Author's Note: This isn't actually a new story... it's an older one, the first story I uploaded to this account (back when I first called myself "Not Quite a Drifter," which as a screen name was chosen because I mainly intended to write Wild ARMs fanfics on the account at the time). I eventually discontinued it due to lack of response, although that's more likely because the Wild ARMs section isn't the most active sector of FF-dot-net these days than it is because the story itself wasn't any good.
I kept it backed up, though, and was recently visited with a desire to restart the project. I had a lot of plans for this story... most of which I've forgotten by now, but I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if I dropped this one completely, lack of reviews or not.
For the uninitiated, the Wild ARMs series is a JRPG franchise not unlike Final Fantasy in essence, but based on wasteland-adventure and Wild West themes, with very heavy "anime" leanings and art style. Wild ARMs 3 ended on a highly bittersweet note, and this story picks up from there. The title "Second Ignition" is the Japanese subtitle for Wild ARMs 2, and refers both to the fact that this is a sort of Wild ARMs 3-2 story, and to the fact that there are many elements of Wild ARMs 2's plot and mythology being referenced or recycled along the way. That by itself is also my way of carrying on the proud Wild ARMs tradition of beating the player brutally over the head with references to past titles in every new game.
Disclaimer: Wild ARMs isn't mine. The belong to Media Vision. Or XSeed. Or whoever the fuck owns the rights these days. I'm too lazy to give a damn, really...
Wild ARMs 3: Second Ignition
That's Professor Hawke
- Prelude -
"Fate's Bad Joke"
There were a lot a laughs. They weren't all, you know, for real… but sometimes you just had to fake it. Sometimes, laughing was the only way to stop yourself from crying.
— excerpt from Dream Chasers, the memoirs of Virginia Maxwell
It was a dark and stormy night.
That was one of the things that had stood out most in Virginia Maxwell's memory, the weather at the time, so when she found herself on a train, reading the latest installment of Disaster Girl of the Wasteland, and when the world outside went prematurely dark, and when the wind started to howl louder than it should were it simply the train blazing through on its tracks, and when it finally started to rain — it got harder and harder for Virginia not to think about a similar night on a similar train, but she fought as hard as she could not to think about it. The brain hates cooperating with that particular effort, though. Trying not to remember just brought the flashbacks crashing in a little harder.
Back then… she'd fallen into a doze, the sounds of the storm and rhythm of the train somehow lulling her into a gentle sleep she couldn't possibly find now; those very sounds were now chilling her in some deep place amidst the pit of her stomach, a kind of subtle, sad anxiety that Virginia, mindful of her Baskar friend's advice two weeks prior, refused to identify as guilt. She shut the notion down and bashed its head in with a hammer. She would not feel guilty. She would not. They had done the right thing. It wasn't her who'd sh(aaaaaaaah, nonononono don't think about that don't think about that don't think about that don't don't don't don't)
First she'd tried to read the book she'd been keeping in her pack; being alone inside this train compartment was, after all, the most safe and secure she'd been for the better part of half a year — if a bounty hunter were to try and claim the price on her head here, they'd have to either have psychic powers (how could they know which train, and when, or even that she was on one?) or be extremely reckless (the image of a certain white-haired outlaw crawling around the bottom of a speeding locomotive was swiftly dispatched via mental chainsaw at this point in her musings).
Then she remembered the book she'd been reading at the time on that night, which was, of course, an earlier volume of Disaster Girl of the Wasteland. And that killed the mood in a heartbeat. Yeah, she'd found precious few opportunities for such a luxury as reading. You can't read a book and keep your guard up without traveling companions (oh fuck that's a line of thought I don't want to think about my what a big lightning bolt that was if you're going to change the subject try harder GOD DAMN IT, BRAIN, WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP) — but as much as she wanted to kick back and indulge in this simple pleasure now, while there was no real chance of ambush, there was no longer any point... y'know, since she just couldn't unwind and let herself enjoy it.
"I need a drink," groaned Virginia, looking down at her knees, and found herself stupidly thinking that seeing her legs clad in simple denim was a relief.
That was something that hadn't been the same at the time. She'd been wearing that magenta dress she'd discarded within a week of (shut up shut up don't go that way you'll start guilt tripping all over again just say "THE INCIDENT" and say no more say no more), and there had been two ARMs on her gunbelt back then — now Rapier Ez, the smaller of her two revolvers, sat alone in its holster. Its companion, the bulkier Bantorain 93R model, was hidden in her modest supply satchel, the better to throw off anyone who might perchance be keeping half an eye out for a brunette with two ARMs rather than just one.
