Care For Some Company?
A Star Ocean 3 fanfic by Intrasonic

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Disclaimer: This item of fanfiction is public domain and not intended for profit. And believe me, it isn't making any.

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It was bitterly cold in Airyglyph.

Not that it was ever otherwise, but it was the first observation that came to Fayt's mind as he emerged at the end of his first ever (and hopefully last ever) journey through an aqueduct. This was just following his first ever (and hopefully last ever) stay in a dungeon, where he had experienced his first ever (and hopefully last ever) bout of torture and interrogation. This was all following his first ever (and hopefully last ever) planetary spaceship crash, which had come as a result of his first ever-

By this point, astute readers have probably noticed a common theme to the recent events in Fayt's life.

"Bet you're missing Vanguard III about now, huh?" Cliff observed, scanning the surrounding carefully. If the muscle-bound Klausian was bothered by the cold, he was doing a good job of hiding it.

Fayt grunted a non-committal reply.

"We'd best not waste any time here," Nel interjected. "They'll be pursuing in full force before long. I have transportation arranged just outside of the city. Let's go."

Not even waiting for a reply, the redhead started down the slopes, aiming for the fringes of the city proper. And at this point, it wasn't as though they had any alternative but to follow her.

"We'll get through this, kid," Cliff promised.

A day ago, the overwhelming confidence and charisma in his voice would have been infectious. But by this point, Fayt had begun to put some stock in the notion that insane people never admitted to being insane... "Right."

"What? You don't believe me?"

No, Fayt admitted silently, he didn't. How long ago was it, that his biggest concern was appeasing Sophia after accidentally spending all day in the battle simulators on Hyda IV? But voicing the opinion would accomplish nothing at best. At worst, it might inspire the Klausian to try and prove otherwise, likely with disastrous results. "I wonder how Mirage is doing," he inquired, by way of diversion.

Cliff shrugged. "She'll be fine."

"You seem sure."

"Hey, kid, she may be a pretty face, but don't go judging her by it. She'll be just fine."

"This isn't exactly a friendly place."

Cliff smirked as he started after Nel. "Yeah, well, if anyone tries anything with her, they're going to be in for a surprise."

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"The prisoners have escaped!"
"Escaped! How?"
"An Aquarian spy snuck in and sprung them!"
"They escaped through the Aquaducts!"
"The guards at the main gates were drugged! They must have escaped the city by now!"
"M'lord! What should we do?"
"After them, you fools! All dragons take flight! They will not escape us!"

Atop the massive ramparts that made up the castle of Airyglyph, Albel Nox watched the city below him impassively. He knew what was going on, of course. Only a deaf man could fail to have understood what had apparently just transpired regarding the two recent prisoners that had just been captured. Clearly, they had escaped, and were in the company of a spy from the country they were at war with.

He just didn't care.

The strange metal object was still resting silently in the town below, amidst the ruins of the city's outer walls and several buildings. For all the destruction wrought on the city, the new object seemed strangely undamaged and unmarred. And the owner? If Aquaria was truly capable of making flying metal objects that could smash through fifteen feet of stone wall and only suffer a few scratches, the war would have been over before it had even begun.

It was strangely shaped, also. If one looked hard at it, one could almost imagine it to be a crude interpretation of a bird or dragon, albeit with a considerable number of odd decorations and additions, to say nothing of the obscenely un-airworthy weight it must possess. But it had flown, and Albel doubted that even the entire Dragon Brigade would have been able to lift the object airborne.

So why had the two prisoners been so willing to simply abandon it like they had? Perhaps they simply hadn't expected such a hostile reception - although, how could they have expected otherwise after such an assault on the city? Or perhaps... there was another angle at work, one that his country hadn't anticipated?

"Lord Albel?"

Turning his head, Albel noted the suitably cowed expression on the just-arrived foot soldier's face. "What is it?"

"Duke Vox bids you report to him at once."

"Oh, does he?" Albel briefly considered disregarding the 'command', but finally decided against it. It wasn't as though the Dragon Brigade leader had any authority to issue orders to him, but Albel preferred the personal approach when it came to insults and mockery. "Go about your business," he informed the soldier, not bothering to confirm or deny the message.

Watching the soldier leave as quickly as dignity would allow, the Black Brigade leader took a more leisurely pace down the tower steps. If he took long enough, perhaps Vox would be too impatient to bother waiting. Either that, or burst a vein in anger.

A win-win situation for him, Albel decided.

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Vox hadn't become too impatient to wait, it seemed. But Albel still held hope for the second possibility.

"Were you planning on standing around uselessly all day?" Vox demanded angrily. "There are escaped prisoners afoot!"

For his part, Albel was happy to provide a textbook example of complete and utter disdain. "Then you had better start chasing them, hadn't you?" he suggested. "After all, they're your responsibility."

"What!" Vox snarled. "You dare imply that-"

"Yes, I dare," Albel interrupted firmly. "Earlier, I clearly stated that the prisoners should be either killed or disposed of. Now, thanks your incompetence, they're in the hands of one of Aquaria's finest warriors. And thanks to your interrogation, they'll only be that much more willing to help our enemy."

Vox seized upon the one point that didn't involve accepting any blame. "Oh? Finest warriors? You think you know the enemy?"

"Don't be a fool. The surviving guard said that the Aquarian spy was a woman with red hair, and the other guards are all dead. And she infiltrated our entire castle without being detected. And she seems to have survived travelling through the Aqueducts. It can be none other than Nel Zelpher herself who broke them out."

"Hmph. The stupid wench won't get far."

Albel smirked. "For your sake, you'd better hope so. Because after your interrogation, those two prisoners can only look at her - and Aquaria - as their saviours. I would hate to have to deliver such news to his Majesty."

The older man's eyes went dark, even as his fists clenched tightly. "You..."

Albel didn't bother changing his stance, instead opting to simply wait patiently. Duke Vox was an immensely powerful warrior with few equals - when astride his massive air dragon. Dismounted, if he was foolish enough to strike out at his fellow commander...

...Albel wouldn't kill the man - he was too good at warfare to waste on a petty grudge. But leaving a set of parallel scars somewhere visible would make sure the entire kingdom knew exactly who the better warrior was.

As it happened, Vox hadn't gained his rank (or kept his health) by making foolish decisions. Unclenching his fists, he stalked off. "Get out of my sight."

