Basal 87th, 1042

It was Seatide, and they were still in Lacus Mare. It wasn’t as if they didn’t celebrate it here; if anything, the princesses had been extra busy all week helping Cassiopia’s sisters prepare for it. The Lacus Marian royal family here was making an appearance at the beach forty minutes away, throwing a huge celebration in Seiche’s honor. …Aspen had vehemently refused to go, telling Saros this was his vacation, so Azaleon had to stay by his side, do his job.

It was probably for the best, because the moment Azaleon had heard about the party and entertained the idea of going, Seiche had wracked him with a fever and started cursing him out.

It was kind of a shame, because Azaleon loved the beach… Seatide was fun, everyone going to the beach and friendly competitions encouraged, mild things like volleyball and kite surfing, not anything more…bloody, like Azaleon suspected Seiche would’ve actually enjoyed. And catching your own seafood was expected. People offered any parts they didn’t eat, bones and viscera, back to the ocean, in hopes the remains would keep the God of War calm.

“It doesn’t make any damn sense; you all know fish of any kind are my preferred animal vessel; you think I want them butchered?”

“You don’t?” Azaleon asked, measuring out flour into his sifter.

“Whether I do or don’t is beside the point; it’s a strange leap of logic to arrive at. As much as you all say the holiday is to ‘celebrate’ me, it’s really to ward me off. Bribe and appease me– with fish carcasses of all things– so that I don’t bring my gift of War to them,” Seiche grumbled. “It’s backwards.”

“So…you’re a pescetarian?” Azaleon frowned down at the line of fish on the cutting board off to the side.

“Pescetarian is the one that doesn’t eat any meat except fish, idiot,” Aspen said from the stool he was perched at.

“I’m not, I was just saying it’s strange. Fish kill and eat each other all the time and I’m not actually bothered by the concept of it, but you’ll note that I’ve never needed to eat in the first place.” And that was just about the saddest thing Seiche had told him.

“But…people leave food tributes at your temple. All of your temples. You could’ve eaten if you wanted to, if you used a fish as a vessel–” Azaleon started.

“Please think about what you’re saying. You want me to get a fish into a temple? How? Walking it in, with its legs, while it is breathing air?” Seiche asked. Aspen at least found it funny, snorting in amusement. Clover was outright laughing. Azaleon took it in stride; after all, he could feel a pleasant sort of pleased warmth radiating from Seiche from making them laugh. “Depths below, how did you land someone as smart as Kuiper?”

“Do you actually want to hear the story, Seiche, or are you just being rude?” Kuiper asked. He was standing across from Aspen, leaned on the kitchen island and staring at the chessboard between them. Aspen was winning, but only just barely. Kuiper hadn’t really been putting in his all though, half-focused on talking to Azaleon. Azaleon was sure the match could still go either way, and they’d probably do best out of three anyway, if they had time.

“I want to hear it!” Clover chimed in. She was embroidering beside Aspen, working on some mystery garment that Azaleon assumed was probably that tacky thing she’d promised to make for Aspen when he’d lost that sweater making match they’d had; that hadn’t been so long ago, but it felt like it.

Anyway, it was funny how perfectly things had worked out; Azaleon had been dying to get in the kitchen, and the holiday had provided the perfect chance, since the royal family had taken the majority of their chefs with them to the beach to help with the fire-roasted feast there, and a lot of the castle staff had been given the day off and were out right now. Kneading his frustrations out in dough was second-best to actually sparring.

Back in Fern Helion, he’d never really had a chance to get in the castle kitchen since he was a guard with an assigned post, even before he’d gotten assigned to Aspen specifically; if being a guard wouldn’t have worked out, he absolutely would’ve applied to work as a chef there, though.

…King Alder probably would have assumed it was an attempt to poison him and blocked that career path off. Azaleon couldn’t help but wonder if he would have given in to that temptation; it would’ve been too anticlimactic, but easy...

And Fillip recalled a special recipe for a dish from hundreds of years ago that involved tilapia, shrimp, sesame and peppers, among other things; he was happy to listen to her ideas, since the royal kitchens were so well-stocked. But Kuiper absolutely wasn’t allowed anywhere near the actual preparation, whether he or Fillip were in control; that was non-negotiable, after the incident with the strawberries when they were nineteen… No, Azaleon may have forgiven, but he would never forget.

Clover’s arm was achy today, so he insisted she sit with the others while he worked, even if she claimed she could cook. Aspen hadn’t leapt to offer help and Azaleon wouldn’t have expected him to.

