A/N: Ahh, it's been forever, I know. Depression's a bitch, guys. :P But I really hope you like the new chapter. I…can't promise when the next one will be. I still care about this story and want to finish it, though. Enjoy!

34. Pursuit

The water was almost unnaturally still, smooth like dark glass. Mira stalked across the deck to the bow, where Tokunaga huddled over a sheaf of papers and navigational instruments, clutched in both hands. His head snapped up at the sound of Mira's heels clicking on the wood as she approached.

"I am not certain that you understood when I said that I would triple whatever it is that Lowell and his little band of misfits are paying you."

She did not bother to hide the edge of impatience in her voice. Tokunaga's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, but he nodded, head tilted to one side.

"Oh, I understood," he said. "And I am already paid pretty damn well. But there's no amount of gald that'll move a boat that's becalmed. The ocean is her own master."

He shrugged one dark shoulder and Mira resisted hissing in frustration, just barely.

"Just get us moving," she snapped, turning on her heel. She came dangerously close to slamming the heavy door of the cabin behind her, reining in her temper enough to appear cool and composed for the guards she had placed there.

The scene inside was much as she had left it a few minutes before—Tor and Cyrus playing chess at a small table, brows furrowed in concentration. So it appeared, at least; the former knight was losing badly, his thoughts clearly elsewhere. Perhaps they were with the young woman curled up on the bunk mere footsteps away, the fluttering of her closed eyes telling the lie in the sleep she feigned. Mira stopped in front of her and Estellise immediately stiffened. She truly was abysmally terrible at deception.

"Princess." There was no respect given to the title, Mira's tone sing-song and darkly mocking. She snapped her fingers in front of the girl's face, though the gesture was unnecessary—her eyes had flown open as soon as Mira had spoken. Still, there was some satisfaction to be had in the way that Estellise flinched and drew away as far as the cabin's bunk would allow. Her hand clutched a handful of skirts tightly, knuckles drawn and pale.

"I am going to ask you a question," said Mira, "and I expect you to cooperate. Understood?"

Estellise's eyes flashed—there was that stubborn streak in her yet—but she nodded, sharp and thin-lipped.

"Excellent. Now, we are faced with a rather unfortunate predicament, you see. We should be well on our way to Torim Harbor, yet instead her we sit, going nowhere at all. That simply won't do, will it?"

The girl said nothing. Mira drew a breath, but Cyrus's flat voice interrupted further reprimand.


She shot him an impatient look over her shoulder, but he had already returned his attention to the game. Most of his pieces still stood, having picked off Tor's one by one. Cyrus was now going in for the proverbial kill, though no one would know it by the expression of utter boredom on his face.

"We do," Mira continued calmly, turning her back on the scene, "possess one distinct advantage in this situation. You see, we have our very own freak of nature. And it is my understanding that you may use your powers for all manner of things. Generating a wind storm, say."

Estellise darted a glance over at Tor, his face still unchanged as Cyrus removed his final piece from the board, then back to Mira.

"It…it doesn't work that way," she began tentatively, ending with a confidence that Mira almost believed. She tsked, shaking her head.

"Tor, can she do it?"

He looked up at her, blinking as if he had been far away. Mira decided that strangling the man, however satisfying, would be counter-productive.

"Can her artes manipulate the wind?" she clarified coolly.

The girl watched with wide eyes that Tor would not meet. A heartbeat passed, then another.

"Yes," he said, as if the word had been wrenched from his throat. Estellise sank back into the bunk, never looking away from the former knight even as Mira's hand closed around her wrist to draw her out. Her eyes glistened with tears.

"I suppose I must do everything myself?" Mira snapped when the men remained seated at the table. "Help me get her up on deck."

Cyrus ascended the ladder first, taking Estellise by the arm when she reached the top, with Mira following close behind. Predictably, Tor took the rear, his movements stiff and wooden. Mira directed Cyrus to bring the girl to the middle of the deck, which slowly creaked from side to side as the ship bobbed in place.

"I…I could call down magic and kill us all," Estellise said into the silence, scarcely more than a whisper.

Mira made a derisive noise.

"And kill your lover? I think not. Even despite his betrayal, you do not possess the nerve, princess."

Estellise bit her lip, gaze cast up to the cloudless sky. Then she bowed her head, lips moving almost without sound as she wove her glyphs of colored light. They shimmered, suspended in the air, then faded. A moment later, her hair was blown back by a strong gust of wind, pink strands dancing in all directions. Mira smiled.