Albel chuckled quietly, not bothering to stop until Vox was out of earshot. Sometimes, it was the little things that made life more enjoyable, and angering Vox ranked quite highly in that respect.

His smile faded to a frown. Having a giant, flying, metal object violently dropped on the doorstep on your kingdom did not rank so highly. And when it was then abandoned for no apparent reason...

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The guard at the castle's outside gates nodded crisply as Albel strode through. "It's a cold night out, Lord Albel."

He gave the guard an irritated look. "And here I was wondering where all this SNOW had come from. Keep a sharp eye out. The Aquarian spies often work in groups, and we've only confirmed one woman so far."

The guard took the sarcastic comment in stride, tapping his pike smartly on the stone road. "Just let her show her face. We'll show that woman her place in no time."

Very calmly, Albel calmly drove his sword several inches into the stone wall, only a hair-breadth from the guard's neck. Calmly, in the sense that it took entire fractions of a second to draw, turn, aim, and thrust the blade.

It took the guard a full second to even register the action. "Whaa-"

"Don't be naïve!" Albel snapped disgustedly. "A woman will kill you just as quickly as a man will - quicker if you think them so harmless. And a blade doesn't care what's between the legs of its wielder. And whether or not you have to die to learn that lesson is up to you." "Y-y-yes, Lord Albel!"

"Hmph. Just keep a look out."

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Leaving the nervous guard back at the gate, Albel continued into the city proper, eyes scanning the shadows and corners suspiciously, his non-metallic hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword. While it was indeed quite likely that there was nothing of threat to be found, Albel allowed himself to feel a small degree of hope, nonetheless.

There was a certain kind of person who slunk around in the shadows, on the edges of the field of battle, lashing out at the enemy's exposed flanks only when it was absolutely safe to do so, refusing to accept the risk of open combat, least they be revealed for the weaklings they were. These people were called spies and saboteurs, and Albel called them 'cowards'.

There was another kind of person who's behaviour was much the same, except the shadows they chose to creep around in were cast by the enemy's capital city, inside the walls of the enemy's most heavily-defended structure. While these people were also called spies and saboteurs, Albel would - albeit grudgingly - withhold the title of 'coward' from them.

And then there was the third kind of person, a derivative of the second. This particular person, once they had snuck into the enemy's most heavily defended structure, would then proceed to infiltrate the very depths of the building, into a facility specifically engineered to keep people from escaping, as far from freedom and safety as possible. And they would then proceed to spit in the collective face of their enemy - and get away with it. Albel called this person 'Nel Zelpher', and knew for a fact that she would do all the aforementioned without even bothering to don a disguise.

A long list of dead soldiers attested to the Aquarian spy's considerable prowess at combat, but a far longer list of impossible infiltrations, stolen items, and catastrophic information leaks proved that she was even better at being a spy. As much as he hated an enemy who wouldn't give him the satisfaction of an open fight, Albel could at least acknowledge the logic and effectiveness behind the woman's frustrating operating style.

If anything, it made him that much more eager to face the spy in combat. What kind of person could possess such obvious skill at fighting, yet refrain from exercising it until pressed? Albel's own skill at combat was nothing less than legendary, but he hadn't attained his level by shunning confrontation. And while Nel Zelpher's skill was certainly beneath his own, could that be for any other reason but her own refusal to fully put her talent to use?

Still, the Aquarian spy was clearly brazen enough to remain behind in the city if she thought it worthwhile, which wasn't entirely unthinkable, given the current state of the war. And if the woman was still in the city and he managed to corner her... Albel would kill her. She would doubtlessly put up a good fight, he imagined, but it would be for naught. The strong triumphed over the weak, and became stronger in the process. And a warrior who avoided battle would always fall against the one who embraced it.

Because that, Albel knew, was how the world worked.

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Next time, Cliff was the one staying behind.

This was the eventual conclusion reached by one Mirage Koas, presently forced to endure solitary confinement within the lifeless hulk known as the Eagle.

Admittedly, the spacecraft wasn't completely helpless. But when a spacecraft lacks the necessary reserve power to operate its engines, life-support, structural integrity field, artificial gravity, weapons array, sensor grid, food-replicators, and communications array... the difference is mostly semantics.

Against these inabilities, the craft possessed the ability to operate the external video cameras, and access the computer memory banks. Unfortunately, Mirage hadn't bothered uploading any good reading material before she and Cliff had embarked on this particular mission, and the video cameras told her that two of the four cardinal directions were inconveniently blocked by stone walls and the other two were of a non-descript town square that lacked any meaningful clues to help her navigate by once she left the safety of the ship.

Since she lacked any sensory input that wasn't line-of-sight, and the ship had crashed too quickly for the computer to compile any meaningful data while they had been airborne, she was effectively blind as to the layout of this city, to say nothing of how this city was situated in relation to the rest of the planet.

In other words, once she left the safety of the Eagle, she was effectively lost, stranded, and directionless, in a strange city, on a strange planet, that had already taken Cliff and Fayt prisoner without so much as an explanation or greeting.

On the other hand, the alternative was to stay inside the Eagle, eating food that differed from the furniture only by the shiny wrapper it came in, patiently waiting for the reserve batteries to finally run down completely...

Exhaling quietly, Mirage stood up, making her way over to the ship's equipment lockers. It was growing dark outside, which would make it easier to move around undetected, and some fresh air would be nice for a change.

If she was lucky, perhaps she could find someone willing to give her some directions.

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A third person.

Albel Nox would have never, ever, considered relying on something as fickle and untrustworthy as luck. But that didn't mean that he would dismiss it when a generous helping of it was dropped at his feet.

A third person.

And right now, some nameless god of fortune had granted him the privilege of being in the right place at the right time to obtain the answer to one of his recent questions.

A third person who had stayed behind while the other two gave themselves up.

Even as the warrior watched, well concealed within his grey winter cloak and the shadow of an overhanging staircase, the side of the metal object quietly opened, just as it had done previously. A faint cloud of vapour could be seen to briefly crystallize, as the outside air interacted with the air from within the object, before being carried away by the breeze. And from the opening, a single figure exited, looking around cautiously. It was clearly a woman, the figure beneath the jacket revealing that much for certain. The light jacket, the short-legged pants, and the lack of headwear were distinctly unsuited for this location or weather, although she didn't seem to pay much mind to the climate as she began to scan her surroundings.

