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Facing the Sun

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The first time Caesar Zeppeli heard of the Flower Disease was shortly before his mother died. Caesar was cutting onions for a stew his mother was stirring for him and his siblings when his youngest brother Federico came running in, holding a smattering of wildflowers in his fist and trailing dirt after him. “Look, Mama!” he says, absolutely delighted, not caring one bit about getting dirt inside the stew. His mother sighs but smiles affectionately. “What have you got there, Federico?” He grins and stretches up, gripping some of the flower so tightly the stems are probably breaking. “Violets! You said they were your and dad’s flower, right?” She smiles wider, clearly delighted, and slowly pulls them out of his grip.

 

Caesar pauses in his cutting, watching how delicately she holds the flowers—bent, squished, dirt-laden and malformed. “Cesare,” she says and Caesar jolts, embarrassed to be caught staring, “will you find a vase for me?” Caesar nods and, after glancing at the unchopped onions, scrounges the small house for a vase. None of the ones he finds are particularly nice-looking so he grabs the least ugly he can think of—a ceramic pitcher painted lurid shades of purple and blue. The paint is lead so they can’t use it, so it just takes up space and never gets used. At least the colors will match.

 

When he returns, his mother is washing the dirt off the violets, and Federico is eagerly stirring the stew. Probably too fast if he’s being honest, but mother doesn’t seem to mind. She glances up at him awkwardly holding the pitcher and smiles and beckons him closer. She fills the pitcher with water and arranges them as best she can but their crushed nature still makes them look...rather sad.

 

“Cesare, have I ever told you about the Flower Disease?” She says quietly; she rests her hands on the rim of the pitcher, looking lost in thought. Caesar shakes his head and says a quiet “no.” She sighs and tugs a petal off of the violet. “When someone loves another with all their heart, sometimes...that love is like a sickness.” “Sickness?” Caesar hops up on a rickety chair nearby and leans forward intently. She nods and places the petal in the palm of her hand, examining it. “When someone is filled with love and they think that love will never be returned they become very, very sick. It starts small—just the stray leaf, something you think you accidentally inhaled. But the longer you go,” she slowly picks the petal apart. “The worse it becomes. Eventually, the flowers consume you and…” she drops the shreds of violet to the ground, watching them fall slowly, “you die.

 

“My flower was the violet.”

 

Caesar tries to imagine it. He tries to imagine his mother pining away, growing sicker and sicker, coughing up more and more vibrant violets as she pines over his father. He reaches out and feels the petals of the violets. His mother smiles at him, and rests her hand over his.

 

 

When the girl next door that he sees every day confesses her love for him, he thinks about flowers. When he gently rejects her, he thinks about flowers, and prays that she won’t have to go through what his mother did.

 

The next day, his mother dies. The day after that, his father disappears.

 

 

He stops thinking about the Flower Disease after that. Taking care of his siblings, finding his father, getting revenge—it’s the only thing he has time for. Everything else is secondary. Even after his father is killed in front of his eyes and he dedicates his life to mastering Hamon under Lisalisa, everything else is secondary. It isn’t until he is pulling Joseph up from Hell Climb Pillar and Joseph collapses just inches away—so close that if Joseph didn’t have that damnable mask he could’ve reached over and kissed him—and he feels a waxy sensation at the back of his throat that he knows.

 

He knows.

 

Later, in the quiet of his own room, he spits out a leaf, and wonders if he, or his family, is cursed.

 

 

Sometime into their second week, training goes sideways. Joseph gets frustrated, says he’s not making any progress anymore, and storms off in a huff like a child having a temper tantrum. Caesar thinks he’s being ridiculous—his control has improved by leaps and bounds. Caesar is actually somewhat jealous of how quickly he’s progressing.

 

Caesar surreptitiously pulls a leaf off of his tongue and tosses it in the wind.

 

Later, when dusk has passed and night has fallen, he decides it’s been long enough that Joseph should’ve returned by now, thus Caesar decides to seek the brunet out. He begins his search in Joseph’s room, and from there searches every inch of the castle, eventually deciding Joseph doesn’t want to be found. Then it occurs to him—he never thought to search his own room.

