Chapter 1: one
After a long day of training and for the fifth time total, Joseph comes to his room with a bottle of wine he's stolen from the kitchen and a grin behind his respirator, made apparent by the way his cheeks push up against his eyes.
“In need of a nightcap?” Joseph offers nonchalantly, as if this isn’t becoming routine.
As always, Caesar rolls his eyes, reminds him that it's close to midnight and they have an early morning, then steps aside to let him in anyway. Once the door is shut, Joseph stands still. Caesar lifts his hands up to the mask and unlocks it before moving away to set it on the nightstand.
Joseph hasn't figured out how to remove it himself yet, using a method closer to body slamming a locked door rather than patient lockpicking. Caesar certainly isn't going to tell him how to do it. However, he figures an hour or so with the mask off while Joseph's relaxing isn't going to hinder any progress, not when he's pushing himself so hard the rest of the day.
They split the bottle without glasses and sprawl out on Caesar's bed with Joseph predictably taking up a majority of it. Caesar lounges across the foot of it, aware that he's smiling too easily. He can't bring himself to care when it's like this.
He likes the way Joseph tells stories, using his whole body and vocabulary to express himself.
And Joseph always seems so unreasonably proud when he gets Caesar to laugh.
Chapter 2: two
“Jojo,” Caesar says one night, pinching the neck of the bottle between his finger and thumb as he swirls around what's left of the wine. They're both lying across the width of the bed now, facing the window. Joseph reaches over him and takes the bottle away, drinking from it while he waits for Caesar to continue. “Would you mind answering a personal question?”
“Dunno. I'd have to hear the question first.” He seems to think on it, so Caesar stays quiet until he pipes back up. “Probably not.”
Caesar shifts onto his side and props himself up on his elbow, resting his cheek in his hand. He wants to see Joseph's reaction and, oh, he's started to take another drink. Perfect.
“Are you a virgin?”
Joseph splutters and Caesar immediately starts to snicker, then harder still when Joseph flushes and wipes his mouth. “Why are you even thinking about that?!”
“I was thinking you like to talk a big game, but... well, your approach to women is immature. Wanting to steal panties and spy on them. If you were experienced, you wouldn't care so much.” Joseph's flabbergasted expression begins to morph into a caught-red-handed pout and Caesar keeps going with a joke. “I mean, have you ever even been kissed?”
Joseph goes quiet, inspecting the unlabeled bottle too closely, and his cheeks stay red.
Ah. Maybe he hasn’t been after all.
Caesar's about to retract the question and move on when Joseph mumbles a reply, a hint snarled for the sake of his dignity.
“No, I haven't had sex. And I've kissed girls before. Just... you know, not like in the movies. Only quick pecks on the lips.”
He's not surprised, but his delight at seeing Joseph so embarrassed fades into something softer.
“I could teach you, you know. How to properly kiss someone. That way, you won't make a total fool of yourself when the time comes.”
Joseph snorts. “It doesn't really matter, does it? Need I remind you, I might be dead in two weeks.”
“You might not be,” Caesar replies plainly, “and whatever girl you meet afterward may be too polite to tell you you're a bad kisser. Why waste the rest of your hard-earned life not knowing what a good kiss feels like?”
Joseph chuckles at that, like Caesar hoped he would, and he can't keep himself from grinning a little either.
“You know, I was hoping I wouldn't have to deal with you being a lame Casanova anymore, but I guess if you don't have any ladies to hit on, you'll just hit on me.”
“Just consider it a favor for saving my life.”
“That was ages ago!”
Caesar chuckles. “Not exactly.”
Joseph scoffs, slowly rolling the bottle between his palms. “Fine. Whatever. Teach me how to kiss. You must be good at it if you've gotten all these girls to fall for you despite your revolting personality.”
Caesar shoves him and Joseph laughs, that deep and boisterous noise, and Caesar's snickering along with him. “I take it back, you horse’s ass. Go ahead and slobber all over the poor girls in your future, it's not my problem.”
“No, no, go ahead, oh wise one! Teach me your ways!”
Caesar takes the wine back and drinks again as he thinks on his first point.
“First of all, take it slow. I need to emphasize that for you especially. No one likes it when you just shove your tongue into the back of their mouth right away.” He pauses. “Actually, never do that. Kissing isn't about occupying as much space as possible.”
“Incredible, Caesar. This is very helpful. Next, are you going to tell me that I shouldn't, like, seal my lips over her mouth and nose?”
“Shut up, idiot. Just keep in mind that you should always start slow.” Joseph starts to interject again and Caesar cuts him off. “Secondly, use your lips to your advantage. It keeps things well-paced and neat, so you can avoid the slobbering I mentioned. Tongue shouldn't be used every second. It's passionate, but it alone doesn't make for good kissing.”
Joseph flips over onto his back, sighing and groaning like it's another one of Caesar's boring lectures. “What does it matter? Isn't any kissing beyond a peck ‘good kissing?’ I'm not going to remember all these rules when I'm swapping spit with a lady!”
Caesar snorts and sets the nearly empty wine bottle on the floor. “You really are inexperienced. And I gave you... three pieces of advice. That's too much for you to remember?”
“In the moment? Yeah! You've kissed every other woman in Italy and you're telling me to keep calm when I'm finally getting somewhere–”
“Oh, save your breath. Kissing isn't nerve-racking. It's mostly about instincts and chemistry anyway, which is why I'm telling you to slow down. Then you can go with the flow... not bowl someone over with your enthusiasm and fat tongue.”
“Can't we just get Suzi Q up here and tell her to be our practice dummy?”
“No, I like her too much to subject her to that.” It earns Caesar a light swat to the thigh, but he smiles anyway. “Besides, she's probably asleep.”
Joseph makes a non-committal, gruff noise and – barely drunk enough to make the joke – Caesar leans closer, dropping his voice to a low tease. "Well, there is another option, Jojo. How badly do you want the practice?”
Joseph raises an eyebrow and looks at him out of the corner of his eye. Caesar laughs again, leaning back out of his space. “I'm kidding. You'll do fine as long as you're not a beast about it."
He scoffs again, unfazed by Caesar's invasion, and puts his hands behind his head. They go quiet, slipping into silence, and Caesar's finishing off the rest of the wine when Joseph clears his throat.
“Well, would it count?”
Slowly lowering the bottle from his lips, Caesar glances down at him. “What do you mean?”
“If you kissed me. You know, to show me. Would it count as a real kiss?”
Caesar lifts the bottle back up and swallows the very last of it. It won't make a difference at this point, but he'd like to hope. He sets it back down on the floor, choosing his words carefully. “I guess that depends on your perception. If it doesn't count to you, then it doesn't count.”
“Huh.” It's a thoughtful murmur, as monosyllabic as it is.
“And who else would know? I wouldn't tell anyone.”
Another grunt and Joseph stares up at the ceiling for another moment before shifting to prop himself up on his elbow as well, facing Caesar and mirroring his position. “You promise you won't tell?”
He should decline. Tell him it was just a joke. Tell him it’s time to go to back to his room and go to bed.
“I promise,” he says instead.
“Okay, then.” Joseph agrees, watches him for a second. Then, once a few beats pass, he's opening his loud mouth. “Well?! Are you going to kiss me or what?!”
“Wouldn't it make more sense for you to kiss me first?”
“How? Aren't you the teacher here? You should be the one guiding me! Who do you think you are?! Lisa Lisa?!"
Caesar sighs, leaning in just enough to encourage him. “Can you please not bring her up right now?"
Joseph doesn't bother with another word, closing the gap.
Staying passive, Caesar lets him take the lead to gauge what Joseph thinks he should be doing, and surprisingly, he listened to his earlier words. After the first few seconds, he's not kissing to shut him up. He actually takes it slow, yielding and exploring with just his lips rather than trying to pry apart his mouth right away. Not as neat as Caesar prefers, but not the worst.
After a moment, Caesar opens his eyes out of curiosity and he has to smile when he sees how concentrated Joseph looks.
“Relax,” he mumbles against his mouth, and Joseph huffs before flicking his tongue against his lips. It’s feather-light, not much in the way of a retaliation, but Caesar has mercy on him and doesn't comment or resist, kissing him back with just enough force to give him the hint that it's okay to continue.
And Joseph does, easing his tongue past his lips to taste his. When Caesar returns it, Joseph sighs and shifts closer, bumping his nose into Caesar’s cheek. Clumsy and tense, it becomes apparent that Joseph’s off-the-cuff method is more of a stabbing motion and, in return, Caesar meets them with languid strokes until he catches on, sliding together rather than fighting.
Unfortunately, the harder kissing makes it difficult to stay impartial and Caesar starts to return it like he means it without overtaking Joseph's lead. Teaching him isn't going to work if he takes a clinical approach, he tells himself in a swell of selfishness. After all, he was just spouting off about going along with the moment and following natural chemistry...
So, he chases that natural chemistry and bites down on Joseph's bottom lip before sweeping his tongue over it, a suggestion for what to try someday with someone else, but Joseph makes a rough noise in the back of his throat and raises one hand to Caesar’s face, fingers digging into his hair and keeping him still.
Before Caesar can ask if he wants to stop (backpedaling – he knows they’ve quickly fallen out of their depth), Joseph's pushing him back against the bed, overwhelming him and ditching the exploratory attitude. He kisses him hard, still inexperienced but very clearly inspired, and Caesar knows, logically, that he should use this as an opportunity to tell him not to be so forceful and suggest a break.
But he doesn't. He kisses him back with the same force that does show experience, polished with years of encounters, and tells himself he's correcting him.
Joseph scales it back to match his level, but it doesn't deter them. Caesar's hands are buried in his hair to keep him close, Joseph's pressing his hips into his thigh (and making it very apparent how affected he is by this), and they're both so caught up it's obvious that things can only go in one direction.
As Joseph slides one hand up Caesar’s shirt and his cool fingertips glide over his stomach, his conscious kicks back in. This isn’t what they agreed to; he should have called it off minutes ago. He pushes Joseph’s hand away in a gentle redirection and Joseph mumbles an apology, tugging his shirt back down.
With half of the previous enthusiasm, they start to slow down, moving back into exploring what they already know, and kiss unhurried instead of insistently.
Eventually, Caesar's the one to actually break it off, pulling back and dropping his hands.
They look at each other for just a second before he clears his throat and Joseph moves off of him.
“So,” Caesar starts, trying a little too hard to distance them from what just happened, “have a better idea of what to do next time?”
Joseph is instantly reaching for the wine bottle on the floor again and frowns when it's empty. “Think so.”
There's nothing more to say, nothing he could say that wouldn't make things more awkward, so Caesar brings up the time and heads to bed a moment later. It's such an obvious excuse, but there's no use pretending.
The next day, they act as if nothing ever happened.
(Once, Joseph's glance lingers a little too long, but Caesar looks away abruptly and assumes Joseph does as well.)
Chapter 3: three
After he pulls Joseph up from the gorge, Lisa Lisa takes back the Red Stone of Aja and instructs Caesar to fix him up before he loses too much blood. Joseph winks and laughs, still riding the high of victory, but Caesar pulls him up onto his feet and slings an arm around his waist to carry their weight while they walk back.
Joseph complains about dinner and Caesar lets him babble, still a little shaken up from the emotional whiplash of seeing him topple over a cliff and the relief that he's still alive with just a puncture wound.
He's also still unreasonably annoyed by Joseph's teasing about how he's stooped to his level of thinking. As he tunes him out, he imagines what would have happened if he had just let go. Joseph's hypothetical scream amuses him for a few seconds, but as Joseph continues to hobble along next to him and as his own heart keeps pumping the leftover adrenaline through his veins, Caesar has a hard time trying to avoid or brush off the accusation.
Really, he barely even thought about it. He just acted. He's familiar with Joseph's reactions and reasoning after training together, after countless challenges and sparring matches, but... this wasn't a typical fight. This was a ridiculous situation with an even more insane solution and, within the few seconds they were allotted, Caesar reached the same conclusion as Joseph.
