"Pride of Tomorrow" is followed by a side story called "Stand Up Stand Out".
Taking the train in is the safest way to go, Sora's been told. Airplanes sometimes fritz out and Bermuda Triangle scenarios are becoming more and more common. Foot powered transportation comes with a guarantee to get you lost somewhere in the twisting ethers of the fluctuating border magicks. Boats tend to become Kraken food.
Sora does not have time to die or to get lost. Not when he has already lost three years of time believing his 'troubled' older brother had been sent to a reform school. Troubled was their parents' word for him.
Sora had never understood.
His big brother had always been nice to him, always done well in school... to cut this part short, he never seemed all that troublesome at all, except for a brief-lived fascination with the red-light district. He'd gone, once, but then he'd come home and told ten-year-old Sora it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
That was the brother Sora knew. As far as he was concerned, it was the truth and remained so, up until that day.
He'd come home. His brother was locked in the attic, his parents were screaming oaths to every god they could think of and... Well, then his brother was gone.
For a long time the truth was a reform school from which his brother never wrote.
Then truth was the note.
Tucked in the back of his father's drawer, stumbled upon innocently while Sora hunted for socks for his too-large feet.
His brother had run away.
Three years ago, when his brother was only sixteen. He'd left for Bordertown and promised he was never coming back; that no one would ever find him, 'cause everyone dropped their once-upon-a-name at the Border, like the shedding of a rotting skin. He would do the same. He would blend and warp and never darken their door with his presence again.
His exact words. Sora's big brother had always been like that. Never spoke much, but when he did, or when he wrote... it was like that. Dark and powerful. Sora had admired that about him. Had admired a lot about him: his blond hair, his wiry muscles, his sharp tongue, his short-lived smiles.
Sora wishes he'd confronted their parents, asked them what they meant by 'troubled.' He only managed to bring it up once, after three years of silence from his 'troubled' brother. Three years of nothing, in which Sora continued to stumble along in the dark. He thought to bring up a missing brother only after he had the Note and a modicum of righteous fraternal indignation.
Sora had gotten himself smacked and screamed at for an hour.
But not answered, never answered.
He didn't care.
He'd packed his shit as soon as they sent him to his room. Then he'd gone out the window, headed up the street and hit up his buddy Wakka for some money and advice. Wakka's kid brother had moved with their father to B-Town a long while ago.
So, that's how Sora got on this train.
Seventeen-years-old and he's run away to hunt a brother he may never find.
Sora smiles to himself, the same big goofy grin he gives to everyone.
He wants to find out his brother's new name.
He doesn't think his conscience will ever be free until he has.
xMaybe it's obvious that their parents sheltered them, or maybe it needs more elaboration.
Like how their parents kept the house stocked with antibacterial, the TV confined to public access, no computer, fenced yard, padded knees, a fanatical boycott against Halloween, a vendetta against sex education, as well as elementary co-ed gym. They found rap, folk, rock, Celtic, blues, jazz, and electronica to be vulgar and obscene and would not tolerate them in the house, their children were never allowed to see movies without their parents' screening and approval. Their friends were all reviewed in an interview-like week referred to as the 'trial-run', and a veritable cornucopia of other a-typical behavioral patterns.
All considering, it's a wonder their kids turned out as well as they did.
The older one, whose name has been lost somewhere in the annals of his own heart, was a bright, athletic boy who liked to play with a nice group of kids. Well, nice whilst under the watchful eye of their parents, not so much when a tentative freedom was grasped. They were probably why he turned out as well as he did.
As opposed to a total nut case. Instead, he was just a normal head case with family issues and good friends who took him out and helped him to see a world outside the padlocked childhood home.
The younger one, Sora, was a dopey sweetheart with none of his brother's shortcomings, but none of his strengths either. That was all his parents had thought about him. That was all most people ever had to thought him about him, actually.
xSora doesn't talk to strangers on the train ride in. He's immersed in watching countryside fly past. Watching it warp and twist. Watching a twister appear and disappear; ravaging the land, which, amazingly, re-grows in a few film-strip seconds.
Sora rather likes the six-legged Scotty-dog he spots. It runs beside the tracks for a long time before finally stopping to drink what, Sora gleefully decides, is whiskey.
His eyes are bright in the window. A deep blue-jay color that sparkles under the sunlight. Maybe some people notice him, wonder if he's part elf and then find the earnest smile he flashes at the countryside answer enough. Maybe some passengers still notice Sora as he buys lunch from the trolley and eats it absentmindedly, his attention snagged on the castle turrets passing by in the distance. Its gargoyles dance along sewage spewing gutters; startled birds shoot out of arrow-niches which once defended great stone walls. Maybe they still do.
Perhaps the other passengers forget about Sora easily in the twenty-minutes from Beast's Castle to Grand B-town Station. Sora, on the other hand, does not think he will forget the sweeping expense of Nevernever's evergreens and everorange-reds and blues.
He hasn't brought much luggage with him. He has the clothes on his body and whatever else is in the pack at his feet; about three days worth of clothes, some after-thought rations, and a few of those tiny traveling toiletries.
When the train screams into the station, he's the first one out the doors and onto the platform.
He stands there, grinning and bewildered. Overrun by senses clashing in on one another; scents of ozone-blue and tastes of multiplicity and laughter, feelings of cultural caress and the lack thereof ringing in his ears like a substance all its own.
The cart of homemade pies levitating past looks delicious. Sora scrounges through his pockets quickly for some kind of cash and hands it over, drooling greedily. He considers sitting down to eat, but then notices the way his feet dance and twitch beneath him... He wants to explore.
His grin is open to anyone who wants it and he begins to walk.
