This was written for two of my friends' birthdays. Happy belated birthday to them!
Aida didn't expect Captain Radames to call her back after the first time. In truth, she had expected a beating for defying him, not to be merely put back in chains and sent to the hold of the ship with the other women. As if being put back in chains counts as 'merely', she thought, wincing as the metal bit into her wrists.
She'd been left alone for three days, and she'd spent them trying to be strong for the other women and give them what comfort she could. It was hard when she had not yet come to terms with what had happened herself. It had been her fault, after all, and she'd had plenty of time to think about that while they sailed towards Egypt. But today, on the third day, a second guard had appeared with the regular one bringing their rations.
"Which one of you is Aida?" he asked, gazing over the huddled group.
Aida stepped forward, stepping free when her friend Nehebka tried to stop her; there was no point in hiding when there was no place else to go. Maybe they'd found out she was a princess. Maybe they intended to make an example of her as the leader of the group. She was still numb from being captured and couldn't bring herself to do anything but let herself be led off by the guard.
She was dragged to Radames' cabin, to her surprise. Opening the door, the guard shoved her through and shut it firmly behind her. She caught her balance, the chains biting into her wrists yet again as she tried to move her hands too far apart, and then she straightened, looking warily around the room. It was empty, which was surprising. She cautiously moved away from the door, but she still couldn't see anything or anyone, and she wondered what she was supposed to be doing in here. Not clean—the cabin was surprisingly tidy for a man's room, although it was likely he had someone else to tend to it, a slave he'd had for longer than her perhaps.
She was surprised by how sparse it seemed. It was plain, though large, with a bed built into one corner. There was a large wooden chest at one end of the bed and a small table off to one side. The table was covered in maps, and Aida drew nearer curiously. These were some of the most detailed maps she'd ever seen, and she lightly touched the marking that indicated her village. Her fingers followed the river out of it until they reached Egypt. The distance seemed so big, and beyond Egypt the map showed more than she had imagined. Had Egypt really expanded so far?
"So you can read maps as well as use a sword."
Aida whirled around, choking back a startled yelp. Captain Radames was standing there, arching one eyebrow and clearly intrigued. Aida struggled to get her heartbeat back under control as he continued. "You're not planning to try to run back, are you? Because you know it's useless."
Aida's stomach clenched. "You've made sure of that," she said bitterly, moving her hands so that the chains rattled.
"Any other secrets I should know?" he asked, as if she hadn't spoken. He shut the door behind him and approached. Aida's stomach tightened again, this time with more fear. If he ever found out who she was, he'd do more than just have her put in chains. The Nubian princess would be a far bigger prize than a bunch of captive women.
"Can you fly, perhaps?" he continued, stopping in front of her. "Or can you control the weather?" He was clearly enjoying mocking her.
Aida relaxed a tiny bit in spite of the mocking. "No," she said, refusing to back away from him. "No, I can't do anything like that. If he was mocking her than he had no inkling of who she really was.
"Good," he said, subtlety shifting closer, trying to intimidate her. She didn't move. "Hold out your hands." Startled, Aida simply stared at him. "Hold out your hands," he repeated impatiently. Aida slowly raised her hands, and he grabbed her wrist, jerking it towards him. Then he produced a key from his belt pouch and swiftly unlocked her shackles, dropping them carelessly on the floor beside him.
Her eyes widened, and her gaze darted from her wrists to his face and back again. She hadn't expected him to do that at all. Rubbing her wrists, she watched him mutely, waiting for him to explain.
But he turned away from her and walked over to a covered basin on a small stand. Her vision was blocked by his broad back, but then he turned back and tossed something at her. She caught it by instinct; it was a wet cloth. She looked at him, now thoroughly confused.
"For cleaning your hands," he said. "They're filthy."
She looked down at her hands. He was right. They were grimy and, in some places, bloodstained. But she didn't feel any gratitude towards him for this random bit of kindness, which probably wasn't kindness at all, but more likely some means of tormenting her. "That's to be expected when you're kept in a filthy hold," she spat, balling the cloth up in her fist. She wanted to be clean, but not by his pity or for his amusement. Three days in chains had lessened her hope for escape, but they hadn't curbed her defiance. If he wanted her clean, he had to do more than just throw rags at her.
