Disclaimer: Me no own, you no sue. Steal Portia and I'll send my army of dustbunnies after you.
To Desert Mirage Readers: Don't worry, I haven't given up on my Transformers stuff, but my life is giving me more than I can handle right now, and my muse REALLY wanted to distract me for a little bit. I have been officially diagnosed with "severe to extreme" depression, so I'm trying really hard to keep fanfic in the 'fun' and not 'work' category of my messed-up mind. Working with a character that's less of a D.I.D. than Astrid is also incredibly refreshing. But - yeah - don't worry. You haven't heard the last from me!
A/N: This is really a teaser for a summer project. Right now I'm taking senior level classes for my major because they aren't being offered my senior year (ah, the joys of a small university...). This isn't my only fic right now, so encouragement in the form or reviews/bribes is strongly encouraged. ^_^
Chapter 1: In Which I Get a Black Eye and a Broken Lip
Shinra likes to flaunt its SOLDIERS as heroes, but once you've seen a representative of each rank and caliber upchuck on your shoes, it gets awfully hard to play the adoring fan. On the other hand, it's dang hard to hate 'em once you've seen one or two drunk enough to cry over lost friends, family – even dead pets. They're a bunch of big babies, really. Big babies with pointy swords and awfully big guns.
I, like half a million other suckers, bought into the idea that Midgar was the booming city of dreams. All we had to do was traipse in, snag a good job and live it up with the big cats. Fat. Chance. Midgar was the booming city of dreams, but only for the Shinra elite. Those of us without connections or the brute strength to make it in SOLDIER got to commute from the slums every day for sub-minimum wage jobs… if we were lucky. For once, though, I got lucky. Trust me, it's a rare occurrence. Every evening I get to stumble out to the train, ride up to the gleaming world above and work for my monthly pittance at a place called Tavern A. I know, it's brilliant, but I they didn't ask me if I would like to rename the bar.
Tavern A was situated right outside Sector 0, and it was frequented by SOLDIERS and rarely anyone else. Shinra had put up the backing for the little place, setting it up as a sort of haven for the warriors during their time off. We get lots of Third and Second class SOLDIERS along with the occasional First, but usually Firsts have enough money to go and get drunk in private. For any girl looking for a guy, this was pretty much the perfect spot to be in, and it was pretty easy to get a date, or at least a one night stand. I learned not to trust SOLDIERS in a romantic relationship as far as I could throw them after the first five times someone tried to grab things they shouldn't be manhandling. So, yeah, no dates for me. As if I have time for more drama in my life anyway, and trust me, dating a SOLDIER is pretty dramatic. Judging from what my boss said, the number one cause of turnover around here is romance. I'm single and not 'in the market' for a boyfriend. Now that I think of it, that's probably what got me hired.
Each night I arrive at work by six, and each morning I leave around five. Then I sleep all day. Nice routine, neat schedule, but there's this thing called life that likes to screw up stuff like that.
I hadn't slept well the day before. That should have been my first hint that it was going to be one of those nights, but I'm not the quickest on the uptake. In an effort to get myself cheery and server-ready, I stuck my hair up in knobby little pigtail-buns and dressed myself up nice and sparkly. While most of my coworkers went for the classic bar slut look (boots, scraps-for-skirts, and really low necklines) I just couldn't pull it off. My legs were and had always been too twiggy for stylish boots, short skirts always left me feeling like there was a draft in the room and a low neckline would show off my sternum and little else. Glitter, eyeliner and goofy hair were my own way of getting attention. To the big guys I was the kid sister they hadn't seen for so many years that she wasn't really a kid anymore. To the younger guys I was the dork they used to crush on in school or the kid who helped them cheat in art class. Not really all that flattering, but I had the biggest, meanest guys willing to beat up potential stalkers ever.
Unfortunately, SOLDIERS can't protect you from everything.
I found myself standing in my little five by five slice of purgatory – my 'apartment' – staring at an empty envelope that was supposed to be holding my rent money. My landlady was standing in the doorway, plump fists on skinny hips, and I had nothing to give her.
"I don't get it," I said.
"What? You don't get that you're broke? What did you do, go out drinking with some of your SOLDIER boys and have a few too many?"
Sharp edges of paper bit into my palm as I crushed the envelope in my fist. "No. I had it set aside. And I had my savings set aside, and now they're just – not – here."
