Walkabout

Chapter I

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They have been travelling for months, a harum-scarum flight across the plains that seems to follow no prepared path or chartered route. Sometimes she avoids the towns, sometimes she doesn't, and since Interceptor is only a dog he can never tell which option his mistress will choose on that particular day. He hates the cities; crowds make him nervous and the overwhelming sights and smells assault his keen senses like physical blows, painful and harsh to canine ears and nostrils and even the pads of his paws. It doesn't matter, though. If she chose a road leading straight to the mouth of Hell itself the dog would follow, because the girl is his godhead and without her there is nothing. He has braved fire and smoke for her in the past and before their journey is over he will probably risk more with the unflinching loyalty and courage of his breed.

Interceptor doesn't know why they're wandering or where it will end, but he has been through this all before, long, long ago, and so he follows Relm into the wilderness without a moment's hesitation.

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The rain had been coming down in buckets for days, a pug-strangler of a deluge that turned creeks into flooded brown torrents of debris-swirling whitewater and lowland into boggy mires. If it hadn't been for the abandoned chocobo-herder's shack Relm hadlocated shortly before the storm broke she would have been soaked completely through within moments of the first thunderclap; as it was the girl had merely gotten damp, just enough to make her irritable and uncomfortable as she sat staring moodily out the door of the hovel. It wasn't much of a shelter – four walls constructed of splintery boards with gaps in-between big enough to shove your fist through, a piece of corrugated tin stuck precariously atop them for a roof – and as such leaked something terrible; there was a persistent drip that kept tapping Relm on the head every few minutes, and it was making her already sour mood worse with each drop that splashed the top of her brow. She had taken to counting the number of seconds between driblets to alleviate boredom, waiting with a perverse fascination for the next one to strike.

One …

Two …

Three …

A sudden wetness slid down her temple and traced its way to her jawline, dripping slowly from there into the hollow between neck and collar.

Damn. That one had been early, and off-centre to boot. Leaks were tricky little bastards.

There was no use moving to another spot, though, as the 'ceiling' was so permeated with holes you were likely to get splashed no matter where you placed yourself. So Relm sat in the doorway and sulked, pointed chin in the palm of one hand, waiting for the rain to let up so she could continue on her journey. The longer she had to wait the nastier her mood became, until the girl was nearly fuming with impotent rage. She hated getting wet. She hated not being able to move onwards during daylight hours. She hated herself for starting on this stupid fucking journey, and she hated the absentee father who had inspired her to leave Thamasa in the first place.

Most of all she hated rain. It had rained the morning of Strago's funeral as well, just to add insult to injury. As far as Relm was concerned the weather and everything associated with it could get stuffed if it was going to behave that way, bringing back old memories and getting her all wet and cold and and and …

Another droplet trailed down her face and she wiped it away impatiently with the back of one hand. Crying was for weak sissies who played with dolls and teacups, not the descendants of mages. A lot of people had cried at the funeral – hell, Relm even thought she'd seen big burly Sabin dabbing away at his eyes like a doily-arranging old maid once during the service – but not her. Not even when they lowered the coffin into the ground, not even when the party returned to the big empty house Strago had raised her in. She could've been a stunt double for pre-Returners Celes, all the emotion she had shown. People seemed baffled by this; they kept asking are you alright? and how are you feeling? until Relm felt like she might scream and ran off through the storm to Eboshi's Rock, hiding there till night fell and she returned to sheepishly drip water on the villa's clean floor. Terra, ever the mother hen, had merely clucked her tongue and dried the girl off thoroughly with a towel, gently admonishing her with threats of the cold she was sure to catch after this escapade. The older woman had a good-natured way of scolding that wasn't really scolding, and so Relm had made no protest about all the fuss. After all, Terra had dealt with so many orphans over the past four years that she must know what was best, right?

… Well, Relm had thought so until she heard the words still too young to be on her own and better come back with me being bandied about, anyway. Then she decided that Terra could go fuck herself. Nothing personal, of course, but there was no way she was going to that damned orphanage when she could take perfectly good care of herself. Most of the world's worst monsters had died along with its magic, and Interceptor could easily protect the girl from any human intruders that might come knocking. He was as bad as any nanny, always trailing Relm's footsteps wherever she went, even that bad day on Eboshi Rock when the sea was a churning mass of foam and the rain came down sideways in sheets. No one else had followed – maybe they had understood her need for solitude, or maybe they just didn't want to get wet running after a brat like her – but Interceptor had been there, a quietly reassuring force that hadn't asked questions or said anything at all. Animals were better friends than people; Relm had always thought so, and that day on the Rock had just cemented the idea in her stubborn mind.

He was curled up against her back right now, a huge black ball of fur protected from the wet weather by an outer coat of long ebony guard hairs and downy-soft grey wool underneath. Relm envied him greatly but harboured no resentment towards her faithful companion; she could get mad at everybody else in this stupid world, but Interceptor was her best friend, and towards her friends she harboured an almost obsessive amount of loyalty.Too bad that loyalty wasn't reciprocated she thought to herself, rather bitterly. How dare Terra try to bundle her off like some orphaned toddler.The nerve! The fucking nerve of it all! Rage overtook her like a wave and she swore softly to herself there in the shack, remembering the pain of the betrayal as if it were happening all over again.

