Disclaimer: I don't own Dissidia, Final Fantasy, or any of its awesome characters.
A/N: So...I know I said my next fic would be a Firion x Lightning story, which I am still planning to write, (in fact, I have started it, it's just a matter of getting it finished) but this idea popped into my head and it just would not leave my brain cells alone, thus I had to write it before my overly active brain cells exploded, most likely causing the idea to disappear from my head completely. Now, with that being said, this story does fit with canon and it takes place during the 13th Cycle, basically soon after Bartz, Zidane, and Squall have obtained their crystals and are on their way to meet up with the other warriors for the final battle against Chaos. For those of you who have not had the privilege of playing all the Final Fantasy games that originally featured these characters, this fic pays tribute to Final Fantasy V, focusing on Bartz's fear of heights, which is canon to the Final Fantasy V story, as well as Dissidia, as they touch on Bartz's acrophobia in Dissidia several times, most notably with Bartz's lines when he's placed in battle against other warriors. (An example of this would be his line to Vaan, which is: "The skies are pretty scary, if you ask me." Here he hints at his fear of heights.) And now on with the story! I tried not to get too sappy so my male readers wouldn't be slamming their foreheads against their monitors, but there's enough for my female fans to feel satisfied. (Or maybe it's the other way around. Some guys like sap, some girls don't!) Regardless of which you prefer, I hope I've succeeded in satisfying both types of readers. Have fun reading!
Fear and despair. Hope and determination.
When it came to the fierce battle raging between the forces of harmony and discord, the ten warriors of Cosmos didn't always necessarily agree on how best to go about bringing an end to the cycle of conflict, allowing them to return to the various worlds they called home, but despite their often heated debates over the endless war they were being forced to take part in, there was one thing they did all agree on, much to the delight and amusement of the warriors fighting alongside Chaos, the god of discord.
In a battle ravaged world overseen by the watchful eye of the Great Will, a world that was incidentally run by gods who led what were essentially their pawns in a never ending struggle between the two opposing forces that existed at the heart of the conflict, it was a rare blessing indeed to travel through the numerous gateways scattered all over both the land of harmony and the land of discord without encountering any of the beings known simply as the manikins, who for lack of a better description were basically animated copies of past and present warriors with no will of their own. They appeared merely to exist as a means to wipe out the forces of Cosmos and to lead the warriors of Chaos in the battle between the goddess of harmony and the god of discord, and thus they were of some concern to the ten warriors of harmony, who all agreed wholeheartedly that they were due for a much needed break from their transparent counterparts, and also the counterparts of their enemies, especially when they had to deal with the real Kefka and his fellow minions on a daily basis.
There was no doubt about it, as far as the warriors of harmony were concerned, and in the opinion of a certain treasure hunting mimic, who went by the name of Bartz Klauser, fighting against a pack of unfriendly manikins was a definite full time job, and though normally Bartz wasn't the type to stress unnecessarily over the potential danger he was placing himself in every time he took up arms against those crystalline copies of destruction, at the present moment he was wistfully lamenting the fact that today was proving not to be one of those rare manikin free days.
If anything, when it came to the manikins, what should have been a relatively easy day of traveling to meet up with the other warriors of Cosmos, since Bartz, along with Squall and Zidane, were now in possession of their crystals, was proving to be even worse than usual, which did not bode well for Bartz, who had inadvertently gotten himself into what could be considered a teensy bit of trouble, which was slightly manikin related.
Okay, so his current predicament wasn't exactly due to the manikins themselves, per say, as Bartz was grudgingly willing to admit, it was mostly because of the current gateway he was fighting in, along with Squall and Zidane, which was taking a rather alarming toll on his sanity, and unfortunately also on his reflexes.
And even the gateway itself wasn't the true problem, though it most definitely contributed to the current crisis at hand.
It was painfully clear to Bartz that his fighting skills were failing him spectacularly at the moment, (well, at least to him it was fairly obvious, even if Squall and Zidane hadn't quite noticed yet) and because of that he knew he was most definitely not fighting in top form in their present gateway, nor was he battling anywhere close to his normal potential, which was unusual for him, indicating he was not at his best, or anywhere even close to his best, for that matter. And as much as he wanted to blame the gateway, (he could swear it was mocking him) he knew that was no excuse to compromise for his inability to pay attention while his life and the lives of his comrades were on the line. As was the case with the manikins, Bartz knew blaming the gateway itself was just an excuse to justify his poor performance, though the gateway, as stated before, did have a lot to do with what was currently causing him to lose his focus, simply by playing on his fears, which was making it hard for him to concentrate on the manikins. It was a tad bit embarrassing to admit it, even to himself, but there was no doubt that the gateway contributed to the fear and frustration threatening to overwhelm him, and doing his best to ignore the butterflies fluttering unpleasantly in his stomach, he sent a wave of dark energy, which happened to be a perfect imitation of a move Cecil often performed called Dark Flame, erupting from the surface of the rooftop, sending several manikins flying through the air, only to have them come tumbling back down to solid ground with a crash, their crystal bodies slamming into the castle turrets decorating the huge building Bartz and his two fellow companions were currently using to make their stand against a surprise attack of at least twenty manikins, the fast-paced battle having more unpleasant effects on Bartz's already battered body than what would normally have been the case.
For reasons Bartz couldn't explain, the castle beneath his feet had a carpet of bright green grass sprouting from its rooftop, and diving onto the surprisingly resilient blanket of tiny, emerald shoots to avoid the magic of a renegade Phantasmal Harlequin, he quickly popped up again, only to stumble backwards into Zidane, realizing suddenly in horror just how close he'd come to the edge of the building, thanks to that relentless crystal harlequin.
"Careful," Zidane warned, reaching out a hand to steady him.
Bartz opened his mouth to reply, but before he could get a word in edgewise, Zidane gave his shoulder a quick squeeze before racing off to take down an Imitation Liegeman, who had made an earlier attempt to stab the golden-haired thief in the back with a well placed lance to the kidneys. Zidane was having none of it, though, and whipping around, his Mage Mashers spinning and his spirited tail whirling around his body, he caught the manikin in the ribs, sending it sprawling backwards onto the grass, a dry groan escaping its lips. A quick Tidal Flame came next, exploding into the manikin at close range, and with a cry it dissipated into nothingness, leaving Zidane to pump his fist into the air in a grand show of victory.
