Title: One Sweet Moment Set Aside
Fandom:
Guilty Gear
Characters:
Sol, Ky, and some Axl
Rating:
PG-13
Contains:
Copious references to rock, swearing

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One Sweet Moment Set Aside

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The worst time is when he's awake before he's awake, the time when the part of his mind that still believes itself human thinks in sheets and blinds, in unwashed mugs piling up in the sink. There's an itch along his left thigh from the boxers riding up during the night, bunching and leaving creases against his skin, and his cell is in a heap somewhere, maybe against the door or under the wardrobe, the soothing female voice that comes set to auto for the voicemail is telling the caller to leave a message in an endless loop.

It's a pity he wasn't awake enough to remember throwing it. He needs his five minutes of half-comatose violence in the morning, where he destroys whatever is trying to rouse him. He's lost five cell phones that way, and even more pagers, until he had to swear that he'd start keeping them on the opposite side of the apartment, far enough away for the barefoot trek across the hallway to pull him out of the zombie stage. He must have forgotten, this time around.

Toeing off the sheets, he scrubs at his face, the bright green flashes of the digital clock catching between his fingers. Fourteen hours. Fourteen fucking hours. He doesn't think he ever slept this long. They sent him home yesterday, or the day before that, sometime after he started chewing on coffee and talking to culture 54-B, or that's what they said, anyway. He's pretty sure they're lying, maybe.

Not like any of them are doing any better. It's what happens when the science gets going, really gets going, when they're doing more than scratching their heads and watching the screens print out error messages. They're making good time, or at least not worse time than the teams in Japan and Sweden and god knows where else, and normally he'd have just crashed on the couch in the little staff lounge down the hallway because the extra two hours it takes him to drive to the lab from the apartment are two hours he could use to get ahead, stretch a little further in the race to the top.

Whatever that call was about was probably important. Only two people have his number, and he's had the idiot fired who never waits for the second cycle to finish, gets everyone all excited about a bunch of useless figures. Or terrified him into quitting, but as far as he's concerned, same damn thing.

Right. Important things.

He rolls over, stretching spread-eagled across the length of the bed, and takes care of the itch.

He's got a routine for when he's at the apartment, away from the numbers and the chlorine smell of the work tables. Later, he'll cut himself while shaving at damn near the speed of light, spend ten seconds hunting through the kitchen cabinets only to realize the last bagels he bought expired some six months ago, and gun across the city to get back to work.

But first.

His other hand finds the remote wedged somewhere north of the sheets, and months of practice help him find exactly the wrong button, the soft mechanical hum of the blinds pulling back from the floor-length windows. If he keeps his eyes closed, though, nudges his head between the pillows, he can still salvage the morning, ignore the daylight and the rush hour and the thirty-five floor drop to the street outside.

Third row down, two buttons across.

When he got the place, he found out they'd built a hi-fi stereo into the wall, designed to look like something fifty years from the future with sleek gray speakers disguised as wall paneling. It has a triple CD deck and more settings than anyone could possibly care to go through, and all in all, the experience is what the hip urban professional who believes in glass countertops and speckled marble elevators with little sofas is looking for.

He put up with it for about five minutes before he took off the paneling and rerouted the cables to his old record player on the dresser, completely out of place in the life of the hip urban professional, but vinyl is still the way to go. The only way to go, and then the needle kisses the surface and he forgets about the phone, and the glass-case windowfront, and the next seventy-two hour haul in the lab because there are few things in the universe quite as beautiful as Freddie Mercury, starting in on Bohemian Rhapsody.

He thinks maybe he should be remembering something, some life where everything looks like a mud pit and he spends a lot of time munching on stuff that's meant to give the maximum amount of nutrients while staying in the body for a minimum amount of time, and where's America, and what the bloody hell do you mean you've lost Belgium, but he shoves it away.

The band's building towards the guitar solo, and if he holds onto that sound, he won't have to deal with the thought that life really used to be pretty good, before he blew up the world.


There's a gap that lasts for a few months, or maybe it's a few years, where he isn't sure what he did, or where he was, or what's him and what's the other, wrestling for control of his body. Whether there even still is a him, whether he hasn't gone from self to creature and all that remains is an echo, flaring up now and again like the presence of a phantom limb.

