By The Queen of Blueberry Toast a/k/a Aoi-chan [] 
Vanyel Askevron the Lesser []

FF7 property of some lovely Japanese guys who are much better than I am than drawing pretty pictures of chibified swordsmen.  I don’t claim to be one of them, to own any part of this.  But I do claim to have had a splendid time playing the game… trying to kill Ruby… trying to kill Ruby… umm… rearranging materia… trying to kill Ruby…

Rabbits: Have you even ATTEMPTED Emerald yet?

Oh! Thou taunt me so! <Runs off weeping like a ninny.>


The space between
What’s wrong and right
Is where you’ll find me, hiding waiting for you

-Dave Matthews Band


(I) The Aria: Light and Weight

“400 gil.”

“I’ll need two tickets.”

“One bunk or two? Two’s 800 of course, but if you’re gonna share, that’s only 600.”

“One bunk then.”

Behind them, the wharf was filled with salty vapors and the usual bustle of the fisher fold, the townsfolk doing business with them  There was no mistaking the odor of the seafood market, despite that the streets had just been doused with sawdust that morning.  The stranger's footprints were still clear in it as he reached into his shirt, fumbling there for some time before finally handing over his money.  The agent selling tickets recounted the coins; good deal of them, all in small amounts.  His customer was silent unlike the whirls of calico skirts and handkerchiefs that obscured most of the market.  A loud iron bell was clanging behind them, a street musician trying to drown it out with the rustic little hum of his accordion and the clacking of change in his hat.  The pearl merchant had come to work that day and was flirting with some usurers from behind her drifting strands of white orbs.

And though there were not many children in the village of Clementina these days, a flock of them had
gathered to flutter about the shade between some of the more permanent buildings- playing tag it seemed,
though suddenly they had ceased, and stood now in unusual wonderment, gazing at a bundle slung over one
of the benches.

"Hey that's pretty big," began one of the older ones, probably pointing as he spoke.

"I wonder what it is?" a girl rejoined.

"I bet it’s a fish." A third voice sensibly declared; despite its tender age already succumbed to habit..

"Don't be stupid," a curt little girl scoffed, "Its obviously a sea monster.  You don't tarp fish up like that
unless they’re REALLLY scary."

"Maybe it’s a mermaid." her sister supposed.

"It smells funny." The first voice again, followed by another unfamiliar one.

"That's just Tishi."

"What woulda mermaid be doin' here in the middle of town?"

And then some hushed and childish gasps.  "I think it moved!", "It did!"

"It is a mermaid! See, it just sparkled" This one would not have given up on her daydream for anything.

"I didn't see nothin’."

"It did too! Watch, it'll do it again!"

The fellow waiting for his tickets motioned to the merchant he would be back shortly, and sprinted into the
flock, arms waving as if the young ones were indeed birds that might be frightened away by unfamiliar
movements.  "Hey! All of you! Get away! Shoo! Go play somewhere else, you brats!"

The ticket-seller chuckled gruffly to himself.  Whoever this visitor was, he had no experience dealing with
children, though at his attempt they did scatter like startled fiddler crabs- their eyes widened and gleaming
from the hiding places from which they watched the stranger stride back to his ticket window.  His cloak
was really a bit small for him, as he was of the broad-shouldered sort.  The pearl merchant had noticed this,
much to the dismay of those admiring her rather than her work.

"Just when is the next ship leaving?" the stranger asked.

"Well, I'm afraid one just DID leave the day before yesterday.  Which means it'll be at least five days until
the next one gets in AND is ready to head off again." His client was despondently still at this, his restless
shuffling finally ceased.  He found himself obliged to offer a ‘Sorry.’

"No...don't do that... Five days?"

"Sure as I'm alive its never been less than that.  Been more, never less."

The stranger paused a moment, and sensing no one behind him, slid into thought for a moment, almost
grudgingly.  The retired fisherman, now a better-to-do officially in change of managing all booking for sea
travel from Clementina, had seen his share of sailors trying to push their doubts about the weather from
their minds.  This was not unlike their manners.

"I'm telling you! It sparkled!"

"I still don't SEE it."

Yes, the shadow doubt.  Not that it was any of his business.  Somewhere he just caught the inquisitive
giggles, "Whatcha get that for?" was asked. The man before him didn't seem to hear the children in the
backdrop of all the other sounds in the harbor.

"How do the inns run around here?"

"There's only one inn, I'm afraid, and its 200 a night."

"Now its not even MOVING!"

"But it made a noise! It was all like 'oooooooooooh'."

"Maybe it’s a ghost, then."

The stranger wheeled on his heels just in time to see one of the older boys poking the mysterious bundle
with a thin length of drift wood.  He shouted again and stamped back to the shady nook.  This time, the
children all stood before him, utterly ignorant of his ire, being yet so taken with the package and the
excitement of their day.  They seemed to be hoping he would disappear.  "Didn't I just tell you anklebiters
to get lost!? Go on now! Get! All of you! And don't you dare come back, you hear? I mean it!"  His hands
flickered at them.  A few of them half giggled, half shouted.  He might have caught one on the cheek.
Mostly they took off.  The remaining few though would not even retreat though.  "Why you little...!" He
caught himself, caught remaining watchers by the shoulders, and shoved them away.

As he chased the last one for a few steps, his hood fell down, revealing a terrific shock of black hair.  The
old fisherman wished he wouldn't have had a chance to pull it back in place before he returned to the
window- he would have liked a better look at his face.

Zack meanwhile, found himself wondering why he'd even bothered with the cloak, as he cast himself down
on the bench beside his bundle. These had been a few long days.

/... and I can't let us go back there./

But of the 722 gil he’d managed to conjure in the brief seconds he'd had to recover his sword, almost none
of it was left.  Should he have waited one more moment…? Killed someone and made off with their *wallet*…?  But then he might not have had this luxury, sitting exhausted in the shade of the late morning sun, wondering what might have been.  He never second guessed, but even ages away, that time, the one moment centuries past… suddenly he wondered, if he had caught the silver hair in his hands instead, if he had not gone at all, if...


Stealing was out of the question.  Dishonorable and sloppy.  Begging? Playing on the pity of others was a
pathetic, dirty job and slow.  Not as if there weren't plenty of pathetic, dirty jobs to be had.  Yet there were
things he could not neglect at the moment.  Even if he was employed, still there was shelter to be thought of
and lying here beside the sea, the wonder of being carried out alone forever until the murky coastal waters
turned crystal blue and swallowed him up.  Could he fish? He could learn.

And yet the suspended consideration; the inevitable presence of stares and explanations.

He could always sell something on his person.

Yet what was a mercenary without a sword?

"At this rate," he told himself, his penchant for debating with himself out loud returning, "We'd have better
luck camping out in the woods.  Actually...  Hey!" he called to the ticket merchant once more.  "How about

The man at the window snorted with a wave of his hand "Nobody camps out around here ‘cept for the kids.
Last I saw, Mary Anne's had one for sale, since they do a nice business with clothes for the young ones.
Ninety-three I think it was.  Probably leaks though."

Oh, how those brats and their ceaseless energy had turned benefactors in the end.

"And just enough left over for a frying pan," he added to himself it seemed.  "How does that sound? Just
bein' out in the woods and the quiet.  Finally getting a real rest with no one around to bother us or ask

"Well," a most indignant female voice began, "*I* have a few questions, Mister."

Zack looked up into a coalescing mob of aproned women and brine-splattered men, fidgeting with their
arms or having crossed them over their chests in the most disapproving of ways.  He remembered this
small-town stare of theirs from his younger years.

At least from the other end of it.  The end which was disapproving.  But these mothers and fathers and
hangers on and the pearl merchant who must have been bored would probably get no other interest all day,
much as their offspring.  The accordion player, now without his audience, had stopped playing but the bell
tolled on.

Rudeness would be found insufferable and a decorum suspicious, not to mention condescending.  He got to
his feet and asked with a hint of grave casualness.  "Yes?"

"Just what do you think you're doing goin' on and beatin' on our kids?"

A few of the fishermen swung their rods about at this.  A small girl with pigtails appeared from behind the
speaker's skirt, and seeing him, promptly retreated into the folds of gingham.

"I only meant to scare 'em off.  Sorry if I hurt anybody."

"Scare them off from what?" someone huffed.  "You know children are naturally curious."

"Scare them off indeed," That was snorted.