"Zidane," Bartz tried again, "I'm-"
"Not much of a challenge, huh," Zidane interrupted, brushing a hand against his forehead to push aside the stray strands of golden hair that had fallen into his eyes. "I could fight these wannabes in my sleep."
Bartz shook his head in defeat, knowing it was pointless to respond. Even if Zidane did manage to stand still long enough to listen, he doubted the Genome would truly hear his words, as Zidane was much too caught up in the battle to pay attention to anything else.
The sea of endless blue where Bartz and his comrades were currently fighting the manikins was known to both the warriors of harmony and the minions of Chaos as the Rift, and the reason Bartz was having so much trouble trying to stay focused was due to the fact that the Rift consisted of what looked like large castle ruins hovering in the sky, and below those precarious floating structures was a bottomless pit of blue stretching out as far as the eye could see, giving no hint as to what might dwell beneath the stone buildings, if indeed anything did exist past the strange purple portals marring the pristine blue surface of the sky. The portals appeared to peer into faraway lands, enticing any stray warriors to enter, most likely resulting in said warriors disappearing from history for the rest of eternity. There was so much open space, which made Bartz shudder to think of the drop below, and it was that never ending sea of blue stretching out beneath him that was the main reason why he was not a fan of the Rift and why he was having a bit of trouble picking off what for them was a relatively small group of manikins.
Or in other words, he was terrified of heights.
There was no doubt in Bartz's mind that he was an excellent fighter, but because of his fear of heights, which was the reason for his poor performance fighting against the manikins thus far, he was not doing a very good job of showing off his moves in battle, forcing Squall and Zidane to pick up his slack.
Normally, even in places like the Rift, his fear of heights didn't often cause him any unnecessary problems while fighting, since usually he was too full of adrenaline to notice how high up he was, and he often fought well away from the edge of whatever precarious cliff was taunting him in one gateway or another, but for some reason in this particular gateway he was finding himself unable to concentrate, his thoughts constantly returning to the drop down below more often than what was average for him during the course of a battle taking place on higher ground. Usually he was able to beat the manikins back from the edge, allowing him to fight in an area where he felt more comfortable, preferably in a spot with solid ground stretching out all around him, but on this particular day, it was almost as if the manikins were purposely trying to steer him towards the edge of the castle rooftop, increasing the fear in his heart from slight uneasiness to sheer panic.
Did the manikins somehow find out about his fear of heights? It was silly to think so, but Bartz couldn't help wondering if maybe he was onto something, as the manikins definitely seemed more determined than usual to shove him over the edge of a cliff, which had never been the case before. Maybe Exdeath, who came from the same world as him, had instructed the manikins to send him falling endlessly into the void or something before their final duel, though it wasn't actually their final duel, as Bartz had yet to discover, and as a result maybe the manikins were determined to exact their revenge in the name of Chaos and his fallen minions. Well, at least three of the warriors of discord had been defeated, Bartz knew, or thought he knew.
Bartz wasn't exactly sure how much Exdeath had remembered about their home world, as he himself couldn't remember all that much, but maybe Exdeath had known about his fear of heights back then and it was one of the memories that even a now defeated Exdeath was trying to use against him.
Either that or the strain from having to fight in so many high places was finally getting to him, completely shattering what was left of his confidence, causing him to lose his wits entirely in battle.
It wouldn't have bothered him so much if both Squall and Zidane had been aware of his predicament, but seeing as how they did not know about his fear of heights, there was a cause for some concern.
A very big cause for concern.
Both Squall and Zidane had no idea what was going through his head at the moment, and because they didn't know how serious the situation was, Bartz knew he was putting his friends in what could potentially be a lot of danger.
Bartz was not the type to lie to himself, and by neglecting to mention his fear of high places to his comrades, he knew they were at risk of death or injury if they needed his help and he was too paralyzed by fear to come to their aid. If that ever happened, Bartz didn't think he would be able to forgive himself, but even though his heart was pleading with him to be honest with his friends, another small part of him was reluctant to speak up.
Why? Well, there was an answer to that question, but it wasn't something he could easily admit to.
Bartz was generally an easygoing person by nature, and due to his honest and carefree personality, he wasn't the type to shy away from his own weaknesses. Admitting to the faults that made you human wasn't something Bartz had ever had a problem with before, and he doubted very much he would have hesitated in the slightest to mention his fear of heights to the other warriors if he had never met a certain self-proclaimed ladies man, who sported both a tail and a serious knack for getting himself and all those in his immediate vicinity into trouble of varying degrees, normally of the amusing and slightly whacky variety, though Bartz knew he himself could occasionally be guilty of that as well.
And there it was. The true reason for his hesitation to speak proudly of his shortcomings, something he had never before failed to do.
A reason that went by the name of Zidane Tribal.
The golden-haired thief, who had quite the unusual appendage sprouting from his backside, was honest and charismatic to a fault, almost to the point of suffering from a hero complex, and though he never passed up a chance to charm the ladies, he knew how to be serious when the situation called for it. Bartz didn't think he had ever met someone who valued friendship the way Zidane did, and the bond that had forged between them, the root of which had sprung up due to their sense of adventure and their thirst for competition, creating a friendly rivalry of sorts between them, was nothing if not sincere and full of mutual affection, which neither of them hesitated to act upon.
Zidane was fiercely loyal to those he considered his friends, which Bartz had benefited from on numerous occasions, and always up for a challenge, the golden-haired thief never backed down from a fight, even when the odds were alarmingly stacked against him.
A potential hero worthy of envy, though the other warriors of harmony would probably laugh at the idea of anyone being envious of Zidane, but Bartz was inclined to disagree with his fellow comrades, as he had been a victim to such feelings himself as of late, which was also unusual for him, since he had always been remarkably comfortable in his own skin.