Waking up is the worst, clawing his way out from the bottom of a well, past fragments of nightmare and memory, only to sense the mounting pressure — a high, shrill noise that's made up of at least a hundred others, and he'd like to close his ears but it's on the inside of his skull, and it keeps building until his vision fractures, splintering into darkness and pulsing shapes.

It always takes a moment of blind, silent panic to realize that what he's seeing is actually what he's hearing, air and water and his own breath translated into sight, and that's just what he can make out past the migraine rampaging around in his brain. He curls in on himself, unwilling to let smell join in, show him a grotesquery that might be his own body odor, or the inside of the drainage pipe, the probably-a-waste-incineration-plant five miles downwind. At least nothing smells quite as dead as he does, which means he can risk assuming nobody found him yet, that he didn't kill anyone in his sleep.

Small steps. Baby steps.

If he takes his time, he can start distinguishing between screaming hallucination and simple physical response, is beginning to realize what the fat, scaly thing draping across his legs is, that the knives that will dig into his arms when he hugs himself too hard really aren't scalpels. In the more hysterical moments, it's even sort of hilarious to think that if he tries to scratch his groin now, he might as well requisition a new set of balls. They'd probably grow back, too.

He wavers a lot, from here to gone again, his mind stretching across a distance that might have been weeks, months, years, oscillating violently between now and a life where he could drive a car and use a bathroom and wasn't too repulsed to touch his own face, or where he thinks his face might have been once upon a time. He shifts, and his body shifts with him, unfurling and pulling back appendages like some formless mass with the instinct of an amoeba, constantly, all the time. A twitch, and he's got leather-wrapped spines bursting from his back, a shudder and his toes are left groping around in depressions made by four-inch claws.

Cautiously, he lets his fingers curl, the scrape of bone-hard scales adding to the lightshow behind his eyes. To think one day, he'd be glad for something as simple as opposable thumbs, claws not long enough to keep him from closing them into a fist. He's found out he can force it, if he's aware enough of himself, concentrates hard enough on the memory of human hands to shift them back, but he's glad when doesn't have to, when the thing that's hijacked his body decides to give him an hour or five minutes to do something without allocating most of his brainpower to not impaling whatever he's managed to scrounge up.

Running out of time. Running out of time, and yet it's no use thinking about it when he can't touch anything without crushing it to dust in his palm. No use lying around feeling out of his depth, either, when there's a couple of steel pipes somewhere further back, waiting for him to keep trying not to reduce them to flittery bits of tinfoil.

He drags himself up, a hundred scents burning in his lungs, to set out for the daily exercise of learning how to touch things again. He's not sure when he last ate, or drank, isn't even sure he wants to know, but it doesn't matter. This body doesn't seem to feel hunger or thirst any longer, all basic desires put on hold indefinitely. He'd think they got turned off, that the bastards in the lab simply severed a couple of neural pathways, but there's one wish still going strong, past ridiculousness and impossibility.

Sometimes, he hears the car radios zooming along on a nearby highway, even if all that registers in his brain, past the engines and the brakes and the contact of rubber on asphalt, is a bullet of screeches; pianos, drums, human voices broken down to a mess of aerial vibrations. His own voice isn't even fit for humming anymore, and it wouldn't help if it were, anyway, so all that's left to fall back on is the memory of the guitar tabs and the headphones, pumping the music directly into his bloodstream.

It's kind of comforting to know that for all the things they messed up when they were cutting him open and injecting shit into every place on his body that still had room for a needle, they couldn't mess up any of this. The music used to be a pleasure, but now it's an anchor, and if he can keep holding onto the pitch-perfect impression of song upon his mind, he just might be able to live through this.


It's around 2046 by the time he really starts missing the music. The only reason it's taken this long to take hold, to become this gaping black hole somewhere left of everything else, is because "everything else" was learning not to be crazy and crawling out of his miserable little hiding hole to find the world on fire, razed clean of every last thing he used to know. No traffic jams, and no Saturday morning cartoons, no strip malls and no cheetos and no talk radio, no Internet and no electricity and no people around for a hundred miles at a time, like everything suddenly morphed into post-nuclear Arizona.

Maybe it did, and he just wasn't around to watch it happen.

