Setting 21: 2320 DAY 21, Downtown Nova Trabia Commercial District
"There is honor even among thieves."
"Finally," he hailed in exasperation and threw his cigarette away. It bounced on the roof tiles and then rolled over the edge.
Thought the lights would never go out, he muttered.
He had been waiting for nearly two cigarette-lengths‘ time in the chilly evening air whose temperature had been steadily dropping since the sun had gone down. Being so far away from the coast and sitting in the lee of the surrounding mountains, Nova Trabia was not as temperate after hours as was the beach a good distance away.
The weapons shop he had intended on breaking into across the street had closed twenty minutes late today, forcing him to wait on the rooftop of the opposite building and brave the weather in his tattered cloak.
He picked up the red cloth and peered through the bullet holes. The rest of his wardrobe was riddled with them as well. The fabric he held between his fingers was so thin that it could not even block the wind, much less bullets. If not for the fact that this cloak was the last gift from Sujie that he ever received, he would have tossed it already. He was quite sure that it did not have any functional utility whatsoever. After exhaustive testing, he had concluded that the material could not even keep a fire going for long. And it definitely was not edible.
But maybe I'm being too harsh on her, he reconsidered. After all, she did buy this for me at the Galbadia mall and it is pretty warm around those parts year-round.
He did not have the best opinion of the Galbadia shopping mall. The ludicrously high prices and no-refund policy were contributory factors to this aversion he fostered, but most significant was how she would take advantage of the fact that all he was good for was holding the bags while she tore the stores apart, one at a time, one floor to the next. She was very methodical.
He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. His free hand drifted to the scar over his heart.
I mean, it's not like she wanted me to freeze to death, he reasoned.
It was more wishful thinking than reason, given Sujie's mischievous character. He could never tell what she thinking, so her conduct was a constant surprise.
Hell, he added, half the time I can't even tell what I'm thinking.
He leaned over the edge of the roof precariously and peered at the ground floor of the bank eight stories below. The main lighting had been shut off and the dim security night-lights were slowly warming up to take their place. Restorative illumination took about two minutes. If the shopkeeper followed his routine, he would take a minute to complete the lock-up procedures and then another half-minute to set the shop's security features.
This meant that he would have about thirty seconds to descend eight flights, break in, do some lifting, and trip every wire in the store in the process without having to worry that the cameras would catch his face. Given his superhuman speed and the low level of lighting, all they would pick up was a big red blur.
He wondered briefly if the local law enforcers were getting tired of staring at a screen full of hazy, red pixels, naively viewing and reviewing them as if each new inspection would bring them closer to identifying him. Their best bet at coming up with a composite of him was to collaborate with the Garden Disciplinary Committee, but he knew that jurisdictional conflicts and inflated egos on both sides would preclude the possibility of a joint operation to arrest him.
He frowned at the memory of his run-in with the Disciplinary Committee. All the basketball players that had gotten a good look at him he had killed or permanently hospitalized. That left two people who got close enough to view his face: The trigger-happy sergeant and the blonde they called "Rinoa." He had no qualms about putting the former down for the rest of his miserable life the next time he caught up with him, but he had a soft spot for the girl. He would eventually have to decide how high a priority his anonymity was.
He chuckled at how easy it was to fool the crowd of Garden students. It was universal knowledge even in Galbadia that Squall Leonhart was the frontrunner for the position of the Nova Trabia Garden Headmaster, but the fame greatly outpaced the face. He had never seen Leonhart so he gambled that none of the trainees on the court had either. Throwing the name around and acting the part was all it took to make his little ruse a success, to the benefit of the lady in distress of course.
And what a lady she was! he reflected, whistling.
Feeling that his mind was wandering, he shook his head and grinded his teeth together.
Have to concentrate! he scolded himself. Can't be distracted by every wildflower on the side of the road or I'll never get to where I'm going.
Still, he could not wholly blame himself for occasionally digressing and dwelling on her because her perfume had been so potent that it left a lasting reminder on the front of his shirt even after a week's time had passed. She would be so much easier for him to kill if she did not smell so damned nice. When she had cuddled up against him, he had detected the scent of rose, vanilla, and something that he could not quite put his finger on. The pungency had rendered him careless, which was what allowed the sergeant to get off a cheap shot in the first place. It might have also saved her because he only went back to block the bullet for her out of his not wanting such a good smell terminated by an amateur firearm slipup.
He cracked his knuckles. He was going to look forward to ending Sergeant Jay.
The gunshot wound between his shoulder blade and sternum was healing nicely after a week, but it still ached in the mornings. It was ironic how he had the nice aroma left from Rinoa's hair on the left side of his shirt and the big bloodstain on the right. His chivalry had cost him more than he had bargained for, and it would have been an even messier situation for him had her cowboy friend not stepped in and supplied the diversion.
I suppose I owe him one, he conceded.
With his injury, he would have to be very optimistic to try to subsequently disarm the entire Disciplinary Committee without getting shot again. It was smart to be realistic sometimes; one would live longer. In his case, he was just barely able to make his escape over the wall.
For starters, he mused, I could probably get him a better gun.
Picking pockets and petty theft had been fun for the first week in Nova Trabia, but after another two, had become relatively uneventful. It was time for him to move on to bigger jobs, like the stunt he was trying to pull off now. If he successfully made off with the entire weapons arsenal, he could start over and found another underground militia. He could get back into dealing sensitive information, be it acquisition and delivery for cliental or for personal use. Information that could be exploited by blackmail or had the potential of toppling governments and institutions was in high demand in Galbadia especially, and it was highly profitable to be doing that sort of business.
This was not to say that the amount of Gil was not a reflection of the amount of danger involved in his trade. With each transaction, a new enemy was made of whomever he had relieved of the precious secret, and once wronged, no one seemed to give a damn about the proverbial "Don't shoot the messenger" defense. It was even worse when both sides were in on the game and had to bid against each other for possession of each other's or their own secrets because afterwards he would have to worry about possible set-ups in all his future transactions with both unhappy kingpins and dodge their goons in his downtime. It was the perilous lifestyle of a data mercenary that he had gotten use to over the past few years when his organization burgeoned in the wake of the mass revolutions and behind-closed-doors putsches in Galbadia.
And it had cost him everything and the one person he had ever loved.
And probably the one person who has ever loved me, he owned up.
