Of Pickles and Past Lives By: Wolfemann and Rhianwenn

Disclaimers, warnings, and assorted whatnot: Final Fantasy IX and all associated story elements do not belong to the authors - they belong to Squaresoft, and are simply being.borrowed by the authors, who are not making any money, without the permission of the nice people who run that company.

Please, please don't sue us! (Authors cower in fear.)

That said, this story also includes the following vaguely disturbing elements: Non-explicit nudity, off-screen M/F sex, strong language, non- explicit descriptions of violence, and much angst (whee!). You have been warned.

~~~===~~~

Steiner sat down in the hold of the Blue Narciss with a hearty sigh. The ship was almost empty - Zidane had taken most of their party into Esto Gaza, Amarant had gone off for some peace and quiet, Freya had followed to keep him out of trouble, and Steiner had finally managed to get the crew out helping the King to scout out the area. Now he could sit and relax, enjoy some of the gysahl pickles he'd had brought along from Lindblum.

Beatrix watched him as he sat down, and licked her lips slightly. She'd stowed away on the ship during the brief time it was in Alexandria Harbor, and was thrilled to have finally found Steiner on board - alone. Now she'd have her chance.

He idly watched the flickering shadows on the wall, crunching the last vestiges of a pickle to non-existence, then pulling a fresh one from the massive pottery jar that had caused him such back-pain, lugging the thing all over creation in his pack.

"But it is more than worth it for a Gysahl Pickle," he thought, gazing fondly at the treat in his hand. "With a thirty pound barrel of Granny's Gysahl Pickles, life truly is wonderful. I do hope Zidane and the others recover that poor child safely," he finished hastily, a slight twinge of guilt poking him in the back of the brain at the selfish turn of his thoughts. Then the guilt was joined by Steiner's-Brain-Poking playfellow...the uncomfortable sensation that he was being watched.

"Ah, Adelbert, you are becoming paranoid," he admonished himself, deftly licking the pickle-juice seeping down his fingers.

Beatrix smiled as she watched him, her good eye closing slightly as she imagined herself cleaning his fingers - but not of pickle juice. Time to reveal herself, she thought with a chuckle, stepping out of her hiding place.

"Hello, Adelbert," she said softly.

He leapt to his feet and, once there, whirled about. 'Adelbert, you're getting sloppy! Grr! Be more para-' This thought was effectively derailed as his eyes lit on the source of the greeting.

"Beatrix?! How did you...why are you..." he sputtered helplessly, the pickle falling, forgotten, to the floor from nerveless fingers as he met her gaze.

She smiled at him as she walked towards him. "I stowed away on the ship when you stopped at Alexandria for supplies," she purred, "and I did it because I wanted to find you again. I told you we'd live through that."

"S-so you did," he replied around a throat suddenly gone uncomfortably dry, with a nervous, somewhat hysterical laugh. He swallowed convulsively to see what could be done about the dryness, and almost choked on his tongue as his eyes dropped from her face to the upward slope of her breasts. Resolutely, albeit reluctantly, he tore his gaze away.

"Your mother would be utterly ashamed of you," he thought. "You are a gentleman! Simply because she has gone to great lengths to be here, give you no reason to assume...things...'

Beatrix smiled as she brushed her hair back, staying a few steps away from him.

"Relax, Steiner - neither of us has really come clean with the other yet. Why don't you have one of those pickles of yours, we can talk a bit?"

"...Pickles?" He blinked. "Oh! Of course!" He glanced briefly at the jar sitting on the floor, then back at the young woman a mere couple feet away.

"Here, why don't you take a seat, and...come clean?" The flustered Knight of Pluto stopped short in the act of motioning her to a reasonably clear place on the floor.

"Gladly," she said, taking her seat and waiting for him to do the same.

Taking her cue, he swept aside an old fishing net and plunked down next to her on the floor. He waited, his foot bouncing nervously, creating an interesting tambourine-esque effect.

She smiled at the nervous jangling of his tapping foot, and put a hand on his leg gently as she reached over to hand him one of the pungent pickles.

"That last night in Alexandria.was pretty crazy, wasn't it?"

He drew in a deep breath. "...Crazy...definitely. Thank-you," he added, accepting the pickle. "Would you like to try one? They're really quite good."

"Maybe later," she chuckled, thinking for a moment before continuing. "Alexandria's recovering, but it will be awhile before it's forgotten - if ever. Only - only Cleyra suffered more," she said, a twinge of guilt filling her heart as her good eye teared up for a moment. She wiped it away before continuing. "But for all the craziness, all the chaos and pain - I have to say I'm glad for one thing that came of it."

Hesitantly, he shifted over and placed a hand lightly on her shoulder. She leaned against him, closing her eye slightly with a sigh.

"There is always a consolation to be found, slight as it may be sometimes." Drawing a deep breath, he continued. "What do you see as the good of all that has happened?"

"I opened my eyes," she said, chuckling a little at the irony. "Finally saw what was in front of me the whole time."

"I...I think I am beginning to see more clearly, as well..." He could scarcely hear his own words around the suddenly thunderous rush of blood in his ears. Emboldened by her response to his light touch, he let his arm snake around her back and shifted closer.

"Good," she said, snuggling up against him. "You know," she said, patting the greave of his armor. "This stuff makes it awfully hard to get as close to you as I'd like."

For a moment, all the world seemed to come to a complete halt, as though some kind deity had stopped time to give Steiner time for a brief argument between the separate and distinct sides of his brain.

'What...why...guh...'

'Oh, who cares?! You heard her! She wants to 'get closer!' Get in there, you ape!'

'Hardly that simple! What if I have misinterpreted?'

'Gah! Quit stalling and do something! She probably thinks you're barking mad!'

Taking this side of his brain at its word, he turned to face her, grinned, and inquired innocently, "What should I get rid of first?"

Smiling softly at him, she took his helmet off and set it off to the side, before kissing him gently on the lips.

He blinked a few times, stunned by the soft, full lips pressed against his. Then, slowly but surely, the subtle connection between brain and body re- formed, and he slid one hand back into her hair, pulling her closer. She moaned softly into his mouth as her lips parted, and she pressed the tip of her tongue against his lips, shifting her hands around his broad body, trying to ignore the heavy armor he was wearing as she started undoing the straps she could reach, caught somewhere between frustration at his insistence at wearing something that hard to get off, and enjoying his touch. Picking up on the cue, he pulled back slightly, breaking the kiss with the greatest of reluctance, and began offering some assistance in the task of unbuckling a particularly stubborn buckle that fell just out of her reach.

"Definitely going to have to find some way for you to get out of that more easily in the future," she grumbled. The hungry, needy expression in her eyes, though, belied the stern tone of her words as she fought the temptation to use her knife to get through some of the straps faster.

"I agree whole-heartedly," he replied somewhat breathlessly, redoubling his efforts with that one especially evil strap as his eyes met hers, took in the unmistakable spark kindling in their depths, and issued back a similar message. By the gods, he was really beginning to see the advantages of going about in clothing that, if less protective, was a little more easily shed!

It took a few moments, but they managed to get the dizzying array of plates and pads off of him, leaving him in the much lighter outfit that he wore beneath all the armor.

"Do you have a more private place on the ship we could take this," she asked, claiming another kiss. "Last time I checked, ship's holds didn't have anything to lock doors with."

When they parted again, he waited for the distinctly merry-go-round-esque spinning of his head to cease, then replied, "Yes; Naturally, I share the room with several of the crew, but the door does lock, and I think there is little risk of anyone returning for a goodly bit of time. This way, my dear" he concluded, guiding her toward the doorway with a hand on the small of her back as he beat down the niggling worry at the back of his mind that he was assuming too much.

"Good," she purred as she followed his directions. "Because once I get you alone, I want to keep you that way for some time." With that, the niggling doubt in the back of his mind vanished, and they continued on to his quarters.