Out of all the ideas Joseph could have pulled out of his ass, Caesar chose the correct one and knew what to do and when to do it.
He told Stroheim he knew Joseph was the only person crazy to do something like that, which was the truth, but after the fact, it's unnerving. He isn’t convinced it’s a bad thing, but it opens the question of what that means for him, being attuned to someone else.
He gets Joseph up the stairs and makes him sit on the bed, telling him to wait while he gets the supplies. They're easy enough to find after some rummaging and, to hopefully distract him like a child with candy, he brings Joseph back some bread from the kitchen.
Joseph, of course, complains again when Caesar sets it aside to situate himself. He reaches for it instantly and Caesar rolls his eyes, pushing it out of the way.
“Calm down. I need your shirt off first so I can actually tend to your wound like I was told to.”
Joseph yells back, half-jokingly, “I think I deserve bread first after what I just went through, Caesar!”
He's not exactly wrong, but Caesar shoves Joseph's jacket off anyway and works on peeling his shirt up before Joseph can rile himself into a tirade. It goes easily at first, exposing the bruise forming on his abdomen from Kars' kick, but when it pulls against the coagulating blood, Joseph’s entire body goes rigid as he winces.
“Just a little bit more,” Caesar murmurs. He knows the feeling of separating fabric from a fresh wound and it's unpleasant, but the sooner it's off, the sooner he can patch him up. It only takes another moment and once he gets the shirt over his head, Joseph's frowning at him and Caesar mumbles an obligatory apology in response.
After shucking off his gloves, he hands Joseph his well-earned bread and works on disinfecting the damage, even as Joseph rips off a bite and chews in his ear. Caesar grits his teeth and keeps swiping the damp cotton ball over his skin, trying to clean off the blood.
Joseph looks around, then opens his big, bread-filled mouth to ask, “What, no butter?”
“No,” he replies tightly, trying not to suddenly press too hard, “no butter.” Joseph groans and Caesar is about to yell at him for being a rich kid with high expectations, but thankfully, he just takes another bite and goes back to chewing.
At least, until he swallows. Then he's talking again.
“I used the Ripple to heal my cuts and stuff before I knew what I was doing, but nothing deep like this. That's what you're gonna do, right?"
“Right. It's the same concept.” Caesar tosses another one of the now-red cotton balls to the side and gets a fresh one, hoping he can get by with short replies.
“So why are you wasting your time on cleaning it? It doesn't seem like it would matter.”
He doesn't answer right away. He knows he's conditioned by too many years on the streets, where some injuries are let go but others are taken seriously based on what they could become, but this isn't something he wants to share with Joseph. It's behind him, it doesn't apply anymore, and it needs no discussion.
“Better to be safe than sorry in case of infection,” he says it definitively, like it's the truth and not merely something he fears, and Joseph buys it, shutting up again.
He's able to finish cleaning his chest without much more comment. When he's done, he places his hands over the wound, channeling the Ripple through them. Slowly, the gash closes, the skin begins to seal back together, and Joseph is both astounded and disgusted, judging by the noises he makes as he watches. If he wasn’t determined to stay focused, Caesar would laugh at him.
Once he's healed, there's a bit of a scar left over which Joseph traces with his fingers, and Caesar works to clean up the mess. He takes a look at the purpling mass on Joseph's stomach and sets aside the cotton balls and alcohol.
"I can take care of that, too, if you want," Caesar says, gesturing to it. Now that he thinks about it, Joseph was limping as they walked back and he's certain a shoulder wound wouldn't make him do that.
Joseph looks down at himself, gingerly touching it with his fingertips. "You can use the Ripple on bruises? I was just going to suck it up."
"Really, at this point, shouldn't you be asking what we can't do with it?" Caesar jokes, already moving closer. He rests his hands on him again and Joseph sharply inhales this time. Although the discoloration begins to fade, Caesar applies the Ripple slower and steadier, in a lighter amount. It's hard to say when exactly a bruise is healed as opposed to a gash.
For the hundredth time in their relationship, Joseph is the one to break their comfortable silence. This time, with a quiet chuckle.
“You know, I'd be dead meat right now if you hadn't read my mind.”
Caesar tries to sound amused, accepting that they're going to have this conversation after all. “Yeah, I know.”
“Don't be sarcastic, I'm being totally serious for once.” Out of the corner of his eye, Caesar can see how Joseph is now looking at anything in the room except him, shoulders hunched up almost to his ears as he supports himself on his palms.
“So am I.” Caesar drops his light tone, giving the bruise a few more seconds to heal before he pulls his hands away. “You don't have to tell me you would have died tonight if it weren't for me.”
Joseph doesn't reply right away, thinking it over. “I guess I should thank you then, huh?”
“Not with that half-assed approach. Try again.” Joseph kicks Caesar's hip with his foot, certainly not hard enough to hurt, and Caesar smirks to himself. “You know what I mean and this is hard enough as it is! I'm not telling you to be serious again!”
Caesar rolls his eyes at first, shrugging off his smile, but once it’s gone, he tells Joseph, “You don't have to thank me for that.”
“Yeah, but–” “Thank me for doing your share of the dishes after dinner or getting you that damn bread or... whatever else you want, but don't thank me for that.” Joseph opens his mouth and Caesar interrupts, staring him down. “I mean it. Don't. ”
“Man, what kind of person replies to 'thanks for saving my life' with something like that? You're so backwards, Caesar...”
“It's not backwards,” he says plainly, choosing his words carefully. Joseph probably expected Caesar to get upset at the obvious jab, but he's not in the mood for taking the bait. Instead, he gives him the serious response he's been begging for. “I don't think I should be thanked for something as important as that. It's not like I had a choice. Of course I'd save your stupid life if I thought I could.”
Joseph snorts as Caesar collects the first aid supplies into his arms. He glances up and Joseph's looking down at him with that arrogant, obnoxious smile on his face and Caesar abruptly checks to make sure everything is secure in his hold.
"You were almost nice, Caesarino, but then you had to go and call my life stupid.”
Caesar mutters a dismissing “uh-huh” as he allots the majority of his concentration to standing without dropping anything.
“But I'll take it. Even if you rejected me, I still gave my thanks, so there's nothing more I can do. Besides, you'd prolly try to beat me up if I kept going, just to change the subject.”
Caesar finally chuckles at that, giving him another “uh-huh” that's more pleasant than the last as he heads for the door.
“I have to go back downstairs,” he says before Joseph can keep him any longer. “Even if we have more than a couple bodies downstairs, we still need to eat, right?” Joseph grimaces at the reminder. “Don't be so blasé about the whole thing.”
Caesar scoffs, smiling somewhat as he pushes open the door with his hip. “Stay here if you're bothered by it. The rest of us won't hold it against you.”
Joseph shrugs like it's alright with him if he doesn't see the corpses again just yet and lets Caesar close the door behind him. Sticking to his word, Caesar really doesn't hold it against him.
Fortunately, a welcome distraction presents itself in the form of meeting up with Lisa Lisa and Messina a few minutes later.
While Stroheim alerts his higher-ups of the massacre, Lisa Lisa and Messina theorize about what to expect next and Caesar volunteers to cook. It's simple, necessary work and Lisa Lisa moves their conversation to the kitchen to include Caesar, which surprises him just a little.
As he cooks, they talk, taking each other's opinions and ideas into consideration. While he's never felt excluded, he also hasn't felt as if he's been this much a part of the team until now. He's spoken up, but he always figured he was too inexperienced to add anything significant, had too much left to learn. But that isn't the case tonight. He revels in it, ignoring the little voice in the back of his mind reminding him that their lives might end at any second within the next few days.
After Caesar throws together what meal he can from the dry goods in the pantry, he brings two plates up to Joseph, stays with him even after they’ve finished. Eventually, their topics branch out until they're just chatting like they did late at night at Air Supplena.
In a way, Caesar likes the familiarity of it. Even though it wasn't long ago at all, everything that’s happened since then make him feel almost nostalgic about it.
A couple minutes after he finishes, Caesar takes Joseph's empty plate and tells him he should probably head to bed to rest up for tomorrow.
He's going toward the door when Joseph suddenly interjects, like he's finally able to force the words out.
“Hey... can we, uh, 'practice' again?”
Caesar knows exactly what he means and pauses.
At once, two paths open in front of him.
One urges him to experience certain things while he has the guaranteed time (no if we live, no after the battle, just right now and Joseph’s big hands and open mouth he thinks of often).
The other is a continuation of the familiar course he’s been on for years. And it should not be disrupted when they’re this close to their destination.
Sparing a glance over his shoulder, Caesar tells him with a humoring smile like it's all a big joke, “I don't think so, Jojo.”
Joseph takes the rejection in stride, chuckling. “Alright, alright. Thought it was of worth a shot. I'd like to have more than one proper kiss in my lifetime if things don't work out so well, but I guess I should just use that as further motivation to keep my ass alive, huh?”
Caesar snorts and resumes his exit. “I would think that the prospect of living itself would be enough, but if that's what will work for you, go ahead.”
He can hear Joseph flop back on the bed as he opens the door and slips out. Joseph calls out a goodnight before it shuts and Caesar softly repeats one back before heading downstairs.
Once he's alone, the doubt curls up in the back of his mind, festering in his rationality.
It tells him to slip into Joseph's bed and see how far things go, see if there's anything either of them wants to say before they confront their fates tomorrow. Joseph must have crossed the threshold of friendship too if he’s bringing this up now.
He should be selfish in the face of death, take everything he can get while the opportunity is there, minimize regrets before it’s too late.
In the end, he washes Joseph's dish and heads to bed alone.
If they have a future, they can address it then.
Chapter 4: four
He wakes to bright lights and foreign muttering; his hearing is muffled, his head swims, his vision is blurred. Everything moves slowly, everything feels distant. As much as he tries, his eyes won't stay open. The glimpses he catches are… medical. An operating room?
Someone shouts to the others. Instantly, there's more noise – shuffling around and clattering, orders barked – and the dizzying ache it causes starts in his head and runs right through the rest of his body.
Although the direct, clear words do allow him to solve one piece of the puzzle – German, they're speaking in German – the new information is tossed aside when he feels a prick in his arm and a cloth pressed over his nose and mouth. He struggles against it, gripping onto the nurse's wrist and trying to get his footing, but it's useless. The pain is blinding, every inch he moves feels like it tears through his muscles, he's too weak to even shove the woman away, and he's losing consciousness too fast.
Later, the last thing he remembers is the nurse laying a gloved hand on his forehead and hushing him. He falls back to sleep in spite of his pounding heart and the ice cold fear that constricts around his throat.
Caesar wakes again to bright sunlight and relative silence, drowsy and sore. He can hear some murmuring far away, but it's easy enough to recognize the fact that he's in a hospital room, so he chooses to relax rather than fight.
He isn't in immediate danger and he's alive. He has a strong suspicion he shouldn’t be, but can’t name why. His thoughts are too foggy to string together, let alone remember what happened to land him here in the first place.
Though his entire body is aching and stiff, he lifts his heavy arm – persevering through the pull in his every muscle – and, between some of the sections of bandages, clumsily examines the raised stitches. There are no mirrors nearby, so he runs his fingers over his face and feels more skin sewn back together.
If his face is exposed, then it may be intact. Looking like himself will be a comfort, even if– well, he's actually not sure what the damage is beyond this, underneath the bedding and hospital gown.
The thought makes his breath catch and he finally calls for a nurse, voice hoarse and cracking from a lack of use.
There are a thousand other things to question, a thousand other demands on the tip of his tongue, but knowing where he is and exactly what condition he's in are the first things he need answered. Then he can figure out what to do, where to go, what to ask.
At least it doesn't seem like the world has ended.
Later, a doctor reads from his chart with the enthusiasm of a shopping list. Fractured ribs, a broken ankle, substantial blood loss, and hours on the operating table to sew back together his torn muscles.
