DISCLAIMER: Blaze Union © Sting

(portrait of a family – wavering like the twinkling stars)

Definitions change.

When he was six, home was a word foreign to his vocabulary. It twisted on his tongue bitterly and never came out right when he tried to get it past his larynx, so he refused to try it. It was a mythological concept, the same as things like happiness and warmth, and peace. It was an old legend, and nothing more.

When he was fifteen, home was a sky filled with stars, a scavenged collection of blankets and mattress scraps under his back, and Siskier's warm familiar presence next to him—the feeling that they were the only two in the world, and everything painful would just melt away if he breathed in that presence and that sky and soaked in the knowledge that Jenon was only a morning away. It was the abstract sensation of having chiseled away a tiny niche in the cold stone wall of society that he could call his own—a place where "reality" could be denied for a few moments in favor of "comfort".

When he was seventeen—it was when he was seventeen that home first became something solid. He slept with a roof over his head and a mattress that was whole and only a little uncomfortable beneath him, regular meals, and endless noise and banter like crying gulls filling the daytime hours. He was a part of something greater, and he was looked to by others—there was the sensation of being shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand with everyone else. Home became a combination of place and people and a soft, warm sensation rising deep within his chest, melded in a tremulous thought of mine.

And now—now that the world actually sees him as an adult at the age of twenty, home is—

It was never something new, having an older man in the periphery. It couldn't have been, in his life. So it was not as uncomfortable as it might have been, for Baldus to be nearby as he went about the neverending business that comes with being Emperor, for all that Baldus was such a comparatively recent addition. But if someone had stopped him with a hand on his arm and asked, severely and in a tone demanding honesty, just what that presence really meant, he wouldn't have been able to answer, his silence stretching out in a suggestion of scarred-over old wounds. Ones infinitely close to bursting open once more.

And so.

The first time he presented an armful of safely completed, quintuple-checked paperwork for Baldus' perusal, the first time the old general paged through them with a string of small nods that transmitted their soft graceful movement down the formidable length of his beard, the first time he tucked them safely away and then as if it were the most natural thing in the world, reached out and rested his grizzled hand atop Gulcasa's head, gnarled fingers featherlight against his hair—

It had the power of an electric shock to the chest. His muscles went rigid, his eyes widened, his heart started thundering, all quite out of his control as he curled down and inward and tensed helplessly against the threat. His vision went bright, then dark, and pain seized his chest and arm and throat, all thin and jagged like shards of glass, their dust spreading like poison through his veins and contaminating his entire body. His power—wasn't even a second thought, the flames constantly simmering just out of sight beneath his skin doused by nearly two decades of instinctual terror. Panic and fear rejected everything else and then turned in on themselves inside his nerve-shredded body, balling up deep within his stomach and forcing bile up into the well of his throat. The ability to hold himself in check, to swallow, to clear his head had scattered with his senses, and the bile forced its way out as he leaned forward, shoulder and ribs striking the edge of the table with ugly force as he collapsed in a sprawl on the floor, braced against the desk drawers, back bowed up in a great mountainous arch as his insides violently emptied themselves quite of their own volition—leaving him a shuddering wreck, curled up hyperventilating with limbs askew, arms up rigid to protect his head.

It was a common enough story.

Even now, he cannot clearly remember the rest of that day—it passed in a blur of worried faces and voices and muddled confusion that never quite made its way understandably past his distorted senses.

The constant, the single constant—was the pair of old firm hands so like but unlike his father's that supported, that rested, that coaxed and never never never touched any part of him that could be considered a handhold for executing greater harm.

(whether Baldus simply guessed or whether someone explained it to him over the course of that day, Gulcasa still has no idea; it is just that when he later tried to speak of his childhood falteringly, painfully, and his throat firmly barricaded itself after the words "my father"—the old general just shook his head and smiled and made it clear that he did. Not. Have to explain anything at all, so very kindly that it made his vision blur with an awkward heat that threatened constantly to overflow)

He learned at seventeen, realized too late, that there is a part of him that is yearning and searching desperately for something to fill the void that had opened up so early in his life, it'd left him with no real conscious understanding of what father should be. Velleman—and he cuts himself off every time he thinks it, lest his thoughts drown themselves in guilt; at any rate, there is no use groping in the dark when he does not even understand what he is reaching for, let alone whether the other party is receptive in the least.

