Feather Flight: I Will Never Let You Go… (part 32)
An AU Kuja fic, shonen-ai, language
If the formatting doesn't work, try finding the version posted on my website
. was strange, the memories that would pop into her head when she was diligently concentrating on something else. Focus was absolutely required, Mikoto knew as she began the less-than-pleasant task of operating on her two nearest relations. Zidane would be first, since he was the stronger, and possessed the necessary raw materials that she would need to harvest. Glancing to her left briefly she noted the other doctors fussing over Kuja. They had been kind enough to handle the setup and eventual cleanup for her so that she could devote all her attention to the primary task at hand. Fingers deftly selected a scalpel, and then felt along her brother's arm for an opportune location to start. If she pretended it wasn't him, then it wasn't quite so bad.
Given what she was doing, what they were all about to undertake, the sudden recollection of Brambala had no business intruding. The memory lingered as Mikoto carefully cut into her sedated patient, refusing to be completely dismissed.
It wasn't anything particularly clear. She couldn't recollect the exact day or what she had been doing, but for some reason the voices, the words, the raw feeling of the fight echoed in her thoughts as she worked. It had been Kuja and Garland, of course. The old man argued with his creation long and hard about the point to his existence, the point of all of their existence. At the time she hadn't understood what it was that Kuja had been so upset about. Years older and far more aware, she marveled at his foresight.
Of all of them even including Zidane, only their eldest brother had ever faced the world with his eyes wide open to the unpleasant truth of it. No wonder why he was so warped, no wonder that he had fought with such passion. No one else had ever been able to get a rise out of Garland the way Kuja had. None of the other genomes would have even known where to begin when faced with something as complex and intuitive as a screaming argument with someone. Mikoto smiled slightly at the bitter strength Kuja's knowledge had given him.
Always so different, Kuja, she still couldn't fathom the intricate ways that his mind turned. Mikoto found that she could appreciate her brother's unorthodox reasoning abilities far more now that she had an emotional basis of her own to compare with his. 'Prickly' was what many of Kuja's friends had playfully called him, she could see what they meant. Her sibling was contrast of supreme intelligence, assurance, and a deep need for sense of belonging, an almost visceral fear of being ostracized. Both were things that Mikoto could easily recognize in her own nature. Both, she pondered, were part of the legacy that Garland had left them. That probably meant that she was 'prickly' too.
Signaling Vivi that she was ready for his intervention, she stepped back to allow him room to cast his spells.
Laro waited until the conversation on the other side of the door had paused before knocking. The Dean didn't look surprised to see him, stepping back to beckon him into her office. Pushed into a chair and given a coffee before he could even say why he was there, he let her take the lead. "The treatment?"
"Ongoing." He replied grimly, not knowing, or wanting to know the details. His suite, the entire hospital seemed to be wrapped in the hushed-silence of intense concentration. Realizing he would either get away from the headache-inducing atmosphere or start drinking before noon, he had forced himself to leave.
"Kuja's too stubborn to die." The room's other occupant offered. The backhanded compliment was about as genuine as General Gerrick could ever be. Laro blinked stupidly at the man for a moment, amused that he hadn't noticed his presence before. The Dean had to have been talking to someone he had simply been too distracted to wonder who. "Good afternoon, General Nazer." The officer lifted his hand in a casual greeting.
"Hello." Laro automatically reached out to clasp hands. After a brief hesitation, his gesture was accepted, both of them smiling a little at the idea of being civilized to each other. Taking in the sight of the younger soldier, Laro had to concede to himself that 'adventuring' seemed to be good for the man. Sun-weathered from his explorations and relaxed from the lack of fighting, Gerrick's looked far less sour than he used to be. Or perhaps, Laro considered, he was simply more inclined to think kindly of the man now than he had in the beginning. "Good to see you, general," he added.
There was a secret pleasure in watching the younger man trying to puzzle out the hidden meaning. In the past they'd have been snapping at each other on sight.
"Distract me with something, Finlay, or I think I'll go mad." Laro turned back to his friend with a tired sigh.
Dean Finlay tapped the ash off of her cigar and gave him a grim smile. "A common feeling today, it seems. If you're willing to put old animosities aside, you might find that our young general here has brought home a remarkable story from his recent gallivanting. I wouldn't mind starting it over from the beginning…"
Offering his senior officer an unusually polite tilt of his chin, Gerrick acknowledged the request. "I would be honored to acquaint General Nazer with the details. Since he wasn't at court this morning he can't yet have heard the news?"
"Too many generals in this room." Laro smiled in amusement. "I'm retiring, if I haven't already. You can probably drop the formality. I'd be very interested in hearing what you've discovered. Where were you off to this time?"
"North and east, we followed the coast up past the city of Drisley out to the lands evacuated thirty years ago." Gerrick offered, slouching back in his chair. Deference was rapidly discarded, the young man obviously comfortable in the Dean's presence. "I don't know if you've ever been up that far, Nazer, or know the land, but the mountains fade back into grasslands and a sort of misty forest stretches over a hundred kilometers in every direction."
Laro nodded thoughtfully. "Ibat is up from around that area originally, isn't he? Cloud forest, he called it."
"Probably more poetic than it deserves," the general snorted. "But yes, the winds by the sea are quite foggy. Probably due to some warm current that follows the shore. Historical records said that if we followed what was left of the roads far enough, we would find the old port city of Watership."
"The Selwe bombardment laid waste to when I was a child." He agreed, dredging up old memories of the country's geography.
"Some people have gone back in the mean time, but it's still a pretty derelict place." Gerrick continued, "The ruins are beautiful. I can see why the books always talk about it as a city of sculptures. The damn things were everywhere, mostly toppled over or broken. I had to clear easily two dozen of them just to navigate the roads."
Finlay made an unpleasant face. "I hope you didn't demolish them." The young general simply rolled his eyes at the woman.
