Strays in a Storm

NOTE:

The timing is fortuitous since we've had some very storm weather for the past couple of weeks. So I decided to update this story today to celebrate Dilandau's birthday again.

I'm hoping I can update and maybe even finish this story by the end of the year but I don't want to make any promises. For now, I'm just glad I had the time and energy to post another chapter. We get to see a tentative truce form between these two as they wait out the storm together.

Happy birthday, Dilandau!

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"Have you decided yet?"

Merle whirled around and looked at Dilandau. She had finally stood up to pour herself a cup of water and he had not stirred from the bed. She had not expected him to be the one to break their silence. But she had spent so much time rehearsing something devastating to say that he had beat her to it.

"Decided what?" she asked.

Dilandau sat up, the blanket sliding down his shoulders, and he faced her, an unreadable expression on his face.

"Whether or not to kill me," he replied calmly.

Merle stared at him incredulously. She had certainly not expected that. So she had no proper response but to gape at him for a few moments. But he held her gaze and after a while, she looked away uncomfortably.

"You're too morbid," she muttered.

He replied with a shrug and then lay back down on the bed and seemed to go back to sleep. Somehow this casualness infuriated Merle. How could he say something so controversial so suddenly and then leave it at that just as abruptly? Did he not find this whole situation extremely strange?

Did he not want to even talk about it? But then again, what really was there to talk about? Merle had no clue.

She glowered at him for a few more minutes but when he made no reaction, Merle sighed. She thought about what he had just asked her. Did he really think she was capable of killing him? Or perhaps that precisely the reaction he expected of anyone who crossed paths with him. After all, he was reviled almost wherever he went because of what he had done.

What a sad, lonely existence, the cat-girl thought as she took another glance at the figure lying on the bed and felt a smidgen of sympathy for him.

There was a crash of thunder and Merle flinched. She was not fond of such terrible weather. She glanced at her companion but he seemed unperturbed. Perhaps he was used to it all.

At length even he decided to leave the comfort of the bed. Merle was sitting at the small table, staring out the window, and she turned to face him. He gave her a glance of acknowledgment before pouring himself a cup of water and sitting on the chair opposite her. Neither of them said a word for a few moments.

After a few minutes, he stood and rummaged among his meager belongings. Merle watched him, alert, baring her claws just in case. But she had nothing to fear.

He simply brought out some dried meat he had in his bag and sat at the table again, biting a piece and chewing calmly. He tossed a piece towards her and the cat-girl stared at it suspiciously. He shrugged and continued to eat. Merle's growling stomach betrayed her and she reluctantly picked up the piece of meat and tentatively took a bite. It was tough and too salty, but still strangely filling.

"As soon as the storm ends, I'll be out of here," Dilandau said gravely, "And you will never see me again."

Merle frowned at him. "And what makes you think I'll let you stay until then?"

"Are you throwing me out now?" Dilandau asked.

"I would rather you not be here, if it's all the same to you," the cat-girl replied but not with much conviction.

"Are you throwing me out?" Dilandau repeated, his expression grave.

Merle said nothing but looked out the window.

The rain continued to fall in torrents around them and the wind blew violently against the small but sturdy structure of the cabin. Thunder crashed and lightning streaked across the sky. The weather was unforgiving and they both knew that. No one would last long out there without any proper shelter.

"I don't want to impose on you or to force any unwanted hospitality," Dilandau declared, "But I am not going out there, not again."

"You have a funny way of asking for help," Merle replied curtly.

Dilandau sighed. "I am at your mercy," he said simply, "If you will let me stay, I will sleep on the floor by the fireplace. As soon as the storm ends, I will never trouble you again."

This time, Merle saw a change in his expression, a kind of helplessness and humility. He was begging for her help and she could not find it in herself to refuse him.

"Let's hope the storm ends soon, then," she replied and she thought she saw him nod gratefully.

.

.

.

.

.

But the storm lasted longer than either of them anticipated so they had to learn to co-exist in relative harmony.

Fortunately for them both, the cabin was well-stocked and Dilandau himself had enough food to last for a week or two. They shared what little they had, and found that they could tolerate each other's company without much hardship. Neither of them would ever admit it but there was some relief in waiting through a tempest with someone else. While both were accustomed to solitude, this was not their preferred state.

They no longer shared the bed but Merle had given her strange guest enough blankets to keep him comfortable by the fireplace. He did not complain and was undoubtedly relieved that he was able to remain in the shelter with minimal conflict. The subject of whether or not Merle would kill Dilandau had been completely forgotten and it was clear that he would not fight with her either. After all, if either of them had ever meant to harm the other, they would have done so already.

They did not speak much but they found that neither of them enjoyed complete silence. When they exhausted the topic of the weather, they tried to find other mundane things to talk about. But eventually, even the mundane seemed maddening to talk about and they turned to topics they had initially avoided, like the past. Merle noticed that Dilandau never asked her about her life though she was not sure this could be attributed to complete indifference. She sometimes sensed that he was even slightly envious of her relatively normal circumstances while his situation was so volatile.

More often than not, she asked the questions and it surprised her whenever he deigned to answer.

"What happened to you and Celena Schezar?" Merle asked once.

"I couldn't explain it even if I wanted to," Dilandau replied, "We have our own lives now and that is as it should be."

"Do you ever think of going back to Zaibach?"

"You know as well as I do that there's nothing to go back to. And I have no intention of returning to a wasteland."

"So, what are you planning to do?" Merle asked with genuine curiosity.

"What do you care?" Dilandau retorted, "I told you before, you won't see me again after all this."

"Well, how can I be sure?" Merle teased, "You wandered into my cabin by chance. How do I know you won't end up here by chance again?"

Dilandau quirked an eyebrow at this. Merle was surprised at the lightheartedness of her tone.

"I was thinking of taking a ship and sailing far away from here," he said somberly.

"Where would you go? Daedalus? Cezario?" Merle asked.

"Away from Gaea if I could," Dilandau admitted, "There's nothing left for me here. Only a past full of painful memories and an uncertain future."

Merle looked at him sadly and when he noticed her sympathetic expression, he looked away and said nothing. The cat-girl could not think of any appropriate response to this so she stayed silent as well.

"It doesn't matter," Dilandau muttered and then sat by the fireplace, wrapping a blanket around himself and staring at the dancing flames.

Merle knew better than to pester him when he was in such a mood. She had also noticed how much comfort he took from the fire, how he always seemed, "happy" was not exactly the word she would use, but content. He rarely seemed more at peace than when he sat by the fire.

There were moments when she was even tempted to sit beside him, but she did not dare. Distance must be maintained. They tolerated each other well enough for now because that was necessary. But while Merle was willing to explore their tenuous connection, she was not sure that her companion felt the same.

Besides, the rain would eventually stop and then, they would part ways for good. There was nothing more to it, Merle told herself and she wondered why she wasn't looking forward to the storm ending as much as she used to.