Back by popular demand, and because I have nothing else to do while I wait for my last final, lol. Thanks to everyone for reviewing—you really brightened up my week (and trust me, this week has been pretty dark. Tests that can drop your grade a whole letter really suck balls). You guys are great!
I'm just going to say right now, I don't like this chapter as much as I do the first. There are some good parts, but the middle and ending aren't my favorites. But it's not going to get much better, I think, and if I try to revise it too much I'll just end up giving up on the story altogether. It's been the part I've been dreading since this thing's spontaneous conception, but hopefully now that it's over and done with I can concentrate on subsequent chapters, which I'm still, somehow, thinking about writing (this was supposed to be a one-shot, lol). Anyway, I'll just leave it up to you guys, my marvelous readers, so don't forget to leave a review, even if you don't like it.
This chapter is a bit slashier, but still rated PG, so you shouldn't have to avert your eyes just yet.
The onset of autumn brought rain to Madain Sari in copious amounts. According to the moogles, the weather was unseasonably wet for Pualei Plains, an area kept annually parched by the southern mountains and the dry northern air. Over the course of two weeks, the sun had remained concealed behind a veil of thick gray clouds, only appearing a few minutes at a time to shed its anemic light on a very soggy Gaia.
Kuja didn't much mind the dreary conditions. The sound of the rain plunking against the stone roof was soothing, in a way, one of nature's wordless songs. He could hear it even now, the soft constant lull and intermittent sharp pings of water droplets hitting stone and glass.
The sound stirred him a sense of longing; a solitary walk in a gentle shower such as this would be just what he needed to pacify the knot of anxieties writhing in his chest. They, like the rain storms, had been building over the last few days, and had grown to such a size that at times Kuja could almost taste it in his throat—a bitter flavor grown of indolence and uncertainty. The origins of his unease were unknown. What reason did he have to feel uneasy? It wasn't as if he had any pressing matters to attend to. The world thought he was dead. His agenda had been systematically wiped clean by his alleged demise. How, then, could he feel apprehension over his inactivity when he had nothing to do?
Cabin fever. That's what Zidane had called it when Kuja had shared his concerns over the issue. The restless feeling experienced over an extended period of sedentary living; it was new to Kuja. He'd always been a…driven person, to put it politely—always with a plan, always with a motive, always looking to the future. In the past, he'd struggled with the efficiency of said plans, and if one strategy wasn't progressing satisfactorily he of course felt frustrated, but never restless. At those times he'd felt more like a character from one of Lord Avon's plays, cursing himself for not moving forward when he knew time was short.
Well…those days were over now. Time was still short, but he had a second chance at the life that remained. New paths, new directions, new motives—it was all open ended. He could do whatever he wanted. What he wanted was to have a purpose again (preferably one that did not include a job description as a terrorist). He'd finally learned what it meant to really live. He wanted—needed—to make the best of it.
Perhaps it was because he didn't know how to start over that spawned the anxiety. Kuja glanced out the window again, breathing out a heavy, slow sigh. Unfortunately, there just wasn't anything he could do about it right now. Although he could now freely move around the small house without help, he tired easily and quickly. Magic was still very much beyond his limits, and without it he was meek as a day old kitten. "Just wait"—it had become Zidane's less than inspiring mantra whenever he caught him staring out the window like this. Kuja was, if nothing else, a patient man. If waiting was required to achieve the desired effect, he would wait. And if the weather held up, the rain would likely wait with him.
Aside from that, water added to an area that was essentially a large dust bowl resulted in alarming amounts of mud, and something about slogging through ankle deep sludge took the splendor right out of a rainy day stroll. Best to take Zidane's advice and stay indoors.
His train of thought derailed abruptly at that. Where was Zidane, anyway? He'd not seen him all morning. Kuja frowned. Normally within the first few minutes of waking the blonde was bustling into his room, all sunshine and smiles despite the gloomy weather and ungodly hour (Kuja could not be defined as a morning person), breakfast tray in hand. Usually he wouldn't make it a habit to complain over a missed meal—Zidane was still force-feeding him that horrible soup (he suspected it was the only thing he knew how to make, at this point)—but it wasn't like the boy to leave him unattended for so long.
