Chapter IX
Reunion

Yuri was stunned only for a moment. He'd seen the Red Eyes before, seen the way they quite literally glowed; but he was never prepared for it. Still, he pushed himself off the dusty floor and lunged for the closest of the thugs. Estelle gave a tiny shriek as he wrapped his arms around the man and shoved him hard against the wall.

The others reacted immediately. They swarmed him, grabbed for his arms, tried to pull him away from their companion. Yuri punched one of them hard enough that he heard a sickening crack, and then spun around to kick the other square in the stomach. They backed off, but the one he'd cornered shot forward and shoved him away.

Yuri reached instinctively for the handgun he'd always kept at his waistband, but his hands grabbed thin air. He started for a moment, confused before he remembered Leblanc confiscating it back at the precinct with a smug grin.

Guess I'll have to improvise, he thought, reaching for the side table lamp just as one of the Red Eyes slashed at him. They had rusted knives in their hands now.

Yuri ducked away from another swipe and swung hard. The lamp connected heavily with the Red Eye's legs and they crumpled beneath him. He spun around then, smacked the other in the shoulder, and sent him staggering.

"Yuri! Behind you!"

Karol's warning came a moment too late. The tip of the knife grazed Yuri's side, and he acknowledged it with a low grunt.

Bam! The Red Eye suddenly stiffened, then fell to the side. Estelle was behind him, brandishing the room's other lamp in her hands.

"Sorry, I didn't move fast enough," she said, breathless.

"That was still pretty great."

She smiled and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Really? Do you think so?"

Yuri didn't have a chance to respond. Someone - or someones, rather, by the sound of it - were pounding up the stairs. Karol looked down the hall before he darted into the room.

"It's the guy from the front desk! And the police!"

"Damn," Yuri muttered, surveying the room. The hallway was too thin for him to break past the officers and the desk clerk combined; they'd have to find another method of escape.

Ah. There. He threw the window open, pleased now that the place was too cheap for screens, and beckoned for Estelle and Karol to follow him. Estelle seemed eager enough, but Karol stood beside the bed, swallowing nervously.

"It's not that far down," Yuri told Estelle as he took her hand and helped her over the ledge. "Barely two stories."

"There's a fire escape here. I'll climb down."

Yuri motioned to Karol, who was staring uneasily at the temporarily stunned Red Eyes. "C'mon, kid. There's not much time."

"But-"

"Come on!"

Something in Yuri's voice startled the boy enough that he began to move. He'd just reached the window frame when Leblanc burst past the wreckage of the door, flanked on both sides by the clerk and another officer.

Leblanc's eyebrows shot to his forehead. "Lowell! I should've known."

Yuri helped a lightly protesting Karol to the ladder outside before he gave Leblanc his signature smile.

"You just can't seem to get enough of me, can you?"

Leblanc reached for the gun at his side. "I'm not in the mood for this today, Lowell. You know the drill: put your hands-"

Yuri took a step back. Placed his hands on the windowsill.

Leblanc drew his gun. "Lowell, don't even-"

Yuri swung his legs over and was out the window before the shots rang out. They pierced the uneasy silence of the alleyway below, where he landed with a pained grunt beside Estelle and Karol.

"Yuri! Your legs-"

"I can still run," he said, pushing himself to his feet with another groan. "Go! Go!"

Karol obeyed immediately. Estelle took Yuri by the wrist, helped him up, and pulled him along.

Leblanc's voice was louder than the gunshots. "Lowell, get back here!"

The pain in his knees was like fire, but Yuri found himself keeping up with both Estelle and Karol. They burst out into the plaza, where the activity of the day was winding down, but there were still just enough people to mask them.

"Where do we go now?" Karol asked, panic edging his tone. He was looking wildly around, back to the alley and then to the front of the inn.

Yuri pointed north, in the direction they'd gone before. "That way. Let's move."

"But that's where the raid is. There'll be more police!"

"We don't have another choice for now. We have the Red Eyes to deal with too."

"I'm sorry, Yuri. This is my fault," Estelle started, before Yuri shushed her with a wave of his hand.