The only thing there's plenty of are the monsters, tearing up whatever is in the way. Civilization or open land or just screaming, fleeing people, doesn't seem to matter. Made from the same stock as him, and it's almost a relief to be smashing into them six at a time, to punch through steel-concrete shells like sticking a finger into butter and to ignore the white-hot magic impressed upon his DNA, recognizing them as kin.

He doesn't know whether it was arrogance or an accident, that the bastard made him stronger than this. Whether he expected him to survive, or didn't, what the point of it all was — because there was a point, sick and twisted and terribly logical, like everything the son of a bitch ever did. Maybe just a reminder of his own arrogance, because he did toy with the thought at one point, did think about shooting himself up as the first test subject back when he was still fool enough to think he was saving the world. Plunging his hand into the fabric of the universe and plucking out the one thread that kept all of existence tied up together, to replace it with the ultimate godmode.

No telling if the bastard foresaw any of this, was willing to take the risk, or whether he'd just felt like injecting a bit of shit into a bigger lab rat, big enough to span the whole goddamn planet.

He sat down somewhere once, back when he was still piecing together what had happened and trying not to go mad all over again, and the mound of weed and plastic turned out to be a Dunkin' Donuts logo buried arse-up in the ground. Maybe he would have lost it then, staring at the cracked, dusty yellow letters, except there was nothing around for miles, no road and no landline poles, not even the foundations of the rest stop, so he just kept walking.

There's a good reason why the zombie apocalypse has people in a car at some point, one of those ancient pick-up trucks that were rusting behind gas stations even before the 80s were over, and that's because even if sanity and bullets and radio run out, there'll still be a tape deck to belt out a rendition of Highway to Hell, and if nothing else, that's something to go down by.


The contraption has seen better days, sometime before the end of the world and an additional thirty years or so. The lid is dangling from the back by two worn-out wires, and the case is banged up pretty badly, nicks and dents from being shaken and tossed about in a cart.

The rubber top is missing, but the pickup is still halfway intact, a little bent and a little shaky, nothing that can't be fixed. When he lifts it up, the needle at the tip catches the light in just the right way, a conspiratorial wink from one hundred-year-old reject to another.

Time must be getting to him, if he's starting to bond with inanimate objects.

The owner of the cart is watching him suspiciously as he sifts through the driftwood, ballpoint pen refills, plastic bottle caps still spelling Sprite and Pepsi on their scratched-up surface, batteries, empty neon tubes, an electric tea kettle and half a screen, the liquid crystal long leaked to the bottom of the barrow.

A century ago, it would've been a hobo's shopping cart, piled high with trash and nonsensical acquisitions, but now it might as well be a goddamn museum, the peddler risking a good burning at the stake for hauling around crap nobody can even identify anymore.

"You be takin' that?"

The peddler is biting down on his pipe and fixing him with a hawk-eyed stare, clearly unnerved by his purposeful digging.

He blinks, for a moment in the insane grip of the idea of actually describing what he was rummaging around for, though he knows he'll sound like a lunatic, knows nothing could have possibly survived at the bottom of that cart, squashed and snapped in half and drenched in battery acid.

His gaze lingers on the device, empty and broken, ready to send its intestines spilling forth at the slightest provocation.

He's got no use for it. Can't fight Gears with it, for one, can't play anything on it, and where he's going, it's only liable to get stomped on worse. Nostalgia's pretty damn dangerous, the first step on the road to insanity, looking at fragments and filling in the gaps of a life no one besides him remembers.

Still, when he parts ways with the peddler not five minutes later, nostalgia's stuffed into the furthest corner of his bag, wrapped up in his extra pair of pants between the thermos full of gin and the map that hasn't done a single thing so far, and he knows it's going to stay there until the day he turns into a fireball and fixes all that's gone wrong with the world.


The first time he hears it, he thinks maybe someone stepped on a cat, a shrill, high noise somewhere above the human vocal range but still below getting eaten by Gears. The commune is far enough beyond the border, just a bunch of people gathering in one spot and calling it a village, so neither is terribly unlikely, abandoned pets banding together and raiding the storehouses, stray Gears pouncing upon whatever podunk towns nobody can protect.

Then it screeches a second time, and he breaks into a jog before he can help himself, the drawn-out wail so horribly familiar it's making his gut clench, despite knowing that it's crazy, especially out here.

A bunch of kids, hiding out in one of the derelict barns at the edge of town, all in awe over the thing their friend has hauled from who the hell knows what dumpster. Hugging the body and tugging at the strings like he knows how, like he's got any idea what he's holding there in his lap.

