Author's Note: To anyone reading this who hasn't read what there is to read of Bound, this story should make at least a little sense, but some of the characters will be unknowns. To the rest of you, who have of course read Bound and are probably waiting eagerly for an update, I apologize that this is all I can give. If you haven't gotten the message yet--through the Author's Notes of my other recently-posted stories--then here is a repeat. Ahem...

My computer has crashed. Kaput. Plooie. It is going to be repaired, but until such time as I can get my best friend's fiance--also my elder brother's best friend, how weird is that?--to look at it and decide if anything can be saved, there will probably be no updates on Bound. Raveled, maybe, but not Bound. I'm trying to get Chapter 27 rewritten, but it's going to take some time.

So I started this. It's a sidestory, placed (about) between the end of Raveled and the beginning of Bound (though you could also say it takes place between Bound's prologue and first chapter), centered around Zack and what he went through at the hands of Hojo.

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Ties That Bind Sidestory Special

Interlaced

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Chapter One: Twisted Facsimiles

"What do you think?" the black-haired man inquired, looking the two new subjects up and down before turning to his assistant. The young woman's lip curled in distaste at their condition--both were covered in blood, and the right half of the smaller one was barely recognizeable as human through the char-black burns that had singed away his skin.

She turned away from the two young men swiftly, looking instead at her spectacled superior. "Quite frankly, sir," she replied simply, "they look like hell."

The man's manic grin broadened. "Precisely the point, my dear," he assured her in a hiss, turning his obsidian eyes back on the fallen warriors. "Precisely the point."

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Zack wasn't sure where he was or how he had gotten there, much less what to do now that it had happened. He opened his eyes, wincing when they began to sting horribly, and turned to look about. He went stiff when he realized that he was immersed in some sort of liquid, and it took several seconds for realization and comprehension to dawn in his addled brain. The fluid in which he floated was deep turquoise in color, vaguely iridescent in the wake of his movement, and every breath he took sent lancing daggers of pain through his lungs.

Mako? he wondered, lifting his hand and watching the fluid spark with the motion. But why...? Actually, the more pressing question should have been how, but Zack didn't even want to think about that yet. By all accounts, being completely surrounded by Mako should have killed him; even slight contact was usually enough to drive a normal person mad. The only person Zack had ever seen survive Mako exposure outside of injections was Sephiroth.

Sephiroth. The name brought a wash of mixed emotions to the young man's psyche, and his chest seized as the memories returned. Sephiroth had stabbed him; killed him. Never before had Zack felt such pain than at that moment, the instant when Sephiroth's beloved blade tore through his chest and through his heart, throwing his thoughts of Shinra's perfect elite into pandemonium. Something had happened, driving Sephiroth insane. What was it? What did he see in that library down below? Zack himself had read a few select passages of the books the silvery-haired man had so quickly completed, but found nothing in them that could have driven a man with will so strong as Sephiroth into such total insanity. Something else must have added to his confused emotions, something more powerful than simple words on a page.

The SOLDIER recalled when they first entered the malfunctioning Reactor, when Sephiroth had burst into a panic attack and screamed at the tanks and monsters within, screamed at the heavens, screamed at Cloud, screamed at anyone and anything present to hear.

'Was I created this way, too!'

Had he known, then, that he was something mankind had created? The general had often spoken of not feeling human, of never fitting in anywhere he went, but Zack had to wonder how he had come to such a conclusion. Had Cloud known that his lover wasn't human? That Sephiroth had known that fact?

Had Cloud known anything at all?

Zack remembered seeing Cloud, talking to Cloud--had he given the youth his sword? Yes, he could remember that as well; the boy's slim fingers hefting the heavy blade and his feet pounding up the stairs as he headed for the place his lover stoodawash in madness.

'My home, my mom, everything--give it back!'

The general had burned Nibelheim to the ground, reduced his lover's home to dust, but Zack still found it hard to believe that Cloud would be capable of killing the man he loved. The boy was strong, insanely so sometimes, but he was nowhere near Sephiroth's level. Cloud, after all, was only human. Sephiroth, in actions and abilities at least, had never been anything close.