"Could it be rebuilt?" Laro asked, curious. The Dean had stood up at the start of Gerrick's narrative and prowled her shelves. She distracted them both from the general's answer when she 'hmphed' happily and yanked a particular volume off the shelf. Clearing a portion of her desk she opened the old atlas up and found the area under discussion. Interested in the unknown place, Laro leaned in to look as well, noting the probably-outdated map and an artist's rendering of the city on the facing page. "What's that bridge for?"
Gerrick smirked. "That's part of the reason why I was keen on going. There's something rather mysterious about a bridge that stretches off the edge of a map to nowhere." He pulled a paper out of his pocket and revealed that it was a rough copy of the book's map.
The difference was that this map had some amateur additions drawn on to it. This time the bridge was sketched in not as a continuous span, but as a series of pillars and zigzagging paths. It was also extended well past where the other map had ended, and ended at a roughly circular island.
"Some sort of shrine, perhaps?" Dean Finlay took up the map over the complaints of her audience. "What was on the island?"
"If I can tell my story?" Gerrick asked rhetorically, "As I was saying, the locals weren't terribly forthcoming. The best I could get them to explain is that there had been some holy place-or-other that the bridge lead to, but how big it was, or how far away, they wouldn't supply. So we took it on ourselves to investigate.
There's some weird quirk to the ocean around Watership, Nazer. You, being a sailor, might appreciate it. Apparently the floor of the sea is uncommonly shallow where the bridge has been laid out, almost like it was once a peninsula or the like. You can get several kilometers out into the ocean and still only have a few meters of water. Had any of us had any skill at boat making, we might have attempted to just row our way out and see where it got us, but we were a little uncertain of how long the trip would take, and so we chose to use what was left of the bridge."
"But the road-bed had collapsed." Laro pointed to the map that Gerrick had drawn. "Were enough pillars left standing that you could rig something?"
"Thankfully yes." The younger general rubbed his chin. "There was lumber aplenty from the town and surrounding forests, so we sort of built in stages, just a path, for now, until someone has the time or energy to do some more serious repairs. The bridge is still intact in places, which was good since I ended up staging half my men out in the middle for a few weeks while we gathered more supplies. Things got slowed up somewhat by the fogs and storms that cropped up damn near every day. All totaled it took three months of construction to connect all the broken segments back into some workable whole. By the time we were done my surveyors guessed that we were close to seven kilometers from shore."
"And the island?" Finlay prompted.
Laro almost scolded her. Soldier that he was he shared Gerrick's interest in the engineering feat of traversing the broken bridges. "I hope you had a copyist with you, I should have liked to have seen the finished structure."
"I took the liberty of claiming your old one when I left on this jaunt." Gerrick grinned. "Not like you were using him for anything, and the man was positively giddy at the chance to sketch the north country. Sadly the court has abducted him and his folio for the present, so if you want to see it you'll likely have to go to the king."
Making a face, Laro gestured that they might as well continue the story without. "I'll wait a few days for the fervor to settle down."
"Indeed." The young general agreed. "I have to face them after dinner with a more florid version of what I'm telling you now. I though I'd tell it my way at least once before having to dress it up for the nobles."
"They won't be half so interested in the bridge. I can assure you." Dean Finlay chuckled.
"So then there was the island." Gerrick looked dour. "At first we weren't sure how big it was. I mean it seemed small from a distance, but we wondered if it was the tip of some larger landmass. It took a few days for us to find a high enough vantage point to determine that it was only a few kilometers across."
"More of an atoll than an island, at that size." Laro murmured.
"If that's a fancy way of saying 'the top of a sunken mountain' then yes. That's pretty much what you've got."
Gerrick grinned and pointed to his makeshift map. "The entire island is pretty vertical, as far as we can tell the only level bit of land on the whole thing was the place where the bridge connected. Just enough room for a sort of hostel house, and some few other buildings, and then there were these rock walls that went up like the walls of some castle. There was a bit of a road, path, staircase, call it what you will, that went from the buildings up into the mountain. When we followed it we found out that it was the damnedest thing. The place is hollow in the middle! Like some sort of really deep crater. The copyist speculated that the whole island may once have been the very tip of a giant volcano and that we were walking into its mouth."
"There's a pleasant thought." The Dean was back at her desk, elbows propped on the surface as she listened. "Any signs of activity?"
"No. Quite the opposite really. There were some trees growing in the center of the island that had to be hundreds of years old. Enormous old things decorated with hanging chimes and whatnots, moss, the works. But that's not the crazy part." Gerrick leaned forwards, hinting at revelations. "Smack in the middle of this little wilderness is the biggest damn piece of quartz I've ever seen! Over thirty meters long, sticking out of the ground like some sort of giant signpost. It looked like an enormous leaded crystal memorial from a glass works. You'll have to see Jeo's sketches to believe it. You just turned a corner, and bam, there it was! No wonder the locals were superstitious, I have to admit it made the hair on the back of my head stand up."
"A crystal that big can't be natural." Laro mused. "Wouldn't it shatter with normal weathering?"
"Maybe the walls of the volcano deflect a lot of it." Finlay shrugged. "Would you say it was part of the Selwe invasion?"
Gerrick shook his head. "It was too well placed for that. There was a patio built in around the thing, benches. All if it was worn down; not like a recent addition. The whole island looked like it had been in the business of being a shrine for a damn long time. Besides, the bugs have never been eager to venture out to sea, and the island is too small to get to it any other way."
"I wonder why none of the survivors wanted to talk about it." Standing to stretch his legs, Laro looked at the crude map once again. He'd tell Masa about it when he recovered enough. No doubt his kitten would find the idea of the island charming. "You'd think there'd be someone living out there if they had gone through the effort of building the bridge and the settlement. Someone must have survived the evacuation."
"Who's to say?" Gerrick shrugged. "I just find these things; I don't pretend to understand them. We also brought back some surveys of further north, where the grand glacier begins, but that's only interesting to the geologists. Most people are more into the mysterious island bit."
