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


Important Author's Note at the end of the chapter


Scrolls, hammers, nails, wood.

Her hands pawed through the items upon her dust-littered shelf, pushing aside everything that didn't meet her chosen criteria. Eyes coordinated well with her fingers, which after a few moments found the small wooden box she'd been searching for, the small keyhole on its front browned from rust.

She hurried quickly over the rough wooden floors, passing by a few Humans and a Seeq browsing through the trinket, swords, and armor racks set up on four legged tables or fixed upon stone walls. They eyed her curiously for a moment, moving behind the sole counter and placing the box in a large travel bag woven of the most durable thread around. It was strange, seeing her always moving, gathering more and more things and somehow fitting them all in that pack. Which now looked to weigh more than her, not that her tiny frame had much to offer in contest.

"Alright. Shops closing up. Everyone out."

They grumbled at that, quickly finding something they were sure they could use, tossing gil coins which she accepted without a second glance. Once the last of them had departed, she stashed her new earnings in a small sack tied to the larger pack, and dove through a curtain-shielded doorway at the back.

When she returned, an aged Viera was present at the counter to greet her, dressed in simple garbs, face impassive as always. The visitor eyed the tight cloth that surrounded the long object in the girl's hands, and asked. "So that's it?"

"Yes. For the most part. A few last tweaks should do it. Only Dad has what I'll need though." She threw the pack onto her shoulder, then picked the clothed sword back up, holding it at its center. "I can't believe it's almost done, and that he actually did it."

"Nor I." The Viera managed the faintest of smirks, voice soft. "Let us be on our way."

With that, Sasasha turned on her heels and began back towards the shop entrance, Anna nodding and following after her.

Two familiar faces head towards Camoa!


Luso Clemens

The quality of mercy should be far from strained

Chapter Sixty Three: Burnout Benevolence


That smile.

Fire bloomed and pulsated in every direction, on the verge of a brightness that could blind her if she focused too long. But that would have been too much an act of mercy. The flames, and perhaps even the man controlling them, were much too sadistic to grant her that. They wanted to make sure she saw every inch of the figure ahead of her.

The large, portly figure writhing around in that inferno, skin evaporating like water droplets under full sunlight, eyeball fluid being almost siphoned out by the intense heat. Screaming for relief until his voice broke, or until his throat was too damaged to produce it any longer.

And yet even through that, he could force that smile. That smile that said everything was going to be alright, silhouetted darkly against an ocean of burning despair—

Adelle's eyes wrenched open immediately, but she did not shoot up. She tensed her muscles, forcibly locking herself onto her bed, until the surprise had worn off and she felt she could rise calmly. Sunlight poured around the edges of the only window's shutters, bringing scarce light to a dark room. As she threw the covers of her frame, she noticed that a cold sweat had broken out on her skin again, and she gave a despondent sigh. She enjoyed baths and all, but she'd just taken one last night.

Her feet touched the cold wood of the floor, just as the room's door irritably creaked open, and a voice brought her attention to it. "Adelle. Are you awake yet?"

Crow stepped in, allowing the hallway light entrance, but paused as their eyes met each other. She didn't answer his question, or make a move to, just simply staring. Gazing. Almost as if looking past him at some distant memory. That stare transfixed his body, and it only took him a second to know why.

It was the same one he saw on the cathedral roof, watching her father burn to death. "Is everything alright?"

Her pupils dilated again at his question, and she pushed out a breath as her body relaxed. "Yeah, sorry. I'm fine. Did you need something?"

"Clan meeting or something like that." He responded, voice subdued. "Ensei said for everyone to meet in his room."

She nodded, and the white haired boy gave her a weak smile before closing the door carefully behind him. She finished standing up as he disappeared, noticing Kanin and Vili's beds empty, and moved to the small washroom. The meeting wouldn't give her time to bathe, but she at least wiped off all the perspiration with a large towel, left her silver hair an unruly mess, smoothed out her nightgown, and ventured into the hallway.

When she poked her head into Ensei's room, she found everyone seated or standing around the room. Everyone seemed rather cheery amidst the fatigue of getting in so late last night. Except for Ensei, who seemed perturbed by whatever thoughts ran through his head. No doubt what he had arranged the meeting for in the first place. Adelle noticed an uncanny resemblance to their meeting after the attack on the Baron's manse.

"Alright, I think that's everyone, Ensei." Cheney remarked, performing a curt head count with his eyes. "So what's this all about anyway?"

"Yeah, and where were you last night?" Luso added. "We didn't see you when we got back to the inn."

"Patience. Just bear with me for a moment. This is something that is going to affect the future of this clan." He answered calmly. Everyone went quiet at that, not sure what to make of the statement. Finally, though, he sucked in a breath before continuing. "I had a conversation with the Baron last night. About the Reighlard situation." Micaiah's distraught face returning to their forethoughts as continued. "They were able to reach a compromise."

