Sink or Swim
by Teri Stearns and Meriko Robert

The very last thing Merrick remembered was that he was getting an impromptu swimming lesson. And considering he had never learned to swim in his life, he wasn't doing so hot.

It wasn't completely unfeasible that an adult from Midgar didn't know how to swim. Growing up in Midgar and having never left the city, there just hadn't been much opportunity. Midgar is completely landlocked, the largest body of water being the municipal pool in Sector 9 that had closed due to health violations. And you didn't want to swim there. Trust this, you just... didn't.

And then there had been the sewers, learning the routes under the city to further help him in his professional trade, when 'going under' was simply the fastest way from point A to point B without loosing anything valuable...like your head. But you didn't swim in the sewers, god no. Merrick was extremely talented and dedicated in his profession...but he wasn't insane.

So given that this was his first swimming lesson and all, it was no surprise to him that he was drowning. And that he was doing quite well...

* * *

Water? In Midgar? Where the hell had he been anyway? Maybe he'd fallen into one of the sewers after all... The last heist had been a real bitch. He'd told his contact that getting from Sector 3 to Sector 8 in fifteen minutes by foot was nearly impossible, even knowing the entire city as well as he did. But do people ever listen? Noooo... He was the best though, and if anyone could do it, Merrick could. So maybe he'd tripped on the way. Fallen in. Ha, that'd show 'em. Give him an unreasonable goal, he'd prove how impossible it was. By drowning in the sewers. Christ, what an embarrassing way for a cat burglar to die...

But, he wasn't alone. He always worked alone. But now there were voices. Far away. What were they saying?

"One one-thousand...two one-thousand...three one-thousand...NOW."

Who was that? Vincent? Strange guy he was... But he didn't count like that, he always said something funny like 'caliber' while counting off seconds or 'lima bean'. Lima bean...that was Vincent's nickname for what they were. 'In a company full of top bananas, we're nothing but lima beans to them.' Yeah...Vincent sure had his moments. Sometimes you had to look hard for them, but they were there. Hell of a guy, that Vincent, hell of a Turk...

Turk. Yeah, that was it, Merrick was a Turk. Turk, lurk, murk, shirk, quirk, berserk...

"One one-thousand...two one-thousand...three one-thousand..."

He seemed pretty insistent on that counting. What was Vincent counting for anyway? Why did he keep stopping at three? And was it him or did Vincent sound...worried? Impossible, Vincent never worried. Always playing it cool. Always looking out for him...

A warehouse. They'd been in a warehouse. Old...crumbling... A factory, maybe? They? There had been three of them. Vincent and Merrick and a woman. No, not a woman. Te-Lyn. Cursed like a sailor... Where was she anyway?

"One one-thousand...two one-thousand...three one-thousand...NOW."

A mouth covered his, hard and insistent and he felt his lungs inflate. Then pressure on his chest, pressing, squeezing him against the hard floor. Dammit, that hurt. And the counting again...

"One one-thousand...two one-thousand...three one-thousand... C'mon, Merrick...quit messing around."

Messing around? He'd been thinking of that...hadn't thought about that in a while, didn't really care...but Te... Not a woman, not just any woman... Kissing her. He remembered that...nice dream. Was it a dream? Pressing her, hard against the wall, covering her mouth with his...devouring. Nice...but not real. No, real but not... sincere.

"Was that all you could think of on short notice, you pervert?"

"Nope...but it was the most appealing option."

She'd laughed then. Thought he'd get kneed in the groin for sure, but instead she'd laughed. Have to make her laugh more often...he liked it.

Another kiss? No, not a kiss. Lips against his again, opening his mouth, but not gentle, soft lips but not gentle...breathing into him. Why were they breathing for him? And hands pressing onto his chest, hard. Wanted to tell them to stop, wanted to tell them they were hurting him. But when Merrick went to open his mouth and say so, he found that he couldn't. This...wasn't good.

"One one-thousand...two one-thousand...three one-thousand..."

Pinching his nose, opening his mouth, breathing for him again. Were those Te's lips? Or Vincent's? God...it was just so hard to tell.

"Merrick, if this is your way of trying to get me to kiss you, it isn't going to work. Now quit being an ass and stop scaring me."

Definitely Te. Te was scared? Oh shit. So Te was there, breathing for him. And Vincent's voice, counting again, sounding more anxious.

"Breath, Merrick. Goddammit, BREATHE," someone said.

Iím trying like hell, guys, I swear to you I am.