Zidane simply wasn't afraid of anything, and if by chance there was something he'd neglected to mention, he hid it extremely well, making Bartz feel as if he had somehow failed his energetic friend. There was no doubt in his mind that Zidane wouldn't hesitate to tease him about his fear of heights, and though normally he didn't mind being teased, the thought of Zidane laughing at him for something he had no control over, something that could be considered a weakness, made him feel as if he didn't deserve to be fighting alongside such a strong and talented warrior while he himself fell short of his friend's expectations. He didn't want to disappoint Zidane, or any of the other warriors for that matter, but Zidane most of all, which was sure to be the case if the golden-haired thief knew about his weakness for heights.
Zidane was not only his partner in crime, but also his equal, at least on the surface, and he didn't want to lose his fellow warrior's respect over something so trivial. He knew Zidane would never throw their friendship aside just because he failed to measure up to the golden-haired thief, but things would be different between them, which was something Bartz didn't even want to think about. He liked things between them just the way they were, and there was no way he was going to let something stupid like his fear of heights cause a rift in their friendship.
At least that was the plan, but apparently fate wasn't on his side today, as he was just on the verge of discovering.
"Bartz, look out!"
Bartz glanced up just in time to see a False Hero leaping towards him, but before the manikin's sword could slash him across the chest, Zidane was there, his Mage Mashers gleaming in the sunshine as he once again came spinning through the air, his tail swirling around him and his blond hair fluttering in the breeze. Zidane landed with a thump, his blades digging into the manikin's back, and Bartz, who was still sprawled out on the grass, watched as the manikin slowly faded away, leaving Zidane crouched in an offensive position, his blades twirling in anticipation for the next battle.
For the third time that day, Bartz tried to speak, knowing his friend had just saved his life, but all that came out was a soft groan, his head bowing in shame.
"You okay?" Zidane asked quickly, kneeling next to him to place a warm hand on his shoulder.
"That's it!" Zidane shouted, his blue eyes narrowing into angry slits. "This battle's really starting to get old! Squall, you finish with the manikins up here and I'll get the ones down below."
"Just don't get carried away," Squall warned, ducking as a manikin resembling a young woman carrying a weapon similar to his own tried to stab him in the throat.
Zidane snorted in response, a teasing smile on his face. "Relax, I'll behave. Time to wrap up this performance so we can be on our way. Besides, these manikins aren't playing their parts very well and I'm sick of having to improvise. Time for the grand finale!"
And with that, Zidane dived over the edge of the building in a graceful arc, his lithe body dropping down on the manikins below. Somehow, the golden-haired thief managed to land on his feet, almost like a cat, eliciting a small shudder from Bartz, who would never have dreamed of performing such an aerobatic maneuver over what was, without a doubt, an extremely wide expanse of open space.
Way too much open space, especially for his tastes.
Should have known.
Bartz had tried one last time to get Zidane's attention during the blond's impromptu solo performance, but Zidane had ignored him, apparently too caught up in the fight to notice the quick tug on his shirt. Bartz had watched as Zidane had simply turned his back on him, the Genome's tail hitting him lightly in the chest before he had leaped over the edge of the building, landing directly into the centre of the manikins waiting down below.
Huh...Well, so much for saying thanks.
Not that he had expected his fellow treasure hunter to respond. Zidane was the type who simply would not stand still long enough to listen. Not that Bartz wasn't guilty of that himself.
I guess, most of the time, I'm even worse.
A moment later, Zidane's Stellar Circle sent manikins flying in all directions, and Bartz quickly crawled away from the edge of the building before climbing unsteadily to his feet, only to nearly lose his head to an Imaginary Soldier, a light blue manikin resembling Cloud.
"Move, Bartz!" Squall snapped, shoving him roughly to the side, the manikin's Buster Sword just grazing Squall's hip as he attempted to shove it back with his elbow. The manikin stumbled, and Squall thrust his gunblade straight through its heart, sending it falling backwards onto the ground. Unfortunately, it managed to grab onto Squall's wrist at the last second, sending the stoic warrior tumbling on top of it, and together the two fighters rolled towards the centre of the rooftop, their blades tangling together with a cry of sharp steel. Somehow, Squall managed to gain the upper hand, and pinning the manikin to the grass, he ran his blade through its ribs with a quick thrust. With a dry and brittle groan, it disappeared into thin air, and climbing quickly to his feet, Squall spun to face the remaining two manikins, a Transient Witch and a False Stalwart. Charging forward, Squall quickly disposed of them, a frown on his normally reserved face as he allowed his gunblade to dissipate from sight with a quick flash of light.
A frown, Bartz realized, that was directed at him.
This is definitely not my day...
"Here," Squall said shortly, coming towards him.
Bartz, having averted his eyes from Squall's penetrating blue gaze, looked up just in time to see the dark-haired warrior tip a potion over his head, and immediately his wounds disappeared, though the fear churning in his stomach remained in full force.
A moment later, Zidane appeared, and performing a spectacular role in midair, his Mage Mashers twirling on either side of his body, he landed on the rooftop in a crouch, a triumphant smile on his face. "All clear. How about you, Squall?"
"Do you see any manikins hanging around up here?" Squall replied, snorting as he motioned for Zidane to join him.
Zidane quickly leaped to his feet, and striding over to his fellow warrior, he waited somewhat impatiently as Squall proceeded to pour a potion over his head. "What about you, Squall?"
"I'm fine, and besides, this is our last potion."
"Seriously? We're out already?"
"We wouldn't be if you would take better care of yourself," Squall replied, ignoring Zidane's indignant look. "This is a battlefield, not a carnival ground. Now stand still. If this ends up all over the grass instead of on you, don't come complaining to me about all your aches and pains. I've got better things to do than listen to you whine."
Zidane looked about to protest, but he was quickly cut off as Squall tugged him closer, placing a firm hand on the Genome's shoulder to keep him in place while he administered the potion.
Bartz, who wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to his fellow comrades, suddenly found himself fighting a losing war against himself. During the battle, Squall had inadvertently pushed him closer to the edge of the rooftop, and once again Bartz found himself gazing into the endless pit of blue down below, unable to tear his eyes away from the terrifying view.
