Feather Flight: Finis (part 33)
An AU Kuja fic, shonen-ai, language
If the formatting doesn't work, try finding the version posted on my website
. weeks to get his feet under himself properly, and Kuja hadn't entirely put the idea of sparring with his brother out of his mind. He checked his reflection in the mirror after a long day preparing for the upcoming ceremonies, well pleased that his face was filling out to its usual shape. While it was clear he had been recently ill, no one would think to call him skeletal anymore.
He smirked at himself as he brushed his hair. It was already well on its way to resuming its original length. Zidane couldn't resist calling him 'girlier than ever' but the boy's opinion was hardly the one that mattered. Kuja could prove he was more than capable of beating the tar out of his brother at any point in the next few weeks. Presently he had a far better use for his energies. Setting his brush aside, he ran an appreciative hand over the state robes that had been quietly left in his sitting room. Clearly his 'hero' currency was still valued a little above the standard rate. The silks that had gone into the multilayered costume were worth a king's ransom.
He wondered at the irony of it. It wasn't as if the Selwe were fine connoisseurs of fashion. They wouldn't care what he was wearing to their surrender. The robes, he could only presume, were for the local's benefit or his own. Petting a corner of the brocaded sash as he rose, he couldn't find it within him to complain. The hardships of rebuilding the country would settle in soon enough, at the moment everyone was still buoyed on the general current of relief.
Kuja found himself constantly torn between wanting to look ahead at the problems to come and reveling in the current pleasures. From his lover's often harried expression as he returned from his regular planning meetings, he could see he wasn't the only one. Only his 'recovery' kept him from being in the thick of the post war politics. Secluded as he was, he had to rely on the reports from his visitors to keep him abreast of the news.
For one night at least, Laro seemed fairly unconcerned about the world outside their little apartment. Caught in the midst of his usual evening exercises, he looked up and offered a smile before getting back to his work. Kuja watched him quite happily. There was something terribly appealing about watching the former soldier perform one perfect push-up after another. It was his arms, the genome decided after careful thought. Watching the muscles shift and flex in Laro's arms inspired all sorts of notions for a man who until this morning had been expressly forbidden any sort of amorous attention.
Gently itching the skin on his arm where the last of the stitches had been pulled out, Kuja smiled at his own impatience. If not for the unholy hell Mikoto would have let loose on him, he'd have solved this problem a week ago.
His siblings, as well meaning and helpful as they had been, were ruinous to a person's love life. When not actively scolding him to behave, they were simply and unceasingly present. They had clearly learned to be cautious after his earlier flaunting of rules, he couldn't blame them. To their credit each had a plausible excuse for constantly dancing attendance on him. Zidane had merrily read through every single play in his collection as his bones re-knit. Mikoto, also underfoot, either demanded that portions of each narrative be recited aloud for her benefit or pestered Kuja with esoteric questions about the black mages that tested the limits of his memory.
In the odd moments that the two of them found something better to do with their time, the rest of the castle was more than ready to pay call to their resident celebrity. None of the visitors were unwanted, but they too seemed to occupy every free moment. Kuja was happy to spend his afternoons sitting with the Duke as he used to. The old man was as enjoyable as ever. The Dean and General Gerrick brought him news of the explorations. The scholars at the university wanted to discuss their latest inventions. He knew the name of every newly magic-enhanced healer, soldier, and citizen in the capital. It seemed more latent mages were being discovered every day. Luckily they seemed to be doing a decent job organizing and training each other. Kuja knew there'd be no way he'd ever have the stamina to oversee them properly.
With everything going on it was a wonder he managed to get any quiet time with Laro at all. First too sore to be tempted to break his promise to Mikoto, lately he'd just been too tired or busy. All in all he felt rather manipulated about the whole situation and resolved to do something about it. The first step had been to get his tiresome sister to relax her ban. The second step required a bit of cooperation from Laro. He considered how to broach the subject as he watched his lover work his muscles.
Serious thoughts couldn't hold his attention for long when presented with such a handsome view. Itching to play some small prank on his earnest soldier, Kuja pondered what Laro would do if he enhanced his workout with a few kilos of extra weight. It was an experiment he had often meant to try before. There had just never been a good moment for it.
Seeing that Laro was happily distracted, Kuja slipped closer until he was standing right along side. The silver haired man was kind enough to wait until Laro had reached the top of his push before leaning down to brace his own hands against the warm shoulders.
"Take that!" He let his arms carry most of his weight, hoping to surprise his significantly heavier opponent.
Sadly, the added pressure didn't have much of an effect. A quiet 'umph' was the only outward sign that the man noticed anything amiss at all. Pushing gamely down on Laro, Kuja realized it was a lost cause. The soldier was entirely made of muscle. It was part of his charm.
Turning his head slightly to give him a humor filled look, Laro paused in his count. "Is there something you want, kitten?"
"Conducting critical research." Resigned to being equated with 'small' and 'cute' in Laro's eyes, Kuja tested his lover's strength with one more push and then cheerfully seated himself on Laro's shoulders, letting the man take his entire weight.
"I can't possibly be too heavy. You didn't even budge a moment ago." Kuja gently rapped his knuckles against the back of Laro's head to scold him.
