fill.”

For a brief moment, Remiel glanced at Tirq, his green eyes losing some of their cheerful gleam. “Be careful with your tone, Tirq. You can’t do this without me.”

The Homm huffed. “If I could find anyone who could do what you do even half as well, I wouldn’t put up with your attitude, Remi.”

“Yeah, you let me know when that happens.” Remiel turned his attention back to Alex, radiating warmth and happiness again. “Goodbye, Tirq.”

The Homm left the building without another word.

When the front door of the shop closed, Alex said, “Remi, you’re going to get caught.”

“Oh, fiends, Alex. Don’t worry about me. Where have you been? Look at your clothes. Were you always this tall? Uzzi told me you went home, but then you were reported missing and I’ve been worried sick. I tried to contact your brother, but he wouldn’t speak to me, and- oh. Alex. What’s wrong?”

Tears dripped from Alex’s eyes, too big to stop. Remiel pulled him close and held him, but there was nothing Alex could say to explain. The truth about what he had been through would only put Remiel at risk. He couldn’t know.

Eventually Remiel coaxed the sobbing boy upstairs for tea. Alex was down to sniffles by the time Sophie arrived back from her shift at the hospital. She hugged him and coddled him more than Remiel had, but her touch brought that soothing glow of her energy.

“I’m tired,” he told her, looking up with red-rimmed black eyes.

“I’ll help you sleep,” she assured him, then took his hand and led him into the spare bedroom. He lay down on the mattress as she touched his forehead. Warmth, like sunlight, poured into his veins, blissfully followed by the heavy weight of oblivion.

***

When Alex woke, it was late afternoon. He stretched and yawned, feeling better than he had in days. Folded clothes sat beside him on the bed, and he quickly changed in to the new garments. The light layers covered all his skin, except the patch between his wings, but they weren’t hot. They would be comfortable to wear this summer.

Alex poked his head out of the bedroom, a little embarrassed about his tearful outburst this morning. Fortunately, there was no one there. The door to the main bedroom was closed, with heavy snoring on the other side. It sounded like Zak. Sophie might be sleeping too, since their long shifts at the hospital often left them exhausted.

Quietly, Alex crept down the stairs. The main shop was busy, and Remiel stood at the counter, helping a customer at the counter. Everyone sounded happy, but it was too loud for Alex right now. He gave Remiel a small wave when the older Ahnnak noticed him, then stepped into the hall and followed it out to their private backyard. He just needed a little fresh air.

Clouds were rolling in, and the air smelled charged, like there could be lightning with the rain. As he breathed in the heavy scent, the hairs on the back of Alex’s neck prickled. If Sophie’s lingering energy hadn’t helped him feel so relaxed, he might have noticed it wasn’t just the looming storm his body was reacting to.

The jagged soldier landed in the yard with a crack of his crisp white wings. His slitted, gold eyes glowed with fury as he stomped toward Alex.

“What did I say?” he yelled.

Alex scrambled back, surprised by the soldier’s sudden arrival. “Fiends, Catriel, don’t sneak up on me like that!”

Catriel reached out to grab him, but Alex dodged and moved to the other side of the yard. “I told you to stay at Archridge.”

“It was too loud,” Alex complained.

“I don’t-” Catriel growled and clenched his fists. “I don’t care if it was too damned loud. I tell you to do something, you do it. That’s the deal, or are you trying to get us both caught and killed?”

Alex pouted and avoided meeting the soldier’s gaze. “I wasn’t trying to get caught. I was going to come back before you returned.”

“That’s not the point, Alexiel! You promised! If you’re not going to do your part, I might as well hand you over to the Isten Jequn now.”

“No, please don’t.” Alex stepped up to the soldier, hands clasped. “I’ll be good. I swear.”

“How can I believe anything you say?”

Alex offered his hand to the soldier, palm up. “I swear I’ll never hide anything from you again.”

Catriel glared at him, still not convinced, but Alex didn’t get a chance to finish persuading him. At that moment, Remiel strolled out of the shop, his fingers woven through his curly brown hair, holding it tight at the back of his head.

“Phew, that rush was exhausting. We’re closed now, so- Wait.” Remiel stopped and stared at the soldier. “Who are you?”

“Kai?” Catriel asked in confusion.

Remiel released his hair, letting his thick, brown curls fall over his shoulders. “How do you know my brother?” he asked.

The three Ahnnak stared at each other. Alex broke the silence by saying what they were all thinking.

“Fuck.”

It started to rain.

***

Since the shop was closed, the three of them went upstairs. Alex sat beside Catriel at the table, his wrists bound together with a leather strap. Catriel had given him a heavy metal ball to hold as punishment. It was covered in long, sharp spikes which pierced his skin any time he moved. It wasn’t exactly painful, but it was uncomfortable, and it was only made worse by how Remiel complained about it.

“That’s cruel,” said Remiel, arms crossed. “Alex is just a child. How can you even think about doing something like that to him? I won’t allow it. Take it off.”

“It is not your place to decide,” said Catriel, uninterested in Remiel’s protests. “Alexiel will learn the weight of a broken promise, one way or another.”

Alex pouted, looking miserable, but he didn’t complain. He understood why Catriel was mad, and as far as punishments went, this wasn’t so bad. He turned his hands over, trying to alleviate some of the sharp, heavy pressure on one palm. The metal spikes pricked his skin, though not enough to bleed. Well, not yet. The weight would slowly sink the sharp metal into his hand. If he had to hold it long enough, it would be torturous, but for now, it was just inconvenient.

And embarrassing.

“This is unacceptable,” Remiel ranted. “I don’t care what orders you have or who assigned you to him, I’m not going to allow you to abuse Alex. Untie him right now and apologize.”

“No,” the soldier stated. It was a baited challenge, which Remiel easily fell for.

The bronze-skinned Ahnnak’s wings puffed. “Fine. Then I’ll do it.” He reached for Alex, like he was going to untie the boy himself, but Catriel grabbed his extended arm. He held tight to his wrist, beside the metal manacle that was supposed to prevent Remiel from manipulating elements.

“You are not one to speak of acceptable punishments,” said the jagged soldier.

Wings spread, Remiel glared down with hard green eyes. “Let. Go.”

“Alexiel is my charge,” said Catriel, firmly meeting Remiel’s gaze. “I will not allow you to coddle the boy any longer. He has to learn.”

“Coddle him?!” Remiel tried to jerk his hand back, but Catriel didn’t let go. “How dare you! I protected Alex!”

“You allowed him to draw unnecessary attention to himself.”

“I took care of him!”

“And now your job is done.” Catriel released Remiel suddenly, letting him stumble back. “You have other concerns now, young Ahnnak, like keeping yourself out of trouble.”

Remiel rubbed his wrist. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he grumbled.

“In my search for Alexiel this afternoon, I visited the Marut security compound. It annoyed me to find your name listed on more than one suspect list.”

Remiel’s wings gave a nervous flutter before he could pull them against his back. “So?” he said, not very convincingly. “They’ve always been watching me because of who my father was. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“That level of suspicion is not what Alexiel needs right now. He must learn how to blend in. Allowing him to continue to act like a spoiled child will not help him adapt.”

Remiel’s brow furrowed. “You’re a sadist. You like hurting him.”

“My own feelings on the matter are irrelevant. I have pledged to protect Alexiel, and I intend to do so, whether he likes it or not.” Catriel looked at Alex. “There are worse options than a little discomfort, aren’t there, Alexiel?”

“Yeah,” Alex sullenly agreed. He shifted a bit, winced, then looked at Remiel. “I’m fine.”

Remiel shook his head. “No. I don’t like this at all.”

“Why don’t you prepare some tea, and then we can all sit down and discuss the situation in depth,” Catriel offered.

“I’m not making tea,” Remiel retorted.

“I will leave Alexiel bound until after I have my answers,” Catriel warned him.

“Fine,” Remiel said unhappily. “But Sophie and Zak are going to be furious if they wake up and find Alex like this.”

“Then you had better hope they remain asleep until we are done. I would hate to have to injure your friends.”

Wings bristled, Remiel went to the kitchen to prepare the tea. Catriel sat beside Alex, tapping the table in an annoyed manner as he observed the squirming boy.

“Does it hurt?”

“It’s sharp. How long do I have to hold it?”

“Until I no longer have the urge to beat you, little Isten.”

Alex winced as one of the spikes pricked his finger. “Don’t call me that.”

“I think you’ve lost the right to give me orders for a few days.”

“You wouldn’t really hurt Sophie or Zak, would you?”

“I am a man of my word, unlike the lying little child I have pledged to protect.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“You can be forgiven, but you must learn.”

Alex sighed and sat in miserable silence beside the soldier until Remiel returned.

“Tea. Biscuits. Ask your damn questions, soldier.” Remiel dropped the kettle and the platter on the table before Catriel.

“Do I get a cup?”

Remiel stomped back into the kitchen for cups, then returned and poured Catriel’s drink. “Let’s hurry this up.” Remiel slumped into his chair, scowling angrily.

“Tell me about your record,” said Catriel.

For the next hour, the soldier interrogated Remiel over every aspect of his life. They covered all Remiel’s previous arrests, some of which Alex didn’t know about, and then his current situation with the manacle. When Remiel mentioned his status as Guardian to both Sophie and Zak, Catriel demanded to see the letter. He didn’t give away any of his thoughts as he examined the authenticity of the scroll. When he seemed satisfied with that, they discussed the shop.

“You’re a weaver?” Catriel asked, almost perplexed.

“Yeah? So what if I am?” Remiel was still angry. Alex felt guilty about getting him involved in all this.

“I’m just aware of some of the traits of your Isten,” explained Catriel. “It seems strange that any of his descendants would pursue something so mundane.”

“I will always be the unclaimed son of an Ander before I am anything to my Isten,” Remiel retorted sharply.

“If you don’t want to end up with the same status as your father, you should strive to find more acceptance with your Isten, like your brother-”

“Don’t you dare tell me to be like my brother. I am done answering your questions.” Remiel pointed at Alex. “Untie him. Now.”

Catriel nodded. “I suppose that is sufficient for now. Alexiel, give me your hands.”

Alex held out his hands to Catriel. His arms were trembling from the strain of holding the heavy ball for so long. Little dots of blood covered his palms, but none of the marks were bleeding.

Catriel carefully untied the leather strap. He sat it on the table, then pried Alex’s hands off the spikes of the ball. “There,” Catriel said when Alex was free. “You are forgiven.”

From the other side of the table, Remiel snapped, “You’re horrible, just like every other soldier in E’din.”

Holding the metal ball, Catriel closed his hand, letting the long spikes pierce through his skin. Several jutted out the back of his hand as he tightened his grip. “You know,” said the jagged soldier, exceedingly calm for the amount of metal sticking out of his hand, “I believe there is value to your presence in Alexiel’s life. We will visit often, unannounced, so I can ensure you are setting the best example for the boy.”

Remiel glared at the soldier, but the display clearly unnerved him. “You’re crazy.”

“Maybe,” Catriel said with a slight nod of his head.

“You’re not welcome here.”

“Your concern has been noted.”

Alex finished rubbing the dried blood from his palms. He looked up at the soldier. “Can we get something to eat now? I’m hungry.”

Catriel nodded. “Sure, Alexiel. Whatever you want.”

Remiel stood up, shaking his head. “Crazy,” he muttered. “Absolutely crazy.” He passed his hand back through his thick hair. “Alright. Come on. Let’s go get some food.”

Chapter Text

At this point, Catriel knew he should expect anything pertaining to Alex to take the worst possible path. It was like the boy resonated with trouble, attracting all manner of bad luck to him in droves. That was why it shouldn’t have surprised the soldier to locate the skinny Ahnnak at the home and business of Kai’s younger brother, but it did. Remiel was an undisciplined creature of comfort who carried no accountability for the potential weight of his actions. He was young. Catriel would allow him that much leeway to explain his behavior, but that was all. He had been assigned as the Guardian to the two healers living with him, and seemed to treat the oath as casually as he would one of the garish outfits he sold in the shop.

Remiel was an Ahnnak who was only going to learn when his mistakes got someone he cared for killed. If Catriel kept an eye on him, maybe he could prevent that from happening. At the very least, he could prevent Remiel from dragging Alex down with him.

The soldier escorted the two young Ahnnak out in the rain to get food. They placed a large order, enough for the two asleep in the house as well, and then stood under the eave outside the shop while the chef prepared the meal. Catriel took note of how comfortable Alex was with Remiel. The boy spoke confidently, and briefly explained their altered version of where he had been. Remiel nodded along, listening to the story, even if he kept giving Catriel uneasy glances from the corner of his eye.

Alex offered to carry the crate of food when it was ready. He picked it up once, then winced and sat it down. He rubbed his palms against his pants.

“Alex, your hands. Let me carry it,” said Remiel.

“Don’t coddle him,” Catriel warned.

“I’m not coddling him,” Remiel replied through clenched teeth.

“It’s fine,” Alex insisted. “I’ve got it.” He picked the crate back up and held tight, ignoring his sore hands. Remiel sighed, but didn’t argue. He walked alongside Alex back to the shop.

When they arrived, the Terran healer Sophie was awake and drinking some of the tea leftover in the kettle on the table. “Hi, Remi. Hi, Alex. Who’s this?” Her smile was bright, nearly matching her wild, fiery hair. Catriel saw the unmistakable resemblance to Alex’s roommate Uzzi. There was no doubt that they were siblings.

While Alex sat the crate in the kitchen, Remiel walked over to Sophie and kissed her cheek. “He’s nobody. Ignore him.”

“Remi, don’t be rude.” Sophie swatted his chest, then approached Catriel with her hand extended. “Hi. My name is Zophiel, but you can call me Sophie.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Zophiel,” he said as he took his hand. “I am Catriel of the Unborn, Secondary Flight Officer in Aerial Combat Unit Six-Two.” He bowed, touching her knuckles to his forehead. “I remain humbly at the service of any healer to E’din.”

Remiel made a disgusted noise and crossed his arms over his chest. Sophie just laughed. “You don’t have to be so formal here. Any friend of Alex’s is a friend of ours.”

“He’s not Alex’s friend,” Remiel snapped. “He’s a soldier.”

Sophie ignored him. She had noticed the wounds on Catriel’s hand when he straightened and released her. “You’re injured!” she exclaimed.

“It’s nothing,” he replied, but she bustled him to a bench with the irrefutable pressure all healers seemed capable of exerting. He sat down and allowed her to examine the wounds at her leisure.

“Oh, don’t help him, Sophie, he did it to himself,” Remiel complained from across the room.

“Go help Alex with the food, Remi,” she replied, her tone firm. The bronze-skinned boy groused, but did as she asked. “These holes go all the way through. Did you really do this to yourself?”

“It was to make a point,” Catriel replied.

She glanced up, examining the vertical slashes of black through his golden eyes. “You’re funny,” she decided. “I can see why Alex likes you.”

“I doubt that.”

Sophie raised an eyebrow. A curious smile touched the corner of her mouth. “I’ve known Alex for a while. Trust me, I can tell.” She resumed her thorough examination.

When Remiel and Alex returned from the kitchen, they were each carrying platters arranged with steaming food. Fresh roasted roots and skewers of grilled fruit, all garnished with a salted nut topping, filled the trays. It smelled amazing, but it reminded Catriel of how wasteful civilians could be. All this food could have been eaten raw or boiled without the needless addition of spice. Such extravagance had no real purpose. It was like the gold sign outside the shop- a tacky symbol of luxury that only served announce monetary success. It was pointless.

“There’s none for you,” Remiel told Catriel as he placed the platter on the table. “Spies for my family don’t eat in my house.”

“You’re being very immature,” scolded Sophie. “Enough.”

“Just let him bleed, Sophie,” said Remiel. “If you want to heal someone, heal Alex.”

Sophie glanced over. “You’re hurt?”

Alex placed his platter on the table and held up his hands. “Nope. I’m fine.” He was right. His skin was fully healed. All the little dots of blood had vanished.

Catriel knew the caltrop wouldn’t actually cause any lasting damage on the boy, but he didn’t expect the marks to fade so fast. Very strange.

“If there’s not enough food, Catriel can share with me,” Alex offered.

Remiel’s brow furrowed. He was a lot more expressive than his brother, even if it was just a lack of self control. “I’m not going to make you share, Alex. Fiends. Fine. The bastard can eat with us.”

Sophie frowned a bit. “Alex, why don’t you go wake up Zak? He’ll be happy to see you.”

“Okay,” the boy chirped, then practically ran into the other room. In a second, his feet left the ground, followed quickly by an impact and a grunt as Alex landed on Zak’s sleeping body.

“Alex!” came the surprised cry once the man had any idea what was happening.

With Alex temporarily occupied, Sophie turned to Remiel. “Alright, Remi, explain what the hell is wrong with you today.”

“It’s him!” the young Ahnnak exclaimed, pointing at Catriel. “He just showed up, and he made Alex hold this spiky ball, and he said he would hurt you and Zak if I didn’t answer his questions. He’s a spy. He’s working for my brother.”

“You know Remi’s brother?” asked Sophie. She still held Catriel’s hand, her fingertips lightly tracing the thin skin covering his wounds.

Catriel raised one wing in a shrug. “He is one of my commanding officers at Esh. I have spoke to him on occasion.”

“Are you friends?”

“No,” Catriel answered quickly. “The Wing Commander and I have a purely professional relationship.”

“Wing Commander?” Remiel tilted his head. “Since when?”

“Last year, after General Laeshiel recommended him for promotion.”

Sophie wrinkled her nose. “You know that guy too?”

“Laeshiel?” Catriel asked. “Yes. We served together in the war.” Which was a fact he never shared with civilians.

“Which war?” asked Sophie.

“The War with the Jinn,” Catriel replied, the words tumbling out. What was going on?

“Are you friends with Laeshiel?” the Terran healer asked.

“Yes.”

“And did Remiel’s family really send you to spy on him?”

Catriel jerked his hand away from the fiery girl and stood. He saw the trails of her hazy yellow energy connecting to his skin. His wings bristled as he tried to rub the invasive feeling away. “You- What have you done to me?”

