Oh man, this chapter feels more like a bunch of scenes lumped together than a legit chapter. There's sadness and sweetness and anger and hope everywhere I just want to vomit rainbows after writing it all.
As promised, Maruna makes his debut.
Disclaimer: There are many things in this world that do not belong to me. Kubera is one of them.
Courtship of a Phoenix
She hummed to the sweet smelling summer air. The winds spiraled up from the hills, bringing the scent of Garuda's flowerbeds with them.
She pressed her lips to his temple and whispered in his ear, "if it's a girl, I hope she likes your flowers."
"But you're not going to have a girl," he protested and she knew the tightening of his arm around her waist wasn't just her imagination.
She glanced fondly at her growing belly. On any other day, Vinata would have chided her husband for his pessimism, but today she was feeling exceptional. "Oh, I don't know. I'm sure I can manage a miracle somehow."
Chapter Twenty-One: At Stake
N0 - approx. 1100 years
"Are you having frost on your feathers, Garuda? You don't seem to be doing so well," one Yaksha Sura said.
"Oh, don't bother him. Soon he'll have to share his wife with another," her friend replied.
Garuda was thrilled to have Shuri's clan welcome him as they usually do, a white haired, blue skinned woman among them. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen her in many centuries. But then he'd never before seen this many Yaksha Nastikas gathered in one place.
"I don't understand." He spun his head, taking in the scene for the umpteenth time. "Why do you pick war, you who are so intimate with Visnu?"
The light faded from Shuri's eyes and her lips lost their arch. "There's more at stake than Visnu…" She looked like she was going to say something more, but the moment quickly passed and she retained her humor. "No need to look too much into it, Garuda. I just thought I'd finally leave the sidelines to get a taste of this war and glory you and Gandharva are so hell bent on."
The white haired woman laughed boisterously. "Oh!" she exclaimed, clapping a hand on Garuda's back, "but secretly, this one's a softie. The way he dotes on his wife almost makes Gandharva seem normal."
Garuda had to fight back a sputter of protest.
"It's okay." Ha—what was her name again? looked fondly at him before patting his cheek twice. "We all do it. It's a Nastika's guilty pleasure."
With a wink, the woman was off, leaving him to sigh and scratch his head, wondering where he'd gone wrong.
"Your clan, Shuri," Garuda settled for a fond sigh, "is still as annoying as ever."
"Birds will be birds and foxes foxes," Shuri chippered happily. "Little you can do, Garuda."
He shot her a glare. "I still can't believe Vinata once said she'd pick me over you. It's insulting to even compare the two of us."
"Yes, I agree." Shuri smiled complacently. "But you mustn't let your self-esteem issues get in the way just because I am a wonderful enough rival for your wife to make eyes at me."
"Don't flatter yourself. She also once contemplated dating Ananta."
Shuri made a horrified face.
The edges of Garuda's lips tugged up. "Oh yes, Shuri. I went there."
N0 – approx. 1100 years
"You deliberately waited until Garuda was on an errand so you could come to me."
The accusation pieced the air and brought several truckloads of tension down on both Nastika's shoulders. Vinata, already in her later stages of pregnancy, could not take any more weight. Avifauna, already entangled much too deep, could no longer afford to be careless if he wanted a head to stay on his neck.
She put a protective hand under her belly and his eyes drifted to it. This was no longer just for his sake, or hers, or even Garuda's.
"You might have even sent him away on purpose."
"You know I risk my blood and flesh each time you seek me out. The child you're now carrying doesn't exactly make Garuda less likely to cleave me with his sword. I ask myself again and again why I ally with you. As if I haven't already been accused of adultery once…"
Her eyes flicked down guiltily. The ground was blocked by the bulge of her stomach. Vinata swallowed a lump and stated gently, "there's more at stake than just the two of us. I want to be selfless for the sake of my child."
When Vinata smiled, she nearly glowed, despite what little light there was in the cave. Avifauna's eyebrows knitted together as he remembered that once, long ago, his wife had gazed at him with the same expression. As time passed, she stopped sending him such loving looks and he never gave it much thought.
…Until he saw her tender expression for one last time—not directed at him, but the small bundle of brown feathers cradled in her lap.
This was the point of reminiscence where he found himself snapping uncharacteristically at Vinata, "but you are not selfless! Everything you do is and has always been in vain. What good is it if you're willing to shed every feather for a son your beloved husband will hate with every fiber of his being? If you're really selfless, take him out of the world now, before he can feel, so it'll hurt that much less when Garuda does."
Vinata flicked her hand angrily. A torrent of fire spiraled forth from her fingers, charring Avifauna's face. Far from stopping there, her flames took on a life of their own. Powered through anger, they ran down his shoulders in scalding trails until Avifauna's entire figure drowned in her fury.
And in that fiery hell, the devil herself hissed with hostility, "how dare you insult me and my family in one sentence? The one who needs to be selfless is not me."
He didn't respond, prompting Vinata to heave a heavy sigh.
"But since you insist, which you so rarely do, I won't involve you any longer. Consider our alliance broken."