"I'm not accustomed to being a bit of furniture." The larger man groused.
"Really? And here I could have easily mistaken you for an end table…"
"Very funny." Laro huffed. "But what will you do if I move?"
"You wouldn't dare." He declared, and was promptly proven wrong. Sitting on top of someone's shoulders was far more disconcerting when the person was actually in motion. "I'll slip off and crack my skull, and it'll be your fault." Kuja warned playfully, more than willing to grab a hold Laro's waist and shoulder to keep that unhappy event from happening.
Unfortunately his fingers happened to graze one of the former-general's ticklish places. The man nearly barked his chin against the rug as he squirmed inadvertently. "Ack!"
Kuja could only sigh as his perch landed on the floor with a thump and a groan. "Some table you've turned out to be."
"You're in an odd mood tonight, kitten." Laro looked over his shoulder as he acclimated himself to his defeat. "I take it your experiment is concluded?"
"Yes indeed." Shifting to pull himself up by grabbing a convenient corner of the bed, Kuja reached down to offer a helpful hand to his lover. "I find that you had best keep to your current duties. Furniture isn't your strong point. Save when you perform the service of pillow, or hot-water bottle, both you do quite admirably."
"I'll keep that in mind." Stretching a little, Laro eventually gave in to temptation and captured his face between two large hands. "Pretty soon you'll be even more beautiful than the first time I laid eyes on you, and then what will I do?"
Tilting his head until he could rest his cheek against strong fingers, Kuja grinned. "Even I do not have infinite capacity to improve my looks. Eventually I will finish recovering and thus my looks will reach a boring equilibrium."
"I think I can make that sacrifice." Laro responded seriously, bending down to claim a chaste kiss. "If you were too beautiful I'd have to beat the rest of the country off of you every waking minute. It'd get tedious after a while."
"You could just to sweep me off to some remote island where nobody will find us." The genome teased, wrapping his arms around the conveniently stooped neck and shoulders. "You can lock me up in some little nest somewhere and have your lusty way with me from dawn to dusk, if that's you're pleasure."
Laro's eyebrow twitched, torn between amusement and knowing when he was being strung along. "Oh and I suppose you wouldn't complain in the slightest? No more library, no more intrigues, no more rich food, and fine silks from the big city?"
"I would be powerless to stop you, of course. Your passion would completely overwhelm me and leave me breathless with longing." He couldn't keep the smile completely out of his voice, but then he wasn't expecting to be taken seriously.
"You have been reading far far too many of those damned romances." The man gave a long suffering sigh. Moving to straighten himself up he found his companion unwilling to let go. Given the choice of pulling out of the genome's embrace, or lifting him bodily off the floor so as to maintain their connection, Laro eventually settled on the latter.
Kuja couldn't stop himself from making a small noise as he was hoisted up against Laro's chest for the two steps it took to navigate to their bed. He tried to cover for it by nuzzling along his lover's jaw. "Zidane plans to make a mint producing several of the sappier stories when he gets back home as 'undiscovered plays' from a famous writer from long ago."
"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me." Lowering them both to the bed in careful stages, Laro spared a smile for the theatrical scam. "I'll admit even after seeing them, I have a hard time imagining who would think to put together a troupe of criminal actors."
"You had a hard time thinking of me as a criminal too." He gently pointed out. "I have no doubt that there was plenty of evidence against me still littering the landscape of Gaia." Happily trapped between the arms Laro had braced against the mattress, Kuja looked thoughtfully up at him. "Sometimes I wonder why you stay faithful to me, knowing what you do."
"I should think that would be obvious." Dark hair and darker eyes meant the soldier's face was mostly unreadable in the lamplight. "I knew how I felt the minute I plucked you from the ocean."
The sudden intensity of the moment was almost startling after their easy banter. Kuja found his mouth dry when he tried to speak. "You've never once felt afraid of me?"
"Afraid?" Seemingly perplexed by the question, Laro distracted himself by playfully nipping at the fingers caressing his face. "There was never any reason. I've been afraid for you, god knows how many times." Bending down to kiss Kuja's forehead his voice faded to a murmur. "You haven't exactly made it easy for me on that account, you know."
"The only times I might have been… alarmed by your abilities was on Gaia. People would point to some ruin or another and just mention off hand that it was your doing. But at the time I was too busy worrying about finding Zidane, finding a cure, finding a way home. It was only after we got back and they started putting you together that I could take the time to really decide what I felt about it all."
Kuja grimaced expressively, "I'm almost afraid to ask."
"I'm not entirely sure I can put it into words." Laro shrugged. "Sadness, I suppose. It was painful to think that you were the source of so much suffering. I spent a lot of time trying to understand your side of things. Zidane helped me put a fair amount of it together, Mikoto too. Puppeteer and puppet all at once, it seemed a cruel game on all sides."
"It was the life I knew." Kuja ran his hands along the warm strength of Laro's arms, pushing old regrets away. "If the cards had fallen differently, Zidane and I would have traded places. Or so he says."
"I believe him." Laro agreed quietly. "As you said, it was the life you knew."
