|cleflink (cleflink) wrote in kinkfest,|
@ 2007-09-24 17:39:00
Bored, he let his eyes drift lazily around the half-full saloon, apathy-pinched faces staring back at him from all directions. It almost made him wish a brawl would break out and give him something to do, but he’d learned early on that fights weren’t especially satisfying when you couldn’t get hurt. And it was too damn hot besides.
Boots scraped on the gravel walk outside and every head in the place swiveled round to stare as the shadow of a man loomed beyond the door. Wolfwood’s ears caught the clink of armour amid the shuffle and he damned himself as thrice a fool when his breath caught in helpless anticipation. Maybe this time…
But the man who pushed open the rickety door was dark haired, not blond, and Wolfwood sighed. No such luck.
The man stood for a moment in the doorway, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dim saloon after the pounding brightness of the sun-bleached desert outside. Eyes that were a strange mix of violet over gray traveled the length of the room, the man’s shoulders slumping visibly at the lack of familiar faces.
He was a young guy, Wolfwood noticed, probably only barely into his 20s, although there was a hard-edged quality to him that made him seem much older. The fact that he looked like he could bench press a rail car didn’t hurt either.
The guy caught him looking and Wolfwood debated only a moment before tilting his chin towards the chair across from him in open invitation. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do anyway and the kid seemed an okay sort.
He got a grin for his efforts and the guy started making his way across the room, moving with an easy, fluid grace that made something pang in Wolfwood’s chest when he thought of the last man he’d seen move like that.
“Hey,” the guy greeted as he drew close, uncomplicatedly amiable as he plunked himself down in a chair. “Zack Fair, nice to meet you.”
“Nicholas D. Wolfwood,” Wolfwood responded shortly. “Just Wolfwood is fine.”
“Works for me,” Zack declared. He waggled one eyebrow impishly. “I’ll answer to pretty much anything – up to and including ‘utter moron’ and ‘honeypie’ – although I must admit that I tend to prefer Zack.”
“Fair enough.” Wolfwood took a long swallow of his drink, enjoying the liquid burn as it rolled down his throat. “Welcome to hell, Zack.”
Zack grinned again, the expression far more natural on his face than the weary frustration he’d walked in wearing. “Thanks Wolfwood. Certainly is a happening place.”
Wolfwood snorted. “Sure, if you like watching sand drift.” Moisture pooled in an uneven ring around his glass as he set it on the table, staining the scarred wood.
Black hair slid over Zack’s shoulder in erratic spikes as he tilted his head at a thoughtful angle. “I’ll admit it’s not my ideal choice for a change of scenery, but I can’t say it’s not an improvement from the time I’ve been having recently.” His lips quirked humourlessly. “Too bad I had to die to get it.”
Swirling the contents of his glass idly, Wolfwood offered the man a noncommittal nod. He’d been here long enough that any regrets he’d ever had over his death were pretty much water under the bridge now, but he wasn’t about to start spouting platitudes to some greenhorn kid who’d probably not been dead long enough for his body to cool. There just wasn’t any damn point.
“So, what’s everyone hanging around here for?” Zack asked suddenly, and Wolfwood was impressed that the lightness in his voice didn’t sound too forced. “It seems like there’s a lot more out there once you get beyond the desert, so why’re so many people whiling away their afterlife in this dive?”
Wolfwood shrugged. “They’re waiting.”
Zack blinked, nonplussed, and Wolfwood gave him a sideways grin over the rim of his glass.
“We’re at a kind of crossroads in hell right now – everyone passes through here sooner or later, no matter where they come from or where they think they’re going.” He glanced significantly at the slumped patrons of the saloon. “Most of these folks are waiting for someone specific – brother, lover, friend, enemy, whatever – who they want to be able see again once they bite the bullet.” A careless shrug. “There’s a lot of hell out there to get lost in, and this is pretty much the only spot where you’re guaranteed not to miss the person you’re looking for when they finally show up.”