The city is bustling and the air is filled with blue-smoke exhaust caught as a radiant opaque cloud against the sun. The easy chatter of happy folks hypnotizes Sora like a particularly good lullaby. The peach cobbler in his mouth is warm and moist and wonderful and Sora thinks he could get used to this place.
Sora thinks his brother is probably a lot happier here.
As he moves, Sora passes by all sorts of people. Elves and humes and halfies with bombshell-driven hair and clothes. Bright tangelo tones, tight leather, glittering spikes, fishnets, and dangerous jewelry. The Japanese schoolgirls who wander past, beneath their lacy parasols and in their flower-printed skirts, giggle at him faintly. There are men and women in mundie suits and mundie t-shirts and mundie jeans, wearing that mundanity like a flag of nonconformity.
Sora is slurping down the last syrupy peach when he passes the girl at the corner. She's got pretty burgundy-wine hair and pretty blue-bird eyes. She's got a pretty summer-heliotrope dress and a basket of pretty lace-white flowers. She offers one to him with a cheery smile and, before he can think, Sora is hurriedly sorting through the contents of his pockets for a messy wad of bills and loose change, asking how much it is.
"Free, if you want it," her voice laughs.
Sora takes the flower and drops a few coins into her empty hand anyway.
She thanks him, and then laughs again as he settles the flower in his hair.
The sun is warm.
He's got a good feeling about this.
xAfter the sun sets—
God (Gods, he corrects himself, faintly) that was a beautiful sight. The sunset colors catching off the rift, refracting in fantastic octarines and things that were neither red nor blue nor yellow nor any of their multitude of technicolor offspring—
Sora is only slightly less enthusiastic than he was when the day began. The heat that had been accumulating in the pavement over the sun's day is hissing away like steam in the dull cold of the night and the emotionless saturations of dancing neon signs.
The flower is tired and wilting between his fingers when he pulls it from his hair.
A lanky elf dances past him in shimmering raven-sheen polyester, twirling on stiletto heels to about-face him, motioning wildly with pale hands decorated with long nails the color of cotton candy. He (or she or it) is smiling with an alluring yet obscene mouth, like the sharp, delicate grin of a enchanting shark. The lips are painted a seductive shade of plum; dark yet wet, full and luscious and stark against the white glint of those predatory teeth.
"Little lost kittens taste best with barbecue sauce and a nice draft beer," s/he purrs, toying with curls of peppermint-shock white hair. S/he's a hypnotic, swaying snake on those toothpick heels, stumbling and tumbling along the perfect horizon of pavement.
Sora eyes hir warily, uncertain and afraid but... but excited. He licks his lips and glances around the dark-light-jumping nightlife street to find no one watching them at all. When he turns back to the elf, ready and willing to respond, he finds s/he's wandered away, singing loudly to the shadow-studded sky about the beauties of kissing tiny purple flowers, which run laughing through hir fingers.
Sora shivers. Still so excited, but also cold and also tired in a way he can't even believe. His feet pulse in his sneakers, getting fat and heavy on a rush of blood and exhaustion. He'd meant to look for a place to sleep, to scope out hotels, maybe a hostel if it was around, but he'd gotten distracted at every turn. Admiring a magic show, a Harley garage, a Russian grocery, a yeti.
"You need a place to stay, kitty-cat?"
It's a hume and another elf. The man has far-too neatly groomed hair and dubious earrings and tight synthetic fabric clothes. She, the elf, looks feral and wild, whitecap hair frothing around her head, playing nest to her long lapin ears. She's barely got on any clothes at all and her stance says she's never seen any problem with that.
Sora, maybe-probably, gapes quite a bit. The man smirks and the woman is quiet and finally Sora says,
"Yeah, uh, yes. I do."
The man holds out his hand; his fingers and wrist are ringed in rainbows. "You're in luck then. We're short on cash and could use a boarder."
The woman smiles, her faintly upturned nose crinkling. "Guaranteed not to kill you in your sleep." Her accent is warm and delicious; Sora thinks he might be salivating.
So—with the blind trust for which he was known for by others—he takes the man's hand and says, "How much?"
xFran and Balthier live in loft far too big for just the two of them. The floors are wooden and the walls are white and bare. There's one gigantic central room, two bedrooms and a bathroom. There's a pile of blankets like a rat's nest in one corner.
"It isn't just the two of us," Balthier says. When Sora asks who else lives there, the man does not respond.
The loft is close to the wharf, the western window looking directly down into the River; the Mad River. Sora can smell it from here. It isn't like the little creeks he'd know back home. Those had smelled kind of like gasoline and mud. The Mad River smells like forest and lightning and rain and alcohol. When he asks about that, Fran stares at him for a little while.
"You have just arrived," she states.
Sora grins sheepishly. "Fresh off the train this morning."
She does not seem amused. "I advise you caution, this city-sprawl has a history of breaking those who wander her."
"Why are you here?" Balthier pokes his head back into the conversation. Smiling and friendly while Fran continues to eye him with a mixture of affection and disdain. Sora swallows around his strange and intense attraction to her in order to reply,
"Looking for my brother."
They don't ask for his name. They haven't asked for Sora's name yet either and... Sora remembers his brother's letter, and realizes that's because names don't mean a thing.
"He look like you?" Balthier says pensively and Fran inquires, "You are how old?"
"Seventeen. And yeah. My brother's blond, and older; he's nineteen now." Maybe a little too much pride leaks into Sora's voice, maybe a little too much longing, because something sharp creeps in behind Balthier's eyes.
Sora can't ask them if they have seen him, because that would just be a ridiculous thing to assume. He wants to though. He wants to so badly. Maybe that's the real reason Balthier is looking at him the way he is.
