Author's Note: Wow, old fic, and a one shot to boot. A bit of shameless fanservice for the Fayt and Albel fans. Can be taken as pre-slash, if you like, or just friendship.
Disclaimer: I don't own Star Ocean 3 or any of its characters.
The trek up the Barr Mountains had left Fayt with nothing more than a mad desire to get clean. Dust from the steep track coated his boots, his hair was full of grit, and suffocating ash from the lava caves had soaked into every pore. He didn't think he'd ever been so dirty in his life, and it had been a great relief to slip away from the rest of the party and go searching for a place to wash.
Honestly, he would never take regular showers for granted ever again.
He'd never realised what a messy business adventuring was. The games he'd played back home had never bothered to simulate just how much dirt, dust, grime, slime and mud one had to slog through in the name of saving the world. He suspected that such games wouldn't have sold nearly so well if they had, but he still felt slightly annoyed at the unrealisticness of it all, and his own naivety for thinking they would have prepared him for a real journey.
Games – even the richly detailed and completely interactive ones – were no match for the harsh reality of survival. Outside the cities you had to prepare for every eventuality, you couldn't just turn it off when it got too cold, or you were tired or hungry. More often than not it was unpleasant and nerve-wracking, but at the same time he found it surprisingly satisfying to know that he could take care of himself and hold his own even under the worst conditions.
He didn't often appreciate that fact until he was safely back behind the city walls though, and at the moment he couldn't care less about anything that didn't have to do with a long, hot bath. With that in mind, he followed the helpful directions of the Aquarian servants and eventually found his way to his objective.
The Baths were just as impressive as the rest of the palace. The almost cavernous room was warm with the steam rising from the huge tub that looked more like a small swimming pool to Fayt. The water was clean and clear, and glittered faintly under the sunlight that streamed in from the high windows. The air smelled of a delightful mix of fresh soap and expensive bath oils, along with the less powerful scents of salt and minerals.
The whole room was tiled in some kind of unknown ceramic, but the bath itself was a piece of art. The circular tub was decorated with an amazingly intricate design; a multitude of colours that contrasted with the stark white of the rest of the room. The water contorted the whole effect, making the pattern seem to dance to the tune of the ripples. At its deepest he could stand on the bottom and the water would reach up to his chin. A shelf lined the rim of the bath, serving as both a comfortable seat and a step to get in and out.
With a heartfelt sigh of relief, Fayt closed the door behind him and began peeling off his clothing. They were caked in dirt, and he disdained the thought of putting them back on after the bath, but he didn't have much of a choice. With all the excitement and running back and fourth between towns, he hadn't had time to invest in another set of clothes. He hastily stacked his armour on a low table used to keep items off the slick floor, and a moment later his clothes joined them in an untidy pile.
At the edge of the tub he paused long enough to test the temperature with a foot before slipping in and submerging himself completely. At once the sound of rushing water ceased and he was plunged into silence. Ignoring the sting, he opened his eyes and took a moment to admire how his arms left dark, snake-like trails of soot in the once pristine water. He briefly scrubbed his face and tried to brush out the largest dirt-clods from his hair before his lungs began to burn.
He surfaced with a gasp, immediately feeling much better for being even a little bit cleaner. With a long contented sigh he let the hot, almost scalding water sooth away the tension in his muscles. Travelling all day was more exhausting than it sounded, especially to someone who was used to the convenience of civilisation. He'd thought he was fit, having played the battle simulators regularly along with the occasional game of basketball, but he'd been shocked by how much walking – along with the occasional life-or-death battle – had taken out of him.
Cliff said he still needed to get used to it, but it had been depressing to note that only Maria seemed to have the same difficulty that he had. Obviously she didn't go out on as many missions as Cliff, and the Ellicorians were probably used to the harsh conditions…
…But he didn't want to think about that anymore. They'd been successful in getting Crossel to help them and that was the important thing. The only things that mattered now were getting clean and collapsing in bed. If his life followed its recent trend, these moments of peace were few and far between. He should make the most of it.
The sudden sound of a door slamming brought Fayt out of his deliberation. He flailed ungracefully in the water – tired muscles refusing to cooperate as quickly as he would have liked – and turned to see who had interrupted him. Had there been some kind of emergence while he was relaxing? Had the Vendinni attacked already?