~~~===~~~

Freya raised one arm to shield her eyes from the coarse driving snow, and then came to a dead stop, squeezing her eyes shut tightly as a stronger gust of wind robbed her of breath for a moment.

'Of course, he had to choose the calm before the storm as a perfect time to decide that he's had enough of everyone else on the ship...' she thought, casting a baleful glare in Amarant's direction. She dismissed the thought almost immediately as unfair. After all, how was he to know that the weather would decide to turn moody at just that point?

"It looks so peaceful when one is watching it from a warm shelter, doesn't it?" she called to the patch of vibrant crimson bobbing up and down a few feet away, barely visible through the falling snow.

"We'll see when he find one," came his more-than-slightly annoyed response, his voice only marginally warmer than the blizzard around them. "If that fool friend of yours wasn't out of his mind, there should be something not far from here."

"Right, right," she murmured, pulling her coat closed more tightly. "My own fault for trying to strike up a conversation." Then she continued, more loudly. "And I think we won't have to worry. He usually knows what he's talking about."

'Wouldn't this be one hell of a time to be wrong, though," she thought.

"If he doesn't, and we live through this," Amarant shouted, "I'm using his hide for a new coat when I see him again. You know, I never thought I'd actually want something to try to rush us. Most of the corpses around here might actually be warm."

She fought back a shudder with the realization that it would be best to be prepared for such an eventuality. But, still... "I...don't think it will come quite to that. Shouldn't we be approaching somewhere marginally more sheltered fairly soon?"

"Yeah, we should - but I can't see much father than the end of my claws in this stor - oof!" Amarant's shout was cut off by a loud grunt as he staggered back slightly. "Found it," he snarled back to her.