Faces turned elated, and relieved breaths siphoned out. Crow's still seemed rather perplexed though, and made a mental note of the Parivir's continuing reserved speech. "He did? How…odd. I hadn't the idea that the Grand Duke was such an agreeable person. Especially with how dire Beltorey made the situation seem."

"And you'd be correct." Ensei said somewhat dispiritedly, and the mood once again lost its joyful mirth. "It was a compromise in name only, really. It basically boiled down to this. In exchange for Beltorey dictating the terms, the Duke was allowed to choose how it happens and all other minor details." He leaned forwards, placing his elbows on outstretched knees. "Beltorey proposed a single contest. The winner of that contest would acquire the rights to the entire territory, no questions asked. An all or nothing gamble."

"Is that wise?" Cheney warned as everyone expressed their surprise. "A winner take all situation could prove disastrous in the future if Beltorey were to lose."

"I doubt he had another option." Crow said, glancing at him. "It would have likely come down to a war of attrition between them. And I'm sure you would be old enough to remember the consequences of the last conflict between Coronet members…" Cheney's eyes widened, and he nodded at that, but Kanin, Luso, Adelle, Hurdy, and Vili only looked around with a spot of curiosity.

After a moment, Hurdy's ears perked up. "What kind of contest is it, kupo?"

Ensei seemed to deliberate on this a lot longer, but finally reached a hand into his shirt, picking out a rolled up piece of paper. He let it fall open in his hand. A printed drawing of a palace surrounded in falling confetti and a clearly visible battle stage at its center dominated the entire flier.

Ensei read the words at the top. "The Palace Tourney."

"Wait…what?" Luso asked aloud, mirroring all their sentiments. The flier looked remarkably similar to the one he'd seen on the wall in Grazton. "You mean that big tournament you mentioned before? How…"

Ensei cut in, nodding. "The Duke proposed a clan competition, using the Palace Tourney as a framework. Both the men are to choose one clan as their representative, and whichever clan makes it the farthest in the competition claims victory." He coughed, before continuing. "Beltorey also informed me that he intends to make one of the Camoa Cup Victors his representative."

"Why the Camoa Cup?" Vili asked. "He is the Baron of Grazton, after all. It seems strange to not use one of the Grazton Cup victors."

"I didn't think to ask." Ensei shrugged. "But I do know that, on average, the clans out of Camoa are more successful."

She seemed satiated by the answer, but couldn't help but think there was more to it than that. Another silence swept through the room, when finally Crow's head perked up, remembering something the man said earlier. "You said this was going to affect the clan's future. What did you mean?"

"Yes, I did." The Parivir nodded slowly, glancing around the room and meeting eyes intermittently as he continued. "I want to know what each of you wants to do."

"What we want to do?" Adelle prodded.

"Do you want to try for this? To be their representatives?" His question brought about a hesitant quiet, more so than any of the other revelations had. "I promised each of you after Grazton that I'd treat you like adults, like equals. And as equals, each of you is allowed to vote on clan matters." He turned to Luso first. "The Baron's already told me that he would not pressure us into something of this magnitude, and I've already made my decision. So now, I want to hear all of yours."

The sound of a wooden chair hitting the floor grabbed everyone's attention. Luso shooting to his feet and his determined voice kept it. "Absolutely for, without a doubt!"

Ensei didn't make any inclination at the boy's answer, instead calmly turning to Hurdy. "Hurdy?"

"If…If Luso is up for it, kupo." He sucked in a breath and dispelled his uneasiness. "Then I am too."

"Crow?" The Parivir kept up.

The mage merely leaned his back against the wall, crossing his arms. "I'll take a neutral stance on this one. For now."

"Cheney?"

"I…" Cheney could feel Luso's expecting eyes on him, and sighed. "I'll vote against. This isn't a good idea."

"What!" Luso rounded on him. "What do you mean 'good idea'? Didn't you just hear what's at stake?"

"I know what's at stake, Luso, but this is the worst time for us." Cheney began to explain. "Ensei knows even better than I do that Cid is our leader in practice. He manages our finances and supplies for us, he makes the final decisions when all else fails, and he holds it all together. Without him, we are a body without its head."

"What are you trying to say?" Luso asked, voice slightly on edge. "That we just don't even bother because Cid isn't here?"

Cheney stepped forward, looking into his eyes. "I'm saying that we are a nine person clan without a leader. Do you realize how small nine people really is? The clans we're going to be facing after the Camoa Cup and maybe even in it have double our manpower on average. At the least."

Luso gritted his teeth. "But—"

"I see why you're upset, Luso." Adelle asked, voice masked evenly, sitting calmly with her legs crossed. "I really do, but Cheney's not wrong and neither was Beltorey. Some of us aren't ready to fight for that long again, not after everything that happened in Grazton."

Luso opened his mouth to respond, but couldn't find anything to reply to that. The room seemed to diffuse in tandem with his voice.

After a while, Cheney calmly said. "Just because we are not entered doesn't mean there is no hope for St. Galleria. I'm sure the Baron will find a suitable clan to take on Reighlard, but I just don't think it can be Clan Gully. We are not and never will be a tourney clan, and we are in no shape to fight our way through one now."