The landlady gave me a sympathetic look. "Did it grow legs and walk away, honey?"
"Oh, shut-up!" I snapped. "Since when have I ever missed a payment?"
"There's a first time for everything." The crone took a couple steps back so she could rest with her back against the wall as she took another drag on her smoke. "Coulda been stolen. Not everybody down here is as shiny as you country girls."
Shiny? I cast a glance at the glittery clothes and makeup thrown around my space. I doubted she was referring to my sparkly 'issues.' People in the slums could be just as snobbish as the people on the topside. At least they're usually more creative with their insults.
Then I noticed another figure loitering near the end of the hall. There are a lot of characters in my building, and some of them have addictions that exceed shiny things and sparkly doodads. Brant was one such character. He was actually a pretty smart guy when he wasn't stoned, and I'd helped bring him back to the land of the slightly-less-trippy on several occasions, sometimes with coffee and a hot meal, sometimes with a really mean cold shower. He'd taught me the train schedule, the layout of all the lower sectors, and how to kill ten roaches in ten seconds. Even when he was totally out of it he was always smiling at something. I rarely got the joke, but there aren't too many perpetual smilers in the slums.
But he wasn't smiling today.
I pushed past the landlady, wondering if Brant knew something I didn't, and started down the hall. The first thing I noticed was the nervous shifting of his feet, the way they shuffled as he swayed back and forth, his eyes all bloodshot and foggy. There was a tremor shaking his whole body, vibrating the most in his hands. As I glanced down, following the shiver, he tightened his fist and awkwardly hid it behind his back. I heard the rustle of plastic.
My breath came short, and I jumped forward before the drugged-up man could react. In a second, his bag of goodies was mine. Drugs, and it was quite a haul. More than a guy like Brant could afford without help. Teeth scissored back and forth over my bottom lip, and I knew that the skin there had minutes left to live. When I looked back at his face, his eyes had doubled their size and a shine of sweat was gleaming over his entire face. "Brant…" My tone was not friendly.
His tongue snuck out before he could utter a word, flicking over his lips like a clumsy lizard. "I – I needed it, Portia, real bad, you know? You get it… I nee…"
"You needed to steal my money?" I asked. "You needed to rob me blind? Geez, Brant! You know what that was for! You knew why I was saving! I was gonna go home, you friggin' dope head!"
I turned my back on him and marched the other way down the hall. It took the poor junkie a few minutes to realize that I had moved, and then he came stumbling along after me, whining for his drugs, pleading about his needs. He didn't catch up in time to stop me, though. I got to the hall's bathroom long before he did and took my time undoing the baggie, upending the contents into the toilet and then watching them spiral away down the drain.
The whole sector knew the second Brant came in, because as soon as he saw the empty plastic and the flushing toilet he howled like a banshee.
"WHY DID YOU DO THAT?"
"My money paid for it, so technically it's mine, and this is the best use for it," I said with a shrug.
When I turned back towards the door I was met with a fist. Brant's punch sent me crashing back into the shower and the slick floor helped me down. He stood over me in a rage, the drugs in his system crying for more and his brain simmering in a substance thick haze. I shot up and shoved the heel of my palm up under his nose. This resulted in a lovely crack and quite a bit of blood. Lucky for me, Brant was always a weenie, and he went down immediately. The floor got another good crack at his head, and he just laid there, moaning and whimpering and letting fat sticky tears rush down his face.
The landlady was standing in the doorway, enjoying the slow burn of her cigarette. "So," she said, "no rent?"
There wasn't much I could do. So I smiled. "Not this month, sorry."
At least she had the good grace to take a few puffs of smoke while she thought over the situation. "Come back when you've got the money. Leave your key at the front desk on your way out." Another puff and she went back downstairs, leaving me along in the bathroom with a blackening eye, no money and a half-conscious junkie.
I wasn't sure whether or not it can be considered lucky that everything I own could fit into one suitcase. At that moment, though, I thought it was, because it would be awfully hard to get a moving van onto a train. That was as far as my good luck for the day went, though. It started raining when I was halfway to work.