River had gone with the princesses to the beach for Seatide. It had surprised Azaleon, but then, she needed it. She absolutely should have fun, he thought, after the stress Alouette was putting on her. She’d sent a message to the communication center in Briarwood from the castle’s private communication lab, asking them to write back when they arrived. They still hadn’t. She said it only should have taken them a day to get there; it had been six, almost seven days now.

Azaleon very privately hoped Alouette had crashed somewhere and broken every bone in their stupid wings, if such a thing was possible. There was no excuse for them ignoring River otherwise. Azaleon suspected he would never really like Alouette, but he had been tolerating them, being civil.

He snapped back to the conversation, realizing what Kuiper had offered.

“I hardly think it’s a good story or anything,” Azaleon admitted to Clover, perhaps a bit too quickly. Aspen picked up on his hesitancy and scoffed.

“Well now I want to hear it, too. In fact, I demand it.” Aspen said. Azaleon sighed while he patted the pineapple slices dry. He’d let Kuiper start and chime in when he got details wrong. Which, somehow, he always did, the exaggerator.

“I was seven, on vacation with my mothers in Cheytell, staying at the Shell’s Lodge. It was actually around Seatide then, too, so a lot of people were there. By the coast and all. …I was getting overwhelmed; there were too many people. My mothers were at the desk checking in, distracted and not noticing how bad it was, and I was too embarrassed to go tell them. So I was hiding behind a couch in the lobby. Which in hindsight isn’t a great ‘quiet place’, but I think I was afraid my mothers wouldn’t be able to find me otherwise, like if I went into a closet or something. A few older kids started harassing me, then.”

“What, because you were nervous? Where were these heathen’s parents?” Aspen asked.

“Oh, you’d be surprised by how many parents just let their kids run around the place with no supervision; as far as they’re concerned, it’s their vacation and the staff should be watching their children,” Azaleon sighed.

“I think they thought I was their age; I was big for seven. They kept asking why I was acting like a baby, kept calling me an ogre, then one of them tried to step on me since I was already crouched down…he.. didn’t get the chance,” Kuiper said slowly.

“Aww, that’s really sweet. Azaleon saved you?” Clover asked, her tone hopeful.

“Sounds cheesy,” Aspen muttered.

“Yeah, sweet and cheesy. ...You know, let’s leave it there, that’s probably enough of the story,” Azaleon tried.

“No, you technically did. I guess,” Kuiper said. He turned to Clover and Aspen. “I mean, he definitely did pull the kid away from me. Then he gave him such a severe beatdown that he shattered the kid’s nose. Before that he had broken his leg so he couldn’t run away. That kid was in the healer center nearby for months. Pretty sure he would have beat him to death if I hadn’t pulled him off. He was still swinging when I did, too, and managed to give another kid a black eye from that. I think he also bit one of them.”

Clover’s ‘aww’ing had turned into more of an ‘uhhh? Huh?’ sound. Clover and Aspen had both looked up from what they were doing to stare. Azaleon sighed, chopping the peppers with a little more force than necessary.

“Okay, well, I remember it a bit differently. I still think that the kid's parents exaggerated how bad it actually was to get me in trouble, rather than letting their kids get in trouble for starting a fight in the first place. But I got counseling. One of the stipulations was to ‘apologize to the kids I had ‘traumatized’,” he used heavy air quotes for ‘traumatized’, “So I had to apologize to all of the kids that had seen it, the kid who I had hit, once, by the way, and my mom had to take me all the way up to Covalle to apologize to Kuiper, too…”

“And you just thought– you looked at that and thought, yes, that’s the one I want?” Aspen half-whispered to Kuiper. “...Not that I believe you could do such severe damage to anyone, weak as you are,” Aspen clarified. “I’m sure you’re actually right about it just being one hit.”

“Thank you?” Azaleon wasn’t sure if he should take that as Aspen having faith in him or putting him down. Maybe both.

“Uh, no, I didn’t think I ‘wanted’ him in any capacity, not at first. My mothers kind of found it funny. They said since ‘Leon and his mom had come all the way, that they ought to stay the night, and our Moms became friends quickly. So every other weekend he was hauled up to my house so our moms could drink and play poker together, and because my mothers thought I didn’t have any friends. Which was true, I guess. I didn’t want to play with toys, I wanted to find as many rocks as I could and organize them by type, size and color. And other kids must have found that dull…” Kuiper trailed off.

Azaleon had never found it boring; he had also been gifted many cool rocks in their childhood, and had thrown a lot of them at people he didn’t like. Kuiper had told him once, very seriously, which rocks were best for that: it was the ones that were soft enough they would crumble apart when they hit someone so there would be no evidence left.