"I'd like to think that I have recently found myself a better way to go about things." He laughed weakly.
His lover smiled as well. "Only for my sake, try to avoid any more attempts at martyrdom?"
"Even if I wanted to, opportunities from now on will be scarce to come by." Kuja countered cheerfully.
"Incorrigible." Laro settled for what he could get. No great sacrifice when the deal was sweetened by several kisses, one after the next.
Somewhere in the midst of the third playful meeting of lips the mood shifted to something far more serious. Kuja wrapped an arm around his lover's shoulders keeping their mouths locked together even as he used his other hand to blindly feel along the man's chest. Laro met his desire with equal energy, arms that had innocently held them slightly apart as he had braced against the bedding now shifted to gather the genome up in tight embrace. Trying to smoother his appreciative noises against Laro's tongue, Kuja wriggled and sighed to feel the soldier's hands rediscovering the skin of his back and thighs. Their various bits of clothing were a serious impediment, and he made an effort, with his lover's help, to at least shed the robe now tangled underneath of him.
"Masa. Kitten. I don't mean to spoil our fun, but your sister is going to skin me alive and wear me for a coat if we don't stop soon." Laro's breathless warning did nothing but make Kuja laugh, releasing the dark man's shoulders in favor of having two hands free to work on the ties to his pants with. Laro seemed more than willing to keep going. Stroking what sensitive bits of flesh he could easily reach Kuja caught his breath before quelling the last of that particular argument.
"The last of the damn stitches came out this morning. She said that the rest of me had made excellent progress… And I told her that if she continued to lay her unreasonable and inhumane strictures on me a moment longer, she would be solely responsible for my imminent destructive rampage."
The robe was swept of the bed with a careless toss. He shifted and wriggled until his pants could join it on the floor. Bare to the world the genome lay back and allowed Laro to investigate every one of his recently healed wounds reassuring himself and arousing them both by kissing the still tender skin.
"Destructive rampage?" The dark man glanced up at him as he ran appreciative hands over Kuja's hips, nuzzling just below his navel.
"Well if I cannot find release for my frustrations in the manner I personally prefer, producing large explosions is a legitimate secondary option." Gasping, the pale mage reached down to encourage the intimate touches.
"Can't have that." Laro agreed mildly, continuing his efforts to make Kuja cry out in earnest.
It took a considerable amount of time when all was said and done, and at least one nap in the middle. But by morning even Kuja was oblige to sleepily confess that he was completely sated for the first time in months. Exhausted, Laro still was cocky enough to smirk at the announcement before burrowing happily down in the damp sheets to catch a few hours sleep against his little lover's shoulder.
"If you really were the best of all men, you'd change the linens for me before passing out." Kuja critiqued to the quietly snoring man. Reaching out, he gently ruffled the thick black hair before kissing his forehead goodnight. "Ah well beggars can't be choosers."
"I trust you've relieved some of your frustrations last night?" Mikoto asked blandly as she and Zidane wandered into his room for their usual morning get-together.
The sun was out full force, warming his favorite chair and filling the room with colors after a few days of drizzling rain. Waiving at his siblings, he refused to budge from where he sat reading. They could make themselves comfortable without him. True to form, Mikoto took her usual seat on the bench next to him. Zidane absently made for his usual perch on the end of the bed, then gave it a pained look, and veered off to sit at the breakfast table instead.
"Took the edge off them, at least." Kuja smirked and allowed her to hassle him. After noting his temperature, blood pressure and god-knew how many other statistics, she relented with a sigh.
"No harm done, seemingly."
"Did you honestly think there would be?"
"You were… um… a little loud." She offered. Her poker-face was firmly in place.
He shrugged and resumed the book he had been reading when they came in. "Laro was louder."
Really, he decided; if she was planning to stay a few more weeks he ought to teach her how to gamble properly. She could clean up tidily in Trueno with her usual impassive veneer. Even confronted with near-bragging, she refused to do more than twitch an eyebrow in annoyance.
Zidane had a pretty good poker-face of his own, when he chose to use it. This morning he was decidedly grumpy looking, or perhaps just sleep deprived. It was hard to say. Still glaring at the bed, he humph'ed noisily. "Half the hospital probably heard you."
"Sex that good shouldn't be kept secret but shared with the world." Kuja replied airily. "It will give them something to aspire to when next they take a lover. Or perhaps motivate them to find a new one if their current partner cannot do the deed properly."
"Kuja!" Zidane blushed to the ear tips.
He looked up from his book, carefully hiding his amusement being a look of bland indifference. "Yes? Good lord Zidane, you're married aren't you? If you tell me you haven't made Garnet scream fit to wake the servants yet, I will be forced to say that you're clearly not doing your duty by her."
"Kindly leave my wife out of this conversation." Tail bristling with annoyance, Zidane shot him a glare promising doom.
"Too cruel, dear brother. If I leave your wife out, and you leave your wife out, who will consider the needs of the woman in question? She struck me as a very passionate girl the times that I met her. And she has had several years of growing-up since then!"
"Argh, you are insufferable." Zidane threw his hands up in despair. "Let me just say that she has been quite happy with relations, as they are, which I shall say, are none of your damn business!"