"I foresee a new influx of funding for the reconstruction of Watership." The Dean mused cynically as she took a puff off her cigar. "I'll advise the king to station a small group out on the bridge maybe. Make sure that our historic treasure isn't broken down into small souvenirs by an enterprising businessman or two."
"It was tricky business just getting out to the island, what with the bridge and fog." Gerrick shrugged. "I wouldn't be too worried about a mob descending on the place."
"What else did you see?" Laro couldn't help but ask. Staring through the atlas he re-familiarized himself with the countries and cities that used to exist along the coast. Some of them he remembered hearing about as his child. His long since vanished village was nothing more than a small 'x' along the coast. In all probability, the surf and the sands would have consumed what little was left a long time ago, but the name remained. he wondered if anyone would ever want to try again in the remote little location.
After spending all day consciously avoiding returning to the hospital Laro found that trying to not worry about how Mikoto and her brothers were progressing was actually more stressful than just pacing the hall outside her surgery. His brain refused to cooperatively be distracted for more than a few moments at a time. Even speculating on vast treasures left forgotten from before the war couldn't completely set him at ease. Every few moments he would find himself wondering how Masa fared, and when it might be safe to investigate the outcome. He grimly wondered if someone from the hospital would even think to send him word when the procedure was done with. When dinner had passed, and still no message had found him, he set off to discover for himself what the news was.
Long shadows filled the back courtyard. Random stewards were at work lighting lanterns along the walkways and stairs. Laro picked his way through the customary bustle of the lower hospital floors and up through the wards to where Kuja had been making his home for the past few months. Instinctively he glanced around for any sign of the Selwe. Usually there was a bug or two lurking around somewhere nearby. They seemed content to watch as Masa's recovery proceeded. Probably updating their queen at each step of the way as to when their surrender could finally take place with all due ceremony. Knowing his lover was on fairly amicable terms with the creatures didn't change the fact that being taken by surprise by one could still make his hair stand up. If anything, the corridor and sitting rooms were desolate, no bugs, no pages cooling their heels nobody but the occasional busy-looking doctor fluttering along. He whimsically checked the room that Mikoto and Zidane had claimed as their own, but it was as empty as expected.
His own suite was equally uninhabited, although he could see that someone has swept through the place with an eye towards prepping the bed for the return of an invalid. Extra pillows and fresh linens had been set up. The quilts were folded back awaiting the patient of the hour. Laro tried convincing himself that he could wait a little longer, but found as soon as he sat down that his legs were adamant about moving. Resigned to getting underfoot, he headed back out. Down the hallway further still was where Mikoto had positioned her cobbled-together equipment. Sure enough, the door was guarded by a rather taciturn looking orderly. Knowing that wheedling wouldn't work, Laro attempted for professional curiosity.
"Nearly done now, sir. I heard the doctors saying that she was finish with Mr. Zidane and that he could be healed up and taken back to his room. They'll probably be wheeling him out any minute."
"And the procedure?" He hated to ask.
"Seems to have gone nice and quietly, at any rate, sir." Came the unhelpful reply.
Resolving not to force his way in and act the part of paranoid-lover, Laro squared his shoulders and made a show of relaxing across the hall from the orderly, somehow finding it in him to make small talk with the man about random goings on in the city. After a painfully long discussion about the potential for the year's harvest, they were interrupted by the door opening. Ing and his fellow doctor were slowly maneuvering a narrow bed out of it.
"Sleeping like a baby." The doctor murmured, amused by Laro's attempts to surreptitiously investigate the patient while helping them move him down the hall. "Although if Mikoto's predictions are right, he may be crying like a baby, once the painkillers wear off and he wakes up."
"That bad?" He grimaced at the thought.
"She's got a remarkably steady hand. But still that was seven incisions, and seven, for the lack of a better word, broken bones. The young man will doubtless notice, when he comes around." The other surgeon nodded sagely. "Still, with the aid of magic, he will be on his feet almost as fast as you were, Great Kai, as will our Mr. Kuja."
"Doesn't sound like much fun until then." He agreed grimly. Zidane looked rather pale, sedated or not. With the blanket over most of him it was impossible to count the bandages. He wasn't sure he wanted to. "Things went alright then? Nothing unexpected?"
"Nothing at all." Ing replied, nodding that if he wanted to be really useful then he could hold open the door. "Calm and steady, she knows her craft. It's a pity she didn't find the larger surgery hall to her liking. I would have loved to have had some of the old windbags watch her work. It would be the end of the foolish arguments they pose about female surgeons."
"I have a hunch Mikoto would floor a lot of people who make assumptions about women." Laro chuckled. "She's practically the mayor of her village back home too, their equivalent to our Dean, I guess."
"How she finds enough hours in the day is a mystery to me." Ing shook his head. With a practiced move, the two doctors quickly transferred their patient from the rolling cot to his bed and tucked him in. The little surgeon gave him a speculative look. "If you wouldn't mind sitting with him for a minute while we go back and collect a few things?"
"Is there anything I should watch for?" He asked gamely as he sat on Mikoto's bed to observe Zidane.
"Just shout if he moves or seems distressed. We'll hear you." Pushing the vacant cot out the door again, the doctors made their escape. "We'll send a nurse in to take over for you in just as soon as we find one."
Left with just a sleeping genome for company, Laro sighed. "Well, here's hoping your brother comes through this as quietly as you seem to have. Although had I known the pair of you would be volunteering for broken bones, I might have encouraged you to reconsider. The sleeping man's eyebrow seemed to twitch in agreement, but as Zidane's breathing never changed, it seemed to be simply a fluke. Whatever Masa's blond almost-twin of a brother was dreaming about, it probably was more amusing than the reality of being stuck in bed after surgery. Laro left him to it.
