Note: It's still Valentine's Day where I live. Please accept my gift of ten million dramatic monologues.

» Τђε – Vίσιετ – Яσσм «

Sarehptar

o ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― o

Ĉħąρτεŕ V

Ғίηałε – Ŧŕεмσłσ :

Ŧŕąνεłεŕ – ί η – ŧ н ε – Đ ą ŕ ҝ

o ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― o

He hurtled through his bedroom door and out onto the dark landing so quickly his feet couldn't keep up with the rest of him; he slid and stumbled, catching the stair rail and not even stopping. Theoretically, he went down the stairs. In practice, it was a lot more like a drunken gazelle with a cheetah so close on his tail that he could feel the fangs (and hey, he remembered what gazelles and cheetahs were, and that wasn't Dawn City at all, it was Pride Lands—dude, he'd been an ostrich, what the hell—).

He couldn't hear anything. This was the part where he was supposed to be hearing his heart hurling itself against the inside of his ribs and his breath stuttering already from too much movement too fast, but he couldn't—there was just a sort of humming, ear-ringing noise, low-pitched and jerking and that might actually have been what terror sounded like, shivering all the blood inside him. The first floor hallway was pitch dark, too dark to see even his hands, even his shoes, but he needed those—he had to go; he should have been there already!

The ringing in his ears became a rushing, a blinding wind called up inside his head, howling and tearing every thought he half-formed to bits and pieces, until in the dark there was a moment of panic when he realized he'd lost track of everything: of up and down, far and near, where his own body began and ended, where his freaking shoes were so he could go—

Oh, maybe he was hyperventilating. That might explain some things.

Only it didn't, because all of the sudden there were lights too bright to be any lamps in their house, like flood beams, and Myde lurched to a dead stop, finally panting, feeling like he'd run a mile. The rushing noise stopped and the wind ceased to blow with a shuttering, inhuman noise like—like a wormhole closing.

He'd been running full-tilt through the dark. His house didn't have a hallway that long, did it?

Myde had fallen right into a dark corridor without warning or thinking and where exactly had the portal dumped him out—

Flood lights, up high. At 4:30am in the morning. The only place that stayed lit up like Christmastown 'til dawn was Rufus Memorial Hospital.

Myde squinted through the sharp glow of the parking lot lights and there, there were the windows he loved to see the sun hit every evening when he left work, tired but not unhappy. Only Ienzo's window was pitch dark. Myde booked it.

"Oh jeez, ow!" Still no shoes. The rough asphalt bit into his feet, but he widened his stride and kept going.

Aerith was waiting for him just inside the hospital doors. She looked so much more collected in person than she'd sounded over the phone, all cool responsibility and optimism in spades, only there was a little wideness to her eyes that made her gaze seem to shiver and dart. Her smile, at least, was solid as ever, if tainted some by relief. Then the smile fell right off her face. "How did you get here so—"

He hadn't even hung up the phone before hitting the portal-he-totally-didn't-know-he-could-make at a sprint. Aerith knew he lived on the other side of town.

"I'll tell you later," Myde promised. Or not. He tried to force his body into a reassuring expression, tried to get his breath back under control. Normally it wouldn't have worked on Aerith (and anyway, it wasn't working at all, because the stupid heart-he-wasn't-supposed-to-have had no intention of slowing down until he could see Ienzo was still, you know, alive), but this time the fake reassurance did fly, and Aerith's tense shoulders fell a little. She nodded to show she's let his magical appearance slide for now, but just under the fatigue and worry in the crinkled corners of her eyes, Myde could see that ever-present flicker of curiosity just waiting for an opportune moment.

"Where's Ienzo?" Myde asked, and the tension immediately warped her body into a sharp line again.

"He's been moved to the ICU. This way." She gestured to the elevators and then turned the motion into a parting wave to the night receptionist. Behind the desk, Mulan waved shortly in return, but she stared dubiously at Myde's feet, at his rather apparent lack of footwear. Myde met her stare; for a half-second he was worried she'd stop them, whip out some hospital security protocol and bring the whole thing to Aerith's attention so they had to waste time finding loaner shoes before they let him take another step—but Mulan just rolled her eyes and shook her head. He was almost 90 percent sure he heard her mutter something about "typical men."

It wasn't until they'd gotten into the elevator that Aerith noticed too.

"Where are your sho—"

"What happened to Ien—"

They'd tried to talk over each other. Myde had the benefit of being more worried. Aerith looked at the elevator buttons as if she could will them to be there already. "No one knows," she said. "No one can figure out what's wrong. All his vital signs are fine, his brain activity is normal—above normal even, like he's thinking really hard about something—" (And yes, didn't that sound about right? If anyone in the whole universe could put himself into a coma by over-thinking, it would be Ienzo, wouldn't it?)

Aerith was still speaking. "All his internal systems are functioning as they should, but he won't wake up." She mustered a surprisingly morbid laugh. "It's like Sleeping Beauty."

"So you… called me?"

Aerith looked up, leaned back against the railing along the elevator's back wall. "I called his mother first. She agreed to come, but that was so long ago, and she's still not here…" She paused, pursing her lips. "There isn't anyone else listed in his files. I just wanted someone… to be here for him. It felt like the right thing to do." She held up her phone, jingled it a little.

Myde tried to imagine what it would have been like, arriving in the morning and going through all the motions, starting the coffee machine for the nurses, checking the duty roster, making his greetings, all without knowing that at the end of his rotation there'd be nothing but an empty violet room, silence, no explanation, just a sudden disappearance as if, like Zexion, Ienzo'd gone all to ash and smoke, nothing left behind but a memory and a shadow.

Myde felt sick. He shivered.

"Thanks," he managed to mumble at Aerith.

"The neurologist is very positive about his situation. He thinks Ienzo'll be just fine."

Myde wondered if the doctor had really said that. He couldn't imagine a neurologist saying "just fine." Maybe Aerith was paraphrasing. Then again, there were a lot of ways to say "Just fine" and mean "Actually we have no idea at all." (And that was just like Ienzo too, wasn't it, that whole saying about riddles in enigmas in boxes in bows.)

The elevator dinged. Myde was out the doors before they were even half way open. His skin was crawling with anxiety now, and the thought of staying still, just standing around at a moment like this, drove him crazy; he bounced in place waiting for Aerith to join him in the corridor, and then they both set off at almost a jog down the hall.

He'd always thought the hospital was a maze, but now it seemed to stretch endlessly, like the hotel hallway in every scary movie, and no matter how far they walked, he felt they'd never really make it there. They pushed through swinging door after door, turned corners, swiped key cards. After an agonizing stretch of time which was either three minutes or all of eternity, Myde heard voices collected all together, and when he and Aerith pushed through the last set of doors he found them face-to-face with a gaggle of nurses at the ICU desk, some idly chatting while others sorted through reams of paperwork and labels.

Several nurses looked up when they came through the doors, and a few waved Aerith a welcome back. A portly, older nurse puttered up to them, patting her purple and white scrubs back into order.

"He's still sleeping, that poor boy," she said, frowning up at Aerith. There was something warm and motherly about her round cheeks and big, worried eyes. Myde felt a little more at ease.

"Has his mother arrived yet?"

The nurse shot Aerith a look that was half sorrow and half scolding, as if she should have known better than to ask. Aerith sighed and turned away, heading past the desk and deeper into the ICU.

The rooms they passed were dark, no doors to impede emergency access, and though the curtains were drawn up around full beds, Myde imagined he could feel the people inside every room, so many bodies struggling to go on. In some rooms, family members sat propped up and sleeping in chairs or keeping final vigils; others were empty, chairs untouched, no token get well cards on the window sills.

And then… And then they were very simply there.

Ienzo's room was one of the only ones awash with light, the harsh halogen white raising ugly shadows in every corner of the room and on Ienzo himself, washed out with black circles worse than ever under his eyes. An IV ran into the crook of one elbow, and a heart monitor clip covered his left index finger. Some sort of little white monitoring patch and a host of wiring just above his forehead was measuring brain waves in swirls of red and orange that decorated a 3D model on a screen behind the hospital bed. If not for looking a little like he hadn't slept in weeks, Ienzo seemed… well, just fine. Myde took a step into the room.

Myde took a step into the room and almost immediately reeled back out again, clutching his ears and hissing in pain. He couldn't see anything wrong, but he could hear it.

Ienzo sounded wrong. No, it wasn't that Myde stood around listening to the sound of water inside people even if they were like 70 percent water and so he probably could if he tried, but that as he crept closer to Ienzo again every hair on his arms stood up and he had to grit his teeth against the onslaught of a high-pitched shrieking, decibels so far above his range they hurt to imagine. The sound was nails on a chalk board, worn out brakes, the space between screams and laughter, the howling of the portal's void, teeth clicking together, the slick gurgling of an enormous gullet working, chewing, swallowing—it was what misery would sound like if it had a voice, the language hunger would speak.

And it was familiar.

It pulled and pushed at the shaky boundaries around all Myde's old, hazy memories, Demyx's last hidden recollections that all Ienzo's writing on Radiant Garden had started to undo… It was a sound dredged up from the pits of the life that had been and hadn't been his…

This was the sound that untamed Darkness made.

This horrible, tearing wall of noise was Darkness itself, loosed, uncontrolled, and starving. He'd—Demyx had learned to control the dark just to escape this, although Myde could never imagine how he'd stood it long enough to learn, with the way it made his eyes want to water and his head spin.

The whole ICU room was full of a heavy, breathing evil, an oppressive air even Aerith and the nurses had to feel, practically radiating from every stark, pitch black shadow in the uncountable number of small corners and from Ienzo himself, as if he'd bathed in the jet black noise.

Aerith had already walked into the room, and now she turned back to look askance at Myde where he stood sort of slumped on the door frame.

He gritted his teeth again and tried to still look appropriately worried, despite the fact that now he mostly just wanted a pair of ear plugs and to punch Ienzo really hard in the face. At least when Myde was expecting it, he could sort of work at blocking the noise out, turning strategically and… thinking really loud, half humming in his own head to dull the roar.

"Let's turn out the lights," he suggested. "If he wakes up to this, the glare will kill him." Really, the harsh artificial light was just making it worse, lengthening the shadows and vexing the overdose of Darkness into violence. When Myde flipped the switch and the room fell dark, only the lower lights of the hall filtering in around Myde in the doorway, there was a noticeable clearing of the air, and the howling hurricane of noise lessened into a slightly more tolerable storming, enough at least to let Myde think.

Ienzo wasn't wounded, no signs of battle or damage (and good news was so rare in their line of work, Myde took a moment to revel in relief).

But if there hadn't been a battle, then there hadn't been Heartless. And if this Darkness wasn't the work of Heartless… then this whole thing was Ienzo's own doing. Some time in the bare few hours Myde had turned his back on him, that overly-cocky, too-curious, should-really-know-by-now-he's-not-invincible jerk must have decided he didn't have to worry about a little thing like, say, losing his heart all over again because they totally had them, so playing with Darkness wasn't safe!

It was a good thing Aerith was in the room, or Myde would have been across the floor already and shaking Ienzo by the shoulders as hard as he could manage. Fury and relief warred under Myde's tenuous grip on feelings in the first place, an incomprehensible jumble of I was afraid and What were you thinking and Why would you want to and You could have died, straight on into just Why? Myde was frozen still and felt agonizingly restless all at the same time.

Then the other thought, the only really important thought: Ienzo would be okay.

Myde didn't know how this had happened, or what Ienzo had done to end up knocked clean out, but exhausting brushes with Darkness weren't anything new for Nobodies—Myde could remember one or two times he'd been kicked down flights of stairs by Larxene because he'd played around with the Heartless a little too long, trying to get them to dance, and paid for his romp with the dark by passing out in the hallways on his way home—it had always been embarrassing, but never fatal. Play with fire, get a bit burned.

Ienzo still had his heart, beating strong inside him, and he still had his brain, scheming away, and really, those seemed like the only two things Ienzo had ever needed to roll with the punches and come out somehow, someway, the victor.

He'd wake up when he was rested. Myde would be all dead set on giving him what for, but then Ienzo would look at him with those unhappy, stupidly blue eyes, and then Myde would have to actually think about the fact that this was the boy who had suffered everything, who had paved Radiant Garden's road to hell with his own good intentions and lost his heart in so many ways, so many times, but who still managed, here and there, to smile.

Ienzo was just… really, really strong.

"Myde?" Aerith was leaning down and forward a little to try and meet his gaze, which he had let settle on the blank white tile floor at the foot of Ienzo's bed, sightless and far away. He was jerked out of his thoughts and startled a little on his feet. Aerith apologized.

"I can… stay here, right?" he thought to ask, kind of late.

Aerith's smile grew a little, and he couldn't tell if the up-curve of her eyes was pleased surprise or satisfaction that her plans had gone just right. She nodded, either way. "I'm going to go get to work early so I can make time to visit again later. If you'd like," she wheedled, "I'll handle morning greetings—just this once!"

No complaints from his quarter. "Thanks—ah, but Loz's been having nightmares, so they might try and keep you out until you say the secret 'not a monster' pass code. It's Aire Tam Storm, whatever that means."

"Nightmares?"

"He made me pinky promise not to tell. And Yazoo told me he would gut shank me with the shiv he made from one of the cafeteria forks if I did."

"A shiv?"

"I'm like 83 percent sure he was lying."

Aerith looked at Myde squarely and then turned her head to stare at Ienzo, very, very blatantly rethinking her decision to leave him in Myde's care.

"I think the doctor was right, you know," Myde offered in one last attempt to be reassuring. "Ienzo's going to be fine. He's going to wake up all grumpy that you moved him out of his precious room just because he finally got around to some real R&R."