"Make for Torim Harbor," she called to Tokunaga, who had been watching from his station at the captain's wheel. "We haven't a moment to lose."

Mira could feel the boat shifting, its bow slicing through the water and creating a rippling V that trailed on either side of the wooden hull. They were underway once again.

"Very good." It was meant as a general statement, but when Estellise looked her way, Mira nodded. "Yes, you've proven yourself quite useful for once. That wasn't so hard, now was it?"

The young woman gave no response, hands clasped before her. Mira shrugged and started to turn away—there was no reason to idle here on deck, where the wind was tangling her hair and stinging her face. She motioned the others to follow, and had almost reached the ladder when Estellise let out a sharp gasp.

It did not take long to determine the cause, not when a long shadow fell over the ship, its caster flying low to match the new pace set by the unnatural wind. It let out a deep sound of varying pitches—a greeting? A challenge? It was impossible to tell.

"It's that wretched Entelexeia…"

"His name is Ba'ul," said Estellise. She extended one arm toward the sky to wave in its direction, rising up onto her toes. Mira huffed impatiently.

"What are you two standing around for? Restrain the girl and get her back below."

Tor seemed hesitant to lay a hand on the girl; fortunately, Cyrus appeared to have it under control. Mira watched as she was lead by the arm through the door and directed to climb below, Tor lagging several paced behind like a petulant child. She opened her mouth to berate him, but in the next moments the ship lurched violently as it was pulled into a sharp turn about. Unprepared for this, Mira was knocked to the deck, letting out an undignified screech as she rolled a ways until the ship settled into its new course.

Tor, it seemed, had kept to his feet by steadying himself against the doorway. He blinked at Mira where she lay catching her breath.

"Well, don't just stand there," she said at last. "Help me up, you oaf."

Mira snatched her hand away as soon as Tor had hauled her to her feet, giving him a sour, tight-lipped look before stalking away toward the ship's bow. Tokunaga stood placidly at the wheel, his gaze shifting between the open sea and the monstrous creature in the sky.

"What do you think you're doing?" Mira hissed, the menace in her voice in sharp contrast with the simplicity of her words.

"Change of plans," said Tokunaga. He could have been discussing the weather. Mira felt her blood pressure rising, fought for control.

"I an in charge here, in case you have somehow forgotten that fact. We are headed for Torim Harbor unless I say otherwise. Did I say otherwise?"

Tokunaga continued to watch the sea and sky.

"What about Cyrus?" he said, rather than answer her question. She grit her teeth.

"Cyrus? I do not understand his relevance to the matter at hand."

"He's the Zaphias leader, right? Seems to me that makes him outrank you. Maybe he told me to change course."

"He wouldn't—" Mira paused. The man was deliberately distracting her! She reached out and pulled him back by his shirt collar, forcing him to look at her.

"I should have you punished for your insolence," she said. Tokunaga swallowed once, the only outward sign of fear. His expression remained carefully neutral.

"Ah," he said. "But then who would captain the ship?"

Mira raised her free hand as if to strike him, smiling as he flinched involuntarily. She released him and walked a few paces back down the deck, snapped her fingers once. Two men were at her side almost instantly.

"Ready your crossbows," she said. "Take down that beast."

They nodded in unison, turning on their heels to fulfill her command. It was nice to see that there were some who remained obedient. The Entelexeia had swooped down much closer to the ship—how convenient. At this distance, she could make out the faces of his riders, if not very clearly: Yuri and Flynn Scifo, of course; that little bitch of a mage; the Kritya, riding up in front, a long spear in hand—and that little runt of a child, whose usefulness in the group escaped her completely.

The ship rocked again in choppy water, and likely saved her life. As she staggered, heels wobbling, the spear lanced down like lightning, ripping through the bottom of her dress and embedding tip-first in the deck. She felt warmth spreading in the lower part of her thigh and moved the fabric aside to see a shallow gash, blood trickling down her leg. Allowing only the briefest of moments to regret the loss of a favorite dress, she tore off the dangling fabric and tied it around the wound. Then she pulled the spear out of the wood and limp-strode over to her men.

"Send this back to them," she spat. "I don't care how you do it, but make it count."

They already stood with their crossbows trained on the creature, she noted.

"Were you waiting for a written invitation?" she asked sardonically. "Shoot the damn thing!"

