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Packing was not Cid's favorite pastime, but thankfully he had enlisted the help of Biggs and Wedge. They worked quickly, with only minor bumbling about, and packed away the necessities, Cid's fragile tools, while the man focused on several changes of clothes and hygiene products. It was a few malms to Revenant's Toll from Saint Coinach's Find, and Cid would only be working across the Rising Stones long enough to determine if Alphinaud's newly recruited engineers would have everything they needed at their disposal when they arrived at Mor Dhona. 

"Wish we could go with you, Boss!" said Wedge. "We're going to miss you around here."

"What he means to say is that he wishes it was him spending a week within earshot of Tataru." Biggs corrected. He kicked closed the last trunk bound for the Toll. It would be strapped to a chocobo-led carriage so Cid could travel in style. 

Flushed, Wedge flailed his arms wildly. 

"Tataru is very busy, Biggs! She practically runs the Scions! Keeping the whole operation together." He kicked the ground, head bowed. "She would not have a moment to spare for me, even if I did tag along."

"Don't sell yourself short, Wedge. Your linkshell conversations are the only thing Tataru talks about when she can talk." Hina pushed the entrance flap aside. She was dressed in her healing robes, white hair tied down in secure but ornamental loops around her horns, likely prepared for her party's next push into Coerthas. There were too many unknown factors about Syrcus Tower to send even the Warriors of Light inside of yet. Her fiance, an imposing man of equally dark horns and a vacant, eerie smile, would be chauffeuring Cid as far as Revenant's Toll before continuing onward with the rest of the party to respond to a summons from one Haurchefant Fortemps. 

"Do you mean it?" Asked Wedge. The White Mage nodded, throwing in a wink.

Delighted, Wedge found the strength to carry Cid's massive trunk alone for nearly four fulms before Biggs grabbed the other end and the two shambled forward through the door Hina held open. 

"Excited about your vacation?" She teased. It felt wrong to leave the Find in the state of things, but in Eorzea, where the world nearly ended every other day, if Cid did not wrest an excuse to wind down from thin air he would work himself into an earlier grave. "Lover has me off the rum. Do enough drinking for the both of us, Cid." 

"Hah! With Nero along, I am going to need it." 

Hina's face shuttered, leading Cid to hesitate. For one of the few White Mages in the world, Hina lacked the otherworldly elegance with which the Gridanian padjans carried themselves. She was first and foremost a Gunbreaker, as Cid understood it, a role she could not always share with her would be husband, a fearsome Warrior entirely without schooling in any healing arts. She could drink, shout, and fight as well as she could commune with a thousand year old oak. This all came to mind because Hina, as she stood there, reminded Cid less of herself and more an uncomfortable amount of Kann-E-Senna's scrutinizing gaze. 

"Nero's going with you?" She whispered, closing the tent flap. 

"Yes. I thought he would make less trouble where I could keep an eye on him." Cid explained. He didn't understand why they had to whisper. Nero's things had gone on the carriage in a trunk similar to Cid's. He had searched it thoroughly before sealing it himself, allowing the man to take only pre-approved materials. He was prepared to confiscate and destroy anything else he got past the preliminary scan.

"To the Rising Stones?" She continued. 

"Well, yes." 

Hina sighed. She tented her fingers and picked her words from around the room, each a tiny pinprick. 

"I will speak plainly, Cid. Ryuzo wanted to kill him. He still does. The only thing standing between Nero and his greataxe is my counsel and his consideration of you."

Cid was shocked to hear the man considered him--mostly he felt blankly stared through whenever the two spoke--that he almost missed the implications of her tone.

"You think some adventurer might recognize him and try to make a name for themselves by skewering him? I would be sorely tempted to allow it, but I swear Nero will stay in the Workshop or within view of the Scions at all times." 

"That's what I'm worried about…" Hina winced. "Cid, I know you think you can fix him, but--"

"Fix him?" Cid shouted, alarmed, then lowered his voice to respect the privacy Hina had nurtured with her softer voice. "I want nothing of the sort. I wish him gone, same as you." 

"Yet at every opportunity you bid him stay." Hina clapped him on the shoulder. She was a foot shorter than him, one of the few out of their merry band Cid had to look down at. "I don't want to argue, Cid. I risk poking too many holes in your story and making you right miserable."