Kuja felt a flash of annoyance. Had Zidane tired of him already? Then, a flash of fear. What if something had happened to him? The two emotions battled for dominance, with worry for his companion reigning victorious after a brief moment of debate. He decided it just wasn't Zidane's nature to abandon him (a certain incident in a tree came to mind to prove the point). Knowing that he was likely overreacting, he convinced himself that a search was nevertheless in order. It was possible that Zidane had merely chosen this particular morning to sleep in, and if that were the case then Kuja felt it was his duty to seize this opportunity to seek revenge for the blonde's use of overly enthusiastic wake-up calls.
Steeling himself, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood. The room remained stationary—always a good sign. He took and deep breath, feeling the blood rush through his limbs. He was a little tired (and sore, of course—it was a constant nuisance), but overall he felt fairly good. A small smile twitched on his lips. Perhaps there was hope for his recovery after all.
He had only taken a few steps when the room was illuminated by a bright, brief flash of iridescent light. Kuja barely had time to brace himself before the following clap of thunder shattered the silence. He clapped his hands over his ears instinctively; it sounded as if the gods themselves had ripped apart the very fabric of the universe, then slammed the two halves back together again in a titanic clash. Ears ringing, Kuja went back to the window. The view outside resembled a scene from a post-apocalyptic world: the sky was pitch black, covered in ominous thunderhead clouds, and the rain had gone from a mild drizzle to an all out downpour.
Far worse than storm, though, was the sight of a figure struggling through it. Kuja pressed up against the glass, squinting through the sheets of rain. He couldn't see clearly, but he knew it was Zidane—who else would it be? There were also…things with him, blobby, indistinct white things that clung to his ankles and even, Kuja saw, to his tail. He was cradling one, very small in comparison, in his arms like a baby, and as the bizarre parade drew closer to the house, Kuja realized that the creatures were moogles—five of them, by his count. He'd never met the pride himself as they tended to avoid him like the plague (Zidane tried to convince him that they were just shy, but he knew better). However, his blonde companion seemed to care for them quite a bit—he'd mentioned once that he felt it was his duty to protect them, having deprived the little white faeries of their "Lady Eiko."
Kuja thought he was insane for braving such a vicious storm on account of five pint-sized rats with wings, but then again, Zidane had once ventured into the bowels of the Iifa Tree to rescue an Angel of Death, so he supposed it wasn't all that surprising.
He continued to watch their approach for several seconds before starting toward the door in search of towels and blankets.
There was another flash of lightning. He saw it out of the corner of his eye; Zidane faltered, loosing his footing on the wet earth. Thunder roared. Kuja blinked. When he looked again, Zidane was on his hands and knees on the ground, struggling to hold the smallest moogle out of the viscous mud.
A part of Kuja found the humor in the whole scenario. One didn't see a genome slogging through the mud with a pack of moogles clinging to his limbs like some sort of furry parasite just ever day, after all. But pity found a stronger position in his heart than amusement, and he decided to forget the towels and lend a hand.
He found it considerably harder to feel charitable once he was outside, though. Instantly drenched in cold rain and flecks of airborne mud, Kuja somewhat regretted his hasty decision but soldiered on despite his reservations. He fought his way to Zidane a few yards away and wordlessly plucked the moogle from the boy's tail. The creature squeaked indignantly but a quick glare silenced it, fear replacing anger in its eyes (shy—Kuja knew better). A second moogle fell prey to the same treatment, but despite their obvious dislike of him, he carefully cradled the little bodies to his chest, feeling them tremble underneath a layer of wet fur.
"Kuja!" Zidane had to shout to be heard over the wind. "What are you doing out here? Are you trying to kill yourself?"