"And with that I must be content." Kuja closed his book and put on a look of pious solicitude. "Such a poor poor woman."
"No fighting!" Mikoto barely caught Zidane by the collar as the blond man flashed up out of his chair to attempt to strangle his older brother. "Absolutely no fighting!"
"Mikoto!" Dangling from her grip like a truant puppy Zidane's tail lashed in frustration. "He started it!"
"Play nicer with your pets sister, he'll strangle if you hold him like that." Kuja advised merrily.
"Maybe if you just hit him a little…" Mikoto relented as she shot Kuja a quelling look.
Zidane growled like a thwarted cat and rubbed at where his collar chafed his neck. "I think if he's healthy enough to scandalize an entire hospital-floor, he's more than healthy enough to spar a little with me."
Kuja set his book aside, manfully resisting the urge to bait his sibling further. "Oh? Is it that time already?"
"Given the amount of wasteland this place has, I'm sure we can find someplace out of the way to try a few tricks." Zidane promised grimly.
"Knowing your penchant for fire, someplace coastal might be ideal." Kuja mused. "That way we can extinguish ourselves, if needs require it. If Laro comes along, he can get a spot of fishing in while we have our fun. He does like to hook a line every now and again."
Zidane rolled his eyes. "Try to focus on the fight?"
"Fine," He grinned. "When and where? Of the two of us, you're the one with the ability to hop about at will, I'm sure you can find a worthy location."
"You know," His brother suddenly looked thoughtful. "Now that you mention it, I wouldn't be surprised if you could now manage it too. At least a little."
"Manage what?" Kuja blinked, distracted.
"Teleportation." Zidane continued to look thoughtful. "I mean, we were damn near identical before all this business… and now you've got a little of me in you too… so really, theoretically, it ought to be possible."
"I wouldn't even know where to begin." Kuja laughed.
"I could show you."
"Why?" He looked at his blond sibling in amusement. "What's in it for you?"
"Not sure." Zidane shrugged. "Want to try anyway? We can look for a good beach while we're at it."
Risking a glance in Mikoto's direction, Kuja couldn't detect more than her usual back-ground level of worry. If health was not a concern then his willingness was the only deciding factor. "I'm game. When do we start?"
"How about now?" Zidane grinned like the devil's child that he was.
A second of lurching motion passed and left Kuja staggering in a meadow. Having someone else carry him through a teleport was far more disorienting that traveling solo. The fact that it was his brother steering the magic and not just a fixed point-to-point transmission like he had used one or twice on Gaia only made it more nerve wracking. He braced a hand against Zidane's shoulder and caught his balance as he looked around. Tall grasses heather and birdsong, all unusual in their own right, spread out on every side. Squinting against the brilliant sunlight, he could just barely make out a hint of hills in the distance and a smudge that might have been forest.
"Where the hell are we now?"
"North." Zidane turned slowly to get his bearings. "The ocean is that way." He pointed after a moment. "The city is back that way."
Kuja glanced in the new direction and still couldn't fathom it. "I give up, how the hell do you know where you're jumping to?"
"Well I have a point of reference of course." His younger brother smirked.
"Where?" Baffled, Kuja felt his tail twitch in annoyance. He could wipe the smug look off his sibling's face, but it would really mess up the countryside. Better that they wait until they had a barren patch of land to work with.
"Close your eyes." Zidane advised. "Now reach out, you should be able to get a grasp on the really big features of the world. Cities have their own weight, from all the people living in them. I think I can even feel your buggy-friends on the other side of the planet, there are certainly a lot of them."
Slowly Kuja began to feel what his brother was talking about, testing the vague sensations and trying to map them to locations on the rough map in his head. He was marginally confident he could find his way back to the castle unaided, and also to the desolate patch of earth he had bombarded on the last day of the war. But there was something else, far closer, that was strong enough to almost drown the rest out. Reaching out tentatively, he opened his eyes in shock.
"I feel a crystal. A big one."
"Yup. That's the planetary shard." Zidane grinned. "I was wondering how long it would take you to notice."
"Strange that I never heard it before." He frowned. "I'm not that deaf."
"Wasn't there that," Zidane gestured vaguely at the sky, "Shield-thing that your bugs put up? That probably blocked its broadcasts something awful."
"It redirects energy from the Crystal in space." Kuja murmured to himself, putting the pieces together. Turning to his sibling he felt a fool for asking. "Do all planets have a shard imbedded in them?"
"All of them that have any life worth mentioning do." The blonde shrugged. "Near as I can tell."
"How fascinating." Kuja looked up, wondering if he would see any visible sign of the distant benign energy source. There wasn't anything visible, but the clear hum of crystalline power from the shard was comforting just the same. "Can we see it?"
"Sure." Zidane shrugged and gestured that he was to lead. "After you."
"What? You want me to…"
His brother laughed at his disbelieving expression. "If you can't aim for a target that easy you'll never master any harder form of teleportation. You've watched me do it twice now. I'm sure you've figured out the mechanics. Of the three of us you're the genius."
"No that would be Mikoto." Kuja disagreed absently, turning the problem over in his mind. I'm just the strategist. You're the rough-and-ready one."