Experimentally, Merrick took a breath and found that his lungs ached and burned. He gasped, but couldn't hold it in and coughed violently. Wetness on his lips from the coughing, he was choking, gagging from the water spraying from his lungs. Hands quickly turned him over on his side and he continued coughing, warm water trickling out of his mouth.

"It's ok, Merrick, it's ok..." Te's voice again. This time she didn't sound angry or scared, though. She was relieved. Finally the seizures stopped and he was turned over onto his back again, his head pillowed in a soft, dry lap. He could feel his wet, soggy suit cold and clinging to him to like heavy film, his damp hair was being pushed back off his forehead by gentle fingers.

"Merrick, talk to me," Vincent said sternly. "Say something...say anything. You're breathing now...you're ok."

Merrick wasn't sure who Vincent was trying to convince more, Merrick or himself. Slitting one eye, Merrick looked up into the faces of his two friends, blurry but definitely there. Vincent, also soaking wet and hovering over him, and Te sitting above his head smoothing his hair back from his face. "Talk to me, Merrick," Vincent pleaded.

"Did...get 'em?" Merrick managed to rasp out. "Did we get the bad guys?"

Breathing an explosive sigh of relief, Vincent collapsed on top of Merrick's chest. His sternum ached from the compressions, but he didn't mind so much. From the sound of their voices, Merrick could tell that both Vincent and Te-Lyn had actually been scared...scared for him...and if they each needed a little contact right now to assure that their friend was safe, Merrick didn't mind one damn bit.

Collecting himself and sitting up by Merrick's side, Vincent folded his legs under him and shook his head. "Merrick..." Vincent said with a tired laugh. "We are the bad guys."

Merrick attempted a weak laugh at this, but it only turned into another throat-tearing coughing fit which nearly blacked him back out. After the fireflies stopped dazzling him, he managed to wave off Te-Lyn's hands which were pounding him on the back, and sit up on his own. The normally ascerbic blonde scooted closer to him as he pulled away, practically hovering like a mother over a sick child - not that he'd know anything about that kind of tender relationship - and if he'd been feeling up to it, he would have teased her about it.

Clearing his throat experimentally, the redhead looked to Vincent and asked in a raspy voice, "Sit?" He wasn't asking Vincent - who was still down on the floor by him and Te-Lyn - to have a seat. Normally, he would have asked for a sit-rep...situation report, or simply queried what the hell had happened, but Merrick didn't feel up to more than one syllable at a time for the moment.

After staring at the younger man for a moment or two, as if to confirm with his eyes that the man was 100% alive once more, Vincent gave a tired sigh and replied, "Fubar, I guess. So much for the best laid plans. I was right about your contact not coming alone, but I hadn't anticipated two sets of backups, that anal-retentive little backstabber."

Pointing to the blonde attendant behind Merrick, Vincent went on. "Te and I managed to dispatch the three he had stationed outside the doors, but there was a whole team just waiting in the next boathouse, and your little friend was wired." With a short pause, and another penetrating stare, he asked, "You remember any of this?"

Merrick closed his eyes and did his very best to recall any part of his life before retching up a gallon of water out of his lungs, and managed to grasp onto some fuzzy memories.

"Yeah," he said, and then cleared his throat again. Rubbing his forehead as if to massage his brain into better working order, he continued, "Yeah, I remember. You shouted...saw someone up in a window..." And then, with an incredulous tone in his voice, as if he doubted the unimpeachableness of his memory, asked in a hoarse rush, "Was that a rocket launcher?!"

"Yep," supplied a tired voice behind him. "Some idiot who was apparently trying to compensate for the world's smallest dick decided to pull out an M9A1 and use it on a 20 foot square warehouse filled with metal pipes and glass."

A mental image of the destruction that would have followed presented itself, and Merrick immediately pried open his eyes - no small feat, as he was dead tired, pun not consciously intended although entirely appropriate - and glanced upwards at Vincent once more. There was a bound wound on his arm, but it seemed to be superficial. Not finding what he was looking for, he twisted around to look at the woman behind him, and cried out before he could help himself.

Blood.

Everywhere.

Staining a field compress at her neck and the collar of her once-white shirt and running down the front, crimson blossoms of it sprayed across her cheek, one sleeve of her shirt missing entirely from its original position and reappearing as a hasty bandage on her thigh. And so many small, razor scratches that he couldn't count them all...over her hands, her wrists, her neck...

Unable to keep his eyes on her, Merrick looked beyond her, at the rest of the warehouse. The three of them were seated behind a large machine, which, with its sheer bulk, had left a small clear spot in the midst of destruction. Te-Lyn's blazer lay a few feet away, sparkling and shimmering in the dim light because of all the tiny shards embedded in it. And beyond it was a large hole in the floor, encircled by jagged chunks of wood, twisted metal pipes and sheets, and everywhere, everywhere, crystal bits of glass.