She'd tried to go to sleep, but had slipped into a dream of the time, "waking" to the train's whistle and then being jolted by a sudden deceleration as the emergency brake was triggered by Janus Cascade and his goonies, and had collapsed right off her seat into the world of actual wakefulness to discover what someone who slept sitting up did in place of actually sitting up when a nightmare scared them enough to wake them — which turned out to be flinging their upper body forward in order to sit up, only, well, instead of sitting up, she'd fallen forward and slammed her face into the seat opposite her.
Cushions couldn't leave much in the way of bumps, but that had left her in the rare position of massaging her own wounded pride.
So now she sat awake for several long moments that in reality lasted about sixteen-and-a-half minutes, looking pointedly at anything but the window and quietly asking whatever guardian presided over the weather to stop storming until she could get off the train and away from the memories. And then she remembered that it had been a fond memory not three months before—
-and then a whistle sounded, and the train jolted in sudden deceleration as the emergency brakes were triggered, and almost as if she'd known it would happen she'd resisted the urge to stand at the whistle and stagger forward at the jolt (as she had back then), and even as her blood ran cold she sprung to attention and even while she silently panicked her expression became sharp and determined, and as she stood and steadily strode toward the door even as her legs felt like they'd melted even though they obviously worked fine — she hadn't realized how well she'd learned to compartmentalize her fear and confusion in times of crisis until she considered all of this after the fact — she stuffed her hand into her satchel, retrieving the Bantorain and its holster. She finally settled on grim annoyance as her prevalent emotion as she reattached the second ARM and the supply pack itself to her belt before cautiously sliding the door open to observe the sudden chaos in the outer hall.
If coincidence was a part of fate, coincidence had a really fucking shitty sense of humor.
The "Drifter" guardsman's first act upon seeing the lock and chain splayed open and haphazardly chucked to the side of the door was to raise his left hand and brush it against the scar on the left side of his head, where a small slice off the top of his ear had gone AWOL some years before. It was a nervous habit of his, and he might have been amused to find (had it been a time or place where he was capable of thinking such random thoughts) that it was the feel of his own dark-blue hair waving in the slight wind of the slipstream between traincars that jolted him back to proper attention. The rain had subsided to an unnoticed drizzle.
He berated himself for it and returned his left hand to his side, positioning it so that he could quickly draw his dual-barreled revolver if the culprit emerged but that makes no sense the brakes the cargo too far apart — more than one culprit?
That put him on edge, and he had to still his left hand to keep himself from scratching at the scar again as he contemplated the lock and chain, assessing his options as quickly as a rusty, domestic ex-Drifter could after so much time away from this kind of crap.
Someone was inside the cargo compartment, or else had picked the lock and then casually jumped ship, just 'cause. And Nathan Winchester had been hired to guard said cargo compartment. So that meant the only option was to go inside. Which might get him shot in the f—
The sound of the door behind him sliding quietly open startled him into turning around, left hand shooting like lightning to draw his sidearm as his right reflexively went for the large bayonet harnessed to his back —
He registered several things in an instant — he was good at that. He noted that his "assailant" was unaware of his presence as she opened the door, became aware of it before she stepped through it, and that her face paled like she'd seen a ghost (and admirably remained somewhere close to neutral as it did); he noticed that before she saw him, she had a cautious, inquiring expression — so she wasn't here with any sort of plan or fixed intention; she was more than likely just trying to find out what was going on.
He also noticed that she was faster on the draw than he was, and that before he could even bring his revolver to bear, no less than two barrels stared the promise of death directly into his exposed chest, and his hands froze — the revolver halfway through the arc that would have brought it to a position where there might have been a stand-off, and his bayonet still harmless tucked away in the harness on his back.
So. Caught off-guard, cornered, and with an obviously unnerved, possibly hostile Drifter lady pointing her shapely guns at him (he'd actually considered buying a Rapier Ez model for himself at one point in days long gone, it wasn't half bad as revolvers went), what was a cavalier, overconfident "Drifter" to do but let out an appreciative whistle, raise his hands to chest-level in surrender, and say:
"Damn, Princess, you're quick on the trigger."
It was, again, a red-haired railway attendant that Virginia bumped into first on her way down the corridor; instinctively, she was heading toward the back of the train, somehow knowing the reason behind the turbulence. There were two key differences: first, she didn't literally bump into him, not this time. Second, the two actually knew each other.
The railway attendant who had gotten her a ticket and discreetly let the outlaw Drifter aboard the train was an old friend, after all.
"Let me guess," Virginia said, her voice a weird mix of annoyance and dry humor. "There's a valuable treasure or a massive shipment of gold bars in the back of the train, right?"
"Y-Yes," the attendant faltered, and Virginia dimly noted that he seemed to have caught a whiff of the heavy atmosphere of déjà vu as well.
