DISCLAIMER: Not mine. Never will be. Probably...
Chapter Fifteen - Of Manly Prudence
The sunset rays peeked through the barracks window. Irvine glared at the creeping light like it was responsible for his incarceration. He'd discovered how thoroughly he was stuck here when he'd almost been nailed by one of the guards on a perfectly innocent walk to the bathroom. Since then he'd not tried to do anything the least bit suspicious. If he got the chance to break away he didn't want to waste it because he was being watched too hard.
If, if, if. It didn't look exactly likely. The security round this place was tighter than Shiva's ass; he reckoned it would take three squads of SeeDs with the advantage of surprise to break through the defences. If he could get beyond the barracks without being stopped there might be half a chance he could get hold of an unattended armoured car. Getting out of the barracks was the impossible part.
Someone walked up to his door. For a second Irvine thought it was the flying instructor come back to teach him how to commit suicide again, but then the steps went past and faded away. He sighed to himself and stood up to look out the window. As he'd thought, it was a disgustingly beautiful evening. Hyne had it in for him. He just knew it.
Or maybe he's trying to give me a nice farewell, he thought glumly. If so, he's going the wrong way about it. Why can't he get half an army and the odd helicopter diverted over here and put off the fucking farewell in the first place?
An open-topped sports car was pulling into the yard. Capanni came out of the command centre to meet the newcomer just like he'd greeted Irvine the day before. But this person almost certainly was not directly involved in the rebellion. The car had no passengers and the driver was a woman, probably young, wearing a black V-neck sleeveless top that was several continents away from combat fatigues.
Irvine's gaze suddenly hardened. He had an eye for a female figure and he was sure he knew the snazzy car's driver. He watched as the car slowed down and ground to a halt - and Rinoa Heartilly jumped out.
He hadn't seen her for ten months but he would know her anywhere, that slight girl with the bounce in her step now wringing Capanni's hand and drawing his smile. When she pushed her sunglasses away from her face he saw her clearly and knew he wasn't wrong. But there was something different about the so familiar figure. He tensed up as Rinoa half-turned to enter the compound. From that angle, the wings extending from her shoulderblades were as noticeable as anything.
His eyes ran over Rinoa's body, lingering on the black-clad curves that were so neatly silhouetted by her tight jeans and low-cut top, and crept back up to her face. Was the assurance in her face a sign of her new-found independence or of something else? In the three years she'd been with Squall she'd held herself clearly subordinate to him, her 'Knight'. She'd left to support the fledgling government in Timber. She could have been expected to take charge there, to relearn the mannerisms of control. But the wings spreading over her back - white with disturbing black astrological sigils emblazoned on the centre - told a different story.
There were different kinds of power. Small-minded people confused them. Had Rinoa started flaunting her spiritual power to boost her political influence?
That didn't answer the more pressing question of what she thought she was doing here. Especially of what she thought she was doing snuggling up to Capanni.
The thought struck Irvine that Rinoa had always sided with the underdog, for sentimental reasons as much as anything. Timber and almost all the rest of the Protectorates had a legitimate claim to independence that Wilburn Hill lacked. She could well have failed to see that and come here to offer her support anyway. Either the diplomatic support of friendship between two tiny countries - or the personal support of a powerful Sorceress. Rinoa in full blast was not something any army would want to face.
So as well as Eternity Weapon we might have her to deal with. Just perfect. Those black patterns on her wings weren't there a year ago. I don't like the look of them one bit. If she's not misusing her power, I'm a Trabian.
But maybe she doesn't know all of Capanni's plans. Maybe she doesn't know about the Weapon. She might not want it smashing everywhere up. If I can tell her how mad Capanni is - she might refuse to help him. If I can just tell her...
He glanced at the locked door behind him, prayed it stayed shut, pushed the window open and waited. Whether or not it was by Hyne's intent no-one approached his room. After maybe half an hour Rinoa emerged from the command centre. And she was alone.
She was still smiling, like her discussion had gone well. He really hasn't told her, Irvine muttered to himself, and as she swung open the car door he called out, "Rinoa! Up here!"