But if that was so, if Sephiroth was in fact something created in a labratory somewhere, then who was responsible for creating him? Hojo loved to toy with him, certainly, but Zack couldn't imagine the professor being skilled enough to create a sentient lifeform from something dug up just outside of Icicle. Hojo had only ever been able to make monsters, twisted facsimiles of life and destruction, staining the records of mankind's sins black with his experiments. Hojo was skilled, but even he couldn't be capable of creating human life.

"Professor, this one is awake."

Zack's head snapped back, causing sparks to flare in his vision, which went momentarily white with pain. When his amethyst eyes cleared, he found himself looking at two blurry figures standing out of the tank in which he was submerged; both apparently wore white, for that was the greatest color visible to the SOLDIER's bewildered eyesight, but the one on the left also carried quite a bit of black on his person.

The figure in question took a single step forward, coming into clearer focus, and leaned one pale hand against the glass. "Hello, Z," he said amicably, black eyes tightening with a forced smile. "Did you sleep well?"

Zack drew back, pressing against the opposite end of the massive cylinder. "Hojo..." he mouthed, unable to force out any sound through the Mako.

The man let out a spurt of laughter. "Awake and coherent! Oh, you're taking wonderfully to the Jenova--with how well you're doing I almost want to give you another injection outside the routine." He glanced back at the other figure. "Do you think that would be going too far?"

The woman--the voice Zack had heard had most certainly been female--said nothing, but Zack didn't even notice. He was preoccupied trying to figure out what Hojo had just said; he had spoken the name of Sephiroth's mother, but it was as though in reference to a routine Mako infusion. Come to think of it, Zack knew he had been stabbed, but reaching up to feel his bare chest he found no such wound. Any injection of Mako would heal the gash, but there would still be a scar and internal injuries to worry about. Zack felt no such change in tissue and no pain in his chest aside from a slight sting from inhaling Mako.

"You look confused," Hojo said quietly, leaning closer. "Perhaps I should show you what we've been doing to you and your friend for the last several days?" The ease in the man's vocie caused the SOLDIER to jerk backward, eyes widening. The movement, yet again, caused sparks to flare in his vision, but this time there was no flitting jaunt over the periphery of unconciousness. Hojo clapped his hands together like a little girl excited over a new toy. "Wonderful, wonderful!" he exclaimed. "So awake, so alive--perfect. It's almost like having Vincent back in my hands."

Vincent? It made Zack wonder, but due to the fact that he had never known anyone by that name in his life the confusion was quickly logged away in the back of his mind for later examination. Then, suddenly, he realized that this meant Hojo had done this before. To a man he knew well enough to call by given name. That was disgusting, ahborrent beyond any terror Zack had thought the lunatic capable of.

"You're about as aware as he was, and taking as well to the injections, too. Although his acceptance was so much more excellerated..." he trailed off, the blurred smears of black that must have been his eyes turning to something to Zack's right.

The SOLDIER turned, and the glow in his eyes flared as his stomach lurched. Oh My God...

There was another tank, just beside his, and inside Zack could see a slender figure. Patched with black and pale ivory, Zack knew that whoever this person was was most certainly wounded. Hojo let out a sigh, and Zack was surprised to find that he could hear it through the circulating Mako. When the young man turned back to the scientist, he was shocked to discover that he could see clearly through the glass and Mako now, discern every detail in the professor's stance, expression, clothing. It was like his eyes had never been open completely before, and the sudden clarity reminded him distinctly of his first Mako injection.

Hojo seemed to notice his surprise, for he smirked, bearing his white teeth. How a man so horrible could be so attractive under his evil was unknown to Zack--one would think that the outer shell of such a man would suit their inner heart. That was how it was with most of the people Zack knew, at least to an extent: Sephiroth, a bloodstained angel more intense and more beautiful than anyone else alive, but just as off-kilter inside as he was outside with his inhumanly pale hair and eyes that glowed beyond the power of Mako. Cloud, innocence lost and happiness regained, bright as his hair but dark as his stone-colored eyes.

What had happened to them? Zack didn't know; either he couldn't recall or he hadn't been concious to see what transpired after he passed over his sword.

Against his will, his eyes were drawn to the other tank. That slender figure...

