Chapter 1: Carry On
Rain poured down from the city skies, simultaneously clearing the streets and drenching them. A lone, hunched-over figure moved down the sidewalk to stop in front of a neon sign; the 'B' had completely burned out, while the 'A' was going strong and the 'R' clung desperately to life. After a moment's hesitation, the man moved down the stairs, hopefully to warmth. His hopes weren't in vain; as he opened the plain wooden door a blast of warm, dry air met his face. The bell hanging on the door chimed as the wood swung closed behind him, though the sound was masked by the singer and piano in the other end of the dim bar. From his post on the right wall, the barkeep looked up as the newcomer quietly took a seat on one of the many stools. The man first took off his wet hat, revealing wild brown hair, then shrugged off his jacket and rested both on the stool to his right.
A glance around revealed to him that the place was almost empty, which wasn't particularly shocking considering the time of night. His gaze travelled up to the singer on the small stage. Her eyes were closed as she sang with a slow, sultry voice to the piano. The makeshift spotlight focused on her didn't seem too flattering, but she somehow managed to stand under it and not look completely awful. What a dolly like her was doing in a tiny all-nighter like this, he couldn't tell.
"What will it be, sir?"
The brunet's thoughts were interrupted by the tired-looking barkeep, who had previously been cleaning a glass.
Yeah, he really needed something strong - actually, he needed many 'something strong's. He lowered his gaze to the finished wood of the bar, and a small glass was pushed into his field of vision. He took his first sip to the sound of the song closing, the piano fading into the air. A few others clapped, though they did so none too enthusiastically. About halfway through the glass, there was someone sitting beside him.
"What'll it be, Mr. Wilder?"
A kindred spirit? The brunet looked to his left; sitting there was a man with long, braided red hair. He wore a simple suit, and his eyes seemed a darker blue than they probably were; more than likely an effect of the dim overhead lights.
"Haven't seen you around here before," the man commented with a smile. He gave a small smile in return.
"Just stumbled in to escape the rain."
The stranger only muttered, "Is that right?" and gave thanks to the bartender as his glass was placed in front of him. He then offered his hand to the brunet, saying, "Zelos Wilder's the name."
Strange name. Though, he was kind of used to those. "Lloyd Aurion." They shook hands, and were about to return to their drinks when the lovely – yet apparently incensed – singer approached. She wasted no time in smacking this Zelos Wilder on the back of the head.
"Ouch! Hey, come on, baby doll. What was that for?" The long-haired man sent an entirely too innocent grin up at the fuming girl.
"Don't you call me 'baby doll', Mister Zelos Wilder! You know full well that we still have songs to play, and people to play them to! Now get that keister on the piano bench before I have to hit you again!" She put her hands on her hips and gave a menacing glare – Lloyd never knew a woman could be so frightening.
"But darling, it would be rude to not finish this drink." This 'Zelos' smirked and looked over at Lloyd. "And just think of what an impression you've left on poor Lloyd."
She only then noticed his presence, and looked properly embarrassed (though the embarrassment wasn't enough to hold her back from smacking the pianist a second time). "I'm so sorry you had to see that, sir. Though I admit that I'm more sorry for any trouble this fat-head here might have caused you." She paused for a minute, before frowning slightly. "... Your name is Lloyd?"
"Er, yeah, Lloyd Au-"
The brunet was promptly interrupted by Zelos' loud exclamation of, "Oh, beautiful, you wound my heart with such words! I can only hope that our new acquaintance here will never be subject to such abuse!"
The withering glare she gave him was more than enough to get him to return to his drink. After taking a swig, he shrugged. "I don't know why you're in such a hurry anyway; it's not like we're pressed for time. I don't see either of us leaving anytime soon." He gave her a pointed look, and she sighed. His statement held a lot more weight than it seemed; giving no reply, she simply ran a hand through her hair and crossed the room to one of the many empty tables, sitting down in a slump. Lloyd looked down at his drink and let out a sigh of his own.
