Any beliefs expressed throughout my story are not my own. They are simply unique to the characters and their personalities. Just wish to clarify that.

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy or anything related to it. If I did, FF12 would already be getting a direct PS2 or PS3 sequel. I also don't own any other anime, manga, or game that I take elements or characters from.

"Blah" = talking

"Blah" = thoughts, writing, sound effects, or flashbacks

"BLAH"= Yelling

(Blah)= scene change

"KWEH!"

If any speed was gradually declining before, it was completely recovered in the following moments as Gull erupted in a second, much more powerful burst of speed. The event threw even Luso off guard, though he quickly adjusted to the good fortune. The chocobo powered through all the pain and fatigue attempting to hinder it, and soon enough the two gained enough speed to where they were almost completely upside-down, moving along the 'ceiling' of the large tube.

"Smash through!"

At those words, the bird extended its beak, and it crashed through that top part of the wall with so much speed that no momentum was lost on impact. The ice shattered like a stone crashing through a closed window and without breaking their drive, the duo continued their corkscrew motion, veering until gradually descending on the other side of the pipeline. Luso's board continued to skid along the pipe surface, and his free hand found its way to his hat, keeping it from falling off as the air assaulted him.

He grinned as they once again touched down safely in the water on the opposite side of the wall of ice.

Luso and Gull break past the ice wall!


Belmont Orlandeau Beltorey

Victory

Is not only for the strong who bested the weak

But for the weak who grew stronger

Chapter Forty Five: Acqua Alta 3 (Secondhand Conquerors)


"He should be this way."

Cheney, Vili, and their newly acquainted Nu Mou associate Anrias nodded in relative unison as they followed behind the Hume Fighter. By the decoration of his breastplate and helmet, they assumed he was one of the head jailers, a fact supported by the numerous, withered scars covering his skin achieved after many years of keeping the brigands and knaves of all kinds in check.

After meeting up at the designated point, the trio had exchanged quick greetings and headed directly for the Grazton Prison, situated in none other than the Lowtown. Mold, mildew, and every other common fungus imaginable littered the interior of cells, and the bodies of inmates were kept in similar condition. However, care was taken to clean the halls, which were kept as clean as a prison halls were expected to be: just enough. It would make sense; a place of such filth-both inward and outward-would do best in the presumed worst third of the city.

"Alright, here we are." The head jailor remarked as the group stopped in front of a cell near the middle of the hallway. He read aloud from the document in his hand, his voice low and craggy. "Prisoner four thirty five; you're allowed a fifteen minute visit. If you need anything, I'll be right down the hall."

With a few short words of thanks, the large Hume nodded and made his way back down the hallway. Once he had fully turned the corner, everyone's eyes centered on the man on the far side of the cell. Unkempt black hair fell over his eyes and shackles bound his ankles, the chains of which were anchored to the wall he leaned back against. Anrias was the first to speak to the Hume.

"Hans." There was no response after a three second pause. "Hans, look up. It's me, Anrias."

"…Anrias…?" The Nu Mou's efforts bore fruit, and the man looked up weakly, continuing to talk. "It's…It's good to see you, my friend. What brings you here?"

"I'm working to get your name cleared." The reporter explained, before gesturing to the Hunter and Assassin beside him. "And these are two people I've recently met up with. They've taken an interest in this case."

"Yes, we have." Cheney added, stepping forward. "From what I've been told, you've been convicted of assisting in poaching operations. If possible, I'd like to hear your side of the story." The man eyed him for a moment, and a somber tone came to his voice as he began to speak. Anrias quickly retrieved his note pad and a fresh quill pen.

"I'll at least tell you what I know, lad." He began. "For my pet store, I normally receive my wares from one supplier. Lately, he's been increasing prices, while my customer base has been the same."

"Meaning you were beginning to lose profit?" Anrias queried, pausing and looking up.

"Right." Hans affirmed, then continued. "I was lucky enough to find a different supplier. He was rather shady and didn't give me much information about himself, but I was desperate, so I overlooked it. He told me he could get what I needed at a third of the cost on my end. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity, but that's where he got me."

Cheney, Vili, and Anrias all quirked at eyebrow at his momentary pause. He swallowed, his throat rather dry.

"Every one of the animals he sold to me where poached. I had only found out myself when representatives from Carm Mercantile alerted the authorities. I tried to explain that they were sold to me by the supplier, but even I had never seen him." He sighed. "The blame was placed on me, and here I am."

