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The Soul Within the Deep

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The sun rose beyond the forest, red in the eastern sky.  Morning light filtered through the branches, illuminating the Hidden Path.

The mountain shelf before the cave.

And a knight, stepped forward out of the dark.

~*~

For a long moment, he didn’t know where he was.

A soft patter of rain on the tent overhead and the earth beyond its shelter was undercut by a mumble of voices and the crackle of fire.

Butz pulled his tabard over his head, then buckled his belt around it.  His body felt heavy as he dragged himself out of the tent barefoot. 

Light raindrops hissed and sputtered in the campfire, across from his tent where Faris and Reina were seated.  Her voice was too low for him to hear, but Faris was animated in telling a joke; she saw him from corner of her eye as she spoke, but didn’t lose stride, grasping firmly at something invisible in front of her with both hands in emphasis as her gaze slid back to Reina.  Sitting beside her, attention rapt, the princess’s cheeks were colored a light pink, her mouth set in a regal pout and eyes wide.  Whatever the punchline was, Galuf heard it as he was passing by and laughed – a deep guffaw that engulfed the camp.

Still blushing, Reina took her leave.  A shy smile graced her lips as she passed him, moving purposefully to catch up with Galuf, and Butz smiled after her.

Faris stoked the fire with a branch as he sank down beside her.  Rain ran in rivulets down her weatherproofed jacket, but her hair was sodden, and Butz suspected he’d soon be much the same.

“Mornin’.”  Faris spared him half a glance.  “What kept ye?”

Butz shook his head.

Faris snapped the branch in half and fed it to the fire.  She inspected her fingernails briefly, then draped her arms across her knees.

“Not like there’s any rush, right?” Butz remarked.  Faris rescued him as he cast about for breakfast, handing him a plate from beside the fire.  “Thanks.  By the time we make it back to civilization, the war will be lost without us.”

They sat in silence.  Across the camp, Reina and Galuf were talking geography.  Or maybe geomancy.  Butz sighed between bites.  “This tastes better than it did last night.”

Faris turned her head towards him, eyebrows raised, but she didn’t comment.  Didn’t really need to – he got where she was coming from, but the food tasted... different.

Weird.

Good weird.

Better than it had any right to be, for half-stale provisions that were never meant to travel this far. 

A raindrop crept down his neck, under the collar of his shirt.  Another followed his cheek down to his chin and disappeared.  Faris had accumulated a fair share of them, caught in her eyelashes and between wild strands of hair.

Butz cleared his throat.

“Faris, you know I...”

Galuf called his name.

“...um.”

Half-eaten chunk of bread still in hand, he sat frozen with indecision.

Faris elbowed him.

“Right.”

Wolfing down the rest of his food, he handed her his plate.  Faris took it to stack with the rest; Butz got to his feet.

~*~

The barren deadland had turned to rocky steppes along the foothills.  Thicker brush clustered among the crags.  There was something about it.

Not wrong.

Right, somehow.

The chocobo slowed.  Without direction, perhaps even sensing his reluctance as he struggled to place the gut feeling, the bird fluttered its wings.

“I’ve been here before.”

“Ain’t like we been goin’ ‘round in circles, the mountains been south o’ us the whole time.”

“No, I mean... It’s...” Struggling for words, Butz shook his head.  “Like, I’ve been here before.”

Reina had far outpaced them – a distance ahead, she reigned their bird to a stop; pulling her weight to one side, she eased around to drift back towards them.  Her poise – expression, and head inclined – was all question, even if she couldn’t hear them.  Behind her, Galuf sat up straighter; his voice carried easily.

Hey, what’s the holdup?

Tearing his eyes away from the trees on the distant horizon, Butz scratched his fingers through his hair.

“...um.”

Faris’ grip on him loosened as he twisted in his seat, and she met his sheepish look with an expression that might have been akin to amusement.

“I be thinkin’ mayhap ye wen’ an’ hit yer head a wee bit hard when ye went flyin’ betwix’ worlds, lad.”

~*~

The sun rose beyond the forest, red in the eastern sky.  Morning light filtered through the branches, illuminating the Hidden Path to the summit.

If they reached the cave, they’d be safe.  The sun appeared over the horizon as they reached the mountain shelf before the cave.

And a knight, drawing his sword, stepped forward out of the dark.

~*~

Faris had her dagger drawn.

