[P] [m] a tale is told in a dark, dark night
for Cas/San, set Apr 8th

WARNING: This thread contains material exceeding the general board rating of PG-13. It may contain very strong language, drug usage, graphic violence, or graphic sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.

Specifically, this thread is marked mature because of: discussion of abuse.
(388) | NPCs: | Optime |

Azalea kissed Thistle's head and chuckled when the sleeping baby rolled over and yawned loudly. Really, she shouldn’t bother them or else they’d wake up. But they were so cute. Moving on she kissed Indigo’s head and waited for a reaction. As usual, the deep sleeper didn’t react at all. It took a lot for him to wake up. Sundew, on the other hand, she barely brushed with her tongue, for she was the first to rise in the morning and was often the one to awake in the middle of the night searching for her parents. Skadi she kissed normally and watched the pup grumble in her sleep. This one was a sleep-talker.

Nervously, she stood up and stepped away from them. Casimir was waiting for her, she couldn’t delay any longer, not after she’d asked him to speak with her. Still. . . spending more time with her puppies was far more appealing than the conversation she was about to have with her husband. Shaking her head, she smiled once more at the puppy pile as she turned away and walked out the door, leaving it cracked so that they could find them should they awake.

Casimir sat by the fire, looking nervous. Though, perhaps Azalea was just projecting her own feelings onto him. It was hard to tell, especially since Casimir often looked a little bit anxious when they had serious conversations. Sitting down across from him, Azalea smiled as she pulled her legs against her body and wrapped her arms around them. ”Okay, they’re all asleep, finally.”

Taking a deep breath, she paused. Telling Casimir the whole story was something long overdue, in Azalea’s opinion. Nobody, thus far, knew the whole story. What would happen if Aani was caught? Who would have Azalea’s back in a trial? Worse, what would happen if Aani was never caught? If rumors began to spread and Casimir heard them before Azalea could tell him her side of the story? Her heart seemed to stop for a moment when she opened her mouth once more. ”I think it’s time I tell you everything that happened with Aani. The whole story. It’s. . . a long one, but I’d prefer that you hear it from me than from. . . someone else.”
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While there was always talk of parents and favorites and the lackthereof, what he came to learn in his own version of fatherhood was that no relationship was the same. Woven together by the threads of love, as the days went on they began to separate in pattern and Casimir regularly marveled at the shapes they took.

The first time he realized he had something different, something changing, was with Sundew. When she woke in the middle of the night, Casimir was the one to rise with her. After tending to her needs, he sometimes fell asleep by the fire, her little body curled upon his chest. In these tender moments of peace, he could believe in the falsehood that he and Azalea had together crafted; the magic of that familial safety, the kind of trust that was in its inception totally unbroken, unmarred, replete. Sundew would not know the cruelty of the world for one sleepy second longer, and Casimir too, could be a part of that dream.

The fire crackled in its pen, spitting flames into the quiet home. He sat now not in the armchair, but on the furs before the hearth, his arms slung around his knees and a cup of something bitter clasped in his hands between. This he sipped and set aside when Azalea joined him.

"We have until midnight then," he said, only half in jest. Casimir shuffled the blanket from the armchair at his back, and handed this to her as she got comfortable.

Despite his gentle conviviality, he knew that a grim tale awaited him. When he looked at his wife's face, he could still see the shape of youth in her features—not yet two whole winters of age, she had the misfortune to experience a lifetime's worth of sorrow. Once settled, the firelight seemed to expand that time in her bright green eyes.

He waited, considering the expansion and contraction of all these moments of hurt that existed like dust motes in the air, swirling around them, unspoken but ever present. He gave a nod to show that he was ready to listen.
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(2671) | NPCs: | Optime | LMAO sorry for this massive post we didn't want to break the story up into a bunch of smaller posts with Casimir being polite and not-interrupting XD

Smiling briefly at Casimir’s comment, Azalea leaned back and got comfortable. ”Indeed. Hopefully they’ll let me get through it all!” It was, after all, a very long story. She would have to take care to tell it properly, leaving out the parts that were unnecessary and including only the key details. Curling her fingers into the fur that she sat on, Azalea took a moment to compose herself and gather her will. A familiar feeling of detachment took hold and, like once before, her lips began to move almost before she knew what she was going to say.

”I met Aani properly for the first time about a year ago. I was. . . I suppose I was nine months old at the time. She was older and she seemed very. . . cool. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but she was charming. Even though I felt like there was something wrong, I ignored my better judgment, and I went home with her.” Azalea took a deep breath in and let it out slowly, remembering that first day. The day that would alter the course of her life irreparably. ”There, she introduced me to opium.”