As much as he wanted to move as far away as possible from the edge of the rooftop, his body didn't seem to want to cooperate with him. His hands were shaking, and for some reason he couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, and though he was half lying on the grass, his knees felt weak and his stomach still churned, forcing him to swallow the huge lump in his throat to prevent what remained of the late lunch they had eaten from spilling out of his mouth over the side of the cliff. The sound of his own pulse rang in his ears, and his heart was hammering so loudly it felt like it was going to burst through his ribcage. He wanted desperately to look away from the horrifying sight before him, but no matter how much his mind screamed at him to avert his gaze, he could do nothing but stare into the abyss, his breathing ragged and his entire body frozen in fear.
"What's up with you today, Bartz?" Zidane complained, moving towards him, a hand reaching out to help pull him to his feet. "No offence, but you weren't exactly a whole lot of help fighting off those manikins. What's the deal?"
Bartz managed to twist himself all the way around, doing his best to ignore the drop behind him, and his fearful gaze settled on Zidane and Squall, both of whom were watching him, expecting an answer.
Zidane, who still had his hand held out, looked slightly annoyed, whereas Squall had an unreadable expression on his handsome face, though there was an intense look in his hard eyes that made Bartz wince, forcing him to look away as heat began to rise in his cheeks.
With the way Squall was staring so intently at him, Bartz had an uneasy feeling his fellow comrade knew exactly what had happened, and because of that he suddenly felt very ashamed of not only himself, but also his poor performance fighting against the manikins, which had forced both Zidane and Squall to come to his aid, making him more of a liability than an asset during the battle against their crystal counterparts.
It was unnerving to have Squall staring at him like that, and because of the guilt he felt deep inside his heart, Bartz was unable to meet Squall's direct gaze, which had never been the case before, though even that was nothing compared to how it felt having Zidane's eyes on him. The golden-haired thief did not yet appear to have figured out what was going on, but that didn't mean he wouldn't clue in eventually. It was embarrassing to have Zidane there witnessing him in such a pathetic state, and for a moment he almost wished the ground would open up and swallow him into the Rift, which would be preferable compared to seeing the disappointed look that was bound to be on Zidane's face when he inevitably discovered the truth.
"What, chocobo got your tongue?" Zidane teased, kneeling next to him and tugging lightly on his arm. "Quit going all Squall on me and speak up already."
"I'm right here, you know," Squall said blandly, crossing his arms over his chest.
Zidane cheerfully ignored the stoic warrior, and feeling another tug on his arm, Bartz quickly jerked away from his friend, the dull fear in his heart beginning to rise into a full blown state of sheer panic. He had the crazy idea that if he let Zidane continue to pull on him, the golden-haired thief would end up accidentally pushing him over the edge of the rooftop, sending him falling to his inevitable doom.
"Bartz, hello in there! You with me?"
Bartz once again tried to pull his arm free from Zidane's firm grip, his body shying away from his friend's warm touch, and blinded by fear, words began to spill out of his mouth against his own will, words he most definitely had never intended to utter. "Let go, Zidane!"
"I said, let go!"
"I'm just trying to help you up. What's the big-"
"Get off me!"
Unable to stand the fear bubbling up inside his chest anymore, Bartz began to squirm frantically in his friend's tight grip, trying desperately to get away.
"Don't touch me! Stay away from me!"
At last Bartz managed to pull his arm free, taking advantage of Zidane's utter astonishment at his sudden outburst, which thankfully had inadvertently caused the blond thief to loosen his grip, and quickly scrambling back from the edge of the rooftop, his heart pounding rapidly in his chest and cold sweat streaming down his face, he collapsed in a heap onto the grass, breathing heavily and trying unsuccessfully to regain his composure.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, the air filling with tension so thick Bartz felt like he was choking on it, and then Zidane slowly climbed to his feet, a flash of unmistakable hurt glimmering in the depths of his bright blue eyes before his expression quickly changed to one of neutral indifference. It was a look so devoid of emotion, it could easily rival Squall's often similar expressions any day, and something that felt suspiciously like a fist began to clench around Bartz's rapidly beating heart. "Come on, Squall, let's get out of this gateway," Zidane finally mumbled, his gaze remaining firmly focused on the grass beneath his feet. "We haven't been able to find any of the others yet and there's still a lot of ground to cover, both in the land of harmony and in the land of discord. No use wasting time here with all the gateways still waiting for us up ahead."
Squall, as per usual, chose not to respond. Instead, he merely nodded his head, his intense gaze searching Zidane's face for a moment before he turned his back on the golden-haired thief and proceeded to head towards the now open door to the gateway, allowing them to move forward towards their next destination.
Bartz hadn't failed to notice that Squall had given him a similar look to the one he'd given Zidane, and climbing slowly to his feet, he proceeded to follow the gunblade wielding warrior, doing his best to stay as far away from the edge of the rooftop as possible.
Zidane quietly brought up the rear, which was history in the making as Zidane was normally never quiet and he tended to prefer being at the front of the group where the action was, and resisting the urge to look over his shoulder, Bartz mentally smacked himself for his own stupidity. He could feel Zidane's gaze burning into the back of his skull, making him feel extremely uncomfortable, a feeling he had never before experienced while in Zidane's company, and his heart began to feel heavy, as if there was a huge weight resting upon his shoulders.
Not once had Bartz ever traveled with Zidane and Squall in complete silence before, despite the fact that Squall was a member of their party, and though the three of them had only been walking for a few minutes, Bartz found he already missed the sound of Zidane's cheerful voice and the laughter that was often present in their conversations. It was a sound that seemed to follow them wherever they went, and never before had he felt so guilty and ashamed of himself for his own behaviour, and though he wanted desperately to apologize, had wanted to right from the very first moment he'd uttered such terrible words to his friend, he wasn't sure if Zidane would forgive him so quickly.
The two of them had been traveling together for quite some time now, and utilizing their amazing teamwork skills they were successfully able to warm Squall's somewhat cold exterior, enough at least to gain another ally in their quest to find the other warriors, though Bartz knew in his heart it was more than just that, even if Squall would never admit it. Not once in their travels had Bartz ever said a harsh word to anybody, even his enemies, let alone Zidane, and having done so now, it wasn't something he could take back very easily.