"Looking at the situation, that was probably his intention from the very start." Anrias assumed with a solemn voice. "He was probably trying to dispose of them somehow, and figured he could make some easy gil off of it in the process."

"So there's nothing you could give us about him? Address? Appearance?" Vili questioned, hoping to turn the situation around.

"None." Hans replied. "We communicated with unaddressed letters. The first, he left at my store; I would reply by leaving my responses at points indicated by his letters. As far as money exchange went, I left a down payment at a pub, and gave him the rest after my order had arrived."

"Perhaps we could ask the barman?" Vili suggested. "Somebody would have to pick up the letters and the payments."

"Grazton sees an innumerable amount of people every day. Chances are a barman wouldn't be able to so distinctly remember a face." Anrias countered kindly. "Besides, judging from the thorough planning so far, there's no way this guy would reveal himself that easily." The Scholar turned to Cheney. "Do you have any ideas?"

"Wait a second." The Hunter interjected. "When you're order arrived? Who shipped it?"

Hans blinked, then turned his head skyward, pondering. A light seemed to flash in his eyes. "Ah, I remember actually. It was Jytras Mercantile; their label was right on the side of the cages and boxes."

"A massive company like Jytras Mercantile is sure to keep records of all orders. Chances are we'll get some sort of lead from it." Cheney exclaimed, growing hopeful. "We should head over there as fast as possible."

"Don't worry, Hans." Anrias spoke in a near whisper as he bent down beside the cage. "We'll definitely find out the truth and clear your name."

Hans managed a smile.

"Thank you, my friend."

(Grazton, High Town, Piazza de Cascata)

Silence.

The entirety of the Piazza de Cascata, from the residents gathered along the sidewalk and across the bridge to the numerous aristocrats enjoying the luxuries of their private balcony; every single mouth was wide open, but not one sound escaped their parted lips. All eyes continued to stare, their irises alive with amazement and partial disbelief, as the boy depicted in the gargantuan, floating sphere of water smashed through the top of the wall of ice, skidding along the pipes surface before circling back towards the water at the tunnels base.

Then, a smirk formed at Adelle's lips.

"Told you he'd make it."

It was at the moment directly following her words that the once quiet plaza, unsure of how to react at the development, discharged a simultaneous cheer that it deafened all those before it. Capitalizing on the crowd's newfound excitement, Ling Wacciuto began to speak through the Whisperweed, his voice projecting for all to hear.

"Wow…I…I have no idea how he managed to break through…but it looks like the chocobo kid actually made it!" His exclamatory tone seemed to grow more accepting and hopeful after every word he spoke. "This race just got way more interesting, folks! Let's see if our underdog can pull off an upset!"

"Since when have you had so much faith in Luso?" Ensei asked with a sneer, singling out Adelle.

The girl in question averted her eyes, and unknown to all Kanin mirrored her action. At the comment, both their minds wandered back to their rather expensive shopping trip the day before, particularly the money Luso was now trying to earn back. She coughed, chuckling nervously.

"Let's…just say I owe him one this time."

Confused, Ensei turned to Cid and then Hurdy, who both merely shrugged.

"And besides…what do you mean? I've always had faith in Luso."

"No. You haven't."

"Of course I have."

"But Adelle…" Hurdy began with a childish innocence. "Didn't you bet against Luso winn—?" The Moogle immediately cut his own sentence short as the silver haired girl directed a rather potent killing glance in his direction.

Ensei looked to Cid once more, and both chuckled under their breath.

….

"I can't believe it. That kid actually pulled it off." The chestnut-colored Seeq whispered cheerfully under his breath as he and the other riders gathered around heard the sound of Luso's carri returning to the water.

As it connected, Luso quickly jerked back on the reins and Gull claws scraped against the water's surface as their craft skidded to a halt, making small waves in the process. The boy's head immediately shot back to the wall. Loud, boisterous cheering could be heard from the opposite side emanating from the other riders, and he could only grin sheepishly.

"Luso, can you hear me? Did you make it?" Vaan called out, doing his best to project his voice over the sound of the others' cheering.

"Yeah I'm alright." Luso replied, momentarily turning to his chocobo who panted heavily. "We both should be in a little while."

"Good." Vaan smiled. "None of us have the means to get past this wall. You're the only one left with any hope of catching up to Diez, Luso. You don't have any time to waste. Go!"