Following Merrick's eyes to the great, gaping hole in the warehouse floor, Te-Lyn actually laughed, now that the immediate danger was past, and asked, "Would you believe it? Of all the warehouses in all the industrial strips, you have to fall through the floor of the only one built right over a secret drug shop."

As Merrick turned his unwilling eyes back to Te-Lyn's bloodied form, she added, "You fell right into their water tank, and we didn't even realize it until everyone else was dead, and..." The quirked smile slipped off of her face and a fearful look came back into her eyes, and Merrick shivered involuntarily as he realized what she was remembering.

She lets loose the most filthy epithet she can think of, and as if the words were an incantation, Vincent suddenly appears before her through the dust still swirling through the ruined warehouse.

"Get that jacket off!" he barks, digging into his jacket pocket with one hand, and finger-combing her hair with the other.

"What are you - OW!" she cries, flinching away from him as unexplained pains shoot through her head, seemingly at his touch.

"You're covered in glass!" he shouts into her face by way of explaination, and then pulls out a handful of small plastic bags. After raking her from head to foot with one quick look, he abruptly grabs her chin, using the other hand and his teeth to tear open one of the compresses he took out. She eyes the medication-soaked pad with illogical wariness, by now perfectly familiar with the stinging sensation of the alcohol content, and is suitably shocked as Vincent apparently gives in to vampiric impulses.

A frown flits over his face, and then he ducks his head to her neck. A split second after her mind registeres the warmth of his lips, there's a sharp pain that nearly makes her yelp, and she wonders briefly if he's bitten her.

His head comes up, the compress comes down, and she winces while watching Vincent spit blood onto the floor, and then pick one particularly tasty sliver of glass out of his own lip.

In delayed obedience, she shrugs off her blazer, pressing her lips together against all the new pains that seem to have formed a long line in the past minute and are now clamoring for her attention. She is sat down upon a large, bent pipe, and Vincent kneels in front of her with the intent of finding out why the pool of blood she's standing on keeps expanding. Her observations that Vincent himself has not come through this fiasco unscathed is met with a grunt, and she shrugs. That's Vincent...take care of his two little babies first. As her right sleeve is sacrificed in the best interests of keeping her thigh from leaking all of her blood onto the floor, she looks around, frowns, and asks, "...where's Merrick?"

Five minutes of sheer panic follow, panic that the usually self-controlled Turk is not ashamed to own up to. They both bolt up from the floor, their own wounds forgotten for the moment, and take off in different directions, checking each body they find for a familiar shock of red hair or a blue blazer. Blonde, no...sweats, no...too fat, no. Quick glance at Vincent to see if he's found anything...no. More bodies, and then she's digging through a pile of wood because she can see one foot sticking out from underneath, but turns around as she hears Vincent shout their missing partner's name.

And she sees Vincent dive through the hole in the floor, and incredibly, hears a splash.

Te-Lyn smiled ruefully after dispelling the disturbing recent memories. "I guess I can't tease you about it very much, though...I can't swim either." And there were other reasons, of course. Like how she can't get that ball of ice out of her stomach yet, the one that took up residence in her body at the exact moment she laid eyes on Merrick floating face down in what looked like a gigantic coffee can, and how she'd thought hysterically to herself that if he was alive, she'd buy him enough coffee to fill that stupid 30 foot deep can to the very brim. And how cold his lips were, and how glassy and...and...DEAD his eyes had seemed, and how she's too busy making sure he's breathing and alive right now to tease. Things like that.

Merrick only frowned anew, and then made as if to speak, but swallowed instead, as if his throat were still too raw.

"Hey," Te-Lyn protested as lightly as she could. "Don't look at me like that. My face isn't cut up, at least."

Merrick swiveled back around as Vincent spoke up again, "Ducked away from the blast and covered her face with her arms. She got rained on pretty good but she'll be fine, Merrick. I was still outside, so I didn't catch any of it. You came through the worst, but..." Vincent slapped him on the shoulder with a tired but affectionate smile. "We're all right."

We're all right.

Merrick heard the words repeat in his head several times, as if he were trying to convince himself of it. Now physically recovered for the most part, he felt a bit shaky up in the brain department. And as if the vague dizziness in his mind were being transmitted throughout his body, he suddenly began to tremble.

We're all right.