"Save the apologies for later! We have to go."

They moved quickly, weaving between the confused crowds until they were out of the plaza and pounding down one of the many side streets. Yuri glanced over his shoulder - once to make sure that Karol was still behind him, and again to see if Leblanc had found them. He caught a glimpse of the officers far back, and forced himself to run faster despite the furious pain in his knees.

No one spoke. No one had to. Yuri dragged them along until he couldn't hear Leblanc's shouts and threw himself into the nearest building. He was surprised - but thrilled - to find that the door was unlocked.

The room beyond was dark and cool. Yuri pulled Estelle and Karol through before he slammed the door shut again and leaned against it. He was breathing hard, and he could feel the sweat pouring down the sides of his face.

It took a full minute before Karol finally voiced all of their fears. "D-Do you think they'll find us in here?"

"Not sure," Yuri said, running the back of his hand across his forehead. "Hope not."

"Where are we, anyway?" Estelle asked. Yuri could just barely see the outline of her; she'd wandered away from the others to explore the rest of the room.

"Don't go too far. We don't know what kind of place this is," Yuri warned her.

"I'm not. I'm just looking."

"...Who were those guys back at the hotel?" Karol suddenly asked. "Are they after Estelle?"

Yuri offered a shrug, though he wasn't sure if Karol could see it. "I guess you could say that."

"And the police are after you?"

"For the barkeeping job the other night."

"Oh. Yeah."

Karol slumped against what appeared to be a table and sighed. "I hope they don't find us here. The police and those other guys, I mean."

"Me too. I think we're all right for now-"

The lights flickered on. Yuri blinked twice and let his eyes adjust before he realized they were in the middle of some kind of...science lab? There were several rows of white-topped tables, and along the sides of the room he could see cabinets filled to the brim with glass beakers and cups, along with other fancy-looking pieces of equipment he hadn't seen since his high school days.

Estelle had frozen in mid-step. She'd turned to stare at the other end of the room. Yuri and Karol followed her gaze.

"Who the hell are you people?"

Yuri bit back a laugh. A girl was standing there, hands planted firmly on her hips. It was almost comical, the way she scowled at them - her entire face crinkled up, and for some reason, it reminded him of Flynn.

"The door was unlocked," Estelle blurted out. "Sorry. We were-"

The girl ignored her. She turned her glare on Estelle and ran a hand through her mussed hair. "You're not supposed to be here! I reserved the lab for this afternoon. Didn't you read the roster?"

Yuri pushed himself to his feet, suppressing a wince when his knees protested. "Calm down, kid," he said. "We're not here to cause trouble. We were just on our way out."

"Who're you calling kid? You don't look like someone who belongs here."

"I...Is this part of the university?" Karol asked her.

The girl snorted. "Of course it is. What are you, ten? Why are you here?"

"I'm not-"

Yuri clapped a hand on Karol's shoulder. "Don't ruffle her feathers."

"But-"

"Come on."

Karol huffed, but he followed Yuri out the door without protest. Estelle was waiting for them out in the hallway, her hands clasped anxiously at her front. She was wringing them again, Yuri noticed.

"Do you think we can hide out here? Will they let us?" she asked once he'd closed the door.

"We can wander around and pretend like we belong, I guess."

She motioned to a nearby bench. "I want to get a look at your knees first. You landed on them hard."

Yuri waved her off. "I'll rest when we've found a good place to hide."

"We won't walk too far, then."

Yuri had never been to a university before, let alone one as supposedly prestigious as Aspio. It wasn't exactly what he expected: the hallway was dark and high-ceilinged; portraits of what he assumed were former professors watched their every move from the walls. What he'd expected was something grand, something bright and welcoming and filled with people. What he'd seen of Aspio so far was dim and empty.

Estelle, on the other hand, was taking everything in with a careful eye - as usual - but Karol was trailing behind, hovering close to Yuri's side.

"Still regretting not going here?" Yuri asked, to break the silence. His voice seemed eerily loud in the quiet.

