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Politics of Grooming

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It’s a quiet summer night and Zulf and the Kid sit on the edge of the Bastion, passing a bottle of bourbon back and forth. The air is hot and dry and mixes nicely with the warmth the bourbon makes bloom within them. Zulf’s head swims with the passing breeze and the ache in his bones ease. Stars twinkle across the sky, one by one, slowly illuminating the dark expanse.  From the other side of the Bastion, Zia and Rucks’s voices carry over, Zia’s harp guitar twanging in time. It’s the kind of needed night they haven’t had in months. Taking care of the Bastion with only four people means work is never finished, but they let themselves off sometimes. They’d go crazy if they didn’t. And tonight is the perfect night for that as everything comes together, mellow and easy. The Kid is characteristically quiet, but there’s something beneath it. He’s never been much for words, but it’s different this time, thoughtful, pensive; the Kid stares at his feet and the deep purple below, his brow pinched and mouth a tight line. He barely drinks from the bottle when Zulf passes it; at this point, Zulf’s drank most of it, and he’s starting to feel it.

“What are you thinking about, hm?” Zulf questions, speech only slightly slurred. “You’re not drinking.”

“Am too,” the Kid mumbles. He holds the bottle in front of mouth, but doesn’t take a sip.

“See! Not drinking. You usually… you usually drink a lot.”

Zulf laughs and pats the Kid on the back. Everything tingles so perfectly and Zulf keeps his hand there. The Kid waits before he shrugs it off. He twirls the bottle in his hand before taking a deep gulp of it. Zulf claps, and the Kid passes it back to him.

“No, no, I’m fine, I am very fine,” Zulf says, pushing away the offered bourbon. “It’s… I don’t usually drink this much, you know. Everything’s so fuzzy.”

The Kid grins, just a little, and takes another sip. Zulf kicks his legs back and forth and hums along to the distant sound of song. The moon hangs heavy and golden above them, a deep orange blossoming at its edges. It’s a good night to be drunk, Zulf thinks. He drinks from time to time, but it’s been a long time since he was last drunk. The last time was… it was before the Calamity, with his love. His old love. An old time. The thought of that night still twists him like twine and he turns his attention to the Kid again. The Kid’s always been a well of light in the darkest times.

“…Hey, Zulf,” the Kid starts, “can I ask you something?”

The Kid is strangely somber and Zulf stops swinging his legs. “Of course, Kid. Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah. Was just wondering… how’d you know? That you weren’t a girl, I mean.” His words are cut tight and an undercurrent of uncertainty flows in. The Kid absentmindedly fingers the rim of the bourbon bottle, his thumb pressing against the deep grooves. Zulf considers the question. It’s always been difficult for him to put that into words, and to condense years of shaping his identity into mere words seems impossible. It doesn’t help that he’s a little drunk. But, he can try. He takes a deep breath and starts.

“When I was young, I suppose. It was— I never felt—” Zulf stops and screws up his mouth like he’s bitten into a sour vineapple. Cael is a limiting language, Zulf has found, and their concept of gender isn’t any different. Ura has so many more words for expression and self, things that barely translate into Cael. Still, it isn’t completely without feeling. Zulf can do this. He starts again.

“It was when I was very young. I would wake up and... it was like my body separated into different pieces. I would have to put all the pieces back together before I could wake up. But it was like… no matter what I did, I couldn’t find the right configuration. I never felt comfortable. I didn’t know what it meant, then. And then the plague hit, and I didn’t have time to think about that.”

He remembers the small den he spent his youngest years in and waking up every morning to a dying fire barely heating the home. Curled under his blanket, he would gradually become a being, slowly stitch his body together. He was so, so young. He thought of asking his parents about it, if their bodies would fall apart, too, but he never did. And then the plague took that away from him.

“…But that’s for another time,” Zulf continues. He swallows the needled feelings creeping up his throat. “It was after the missionary took me in that I really started to understand. I was a teenager and my body, ah, changed.”