Then, he adds as a joke in his thick accent, “I’m unsure exactly what you were up to to come to us in this condition, but try not to do it again.”
To be fair, outside of the shredded tissue and blood loss he can contribute to Wham, Caesar isn’t certain either.
Days later, Caesar finally gets his answers. Lisa Lisa was contacted after he initially awoke, but there were limitations to how quickly she could get there, giving him too much time to theorize.
He follows her explanation as well as he can as she recounts what happened from the bedside chair – how they found him, how they called an ambulance from the hotel, what happened after they returned to the hideout and the battles that followed – but he supposes he doesn't need to understand everything just yet. The way the pain medication muddles his mind doesn’t help. What he needs to take away right now is that it's over.
But Joseph hasn't been addressed and the fact that he hasn't, that Caesar has to ask about him, numbs him.
He steels himself and he can barely hear his own voice over the loud, rushing static in his head. “And what about Jojo?”
She flicks her eyes away and he knows, he knows right then and there, and he tries not to vomit or read too much into such a small gesture, but she isn't leaping at the opportunity to tell him Joseph’s fine. He can only handle a few seconds of silence before he's speaking again, the fear disrupting his tone and becoming all too apparent despite the force he puts behind it.
“Maestra, what about Jojo?”
“Caesar, I'm sorry,” she begins and Caesar's mind instantly begins to race with what could have happened and what comes next and he can barely bring himself to listen, but he tries.
However, her next words don't come. The apology hangs in the air, all heavy implications, and Caesar grasps for control the only way he knows how. He swallows hard, focuses on his rhythm, and puts his guards back up. He can grieve later.
“Earlier, you said he turned the situation around, so... what? Did he sacrifice himself?” The struggle to stay calm bleeds through, but he isn't about to cry and that's what's important.
At the question, she closes off and returns to her typical demeanor, subtle in the changing set of her shoulders. “We don't know. Stroheim was the only witness and, even then, he wasn't certain what happened once they were out of sight. With the situation he described to us, we can only assume the worst, although we haven't found a body.”
It’s all the information she has to share, but he agrees. How could Joseph survive that? Regardless of his luck and talent, it isn’t a situation he could salvage. He’s dead. He has to be.
From the beginning, Caesar was told to expect losses, has known for years that he may die when their time came to fight. He accepted it, but he realizes, somewhere along the way, he had come to hope that Joseph would be an exception, almost too clever to be mortal.
The anger, always familiar, rises within him in the face of the circumstances he didn’t want and cannot change, but there’s nothing to fight anymore, nothing to lash out against. It’s over.
Without an outlet, it subsides in waves, giving way to resignation and tightly-reined sorrow.
After some time into her visit, she eventually admits that she's actually Joseph's mother, only elaborating enough to validate her claim. She thinks Caesar deserves to know, especially if he’s coming back with her and meeting the rest of the family.
He takes one look at her, understands how well she's holding up for having lost the son she just met again: poised, even-tempered, gracefully accepting.
Caesar lost a friend, one he had for less than a month, and he can hardly breathe, like something inside of his chest has cracked and fractured, and it splinters through the rest of his body the longer it sets in. It was only one month, yet it's like his entire world has been knocked off its axis.
Even so, as much as he hurts, his loss is nothing in the face of hers.
The grief and guilt swell, hitting him like a violent tide despite his attempts at denial, and he's biting back tears in an instant.
Swiping at his eyes before any of them can fall, he apologizes to Lisa Lisa for both her loss and his discomposure. He doesn't question what little she shares of their history because she has no reason to lie and, in hindsight, he can see the resemblance. (Then, he nearly laughs. Joseph always brought up her attractiveness.)
Lisa Lisa places her hand on his forearm and she smiles slightly – sympathetic, like his outburst is enough for her to finally let her own emotions seep out, a trickle compared to his typhoon – and she tells him, “It can't be helped now. But I'm relieved at least one of you is still here.”
The last tether of his control snaps.
Uselessly (instinctively), he covers his face with his hand as if that could fool anyone, let alone Lisa Lisa. He doesn't sob, biting too hard into his lip to let a sound slip through, but his entire body shakes with the tension of restraint as a few stray tears run down his face and blot his hospital gown. It’s a feeble attempt to preserve his dignity, but it aches to clench his sore muscles so tightly, to force his repressed sobs to push against his fractured ribs.
He's ashamed of the silence until Lisa Lisa's hand drifts down his arm and her fingers wrap around his. She squeezes, grip trembling just enough for him to notice, and he squeezes back, anchoring himself to her.
Chapter 5: five
Once he’s out of the hospital with a pair of crutches and strict instructions from the doctors (what to take and when, the healing schedule he’s forbidden to disrupt, when he can stop the crutches, when to see local practitioners for check-ins and the information he’s meant to give them - it feels endless but warranted), he and Lisa Lisa meet up with the others in New York City.
She introduces him to Erina, and Caesar understands within a few minutes why Joseph adored her so much. She's so kind to him, gives him her condolences for the loss of his friend, and shares the stories about Will that Jonathan had passed on to her, including a few that Speedwagon hadn’t mentioned before.
It's so obvious that she's been crying for weeks, red rings under her eyes and voice cracking on certain pitches, but she still goes out of her way to make Caesar feel comfortable and welcomed, as if he’s part of the family.
Inwardly, it’s overwhelming. He hasn't had contact with his siblings since they separated, and while he already considered Lisa Lisa family, he had never denied that there was an aspect of formality to their relationship. Speedwagon, too. Although they weren't close, he was like a distant uncle who showed up occasionally to wish him the best.
Now he's surrounded by people going through the same pain he is. It's a support system he's never had as an adult and he can't believe how much it gets under his skin, how much it drives the point home that this ordeal is over and Joseph is gone.
Almost an inheritance, he thinks. Something he wouldn't have gained without losses.
Still, this isn’t his to take. There isn’t anyone else he’d feel comfortable sharing this grief with, but once this all passes over, where will he go? Back to Italy with Messina?
And after that? How will he live? Joseph’s family will stay here and the distance will grow. Then, just as before, he’ll have only himself to rely on and he won’t even have training to build his days around.
Later on that first day, he excuses himself and heads to the bathroom to clear his head. While he only intended to splash some water on his face and focus on his rhythm, he's relieved to find a small window. He opens it and breathes the fresh air and gradually, gradually calms down enough to get through the rest of the night.
Take it one day at a time, he tells himself.
(He’ll do it countless times over the next few weeks, hiding away for a few precious minutes to gather himself. When he can’t, he’ll test the Ripple between his fingertips to make sure he's only imagining that he's suffocating.)
Chapter 6: six
After weeks of planning, Joseph’s funeral is tomorrow.
Caesar and Lisa Lisa handled it themselves, assumed to be the most distanced from the loss. Comparatively, it’s true. Erina focuses on making it through each day and Speedwagon focuses on her. Smokey helps all of them where he can, always eager to show his appreciation by making their day-to-day lives easier at every opportunity, but he too grieves openly, wrecked in his own way by the conclusion of his short friendship with Joseph.
No one knows about the nature of his own relationship with Joseph, of course. Why would they? It was their secret, a flame extinguished before it could grow and follow its natural path. To everyone else involved, they were friends, but he supposes the truth will die with him when his own time comes.
And, despite their blood, Lisa Lisa’s time with him was so limited that it’s easy to think she hardly knew him. It isn’t as if she shows the aftermath. But Caesar remembers what she said in the hospital, how her voice and hands had shook. She isn’t unaffected, regardless of appearances.
Because they don’t display their mourning, it’s less all-consuming for them. They can speak his name without following it with a downturned frown, a pensive stare. They cope by being productive, moving from task to task.
Without a body to bury, they haven’t been pressed for time, but eventually, there’s nothing left to do and the date sits heavily on the calendar.
One to two glasses of wine is what Caesar allows himself, thinking that should be enough to calm him down and let him fall asleep, even if he’s disregarding the doctor’s orders not to drink with his medication. Normally, he'd only drink one, but he acknowledges these are unusual circumstances and two might be necessary. Perhaps two and a half.
They're still staying at Erina's place in New York and it's too late to run to a store, so he quietly pilfers a bottle and heads back to his room, promising to buy her a replacement before she even notices it's gone.
Really, Caesar should have known he wouldn't have been able to stop at just two glasses. He can complete impossible stunts by measuring his breathing, but emotions are a different story. He likes to give off the illusion of being in control, of being unshakable, but it's his biggest weakness in the end. He knows it, though he justifies himself in the moment.
After all, if he wasn't so quick to react and storm off alone, perhaps everyone would still be alive without any missing parts.
For the most part, he's been able to rein in his malaise as they’ve stayed busy, but he wonders how well he'll hold up once the funeral is over with, once they all have to go back to their normal lives and begin moving on.
There’s no answer. Just the stifling quiet in his borrowed bedroom that weighs on his shoulders and wraps around his throat.
For once in his life, he has no plan, no goals. Only idle hands. He’s relied on those distant landmarks to keep him moving forward, but now he faces an open expanse more intimidating than survival, than any obstacle he’s ever clawed his way through.
By the time he finishes the bottle, he's back to considering his level of responsibility in Joseph's death, how his decisions ruined what could have been a perfectly good plan. The future he stole will be wasted on him, but… what is he supposed to do with it?
His thoughts are cyclical, leading into each other over and over, and the answers never come.
Growing desperate for a disruption and spurred on by his lessened inhibitions, he acts on the guilt rather than stews.
He swings his legs off the side of the bed and slowly stands, still stiff from his injuries, and attempts to stay steady through the sudden spin of the room.
Glancing at the clock to make sure it's not too late, he carefully makes his way to Lisa Lisa's room, one crutch under his arm.
Caesar's honestly relieved when there's light spilling out from the bottom of her door, and he knocks gently to keep from waking the others nearby.
“Come in,” she says, just loud enough for him to hear, and he turns the knob and steps in. She's in front of the vanity, running a brush through her hair, and her cursory glance at him lingers for a few seconds. She gestures for him to sit in the armchair a few feet away before going back to brushing. “What are you doing up?”
“Can't sleep,” he replies, lowering himself down.
“I suppose drinking didn't help any if you're coming to me.”
He almost asks how she knows, but it's been some time since he's been drunk like this. He's not fooling anyone. “Is it that obvious?” She makes eye contact with him through the mirror and gives him a flat, unimpressed look. He'll take that as confirmation. “You're slurring and you're unfocused. Besides that, your lips are tinted red.”
“Fair enough.” Shrugging, he relaxes substantially now that he doesn't have to keep that hidden.
“I won't lecture you,” Lisa Lisa says, “but I will warn you not to make a habit of it.”
“I don't intend to.” Caesar focuses on the brush running through her long hair, the only movement in the room and calming in its quiet repetition. “I know I need the rest for tomorrow and I wanted to relax, but... it didn't work out that way.” Lisa Lisa gives a slight nod of her head in acknowledgment and Caesar continues, “But you're up, too. So I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way."
She exhales at that, shifting her hair over her other shoulder before resuming brushing, but she does answer. “You're not, no.”
Caesar swallows hard, preparing himself. They fall into silence as he works up the courage, but he respects her too much, loves her too much, not to say something.
“I'm sorry,” he says quietly. She looks at him through their reflection again and waits for him to keep going, expression open like she's a little surprised. “If I hadn't fought with Jojo, we– we would have stayed together as a team, formed a real plan. It would have ended differently.”
She sets down the brush and turns toward him, and now that the words are actually out of his mouth, Caesar's so nervous about her reaction that he keeps talking so she knows, so she understands with absolute certainty even though his voice grows more desperate around the edges the longer he goes on. “It was my fault for running off and I should have controlled my temper, should have waited like you said, but I wasn't thinking clearly–”
“Caesar,” she interrupts, cutting through his worry, and he swallows hard again to shut himself up. “Breathe.”