"…And you have the key to the compartment right here?" she prompted. Tony responded with a dull nod.
"Which probably means there's a lock and chain somewhere back there in desperate need of locking," Virginia deadpanned.
When Tony's eyes widened in apprehension as the possibility of robbery finally clicked — the poor sod always had been a wee bit slow on the uptake like that — Virginia's dry sardonic look became a reassuring smile.
"Don't worry, I'm on it," she said, courteously scooting past the red-haired man before resuming her cautious jog toward the rear cars. She didn't hear him call out his assent; she was behind him and through the door before he had fully processed her words.
The Drifter girl had to go through several more cars this time; she was in the economy cars, for starters, but over the last several years, train rides had gotten surprisingly popular, and thus there were simply more cars on the train than there used to be. She deftly weaved past two other attendants on the way back, who were telling her to return to her seat, tensing as they noted the ARMs at her belt, relaxing slightly as her strong, commanding voice, the voice of an experienced leader, told them to let her through, alert the others, there were intruders on board —
The last car she passed had been empty, so she hadn't issued any such orders that might have alerted the man on the other side of that last door. She slowed down, as she had at every door previous, and tensed, ready to draw her ARMs at the slightest hint of a threat, unwilling to draw them pre-emptively lest she draw them on someone she shouldn't. She tensed, not knowing but somehow feeling that the cargo car was beyond this door —
— and she opened it, and her blood ran cold, and she wasn't even aware of drawing her ARMs on the man waiting for her the other side of the doorway, and — and — and —
— and Janus Cascade, fucking Janus Cascade, was whirling to face her, right arm shooting up to draw a bayonet and then Janus froze, and she realized her arms had drawn her ARMs out of pure reflex, and it was FUCKING JANUS CASCADE and —
— and the man's right hand abruptly stopped, let go of his weapon, and held itself up at chest-level in a gesture of surrender, and his left steadily returned a dual-barreled revolver to a holster at his belt and Janus considered her with an expression that was trying and failing not to look completely blindsided and —
— and he raised that hand to join the first in surrender, and then he let out a whistle that seemed one part bravado and two parts bluster, and Janus appreciatively jeered:
"Damn, Princess, you're fast on the trigger."
— and hang on. Her composure snapped back into place before surprise got the best of her trigger fingers. That wasn't Cascade's voice, Cascade's tone, maybe, except minus about sixty percent of the "scoundrel" and eighty percent of the "ass-hat," and hang on again, Janus hadn't used a revolver — the hair was blue, but too dark — the face too young —
"Who are you?" she asked sharply, not lowering her weapons, and thinking for a second time that coincidence had a shitty sense of humor.
"Who are you?" demanded Princess, and Nathan registered several more things in the space of another instant: that the look of having seen a ghost had vanished as quickly as it had come, that her voice held a hint of accusation — she thinks I'm a train robber—and that peeking out beneath a solid outer persona of confidence and authority — this one's no amateur — was a barely-visible betrayal of just how unnerved the woman was. Nothing he could take advantage of, had he thought to (he hadn't), but Nathan had the presence of mind to file it away in his mind for future consideration. The guns aimed at his lungs and heart sorta hogged all of the priority at that particular moment.
The "Drifter" bowed his head slightly, keeping his best cavalier game-face in place.
"Nathan Winchester at your service, Princess —"
"Don't call me that."
It was a sharp, sudden order, like he'd struck a nerve and she'd jabbed back before she could catch herself: another footnote in the file cabinet.
"…and I assume you're not here to make off with the goods," Nathan continued, undaunted, "since you're out here and not in there."
He jabbed his left thumb over his shoulder, careful to keep the motion gentle enough not to qualify as a "sudden move."
"And you're not, either?" Princess responded coolly.
Nathan had to answer this part carefully, he realized: if it looked like he had picked the lock, this might wind up going pretty badly for him.
"As a matter of fact," he said, lowering his hands slowly, "I was hired to guard them, but — well, look —"
He carefully edged to the right, keeping his hands where she could see them, and —
"Now that's just spooky," Virginia breathed as her eyes fell on the lock.
"Back me up?" the blue-haired man who was definitely not Cascade supplied.
She was still standing inside the car, and now the blue-haired man was anxiously eying the lock over his shoulder.
"There's no time to argue the point," he said, "although I could've picked the lock myself, eh?" The man impishly supplied the suspicion himself, and it occurred to Virginia that he might be doing that to avert suspicion by way of reverse psychology, but then why would be he so close to this door instead of that one?
She raised her ARMs, pointing the barrels at the sky in a dual-pistol version of the classic shooter's stance, and as she did, she noticed "Not Cascade" relax. It was a subtle thing; he was still trying to act cavalier, but he was pretty bad at it, and she decided that he really wasn't Janus Cascade — or anything like that beast of a man — when that hit her. It was harder for an honest man to put on an act.