No longer wishing to see his face, Vinata smothered her flames and left the cave without sparing Avifauna another look. Even if he had second thoughts, he wouldn't act on them. He was strong, diplomatic, fair, but not tenacious. For one to be tenacious, one would have to believe; he never believed enough. She couldn't afford such a liability on her side.
"I'm out of luck," Vinata whispered. "Little one, can you hear me?"
The wind whistled.
"I don't care if you're a girl or a boy," she told her child, "but you're damn well going to be the happiest Rakshasa in the universe."
Then she had to sit because her back began to strain her.
"Goddammit," Vinata cursed, punching the ground and accidentally destroying the mountain path. She leaned her head back exasperatingly. "It's been a while since I was pregnant."
The clouds didn't have any response in particular either.
N0 – approx. 1100 years
"The end of the world will come soon, Kali predicted."
"To you?" Visnu quirked an eyebrow. "You certainly have a rare gift! Only Shiva has ever been able to anger lovely Kali to that level. It's almost more intriguing than the time I got summoned by a human. Did you ask for another Nastika name?"
"Insult the Chaos Clan?"
"To her face? Tempting, but no. I am not quite that foolish."
"Then what's the secret?"
Gandharva thought long and hard. "Well," he finally admitted, "I think it's because I asked her for the gender of my firstborn."
"Oh." Visnu waved off the trivial matter. "It's a girl."
"What?! Really?" His eyes shone as he clung onto the primeval god like a leech. "When is she due? Does she look like Menaka?"
But Visnu was no longer interested in his spirited friend, not when Shuri had gathered the largest group of Nastikas in nearly two hundred thousand years. Her ideals and beliefs had been shaped by his. She strove for peace. She never lead a god hunt in her life and Visnu had a pretty good idea why his beloved fox friend chose to take a stand now.
Shuri sent him a somewhat smug smile, confirming his suspicions. Visnu waved at her, fondness in his heart but sadness in his eyes. He tried to smile but didn't make it all the way.
"What is Shuri doing?" Gandharva paused and asked pensively. "Is there something going on that I don't know about?" His one eye dimmed with worry and skepticism.
Visnu wondered himself. "Battle of the sexes, perhaps? Shuri wants to defy me."
"Not to the extent that you're thinking," Visnu stated, prying Gandharva's fingers from his bare shoulder. "Maybe you could say that we don't exactly believe in the same things anymore." His figure drooped sadly. "She no longer finds it enough to wait and observe how the universe changes throughout the years. She wants to fight for a certain result."
Gandharva, thank heavens for his very special interpretations, took that to mean less than it did. "So Shuri's finally launching a campaign. That's a relief." He put a hand to his racing heart. "I thought you two were going head to head. You scared me."
"Oh no!" Visnu inflated with fake cheer. "If Shuri were to actually fight me, I'd despair. She can't defeat me. She'd only be working to my advantage with every move she makes. She already is…"
Gandharva furrowed his eyebrows, but prudently refrained from speaking any more.
Visnu's fists clenched slightly. Well, he told himself, this is to be expected after all. If one chess piece is taken out, another has to be brought in to offset the imbalance.
N0 – approx. 1100 years
"For you, dear."
Vinata smiled shyly and extended her hand to take the branch of cherry blossoms by its stem. Her fingers brushed her unexpected visitor's sleeve.
"Thank you Shuri." She patted the spot beside her invitingly.
Shuri lowered herself with grace befitting of one of the most beautiful entities in the universe. "How is the little one coming along?" she asked, inclining her head forward.
"All but dying to come out," Vinata laughed. "My chick has been kicking me nonstop. I really don't remember my last pregnancy to be this long."
"That's different. This child is a Rakshasa, not a Half, although your pregnancy is longer than most. Maybe he's just a slow developer."
"What's the matter?"
"Am I the only one who thinks my chick is a girl?"
Shuri blinked. "Darling…" She placed a consoling hand on Vinata's shoulder. "Garuda has been male for his whole life, save for maybe a few seconds. And you've yet to be female for a hundred thousand years. Are you really hoping it to be a girl?"
"I—" She never really told anyone about her insecurities, especially after that unpleasant encounter with Avifauna. "I want him to like her," she squeaked before flushing a bright shade of red.
"What makes you think Garuda won't like him just as equally?"
"I just have a feeling it's a girl," Vinata mumbled, lowering her head in embarrassment.
"Well then I hope for your sake that you're not the kind to be disappointed easily, or maybe the kind to at least think of a few gender neutral names," she sighed, thinking of Yaksha's disastrous naming abilities.
Vinata brightened visibly. "Oh yes! Garuda's been trying not to think too much about our chick so I came up with a whole list of names. I think I'm going to call her Maruna!"
"… I don't think that's a gender neutral name." Shuri paused for good measure. "And are you sure about that? It sounds awfully similar to Varuna."
"I think it's a name that has strength," Vinata stated confidently. She frowned. "He's going to need a lot of strength to grow up."
Shuri could sense their conversation taking a turn for the unpleasant, which meant that now would be as good a time as any to state the real reason she came. "Vinata, I'm organizing a god hunt."