"Right!" The Fighter snapped his reins once more and Gull shook off its fatigue as best it could, starting down the remainder of the tunnel at an even running pace. Vaan cupped his ear, doing his best to listen to the sound of chocobo's claws beating against the water's surface. With every second they grew farther out of earshot, and when he could no longer hear them, he cracked his reins and guided his large flying fish around.

"What are you doing, lad?" The Seeq queried, raising an eyebrow as the young man began returning back up the tunnel. Vaan merely smirked.

"Winning this race."

….

"Come on, boy! What's wrong? Don't ya want to play a little?"

The white haired boy's head snapped around behind him, eyes quickly widening as he laid eyes on his pursuers, an acqua carri carrying Diez Carnosa and his Black Mage associate, Toretta. In the short moments following the Bangaa's words, his eyes could only register a blast of ice magic bursting forth from the chariot towards him, presumably from the Moogle spellcaster.

He yanked his own fish's reigns to the left, causing the aquatic animal to veer to the right. The maneuver succeeded just in time; the ice cold spell slamming into the water next to his chariot and instantly freezing both the area around the site as well as the water sent upwards by the impact. A few particles of the spell had managed to clip his rear foot and the part of the board carri behind it, though it was nothing to hinder his speed.

He turned hard to the left as he encountered a ninety degree split in the road. As he began his turn, he simultaneously took one hand off his reigns and held it outward, calling at the top of his lungs.

"Fira!"

The magic leapt from his hand, speeding through the short distance from his palm to Diez's chariot. Strangely though, even as the Bangaa saw the blast as he made his way around the sharp corner, he made no effort to dodge it. Upon contact, the spell exploded, more of a large displacement of water and steam than the flames the spell regularly generated.

The boy pulled the reins, his chariot slowing to a stop, and looked back. The intersection was covered in steam nearly the thickness of fog, only a testament to the heat of the magic. He narrowed his eyes, peering through, and as he did, a large figure burst from the billowing steam.

He wasted not a second signaling his fish to swim by snapping his reins, knowing that Diez and Toretta were barreling towards him without even looking to verify. Diez's grin stretched from ear to ear, and he let out a menacing chuckle as he snapped the reins with all the force he could muster. The boy immediately noticed that the speed of the bipedal lizard's Razor Fish increased two fold, closing in with every second that passed.

"Alright, let's get a little off track here." The boy looked up ahead, noticing what seemed to be a short canal bridge suspended over another canal, running perpendicular to the one above it. Diez continued gaining ground on him, the dorsal fin of his Razor fish poking high out of the water. Upon seeing that sight, the boy knew he'd no other choice but this. His arm flung out to the left as the two chariots entered the bridge, and a fire spell jumped from his hand to the nearby railing. He maneuvered left just as the spell blasted a sizeable hole, and guided his chariot through it. The pursuing Bangaa could only watch as his prey fell, passing through twenty feet of air before he and his fish plunged beneath the surface of the water.

"Get him, Toretta." He stopped his carri around the middle of the bridge, peering over the side while searching for any sign of the boy amidst the myriad of watercraft and pedestrians that crowded the lower canal. Upon the Bangaa's gruff command, the Moogle could only protest.

"He hasn't surfaced yet. I'd be wasting magic if I don't have a clear shot."

"Use a thunder spell then. It'll be sure to get him."

"Are you crazy?" The Black Mage objected. "You know what kind of trouble we'll be in if any civilians get caught in the crossfire?"

The Bangaa paused for a moment, his anger building before he let off an enraged grunt, snapping his reins simultaneously. "Fine. He may think he's gotten away, but he's wrong. Dead wrong."

….

"A daring move by newcomer Nero, and it definitely allowed him to escape Diez's clutches for now." Ling announced over the noise of the crowd. "And while those two are caught up in their fast paced game of cat-and-mouse, the chocobo kid is surely gaining ground on them."

"I'm very much astounded." Al-Cid remarked aloud, though the focus of his words was geared more to the Grazton Baron beside him. "I did not picture this Luso Clemens the fierce competitor he has shown us to be."

"Quite." Beltorey agreed bemusedly. "Though the true test, for both he and this Nero child, while be besting Diez Carnosa."

….

Nero kept his eyes focused straight ahead, his board carri skimming seamlessly across the murky water of the narrow alleyway he had decided on as a detour. Only occasionally would he look back over his shoulder and each time a breath of relief was escape his throat.

