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Eat or Be Eaten

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Eating was a chore. It was necessary for life because if one didn’t, one’s belly rumbled and distracted the doctor and the doctor didn’t like that at all. One also got very tired and couldn’t think well, because the mind needed the body, and the body needed food. So Sephiroth ate, like the dutiful, sensible child he was. In the mornings there was oatmeal, sometimes cream of wheat. Lunch was protein, starch and mushy vegetables. Nutritious and balanced, and all artificially fortified with everything to keep him going. There was water to drink. That was the best part.

He was nine, maybe ten, when he first became aware of something else in his mouth. A different taste. A flavor. It tasted like breakfast but better, and at the entirely wrong time of day. Sephiroth shut his eyes, pulled his sheet over his head and reported the sensation the next morning.

Hojo pushed his glasses up and leaned over to peer at the boy. “Hmm,” he said, examining one side of Sephiroth’s face, then the other. “Seems there is somebody out there for you,” he said, and spent the rest of the day in a sour mood.

That was how Sephiroth learned of the bonds between mates. Or that there was such a thing as mates. “So you’re a taster?” the whitecoated intern said, taking notes as Sephiroth finished his breakfast. ‘Subject is hesitant,’ went the pencil on the pad, ‘expresses distaste for Morning Meal Option 2.’ In the few minutes it took Sephiroth to finish his portion, and crunch down the dry toasted wheat crackers that came with it, he learned that when people grew up, they often sought special friends to do everything with. Sephiroth went off to his morning lessons and drills and wondered what difference it would make to not do them alone.

He made the mistake, once, of asking why his food didn’t taste like what his Friend was eating. “Because your ‘friend’ is not very bright,” Hojo said. “Whatever they’re eating, it can’t be good for them. No nutrition at all.” Sephiroth went to sleep with the most enticing sensation of sweetness on his tongue, and a painful bitterness in his heart.

The flavors continued. They came mostly in the evening, sometimes late into the night, sending him to sleep with something pleasant on his tongue even when his bones ached and his skin itched and a place in his chest felt sore and tight even when nothing cardiothoracic had been done to him that day. His Very Special Friend, wherever they were, lived some hours behind him. Sephiroth pondered the maps in his textbooks, trying to find the right time zone. Wutai was too far, that he knew, but there was so little time spent studying anyplace else. And then there was no time at all.

At first the army rations weren’t too bad. They had flavour. They actually tasted of something. Sephiroth learned that for other people it was customary to add cinnamon or milk or sugar or honey or almonds to oatmeal about the same time he learned what it was people expected to do with their Very Special Friends. He could not say which part was the bigger surprise. He ate his ration bars and ready-to-eat canned meals and pondered the phantom flavors that sometimes came in the right time to accent them.

His Friend was a few hours ahead of him now, and snacked frequently, it seemed, right at Wutai mealtimes. It was only from listening to the others that Sephiroth realized the meals were, in fact, considered bad. He shrugged and ate them anyway. Food was fuel, nothing more.

Genesis was the first to suggest the game. “Come on,” he said, waving a live cricket in front of Sephiroth’s face. “The locals eat them all the time.”

“The locals eat them fried and salted, Gen,” Angeal said, smacking him on the back of the head. “Don’t be a dick.”

“You’re one to talk,” Genesis said, rubbing his scalp. “You know how long it took me to catch that thing? They jump, in like, every direction, you know.”

Sephiroth knelt down and cupped the hapless insect out of the dirt while they argued. He held it by the joints of its powerful hind legs, studying the way it wriggled in his grasp. The crunch it made in his mouth stopped the argument cold.

“… the fuck?” Genesis said.

Angeal gaped. “You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”

Sephiroth shrugged. “I heard they’re good protein.”

***

After a while Angeal gave up on stopping the game of ‘Will Sephy eat it’. The answer was always ‘yes’ so he had no clue why Genesis kept playing. Sephiroth ate a desert scorpion, which made his tongue itch, a slice of fried cactuar, which had him reaching for more, a curious purple mushroom, which necessitated a trip to the medical tent, and a vulture’s toe knuckle, which caused no ill effects at all. After the mess that was the Hakanara massacre, Angeal did make Genesis swear not to give Sephiroth anymore loco weed. Genesis agreed, and got Sephiroth to eat a small chunk of boat propeller instead.

Angeal offered Sephiroth a handful of dried fruit one quiet afternoon. “This is the good stuff,” he said, “proper, organic, dried like nature intended.” Sephiroth examined one apricot from all angles and sniffed it before taking a little nibble.

“I know this taste,” he said, “or something like it.”

“What, you’ve never had dried fruit before?” Angeal asked.

