This fic blossomed out of nowhere, but I'm so glad I've written it, as I've always been interested by the way certain characters interact and grow throughout the game, in a way that doesn't involve love. Please drop me a review on your way out, 'kay? I'd appreciate it!
Make no judgments where you have no compassion. -Anne Mccaffrey
Contrary to his appearance, he was alarmingly quiet on his feet. He crept around the campsite like he was looking for something, wearing an expression that appeared carefree and jovial, but his eyes were bright, oh yes; intelligent, cunning and alert. Everything about him smacked of felony.
Those eyes met his and Steiner's expression darkened. He gripped his sword so tight that his knuckles turned white beneath his iron gauntlets. Strange, that an insignificant boy could stir such fierce sentiments of dislike.
Zidane's smile wavered only a fraction before he glanced away, then he sighed in a blithe manner. "Don't you ever sleep?"
"I could ask you the same question, thief."
Without an audience to behold his poor humour, the boy expressed indifference towards Steiner, at the best mild irritation, his jokes and jabs whittled down to tired tolerance. He said, "Well, I am a thief, as you're so fond of reminding me. Thieves don't work during the day."
Steiner snorted and Zidane shot him a look.
"Thieves work where and when they can, preying on those too weak to defend themselves, regardless of social boundaries, let alone minor inconveniences such as day and night. You bully, murder and rape a living out of those undeserving of your sins, folk who toil in earnest while you take pride in sheer laziness. You spawn social plague like rats in a sewer." Steiner snorted again, fingers tight around his hilt. "I don't take your presence lightly, nor do I tolerate it. Annihilating your kind would be a favour to the planet."
Zidane stood on the otherside of the campfire, smile gone in place of a glare that burned with fury. The knight watched the fire dance in his eyes and his clenched fists tremble through the flames. Yet the boy remained silent.
Steiner smirked. "That's right. You'll have to go through me first, thief."
"If it pleases you, I think we need to talk."
There was no suggestion behind the words, just a polite command. She could have refused him, but he would only persevere another time, another day. If anything, Steiner was stubborn; she'd give him that.
So she obliged him. "Fine. Talk."
She showed her dissatisfaction through the grim line of her mouth, and Steiner read her like a book.
"Only a moment of your time, Highness. It's of the upmost import."
Garnet sighed reluctantly. Whatever it was, she was sure it was far from the top of her importance list, somewhere between 'I chipped a nail during that last battle' and 'My overalls have a grass stain on the left knee'.
"Lead on, then, Captain."
Steiner winced at her formality – Garnet's way of expressing displeasure. Regardless, he led her away from the others, a short distance from their camp, where the others were beginning the ritual of settling down for the night. There was no privacy on the open plains of the wilderness, but at least they were out of ear shot.
"It's about Zidane," Garnet stated before Steiner could say a word, "isn't it?"
The captain's mouth went from swinging open to clamping shut, as if the very mention of his name caused him to grit his teeth in anger. "Yes."
Garnet bit back her annoyance. "What now?"
Steiner paused. He lifted a hand and adjusted his helm. "You are angered by my invasion of your private matters, I understand. I'm not trying to be your father, but with respect, I feel it is my duty to offer advice where I see fit, and I see no situation fitter than this. My opinions are expressed purely from my concern of your welfare."
"What is it?"
"I can't be in your presence all the time, Highness. I only ask that you be vigilant when he's nearby. I don't trust him. He's not… one of us."
"I'm always vigilant."
Steiner threw her a despairing look. "I… yes I know, but… While I appreciate Your Highness' intelligence and outstanding capabilities during battle… Your Highness is… is… "
"Naïve?" she supplied coolly.
Steiner removed his helm as an unspoken apology and scratched his whirl of dark hair. "It's only your upbringing that causes my concern. The castle –"
"And what of your upbringing, Captain? Wasn't your father of noble ranks? Your mother a sergeant in the Alexandrian army? Rather privileged, would you not agree?"