Fran makes a honey-sweet little humming nose deep down in her throat. "The others will be returning tomorrow, their business upon the Hill being concluded."
Sora wants to giggle at the way she's changing the subject. Especially since Balthier looks like he wants to laugh too.
"In exchange for your lovely wad of cash, you may sleep anywhere you like tonight," he murmurs. "Except Fran's bed. Or mine, for that matter. You simply are not my type."
xSora is bundled on the floor in a nest of blankets, halfway asleep before he realizes he lost his flower somewhere.
Was it before or after the elf in the taffeta?
The loss, the forgetfulness, makes him suddenly very glad he has a picture of his brother. The thoughts seem almost unconnected, except... He has plans to make copies of that picture and to put it up everywhere in town, with big bright letters "HAVE YOU SEEN?"
Sora curls in on himself, burrowing deep down into the blankets. They smell kind of like the River and he wonders what his brother is doing. He wonders if his brother is lying on the floor, like he is, or is he in a bed? Or is he out on the street freezing? Does he have someone there to keep him warm? Or is he alone?
Sora's breath stutters in his throat.
His throat is tight.
He has to find his brother. He has to make this guilt and worry go away.
For now, all Sora has is a place to sleep and tomorrow he'll start searching. If he has to ask every person in the city, if he has to walk every inch... he'll do it.
No one has ever really noticed Sora's better qualities. They've noticed he isn't as sharp as his brother, that he isn't as tactful, that he isn't strong. Sora has tenacity in abundance. He knows it will serve him well. Self-confidence. He's got that too. High spirits are his specialty. He laughs. He'll bring this city to its knees with his cheerfulness.
"Wait and see," he says, to his brother.
Then he closes his eyes and calls out for sleep to come.
xSora wakes up to the feeling of warm sunshine falling across his body and of eyes watching him closely. He rolls over and finds Fran is at the kitchen table, staring at him. Her almond eyes are bizarrely intense and her mouth quirks, twitching with a defined tic.
Balthier wanders in from a back room, his expression dreamy. "Morning," he sings.
Sora wonders if it's his imagination, or if they are acting strangely.
"We did not ask its name," Fran purrs, her long naked legs bouncing.
"Tell us your name, boy!" Balthier gestures, grandly.
"Ah," Sora laughs. "My name is Sora, nice to meet you."
Fran's lips purse. She's smiling.
Balthier laughs and then does some sort of pirouette, falling by pure coincidence into a chair.
"Sora," he chimes in the same sort of voice Sora's father had always used when about to begin a lecture. "Never, ever, drink the River."
"Polluted?" the boy guesses and Balthier shoots up in his chair, like a cat whose tail has been stepped on.
"No! No, Gods, no. Addictive, unhealthy. Opiate. Don't do it. You'll end up like..." he flounders there.
"You," Fran supplies.
"Yes, yes, exactly, like me! Don't try any peca either, because you won't just end up like Fran, you'll end up dead."
Sora crawls from his nest of blankets. He wriggles back into his jeans and goes to sit with the two of them at the table. The River smell is strong on them and there's something sharper and creamier hanging off of Fran as well.
"You don't seem so bad," he offers around a yawn.
Fran and Balthier exchange a long and serious look before they burst out into laughter. They're hysterical, they're... they're high, they're absolutely gacked. Sora worries for them as they gasp and choke on air, laughing and laughing and clutching at aching ribs.
Sora puts out a tremulous smile. "Well, you did give me a place to sleep. That wasn't so bad."
Fran collapses across the table, chortling insipidly.
xAfter he gets some breakfast into him, Sora takes to the streets, armed to the teeth with hope and photos. At every corner he flashes them, even drops his brother's name a few times when it seems like it will mean something. It never does, but he keeps trying anyway.
He stops his interrogations for lunch.
He wanders the streets—ducking under flying carpets, dodging a chocobo which breaks loose from its pen—in search of a food he might be familiar with and comes out instead with some deep fried hominy. It tastes mostly like grease and carbohydrates, but Sora eats it all the same. What does a teenage boy care?
He's devouring the last few bites while licking the grease from his fingers and glancing up and down the street. He wonders where he can get these pictures of his brother replicated... Kinko's in B-town sounds just about ironic enough.
His brother had explained irony to him when he was ten. Sora doesn't really remember how they got on the subject, he thinks he was asking his brother why their mother had gotten so angry about them watching the parade on TV and that's what his sibling had replied with.
Sora cracks open a bottle of water from his backpack and ambles up the sidewalk, flowing with the stream of humes and elves and halfies. When the traffic is slowed to wait out the cleanup of an accident (a horse's front hooves caught on the light rail of a drooping Volkswagen) he glances up at the person next to him.
"There a photocopier in this town?"
xSora almost cleans out his already small supply of bills and realizes doesn't have much to trade either. He counts his few pathetic coins and doesn't even think he has enough to pay Balthier and Fran for another night under their roof.
But, after he uses up the rest of the day waving down strangers and toting his brother's face in theirs... he doesn't know where else to go and the sun is setting fast. So, he wanders back to the loft, tail between his legs.
When he pushes open the unlocked door to the loft—the chain danging half-broken from it's hinge—Fran greets him quietly.
"Sora has returned," she says in her beautifully clumsy accent. While Sora is still smiling at her and waving he's knocked to the ground. They both look to be older than him, the two blonds who tackled him, that is.
"Vaan, Penelo, get off him." The third blond looks the same as the boy, only a little older. "I'm Reks." He adds ruefully.
They all smell of the River.
xSora gets himself properly introduced and when they ask him what he's doing in B-town, he passes his brother's picture around. The three of them eye it real close, whispering amongst and between themselves.
"What was his name?"
They're like—they look like—mice... each of their stubbed, endearingly upturned noses twitching faintly.