Aerith shook her head fondly. "Tell him he snores," she stage-whispered. "Just for me." And then she was a silhouette in the bright doorway, looking back, angelic and girlish and wise beyond her years, and Myde caught himself thinking he would miss her, even though that made no sense at all.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

Myde didn't know how long he'd been sitting there—not long enough for the sun to come up, although through the narrow corner window in Ienzo's room, Myde could see the horizon just starting to lighten between the downtown skyscrapers. The Darkness in the room had dissipated some, but not as much as it would have if Ienzo were awake enough to drive it out the nasty stuff he'd summoned in the first place. Myde could have done something stupid to amuse him out of it, at least.

Now that Myde was still, chin on his palms, elbows on his knees, sitting in one of the two plain, uncomfortable chairs in the room, he started to feel the hospital's chill. He was always in motion when interning, jumping from one gofer task to another, but this was the way the violet room felt when he shirked work long enough, threw his lanky self all over the foot of Ienzo's bed to watch him write and instead just ended up wanting to be under the covers, because that room was nothing but clinical, overdone air conditioning, stillness and distance.

The cold tired Myde out (he hadn't slept since when?) and there was a brief, inexplicable moment where he wished, without even thinking about it, that this was their own house so he could make Ienzo budge over and he'd steal the warm spot left behind and call in all the sick days for the next twenty years.

It was mostly because he was half asleep, his arms wavering a little under the heaviness of his head, that he didn't see the woman in the doorway for a long time. When he did, he nearly fell out of the seat trying to look presentable and simultaneously figure out who'd be spying on him without saying a word for who knew how long.

But it was hard to look at her. There was something off about her, like a broken china teacup glued back into place with its pattern just slightly misaligned; from afar she could have passed for whole, but with the few feet that separated them, he could see every flaw.

There was something ghostly about her. Not just the way the light of the hallway seemed almost to pass through her impossibly thin form but the stiffness of her face, doll-like and deep-eyed even over a pixie nose and lips pressed into a thin, pale line. Long blue hair of a rather familiar shade fell over her shoulders and down behind her back.

She looked… frightened wasn't the word, but Myde couldn't find the exact one.

She was definitely Ienzo's mother. Dahlia? Myde wasn't sure if she would have the same name. He wasn't sure if he wanted to talk to her at all. She'd been sort of out of her mind the last time he'd heard anything about her and she looked a little worse for the wear here too. Somewhat late, after staring at her for too long, with his mouth half open, it occurred to Myde that this was Ienzo's mother and standing frozen and gapping at her like some sort of hostile wild animal was not in the least bit reassuring.

Myde managed to rearrange his expression into one of calm authority (or rather the closest approximation of calm authority he could make, because he had never been an authority on anything but 80s synth and he was only rarely calm. Probably he looked a little more like a stomach-sick clown.)

"The doctors said he's going to be fine!" Myde aimed for comforting, and for a second he thought he'd nailed it, until he realized that he'd never bothered to introduce himself. Was there protocol for this, a "stranger" falling asleep in someone's hospital room long before the family ever got there?

"S-Sorry," he stumbled over the word and moved forward to hold out his hand to her. "I'm Myde Cistern. I'm an intern in the psychiatric department, and um… Ienzo's friend, I guess."

The woman stared at his outstretched hand, but didn't take it. She had one arm crossed like a protective ward over her body, holding her other elbow. She shifted her gaze to look up at him, not a calculating glance but a confused one, like he'd just told her the sky was green.

At length, she said, "You're not."

She didn't have much of a voice. Her words were like a small animal creeping along near the baseboards of the room. At first, he didn't know what part she was refuting, and wondered if he should have introduced himself as Demyx.

But she wasn't finished. "That boy does not have friends. He can't."

Myde wasn't sure that he liked where this was going. He opened his mouth to say… well, something, but she had turned away and was walking closer to Ienzo. Her expression didn't change in the slightest when she looked at him, the same empty confusion. Ienzo might as well have been some strange breed of creature in a circus show.

"He told me that himself once," she continued, the words drifting idly over her shoulder. "That I should stop wasting my time with visits, because he would not ever care about me."

"He, um… he lies a lot."

Ienzo's mother was silent. She didn't lean down toward Ienzo or reach to brush hair out of his eyes. After a long moment, she shook her head.

"I apologize," she said, "for whatever he has made you believe, but the only reward that will ever come from your kindness to him is suffering. I'm sure you think it's all some sad delusion you people can overcome with therapy and patience… But it's true. This boy has no heart. He cannot love anyone or anything."

By which she meant he can't love me. By which she meant he is flawed; there was something wrong with him from the start, that if you just believe his story, then you'll see it was not my fault.

What a coward's way of thinking. It hurt a little that he was so familiar with that thought process, and the momentary pause that feeling gave him was the only thing that kept him from shouting. Myde bit his tongue. There was no point in yelling at her; she had no bearing on Ienzo; he couldn't even hear the cruel things she was saying—

But all Myde could think of was the half-invisible boy from the book lingering in the door way, looking back from the dark hall to his mother, saying "I love you," and not expecting an answer. The boy in the attic, in the pitch black, sleeping on heaps of his mother's old, familiar dresses.

I don't want to be a burden.

Myde thought he deserved a reward for good acting. And possibly a medal of honor for restraint. He almost managed a smile when he replied. "I believe only what I know's true, ma'am." (Because hey, his mother had made sure he wasn't raised by wolves.)

Ienzo's mother turned to look at him from the corner of her eye, and for a moment, the sideways glance was pure deja vu, all Ienzo's skepticism and disenchantment through a fall of blue steel hair, and she even sounded a little like him when she said, "The truth is never pure and rarely simple."

"My mother always said the truth is what you make it." (Then again, Myde's mother was a journalist, so he'd always sort of worried about that advice…)

She didn't seem delighted by the unspoken comparison, although how he could tell, Myde wasn't sure, given that she hadn't bothered to re-arrange her otherworldly face, caught somewhere between timidity and utter disdain for him, the room, the world itself, maybe. She looked, when he tried to put it in simple words (his favorite), like she was just done. With everything.

"Are there papers for me to sign?" She asked then, apropos of nothing.

Myde was startled. "Papers?"

"Consent for treatment, agreement to bill insurance?"

"Oh!" Oh jeez. He was the intern, lady, not the billing department. But Aerith wouldn't have left him here alone if there was something they needed to give Ienzo's mother, right? Or she would have gotten it coming in the door? At least he hoped so. "Um… isn't Ienzo… a ward of the state? I think this is covered…"

There was a moment of silence. Ienzo's mother blinked the slow way that little girls' baby dolls do. "Then what did you call me here for?" she said at last.

Myde felt a little sick. For a second he couldn't move, even to blink.

He thought about his mother, who had called the missing persons hotline fifty times after he'd run away, who'd seen things she couldn't explain—his mother who knew for a fact that he was now dangerous when pushed, and who still, when she said maybe you should go, meant go to your room and not go away.

And he thought about the sealed house in Ienzo's memories, the misery boiling up through the floorboards and slithering in on the tail ends of voices from no bodies at all, the way all damage was irreversible to some extent, and he'd never gotten to the part of Ienzo's writing that covered this mother, but he knew how it ended the first time around, and so for a long while, Myde couldn't decide if he understood why she was acting this way or if he ought to tell her she'd gotten off lucky.

But when she got no spoken answer from him, without another word, she turned around and walked out of the room. Myde gapped for a few seconds and then plowed into the hallway after her, bare feet sticking to the ice cold floor.

"You're just leaving? You aren't going to stay?" His voice wasn't the right volume level but he didn't care if all the nurses in the whole department stopped to look up at him; he couldn't have made himself quiet down even if they threw him out for waking up ICU patients on their death beds.

Ienzo's mother stopped and looked back him, with an expression that was simplistic and impossible to understand all at once: surprise and incomprehension and a sort of childish, helpless fury at the same time. She looked at Myde like he had given her no option but to scale a skyscraper by hand or lose everything she loved in life—an unbelievable, utterly impossible task.

"Why would I stay?" she asked, because she genuinely could not comprehend why that would be expected of her, why she would ever possibly want to.

Myde might have snapped, just a little, after that. At least nothing got broken and no one was drowned.

"I get it, okay?!" And yeah, he probably shouldn't just start spouting everything he knew in the middle of the hallway but hey, he didn't plan to be back in the ICU anytime soon, so who cares. "I get it that he did bad things that hurt you and your family and maybe he ruined your whole life and you can't ever forgive him, but you're his mom! You have to know that he never meant to do any of that! If he could have helped it, he'd still be winning plaques for you to hang on your Proud Parent wall!"

Myde's voice fell a little. "Not everyone's born a hero. We don't all make perfect choices. Sometimes all we make is mistakes. Even if we really aren't whole, we're still people! And you're his mom, so you had to know that, no matter what he said, his fear and pain were as real as yours. If you think you're suffering, what about him?"

Ienzo had been here ten years. He was an eleven-year-old little boy when the tenuous guard on his sealed memories broke, left him wallowing in the abyss of the past, in the black attic with the locked door, his father's blood on the floor stones running closer, a faceless enemy creeping into paradise, a knife in his back oiled with words of love, of dying, of not being able to die…

Of being meaningless, empty, fleeting.

Surviving those memories was miracle enough. Sometimes bad things happened, and they were not anyone's fault.

"There is nothing…" Myde hesitated, looked around, lowered his voice just a little more. "There is nothing worse than knowing that there is nothing inside you. That no matter how hard you try, you won't ever be able to look at someone and see the sun rising in their eyes, you won't ever be able to stare at the sea and understand why they say it makes you feel so small… Even though you remember it. You remember the way the days felt long and warm just because you were happy… You just reach for that, over and over again, and you're always a step behind…

"That's why you need someone watching, to give you a last little push... A heart's not something you can ever have if all you have is yourself." Myde looked directly at her, met her eyes and couldn't see anything but them, unblinking, unmoved.

"He's your son," Myde said, "and you left him all alone."

The woman tipped her head to the side. Now that Myde wasn't ranting he could hear other people whispering a little, and she leaned as if to listen, to check which side the passerby were on before she spoke. She held Myde's gaze without the slightest hint of discomfort.

"I don't know who that boy is," she said, in her crawling voice, "but he is not my son."

She left.

She left Myde in the hall with his mouth still half way open and no idea what to say. The nurses were looking at him like they wanted to suggest he take a bed and some of their good medicines himself, but Myde only looked away. He felt like he'd just gone to war and found out his enemy was the wind itself, completely untouchable. His shoulders fell heavily when he sighed, and then, ignoring any stares, he turned around and walked back into the darkened hospital room.

In the barest rustle of over-washed sheets, Ienzo moved a bit to look up at him, still and quiet and maybe, if Myde searched the hooded expression on his face, a little miserable. He had on a rather wry, one-sided smile, which was probably what did it.

Myde felt cold all over, felt all the air leave him like a sledgehammer to the lungs. "How long… have you been awake?" His voice seemed enormous in the room, rough around the edges.

Ienzo's half smirk twitched up a degree before it fell. "I've been awake for some time, actually," he murmured. "I just didn't see the need to disturb you."

Myde didn't know how to say what he really wanted to say, so he ended up with "When did you become such a martyr?" instead. Look at that five dollar word.

Ienzo huffed, not exactly a laugh but pretty close. "Probably around the same time you became such a hero."

Well, Myde liked the sound of that. He'd just pretend it wasn't a joke.

For a second, lingering in the doorway, Myde looked at Ienzo with a long, relieved stare, reveling in just the way he moved: a little slower than normal maybe, but as unreal as ever, a flicker or a fleeting shape shivering upward to sit back against the cold, grey wall. Like this, Ienzo's feet under the thin sheet barely made it past the center of the long bed, and Myde could see he was stretching out his toes as if to take up just a little bit more space. The pale green glow of the heart monitor lit one side of Ienzo's face and the bedhead nest of his hair in colors like a deep, brilliant sea.

Although Ienzo was not exactly looking at anything in the room (maybe a little too frustrated with himself, a little too furious he'd failed, a little too embarrassed to meet Myde's unapologetically accusing glare), at least he was looking, blinking, his eyelashes dark over the paler bottle blue slivers of his eyes. Ienzo was alive. He was breathing, awake, almost laughing again already as if Myde carried around all the good feelings they needed between them and Ienzo could only have them when he was near.

(All right, so maybe that was a whole lot of wishful thinking.)

It was right there, lit by a strange glow in the dim, that Myde saw Ienzo for the very first time. Not as a Nobody, not as a patient, not even as a friend.

Ienzo was a person. A whole other odd, unique, unconquerable person whose fingers were always smudgy with ink, who looked best when his sleeves were a little too long, who smiled more with the right side of his mouth than the left, and who never let Myde put croutons in his salad at lunch for reasons he wouldn't explain.

Ienzo wouldn't touch cold floors and he liked books about dragons and he hated the color orange and was a terrible phone conversationalist even though he wouldn't shut up in person.

And he knew why fingers had fingerprints and the highest height a bird could fly, and why the sea had tides, and why those tides made waves.

Mostly though, he hated to run and he hated to clean, but he hated things dirty and he hated to wait, and every once in a while he mistook the brush of his own bangs for spider's legs on his cheek and flailed like the end times were coming.

Memories were where the heart lies, maybe, and the best part of that was they'd never stopped making them. Not then. Not now.

Ienzo had been a prisoner ten years, but still, right here, right now of all times when the one person who was supposed to love him unconditionally had walked right out the door, he'd managed the shade of a smile fir Myde.

And there is was, at last, the proof Myde had been looking for before he even knew he was looking: they were going to be okay.

They were going to be more than okay.

Myde cleared his throat. "Hey, gentlemanly two second warning: I am about the hug the hell out of you. Don't dodge."

Not that he gave Ienzo time to even blink.

It was not an artfully executed hug. There was nothing remotely graceful about it. Well, that suited Myde just fine.