As a general rule, Zidane didn't seem like the type who would hold a grudge, but that didn't necessarily mean he'd be willing to forgive such heated words so easily either. Truthfully, Bartz didn't feel as if he deserved any kind of forgiveness, especially since it was his own fault that Zidane didn't know about his fear of heights, which also had a lot to do with why he hesitated to speak up. There was no denying he was the source of the problem, and he had no one to blame but himself. He had allowed his fear of heights to get between himself and his closet friend, something he had promised himself would never happen. And it wouldn't have happened if he had been honest with Zidane right from the very beginning.
Some warrior of harmony I make...
The next several hours were spent trekking through the Elven Snowfield, where the drifts could sometimes come up to Zidane's waist, making it difficult for them to continue on, but Zidane never complained once like he normally would have under any other circumstances. Instead, he kept his head down and his mouth shut, his tail swishing back and forth over the snow with less enthusiasm than usual, sending small flakes swirling through the air in a cloud of winter dust.
By the time they reached the next gateway, night was almost upon them, and racing inside, Bartz, much to his despair, found himself gazing at the crystal walls of Pandemonium, his gray eyes immediately darting towards the black abyss calling out to him from several feet away. Pandemonium was also a structure littered with bottomless pits, and predictably it was another one of Bartz's least favorite places. After what had occurred in the last gateway, he felt especially paranoid over his fear of heights, and though he didn't want to admit it, he was afraid of what else he might do if circumstances brought him close to any ledge overlooking the deep darkness down below.
"We'll rest here a bit before moving on," Squall announced, leaning back against one of the purplish pink crystal pillars nearby, his arms crossing over his chest. "Once we make our way through this gateway, we should probably stop for the night."
Now that admittedly was strange. They had just stopped for a break not that long ago, and according to Squall, they were going to stop again pretty soon for the night.
So...why then are we stopping for an extra break?
Squall never stopped for extra breaks.
Something was up. Bartz could feel it in his bones, and somehow he didn't think whatever was going on would bode very well for him in the near feature.
Zidane, having heard Squall, made a noncommittal sound in reply, moving off to find himself a decent place to rest, and Bartz, feeling Zidane probably wouldn't welcome his company right now, chose to sit down on the raised platform next to the pillar where Squall was lounging, his grey eyes following Zidane's slim figure as the Genome sat down on the edge of the crystal platform several feet away from them, making Bartz cringe at his friend's nerve.
Nerve he most definitely didn't possess.
Zidane was leaning back on one hand, his right leg dangling out over the dark, bottomless pit below, and his left leg was tucked beneath him, his other hand resting on his knee. The Genome's tail lay curled behind him in a soft pool of fine fir, which was resting comfortably upon the surface of the platform, and though he looked relaxed, Bartz could feel the tension radiating between them.
It was almost unbearable, and Bartz had to admit he'd never felt so miserable in his life. If this was what being a warrior of harmony felt like without Zidane by his side, then he didn't think he much wanted the job anymore.
"Acrophobia," Squall suddenly murmured, startling Bartz out of his miserable thoughts.
"Huh?" Bartz glanced at the dark-haired warrior beside him, who still had his arms crossed over his chest, and Squall merely stared back at him, the neutral expression on his face giving no indication as to what he was thinking. "What was that?"
"Acrophobia," Squall said calmly, his blue gaze direct and unhindered by emotion. "You're afraid of heights."
Bartz continued to stare at his fellow comrade, his mouth hanging open, and realizing all of a sudden that he'd been right about his earlier suspicions concerning Squall, he slumped forward in his seat, a soft sigh escaping his lips. "Would you believe me if I said I wasn't?"
"It would have been nice if you'd told us."
Though Squall's admonishment was free of any disgust or anger, Bartz still flinched at the words, a hand reaching up to scratch sheepishly at the back of his head. "Uh...right. Sorry about that."
"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
Again, Squall's words were like a slap in the face, though Bartz knew his friend wasn't trying intentionally to rub salt in the wounds. Squall was simply stating the truth, even if the truth wasn't what Bartz wanted to hear. "Zidane, he..."
"He doesn't know," Squall said shortly, his blue eyes traveling over Zidane, who appeared to be glaring into the darkness down below. "Why do you think he's so upset? He doesn't understand, and the way you were acting like an idiot earlier wasn't exactly helping the situation any."
"Rub it in, why don't you."
Squall continued to gaze unsympathetically at him, and Bartz let out another sigh, a slight smile turning up the corners of his mouth. Truthfully, he didn't have the heart to argue, especially since he knew Squall was right. Zidane wasn't exactly the most observant warrior in the group, and due to his sometimes clueless nature, he had obviously failed to notice what Squall had picked up on almost right away. Thus, Zidane had no idea why he'd been chewed out by a fellow comrade, simply for offering a helping hand, only to have it shoved away, receiving more than just a bruised ego for his efforts. Zidane was the type of person who would rush in with barely a thought for his own safety to help somebody in need, regardless of who they were, simply because he wanted to help and not for any particular reason. To have his offer so blatantly rejected, without so much as a single explanation for such a rude refusal for help, Bartz knew that must have hurt Zidane deeply, even if the blond treasure hunter would do his best to play it off as if it were nothing.
"Why?" Squall said simply, turning once more to face him.
Though Squall didn't elaborate, Bartz got the message. He knew what Squall was asking, even if he didn't much want to answer his fellow comrade.
Why didn't you tell us?
"Squall, I...it's not...I didn't..." Bartz let out a soft sound of frustration, once again unable to look his friend in the eyes. "I don't know what I'm trying to say."
"Being afraid of something is only a weakness if you allow that fear to take hold of you."
Squall finally stepped away from the pillar, and Bartz, feeling a sharp nudge to his shoulder, quickly shuffled over a bit, giving the stoic warrior room to sit next to him. They were now sitting close enough together that their shoulders were touching, and their closeness made Bartz feel slightly better inside, though it didn't diminish all of the guilt in his heart. "How many battles have you fought, and not once did you let your fear stand in the way of what you were fighting for?"