"I really am dead, aren't I?" The answer wasn't directed to anyone in particular, but he got an answer anyway.
"Well, ain't that just dandy?" He mumbled, and his new acquaintance chuckled. Staring into his drink, he half-wished it'd do what it was supposed to.
"You can drink and drink all you want; won't do anything to you here."
"What are you, a mind reader?"
"Nah. Almost all the fellas that come in here order something, try to get themselves sauced. Hell, I tried too. Something 'bout croaking does that to you, I guess." There was something more to the redhead's half-smile that didn't seem particularly cheerful, but Lloyd didn't question it. He took the time instead to take another sweeping look around the room. Tables sat all around the floor, though only five or so were occupied; even then, only by two people at the most. There wasn't anyone but himself and Zelos at the bar, with the exclusion of the barkeep behind it. By the looks of it, the afterlife was pretty empty. In his examination of his surroundings, he almost missed the question directed at him.
"So how'd it happen?" Lloyd turned, giving the guy a wary look; the other man only laughed. "Hey, can't blame me for being curious. Besides, it's a more interesting topic of conversation than the scotch."
The brunet ran a hand through his hair, letting out a deep breath. "Got rubbed out by the mob. My old man's been in deep since before I was born, so I was too. I think the Boss only saw me as something to keep my dad in line; other than that, he wanted me dead. Guess I wasn't useful anymore." He shrugged. "And yourself, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Oh, nothing nearly as exciting as that. Really, that's one of the more interesting stories I've heard. Nothing can top the girlie that fell on her shoe and bled to death, though - I always knew those high heels were dangerous." He gave a small laugh before continuing. "Nah, all I did was hop off some bridge sometime around last winter; maybe the year before that. Time passes quick here." With this, he took a healthy swig of his drink, successfully emptying the glass.
"Huh." Well, sure, not the most intelligent answer, but it would have to do, given the circumstances. Uncomfortable in the sudden slightly awkward atmosphere, he attempted a change of subject. "So, what exactly is this place? Seems pretty empty to be 'the end'."
This prompted a sardonic laugh. "Nah, it's nothing like that. Here's only a little place in-between, for all the folks who don't fit in either way. You stay here, or you go back through that door." He motioned towards where Lloyd had entered from.
"What's through the door?"
"Don't know. That's the point." The redhead's bitter smile grew slightly.
Lloyd wasn't sure that the explanation made sense, but he didn't press that issue. "You ever tried opening it?" He felt a little nosy, but he couldn't help it; his curiosity was piqued. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was a couple of mobster goons that did him in and with the afterlife came a certain immunity to the killer effects of curiosity.
Zelos frowned. "Well... It's... I can't. It's complicated. Go see for yourself, if you want to know so bad."
Taking the suggestion, the brunet stood from his stool and began to walk toward the door. This attracted the attention of the lady from earlier; she looked up from her sulking to watch his movements. He stood before the polished wood, and a feeling of something began to churn in the pit of his stomach. Normally he'd tell himself it was just the drink, but by now he knew that was impossible. As he reached with his hand for the tarnished brass doorknob, this small churning spread throughout his being. He couldn't understand it, but all of a sudden his whole self was against opening the door. Slowly, his hand dropped, and he returned to his stool.
"Get it now?" The pianist beside him asked.
"I really wish this stuff would work..." He replied, staring deep into his glass. This amused the pianist, judging by the laugh it earned.
"And that's why you're here. Why we're all here. We can't move on; we're too afraid of the unknown."
There was a weighty silence that neither could judge the length of, before it was abruptly broken.
"So, cooled by the mob, eh? There a story behind that one?"
Yuan Ka-Fai's week was, in general, not going in a good direction. It of course all started on Monday, when the Boss started noticing that he was disappearing at the same time as a certain someone else, which made him paranoid and overly cautious; it got worse on Tuesday when he had to 'cut ties' that the Boss didn't want around anymore. Then Wednesday... was actually fairly decent, until he found out the Boss had Lloyd shot in some alley. It now being Thursday, he had decided to lock himself away from any and all civilization to take a heavy, heavy drinking day. He needed to refresh his whisky stock...
