First thing they made her do at the Tower, after they'd scrubbed her down and rubbed stinging powder into her scalp, was stand with her arm stretched out, eye-height, teacup balanced on the back of of her hand.
None of the grey men who'd bought her from the auction or the brown women they'd handed her to told her how long she was supposed to stay like that, or what would happen if she dropped the cup. She asked the two boys standing in the room with her, the dark-haired one with an egg and the blonde with a stack of tea cups as tall as his head, but they made no move to look at her and no answer. By the time the brown women came back, the tears had stopped rolling down her cheeks, but she hadn't moved or dropped her cup.
By the time four eggs stretched along her forearm, she'd overheard enough to figure out the dark-haired boy was Kelly, and his pale shadow who never met her eyes was Clive.
They all slept in one room, on pallets stretched over wooden crates. Once she got around to asking why, they told her the room was for Sauro's students; asking who Sauro was just got her blank looks.
Two more eggs and a teacup until she met him. She first knew his presence in a shadow cast from the doorway behind them. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw Kelly stiffen, just a little, the muscles in his forearm contracting. /You tighten up any more, and that egg won't have nowhere to rest/, she told him silently. /No teacher can be worth *that*./
He must have heard her, because his muscles relaxed and the egg stayed on his arm.
A gloved hand brushed her shoulder and she jumped, sending her armful crashing to the ground. Fingers clamped around her chin when she stooped towards the mess, tilting her head back and up. Master Sauro's eyes were grey and hidden in a lined face, his gloves smelled like machine oil and sand.
"You knew I was there, Elza."
Question, or reprimand?
"Yeah. I did." Kelly jerked again in the periphery of her vision, but it was Clive who met her gaze when she glanced his way. Funny, he had grey eyes too, now she noticed. Master Sauro didn't release his grip on her chin, but a smile creased the corners of his mouth.
"You moved anyway. Why?"
"Didn't think you'd touch me." The words shoved their way past the safe answer she was trying to formulate, twisted her tongue and parted her lips before she could stop herself. "Didn't think this was that kinda place."
Sauro's smile twitched again, and he let go her chin to pat her shoulder. "No. This place is worse."
Crystal Valley was laid out in a circle, mirroring the Circle Rune that the Harmonians slapped on everything from banners to beer mugs. They'd go out in twos or threes, deliberately nonchalant, and lose themselves in the crowd. Their target was usually one of the older students, sometimes even a Squire Class. Trail or triangulate, spy and speculate, they'd stalk their prey as a team, doing their best not to be seen. To make it almost fair and set off the fact that their target was knowing, he'd be given a task he had to perform in a certain time frame, before they snagged his hat or pocket watch or slipped a blue feather into one of his pockets.
Kelly took point, Clive usually went up to the roofs and towers to be their forward cover. She'd drift somewhere between them, playing runner with messages or just marking out the territory.
Sometimes when they'd been given a full day or afternoon to fulfill their objective, they'd take the money they'd been given and splurge. No one ever bothered reprimanding them; an gunner who misspent his fee and lost his target wasn't a gunner long, but they always got their man. Once they started getting targets who weren't on to them, it got so easy they'd have the whole day to themselves, more or less.
Their best trick used Kelly's dark hair to their advantage. She'd act like a spoiled First Class girl and he'd play the part of her sniveling, Third Class servant. He'd hold a stack of boxes higher than his eyes, and by the time she'd finished berating him for jostling their target and sending her new clothes into the street, their mark would have diverted his path into a side alley or ducked into a cafe to avoid attention, and Clive would swoop down and pocket whatever correspondence or documents the Guild had sent them for.
Then they'd go buy ice cream or strawberry-rhubarb tarts.
By the time they gave her a real target, she could make a shot one-handed, hanging over backwards with her legs wrapped around a support beam, dangling in the darkness while she waited for the kill moment.
Sauro talked about that, how time was their line. All they had to do was get a good hook in their target and the shortening of time would pull him in tight.
Wait. All you had to do, he said, was wait, for the weave of life to tighten into destiny, and trip them up, straight into your sights. Just wait. Don't waste time building elaborate schemes to trap the target; let them betray themselves.
They'll walk right into it.
She hated hunting, only because it meant staying still so long. Once they actually learned to shoot, she found that she'd make any shot if she could step into it, drawing, aiming, pulling the trigger, re-holstering in one fluid movement. The recoil was easier to deal with like that; she could just divert the motion down her arm, fling it away like a cast-off garment.
Clive, though, was lost with anything smaller than a rifle, but crouched stock-still while he drew a bead on whatever critter was dinner. Every shot he made was perfect, bullet straight in one ear and out the other, ripping through in a hail of red, wet pulp and turning a deer or rabbit into so much meat. Head shots, every time, even if she or Kelly would have twice the game down a little less neatly in half the time. But he didn't seem to mind the boredom, so they made him do most of the hunting while they wrestled.
They'd plant their feet in the earth and stand apart, taking turns trying to push one another with enough force that the resister would be knocked down. Of them all, she was the best at coping with force, redirecting it, sometimes throwing Kelly yards behind when he came at her. Occasionally he'd overwhelm her with sheer force, and wind up on top of her, grinning.
The first time he kissed her like that, Clive muttered black things about them fooling around while he did all the work. Kelly asked him if /he/ wanted to kiss her, and when Clive didn't answer, she said maybe it was /Kelly/ he wanted, so they got him from both sides and kissed him till he shut up. Not that Clive made much noise anyway, ever.
She didn't realize, then, that the other trainees weren't as good as the three of them. Recruits who couldn't cut it dropped like the flies that littered the ground in the long, scorched summers, ultimately just as anonymous.