Again, Luso said nothing, downcast eyes falling to the floor. He breathed a few times to reinvigorate himself, then gave the Hunter a nod, who only replied with silent, apologetic eyes. Then, the boy surveyed the room with a glance and threw out a quick wave before exiting through the door.

Silence moved in with his passing, with no one really meeting anyone else's eyes.

"Well…." Ensei remarked evenly, standing up from his chair. Then, the Parivir walked steadily towards the door, and as he put his palm on the handle, he added. "We'll…take a re-vote later, once everyone's cooled down."

The katana wielding warrior exited as well, and soon everyone began to disperse.

"I'll…go make sure he's alright." Crow uttered in the quiet. Then, Cheney came up to Crow and extended hand, grabbing his shoulder and attention.

"No, I'll do it."

….

The bustling city surrounding his body seemed dead to Luso as he walked; hoping a walk through the Camoan streets would cleanse his thoughts consumed with the memories of his time in St. Galleria. He weaved gently around those more massive than him, brushing against some with shoulders too broad, but against his regular instincts, he said nothing, like it hadn't even happened. Only continuing to move forwards with the flow, eyes studying the ground, hands nestled in pockets.

From the particular long terrace he traversed, his periphery occasionally captured glances of the lower cityscape. Hundreds of houses and buildings, and a river of color and sound flowing between the streets between them. He'd always heard in classes how cities were so similar to people and their blood flow, but it seemed only Camoa's packed roadways could invoke the true sense of the comparison.

The structure adjacent to the very heart of the city definitely captured his eye the most. A stadium of sorts, not quite a coliseum but fashioned out of stone in a similar way. Throngs of people stirred at its base, its walls covered in the colorful tapestries of the canvassed stalls down the street. One such tapestry hung down from the very peak a few stories over the entrance. A minimalist image of a trophy, hued golden against a royal blue backdrop, large enough to see even from his distance.

He failed to hold back a longing look, thoughts of the Pervenche family storming through his mind once again.

Ambling on with no sense of purpose for what seemed another half hour, he eventually stumbled upon a familiar one story building on one of the lower terraces closer to the heart of the city. Only the crude image of a leaping flightless bird occupied the sign above the doorway. It bore no other words, though the raucous laughter and profanity spilling out from the entrance told him more than he needed to know.

It'd been a couple months since his last visit to the Prancing Chocobo, and as with any other Camoan establishment, it was filled to the brim with patrons, making its open floor and brick walls seem more compact than his last visit. The clanking of iron plates and silverware blended into the uproarious hum of voices. Waitresses scurried about without rest, trying to keep their swarthy customers topped off on ale, in case they grew cross. Most seemed new hires from what he could tell, perhaps temporaries brought on to combat the Land Festival's influx.

The boy practically forced his way to the back, cringing at having to squeeze between musty bodies at points, until he was in the center of the main floor, surrounded by a sea of round tables. His attention, however, was lofty and unfocused. To where he didn't have the sense of mind to see one of the girls tumbling towards him.

Laughter erupted at the tables around him just moments after she knocked him onto the ground, falling with him, liquor soaking into their clothes and the timber floors beneath. Luso gritted his teeth, but as he came up to sit, his found the waitress's, an odd mixture of fatigued and terrified. It was obvious from the bags under her eyes that she'd been working a while, probably overnight. Not finding the strength to grow irate, he instead helped her to her feet, picking up the spilled bottles and patting her warmly on the shoulder.

Her terrified look soon morphed into a thankful smile, so genuine that one would think it was the first kind gesture she'd received all day. But that same smile was dashed at the emergence of a voice behind her, from the occupied table where most of the jeering laughter had come from. Laughter that was now gone, voice anything but amused.

"Went and spilled it, did you?" A Nu Mou Sage, outfitted in an earthen green version of their normal garbs. Hands mummified by a series of bandages. An odd, wide spool of wire hung around his neck in place of their ritualistic bead necklace. Patches of skin on his face, mostly in jagged lines, appeared sickly and corroded. "Paid good money for that, wench."

"It was an accident." Luso said, stepping forwards to him, not faltering under the twelve or so eyes from the table that turned to meet his protest. Mostly Bangaa and Seeq, a few Hume scattered here and there, and a lone Moogle at the far end. All rough around the edges, like they belonged in a shady part of the Grazton Wharf.

"Does it look like I care, kid?" The Sage leaned forward, elbows setting on the table. "If I paid for it, I expect to drink it."

Luso's fist tightened into a solid ball, and his teeth pressed together as the Nu Mou adopted a smirk. But just as the boy was about to respond, a figure appeared in front of him, hands pressed against the Fighter's front, holding him back.

"Luso, stop. Fighting them won't solve anything." Cheney remarked in an even whisper. The boy's face was still livid, but it succeeded in halting him at least.

The waitress took advantage to quickly step up, bowing her head at the man and uttering. "I apologize. I'll fetch you a new one right away. Free of charge."

