Sprawled out on a grassy hill with warm sun in his face and nothing but open sky above him, Sora was a picture of lazy bliss. From his spot, the noisy bustle of the city died away and the only sound was the wind hissing in his ears, and if he concentrated, he could just make out the steady rhythm of the ocean not too far off. The breeze tousled his messy brown hair affectionately and encouraged the tall grass to tickle his tan arms and legs, just on the verge of itching. A bee hummed by his nose before landing delicately on a nearby flower to consider the boy and the flowers crushed beneath him. It darted away a moment later, though, narrowly missing a furry paw that had appeared out of the grass to swat at it. A yellow cat head appeared next, which scowled as it watched its would-be prey escape. The small cat turned to Sora instead, and prodded his side lightly.
"Ne, Sora, shouldn't we be leaving soon?" it asked. The cat received no response. He hopped onto the boy's chest and stared down into his face. "Sora."
Sora gave a deep sigh, which startled the cat on top of him only a little bit.
"We don't have to leave yet," said Sora, his voice dreamy and content, blue eyes on the sky.
"Cloud gave you the morning off, not the whole day."
"Hm, well," was all Sora had to say to that. He made no motions toward getting up, and the cat settled down into a more comfortable position on top of him, tucking in his feet and tail. Sora's hand came up to scratch the cat's head, which prompted some soft purring.
"Cloud will be mad if we're late," the cat tried again after a long moment, though he was enjoying the head scratching very much.
"Cloud will be mad either way because he likes to be grumpy. So we might as well take our time, I think."
"We have work to do."
"We?" Sora lifted his head to peer at the cat with a raised eyebrow. "What work do you have to do, Roxas? As I recall, I'm the only one doing the work. All you do is sit around like a lazy bum."
The cat stood with a dignified harrumph and jumped down. Sora gave a good-natured chuckle and finally sat up. "Alright, alright," he conceded, "we'll go back." He stood and stretched with a yawn, then gathered up his bike.
Sora waited until Roxas jumped up into the basket attached to the handle bars before pushing off and heading to the dirt path that lead to the city. Once on the path, the bike picked up speed as gravity pulled it along until they were absolutely tearing down the hill. They were a blur of red and blue and brown to any bird, squirrel and tree sprite that happened to look their way. Every small rock in the road had Roxas nearly flying out of his seat in the basket, and he dug in his claws and clung for his life, something he had grown very used to by now.
"Sora!" he howled, "You're going too fast! We're going to die!"
Sora only laughed his usual carefree laugh, gave a joyous 'whoop!' and pedaled faster. But Roxas should have known, really. Anywhere Sora went, he went as fast as he could, and his trusty red bike was his favorite tool for doing so. Everyone who knew him knew that at the very least; It was what he was best known for. Racing down a hill with the smooth metal, rubber, and gears beneath him, avoiding potholes and rocks with a deft lean to one side or another, and laughing with reckless abandon as only dust was left where he had been a blink ago— it was absolutely exhilarating. With the wind and scenery rushing past him, Sora could almost pretend he was flying, gliding across the world. He could almost pretend he was invincible.
They reached the bottom of the hill soon enough and joined the main road, which was mostly flat and smooth. The momentum from the hill kept Sora racing along, and it couldn't have been more than ten minutes until they had left behind quiet grassy hilltops in exchange for bustling cobblestone streets and crooked rows of wooden buildings. At last they had to slow down in order to avoid crashing into people, carts, and automobiles. Roxas was able to relax slightly, though his ears were still plastered against his head and his tail fur stuck out as thick as Sora's arm. Sora sped down winding roads and bridges, expertly dodging both stationary and moving obstacles with glee, making wild sharp turns, and accepting the various calls from the people he passed, both friendly greetings and frantic cursing about his recklessness.