"Right." Zidane looked confused.
Kuja shrugged. "Well, here goes nothing." The crystal's song grew louder as he warped a portion of space around where they both were standing. The shard seemed more than happy to guide him to its resting place.
"I'd just like to say, I still think this is a terrible idea." Mikoto folded her arms across her chest and pursed her lips. Next to her Vivi adjusted his hat nervously and Laro blinked at the sudden sunlight. The three adapted in their own ways to finding themselves magically transported to a distant beach.
"They know better than to get into any serious mischief." The former general had meant for the statement to sound positive but it came out an almost-question. Kuja snorted at his lover's concern and took the blanket from under his arm. Together they spread it out on a clean bit of sand.
Zidane walked over to where the surf was rolling in, kicking off his shoes to study the small snails and bits of trash that washed ashore. The rest of them settled on the old quilt. Kuja sighed, enjoying the smell of salt on the air, resting from his teleportation. Even with his new mastery of the magic, and the shard's helpful guidance, moving a small crowd was a serious effort. He turned the possibilities over as he watched Laro putter with the random items he was unpacking.
With a bit of practice he could show up at the Selwe's surrender in style, he decided. The ceremony was already arranged for the upcoming solstice, and the current plan was that the aliens-become-neighbors would transport his delegation via their hover-plate technology. The solution had been boring, but practical since his allies had no way of crossing the ocean in any reasonable time-frame. Now, with his new trick mastered, there were distinctly new possibilities.
His skill wasn't anything close to Zidane's. There was no question of traveling between worlds, or through time. But it wasn't like he was going that far. If the venture tired him, there was little reason for concern. They would be picking fights once he had arrived, just one big push to get a delegation half way around the planet, some pomp and circumstance, and then another push to get everyone home. It was perfectly reasonable.
He watched as his brother picked his way back towards their group. "Well?" The blonde gestured at the empty expanse around them. "Going to back out now that we're all here?"
"Hardly." Kuja stood up, and primly began shedding his more decorative layers of clothing. "I'm curious to know how you fight when you don't have your friends to back you up."
"How about I tap Vivi and you can get your macho-man, and we go two on two?" Zidane smiled wickedly.
"That's hardly fair." Kuja rolled his eyes. "Poor Laro has never fought against a mage before."
"He'll figure it out, besides, you can do white magic as well as black. Vivi and I can only do damage. We're bound to run out of potions eventually and then you'll have us!"
"Only if my stamina doesn't run out first." He grimly rebutted. Finished with rolling up his sleeves, Kuja kicked off his shoes and joined his brother on the sand. "So how exactly do we start this? Count off ten paces, turn and fire?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Zidane rolled his eyes. "This is a brawl, not a duel. We're going to start it in the fine tradition of centuries past. Tapping Kuja playfully on the shoulder to distract him, Zidane made a spirited attempt to punch him in the face.
Almost too startled by the childish trick to dodge, Kuja angled his head just in time to miss most of the blow, an almost instinctive ball of wind forming in his hand as he balled up a fist against his brother's abdomen. The resulting hit, and tornado, sent his sibling cart-wheeling through the air several yards down the beach. Even before the blond hit the sand a tell-tale glitter of red enveloped him. Fire poured across the sand but Kuja wasn't standing around waiting for it, sprinting under the attack and after his brother, he jumped vertically at the same time Zidane did, transferring from land to air with a thought and taking their combat up into the clouds.
Laro tilted his head back and watched the low bank of storm clouds change color as spells flashed back and forth, cringing at the sight of one of the two brothers plummeting almost into the sea before recovering altitude with a series of purple and yellow flares.
Mikoto tutted softly to herself and opened up the hamper to retrieve a bottle of wine. "They're enjoying themselves, it seems."
"You don't think they'll do any real damage to each other, do you?" Laro winced as a clap of thunder swept across the water, the delayed result of a distant attack.
"If they do, the other one will drag them both back. As if I'm going to patch either of the idiots up? I don't know why they think I'm happy to redo all my work again." Growling as she uncorked the bottle, she poured as Vivi held the cups steady. "They can go on without an eye or with a permanent limp for the rest of their lives for all I care."
Laro accepted his cup with a meek 'thank you' and turned back to watch the fight. Not apparently content with the lower atmosphere, the two were taking their fight higher. Two faint pin pricks of light against the blue sky, and the trails of magic and steam arching behind them were his only clues as to where his lover was off to. He squinted up after them. "How high can they go?"
"Zidane?" Vivi clarified in his chirpy voice. "I would guess 'indefinitely', at least for a short period of time. He can't hold his breath forever. I don't know about Kuja."
"You don't think they'd go into space, do you?" Mikoto suddenly looked alarmed. "Those idiots. They're going to get frostbite."
"I don't think Zidane can get frostbite." Vivi argued cheerfully. Laro could only blink as the two fell to mild squabbling over who knew what about which sibling. After a little while he was certain he didn't want to know what the two brothers were up to, just so long as they came down eventually.
Standing up, he dusted the sand off his pants and folded his shirt up on top of Kuja's discarded coat and shoes. "Alright then. I'm going for a swim."