She jumped, turned. "Irvine? Hi: I haven't seen you in ages! What are you doing here? Pytor said the SeeDs hadn't arrived yet -"
"Well, I'm here. Did your new boyfriend tell you how he's planning to flatten Esthar and take over the world?"
She just looked confused. "Flatten Esthar? What are you talking about?"
"I'll tell you later, but will you just let me out of here? Please?"
"He's hired you! You aren't supposed to leave!"
"I don't give a shit about that! Come on, Rin, please? This is the whole planet we're talking about -"
She put her hands on her hips. "You'd better have such a good reason for this -"
"He's got a Weapon!"
She raised her eyes heavenwards. "Yes, Irvine, he has plenty of weapons, but I don't see -"
"I mean a Weapon! A hulking great butt-ugly prehistoric monster! And it's hungry!"
She stared at him like she didn't want to believe it. Irvine couldn't blame her. He opened his mouth to try and convince her some more, but just then he heard banging at his door. "Shit," he whispered to himself, looking over his shoulder. "Rin, they really don't want you to know about all this. That tell you anything?"
"You could say that." She ran over to the window and cast a quick Float on herself, levitating till she could see inside. The first armed guard ran into Irvine's room. "What are you doing?" Rinoa demanded.
"Securing our premises!" He didn't look any less trigger-happy than before.
Rinoa sighed. "Fuck this," she said quietly, then raised one hand. "Irvine, get down. Sleep."
Irvine ducked as a cloud of golden dust shot out from Rinoa's fingertips and enveloped the guard. His eyes went blank and he toppled over. Caught by a wave of dizziness, Irvine stumbled and would have fallen but for Rinoa's steadying hand on his arm. "Grab his gun and get out," she ordered.
"I've got my own gun, but I'll take his ammo," and Irvine suited action to words. "Get out where?"
She frowned like he was the village idiot. "Out here," and she tapped the window frame. "Hurry. Someone's coming."
He didn't waste any time, but scrambled out of the window so quickly he almost left his hat behind. By the time he got outside Rinoa had cancelled her Float spell and had run to her car. Irvine chased after her, glancing back to the barracks. "They're after us," he panted as he jumped into the passenger seat.
Rinoa paused in the act of wrenching round the ignition key. "Then duck, unless you want a hat full of bullet-holes."
He obeyed her without thinking about it. Only when he was on the floor did he look up and ask, "What about you?"
She laughed scornfully. "You think little bullets like that can stop me?"
A shout rose up behind them. Irvine hunched further in on himself and checked his junctions. Fighting his way out of this had been his plan of last resort and he was less than pleased with Rinoa for choosing the escape route she had. She might be a sorceress, but he was a sniper with a handful of inappropriate bullets and two not particularly offensive Guardian Forces. Going into battle against disciplined troops with only Siren and Cerberus as backup was almost suicidal.
Then the bullets that were already whining overhead dropped lower, to cover the target, and started bouncing off the car. Clever. You forgot you've also got a sorceress as backup. OK, an apparently power-crazed bitch of a witch, but she's bloody good at it.
Rinoa turned in her seat and threw another Sleep spell backwards. She followed that up by smashing a flash of Flare through one of the buildings, then she floored the accelerator. The car rocketed off down the bumpy driveway. "You can get up now," she said to Irvine, sounding almost unconcerned. "And tell me more about the Weapon. It's only a few hours to Deling, but you should have time to tell me everything."
He got up - painfully - and tried to compose himself. "We're going to Deling City?"
"Because I need to warn someone about Eternity Weapon who'll listen." And the answer was obvious now; maybe he'd always known it. "Unless they were lying, they're going to try and drive it to Esthar before Galbadia. So I need to warn Laguna - and Squall. He's in Esthar now, on assignment. We need to go there."