I found myself at the back door of Tavern A, wet, tired and lugging all my worldly possessions in a single duct-taped suitcase. Biff – the bouncer – answered when I knocked, and I wish I had a camera to get the look on his face. His big, old, bahamut-sized jaw was just a little slack, and his eyebrows buried themselves in his thatch of brown curls. Before he could ask anything potentially embarrassing, I pleaded, "Can I please just dump this in the back room for my shift, Biff, please?" Generally coats, small purses and lunch bags were the only luggage allowed in the back. Of course that was probably because ShinRa was afraid of someone planting a bomb in a place where dozens of SOLDIERs came in and lowered every defense and inhibition they had until closing time. Biff just continued to stare for a second, the first hint of a wrinkle shadowing the space between his eyes, so I leapt to my own defense. "I just got kicked out of my apartment, and I haven't had time to find a hostel or anything because of my shift. I knew you'd hate it if I was late…" Always pull the 'good employee' card when asking for favors.
It worked like a charm. He grunted and stepped aside, and I obligingly shuffled past him, dragging my bag over the doorstep behind me. As I pulled my things into the back room – where employees usually left coats and lunches, not an apartment's worth of crap – I was aware of Biff's heavy footfalls following me, but I did my best to ignore him. That could only work for so long, though, and Biff was not a patient man. When I went to leave the little cupboard of a back room I got a face-full of chest. His eyes were just as intimidating when I scraped together the nerve to look up. Then his hand was on my chin, jerking my face up into the light, and I belated remembered Brant's fist in my face. Ah, crap.
It was commonly said that the SOLDIERs were the waitresses' boys, which they really were in a way. Bad mouth one of the bar's patrons in front of a girl who can hold her own in a bar brawl and has taken care of that patron for a number of years when he's sobbing over the family back home and you will find yourself in a whole new world of pain. If it was true that SOLDIERs were our boys, we were Biff's girls. Patrons who got frisky got punted to the curb without fail. Wandering hands got broken. Stalkers were fried and served up with a round of extra crispy chips. A shiner on one of Biff's girls meant that somebody was about to become the newest addition to the vegetable farm.
"Hey, it's just a shiner, no big deal," I wheedled. I tried to take a step back, but Biff wasn't letting go of my chin. "Brant was high. Stole my cash."
"And he hit you?"
"I hit him back if it makes you feel any better."
He frowned, but I could see the first twinkle of his restoring humor in the corner of his eye. "Who looks worse?"
My grin was automatic. "The other guy, of course."
I'd used half a bottle of a coworker's cover up to mask the budding bruise on my face, but in the end I just looked like an abused housewife trying to hide the signs of a beating. It was sort of funny, really, but I felt pathetic. One bonus, however, was that I got some beautiful sympathy tips. The hours sped by, filled with beer, whiskey and a few vodkas. I had yet to meet more than one self-respecting SOLDIER who would drink anything that even remotely resembles a cocktail. That one SOLDIER who would drink anything, even if it came with an umbrella and a fruit kabob, was Zack Fair. It was two in the morning before he made an appearance, and by then most everyone else was already thoroughly buzzed, raving drunk or unconscious and on the way home in a cab.
He swaggered in, took a seat at the bar and rapped his knuckles on it until he got the attention he was looking for. As we were short handed that evening, he had to wait until I'd dumped my load of ales at the corner table before he could be dealt with. I was actually fairly happy to see him, but he put a slight damper on the mood by greeting me with, "Oh, wow, Portia! What happened to your eye?" Very tactful, Zack, very tactful. Everyone and their cousin had asked me about my friggin' eye, and I was just about ready to gouge it out so I could ask, "What eye?"
Leaving over the bar like it was a secret, he asked, "Did you get in a fight?"
"Yeah, sure, Zack," I said, grinning for him. "You should see the other guy." It was true, but Zack didn't have to know that. He just took it as the joke I'd posed it as.
"Really, though, what happened?"
"Aw, you don't believe me?"
"You getting into a fight? No way."
"So what will you be starting with tonight, Mr. Fair?" I asked, automatically reaching for one of the pint glasses.
"Just a lager."
"That's it? Really?" My turn to ruffle some feathers.
That evening Zack didn't seem quite so chatty, though. He just shrugged so I filled his order and prepared to move on to the next customer. The hand that pinned mine lightly to the table was a bit of surprise. When I looked back the infamous SOLDIER First Class had gone serious, his face wiped clear of any kind of smile. "If somebody's roughing you up, Portia, you can tell me. Or one of the other guys. When Trissa's boyfriend crossed the line we booted him back across it, remember? You're all our girls, got it?"