Hojo stepped up to the tank and pressed one pale ahand against the glass. "He's not doing so well, but I think he'll be more compliant than you will." That smirk was back, malicious and horrid. "Considering your...prior experience...with my best subject, I doubt you'll be an easy one to break. Not as jittery as this one, either." He turned his hand around, rapped on the glass with the middle joint of his index finger. The sound was quiet, so subtle it was nearly lost in the bubbling of Zack's tank, but the obscure figure contorted in his own tank, jerking backward with such force that scarlet blossomed among the turquoise.

"Stop it!" Zack shouted, his voice barely breaking through the Mako.

Hojo did so, eyes lighting up as he turned back to the young SOLDIER First-Class. "Oh, don't worry, this isn't your little toy. It's his bunkmate, Ashura. Or, at least it was Ashura, he's been through so much physical trauma--we lost part of his arm on the way, you know, and it's going to take at least another week for us to grow him a new eye--I wouldn't be surprised if his mind isn't all there anymore either." Here he paused, brow furrowing, and turned back to the tank that apparently held Liam. "That reminds me... Elyssa!"

The woman, apparently his assistant, jerked and turned away from Zack at last, rushing to her superior's side. "Y-Yes sir?"

"I want a spacer put in this one's eye socket to keep it from healing over. Remove what's left of his eyelid if you have to--we'll replace it later, when the eye's been fitted."

Zack stared, eyes wide and heart racing. The numbness toward how the man was treating another human being would fade later, but at the moment Zack was more concerned about something else. What Hojo had just said couldn't be right, for him to say something like that he would have to have known about Zack's prior relationship with Sephiroth, and that couldn't be right. But he had referred to prior experience with his best subject. Zack knew Hojo had called Sephiroth that before, on the rare occaison Sephiroth related his sessions with the doctor.

And judging by the reference to a little toy, he thought that Zack and Cloud were--

How much did Hojo know, and how much had he misconstrued? The SOLDIER barely stifled a sigh of relief that the lunatic didn't know about Cloud and Sephiroth being together. He would do everything in his power, little of it though he seemed to have at this moment, to make sure than he never learned the truth of who and what Cloud was to the two SOLDIERs First-Class that he always seemed to follow.

Hojo cocked his head to one side. "Wondering what happened to your doll?" he inquired, having completed his lengthy insctructions to Elyssa at last. Zack waited, feeling more tense than he should have, heartbeat quickening as Hojo took a slow breath in preparation for speech. "I'm afraid, my dear Colonel Knightblade, that he's...dead."

Zack's eyes widened and his heart stopped.

The lunatic turned about slowly until he had his back to the young man, cocking his head to one side. "Yes, aparrently he fell into the Reactor with Sephiroth--neither of them survived. I can only hope they were vaporized on contact; if not..." he glanced back over his shoulder, a poorly-veiled smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "...the pain must have been unbearable."

The SOLDIER ground his teeth, amethyst eyes narrowing, and pressed both hands against the glass. His fingers bent almost backward as he added pressure to his grip, wishing with all his might that he had the strength to shatter the glass and destroy the human monster beyond. But this was specially-made; Zack had seen it before, during one of Sephiroth's 'sessions' and even the elite had been unable to make more than a few fine cracks in its smooth surface.

It was because of this knowledge that Zack felt his blood run cold when the first of a series of high, sharp noises reached his ultrasensitive hearing. He was barely able to mutter, "What the...?" when a thousand spiderweb cracks arced out from his fingers and the walls of the manmade world around him burst outward into the open air.

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Hojo took a leaping step backward, once-handsome features afire with mingled shock and outrage, when the SOLDIER's tank suddenly cracked around the young man's hands and glass exploded outward. Mako rushed out in a wave of iridescent turqiose, the air reeking of planet-blood, and Hojo had to hold a hand to his mouth to avoid being sick. The last thing he wanted to do was be forced to inhale so deeply as he would have to after an such an action--he had been exposed to Mako before, of course, but there was always the chance that this exposure, this droplet, could cause his body to short-circuit. That would be, for lack of a better word, very uncomfortable.