"That means the train from Timber. But Pytor's got people down there. He'll get them to kill you if you're seen." She frowned for a moment. "You'll have to hide in the boot. I'll get my car loaded onto the train and you can babysit her all the way over the bridge." She seemed perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. Hell, she probably hadn't even thought that he might not want to spend ten hours stuffed into a car boot! She added, "How is Squall? The way he was when I left Balamb, I'm surprised he's not killed himself by now - or else I would have thought someone would have strangled him when he whined too much. Honestly, he was the end, those last few weeks."
Irvine looked at her sidelong. The ridiculous wings were folded over her arms like she was a bird. Other than that, she almost looked her normal self. She sure didn't sound it. "Squall's OK, I guess. He's going out with Seifer now."
"Honestly? I knew he liked men as well, but I didn't think Seifer would stoop to him. Where did he spring from anyway?"
Irvine was starting to get very uncomfortable. "He turned up nine months ago. He lost his memory after the war and he'd only just got it back. He still doesn't remember a thing about Ultimecia."
"Maybe I can remind him." Rinoa scowled. "Dreadful man." She pushed her hair back behind her ears as she turned the car out of the side road onto what passed for the highway. "You were going to tell me about the Weapon."
Irvine outlined Capanni's plan to entice the thing to Esthar and give it a free lunch. Rinoa heard him out in silence, but at the end she said, "If he wants to attack Galbadia with it he's doing the wrong thing, going after Esthar first. If it eats the whole city, it'll get so stuffed it'll fall asleep again for another hundred years or so. He'll have to get someone over there to wake it up again and it'll probably not be too interested for another six months."
"Since when did you know - oh, never mind. If he sets it on us -"
"When," Rinoa corrected.
"Anyway, do you know any easy ways to kill a Weapon?"
"Hit it till it falls over. Hope it doesn't absorb your favourite kind of magic." She shrugged. "There's no such easy way. But Ultima died fairly quickly. You'll have to hope it's not as strong as Omega, or half the Estharian army couldn't take it out."
"Unless we help." Irvine double-took. "You said you. You're not joining in?"
"Why should I?"
That was almost unanswerable. But . . . "You helped us save the planet once. This thing'll destroy it just as fast as time compression unless someone stops it. And we've got the best chance, and our chance'll be better if you come along."
"Except I'm not a paid soldier. I'm a private person, and I've got other things to do. I popped down here to see if I could help Pytor any as a personal favour, but I wasn't going to take long over it because I've got business in Timber. You'll have to do something for me if you want my help."
"Anything," Irvine said without thinking. He immediately cursed his quick mouth. What's got into you, woman? Last time you helped us for the good of the world. Why can't you do it again?
Rinoa smiled happily, looking far more like the girl of four years ago than the twenty-one year old sorceress who had sent half a platoon of soldiers to sleep with one spell. "That's OK, then. I just want you to kill Dr Odine."
You what? "That's it?"
"Yes. He's driving me mad and he knows way too much about my powers for my liking. Oh, and you'll have to say sorry to Pytor and go back to help him get independence for Wilburn Hill. It was very rude of you to run away like that, even if he did make a plan to destroy Esthar."
"Er - but - Laguna -"
"Will be perfectly happy. He doesn't like Odine either."
"He doesn't like random murders."
"This isn't random. Are you going to do it or not?"
This is insane. But I've got to agree; we need her help. Eternity's half as big again as Ultima Weapon was. Maybe I can get out of it later...but what'll she do if we double-cross her? What the hell. "OK, one of us'll kill him." He hesitated. "You wouldn't settle for giving him total amnesia and making him think he's a flower seller?"
"Hmm. I'll think about it. Could you let Eternity Weapon trash his lab too, before we kill it?"
"I don't know how to steer it."
"I guess I could work it out. Knock it about with a few Firas, that sort of thing." She smiled encouragingly at Irvine, projecting a reassurance he couldn't feel. "I'd get comfortable. It'll take nineteen hours to drive to Timber."
And the journey'll get less luxurious from there on. I get it. Irvine settled back in the car seat and tried to relax. It didn't work. How the hell was he meant to relax when some idiot was trying to destroy Esthar and his hopes of warning anybody all rested on a not entirely stable sorceress?