Albel double-checked to make sure that his cloak was fully covering his one arm and sword, least the metallic reflection betray his presence. Secretly leaving behind one person was a ridiculously simple plan, but it had obviously worked, aided by a spellbound city populace too distracted to think of anything but the flying object itself. At least, it would have worked had he not decided to stroll by at the right time...

The woman was examining the clearing slowly and carefully, likely scanning for any stray guards that might have noticed her exit her hiding location. After a few moments, she shook her head slightly, likely having confirmed the absence of threats (as far as she could see, of course). After what looked like a moment of indecision, she finally set out, her heading taking her almost due south.

Interrogation and torture left a mildly unpleasant taste in his mouth (although not out of any humanitarian notions), the warrior much preferring the 'kill or be killed' of the battlefield proper. But there were other ways of learning about people, and they involved nothing more complicated than waiting to see what a person would do when allowed to roam free.

Eyes narrowing, Albel waited until the woman disappeared behind a building before beginning to follow from a distance. Fortunately, most of the city's citizens had turned in for the night, and there was a fresh, largely untouched, layer of snow on the ground.

He would be able to follow her footprints with ease, and he would see for himself what this new stranger was up to.

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Mirage wasn't getting frustrated, but she owed that mostly to a long history of working alongside and under Cliff Fitter. She was, however, beginning to experience an inkling of discontent about her current situation.

It was bad enough that the streets were all but deserted of people, since she doubted that she could have managed a non-incriminating conversation in the first place. But her translator was useless when dealing with written languages, making the signs on the streets and buildings useless, further compounding her status of "completely lost".

To worsen matters, she suspected that the individual who designed this city was either a sadistic labyrinth-designer, or completely intoxicated. Or both. Half the corridors and alleyways led to other parts of the city, while the other half were simply inexplicable dead-ends. The rest somehow u-turned and brought her right back to where she'd already been.

She couldn't do this all night - or rather, she probably could, but it wouldn't be healthy or productive - but the alternative was to risk coming into contact with the hostile natives. It wasn't her first choice, but if things kept up, it might be the only one she had.

She would hold off on that option for the time being.

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If she was a spy, Albel decided firmly, she needed a new line of work.

Truth be told, the extent of the mysterious woman's stealth abilities seeming to be knowing enough to stay to the shadows (easy to do, this late in the evening), and avoid contact with other people. Any guard worth his pay would spot her in an instant... Albel aborted that train of thought as he realized that a nearby guard had completely overlooked her, strange clothing and all.

Good soldiers were getting harder and harder to find, he decided disgustedly.

Unfortunately, he had yet to discern what the woman's purpose was. Her behaviour was unbefitting of a spy, but neither did it suggest someone trying to escape as quickly as possible. More than anything, her behaviour was that of a lost tourist, which was obviously impossible under the circumstances. If she was attempting to convince any onlookers that she was harmless, she was doing a good job, but accomplishing nothing else in the process.

Then again, Albel finally decided, being subtle had never been his strong point. The woman had just disappeared down yet another random alley, but Albel knew where she would emerge, and could arrive there in half the distance.

Besides, this was getting boring. It was time for a more direct approach.

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Surveying her surroundings, having just emerged from her latest alley tour, Mirage decided that it was time to take a new approach. More specifically, she decided that the next person she encountered, she would see if she couldn't get some information out of him.

Coincidentally, she came to this decision approximately 0.01 seconds after seeing someone walking purposefully towards her.

That the man was of military stock was immediately obvious. Even if she hadn't seen the hilt of a sword poking out from his cloak, or the flash of metal along his one arm, he had a gait that could only be described as a 'stalk'. He was a match for Cliff in height, although considerably leaner in build, but this did absolutely nothing to lessen the air of menace he wore about him. Had he been wearing a neon sign reading 'Extremely Dangerous', it would have been terribly redundant.

And he clearly intended to confront her, which severely limited her options at the moment.

Running was probably a bad idea, since she had nowhere to run to, and he doubtlessly knew this city better than she did. Pretending to be a normal, upright citizen would be hard, since all the others seemed to be indoors at this point, and her clothing was rather strange by this world's standards.

"Who are you?" he demanded. His voice wasn't raised, but it carried just as much menace as everything else about him.

For all her many virtues and talents, Mirage was a Klausian, and she'd never quite gotten the hang of that "modesty" thing that other races sometimes talked about. So if she judged that a situation was better handled by a stunningly attractive young lady...

Flashing the man a disarming smile. "Good evening, soldier."

If such a thing was possible, his eyes narrowed even further. "What are you doing here?"

A cynical one, Mirage noted, maintaining her relaxed posture. "I just arrived in town," she admitted sheepishly (and truthfully).

"From Kirlsa?"

"Where else?" she agreed, adding the place to her woefully microscopic knowledge of the local geography. "And I'm afraid I haven't quite learned my way around here yet."

"Oh?" A faint hint of a smirk crossed the man's face, but it wasn't enough to remove the distrust. "So you've decided to spend all night wandering around?"

"Believe me, not by choice."

That earned her a long, penetrating stare, with far too little lechery, and far too much scrutiny. "I think..." he finally informed her, "that I will give you one more chance... to do a better job of answering my question."

Mirage refrained from sighing. Clearly, the soldier was still curious to know why a pretty woman in strange clothing was out after hours... and it would have to be a believable explanation that would appeal to a military man on patrol...

Leaning back lightly against the brick wall, the Klausian let her smile wax from 'charmingly coy' to a more 'sultry and inviting'. "Well, if you're interested, soldier, it's a cold night out. Would you care for some company?"

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Albel could have expected many things in response to his challenging the woman.

Panic, followed by an attempt at fleeing. A hasty and frantic surrender, in hopes of saving her skin. Perhaps a desperate - but ultimately futile - last stand (this was the preferred option). Quite frankly, Albel couldn't imagine anything more from someone who had remained hidden inside the metal object while her two comrades came out.

But to pose as a prostitute? After wandering aimlessly around the city at night? While facing him down?

Some would say that there was a fine line between brave and insane, but Albel was beginning to suspect that this woman had found an entirely new line, and had crossed it a long time ago.