The laws of the land dictated that orphans should spend their youth unloved. He was one of the pegs that fit perfectly into its hole. Another bylaw for those like him was to possess limited memories from their childhood and to be ignorant of their origin. To the best of his knowledge, he had sprung into the world fully grown. From where and when was irrelevant. He wasn't even sure if his life had any meaning until the day he met her.
His quest to discover his own significance might as well have been a quest to discover his significant other. Prior to that day, he had only one memory- foraging for food, resorting to stealing when it was necessary, squatting on abandoned houses and participating in street brawls. It was also his first and most monotonous memory. Before that there was nothing.
For no particular reason, he found himself wandering through a marketplace in the Galbadia countryside near a Podunk town called "Shawl's Stone." The local magistrate was Duke something-or-another, a distant relative of the Delings, and, in his opinion after stepping within the city limits for just thirty seconds, a moron. He did not know what else to call a man who had, on every wall in town, posted fliers advertising the betrothal of his daughter and to the winner of a scheduled fighting tournament the next day. To attract more suitors, he was also promising the title of half of his estate as her dowry.
Rubbish, he had scoffed. I'm sure the girl is thrilled to have daddy play matchmaker.
From the chatter of two garrulous arms-dealers, he learned that the Duke had lost his other daughter some time ago. They continued to talk about the Duke's property while he walked around their premises and looked over the weapons lying out on display under the open sky.
What a convenient way to lose the other, he fancied, eyeing a pair of silver dirks.
"If she were still alive," he mused further, "he would probably be boorish enough to promise them both to the same person."
With a slick sleight of hand, he walked away from the tent two daggers heavy with none being the wiser, proud as a peacock of having saved himself the 2500 Gil that he didn't have. It so much easier to move about unnoticed when dressed to fit a profile so low that others prefer see right past than to acknowledge. In his gray rags and unchecked hair tied in a carefree ponytail, he fit the humble mold well.
After turning at the corner and walking down two blocks, he had successfully borrowed three honeyed rice-cakes, a coconut shake, and a nicely-wrapped chrysanthemum flower, all without their venders' knowledge. He figured he could call his debt with them even because he was perfectly willing to let them have twice what he owed them if they ever asked him to repay them and if he had the means to do so. It did not bother him that his reasoning was founded on two impossible conditions.
In the middle of enjoying his coconut shake and strolling down the sidewalk at his own pace, he was interrupted by an unanticipated run-in with a young woman in a gaudy, pink skirt moving at full speed. After slamming into him, she ducked into a side alleyway without so much as a word of apology. He was left on the curb with the rest of his shake streaming down the side of his shirt and pants.
"Hey!" he called as she ran down the narrow passage between the two buildings. The space across was a shoulder's length so only one person could possibly move through at the same time.
Where is she going in such a hurry? he wondered crossly, still chaffed about the spill.
It would have made no difference if he had asked the question aloud because when he turned back around to face the street, the answer was staring at him straight in the face. It was in the form of ten guys each dressed in a suit that did not fit him. Each Mafioso came equipped with what he guessed was standard issue for them- a pair of dark sunglasses and a single gold earring. He was sure that if they all took the time to try out each other's outfits and coordinate a series of trades, they could all end up in the appropriate sizes and look respectable.
A quick check revealed that the alleyway was a dead end.
She was gradually figuring it out too but was too far in to make it back out before they closed in on the one entrance and exit.
"Why are they giving you such a tough time?" he asked as she was running back over.
"It's my first day," she explained really quickly. Looking over his shoulder, she became aware that her situation was hopeless.
"You should look into switching fields, then," he advised critically. "You look a bit young for this job."
"Hey," the girl protested with her elbow in his back, "I wouldn't be in this mess if you hadn't blocked the street and pushed me in here."
"Listen, missy, you ran into me!" he shouted lividly.
The ten fashion-design-reject bouncers were just paces away from his nose, their prey was going hysterical on his shirt, and there he was stuck numbly in the middle of it. The window of opportunity for him to escape the imminent confrontation was rapidly closing. There was still time for him to scale the walls or pull a speedy retreat.
And against his better judgment, he stayed put. In retrospect he would like to have done what he did because of chivalry or some romantic ideal, but in truth he just stood there because he did not have anything else to do that day.
Well, he thought with a sigh, too late now.
"Could you be any more conspicuous about your profession as a pimp?" he asked the man who was leading the throng.
The girl tightened her grip on his shoulders and shook them as a warning to take more caution.
"Step aside, kid," the toothless man he took to be the ringleader sneered, pulling off his shades, "unless you are dying to make your peace with Hyne."
The man cackled at his own pun. Sensing he was alone, he turned around and scowled at his cronies who then joined him in a chorus of laughter.
"But I got here first!" he cried petulantly. "Why should I be the one to move aside?"
"You're obviously new in town," the gangster hissed menacingly, "if you don't know whom we work for."
"So who are you gentlemen?" he inquired with exaggerated interest.
"Some nerve for a newcomer, " one of the henchmen whispered to another.
To him, they offered no answer. Instead, the leader of the pack grinned evilly and suggested, "Get the Ifrit out of here while you can still walk, junior."
While he was making his threat, he pulled a hatchet out of nowhere and waved it around to make his point clearer.
The girl they were after gasped and pulled him backwards on reflex into the alley.
"Don't be stupid," the man warned him further. "We just want her. This doesn't concern you."
He took a deep breath and wet his lips that were beginning to feel dry.
"What about her?" he asked without budging.
"This joint wasn't able to fork up the Gil for the daily ‘protection fee' we collect," the goon explained, humoring the lad, "so we're taking her instead."
Judging from how early it is, he guessed, I doubt they would have made any bank to pay you.
"Isn't she a little under-aged for you, old bag?" he questioned scornfully.
The man raised his hatchet and rasped, "Why you little-"
That was as far as he got because the addressee had swung his fist into his stomach. The quick blow sent him flying over the heads of his mob squad and through the store window on the opposite side of the street. The nine underlings gawked at their fallen leader sprawled among the shards of broken glass and then turned their gazes in unison back to him and the girl.
She was busy dragging him by the collar further back into the passage, completely unaware or unconcerned that she was cutting off his respiration.
He was convinced that his face was turning purple. Briefly he considered punching her so that she would let go. However, she finally did on her own volition which allowed him to stand up straight again and take some much needed gasps of air.