Cid held her hand between them and shook it to seal the deal. He was grateful for her advice. He hadn't thought of how the Scions would feel about having a Garlean criminal in their midst. Turning him in for the bounty was out of the question. Firing a musket ball through his Eye was all the more likely. She could disagree with Cid's stance on Nero without partaking in the man's execution. 

"Garlond! The Xaela ruffian will not allow me to load my things aboard his accursed carriage!" Nero's body caught in the cloth of the door. Cid never tied the flap close, it was unexpected to faceplant directly into it. 

"Oh, Xaela, Not Au Ra?" Hina murmured, rolling her eyes. She cocked her hip to the side, resting one hand loosely in her robe pocket. "I like a man who's specific with his bigotry." 

Cementing Hina's already poor opinion of him would do the blonde man no favors. He couldn't be sure that knowing Ryuzo's bride-to-be was in the tent would have deterred him from speaking in a similar fashion. Nero was infuriating in that way. The Warriors of Light should have killed him, Allagan tomestone be damned, and the man could stand to be more grateful they had spared his miserable life for the time being. 

"Did you ask nicely?" 

Nero crossed his arms and stomped his foot. "You know I did not."

Hina chuckled against the back of her hand. It bode well for Nero that his antics amused her. Jesters were kept at court in the face of great insubordination for their humorous merits. He would survive on the good woman's patronage, and her fiance's inability to deny her even the most miniscule of joys. She tugged the knot free and gave the blonde man a hard shove on her way out. 

"I will see that your shit fits, Scaeva. Even if I have to cut you into compact pieces to make room on the carriage."

Cid was left speechless as she took great, hopping strides to meet her bondmate by the road to the Toll, tossing her small body over the perpetually smiling man's broad back whilst he loaded the last of their things. Nero had much to say, all of it crudely muttered just below the threshold for the Au Ra's twitching ear to capture. Like a petulant child, he snapped the collar of his ridiculous overcoat. 

"What a horrendous woman." Nero said. 

"Put your mask on. You're going to get yourself killed." 

Nero's visor, retractable and currently lost among his curls in segments like gilded laurels, was the line between plausible deniability and swift imprisonment. One button pressed behind his ear and the mechanisms shifted to cover half the man's face with intricate engravings. It reminded Cid of the doors at the Labyrinth. In his budding obsession, Nero imitated that which he hoped to overcome. Pity he could not pick some of Cid's traits to emulate given the frequency with which he declared him a rival. 

"It is bad enough that the closest thing this rock has to a Research and Development department is situated an entire Umbral Age's worth of travel time from the action, but I am to be cajoled at every turn by these unforgiving barbarians obsessed with bygones." Nero turned, shrugging his shoulders to the great beyond. 

"Pot. Kettle. We're all here to study the ways of the Ancients. As for unforgiving… You tried to kill them less than a year ago." Cid pointed out. 

"Tried, Master Garlond. Now our interests align. They have naught to fear from me. You have my word." 

Nero's unsellable, untradeable word, delivered with confidence and utterly unreliable. The capricious blonde contended with trained Garlean orators in verbosity, were he any more charming his wit could be as perilous as his gunhammer, but thankfully at birth he had been cursed with an extremely punchable face, rendering any potential enchantment null. 

"For the time being, I would have your silence." Cid motioned to the carriage, leading with one arm. "Or Ryuzo is liable to feed us both to the giant toads."

---

Nero knew when to blend into the background. Grandstanding paradoxically aside, it was best to keep a low profile. He was a tall man with a reverberating voice, the worst thing to be when a bit of subterfuge was in order. Nero made himself unforgettable. If he was there, he was boisterous. The tallest stalk in the field, loudest drone in the hive. Give them enough pomp to appear as the sun to avert their eyes from the real fun. These people were absurdly easy to deceive. The men of NOAH had come to refer to him as part of their unit, a comrade. They did not stop to add extra lines to distance him when they spoke of the researchers present. The Allagan twins looked to him with kindness. It was ridiculous. What they called taking candy from a baby . 

He was careful. He was so careful. He didn't understand how the conversation had arrived there. 

"Nero, why do you run so stupid?" A pink-haired Au Ra monk with pointed cream-colored horns sat across him, hunched over her spread legs. She squinted. 

"Sakura, you can't just ask people why they run stupid." Hina passed the cantine of faerie apple juice to the Hyuran woman beside her. Adelena, Black Mage, the last of the meddling lightbearers, tossed back a few golden drops. 