She hid a smile. After all, it wouldn't do to antagonize the only other person around for the-gods-only-knew how bloody far. "So, should we find a way in?" she inquired mildly, stretching her hands out in front of her, groping for the cause of Amarant's sudden stop.

"Easy enough to do, the door's right in front of me," he grumbled. "Seems frozen shut, but.." He drew back his fist and slammed it against the edge of the door, causing a loud crack of breaking ice. He opened it, and moved out of the wind quickly, holding it open for Freya once he was through.

She blinked, surprised by the gesture, then swiftly recovered and stepped inside after him. Glancing around the room, it became quite obvious that this place had been well and truly abandoned some considerable amount of time ago. What sparse furnishings a quick glance about the tiny cabin revealed were coated in a layer of dust that must, Freya reflected dryly, have been accumulating since close to the beginning of time. But, it was shelter, and in light of the biting wind that left both of them smarting, this was the only requirement that really mattered. All the same..."I don't suppose the owner of this place would have left a packet of matches, or the like, lying about," she murmured.

"If he did, they're probably useless by now," Amarant grumbled, shaking the snow from his shaggy red mane. "But we should be able to get something going, even if there aren't any. Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine. Are you all right?" She gazed up at him, knowing at the back of her mind that the question was essentially pointless. Even if he wasn't, he was almost certain not to say so.

"Of course I'm fine," Amarant scowled, looking for anything he could use to work on a fire. "But I'm not the one with a body covered with cold wet fur."

She sighed. Well. As expected. He did have a point, though, she reflected, swiping at a droplet of melting snow as it trailed down the side of her face. Then she raised one eyebrow.

"And I'm not the one who decided to brave a blizzard in that," she commented lightly, gesturing to his vest, coupled with a decided lack of shirt, before helping to search for anything that might prove useful.

"It wasn't a blizzard when I left," he shrugged. "Besides, it's only cold if you let it be, as long as you get dried off afterwards. So, let's get dried off. See if you can find a couple blankets or something, I'll see about some dry wood."

"Sounds like a plan," she replied briskly, opening a nearby cupboard door...and then coughing, backing away from the cloud of dust it stirred up. Once able to see again, she reached inside the cupboard, feeling around for any blankets that might have been so obliging as to make themselves' found. Her claws struck something soft, and she gave a small exclamation of triumph, dragging out a heavy gray wool blanket. Now, if only another one would pop out of the wood-work - or out of the cupboards, at the very least, in the same manner...

"Wonderful," Amarant said dryly as he looked over towards her. "Now you'll be able to cover up while your clothes dry. Now, unless you'd rather take advantage of the fact I don't much care about modesty, try finding another one." He found an old table, and opened the drawer. "Well, they do have something useful," he mused, pulling out a small stick. "Assuming this flare still works, should be able to start a fire with it if we can find some dry firewood. Or split up a table."

Casting him a freezing glare that proved an interesting contrast for the hot blush creeping into her face, Freya moved on to the other side of the cupboard and swung the door open, this time knowing in advance to back away from the impending barrage of dust.

'Erm...' she began silently when a quick search proved fruitless. Clutching the gray blanket tightly, she turned and glanced quickly about the room for anything else that might contain the coveted treasure of a second blanket.

'Erm...' she repeated, just as silently, when a search of the remaining drawers to be found in the room proved fruitless. Then she sighed, dropping the blanket onto the table and wriggling out of her sopping wet coat.

"Er...Amarant? I may have to take advantage of that fact."

The slender warrior rolled his eyes slightly as he found a fairly flimsy table, and broke it up quickly, putting the wood into the small fireplace, checking to see that the chimney could be opened without dumping snow onto their fire. Once he was satisfied, he broke the stick, exposing the flash powder and letting it ignite the stick, which he used to start the fire before stripping off his vest and breeches casually, hanging them across the old fireplace tools to dry.

"Well, might as well get your coat over here too," he said casually, holding out a hand for her to put it in, giving her as much privacy as possible.

She handed him her coat, set her helmet on the floor, then hurriedly shedding her own breeches. 'Hmm...dry enough,' she decided of the light, loose tunic that the absence of her coat left her in. Then, mustering as unconcerned an expression as possible, she stepped forward to hang her breeches over a free hook, carefully not looking at Amarant as she did so, then strode back to the table not sacrificed to the starting of a fire, shook out the blanket, crawled underneath it, holding one side of it open, motioning for him to join her.

Amarant looked at her, considering whether or not he should take the offer, but shrugged, crawling under with her as he watched the fire.

"So, just why did you follow me out here," he asked after a long silent moment.

"Well...I wanted to make sure you didn't get yourself hurt," she replied, infusing a slight flippancy into her tone as it hit her exactly how ridiculous the statement was, and how he would be likely to take such a sentiment. "That, and I'd rather not been left back at the ship with only Steiner and the crew of the ship to talk to." She shook her head.

"Gods, can you imagine such a fate?"