By unspoken agreement they had a temporary cease-fire once they reached the edge of orbit. The blue rim of the atmosphere glowed on the horizon, and without the layers of air to soften it, the light was crisp and white. Zidane, who had transformed into his high-energy form somewhere around four-thousand meters looked almost elegant with most of his usually-flamingo-pink fur bleached out by the pure light. Kuja lifted his hands up to study them as the world spun beneath them, admiring the sheen on his feathers. It was cold without the atmosphere's comforting shelter, bitterly cold, but beautiful just the same. With no air, they held their breath, untroubled by the vacuum around them.
I must admit, it's a pretty little world, seen from a distance. Zidane's thoughts carried effortlessly in the void.
It needs some work. A great deal of damage has been done to it. Looking at the land sliding past beneath him, Kuja could easily spot the rolling deserts of the central continent, and the massive burnt scar at its center. I really didn't help matters any, in that regard.
I don't think you made them any worse, really. The insects really did a number on the place.
Kuja smiled at his brother's rather amused tone. True. They did have a few decades' head start on me.
You're planning to fix things somehow, aren't you? Zidane gave him a speculative look.
I have the means. And the knowledge. It would be a crime to stand by and watch the ecosystems crumble when I could nudge them back into alignment.
I don't know. Zidane shook his head. You can't make something from nothing. These deserts are far more desolate than anything you and Garland left on Gaia. You could channel energy into that wasteland for thirty years and get nothing to show for it.
In that case I will have to make it so that it isn't a wasteland anymore, won't I. Kuja shrugged, undaunted.
Giving his brother a long look, Kuja weighed his sincerity. If you're truly interested, I'll show you.
Tilting slightly, he let himself be drawn back down towards the planet. The rushing of air all around him replaced the absolute silence of space. He almost missed the purity of the vacuum. Beyond the noise and life of the planet there were only the twin songs of the crystals, one earth-bound and one hanging at the center of the galaxy. It was strange to realize that Zidane, stronger than he, would doubtless be able to hear the songs from any crystalline entities in the nearby solar system. Suddenly curious he wanted to ask how many other planets near by possessed a spark of life, but considering it further, he realized he didn't really want to know. Taking responsibility for this one planet was already shaping up to be the work of a lifetime, he didn't need any distractions.
Instead of angling for the beach, he let the winds carry him south, through a thick bank of clouds to an equally desolate stretch of land. The only difference was that the storms that had been idly hanging off shore for Laro were steadily raining down in this distant spot. Zidane landed next to him, wincing at the drizzle. His brother's gaudy pink feathers had dissolved even as his own had vanished, leaving them both susceptible to the elements. They stood in the rain and stared at each other. Kuja couldn't interpret his brother's expression, but for his own part could only wonder how his life could have brought him full circle. They had had their first genuine encounter on Gaia in just such a steady rainstorm. The desert was a far cry from the destroyed kingdom of Cleyra, but even so, the parallel was strange.
"I owe you. For the lesson earlier." Kuja offered, slicking back his wet bangs. "So I will try to explain."
"You don't owe me anything. Consider it an exchange of information. You showed me how to defeat the Iifa tree that time." Copying his gesture, his sibling attempted to tame his own mane.
"And since then you've saved my life. I think the two counter-balance. I need to give you something else, for the teleportation. It doesn't amuse me, Zidane, to be in your debt."
"If you say so." The blond cheerfully gestured for him to continue. "But does it have to be in the rain?"
"It'll help, yes." Kuja smiled wetly and held out his hand to draw attention to the muddy desert all around them. "Even where there is nothing, there is still the potential to be 'something'. So long as the planet's crystal exists, the memory of life remains, doesn't it?"
"You're saying you can make life with just this? There's nothing here but grit and water!" Zidane wiped his unruly hair back from his face again, and stared at him. "That's crazy!"
"What is everything made of? Bits of 'grit and water' and spirit, that's all." Kuja countered. "Look at the black mages and tell me that life cannot be created with only minimal materials. Clearly they live. What did I make them out of if not straw, cloth and spirit?"
"But," Zidane frowned, trying to reason it out. "But the black mages were made with Mist! We don't have Mist!"
"Mist is just an artificial condensation mechanism. Think of it like super-dense spirit. It's a symptom of what I'm talking about, not a necessary component. Spirit energy is everywhere. If there was ever life someplace, the spirits remain in some way connected. What is needed is that raw materials and energy are combined to form a vessel for spirit. Given encouragement, it will inhabit said vessel, and become, for lack of a better word, 'alive'."
"Like the mages?"
"Hopefully not as stubbornly moralizing. But yes, that's an extreme example. I did years of experimentation on Gaia and Terra. I guess I could be an inter-planetary expert on the subject." Kuja grinned at his brother and knelt on the damp ground. "Want to see?"
"Hell yes!" Zidane crouched down in the sandy mud to get a closer look. "What are you going to make?"
"Some sort of dune-grass I think ammophila arenaria or the like It would be the most appropriate thing to start with. The soil here needs stabilizing or all the nutrients will be washed out to sea within months." Kuja ran his fingers thoughtfully over the mud. Looking up he saw Zidane's disgruntled expression. "What? You have a better idea?"