Taking a step towards her, Albel redoubled his stare. He was taller than she was, but not by much, and she lacked the slightly slumped and docile posture that most Glyphian women possessed. "Do you know who I am?" he demanded.

She waved a hand dismissively. "I'm accommodating... who would you like to be?"

She was either the best actor in existence, or she didn't know who he was, which mildly offended Albel on one level. It wasn't as though the continent of Gaitt was suffering from an abundance of ruthless, metal-armed, katana-wielding warriors. On the other hand, that lack of knowledge spoke volumes in and of itself. Time to verify his suspicions.

"I think..." he informed her slowly, "that I would like to be called... Albel the Wicked."

She gave him look with equal parts interest and bemusement, but no understanding underneath. "Oh? A fantasy of yours?"

No recognition of the name. That settled it, Albel decided firmly, closing the remainder of the distance between them. Using his non-metal hand, he lifted her chin slightly. "For a long time now. And that... is an interesting tattoo you have..."

She didn't resist his effort to look at the dark green rings around her neck, but kept smiling, still failing to show the slightest hint of nervousness. "You like? It's a family crest."

A thin smile crossed his face, even as he flexed the metal fingers of his claw beneath his cloak. "Is that so? Then that would make you related to one of the escaped prisoners, wouldn't it?"

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Hearing the man's damning statement, Mirage was hardly surprised to see the man's other hand lash out from beneath his cloak. She was however, surprised to see it completely covered in metal, and completely lacking in anything organic.

Shaking hands would probably be a bad idea, she decided, inwardly allowing herself a brief moment of appreciation for the execution speed. But the metal claw was aiming straight for her throat, and she had reservations about that.

THWACK Snapping her own arm upwards even faster, she clamped her fingers around the wrist portion, which lacked the sharp edges that the fingers did, and held it there. It managed to get a few centimetres closer, but that was it. Locking gazes with the man, she allowed him to briefly try to overpower her grip, with absolutely no success. The inequality established, what would he try next-

ShhhhhhhhTHUMP

That was the man's organic hand, tearing his sword out of its sheath at blinding speed, Iajitsu fashion, in an attempt to bury the hilt in her gut. Followed by her immediately intercepting the motion with the palm of her other hand, preventing him from drawing the sword out entirely. Once again, he strained against her, but without success.

He glared at her dangerously. "You're no whore."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Mirage decided with a smirk. "I guess my act needs some more practice."

"You're not Aquarian, either."

Somehow, Mirage doubted he was talking about her astrological sign. This was definitely going to make asking for directions awkward.

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"You're not Aquarian, either," Albel growled, his metal claw straining as he tried to bring it down on her throat, but ultimately without results. Ditto for his sword, which she wasn't letting him pull out of its sheath enough to bring to bear.

"Not Aquarian, hmm?" the woman inquired curiously. "And if I wasn't, what would that make me?"

A good question, in Albel's opinion. Her eyes held far too much calculation for her to be insane, and she'd blocked his attacks with too little hesitation to be a coward. But that failed to explain the reason she was alone in the first place - why those two men had left her behind.

And her strength... Albel knew he was no heavy-weight compared to many soldiers - he compensated for that disadvantage by using extremely sharp edges with an ungodly degree of skill and precision - but surely he should have been this woman's better in terms of brute strength. But for this woman to actually match the power of his metal claw so easily... and intercept it so quickly? That suggested some formidable combat skills. But for her to be left behind by the two men nonetheless, and fail to bring her power to bear immediately... that spoke of someone not accustomed to open fighting. Or perhaps, someone who normally avoided fighting...

Abruptly reversing his efforts, Albel took several quick leaps backwards, which freed both his arms (and weapons) to act again. Wasting no time in drawing his sword, he levelled it at her. "I think..." he decided, "that would make you a spy."

This woman was obviously no prostitute, but it looked like she'd be providing him with a different sort of amusement tonight. Another person who could fight well, but constantly looked for ways to avoid it, ultimately weakening themselves in the process. Nel Zelpher might have escaped for today, but it seemed that fate had been kind enough to arrange for a spiritual successor of sorts.

If she was scared, her only reaction was to finally stop leaning against the brick wall, giving herself some room to manoeuvre. "There really isn't any need for this," she explained patiently. "I don't know who you are or who you think I am, but I'm not looking for trouble."

"That may be," Albel observed, giving her a killing smile. "But I think that trouble has managed to find you."

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When you worked for a organization that skirted the lines between charity and terrorism, you learned to take the good with the bad, and to try and look on the bright side of a situation. This particular instance was no exception.

On the plus side, Mirage was mildly gratified to know that her judgment skills were as good as ever, and that she wasn't cut out for a career in acting. On the minus side, she had just earlier judged the man to be an extremely dangerous person, and it looked like he was tired of conversation.

The man's sword gave off a high-pitched whistle as it tore through the exact spot her body had occupied a fraction of a second ago. Even as the Klausian skipped backwards out of reach, she saw the man already reacting to her evasion, halting the blade the instant the swing brought it to point at her, and turning the swing into a lunge aimed to skewer her through her heart. Twisting to the right, she was only half-surprised to see his metal claw already moving to intercept the latest evasion. Skipping backwards out of the claw's reach, she was once-again unsurprised to see the sword-lunge promptly morph into a continuation of the original swipe.

This time, Mirage ducked under the attack, placing her palm against blunt, trailing edge of the weapon and pushing it even further along its arc, while pushing herself out of the way and towards more open space. The soldier simply let himself be spun in the circle, his open claw swiping out in a wide backhand that would have proven surgical, had she tried any attacks of her own. As it happened, it was needless, since she had taken the opportunity to place a fast five metres between the two of them.

Even as he finished his spin, Mirage could see his sword changing direction again, dipping the blade low to the ground, and finishing in a vicious uppercut. Which was strange, because the distance between them made the gesture pointless, the set of his eyes indicated that he knew exactly where she was, and he'd already demonstrated that he didn't bother finishing attacks that she'd dodged-

Mirage dashed sideways, even as an invisible force screamed through her last location, scouring the ground clean of snow and gravel before finally dissipating another twenty or thirty metres further behind her.

The corners of her mouth turned upwards, even as she faced off against her opponent again, who had elected to hold his ground after she had spotted and dodged his final attack. "Physical manipulation of focussed air pressure?" she observed, a hint of admiration in her voice. "You're pretty good, aren't you?"