He does so, only because it's in his nature to listen to her.
“You can't tell me you actually blame yourself for Joseph's death.” Her tone is gentle, probing and somewhat disbelieving, but Caesar wonders if he’s being foolish, if it was a mistake to come after all.
He doesn't answer, as if that’s less incriminating.
“Don't,” Lisa Lisa says, suddenly stern after reading his silence. His eyes shift to the floor in avoidance and it doesn’t go unnoticed. “Look at me. There isn't any point in blaming yourself. We can’t change what happened and, beyond that, you're only speaking from hindsight.”
He lifts his head and Lisa Lisa even has that stubborn, unyielding look in her eyes that Caesar can now recognize from too many conflicts with Joseph. Shifting away again, he opens his mouth to argue back his guilt, but she doesn't even let him begin.
“You already know this, Caesar. Thinking of the alternatives only harms yourself. Remember, we had a very similar conversation when you first arrived at Air Supplena.”
She isn't wrong. After the death of his father, Caesar had told Lisa Lisa more than he ever intended to tell another person. He was sixteen, lost and conflicted, and he had found her with the one clue he was given. He only had to tell her his father's name before she was opening her home to him and one confession led to another until he had spilled nearly his life story. He was distraught then, but now, years later, he knows he saw her as an opportunity for change, as someone who would help him. And she did, allowing him to stay and train in her image.
Lisa Lisa has never told him only what he wanted to hear, has never steered him wrong, and he has to force himself not to counter her.
“I remember,” he admits with some defeat. “Perhaps I just need more time, like I did before.”
“You won't be alone in this,” Lisa Lisa offers. He's surprised to see her quirk a little bit of a smile. “And tomorrow, once we finish for the day, you'll go out and purchase a replacement bottle of wine for Erina better than the one you stole. You'll also apologize to her for taking something without permission.”
Caesar breaks into a smile at that and agrees.
Quietly, they flow into other topics. Lisa Lisa asks how his injuries are healing, if he's taking care of himself the way he should. They talk about Erina's recipes and Speedwagon's doting and how Messina is surprisingly personable with strangers and how they would both like a cigarette but Erina would find out and scold them.
At one point, Lisa Lisa looks at him differently than what their small talk would call for, and he already feels so cut open and bared that he doesn't allow it to slip by; there's not much that can be said to hurt him or make this worse than it is.
“What is it?” he asks.
“I thought about what you said earlier,” she leads. “If it's of any comfort, Joseph and I headed to the hideout after I explained why you had reacted so strongly. Once he understood, he wanted to fight that battle alongside you, regardless of the risks. He trusted your judgment and I think you should know that.”
Caesar goes still, two issues fighting for the forefront of his mind.
First of all, he has no idea what Lisa Lisa told Joseph. It's inconsequential now, but it still sends a wave of fear over him that Joseph may have found out things he never intended to share. That his opinion of him could have changed without Caesar being able to control what he knew or how he was told.
Secondly, Joseph wanted to fight beside him, despite knowing his past or the fact that they were punching each other in the face moments before. Joseph followed him, he trusted him, and they missed each other by minutes.
Caesar hasn't actually responded to her, but his expression must say it all. Lisa Lisa frowns in sympathy and continues.
“I didn't share that to make you feel worse. What I meant was that I don't think he would blame you. He seemed eager to apologize, if anything.”
Caesar takes in a shuddering breath. He needs to get out of here, end this conversation before something in him shatters. He starts to stand and asks with a wry smile that shakes at the edges, “So how about those cigarettes?”
Lisa Lisa gives in, telling him to wait one moment, and retrieves the pack out of her coat pocket. They quietly sneak out of the apartment and she leads the way to the roof, letting Caesar prop the door open as they step outside.
The bustle of New York City, even at this hour, is welcomed background noise. Lisa Lisa lights her own cigarette, then hands him the entire pack with the lighter, and he's grateful for the generosity. He sits against the wall as she goes to the edge of the roof, her back to him, and he studies her silhouette, black against the light of the city.
He's not sure he could ever thank her for all she's done for him – and right now, as much as he would like to, he's not in the right mindset to even try.
He takes a drag and pulls the cigarette away from his lips, only to notice how much his hand is shaking. It's pathetic. He was completely in control when he was fighting Wham, steady and unflinching.
Now, he's trembling, exhausted, still drunk, and caught between either laughing or crying. It feels like there are ropes wrapped around his chest pulling tighter and tighter and, sometimes, it feels like he can hardly breathe. Sometimes? No. Often, he corrects himself. Every time his mind strays.
Lisa Lisa's back is still turned. There's the occasional honk from cars on the street or a shout from someone below. Caesar pulls his legs up to rest his forehead on his knees and listens as the cigarette burns down to the filter.
He came for you, he thinks, over and over. He came for you.
Chapter 7: seven
The next morning, Caesar goes through the motions. He showers, puts on his suit, and heads to Lisa Lisa's room. She's already dressed as well and asks if he's hungover. He admits that he is, just a little, and helps her put up her hair.
Every moment feels stilted and fragile. The drive to the funeral is silent.
Caesar tunes out for most of it, actually. It's so generic that he can't really associate anything with Joseph. He knows what to expect anyway. It's all a formality, as he and Lisa Lisa intended. After all, how could anyone ever plan a funeral that would accurately honor Joseph? It would be a party rather than a respectable event.
The most difficult part is listening to the sniffles of Erina, Speedwagon, and Smokey. Lisa Lisa dabs at her eyes occasionally. Messina silently pays his respects and Caesar bears it the same way. There are others there that Caesar doesn't recognize and doesn't bother getting to know.
He's doing well until they lower the empty casket into the grave and begin shoveling in the soil. Distantly, he thinks it's a waste of money, a box they only purchased for show, but it's a fleeting thought. Soon enough, he can't keep it at bay anymore and it's crashing over him that, a waste of money or not, the empty casket belongs to his dead friend.
He grips the handles of his crutches like lifelines and focuses only on his breathing. Inhale, pause. Exhale, pause. He can let himself get overwhelmed later, but right now, he's not breaking down in front of anyone. His crutches dig in under his arms, agitating the bruises he hasn’t healed yet, and, for the first time, he’s glad to have them to keep himself steady.
Almost obsessively, Caesar counts his breaths and watches the rhythmic way the workers swing their bodies as they fill the grave until, finally, they're pulling the concrete slab over the mound and laying down the flowers. The speaker says his last words and they stay for a moment, even as the nameless faces of the other attendants leave.
He can hear a car approach in the distance, just as Smokey steps toward the headstone to say his parting words as well, and the sound of the door slamming briefly drowns him out, making Caesar miss a word. Who forgets basic decency in a cemetery, he thinks snidely, frowning. Smokey goes on about not knowing Joseph long and how he won't forget him and Caesar closes his eyes, attempting to block it all out.
In, out, in, out. The rise of his chest. The fall of his chest. The raindrops hitting his umbrella.
Speedwagon breaks the resulting silence by telling Erina they should head back. She replies quietly to leave her be, but then there's a mischievous chuckle and Caesar wonders who has the nerve to approach them while laughing. As he turns to start making threats, he hears a too-familiar voice ask, “Guess who?”
Caesar's heart drops to the pit of his stomach before his eyes even land on Joseph, who's complaining about not having a ride of all things. He greets Lisa Lisa and Messina as if he's strolled into a birthday celebration, then he reaches Caesar and his grin noticeably falters and contorts before being replaced by a bigger one, as happy as Caesar’s ever seen him.
“So you're hard to write off too, huh? I shouldn't be surprised!” Joseph boasts, hands on his hips and beaming without a care in the world. “I’d hug you, but you look like you’d fall apart!”
Caesar just stares at him, much like the others are, and he can feel himself slipping into some kind of shock as he simply watches. He listens and he can register noises, but his thoughts turn into white noise. Joseph's blabbering about something while he flexes his hand, then he's shoved away by two cemetery workers. There's a scuffle, yet no one steps forward to stop it.
Then – appalled at an insult – Joseph asks, loud enough to break through the fog in Caesar's mind, “Did you just call Joseph Joestar a jerk?!” and apparently, that's enough for everyone else to snap out of their own stupors too. Caesar stays still and silent, not yet ready to react, but his heart pounds so hard that he thinks it might stop any second.
Joseph seems confused until he looks down and finally, finally notices his own damn headstone. He starts shrieking only to be interrupted by the sweet, scolding voice of Suzi Q as she approaches from the car. Caesar looks over at her as she sashays up to them with a confident swing in her hip. In his clearest thought yet, he's surprised that they're both so oblivious. He surely would have given them more credit than this.
Messina pipes up next to him. There's a short conversation where Suzi flashes her ring finger – her ring finger, she’s married now and standing so close to Joseph, which can only mean one thing – and, suddenly, Joseph is yelling in her face before chasing her down.
Smokey collapses to his knees nearby, crying out in relief that he's alive.
He's been alive this entire time.
Finally, something in Caesar cracks, a shiver of adrenaline running up his spine.
His emotions come to a head in the form of blinding anger and he makes no attempt to repress it out of politeness or respect for the others here. Rather than demand Joseph stop chasing Suzi and explain himself, he coldly shoulders past Smokey and heads toward the car on his crutches.
The others may be able to wipe the slate clean now that he's safe, but Caesar can't. He's lost too much sleep, agonized over this almost every waking moment, and blamed himself for contributing to his “death.” He's watched Joseph’s family suffer day after day and night after night and he refuses to believe it can be this easy, that all that pain is now irrelevant.
Joseph is scrambling up the driver's side door to get at Suzi, and Caesar, going against doctor's orders yet again, gets a fistful of Joseph's coat collar and yanks him to the ground with all the strength he can muster. It's more than enough to tear him off the car and Joseph lands in a puddle back-first, loudly groaning and griping about his clothes getting stained.
The others shout at them – at him – in the background, but Caesar is straddling him in a second, sliding forward as his knees skid in the mud. Within the same breath, he draws his arm back and his fist collides with Joseph's cheek. He gets in another two rapid-fire hits before Joseph's raising up his arms to block and Caesar's hand slams into thick metal. He swears out in equal parts shock and pain as a huge arm wraps around his chest from behind and pulls him off.
Messina is stronger than Caesar thought, depositing him off to the side with just the one arm as if he’s no heavier than a bag of flour. Joseph sits up, frowning and rubbing his cheek, but Caesar's still shooting daggers at him, chest heaving and throbbing from his agitated ribs and an inevitable bruise. The others have gathered around at this point, but he pays no attention to what they're saying.
“What the hell, Caesar?!” Joseph bellows, surprisingly not scrambling toward him to continue the fight.
“You couldn't make sure we knew?!” Typically, Caesar can latch onto anger and find strength in it, but his voice comes out rough and broken; it would be embarrassing if he wasn't so furious. He's barely even finding the words in English, fighting against slipping into Italian.
“I told Suzi to send a telegram–”
“And you didn't think to make sure?!” His inhale is high-pitched and short, making his chest ache as he struggles to get the air into his lungs, but that isn't nearly enough to derail his train of thought. "Then you come here and act like it's, what... a joke? A misunderstanding?!"
He shoves Joseph back into the car by his shoulder, just enough to jostle him, and as he continues, he knows he's not just yelling anymore. He's screaming at him, his own fury echoing back at him in the cemetery, and getting the attention of everyone nearby. "This is not an accident you can laugh off as usual!"
As his last syllables bounce around the graveyard, he's otherwise met with silence. Joseph stares at him with wide eyes like he wasn't expecting that explosive of a reaction and Caesar's about to start punching him again just to change his expression when he makes another abrupt, shuddering inhale.
He’s crying, he realizes with horror, and his face grows even hotter, clashing with the wet chill of the morning. He isn’t struggling to breathe because he pushed himself too far, isn’t cracking on every word because he’s just so angry. It’s so much worse than that. His pride demands that he retreat, absolutely repulsed by the way he showed that much weakness at once, in front of so many people.