The Empire had not settled Mor Dhona enough to give it proper roads and the Scions' funds were flowing elsewhere. It was enough that supplies could come through Coerthas. Thanalan would have to wait. The trail jostled the carriage, every ilm forward hardfought against the terrain. A single chocobo, an admirably strong bird, pulled the great ballooned cart.

"If I thought he wasn't doing it on purpose, I wouldn't be asking! Only happens in his armor." The pugilist knocked her bracers together. She made sharp, robotic movements with her arms and legs, like a broken toy. "What is that, even?"

Nero stuck his arms outside the carriage. He would not lose a wink of sleep over their diminutive understanding of his materia-enhanced gear set when Eorzea was still six generations behind the latest Garlean magitek armorers. Nero melded style and function so expertly as to equal the legacy of Allag. Jealous taunting was not worth acknowledging. These children often argued in circles as to which of them was uglier, smelled worse, and called each other by name only to demonstrate various juvenile facial expressions. Their skulls were overstuffed with cotton balls. 

"His armor's jointed weird." Cid noted, joining in to bag on him like the cockroach he was.

"Like you could do better?" Nero snapped, falling off his high horse straight into the bottom of the barrel. 

Cid sat askance at the head of the carriage, in a cushioned seat with purple pinstripes, picking at his hemmed trouser leg. He stroked the end of his beard sedately. White brows rose to pinch his goggles, pink tongue poking between his teeth. He thought so. Nero felt heat rising over his ears.

"You've upset him." Adelena scolded the white-haired engineer. "He's so much uglier when he's angry."

"You're ugly. Shut up already." Their driver, Ryuzo, turned in his seat to hit Adelena over the head with an open palm. 

"Oh, so now the uglier Rat King is going to preach to us!"

They bickered nonsensically, Nero already forgotten. They were only ten years younger than him, and yet they behaved like schoolyard hooligans. Warriors of Light, Champions of the Just, Primals' Bane, Kingslayers, and they liked to slap sticky paper onto each other's clothes and laugh when they went undiscovered for hours. Nero didn't understand. 

Cid caught his eye. He smiled. 

---

The Warriors were good company and Cid was sad to see them go after they helped with their things at the aetheryte. They each took a turn slapping Cid's hand and lined back to the carriage like ducklings. They waved from the latched door and Cid waved back until he could see them no more. Off to save the world. 

"I hate it here."

Nero held a fat satchel carrying his clothes over his shoulder and a chest in both hands. They would need help with the trunks. Cid watched the door to the Rising Stones. To their luck, they were unnoticed. He rubbed the nape of his neck. 

"I think we should stay across the way, in the workshop. It would save time. There are spare rooms upstairs."

"And running water?" Nero asked in a way that made it clear he should say yes. 

"... No water heater, though." The new facilities would stand where Cid's makeshift workshop had been, extending into several other floors. Alphinaud had told him they were furnished, but no one was expected to live there yet. 

"Ah, you do want to kill me. Just slowly." 

"Cid!" Slafborn walked out of the Rising Stones with a steaming pork bun in hand. The man was posted outside the workshop, but skipped across the stones for lunch. "You're early!" 

"Made good time, old friend." The two clasped hands. Cid stared enviously after the succulent bun. Lunch sounded like a prize. 

"Not gonna introduce me?" Slafborn nodded towards Nero. 

Cid opened his mouth. He didn't know how to introduce the man. They had not actually planned ahead that far.

"Nero Scaeva." The man introduced himself. He shook Slafborn's hand good naturedly. Where Nero stood was a peppy adventurer, overwhelmed by the settlement's size. It made sense to keep the name, sans title. Everyone overestimated how much they knew their enemies. In all likelihood, no commonfolk had ever heard the Tribunus' real name before. He tucked his curls behind one ear sheepishly, pushing at his visor over the bridge of his nose. "I have come to inspect the new workshop ahead of the opening."

"Yes!" Cid said too loudly. "Nero is my newest assistant." 

The blonde jabbed him hard in the ribs, hiding his elbow's jarring motion with the satchel. 

"Partner! My new partner." Cid coughed. 

"Good to have you, Nero. We need all the hardworking folks we can get." Slafborn's foot knocked into their luggage and he looked under his arm at the trunks. "Lots of stuff you got here. Need help getting it inside the Stones?" 