Once, a kid who looked like a blue eyed Clive asked her how long it had taken to become used to the place, get into the rhythms.
It kept her up at night, wondering. When she asked, the boys just shrugged. He hadn't realized, Kelly said, that she'd come from the outside till she'd mentioned Sajah. "You just walked right in, like you were supposed to be here."
That last summer, so many dead flies dropped that they'd crunch underfoot, and the guild brought in two new maids just sweep them out of the way. The heat wave stretched on, but Sauro made it a lesson, even while most of the other trainees shunned the outdoors. One girl, a pale blonde born in the Tower who could have been Clive's little sister, chose to go ahead and finish the mission she'd been given in the noonday sun, anyway.
When the workers doing recovery found her, the only way they could identify the corpse was the bracelet she wore. It was embedded so deep in her swollen wrist that they had to cut her hand off to get at it.
The morgue was always cool to the point of chill, so they'd hang around outside, or sometimes inside, if the bonegrinders decided they had chores a trio of Squire Class gunners might do. They were hanging by the door when yet another trainee was brought in, not so badly bloated they couldn't recognize the face of a boy who'd sometimes joined them in Crystal Valley, as the games got more complex.
"Shit," said Kelly, shaking his head. "This keeps up, won't be anyone to brag to once we make Knight Class."
She rolled her eyes and put her hands behind her head. "Huh. You so sure /you're/ gonna make Knight Class, boy?"
"Certainly, none of you will make it if you keep hiding in here, avoiding training."
Like always, Sauro appeared with no prior warning, making everyone jump but Clive. He glared back any rebuttals from Kelly, and led them out to one of the dry fields outside.
Walking silently on the shriveled hulls of dead insects turned out to be harder than walking on egg shells. She and Kelly cursed Sauro, good-naturedly; when all three finally got the hang of it, he gave them money and told them to buy drinks with real ice.
Kelly fished a few ice cubes out of his peppermint cream and pressed them to the back of her neck, melt-off sliding down her spine. She spat and flicked drops of chocolate-raspberry in his eyes, then shoved a few cubes down his pants when he laughed at her. Clive looked on and shook his head.
"You two got no /dignity/." Kelly drew up from taking aim at her with a particularly big hunk of ice and glowered. "Hey, well, we got a whole day until we go in for the test, right?"
She pegged them both with her last two ice cubes, and plonked herself down in Clive's lap, grinning. "More to the point, we got a whole /night/."
At that, Clive put ice down /her/ shirt.
Next morning, they walked into the testing chamber together, like they were meant to.
Well before she hits Muse, it's raining. Through all the cold and clammy skin, she likes the rain. If it's slowing her up, must be doing the same for him -- more proof they've still got hooks in each other. Then again, maybe it /isn't/ slowing him down. Nothing ever did, much. Even better; the thought makes her smile.
There's an inn near enough to be worth stopping in. White walls, tin roof, what looks like pig tracks out near their stables, blurred by mud. Probably used to be a farm.
The family that owns it seems nice enough, despite the weary lines around the woman's eyes. She grinned at the little kid monkeying around while his mother carefully counted out her coins. Kid like that and anyone would be tired; not the worst she'd seen, though. Had they looked like that, back then, all easily distracted energy?
Finally the woman's done counting. "All the guest rooms are on the second floor; would you like a window, or not?"
"Yeah, that'd be nice -- window, I mean." She favors the Inn mistress with a smile and takes the key. "Just tell me where, I can find it myself."
"Second room on the right, miss...?"
"Got it." She tosses the boy a coin and heads for the stairs herself. No point getting /too/ comfortable.
The room has windows, as promised; two, even, little hexagons of bottle-green. Nothing that could give a real clear line of sight. She throws them open and lets the damp air in. All bags go in the corner, except the two items she always keeps under her shirt, close to the skin. They go on the bed, and she kicks off her boots and loosens the ties on her tunic, peeling her leggings off entirely.
Stretched out on the bed, she entertains a few impossible fantasies of him bursting in on her, like a jealous lover, raising Sturm to her temples...
/Not gonna happen/, she tells herself. /You wish/. Out come Stern and Monde, wrapped in twine and butcher paper. Monde first; smelling like machine oil and peppermint, of all things. Clean, balanced, free of dirt, but she gives it the once over anyway, fingers sliding over the smooth metal of the barrel. Once finished, she clamps Monde hard between her legs, cold and slick against the flesh at the top of her thighs, and reaches for Stern.
It always feels /heavier/ than Monde, a comfortable heft in her hand. She drags the cleaning process out, every swipe of cloth over and through the barrel as deliberate and delicate as she used to untangle Clive's hair, back when he wore it caught up in a long ponytail.
She uncocks the hammer back under her thumb, unscrews the lock and pulls the old flint out with her teeth. Stern's short enough she can shove the paper-wrapped ball down the barrel with her finger, poking and prodding it all the way down the shaft, before pulling out in one long stroke, sliding her fingertip along the roof.
Tumbler, sear, frizzen, and springs all check out. She slides back against the headboard, Monde still held firm between her legs, and trails Stern down the flesh of her scar, slow so she can feel the rasp of metal and every grain in the wood.
/Soon/, she tells herself. /Soon./
Taking Stern's barrel in her mouth, she coils herself up, and waits for the shortening of time.
Author's Note: The bit about Clive and Sauro having grey eyes is from something I read once, that people with grey eyes make better marksmen. If his eyes aren't grey, uh, don't tell me. ^___^ I wrote this mainly because I like Elza, and there's not a lot of gunners fic out there. Anyone who's played Clive's Quest of Suikoden II should be able to fill in the blanks, but I don't *think* there are any actual spoilers...