"Yeah, they say you've been acting mighty peculiar." A few of the usurers and a baker or two leaned
forward at this.  Someone adjusted a their glasses as if they were a magnifying glass.

"And cranky!"

"Not nice at all," one of the kids piped up.

The first woman began again, attempting to keep her roll as the speaker for her town.  "Just what *are* you
doing here anyway?"

"Big swordsman like him's trouble." A fish-marked chap insisted, as if from experience, though doubtless
he was only quoting old wisdom of the area.

The pearl merchant giggled.

"Just barging in like this!" one of her customers added.

Zack absolutely choked down a groan.  Camping out was sounding even better.  Yet just as he was opening
his mouth to explain himself, he heard a low clank and a long, slow slither behind him.  He turned to see
his bundle slipping down the bench, its cloak billowing out with the motion.  The dangling feet could be
made out and the pale, scarred hands.  His sword toppled before him, out of the grey folds, its straps
clanking against it.  Zack barely noticed but his friend's hands were clenched about the hilt, as swiftly he
was slipping.  He caught Cloud before he fell on the sheath or the sawdust of the ground.  With one hand,
he swung the blade over his back and fastened its strap, and with the other he caught his companion around
the chest, dragging him until he was standing... sort of.  Cloud moaned a little in the tight grip that kept him

The fisherfolk watched this as they might have watched a naked harlequin; their lips puckered in
consideration, glasses once again adjusted.  So that's it, but what is it?

"He's not drunk, is he?" One matron hurriedly asked.

A wretched half-smile came to the swordsman’s lips at those words.  He was on display again, after all.
"My friend here, he's very sick."

"He's not got anything catching?" a few people cried at once, and a hiss went through the crowd.


"Well then," a burly dock worker with a scarf began,  "What's the matter with 'im?"

"He's heavily sedated and he's going to be for awhile.  He's in terrible pain otherwise, so its for the best.
Now, I'm sorry about the kids, but he really doesn't need poked yet.” At this, the parents of the driftwood
boy gave their son the "we'll talk" sort of look.  “I'm taking him to see a specialist in West Asgård."  He
paused, let them talk it out among themselves.  The buzz had come up, louder than before.  Zack sighed.
Lying his ass off was not his favorite pastime.

The woman who had first addressed him spoke out one more time as her daughter, once more rendered
fearless, fixed her eyes on one of Cloud's dangling hands as if it were a magick bauble of some sort.  "And
what do you intend to do in the mean time?"  The mother’s words dripped with imagined women and beer.

"We’re staying outside of town.  Don't worry." No one seemed to have any intention of worrying.  He still
asked, "They still have that tent in the window of Mary Anne's?"

"Last time I saw,"  The pearl merchant eagerly declared.

Thanking her being potentially hazardous to his health, he did not.  There had been some nodding, some
shrugging.  The pearl merchant had leaned up on her toes for a better view as someone slid before her to
whisper.  A few of the fish mongers realized their knives were dirty and wiped them on their clothes.  The
hum in the wings became an endless twining of conversations, loud as the market had been before, save
without the accordion player, who had hurried off to look for a less preoccupied corner.  The first few people to take their leave after him were some teenagers with butterfly nets who headed off towards the shore.

Watching the crowd finally slide off, he hitched his friend up against him and slowly began to tread away
himself.  There was something almost shameful about creeping off like this.

"Better just ask where the tailor's is and get out."

He stepped up and started to ask this of one an young man who was rather captivated by his blade and
proved all too happy to comply.

"Well, Mary Anne's is on the same street as Wally Dicken's pub,” He bubbled, nodding all the while.  “Just
take that road over there on the left and when you..."

"I won't hear of it!" The voice of these words was clear, or at least he thought at first he should call it clear, though  nothing transparent was incurred by it.  Unflawed perhaps were its tones, every syllable brought by
it was perfectly formed; ringing vaporous and true together.  It was nearly more mental than audible.  He
almost could have sworn it had missed his ears and this startled him.

The bevy of townsfolk continued to babble, but receded at its center.  Those that stepped aside dropped
their eyes and bumped into each other ever so slightly as she stepped out of the ranks.

She was a woman clad in the billows of white translucent silk that danced about her otherwise slim gown-
the sort that would have been fit for the Sunday walks of a generation ago.  It surely had been intended for
a fashionable young lady, but this woman… her hair was paler than the dress with its age, yet long and
straight, drifting all over her with mother of pearl threads, its wispy bangs cut like an adolescent girl's.  It
almost made her seem delicate or young, this absence of color, and it could not be said that her garb looked
bad on her at all, despite that the hand clasping the glass final of her walking stick was at least seventy.

The walking stick itself seemed superfluous and went unused, save for the commanding way she held it.
She peered out at him from the shade of her white hat, (It was one of the sort that is outstanding only for
the size of its brim which quite covered her shoulders with its shadow), her eyes a vivacious aquamarine,
yet rimmed with the most exquisite laugh lines and remembrances of tears.

Zack realized as she spoke to him, she took his marine layer irises with her own as the innocent rigors of
the world are wont to lead children to do, and she did this most easily, most adeptly with no distortion of
her forward gaze, as she was no shorter than he.

"Your friend there, he's not got anything wrong with his stomach, has he?"

"No..." His reply was rather slow.

"Well, he's a bloody mess otherwise, and I simply *can't* allow either of you to live like savages out in the
woods.  You don't look so spry yourself, you know."

He barely glanced away from her a moment, to see if he was being watched... he was.  Before she could
reclaim his sight, Cloud whimpered, almost losing his fragile footing.

The woman in white gave a cooing sigh and reached out her free hand, which glittered with a profusion of
diamond rings as she brushed it over the ill traveler's chin.  "Poor little angel, you need a rest, don't you?"
and she concluded, turning back to his companion.  "I absolutely insist you come with me.  I've a spare
room and you must use it."

The swordsman gulped completely by accident as he was, at best, embarrassed by the charity of the
gesture.  Still free of her eyes, he watched the gaze of the people as it fell on him, saying half a million
things with its empty disapproval, where there was still disapproval, and not a simple downcast of their
vision.  "Sorry, lady.  I just can't impose."

"Bah!" she retorted, waving her bejeweled fingers.  "Its not imposing at all.  I'm all by myself.  You need a
room, and that'll do you better than fried squirrel and sleeping on stones.  Come along now."

One woman in calico had started shaking her head.  She was beckoning him away, barely mouthing: "No,
please.  Don't go with her."

/They're afraid./

/But she's just one little old lady! Bossy as hell maybe, but I could take her if she tried anything!/  At this he
smiled at the image, which was most absurd.  /And the gods know Cloud deserves a bed./

He was just about to acquiesce when he realized the old woman had taken her place beside his companion
and most gently swung his arm over her own shoulder.  "Come this way, now.  It isn't too far."

Zack nodded, but rather seriously observed the stoic faces of the fisher folk as he started off.  They were still shaking their heads, still mumbling.  Just like their shoreline on a cloudy day.

And so did the three of them start off together.

Their destination proved not to be the beach front as he had suspected, but nearly a mile inland and
somewhat uphill.

It was not long before they had passed the edges of Clementina by taking some inconspicuous alley onto
the road leading away from the buildings.  Among the mustard flowers grown up along its edges, he
thought he spied a whitewash roadsign- Sanora Creek.  No, there was no creek about now and not even a
road, but rather a meandering path, the tan earth of it clearly intended for nothing bulkier than a chocobo
and carriage.  There was a flanking of meadows to this which rose up into low shrubs and finally a thin,
peridot wood as they progressed.   Here and there the path would wind off towards a stream bed or a puddle
of a lake or now and again a small shed.

“They’re for ladders,” she told him, “All the wild sorts of berries that grow in the summer- its just easier to
keep the equipment out here rather than lug it back and forth each year.”

At last, they reached a row of houses rimmed with fences of wrought iron scrolls.  The one to which she
unlocked the gate was a white cottage napping in the shade of some sycamore and willow, which were
rather overgrown, their bows starting to brush against those of their wild cousins between the houses and
behind them.  Its lawn was pricked with bluebell and sea lavender; wild strawberries, teaberry, heather and flax all growing up through the same sandy soil.  Some blossoms cute and unnamed by men.  Sea weeds and forest weeds.  He thought he could pick out a handful of herbs interspersed with the meadow here- sage, thyme, rosemary.  Rosemary, that’s for remembrance.  But there were no roses, save the wild guelder creeping against the gate.  Instead, a garden of thistle-fraught lilies grew below each of the front windows, of which there were two that when combined with the path, which wound rather than presenting itself at once to the front door, they made the entire façade resemble a juvenile grin.