The narrow space between the two buildings would be a major damper on his acrobatic battle skills, which was why he preferred to fight in more open areas. Close quarter combat was more of a second nature to him. Yet, the width of the alley would only permit one assailant to face him at a time, thus precluding them capitalizing on their advantage in numbers.
The nine remaining gangsters had recovered from the initial shock of watching their leader knocked off his feet by a street urchin that on any other day they would have thought about tipping a few Gil just so they would not have to look at him. Each man pulled out his own wicked-looking machete and charged into the alleyway in single file.
His companion was frantically searching for a way to climb over the wall behind them, and upon finding no feasible method, resorted instead to grabbing onto him tightly.
"Let go," he grumbled and tried to brush her long brown hair out of his face. It was getting tangled in his own frazzled clump and severely compromising his vision.
She was clinging to him like a drowning Chimera. It was really trying not to use his fist to facilitate shaking her off in light of the tense situation and impending danger.
The bouncer who was first in line and closest to him took a swipe at his head. It was a chop that he just barely ducked under. The next slice was made to his chest region, from left to right. This one he avoided by rolling backwards along the wall, and the blade ended up striking only brick.
Before the man had a chance to draw the machete back and take another swing, he planted his left foot over the flat side of the blade and kicked the man's hand away from the handle with his right foot. The thug cried out in pain and drew back his injured wrist.
But the line was still pressing forward. With the bottom of his shoe he slid the machete off the wall and into the air. Before it reached the peak of its trajectory, he sent it flying on a new course with a quick kick aimed at an off angle. The blade spiraled past the head of the first man and ricocheted off the sides of the two buildings back and forth until it had traveled through the entire line bounced out into the street.
As if on cue, his nine assailants dropped to their feet, each covering some part of his own face and screaming in pain from cuts in his flesh or from something having been cut off. When they struggled to get back up, he punched the first bouncer in the gut that thundered on impact. The first man was close enough in proximity to the person behind him so when he flew back and struck the second, the second man hit the third, and so forth until the energy from the initial blow passed through them all and toppled them like a row of dominos. The eighth and last one in line was the least fortunate because he took the brunt of the force and was catapulted out of the alleyway and into the lamppost stemming from the curb. The metal shaft bent on impact.
Each man left in the column reached down and inspected his own stomach with the same fearful look that grieved of having a rocket shot through their abdomens. In their moment of hesitation, the youth threw his fist into the same place that it had landed the first time. The effect this time was the seventh man's being propelled from the alley.
Quickly realizing what was going on, the six men left standing all dropped onto their knees and groveled before him.
"We surrender!" they cried in harmony.
"Then apologize for this inconvenience," he ordered them sternly.
They did so convincingly.
"Now apologize to the lady," he added.
They did and she flagged them off in response. He grabbed her wrist and led her out of the cramped space, using the six kneeling men as steppingstones.
"What do you think you're doing?" she cried once they were back out in the open. "Let go of me!"
"You're welcome, ingrate," he said, trying to wipe the blood off of his shirt.
"I didn't ask you to help me," the girl responded with a degree of pomp. "I could have taken all of them myself."
"Don't flatter yourself, sweetie," he retorted. "I only helped because you owe me money."
She flagged him off and, realizing that she was dressed only half-decently, tried to get past him and back into the sanctuary of brothel. He grabbed her arm and held her firmly.
"You're not going anywhere till we settle your debt," he told her.
"What debt?" she protested. "What do you want from me?"
The sight of a beggar manhandling a struggling girl in a tight miniskirt did not go unnoticed.
"You spilled my coconut shake," he asserted accusingly.
"So let's go to the stand down the road and I'll buy you another one," she offered.
"You think you can just buy people off?" he replied angrily.
"What kind of compensation were you looking for?" she demanded with tantamount ire. "Did you want to spill a coconut shake on me and call it even?"
"That drink meant a lot more to me than just the Gil it will cost you to buy me another one," he griped.
"It's going to cost me the same amount you paid for it," the girl maintained and stamped her foot to make him take her seriously.
She happened to stamp on his foot so it was hard for him not to take her seriously. He winced and pulled his foot out from under her three-inch platforms.
To Ifrit with the latest in fashion, he rationalized gloomily. I'm convinced that they wear those things for one reason- self-defense.
"And we haven't even begun to quantify the reimbursement for physical injury and emotional distress," he pointed out in a tone less light than he would have used if he didn't have to be rubbing his toe through his worn sneaker at the same time.
She crossed her arms and shot him a condescending glance.
"My father is a rich man," she told him. "He can repay you for your services."
"Yeah, right," he replied skeptically, "and my father is the President."
The brunette placed her hands on her hips defiantly. It was either the skin-hugging skirt or her exaggerated posture that was making her thighs look extraordinarily voluptuous.
"But he is!" she insisted again, "and he will pay you."
"What kind of pampered princess would be working here?" he inquired, pointing at the sign hanging over the entrance of the brothel and looking back and forth between it and her jutting hips.
"I told you already," she explained defensively, "this is my first day. And I'm only doing it to get back at him."
"Well," he rejoined after some consideration, "you certainly do sound like a spoiled brat trying very hard to be rebellious."
"Cut the sarcasm," the prostitute in training grumbled.
He felt it was about time to change the subject so he said, "Hand me your purse."
Without waiting for a reaction, he grabbed it from her hands quicker than she would have believed.
"Help yourself," the girl remarked and rubbed her now empty hands together. There was a dash of acid in her voice.
He grunted in acknowledgement without pausing in his thorough search through her bag.
"Are you robbing me?" she asked. She could not help but lift an eyebrow at the impertinent timing.
"What does it look like?" he retorted as he counted the change in her wallaby-skin wallet.
"I'm feeling a bit violated here," the girl quipped, seeing some parts of her make-up kit and miscellaneous personals fall out of her purse and clatter against the sidewalk amidst his whirlwind search.
He ignored her for a second, staring down at the handful of coins with a disappointed look on his face.
"Over a matter of 11 Gil?" he finally responded in disbelief. "Get real, your ladyship."
"I could have you killed because of that," she threatened, eyebrows arching.
