Author's Note: This story was rattling around in my mind at the same time I was writing "Longing," and finally sprang to full form on the drive to and from work yesterday. It is set in the same alternate universe as "Longing". Kudos to anyone who recognizes the inspiration behind Kratos and the cake scene.

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Eighteen years before Colette Brunel accepted the Oracle

"This ... this ... this..."

If it wasn't for the fact that he could hear his companion's stuttering behind him, Kratos would had been halfway across the city of Palmacosta before he realized that Anna was no longer beside him. He glanced over his shoulder to see her rooted in place, her brown eyes wide with shock as she took in the buildings around her.

"You grew up in Luin, did you not?" he inquired.

"Yes ... But this is Palmacosta," Anna said, speaking with reverence. "It's the largest city in Sylvarant. Any advancement in technology, education, and fashion ... it all comes from here. I never imagined ... you said we were coming here, but I didn't think..."

Her rambling was cut off as a courier slammed into her, nearly knocking her to the ground. With a rushed apology, he hurried down the street with a package in his arms. Anna regained her balance and muttered beneath her breath about people needing to watch where they were going.

"You need to pay more attention," Kratos scolded, walking back to her. "It's easy to get separated here."

"Yes, yes, I hear you." Anna squared her shoulders and eyed him. "Are you sure you don't want to tie a leash on me since you're not all that fond of me going more than two feet away from you?"

He almost smiled. It wasn't the first time in their odd relationship that she had made the sarcastic invitation. "I think we can maintain our current situation for now."

"Good." Anna strode by him, hungry eyes taking in the sights once more.

Kratos shook his head and followed. He normally didn't think much of the city. After all, he had been there when Palmacosta was founded. Personally, he rather favored the Tethe'alla city of Sybak and its learning centers. It would most certainly have the knowledge that they were looking for, with better sources than what Sylvarant currently possessed. But, going to Tethe'alla was out of the question at the moment.

He could still see her in the crowd. Anna Irving, a girl just barely into womanhood. She was rail thin thanks to spending roughly four years at the Asgard Ranch. Long, messy brown curls tumbled down her back, tied back with a leather thong she had nicked from his supplies. The top of her head didn't even brush his chin. But, she was smart and stubborn - both qualities that ensured her survival under Kvar's rule and turned her into Project A012 - the 12th person selected to be part of the Angelus Project ... and the only one thus far who hadn't died.

Kratos planned to keep it that way.

She was now two buildings away, her face nearly plastered against a glass window. As he got closer, he could see it was a bakery. A display of three large cakes, coated with a thick layer of frosting took up most of the prime window space. Smaller cakes, decorated just as lavishly as the larger ones, were nestled between and in front of their bigger siblings.

"Look at the cakes," Anna breathed, and he could hear the longing in her voice. "My mother used to make me a huge chocolate cake for my birthday. She would let me lick both the frosting bowl and the batter bowl and I was usually so sick to my stomach that I couldn't even eat a piece of the actual cake until the next day." She frowned, tilted her head to the side. "It's been so long since I've seen a calendar. I wonder what day it is?"

Kratos peered through the window, spotted a calendar hanging from the wall behind the register. He nodded toward it. "You could ask."

-----

It was Anna's 16th birthday.

That little fact tugged at the back of Kratos's mind as they got settled into an inn close to the Palmacosta Academy. Upon hearing what day it was, Anna had grown disturbingly quiet. She'd thanked the baker and silently followed Kratos to the inn. He'd grown so used to her chatter that having her be so quiet was a disturbing anomaly. He didn't quite know what to do about it. He knew she was thinking about her family, of the milestone she had reached in her life. Sixteen was the age most people in Sylvarant were considered adults.

He had stopped measuring birthdays long ago, and wasn't even quite sure where his fell within the current calendar. But, even he remembered the thrill that was associated with coming of age. That had been right before the Great Kharlan War, before his own life had changed.

He wanted to tell Anna that at least she wasn't at the ranch for her birthday. But, did that really make things that much better? She wasn't at the ranch, but she was still a prisoner. She was on the run from Kvar and had a slowly mutating exsphere embedded in her chest. Her family, from what he gathered, was gone. There was no one to wish her a happy birthday, to congratulate her and wish her well. And, really, was he the best one suited for such a thing? He knew all too well the cruelties associated with being an adult.

