The Zero Armour Project

Prologue

X X X

It's been five years and now he's standing in my door.

"Excuse me, you got any food or milk you could spare?"

At least, I think that's what he asked. I'm too busy staring to pay any attention - he's got to be the only person I've ever known who can look tall even when slouching. He's still wearing that tuxedo - it's frayed at some of the edges and covered in a fine layer of dust from the road. The black's a lot more faded, his skin's a lot more tanned. Knowing him, he's walked across the desert to get here… then walked himself in straight line from the city gates to my front door.

That figures. Van is exactly the type of man who would turn up at the end of his own story -- oh, geeze. The reporter.

I wince at the thought of what's about to happen between these two and hazard a glance to the man at my table. "Uhm -"

"It's alright, lass," he tells me, putting his notebook away, "You've got an inn to run and a customer waitin'. I think I got the information I need, anyhow." He moves to stand and so do I - it's only polite.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Van make a move for the newly empty seat… and I see Kameo take his own opportunity. With a trill from the turtle that I know to be one of joy, he performs one of the only crash-tackles that I've ever seen a creature his size do.

Van shouts a protest but he's flattened anyway and immediately subjected to Kameo's affections.

The reporter chuckles as he picks his way past them towards the door. "Best imitation I've seen yet," he tells my old companion, "But you're just too scrawny to be Van the Hero."

"Huh?" Van seems surprised enough to stop trying to push Kameo off, watching the detective leave from his up-side down view. Kameo takes advantage of his distraction to lick the man half to death, whilst I retrieve the fries from his back and set them on the table.

Salvaging Van from underneath Kameo is a bit more hardwork, but the promise of seaweed does it. He lumbers off and the man picks himself up with a cough.

After Kameo settles at the far side of the room, I gesture at the food on the table. "Here, start with these okay? I'll make you something else, too."

"Yeah, sure," he says in that trademark drawl. Finally making it to the table, he flops into the chair and slides the plate over - then pauses. "Hey, can I get --"

"Condiments?" I finished, unable to hide the smile. He really hasn't changed at all.

"Uh. Have I been here before?"

I have to bite my tongue and remind myself that it's a good thing I travelled with him for so long. It's the only way to be prepared for his ridiculously selective memory. I know from the way he looks at me that he doesn't recognise who I am… or what he means to me. When I was a child, I would have been angry that he forgot… but I know that he hasn't, not really. So it's okay for now, because it's Van - I know I'll have the chance to remind him. "A long time ago," I tell him, holding back the rueful sigh.

The tray I set down on the table is bristling with condiments of every flavour and colour thinkable. You could say that I've been waiting for this day.

"Oh." Van seems to accept it at face value, and sets about destroying my food.

"Yeah," I murmur, and turn away to make a proper meal for him.

"TASTY!"

I'm pretty sure that his yell woke some of my boarders in the rooms overhead, but all I can do is sigh again. "Same old Van," I tell Kameo, and set to work.

X X X

As I work it feels distinctly like I'm being watched - but every time I glance over my shoulder, Van's strewn in his chair, mouth stuffed with fries and making a total mess out of his meal. Kameo sits on the ground next to him, close enough for his shell to press up against his leg.

I think he's missed him as much as I did.

Turning towards the table, I offer a smile as I set down some of the best dishes in the house - my little Inn is starting to grow a reputation for the food here and I can hardly disappoint someone like Van.

"Here we go -"

That's when things got a little crazy.

For the second time that day, a travel-weary figure stumbles through the door. It's a little girl, no older than ten and looking utterly exhausted. "Van!"

The man pauses halfway to the mayonnaise. "Huh?"

"You won't get rid of me that easily!" she tells him with a tenacity that only a child could have. She stumbles a little further into the room, catching the back of a chair to hold herself up. "I'm gonna' follow you until you give up!"

"Uhhh…" Van finishes his grab for the mayonnaise and starts to destroy the second half of his meal. "Do I know you, kid?"

"It's Marie! Marie! I told you - I'm Pricilla's sister. She's missing! I need your help!"

First one old friend, then another? I think I need to train Van to stop bringing trouble with him.

X X X

To be continued