Estelle pondered his question for a moment. "I don't know. I haven't seen much of the place," she said. "I'd love to learn more, though. From the classes here, I mean. You can only get so much from books."

"I went to a boarding school for a while," Karol added. "It was kind of like a university. They had dorms and roommates and stuff."

Yuri quirked an eyebrow. "Really? What made you join a gang?"

"Oh...stuff."

Estelle turned to him with her gentle smile. "And what about you, Yuri?"

"What about me?"

"Did you go to a university? Or a college, somewhere?"

"Nah. Just the usual stuff. I started work as soon as I finished high school."

"Ah, I see..."

There was no judgement in her tone, though. Just simple curiosity when he offered no explanation beyond that.

The hallway ended with a massive set of double doors. Estelle pushed them open, and suddenly, they were engulfed by the noise and activity of the university. Karol and Estelle were taken aback by all the sound, all the people; but Yuri felt back in his element, at long last.

The courtyard beyond was bustling with uniformed students. Some were still running to and from classes, their arms filled with books and papers and materials, but most of them were lounging on benches or the steps. For a moment, Yuri almost thought they were back outside - but when he looked up, he saw that the ceiling was made entirely of glass, and the twilight filtering down from above was strangely muted.

"There are so many students here!" Estelle said; he couldn't tell if she was amazed or scared. "I thought this university was exclusive."

"It is, but Aspio takes in students from all over the city," Karol told her. "And this is probably most of them, anyway."

Yuri took another look around the courtyard. "I thought we'd be able to blend in here, but everyone's in uniform..."

"Would the police and the Red Eyes really come all this way?" Estelle asked.

"You never know. I wouldn't put it past Leblanc, personally."

Karol sulked, kicking the ground with the toe of his shoe. "Too bad that girl kicked us out of the lab... What's a kid like her doing at the university anyway?"

"Who knows. It doesn't matter right now."

Yuri flopped down on the closest bench and stretched out his legs. His knees still felt like they were on fire. Estelle sat tentatively beside him, while Karol fidgeted on the path.

"Hey! Shouldn't we keep moving?"

"You can keep lookout for us, Captain. The police uniforms will stand out like sore thumbs here."

"Well...okay."

Yuri leaned his head against the back of the bench. How much longer could he avoid the police before they caught him this time? He always had the option to leave Zaphias, maybe to slip into another part of the city... But no. That was out of the question. The Lower Quarter was still relying on him. Who knew what sort of state they were in right now, while he was traipsing across the Halure district and the university?

I can go back as soon as we've found Flynn, he reminded himself. The raid would be starting later that night, and it was already evening...

Estelle's voice cut through his thoughts. "Yuri? Can you hear me?"

"Yeah, of course."

"Is it okay if I feel your knee? I just want to see if anything might be twisted."

"Go ahead."

Estelle's touch was gentle. Several of the students wandering about the courtyard watched them with snickers, but she didn't seem to mind - or she hadn't noticed.

"It feels all right to me," she said after a moment. "But you should probably try to rest... Well, if you can. How do you feel?"

Yuri shrugged again. "I'll live."

"You're very kind to do all of this for me."

"Hey, I owe you, remember? You saved my ass back at your dad's building," he said, giving her a friendly nudge. "Without you, I'd probably be back in the slammer."

Estelle giggled. "I guess that's true. But still." Her expression sobered, and she stared back down at her hands. "I didn't realize the Red Eyes would follow me all the way out here... I don't really know what they want, either."

"They must want whatever it is pretty bad, if they've come this far."

"Yes... I-"

Karol interrupted her. "Yuri! They're here!"

Yuri jumped back to his feet without a second thought. "Who? The Red Eyes or the police?"

"I... I think it's the police-"

It was too late. The officer in question had already spotted them.

And when Yuri saw him, he relaxed. Estelle let out a small gasp beside him.

"Yuri," the officer said with a tired smile. "They told me to keep my eyes open for a certain fugitive. And here you are. Just my luck, huh?"

"It's nice to see you too, Flynn."