Mira could feel a headache beginning to settle between her eyes. She wasn't sure if it was connected to the throbbing pain of her wound, or the continued incompetence of those who worked for her. The crossbow bolts began to fly, which gave her some satisfaction, though she wished she'd had the time and space on the ship to gather more men. Two salvos at a time were not likely to have much effect on a hide so tough and scaly. They looked to be drawing closer, as well, likely in an attempt to board. This she would not allow. They were clearly overconfident and desperate—let that be their downfall.

"I think I can make it from here, Judy," Yuri said, peering down at the shop over her shoulder. He was pretty sure he'd made drops this far before—or at least, what was a few more meters here or there? If he dropped into a roll…

"You'd break your neck. Let's get just a bit closer." Flynn was just behind him; Yuri could feel his body heat, what little there was at this altitude, radiating against his back. He made a sound of grudging agreement, though his fingers beat an impatient rhythm against the hilt of his sword.

Their attempts to get close enough to board were slowed by the fact that Ba'ul did his best to dodge the crossbow bolts flying up at him, his warbling call tinged with anger and frustration. Judy said that they presented very little real danger to the Entelexeia—but no one liked getting shot at. Whenever Yuri caught a glimpse of Judy's face, she appeared deep in concentration, communicating silently with her longtime companion. The deck drew closer almost imperceptibly slowly, until Yuri realized with some surprise that they were finally close enough.

"Flynn, with me. Guys, cover us."

"Right!" said Karol. Yuri quickly threw off the rest of his harnessing, settling himself into a crouched stance. From the corner of his eye, he saw Flynn do the same.

"This is it, on three, let's—"

His eyes followed a streak of color, too fast to track. When it had passed out of sight, Ba'ul let out a long and anguished bellow, banking abruptly to the left and up, his passengers tilting with him. Yuri cursed, grasping for his harness, his other hand closing around Flynn's upper arm without conscious thought.

"I'm alright, Yuri," he said, voice low and steady. He'd secured himself to the harnessing as well, Yuri noted as they leveled out. He nodded and released Flynn's arm. "Is Ba'ul badly hurt?"

This was said loud enough for Judy to hear—she looked at Flynn over her shoulder, expression pained.

"He needs to land, he is losing too much blood. With my spear," she said, the last more to herself, laced with venom. Below, the crossbow bolts still flew, but Ba'ul was no longer expending the extra energy to avoid them.

"They're shooting them into the wound, the bastards," said Rita, eyes narrowed. She'd been uncharacteristically quiet as they'd watched Estelle's wind artes from afar, green eyes wide and unblinking. Yuri was angry that their rescue attempt had been thwarted, of course, but what could they do?

"Lucky damn shot," he muttered. "Alright, we land. Are we closer to Nor or Torim Harbor?"

"T-Torim," said Karol, scanning the sea and wrinkling his nose in thought. "But they're headed back the other way."

"Good old Tokunaga," said Yuri. "It won't last, though. If I know one thing about Mira, it's that she hates losing."

Sure enough, at the bow of the ship Mira and the former merchant guild captain appeared deep in a heated argument. After a little while, Tokunaga bowed his head and started spinning the wheel.

"Always with one more card up her sleeve," Judy said softly. Ba'ul slowly flew upward, in the direction of Torim Harbor. Dark droplets of blood struck the water, staining it only for a moment before they dissipated and were claimed by the fathomless depths of the sea.

They made landfall on a small beach just northeast of Torim Harbor, Ba'ul rolling onto his side almost immediately as his passengers freed themselves of the harnessing.

"Easy, my friend," said Judith, deep concern evident in her voice. She pressed a hand to the scale on Ba'ul's belly, well away from the wound. Yuri examined it grimly from a distance of a few paces, sensing rather than seeing Flynn step up beside him.

"It looks bad," he said softly.

Yuri said nothing, just continued to observe, arms crossed. Judith had her head bowed, apparently in intense psychic communication with the Entelexeia, whose warbling was different than Yuri had ever heard it. Sharper, maybe. After a minute or two, Judith stepped back and dropped her hand. She looked back at the others, who had gathered in a loose semi-circle around them.

"It appears worse than what it is," she said. "This is the good news. However, there is a very real risk of infection if we do not have the supplies to help the wounds heal properly. We'll need to send someone into town—there is a balm that should help, and we need many more gels than we have with us to be effective for Ba'ul's size."

"Don't we need to…ah…remove…" Karol gestured at the spear, still embedded in Ba'ul's flesh.