Albel stood in the doorway, his face set in its usual blank mask, and making Fayt's hopes for a peaceful afternoon shrivel further. Albel wouldn't have bothered to come himself if it wasn't important.
"What is it?" he hoped his fatigue didn't show so much in his voice. Albel had a tendency to jump on the weaknesses of others, a habit that made him deadly on the battlefield and downright grating everywhere else.
Albel raised an eyebrow at the urgent tone. "I'm taking a bath, fool. What does it look like?"
That wasn't exactly what Fayt had been expecting to hear, and it took his mind a moment to fully absorb the words. "A bath…?"
However, once it was on the subject, his brain efficiently began providing him with and almost encyclopaedic rendition of relevant information he'd inadvertently absorbed over the years.
On underdeveloped planets, particularly those faced with hardship or strife, conventional concepts of modesty and privacy are far less likely to be enforced within society. Examples of this phenomenon can still be found in the Terran city of Japan, where public bathhouses have been preserved for their historical significance…
Public bathhouse? He didn't think anyone actually used those anymore, but of course he was still on a backwater planet that hadn't even dreamed up the idea of the shower. He supposed it made sense – even with the extensive resources of the palace it would take far more effort than it was worth to arrange for a separate bath and water supply in every room, particularly considering the number of inhabitants. Still, the idea of bathing with others made him decidedly uncomfortable.
"Yes, a bath," Albel answered Fayt's almost forgotten question. He blinked as the swordsman strode confidently into the room to stand by the low table. "You may have been too self-absorbed to notice, but you aren't the only one who needs to get clean."
Immediately Fayt's bewildered look turned into a glare. "I am not self absorbed…"
He belatedly realised that Albel had finished sliding off his shoulder armour and was just starting to pull he shirt over his head. "Oh," he muttered, sinking lower into the water and hoping the former Captain didn't detect his blush.
"…What?" Evidently Albel had noticed how he'd cut off in mid-sentence.
"Nothing," Fayt muttered, not risking a look towards the swordsman, just in case. Even though he didn't have to hide the fact that he was from another world, he didn't think he'd be able to explain the concept of 'people don't bathe together' to Albel. Besides, he was the stranger here, and the UP3 urged people to follow the local customs for as long as they were present on an underdeveloped world.
There was a noticeable ripple in the water, and Fayt decided it was safe to raise his eyes. Albel sat directly across from him, seeming to be completely at ease with the situation. Fayt was surprised to see that his gauntlet still covered his left arm from the elbow down, which the swordsman rested on the edge of the bath so it didn't get wet. Even more surprising was the fact that Albel had taken his hair out, and the long blonde strands writhed like serpents in the water. He'd never realised how long it was…
Abruptly realising that he was staring, Fayt quickly busied himself in the task of getting clean. Nothing involving Albel was likely to be peaceful for long, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the whole idea of sharing a bath anyway, no matter how big it was. He quickly perused the small collection of bottles next to the tub, and eventually chose a mixture that smelled fairly neutral. Using a small cloth he found, he lathered a generous amount of the thick liquid into it and began scrubbing it into his skin.
Slowly the streaks of soot disappeared, and he began to forget that there was anyone else in the room as he lost himself in the simple feeling of being dirt-free. The water had gone from crystal clear to salt-and-pepper streaks of white and black. The soap and the heat of the water worked their magic and he felt himself relaxing again.
Of course that was the moment when the door opened yet again, this time admitting a palace servant. Fayt stared, pausing in mid scrub, but Albel looked utterly unperturbed.
The servant bowed. "Forgive my interruption sirs, but if it pleases you, I shall take your garments to be cleaned."
Realising he should say something, Fayt hastily cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah. That's fine."
"Whatever," Albel muttered agin, not even sparing the man a glance.
The servant bowed again, and began collecting their clothing. The armour and weapons were left behind, since there was an unspoken rule that warriors took care of their own gear, but Fayt could handle that. He wasn't thrilled by the reminder that other people could freely enter the bath-house, but was somewhat appeased by the idea of clean clothes.