"We'll gladly accept the help, but, ah, Nero and I rather stay at the shop." Cid's palms sweat. He wasn't a very good liar. He couldn't come up with an excuse on the spot. 

"How come? The Antecedent made it right up. It's pretty in there. Puts any Ul'dahn establishment to shame." Slafborn was proud of Revenant's Toll. He couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to partake on the best it had to offer.

"We need a little more privacy than the inn can provide." Nero said, in the uncharacteristically soft voice of the role he was playing. 

Slafborn looked between them. He mouthed at the pork bun for a moment, chewing thoughtfully. Then, something clicked. 

"Oh! Of course, of course." Slafborn stuffed the rest of his lunch in his mouth and bent over to grab a trunk. Against the wide chest of the Roe, Cid's things seemed as light as feathers. "I will get these up for you. Go inside, let the Scions know you've arrived at least."

"Slafborn, I couldn't possibly let you carry all these yourself." Cid protested. 

"And he won't." Nero nudged past him, piling a second chest to his load. He grabbed what bags he could, strapping them over his head. "There's no need for both of us to see the Scions."

Cid hadn't counted in Nero actually wanting to help carry anything that didn't belong to him upstairs. Perhaps for Slafborn's sake, the man was oddly charitable. His survival instincts were in good form. It would be ideal if Nero stayed out of the Scions' way. Being this close to the heart of their territory was already pushing it. Now Cid had only one thing to worry about: what Nero might say to the Roe while they were alone. 

"Behave yourself." He said, once Slafborn had begun for the workshop. 

Nero took a few steps after the man. He glanced at Cid over his shoulder. His eyes were obscured by the visor, but tell-all smirk was perfectly in view. 

"Master Garlond, when do I not?"

Cid thought about going after them just to make sure. He looked up. Revenant's Toll was marked by builders and scaffolding taming the scorched earth left behind by the Calamity. Like the maw of a beast, crystal teeth hung overhead, ready to snap up the first unwelcome intruder in this growing haven. He hoped the city would not recognize Nero as such. He would go down like a peach pit. 

He opened the door to the bustling Seventh Heaven, guardian of the Rising Stones. It was the center of social life in Revenant's Toll while the marketplace underwent repairs. Eorzeans of all makes and trade converged at the bar, discussing routes, funds, and idle gossip. Adventurers drank between jobs, mead warming their bellies in broad sunlight, their day-and-night cycles thrown asunder by their irregular availability. Cid had to fit his body in the crowd, pleading his case across to the shouting merchants, lingering amongst the harpsichord players, until he was finally securely through a second oak door, sounds of the bar muffled behind him. It was a rush to see so many people at once. Even in Saint Coinach's Find, the researchers kept to their stations and communicated through missives. He had to keep hidden in Thanalan, Gridania, and Coerthas. Cid hadn't been anywhere with this many people since… Before. 

"Well, well, I thought I heard a visitor." Thancred came running up the short stairs, arms outstretched. "Cid Garlond, you avoidant bastard."

Cid gave him a wry smile, welcoming the friendly embrace. He hadn't seen Thancred since the commencement of the New Age. He looked to be recovered, but the wounds he had suffered under Lahabrea's abduction were more than physical. He squeezed him hard, shaking him like a wolf with a chew toy. The man would not thank him for a gentler touch. Cid didn't know how overjoyed he would be to see him, and all his old friends, in wholly pleasant context. 

"Thancred. How goes the lechery?" Cid tossed him back, each man gripping the other's arms. 

"Badly, I'm afraid. I find myself among flowers that do not wish to be plucked." Thancred sighed. The Hyuran man was still the same youthful rascal he ever was to the naked eye, mischief alight in his face. He looked down between them, then slowly up to Cid's chunky necklace. "Although, with so many flowers to arrange, I had almost forgotten the charms a robust oak tree can have." 

"That's terrible. No wonder you're running on empty." Cid clicked his tongue and punched him in the shoulder. 

"So, women are delicate flowers, and men are powerful trees?" Y'shtola held a book in her hand, leaning into the hall. 

Thancred turned, gulping. He shook Cid's shoulder. 

"I, uh. Help me out here, Garlond." 

Cid bowed to the Miqo'te woman. He pushed Thancred into the Dawn's Respite vestibule. As they came upon Y'shtola, he cleared his throat. 