"There's a reason I left," he pointed out. "Figured you'd rather mope on your own, and that tin can of a knight's less interesting to be around than that princess he's following around."

"So, you _can_ imagine, then," she observed, laughing softly. Then she stopped and blinked for a moment before continuing with a frown. "But why do you imagine I'd rather be left alone to 'mope?'"

"Oh, please," Amarant replied, rolling his eyes beneath his wet red mane. "Do you really think I haven't heard the story of your old.fiancé, lover, boyfriend, whatever you want to call him? Including the last part of the little saga."

"Mmm..." With this rather inarticulate comment, she shifted to look away, gazing moodily into space.

"See what I mean," he asked. "Could be worse, though," he said, watching the fire dance as their clothes dried, and he finally started feeling the warmth from it, instead of just from the slender Burmecian next to him - who had just become noticeably cooler.

"Well, yes," she agreed, turning back with a small smile and edging a little nearer to him. "It can always be worse, can't it? It's something of a universal constant..."

"Seems that way," he said quietly. "At least you found him again."

"True..." she conceded in a murmur, watching the flicker of shadows over the wall absently. Then she looked up at him, seeming to snap out of a short reverie. "So, what's our plan from here? How long do you think it'll keep snowing like that?"

"Depends," he said with something resembling a shrug. "I'd say we've got a good night ahead of us, if not longer. Place seems to be built sturdy though - if we close up the chimney after the fire burns down, we should be fine for a day or two. Zidane told us about this place before he left, should be able to figure out where we are if he gets out before we do."

She nodded. "Mmmhmm... It really was quite a stroke of luck, this place being here, still standing, and uninhabited. Any port in a storm, I suppose, but I'd have rather not had to trust the sanity, let alone generosity and goodwill of anyone living alone up here."

"Anybody crazy enough to be up here alone on a long-term basis would probably welcome being put out of his misery," Amarant said quietly. "Besides, it's supposed to be a shelter for blizzards like this - anybody who was here would probably just be here for the same reason we were, with Esto Gaza just a few hours hike away."

"I suppose you're right." Then, as the first part of his statement repeated itself in her mind, she glanced up at him sharply. But why would a person come here if they didn't welcome the opportunity to be alone...all the time?"

"Because they were lost, like us" he shrugged. "Because they needed to get away from the rest of the herd. Because they didn't want to bother anybody else. Because they wanted to die in peace. I try not to think about why people do things - too many options."

"That's a good point. It can be hard enough to know why one's own self does things, without worrying about the rest of the world. But sometimes..." She sighed. "Focusing on the reasons for the actions of others can provide a nice diversion."

"That why you were trying to figure me out back in Treno?"

"I wasn't trying to 'figure you out,'" she shot back, looking down, embarrassed. "I asked because I wanted to know."

"Hmph. Well, there's not much worth knowing about me - and I try to keep it that way. You could get more interesting stories out of just about anybody but the princess or Steiner."

"I doubt that, somehow," she said, glancing sideways at him with a small smile. "I think there's plenty about you that would be worth knowing. And what do you mean when you say you try to keep it that way?"

"I mean that the only thing worth knowing about me is the reason they keep upping the bounty on my head. If much else gets out there, pretty soon somebody'll be collecting that bounty," he clarified, pointedly ignoring her other comment, and trying to ignore the smile on her face when she said it.

"Ah." She looked down. "I think, though, that there are a lot of other things I'd like to ask" she murmured, nearly more to herself than to him, "if I thought you'd tell me."

"Feel free to ask," he said with a shrug. "Worst that happens is I tell you."

"Erm...all right," she began slowly, suddenly feeling somewhat as though she had been handed the moon, and hadn't the foggiest idea what to do with it.

"Well, then...did you grow up in Treno?" There. Fairly neutral to start with.

"Yeah," he snorted slightly. "If you can call it growing up."

She blinked, turning the words over in her mind for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"You remember those two urchins back there," he asked. "The poor kids, talking about how they were going to take over one day?"

She frowned slightly, thinking back. "Yes..."

"They're growing up. They've got dreams, they can work towards 'em, see 'em fall apart, give up, grow up, whatever they want to do. Hell, who knows, maybe they'll even pull it off," he said with a chuckle. "The bloated bastards they'd be taking over from sure as hell deserve it," he muttered. "Me, I didn't have that. You know about King's pits?"

She shook her head. "Er, no."

"Weapon shop in Treno - King runs the place. Just off his auction house, actually. The place has a monster pit under it - that's pretty well known. But there's other places," he said, trailing off slightly. "They say the thieves run Treno now, that the nobles have lost their power. They're right - except for King. When the thieves took over in Treno, King just became one of them. He catered to the vices of the nobles and the poor alike. Bread and circuses," the lanky warrior snorted again. "Worked well enough, that's for sure. A monster pit that people volunteer to fight in, that's one thing. Anybody could know about that, especially since he makes sure the people fighting there don't get hurt too badly. But they don't pull in the gil."

