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


The morning mist was thick and heavy, almost enough to where Luso's hand could fan it away like smoke. As Grazton was well below sea level, even higher areas like midtown were victimized by the haze on the occasional chance day such as this one. Visibility was shot past twenty meters or so, though the lack of numerous pedestrians made the wayfaring more easygoing and allowed the boy to get where he needed to go with little interference.

Glancing up at a signpost on the other end of the street, he looked down at the rudimentary map Barley had drawn up for him. He stepped out onto the canal, this time not even hesitating when his foot touched down on the water surface. It would be a shame to leave Grazton so soon after finally becoming accustomed to the southern city's way of life, but he knew it was for the best. He'd get the details from the representative, lay down the conditions, trade later that night, and then leave the city behind, most likely never to return.

The boy admittedly had been in only a handful of pubs since his arrival in this world, though much less by himself and virtually none during his stay in Grazton. Most pubs he had encountered held a similar design, even if the dimensions varied greatly, and a comforting familiarity washed over him soon after stepping through the open doorway into the dimly lit room. Unlike the taverns of other cities, this one smelled distinctly like a mixture of fish, rotten or otherwise, and sea salt. It was none too pleasant, but he supposed he would adapt; forcibly, if the stench wafting from the three Seeq fishermen at the bar counter held any sway.

He passed even more swarthy dock workers as he moved inward into the pub, each paying no more mind than a curious glance before returning to their conversations, mostly complaints about the morning, the solid mist, an employer, or a combination of all three. Most tables at this time were empty, and the ones that weren't were fully occupied. However, there was one sole exception. A small table stood near the center of the floor, its edge propping up the leather boots of a Hume Black Mage.

Luso and Crow meet face to face!


Crow

There is no turning back

From this pitch black path I tread

Chapter Fifty Two: The Rubicon


Luso gulped once, then proceeded with caution towards him, slowly. As the boy approached, the mage looked up at him, and the brown haired fighter could just make out those soulless yellow eyes from underneath the wide brim of his hat. The spellcaster watched him for a few moments, neither saying a word in their deadlock, then spoke suddenly.

"Take a seat, Luso Clemens."

The boy followed the request without protest or confirmation, merely pulling out a chair and levering himself onto its coarse wooden surface.

The two had not broken their stare down yet, though in the event of an actual contest, the mage's unblinking eyes would have provided an unfair advantage, Luso mused. An uneven combination of his queries with Ensei and the books he had read at the St. Galleria library had provided him with a basic grasp of Black Mages, including the odd practice of disguising their faces behind magically conjured veils. Clearly, these shrouds were an optional custom among their ranks, as the boy had seen a handful, even one or two Humes, devoid of them in marketplaces from time to time.

Crow roused the Hume from his musings, reaching into his garbs and rolling out a worn scroll over the table surface. "Are you prepared?"

"Yeah… Let's just get this over with." Luso matched the mage's barren, distanced tone. The two males' eyes moved down to the unfastened scroll, a basic map of the Lowtown streets and major buildings set on a piece of what looked like rough papyrus. "So where's this going to go down?"

"Here. Warehouse Thirteen." His gloved finger traced downward from the Lowtown entrance to a large building on the docks. Despite the name, no matter how many times he looked at it Luso couldn't tell if it truly was a warehouse or some sort of hangar, as it held major characteristics of both. "It's an abandoned airship and naval vessel supply compound. This is where we are currently keeping your leader and Baron Beltorey."

"Are you sure you should be telling me this?" Luso queried with raised eyebrow, though the mage was already answering as he finished.

"In the event we learn of any contact with the JDP or the like, they'll kill the Revgaji without hesitation." The barren tone in which he spoke surprised even the brown haired fighter. It was clear that the mage was trying to keep the meeting as objective as possible. "And trust me when I say this. They will know." The boy eyed him for a moment, then returned his attention to the map, subtly downtrodden.

"Is there any way we can change the meeting place? The center of enemy territory puts us at a disadvantage."