"The best," the man informed her, his voice devoid of any uncertainty over the matter. "And you move quickly, even for a spy."

"I'm not here to cause any trouble," she repeated, "and I'm not a spy."

He gave the claim a sneer. "Your flying metal object smashes through our walls and houses, you were left alone by the two men earlier, I find you skulking around like a rat in the dark, you answer my questions with lies, and your head is still attached to your neck. Your innocent and harmless act isn't getting any better with time."

"After seeing the greeting you gave my two friends," she pointed out, "can you blame me for not knocking on your castle doors? I'm not even from this area in the first place. All I'm looking for is directions so that I can be on my way. You can escort me to the exit yourself, if you want?"

"Think again."

Mirage grimaced, idly wondering if she should have just knocked this soldier out from the outset. Working under two off-the-scale type-A personalities called 'Cliff' and 'Maria' meant that somebody had to try and compensate, but neither was present at the moment. If things didn't improve, she might have to resort to some direct action...

"Look, be sensible about this," she attempted again. "I've done nothing but avoid your attacks. I'm trying to avoid any trouble. I'd like nothing better than to be on my way with some information that you could provide. Is that the way an 'enemy' acts?"

"That's how a spy acts," he corrected, once again levelling his blade at her. "And you'll find that kingdom of Airyglyph doesn't suffer spies. And I don't even bother interrogating them first."

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Albel didn't know what kind of person made peace overtures after repeated attempts on her life, because even Nel Zelpher would have given up on diplomacy long ago, but he had clearly found such a person.

This new woman hadn't even tried retaliating - not that his attacks thus far had provided any openings - but she hadn't made any attempts at escape, either. In fact, he was beginning to strongly suspect that she was being truthful - she wanted nothing more than to resolve this situation peacefully. She clearly wasn't from anywhere remotely close by, let alone Aquaria, and she probably wasn't any kind of enemy, let alone a spy. Add to that, how remarkably polite and inoffensive this woman was being under the circumstances, and perhaps he would allow himself a brief moment of uncharacteristic benevolence, and give her one last chance to explain-

"Look," the woman warned him. "You're a decent enough fighter, but if you don't back down, I'm going to stop holding back so much."

-this bitch, Albel calmly decided, was going to die slowly, painfully, and have her corpse fed to the castle dogs.

"Die," he suggested. The air blast he sent her way was dodged without any difficulty, but he was fast on its heels, and corrected his own trajectory accordingly.

The opening lunge with his sword went by her head with only inches to spare, but only because the woman hadn't bothered dodging by a wider margin. His claw slashed across in a fashion that left backwards as her only escape route, which his sword was already hooking around to intercept, but she simply ducked and executed a fast backwards roll that dodged both, even as Albel's sword was already moving to intercept where her waist would have been had she chosen to stand afterwards, instead of repeat the roll a second time. With a triumphant snarl, his claw descended on the crouching woman-

SMACK

-and the woman's leg snapped upwards with the momentum of her back-roll, delivering a kick the forearm portion of the claw that completely reversed its momentum, and jarred Albel's shoulder enough to delay his follow-up down-slash, which was enough time for her to regain her feet, sidestep the sword swing, lunge forwards and stomp hard on his foot. Albel ignored the flash of pain that accompanied it, bringing his claw towards her neck, even as he flipped the sword around in his grip for a secondary back-slashing-

THWACK THUD

Albel paused, though not by choice. The woman's left heel was still planted firmly atop his own left foot, which had the effect of making her almost face away from himself, in a perfect position for him to drive his claw under her rib cage and see what he could grab. Unfortunately, her right hand had once again clamped solidly around the wrist portion of his metal arm, and once again showed no signs of allowing any movement. His attempt at pulling his sword across the small of her back was similarly frustrated by her left hand having caught his own hand in a fashion that not only immobilized the arm and threatened to crush his finger bones, but prevented his wrist from aiming the tip of the sword anywhere dangerous.

In other words, both of his arms and weapons and one of his legs were rendered immobile. On the plus side, the same could be said for her, since the instant she released any of her holds, he would be free to move again. He briefly considered kneeing her in the groin (which was only slightly less effectively against females, he knew), but with his other foot pinned, he had poor leverage, whereas she could easily twist around and offset her own lack of leverage with her own considerable strength.

"Truce?" she suggested, giving him an amused smile as they met each other's eyes.

Albel's face darkened, as he read the implied meaning behind the gesture. From her point of view, she was offering a truce to a beaten opponent - offering Mercy. She had dodged or intercepted all of his attacks, then restrained him, and she wasn't even breathing hard afterwards.

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face as he considered his options. As bizarre as the notion was, he had a hunch that she actually would accept a truce at this point. And he'd clearly made a huge mistake in underestimating this woman from the outset. It was a mistake that a warrior rarely lived to regret making, and this should have been no exception.

But to surrender... that way lay weakness and failure. And Albel hadn't become the warrior he had by avoiding combat. This woman was powerful, it was pointless to deny that fact. She was stronger, she was faster, and her reflexes were best described as 'precognscent'. Offsetting those advantages... she was no killer. If she were, he would certainly be dead now, having paid the natural price for his earlier mistake.

Albel, on the other hand, WAS a killer. And if he'd managed to find an opponent who could best him physically, then he would simply turn that weakness against her. He was nothing if not adaptable... and he had another surprise for the woman.

"Come on," the woman chided, apparently reading something un-truce-like on his face. "All I want are some directions, and you'll never see me again."

For an answer, green light began to flare around Albel's claw. He had a hunch that this was going to hurt...

Since she was still maintaining her grip on the claw, the woman noticed the change almost immediately. Scowling, she promptly released the pressure on his left foot, the offending foot scything backwards and kicking his other leg out from under him. At the same time, she released both of his arms, and punched him. Hard.

The ground was there to catch Albel - eventually - as he experienced the sensation of having the air driven from his lungs, his back being scoured by the ground as he slid backwards, and his chest trying to convince him that he'd been run over by a herd of lum.

He wheezed as he staggered to his feet, reflecting how right he'd been. If he'd had any doubt about the woman's brute strength, it was firmly removed. It had been a long time since anyone had been able to knock him off his feet, let alone have him land six feet back. But he'd expected as much this time, having decided to take a little pain in exchange for freedom of movement. Or in this case, a lot of pain.

