A Proper Gentleman
Zia was singing again. She never minded gracing them with a song or two around the fire on these warm, summer nights. The way her voice rose to fill the quiet of an empty, post-Calamity evening was magical, haunting and soothing and bewitching all at once. It was enough to capture the heart of any man, and it certainly worked on the Kid. But not for Zulf— not tonight.
The problem was not the singing; the girl had a beautiful voice, and had he met her before the Calamity he'd have been just as enthralled as the others. Nor was it personal; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Zulf loved Zia, thought of her as a sister, and he often went out of his way to talk to her or teach her a little more of their Ura heritage. No, the problem was within himself, in the emotions she invoked with her songs.
Truth be told, "Build That Wall" was the only Ura song she knew. Zia had learned it by accident, listening to her father. He had sung it on bad days, she said, and the song had always gotten him through. It was the one thing they had shared, the one piece of her history that she had come to know. All of her other songs were Caelondian, though they came from a wide variety of Kid loved the tavern ditties, while Rucks could appreciate just about anything she sang. Zulf was fond of her more refined selections; he found the beauty of the classics to be calming.
But tonight she was singing for the Kid (though she would never admit it), and that set Zulf on edge. He was not jealous— at least, not really. He honestly wished them both happiness, however much they denied their feelings (well, Zia did; the Kid just clammed up and turned red when it was mentioned). But being with someone was special, sacred even, and Zulf's chance had come and gone. It was easy, dwelling in his bitterness, to forget that the fault for his broken heart did not lie with them.
Zulf smiled sadly, taking a deep, calming breath and listening to her sweet voice. He managed to ignore the ill feelings and lose himself in the moment, and when the song ended he applauded loudest of all.
"Thank you," Zia said, blushing shyly; she was always modest about her talents. Then she changed keys and began to pluck her harp to a new beat, one that she alone could hear.
Except Zulf heard it, too.
His heart aching, he made it halfway through the first verse before he could stand it no longer. Zulf stood abruptly, breaking Zia's spell and startling the other survivors. Her harp twanged and the girl lookd up at him with those big dark eyes of hers.
"Zulf?" she asked. "Are you alright?"
"Man looks like he's seen a ghost," Rucks murmured thoughtfully. He eyed the Ura, but said nothing more. For that, Zulf was grateful; he knew they still were not on the the greatest of terms, not after what he'd done to the Bastion. Not that Zulf blamed him.
"I just need to be alone for a moment," he answered. His voice sounded distant in his head; he wondered if he sounded strange to them, as well. The young man managed a smile and bowed slightly. "Thank you for your beautiful songs, Zia; they were lovely, as always. Please, don't let me ruin your evening."
With that, he turned away, heading for his tent and the smoking pipe that was his constant companion of late. Sometimes he wished he had something stronger, but he'd have to make due with the small stash he had left. Zulf entered the tent, looked at his pipe and thought better of it, flopping unceremoniously on his cushions instead. As he stared at the ceiling, he heard the quiet murmur of voices from around the fire. Then Zia took up her harp again; but she did not play the song.
Zulf sighed heavily. It had been her favorite, he remembered. He could see in his mind the way her eyes sparkled in delight, could see her smile, the way her lips formed each syllable with perfection even while they held that smile. He remembered her trying to teach him the words, and him bumbling his way through because he was too distracted by her hand in his. Remembered how she had laughed and encouraged him anyway when he sounded like a sick, bellowing ox. They were beautiful memories, so beautiful that they hurt. No Ura or Caelondian weapon, no mortal injury could ever cause more pain than this. He would rather tear his own heart out than feel this pain anymore.
Another memory came to him then: the Hanging Gardens. The place where he had felt this for the first time. The place where he had tried to end this pain.
The place where he had met the Kid.
And hadn't life been better since then? Hadn't the loneliness faded, hadn't life regained at least some meaning? Being with the Kid, Zia, even Rucks, even after everything that had happened, it made him forget. It gave him something to work toward. It gave him hope.
But, he reminded himself, it did not take the pain away— not completely. As long as he was being honest with himself, Zulf knew that it would never truly go away. But he could work through it, most days; and when he could not, the others were there for him.
A timid pat-pat on the flap of his tent called his attention, and at his word Zia poked her face through. The Kid was right behind her.
"Don't you look at us like that," said the Kid, smiling in his quirky half-cocked way. "We gave you your moment."
Zulf chuckled, and as the two of them joined him on the cushion and Zia wrapped her arms around him in an encouraging hug, he cried.
"So you did," he said. "So you did."