He seemed pleased by the answer, but the 'thank you' the waitress whispered to Luso and Cheney as she walked off did little to placate him. The Hume and Nu Mou continued to gaze at each other for a moment, but eventually Luso backed off silently, directing his attention to the side and leaving them. He could feel the snickering and jeers behind his back, but he knew there was no point in starting an argument now.

The duo moved more towards the right wall, pausing a few tables away from the clan. Their eyes darted around, searching for an empty spot to relax, when the Hunter caught sight of a lone Bangaa to his left waving him over.

"Chita, right?" Cheney asked reservedly as he and Luso pulled out a chair, recognizing him from the night before.

The Bangaa nodded, leaning back. "Aye. Haven't quite heard your names yet, though."

"Cheney Galliformes."

A not so discreet shiv to the ribs brought about a "Luso Clemens".

"Then nice to make your acquaintance, Cheney and Luso." His mouth upturned into a toothy smile, one that the latter boy couldn't help but return.

Despite his frazzled state and the want to be left to his own devices, he couldn't find the means or desire to depart from the Hunter or Gladiator, especially as he began to signal over drinks for them. If there was anything he'd learned over his childhood, or even more so in Ivalice, it was to never turn down a gift. Especially food or drink.

It was all rather strange to him, sitting there with the Bangaa that, despite his history with Ensei, he'd still only just met the night before. Chita was surprisingly easier to talk to than other Bangaa he'd encountered, about the same level as Grant. Most likely compounded by the Gladiator's discovery of Luso's job class; the male displayed his borderline addicted fascination with swords in full, noting the quality and craftsmanship that had gone into the boy's two blades. His praise brought thoughts of that weapon shopkeeper to mind, and that he should definitely visit him again sometime before they moved on from Camoa.

Chita's fervor relaxed a bit over the half hour, perhaps assisted by the steady stream of booze or the growing clamor of the patrons around them, and conversation veered into more poignant topics.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I can't say I expected to see you two here." He glanced over the space, then brought a curious eye back to them. "Hope you didn't come here to tell me that Ensei cancelled on me."

"No, not that I know of." Luso replied with a simple shrug. "He's probably just running late. We had a clan meeting an hour ago."

His face seemed to become more inquisitive. "Ah, and might that meeting have something to do with your presence here?" Luso paused, unsure of how to respond. But under his gaze he finally conceded.

"Sort of…in a way." He gulped down the last of his water glass, formulating a way to sugarcoat the actual truth. The situation would probably sound strange to anyone hearing it for the first time, but eventually he figured just being vague wouldn't hurt. "A friend of our clan is in some trouble right now. It sounds strange, but the only thing that can help her is if a certain clan is beaten. Probably in the Palace Tourney."

"I see." Chita responded. Cheney remained completely quiet, hoping that talking this out with a neutral party would ease his friend somehow. "So why don't you try for it, then? I know little of your clan, but if I know Ensei, then you may just have a shot."

"That's the problem. We're still recovering from our last battle." Luso admitted, propping his head on his hands. Cheney was relieved to see him considering the opposite side. "I don't want to force us into harm's way like that. But I don't want to abandon my friend either…"

"Quite the predicament." He agreed, serving to push the boy down farther.

Another round of beverages brought on a silence as both males found themselves trying to cool down with a constant stream of water, the growing number of bodies contributing to an overwhelming musty heat. Eventually that silence was broken, as he looked up to see Chita occasionally eyeing something a few tables across from them. The Bangaa finished off the last of his glass and leaned in a little closer to him, voice just above a whisper.

"But, if you think about it…who says you have to be the one to win it?" Luso's eyes scrunched in consideration, but gradually began to open. The Bangaa had a point, and the boy's quirked eyebrow invited explanation. "Whether you or another, does it matter who wins as long as this clan is vanquished? Perhaps you could petition a clan to assist you."

Luso nodded as Cheney stepped in, genuinely inquisitive. "Would…that actually work?"

The Gladiator shrugged, tone even. "Who knows. But have you anything to lose?" The Hunter paused, then shrugged.

Luso's eyes turned down to the table, mind running through every clan he could think of. Which admittedly, weren't very many. They had good relations with Clan Falzen, but it'd been a while since he'd seen or heard of them. And he doubted they'd be in Camoa right now. Moreover, they were smaller than Gully anyway.

What they needed was a clan strong enough to make it to the Palace Tourney. "Do you know of any in town, Chita?" Cheney asked. "A clan strong enough to even make it there?"

"Well…my clan couldn't assist you. Not that they're in town anyway." The Bangaa brought a pondering hand to his chin, as if moving through a mental list. "Camoa Braves have been regulars at the competitions as I recall, same with Magick Edge. But this year, all bets are on the big newcomer. Acidwire."

"Who's that? Do you know where I could find them?" Luso queried, eyes hopeful.

That hope dashed as Chita adopted a grim look, and said. "No need. You almost argued with them half an hour ago."