"I shall have these back for you in half an hour."
Fayt blinked, but before he could utter a protest the servant departed. Half an hour? If he'd known it would take so long he would have declined. How was he supposed to last that long with Albel, of all people? Without his clothes he didn't have any choice in the matter, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
He cast an uneasy glance at his companion, but Albel either didn't notice or didn't care. The swordsman seemed completely occupied with removing the grime from his own pale skin, a task that was made all the more difficult using only one hand. Fayt watched unobtrusively from behind the veil of his hair as Albel carefully washed the dirt from the skin next to the gauntlet, but was careful to keep any water from splashing on it.
Why didn't he just take it off? Or maybe he couldn't. There were all sorts of rumours about what exactly the former Captain of the Black Brigade had hidden under the gauntlet. No one had ever seen him without it, and naturally everyone had their own opinions on the matter. Some suggested that his arm had been horribly mangled in some kind of accident; others claimed it had been bitten off by an air dragon. A small group of fanatics were convinced that Lord Vox had sliced it off in a duel, but Fayt didn't think that was likely.
Albel never confirmed or denied any of the gossip concerning him. Even if he was asked directly (and only a few brave souls had ever tried that), he would simply smile the same terrible smirk that Fayt was sure had earned him the title of 'Wicked'.
It suddenly occurred to him that if Albel had ever been waiting for the right time to kill him, this would have been it. His sword was just across the room, but Albel was much closer than that. He had no doubt that, should the other man choose to, he could cross the short distance with the same deadly speed that earned him such a reputation on the battlefield and disembowel him with sharpened claws. He hadn't even threatened it yet, and Fayt took this as a hopeful sign that the warrior had truly lost the urge to kill him.
As if responding to the unspoken thought, Albel suddenly looked up, red eyes catching the Fayt's stare. He glanced lazily between his left arm and the younger man, his lips twisting into a sinister smirk.
"Wondering if I'm going to kill you?" he enquired pleasantly, but there was an undercurrent of menace in the question that made Fayt's mouth run dry. There was a tense moment of silence between them before Albel settled back against the walls of the tub, his smile losing its sadistic edge. "Well, you needn't worry. Despite what others might tell you, I don't enjoy literally bathing in the blood of my enemies."
He carelessly flicked a few strands of blond back behind his shoulders, his expression regaining a hint of its former malice. "It takes forever to wash it out of my hair."
Fayt made a face at the unpleasant thought that Albel might actually be speaking from experience, but knew enough about the Glyphian to realise that he was being baited. If Albel thought he had you off balance he wouldn't hesitate to press his advantage, even in simple discussion. Refusing to give in made him lose interest, and so Fayt chose to ignore the comment and focus of washing his hair.
As expected, Albel's expression of cruelty melted into one of surprising contentment. He rested his head against the edge, ruby eyes falling shut as he all but purred in pleasure. "I'll give this despicable country one thing, they certainly realise the importance of hot water."
Fayt blinked. Albel was actually offering conversation?
Will wonders never cease…?
"Don't you have baths back in Airyglyph?" he asked, attempting to encourage the other to talk. It was rare that Albel offered anything that wasn't an insult or a thinly veiled threat.
Albel's expression was lofty. "Of course we do. Or rather…we did." A thin line of tension formed between his brows, but his eyes stayed closed. "All of our water was frozen by the winter. It'd difficult enough to thaw enough for drinking and cooking, let alone washing, and we rarely wasted our fuel to heat it."
Fayt was suddenly aware of how thin Albel was. Without the formidable presence of his armour, the Earthling could clearly see the stark outline of the swordsman's collarbone under his fair skin, and the bony outline of his torso. He'd spent most of his time thinking of Airyglyph as the oppressors in this conflict, but he had almost forgotten that the people of the country had been starving and freezing before being pushed to war. Well, that and the pressure of Vox's incessant demands. With the benefits of rank, Albel could probably have lived a comfortable life at the expense of the commoners, but he'd obviously chosen not to.
Perhaps realising he had said more than he intended, Albel's eyes shot open, crimson gaze as guarded as ever. "Of course it was a just reward for the maggots. A little hardship did them some good."