"That's how slaves are transported. Wash." His reply was curt and arrogant, and it made Aida's temper burn.
"And why should I wash?" she stormed. "After all I am a slave now." She threw it in his face, even though it burned her to say it.
"Exactly. You are a slave, and you will do what I say," he said harshly. He took a step towards her, his mouth a thin line.
Aida glared back, clenching the cloth harder so that it began to drip onto the floor by her feet. "Why should I? Since I'm just a slave, what do you need me to wash for?" she said, pushing at him verbally. If this got her chained back up or beaten, so be it. She couldn't seem to stop herself, and she didn't really want to. It wasn't in her temperament to let anyone order her around.
Radames' jaw clenched, but he didn't let lose any more temper for the moment. Instead, his eyes glinted at her and he said slowly. "We were interrupted last time, so you'll finish what you started."
Aida blinked, her mind racing, trying to figure out what he was talking about. Her eyes darted to the bed and then back again. Surely he hadn't called her back after three days, just to…
"What—" she began, but he cut her off.
"Wash!" he roared, his temper breaking free again. His face implied that if she didn't he would do it for her—and she wouldn't like it.
Aida nearly flinched again, unsettled by the uncertainty of what he was going to make her do. So far none of them had been seriously abused, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. She managed to control herself still, though, and she began to wipe away the grime on her arms with the cloth. She stared defiantly at Radames as she did so, just to show she wasn't cowering from him. He could make her uneasy, but she wasn't going to show it. He just glared back and watched, but after she'd finished one arm he gave a satisfied nod that she was obeying and drew his shirt over his head. He dropped it carelessly on the floor and moved to splash some water on his own face.
She washed up to her elbows, and the cloth was nearly black when she was done. Her mind was racing the whole time. Was he really going to do what she thought? She feared he was, but she wasn't going to go along with it quietly. So she stood there for the moment, waiting for him to tell her what to do.
Wearing only his loose seaman's pants—and Aida now noticed he was barefoot as well—he walked over to the bed and sat down, beckoning her to follow. She didn't move. Radames scowled. "Come here," he ordered.
Aida stayed where she was and squared her shoulders. "What did you bring me here for?" she demanded instead. She would rather be beaten than go willingly to his bed.
He stared at her for a long moment, and she waited for him to begin raging again. Instead, strangely, he smirked. "I was curious to see if your skills at massage match your skills with a sponge," he said.
Aida simply stared. He wanted a massage? From her? After she'd nearly scraped him raw with a sponge? He must be a glutton for punishment. But her knees sagged slightly in relief. He didn't want to bed her; instead he was only trying to humiliate her further by setting her a demeaning task. He was probably hoping for a rise. That thought made her spine stiffen. He was probably enjoying tormenting her.
Radames met her eyes squarely, challenging her to do anything. She was trapped, and she knew it. She i was /i a slave and he could make her do whatever he wanted. In the end, it was Aida who dropped her gaze first as she moved across the cabin to stand a short distance from the bed. He caught her eye again, and then smirked one last time before lying down on his stomach, head on his crossed arms.
It took her a few seconds before she could make herself approach. She could feel him watching her as she did too, making this worse. Massage! As if she wanted to do a single thing to make him comfortable.
He'd lain in the center of the bed, and so she was forced to climb onto the bed next to him, sitting up on her knees to reach all of his back. She shuffled forward, "accidently" jabbing her knee into his ribs, causing him to grunt and flinch away. He rolled up on one elbow and glared back at her, but she kept a bland, innocent look on her face and held his eyes until he laid back down. If he was going to coerce her into getting near him, he should have expected this.
It took a few more seconds for her to bring herself to lay her hands on his shoulders, but she finally did because she had no choice. She ran her hands along his shoulder blades, and then abruptly dug her thumbs into knots of muscle. He twitched violently, and she curled her lips up in satisfaction as she viciously massaged the knots out.
"You're no gentler at this than you were with a sponge," he complained "I'd thought a few days would tame you more." His shoulders rippled as she bore down on another knot. He made another pained grunt as she moved up to attack a different spot. "Gods! Be more careful, woman!"