Yes, they were all right now, but five minutes ago...five minutes ago they had not been all right. Vincent's wound was nearly ignorable, but what if it had been delivered a foot to the side? And Te...glass everywhere, even in her neck. She could have had her jugular pierced and bled out within seconds. And he himself...five minutes ago, he had been dead.

We're all right.

Yes, they were all right. No use dwelling on all the horrible what might have beens. Merrick sighed, a drawn-out shivering breath, and straightened up somewhat, liftin his head as if to say with posture what his outlook and mentality could not immediately own up to. Glancing quickly at his friends, just as they kept sneaking watchful looks at him, he caught sight of a glint in Te-Lyn's hair. Another piece of glass.

The young man raised one hand toward her hair, but stopped as he saw how his hand trembled. Three pairs of eyes watched the shaking limb for a moment, and then Merrick clenched his hand into a fist and dropped it onto one bent knee. Voice soft, Vincent asked, "Merrick?"

Looking half-apologetic, half-defiant, the redhead looked at his superior and said, "I'll be fine."

Not wanting the young man to feel as if his ability to do his job with appropriate aplomb was being questioned, Vincent replied immediately, "I know." Glancing at Merrick's hand once more, he added, "But if you're not fine in five seconds, that's all right. Hell, you nearly died...if you weren't shaken up by that, I'd be concerned."

Merrick dropped his eyes for a moment, and then shook his head. Opening both hands and holding them up before his face briefly to frown at their shaking, he explained, "I've nearly died I don't know how many times...in fact, I got used to it, I think." His fingers would not stop trembling, and so he began to restlessly chafe them together, as if the shivering of his body and the slightly panicked unease in his mind could be rubbed away by the gesture.

Vincent frowned a bit, and then glanced back and forth between his two Turks. "Then why the shaking?" he finally asked. "I'm okay, you're okay...Te will heal up fine, Merrick."

"No, it's not..." Merrick began quickly, as if impatient with Vincent's inability to guess at the cause behind his shaking. Unfair impatience, since Merrick was barely beginning to understand it himself. "I...I should be dead a hundred times over," he said hesitatingly. "And...hardly a month or even week went by when I was younger, when someone I knew didn't die...sometimes right in front of my face. But..."

As Merrick fell silent once more, Vincent prompted, "But?"

However, it was Te-Lyn, who had been watching Merrick silently all this time, who answered in a quiet voice, "But it's the first time you've cared whether you died or not, or whether someone else did."

Vincent's own stomach dropped as soon as the words left Te's mouth. Rubbing his face wearily as if to wash off the numbness he felt all over his body, he sat there for a moment trying to avoid staring at his two other companions. They looked the worst he'd ever remembered seeing. Merrick sitting beside Te as she attentively and protectively hovered near him, that odd maternal instinct that seemed to kick into Te during the worst possible situations; an act so unlike Te-Lyn and yet SO like her at the same time... And Merrick. God, the both of them...his two best friends.

And he'd nearly lost one.

For just a moment, Vincent's mind drifted to the possibility that Merrick had... He couldn't even bring himself to say it in his own mind. That Merrick had not been able to return. There. That was easier. Denial is a damn good coping mechanism when you need it to be. Nevertheless, what would he be doing now? Would Te be crying? Would he? Doubtful...Vincent wasn't sure he even knew how to do such a thing. With Te it was hard to say... But he could sit there and play what ifs in his mind until he drove himself mad, and instead there they were right next to him, alive, living and breathing, and as bruised, cut up, bloody and weary as they were, he'd never seen a more beautiful sight in his adult life.

Then why did he feel so damn numb?

He was pretty sure he was angry. But he didn't know at whom or why. Himself, most likely. Since when did he not know Merrick couldn't swim? He'd NEVER known. Not until the moment when he'd peered into the gaping maw in the middle of the floor to see the familiar blue suited, red haired form sinking further and further below the water's murky surface.

He'd dove in without a second thought. There hadn't been time to panic, no time to think. The cold water soaked him through and catapulted his brain into a series of startling realizations, but nothing compared to the one he'd had when Vincent finally managed to drag Merrick up to the top of the water's surface by his jacket collar and realize that he wasn't breathing.

Merrick wasn't breathing. Shitshitshitshitshitshitshit.

No, don't panic, don't think, no time, just act. Te had scrambled over to the side of the tank and must have somehow managed to help pull Merrick out, and then Vincent afterward. He couldn't even remember how he'd made out of the water, just that the next thing he realized he was kneeling beside Merrick and ripping open his white dress shirt, shouting at Te whose normally quick reflexes seemed to suddenly come to a complete stop as she watched, confused, while Vincent repeated over and over, "He's not breathing, he's not breathing!"