"Yes, of course." A fresh flash of anger crossed Judith's normally calm features as she looked at the weapon. It passed just as quickly. "But carefully. I will need to clean away much of this blood first. Meanwhile, we should acquire those supplies. I will feed Ba'ul all the gels we already have—it may help the pain a little."

"I'm gonna help you," said Rita, glancing at the others with a look that dared them to argue with her. Yuri definitely wouldn't—would only mention how shaken she still was from seeing Estelle on Mira's ship if he had a death wish.

"Leave it to the boys then." Judy's voice tried to be its airy self, but missed the mark. She prodded gently at the scales around where the spear had entered; Karol turned his head and swallowed.

A narrow dirt path led up from the beach, cutting through tall brown grass. Repede bounded ahead as they climbed single file, barking occasionally as if to admonish them for being too slow. The sun burned into Yuri's scalp, almost directly overhead—he squinted up at it and scowled as they wound along the path.

It took about fifteen minutes to reach the outskirts of Torim Harbor, long piers lined with docked ships, water sloshing steadily against their hulls. Crew members leaned out over rails and blinked at them lazily-a few bustled with ropes and barked orders as they prepared to head out to sea.

"Nice to see that this place hasn't changed," Yuri mused, deadpan, as they made their way down the cobblestone street toward the shops.

"I wonder if that weird ice cream guy is still here," said Karol, making a face.

"What, you don't want an octopus popsicle?"

"No way!"

Yuri chuckled, his eyes cutting over to scan the buildings that they passed. A little humor made tense times like this more bearable, but he couldn't afford to let his guard down. Estelle was still out there, and the extremists' influence continued to spread.

"Hey, you two run ahead and start loading up on gels, I'll catch up with you." He loosened the sack of gald at his waist and tossed it underhand to Karol, who caught it with both hands, blinking at Yuri with a confused expression. Yuri waved and turned toward the stairs that lead up to an adjacent building.

"Is this really the time to be making social calls?"

Yuri ignored Flynn's comment and jogged up the stairs two at a time, Repede trailing behind him. Upon reaching the top, his eyebrows rose at the words scrawled across the walls of the normally pristine building, red paint still fresh and dripping. They varied in levels of profanity and vitriol, but all had the same message—Imperial collaboration would not be tolerated. Yuri snorted as he pulled the door open, noting patches of slightly off-color paint where similar defacings had been covered up. Once inside, he strode purposefully over to the door of Kaufman's office, hand reaching for the doorknob even as a voice raised protest behind him.

"Now look, y'can't go barging in here without an appoint—Lowell?"

Yuri turned to face the Fortune's Market member, a man he'd seen in the headquarters several times before.

"Mary in?" he asked with a smirk, taking a sort of perverse satisfaction with the way that a vein in the man's temple jumped at the name.

"Don't let her hear you call her that," he hissed, eyes darting toward the door—and indirectly answering Yuri's question. "I shoulda never told you…"

"Thanks," said Yuri, hand closing around the knob. "Oh, you might want to grab some extra paint. I think someone's not very happy with you guys."


Closing the door behind him blocked out the other man's grumblings, and also made Mary Kaufman look up from the paperwork that she had been poring over at her desk. Despite the obvious troubles that the guild currently faced, she appeared poised as ever and unsurprised by Yuri's appearance there.

"Come to finally accept my offer of employment?" she said, one corner of her mouth turned up wryly.

"Not what I'm here for. Sorry."

"That's too bad. You would be…very useful."

Kaufman's eyes danced with amusement—this was her way with him, a business-like attitude laced with no-nonsense flirtation. They both knew that this was their stalemate; Yuri wasn't willing to bow to anyone's authority, even a guild leader he respected as much as Kaufman, and as for the other, well…there was no chance in hell. Kaufman may have aligned herself with the "good guys," but her every action was weighed and measured for its benefit to her interests. And in the end, was that really so different from her cousin Mira?

"I noticed the place has been redecorated outside. Might want to rethink the color scheme though."

"Yes…we've made some rather persistent enemies it seems. But it's nothing Fortune's Market can't handle. Our reputation is unscathed."

Yuri nodded, looking around the tidy office, and wondered if that was true. The wrong words at the right time…sometimes the tiniest spark could be fanned into a riot. He walked to a window, spoke without turning.

"Yeah, maybe. But…I'd watch your back, Mary." He heard Kaufman make a vaguely annoyed sound. "You can't really be sure who you can trust these days. More than usual, I mean."

"…I'll keep that in mind. Now, I need to get back to this paperwork, but if you're going to be in town for a while, you should really let me buy you a drink. Later this evening, we could go to the…Yuri?"