The thought took a few moments to register, but not long after that to appear on Cheney's face. Them? The table Luso had just stood up against on that waitress's behalf? The Hunter barely restrained his head from turning to the table's direction, catching a glimpse of the Nu Mou guzzling down a fresh glass, and shuddered at the thought.

Chita noticed the disturbed, disbelieving look on his face. "There are others you could take your chances with, but your safest bet is with them. Can't imagine how you'll pull that off now, though."

"So what do you propose we do then?" Cheney petitioned.

The Bangaa didn't reply for a moment, snout towards the ceiling as he weighed the options. Then, as it came down, opening to reply, Luso pushed back his seat along the floor and levered himself to a full stand. The action caught them both off guard, enough to where they lost time to query before he was silently walking away. They watched him in utter confusion as he cut around tables, stopping just before Acidwire's.

Beady eyes turned one by one, until all twelve members of the clan became aware of his presence, just as surprised as Chita and Cheney but masking it much more effectively. They too assessed the boy, face completely stoic but for the smallest twinge of fear dancing in his eyes.

At length, the Nu Mou leaned forwards, speaking from the opposite end of the table. "Well if it isn't the hero…"

Acidwire Clan Leader: "Acid" Suzuka

"…I need to ask you something." Luso responded, hiding his gulp.

Suzuka quirked an amused eyebrow. He motioned behind him to an empty chair at an adjacent table. "Well, by all means. Have a seat with us then."

Despite his hesitance at the Sage's irregular grin, Luso evened himself and moved around the table to his assigned place. He could feel a growing number of eyes on him, from nearby customers, but tried his best to put it out of his mind. As he pulled the chair up to the table and set himself down, the Nu Mou's fingers rose to snap. Immediately a waitress, the one he'd harassed before, snapped around at attention, face nervous.

"Fetch the boy a drink." She obeyed with haste, more to escape his unnerving leer than any willingness. The Nu Mou turned back to him. "Now, you were saying?"

"I…have a request….about the tourney." His voice straightened out over time, particularly as he noticed Cheney and Chita still watching him carefully from afar. He's eyes fell to the table. "I've heard your clan is the best around here. I know this is a lot to ask and it probably won't make sense, but…can you promise me, no matter what, that you'll win the Palace Tourney?"

Luso wasn't surprised at the following seconds of silence after his proposal. That much, he'd expected. But when those seconds dragged on, clearing a dozen, he brought his head back up and looked around. Every face in the immediate vicinity, the members around the table, everyone but the continuously moving waitresses stopped to look at him, their faces so still that he wondered if time magic was somehow involved.

Then, just like that, everything erupted into laughter. Fist, paw, and claw alike battered the tables' surface. Top heavy Bangaa leaned too far back in their chairs and collided with the ground. The sounds of glasses breaking rang in the distance. It spread like wildfire, most joining in for the sake of it, capturing even those near the front door. But the most concentrated of the laughter remained beside him, to the clan members around him who seemed to be on the verge of tears.

"Oh man, this kid is a riot."

"I don't believe it. He's actually serious!"

"Alright, alright. Calm down you idiots." The Nu Mou coaxed, barely managing to contain his own chuckles. Amidst it, the waitress returned with a bubbling glass of ale, that apologetic look returning to her face. But Luso didn't react to it, or to anything after that. He kept his face placid as she set it down in front of him, as the laughter finally died down a minute later, and as Suzuka eased back into conversation. "You'd have been better off joking there, kid."

"But it wasn't a joke." Eyes rose to meet the newcomer Cheney, whose even face did nothing to combat the subdued coldness of his voice. "And what was so humorous about his question?"

"Because he actually thinks we'd have a chance, kupo." The lone Moogle of the clan answered, turning to the Hunter. "The tourney at Bervenia's an impregnable stronghold for the biggest, most powerful clans, and this year's no exception. A twelve man clan like us would get slaughtered."

Suzuka picked up. "Go find someone else that'll fall for your suicide mission. I'll keep my life."

Luso stared blankly in his seat over the next few seconds, enough to cause the entire table to gradually grow quiet. The Nu Mou assessed him with an odd eyebrow, until he stood slowly from his seat. He tucked his chair back in under the table, and as he walked away, he spoke without any inflection. "Never mind. I asked the wrong group."

"Wrong group?" Suzuka repeated with an irate sort of amusement. "Boy, we're as good as it gets around here. Don't think you'll find anything better."

"Hold on now, Luso." Cheney said, stepping in front of him. "They might be right about being our best shot. Let me try talking to them a bit before we just storm off."

"Don't bother. We asked the wrong group." Luso's face was still voidless as he replied, and was more matter-of-fact than condescending.

"You know, kid… you're really starting to piss me off." Suzuka began to run a finger on the metal string around his neck, tone a dangerous innocence. "But…I'm a generous man. If your pay's good enough, my clan might reconsider your proposal."Cheney face perked a bit at the offer, but quickly soured, turning to Luso' s continued lack of expression to confirm what he thought. When only silence returned over the seconds, the Nu Mou leaned forwards and laced his fingers. "You…were planning to compensate us for this, correct? Did you think we were going to jump into certain death like that for free?" The Sage's eyes became hard. "Running a clan is a business. If you don't make it worth my while, you won't be getting help from me."