There was a knock on his door. Well, didn't that just beat all? Probably some gorilla, there to 'escort' him to the Boss, who would only give him that smug little smirk and go on about warnings or some other malarkey. Deciding to just wait until the thug got tired of waiting and broke the door down instead, he refreshed his glass. It really was some damn good whisky.
The knocking stopped (finally), but a voice replaced it.
"If you make me break this door down, Ka-Fai, I am not paying for a new one!"
He smirked to himself. Well, that voice was a rather pleasant surprise. Yuan now stood; he'd changed his mind, freeing his door of further abuse (for the moment, at least). Despite the alcohol in his system, he managed to smoothly make his way to the door, unlocking it and opening it all the way to allow the other person entry.
"Good morning to you too, Forcy." His smirk grew at the scowl on the other's face. He left the turquoise-haired man at the door, returning to his beloved alcohol and leather chair. "So what, the Boss wants to give me another 'warning'?"
The other man gave him a look. "You seriously think that's the only reason I'd ever come here? No, I'm worried about you. The Boss is gloating over the recent absence of Kratos, and seems to me like you shutting yourself in here's some sort of bonus. You can't stay here the rest of the day, or he knows he's really won."
"And you think I don't know that? Hell, he won a long time ago, and he's fully aware of it. This is just another thing he can hang over our heads, another little victory for him." Yuan attempted a smile (that looked more like a grimace anyway) and took another drink. "It was my stupid mistake to have everything hanging on a little thing like that. You know what I had planned; all that time's wasted now, and what do I really have left except for this whisky and miserable existence?"
It looked like Forcystus was using all his self-control to not explode. "Okay, so stay here. Just sit and drink your life away, run from what's going on out there. See how much I care; after all, I only lo-" Forcystus caught himself, stopping for a second to simply glare at the other man. "You can run from him all you want, but the more you do, the more you're digging your own grave." He stood angrily, leaving Yuan at his desk to laugh humourlessly.
Forcystus spared not a glance as he walked out the door, slamming it loudly behind himself.
"Hey old man, think you could spare some dough for your only son?"
"No, and how many times have I told you to stop calling me that?"
"The only person who considers you young anymore is yourself."
"Alright, alright. I'll be around later. Don't know when exactly. Bye."
Thinking back on that conversation, he thought that maybe he'd have said something else; something meaningful and less... indifferent. Over the past however long he'd been in this place, he'd being going over that one conversation over and over in his head. Judging from the information gathered from various people who had arrived, had a drink, and left, he guessed that it had been quite a few months since his unfortunate demise; it was getting close to a year now. Lloyd had long since progressed from something strong to something stronger, and would from time to time catch himself glancing at the door (when he wasn't engaged in a conversation with someone or watching Sheena and Zelos perform, that is).
The bell rang from above the door, and a miserable-looking man trudged his way in, practically collapsing in a stool. The barkeep – Sebastian, as Lloyd now knew – was quick to receive and prepare the man's order, swiftly leaving him to his own devices. The brunet felt a faint curiosity toward the newcomer's situation, though upon considering the expression on the poor man's face decided it may be best to keep his questions to himself.
"Been a while since we've seen a new face," a familiar voice remarked from his other side. Lloyd turned to face the redhead. A familiar dame cut in before he could voice his reply, however.
"I've been getting tired of seeing your ugly mug so much. The change is refreshing," Sheena said, prompting a hurt exclamation from Zelos.
Used to this, Lloyd ignored the two. Taking some more time to wander through his thoughts, he came upon a stunning realization, and voiced it to the bickering musicians.
"In all the time I've been in this place, I've never found out how the two of you got here."
This effectively silenced the other two, and it was Zelos who replied first.