Turned out trying to hug someone barely sitting up in a unwieldy hospital bed and attached to various machines by several feet of tubes and wiring winging off in ten different directions was a little like trying to hug a very odd-shaped, slippery moss-covered rock with too many edges and no real places to get his arms around, and okay, yes, the comparison didn't quite hold up because Ienzo was softer than a rock and went "Oomph!" when they collided. Myde might have accidentally head-butted him a bit.

There was a long moment when Ienzo did not move, which was actually more than Myde was expecting (he had kind of imagined, in the two seconds it had taken him to decide they were going to hug, that Ienzo might squirm away like an offended sea cucumber or curl up like snail in its shell). But, lo and behold and entirely without precedent, after what had to be lengthy internal deliberation, Ienzo returned the gesture.

Admittedly, an observer would be hard pressed to call Ienzo's movement a "hug"—it was more like repositioning his arms and happening to find someone else in the way; his hands met over Myde's back, finger tips ghost touching in the valley between Myde's shoulder blades, a weight barely felt, threatening to vanish.

A little muffled by Ienzo's collar, Myde asked, "Why did you try to use the Darkness?"

There was a long pause. Those were starting to feel familiar tonight. Ienzo breathed in, deep and slow, and Myde could hear it filling in his chest, could have heard Ienzo's heartbeat even, if he shifted down a little. He didn't need to though, because the heart monitor was still attached (possibly despite Myde's best efforts to knock everything askew), telling him that Ienzo's heartbeat was a little quicker now than it had been before. Myde grinned into Ienzo's shirt and thought better of letting go.

When Ienzo answered, his voice was a little hoarse, not like he'd been shouting but like he hurt somewhere that could only be heard, not seen. "What's to fear, if we have nothing for the dark to take?"

"Sure," Myde said, still smiling. "But are you going to tell me the real reason?"

The heart monitor jumped. Myde regretfully pulled back, stood up enough to see Ienzo's face, which was resolutely turned away and just a bit red, right across the bridge of his nose. Hmm, did I hit a nail or what?

Ienzo frowned. "I wanted to know… Why is it that you can use your powers, while I can't reach any of mine? I became obsessed with that thought, searching the Akashic Record for an answer... I was jealous and unkind, thinking things like 'Am I really weaker than Demyx, of all people?'"

Judging by the slightest hesitation there at the end (and only the slightest, you jerk), Ienzo expected Myde to be offended. Myde wasn't really. Now that he remembered—remembered everything, at last—he knew how carefully Demyx—he himself—had cultivated his own pathetic reputation. He hadn't been among the last surviving members of Organization XIII for no reason, and knowing which fights to avoid and when to hide his light under a bushel had played no small part. It was sort of a compliment that he'd fooled even Zexion into thinking he was actually that useless.

Myde shook his head, laughed. "Oh man, you can't ever judge an artist by his cover songs!"

"Yes," Ienzo drawled, still a little too sarcastic for Myde's taste, "I've realized."

Ienzo lifted a hand, the one without the heart monitor clip on it, and waved toward the window. Myde had to stand all the way up to look out it, and he was surprised by how dim it still was. It seemed he had been in the ICU forever already, but the sky was still a dull shade of gunmetal, the stars just starting to fade. Across the horizon and over the parking lot lights below, Myde could see the urban skyline, black silhouettes on the edge of the world.

"What do you see?" Ienzo asked.

"The city?"

"I've never been to that city," Ienzo said, some quality in his voice that made Myde think of troubling dreams. "My parents from this world didn't think it was a safe place to go." He looked up at Myde at last, eyes half-lidded and dark-lined, a little high color still brightening the sickly grey of his cheeks. "How many other places like that are there in this world? In any world? Places I've never seen, or things I've never tried?" The heart monitor shivered a little, skipped and then doubled. "Where is it that you go," he murmured, "when you leave here?"

Myde found he couldn't reply really, couldn't make anything besides a small surprised noise.

"I wanted to know," Ienzo said. "I want to know everything."

Because that was what made Nobodies, Myde thought. That was what made Nobodies in the first place—it wasn't strength or magic or tender feelings. It was want, pure and simple and terrible, an unanswered question, a desperate need for something always and forever unreachable. It was a hole, an emptiness already that grew and grew, until losing the heart was just proof of the problem that had been there all along.

Everybody's looking for something. Finding a heart was no harder than finding whatever else you needed to feel whole.

Myde had learned this from Ienzo, from his mother, from Cloud or Aerith or Vincent, or from all their memories together: maybe there wasn't much difference between being a Nobody and just being human—a little lost, a little uncertain, a little lonely, like everyone else under the sky.

And when there was no way closer to the thing you were seeking, how much easier to believe the dark could get you there. It was a dark corridor that had brought Myde here so quickly. And they could only leave on a path through Darkness. Myde understood. There were things he wanted too, maybe even enough to call out to the pitch black again.

Didn't mean he still didn't want to knock Ienzo over the head a few good times. Could've gotten himself killed, and then who would Myde eat Sea Salt Ice Cream with?

Huffing a long-suffering sigh, Myde moved back, kicked out a leg and snagged one of the hospital chairs to drag it closer. Trying to talk across the room was way too weird, and Myde wasn't about to up and leave just because Ienzo wasn't dead to the world anymo—

"Hey! Now that I think about it!" Myde thumped the palm of one hand with his other in a fist. "What did I tell you about taking comas?! Hospital or not—"

"Comas are bad." Ienzo rolled his eyes.

"I knew you'd need my expert advice one day," Myde chided, shaking a finger at Ienzo. He turned the uncomfortable Lysol-smelling chair around and fell into it, leaning forward to cross his arms over the backrest and drop his head into the crook of his elbow.

Ienzo shook his head, shifting to sit up a little further, or maybe just right himself from where Myde's flying hug had knocked him flat. "I feel like you're a danger to my—"

"Oh ow, hey!" Myde interrupted, rapidly pushing back from his strange lean. Something sharp was stabbing him in the leg at his hip, and he couldn't see what but he could sure feel it, like the tip of a needle or a pen or a key… That was it—something in his pocket. He scrabbled at the denim for a few seconds, trying to reach the annoying little object without bothering to stand, and finally his fingers caught around something thin. He pulled.

There was a tinkling of glass on glass. Myde held the thing up closer to his face so he could see it in the dark—

Oh. It was the Midnight Anklet.

It was the Midnight Anklet he had bought from Lock, Shock, and Barrel not knowing what it meant, only knowing that it did mean something, that he had seen it before. He hadn't been awake then to Demyx's distant memory of the time Zexion kept him out for hours and hours, totally ruining sitar practice, because the Master of Illusion had messed around too much and dropped his Midnight Anklet in Halloweentown of all places; oh god, everything had been black on black, and the guilt trip had been terrible even though it turned out to be Zero's fault—

Myde felt a tiny spike of spite for the thing now. Also: "Wow, my timing is terrible." The Midnight Anklet boosted Darkness defense. Sure could have used that a few hours ago! But Myde stopped smiling a half second later, because Ienzo looked a little like he'd seen a ghost. And not the Halloweentown kind.

He stared at the Midnight Anklet without blinking, his smudgy fingers fisting in the cheap blanket, the heart monitor pulling double duty, enough so that Myde didn't know how the nurses hadn't noticed, why no one had noticed Ienzo awake, and wow, he hadn't even thought, hadn't thought for a second about how much it might mean to Ienzo—

It's a ward against Darkness, in Ienzo's mother's voice, like a sound from an empty, pitch black place breathed over his shoulder—you don't see me, the anklet bright, pressing sharp and unfamiliar against his foot in the snow the first time before the monster you don't see me and inside the computer the book unfurling, the cold electric tingling of the magic amplified, the blue and red and green glass beads neon glinting in the sleek black I think therefore I am

Ienzo was a million miles away in that moment, reliving each time he'd felt the press of that same band against his ankle, an old friend, a reassuring comfort and crystalized confidence all in one. He looked at the anklet in Myde's hand like he was looking out across the past, a foreign country on an ancient map.

The wonderful, honey-thick feeling of having done something perfectly right settled in Myde's stomach, and he twirled the anklet on his finger once before hiding it away in his palm so he could make Ienzo meet his eyes. "I picked it up yesterday," Myde said, a drowsy smile creeping back onto his face. "I guess… it reminded me of you. Good call, huh?"

Ienzo didn't answer. His knuckles were white where he dug into the blanket, and Myde got the sense he didn't know how to feel. Sometimes good mementos from bad memories were the hardest to give up. (Myde knew that best of all, the way it had hurt that his mother never let him go to place his father owned; the way the place his father owned fit Myde and refused him all at once…)

Ienzo could not have reached the anklet to tie it himself, with the jumble of equipment and wiring and sheets. "Give me your ankle," Myde said, gesturing, "I'll put it on."

Myde slid the chair closer and patted the edge of the bed helpfully, like Ienzo needed a guide before he'd move at all.

If he was going move at all, Myde realized. Myde's request had felt so normal the second he'd said it—here, I'll do it for you—but the longer Ienzo refused to move, looking at Myde with a strange, uncomprehending stare, the more and more it felt like some line had been crossed, some line Myde didn't even know existed until now, and the whole dim room felt swollen with air it couldn't let out.

Then, inch by slow inch, Ienzo moved, something of a dance to freeing his legs from the tucked-in sheets, to shifting without pulling any cord or cable loose. Finally, he sat upright away from the wall, hands steadying himself on the edge of the bed, feet swaying a little for lack of better things to do.

Myde untied the anklet and caught Ienzo's left foot, the barest flinch in both of them from the shock of cold fingers on thin, blanket-warmed skin. Ienzo stilled, and Myde tied off the twine band with only marginal difficulty—his hands were kind of shaking, although he didn't think about that long enough to figure out why.

Not quite letting go, Myde admired the way the jet black line lay against skin that so rarely saw anything other than halogen lights, a clean division over the rise of bone and pale vein and everything that held Ienzo together, red and green shards throwing back a clean, otherworldly glow like some kind of magic was working even now.

It belonged there, tribal and exotic and a relic of so many other times that it should never have felt right here, but it did, was at home the same way a dust jacket fit and finished a book. Because with it Ienzo was foreign and a relic and a ten thousand piece puzzle where, at last, the whole picture was becoming clear.

Then Myde looked up without leaning back and oh.

Oh.

Ienzo was just… right there, painfully, incredibly near, his eyes so blue they hurt to look at, an expression on his face like a wandering boy who had only just realized he was lost—after the dawn of the thought, before the panic—and what it meant, Myde didn't know, only that they were close enough to share breaths, just an inch, a half inch apart, and he couldn't hear anything over the heart monitor racing, a high rushing in his ears—

Ienzo leaned forward and kissed him, before Myde had a chance to close his eyes or tilt his head or do any of the things they always said you were supposed to—but still, it was a real kiss, dry lips to lips, maybe a little close to the corner of his mouth, nothing like the shy brush on the cheek he'd given that girl Tiana in third grade, and it occurred to Myde very late that he didn't really know how to do this, only there was no way Ienzo knew either, and so now seemed like a very, very good time to be figuring it out together.

Myde closed his eyes against the tickle of Ienzo's bangs, parted his lips, pressed closer, shifting a hand to brush the hair from Ienzo's face; even when he broke away to breathe he didn't go far, foreheads touching, the world still a blur of blue hair and flushed skin, and even the way Ienzo exhaled, an audible breath that started and stopped and started again, made a hot, bright scattering of embers leap in the pit of Myde's stomach. Only after they were apart, Myde registered the missing warmth, the empty air freezing against his lips and his every nerve from head to toe was sparking, a full-body shiver that he thought another kiss could fix—

But Ienzo pulled away. Not as far as he could have, but away, enough that when the world set itself to rights again, Myde could see his wire-tight posture, unmoving, barely blinking, and because Myde could hardly breathe, let alone think, it took him a long time—too long—to realize he'd never seen that particular look on Ienzo's before. Ienzo's eyes were wide, his lips still parted, and somehow without changing expression even the slightest, he managed to look completely surprised, frustrated (as if this, like every silly thing that happened to them, was all Myde's fault), and something, something Myde couldn't name or match to any other stare he'd ever received, only he knew it made everything inside his chest feel ten times too big for his ribs, a growing and growing half-manic elation he didn't even know how to vent.

Except… Except Ienzo didn't do anything else, and for what felt like ten eternities, the ridiculous heart monitor was the only noise in the room, the only movement, and frozen moment the dim itself had been holding back seemed past its time to shatter.

Myde didn't know what was supposed to come after, how he was supposed to act now that basically the whole damn world had changed in an instant. Ienzo was the one with all the answers; Myde always counted on him.

Only this time Myde couldn't, because Ienzo wasn't saying a word, just staring and staring, and part of his wild expression looked too much like apprehension.

Ienzo was waiting for something.

Ienzo was clearly waiting for something, the barest shiver of anticipation ringing through his body; Myde could feel it where his hand had fallen to grip Ienzo's upper arm. Now that Myde was looking for it, the slight cant to Ienzo's mouth (biting his lip) seemed riddled with impatience, with some obvious expectations as to what should happen next.

The problem was, Myde didn't know what exactly Ienzo was waiting for.

Myde had a hundred thousand things he could say, wanted to say, but nothing on Ienzo's face was giving any hints as to which words would be the right ones. This was like a horrible pass/fail pop quiz for their futures, where one answer would make the whole world right and the other ruin everything, the red wire or the blue—but everything depended on the whims of Ienzo, who had never been anything so much as an enigma, a paradox, a maze of mirrors with so many pitfalls Myde was paralyzed on the threshold, terrified of saying a single wrong word, moving forward or back—

What if Ienzo was expecting him to laugh it off, relying on Myde to pretend this never happened?

(Well, he couldn't.)

What if it hadn't mattered it was Myde, just that Ienzo was tired and vulnerable for the first time in ever and someone was there where even his mother refused to be?