Wiping his face with his sleeve and shakily standing up without putting too much pressure on his broken ankle, Caesar ignores the urge to kick Joseph once for good measure, to punish him for causing this spectacle.
"I'm going," he announces, forcing clarity into his pronunciation and acting as if the last few minutes didn't happen. Lisa Lisa is stepping toward him as the others crowd around and tend to Joseph. Instinctively, he takes two steps back, staying out of her reach, and bumps into Messina picking his crutches up from the ground.
She looks so concerned for him, not angry in the least (even though it's her son still on the ground), and before he can speak, Messina is shoving his muddy crutches into Caesar’s arms as he tells him, “No, you aren’t. Get in the car.”
Messina shoves him toward the limo they arrived in and, when Caesar resists, Messina grabs his jacket’s collar as if it's the scruff of his neck and steers Caesar himself.
Looking over his shoulder, Caesar can see how the others are fussing over Joseph – who, in turn, makes eye contact with Caesar and, instantly, they both look away.
The ride back is less awkward than he expected. It’s as if he isn’t even there, which he finds he prefers. They’re too busy discussing Joseph’s return, understandably, leaving Caesar to himself. It gives him time to recollect and the outright rage settles, shifts into a need to be anywhere else. He isn’t angry with anyone here, isn’t even sensibly angry with Joseph, but he’s made an embarrassment of himself. There are just too many things to process and come to terms with, and he can’t be around them as he does it.
As soon as the car parks outside of Erina’s apartment, Caesar opens the door and climbs out. Always quicker, Lisa Lisa catches him by the wrist as he grabs his crutches and stares him down. He knows her concerns without her voicing them, and he tells her, “I’m coming back.” She relaxes, letting go, and he adds, trying to smile a bit for her sake, “Where else am I going to go?”
Then, he turns to the rest of the family – they’re watching him now, varying levels of the same concern written on their faces – and he’s starting to feel more and more like an ass for his outburst, even if it was cathartic to punch Joseph’s good mood out of him.
“I’m sorry,” he says casually, though he does mean it. “Please don’t wait up for me. I’ll come back.”
Caesar leans out before they can reply and makes his exit, figuring now is as good enough time as any to explore the neighborhood. It isn’t easy, but he gives himself frequent breaks to rest and discreetly heals the bruising under his arms as he goes.
There’s a limit to how long he can stay out. It’s only a few hours before he accepts that the most reasonable option is to go back, now a little bit calmer than before. He doesn't know what's going to happen next, but he doesn't feel ready for it just yet. However, “going back” doesn’t necessarily mean he has to rejoin them.
First, he stops by the liquor store to pick up a replacement bottle of wine as he promised, as well as a couple packs of cigarettes for himself. When he's back in the building, he heads straight for the roof; this way, he can wait out the rest of the day and go back to the apartment once everyone has gone to bed.
Eventually, Caesar hears a car pull up and, a moment later, the doors slam shut. Some familiar voices up float up toward the roof and he realizes they briefly left while he was out. He suspects they won’t check up here for him, if they bother checking at all. They probably think of him as an outdoor cat: he’ll wander back when he’s good and ready.
Caesar chances a peek over the edge, curious to see who’s there, and he immediately locks eyes with Messina, who’s looking straight up at him. He wants to jump back, hoping that he didn’t notice, but if there’s anyone who might not care, it’s Messina. Maybe he won’t feel the need to meddle.
Caesar keeps eye contact with him and raises a finger to his lips in a “shh” motion. Messina blinks, then rolls his eyes at him before going back to the conversation.
Whatever. As long as he doesn't tell.
Caesar hears some excessive beeping from down the street and looks to see a small red car, the one Joseph was driving earlier, blocked by a grocery truck trying to maneuver into an alley.
“Of course,” he murmurs to himself disdainfully. It’s not a shock that Joseph’s obnoxiousness also shines through as a driver.
He moves away from the edge, even if he is well out of Joseph’s eyesight, and sits against the wall.
Starting now, it’s going to be a long, cold wait.
Chapter 8: eight
An hour or so later, Caesar’s planning his dinner when the door to the roof opens. He startles, but holds his breath, hoping he won’t be noticed. It could be a maintenance worker or another tenant. Not necessarily anyone he knows.
He presses his fingertips against the rain-damp concrete, using the Ripple to scan the area, and he’s both relieved and unhappy to find that it’s Messina approaching. At least he’s alone.
His footsteps get closer and, by the time he rounds the corner, Caesar’s already staring, unimpressed.
Messina scoffs, grinning and clearly not intimidated. “Relax. I didn't share your hiding spot.”
Caesar’s expression hardly changes, but he scoots aside for Messina to sit down with him. He doesn't, instead opting to lean against the wall. He's smiling down at him a little wryly, like he's speaking to a pouting child, and a small, quiet part of Caesar thinks maybe he is being ridiculous, but it isn't enough to get him to budge.
“I won't be here that long.” Messina’s voice is a calm and casual drawl, absent of condescension or pity. “I only wanted to tell you that you should come downstairs.”
“What for?” Caesar sighs, putting on a bit of an air to try to shake off his prying. “Let them enjoy their time with Jojo. He’s the one who’s back from the dead.”
“It’s a real miracle,” he chuckles in a brief moment of sarcasm. “But there’s an empty chair down there that’s distracting everyone.”
There’s a flutter of nerves in Caesar’s stomach, a mixture of guilt and a little bit of hope, but then he imagines their expressions – relieved and offering him food or drink like he hasn’t done anything wrong – and imagines what sort of quip Joseph would spout off as soon as he showed his face and he can’t do it. Can’t acknowledge that he’s repaying their kindness by letting down and hurting them. Can’t imagine not arguing with Joseph, regardless of what he says.
“It’s fine.” He murmurs, flicking a pebble away with his finger to keep his eyes averted. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning. They can wait that long.”
Messina sighs, long and annoyed, then shrugs. “If that’s what you want.”
Caesar doesn’t reply, so Messina turns to leave, letting him stew.
“Hey!” Caesar calls out and Messina looks over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. There’s a beat that passes as Caesar cements his decision within himself. “I still don’t want you telling anyone where I am.”
Messina scoffs, shaking his head. “I almost thought you had a change of heart, but I should know better with your pride. Your secret is safe with me, bambino.”
Caesar glares and Messina walks off chuckling to himself, but he’ll suffer through the insult if it means this conversation is over, if the remainder of his wait is quiet.
Twenty minutes later, however, Caesar suddenly hears rapid footsteps rushing up the stairs and he rules out Joseph immediately. Too light. They have to be smaller. Lisa Lisa wouldn't hurry or be a fraction this loud, if she even made any noise at all. The others wouldn't be this impassioned, which only leaves–
Suzi’s yelling his name before he can scan the area again to confirm his suspicions and she's practically in his lap before he can tell her to at least be quiet about it.
She’s crying so hard he can't really tell if she's speaking English or Italian, blubbering as she wraps her arms around him and sobs into his neck – and his complaint about Messina tattling dies on his lips.
He didn't expect this; if anything, he suspected she also came up here to yell at him to stop being a baby. She’s straddling one of his legs, still spouting off gibberish as she holds onto him for dear life, and Caesar pats her shoulder a bit awkwardly before he accepts it for what it is. His hand snakes up to cradle the back of her head as he leans into her embrace, trying to hush her and calm her down.
After a few minutes, she pulls back from the now wet crook of his neck, trying to wipe her red face with her sleeve, and she barely gets a sentence out before she interrupts herself with another sob, even though she's smiling a little out of relief. “I’m so glad that you're okay…”
Suzi has always been a set of open arms that he trusts, welcoming and so transparent in her intentions. He has a hard time showing his affection to the people important to him, to the ones who could hurt him, but Suzi is an exception simply because of the way she wears her heart on her sleeve, void of malice or deceit. He can let himself relax around her.
Her hair is a mess after nuzzling against his shoulder and he reaches out to fix it, laughing a little to encourage her to calm down. “It's like Jojo said. I'm hard to write off too.”
She laughs shortly, just a huff or two, then her face contorts, unable to hold back her tears for long, and she's crying again as she tries to explain.
“We thought you were dead– Jojo said that they took you to the hospital, but you lost so much blood before the ambulance even got there, there wasn't really any hope…”
“Hey, hey–” he starts softly, but he's interrupted as she gives another heaving sob.
“And I had to take care of Jojo, so I couldn't even be sad about it!”
Her next laugh is shaky, directed more at her misfortune than anything else, and Caesar doesn't have anything to say, so he just leans forward, sliding his arms around her waist, and rests his chin on her shoulder. She tilts her head against his and he stares ahead, intently studying the bricks on the neighboring building so he doesn't lose his own composure.
Truthfully, he hadn’t put much thought into whatever impact his own death might cause. It isn’t as if he assumed he meant nothing, but he didn’t think he meant this much either, to have to hold Suzi while she openly grieves over something that’s now a non-issue.
Suzi takes another couple of minutes, but her cries turn to sniffling before she giggles again, completely genuine. “How are you alive anyway?”
He laughs too, because he still hardly believes it himself. “German science, apparently. Jojo has a friend with connections.”
“Stroheim?” Suzi’s face lights up as she pulls away, mouth in a little o shape. “Jojo mentioned him!”
“Yeah, I guess he kept an eye out for me and when I was taken to the hospital, his team took over. I couldn’t tell you what they did, but… I’m still here, so it worked.”
“We should send them a ‘thank you’ card,” Suzi jokes, looking more like herself, and Caesar hopes the worst of it has passed.
“For some reason, I doubt it would be easy to find their mailing address,” he chuckles. He leans back a fraction and Suzi takes that as her cue to move off of him. She doesn’t go very far at all, choosing to sit next to him so she can lean her head against his shoulder, and he doesn't mind the intrusion of his personal space.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks, and while he’s been stuck between wanting to be alone and wanting to be around others to avoid his own thoughts, Suzi offers uncomplicated affection that isn’t awkward or rare. It feels no different than when she’d drag him around Venice by the arm while he helped her shop, or when she’d make him put her arm around her on the boat ride back because she was cold. With her, he can accept comfort without feeling like it’s weakness.
“How’s Jojo?” he murmurs, watching as she idly knocks her feet together.
“He’ll be better now that he knows you’re okay.”
Caesar would think it was a light-hearted remark if her voice wasn’t so calm. There’s no contented smile behind it, no pleasant raise in pitch, and he has to ask. “Was he that upset?”
Suzi’s feet still and Caesar realizes the conversation is taking a turn. “You should be talking about this with him, you know.”
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Messina: I’ll be there tomorrow morning, but not tonight.” He puts some firmness in his voice, so she hopefully won’t argue it. He gets an eye roll from her, too.
“I promise. It’s not like I can stay up here forever.”
“Well, he was,” she says with some resignation. “He said you two had an argument and you went ahead alone, then he tried to catch up, but it was too late. He’s been blaming himself this whole time, even though he’s been acting cheery, but… that’s just Jojo. I could tell when he started thinking about it because he’d zone out a little before telling me a joke or something to change the subject.”
Caesar swallows hard at the notion that Joseph felt the same way he did, but all he musters is a quiet, “That sounds like him.”
“That’s why I want you to talk to him so bad! Even though you punched him, I know he’s not mad!” Suzi starts to get pushy, moving away from her spot on his shoulder to look him in the eyes, determined. “He’s just happy you’re alive and I know you’re happy that he’s alive! You should be down there catching up with the rest of us! All of us want you there, Caesar!”
“We love you and we want you there!”
It hits him like a slap to the face, her using “love,” but he instantly rejects it as assumption or exaggeration. Joseph is the one that the family loves, not him. His presence is infinitely more important than Caesar’s; after all, it wasn’t his own funeral they attended today. Most of them have only known Caesar as an acquaintance, as a student – not as a grandson, as a nephew, as a long-lost son. They deserve to have that reunion, untarnished by worrying what Caesar might do next.
