Distance

In a run-down building, a massive man lay motionless on a worn bed, the rusted iron springs within the mattress creaking ominously under his significant mass as he tried to get steal forty winks. Tossing and turning hadn't worked, and he didn't really feel like tossing and turning, anyway; his arthritic joints made even those little things painful ordeals to go through. Staring at the ceiling through eyes whose vision had been blurred by the decades, he sighed, feeling that barely noticeable tightness in his chest as he exhaled.

It was night in the bustling city called Lindblum, and outside his window, the lights and sounds of a busy Lindblum night market were very prominent. Not that it mattered to him - several years ago, he would have noticed, but now, his hearing had gone to heck along with his eyesight and mobility.

Sleep was a precious commodity these days. He no longer had the ability to just crash down into his bed and fall asleep, as he had been able to do many years ago. Even when he slept, he was prone to waking up in the middle of the night, with shooting pains in his chest or from nightmares spawned of guilt that was rooted in deeds done during his more daring days.

Even his home felt too silent to be comfortable. Once, the sounds of laughter, coins clinking, and even the occasional punch had filled the air, filling the building with a sense of togetherness, and making it feel like a true home for people like him.

It had been years since the last of the people whom he had once shared a home with had crossed the building's threshold for the last time. Cinna had died during a botched burglary, torn to pieces by a Griffin that had been kept as a pet in their target's house. Blank had moved to Alexandria, where he had married Ruby and helped her with the running of her mini-theater. Marcus had been cornered and beaten severely by several thugs who had tried to lift a diamond that he had recently stolen from him. The muscle-bound Tantalus man had staggered into the hideout, bleeding from countless wounds, before collapsing to the cluttered floor in a heap of blood-stained clothes, never to rise again.

And of course, everyone knew what had happened to Zidane. The cheerful Genome had managed to get his happily-ever-after, by marrying Queen Garnet and taking up the empty space he had left in her heart after his supposed death at the Iifa Tree. The two of them had lived together happily for several years, eventually becoming the proud parents to a pair of twins that seemed to be neither Summoner nor Genome.

Alas, the happy times ended almost as soon as they had began. First, there came the day when a mail-Moogle had dropped in a letter inscribed with four words written in Mikoto's neat hand.

Vivi Stopped. I'm Sorry.

And to make things even more sorrowful, barely a month after his children had been born, Zidane had been found lying motionless on a flight of stairs in Alexandria Castle, in a narrow passageway heading to the library. Doctor Tot, already worn down by his age, had pronounced the young king dead within an hour of his body being found in the cramped stairway.

Baku closed his eyes, wondering which gods he must have angered to have been cursed to outlive most of his 'children'.

xxx

Gears ground together and clicked in unison, working in perfectly-synchronized motion to make the clock mounted on the Theater District's large clock tower strike eight. Three sharp raps on the hideout's door echoed loudly in the confines of the small space. Baku remained asleep, his ears not picking up the sounds. There came a sound like keys being jangled, followed by the sounds of something being inserted forcefully into the rusted keyhole that was on the outside of the building's door. Minutes later, a robed, hooded figure stepped into the Tantalus hideout, stuffing a large bundle of keys into a pocket that had been sewn into one of the sides of his billowing robes.

"Morning, Baku!" called the robed man cheerfully, making his voice loud enough to be heard by the partially-deaf, older man who was still sleeping noisily, "I said, MORNING!"

The large-sized man opened his eyes groggily, before blinking them owlishly several times, "Who's that?"

"Who else?" asked the stranger in return, as he crossed the room and grabbed the short poker by the ancient pot-bellied stove, "Hardly anyone visits you anymore."

"I guess... Ah, it's you!" Baku beamed, wincing a little as he sat up in bed, his joints flaring up in protest, "How have things been? What with the South Gate scandal and all that good shit, gwahaha!"

"Things are a little... hectic," admitted the hooded figure, as he stoked the stove to life, "Tea or coffee?"

"Coffee. Need to wake up, heh."

"Milk?"

"Don't have any now."

"I'll see about getting you some-"

"Cid," Baku interrupted, his voice suddenly lowering to an almost hostile note, "I don't need your patronizing."

Cid cocked his head curiously, even as he put a kettle on the stove and gave the flames another good poke, "You do, Baku. Whether you like it or not."

"I do not need to be treated like some god-damned invalid!" retorted Baku, swinging his feet over the edge of his bed and instantly regretting doing it, as he felt his knees burn with the agony of the forced motion, "I can take care of myself!"