 

There Joseph is, slouched over the railing on the balcony. He’s got a bottle in his hand and when Caesar gets closer he can smell the wine. It’s not a particularly good one, either; Caesar grimaces at it. “Idiota,” Caesar says; Joseph turns to scowl at him, but it’s half-hearted. “What the hell are you doing in my room.” Joseph shrugs. “Too big in this place. Too...quiet.” So Joseph is lonely, then. He’s not too surprised, given how... exuberant Joseph is. Joseph takes a long drag from the wine bottle and slouches even more.

 

Caesar has two options right now. He could kick Joseph the hell out of his room—because, really, it’s his room, not Joseph’s—tell him to go be lonely somewhere else, anywhere else, go complain to Suzie Q, she likes you. Or he could find out what’s really bothering Joseph and let him sleep it off.

 

He thinks of wax leaves and the taste of dirt in his throat, and he reaches out and gently pries the wine bottle from Joseph’s grasp. Joseph eyes him like he’s about to attack the brunet; Caesar refrains from rolling his eyes. “Why are you being nice to me?” Joseph asks, “I thought you hated me.” Here Caesar does roll his eyes. “I don’t hate you, idiota,” Caesar says without a second thought and immediately regrets it. Joseph’s eyes widen and he has the barest of blushes. “I’m not going to kick a man while he’s already down, either.” Caesar glances at the wine bottle, then takes a swig himself—god it’s vile. Caesar stares at it, then turns around and pours it out over the balcony. Nobody should have to drink that.

 

Caesar crosses his arms drapes himself over the railing. He’s far enough from Joseph he can’t reach out and touch him, but near enough he can feel Joseph’s warmth. He knows that there’s more to Joseph’s outburst and sulking than mere loneliness, but he decides to leave it alone. He hears Joseph start to say something, but the words die in his throat. Joseph matches Caesar’s posture and they stay like that until Joseph stumbles to Caesar’s bed and collapses.

 

Caesar tries to think nothing of it. He pulls out a purple lilac petal from where it had lodged itself under his tongue, and realizes it’s the first petal he’s seen. Everything else has been leaves, and the occasional stem. He tries to think nothing of it.

 

 

Joseph seems to take their strange, one-sided conversation in Caesar’s room as license to open up to him—slowly, gradually, but noticeably. It starts small: Joseph will talk about his Granny Erina, about his childhood in London, about Speedwagon. He tells Caesar about the people in his life, but never about himself. How does he feel, stranded here in Italy, surrounded by strangers (is Caesar still a stranger to him?)? How does he feel, in this quiet isolation? When he describes London and New York, he seems nostalgic for the constant noise, the bustle of people. But Joseph never tells him—until one night Caesar finds Joseph in his room again.

 

This time, he isn’t drunk, but there’s a bottle of...something Caesar doesn’t recognize on the corner table. It’s an odd yellow-green color, and the writing on it is vaguely similar to Italian. “It’s tequila,” Joseph’s voice rings out; Caesar is surprised Joseph knew he was staring at the bottle. His awareness must be getting better too. “I smuggled it in from Mexico,” here Joseph turns to grin at him, wide and genuine, and Caesar feels his throat constrict and takes deep breaths to fight the feeling of petals in his throat.

 

Caesar rolls his eyes, but it’s much more of a show than it was before. He shoves past Joseph to lean over the railing next to him, and he’s much closer than he was last time. So much closer he could reach out and grip Joseph’s hand in his own. He can feel Joseph staring at him, wondering why Caesar is so close, but refuses to acknowledge it (it’d just make the taste of flowers worse). He feels Joseph look away, and they both stare into the night sea.