He was inherently thankful that he had managed to escape his Bangaa pursuer, even if only for enough time to gather himself and plan ahead. Their deadly game of tag had been taking place since they exited the Galleria de Turchino. The white haired boy had been hoping to lose him through the crowded streets. While any route was legal race-wise, the simple fact that they proved more out of the way than the reserved canals would deter any normal rider. For some reason, Diez seemed intent on ensuring the elimination of his opponents, rather than simply crossing the finish line first.

"It's as if he's trying to deliberately show off his prowess." Nero veered a little left, shifting enough to pass by a gondola in his path. "But why would he…" His thoughts cut off as he came to the end of the alley, traces of the sun's beams dispelling the shadow on the neutral toned, aged brick. His eyes, needing little time to adjust to the direct sunlight, soon caught sight of the figure only a few dozen feet ahead of him.

Diez Carnosa sniggered and his partner Toretta smirked as they watched the boy exit the enclosed walls of the alley, their own carri parked in the middle of an open, intersection type area. Nero merely stared at them as he slowed his fish's pace to a stop, keeping an eye trained especially on the Black Mage. At a length of three seconds, the Bangaa spoke, his voice triumphant.

"Too bad for you, boy. You must not be very acquainted with these Grazton Streets; otherwise, you would've known how they all connect." He chuckled slightly as the boy's eyes widened in realization. "Just from where you jumped off that bridge, I had a general idea of where I could cut you off. Looks like it paid off, eh?"

"I guess you got me." Nero admitted. His visage registered defeat, though a small glint in his eyes signaled hope, a glint the Bangaa failed to catch. "However, before you finish me off, I have two questions."

Toretta scoffed, pointing his palm at the Hume, though Diez quickly gestured that he cease before turning back to the boy.

"Alright, I'm in a good mood, so I'll entertain them. Though if you try something, and Toretta here will take you out." Nero could see the Moogle glaring in his direction, though he kept his façade up as best he could. He took a short, calming breath, then spoke.

"Firstly, how did you survive a Fira at near point-blank range?"

"I made sure to ward ourselves adequately enough." Toretta explained, not even blinking. "Reflect might have caused some spells to ricochet inadvertently, so we went with a number of Shell spells instead. It wasn't cheap, but I don't regret taking the precaution."

"So that's it." Nero thought, smirking inwardly. "Makes sense. For the second, what's your true aim in this competition? Just by being able to cut me off like this, your fish is clearly faster than mine. It doesn't make sense to pursue me when you could have easily made it to the finish line."

"So you noticed it, eh boy?" Diez replied at length before chuckling; the sort of deep chuckle that sent shivers up one's spine. His eyes locked on Nero, and a smirk graced his lips as he explained. "Very well. You other riders are only concerned that you win. For us, though…it's how we win."

"How you win?"

"Right." Toretta picked up where his partner left off. "I'm sure you know of the history of this race."

"Of course." The white haired boy began. "The Acqua Alta is an underground, illegal street race that runs once a month. Seeing the harm done to citizens caught in the crossfire of the contests, Baron Beltorey established the Tour de Grazton, in hopes of quelling the violence and bringing attention to the issue by making it an official yearly contest. Now he plans to expand the contest into a fully-fledged, organized sport and completely do away with the underground rings."

"You know your stuff." The Moogle complimented, which Nero didn't even consider genuine. "Unlike the Tour de Grazton, those illegal monthly races run on a betting system. People place their bets on the riders, and the winning rider rakes in a certain percentage of the money bet on him. How much you earn is proportional to how much was bet on you. Not much of a system for newcomers, as you can tell."

"But that's where this plan comes in." Diez snickered under his breath. "People are definitely going to bet on a rider who's proven himself. This will be our third year winning this race, and every year we've completely thrashed the competition, the second year being the only one to even cross the finish line. We're going to storm into the underground races and…"

Nero gave him a calm stare, interrupting. "…with all those one sided victories under your belt, others will be confident in betting on you, and you'll rake in rewards if you win. Not to mention how far your name and fame will spread, considering how widely viewed the Tour de Grazton is."

"Bingo." The Bangaa breathed out menacingly. "You're actually pretty smart kid." His eyes narrowed slightly. "Perhaps…a little too smart." His pupils locked with Nero's own. "So smart, in fact, that he'd definitely think this Bangaa would be too ignorant to notice his feeble attempts at trying to stall for time while any remaining riders caught up."

A deathly silence ensued, and Nero's eyes widened considerably. Diez smirked and continued.

"You really think I'm that stupid to sit here and have this conversation with you without some insurance? Sorry to tell you, but you and I are the only ones still in this race."

"But how!" Nero demanded with a raised voice. "You and I were in combat since this race began. When did you have time to…?"