Uncertain, her gaze flickered to meet Casimir’s only briefly, searching for a reaction, before moving on. ”I liked it. But I didn’t like the way she’d been treating me. She touched me, touched my hair, my tail, my shoulders and legs. She acted strangely. And after that day it felt like she was everywhere I was. It scared me, but I didn’t want to tell anyone about the opium, so I stayed quiet.”

This period of time was one that Azalea regretted deeply. Still, there are only so many times she could pore over her experience and say ’I wish’ before coming to the realization that she would never be able to change that experience. That she had to accept it. ”Then I got my Cotona done, and the Hand of Eris was carved into my back. Perhaps it was weakness, but in those days of healing, the opium appeared in my mind once more. As did Aani. I can see now, looking back, that she learned from that first meeting, because when I returned to her she did everything she could not to frighten me off once more.

”You might say that I became addicted as soon as I had that second taste.” Wrapping her arms around her knees, Azalea pulled her legs against her body and laid her head down to rest on them. ”And from that day on, I was hers. It didn’t matter what she wanted from me, I would do it, so long as the promise of opium was given. I even became something of a nanny to her puppies and watched over them when she was high. All the while, she kept on getting more and more familiar with me. . . and I became more comfortable with her. I never liked touch, but the more she did it the more I accepted it. It wasn't like I could get her to stop. And at the end of the day, what did it matter if she touched my belly, or my neck, or my hair, if I got the drugs I needed?

”But she was jealous. Aani was terribly jealous. I didn't even understand how jealous she could get, or even that she was jealous at all and that was why she behaved as she did, until much later. She didn't like me spending time with others, even my own family, even her own family. She didn’t like it when I left, even if I was only gone for the afternoon to spend time with my family. She didn't like it when I didn't pay attention to her. At some point, she convinced me that I should move in with them. That I needed to move in with them.” Azalea sighed, mentally preparing herself for this great turning point in the story. 

”Well, I’d been alright at hiding my addiction thus far. I don’t think anyone suspected me mostly because I was barely more than a puppy and because I was supposedly doing well. I was good at faking it. But by then I was doing stupid things and going out in public high. I figured that I wouldn’t be able to keep it secret from my family much longer so long as I lived with them. So I agreed.” 

Another great mistake. If she hadn't done that. . . who knows where she would be now. Who knows where Catalina would be now. ”I ended up not living there long. Like I said, Aani was jealous. She even became jealous of her own puppies. Believe it or not, she didn’t like it when I gave them attention. All of this led up to a truly terrible road trip. She told me that we were going out for the day. That’s also what she told Eden, I guess. She lied, we ended up going all the way out to somewhere by Del Cenere Gang.”

Avoiding eye contact by staring into the flickering flames, Azalea felt a shudder run through her body. At one point she had believed that she would carry this secret to the grave with her. How grateful she was that she wouldn’t have to. The secret would have crushed her until there was nothing left. ”Aani pressured me into using. I tried not to when the puppies were around because I was paranoid that something would happen to them. Rightfully so, might I add. But she kept on insisting and eventually I said yes. I gave in. So we settle down and at some point I tell her ‘I need to get water’. When I return? Aani is gone and Catalina is just lying there. But she looks strange, like there’s something wrong with her. So I go running to her and she isn’t breathing. Or, if she was I couldn’t tell. I was still high. And young, very young. I wasn't even a year old at this point.”

Frowning, Azalea continued, immersed in her memories. ”So then Aani returned. She was. . . scary. The scariest she had ever been, up until that point. There had been some moments where she’d threatened me and there had been moments where she’d done things that I had felt uncomfortable with, but it wasn’t until then that I really, truly, felt like I was in real danger. And she did. . . many things. . . but basically she accused me of leaving out the opium for Catalina to eat. Which, that was obviously what had happened, the bowl was right there and the opium was nearly gone. But I remembered putting the opium away after we’d used it. I tried to tell her otherwise but she threw a fit.”

Still Azalea could recall how strange Aani had acted, how wrong her grief had felt, and how quickly Azalea had begun to believe Aani despite her contradicting memories. Azalea wished that she'd had someone to hug her back then and tell her that it hadn't been her fault, that Aani was trying to make her think she was crazy. ”But she was so convincing, and so angry. It didn’t matter what I had to say, or what I believed. She was the adult, she was the mother of the dead puppy. I was in the wrong. I had left the bowl out, it was my fault.”