"Well, even I've got no idea about this little canary here, but there's not much for me to say about myself. I came into possession of a whole lotta old money, and my younger half-sister wanted it bad. I ran, leaving the money to rot in some bank and hoping to make it as a pianist. Never did happen – show biz is a tough deal. Sister dearest hired some P.I. to track me down and get all that wasted cash, so I saved us both some time and effort by skipping right around having to hire some expensive lawyers and 'fell' off a bridge."
Lloyd had really no idea what to say to that, and – like he always was when discussing these kind of matters with Zelos – was taken aback at the redhead's nonchalant tone. He was never sure what to make of it – was the pianist really that uncaring toward death and the like or was he just a really good actor? Even after so long in each other's company, it was impossible to say. The brunet now looked toward the one female of the group, to see her frowning in thought and staring right at him.
Still keeping her intent stare, she said, "I don't know your last name."
Did these people have some sort of subconscious need to be confusing? Wondering what she was going on about, he answered, "Aurion. Why bring it up?"
Her eyes went wide with shock. This and the fact that she started laughing hysterically after a short silence did nothing to alleviate his confusion; all he could do was sit on his stool and stare, waiting for her to collect (and hopefully explain) herself.
"Oh, Martel... Lloyd Aurion... I knew you were familiar! I knew it!" She cried out between fits of hysterics. Now becoming gradually more and more worried by the second, the brunet turned to Zelos who only shrugged – that apathy thing of his was really not helping at this point.
"Um, Sheena... Is everything alright?" He asked tentatively.
"Lloyd Aurion, you have no idea. Allow me to introduce myself; properly this time. My name is Sheena Fujibayashi, and I was a very successful dropper. I'm dead because of you."
The shock must have been written all over his face, for she laughed some more and continued. "A couple years back now, I guess it was, I got approached by some mob goons. Apparently, their boss was in need of my services; he needed to put some pressure on a wayward 'advisor', and I was to target the lug's son and wait for more instructions before I actually pulled off the hit. I got nothing but a name to go by; before I could get more information, the whole thing was resolved and by then I 'knew too much', so they zotzed me." After this, even Zelos was left speechless.
This was new. Since when had the Boss ever arranged anything so drastic?
Sheena, after regaining more of her composure, headed toward the door. While reaching out for the handle, she looked over her shoulder to add,
"That was the only thing holding me back here: the one job I never finished. Nothing personal, but I sure am glad someone got around to doing it."
She opened the door and was gone.
It wasn't an uncommon occurrence anymore for Forcystus to find Yuan passed out on the little couch in the man's office, a bottle (or two or three) lying empty on the floor beside him. For the past two years, Yuan shut himself away – as best he could, at least – from the ever-changing world. However, today he'd found the blue-haired man awake (though barely, not to mention the presence of alcohol in his system), and they had sat down together just to be with each other before Yuan gave into exhaustion and fell asleep leaning against the other man. Now Forcystus sat with Yuan's head in his lap, and he entertained himself by running his fingers through messy blue hair.
The sleeping man stirred, opening his eyes slightly before sighing and sitting up.
"Did I fall asleep?" He asked groggily, attempting to rub the oncoming headache out of his temples.
Forcystus attempted to cover up a caring look with a firm one. "For a little while," he answered softly, his tone not doing much to keep up his apparently stern attitude. He stood, picking the bottles up off the floor and depositing them in the trash before moving to look outside the window. The city looked as it always did these days; dark, grey, and imposing, holding little or no promises to those unlucky enough to be left at its mercy. This city, that had once looked so bright and full of life as cities are prone to do, had slowly but surely receded into darkness – no doubt an effect of a certain man quickly building his power and influence.
"You haven't been out lately." It was meant to be less harsh than it came out; more of an observation than a chastisement, but Yuan would have interpreted it as the latter no matter the tone the turquoise-haired man used.
Nevertheless, he chuckled, somehow finding humour in the statement. "Made good friends with these bottles here." He gestured (though the other couldn't see it) around to the few full and many half-empty bottles of Goddess-knew-what. Forcystus turned to face him, thus turning his back to the window.