"Back in the Galleria de Turchino." Toretta explained, chuckling. "That moment when you slipped ahead of us. You had already exited the tunnel by the time we started, so you didn't see it. I made an entire wall of ice, so thick that we'd be done by the time anyone gets through it."

"And now…" Diez picked up, a devilish smirk playing at his lips. "All that's left is-"

Before the reptilian rider could finish his sentence, a blast of flames leapt from Nero's outstretched hand and crashed into the transparent magical shell that covered their chariot. Even as assured as he was about his safety, the light from the explosion caused both he and his partner to shield their eyes. That light soon subsided, replaced by billowing smoke, obscuring the duo's field of vision.

The Bangaa immediately recognized the Hume's ploy, and immediately whipped his reins, intending on catching the boy amidst the fiery diversion. He burst forth from the short column of smoke and steam, catching sight of the Hume and attempting to ram him with his Razor Fish. The gambit failed, his gesture missing the adolescent's leg by a few inches, and Diez could only grit his teeth as the boy sailed down the canal behind him.

"Think. Come on, think." Nero began to panic, his face at least retaining its cool composure as he dodged and weaved between ramming attempts from Diez and magical blasts from Toretta. The two worked in almost perfect synchronization. Whenever the Hume could gather the timing and Mist to fire off a spell, the Moogle would block it with a perfectly aimed spell of his own. "It's bad enough having to steer this thing, but it's even worse building up magic to fend off the Moogle."

He threw his arm out, hoping to go on the offensive, then paused and quickly brought it back. Their chariot was covered in shell spells. Magic wouldn't do a thing; at least not his magic. His only option proved to be sneaking away as he'd done earlier at the bridge—a task that would prove more daunting the second time around.

"KWEH!"

Nero winced as a sharp avian call rung through his eardrums, and his head quickly turned back towards the disturbance. Diez and Toretta both looked as well, catching the sight of a yellow chocobo plowing down the center of the canal at a speed unheard of for a land animal. Behind it stood a Hume in yellow overalls and a red cap. His feet remained steady on his board carri, even under the speed his beast of burden ran with.

"That's the kid at the starting line." The Bangaa spat out, turning towards Toretta. "How'd he get through?"

The Black Mage aimed a paw at Nero, who still seemed unusually distracted by the arrival of the third party. "I'll get him. First things first, though."

A bolt of ice, visibly much stronger than previous instances, leapt from his hand and barreled towards the Hume. Nero could only curse under his breath, sweeping a hand across and trying to ward it off with a fire spell. The endeavor succeeded, and the collision's might forced him to lose his grip on his own reins.

Momentum carried his board towards the left while his fish remained straight in its course. He flinched, his carri crunching as it smacked into the stone sidewalk. Throwing his hands out before him seemed to lessen the impact of what otherwise could have resulted in a much more severe injury. A sharp, biting pain at his shoulder joint seemed miniscule compared to broken bones. He raised himself up quickly enough to see Diez's carri pass his position, the Bangaa not bothering to send him even a glance. The boy scowled, until an idea sparked in his mind, and his focus turned to the rapidly approaching Chocobo and its rider.

In a feat of pure acrobatics, Nero ran across the water perpendicular to the chariot and bunched his legs, leaping into the air as the Chocobo neared crossing him. He threw his arms around its neck and climbed his way up until he sat upon its back, eliciting a squawk from the fowl and a yell from its owner.

"What are you doing! Get off of there…"

"You can't beat him with speed alone." The white haired Hume's calmed voice cut him off. "I'll help you out. We'll win together." Luso only stared back, then voiced his agreement along with a positive nod.

…..

"Whoa! In a last ditch effort, competitor Nero and the chocobo kid have agreed on a temporary truce." Ling observed on the screen, all watching the newly formed duo maneuvered around Toretta's magical blasts and fired off their own. "Can they take down two time champions Diez and Toretta or will champions garner a third win?"

"Come on, Luso!" Kanin and Hurdy cheered simultaneously.

"They're drawing ever nearer to the final stretch." The announcer continued on. Suddenly, his eyes widened, and his voice grew twice as loud, almost straining. Similar looks followed as eyes darted towards the water sphere. "W-Wait….there's….there's something…someone else coming?"

….

"There's no way you brats are beating me!"

As Diez roared, Toretta fired off another Blizzard spell, which the newly formed Luso and Nero combo easily dodged. The two spellcasters continued trading blows, the Hume's spells shattering on impact with the magical shell and the Moogle's not quite managing to land a hit amidst a united front of Luso's quick maneuvering and Nero's countering.