Rinoa's estimate of the travel time turned out to be almost exactly right. After a little while Irvine started to get used to her crazy driving. But when they took the last bend into Timber at just under a hundred miles an hour with Rinoa happily humming along to some rock song on the radio, he realised there was no way he would ever really get used to it. Thank Hyne it was fully dark. They didn't have time to be chased by the traffic police.
The traffic police would be hard-pressed to catch up with them. Whether it was by brute luck or thanks to Rinoa's powers, they'd speeded across the continent without so much as scraping the car's paintwork. Irvine had slept a little: Rinoa hadn't. She hadn't even taken a nap when they stopped to refuel both the car and themselves. Hyne's descendant had gone on when the SeeD failed.
"What time is it?" he asked groggily as they drove through the streets towards the station for the intercontinental railway-bridge.
"Local time? About half past midnight. The next train goes in half an hour. At this time of night they should even have room for my car in the freight section." She braked sharply to avoid a cat in the road. Irvine caught himself before his head hit the dashboard. Rinoa started to drive on, but then she frowned and pulled in to the side of the road.
"Why're we stopping?"
"You need to hide in the boot now. I'll buy two tickets and make out that my friend missed the train. Then, when we get to the other side you'll be OK."
"Why can't I just walk on with you?"
"Because Pytor's people in the train company might still see you. Get out."
He sighed and obeyed her, walking round to the back of the car. She opened up for him and he clambered into the cramped space. I am so not going to be able to walk when we get to Esthar. I've half a mind not to kill Odine, just to get back at her for this.
As soon as he'd pulled the hatch down on himself she drove off. The car bumped around for several minutes, and stopped and started a few times, then it drove up a steep ramp and onto a smooth surface. This time Rinoa cut the engine. Irvine closed his eyes, rested his head on his arms and tried to settle down. It wouldn't work properly. He was too tall; his legs were curled up in something resembling a knot. Rinoa's high-heeled footsteps faded away as she left for her carriage. Then Irvine felt the train start to move under him and resigned himself to ten hours of torture.
The tiny bit of light that crept in through a crack in the boot lid was suddenly cut off. Irvine caught his breath and slid a hand down to Exeter's barrel. The boot swung open: "It's only me," Rinoa said disdainfully as he brought his gun up to bear on the intruder. "Didn't you hear me come in? Honestly..."
Irvine stared at her silhouette, a blacker patch against the darkness of the freight car. "Nice of you to let me out, but I thought it wasn't safe."
"So did I. I got first-class tickets, and it turned out to be a private cabin. You should be able to get to it without being spotted, and we'll be OK once we're inside. Coming?" She moved off without waiting for an answer. He scrambled out and followed her, barely taking time to close up the boot.
The first-class carriage was right at the other end of the train from the freight car. Rinoa kept a lookout and made sure they hid whenever anyone came near them. Quarter of an hour after leaving the car they finally made it into their cabin. Irvine double-took as soon as he walked in; the cabin had no seats but a bed instead. A double bed. Of course; it's a night train. And Rinoa got two tickets together...and there's no way I'm sleeping in that bed tonight. I'll take the floor rather.
Rinoa exhaled in relief and threw herself onto the bed. "That's better. This feels more like a nice adventure now. I'm so tired." She kicked off her shoes and slid under the covers. "Ooh. Not so comfy. Still, I guess it's better than it might be, considering they'll turn it into a sofa tomorrow morning. Do you even sleep with your hat on?"
"I'm not tired. I slept in the car."
"Don't lie; it's rude. You're exhausted. Shy, Irvy?"
"Kind of." You aren't the Rinoa Heartilly I know. And, whatever my faults, I don't sleep with completely strange women the first day I meet them. Not since I found Selphie again.
"Don't be. I'm not in the mood to jump you tonight. Maybe later, but not now." She turned over and promptly went to sleep.
Irvine stared at her for what felt like a long time. Eventually his eyes started to droop shut. A couple of hours can't hurt. He pulled off his boots and lay down on top of the covers. It was some time before he slept.
(to be continued...)
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