The Black Places

The mirror shattered beneath the strength of his fist. As gestures of bereavement went, it was fairly cliché, but it cut deep, and that was good enough. He flexed his hand until the tightness of his skin pushed the shards out, sending them bloodied to the ground. It didn't matter. He hadn't seen his face for days.

He hadn't really heard what Reeve said, beyond the first few gritted sentences and the words 'Temple of the Ancients.' The name of the place had made the flesh that lined his brain crawl, and he hadn't known why, and now he did. /P>

The apartment upstairs was empty, as there was a small flat on the other side of town with two cats waiting patiently for a return that would not happen. Tseng was not there, nor would he be again. Tseng was where his father was, where both their fathers were, on the dank dark other side of is, where nothing grows and nothing hears and nothing comes back, the place almost like sleep but deeper. Like being trapped beneath the planet for a thousand years, only colder, and silent. Like being trapped beneath the planet for a thousand years and screaming up through dust and skin and bone to get out, only without the hope of ever being free. /P>

Tseng had been taken by the black places. His knuckles bled on the counter, and he turned on the water in the sink, letting it clear out the slivers force could not will free. It pooled at the bottom of the basin, faster than it could drain, and it was stained pink. Tseng was gone. He felt like the mirror had been his stomach, and his body had shattered instead of the silver-backed glass. He wanted to throw up, so he concentrated on the pain his his hand, clenched his knuckles beneath the hot water until the blood ran freely. /P>

The bathroom was stone and glass and hollow, and the city lay on the other side, full of its shimmering lights that looked nothing like death. He listened to the mechanical hum of the building, trying to imagine Tseng's voice in the electric murmurs, but the sounds would not form words, and the drone was not a voice, nor had ever been. The only ghosts that did not plague him were the ghosts he missed the most. /P>

Sharply, he wrenched the tap, forcing the water off. Tseng was dead. And the sickest thing was that he found it harder with every breath to care. By the time the cuts in his hand stopped bleeding, he wasn't even there at all.

Business as Usual

The bartender who slipped him the drink and told him it was 'from the end of the bar' sounded like she was laughing at him, but that was about par for the course, so he didn't think anything of it. The gaggle of women down there were casting him glances from the corner of their collective blue-shadowed eye, so he lifted the glass in gratitute to them before he took a drink -- and nearly choked on the glass' contents when the response came not from any of the women, or a woman at all, but a man, in a Turks uniform, who apparently decided that Cid's accepting the drink meant that the seat next to him was free for the taking.

Maybe it was all the booze, but a sudden sanguine calm came over him. If he was going to die tonight, at least he was going to do it sloshed.

"Mr. Highwind?" The man pushed a heavy black set of chin-length bangs from his face, leading Cid to wonder why the hell anyone would ever wear his hair like that. Didn't it piss him off? "My name is Valentine." Oh, well, maybe he did it to cultivate the air of mystery his lame-ass name robbed him of.

Cid poured the whiskey down his throat in one vaguely graceful gesture, then tapped out a cigarette. With any luck, he'd combust. "Yeah?" Before he could get his lighter, the Turk with the doofy name had struck a match and offered it his direction. Cid hesitated, but the guy didn't flinch as the fire creeped near his fingers. Maybe it was some stoic training they made them go through. Probably shot bullets at them recreationally, or something. He decided passing up a light was rude, particularly from a guy who didn't look like he was packing and therefore probably was, and leaned it to catch the flame before it went out. "What's it to you?"

"I'm supposed to come and check on your annual reports." Cid flinched as the Turk reached into his suitcoat, but all the gesture produced was a silver cigarette case. "To make sure everything's in order."

It all sounded fishy. "So you came here."


"To the bar."


"To check on my annual reports."


"Uh-huh." Cid noticed the man was sitting there with a cigarette in his hand, making no motion to light it himself. There was a small fumble in his own jacket, one that produced two socket wrenches and a spark plug before a lighter, which he clicked into flame and held out. The offer made, however, the Turk leaned over and pressed the tip of his cigarette to Cid's, inhaling it to life. The temperature in the room jumped several degrees.

Cid tried to wipe his forehead inconspicuously with a bar napkin. "Did you want to ... uh, check on those reports tonight?"

The Turk shrugged, exhaling smoke in a perfect ring. "No rush."

One More

He's already asleep when she finally turns off the TV, the last news broadcast of the night done, and makes her way to curl into bed next to him, but he wakes up when he feels her settle into bed. "It's okay," she whispers at him. "Go back to sleep."

But he reaches over stretches his arm across her belly, which rises like a small mountain above the rest of her still-trim frame (really, she's proud she's kept herself in this kind of shape for so long). "How're you feeling?"

"Same as I was when you asked me an hour ago before you went to bed." She bends over and kisses his forehead. "Fine. I think he's asleep."

He strokes the stretched skin of her stomach, feeling for movement underneath, but everything is still. "Nightly News Nibelheim knock him right out?"

"I think it's the new anchor. He puts me to sleep." She sighs in the dark, settling in to try and rest. Her feet are swollen, but she's used to that by this stage in the game; she's done this four times before, after all, though they've both agreed that this will be the last time, seriously, they mean it, not like they said after Rachel was born nearly five years ago. She tries to think about things other than how she feels all stretched and crampy, and how she kind of needs to pee but really doesn't want to waddle all the way to the bathroom again, not after she's gotten so comfy.

His breathing is slow and regular, and she's fairly certain he's fallen asleep again before she hears him say, so very softly, "I think we should name him Zack."

For a long moment, she isn't entirely sure what to say. She'd liked Zack, of course, when she'd met him all those years ago, but … well, she couldn't put her finger on it, and even if she could, she'd never tell him, so it was silly to dwell on it. "...Zack short for what?"

A perplexed silence, and then he laughs. "I don't even know. Isn't that funny? He was just always Zack." His hand brushes across the bare, tight skin of her abdomen. "Just … Zack."

Another moment passes, stretching the length of the darkened bedroom. "…You miss him, don't you?"

"Yeah." He makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a choked sob. "I mean, we don't have to, it was just an—"

"Zack," she repeates, trying out the name. "I mean, it doesn't have to be short for anything. Zack Strife-Lockhart." She reaches down to place her hand atop his, twining their fingers together, and as she does, she feels the baby move inside of her. "...I think he likes it. You like that in there?" But the baby is still, so she shakes her head. "I think he says we should leave naming to the grownups and let him sleep."

He kisses her shoulder. "Bedtime for all tired Strife-Lockharts." And as she feels him nod off to sleep – for real this time – she thinks about it again. Zack. Zack. Zachary? Perhaps, but he'd never be Zachary. Just Zack.

In fact, she realises, the more she thinks about it, there in the dark, with his body pressed next to hers, feeling his heartbeat against her skin, feeling his child tucked inside her own body, the less she feels like what he's asked is to name the baby after his ex-girlfriend. Which is a silly thought, of course – so silly that sleep promptly takes it entirely from her, and morning does not return it.

The Stoic Type

The kid looks like he's sixteen, maybe, and Tseng wonders if that's what Seph had looked like at that age. The other two are subtly wrong, bad imitations, bizarre variations on an already unique theme, but the littlest one is actually close enough to make Tseng uncomfortable. Well, more uncomfortable than he is already, sitting on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back and around a pillar.

He paces, the kid – Tseng didn't catch his name – and he keeps looking back at Tseng, staring at him with an intensity that makes him frankly uncomfortable. "So, what are you going to do with us?"

"Torture," answers the kid, though the response seems a little automatic. No, Tseng amends, he seems like Seph hopped up on amphetamines – if you could have done that to Seph without killing him, of course, though for this one it seems sort of a natural high. Boy, Tseng bets that gets irritating pretty quickly.

Tseng casts a quick glance over to Elena, who is appropriately stoic in her similar confinement, and tries to think just keep quiet loud enough for her to hear. "Torture? Why?"

The kid quits his pacing and walks over, hunkering down over Tseng's legs. "You're Turks. You're the stoic type. You don't just talk."

"We don't talk under torture either. What's your point?" Tseng tries to keep an eye out for the other two, but they haven't been around lately. (He wonders on a related note where Reno and Rude have gotten themselves to, hope they're not doing anything stupid, figures the likelihood of that is nearly zero.)

The kid looks uncomfortable. "We'll torture you and tell Rufus. Then he'll talk."

Tseng rolls his eyes. "It won't work if we've been hurt already. Then he'll just get angry."

"Oh, no." The kid pokes him in the chest; Tseng feels his dignity greatly offended. "He cares about you. He won't want to see you hurt. He likes you better."

"Better than what?"

"Better than m..." The kid looks away for a moment, presses his sword dramatically to Tseng's throat. "We'll find out one way or another. Even if we have to cut you."

As far as life-or-death situations go, this one is a little bizarre, even by Tseng's somewhat relaxed standards. "You know," he shrugs, caught in a moment of insight, "it's kind of sad to see that the only way you can beat me is to tie me down first."

The kid's cat-eyes widen, then narrow dangerously; he slides the blade, just barely slicing skin. "I've beaten you before!"

"I've cut myself worse shaving." Tseng can't precisely look down to confirm, but he can feel the blade tremble against his throat, and wonders if the kid's hands are shaking. "If you're going to torture us, though, come on. Tied up and helpless. Make you feel more like you used to?"

Fury flares in the kid's features, and Tseng braces for the cut – but it never comes. "Worthless!" shouts the kid, springing to his feet and walking away. "Completely worthless!" And he swishes out of the room with a very un-Seph like swagger, leaving Tseng both to meditate on how very easy it is not to reveal critical information when your interrogator hasn't even made clear what he's looking for, and to shake loose the lockpick in the cuff of his suitcoat.


The first time, he couldn't believe he'd agreed to it. This time, he can't believe he asked for it. At least he hadn't suggested it, though. The day he does that, he'll—

Well, it's hard to think of what, exactly, he'll do when that day comes, as the seven-inch acrylic dong up his ass makes it real difficult to concentrate on anything but, well, it – and the beautiful woman weilding it, bending over his prone form, her breasts pressing against his back. He can't see Tifa, not with his forehead bent into the pillow like it is, but he can feel her, and her presence is the only thing that makes this okay. He'd never let anyone else see him this vulnerable; the only reason she gets to is that he knows she loves him and would never laugh at him.

And she's gotten better this time around, more sure of herself, and the less tentative her motions are, on the whole, the better they feel. Cloud gasps, biting his lower lip as she wraps her fingers around his real flesh-and-blood cock and begins to stroke him slowly. That distracts him so effectively that it's a moment before he's aware that he's doing most of the fucking himself, actively moving his hips against her. The sensible part of his brain warns him that he's going to be tremendously sore tomorrow, but right now, tomorrow is a very distant concern.

Tifa sees his intensity and matches it, pressing deeper, and the combined result is almost too intense, just too much for his poor brain to handle; Cloud fists the bedsheets between his fingers, trying not to cry out as he comes in her hand. And comes, and comes some more. Really, the most effective tool for overcoming the associated stigma of the act is just how damn good it feels. ...And, uh, not thinking about it too much doesn't hurt either.

His elbows finally collapse, unwilling to further support him, and he sort of lands face-first, butt-up against the bed; she graciously takes the hint, pulling out and grabbing the dirty old towel they planted by the bedside earlier this time to clean them both off. Without bothering to remove the harness, she cuddles up beside him, and he lets his knees go, flopping down flat against the sheets. "Mprgh."