He skidded to a halt in front of a familiar building squished between its neighbors, with red-brown walls criss-crossed by its timber framing, sporting faded lettering painted in a large, dirty front window which proclaimed 'Cloud's Delivery'. Sora hopped off his bike and rolled it down the thin alley next to the building to the garage behind the shop. He unlocked the wooden garage door with the sturdy key from one of his pockets, set his bike in its designated spot next to Cloud's gleaming motorcycle, and locked the garage back up again. Next to the garage, a rickety staircase zig-zagged up the wall to the balcony landings of the second and third floors of the building, which held Sora and Cloud's apartments, respectively. On the other side of the staircase was a screen door leading into the shop, which Sora made his way through with Roxas trotting at his heels.
"I'm back!" Sora called, letting the screen door snap shut behind him with a sharp twang to further announce his arrival.
The back door led immediately into a small kitchenette area, complete with a sink, a table, a cupboard, and a small ice box. Every flat space was covered in a mess of some kind, from papers, cardboard boxes—both empty and taped shut—stray cups, odd fliers, postcards, rolls upon rolls of packing tape, and the odd knickknacks that Sora always seemed to think important enough to keep around, all accented with loose strands of short, coarse yellow cat fur that Roxas had shed. The stone gray walls were bare except for the large calendar full of neat markings in red and black pen that Sora was never allowed to touch, and the clock showing exactly how late Sora was. Sunlight from the small window above the sink overlooking the garage was enough to give the room a cheery sort of brightness to contrast the gray walls and floor.
Roxas jumped up onto the table and settled himself in one of the empty boxes lying open. Sora headed straight for the ice box and peered inside, hoping that some kind of food had miraculously appeared since the last time he had checked it. He found only the mostly empty jar of milk and wedge of cheese that had been there when he'd left, although the cheese wedge had been partially diminished. Sora stuck his tongue out at the sight.
Sora closed the ice box and looked up to find Cloud in the doorway leading to the main office, arms crossed over his chest and regular scowl etched into his face. He had a thin build and was not exactly tall, but he struck a rather intimidating figure all the same, with his coal-black clothes, pale, angular face, and air of mild anger constantly radiating from him. He looked like a man who could kill you very easily, and whose ever-thinning patience was the only thing stopping him from doing so. Cloud's cold, ice-colored eyes fixed Sora with a glare from beneath his odd mess of blond hair like two knives waiting to be thrown.
Sora responded with his best charming smile and rubbed the back of his neck absently.
"Well, at least I'm here, right? So, whatta we got?"
No matter how much he tried, Cloud was never able to scare Sora much. It was something Cloud often lamented (though was secretly one of the reasons he kept him around.) Cloud gave a small, exasperated sigh and made an expression that could almost be described as an eye-roll. He turned around and headed back into the office with Sora bouncing along behind him.
The office was much like the kitchenette in that every surface was covered in clutter and a little bit of cat hair. But the piles were slightly neater, and while seemingly haphazard, there was definite organization to the mess which its owners knew well enough. A large desk took up most of the cramped room, flanked by sturdy, squat file cabinets. Shelves covered one wall, upon which sat books and ledgers of various sizes and colors, all painted with the healthy layer of dust they deserved. Piles of boxes lined the walls like tired cardboard soldiers awaiting orders. A tall, leafy plant stood in one corner, withering and wilting, but never quite dead, and a vase of happy daisies sat on the desk amongst the papers, looking slightly out of place. Both of these had been gifts from Aerith and her flower shop across the street, who had been trying to liven up the otherwise dingy room a bit. It wasn't exactly successful, but Cloud never seemed to get rid of any plants Aerith gave them, no matter how much he grumbled about them. Sora was convinced he secretly liked them, but Roxas insisted that he was just too polite to throw away a present.
Cloud picked up a clipboard from the desk and looked it over.
"We've got two large boxes that need to be delivered to Cid's before three. They'll be heavy, so be careful. A guy from the butcher's around the corner dropped off a bunch of packages, and they should be delivered first so they don't spoil. And there are some books that need to go to the University. Other than that, Mrs. Shelke wants this present delivered to her grandson for his birthday. I've got the addresses here." Cloud handed Sora a neat list, and he read it while Cloud showed him which stack against the wall he needed.