"Why are you doing this to yourself?" He crossed his arms, stern look dominating over caring.
"Why do you keep coming back when I'm so obviously beyond hope?" Yuan lifted himself off the couch and moved over to where Forcystus was standing, leaving a bare few centimetres between himself and the other man. There were then hands on his shoulders, and he smirked as the turquoise-haired man gave him something akin to a pleading stare.
"You know why. I-"
The words died in his throat as a mouth was pressed firmly against his own. The kiss was more desperation than anything else, and Forcystus practically clung to Yuan. The latter's breath tasted like stale alcohol, but that didn't matter; nothing ever mattered anymore, they were all just pawns in the Boss' game anyways.
They pulled apart, but still kept close. "I can't stand seeing you like this," Forcystus said, effectively breaking the silence.
Yuan actually laughed. If that wasn't enough, he had the gall to say, "Oh, Forcy, you're such a woman."
It was only a second before the blue-haired man was sprawling on the floor, clutching at his maybe-broken jaw. There was blood coming from his mouth; he grinned through it all the same.
He grinned; even as Forcystus left in an indescribable rage, slamming the door behind himself on his way out (like so many times before; why did he keep coming back?).
The door fell off its hinges.
The passage of time felt like nothing at all in this ever-dim, constantly near-empty bar Lloyd had taken up some kind of residence in for... how long was it now? Two, three years?
In any case, it felt like barely anything at all.
After the events following Sheena's... departure, the bar had grown even more silent than it was before. Zelos, from time to time, would fiddle around on the piano, but it didn't feel the same as when the dark-haired singer was there. Actually, just about nothing felt the same.
So there Lloyd sat with Zelos at the bar, passing the immeasurable time by covering the silence with meaningless chatter. They would talk about anything and everything, though neither revealed much about himself to the other. Maybe they were just both like that. It didn't matter, at any rate.
In fact, this conversation was the most they'd spoken of themselves since… probably since Lloyd arrived at the bar.
"Anyway, my half-sister… isn't the cheeriest gal around," Zelos said, swishing around the alcohol in his glass. "Always thought the world did her some horrible wrong – which maybe it did, maybe it didn't – and I had to pay for it." He laughed his usual cynical laugh and turned to Lloyd. "You probably had better family than I ever did."
Lloyd made a slight face. "I guess. It was only really Dad, Uncle Yuan and I, but by the end there any communication between us had just about gone." He signalled to Sebastian for another drink.
Great; Zelos was giving him that look. This was no ordinary look; it was a look.
"No happy memories to speak of?"
At this, he had to think for a bit. It had been a while since he'd been alive, and even longer since his father had bothered to be more fatherly. As he thought, a flash of memories popped into mind and he smiled crookedly.
"My old man used to take me out stargazing when the sky was clear. I remember I'd fall asleep most of the time…" It was from a long time ago, but the memory lasted. Lloyd wondered at how much times had changed.
"There. Now stop moping around!" The redhead grinned, pulling his (friend?) into a one-armed hug. The brunet squawked, having almost spilled his fresh drink all over the shining wood of the bar.
"Aw, come on. You didn't actually spill it, did you? Now let's have a toast!" He raised his glass. "To eternal boredom, some of us carrying on," he glanced at the door, "and hoping the past never catches up!"
He could drink to that.
It all started with Lloyd, Yuan found himself thinking.
That day, when the boy had been born; he'd seen the Boss' eyes gleam with prospective threats, new ways to keep Kratos – himself as well, if he could admit it – under control. After that day, Yuan had always thought the man a complete idiot for not taking that precious little family of his and running as far away as he could.
(He'd never acknowledge it, but looking into the hope- and happiness-filled eyes of a newborn Lloyd was the very beginning of every plan, every strategy against the Boss.)