The fact that the woman could have just as easily struck his windpipe instead of his chest only confirmed what he had predicted earlier - she was no killer. Now he was free, only bruised, and... what else?

Oh yes. He was also angry. VERY angry.

The green glow around his claw began to intensify, as though directly fuelled by his anger. Anger as the situation that had developed with this woman. Anger at his own sloppiness for underestimating her. Anger at his inability to land any blows. Anger at her offering of mercy, as though assuming that he would even consider accepting. Anger at her refusal to land any crippling strikes, as though he didn't warrant the effort. Anger that she would actually have the luxury of making such a choice against him. Anger at her placid expression as she talked to him, as though addressing a petulant child, and not the most dangerous warrior on the continent of Gaitt.

"Last chance," the woman warned, now carrying herself in a what could be described as a relaxed, ready fashion. Her knees were slightly bent, as she aligned herself sideways to him, her legs in a shoulder-wide stance. Her two iron clubs (cleverly disguised as 'hands') hung down loosely, her fingers left open, rather than clenched into fists. A defensive, reactive combat stance, rather than an attacking.

Well, she wouldn't be defending against this technique, and he doubted even she'd be able to dodge. "Consider yourself lucky," he snarled, brandishing his glowing claw before him, and relishing the release of energy. "There are very few people I waste this technique on."

-+-+-+-+

Mirage frowned as she considered her options, which were growing more and more limited by the moment. It was a small miracle that this little fight hadn't been overheard and investigated by other soldiers, which could either be considered lucky, or simply an indication of what kind of a place she had found herself in. If the latter was true, perhaps she was better off just striking out on her own, rather than hope to find a more accommodating local...

"...There are very few people I waste this technique on," the warrior informed her.

She exhaled slowly, watching the ghostly aura manifest itself around his claw, casting a faint glow upon the area between them. "Manipulation of raw spiritual energy?" she inquired lightly. "You're just full of surprises tonight, aren't you?"

He scowled at her tone of voice, the glow intensifying further, confirming her suspicions.

"But you'd get better results if you weren't using your anger to harness it."

The glow grew even brighter, beginning to flicker and surge around the edges.

"A real warrior doesn't use their emotions like crutch," she elaborated blithely. "Not only is it inefficient and wasteful, there's a risk of their emotions controlling them, rather than the other way around."

"You..." he slashed outwards with his claw, leaving behind afterimages that looked almost solid to the naked eye. Several feet away from the metal fingers, five furrows were gouged into the dirt by the green energy. "You DARE lecture ME?"

"Temper, temper," Mirage warned, her tone deliberately teasing. "Here, let me show you a better way."

Putting theory to practice, she began to concentrate. Almost immediately, she could feel her heart beginning to speed up, along with her breathing speed. Even as her Klausian lungs began to inhale greater quantities of the planet's oxygen-rich air, her blood began saturating her body with a massive influx of adrenaline and fuel. And all the while, she was focussing her own spiritual energies throughout her body, bolstering her already formidable physique.

In a matter of seconds, a bright yellow glow began to appear around her entire body, much less intense than her opponent's green glow, but devoid of any signs of instability. Reinforcing her bones, strengthening her muscles, heightening her reflexes, and focussing her senses. Transforming her body into a lethal machine that made firearms and blasters useless, common leverage holds obsolete, organic eyesight inadequate, and viewed the rest of the world as nothing more than a highly realistic slow-motion film.

"See?" Mirage inquired rhetorically, a smile gracing her face. "No anger required. Now why don't you put that away before somebody gets hurt?"

The warrior charged, moving far faster than before, the green energy leaving afterimages that remained long after the claw has passed by.

Mirage moved sideways.

Even as the warrior's fingers tore through the ground, even cleaving whole stones apart without being slowed, he was spinning to face her new location - over twenty feet away.

She took in his expression of disbelief with one of bemusement. "I'm afraid that my daily supply of pacifism has run out, soldier. Don't make me dip into my supply of violence."

The man's energies intensified even further around his claw, even as his organic hand tightened around the hilt of his sword.

"Last chance," she warned.

The sword slashed outwards - once, twice, three times - each creating a furrow of destruction before it as the air slashed through anything in its path. Only a few feet behind the last attack, the warrior charged again, his claw trailing wide bands of green energy that slashed outwards at anything present, while his sword carved through any empty spaces that she could conceivably use while dodging.
Mirage stepped backwards, almost casually, as the claw severed the air in front of her, then stepped forwards again, giving the flat of the sword blade a firm push upwards, and then-

THUD

That was the sound of Mirage's left foot snapping upwards too fast to be seen, her boot catching the bottom of the weapon and hammering it clean out of the man's grasp.

THOCK

That was the sound of the sword firmly imbedding itself in the overhanging sill of a second-story window, vibrating ominously.

The claw was still moving, the man's brief surprise at losing his sword instantly set aside in favour of concentrating on his remaining weapon. Still aflame with the man's concentrated spiritual energy, it slashed in a backhanded pattern that would have torn her head from her shoulders, had it not been far too slow to have a prayer of connecting.

Almost lazily - as though merely being offered a distasteful food, rather than a terminal beheading - Mirage leaned away from the vicious assault and waited for it to pass by.

It passed by.

Leaning back again, Mirage spun smartly on her left toe, bringing her leg around in a wide arc. At the last instant, Mirage saw a hint of recognition on the man's face, the ineffectiveness of his attack finally registering, even as he strained to reverse the direction of his claw. But he was slow. Far too slow.

The roundhouse caught him on the shoulder like a wrecking ball, throwing him sideways like a rag doll, just in time to catch her other foot in his gut, courtesy of her using the first impact to reverse her spinning direction. This time, he staggered backwards, and was promptly assisted by three additional kicks to his chest that finished the job.

Not even bothering to let him hit the ground, Mirage exploded forwards, actually passing him and driving her knee into his side hard enough to keep him upright, if unsteady and in a great deal of pain.

It took several more fractions of a second before he managed to regain sight of her, but the expression on his face was a popular one - it was the all-too-common mix of awe and disbelief worn by people getting a first-hand lesson on exactly what a highly trained Klausian was capable of, given sufficient reason.

