Sometimes, Aza hated Ishgard.
Or, rather, he hated it whenever Ishgard was gripped in one of its Twelve damned blizzards. Being a land trapped eternal in snow and ice, Ishgard didn’t have seasons. They had a ‘mild’ winter, where the temperature lingered teasingly just below freezing with plenty of weak, hazy sunshine to give a mockery of warmth, and then there was ‘harsh’ winter, where it was as if the Sun had abandoned them all to die pitiful, frozen deaths in the depths of an Ice Hell constructed solely to torment Aza into early insanity.
Okay, perhaps that was a bit of exaggeration. But harsh winter in Ishgard was enough to make even the coldblooded Ishgardians shiver out of their breeches. For Aza, who barely tolerated their mild winters, he didn’t even bother budging from the front of Aymeric’s fireplace. He would stoke the fire as hot as it would go, park himself right in front of it, wrap himself up in as many blankets as he could until he was a cat-blanket-burrito – and stay like that until Aymeric came home.
This night was the worst, though. The window rattled in its pane from the force of the icy wind, a tinny howl echoing outside as the blizzard raged. There was a draft, he could feel it, sharp and clean smelling, and it made the fire in the hearth flicker unhappily. Aza pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, trying to ignore the dull, throbbing pain jabbing into the back of his knees.
Gods, these nights made him feel old. The chill made old breaks and injuries ache, especially his Twelve-damned knees. They never fully recovered from… childhood, and even now the thin, pale scars lingered at the back of them, neat and symmetrical. They had faded though, enough that Aymeric didn’t notice them for a long time, but to Aza he knew exactly where they were, where to look to see them, where to press to feel the uneven bumps where the tendons and ligaments were healed back together with shoddy White Magic. They were the only scars he hated, a stark reminder of how easy it had been to make him helpless.
His ear flicked when he heard the front door slam open and someone hurriedly stumbling in, drawing him out of his increasingly bitter thoughts. Aymeric’s voice floated down the hallway, cursing quietly as he slammed the door shut again, and a bit of stomping as he probably shook off half the blizzard he took inside with him. Aza smiled a little, rolling over so he was facing the sitting room door, waiting as he heard Aymeric shuffle about, no doubt shedding his boots and coat, until…
It took a few minutes, but his partner eventually appeared at the doorway. He had melting snow in his hair, which was already frizzing and curling more from the humidity, and his cheeks were flushed pink from the cold. He was smiling warmly at him, eyes bright with affection.
“What’s this?” Aymeric said with a small laugh, walking into the room, “I have some strange cocoon sitting in front of my fire.”
“S’warm,” Aza told him, grinning back when Aymeric playfully nudged him with his heel when he reached him. So tightly wrapped in his blanket burrito, he could only roll like turtle rocking on the back of its shell, “Not moving.”
“No, I don’t think you are,” Aymeric said wryly, pausing his nudging, “Can you even escape that blanket you’ve trapped yourself in?”
“Nope,” Aza said cheerfully. It was true. He had tucked himself in so tight he felt like a mummy, with his arms pinned tight to his chest. Oh, he could probably wriggle free if he flopped and flailed like a beached-fish, but that sounded like too much time and effort. He’d rather die of thirst and starvation than move from his perfect hot spot right in front of this fire.
Aymeric tutted at him, but he sat down beside him on the carpet. Despite fighting his way through a blizzard, he didn’t seem that bad off. He tugged his fingers through his hair, trying to tame the mess it was frizzing into, and basked in the flickering warmth of the fire. Outside, the blizzard continued to howl, rattling at the window and blinding it white.
“The weather’s apt for today,” Aymeric muttered as he shook snow from his dark locks, “Just adjourned a House of Lords session today.”
“Oh?” Aza half-yawned, sleepily watching Aymeric. In the firelight, he looked a little… domestic. He was in civilian wear for once – his only duties today had been at the House of Lords, rather than the Congregation – and without the coat he had a white shirt, the sleeves roughly pushed up to his elbows, the uppermost button undone, the collar spread wide so he could see the beginnings of his collarbone. With his messy hair, pink cheeks, and relaxed, casual way he was sitting in front of the fire…
Aza very carefully memorised the sight. It was a good memory to keep.