Then again, it was his own fault for including the boy in his plans. For depending so much – such a crucial detail – on someone like Lloyd was foolish of him. It was such a huge assumption he'd made, thinking that the boy would always be there; thinking that the Boss wouldn't dare get rid of his biggest hold over Kratos...
Yuan was a fool.
It stood to reason, then, that it all ended when Lloyd did. That dark Wednesday so many (yet so few) years ago; that was the day when years of effort all vanished. One minute, he was practically ready to set everything in motion – he had even congratulated himself early on his achievements. A bullet and a message later, the world crashed around him as he looked hopelessly onward. And he turned to the bottle... He meandered through the empty streets, taking his time – didn't seem like he was going to be running out of that. Really, he had only himself to blame. He hadn't been all too surprised when Forcystus pulled that roscoe on him.
Yuan almost smiled as he came across a dying sign, only an 'A' lit; though even that flickered every so often. The place looked just like what he needed right about then.
He hoped they had something strong.
Chapter 2: Zelos
I wrote this sometime last year and haven't edited it since, but I thought I'd share. I might do one of these for Sheena.
Not quickly, not slowly; time simply passed in this place.
That was the first thing Zelos really figured out.
It was quite the shock to be drowning one moment and standing in front of a bar the next, but if show business (that cruel mistress) had taught him anything, it was to take things in stride. He was a bit hesitant at first; it looked like a dive, and how did he even get there in the first place? Still, he opened the wooden door and entered. It was nice to be in a real bar for once – he hadn’t been to anything but speakeasies for years – and the place was warm, which was a welcome relief. The first thing to really strike him about the place wasn’t the bartender (who was giving him quite the thoughtful look) or the other patrons– it was the piano.
Honestly, he almost laughed when he saw it – one of the things that did him in, and here he was staring at it. He was too overcome with adoration for the instrument to laugh, though, and all eyes in the little room were on him as he walked over to it and ran his fingers lovingly over the keys.
Then he started to play, and it was wondrous.
People came and went. Some stayed, most didn’t. He tried the door once or twice but quickly gave up trying and resolved to spend eternity at this piano. The only indication of the passage of time was the muttered dates from those who came in for a quick drink and promptly left. It used to be that Zelos envied them for being able to pass through that door so easily, as though it took no effort at all. It used to be that way. Didn’t take long for him to get used to the fact that the door seemed to have it in for him. None of that mattered, though, as long as he had his piano.
A lot of time passed.
He really didn’t feel it, and yet it still happened. His time was spent either at the piano or at the bar, beating gums with the bartender or a particularly chatty patron. It was when he was at the piano, messing around with some improvisation that someone came up to him and asked,
“You know Moonlight Cocktail?”
Looking up, he was treated to the sight of a gorgeous dame in quite the risqué evening gown. Is that really what women were wearing these days?
“Can’t say I do, doll.” He grinned at her and asked, “Would you still be willing to join me for a drink?”
She looked decidedly unimpressed by his normally irresistible charms and dashing smile, yet it took one glance around the rest of the bar to convince her that Zelos would probably the best choice in conversation partners. They headed to the bar, where Sebastian had already thoughtfully prepared two glasses of some very fine scotch.
In the short time (only a couple of years, he gathered from talking to others) between Sheena’s and Lloyd’s arrivals, Zelos and Sheena didn’t do much talking. Mostly they performed for their small, somewhat unappreciative audience – Sebastian provided them with sheet music, the origins of which they weren’t quite willing to enquire about. But then Lloyd arrived. Lloyd, who – unlike countless others before him – was quite willing to talk, not to mention the fact that he was surprisingly trusting for someone who had grown up in the mob. It was easy (maybe too much so at times) to feed him little lies, to hide little things about his past. There was really no point in doing so except for maybe his own amusement, and maybe the fact that he was a little bit less than willing to admit that he had been a permanent fixture of this place for the past twenty-odd years.
Then somebody else came, someone who knew Lloyd.
He didn’t stay long.
Eventually, Lloyd left too.
People came and went; years passed without warning.
And Zelos played on.