Startled awake, Butz found himself sitting upright.

They stared at one another.  Then, sighing, Faris sheathed the dagger, and it went back under her pillow.  She shot him a glare, and a grumble he couldn’t quite decipher, but he caught the gist of it.  Rolling over, she went back to sleep.

Galuf was still awake, on watch, for all that he appeared to be relaxing beside the campfire.  Gloceana was a wild land, after all, and it wouldn’t do to have the fabled Warriors of Light beset by devils out of the dark.

“She kick you out because you were keeping her awake,” he asked, when Butz sat down beside him, and color swiftly flooded the younger man’s face, even in the meager light of the campfire, “or because you couldn’t?”

Chuckling at the mute reaction, Galuf offered him the diminishing bowl of wildberries Reina had collected earlier in the evening while the others had made camp.

 

By early morning, the camp was packed.

The chocobo came into existence, summoned by magic.

The bird nipped at his shoulder, tasting the heavy weave of his tabard.  It might have been an illusory beast, but it was comforting.  Familiar.  And so much simpler to comprehend than the mysteries of the universe.  Butz rested his forehead against its beak.

~*~

The sun rose beyond the forest, red in the eastern sky.  Morning light filtered through the branches, illuminating the Hidden Path to the summit.

If they reached the cave, they’d be safe.  The sun appeared over the horizon as they reached the mountain shelf before the cave.

The king’s soldiers had reached the ledge before them.  And a familiar knight, drawing his sword, stepped forward out of the dark.

Justice would be done.

Beneath the newborn sun, the blade fell.

~*~

Hidden in the long shadow of the trees beneath the moonlight, Reina was standing guard.  She turned her attention from the dark of night to him as he stepped under the low branches beside her.  Her slow, gentle smile steadied him.

“Hey,” he smiled back.

“Your dreams have been troubled of late.”

“Not troubled.”  His gaze was drawn towards the mountains.  “Enlightening, maybe.”

“How so?”

“Well,” his stare fell downward, where the toe of his boot scuffed the mulch underfoot, “I’ve been thinking...”

The curve of Reina’s smile turned quizzical.

“And what precisely,” she prompted him, “has been occupying your mind so?”

Closing the distance between them, Butz raised his hand to brush his fingers across her cheek.

“I think you know.”

Dipping his face towards hers, he hesitated, a hairsbreadth from her mouth.  A shadow fell over them, and Reina gasped; she pulled back, staring past him.

Faris’ back was to the fire, her expression obscured.  The set of her shoulders, however, was tense.  Glancing to Butz, then down, Reina pressed her fingers to her mouth.  Butz merely met Faris’ stare.

With a scoff, Faris spun on her heel, back towards the fire.

“Ain’t none o’ my business,” she shot over her shoulder, “but if ye gon’ be foolin’ around like, mayhap ye ought to set someone else t’ th’ watch.”

“Faris-...” Reina’s soft voice ended where her sister curtly waved her off.  Butz, however, followed her as she walked away, grabbing for her arm.

Faris, c’mon, don’t be-...”

Faris tried to pull away; when he proved determined, she shoved him bodily to the ground.  Winded, he stared up at her in blank shock.  Reina took a step towards him, but stopped; as barely suppressed disdain flooded his face, Butz’ gaze remained locked on Faris.

“You never were much of a princess, were you?”

If it took her aback, it was barely a moment; Faris shifted her weight, and her lip curled into a snarl of derision.  “Glad of it.”

Summoned by the commotion, Galuf glanced after Faris as she passed him, headed the opposite direction, disappearing between the trees.  His inquiring gaze glazed over Butz as he picked himself up, and fell to Reina.

“What the devil is all this about?  What’s the world coming to when an old man can hardly get any sleep around here?”

 

Dawn arrived, stilted and gloomy.

When the camp was packed and the chocobos summoned, Faris pointedly hauled herself up in front of Galuf.  None of them were half the rider Butz was, although Reina came closest.

All the same, nobody seemed to mind.

~*~

Entire afternoons now after they turned south, Butz was staring at the mountains to the east.  It wasn’t that he had bothered to hide it, but it was even more evident with the distance between them; more than once, Faris followed his gaze.

“Oh, there’s a story about those mountains,” Galuf put in from behind her, “Old, old legend, about a princess who ran away with her lover, seeking the protection of the unearthly power within some cave to hide from her father’s vengeance.”