His patronizing and dismissive snort was cut short when he saw her glowering with a pair of emerald eyes so fierce and intense that he had to look away first. At the same time, though, he was mildly humored by her attitude and overall bearing, not to mention extremely impressed by her outfit.
"You don't believe that my father is a local tycoon, do you?" she asked more gently all of the sudden.
He tossed the empty wallet and the rest of the purse back into her open arms.
"Like Ifrit he is," he scoffed sardonically. Not if your wallet was any indication, cheapskate.
"No coconut shake costs 11 Gil," she astutely pointed out.
He pulled out the nicely wrapped chrysanthemum that he had stowed away in his pocket and tossed it into her hands. She was so startled that she dropped her purse but caught the flower by clapping her palms together.
"Here," he consoled her with complete and utter apathy. "This should make up the difference."
The girl gave him a wry smile when looked down and saw what she was holding.
He turned and began to walk away. If he had eyes on the back of his head he might have seen her jaw drop.
"And now you're just going to walk away?" she shouted before he could get very far.
"What do you want from me?" it was his turn to ask. "You have work to do, right?"
"Besides," he added in afterthought, "I don't even know your name."
"By my count you owe me about 7 Gil," she replied, ignoring his latter comment, "and I'm not letting you out of my sight until you return it."
"You're going to have to pry it from my cold, lifeless fingers then," he answered with his back to her still.
She chased after him in her clumsy high heels. It was a vigorous run by virtue of the length of her legs or the length of the skirt.
"Did I say you could walk with me?" he posed gruffly after he sensed that she was right on his heels.
It's probably less sugary and sweet than she is used to, he guessed.
"Well, you don't have to bark at me," she carped with a frown.
He closed his eyes and slowed down the pace of his strides so that she could catch up.
I should apologize, he thought, trying to hide a grimace.
She did not give him the chance.
"Are you going to the Duke's tournament tomorrow?" she asked.
"For that ditz?" he answered with a question and then a chuckle. "Good Shiva no."
The prostitute scowled.
"What have you heard about her?" she questioned.
"Nothing except her name, actually," he admitted, "which is more than I know about you, but I can't imagine her looks would be anything close to Miss Galbadia caliber if her father has to give away half of his province just to marry her off."
Her reaction was something between a snicker and a growl.
"The whole deal just doesn't appeal to me," he reaffirmed.
The flatness of the response she would give puzzled him.
"Good," was all she said.
There was an awkward moment of silence.
"Right," he confirmed clumsily and, sticking his hands in his pockets, continued on his way.
"What would it take to get you to go?" she checked again, pulling on his sleeve.
"Thirty Tiamats could not drag me to that tourney," he assured her.
She lifted both eyebrows and whistled. That much? What luck.
"Why?" he asked suddenly, turning to stare at her straight in the eyes. "Are you going to miss me?"
Did that sound enough like I meant it in jest? he wondered.
"I just wanted to know so that I would be better able to avoid you," she parried as rudely as possible.
He found himself stifling a cough that ought to have been feigned and then scratched his head. The situation was growing intolerable.
I can't deal with this, he realized finally. I've got to get out of here.
Having mentally thrown up his hands, the next thing he knew he was running alone in a pasture some number of miles from the city. She was nowhere within sight, and he could only imagine what she thought of him.
It can't be too good, he presumed.
He also presumed that there was nothing about the tournament that could possibly interest him enough that he might change his mind about attending.
He would be wrong on both counts.
The next day, he found himself being led to the town square by some alien force, despite the weight of Thirty Tiamats and the stigma of being a hypocrite hanging over his head. Going back on his word was making him feel grumpy, so he tried to cheer himself up by entertaining in the idea of free food and a good show. Once he got there, though, he discovered that his confidence in the abilities of the municipality's social chairman was sorely misplaced.
He had to say that it was the lousiest food that he had ever eaten. Having grown up on the streets by foraging, he had had his share low-grade nourishment and knew it well. In all seriousness, though, he wouldn't feed some of this stuff to a starving stray dog out of compassion for a fellow living animal. It was no wonder that the county was giving it away for free- the trusting, indigenous population was such an opportune avenue to dispose of the rotting surplus from the previous season and clear the storage warehouses. It was a wonder that they weren't paying him to eat it. He mulled over whether or not he would get beaten up if he asked event manager for some Gil to go see a doctor.
The main spectacle was equally pathetic and gave injury to one's tastes if not to one's stomach. Even the Duke was growing weary of hiding his boredom. The chair next to him was empty, either because his third cousin twice-removed President Deling, or his daughter, did not share his waning enthusiasm and was not in attendance. The only people who seemed genuinely interested in the fight were the three judges sitting at the table next to the Duke.
How bad the fights were turning out because of the contestants' lack of skill was mortifying to watch. The number of them that wielded swords were all wobbly-handed, those with spears did not know one end from the other, and the sole contender with the mace did not realize it was too heavy for him. The only redeeming quality about the tournament was the large turnout of participants. If he was feeling that queasy from watching them duke it out, it probably meant that the Duke was feeling even worse. However, he felt that since only one of them deserved to feel that way and he could definitely claim himself to be the victim, he decided that it was time to get going.
The moment he turned his head away from the fighters' platform he wished he hadn't; dead in front of him were fifty very suspicious-looking fellows with their right hands hidden in the left breast pocket of their jackets as if clasping a small pistol handle. From the costumes and bruises on ten of the men, he recognized them to be the same ones he had brawled with the day before in the alley. Now they had brought the whole pack and the entire arsenal, which daunted him because on so open a terrain, even a stoned sniper would eventually get lucky and hit him with that kind of firepower to work with.
"Sweet Shiva!" he exclaimed and ducked behind a barrel.
He cursed himself for being so careless. Coming to a public forum in broad daylight not twenty hours after insulting the local mafia was even more foolish than the decision he made a month ago to hotwire a Galbadian army jeep. It blew up the second after he jumped out of it. Now he could only pray that none of them happened to spot him before he dropped out of view.
"Uncle Biggs!" he heard one of them shout. "That's him! The one from yesterday!"
"I don't see anyone," the voice he took to be Biggs' answered.
If there is a Hyne, he prayed, don't let him -
"There he is, boss," one of the cronies shouted, "behind the barrel!"
And based on that one simple test that had just failed, he decided to demote his legal religious denomination from agnostic to atheist the next time he passed by the county registrar's office. The Great Hyne apparently was not going to lift a finger today.
