Disclaimer/Note: I do not own Star Ocean: Til the End of Time, or any of the characters here, unless otherwise mentioned. I do not own Square-Enix, and no money is being made off of this piece of fiction. This drabble was written solely for entertainment purposes, and no copyright infringement is intended. Please, do not sue. All original ideas are original (duh) and belong to me, unless otherwise mentioned. I would like to share credit for this idea with my friend and beta, The Mad Poet, who helps me to flesh out and make sense of most of my stories. Hopefully, now Poet will work on Thou Shalt Not. Anyway, please enjoy.
"Cliff, the way you run yourself. . ." Lancar trailed off with an exasperated sigh and disappointed shake of the head. The younger blond just grinned broadly, leaning back against the closed cargo hatch as the other placed a hand on his thigh and began to inspect the blast wound there. Maria was watching them from across the cargo bay, peering into the room from around the door. Cliff was sweaty, bloody, and the wound to his thigh looked like it had come from a plasma rifle. It was a sight that she was getting more and more used to as time passed. She had arrived on the Diplo early last year, but no matter how normal these kinds of things became, she did not think that it would ever stop bothering her. "Federation, or was it Rezerbians this time?"
"Yup," he tried to give the noncommittal reply with a casual air, but it was marred by the yelp of pain that soon followed. The older man had slapped the wound.
"You'll be home before you know it. Let's get you down to the infirmary. . ."
Cliff scowled darkly, slinging an arm around the other's shoulders and using him as an impromptu crutch. "Don't joke about that. I'm not going back."
"Ever?" the Klausian raised a brow, helping Cliff towards the door. "When you're old enough, you'll want to go home. Everyone does, Cliff. Pretty soon, we'll have to stop by Klaus to let some of us off."
"I'll never get that old."
"Well, the way you run yourself—"
"Maria!" Cliff interrupted upon seeing her hiding in the doorway. He slid his arm off, limping forward to her with a smile that was half grimace. Maria froze. "What are you doing in here? Couldn't wait to see me? Come here."
He was injured, but he picked her up anyway, carrying her in strong arms as he limped towards the infirmary. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and tried not to mind the blood he smeared on her clothes as he held her.
The way you run yourself. . . It was a Klausian phrase that was always left unfinished, that always ended with a sigh or laugh instead of an explanation. Maria remembered hearing it often in her childhood, and had spent many nights wondering what the other half of that statement would have been. Everyone else on the Diplo seemed to know, and used it when talking to each other just before or after leaving the ship. No one had ever used it in reference to her. It acted as a reminder that she was different: she was human, and delicate, and had to be protected from their rough way of life. It made her feel like such a foreigner when she was left out of conversations due to little cultural nuances like the way you run yourself.
Once, she had asked Mirage what that phrase meant and why it was so important. Why did the members of the Diplo always say it to each other? Why was it sometimes a joke to be laughed at, but at other times left the room as solemn as a grave? Mirage had smiled at her sadly, blue eyes suddenly averted as though the topic was uncomfortable. It was not something to be asked about, she confided, because finishing the phrase was bad luck. As for an answer, Mirage had only offered a surprisingly meek, almost pleading, "why don't you ask Cliff" for her trouble.
But Maria did not want to ask Cliff. She felt like she was always asking him some stupid, ignorant question about his people, regardless of how much time she spent on the Diplo. Their talks about his culture and racial history left her feeling invasive and alien, and she hated that feeling more than anything.
Years later, long after her talks with Mirage and her stay on the Quark's flagship was over, after they had traveled through the Fourth Wall and back, she heard it again. The way you run yourself, old friend. . . She overheard it being used by two Klausian men while waiting for a transport at one of the Federation Stations on her way out. The phrase had been ended with a laugh this time, said in good humor between comrades. She paused on the way to her ship, and decided that she would finally ask Cliff the next time he called her.
Cliff liked to call once every Earth month, just to check up on her and make sure she was still alive and doing well. He only ever made video calls these days, and would grumble about how much he missed just flying out to see people if questioned on it. Cliff had taken back the position of Quark's leader and captain of the Diplo after Maria left, and he was constantly complaining about how he never had any time to himself. He was tired of back-to-back meetings and diplomatic ventures; he was always talking about missing the times he spent tromping across undeveloped planets or exploring space. This was usually followed by the reminder that he still had her old quarters free, and that she was welcome to come back whenever she got tired of wandering.
For her part, Maria usually ended up teasing him about sounding like an old man, and would say that his age was starting to show. Cliff would get quiet then, looking down and away to mumble something about the way he ran himself that she could never quite catch.
"Did you ever wonder," he asked slowly after an uncharacteristically long silence. Cliff's brows were furrowed, his bright eyes narrowed in contemplative concern when she glanced up to his face on the screen. He did not look as young as he used to; he was beginning to go gray at the temples, but in all that blond it was not as noticeable as the sun damage on his skin or the fact that he was losing weight again. "Why you never saw any old guys that time I took you to Klaus IV when you were little?"
"I guess I figured you didn't know any."
". . .Klausians don't actually live that long, you know," he noted, rubbing at the light stubble on his chin with one big hand. "It's the way we live; we usually run ourselves to death early in life. It's the neon, and the pressure, and the whole risk-taking culture, that do-or-die attitude we've got, I guess. . . Anyway, after so long, the body just can't take any more, and it shuts down. Burns out."
Maria did not say anything, just sat staring at his image. He offered her a smile that she knew was meant to be carefree and happy, but came across forced and strained. She knew how the phrase ended before he opened his mouth.
"The whole thing goes: the way you run yourself, you'll be dead before you're forty."
Cliff was thirty-nine.