“I'll be there tomorrow morning.” He says it definitively, without room for negotiation.
His tone gets the point across, finally. The disappointment shows immediately in Suzi’s face, but Caesar doesn't waver, shoulders squared like he's ready to fight.
(He is, subconsciously. He won’t be forced to make himself vulnerable, to confront a situation he wants nothing to do with. Suzi is more of a threat right now than she could possibly know.)
Finally, Suzi heaves a sigh and furrows her brows, as frustrated as she is worried.
“Caesar...” His name hangs, like there’s so much more she’d like to say, but when he doesn’t move a muscle or show any sign of backing down or lightening up, she seems to give up for now.
She stands brusquely, takes a moment to smooth her skirt back into place, then looks down at him, hiding her pity behind a forced smile. She always smiles so readily, it’s so easy to notice when she’s faking. “We’ll be waiting for you, okay? Messina told me not to let anyone know where I was going and I didn’t, so... I’ll come up with something to tell them.”
“Okay,” he murmurs. The urge to apologize rises up, but she's already walked away, leaving him alone again.
Caesar wanders back close to midnight to see if they left the apartment door unlocked for him. It's silent as he quietly turns the knob to check – it opens and he steps inside, figuring it's close enough to the next day like he promised. He can sleep in his room tonight, come out around breakfast without interrupting anything important, and deflect any questions.
After he latches the door, he grabs a bread knife from the block, seats himself, and saws the cast off of his ankle. He’s tried to follow doctor’s orders to let everything heal naturally, but fixing broken bones is not a new application for him, nor does it interfere with the other injuries. It’s a foot, not an organ. He can handle it.
Once he’s able to peel the cast off, he takes his ankle in one hand, clamps his other hands over his mouth, and channels the Ripple into his ankle. It’s not pleasant fusing a bone back together, but it’s no different than ripping off a bandage. Already familiar with the sickening feeling, he suffers through it soundlessly until the ache leaves and he can roll his foot without pain.
No longer needing the crutches, Caesar tiptoes down the hall to get a sock from his room, then heads back to the kitchen to wash the knife s quietly as possible. His dinner wasn't much of a dinner at all (at least, not what he's accustomed to now), so he grabs something to take back to his room to ease his hunger until morning.
He’s in the middle of plating an apple, some bread, and some cheese when he’s startled by the sound of a footstep on creaking hardwood. He’s at attention instantly, hand tightening around the knife he was using, and his heart throbs painfully, sinks to his core as his eyes land on Joseph.
Joseph has one foot in the kitchen and one foot on the carpeted hallway; he’s looking sheepish, shoulders hunched like he wasn’t expecting that either. He rubs the back of his neck and grins, body language relaxing now that he’s been caught.
Caesar’s knuckles go white as he grips the knife’s handle, mind racing as he tries to figure out the quickest way to brush him off without waking up the entire house or talking about this now.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Joseph laughs as he approaches the kitchen island and Caesar’s breathing goes shallow, measured as he watches every single move Joseph makes, catches the glint of his exposed metal hand in the moonlight filtering in. He’s whispering, which Caesar is at least thankful for. “Honest, I was just about to say your name to get your attention, but that damn floorboard sounded off first.”
He takes a couple of steps closer, sees the knife, and his eyes go wide before he narrows them accusingly, hissing, “Are you thinking about stabbing me?!”
Caesar finally has a break in emotion, face contorting in disbelief that Joseph could be that stupid, and whisper-hisses right back, “No, you idiot! I just tensed up!”
He drops it on the counter and Joseph gingerly reaches over to move the knife closer to himself, outside of Caesar’s reach. Caesar scoffs at the gesture and lifts up the apple half he was cutting before Joseph interrupted.
Joseph rolls his eyes. “How was I supposed to know that?”
“By using your eyes, maybe. It’s not that dark in here.”
Caesar can’t believe the ice has been broken this easily. He’s still on edge, but it's not stifling anymore, like he's crushed under the weight of where this could go, what Joseph could say or do once they finally faced each other. He reaches for the knife to continue what he was doing, but Joseph gently takes it out of his hand as he comes around the island. Caesar’s about to reassert that he's absolutely not going to stab him when Joseph pulls him closer, wrapping his arms around him.
He goes still against Joseph, his chin nearly resting on his shoulder.
“Relax for once, will you?” Joseph mumbles. He clearly isn't about to step back or let go, judging by the way his grip tightens. Caesar, as defensive as he is, can't bring himself to shove him away or remind him that he's still upset. It’s Joseph. He knows he’ll get over this anger with time – and when he does, he’ll regret not taking what he can get.
He does let himself relax at Joseph's request, at least momentarily. Caesar’s hands come up to splay across Joseph’s back and he leans into it, chin lowering to actually rest on him now.
“There,” Caesar mutters with some feigned dissatisfaction and Joseph lets out a little huff, amused.
“You know, I knew you were stubborn, but I think this takes the cake.” Caesar can hear the smile in Joseph’s voice, deep and low right in his ear, and he tries not to enjoy it as more than what it is.
“What, not hugging you back immediately?”
“Not dying.” The way Joseph says it, neutral and matter-of-factly, leaves Caesar wincing, but Joseph’s smile comes back as he goes on. “Maybe you knew I needed one more ass-kicking before you could go.”
Caesar laughs and it’s strained, but it’s the most genuine one he’s had in weeks. “Yeah, maybe.”
He considers pulling away after the natural lull in conversation, but decides to wait on Joseph. Caesar at least had Lisa Lisa and the rest of Joseph’s family to grieve with, but Joseph’s been alone with Suzi, both of them trying to be happy for the other. If Joseph does need this, Caesar will let him be the one to pull away.
Joseph doesn’t move, doesn’t force another joke. If anything, he gets more tense and Caesar, not wanting to push him, rubs his back, fingers trailing over the cotton of his shirt. It’s unusual not to hear a peep from Joseph, not to have him filling the silence, and Caesar continues to wait.
Eventually, though, Joseph confesses softly, “I really thought you were gone.”
Caesar closes his eyes and purses his lips, his hand stilling between Joseph’s shoulder blades as he listens.
“I thought it was my fault,” Joseph continues in that low, plain voice, but Caesar can hear that there’s a waver to it, and he bites the inside of his own cheek to ground himself. “And, you know, you were still sort of alive when we found you, but it’s not like you could hear me even if I tried to apologize, so I didn’t, but since you’re here now, I guess I–”
His voice cracks and Caesar tightens his hold on him, partly because he doesn’t know what else to do, but mostly in an effort to get him to stop talking. Through gritted teeth, Caesar tells him, “Shut up.”
Joseph wriggles a little, raising his voice just enough to put force behind it. “No, you shut up! I need to say this to you and you need to hear it–”
“Shut. Up.” Caesar repeats, cutting him off, and grips at his shirt. His other hand moves to the small of Joseph’s back to push him closer and then he seems to get it, complaints and wriggling suddenly stopping.
“You know what I left you.” Caesar says sternly, trying to use as few words as possible on the matter. “I forgave you well before that.”
Joseph slowly relaxes, and while Caesar isn’t the type to ramble on like Joseph, there is something else that needs to be said.
“You didn’t know any better… and I’m sorry, too.”
“Wow. Caesar Zeppeli. Apologizing to me. I’ll remember this day forever.” Joseph laughs tightly and Caesar gives him a very light punch under his ribs, which makes him laugh harder.
Finally, Joseph pulls away some, far enough to look him in the eyes – and Caesar can see how bright Joseph’s are, even in the dim light of the kitchen – and suggests, “Want to get some fresh air?”
Caesar’s been getting fresh air all day, but nods anyway, untangling himself the rest of the way.
Joseph grabs his coat, Caesar grabs the cigarettes out of his room, and together, they settle in on the balcony outside the living room, legs dangling over the edge as they lean against the iron bars.
It's cold, but Caesar doesn't mind it, hand cupping the flame as he lights one of his cigarettes. It's tolerable, a balmy midnight in March (when the wind isn't blowing, anyway), and he doesn't think they'll be out here too long.
Joseph takes an apple slice off of the plate between them and frowns at him. “Gross. Come on, don't smoke. My clothes are going to smell.”
Caesar exhales and the smoke carries away in the opposite direction of where Joseph’s sitting. “It's not blowing at you. You'll be fine.”
“Granny’s going to notice,” he warns.
“You can blame me.”
“Whatever, don’t come crying to me after she assaults you with her cane.”
Caesar snorts, and while he can feel an impending awkward silence, he’s not ready to ask the first question. He keeps his hands and lips busy with his cigarette, watches the blinking neon signs in the distance, spies on still-awake tenants who left their windows open and lights on.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Joseph is watching him, but he deliberately doesn't meet his gaze.
“I really hope you're not actually mad at me,” Joseph sighs, seemingly complaining rather than admitting hurt. “You did have a point, what with me not asking if Suzi sent the telegram, but I can't exactly change that now.”
“I'm not mad,” Caesar says, truthfully. He flicks the ashes off his cigarette, half-wishing he could bury his pride long enough to openly confess his entanglement of feelings, but he doesn't want to say a thing until he can describe it with absolute certainty. Which, at this rate, may take years.
“Well, you sure are acting like it,” Joseph replies, tongue-in-cheek. Caesar flits his eyes over and he can see the lopsided grin provoking him.
“I'm not,” he sighs, conceding with his better judgment that he may need to elaborate for any progress to be made. “I don't know what I am, but I'm not mad at you.”
“What do you mean?” Joseph asks, suddenly concerned. “You don't know what you are?”
“It’s–” Maybe his English was off, but it's not worth explaining. “Forget I said anything. I'm not mad, alright? So relax.”
“No, come on, talk to me.” Joseph scoots toward him, angling his body to face him better. “I can be a good listener. At least, I want to try to be. Gimme a chance.”
“What? No.” Caesar shakes his head. “It's fine. Besides, what's with the personality change? Go back to happily talking over me.”
“That's the thing, though,” Joseph mutters, scratching the back of his head. “I don't think I was that great of a friend before. When I thought you were gone, I regretted a lot of the stuff I said and did, so… since I have another chance, I don't want to waste it on being an asshole.”
“You'll be an asshole either way.” Caesar deflects, getting Joseph to roll his eyes.
“Well, I won't be able to prove you wrong if you won't let me be nice! So talk already!”
Caesar groans, tilting his head back, and glares at him. Joseph’s resolve seems unbreakable, staring him down with as much determination as ever, and he can't imagine he’ll shelve the conversation any time soon.
“Fine.” He huffs, ignoring Joseph’s surprised eyebrow raise and the couple of inches that he moves closer. “When I say that ‘I don't know what I am,’ I mean that I’m still upset, but I'm not mad… if you understand the difference. ‘Upset’ is more than just angry, right?”
“In English? Yeah.” Joseph actually seems thoughtful, absorbing Caesar’s words and thinking through his next ones, and it's almost nice. “You can use it to say that someone is, like, mad or sad or acting out.”
“Then I chose the right word,” Caesar says, sucking his cigarette down to the filter as he lets that sink in for Joseph. He taps the ashes off and rubs the embers out on the concrete of the balcony; he drops it, but Joseph flicks it off of the edge, muttering “Granny...” as a reminder that a cigarette butt laying out will result in scorning.
“I get that, though,” Joseph says after a moment, toying with his shoelace. “Not knowing how you feel. Even though it's over and I should be happy, it doesn't feel like it. I'm still waiting for something else to happen.”
“I think that's part of it,” Caesar interjects quietly. Agreeing with Joseph is easier than trying to explain himself. “It hasn't set in. But you're close, for the most part. At least with the ‘should be happy’ part.”