He abandoned his hiding place for all the good it had done him and dived into the crowd.
"Nab him!" he heard Biggs order his men.
Weaving his way through the crowd, he was still keenly aware of the murmurs of bystanders getting run over by his fifty pursuers. While the sea of spectators were providing him temporary security, he could see the inevitable outcome of being encircled and overcome. Standing there looking stupefied was not helping him any, so at last he took to the air, borrowing the shoulders and heads of the unsuspecting onlookers as a bridge over the rest. He headed towards the center stage where a mad ten-versus-ten affray was taking place.
"There he goes, boss!" the men shouted over the surprised cries of the masses.
As he hopped from the last audience member's head onto the stage, he took a deep breath and geared in to try his luck. From the screams from the crowd, he gathered that the mob had drawn their handguns.
He had also just stepped in between twenty armed men fighting for the glory of half of the domain to the disgrace of one narrow-sighted lordship. It would be way too naïve to suppose that they were all fighting for the glory of the girl whose hand was in question, and with idealism becoming démodé and cynicism the latest fad, no one would blame him for thinking so.
All twenty of them, ten on each side of him, lowered their weapons and gawked at him.
"Get down!" he shouted at them, anticipating a rain of bullets. "Get off the stage!"
It sounded to them like he wanted them all to forfeit to him, and thus they looked at him like he was crazy.
Nobody ever listens to me, he remonstrated grumpily.
It was too late to explain. He calculated that the quickest way to knock all twenty of them down was to go for the larger men and have them bowl the smaller fighters over with them. Without wasting another millisecond of time, he flew at the contenders. The trick was to take their feet out from under them. Once they were in the air, they were essentially weightless and any force he applied with his fists would be translated directly parallel to the ground as if he were hitting a leaf. The skill rested in being quick enough to nail them before they touched the ground. The moment they landed on their companions, though, they regained all the weight that had been temporarily "lost" and whoever was beneath them would feel the whole package.
"Sorry," he shouted to each one as they fell off the platform and into the crowd. This is for your own good.
Within seconds his strategy had allowed him to clear the center arena and scared the audience into backing up three paces from the ring.
"He's up on stage!" Biggs hollered. "Bring me his head!"
The bouncers converged on the platform and clambered onto it, guns still in hand. The multitude gasped and shrieked at what looked like a bloody shoot-out. He doubted miserably that there would be enough local bailiffs at the carnival to match even half of the mob's firepower.
He ruled out hand-to-hand combat as a possible way out of getting gunned down. Without further hesitation, he bent down, picked up a scimitar that one of the fighters had dropped, and readied himself for a serious batting lesson.
"I know I've been an atheist for about a minute, but I'm flexible," he muttered under his breath. If there is a Hyne-
There was no way he could tell how those behind him would fire, so his tactic would be to keep moving and deflect the ones in front of him that he could see and hope they would hit each other with their misses.
Boy is Biggs going to be pissed if I walk out of this one, he told himself much too cheerfully than was prudent at the moment.
Just as he raised the light sword, he heard the first gun go off from behind him. He pivoted on reflex. The next instant was a blur during which he tried to pick out the little black specks amidst all the bright flashes and slice them while continuing to shift his body out of the way of harms he could not stop to enumerate. He felt like the runt in gym class that everyone wanted to bean for fun, not that he had ever attended school.
There were screams from the spectators as the guns sounded. After the first shot, the rest seemed to pour over him, one hardly distinguishable from the next. There was the sharp reverberance of the sword that hammered his hands whenever it struck metal, but he kept moving. Soon, the screams of his ambushers joined those of the general public. Gradually the frequency of the firing dwindled, and when there was but one shooter left of the once ominous firing squad, he was able to grip the handle with ease. He did not expect the man to put away his weapon and bolt, so when the shot rang out, he slashed and sent the bullet straight back to the source along the same trajectory and with a agonized cry, the battle was finally over.
In his hand, the originally smooth scimitar blade had been chiseled and dented into one that befitted a saw. He looked down and saw that the edges of his clothing were so perforated that he could rip it right off of him and into two pieces.
Guess it's going to be a bit draftier in the evenings now, he accepted glumly.
Biggs the figurehead was the only one in the gang who had not jumped in, and as a result, was the only other person left standing, too stunned to retreat.
He figured that he should help the stout and now gang-less gang-leader on his way, so he dropped his blade hilt-first and punted it in Bigg's direction. As the sword whizzed by Bigg's face, missing his ear by a hair's length, it broke his trance and he took off like an Ifrit out of the shower room.
The throng of spectators erupted in frenzy of applause and adulation, which caught him completely off guard.
"Identify yourself," one of the judges ordered once the crowd's fervor subsided.
He stood there looking blankly before turning around to check if there was someone else behind him. Are you talking to me?
"Give us your name, son," the second judge harried when he did not respond.
But I don't have one, he regretted.
More miserably he noted, And I am no one's son.
"Something your friends and family call you?" the last judge clarified the definition of ‘name' for him condescendingly.
There were chuckles coming from the crowd, accompanied by the high-pitched squeals of the three senile judges.
"I have neither friends nor family," he diverted honestly.
He could not hide the embarrassment that was coloring his face.
"What do you call yourself then?" the Duke himself asked. "You must have a name."
I can't believe I'm getting humiliated in front of all these people because of some stupid match- Hey! That sounds good!
"Match," he answered without hurriedly. Damn! It sounds so stupid now.
The Duke of "Shawl's Stone" turned to his second and motioned for him to check the roster on his clipboard. After flipping back and forth through the same two pages, the second shook his head.
"You're not registered, young man," the Duke announced.
"I'm not here to fight, sir," he tried to explain.
"By stepping into the circle, you've made yourself a contestant," declared the Duke.
But I don't even like your daughter, he thought it best not to say aloud.
"And it seems you've won, being the last one standing," the tycoon continued.
Big whoop, he told himself.
"Unless there are any more challengers," the elder man added, looking around.
The audience searched itself for another contender but evidently no one else was feeling lucky that day. Just when it looked like he was going win by default, a masked character jumped into ring from behind him and raised a dagger to his throat. He was very chaffed about being held at knifepoint because it was a fairly demeaning position to be in. However, it was not a hopeless situation to be in.