As she escorted them into the entry way (which was a cylinder of a room with very pale purple and salmon
walls lit by a single rose window), the woman in white began toeing off her shoes as she spoke.  “You’ll be
staying in my son’s room.  He’s away for now, but he shouldn’t mind.  Off with your boots, now.”

Zack was then reflecting on the shoes she had herself removed: not dainty slippers but rather a fancy and
painfully white pair of sneakers that had somehow pulled through their walk without catching any dirt.  In
the next moment, he instead found himself almost amused by the fact she assisted him with the removal of
Cloud’s things, treacherous buckles and all.

Once fully within the interior, he caught a glimpse of a rather dim living room, but had little chance to take
it in. A mahogany he spied though could be presumed to lead to the rooms immediately below the roof.  The banister was set against the wall and it was the door beneath their it they took next, to find themselves in a parlor of pale satin and cranberry glass lamps gleaming in the gushes of sunlight from the veranda.  One more door and they were in the bedroom.

The walls here were robin’s egg and the floor of somewhat faded cyan shag.  It seemed a rather private
place- odd to be off of a parlor and have its own miniature hall leading in. A curtain at the end opposite the door, and it could have been a completely separate apartment.   Indeed, the scent of cedar did not strike him until he had left the aisle, and could see each one of the chests placed here and there against the walls.  Whether it was these  walls or the particular scent of the place… something about it made the room feel calm and so undisturbed.  Nothing out of place, but yet not put away.  As if the space had been waiting to be used.    The baby grand had a vase of lilies atop it, and the practicality of water over a piano being suspect, the keys still seemed very much to want to be played.  The papers laid out on the open roll top desk across from the instrument waited to have their bubbly glass paper weights removed so whoever had penned them might take them up again, and this time read.   An oval mirror with dimming silvering stood opposite the bookshelves and so seemed rather a space cut into the wall filled with a second collection of leather-bound volumes.  The bookshelf, itself was painted white and blue as most of the furniture and stood beside the bed, but separated by a few feet and graced with a few toy soldiers standing on its top.  As for the bed, it had been made up with white linen which smelled of lavender and sage and the garden as it stood just outside the window.  Plainly it had been intended that whomever slept in that bed might sit up in the middle of the night, and if they wished, draw back the curtains to gaze at the moon through the shadows of the branches.  At the foot of the bed stood the largest of the chests and a bare clothes tree; a very obvious invitation.

Zack braced Cloud against him and undid the clasp of the other young man’s cloak, casting it over one of
the pegs before carefully stretching his companion out on the covers.

Cloud murmured a little and shifted his head against the pillow, almost disbelieving he was really
lying on one.  The old woman peered at him from behind his comrade’s shoulder as she told him, “Sleep
tight.  Don’t let the bed bugs bite.”  And then to Zack.  “Is it chilly in here?”

“Oh, sorry,” he replied distantly as he pulled off his cloak and found himself feeling naked without it.

The old woman seemed to start a moment, giving him a most curious gaze; as she might have looked at a
puppy in a mirror but with the afterthought almost of an old lover.  Something close.  He was not
vulnerable beneath this, or even really surprised, he found.  It came close to making him feel at home.  And yet, he could not decide what to say to her for some time.

“Thank you so much for just letting us barge in like this, l-… ma’am.”

“Lady,” she stated.  “You had it right the first time.  Call me Lady.”

 “Thank you, Lady,”  he corrected himself, finding that the word, now as a chosen name, came off without
a hint of his innate casual impudence.

Taking up the snide side of things, Lady smiled most mischievously as she answered, “You’re welcome
then, young man.”

“Umm…” He kicked himself for later it, but his true name was the only thing that would come to him.

“You’re welcome, Zack,” the old woman repeated, leaning a bit closer to the bed.  The gesture filled him with the swift and sharp but fluid summer scent of eucalyptus.  “Your friend, does he have a name too? If not I shall have to think of one quickly, and mind you, there are only a few names I’ve a liking for, none of which suit him.”

Pursing his lips, the swordsman nodded wryly,  “Sorry, he does.” And gesturing appropriately:  “Cloud,
Lady.  Lady, Cloud.”

Satisfied with the introduction it seemed, she inquired at once, “He can’t speak at all?”

“No, not right now.”

“Poor dear.”

Poor dear? This lead to another particularly long time without speaking, though surely not silence.  Outside,
the leaves clattered like falling rain and a bird or two called for their mates.

“I don’t have any…” he began and was cut off at once.

“Then you can work for your room and board if you don’t feel right about staying on free of charge.
There’s *always* weeding to be done, and if you take care of it, I shan’t have to call in any of those rough
little boys from town.  There’s also dusting and maybe some painting outside, not to mention that if I need
an errand run, I can chase you out on it if I want.”

He nodded, thinking of the encroached lily beds.  “I’ll start right away.”

“Oh!” Lady waved her venerable hands at him and quite pouted.  “Rest for awhile first.  I don’t want you
passing out in the garden.  Well, the washroom’s through that door, and the closets through the other one.
I’ve running water but no washing machine, so if you have laundry, you’ll have to do it in the basin out
back.  There’s an iron box under the lilac bushes with the tools in.  Dinner’s at eight o’clock, sharp, out on
the veranda if you care to join me.  Please do.”

“Sure thing.”

And with that, she nodded and took herself out of the room.

Zack chuckled a little to himself and sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling one of his knees up to his
chest as he turned to Cloud.  His words bounced with laughter at first.  “You got *no* idea how glad I am
to have walked into this house and *not* seen a *few dozen* cats! Phew! Well, I don’t know about you,
but I’d say we were pretty damn lucky today.  Luckier than we’ve been in a long time.  Hey, at least this
sure beats those three days hitch-hiking.  Don’t think I’m gonna completely drop my guard of course.  I
haven’t in years and I’m not about to start now.  You’ll be fine here while I’m outside, right? Well, try to
get some sleep, like Lady said.  Y’know, I almost kinda like her.  *No* not like *that*.  She’s older than
my grandma the last time I saw her for crissake, but I do have a… certain respect for people who can get
what they want like she does.”

He froze.  A filmy vision of green eyes came to him slowly and he could not at first convince himself that it
was safe to move and shake them away.  He was back to himself quickly enough.  “Hey, do you want your
clothes washed?”  At this, he leaned over his companion and searched his expression for any sort of a sign.

Cloud’s lashes fluttered.  He blinked slowly, half seeing.

The swordsman set about fulfilling the request with a particular smirk on his face and a dutiful sort of

They had both thinned a bit, but not as much as it seemed they should have, for existing these past ages in a
pair of bottle-green worlds,.  Under his clothes, his companion retained a certain gangly inkling despite his
age- his muscles now defining his form, rather than dominating it.  And he was awfully pale, save for the
sunburned flush of his cheeks.

Zack wondered how he was going to wash Cloud’s hair without gagging him with water.  Well, the
operation would require the utmost delicacy and apologies, that he knew at once.  Cloud’s hair, spiky as it
was, rather made him think of his companion as looking like a unicorn.  Just a bit.  Maybe a unicorn turned
human, fanciful as it sounded.  Unicorns never turned into people.  That was ridiculous.  And yet the
impression lingered, made clear by the unnatural fairness of his skin and the willowy edge that had crept
into his figure.

“I’ll be back soon,” Cloud was told as the covers were bunched up around him by someone who obviously
had little experience adjusting sheets for others.  His companion then got to his feet, where he paused for a
moment, his fingers flexing in indecision.  At last, rolling his eyes at his own foolishness, he pulled the
sword from off his shoulders and hung it on the flimsy hooks of the clothes tree as if it were a pair of socks.
Then he just barely caught it from falling, the piece of furniture having gone over under the sudden weight.
The sword ended up resting on top of one of the chests.

Buoyed by the loss of weight, Zack stretched and his shoulders rushed a moment with the blood that had
been pressed out of them.  He glanced at the piano on his way out, wondering if he could play it.  But that
was doubtful.