Unapologetic, the girl raised her round, innocent face toward him. “I only eased your inclination to lie. It won’t harm you, and the effects will fade in an hour.”

“You used your power to manipulate me?” Catriel stepped back, keeping out of her reach. “That’s prohibited. I am of soldier of the Isten. You can’t-”

“Oh, please,” Sophie scoffed. She stood and smoothed her skirts down around her hips. “I haven’t hurt you and it’s not like I’m asking for classified secrets. I just want to know if you’re a threat to my family.”

“And if I am?”

The Terran healer, with her mane of wild, fiery hair, smiled sweetly at Catriel. “If you threaten any of the men I love again, I will turn you inside out like a wet sock.”

Without question, Catriel believed her. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Even in the military, there were few medics who held equal power to this girl, and she would only get stronger with practice. She wasn’t someone to cross.

No wonder Laeshiel had organized a petition to have her bloodline protected by a Guardian, even if the assignment had gone to a worthless whelp like Remiel.

Alex skipped back into the room, dragging a groggy man behind him. “Zak is awake! Can we eat now?”

Sophie turned toward them a smile. “Of course, Alex. Help yourself.”

“Don’t I get to put a shirt on first?” asked the Terran man, following behind Alex without resistance. “We have a guest.”

“Catriel doesn’t care,” said Alex. He slid onto a bench at the round table. “Right, Catriel?”

“No, it’s-” Catriel covered his mouth with a hand. In fact, he didn’t mind the view at all, but that wasn’t something he should admit. Zak was a well built young man, and his pants hung low on his hips, revealing the trail of dark hair that led lower. Catriel looked at the ceiling. “I, um… I need to step outside.” He turned and left the building before he could say something else to make a fool of himself.

The last thing Catriel saw as he hurried down the stairs was Remiel’s smug expression. From above, Zak’s concerned voice asked, “Did I do something to offend him?”

“It wasn’t you, sweetheart,” said Remiel, revealing another layer of information about the household that Catriel would have to examine later, when his head was clear. “Ignore him. Let’s eat.”

Catriel hurried into the backyard. He turned his face up and opened his wings, allowing the light drizzle to splatter against his skin and feathers. He breathed in deep and tried to clear his thoughts, though he didn’t know if it would help.

Until he regained complete control of his mind, his mission was compromised. One wrong word. That’s all it would have taken for these children’s simple, pampered lives to be put at risk. If they discovered the truth about Alex…

Catriel looked down at his injured hand. He wondered if Sophie had ever exploited her power like this over the boy. As he stared at his palm, he noticed the hazy glow at the edge of the puncture wounds. His flesh was mending back together, even as he watched. The quickened recovery was fueled by the residual healing energy trapped within him.

Just like Alex’s quick recovery.

Fiends.

These children were messing with forces they didn’t understand. Watching over them was going to be a nightmare.

Catriel withdrew a sharp blade from under his wing, held out his forearm, and began cutting.

There was more than one way to use up healing energy.

***

“Um, sir? Excuse me. I hope I’m not bothering you.” Zak stepped outside. He had a shirt on. He was also carrying a bowl of food. “I wanted to apologize for earlier, and- Oh, fiends, your arm!” The young man sat the bowl down and hurried to the soldier’s side.

Catriel flexed his fist, examining his work. “It’s fine. Tzakquiel, was it?”

“Zak, but what do you mean, ‘Fine’? You’re bleeding.”

“Yes, I am,” said Catriel, a little relieved. Long, shallow slashes covered his inner arm from wrist to elbow. The first ones, closest to his hand, were mended and sealed as if hours had passed, even if it had only been a few minutes. Further up his arm, the effects lessened, until the highest bled freely, dripping bright, crimson blood onto the mud.

“Let me help,” said Zak, but Catriel thrust one of his crisply feathered wings between them.

“I would prefer if you didn’t touch me,” said the soldier.

Zak backed up, looking a little hurt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“There’s no offense. I think I’ve just had my fill of healers for the next decade.” The soldier felt more like himself, at least, like the last remnants of the girl’s energy had finally burned out of his system.

Zak tucked his hands under his arms. “Yeah, they told me what they did. I’m really sorry about that. Zoph and Rem can be a little impulsive sometimes.”

“What is your relationship with them?” Catriel asked bluntly.

“Excuse me?” Zak’s brown eyes widened.

Catriel tried to think of how he could word it without coming off as judgmental. “My primary mission focuses on Alexiel, but there is some overlap with a request made by one of my commanders.”

“You mean Rem’s brother.”

“Yes. He did not send me to spy, but he did request that I help if Remiel finds himself in any trouble.” Catriel cleaned his dagger on his sleeve and sheathed it. He felt much better, even with the blood loss. “I was not aware of a connection between the two young Ahnnak until today, just as I was unaware of Remiel’s status as your Guardian.” He looked over at the healer, whose tight, tiny curls were collecting heavy beads of rain until the weight grew too heavy and the water dripped onto his smooth skin. “But it’s more than that, isn’t it?”

Zak bit his lip. “If Rem didn’t tell you…”

“Do you think he’s ashamed?”

“No!”

“Are you?”

“No! Of course not! I love him.” Zak’s brow furrowed. “I’m married to Zoph, and I love her, but I love Rem too. The three of us are bound together.”

A triad. That’s what Catriel suspected. “And you’re happy?”

“Immensely,” declared the Terran. “They mean everything to me.”

“Then you’ll understand that I am only here to help. I am Alexiel’s acting Guardian, but his proximity to your family allows my protections to extend here. It is my duty to keep you all safe. I am not your enemy.”

“Yeah, I understand,” said Zak. “And I can probably get those idiots upstairs to understand, too, but man, did you really have to punish Alex like that? They’re really protective of the kid.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that now. I’ll take it into consideration going forward, but I also need all of you to understand that my primary objective is to keep Alexiel alive. There will be consequences when he breaks the rules I’ve put in place to keep him safe.” Catriel shook out his wings, shedding the water that clung to his oiled feathers. “When I returned to Archridge this morning, I discovered he disappeared. I spent the entire afternoon tracking him through the streets of Marut, terrified that I would find him dead or dismembered in a gutter. I’ve never been so worried in my life.”

A slow smile crept on to Zak’s face. “Oh, I get it.”

“What?” asked Catriel, suspicious.

“It’s not just about your job. You’re fond of Alex.”

Catriel glared at the Terran healer. “My personal feelings have no place in my duties.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it? No, no, it’s fine. You don’t need to explain. I understand. There’s something special about Alex. It’s hard not to like him.” Zak walked back over to the bowl of food he placed on the ground when he first noticed all the blood. He picked it up and offered it to the soldier. “Here. I brought this for you. You’re probably hungry after chasing Alex all day.”

Catriel accepted the bowl, taking care not to touch the healer’s skin. “Thanks,” he grumbled.

“You’re welcome. Hey, do you mind if I call you Cat?”

The soldier’s feathers bristled. “Yes, I mind.”

“Catri?”

“I was beginning to like you, Tzakquiel.”

He laughed. “Alright. Understood. Catriel it is. Do I need to add your rank when addressing you as well?”

The soldier rolled his eyes. “Catriel will be plenty.”

“Well, you’re welcome to come back in whenever you’re ready, Catriel. I promise we’ll be on our best behavior.” The healer gave a lazy salute, which would have been offensive if he’d had any military training. “I’ll leave some bandages by the door. We try not to bleed in the shop if we can help it.”

Catriel waited until after Zak returned to the house to try a bite of food from the bowl. It was a seared melon, lightly salted and glazed with a complex blend of spices. It was delicious, and Catriel decided it would be even more wasteful if he didn’t eat everything that had been offered to him.

When he was done, he stood at the back door and wrapped his arm with the strips of cloth left for him. A few of the cuts were still bleeding, but not enough to seep through the bandages. He went back upstairs, a little more cautious than before.

Zak, Sophie, and Remiel stood when he reached the top step. Alex remained seated at the table, sucking seasoning off his fingers. “Thank you for the food,” Catriel said. He sat the bowl on the table. “I think it’s time I return Alexiel to Archridge.”

“Before you go, we have something we want to say to you,” said Zak. He nudged Sophie.

She stepped forward, a little abashed. “Sorry about altering your mind without your permission,” she said apologetically.

“I’m not sorry about anything,” stated Remiel. Zak pinched his side. “Ow! Fiends, alright! I’m sorry, too. Whatever.”

Alex got up and came to Catriel’s side. “Can we come back this weekend?”

“We’ll see, Alexiel. You need to follow our rules.” He glanced at the other three children- because that was all any of them really were, just children pretending to understand the world. “But I think we’ll be able to find time to visit.”

Alex smiled. He said goodbye to his friends, then he and Catriel flew back to Archridge to establish the guidelines they would need to survive the coming years.

Chapter Text

Bright electricity reflected in Gabriel’s blue eyes. It surged between his fingers, powerful enough now that if he lost control, it would stop his heart. The Isten Elohim sat at his desk, only partially observing the display as Gabriel continued the lesson.

Unlike other elements, electricity could not be forced to follow commands. The energy was unpredictable and dangerous, almost as if it had a mind of its own. But Gabriel had found that it could be guided. With the mere suggestion of a path, wild lightning became as malleable as string. He only needed to exert his will over the stray arcs that threatened to fracture out of his control. Such simple manipulations came as naturally as breathing to Gabriel.

“That will be all for today,” the Isten Elohim announced.

Gabriel exhaled and discharged the energy. “Yes, sir,” he said, still a little breathless. He walked over to collect his books from the desk.

“I’ve noticed a marked improvement in your concentration in the month since your brother returned,” said the Isten as he continued scrawling notes on various scrolls. “I’m pleased to see you regained your focus.”

Gabriel’s wings went rigid. “Thank you, sir,” he said through clenched teeth.

“It’s unfortunate Alexiel doesn’t share your potential. What a relief to have a trained soldier assigned to the boy.” Elohim smiled and looked up at Gabriel. “Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, sir,” Gabriel said. The corner of his eye twitched. Was Elohim taunting him? It was so damned hard to tell with Isten sometimes.

Elohim resumed writing. “Do you have plans for this weekend?”

“No, sir.” Gabriel tucked his books under his arm. He had plans, but they weren’t anything he could share with an Isten.

“You should visit your father. He requested you.”

“I’m aware,” Gabriel replied. It took every ounce of his control to remain calm. “I have already informed him that I will visit at the end of the month, as soon as the Harvest begins.”

“It is not wise to refuse your Isten,” said Elohim. He made a flourish across the bottom of one scroll, then moved on to another.

“I am not refusing him,” Gabriel said. “My father understands how important my tests are before the break.”

“About that.” Elohim paused as he wrote out a detailed equation. It felt like it took forever. “You missed a mark on your last exam.”

“Sir, with all due respect, Instructor Phiel was wrong. I already spoke to him and got my grade changed.”

“He said you threatened him.”

Gabriel scowled. “Is it a threat to inform an instructor that if he continues such mediocre teaching, I will be forced to report him for neglect?”

“Yes, Gabriel. That is a threat.”

The silver-haired Ahnnak nodded. “Then yes, I threatened him. I am not going to waste my time with some Terran who barely understands the coursework he’s trying to teach.”

“You’re lucky you were right this time,” said Elohim. “I saw the exam, and your answer was correct, though a little crude. However, I would prefer if you reported any issues with your instructors to me next time.”

“Yes, sir,” said Gabriel, without any intention of doing that. Phiel wasn’t the first instructor he had convinced to change a grade, just the first to whine about it.

“Very well. You’re dismissed, young Ahnnak. We will resume your lessons next week.”

“Thank you, Isten.” Gabriel bowed, though Elohim didn’t raise his double-pupiled eyes to acknowledge the gesture. It didn’t matter. Gabriel left the office, only stopping long enough to drop off his books in his room before he flew from the suffocating halls of Archridge to the freedom offered in Marut.

***

The music was loud in the club tonight. A deep bass reverberated through the rafters, blending with the alluring voice of the Terran singer on stage. She had some sort of modification to her neck that allowed her to harmonize with herself, like many Ahnnak and Isten could. It was a strange little box, and Gabriel wondered what mechanism inside allowed it worked.

“Gabriel?” Long fingers caressed his cheek, turning his face back toward the girl straddling his thighs. Her soft lips touched his and she giggled. “I thought I lost you for a second. What were you looking at?”

“Nothing,” he said. He lifted her hips and adjusted her on his lap. All her squirming and grinding was wrinkling his pants.

“That’s good, because tonight, I want you all to myself.” She dragged her nails down his neck and chest, but Gabriel grabbed her wrist before she went lower.

“Have I fucked you before?” he asked, staring into the girl’s lust-filled eyes.

“Mmm,” she moaned and arched her body against his. “It was the best night of my life.” She sucked his lower lip into her mouth.

Gabriel turned away from her. “Get off me. I changed my mind.”

“What?” She sat back, her brow furrowed. “Are you serious?”

He glared at her with cold blue eyes. “I said, ‘Get off me.’”

An offended laugh burst out of her as the innocent seductress act dropped. “Excuse me? Who do you think you are, trying to turn me down? Do you have any idea how many boys would kill for the chance to be with me?”

“Then go slobber on them. You’re boring me.”

She got up, angry and embarrassed about the rejection, and stomped away with her skirts curling behind her. Gabriel rubbed his temple. Fiends, he had to start remembering the faces of the people he slept with. This was getting tedious.

Ombri strolled over and offered Gabriel a drink. He motioned after the girl. “Already done?”

“Apparently she’s going to get some boys to kill each other over her.” He sipped the drink, enjoying the burn of alcohol down his throat. “Considering she was completely forgettable the first time I fucked her, I doubt she’ll have any luck.”

Ombri shook his head and sat on one of the plush seats beside Gabriel. He was a strange Terran. Barely spoke, but was incredibly observant. He had been one of Lorcas’ lackeys, back when they first started bullying Gabriel. There didn’t seem to be any lingering animosity, though. Ombri just liked to fight, and the Hunt gave him that opportunity. That was where his loyalties remained.

Lately, though, Ombri had been acting as an extension of his Vice-Captain. Gabriel felt that Barach was abusing his new position of power in the Hunt, ordering the other members to do stupid stuff like this, but Ombri didn’t seem to mind. Any time he found Gabriel in town alone, he followed him, at least until Barach showed up to take over the unnecessary vigil.

Of the two of them, Gabriel preferred an evening stuck with Ombri. Even is he was annoyingly persistent, he still respected Gabriel’s status as an Ahnnak heir. If Gabriel really needed privacy, a few firm threats provided enough motivation to get the Terran to leave him alone.

Gabriel rolled his head and watched Ombri sip his drink and scan the crowd. The Terran’s toe tapped to the rhythm of the music, but he didn’t seem interested in dancing. If Gabriel remembered correctly, Ombri had a girlfriend at one point. He couldn’t remember seeing them together since the beginning of the year, but then again, most Terran faces tended to blur together after a time.

“Have you ever sucked a cock?” Gabriel asked. He had to wait a moment for the answer, because Ombri began choking on his drink.

After he finally finished coughing up the liquid, Ombri wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and asked, “Why?”

“Just curious.” Gabriel tilted his glass back and forth in the air, watching the liquid sway within. What was it? His seventh drink tonight? More? “I have this theory, you see. I’ve been testing it. Do you want to hear?”

“Not really.”

Gabriel continued anyway. “See, there’s this chemical composition found in certain hormones that acts as a bond. We think of it as love, but it’s just a way of emotionally manipulating someone to get them to serve your needs above their own.”

“That’s not love.”

“Sure it is. All biology is chemical.” Gabriel took another drink. “So, what I’ve discovered is, genetically, I inherited a condensed version of that chemical which saturates my essence.” He raised an eyebrow and looked at the Terran. “You know. Marrow. Blood. Semen.”

“I got it,” Ombri grumbled, slouching in his chair.

“Being exposed to that once doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on a person. But twice, depending on how much of my-” he paused and gave Ombri a salacious look, “-essence they ingest, that can lead to some addictive habits. More, and it leads to infatuation. It’ll fade over time, but I haven’t figured out how long that takes yet. Which is where I could use you.”

“No chance,” the Terran grunted.

“Oh, don’t be like that.” Gabriel placed the glass on the table and leaned toward Ombri. “It would just be once, as part of my experiment. All you would have to do is follow me to the back hall and drop to your knees. I know you’ve thought about it. I’ve seen the way you look at me.”

Ombri gulped as Gabriel reached toward him. The silver-haired Ahnnak took the Terran’s hand and guided it between his legs, pressing his palm against the firm length within his thin silk pants. Ombri didn’t try to pull away, but he whispered, “I can’t.”

“No one would have to know.” Gabriel leaned closer, their lips almost touching. “No one would blame you if you gave in.”

“Lorcas would.”

Gabriel froze. His ice-blue eyes narrowed with contempt. Scowling, he flung Ombri’s hand aside, then sat back in his chair and huffed. His wings ruffled irritably. “Fiends. I was just kidding. Like I would let someone like you suck me off.”

Ombri gave a shaky sigh of relief and ran his trembling hands through his hair. “Sorry,” he muttered. “No offense.”

“You know, I should be offended,” Gabriel snapped at him. He picked up his drink, downed the rest, and then pointed at Ombri with the empty glass still in his hand. “Lorcas is gone. He has no hold over me anymore. He never did. Everything we ever had together was fake. It wasn’t love. Hell, I didn’t even like him.” Gabriel slammed his glass down on the table. “It was just a stupid infatuation he pursued because he was too damned dumb to see the truth. It was meaningless.”

Frustrated, Ombri rubbed his face. When he put his hands down, he leaned toward Gabriel. “Listen.” He paused and made sure he had Gabriel’s attention. It took a couple seconds for Gabriel to focus on his face. Maybe that had been his tenth drink. Who was really keeping track? “Listen,” Ombri repeated. “If somebody already loves you, you can’t make them love you more.”

Gabriel blinked a couple times and stared at Ombri’s mouth. That was the longest string of words he had ever heard the Terran say, but it wasn’t what caught his attention. “Your tongue,” he said, a little stupefied.

“I’m aware,” Ombri replied, back to speaking in clipped sentences without moving his lips.