So he does not—is almost afraid to—think of Baldus as fatherly in any way.


But over the past three years, he has learned that the palms of Baldus' hands have a curious kind of warmth. It took time, and the deepest unhealed part of his heart will always tremble a bit when it happens, but—now that he knows, body and mind, how to interpret a gesture of praise from this man, he can close his eyes and accept having his head patted lightly and his hair stroked. And when he does, it is with the smallest of smiles and a pleased flush of blood warming his cheeks from within.

Because they are simply that similar, he'd known from the second he and Leon had stood side by side on that mountain, horses flank-to-flank with their lances aimed at a common enemy—he'd known that Leon would follow him anywhere, and that he'd always be able to rely on the other knight. Always.

He hadn't foreseen how quickly that bond would need to be tested, but—such was life. As Nessiah always said bitterly, the hands of the gods took away far more often than they gave.

And he—he hadn't considered it then, but looking back, he can do so now: That for Leon, it must have been much the same as this. Siskier hadn't been their leader by any means—she'd only been at the center of everything. Only. Medoute had grown silent and stared at him through cold eyes—he would never have been able to understand what she must already have been planning—and Jenon wouldn't look at him, wouldn't speak to him, had probably blamed him and wished he'd been just a bit faster with his sword—

Nessiah. Nessiah had been there for him, been there when no one else had, but Nessiah could not always be there and try to fill the empty mantle of leadership at the same time. Even in the grief that had settled over him, over them all, like a kind of madness—he'd understood that.

And Leon, who after all had been through this once before, simply sat at the fireside, presenting Gulcasa with his back.

He never said anything. He never compared the loss of Siskier to the loss of his own parents, or pointed out aloud that now they were only that much more similar. He simply offered his back, and slowly, gingerly, Gulcasa sat down and rested against it.

Leon had been a bit taller than him then, his back slightly broader than Gulcasa's. It wasn't a very significant thing, but it was a detail that registered—that broadness, the straightness and strength of his spine, the way that the knight's back felt incredibly sturdy and dependable.

And so. So. Gulcasa leaned back against him, tilted his face up to the sky until the back of his head jarred against the edge of Leon's skull and the seamless blanket of diamond stars that crossed the sky blurred against his vision.

(he saw, briefly superimposed over that broad blackness, the white circle of that night's full moon and the pale twist of Siskier's scarf tracing through the sky, like blood in the water, like the curls of smoke that had risen into the air from the burning barracks—)

Before he could think to, he was already biting his lip, but the pain came too late; his eyes had already begun to sting sharply. Still—Leon never said anything, not even when all he could do was shake and struggle to kill his voice. Maybe Leon had wanted to say or do something, and just hadn't known what to say or been too embarrassed to act, but… his silence, the way he pretended not to notice as Gulcasa struggled not to break down… to Gulcasa, it had been the kindest possible show of empathy.

And Leon never brought it up, but—that kind of thing happened a lot. Whenever he needed someone and Nessiah couldn't be there, the knight seemed to appear out of thin air—pretending at irritability, never quite looking him in the face, blustering and presenting a shoulder or that strong back and an infinitely warm silence.

That connection—that empathy too frail to be expressed with the clumsiness of words—has become something of a thread of humanity. Sustaining his heart, and just maybe—sustaining Leon's too.

