Less than an hour went by before Kieth poked his head in. "She's here," he whispered. Trace nodded and gently tugged the I.V out of Flora's arm while she tried to work herself up to moving for the first time in a day and a half. He wrapped her body in a robe and, together, they managed to ease her out of bed and hobble out the door to the black Toyota parked near the curb.
A familiar wolf-Kiedran peered at them through her sunglasses. She nodded to them all, adjusted one of the lapels on her business suit, and opened a door for Flora. It was then that a crappy little idea popped into Trace's head.
"Hey Kieth," he said, "Wouldja mind riding up front with Nat?"
"What!" He gasped as Natani's ears perked straight up.
"I don't think that would be a good idea," she said with a heavy Japanese accent.
"Yeah man, why can't you ride up front?"
"Um…" Flora put in, "actually, could Trace ride with me? He's the one who applied my bandages, so I think he'd be the best one to change them if needed."
"I…" Kieth stammered.
"But…" Natani added.
"Please?" Flora asked, suddenly replacing Trace as the all-star sad puppy-dog look champion.
"Fine!" The Kiedran and Basitin sighed in unison. Soon, she was climbing into the driver's seat, he was climbing into the passenger's seat, and Trace was helping Flora into the back.
"You sure you want to do this for a mere Kiedran?" She asked as he hopped in next to her.
He looked her in the eye and took her furry hand into his smooth, pale one.
"I've never been more sure of something in my life," he replied. She smiled peacefully as the Toyota started and pulled away from the curb.
"There's a black-ops flight waiting for us at the airport," Natani explained, "it'll take us to Alliance territory."
"That's good," Trace mumbled, unconsciously squeezing Flora's hand.
"By the way," Flora asked, "I don't mean to pry, but what's with you and the Basitin?"
The whole car froze. Keith glared at the pair behind him. Trace simply grinned back.
"Well, go on and tell her Keith," he chimed just cheerfully enough to get on the Basitin's last nerve.
"Okay," he said darkly, turning around to stare straight through the windshield, "you wanna hear about me an' the Jap? Fine. We met while I was workin' undercover in the Japanese mainland. Wound up head over heels in love, courted for a year, then I proposed. She was ecstatic. At least, I thought she was, but come the big weddin' day she never showed up at the altar." He glared over at the Kiedran driving, "helluva way t'say: 'I don't' if y'ask me."
"You dumbass," Natani moaned, "you stupid, dickless wonder. How in the hell did you survive so long in the intelligence community? In fact, how do you dress yourself in the morning without help!"
"The hell're you gettin' at, woman!"
"Your cover had been blown, you idiot! The Alliance had assassins with orders to kill us both waiting in the audience! I had to go underground until the heat was off!"
He bolted upright in his chair, "You serious! Then why didntcha try t'find me!"
"I did," she replied icily, "I tracked you to a bar in Kyoto after a few weeks, where you were trying to hump anything and everything with a pulse. Glad it took you less than a month to forget about me!"
"Aw hell, Nat, I'd just been jilted! I thoughtcha never wanted t'see me again!" He collapsed back into his seat, "that was just me tryin' t'deal with the fact that the love of my life didn't want me no more."
Her eyes widened in shock, trying to divide her focus between the road and him. The whole car grew very quiet again.
"I still wanted you," she whispered after a while. The silence continued until she slammed on her brakes.
"Aw, sheeit!" Keith swore.
"What's up?" Trace asked, poking his head between them to get a good look out the front, "Oh, hell."
Just ahead of them, a recently-erected South Arigan police security checkpoint (complete with spike strips, pursuit cars, and at least twenty uniformed policemen armed with pistols and shotguns) blocked their path.
"Trace Van Rooyen, Natani Arai and Flora Ferreira," someone with a megaphone called from a squad car, "turn off the vehicle and put your hands in the air!"
"The Japanese government must have caught wind of this op and pulled the plug! Damn!" Natani swore through clenched teeth.
"Or maybe this is someone's way of gettin' back atcha for Tokyo," Keith sighed, "either way, we're screwed."