Azalea fell silent for a long time after this. The event had happened a long time ago, after all, and even still it hurt to think about it, let alone share her pain with someone. Voice taking on a strained quality, Azalea finally continued. ”And then Aani begins to panic. What are we going to do with the body? I tell her that we have to bring her back to Salsola, back to Eden, but Aani freaks out on me again. No! We can’t do that, we have to hide the body. And because it’s my fault, I have to do it. I didn’t really know what she meant by that, not at first. So she tells me what I have to do. I have to take Catalina’s body and I have to take her someplace far away and bury her in an unmarked grave.”

She took a deep breath, composing herself. ”I didn’t do that, obviously. I didn’t really know what to do, but I guess I just took Catalina and ran. I ran until I reached the border to Del Cenere, and, well. . . I left her there. Apparently. . . apparently they found her and she was raised well there. If I’m being honest, I’d guess that she had a better childhood there than Arius and Dierdre did, under Aani’s care. Not that that excuses my actions.”

A solemnity settled over Azalea and she glanced at Casimir once more, relieved that he hadn’t interrupted her. Casimir always had been a good listener. ”And then I ran away. You might recall, but I ran away from Salsola for a moon, maybe more, last summer. That was because of this. I was terrified of seeing Aani again and even more terrified of having to face Eden in her grief. After all, I’d begun to believe what Aani had told me, and I half-thought that Catalina’s death really was my fault. I had a friend in New Caledonia, you know her actually, it was Sólveig Dawnrunner, and I went to her. I became terribly ill. More ill than I had ever been in my life, and I know now that it was my body yearning for more opium and punishing me when I did not give it any.”

Did he need to hear about her time in New Caledonia? Her shaking fit? The gods? No. Another day, perhaps. ”When I returned I harbored such a hatred for Aani that I avoided her completely. Even if I did believe somewhat that Catalina’s death was my fault, I could not trust Aani after the way she had treated me that day. I wanted nothing to do with her. It took a long time for her to win my trust again. . . and, really, it took me breaking my sobriety to return to her.

”Now, what I’m telling you today is personal. It’s also secret. I’m trusting that you will keep it so. Well, while I was staying with Sólveig, we started dating. Whenever I got fed up with Aani and Spartacus and everything that was happening in my life here I would pack up all my stuff and go on a trading trip. And I’d visit her.” There was a softness that infiltrated her voice when she spoke of Sólveig that hadn’t been there before. It smoothed out her tense tone, the rough edges, and she relaxed somewhat.

”We would exchange letters. By the time the Fall Banquet rolled around, I’d settled down a lot. And I’d made the mistake of starting to trust Aani again. She’d apologized to me, profusely, for how she'd treated me during that trip, and after some time of getting used to our new relationship. . . I began to let her in once more. It was a mistake. I’ve already told you how jealous Aani could be.” Pausing for a moment and gathering herself, Azalea scratched at her neck briefly nervously before continuing. ”I don’t know how she did it, but she got ahold of one of my letters. I’m guessing she threatened Robin, the messenger, until he gave it to her. I can’t see how else she’d have gotten the letter, I gave it to him directly and he would normally hand it to Sólveig directly. I never did ask him how she got it. I guess I don't really want to know.

”We were always careful never to use our real names in these letters and I never said anything about New Caledonia or any other identifying locations. I was grateful for that when, a couple days after the Fall Banquet, Aani appeared at my doorstep. She’d brought cider, she’d made it herself, and Lexus was there, too. It was the first time I’d ever seen Lexus. I. . . well, I don’t really remember much of that night. The cider was drugged, apparently, and I drank a lot of it before I began to feel its effects.” A tension filled the air as Azalea felt her chest contract slightly. It was nerve-wracking, speaking about the rape, and she began to feel nearly light-headed.

”She brought out the letter. . . she was angry, angry that I had someone that I cared for outside of the pack. Someone she didn’t know. I guess. . . well, I guess she was upset because I cared for someone besides her. But she didn’t care for me, no matter what she said, and I knew that.” Azalea took a deep breath and held it for a moment, carefully avoiding Casimir’s gaze. ”She raped me.”

There was a heavy finality in the statement, one that Azalea felt in her soul, but at the same time the story didn’t end there. Despite how hard it was, Azalea pushed onwards. ”She left, I guess, when she was done. Eventually I came out of it. I went to Kamari and Krios, and they kept me safe and treated my injuries. Then Kamari helped me get out of the pack the next day. You may or may not remember this, too. I was gone for a couple weeks around that time and Kamari was telling anyone who asked that I was on assignment for her.”