This posed a quandary for the Moogle. His two opponents, despite seemingly just meeting at the beginning of the race, worked with quite a surprising amount of teamwork. There was uniting against a common foe. That made sense, though this was the kind of teamwork that only those who knew each other's styles could muster.

In the midst of his reverie, Toretta watched as Nero quickly dictated a list of directions for Luso to take; at least what he assumed from the movements of his lips. His notion proved true. Luso snapped the reins in a timed series, each crack prompting an increase of speed from the chocobo. Within seconds, the duo had taken a small lead; a mere fifteen feet ahead of their competition's chariot.

Diez made sure not to lose them as they made a left onto a small side road, once again off the reserved track. He kept the razor fish just behind them, taking advantage of whatever slipstream they might have created. The powerful strokes of the Razor fish's dorsal fin cut swathes through the water. Without even looking, Luso could feel it drawing closer; so close that a raise of its snout would tap the bottom of his board. Regardless, he kept his focus forward and squeezed his hands to check for the reins.

His eyes moved to the white haired boy atop Gull, who switched to simple hand signs as the noise of pedestrians and rushing water made it harder to hear. The Bangaa made sure to follow them down each and every alleyway; Toretta choosing to hold back on spells, lest the narrow confines work against them.

Nero signaled, and Luso made a right this time, onto a long canal that was surprisingly devoid of any of the pedestrians the other streets held. As Diez's carri exited the alley, both his and Toretta's face adopted a surprised demeanor, for they now knew exactly where they were…

…and that at the end of this canal lay a thirty foot waterfall.

Diez quickly recovered and gave his reins a crack, startling Toretta.

"What are you doing! Turn back!"

"No."

"No! Are you-"

"I said no." The reptilian's stern voice effectively silenced his partner. "The canal with the finish line is just at the bottom of this waterfall. We're not losing this race." His narrowed eyes kept focused on the duo just meters ahead of him. "They won't make a fool out of me."

"Hey, kid." Nero stated without looking back, gaining Luso's attention before continuing. "Get your chocobo to go as fast as it can, and don't hold back. On my signal, fire off an air render from that Atmos Blade you've got there." The chocolate haired fighter raised a perplex eyebrow, then silently returned the command with a nod.

Gull lowered its body as the boy cracked the reins repeatedly, streamlining its wings, and within seconds received visible results. The two pilots directed their faces forward, each a determined look both on their face and burning in their eyes. Their respective partners only watched nervously, each gathering Mist as a precaution in case the other decided to throw out a spell in the midst of this reckless charge.

The Razor Fish gave one last powerful sweep of its tail fin.

Gull let out a powerful caw, bunched its legs, and leapt.

Time seemed to come to a burdened crawl as the participants effectively left the water and entered the open airspace ahead of the waterfall, wind whistling past their ears. Below them lay the waterfall basin and numerous stone buildings around it. Just north of it, the canal the four had planned to land in, and the finish line at its end a hundred meters away. Momentum began to die off, and the carri gradually descended towards their intended canal. In a moment of uneasiness, Toretta looked down at the basin and at that instant, Nero took his chance.

The white haired boy threw his arm out, keeping it steady despite the blowing wind, and called out. Toretta's attention returned quickly enough to catch the sight of fire magic leaping from the Hume's hand. The spell ate up the distance between the two carri and smashed into the barrier surrounding Diez's chariot. Flames wrapped around the entire left hemisphere of the circular, magical shell. Toretta could only grin. While their vision was obscured by the light of the fire, the spell had failed to penetrate their palings once again.

"Now, kid!"

Expecting the signal, Luso had already had his Atmos Blade drawn, and with a mighty downward sweep with his free right hand, a noticeably smaller air render leapt from his blade's wake. Its crescent shaped form cut through the air much like the fire spell had, crashing not into the enemy's magical palings…

…but into the reins that secure their carri to the Razor Fish.

Gull touched down into a stagger, doing its best to kill momentum with Nero trying to calm the frightened bird. Both chariots landed on the canal surface with a huge splash at the same time as their animals, momentarily bobbing under from the force of the impact. Luso, drenched from head to toe, watched as Diez and Toretta surfaced on their own carri, each gasping for air. The Razor Fish that guided them merely swam about their area, no longer bound by the leather straps.

"You got us, kid." The Bangaa stated, coughing out the water he inadvertently swallowed. "It's your win this time."