"Back me up?" he half-said, half-asked, and she realized another thing: her quick draw, which had actually been the result of him startling the shit out of her, had impressed him. She had his respect already, as easy as that. And for some reason, that brought a hint of a genuine smirk to her face, a spark of that old thrill.
"Sure," was all she said, and he turned toward the not-locked-but-really-should-have-been train-car door himself.
Neatly hopping over the gap between cars, he set himself in front of the door, poised to slide it open, drawing his revolver and pointing its barrel at the—its barrels at the sky, Virginia corrected the observation halfway through, for it boasted a hefty, stacked double-barrel. She glanced at the weapon, and at the bayonet on his back (registering for the first time that its make was not the same as Cascade's weapon), and then realized he'd been ready to draw — and use — both ARMs at the same time.
A bayonet-user was rare enough, but to use a bayonet and a sidearm simultaneously? Virginia's inner ARMs enthusiast squirmed with suppressed curiosity. How the hell was that even supposed to work?
Taking Nathan's cue, Virginia hopped across the gap herself, and stood with her back to the wall to the left of the door. Nathan, the flimsy cavalier act replaced by a sort of calm seriousness that reminded Virginia somewhat of Clive, slid the door open and pointed his ARM into the room.
His perplexed look, as genuine as the calm seriousness of a moment before, prompted Virginia to peek around the side of the door —
"Now that's just spooky," she whispered again, and hearing her this time, Nathan nodded, though she knew he couldn't understand the reason she'd said it — he just thought that the dark, empty room with the chained-up chest in the middle and the labyrinthine clutter of assorted cargo stacked and piled hither and thither, well, it should have had someone in it. Unless they'd picked the lock and jumped ship, just 'cause. He couldn't know that the scene before them was, for her, another chilling echo of that day three years before —
"What are they keeping in here?" she breathed, shifting her thoughts to a more practical track. "The windows are all boarded up; they sure are taking precautions." And she mentally slapped herself; her attempt to stop herself from remembering that time had backfired, provided another reason to be spooked by the resemblance.
Nathan shook his head. "Dunno," he said. Then raised his voice from a whisper to a murmur, sounding introspective: "What is in here, anyway? I was just signed on to guard the place in exchange for my ticket, dude down in Southfarm's a friend of the 'family'"—he put a little sarcastic twist on the word that Virginia identified as some form of fondness — "so all I know is that there might be some unscrupulous bastard who wants to cash in."
His eyes scanned the room; he was being careless, inviting someone to hear him — hoping someone would hear him, Virginia realized, and she backed up, returning to cover. He was throwing out a little bait, trying to discern if the room really was empty, but if there was anyone hiding in some dark corner of the cargo-laden car, they didn't bite. Nathan stepped into the room, shooting her a brief, meaningful look as he did — I'm going in, so cover my ass — and she found herself wondering how the man trusted her well enough to expect her to do that as he casually holstered his sidearm, bent down to the chest in the middle of room, and examined it with an invisible "FUCK ME" sign taped to the back of his pants.
Then several things happened all at the same time:
A familiar man with blond hair obscured by a wide-brimmed cowboy hat emerged from a shady corner in the more cluttered recesses of the car's port side, aiming a long-barrel revolver at the place Nathan's head had been about half a second before —
— Nathan Winchester sprung to his feet, just as planned, backpedaling at the first hint of movement and quick-drawing his dual-barrel sidearm at the hapless rogue and drawing his bayonet at the same time, torn between guarding against the predicted ambush and against the sudden and very loud disturbance on the opposite side as the boarded-up window behind him shattered inwards —
— Virginia Maxwell reacted to both surprises simultaneously, whirling around into the doorway, pointing one ARM at each of the two obvious trespassers that had caught Nathan in an unintentional pincer attack, commanding them both to freeze —
— and Jet Enduro blasted back into her life like the same white-haired ball of devastation that had shattered an identical boarded window three years previous, reacting to her command before he even registered the room's other occupants, raising his black-and-red Airget-lamh sub-machinegun with unrivalled speed, his expression first fierce and determined and then the same brand of wind-blasted surprise that his target must have had when she realized who he was —
— and in the long moment that followed this cataclysm, in the four-way stand-off that seemed to last three years to Virginia's stunned mind, the young Drifter outlaw with the two revolvers and the stratospheric price on her head could not think anything at all other than the same thought that had occurred to her twice already.
Somewhere, somewhere up there in the sea of stars, "Coincidence" was watching this terrible, terrible joke. And it was laughing its obnoxious ass off.