Aida felt herself smile in satisfaction. She could keep this up for as long as he made her stay here—getting more revenge on him. "It requires force to get the knots out," she said demurely. She thought about using the heels of her palms for more pressure, but rejected that because her fingers were pointier. Tame her indeed. Like she was some kind of animal.
Radames didn't say anything after that, letting her work. Either the man was some kind of masochist or his muscles were thicker than she'd thought, because his back and shoulders were slowly starting to relax under her hands. Aida scowled and wished she could snap his neck. How could he be enjoying this? She didn't want to bring him comfort in any way! She began to scan the room, looking for weapons. If he was relaxed, maybe she could grab something before he could stop her. Her eyes fell on his sword lying on the table…
"It wouldn't work," Radames said, his voice muffled where his head rested on his arms. Aida jumped, but he didn't move. "You couldn't get to anything that could help you before I'd stop you," he continued.
Aida carefully lifted her hands off his shoulders and stared at the back of his head, shocked. Radames hadn't moved at all before making this startling prediction. How had he guessed? She licked her suddenly dry lips. "H-how?" she asked after a moment, not able to finish the question. She didn't want to admit to anything. The prickle of fear settled back into her stomach.
Now he sat up, propping himself on his elbows as he turned to look at her. That insufferable smirk was back on his face. "You weren't trying to grind my back into dust anymore," he said.
Aida felt heat flare in her cheeks as she realized it was true. She shifted backwards towards the edge of the bed. Radames rolled over and pushed himself up, and she inched back some more until she could put one foot on the floor. With him facing her, he felt far too large and intimidating. Her nerves skittered, although she didn't let it show on her face. He was enjoying this far too much; that smirk was still stretched across his face. Her eyes darted to the sword in spite of herself.
"You won't make it," he said, watching her. Her eyes flicked back to him and suddenly they were both tensing – her slowly easing her weight onto her foot, and him coiling to spring. They stayed like that for a few agonizingly long seconds, and then they both moved at the same time. She managed to dodge his outstretched hands and dart for the table. Behind her, she could hear him curse. This was futile, she knew, but she was running on fight instincts now, and she dove forward, knowing he was right behind her. His hands closed on her hands just as her hands closed on the sword's hilt.
They froze like that—Aida trapped between his arms, both of them clutching the sword. Aida's heart pounded furiously, although she didn't give him the satisfaction of struggling or trying to pull away.
"Well well, you're faster than I thought," Radames remarked. Surprisingly, his tone was almost conversational.
She kept her eyes fixed on the sword and didn't answer. He stepped closer until he was almost pressed against her back, and she could feel him looking over her shoulder. Slowly, she let her fingers be pried off the hilt, allowing the sword to clatter to the floor. "You know, I could have you beaten just for touching this," he said casually, not releasing her hands. Aida couldn't suppress a shudder as his breath tickled the side of her neck.
That sign of weakness and his bullying sent her pulling away, ripping her hands out of his grasp. She turned to face him, heart pounding and a little surprised that he'd let her go. "Then why don't you?" she challenged. She was tired of being entertainment for him. She wanted to throw something at him. He'd only brought her here to bait her into doing something like this, and she wasn't going to cooperate anymore than she already had. He'd achieved his objective of shaming her and enforcing her new position in life, and she could feel the sting of that humiliation keenly.
"It would be a shame to kill such spirit," he said, stepping closer. When she didn't answer, he continued into the stony silence. "It's quite an unusual trait, especially in a slave."
Aida didn't respond to this. "I'd like to return to the hold," she said, battling to keep her emotions out of her voice.
That clearly surprised him a little. Did he really think she'd prefer to spend time here, being taunted and humiliated by him, to being with her people, even in chains? Or maybe he was surprised she hadn't responded to his barb on her status. It soothed her a little – she had him off balance, and maybe he would leave her alone after this. "If you please, captain?" she said calmly. And then she did the hardest thing, she held out her wrists. She wasn't going to ask him to leave them off again, leaving herself open to more taunting.