‘Match' elbowed his assailant, tripped him with the opposite foot at the same time, and ducked beneath the blade as the man toppled over backwards. After being knocked down, the challenger waved his weapon menacingly, figuring it would keep the other at bay while he struggled to get back up.
‘Match' figured that he could just charge the guy and land a right hook before the blade could get close to him. Right before his punch connected, though, he spotted the cryo-frozen blossom pinned to the masked man's breast pocket, recognized the petal design unique to the chrysanthemum's crown, and pulled back. His fist stopped three millimeters from his adversary's face.
I've seen that before! he realized.
He pulled the mask off the other person, revealing the face of the girl he had saved in the alley.
Seeing him almost on top of her, she drew her weapon up reflexively. The blade sank into his heart, her effort to retract her thrust once she recognized that he had hesitated being too late.
It was definitely a new experience. He hadn't quite expected his chest to sound like carrot cake when she cut into it. Maybe his sensory perception was slightly off because he was being stabbed.
He shuddered and felt his limbs shake, never having to witness blood gushing out of his own body before.
She looked even more scared than he felt, wide-eyed and apologetic.
The crowd froze in a dead hush, and he turned away and ran like the wind. He hoped his legs would carry him as far as the nearest hospital.
He must have collapsed and passed out somewhere along the way there because when he regained consciousness, she was sitting beside him with a damp towel in her hand. The room looked very institutional, as did the blanket and bandages covering him. The dagger had to have also been removed because he could no longer see its hilt sticking out of his torso.
That would be a good thing, he registered.
"Thirty Tiamats, eh?" she teased, wiping his forehead but not too busy to rub his hypocrisy in his face.
He struggled to lift his head but gave up after finding it too difficult a task.
"For the record, I just want you to know that I came here for the food," he asserted and gave her the finger.
She made a noise with her throat and then giggled.
"Even though I support your preferences," he commented, "I don't think the Duke is going to bequeath his daughter to you."
"I am the Duke's daughter, monkeybrain," she huffed critically.
"Oh," he replied with a puzzled look.
After a minute, he whistled and added, "I guess you could play it that way too."
She rubbed his wound purposefully.
"Ow!" he cried, cringing under her hand.
"Now I can choose for myself," she whispered giddily. Serves you right for even thinking that.
"Now I can die from blood loss," he echoed, not sharing her excitement.
Her initial scowl after his comment melted into an endearing pout that she complemented with an elbow to his stomach. It landed close enough to his bandaged wound to sting like a hug from Ifrit. He coughed in pain.
"I still can't believe you stabbed me!" he yelped in disbelief. Ingrate!
"I'm sorry!" the girl bawled penitently.
"I could have just stepped down and let you win," he muttered acridly.
"I said I was sorry," she mumbled.
"And I can't believe you cryo-froze the flower," remarked ‘Match' in afterthought.
She blushed and lowered her eyes.
"Well, you gave it to me," she replied with a hint of a smile at the corner of her little lips.
"I sold it to you," he corrected. And turned a profit for myself in the process.
Her eyes narrowed nastily in response to his ruining her own magical little moment.
"So your name is ‘Match'?" she asked, changing the subject.
"Until I grow tired of it, I guess," he answered earnestly. "And yours?"
"My name is complicated," she evaded and turned away. Do you really want to get involved?
"No kidding!" he shouted, glaring at his chest wound.
She laughed and then, remembering to be serious, reverted back to her guilty frown.
"Sujie," she finally told him. I hope you know what you're getting into.
He tried to sit up and tried to sneak in close enough for a kiss.
"You can't kiss me," she told him and crossed her arms.
"You meretricious, ungrateful, little wench!" he fumed, incrementing the volume on each successive word. It's the least you could do before I die!
Undaunted by his candor, she pushed him back down and clarified, "Not until you solve a riddle, that is."
Relax, wuss, her eyes conveyed to him at the same time. You're not going to die.
"What riddle?" he questioned gingerly.
"Why is the blush of the beach at midnight blue?" she posed abruptly.
"Yes, I know that one!" he shouted with artificial excitement just as she was finishing her question. It's still the afternoon, you psycho. What about midnight?
"No, really, silly," she replied, giving him a little shove, "I want an answer."
"Why do you want to know?" he asked in return and lifted an eyebrow.
"'Cause I just do; I'm a girl," she whined, pulling on his arm. "Humor me."
He hesitated, debating whether or not the excuse she had given him would have been valid in a court of law.
"Pretty please?" Sujie tried. "Just think about it."
He gave her the most unconvinced look ever.
"It's not just any riddle," Sujie explained. "It's mine."
He clasped his hands together and twirled his thumbs around each other. Okay…congratulations, you have now completely weirded me out.
"I want to know if you really like me," she explicated, sensing his uneasiness.
So stabbing me in the heart was a gesture meant to expedite this attraction? he pondered with a wry grin. Why don't you just nuke me on our anniversary?
She glared at him as if she read his last thought.
He sighed, feeling his conviction slipping away form him. She was giving him the unconquerable glance and the pout. Finally and inevitably he shrugged in defeat.
"So what does it mean once I solve it?" he grudgingly asked.
"It means I'm yours and you can keep me," she replied so gently that for one moment, all the whisperers in the world grew jealous.
He had blinked, realizing that he had never before felt so vulnerable, so fragile in his life. Of course, he had also never been stabbed in the chest in his life.
He rubbed his eyes and shifted his weight to his other foot. Keeping the same crouching position on the roof was becoming rather uncomfortable.
His head sagged after his next thought.
After all this, he had let her down. He had let her die.
Still peering down at the street in front of the weapons shop, he chided himself. I should never have taken that job in the first place.
The last professional contract he made was supposed to pay off big time, as in enough to fund his organization for a whole another year. It seemed like a routine delivery from the Shumi Village to an undisclosed drop-off point in Deling City with all the terms negotiated through the regular spider web of nameless middlemen. He should have suspected a trap when the client agreed to the outrageous fee they were charging with minimal bargaining.
The package was exactly where the client said it would be and marked with the aforesaid "Rinoa C." At the time, he simply assumed the agent who would relieve him of the package at the destination point was named Rinoa. After he had gotten hold of it, he made the run himself to reduce the chances of its interception en route. If the goods carried that high a price tag, there was sure to be some hurdles in the itinerary, otherwise he would not have been hired to see that it was done in the first place. That was his company's specialty- sidestepping danger.