Interceptor raised his head at the curse and pricked both ears forward, sensing his young mistress's anger even without seeing her face. A soft whuf was given in query; hearing it, Relm calmed and placed a reassuring hand on the dog's back, stroking the silky-soft pelt until her fury subsided and her head was clear and calm once more.

"It's okay, puppy. Everything's alright."

The dog, satisfied that nothing was amiss, tucked his muzzle into his tail and returned to dozing. Relm sighed restlessly and continued to stare into the rain.

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It will be a long journey, so Relm takes only the essential things – paint, brushes, as much dried meat as she can carry, a fat sack of gold pieces her grandfather left her when he died, and her most prized possession, a ring that had once belonged to her mother. As much as it pains her to do so she will have to leave most of her clothing behind – almost all of it is red, and the last thing the fugitive girl wants to do is stand out like a bleeding thumb. In the town of Mobliz they sell thick woollen cloaks, dyed a dull brown to blend in with the vegetation of the Veldt across the channel; the people of the little village have made a brisk trade recently selling them to hunters headed north on safari. Relm wrinkles her nose in disgust thinking of the plain garments, but sets aside the crimson garb with a long-suffering sigh after a moment's hesitation. Sacrifices will have to be made if she is to accomplish her goal, and this is but the first.

Interceptor has been watching all of these preparations from the corner, yellow eyes tracking every subtle movement the girl makes. He is aware that something will happen soon; there is a tension in the air, a smell of change that disturbs the dog immensely. Dogs and especially wolves are creatures of habit, and any break in the routine of their daily life is at best a worrisome bother and at worst cause for high alarm. Interceptor has an especially sensitive disposition, and so he has been on-edge ever since Relm's mood changed, the day she opened a sealed letter written in Strago's messy, looping script.

That was days ago, and what she read in the letter only strengthened her determination to leave, giving it a purpose and a cause. The half-overheard whispered conversation between Terra and Edgar Figaro was the initial nudge; what the letter told her merely gave her a way out, along with a million angry questions and a hurt sense of confusion she had thought buried long ago. Relm will have her answers, if she has to go around the world three times to get them. He's out there, somewhere, and she will find him.

She finishes her preparation and slings the hide pack over her shoulders, testing its weight and heft. It is heavy but not unwieldy; satisfied, Relm opens her window and prepares to slip away into the night, before any of the others awaken and try to put a stop to her flight. The road out of Thamasa winds away before her like a dark ribbon, leading to the nearby port and a ferry bound for Mobliz. There never used to be much traffic between the two towns – or any traffic in Thamasa at all for that matter, xenophobic backwater that it once was – but things have changed much in the three years since Kefka's defeat. All things must change in this new world, or fall by the wayside to be lost and forgotten forever.

Interceptor has lifted his head from his massive paws by this time and is whining softly, eyes filled with concern. Relm can barely stand to look at him; she has long since decided not to take the dog along, telling herself there are far too many dangers out there for her half-feral pal – hunters with loaded guns and itchy trigger-fingers, the risk of being lost or separated from one another - and so now she imagines accusations and betrayal in every glance he gives her. She kneels and throws her pipe-cleaner arms around her friend's huge neck, hugging him tightly for several seconds while desperately trying to keep her composure. Then the girl stands and gives him one final command:

"Interceptor, stay. Stay."

And with those words she is gone, sliding over the windowsill and into the darkness with an ease that would do her old man proud. She gently latches the window once outside and without a backward glance slips down the road, dashing from shadow to shadow on swift, nimble legs. Very soon Relm is out of sight of the villa, leaving no sign of where she has gone to any human who might care to search.

But Interceptor is no human …

He has both forefeet on the windowsill by this point, the whining in his chest growing louder and louder as Relm disappears further into the night. When she finally vanishes from his view, the command – STAY – slips completely from the wolf-dog's mind, and the only thing he can think of is catching up before the girl leaves him behind forever. His last master did much the same, as did the woman before that, the one the girl reminds him so much of. He will not let this happen again even if it means disobeying a direct order, a grave crime indeed to Interceptor's honest soul.

The latch will not give way, not even under one hundred and twenty pounds of wolf-muscle and scrabbling claws. The situation becomes more and more desperate. He tries the door; although it shakes and splinters under the dog's frantic assault, the oaken panels hold fast. There are stirrings from the other rooms as the house becomes roused by all this noise, and Interceptor senses he has precious little time left in which to act. One route alone is left to freedom.

He turns back towards the bay window, lowers his head, and charges.

There is a sound of splintering, shivering glass, a dull thump on the grass outside, and then silence. Before his feet have fairly touched earth Interceptor is off with his nose to the ground, tracking the girl he worships into the night.