"No. I was instructed not to budge concerning the location. It will be at the warehouse at midnight. No exceptions."

"Fine. We'll accept." The young Hume stated evenly, successfully hiding his reluctance, then moved on. "What are your conditions?"

Crow's face finally rose from the map for the first time, and he looked Luso straight in the eyes. "We understand that you have captured one of our men, and are using him as a counter hostage. We also have confirmation that your clan holds the Whitesilver Magicite. Our deal is this. The stone for the Baron's return, and the Moogle in exchange for Cid's. Do you agree to these terms?"

The adolescent considered the proposition for a moment, his gaze wandering up to the creaking ceiling above them. They had hoped to get a more favorable offer, though acknowledged the current one as the most likely outcome. He stayed like that, then said "We can agree to that. One question, though."

"Yes?"

"The Moogle. Barley. If we hand him over to you, what will happen to him?"

Crow paused at the question for a moment, taken slightly aback. Then, he leaned back in his chair, a deflated sigh escaping his mouth just as Luso's eyes returned to him from the ceiling. "Did he tell you to ask that?"

"No. I'm asking because it'll affect my decision."

"He will die." The Mage responded flatly after a silence. There was no semblance of flair mixed in the statement; only a simple truth. "We are aware that he is feeding you information, and that is something we can't permit. The moment the trade is finished and all of you have left, either Ewen or Raven will kill him without hesitation."

Luso's eyes widened at that. He was expecting some sort of torture or interrogation, but outright murder? He pushed himself up from the table, face twisted into a grimace and voice laced with disbelief. "Are…are you serious?" The Black Mage only gave him a blank stare in return, not saying a word, and it was enough to confirm the boy's fears. "They're really going to kill him? Then I refuse. I can't do that to him, even if he was our enemy once."

"You're not in a position to refuse, Luso Clemens."

"Are you expecting me to trade a life for a life?"

"No, we're expecting you to trade a life for two." Crow crossed his arms, and if the boy hadn't known any better, he could've sworn the Hume's voice took on a concerned facet. "If this trade doesn't happen they will kill both Cid and the Baron. That I can assure you."

Luso grunted at that, closed fist pounding against the table with a thud that managed to knock over the unlit candle centerpiece. Those around him paused to look at the disturbance, though with a gesture of appeasement from the Black Mage, they returned to their own business. The boy sat down once more, taking a few calming breaths and placing his head in upright palms. Crow watched him for a few moments in silence, then suddenly the Fighter whispered, not moving. "Is there any way…you can help us?"

"There is nothing I could say that would sway their deci—"

"Then we'll take them back by force." The spellcaster was alarmed as the boy's piercing gaze rose to greet him, and for a second could have sworn he saw his eyes flash a golden yellow. Shaking that thought from his head, he replied coolly.

"Calm yourself, Luso. Do not think rashly here. The most advantageous situation for you would be to trade according to our terms. Your clan will safely leave with Cid, the Baron will return unharmed and without future interference from Khamja, and…"

"I told you I cannot accept your terms, Crow." The boy's voice was no louder and no less powerful than before. "Unless you can promise Barley's survival, we will take Cid and Baron Beltorey back by ourselves." Then, Luso stood for the second time, not planning to take a seat if his motion towards the door was any indication.

"Even if it means having to kill me?" Crow stated, and the words stopped the Hume just as he had started. "If you attack, I guarantee you and I will be forced to fight each other, and one of us will be dead at the end of it."

The Mage watched the boy's back, seeing the rise and fall of his torso with each breath he took, noticing the lengthy scar that peeked out from his overalls at places. At some length, the boy finally moved again, not turning around and making no further sound, other than the noise of his soles touching down on the floor as he trekked towards the exit.

(Midtown, Baybold Hotel)

"Alright, let's get started." Ensei proclaimed, breaking the silence that had settled over the hotel room after Luso had recounted the events of the meeting. The boy sat on the bed near the Parivir, downtrodden at how the negotiations had transpired but managing to hide it well enough.