“They were just trying to force us to be friends since we’re around the same age. It was kind of funny, because we were both incredibly adamant about not getting along at first. Kuiper literally wouldn’t speak to me unless his moms demanded it, and even then it was never more than a one or two word reply.”

“Yes, because I was scared shitless of you. I literally did not sleep the first few times I knew you were in the same house, I think I was convinced you’d kill me …But you never made fun of me for not making eye contact or being quiet, or actually pressed me to do anything,” Kuiper pointed out. Azaleon remembered that; he had never really realized Kuiper was afraid, he’d thought Kuiper was giving him the silent treatment because he was mad, because Azaleon’s default reaction to anything wrong was anger, and he assumed it was the same for everyone else.

“No, because I wasn’t a bully, I had been trying to defend you! I was upset that you weren’t grateful. I’ll admit I might have had a…short temper…at the time, but I remembered how you looked so scared when I first saw you and I…I didn’t want to see that look again. I never saw you as someone I wanted to fight.” Azaleon sat the knife down, picking up the season he’d mixed earlier and dusted the fish with it before turning back to Clover and Aspen. “So I tried to tolerate the situation, then I told him it was fine if he didn’t want to talk. And I started bringing him books from Cheytell since he seemed to like those, and when I ran out I asked my mom to have Alder send more…”

Azaleon’s mom had never been shy about bothering the king for seemingly inane things to keep her son happy; Kuiper probably borrowed half the royal library’s catalog, and Alder must have been under the impression Azaleon was the studious one. Azaleon wondered what he must have thought when Azaleon barely passed the scholastic portion of the guard exam. Of course, his exemplary score on the combat portion would have put him in the top bracket regardless.

“For a long while it was just us sitting quietly together under a tree while Kuiper read and I watched the animals in the fields. And then one day he got really excited over something in one of the books I had brought and started talking to me about it. For hours. I was so happy…I remember crying hysterically when my mom told me it was time to go, begging her to let me stay the night, because Kuiper hadn’t finished explaining how conquina outcrops form…and Kuiper surprised me again when he wanted me to stay too.”

“Most people would be embarrassed to admit they cried hysterically when they were thirteen,” Kuiper noted. “I’m surprised you still remember what I’d been talking about at the time…”

“Of course I do! I might not fully understand it, but there’s nothing I like more than hearing you get all passionate about things tha–”

“I’m sorry, Thirteen? You didn’t talk regularly to each other for six years?!” Aspen sputtered.

“Well. I did say it was a boring story,” Azaleon said.

“You know I don’t think that’s the word I’d use,” Clover put the fabric she’d been working on off to the side. “Hey, do you want me to start on the dishes?”

“I can do them, if your hand is still bothering you,” Kuiper offered.

“Oh, no, warm water actually seems to help it! I don’t mind at all. I’m actually getting cramped up from sitting so long,” Clover said, hopping off her stool.

“And we’re in the middle of a game, you can’t just go doing other things,” Aspen snapped at Kuiper.

“You’re going to win anyway, and the food is almost done,” Kuiper said, nodding towards the sizzling pans. “I’m going to set the plates.”

Aspen huffed at Kuiper quitting their game early, but started putting the chess pieces back in the box neatly regardless.

Seiche had been quiet throughout the story. Which was new; over the past few days he’d gotten more comfortable letting Seiche speak through him when he felt like it, and Seiche…had not been shy sharing his opinions, to say the least. As long as Azaleon could handle the rest of his body, especially while cooking, he figured it was fine.

They had all worked out little systems for their Gods. Kuiper had a strict ‘thirty minutes of control time’ for Fillip, since she absolutely exhausted him by how energetic she was; she basically talked non-stop, barely resting to breath, which left Kuiper lightheaded when he regained control of himself.

Remedy seemed more reserved, but Clover let her speak when she asked; for the most part, she didn’t, choosing to keep to herself. Clover almost seemed relieved the days Remedy didn’t say anything at all.

And Refuge…River said she was still having trouble speaking or articulating herself in general and River had been trying to teach her sign language in hopes that would help. Then Seiche had informed them that all the Gods could understand every mortal langage innately, including sign, so if Refuge wasn’t capable of speaking, that wasn’t the solution. Azaleon liked to stay optimistic and hoped Seiche was wrong.

“Alouette was right, you are all sensitive; do you actually think a bond forged by bloodshed and years of patience is lesser than more traditional courting methods?” Seiche asked.

“Was that you or Seiche?” Clover asked from the sink.

“Seiche? Could you not tell?” Azaleon asked.

