The Firebird Prince

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“Why are you staring at me?”

Aryan’s mouth twitched. “There’s something wrong with your face.”

Ahad rolled his eyes. “There is nothing wrong with my face,” he said.

Aryan smiled, then gasped. “I’ve got it! You actually look happy.”

Ahad scoffed, focusing on rewrapping the bandages around his hand. “Beating the life out of things makes me happy.” He pulled too tightly sand winced, aware of Aryan’s eyes turning concerned.

“I don’t know why you thought it was a good idea to spare with an injured hand.”

“It doesn’t even qualify as a scratch,” Ahad retorted. “Besides, I don’t see you complaining about your injury, so why should I?”

“This is not a competition,” Aryan said, amused.

“Everything’s a competition.”

“Okay,” Aryan sighed, shaking his head. “You big idiot.”

“Who the idiot is is debatable.” Ahad got to his feet and stared out at the sparring field--someone was approaching the castle.

“Davinson,” he said under his breath. There was something so unnatural about that boy--and it was something else coming from himself. It ticked Ahad off, though he was careful not to show it.

“What do you reckon he does all the time?” Aryan asked as he pushed his sword into its sheath.

“No good,” Ahad said. “I’d find out exactly what, but he’s the King’s guest, so I have to--” He raised his eyebrows at Aryan-- “restrain myself.”

Aryan shook his head again. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said, bemused. “Throwing everything I say right back in my face and oh!” He dramatically clutched his chest. “It burns!”

“That’s the point,” Ahad muttered. He traced Davinson as he trudged across the field, then turned around the bend of the building and disappeared.

“Damn restraining myself,” Ahad said to Aryan. “He’s up to something and it’s our job to find out what. I’m going to spy on him.”

“If the King finds out--”

“That’s the point of spying,” Ahad cut in, annoyed. “Nobody finds out!”

He jogged across the field and stopped just at the bend, scanning for Davinson. There he was--talking to a soldier, rather deep in conversation for a casual visit. Ahad narrowed his eyes. What are you up to?

This was clearly meant to be a private conversation, and Nico was hiding something. Ahad could tell by his body language, the way he was tensed. He ran an eye over his clothes and found his trouser’s cuffs damp. But it was a dry day.

Then Nico reached into his hidden coat pocket--the action might have been imperceptible, but Ahad had always found the hidden to be obvious for him. And he took out--

“What did you find?”

Ahad cursed loudly and whirled on Aryan, furious. “For God’s sake, Aryan,” he said, then made a vulgar gesture conveying the precise message: If you don’t shut your mouth right now, I’ll--

Well, Aryan got the point.

Ahad looked back around the bend and saw to his dismay that Nico had heard Aryan and was looking around suspiciously. He gestured the soldier to walk away, walking slowly towards the Commanders.

“Blast it,” Ahad said, then shot a look at Aryan and retreated backwards and quickly shoved the storage room door open.

“Get in,” he ordered, and Aryan sheepishly obeyed.

He bolted the door and then took a tight breath, hand clenched around the rung. The room was small and dark, and none of that was anywhere near Ahad’s list of things he was okay with.

But he pushed his fear away and let his anger cloud it. “Have you literally no sense? I almost had him.”

“I didn’t think it would come out that loud!” Aryan protested, and Ahad could have slammed his head against the wall.

“For someone so emotionally intelligent and proficient as a commander,” he said, “you sure are stupid.”

“Don’t you go around insulting me,” Aryan said, hurt.

Ahad closed his eyes and shook his head. He pressed his hands to his face but then a wave a revulsion hit him--he reeled, lowering his hands and staring at them.

He glanced at Aryan but his comrade was busy being offended, for which Ahad was thankful. He wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers. His--his own touch had sent him reeling, and that was...that was terrifying.

That almost never happened.

Ahad shook his head as if that would shake the thoughts away., and resolutely imagined a brick wall in his mind. There was nothing else. No fear, no triggers...just himself and the brick wall that would keep negative thoughts away.

It was a ridiculous, ineffective coping mechanism, one that Ahad had taken up in loneliness and desperation and terror, and he clung to it because he did not know what else to do.

He closed his eyes and counted slowly, breathing with the numbers. One, two, three. Breathe in. Four, five, six--breathe out.

“Ahad,” Aryan said, tapping his shoulder. That almost sent Ahad into panic again, but he managed to contain himself and turned to Aryan.

“What?” Thankfully, his voice was steady.

“We should...get out,” Aryan said, an eyebrow raised.

Ahad swallowed hard and nodded. “Right. We--” He reached for the bolt, but his hands were shaking so hard he could barely get a grip on it.

“Ahad,” Aryan said, concerned.

Breathe. “I can’t see,” Ahad lied, crossing his arms to keep his hands from sight. “It’s--it’s dark.”

“Let me,” Aryan said, and Ahad took an unsteady step back, shrinking into himself to avoid any touch. Aryan quickly unbolted the door and opened the door. He stepped outside but Ahad hung back for a brief second, steadying himself. I’m not back there.

Then he squared his shoulders and stepped out. Aryan was already heading back towards the castle, but Ahad went towards the field again.

“Where are you going?” Aryan called. His voice was flat.

“You’re mad at me,” Ahad said, “so why do you care?”

“Fine,” Aryan said darkly, and then sullenly continued on his way.

Ahad crossed his arms tighter and scowled, walking stiffly. Beyond the field, tucked away in a corner was the graveyard where his family was buried, and Ahad felt drawn towards it, even though he knew it would bring more bad memories. Every month he would go to visit them and this time, he’d barely had time.

The first glance of the tombstones was always the worst--it hit Ahad in the face, hard even if he expected it. With a breath, Ahad continued until he stood before their graves. There were four of them--his parents, his brother, and his sister.

Ahad closed his eyes, head bowed, and fought against the grief. Fifteen years--and still he was miserable. It was ridiculous, and yet--

Ahad sank to the ground and whispered, “And yet I still miss you.”

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