“Huh.” Zack shot him an inscrutable look and Wolfwood started slightly when he realized that the kid’s eyes were actually glowing in the saloon’s dim interior. “Does that count for you too?”
Wolfwood sighed heavily. “Yeah kid, it sure does – and I oughta have my head examined for it.”
Zack huh’d again and Wolfwood signaled for the bartender.
“Here,” he said, offering the new glass to Zack. “If we’re gonna be talking about depressing shit like this, we’d better have a drink together.” He eyed Zack warily. “You do drink, right?”
One calloused hand wrapped firmly around the glass. “Yeah, I drink,” Zack offered casually, fire sparking in his eyes, then slammed the whole thing back in one long smooth swallow. He licked his lips with a grin and set the glass back down. “I’ve got a pretty good constitution for it, actually.”
“Apparently.” Finishing his own drink with a quick tilt of his wrist, Wolfwood raised his hand for another round.
“So is that all people do around here?” Zack asked. “Just wait and drink?”
“Pretty much. Every now and then someone actually finds the person they’re looking for and goes off to wherever, but more poor saps show up all the time to keep the numbers steady.” He smirked wryly as two more chipped glasses appeared on their table. “I bet the barkeep’d be fucking thrilled about the constant business if there was any money in hell. As it is, we just get free drinks and he gets kept busy.”
Zack was eyeing him thoughtfully. “You’ve been here a long time,” he observed, not really a question. Wolfwood shrugged and nodded. “Are you still waiting for the same person?”
“Yeah.” Wolfwood stared absently at the door, finding it surprisingly difficult to picture a red-coated moron walking through it. “I’ve seen most of the other people I ever knew – hard not to when you’ve been here as long as I have – but never him. If it wouldn’t be so out of character for him, I’d almost expect he was living forever just to piss me off.”
Silence fell around him and Wolfwood glanced sideways to find Zack watching the door as well, a strange mix of wistfulness, guilt and regret dancing on his too-honest face.
“It’s tough,” Wolfwood admitted and Zack’s eyes were curious when they cut his way. “Waiting for the living,” he clarified. “Wanting to see them again but knowing you won’t until they’ve died. And you’ll feel guilty for being disappointed when they don’t show up, but you’ll be relieved at the same time ‘cause it means they’re still alive. And I can tell you from experience that the contrast’ll drive you nuts.”
Zack nodded, taking an absent sip of his drink as he looked around the room. “I don’t think he’s dead,” he mused slowly, strange eyes far too pained for the nonchalant tone. “We were together at the end, so you’d think we’d have both arrived at pretty much the same time if they’d got him too. And he’s been… not himself recently, so I don’t think he would’ve have gone too far without me.” Wolfwood hmmed noncommittally and Zack’s attention swiveled suddenly back to him, worried and earnest. “You haven’t seen a blond guy with spiky hair and blue eyes come through here recently, have you?”
Wolfwood spat a mouthful of whiskey halfway across the room.
“What?!” he demanded, coughing roughly. “You’re not looking for Vash the Stampede?”
“Who?” Zack shook his head. “No, his name’s Cloud. Cloud Strife. Shorter than me and thin, with crazy blond hair and eyes that glow like mine, only blue. Looks like a cornered chocobo when he’s nervous, but a real little scrapper in a fight.”
“Oh.” Non-existent heartbeat slowing, Wolfwood thought about it for a moment. He shook his head. “No, sorry. Haven’t seen anyone who looks like that.”
Zack’s exultant whoop made everyone in the room jump, the tinkle and crash of fallen glasses cacophonous in the normally quiet saloon. Zack didn’t seem to care much, leaning far enough forward that the table was in imminent danger of collapsing under his weight.