The comment was said with the same spiteful tone as always, but they both realised it for the cover-up it was. Albel had slipped, and he obviously wasn't happy about the fact, but Fayt was intrigued. He knew there had to be something underneath Albel's hateful exterior, and he had the feeling he'd just seen a glimpse of it. Pushing the issue, however, would probably make the other man even more reticent than he already was. At the same time, he didn't want to let the fragile thread of conversation slip away so easily.
Of course, choosing a suitable topic was a difficult task indeed. Anything about Albel himself was silently declared off-limits, and Fayt wasn't so confident that he thought his own opinions would be of interest to the dark man. Eventually he settled on something that had been weighing on his mind since Airyglyph.
"Um… Thank-you. For coming with us, I mean," he said finally, almost wincing at how nervous he sounded. He didn't think Albel would appreciate the sentiment, but he wanted the other to know that he was grateful, even if no one else had been. Judging from the muttered comments of Cliff and Nel, he probably was the only one.
Albel's eyes glittered faintly with dark amusement. "I was hardly given a choice in the matter, so your gratitude is unnecessary."
He'd expected the reply, but that didn't stop Fayt from making a face. "You could have just said 'you're welcome.'"
"I thought I did."
Fayt glanced up quickly, wondering if he'd just imagined the low comment, but Albel's face gave away nothing. He half smiled at the hopeful thought that maybe he was getting somewhere after all.
Finally cleaned to his satisfaction, Fayt glanced around, wondering how he could fill the time until his clothes were returned. Although the bath had been nice, he could feel his fingers wrinkling from being submerged too long, and he was starting to feel a bit waterlogged. He noticed for the first time that the servant who had taken their garments had actually left towels and what appeared to be some kind of short robe.
He was gripped by a moment of indecision; getting them would mean getting out of the tub, and he wasn't quite sure his modesty would survive that intact. On the other hand, he'd had quite enough of the water for the moment. Finally, comfort won out, and after taking a furtive glance at Albel to make sure he wasn't watching, Fayt pulled himself out of the bath and pulled the robe on, grimacing slightly as it clung to his wet skin.
He tried to simulate Albel's lack of body shyness, but he couldn't quite stop a light blush from spreading across his cheeks or bring himself to face the other man until the cloth was secured. The material was rough and plain, barely reaching to his mid thigh, but it made him feel a bit less exposed.
Without the heat of the water on his skin the room actually felt cold. Sitting on the rim of the tub and letting his feet dangle in the water seemed to solve the problem quite nicely. Now that he was (barely) decent, he used the towel to vigorously dry his hair. The blue locks fluffed out wildly, but he knew they'd fall back into their usual place before long.
When he finally looked up, he was treated to the interesting sight of Albel washing his own lengthy mane with a look of intense concentration. It was a far more difficult task than it seemed, with only one hand to massage in the soap and no way to keep the longer strands from falling back into the water. Fayt felt a pang of sympathy for him.
Even so, that didn't excuse his next action. Later on, he would argue that he had been tired, his guard taken down by Albel's unusually peaceful mood, or maybe some hidden death wish had chosen that inopportune moment to surface.
"Would you like some help?" The moment the words left his mouth he realised his mistake, but it was too late to take them back now. Albel's glare was frostier than a storm of ice needles, and Fayt found himself involuntarily quailing under that look.
"It looks really difficult to do it like that," he found himself babbling, wondering how far he'd get before swift death would descend. "And letting someone else do it would finish it quicker…"
Fayt paused, stunned. "Was that a yes?"
Albel's gaze was still unfriendly as he caught the younger man's emerald eyes with his own. "I said, whatever," he emphasised the sounds, as if speaking to a very young and slightly stupid child.
It took Fayt's shell-shocked brain a moment to realise it for an affirmative, and an even longer moment to register the fact that he wasn't about to die…unless Albel was just trying to lure him closer so he could attack more easily. He hesitated for too long, and Albel's brows rose in a mocking inquiry.
"Changed your mind?"