"Tch, this is it? This wont even take two hours!" Sora pocketed the list and gave Cloud a grin.
"Yes, well, if you spent any longer sleeping in the grass, whatever is left of your brain would leak out of your ears."
Sora gave him an incredulous stare, his eyes wide enough to take up half his face. "How did you know where I was? Are you psychic now? What else do you know?" Cloud almost laughed at the sincerity of Sora's question. Almost. In fact, his face remained as gloomy as ever.
"There's grass stuck in your hair, idiot." Cloud pulled out a leaf from Sora's wild mop and gave it to him as proof. Sora took it and examined it in interest.
"Hm, so there is. I thought as much," he said, and tucked the leaf into his pocket.
"You better get going, Leaf-head. The streets will be crowded today because of the parade."
Sora's eyes lit up immediately. "There's a parade? Like with magicians and elephants and people on stilts? Ohoo! That's so cool! I can't wait!"
"No, you're thinking of a circus. It's a military parade. Just a bunch of soldiers marching around." Sora visibly deflated. "Quistis told us when she was here yesterday, weren't you listening?"
"No. Quistis is boring."
"Sora! You can't say things like that. She's one of our biggest customers. She's not boring."
"Yes she is. You think so too, I know it." Sora gave a thoughtful nod while Cloud frowned at him. "Anyway, I'm off."
"Are you going to change your shirt? Or put on the company vest?" He gestured to the bulky tan vest hanging on the coat rack next to the front door. It was constructed out of the stiff, itchy material used for potato sacks, with 'Cloud's Delivery' printed in bold black letters across the back.
Sora made a face at the vest like he'd just eaten a worm. He looked down at his own clothes, a slightly dirty blue-and-white striped t-shirt and brown, knee-length shorts with lots of pockets.
"Nah, this is fine."
"It wasn't actually a question. You have to wear the vest. It's the company logo."
"No, I've decided. This shirt is fine." Sora gave a dismissive wave of his hand and started taking the packages to the back to be loaded onto his bike as if the conversation were over. And Cloud supposed it probably was. Every conversation about the vest ended up the same way, so by now it was basically useless. Sora really hated the vest. Cloud gave another put-upon sigh and wondered how exactly he ended up with such an employee.
"There should at least be people on stilts," Sora mumbled to the boxes on his way out back the door. Cloud heard him and shook his head in exasperation.
Outside, Sora strapped the larger boxes to the back of his bike and put the smaller packages in the front basket. Roxas appeared and hopped back into his place in the basket when Sora finished, sitting on top of the packages.
"Cloud said there's going to be a parade!" Sora informed him.
"Yeah, down the main street and through the plaza in the northern district. Quistis told us yesterday."
"Yeah yeah, whatever."
Sora rode out of the back alley, and then they were back to racing through the streets. Up and down winding roads, across wide and narrow bridges, through skinny back alleys, past railway tracks, and over hills, Sora flew all across the city. He was the reason for Cloud's Deliveries reputation as the fastest and most reliable delivery business in town. Anything you needed transported somewhere else, and any time you needed it to be there, Sora was always ready to take it and deliver it on time or earlier. The trickier the timetable, the more complex the route between deliveries, the better, thought Sora. It was more of a challenge that way, and it made him ride even faster. People had grown used to the crazy kid with the little yellow cat and his crazy bike, and while his speed was alarming to pedestrians and automobile drivers, there had yet to be any sort of serious crash because of it. So Sora's antics had become a staple part of city life, much the way the afternoon train rumbling across town or the foot traffic on the day of the farmer's market were.
The first two stops on Sora's list were fairly close by, and their deliveries quite standard. Package given, signature and gratitude received. The next few required him to cross one of the high bridges over the railway tracks and, from the western district, ride up into the steeper hills of the southern district.