“It’s split. Like a serpent.”

Ombri’s lips pursed. He snapped his fingers up by his eyes to break Gabriel’s fixation on his mouth. “Hey. Focus. You’re drunk.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

Gabriel wrinkled his nose. “Whatever. I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“You asked for a blow job.”

Oh, fiends.” Gabriel’s eyes widened. “What would your tongue feel like doing that?”

“Gabriel,” the Terran said sharply. “Enough. Lorcas loved you.”

“Fuck off, Ombri.” Gabriel leaned back and looked away, rapidly losing interest in this conversation. “I don’t need to hear the lies. There’s no reason to pretend the relationship was anything other than it was- A masochistic fling between stupid kids fueled by fake emotions.”

“He fucked you first.”

Gabriel’s sharp gaze snapped back to Ombri. “Watch your forked tongue, Terran.”

Ombri rolled his eyes. “I overheard Sera and Lorcas fighting in the enclave. It was about you.” The tip of his tongue flicked out any time he spoke more than four words without pause. “Lorcas slept with other girls constantly, but Sera was mad because he wanted more with you. He’d been obsessed with you since you pushed Dien into the gap.”

“He hated me,” Gabriel said, as if that proved his whole point.

“The chemical compounds between the two emotions aren’t that different.” When Gabriel raised a silver eyebrow, Ombri said, “What? Advanced bio-chemistry. Year three. You’re not the only one who passed the advanced classes, I just didn’t have to cheat to do it.” Gabriel glared. Ombri shrugged a wing and continued. “But my point- My point is, you had his attention. You bonded. That was natural. And Lorcas fucked you long before he offered any sort of exchange.”

Gabriel scoffed. “What? Did you hear Lorcas and Sera fight about that, too?”

Ombri shook his head. “No. I just know Lorcas. He likes to be in control. That, and he never liked men.”

“That’s not entirely true,” said Gabriel. “Sera-”

“Is a woman. Don’t make me explain to my Vice-Captain why I punched you.”

Brow furrowed, Gabriel asked, “Were you always this mean?”

“Yes, but people ignore me because I’m quiet.”

“Like a snake in grass.”

Ombri ruffled his feathers. “I knew I would regret talking to you.”

“Then why bother?” asked Gabriel.

“Because you whine too damn much. Lorcas cared about you, no matter what he told you or told himself. And you cared about him, too, long before he ever, how did you put it? Ingested your essence?”

Gabriel cringed. “Ugh. It sounds weird when you say it.”

“It didn’t sound much better coming out of your mouth. I’m right, though, aren’t I?”

“Maybe,” Gabriel muttered. “It doesn’t change anything. He’s still gone.”

“And that’s your problem. You miss him. You’re lonely.”

A sharp pang struck Gabriel’s chest. “You take that back, Ombri, or I swear on the Isten, I’m going to shove this glass down your throat.”

Ombri raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry. I take it back.”

“Good.” Gabriel slumped and crossed his arms over his chest. He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. “So how many people know about your fucked up tongue?”

“A few.” Ombri rubbed his jaw. “I don’t like attention.”

“Well, you should talk more. Don’t try to hide it. I always assumed you were just an idiot.”

The Terran laughed. “And you should talk less. Give people a chance to think there’s anything decent about you.”

Gabriel smirked. He raised his empty glass. “Fuck people and what they think.”

Ombri smiled and raised his glass to touch Gabriel’s. “Fuck ‘em,” he agreed.

While the Terran drank, Gabriel said, “You never did answer my question, though. Whose cock did you first suck?”

This time, when Ombri snorted, a little of the alcohol shot out his nose. He leaned forward and coughed, keeping his head between his knees. “Ahnnak, you’re killing me,” he groaned.

“Don’t try to deny it. You’ve used that tongue on someone. If bet it was that Terran you used to follow around. You know, the one who graduated last year and got married. What was his name? Hul?”

“Just friends,” Ombri mumbled to his knees. He linked his fingers together behind his neck.

“Right. That’s why you took that hit for him during the last Hunt and got all your feathers ripped out.”

Ombri sat up with a heavy sigh. “It happened fast. I protected him. That’s all.”

“Yeah, right,” Gabriel scoffed, hearing the edge of a lie in the Terran’s words. “You would have died for him, but I bet he never even realized how you felt. You’re pathetic.”

Ombri offered him a rude gesture. “You’re an asshole, Ahnnak.”

“Maybe.” Tormenting the Terran did make Gabriel feel a little better about himself. “I just think it’s stupid for anyone to risk their wings for someone else. You know how ridiculous you looked, all plucked like that?”

“One day, you’ll understand,” said Ombri. “You’re going to meet someone you’ll risk more than a few feathers for.”

“I doubt that. I’d rather die than allow something to happen to my wings, and I’d certainly let everyone else die. Nobody will ever matter that much to me.”

Ombri raised an eyebrow. “You’re going to have a very long life, Ahnnak. It might take years, and years, and years, and-”

“Om,” Gabriel said, annoyed, but the Terran continued like he hadn’t heard him.

“-years. I mean, like a really, really long fucking time-”

“Ombri.”

“-because you’re such a self-absorbed prick-”

“Ombriel!”

“-but eventually you’ll understand that love is more than just chemicals.”

Gabriel glowered at the smug boy. “You’re pushing your luck, Terran.”

“Forgive me, my lord.” Ombri sipped some of his drink to hide his smile.

“Get me another glass of Starhops,” Gabriel commanded.

Without a word, Ombri got up, gave Gabriel a little bow, and did as he was told.

While he was gone, Gabriel tried to distance his thoughts from the frankly ridiculous and naive ideas the Terran expressed. People were selfish. They would all betray Gabriel eventually, so why would he ever risk his own safety to help someone?

Thoughts of Alex, like always, lingered in the back of his mind, but even his brother had let him down. After everything Gabriel had done to keep Alex safe, the little brat insisted on tempting fate and risking their lives. Wasn’t this good enough? Wasn’t the life Gabriel allowed him to have at Archridge enough for him to be happy?

The thoughts burned away Gabriel’s numb buzz. He tried to dismiss them and focus on the thrum and wail of the musicians on stage. The lead singer danced as the dual-tone melody resonated from her throat, providing steady distraction. Her hips swayed and undulated in was way that was almost hypnotic. When she glanced into the rafters, just for a second, her eyes met Gabriel’s.

She smiled.

Ombri returned before long, but by then, Gabriel no longer had any interest in him. He especially didn’t have interest in Barach or Erem, who had arrived at the club and followed the Terran back to the table.

“Here,” Ombri held out the drink.

“Erem can have it. I’m done.” Gabriel stood up.

“We just got here,” Barach complained. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m going to go sleep with the band. Obviously.” Gabriel smoothed his clothes and ran his fingers through his silver hair.

“Like hell you are,” the older Ahnnak snapped.

Gabriel ignored him and flashed Erem a smile. “How do I look?”

“Perfect,” the blue-skinned boy replied. He took the glass from Ombri.

“The band, Gabe? Are you kidding?” Barach scowled. “If you think for one second that I am going to allow you to fly off and-”

“Hey.” Gabriel put on hand on Barach’s sturdy shoulder. “Do you remember when Lorcas beat me with a ruler and made you watch? Ombri was the Terran who broke your hand and held you down. You guys should discuss that.”

As Gabriel walked away, he heard the Terran’s uneasy gulp. “V-Vice-Captain,” he stammered with a grimace. “H-Have I ever shown you my tongue?”

That little discussion should keep both Barach and Ombri busy for a few minutes, long enough for Gabriel to find some privacy. He dropped out of the rafters and made his way to the stage to greet the band as they finished their final song for the evening. A smile was all it took for the lead singer to take his hand and guide him backstage.

In a euphoric, post-performance high, the band members eagerly welcomed Gabriel into their dressing room. He was fascinated to discover some of the modifications to the other musicians. As he felt their hands upon him, he realized this was exactly the type of distraction he needed.

***

Gabriel stumbled out of the club late that night. Or early that morning. He wasn’t sure after having spent half the night entangled in the pile of quivering wings and flesh and oh-so-many fascinating modifications. To say he was exhausted would be an understatement, but it was a good feeling, one that gave him little energy to dwell on things he’d rather not think about.

“Have fun?” asked a deep voice.

“You didn’t have to wait for me, Barach.” Gabriel didn’t look at where his stoic friend leaned against the side of the building. “Where’s Erem?”

“He went back with Ombri.”

“You didn’t hurt the Terran, did you?”

“No more than he deserved.”

“Weird tongue, right?”

“Honestly, Gabe,” said Barach as he pushed off the wall, “I couldn’t care less about the physical peculiarities of my team. I only expect them to obey my orders.”

“Well, I’m not in the Hunt. You can’t order me around.”

“And I’m not some slut you can control with your pretty face.” Barach stood beside him. “I asked Ombri to keep an eye on you because I’m worried about you, Gabe. You haven’t been yourself since Alex got back.”

Irritation ruffled Gabriel’s feathers. “I am exactly who I’ve always been,” he stated. He did not want to talk about this right now.

“You’re changing,” said Barach, pushing the topic. “It’s like you’re losing sight of yourself.”

Gabriel scoffed. “Right, cause you know who I’m supposed to be.”

“I’m your friend. I know you better than anyone, and I know you’re hurting. Drowning yourself in alcohol, sex, and violence won’t fix anything-”

“Oh, fuck off, Barach. You have no idea what it’s like. The pressure of being an heir, of being perfect. You don’t know what I’m dealing with.”

“But I know you don’t have to do it alone. I’m here to help you. I want to help you, even when you’re being a complete bastard.”

With a sneer, Gabriel said, “Well I didn’t ask for your help, and I certainly didn’t ask for your opinion.”

After a brief pause, the older Ahnnak said, “I read the letter from your father.”

“You what?!” Gabriel turned, eyes bright with fury.

“You can’t go home.”

“Don’t tell me what to do! You have no right to read my letters, Barach. How dare you.” Gabriel shoved him, but the bigger Ahnnak barely swayed. His expression remained completely impassive as he stared down at the silver-haired boy.

“He’s going to hurt you if you go back.”

“He won’t,” Gabriel insisted through clenched teeth. Rage radiated from him. “I’ll talk to him. I’ll make him understand that I can still fix this.”

“How?”

“Fiends, Barach, I don’t know!” Gabriel threw his hands in the air. “I’m still figuring it out, but I’ve got it under control. I have everything under control!”

Barach folded his arms over his chest. “And what are you going to tell him about Alex?”

“Jequn already knows he’s back,” Gabriel said, even though he knew that wasn’t what Barach meant.

The bigger Ahnnak didn’t let it drop. “No, about his real father. That he found him.”

Gabriel scowled. “Jequn doesn’t have to know.”

“You’re going to lie to him?” It was more an accusation than a question.

“All the official reports say Alex was lost in the woods. I don’t have to tell him anything else.”

“He’s going find out eventually,” said Barach.

“And when he does, I’ll handle it.” Gabriel tried to make his wings fold flat, but he was too mad to get them to close. “I am his heir. Jequn knows he needs me if he ever wants a chance at keeping Alex.”

Barach tilted his head, looking at Gabriel with dark eyes. “Is that what you want?”

“What?”

“For Jequn to keep Alex.”

Gabriel’s wings flared. “No, of course not. But if it meant Alex could stay with us, alive-” He stopped himself and rapidly shook his head. “Forget it,” he snapped. “I’m tired. I’m done talking to you, Barach. And you better mind your own fucking business from now on, or I’m going to submit a formal complaint to your mother stating that you’re interfering in the official business of an Isten and his heir.”

“Go ahead,” Barach replied, unfazed by the threat. “I’ll tell her the truth.”

Glaring, Gabriel thrust open his wings and jumped into the air before he had to listen to any more of Barach’s stupidity. The older Ahnnak casually trailed him all the way back to Archridge.

Chapter Text

“Where’s your necklace?” Uzzi asked one hot evening as they sat on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the valley below Archridge. Isa, Phrasa, Mace, and Nakia were with them, playing a game on the plateau with a ball, but the ever-looming presence of Alex’s guard, Catriel, was there too. His strict gaze prevented a lot of their more foolish activities before they started, but he made an effort not to interfere unless one of the children was in danger. Sometimes it was easy to forget he was around.

“I lost it,” Alex told Uzzi as he stripped another leaf from a flower and tossed it into the updraft rising along the edge of the cliff.

“Lost it?” Uzzi leaned toward him, his fiery eyes intense. “What do you mean you lost it?”

Alex leaned away, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t know. The string broke. It’s just gone.”

“Well, where did it break? Maybe we could go an search for it-”

“No. I can’t go back there.”

The red dots of Uzzi’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Why not?”

Because Jequn is going to kill me if he gets a hold of me again.

Instead of answering, Alex glanced at Catriel. Uzzi followed his gaze.

“Oh. Him.” Uzzi huffed, and a little flame burst from his lips. “I hate having him around all the time.”

“I thought you liked soldiers.”

“I want to be a soldier. A real one. One who fights fiends and protects E’din. I don’t want to be a coward bullying kids like that guy.” He waved a hand at Catriel. The soldier’s slitted eyes narrowed, but he was too far away to hear the conversation.

At least, Alex hoped he was.

“He’s not so bad,” the black-haired boy said, just in case. “He helped me when I was lost.”

“Is that when you dropped the necklace?” Uzzi asked, his focus reverting to his original concern.

“It was before that.”

“When you were home?”

“Uzzi, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it.” Alex was growing grumpy about the persistent questioning, and it showed.

Rather than back down, Uzzi puffed up his wings and got mad. “If you didn’t like it, you could have just told me. I wouldn’t have wasted my time searching the field after the fire. You know how much trouble I could have got in if they caught me there while I was suspended?”

“Then why did you bother?” Alex snapped back. He hadn’t lost the necklace on purpose. Why was Uzzi being so weird about it?

Flames lingered on the fiery boy’s tongue when he spoke. “Because I thought it was important to you. I thought I was- You know what. Forget it. Why do you have to be so dumb?” He got up and stomped off, leaving Alex alone on the edge of the cliff. Isa tried to speak to him as he passed, but Uzzi just barked, “Leave me alone!” and marched back to the academy.

After a few minutes, Nakia came over and sat beside Alex. Her feet dangled into the open air. “What happened?” she asked.

It made Alex nervous to have the Homm princess so close to the edge of the cliff. He kept close watch on her from the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t look right at her. “I don’t know,” he said, because he didn’t, but he didn’t like this feeling, either, whatever it was.

“Uzzi seemed pretty mad.”

“He’s always mad at me anymore.” Alex pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on top. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

“He likes you, Alex.”

“Yeah, we’re friends-”

“Alex. You know that’s not what I mean.”

The black-haired boy hid his face against his legs and muttered, “I know.”

The princess sighed with the weight of all the knowledge her extra year gave her. “You need to talk to him,” she said, sounding very sagely. “Tell him the truth about how you feel.”

“But I don’t know how I feel,” said Alex. “Why does anything have to change?”

“Because that’s what growing up is. We can’t stay children forever.” Nakia leaned back on her hands and kicked her feet in the air. The string of shell beads at her hip rattled with the rhythmic movements. “Can I ask you a question, New Moon?”

“I guess.”

“How would you feel if you saw Uzzi kiss someone else?”

Alex’s wings tightened. “I… I don’t know. Who would he kiss?”

“Does it matter?” asked Nakia. “Would you be jealous?”

Jealous?

Alex tried to picture Uzzi kissing someone else. The shadowy form of the other person wouldn’t condense. It just remained smoke before Uzzi’s closed eyes and puckered lips.

Shaking his head, Alex said, “I don’t know.”

“What if he kissed Isa?”

An image of Isa replaced the smoke. His and Uzzi’s faces smushed together like clay that had been dropped.

“Gross,” Alex said, recoiling from the thought.

“Gross?” Nakia laughed. “Oh, Alex, you really are innocent, aren’t you?”

“I’m not innocent,” the black-haired boy grumbled. “I just don’t get why everyone thinks kissing is so great. Having someone else’s mouth on you is dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Nakia laughed again. “Nobody is going to bite you, Alex.”

Having most certainly been bitten before, Alex didn’t reply. He just hugged his knees tighter and stared down at the valley. The sun was close to setting, and the shadows of the trees and buildings stretched like jagged teeth across the ground.

After a few moments, Nakia suggested, “Well, what would you think about kissing me?”

“I’m not a girl,” Alex stated.

“So?”

“You like girls.”

“Yeah, but…” Nakia tugged at one of the braids that hung behind her ear. “I’ve been thinking. My parents expect me to marry someone. A boy. If it was you, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”

Alex turned his head and looked at her. He had heard her joke about this before, but this time, she didn’t sound like she was kidding. “I can’t marry you,” Alex said. “I’m Ahnnak. You’re Homm.”

“So?” Her shoulders tensed. If she had had wings, Alex would have expected to see them puff up.

“Homm and Ahnnak can’t marry. It’s forbidden.”

“In E’din,” Nakia said. “But my kingdom is in the West, outside the border of E’din. The laws are different.”

Alex shook his head. “You’re still part of the territory protected by the Isten. I would never be allowed to go with you.”

“Then we could run away, Alex, someplace no one can tell us what to do and no one can make us marry someone we don’t want.”

“I can’t, Nakia. You’re my friend-”

“We’d still be friends, Alex. Just together.”

“I don’t know…” Alex glanced back and noticed Catriel approaching. Crap, had he heard? “We can’t talk about this anymore,” he quickly told Nakia.

She noticed the soldier too. She smiled innocently when he stood over them. “Hi, Officer Catriel.”

“Princess Nakia.” The jagged soldier inclined his head toward her. “Alexiel, it is time we return to the academy.”

“Already?” asked Alex. “It’s not even dark.”

The soldier just raised an eyebrow and waited. Alex sighed and got to his feet. Nakia stood as well, but both winged Ahnnak tensed when she stepped precariously close to the edge. The princess seemed unaware of the potential danger as she brushed the dirt off her backside.

“I’ll go back with Mace and Phrasa,” she said. She looked at Catriel. “Unless you’re giving the rest of us a curfew, too.”

