There's a trick to fooling idiots. Doesn't matter if they're an office-worker from Deling or a general in the Esthar army. You tell them what you're going to do, or you tell them what you want to do. Then, when they ask why the hell you want to do it, you give them an answer they wish they'd thought of first. Works like a charm, every damn time.
"You headed out? To the mountains again?"
"Yeah," I replied to the guard. I know his name, I just can't recall it right now, although if he asked I could rattle off every other thing he'd told me about himself since I got here.
"It's pretty cold out there Almasy, what're you up there for anyway?" another one asks, and this one's name I do know. There's supposed to be no rank in the security volunteers in Havensden, it all runs off 'respect', whatever that nebulous term is supposed to mean. But I knew that was bullshit the second the bruiser in charge – Kurlen, who else? – introduced me to the group. His name's Kelly-something and he has that look in his eye. The kind the school bully has when a bigger kid turns up and starts talking. The same look people gave me and Raijin and Fujin, back at Balamb when we were on the Disciplinary Committee and caught another student running something they shouldn't. I wonder what kind of deals he's been doing under his boss's nose he thinks I'm going to try and muscle in on. He's big and brawny like the rest of Kurlen's gang because that's what he thinks soldiers look like. I could tell him stories about Esthar's soldiers, thin as whips and twice as fast, or Deling soldiers that could run miles in full gear and then fight for hours without a break afterwards. Or just introduce him to Trepe and see how long he lasted. If I gave a single shit about him.
Which I don't. "Yeah, well, I left some things up there," I say as I shrug the coat onto my shoulders. The one piece of clothing I'm prepared to love up here. I'd forgotten how cold the north side of this miserable continent could be.
"What things?" Kelly blurts out at me. If this is his idea of an interrogation it's goddamn hilarious to watch.
"Well," I start, and know they'll buy it even as I say it, "I wasn't sure what kind of welcome I was going to get when I came up here." Heavy gloves over thinner gloves to keep the bite out. The single gun they gave me for patrolling the city is a piece of crap, I won't be taking it with me. "So I stashed most of my stuff somewhere I could find it, in case I had to make a quick getaway."
The nameless goon nods like it's the smartest thing he's heard all day. Hyne knew it may as well be.
"Seems to us like you already brought in the best thing you had, Almasy," Kelly pipes in, and laughs that infuriating goddamn nasally laugh he has. The others wait a beat and then join in. It sounds like some unholy goddamn chorus.
If only you knew.
Used to be I'd get a kick out of that thought, but now their childish shit just makes me furious. "Yeah, well, a man can't live on bread and water alone right?" Apt, since sometimes that's all we get up here. Winter's always harsh, and Havensden isn't exactly an agricultural powerhouse. There are stores, I've seen them, but they're not exactly bursting like Deling City's silos.
"So are you fucking her then?"
I recognise the voice instantly and batten down anger where the others won't see it. Kurlen looks over the room as he walks in out of the cold and even though the others can't see it I can. That little sneer he gets whenever he walks across his underlings. Kelly's already practically fawning over the man. "Boss," I say, careful to add respect I don't feel.
He looks me up and down and I can practically feel the sneer. It's pretty obvious he thinks he can take me although I have no goddamn clue why. "You going somewhere Almasy?" he asks, whatever joke he was going to make next forgotten.
"Shift's over, I'm taking off," I say. I don't want to waste words with these people, but I'm careful around him, and Diran. If they're just spectators to this whole Esthar-stolen-cargo-traitor mess then I don't want them getting in my way, and if they are then I don't want them spooked, at least not until we're ready to jam our fists down their throats and pull.
"Hell, if he doesn't want her I'd be glad to take a shot," Kelly guffaws to his boss. Kurlen doesn't move an inch but I get the feeling he thinks as little of the man as I do. I wonder if Trepe has to deal with this over in the government buildings. Probably not. I've seen her walking around town, carrying papers and cases next to that tall drink of water, Kira or something. Some people get all the luck.
"She's taken," I snap back, and the man pulls back like someone just yanked on his chain. Even as I say it I feel bad though, and I don't know why. Maybe it's because she's the only other company up in this place that's halfway deserving of the name, even if we exchange maybe twenty words a night that isn't about the job.
That week ago though…what the hell was that all about?
"Not like you've even got the time," one of the other guards says as he takes off his greatcoat, thick with snowfall even though he's only been outside a few hours. The sun's going down and it will only get worse at night, pity the poor sods who're going to be out there in it. "Not with what we're-"
I hear the words and I'm already listening intently to him as he speaks, but Kurlen is faster. "That's enough outta you, get to work," the big man growls, and the man shuts his trap in a second.
"You giving out more shifts," I ask.