“How old?”

“Before my time.”

“Winnows it down t’bout th’ dawn o’ history.”

Galuf snorted.  “What’s on your mind, girl?”

For several long moments, the only sound was the chocobo’s talons tearing up the earth, and the wind rushing past.

“Nothin’,” Faris answered at last.

~*~

The sun rose beyond the forest, red in the eastern sky.  Morning light filtered through the branches, illuminating the Hidden Path to the summit.

If they reached the cave, they’d be safe.  The sun appeared over the horizon as they reached the mountain shelf before the cave.

The king’s soldiers had reached the ledge before them.  And a familiar knight, drawing his sword, stepped forward out of the dark.

He was a Warrior of the Light.  His soul was bound to the Crystals, a power higher than any mortal king.  Justice would be done.  If not in this life, then in another.

They forced him to his knees.  Beneath the newborn sun, the blade fell towards his neck.

~*~

The chocobo came into existence, summoned by magic.

Butz swung himself up onto its back.  He circled the camp once, then again, and on the second pass the bird rushed the campfire.  Riding low as he charged between the others, forcing them apart and on the defense, he grabbed for Reina, dragging her up in front of him; together they disappeared into the moonlight between the trees.

Craven son of a....

Faris started after them, but Galuf held her back.  Staring over her shoulder as she spun towards him, he grit his teeth.

“I think something is definitely wrong with that boy.”

“What in bloody hell tipped ye off?”

Rolling up his sleeves, Galuf set to summoning a second chocobo.

~*~

The sun rose beyond the forest, red in the western sky.  Morning light filtered through the branches, illuminating the Hidden Path to the summit.

The sun appeared over the horizon as they reached the mountain shelf before the cave.

He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the sunlight as it crept into the shadow of the cave.

The king was long dead.  The kingdom dust.  There were no soldiers blocking their path, save one.  A knight stepped forward from the shadow of the cave, a man forgotten for ages beyond memory, armor rusted and covered in lichen.

Reina shrank behind him, but Butz stood defiant.

The knight lowered his head.

“You should not have come.”

“You should never have stopped me.”

“It was my duty to stop you then.  It is my duty to stop you now.”

The knight drew his sword.  Butz drew himself into a stance.

Reina stepped between them.

The princess glanced at Butz, and to the ground at her feet, before raising her eyes to the knight himself.

“Your service to my family is ended.”

Her voice was small, and wavered, but the words were spoken.  The sword clattered to the ground, shattering to pieces; the knight dropped to his knees before her.  She reached to touch his hand where it rested upon his shoulder.

“You can rest now.”

“My lady...”

A breath whispered through weather worn stones surrounding them, and life left the empty shell of armor.  Eyes distantly empty, Reina stood over it.

Butz paced the shelf, and came to stand beside her.

“To think, there are worse fates.”

With a sigh, he stared up into the deep blue sky, and down over the cliffside, where the earth met the curve of the earth, and the earth traveled beneath the foot of the mountain.  Stiffening at the blur of motion far below the cliff face, he started towards the cave.

“Come,” Butz said, “he made his choice a thousand years ago.”

Reina didn’t move.

When he circled back to grab her arm, she pulled away, meeting his shocked expression with a cold stare.

~*~

The chocobo vanished beneath them.  Galuf, braced for it, landed on his feet; Faris hit the ground a little harder, landing in an expert crouch.  The sheer cliff fell beside them on the east side and rose above on the west; old etchings had been carved into the wall, wind worn and illegible, beneath their fingers as they made their way up the narrow path.

At the summit, the trail opened to level ground, with worn, broken pillars of what once might have been carven stone lining the open drop beyond the stage in two even rows.  The mountain peak stretched overhead, and sunlight pooled into the cave that yawned open in the raw, jagged rock face.

“Reina!”

In the middle of it all, she was sitting beside a rusted husk of armor, hands clasped together over one knee.

She didn’t so much as look up as Faris fell to her side, combing the loose hair out of her eyes.  “Ye alright, darlin’?”

Her reply was dry.  Vacant.

“He’s in the cave.”

Casting Galuf a glance, Faris shoved to her feet, and ignored him as he called after her.

~*~

The passage was deep, and steep in places where stone steps had been cut.  Small, ancient wisp lights burned like cold candlelight at even intervals along the walls.  Deeper still, there was a gentle flow of air, almost a refreshing summer breeze, drifting through the earth from somewhere further below.