He managed a glance at all those assembled. Other than himself, Ensei had suggested that the younger Gully members go out and buy any necessary supplies for the inevitable battle they were to face, and with an offer to join from Penelo and Al-Cid's maid, Adelle, Kanin, and Hurdy had departed for the respective market and shopping districts of the Midtown and Hightown. Cheney and Vili remained behind along with Al-Cid and Vaan, the former two accompanied by a younger looking Nu Mou he had not yet seen before whose face obviously looked stunned by the information he had heard over the past quarter of an hour. Lastly, the commander and Barley sat upon the other bed, the Moogle giving the boy a glance he just couldn't pinpoint.

"The girls and Hurdy are heading out to get ready and buy some extra equipment. We need a solid plan for tonight." Ensei continued. He noticed Luso's sullen expression out of his peripheral vision. "Don't be hard on yourself. You made your choice. We'll follow through."

"But it wasn't a good one, kupo." Barley stated coldly, gaze fixed on the young Hume. "You let your clan's one chance to leave this city unharmed slip away."

"As I recall the account, his choice prevented your demise, did it not?" Al-Cid countered from across the room, leaning against the wall with arms crossed.

"But did it ever occur to him that even if I got away right now, Khamja would track me down and kill me anyway, kupo." The Fusilier's logic effectively silenced the Rozarrian's protest, and caused the boy to sink even further. "Instead of dying to at least get Cid back, now I just get to die. You let your petty morality get in the way of your logic, kupo, and it cost us dearly."

"Enough, Barley." Ensei grunted, getting the intended reaction out of the Moogle. "What's done is done. There's no point in going any further. Let's just focus on what can do right now."

"We haven't got much on our side at this point." The Moogle admitted with a calming exhale, sight moving towards the window and watching what he could see of the cityscape from his vantage point. "The trade is practically terminated at this point. The only outside help I know who's powerful enough to help us is the JDP, kupo, and Khamja has informants within the Grazton branch that'll definitely stop us cold."

"So our only option is breaking and entering." Vaan concluded aloud, standing from his seat on the window seal while giving his arms an exaggerated stretch. "Which turns out to be my area of expertise."

"Basically, kupo." Barley shrugged. "Our best bet is to break in tonight a good hour or two before midnight. Of course, they'll be on guard since the kid announced we'd take them back, but we might get lucky."

"If…If I may bring something to your attention." The Nu Mou beside Cheney stepped out, and everyone sent curious glances towards him. He was surprised by the sudden attention, but neverless took a moment to clear his throat then continued, a tinge of nervousness on his voice. "Your name was Barley, was it? I'm Anrias of the Grazton Gazette. I understand that you work for this Khamja organization. Would you happen to have any knowledge of poaching operations going on around Grazton?"

"Not much." The Moogle admitted. "I've never run a job with the poaching division before, kupo. I do know they've got something happening tonight though."

"Yeah, a ship's docking tonight." Cheney stated. "Anrias, Vili, and I had been investigating an operation in this city when we stumbled upon a poaching ship docking tonight of all times." He looked at Ensei. "I had hoped to meet with you later about allowing me to go, but now that the trade's off, you guys will need all the help you can get with getting Cid back."

"Wait, maybe not." Vili interjected, her fingers laced as she pondered aloud. "Surely if Cheney, Anrias, and I cause enough of a disturbance, it would provide a suitable distraction for everyone else to sneak in."

"She's onto something, kupo. Poaching is a big facet of Khamja's activities. They'd definitely send personnel to answer a distress call."

"We'll see what we have to use." The commander sent a quick glance to everyone before continuing. "For now, everyone follow the girls' lead and stock up on anything you'll need. Ensei, Barley, and I will set up some plans in the meantime. Be back in two hours."