“It's been a rough couple of months.” Joseph links his fingers together and stretches his arms above his head, but Caesar suspects it's done in an effort to busy himself and seem more casual rather than out of necessity. “I don't think we can just go back to being normal like it was nothing, so you shouldn't be too hard on yourself for not being able to brush it off, you know? If that is what it is.”
Caesar doesn't respond, considering that, and Joseph uses the opportunity to continue.
“What about Messina and Lisa Lisa? Have they been handling it alright? I mean, Messina lost a whole arm and that hasn't been replaced.”
Caesar is about to say that Lisa Lisa would have had good reason to be upset, but he stops himself. Joseph probably doesn't know yet. He doubts she would have brought it up with him the day he returned, and she would have stopped anyone else from spilling the secret until she was able to break it herself, if she even intended to tell him at all.
“They've seemed fine,” he recovers. “Maybe because they're actual adults and they've expected this battle for years.”
Joseph chuckles at the word choice, but shrugs. “Probably. But, seriously, if you need time to readjust, don't beat yourself up over it or anything. I know you've got your whole pride shtick, but it’s more normal to be shaken up after you and all your friends almost died, in my opinion.”
He grabs a piece of cheese off the plate and pops it into his mouth, like he hasn't just said the most comforting thing Caesar has heard yet, and now, it's Caesar who can't take his eyes off of him.
He doesn't seem to carry the same burden on his shoulders that Caesar does. He can openly express himself and offer a glimpse at his weaknesses, yet still come out of the other side of the conversation sounding wise.
Joseph gives off as much brightness and life as he ever has, despite losing his hand and carrying the torches of his friends and family to save humanity by himself.
It's partly jealousy, but Caesar’s admiration of him has never been so prominent before. A fleeting thought, when he may have envied his confidence or friendliness, has become actual respect and a desire to be more like him. He almost, almost wants to ask how he does it, regardless of how broken his voice may or may not sound, but he swallows back the question, unwilling to chance it.
“Thanks,” he says instead, aware that his tone comes off semi-sarcastically, and lights another cigarette.
“You're welcome,” Joseph replies, genuine and unfazed.
The beeps and distant sirens fill the silence between them, but it's comfortable now. Caesar keeps smoking, Joseph keeps eating the food Caesar had made for himself, and while the atmosphere is a stark contrast to the quiet seascape of Air Supplena, it feels like nothing has truly changed. At least, not for the worst.
“Hey,” Joseph mutters after a few minutes, softer than his usual outbursts. Caesar turns toward him, just in time to catch him shrugging out of his coat – and it's draped over his shoulders as soon as it's off, unbearably warm and smelling of old leather and Joseph. “You're fucking crazy for grabbing your cigarettes and not your coat. It's, like, 20 degrees outside.”
Caesar scoffs, but adjusts it so it won't slip off from its own weight. “It's fi–”
“You’re gonna tell me it's fine, I know, but you were shivering. At least get warm before you give it back.”
“Fine.” Caesar doesn't put up much of a fight, admittedly, and moves his hand down to rest on the balcony as the cigarette smolders the rest of the way down, minimizing the chance of ashes or embers falling onto the jacket. He's fairly sure what Joseph noticed wasn't him shaking from the cold, but he's not about to bring that to his attention, so he changes the subject away from himself, asking, “So, your hand…”
“It’s so weird!” Joseph exclaims, loud and apparently eager to talk about it. They both cringe at the volume; Caesar glowers at the possibility of their cover being blown, but Joseph hunches his shoulders and looks back, waiting for a bedroom light to come on in the apartment. When none do, he continues, quieter but still rushed as he gestures appropriately to illustrate. “When I initially lost it, I honestly sort of thought I was going to die anyway. Then I wake up on a fishing boat and I think to myself, ‘Well, shit, now what?’ I was barely even awake but I tried to heal it a little with the Ripple just to keep from bleedin’ to death, but I passed out anyway. Wake up again in a hospital and they're asking me about if I want the stump or if I want to try prosthetics. I figured it was Stroheim’s people, but it was just a regular old hospital with some kooky mechanically-inclined doctor who wanted to test out his newest prototype. It makes such a damn racket when I use it, but it works! Figuring out grip and pressure has been a pain in the ass, though. Hardest things to get used to. I mean, aside from the little clicking noises. Ask Suzi, I broke a lot of glasses that first week. And, yeah, it’s neat to look at, but I usually keep it covered with a glove because I don't want to answer a million questions about it and I kept pulling hairs out when they got caught between the little parts.”
As usual, Caesar enjoys his particular style of theatrics and story-telling, but Joseph starts to look at him expectantly and that's when Caesar realizes his reply is finished.
“Oh, you were done. Sorry, I’ve been around concise people for the past month,” he jabs and Joseph flicks a bit of the apple peel at him.
“I’ll take this glove off and ruffle your stupid blond locks. Then we’ll see if you're still running your mouth after I've ripped a hundred hairs off your head all at once.”
Despite himself, Caesar laughs and waves him off dismissively with a hand. “Okay, okay, cool it, tough guy,” he advises, then offers his hand to Joseph, palm up, “Can I see it up close? If you don't mind. I'm genuinely interested in how it works, I promise.”
“Wow, so forward, Casanova,” Joseph comments airily yet heavy with sarcasm, but pulls the glove off before resting his fingers on Caesar’s hand. Caesar brings them up closer, looking at the intricate parts and how they interact.
“Can you feel anything?” he asks, pushing and pulling on the tip of Joseph’s index finger to see how the knuckles work.
“Not really,” Joseph murmurs, looking up at the night sky as Caesar has his way with his prosthetic. “Phantom feelings, maybe. Like if I already know the way something feels, I sort of automatically imagine it. And I can tell the weight of something, obviously. Other than that, it just seems to do what I want it to do.”
A couple moments pass without incident. Caesar’s pushing the thumb back to see how it moves the plates in the palm when Joseph clears his throat. “I didn't even know you liked mechanics.”
“I made those gloves, remember?”
“Oh, right.” Joseph is quiet for a few seconds, still avoiding eye contact. Caesar wonders if he finds the whole thing clinical and makes a mental note to wrap it up. “Still, though. Didn't you just sew in a soap holder or something to a normal pair of gloves?”
“No,” Caesar grumbles. “They were more advanced than that. I had a push-plate dispenser to keep the soap from leaking and specifically designed it so it wouldn't be bulky. Idiot.”
Joseph grins. “So I struck a nerve, huh?” When he doesn't reply, Joseph snickers. “Come on, don't pout. They're neat.”
Caesar hums in acknowledgement before he pushes Joseph’s sleeve up a couple of inches to see where the metal ends. It cuts off just past his wrist, a ridge of scar tissue between the skin and steel, and Caesar checks it over for any dents. Joseph must have blocked with that earlier; it was hard to tell exactly where he hit at the time, but Joseph always knows where to play up his strengths, consciously or not.
“What are you doing?” Joseph asks, looking at him directly now instead of anything else, and there's a hint of apprehension.
Before he can second-guess himself, Caesar forces out, “Checking for damage. Sorry about trying to punch your face in at the cemetery.”
Joseph snorts, pulling his hand back. “It's not like you got very far.”
“And for trying to punch your face in before that. At the hotel.”
That gets Joseph to clam up, his grin disappearing almost instantly. “Yeah, that…” He starts, tentative like he was putting off this conversation. “That was my fault. I shouldn't have pushed you like that. I knew I was striking a chord, but I just wanted you to realize your idea was stupid so you'd agree with me. After the fact, you ended up being right anyway.”
“I hit you first.” Caesar reminds him. “It's not–”
“Doesn't matter.” He interrupts. “I was the one who got in your face and provoked you. We should have talked about it as a group, not argued and let you go off on your own.”
Caesar goes still, surprised by the display of maturity. He's almost right. Caesar does need to stop instigating violence every time he gets mad, so he's absolutely not innocent here, but... maybe Lisa Lisa or Messina should have intervened sooner, maybe Caesar or Joseph should have put aside their pride to see the bigger picture. Perhaps it wasn't simply one person’s fault.
“Plus, I'm sorry about what I said about your family,” Joseph mutters, continuing the conversation without Caesar’s reply. “Lisa Lisa explained why you were so pissed off… but it was still a low-blow for me to make fun of that.”
“Like I said before, you didn't know.” Caesar reassures, bristling inwardly at the mention of Lisa Lisa’s indiscretion, but it’s not something he holds against Joseph. “It's not like I was an open book about that.”
“Yeah, but still, only a real asshole makes fun of someone’s family in an actual argument. Especially when I already knew that it was a big ol’ thing for you.”
“Jojo, what's with the sudden maturity?” Caesar forces a grin, trying to disrupt the downwards spiral the conversation is taking, but it's apparently the wrong thing to say because Joseph’s replying laugh is hollow, noticeably pained.
“Yeah, funny thing… turns out, you grow up a lot, real fast when you think you may have killed one of your only friends…”
Caesar heart drops and he mutters, “Sorry, I didn’t think that through…”
He expects Joseph to keep frowning at him. Instead, he reaches out to ruffle Caesar’s hair, which he tries and fails to dodge. “What would the others say if they saw us stuck in a loop of apologies? They wouldn’t believe their damn eyes.”
“Probably not,” Caesar scoffs, raising his hands to fix his hair.
Joseph keeps sending him a cheeky grin as he continues, without the sadness in his voice. “Really, I wasn’t trying to throw that in your face. It’s just the truth. I saw what I did and it made me think pretty hard.”
“Did smoke billow out of your ears due to the sheer effort?” Caesar mutters and Joseph shoves his face away.
“It made me think pretty hard,” Joseph repeats, putting emphasis on every word but not without some humor, “about myself and how other people matter to me and that I should probably try to be more aware of how I can affect them.” Caesar glances over and Joseph quickly goes back to fiddling with his shoelaces before finishing lamely, “Or something.”
“Which didn't stop you from going into a rage and chasing Suzi around the cemetery while everyone cried.”
“OK, so I relapsed!” Joseph shouts, head jerking up as he abandons his shoelace distraction. “I told her to send a very important telegram so no one thought I was dead, but she forgot the most important thing she could have done for me! Who does that?! Who forgets to send an ‘Oh, by the way, Joseph isn’t dead and we’ll be heading back to New York as soon as possible!’ telegram?! Who?!”
“Suzi does,” Caesar supplies and segues into reminding him of his own mistake, “but, again, who doesn’t follow-up on an important telegram like that?”
However, it falls on deaf ears as Joseph keeps going.
“And now I'm married to her. What else is she going to forget?” Joseph asks, almost rhetorically with both hands on his head. “What if we have kids… I might need to hire a nanny just as backup…”
“Yeah, what about that? Marrying Suzi... I didn't even know you liked her that much.” Caesar prods, smiling in a way that he hopes is both pleasant and slightly annoyed.
There’s no point in bringing up the crush he had already written off. As far as he knew, Joseph was dead. Then, when Joseph was apparently not dead, it only took a moment for him to find out he was now married and unavailable. Caesar would prefer not to be a homewrecker, so he continues to bury his feelings as if nothing has changed, smothering them in the hope they’ll one day go out.
He has no misconceptions or ideas that maybe something could still happen between the two of them, but he’d like to know how serious it is for Suzi’s sake. He won’t let her heart get broken by Joseph’s flippancy.
“Well, I liked her, in a way a man often likes a woman who shares the same space as him,” Joseph begins, distastefully vague in a way that Caesar understands, “but on top of just being a woman, I thought she was nice and a good cook and fun to flirt with. Once I was in the hospital, I got to know her better and proposing seemed like a good idea.”
“Those aren't good reasons to marry someone.” Caesar says, legitimately out of concern for Suzi. If Joseph’s reasons were shallow, their marriage isn't built on solid ground. She deserves better than a man who married her just because she was the only girl who looked twice at him.
“There was more to it than that!” Joseph insists, rolling his eyes. “She became really important to me, okay? She kept my spirits up and she still kept joking around with me, didn't treat me any different. She knew how to just be there and I found out how kind she really is, and that's the sort of woman I want as my wife, don't you?”