Repede growled long and low, and Yuri spun away from the window.

"Gonna have to take a rain check on that drink," he said. Kaufman's brow creased at the dark look that Yuri was sure would be in his expression—but he had no more time for pleasantries. What he'd seen…

Once outside, Yuri sprinted down the stairs and turned a corner around the side of the building. There. A flash of dark fabric, unnoticeable unless you knew to look for it. He made a warning gesture to Repede and proceeded as swiftly but quietly as he could. The cloaked figure had already disappeared from sight, presumably through the door in the alley that now stood open just a crack, its gray paint old and peeling.

"Looks like an invitation to me."

Repede huffed in response, which Yuri decided to take as agreement rather than exasperation. That dog had been spending too much time around Flynn lately.

A light one-handed push on the door—which was apparently maintained well enough not to creak on its hinges—yielded a partial view of a room full of afternoon shadows and swirling motes of dust. Somewhere further in, two voices carried on a heated exchange.

"It will be enough," a deep, authoritative male voice was saying. "With the princess in our control, they will have no choice but to bow to our demands."

The second voice was much quieter, a higher pitch, their response hissed and indistinct other than a few words that slipped through, not enough to piece it together.

"I will not tolerate your constant doubts in our moment of victory…Near enough!…Yes, and they will continue to believe that until the moment arrives when we may reveal ourselves…This concerns me as well. They should have arrived by now. However, I am confident in Lady Mira's abilities…Yes, well. Cyrus. There is something about that man…Trust him? Hmm. Perhaps. Even when I gave him control of the Zaphias district, there was something about him…No, I'm sure it's nothing. Things have already been set in motion."

Throughout this conversation, Yuri crept deeper into the room, until he could see the man's dark cloak around the corner of a half-wall that divided it. He slid his sword from his scabbard, the movement practiced so that it made no sound.

Well. No sound that he could detect, anyway. No sooner than his sword had been freed did the shadowy figures whirl in his direction.

"Hey," said Yuri, a smirk curling on his lips. Then he dashed forward, Repede shooting out ahead of him with a low, menacing growl.

The first speaker, noting the man and canine rushing toward him, snorted derisively and—to Yuri's astonishment—slid away in a smooth, rapid series of movements, disappearing up a staircase in the far corner of the room.

"Repede, let him go," Yuri called as his companion began to pursue. There was something about the man that set an itch between his shoulder blades; he didn't want Repede to try and face him alone. The other cloaked figure still stood in the center of the room, their face obscured by a layer of fabric but still somehow giving Yuri the impression that he was being stared at. Or through. He repressed a shudder.

"How about you, huh? Let's do this."

They considered him for a moment, head tilting ever so slightly to the side, gloved fingers playing at the hilt of their sword.

"You do not know what you ask," they hissed at last, then turned on their heel and also headed for the stair, if not quite so inhumanly fluid in their movements.

"Dammit," said Yuri, sprinting after them. "Come on, Repede. This isn't over."

Flynn loosened the drawstring on the second overstuffed bag of gels that the merchant had handed him, mentally approximating how many it contained.

"That should be enough. How much do I owe you?"

The man gaped at them. "F-five hundred thousand gald. For all of it. That's my entire shipment."

"Alright. I would not want to wipe you out completely, however. The citizens of this city may be in need of them." Flynn took out a stack of notes that represented a written promise from Brave Vesperia to deliver the payment. He also placed a few thousand-gald pieces in the man's outstretched palm. For his trouble.

"That's…ah…it's fine, sir. I can have another shipment by tomorrow morning, bright and early."

It was clear that the man was just barely holding himself back from asking the obvious question: what in the world the pair needed five hundred lemon gels for. Flynn handed one of the bags to Karol, along with the vial of healing balm that Judith had requested. That had also been expensive—thank the stars that Brave Vesperia was such a successful guild, with an imperial princess as their personal sponsor.

With the transaction made, Flynn and Karol started to head back down the central street of Torim Harbor. Out of the corner of his eye, Flynn noticed a cluster of people pointing and chattering, their gaze directed toward the Fortune's Market headquarters. What trouble, he wondered, had Yuri managed to find in the less than twenty minutes since they had parted…

His brow furrowed as he followed the pointing fingers. A dark figure darted across the building's roof, Yuri and Repede pursuing only a few paces behind, sword and teeth bared respectively. Without a moment's hesitation, Flynn spun and pushed his bag of gels at Karol, who grasped it to his chest with an audible oof.