"I was in the army; I have seen war," Steiner replied. "You were brought up by royalty. These people –" He gestured towards the camp. "His people… they will take advantage where they can. I've seen the way he looks at you…" He broke off, suddenly embarrassed, and sharply donned his helm again. "Worry not. I will remain vigilant."
Garnet sighed, feeling an itch of affection towards the knight, but more than a prickling of annoyance. She had her instincts, and they told her only truths. "He's a good person, Steiner. He's not like that."
Steiner's jaw set into a grim line. "Then I shall attempt faith in my monarch's instincts."
Rain fell from the sky in noisy droves, like a thousand wingless flies tumbling from the clouds. It was beautiful in its way, but inconvenient. Circumstance was not on their side and weather was a thing to be ignored in times of war. They had no choice but to press on.
Steiner turned to the princess who stood beneath the lip of a roof. Her eyes stared vacantly at the downpour as she clutched her arms in an attempt to ward off the chill. She'd already resigned herself to the fact they'd be trekking through the brunt of it and he felt a pang of pride and admiration that she hadn't complained once.
"We must go," Steiner urged.
Garnet blinked out of her reverie and nodded. Steiner turned and marched onward. The sounds of nature were bleached out by the metallic symphony of rain against his armour. He drew his sword in preparation for the monster attacks that would undoubtedly come, tip cocked forward in an offensive position.
After several paces he turned to check on the princess, expecting her to be close to his guard.
Garnet remained beneath the eaves, though not alone. Zidane had lingered too, and had conjured a thin sheet of cloth from his backpack – his sleeping blanket, Steiner noted, for Zidane's was patched numerous times with mismatched squares of fabric.
As Steiner watched, Zidane, with a tenderness belying his brazen grin, held the cloth over her as a makeshift balcony. Garnet took it with a shy bob of her head. Now partly sheltered from the rain, they caught up with Steiner, who had lowered his sword so the tip touched the cobbles, mouth slightly open in what could have been either disbelief or confusion.
"You know… if you paid as much attention to your armour as you did that great hulk of a sword, maybe you wouldn't be such a rust bucket."
It was night. Zidane was on watch but Steiner was yet to entrust him with the task of minding the princess while she slept, so he had taken up watch duty too. Though his honour was taking its toll, for what hours Zidane took on watch, Steiner doubled. Most nights he'd be lucky to catch a few hours' sleep, at best.
Understandably, severe sleep deprivation did nothing to quell his already frayed temper.
"Silence! I'll not have your mindless banter tonight, thief."
Steiner's glance across the campfire was brief, but he caught the simpleton's grin nonetheless and his hand twitched into a fist. He quickly averted his eyes to his sword, lest he lose control completely. The princess might never forgive him if he was to blacken that monkey's eye.
With steady, practiced motions, Steiner resumed sharpening his sword with a flat rock. It was a nightly ritual for him now; something to be done to cool his frustrations and allow his mind to settle. Not tonight though; the weight of that ever-present smirk burned his skin like a poker.
He met Zidane's gaze beneath a furrowed brow. The boy was lounging against a rock, twirling a dagger nonchalantly between his fingers. He held the knight's glare with a crooked smile.
"Can't take your eyes off me, huh?"
Steiner gritted his teeth so hard he was at risk of shattering a tooth. The sharp squeal of the rock running down the blade shattered the silence of the night, but didn't grate on Steiner as much as that boy's voice did.
"But seriously, don't you ever sleep? You look like shit, you know. Like you were on the wrong end of a Goblin Punch."
"Tch. That's not a very knightly thing to say. You're about a mile off offending me. Keep going and we'll see what happens."
Steiner grunted. "Is that supposed to be a threat?"
"Why don't you find out?"
Steiner paused, rock halfway down the blade, and met his stare again. "Picking fights? While I've come to expect as much from your kind, it's unlike you. Feeling sour, are we?"
Zidane's grin faltered. "No."
Steiner lowered his helm to hide his smirk. "You think it'll be that easy?"
"She won't fall for your cheap attempts at chivalry, thief."