A disjointed series of nods met his command and soon the room was filled with the sound of shoes shuffling out into their floor's main hallway. Luso lingered for a few moments longer than anyone else, eyes transfixed on the floor until the footsteps died down completely. His own feet touched the floorboards at that point, and he trudged towards the door. Ensei observed him with sympathetic eyes, and couldn't help but feel compelled to say something. As he opened his mouth, however, Barley's voice stopped him before he could utter a sound.

"Thank you, kupo."

Luso stopped for a second, not quite sure what to make of it at first. Eventually, a weak smile crept onto his face, hidden from view, dispersing only as he made his way out of the hotel proper and down the crowded canal towards an equipment shop he had spotted on his way here.

The commander couldn't help but chuckle a bit at the sight. "That was nice of you. Getting soft on us, Barley?"

"We're about to fight a battle. I have to keep morale up when I can, kupo."

Ensei and the commander grinned at each other.

"Right, morale."

(Warehouse Thirteen)

The sound of padded footsteps drawing nearer awoke Cid from his daze, eyes slowly cracking open to reveal the pinkish hue of exhaustion on their borders. His vision, while dim and blurry, revealed the shoddy container of a room that he'd become accustomed to awaking in. The rough, near dilapidated chair securing the legions of ropes binding his body was the only piece of furniture from what he was able to conclude. No windows, no tables, and only one wooden door on the opposite side. The room was always kept dark, candles at the corners providing just enough life to keep him from abandoning sanity.

The footsteps grew louder with each passing second, a bold echo to his ears when pitted against the continual silence he'd endured so far. Then at their peak, they ceased, four different shadows peaking underneath the door. A minute lukewarm gust accompanied the entrance of two forms, both Hume and outfitted in the garments of a Paladin and Black Mage. Cid winced as the light from the hall flooded into his eyes.

"Here." Raven's direct voice signaled his attention. Crow stepped forward simultaneously with a bowl occupied by some indiscernible meat in hand, a vile of water in the other, and a pack full of some supplies on his back. "Enjoy it. It'll be the last one you have with us. Before we trade you over and all."

Cid took no time humoring his comment, moving his aching neck as best he could and clenching the slab of flesh between his teeth. Crow held the bowl just under his chin should the Rev's jaw lose its hold. Raven could only smirk at the sight, eyes full of some blatant superiority over the desperate captive before him, in his sight no higher position than a swine at a trough.

"When you're done here, Crow, go check on the Baron and find me in the hangar." Having his fill of the scene, the Paladin sauntered towards the door, speaking low over his shoulder. The previous mocking tone of his voice was all but gone. "All that running away, yet here you are again in the palm of our hands."

Again, the Revgaji made no indication of hearing the man's remark, swallowing as the Hume gave a withering glance before heading into the hallway. Crow reached to the cloth tucked in his belt, and wiped the man's mouth. Cid panted a bit, then when he was sure Raven was out of earshot, chuckled lightly.

"Never thought he'd leave. Sure likes to talk, doesn't he?"

"I suppose." The Black Mage's response was barren and unfocused, almost as if he hadn't heard him. Regardless, Cid took a healthy swig of the water he then offered, savoring the cool liquid as it flowed down his parched throat. As he set the vile down, he attempted to renew the conversation. "What did Raven mean by here you are again?"

"That's a long story, lad. In short, I used to work for Khamja. Not the most fulfilling job, as I'm sure you've noticed already." The mage said nothing, merely averting his soulless yellow eyes and applying a few splotches of a medicinal solution onto a fresh rag. "Managed to get out with what little possessions and life I had."

"Why did you join in the first place?"

"It paid the bills. I couldn't have asked for more at the time." Cid closed his eyes and mouth, allowing the Hume to dab the rag over the scratches on his face. Once he'd been treated a fair amount, he decided on a question of his own. "What's your story? Hard to believe a kid your age would get wrapped up with this lot."

Crow didn't respond for some length, taking the time to pack up the supplies he brought with him. The candles radiating in the corner dimmed his bright yellow eyes somewhat, but their complexion remained just as empty as his voice. "I'm…searching for someone. I've decided to find him no matter what."