"Good, cowboy?" Tifa pets his back, scritching him a little, and he melts into her touch.

"...Yeah." Cloud buries his face into the pillow, feeling a blush creep up his face and trying to keep her from seeing. But she does, and she laughs, bending down to kiss his cheek.

Okay, so maybe she would laugh at him. But her giggle is contageous, and he can't keep the smile from creeping onto his lips, especially when he glances up to see how strangely she has to contort trying to kiss him and keep the strap-on from poking into the bed, and soon enough, she's laughing with him. And that's all right.

Physical Therapy

The bed is empty when Cid wakes up, and he grunts as he heaves himself out of it, padding out into the apartment. He suspects that Vincent is in the bathroom, and is therefore surprised to find him standing in the kitchen, wearing nothing but a pair of pajama pants, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, frowning at the stove.

"Mornin', princess." Cid grabs a pack of cigarettes off the table and lights one up, enjoying that morning nicotine. "What're you up to?"

"Making breakfast," Vincent answers, with a tone of stern determination that would be more appropriate to a phrase such as 'defusing a bomb' or 'walking a tightrope.' Upon closer examination, Cid notices that Vincent's right hand is tucked securely in his pocket, and he's weilding the spatula awkwardly in his new prosthetic.

Cid grins a little, leaning against the fridge. "How's that working out for you?"

"Slow." Vincent bites his lower lip, takes a deep breath, and goes for one of the tiny pancakes sizzling in the skillet; he manages to get halfway under it before an unexpected jerking movement breaks it in two, and he sighs. "Hope you like them mutilated."

"Shit, it's the only way I'd eat pancakes as a kid. Looking like they'd walked away from a car wreck." Cid leans as close as he dares to the food while still sporting a lit cigarette, watching with great interest as the joints in Vincent's arm twist and turn. "'Course, that may have had something to do with the part where Mom was a great singer, but a lousy cook. Want me to tighten up your index finger?"

Vincent dials down the heat so the poor bifurcated pancake won't burn to a cinder while he tries to flip it. "I can't tell if it's loose, or if I just need to get used to it."

"Well, I bet I can still get you more control out of it. I'll poke it some later." Cid ashes in the sink, and Vincent frees his good hand long enough to turn on the water and wash the residue away, sparing Cid a good utterly insincere scowl. Grinning in kind, Cid turns his attention to the rest of the kitchen, and raises an eyebrow at the pancake batter war zone that covers the counters behind him: a carton of eggshells, mostly crushed beyond usability; a box of batter mix ripped in half; a gallon of milk with the plastic top bent just so it won't quite fit back on right. Cid gives a low whistle. "I tell you, Vin, your food preparation physical therapy is kinda—"

"Insults mean you don't get pancakes." Vincent pours another circle of batter into the skillet with his unsteady hand, and Cid closes his lips around his cigarette. He'll see to the mess later, of course, and any instinct to grumble about having to clean it up on his own will be swallowed by the memory of how good it feels to see Vincent smile like this.

Naked Time

Whatever Kadaj had been thinking when he burst into the room dropped entirely out of his head and hit the floor with a resounding thud as he saw the pile of bare limbs tangled on the bed. "Aaaaugh!"

Yazoo lifted his head, raking his fingers through his sleep-tangled hair and frowning as he hit as snag. "What?"

"You!" Kadaj pointed a tightly gloved finger at his brothers, neither of whom seemed to be wearing a stitch of clothing. "Aaaugh!"

Yazoo surveyed the scene, and a dark little smirk came over his face; he crawled out from under Loz's prone form, and at least he was wearing underwear, but Kadaj didn't know if this made him feel better or worse. "Where have you been?"

The problem with having perfectly porcelain skin was that any blush showed up like ink in water. "...Nowhere. ...Don't change the subject! Why are you naked?"

"It was hot." Yazoo stretched, showing off his bare chest. "And I'm not naked."

Kadaj moved his pointing finger from Yazoo to Loz. "He is!"

"He was hot too."

"Go somewhere else! Go outside! Don't be naked!" Kadaj never got hot – he got cold, and liked the black leather because it kept him warm all the time. "You two look like you were..."

The corner of Yazoo's mouth lifted, and he crossed his arms over his bare chest. "Maybe we were."

Kadaj slapped his hands over his ears. "No! Aaaugh! Don't say that!"

"And where have you been?"

"Not the same thing!"

Loz slept on, blissfully unaware of any conflict, pleased that naked_time seemed to be working out so well for them all.

Small Talk

She looked so perfect, really, entombed there, that he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe she was dead. After a moment, when her eyelids fluttered, he realised that this was because she wasn’t really completely dead. He supposed this should startle him more than it actually did, but he’d found that having your body chemistry rewritten so that you turned into a large beast at semi-random intervals took a lot of the surprise out of life.

“Lucrecia?” he asked softly, making sure the body before him was actually the semi-dead married (to someone else) woman he’d very quite nearly been in love with some decades previous. He measured weird on an entirely different scale recently.

She frowned slightly, and he heard her voice inside his head – something else that struck him as terribly routine. Traumatic events tended to make everything else seem tragically mundane. “Vincent?” Well, at least she remembered his name, which was something more than he would have put money on a few years back. “Is it...?”

“It is.” He raised a hand in greeting, before realising it was the hand her insane husband had stripped down to the bone and built up again with a brass-looking claw thing he couldn’t quite figure out, and couldn’t hardly use to open doors. Well, this was awkward.

He put it down again, at a tremendous loss for conversation. Suddenly, the pleasantries of ‘how are you?’ and ‘beautiful day, isn’t it?’ seemed so very impractical; after all, he figured semi-dead people didn’t particularly want to be asked about their conditions, and people who had been entombed in caves for years didn’t have much to say about the weather outside. He coughed a little and tried to remember what they had talked about back when. While his memory hadn’t exactly been running on all cylinders since his new friends had pulled him out of stasis – particularly not since the last Galean Beast incident – he seemed to recall a great deal of conversation about sunshine and rain. Perhaps it would be familiar. “It’s quite nice outside. Meteor makes the sky a lovely red.” Nope; not familiar, just stupid.

Her head lolled and her shoulders slumped, and she looked for all the world like the last wet towel Cid had left draped across the bathroom door. “Kill me,” she whispered inside his head – at least, he thought it was her, because it sounded like her, and though he hadn’t seen her lips move, he didn’t really know who else would pretend to be her. Seemed a little pointless, all things considered. “Kill me.

He sighed. His life was so tragic sometimes.

Floor 63

Tseng cupped his hand over one ear, trying to shut out the utterly unreasonable din around him as he pressed his other ear into the cell phone. On the thirty-seventh ring -- he'd made Reno take voice mail off his phone for this very reason -- he heard a bleary voice answer, "...ey're comin' from your file cab'net, jus' get a hammer."

"Reno." It was the tone of voice that could scare at least half the foreign substances out of even the loving embrace of Reno's veins; the other half, Tseng had discovered by now, had established some sort of symbiotic alcoholic-cum-narcotic relationship there, which Tseng mostly left alone, being hardly of a mind to kill Reno unless absolutely necessary. "There is a problem."

Reno belched unhelpfully, but he did sound a little more alert. "Okay, if the hammer doesn't work, I've got margarita salt in my locker--"

"Reno." The sharp edges of Tseng's voice could clearly be heard through the phone. "Floor sixty-three."

There was a lengthy pause, another sonorous belch, and then gale-force laughter. "Oh, yeah. What did I do there? Is that the kettle drum of molasses and three of Rufus' socks?"

Some things out of Reno's mouth were better left unquestioned. "Try the air duct shortcut." The pounding noise was really getting to him, and he caught himself unconsciously fingering the safety on the gun at his hip. No, no matter how easy, the paperwork wouldn't be worth it.

"Oh, yeah. Jesus. Uh, okay, you see the sonic conver--"

"Reno, it is 2:57 in the morning."

A little cough from the other end of the phone told him his meaning was beginning to soak in. "...Uh, yeah?"

Tseng bet if he concentrated enough, he could actually feel grey hairs growing. "If I am awake and here in the building at 2:57 in the morning because of something fucked up you created because your mother dropped you down a mine shaft when you were born, you are awake and here in the building at 2:57 in the morning because of something fucked up you created, et cetera."

"Shit, she threw me down that--"

"You have ten minutes before I start setting fire to random objects near your desk."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm there." The phone clicked dead, and Tseng snapped it shut.

A new volley of muffled screams started from the air ducts, and Tseng tried not to stare at the blubbery legs that dangled from the ventilation shaft, kicking their expensive shoes indignantly. "Reno will have you down shortly, sir," he reassured Heidigger, though he doubted his boss could hear him over the nigh-operatic wailing he'd been maintaining for the last half hour, according to Security. He leaned back against the wall, meditating on every calming and non-homicidal thought he could conjure.

All things considered, the mildly radioactive snails he would discover in his file cabinet later that morning would be fairly tame, and at least by then he'd know where Reno'd stashed the salt.


Cloud supposed he couldn't blame the guy for being weird. I mean, he'd been in a tube of Jenova-flavoured goo for thirty years, and Cloud supposed that kind of exposure would fuck up anyone -- to say nothing of the rude awakening, the unweildy prosthetic, and the subsequent revelation that during his little hibernation Sephiroth had grown up, died, and come back.

But (and Cloud hated to admit it, even to himself) it was kind of funny. Oh, not the actual horrors Vincent had been through, there was nothing at all funny about those. Under consideration, it was impressive that the man could put together a complete sentence -- it was just that every sentence he put together seemed to be about guilt, sin, and/or darkness. At first, it had seemed almost unbearably sad, the weight of a man tortured both mentally and physically by his past. Yet, like most things that start unbearable, it had quickly become humourous.

Cid, unsurprisingly, had been the first to smash the polite silence. One afternoon, Vincent had muttered for nearly a full minute about his soul and the damning nature of vengeance, then turned and whisked swiftly off into the belly of the airship. Cid had been unable to contain himself, bursting out laughing as soon as the doors had swung shut. And the party, stressed and grief-ridden and exhausted beyond endurance, had joined in laughing with him, because it felt good to laugh, no matter what the reason.

After that, there had been no stopping them. Every morbid proclamation, every muffled diatribe became a source of tremendous hilarity, and it was a testament to nothing but the party's shame that they managed every time to wait until Vincent had cleared the room. Cloud was horrified by the hilarity, but found himself unable not to participate. After all, he reasoned, the human mind could only take so much melodrama.

However, not one of them was expecting it the day Vincent burst onto the bridge, hair wild and in his eyes despite his bandana's attempts to hold it back, hands (one flesh, one metallic) clenched at his sides. "That's it!" he announced, gesturing expansively; the red cloak-like garment around his shoulders (the only thing suited to the mountain weather Aeris had been able to find in the mansion) fluttered dramatically, and Cloud was mildly horrified to find himself biting his lips to hide a smile. "I'm sick of this! I'm sick of being laughed at behind my back every time the doors shut! I'm tired of everyone making light of my trauma!That's it! As of this moment, it's over! I'm finished being everyone's butt-monkey!"

A long, horrified hush fell over the party, broken as Cloud's mouth, moving one dangerous step ahead of his brain, conceded, "Check. No more butt-monkey."

Vincent flushed the colour of his coat and stormed out about as dramatically as he'd entered.

Cloud coughed. "...Well, I suppose we can chalk that up to his recovery process."

"Either that, or he'll kill us all in our sleep." Red XIII offered unhelpfully.