"Whoa!"

"Awesome!"

"Do it again! Make it last longer!"

Three boys in work coveralls with the devious air of kids who escaped tilling the fields, holding a washboard and some kind of flute. A girl in a headscarf and one of those modest Amish skirts that are the best way to show how the world's gone backwards since, armed with a pair of sticks and her mother's pots.

In the back of his mind, after almost a hundred merciful years of silence, the tiny, dissociated part still calling itself Frederick starts laughing uproariously.

The best thing to do would be to keep walking. That life's not his anymore, nor anyone's. He saw to that, whether he meant to or not, and there's no point in summoning ghosts in a backyard barn in the middle of nowhere. Hell if he can stick to his own plans, though, when the thing's so pitifully out of tune.

"Where'd you get that?"

The first post-apocalyptic garage band blanches in shock, and then blanches again when they realize that they haven't been found by their parents, but by some bear-sized vagabond with a meat cleaver on his back.

"U-um."

"I said, where'd you get that, kid?"

"I found it!" the boy squeaks, trying for defiance but landing on terror instead. "It's mine!"

"Let me see that."

And yeah, his social skills have dwindled from nil into the negative numbers, if that was meant to convince the kids not to start pissing their pants. He takes a breath.

"For fuck's sake, I'm not trying to rob you. But it's broken and you're doing it wrong."

"Y-you know what that thing is?"

Best damn way to play the devil's music, but joking about it in this age is only going to bring the inquisition to the party. At his nod, the boy relinquishes his prize while the rest of them scoot back a safe distance, still nervous but too curious not to take the risk.

He sits down on an upturned crate, and spends a minute just looking at the guitar in silence. It's the kind of instrument a hard-up school orchestra would get, something that can withstand a few whacks and a couple of cans of soda pop, flaky cherry-red paint and all, but in this moment, it might as well be a diamond-encrusted Les Paul.

Slowly, he starts running his fingers up along the neck, feeling for fractures. Won't have the greatest sound in the world, even if he could find a place to plug it into, but hell, he can hear well enough. His fingers are trembling. He stops.

Reaches for the duffel bag to dig out the emergency tools, just a bunch of screws to make up for the broken machine heads. It's the kind of redneck repair job he would've been making faces at in another time, but it'll have to do.

Rustling in the background, the kids creeping closer until they're back in their little semi-circle, watching as he extricates the snapped-off pegs, gently pushing the screws in place and checking the strings. If he had any good sense left, he'd tell them to forget about the instrument and go home, spare them the world of trouble they'll be in once their parents or the parish priest find them playing around with blacktech.

He glances up, only to catch their fascinated stare when he flips the guitar upside down, balancing it on his thigh. Hell. Like any of them would listen. Not with that look in their eyes, that hunger for something bigger and better than this miserable little life that none of them chose, always liable to end at any moment.

There's no need for conscious remembering, no need to even think about what to play. Just his fingers, picking their way across the strings, the vibrations finding their way through his calluses and across his wrist, past his elbow and up into his chest. It's not in any way close to the real deal, the kind that could fill up an arena of twenty-thousand nutty sports fans, dig all the way down into their hearts and make them chant "we are the champions," but here, now, a thousand miles and a lifetime away, it's the best damn thing.

"...Wow."

Breathed in the wake of the last note's echo, with more reverence than the kids likely ever found in them for the sermons during Sunday mass.

"...what was that."

"Well..." He smirks, just a bit, too high on music not to. "Sometime ago, there used to be this little thing called rock'n'roll."


If there's one thing to be said about the apocalypse, it's that it always finds ways to get interesting again. Whenever he starts thinking that he's bound to have seen everything, some asshole or another finds an amazingly new way to be a scumbag, or the queen beast decides what the world really needs is winged ardvaarks that piss acid and shoot lightning. Or the sky decides to open up, and drop a screaming, flailing something straight at his feet.

"Ow ow ow shit not again, not again, fuck—"

The something stops thrashing long enough for him to ascertain that it does, in fact, only have four limbs, and that the toxic mash of colors is simply the result of a hippie and a grunge rocker colliding head-on in a changing room.

"Oh shit oh shit this can't be happe— oh, hi. I mean, hi!"