The silence between them stretched. Anna hunted through his bag, pulling out a book on basic mana properties that she'd been studying in their spare time. Moving almost mechanically, Kratos followed suit. He had a mission after all.

But that silly little fact kept floating through his mind. Kratos narrowed his eyes and tried to force his conscience into submission.

You're the only one she has left you know.

He growled beneath his breath. Anna peered at him over the edge of her book. "Problems?" she asked.

"No," he bit out. "Why?"

"Your book's upside down."

It was. With a muttered oath, Kratos tossed the book onto the table. "I'm going out. Stay here." And with that, he stormed out of the room.

-----

Kratos couldn't remember the last time he'd made the effort to celebrate someone's birthday. The only one that seemed to be remembered in Welgaia's was Martel's. That was an annual event that, despite his affection for his long-gone friend, both he and Yuan did everything that they could to be elsewhere for. As time went by, the ritual had gotten more and more creepy. In the years they were roped into attending, they spent a few hours afterwards indulging in the finest spirits imported from the flourishing world.

The first part was easy. Within minutes, Kratos had gone back to the bakery and secured one of the smaller cakes for Anna. He felt somewhat embarrassed, standing on the stoop of the bakery staring at the crowded street with a white box in his hand as he eyed his enemy - people. Whereas there hadn't been many people out there before, the streets suddenly seemed filled with potential catalysts that could cause a calamity with the cake. He glowered at all of them, and then mentally shook himself. Anna, he decided, was driving him up the wall and she wasn't even there.

He slowly made his way back to the inn, stopping long enough at the general store to gauge the prices on supplies - a very sensible thing to do. It most certainly wasn't because he'd spotted a group of school kids barreling down the street toward him, and he'd ducked in the nearest shop to avoid a possible catastrophe. That wasn't the reason at all.

As Kratos scanned the store, making a mental list of what they needed, his gaze fell on a mannequin displaying a woman's dress. He thought of the makeshift clothing he'd procured for Anna after their escape from the ranch. It was sufficient, but much too big for her. She often looked like a child playing dress-up in an adult's clothes. Okay, they were really a shirt and a pair of pants that belonged to Yuan that Kratos nicked not long before he broke Anna out of the Asgard Ranch. Still ... maybe it wouldn't hurt for Anna to get some normal clothing. Maybe she would like a dress ... or something like that. Not because he was vaguely intrigued about what she would look like in a proper dress, not the rags that passed for one at the Asgard Ranch.

"Sir, could I help you?"

His heart lurched in surprise, but Kratos calmly faced the shop owner. "I'm just looking."

"I see." The man's eyes slid over to the dress. "Are you considering for something for your wife?"

He was not blushing. There was simply no cause for him to blush. "No, thank you," Kratos replied and quickly fled the shop. He'd just send Anna on for her own things later.

-----

Anna finished her chapter and set the book aside with a sigh. Noishe had disappeared not long before they entered Palmacosta, but he tended to avoid the few towns they'd been in anyhow. She tilted back in her chair and studied the clock on the wall. It was nearly dark, her stomach was growling and Kratos had all their money. She rummaged through their supply pack, but couldn't bring herself to unwrap one of the field rations that they carried. No, they were in a city, and she wanted a real meal.

She folded her hands over her stomach and closed her eyes. She was trying not to cry, she really was. She'd shed enough tears in the past four years for the loss of her family. It wasn't like she'd celebrated her birthday since she turned 12 to begin with. Tears trickled down her cheeks and she didn't bother to brush them away. Once they started, she couldn't quite get them to stop. She managed to move to one of the beds, to grab a pillow and hug it tightly as she tried to recall her father's voice and her mother's perfume. But, they were memories that were fading fast, thanks to the passage of time. She missed having her parents hold her when she was sad or hurt. There hadn't been anyone to comfort her in a long time.

She didn't notice when the door opened, when Kratos set the bakery box on the table and proceeded to stare at her with something akin to shock. He'd never seen her cry before.

He wasn't quite sure what to do. She looked so lost, hunched over the thin pillow as she rocked back and forth. This was a far cry from the girl who had dumped a filled chamber pot over his head the first time they'd met, who'd cheekily told him that she'd use a hairpin and matches to free herself from the Asgard Ranch ... if only he would supply the hairpin. This wasn't the awestruck woman who'd initially taken in Palmacosta and who hunted through his bags looking for books to read. Anna and tears ... something about that wasn't quite right, and he just wanted to make them stop. Really, dealing with crying women wasn't near the top of Kratos's list of expert skills. Yuan and Mithos had handled that sort of thing with Martel.