What if Myde was the only one who really felt—

Myde needed time. He needed time to figure out what was expected, what a normal person would say or do, what a Nobody would, what words he needed to use to really convey—

But they didn't call it "a moment" for nothing, and Myde could actually see the very second he'd waited too long, something tightening in Ienzo's eyes, shifting to a frown, a clenched jaw almost from anger, with stops on the way for flashes of betrayal and confusion, fiercely but too slowly hidden, and Ienzo's whole body curled away and out of Myde's hold, closing like a door.

Oh, oh that sort of answered the question, didn't it, of whether it mattered and whether the world had changed for more than Myde.

So it didn't have to be too late, right? Myde opened his mouth to say so, to say anything, any of the thousands of iterations he could think of to name the butterfly beating of his heart, the adrenalin trembling—

But Ienzo, the wordsmith Myde had hurt with silence, spoke first: "Then you feel nothing?"

Myde choked on any words he'd started to form; he flinched. He could barely form a coherent thought beyond how unfair it was—if Ienzo had only given him like one minute longer, he could have figured it out, he could have found just the right words to tell Ienzo he felt everything, all at once, a whole world's worth of terror and awe…

Ienzo turned away, not just his stony eyes but his whole body, as immovable a wall as the unchanging history built onto the paint of the violet room, and somehow Myde had to fix this. He couldn't leave it like this—

But he didn't know how.

Myde felt close to suffocating, an insane overload of energy with no way out and please understand understand understand he'd never done this before, he was wrecking everything, it wasn't fair to put him on the spot, he wasn't clear enough or clever enough or brave enough, he just couldn't—Myde was on the brink of frustrated tears, of just shouting so at least he'd have gotten out something

"Ienzo…" His tongue stumbled over even that. "I—"

"Oh, you are awake!"

Ienzo flinched, looking up past Myde. Myde flung the chair back, whipping around to look over his shoulder. A nurse stood in the door way, staring quizzically at both of them, peering out from behind her clipboard like she'd never seen anything stranger.

"Why didn't you ring for someone?" the nurse admonished Myde lightly, before turning back and quietly calling down the hall, "Can we get a stat check in 15? Patient is conscious; heart rate's a bit high."

A half second later the first nurse was joined by two others, and they crowded the room, checking Ienzo's IV, the monitors, the wiring, making as many measurements as busy tailors. They swarmed around Ienzo so efficiently, Myde could barely see him anymore, could barely be seen.

Myde didn't feel like he was suffocating anymore but the whole world wouldn't stop spinning, like an endless roller coaster dropping out from underneath him.

Not for the first time since meeting Ienzo, Myde fell back on old, old habits: he stood up, turned around, and ran away.

Demyx had been a coward. Maybe you couldn't learn from all of your mistakes.

Myde drifted down the hallways like he was in a bad dream, with no sense of how he got from one place to another, no sense even of where he was going, or why, or what miserable end might await him around any corner.

Only around one corner was actually Miss Aerith, on her way back up, and the concern in her gaze doubled when she caught sight of his expression. (How devastated did he look? Couldn't be as much as he felt.)

"Are you okay?" she asked immediately.

He couldn't tell her the truth. He tried and failed to force something like a smile onto his face and didn't meet her eyes because he knew, no doubts, if he actually saw her affectionate worry, he'd just spit it all out, sob story from start to finish, and then he'd end up thrown out of the whole hospital for crossing every professional boundary and then some.

"Ienzo's awake," he said instead, and impressively, he managed to keep his voice from shaking. "I'm pretty late though!" His exclamation fell flat. "You should go see him. Someone should…" Someone who wasn't totally useless should be with him. "It'll get kind of lonely there."

She made a small, surprised noise, shifted from side to side. "That's great he's awake. But where are you—"

"I left a whole stack of forms I was supposed to be filing on Elsa's desk. You know how she cold shoulders if you're late on anything." And hey, none of that was a lie.

Aerith breathed a laugh. "All right," she conceded. "I guess I'll let you go. Thank you for sitting with Ienzo. I'm sure he was glad to wake up with someone familiar there."

It was like a knife between the ribs, slowly twisting.

"Well," Myde pushed his acting skills to their narrow limits, "it is Ienzo, so 'glad' might be pushing it." This time his faked smile at least made it onto his face. Aerith giggled. "The elevator's this way?" He pointed, desperate for an escape.

From the corner of his eye, he saw her nod. "Thanks. See yah later today!" He spun around, leaving with a weak backward wave and not much more.

It was a good thing no one else entered the elevator, because a half second after the doors closed, Myde slumped into the corner and sank to the floor, burying his face in his knees in a furious effort not to fall apart.

If only he could push the emergency stop button on his entire life right now.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

Aerith found herself hesitating just before she reached the door way to Ienzo's corner room. There was something just… off… about this. Myde had looked horrified, a sort of desperate expression she hadn't seen on his face since those first few days he'd worked at RMH, when every little noise seemed to startle him. Myde spent all his free time in Ienzo's room nowadays, without a care for the world to see.

Ienzo was awake.

So why was Myde running away?

It raised an unpleasant, suspicious feeling in the pit of her stomach, and Aerith overcame her hesitance and marched into the dim room, a light warning already on her tongue because she knew Ienzo's cutting, sarcastic ways.

Or she thought she did.

The warning died before she ever got a word out, because sitting up in the darkness Ienzo looked three times worse than Myde had—and not just because he was so obviously exhausted and hooked up to half a dozen machines he probably no longer needed. Ienzo looked… well, she had never seen him look so… young. He always stood painfully straight, his head held high, looking down on anyone who crossed his path, his expressions unreadable or contemptuous. He always put on the appearance, at least, that he knew everything, had already planned out everything…

Tonight though, he looked lost, the wordlessly stunned expression victims wore in violent films when someone stabbed them through the back: blank-eyed, his mouth open the tiniest bit in a moue of unhappy surprise, hunched far over his uncovered knees and clenching without thought at the blanket beside him. For the first time in a long time, he looked like a boy barely into adulthood—he was hardly 21 even, she knew that but it was so easy to forget—he looked like a boy who had no idea what was going on.

Aerith regretted letting Myde go now. She should have asked for a full report. If something had happened while she was gone—

Ienzo did not so much as glance up when she entered the room, but when she pushed around the chair nearest to the bed and sat down in it, he tilted his head a little. It might have been to better hide his face from her; Aerith preferred to think it was to show he was listening.

But Aerith didn't have anything to say (all right, yes she did, she always did, but being a psychologist deeply involved the difficult skill of learning to wait for someone else to speak). The room was silent for a long time, even the voices of the nurses passing outside strangely muted. The air had a brittle quality to it like just before a deafening blast.

Finally, Ienzo shifted a little, curling in on himself, and said something she would never, in a thousand years, have expected: "I think I made a mistake." He stated it matter-of-factly, but she knew him better than that.

"People do," she replied. This was not the first time she had seen him vulnerable in their long tenure as doctor and patient, but it was, perhaps, the first time he'd admitted it, and even if it did—and would always—hurt her to see him sad, the person in front of her now was a universe away from the boy who suffered long years in silence, never reaching out, carefully arranging every inch of his expression into dispassion…

Ienzo had changed. Aerith didn't know when, or how, and she hated she hadn't been part of it, but somewhere along the way, Ienzo had started to act like the world meant a little bit more.

Aerith thought about time and wounds and saving lives and coincidence or fate. Sometimes a series of unfortunate events was just a road to the right place.

"Going to tell me about your 'mistake'?"

To her surprise, he flushed a bit and turned away. "No," he said, maybe a split second too quick but with admirable nonchalance.

Aerith was many things, had been labeled many things by many doubting people over the years, but she was not oblivious. It wasn't very hard to put two and two together in this situation. Maybe even, in some small corner of her mind which had been very carefully not considering it, she'd really already known.

What was harder was deciding whether it was more important to be a friend or be a doctor.

"You know," she murmured, sitting back farther in the chair so she could look out the window, where the dawn was slowly creeping across the city, spilling over like glittering spring water. "When Myde first started working here, I was worried."

Ienzo stiffened, knew he had been caught out.

Aerith continued before he could bother with any attempts at distraction. "I actually asked him to stop seeing you for a while, because I was afraid you would convince him to become someone he's not." She smiled again, a shade self-deprecating. "He told me it didn't matter. Because it was important for him to… be there, with you.

"To be honest, I thought he'd give up. Or, well… He didn't seem like the type of person you'd enjoy being around. Not at first, anyway. I honestly thought you might chase him out of the whole hospital before too long." Another light laugh. "But the other day—the other day I looked at you two together and I realized I'd been worried about the wrong thing.

"I worried so long about whether or not you would change Myde that I failed to realize how much he changed you." She looked down at her own hands, crossed in her lap, the gold bangles on her wrists shining on one side from the light coming in through the door way. "Whenever we connect to others, there's a chance of feeling pain. There's ways only people close to you can make you hurt.

"But… I don't think that means you made a mistake, Ienzo."

She looked up when he laughed dryly, mostly to himself. "Hmmm," she hummed, "well, do you really regret whatever it is that happened?"

The question seemed to bother him some, like he hadn't given it that kind of thought or didn't want to. He frowned, closed his eyes for long moment and then sighed. "I don't know," he said finally. He could hide the feeling on his face, but not in his voice, quietly incredulous and with a little tremble underneath. She might as well have asked him an impossible question, for all his answer sounded like a half-frightened surrender.

Not that long ago he would have told her he couldn't feel regret. It was hard to be upset through such a strong sense of triumph.

"So what is it that you're afraid of?" she asked.

He sat bolt upright, twisted to look dead at her with shock written clear on his face, going near pale in a moment. Had she said something wrong?

"No," she shook her head, dismissing her own question. "What I mean is… We're supposed to 'learn' from our mistakes and 'live' with our regrets. Learning and living… those are things that take time. Those are things that continue into the future. When you say you've made a mistake and that you may regret it... are you really just afraid, Ienzo, that you might have changed something for good?"

She met his narrowed eyes evenly, his pupils blown wide in the dark, and watched his surprise melt into something a bit more contemplative or downcast.

"It's true that sometimes you can't take things back. All sales are final! But that's the best part. Because then there's only one important question to ask yourself… Would you really have been happy, if nothing changed?"

If all you had, Ienzo, was an intern and a deadline and no promises? If you knew your one friend could walk away at any moment, could disappear some place you couldn't reach?

He looked away a moment and seemed to be thinking, only she could see his jaw tightening, his fingers burying deeper in the stiff sheet. Finally, he spat back, "You're over-simplifying!"

"Are you sure?" She smiled again. He looked ready to insist he was, but he stopped, bit down on his tongue. She almost expected him to lash out by saying he wouldn't know what happiness felt like anyway.

But he didn't. He shifted to raise his knees and crossed his arms over them, dropping his head and looking out across the room that was slowly beginning to lighten.

"No," he muttered at length, and just that, so Aerith had no idea whether he meant he wasn't sure, or whether he knew he wouldn't have been happy if things stayed the same. She liked the second choice much better.

"I finished your list of recommended books, by the way," she said, seemingly out of nowhere; Ienzo looked up at her with a furrowed brow, almost offended by the subject change. But Aerith shook her finger at him lightly. "You should memorize your own recommendations a bit better though. Times change—" she prompted.

He blinked, the frown slipping from his face in favor of something that mimicked the slow dawning outside. "—and we too are changed in them," he echoed.

She nodded, just barely clapped her hands together. "When you're right in the middle of things, it's hard to see that—how everything comes together, and works itself out. But if you wait just a little while… Well, there's no sense in giving up hope, right? Things can always change for the better."

"Hope isn't something that I am capable of—"

Aerith tried to stifle her laugh. She really did. "I was wondering when you'd remember your line! You're a little late—we've been talking about your feelings for fifteen minutes."

He actually looked kind of affronted, but it wasn't like he could argue. He almost seemed like he was going to though, put some effort into it at least. She shook her head again. "All right," she conceded, "maybe you don't have to actively hope. You could just wait some before you start all your worrying. If you've made a mess of things, at least let them all settle before you fret about picking them up."

Ienzo opened his mouth to interrupt her, but Aerith moved right along: "And don't try to tell me you're not worried—I see you worrying over there right now!"

Ienzo closed his mouth with an honest to goodness audible click of his teeth. He was glaring by this point but Aerith couldn't bring herself to care in the slightest, not when that fierce look replaced so much uncertainty just not, and, worse, before that, the long, perfectly empty stares when Ienzo told her he had no heart to feel and no remorse and no loneliness.

His glare faded after a moment, fell into a frown again but of a different shade, melancholic and reluctant. Ienzo stared down at the bed under his curled up feet, but she knew he was seeing something else, from long ago or far away.

He had never looked, in all the time she had known him, as defeatable as he did right then. He was thin and exhausted and eaten up by a past she believed in more than she should, with so many sad, sad memories to war with, to rewrite, to fall apart in.

She couldn't hear him breathe, just the heart monitor slowly working to tell her he was alive, and the stillness of the cold room made every slight motion seemed magnified, slow and full of meaning.

His fingers knit in his sleeves, held tighter as if he might need to hold himself together. "I don't…" he started and then stopped. "I just don't want ruin everything again."

Oh, Ienzo.

She could have picked any of the thousands of reassuring doctor's phrases she'd been taught and knew by heart, any of the thousands more she had thought up just for him and meant with all the sincerity she could muster, but she'd said all those things to him ten times or more, felt the sting of a million small rejections.

Instead, she put her hands on hips, no matter that she was sitting down, and leaned toward Ienzo with the look of a lecture on her face. "I think you'd have to work a bit harder to ruin everything, don't you? Unless," she added, perhaps a tad too slyly to be called professional, "you're implying that our intern is everything."

Ienzo looked vaguely deer-ish-in-the-headlights. He promptly turned further away, crossing his arms close to his body. "That's not what I meant!"