Bartz thought about that for a moment before offering a hesitant shrug. "Uh...a lot, I guess."
"If not for today, your secret would still be a secret. Considering how long all of us have been traveling here in this world, that's pretty impressive."
"Maybe, but I did let it get to me in the end. You or Zidane could have gotten hurt or...or worse because of me, and-"
"Self-pity doesn't suit you," Squall said coldly, clearly unimpressed with the answer he'd received. "It happens, get over it."
"If you want to overcome your fear then first you're going to have to learn to overcome yourself. Being afraid of something doesn't make you any less of a fighter compared to the rest of us. You think the others don't have fears of their own? Think again, Bartz. We're all afraid of something, even if our fears might not be as obvious as yours."
Bartz raised an eyebrow at this, a faint smile coming to his face. "Even you?"
"...If that's what you want to believe."
"But you didn't hear me say that."
Bartz allowed himself a small laugh, but it quickly faded, only to be replaced with a frown. "But...Zidane..."
Squall was quiet for a moment, his sharp gaze watching the occasional flick of Zidane's tail, and just when Bartz thought he wouldn't answer, Squall said quietly, "Haven't you ever wondered what drives him to fight with such intensity? You've seen how he forces his way into the heart of battle, hoping to attract the danger to himself and away from those who fight alongside him."
"What do you mean?"
"When you disappeared after making a grab for that fake crystal, Zidane wouldn't admit it in words, but I know he blamed himself when he realized it was a trap that was meant for him. After that, the only thing he cared about was finding you again, even at the risk of losing his own crystal. That was the whole point of our mission, wasn't it? Finding the crystals?"
"Well, yeah, but..."
"With Zidane, you came first, the crystal later," Squall said bluntly, not giving him a chance to argue.
Bartz was quiet for a moment, the guilt in his heart now threatening to overwhelm him. "That's exactly my point. I'm not...like him. After all he did for me, I ended up getting him stuck in the same trap I fell for, all because I wanted to be the first to get the crystal. Nice way to repay him, huh..."
"A guilty conscience doesn't suit you either," Squall said irritably, clearly not in the mood for any self-doubt. "I'm not telling you this just so you can feel sorry for yourself."
"Ouch, Squall. I wouldn't exactly put it like that..."
"My point is," Squall interrupted, ignoring him completely, "Zidane isn't as fearless as you like to think he is, and if you would stop indulging in self-pity for a moment you would see that for yourself. He's afraid...of failure, of being unable to protect those who matter to him when they need him the most. That's why he fights with everything he has, not because he's afraid of failing himself, but because he's afraid of failing those he's fighting to protect."
Bartz turned slowly to gaze at his golden-haired friend, seeing Zidane in a new light, and all of a sudden his fear of heights seemed pretty silly compared to the burden Zidane was carrying. Ridiculous even, and it made him feel stupid for worrying over something that was relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
"We know you have our backs," Squall said simply, without looking at him. "You're the only one here who doesn't believe that, which is why you let your fear overtake you today. The only thing you have to be ashamed of is failing to trust your friends, who wouldn't think any less of you just because of something stupid like acrophobia."
"You know, Squall...I don't think I've ever heard you talk this much before."
"...Don't get used to it."
Bartz allowed himself a small smile of amusement, and reaching out he placed a hand on the dark-haired warrior's shoulder. "Squall...thanks. You know..."
"...Go talk to him."
Bartz once again found himself staring at the stoic warrior in disbelief, but Squall continued to remain unsympathetic, a look on his face that stated quite plainly: "you'd better do what I say or I will drag you over there myself" flashing across his handsome face. "You heard me. Don't make me repeat myself."
Bartz let out a yelp as Squall promptly grabbed his arm and proceeded to drag him over to Zidane, who still seemed to be brooding in silence, making him resemble Cloud more than his usual cheerful self. Knowing it was useless to struggle, Bartz allowed himself to be dragged unceremoniously across the crystal platform, and giving him a shove, Squall sent him stumbling onto the ground a few feet away from Zidane, wincing as he landed painfully on his tailbone. The noise he'd made while falling earned him a raised eyebrow from Zidane, who had turned just in time to hear his groan but not soon enough to see Squall, as the gunblade wielding warrior had ever so discreetly returned to his pillar, and with a resigned sigh, Bartz slowly picked himself up off the ground, glancing once at Squall, who had gone back to leaning against his pillar with his arms crossed over his chest, a satisfied expression on his face.
I'm so going to get him back for this.
Bartz proceeded to mock glare at Squall for good measure, but Squall ignored him, and turning he noticed that Zidane had gone back to frowning at the pit, acting for all the world as if he hadn't seen a thing.
Well, I guess it's now or never. I'm gonna have to talk to him sometime. Might as well get it over with before the manikins come chasing after us again.
Steeling himself for what might potentially turn out out be a rather unpleasant conversation, Bartz slowly made his way over to Zidane's side, taking extra care not to step on his friend's energetic tail. Unfortunately, being this close to Zidane meant he was also standing near the edge of the platform, and the black abyss began to taunt him in faint whispers, urging him to come closer, to stumble and fall.
Right, I can do this! Just...don't look down...
Bartz took a deep, albeit shaky, breath to calm himself, and sitting cross-legged on the platform just behind and to the right of Zidane, at what he considered to be a safe distance from the black pit down below, he tried desperately to think of something to say, making him wish he had some of Squall's steel composure.
Maybe I should have learned a few tips from him before he dragged me over here...
Now that he was sitting within the company of his golden-haired friend, he realized he actually had a view more of Zidane's back than of his face, and for some reason that slightly unnerved him, though once again it was mostly due to his fear of heights, since it was his own fault he had chosen to sit further away from the edge of the platform than his treasure hunting companion. "H-hey."
"Hey," Zidane replied, without looking at him.
Not exactly very encouraging...
The two of them were sitting close enough to invite friendly conversation, if either of them chose to go that route, but still far enough away to maintain a sense of distance, which felt entirely wrong to Bartz, who wanted nothing more than to fix things between them, allowing their friendship to go back to the way it was before.