That startled him more, and he stared at her for a long second. The smug arrogance vanished, and for a second she thought she'd even impressed him, just a little. But she dismissed that. He was intrigued and surprised, no more. Still, he didn't say anything as he slowly picked up her shackles and stepped nearer. The click of the locks snapping into place was the only sound, and he broke the moment by opening the door and motioning for the guard outside to take her away.
Aida glanced back as she rounded the corner in the passage outside and saw that he was standing in the door to his cabin, watching her. She quickly looked down and wished that she was back at home.
"Was it something I said?" Amneris asked helplessly as Radames stalked from the room. Aida could only shake her head mutely. Clearly Radames had a talent for getting under the skin of all the women he knew. She could understand Amneris' frustration. Why would Radames come and lead Amneris on like that, only to stand in the sitting room and talk to Aida?
"When we were children together, we understood each other so well. But I hardly know him at all anymore," Amneris continued wistfully. Aida inwardly cursed Radames for putting them in this situation. He was engaged to Amneris, and Amneris was happy about it; she loved him. And he wasn't telling her any differently. No, but he was still far too interested in Aida. She didn't understand why; she never invited his attention, and she didn't i want /i his attention, but it seemed like he was always appearing in her path, vexing her.
"Sometimes people change, mistress," Aida said tactfully. Which was true. Look how she had changed in just a few weeks. She had learned to hide her feelings, although Radames had just proved he could provoke her into revealing them.
"Well, I shall just have to get to know the new him," Amneris declared. Aida sighed silently. She had a feeling Radames wasn't going to let Amneris get to know him any better, and that Amneris was going to get hurt in the process of trying. This was going to end badly for all of them if they kept going like this, she felt. She paused for a second as she realized she had lumped herself in with Radames and Amneris, and then she knew that was right. Radames kept talking to her, not Amneris, so she was affecting their relationship.
Amneris turned to face her, and Aida could see her anger and irritation were fading. "Aida what should I do? How do I get to know him again? He's just so distant," she said, wilting a little, showing the more vulnerable side she hid from the public with her glitter and flash.
Aida hesitated for a moment before answering. "I don't know," she said, "I don't know the captain well either." Which wasn't a lie. She may have had several encounters with Radames, but he left her more confused with each one. He went from arrogant conqueror to petulant nobility to actually showing flashes of decency, and she didn't know which was real or how to deal with him.
Amneris sighed at Aida's answer. "You always seem to be able to understand people, Aida," she said, sitting on a couch and fiddling with her hair. "You've only served me for a few days and I can see that." She fussed some more, and Aida could see that she was more bothered by this incident than she wanted to let on.
"I'm sure he's just adjusting to not traveling," she lied, moving forward, shrugging off Amneris' comment. She couldn't understand everyone. Amneris had been transparent to read, but Radames and most of her fellow Nubians had proven much harder to read. She gently began to remove the pins from Amneris' hair, wondering why she felt so compelled to protect the princess. She would not have thought she could connect with anyone that owned her as a slave, and yet she found herself growing closer to Amneris every day. Amneris too, confided more and more in Aida. Aida could only suppose it was because she did not act like most of the other slaves, that she still retained a strip of dignity and purpose that made her more than an object.
She began to brush out Amneris' hair, and Amneris stopped fidgeting to let her. "Maybe if you remember when you've been together, you'll find it easier to talk to him," she suggested. "What was he like as a child?"
Amneris tipped her head back. "Well, he was…" she trailed off in thought, and Aida continued to brush out her hair in silence, letting her think. Maybe her mistress would be less fretful if she remembered some good moments from her childhood. "Well I guess even back then he didn't have much time for me. He always wanted to go places, find new things then. Only the palace seemed bigger back then, and we spent hours just exploring. Sometimes he'd take me with him, when I wasn't doing something more ladylike." She sighed wistfully as Aida tucked her hair back until into a secure knot. "He was more open back then though. He'd tell me stories about famous war leaders." She shook her head. "I was completely uninterested in war, much to his disgust, but he was a wonderful storyteller. He'd reenact parts of stories, and I loved watching him." She swiveled to look at Aida. "Why can't we go back to that?"
