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The Return

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Naked, he came to him; With eyes like a banked fire, blunt fingernails caked with the coarse sand of the beach. The water that surged at his waist pulled him closer to the narrow shelf of the sandbar—Beyond it, the world plunged into the limitless dark of the ocean. He lurched forward, and the tears that struck the crest of the wave that bore him high were lost in froth and foam.

Naked, he came to him. A gift. A sacrifice.

Gladiolus Amicitia took one desperate, painful gasp of air, and the sea swallowed him.

 

Cape Caem, Eight Months Earlier:

 

"I'll be damned! If it isn't Gladiolus Amicitia, the king of Hunters!"

Gladio paused at the doorway of Dave's Bar and Grill, one hand clenched on the frame, the other resting on his travel bag. He'd avoided visiting Dave's for months—And not only because he couldn't even afford a glass of tap-water those days. No, he avoided the bar, most bars, because of people like fucking Dino. Dino, the part-time journalist and gem hunter, who had cornered Gladio on one of his good days and plied him with drinks until Gladio had, with very little provocation, stood on the table of Cindy's outdoor patio and declared himself to be the future pioneer of Lucian Hunters.

He leveled a dark scowl Dino's way, and the young man smiled.

"Back from taking out one of your legendary monsters, yeah?" Dino asked. "Lemme guess, my man. A jabberwock? A zu? Hell, maybe the Titan? Sounds up your alley."

Behind the counter, Dave cast Gladio a sympathetic look. "Came here to drink or trade, boy?"

"Both," Gladio said, pointedly avoiding Dino's curious smirk. "Still have that room out back?"

His fingers flexed over the zipper of his bag. Dave glanced at it, shrugged, and waved Gladio behind the bar.

He ignored Dino as he passed, and barely restrained himself from kicking the blonde's stool over. He had a feeling he wasn't the first to suppress the urge. When he slipped into the small, musty back room where trades between Hunters went down, he carefully turned the lock.

"What've you got, then?" Dave asked. He leaned against the wall, watching Gladio warily. "If it's voretooth spines again, I'm gonna have to pass. I'm up to my neck in those."

"Nothing like that," Gladio said. He unzipped his bag and pulled out a slippery animal skin that seemed to gleam in the dim overhead light. It felt like silk in his fingers, and the dark grey and spotted white was just as stunning as it had been when Gladio found it.

Dave leaned down to examine the perfect, unmarked sealskin on the table.

"Ain't never seen a skinning so clean," he said, in a quiet voice.

"Neither have I," Gladio said. The skin on the table had been found tossed on the rocks by the lighthouse, a misshapen lump that Gladio wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't nearly tripped over it. Now that he saw it laid out before him, with Dave tracing his fingers over the surface, Gladio felt an irrational desire to stuff it back in his bag and run. He could keep it for himself, just for a while, one precious thing in a life where beauty was a luxury. But beauty couldn't sustain him, and so he stayed still, hands locked behind his back.

"I can give you twelve hundred for it," Dave said.

"Fifteen."

"Thirteen-fifty."

"Deal," Gladio said, and took Dave's hand in his. Then Dave gingerly placed the sealskin in a box, counted out the money in Gladio's hand, and it was done. Gladio turned his back on the room, and felt the paper of his new fortune in his pockets, real enough to burn.

Later that night, he bought Dino a whiskey on the rocks just to see the man squirm. Then he'd ordered two more for himself, staggered back to his camp by the beach, and collapsed in a bedroll made warmer with the heady taste of victory.

Finally, after years of fighting tooth and nail just to scrape by, Gladio's luck was starting to turn.

He woke to the smell of the sea.

Mind still humming with the after-effects of the liquor, Gladio took a minute to realize that the water dripping onto his legs wasn't coming from the spray of the surf. He flipped on his pocket light, and a pale blur in the center of his vision slowly swam into focus, making Gladio curse and scramble for his knife.

Before him, crouching naked at the door of his tent, was the most beautiful man Gladio had ever seen.

His hips were narrow and bony, sure, and his arms, while wiry with hidden muscle, we're just short of gangly, but there was something compelling about the way the man held himself. He seemed arrested in the midst of a slow, fluid movement, his body poised like a dancer's. Dark hair dripped over high cheekbones and a rounded chin, and his eyes were bright, sharp, and blue as the mid-morning sky over Caem.

"The hell," the man said, in a voice that shook with terrible rage, "did you do with my skin?"