Faris stilled at the sound that traveled on it.  Thin, gasping sobs that came and went and carried on an uneven breath.

Stealing through the dark, she found him huddled against the wall, arms thrown up in meager protection against the thin shadows that danced upon the surrounding stone under the flickering lights.  At first, she couldn’t decipher the jumble of words, spoken between pained gasps.

“I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry, it hurt so much I couldn’t... couldn’t make it stop...”

Her jaw clenched, and Faris seethed quietly between her teeth.  Sinking down beside him, she sought to pull his arms away from his face.

“Easy, lad.”  She scrubbed at his face with her thumb, doing little but smudging tears with dirt across his cheeks.  One wrist came to rest against his forehead, but his eyes were still bleary and unfocused, as her voice was still rough around the edges.  “What in th’ hell happened?”

“I don’t know, it... it’s gone... it left...” Fighting to steady his breathing, but Butz struggled for the words, “Went further in, I think.  It...”  Meeting her eyes, he shrank under her steady gaze.  “Faris, it hurt...”

Faris rose, hauling him to his feet, and he held on to her.  She glanced above her shoulder – not much further down, a pair of ornate doors were open to whatever lay beyond.  Butz’ grip tightened on her arms as she started to pull away.

“Wait... Faris, don’t-...” the sheer desperation pulled her back, and echoed up the stone path.  In the same breath, his voice faded to a whisper.  “...don’t leave me.”

Beneath the fear in his eyes was a familiar edge of determination that made her loathe to argue.  In the face of her indecision, he pushed.

“I can help.”

“Don’t ye be daft,” Faris growled at him.  “Ye can hardly e’en stand.”

His eyebrows knit together, and Butz shot her a shy, lopsided smile.

“I don’t...” he pointed out, around a heavy breath, “...need to stand to cast.”

Faris scoffed, shaking her head.  His smile grew brighter, and her gaze fell on the open door.

Butz hooked one arm around her elbow, and held onto her belt, leaning into her for his balance but carrying his own weight as she led the way forward.

Beyond the doors, the cave walls on either side opened into a vast garden.  Midday sunlight filtered down through shafts cut into the rock above, warmer than the wisp lights that burned along the walls.  Flowing water cut gullies at the edge of the carpet of wildgrass and flowers beneath their feet.  Stunted, twisted trees grew beside the water, and out of it, climbing along the walls.

A doorway had been cut into stone on the far side of the garden, bordered by an architrave that had been elaborately detailed.

The markings were, to Faris, indecipherable.  But it seemed the only way to go forward.

Butz arm slid under her jacket, and his hand bumped against her hip.  Faris half-turned towards him, barely perceiving the hitch as her motion freed her knife from its sheathe; she caught his hand around the pommel a moment too late, and sharp pain bloomed between her ribs.

Snarling, she shoved him away, falling back in the same; her knife slid free of her flesh and her sword slid free of its scabbard.

Butz stepped away clean.  The bloodied dagger fell to the ground at his feet. 

Dropping back into a crouch, Faris clamped her hand down over the wound; she watched Butz examine the sword with an air of dispassion.

“So savage a weapon.  So inelegant.”

Gripping the sword’s hilt with both hands, he swung it at her.  The spark of restorative magic died away between her fingers.  Catching the blade between her palms, Faris twisted it out of his grip, sending it to rest in the grass.

White magic had never been her strength, anyway.

Lunging up beneath him, she shoved into him back off his feet.  He didn’t have the wherewithal to drag her down with him, but before she could follow through, ground beneath her rippled dangerously, throwing her balance.

Staring her down, Butz pushed himself off the ground.  Faris risked a glance in the direction of her sword, before meeting his gaze.  She stiffened as he began to weave his hands, and the earth trembled in response.

“That’s enough.”

Butz paused, focus shifting.  Behind him, Faris saw from the corner of her eye, Galuf’s purposeful stride through the doors, and Reina, hiding in his shadow.

Faris dove for her sword.  Butz pulled his arms apart, ripping the earth out from under her before she could reach it.

~*~

Two candles burned in balance, one golden red, the other silvery blue, set to either side of an altar.  A small censer smoldered off-center between them, nearer the gold, set before a bronze figure, arms wrapped about its knees and sculpted hair inlaid with gemstone beads.