Suddenly, Trace had an idea, "Natani, this car's bulletproof, right?"
"Yes, but not cop proof," she groaned, "we won't last long if those pursuit cars come after us."
"Then someone needs to keep those cops in place while the rest run for the airport," he said, and before anyone could react, he pulled out his sidearm and loaded it with a fresh clip.
"Trace! What're you doing!" Flora gasped, her ears standing on end as she painfully tried to sit up.
"That cop didn't mention Keith," he replied, "which means they might not know he's involved. And Natani needs to drive you guys to the airport, which leaves just me to hold 'em off."
"But Trace…" Keith moaned.
"No buts! They probably just want me anyway. To them, Flora's just another Kiedran and Natani's just some spy they'd probably wind up deporting anyway. I'm a cop who turned to the other side, a corrupted Templar: I need to be made an example of. So they might let the rest of you get away."
"Hold on a sec," Natani reached under her seat and tossed an MP9 submachine gun to him, "you might want this. It'll be a lot more useful than that dinky little Glock."
"And one more thing!" Flora added.
"Oy, Flora! I'm about to take on the whole damned South Arigan army! What is it!"
She promptly wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, passionately, right on the lips. He couldn't have been more surprised if she'd revealed she was the long-lost heir to Shaka Zulu's empire. "Just don't die, okay? You're the first human I've met who's worth his weight in dirt. I don't wanna lose you so soon after meeting you."
"I'll give it my best shot," he grinned, then immediately tucked and rolled backwards out of the car as Natani pulled it into a reverse one-eighty. His shoulder kicked up a bit of dust from the dirt road as it hit. A split-second later, he was diving for cover behind a dumpster, firing the MP9 wildly as buckshot and 9mm rounds whizzed by his head. Just like that, he was in the firefight of his life, and unfortunately the odds were very much against him.
Despite the MP9's superior firepower over police standard issue shotguns and handguns, Trace was still just one man against a small army. He knew the officers would eventually overrun him through sheer force of numbers. In all honesty, the smart man would have cut and run in the hopes of disappearing into the city's millions of alleyways and abandoned buildings.
But he was not a smart man. He was a man in love, and the only thing he could focus on was buying the Toyota behind him enough time to high-tail it out of there.
He blind-fired a few more rounds right over the cops' heads, sending the men in the barricade diving for cover and giving him a small opening to peer over his shoulder back at the black Toyota. He watched as it squealed around a corner, slipped into an alleyway, and began to disappear into the shadows of the city. However, right before it did, for one fleeting moment he could swear he saw Flora peeking out the side window, those green eyes glowing in the darkness of the alleyway. And then, just as suddenly, she was gone.
He collapsed against the dumpster, the weapon dropping to his side. For a while, he just sat there and listened to the bullets pinging off the metal, and then a smile spread across his face.
He snickered as he pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. "Man," he laughed lightly as he stuck it into his mouth, "if Keith knew I'd actually pocketed this thing, he'd be pissed." Searching his other pockets for something to light up with, he never even noticed that the bullets had stopped flying. At least, until three cops popped up around the dumpster and shoved their Glock pistols into his face.
"So," he said with as much disinterest as he could muster, "any of you boys got a light?"
The trial was a farce, only held to keep up the illusion of democracy and justice for the ignorant masses. Everyone involved (Trace included) knew the verdict long before it began, especially after a raid on the Van Rooyen residence revealed the massive amounts of anti-apartheid paraphernalia in his basement.
The judge was all hellfire and brimstone, putting on a real show for the cameras recording material for that night's propaganda broadcast. He made speech after speech on "human decency" and "human unity" and "strengthening the bonds that hold human society together" against the terrible "Kiedran threat." He probably said some other things too, but Trace had long tuned out the same kind of bullshit being broadcast over every radio and television every night. Besides, all he could think about was the girl in the black Toyota, now safely in Japanese Territory.
After the judge got tired of hearing himself speak, the jury stood up and thundered a unanimous: "GUILTY!" Then there was the sentencing (execution by firing squad), the handcuffing, the inevitable parade for all the news networks gathered on the steps, and finally he was hustled into the rear of a squad car for transport.