"Good luck, then." Cid shrugged as best he could under the pressure of the ropes. "Though I can tell you from personal experience, trying to find him from within isn't any easier than the outside."

Quietly, the Black Mage stood to his feet, dusting off his pants, then moved to the open doorway, form basking in the light of the hallway. He stopped between the doorframes though, craning his head around just enough to whisper over his shoulder.

"I lied to Raven. Your clan didn't accept the trade. They're coming for you."

Though he didn't show it, Cid was honestly more surprised that the spellcaster revealed the information to him than by the revelation itself. A small smile crept onto his face before he pressed for elaboration. "Why did you lie?"

"To give them a chance." The Revgaji's eyes widened considerably, but he allowed the Hume time to continue. "The best outcome is if most of you make it out alive and never return here."

"You mean all of us."

"No…most." His head faced away from Cid once more. "Luso will fight me with everything he has to get you back, and I'll be forced to kill him. One of us will be dead before this night is over."

A stagnant pause followed in his words' wake, both males allowing the idea to truly seep in. True, Crow had understood that it would be the most probable outcome, but it wasn't until now that the idea had been so brazenly displayed in front of him. He paused his train of thought as Cid left him one last warning.

"Ensei and discussed what we would do if we ever came across you and Raven again in the future. We decided to let you live, you know. At least to escape with your life intact." A shudder ran through the Hume's spine the moment he sensed Cid's menacing gaze glued to him. "If you harm just one hair on that boy's head, though, I'll crush yours without hesitation."

The mage stood transfixed for some time, arm and hand providing a balancing point against the doorframe. A regretful exhale flew from his mouth, and without a word he closed the door behind him, footsteps resounding down the hall just as loudly as when he had came. Cid watched his previously occupied spot for some time, then leaned back into his chair, eyes gazing into the dark ceiling overhead.

Barley peered around the dimly lit corner, keeping his eyes focused for even the least suspicious movement in the already poor visual conditions. Once he was sure everything was clear, the tense feeling along his fur would resolve for a moment, returning in force after reaching the next bend in their path.

The steady sound of trickling water below and everywhere along the floor of the sewer system they'd been traversing had long since faded into his senses' afterthought, accompanied by the scurrying of rodents fleeing from the light his handheld torch cast. Behind him, bodies moved, sloshing through sewage whenever applicable and attempting to hold in their disdain of the pungent smell hanging in the air. Some walked with an obvious air of nervousness around them, others with hands already gripping their respective weapons' handles.

All with one, unified goal.

"Alright, this is where we part ways, kupo." The Moogle whispered upon reaching a relatively open area, complete with ladder leading up to a single manhole cover, pale moonlight filtering down through the cracks above. The group gathered around his torch as he pulled out a hand-drawn map with his free paw. "Vaan, Penelo, Hurdy. Once more, you three are up first. The spot leads to a building just outside the warehouse. Once you get up there, kupo, circle around and cause as much of a commotion as you can on the opposite side. I know it's a lot to ask you three, but your techniques can fell multiple enemies with little effort. Cheney's group should have already struck the poaching ship an half an hour ago, kupo. I can pray that it was enough to draw some of the pressure from you."

Silently, the two Sky Pirates and the musician nodded in unison, the torchlight dancing across their faces. Penelo subtly looked over at Vaan, noticing that his stern, quiet demeanor was but a mere façade. She could tell he was just as nervous as the Bard on his left, the way his hand unconsciously moved to his sheathed saber or the occasional twitches on his otherwise placid face. Barley gave them all a quick nod, then shifted his attention.

"The rest of us go up five minutes after that, kupo. Their distraction should allow us to slip in with minimal hindrance. Ensei, your team is going to find Cid while mine goes for Beltorey. Both should be somewhere on the basement floors, but that's as far as my guess goes." He looked back to Vaan. "Make sure your ready. You're going up soon, kupo."

The blonde sent glances to the two members of his group, and the three broke off from the makeshift huddle just before the party dispersed. An uncomfortable silence hung in the air along with the murky stench of the sewer, various thoughts and fears racing through each person's mind.