There was this tickle in the back of my throat that made me want to either cough or laugh, but I stuffed it down with a tiny noise that made me sound like I was strangling myself and smirked back at Zack. "I appreciate the sentiment, but I've got it sorted. Just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I don't know how to break a few noses."
Zack grinned and grabbed one of my sloppy buns, giving my head a good shake. "Whatever you say, Porsche."
I really hated that nickname. And all this yanking was pulling my hair out of my head.
The backdoor crashed open, and I grinned at the familiar sound. Hopefully it was one of my coworkers coming in late to save me from Zack. When the swinging door that separated the public portion of the bar from the back swished out, it did not reveal a girl in a short skirt and high boots. Instead there was a tall guy with no hair and a wicked looking gun in his hands. He immediately leveled the weapon at Zack, and then the front door crashed open. By that point Zack had released my hair, and I was free to whip around and gawk at the five newcomers, all of whom were armed to the teeth. Seriously. I think I saw something shiny in one of their mouths, but that might have been braces or a filling or something…
Clearly having decided that the SOLDIER was a greater threat than the barmaid, the brute who came through the back shoved me out of the way – back into a row of glass bottles – and approached Zack. There really wasn't enough room to fall down behind the bar, so I was still standing, though my arms were sliced as anything. Alcohol was starting to burn in some of the cuts, and when I shifted my feet, moving my arms in the process, there was a tinkle of broken glass. The other guns were being leveled now, too, and poor Biff had nothing but his fists. Very few of the SOLDIERs had weapons, either. Who would have thought that there would be a battle this close to ShinRa HQ? Zack, though, seemed to have something and he began slipping his hand towards his belt to retrieve it when the big guy with the gun gave a warning growl.
"I wouldn't do that."
With a decidedly unfriendly grin, Zack asked, "Why's that? You're planning on shooting us all up anyway, right?"
"Sure," said Big Guy, "but there's no point making a scene, right?"
The gun gave a warm purr as it prepared to fire, and I shoved off from the counter. The guy was taller than I was by several heads, and probably weighed twice as much as me and my luggage combined, but I'd sell my soul to Shiva before I let this skin head take away my job – and probably my life – hours after I'd been punted to the street. Before the sensible, logical side of me could get a word in edgewise, I had launched myself over the scant feet separating me from the attacker and had locked my arm around his neck. I didn't weigh much, but coupled with the surprise of the attack it was enough to pull him back, off balance. Widening my stance, I grabbed a hold of my fist and jerked my arm tighter around the grunt's neck. Tingly hot waves of fury were filling me, and for a few seconds all the man could do was flail, bent over backwards with my arm cutting off his air.
My sudden attack threw the gunmen off balance and drew their attention. Too bad they forgot that they were standing in a room full of SOLDIERs. That one little distraction was all they needed to leap to their own defense. A few stray shots were fired, but no real damage was done – apart from one poor table. Unfortunately, the rest of the fight was enough of a distraction to divert me from the massively huge man I had in a headlock. He was still very focused, though, seeing as how I was cutting off his air. There was a gleam of swinging silver, and then there was gun in my face. My only luck in this instance was that I didn't get another black eye; I did, however, feel the metal break my lip and I tasted hot copper. I gasped and stumbled back, my hold losing all force. The man turned, red as anything and shoved the barrel of the gun in my face. My life flashed before my eyes – why did I come to Midgar, again? – and then a flash of red. There was a change in the man's face, and his free hand reached up to his throat. The gun clattered the floor, the man swiftly following it, and beneath him, the red stain grew. Soon his eyes were lifeless, dull and empty. And I was in mild shock, gawking, still standing there with my back against the display counter, broken glass grinding under my palms.
Black gloves, a warm grin, a knife with a red blade – Zack swam into my field of vision, pleased and bouncy.
"You alright there, Portia?"
"Y…yeah." Not really, but thanks for asking. What the frag took you so long with that knife, man? I thought SOLDIERs were fast!
He guided me quickly around to the other side of the bar, shoving me down into a seat and picking the worst of the glass out of my hands. "Whoa, there, I think you're in shock."
Good guessing, genius.
Then his grin grew broader. "You really weren't kidding about the other guy, were you?"