"I was told I would find you here." Mikoto came into the room close on the heels of a friendly looking nurse. Laro stood out of polite habit, and realizing that the little bedroom really didn't have the capacity for her, the nurse, her brother, and him as well, moved to evacuate himself to the hall. The woman looked exhausted, dark circles under her eyes implying that the all day procedure hadn't been a relaxed affair. She was drying her hands on a small towel, clearly having come direct from her surgery. He couldn't help but check her for any signs of worry or fear, but she was as calm and composed as ever.
Leaning against the door frame, she let him slip past her and gazed in at her brother a moment, seeming to reach a prognosis without having to prod at him first. "He'll sleep the night through, probably. Wake in the morning about as happy as a cat that's fallen off a roof beam."
"But he'll be fine, right?"
"Who Zidane?" She chuckled slightly. "It would take far more than a few mending bones to keep him down. No the trick will be to keep him in bed until we get a chance to mend things properly, that and put up with his constant complaining. With luck I'll sleep through the first half of it."
"And Masa?" He was surprised when she pushed away from the door to lead him back down the hall towards his rooms. She leaned her shoulder against the new door as she opened it, and nodded that he was allowed in as well.
"So far so good." Mikoto stood next to the big bed where Kuja had been tucked in. He speculated that the doctors must have knowingly left him to babysit Zidane while they transferred their second patient. The old men were clever like that. Almost lost among all the quilts, Masa looked just as pale as his brother, even worse, given his natural coloring wasn't as strong. Finding a bit of space on the edge of the bed, Laro sat down next to him. Pushing some of his hair off his forehead, he worried at the faint but pained expression on the man's face.
"Blood loss was within expected parameters, but I did have to walk your healers through tinkering with his immune system, at least temporarily, until Zidane's cells bind and blend properly with his own." She sighed. "Normally there would be long term concerns regarding transplants, but because they are for all intents and purposes the same person, physically, I have every hope that the transition will happen smoothly."
"Do you have any worries?"
"Only the usual." She elucidated when she noted his curious look. "Infections, overexertion, the usual. He'll be rather fragile for a while. More so than Zidane. His bones are functionally hollow, the marrow will have to grow in. Until it does they won't be able to set and heal properly. Naturally we can hasten the process somewhat, but even so, it'll take a little time."
"So you're saying I shouldn't squeeze him too hard in the meantime." Laro tried to joke. She gave him a smile for the effort.
"Something like that."
"Is it safe to sleep here? Or should I go find a temporary bed in the castle for the next few days?" Silently he willed her to let him stay.
Mikoto rubbed her neck. "I would surmise that he would sleep better, and be more agreeable to resting tomorrow, if you were here to keep him company. But under no condition is there to be exertion of any kind." She gave him a candid look.
"I know my brother, at least that well, Mr. Nazer. I will therefore have to ask that you be the sensible one in this regard? It is not in his best interest that he do anything to upset the adoption of his transplants. He should be reminded of this if he gets any ideas before I can come and check on him again."
"I promise we'll behave."
"I trust that you will, at any rate." Looking down at her sleeping brother once more, she humphed softly to herself and moved towards the door. "I'll have them station a nurse in your sitting room, should anything arise. I'll be sleeping, probably for the next fourteen hours, but feel free to rouse me if necessary."
"Thank you, Mikoto."
"Thank me if it works." Shutting the door behind her, she left in search of her bed.
It was early yet, but Laro couldn't fault her the idea. The stress of the day had exhausted him as well, and he hadn't worked nearly a fraction as hard as she had. Exchanging his clothes for his sleep shirt, he carefully slipped into bed next to Masa, not wanting to jar the mattress. He wasn't brave enough to try and hold the man, uncertain exactly where the various bandages lay, but he settled as close as he could, hoping that body heat might be of some assistance to his sleeping lover. Kuja's chest moved with calming regularity, his breathing sure and steady despite his poor color. For a long time Laro simply watched the silver haired man, comforted by the knowledge that conscious or not, he had come this far. And when he finally slept, it was with dreams of the fog-bound ocean with tall stone columns rising from the water on all sides. He leaned against the side of his small sailboat and stared in awe as Masa did likewise from where he sat at the tiller.
Kuja sat bolstered by an assortment of pillows and watched as Mikoto prowled his small selection of books. Ostensibly keeping him company because Laro had been called off to a meeting and Zidane's grousing was driving her to contemplate murder. He knew she was also trying to gauge his recovery. The attempt at subtly did her credit. He had fully been expecting her to manhandle him as soon as she walked into the room to check her handiwork, but instead she had asked politely before investigating one of the many incision points, and made quick work of the actual prognosis before wandering off to investigate his few worldly possessions.
She stopped and stared in front of the small display table that held his mechanical canary. As awed by the sight of the enameled music box as he had been when he first saw it, she ran a cautions finger along its wing. He watched her contemplating the little device, tail twitching, before giving in to a generous impulse. "The key to wind the toy is on the other side. Four or five turns ought to be sufficient."
"Hmm?" Mikoto looked over at him, half guilty to be caught studying his possessions. Lifting an aching arm he waived weakly at the bird to encourage her.
"I've grown rather fond of the tune. Wind it for me?"
"I've never seen a music box like this." She mused aloud as she complied with the request, gently handling the toy as she wound the spring, and then setting it back on the table. As soon as the gears engaged it clicked its brass beak and flipped its yellow wings as it resumed the song from where it left off before. Kuja found that it was rather amusing to see his normally strict sister charmed by such a simple conceit as a mechanical bird.
"Rather clever, isn't it."
"Yes." Picking up a book at random, she crossed back to the bed. "Would you like me to read to you a while? It would be difficult for you to hold the book up yourself."
"That one is a set of plays." He leaned his head back against the pillow. "You'd find them challenging to read aloud, I think."
Opening the book up, she flipped through it, surprised. "How did you know it was a book of plays?"
"Almost all of them are plays." He laughed softly. "I've made something of a hobby of collecting them. There aren't many performances held anymore, understandable with the war and all, so I've been forced to read them and use my imagination."
"Zidane has taken me to see plays in Lindblum, sometimes." Mikoto mused as she continued to flip through the book.