Out onto the lawn he went, and without his boots for they might have proved the abject bane of the flowers
he was to be treading among.  The sunlight came down more freely about the house like photograph streaks
of angels.  The forest otherwise deepened behind the cottage into a sloe-green shade twittering with
imagined movement.  The heavens there were green with leaves, the afternoon above them a yellow pearl.

And for a moment, as a whippoorwill sang melancholy in the brush, he wondered if any of it was real, if he was in truth somewhere shut up and dreaming in a man made mansion, not the halls of the whole world.

But even if he was imprisoned, slowly bleeding, even long-since dying; caught between the limbo of life
and afterwards, he was *here* now and he saw before him the woods, below him the satiny grass, above
him the space of nature and the nature of space, and he could not make himself care what was real and
what was not.  It was too fine a day for philosophy.

He found the iron casket in the back and its latch was no trouble.  Inside, the tools were shiny still, yet hung
on the sides of the box beside feathers of cobwebs that suggested they had gone utterly unused.  He rubbed
the dusty threads from spade and hoe, then donned his gloves, wrist guards and all.

The lilies lived in the two patches of sunlight beneath the windows (which proved quietly lit during much of the day, even when the rest of the house was somewhat shaded for the most part).  He kneeled down beside the bed, seized one stalk and began to dig it out, letting the sharp leaves skitter over his forearm.  It almost tickled, the spines against him where the gloves ended.

The earth, once broken, smelled mellow and deep, the fuzzy ground beneath him felt new as the day.  His
red scratches titillated and the lilies protested against them with their own powdery grazes.

A window opened upstairs with the particular shhhzzzck of heavy glass moving in a frame, followed by
that perfect, steady breath of a voice.  “Are you doing alright?”

He, looking every bit the gardener, doused with dirt and kneeling in the brush replied,  “I’m getting there!”

“Hmm? Already? My, good job!” The words had been moist with approval but quickly turned to the
insinuative tone of a request.  “I was just thinking, no one’s trimmed the lilacs out back in just ages.  Would
you be a dear and take care of it?”

“I’ll get right on it.”

And she was gone.

He paused a moment then to wipe the sweat from his brow, and to see the scratches on his arms, which
seemed thin, new red veins blooming on the surface of his skin by then.  They stung.  Taking one more
thistle, he ran fresh spines against them on purpose.

“I’m turning into a masochist,” He remarked with a sarcastic rue.  He had never used the word before,
except one to refer to a fellow soldier who had delighted in nothing but pissing their commander and
being punished for it.

This followed itself with images of a town he scarcely recalled- “How does it feel… to be back home?”

… And then his own home- “Zack! You’re an absolute disgrace! Just leaving your poor mother and father
like that!”

… And himself- “’C’mon Seph! I’ll go anywhere with you!”

Followed be the only reply granted the sudden memories: “Don’t call me that.”

/So people are stupid and probably happy that way./  The revelation was not new, but rather bitter still.  He didn’t care.  For one moment, he didn’t care.

Neither, it could be said, did the small brown rabbit who came hopping out from the tumbled shade of a
mossy log and began sniffing curiously at the pile of supine thistles, oblivious to the gardener who’d pulled

“Oh don’t eat that!” Zack chided, rolling to his side and catching up some pig ears which he held up to the
startled rabbit.  It was only as he tried to hold himself perfectly still that he realized he did not know what
pig ears were, and had never been told that rabbits liked them, except perhaps in the shadow of the rye,
where his aunt was speaking in her low, childish voice, calling him Sally and…

Extra-personal knowledge wasn’t uncommon in soldiers.  The rabbit could not have been happier.  Zack
wondered what Cloud was remembering.  Eventually, he got to his feet, carrying the unused hoe and dirty
spade, went back to the toolbox to return what he had borrowed, once again finding himself in a veritable
fog of lilacs.

Retrieving a pair of clippers from among the equipment, he gave the air a few snips with it before taking the blades to the tangle of small stems.  The perfume as the branches hit the ground was beyond intense- it filled his entire mouth, he could almost feel it on his eyes, thick and fuzzy and rainy.  The clacking of the sheers didn’t match with it at all- spack, spack, spack as the overgrown purple came down.

“Yes?” He called and stopped short, the clippers dangling from his hand.  There was no one behind him
save whatever dyads slept away among the trees, and this wood, now in especial, seemed a lush living
thing, but one without mind.  Maybe his own suspicion there wavered.  He saw the verdant picture, empty
of all rationale but that of his sight, and still could not turn away.

Some pull of the breeze came from under the rustle of the world, some long, unhappy words, bare and
almost echo only.  With them, spindrift notes of movement or of breathing.  There was only the vaguest
resemblance to human speech, but of two voices, one brighter than gales, the other a bassoon, barely
audible with its depth.

Zack froze.  It was coming from the house.  Lady was alone and Cloud could not speak, least of all with
such a bottomless tone.

He left the purple spray of thistle and lilac on the ground and slunk back to the front door, picking his path
from the shade.  No guards he found at the gate, no carriages of visitors.  Here though became clear what
might have been water and bells with the voices.  He opened the door to hear them more closely, to find them.

And there was only the clean silence of the house behind.  For a few long moments he peered around the
empty entranceway- saw his boots, Cloud’s boots, Lady’s sneakers, something rumpled…

As if summoned by a thought, he heard from upstairs… “Are you done already, Zack? There’s a vase in the
hallway for the lilacs, don’t throw them out.”  Her voice rang in the halls as if it was the halls and needed
not such a cumbersome thing as a body.

But assuming there was indeed a form to accompany the tones, it was the only one about in the rooms.  He
shook his head and went to gather up the flowers and the thistle, taking a moment to cast the latter over the
fence onto the reclaimed decay of the forest.  Returning, he began plunking the cascades of blossoms into the milk-glass urn he found full of water and waiting for him on an end table.  The clippings had much the same length each, and he found himself spreading them about and twisting the stalks to make them all fit.  The end result resembled a floppy purple peacock’s tail.

Heading back to their room to check on Cloud, he found his companion had shifted ever so slightly onto his
side, taking an almost natural position as he dozed.  Zack left him after checking the closets as quietly as he
could, but he found no voices; (he barely remembered his own) found nothing but some slim, dark
clothing drifting like some ghostly puppets from its hangers.

Had he heard the front door opening? Footsteps? He was not sure of the footsteps, but the door he knew
he’d heard no one touch besides himself that afternoon.


Satisfied this was all only some odd drought of his past five years come down on him, he treaded back
down the hallway to the entrance of the house.  He found there, among the shoes, a basket filled with some
faded blue cloth he somewhat recognized.  Lifting up one piece of it, brought the little dusky scent of Cloud
to him form under the miasma of mothballs and the twinge of his own, old sweat.  Figuring she had placed
the things here to be cleaned at once, he called up the steps, “Hey Lady! Do you have any laundry soap?”

“Oh *course* I do! And some linen water too.  Do be more observant next time.  I left them with your
pants so you wouldn’t have to go rooting around in the cupboards for it!”

Looking down, he saw two vials tangled in the clothing along with a cake of white soap resting on a nearby
pair of jeans, all this rather tucked in the corner.  He rolled his eyes at his own negligence and swore a little.

“Do speak up!”

/She… heard THAT… uhoh… think fast, Zack! Or you WILL be sleeping under the stars tonight, like it or
not!/ “Umm… I said, ‘You got anything you want washed while I’m at it?’!”

“Heavens no! I can’t have you in my lacy things! I’ll take care of that myself, thank you.”

“Well, okay.  Thanks!” Then he shook his head again and tried, very, very hard not to think of Lady’s

The pump outside, once he had sufficiently collected himself to locate it, had quite a collection watering
cans beneath it and was wound all over with morning glory that had closed a few hours before, and taken
the handle some years before.  He kicked aside the watering cans and pushed the underneath the spout,
groping for a hold on the handle what wouldn’t crush any curlicues of the vine’s edges.

He at once became aware that he hadn’t had a bath in ages.  True, as a child, bathing had never been one of
his favorite activities, and he had protested about it most futilely on every occasion it had been “suggested”.
Mom! It’s hot out! And I’ll just get sweaty again!

The pump gurgled with disuse before deciding to produce the white noise of water falling.  He tossed Cloud’s things in one by one, shaking them, for he had never seen anyone do the laundry and not shake it first.  The clothing bobbed about patiently as he did this, quietly rocking through the ripples of sun and shadow.  The last pair of pants though- not only did he not recognize them, he’d hadn’t been carrying any spare and these were folded somewhat.

