Basal 70th, 1042

River, as the group elder and most experienced of them, made the executive decision to take everyone to Glassview rather than the full trip to Lacus Mare like they had planned. All ten people had collapsed and were disoriented upon waking. They were all from Arete Town to the west, but it was too far out to make the trip to with the amount of oil left in the cabriolet. They’d all have to rest in Glassview then catch a steamtram back home.

Their feet were bloodied, as if the Lunar God had made them walk across the desert and Tundra both to get to Aspen. He wasn’t sure how River had explained to them what had happened, and quite honestly didn’t care either way.

Aspen had dropped them all at once like flies when Azaleon had been stabbed. That power was distinctly the Lunar God’s own, pouring straight from Aspen’s Cachet, and yet it had been the thing to force the God away, for now.

It had made Clover, Kuiper, and River drop, too, passing out for minutes. Aspen had seemingly been overwhelmed by the power, too, as he also had passed out from using it. Alouette had been the only one left conscious for roughly five minutes. It was a wonder that Azaleon hadn’t bled out.

Alouette wasn’t able to use Thauma at all. Something about it being a gift ‘only for mortals’, and the fact their own power was from ‘Divinity’ rather than their own ‘Thauma’. But they knew first aid, and recognized the fact Azaleon was in need of it. Kuiper thanked every star in the sky that River had taught them life’s necessities like that. Thank Gods she was sensible.

Alouette had flown Azaleon and Aspen to Glassview with a strength Kuiper could barely believe, deeming it an emergency, and River, Clover, and Kuiper had to stay and change the tires on the cabriolet by hand. It wasn’t as if they didn’t have an additional ten people to help, but Kuiper felt bad asking, especially since they were all so confused and could barely walk still, no doubt in pain and hungry themselves.

One of the people who had been taken out of their home in the night by the Lunar God was something of an engineer, and helped them fix the engine, and they all had to ride to Glassview a few days later than Alouette had taken off with Aspen and Azaleon.

Kuiper hadn’t spoken more than ten words since, lips too tight with worry. For good reason: when they arrived at Glassview’s healing center, Azaleon was still unconscious. His Highness was awake, but he was furious. Alouette nervously met them at the door, saying the prince was ‘mad’, and hadn’t even woken up until four hours after they’d all arrived at Glassview.

What he was mad about was anyone’s guess. Kuiper’s concern, personally, wasn’t directed at Aspen. Azaleon already had a room and had been worked on by healers, much as they could. He wasn’t at risk of bleeding out anymore, at the very least, but he’d lost a lot of blood already, and they hadn’t been able to wake him.

“It doesn’t make any sense for me to be the Lunar God’s champion. No one in my family is from there, obviously. I’ve been visiting Sol’s temple for my entire life, and I’m to inherit the kingdom under the sun, Fern Helion,” Aspen was saying to Clover from his seat on the windowsill in Azaleon’s room. Kuiper had been trying to ignore his ranting since he’d started. “Why should Juniper be the Sol God’s favored? Why should two of us from the same kingdom be chosen, and why–”

“Azaleon could die,” Kuiper finally said, “And your concerns are relatable to none of us. Can you at least pretend to have concern for someone other than yourself? For ten minutes? Or be quiet for as long?”

“I told him– told all of you– it was foolish to try and die for me!” Aspen was all bristled up now, all five feet of him, and Kuiper felt that last strand of patience snap. He let go of Azaleon’s hand– it had felt far too warm in his own, he thought his own hands had always been sweatier than Azaleon’s, so he was assuredly fighting off some infection from the stab wound– and stood up to his full height.

“Even Clover has been crying over this; she barely knew him. Do you not have a heart, Your Highness?”

“And that matters why, exactly? You haven’t exactly been a leaky faucet yourself.” Aspen snapped. “I barely knew him, either! There’s more important issues at the moment!”

It was true Kuiper hadn’t been crying, but it was different; Kuiper had always struggled to show his emotions outwardly. Even struggling to speak as a child, shutting down when something was wrong. It’d been a point of contention with a lot of people. When he was younger, he’d been called emotionless, tormented over it by other children. Azaleon had been the only one who’d been accepting back then, and had even fought for his sake.

Struggling to express emotions on his face was not the same as Aspen, who was callously saying he didn’t care because his problems with his Gods were more important.

He had some nerve.

River stepped in front of him, her brown eyes sharp. Alouette was on the second bed on the other side of the patient room, totally spent and sleeping off the exhaustion of carrying both Aspen and Azaleon all the way here, and she was likely trying to keep Kuiper from raising his voice and waking them.

“Let’s not do anything too rash,” she warned.

“Why not? I’m not worried about being locked up; a world without him isn’t one I care to live in.”

“Because the healers asked me to step in and help, since I am skilled in all Thauma; I used my surplus of amber. Clover did, too. He will live and I can’t imagine he’d be happy to hear you talk like that.”

Clover nodded, eyes still wet. She hadn’t been very talkative, either.

“And His Highness offered to do the same,” Clover added, very quietly. Kuiper turned to Aspen, and Aspen sighed.

“They said I couldn’t. That whatever power I expelled out there in the tundra took too much of a toll, and using Thauma right now would be risky to me, apparently. I don't see a point in worrying over something I’m not allowed to try to help with. So I’m focusing on things I can try to solve, which is this God problem. We’ll just have to agree to disagree if you don’t like that.”