After an eternity of contemplating the texture of the cave ceiling, Faris picked herself up off the ground.

Everything hurt.

Especially her pride.

Rolling up the hem of her outer shirt, she stuffed it flat against the wound with her hand.  The only door was locked, the only light was that of the candles, which, past the altar itself, offered only a dark and murky gloom.

The idol caught her eye, and Faris reached for the it; blood dripped from her hand, spattering upon the crest inlaid upon the altar’s surface.  It sizzled where it fell, drawing her attention.

Easing the pressure off her side, Faris added a few drops more.  The hair on the back of her neck rose as something responded, its flavor that of the ancient and moth-eaten books that promised raw power, and she stepped back as tendrils of light drifted and danced and poured into a shape where she had been standing.

It was built in the shape of human.  Brass-scale-skin shimmered in the candlelight, and dark horns swept the length of its skull to its neck.  Sharp obsidian claws clicked together as it stood, curling its fingers.  Its eyes fluttered open, pale blue-white over dark midnight black.

One curtain of multicolor beads trailed down its chest from a flat flax band pulled taut across its broad shoulders, and another from a band across its hips.  Its hair, too, had been strung into strands that clicked and cascaded as it moved with sinewy grace.

It breathed deep, and its voice was the voice of the earth crackled with distant thunder.

“Speak, exalted one.  What do you wish of me?”

~*~

Galuf rolled up his sleeves.

Reina’s complacent expression was out of place.  Wrong, for a young woman who treasured life, had risked so much, lost so much... wrong for a woman who had now seen her only living kin swallowed by the earth itself.

Not to even speak of what was wrong with Butz.

Clenching his fists, Galuf trudged forward to meet him head on.  It might have been a trap, but they already had one megalomaniac to save two worlds from; they didn’t need this nonsense on top of it all.  The sooner they got it sorted out, by blunt force if necessary, the sooner they could get back to the real threat.

Butz stepped back, away from him, but the quirk of his mouth betrayed sheer confidence.

“Come now, old man.  Aren’t I your friend?”

“Stop it,” Reina hissed, drawing his full attention, and the cocky smile faded.

“Why should I?”

“There is no need to be so cruel.”

Galuf held out an arm, to ward her back, but she stepped forward regardless.  She shrugged him off when he tried to stop her; her cold gaze was ever on Butz.

“We could have gone anywhere in the world.  Why here?”

“Your father would have had us hunted to the ends of the earth.”

“The Djinn sealed within this cave only answers to women of royal blood.”  The words marched from Reina’s tongue evenly, and she let them hang in the air for emphasis.  “Is that all you took me for, I wonder.”

Taken aback, Butz rushed forward a step, then swayed aside as though struck.  Slowly, his wits flooded back to him, and he shook his head at the accusation.

“Of course not.”

Reina stopped, just barely out of reach, as if in challenge.  Staring down at her, Butz stepped forward; her eyes closed as his fingers brushed her cheek, and she pressed against him, arms sliding about his chest as he pulled her into his arms.

All but forgotten, Galuf tensed; uncertainly gnawing at him.  Sure, he didn’t want to hurt either of them, but... chances were chances.  If this blew up in his face, it would have been easier to take down one than both.

Before he could decide, Reina broke from the embrace.  A small, melancholy smile graced her lips as she turned away, stepping past him.  Blinking back the tears that glistened in her eyes, she reached for the leather strap that held the crystal shard around her neck...

...and lifted it gently over her head.

No!

Galuf caught her when she fell, lowering with her gently, and the shard landed in the grass.

Butz cast about the garden; he scrambled for the bloodstained dagger where it had fallen.  He stood, dagger in hand; rage and grief and desperation mingled in his expression, and the earth trembled as he raised both hands to the sky.

Unwilling to leave Reina where she had fallen, Galuf hefted her in his arms, and glared at the man who commanded the raw forces of nature.  The cavern shuddered beneath his feet...

...a deafening peal of thunder...

...and then...

...nothing.

Butz gave a pained little huff as the magic deserted him.  Then, clutching at his tabard, he glanced behind him, and raised his eyes to meet the master of the cave.

The Djinn started forward, but Faris threw her arm in front of it.

“Ohho no,” her lip curled off her teeth in a savage grin, “he’s all mine.”