Aerith let him go. He wasn't in the place for teasing, and that wasn't something she—as a doctor, a hospital staff member, part of the organization that regimented every aspect of Ienzo's life—should be teasing about anyway.

But actually, she was dying to know what had happened.

No, really, she shouldn't—she should definitely pretend that nothing had happened at all because it was fairly obvious at least one hospital rule had been broken and she was the supervisor, great power and responsibility and all that, obligated policy enforcer; then there was the fact that Ienzo had tried to kill someone once, and probably still called Myde the wrong name and there was just so much potential for dysfunction and maladaptive coping—but still. But still, she liked that Myde could make Ienzo suffer the rec room long enough to watch a movie among the others, the way that somehow Ienzo always ended up with two desserts at lunch, and Myde had not even put on his shoes before racing here…

Aerith made a noise suspiciously like tee hee. "But," she fished, "at least tell me we're not going to be sued anytime soon?"

A minute or two late (he could be forgiven, given the circumstances), Ienzo seemed to have caught on to her ferreting for answers. He stared askance, fighting down any embarrassed response in order to fulfill his more natural, contrarian tendency: he seemed to pause, to consider. "No promises," he said finally, through a steady, familiar smirk.

Aerith sighed, one part disappointment and two parts relief. Ienzo was going to be fine. For all he apparently had a fainting spell an hour ago, he was so, so much better now, in all the ways that counted.

She wanted to put her arm around his shoulders and kiss the top of his head like family would, because god knows he needed it.

So she did. Because if Ienzo could change, so could she. Into someone braver and bolder and kinder.

"Keep your head up," she whispered into his messy hair, warm and sweet and with every encouragement in the world.

There was probably a rule about this kind of thing too, but when Aerith released Ienzo and stood back, he looked up at her with wide white eyes, blinking slow, his mouth a little 'o' of confusion or surprise. She hadn't ever done that before, had never touched him for more than a second or two at a time.

She thought about learning to live with regrets.

Ienzo smiled—not a full, unmitigated smile but something that formed more at the edges of his eyes than his lips, a soft narrowing that made the surface of his eyes glimmer in the morning light. Somewhat stiff by now, he unfurled in slow degrees, stretching his legs back out and uncrossing his arms.

There was a strange tinkling of glass on glass. Aerith hunted for the source of the sound, looking down the bed toward where she'd heard it—there was a slim black band around Ienzo's left ankle that she had never seen before but didn't even need to see to name.

"That's—"

Ienzo crossed his left ankle under the other, self-consciously or guarding, she didn't know. His voice was far away when he spoke. "Demyx found it for me."

Aerith looked back, met and held Ienzo's gaze for a long moment. "Next time you see him, you had better say thank you right away."

Ienzo didn't look away but she heard him fidgeting with the blanket. She worked to make her stare twice as expectant as before.

Ienzo broke their eye contact to shake his head. "Yes, Mother," he droned at last.

In the hallway, someone was laughing. Outside, it was already bright.

"I'll hold you to it, young man," she said, smiled.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

Myde drifted through his work. He was on chart duty that day: collect the old charts, put out the new versions, transfer all the data from the past week, so on, so on. Either the patients were remarkably placid today because they knew his head was a million miles away in the clouds or he was so out of it he didn't even notice the wild things they were up to this morning. He'd even managed to spend five full minutes rewriting numbers in the orange room with Stanley Yelnats and the completely sourceless reek of onions without breaking down in tears.

He felt detached and dizzy and kind of like he wanted to curl up and die of mortification, because kissing someone and then running away had to rank up there on the top ten list of lame and embarrassing things a guy could do. He thought constantly about running right back to the ICU but then froze up like he was paralyzed the moment he so much as set a foot in Ienzo's direction.

Myde hadn't figured anything out; thoughts and possibilities and, ugh, feelings rocketed back and forth across his brain like modern warfare. He fighting with himself for no reason since yes please seemed to be the answer from all sides.

(The problem was, he didn't know what question, exactly, he was answering yes to.)

Myde rubbed at his eyes, a blinding headache working its way to higher and higher heights of horrible right above his eyebrows. It wasn't until the elevator dinged and let him off that Myde even realized he'd been on the elevator.

What was he doing again? Charts. Ienzo's were the last ones he needed from their department. That's right. He was headed to Ienzo's room.

Which, for once, didn't have Ienzo in it. (Blessing? Curse? Myde couldn't decide.)

He trundled down the hallway, slid his key card through the door lock—and was almost bowled over by the incredible force of the lingering Darkness, a maelstrom of rage and hunger and fear and hate, the worst side to every story, shrieking and tearing at his ear drums like a thousand invisible knives. Myde's hands crashed down over his ears and he staggered back a step. It would take days for this much Darkness to subside and what the hell had Ienzo been thinking?! (How had he even made it out of there in one piece?)

Myde was fiercely tempted to just slam the door shut again and call it quits. Ienzo wasn't even using the room right now; the charts could wait.

But Nurse Elsa was scary, and she was friends with Nurse Lulu, who was no pushover either.

Fine. He would just run into the room, grab the charts, and run out. Myde steeled his nerve, clapped his hands over his ears and dashed into the room.

He could practically feel the Darkness snapping at his heels, tearing at his clothes in vicious tendrils, and for the first time in a very long time, he longed for the black coat that kept the Darkness curling, complacent just above their skin—black had never been his color, but he'd felt safe even in the corridors when he wore that thing and man, oh man what he wouldn't give for some shielding now. The noise was deafening, as deeply, primally terrifying as it had been on Ienzo himself, and even though the shock was wearing off the racket was still ear-splitting—Myde sprinted toward the clipboard in the tray at the foot of the bed and pulled the outdated sheets off, half dancing in place.

The problem was he needed to put part of the old data on to the new sheets too, and that meant standing around and copying line-by-line with the Darkness shouting over his shoulder, breathing down his neck, crawling on jointed legs closer and closer—ugh, a chill ran straight up Myde's spine from his tail bone to the very top of his head, and he gave a massive shiver.

Nope, nope, nope, nope. No way he was staying in here without letting it diffuse for a million billion years, thank you. He could just copy in the hall, lock the door behind him; it wouldn't be so bad to run back in when he was done...

Myde grabbed the clipboard and the old sheets and spun on his heel, lunging for the door. He slammed it behind him and even ran half way down the hall to get far enough away. He steadied the clipboard against his arm and clumsily tried to balance the old sheets on top of the new as he frantically scribbled down the data. It probably wouldn't be even close to legible. Whoo, look, he was half way to doctorhood already.

Bracing himself again, Myde stomped back down the hall and unlocked the door to the violet room again. He toed it open so that he could cover one ear with his free hand and clench the clipboard and its fresh sheets in the other, his knuckles white. Myde was across the room in a heartbeat, throwing the clipboard like a basketball straight into the tray, and with only a half second to confirm it'd mostly landed right, the intern turned on his toes and fled with his tail between his legs.

He didn't look back even to shut the door. If he had, he would have seen the Heartless.

It jerked and writhed in place as if it were boneless, spindly limbs tipped with slick black claws, grasping and twitching as if it were reacting to the sounds the Darkness itself was making. Its back was a hunched whorl, inhuman, impossible by every law of biology and physics, and its skin was less flesh than an amalgam of black veins and shadows, curling and moving over each other like a thousand coiling snakes.

It stared after Myde with two empty, yellow eyes.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

Myde shuffled out the front doors of Rufus Memorial Hospital that afternoon looking little better than a zombie, and not just because he hadn't slept in over 48 hours—"emotional roller coaster" was not an exaggeration or incorrect description, hell if he was a Nobody or not.

He hadn't gone to see Ienzo again, although he wanted to, knew beyond any doubt that he should. He just couldn't bear the thought of how it might go, how he'd awkwardly trip over words, not know what to do with himself, sure he had something to apologize for but no idea what exactly—he'd look like a total idiot in front of Ienzo of all people, Ienzo who already thought he wasn't the brightest crayon in Namine's box…

Myde felt himself flush with embarrassment just thinking about it.

Now, at the end of his eons-long shift, Myde stood outside the hospital front doors, squinting against the long, golden afternoon light. He was still in borrowed slippers, his head was still pounding, and, worst of all, he hadn't remembered until right now that he'd gotten to the hospital through a portal this morning. A portal which he personally had no idea how to open again, and no idea how to reach his specific house even if he could get the stupid thing open in the first place.

Myde turned away, trudging wearily toward the bus stop out on the main street. Slippers and circles under his eyes and nothing under a twenty dollar bill in his wallet, coming from the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Yeah, he'd want to sit next to himself on the bus too.

If only he had Flounder back from the shop.

Myde was nearly to the bus stop when that thought rang something like a bell in his head and he froze mid-step.

Flounder. Flounder. Something about his moped…

Oh! He'd taken Flounder to Cloud's garage. (Mm, well, technically it was Cid Highwind's garage, but it was Cloud who offered to repair Flounder for dirt cheap because jeez, Cloud was like the nicest person ever and oh man, now Myde felt awful about not paying a thousand times more; Cloud did not deserve to be taken advantage of in any way, shape, or form, even if he had offered! Augh!)

When he'd talked to Cloud yesterday—had it really been only yesterday? It felt like years ago!—Cloud had said Flounder's repairs were complete.

Myde could go get Flounder, and take Flounder home—that would save him the drive too.

Cloud's garage wasn't near enough to the hospital to walk, and it wasn't on a bus route that Myde knew of, but it was close enough that taking a cab wouldn't chuck Myde's wallet straight into a bonfire.

But would Cloud be at the shop right now? Myde fished around in his pocket and pulled out his phone. Thank you, Yuffie, for stealing my phone and giving me all the numbers of people I never imagined I would need to call in my entire life.

The phone picked up on the fifth or sixth ring. "Strife," a curt voice said on the other side and that was it. Myde felt himself smile involuntarily. Cloud was just… so predictable.

"Heyah, it's Myde!"

"Ah, hello." Cloud's voice softened a little in recognition (sheesh, did he get a lot of annoying telemarketer calls or did he just hate talking to strangers?), although he wasn't any less brief in his speech.

"Are you at work right now?" Myde moved the conversation along, seeing as it seemed like Cloud wouldn't. "I wanted to see if I could come get Flounder."

"Yeah." And there Cloud's voice picked up a bit more, an obvious note of something close to content or even what might pass as excitement for Cloud nowadays. He took a lot of pride in his work, didn't he? Myde wondered whether they'd managed to fix the tear in the leather seat that he'd patched with duct tape… "It's ready. You can come any time."

"Awesome!" Myde fist pumped the air. "I'll be there in like a half hour. What's the address again?"

After Myde hung up the phone, he marched back into the hospital lobby and got Miss Belle to call him a cab. That was just faster than 411ing it. Myde tossed a twenty to the cab driver on his way out—a bit too much of a tip but hey, saved him from a very long humiliating bus ride in borrowed slippers.

From the front, Highwind Repairs didn't look like much—it was an old store front, with peeling letters and sun-bleached canvas awnings over its windows. The door was ornate and glass, more suited to an old school cafe than a mechanic's. The displays in the window were a bit dusty, scale models of rockets and Hardy-Daytona motorcycles.

Inside was a completely different story. A bell over the door rang when Myde squeezed his way inside, and an old man deeply engrossed in an enormous book at the front counter jolted up a bit to peer through tiny spectacles over toward their visitor.

"Ah, hello there! What can I help you with, my boy?" The man had lowered his book and taken to smoothing down his long white beard instead.

"Just here to see Cloud." Myde nodded, pointing toward the back to show he already knew where to go. He'd been to Highwind Repairs a handful of times at least, but the front desk clerk—his name tag said something like Merlin?—could never, for the life of him, remember Myde had been by before. It was like meeting the same person over and over again; Myde would have worried about Alzheimer's if it weren't for the fact that the guy was perfect at everything else, never forgot a single number on the receipts or a single part of any order that Myde had ever seen.

Hey, maybe he just had something against Nobodies.

Certainly wouldn't be the first!

Waving over his shoulder, Myde went around the half wall that separated the front desk from the actual body of the shop. Past the small front office, the building opened up into a large, warehouse like space, with a high ceiling liberally lit by bright white halogens, platforms for lifting up machinery and vehicles casting the only shade in the room.

If Myde had to pick a word to describe the shop it would probably be chaos. Admittedly, it was almost close to organized chaos—at least the placement of the various hulking machines, noisy air compressors, saws, welding equipment, toolboxes, scrap metal, sheets of glass, paint canisters, and in progress repairs must have made sense to Cid and Cloud, given how easily they were dancing around through all of it, picking up what they needed from the heaping stacks of tools without even requiring a second glance or two. The smell of oil and metal shavings and epoxy was cloying.

"Cloud!" Myde called over the roar of this or that motor in the background.

Cloud looked up from his work, plucking the safety goggles off his face and letting them get half-lost in the nest of spikes he liked to call his hair. Hey, Cid must have been getting through to him—the last time Myde had been here, Cloud had been welding with no safety equipment on at all.

There was an enormous smudge of black grease across the bridge of Cloud's nose this time though. Which, coupled with the shop apron he was wearing, made him look a lot like a kindergartner who'd played too hard at recess; Myde kind of wanted to pat his head or something.

Cloud managed a very small smile when he saw Myde poking his way into the shop. For Cloud, even that tiny brightening of his face was a rather flattering amount of expression. Myde smiled broadly in return.

Cloud abandoned his project, moving to tap Cid on the back and say something Myde couldn't catch over the distance. Cid scoffed, the cigarette in his mouth bobbing with the motion, and then gave some dismissive tilt of his head. With that permission, Cloud crossed the room toward Myde.

"It's this way," Cloud said, his low voice barely audible above the noise of the shop. He turned and started to weave his way through the wiring and the bodies of vehicles in varying states of disrepair.