No use, he's not giving anything away. "Not to you, Almasy. Now shove off, your hours are up. Quartermaster'll have your pay."
I open the door to the wind and the snow and step out. I turn and close it behind me and catch Kurlen staring at my back. I meet his gaze as the steel swings shut, hold it until it closes.
They told us in SeeD training and I've heard it before then, but it's still funny how goddamn true it is. A plan's only as good as its dumbest member. Luckily some of the people running this place are really goddamn dumb.
It bugs me as I climb the path up the mountains. The road's broken and cracked and barely fit to step on but it's better than clambering up the steppes, and if anyone else is up here I want them to see me doing it. Kurlen doesn't trust me an inch and while I don't blame him it's goddamn annoying knowing someone's got their eyes on your back. My feet take it one step at a time as my brain works elsewhere.
There was something there alright and for some reason I just can't let it drop. Three weeks and starting since I got out of that Esthar prison and roped into this ridiculous scheme of Seagill's and that was the most emotion she's showed. It's not like she was ever short of the stuff anyway. I remember her back in Garden before the war and she liked to play the stoic older-sister figure - back in the Orphanage too for that matter – but eventually it always broke down if you pushed hard enough and you could get past that dumb act to the real person underneath. Hell by the time the war broke out I was a goddamn expert at breaking at doing it. During the war we were too busy trying to kill each other to talk much, but even then I always got the impression she took it more…personally…than the others. Our eyes met a couple of times, back during the Garden Fight, back in the Lunatic Pandora. I remember blue fire in those eyes, along with whatever crazy goddamn para-magic that she used to use.
I caught them a few times, afterwards. Not like you couldn't, really. None of the articles or shows ever really talked about the whole Sorceress thing, which made me wonder if Cid had the whole thing hushed up and shoved into a corner somewhere. Would make sense, especially if he didn't want any dumb hero-wannabes coming after him and his wife. The rest of it was there though, all glorious battles and last stands and amazing journeys through the world with the mysterious and heroic SeeD organisation and their Esthar allies. I'd be drinking or eating in some quiet bar that would take my money and I'd hear them clear as day, throwing out the same old platitudes and words at whatever microphone had been shoved in their face. They had all been there, all turned into some caricature of what they really were (although it was fucking hilarious to see Leonhart try and act like he had any kind of charisma or interest at all). She'd been there just like the others, the gracious and beautiful old sister. Then I'd stopped watching, just tried to get on with whatever life I had left with a bounty hanging over my head, even if they weren't trying very hard to catch me. When she turned up at that prison I'd thought it was some kind of disguise, the way it had fooled me for a moment. She'd looked tired, and angry.
Then we'd gotten up here and I'd gotten a really good look at her, and realised it wasn't a disguise at all. Not the same anger I'd seen in her back during the war, or the same tiredness you got at the end of a long day. She'd looked spent. Like she'd given up and was just going along for the ride. Something in the years since I'd gone-
since you were kicked out and exiled
-had ripped the life from inside her and left that stupid stoic shell behind. That conversation about running away had been the most fire I'd gotten from her in days and even that had been barely a smouldering ember compared to some of the fights we'd had in the old days. Why the hell was that significant? What the hell did she have to run from? An actual for-real world hero?
What the fuck happened?
I look up and she's already there waiting for me. I look down to check but there's no other footprints in the snow. She must have taken the ridges to get up here, coming up the cliff from somewhere else. Well at least she still has her skills, even if she's lost- drop it. "Let's just get this over with," I say, and shove the rest of my useless wondering out of my head.
"Nothing yet?" she asks as we work.
"Maybe," I reply. "One of them slipped up a little on the way out here. Not sure what it means though."
"They don't trust you yet, then?"
"Not the big man," I say, and I see her lips purse in frustration. I think about what those assholes were talking about as I left and wonder if any of them have made a pass at her yet. The thought annoys me. "Nothing on your end?"
The scowl deepens a little. "Nothing, nothing at all."
I shut up as we pull at the snow with our hands. It's been frustrating as hell. So frustrating I've had an idea, one that's been running through me as I came up here. On the one hand it's risky, but on the other hand it might get something done. We could spend years of our lives up here and get no farther than clerk and security guard. Well, I can bring it up with the man at least.
It takes us a few minutes to dig it out of a week of snowfall, but when our hands finally punch through the final millimetres of fall and hit metal the thing is only a little scuffled. The one thing we both agreed would be beyond stupid to even think about carrying down into the city, I watch as she unfolds the thing from its cage. Like a rose unfolding, and the insides of the petals are all shiny mirrors, with a small metal stick in the centre which extends upwards. I'd thought Kiros would just give us a phone or something, but I'll give the old bastard this, he's thorough.
"It's us," she says into the small handset."