Cloud raised an eyebrow. "You seem sanguine about that."

Red XIII shrugged his leonine shoulders. "I simply trust your neck is far more appealing than mine."

Cloud rolled his eyes, but slept in his turtleneck that night -- just in case.

The Exotic Lifestyles of Travel Agents

Tseng practically bolted out of the car even before it had landed securely in park, swinging her daybag over her shoulder, strawberry ponytail flopping behind her, with her mother on her heels only seconds later, talking ninety miles a minute about how their travel agents' convention might mean they'd be out of pocket for a few days, and if Ronald the Nose came looking for her, she really should just pretend to be someone else. Vincent, for his own part, watched nonplussed as the girl and her mother marched their way into the house, the former trying like hell to get away from the latter as quickly as possible.

Her father, on the other hand, sauntered out of the driver's seat, looking like he had nowhere better in the world to be. "Yo," he greeted Vincent, waving a lit cigarette.

Vincent raised his prosthetic arm in reply and stepped forward into the sunlight. "Is she still pretending you're travel agents?"

Reno shrugged. "Fuck, I don't pay attention to half the shit she says. I only tune back in if paying attention will get me a blowjob."

Vincent's lips quirked into a bemused expression. "How's that working out for you?"

"Better'n you'd think." Reno flicked his cigarette butt to the ground, sending it to join its discarded brethren near the walkway to the workshop, then immediately went about the task of lighting another. "Listen, thanks for taking the kid. I was totally okay to take her along, but her mom's going on about seeing hired killers at work being a bad influence or something, and anyway, she's vegan now, so she'd just bitch the whole time about how a cow once cried for her Choco Bob's salad. You know how that shit goes."

Vincent didn't in the least, but he nodded anyway. "And we should see you again in about a week?"

Reno chewed thoughtfully on the filter between his lips. "Make it two, just to be safe. After we're done with the Junon job, there's a couple babies what need killing."

That got an audible snerk from Vincent. "Babies that need killing?"

"Well, we don't kill the ones that don't." Reno paused. "Usually. But hey, if you need anything, you can always--"

He didn't get to finish the sentence for the enormous crash inside the house, followed by a bellowed young lady, if you think-- nearly overwritten by a high, plaintive MO~OM! Vincent pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "Right. I've got the redhead, you nab the blonde, bonus points if you don't break anything else, have a great time assassinating people, we'll see you in two weeks."

Reno nodded curtly, and as they stepped in unison through the front door, Vincent marvelled at how frequently his Turk training had come to pay off in his real life.

Hearts in Atlantis

The hotel room was far bigger than he'd imagined, and Cloud stood there in the doorway, gaping, until a pair of small, well-manicured hands pushed him forward, its owner (presumably being pushed by a large cowboy) falling in just behind him. "...This is nice," Cloud stammered, because he had nothing less lame to say.

"It ought be," Zack grinned, dropping his pack on the table; Cloud could hear at least three bottles clink inside. Zack's parents had sprung for the room when he'd told them there'd be drinking and driving on that prom night unless they helped make that and an or. "Now, who's up for what?"

"Scotch for me!" piped up Tifa, at whom Cloud hadn't precisely been able to stop staring. Her hair, which had started up in an exquisite knot, had begun to untangle as the evening had progressed, and now several thick tendrils fell down over her bare neck and shoulders. He wanted so badly to reach for her, to sweep them away as a curtain and expose the tanned skin beneath, but she sat on the other bed now, her fluffly black skirts piling up around her, looking expectantly at Zack.

Even though she and Zack had been the ones dating off-and-on (more off than on lately) for two years now, Tifa had asked Cloud to prom -- which Zack had followed up by asking not her, but Cloud as well. Supposing it to be a joke, Cloud had accepted, and indeed, when Zack had swept him onto the dance floor for a slow number, everyone around them had laughed, and Cloud's resulting blush had done nothing to quiet them. Oh, they'd said, that's just Zack, not noticing that the way Zack held his small blond partner seemed at times painfully not joking.

That's-just-Zack was now handing them both glasses of what Cloud assumed was scotch, though he had no way of telling one brown alcohol from another, and Tifa downed half of hers in a single gulp without flinching. "Woo," she smiled, stretching her arms and standing, "it's warm in here. Aren't you boys warm?"

Very much yes, Cloud thought, reaching for the collar of his tuxedo, though that didn't have much to do with the room. He sipped his scotch gingerly as Zack laughed, his thick Gongaga drawl only getting worse with the application of alcohol. "I reckon it's a bit hot." His tie was already gone and shirt unbuttoned, so his next concession to the temperature was to take off his jacket.

She lifted her escaped hair atop her head again, turning her back to Zack so that she ended up facing Cloud. "Will you help me get this undone?" she asked over her shoulder.

"My pleasure," Zack grinned, and Cloud had to redirect all his energy to not having a heart attack as her corset slipped open, eyehook by eyehook, until the structure finally could no longer support her heavy breasts, and they tumbled out forward, dusky nipples and all, not three feet from Cloud's face. Completely flummoxed, he made the amateur mistake of finishing all his glass in one gulp, its subsequent fire making him cough wretchedly.

Tifa laughed as she stepped out of her skirts -- and, instead of turning to Zack, climbed onto Cloud's lap, clad in nothing but black high heels and stockings and panties, smiling as she pushed him back to the bed and stuck her tongue into his mouth, and Cloud was fairly certain that the scotch had indeed killed him, and that he was having some sort of pre-death hallucination. But she was real, warm and heavy across his lap, taking his hands and placing them on her breasts, and oh, how many times had he jerked off alone thinking about that (how many times, if he was being honest with himeself, he'd done it thinking about Zack's hands in particular on her breasts, his mouth along her skin, their twinned breathless moans)! His fingers brushed across one of her nipples accidentally, and she moaned so gracefully that he made a note to do it again.

She was amazing, so overwhelming and amazing and everything he'd wanted since he was eight or so that he at first did not question how she could simultaneously suck his tongue and nibble down his neck, figuring that was just something all amazingly beautiful girls could do. Then his shirt was being untucked from his pants, and a hand far too thick and callused was pushing its way up his belly to his chest, and his eyes flew open wide to see not one but two heads of dark hair hovering over him.

"Zack?" he whispered, breaking from the kiss with Tifa -- something up until a moment ago he'd thought himself capable of continuining, single-minded, through events up to and including the end of the world. But as far as situations previously thought impossible went, the end of the world had nothing on this.

"Just shut up," Zack grinned in his that's-just-Zack way, and then it was Zack's mouth on his, and Tifa's hands under his shirt, and Cloud, powerless to resist them under even the best of circumstances, closed his eyes again, delivering himself to them.


There's a lot of can't that creeps up when Tseng's been drinking. Can't come in him. Can't come on him. Can't blow him. Can't get blown. Can't kiss him. Can't chew his skin. Can't stick fingers in his mouth. Can't even really breathe near him. Can, however, slip on a condom and fuck him while he's bracing against Reno's bathroom counter, which is precisely what Tseng is working up to doing, as the party rages as it ever does on beyond the door. Rufus had passed out after a glass and a half of Reno's suicide punch, and Reno was still making running commentary to his unconscious form about the copy of Shemale Midgets from Outer Space VI! that was playing, and Reeve had given in to his sick sense of fascination and actually started listening, and Rude had wandered off to the balcony so the smoke from his joint wouldn't bother Seph, and Seph was always so quiet anyway that no one would notice, so Tseng gave the latter a knowing look and went in the direction of the bathroom; a minute passes, and then he isn't alone. All hands, he has to keep in mind, even though part of what he wants to do is attach his mouth to Seph's and kiss him until he passes out -- but there are things he emphatically does not want to call Hojo about, and this is one of them. Instead, he buries his mouth against the shoulder of Seph's shirt, reaching down the front of his ridiculously tight jeans and grinning when he finds he's not the only one who thinks this is a good idea. Seph moans, and Tseng can't put his hand over Seph's mouth, so he knots a fist into Seph's hair and pulls his head back hard. Even though the population in this apartment that doesn't know what's going on in this bathroom is approximately one, there's no reason to advertise. He turns Seph around so they're both facing the mirror, harshly lit in the too-many-lightbulbs of Reno's bathroom, and they both look a bit like shit like this, why is why bars and bedrooms and porno sets should all be dim-to-dark. But if Seph has any objections, they remain unvoiced, and so Tseng drags Seph's jeans down to his knees, pulling out his own cock. Leave it to Reno to leave lube next to the toothpaste; Tseng pours some into his fingers and jams them in with little preamble. This is not the time for subtlety. Seph leans forward so far his head nearly touches the mirror, his broad back muscles visible beneath his t-shirt, his long ponytail falling over his shoulder. Tseng withdraws long enough to tear open and unroll a condom (not a one-handed task), then braces himself against Seph's hips and pushes straight in. Good to the earlier warning, Seph doesn't make a sound as Tseng fucks him hard and deep. From beyond the door, the sounds of laughter and what is presumably space midget sex can be heard -- but inside the bathroom, there's no noise but the soft slick of fucking and the heavy rasps of their breathing. Can't cry out as he comes, Tseng adds that one to the list, pressing his mouth to the middle of Seph's shoulderblades, but can very much smirk as Seph does, a faint gasp as he spills hot all over Tseng's hand and into the sink. When he emerges a few minutes later, looking slightly drunk but otherwise completely put-together, the rest of the party has reconvened to the couch for a viewing of Law and Order: Midgar Vice. Rufus, half-conscious, turns heavy-lidded eyes up at him. "Hey, where's Seph?" "I think he's asleep on Reno's bed," Tseng answers, reaching for his once-abandoned glass of whiskey. Of course he can lie about this one. That part's so easy he doesn't think about it anymore.

Kicking Ass and Taking Names

She was small, and had taken to wearing her shirts impossibly tight. She leaned on the bar like there was going to be trouble, and as such, there usually wasn't. In that way, the first two months of Tifa's ownership of the Seventh Heaven passed quietly, business not great but not too bad, and just busy enough that running it single-handedly kept her mind off how she'd gotten where she was.

So she was barely paying attention the night the three heavies walked into her bar, looking like trouble in cheap suits, congregating around one of the corner tables an hour out from closing time. It wasn't until she slipped out from behind the bar and walked over well within arm's reach to take their order that she even noticed what kind of trouble had shown up. But Tifa Sylvia Lockhart had never been one to show fear, and three gorillas in polyester weren't going to drag it out of her. "Can I get you anything?" she asked politely, trying with every word to keep the Nibelheim drawl from her voice.

The biggest one, a bald man with a heavy moustache, wore a yellow-toothed grin. "We were thinking we could get you somethin'," he smiled, drumming his fingers on the table. "It isn't safe for a little lady in these parts. Bad neighbourhood, you know?" He drew out baaaaad like a child making a sheep noise.

"I don't think so, but thank you. Beer, whiskey, there's a small grill here if you're hungry?" She didn't know the wisdom of putting alcohol into them -- she'd learned quickly that some men it made gentle, and some men it just made mean, and you couldn't tell before the booze went in which was which -- but figured it couldn't be worse than where they were now.