"My client cannot comment on the subject at this time. We ask for your patience, as his brain is composed of mostly packed dirt."

Y'shtola laughed. "It's good to see you, Cid."

She did not embrace him as Thancred did, but placed a warm hand on his. Her gaze was always distant, focused on her texts and the future, but she never made Cid feel unwelcome. They worked nigh opposite fields, but could converge upon their love of knowledge and the beauty of creation. 

"Came by to let everyone know I'll be right across the street, reporting to Alphinaud in Ul'dah." Thancred and Y'shtola would suffice to pass along the information to the Antecedent. Bothering Minfillia when she had foreign dignitaries and Monetarists to fend off would be cruel. 

"Across the street." Y'shtola retreated to the desk at the end of the room. She rearranged stacks of strewn manuscripts, procuring a book of arrivals. "Here it says you would be staying with us." 

"I sleep better where I work." Cid said easily, because it was not a lie.

Y'shtola's scratched out the dated information and penned the new arrangements, making Cid's stay at the shop officially sanctioned by the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. Her eyes crinkled joyfully.

"Promise you will take your meals here?" She asked. 

"You're only staying a week, I won't let you squirrel away, lost in grease and fumes." Thancred determined. Before the Calamity, Cid favored work above social pursuits. Thancred disliked it in excess. Placing himself away from the Scions as his first act in Revenant's Toll was redolent of those brooding days when he had first defected.  

"I promise." 

He would take Nero's meals separately. Devoted as he was to his work, Nero would not have it any other way even if his life wasn't at stake. Thancred, Y'shtola, and the Scions were not cold blooded assassins, but he would not fault them if they stood and watched should someone try their luck at separating blonde head from the rest of Nero's body. 

---

"You and Cid been together long?"

Since we were children, Nero thought. When lying, it was best to remain in the general vicinity of the truth to avoid confusing the story, but if Slafborn was privy to Cid's Garlean origin, then Nero could not be candid with the real details. 

Trunks had been left on the floor Cid and Nero would be sharing in adjacent rooms. Nero declined Slafborn's offer to help him unpack, thinking of his Tribunus armor for one, and citing Cid's need to place control where everything went. Consequently, when the Roe asked to at least let him make tea, Nero was forced to accept. They headed downstairs to a kitchenette. The tea tasted sweet and tart, refreshing on Nero's tongue. He found himself sipping it with gusto while leaned against the counter, more exhausted by the bumpy chocobo ride than his body first let on. 

"A few months." He said after a long sip. 

"Were you at the Praetorium?" 

Nero froze. He looked over the rim of his teacup. Had he been made? But no, Slafborn's face was yet sympathetic. 

"I was. I watched first hand as the Warriors of Light toppled the Garlean forces."

Slafborn whistled. "That's something. I was there, in some capacity. Hell, just about everybody in Eorzea answered the call to arms. Wasn't close enough to see Cid, or the Warriors, but I saw the security towers explode and then… That crater. Gods."

"Ultima. It was meant to be the most potent weapon of our time." Nero reminisced morosely. He had truly believed that van Belsar could conquer the world on the back of the Ultima Weapon, and Nero with him, ready to take that power off his hands. Instead, it shattered. Water will always pass through the cracks in the firmament. Nero's ambitions had endured past its destruction. He was simply built better. 

"And we're all grateful it wasn't." 

Cid appeared at the kitchen door, angry lines cleaved between his brows. He had heard the wistfulness in Nero's voice when he spoke about the Ultima, though it had passed for breathless horror from Slafborn's perspective. The Roe set his cup back on the saucer, and both in the sink. He tipped his head to Cid, welcoming him home, before excusing himself back to work, aware of the sudden tension in the room and the fact he did not want to get involved in it. 

"Don't frown, it ages you." Nero sipped the last of his tea. 

"Are you insane?" Cid hissed, seconds after the main door closed with a resolute clang. 

"I don't know what you mean. I didn't say anything strange."

"It's not what you said, Nero, it's how you said it." 

Semantics. Nero could argue those all day long. His cup clinked next to Slafborn's. He wondered if he was expected to do the dishes. He had no intention to. Cid had been with the Scions for all five minutes and already he returned brittle, badgering Nero over something so meaningless. 

"Shall you control the way I speak as well as my movements, Master Garlond?" Before he knew it, Nero's fingers had clenched around the linoleum counter. He opened the tap for something to do with his hands. 