”I came back to an absolute nightmare. I. . . I don’t know what kind of demon lives in Aani, but she was so bad I considered leaving forever. Lexus had been pulled into all of this, too, and even when I reached a point where I was ready to tell, Lexus made me promise not to.” Covering her eyes with both hands and letting out a long sigh, Azalea tried to piece together everything that happened in that short moon.

”It must have been because Aani knew what would happen if I told anyone what she’d done to me. I believe that was what caused the change. Suddenly it was as if she didn’t care, she would do anything to keep me quiet. She threatened my life multiple times, as if I needed any more convincing that she was dangerous. She brutally beat Lexus. I don’t know what was happening with Eden, but I know that things were not alright between them. It was. . . just a terrible, fearful time of my life.

”Aani pushed and pushed and pushed and we bent and bent and bent. Then, one day, we snapped. Lexus and I decided we would tell them what we’d been through. Really, seeing Catalina alive was the push I needed. I needed to tell Eden that her daughter was alive after all this time. I couldn’t do that so long as the truth about Aani was still hidden. So after Saturnalia we went to Krios and Kamari and. . . Lexus told them everything she'd experienced. They already knew some of my experience. They’d been there for the aftermath. They just didn't know, until that night, who had done it. I didn’t really. . . well, to be honest, I didn’t really tell them much of anything. I was too frightened. But they had all they needed, so Kamari went to the Mafiosi.”

Azalea looked up from the fire and made eye contact with Casimir. ”And Aani was declared a Pentini.
When at last her tale began, Casimir thought he was ready.

Nothing could have prepared him for it. Every time she reached a new terrible peak, and he believed that surely there was nothing else, surely they had exhausted all of the bad things that could happen ever in the world, the story somehow got worse.

In the course of its narration, Casimir had shifted his seat to join Azalea's side. From there he had listened, and listened, nodding and looking at her when the story hit its mark—her addiction, her rape, her dizzying ordeal with poor Catalina, poor Lexus, Aani's abuses never seemed to end.

By the end, which came as an unexpected and jarring stop, like the blade of a guillotine from this nightmarish world, Casimir existed only in the expanse of silence. The grief.

Although compassionate at his core, he felt a sharp, precise point of fury at the Pentiti for her inexhaustible and inexcusable crimes. It helped him to climb out of the nothingness of despair. Aani was beyond the scope of help, and to extend her empathy was misguided at best, dangerous at worst. Casimir could see only death in her future were she to be caught; this would be a mercy that she did not earn, but like a sick animal, it was necessary for the future of their kind.

As for Azalea...

Casimir had run his hands through his hair in fretful rumination so many times that, by that point, it had lost its usual clean shape, and fell in fire-warmed strands over his face. The story had filled in many of the missing pieces—Sólveig's reaction, Grievous' response, Eden's misery—and it occurred to Casimir that Aani's destruction was like the stones those invaders had launched at New Caledonia. The damage was not isolated to its targets. It rippled out to everything around it.

What could he say to all of that? It felt so big, far too big, for him to hold in his hands.

What could he say to her, who felt so small? She had been a child. The opportunities that Grievous and Idrieus had worked so hard to offer her, and those which were owed to every Salsolan by right—all had been stolen from her, one by one.

He set aside his now empty cup and sat up slowly.

He was more than sure that the other warriors involved felt similarly to him—no doubt those of the Shield, and Azalea's father, wanted to rampage, tear out every tree from stem to root until they found the Pentiti. Yes, he was sure Azalea had likely seen her share of blinding rage in reaction to this tale. She had seen it all.

Quelling this, he was left with the despair again.

"I wish you hadn't had to endure any of this. Gods, you were too young, and...I'm sorry that you couldn't get the help when you needed it most." He held his head in his hand, processing still. "I wish you could have...you and Sólveig, found some happiness together."

After a moment, the violent ocean of feelings settled. He looked slowly to her. "Maybe it's...stupid of me to ask, but how are you feeling now?" She had seemed happy these days, in spite of everything. She managed to smile, to laugh, to enjoy the highs and lows of parenthood. "And your...are you...have you been dealing with cravings?"

His eyes flashed with a worry that was for her, and for their children. Without realizing, he had reached for her hand.
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that's rough buddy
(534) | NPCs: | Optime |

Casimir needed time to process the story, Azalea could understand this. She had already gone through this before, though nobody had heard the whole story in one go, like Casimir had. Only bits and pieces and hints. He was handling it remarkably well, she thought, compared to her family. Azalea wondered whether her family might have taken the news better if she had told them the whole story, whether she had been wrong to keep it close to her chest as she did.

All they knew was that she’d been raped and that there had been drugs involved. At least, that’s what she gathered from their conversations. Arguments.