“That means he escaped!” he exclaimed, grinning hugely. “Those bastards didn’t get him! I knew he could do it! That’s my Cloud!” His smile faltered suddenly, stricken realization crashing down over the relief and Wolfwood could tell that, whatever this Cloud was facing, Zack was none too pleased with himself for dying before it was all over. He still felt like that himself, sometimes, though he wagered that Zack would probably have been a hell of a lot better at the helping part than he ever was.
Zack slumped back into his chair like his strings had been cut. Then he glanced across the table and offered Wolfwood a shrug and a rueful imitation of a smile. “This being dead stuff is a real downer, you know that?”
“I’ve noticed.” Wolfwood kept his tone level as he added, “It’s hard to die without regrets.”
A wistful nod. “I’d say you’re right there. Don’t think I’d ever realized just how much it’d hurt though.” Zack sat quietly for a moment or two, then shook his head determinedly and picked up his glass again. “So what’s this Vash the Stampede like, anyway?” he asked abruptly, nearly making Wolfwood waste more good alcohol. “He must be pretty awesome for you to have been waiting for him all this time.”
“How do you know it’s him I’m waiting for?” Wolfwood hedged warily and Zack shrugged.
“Just a hunch I guess. You seemed more than a little surprised when you thought I knew him, and you don’t seem like the kinda guy who gets flustered easily. Not to mention that I doubt there are all that many not-dead people you know anymore, not if you’ve been here as long as all that.” He knocked back the rest of his drink and signaled himself for another. “And feel free to tell me to shut up, but I really don’t mean any harm by it and it doesn’t seem like you’ve got much else to distract yourself with around here anyway. I wouldn’t mind hearing, either, just so you know.”
Wolfwood gave Zack a hard look, eyes narrowing when all Zack did was blink back innocently in response.
Finally he sighed. “You’ve had a lot of practice making that face, haven’t you?” he groused, not nearly as forbidding as he would have liked. Zack’s smile shifted into something a little more honest in response and Wolfwood found himself speaking before he quite realized he’d intended to.
“Vash is like an idiotic ball of heroic sunshine,” he said bluntly. “Always making everyone else’s lives brighter by taking their darkness into himself. I’ve never seen anyone who could match him in a gunfight, which is a damn lucky thing because he always ended up getting shot at for stupid reasons. He saw the best in everyone else and the worst in himself. He always acted the fool, but wouldn’t blink at entering a battle to save a person’s life.” Wolfwood’s expression grew bitter. “Even if that person was an enemy. Or a traitor.”
“And you were both?” Zack guessed, and Wolfwood wondered what kind of life the kid had led that it didn’t sound like pity or censure when he said it.
“Yeah,” he admitted gruffly. “Never did stick around long enough to find out if he forgave me for it, but knowing what a moron he was, he probably did.”
Zack’s expression was unfathomable. “Is that why you’re waiting for him?” he asked, though Wolfwood could tell by his tone that he knew it wasn’t.
Still, some things it helped to say out loud.
“Nah,” he denied with a desultory wave. “I’ve never been one for absolving sins. And Vash wouldn’t be happy knowing that someone wanted his forgiveness anyway. But he’s the only person I ever met who’s worth waiting for – and probably the only one who wouldn’t mind seeing me again at the end of it all. And I guess I didn’t really know him for all that long, all things considered, but I’m not about to spend the rest of undead eternity without him. And he’s just gonna have to deal with that because I ain’t leaving him behind again whether he likes it or not.”
Zack chuckled and Wolfwood realized abruptly that he was scowling, the thought of Vash’s pigheaded lack of self-esteem still enough to piss him off after several decades of being without it. Which was damn irritating.
“Sorry, sorry,” Zack grinned when Wolfwood directed the scowl his way instead. “Sounds kinda like me talking about Cloud, is all.”
Wolfwood took an irritable swallow of his drink. “Why? Is he an idiotic hero too?”