He continued stumbling backward, white hand clamped over his mouth, cheeks flushed from the touch-and-go exertion of such scrambling, ears apparently deaf to the screams of his subordinates as the Mako burned into their feet, licked up their legs--Elyssa had tripped and somehow fallen backward. Her face was white and her voice a ragged shreik. The lead professor would have been interested by the tongues of glowing blue-green that were slowly working their way up his assistant's pale skin, but was too preoccupied saving himself to even notice.

When he had reached the doorway, far enough away to avoid the streaming liquid, Hojo looked out at the pandemonium that had seized his lab. He noticed Elyssa and his eyes narrowed in confusion; why was her body having such a furious reaction to such realtively light Mako exposure? It made no sense.

No matter, he thought, obsidian eyes sliding back to view his bewildering subject. I can deal with her later...

Zack had fallen from his tank with the outsurge of Mako, landing on his hands and knees, and he was now rising shakily to his feet. His hands and knees were bloody; fine lacerations crisscrossed his arms and the sides of his face. His amethyst eyes were wide and his mouth slightly agape. He looked down at his bloody hands and murmured something Hojo couldn't hear.

"Curious, Z?" he inquired from his place in the doorway. "Even Sephiroth only did that twice. You're reacting wonderfully."

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Zack's head shot up to face the scientist, and his glowing eyes narrowed, flashing. "What are you talking about?"

He hoped he sounded stronger than he felt; the shock of breaking glass that had been labeled unbreakable had drained all the force from his limbs and left him in a haze. There was a lump in his throat and a horrible gnawing in his stomach. How had he done that? He was strong, certainly--one didn't become a SOLDIER First-Class by being a weakling--but he knew there had never been such power in his limbs as he felt only a moment ago. And now he was on his knees in Mako without a hint of a burn, he didn't even notice the smell...

What the hell was going on here?

"Oh, not just curious," Hojo said, his wet-silk voice grating on the young man's already-worn nerves, "but confused. I suppose you have every right, don't you? After all, you have no idea what's happening to you." The professor's black eyes moved from Zack to the tank behind him, then to the next one over.

The SOLDIER turned to look over his shoulder at the incapacitatated form of Liam, floating lifelessly in a massive cylinder of Mako. The youth's hair, where it still clung to his torn scalp, appeared more grey than black, as though the liquid was bleaching it slowly, and his skin seemed to hold a pale inner glow. The one eye that was open was devoid of life, but glowed like emerald fire. That was strange--Liam's eyes were hazel, not green, and he had been labeled as too sensitive to Mako to ever have more than a single test injection.

Zack rose fully to his feet and took a deep breath, curling his bloody hands into fists as he turned to face Hojo once more. "What the hell have you done?"

The man shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning against the doorframe and closing his dark eyes. "Nothing special," he replied easily. A scrambling sound caught both their attention, and shortly after Andross hurried out of the supply room wearing a pair of Mako-resistant boots; he rushed over the massive wash, sparks in his wake, to retreive the woman Hojo had called Elyssa. Zack turned to look at her as the young man lifted her up and sprinted out of the room, shedding his heavy white boots when he reached the doorway. The SOLDIER was almost concerned for the woman's health, but recalling that she was one of Hojo's rats squashed any worry he might have felt.

Still, there was something about her--perhaps the paleness of her hair or the inhuman glow in her eyes--that tugged at Zack's memory. He had seen something like that before, somwhere. Where, though? Cloud came to mind, but Zack couldn't find any correlation between the youth and the researcher woman.

The sudden thought of Cloud made his eyes sting--the youth was dead. His best friend was dead. One of the three people in the world he would give his life for without a second thought was dead. Actually, two of them; Sephiroth was gone, too. The realization sunk in and Zack sunk to the floor, eyes wide. Cloud and Sephiroth; dead. Zack's entire world had disappeared in a surge of fire and splash of Mako, leaving only him.

No, there was still Aerith. But without him to protect her, how would she ever aboid Hojo's goons? It wouldn't be long before she was taken in and used the same way Sephiroth had been; injected and twisted until she was as beautiful as she deadly--or perhaps just as she was dead. Zack held a shaking hand to his head, clutching a fistful of black hair, and ground his teeth. The universe was shattering all around him, and it sudenly seemed there was nothing he could do.