Banishing those rotten memories from her mind, Azalea met Casimir’s eyes as he turned to her, bracing herself slightly. Soon, though, it became clear that her fear was unnecessary. His words were kind, unexpected, and full of condolences. She almost didn’t quite know how to react. His mention of Sólveig, however, got the ball rolling. She chuckled softly and looked away. ”Yeah. . . I messed that one up bad. She. . . I don’t know if she understands, but I think she accepts it. Me. My situation. I hope she does, at least. . .”

Tightening her grip around her knees, Azalea smiled. ”I don’t think that’s a stupid question. I appreciate it, actually. I’m doing better, I know I am. My time with Aani still haunts me, but since she’s left I’ve been able to start to feel safe again. And. . . though I know that our situation isn’t. . . good. . . and though I didn’t intend to put you in this situation. . . since our marriage I’ve begun to feel some stability that I haven’t felt in a long time. Even once I moved back in with my family, I was still just trying to make it to the next day. Now I can see a future for myself. I can see a future for our puppies.”

Azalea took his hand, and hoped he would not pull away at her words. It was a selfish thought, Azalea knew. Their entire situation was selfish of Azalea, but at the end of the day Casimir had chosen to marry her. She wouldn’t apologize more than she already had, for fear of making him feel bad. They had made their bed and now they had to lay in it. It was all they could do. 

”I’m still afraid of Aani, and what may happen. She could return. She tried to kill Catalina several times, she threatened to kill me several times. I worry she might try to actually kill me, especially if she hears of our marriage. But. . . I trust the Shield to catch her. I do not believe that they will forget about what she has done to La Familia and let her slip past our borders.” The Boss had already reassured Azalea that they would not rest until Aani had been hunted down. That did not mean that she could not escape, but it did alleviate Azalea of her fears that Aani would return for revenge. Not if she were actively hunted. She was not so stupid.
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Half of a story was the telling, the other was the listening. Azalea could have given her story in full to her parents, and they may not have heard it in the ways that counted. Rarely was it that matters so complicated were unraveled like so, and Casimir, despite the heartache he suffered in hearing it, was grateful she had shared.

He didn't know what to say to Azalea's assessment of her and Sólveig's ill-fated romance, and the depressed, jaded part of him thought that maybe it was all tarnished for good. The New Caledonian, as lovely as she was, lived a world away.

Maybe that was him projecting his own feelings. Eden continued to fade further and further from his reach.

"She struck me as the understanding type." He confirmed, hoping this would alleviate some of Azalea's worries. He couldn't give her hope (given how mired they were in their consequences, that would be irresponsible), but he could try this much.

Despite his repeated self-deprecation, which came reflexively around the act of asking questions, Azalea remained patient. Casimir could never ask anything to Lyra without strident backlash. He was grateful that his wife seemed to welcome the curiosity, and this encouraged him to relax more, although he bore a deep fear of that inevitable day he would run against her boundaries.

She was still nervous to speak about their marriage and its effect on both of their lives. In light of all that he had just learned, it was clearer to him now why she had been so apprehensive about drawing him into this seemingly never-ending ripple of damage that Aani had left behind.

Nevertheless, it warmed Casimir to hear that she felt safe. To him, that was paramount—that she, and Eden, and Lexus, and everyone who had been hurt by the Pentiti could feel safe in their homes again.

He gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

A future. "That's all I want for you. For them."

He allowed himself to look her in the eyes, and for the length of the flickering light, he entertained the thought of this whole ruse as reality.

They wanted the same things, didn't they? Marriages had been built with less.

The idea evaporated in the next moment. Casimir's nape bristled at the idea of the Pentiti breaching their borders and coming anywhere near his children, his wife. It was an impossibility. The Shield hadn't been aware of Aani's activities as they were ongoing, but once alerted, there would no be mistakes.

Azalea had done her share of suffering, and he had done his share of failing. Not once more. His gaze drifted to his father's rapier, set upon the table. His fur settled, though the air about him had changed in the thinking of this threat. He brought his arm over his wife's shoulder.

"Even if the Shield fails, I won't."
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(584) | NPCs: | Optime |

Azalea laughed, a smile stretching across her maw. ”Yeah, she is.” Sólveig had even said that she understood why she’d broken up with her, though Azalea didn’t think that she actually knew the true reason. The true reason had been that she’d been hurting and she’d made a stupid decision in the heat of the moment, for fear of Sólveig making that decision first. Perhaps what Sólveig meant was that she knew Azalea was hurting, and she knew that she needed time to heal.