“Actually,” Zack grinned. “I’m usually the idiotic one. And Cloud’s not a hero yet.” The wistful look was back, touched with pride and a fondness that looked an awful lot like love. “He’s going to be though. He’s got that spark. And way more skill than he gives himself credit for, which is damn frustrating when you’re trying to convince him he’s not useless. But he’ll get there eventually, you can’t ignore talent forever. Sure wish I could have stuck around long enough to see it though.”
Which was one place Wolfwood just wasn’t going, no matter how refreshing it was to talk to somebody for once. He let the silence stretch between them again, idling over his drink and letting Zack mull through his thoughts in peace.
His glass was dry again much too soon and Wolfwood glanced over to find Zack’s in pretty much the same state of affairs. “You want another?” he offered, understanding that Zack might appreciate a drink right about now. It didn’t help much, not when you couldn’t get properly drunk without a corporeal body, but a lot of people tried anyway.
Zack just shook his head, expression distracted. “I’m alright for now, thanks.”
Wolfwood shrugged carelessly and shifted to call for one of his own. Zack was looking at him thoughtfully when he turned back.
“You said everyone has to pass these crossroads at some point, right?” Zack asked and Wolfwood nodded.
“And you’ve been here for a good long time, right?”
Wolfwood gave him a wry smile. “You don’t know the half of it, kid.”
Zack leaned in, eyes serious. “Have you ever seen a really tall skinny guy with silver hair down to his backside who was dressed in way too much black leather?”
Raising one eyebrow at the colourful description, Wolfwood took a moment to think of all the faceless spirits who’d wandered through in the last decade or so. “Doesn’t ring any bells,” he admitted, surprised when Zack’s mouth twisted into a macabre parody of a grin.
“Well fuck,” he swore, soft but fervent. “That’s certainly going to make things complicated.”
Wolfwood thought about asking, but figured Zack wasn’t the sort of guy who needed encouragement to talk. And it wasn’t easy to find the energy to care about someone else’s problems when you were dead.
Although with the way Zack was climbing to his feet, chair scraping heavily across the pitted floorboards, Wolfwood doubted he’d have much of an opportunity to try anyway.
“Thanks for the company, Wolfwood,” Zack said as he stood. “And for the sharing of free drinks.”
Zack nodded. “I’d go stir crazy inside a week waiting here. Not to mention my girl would kick my ass if she knew I was just sitting around drinking my afterlife away,” he added, which surprised Wolfwood because the way he’d talked about this Cloud he’d thought…
“And I wouldn’t want to miss Aeris’ reaction to how good Cloud’s ass looks in his new SOLDIER gear,” Zack carried on, making Wolfwood wonder muzzily if he was really as far off the mark as he’d thought. “So I wanna see if I can do something about that. I’m thinking there must be somewhere around here where the walls are thin enough to let you peek into the living world – at least every now and then. How else could you know your important people were taking good care of each other?” His smile was gentle and fond, surprisingly clear for how short a time he’d been dead. “And even if I can’t really be there for them anymore, they still deserve the best I can give ‘em from here.”
Another shrug and a smile and Zack turned away, slack, disinterested faces following his progress as he wove through the mess of chairs, dead people and rickety tables.
Wolfwood swiveled round in his chair without thinking. “Zack!”
Zack paused, tilting his head over one shoulder with a raised eyebrow.
“What about your Cloud?” Wolfwood asked, surprised to find himself genuinely curious. Maybe he did care some, after all. “You might never see him again if you go.”
Zack just smiled, and Wolfwood had the sudden thought that it was a damn shame for the world that this man had died.
“Cloud’s always worked hard to catch up to me,” Zack said simply. “I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t give him the chance to finally do it.” He waved one hand absently over his shoulder as he turned away. “Tell him I said ‘hi’ if you see him, okay?”
And then he walked out without looking back.
Wolfwood stared after him for a long moment, then shook his head and shifted back towards the table. He finished his still-full glass almost as an afterthought, signaling immediately for another.
And he regretted, for the first time in a long, long time, that he wasn’t brave enough to do that exact same thing.