Still, there was no sense in belaying the point, which was why Mirage's next attack was also her last one. It wasn't anything fancy, just a blindingly fast kick, much like the previous examples. But just to make certain it was her last attack, she repeated it ten more times.

After the last kick, which involved his face becoming intimate with her heel, the man was finally allowed to hit the ground, sliding another six feet before coming to a complete stop. Nothing was broken, she'd pulled her power, if not her speed, but he'd be dead to the world for several hours, more than likely.

"Well, you can't say I didn't warn you," she pointed out, offering up a universal gesture for a lost cause. Back to square one, it seemed. "I guess I'll have to go see if anyone else in this city is feeling any friendlier."

ssssscrch

Hearing the rasping sound of metal scraping on stone, she immediately spun around to face where the man was lying. Or, as inspection quickly revealed, where the man was staggering to his feet again.

"You're tougher than I thought," Mirage admitted. "Maybe I shouldn't have held back so much. Any chance I could trouble you for some directions?"

"I..." the man spat out a glob of blood on the ground, his metal claw digging into the ground as he tried to force himself upwards. "I'm... not beaten yet!"

-+-+-+-+

Albel gritted his teeth as he forced his body to stand.

Pain had just happened.

Lots of pain.

And it had been inflicted very quickly, courtesy of a woman lacking a tenth of his body weight, but having ten times the strength to move it around with. In fact, he was pretty certain he'd felt most of her kicks before seeing them connect, not unlike trying to read a book while its pages were rapidly being flipped through.

Apparently, the last barrage had been meant to put him down, because the expression on her face was an interesting mixture of surprise, amusement, and respect. Strangely enough, defying her expectations in this was far more satisfying than it had any right to be at the moment. If anything, it only proved she didn't know who he was. In the same position, an Aquarian wouldn't have let their guard down until he was beheaded, quartered, exhumed, cremated, and buried. Because the day that Albel Nox ever stayed down and played dead, while he still had an ounce of strength left in his body-

"I'm... not beaten yet!" he rasped, swaying slightly with the effort required to remain upright. Although he was damned if he knew what he was going to do with his battered and punch-drunk body, and his sword wedged in a window sill fifteen feet off the ground.

"Is there a difference?" the woman inquired, with her increasingly-grating reasonableness. "You're good, but I'm still pulling my strikes a little, so I think the outcome is clear. Why don't we just call this a match? I'm honestly not here to cause trouble, but that doesn't mean I don't have things I need to do."

Albel scowled at her tone of voice. She would turn and walk away from him, would she? As though he wasn't even worth finishing off? "You think you'll get far?"

She frowned at the question, appearing genuinely irritated for the first time since their encounter. "So if I just leave now, I can expect you to immediately alert the whole city? You're worse then Cliff is sometimes, never knowing when to give up. Of course, he's just stubborn, but with you... why so angry?"

He only glared at her, at a loss to form any suitable reply.

"So much skill and potential..." She tsk'd quietly, almost looking disappointed. "But so much anger... This is nothing personal, you understand? But you're not really leaving me any choice in the matter." She took a step towards him-

Albel braced himself to defend against her next attack-
-and was suddenly directly in front of him-
-and tried to bring his claw to bear-
-and bringing her fist around with the full weight of her shoulder behind it-
-impact.

-+-+-+-+

No mistaking it this time, Mirage affirmed, looking more critically at the man's limp form tumble to the ground. Even as she relaxed, on both a physical and a spiritual level, the faint yellow glow around her body disappeared completely.

"Nothing personal," she repeated, "but I need to get moving. Thanks for letting me know about the 'escaped prisoners', anyway. I guess I'll have to see if I can't catch up to Fayt and Cliff now."
She was still in the dark about her location, of course. Her opponent had suggested that she might have been from a place called 'Kirlsa', but that didn't tell her where it was, or whether it was even a desirable place to head to. He also stated that he didn't believe her to be 'Aquarian', which was probably a nationality. He had also, possibly, inferred that a 'spy' like her would have normally been 'Aquarian', which suggested that it was a hostile nation. Coupled with the hostile atmosphere in this area... there was almost certainly some sort of war in progress, which boded poorly for an off-worlder as distinctive as she was.

On the other hand...

Mirage gave the prone warrior a calculating look... he didn't look like a normal soldier, even by the most forgiving standards. His clothing was markedly different from the other inhabitants she'd noticed, and his skills were far beyond the semi-skilled bludgeoning demonstrated by the soldiers who had captured Cliff and Fayt. In a medieval culture like this planet seemed to have, such qualities were suggestive of a lord or general of some sort, which would explain his arrogance as well.

Somebody important.

Considering that their fight had (somehow) managed to remain largely private, it was a good bet that nobody else knew this important man had been beaten unconscious. And he would probably be out for an hour or two, even with his surprising constitution. But when he finally woke up again, he was going to be... upset. To put it mildly.

So how best to take handle this situation...?

For starters, his cloak was of much finer cut than most clothing she'd seen on this surface, and to judge by the rest of his lighter clothing, it was probably designed for warmth. And now that things had calmed down, even her Klausian physiology was beginning to feel the bite of the wind and chill. A man like this probably had a few spares...

Furthermore, the clasp designed to fasten the cloak looked expensive, and was engraved with a series of intricate symbols and characters. They were meaningless to her, but it looked like they would have meaning to people who knew the native language. In fact, Mirage would have been willing to bet that in this country, the only people who owned such jewellery were the people near the top of the political pecking order. This particular clasp looked like the type of item that might be temporarily lent to a subordinate in exceptionally good standing. Somebody possessing such a piece of jewellery could probably avoid or bypass a lot of inconvenient questions...

Lastly, there appeared to be a small pouch attached to his belt, perhaps a money-purse? It would only be natural for an important man to carry a little bit of spending money on his person, right? Of course, 'spending money' for an important person could easily translate to 'small fortune' for the average peasant, or a traveller who would be eating basic, moving fast, and remaining discrete...

Kneeling down next to the fallen soldier, Mirage gave him an impish smile. "Help a poor traveller out, soldier?"

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+

Consciousness returned. Eventually. All things considered, Albel wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.

He'd lost.

His head throbbed, as did the rest of his body, but a warrior like himself was no stranger to pain. The fact that he was lying against a cold stone wall, with a light layer of snow covering him was probably responsible for numbing a fraction of the hurt. The physical hurt, anyway.