"What...what of these other places?"

"Monsters were good enough for awhile, from what I hear. But people got bored eventually - after all, a griffin only has a handful of strategies. Same with the rest of the monsters he pulled in. They wanted something that found different ways to fight. He provided it - you go deep enough under Treno, you'll find the pits that the locals frequent. The people who know Treno, not the tourists. Anything goes once you're that far down - no guard in their right mind would go down there, unless they were paying admission."

"Paying admission...to watch a fight completely free of rules...?"

"Only rule was that the combatants had to be sentient, or one person against two or three different monsters, ones that fought in completely different ways. Nobody in their right mind would do that."

"Then...the combatants didn't volunteer..."

"Nope. Pit slaves for the most part, occasionally people who owed the wrong people money and sold themselves for a few fights to pay it off - the betting was straight profit if you won, the admissions usually covered the cost of running the place. Think a couple Burmecians were in there actually, kidnapped when they made the mistake of getting the wrong sort of attention in Treno."

"That's...oh, gods, how could anyone glean amusement from watching that sort of thing?"

"Forget they don't want to be there, and it's just watching a fight. Beyond that - well, I've always said the thieves weren't the sickest bastards in Treno. You were actually treated pretty well if you kept winning, put on a good show, and had a reasonable owner instead of just being desperate." He trailed off, watching the fire and remembering.

"You...fought, then?"

He threw the corner of the blanket back, revealing an ugly scar on the back of his shoulder, from a strange snake-shaped burn. "Bred into it," he said softly.

Her eyes widened as they lit on the mark. Then she started back, staring at him blankly. "Bred into it? Then you started...as a child?"

"Not seriously," he said. "Just training - but you learned how things were fast, if you wanted to get by. When I told you that my first memory is of the first person I was fighting, I was telling you the truth."

She nodded slowly, at a loss for what to say.

"Now you see why I wasn't too interested in talking about it in Treno," he asked simply, pulling the blanket back up.

She nodded again, and then glanced away. "I'm glad you told me, though."

"You haven't heard the half of it," he said quietly. He took the chance, while she was looking away, to brush away a tear that formed in his eye.

"No, I'm sure I haven't, and I won't try to make you talk about it if you don't want to," she said, touching his arm lightly.

He didn't seem to hear her for a moment, before he spoke again. "Ever have kids?"

She blinked. "Erm...what?"

"Wondering if you ever had kids," he repeated, and then shrugged. "Stupid question - forget about it."

"No, it isn't; there are no stupid questions. And no, I haven't."

"Not surprising," he said. "Though it is a pretty stupid question - you're not the sort who'd leave your family behind, given a choice in the matter."

"No," she agreed carefully. "Not if given a choice."

"If that choice is ever taken from you, in the future - make it an option," he said quietly. "Whatever else you do, don't lose your family."

She turned to face him, slightly startled. Where had that come from? "Of...of course not."

"Sorry," he said, shaking his head quickly. What had he been thinking? "Letting things get to me, I guess."

"It's all right," she said, then paused, considering for a moment. "What things?"

"Ten years," he mused quietly, not really recognizing what Freya'd said beyond that it was a question. "Almost to a day."

She fell silent, watching and listening intently.

"I never really let myself care before, you know? The Flaming Amarant - the heartless bastard," he snorted. "What the hell do they know?"

She didn't respond, assuming the question to be rhetorical, and waited for him to continue.

"Never should have left the Mist Continent," he grumbled. "More trouble than the bounty was worth to start thinkin' about things like that."

"Things like that?" she echoed. "Like what?"

"Like what got left behind," he said quietly. "I managed to get Lain and myself out, but never found him."

"Who?"

"Son," he said softly, almost too softly for her to hear. "Worst thing about the pits."

She stared for a moment, baffled, then finally managed to reply, "I...I'm sorry."

"Couldn't have known," he shrugged. "How the two of us met, actually," he chuckled bitterly. "She was in King's stables. Didn't get to me much, up until we found Eiko. Don't know why it gets to me now."

"How'd you and your boyfriend get together," he asked quickly, trying to change the subject.

Slightly taken aback at the sudden switch of topic, she was silent for a moment, and then began slowly. "Well, we played together as children, grew up together. I suppose it was one of those things; one day, you look at someone who has always been a friend, and see...more."

"Sure as hell sounds healthier than the stories I've usually heard," he mused.

"I'm intrigued. Such as?" she prompted with a small smile.

"Oh, falling for the boss' mistress, finding out that the person you're supposed to take out's quite the looker, things like that," he explained. "Treno's not exactly the place for love stories, especially not the ones that end well."

"Ah. So it would seem."

"You're lucky, you know. Might not feel like it, but you are."

"I...know," she murmured reluctantly. "You're right; it certainly doesn't feel like it sometimes...often...but, I know."