"Not exactly."

All four riders' eyes widened. They looked upwards, towards the peak of the waterfall they had just leapt from. A splash erupted from that spot only a moment after; a shadowy figure darting across the blue sky like a bird in flight. From what they could catch, it seemed to be some sort of carri drawn by a fish with elongated fins. The figure touched down in the water gently, as if landing on a runway, and despite Luso's attempt to corral his chocobo into action, the unknown carri crossed the short distance to the finish line and tore through its red tape.

"We…we have a winner ladies and gentlemen!" Ling Wacciuto exclaimed in disbelief, the crowd completely silent and their eyes trained on the water sphere images. They watched in earnest as the mysterious rider came to a gradual halt.

Kanin and Hurdy's spirits deflated.

Adelle's left eye made an irritated twitch.

Ensei and Cid looked down and sighed.

Lastly, Penelo simply smirked.

"I can't believe you beat me again, Vaan." Luso remarked, rubbing his temples as he leaned against the side of the hot air balloon basket.

Upon completion of the race, the five participants had been escorted to a hot air balloon just off to the side of the finish line, where they were to be air lifted back up to the Piazza de Cascata for the awards ceremony. They were assured the animals would be delivered to them afterwards. A Hume at the center of the balloon kept a steady stream of fire burning above his raised palm while guiding the craft with his other. Diez and Toretta mirrored the boy's actions, though more because of having lost in general, especially to a handful of children. Nero looked out over the expanse of the city, not quite focusing on any one thing while Vaan's smug smile provoked all others present, whether verbally or silently.

"What I don't understand is how both of you broke through that wall of ice." The Bangaa commented grudgingly. Vaan gave in, and decided to elaborate.

"Well, in short, Luso broke through the top of your wall, the thinnest point." The Sky Pirate turned to Luso. "Remember when I said that none of us had the means to get past this wall?" The Hume nodded, and Vaan continued. "Well I actually had a means to. The fish I was using, an Ewohl Flying Fish, has the remarkable ability to leap from the water and glide relatively lengthy distances. I had a way over the wall, I just needed a hole. After you broke through, I waited until you were far enough, and leapt it myself. Then I followed behind you just enough to where you wouldn't notice me, let the four of you battle it out and waste your energy, then claimed the prize at the end."

The blonde Hume looked around at all the aggravated stares, and took a nervous step back.

"So you lied?" Luso asked.

"Of course. That's just something we sky pirates do."

Everyone else save the balloon pilot and Nero gave a heavy sigh, rubbing their temples once more. The former cast a curious glance at Vaan as the boy gave Luso a patronizing pat on the shoulder.

"To have thought every move through so much, especially on the fly. This sky pirate is quite a formidable opponent."

"Alright, ladies and gentlemen! Let's hear it one last time for our first and second place riders!"

Cheers and thunderous applause erupted after the announcer's last word, and Luso sheepishly grinned as he and Vaan stood side by side near the balcony railing, looking over the assembled crowd. Just a bit farther behind him and to the left stood Nero, Diez, and Toretta, none being able to claim the third place prize as of their carri being destroyed.

Within minutes, the once large crowd began to disassemble, each going back to their respective homes and conversing about the various events of the race. Luso looked over the railing towards the bridge to see his Clan Gully companions and Penelo making their way towards the balcony.

"It's ok, Luso. You're still a winner to me!" Kanin and Hurdy said simultaneously as they latched onto the brown haired boy, the latter tacking on a trademark 'kupo'.

"Unfortunately, that doesn't translate to real life." Vaan said good-naturedly, holding up the first place medallion around his neck. Penelo gave him a correcting 'tap' across his back.

"It sure doesn't." Adelle said, turning and pointing at Diez. "How could you lose after I bet on you?"

"I don't know, girl." The Bangaa remarked agitatedly. "Maybe you have bad luck."

"Wait…not only did you waste more money in the betting pool, you bet against me!" Luso yelled, infuriated.

"Well who was I to think a first time racer would get second place? I needed a backup plan, but I guess even that went bad." She sent an accusatory glance at Vaan, who only returned a wink. Luso sulked, half annoyed and half….even more annoyed.

"Still, it was quite the race." Cid said with a laugh, giving him a reassuring pat.

"Indeed, it was." The group's focus turned around towards the back of the balcony, where two tan skinned men and a woman of similar hue approached them. They immediately recognized all three. The Baron of Grazton himself led the path towards him, and right behind to the right, Al Cid sauntered with his female attendant in tow. They stopped a few feet away, and the Baron continued where he had left off. "I have not seen a race so exhilarating as this in quite a while." He gave them a graceful bow. "I commend both of your efforts."