And it was that horrible sense of wrongness that allowed the words to finally come spilling forth from his mouth. "Zidane, listen...I...Look, I'm really sorry about earlier. I never meant to...I didn't mean..."
"It's fine, don't worry about it," Zidane interrupted, waving off the apology. The words were light and airy, and though he smiled, the sparkle never reached his blue gaze, which looked dull and lifeless. Normally Zidane's eyes were a vivid blue, shining as bright as his golden hair, but not after their battle in the Rift. Now, the blue of his eyes looked faded and washed out, as if the colour had been drained from his gaze, which was a definite indication to Bartz that everything was not okay, fueling his determination to make things right even more. "No, it's not! Nothing's fine, not even close."
Zidane finally turned to look at him, their eyes meeting for the first time since their battle with the manikins, his eyebrows raising slightly at the unexpected outburst. "Bit dramatic for you, don't you think? I thought that was more my style."
Bartz quickly hung his head, a slight blush staining his cheeks, which had also never happened to him before, and fiddling with the beads hanging off his predominately blue gauntlets, he took another deep breath before stumbling through an explanation for his recent erratic behaviour. "Forget about that. Listen, I really am sorry, Zidane. I...it wasn't because of you, the way I acted."
"Sure sounded like it was to me."
"No! It's just...you see...I sort of have this...um...problem..."
"Problem?" Zidane repeated, looking rather unimpressed.
"Yeah...I...well...I kind of have this...thing with heights..."
"Huh? You mean...you don't like high places?" Zidane asked, his head tilting curiously to the side.
Bartz took it as a good sign that the Genome was finally showing some interest, and not wanting to lose this slight advantage, he quickly continued, the words tumbling out of his mouth. "Um...yeah...I guess that pretty much sums it up. Fighting the manikins kept bringing me closer to the edge of the rooftop where we were fighting, and seeing that bottomless sky down below...I guess I just panicked. I completely froze up. I couldn't move and I didn't want anyone to help because I was afraid of falling off, even just from someone trying to help me..."
"Acrophobia," Zidane gasped, flipping over onto his knees, his tail popping into the air behind him. The Genome's blue gaze filled with sudden understanding, and he paused, as if searching for the right words. "Bartz, you're afraid of heights?"
"Pretty much, yeah..."
"Really? All this time?" Zidane asked, that familiar sparkle beginning to return to his bright blue gaze.
Bartz nodded, forcing himself to look his friend in the eyes, but instead of teasing him, Zidane merely continued to stare, a slightly confused look on his face. "But, if that's true...why didn't you ever tell me..."
"You thought I'd make fun of you, didn't you," Zidane accused, his tail beginning to sway gently as life returned to its furry surface.
"Why would I make fun of you for something like that?"
Bartz raised his eyebrows, and Zidane responded by giving him a sheepish look. "Well, okay, I see your point...but for the record, I would have offered to help you overcome your fear first and then made fun of you afterwords."
Zidane started laughing, is eyes fully regaining their usual teasing sparkle, and Bartz found himself laughing as well, relieved to see his friend acting more like his normal self.
"So...that's why you choked up when we were fighting the manikins," Zidane concluded, growing suddenly serious again.
"That's right. It wasn't because...I didn't mean to take it out on you."
"But...you never...We've fought in high places before, and it never seemed to bother you then..."
"It did. I was just really good at hiding it."
"Not this time, though."
"This time it was worse than usual, but...I guess I had to slip sometime."
Zidane was quiet for a moment, his curious expression fading to a look of concern. "Bartz, I get the fact that you thought I would laugh at you, but...we poke fun at each other all the time. There has to be more to it than that. Friends are supposed to be able to tell each other these kinds of things. Don't you...trust me?"
This time, Bartz was unable to hold his friend's gaze, and staring at his crossed ankles, ashamed of himself for having kept his fear of heights a secret, he said quietly, "It's kind of stupid, but...I see the way you fight and it's like you're not afraid of anything. I just didn't want you to think...Well, you know..."
"What? That you're weak?" Zidane demanded, looking slightly offended by such an accusation. "I'm not perfect either, you know...as much as it hurts my ego to admit it. Just...uh...don't tell the ladies, okay? I have a reputation to uphold. I might not be afraid of heights, but I have my own worries, too."
Bartz glanced over his shoulder at Squall, who was acting for all the world as if he wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to them, when in reality he most definitely was, and a soft smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "I know. I mean, I know that now."
Bartz ignored his golden-haired companion, his smile growing as all the tension between them seemed to dissipate, relieving the heavy feeling in his heart. "I am really sorry, Zidane. It wasn't fair of me to put you and Squall in danger by not telling you."
"Don't worry about it," Zidane insisted, watching him closely. "As long as you get the fact that I'd never think any less of you no matter what you told me. Unless maybe if you were to tell me you're afraid of moogles or something. Then I might have an issue with that."
They both fell silent for a minute, and then Zidane spoke softly, his blue eyes filling with determination. "By the way, I meant what I said earlier. I do want to help you overcome your fear of heights."
"But...why?" Bartz was confused, but the look on his friend's face made him pause in what he'd been about to say. "Zidane?"
Zidane looked away from him, and hand coming up to rest against his heart. "I don't need a reason to help someone...especially not a friend like you."
Bartz tried to speak, but for some reason his voice didn't seem to want to work, and leaping to his feet Zidane held out his hand, a slight smile forming on his face. "Come here."
"Huh?" Bartz chanced a quick look at the bottomless pit behind Zidane, and a chill raced down his spine.
"Come on," Zidane insisted, rolling his eyes. "Quit being such a baby. Here, take my hand. I'm not going to let you fall, I promise."
I don't know about this...
Bartz hesitated before surrendering his hand to Zidane's firm grip, and tugging him closer to the edge of the platform, the blond thief pointed to the pit down below, a warm smile on his face. "Now close your eyes and take a deep breath."
Bartz did as he was instructed, his heart pounding painfully in his chest, wondering just exactly what his friend was trying to accomplish. The hand he had relinquished to Zidane was cold and clammy, but either the blond didn't notice or he chose to ignore it because he didn't pull away or loosen his grip.