"Wharf Rats," Balthier giggles at this. He's still high, Sora isn't surprised to notice.
"Yeah, we know 'im," the one called Vaan offers.
Sora feels his heart soar in his chest. He might be shaking or near to crying, or something, as he asks, "Yeah? You know where he is?"
"I wouldn't take their word for it," Fran purrs. "It might have been out of the Dreaming."
"No!" Vaan protests. "He was a Rat. All four of us ran with the main horde. It was before you pussy-cats appeared."
"What was his name?" Reks repeats thoughtfully.
"The blondie who used to cry in his sleep," Penelo muses.
"What was it...?"
"Oh! Yeah, right!
Sora's heart hammers in his throat and he watches as they giggle amongst themselves. So high off the River that he is suspicious, but... then they begin to reminisce about this 'Ghosts' and his personality. His quietness, the sharpness of his tongue when he chose to unleash it, his cunning, his ivory white skin, his angelite eyes, his sunshine hair.
Maybe they are wrong, but Sora wants to believe.
"Where is he?"
The children exchange looks; little glances.
"Was he the one who became a prostitute?" Vaan wonders.
"Chocobo didn't become a prostitute, Vaan!" Penelo interrupts.
"He went with Tongues then?"
"That was Chocobo," Balthier interrupts with a grin. The kids thank him, calling him Skies, which Sora wonders at for a second, before he presses them for more information on Ghosts.
"I don't know where he went," Reks says at last. He seems the most lucid and Sora is disheartened that he, out of all them, doesn't know. "Don't know where he went. Some of the other Rats might though."
"He is new to Bor-der-town," Fran murmurs sleepily. She's crumpled over the kitchen table again, her head cradled against her long brown arm. "He yet knows nothing of the Wharf Rats."
The three children's faces suddenly light up with grins. They pounce on Sora again, each blathering away excitedly. The Wharf Rats! A group of unknown size who live on the River, drinking from it constantly, sharing in its magic and its dreams and never escaping. It hides you, they say, they laugh, it keeps you warm in the night, it keeps you happy in the rain. Do you want a drink, Sora? No, no, not for him, he has things to do. Aww, Skies you're no fun! Caaarrot, lets give him some River!
"They're filthy," Fran whispers in reply. "The children do not yet understand they are better. Here. In the loft. Away from the Rats... Ghosts... whoever he was, is much better now... even if he is dead..."
The idea of his brother being dead is like a slap to the face. Sora draws in on himself, fumbling one of the pictures out of his wallet to stare at his brother's pale emotionless features. He concentrates on sky-blue eyes, mirrors to his own.
"He isn't dead."
The others stop squabbling, the sudden silence and sudden stillness is unnatural for them. They're all watching him, waiting. The moment breaks when Penelo's eyes well up with tears without warning and the two brothers wrap her up in their arms. Balthier approaches slowly and pets Sora's head. Maybe it's meant to be comforting.
"There are plenty who die here. It isn't all magicks and neon and drugs."
Or, perhaps, it is. Either way, Sora licks his lips, watching the picture blur before him.
"Can I sleep here again tonight?" he whispers.
Balthier cocks his head to the side and smiles madly. "On the house. You may even stay indefinitely, if you like."
xSora crawls out from amongst the three rats and goes out again the next morning.
He plasters his newly made posters all across town; up and down grimy brick walls.
Have you seen? Contact me at... with the loft's address hastily scrawled in a childlike cursive.
xHe spends the first few weeks crossing to every point in town, leaving pasted-up posters in his wake. When he runs out of posters, he begins to troll the city, grabbing strangers by their coats and demanding "Have you seen?"
No one has seen.
Except one silver haired elf with crazed aventurine eyes. They gleam with the eerily cold inner light Sora has not yet learned denote an elf out of Faerie. The elves from Nevernever are different. Warm, primal, in a kind of constant visceral connection with the animal kingdom and their Beast Lord.
Sora taps this particular Faerie elf on the shoulder. He spins and is caught in the sunlight. He dazzles. His ashen skin gleams like snow-crowned tombstones. He watches Sora in silence.
"Excuse me, but... can you show me the way to heaven?" he whispers finally.
Sora watches him a while before smiling, tilting his head to the side and motioning all around.
The elf stares, noticing his surroundings for the first time before he replies, "I know I am not well but this is too bright for Heaven and too dark for Hell."
Sora laughs and asks his name.
"Sephiroth," the elf whispers in his ice-cold voice.
"Well, Sephiroth," Sora greets, holding out his brother's lifeless photo. "Have you seen this boy?"
Sephiroth's eyes drag along the contours of the brother's idol-face. "Maybe," he murmurs.
"Maybe?" Sora presses.
"It... it depends. Where am I?"
Sora should have known better than to think this poor fallen creature would know. He smiles and says it's all right and that's all he can do.
xSora goes out again every day and searches.
He sees the girl with the flowers again. She and another halfbreed woman stand at the corners throughout the city, selling and freely offering their myriad blooms. He notices their routine and their routes as he passes them day by day.
One day, the girl stops him.
"You haven't been looking too well," she says, holding out a brazen pink grasp of peonies. Her cerulean eyes glitter with worry and her auburn hair catches in a faint breeze as a car goes by.
Sora smiles at her reassuringly and tucks the stems behind her ear. "Not enough money, haven't been eating well."
The girl touches the flowers and smiles at him in return. "I could get you a job with us."
Sora isn't sure he can believe his luck. "There can't be much money in it?"
The girl's smile is deceptive. "Oh, but there is. Come with me and I'll have my sister explain everything."
She holds out a hand and he takes it. As she leads he asks her, "What is your name?"