Catriel contemplated it for a moment, as if deciding how far his authority extended. “There is danger on these cliffs at night,” he said.

“We’ll be careful,” she said. “I’ll stay away from the edge.”

The soldier nodded. “I will inform the guard to expect you all back in the academy before moonrise.”

Nakia smiled. “That’s fair.”

Alex frowned. “Why can’t I stay until moonrise?”

“Because you and I have some plans to discuss,” the soldier said. “Say goodnight to your friends, Alexiel.”

“Goodnight, Nakia,” he said. He trudged over to let Isa, Phrasa, and Mace know he was leaving.

Goodnight, he signed. The soldier says I have to go now. Dagger is going to stay with you until moonrise.

They hadn’t bothered to give Catriel a nickname. They all just referred to him as the soldier, and tried not to get on his bad side.

Goodnight, New Moon, Phrasa signed. We’ll watch over Dagger.

Isa glanced at Catriel, then quickly signed, Why was Inferno mad?

Alex shook his head. He gave a brief sign, signaling that he didn’t have time to discuss it right now.

Catriel and Nakia approached.

“Goodnight, New Moon,” Mace said aloud, mostly for Catriel’s benefit.

“The guards will be expecting you all back in the academy by moonrise,” Catriel informed the gathered children. “If you’re late, I will request that they restrict your evening excursions for the rest of summer.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be good,” Nakia promised, even as the others groused about the idea of having any restriction on their activities.

Alex waved goodbye to them one more time, then walked with Catriel back toward the entrance to the academy. When they were out of range of the others, Catriel asked, “What were you and the princess talking about?”

“Nothing,” Alex lied. “Just Uzzi.”

“I would hate to think you are considering doing something to draw attention to yourself,” Catriel said, the warning evident in his voice.

“I’m not,” Alex insisted. “I’ve been careful since we came back.”

“Running away with the princess of a Homm kingdom is not ‘being careful.’”

Alex cringed. He had heard. Damn it. “I wasn’t going to actually run away with her. She was just joking.”

“The risk of a scandal with Homm royalty isn’t something to joke about. I’ve read her file. She’s already betrothed, and if you-”

“She’s what?!” Alex stopped and looked back across the field to where his friends were laughing and playing. He watched Nakia jump into Mace’s arms, hugging and high-fiving her after scoring a point against Isa and Phrasa. The other two were arguing back and forth, hands moving in fast, articulated signals.

It would have been a fun game to stay and watch.

“She can’t be betrothed. She’s only thirteen,” Alex insisted.

“Betrothal acts as a claim for Homm. She won’t be expected to unify with her intended until they both come of age.”

“It’s not fair.”

“You have other things to worry about than Homm custom.”

“Well, do you know who it is?” asked Alex.

“A prince. A suitable match, as far as the records show.”

“But she likes girls,” Alex fumed as he resumed walking with Catriel. “How can they do this to her?”

Catriel strolled with his arms tucked beneath his wings. He looked up at the fading sky. “Alexiel, I will not disparage the ways of royalty or Isten. It is beyond one in my position.”

“So if I was ordered to marry someone, you would make me do it?” Alex asked.

Catriel remained quiet for a moment, his stern face thoughtful. “I suppose it would depend on the match. A proper union could help you remain below suspicion.”

“Catriel!” Alex kicked the soldier’s shin. “I’m not getting married.”

The jagged soldier winced and reached down to rub his legs. “It was just theoretical. We both know your Isten isn’t going to let go of you that easy.”

“He’s not my Isten,” Alex muttered and they continued their journey back to the stone halls of Archridge.

***

Shortly after Alex resumed classes at Archridge, during a particularly bad day, he and Catriel had found a secluded room in an unused part of the academy where they could talk freely.

Found wasn’t exactly right. Catriel had dragged Alex through the halls by his ear. And they hadn’t really talked, either, not in the beginning. They had both yelled a lot.

The soldier wasn’t a bad man. Strict, yes, but never cruel. He rarely hit Alex, but when he did, it was because the boy was acting in a way that would draw attention to them.

Like that day.

Alex had been standing in the hall outside his classroom, upset about a test he didn’t want to take. The instructor sent him out there to calm down, but instead, he was only getting more worked up.

“I hate chemistry!” Alex yelled and stomped his foot. “I don’t want to take this class! The instructor keeps talking about Jequn, and I hate it! I want to go home! I want to see Sach-”

The blow came fast and hard. Sparks danced before Alex’s eyes, and before he could gather his thoughts to react, Catriel grabbed his ear and hauled him off.

“Child, you are two seconds away from having your tongue tacked to the roof of your mouth,” the soldier growled.

With his ear pinched between Catriel’s fingers, Alex could only follow along and cry, “Ow, ow, ow!”

When they arrived at the secluded room, Catriel shoved the boy inside and slammed the door behind him. Alex had thrown himself at the old door and screamed, “Let me out!” as he pounded on the wood.

“Not until you calm down!” Catriel yelled back.

That only made Alex madder. “I hate you!” he shouted. “I hate everyone! I don’t want to be here! I want to go home! Let me out!”

Catriel braced himself on the other side of the door, preventing it from opening. “If you try to go back on your own, you will put them all in danger. The trackers who come after you aren’t going to be nearly as reasonable as I am once they learn the truth. You’re not leaving Archridge without my permission!”

Furious, too angry to argue anymore, Alex just screamed. A surge of the dark energy repressed in his core broke through his fragile defenses. It crackled along his skin in an eager burst that raced down his arms toward the wooden door. In less than a minute, Alex stood face-to-face with the soldier again, with only a line of grey dust separating them.

Alex was breathing heavy, looking up at the soldier with swirling black eyes, but the anger that had consumed him mere moments ago dissipated with the same flash of energy that destroyed the door.

Catriel had merely blinked at Alex, too stunned to respond for several moments. When he finally spoke, he just asked, “Feel better?”

“No.” Alex turned and walked further into the cold, damp room. He crouched down, hugged his knees, and folded his wings around his body.

The soldier carefully stepped over the line of grey dust and approached Alex. He stood beside the boy without touching him. “I understand this is difficult for you, Alexiel, but you cannot draw attention to yourself like this.”

“I’m trying,” Alex insisted. “I’ve been trying! But that instructor- She constantly reminds everyone that Jequn is my father, even though he’s not! She talks about how I’m going to serve him in Lemuria when I grow up, and if anyone else wants to work for him, they need to understand chemistry too, and I just- I can’t stand it, Catriel! I feel like my heart is going to shatter every time I step into that room, and now the test…”

Catriel crouched beside him, opening his wings to keep his crisp feathers off the dirty floor. “Part of growing up is learning to do things you don’t want to do. You understand that better than most, but this is not only about your own survival anymore. There are others who rely on you. They need you to stay calm and not risk exposure. Do you understand?”

Alex’s wings quivered. He glanced up at the soldier. “Are you going to hit me again if I say no?”

Catriel nodded. “Yeah, I might.”

Alex sighed. “Fine. I’ll take the stupid test.”

“Good boy.” Catriel ruffled Alex’s hair and stood. “We’ll go speak to your instructor after class ends. I’ll see if I can get her to tone down talk of the Isten as well.”

“Thanks, Catriel,” Alex muttered. He had felt calmer after the release of his emotionally charged energy, even if he was still a little embarrassed about the way he acted. “And I’m sorry.”

“I forgive you,” the soldier said, “but I think we need to establish some behavioral guidelines going forward. To start, I need you to explain what you did to the door.”

They spent the rest of the day talking, all the way through Alex’s last class. By the time they left the room, they had their guidelines, and Catriel had a basic understanding of Alex’s corrupted power. Alex took the test, as he had agreed to do, and Catriel convinced to instructor to refrain from mentioning Jequn again, stating it was for security reasons.

In the weeks that followed, the soldier and the boy returned to the room often. Catriel replaced the door. Alex swept and cleaned. They added some unbroken furniture and a couple phosphor lights. It turned out comfortable, but best of all, it remained private.

This evening, when Alex followed Catriel down from the cliffs, he waited until after they entered the secluded stone room to ask, “What did you want to talk to me about?” Without waiting for the response, Alex hopped onto the table covered in scrolls of smudged charcoal sketches. He unrolled one that was mostly empty and resumed drawing with dark scribbles.

Catriel activated the glyph on one of the phosphor lights. He didn’t sit in the wicker chair they rescued from the trash last week, even though they had repaired it and added a cushion. He paced, as he did when something was on his mind.

“Do you remember our guidelines, Alexiel?”

“Of course.” They were written on the wall with chalk.

Guidelines:
1) Don’t use power in public
2) No real names
3) Blend in with peers
4) Average classroom performance
5) No running away

The first one was obvious. Alex knew his dark energy was wrong, even without the soldier’s input. Except Catriel went further, restricting Alex from attempting to use any elements in class, too. He told the instructors the boy was receiving private lessons, as a first generation Ahnnak. Surprisingly, they didn’t argue, and Alex hadn’t needed to use any of the elemental strands in the new bracelet Remiel gave him, either.

Which also meant Catriel didn’t know about the true intention of the bracelet. Maybe he would never need to find out about it or its origin. Alex doubted the soldier would be that thrilled to discover Remiel’s side business.

With the second rule, everyone received a code name. Sachiel was only spoken of as Siel. The mountain valley was called the Lake. Alex’s little sisters were called Sparrows, which was a strange designation, because the little girls were Homm and couldn’t fly. And Catriel insisted that any time Alex referenced the torments he endured as a child, he phrased it as, “When I was sick.”

It took some getting used to, but the punishment for breaking the second rule was to stand in the corner of the hideout with one of those sharp caltrops on his tongue, so Alex quickly adjusted.

The third rule was the hardest. Blending in meant dressing and acting like other boys his age. No more layers and long sleeves in summer. No sitting alone when everyone else went to play games. There was some leeway when it was just Alex’s close group of friends, but even then, Catriel expected Alex to participate.

The soldier explained that the best way to avoid unwanted attention was to remain in the middle of a crowd, neither the best or worst of a group. Common. Average. Boring.

Which led to the forth rule. Alex had to pass all his classes without complaint, but at the same time, his scores couldn’t be perfect. Every test and assignment had to be complete, but with just enough errors that his grade would fall somewhere in the middle of the class. It was a lot harder than Alex expected it to be. He found himself studying more so he knew which answers he could pick and choose to be wrong.

The final rule about not running away, while simply stated, covered most of Catriel’s other concerns about Alex’s behavior. There was never an excuse for leaving Archridge without permission, not even to go to Marut, but if Alex felt frustrated or overwhelmed, he could take refuge in one of the designated hiding spots around the academy.

However, if Catriel came looking for Alex and he wasn’t there, all of his Marut privileges were revoked for the rest of the week. It hadn’t come to that, but it comforted Alex to know he had options if he needed time alone.

“I haven’t broken any rules,” Alex said, glancing at the pacing soldier. “I’ve been careful.”

“Yes, I know,” Catriel agreed. “You’ve done very well.”

“So what’s wrong?” He blew some of the charcoal residue off his picture and resumed drawing.

“I’m going to regret this.” Catriel stopped and faced Alex, his slitted eyes intense. “Do you remember what I told you I would investigate if you behaved?”

The charcoal stick snapped in half in Alex’s hand. The boy looked over, his black eyes wide. “Are you serious?”

“I received written approval from my general this morning.”

“We can go to the Lake?!” Alex leapt across the room with a beat of his wings. The charcoal sketches scattered everywhere.

“Alexiel, calm down,” the soldier said to the excited boy before him. “We will not leave until the Harvest. And only if you can continue to behave.”

“But we get to go home!” Alex bounced on his toes and grinned up at the soldier. “How did you get permission?”

“It’s a survival excursion, to teach you how to find help if you’re ever kidnapped.”

Alex tilted his head. “I thought you weren’t telling your commanding officers about Jequn.”

“Not Jequn,” said the soldier. “The Jinn. If you’re ever kidnapped by agents of the Jinn, you need to learn how to escape and reach civilization.” Catriel pointed at Alex’s nose. “And I will be teaching you how to do that, but we’re going to take a side trip to the Lake first.”

Alex rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t stop smiling. “The Jinn aren’t going to kidnap me.” He fluttered his wings and spun in a circle, feeling lighter than he could ever remember. “Oh, I wonder what I should bring back to the Sparrows?”

“Nothing heavy, Alexiel. We have a long ways to fly.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” Alex jumped up and hugged Catriel, but he let go before the crawling feeling his skin got when he touched someone set in. The soldier didn’t even have time to react before Alex danced away, twirling happily.

Catriel rubbed his mouth, hiding what could have been considered a smile. “This isn’t a vacation, you know,” he reminded the boy, attempting to remain serious. “It’s a survival expedition.”

“I know.”

“If anyone asks, that’s what you say. It’s part of the second guideline now.” He pointed to the chalk list on the wall.

“Survival expedition. Got it.” Alex bounced up onto his toes, barely able to contain his excitement.

“And don’t act to happy,” the soldier said. “You’ll draw attention to yourself.”

“I’m calm,” Alex said, though he felt like he could burst.

Catriel’s serious expression finally cracked. He smiled. “Go clean up your drawings, Alexiel. We still have a lot to plan before we can go.”

“Yes, Catriel,” Alex chirped, and bounced across the room to gather all the scattered drawings.

Chapter Text

“This is your fault,” Captain Cariel declared. She slammed her weapons harness down on the bench.

Barach crossed his arms over his broad chest. He wasn’t happy about losing the match either, but there was no need to get so emotional about it. “Calm down. It’s not like we could have reached the Summer Championship anyway.”

After weeks of intense practice and late night training of new recruits, the Archridge Hunt only won one game out of four. They placed second in the other three games, failing to get a single kill against any of their targets.

“If we had won tonight,” said the Captain as she continued stripping her gear from her wiry frame, “and if High Point placed third in their match, we could have gone to the Championship.” She dropped her leather chest piece on the floor and peeled her dirty, sweaty cotton tunic from her skin. Her entire right side, all the way down her ribs and under her wing, was a mass of dark bruises.

“But they won their game,” Barach said. “And I doubt our team is ready to play in a championship.”

“My team,” Cariel snapped fiercely, stalking toward Barach in only her breeches and boots. She raised her skinny arm up, pointing at his chin. It was about as high as she could reach. “This is my team, Barach. I am the Captain, and you are my Vice-Captain. You are supposed to do as you’re told, not order my team about to run errands for you!”

Barach pushed her hand out of his face. “Captain, they aren’t the problem. You are. Lorcas never would have let an enemy squad ambush him like that.”

Her wings bristled and her eyes flashed with rage. “How dare you speak to me with such disrespect. I am an Ahnnak, and I-”

“You are a seventh generation nobody.” Barach touched her bruised side with two fingers. “You’re practically Terran.”

Cariel jerked away as if he had struck her. She wrapped her arms around her chest, like she was just realizing how exposed and vulnerable she was before him. “I am still your Captain,” she said through clenched teeth. “You will respect me and follow my orders, or you will leave my team.”

“Yes, Captain,” he replied. He held her gaze as he bowed. “Of course, Captain. My apologies.”

“Get out,” she snapped.

Barach turned on his heel and left the locker room. Cariel had been a good Vice-Captain for Lorcas. She was swift and focused, a great tactician, but she was too emotional. She couldn’t make the hard choices necessary to win Hunts, and she was too stubborn to admit her own weaknesses. The Hunt suffered with her in charge.

Barach strode down the hall to the team’s shared locker room. Most of the Huntsmen had already changed and gone up to drown their sorrows at the party for Red Sands, but there were a few who remained in the somber atmosphere.

“Mikkon,” Barach called as he entered. “Vidiel isn’t a member of the Hunt. He’s not allowed in here.”

“We’re just leaving, sir, Vice-Captain, sir,” the skinny Terran tracker said apologetically. He slid his arms into the clean shirt his boyfriend held up for him, only wincing slightly when he had to bend. Mikkon had taken a hard hit across his back and wings, which knocked him from the sky. He was lucky nothing was broken, but he shouldn’t have been hit at all. Mikkon was the tracker on Cariel’s squad, and she had failed them all tonight.

Vivi gently tied the shirt around Mikkon’s waist. “Is that okay?” the boy asked. “Too tight?”

“It’s fine, Vi.” Mikkon took a deep breath. His wings trembled. He was clearly in a lot of pain, but he attempted to disguise it with a smile. “Vox and Joliel are waiting for us. Let’s go.”

If the Hunt had qualified for the Summer Championship, Barach wasn’t sure the skinny Terran would have had enough time to heal before the game. Mikkon was the best tracker they had. They needed him. At least now he had the whole Harvest to recuperate, and the doting care of his boyfriend would certainly aid his recovery before training for the Winter Hunt began.

“One thing,” Barach called before Mikkon and Vivi left. Both Terran turned to look at him.

“Yes, Vice-Captain, sir?” asked Mikkon.

Barach spoke to Vivi. “Mikkon took a hard hit during the match,” he explained. “Stay close to him. Give him something real to hold on to until morning.”

A blush spread under Vivi’s freckles. “I-I-I won’t leave his side,” he promised.

Barach nodded and dismissed them with a wave. They left the locker room, hand in hand. With a sigh, Barach walked over and slumped onto the bench beside the other Terran lingering in the locker room. The kid hadn’t moved since Barach entered, as if he hoped he could get by unnoticed. He flinched when Barach sat down.

“Why are you still here, Thumper?”

The boy’s hands were shaking. He held a brush which he had been using to clean a leather shin guard. “Sorry, sir. I was just cleaning some gear.”

“That can wait until morning,” Barach said. He leaned over so he could see the boy’s face. “You should be at the party.”

“We didn’t win,” said Thumper. “Doesn’t feel right. A-And Ground Commander Pon-Pon is in the infirmary…”

“She’ll be fine.” Barach knew the young Terran was worried about the Homm girl, but Pon-Pon was tough. She could handle a few hits, and the medics would have her leg healed before they left tomorrow.

Thumper turned away so his short, coppery hair blocked his face, but wet droplets splattered on the leather shin guard in his hand. “I thought they killed her,” he whispered, his voice tight.