Zidane stopped twirling the dagger for a heartbeat, then began again, the smile gradually returning. He gestured towards Steiner's weapon and promptly changed the subject. "Why do you bother carrying that thing around? It's heavy and slow."
"That might be true," Steienr allowed, "but for what it lacks in agility it makes up for in power."
"Daggers are better."
"I won't involve myself in such a petty debate when we both know a weapon is relative to its wielder."
"Right. I'm sleek and agile and you're fat and slow."
Steiner was almost shaking with rage, but he managed to keep his voice level as he retaliated. "You've only succeeded in demonstrating your own ignorance. You don't deserve to wield even the lowliest of daggers until your respect them for their purpose."
Zidane grunted and contemplated his dagger with a smirk. "You really think low of me, don't you? What? Just because I wasn't brought up in the army means I don't appreciate what it is to kill a man?"
"Your intentions aren't honourable."
"This is the most important item to me in the world!" he declared, holding his dagger up to the firelight. "It was given to by my boss when I was eight years old and I've kept it good an' proper since then. You'd have to kill me to get it."
Steiner likewise held up his sword. "Given to me by my father, when I turned sixteen. I, too, would rather die than part with it." He lowered it again. "And so it seems, we share some understanding of what it is to be a warrior."
Zidane stared at him, then looked away. "Whatever."
Death had many faces. They could rarely be recognised, as Death's face was mostly incongruous and its appearance rarely anticipated, even on the battlefield, so it was always a shock when it appeared. Until a person truly saw its face, they often thought it was a thing for another man to witness, and it would be saved until they lay in a bed fifty years from that day, whispering heart felt words into the ears of listening loved ones.
Steiner had seen Death's face before, oh yes, but still it shocked him. This time Death's face took the form of a grotesque green beast with tentacles that flailed around it head like war banners fluttering in a bloody wind. It had as many yellow teeth as it had yellow eyes and when it grumbled and roared great waves of purple stench licked Steiner's calves until he was positively sick with it.
Now he was on the floor, whipped to the side by a tentacle, too fast for Steiner to make an accurate account, and then the thing loomed in front of him wearing Death's face. All Steiner could see was teeth, rows and rows and rows of stinking, yellow teeth and he had a moment to panic, to regret and to repent as he acknowledged with a grim stare that Death had come to claim him.
He felt the urge to close his eyes in his final moments, but knew he wouldn't be much of a knight – much less of a man – if he did such a thing.
He thought of Beatrix.
Then Death's face was eclipsed by a spritely blur of blonde and thrashing tail. There was an explosion of colour and the air suddenly stank of coppery magick. The beast howled, blinking its many eyes, and it staggered backward. Death's face slid away and Zidane's appeared in its place, looking grim and tired and just a little bit pissed off.
"This isn't the time to be takin' a nap, old man!"
Steiner blinked up at him stupidly. He had a bitter aftertaste in his mouth and colours appeared too vivid, noises too loud. His heartbeat was a war drum in his ears.
Zidane impatiently offered him a hand. "Well?"
Steiner paused, then slapped his hand away, and half-heartedly hissed, "I'm not old."
He didn't know he was being watched.
The crowds were beginning to thin at this unholy hour of the night. In any other place, the streets would be silent hovels, but this was Lindblum, a hive of unlawful activity. The drunks and raucous had made it impossible for Steiner to sleep – and he could usually snore his way through anything. Unfortunately, his rented room was nestled beside a road busy with foot-traffic. If Steiner had known the people of Lindblum were nocturnal he would have begged Cid for a room in the castle.
He sat at the window, wearing just his breeches and shirt, though his sword rested against the wall an arm's length away. Behind him, Vivi slept in another single bed. With one elbow propped against the sill, Steiner had a perfect view of the street below, which was lit by the amber luminance of night-lamps.
Steiner had been watching him for a while now. The boy had crept off during the early evening with his fellow group of imbecilic thieves, leaving a promise to be back by dawn. Steiner could care less what the kid was up to, as long as it excluded the princess, but now he watched with mild disgust as Zidane became distracted by one of the many whores lining the street. It wasn't the act that offended him, but that the whore held a mild resemblance to Garnet, though of course far less attractive.
