A faint melody came from the shore. Resting his back against the wing of his chocobo, eyes open to the stars above, Jowd listened. Over the rustling of dead waves lapping against the barren sides of the Serpent Trench, over the low droning of a lifeless wind, certainly over any semblance of sleep or of the rigorous emptying of the mind he had come to resort to instead of sleep, Jowd listened.
He brushed a yellow feather aside to get a clearer look at their camp. Curled up next to his mount, the professor was fast asleep, drained by the day's long ride, and his pigeon with him. The fire was dying, but then again, so was the night. Nothing else in sight. Just the stars. The gentle voice reaching him through the empty air evoked them too, in a maudlin metaphor for doomed love Jowd had already heard before, long before, before the fall. He sat on his throne, then, his queen by his side, and laughed at the lovers’ struggle on the stage. Draco and Maria, he thought they were called, from the opera Draco and Maria, a title that had stuck with him for its admirable lack of creativity if little else. Draco's unwavering hope was a childish affair matched only by Maria's determination: the singer strode across the set in her shining armor like a stuffed chicken, her faith hollow, predicated only on a script she’d already read the end of. That's not how life goes, he remembered whispering to Alma. Ours won't need to, he thought she'd replied.
The joke was, as always, on them.
And Cabanela of all people would cling to such naiveté, late at night, as the world slowly died around them, and sing it to the sea. And cry over it, as the end of a verse saw him fall flat and brittle for two measures before picking himself up again, untrained tenor faltering against odds stacked too high. He sang of love, eternal, solemn, its intensity etched deep within each melancholic note he coddled and carried until his breath gave up. It made Jowd shiver. Not giving up at that point was an obsession, one that Jowd was intimately familiar with. He may have seen the brunt of it from the wrong Cabanela, but not for a second did he doubt back then that it could have come from the real one, just as he was certain now that the root of that obsession always came from him and all the double ever did was give it a different, more desperate inflection. It would only be fair to dig a hole, bury their memories of Alma and Kamila, shake hands and let Jowd go, let each other go, stop twisting the knife in poisoned wounds each time they so much as looked at each other. But as all fairness had disappeared from the world when it was cracked open, or five years earlier depending on the count, Jowd also found himself crying. The song continued, unwavering now. It roped itself around Jowd’s thoughts, sneaked underneath them until it found him soft and unguarded. He missed the man who would sneak up the highest tower in Figaro and serenade the queen and king until the last note died out and they stared at the stars, and at the stars reflected in each other's eyes, and how bright they were. Jowd rolled around and dug his face in chocobo feathers. Contrition did not suit him. His last memories of his heart longing and aching despite all common sense dated back even earlier than those desert nights, when he was freshly engaged, still free of Figaro's crown, and a young, ambitious diplomat from Vector kept staring at him just so. But that was a fresh discovery and a thrill. This world held nothing but sadness.
He got up and crossed the stretch of moorland that led to the shore. Cabanela sat against the sea with the poise and elegance of a battered statue, silent now, lost in his own thoughts. “It’s me. Don't turn,” Jowd said, coming closer. That night, he couldn't bear to see that face. He couldn't bear to risk a wrong movement that would throw him back to the five years he spent at the mercy of his double. But this world wasn't fair for anyone, not for Jowd but not for the man who carried the responsibility of total destruction on his shoulders, either. The man who, betrayed by his homeland, lost years of his life and freedom to save a love and succeeded, twice, only to lose it again, and still found it in himself to sing. Jowd put a hand on Cabanela’s shoulder, felt him shiver at the touch and lean into it. His other hand cupped the other shoulder - bony and narrow, made for dancing, not for carrying weights - and passed his thumb over a knot of exhausted muscles.
“My king.” Cabanela sighed and pressed against his touch. “I don't need your pity.”
“And I don't need yours. Tell me to go or shut up.”
He shut up. Pity or folly were the only possible reasons for addressing him as king when word had it that Figaro was lost, its castle buried under the sands. And only folly would explain the love that dripped from those two whispered words, the same soul-baring tension that had carried him throughout the song, but Jowd couldn't have that either. Too much, too confused. What he needed was a moment, on his own terms, to create a new image for himself of the man in front of him. He traced the shape of his neck and pressed circles on his shoulders, then moved slowly down his spine. He could barely hear him breath. When his fingers eventually slid down Cabanela's side, they found the rough outline of an unkempt scar, then another, then frayed boundaries that stretched long and deep, dark remnants of a wound that should have killed a man. Cabanela froze. Jowd backed off.
“We'll talk in the morning.”
There should have been a sorry in there somewhere, but if either of them started with those they'd collapse under that avalanche. Never Jowd's forte, anyway.
They did not talk in the morning. With Alma absent, a cosmic void extended between them, choking any word that dared come out of their throats. But Cabanela pulled back his shoulders as he hopped on his chocobo, facing the wind with a confident smile. Jowd followed, and considered hope.