Caesar shrugs. He supposes. He's not sure if he wants to marry at all now. Before, it seemed like a distant possibility if they lived through the Pillar Men. In the aftermath of it, having to carve an intimate relationship without an understanding of his experiences seems too difficult. It would be forced or incomplete or both, and he doubts he can even still daydream about settling down.
But, sure, if he was open to the idea, he would want to marry someone like Suzi. Endlessly kind, patient, understanding.
“Besides, maybe I was sort of thinking about how I should make the most of my relationships while I have them, so if you think what I did was stupid, then it's technically your fault since your assumed death is what got me frazzled.”
With that notion added in, Caesar can see why he would propose, actually – not that he agrees it's his fault.
“Do you love her?” he asks suddenly, neutral and light. The answer can’t hurt him, he tells himself.
“I think I do. Now, anyway.” Joseph must notice the mirthless disappointment that immediately shows on Caesar’s face at the word “think” because he quickly adds, “Fine, I'm not 100% sure that I do right now, but I definitely know I could love her and isn't that the same thing?”
“... It's good enough for the time being,” Caesar concedes, but he looks at him very seriously, all good humor absent from his expression when he warns him, “But, if you hurt her, I will let you imagine what I will do to you, because that's more efficient than a promised threat.”
“Christ, calm down,” Joseph laughs uncomfortably, scratching his nose as he pointedly looks away. “I can't make any promises that I won’t hurt her ever, but I don’t intend to, at least.”
Maybe he didn’t rush into it as much as Caesar assumed. He thought Joseph might consider a divorce as soon as the panic wore off and he realized what he had done, but he sounds serious about it, enough for Caesar to back off.
“OK, good,” Caesar sighs, reaching for his pack of cigarettes again. Joseph watches for a moment, eyes lingering on the movements of his hands. Then he smiles, shifting his weight to bump shoulders with him. Caesar turns to glare, but Joseph is uncrossing his legs and pushing himself up.
“I’m going to head to bed, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, you’re probably exhausted.” Caesar says, like he isn’t dead-tired himself.
“Yeah, we’ve been running around constantly for, what, two or three months? This is the first lull we’ve gotten outside of hospital stays, which aren't relaxing at all, and I'm ready to go into hibernation like a bear,” Joseph complains wearily as he dusts off his pants, but before he steps back toward the balcony door, his gaze lingers again. Suddenly, he puts a hand on his hip like he's been inconvenienced and asks for confirmation. “So, tomorrow morning… can I talk to you normally? Are we good?”
Caesar breathes, trying not to laugh out of relief that someone brought it up, and echoes back, “We’re good.”
Joseph grins in a way he hasn’t seen since they were sharing stolen wine at midnight on Air Supplena – easy, toothy, genuine – and Caesar’s heartbeat stutters in his chest. The envy and longing and grief and frustration mingle together, lump in his throat.
Ever in motion, Joseph seems like he’s already healing and moving on… and Caesar can’t understand why he isn’t at that point himself.
“Hang my jacket up on the coat rack when you come inside, alright? And don’t stay out late either.” Joseph chides, quietly pulling open the door to step inside.
Caesar nods and counts the cigarettes left in his pack. He makes it through two before he heads inside as well.
The next morning, Caesar rolls out of bed close to eleven o'clock, joints stiff and head muddled. Yesterday, he definitely overexerted himself; he wasn't supposed to walk that much or sit on cement for so long. Or deal with the fact that Joseph would crash his own funeral, but he supposes he can’t complain about that anymore since the bastard lived.
He shuffles into the kitchen, and most of the others are already up. Joseph is talking to Erina and Speedwagon at the table at a surprisingly reasonable volume. When Caesar makes it to the doorway, it goes silent as their eyes shift to him. Messina is there too, appraising him over the edge of his coffee mug as he drinks.
He stops, uncomfortable at the sudden attention, but after a few beats, Joseph smiles at him before telling him, “Good morning!”
The corner of Caesar’s mouth twitches upward to mimic him, and he must pass some sort of inspection because Erina sighs out, grateful, “Oh, thank God. They made up.”
The tension in Speedwagon’s shoulders releases and he slumps down a little, but he chuckles, still weary. “What a relief. I’m getting too old to break up your fights…”
“It’s fine! I told you it was fine!” Joseph insists, leaning forward on his elbows as he scolds them, massive hands balled into fists like a petulant child. “Caesar, tell them we’re fine!”
“We’re fine.” Caesar mutters out, voice gravelly.
It’s too early for this, Caesar thinks, rubbing his hands over his face. Before any interrogations can begin, he asks, “Is there coffee?”
Speedwagon tells him there’s a pot on the counter and, thankfully, they go back to what they were talking about. It’s not important and seems to be about their plans for the day, so Caesar only half-listens while he pours himself a cup of coffee.
He wasn't paying close enough attention, apparently, because there’s a gentle hand on his back and he tenses up so quickly it’s painful. Erina laughs quietly at his side and apologizes, leaning in closer.
“How are you feeling this morning? I noticed you no longer have a cast on your foot. Everything alright?” she asks, smiling a little and tone hushed enough to keep their conversation private. He can still hear Joseph talking from the table and Caesar sets down the pot to give her his attention.
“I’m alright,” he reassures. “Thank you for asking.”
“I wasn’t simply being polite,” she chuckles, rubbing her hand on his back. “How are you really feeling?”
Caesar breathes out, close to a laugh, and peers down at her. Immediately, he catches the genuine concern written across her face, even with her smile, and he vastly prefers this over the burdened expression she’d been wearing since he met her.
“I am very exhausted for many reasons,” he says, correcting his earlier statement, but he smiles for her sake. “How are you?”
“The same.” She looks as exasperated as Speedwagon normally does as she peeks at Joseph, and he catches her implications just as her edges soften. She adds, “But also very happy.”
Caesar glances at the table too. Joseph is biting into a piece of toast as he picks up on the eyes on him and meets Caesars’. A couple seconds pass, and for once, Caesar doesn’t look away instantly. Joseph’s where he should be, relaxed and surrounded by his family, and it’s a comforting sight. Joseph wipes the crumbs off his face and mouths, What? at him.
“Me too,” he agrees quietly, turning back to his coffee, and he deliberately doesn’t look at her widening smile. Erina seems to know him well enough already, because she just rubs his back and leaves it at that. She moves to rejoin the others at the table, but before she can get far, he asks, “Is Lisa Lisa awake yet?”
“She was up about an hour ago, so she should still be awake,” Erina tells him. “She would be in her room, I would think.”
“Thanks,” he says and takes his mug. When he passes the table again, Joseph looks at him curiously and Caesar simply raises his hand a little to relay that it’s fine.
Before he can reach Lisa Lisa’s room, however, she enters the hall with Suzi, who lights up at seeing him. Lisa Lisa, much more subdued, smiles to herself.
“Welcome back,” Lisa Lisa says as they walk toward him. Suzi hurries ahead to wrap her arms around him, more gently than he’s used to from her. She interjects with a whisper, “I heard about your ribs,” and he pats her in appreciation. Lisa Lisa continues, keeping eye contact with him over Suzi’s head. “I assume that your presence means that you’re more open to Jojo’s.”
“Yes,” he confirms hesitantly, and Suzi grins into his chest. “I was coming to talk to you, actually.”
“Can it wait?” Lisa Lisa asks. He’s surprised to be disposed like that, tries not to show it on his face.
“Ah, yes,” Caesar says, unable to disagree, and unhooks Suzi’s arms from his sides. “I’ll let you have your privacy, so let me know when–”
“Nonsense,” she replies, using one hand to turn him around, and guides him to walk back toward the dining room with the two of them, her hand splayed on his back. “Come sit with the rest of the family.”
Caesar’s heart skips a beat. The rest of the family. He doesn’t want to read too much into it, to assume he’s included, so he protests over his shoulder with the few seconds he has before they’re in plain view of the others. “I don’t want to impose–”
Suzi flanks his other side, latches onto his arm, and helps Lisa Lisa in steering him forward.
“You won’t be,” Lisa Lisa replies. The hallway ends, and he’s facing the Joestars again as they greet the three of them. He hesitates to invite himself to sit down; this is Joseph’s family and, regardless of the respect and affection he has for them, this isn’t his territory to force himself into. It wasn’t his before Joseph returned, and it isn’t now.
Lisa Lisa tells him, “Take a seat,” as she brushes past him. He recognizes that it’s an order.
Caesar pulls out a chair and sits per her instructions, feeling like an outsider. He’s spent time with them over the past month, grown closer to them, but with Joseph back, he feels as though he’s infringing, like he’s helping himself to something that doesn’t belong to him.
Unable to leave now, he listens to several conversations at once as Erina speaks with Suzi and Smokey, Lisa Lisa speaks to Speedwagon, and Joseph teases Messina about his lost arm when he isn’t jumping between the other two groups.
It’s louder than before with the added company and without the grief. They’re more animated, laughing freely, interacting easily with other – and, all at once, with all of them here, it dredges up memories he had buried of his siblings and parents gathered at the dining table his father had built, before Caesar had lost them one by one.
The connection blindsides him, chokes him, and the bittersweetness of it does more to make him feel like a fool than pain him.
He’s such an idiot. He almost laughs out loud.
The Joestars are comprised of those related by blood, by marriage, and by honor – and he was accepted into their circle well before now. He has been since he met Lisa Lisa, by virtue of his family name. It led him to her, to Speedwagon, to Suzi, to Joseph. Each interaction since then, with each person here, has been an olive branch beckoning him to find safety and company with them.
This is a family, just as much as his own was. He’s been invited to their table over and over again, yet he’s told himself as many times that he doesn’t belong.
Caesar puts an end to his hesitation and accepts them as he should have years ago when Speedwagon had first flown to Italy to meet him. He had looked Caesar in the eyes, clasped his hands around one of his, and promised he would always have whatever he needed. At the time, Caesar couldn’t believe him, too jaded to think that a stranger could mean that unconditionally, but now, he knows for certain: it’s just what they do.
He doesn’t know what comes next, still without a plan and burdened by a weight he still can’t name. He can’t say he’s happy or guess when he will be, but there’s an elusive feeling he grasps with both hands – that, one day, eventually, he’ll be okay. He’ll be happy, fulfilled. And the scars snaking around his body will not remind him of his failures but act as proof that he’s reinvented himself, just as he has before.
Joseph meets his eyes across the table, checking in on him. Caesar’s been quiet and it must have gotten his attention; he’s leaning on his elbows with his chin in one hand, his palm over his mouth as he listens to someone else, but his focus is on Caesar, waiting for a confirmation.
The others talk amongst themselves, fading into background noise. Caesar’s perception narrows down to him and Joseph, two wounded young men with their futures blown wide open.
Caesar smiles at him.
And – made apparent by the way his cheeks push up against his eyes – Joseph smiles back.
HAPPY CAEJOSE WEEK 2018!!!!!!!!!
accompanying playlist here on spotify
so wow holy shit hi this is what ive been working on for the past month instead of spy au. whats up.
i actually wrote the first drafts for this four years ago, my first foray into writing them, so this is a weirdly sentimental piece for me. it's much different than i originally intended and i like this much much more than the direction i had in mind before. this is sort of my baby, seeing as it's old enough to play with my friends' real life children, and i hope you like it too. it's always been about caesar and joseph, rather than pure caejose, but it's DEFINITELY not platonic.
big thanks to everyone who's ever read or helped me with this over the years and big, big, biggest thanks to my incredible betas who kick my ass and make me better and force me to look at things differently even when im cranky and just want it to be DONE. i couldn't do this without you. you are the godmothers of this baby.
i may or may not revisit this au depending on my whims, but i had a lot more planned in it that im tender for and dont feel like entirely dismissing. we shall see.
HAPPY CAEJOSE WEEK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!