"Take these to Judith, quickly as you can," he said, reaching for his own sword as he kept his gaze trained on the pursuit. They stood poised on the edge of Fortune's Market HQ's roof, facing each other—before Flynn could blink, the one being chased stepped off, cloak fluttering as they fell and landed in a crouch, apparently unharmed. Naturally, Yuri followed almost immediately.

Flynn cursed under his breath. Jaw tight, he pushed through the crowd, scanning for any sign of where they had gone next. There, up ahead—they had nearly reached the edge of town, and it appeared that Repede had caught up briefly, for a scrap of dark fabric dangled from his mouth, streaming behind him as he ran.

"Yuri!" he shouted, earning the briefest of glances and a completely inappropriate exhilarated grin from the other man. There was no way at this point that he would gain on them, but Flynn continued to follow as they left Torim Harbor behind, its cobbled streets giving way to a dirt path and then open fields of short, dry grass and gnarled trees. Some of these trees blocked his view of the chase, so that he nearly had to skid to a stop when silhouetted figures loomed large in his vision.

Yuri and the cloaked stranger squared off in a dusty clearing overlooking the ocean, a sheer cliff mere paces away. Flynn could hear the ocean waves crash against it far below, over and over, a dull roar that drowned out anything that might be said. They circled each other, outlined and obscured by the dying afternoon light, shadows stretched long across the sand. In a flash, Yuri darted forward, and the other was ready to meet him, their swords connecting with a clang that reverberated in Flynn's ears. Repede darted back and forth, nipping at the enemy's heels—they hissed and kicked at him, but he was too quick, coming away with more fabric, this time stained with blood.

Flynn sprinted forward, but things were happening too fast. Yuri slashed at them while they were distracted, a long diagonal cut that started at the fabric covering their face and ending at the shoulder. Features became visible, soft angles and long wisps of hair. The woman tried to spit in his face as she spun away.

"Huh," said Yuri, before he pursued her nearly to the edge of the cliff. She had nowhere to go, Repede pinning her in from the other side. The long cloak she wore was soaked through with blood in several places, but she appeared undaunted, eyes locked with Yuri's defiantly.

"You have already lost," she said, voice unwavering. "Lady Estellise will be given to our leader, and you will never see her again. The new era has begun."

"Sorry, I'm allergic to villain clichés," said Yuri, hand set on his hip as if he wasn't facing off against one of Liberty's Fist's most deadly. "Let's finish this."

He stepped in as she raised her sword, poised to strike—when she feinted to the left, grasping his tunic and pulling hard. They tumbled back, grappling as they fell, disappearing from sight.

Then there was silence, nothing but the waves. Flynn could hear himself shouting, distantly, could feel himself move toward the cliff's edge without remembering the decision to do so. He fell to his knees, scanning the churning water below, thinking not again, not again, not when I've only just gotten him back. He wasn't sure where Repede had gone, but a few moments later, his muffled barks brought him slowly back into reality.

Muffled, because his jaws were clamped around the fabric of Yuri's tunic—the man himself was clinging one-handed to a scrubby bush, out of breath but apparently unharmed. Flynn nearly collapsed with relief, very well may have if it weren't for the danger not quite being over.

"Hey, uh…mind giving me a hand here?"

Yuri reached up and pulled himself over the edge, slowly and carefully—Flynn felt vaguely dizzy as he noted that the bush had been torn almost completely away from where its roots clung to the face of the cliff. One final heave; Flynn fell back into the dirt, pulling Yuri the rest of the way, half-sprawled on top of him. They lay there, breathing hard.

There was a tightness in Flynn's chest, too familiar, too large to contain. He wanted to reach up, reach out. He wanted. Yuri watched him with dark eyes, and he could feel his heart beating, alive alive alive.

"Hey, so," Yuri said after a moment, and that was all the warning he gave, closing the space between them as he pressed his lips to Flynn's, soft and warm. Flynn gasped, beyond astonished, barely remembered to move his mouth against Yuri's, to slide a hand up to his neck. Yuri's leather-gloved hand clenched into a fist in the sand beside his head.

Flynn didn't know how long they would have stayed that way, but they separated—seconds later? minutes?—upon hearing a distant warble. They glanced at each other, then stood and dusted themselves off. Repede sat at the edge of the clearing, his back to them, and snorted when he turned his head at their approach. Together, the group made its way back down to the beach, the walk all the longer for how Flynn still couldn't quite seem to catch his breath.