At the time, Barach had feared the same. “But they didn’t,” he said. “And you’re going to ruin her armor if you keep crying on it.” He took the leather piece from the boy and sat it aside.

Sniffling, Thumper swiped the back of his hand across his nose. “Sorry, Vice-Captain. I didn’t mean to. It’s just… Pon-Pon is so nice. She doesn’t deserve to have anything bad happen to her, not ever.”

“You should go visit her.”

Thumper shook his head. “They said she needed rest. I’d just get in the way.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “You’re always underfoot at the most inconvenient times. You’d be quite useless if Pon-Pon didn’t keep you out of trouble.”

Thumper turned toward Barach, a little taken aback by the words. “Y-You think I’m useless?”

“I do.” Barach tilted his head, meeting Thumper’s tear-filled gaze. The boy quickly looked away, but the way he trembled in Barach’s presence was still cute. Barach couldn’t help but smile. “Listen, I know I was hard on you when you first joined the Hunt. It was nothing personal.”

“It felt pretty personal,” the kid muttered.

“Well, maybe some of it was.” Barach patted his shoulder, causing Thumper to wince with each light touch. “But you’ve shown you can learn. That’s more than I can say for half the team. I think I can use you.”

“Use me?” the worried boy asked.

“I want to train you to be a bruiser.”

Thumper blinked rapidly. “What?”

“I know you’ve been helping Pon-Pon with her training, so you understand what being a bruiser requires, but as skilled as she is, she’s just a Homm. We need another aerial bruiser on the team.”

“But Captain Cariel has me registered as a backup weapon for Tek,” Thumper protested.

“She’s wrong. Tek isn’t going anywhere this year or next, and you can do more for our team than sitting around scrubbing armor. I see so much potential in you.” Barach brushed the Terran’s coppery hair back from his eyes. “That is, if you can endure training with me.”

When nervous, Thumper tended to bounce his leg. He starting doing that now. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

Barach ran his fingers down the boy’s jaw. He tilted Thumper’s chin up and held his gaze. In a low voice, he said, “If you had been on the field to defend her, maybe Pon-Pon wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Next time, she might not be so lucky.”

Thumper’s wings fluttered. “Y-You really think I can become a bruiser?”

“If you obey my every command without question, I’ll have you on a starting squad next year.” Barach smiled and released the boy. “But if you would rather follow Cariel’s plan and remain on the bench watching your team get ripped apart, that’s your choice.”

The boy chewed his lower lip. “I don’t want to see Pon-Pon hurt again, but… Can I think about it?”

“I can’t use a coward, Thumper. Don’t make me wait long for an answer.”

The young Terran nodded and looked down.

Captain Cariel strode through the room, dressed in all her ceremonial regalia. She glared at Barach. Apparently, his criticism had affected her if she felt the need to wear the colors of her lineage, even after a loss. “What are you still doing here? Isn’t your boyfriend waiting, or have you decided to corrupt someone else?”

The sharp words meant nothing coming from her. Barach smiled calmly. “Nice colors, Captain. Your Isten must be so proud of you.”

Her wings flared out. “If you’re going to stay, you can start packing all the gear. I expect an itemized list accounting every weapon and piece of armor by morning.”

“Whatever you want, Captain,” Barach replied, retaining his smile. She stormed off in a huff.

When she was gone, Thumper shivered. “She’s scary when she’s mad.”

“Her? Please. I’ve seen worse.” Barach stood. “You should leave now if you don’t want to help me itemize everything.” He stretched his wings and arms over his head, easing some of the stiffness in his shoulders.

Thumper hesitated. “Won’t your, um… boyfriend… miss you?”

“Erem has detention this weekend. He couldn’t leave Archridge. No one is waiting for me.”

“Oh.” Thumper fidgeted uncomfortably, and Barach knew exactly what the brat was thinking.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” he scoffed. “I have no interest in a snot-nosed kid like you. Your ass is safe.”

Thumper’s cheeks turned red. “No, that wasn’t what- I mean I know you’re not- and I wasn’t-” He buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry, Vice-Captain.”

“Don’t apologize.” Barach walked over to the planning table and unrolled one of the blank scrolls. He used two sparring daggers to hold the edges open. “I’ve heard worse. I know what people think of me.”

“I don’t think that at all,” Thumper replied, keeping his voice low. “I know you’re loyal to- to him. That’s why you scare me.”

“Scare you?” Barach looked back over his shoulder.

Thumper’s wings gave a meek little flutter. “Because I know you would do anything to protect your friends.”

“You’re right. I would.” Barach searched the table for a quill. He found an ink well, but not anything to write with. “You’re not molting by any chance, are you?” he asked.

The young Terran came over. He opened his wing and plucked one of his secondary feathers. He held it out. “Here.”

“I was kidding,” Barach said, but he took the offered feather.

“It was loose anyway,” said Thumper. He leaned against the end of the table to watch Barach sharpen the hollow point of the quill. The kid looked so young. It was hard to believe how cocky and confident Barach, Gabriel, and Erem had been at that age. No wonder they had driven Lorcas mad.

Barach finished shaping the feather and tested it in the ink. Across the top of the scroll, he scratched: Archridge Hunt Inventory, 26th of Predators, Under direction of Cpt Cariel, After failure to qualify for Summer Championship.

Both Barach and Thumper tilted their heads as they reread the words.

“She’s not going to like that,” the younger boy said.

“Good. I hope she doesn’t.” Barach blotted a bullet point for the first item on the list. “You really should go now, unless you want to be stuck doing inventory with me the rest of the night.”

Thumper shifted a bit. He still couldn’t meet Barach’s eyes, but he said, “I don’t have anywhere else to be, either. And if I stay busy, maybe I won’t worry about Pon-Pon as much.”

Barach gave him a small smile. “Then let’s start with the armor. We’ll pack as we go.”

It was nearly dawn when they finished. They were both exhausted, but Thumper actually smiled when Barach sat beside him and handed him a drink.

“I want to be like you,” the young Terran admitted. “I want to be strong enough to protect the people I care about. I want you to train me.”

“I won’t go easy on you,” Barach warned. “If you agree to this, I won’t let you quit.”

Thumper nodded. “I know, but… until I joined the Hunt, I was always the meanest kid in my class. Nobody messed with me, and I thought that was because they respected me. I know better now. I’ve seen how hard Pon-Pon works, and how strong she is, but she’s still kind. Everyone loves her. And you-” Thumper laughed. “You put me through hell. I’ve been so scared of you, but I’ve watched you, too. You’re hard on the team because you don’t want anyone to get hurt. And you’re only mean when you have to straighten out an obnoxious rookie who thought it was a good idea to threaten a helpless student.”

Barach laughed. “You’re going to have more problems than me if you ever let the Ahnnak Gabriel hear you call him helpless,” he said, but he grinned and raised his glass. “Here’s to the future of the Hunt.”

Thumper clicked his glass against Barach’s. “To the Hunt,” he agreed. They drank, and even after Thumper choked and coughed on the strong alcohol, he didn’t flinch while Barach patted his back.

Chapter Text

Fuck.

The rope around Gabriel’s wrists wasn’t strong, but it would take more time than he had available to break the twisted fibers. The metal hook holding his arms over his head offered no additional help, as it was worn completely smooth from decades of similar use. There wasn’t a single edge on the pole in the yard Gabriel could use to weaken the rope enough to pull his hands free.

The crack of the whip snapped through the air again. The braided leather sliced through Gabriel’s skin. His legs almost gave out from the pain, but the rope around his wrists held him upright. Gabriel groaned, breathing in fast through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the line of servants watching his humiliation.

“Do you understand the situation you’ve put me in?” Jequn asked as he coiled the leather whip around his fist again.

Gabriel pressed his forehead against the wooden post. He blinked the tears from his eyes. “You put yourself in this position, Father. Don’t fucking blame me.”

Jequn let the coil drop by his side. He cracked it through the air again, adding another deep stripe across Gabriel’s back. Gabriel stifled a scream and beat at the air with his wings. He danced from foot to foot.

Fiends, it hurt so much.

“Is this how you intended to control your brother?” Jequn demanded. “Involve Tennin’s militia?”

“The soldier found Alex! I had nothing to do with it!”

Another blow struck, almost in line with the last. “Alexiel,” Jequn corrected sternly.

“Alexiel!” Gabriel repeated, cursing himself nearly as much as his father.

Jequn paced as he coiled the whip around his fist again. The longest feathers in his six wings trailed in the dirt, but the Isten didn’t seem to care. He was too mad. “You did nothing to stop it. You let that soldier submit a petition to remain at Archridge. How could I refuse such a request? What excuse could I possibly have given to explain why I didn’t want the child I nearly lost to be assigned one of the most decorated Guardians in E’din?” Jequn dropped the coil and struck again, his anger causing the whip to slice through Gabriel’s flesh like a hot knife.

FUCK.

“I don’t know!” Gabriel cried, because all he could think of was the pain. “Fiends, I don’t know!

While the boy arched and strained against the rope that bound him to the post, Jequn said, “This is all your fault. You brought this upon our household, and you brought this upon yourself. You will fix it before the soldier discovers anything that could cause the Dengir grow suspicious.”

“I promise!” Gabriel jerked at the rope. He could feel it start to fray. Fire. Fire would help, and if the flame was small enough, Jequn wouldn’t notice.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to summon a flame, because two more blows struck his lower back, fast and deep. They formed a perfect X across his skin, and he nearly blacked out.

“Cut him down. Get him cleaned up,” Jequn ordered the servants lined up at the edge of the field. “Tend to him in the stables. I don’t want any blood in the manor.” The Isten took his whip with him as he walked away. There was still a slight limp to his gait, from the leg that had been severed and reattached, but that was the only sign of the severity of his recent injuries.

Not that Gabriel had much concern for his father’s recovery at the moment.

The cruel bastard.

“Don’t touch me,” Gabriel hissed at the servants who stepped forward to care for him. “Don’t fucking touch me.” He ignited a fire on the rope, which scorched his skin as it burned hot and fast around his wrists. Gabriel dropped from the post, but the void-eaten servants were there to catch him before he landed in the dirt. They ignored his protests as they carried him into the stables with all the beasts and fouled hay.

It was so fucking humiliating.

After his wounds were cleaned and covered, Gabriel remained in the small office with his face buried in a dirty, flat pillow. At sunset, Marlo, the big Homm in charge of the stables, entered the room. “My Lord Gabriel?” His deep voice resonated in Gabriel’s chest.

“Go away.”

Marlo remained, but he closed the door. “I’ve received word that you may return to the manor for dinner.”

“I’m not eating with him.”

“Starving yourself will not help you heal.”

“I wouldn’t have to heal if my father wasn’t a sadistic bastard.”

Marlo made a grunt that could have meant anything. “It is not wise to say such things about our Lord Master.”

Gabriel looked over, his eyes red from all the frustrated and angry tears he couldn’t stop. “I hate him.”

“Yet you are as bound to him as I.”

“Why don’t you leave? You’re not a servant. Why do you stay here?”

“Where else would I go?” Marlo pulled out a chair and sat beside the hard bed where Gabriel lay. “This is my home, as much as it is yours. We do not always choose where we belong, but there is value in what our Lord Master studies. His research will help millions during the next Ascent.”

“For Ahn” Gabriel said, spitting the name out in disgust. “Why should I care about people from some dying planet? They had their chance. They ruined their world. Why should we help them destroy this one, too?”

“Ah, careful, my Lord Gabriel.” Marlo leaned close and lowered his voice. “What you speak of is close to treason. Even your status as heir will not protect you if you turn against the mission of E’din.”

Gabriel pouted and rubbed his palm across his damp cheeks. “It’s just not fair. If the other Isten knew what Jequn was like, they wouldn’t allow him to treat us like this, no matter what his job is.”

Marlo crossed his thick arms across his bare chest and sat back. “What makes you think they don’t already know?”

“What?”

“There are those among the Isten who have known our Lord Master from before first Ascent. It is possible that he has not always kept his tendencies as well hidden as he does now.”

“So they know,” Gabriel said flatly.

Marlo shrugged. “Who am I to say what exists within the minds of our great and honorable Isten? But I must wonder if there are not sacrifices they are willing to make to ensure the future of Ahn.”

It was a disturbing idea, but not one Gabriel could easily dismiss. He pushed himself up so he was sitting, even though every move sent jolts of pain through his back. Marlo watched without offering any assistance.

Gripping the edge of the bed until his knuckles turned white, Gabriel faced the strong Homm. “If I knew enough to replace him,” he said, breathing hard, “maybe they would listen.”

“Maybe,” said Marlo. “Or you will simply doom us all.”

Gabriel’s wings twitched, sending pain shooting through his back. “That is a risk I’m willing to take.”

***

Gabriel held his head high as he limped out of the stables and to the manor. A light cloud covering hid the stars, but there was still enough light to see the worn path. Gabriel stepped onto the porch with some difficulty, then passed through the fabric draped between the archways. He averted his gaze from the large fur displayed on the wall of the foyer as he passed through.

In the next room, Jequn sat at the head of the dining table, already eating from a small platter placed before him. He didn’t look away from the scrolling text on the black tablet in his hand. “You’re late,” he remarked coldly.

“Sorry, Father,” Gabriel said, unable to keep the contemptuous sarcasm from his voice. “It rends my soul that I should inconvenience you in any way.”

A silver eyebrow raised as Jequn’s cold blue gaze shifted to Gabriel. “Your impudence will see beaten again, boy.”

Gabriel sneered, but he silently crossed the room and took his seat beside his father. Jequn watched Gabriel’s pained movements until he was settled, then knocked firmly against the table with his knuckles. A servant immediately brought out another tray with an array of seared fruit and vegetables. A warm loaf of bread sat in the middle. The servant placed it before Gabriel, then bowed and backed from the room.

“We’re not sharing?” the boy asked, suspicious. The platter before the Isten was almost picked clean, and Gabriel just assumed he would be offered whatever was left. Dinner was always a formal occasion, even when his mother wasn’t present. She was gone at some Harvest party, which was awfully convenient timing, considering Jequn’s mood.

Jequn resumed reading his tablet. “I was about to order a servant to provide your meal in the stables, with the beasts, since that is how you’ve chosen to behave.”

Gabriel broke open the warm bread and watched the steam rise from the middle. “Why not let me starve?”

“You are my son,” the Isten stated, as if that explained anything at all.

With a frown, Gabriel began eating. Jequn ate the last few bites of his own food, but didn’t leave, even after a servant emerged to take the empty platter. He remained by his son until Gabriel finished.

After another servant- or maybe the same, it was difficult to tell them apart beneath their hoods- removed Gabriel’s empty platter from the table, the young Ahnnak announced, “I’m going back to Archridge.”

“Tonight?” asked Jequn.

“Unless you plan on hitting me more.”

“You tempt fate, Gabriel.”

“Sorry, Father.” He sullenly crossed his arms.

Jequn shook his head, causing the thick coils of his silver hair to click together. “You may leave in the morning. I will not have my heir traveling in such a disgraceful state.”

“Disgraceful?” Gabriel snapped. “You whipped me in the yard.”

“You are my heir. It is my right to punish you for your indiscretions.”

“Then punish me, but don’t do it in front of the servants.”

Callously, Jequn said, “You do not learn through pain alone like your brother.”

Gabriel’s wings tensed, making the muscles in his back pulse with pain. “Don’t you dare speak of Alexiel,” he growled.

“I will speak of whomever I wish, even without your permission,” Jequn replied sharply. They glared at each other for several moments, their blue eyes locked in a cold and unflinching battle.

Gabriel broke first, petulantly lowering his gaze to the redwood table. “You should be grateful,” he griped. “If I hadn’t told Elohim and Kasdeja that you rescued Alexiel from the pardua, everyone would have figured out what you did to him.”

“You behaved as an heir should,” said the Isten. “There is no need for gratitude when you are simply protecting the interests of your household. I expect nothing less of my heir, and for once, you showed potential that you might be an adequate option.”

Was that supposed to be a compliment? Gabriel glanced at his father from the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t tell. “I’m your only option,” Gabriel replied, but Jequn just shrugged the great weight of his wings. His feathers settled with a sound like the rustling of grass before a gust of wind.

That, or a beast steadily stalking closer toward its prey.

“You are not indispensable, Gabriel. You cross me again and I will appear at Archridge to correct you. If you think having the servants watch you whipped is humiliating, just wait until the whole academy is gathered.”

Even the suggestion put a heavy pit of anxiety in Gabriel’s gut. He wasn’t sure if Jequn would really do it, but it wasn’t something he was wanted to risk. “I haven’t crossed you,” he protested. “I don’t plan to. I just want to keep Alexiel safe.”

“As do I,” said Jequn, “but he is safest here, with me.”

“We both know that’s not true.”

Jequn clicked his tongue. “After everything that has happened, can you really believe that? Alexiel was lost and starved among beasts for weeks. If some fiend had found him rather than a servant of E’din, he would have been slaughtered. They would have sent his head and wings back to gloat in their triumph against me, and you do not want to know what they would have done with his body.”

Visualizing the possibility of such atrocities made Gabriel nauseous. He knew Alex hadn’t really been lost in the woods, but even if he was with his real father, that didn’t mean he was safe. Something terrible could still happen to him.

“He’s got a soldier watching him now,” said Gabriel, trying to alleviate his own apprehension about his brother’s whereabouts.

“A Guardian,” Jequn corrected with a furious snap. “A soldier who has been granted the authority to make decisions about Alexiel’s wellbeing without my approval. A servant of Tennin, who will ask too many questions about the affairs of this estate. All because your insipid whining to Elohim offered enough evidence to support approving the assignment.”

“It’s not my fault the soldier found Alex. If you had allowed me to go search for him-”

“I cannot risk you both!” the Isten shouted and slammed his fist on the table. His six wings flared open, immense within the confines of the manor.

For a moment, the air was too heavy to breathe. Gabriel tensely waited to see if his father’s outburst would be followed by pain. He tried not to move, not to show any sign of the fear that coursed through his blood.

Slowly, Jequn exhaled. His energy gradually abated and his feathers settled with a shiver that raced through the cape of white at his back. He rose from the table. “You will stay until morning,” he commanded in a tone that offered no room for argument.