A grin flashes under all that mud and dust, the kind of disarming thing evolution generally gives to infants so someone will take pity on their helpless incoherence. From one instant to the next, the guy seems to have completely set aside that he just fell out of a cosmic laundry chute, too focused on making himself appear friendly and likable and a couple of other words that mean he's hip-deep in shit, and that if Sol raises so much as an eyebrow, he'll latch onto him with the desperation of abandonment.

He starts walking.

"Hey! Hey, wait!"

Scrambling behind him, and he contemplates walking a bit faster, but something tells him the guy is twice as fast at running unless he really wants to make the effort.

"Hey, um. Um. Listen, this is gonna sound crazy, so, um— don't tell anyone, okay?"

The guy glances around, realizes it's nothing but craggy highland for miles, and giggles at a pitch that indicates he's mildly to moderately insane already.

"Um, well. Uh. You wouldn't happen to know where we are? I mean, yeah, dumb question, but— ah hell, maybe I'm still dreaming."

A yelp as he pinches himself.

"Okay. Okay, not dreaming. I guess. Crap. Um. Well." He pauses, the kind of pause that means he's just now noticed the sword, and is reconsidering chatting up its wielder. Another giggle, this one approaching hysteria. "...I guess this ain't Kansas anymore?"

This time, Sol does raise an eyebrow, and the guy latches onto it like a lifeline.

"It's just, hell, one second I'm hanging with my girl, the next I'm in the middle of the ocean. Entire island, gone! And when they fish me out, they're all wearing monk garbs and tell me I've got, eh, what was it? Oh yeah, burakku-somethingsomething and grab all my stuff. Well, all except this."

The limiter jerks when he lifts the other eyebrow, the most action it's been getting in a while, but the guy's clutching at an honest-to-god iPod like it's a memento of his late grandma. The state it's in, it probably is.

He hasn't been keeping track of Zepp lately, so who knows where they're floating these days — the guy looks like he'd fit right in with them, at any rate, quixotic anachronisms and mix-and-match attire included, maybe just the particularly clueless kind. Probably took some thing with a shiny red button out on a joyride and couldn't resist pressing it. Happens every now and then, and he can't decide whether this kid's lucky or unlucky — lucky for not crash-landing in the middle of a town where he'll be drawn and quartered, or unlucky for landing in the middle of nowhere, where he'll just end up as a snack.

Shaking his head, Sol listens inward for a moment, scowling at the echo. Closer than he thought, and now he's got Captain Oblivious tagging along, tripping over his own feet in his bewildered optimism. Doubtful he'll be of any use fighting.

"Hey," he says, and the guy perks instantly, like an over-eager spaniel. "You still got a gun on you?"

"...Erm, I'm British."

And that answer would be entirely inconsequential if Britain weren't in the process of getting torn to bits. The guy doesn't exactly look the part, a bit too bubbly to qualify as a traumatized refugee.

Heaving a sigh, he unsheathes the meat cleaver, only to have his companion gulp and go white. He can always puzzle that out later. "Right. Take cover and shut the fuck up."

"Uh, what?"

"You got a death wish, kid? Get down, now."

"H-hey now, no need to get violent, I'm good at being quiet. Really, if you didn't want to listen, you could've just said so. I can respect that. I'm not the kind of guy who just keeps going on and on and o—oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!"

While there are still a couple of regions lucky enough to have never seen a Gear, most people's reactions would be to either flatten themselves to the ground in prayer or run like hell, not fall on their ass and start screaming about B-movies.

"Shit shit shit what is that thing that can't be real that isn't real oh wake up Axl wake the hell up—"

And that would be just about enough incentive for the fifteen-foot stag beetle to start zeroing in on them. Only a scout, and if he takes it out, the entire swarm will come bearing down on them for revenge, but if he doesn't, the idiot will end up as the entrée.

He steadies his grip. The Gear is going for the final circle, mandibles spreading wide to take them in one fell swoop.

"Hey. Does that thing still have any songs on it?"

"What? We're gonna get eaten by a Jurassic Park prop and you wanna know about my playlist?"

A shrug.

"Um, uh. Iron Maiden?"

Sol grins. "Well, shit. Guess we gotta hang out now."

The sword bursts into flames.