“Uh, no, sorry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, especially when I’m not looking at your eyes.” At least Clover was honest about it. Sure, Seiche used his voice when he spoke, but Seiche was much more formal and blunt, wasn’t he? Azaleon was baffled she’d struggle with it.

“I can always tell. Might be because I’ve known you forever so I can tell the differences from all the similarities,” Kuiper said.

What similarities?” Azaleon asked, and Aspen actually stopped what he was doing to give Azaleon a look, eyebrows raised, as if he should know what they all meant.

“You’re both sycophantic wannabe upstarts, for one thing,” Aspen said. “The only difference is Seiche actually commands respect despite all of his scheming, whereas you’re an idiot.”

“...Accusing me of scheming on Seatide of all days is just asking for a flood–”

“Don’t even start with that! I looked up this supposed ‘flood’ from the Dark Age, year 3219, right? Nothing on the records about it,” Aspen said smugly, crossing his arms.

“Yes, no traces because I put that entire country underwater and it’s been forgotten to time. That was long before Fern Helion or Lacus Mare were even established. Back then the land was divided by smaller country-states and it wasn’t just the Sol and Lunar Gods that had their own regions. We had domain over more than just one measly temple each, our worshippers would all be in one area for the most part; it was certainly convenient…” Seiche sounded more wistful than actually angry with Aspen for challenging him.

“What, did that dissolve because you all couldn’t get along?” Clover asked. “Er– I mean, not to be rude or anything! But I’ve always heard the Sol and Lunar Gods had to ‘tame’ all of you, ad um, flooding things sounds..kind of wild, so…”

“...No, that’s just something they say now, a type of propaganda from the two of them, I suppose; if we were wild, then it was because humans were too, and we’re a mirror of all of you. Or perhaps the other way around. Regardless, things wouldn’t have dissolved because we didn’t get along. We never really fought in the Upper Realm. We’re all part of one machine, you could say, or all colors in one rainbow. We’re meant to work together. Fillip works with Remedy to help people discover and develop medicine. Alouette works with Frond to allow humans to transform raw materials into harvesting tools. I work with Refuge to ensure people can win fights and choose the proper ones to pick for the sake of keeping themselves safe. The Lunar God is supposed to help me with the tides. The Sol God helps Frond with his plants. We all have to lend ourselves to each other for your sakes in countless ways. Innovation, art, entertainment, hunting, technology, agriculture, refining materials, conflict and resolution…” Seiche trailed off. “...Kuiper, are you crying?”

“Not me. Fillip.” Kuiper was pinching the bridge of his nose and tilting his head up, obviously annoyed judging by the crease of his brows. “She’s very touched and inspired, and its overflowing.”

“...To answer your question, Clover, no, those country-states dissolved because of politics. Did you sleep through our history classes?” Aspen asked, ignoring Kuiper who was groaning and wiping at his leaky eyes.

“For the most part, yes, but not entirely. There was perhaps a bit of push here and there from me and…Inferno. I think they’d convinced me larger countries would be easier to manage looking after, even though I personally liked things more separated because it created more interesting possibilities for alliances and rivalries...” The way Seiche hesitated to even say the Sol God’s name, the word sticking to Azaleon’s mouth uncomfortably, made Azaleon suspect he was still uneasy using it. Save for Fillip, all of the Gods had forgotten the Sol and Lunar God’s proper names, just as people had.

Over the course of the week, on and off, the Gods had discussed what would happen when Frond Peter, the last sealed God, was released. The problem was largely Alouette. Could they go back with all of them if they went to the Upper Realm to confront the Sol and Lunar Gods, since they had ‘untethered’ themself to their body up there? Could Alouette risk doing the supposed ‘large scale casting’ they’d done with their power in Lacus Mare a hundred years ago on Fern Helion without restarting the Phoenix cycle? It’d be nice if they could, since it’d prevent the Gods from resealing each other again, given that they’d be unable to force humans to be marked as sacrifices; no more human souls could be used as locks. But it had been impossible to contact Alouette since they’d practically fled to Fern Helion, and Fillip, as many theories as she had, those were just that: theories…they had no way of actually knowing what would happen.

And what would happen if the Sol and Lunar Gods resealed the Gods? None of the Gods actually seemed overly concerned about that being a possibility; Seiche had said he had been ‘ambushed’, but had also said, as all of them had been adamant about, that their powers really couldn’t affect each other. Maybe they couldn’t reseal them without a Quasar killing the other Quasar, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. Maybe they had another reason to be confident that wasn’t a possibility. Azaleon chalked it up to being something he simply didn’t understand that the Gods and everyone else assumedly did.