A strange warmth settles in Zulf’s cheeks. He presses his hand to his chest, his breasts bound tightly beneath his shirt. That young him, so unaware of what the body did and what it meant—it’s hard for him to relate to now. How scary everything was, back then. The day he got his period, he thought he might just die. He’s lucky his father was so sensitive and understanding. Zulf still remembers running to him, choking on tears, enraged that his own body would betray him like this.

“…Anyway,” Zulf mumbles, bringing himself back to focus. “In the Terminals, we look at gender differently than in Caelondia. There’s so much more than ‘man’ and ‘woman.’ So many of us are between, or separate from it entirely. And I felt… I felt being a woman was insufficient. It wasn’t me. So then I wasn’t one.”

Which is putting it simply. There was a lot of thought, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of discomfort that went into finding that out. He shifted through so many identities and styles of expression in his teenage years. It’s a wonder he made it out with any solid sense of self. Still, it wasn’t all bad; there was a freedom in uncertainty, in being free from labels. He could be anything he wanted to be, and do anything he wanted to do, and no one tied him down with expectations. It was hard, certainly, but it was not all bleak.

Throughout everything, the Kid says nothing. He still fiddles with the bottle and he keeps his attention in the distance and not on Zulf. “…That it?” he finally says. “You just stopped bein’ a girl and then you were a boy? Just like that?”

“Oh, I’m not a boy,” Zulf says with a wave of his hand. “I’m kalali .”

The Kid squints at Zulf, equal parts suspicious and confused. “A what now?”

“It’s…” Zulf sighs. Kalali is a nebulous concept, even in Ura, and it’s not something that has a simple translation into Cael. Cael is a much more literal language than Ura; it has so few words for feeling, and being, and expressing. It takes so long to communicate ideas in Cael, whereas in Ura a word like kalali would communicate everything Zulf meant quickly and succinctly. Perhaps he should teach them all Ura. Still, while it won’t be an exact translation, he can figure out something that works.

“Well… it would be analogous to ‘masculine’ in Cael, I suppose. I’m a man, in a sense, but I’m also not. A part of me is not-man; not a woman, but not a man. Just… different.”

He thinks of being young and putting all his different body parts into one form before he woke up. Sometimes, he still does that. It’s deciding to be a new person, in a way. Every day is a new configuration of parts, a new way of expressing his identity. It was frightening when he was younger, but it’s closer to being a source of comfort these days. Sometimes he doesn’t mind rearranging himself. It’s always been easier than being static. So much of his life has been unstable; he enjoys taking that instability back and making it something good.

The Kid sighs, pauses, and then says, softly, “…You can do that? You can be something else?”

That’s not the terminology Zulf would use, but it works. He nods. “Anyone can be whatever they want. There’s nothing to stop us.” He smiles and ruffles the Kid’s shaggy hair. “Did that answer your question?”

The Kid smiles back, just a little. “Yeah. Thanks, ‘ppreciate it.”

A breeze blows past them, once more carrying the song of Zia and Rucks. Zulf settles into the music and it thrums pleasantly in his veins. “Would you like to join them?” he asks.

The Kid shakes his head. “Think I’m gonna… think for a while. Y’know, ‘bout stuff.” His cheeks burn in the way they always do when he’s more intimate than he means to be. “You go on ahead.”

Zulf stands and stumbles. He laughs. “Oh, I think I’m still a little drunk. I should be careful, shouldn’t I?”

The Kid laughs back and raises the bottle to him. Zulf makes his way over to Zia and Rucks, a little uneasy on his feet but a tune on his breath. He looks back at the Kid; the Kid is still staring into the vast purple-blackness of the night sky, his feet over the edge of the Bastion. It’d take a fool to not understand his line of questioning, but Zulf won’t push him for more, not yet. The Kid has always been one for more thought than talk, and he’ll come forward eventually. And when he does, Zulf will be there, everyone will be there, to welcome him with open arms and open hearts.