This apparently didn't deter the thief, for a moment later he took her by the hand and led her into the inn. Steiner heard them coming up the stairs, too-heavy footfalls indicating that at least one of them was intoxicated. He heard them slump against one of the walls, giggling and attempting to whisper.
Steiner shook his head. He could hardly judge Zidane for it, because Steiner remembered what it was to be a sixteen-year-old too, and was far from innocent himself, though it did give him reason to increase his protection of the princess. If it meant he kept his hands off her though, he could indulge himself however he pleased.
Speaking of the devil, she arrived; Steiner's heart dropped to his feet when he heard Garnet's door open in the corridor.
The knight had to solve a dilemma in less than a heartbeat. Reveal the boy for what he truly was, a womanizing thief with bad intentions and rotten roots, or maintain the princess' warped delusion of his untainted heroism.
"Zidane? Is that you?"
Steiner flew across the room and all but broke the door off its hinges to get outside. "Princess!"
She was dressed for bed, her hair a thick braid against her back and her slim figure hidden beneath a long nightdress. She was, in all respects, the polar opposite to the girl on Zidane's arm, whose outfit left little to the imagination.
Garnet's gaze returned to Zidane. "I… I'm sorry. What's… going on here?"
Steiner both cursed and thanked the gods for Garnet's innocence. He stared at the thief, catching his devastated expression and the fact that – for once- he was out of clever retorts.
Talk your way out of this one, thief.
Again, the dilemma raised its head, but in that instant Steiner began to comprehend how much of a support Zidane had become in Garnet's life, for better or worse.
In the end, there was no dilemma at all.
"She's with me," Steiner heard himself say. "Zidane was… he was, ah… he's just come back. From being out. I… we woke him."
Zidane's mouth hung open like a Qu catching flies. In any other situation, Steiner might have been amused. As it was, the way the princess' cheeks became a vibrant shade of red as she suddenly comprehended what that woman was and what she would be doing with the captain of her army was enough to wish for Ramuh's thunderbolt on his head.
"O-oh… r-right. Sorry… I um, just… I heard voices so I… thought…" She covered her cheeks with her hands, then fled with a squeaked, "Goodnight!"
Oh gods, please don't tell Beatrix please don't tell Beatrix please don't tell Bea –
"Well, this is looking to be an interesting night," the whore said. "Though if it's going to be both of you I'll be chargin' double."
Steiner slapped his palm against his forehead, acquiring an improved understanding of the word 'cringe.' "Just get in here, please."
"Ooh, I like 'em authorative."
"And you," Steiner hissed, pointing at Zidane. "Return to your room immediately. I don't want to see your wretched face until morning."
Zidane remained motionless for a while, staring closed mouthed at Steiner with an expression that the knight found hard to decipher. Gratitude? Surely not. The boy had no idea what Steiner had saved him from – and granted him respectively.
Steiner sighed. "Just get out of my sight, thief."
Zidane did as was instructed without a word of protest, tail hanging between his legs – quite literally. Steiner exhaled again, then entered the room, but what he found made him want to drag that monkey out by his tail again and beat some sense into him.
"This is my Flan card, it's not very strong but I like it 'cause it was one of my first ones. And this is a good one – it's kinda rare. Or so Zidane says… Do you know Zidane?"
The girl was perched on the end of Steiner's bed with one pencilled eyebrow raised in amusement, as a now awake nine-year-old mage obliviously showed off his Tetra cards to a whore his idol had dragged in from the streets.
The girl left after a round of Tetra Master, Vivi went to sleep rambling about how nice his new friend was, and Steiner spent the rest of the night by the window, plotting how and when he should sever Zidane's manhood.
"Hold still, you idiot simpleton, do you want to bleed to death?"
He had seen a fair share of injury and death in his time, but even he had to admit this was severe.
"I'm f-fine," the simpleton in question replied.