He put the box on the table and sat next to Anna. He had quite good instincts, he thought, and it was time to go with those. He reached out, hesitantly wrapped an arm around her. He expected her to lean his head against him, but he didn't expect her to suddenly throw her arms around his neck and suddenly cling to him like he was the only person left in the world. He stiffened with shock, but then his arms found their way around her and he held her close.

It'd been a long time since he'd had this sort of contact with someone else. He thought it would feel odd, but it actually felt pretty good. A warm feeling of contentment settled in his chest and he found his arms tightening slightly. Anna might be missing her family, but she wasn't alone any longer. And, he was going to tell her that just as soon as she stopped using him for a handkerchief.

After minutes, the storm passed and Anna pulled back. She blinked, noticed who was hugging her, then blinked again. "You're hugging me," she informed Kratos.

"I'm aware of that."

"By your own volition?"

"Do you see puppet strings dangling from me?"

Anna suddenly grinned. "No, but that sounds like an excellent idea."

"Don't even try it." Kratos broke the embrace and glanced away, ignoring the odd fluttering in his stomach. His gaze landed on the bakery box. Cake. Yes, there was cake. He grabbed the box and handed it to her. "You said you normally celebrate your birthday with cake."

"You didn't!" Anna lifted the top of the box and her eyes went wide with shock at the small chocolate cake within. "You did! I didn't think ... Thank you!" And with that, she hastily set the box aside, threw her arms around his neck once more and kissed his cheek before grabbing the cake box and carrying it to the table.

He stared after her, heart pounding as she rooted through the supply bag for plates and utensils. She kissed me... She hadn't even done that when they escaped the ranch. He hesitantly touched his cheek, and then dropped his hand.

At that moment, everything changed for Kratos Aurion. It'd been germinating for years. It was a seed planted when he discovered about Mithos's plans for the Age of Lifeless Beings, when he internally decided to search for a way for a human to wield the Eternal Sword. It germinated as he was instructed to see to the process of Kvar's Angelus Project and he met a very stubborn young woman who was the current host. It grew as he made the decision to rescue her, to find a dwarf to create a Key Crest for her and to continue his own research into the Eternal Sword. And, now, he'd realized that he was completely done for. After years of enduring loyalty to Cruxis, he'd fully remembered what it was truly like to be human.

That included falling in love.

"Here, I've split it in two. Does Noishe like chocolate? Well, it's not like he's here anyhow. Just where is he?" Anna chattered away as she cut the cake and put each piece on its own plate. She picked up the plates and noticed Kratos staring at her. "What? You don't like chocolate? Okay, that's fine. I'll eat it!"

"I like chocolate just fine." Kratos grabbed the plate before Anna could help herself. "We probably should have dinner first."

"Life's short. Dessert first," Anna quipped and dug enthusiastically into her own piece.

Kratos chuckled and Anna winged an eyebrow at him. "You're laughing."

"I'm allowed to laugh," he responded before sampling the cake. It really was quite good.

"But, I never heard you laugh. Therefore, I'm not sure if you really do laugh or if that's not in the range of emotions allowed to you by the Desians." Anna licked her fork clean between each bite.

"Maybe I just didn't have a reason to laugh before." Something about the way he said it caused Anna to glance up at him. It took everything in her not to drop her fork at the intensity of the look her was giving her. They stared at each other and her mouth went dry as something jolted through her. She licked her lips and tried to remember how to breathe. The world moved in slow motion as he set his plate aside and stood. Her eyes followed him as he walked around the table and stared down at her, as if he was weighing some sort of monumental decision in his mind. She saw the moment he made his choice and before she could decipher what it was, he bent over and brushed his lips against hers.

The kiss was soft, nearly hesitant. She wasn't quite sure how to react except to try to mimic what he was doing. Her hands found their way around his neck for the third time that day, fingers digging into his hair as she parted her lips and allowed him to deepen the kiss. Then, he pulled away, brushing his thumb over her cheek. "Happy birthday," he murmured.

It was, Anna decided at that moment, the best present she'd ever received.