 

“I asked Speedwagon not to tell Granny about the...the rings,” Joseph blurts out. “She’d just...worry.” Caesar glances at him out of the side of his eye. “I told her...I don’t know what I told her,” Joseph laughs bitterly; Caesar turns and sees Joseph drag a hand through his hair. “I want to write her a letter, to tell her...something. How my training’s going, or...just...something.” Joseph slumps and tangles his hand in his hair and tugs lightly at it; it’s an odd tic Caesar has noticed (he’s noticed lots of things. Joseph’s laugh, smile, false bravado, real bravado. He’s noticed lots of things about Joseph). “But I don’t...know what the hell to say.”

 

“Tell her what you feel.” Joseph looks up at him from his under his eyelashes. “All you’ve said is what you're doing. Not what you’re feeling.” Caesar shrugs and looks back at the Mediterranean Sea. “That’s not off-limits is it, Jojo?” He can feel Joseph staring again, and still doesn’t look at him. Joseph sighs, and Caesar hears the rustle of his clothes as he moves—and he moves so much closer Joseph’s arm is pressed against his. Of course he’s warm as a furnace. “Thanks, Caesarino,” Joseph nudges him with his shoulder; Caesar scowls at that nickname and tries not to react to Joseph being so damn close.

 

Later, when Joseph is gone, Caesar coughs up six red carnation petals. It’s more than he’s ever had at once.

 

 

They, by some miracle, become friends. They spend enough time together that Caesar has difficulty finding alone time to throw up the damn leaves and petals, which’re growing in number every day. Sometimes after a day of training, Joseph and him lounge outside and soak up the sun, like drowsy content cats (one time Joseph says Caesar reminds him of a cat he had in London. He would only provide affection on his terms, and only after he trusted you. Caesar doesn’t know what to do with that). Others, they relax in each other’s rooms, usually by talking. And sometimes, Joseph gives him this look. This smile. Small, genuine, sincere. It makes his heart hurt and his throat ache. He leaves after that.

 

So when they are given their final exam, he thinks nothing of it. He knows Joseph will succeed—he has to. He can’t fail, because he still has so much to live for. Meet a girl, get married, have seven kids—Joseph still has so much to live for.

 

But when he sees Joseph fighting ACDC,  and Caesar is completely unable to help, and Joseph disappears—Caesar wonders if he was wrong.

 

Caesar spits out the petal of a marigold.

 

And when he finds Joseph alive and without that damn mask in the way, he feels a flower, the entire head of one at the back of his throat and fights not to throw it up. And later, when he’s alone, he retches up three small, purple-colored morning glories. Caesar wonders if he’s going to die this way.

 

 

The roadtrip to Switzerland gives Caesar both too much and too little time to himself. The howling of the wind means his mind cannot concentrate on the whirlwind of thoughts in his mind. He thinks of Joseph’s cleverness and his foolishness; his determination and his laziness; the way he flirted with Suzie Q and yet how sometimes, sometimes Caesar would swear Joseph looks at Caesar at him the same way Caesar looks at Joseph. Joseph is a bundle of contradictions and oxymorons (emphasis ‘moron’) and every time Caesar thinks he understand him, Joseph baffles him all over again.

 

Caesar can hear Joseph now, chatting away with Messina about Suzie. Caesar looks at the morning glories still held in his palm, and thinks about Suzie Q. He tosses them into the wind. He looks back and catches Joseph’s eye; Joseph smiles at him, and Caesar looks away. Surreptitiously he coughs and pulls a leaf of a purple hydrangea off of his tongue and throws it into the wind too.

 

 

During the fight with Kars—the second one, rather—Caesar cannot help but think how completely helpless he is. By the time he hears the rumbling in the inn, Joseph and Kars are already falling over the cliff. By the time Caesar has reached the cliff’s edge, Joseph is close to falling to his death. But at least—as Joseph creates his rope of ice (as clever as he always is) and Caesar grips it tight, freezing cold through his gloves and numbing his skin, he thinks finally he can help.

 

Because nothing matters more than Joseph’s survival. Nothing.

 

 

Later, when he and Joseph are slumped over the railing of the inn’s balcony, calmly absorbing the bright, yellow sun on the cold and unforgiving ice, Caesar feels content. He looks over at Joseph who is muttering aloud about what to have for breakfast, and Caesar almost doesn’t even feel the slowly-growing scratching of vines at the back of his throat.