Aida felt something twist in her chest at the question. What she wouldn't give to go back to when she was younger and naïve, living free in Nubia. "I suspect most of us would like to go back to something, mistress," she said carefully. "But all that we can do is remember the good things to get us through the rest."
Amneris stared at her for a second before her lips twisted up in a small smile. "Once again, you prove yourself wise beyond expectation, Aida," she said. She reached out and laid a hand on Aida's forearm. "Thank you."
Aida felt her unease flare up at the simple, heartfelt thanks. It felt uncomfortably like betrayal to know that she was at least part of the problem between Amneris and Radames. Maybe he wouldn't have been attentive to Amneris if Aida wasn't there, but she was there and she was complicating things. So she stayed silent, although her growing affection for Amneris led her to gingerly lay her hand over Amneris', aware that it was a bold move for a slave. A bold move, and one that helped ease her feelings. If she couldn't help that Radames was fixated on her, she could at least be a friend to Amneris.
And then the moment was gone, and Aida pulled back. "Here," she said, slipping back into her role of soothing Amneris. "You're still tense. Let me help." Gently she urged Amneris to turn around and lay down on the couch. Deftly, she began to smooth out the tension knotting the princess' neck, using none of the force that she had on Radames.
"Ohhh, thank you Aida," Amneris practically purred, propped herself up with several silk cushions. "It's been so hectic lately…trying to plan a wedding that's fabulous in only a few days."
Aida smiled at this slip back into Amneris' usual façade. It hadn't taken her long to see through it, and it hadn't taken Amneris much longer to know that Aida had seen through it, so the quiet emotional bond of the moments before wasn't lost, merely changed into something easier to sustain. "You've managed well, mistress," she said, slipping the straps of Amneris' dress down her shoulders so she could massage her back.
Amneris let out a contented sigh as her muscles began to relax. "Maybe I'll be relaxed enough at dinner to actually talk to him," she said. "Maybe I can get him to open up a little." She sighed again, and then rolled her shoulders under Aida's fingers. "You are amazing. Radames couldn't have known about all your talents or he wouldn't have let you go."
It was a thoughtless comment, made by one who's lived attended by slaves her whole life. Aida could have taken offense at it, been hurt by it, taken it any number of ways. But she knew Amneris well enough to know that she was talking only of Aida's skills at massage and with fabrics. So she smiled, and thought of the massage she'd given Radames. "I'm sure he had no idea," she said, managing to keep the smugness out of her voice. "He can be blind to what is in front of him sometimes."
Under her hands, Amneris laughed with her and agreed.
Aida woke up when Radames shifted in his sleep. She had been sleeping lightly; it was difficult to fall asleep on the hard ground without even a blanket—although Radames hadn't had any problems. Possibly because he was more than halfway on top of her. She smiled as he shifted slightly again, his head resting on her stomach just under her breasts. He was laying facedown, his arms wrapped around her waist, and she could feel his breath whistling over her bare skin. When she changed position to try to get some feeling in her right leg, which had fallen asleep, he curled closer and tightened his hold. Even asleep he was possessive.
He wasn't going to let her leave the room, and, strangely, she didn't want him to let her. She was tired of trying to deny that there was something between them, tired of wondering what he wanted and what he was like. So when he said her name again she stopped before he physically stopped her, and when he said her name again she turned around.
He looked strange, standing shirtless and barefoot in an empty room. He really had given everything away, down to the coins he kept at his belt—given to one of the children of the Nubian encampment. Everything he had amassed in several wars and as a person of rank in the Egyptian court.
And he had done so because of her. A suggestion, made in anger and desperation, and he had followed through. She hadn't expected him to do anything – why would a captain change for a slave? – or, perhaps, to order double rations for one day, something trivial designed to show her he could be nice, if he wanted. Instead he had turned his life upside down, and the thought of it took her breath away.
The predawn air was chilly, and the floor under her was cool and hard, without even a rug to soften it. But somehow she would rather be here than anywhere else that she could be right now. It was as if they were in a bubble, fragile and easily broken, but for now isolated from the rest of the world. Even Radames' face had smoothed out in his sleep, his brow unwrinkled, his mouth relaxed into a slight smile, and his body was warm on top of hers, warding off the chill. Her own living blanket…
Aida smiled at the thought. She guessed that made her his living pillow – it seemed a good tradeoff to her, and she reached down to stroke gently through his hair. She couldn't help it; he looked so young and innocent that she had to touch him to make sure he was real.
