DISCLAIMER: Sword of Mana © Square-Enix. Story is mine.

(tireless hunger in your eyes – and I'm holding you but you've already slipped away)

You can't change the basic nature of a thing—you can only disguise it and pretend for all it's worth that the disguise is perfect. If that works, the thing will achieve a camouflage—a thin coat of paint masking its true base nature, that might flake away but is intact for now.

For all his insistence to everyone around him—Stroud is still Stroud even in his own mind. It's why he doesn't mind those close to him calling him that; Marley and his brother would anyway, and it would be one more way for Julius to tease him if he didn't at least accept that much.

The black coat with its heavy epaulettes and the gold mask are a kind of mental armor, though: they remind him of his grudge and his duty and everything he's made himself out to be, and prove to him that he's grown—he's no longer a bewildered little boy crying for the family he's lost.

He's a man with a country at his back and a strong sword arm.

…It's not always so easy, though, to disguise a thing. For example—

Stroud has his coat halfway on that morning when he realizes something is off, and it takes a moment before he understands: he should have had a great deal more competition for the sink, and he shouldn't be the first one out the bedroom door.

He turns, and there is Julius, apparently having come to a halt walking back towards the bathroom. He is leaning against the wall like he's forgotten what he's doing, and his eyes and expression are perfectly blank, like the face of a child's doll.

A chill runs up the backs of Stroud's arms. Half-dressed, not caring, he bolts, barely managing not to crash into Julius and the wall, and claps his hand on that pale shoulder, shaking it roughly.

Julius gasps and jerks, his shoulders and hands rising as if to fend off some threat as his eyes go wide. He glances around wildly for a few moments before he seems to recognize where he is, only then really and truly looking up to meet Stroud's eyes with a wan smile.

"I'm sorry about that," he says with an impressive attempt at sounding calm. "I'm all right—now…"

He pushes off the wall and staggers, his legs buckling and nearly sending him into a sprawl on the floor. He does not because Stroud's arms are there around his waist, supporting him; they have been through this before.

So many times before.

Except that recently Julius has no need to cast magic extensively before he puts himself in this state. The emptiness creeps up on him at strange hours, leaving his body a doll's shell as though waiting for something to come and inhabit it.

And as if that emptiness in itself is some deep casting, it always leaves him drained afterwards, a sickly husk with what little color is normally in his skin snatched away. Julius is ashen where he half-hangs in the crook of Stroud's arm, his lips and nails gray, no strength in his fingers at all as he clutches against the front of Stroud's coat for something to push against. Stroud frowns and holds him more firmly.

"You should at least sit down," he scolds to cover up his worry.

Julius half-smiles and shakes his head, his hair flicking his whitewhitewhite cheeks. Its shade looks shocking, unnatural against that unearthly pallor. "It's better—if I do something. It will pass. It will pass, Stroud; we've been through this enough times for us both to know this."

"You can do something and sit. It's not going to help you if you keel over, and I can't rely on you unless you're in full form. Julius, you listen to me about everything else. Couldn't it be possible that I'm right about this too?"

This time Julius does truly smile, and tips his chin up insolently. "My, aren't we such a know-it-all." There is strength in his arms as he pushes himself free, and he takes a few steps away from Stroud unwaveringly. "I'll think about it."

He looks normal, but his hands are shaking just ever so slightly.

It's so much easier for Stroud, and he knows this every time he glances beside him to see Julius there beside him. Stroud only has his own pride and people's mindsets to contend with—not a body that burns through Mana faster than it could ever take it in, not a heritage that put poisoned blood in his veins at the moment of his birth.

They're both running away from who they are—Stroud Granz and Julius Vandole. But "who you are" is relative in this case.

Stroud takes a few steps forward. He doesn't look, but he does reach out and feels for that cold hand, lines them up palm to palm, fingers interlaced.

He doesn't know what he wants to convey the most—I'm here or it's going to be fine or you're an idiot and I'm watching you or maybe all three.

Julius squeezes his hand hard, and they don't speak: if they spoke they couldn't pretend any longer. They couldn't pretend that there won't come a time in weeks or days or hours when once again Julius will be sprawled in a doll-like farce of consciousness, or that Dark Lord and Julius Granz are all they are and will ever be, or that things will be fine, really.

An elbow nudges Stroud's side, and he looks down to see that Julius is looking up at him with a smirk and half-closed emeraldblack eyes.


"If we actually want to get anything done today, we may as well finish up here and head out. After all, if you're too late, they'll start to think you're indisposed or that we happen to be busy with something untoward."

Stroud rolls his eyes, shakes his head. "Heaven forbid they get that idea. Although if you're so worried about it, we shouldn't be nearly so open as we are."

"Well, if it doesn't concern you, we could always make it look as though we were busy with something untoward? Or get busy with such untoward doings."

Stroud shakes his head, elbows right back. "Any excuse, huh?"

They swing hands like children and laugh and go back about their morning routine, and the façade slips back into place.

For now.