"Kairi" she answers, squeezing his hand pleasantly. "Kairi Gainsborough."
They walk a long ways through the city. Halfway in, she pauses at a corner to offer a crying little boy a flower. He takes it, blushes up at her, and then hurries away.
"There is much to be obtained," she asserts strongly.
She takes him to what was once a church. The other half-elf woman he sometimes sees selling flowers is there, lounging upon a displaced pew set on the lawn. There is is tiny dark-haired elf girl and pale-faced human boy, sitting on each side of her.
"Aerith!" Kairi calls.
"Little sister," the half-elf woman rejoins in a pleasant tone.
The human boy watches their approach closely, while the elf girl does not stir.
"Where's Leon?" Kairi asks.
"Inside, repairing the roof with Cid," Aerith cites. "Who's this?"
"I think we have just the job he needs."
xWhile waiting for this "Leon", Sora sits and talks with the girls and the boy. The elf girl doesn't say a word the whole time.
Sora finds out Kairi and Aerith are sisters by blood. Kairi's hair is a little bit redder; she laughingly says she got it from their father. Aerith's hair is a lovely mousy brown; she is demure and quiet.
"Our mother was a priestess here."
But both their eyes are the same shade of a still lake.
When the sound of hammers stalls, they lead him inside, together, to meet Leon: a young human man with ocher hair and arsenic eyes. There's a scar across his face that Sora wonders about.
"He was in the Pack once," Kairi speaks up. Sora doesn't know what that is, so she tells him. She tells him about the racism rampant in certain groups around the town, humans versus elves and the both of them against the half-breeds. Kairi smooths her hair behind her slightly pointed ears as she says this, and a mocking light glimmers in her half-elven eyes.
"It's what I got for leaving," Leon adds to his own story.
The sisters introduce Sora to Leon and to the halfie assisting him in the rafters. Cid lands with a heavy-booted thunk when he jumps down to join them.
Before they can continue on with business, Aerith reaches over and plucks a smoking cigarette from between Cid's lips, her slow smile berating him. The man grumbles something in a foreign language, it sounds like curses, but he doesn't do anything else in protest.
"You're the boy who's been wandering the town?" Leon guesses.
"Looking for my brother." Sora holds out the picture. Everyone looks, but none of them recognize the face, so their conversation returns to the prospective job.
"Our group is funded by one of the dukes of Faerie. If you were to live here with us, you would receive a lesser pay, but take free room and board."
Sora explains quickly about the posters he put up in town. They ask those with information to come to Balthier's loft. Leon isn't offended, he just acknowledges his understanding.
"You'll be paid accordingly then." Leon's gray eyes spark with hidden lightening. "When can you begin?"
"As soon as you'll have me, but, uh, will I still... have time to search for my brother?"
"You can do both at the same time," Kairi intercedes on his behalf, cheerily. She holds up her bright basket of flowers with glee. "You'll have your own route of flowers to sell, you can see many people as you walk."
As she speaks, some of the flowers suddenly spring forth from the wicker basket, morphing into butterflies and caterpillars and rats and roaches. Shifting and fading in and out of reality and color and meaning. Sora watches open mouthed as the creatures scurry away.
Aerith and the other members of this bizarre business simply watch them, without concern.
"The magic is erratic in all of the Borderland... and it is very strong here," the black haired elf-girl whispers, her childlike voice slicing the air, her eyes chasing dragon across the borders of the sky.
xSora learns many things while he works for Hearts. He learns about the true nature of the Pack, for one thing. More importantly, he learns about the many facets of B-town, learns to accept that the many faces, many hats, many colors, many voices, are a part of the culture and the shifting sometimes magicks here on the edge of the World; feet dipping into the warmcold waters of Faerie.
Often, while on his routes, Sora is waylaid by a group of thugs led by a tall, proud, human by the grand name of Seifer Almasy. He is followed closely by his Lightning and his Thunder and a small boy Sora thinks is actually a halfie.
The first time they make to harass him, Sora grins and shows them the picture of his brother and asks if they had seen him around anywhere. There is a sort of recognition in Fujin's eyes, but she doesn't says a word.
While tiny half-elven Vivi murmurs, "Lexaeus," from within muffling layers a fabric.
A word which makes no sense to Sora.
Seifer simply smacks Sora's hand, almost causing him to drop the picture; a special kind of sacrilege.
"Tell Leonhart the Pack will still take him back if he begs, on his knees."
One of Sora's strengths is an uncanny and childlike wisdom and the scar wrinkled across Seifer's face is telling.
"I think he's found something better than that."
"Those half-elf bitches are not worth—"
Sora shrugs benignly as he interrupts, "Please don't talk about Kairi and Aerith that way."
Seifer sputters—Fujin and Raijin scowling behind him and little Vivi doing who knows what beneath his layers of clothing hiding his half-elven features—before he reaches out to grab Sora's shirtfront and snarl obscene things in his face. When Sora doesn't seem scared, he punches the boy in the mouth and stalks away, thinking that warning enough.
xBut that isn't the last Sora sees of the Pack. He encounters street punch-ups more and more often on his routes. Pack against the elven nationalists, the Blood.
One day the Pack comes straight to the door of the loft. A pretty blonde girl in attractive summer clothes and contrastingly militant boots which buckle around her mid thighs. A man looms behind her, broad shouldered, strong armed, but a thin torso. There's a scar stretching one side of his face and his brown-gold hair and beard stir around his head like a mane.
"Where is Bunansa." The girl barks with the voice of a woman.
At his back, Soar hears the Rats scuttling, chittering and whispering. "Oh dear," they giggle. "Princess-Princess-Pretty-Princess Ashelia B'nargin is here! Here to yell at Skies and sneer at Carrot! Don't let her in, Blue Eyes, don't let her in!" They chant as one, like some strange new representation of the Hecateae.