It had been a little frightening at first, plunging headfirst into the unknown territory of his demon blood, the dark country his mother had destroyed all his young self's maps to in one blanketing strike—he'd realized soon that all his resolve, that all his grit and guts and terror of failure didn't mean that he could handle all of this by himself—but then that first terrible week, the first time he'd really used his power and then stumbled terrified of his own churning blood off to a secluded rock face and been wholeheartedly sick, Nessiah had found him straight away and held him and brought him back to camp, and while the mage looked through his notes and papers for something that could help, Gulcasa sat curled over with a small hand on either temple while Emilia of all people talked him matter-of-factly through calming his body down. And he realized that he wasn't alone, that even without Siskier he would never be alone again because all these people were here and wanted to do anything they could to help, the same way he'd always felt about them.

And when it comes to helping with Brongaa's blood, there is nothing quite like this mysterious creature called little sister in whose veins run the same madness he calls his own.

The reason that her tiny stature and youthful moments completely dumbfound him if he ever lets himself linger on them, ever really thinks about how Emilia is six years younger than him and how that makes her a child, really—is because she left that state long ago mentally, is stranded in the wasteland of in-between the almost-safe world of being cared for and the age of having to do everything oneself, with instinct and longing tugging her towards both sides at once.

And for all that she can't use an entire five fingers to count the curse words she knows, for all that she turns up her nose at this or that and is far too enamored with her wardrobe—Emilia is wise. She wasn't raised ignorant to her state of being; Baretreenu sealed her blood tight as she sealed his own, but Emilia was taught the basics of her demonhood, the essentials of how to cope with the earliest threats of Brongaa's soft whispering through his blood about how much easier everything would be if he just—let it all go.

Her body is small and no one ever taught her how to speak properly and her hands are tiny and unused to handling weaponry, but—she's steadfast and has a good head on her shoulders, and whenever she yells at the big brother she adores for the way he constantly seesaws between invincible conqueror and wretchedly ill, all jumbled angled limbs and disheveled hair and climbing fever and misery misery misery, Gulcasa actually feels ashamed. She scolds him precisely because she adores him, and he can see it in a way he never can with anyone else: In the tremble of her lip, the glossiness of her eyes (just slightly greener than his own), in a billion tiny hints that life experience hasn't yet taught her how to hide.

There are levels to being the Emperor, to being Gulcasa; layers and layers of defenses and facades and Emilia is one of the precious few people who he's willing to let the last of them fall around. Because the role of counselor and adviser has fallen to her, and if he cannot let himself be a little weak in front of her then he can be weak in front of no one.

And he is not quite strong enough yet that he never needs to be weak.

So they sit together, her slight fingertips stretched out over the length of his cheekbones or his hands fumbling to do up the ever-more-complicated fastenings of whatever new clothes she's pestered the tailors into making for her this time or his face hidden in her hair. There is a lot resting on Emilia's slim shoulders. That's how she wants it; it is simply Gulcasa's task to quietly make sure that the burden isn't too great for her.

He's proud to be her brother, and grateful to be her student in the matter of what it means to bear a dragon's blood, and if outsiders find it strange to see the way that their roles swap back and forth on the thin edge of a coin, then let them; it'll provide some amusement for Nessiah and the others.

There are eleven years' worth of stolen time to make up for, and that won't happen all by itself.

He simply isn't well-read enough to describe what it means that it's so rare for him to wake up alone.

There's the fact that even now, nightmares are enough of a threat that he really does need someone with him in the practical sense; bad dreams make for terrible sleep, and not enough sleep makes him ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the day.

But there is also the fact that he's known since they met that the road to Nessiah's heart is as difficult to tread as the forest he used to live in, dark and overgrown with a path as narrow as the gaps between thorns in a goddamn rosebush. He's known since the first week they spent together that Nessiah's heart itself is protected by padlock upon padlock, wrapped so heavily in thickets of chain that you can barely glimpse the red past all that metal.

Yet despite all of that, the first thing Gulcasa sees every morning when he opens his eyes is the halo of Nessiah's dull blond hair all mussed about his face on the pillow across from his. And when he reaches out, his hand will brush and trace down the silken slope of Nessiah's side, an expanse of pure white skin all in soft curves and the most delicate angles, defenseless and quite bare.

The sheer understated trust of it just staggers him.