"No," he yelled back, beginning to pick his way back to the house, "I'm trying to help you."
"You're in no condition to be helping anyone!"
They made it to the threshold without incident. Kuja promptly deposited the moogles to the floor; they hurriedly found refuge from him underneath the sagging couch. Wringing out a handful of silver hair, he said to Zidane, "I believe the proper Gaian response would be "thank you."'
"Thank you for what? For undoing everything I did to nurse you back to health over the last month?" The blonde lowered his own burden to the ground and shut the door, blocking out some of the storm's noise. "I didn't bring you back from the brink of death just so you could die of pneumonia!"
"You're welcome." Kuja smirked. He couldn't help it. It took a special kind of circumstance to irritate Zidane—apparently this was one of them. He looked so…so…quaint, so (and he hesitated here, unfamiliar with the word), so adorable, standing there with his hands braced against his hips and his tail thumping against the floor. Of course the whole image was somewhat ruined by the mud smeared across his face and clothes, and the water dripping steadily off his hair in a vaguely rhythmic pattern.
Zidane was not impressed by his sudden wit, nor was he amused. "I'm serious, Kuja. What if you get sick again?"
The note of panic in his voice did not escape Kuja's notice. He let his smirk dissolve into a carefully neutral expression, trying to mollify the boy. "I'm fine. I feel much better today, in fact. Actually, I'd prefer it if I were a bit drier, but aside from that I feel pretty good."
That finally seemed to sink in. As if realizing for the first time that they were both forming sizable puddles at their feet, Zidane moved to the closet where they had stored all of their linens ("borrowed" or otherwise) and handed him a towel.
"Dry off," he ordered, "and change out of your wet clothes. I'm gonna get a fire started."
Kuja had grown accustomed to the idea of Zidane directing him around (although it still amused him, when he considered their age difference) and he followed the commands without complaint. While Zidane worked at the hearth, he slipped into the adjoining bedroom and stripped out of his clothes, dropping the soggy garments to the floor with a wet thud. Vigorously he ran the towel over his body, working until his skin had taken on a light pink hue, shivering despite himself. A draft of warm air slipped through the open door, signaling that Zidane had successfully gotten the fire going; eager to be closer to the warmth, he hurriedly selected a pair of trousers and a shirt from the old wardrobe. They were hopelessly unsuited to his body—all of his clothes were. The previous owner of the house, who ever he was, had obviously been a man of much greater proportions: the shirt hung loosely across Kuja's shoulders and the pants constantly threatened to slip down his narrow hips. None of the slacks were designed for individuals with tails, either, which made wearing them especially awkward.
But it was better than walking naked, he supposed. Not that Kuja would have necessarily minded; his Terran garb had been much more revealing than this modest apparel, and much more liberating as well. It was for Zidane's benefit, really—the blonde had expressed his…disapproval of his fashion sense in the past, flushed red with embarrassment as he confessed that the first time he'd saw him, back in Burmecia, he'd thought Kuja was a woman.
Kuja was still, understandably, a bit sour over that.
Decent again, he left the room and gravitated immediately to the healthy fire blazing in the hearth. Zidane was gone, but he could hear movement from the annexed kitchen, so Kuja settled down in front of the fire to wait. Warmth spread through his body, chasing away the lingering chill in his extremities and stilling the trembling of his hands. The muted roar of the fire and the popping, hissing wood was simply captivating.
Combined with the sounds of the storm outside, it was altogether somehow peaceful. Fire, he found, had its own song; like rain, it soothed him, comforted him like a mother's lullaby, although he couldn't say for sure if the two were very similar—"mother" was a concept he'd only read about in books. He recalled a pleasant little story, from a child's picture book he'd once picked up out of curiosity. At the time he'd thought the illustrations to be juvenile and somewhat repulsive; he hadn't read the whole thing. One image had stuck with him—a woman in an old wooden chair before a docile fire, cradling a swaddled infant and smiling softly, gently, lovingly. She'd probably been singing, hushed but full of emotion; it wouldn't have mattered at all if she hadn't the voice for it, so long as she smiled like that. He could almost hear her voice.