The man with the leonine face pushes his way in and the Rats squeal with River-streaked delight.
The man smiles, despite himself. "Penelo, Vaan, Reks..." he greets in a soft rumbling voice.
Ashelia B'nargin is not nearly so amused. "Where is Bunansa," she repeats irritably.
"Skies is away," Penelo tells the other woman.
Reks and Vaan are twined around Basch, hugging him like some kind of long-lost father. Sora wonders for a second if he is, but then Reks kisses him, full and wet on the mouth, tongue reaching deep behind the man's molars.
"Away," Ashelia spits. "Of course he is. That useless—Where is the elf then?"
"Away," Sora offers. She turns on him like a predator and Sora backs up a pace. She stares at him critically before stalking further into the loft. She sits down at the kitchen table while Reks and Vaan drag Basch away to a pile of blankets. Sora watches them with an increasingly flushed face until finally Penelo turns his head away.
Ashelia is watching him again, her mouth curled in distaste and her fingers steepled beneath her chin.
"Who are you." Ashelia is very poor at asking questions, her voice always an outright demand. Sora smiles at her hesitantly and she blinks in surprise.
"I'm Sora, I'm rooming here while I try to find my brother."
Penelo gets up to make tea when Ashelia asks for it. Then the older woman slumps to one side, losing composure as she props her elbows up on the table, running her fingers through her sandy hair, the thin strands slipping through her fingers gracefully.
"You won't," she says dismissively. "You lose something in this town, you never find it again. Never. All you damn runaways, coming here telling yourself, if it's anywhere, it's here. It isn't. It isn't here." She says so calmly, quietly, without anger. Penelo does not hear, the words are almost entirely drowned out by the boys calling, "Captain, Captain Basch..."
Sora—normally one for a voice just a bit too loud, and smiles a bit too wide and blind perseverance—lowers his voice against the tears in his eyes. Again, the thought of never finding his brother drives him to that acid burning feeling of rain in his eyes. He finds it distasteful, but motivating.
"Sometimes you have to keep hoping."
Ashelia frowns and then suddenly her slim hand inches across the table, just barely ghosting his. She draws it away again just as swiftly when Penelo sets the silver tea tray between them.
"Why are you here this time, Ashe?" the girl wonders. She doesn't sound as happy and blissful as she usually does. Even from within her River-dreams, Penelo is somehow upset by Ashelia's presence.
"The same reason I always come," Ashelia responds dryly, taking her tea. "Cid wants his son back in the Pack."
"If you don't like it, you could just leave the Pack," Balthier notes drolly from the doorway. Ashe's head snaps up and the sounds from the bedrolls do not stop. "So wonderful to see you and the boys, Basch. Setting a fine example, as always, I notice," Balthier continues. He swaggers into the apartment, it's a controlled thing he only uses when he's in the right mind and his River-to-blood ratio is low.
Ashe's lips curl in disgust, her composure has rushed back in rigid spikes. "Why? So I can become like you? A nobody nursing a sick addiction and a penchant for boys who remind me of some pointy eared pixie?"
Balthier's expression does not falter, though he licks his lips. "Arrogance, Princess-Princess. I simply cannot stand the Pack's arrogance. And if you ever deem to insult Larsa Solidor, or any elf, for that matter, in my own house again, I fear there will be something more unpleasant than me simply throwing you out on the street. Which I am about to."
Ashelia is up in an instant, so is Basch, the two brothers mewling after him in pleasure and delirium.
"I have your answer then. I will try to convey my utter disgust for you to your father. However, he has never had any interest in my council."
"His arrogance is stunning, isn't it?" Balthier's eyes move to Basch. "You may stay and finish your fun with the boys if you like, fon Ronsenburg. I wouldn't want to spoil their fun. Your lady, however, is leaving."
Ashelia's gray-eyed expression is hard and frustrated when she nods to Basch. "I am capable of making my own way home."
She leaves her tea steaming on the table.
Basch moves hesitantly back to the welcoming arms of the young brothers.
Balthier takes the princess' place at the table.
Penelo goes to the fridge and snatches a water bottle of murky River and begins to drink. When she has had nearly half of it, she goes to watch her cohorts play. Her giggles rupture the air in strident arrows of hysteria from time to time.
Sora watches Balthier quietly. "Why is Penelo so worried??"
"She doesn't want any of us mixed up with the Pack again." Balthier answers after consideration. "Or the Blood, really. Those sorts of things always end with people dying."
"Why?" Sora presses innocently and Balthier drinks from the fallen-princess' tea.
"Hate is a peculiar thing that way."
xSora gets caught in another squabble in the streets. Before the Silver Suits show up to calm it down, some people die and Sora gets slashed in the arm.
"There are groups who support everyone, aren't there?" Sora asks Aerith, while she bandages him up. More and more of the Hearts' budget has been alloted to medical supplies as the violence and heat begins to rise.
"Of course there are. There's us," she laughs.
"Most of 'em don't make it," Cid calls down from the rafters, his boisterous voice ringing off the wooden walls of the church. He's fixing the sprinkler system, which waters their flowers. "It's hard to get 'em all on the same page though. Everybody's gotta want the same thing, 'cause one comment about a bastard pixie tears the whole damn thing apart."
"I hear the group who set up in the municipal center are doing well," the raven-haired elf girl whispers. Sora has learned her name is Yuffie and she drowns herself in peca to keep herself safe from certain dreams of fire and death. When she's calm and quiet like this, she's coming down off a high. She's a terror when the dragon-milk is fresh in her blood. The magic goes absolutely wild around her.