By virtue of his own childhood, he was always able to perceive that a good deal of what Nessiah was guarding jealously within the confines of his own heart was some old and still-festering hurt.

(even now he does not know what that hurt truly entails, only the vague topography of the wounds; Nessiah is too wary and private a person to let his every barrier fall quite so easily)

And so there was always some link of kinship between them that the others had not; a shy fumbling through the dark and a smile, a clumsy attempt at comfort that never went unappreciated. Perhaps it was the same on Nessiah's part, as he'd always seemed more interested in and sympathetic toward his captain than to anyone else in the army, save perhaps Emilia.

But it wasn't until Siskier's loss had stranded him in the cold desert of his own pain and self-hatred that the faint link had solidified into a bond. Gulcasa had been reeling bereft of everything, blind with emotion, and Nessiah—who after all knew better than any how it was to be blind—had taken him by the hand and rooted him to the rickety shape of here and now and what do we do next. He knows, deep down into his bones, that he could not have survived shedding the chrysalis called Garlot without Nessiah's thin but surprisingly resilient shoulders to lean upon.

And somewhere along the line leaning blurred into embracing and Nessiah's whispers like velvet progressed to kisses like lace; sometime between the blow of Siskier and the fissure through his heart of Jenon and Medoute, he'd decided to shelve the pretense of separate tents.

He hadn't wanted the first time to happen out of his own emotional hemorrhaging—he'd wanted it to be more than that—and so that hadn't been until feeling better was on its way to the norm. He was glad of the wait, as it had let him sort out the way he felt before the fact.

And the way he felt was—

He'd never consciously realized before. He'd known on some level that the people around him were precious to him, but that sense was vague, and this was—immediate. He was sharply aware of every gesture, every touch, the soft winding of Nessiah's fingers through his own, and the warmth or absence thereof he could use to tell whether that constant smile was genuine or not.

Gulcasa's not well-read enough to put it elegantly. But he knows that he's never felt this way about anyone else in his entire life, not even Siskier.

Their relationship isn't seamless. Nessiah is secretive and catty and sometimes he has a pragmatic cruelty that no amount of love will make Gulcasa able to really condone. And Gulcasa's far from perfect too—he's new at this, and even he's willing to admit that he's not very smart when it comes to unraveling the maze of Nessiah's words and intent. So they argue. They hurt each other. And bit by bit, their one-sided expectations and demands crash against each other and even out into something mutual and strong.

When his body threatens to fall apart on him and it's beyond the range of what Emilia's advice can let him fix, it's always been Nessiah who's pulled him back from the edge. Nessiah taught him how to dance the intricate quickstep of politics, helped him learn to shape his letters, added the stroke of cold and terrible reason to the overwhelming power of Gulcasa's offense—the New Bronquian Empire would not have become what it is without him.

And it's the little things—that warmly teasing smile, Nessiah's fingers woven through his own, his palms framing Nessiah's hips, the mornings they wake tangled together—that have given Gulcasa the strength to gather up the fragments of his heart and make it whole again.

It's like the steps to a ladder. First I will become strong enough to protect one person. Then I'll grow strong enough to protect one country, and then one world. He can handle a progression, and the way that Nessiah has started to lean on him in turn is—it feels good, it feels like he's finally started to get somewhere.

home is less the place and more the people.

He's not the same man he was back then. Just one look in the mirror is enough to confirm that—and even then it's less about how he wears his hair or what he calls himself and more about how it's gotten harder to smile with all his heart, about how the innocence has been stripped from his eyes, leaving his gaze harsh even when it's reflected on himself.

He's grown up.

He's lost—

(a mother, a best friend, a mentor, a man whose approval he'd fought for desperately)

—a lot of things. But he's gained a lot, too—not least among those gains is the knowledge that these people, the ones who surround him now, are the ones who really and truly do accept and love him. The knowledge that this is the home that's worth protecting, more than any other.

…And that's what he'll do with every doubled beat of his heart until the day it stops forever.