"Isn't grass a little boring?" The blond complained. "Make something cooler, like a chocobo!"
Kuja frowned. "And what is the bird going to eat? Where will it sleep? What will it do with itself?" He gestured around them at the general desolation and Zidane, following his questions looked chagrined.
"It's better to work in small steps, otherwise the energy refuses to take, or worse, it does, and gains life, only to die for lack of supporting structures. Everything is based on a system, Zidane. The trick is to learn those systems and then mimic them. Otherwise you're just wasting energy and encouraging entropy."
"But why does 'doing it right' always have to mean starting with the boring stuff? Plants and bugs and small critters just don't have any style." His sibling sighed. "This suddenly seems more like work than fun."
"There is a certain attention to detail required." Kuja ignored Zidane's grumping, focusing instead on the mud beneath his fingers. "And effort." Communicating with the shard, Kuja found a memory of the type of plant he was seeking, and reproducing the pattern with the soil as his medium. He slowly coaxed the organism into existence, willing a seed to form, germinate and grow. Zidane watched quietly as one green shoot slowly sprouted from the mud, enlarging and growing at an accelerated rate thanks to the energy the crystal was providing. At length a proper long-leafed tuft of grass stood rather forlornly on the rainy beach.
"Bad ass!" Zidane crowed, forgetting his earlier demands for something more interesting. "Can I try?"
"Sure." Kuja gestured idly at the muddy swath of desert as it stretched towards distant mountains. "One down. Only four-hundred-million to go. Knock yourself out."
Sticking out his tongue as he focused on the task, Zidane eventually managed another stubborn looking tuft of beach-grass. He sat back on his heels and let out the breath he'd been holding. "It's hard!"
"You're really going to grow grass all across the deserts?"
"It's a start." Kuja shrugged and willed another plant into existence. "Then, as you rightly surmised, I will start on an assortment of necessary insects. If the grass is successful, and the weather patterns hold, I'll follow the cycle and bring in small reptiles and rodents, then larger plants, maybe a few ungulates along the way. I rather like deer, they're handsome animals."
"It'll take you a hundred years!" His brother laughed.
Kuja shrugged again. "Hundreds, I suppose. It wasn't like I had anything else planned." His brother made an eloquent face at the implication that neither of them really functioned on the same clock as the rest of their companions anymore. Thanks to Zidane's transfusion, Kuja was uncertain if he would even age the way others would. His brother existed outside of time in a very literal sense, but it was hard to say if that was a physical characteristic he could inherit by blood.
"No lounging around on silken cushions being waited on hand-and-foot?" Zidane eventually teased.
"Building a system like this doesn't happen overnight. I'm sure there'll be plenty of time for the occasional lounging." Kuja smirked at the imagery. "Although, knowing Laro, any spare moments will be dedicated to building and sailing ships. He is ocean-mad by nature."
"You told him and your other friends about this plan yet?"
"No. But I will. Soon."
They stared down at the grass and out at the wasteland again, watching the water form rivulets through the sandy soil as it ran to the sea. By silent agreement, they began a silent competition of grass growing. The hill-side slowly filled with a sort of loose-packed green meadow, looking more like a dune than ever. Eventually exhaustion began to get the better of them. Zidane flicked a finger at the dirt, summoning one last plant before rolling his shoulders and declaring himself beaten. Kuja glanced over at his sibling, watching Zidane's more expressive features as he worked through whatever it was on his mind. Deciding to distract him, Kuja cleared his throat. "Any idea of when you'll be heading back?"
"Tired of us already?" The comeback was instantaneous. Zidane grinned over at him.
"Naturally." He flicked his tail. "Besides, Mikoto is probably missing her village and you ought to be missing your wife. It's been over a month."
"Yeah." Zidane shrugged. "Guess I do. Not like we can do much else for ya, at any rate. You sure you don't want to come back with us?"
"Back? To Gaia?" Kuja laughed in amazement. "God no. Thank you, I mean, for the offer. But no. You two don't need me. And I'm certain that nobody else would want me there. No. I'm better off here." Curious to see if his sibling would be offended by his blunt refusal, he watched the blond with interest.
His brother frowned a little, eyes firmly fixed on the ground, digging his toes into the mud. At length Zidane sighed, "Suit yourself. Let's go back and let the others know we're done trying to kill each other. At least it's dry there. And they have food."
In the end Kuja's strange little family waited until just after the accords were signed to make their departure. Zidane and Mikoto had expressed interesting meeting the Selwe queen, and Kuja found that in an odd way he had gotten used to having them around, and so was in no hurry to egg them to leave. Not that he ever planed to tell his ego-maniac brother that he'd miss him. Together they had transported a fair-sized deligation half-way round the planet to what the Selwe had set up for their capital. It was a far cry from what Kuja had witnessed in orbit months before. At least partly-expecting the alien wonders, he could watch the rest of his group staring about themselves in awe.