He sniffled his shirt squinted his eyes closed.  Yes, there was little doubt he was intended to clean his own things as well.  And without a second thought, he started pulling them off.  The forest air tickled his bare chest and crept as fingertips over his neck.

He started the pump again.  This would only be a silly re-enactment of his baths when he was younger,
outside, and standing under a bucket squirming.  He cupped he hands beneath the water and splashed his
face off thoroughly until his eyelashes were dripping.  The faint chill barely made him shiver as he rinsed
the rest of himself off.  His fingers traced his hair until it was damp and clinging to him, his bangs curling
over his cheeks like the inky mock-tears of a performer.  And then he looked up suddenly, knowing all too
well the sensation of eyes caressing him.  He, dripping, smiling; wet and happy, glanced away to see Lady
hovering amid the lace curtains of one of the upstairs windows.  As a bedraggled child, washing only
grudgingly, he smiled at her and continued to play in the water, only now with the slight finesse of being

Lady simply stood and gazed at him with a muted expression from the past he would never pin down a
name for.  She watched him stirring the soup of clothing (but turned her eyes away a moment as he
changed his pants).  She watched him kneeling in the grass, kneading up some bubbles in the fabric and
rather gawkily scrubbing away, whistling over his work.  She watched him sniffing at the linen water and
tying up the finally rinsed shirts between the chipped, white posts of her clothes line.  She watched him
wondering if she had gone into his room.  Of course she had.

And somehow, this aroused the vaguest soft-hearted suspicion of her in him.  A wonder of what else she
had done there.  Had Cloud fallen into the arms of sleep or her own? The grass crinkled beneath Zack, who
ceased to trouble himself, left his sopping garments under the leaves and went back to the room where he
wandered off to sleep and dreamlessly dreamed for a handful of hours.

He awoke to the peaceful chiming of the of the nightstand clock.  It was a quarter to eight and he was lying
nestled about Cloud’s feet at the bottom of the bed.  Dimness had stolen over the room, and yet peering out
of the window, he saw the sun had not yet gone into the hues of full sinking, only left his side of the house.
It was deeper spring that he had supposed then, perhaps even summer.  The day was lasting like a sad
thought, but a dazzling one, as with some release, or guilty desire fulfilled.  He sat up and shook his
head, catching something among the shadows with the corner of his eye.

Cloud’s luminescent eyes stared at him almost lucidly from the puddle of sheets.

“Oh, so you’re up too,” he yawned.  “Hope you had a nice sleep.  Damn, I really didn’t mean to smash your
toes like that.  Sorry.”  Leaning over, he crouched above his companion as he asked.  “Lady wants me to
have dinner with her, if you don’t mind me leavin’ again.  I’ll stay if you want.”

Cloud apparently did not, as the lines of his eyes blurred.  Perhaps he had only just remembered where he was, or was slipping out again.

“If you’re sure then.”  Zack stretched and knuckled Cloud’s shoulder as he stood.  He started for the
washroom, but remembering he wore nothing but the jeans, was just about to turn and glance outside to see
if his things had miraculously managed to dry, when he spied laid out on one of the chests yet another set of clothing he did not recognize, and that had almost certainly appeared during his nap.

Which would imply they two had been chanced upon in their rest. That Lady had seen him sleeping like a
beast at the foot of the bed.  Lady was a silent thing, and this really was her house- it did not betray her, and
she came and went wherever she pleased.

Well, at least it would have been the faithful sort of beast.  Finding time too short to shower properly as he
had been planning to, he tugged on the new clothes and hoped his silly bath at the pump had done the trick.
The black, smooth cotton slacks fit him about right, but revealed his shoelessness.  The dark blue tunic,
however, was plainly ment to be worn loosely and simply refused to be loose on him.  He could not button
the cuffs, and managed only half the laces at the front.  “What kind of noodle-armed choir boy was supposed to wear *this*?”  And contritely trying to spy himself in the mirror, he was at once faced with the images of a pale streak of flesh running down the center of his chest, the tight wrinkles over his shoulders, and the reflection of Clouds quaint gaze.  “I look like a damn idiot, don’t I?”

For one moment, his companion’s irises flickered like ice in a glass, almost into focus.  His lips smoothed.
Zack burst into chuckles in surprise.  Cloud, in his own drifting way, was laughing, or at least, giving
reason for belief in his laughing. “I guess I can be glad I’ve had every damn hair plucked off me.” It had
been a long time, since he’d laughed.  The sound felt almost like pins in his chest at first, and he had not
known it.  “I needed that,” was all he said as he left the bedroom.

The cranberry lights of the parlor, made mauve in by the evening, suddenly came on and gleamed bubbly
all over the walls and the satin of the furniture.

/There’s just a master knob for the gas some place.  Nothing to worry about./ He told himself, for they had
all come suddenly on with a dancing warmth of light no bulbs could match.  He gave his shirt one last tug
and headed for the veranda.

The screen that surrounded the room darkened everything outside to a hazy palette of blues and purples.
the woods stood behind as a curtain of fluttering scarves pulled indistinct and shiny over the horizon, and
the road before the house was creamy pale and cyan.  One of the neighbors, removed as they were, had lit a
lamp in one of their front room, someone probably intending to watch them, it seemed.  This small room he
had entered had its beams of faintly greying oak caught up with bolted-down chiffon.  Doubtless the rings
had been employed with the draperies to keep them out of the alabaster orbs that hung from twists of dull
metal that crept down from the ceiling like a mobile.

Below these tiny lamps was a table dressed with a blue cloth and a pantheon of lustrous china, at the far
end of and watching the door sat Lady in a rose-colored evening gown and cape.  Her hair that rolled over
her shoulders was dusted with flower petals.  The imprecise light, dancing between the candles and the
setting sun would give no indication of her age, kept her a yearless spirit half hidden behind the dish of
apples and grapes.

“I knew you’d come,” she began almost coyly.  “Whatever are you grinning at?”

“Of course I’m happy,” he replied, taking  his seat and rather resting his arm against the back of the chair.
“Cloud just smiled at me.”


“Its been awhile.  I almost forgot he could.”

“He’s been ill for a long time then? I had no idea.”

Zack nodded.  Ill.  Indeed.  He wondered if she noticed him glancing away, if she knew what such furtive
looks could mean.  She was the sort who was easy to glance away from when it came to white lies.  That at
least she must have come to know, been somewhat self-aware of.

In his silence she asked, “Do you say grace?”

“No, not me, Lady.” That at least was the truth, be it discourteous.

At this, she shrugged rather formally.  “I never did either.  Do you prefer Asgård or Kalm vintage?”

“Asgård’s only good for getting’ hammered.  Kalm’s I like.”

“Oh? Most people would have it the other way around.”  With that, she stood and reached into the ice
bucket beside the table, producing an amber glass bottle bearing the parchment and calligraphy label of
Kalm.  That one flask of wine had existed before him and probably cost more than he’d ever earned in a
month, or even a year.  He called himself a hundred rotten things to see it.  But the Asgård had probably
been sealed away even before that and he could not for now face the recalled sensations on his eyes of
gloved hands and goblets among swords.

She poured him his glass now and held it out with her diamond-flecked hand.  The stones seemed to have
turned pinkish in the presence of her gown.  Or these might have been completely different rings.  He
wasn’t sure, but he thanked her.  As soon as he had a grip on the goblet, he held it aloft and the beige liquid
inside fluttered with the movement.  “Toast?”

“You toast, but you don’t say grace?”


“Interesting.” She, at this, raised her glass as well.  “To the evening.”

“To you and to Cloud’s health.”

The clack of her goblet against his barely resonated in his hand, but the wine resonated over and over the
powder of long past Junes in his mouth.  Reaching halfway across the table, he poured himself a saucer
of cream into which he dunked the first slice of the great, round loaf he was able to grab.  Until the wine
had hit his tongue, he had completely managed to banish the constant slight reminders of how hungry he
was- the gurgles in his empty stomach, the uncommon wetness of his mouth, the aching of his palate.  But
now, before this supper, they all came pounding back into his consciousness.  How he'd missed the
sensation of actually tasting something, feeling of his being mouth filled.  The site of the grapes, the apples,
the white cheese, the warm and golden bread; the steaming noodles; it sent him reeling nearly.