A hand reached up around her thigh, its fingers stopping just below the hem of her short skirt, and she looked down to see that it belonged to a thin, greasy man with the same horrible grin. "I think we could be hungry," he said, drumming his fingertips on the pale inside of her thigh. "What do you think, boys? Somebody'd make a fine meal out of this one, and it'd be a shame if we didn't get to her first--"

He never got to finish his sentence. Beneath his hand as he spoke, her muscle twitched, and that should have been enough to tip him off but wasn't, so Tifa considered it as a warning shot fired, and skipped further preamble to plant her knee into his face. He went down like someone had shot him, ass over teakettle, taking the chair with him. Her foot continued in an arc, sweeping over the table and ramming the third man, a mousey sort, square in the jaw; he, too, fell to the ground, and now she was on top of the bald man, the sheep-noise man, her fist in his shirt, the heel of her foot hovering precariously over where his testicles had undoubtedly shriveled beneath that horrible shiny fabric. The bar had gone silent, and she was glad, because it meant he heard every word. "Who sent you?" The pressure of her heel punctuated her words.

"D-don Corneo!" the man sputtered, his bluster gone now that the tiny girl had just laid his two cronies flat and was poised to crush his family jewels.

"Corneo, huh?" Tifa's hand closed around his tie, drawing their faces close, swallowing down the sweet little girl from the mountains and letting fires of rage burn up from the scar across her belly. "You tell Corneo that if he ever, ever pulls shit like this again, it'll be his balls under my heel, and he'll be the one begging for protection from me. Got it?"

The man nodded, so she let him go, and the goons scrambled out as fast as their legs could carry them, to the thunderous sound of applause from the other patrons. Tifa cleared her throat and straightened her hair, taking a deep breath. "All right!" she announced, her booming bartender's voice ringing through the tiny establishment, "next round's on the house!"

The Seventh Heaven the next night was completely packed, and by that time next week, that same sweet little girl had both a reputation and a waitstaff. Life was sometimes good.

Church Mice

Her breasts are small beneath her dress, so much so that she doesn't always bother with a bra, like she obviously hasn't today. Her dress is unbuttoned down nearly to her navel, the plaid man's workshirt she'd earlier had tied over it discarded over the back of a nearby pew, her little dusty-rose nipples pert. He brushes the pad of his thumb over one, feeling it pebble beneath his touch. She laughs and lets her bangs fall across her face, not so much a curtain as a veil, obscuring the wicked smile across her innocent face, but by no means concealing it.

Tseng hasn't even so much as removed his tie, much less his coat, though he's hardly bothered by the arrangement. She, on the other hand, has half-bared herself to the cool afternoon air, her bare knees clamping on either side of his hips, pressing against the equally bare wood of the pews. She controls the pace, and he does not challenge this arrangement; he's in no hurry, after all. For a pretty girl like her, he's got all the time in the world.

Biting her lip a little, she slows the movement of her hips, holding him still stiff inside of her, pausing a little. She rakes fingers through his long hair, which falls over the back of the pew, taking a lock of it and rubbing it across her lower lip. "You've got such pretty hair."

"Thank you," he answers, because it's what you're supposed to say when someone says something nice about an attribute over which you have no real control. He reaches for the buttons of her dress and unfastens the last holdouts, pushing the whole article off her shoulders, which are smooth and soft. He can see the curve of her frame, but not the bones themselves, an arrangement he finds she wears beautifully well, and he leans over to kiss the suggestion of her collarbone.

She squirms and laughs as he darts his tongue at the nape of her neck, a reaction which reminds them both of their continued connection. "That tickles," she chides, her tone a whisper, nearly breathless. She brushes the lock of his hair down her throat, circling her breast absently even as she convinces her body again into a determined rhythm, slow at first, then with increasing intent. For all the innocence of her expression, there is nothing innocent about her actions here.

...No, Tseng thinks, that isn't quite right. To the contrary, the ever-missing element from her actions is guile. What she possesses is not the opposite of experience so much as the opposite of treachery. For someone in his line of work, this is a quality rare indeed.

"My apologies," he murmurs. He reaches around and cups the curve of her backside, pulling her close to him, drawing her in for a kiss. He can feel the edges of her lips curl into a smile even as she slips her tongue into his mouth. Somehow, even in this dark city, she always manages to taste like summer sunshine.

We Are in Life

At the beginning, no one had thought the search and rescue operation would take more than a few days -- a week at most, but there was only so long people could survive while trapped even under the best of conditions, and no one could call what happened to Midgar the best of conditions.

But the upper plates had taken the brunt of the damage, and though everything there was a total loss, much of lower Midgar had been saved. Two months into the rescue, teams were still finding people -- often cold and hungry, to be sure, but very much alive. Some even still had running water and bits of electricity, which was a testament to how well Reeve had designed the city's infrastructure. But it was still hard work, to say the least, and the ratio of survivors to bodies had begun to drop sharply in the last week or so. They'd found half a dozen today, all corpses, and Cloud wasn't feeling good about anything.

He yanked off his shoes just inside the door of their tiny apartment; for a while, they'd been staying on the Highwind with the others, but it'd been needed elsewhere, so they'd found a place within the makeshift quarters erected to take care of refugees and rescue workers alike. It was tiny, of course, but nothing in their lives together or apart had ever taken up much space.

The apartment was dark, which he'd been half-expecting and half-dreading. Tifa had been feeling ill lately, and though she'd tried to shrug it off as nothing, Barret had practically hefted her over his shoulder and carried her to the medic singlehandedly. Though all the rescue teams took precautions, the air around the rubble had too many contaminants in it to imagine, much less name -- from ash caused by the fires, to dust from collapsed concrete, to mako discharged by broken reactors -- and even the slightest ailment was taken seriously. Lines at the field hospital had been so long that it surely would have taken her hours to get an appointment, but Cloud knew that the longer it took, the worse the news might be.

Which was why he jumped, startled, when he turned on the light and found Tifa sitting on the room's small couch, her hands in her lap, watching him as he walked into the room. "Tifa!" He dropped his bag on the ground and walked over to sit beside her, taking her hands in his. "I didn't think you were here. What did the doctor say? Is everything all right? Did they get to see you? Did they say what's the matter"

Tifa turned her hand upward, linking fingers with his, and looked at him with eyes as tired from the rescue effort as his own, but with a renewed sparkle of energy in them. The corners of her mouth lifted into a small smile. "You're going to be a dad," she said quietly, taking his hand and bringing it to her still-flat belly, just at the waist of her jeans.

It was testiment to both Cloud's exhaustion and the analytical mindset two months' of digging through the ruins of Midgar that the first words his brain coughed up, long before expressions of joy and wonder and awe and terror and love, were we're going to need a bigger house.

The Natural

There wasn't much in Midgar you couldn't do at seventeen, especially when you acted like you belonged there and carried a fake ID nobody checked anyway. The club was packed tight, and Vincent was so fucked up he could see the music, which was mostly the way he liked things. He sported a mesh shirt and skintight leather pants, and wore his hair in his eyes, which a customer had once told him gave him a sexy air of mystery, and shit, didn't everyone want a sexy air of mystery?

He pushed his body against all the other bodies in the crowd, moving to the music, enjoying the feel of hands all over him. He felt a pair of breasts crush against his back, a cock rub against his hip, and he just lifted his hands and twined against them. He wondered if they were a couple, if they were looking for someone to pick up and take home; that was usually good for a clean bed, at least, and sometimes a meal and extra cash. He draped one arm around the man's neck, grabbing a handful of the man's blue hair in his fingers, leaning close enough to share the feel of air on each other's lips, but not kissing, not yet. That secured, he reached the other hand behind him, tracing sightlessly the line of the woman's body, drawing down the length of her chest to her hip, then back up again--

As naturally as he could, he turned around, grinding his ass against the man's hips while drawing his face close to the woman's ear. "You're armed," he purred, letting his hand migrate around to just at her ribcage, where her little denim jacket did well to hide a shoulder holster, but not well enough to hide it from him.

"The man behind you's my target," she whispered back, her lips so close her lipstick smeared against his earlobe. "Just keep him there a minute more."

It all seemed surreal, like a bad drama or something his substance-laden brain had dreamed up all on its own, but the woman was pretty, and the man had stepped on his toe, so Vincent was inclined to take her side. He wriggled around again, this time putting his hand right over the crotch of the man's jeans, feeling in the crush behind him the movements of the pretty woman's body as she drew her gun.

But something went wrong -- the man opened his eyes instead of closed them, and instead of seeing the boy before him, he saw the woman behind the boy, and darted off into the crowded room. "Shit!" shouted the woman, lifting her weapon as fast as she could, but the man was moving faster, and there were too many bystanders by far, and something clicked over in Vincent's brain. Moving as calmly as though they'd practiced the move a thousand times before, Vincent reached for the gun, plucked it from her hand, aimed it at the moving target across a crowded club, and pulled the trigger. There was a flash of light and a red hole appeared in the back of the man's head, and he went down.

Panic and screaming ensued, followed by a mad crush of people evacuating the club, until there remained only Vincent, and the woman, and the dead man. A long, quiet moment passed, then the woman took the gun from Vincent's still-outstretched hand, shaking her head with something akin to amazement. "...You ever considered joining the Turks?"

Of all the things he'd expected her to say, that hadn't made the list -- but hearing it made so many things fall into place. A particularly charming grin stretched across his mouth. "Considering it now."

Comparing Notes

"Any good news?" Tseng limped forward, supporting most of his weight on the crutch braced about his left forearm. It'd be years before he'd be up to speed again, to be sure, but the doctors had said he woudln't walk again at all, and he'd already shown them what he thought of that prognosis.

Vincent tapped a few buttons and the screen went dark. "Not enough light to continue today."

Tseng's eyes scanned a printed list of names, some circled in blue, many more struck through in red, and only a handful left unmarked. The plate had fallen in such a way that it had merely trapped many sections of Midgar, not crushed them -- but that had been two months ago, and there had not been a blue-circled name in over a week. He nodded to his fellow rescuer, around whom he'd never felt entirely comfortable. While Tseng was sure the majority of cautious glances he saw sent Vincent's way had to do with the man's red eyes and menacing claw, for Tseng the rationale was a bit different. He'd read all the official reports about the Nibelheim Incident thirty years ago, the one that had temporarily disbanded the Department of Administrative Research, and, unlike most people around, had known the name 'Vincent Valentine' long before meeting the ex-Turk in person. It had been like meeting a ghost.

Vincent didn't look like much of a ghost now, though, with his feet propped on the console and his hair pulled back and those strange red eyes shut by exhaustion; nor did he look like much of a Turk, in his black jeans and short-sleeved t-shirt that did nothing to hide the monstrous piece of metal that sprouted from his left elbow. "How's your back feeling?"

"Fine," said Tseng, and it was mostly true. "If you ever have to get attacked by a sword, I recommend one that cauterises the wounds on contact."

"Handy." Vincent patted his side. "The guy who stabbed me wasn't so considerate."

Tseng winced in sympathy. "I had bomb shrapnel pulled out of the same place. Wasn't something I'd repeat."

"Reno's fault?"

"Surprisingly, no. But this," Tseng braced himself against a wall long enough to tap his right leg with his crutch, "is. He orchestrated a car crash in a crowded street so the worst thing that happened to anyone there was that I wound up with pins in my leg."

Vincent gave an appreciative smile. "He taught me how to fly a helicopter. He's good." He paused, and then, with his good hand, tapped his chest just above his heart. "Only got shot once, though."

No official report would have everything, of course, and Tseng had since reconstructed a far better timeline than the one in the classified documents he'd been shown. The one participant left alive didn't seem particularly forthcoming, and Tseng was willing to consign the matter to history, but not without an appropriate amount of respect for his revenant predecessor. "I think you win."