After all, he didn't even know what it was he could do anymore. He understood, suddenly, that he was being tampered with the same way his former lover was; twisted in the same manner his beloved would be the moment she was caught. Everything he knew, everything he loved, was dying at Hojo's hands.

Rage flared within him and the SOLDIER turned smoldering eyes on the self-satisfied researcher. Hojo sighed, eyes cast in the other direction, and prepared to continue his monologue. Zack didn't intend to let him--like a feral beast his surged to his feet, bridging the distance between himself anf his target in an instant, and tackled the black-eyed man. They fell to the ground in a tangled mess of black hair, white skin and a lab coat, salty perspiration and shimmering blue-green Mako. Zack tore into the scientist, pounding him with fists and ripping his skin and clothing with fingers that suddenly felt more like killing claws. Blood covered them both, and Zack was sure that some of it was his.

Then Hojo started fighting back.

He brought up one slim leg and braced his foot against Zack's chest, kicking him off with relative ease. The SOLDIER gaped as the scientist wiped a hand across his mouth, rubbing away the trail of blood that had trickled down his chin. How could the spindly little Wutaian be so strong? Hojo pushed himself back to his feet and raked a hand through his hair; realizing that his ponytail was askew he sighed and pulled out the band, hair cascading down his shoulders in a way that reminded Zack distinctly of Sephiroth.

"How did you do that?" the amethyst-eyed man inquired.

Hojo smirked. "You'd be surprised of what I'm capable of."

With a stifled growl at the man's arrogance Zack replied, "I know perfectly well what you're capable of." He grinned, eyes narrowing. "After all, I've had prior experience with your best subject, haven't? Quite a bit of prior experience."

That, for some reason, seemed to upset the scientist. He ground his teeth and narrowed his eyes, removed his glasses and tucked them safely into the pocket of his shirt. "I knew that," he said darkly. "But it is rather...unnerving...to have you declare it so outrightly. I expected you to deny my claim."

"Why?" Zack spat. The anger in him had faded, the single outburst leeching strength from his limbs and from his determination. If Hojo could throw him off as easily as he had a moment before, then Zack knew he stood no chance against him. His only chance was to upset him enough into making a mistake. "Sephiroth and I--I hope you aren't upset by my using his name--were very well acquainted. We even lived in the same quarters you know."

"Shut up."

"Every night we'd fight, his room or mine..."

"Shut up!" He took a step forward, and Zack dared to do the same.

The SOLDIER's brow furrowed. "Why are you so upset? He was only human, right? Humans have their needs, their wants--you should know that. Or is it because your prize subject chose to satisfy those wants and needs with a man?"

Hojo took a breath, seething. "None of that matters. Sephiroth was--" he swallowed, reaching up to push up the glasses he had removed in a nervous habit. "He could have been a god. He wasn't only human, he was perfect. Everything, every gene and every cell, honed and perfected. For him to choose such...filth! To choose you when there were so many others closer to his perfection, man and woman alike. How dare he even think of taking a human when I chose a Cetra for him years ago...!"

That made Zack jerk, and he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt who the madman was talking about. Unable to stop himself, the name slipped from his lips. "Aerith!"

Now it was Hojo's turn to jerk, and he turned wide eyes on the SOLDIER. "What?" He took a step forward, reaching into his jacket and producing a finely crafted handgun. He aimed it on Zack and place one long finger on the trigger. "Repeat yourself."

Zack took a step backward.

"I said repeat yourself!"

"Oh, Gaea..."

The man fired, black eyes narrowed to slits of obsidian amidst his ivory features. Zack tensed for the shot, and was surprised when the expected pain didn't come. There was pain, but it was a sharp sting, not a blast of alncing agony. Zack had been shot before, he knew what it felt like, and this was most certainly not it. He looked down, and where he expected a bulletwound he found a dart. It was a dart gun?

The attached vial was empty, but when Zack reached down to touch the glass the bones in his fingers resonated. He knew, somehow, that he had tasted something like this before. It was a part of him, but it hadn't been there before. What was it? And how did he knew that he was like it at all?

'Dear, sweet little Zack...' a voice breathed. The young man jerked and faced ahead, but his vision blurred and he stumbled backward. The image of violet eyes, glowing brightly as his own, flashed in his mind. 'Welcome to my Clan.'