"Oh…um…thank you…sir." Luso returned with an awkward bow, stuttering all the while in the presence of the nobleman.

"To think we would meet at such a place as this, Vaan and Penelo." Al-Cid remarked, giving the adventuring duo a bow of his own, though mostly directed at the female. "Surely the Goddess of Fate has granted us this welcome reunion."

"Nice to see you too, Al-Cid." Vaan remarked blankly, eye twitching as the accented man placed a delicate kiss on his partner's hand.

"Regardless of the outcome, however, I do believe that the both of you have grasped the true victory." Beltorey went on, turning towards Nero and motioning for him to stand next to Luso. The white haired boy raised an eyebrow, and the Fighter could only answer with a shrug. "Our Grazton ancestors survived not by simply clawing their way to success, but by helping and assisting each other. That is exactly what you two did; set aside your differences and cooperated towards a common goal. That was what I wanted to see the most in this race. To see if the Grazton spirit still lived." He gave a chuckle and looked towards Luso. "To think it would be embodied in one not even from this great city."

He reached into his white coat and pulled out two envelops, each sealed with a golden stamp. Both boys grasped the letters, each looking curiously at them.

"I'm hosting a gathering soon; a party, if you will." The Baron explained. "I would be grateful if both you and your respective clans could attend."

Adelle's eyes formed into dollar signs, and she snatched the letter out of Luso's hand, eyeing it greedily.

"We would be extremely honored to attend."

"What say you?" Beltorey turned to Nero, whose empty stare still held to the invitation.

"I apologize, Baron, but I will have to refuse your offer." He replied with a bow. "I have prior commitments."

"I see. That's a shame." He began to place the letter back into his coat, when Vaan spoke up.

"If you would be alright with it, we'd be happy to accept that invite on his behalf."

"Oh?" The man sent them a wry smile. "The famed Sky Pirates attending my ball? I must be sure to hide all my valuables then." The two males each gave a laugh, but even Luso noted how subtly serious he was being. "Very well, then. The details are all written. I look forward to seeing all of you." With that, the Baron departed, making his way down the stairs.

Moments later, Nero also began walking away towards the stairs on the opposite side. Noticing this, Luso quickly jogged over to him, the small bag of gil he received for second place in hand.

"Wait." Nero stopped in his tracks and turned to face the boy, who opened the bag and place a handful of the golden coins in the white haired boy's hands. The Hume began to speak, but the Fighter cut him off. "Don't say anything; just take it. I couldn't have won without your help, so you deserve half the reward." He looked back at the adolescent in confusion, then quickly turned around without a sound, continuing towards the stairs.

Luso could have sworn he heard a 'thanks', and he smiled to himself as Nero exited sight. Then, with a turn to Adelle, he asked a question.

"By the way, how much did you even bet, Adelle?"

"About twenty five hundred gil. And you just gave away half of five thousand away."

The livid tone of her voice caused the boy to perform the math in his head.

"…you mean we're right back where we started."

"Basically."

The power of teamwork triumphs!...sort of.


(End Chapter Forty Five)

Character Corner

(Gull)

Job: None

Race: Chocobo

Hair Color: None

Eye Color: Brown

Skin/Fur Color: Yellow/Faded Yellow

Likes: Running, Clan Gully

Dislikes: Water, Monsters

(Description)

Clan Gully's trusty chocobo steed, which has drawn their wagon ever since they purchased him back in Camoa. Aptly named by Luso himself, everyone seems to regard the bird as one of their own. Though it is an unspoken pact, when danger draws near, nobody would dare question it. Gull is a yellow chocobo, coincidentally bred by Sasasha of Targ Wood before being bought by the Camoa vendors. If anything, that would explain its pristine physical condition, as the Viera knows no limits when empowering her trade's beasts.

"Kweh!"

Gull, who can't actually speak…

(Trivia)

-This race was used in part to bring attention and development to the chocobo, who I feel I needed to touch on in this story. The little scoundrels have been helping (and hurting) us in Final Fantasy games since their origins, so I decided to pay narrative respects.


Alright sorry for the wait on this one. Hope it was somewhat worth it. Thought I'd get a chapter out on this snow day my location was fortunate to receive. Anyway, the arc will be really picking up in the next few chapters, so look forward to it.

Until next time.