For the weeks after revealing his plans to Zidane, Kuja spent almost all his time in communication with the Selwe, a tacit apology for not maintaining relations during the early stages of his recovery. Speaking with the Queen via the remains of her network of crystals was nothing compared to meeting her face to face however. The insects had clearly made progress on building their new capital on the southern continent. With the wreckage of their starship shielding the fledgling-city on one side, and a series of arid mountains sheltering it on the other, the location seemed remarkably suited to their needs. Strong sun baked the clay-soil underfoot and bleached the rocks a mellow gold. The semi-transparent domes that the bugs constructed reminded Kuja quite a bit of Brambala's rather organic shape. He could tell from watching Mikoto that she too felt the similarity. Both the city and the insects settling into it favored iridescent shades of green and blue. It was apparently a bit jarring to the eye of his human companions. Still, there was a clean beauty to all of it.
The queen herself was much the same. Easily three times as large as any of her agents or servants, the giant insect still managed to emote a sense of stressed-earnestness and frailty that did more to encourage human empathy than any pretty speeches she made. She was as unalike her predecessor as it seemed possible. Rather than rules-centric orthodoxy, the queen's attitude seemed to be one of 'try it and see.' Kuja had high hopes for her guiding the remaining aliens into a new form of civilization. The war was definitively over. Looking around at what the aliens were accomplishing, Kuja allowed himself to feel a little smug as the council came to an end. It was too much to hope that everyone would keep their word and behave for the rest of time, but peace-for-the-moment was assured. If he truly was going to live as long as his idiot brother, he'd be able to do his part to ensure a few centuries of quiet, at least.
It was afterwards, as he was slowly mustering the will-power to rally everyone for the long jump homeward that Zidane surprised him. "Count us out, Kuja. No sense wasting energy if you don't have to."
"How so?" He looked at his sibling in confusion. "You want to play tourist a bit longer here?"
"Now's as good a time as any, right?" His brother and sister exchanged a look. Vivi also murmured in agreement. "No sense going half way around the world first when we can leave just as easily from here."
"You're going home?" Laro came up beside him, along with several of their alien companions, echoing the thoughts Kuja couldn't seem to find voice for. "Now? From here?"
"Yup." Zidane shrugged. "Mikoto, Vivi, and I talked it out last night. She's confident that Kuja isn't going to fall to pieces if we go." Turning to his older brother, he shrugged. "And like you said before, we've got things to do on Gaia. We can't hang around here forever."
Mikoto rubbed one arm anxiously. "We will stay in contact, somehow. Zidane feels it might be possible via the Crystal."
"The time differential might be absurd." Kuja murmured, distracting himself from the sudden ache of loneliness with the mind-boggling prospect of inter-planetary communication. Seeing that his sister was already looking rather forlorn he schooled his voice to have more confidence than he actually felt. "I'm sure that if the brat and I put our heads together we can come up with something. At worst you can bribe him to bring you to visit at some point."
"Yes. There is that." Her expression lightened, even as Zidane rolled his eyes. Holding out her hand gravely, she clasped hands with him with due ceremony. "Kuja, I am glad that we had a chance to speak to each other, outside of Brambala. As much as I thought I wanted you to return with me, I see now that they need you here, just as the genomes need me. Thank you for your advice. It has given me much to think about."
He raised his free hand to ward off any potential over-sharing. It was uncomfortable enough to say goodbye to them without the heart-to-heart confessions. Zidane was already looking at the woman curiously. He didn't want to be on the same planet as the two should she try and explain. "Thank me if things work out, not before. Just make an effort to enjoy yourself a little?"
His brother at least shared his out look on the awkwardness of saying goodbye. He kept his farewells to a half-smile and a more energetic handshake than Mikoto had offered. "Good luck."
"And to you." Kuja echoed his smile. "I'd tell you to give your wife my regards, but I don't think she'd appreciate it."
"I'll tell Beatrix you asked after her, but I don't think Steiner will appreciate it." Zidane quipped in turn.
Vivi patted his pocket, showing where the notes regarding their research were carefully kept. "I will carry your information home. We will discuss what will come of it. But I think we must try to become more than we currently are."
"In order to better take your future into your own hands? I should wish you good luck too. But I have a hunch that you and your kin will manage just fine." Kuja bent to shake the clownishly-large hand proffered. "For what it is worth, I am looking forward to seeing how you will all choose to live. Make sure Zidane sends me any news."
He stood back and watched Laro say his own farewells all around, as well as one or two of the courtiers. Soon however his siblings joined hands with the little black mage, and were carried upwards within a column of light. The courtyard, for all its alien beauty seemed a little darker by comparison.
Kuja blinked, feeling a suspicious itch from his eyes. He refused to do something as childish as mourn in public. Instead he focused on the task at hand, marshaling his own group to gather in front of him for their long trip back to the castle. The Selwe bowed gingerly to him as he bent space around his companions. Laro squeezed his hand gently in encouragement.
Looking up at the dark man, he smiled to see his worried expression. Kuja twined his fingers tighter with the strong hand holding his. "Time for us to go home?"
Laro nodded. "Definitely."
Right. At first I didn't like the ending. Then, looking at it later, I did!
That's all folks. Thanks for the fish.
As usual, if the formatting doesn't work, try finding the version posted on my website