"Here," Cloud said at last, stopping randomly. His gaze was sharp and attentive and there might have been a flicker a little like pride well hidden somewhere in the vaguely-glowing blues of his eyes.

Myde stopped, blinked, then looked left, right, and up. There was definitely no moped where they'd stopped.

Cloud had stopped in front of a motorcycle.

Cloud had stopped in front of a motorcycle and was staring at it rather pointedly; he wasn't looking around it or behind it, just at it.

Now that Myde looked too, he realized it was blue and gold in roughly the same way as Flounder had been and Cloud wasn't taking him anywhere else and there was the silly big-eared elephant charm he'd left in Flounder's cargo compartment tied around one handle bar and oh my god.

"That's… That's not my moped," Myde squeaked—what had happened here?!

Cloud just shrugged and mumbled, "Looks the same to me," but he wouldn't quite meet Myde's eyes and Myde realized belatedly that wow, Cloud was a terrible liar.

"What did you do?" Myde breathed. He almost reached out to touch the motorcycle in front of them, because it didn't look real, certainly wasn't Flounder, his old puttery moped, by any stretch of the imagination.

Myde stared. The motorcycle in front of them was a stunning laguna blue with pale gold flake in the paint that made the whole thing shine as slick as fish scales in the white light of the shop if Myde so much as tilted his head.

The body of the bike was all sleek lines but a very concrete, solid mass; everything about it said get out of the way. It looked, to Myde's highly undiscerning eye, like a slightly slimmed down version of Fenrir—the bike Cloud has designed and built for himself, which Myde had always admired in the way of that guy is so freakin' cool, I am ashamed to let others see him with me in public places for fear of damaging his aura of mystery and badassness. It had the long front suspension, the double front wheels under the sharp, refined front fender... The seat was set low between the rise of the front and rear, raised to account for the large muffler and up-tilted cargo containers on either side. All the metal from the muffler to the engine cover was brushed gold; it even had a clean, old metal look to the leather seat.

"I… just… what…" This was turning out to be an entire day of Myde being shocked beyond words.

Cloud moved around him and began to point out features of the bike, nonchalant as nonchalant could be. "'S a twin cylinder engine, just like Fenrir. Toned it down a bit, but you'll still out speed anything on the road if you push 'im hard." He pointed behind the long, styled front of the bike to what Myde assumed were the handle bars. "Put in the non-returning dual throttle too, 'case you ever need to take both hands off for a while."

Myde could not imagine a scenario in which he would ever, in a thousand years, be driving a motorcycle without the use of his hands. Myde could not have imagined any scenario in which he would be driving a motorcycle at all, actually.

Also he had no idea what a non-returning throttle even was.

"Turning's hip-based but the handle bars work too," Cloud was still saying. "Brake's down here at the foot, and the fuel tank opens here—"

Myde wanted to pay attention, really he did, but his brain was on an endless loop of what is happening here, no really, what just happened, where's my moped, this joke is so not funny guys, only hey, this is Cloud; has he ever joked, like ever?

"But I thought you were fixing my…"

A heavy, callused hand crashed down onto Myde's shoulder, and all the sudden, there was Cid Highwind, blowing a long puff of smoke into Myde's face and scowling like he'd just been told the price of tea in the Land of Dragons. "What's that I'm hearin'?" Cid griped, the cigarette bobbing wildly along. "Sounds like somebody's lookin' a gift horse in the mouth."

"N-No way, Mr. Highwind!" Myde stammered. Cid Highwind kind of terrified him, no joke. If not for the fact that he looked like he could skewer Myde with a steel pole, then for the fact that he always looked just a few seconds away from exploding. Myde had seen him go off on a non-paying customer once. Not pretty. Really, really not pretty.

"It's just… um…" Myde stumbled even further over the words, feeling a bead of sweat start to form on one temple. He swallowed heavily around the knot forming in his throat. "Um… Ican'treallypayforthis!" he squeaked out in a tiny, spasmodic rush, frantically looking between Cloud and Cid as if Cloud would protect him from the boss's wrath—only, then again, it was probably Cloud who'd done most of the work here, so it would be Cloud who wouldn't get paid and great, just what Myde needed, a guilt trip—

"Clean out yer goddamn ears, nurse boy!" Cid drawled, clocking him on the shoulder again with a solid twap. "When I saw that ugly hunk of scrap metal wanderin' in here, even I was embarrassed fer yah! That piece of puttering crap yah called a ride ain't got a leg left to stand on. I coulda built a better machine outta Jello. With my eyes closed!"

Ooh, burn!

It hadn't been that bad, Myde argued. But only in his head, of course, because talking back to Cid was a lot like asking to take a long walk off a short airship deck. Sure, Flounder's seat had sort of been held together with duct tape, and one of the Dancers had stolen his rear view mirror, and the engine had seen better days, and he'd broken a few spokes off the front wheel and the paint was peeling in some places… But he'd worked his tail off, skrimped and saved to get the money for that moped, all by himself without any help from his mom, even though she'd offered. Myde really hoped they hadn't scrapped it…

Uh, but then again, it had been getting really old and kind of… slowing down, if he put it kindly. Maybe… Maybe it was okay to let some things go…

Especially if they were going to be replaced by really shiny new things which he couldn't believe in even now. He was really, really going to have to see this in writing or something, and oh god, if they were pranking him—wait, this was Cid and Cloud, never mind, who was Myde kidding—

By some miracle or fault in the stars, Cloud was actually still talking. "Fenrir's got a great safety rating too. Once I drove it off a skyscraper—"

How are you still alive, Cloud? How?

"There's no way I coulda let you walk outta my shop with that hunk a' junk you called a scooter." The way Cid said "scooter" made it sound a lot less like a vehicle and a lot more like an out-dated euphemism for a huge burning bag of dog poo.

"You can't just—" Myde protested, faltered, tried again: "You can't just give me a motorcycle."

Cid took an enormous drag of his cigarette and puffed the smoke out the side of his mouth, way cool looking except for the whole cancer aspect. "It's tax deductible," he said through a grin. "Puttin' that ancient thing outta its misery counts as an act of charity."

Cloud wasn't actively smiling, but there was this sort of softening to his features that made him, somehow, seem amused.

"But…" Myde fought again, suddenly feeling a little like he was trapped between a lion and a wolf and both of them looking for a weak spot. "I don't have a motorcycle license…"

"Psshh!" Cid scoffed, slapping his thigh. "Neither do half the other assholes on the road!"

Since "half the other assholes" on the road were not driving motorcycles, that sort of didn't make sense, but Myde was certainly not going to be the one to tell Cid that.

"Um, but I don't even know how to ride a motorcycle." This was a very, very valid concern; it shouldn't feel quite so much like he was grasping at straws. After all, ugh ugh ugh, what if he took the motorcycle and crashed it like ten feet outside the shop and ruined all the hard work the two mechanics had done for free because they were mortified by the mere existence of his moped—what if he took this motorcycle and died?

Well, it was a really, really pretty machine.

There were worse ways to die. Myde actually knew that one from firsthand experience.

"I'll show you," Cloud offered, swinging on to the motorcycle with ease born from years of practice. He held a hand out to Myde to get him on to the motorcycle too.

Well then.

Learning how to ride a badass bike and free excuse to hug Cloud Strife?

Sold.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

So Myde made it home (much later) in one piece and without a ticket, and that was about all that could be said of his motorcycle riding skills. The Gale was still in the garage, so he pulled Flounder (Flounder II? Flounder Reborn? Flounder's Revenge?) into the driveway. He had no idea what he was going to tell his mother.

"So hey mom, once upon a time, my moped offended the delicate sensibilities of a pair of crazies with blow torches so bad they built me a 410 horsepower road warrior with a serious case of overcompensation. I promise I won't join another gang. I've been there and done that; it's not as cool as it seems in the movies."

Yeah, that one would go over a little bit like a lead balloon.

Myde actually went through the front door for once, too lazy to open the garage, and he pulled his shoes off and actually put them on the little shoe rack he'd never once in his life bothered to use before. This was a day full of major life changes!

Myde wandered idly through the house, stopping to peek in the kitchen (was he hungry? Hmm, no, surprisingly not; the kitchen sort of made him nervous now anyway, what with the whole totally-revealed-my-magic-to-the-mundanes-wow-there's-a-reason-we-don't-do-that bit), and then he shuffled on to his mother's office.

Only she wasn't in her office. Well. That was strange. He had definitely gotten home late enough that she should have been here. Had something kept her late at the office? It happened sometimes, mixed up copy or missing photos, or a terrible page layout from a new intern that had to be completely redone at the last minute—but it had been a long while since that work had fallen on his mom, and not some poor sap underling that probably got paid in work experience, not Munny.

"Mom?" he called. He kind of wanted to see her this evening. It felt important, finding some way to make up for the total crazy he'd spewed on her yesterday.

Especially since… especially since she didn't deserve it.

Because she was so much better as a mom than Ienzo's mother.

Myde was surprised when his mother's voice called out from behind him down the hall, "In here!"

She was in the living room, sitting on the divan that faced the ornate white marble fireplace they never, ever used because both of them were terrified of matches and could never remember where they'd put the Aim' n' Flames, no matter how many of them they bought. The divan wasn't in the right place to watch their large TV mounted on to the north wall of the room, and anyway it wasn't on. Neither was the stereo, and his mother wasn't even reading a book or copy editing a story for the magazine.

She was just sitting there, leaned forward a little with her elbows draped over her knees, her chin in one hand, the other hanging free. She was still in her work clothes, navy pencil skirt and some designer blouse, gold cuff bracelet, glitzy earrings, nylons, her high heels kicked off but arranged neatly next to the couch. Perfectly put together, like always. Myde could remember a time when they got all their clothes at shelter giveaways and secondhand stores, everything a bit stretched or a tad outdated, only he hadn't know the difference then, thought she was as fancy a mom as anyone's.

She looked up when he entered the room and she smiled, immediate, as unchanging as the orbit of the world: "How was your day, My'?"

Force of habit almost made him say "Fine," but really… it hadn't been. It had been terrible and wonderful and manic and incredible and heartwarming and heartbreaking and everything had changed in a minute but it was all still trying to play out the same, and when he thought about it, when the whole weight of it came crashing back down on him, he actually, really really needed a mom at the moment.

"I don't…" he started, stalled. "I don't even know."

Her old familiar smile fell. She was so far from the porcelain cast face in the dark room saying he is not my son. She moved over, patted the empty place on the divan next to her. Myde was careful not to step on her shoes when he fell down heavily on the little couch.

He wanted to tell her everything that had happened from start to finish. But at the same time, he couldn't even imagine it, didn't know where to start and what was okay to tell and what was private and what was too much—worse: what might put that look back on her face, the one from the kitchen the day he'd used the magic, where she'd stared at him like a stranger.

Ienzo was kind of a sore spot for them anyway.

Then there was a hand along the close-cropped hair on the side of his head, a bit hesitant (like she still couldn't stand the haircut, maybe), and Mariana huffed something that was neither a sigh nor a laugh.

"I bet I can guess," she said, soft, the words sounding more like thought than speech.

"Huh?" Myde looked up from the floor to meet her gaze.

"My'," she murmured, "I'm not all that much older than you but I've been around a few more blocks and I've sorted through a whole lot more candid photos and I would know that lovesick look anywhere."

Oh. Lovesick. Was that was it was, the feeling at the back of his throat all day like a secret burning to be told, like the immature, aching desire to yell nonsense from a mountaintop until he started an avalanche and watched it all roar and run? The thing Ienzo had been waiting for but that Myde couldn't say in that brittle, dreaming moment, hadn't even realized he needed to say because it should have been so, so obvious?

Why was he always this way, why did he have to be so slow on the uptake only when it meant the very most, and couldn't Ienzo have just said, couldn't he have just thought to ask with his flat, expecting expression like he always wore when he already knew the answer to something?

Because he had to know, right? That Myde loved him.

"I didn't… I…" Myde felt his face growing hotter and hotter and he kind of wanted to run, but mostly he was super over this whole speechless thing. If the rest of this day could just cease to exist so that tomorrow could come around and be so much better, that'd be amazing. Now. Please.

Mariana did sigh then, looked off into some middle-distance and shook her head. "Of all the things to pass on, the complete lack of self-preservation in picking men was not what I hoped would make the jump."

She knew. Myde might be hyperventilating a little bit now. She knew and there was no way she should have, except breaking flower pots and knocking over computers and throwing office furniture in the defense of somebody not in their family could kind of be construed as bizarrely devoted; oh god, now she knew he was a mage and kind of crazy and half way to getting fired because hey, there were rules against relationships with people in psychiatric wards and she was looking at him like she expected a response(!)—

She pinched his cheek, which, when she lifted it enough he could see it from the corner of his own eye, was an absolutely horrendous shade of red, and being embarrassed about blushing only made him blush more, until Myde could even feel the tips of his ears burning and his mother's eyes were upturned and full with a hazy, melancholic delight.

"Did he stay cute?" she asked, more wicked than he had ever heard her (this was the girl who'd had a wild love affair with a married man), and yes, he was going to go smother himself with a pillow now, 'kay thanks bye.

Only she was still waiting for an answer.

"I don't know!" Myde wailed, and somehow the divan pillow actually had found its way into his hold; he didn't question, just clutched it desperately like a shield.

"You don't know?" his mother retorted, skeptical eyebrows and grinning a little now, her lipstick not even displaced in the slightest by the Chester Carroll cant to her expression.

But Myde honestly didn't, because he hadn't thought of it like that, hadn't stood back or stood outside of himself until today to look at the whole picture they made. He just hadn't seen Ienzo that way; it was more like… more like a series of little unintended observations—that Ienzo's hands were always warm, that when Myde caught a glimpse of both blue eyes at once it was rare and exhilarating as rain on a sunny day and Myde had never met someone with dark blue eyelashes—that when Ienzo stood on his little teal chair to reach higher up on the wall and stretched sometimes it hadn't seemed strange for Myde to watch the line of skin revealed where his shirt rode up, cream against clean white, the hollow of his hip—

Oh jeez. How different everything seemed in retrospect.