"You act as if you haven't eaten in a week."

Zack came out of his nibbling fantasy profoundly embarrassed.  He dropped the remains of his slice of
bread, seized his napkin, wiped the cream from his chin and placed the napkin where it belonged- on his

"Well, no use trying to hide it now.  How long *has* it been since you've eaten?"

"Only two days... err... sorry." He found himself tugging at his open collar rather self-consciously, hoping
he'd managed to blot off all the cream.

"Land sakes!" Lady began in what could only be called a motherly tirade, "Why didn't you say something?
What kind of a host would I look like if I didn't feed my hungry guests? Goodness knows you didn't *look*
hungry until you sat down! Why I'd seen you leaving the pub before I ran into you at the market.  And that
was just past lunch hour."

"Well, I..." He wasn't allowed more than that.

"Zack, you simply have to learn to ask for what you want.  I found that out the hard way a long time ago.  It
is the first thing I taught my son and I would teach it to everyone in the world if I could.  You're here.  You
learn it."  With that, she reached for a covered serving bowl on the counter, and from it ladled a second
helping of noodles onto his so far untouched plate, adding.  "Silly boy! Thinking you can live on fresh air
and sunshine."

The swordsman found he really had little to say to this... he sniffed a bit at the peculiar tangy aroma drifting
from his dish.  Whether hunger influenced him or not, he found it strangely attractive.  The noodles had a
fresh lime green tint to them, and shone all over with butter and parsley as he introduced his fork to them.
Lady had taken her seat once again and looked just about to remind him "Sensible bites!".  Though in the
end, she, agreeably startled, had nothing to say.  Her guest wound his pasta with his fork against his spoon
and with a slow care to keep any of the sauce from being flicked onto the table cloth.  He did not slurp, did
not even chew loudly.

Lady's aqua eyes widened almost indiscernibly, but she finally gave way to these unexpected suavities and
nibbled most delicately on a grape.

Since he could not snicker and devour his dinner at the same time, Zack chose to eat, but his own features
were otherwise alight with various quirky and mirrored delights.  He enjoyed knowing he could still shock
his elders.

After he had finished about two-thirds of his noodles, the old woman asked with courtly idleness, "Where
are you from? I don't mean to be blunt with this, but it’s rather bothering me.  I can't put my finger on your

"The middle of nowhere," he replied, and then embellished with a bit of a fib.  "Funny little mining town.
Nowhere you'd have heard of."

"But not Corel? You don't have that... particular twang they do."

"Nope, even smaller and more backwards than that. Half of the people who lived there didn't know the
name." /Or if I was talking about the actual place, preferred not to think of the name./


"It was Balsen." He winked and eyed the fruit a bit.  "Could you pass me an apple?"

"Of course.  Is Cloud from there too?"

"You bet he is.  We were... neighbors.  For a long time."  He may have been pulling off his best illusion of
manners, but the hesitation in his choice of words for his companion even sounded more dumbed down to
his own ears.  As if it stood between her and something more complicated in his own thoughts.

"I didn't think you were brothers," was all she really had to say, "But you seem like the sort who's had


"How many?"

"More than I could count." Glancing hopelessly to the ceiling, he chuckled and gave his apple a quick toss into the air.

"But you volunteered to come all this way with Cloud.  Doesn't he have any parents or sisters?"

"His parents aren't fit to travel and I don't think of myself as the kind to just let somebody hurt like that.  I
left with him as soon as I could.  Probably too fast in retrospect."  The blue satin creaked uneasily as he
abruptly leaned forward after the last of his noodles.  "So what about you?"

"There isn't dreadfully much I'm afraid.  You've been in my house and my garden,"  Her glittering fingers
waved as she spoke and seemed to soak all of the cottage and the whole day into one imagined floating
picture before her, "then you know my whole life more or less.  If my son was home, you'd have to know
him too, but since he is away, I stay here, and wait, and that's the rest."

"You've lived here all your life?"

"Oh heaven's no! I suppose I could say for myself that I'm from all over, but that makes me sound crude of
course." She sipped her wine thoughtfully as a cricket started pouring out its insect heart all over the
evening.  "I'm from Junon," she deiced.  "But it was a long time ago that I left and I barely remember what
it was like.  I heard they built some sort of giant weapon over top of the town."

Zack turned her words over and over in his thoughts, deconstructing them to small bits and holding them up
to what he knew.  The cannon had been in place since he was a toddler which put Lady here... how long
ago? How old was he by now? The date, what was the date? Spring surely, or early summer, but of what
year?  He could not tell.  Time here was achy slow- billowy and indistinct.  It could not be caught, at least
not by him.

"They did.  I've seen it.  It’s not so bad."  His further remark to this came so suddenly, he had no chance to
refine it; it was candidly shielded from his overflowing curiosity.  "All by yourself?"

"Why, yes.  I've no one about me ever but my son.  And he's away, so I'm quite by myself, except for the
occasional young one I bring in to keep the place presentable.  You did a good job today.  The children
from in town, they miss things all the time."

There was something almost distant about the way she spoke of the everyday things others would have
glossed unthinkingly glossed over.  Something thankful, but truly away, flitting above another
consideration.  His next words to her came very quietly.  "Then why did you want me and Cloud to come
with you so badly?"

The neighbors' light went slowly out.  The personal edge of the question he feared would put her off did
not.  Indeed, she only fixed him a moment, her gaze vibrant as any girl's in the dusky about the veranda.
"Just because I chose to live alone does not mean I choose to be lonely.  Its not as if I've anyone to invite
over for tea.  You saw how it is in town."

And he knew all about Lady.  She was living in her own bottle of a world, and might have broken the edges, perhaps, once.  Though now there was some kindly self-imposed imprisonment.  The dove that returns, and the dove that remains; that sort of mind.  And Lady alone, really little different from how he had lived in the basement of the Neiflheim mansion.  She in an antique house, he the bare bottom of another.  Only he had Cloud to touch if he liked.

"I used to be like that."  His remark joined her in its absent tone, though he had wandered back to Gongaga,
and could not tell where she was.

"Well!" And her tone cheered all at once.  "Thank heavens you’re not like that *now*! And I couldn't let
you out there after all.  Why, it would have been just rude! And cruel! And I can't abide either of those

Zack bit the inside of his lip with guilt.

"At least not in large amounts," she concluded with a nod.

"So, I'm just a little crass? OK!" A shrug.

"Oh, enough to keep me interested." Lady promptly finished her wine and dabbed her lips, waiting for her
guest to stop sarcastically shaking his head, before she glanced outside to see the dim arches of the branches and asked, "Cloud's not had anything to eat yet, has he?"

"He's been asleep."  Was the reassurance as Zack hastily reconsidered making his glass sing.  "Don't worry.
I'll bring him something.  His medicine's supposed to be taken with food after all."

She to this nodded and waited for him to finish eating as a small, expensive Scottie may wait for its human
to finish and pay attention to it.  Towards his final bites, she began to fumble with something under her
blouse, and Zack wondered awfully about many things it might have been, until she reached inside the
folds of crepe and pulled out what quite appeared to be a rather large pan-fried marble, all shot through
with white crackles.  It hung from a heavy chain and an even heavier setting, and when she held it up, it
glowed a bit, rather a bluish green color.

All the dirty dishes rose and bobbed solemnly out of the room- the silverware among them rocking up and
down like reeds.

Zack cocked an eyebrow at this.

"Its one of those artificial materia they tried to generate a few years ago.  One that actually works.  It didn't
do anything until I dropped it, but don't think I haven't learned how to use it now."

Oh he'd heard the stories of children accidentally killed with levitating plates that suddenly bolted... he
shrugged.  Was a plate any more or less agreeable  than a sword or a slightly mis-calibrated syringe?

"I'd better go see if Cloud's alright," He told her honestly.

"Alright then.  I like to read in the evenings myself.  I'll be upstairs awake for a few hours if something
should come up.  Please don't shout for me though.  You'll startle the neighbors."

He nodded.  She said for the second time that day.  "Sleep tight.  Don't let the bed bugs bite." Trying
plainly to insinuate she did not foresee meeting him again until the morning.