Cheney edged his voice in. "Whatever happened to helping people for the sake of it?"

"What do we look like, Carm Mercantile?" Another fit of laughter ran throughout the crowd at the Moogle's comment, and the furry creature waited for them to calm before he continued. "I don't know what children's tale you got that rubbish from, but this is real life. And in real life, benevolence doesn't give you two coins to rub together. Am I right?" Interspersed, approving shouts sounded out. "Those idiots from Clan Gully are the worst of 'em lately."

A pause, then "What do you mean by that?"

"You haven't read the papers yet?" Suzuka decided to answer. "They went and saved the Baron of Grazton for Ultima's sake, and didn't ask for a single gil in payment." A look of disgust overtook him. "Self-righteous fools like that make me want to puke."

"You're just trash." The Hunter glared, clenching his fists.

"Trash? I'm trash? Well, maybe you're right." Suzuka's features gained an amused quality, pointing to Luso. "But then what does that make the kid? He's the one going around and expecting people to stop their lives for his little requests. For free!" He spat towards the ground, grabbing the bottle he'd ordered for Luso. "All that charity nonsense makes me sick. The clans that just help whoever they want give all of us working clans a bad name, and suddenly every leech out there wants a handout." Quite a few more guffaws and affirming shouts came about from all around the room. "And worse of all, they're the clans that end up broken, poor, and alone! All that charity and not a gil to show for it!"

Cheney looked absolutely disgusted at this point, only enhanced by how much affirmation the Sage was getting from the crowd, or that he was getting any at all. His sight wandered back to Luso, but instead of confronting the boy's lack of emotion again, he took a closer look at Luso's cerulean orbs.

Pity.

Then, a glass bottle whizzed through the air to smack into the boy's face, shattering into dozens of jagged pieces. Luso didn't flinch from the blow, or as the bubbling liquid spilled over him and splashed over his head and hair, soaking his roots. The Acidwire members' snickering burst out again, and Cheney only gritted his teeth at the sight of Suzuka's outstretched arm and superior smirk.

"If I'm trash, then the guys like you with open hands and empty pockets are worse than trash."

The Hunter's feet burst into motion instantly, his rage taking over rational thought. His gloved hand clenched shut, arm brought back to strike at the Nu Mou.

"You want a fight? Bring it!" The Sage jeered.

The men around shot up as well, preparing to grab him before he could get to Suzuka, who was already springing from his seat, the wire around his neck uncoiling into the air around him. Cheney's feet were too quick, though, and he was already moving up onto the table, traversing its length within the second. His arm shot forwards just as the Nu Mou's wire snaked in a perimeter around him.

"Stop." How Luso's whispered voice managed to stop both them and everyone around couldn't be said, but both combatants froze at its end. Both continued to stare heatedly at each other, and only drew back carefully as Luso returned to his feet, alcohol soaked hair clinging to his face and hiding his eyes. "Fighting them won't solve anything."

The echo from his earlier line was enough to make Cheney back off, remaining on the table as the commotion began to draw eyes from the entirety of the pub, breathing jailed in throats. Suzuka's slithering wires retracted back to the ring around his neck, and his face held a spot of disbelief. Cheney wasn't quite sure what to make of that, until the Sage began to speak.

"Are you serious?" He rose from his chair and began slowly pacing towards the boy. When he stopped, Luso could feel his breath on his chest. "I just attacked you…humiliated you in front of this entire pub, and you're just going to take it?" His eyes noticed the two blades fastened at the boy's belt, and his hand reached out to rest on one of their handles. "Where's all the bravado you had before? Come on, do something. Use your weapons here, or do you even know how to swing a sword?"

Luso remained taciturn, arms crossed over his chest, face still bleeding. The Nu Mou stared directly into his eyes, gritted his teeth, then spun around and spoke for all to hear.

"Look, I hate a lot of brats. The kind that walk around acting tough, the kind that gets in over their head…" He spun back around on Luso, and this socked him across the face with his free hand. The boy made no move to guard or evade, and crumpled to the floor from the force. Cheney twitched at the sight and moved to attack once again, but the Bangaa from the table quickly grabbed him by the arms and forced him down onto the ground.

Meanwhile, the Moogle from the table tossed his leader a fresh bottle of alcohol, and after catching it, the Nu Mou swung it the boy's face. The bottle crashed into the side of his head, leaving a bleeding welt. The liquid from the bottle seeped into the nicks that the shattered pieces of glass left behind. Cheney struggled even more at the sight, but the number of people holding him down just seemed to increase with every moment.

Suzuka continued, eyes almost murderous. "…But the ones I hate most are those useless, prideless idiots like you who are too scared to stand up for themselves."