It turned out to be a bad judgment call on his part. When things seemed too good to be true, they probably were, but the huge profit margin had blinded him from this fact. He did the first two legs of the route himself and then passed it to Sujie who happened to be the courier at that station. He tried to talk her out of it, but she was being her regular stubborn yet caring self and did not want him to tire himself out.
"Besides," she had argued with one her don't-argue-with-me-looks, "I know this Rinoa. Before I dropped out, we had a class together at the Trinity School for Ladies of Galbadia."
Whether what she said was true, it allayed his fears enough so that he capitulated, and so she did not elaborate on Rinoa's background. He wished he had gotten a last name first. By the time he woke up from the nap she made him take and made it back to Deling City, he found half of his band massacred by the drop site. She was among the cadavers. Those who had escaped only managed to lead the assassins back to the den where they met the same execution. It was either a set-up or the buyer had sold him out to an old enemy with some serious issues. He would have suspected Biggs if he didn't think Biggs was totally incompetent.
He also knew it was useless to try to find the identity of the client and wage his revenge against the bastard and any accomplices because the regular channels were either closed to him or willing to backstab him. The system had been bought up and his contacts' loyalties converted overnight. Having lost everything and suspecting that the credits he received were all bugged, he fled the city and the continent as the sole survivor.
Whoever was operating behind the deal had hired a team professional enough to sack his organization, which meant that they probably noticed that his corpse was not figured into the body count. So long as he was alive, their assignment was incomplete, meaning that the golden paycheck would be paid to whomever killed him first. The bounty on his head would draw every mercenary on the continent, not just the jaded team of assassins that had missed him. Under the circumstances, getting off the continent and relocating himself in Nova Trabia was a good move.
Exposing himself to a court full of basketball players, however, was not part of his plan to maintain a low profile in his new niche. If not for his catching their shouts of "Rinoa," he never would have blown his cover to investigate. His efforts were in vain, though, because the blonde was not the "Rinoa C." he was seeking; after doing some research on a public computer, he learned that Leonhart's girlfriend's last name was "Heartilly."
He did not even have the time to rescue her body before he left. The police had just finished securing the crime scene when he showed up. He did not even know which morgue the Galbadian medical crew shuffled her and their compatriots' bodies into. If he went back now, he would probably find her in pieces in some autopsy chamber swarming with forensic experts and aspiring gumshoes.
For one endowed with superhuman gifts, he felt so powerless. He would never forgive himself for not taking her away with him.
To his left, one of the lights in the sky just above the horizon suddenly vanished. It was the ultra-halogen beacon on top of the Galbadia Communications Tower, designed to keep airplanes from flying into the tower, and visible from the adjacent continents.
He checked the time on the classy watch that he had pilfered from one of the more affluent gentlemen in the city. For the past couple of weeks he had noticed with some regularity how the light would disappear late at night for a couple of hours, usually beginning around this time. Because the beacon was connected directly to the city's nuclear reactor and not through one of the auxiliary branches that served energy to the domestic and industrial sectors, the outage indicated to him that the entire city was suffering from power loss.
It was a thief's dream, but his time there was over. He had left Galbadia, its ghosts, and its goons behind him.
Still, he was curious what sort of abuse of energy use was responsible for the constant electrical shorts over Deling City. He did not think the military or the President would be foolish enough to repeatedly expose the capital to durations of blackout, during which they would be powerless against a blitzkrieg attack or well-coordinated invasion, literally. If the Communications Tower was out like the rest of the city, Deling would not be able to radio for help in the event of an emergency.
The front door of the weapons shop opened.
From his perch, he spied the unfolding events below with great interest.
The store manager stepped out first, but instead of closing the door behind him, he held it open for a second man, dressed in black and carrying a long suitcase, to step through.
Damn, he cursed silently. Didn't anticipate this.
He concentrated hard to catch what they were saying. The unexpected visitor was a late-night customer who apparently knew the manager really well. They exchanged a few more words on the sidewalk, shook hands, and then each returned to his own business.
Their conversation involved a large list of weapons to be shipped to Nova Trabia Garden in two days time for the upperclassmen who had declared their weapon of interest. He scrutinized the man in black as he headed his way down the street. From the way he walked, one could guess that he was a loner. The shape of his ebony suitcase was interesting. It was long and flat as if it were meant to hold a snowboard. A single crest of a lion's head adorned the exterior casing.
He scratched his head and tried to reason out a few things in his head.
The man doesn't look like a businessman, he observed. Just look at those jeans! So why would Garden send him to oversee supplies?
The storekeeper locked the door from the outside, put the key back in his pocket, and walked away from the store.
He got to his feet and quickly visualized in his head what he had rehearsed a dozen times already and what he was about to do: Back-flip over the edge, push off of the wall with both legs, spiral down to the opposite window ledge on the fifth floor, hop down one more flight, then propel himself over to the pole of the street lamp and slide down the rest of the way. The door to the shop could be easily removed. The success of the operation rested on how many weapons he could take off the racks and stuff in his duffel bag in the remaining time before the lights warmed up. He should be out of the store before anyone had a chance to respond to the alarms that would be triggered the second after the door was taken down.
It was time.
It was time to decide what to do about the girl. He still did not know her name.
He latched his gun-blade case onto the side of his motorbike and then inserted the key in the ignition. After getting on, though, he did not take the bike off its prop. Instead, he just sat there and let the engine run. There was so much on his mind that it made more sense to slow down and take a minute to go over everything again than to think as he went and risk fumbling it all up.
She was too precious to make a mistake with. Roughly a week had passed since he had first met her, and now, having basked in her company for so long, to him she had become more than a delicate face and her anonymity seemed to make less of a difference than he would have imagined.
To be honest, he was hoping that he would never have to see her again after handing her off to the maintenance man in the garage to deal with. With the vulnerable state that Nova Trabia Garden was in and their potentially volatile situation with Seifer the wildcard, he figured it in everyone's best interest for the time being not to go looking for distractions. He made a memo about not checking up on her in the coming days while Garden tried to ascertain her origins and then sent an email to himself as a secondary reminder.