Maybe he was being overly worried for no reason. They were Gods. Surely they knew what they were doing.

…Then again, Seiche didn’t seem to understand what oven mitts were for, and when Azaleon had pointed them out, he’d gotten defensive, saying of course he wouldn’t, he wasn’t ‘domesticated and integrated like a pet’ with humans ‘like Alouette was’.

It made Azaleon a bit sad to imagine Seiche gone, and he paused, absorbing that thought. It definitely was a weird one to have, since Seiche made him feel violently ill half the time. Even Seiche seemed surprised by the sentiment, very quickly changing the topic of Azaleon’s thoughts by wondering if Kuiper would like the dish they’d prepared. To which Azaleon wondered why exactly Seiche was so concerned about his partner and thought he wouldn’t know Kuiper’s tastes. Of course he’d like it.

Clover was staring at him, her lips quirked into a grin. “Is something wrong? Are you arguing with Seiche in your head? I can hear Remedy, when she just wants to speak to me alone,” she noted. “And you looked pissed for a second, but I don’t know which of you is mad. But the table is set, and the dishes are mostly done. Sooo…” she did a little gesture towards the dining area. There was a formal dining area with a long stretching table for royalty and their guests, but Aspen had pointed out eating there would have been ‘overkill’ since it was just the four of them.

So they’d opted for the smaller, less formal room where a lot of the staff would eat, something like a cafeteria. It wasn’t really a surprise to Azaleon that Aspen would say that. As long as he’d been assigned to him, Alder had been out of the castle and Aspen had chosen to dine in his private quarters; he was probably expected to dine with his Father when both of them were home, but Azaleon had secretly been relieved he hadn’t had to suffer through that yet.

Clover was still staring at him expectantly.

“Um– no, it’s fine,” Azaleon said, but by the time he was sitting down, he was staring at Kuiper intently. What if he didn’t like it? Did Seiche see him make some obvious mistake or something? He’d specifically left out the onions because he knew Kuiper hated the texture of them unless they were cooked just so.

“...What?” Kuiper asked.

“Is it good?”

“‘Is it good?’ Are you serious? Gods, why are you a guard?” Aspen asked, and by his rare, almost reverential tone, Azaleon realized he was praising the food. Kuiper gave a small nod, and Azaleon was flooded with relief.

“Yeah, I want the recipe. I know it’s from Fillip, but you must’ve modified it,” Clover said. “It's super good! Does Seiche like it? I mean– it’s kind of his big day and all…”

Azaleon gently nudged Seiche forward and let him try a forkful. Obviously, he was using Azaleon’s tastebuds, and Azaleon had liked it, but a part of him wondered anyway, antsy with anticipation.

“Though I don’t entirely agree with the traditions you all use to celebrate me, I am grateful for the praise. It’s..fine,” Seiche said finally. Fine? Just fine?

“I’m going to make something you actually really love before you leave next week,” Azaleon grumbled.

“If you’re unhappy with the way we honor you–well, tell me how you’d prefer to be celebrated and I can put the word out,” Aspen said.

“No. I like to see what you all come up with. I’m more amused than I am feeling disrespected; I understand your intentions,” Seiche said, and Azaleon wondered what Seiche actually would prefer– he assumed fighting of some kind.

He asked the God to silently humor him and tell him if he was right, and got a shock of mental images of Kuiper, lips bloody, and Seiche wearing Azaleon’s body to lick the blood off. He put his hands over his face. “Stop, stop, stop! Ugh, just because you’re sharing my body doesn’t mean you can share him with me! You absolute parasitic urchin, I–”

“Well, he answered my question. He’d obviously rather spend his holiday trying to make people mad and pick fights,” Aspen laughed.

“What’d he say, what’d he say?” Clover leaned in, eyes gleaming.

“It–it doesn't matter,” Azaleon sighed, Seiche chuckling in his ear. Kuiper looked mildly curious. “It was a dumb joke, he definitely was just trying to pick a fight.” At least Azaleon hoped that was the case. “Anyway, I–”

“Excuse me, Your Highness?” They were all interrupted by a woman in the doorway–castle staff, judging by her style of dress– bowed slightly after addressing Aspen. “I apologize for interrupting your meal.”

“You’re forgiven; what did you need?” Aspen asked, tone switching to a more formal and authoritative one, his posture a bit straighter.

“I work in the castle’s private communication center downstairs. Before she left for Seatide, Princess Saros instructed me to notify you immediately if we got word of the young man in the photograph she gave us. We just got a message that he was spotted at the center in Briarwood.”

Clove dropped her fork on the table, her voice barely a whisper when she asked:

“...They found Juniper?”

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