"Shut up! Now listen here, thief, you're going to scare the living eidolons out of her when she sees you so I'd rather keep you intact to lessen the visual impact, you understand? This is all your goddamn fault so keep still and shut up!"
The shade of white Zidane had turned was rather interesting, like someone had stuck him with a pin and let all the colour drain out. That in itself might have been worrying if Steiner hadn't spotted a flash of bone between the gory mess that had become his chest.
Steiner pressed his hand against the wound while his other worked to tear his shirt into strips. Anything to stem the flow of blood.
"You stupid idiot!" Steiner cursed again through the material gritted between his teeth. "Damn bastard monkey! Brainless son of a whore!"
"Stuh-steady o-on… R-Rusty… Y-you're a mile off offending… me…"
"I thought I told you to shut up!"
Despite Steiner's efforts, the blood continued to pump freely between his fingers, staining both their clothes and the grass beneath them. Zidane reached up and grasped Steiner's wrist, forcing his gaze.
"It…it's bad… r-right…?"
Steiner broke eye contact and stared at the deep fissure marring the boy's chest. "You're an idiot."
"Y-yeah… I… I heard that p-part."
"I've seen worse. Just keep still until Amarant returns with Garnet. If you had just fled when I told you to… Damn you, thief."
"Would've… impressed… her…"
"You moron!" Steiner shouted, tearing off another strip of material and throwing aside the sopping mess that was once his shirt. "She won't be impressed by the dragon you've killed if you in turn are killed by it! She's going to be…" Steiner trailed off, heart sinking at the thought of the princess having to see such a wound. "This is all your fault."
When he received no smart-mouthed response, he glanced at the boy and found his eyes glassy and unfocused. His breath rattled in and out of his chest and small spot of blood bubbled at the corner of his mouth. Steiner slapped him round the face and the thief winced.
"Stay awake, boy! You're not dead yet!"
Recovering his wits a little, Zidane grasped Steiner's wrist again. "Tell her… tell her that I… I'm sorry… I couldn't… protect her. Tell her that she… she's the… ugh… Just tell her –"
"You can tell her yourself!" Steiner yelled. "Get a grip, man!"
The pounding of feet on grass sounded like a rampaging bull, but Steiner recognised it immediately. He acknowledged Amarant carrying Garnet in his arms, his gargantuan limbs faster than the princess could hope to be.
As expected, Garnet visibly paled and dropped to her knees the moment she saw Zidane. A dry sob erupted from her chest as her trembling hands hovered over the bloody mess of his chest.
"Z- Zid… h-how…?"
Steiner rested a hand on her shoulder but snatched it back in horror when he saw the bloody handprint it left on her overalls. He took a steadying breath. "Princess, you must remain calm. I've done what I can; now it's up to you. Please, concentrate."
Garnet swallowed loudly, then pressed her hands against Zidane's chest. Her whole body was trembling with fear, but soon the air picked up the static of her spell, glowing green and blue like the waves of the ocean.
Fighting unconsciousness, Zidane attempted to speak again. "D-Dagger… I… I'm sorry. Just… wanted to… impress you…"
"Shhh," the princess cut him off. "Save your strength. Whatever it is you want to say can be said later."
Zidane obligingly fell silent, but lifted a hand and rested it on hers, his glazed expression softening as he stared into the princess' eyes.
For once, Steiner didn't object.
.Right and Wrong.
She'd slipped out the back door. He couldn't believe it. Out the back door! It had been locked. He'd checked it thrice and pocketed the key himself, and here it still was, knocking gently against the leather lining of his cuirass. But she'd gotten out. Again.
Steiner blanched when he realised he'd made Garnet sound like a penned animal that had escaped its cage. And he blanched again when he realised that maybe he was closer to the mark than he intended.
No, he retracted firmly. No. She wasn't caged, that wasn't right. It was for her own safety. She'd wandered around Treno before and no good had come of it. He wouldn't let her frolic around such an awful city again, not without his company anyway. Locking the door was definitely for her own good.