"Ever think about what you're going to do when this is all over?"

"Often," she replied dryly. "Go back home, I suppose. Help rebuild." Then she looked up at him curiously. "What about you?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "Don't have a home to go back to, only have one friend worth mentioning, and I don't really know how well we'll be getting along after all this, given the last time we met. Spent so long trying to catch up with Zidane, and now that's over too." He shook his head slightly. "Last five years of my life gone up in smoke."

"Ah. Not entirely true, though; I'm sure we'd all like to consider ourselves your friends."

He smirked slightly. "Funny, but somehow I can't help but think that Steiner'd have a heart attack if he'd heard you say that. After all, a queen shouldn't be associating with such riff-raff."

She laughed softly. Somehow, the image of Steiner rolling around on the ground, armor thumping and crashing about merrily, and clutching his chest, was vaguely amusing. Then she shook her head. "I'm not sure. I think Steiner's beginning to grow up a little...I suppose that sounds unbearably patronizing coming from someone several years younger than the man, but there it is."

"He'd better be able to grow up," Amarant said absently. "He'll have a lot of trouble dealing with it if he can't. He'd probably explode when his princess finally decided she'd found her prince and wasn't going to take any crap about it."

She nodded. "Definitely."

"Wonder how he's holding up, back at the ship with the rest of the crew," he smiled. "Probably driving them insane by now."

She shook her head. "Those poor, poor men..."

"Of course, it could be worse - could you imagine what'd happen if Quina was the only one on the ship? I think they'd be too busy trying to keep him...her...whatever from trying to gnaw through the hull."

"I can't imagine. But I can imagine Zidane's expression if he returned to find a large part of the ship gone, and Quina lying somewhere along the beach, complaining about 'tongue splinters.'"

Amarant chuckled at the image, and smiled slightly. "Of course, I don't think he's stupid enough to leave her behind when one of his friends is a major food group to her. Cid's got enough trouble as it is."

"I think being eaten by Quina would constitute more than 'trouble.' Gods, could there be a more embarrassing way to go?"

"Yes," Amarant said with a disturbing degree of certainty. "Yes, there is."

She gave a short, astonished laugh, debating for a moment. "Oh, what the hell. So, what, then?"

"You remember those bandersnatch things I heard about you and Beatrix duking it out with?"

"Yes..."

"Imagine being drooled to death," Amarant chuckled darkly. "Of course, I can't say the guy who checked out that way deserved anything else."

"...How did he manage that?" she asked amid a shudder.

"They don't train well. And they get to be particularly friendly some days - if they manage to get you pinned, and they're in a friendly mood, they aren't quite smart enough to recognize that the squawking is their keeper having a hard time breathing through slobber."

"...Why would anyone in their right mind try to train a bandersnatch?"

"Key phrase - right mind. There was a time when the fad was a morbid fascination with something that looked so cuddly and fluffy, and could tear a guy in two without really meaning to. Sick people."

"Very."

"Most of 'em aren't around any more," he said with a grim satisfaction. "At least not the ones I knew about."

"And I suppose the 'why' of that involved their being pinned under those friendly, slobbery creatures?"

"No, it took another year or two for most of them to get taken out. Here's a helpful hint - if you're ever going to teach somebody the best way to kill somebody, make damned sure they never get the chance or inclination to use those lessons against you. Lani and I got the first, and had a hell of a lot of the second," he said matter-of-factly.

"I...see. The inclination, or the inclination of others used against you?"

"The inclination. The buncha bastards never knew what was coming, until the two of us were loose. Shoulda been satisfied with the money from the first time they put the two of us together," he growled, "instead of trying to get somebody for their own stables."

She nodded, quite lost for anything to say that didn't sound hopelessly inane.

"You know, I've fought for most of my life, never regretted most of the people I've had to kill - but never enjoyed it either, until that time," he said quietly, his voice barely concealing the conflict that realization was causing inside of him.

"Hardly without reason, though," she replied as softly, hesitantly placing a hand on his shoulder.

"I know," he said, swallowing slightly. "I guess I just don't like the idea of enjoying killing anybody. That's the sort of monster they paint me as back in Treno - the sort nobody'd like."

"But you know that whatever they may try to paint you as, it isn't true..."

"It isn't? I killed the first three with my bare hands, before I could get to the armory and get my claws. After that, Lani and I put that Syndicate out of business permanently. And I enjoyed every minute of it. Hell, if I ever got the chance, I'd do King the same way, for what he did to both of us." He looked at his hands and shuddered slightly. "Is the only thing I can do fight and kill?"

"Of course not!"

"Like what," he grumbled. "I've been a fighter all my life - sometimes legal, sometimes not. What else could I do?"

"A lot of things, I'm sure. You don't seem the sort to be beaten. At anything."

"Not and take it lying down," he agreed. "That's the whole reason I'm out here in the first place."