“They’re resistant to the proposals Lord Artoriel penned for welfare schemes aimed at the disenfranchised,” Aymeric grumbled, “They keep questioning why we should even be wasting money to help them, that if they truly wished to pull themselves out of poverty they would have done so already. They think people beg on the streets out of laziness, Aza.”
Aza just sniggered at him. That sure sounded like the airheaded nobles of Ishgard. Not all of them, mind, there were a few who were good, albeit naïve, folk – but most them had such a warped sense of how the commoner actually lived that Aza had no idea why they were even having a say on legislation that impacted them. Seemed a bit unfair on the smallfolk, like they were back to the original problem.
“Yes, yes, it’s all very amusing,” Aymeric grumbled, reaching out to tug on Aza’s ear. He immediately rubbed his thumb against the velvety inside of his ear, then pressed his fingers right behind it, rubbing in slow, lovely circles. Aza sighed out a purr.
“It is,” Aza murmured, letting his eyes slide halfway shut in contentment. The draft swept over him again, and his thick blanket protected him from the worst of it, but it still made him instinctively shiver. He curled up a little tighter in his blanket burrito, making a small, displeased noise in the back of his throat as his knees gave a very pointed, dull stab of pain, “Ow…”
“Ow?” Aymeric quickly paused his ear rubbing, then smoothed his hand over his hair, “What’s wrong, love? You hurt somewhere?”
“Knees,” Aza admitted unhappily, shifting in his blanket cocoon as he gingerly straightened his legs out. His feet poked out from the bottom, his toes curling against the chilly draft. His knees let out a horrendous cracking noise, and he drew in a sharp, irritable breath as he reluctantly wriggled his blanket cocoon apart to free his arms, “It’s this stupid cold.”
“Here, let me.”
Aymeric captured his leg, and Aza relaxed as his partner slowly pulled his leg straight, scooting close enough so he could rest it on his thigh. Aza felt a tight pull in his hip from the slightly weird angle, but it was an okay tight pull, and he pulled his blanket back around him as Aymeric gently, very gently, began massaging the aching joint with strong, calloused fingers. It wouldn’t eliminate the pain entirely - a lot of it was mental too, aside from physical – but his partner’s hands were warm, his touch careful, and it made it a little better.
“Ishgard doesn’t treat you kindly, does it?” Aymeric asked him before a comfortable silence could form between them. He sounded a little sad.
“It’s just these blizzards,” Aza mumbled into his blanket, his eyes sliding shut as Aymeric’s palm pressed into the crease of his knee, applying the slightest bit of pressure and coaxing it to bend slightly, “And that draft.”
Aymeric was quiet. His hand smoothed down along the back of his calf, pressing his thumb lightly into the tense muscle, “Is this helping?”
“Much,” Aza half-groaned, “Your hands are magic or something, I swear.”
“Estinien used to get severe leg cramps when he first trained as a dragoon,” Aymeric said as he began thoroughly and methodically easing the tension in Aza’s calf, “He’d be utterly unsociable unless his cramps were eased, so… I have plenty of practice.”
“Oh, so that’s when it started…” Aza said teasingly, “You using his leg cramps as an excuse to grope him. When’d that turn to fucking?”
Aymeric let out a startled laugh, “Aza.”
“Don’t play coy,” Aza flicked his tail at him, “C’mon, spill the beans. You’re very close-mouthed about your scandalous affair with the Azure Dragoon.”
“For good reason,” Aymeric huffed, but he was smiling, “It was a very dramatic relationship. We were young, passionate and very naïve. In retrospect, I feel extremely guilty over the stress we must’ve placed Ser Alberic through…”
“Albie?” Aza wondered where that grizzled old Dragoon fitted into this drama, “Wait, Albie knew?”
“He had the ill-luck to walk into several, ah, situations,” Aymeric admitted. He actually looked a little sheepish and hot about the ears admitting this, “As I said, we were young and passionate and stupid, I might add. We were lucky Ser Alberic turned a blind eye to it.”
Aza mulled over that. Ishgard had a rather queer view on homosexual relationships, in that, they were more than happy for men to sleep with men, and women to sleep with women… just so long as they didn’t allow that to interfere with their duty to produce children. Apparently, it wasn’t unheard of for a gay man to marry a gay woman, force a child between them, and then romp about with their respective side-lovers with full blessing from each other, so long as they played the part of happily married couple in public. It was even worse if you represented a noble house like Aymeric did – even if he was an adopted bastard. He would be expected to continue the line, not dally with gay Miqo’te men like he was now.