Sephiroth hunched in over himself and stared at the dirt. “Not really?” He shrugged. “I eat what the science department recommends.”

“Sephiroth,” Angeal began.

“It’s nutritionally balanced,” Sephiroth said, “and tailored to my caloric and metabolic needs.”

“It’s crap and a half,” Angeal said. “They make those SOLDIER meal plans for all of us and they stink. Low sodium, no fat, everything pulverized and fortified and all the good natural flavors pounded right out.” He shook his head and sat beside Sephiroth. “You have no idea what food is supposed to taste like. No wonder you ate that propeller.”

Sephiroth was quiet for a while, staring out at the campfire smoke and the array of tents below them. “I do taste good food sometimes. It’s not healthy food, but it tastes good.”

And that was how Angeal learned of Sephiroth’s Very Special Friend. “A taster, huh?” he said. “That’s pretty rare. And pretty inconsiderate of you to be making them taste the crap you eat.”

“What?” Sephiroth looked up.

“Yeah, I mean, I took a few singing lessons so Gen wouldn’t be offended when I sing in the shower… Seph?” Angeal stopped when he saw Sephiroth’s face. “Sephiroth?”

“It goes both ways?” Sephiroth stared down at the fruit in his hand.

“You didn’t know?”

“I made them taste bugs,” Sephiroth said. “And deep fried snake. And an alligator turd that one time.”

Angeal squinted at the man. “I’m going to have a good talk with Genesis,” he said, rising. “In the meantime, how about you not eat every random thing you come across.”

***

Genesis agreed that very night to take Sephiroth on a whirlwind tour through flavor country in recompense for the bad start they had been making with Sephiroth’s One True Love. The very next day Sephiroth promptly got himself and a squad stranded up a mountain range, hemmed in by enemy fire. It was three weeks before they came down, shambling and silent and short two men.

“Come on,” Genesis said, rubbing Sephiroth’s back and offering him a candy bar, which Sephiroth refused. “Angeal and I got leave approval, and you’ll get recovery time for this. We’re going on a road trip. We’ll stop at every little eatery I know. There’s some great food out there, better than what you’ve been eating.”

Sephiroth looked stricken. Genesis, for once, paused. “Look, I’m sorry I fed you that mole cricket. And the tarantula. And the Touch Me testicles, although I hear those are a delicacy when pickled right. I just thought maybe it’s time I showed you some good food instead? What do you say?”

“I can’t,” Sephiroth said. “I don’t want to think about food.”

“You have to eat something,” Genesis said. “Fuel, remember?”

“Yes,” Sephiroth said, “fuel.”

“In any case, beats eating nothing but dried ration bars, doesn’t it? Three weeks of that, the canned stuff would seem practically gourmet.”

“Practically.” Sephiroth swallowed. He closed his eyes. “We ran out of the ration bars on the fourth day.”

“What?”

Sephiroth sighed. “Taylor was carrying the bulk of them. He got picked off by sniper fire and his pack fell down the mountainside.”

“Well, shoot,” Genesis said. “So you foraged, then.”

“I suppose,” Sephiroth said. “There wasn’t much up there but rocks.”

“So… .” Genesis considered what hunting there was to be had up on the cold crags. “How….”

“Taylor’s pack fell,” Sephiroth said and swallowed. “His body didn’t.”

Genesis pulled Sephiroth into a hug.

***

They started off small, with something ridiculous and healthy that even Sephiroth could not balk at, a small, uninspiring house salad at a diner in Rocket Town. “How can you eat it with no dressing?” Genesis said.

“It’s healthier this way,” Sephiroth said.

“Yeah, but a little fat helps with absorption, doesn’t it?”

Sephiroth pondered it, then picked up the cup of vinaigrette that had been placed on the side. Genesis nudged Angeal with his elbow. Sephiroth put maybe a fifth of the cup’s contents on his iceberg lettuce. Angeal shrugged. “It’s a start.”

They made their way across the continent, Sephiroth choosing the blandest, mildest, most boring menu options all the way. “For Gaia’s sake, Seph,” Angeal said, “live a little. There’s so much good food out here.” He waved at the kebab stands in Corel. Sephiroth shook his head and took a protein shake he had packed instead.

They had words with him in the hotel that night. “What I don’t understand is WHY, Sephiroth?” Genesis said, at the end of his rope. “You’re not punishing yourself, are you? You’re a SOLDIER, you only did what you had to do.”

“It’s not that,” Sephiroth said. “It’s…” He raised his head to the ceiling, than glanced at the clock. Two, maybe three hours till a reasonable dinner time, for ordinary folk. “I just…” He licked his lips and savoured the sensation on his tongue, the medley of flavors that had helped sustain him through three weeks on a high mountain.