Kuja tilted his head until he could look at her again. "And did you like them?"
"They were… interesting." She replied, then looked up and shrugged slightly. "I confess I understood very little of what was going on. It seemed that everyone was very emotional all the time."
"Plays are often dramatic, yes."
Tapping her chin, Mikoto looked up as she remembered. "There was one where Zidane's mentor, Baku, pretended to be and old king with three daughters. Two of them weren't very nice, and their husbands wanted to take over once the old man was dead. One daughter was kind, but made to look like she was betraying her father, and was sent far away to marry a man from a different kingdom. Then a war broke out between the other two sisters and their father, and in the end, it was the third sister who came home to rescue him. It was very confusing."
"I know that play." Kuja smiled. "Love and betrayal, power lust and loyalty, all the good stories all tied up in one. I can't blame you for being confused. It's not exactly a play for novice audiences."
"I think Zidane realized that too." Mikoto smiled faintly. "The next one he took me to involved a girl who used magic to defeat her wicked step-mother and go to a party with a prince. Apparently he still loved her even after finding out she was really quite poor and they married. The step-mother was punished for being cruel."
"And they lived happily-ever-after."
"Except for the step-mother." Mikoto agreed.
"Yes, well in those sorts of stories, the step-mother usually has it coming to her." Kuja shook his head. "They have plays like that here as well."
"So which is your favorite in this book?" His sister found the index. "What about 'The Chosen Lamb?' What is that one about?"
"Political commentary. A little dry, and requires a lot of explanation." He wriggled deeper into his quilts. "One of the last two in the volume ought to be 'A Promise for Henrietta', you might like that one."
Mikoto frowned and found the page. "Where is Mr. Nazer this morning?"
"Got dragged off to a council session." Kuja shrugged. "You do know how to read a play aloud, right?"
"I know how to read." His sister stared at him blankly. "Kindly don't mistake me for Zidane."
"But… Never mind. Just start at the beginning. I'm curious to see how you manage." He had a pretty good idea of what he might expect, and Mikoto did not disappoint.
At first he tried to interpret her lack of inflection as artistic. When that failed, he tried to determine whether she simply didn't grasp the farcical nature of the scene. By the tenth page, read at her methodical and most certainly speedy clip, he could feel every hair on his tail standing on end from the exquisite torture that was Mikoto's lack of emotive ability, "Stop, for the love of god stop!"
"Is there something wrong?"
Kuja tried and failed to keep from grinding his teeth. "Mikoto. Tell me in your own words, what was going on in the last few pages?"
She looked down at the little book, perplexed. "Well, there is a girl, and the boy who wishes to court her is too shy to come out and say how he feels, so he disguises himself as a maid and tricks her into hiring him. But the footman caught him stuffing his shirt on the first day… We haven't gotten very far."
"More than far enough." He sighed. "Look. Normally when one reads a play, one attempts to, I don't know, get into the scene? Make it come alive for the listener?"
"How do you mean?" Mikoto gave him a curious look. "Like acting?"
"Yes." Glad to see she was marginally keeping up with him he nodded empathetically and regretted it as a dozen muscles complained. "Exactly."
"I can't act."
"I can see that." He braved further twinges to shift over slightly on the mattress. The bed was just the right size for himself and Laro. With only him and his sister they were positively swimming in it. "Come up here so I can read with you. Clearly Zidane hasn't furthered your education in what really matters."
Mikoto gingerly moved to comply. Sitting next to him on the quilts and slowly accustoming herself to lounging back against the pillows she huffed in annoyance. Side by side they were really almost the same height. Kuja found the reminder of their physical similarities amusing as he leaned against her shoulder to better read the play. "Now go back to the first page and I'll take the part of Ben, you can be his friend advising him to be more forthright. That part ought to suit you."
Clearing his throat he began. "Dearest friend! How lucky I am to find you! And how lucky the day!" He nudged his sister's shoulder playfully in pretended greeting. "Don't you think it thus? Look at the blue of the sky, list to the fine breeze and the clever birds. Today is a day made for lovers. It must be so."
"Sweet Ben am I to understand that you love? Oh peril I shall fetch the bandages." She was earnest about her attempt, he gave her that much. She was as emotionless as a toadstool, but very energetic about it. At least taking turns with him forced her to slow down.
"He's definitely being sarcastic there. Or at least cynical." Kuja critiqued. "Here, listen. 'Sweet Ben. Am I to understand that you love? Oh Peril! I shall fetch the bandages.' There, can you see the difference? Pretend that you're scolding Zidane. That ought to put you in the right frame of mind. Then I say,'Fie fie sir, I know you of old! For you are the enemy of love and sweetness!'"
"For love and sweetness I have of animosity not a crumb. They are the winds and rains of the tempest that liven up our daily lives and bring adventure to our hearts. Nay Ben it is the wreckage that they leave behind that provokes my vinegar, for as sure as you fly with love today, tomorrow will I find you sullen and crashed back to earth." Mikoto forged through her lines like a ship turned into the wind.
He couldn't help but ham up the already ridiculous lines, trying to goad her. "Not this time, my William! My heart floats! It catapults! It is beyond the sky. There is no crashing from such an august height!"
"No crashing save that which renders the crasher into a burning wreck. Fly closer to the ground, dear Ben. Then I may chase after you with dustbin and broom." Mikoto pinched her nose. "I don't understand why they must use so many words."
"They have to dress it up a bit. It's what the audience is paying for." Kuja snorted. "It's also a bit more poetic than saying, 'Oh stop your useless prating about being in love you're just going to wake up drunk and depressed and I'll be obliged to hold your hair back as you puke in the lavatory.' If you see what I mean."
She blinked. "Is that really what William is saying?"