There are a few things the human psyche isn't built for, a few things that exist to be analyzed, and catalogued, but never dealt with. One is the realization that sneaks up on him every so often, the fact that he'll roll over on some mornings and remember he's responsible for the deaths of four billion people.

No consolation that it's an educated guess, maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more, or that he's grown rather apt at finding things to hold off its staggering enormity. Having a plan is good, and having alcohol is good, too, even if it does absolutely nothing for him, he could start guzzling the ninety-nine percent stuff and it wouldn't even tingle going down. It's all he can do to keep the focus on most days, the plan and the drink and having enough monsters to tear through to last him a while to forever.

The other thing is immortality.

Granted, there's no way of verifying that until he gets there, but he's tried enough by now to know he can break every bone in his body and have them knit themselves back together in something under three hours, provided he doesn't manage to puncture a lung or a major artery, or that he can get hit by a poison that'll kill a man twice over and still feel no more than a passing numbness. Once, he tried to test how long he could go without food, but after a week he ran into a little old lady with a burrito stand, and he hadn't seen a burrito in over fifty years, so he had to test if they still tasted the same.

Not thinking about the implications of that one helps, though he's sure getting enough reminders by the day. His choice, though, all his, because Kliff was certainly upfront about it in his recruitment pitch — the food's bad, the pay's worse, you have to wear this stupid uniform and you'll probably die screaming. Sol liked him better for that, enough to smirk and say, "You can guarantee the last?", and that had been that because what the hell. Better than poking around in the dark by himself.

He's pretty sure the young man bleeding out under the hands of the only medic some ten feet away would see it differently — not one of Kliff's kids, though that's of little consequence when he's just as young. A second lieutenant, the last one left to lead after the major kicked the bucket, and then the captain, a boy of barely twenty with high hopes of marrying his girlfriend come spring.

The medic's even younger than that, just a trainee who got shuffled to the front because healers were in short supply, and then the last skirmish took care of the doctor and the head nurse and pretty much their entire stock of drugs and bandages, so now he's doing his best to wrap up an open chest with somebody else's coat. Soaked with mud, just like everything else, and the early morning chill helps to excuse his shaking hands, the way he has to reach for the sleeves a couple of times before he gets a good enough grip to tie them into a knot.

Kids, the whole lot of them, still green enough to flinch while shooting, and a hundred miles of Gear-infested swamp between them and the next semi-safe haven. Sharing nervous glances, trying to figure out which of the insignia point to the next person in charge and beginning to realize that it doesn't matter anymore.

"Sir?"

It takes him a moment to realize that the soldier does indeed mean him and not someone slightly to his left, even though he's done his best to remain invisible, a sopping wet rock of hunkered-down cynicism. The radio operator slides into the trench beside him, the apparatus at his hip clanging softly as he does so.

"Can't raise nothing, sir." He sits down, hunching forward and staring straight ahead. "I don't think there's anyone left but us."

Sol lifts his head, studying his profile; the only one who looks even mildly like an adult, face less a ghost and more a wraith, gaunt with a message the wind already delivered more than a few hours ago.

Behind them, the lieutenant is gasping wetly, maybe blood in his lungs, probably worse.

"...why are you telling me this?"

A quiet "heh", the operator shaking a cigarette out of a half-empty pack and finding it too soaked to light. With a shrug, he sticks it in his mouth anyway, biting down with a soft squelch. "Cause, sir, you're the only one left who can even tell which way's north anymore, and I thought someone should know."

He holds the pack out as a peace offering, and Sol takes one against his better judgment. A moment later, two points of light are flaring up in the gloom.

"I think you're barking up the wrong tree."

"Maybe so, sir—" and the continued use of that word is starting to irritate him, "—and maybe Ludlow's sixteen, and I've got no sense of direction."

The operator shrugs his shoulder towards the medic kid, the next in line at corporal, and taps off the ash.

"Don't recall you having any trouble with that."

"I can't find my way around, though, sir. Not like you." The soldier pauses, chewing again. "I heard you tell off the major, before. Still think he should've listened, especially now."

The silence only makes the boy's gasps louder, his friends too frightened to draw nearer, too frightened to stay away. If he cares to look, a few of them are fumbling in their pockets for their rosaries, and then one of them starts up with a Hail Mary, a wispy, haunting voice that stumbles until a second one joins in, high enough to be a member of a children's choir, but all the more certain for its youth.