"You are arthritic, myopic, and partially-deaf," Cid stated calmly, as he added some coffee beans into the kettle of simmering water, "Don't bother denying it."

"Cid-"

"Baku, listen to me," the ninth Regent of Lindblum said his tone betraying a hint of exasperation, "We go back a long ways, and it's been more than thirty years since we first met. This isn't me being patronizing! I'm just helping out an old friend."

"An old friend who can't even hear it when someone walks into his home anymore," Baku said bitterly, slipping his goggles on in an attempt to improve his eyesight, however temporarily.

"Nonsense! There is a reason why that statue of you sits near the Dragon's Gate, you know."

"That was a different man. That man fought in a bloody battle and survived, for Odin's sake! Now..." his voice trailed off, as he began to wheeze slightly.

Cid remained silent, and for a while, the room was quiet save for the sounds of people going about their daily lives outside the hideout, and the rhythmic motion of the colossal clock whose inner workings lay just several feet away from where the two men were. Once or twice, the huge clock had been disrupted by Zidane's mischief or Cinna's clumsiness, and Minister Artania, Regent Cid, and an engineer would have to make a trip down from the castle to set the clock's timing back on track.

Now, no one was around to disturb the many mechanisms ever again. The sound of the busy second-hand ticking endlessly, once a comforting series of clicks, was now little more than a reminder to Baku that he was now all alone in the building save for the occasional visits by Cid or Artania.

"Baku, things don't necessarily have to be like this," Cid said softly, "You were... are... a battle veteran and a hero. I could have you put up in a better home-"

"That's where you're mistaken, Cid."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You could sure as Hell put me someplace cleaner, more classy, richer. But this will be the only place I can ever truly call home."

"You call a loft inside a clock tower your home?"

"Home is where the heart is. The heart of Tantalus is here. So only this loft can be called home by a true Tantalus man."

"What about Ruby, Blank, and Zidane?"

"They..." Baku paused, thinking about what to say next. As the reply came to mind, tears came to his eyes, fogging up the old goggles with their grimy lenses, "They did what they had to do. Old war horses like me... We can't go anywhere once the fighting's done. But these young people had a lifetime ahead of them. Keeping them here wouldn't have been right."

Cid pondered this statement for a moment, before smiling slightly, "You've changed, Baku."

"Gwahaha!" laughed Baku as he pushed up his goggles and wiped away the tears, "Used to be a real firebrand, didn't I? Well, time has humbled me, I guess. You weren't such a noble dude, either, back then. Gwaha!"

"Hahaha, indeed! We have both come a long way since the war," Cid nodded, as he took the kettle off the stove, "I was given the regency for my bravery in battle, and you were given the permission to have your own theater troupe."

"Then you became a prissy pimp and I became a rapscallion!" Baku chuckled merrily, "Ah, the good days..."

"Coffee's coming. Careful, it's hot."

Steaming black liquid was poured into a worn, stained tankard and a smaller, cleaner mug. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee permeated through the air of the hideout's usually musty atmosphere, and soon enough, the two men were sipping at the dark drink.

"I've really got to go soon," Cid said, as he drained his mug, "That work on the next model of the steam engine isn't going to go anywhere without me there."

"So we'll have ships even better than we do now?"

"The next steam engines will be barely larger than a mist boiler used to be. Soon, even the smallest courier airships will be installed with them."

"Good luck with that, then."

"Thank you, old friend."

xxx

Hours later, as Baku shuffled about the cramped loft, sweeping the floor, he heard the clock strike five. Twilight was setting in, and out the window, he could see some of the district's street lanterns being lit-up by some application of Cid's mechanical ingenuity. The entire avenue running through the district was illuminated in the fading sunlight, making it resemble a fairy-land with its walkways of cobblestone and automated lights.

He finished sweeping the loft, and sat down heavily on the edge of his bed wearily.

Reflecting on the conversation he had had earlier with Cid, he once again acknowledged one fact that he would never ever bring up for discussion with the Regent. Caring and concerned as the other man was, Baku didn't need to have someone babying him.

As surely as the clock ticked, they had come a long distance from who they had been decades ago. Time had passed, and things were vastly different now.

But of course, Baku knew of another fact that was an extrapolation of the first; it was with equal certainty that his distance from the Reaper's blade was steadily decreasing as time went by.

Two weeks later

Cid unlocked the hideout's door, and stepped into the loft. Almost immediately, a foul stench greeted him, and he was almost overwhelmed by nausea at the sight before him. The locked door had kept it in, but now, he was inhaling the putrid odor in all its glory.

Baku's race had been run, the distance between him and death now standing just slightly past zero.