“Yes, Father,” the silver-haired boy whispered obediently.

“And you will fix this, Gabriel. For every week that passes with this estate at risk, I will take it out of your hide. You will find a way to remove that soldier before he discovers more than he should.”

Gabriel nervously licked his lips. “I’ll handle it, sir.”

“Good boy.” Without another word, Jequn turned and walked upstairs. His heavy steps carried him across the hall and into his chambers.

When he was gone, Gabriel put his head in his hands and tried to control the trembling of his body. His back hurt with every fearful quiver, reminding him of his own weakness and helplessness before the might of the Isten.

But he had lied to his father.

It was foolish, and Gabriel had no doubt it would come back to bite him eventually, but for now, he had time. Jequn didn’t suspect that there was more than the official reports revealed, and no one else was aware that Alex had met his real father. As long as the soldier didn’t report anything that could endanger them all, Gabriel could still fix this.

He would handle it.

Everything would be fine.

Gabriel slowly pushed his silver hair back from his face, his expressions carefully guarded. He stood and walked upstairs to get some rest before he returned to Archridge in the morning.

Chapter Text

“Beasts are a reliable food source while traveling,” Catriel explained as he flew east with Alex. “When you are in new territory, you may not know what plants are edible, but the local creatures do. The herbivores are safest to eat.”

“Why not just watch them and eat what they eat?” Alex asked. His words sounded stilted and awkward when he spoke in the low frequency flight tones. As he matured and his range increased, it would become easier for the boy, but for now, he struggled. Despite his height, he was very much a child.

“There is not always time to wait,” said Catriel. “A quick Hunt and feast allows a squad to keep moving. There is danger in remaining stationary in enemy territory.”

“We’re not in enemy territory,” the black-haired boy called back as he caught up and coasted on the next updraft. “E’din is safe, so no eating beasts.” His small wings wavered a little as he glided, but he wasn’t struggling to keep up nearly as much as he used to.

“Do not underestimate the dangers around you, Alexiel. This remains a training exercise, no matter our final destination. It is important you learn how to survive on your own.”

“No beasts,” the boy insisted again. He signed with his hands as he said it to accentuate his point. The soldier let the topic drop for now.

Though Catriel had not made an effort to learn the individual meanings of the hand signals Alex and his friends used with each other, he had picked up a few. He knew each of the children’s code names, as well on his own, but he also recognized the sign that meant, We’re going to get in so much trouble if we’re caught.

They used that one often, especially when they thought he wasn’t paying attention.

He was always paying attention.

Alex’s friends were normal children, for the most part. Decent, good kids. The Terran girls Phrasa and Mace were the most sensible, if a little prone to selfishness every once in a while. Alex’s roommates were the biggest concern, due to their continued proximity to him when Catriel wasn’t around, but the Homm princess also had the potential to be an issue. She carried the weight of her kingdom’s expectations with her, and there were times when she looked at Alex as if he might be a solution to her problems.

He wasn’t.

That path could only lead to more problems for both children.

If they couldn’t understand it, Catriel would do what was necessary to ensure it didn’t progress into something scandalous.

The soldier sighed in the cool afternoon air. He couldn’t believe his life had devolved into chaperoning pubescent children around an academy. If his squad could see him now, they would tease him for decades. He might never hear the end of it.

“Oh, I recognize this area!” Alex exclaimed. He veered off to the right, beginning a rapid descent.

“Alexiel!” the soldier called, but the boy didn’t listen. Catriel swore and shot through the air after him. When he caught up, he grabbed Alex’s arm and jerked him off balance.

Alex stopped, hovering in the air to keep from falling. “What?” he asked in his normal voice, since they were close enough to hear each other. He looked as annoyed about being touched as he sounded.

“We are not going this way,” the soldier crisply reminded him. “We have another day and a half of flying east.”

“Yeah, I know.” He twisted his arm, trying to break free of Catriel’s grip. The soldier held on long enough for Alex to remember he had no chance of escaping his hold if he didn’t allow it, then Catriel let go. Alex rubbed his arm. “There’s a cottage near here,” he said. “The old woman who lives there helped me when I was sick. I want to go see her.”

“Alexiel, we are not risking exposure so you can go see an old woman.”

“I want to go,” the boy replied, getting that infuriatingly stubborn glint in his black eyes. “I would be dead without her, and it’s the least I can do to stop by and thank her. It won’t take long.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“I’m going,” Alex said. “You can stay here and wait for me if you don’t want to come, but I’m going.” With that, he tightened his wings against his back and dropped like a stone.

“Shit.” Catriel dove after Alex, but the boy was fearless when it came to injury. He didn’t open his wings until he passed through the canopy of the trees, and once he was in the forest, his shorter wing span served him well. Catriel couldn’t follow him directly, but he could see the flash of white wings between the leaves as Alex dashed south.

Oh, that child will be in so much trouble when I catch him.

Muttering epitaphs, Catriel sped over the trees after Alex, his sharp eyes catching glimpses of movement through the branches. Alex could twist and turn through the tight spaces, which definitely benefited him, but Catriel was still faster. As long as he stayed above the trees, he could track Alex and take him out the moment the opportunity presented itself.

However, Catriel was so focused following Alex, he didn’t notice the cottage on the hill up ahead.

Suddenly, Alex burst out of the forest. He hit the ground running and raced up the hill as Catriel swooped down. He tackled the boy, and they rolled across the dirt up to the front step of the cottage. When the dust settled, Catriel held Alex pinned on his back, but the boy looked up passed him. He smiled.

“Hi, Choxi,” Alex chirped.

“Hello, young bird,” a wrinkled woman with brown skin and short white hair replied. She stood on the porch, supporting her frail frame with a gnarled wooden staff. “Should I be concerned?”

“This is Catriel. He’s a friend,” said Alex, and Catriel resisted the urge to strangle him. Barely.

“Don’t look like much of a friend.” That weathered face scrunched up as she peered at Catriel. There was a bright intelligence in her old eyes. She wasn’t a Homm to underestimate. “Fact is, he looks like what I heard came and stole you away from your flock.”

“I didn’t steal him,” Catriel grumbled, annoyed about this whole situation. He stood and hauled Alex off the ground with him. “I’m his acting Guardian.”

The old Homm grunted, not at all impressed by the title. “And I suppose you’ll tell me that boy just needed a good dirt bath across my yard.”

“He needs a tether,” Catriel griped. He held Alex by the back of his neck and shook him hard enough for some of the loose dirt to shed from his clothes and feathers.

“Ow, stop it,” Alex complained and swiped at him.

Catriel didn’t let go. “What did we agree about running away? Rule five?”

“I’m not in danger,” Alex replied, still trying to knock his hand away. “I just wanted to see Choxi.”

“You came all this way just to see me?” the old woman asked.

Before Catriel could slap a hand over the kid’s mouth, Alex blurted, “Yeah, we’re on our way to see Sachiel and the girls in the valley.”

“Damn it, Alexiel, why do we even have rules?!” Catriel hauled the disobedient little brat closer put him in a headlock. While the boy struggled and beat at Catriel’s side with his wings, the soldier calmly faced the old woman. “Sorry about the disturbance, ma’am, we’ll be going now.”

“Nonsense,” she replied. “You’ve both flown a long way. Come inside and share a meal with Old Choxi. Been awhile since I had visitors.” She wobbled and teetered back into her cottage.

Catriel waited until she was through the door before he released the troublesome child. “You’re in so much trouble, Alexiel.”

Alex took a few steps away and straightened his clothes. Strands of disheveled black hair hung in front of his face. “Don’t be rude, Catriel. She saved my life after the last time Jequn tried to rape and kill me.” He flipped his long hair back from his face and glared with swirling black eyes. “Sorry. I meant, when I was sick.”

The soldier scowled. “You are pushing your luck today, little Isten.”

“Don’t be so uptight. Choxi lives out here alone. Who is she going to tell? Besides, Sachiel trusts her.”

“I don’t trust his judgment any more than I trust yours.”

“I owe her. At least allow me to thank her for everything she did.”

Catriel clenched his fists. He hated that he could never seem to win an argument against this boy. “You have one hour, then we will be leaving, even if I have to drag you out.”

A bright grin stretched Alex’s face. “Thank you!” He jumped up onto the porch, but before he went through the door, he stopped and turned back. “Oh, but don’t eat any food she offers you. It might be poisoned.”

“What? Alexiel!” The boy was gone before Catriel could get more of an explanation. The jagged soldier grumbled a few more curses and entered the small cottage.

***

“No thank you,” Catriel said, refusing the third offering of food and drink from the old woman. Her mouth puckered, but she didn’t respond. She passed the basket to Alex, and he politely refused as well.

“We really can’t stay long,” the boy explained. “I want to spend as much time with them as possible before I go back.”

“Go back?” asked the old woman.

“I have to get back to Archridge before the end of the month, or people are going to come looking for me.”

“These the same people that chased you into that muddy field this spring?” She placed the basket of bread back on the table.

Alex raised his wings in a shrug. “Not really supposed to say.”

“Probably safest.” Old Choxi wobbled over and sat on a wooden stool. Her joints creaked and groaned with every movement. “I heard from Siel after you were snatched away. Not surprised a little bird like you came back, though I am concerned you brought that vulture with you.”

“Vulture?” Catriel’s wings bristled. “Ma’am, I am a servant of E’din-”

“I trust him,” Alex said, cutting off Catriel’s irritated tirade. “He knows the truth about what happened to me, and he promised to help. He’s a good man.”

Old Choxi’s eyes narrowed. “A man in any form is still a man. Don’t let your guard down.”

Alex smiled at her. “Here. I brought you a gift as thank you for everything you did for me.” The black-haired boy dug into his satchel and pulled out a small, wrapped bundle. He handed it to the old woman.

Knobby fingers struggled to unwrap the loose bow, but eventually the fabric fell away. A wax sealed clay jar sat on the woman’s hand. There were several silver coins beneath it.

Alex scooted forward, excited about the offering. “It’s eucalyptus oil. It comes from a tree outside E’din, but there was a merchant selling it in Marut a couple weeks ago. It’s supposed to be good for pain and inflammation. I thought if you infused it, you might be able to use it to help walk around easier.”

“Oh, little bird, it’s wonderful.” She tilted the jar and sniffed the wax. “This will be a very potent medicine.” When she smiled, Catriel saw that she was missing a few teeth. “And these coins will let me buy enough grain to get through winter.”

Beaming, Alex said, “My friend made the fabric. It opens big enough to be a shawl. It’s hand painted silk, but I thought since it’s so light, you might be able to wear when it starts to get cold.”

Choxi rubbed the delicate fabric between her fingers. “I can’t remember the last time I got a gift so fine. Thank you.” She sniffled and wipes a bit of moisture away from her eyes. “Oh, goodness, now I’m going to make a fool of myself.” She sat the bundle on the table and struggled to get to her feet. “Since you’re going to see those little ones, I should send some of the things they’ll be needing. Young bird, help me pack. Vulture-” The old woman looked at Catriel, “-you go out back make yourself useful. Chop some wood for this old woman’s fire.”

The soldier scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t take orders from civilians.”

Alex turned to him, his black eyes wide and pleading. There was a tiny pout to his lower lip that made him look insufferably cute. “Please, Catriel? Just for a little while? It’d really be helpful, and I promise I’ll be really good for the rest of the trip.”

Catriel tried to resist. He really did. But in the end, it was pointless. He stood, nearly knocking over his chair with his crisply oiled wings, and said, “A half hour, child. Not a minute more. Then we’re leaving. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” Alex replied cheerfully.

Shaking his head, Catriel walked out of the cottage. The wood pile behind the house was nearly empty, but further out were plenty of dry logs waiting to be split. After a bit of searching, Catriel found an old ax in the tall weeds near a serious of mounds. It was sharp enough to do the job, even if the blade was covered in stains that looked suspiciously like old blood. The soldier hefted it over his shoulder, and returned to the wood pile to chop firewood.

***

By the time Alex was ready to go, Catriel had stacked three seasons of firewood behind the cottage. It had been a while since he was able to lose himself in simple manual labor, and he felt good. He didn’t even mind that Alex had taken another two hours to be ready to go.

Of course, he wasn’t going to tell the boy that.

“You lied to me,” Catriel said.

Alex coasted back and forth in self-contented waves. “About what?”

“The old woman.”

“Didn’t lie about her.”

“So you expect me to believe you just happened to bring a gift for her that you picked out weeks ago?”

Alex dropped for a second as his wings stopped beating, but then he quickly caught up. “That’s not exactly a lie,” he said. “I just didn’t tell you.”

The soldier glared at him. “Alexiel, I know you are not naive enough to believe that is acceptable.”

“I know,” the boy said with a dramatic sigh. “But I was afraid you’d say no.”

“If I say no, you need to trust that it is for a good reason. I’m trying to keep you alive, Alexiel. You need to obey my orders.”

“Yes, sir,” he muttered unhappily. He flew for a bit more before he asked, “So what’s my punishment?”

“For not following our guidelines or for lying to me?”

“Both, I guess.” Alex dropped down so he was on his back, flying upside down beneath Catriel. When he wasn’t thinking about it, the lanky boy was surprisingly skilled in flight. If he had more endurance, he might had been an excellent aerial combatant. “Do you want me to hold one of your caltrops?”

“No, I don’t. We can’t leave anything that can be traced, and you’ll drop it in the trees. I’ll have to spend all night searching for it.”

“I won’t drop it.”

“I’m not risking it.”

“So then what?” Alex tucked his wings, rolled, and caught an updraft so he was flying beside Catriel. “Do you want to stab me again?” He held out his hand.

“I’ve never wanted to stab you, Alexiel.”

“Then what am I supposed to do to apologize?”

“You could try not lying to me again.”

“Yeah, I guess… I didn’t think you’d be so mad about this.”

“I’m not mad, Alexiel. I’m disappointed.”

“That’s worse,” the boy muttered, choosing not to use the flight tones, so the words were whipped away as soon as he said them.

Catriel shook his head. “I don’t think you realize how much danger you’re exposing others to with your careless remarks.”

Alex pouted. “I’m careful.”

“You’re a child.” Catriel banked, angling north along the mountain ridge.

Alex lagged behind a moment, then rapidly beat his wings to catch up. “I’m not a child,” he insisted. “I’m twelve.”

Catriel frowned, glancing at him from the corner of his eye. “You are a child, and until you start taking responsibility for your actions, you will always be a child.”

Alex’s thin black eyebrows knit in frustration. “Fine. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I planned on seeing Choxi.”

“And?”

“And for running away from you.”

“And?”

The boy made an annoyed sign with his hand, something Catriel couldn’t directly translate, but he knew from its usage between Isa and Uzzi that is wasn’t anything nice. “And for breaking the rules at Choxi’s cottage to tell her where we’re going.”

Catriel wondered if all maturing children were this difficult, or if Alex was just an extraordinary example of hormonal stubbornness. “I think we’ll fly through dinner tonight,” the soldier said, “to make up for the time we wasted with the Homm.”

With a pained groan, Alex said, “Can’t you just stab me and get it over with?”

Catriel didn’t reply. He set a brisk pace, and they continued flying until well after sunset.

Chapter Text

A few mornings after he went home for the Harvest, Gabriel returned to Archridge and kicked open the door to Barach and Erem’s twelfth year dorm room, breaking another useless wooden latch. He stormed in like he owned the place. “When are you leaving for the beach?” he demanded.

“Gabe,” Barach groaned, one arm draped over his eyes, “at least knock. It’s too damned early for this.”

The silver-haired Ahnnak stomped back over to the door, pounded on the wood with his fist, then slammed it shut with enough force to split it in half. “There, happy?”

Erem sat straight up, startled awake by the second crash. He blinked bleary yellow eyes across the room until he recognized Gabriel, then flopped back in bed. “Fiends, Gabriel,” he said as he nuzzled against Barach’s chest, “I just dreamed we were caught by Harut. I thought I was dead.”

Gabriel grit his teeth. “When,” he said, enunciating very carefully, “are you leaving for the beach?”

“Tomorrow.” Erem yawned. His naked body radiated a comfortable warmth against Barach’s side. Neither of them had any reason to move from the comfort of their shared bed. In fact, Barach hadn’t planned on moving from Erem’s side at all today, except for maybe a trip to the dining hall to gather sustenance.

“I want to leave today,” Gabriel stated.

In an instant, Erem sat back up. His wings snapped open, and one of them smacked across Barach’s face, blinding him with a burst of pain. “You’re coming with us?!” he exclaimed.

“Fiends, Erem!” Barach rolled and covered his face with his hands, trying to figure out if his nose was broken.

“I want to be out of this fucking prison in an hour,” said Gabriel. “Hurry up.” He left the room without bothering to close what remained of the broken door.

Erem was out of bed and dressed before Barach could clear his vision. “Did you see his back?” the blue-skinned Ahnnak asked.

Barach slowly sat up. He prodded his nose a couple more times, but there wasn’t any blood, so it must not be broken. “Didn’t see anything,” he grumbled, feeling annoyed about practically everything right now.

While kicking aside dirty clothes, Erem said, “He’s still bleeding. Whatever his dad did to him, he flew back before he healed.”

“Then he should rest here. We can leave tomorrow like we planned.”

Erem found what he was looking for. He picked up Barach’s flight clothes, which were wrinkled and dirty, and tossed them across the room. Barach made no effort to catch them. They hit his chest and fell into his lap. Erem completely ignored the irritated glare shot his way.

“Don’t be so slow,” Erem said. “Gabriel will feel better when we get to the beach. The ocean always helps.”

“Salt water and sun isn’t going to fix what’s wrong with Gabriel,” Barach replied, but his boyfriend wasn’t listening.

“Meet you up there,” Erem said as he bounced out of the room. “We’ll leave without you if you don’t hurry.”

“Fiends take you,” Barach swore as he flung aside his blanket and got up. “Fiends take you both.”

In less than an hour, the three Ahnnak were in the air, headed for a holiday at the beach.