His vision darkened and he fell backward, He felt himself hit, but beyond that there was something else, a darker, velvety caress over his chest. He saw those violet eyes again, this time in a pale face framed with silvery-white hair exactly like Sephiroth's. The mysterious, dangerous woman --Zack knew she was not safe, somehow--took a deep breath and turned narrowed eyes upward. She threw out her arms, long and slender, and turned her palms toward the sky. 'Sing, my children!' she shouted. 'Sing, for your ninth brother has arrived!'

Zack couldn't understand what she was talking about, but didn't want to know--she was cold against him, like a dead body given motion, and when she spoke his chest seized in pain. There was something horribly wrong with her voice as well; it was deep and velvety, but hidden beneath the smooth tones there lurked a cacophony of screams and pain. This woman--no, this thing, was evil.

She leaned forward, placing one claw-tipped hand on either side of his face. 'Sleep, my son. Sleep and dream of your siblings far away, singing for your arrival.'

Zack, though he had no wish to follow the evil thing's orders, did as he was told. Singing loud in his ears and unnaturally green eyes bright in his mind, he slept.

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Hojo smirked as the SOLDIER's eyes at last drifted shut. He holstered his gun and turned to call for another assistant to carry the subject to the Cell, but his voice died in his throat when faint, raspy notes reached his hearing. He stepped into the lab once again, donning Andross' boots to walk across the Mako, and made his way toward the source of the sound.

It was Liam Ashura. His one eye was closed and his damaged mouth parted only slightly, but the steady stream of bubbles flowing from between those charred lips proved Hojo's suspicion correct. He was singing. And if he was singing, that meant Jenova had accepted him just as Hojo had--the scientist had plans to give him a number as soon as his body was properly repaired. He would be number eleven, Blue XI. The Clones alone sang the song flowing in his voice, deep and melodious and broken all at once. But who was he singing for?

As if able to sense his thoughts, the damamged young man opened his glowing eye. "Nin...th...bro...ther..." he rasped, song trailing off. "Our...ninth...brother..."

Hojo turned to look back at the incapacitated Zack. He had intended to number him nine if he behaved properly. Apparently Jenova had decided for him.

"Kalen," the dark man whispered. The one remaining assistant, clad in white boots to match his mentor's with a Mako disposal vacuum in hand, turned to face the older man but said nothing. He would go far, Hojo thought, if he continued the habit of waiting for instruction in silence. He liked silence. "I want Z prepped for numbering."

"Sir?"

"Ready the burning tools--he's Blue IX." He turned over his shoulder, long hair swishing to one side as his head spun. "I want that number permanent by nightfall, Kalen."

The blond man jerked and nodded, bowing slightly. "Yes, sir," he replied. With that he dropped the vacuum and went about preparing the lab for the numbering of another Clone.

Hojo looked back at Liam as the Clone began the Jenova song once more. It had been so long since he heard one of them sing, and the last time that had happened it had been broken off with a chaotic scream only a moment later. He narrowed his eyes in thought for a moment, crossing his arms over his chest, then holding a hand to his chin, lightly tapping his lips with one finger. He seemed to come to a decision, and then turned around entirely. "Kalen," he said. The man turned and waited, again, for orders. "I also want these two prepped for a move."

Once again, the man replied only with the query of, "Sir?"

"I have a friend I would rather like to visit, but I don't want to leave these two unattended." His smile broadened. "I'm taking them with me...to Nibelheim."

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Author's Note: I hope everyone has enjoyed this first chapter of my Ties That Bind sidestory. Thanks to everyone reading this, everyone who has read Bound and is waiting for the next update (eventually, I swear), to everyone who has read Raveled and it waiting for a new chapter of that (within the next month or so, if all goes well), and to anyone who's just reading this because they thought it looked interesting. Also, thanks to the beta for this story, my netbuddy Koda.

Thanks to the bishies living in my head, and, (Gaea, someone shoot me!) Hojo. If he wasn't there I could never do these horrible things. Thanks to the artist Divine-Star (divine-star . deviantart . com. Check her out!) for kindling my interest in drawing and writing these guys again after everything seemed to be out to get me.