"A little less vulgarly, but that's the gist." Propping his chin on her shoulder as he read ahead, he sighed. "He's the voice of reason in this story, which is why Ben is obliged to ignore him for the first three acts. It's only later that he sees that it is better to be less fanciful, and more forthright if he wants to woo the girl rather than just dream about her. William cares for him a great deal, I think. He's just tired of seeing his friend set himself up with unreasonable plots and aspirations just to get hurt again."
Kuja shrugged. "That's life, I guess; running off to do something stupid as your emotions get the best of you while all your friends tell you to see reason. Then apologizing to said-friends after they stand by you through the mess you've caused and help to set it right."
"I wish I could feel something so strongly as that." Mikoto murmured.
"I see people sometimes, the other genomes, able to laugh themselves to tears, or get truly furious, or even be in love." She sighed. "And I can appreciate it, but I don't think I'll ever be able to participate."
Sitting back, Kuja digested the comment for a moment before frowning. "Surely you have felt emotions. You seem more emotional. Hell, you'd have to be an automaton, or a saint to be able to put up with Zidane for more than a few hours without being amused, frustrated, annoyed, or exhausted." Blinking, he reconsidered. "Or all of the above."
Mikoto smiled faintly. "I have felt these things."
"Then I don't think you have anything to worry about." He patted her on the back weakly. "You just need practice, is all."
"You once called me frigid." His sister frowned down at the page, refusing to let the matter go. "I didn't understand what you meant at the time. Not until recently, in fact, did I have someone explain the concept. For the longest time I was confused. How could a genome, naturally exothermic, be frozen? I thought you had misspoke. Foolish of me, I know."
"Doubtless that was a long time ago." Kuja shook his head. Frigid had probably been one of the nicer names he had called her during his visits to Brambala. "We've both changed considerably since then."
"Do you love Laro?" She looked at him curiously. "Truly? Like in all the stories Zidane tells about romance? Do you love him more than anyone else? Do you fantasize about being intimate with him often? Is it truly possible to be so carried away with the fantasy of intimacy as to actually derive physical satisfaction from it?"
It was a good thing, Kuja decided, that he was a creature with a somewhat worldly nature. He forced his expression into something a little more elegant than absolute shock and took a breath for good measure. "I take it you haven't asked Zidane these questions."
Mikoto waved him off perfunctorily. "No. He would only laugh at me and say 'Of course. Don't you?' Which I would find supremely annoying." Suddenly looking far less assured she bit her lip and gave him a sideways glance. "Do you think they are strange questions too? I have often wondered, if perhaps you might have understood, been able to explain. Maybe I am the only one deficient, I wanted to ask you for so long…"
"Pity then, that I was dead." He couldn't help bur smirk at his own jest. The peculiar nature of her predicament wasn't lost on him. In her way, she was just as at a loss as the Black Mages had been. The science of life was one she knew as well as he did. But the process of actually living, and enjoying it, was clearly something that was counterintuitive.
"Did you ever feel the same?" Mikoto twisted her fingers in the blanket. "Did emotions ever scare you?"
"My first emotion was fear." Kuja leaned back against the pillows and studied the ceiling, remembering recent dreams. "For a while I think it was the only emotion I understood."
"I was afraid of everything. Of Garland, of Gaia, of what you and the other genomes would do when you found out I had started feeling things. Fear lead to distrust and anger, next thing I knew I had learned cynicism and frustration." He smiled grimly. "All the darker emotions came easily to me."
Catching his tail as it thumped against the sheets, he smoothed his fur down a little as he organized his thoughts. Mikoto, ever unflappable, watched him without judgment. He was somewhat thankful for that. She was easier to talk to in that sense than Zidane was, despite her other annoying quirks. Kuja offered her an ironic little smile. "Honestly I think my only saving graces were curiosity, and aestheticism. Once I was able to get out from under Garland's oppressive presence I stopped and looked around and realized that there were many beautiful things in the world, and that I wanted them, wanted to experience them at least a little. Only then did anything akin to pleasure fall into my vocabulary."
"And yet you mastered your emotions so quickly."
"Quickly you say? I only figured out altruism a few months ago. Don't talk to me about 'quickly'. It may be that I'll go my whole life, and still be confused at times by people who were born to such things. The fact that you've managed to discover 'mildly amused' in only two years ought to have me writhing in jealously."
"Even the other genomes are becoming better at emotions than I am." Mikoto sighed, crossing her arms under her breasts. "A few have formed partialities for each other. They talk of being 'couples', of desire. They came to me asking questions about intercourse, not many months after we settled on Gaia. How it was done, why it was so enjoyable. It strikes me as rather ironic. That I was explaining the mechanics of something to people when the motivations are still a mystery."
Kuja couldn't help but snort with laughter, imagining his normally dour sister trying to give a lecture about reproduction to a pair of innocents. "I don't envy you that. Did they figure it out?"
"Apparently so." His sibling shrugged. "I didn't have the courage to ask them how it went. But they have since proved procreation among genomes is possible."
It was impossible to not laugh. Her disgruntled expression said it all. Mikoto continued to glare at him until the last of his mirth subsided. "I'm sorry, but it really is funny. I take it you were there to assist with the second generation?"
"It wasn't amusing from my point of view." She sighed. "Assisting with birthing was… an interesting experience. For all the pain and fuss it seems to entail, it doesn't dissuade others in the slightest. I watch Zidane and it seems that a woman only has to look his way, and the impulse is there. Is the compulsion to mate truly that strong?"
Thinking of how little it took to get himself in the mood, Kuja had to nod. "It can be. Although I'm told that men are notoriously worse about it than women. Not that ladies can't enjoy the act itself, but tradition states that they are a mite bit more sensible about when and where they are inspired to do something about their impulses."
"I have never felt anything like that." Tucking her short hair behind her ears, she sighed. "Maybe Garland made me this way, so that I wouldn't be distracted from my work. I don't suppose it matters. But it's strange to feel left out."
"You look at men and are dispassionate?" Kuja mused. "You can recognize a handsome one from an ugly one, surely."
"Of course." Mikoto sniffed. "I'm not blind."