“Are you... Seph, are you tasting something?” Genesis asked.

“What is it?” Angeal said, moving closer.

“I have no idea,” Sephiroth said. “But we’re getting closer.”

***

They kept traveling east, trying out every restaurant, diner and dive of note on the way. “Come on, one good meal or two won’t hurt till we get there. If it hides the flavors and we overshoot the time zone, we’ll backtrack a little bit, that’s all.” Angeal said. “And it would be nice to give your soulmate something tasty for a change.”

Sephiroth shrugged. “Their food is always better, though.” He shook his head. “They’ll probably die young. Nothing that tasty is ever good for you.”

“All the more reason to hurry the fuck up and find them,” Genesis said. “Now look, this place has been making all the food columns lately. There’s got to be something you’d want to try.”

Sephiroth scanned the menu. “I’ve always wondered about… mac and cheese?”

The other two shared a look. Angeal spoke first. “You’ve never had mac n’ cheese.”

“No. Too fatty.”

“But the fat is where the flavour is,” Genesis said. “You’re having some. Waiter!”

It wasn’t the prettiest dish Sephiroth had seen on the journey, as far as food went. Nothing artfully arranged with multiple sauces smeared about the plate. Just a hot little crockpot, full of Mac N’ Cheese looking like Mac N’ Cheese. Pretty good Mac N’ Cheese, from the way Genesis went on about it, snapping a shot with his camera for later.

“Toasted breadcrumb topping and everything,” Genesis said. “Eat up, Seph, get it gooey hot.”

Elbow macaroni slid off his shaking fork. “Better blow on it first,” Angeal said. “Hot cheese will burn like a motherfucker.”

Sephiroth blew till the steam disappeared, then had his first bite. It was the first thing that had ever crossed his lips that was truly as good as the phantom flavors that had graced him most of his life. The din of the restaurant faded away, as did Angeal and Genesis’s friendly ribbing. He hoped his soulmate was enjoying it half as much as he did.

He wasn’t even halfway through the serving when tromping, stomping feet drew his ear. Sephiroth looked up in time to take in a mess of blond hair, just before the plate was shoved in his face. “Don’t ask,” the young man said, “just eat it.”

Sephiroth stared at the plate, uncertain, still savoring the Mac N’ Cheese on his tongue. ‘Just eat it’, the man had said. Well, that was what this trip was all about. Sephiroth sucked his tongue clean of the last trace of cheese flavor and picked up the fork, musing all the while that this would be his first real dessert. He wondered exactly what kind of cake it was.

Good cake, he decided from the little crumb he sampled. Very good cake. He would have more cake. The man spoke before Sephiroth could take a bigger piece. “Thank god,” he was saying, “I don’t know what the hell you’ve been eating… but no more. For the love of god, no more.”

Sephiroth took hold of the plate and stuffed another piece of cake into his mouth. “Seph,” Angeal said. “Sephiroth.”

“It’s him, you jackass,” Genesis said. “Put the fork down and say ‘hello’. At least act like you had some kind of upbringing.”

He almost choked when the words got through. He looked up, mouth still half full, at the fine features and golden blond hair of the one who was meant for him. He finished swallowing and coughed a little.

Genesis rolled his eyes. “Great first impression there, Seph. I’m sure he’s quite taken with you.”

The blond man looked Sephiroth up and down. “I might be. If he lets me feed him from now on.” Sephiroth still said nothing.

“Look at that, he’s speechless,” Angeal said, nudging Genesis. He glanced the young man up and down, taking in the apron and the chef’s coat and nodding in approval. “He’s been looking for you.”

“I ought to warn you,” Genesis put in, “he doesn’t have a way with words even when he does talk. And he snores.”

“I do not snore,” Sephiroth said, gathering his wits enough to defend himself. He took a deep breath before looking into the face he hoped he would look at for a very long time. The young man seemed healthy enough, not the least bit pale or unfit. He had a steady gaze and a straight back and he was… rather pretty. Sephiroth remembered what he was supposed to do with his Very Special Friend and felt the blood rushing up to his face. He swallowed again. “You can feed me as much as you like,” he said.

“Oh, I plan to,” the man said. “I’m not a chef for nothing.”

“Excellent,” Genesis said, clapping in glee. “Of course, it’s going to get really weird when you start tasting your own dicks, but that’s for you two to handle.”

“Genesis,” Angeal said, punching him on the arm.

“What? It’s bound to happen.”

Sephiroth’s gaze never wavered. “Actually, I can taste my own dick.”

The blond man frowned. “What?”

Sephiroth shrugged. “I’m very flexible.”

The blond man smirked. “Interesting.”