"Uh-huh," his mother dragged out. "I see how it is." She looked pleased, bizarrely enough, a cat with canary feathers in her whiskers.

And that was when Myde realized his mother had never quite approved of anything he had ever done before, least of all anything the neighbors might gossip about (oh, he shouldn't have left the motorcycle in the driveway; there would be talk about Myde joining a biker gang spreading around the neighborhood already—the Watch would be over to be Very Concerned before the evening was through).

She knew he was at the heart of a scandal fit for her magazine's Dear Cinderelly column and somehow, instead of her lips pressed into a thin, scolding line and a whole speech prepared on the importance of his future, of making good decisions and marrying smart and not causing a stir so that he'd get ahead in life, instead of getting rejected—she was laughing.

What was wrong with this picture? (Only it was right, wasn't it? At least it was better.)

"I didn't think you…" He didn't know how to finish the sentence. What he really meant—I didn't think you'd ever approve of something like this, I didn't think you'd let me—sounded pretty harsh. And maybe he didn't really want to remind her, didn't want her to think about what the others would say (who were the others, anyway? She'd never named them). He didn't want her to take it all back.

Her face fell a little, not like she had changed her mind but like she was sort of sad. She turned to him, leaning forward and lifting both hands so she could cup his face. He didn't quite want to meet her eyes.

"Myde," she said, so he had to. "When you first saw me in the kitchen that day, how did you feel?"

He swallowed. He didn't want to say, either. "Afraid," he mumbled, as quiet as he could make it. She was his mother; she heard it anyway.

"I realized that, a bit late, but I figured it out," she said, pressing his cheeks just a little and looking at him, barely blinking. "I made my own child afraid. You didn't deserve that. You haven't ever deserved anything like that." She dropped her hands and turned away from him abruptly, fetching something, with a rustle, from the little side table beside the divan.

"When I was cleaning up the mess in the office yesterday," she murmured, "I found this." She held out a piece of lined paper (the cheap brown kind, a little crumbly at the edges), badly folded into quarters.

Myde took it, unfolded it carefully.

It was… well, it was a scribble really, the rough approximation of two stick people, one tiny, the other impossibly tall. Both of them were crowned by faded yellow swirls for hair, wearing wobbly green blocks for clothing. They had happy faces drawn roughly on, the smile of one so big it spilled off the blobby pink face.

At the top of the page, cut out and pasted on (peeling off a little now, at one end), were the typed words "What do you wish for?"

In the barest imitation of actual letters, all sharp angles, some tiny, some massive, the crayon-written words next to the two figures said: I wish for my mom to be hapy.

"Do you remember," Mariana asked, "what I said to you when you brought that home and showed me?"

Myde shook his head. It was definitely some first grade homework or something; he couldn't even remember drawing it, let alone what conversation it might have sparked.

"I said that you were all I needed, in the whole world, to be happy." She caught his face again. When she met his stare, it was resolutely, drawn and older than he had ever seen her look, older than she was. "It took me until yesterday to realize that I'm not—and maybe I've never been—the only thing in this world that you need to be happy in return."

It felt like a cold stone dropping just under his ribs, and Myde thought of the number of times he'd locked himself up his room and threw things, played angry metal music until his fingers were raw, or screamed and shouted through the wall because she had made this or that decision for him, told him he couldn't go to music school or take the degree he wanted, couldn't play a coffee shop gig because he'd look desperate for money and they weren't that way anymore, that he couldn't wear his band shirts until they fell apart at the hems and no, his shoes couldn't go in the hall and My', why can't you just try a little harder; don't you care about being better—

"Yesterday," she was saying, barely above a whisper, "I upset you. And before that I scared you and I hurt you, and it just… just occurred to me that I wouldn't share my secrets either, if the only person I could share them with wouldn't think past every negative possibility—wouldn't think past her own feelings for even just one second…"

Myde sat bone still, no idea what to do and every word unexpected, and he couldn't tell if he felt like he shouldn't be here or if this was everything he'd ever needed to hear.

"I never had any lessons in being a mom. I was a little girl who got 'reckless' and 'brave' confused and you were like a doll I could hold and pat to sleep and take every smile from. I could guarantee you would love me forever because I would never let myself do anything less than the best by you, because I would never let you make my mistakes or anyone's mistakes.

"It didn't matter that we got the big house, the shiny car, the pearls, the maid service—what mattered was that they never talked about you the way they talked about me. I wanted you to be perfect so that you never had to hear a whisper that hurt you or a laugh you didn't mean to cause… So that you'd never have to fight for a roof over your head, that you would never look back and ask me why I'd left you to deal with the hard things all alone

"I made you into the proof that I was better than they told me I could ever be. But you're not evidence, Myde. You're a boy who grew up wanting so many things I didn't need money to provide and still refused you. And for the first time yesterday, I thought… I thought 'He's going to regret everything I ever made him do'."

"But I don't—"

"No," she laughed a little, a chill breeze through dry leaves. "Maybe you don't regret anything right at this moment because it's all gotten you to the place you're in now… Devotion does that to people. But I know you grew up regretting, and sometime in the far future you might look back, thinking 'If only…' and that will be my fault. Because I made every decision for you, because I didn't realize in time that being a good mother doesn't mean I give you a happy future. It means I show you where I've gone wrong, and trust you'll love the future you make yourself."

She leaned to kiss his forehead, like she had done every night through elementary and middle school when she had tucked him in, snug despite borrowed blankets and stiff bleached sheets, safe from every part of the world, from loneliness and the dark and whatever it was that put the frown on her face and he had missed her so much. When had he stopped loving his mother most in the whole universe?

"I wish," she whispered, "for my son to be happy."

After a long moment, Myde admitted, "I don't know if I really could have, before. To be honest, I still don't really know what's true about myself and… the people like me, so I might have been missing something important. But not now. I don't feel empty anymore."

"Yes," Mariana laughed quietly, "that is what love feels like."

They were not exactly on the same page; that was not quite what Myde meant.

But then again, maybe it was.

He smiled, clear and light and he didn't feel like stopping.

"Hey," he said after the moment had passed and just before his mother could make up her mind on whether or not to hug him half to death—yes, he could see it coming just from the look her face—he thought about the hospital room that morning, the oomph, the head-butting, and wisely made attempts to divert her attention. "You ever get the urge to do something stupid and awesome?"

She blinked. "Like what?"

"Well, I've got an unregistered motorcycle, magic powers, and an army of back-up dancers… I'm pretty sure we can think of something cool."

"I have no idea which one I should ask about first."

He propelled himself off the divan, reluctantly leaving the guardian pillow behind, and held out an arm to help her up. She actually put her heels back on, as if, come hell, high water, or slippery motorcycle foot grips, she was not going to sacrifice style. Yeah, he could get behind that idea.

"Come on," he said, but she was already hurrying by.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

It wasn't until later, much later, with the 2am moonlight filtering in through the crack between the bottom of the window and his almost lowered shade that Myde felt like he could really breathe again, easing back down from a whirl of color and motion. Lying on top of his covers, a million miles from sleep, Myde thought he'd been riding an endless carousel from the moment he'd woken up that morning, a glittering swirl of lights and sounds bleeding together while his mind kept going around and around and around.

Finally things were starting to slow down. (Only a little slower though—he didn't think his world would ever stop spinning now, so long as he kept that memory of being close enough to count the flecks of color in Ienzo's eyes, could remember without effort the deepest ring of color on the outer edges of his iris, pupils like corridors in the dark—that is, he felt the planet turning on a new axis, one he could touch, flesh and bone and bladed wit and the one who had started this all.)

Myde expected tonight to be horrible; the moment he'd shut his bedroom door, he'd braced himself for over-thinking (yes, he did that sometimes), for working himself into the panic now that he was alone again at last—but it never happened.

Instead he spent hours staring at the ceiling, one hand splayed on his stomach, the other loose behind his head, and nothing in particular came to mind: no exaggerated worries, no what-ifs, not any thoughts at all really, just a sort of low, happy humming that he felt and heard in equal parts, a buzzing in the hollow under his ribs like his nerves were whispering secrets under his skin.

His phone was sitting on his chest, had been for an hour now, only he didn't know who he meant to call, really, or couldn't make up his mind. He held it up in front of his face, the display almost too bright for his eyes, and the voice mail icon glared down at him. Myde felt a sharp, sudden twist of guilt because he knew who the messages were from. Yuffie…

A little like being drawn to a train wreck, Myde dialed voice mail, tapped in his password, put the phone on speaker.

"Myde! What the heck was that?! You better not be ignoring me! I'm expecting a 500 word essay apologizing for not answering! And you'd better email it so I don't actually have to count the words! I mean it, mister!"

"Where are you? Your mom just called me; she's freaking out! I'm calling everybody. If I find out you went back to whatever weird planet you're from I'm going to be so mad! So mad I'll invent a time and space machine just to get there before you and POW! smack you right on the kisser! I'll hit you so hard I'll knock you all the way back home—I'm a ninja like that!"

"I don't care if you're a space alien wizard from Ankh-Morpork, you know that, right? How come you can talk to Vincent, but you won't talk to me? You're still my friend… Right?"

"Myde… where are you?"

"Call me. Please?"

There were ten messages in total. Myde cut it off there, any pleasant, lingering glow from his day long gone.

Some friend he was. Three days wouldn't be that long to go without talking to someone, even a friend—if the last time you'd seen each other wasn't right after accidentally revealing yourself to be a space alien wizard who controlled water with the power of rock 'n' roll. And running away from home. And sleeping over at Vincent Valentine's. There had to be some unwritten code about making sure someone else knew where you were when that kind of thing happened.

He'd been ignoring Yuffie. Even though a million billion things had happened since he'd run away and come back and so in anyone else's book he would have had a very long series of good excuses, Myde knew the truth. He'd been avoiding her because Yuffie was not his mother and she didn't have to like him no matter what. The opposite possibility was just as bad—that's what he'd really been afraid of: she'd ask questions, want to know everything, and he didn't want to talk about it, not anymore.

He didn't have to talk about it anymore.

Nobody. Somebody. Who cares?

He wouldn't have any answer to give her when she asked where the magic came from, and he didn't know if he should even share it—something about the order of the universe and the walls between and why the hell couldn't anything in this life be easy for once?

Mostly he was amazed she hadn't come pounding at the door the very next day. Well, mostly he was amazed she hadn't been waiting for him in his room the moment he got home from work, because she knew where they hid the spare key and she wasn't afraid to use it.

Why hadn't she? Maybe that was what he'd really been waiting for. If she was so sure nothing had changed, then where was she?

There was a loud crack! and the glass pane right beside Myde's head shook in its frame. He jerked so hard away from the window he almost fell out of bed. Outside the house, over his shocked gasp, Myde heard someone swearing in stage whisper.

It was an awfully familiar voice. Speak of the Devil…

Myde leaned over and fumbled to get the shade up. There was tiny chunk taken out of his window glass.

On the street below, in a puddle of orange light from the street lamp, Yuffie stood looking up at his window. She met his eyes, and her nervous expression melted into something unnamable, some fierce mixture of anger and bravado and unhappiness, and he swallowed hard around a sudden lump in his throat. He didn't know what direction he should be running in, but he felt like running.

Finally, he pointed toward his door, mimed that he was coming down, and she tapped at her wrist where she wasn't wearing a watch. He thought he saw her roll her eyes, but the shadows were too heavy to tell for sure.

He was in the ground floor hall long before he intended to get there, and for the first time he was glad he'd done what his mother had always, always wanted and dropped his shoes by the front door. He slipped into them sluggishly and tugged open the door.

Yuffie was waiting on the front mat. Yuffie was in pink and white bunny print pajamas on the front mat, looking up at him with her dark eyes and for the moment the world tilted sideways and split, the image of his angry best friend overlapped by another girl, the same dark hair, impossibly younger, grinning ear to ear and lit in a rainbow of neon colors in the dark, laughing, saying Hey, Myde! I dare you—you know that bell on the top of the Gizmo Shop? I dare you—

(All the memories. Not just Demyx's. Myde's too, the first Myde or at least just the Myde before this, born on a refugee world, stuck dreaming of the seas his father had sailed, dying for a way out into the stars.)

Yuffie tilted her head, mimed a good swift punch to the gut. "Hellooo?" she gripped. "If you answered the door just to ignore me some more, I'll never forgive you, darn it!"

And it was just Yuffie again, Dawn City's Yuffie, who couldn't hold herself back anymore, came to pound on his door after all without even bothering to get dressed. Had she walked all the way here like that?

"I—" He stopped. He couldn't figure out what to say. She hadn't asked a question yet. Wasn't the ball supposed to be in her court? (Hey, didn't this feel familiar, waiting and waiting for someone else to say all the things that needed to be said because he was too big a fool to figure it out.) Only Yuffie wasn't one to wait for anyone herself, and with that same indecipherable look, maybe furious, maybe hurt, she grabbed his wrist and dragged him right out of the house.

"Come on!"

He barely had a chance to creep the door shut behind him. Myde knew where they were going though. When she was upset, when she didn't want to be at home or at anyone's home, Yuffie always made a beeline for her favorite sulking spot, with her sulking partner, as ever, in tow.

She dragged him all the way to the gated community's tiny playground, throwing herself down on one of the two swings in the small sand pit, putting her back to him even though that meant she was facing what most people would say was the wrong way in the swing.

Well, Yuffie didn't need sand to land solid on her feet.

Myde hesitated, and then took his place at her back, even though her sandals were dug into the thin dirt border between the edge of the sand pit and the grass so that she couldn't swing.