"Nero, please. You have lost Garlemald and you are not welcome elsewhere. You have nothing left. Why won't you let me be your friend? Why won't you let me help you?" 

From the moment Cid nan Garlond was born, he was loved without hesitation. Hopes that his existence would be worth the burden upon his family never crossed his father's mind. His conception and birth were planned, and came about without great concern for his mother's medical care and the costs of rearing him. He never lived hand to mouth. Tragedy rolled off him. Even treason was not a stain stark enough to tarnish the Garlond name in the hearts of his motherland. Cid nan Garlond had it all. 

Nero had.

Ambition.

Greed. 

A great bitterness.

The clean tea cup in his hand would burst into shards if he held it any tighter. He flipped it down over a cloth to dry on the counter. Nero smiled, apathetic eyes looking straight past the other man. 

"You want to help me? Hurry up and die."  

Cid's brow lowered, drawn tightly over his shut eyes. Strands of white hair threaded his brows like diremite web, spun to a glossy shine. Nero wanted anger. His spine thrummed, anticipating violence--the slam of Cid's fists at either side of his body, his beloved goggles connecting with flesh in a headbutt--something he could answer with equal ferocity. 

Cid let out a sigh. He left the kitchenette. The taste of shame gutted Nero, hot on his tongue like bile rising from his throat. Cid would never raise a hand against him under that ruleset. Didn't, when he was twelve and far more responsive to Nero's vicious streak, and wouldn't now as the perfect man of justice the Scions knew him to be. It was Nero who wanted this fight. Nero who thought of him, day in and day out, seeking desperately to surpass him only to be humiliated again when Cid proved the better man without trying. Nero, who whispered his name in passing over his sixth cup of coffee to power through his workload. 

Nero who. Who had. Who might still...

He pressed hard into his temples. He wasn't twenty years old anymore, and his ambition would take him higher than the Crystal Tower, because everyone loved Cid Garlond and Nero would never be that painfully fucking ordinary. 

---

It was midnight when Cid calmed down enough to admit he might have overreacted. Not really, all things considered, but by the standards of a man already determined to forgive Nero the unforgivable, he ought to ride a squat horse when he acted poorly, but put no one else in danger. Nero wasn't much of a patriot and had never been. He was an opportunistic narcissist. If Cid could get him to see that the ponds in Mor Dohna were so much better for staring at himself, he would cease all talk of their homeland. Or not. Garlemald, like all places, was not all bad. Nero could be homesick in his own horrible way. He hadn't asked, but he could have left someone behind. Family, friends, a wife. 

Cid snorted to himself. Nero? Married? He would be extremely disappointed to have missed that. 

Discreet smugglers traveled between Garlemald and the Alliance states, sometimes Cid's gil dropped into their pocket. Inside a cooling system powered through miniscule ice crystals of his own design were six bottles of mandarin soda, hard to find in Garlemald and unattainable elsewhere. They were Cid's favorite and, if he remembered correctly, Nero's too. He held two bottlenecks between his fingers. Condensation moved sensually over the label, chilling Cid's fingers. More precious than diamonds and he was willing to share? Nero better be very, very grateful for his generosity. He could also perform a step dance while juggling marmot steaks and start being nice to Cid, an equally probable outcome. 

Cid left his room. Nero's door was beside his. It was strange. He understood why he kept up the farce in front of Slafborn, but not why he hadn't moved to the end of the hall once they were alone. Appearances were very important, he supposed, in case anyone wondered upstairs to see them. He knocked twice, knowing the man was not asleep. When he got no response, he jostled the bottles together, calling to Nero like the clang of bells. 

"Open up. Peace offering." 

The door groaned across the floor, unlocked. Cid inched it wider. There were no candles lit, the only light in the room came from the crystals outside and the sky above. Nero sat by the open window, hand hanging in the night air, cigarette at his fingertips. He didn't know Nero had the gil left to support his habit. 

"Mandarin soda." Nero said, raising the thin cigarette to his lips. The window seat was too small for his long legs, he sat with one one knee drawn to his chest and the other hanging over the floor. He tilted his head away, blowing smoke out the window. Nero hated cigarettes, but abused them regularly, and had stripped off his shirt so it would not retain the cloying smell of his smoke. "Hard liquor is a peace offering for most people. You're such a good boy, Master Garlond." 