Ignoring all else, Faris moved straight for him; bereft of his magic, Butz took a wide swing at her with the dagger.  It wasn’t an entirely unskilled move, but she danced easily out of its path; grabbing a handful of his shirt, she swung her fist into his face with enough force to send him sprawling.

Kicking the dagger out of reach, Faris planted her boot on his chest.  She leaned down, hooking her fingers along the hemp cord necklace to draw it out from under the hem of his shirt.  Butz grabbed her hand as it caught around the crystal shard, glaring, desperate, defiant to the end.

Faris forced the cord over his head; his fingers went limp, sliding off hers as she straightened to stand over him.

Across from them, Galuf had since sent Reina on her feet; although she still leaned into him, she held her poise.  Faris nudged Butz with the toe of her boot; he groaned, and managed to roll away from her onto his side... and otherwise seemed content with where he was.

With a heavy sigh, Faris flicked the crystal back and forth, letting the weight of the shard carry and wrap it around her hand.

The Djinn peered down at her, and she stared up at it.

“You... are certain you are royalty?”

“King o’ th’ High Sea, mate.”

It hrmmed thoughtfully.

~*~

He didn’t dream anymore.

Like being severed from the Crystals had taken something from him – something deep and primal, that was, simply, no longer his.

The quest went on, perhaps in part because it was a quest and couldn’t be set aside.  The days breezed by in a blur, long days riding along with Galuf, who at the very least didn’t seem to mind his company, for all that Butz didn’t seek him out once camp was made.

Nights were worse.  Long hours, with nothing to preoccupy his mind.  Empty.

Faris spent her time watching the fire.  Galuf did... Galuf things, like stretching exercises and arbitrary walks through the surrounding woods and butting in to make sure everyone ate dinner.  Reina drifted between their company, and gave him space – not that they had anything important to talk about.  She had put the entire experience behind her, like a bad dream, gone with the dawn.

Butz built his own fire, threw down his blankets, and kept his own company.  Pretended he was home.  But it was impossible to forget that this was a different world and that home was nowhere instead of everywhere, and here it never had been.

There, they hadn’t been able to protect the crystals.  Here, all he’d done was make things worse.

Occasionally, wandering fiends broke up the monotony.  Even that – to hold a sword, not unlike any traveler needing to defend himself in the wild – was a struggle.

~*~

His heart ached to see her smiling.

Well... smirking, really.

This was the first tavern in a new world, and Faris was already cleaning house in a game of cards.  Some things, it appeared, transcended cultures.  Or were far traveled enough. 

He hadn’t come here intentionally to watch; he’d merely followed his feet.

Butz found himself a quiet, unobtrusive corner in which to lurk.  Faris played a few rounds more, then swept her collection of battered, worn gold coins off the table and took her leave, turning her back to the jeers and calls of the men she’d bilked.  She seated herself at the bar, spent her first ten coins on a round of drinks, and set to counting the rest of her winnings.

His first thought was to slip out the door.  Of that mind, Butz took one step, then another, and his feet carried him to the bar.

Holding his breath, he reached for her.  Hesitating, he flinched back when Faris stilled, dropping her shoulder to turn and stare at him.  Her eyebrows raised in a silent question, which he didn’t have an answer for, and she went back to stacking her coins.

Climbing up onto a seat, Butz sighed.  He watched her hands move over the coins as she arranged them; they paused only when the bartender returned with a sloshing mug.  With her attention turned the other way, he curled his fingers over her hand.

It felt foolish, the way she peered at him over the brim of her drink, so he stared at her fingers instead, tracing his thumb over the roughly knitted pattern of her wool gauntlet.

In her own time, Faris set the mug down, and reached into her jacket.  Twisting her hand beneath his, she held him fast; Butz breath hitched, and his gaze flicked between the silent challenge in her face and that which she held.  She lowered the crystal shard into his upturned palm, and closed his fingers around it.  She gave his hand an amicable pat before turning back to her drink.

Cracking his fingers open, Butz stared at the missing piece for a long moment, feeling its power flow through him, as surely as if it had never left.  Then, clasping it in his hand, he crossed his arms to lean upon the bar. 

Faris paid him little mind, but neither did she seem put off by his company.  At length, he scratched an itch behind his ear.

“Credit where it’s due; you pack a hell of a punch.”

There was that raised-eyebrow question again, and Faris snickered, slapping his shoulder.  The dam broke; unable to resist it, Butz found himself chuckling right along with her.

It was better, far better, than being alone.