Angry. Definitely angry. But not at Merrick or Te. Rather at Fate for playing such a cruel practical joke on him. Not funny. Not in the least...

Sighing, Vincent let go some of the tension. He glanced back over to Merrick and Te-Lyn as Merrick finally reached up and managed to pull that errant piece of glass from her hair, toss it away and run his fingers through her hair one more time in the most absolute affectionate gesture Vincent had ever seen him do, while Te, mystery of all mysteries, complacently allowed it. Anyone on the entire Planet--blindfolded--could see that there was something between those two. Except the two that it happened to be right in front of, natch. Vincent was content with his third wheel status, though. Third wheel he might be, he was also the front wheel, and that made up for some of the difference. Funny thing was he knew he'd topple right over if it weren't for the two of them. Vincent smirked to himself as he watched them, and finally deciding to break the heavy mood, he said, "If you two chimpanzees are done grooming each other, I'd really like to go now."

Te looked over at him with an expression of abhorrent disgust as if he'd just suggested they all go for a casual streak through an elementary school playground, and that additional thought made Vincent want to smile even wider. Want to, but didn't. "I'm tired," he explained matter-of-factly, "pissed off, and thanks to Merrick, I'm wearing soggy underwear and shoes, and I HATE wet shoes. So if you don't mind, I'd very much not like to spend the rest of the day in a drug warehouse, thank you very much in advance."

Dumbfounded by Vincent's brief and seemingly rather inappropriate outburst, Te and Merrick exchanged glances, and shrugging, they silently collected themselves and helped each other stand on shaky legs, Te supporting Merrick by his arm as if she was afraid he'd collapse right there again. Merrick let out another weak cough and rubbed briefly at his chest, bruises beginning to purple on his flesh from the compressions. Vincent glanced worriedly at him and noticed that one of the bruises seemed to form the exact shape of his fist right over Merrick's breastplate. A pang of guilt and fear surged through him once more as he seemed to relive the experience all over again. He realized then with some trepidation that he was going to keep reliving it for some time...

"What do we do about this place?" sighed Te, motioning to the dilapidated surroundings.

"You and I," Vincent emphasized solely to her, "will come back here tomorrow and check it out. Then we can decide what to do from there. Merrick gets the next three days off. New unofficial rule number 28: Drowning on the job allows you a few days off."

"Really," Merrick began to protest in usual Merrick-like stubbornness, "I'm ok." He wasn't very convincing.

Vincent gave him a long, hard doubtful look, the reached out and poked Merrick in the chest with his index finger right over his heart. "Ow!" Merrick flinched, and doubled over slightly on reflex, his hand shooting over the bruise to cover the tender spot.

"Uh huh. I rest my case," Vincent said flatly, and turned his back to them to glance around the warehouse.

"Well, look at it this way," Te offered lightly, "At least you get three days off. Is that paid?"

"Yes," Vincent answered distractedly.

"Lucky you," she said dryly, still unwilling to let go of Merrick's arm, even though he appeared to be standing perfectly fine on his own. At this point, Te wondered who was keeping who standing. "Makes me wish that had been me instead of you..."

Merrick's eyes shot right to her face and he stared at her in shock. He couldn't even find words to begin to object to that statement. The scary thing was, he knew Te-Lyn had meant what she'd said, and that was the most horrifying part of it.

Flaring, Vincent spun on his heel pointing and accusatory finger at the two of them, his voice a low angry snarl. "And next week, I am taking the two of your right down to the Shinra company gym and I'm throwing your asses in the pool myself, and you're not getting out until you learn how to swim, you got that? Because, I swear, if you ever do that to me again--either of you, I'll..." What? Write them up? Dock their pay? Kill them? The rest of the threat died right there on his tongue and he felt ridiculously stupid for such an asinine reprimand.

Merrick reached out and gripped Vincent around a wet sleeve for just a moment. "You got it man," he said sympathetically. "We'll learn." Then, with a small, almost undetectable smile, added, "I'll even drag out my g-string just for the occasion." Te snorted and rolled her eyes, dropping his arm, while Vincent seemed to find just enough energy to manage a brief chuckle. Any other words that needed to be said seemed to die right there. It was enough...

"Let's go," Vincent sighed, and flanked Merrick on one side while Te guarded the other as they carefully picked their way through broken glass and pieces of warehouse scattered about.

"You know, Vincent," mused Te-Lyn when they were half way out. "You said you really hate wet shoes, but you didn't say anything about the underwear..."

"Te," Vincent admonished, albeit only half-heartedly. "Not now."

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