Vincent's voice was low and distant. "Hell of a thing to win."

Mactavish is Dead

In another life, this might have been cause for panic. Now, however, everything was calm.

"Today is Friday, November the 29th," he began, and he heard the voice-activated recording device spin up in response. "Time is approximately...." He looked around the room, tapping his lower lip with the flat side of a scalpel. "Oh, there's a clock. 5:29. In the ... afternoon, I think." He squinted, but couldn't quite make out whether the letters in the corner of the screen read a.m. or p.m.; it felt like days since he'd seen the outside of the mansion.

The body on the table in front of him wasn't dead, despite his best bad marksmanship. It was under heavy sedation, however, and every time it breathed, little flecks of blood splattered from the hole in its chest, which had kept him amused for a good fifteen minutes. "Patient X is in his mid-twenties, possibly of some Wutaian ancestry, I'll get his personnel file later if I decide I really care ... and I probably won't. Identifying marks include: a critically stupid haircut and a tendency for fucking my wife. Oh, and a gaping chest wound," he poked at it with the scalpel, pulling back the flaps of skin until he could see the soft pink of the punctured lung tissue beneath, "which I hear is very 'in' this season."

Something deep in the back of his mind scratched at his mental walls, no more urgent than the tapping of a forgotten anniversary or the knock of an unreturned phone call. He'd performed autopsies hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. So what if his ever-present heavy metal 'thinking music' was absent, or his new son was hooked to a bank of life-support tubes sustaining him by pumping alien liquid into his veins, or if his wife was dead, or if the naked body in front of him wasn't? He was a big-picture man, never one to get bogged down by the details.

His eyes fell upon a set of needle tracks on the patient's inner left elbow, and he began to sing to himself: "Oh! Mactavish is dead and his brother don't know it." The tip of his scalpel found the largest mark and followed it down toward the wrist. "His brother is dead and Mactavish don't know it." The skin parted like ice under a skater's blade. "They're both of them dead and they're in the same bed." Another line opened, then another, tracing the paths of veins and arteries down the body's forearm. "And neither one knows that the other is dead!" With a glee that he wanted to think came from outside of him, but knew actually bubbled up from the only vestiges of his heart the black cancer hadn't eaten, he peeled back the layers of bifurcated skin to expose the delicate muscle tissue beneath. "And this is why you should always keep your veins clean, boys and girls. You never know when someone's going to want a better look at them."

He watched the arm bleed for so long that the recorder spun down, and he coughed to awaken it again. "...I think it's challenge time!" He surveyed his workspace. "Time limit ... well, I can't read the clock, so that's out. Competition is slim these days, so let's make it ... media. One arm, using only things I can reach from where I'm standing right now. Extra credit will be given for style, form, and innovative use of materials." Just like in college, if everyone else was going to go home early, by God, he was going to make his own fun.

The body on the table didn't even flinch as Dr. Hojo stripped the handle from the coffeemaker and made the first deep incision.


During his first-year Medical Ethics class, he'd written a 15-page paper denouncing in the strongest possible terms the using of children as medical test subjects if there were at all other avenues of research available. He didn't know why he thought this as he carded himself through the isolation ward doors, following the noise down the hall to the bare, glass-walled room where the boy slept.

He was absently pleased to see that even at twenty-seven months, the boy required four strong male research assistants to hold him down, one at each scrawny limb. "Doctor Hojo!" cried the one managing the boy's left ankle. "I came in to draw blood, and he just--"

"It's all right." Hojo waved a dismissive hand, clearing the young man of any wrongdoing. He didn't spare more than a fleeting glance to the white-coated staff, just fixed his gaze on the struggling boy's green eyes, their cat-pupils constricted under the bright lights of the lab. The boy snarled at him, but had already begun visibly to calm since Hojo's arrival, and was no longer making the horrible nonverbal yowling noise he did when he was upset. "You can let him go and leave us now." When they hesitated, he crossed his arms and repeated, "You can leave us now."

They released the boy's limbs cautiously, as though afraid he might lash out at them at any moment, but the boy held Hojo's gaze in return until the others had departed and the door had hissed shut, until only doctor and subject remained. Then, with a sigh, Hojo rolled his eyes. "I know you can understand me. Behaving as though you don't was cute for the first, oh, nine months or so, but by now it's just an impediment to progress."

The boy looked away as though the sounds might be meaningless, but Hojo had already seen the telltale flicker of comprehension flicker across the boy's narrow features. "Now," he continued, settling himself in the nearest chair so he didn't tower quite so threateningly over the boy, "I'll spare you a lecture on the importance of language to society and human interaction, and skip right to the crux: I don't care if you continue pretending I'm just making crazy monkey noises. Because this is my project, and those men are under my aegis, and you can pitch as many fits as you like, but I and they are going to continue doing precisely what I wish to you."

He paused to let that sink in a moment; by now, the boy had turned back to Hojo and was staring up at him, a thin frown creasing his pale forehead. " I, of course, welcome your input as an active participant in this project. In fact, I would deeply value your insights and consider them highly relevant. But I, like the rest of society, do not consider tantrums appropriate to civilised discourse." He folded his arms and leaned back in the chair, and waited.

After nearly five minutes of silent scowling, the boy focused his eyes on Hojo's shoes and folded his hands in his lap. "I don't like it when Murray takes my blood," he said, his voice raw with disuse and screaming, haunted and wild and sounding far more hollow than any child's voice should. "He's bad with needles."

"Is he, now?" Hojo's lips quirked in bemusement. "And I?"

The boy frowned for another minute, then lifted his chin a fraction. "You're not so bad."

"Marvelous." Hojo stood and went for the cabinet by the sink, pulling a hypodermic from its plastic case. "Hop up on the table and I'll make the draw, and then you can finish my sudoku puzzle for me."

With little hesitation, the boy crawled up on the table, rolling up the sleeve of his cotton pajamas to reveal the crook of one pale elbow, veins so prominent the skin above them seemed almost transluscent. Without thinking about it, Hojo allowed himself to smile as he rubbed the alcohol swab over the skin, delighting as much as he could in what a strong, warm, alive boy he was becoming. The thought was fleeting, though, as the boy sometimes seemed to him like starlight: a thing that could only be seen by not looking directly at it, because the second he stared at it straight ahead, it -- and he -- vanished.

Growing Up

She was loathe to ask her father for anything these days, mostly because she knew that he'd probably give it to her, whatever it was, not because it was right for her or because it made him a good parent, but because he felt sorry for her. Just like everybody else in the town, he didn't know what to say to a girl who'd just lost her mom. It was fitting, though, she thought, because she didn't know what to say to a man who'd just lost his wife. Some days it was like they were two grief-connected strangers living in the same house.

But she needed to ask him for new clothes, and she needed to ask him soon, because this morning, to her horror, the buttons of her green dress barely closed across her chest. She managed to get it fastened up; but when she tried to cross her arms in front of her, the back of the dress pulled so tight she couldn't get her arms more than halfway there, and when she let her arms fall back to her sides, the spaces between the buttons gapped wide enough to show the white of the camisole she wore underneath.

With a sigh, she undressed and stood there, looking at herself in the full-length mirror. She grabbed a hairclip from where she'd left it atop the piano and twisted her hair up away from her neck, standing bare except for a pair of panties, frowning at her chest. There were shadows there that hadn't been there before, half-moon shades underneath brown nipples that seemed wider than they used to be. Had it all happened overnight, or had she really not paid attention in that long? How much more of it was still left to go?

But those were questions that girls with mothers got to ask. Girls with mothers just had to ride it out on their own, with whatever strangers still called themselves family.

She hung the green dress back up in her closet and took out a loose white blouse, which she could wear with one of her longer skirts. Maybe she'd go shopping that afternoon, tell her dad she was meeting the girlfriends she didn't have to buy articles of clothing she wouldn't tell him about. Would he think she was a bad girl for buying a bra? Did that count as the 'leading the boys on' he spoke about so ominously? Well, whatever, she thought with as much resolve as she could muster; if she had to deal with it, so did he.

Finally dressed and more comfortable, she opened the window to let in the warm morning. It was early, but there were already people out and about already, leading their lives. There was a small grove of trees on the other side of the road, and she saw hidden beneath the most spreading of them a blond boy, bent over the thick book resting on his knees. As though on cue, he turned and looked up at her, and she gave him a little wave. Even at the distance, she could see his cheeks pinken, and he gave a little wave back before burying his nose in his book again.

She felt a stab of jealousy as she watched him. Boys had it easy, after all. They never had to ask their fathers for money to buy bras, or worry about wearing clothes that showed off their underwear, or be careful about 'leading the boys on'. It must, she thought, be nice.

The Nibelheim Affair

He doubted he'd ever get used to the increasingly frequent sense of being somewhere he wasn't; the closest thing he could compare it to was watching television with the radio on at top volume, and that only conveyed the sense of overwhelming input, not the feeling of disconnect that came with it. It was uncontrolled and unannounced, too, so that he was in the middle of staining a cell sample when all at once he was also watching that dark-haired Turk fuck his wife.

They were in an armless wooden chair, or at least the Turk was, one hand braced on the small of her back, the other holding steady to the chair's seat. She was straddled across him, impossibly heavy with a pregnancy already a month overlong, her dress pulled up around her hips. Her hair had come loose of its usual ponytail, and it hid both their faces, though he doubted they could have seen him even if they'd been looking right at him. She rocked back and forth against him, and they made no noise other than their sharp breathing and the creaking of the chair's legs under their shared weight.

He could feel the pipette shatter as he clenched his hands into fists, its jagged edges cutting into his ungloved fingertips, and he gasped as she did, rocking her hips against the Turk, who looked so overtaken by the situation he might as well have been little more than an extension of the chair. Wasn't that all they were good for, anyway, the hired muscle, paid to stand in their stiff dark suits and menace whom they were told to menace? She must have told him to sit there, to become part of the furniture, to slip her underwear down around her ankles when she couldn't reach over her belly, to hold her still as her heavy breasts pressed against him. She had been in control from the beginning. She was out to ruin him.

She tossed her hair back, and he could see her face clearly now, and it was so alien to him that had he not known who she was, he wouldn't have known her at all. She had been wrong when she'd screamed at him that he'd become a stranger to her; she was the stranger now, clearly. She had to be caught, restrained, delivered before she could do something rash and destroy everything.

As sharp as someone switching off a radio, he was back entirely to himself and the mess of red blood and golden iodine that covered the high table in front of him. "Not the stain I was looking for," he muttered, and his voice sounded muffled, as though he had managed to leave it behind with them.

Still Life, With Scars

Any other young man who told her to take off her clothes and stretch out along a loveseat, Fuujin figures, would merely be using the artist angle as an excuse to get her naked. Seifer, however, has spent the last two hours devotedly working with charcoal stick and paper; every time he looks at her, she knows, his eyes see not a woman, but the shape and light that make up a woman. Far from being insulted, she actually finds it charming.

"There," he says, scratching his cheek and leaving a deep grey smudge that descends into his beard, "I think it's done."

She lifts her head from where he's had her place it. "May I see?"

Wearing his sheepish smile, the one that makes him look so very young, he turns the sketchpad so she can see. The likeness is incredible, even as filtered through hasty charcoal lines. She loves when he draws her, because his art does not pull punches: there is the stretched scar that dents her belly, there are the veins that run the length of her biceps, there is the white round of her left eye. "It's not much."

"It's lovely," she tells him, because she believes it is.