Shouts of affirmation began to sound out here and there throughout the pub, until within the minute more mocking laughter and derogatory statements flew at Luso. Cheney looked around at it all, unable to fathom how Luso was just continuing to lie there and take it. More than the jeering, his inaction infuriated him, so much so that he opened his mouth to yell at the Nu Mou.

Before the huntsman could finish, though, he felt each and every body atop him rise, and suddenly an arm hooked around his torso to lift him parallel to the ground.

"Alright, I've seen enough." Chita remarked, positioning Cheney to set him safely on the gorund. Then, he turned to Luso's downed body. "Stand up, boy. You won't convince anyone here. Don't waste your time on them."

To their surprise, the boy stood up easily and wiped away the blood dribbling down his face, as if completely unaffected by the damage he'd incurred. He moved past Suzuka without saying a word, no facial inflection, no twinge of recognition, not even as the Nu Mou jeered.

"That's right, run away. That's all cowards like you are good at anyway."

Luso paused, fist clenching again, but he somehow managed to restrain himself and kept going. Cheney, however, wouldn't let him get in the last word. "Don't be surprised if you see us at the tourney."

A last fit of laughter, Suzuka stifling it enough to respond. "Wait, you two are in a clan? Oh this couldn't get any more hilarious." He gained a glint in his pupil, as Cheney turned to follow his companions out. "Alright then, come on out to the Camoa Cup. We'll show you what kind of havoc this wrong clan can wreak."

The crowds and tables scooted and parted to make way for the silent procession, some heckling them on the way out, but none gave it any attention. The milling patrons inside sounded as they were returning to normal as the trio stepped out into the afternoon sunlight outside the pub. They crossed the street under the gaze of many a curious pedestrian, but none so inquisitive as to pay them any more than that glance.

Just a street over sat a large communal well at the center of a grassy knoll. Chita arrived first, taking a seat on the well's stone wall. As the Hunter's boots touched down onto the earth, he moved immediately to Luso, turning his shoulders to him and scrutinizing the damage on his face.

"Not bad, kid." Chita remarked with sly smirk.

"Not bad!" Cheney rounded on him, before coming back to Luso. "What part of that was good? They completely trounced us in there, and neither of you did a single thing. As far as I'm concerned, we lost."

"No, you didn't. Don't you believe them."

The new voice surprised the three, Cheney thinking one of the ruffians from the pub deciding to pursue them. But when they turned, they only saw a rough Hume male, perhaps only in his forties, outfitted like many a woodworker they'd seen in the town before, if the cutting axe hadn't already given it away.

"Believe who?" Cheney asked.

"That Nu Mou and his gang of ruffians. I was just in that pub. Don't you two dare believe a word of the hogwash they were spouting." He continued, walking within arm's reach of them. "Good will isn't dead, and it shouldn't be thrown away to chase after a handful of coin." Cheney and Luso both managed a thankful smile, the first change of expression for the latter in a while, the former noticed. "You two are in a clan, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir. We are." Luso replied, which brought about the man's smirk.

"If you try for the Camoa Cup, I'll be eager to watch you." He hefted his axe onto his shoulder and began walking. "Show them what a real clan is like." Luso and Cheney looked to each other, then nodded simultaneously before smiling at him. The three watched him off after a final wave, greeting those he passed by. Then, they moved into the passing crowd, heading down the street. Cheney and Luso walked side by side a little ways behind Chita, unable to chisel away a strange determination in their eyes.

"Alright, hold still again."

Luso closed his eyes and braced himself as Kanin's tweezers plucked the last of the glass shards from his face. She set it down with the others in a small tray on the table before her, then leaned in and began running her glowing white palm over the resultant lacerations.

"Okay, that should do it." She said with an exasperated sigh, which quickly morphed to a look of concern. "Please get help sooner next time, Luso." The boy only nodded, taking another succulent bite out of his baked cockatrice leg.

The White Mage wasn't too pleased when he'd entered the tavern later that evening with Cheney and Chita in tow, face rife with wounds. His vague 'bar fight' excuse did nothing to improve her mood either, but Cheney had promised to explain to everyone over a hearty meal down in the lobby. Now, the girl was treating him at the table on his insistence to eat as quickly as possible, only hoping that nothing had gotten severely infected.

After Chita gave Ensei a healthy amount of grief for missing their appointment, Cheney gave the clan and their guest the rundown of the situation, filling in details as questions arose. Faces shifted and tempers flared throughout. Only Ensei, who sat at the head of the table next to Chita, and Crow kept calm.

"You're telling me a Nu Mou did that to his face?" Adelle joked, smirking at Cheney. "And here I thought you were strong." Luso glared at her subsequent giggling.

"Anyway, if what you said before was true…" Vili began, getting back to the topic at hand. "Then it drastically changes our situation."

"Aye, it does." Chita remarked from near the table's end before tearing into a slab of steak. "Camoa Braves will definitely give them a run, but you can bet Acidwire will sweep the Camoa Cup."

"So what do we do, kupo?" Hurdy asked.