"Move over." Cid nudged Nero's ankle. The blonde folded his leg underneath himself, but only after crushing his cigarette on the window sill. They were eighteen when Nero lit his first, but he never smoked much around Cid. Cid knocked the bottoms of both bottles against his thigh, using one cap to open the other. The discarded cap flipped onto Nero's lap. The man picked it up and maneuvered it to pop the next bottle. He hadn't forgotten their routine. 

"Show off." Nero scoffed. He tipped it back. It had a nice buzzing kick that felt good going down. 

They drank quietly. Revenant's Toll had dimmed its lanterns, but did not slumber. Patrols switched shifts and the doors to the Seventh Heaven spit the bar's occupants onto the cobblestones, drunk adventures hobbling towards the market to find a bed elsewhere. Voices rose in a tavern song and faded into the occupying mist. Nero cupped the bottle on his lap. He faced the heavens, eyed dotted with pink stars. A head shorter than the man, Cid's eyes lined with his protruding collarbone. His thick, powerful body was strangely diminished. Cid could easily chord his fingers around his wrist, meeting thumb to index. Stress, hunger, and exhaustion had thinned out the Marauder. He lay bare before Cid, in more than the absence of his clothes. 

"I am told I want to fix you."

Nero broke into choked laughter. Two fingers twitched over his mouth, muscle memory from holding the cigarette. 

"And how do you respond?" Nero smiled sideways. 

Cid had lied. He lied, and he deflected, because honesty was a blade tempered in his blood, without hilt and grip, and admitting that he had missed Nero would pierce him. His first friend, first rival, first confidant. Of the good memories he had of Garlemald before the blindfold fell from his eyes, so many begun with his name, a litany of fondly recalled Nero did, Nero had, Nero would--

"Do you want to be fixed?" Cid whispered, humorless. 

"What about me needs fixing?" The smile dropped so quickly, Cid knew he was losing him. They would be back to shouting at each other, and he would be out the room, coming back only when they were both ready to pretend it hadn't mattered. 

"Do you want to let others in? To use your brilliance to their benefit?" Cid gripped the man's pant leg, right at his knee, gathering the worn hempen in a coil. Nero jolted like they had come to blows. 

"Like this…?" Nero watched the hand on his knee, eyes hooded. 

"Yes." Cid shook him. If he could show Nero that one could be selfless and powerful both. Respect was earned, not feared into the heart. Warmth was not a prerequisite to goodness. His edges could remain rough, and his character aggravating, so long as he did good he would be good. 

"Or…"

There was a hand on Cid's cheek. Nero's hand. It caressed the shape of his face, down to his jaw, and slowly coaxed an incline. He knelt on the window seat, huddled over the engineer. Cid's breath shook. He knew before he tasted smoke that Nero would kiss him. 

"Like this?" He worded, mouth moving over Cid's lips. 

"Nero." His jagged shoulders felt sharp to the touch. "What are we doing?" 

"I'm letting you in. What are you doing?" 

Cid tumbled them to the floor, Nero on his back on the dark rug. The other man looked at him wide eyed. Whatever he had expected Cid to do, it wasn't this, and that gave him the confidence he needed to know it was the right thing. Cid licked his mouth open, tobacco and mandarin mixed in a rich, heady blend. It was probably disgusting. The only thing either could taste was the heat of their panting mouths rising. Nero hung slack in Cid's hand at the nape of his neck. Desire took him from Nero's mouth. His teeth closed over the man's stubbled jaw, forcing a mark in the junction between ear and chin. Wet heat tickled Nero's neck, Cid's tongue hellbent on marking a fat trail of spit to his collar. 

"You need to eat more." Cid said hoarsely. Cold fingers prodded at Nero's pecs, grabbing at the scarce meat on his bones. Nero was firm, covered in fine blonde hairs that struggled less to grow than his beard.

"I eat fine." Nero groaned. He had turned his head the moment Cid relented off his mouth. To give more of his neck, he thought, but his face was distorted into something too close to pain. 

"Nero?" Cid's voice floated. He had thrown him to the floor, even if he had cushioned his head for the fall. Nero shivered when his fingers trailed over his toned stomach, searching for injury. "Did I hurt you?" 

"No." Nero turned on his side, hugging his arms around his chest where Cid's fingers had left his skin flushed in vibrant, dragging streaks with greedy handfuls. 