"And you have a preference for a certain sort of man? Tall or short? Dark or fair? Are you the type to find muscles interesting? I can't see that." It was strangely engrossing, trying to imagine a man who would suit Mikoto's tastes. "Somehow I picture you going for the quiet and bookish type."
"I like Vivi? He is very patient and kind. But I do not find him desirable, so I guess that isn't what you are asking." She struggled to put her wants into words. "I don't want someone who looms over me, so short would be best. Dark hair is more interesting. I don't know whether muscles mean much to me one way or another. But shouldn't there be something more than just simple appreciation for someone's appearance?"
"There is a certain visceral aspect to it as well." Kuja conceded. Looking over at her, and then at the door. He debated with himself about giving out unsound advice. "There is one thing you might try. I found it worked well for me, but in all fairness, I might be the exception rather than the rule. You would have to decide for your self whether it holds merit for you."
"What?" Mikoto gave him her full attention. "I'll try anything, within reason."
"Yes well just do me a favor and don't tell Zidane that I encouraged you with this. I have a feeling he'll have some rather chauvinistic opinions on the matter."
"His opinions are often inexplicable." She sniffed again. "I would be interested in your recommendation."
"Take a lover, Mikoto." He suggested. "Pick him -or 'her' for that matter- with care. You'll want one with a fair amount of experience, and stamina."
His sister blinked at him, uncomprehendingly.
Kuja shrugged. "A lover committed to taking, and giving, pleasure might help you break through a lot of the conditioning we went through in Brambala. I found myself far more receptive, emotionally, physically, after my initial experiences. Extreme distress seems to work as well, but I would by far recommend pleasure. Anything to sort of shock your body awake, if you want to think of it like that. Maybe it is a hormonal thing, I couldn't say, but it was quite effective."
"So even if I do not have this 'visceral' emotion initially… Taking a lover might awaken such a thing?"
"In theory, yes. You might ask one of your 'couples' for their opinion. See if they are more emotionally aware now than before, or at least more aware than their non-intimate peers."
"That makes sense." Laying back next to him on the pillows, Mikoto clearly was breaking his suggestion down into biological cause-and-effect. He could practically hear the gears turning in her brain. She glanced sideways at him, clearly finding a difficulty in her computations. "Only I have no idea how to go about finding a lover… is it difficult?"
He covered his eyes with his hand and tried to suppress another burst of laughter. "Go into downtown Lindblum. Declare yourself a virgin wanting to be deflowered. Ask for the lustiest man around available for the job. You'll have half the city, including the Regent, lining up to audition."
"She thinks I'm teasing?" Kuja asked the ceiling rhetorically. "Ah well, there are professionals you might seek out, of course. Or you could ask for the assistance of someone knowledgeable, preferably someone who wouldn't report right to Zidane."
"I have no interest in soliciting one of the thieves."
"Good, they probably have fleas." He smirked. "Who else do you know?"
"The Regent, Beatrix, the traveling treasure hunters and merchants from Trueno and Lindblum that come to the village…"
"Beatrix?" Kuja laughed again. "Laro told me that not only was she still alive, she had married Steiner, of all people."
"They seem quite content." Mikoto remarked. "He would not have been my first choice in a lover, but perhaps she likes tall men."
"Tall, rusty ones." Kuja mused to himself. "Honestly, you could do worse than see what King-the-auctioneer was up to these days. For all that he was hopelessly self-obsessed, vain, and fad-driven, he never disappointing as a lover."
"Was he the one you chose?"
"God that was a long time ago." He closed his eyes at the strange memories. His life on Gaia seemed almost like it belonged to someone else. He could remember Trueno, the watery dark spaces, the stone courtyards and candle lit parties, but it all had a dream like blur over it. Even King's face, once as familiar as his own, was hard to bring into focus. "He wouldn't be put off by a blunt request, at any rate. Probably find you a partner and make you a rich woman doing it."
"That's right. I heard that once. How men are willing to pay to have a chance with a woman. Isn't that supposed to be somewhat scandalous?"
Kuja shrugged. "Only if you're the sort to be scandalized."
"I shall take this under advisement." Mikoto seemed done with the idea, much to Kuja's relief. He hadn't exactly expected to be counseling morally confused Black Mages or sexually curious siblings at this point in his life. To be fair, he had expected to be dead by this point in his life, so really there was no point expecting anything anymore. Each day was a novelty waiting to happen.
"Well that's something." He grinned. "All I need now is Zidane coming to me for advice on parenting, and I will have truly exhausted my supply of inexhaustible wisdom."
"A very frightening prospect. He is practically still a child himself. I don't know if I would trust an infant to his care." His sister reopened the book of plays to where they had left off. "Read me some more?"
"By myself? You're not going to help?"
"I like it your way better." She shrugged.
Kuja shifted until he could read over her shoulder again. "Too bad. I'm not reading all the parts, I'll go hoarse. You get to play William, the house keeper, and Henrietta. I'll be Ben, the footman, the father, and the assorted chorus."
When Zidane, fed up with complaining to his nurse, limped his way into Kuja's room his eyebrows rapidly disappeared into his hairline at the sight of them. Kuja looked silent askance at his golden sibling as Mikoto plowed through yet another passage. Henrietta's dialog was supposed to be light hearted and witty. Under his sister's less than expert readings, the character's persona became almost frightening. Kuja pitied the man who would try and woo her, and then realized he was playing part of that character.
"Get over here and help me." He hissed at his newly arrived relative.
Staggering across the short distance from door to bed Zidane eased down on the edge of the quilt with a pained groan. Gingerly stretching his legs he stared at their sister in quiet horror as she read aloud.
"Good god, Mikoto. You are murdering that prose." He waited for her to take a breath before daring to critique.
"I told him I wasn't any good at this." She winced and set the play down. "He wouldn't listen."
"You're a bloody masochist." Zidane switched to scolding Kuja instead. "What are you thinking, making her try to act?"