"The Organization?" Kairi supplies. She's taking care of a young Pack boy who's stumbled this way. More and more often this place has become a neutral sort of hospital. "Yeah, they've gathered a lot of members and I haven't heard about too many problems."
"From what I hear," Leon adds, "they've got an interesting leader. Smart politically, provocative philosophically. He draws people in with it and keeps them united."
"What's his philosophy?" Riku wonders, Caribbean eyes gleaming curiously out of his pale face. They've been pretty good friends since Sora's arrival. Riku tendency to speak his mind balances well with Sora's tendency to simply smile.
"Pretty much the same as ours," Leon laughs. "They just talk about it more scientifically. They go after peoples' heads instead of their hearts."
"It's a good theory, no matter how you say it. All this killing is stupid." Riku mutters sharply. It is the phrase Sora hears most often from his lips. It's like a kind of desperate prayer for him.
Sora wonders how badly he was hurt in the past.
xSora is surprised to meet Larsa Solidor and Duke Mickey on the same day, in the same place, at the same time. They come to inspect Aerith's church and offer her more money, but she quietly declines and says all she needs are more seeds to plant and more bandages.
Larsa is a very small elf, his hair the same strange distinctive color as Yuffie's and his voice is very well cultured. His eyes are frozen in that immortal way of the Faerie, but his hand is warm when he shakes Sora's. He looks at the picture Sora holds out and says he does recognize the young man, but cannot remember from where. He promises, with an intense earnest, he will look into it.
Duke Mickey is even smaller than Larsa, his hair is darker and wilder and his eyes are much brighter, much colder. He's accompanied by two attendants. Donald and Goofy. Donald is fully elven, with white hair and sharp blue eyes. Goofy is only a half-elf, very tall and unfortunately lanky, dark haired with warm chocolate brown eyes.
Duke Mickey takes Leon and Aerith into one of the decrepit confessionals to talk shop about what might be down to help promote more Brotherhood in the city and to end the mounting gang war before it gets as it had been years before.
Kairi and Riku have injured patients to attend to and that leaves Sora alone enough with Lord Larsa to inquire about Balthier. The elf's face flushes brightly and he licks his lips, the same peculiar little habit Sora has seen Balthier succumb to.
"Would you take a message to him for me? That... I can't see him this time, I'm only here on business. But I'll be back for a proper visit soon. Will you tell him?" He whispers it, like he shouldn't be saying it at all.
Sora grins. "Only if you promise to think about where you might have seen my brother."
Larsa laughs, a childish, chiming, charming little thing. "You know Pinch and Daggers and Knives then? I think he used to run about with them, I think. Back when I was hiding with the Rats, calling myself Tongues... If they don't know... The only one left is Chocobo, but I haven't seen him in a long while. I will try to find him to ask."
xBalthier's face lights up a little bit when he hears Larsa's message. The three Rats tease him and Fran smiles her own slow sleepy smile.
xThere's another fight the next day while Sora is on his route. It's getting worse every time and, this time, Sora is stuck there because he spots Sephiroth. The poor elf is lost and confused and Sora knows he can't just leave him there to be hurt.
Someone is calling the elf's name though, over and over, trying to win his attention above the sound of knife wounds and gun shots and magicks.
"Sephiroth!" A blond human from the Pack side.
Someone else from the Blood line calls for him too.
Poor mad Sephiroth, in search of heaven, does not know where to go.
Sora runs to him, grabs one of his ice-cold hands and drags him away before they get shot.
As they run, Sora hears something explode behind them and footsteps following.
They round the corner on the church, Sephiroth pulls back and whoever is following them calls his name. They snowball to a stop before the church's slanting doors. Their pursuer doesn't manage to slow completely and stumbles against the tall elf.
The little blond human is there, his face very pale and tired.
"Sephiroth," he mumbles one more time and then falls silent.
When Sephiroth pushes the boy back curiously, Sora sees he's unconscious.
"Uhm," he begins, hesitantly, "let's go inside, all right?"
xThe boy's name is Cloud and he sleeps for several days.
Sephiroth wanders away before he wakes up, leaving only the boy's name.
When Cloud awakens, he won't talk, but quietly drinks the water Aerith offers and then sits watching Leon and Cid repair the church.
When Sora comes in, finished for the day and ready to collect his money, the blond boy gets up and grabs the sleeve of his shirt.
"He knows you're looking for him," Cloud says. "Everyone who knows has told him. But it's up to him if he wants to be found. I don't know if that means you should keep trying or not."
Sora is stunned to silence for a moment before he nods.
"I have to keep trying, but thanks."
Cloud shrugs apathetically before ruffling back his unruly blond hair.
xFighting, fighting, fighting.
Sora's new job becomes collecting the injured. Even the Silver Suits have begun to bring the overflow from the main health center to Hearts. They're neutral, unlike the health center, where allegiances amongst the various doctors and nurses have begun to be a problem.
Duke Mickey and Larsa Solidor return. They say they've been talking with a man named Xemnas because they're worried things are going very badly.
Riku is very quiet and very angry, he seems to want to fight and when Sora asks him about it, Riku only murmurs,
"My parents ended up dead last time. I won't let it happen again."
xAshelia B'nargin and Basch come back too. Reks and Vaan and Penelo are all upset. The boys cling to the Captain and beg him to make the fighting stop, because they already lost Mom and Dad and they don't want it to happen again.
Balthier tells Ashe he won't help. He won't go back and lead this slaughter.
She sneers at him and tells him this isn't the Faerie's world and she'll fight them for it to the last.
Basch only says he'll fight for her, as he hugs the two worried boys to his chest.
The River smell is strong in the loft, the Rats' faces are all soft and doughy with relaxation, but wet with fear and loss.
xThen, at last, Larsa Solidor comes to the loft.