She was puzzled by Shuri's expectant gaze. "And you want me to come along?" Vinata looked down at her belly and back at Shuri. "Pregnant?"
"No!" exclaimed Shuri. "Heavens, Garuda would declare war on my clan for doing that to him. No, of course not. I've come here to ask if you want to volunteer any Nastikas. My clan needs all the help we can get and it's been high time for us to bring your clan down a notch."
Vinata struggled to understand Shuri's message and whether she was joking or actually serious about lending a hand to the pregnant woman in need. Garuda's friends, were, after all, known for their eccentricity.
"I can think of a handful of Nastikas I'd like to keep out of these mountains." And away from my family.
Shuri's eyes twinkled. "Yes, indeed. It gets quite noisy up here and sometimes my children like to play detective. Really, we should give the busybodies something else to talk about."
N0 – approx. 1100 years
If Garuda knew the reason a flock of birds left the nest right when his new chick was due, he didn't show it. He was, however, much more affectionate with his touches in the new-brought privacy. When he enveloped Vinata in his arms, it was easy for her to forget the child altogether.
"Tell me one thing that you want the most in this world," whispered Garuda in between kisses, "and I'll get it for you."
She stilled for a moment while his lips trailed her jawline to her ear and back. "Does it have to be a thing?" she asked as he nibbled her earlobe, bringing her lips into a broad grin. "What if I just want this? For us to stay the same."
He drew back and cupped her head. "Is that all?" In the dim light, his grey eyes shone with overflowing emotion. It wasn't fair that Vinata asked for something so simple when he could give so much more. "Are you sure you don't me to retrieve the most beautiful stone from the farthest corner of the universe?"
"Yes," she spoke the words she'd been meaning to since the first time he kissed her. "I've been happier the last fifty thousand years with you than I have been my entire life before that."
He opened his mouth to respond but she silenced him with a finger to his lips.
"All I want," continued Vinata, "is for things to stay the same, a pleasant, stable happiness where nothing is at stake and no one has to hurt. That is the most I can ask for from you, because you and I as Nastikas know better than anyone that there is no bliss without tragedy."
Vinata stopped him again right before his lips crashed into hers.
"It would also be helpful if you gave the little one a fraction of the love you give me every day."
He drew back in time to see a visible, nervous lump move down her throat. Garuda never knew it meant so much to his wife. Nodding, he announced, "you have my word as king."
Those were the last words spoken between them that night.
N0 – approx. 1000 years
"It's a boy."
"WHAT?" Vinata yelled and then cringed when pain spiked through her entire body.
"I told you," said Shuri, who was shaking her head. She'd returned from the god hunt for a single night once Vegavis and Myna brought her the news of labor at breakneck speed.
"Vinata," Garuda sighed exasperatingly in between the baby's cries. "I told you not to move until Gandharva fully heals your wound."
Gandharva still looked mentally scarred at having to put his hand anywhere near there.
"Never mind that. Let me hold him."
Visnu passed the screaming baby onto Vinata's lap. Myna and her Upani friends immediately clamored around to take a good look at the small infant. Garuda, however, was more concerned about his wife's well-being and stuck to Gandharva's side.
"Dad, it's so, so adorable!" Myna squealed. "I want one too!"
"I forbid it," Vegavis stated with finality.
"He's perfect," Vinata muttered, oblivious to all that was passing around her.
Unable to do anything else, the small bundle of red and white feathers bawled his eyes out through tiny little chirps, but he was so warm and cute. She parted his wet hair and kissed the markings on his face. When she lifted her head, she saw him staring at her with a eminent curiosity, eyes as red and sharp as her own.
"He's got that expression you always used to have," Garuda muttered.
"Hm." But he was smiling, which was good.
"He looks like you," Vinata commented absentmindedly as the kid clasped her fingers in a tight grip. "He looks a lot like you."
"That's not a good thing, Vinata-nim," one of the Upanis whispered in her ear and Vinata feigned deafness.
"Ma-ru-na," she declared, tapping his nose fondly with every syllable.
The baby chirped happily.
"What did you say?" Garuda looked horrified.
Visnu whistled innocently.
"That's his name," Vinata informed him with a bright smile. "Maruna! I thought of it myself. It's a really nice sounding name."
"Yes!" added Visnu with a kick to Garuda's shin. "It's a very strong name for a very strong Rakshasa."
Garuda looked from his blissful wife to his chirping son to the squealing Myna to the stern Vegavis to the smiling Shuri to the spazzing Gandharva to the smug Visnu. He decided there was at least one thing that would never change no matter now many centuries passed.
Folding his arms, he elegantly quipped, "I hate you all."
My headcanon tells me that Rakshasas go through a Stage Zero—that is, they technically start "developing" as a fetus in their mother's stomach. Soooo... unfortunately for Rakshasas that take longer to develop, like Maruna, their mother has to suffer a longer pregnancy. Oh poor Vinata. In CoaP, he developed for roughly a hundred fifty years before popping out.
I hope you didn't die from the overload of sweetness. I've honestly been trying to balance romance with life... issues... that these Suras are going through.
Thanks for reading! Please leave a review!