Here we go...


"Hey kiddo. Why the long face?"

The pilgrimages had died down in the last year; Denzel hadn't expected the old church to have visitors at this late hour. He jumped; he didn't yell, though. He was too proud for it.

There was a man sitting in one of the pews, half-hidden behind a column and the wooden partitions that separated the rows of benches. He was shirtless, fit, and -- from what Denzel could see in the dusky, muted light -- could have been anywhere between twenty and thirty-five year old. His dark hair was plastered to his neck, dripping wet, as if he'd just dunked his head in the pool. Perhaps he was a pilgrim, then, even though anyone who'd caught Geostigma in the epidemic four years ago should have been dead or cured by now.

"Sorry, man."

Denzel frowned in confusion. "What for?"

"Eh. You just look like you wanted to be alone."

The man didn't sound like he was about to go into a fake, cloying 'poor little sad boy, don't worry, you'll see that's not so bad later when you're old and wise like me' tirade, but neither did he look like he found Denzel's obvious depression mock-worthy. "It's nothing. A girl ditched me, 's all. I'll survive," the young teenager replied, feeling at once very mature and very miserable.

"Ouch," the man commiserated.

"Yeah, well. Whatever. You come here to pray?" As changes of subject went, this wasn't the smoothest Denzel had ever thought up, but he wasn't about to pour out his heart to a stranger.

The man chuckled again, rueful, and ran a hand through his wet hair. "Ah, no, not really. I'd offer to let you have the place, but... Listen, er, can you give me a hand?"

Denzel took three hurried steps back. "If you're thinking up pedo shit, I've got a switchblade and I know how to use it."

The guy blinked, and then burst out laughing, which reassured Denzel about as much as it irked him.

"It's not funny! Far as I know you're naked behind that bench."

The man's laughter, which had started to die down, redoubled and then some, with a note of self-mocking sheepishness that hadn't been there before. "Actually...!"

"Oh, urgh!" Denzel took another step back. "Why the hell do you want to be sitting naked in this place?! It's all full of dirt and dust and rubble!"

"Thank you, Captain Obvious. Somehow I'd failed to notice the pebbles in my ass."

"Did someone steal your clothes or something?" Denzel asked warily.

The question seemed to amuse the guy even more. "Well, they sure aren't where I left them."

Denzel huffed. What kind of idiot found being abandoned in a remote area while someone made off with his stuff funny?

"So... Here I am, naked as the day I was born," the man commented breezily as he propped his elbow on the wooden partition and waved his hand for emphasis. "And I wouldn't care about streaking too much, but I'm afraid I'd be beaten to death by little old ladies with huge handbags for being an indecent pervert."

There weren't many of those around nowadays. Denzel vaguely remembered old ladies like that before the plate fell on the Slums and then Meteor fell on Midgar and everything turned into chaos, but the old ladies of today were more likely to pull out a sawed-off shotgun and kneecap you. "I were you, I'd worry more about trying to cross the area outside without shoes. It's all full of glass and rusted stuff."

The man made a face. "Yeowch. Feet injuries suck, and I'm not too fond of tetanus either. So... Will you help me?"

Denzel gave an unconvinced moue. "Depends."

"Depends on what?" the man dutifully prompted him. He failed to look as curious or worried as intended; if any, his smile widened even more. Annoying!

"What I get out of it," Denzel bit out, crossing his arms stubbornly. "It's late, and it's gonna be later when I come home. If I'm gonna get killed by my guardian, I want it to be worth my time."

"Wh -- you little brat."

Denzel straightened up, and gave the spluttering man a look that meant 'try me'.

The man tried him. "Do you want me to prove you I'm not hiding a roll of gil in my butt crack?"


"It's just a matter of bending over, after all..."

"Stay down, stay down!" Denzel protested, and covered his eyes hurriedly when the man grabbed the wooden partition and started to heft himself up on his feet. "Crap, man, that's -- ew!"

There was a giggle overhead, light and girly and wholly unexpected. Denzel jumped and backed against the wall, a hand slipping in his pocket and curling around his knife. He looked up at the half of a ceiling and broken beams, but he couldn't see anyone through the gap.

"--Oh yeah, and my girlfriend's around too."

Denzel swallowed. "She. Uh. Is she..."

"Yup. Naked as a jaybird."

"And a little cold, too!" she sang back from somewhere upstairs.

The teenager desperately tried not to think about it. From the heat rising to his cheeks, he wasn't succeeding. He'd never been so thankful for the darkness inside the church.

"We didn't want her to be seen, you know, in case the next visitors were a gang of street toughs or something like that. And that's exactly why you were supposed to stay quiet and pretend you weren't there, honey!" the guy drawled at the ceiling. "Maybe I'm going senile in my old age, but I seem to remember a discussion about that!"

"Sorry!" she called back, not sounding sorry at all. In fact she sounded even more entertained than the guy, and Denzel thought that they deserved each other. Annoying!

"One of your friends play a prank on you? You don't look stressed enough for a mugging."

"Hm? Ah -- it's complicated." The man ran a hand through his hair again and grinned sheepishly. "Listen, I'll find clothes for her if it really bugs you, but would you mind getting me -- I don't know, even just flip-flops and shorts? It's not the season, but they'll do in a pinch."

Denzel sighed heavily. "I guess I can do that much. But then you get to talk my guardian out of grounding me." Not that he really thought Tifa would ground him, especially not when she learned he had met people in need of help, but he'd never liked worrying her very much.

Oh well, in the end they were just a couple of random inoffensive loons. Denzel had met crazier.

"Sure, no problem, thank you. You're a lifesaver." The man's smile turned more sincere, relieved... And then went somewhat -- cautious. Subdued. "Anything of Cloud's would do. We're about the same size. Unless he's had another growth spurt."

>[Chapter 1]>