"You too," He replied and waited until her back was turned before gathering his companion's supper. He
made some very convincing clatter but took only a small, crimson apple and a saucer of honey whisked thin
with a little cream.  His host seemed almost to be deliberately turned away, not watching the stars peek out
now and again from behind the willow tendrils, and the breath of a few clouds that somehow this late
retained a hint of sunset indigos.  It was as if she was on guard, deliberately allowing a prisoner away.

"But a pretty damn nice guard." He reminded himself as he returned to his  room.  The pale figure in the
bed had once again moved and somehow now completely enfolded in the sheets, he almost looked as if he
were a rumple and nothing more.  "Hey Cloud? You awake?" The swordsman whispered, leaning over his
bundle only to be greeted by the ever-spectral eyes, gleaming like fragments of the sea against the dawn,
but turned utterly inwards.  Cold.  Stunning.  Lifeless.

Lady he supposed hadn't seen for she'd said nothing of them.

Zack remembered them often.  He, sighing a bit, reached for the wick screw on the lamp beside the bed and
was most surprised to encounter instead an electric switch that seemed sure not to work.  But after two
turns it did and a  fair yellowy light bounced around the room by way of the mirror.

Cloud's eyes were even more salient by lamplight for in such manmade brightness they did not dim.

His companion reached over and tugged him until he was leaning against the headboard with the top edge
set firmly in the back.  Zack might not have been used to tucking people in, but hauling Cloud about was
second nature. "Well, since you're up, you might as well eat."

His head lolled sideways and he stared at his own covered toes.

The swordsman went on as he started slicing up the apple, holding the red skin as he did so and cutting towards himself, trying to balance his attention between the young man and the pearing knife.  "I know you're not real hungry right now, but you'll feel better if you eat, I promise.  Sorry I didn't ask you to come to dinner with me earlier, but I figured you weren't in the mood for anyone to watch you eat, right.  Well, you can smack me later if its not.  If I coulda asked I woulda you... well..." He trailed off, bit his tongue and nearly nicked his finger.

Cloud's last meal had actually been that morning.

Somewhere in the hills below Neiflheim, they'd come to a small village.  Barely the size of Clementina,
dirty, poor and oddly cramped.  Nowhere Zack knew.  After three straight days of dragging himself and his
companion away, he was starving, and his legs ached.  There in the market he'd found a sale selection of
preserves, among them a few pounds of candied apricots, that were old, and sweet and gooey.  He'd never
cared particularly for sweets, but back outside among the living and the happily dying; back out under the
cataracts of sky and the rain of ordinary speech, he'd bought some.  They were stickied to the inside of their
wooden box.  He'd sat in the shade of an old oak by the edge of a dirt road,  Cloud beside him and apricot
goo all over his fingers.  It was his first real food in years; the glairy, jellied mana.  He took a few, just a
few, better they last.  And there had been some soup for companion that he'd barely touched and so he'd
forced it on him

Days later, in the clanky old truck, half huddled in the back and ignoring the exhaust fumes, he'd pulled out
his treasure box and had one bite for good luck.  Cloud, lying on the tarp beside him had gone sober and
staring suddenly, his eyes nearly cleared, tracing all over Zack's fingers as he ate.

"You want a little?" he'd asked and torn his fruity heart in half, pressing the larger syrupy snibble under
Cloud's nose.  And he had very slowly lapped it up, but with willingness.

Henceforth they had been Cloud's apricots and they had run out that morning.

Now in the evening, having taken one small slice he stripped off the peel and swished the white flesh in the
honey, letting the golden-white syrup roll down his fingers as he presented the nibble to his companion's

Cloud remained motionless and blank.

"Oh C'mon! Its just some apple! Don't give me that look."  Not that he had been given any sort of look.  "I
had one with dinner.  They're fine.  It won't bite. I mean, *I* haven't keeled over dead, have I? And she ate
one too anyway.  B'sides, it's awfully hard to poison an apple."  Some of the sweetened cream began to
trickle down the inside of his knuckle and so he was obliged to shift his fingers.  His companion blinked
with a great slowness, his stupor uninclined to break.  Zack pushed the fragment of apple closer and
bumped it against his lips.  A little noise of protest squeaked from his throat.  Whether it came from his
resent of being fed, or his unwillingness to eat, Zack had no idea but groaned in exasperation.  He'd never
even recognized himself for any great patience.  "I'm not going to chew it for you! That's nasty and you can
sure do it yourself. I'm sorry I don't *have* any apricots but apparently they don't sell them around here.
Now eat up! C'mon! Look, if you don't, you're going to go into the symptoms of starvation eventually and
they you won't be able to get anything down without throwing it back up.  Eat, Cloud! Please?" A worn
sigh was about to leave him when he felt some moist, little lips fumble over him and the nibble of fruit.
Instead he smiled a bit stupidly and pretended to wipe his brow.  "You're just bein’ finiky, eh?"

And so he fed Cloud his supper, saying 'please' before each bite; jiggling the tone, the enunciation.  He did
his best Corel accent and allowed his peculiar jungle bounce to creep back into his a's.  His fingers got
gooey and wonderful and damp.  Even if he was half-out, Cloud didn't drip too much and after a long, slow
time he'd finished the entire apple and Zack gave him some water before letting him roll back down on the

"I think we'll get a shower in the morning," The swordsman said, rubbing his friend’s arm as he
arranged him a bit.  "I'm just gonna go splash my face off quick." But he stayed for awhile on the edge of
the bed, as he might have lingered with a child a moment before putting them finally to bed one night.  He
wondered if Cloud had somehow encouraged him to remain.  He didn't mind calling his friend- it felt better
than anything else he could think of.  Felt true.  He wondered still.  Was it really the experiments that had
left Cloud like this, or had he, of his own designs, crawled inside and snuggled down so deeply that he
could not bring himself to stand and walk back into the real world?  Zack let his eyes fall to the floor.  His
companion's chosen method  for dealing with pain had always been to retreat, to pretend his body wasn't
his at all.  Maybe now the form in the bed was utterly forsaken.  Cloud had never let his real self linger long
enough even to weep.  Zack himself had cried often enough, and called for people he could scarce
remember, all with a little blond doll gazing at him but not seeing.

He patted its hand and went to wash up.

The small bathroom was gold and white with dimmable vanity lights.  He kept them on rather low, just at
the edge of humming so they wouldn't glare in the mirror.  The soap had no scent and the towels were
impossibly soft.  He stood for some time and pressed one to both his cheeks, thinking it smelled of sage and
lavender like the sheets.  The midnight blue shirt he hung up and left.  His half-bare figure in the mirror had
not a mark on it- his only scar was a black-raspberry ribbon on his left knee, from a fall he could not
remember, and never tried to.  He did happen to glance over to the side of the mirror, thinking he saw a
fresh mark on his arm, but instead spied the aloe plant growing beside the sink.  He plucked a stalk and
padded back into the bedroom.

Cloud’s eyes had fallen closed, but his breathing was not that of sleep, and he stirred at the sound of the
door, though the motion may only have been some distortion brought out by the shadows cast by the
lamplight.  Zack once more found himself on the edge of the bed, this time pressing some of the clear jelly
onto his hands and rubbing it into his friend's cheeks, feeling their sunned warmth with just his fingertips,
just barely sensing through his calluses.  He said nothing this time, but stood up and began to wander
around the room

Below the toy soldiers, he was surprised to see a row of books with titles he could not even read out loud
for they were written in archaic tongue.  Most of the soldiers grimly guarded only, but a few smirked at his inability to make out the words.  On the shelf below, he read the volumes names out loud to spite them.
"'Advanced Harmonics Theory' volumes one and two.  'The Principals of Modern Composition’- Midgård
University Press.  'The Principals of Antique Composition: Fully Revised', also from Midgård University
Press.  I didn't even know they had a university that did anything with music! Lets see... 'The Semiotics of
Sound, Third Edition, Antonio Treschi and Professor Jackson Gast, Advisor'.  ‘Style and Idea: Sleeted Writings of Arnold Schoenberg’.  'A Treatise on the Nature of  Beauty' - Lillia of Jotunheim.  'One-Thousand Great Librettos'.  'The Complete Musical Commentary of Brandywhyyn with Accompanying Scores'.  'The Absolution: a Novel Based on the Symphonies of Gregoria'.  If I didn't know better, I'd say it’s a composer that stays lives in this room, when he is here.  Makes sense its kinda set off from the rest of the place then."  As he shuffled to the desk he added.  "What do you wanna bet this is all music?"