He waited. She didn't say anything, which told him more about how she really felt than a thousand words could have. Yuffie was not silent, not ever.

"I'm angry at you," she said at last, quieter than he had heard her in a long time. "I really am."

"Yeah," he managed. "Sorry."

"Sorry-schmarry," she drawled, refusing to even turn her head. Her voice was toneless and pale, a Yuffie form of misery. "I don't have'ta forgive you, you know."

"But you wouldn't be here if you hadn't." He aimed for light-hearted and almost made it into the vicinity.

She didn't answer, not even to get in the last word on the issue. Her hands around the chains of the swing were petite and clenched white.

She kicked one foot, scuffing at the ground. "You didn't tell Vincent. That you have magic powers."

It sounded ridiculous when she said it. The way she said it sounded like even she thought it was ridiculous. Had she gone home that afternoon and tried every way she could to convince herself her eyes were playing tricks?

Myde hummed, shrugged his shoulders. "It's not a good conversation starter."

She harrumphed. "You don't start conversations with Vincent. You talk a lot and check once in a while to see if he's still listening, which most of the time he isn't, because he's just like you and likes to ignore people."

"I wasn't ignoring you Yuffie, I just—"

"If you don't want to tell me about it," she scuffed harder, kicked up a little square of dirt, "I won't make you."

He heaved a long, drawn-out sigh to buy time. "It's just… a long story."

"Not a fan. Gimme the Cliffnotes."

"I'm a space alien wizard from Ankh-Morpork." Myde shrugged. "I play a magical sitar and am so bad at evil laughs my evil overlord used to make me practice twice weekly. Sometimes I can jump through wormholes and I can actually walk on water. That will never not be cool."

"Seems legit," she snorted. He leaned to the side just enough to catch the flicker of a smile on her face, showing through where she wasn't fast enough to bite her cheek and stop it.

"I didn't know," Myde blurted out, before he'd even really thought it. It was important he said it though, important somehow that she know he hadn't hid it, hadn't been her friend and been a lie at the same time. "I didn't remember, actually. When you guys saw me, that was the first time—"

"I was scared," Yuffie muttered instead, a grudging almost-whisper with her head hung low so he couldn't see any part of her face from where he stood. Myde stiffened. Yuffie wasn't afraid of anything: not her crazy father, not Myde's crazy mother, not Vincent Valentine's monsters or Vincent Valentine's glares—Myde didn't want to be an exception, even if maybe Nobodies were the scariest thing on that list.

She seemed to realize she'd upset him, because she started talking again, a little louder and faster: "Not of you, stupid. I've seen fuzzy kittens scarier than you. A lot scarier." She lifted her head far enough now that she had to be looking upward at the sky. The city lights far off turned the horizon a dull grey and blotted out all but a handful of stars, but the moon was almost full and it washed her hair over in a blue sheen (darker than Ienzo's, but more elegant). She lifted both legs from the ground and swung herself a bit, just the barest push so she shuffled in place, like a shudder carried on outside herself.

"You looked alive," she said. "You looked like you were… right… You looked just right doing something you never told me you could, and then I thought how much else is there I don't know? And I got scared, 'cause, I mean, the people with magic in books and stories, they all go off and have adventures where they make new friends and save the world and live happily ever after and most of the time they don't come home at the end.

"I feel like…" she stumbled on the words. "I feel like you're going somewhere I can't follow." There was the barest quiver in her voice but she crushed it.

After that neither of them spoke for what felt like a long time. Myde swallowed once to clear the sudden dryness of his throat. He gave the tense line of her shoulders a tiny, testing shove, and because she did not expect it, she moved, swinging a little like she didn't know how to stop.

"Yuffie," he managed at last. "I skipped this part, for the Cliffnotes, and if you don't like long stories, don't ask me how I know, but… this isn't the first time we've been friends. Before this, a long ago, I lived in a place called Traverse Town. And my memory's still fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure there was a tiny little stick girl there—sound familiar?" He grinned. She took a hand off one swing chain to bat backwards at him.

"She called herself a Treasure Princess and the White Rose and a great ninja, but most of all she was the only other kid my age in a world where the sun never shined. She came from a radiant garden in an endless sea, and I made her tell me stories about it over and over and over even though she barely remembered it herself."

He pushed a little harder. She was leaning into the motion of the swing now, the short strands of her hair just starting to fly.

"You've always been my friend, Yuffie. I'd bet a hundred million munny you always will be."

Yuffie remained uncharacteristically quiet. She swung harder, higher and faster, with the hems of her pajama pants pressed, fluttering, against her legs and her bangs in her eyes.

"You really are leaving, aren't you?" she asked, when she'd reached the highest the chains would go and started to fall straight backward at the very top of her forward swings.

Myde almost didn't remember to push her when she came back down that time.

Because he'd had that thought a thousand times but never really had it, never really had that moment where the wistful wish turned into a real plan, and there it was now, just sitting there in the air like Yuffie had dropped something way more solid than words.

Every moment he'd spent with Ienzo from the moment he first opened the violet room door had been leading onward to this, moving forward and forward and now the only direction it seemed they could keep moving was away. He'd been saying it to himself for weeks—Let's just go—but until right now, it have never seemed so… inevitable.

This world was full of memories, good and bad, hate and happiness, and everything right and wrong, but it wasn't the whole world. Out there, even in just that handful of stars he could see, there were thousands of other people living and laughing and playing music he wanted to hear and trading sugar-spun candies he wanted to eat. There were beaches his toes had never touched and crystal clear lagoons he'd never made sing and protest rallies he'd never gotten Ienzo arrested at and libraries he'd never been bored out of his mind in.

He really wanted to leave.

"Yeah," Myde said, a little late. "I think I'm going to."

Yuffie breathed once, long and low enough that he heard it even over the creaking of the swing set and he wanted to catch her and hug her maybe because that wasn't what she'd come here to hear and for her it would seem like goodbye.

"Don't worry," he said, without needing to even think the words beforehand. "Once you're connected, your hearts stay that way. No matter how far away I go or for long, that won't change that you and me are tied up in all of this together. The bonds that hearts can form… that's the strongest kind of magic there is."

Yuffie scoffed, then suddenly lowered her voice to a gruff approximation of a guy's and growled out, "We may never meet again, but we'll never forget each other."

It startled a laugh from Myde. "Who are you quoting?"

"You know," she snickered, and this time he caught a blurry glimpse of a real smile, "I don't even know!"

She leaned far again, the farthest she had, and he gave her a good strong push. The swing tore a clean arc toward the night sky and at its highest point Yuffie launched herself into the air. And because she was Yuffie, she didn't just land, she cartwheeled, and came out on the other side pointing one finger straight at Myde, her face sharp with real determination.

"Don't just think I'm going to let you go, mister! I'll get out there too and see even cooler things than you! I'll kick trash and collect treasures and make the Great Ninja Yuffie a household name!" She boxed the air a bit for emphasis. "They'll be cheering for me from the grandstands and lining up for autographs! And you'll be all like 'Well, I knew her before she was famous!'"

She'd keep that promise. He knew it. He'd been assigned to Olympus once.

Myde grinned. "I'll beat you to it."

She squawked and plowed around the swing set after him, fists flailing, and he turned around and booked it back towards his house, where maybe they'd screen that one movie about band camp over buttery popcorn, or there'd be yet another motorcycle ride, or she'd figure out his computer password again and make fun of his desktop wallpaper, and maybe they'd wake up his mother and try to hide in the mountains of laundry filling the corners of his room, and it wouldn't feel like the last time, because it wouldn't be.

"RAWR! Come back here, you!" It was 2:30am and the whole neighborhood had been sleeping until now.

That's more like it.

o ― ― ― ― ― » Vίσιετ « ― ― ― ― ― o

There was no sense in going to sleep by the time he'd finally convinced Yuffie to go home so her father wouldn't skin him alive. The sun hadn't risen but the edge of the sky was a metallic shade of silvery gold, the precursor to dawn, and Myde felt that buzzing sense of contentment shiver to life under his skin again, only now it came with an itch, a drive, and he remembered the phone he had been holding all night not knowing what he wanted to say but knowing that something did need to be said.

Myde turned away from his chipped window and scrolled the contacts on his phone.

"Hello, this is Rufus Memorial Hospital, whatdya nee—uh, how can I be of service this evening?" The night receptionist, Mulan, answered after only two rings. Thank goodness for an inside line number.

"Hey, it's me, Myde Cistern." He didn't know how much more of an introduction he might need, seeing as their schedules rarely ever coincided but she'd seen him just that morning.

Mulan was silent on the other end, thinking, and she finally seemed to take a guess: "You're the… intern?" He could almost hear Bare-foot boy? tacked on to the end.

"Yeah." He didn't waste any more time. "I need you to transfer me to Ienzo's room."

There was a pause on the line. "Ummm, I don't think I'm supposed to do that—" Her voice continued, but it was muffled like she'd covered the receiver with her hand. "Can I do that?" she asked someone in a quick whisper.

"No! Girl, I knew you were crazy, but—" The voice answered back, quite a bit louder than her whisper.

"Miss Mulan," Myde called, interrupting the exchange. He steeled his own nerves. "Remember that time you brought shame on your entire family? Your ancestors? Your ancestors' ancestors? Yeah, I know all about it." Ienzo was as good as a gossip rag.

A sharp breath was sucked in over someone's teeth. In the background, Myde heard, "Ooh, he did not just—" and then muffled, indiscernible shouting.

"This call didn't get through me," she warned, voice like the edge of a sword.

"No ma'am!" Myde had just enough time to say before the transfer went through.

It rang for a long time, and with a slow, sinking feeling right below his lungs, Myde imagined Ienzo: he'd still be awake, sitting on the end of his bed, maybe reading over the final dark words on the violet room wall or looking at the phone on the nightstand, blinking, knowing who was calling because no one else ever called—but not knowing if he should answer, if he wanted to answer—

On what had to be the last ring before hang up and dial again, there was a click, a moment of hard silence, and then Ienzo's voice, cold as a midnight squall: "What could you possibly have—"

"No!" Myde rushed the word out so fast it was less word than breath. He should have practiced; the words tumbled one after another like a falling house of cards. This is what they meant by showing your hand. "Just—hang on. You can be mad at me later for as long as you want but don't stop me right now because I won't start again and I have to—I have to 'cause this is important. So just listen, okay?"

He didn't even wait for an answer.

"Why haven't we left yet?" Myde asked, but kept talking. "I could flood any building I want and I think I could even manage a portal if I really, really had to, so why are you still in there? Why aren't we half way across the universe by now on a pirate ship between planets or lost in a dream world in a book?

"'Cause I've never a stupid lucky genius like you, and I think being slow on the uptake runs in my family, it took me until right now—I know I'm late—I just now figured it out: I'm scared."

He sucked down an enormous breath to make up for all the ones he had skipped but Ienzo made some noise like he meant to interrupt so Myde had to start talking before he'd even exhaled, the next sentences a quavering rush out and out:

"I'm scared that it won't be same, because I won't have to be some educated clinician-in-training anymore and you won't have to stay—you might not even want to stay or I'll lose you on some world and never find you again or we'll get eaten by—by a giant whale or stomped by giant chickens or trounced by the good guys again—we could get hurt or we could die or we could fight or anything, anything, and I'm scared of that even though you'll say it's ridiculous and I just gave a whole speech about hearts being connected, but who knows where you get hearts in the first place or how you're supposed to keep hold of them, and what if one day I wake up and it's just as empty as before because somehow I forgot you all over again?

"I'm scared of everything. I'm a coward. I always have been. I didn't underachieve in the Organization just 'cause I was lazy—I didn't wanna fight. I never wanted to fight for anything, or anyone, not even really for myself, so I dragged my feet 'til they gave up on me and when it came down to it, whenever I had to choose between being brave or not, I gave up."

He swallowed around a tightening in his throat.

"The only thing I have ever been good at is running away. And I'm afraid right now. This whole thing—you, me, the future, being Nobodies or just being normal adults—I don't even know where to start. I don't know how to do any of this.

"But…" His voice fell so far even he had trouble hearing it. "But I know I have to. Because it's important. Because for the first time in any life I've ever lived, the things I say and do right now mean something—to me. If I mess this up, if I let myself back out of this, it won't be just another thing I can laugh off later, just another tough job I'll be glad I missed. I've never bothered to care about anything as much as… as this.

"You are the first hard fight I don't wanna give up."

"I'm still a coward. I know that, but because of you, I think things through now." Myde was shaking, his heart too fast to be healthy and too little air in his lungs and on the other end of the phone there was only silence except the soft sound of Ienzo's breath, the same start and stop and start again as when they had kissed.

"This time, run away with me, Ienzo."

No one said anything then; the words turned like tendrils of smoke spreading themselves into nothing and the whole world felt like a hammer held over a mirror, full of an aching, unstoppable certainty that something was about to break.

"Are you still there?" Myde asked at last, because he had to do something before what broke was him.

"Yes," Ienzo said. "Yes."

And he wasn't just answering the question.

o ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― o

Ŧŕąνεłεŕ – ί η – ŧ н ε – Đąŕҝ : Ғίηίŧσ

o ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― ― o

Final Mix:

1) I was able to resolve more in this chapter than I expected and decided to judiciously cut a little bit of extra material, so the next chapter is going to be the last chapter. It will be up sometime this year.

2) Thanks to everyone who weighed in on AO3. I am going to be making some very important style edits to the story over the coming weeks, and then I will post the revised version of the fic on AO3. I will continue to post on FF for anyone who doesn't use AO3, but Fanfiction's no-highlighting/copying policy and lack of special text characters is really ticking me off.

3) Ienzo's mother's line about the truth is from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. There's also a shout-out to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, that one famous song by the Eurythmics, and a famous Latin phrase that starts "Tempora mutantur".

Please review, especially if you have this story on your favorites or alerts list!