The first thing any soldier learns in the field is not to make himself known, no undue noise, no talking, no open fires except in a fortified camp with some thirty-odd lookouts. The rule is bullshit, when there's Gears out there who can smell blood and sweaty army socks better than any bloodhound, who can hear the crinkle of tinfoil wrappers or even just someone pissing or breathing for a mile or more.

These kids don't know that, though, wouldn't have believed it if he just straight-out told them it doesn't matter, but the smokes and the chanting are better than sitting in the dark with bated breath, waiting to be picked off one by one. A comfort as much as testament to their hopelessness, and if he glances to the side, the operator has closed his eyes, mouthing the words to the impromptu elegy.

With a deep breath, the cigarette is reduced to a stub between his fingers, and he takes a needlessly long time to grind it out in a puddle. When he pushes himself to his feet, none of the kids even seem to take notice when it would usually send them skittering out of his way, bug-eyed and expecting him to lunge and bite their heads off.

"One condition."

The operator jerks, partly in a nod, partly in surprise.

"None of that 'sir' bullshit. I'm not responsible. Whoever feels like living can tag along, nothing more."

"That's—"

"Oh, and... tell them to stop with the kingdom-come-life-after-death hymns. Where we're going, we're gonna need a better soundtrack."


The basement is an old air raid bunker, built a good half-century before air raids became a thing of the past, small halogen lights along the walls and a vent that's sort of working, even a bathroom with running water in an alcove.

An emergency depot back from when people still thought the war was going to go nuclear, thought that shelters would keep them safe, and then the Gears hit, and nobody even made it down here.

They stocked enough supplies for half a village, though the upstairs plain is barely showing a sign that anything ever stood there, past some cornerstones that might as well be ordinary rocks. Tools, clothes, canned vegetables, powdered milk and moldy sacks of flour. One of the cans has started sprouting, beans cracking open the lid and slowly winding their way along the walls. Kind of amazing, considering they're usually cooked until dead.

There's a rack of some pretty fine whiskey further back, right next to a mildewed TV and a stack of someone's DVD collection, the cases nearly crumbling when he went through them, momentarily fascinated by the poor storage conditions turning the cover of Tits in Vegas into abstract art.

He opened a bottle, first to have a toast to the last vestiges of civilization, and then to deal with the thing he found further back, locked in an airtight trunk under a pile of moth-eaten blankets.

The sound of footsteps only registers at the last moment, the pace without its familiar brisk efficiency and more the quiet tap of a cave explorer, descending into a mysterious otherworld. All things considered, that's probably true, though he's seen the kid poke around blacktech with barely any shyness at all, grabbing the bits and pieces that could still be used and leaving the rest without slowing down at all.

"You're still here?"

Ky has paused in the door frame, one hand resting against the thick metal latch. Waiting to be acknowledged, but he doesn't feel like looking up, less to annoy the kid and more because the task is demanding his full attention.

"Guess so."

Slowly, he pries open the flap on the first clear sleeve with the tip of his boot knife, peeling back the adhesive to slide the record from within. Whoever sealed them up like this was obviously a friend of preserving collectibles, the cardboard sleeves too fragile to do anything but rot, but kept like this, there's a small chance they might have survived, enough for the player to draw a warble or two out of them.

The Beatles. Hendrix. Led Zeppelin. Queen.

Part of him feels like he's robbing a tomb.

The other part thinks he's being ridiculous.

A slight rustle, the kid drawing closer as he places the first record on the turntable to wipe it clean. Carefully, just the tips of his thumbs against the very edge, and it's kind of funny how the brain stops measuring things past a certain point, unable to express the sheer fragility of this flat piece of vinyl, locked in between two fingers that can dent three feet of airship hull like it's nothing.

"Experiments with forbidden technology are a very serious crime," the kid says, deadpan enough for his amusement to shine through, and yeah, that was kind of a surprise, learning that he had a humor module.

"No law specifically against this. And it doesn't count if I do it sitting down."

It's as much of a go-ahead as he's willing to give, even though if he said nothing, the kid would back off and come back later, none of this little digging-around-in-the-past expedition life-threatening enough to pester Sol into oblivion.

Ky doesn't reply to that, quietly slipping into a folding chair at his side. No questions, no wary movements, though if he looks away from slicing open another sealing bag, he'll be meeting the kid's eyes, as sharp and focused as they ever are, and he won't like what he sees in them because he knows the feeling, that burning desire to make sense of the world.