 

 

Then, Joseph insults his own family, and insults Caesar’s family, and Caesar remembers there’s one thing that matters just as much as Joseph’s survival:

 

bonds of blood.

 

 

He’s furious. Absolutely furious. Furious that even after Joseph’s idiocy, his callousness, he still has that itch at the back of his throat—hell it’s not an itch anymore, it’s a constant soreness and it almost feels like home now.

 

Caesar spits out a rue.

 

He knows that this is reckless, foolhardy, idiotic even— the flowers have grown so quickly and so thoroughly that he can scarcely breathe, that every gasp tastes like copper around the stamen scraping his throat raw but he has to. He has to. He’s come so damn far and he has to prove—to his father, to Joseph, to Lisalisa—he has to prove (‘prove what?’ A traitorous part of him asks. He doesn’t know what the answer is).

 

Caesar marches into the cathedral.

 

 

Caesar fights. He fights Wham, he fights through the pain blazing at the back of his throat (when did it get so bad? When did it begin to hurt so much?) because this is no longer about blood, or family honor—this is about Joseph. It’s always about Joseph. He loves Joseph. He feels his breath choke in his throat, he feels a furor of petals that he swallows and they taste like blood and wax and cheap, shitty wine. He shudders and wheezes, and tries to wipe off the blood trailing down from his forehead but it’s dried there like glue. Caesar stumbles forward and Wham looks confused, or maybe apprehensive—Caesar has stopped caring.

 

All he cares about now is Joseph. Caesar is going to die here, in this damned abandoned cathedral in fucking Switzerland—but only one of them has to die. Joseph doesn’t have. He takes another step and Wham is giving him that look and God he can feel the roots of the flowers under his skin, he can feel sharp leaves shredding his esophagus and the blood trickling forward and Caesar stumbles again and rips out Wham’s lip ring. Caesar  wraps the ring safely in his headband and then in a bubble made of his own blood, and he coughs up one, last flower.

 

It’s not a particularly pretty flower—in fact, it’s actually quite ugly. It’s tiny, yellow, almost imperceptible, but Caesar knows it.

 

Ambrosia. ‘Your love is reciprocated.’

 

Caesar chokes on a sound, wheezes, then falls.

 

 

Joseph leans against the railing of the hotel, watching the dilapidated cathedral. Even broken-down and abandoned, save for Caesar and possibly Kars, it’s beautiful. Caesar’s been gone for a while—Joseph is almost worried, but Caesar’s fury at him still burns.

 

Joseph coughs, and a leaf falls out. He hasn’t seen any petals or buds for a while now, just leaves. Endless leaves. If he knew anything about botany, maybe he could pinpoint what flower it is, but all leaves look the same to him. He coughs again, and Lisalisa looks at him like she knows, like she understands. Maybe she does.

 

Joseph thinks of Caesar, and pulls a leaf off his tongue.

 

Switzerland is so quiet. He’s not used to it, he’s used to the volume of New York, to the bustle of London, to the sound of the ocean in Italy. But here it’s peaceful. Caesar loves it; maybe once this is over, once their stupid argument has passed and Kars is dead for good, he and Caesar could—  

 

Joseph freezes. The choking sensation is gone. The odd, waxy taste of leaves is gone. He can’t feel anything it’s like there’s nothing there—

 

Ands then it starts again but it’s so much worse, it’s worse than he’s ever before. Joseph falls to his knees and he throws up petals, leaves, stems, roots, Jesus how much was in him? and it’s covered in saliva and bile and blood, and Lisalisa reaches over and holds his hair up out of the way like a mother would and then it stops. There’s nothing left in him. He feels empty.

 

Joseph gasps and pants, and opens his eyes.

 

Sunflowers.

 

“Why sunflowers?” Joseph asks, not actually curious. He’s writing a letter to Granny Erina, and only half-paying attention to Caesar lounging on Joseph’s bed, like Caesar doesn’t have a room of his own. Caesar shrugs one shoulder. “I mean, I guess they’re kinda pretty,” Joseph says, glancing at Caesar, then at the flower.