Fayt's mouth set into a stubborn line. Was this another of the swordsman's tests? He was reminded of the inn in Peterny, when Albel had summoned him for a midnight chat. It hadn't been until the following morning that he'd realised the swordsman had laid down some kind of judgement on him during their talk. He liked to think that he'd done well, though with Albel it was difficult to tell.
"No," he answered, summoning up his courage. If Albel wanted to test him then so be it. He wasn't one to back down from a challenge.
Gingerly, he made his way around the bath, being careful not to slip on the slick floors. With some trepidation, he sat behind Albel and got to work, rubbing a strange liquid that worked like shampoo into the lengthy tresses. After a few minutes he forgot his previous nervousness and became absorbed by the task. There was so much of it; how did he take care of it all? It hadn't really occurred to him before, but Albel had the longest hair of anyone in the party. It just seemed like he had less because of the way he wore it, and he had never once taken it out while they were on the road.
There was something inherently satisfying about washing someone else's hair. Just like his own had been, Albel's was matted with ash, and he took great pleasure in getting rid of it all. Lathering the suds into the long, two-toned mane took a surprisingly long time (How did Albel manage this with just one hand?) but with unexpected dedication Fayt managed the task admirably. From the small, contented noises he was making, Albel didn't seem to object to the treatment much either. He found himself unconsciously testing which movements were met with the loudest sounds of approval, and when he abruptly realised what he was doing, he blushed a brilliant red.
He was suddenly painfully aware of just how intimate the gesture must have looked. He'd been sitting with his bare legs brushing against Albel's back, wearing nothing more than a flimsy little robe. God, if Cliff ever heard about this he'd never live it down. He promptly untangled his hands from the other man's hair is if it burned, ignoring the traitorous little voice that said he'd been enjoying the whole situation far too much.
"You can rinse it off now," he said, hoping the embarrassment didn't show in his voice. He moved away as Albel carefully dipped his head under the water, sitting off to one side and resolutely ignoring the urge to peek as he tried to force his blush down.
The water sloshed against the sides for a minute before subsiding, thought Fayt chose to keep his eyes on some safe point on the opposite wall. There was silence between them, but it wasn't as uncomfortable as it might once have been. He didn't dare suggest that Albel might actually be starting to like him, but at least maybe the other was more…relaxed around him? Used to him? He was never quite sure how to gauge Albel moods. He didn't know it the other tolerated him, or if he just didn't care at all.
Fayt almost jumped at the sound, turning to regard his companion. "What?"
Albel's eyes were barely visible beneath the thick strands of (newly cleaned) hair, making his expression difficult to read. "It's only the servants who would demean themselves with helping another bathe," and here Fayt blushed again. Obviously he'd overstepped another invisible boundary due to his unfamiliarity with the customs, but Albel continued, "And even the bravest have never approached me…But you…"
The dark haired man shook his head almost ruefully. "You're not a servant, and you hardly think of yourself as my inferior…but still you would make such an offer?"
There was an odd note in the swordsman's voice that made Fayt forget his embarrassment and look up. For a split second he thought he saw past Albel's blank, emotionless mask and found something that looked like confusion. The image of vulnerability was in place for only a moment, so fast that Fayt thought he'd imagined it except that it struck an unexpected chord somewhere beneath his breastbone that was both painful and joyful at the same time.
Fayt smiled; a soft sad gesture. Had Albel never known any kindness? Of had he locked his own feelings so deep that he'd never recognised it for what it was?
Outloud he heard himself saying, "It's called friendship, Albel. You should try it sometime." And if you can't tell that I'm offering, you're a bigger idiot than people give you credit for.
Their eyes met and held, but for once Fayt didn't feel the need to lower his gaze first. He'd caught a glimpse of what was behind that mask, seen the barely perceivable chinks in that armour, and Albel the Wicked didn't seem as untouchable as he once had. Finally, Albel was the one to look away, his head dropping as though he'd lost some all-important battle.
"I don't get you," he sneered finally, but there was none of his usual contempt to accompany the phrase.
Fayt smiled serenely. "I know."
There was a peaceful moment of silence between them while Fayt silently revelled in his victory and Albel lapsed into whatever incomprehensible thoughts claimed him. It was too much to hope for that Albel would change over night, but the blue haired teenager liked to think that they'd taken the first step.