"Ah. That re-match with Zidane?"

"Yeah. Only person who ever got passed me while I was playing security guard. Only fight I lost."

"Hold on," she began, frowning slightly. "Didn't you say before that it was King's auction house you'd been working at?"

"Yeah," he said with a shrug.

"How did you come to be a security guard for someone you would gladly eliminate, given the chance? Is that why you say you were 'playing security guard?'"

"Had to find some way to get close enough," he shrugged. "And it paid the bills while I was working on it."

"Close enough for what?"

"To pay him back for even half the pain he'd caused. Wouldn't shut the pits down, but it'd cause enough confusion that the rest of the slaves might have."

"What did you do?"

"Didn't do anything - just took the guard job to try and get into the place sometime. Figured I could take him out, or at least die trying. Zidane saved a life when he got me fired," Amarant said with a bitter chuckle. "Just not sure whose."

"Maybe both."

"Maybe," he shrugged. "Though if I could take King out in the process, I don't think I'd mind not making it out alive."

"I can understand that," she agreed, nodding. "Although, I must say, I'm glad you did."

He was quiet for a long moment after she said that, thinking. "I am too, some days," he finally answered. "It was a hell of a lot easier when I could just hold a grudge, though."

"Hold a grudge against what?"

"Zidane. King. The world, for making me the butt of a damned cosmic joke."

She nodded. "Ah. Alright."

"But no," he continued. "I have to go and find something worth the trouble."

"Don't you hate when that happens?" she asked dryly.

Amarant rolled his eyes and settled back down against the floor. "I do when there's nothing I can do about it," he grumbled.

She looked away, hiding a small smile. "Sorry."

"They'd better get her back safely," he said quietly. "At least that'll take care of that part of it."

"They will."

"They'd better. Should have kept a closer eye on her."

"We all should have," she replied softly.

"Somebody had to go take care of Kuja," he pointed out. "And I was on the bottom of the list of people who had a reason to take him on."

"You couldn't have known what was going to happen."

"Knew those jesters couldn't be trusted."

"They WILL get her back," she repeated quietly.

"They shouldn't have to," he said again. "Why are you defending me?"

"Because no matter how much you may like to believe otherwise, what happened is not your fault! Because, even if it were, a routine of self- guilt is not going to help you right now."

"Like you're one to talk," he asked with a grumble, regretting the words almost as soon as they'd come out of his mouth. Oh well, no taking them back.

"What exactly does that mean?"

"Burmecia, Cleyra - do you really think you'd have changed anything by being there sooner?"

She shook her head. "Hell, I don't know. But I could have tried."

"Same principle. Can't change the past, doesn't do either of us any good to worry about it."

"I suppose you're right about that," she murmured, biting off a substantially angrier reply with something of an effort.

"Maybe we should just agree not to interfere with attempts to make ourselves miserable," he said quietly, wishing the subject had never come up in the first place.

"Agreed."

"Well, at least that's something," he smirked slightly.

"What is?"

"Something we agree on. You have to admit, we haven't had the best luck finding things like that today."

"Hmm. I must admit, I hadn't noticed."

"I hadn't either, until I started thinking about it," he admitted. "Shaping up to be a long night."

"Not that I mind the company," he added, almost as an afterthought.

"Well, thank-you," she chuckled, and then stopped. "Erm, never mind."

"What," he asked, looking over at her a little curiously.

"Well, once I thought about it, you just meant that being thrown in a situation like this with anyone is going to be preferable to being stuck in it alone."

"Hardly," he said, shaking his head. "Most of the bunch we're with, I'd rather be alone than have them with me."

"Oh." She blinked. "Well, in that case, thank-you."

"I'd think twice before you did that," he chuckled. "After all, you are stuck out here until the storm ends because I had to get away from the ship for a while."

"Waiting in a cabin in the middle of nowhere isn't THAT much different from waiting on the ship."

"Except that they probably aren't in the middle of a blizzard," he pointed out. "Usually stay away from the major coasts."

"Yes, there is that," she admitted.

"Bet you're exhausted," he said after a long moment of silence between the two of them.

"Is that my cue to be quiet and let you sleep?" she inquired with a small smile.

"Nah," he chuckled. "If I wanted you to be more quiet, I'm sure I could make you."

"Oh, really!"

"I'm the one who learned how to wrestle, remember," he smirked.

"Oh, I think I could hold my own," she assured him with a hint of a grin. "And anyway, what does that have to do with making me be quiet?"

"Once I had you still, I could take that ribbon of yours and tie your muzzle shut," he smirked.

"If I had a gil for every time someone has threatened to do that..." she sighed, a hint of melodrama in her tone.

"You'd probably be dirt poor, as little as you talk," Amarant finished with a chuckle. "Besides - how many people who might have threatened that could pull it off?"