"I'm trying to encourage and nurture her emotional intelligence." He replied dryly. "Really I'd thought you'd have made more progress with her by now."
"She's been doing alright." Frowning, his sibling shifted until he could stiffly cross his legs on the mattress. "I didn't see any need to push her into things. Besides, I've been a little busy, you know, fixing everything you smashed up."
"Apparently so. Still, one would thing that you, a trained actor, might have at least taught her the difference between lab notes and a comedic love story."
"It was on my things-to-do list." Zidane groused. "Speaking of things to do, my bones are sore as hell, you quack-doctor." He shook a finger weakly at his sister. "Either give me some medicine or hit me over the head with a flowerpot or something before you continue this exercise in futility?"
Mikoto slipped off the bed with what might have been a sigh of frustration, or perhaps relief. Kuja smirked as she rummaged through the table of tonics nearby. Zidane snatched up the book where she dropped it and flipped back to the beginning, speed reading.
"I've never heard of this play."
"We're not exactly on Gaia anymore." Kuja pointed out the obvious.
"No need to be patronizing." Working quickly through the first act, Zidane grinned. "It's not bad though. This playwright do anything else like this?"
"Ironically no, his usual fare is much bleaker. The suffering inherent in life and all that. Interesting reading, but not very relaxing."
"Don't suppose I could take a copy home with me?" His brother had already abandoned Henrietta's plight in favor of skimming one of the other dramas at the front of the book.
Kuja smirked. "People will wonder at the sudden appearance of eight new high-quality productions back-to-back… And besides some of the events and places referenced would make no sense."
"Bah, a story is a story. We'll just change some of the names and stuff." Reluctantly passing the book back, Zidane inched closer to the head of the bed. "I'll just say that they're previously unknown works by Ibsen or something. It's not like I was going to say that I wrote them or anything."
Seeming to suddenly realize the potential for mayhem, he frowned. "The playwright is dead isn't he? I don't think interplanetary royalties per performance is going to work too well."
"You're in luck." Kuja shook his head. "The man in question lived about a hundred years ago. You can ask any of the booksellers outside the castle and obtain a copy for cheap, I'm sure."
"Marvelous." Zidane happily accepted the cup of weird colored tonic that Mikoto presented. Downing it in one quaff his pained expression gave Kuja ample warning for when his own dose was provided. Mikoto simply glared at them both as they winced and coughed their way through the aftertaste.
"It's not that bad." She stated in unforgiving tones.
"Doctor Ing must have provided the ingredients." Kuja sighed wearily. "The man has a fixation with adding sea kelp to things."
"Was that what I was tasting? I thought it was soap." Zidane was still making faces over the flavor.
"Kelp has many beneficial minerals in it. Good for bones." Their sister rebutted. "And it helps to kill the taste of the laudanum. Which in my mind makes it the lesser of the two evils."
"I'd prefer the laudanum." Zidane teased and then flopped sideways, fitting along the fraction of the bed still available. After Mikoto resettled herself to his left, Kuja found he was sandwiched between his newly rediscovered relatives. He sighed and inched closer to the center of the bed to give his brother more room.
"You might as well make yourself at home then." Finding his place in the play, he silently acknowledged that while foul-tasting, the potion did the trick to steady his tired muscles and smooth over the worst of the aches. As an apology to his sister he decided a small rearrangement of parts was in order. "Make yourself useful, Zidane. You can take a few rolls from us to even out the dialogs."
"Ooh, who do I get to be?" Suddenly interested, the blond sat up a little and shifted until he could read the pages.
"You'll be the cook, the second parlor maid, and Henrietta. Mikoto will keep the part of the butler, William, Ben's father, and when we get to it, the ghost."
For a moment his brother looked pleased, and then understood what he had been assigned. "Wait a second, you're giving me all the girl parts!"
"I'm giving you all the parts that require true dramatic range." Kuja replied blandly.
"But but, who gets to be Ben? I'm much better at the heroic parts. Why don't I be Ben and someone else can be Henrietta."
"Tough. I got here first. So I get to be the hero." Kuja smirked as he wiggled deeper under his blankets. It was funny to watch Zidane bite down on the expected 'but it's your room!' and resign himself to the rolls as assigned. He couldn't help but egg the man on. "Do you need any props to help you get into the part? A frock perhaps?"
"Don't make me pummel an invalid, Kuja."
"No pummeling from either of you." Mikoto grimly stated. "I will not have my work ruined over idiotic behavior."
"You sticking around here until I'm well again, are you?" Kuja asked his brother innocently.
Still pouting, Zidane grumbled. "Damn well have to, won't I, can't very well leave without Mikoto and Vivi."
"Plenty of time later for a good dust-up then. I'll have to have a good test of my recovery eventually. It only makes sense." It wasn't an offer he had to make twice. His brother's eyes were already alight with the possibilities.
Kuja smirked. "I can't imagine how you keep yourself toned on Gaia. You've already fought everything including a world-eating tree. After that your average thugs have to be child's play. I ought to score a victory just by default, you're so rusty."
"Well you don't really specialize at one-on-one fights do you?" Zidane quipped. "You won't be able to go for planetary strikes this time, so I naturally have you at an advantage."
Eyes wide, Mikoto gave them both a disbelieving stare. "The two of you are mad if you think I'm going to let you fight again."
"Not fight, little sis! Just a friendly bit of exercise, that's all." Zidane's normally captivating charms seemed to have no effect. Mikoto's natural cynicism probably made her immune.
"Just a little fight?" The blond wheedled.
"No!" She reached across Kuja's shins to cuff his brother upside the head. "Absolutely no fighting!"
"Ow! Then explain why you're allowed to beat me up then! Isn't this fighting?" The pair fell to glaring and swatting each other like the kittens Laro usually teased about.
"If we might resume the play?" Kuja asked plaintively over their mutual growling.
As usual, if the formatting doesn't work, try finding the version posted on my website
. scene is by special request. And also because it was just plain fun to write.