“Why’d you stop, in the end?” Aza asked him, “Because you both became too public?”
“Scrutinised too closely,” Aymeric confirmed with a quiet sigh, “One of the Heavens Ward caught wind of it, told by someone, most likely. They approached me late at night, discreetly. I thought it strange at the time, as they usually made their chastisements a public spectacle, but I suspect Fa… Thordon told them not to make a scene. My being his bastard was an open secret by then, so perhaps he didn’t want it known that one of his blood was of queer ilk.”
Aza watched Aymeric. His partner was gazing into the fire, his expression distant.
“They gave me an ultimatum,” he said quietly, “I yielded to it.”
He did not elaborate. He didn’t have to.
Aza gently tugged his leg away from Aymeric’s still hands in the ensuing quiet. His partner stirred out of whatever memory he’d been in, glancing at him questioningly, and Aza lifted his arm and the blanket with it.
“I think tonight’s a cuddle night,” Aza told him with utmost seriousness.
Aymeric’s smile was a little wan, but he didn’t hesitate to join him on the floor. The blanket only just about wrapped around them both, even if it meant Aza’s toes were sticking out and Aymeric’s legs were exposed entirely. The fire crackled, the blizzard continued to wail, and that damnable draft continued to blow, but this close, nose to nose, snuggling close before the fire, Aza found it fine.
“Did I tell you of the time I got a crush on a baker?” Aza asked him when they got settled.
Aymeric blinked at him, looking reluctantly intrigued, “A baker.”
“I was young and stupid,” Aza said with a wry grin, “He was a Raen that would bake bread in Onokoro for the Confederacy. Me and my family, we visited there with our caravans, y’see, and after a few months, I got a little sweet on him because he’d give me these amazing biscuits he would bake, and he would treat me nice.”
“He bribed you with food?” Aymeric said with a smile.
Aza could almost remember the smell of those biscuits, even the memory was almost twenty years old. The Raen had been the same age as him, Hikaru, if he remembered, and so incredibly soft-spoken. The bastard son of a confederate pirate, he apparently didn’t have much love for a live on the Ruby Sea. Last Aza heard, he left for Kugane to make his riches as a baker there almost a decade ago. He didn’t know what happened to him.
“He eventually confessed to me,” Aza sighed, “He did it when the sun was setting, dressed up all nice, right at the end of the harbour, really romantic like. Poor boy was sweating and stuttering he was so nervous when confessing to me.”
“You panicked, didn’t you.”
“I panicked,” Aza confirmed, “And, um, may’ve, uh, pushed him into the sea and ran away crying.”
“Oh, Aza…” Aymeric said, closing his eyes as if embarrassed for him.
“I was a sensitive soul back then!” Aza instantly defended himself, “Also, I felt confused and unsure… or something. I don’t know. I felt so bad about it though that I didn’t step foot in Onokoro until almost twenty years later.”
Aymeric laughed, quietly, and Aza settled back with a small smile of his own. The dark mood had lifted somewhat, even if it was at the expense of his pride. That poor Raen boy… Aza really did feel bad about it, retrospectively. Poor Hikaru had no idea he had terrified a young boy who barely understood what normal crushes and attraction felt like. Hopefully he found someone less… fucked up.
“Poor Raen,” Aymeric echoed his thoughts, and he leaned forwards, bumping their foreheads together. Aza purred, “Thank you, Aza.”
“No problem, handsome,” Aza said, snuggling closer to soak up as much warmth as possible from Aymeric. The fire was dying down a little, but he was reluctant to move even to stoke it back to life. Aymeric was warmer, anyways, “Can we stay like this for a bit?”
“Mm, I’m comfortable here.”
Aza purred happily, tucking his head underneath Aymeric’s chin. He could feel his partner’s warm breath tickle his ear, his hand stroking a lazy line down his back, to the base of his tail, and back up. The blizzard’s howling was quieter now, calmer, and the window no longer rattled. The draft was gone.
The fire died down until it crackled meekly over charred logs, and Aza found himself drifting off, warm, happy, and pain-free.