"I think you'd be surprised. I wasn't the most tactful of creatures as a child. And when you're small and loud, you find a lot of people who can carry out such threats."

"Guess you've changed a lot since then," he mused.

"Well, people tend to."

"Only when they have a reason to."

"Not always; sometimes it just happens naturally."

"Sometimes," he agreed eventually. "Not often, but sometimes."

"Why do you say that?"

"Think about it - all the people you know. How many of them have changed without a reason to change? People are creatures of habit - if it works, they'll keep doing it. The bunch we're with now are a perfect example."

"Well, you're definitely right about that."

"Like I said - people only tend to change when they have a reason to."

"I still think that's a little too broad a generalization, but I see your point. Even if the reason isn't always a significant one."

"Well, not worth arguing about," he shrugged.

"True. Sorry."

"I'm the one who brought it up," he shrugged. "Besides, it was a better subject than what we had before."

"Again, true."

"Well, our clothes should be dry by now," Amarant said after a long stretch of silence, shifting out from under the blanket to go check them, then nodding before he pulled his pants on and tossed Freya her coat.

She caught it and slipped it on. "Thanks."

"Why don't you get some sleep while I keep an ear out for the blizzard ending," he suggested, sitting down and pulling his vest on.

"If you're sure you don't want to sleep first..." She trailed off, curling up on the floor and smothering a yawn.

"Don't worry about it," he chuckled. "I'll sleep later."

"Alright. Wake me when you get tired."

"I will," he assured her. "Now get some rest - you'll need it, if the blizzard breaks before they get here."

"Okay," she murmured. "G'night."

Amarant sat silently while the white mouse dozed off, listening to the incessant howling of the storm as he thought about what he'd told her - in particular, trying to figure out why he'd told her about that.

~~~===~~~

Beatrix ran her hands along Steiner's chest idly then leaned over to kiss him playfully. "I'm glad I managed to hide with the supplies earlier," she said with a smile.

His dazed grin vanished as he returned the kiss. "As am I, my love," he replied, fingers brushing through her hair.

"You're not going to be coming back to Alexandria any time soon, are you," she asked, though her tone indicated that she knew the answer well enough.

"I...no," he replied with a sigh.

"I thought as much," she nodded. "And that means that Queen Garnet will be gone for some time too, I'm sure."

"Er, yes. As much as I would rather see her safely out of harm's way, that is unrealistic."

"You'll take good care of her," Beatrix smiled, hugging him. "But it means I'll have to return to Alexandria after this, so that there's still a kingdom for her to rule when she does come back."

"And you'll take good care of the kingdom. I...shall miss you, though," he finished, smiling almost shyly at her.

"And I you," she said, sighing slightly. "Just make sure you come back to me, all right Steiner?"

"Of course," he promised, enclosing her in a tight embrace.

"Good," she said, relaxing against his body. "Now, I believe we've probably got a few hours before you have to take me back to Alexandria, correct?"

"I believe we do, yes."

"So," she said with a slight giggle as she ran her hands down his back, "any ideas for something to do until we leave?"

"I might have one or two," he grinned before placing a light kiss on her shoulder.

"You'd better have more than that," she chuckled, before she just stopped caring any more..

~~~===~~~

Amarant woke up sometime the next day, before Freya heard the pounding on the door.

"Open up in there already," came a young, familiar voice.

"Yeah, guys! It's cold out here!" another older voice chimed in.

Amarant got up, hurrying to the door almost silently as he opened it, not sure if he was hearing things or not. A blast of cold air blew through the door, making the fire flicker wildly as a small blur of bright colors mixed with snow flew in.

"What took you so long," Eiko shouted at Amarant as the snow fell off of her. "We were about to - mmph!" She was cut off as the lean warrior grabbed her and hugged her tightly for a moment, not quite realizing what he was doing before he let her go, hoping nobody commented on it while she was still trying to get her breath and figure out what had happened.

"Hey, hey, do I get a hug?" Zidane demanded, with a horribly exaggerated hurt, sad-puppy expression. "Ow!" he continued in a pained yelp as a red- clad elbow imbedded itself somewhat less-than-gently in his ribs.

"Hush up, Zidane," its owner advised just as gently.

"Should we get back to the ship now," Amarant asked casually, trying to act like nothing had happened.

"Dear Gods, yes" Freya replied fervently, opting not to comment.

Eiko just looked confused while she waited for them to start leaving, really not knowing what was going on with the red-haired fighter.

"Alright," Zidane agreed, swinging the door open and stepping reluctantly back out into the biting cold.

Amarant caught Freya's shoulder on her way out the door behind Eiko, and pulled her back.

"If you ever tell anybody what I told you last night, one of us is going to regret it seriously," he said quietly, though there was a calm steel to his words.

"Understood," she replied immediately. "I would never do that."

"Good," he said simply, releasing her shoulder and starting out. "But thanks for listening, all the same."

Fin