***

Gabriel’s silence while they flew was as clear an indicator of his pain as the fabric that clung to the seeping wounds across his back. He didn’t complain, but the air wavered around him with the heat from his continued anger. Erem didn’t seem to notice. Either that, or he decided he could help distract Gabriel by talking non-stop for the entire five hour flight. Erem was definitely excited to be going home.

Barach only risked speaking to his temperamental friend once during the trip. “How bad did he hurt you?” he asked while Erem was babbling about ocean currents up ahead.

“None of your fucking business, Barach,” Gabriel replied, then caught up to Erem in an angry burst of speed. The older Ahnnak left him alone after that.

The ocean appeared on the distant horizon shortly after noon, and before long, the three Ahnnak boys arrived at the estate of the Isten Harut. It was a relief to land. Barach really did hope some time at the beachside manor would help Gabriel relax, though he wasn’t as confident as Erem that it was even possible.

Before Barach had a chance to fold his wings, he heard the high pitched squeal of Erem’s little sister. “BAR!” she screeched, and came running across the hot sand toward him.

Little Ar was a third year student, only seven years old. She wasn’t old enough to fly home alone yet, but an escort had been arranged for her at the beginning of the Harvest break. She had been there nearly a week, and already smelled like sea salt and sunshine. Her wave-tousled blond hair was long enough to reach her waist, but it blew behind her as she launched into Barach’s arms.

“There’s my little shark!” He caught her when she leaped and spun her around. She giggled and snapped her teeth like one of the great ocean predators.

“Don’t be annoying, Ar,” said Erem, scowling at his little sister.

“Oh, you know I don’t mind,” said Barach. He placed Ar up on his shoulder.

The happy little girl stuck her tongue out at her brother. “Yeah, he don’t mind.”

Doesn’t mind, you little fiend,” Erem replied, but there was no real animosity in his words. He reached up and tickled her side. She laughed and clung to Barach’s head.

Lady Coriel emerged from the manor. “Welcome back, my darlings,” she called. “Oh, goodness, look how much you boys have grown. Why, you all must be starved. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow, but I’m sure I can get the servants to whip up something delicious.”

Gabriel bowed to her like he was greeting the Isten Harut himself. “Lady Coriel. Thank you for allowing us to stay in your home for the Harvest.”

“Please, Gabriel. No need to be so formal. You boys are practically family. You’re always welcome here.” She stepped forward with her arms open. The blue stain on her lips gave her a peculiar but kind smile.

Sometimes Barach felt that she might be the only one of their parents who wouldn’t be opposed to the truth of his relationship with Erem.

Not that he would risk exposing them, but it was a nice thought to have.

Erem met his mother halfway across the sandy shoal. “Mer, I missed you.

“I missed you, too, my little riptide.” She kissed his forehead and cheeks and hugged him right. “I didn’t know if I would get to see you this Harvest.” She held him out at arms length, looking serious. “You’ve been getting into a lot of trouble this year. No more fights, you hear me?”

“Sorry, Mer,” Erem said bashfully. “But they started it, every single time.”

“I don’t care who started it. That’s not how a first generation Ahnnak should behave.”

“I know, Mer.”

“And you’re setting a bad example for Ar.”

Erem rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mer.”

“You should study more. Why can’t you act more like Gabriel? His parents must be so proud.”

At the mention of his name, the silver-haired Ahnnak tensed. His hands curled into fists at his sides, but his face remained completely impassive. He was angry, but he had control of it.

For now.

Erem grinned at his mother. “I don’t think that’s the problem, Mer.” He kissed her cheek. “And I love you, but it’s been a long flight. Can I please take my friends inside? We’re so hungry.”

“Oh, don’t think you’ve heard the end of this, Eremiel.” She swatted his bottom and nudged him toward the house. “Go on. Get cleaned up. I’ll talk to the kitchen and see what they can do.”

“Thanks, Mer!” Erem motioned for Barach and Gabriel to follow him as he jogged toward the manor. Gabriel went first, bowing once more to Lady Coriel as he passed, and Barach followed with Ar still on his shoulder. He had to duck low to get through the door without bumping her head, but after they were inside, he took her down and set her on the floor.

“Bar, I want to stay with you,” she protested, reaching back up to him with her wiggling blue fingers.

“I’ll play with you later,” he promised. “I need to wash.”

“I can come, too. I’ll help!”

Erem put his hand on his little sister’s face and pushed her back. “Go help Mer. Leave my friends alone.” He barely got his fingers out of the way of her snapping teeth.

“You can’t tell me what to do!” the little girl insisted.

“Mer!” Erem yelled as the Lady Coriel entered the manor. “Ar is being annoying. She won’t leave my friends alone.”

“Don’t shout,” she said, and took the little girl’s arm. “Ariel, you’re going to help me in the kitchen.”

“But Mer, that’s what we have servants for,” she whined as she was dragged away and down the far hall.

Barach ruffled Erem’s shoulder length blond hair. It was blown mostly straight from the high winds of their long flight, but once he reached the ocean, it would regain it’s sea-tousled waves. “You shouldn’t be jealous of your little sister.”

“Not jealous,” said Erem while a purple blush spread across his cheeks. “I just don’t want her bothering us all month.”

“Oh? Do you have plans for getting me alone?” He leaned down and let his lips brush Erem’s ear. “Maybe in the caves again, with the cool water dripping down our bare skin?” he whispered, delighting in the shiver than went through his boyfriend’s wings.

Gabriel loudly cleared his throat. “Are you guys done yet? I want to get this dirt washed off before dinner.”

“Y-Yeah,” Erem said, slipping away from Barach to hurry down the hall leading to the guest rooms. “This way.”

As Barach and Gabriel followed, the larger Ahnnak glared at his silver-haired friend. “You better not ruin this Harvest for me.”

“You can fuck him after we’ve eaten,” Gabriel replied without breaking stride. “When you’re not wasting my time.”

“Why bother coming out here? Was it just to act like a brat, or are you only happy if you’re making me as miserable as you?”

Cold blue eyes flashed with fury, but Gabriel said, “I needed to get as far away from Jequn as I could.”

“What did he do to you?”

“None of your business.”

“I will make it my business, Gabriel, if you push me.”

The silver-haired Ahnnak scoffed. “He whipped me. Said it was my fault Alex was approved to have a Guardian.”

“But you had nothing to do with that.”

“Yeah, well, now it’s my responsibility to fix it.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“What can I do?” Gabriel asked sharply. “That fiend-taken soldier is authorized to take Alex into the wilds of E’din. They could be anywhere! I have no idea if I can even trust him, but I have no choice, because he knows the truth about what Alex really is.”

“So you’re worried about your brother?”

“Yes, damn it! I’m worried about my brother!” Gabriel’s wings thrust open behind him, revealing the blood stained streaks on the back of his shirt. “Until I figure out a way to get rid of that soldier without drawing suspicion on our estate, Alex will continue to be dragged across E’din to fiends-know-where. I can’t protect him. I have to remove his Guardian, but I can’t give that soldier reason to report what he really knows about Jequn. I’m stuck, and everything is falling apart, and every time I see Jequn, he’s going to hurt me again.”

“Then stop going home.”

A half-crazed laugh burst from Gabriel’s throat. “That won’t stop him. Nothing will stop him.”

Up ahead, Erem unlocked and opened the door to the guest lounge. “What’s so funny?” he asked when they caught up.

“Nothing,” Gabriel said, brushing passed the blue-skinned Ahnnak. “Nothing is funny.”

Barach rubbed Erem’s arm. “He’s just hungry. Let’s hurry and clean up so we can eat soon.”

“Sure,” Erem agreed, though he looked after Gabriel with a longing that definitely made Barach jealous.

Chapter Text

Alex remained on his best behavior for the rest of the flight, though Catriel doubted it had anything to do with the boy feeling remorse about his disobedience. The child was frustrating. He was unpredictable and impulsive, with no regard for his own safety. It made protecting him from danger very difficult.

However, Alex was also observant. He understood more nuanced levels of fear and anger than a child that age had any right to comprehend. His dull black eyes watched Catriel as they flew, and though he didn’t say anything, the soldier knew Alex sensed his growing anxiety. The boy remained close and didn’t cause anymore trouble.

They arrived at the valley on the eighth degree of their journey. Had Catriel flown it alone, without concern of his path being tracked, he could have transversed the wilds of E’din within three degrees. Less, with a favorable wind. But with the excessive care he took while flying with Alex, just over a week was expected. The visit to the old woman hadn’t slowed them that much, especially since Catriel had remained true to his word and flown straight through dinner that night, but that still didn’t excuse Alex’s insubordination.

Not that Catriel was in a hurry to face the fiend-aligned Ahnnak Sachiel again. People tended to hold a grudge after being beaten and interrogated like a criminal, even if they deserved it.

Siel, thought Catriel, taking a moment to remind himself of the importance of thinking of the Ahnnak as nothing more than another low class citizen of E’din. His name is Siel.

It didn’t help ease the tension he felt as they reached their destination.

They landed in the tallest pine at the edge of the valley. The top bough was split, like the tree had been injured early in its growth cycle. The defect was not enough to stop it from flourishing, though, and its height offered a satisfactory view of the grassy valley below, including the small house and the bright, sparkling swath of water than curled down from the mountains.

It seemed different in the daylight. Peaceful. A place a soldier like him didn’t belong.

Silently, Catriel perched on a high branch and folded his wings. He remained motionless and quiet, as he was trained to be while scouting any potentially dangerous area. He could draw his energy within himself and become practically invisible to most standard beings.

Alex, however, nearly missed landing on the branch. His wings beat at the air like a fledgling falling out of a nest, but eventually, he landed beside Catriel. The boy’s wings remained open to help maintain balance, but even still, he wobbled precariously.

“I don’t see anyone,” complained Alex, worry seeping into his words. “What if they moved?”

“That would have been the smart thing for Siel to do after I found him.” From the corner of one slitted eye, Catriel saw Alex’s worry deepen. “He’s not smart, though,” the soldier assured him. “They’re still here. See?” He pointed. “The garden is well tended.”

Alex perked up, examining the lush plants. Many were heavy with fruit and tied to stakes to remain upright. The valley would provide a plentiful harvest this year.

“Do you think they’re in the house?” asked Alex. “Maybe he sensed us coming.”

“Maybe,” Catriel said, because he didn’t know the extent Siel’s powers. The black-haired man had sensed him once when he was shielding, and while not impossible, it was rare. The Terran lineage assigned to the Isten Chaitaan before the War had specialized in kinetic adaptability, which was practically useless untrained. It certainly didn’t account for any increased tracking abilities.

“We should knock.”

“Wait, Alexiel. I don’t smell blood, but-”

“Blood?!” the boy exclaimed, nearly falling off the branch. His wings snapped open.

Catriel gave him a disapproving look. “Quiet. You’re terrible at stealth. What I meant was I didn’t smell any blood from fiends or Anders, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been visitors to the valley. It could still be dangerous.”

Alex’s wings fluttered and settled. “So it’s probably safe to go down.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“We can’t stay in this tree all day.”

“You’re wrong,” said the jagged soldier. “We could.”

Alex’s black eyes focused on Catriel with one of those attuned stares that seemed to peer into the depths of his soul, right through all his guarded defenses. “Are you scared?” Alex asked.

“I’m not scared,” said Catriel as his crisply oiled wings ruffled. “Caution is not the same as fear, Alexiel, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you.”

“I can go down first, if you want. Explain why you’re here.”

“You’re not going anywhere without me.”

“Then let’s go.” Alex dropped off the branch before Catriel could grab him. He glided down to the valley and landed in the yard in front of the small house. “Hello?” he called tentatively. “It’s me, Alex. I’m back.”

For a moment, everything remained quiet. Part of Catriel hoped that maybe Siel had actually moved. But then the door to the house opened. Four little girls tumbled out and tackled Alex, knocking him to the ground. They piled on top of him, their joyful shouts breaking the peaceful silence of the valley.

“Alex!”

“Brother!”

“You’re back!

“We missed you!”

A winged man with straight black hair stepped out of the house with the fifth child in his arms. The baby chewed her fingers while she watched her sisters swarm Alex. She bounced and kicked with excitement, but her father didn’t put her down to join them.

Fiends. There really were five of the small Homm girls. Alex had talked about all of them, but it was still difficult to believe such young children could survive at the edge of E’din for this long. It was practically neglect.

“Girls,” the Ahnnak Sachiel called from the doorway, “give your brother some air.”

“But Papa-”

“Now, please.”

Gradually, the girls eased off Alex enough for him to sit up. They still clung to his arms and shirt, though, which he handled with more patience than he might have at Archridge with his friends. This place seemed to have a calming effect on his mind.

Timidly, Alex said, “Hi, Sachiel.”

“I am pleased to have you home, my son,” said Siel as he shifted the squirming baby to his other hip, “but what danger have you brought to this valley?”

“No danger,” said Alex. “It’s safe. Catriel is safe.”

“That soldier?!” Siel’s wings snapped open as he stepped out of the doorway. He searched the trees like he had that night Catriel found them, only this time when those intense eyes located the soldier’s position, Catriel could see the color clearly in the sunlight.

Beautiful, like falling into the sky at the deepest point of twilight.

A shiver raced through Catriel’s wings, and he quickly banished the thought as Siel hissed, “You.”

Well, there was no reason to put this off any longer. He’d been found, and he was just delaying the inevitable at this point. Catriel dropped his guard and opened his crisp white wings. He floated down to the valley, landing a few cubits further out in the yard. He held up his hands, showing he held no weapons. The equipped harness around his chest lessened the effect, but he wasn’t willing to disarm completely, not even for this.

“I’m not here to cause trouble,” he said, keeping his stance relaxed.

“Trouble is all your kind bring,” Siel replied sharply. “Girls, take your brother inside. Get him something to eat. He’s had a long journey.”

“Yes, Papa,” came the small chorus. Three of the four girls began tugging Alex to his feet while the fourth approached her father and held out her arms. The baby leaned toward her, and Siel transfered his youngest daughter to her sister without a word. The two girls went inside.

“Wait,” said Alex as his siblings pulled him toward the house. “Don’t fight.”

“Alex, this man attacked us.” Siel cracked his knuckles against his palms. “He invaded my home. He broke my nose. He stabbed you. He deserves this.”

“Please. I trust him.”

“But I don’t,” said the black-haired man.

Alex stopped beside his father despite the insistent tugging of the three girls hanging from his arms. He looked up with those defiant black eyes. “I’m not asking you to trust him,” he said. “I’m asking you to trust me. I need him. He’s the only thing protecting me from Jequn. Please. Please, Dad.

Siel’s brow twitched. His gaze shifted from the soldier to the stubborn little boy at his side. “You really trust him?”

“With my life,” said Alex.

For a few moments, Siel regarded Alex with a contemplative frown. “I can’t allow what he did to go unanswered,” he finally decided. “I’ll deal with him. Go inside with your sisters.”

Alex didn’t argue, but he didn’t move, either. He remained rooted where he stood as Siel strode toward the soldier. The three girls stopped trying to pull Alex toward the house. With wide eyes, they peered around their brother’s wings to watch the confrontation between the two men.

As the son of the traitorous Isten Chaitaan approached, Catriel kept his hands up. Siel moved with an intimidating grace which was hard not to react to. If trained, he might have made an impressive soldier. However, he was still undisciplined, and had Catriel wanted to, he could have avoided the punch telegraphed through the shift in the man’s weight.

He didn’t.

It was a solid hit to Catriel’s nose. The soldier found himself on the ground, blinking up at the clear blue sky and gently shifting clouds. Bright sun blurred the edges of his vision where his eyes watered from pain. His nose throbbed, undoubtedly broken.

Siel stood over Catriel. The light wind twisted strands of his long black hair around him. “This doesn’t mean I trust you,” he said as he held out his hand, “but we’re even now.”

Catriel clasped the offered hand. As Siel pulled him to his feet, a gush of blood poured from his nose. He pinched his nostrils shut to stem the flow.

Siel patted his shoulder. “Come on. I’ll help you clean up.” He escorted the soldier to the house while ushering the wide eyes children in before them.

***

The house seemed smaller inside with all the little girls running around. Alex sat at the table while the bickering twins fought over who would get to sit next to him. He scooted to the middle of the bench so they could each have a side, and that seemed to make them happy. However, they didn’t stop being loud. The oldest daughter ladled soup into bowls for all of them. It smelled good, though Catriel doubted he would be offered any.

That was fine.

He could hunt for himself anytime.

No point burdening this tragic little family more than they already were.

“Here,” said Siel as he handed Catriel a hot, damp cloth.

The jagged soldier took the cloth and pressed it against his tender nose. “Thank you.” His words sounded muffled due to the blood dripping down his throat. He could feel is seeping beneath the skin under his eyes, too. There would be an undeniable mask of bruises for a few days until he healed. Fortunately, no one who had any idea how humiliating the injury was for him would see him in that time.

To imagine, a soldier of his caliber made to bleed twice in one season by the same man… If he had been in the barracks, he never would have heard the end of it.

Though if anyone ever found out who hit him, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to get harassed.

Catriel tilted his head back so the coppery taste of blood oozed down his throat and not out his nose. The hot cloth felt good on his sore face, and for a moment, he dropped his guard and let himself bask in the pain.

Sharp. Stinging. Broken.

Nothing serious.

It reminded him of the first time he broke a bone. The other children in his fledgling brood squad had been loud, like these young girls. They couldn’t have been much older than them, either. They’d been training with… oh, he didn’t even remember that officer’s name anymore. The man was just a winged menace walking the field of his memories in shadow. What Catriel did remember was Hiriel, the boy in the bunk above his, and how his wings and hair glowed in the beam of sunlight that broke through the clouds that day. Hiriel had been everything Catriel dreamed of at that age, and he had stopped to stare, completely entranced.

That was when Bikriel tackled him. They hit the ground hard and bone snapped. Bikriel got up while Catriel writhed in pain on the field. Everyone surrounded him. Everyone gawked, even Hiriel. The bone in Catriel’s arm had stuck out of his skin in two places. None of them had seen an injury like that before, though it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

“Back to your positions,” the officer commanded. “You’re not done training yet.” He hauled Catriel to his feet and made him stand before Bikriel again.