 

Caesar rolls his eyes. “It’s their meaning, idiota.” Joseph pouts. “Meaning?” “Flowers have meanings.” Caesar huffs and thumbs over a petal. “Sunflowers mean adoration, loyalty, and longevity.” He plucks the petal off, and encases it in a bubble, directing it over to where Joseph is. Joseph wrinkles his nose when the bubble pops in front of him and the petal lands on his nose. “And you can eat the seeds.” “No shit?” Joseph asks and plucks the petal off, contemplating it. “No shit.”

 

A chill runs down Joseph’s spine. He swallows blood.

 

“Jojo,” Lisalisa says as Joseph stands up far too quickly; he’s woozy and has a horrible taste in the back of his mouth, but he has to go he has to leave now. “Jojo, you can’t go it’s too early, you can’t go,” but Joseph takes three deep breaths, and shoves past her. Something is wrong, deathly wrong, and he has to know. He hears Lisalisa huff, then follow after him. He doesn’t bother with her, and instead runs as fast as he can to the looming, dim cathedral.

 

Joseph stops two steps before he would reach the inside of the cathedral; there’s a pungent mix of scents coming from it. He can smell the soap from Caesar’s gloves, and the overwhelming smell of blood, as strong as the sunflowers he threw up not ten minutes ago. Underneath it all, is a faint, strange sweet smell and that smell is what stops him dead in his tracks. Lisalisa walks up to him slowly, wrapping one arm around his and Joseph knows she is concerned about him. Sometimes she is so like a mother it scares him. Lisalisa squeezes his arm, and Joseph breathes in deeply (and the feeling of stems growing his esophagus is so familiar he almost misses it, misses the scratching of being alive) and breathes out. He walks inside, and Lisalisa follows.

 

The cathedral is completely wrecked. There is fallen stone from centuries past on the ground, light streaming in through the holes made; there’s splotches of blood large and small on the ground, some puddles mixing with soap to create a sickening sight. But even still, there’s no sight of Caesar. Joseph finds himself breathing shakily—no Caesar means he escaped. No Caesar means there’s still time to apologize, it can’t be too late, it can’t he still has to tell—

 

“Joseph,” Lisalisa’s voice cuts him off. Joseph looks at her, and she is pointing at a bubble the color of ruby-red blood. It slowly floats over to him, and when it pops Joseph feels his blood freeze in his veins.

 

Caesar’s banana, torn and bloody, with Wham’s ring wrapped up in it, and a small, tiny, ugly yellow flower with a small drop of blood. Lisalisa chokes, and Joseph feels numb. “Joseph,” she says, breathing shaky, and Joseph looks at her, both terrified and confused. “That’s,” she breathes in, “ambrosia. Joseph I’m so sorry,” and she begins to weep. Joseph blinks. Lisalis breathes in and says quietly, “I taught Caesar about the language of flowers. Ambrosia,” she nods at flower, “it means ‘your love is returned.’” She looks away from him, and Joseph’s breath hitches. He goes to say ‘but it’s okay, right? Caesar escaped, I can still tell him,’ when suddenly the scent of blood is overwhelming, it’s so much stronger than the soap and the flowers and he looks toward the rock-shaped cross he saw earlier and sees blood pouring out of it.

 

Joseph swallows and grips the ring in his hand, and falls.

 

 

Joseph stands in front of Caesar’s headstone, with Lisalisa—Elizabeth, his mother, whatever she is—to his left, and Suzie Q to his right. In his grip he holds a small bouquet of rainflowers. Lisalisa looks up at him from underneath her sunglasses, and she looks at him with empathy It has been weeks since Caesar’s death, and he still aches from it. He has said his piece—silently, internally, as they buried an empty casket in an uncharacteristically-rainy Naples. He will always hurt, he believes, and always love Caesar. Joseph sighs and swallows, and bends down, and lowers the bouquet onto the headstone. He stands back up, and gives Caesar one final glance. When he turns, Elizabeth and Suzie follow.