As the city passed by his window, he couldn't help but stare out at it. This was seriously going to be the last thing he saw on the outside? Another filthy, hate-filled, old city?
"So," the cop driving him asked, "Was it worth it?"
"They only give that kind of a media circus t'someone they know they're gonna execute. So whatcha did, whatever it was, was it worth it?"
Green eyes, flashing at him from the far side of an alleyway, smiled at him.
"Yeah, it really was." He said with a small smile.
The driver sighed and removed his cap, allowing a pair of gray Basitin ears to pop up into the air. Natani peered back from the passenger's seat and tossed a set of keys back to Trace.
"That's just what we wanted to hear," she grinned as somewhere very far away, the Mission: Impossible theme played while the credits rolled.
"He'll join the girl not long after," the man boomed, waving the apparition away, "They'll meet up again and begin the usual courtship until finally, after a few years, he gets down on one knee and pops the question. They marry, have kids, he writes a book about apartheid in his country which brings global attention to the atrocities going on in South Ariga," he sighed impatiently and checked the position of the sun, "blah blah blah, etcetera etcetera, and they all lived happily ever after, the end.
"So class," he added mockingly, "What did we learn today?"
The creature in the shattered mask shrugged, "That you have a knack for editing? It was a rather skillful way you added in credits."
"You liked that," the man blushed, "oh, I thought it was a little much, so thank you. But no, that's not what you were supposed to learn."
"Then what! Why won't you just tell me already!" The creature screeched.
"My word, were you always this stupid, or are you just too delirious to see the point?" Suddenly, the man was right in front of her, "you never stood a fucking chance in stopping me, why? Because you were trying to stop a war that was inevitable in the first place? Maybe. But also because the plan you put in place for had one fundamental flaw."
"The couple, I know, but there's no way you could've known for..." she groaned, and then a light flicked on behind her eyes, "No."
The man grinned again, "Now she gets it."
"Oh really? Is it so hard to believe that in the vast majority of universes, these two wound up together? Be it on, say, a futuristic warzone:" he waved his hand again, and a pair of human-like ghosts in opposing uniforms and wielding assault rifles danced around one another in tighter and tighter circles before finally coming together in the middle of the room, their masks dropping to the ground in a lovers' embrace. She managed to catch a cat-like glint in the woman's eye before the man waved them away and continued: "Or on the dance floor," and suddenly the tiger-girl was there, sitting at a bar in a wonderfully revealing outfit. After some time had passed a certain white tiger-man, his blue hair teased up into one of those godawful spiky hairstyles, strode up beside her and struck up a conversation, "I have seen these two meet in the most of impossible of situations. The medieval plane on which we now play is the norm, not the exception."
"B-but," the creature stammered, "in order to jump across so many 'verses to gather all this data, you would have to travel across dozens of realities and consume huge amounts of energy! Not to mention the time it would take to…"
The man smiled wickedly at her, "Do you remember last fall when I took that vacation for "emotional reasons"?"
Her non-existent eyes widened, "No way."
"Y-you knew about my plans for that long?"
"My dearest Ephemural, this game is not just about being one move ahead, but twenty. You just have to deal with the fact that I was ahead of you from the very beginning. You have been outmatched, outwitted, outdone, and now," he snickered, pulling a great, dark cloak about himself, "you're about to be outlasted. So if you'll excuse me, we've a meeting to attend. I would like you to be there: I'd love the chance to gloat some more."
And just like that, the creature was alone in the room. She reached up in shock, touching the rapidly decaying features of her once-proud mask. He was right. He was better than her! He had been the player, and she had been the willing pawn. And now, she was about to be kicked out of the game. Permanently.
No, she had blocked that race for a reason. They were simply too powerful, too unpredictable. If allowed into existence, they could become a threat to rival the very power of the gods themselves! But then, what was the alternative? Simply slipping into darkness?
On shaking legs, the creature pushed herself to her feet and limped into the observation room. She knew what she had to do.
God forgive her for doing it.