Crow, who sat on the other side of Luso, set his utensils down and brought up his posture. "There's only one thing we could do. Beat them. It's up to us whether we still want to do it."

The answer brought on pause, with everyone gradually looking around to see each others' reactions. Luso was more reserved this time, enough to keep his face calm. He didn't want anything on his part to affect their decisions.

Cheney eventually broke the silence half a minute afterwards, standing up from the table to speak to them. "After…after what I saw today, I cannot take a passive stance." His eyes darted around to avoid gazes, but eventually mustered up the courage. "I've decided to change my vote from earlier. I want to participate in this, even if it is only Luso and I out there."

Another pause, his words seeping into everyone. The Hunter craned his neck towards the boy, and gave him a firm nod, which the Fighter returned with a discreet smile.

"Only you two?" Vili spoke up coyly. "To think I would leave this in your hands. Surely you jest?"

"Vili, this was all before you joined us." Cheney said with an apologetic look. "I wouldn't want to force you into helping with this."

"Force? This is of my own free will." She replied, returning with a half coy, half innocent smile. "Have I need of any more reason to support my comrades? You may count on me, for better or worse."

"I still want to help, kupo." Hurdy added with as much confidence and sternness as his high voice would allow. "I don't want anything bad to happen to Maria and her city."

"I don't want to sit this one out either." Kanin continued the train.

Adelle looked around at everyone, and finally all their sights set upon her. Despite what she thought, none were particularly expecting of her. Luso's eyes were soft and understanding, a sharp contrast to the cut-ridden skin of his face.

And it was those same eyes that eventually provoked her response, coupled with a heavy sigh. "I won't lie to you all and say I'm ready to do this…" Nobody showed their sorrow at her words out of respect, but they all soon found it unneeded as she managed a weak smirk. "…but if you think for one second that I'm going to let anyone else have a hand in Beltorey's sponsorship money , then you don't know me very well."

Luso opened his mouth to object, to tell her it was alright, but the look on her face told him that effort would be fruitless. Instead, he stood from the table and extended his arm, fist closed just above the table's center, and jokingly said. "I don't get it. Why do you guys always go along with my selfishness?"

Kanin added her delicate hand, giggling. "We haven't figured that out yet."

"You just have that effect, I guess." Crow reached over and put his fist in as well.

"Well someone has to do it, kupo." Hurdy's paw touched it from the other side.

"Force of habit, perhaps?" Vili mused, joining.

"Maybe we're gluttons for punishment?" Adelle remarked snidely.

Cheney continued the motion with a wry smile. "Or we're still waiting on that better from 'for better or worse'."

"Alright I get it." Luso remarked dryly, only bringing about laughs, especially from Chita who viewed the scene with an amused look. Then, the boy gave one last look around to Ensei, who he noticed hadn't said anything yet. "What about you, Ensei?"

"Of course I'm in. Can't let the kids have all the fun." The raven-haired Hume nodded, leaning back in his chair and throwing his hands behind his head. "Three days until the preliminaries. Make sure you're rested and equipped for it. We've got a long road ahead of us, but….I'm proud of all of you."

Everyone nodded as one, and after a few minutes of finishing their meals and socializing, many began to head up to their rooms. The girls turned in first, Adelle mentioning something about perhaps getting in a visit to the local spa before the tourney chaos was underway. Hurdy was next, followed by Crow and then Cheney, who offhandedly mentioned that he called the last empty bed this time. Luso remained at the table for sometime after that with Ensei and Chita, both content to enjoy the quiet night lobby for a little while longer. Eventually, the day's fatigue overcame him, and he too wished the men a good night's sleep.

Before he could get anywhere, though, Ensei's voice stopped him. "Be prepared to get up early tomorrow. You're with me until the tourney."

"For what?" He quirked an eyebrow. "Training?"

Ensei nodded, but tacked on. "You remember that weapons shopkeeper you told me about the first time you were here? The one that sold you your blades." Luso nodded. "I met with him today while I was out. Told him we're giving your blades back soon."

"What? Why!"

The Hume smirked, just as Luso's eyes widened upon realization.

"A Parivir's not going to need them."


(Author's Notes)

Wow almost a month. Sorry about that. There were just so many different things I had to cram into this one chapter. It took three complete rewrites just to get it somewhat coherent. Still not completely satisfied, but it's as good as I can get it.

Anyway, enough of that. I have a request for all of you. I've come to the point in the story where Luso's going to finally get his main weapon, and I've reached a big wall. I have two different ideas for it: a larger sword and a regular sized sword. And I cannot pick between the two. I've literally deliberated over this since chapter three, when it was first brought up, and I've failed to pick one over the other.

So, as I love community input, I've decided to let you readers decide. I won't go into specifics, but I do have separate plans for each of them and how Luso will grow accordingly. There's a poll up on my profile page for it, and I'd be grateful if you took a few seconds to let me know which one you'd prefer. The poll will end on February 21st or when the next chapter is posted, whichever comes first.

Alright that's about it. Until next time!