Sólveig was in her past now, no matter how much she wished she could see her, hear her voice, and hold her once more. She was in New Caledonia, and Azalea was. . . here. With Casimir, and with their puppies. It had felt strange, at first, to say their puppies, when Casimir was not their biological father. Originally it was just to convincingly play off their ruse. Then, with time, Azalea began to see the care Casimir had for them, and the dedication. It didn’t feel like a lie anymore.

With her free hand she brushed his fallen hair back into place, fingers running running through the silky strands in an attempt to push them back into their normal, carefully formed style. It held for half a second before strands began to slip and fall over his face once more. "And a future for you, too. I don't know what that will look like, only you do, but we should talk about it."

Their gaze connected, and for a moment Azalea imagined what it would be like if they turned this into a true marriage. They could become a family, a true family, one day. . . right? Azalea wondered whether it was possible. If it were Casimir, who had already done so much for her, Azalea thought she was certainly willing to try. It would be miserable of her to trap them both in marriage and then refuse to try to make it work.

Aani crept back into her mind, and the reminder seemed to pain Casimir, as well. The very atmosphere seemed to tense, and Azalea did as well, until Casimir relaxed. Blinking in surprise when he wrapped his arm around her, Azalea took only a moment to adjust, then leaned into his embrace. His promise felt real.

Azalea chewed on her cheek, still feeling uncertain about addressing his last question. "I. . . do still feel cravings. Not like I used to. I haven't touched opium since the night Aani raped me. That's what she used, you know. Opium. I guess I've got a bigger mental block now, because I don't want to feel the way I felt that night ever again. But even if I don't want it. . . sometimes my body does. I've gotten rid of all the opium I had left, though. I gave it to Krios to take care of. I'm sure he gave it to Argive or Eden or someone. I don't know of anyone who sells opium, Aani was my only source."

Azalea's drug use had always been something she was deeply ashamed of and her self esteem was only worsened by how Aani treated her. With time, though, and acceptance, it was easier (though she wouldn't say it was easy) for Azalea to say that Aani had raped her. Perhaps one day she would be able to accept everything in her past, including the drug use.
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The strange, funny thing about the past was that it never stay put. Casimir felt like it was always finding ways into the present and sometimes the future, thieving moments to assure its own survival. He could never quite get away from the things that haunted him, for better, for worse.

It was better to say these connections were put to sleep. There was a slim chance that this tarnished love might awaken again some day, in some form or fashion, and he hoped for this for Azalea's sake, if not his own. She deserved to have a real family with a person who truly loved her, even if Casimir was content to settle for the illusion. He had been depressed for so long, it was hard not to be swayed by the false gold of happiness that their fake life offered.

At least this time, it was a choice.

Azalea reached for his hair, and he stiffened under the unexpected touch. After a moment, he relaxed and watched her through the movements, the shadow of her hand bringing her in and out of his sight. Like the flickering frames of animation he could see another picture take place: two tired parents sitting by the fire while their children slept, finally finding a moment to themselves. She was so like the other women of his life, he could almost imagine that if he hadn't known her as a child, if she'd been a few years older, if such tragedy hadn't befallen her and so many people hadn't failed her, if so many aspects of their history had been different, maybe they could've fallen in love. The lovely picture was already escaping him by the time she pulled away, but a certain warmth remained.

He wished that the future were as persistent as the past, that it might lean back and graze them with a kiss. Tell Azalea that she would be happy from now on, that the aches of her heart would find resolution and the demons of the past be put down. Tell him that he wouldn't always be so trapped by his soul, that one day 'good' wouldn't mean 'good enough'.

"Yeah...I'll try to give it some thought," He murmured; all these constructs could wait for now. He wanted to linger here, where it was safe with her.

Not even this could last.

Firelight ceded to shadow, and Azalea leaned into his protective gesture. For a time he looked into the dark of the house, ears flicking forward, as if daring Aani to take shape amidst its silhouettes. He was sometimes as foolish a man as Lyra believed, but Casimir had never been lacking for a certain courage when it mattered. His promise was a real one.

Azalea's reluctant admission coaxed him out from that corner of his mind, and he looked down at the space in front of them.

Like the pain of the events itself, the addiction seemed to have lasting effects. Casimir had never touched anything other than the drink, and never had a desire to; given his lineage, he perceived all drugs as tools of power, sacred divination items belonging to the Coven and their spiritual ilk. Like any tools of greatness, they were dangerous and could be misused, could fracture a person mind and body and soul. It seemed that Aani had done such a thing to Azalea.