"The subject is lovely." He settles the tablet up on one of his studio's many easels, wiping his hands on an old rag. "Even if she is up past her bedtime."

Fuujin shrugs. Her class load tomorrow at the Garden is light, and even were it not, she's taught longer days on less sleep than she'll likely yet get this night. "I'd rather be with you." The last word descends into a yawn, though, and now it is her turn to look sheepish.

He smiles, walking over to where she sits and kneeling on the stone floor in front of her, putting his head on her lap. "Insomnia is a harsh mistress."

"She can't have you all the time." Fuujin runs her fingers through his hair, feeling the old, faded lines along his scalp that his thick hair just barely hides. She draws her knuckles across the back of his cheek, rubbing away the mark there. "There. You looked like one of your canvases."

That makes him laugh, and he nuzzles her thigh. "What would I do without you?" When she does not offer an answer to his question, he kisses her belly just where it meets the curve of her hip, reaching up his his strong hands, his artist's hands, to part her bare thighs. The shadows and curves he's spent so long admiring this evening have become a woman again, scars and lines and all, and she knows he wouldn't have her any other way. With a smile, she settles more comfortably in the loveseat, letting her knees fall to either side of his shoulders, closing her eyes as his kisses trail all the way in.

Full Contact

Seifer needs to shower more often.

At least, that's Squall's verdict as he's pinned beneath the blond boy's arm, having a hold demonstrated on him with slightly more force than is probably strictly necessary. "That's good," Quistis says, and Squall suspects she's paired them together out of some perverse logic that says working together will develop comeraderie. Most of what it's developing is a slight sense of light-headedness, as Seifer's grip is strong around his neck, and he smells so strongly of sweat that Squall knows he should want to gag, and can't quite figure out yet why he doesn't quite.

"All right," Quistis nods, folding her arms. "Squall, demonstrate the appropriate response." It's the order he's been waiting for. Putting his smaller frame to use, he bends down as low as the situation will allow, sweeping at the back of Seifer's knees with his far leg.

It doesn't come off as well as he might have hoped, however, and instead of being knocked loose, Seifer takes a tighter grip around Squall's neck than an unprepared man would reasonably have, pulling them both down. Squall lands mostly on the bottom, cushioning Seifer's ungainly fall, and they are a tangle of sweat-sheened limbs and thin cotton practice gear, and Seifer's arm is still around the bare skin of his neck, and one of Seifer's knees has somehow come to rest between his thighs, and Seifer still reeks of heavy sweat, and he has to get up right now or Squall cannot be held responsible for his actions. "Get off me!" he grunts, pushing Seifer away as best as leverage will allow.

Seifer rolls off with almost exactly as much expediency as Squall might have hoped, scuttling away from the unexpectedly full contact. The class politely refrains from laughing, and Quistis claps her hands twice to draw attention to her again. "All right, switch positions and try it again."

Keeping composure solely by not meeting Seifer's eye, Squall holds his arm out to his side and, when Seifer is bent and slightly forward, draws Seifer securely into a headlock. Seifer is tall, however -- has always been taller than Squall, much to Squall's chagrin -- and where Squall had hunkered down to accomodate the hold, Seifer stands as upright as possible, pushing his bristle-short, thick hair against the underside of Squall's jaw. Get on with it, he thinks as hard as he can, and as though hearing his words, Quistis claps her hands once. "Excellent. Seifer, the appropriate response."

In an attempt to prevent a repeat of the previous tangle, Squll lets the muscles in his arms go almost slack, expecting the shock of the blow to knock him off-balance, but keep them both upright. Seifer, however, has plans that do not coincide with the day's lesson. He attacks not with his feet but with his hands, taking his arms around Squall's waist and body-slamming them both to the floor; Squall lands on his back again this time, with Seifer's face perilously near his lower belly, and his get off get off get off! instinct makes his earlier response seem tame. He rolls out from Seifer's grip, sprawling flat and letting the air return to his lungs.

"Seifer!" Quistis shouts. "That's a good way to break your neck! Twenty-five laps!" Seifer grunts, pulling himself to his feet to meet his punishment, but not before shooting Squall a look of grim satisfaction. "The rest of you, pair up, practice appropriately. And Squall?" As the other SeeD hopefuls break into twos, working on their hand-to-hand combat, Quistis strides over, standing over Squall in a stance that's far too wide for a skirt that's that short; Squall's gaze makes it halfway up the inside of her thighs before he forces himself to look at her face. "You can take off early. Stop by the infirmary if you think you need to."

Squall, disinclined to protest, hurries out of the training center. Under other circumstances, he might resent the show of leniency, but for some reason, the opportunity to be alone in the shower room sounds really good right now.


She'd been disappointed when she'd stopped growing, especially when her slight early height advantage disappeared in the wake of everyone else's puberty, and she found herself having to look up to her classmates (and really up to Raijin, but that was all right). She took her short stature as a personal insult. "Stupid," she muttered at Seifer, even though she felt he was one of the few people in her life who deserved complete sentences.

"You talking about me again?" Seifer gave her a little grin as he leaned forward, locking his fingers together behind the ball of his outstretched foot. For someone as big as he'd become, he was still so flexible.

"No. Me." Fuujin laced up her training boots, which some days felt heavier than she did. "Short."

Seifer snorted, and she was glad his forehead was pressed to his knee so she didn't have to see his expression. "You're not short. You're girl-sized."

That made her scowl all the more. "Don't want to be." The rest of the class had already finished gearing up and were getting into position for hand-to-hand training; she could have been done before them all, but Seifer had been late, and she didn't want to leave him doing his warm-up all alone. "Useless."

"You're not useless." Now the other leg, Seifer's long adolescent limbs furling and unfurling in front of him.

"...Never mind." The instructor was blowing her whistle now, giving the stragglers meaningful looks, and Fuujin poked Seifer in the shoulder. "Hurry."

Seifer reached for his own padded, rubber-soled boots and jerked them on. "Hey, today's teams, right?"

"Yes." All the students were already pairing off, the sharpest and most capable students snatched first, the others more hesitant about their selections; she saw Quistis and Xu standing side by side, linking pinkies in a way that did not seem very soldierlike or dignified to Fuujin at all.

"You're gonna be my partner, right?" He gave her a sliver of a grin, then hopped to his feet.

She wished she had two good eyes to blink at him. "Raijin?"

The only one of the three capable of maintaining outside friendships, Raijin stood chatting up a trio of boys who combined might be as big as he, and Seifer shook his head in that direction. "You think we'd get anywhere with us two lugs out there? I need someone small and quick. Sure, you see me, I'm a big, strong guy, so you get ready to fight a big, strong guy. But you're just as strong as me, and nobody'd expect it to look at you." Eyes straight ahead on the instructor, and not on her, he fell in line. "And I don't trust anybody but you watching my back."

There wasn't anything else to be said to that, really, but when the teacher called roll to confirm pairs, her hand lifted in unison with his, and when their turn came to enter the ring, she found for the first time in her life that the expression the other team wore, that dismissive look that said you're nothing, nothing at all, made her lips curl in a thin smile.


It had to start with a fight. That was the unspoken rule -- some sort of angry confrontation, to allow for plausible deniability between them. First the insults, then Seifer would get hot-headed and Squall would pretend not to care, then the fists would start flying, and then, if no one else were around, mouths would pick up where fists left off.

Seifer'd started it this time; he usually did. He'd called Squall vulgar names in the training arena until the entire class had gotten the idea that the two didn't like one another, so that when everyone cleared out and the two of them hung back, everyone left them alone to their fight. At last, alone after practice, Squall waited until the noise of retreating footsteps had died down, then came at Seifer with her right fist, aimed straight at his nose.

But Seifer was quick for being so big, and he deflected her blow, sending Squall off-balance. She turned the tilt into a spin, then came at him with a roundhouse kick, aimed right at the backs of his knees. He dodged, but just barely, thrown by her attack. This was usually the point at which she let herself be overpowered, made a stupid move they both knew was a stupid move so she ended up on her back and he ended up on top of her. This time, however, she came at him with guns blazing, stronger than he'd expected. When the next sweeping kick came, Seifer moved a second too slowly, and wound up thrown back to the floor.

Squall was on him in half a second, going for his pants, ripping her underwear when taking it off seemed too much of a hassle. Her hand curled around his cock and stroked him twice, pulling him to fuller hardness; he'd obviously expected to have been given more time to prepare for this, but she wasn't in a giving mood today. She straddled his hips, held his cock in place, and slammed him deep into her.

He groaned and closed his eyes, panting heavily as she rode him in the dirt, fisting clumps of his jacket in her hands to keep her balance. Her short hair stuck to the back of her neck with the sweat of exertion, and she let go only long enough to toss off her own leather jacket. She then grabbed his one of his hands and shoved it up under her shirt, under her sportsbra, guiding his large, rough fingers to her nipples and gasping when they found their target. His other hand she slipped between her legs, to the place just before their bodies joined, pressing his thumb to the bud of her clit and rocking it back and forth. He took the hint and continued the motion himself, and she sunk teeth into her lip as she came shortly afterward.

Despite the surprise of a number of things' not having gone his way that afternoon, Seifer's climax was not far behind hers, and she bit back a grin as he gasped and arched his back, coming hard and hot inside of her. She waited until his eyes opened again before letting him slip still half-hard out of her and standing. Her underwear were ruined, so she tore them off completely, drew them between her legs with a sour face, and tossed them into his face, then walked out of the training arena without looking back.


The first blow glanced off Auron's chest, hitting his coat and slipping away. The second one landed dead-on, but the sincerity behind it had already begun to wane. By the time the third strike came, the owner of the fists was already crumpling to the ground, and it was up to Auron to catch his would-be assailant, his foster son.

He caught Tidus easily, wrapping his arms around the boy's chest, pulling him close enough to feel his racking sobs. Tidus' hands fisted hard in his coat, holding on with strength the blows hadn't had, clinging with a desparation that far outweighed any anger. Carefully, Auron sturdied his knees beneath him, then drew Tidus to his chest, pressing him there as though he were afraid that at any moment Tidus might disappear.

The wind whipped cruelly through the hollow city, carrying the sound of Tidus' grief far away from the rest of the party; Auron was grateful for nature's concession to the young man's dignity. He opened his mouth to mutter something consoling and meaningless, but shut it when he realised the wind would only take that as well. And he had nothing left to say, nothing that Tidus didn't already know, or wouldn't learn once they entered Yunalesca's halls.

So he pressed his hand across Tidus' blonde hair -- which had long ago begun giving way to thick brown roots -- and took a deep, calming breath. He let it slip audibly through his lips, then breathed deeply again. In and out, each breath a conscious effort, too close for Tidus to ignore.

Once upon a time, Braska had held him like this, and Auron had wept out on his summoner's shoulders the weight of the world, the pain of his inability to do what he had sworn -- to keep Braska safe. He, too, had sobbed there in the dead city, a boy overcome by despair and exhaustion, a frightened child in the night. And Braska had held him, and stroked his hair, and breathed with him. In and out, just like now, just like the way Tidus' lungs ceased their sobbing to fall in with the pace Auron set. In and out, and slowly, anguish gave way to calm, and helplessness gave way to peace.

In a world out of control, if all you can control is your own breath, then breathe with all your might, and let the rest come as it will.

Finally, Tidus shuddered one last time and unclenched his fists, falling away and making as though to stand on his own. He didn't get far, but the impetus was there. "Feel better?" Auron asked.