Kuja closed his eyes and felt a sudden wetness on his cheeks. He brushed it away indifferently. Odd. He must have missed a spot with the towel. He drew his legs up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them tightly, resting his chin on his knees. His chest felt tight, and full, as if his heart were swollen and pressing against his lungs. He knew what sadness was, but he didn't understand it. Why feel grief for a woman that he never knew, who didn't even exist? He tried to put it out of his mind—he was a master at it—but the picture remained vivid, stuck in his brain like a bur. Why should he care? It was far too late to lament such things, now.
Footsteps signaled Zidane's approach. He padded over to the fire to stand directly behind him; Kuja could feel the heat from his body against his back. He didn't speak—highly irregular for a boy who sometimes seemed to talk just to hear the sound of his own voice. It was a surprisingly comfortable silence, although he had wonder if Zidane was being uncommonly quiet because he was still upset with him.
Kuja seized the distraction willingly; he was forming his mouth around an inquiry when Zidane dropped a clean towel over his head and started drying out his long, silver tresses.
He let out an embarrassing squeak of surprising before he found his voice. "What are you doing…?"
"Drying your hair," Zidane replied simply, implying somewhat of a vocal shrug with the nonchalance of his tone. "You're dripping water everywhere." The nonchalance mutated to an audible grin. "I don't know if you've noticed, but you've got a lot of hair. Maybe even more than Dagger did, and she really is a girl."
Several things came to mind as a response to that. Kuja fumbled through resentment and an automatic defense mechanism to defend his appearance before he arrived at an appropriate reply. "I'm aware of that, thank you. But you don't have to. I'm perfectly capable of drying my own hair."
"I'll stop if you want me to," he said, simple again, continuing his ministrations.
Kuja opened his mouth to tell him cease and desist, but silenced himself almost immediately, a protest dying on his lips as Zidane began to massage his scalp through the thick cotton towel. Normally he disliked it when hands other than his own touched his hair, but he found this treatment to be surprisingly pleasant. Enjoyable, even. Zidane's touch was firm but tender, and he took great pains to avoid pulling even a single strand too harshly. Gradually the shock wore off and Kuja forgot his self-consciousness, allowing himself to bask in the simple pleasure.
He had even started to lean into it a bit when a drop of water splashed onto his shoulder, startling him, and he looked up. Beads of rainwater had collected at the ends of Zidane's still damp hair, and were shook loose every time he moved his head in just the right way. The blonde didn't even seem to notice, he was so absorbed in his work,
"You're dripping on me," Kuja pointed out, grinning smugly. "Or did you forget that you also have a lot of hair?"
"Huh?" Zidane blinked in confusion. He passed his hand over his bangs, dislodging the water droplets there and sending them cascading down his face. "Oops. Sorry." He registered the second half of Kuja's statement and smirked. "And I could probably use a hair cut, yeah, but at least I don't look like a woman."
"No, you just look like a ragged street urchin. And a half drowned street urchin, at that." Kuja half rose, taking up his own discarded towel and passing it over Zidane's cheek, smothering the water trail there. Their faces were only inches from each other; so close that Kuja observed many unique details he'd failed to notice before—how incredibly blue Zidane's eyes were, how his nose had a small crook to it, as if it'd had once been broken by a heavy blow, how smooth his skin was, much tanner in comparison to his own. He wondered if it was as soft as it looked, and caressed the delicate patch of flesh under one eye with the pad of his thumb.