He was relieved to hear that despite everything, she had been freed from its sway. He didn't know how hard it would be to hand it over to the Striker, but Casimir knew that was the good choice. "You did the right thing, giving it to Krios. I'm proud of you. And I'm...glad you told me. We had two Crones on my mother's side, and um, we'd always been warned about the dangers of their craft. Your craft..." He looked at her, his Witch wife. With his other hand, he brushed a curl from her face. "Even the Gods were abused by the Pentiti."

It concerned him, however, to hear her mention Eden again. His heart stuttered in his chest. "Do you know if anyone else was tricked? Is Eden...safe from its effects?"
(—) | NPCs:
(551) | NPCs: | Optime | Lol my head is not in gear today sorry it took so long.

Casimir’s words felt like honey to her wounded soul. After hearing such vitriol from her family, to be supported in such a way felt like being thrown a second chance. An opportunity to build a new life and heal from the old one. A new family after her old one crumbled before her eyes. It was really. . . all Azalea could hope for.

The last log in the fire broke into pieces, falling into the glowing embers of the firepit. Tiny flames flickered to life above the embers, dancing along them, and Azalea watched—entranced—as they slowly began to die out. Soon there was only a warm orange glow barely lighting the two of them, let alone the room. Azalea did not move for another log. Neither did Casimir.

Azalea wondered if, perhaps, she could really settle for the warmth and comfort that came with this facade of a family that they had built. They went to bed each night with the puppies they helped one another to raise, after all, and woke up together (although with four puppies between them). Neither had made a move to touch the other while in bed, and Azalea felt as though there were some invisible barrier that prevented this, along with the physical puppy barrier.

It might just. . . make it real.

Though she could only agree that she’d done the right thing to give her opium to Krios, hearing it from Casimir made her pleased. Azalea would not say that she was released from the opium’s grasp, she doubted it would ever let her go, but she did agree that it was easier to go through the day without thinking about it. Perking up slightly in Casimir’s arms to listen to him, Azalea’s brows raised slightly in surprise at the news that two Crones had come from his maternal line. It brought her joy, and reminded her of the path she had walked so long ago, towards the Seer rank. A path she'd once walked with Aani's assistance. 

”Yes. . . yes, they were.” The way Casimir brushed her curls from her face made Azalea feel slightly breathless, caught up in the moment. ”I’m glad I told you this, too. You reacted far better than I expected.” The words were murmured slightly as Azalea began to feel the pressure of night urging her to stay silent in the darkness. The puppies were asleep, still, and with the fire no longer crackling in front of them they were left with just the sounds of their voices and their breathing to fill the night air. 

Raising a brow in response to his query, Azalea shrugged slightly. ”If by tricked you’re asking if Aani got anyone else addicted, then I don’t think so. It’s possible, but I expect that they would have been using it with us if they had. We were always hiding. Krios would have given it to Eden or Argive because of its usefulness as a pain reliever. If someone were to become so grievously injured or was otherwise in such pain that willow bark wouldn’t help. . . the opium would. Of course, the concern is that they would become addicted.” This was one of many things Azalea had learned about the drug from Aani.
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He was relieved to know that the drug would be in the hands of those who knew how to apply it properly, but with Azalea's warning, Casimir remained unsettled. Maybe he would ask the Striker about it later to ensure that it was simply disposed of. If Aani was the only one to procure it, then that meant they hadn't been using it in the Kingdom before. They had survived without such power. Did they really need it?

Azalea certainly didn't need the temptation.

He gave a slow nod. "I can't say for sure," he said, "But maybe with time, it'll continue to fade. I hope you'll tell me if you're struggling. I want to help, if I can."

So far, she'd shown herself to be a dedicated mother. Despite Aani's worst influence, Azalea retained the instincts of her own parents. Given the jarring gulf between them now, he was sure she would not be like any of them ultimately, but healing would mean taking only the good lessons and leaving behind the bad. He didn't think it was necessary to point out the dangers of a withdrawal or relapse for their children. 

The thoughts of her tale continued to spin and eddy in his mind. The sheer pain of it all was overwhelming, pulling him around in circles like seaweed caught in a tidal pool.

He couldn't imagine what it had been like to be disoriented by the effects of this 'Opium' out in the free lands, not even the safety of their domain—why had Aani brought them out there? There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for her actions. It seemed to Casimir that she had done things for the simple sake of destruction. The truth about Catalina, whose tragedy had unfurled through the Kingdom like a low fog (and Casimir was among the last to hear of it), was a shock that would take more than just the moment to process.