But as he approached the leaves of parchment, rustling under their paperweights of bubbled glass, his
eagerness to snatch them up quite dwindled.  Sanctified they seemed, as nothing else in the room had
before..  Their ink had a gloss to it as if still wet, though surely it was not.  Written out in a whirling
gossamer hand were sure enough a bevy of notes strung up on bars.  The craftsmanship of each
spot of a note was meticulous, the clefs slow drawn and ornamented like small illuminations.  Here and
there were traces of dragon's blood or sapphire adornments that ran the paper clear.  There was one stack of
sheets, that while just as well arranged, were rumpled badly here and there, the fibers of the paper frayed
where notes had been replaced, put up and taken down beside great splotches of spilled ink that crept about
the hastily penciled bars.  Both sets were mostly wordless, save for now and again the tempo or the mood.
The papers bore no titles.

Trying to sound out the notes in his head, Zack mostly failed and ended up snatching up a sheet at last,
plunking the weight back down at once, and nearly crossed his eyes trying to read.  Unable still to envision
the sound, he propped the purloined sheet in the stand of the piano and attempted a few lines, slow and
rudely.  "Holy... geeze! I couldn't play this if I *wanted* to.  How in the hell am I even supposed to hit that
chord?" He tried.  The resulting sound more recalled something discordantly having fallen on the keys.

There was one noticeable effect of this though.  He had barely realized he’d sat down at the baby grand at
all.  Its bench didn't feel at all right to him, but the keyboard... he cringed waiting for the inevitable
complaint from upstairs.  It never came.

"Sorry about that," he said to Cloud, and pawed more deftly at the keys, ran his fingers up and down their
board, let them draw him back in the end.  It was an uncommonly soft instrument, whose notes lasted
interminably as if efflorescing in a grand hall and not some tiny room about the woods.  They had as well a
peculiar watery quality; an impressionistic air as if begging for moonlight and drowning eyes of blue.  The
keys did not clack and the vase atop it barely vibrated with even the lowest notes.  "You don't mind," he
began, adding flourishes of random pitches to his words, "If I screw around for a bit, d'ya Cloud? I know I
suck and all."

The figure in the bed made no apparent protest, so Zack cracked his knuckles and began.

The wisdom of his younger era had been that the children of respectable families played the piano, and
because of this it was then that any family, no matter how seemy or poor, in order to at least have the
appearance of being respectable, could and did get their children piano lessons.  The resulting amateurs of
course had perpetuated another general assumption of their own with their attempts at fame: That it was
only the children of the genuinely well-to-do that played the piano *well*.  Zack's kin, despite living in a
crater of a town in the middle of the nowhere, had most wished to appear upright and thusly, all of their
children faced the unique dilemma of being the only ones in Gongaga who knew just what a piano was, but
having little idea of what to do with one, besides that it could be used to frightening the neighbor's cats with
sudden, sour noises.

He could only recall one song now and whistled it as he tried the keys; "Heart and Soul" staggering and ill-
times as it could be.  Barely halfway though, one of his fingers landed between keys.  "No, no! That's not
right." He complained and began again, adding to his friend's unsaid curiosity, "Wait, I can do this! I used
to play it all the time when I was a kid."

His second try failed straight away as he realized he was only playing the treble line, this after so many
days of trying to convince himself he could use his pudgy little hands separately from one another, without
mimicry or mirroring.  So he tried picking up the bass, and at once realized his fingers were no longer
pudgy at all, but rather long and rough.  He could not feel the texture of the keys with them and that
bothered him a bit.

"Ok... really, I think I've got it this time!" One more stretch and a triumphant grin overtook his face as the
jaunty melody came tumbling out of the instrument.  The rain of the keys was not then so sad while Zack
played on them one silly little song, over and over as he tried to get the tempo just right, without hitting a
single note out of time or scale.  Cloud rested.  They two were left to themselves.  He got it right eventually
but kept playing.  His whistling accompaniment got louder and more flamboyant as f the room was filled
with people he used to know and he was putting on for them.  No one was about of course, save the banks
of darkness in the halls outside as the lamps presumably went out one by one.  He played until he fell onto
the keys as if pushed over while drunk.

"That's enough for now." He chuckled at last, his nose against middle C.  "Now I'm all wound up before
bed!" Much to his surprise, a yawn promptly escaped him.  "Well, maybe not." His eyes slid heavy and his
knees began to hurt a little, he didn't know why, but stood just the same, took his cloak from the clothes
tree, then turned off the light.

The darkness that stole over the room was far from complete and his eyes adjusted to it at once- the
comforting sort of cobalt diffused in the air and the curtains over the bed were so pale they seemed to have
a rippling phosphorescence, as if day-lit haze were they. A fine film of angels’ wings covered the view from here.  Outside, the silhouettes of the tress danced with a languorous and deep breeze he could not feel himself, but to which they freely gave themselves.  The bushes and the hands of the underbrush creaked with the movements of forest beasts, seemed to whirl slowly like the inside of a kaleidoscope of all blue.  He imagined a few faerie lights, maybe caught the shadow of a moth or two.  No flower in the garden bloomed as night stood, but they didn't need to. It was alright- their own little place beneath the shadow of the hidden moon.

"Ooouuuhhh..." Cloud muttered a bit.  He looked no more than an icy being as he lay, asking where the
light had gone.

"There's nothing outside except the birds and they're asleep, so..." the swordsman began, though even as he
spoke, a luna moth came and alighted on the sill, throwing a bow of a shadow on the covers.  "Well, and
that, and the stars I guess."  Looking up to the heaven's, he found them dimmer and rippling, here, so close
to the ocean, where the air was wet.  "Its OK.  Nobody out there.  I promise."

His thoughts came, snatched at him, embraced him as he wondered almost capriciously.  /I guess... Cloud's
my friend.  He has to be.  I mean, if children can have blankets and stuffed chocobos and imaginary...  /But
I do remember Cloud... when he was real./ He had almost called him friend while they were riding in the
truck, but it just seemed... like something he should wait to say.  Something that deserved consent, and he did want Cloud to hear him for certain.

No, this really wasn’t all that different from how things had been.  For the past two years he’d succored a
Cloud who wavered in lucidity like a thin tendril of a water fern caught under a rush of melt water.  That he
seldom could even keep himself awake was little change.  He had hoped (and he had never really hoped for
anything before in his life; fate was kind and fate was cruel- big deal) that the sunlight and, the fickle air,
the ordinary people and the ordinary feel of the world would somehow have snapped Cloud out of it.  Too
much to ask, he supposed now.

"Goodnight," he whispered, and dropped to his knees.  He had told the truth of their being alone, but he did
lift up the bedskirts, just in case there were monsters about.  There came from beneath the sheets a thin
impression of cerulean along the edge where the window was, but naught save dust bunnies lived in the
forest of the carpet.

He rolled onto his back and folded his arms behind his head, and his cloak all around him. …. he was
happy here, happier than sleeping on the last stones of the mountains, even if he already missed the warmth
of Cloud’s bed.

Zack dreamed again.  It was the first time since Neiflheim, and he had not dreamed much there.  He was
in a dark room that smelled wet and metallic and unhappy. Outside there laid a forest of glowworms, darkly
nitid things… He wanted to sleep but he hurt all over.  There was something sharp stuck in him and he
wanted to move but he knew it would only make things worse.  The breathing in the cage beside him was
hard and staggered.

"I want my mom," he confessed.

"I do too."

But without her attention, he gazed into the lights as they shrank and blinked and became truly glow worms
for he was kneeling in the garden at night though the lilacs were open and the air smelled so much of them
he though he had been turned into one.  The bushes did not ruffle, but he heard a woman's voice, one that
was vivid but fragile; nothing like Lady's: "What are you doing here?"

He did not have time to answer, for next he found himself standing on the doorway between two empty
white rooms in an empty white house.  He had on nothing but some purple silk underwear and this didn't
bother him for one reason or another.  A baby pink and blue sunrise showed through the arch of the
window, casting a warm spotlight on Cloud, who kneeled bare as morning on the carpet, his wrists tied
behind his back, softly staring.  A second Cloud came pattering into the room, carrying a pair of glasses.
Chibi Cloud had all the features of the elder one, save that his eyes were green and looked wholly
disembodied on his chubby little face.  Only then did Zack blush.  Chibi Cloud shrugged.