And it was all going so well until that interfering, ignorant, half-witted, feckless, lecherous excuse of a -
"U-um, Steiner? You're muttering…"
Steiner shook himself out of his flat, angry glare and fixed his eyes on the little mage sitting on the floor. Vivi was lying flat on his belly, kicking his legs in the air while reading a thick tomb about black magic. It was a foolish book, in Steiner's opinion; just a scholar's ramblings and half-truths, but Vivi insisted on reading it, just in case it proved fruitful. He was studious boy. Steiner liked him.
"I apologise, Master Vivi." He waved a hand in the boy's direction. "Please, don't let me interfere with your studies."
Vivi blinked up at the knight, eyes glimmering in a concerned way. "Are you mad with Zidane?"
The name made him involuntarily grit his teeth. "A little."
"He picked the lock of that door so Dagger could have a walk," Vivi said. "He said it wouldn't do her any good locked up in a dusty old room."
Steiner's emotion flitted from guilt to anger and back again and he wondered if there was an unspoken question behind what Vivi had said. He sank further into the arm chair he'd seated himself in half a bell ago, and adjusted his focus to the dancing flames in the fireplace. "There's naught that can be done to help it now."
Vivi resumed kicking his legs. "Will you go look for her?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Of course, master Vivi."
"Why do you hate Zidane so much?"
The question startled him, but not so much as the answer that sprung easily to his mind, unbidden and alien: I don't hate him. He shook it away gruffly, and felt briefly uncomfortable beneath Vivi's untainted stare.
"Perhaps… perhaps hate is a strong word," he allowed. "He and I are of two different worlds. We don't mesh well together, like frost and fire."
Vivi cocked his head and the tip of his hat drooped lazily to the side. "But we're not, um, of the same world, either. Do you hate me, too?"
Steiner startled upright. "What? No, never. Of course I don't. Vivi, you're a fine companion. Don't ever think of such a thing again."
"So what makes Zidane so different?"
The same excuse boiled listlessly to his lips. "He's a thief."
Steiner ran an exasperated hand over his face. "Should there be more to it than that?"
Vivi glanced down at his book, eyes crinkling thoughtfully. "I've been thinking a lot about this. We've travelled all over the world now and have met so many people who live in different ways. They worship different gods. They look different to me and to you and to Zidane and everyone else, and they talk different, and they do things differently. Is Freya wrong because she prays to Reis every night? Is Quina wrong because s/he lives in a hut and eats frogs? Were the people of Dali wrong because they made Mages in their factories?" He took a little, quivering breath. "It took a long time, but I decided that… well, I think that in the end, we're all just people trying to live. There's nothing wrong with the way they do things, or the way we do things. We're all just living our lives the only way we know how to live them. And you can't really hate someone for living."
Vivi levelled him with a stare that was all nervous hesitation, and he stuttered, "Th-that's what I think, anyway… Though it might not be a very good thought…"
Steiner leaned back his chair and did nothing but stare at the fire. He didn't even notice when Garnet crept back into her room, some hours after midnight.
There'd been no discussion of the matter, which would have been impossible anyway, as it was as big of a surprise to him as it was to everyone else in the audience, but even if there had been, it wouldn't have changed a thing. Beatrix has been called many awful things in her time, and yes, perhaps she was deserving of some of those names, as she had done many awful things to many people, but right now, she was far from selfish or closed-minded, so Steiner knew she would be thinking along his lines, and therefore the need to discuss the future of their queen and her imminent decision was rendered void.
Besides, who could really stop her now, as she stood before them both with those beautiful dark eyes wide and wet and quivering and eager? Her emotion could have melted the Ice Cavern (if it wasn't already half melted), so honestly, who could detain her from him?
There wasn't even a flicker of doubt in Steiner's mind. There was no dilemma, no question, no hesitation. They were meant to be together, as simple as that, and for the first time he saw through the clouds of negativity and persecution his life had forced upon him. For the first, everything was crystal clear.
Steiner smiled, and opened the door for her.