Yet, despite that very same mindset and the weight of Thirty Tiamats, he had leapt off the cliff to save her. It was as rash an action as his jumping into space had been. Ifrit had later informed him that that was what courage was made of, but to Squall it seemed more like stupidity. Even worse, the day after he saved her, he found himself being led to her guest quarters by some alien force, despite the stigma of being a hypocrite hanging over his head. Going back on his word was making him feel grumpy, so he tried to cheer himself up by entertaining in the idea of picking up the newest issue of ‘Weapons Monthly' on the way and a good forty minutes of leisure before the next class Quistis had lined up for him. Once he got there, though, he discovered that there was no need for either because he had drastically underestimated the pleasure of her company.
Her rapid transformation from stranger to saint in the course of the week was not as shocking as it had been to him the first time because he knew how it worked now. He knew that in a matter of days one could be beholden to someone other than oneself, be it while one was liberating Timber or overseeing the construction of Nova Trabia Garden. The entire time they were together, she did not utter a single word, but in her silence he felt that he found something more compelling that words could ever express. There were no lies told between them. Whether or not there was any truth was a risk he would have to take.
When he called all his GFs out during his lunch break to ask them for a nice surprise present for her, it had been as unanimous as Cereberus would have been with a splitting headache. After thirty minutes of deliberation they had narrowed down the choices to the three best by the criterion of being cost-effective, and from there decided the winner by a heads-down vote.
"You're peeking," protested Minotaur with an accusing finger on the first try.
"Mind your own business," Bahamut had growled at the bovine midget.
Squall checked the chrono on his bike's dash and sighed.
I'm too late tonight, he regretted. All the pet shops are closed.
He was very disappointed with how the night had turned out because he had only decided against asking her out on the fourth date of the week that evening and volunteered to fill out the weapons order for Garden that had to be done in person and over the counter because he thought he would have enough time to swing by one of stores and pick up a baby chicobo. Tonberry had informed them that the word on the street was that one could actually customize the color of their fluff via engineering advances. Tonberry was also up to date on all the prices in the global market and could haggle with the store manager for the lowest feasible price.
"Blue is the new black now, eh?" Doomtrain had jeered him just before he set out for the weapons store. "I wish I had hair like that."
"That's enough out of you," Squall had snapped back. Besides, we both know you don't have any hair.
So far he had been able to avoid running into Quistis while he was with his new infatuation, but she was beginning to suspect that there was someone else monopolizing his time. He certainly would not lie to her if she came out and asked him what was going on, but he was willing to bet his A09 motorbike that she never would; it was against her nature to be invasively forward, and until she worked up the courage to breach her habit, he would have to put up with her raised eyebrows, curious expressions, and sulky manner.
He could feel that she was on the verge of asking him what ulterior motive he had for volunteering for lackey's duty of running to town and making the weapons order, but as soon as he stared into her eyes, she looked away, lips quivering, and sat back down. In a clumsy effort to divert attention away from her sigh, she picked up the bracelet-shaped relic and said she was going down to the lab center to run some tests on it. She sent Irvine to the library to comb through the books and find an identity match.
Diablos had recently produced the unidentified, sea green artifact that he had then brought to the attention of the board.
I trust the results will be back by tomorrow afternoon, he reflected optimistically.
It was unfortunate that the board found it more interesting than Seifer's whereabouts in the proximity of Nova Trabia. Irvine nearly dropped the bracelet while twirling it on his finger like a toy. Selphie wanted to add it to her scanty jewelry collection before she realized that it would never match with the rest of her wardrobe. Zell, for once, did not have an opinion.
Odd but refreshing, Squall had minded enough to characterize at the time.
It almost made him forget that the entire Shumi population was ticked off about a recently-discovered theft and jumping down Squall's throat about turning Ambassadors Dincht and Kinneas in to them and letting them carry out their trial and investigation internally. It seemed particularly important to them that the trial and punishment be performed before the investigation.
"How badly do they hate you?" Squall fumed at the two after he had seen the Shumi video transmission replay.
"We swear we didn't take anything!" they squealed synchronously.
From what Squall remembered of Shumi domestic policy from his old political science classes, they had a skewed sense of death because they would often just reincarnate into Moombas. As such, their foreign policy and jurisprudence reflected this twisted stringency and the "Guilty until dead and then proven innocent" sophism became the accepted social norm.
"Maybe they are still mad about you desecrating their timeless flipper-dipping pan," Irvine whispered to Zell.
Zell's nostrils flared as he hissed back, "I could just as well blame it on your wastebasket incident with the Nest-Mother's – aaargh!"
Irvine had just stomped on his foot to keep him from finishing his accusation.
"Quit it, you two," Squall had interceded. "This is serious; the Shumi are ready to hang you."
If his neck hadn't been on the line as well, Irvine would have laughed at the irony of how Zell had been worried the entire time that Cid was going to hang them for bringing down the Artisan's hut.
As if reading his mind which she was becoming expert at doing, Quistis threatened, "Neither of them will get the chance once I'm through with you."
Irvine got up from his seat next to Quistis and moved to an open one further down the conference table. She massaged her aching temples while he chose a safer seat and tried to convince herself that the Headmaster's ploy to use the two bumbling SeeDs to distract the Shumi and fool them into paying for the rest of the construction costs had backfired.
The real kicker was that they, for some reason, had not yet called off their deal to fund Nova Trabia Garden's construction, riled up as they were about the theft of their most sacrosanct heirloom. Another peculiar aspect of the situation was that the Shumi, in their eccentric need for secrecy, had denied the Garden the knowledge of the description and even the name of what they were contending was stolen. They did not even have a reliable date for when it had been taken out from them. Under the sketchy circumstances, Squall found it ludicrous to reprimand his two ambassadors or to help the Shumi recover whatever it was that was too highly classified to reveal.
How would we even begin to look for it if we don't know what we are looking for? he wondered.
In the back of his mind, he suspected that Seifer had played some part in causing the distress. It was the same crafty Seifer whose present location the Nova Trabia Garden intelligence team had been unable to establish and the board of officers had under-prioritized. If he as a commander let the situation sit and allowed it to fester more, it was likely to ignite and blow them all to Pandemona.
But then again, maybe it will all just blow over, he considered, indulging in a rare moment of optimism. That was the problem with him, so he had been told- his saw everything as being so dark.
One misplaced Shumi heirloom won't be the end of the world, he assured himself.
He could not have been more wrong on both counts.
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