Balthier looks very much as if he would like to kiss him, but refrains.
"We need you for a meeting," Larsa says, softly.
"What sort of meeting?" the man replies warily.
"Peace. You've heard about the Organization, yes?"
"They've been building an army of neutrality and peace while we weren't looking."
xSitting on half-rotten pews are Duke Mickey, Larsa Solidor, Xemnas, Aerith, Leon, Balthier, Fran, Cloud, and poor broken Sephiroth.
"I intend a military coup," Xemnas announces with a peculiar kind of finality.
Mickey's round nose wrinkles in distaste, and so does Larsa's. However, no one else protests.
"We could still talk," Larsa argues to the silence.
"Talking," Fran intercedes, "has not helped. We are back where we began. They are like unruly children. The Beast Lord wants it settled before it spreads to the Wood. He will not tolerate this nonsense in the Wood."
Balthier agrees. "My father won't listen to reason. The Pack will continue on the attack for as long as he is leader."
Aerith brushes her hair behind her ears. "This war is a losing situation for everyone, most notably the half-elves. Things were going so well, we were finally integrating. I can't stand this purist racism any longer."
"I'm tired of waiting in the wings, healing the injured. If something can be down now, Hearts can fight," Leon grumbles.
Cloud shifts uncomfortably. "The Rats aren't interested in being ruled by a bunch of racist bastards," he admits after a moment. Sephiroth stares at him in surprise.
"You're with the Rats again?" he mumbles, confused.
"That isn't the issue. But... I'm just representing them this time," Cloud growls.
Sephiroth smiles like a deadman. He has nothing to add other than he will fight.
Mickey and Larsa are, unquestionably, outnumbered.
xThe shops are boarded up and the streets are eerily quiet, even with the noise of makeshift warriors, mounted on magic powered motorcycles.
One of Xemnas' men is on a beautiful shining thing. He calls out loud orders to his Snipers.
It was no exaggeration when Larsa said Xemnas had been building an army. They are a loyal, exuberant mass who have been well trained over the past four years since the Organization's initial conception.
Sora stands on the corner of Utah and Phillips with the rest of Hearts. They've been absorbed under Cloud's command, and they await his orders.
The plan is to take out the Pack and the Blood's leaders and replace them. It seems rather totalitarian, but most of them trust Xemnas' plan because he's a half-elf himself. The only way he benefits is by recreating equality in the town.
Some orphans will be made today, the man had admitted. The statement had made Riku's face harden and Sora had thought of Vaan and Reks and Penelo.
He swallows, hard. When the fighting is done, he's going to get as many injured back to the church for help as he can. When the fighting is done, it'll be easier to look for his brother, and perhaps that's most important of all. He tries to ignore lump in his throat that he keeps swallowing around, but he has to acknowledge that his brother might die in this fight.
Cloud rides in on a swift little motorcycle.
"You've got Carnaby Street. Almasy is holed up in a shop, somebody needs to drag him out by the scruff."
Leon seems pleased by the prospect. They're all in good moral when they march on their location. Even Yuffie—brought far too close to the Twisted Kingdoms of magic by the peca—is there, screeching out wild devastating spells that bring proud Fujin to her knees.
xB-town is not left as ravaged as she could have been. Though the east quarter is on fire and Cid Bunansa somehow ends up dead. When Sora finally sees Balthier after the whole thing is through, the orphaned son doesn't seem very sad about it at all. But, Sora can't be sure, Balthier's been rather busy finally taking his kisses from his small pixie lord.
Sora sees a lot of that amongst his friends as he wanders the streets of victory. Kairi and Riku, Aerith and Leon, Cloud and Sephiroth, Vaan and Reks and Basch, and... and...
The asphalt is wet and grimy and dark, the sun is just beginning to set, and many of the lights were blown out in the heavy fighting at this part of town. But... Sora calls his brother's name and the blond turns to look at him sheepishly. The redhead he'd been kissing grins. Their troops from the Organization hoot and holler at them, laughing at them for being caught.
"Is that your brother, Roxas?" the redhead wonders, stroking the blond's face with an intimate familiarity.
Sora comes closer hesitantly and his brother, his new name is Roxas, he realizes, comes closer too.
"I wasn't ready to see you yet," Roxas says, clutching at his companion's hand fearfully even as he reaches with the other to touch Sora's cheek. Almost as if he doesn't really believe he's there.
"I've been looking for you everywhere," Sora says, louder and more shaking than he'd meant. "I didn't... I didn't even know you'd run away. For three years they told me you were away at school."
Roxas' face is understanding and worried. "They really didn't tell you why? Nothing?"
"Madame Quistis' School for Troubled Boys," Sora replies and Roxas swallows roughly.
"Now isn't a good time..."
"But you're here?"
"I'm not going back. I like it here. So there's plenty of time for you to tell me."
Roxas looks uncertainly back to his friend, boyfriend apparently, Sora thinks.
Then his brother smiles, that short-lived grin Sora remembers so well. "All right."
The cry goes out in the air, weary soldiers of the day celebrating their new victory.
For now, they hold hope Bordertown will be a place they can all live.
Sora remembers what his brother, once Ghosts and now Roxas, had told him about clichés and happy endings. Brother gone Ghosts gone Roxas had said they are never quite what they seem.
Sora, however, (and this has always been one of his strengths, one of his overlooked and often forgotten strengths) is willing to take this, and any happy endings he may ever be given, at face value.
For him, this ending, right here, right now—with half the city aflame and blood seeping through the streets and anger and hate and exultation hot and red on the air (the same violent carmine as his brother's boyfriend's hair)—is exactly what it seems.
Standard Disclaimers; Happy Birthday to Yell Leader.