He'd lost.

Once he warmed up, he'd be able to tell whether his ribs were as cracked and broken as he thought they were - his attempts at breathing told him more than he cared to know. The bones in his legs and arm were intact, if only barely, which gave him the option of staggering like a cripple, as opposed to crawling like a baby. The idea that his assailant had shown some benevolence even in the midst of her devastating assault was enough to make his stomach churn. Hells, for all he knew, she had probably been considerate enough to lean him against this wall afterwards.

He'd completely and utterly lost.

The woman had been unarmed, unarmoured, and he hadn't even managed to scratch her. She hadn't even used trickery, but had actually - repeatedly - tried to talk him out of fighting, and then met his attacks without flinching. And even with her ungodly strength and speed, she'd actually held back until the end, (apparently) pulling her punches and kicks, and bested him with skill-

Something felt wrong, he realized. As though something was missing...

-and she'd taken his money pouch and cloak.

He scowled, somehow lacking the energy to get properly angry over it, in lieu of the main issue. A warrior didn't become strong by believing lies or inventing delusions about reality, and he had never been one to deny facts. She had beaten him. Bested him in power, speed, and control, all in a fashion that left no doubt who the superior fighter had been. Yet she had gone out of her way to avoid having to do such a thing, as though the use of such talent and power was something to be avoided.

Gritting his teeth, Albel used his bruised limbs and the rough stone wall to haul himself upwards, forcing himself to ignore the waves of pain the effort caused. Thinking about the woman helped, he found, if only by providing something even more distasteful to contemplate.

How could someone behave so passive, no merciful, so WEAK; yet possess such strength? It wasn't an act, of that much he was certain. Had he permitted her, he was certain the woman would have accepted a few directions and left the city without so much as a word of protest or complaint. Her entire demeanour told him that her desire to avoid conflict was as natural to her as breathing. Yet, once she had fought, she had displayed a level of power and efficiency that completely eclipsed anything Albel himself might have aspired to.

How was it possible to gain such skill with such an attitude? It made no more sense than a man growing fat by avoiding eating. Yet... it had somehow happened. The warrior sighed wearily, a sound that most people would have sworn could not cross his lips.

At least he had an inkling of how the prisoners had escaped. If that big man with the similar neck tattoo was even half as good as her... the guards wouldn't have stood a chance once Nel Zelpher had freed him. As for himself...

He'd been defeated, but fate's twisted sense of humour had seen fit to spare his life. He would heal before long, and he would fight another day. And he would train.

Next time... Albel would be ready.

-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+

Author's Notes:

Some time ago, I was giving consideration to the idea of doing a Twisted novelization of the game, brought on mostly by the fact that the game's central plotline was composed of far too many half-done explanations and transitions, but coupled with the fact that the game was chock full of fascinating characters. I gave up on the idea in the end (because lots of other people were doing a better job already), and settled for doing Points of View instead.

Regardless, one aspect of the game that never seemed quite right to me was how Albel fixated on Fayt after his defeat. In a party composed of Cliff (super strength and dodging close-range phase gun shots), Nel (Crimson Blade with powerful Runology) and Fayt (Mad Battle-sim skillz!), logic dictates who the real fighters are likely to be, and who a challenge-seeking Albel is going to really hold a grudge against. The only thing that really set Fayt apart was his peace-mongering, which would naturally clash with Albel's worldview. But what if Albel was forced to deal with a non-aggressive person who actually could kick his ass? The most logical character for the role? Enter: Mirage.

And then I was between stories and I figured, what the hell - why not flesh the idea out a little for fun? It's a little long-winded, but it was originally going to be part of a larger story, and I wanted to try my hand at choreographing a longer, drawn-out fight scene. Furthermore, getting injured at this point would have provided Albel with a far more legitimate excuse to avoid fighting at the Kirlsa Training Facility, and the exposure to Mirage would have given Albel a chance to adapt and give Cliff a seriously hard time later on.

Incidentally, since this piece would have originally been part of a bigger story, there would have been some follow-up, of course. Had that been the case, this little scene below might just have occurred as well...

OMAKE:

"I... I didn't know Lord Albel had a woman," the driver admitted, looking a little nervous.

Mirage averted her gaze shyly, fingering her cloak timidly. Apparently 'Lord Albel' was a highly respected man... or at least, highly feared, which was probably close to the same thing in this kind of a country.

Regardless, the driver of the cart had been willing enough to let her hitch a ride with him. After all, no one would be CRAZY enough to steal the man's personal possessions, or have the AUDACITY to falsely claim to be his woman, right? But despite the man's importance, he wasn't willing to waste military resources for personal reasons, and so had simply settled for providing her with some good clothing and some money to ensure that she returned home quickly and quietly...

Not that Mirage could have possibly fabricated such an elaborate story by herself. But it was amazing how many details people could fill in on their own, if you just gave them a few believable tidbits of information, played the part of a healthy, pretty, capable, charming, partly-bashful-partly-strong-willed, (and very modest, of course) young woman. And she was sure that 'Lord Albel' wouldn't mind her 'donating' a little money to this hard-working merchant who was helping her out, if only to help feed his horses. For the next few years, if the stunned expression on his face had been any hint.

"Well, we've been keeping it a secret, actually," Mirage 'admitted'. "You won't tell anybody, will you? He's really a very nice man, he's just misunderstood."

"Misunderstood?"

"I think he's insecure in his masculinity, that's all. He's a little... 'small', you know, and I think it bothers him sometimes. Or maybe it was his bedwetting as a child... overcompensating for things, you know?"

"Erm... I had no idea," the driver managed, frantically struggling to keep a straight face.

"Oh, goodness!" Mirage giggled, "Listen to me go on! You'd think I couldn't keep a secret or something! It would be terrible if people thought he was soft and weak or something! You won't say anything, right?"

Mirage stifled a smile as the driver stammered his denials. Call her unreasonable, but she was finding herself rather annoyed with the individual who had tried to kill earlier, without so much as a chance for her to prove otherwise. Admittedly, it had been unsuccessful, but there was still the principle of the matter that needed to be addressed. Legitimate payback, or justified revenge, one might call it.

Revenge was good when served cold, of course, but it was even better when served with compound interest.

-+-+-+-+-+
end