No way to tell what all this looks like to someone like Ky, what he'd make of a garage remote or an electric razor or even a battery, bits and pieces of a world he's never heard of or seen, not even in picture books. Two hundred years, and it never gets any easier to believe.

Letting out a breath, he tries to focus on the task at hand, laying the clean records out on top of the empty sleeves. It's stalling, all of it, and he knows it, trying to prolong the inevitable. Placing them on the turntable for good, and bringing the needle down, finding out whether there's even anything left of the delicate layer of sound-on-plastic.

"They mean something."

"What?" He can't really help the twitch, but it's not like the kid saw, too absorbed in studying the player to notice Sol's hackles rising.

"These... lines. They mean something, or they do something, and the device... reads them."

Ky draws back from the table, looking to him for confirmation. Figuring a bit of detective work will make Sol more inclined to share, and really, if he didn't want to be answering questions, why keep the company, anyway?

"It's music, kid."

"...Music?" Ky is leaning forward again, hand hovering above a record but not touching. "This thing makes music?"

"Stores it, more like." He shrugs, wiping the rag across the final disk. Explaining stuff to less smart people was never his hobby, but the kid's got that spark of brilliance that has him trying to keep pace with someone from a civilization two centuries more advanced than his own. It's not fair, really, that the kid turned out this way.

"...This is music from people who lived two hundred years ago."

He probably imagined it, that little note of awe, like the kid just believes him, isn't even considering the possibility that he's making up crap to humiliate him. Perhaps that should bother him more than it does.

Silence as he wipes off the turntable again, despite its spotless shine. Ky is worrying his bottom lip with his teeth like he wants to ask more but knows this is the limit. Waiting to see him work his magic, and maybe that's why he didn't tell the kid to take a hike, so he'll have a good reason to stop dancing around and just go ahead.

What's done is done, anyway, moisture or dust or simple gravity, and he doesn't even know how he'll get them out of here, if there's a transport case strong enough to withstand whichever Gear-ridden swamp they'll head for next.

The label in the center is peeling off, a splotch of red on brown where the EMI logo used to be, the track listing so faint as to be unrecognizable, and then the needle touches down, and the improvised speaker bursts to life.

Crackles, stutters, the outer track too damaged to read, and picks up again right on the second track, on the first piano chord. Killer Queen in mono, the sound like something filtered through an underwater microphone, wavering back and forth, and then the chorus kicks in and he leans back, perfectly content to let himself be pulled along by the sound.

When he surfaces again, it's because the kid has said something, voice quiet enough to get lost in the crackle-pop between tracks.

"...What?" he murmurs, not entirely unwilling, cracking one eye open to catch Ky rigid in his chair, head tilted as if listening to a radio message from the ends of the Earth. Expression unreadable save for an intense concentration, trying to figure out the voices of ghosts he's never met, lyrics that can't even begin to make sense to him.

"It's... so strange." Still quiet, gazing at a spot in the middle distance beyond the concrete wall. "To think, it's so old... and to believe it's all bad..." He shakes his head, and when he turns to look at Sol, his gaze is direct beyond the meaning of his words. "I don't understand it, but... there's a lot of feeling in it. An age that can produce such music... it sounds like a good time to have lived in."

Perhaps there should be something to say here, any of the ten million cynical things coursing through his head at all times, and really, no era on humanity's clock was all that awesome and neither was the last century-and-a-half, Taco Bell and h-bombs and terrorism, the whole nine yards.

Instead, he's looking at the kid, and the coat that still looks like it was made for someone two heads taller, and how he's tasked with saving the world when the most important thing in his life should have been high-school. And then college. Learning to ride a bike. Getting flu shots. Summer blockbusters. Undercooked take-out. Driving down the coast with a pretty girl in the passenger seat, while the radio's blasting some inanely saccharine pop song.

He blinks, and Ky is back in his uniform, with a sword nearly as tall as he is strapped to his side, fingers trying to tap out the rhythm to Now I'm Here like it's getting into his blood.

Yeah. A good time to have lived in.

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-Fin-


A/N: I guess that would sort of qualify as a belated birthday fic for Sol? Even though nobody knows when his birthday is actually supposed to be. C&C is welcome, as always.