"No," Tidus answered miserably, pressing the palms of his hands to his eyes. But he wore a weary, hard-earned smile. "...Kinda. Thanks."

Auron returned the smile as best he could, nodding. He wanted so badly to tell Tidus that it would be all right, that it would all be okay. But the wind stole the words from his mouth before he could even speak them, and they were gone.

Into the Deep

There was a beach in the Farplane, a quiet little place that sometimes wasn't even there at all. It didn't disturb Auron to arrive to find the shore deserted; he was content to sit and wait, for hours, or even days, until the beach's resident came to find him.

"Hi." The sand resettled as Tidus sat down next to him, curled his head into Auron's lap.

"Hello, yourself." He opened his eyes -- both of them, here and now, though sometimes just one, depending on how he felt -- and drew his ponytail away from where it had fallen over his shoulder. "Nice night."

"Mm." Tidus stretched out, cat-like, settling himself into the sand that never got in your clothes the way real sand did, a sensation Auron missed not at all. "I like the beach at night."

And that was the extent of their greetings sometimes. They would sit there for hours, days, on end, sometimes talking endlessly, sometimes saying nothing, until one of them felt ready to go, or a third party showed up -- an advent which, more often than not, meant Tidus disappeared. Auron threaded his fingers through Tidus' dark hair. "I know," he whispered. The sharpness of the salt air stung his eyes, and he shut them again. There was nothing here that had to be seen now; there was no urgency, only patience. It suited Auron very well.

Perhaps hours, or days, later, he felt Tidus move and opened his eyes to see the boy stand and walk down to the shoreline. It was still night; it was always night here, unless it wasn't. "Tidus?" he called softly, pulling himself to his feet.

"You don't like the ocean, do you?" The wind whipped Tidus' hair around his face, catching his words and bringing them to Auron despite the sea roar.

Auron shrugged, stepping closer. "I don't dislike the ocean." His own coat and hair blew back behind him, moved by the strong breeze that came in off the waves. "But I do prefer the land sometimes."

"Why?" The surf broke nearly to the edge of their shoes.

He took a long time to answer, but it was all right; time was not a commodity the way it was in Spira. "There is no down, no up. Only flat planes of movement." The sunglasses Tidus had given him, an incongruity in his otherwise youthful appearance, held the stray strands of hair from his face. "I like boundaries."

Tidus thought about this for a weighty moment, then turned and held out his hand. "Come on," he said, and that was that.

Auron took his hand without hesitation or reserve; their hands locked together, fingers twined tightly, and when Tidus led him into the water, Auron followed. The waves lapped darkly, and he could not see where they went, but Tidus had him, and that was enough; he would know what he had to do when he got there. All he had to do was keep breathing.

All in the Same Direction

She was a bit off-putting, but an altogether nice woman, intelligent and possessed of a dry wit; he didn't know how she managed wearing that ridiculous dress, but Braska's robes had been almost as cumbersome, and he figured that if it worked for her, who was he to say anything about it? She kept Yuna in line and on time, which impressed him greatly, as he understood better than anyone else in the group how guarding a summoner was like herding a very independent cat. She never slowed the party down, had trudged up Gagazet with admirable tenacity, and had proven herself very useful when the firewood was wet, all of which conspired to make Auron like the woman.

She was also seated next to him on some abandoned Zanarkand doorstep -- the one which had led to the supermarket, if he remembered correctly -- crying her eyes out, and he was tremendously afraid that this was supposed to be the point where he put his arm around her shoulders and said comforting things. He took a small breath. "I'm sorry?"

"Not your fault," Lulu sniffled, running her sleeve under her nose demurely, clutching a stuffed cat beneath her other elbow. "I'm just--"

"You're tired. We all are." He shifted a little closer, lifted his arm to make a move towards comforting her, but she drew her sleeve under her nose again, and he shied away, lest a stray elbow clobber him in the chest. "When Braska, Jecht, and I got into the city, we had to rest nearly a week before we could go on."

She looked up at him, and the red irises of her eyes seemed to have cracked and spread veins out along the whites of her eyes. "I thought I'd be okay. Yuna's made her decision, she made it a long time ago, and I came all this way with her knowing how it would end." Biting her lip, she gave a ladylike hiccup of a sob. "But now we're here, I ... I don't know how I'm supposed to let her...." Her words trailed off into silence, powerless to finish the sentence.

Auron took a deep, slow breath. She'd made it nearly this far before, he knew, with another summoner, but with Yuna it was different. With Yuna, everything was different. "One foot in front of the other," he spoke softly. "One step at a time, and all in the same direction."

Still uncertain about what the appropriate gesture at this point should be, he lifted his hand and set it on the furry collar of her jacket, taking great pains not to actually touch skin. This, however, prompted her to sniffle and fall into the touch, leaning against his chest; his arm sort of fell behind her, so he rested it against her upper arm, taking all his cues from her. "Promise you won't tell anyone I cried?" she asked softly, pathetically.

"Promise," he said, and he gave her a little hug.


Auron always felt lucky when the dream that was Zanarkand expressed its constant favouritism toward Tidus by automatically cleaning up the water the young man left in his wake whenever he decided that toweling off after a shower was too much trouble. Like today. Bare naked, trailing drops that vanished unnoticed on contact with the floor, he galumphed out of the shower in the way only seventeen-year-old boys can and flopped on Auron's bed. "That's better," he sighed, rubbing his bare and drying tummy happily.

"I'm glad." Auron knew he shouldn't be encouraging such behaviour, then wondered why exactly it was he shouldn't, then settled on simply smiling. "If I made some tea, would you want any?"

"Tea? No. Coffee? Yes." Tidus' fondness for what Auron still considered an Al Bhed drink seemed vaguely alarming at times, particularly when expressed as a preference for the much more pleasant (and less caffeinated) tea. Nonetheless, Auron put away the teakettle and switched on the coffee maker. "Wanna order out for food?"

The coffee maker began percolating almost instantly, and Auron wondered if that was another function of the city, or if coffee just made water boil faster. "Or I could make breakfast," he offered. "I have eggs in the--"

"Ordering breakfast means you can be over here," he pointed to the empty space on the bed next to him, "and not over there," a rather dismissive gesture in the direction of the small portion of the studio apartment that served as a kitchen. Rummaging through a pair of pants left to the floor the night before, he produced a cell phone and pressed a few numbers. "I'm starving. What do you want?"

Auron smiled again, feeling the marks of premature age in his face soften whenever he did. "Whatever you're having."

Tidus acknowledged the order with a grin, then proceeded to have an animated conversation -- topic limited entirely to foodstuff, with an extra minute to make sure 'vegetarian' meant vegetarian -- with the unheard person on the other end of the floating phone. "Ten minutes!" he announced finally, snapping it shut.

"All right." Two mugs of steaming coffee, one as much milk as coffee, the other as much sugar, made their way gently in Auron's hands across the fifteen feet from the kitchen to the bed. "Here you are."

Tidus took both mugs from Auron's hands, placed them on the bedside table, and grabbed the hem of Auron's short robe in both hands. "I said, ten minutes."

Auron looked askance at the steaming mugs. "The coffee will get cold," he said, knowing damn well it wouldn’t.

Tidus shrugged. "Let it."

Over the Mountain

Auron was at heart a quiet person, quiet enough that he knew he shouldn't be worried by the sleeping lump of Jecht twenty feet away, who had barely made it over the mountain and had enough Sleep spells on him to keep him out through an earthquake. Still, he wanted to be cautious, and so when Braska offered his fingers, Auron took them into his mouth willingly.

They were all so tired, exhausted physically from too many nights on Gagazet breathing thin, dry air and listening to Jecht's lungs collapse like wet sponges, exhausted emotionally from the constant spectre of the dome in the distance. The dome where Jecht had played blitzball, the dome that was unquestionably their final destination. So final, in fact, that Braska had no qualms about taking an extra week to stop in its shadow and recuperate. If they walked in like they were, he reasoned, they'd fall over at the sight of the first fiend. Even Auron, who had always been the one pressing forward, accepted his Summoner's decision with no small enthusiasm.

The dome -- and the knowledge of what lay inside -- scared them all, particularly scared Braska, who lay his body atop Auron's and kissed his shirt open. Auron would never admit to himself the number of times he had imagined such a situation, and therefore had no fantasy against which to compare reality, which itself was a rather tenuous thing when they were all so tired. Might he be dreaming it? He supposed so, then reconsidered. He'd never dream the tears running down Braska's cheeks.

His arms wrapped so easily around Braska's small, thin body, held him tight, found their way up beneath the light shirt he habitually wore beneath his robes, the only shirt he wore now as his tattered robes were mended and dried. He could feel the outline of Braska's ribs beneath his smooth skin. Was this his fault? Had he not been doing his job, that Braska had grown so thin? Perhaps it had always been like this, with his hands never before allowed to know what they learned now with every touch.

Braska's hands moved over him, and his hands over Braska's, and he was glad the Summoner seemed to know what he was doing, as Auron had no concept or practice as such. He'd never even recieved a kiss -- something he'd learned as a child was an event prized outside the temple as a mark of sexual maturation -- before Braska rolled over from where he slept tucked against Auron's side, took his face in both gentle hands, and pressed their lips together. Beyond that, there was no arguing with the man for whom he'd sworn long ago he'd do anything.

And then, after Auron's cries had been muffled indeed by Braska's fingers, the Summoner collapsed against his Guardian, curled on his side like a child, weeping softly for his fate, for his daughter, for what his love for all the world had brought him to, and it was all Auron could do to wrap him in his arms and whisper declarations of devotion and assurances that everything would be all right, even when he knew it would not.


He was meditating so deeply, there on the little cliff overlooking the inlets, a spot here he could remember – in another life, it seemed by now, and it was – a tiny park where he and Tidus had often gone on too-brief sunny days, that he didn't even notice Yuna's approach until she plopped herself down behind him, resting her cheek against the plane of his shoulderblades. "Gil for your thoughts."

Auron smiled, glancing over his shoulder with his good eye. "Just remembering."

"Remembering when you were here before?"

"Yes," he told her, and it wasn't exactly a lie, though he had been fighting a losing war with himself trying to keep his memories of the last time he had been in these ruins at bay. "I'll return it to hear yours."

He couldn't see her, but he could hear her smile. "Thinking about my father." Yuna put her hand on his shoulder, his bad shoulder, and it took great self-control to keep himself from shuddering her touch away. "...I'm glad you're here."

"I wish I weren't." Auron could feel her stiffen. "...That's not what I mean. I mean, I wish it hadn't come to this. That we had defeated it last time."

"But you did! You won!"

"No, Yuna." He didn't turn, couldn't bear to see her face, but she had to hear it. "We didn't defeat it. We stalled it. And if Braska knew you were here now, preparing to sacrifice yourself into the same cycle … he wouldn't count it a victory. And neither do I."

"...Sir Auron?"

He sighed and bowed his head. "I do not wish to demean your father's sacrifice. However ... it was meaningless."

Her hand closed into a fist around his robe. "Don't say that."

"It was." It broke his heart to say, but it was true, and she had to hear it. She had to hear it if this was going to work. "He died to keep you safe, and yet ... you're here." Auron squinted into the orange sky, thinking it looked so wrong like this, when all he really remembered of Zanarkand was night. "Do you think he would have wanted this?"

"I..." Yuna swallowed, and he could hear tears at the edge of her voice. "...I don't remember him. I mean, I've heard stories, but ... nothing real. ...Until I met you. And you didn't remember the high summoner. You remember ... my daddy."