When he realized what he'd done, how this must look, he froze, eyes darting up to Zidane's to gauge his reaction. The blonde caught his gaze and held it, and for once his expression was completely unreadable. Fearing he'd overstepped his bounds, Kuja jerked back, dropping the towel as if it had scalded him. He couldn't look at Zidane, even though he could feel the blonde's eyes on him. His heart was pounding, and he was sure he was blushing. He felt it again, that weird feeling in his chest, the nameless sensation he got when he interacted with Zidane. And this time it was accompanied by something different, something powerful, something much more frightening because Kuja knew what this feeling was for once, this stirring in his gut. He may not have been human, but he was built human, and he knew human emotions that stemmed from attraction…want…desire…longing. It was muted, tame—but it was there.
How he came to feel this way about Zidane of all people was a mystery, and altogether terrifying. What did it mean in conjuncture with that other feeling? Was there something wrong with him? There had to be something wrong with him. It was a mix of signals in his brain; he was confusing affection with attraction; he could never want to be—hope to be—anything more than a friend to Zidane. It was wrong. He was wrong. This was wrong.
He wanted to apologize. His open and closed his mouth in several false starts. Anything he could say would only make this situation more uncomfortable than it already was.
Fortunately Zidane beat him to it. The blonde cleared his throat, and Kuja involuntarily looked up at him. The boy's cheeks were flushed pink, and he shifted nervously from foot to foot. Rubbing his neck and staring at the ceiling, he said, "I'll go make tea for us."
Kuja nodded weakly. He watched Zidane retreat to the kitchen and would have kicked himself if he thought it would help. What would happen now? Had he ruined his chances at friendship with Zidane? Had his actions shattered the fragile peace that had just begun to form around this house? He cursed himself, his body and his mind, for betraying him when he needed them most. A prisoner in his own skin, that's what he was—not even free to reign over his emotions. He cursed Garland, that fool of a man, for making him what he was, and for robbing him of the tools to shape what he was. For all his education, culture, and power, he was naïve and ignorant as a newborn babe.
He muttered his thanks when Zidane reemerged into the living room and handed him a steaming mug of herbal tea—the same tea as always, but that didn't even matter to him anymore. He choked down a mouthful of the brew just for a distraction, heedless of the heat as it burned its way down his throat.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
He spluttered his next sip in surprise. He hadn't expected to be addressed so soon. He glanced sidelong at Zidane as he took a seat next to him in front of the fire, nursing his own cup.
"You have to wait for it to cool down first," he advised, blowing on the hot liquid in demonstration. "I downed a whole cup once—I was in a hurry to get out of my costume—long story—but the short of it was that I ended up with a mouthful of blisters. Not a pleasant experience."
"I…I can imagine," Kuja said at length. It seemed the blonde was willing to forget that the whole thing had ever happened—typical Zidane. If he was going to apologize for his behavior, now was the time.
"Zidane, I—" He began, at the same time Zidane said:
"Hey, Kuja, I've been thinking—"
Kuja cleared his throat. Opportunity wasted. "Yes?"
"What were you going to say?"
"Nothing. Forget about it." But I'll remember.
Zidane shrugged. "Whatever."
He waited for him to continue, but when further comment was not forthcoming, Kuja prompted, "What were you saying?"
Zidane sipped his tea. "I forget."
"You're one to talk!"
Kuja chuckled a bit, gazing back into the fire without mustering another retort. It may have seemed juvenile to an observer, but he was glad of these little name-calling spats. It meant everything was all right between them…whatever all right meant. How long it would last was anyone's guess. For now…he would just have to keep pretending.
Written because Kuja is more than a pretty boy with a big vocabulary and a tragic past. I will have him know love yet, or I will go crazy trying. Let us pray.
PS: Bonus points for anyone who caught the parallels between Lord Avon's unnamed character and a certain English poet's tragic prince.
PSS: I want to give a shout out to Elsewhere, an author over at AdultFanficdotNet. Her stories Cathartik and If You Fall were a big inspiration for this story. If you like the KujaxZidane/ZidanexKuja pairing, I would head on over to her profile page. I warn you, they are on AdultFanFic for a reason, so if you aren't old enough to be browsing around over there, then don't. 'Tis illegal, and I don't want to be accused of corrupting the kiddies.