"Okay, are you ready?" Zidane asked, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze.
"Just open your eyes, Bartz."
Bartz once again did as he was told, and letting out a soft gasp he found himself standing directly at the edge of the platform, his gray eyes gazing into the pit down below. Immediately his knees started to grow weak and butterflies began to perform an aerobatic dance in his stomach, making his throat constrict. Though he was still looking down into the darkness, his vision had gone slightly blurry and he felt dizzy, the hand still clutched in Zidane's grip tightening to the point where he was surprised his friend didn't flinch.
"Calm down, Bartz," Zidane said softly in his ear. "Just relax a bit, would you? I'm not going to let anything bad happen to you."
To Bartz's surprise, Zidane's words seemed to pierce through the terror that had once again caused him to become immobile, and swallowing the hard lump in his throat, he nodded, allowing his shoulders to droop and his grip to loosen.
Immediately, the rest of his body began to relax a bit, and although he was still afraid, the butterflies were no longer threatening to burst out of his mouth and his heart had slowed to a more steady rhythm. He was surprised to find he could move again, and staring into the darkness, he supposed it wasn't so bad as long as there was someone there to help him keep a firm grip on reality. Somehow, with Zidane next to him, the drop below didn't seem so far, and giving his friend's hand a grateful squeeze, he said, "Thanks."
"Did it help?"
"Well, it's a start."
"Good enough," Zidane said cheerfully, looking quiet proud of himself. "We'll keep working at it. Soon, you won't even notice the drop anymore."
Bartz shook his head in amusement, and remembering what they had been talking about earlier, he glanced sideways at Zidane, growing suddenly hesitant to speak. "Hey...friends?"
Zidane looked at him, and the smile on the golden-haired thief's face was the only answer Bartz really needed. "When did we stop being friends? Come on, let's sit down before you fall down."
Together the two of them sat down on the edge of the platform, this time side by side, and studying Zidane, Bartz decided that now would probably be a good time to ask something he'd wanted to mention for a while now, seeing as how Zidane seemed to be in an even more cheerful mood than usual. "Hey, Zidane?"
"If this is about wanting to move back from the edge a bit, the answer is no," Zidane teased, winking in that playful way of his. "You have to face up to your fear if you want to overcome it."
"Now you're starting to sound like Squall."
"Nothing. Actually, I was just wondering..."
"What is it?"
"Could I maybe...Can I touch your tail?"
For a moment Zidane simply stared at him, his mouth hanging open, and to Bartz's surprise the golden-haired thief's face promptly turned an amusing shade of pink. "W-what? No, you can't!"
"Come on, why not? You can't blame me for being curious. I've never met anyone with a tail before. I just want to know what it feels like. Where's the harm in that?"
Zidane seemed to ponder this for a moment, his face still pink, and looking rather embarrassed, he muttered something Bartz didn't quite catch. "What was that?"
"Well...okay, but only because it's you."
It was only a simple line, but it made Bartz feel suddenly warm inside, and reaching out a hand, he let his fingers brush gently over Zidane's long tail, which would twitch every once in a while if he touched a particularly sensitive spot. It was surprisingly soft and fuzzy, the fine, honey-coloured hair covering its surface gleaming with obvious care and good maintenance. Zidane, for his part, merely remained silent throughout the exchange, watching the gentle ministrations to his tail without comment, but Bartz didn't fail to notice that the Genome's embarrassed look had been replaced with a fond smile, which didn't disappear as their eyes met, a smile that Bartz returned with one of his own.
"Has your curiosity been satisfied now?" Zidane teased, trying unsuccessfully to cover up his embarrassment, though despite his blush he didn't seem uncomfortable. If anything, he seemed rather pleased by the attention his tail was getting.
Bartz nodded, giving his friend a teasing smile of his own. "I didn't expect it to be so soft. Almost makes me wish I had a tail of my own."
The blush on Zidane's face turned a darker shade of red at the compliment, which Bartz found extremely amusing, as Zidane was normally never embarrassed about anything, and they both turned to gaze back into the darkness below, this time, in Bartz's case, without flinching. He smiled when he felt Zidane's arm go around his shoulders, and it was with some surprise that the Genome's tail slipped around his waist, also adding support to counteract the black pit down below. In return, Bartz placed his arm around Zidane, comforted by his friend's closeness and the solid weight keeping him anchored to the ground.
They remained that way for several more moments, but sooner than Bartz would have liked, Squall's knee nudged him lightly between the shoulder blades, his gunblade out and ready for use. "Time to get moving. We need to clear this gateway before stopping for the night."
"Two breaks so close together like this? That's not like you at all, Squall," Zidane joked, leaping to his feet.
"I think I liked you better when you were quiet," Squall shot back, earning himself a glare and a feigned look of hurt.
Turning his back on Squall, Zidane jumped over the ledge where Bartz had been sitting earlier, his tail disappearing around the corner as he called out, "Last one to make it through the gateway has to cook dinner tonight!"
"No fair, you had a head start!" Bartz called after his friend, shaking his head in amusement. Under his breath, he muttered, "In that case, you'd better win, cause you're cooking stinks."
His remark, unsurprisingly, earned him a snort from Squall.
Bartz knew exactly why Squall had called another break, and turning to his fellow comrade, he scratched the back of his head, unsure of what to say.
Squall, for his part, was doing nothing to help, and once again reaching out to give his friend's shoulder a grateful squeeze, he said, "Squall, thanks for everything. You didn't have to-"
"I didn't do anything," Squall said shortly, moving past him. "You did it all yourself."
Squall paused to look back at him, the look on the stoic warrior's face, as usual, giving no indication as to what he was thinking. "I just gave you a shove in the right direction."
"And an extra break to make it happen."
Squall let out a soft snort in reply, but he didn't deny it, and falling into step beside the dark-haired warrior, Bartz smiled.
Soon, they would meet up with the rest of their comrades, and though the road ahead was going to be tough, Bartz figured with friends like Squall and Zidane, they'd find a way to help Cosmos end the war, especially since he knew no matter what happened, Zidane was always going to be there to get him out of trouble, and he would do the same, acrophobia be damned.