His voice comes out clear as a bell from the other end, even in the snow. We're practically cheek to cheek in the setting sun as we sit around the small communication device. "Anything new?" Seagill asks from hundreds of miles away. Probably in a heated room and a comfy chair too. Bastard.
"Nothing yet," Trepe reports, the good little soldier. She twists the little microphone over to me.
"Something, just a taste," I say. "I have an idea."
I can practically see him at the other end of the line – actually a satellite somewhere high in the air, but who cares in this weather – frowning and thinking about it. An idea, from Seifer? But I know he'll listen, that's the problem with all these oh-so-dedicated and proper soldiers and politicians. They have to at least hear you out, even if they want to tell you to shut up and go away. "Go on," Kiros says, and I can hear the tone there.
"Nothing's happening. I say we force something to happen, before whoever's shooting down your little birds gets an idea to shoot down some more, or expand their operations."
I can see Trepe gets it, although she doesn't know what exactly it is. "Go on," Kiros says from over a mountain range.
"We need confidence or we'll never get anywhere. They hate SeeD and Esthar, let's use that."
"Wait…" Trepe says, but I'm way ahead of her and already telling Kiros what to do.
One comes from Trepe, the other from Kiros. "We need them to trust us, let them know we're on their side and not just hiding out or whatever the hell it is they think we're- that I'm here for. Well, if we fought off an Esthar attack that would go a long goddamn way to convincing them." There's silence at both ends of the line as both of them think about it. Kiros will go for it, I know. Trepe I might have been able to tell if this was years ago, but now I'm not so sure.
"You think I'm going to risk something like that?" Kiros says over the line.
"We need to do something. You want all those lost ships turning up in a year as some kind of army?" I turn to Trepe. "You want that GF out there turning up doing the same thing?"
Days away I can practically see Kiros steepling his fingers and thinking about it. He's not like Laguna, not even close. Unlike his boss, Seagill is a military man and he wants this done and finished. If that means taking a couple of acceptable risks then he'll do it, especially if I'm the one who'll be at risk in the end.
Hell, maybe he hopes whoever he'll send will get some hits on me before they go down.
"It could backfire horrifically," Trepe says, but there's not really any passion or argument there. I wonder if she's every bit as frustrated with this wheel-spinning go-nowhere mission as I am.
"Not if we do it right." I'm sat back against a cold rock as we both sit there in the dark. Kiros's gone away to think about something – more likely to see exactly how badly things would go if they messed up – and said to hold on.
It hadn't taken much to convince Kiros it would work, because he was already halfway there himself. He had no trouble believing Kurlen didn't trust me, because he didn't trust me. Which was fair enough really.
"What about his people?" Trepe asks.
"What about them?"
"For this plan to work the attack will have to be real, you know. What about the men he'll be sending that you'll be beating up?"
I laugh. It's strange but nice to know she doesn't think that they might get one over on me. Nice to know at least some people still rate me that high. "It's their jobs, they'll get over it." I look down at her. "What's the matter Trepe? Never known you to spoil from a fight."
She blinks and her gaze slides away to the horizon. "It just seems excessive."
What the hell? "Oh come on, you can't tell me you really want to spend years living here just waiting for them to maybe accept you? Xu I could see doing that, but not you."
A crackle of static, and: "Almasy."
I turned away from her and picked the handset back up. "Here."
I'm surprised, and I can see that Trepe is too. "That fast?"
"We had some people up near Trabia. We can ask them to swing by. What's our excuse."
"That's simple," Trepe says. "Tell them they're investigating your crashed ships around the area." She meets my eyes. "Then, when your investigators get caught sticking their noses in where they shouldn't be, we can throw them out and be heroes." Nice to know her mind hasn't shut down at least.
"…Are you sure about this, Quistis?" Asking her instead of me, that sneaky bastard.
"It's what there is," she says simply. "We have to do something."
"Alright. Two days. Good luck."
"Well, that was rotten," I say after we've heaped snow back up on the once-again spherical object. "Only two days, to get someone here from Esthar?"
"He has people close already," Trepe replies. "A team or something near here. But why?"
Because he doesn't trust me. Because if this whole thing falls apart he wants to send the guns in to clean up whatever mess we leave behind us. Or recover our bodies. "Who knows, but at least we won't have to wait." The coats we're wearing are warm but now, at the dead of night, the cold soaks through them to the skin. I shiver. "Let's get back." I start down the path, and I'm a little surprised when instead of taking her own route back she walks next to me. "Not worried about guards?"
Blue eyes look into mine, the rest of her face hidden by the scarf she's wearing, her hair flying back in the cold night wind. "What do you think they'll think, seeing us come back together?"
Ah. "Good point." I feel a flush of heat in my face and in this cold it's roasting. We walk down the road in silence, the town laid out below us.