Auron swallowed hard, feeling his own vision sting. "...Would you like to hear more?" He felt her nod against his back. "Then come so I can see you."

Yuna crawled around him, all skirts and determination and bright eyes, not beside him as he had expected, but into his lap, like a child. And Auron wrapped his arms around her small frame and rocked her gently, telling the Daughter of Braska about just how dearly he had loved her father until the night came and the stars appeared.

Absent Friends

You can sleep in here, Tidus had told him, pushing open the double doors to what appeared to be the houseboat's master bedroom. The boy was gone now, to his own bedroom just beyond the wall; he hadn't asked to be tucked in, and Auron hadn't offered, so they'd made their good-byes and shut the doors between them, and now Auron was alone in the room that smelled of Jecht.

If ever there'd been any question he'd picked the right orphan, it was erased the moment Auron stepped inside. The room smelled like Jecht, the salt of his sweat all tangled with the sharp odor of alcohol Auron had learned to hate so early in their pilgrimage. He'd been a heavy drinker already when he'd left Zanarkand, hadn't he said? Those things didn't just happen overnight, even to men torn worlds away from their homes and families.

He stripped himself down to his trousers and made himself stand in front of the room's full-length mirror, made himself assess the damage for the first time since coming to Zanarkand, for the first time since aging overnight from the young guardian to the old man. On the one hand, he looked like shit, but on the other, he looked pretty good for being dead. He didn't know if that was something someone ever got over, being dead. It seemed so tragically mundane, so devoid of fanfare. He'd always expected that Unsent would have to put forth some effort to stay, to concentrate in order to hang on, when it turned out all you had to do was just ... not go.

The drawers were still full of Jecht's things -- no one'd had the heart to pack them up, he supposed -- so Auron took out a thin cloth shirt to serve as nightclothes. He'd pulled it halfway over his head when he stopped, enclosed there in the cotton darkness, his arms still drawn over his head, and just breathed in. Everything was a mess; everything was madness. Dead, he'd stepped into a dream, leaving behind the only two real friends he'd ever had in the world, one even deader than he, one still alive but changed, both of whom he'd loved.

He could say that now, he supposed, now that they were far beyond hearing. They'd probably known it anyway, had pretended ignorance so as not to shame him, but he'd loved them both, been in love with them both -- even Jecht, the thorn in his side, the worthless drunkard, the one who'd had the strength to make the sacrifice when Auron's had failed him. He tugged the shirt down the rest of the way, emerging into the air, surfacing. It was comically big on him, but made him feel safe, a talisman stronger and more valuable than any other -- armour for the heart.

"I'll save you," he told the empty room in the world where the dreamers were always listening. "I swear I will."


He stood still, his hands fisted into the cuffs of sleeves still too long for his arms, holding his breath, trying to be a ghost. But the summoner was looking right at him.

A drum began to beat, low and even, and the monks surrounding the summoner started up the chant, their deep, rumbling voices joining in heavy harmonies. Auron, who had never thought of himself as having a particularly lovely or even passable singing voice, mouthed the words to keep up appearances, but made no sound. In their center, the young man raised his staff above his head and began to spin it in his hands. Wind blew in from the sky on a day there was no wind, rustling the summoner's rust-brown hair and cutting icy even through Auron's heavy robes.

The summoner was barely ten years Auron's senior, and he was going to try and die. His guardians, two fierce-looking women and a wispy middle-aged man, hung off to the side, away from the circle; there was no need for vigilance in this sanctuary. His eyes were blue, not like the sky but like the ocean, and his hands that gripped the jointed oaken staff were strong, veined along their backs and knobbed at the knuckles. Barefoot, he spun across the raw dirt, turning in endless circles, spiralling toward the center.

Now the wind blew chill, turning the season to midwinter and the afternoon to crystalline twilight as she descended, her skin transluscent as though she herself were carved whole from ice. Auron watched in amazement as the day's remaining light refracted through her limbs, casting its shimmering glow on the faithful's awestruck faces. Even the guardians, who had undoubtedly seen this spectacle countless times before, watched with barely concealed amazement. Only the summoner himself appeared unaffected by her arrival, even as she slowly touched down upon the ground; where her toes touched earth, crackles of frost spread out, delicate as spiderwebs.

She raised her hands and brought them out before her, and when she unfolded them, a mist rose into the air. Twisting on the currents, it spun and sparkled, and Auron had no time to register what had happened before it had set upon him, dusting his hair and shoulders, pinkening his nose with the chill. She winked at him, then turned to the summoner, who kissed her knuckles briefly before dismissing her.

When the ritual had ended and chaos had scattered the once-tightly held order, Auron found himself face to face with the summoner, who looked so small flanked by his ever-vigilant guardians. "I think she likes you," smiled the blue-eyed pilgrim, whose voice was liquid and golden, and crept into Auron's skin to chase away the lingering chill. "Not every young man's as lucky as you to earn such a frosty beauty's favour." That earned a warm laugh from those within earshot, and even Auron himself managed a sheepish smile.

That night, however, as he lay on his mat in the darkened dormitory among his fellow postulants, he found his thoughts returning not to the summon's icy magnificence, but the summoner's ocean-deep eyes.


Night alongside the Highroad was warm, and relatively quiet except for Jecht's heavy snoring. Auron considered smothering him with the shirt he'd removed and bundled under his own head for a pillow, then decided the lout was hardly worth the effort. Instead, he glanced to his side where Braska sat, mending a tear in his robes by the firelight. "You should get some rest," said Auron.

"Perhaps," Braska admitted, frowning at a stitch. "Tell me, Auron, why did you decide to join the service of Yevon?"

The question caught him off-guard, though perhaps not as much as it might have even only a few months ago; Auron had since grown used to Braska's constant internal thoughts, and the ostensibly non sequiter remarks they produced. "...I was given by my family to the Temple at an early age, and stayed because I felt I had a purpose there, until the ... circumstances surrounding my departure." His eyes searched the stars above them, seeking the patterns of familiar constellations: the Hunter, the Raven. "...Of all the things I'd prepared myself to face in the course of my service, marriage had not been one of them."

"Which is understandable, I feel." Unseen, the fabric in Braska's hands shifted, the sound of motion on an otherwise windless night, continuing for nearly a full minute before Braska spoke again. "You know I lived with the Al Bhed for several years prior to my return to Bevelle, yes?"

"I know." Though Braska himself had mentioned it to him before, gossip had carried the news to Auron's ears long before he had even made a proper acquaintance of Braska. Few from the Temple were sent (as punishment, invariably) to mission to the Al Bhed, and far fewer still extended their time with the outcast group longer than absolutely necessary, making the one who had not only done precisely that, but brought back an Al Bhed wife, news indeed.

Braska's robes rustled as he resettled himself beside the fire, and his hands stilled. "Wonderous people, the Al Bhed. All people are different, of course, and must be taken as individuals, but those I met all had in them such ... such tremendous capacity for adaptation, for change -- as well as for love."

Auron's eyes found the Ship, sailing along the same starry sea it had since long before his birth. "Change hardly comes easy to us," he said, not bothering to add that love among Yevonites seemed an even rarer quantity.

"I suppose not. To our detriment, I feel." One of the logs in the fire cracked and split, sending a shower of sparks upward. "...Did you know that there are those who believe that the Yevonite prohibitions against sexual intimacies and improprieties are not part of the original text, but are, in fact, later amendments to the greater canon, added in an attempt to further anathematise the Al Bhed's use of machina?" Braska's hands stirred again with the motions of mending. "I personally find myself in agreement with this viewpoint."

For a moment, Auron felt his heart stop in his chest; he felt he could hardly speak, much less look at the man beside him. "Lord Braska, I--"

"Would you hand me Jecht's shirt?" Braska's tone was cheerful. "We've just gotten him to start wearing one, and I'd hate for the hole he tore in the sleeve today to give him an excuse to stop."

Auron swallowed. "Of course." He picked up the fabric from where it lay by the fire and offered it to Braska, who took it from Auron with a kind smile and a gentle brush of his fingers along the back of Auron's hand, and Auron found himself wondering why he should be surprised that Braska knew something Auron had barely admitted to himself, when, really, the greater surprise would come if ever they came across a person whose heart Braska could not read on sight.

"Thank you, Auron," Braska said, and Auron settled on his back again, eyes fixed on the sky, making sense of light out from the darkness, remembering how to breathe.


He'd done what the monks of his childhood would have suggested and meditated on his dislike of the man, in the hope that such mental gymnastics might help him to recognise even this reprobate as a beloved and valuable child of Yevon, but even hours spent concentrating under a cold waterfall had not convinced him to like Jecht. In fact, they'd put him in an even worse mood, and now he sat shivering around the campfire, waiting in an unexpectedly cool evening wind for his clothes to dry.

"By this time, we were thirty points down, and the crowd there wouldn't've pissed on us to put us out if we'd been on fire!" Jecht laughed at his own story, and to make matters even worse, Braska laughed with him. "And my wife and kid were there, and I told the coach, my two-year-old can stop a ball better than our goalie can!"

He was considering making a written list of all the things he hated about Jecht, and the only thing that stopped him was the thought of how sad Braska would be if he ever found the list. Braska, bless his heart, wanted only for his two guardians to get along, much in the same way, Auron supposed, a mother would try to reconcile her two feuding children. But Braska was compelled by his status to seek out and embrace the good in everyone's heart -- or, as Auron assumed was the case here, to make it up when there was none.

"And I would've done it, too, if I didn't think my wife would've divorced me on the spot!" The two of them laughed amongst themselves, the married men who understood the ways women worked. "And the coach said, what do you mean the goalie, I'm gonna substitute that kid for you if you can't keep the ball on the right side of the court!"

He hated Jecht's absurd and obviously fabricated stories about being some sports hero. He had hated Jecht's drunken laugh, but was coming to realise that he now hated Jecht's sober laugh even more. He hated Jecht's stupid tattoo on his stupidly muscular chest that he was too stupid to wear a shirt over. He hated the way Braska hung on every ridiculous word out of Jecht's mouth.

"So what I told him then is, you give that boy ten or fifteen years, and your damn right you'll be substituting him for me!" Jecht's roar grew a little soft at the end, and he exhaled, poking at the coals with a stick he'd picked up off the ground; the firelight reflected off eyes that looked a thousand years distant. "Wonder if he's doing all right. Eating all right. Keeping up with his practice and all. Never did get a chance to teach him how to breathe the water."

He hated Jecht's soft spot for his son that made it impossible to keep hating him. "...How do you learn something like that?" Auron asked, unable to stop the question from slipping out of his mouth, in that moment looking at anything but the smile he knew sat on Braska's face at the suggestion the more cantankerous of his chidren might not be made entirely of granite.

"It's easy," said Jecht, looking over the flames at his fellow guardian, the mouth Auron hated curled up at the ends into a grin. "You just find someone you trust more than anything else in the world and have 'em hold you under until you start to drown. And then you don't drown."

He hated how Jecht made the impossible sound effortless. "Oh," said Auron, deciding that now was a wonderful time to see if his socks were dry.

That night he dreamed of Jecht's strong, scarred hands, palms flat against his own bare chest, pressing him down into the deep pool beneath the waterfall; he knew he should struggle, make some protest for his life -- but there was no fear, only the heavy warmth of Jecht's body weighting him down; and so he closed his eyes and waited for the water to fill his lungs.

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