When Radames stepped towards her, Aida took a step backwards. She wasn't scared or intimidated by him anymore, but she was scared about what exactly was happening between them. There shouldn't-couldn't-be anything between them; there was too much that separated them. It couldn't be done, and if she was strong she would walk away and go back to Amneris. She'd apologized, or attempted to anyway, just like Amneris had asked her to. She had no reason to stay here.
"Aida." It was just her name, but she could see that he was going to say more. She retreated another step.
"Radames, you are an Egyptian," she said, forestalling him saying anything else. "Nothing will ever change that. We can't—" She swallowed hard as he matched her step for step until her back touched the cool pillar beside the door. But he didn't crowd her. In fact he stopped when she held up a hand, gesturing around them. "Thank you, for this. But you could get it all back by one successful war."
He tried to say something again. "Aida, listen—"
But she couldn't let him say anything. If she did, then he would say something that would bring up the feelings between them, and she knew if that happened there would be no just forgetting about them. So she desperately kept talking. "I don't know why you did it, but thank you again." She edged around the pillar. "I must return now." She must escape.
"Aida, wait! Listen to me." Suddenly Radames was between her and the door, and she stopped, because he sounded…sincere. More sincere than she'd ever heard him. When she waited for him to continue, he took a deep breath. "Don't you know why I did this?" He gestured around them at his empty house. "All of my life I've tried to be this person I thought I had to be—and I've been happy. Everything happened like I wanted it to. And then I met you." He laughed. It wasn't a happy sound—instead it was bitter, tinged with anger. It would have scared her, except he was aiming it at himself. "And then I met you and saw how shallow my life is."
Aida stepped forward at that—he looked so disgusted with himself, and she didn't want to be the cause of that. Not anymore. "Radames, no—"
But he stopped her with a touch to her lips. She froze at the feel of the rough pads of his fingers. "You are the most honest person I know, Aida," he said softly, running his fingers over the curve of her jaw. She swallowed as her heartbeat sped up. "I've never met anyone like you before," he said, softer now, his hand still on her cheek. "You don't hide behind a mask or false words. I don't have to guess who you are."
There was time for those words to rip at her heart, and then he was too close for thought, both hands framing her face now and his fingers feathering through her hair. "Show me how to live like that," he whispered. And then he kissed her.
It took her breath away, and then she was kissing him back, running hands along his arms and shoulders. And then there was a moment when she stopped fighting it, when she admitted that she wanted to be with him, and that she believed with him that this could work.
Radames shifted as she stroked his hair, nuzzling into her skin, and she brought her other hand up to, working her fingers carefully down to his scalp and scratching lightly. He shuddered lightly and pressed his head up into her hands, his eyes still closed. Her petting became more of a determined caress, fingers exploring his scalp and massaging, working across the crown of his head.
He murmured against her stomach, and his eyes finally fluttered open. "That is a nice way to wake up," he mumbled, craning his neck around to meet her eyes without dislodging her hands.
She smiled at him and kept working, reveling in the feel of him under her fingertips, smiled again as his eyes drooped closed. "It's a nice way to wake you up," she said softly.
They lay like that for a few minutes, Radames' eyes still closed under the effects of Aida's skillful fingers. "I think I woke up in heaven," Radames mumbled again, clearly not doing much to wake himself up yet. Then one eye popped open. "Just when did you become talented at massage?" he asked, suspicion tinting his voice, although he didn't move.
Aida smiled. "Since I studied it three years ago," she said, voice heavy with amusement. She laughed softly as he scowled, although he didn't open his other eye or move in any other way.
"I should have you locked up," he muttered, allowing his eye to slip closed again. There was a pause. "In my bed chamber, maybe." He sounded disgruntled, but not angry, and Aida laughed again.
"You know you would have done the same in my place," she said, smoothing his hair down over his forehead.
He finally lifted his head and smiled sleepily at her. "I know, that's why I like you," he said, leaning up to kiss her.