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have." Cid slid off the other man, kneeling at his side. What he wanted to do was pick him off the floor, but he didn't think it'd be welcome, not after Nero had recoiled so thoroughly from him. 

"You weren't supposed to…" Nero flattened his nose on the floor. "You were supposed to reject me in your soft, infuriating way and then-- move on." 

Cid dropped back from his knees, hoisting his body around with a flat hand. Cold seeped into his skin, sat on the hardwood floor. Had he not drank from Nero's heartbeat and, like a hammer striking his tongue, each flutter fired sparks and ignited? It was the song of retribution. He was wanted, after too long wanting. 

Idiot . A kiss returned did not the next ensure. Nero's temperature rose because he was flesh and blood, not because he desired anything except for Cid to fuck off.

Hurry up and die.

"You were trying to scare me away." Cid realized, horrified. His back hit the wall where his legs had taken him out of their own volition. Nero had hoped Cid would be disgusted. Why? Because he was? Cid couldn't breathe. He choked on every sound that would release the burning in his throat, letting the pain ravage his insides. 

"Cid," Nero's voice broke on his name, nails skittering across the floor towards the engineer. "Let me explain…"

"I have to leave." Cid decided, and compelled his limbs to obey, dragging his weight off the ground, climbing on the window seat with his elbows. On his feet, the world teetered. He managed to sidestep around Nero's prone body before the man could sit up. 

"Cid, I swear to you it is not as you think."

Nero caught his foot. Long, thin fingers clutched at his ankle, stopping him midstep. He stomped back on the ground. The heft of Cid's gaze kept Nero on his knees. Dusk had fallen on the man's bright eyes. Curiosity and patience extinguished. He did not know this somber man. He didn't want to. All his life, he had fought for one thing: To utterly defeat Garlond. Nevermind that his life's work was ultimately rooted in a foundation of Cid's creation. He wanted to humiliate him to make good on a promise to a child, himself, that did not know Cid and would not recognize Nero. He rewired every impulse to seek comfort in a peer as impetus to resent him because Garlond, in his mind's eye, could not be satisfied by prestige until he was worshipped by all and he could hold out longer. He would not give him the satisfaction. Nero had one core directive for so long he didn't know anything else. 

Every machina of Scavean design had a failsafe. His constructed persona was no exception. 

"I love you, Cid." Nero knelt, sat on his heels. He touched his Eye to the ground, gritting his teeth severely, and demeaned himself so that Garlond from his ivory spire stopped long enough to notice. "I have always loved you! If you would have me bow, I will bow. If you would have me beg, I would beg." 

Cid jerked his leg out of his grip. Nero trussed forward on his hands and knees, rearing his frazzled head. 

"Look at you." Cid seethed. "You think love is being tread upon?"  

"I am your shadow." Nero hung his head. Shriveled, destined as he was to be forever tethered behind Garlond like a pack mule, the man's delicate sensitivities could not bear being reminded of the fact. "What else could it be?" 

Nero blinked at Cid's approaching feet. The side of his knee touched his cheek. Fingers passed through his hair like a rake through wheat. 

"It could be good." Cid whispered. He could hear in his voice that they both resented being laid bare with all sincerity. Unspoken was their language. "You've never needed to catch up to me, Nero, you just needed to take my hand." 

Slowly, Nero began to shudder. It had been building for a time, in the form of fine shakes and tremors when he spoke. He was not a crying man. His eyes were painfully dry. Nero's arms moved stiffly, like his weirdly jointed armor, while he wrapped himself around Cid's leg. He took the hand on his head, held it tight against his scalp. This too, felt like entrapment. He had let this ugly, jealous creature fester inside him and now, like wild beasts, it would take Nero's arm off when next denied its feast. The hardwood floors had been recently polished and the formless blob of colors of painful likeness therein felt as distant as his soul to his body. 

"Don't you want to get up?"

"In a minute." Nero grumbled, shutting down.

Cold whitened Cid's breath. It rose steeped in moonlight. This was not healthy. Nero retained so much, cup overflowing, that when drops brimmed over the lip, they seemed a greater victory than they were to a starved man. Cid's anger had melted and through action if not word he had proved to the other man that the only way to keep him was to grovel at his feet. Reason peered from the keyhole in his mind, cursing the engineer, without the guts to open the door.