Slowly, the feelings worked themselves out of his heart. He was compelled to approach Eden about all he'd learned. He wanted to see if he could help, in some way, even if it was only as they were; pack mates, not lovers. Did he have a right? Would that be disrespectful to Azalea? Would that simply bring further pain to the Cleric, who had been more devastated by this situation than he realized? What could he even do? He wasn't an official scout, a mere Milite who remained at the ready, though it seemed forever too late. The Shield was already aware and perhaps enacting measures themselves, but didn't he owe it to them all to try? What was there to do for poor Catalina, who had been left for dead and then raised within another society? For better, or for worse was hard to say, but as Azalea had put it, perhaps the worst of Del Cenere was still better than Aani. Arius had always seemed deeply troubled, and he understood this now.

Casimir couldn't weigh these ideas properly, not then.

He had only the grounding, immediate concern for Azalea, and this he held onto as the hour grew later and later. She needed protection from all these ghosts.

The confirmation of his reaction rang as bittersweet; he didn't feel like he'd done anything right, not even this attempt at comfort. Her words suddenly struck him—Aani touched me...little ways at first...my hair—and Casimir, in horror at his own thoughtlessness, carefully withdrew his arm. A cold air brushed between them, an invisible barrier restored.

Did he have a right to comfort her this way, this injured girl, his pretend wife?

"Sorry, I..." he said, "I just realized."

How could Azalea hope to find stability in him if he was himself adrift in these illusions? Layers of reality, overlapping. He needed to be a better friend than this.

"Maybe we should get some rest."
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end with your next post? :3
(521) | NPCs: | Optime |

”I will.” At least, she hoped she would. The only thing she could do was give her word and do her very best to follow through with it. Running her fingers through her hair, pushing the loose strands from her face, Azalea realized how far she had come from just a few months ago. ”You’ve already helped so much though.”

Just having a safe space to come home to made a huge difference. Setting aside their strange family dynamic, Azalea knew that Casimir was to thank for the stability she had now. She shuddered to think what would have befallen her had he not stepped in. ”I wish there was more I could do to help you, on the contrary.” Still Azalea felt bad for the consequences of their marriage. Though she suspected that even if Casimir said that he felt happy in their marriage, she knew that—long-term—there would surely be regrets.

Azalea loved the puppies, and on the best of days she felt as though there was no other path for her. On the worst of days, however, regret could not help but infiltrate her thoughts, and Azalea wished that she had never entered the Blackwoods on that fateful night. So many things would be different. She couldn’t guarantee her life would have been better, however, and it was this reminder that pulled Azalea out of her dark thoughts and back to the good things in her life now. There were many such good things, and even if it was difficult to look past the shadows that hung over her, Azalea tried to anyway, even if only for Casimir and the puppies' sake.

She could not read Casimir’s mind, so when he pulled away from her suddenly, looking almost horrified, Azalea furrowed her brow and waited for an explanation. With his apology, realization came, and Azalea sighed. How could she explain to him that she didn’t hate his touch? That she trusted him? Reaching for his hand, she grasped it within her own lightly, holding it for a moment before squeezing it reassuringly. ”Don’t worry Casimir, I’m fine. Really.”

Why she didn’t mind his touch, she didn’t really know. Besides that they had been living together for a while now and he was her friend. His touch felt comfortable and safe. Still, she released his hand at his suggestion and stood slowly, yawning. It had grown late and she was surprised that none of the puppies had awoken crying. Grabbing the stick by the fire, Azalea prodded the last embers, glowing a dull orange, until they broke apart and fell into the sand. Working at it until the fire was thoroughly doused, Azalea eventually followed Casimir to bed, where he lay with the puppies.

She took her spot on the other side of the puppies slowly, taking great care not to jostle any of them, and sighed heavily when she finally lay down. Sniffing each in turn, it was only when she was satisfied that they were all well that Azalea lay down her head and closed her eyes.
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The truth was closer than either of them realized, hovering in the seams of their thoughts and motives.

He smiled at her, in that soft, sad way of his. How could he ask anything from someone of her position? Moreover, what was there to help? Lyra knew it best; he was a helpless sort of creature, doomed to tread his mistakes over and over again until the lesson stuck. He didn't know how to live without the barriers that other people erected in his own mind.

"I can watch the kids sometimes, if you wanted to cook," He offered with a sideways smile, knowing that this wasn't what she meant. The deflections were getting tired, but Casimir insisted on bearing his burdens alone. It was all he knew how to do.

Around them, the past ebbed and flowed.

Her hand drew him out of his mind, just for a moment. A small comfort for his horror, which would continue forever in his head like the drone of the ocean; a sound he would at times ignore or misplace but never forget in all those happy pieces of illusion and parenthood and their growing friendship. Nothing felt right, but maybe it was never meant to.
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end! <3

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