Sensing the time drawing near, Vaan quietly moved closer to the ladder, staring up at the cover with a distant expression on his face. Penelo and Hurdy soon joined him, the former taking a few deep breaths and the latter unable to tear his worried look from the ground.

"It'll be alright."

The Moogle's gaze whipped around at the sound of Luso's voice, more so at the feel of the Hume's hand on his shoulder. The boy's strange outfit stood out clearly, even with the limited amount of vision. A fiery red robe lay draped over his shoulders, its scarlet fibers ending just below the back of his knees. Two blades rested at his hip. Hurdy recognized the familiar coloring of the Atmos Blade's handle, but the second was an oddity to him, completely foreign to the usual Sweep Blade and hidden from further scrutiny by its sheath.

The Moogle attempted to question him on it, though remained silent as the boy continued. The others gave him their attention as well. "We'll get Cid out. We'll get them both out, and we won't lose anyone."

Hurdy simply stared at him for a moment, swallowed, then nodded with a firm gaze; enough confirmation for Luso to assuredly face back to the commander as he gave one last order, looking over his assembled troops.

"Alright people. You know what to do, you know where to go. There's nothing else I could say at this point to prepare you anymore. Stick to your assignments, and like the kid mentioned, don't die."

All nodded in unison for the last time. Kanin gripped her staff tighter. Adelle drew her knives, her yellow eyes narrowing as the image of a certain Paladin flashed in her mind. Hurdy, Penelo, and Vaan began their ascent up the ladder, pausing just under the cover. The commander and Ensei drew their respective swords, the Parivir flinging his cigarette to the side, while Barley placed a few more bullets in his rifle.

Luso quieted his breathing, eyelids shutting to gain greater focus. The familiar glow of his aura rose mere millimeters from the surface of his skin, enough to cause the red robe to wave in the displaced breeze of its output. And just as his eyes opened, irises shining in all their cobalt glory, the commander sounded out, and his arm came down in swift, chopping motion.

"Go!"

No turning back now!


(End Chapter Fifty Two)

(Item Corner: Whisperweed)

First discovered by the Zeldei Viera over half a century ago, the plant was first believed to be a gift from The Wood and used by the inhabitants of the Zeldei Forest for easy communication throughout their village. It was also commonly used by Summoners as a medium to focus their rituals to the various
Espers, and it is believed that the practice continues to this day.

Sometime later, an academy research team ventured into the forest and procured a plentiful supply of the weed. Thorough study bared the potential benefits for both national and international communication the plant could bring.

Whisperweed grows at a fairly normal rate and has a unique 'regeneration' ability. If a stem is cut from the body, that stem planted can grow its own set of roots in time, though will be unable to produce seeds. It is unknown exactly how the plant functions; only that it is able to transmit sounds over specific distances.

The plant does have two major limitations as to its functionality, though. Firstly, the plants can only transmit sound to a receiver from the same stem. A prominent example is the 'earpiece' model used throughout the story so far, which are purchased as a solitary stem, cut, and given to each recipient to use. The second is that, other than the earpiece model, the plant must be rooted in order to transmit sound.

Armed with this knowledge, efforts towards a national system were completed only recently. Borrowing from the Zeldei Viera system, one 'grandfather' stem, Yggdrasil, stands at a genetically engineered four hundred feet, rooted in the nutrient-rich metropolis of Flugoris. From here, four 'father' shoots were cut and transported to the other four major cities of Jylland: Camoa, Grazton, Moorabella, and Goug. These father stem's are then cut further and purchased by residents and businesses alike as 'telephone' models. Round the clock operators connect callers to their recipients upon request, and since the entire system branches from one source, communication can be viable anywhere within the country.


(Author's Notes)

And there we have it, new chapter and the Whisperweed explanation I've been dying to get out but could never find a place for within the story. Been swamped with work this week, but managed to crank this out. Hope you guys liked it, and until next time!