It feels like I ran a marathon yesterday, instead of sitting around and doing my normal patrol with the other mooks in the security division. Twenty-four hours of tension. Then…
"Listen up," Kurlen says as he practically crashes through the walls of the hut we're in, drinking coffee and waiting for the current shift to come in. He looks absolutely furious, and I smile a little inside. "We're about to get visitors."
"Who?" I ask first.
He glares at me like I just insulted his mother. "Esthar coming up through the mountains, say they're investigating something. I want you all suited up and ready for when they get here. On the gate, armed. Patrolling the city, the walls, any place they might think to take a look around."
The room turns into fury and motion and excitement as the others all start discussing exactly what they'll do to the Esthar 'visitors' if they try anything funny. Never mind exactly how badly they'd be out-tech'd or outgunned if it comes to that. Which it won't, because I'm going to get to them first.
Kurlen's staring at us all as we finish getting ready, and if it isn't my imagination he's staring at me in particular. "What?" I snap before I can stop myself.
"We don't usually get people like this comin' up so far north," he says in that strange accent-less drawl he has. If he was from anywhere before he came here, I can't tell now. "Maybe they're looking for something."
"Or someone. Me. Just say what you mean boss."
"I'm sure nobody meant anything," another voice calls out, and everyone looks around as Lyle Diren walks in. Even Kurlen shuts up and nearly salutes as the man just stands in the centre of the room and smiles. "I'm sure this is nothing," he repeats. "I'd just like to remind everyone that we have nothing but respect for our southern neighbours." The way he says respect makes it sound like a dirty word, even through his grin. "However," he goes on, "this is our territory and our city, and I'm sure you and the rest of the security team will be making certain that this fact is…enforced. That's all."
Kurlen waits for the councilman to walk back out before he starts glowering again, and when he does he sounds even angrier. No love lost there. "Alright, get to work. Don't let any of those fuckers get where they're not meant to be." He glances down at me and I wonder if he's going to say anything, but… "You too Almasy."
It's goddamn cold. Like even the weather is taunting me as the truck pulls up outside the Havensden gates. We're out in force alright, more people than I thought Kurlen had at his finger. A hundred or so maybe, guards and just civilians he's roped into carrying guns and manning the walls. The big man himself is standing there at the gate, arms crossed and scowling. The entire goddamn thing is theatre.
The truck idles to a stop, weird Esthar-tech engine whining to silence as it shuts down, and the first man climbs out. Now I know I was right about Kiros keeping a team nearby to clean up in case things go sour here. The same way I know the people behind me have never fought in real battle even though they're built like tanks, I can tell these thin and unshaven louts are the exact opposite. Then the last man climbs out, coat floating back in the breeze. Kurlen's nose flares in anger, and all I can think is Kiros must think he's goddamn hilarious.
"Greetings," Kinneas says as he climbs down from the cabin and onto the snow. He's still moving stiffly, but I bet he'd have fought to come here in that goddamn wheelchair just to get the chance to see this. "I was told you knew we'd be coming?"
"Yeah, we did. What do you want?" He recognises him, and he's furious.
"We've been losing ships near here, we were wondering if your town- sorry, your city, had seen anything."
"Nothing to see up here." Short and straight to the point. Everything the briefing said about this places' reaction to SeeDs is true. "But take a look if you got to. Outside." The gates remain firmly closed.
Irvine looks around the place, but not at the guards. Then his gaze swings around and heads straight for me, and suddenly I know he was already warned. "Is that Seifer Almasy back there?" Nothing like when he was just talking, I can hear the anger there, and it's not feigned at all.
"That's not your jurisdiction."
"He's a wanted man."
"Not in our city."
"Big reward." He names a figure, I didn't even know it had went that high.
A couple of people around start muttering, but one glare from Kurlen silences it. It's got them thinking though, and that's what it was meant to do.
Kinneas' hands twitch, just a little bit, and I feel a twitch of my own that I have to force down before I end up drawing on him. "Well, that's one huge problem you're letting yourselves in for," the cowboy-wannabe says, and I know he means it.
Kurlen's patience is gone. "But not yours. Get your work done and leave."
He tips that stupid hat of his. "Sure thing buddy," is the last thing he says before he turns away. But before he does so he looks right at me again, and I swear to god he winks at me. I know what he's up to now, and I have to resist a smile. Our little plan is going to go ahead alright, but it isn't going to be just some faceless Esthar mooks who're going to invade and be conveniently met by me and thrown out. For some reason, either payback or orders or just the thrill of the chase, Kinneas is going to make sure we meet up later tonight. Well, if he thinks he can play around with me he's going to be sorely mistaken. I wonder if Trepe would have some harsh words for her adopted brother if she knew what he was up to.
Well, I'll be looking forward to it.