The other boy had turned pale. He always did at the sight of blood. It wasn’t the best trait for a soldier, but it wasn’t what had gotten him killed in the war.

“Hit him again,” said the officer.

Bikriel’s eyes widened, but they all knew better than to disobey an order. He dropped back into a sparring stance.

That shadowy menace leaned in close to Catriel’s ear. “I won’t tolerate deviance,” he whispered. “I saw your face. There’s no excuse for distraction in battle.” He squared Catriel up to face Bikriel. He kept his hands on Catriel’s shoulders so he couldn’t escape. “Acknowledge your pain, accept it as part of you, then lock it away. There is no room for weakness in war. Fight.”

At the time, Catriel hadn’t understood the importance of the officer’s instructions. That had come later, during the war, when he cradled Hiriel’s headless torso in his lap. Body parts littered the field around them. Some of them were soldiers of E’din, some were the invading Jinn, but they all looked the same covered in so much blood.

The battle above continued. Winged fiends ripped apart what remained of the legion. The great beast under the command of the Jinn slithered through the air, snapping at the soldiers like it was biting bothersome flies. Bikriel plunged his javelin into the beast’s eye, but it turned on him and released a funnel of flame from its fanged maw that scorched the air and charred all the bodies caught in its range, ally or enemy. Grey ash floated down like snow on the bloody field, leaving nothing to cling to or to mourn.

It was then that Catriel felt the shift within him. He was missing both legs below his knees, most of this ribs were broken, and his left arm was burnt black, but he acknowledged the pain. He accepted it as part of him. He locked it away for later. Then he crawled to Hiriel’s broken sword. The flat blade was still sharp, even if the point had shattered with the impact of the glaive that took off Hiriel’s head.

Catriel grasped the hilt in his good hand. He opened his wings and shook off the blood and ash that clung to his feathers. His wings beat at the air until his mangled body lifted from the ground. Drawing his energy into himself, Catriel focused on his target. He flew like a streak of light into the battle, fueling himself with all his captured pain, and plunged straight down the fiery gullet of the great beast of the Jinn.

“Does it hurt?” Siel asked, breaking through Catriel’s thoughts. It was a welcome interruption. Memories remained painful far longer than wounds.

“No,” said the jagged soldier. “It’s fine.” The pain was part of him. It was nothing.

“Let me see.” Siel sat beside him on the bench beneath the window. Catriel lifted the cloth from his face. “It’s dislocated,” the Ahnnak observed.

“I know.” Catriel pressed the cloth to his nose again.

“I can help set it.”

Catriel glared at him over the blood-stained fabric. “Why?”

“Because it’s dislocated.”

“It’ll heal.”

“I know it’ll heal,” said Siel, a bit of frustration tinging his words. “But I’m offering my help.”

“I don’t need your help.”

The soft curve of Siel’s mouth turned down. It was a look the soldier had seen often on Alex, when the little boy was being unreasonably stubborn about something. There was no doubt about his lineage. “If you don’t let me help,” said Siel, “you don’t get to eat.”

Catriel was almost tempted to continue arguing, but then he saw Alex watching them from the other side of the room with an expectant, worried look.

“Fine,” Catriel grumbled. He raised the towel from his face. “Do your worst, Siel.”

The black-haired man took the warm cloth from Catriel and wiped blood from his cheeks. His long fingers probed the swollen injury, but he was surprisingly gentle. His dark blue eyes were vibrant so close.

Absolutely beautiful.

“That isn’t my name,” Siel said as he examined the wound.

“It is who you were.”

A hardness appeared in those deep blue eyes. “I was never who they wanted me to be.”

“Yes, but names have power. I can’t risk anyone discovering wh-”

Without warning, Siel grabbed Catriel’s nose hard and twisted, popping it back into place. The soldier jerked back and stomped his foot, overcome by the burst of pain, but almost immediately, his face started to feel better.

Siel wiped his hands on the towel and returned it to Catriel. “Here.”

“Thanks,” Catriel muttered, blinking away the stinging tears. He pressed the fabric to his nose again, even though the bleeding had nearly stopped.

Without another glance, Siel got up and returned to the dining table. “Millie, bring Molly and come eat,” he called.

After a moment, the girl with short brown hair peeked out of one of the bedrooms. She carried the baby on her hip. “What’s he doing here?” she asked.

The oldest girl placed another bowl on the table. “He’s with Alex,” she said.

Millie frowned and took the widest path around the room to reach the table. She handed the baby to her father, who situated her in a high chair with a cooled bowl of vegetables from the soup before her. “Is he staying with us, too?” asked Millie.

“For a while,” said Siel.

“How long?”

Alex finished slurping soup from his bowl and said, “I have to be back at Archridge before classes start in Justice.”

“You’re going back?” one of the twins exclaimed.

“I thought you were going to live with us forever,” the other wailed.

“It’s alright if Alex stays, but I don’t want that guy to live with us,” said Millie, glaring at Catriel with all the contempt a small child could contain.

“Catriel is my friend,” said Alex, as if that was enough of an explanation. “He’s nice.”

“Then why did Papa punch him?” asked the suspicious little girl.

“Well…” Siel scratched the side of his jaw thoughtfully. “The last time he was here, he was rude,” he decided. “I wanted to make it clear that we wouldn’t accept that type of behavior again.”

The girl didn’t look convinced, but she took her seat at the table near the baby. Siel sat on the other side of the highchair so he could help supply cooled food to his youngest child. The baby held a wooden spoon in one hand and stuffed food into her face with the other.

It was strange in how mundane it all was. They were at the border of E’din, the threat of a fiend invasion looming on the other side of the mountain barrier, and yet this was everything Catriel had ever imagined a normal family to be.

It was a fragile illusion waiting to fall apart.

“Are you hungry?” asked the oldest girl. She stood before Catriel, holding a bowl filled with a chunky vegetable broth.

The soldier had to stare at her a moment before he could make sense of what she was offering. He lowered the cloth from his nose and took the bowl with both hands. “Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome.” She smiled at him. So bright. She shared Alex’s smile, though the boy’s was considerably more rare. She happily returned to the table with her two thick braids bouncing behind her.

As the family began to eat and talk about all the trivial things that had happened since Alex left them, Catriel remained seated by the wall. It was difficult to not stare at the brood, but Siel caught his eye once and gave him a look that could have curdled blood. Catriel focused on his soup after that, slowly slurping the thick, stewed vegetables from the broth. It was a decent meal. Could have been made more efficient with the addition of lean lapon meat, though.

It crossed the soldier’s mind that, since Siel had been raised as a ward of high society, he had probably never been exposed to the utilitarian need of meat in a survival diet. These children would need to learn if they were going to live at the edge of E’din like this.

Not that it was really any of his concern. He was just here for Alex.

Eventually, one of the twins asked, “Do you really have to go back?”

Alex nodded, but his cheeks were too stuffed with food to speak. He ate as if he hadn’t been fed at all during the last week of flight.

Fiends. If he was hitting another growth spurt, he would end up as tall as his father before he added another decade to his age. In fact, he’d probably end up looking a lot like him when he was grown. Everything except those black eyes…

“I don’t want you to leave again,” the whinier of the twins said. She threw herself against Alex’s side and wrapped her arms over his chest and wing. The gesture was completely inappropriate, which she would have known if she had been raised in proper society. Touching another’s wings without permission was rude. For a Homm to do it was practically a crime.

Alex handled it gracefully, though it was clear it made him uncomfortable. He gently opened his wing to break her hold on him, then turned to face her before she could latch on again. He swallowed the food in his mouth. “Mulin,” he said to the little girl, “I can’t miss class. There are people who will come looking for me if I’m gone too long.”

“Bad people?” she asked while looking up at him wide eyes.

“Some of them,” said Alex. “Don’t worry. I’m okay. Catriel protects me.”

A few pairs of eyes turned to look at the jagged soldier. Catriel quickly looked down, attempting to appear very interested in the remaining broth he had in his bowl.

“But I don’t want you to leave again,” Mulin protested once more. “You promised you would tell us more stories.”

“And I will,” said Alex. “Every night I’m here. I’ve even got new stories.”

“Really?” The little girl’s eyes brightened.

“Yes. There’s one where the pardua and the stag meet a girl who’s about-” Alex held his hand even with the little girl’s head, “-this tall.”

Mulin started bouncing on the bench. “Like me! Like me! Oh, you promise, Alex? You’ll tell us stories every night?”

He smiled softly. “Yes. I promise.”

After dinner, when everyone had had their fill of soup, including Catriel, the children helped Siel clear the table. When everything was washed and put away, they settled around the fire. Alex opened his satchel and started handing out gifts. Fabric and beads for the oldest, a book for the next, a pair of wooden beasts for the twins, and a fabric doll that the baby immediately stuck in her mouth.

While Alex presented his gifts to his sisters, Siel stood nearby with his arms crossed, like he was contemplating something serious. After a while, he said, “The sun is setting. I need to patrol.”

Patrol? What was this? Catriel tried not to show any interest beyond the end of his own broken nose, but he listened attentively.

“Bye, Papa,” said one of the twins with a complete lack of interest. She held her wooden auroch and had it chasing her sister’s wooden krokuta across the hearth.

“Be careful,” said the other twin, though she could have been speaking to either of them. The twins moved around fast enough that Catriel had lost track of which was which.

Siel frowned a bit. “Millie, watch Molly.”

“I always do,” said the little girl reading a book before the fire. The baby sat on her flat back, bouncing and chewing on the doll.

“Do you really have to patrol tonight?” asked the oldest girl, though she kept her head lowered so Alex could finish braiding her thick hair into tight, even plaits. “I thought you would stay since Alex just got back.”

“Mieke, I still need to go out. I don’t like leaving you alone, but-”

“We’re not alone,” interjected Alex. “Catriel is here.”

“About that.” Siel looked at the soldier. “You’re coming with me.”

“I am?” asked Catriel.

“I don’t trust you here, among my children.”

Ah, yes. That made sense. However, the soldier asked, “Where do you go? I will not be made an accomplice to your traitorous activities.”

The black-haired man glared at him. “Is it traitorous to patrol and protect my own territory?”

“That depends on what you’re protecting it from, doesn’t it?”

Sharply, Siel said, “I would not think you would be so eager to have more of your kind discover where you are.”

Well, shit. Siel was right about that.

“I’ll come with you,” Catriel relented, “but only to ensure you don’t do anything illegal.”

Siel scoffed. “I wasn’t giving you a choice.”

Alex looked between the two men. “You’re not going to fight the whole time, are you?”

“Alexiel, we are not fighting,” said the soldier. “Though if we were,” he turned to Siel, “don’t think you’d get another free hit, Ahnnak.”

The man’s blue eyes narrowed. With a confidence he didn’t deserve, he said, “I won’t need one.”

“Please.” Alex stood and put himself between the soldier and his father. “You promised to be nice,” he said to Catriel. Then, to his father, he added, “If you don’t want me here, we’ll leave now.”

“Of course I want you here,” said Siel, softening his gaze to face his son. “I just don’t like him.”

Alex pressed his hand over his own heart. “But I need him. He’s a good man.”

Catriel was a little stunned by how heartfelt the statement sounded. He didn’t think of himself as a good man. He was just a soldier, following orders and trying to stay alive. The boy’s proclamation left a strange feeling in his chest.

Siel sighed. “Yes. Alright, Alex. I hear you. I’ll try not argue with the soldier anymore.”

“Catriel,” the boy said. “His name is Catriel.”

Nodding, Siel said, “Yes. Catriel. Alright.” He looked to the soldier. “I apologize.”

“Me, too,” Catriel grumbled. He hoped the bruising across his cheeks hid the warm blush that formed at hearing his name on that man’s lips.

Siel ruffled Alex’s hair. “We’ll be back late. Don’t worry, Alex. I’ll take care of your soldier.”

The boy gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Sachiel.”

“You know, I really like it when you called me Dad.”

Alex’s wings gave a nervous little flutter. “D-Dad,” he said, almost embarrassed about the word.

Siel smiled. “Take care of your sisters.” He walked to the door. “Come on, Catriel. Keep up.”

Catriel stood and followed the man to the door. He looked back at Alex. “We’ll be fine,” he assured the boy.

Alex raised his hand in a small wave, then the two men left the house to begin the night’s patrol.

***

Siel stood in the last rays of sun and stretched his wings to their full width. He raised his arms over his head and groaned as tense muscles trembled through his long, lean body.

Hastily, Catriel looked up, trying to spot the first stars of the night.

“Ah,” Siel sighed and lowered his arms. “Better. Ready to go, soldier? Sorry. Catriel.”

“Go where?” Catriel asked. “I’m serious about not participating in any of your crimes.”

“What exactly do you think I do?”

“You lead criminals to the Ferryman to help the Jinn.”

Siel laughed. “Is that so? Well, tonight, I’m afraid I won’t be doing anything so exciting. Can you keep up?”

Catriel’s sharp feathers bristled. “Of course I can.”

“Good.” Siel leapt into the air. Catriel quickly flew after.

Once they reached a coasting altitude, Siel leveled off and spread his wings. He floated along some predetermined path, his eyes searching the dark trees beneath him. The glow of the small house in the valley faded away behind them.

“How far are we going?” Catriel called using the low flight tones.

Siel didn’t answer, but he slowed. When Catriel flew up along side him, Siel pointed at the ground. “This is the edge of my territory. It goes out there, across that river, then up through the cliffs before cutting back over to the north of the valley.”

“Why have you claimed so much land? You don’t use it.”

Siel’s wings beat once to maintain his momentum. “I expand as I become familiar with the trees.”

“Which means what, exactly?”

“It means I can sense when an unwelcome intruder has entered my territory.” He gave Catriel a poignant look.

The soldier scoffed. “You did not sense me.”

“Maybe not at first,” he admitted, “since you were trailing in the wake of those refugees, but when you arrived with Alex today-”

“Wait, refugees?” Catriel rolled his eyes. “You speak of that traitor and his Ander mother.”

Siel glared at him. “Your kind try to label anyone who doesn’t show complete and total obedience to the regime as ‘traitors.’ It’s a meaningless word. And what they did to that poor woman was reprehensible.”

“She knew the cost of her betrayal. There is no excuse for anyone to act in a way that would cast doubt on their allegiance. If you had been raised better-”

“You know nothing about me. Don’t you dare talk about how I was raised.”

Catriel didn’t let Siel’s interruption stop him. “-Then you would understand the true intentions of the Isten, and how they’re trying to defend E’din again the wicked Jinn who you’ve chosen to align yourself with.”

Siel’s fists clenched. “I am not aligned with the Jinn.”

“Your brother and your father-”

“I am aware of what my family has done!” shouted the black-haired Ahnnak. “I have heard the propaganda my whole life, and I get it, but they’re not me. I owe loyalty to no one- Not the Jinn, not E’din, not my father, or my brother. No one.”

“Then why would you risk living out here, helping the Ferryman?”

Siel’s brow furrowed. He looked away. There was something vulnerable about him when he said, “All I want now is to keep my children safe.”

“There are better ways.” Catriel considered reaching out to touch his arm. He yearned to feel the man’s cool skin under his fingertips, but he restrained himself. He folded his arms across his chest. “I could sponsor you, if you return with me to E’din-”

“No.” Siel’s expression hardened. “I’m never going back.” He gave a hard beat of his wings, losing the rest of that momentary vulnerability. “Mind your own business, soldier. You’re here as a guest of my son, but my hospitality only extends so far. Let’s finish patrol.” He quickly flew ahead, leaving Catriel trailing behind in the growing starlight.

***

The territory was big. Siel scanned it methodically, but before long they finished the loop and returned to the valley. It was well after midnight by then, and the house was quiet.

“The girls will be asleep,” said Siel, his back to Catriel while he settled his white wings. “Don’t make a lot of noise. Molly is teething again, so she wakes at the slightest sound.”

“I’ll be quiet,” said the jagged soldier. He followed the Ahnnak into his house.

At the couch by the fire, Alex sprang to his feet. He looked between the two men like he expected to see some additional injury on one or both of them. He visibly relaxed when he found no new wounds. “You’re back,” he said with relief. “Should I make tea?”

“Not tonight,” said Siel. He approached the boy. “You’ve had a long journey and need rest. Tomorrow, we’ll talk.”

“Okay… But where is Catriel going to sleep?” asked Alex.

Siel appraised the jagged soldier. “Outside?” he suggested.

Alex frowned. “He can take the couch.”

“Alex-”

“I’ll sleep on the floor.” The boy crossed his arms. “Unless you want us both sleeping outside.”

Siel sighed. “No, Alex. I don’t want you sleeping outside. I have more blankets and pillows. You can make a comfortable pad on the floor in the corner. Away from the flame,” he added hastily. “I don’t want you rolling into the embers and getting burned.”

“Thanks, Dad.” The boy’s smile was enough that even Catriel didn’t have the heart to mention that he would have been more comfortable sleeping in the forest.

Alex helped carry blankets and pillows out from one of the back rooms, then set about making his nest. Siel handed Catriel a thick, woven blanket from the pile. “It gets cold when the fire goes out,” he said, not looking at the soldier.

“Thanks.” Catriel accepted the blanket, even if he had no plan to use it.

“Goodnight, Alex,” Siel said, stopping by to pat his son’s head as the boy positioned pillows on the floor.

Alex smiled up at him. “Goodnight, Dad.”

After Siel closed the door to his bedroom, Catriel sat down on the couch. He spread his wings to let them warm in the heat from the fire. “He always goes out at night?” he asked.

“Uh huh.” The boy continued intentionally arranging pillows.

“And returns at the same time?”

“Usually.” Finally satisfied with his placement of the bedding, Alex flopped down and pulled a blanket up over his wings and head. “Goodnight, Catriel.”

“Goodnight, Alexiel.”

The boy, exhausted from eight degrees of travel, quickly passed out. His breathing was soft and even. It comforted Catriel to see him at peace, maybe more than it should.

As the flames died down, leaving only the hot glow of the embers in the hearth, Catriel folded his warm wings about himself and lay down. In the silence of that little house on the edge of E’din, he found himself considering his oath of fealty to the Isten and wondering when, exactly, his priorities had changed.