Kuiper felt the tension drop from his shoulders.

“I’d like to be that way. I can’t, but I understand it.”

“Because you love him?” Aspen asked, and Kuiper stilled, crossing his arms, fully ready to argue. “Oh, come on. I’m not an idiot. I could tell you were lying when you said you two weren’t a package deal. Why hide it?”

“His father doesn’t approve,” Kuiper said. It wasn’t a lie, though it left a lot unsaid. “And I’d rather not discuss that with you, or have it leave this room.”

“Fair enough. Though I can relate to a disapproving father, if you ever change your mind,” he mumbled under his breath, and Kuiper wondered if he was in some parallel universe where Aspen had actually grown tired of being a brat. He seemed tired in general, like Kuiper felt.

“Thank you, Your Highness. For offering to try amber on him, too.” Kuiper said. Aspen nodded, still not meeting his eye. “I think I have something interesting that might help with your journey and all of this ‘God’s’ business.”

“I doubt it, but tell me anyway,” Aspen said.

“Does it have something to do with that book you’ve been reading?” River asked.

“Yes. It’s a book by a woman named Rosemary, about ‘oddities’, places where…strange things happen. She was a traveler, some hundred years ago. I think at least a few of them point to some of the minor five’s locations. Here,” he said, pulling a map from his book, unfolding it. “I marked them down along with my notes and reasoning.”

“...You aren’t entirely dense, then. Huh.”

“I would hope not. To pass the guard exam you have to score above a 180 on the scholastic exam first.” Aspen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Likely it was his first time hearing as much. Poor Azaleon had struggled, and might have failed, if Kuiper hadn’t helped him study for it. “And my only real ambition in life is to read as many books as I can before I die. So I suspect I’d be more useful to you in a scholar capacity than I am in a guarding one.”

“You and my brother would’ve been friends,” Clover said with a small sniffle. Kuiper shook his head, and she looked puzzled over that.

“No, not if he’s someone who just left you, we wouldn’t have.”

“Can I hug you?” She asked, and he opened his arms. She squeezed him and cried a bit more, and he patted her fluffy, soft hair until she calmed down.She’d just wanted to find her brother– not all of this, she hadn’t signed up to see someone get stabbed, someone she likely considered a friend by now. He wouldn’t call himself an affectionate person, but she clearly needed this, so he let her get it all out before letting her go.

Aspen had silently been looking over the papers, his nose getting progressively more wrinkled and his eyebrows curving down.

“I know she’s probably in pain, but you’d think they’d give her some kind of pain killers by now,” he said under his breath. Kuiper raised his own brows in response, and even River, who was now sitting on Alouette’s bedside, looked confused.

“He means the lady in the room to the east,” Clover said, “The one who’s been yelling. Hey, if anything, maybe she’ll wake up Azaleon?”

“‘Leon’s always been a deep sleeper,” Kuiper said. He hadn’t heard any yelling women. Maybe the kids had better ears than he did. Even though Clover was at most six or seven years younger, it felt like a big difference to him. He felt exhausted all the time, but especially by this. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen Azaleon get hurt before. This had been the worse by far, but he had plenty of scars littering his face and body both from scuffles over the years.

Azaleon would probably be mad that he snapped at Aspen over it. Would probably say if he was going to die, that Kuiper should keep the job they’d both struggled to get for both of their sakes, otherwise it’d be a pointless death. He was always sentimental like that.

“Your Highness, I apologize for my outburst earlier,” he grumbled, reluctant and quiet. Aspen barely looked up, shrugging his shoulders.

“You’re still here, you’re doing better than the others in that regard. I think this one about that maze in the desert seems promising. It’s not too far, is it? Perhaps when Azaleon decides to wake up we’ll go there.”

“You’ll give him time to heal, first, right?” Clover asked. She’d joined River sitting on the side of Alouette’s bed. Their black wings twitched and folded towards her, as if trying to cover her like a blanket, and she smiled, petting the feathers.

“No, Clover, I’ll have Kuiper drag him with us through the sand while he bleeds out in a neat trail, like a gorey human bloodslug,” Aspen snarked.

“When he collapses we can store his body in the empty spot where your heart isn’t,” Kuiper said, deadpan. River snorted with laughter. Aspen looked shocked, until he realized Kuiper had been joking, and he huffed, rolling his eyes going back to looking over Kuiper’s notes. He had a faint smile, and Kuiper felt oddly proud of that.

“I see why the two of you got together; dark humor, both of you. Kuiper, Azaleon will be fine. You should get some rest while you can.”

Kuiper agreed, though rest didn’t come easy. Aspen pulled a few strings and got them rooms at a nearby inn far quicker than any normal person could’ve, but the idea of sleeping in a different place than Azaleon was alien to him, and he refused to let Azaleon wake up alone in a strange place. So he opted for the uncomfortable stiff chair in the hospital pulled right beside Azaleon’s bed, their hands clasped together with no regard to how sweaty either of their palms were.

Strangely enough, no one else in their group actually went to the inn after Aspen arranged it, either. Aspen himself claimed he was too busy to sleep, but he’d been looking over the same handful of papers for hours, and had eventually fallen asleep against the window. River had opted for a couch in the waiting room. Clover had awkwardly wedged herself on the foot of Alouette’s bed, her feet kicking them in the back from the angle she was at. Kuiper’s last thought before succumbing to sleep was that he hoped Alouette’s wings would be fine from that.

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