The southern district was perhaps slightly poorer, and definitely much dirtier. It's streets were narrower and meandered around as if constructed from a map drawn by a child. The buildings were dingier and more cramped, stacked on top of each other haphazardly in a great pile. It was also a much busier area, with people leaning out windows to talk to their friends passing on the street or to hang their laundry, people gathered in small groups on porch stoops involved in loud and sometimes heated discussions, and children running up and down with sticks and balls playing all kinds of odd games. Many of the people Sora passed knew him by sight and called out greetings to him, which he returned. The southern district had the best hills, so of course Sora came by as often as he could. The only problem that Sora ever encountered was that dirt sprites grew pretty big in this area, as they collected more and more dirt, and were strong enough to cause mischief. They mainly gathered in the corners of alleys or in the gutters, and they absolutely loved empty rooms and houses. Lately, though, they had taken to the steep rooftops, where they managed to dislodge and throw the flat clay roof tiles. Pedestrians had to be careful not to get hit by falling roof tiles, and warning notices were displayed every few blocks. Sora had swerved his bike around to avoid being hit many a time, and he was almost certain that the dirt sprites had marked him out in particular to hit, being a fast-moving target and therefore a challenge. Roxas told him he was an idiot.
They made their deliveries fairly quickly, and had time to stop and chat a bit with some of the people he knew. Whenever they stopped, Roxas tried his best to hide in the basket, but people tried to pet him all the same, which he hated. He restrained himself from biting or scratching anyone, though, because Sora told him he shouldn't do that, and he didn't want Sora to be mad at him.
Sora avoided exactly two falling roof tiles with ease as he rode about, and told the dirt sprites that they had to try better than that. Looking up, Roxas could see their dark shapes scuttling about indignantly.
Their last stop in the southern district was up a steep flight of stairs, and while carrying his bike up them had been difficult, riding them back down again had been Sora's favorite part. Incidentally, it had been Roxas' least favorite part.
Finished with delivering all the perishable packages, they made their way back to the western district to Cid's mechanic shop. Cid Highwind's mechanic shop, which didn't exactly have a proper name and which people mostly referred to as 'Cid's' was a low, two-storied stone building across from the railway tracks. An arched doorway large enough for a truck to drive through led to the garage that took up the entire first floor, and it's heavy wooden doors were always kept open to let in air. The second floor was marked by a row of tiny windows which peered out from beneath the overhang of the steep roof. A small square sign hung from a short rod above the door with a picture of a wrench and a gear, and was just about the only official declaration that this building offered some kind of service.
When Sora pulled up, he could already hear the clanging of metal on metal and the gruff shouting of a gravelly voice. He parked his bike against the wall and stood in the doorway, took a deep breath and shouted "Hello!" as suddenly as he could. The resulting startled shout and crash of something being dropped was exactly what Sora had been aiming for, and he laughed.
"That damn kid! Always yellin' his goddamned head off! Appearing out of nowhere! Who the hell does he think he is! He's lucky I didn't saw my fuckin' arm off! Well what are you sittin' around on your ass for! Go see what he wants—And get that shit-eatin' grin off your monkey face!"
A moment later a boy not much older than Sora, though quite a bit taller, appeared from within the garage, still grinning. He had tan skin made darker still from smudges of dirt and grease, and shaggy blond hair that had been bleached further by excessive amounts of time spent in the sun. He wore a pair of permanently dirty overalls over a faded yellow t-shirt, and sturdy but tired work boots. His smile was wide and friendly and crinkled his eyes in a handsome way.
"Hey Sora," he said. "How's it going?"
"Pretty good, Tidus. Just thought I'd drop by and say hi. I've got the boxes you ordered," Sora answered with a smile.
Tidus nodded and the two of them started unhitching the boxes from Sora's bike.
"You got him pretty good, you know," Tidus chuckled. "He was holding all these polls—who knows what for—but he had his arms full of all these really long polls, and then you jump out, and I swear he jumps—actually jumps—and throws the polls all over the place. It was hilarious. He's still picking them up."
The two of them paused in unloading the boxes and laughed at the grumpy mechanic and his unfortunate characteristic of being easily startled.
"Quit yer yappin'! I can hear you, ya know, ya lazy dumbasses!" Cid's cranky shouting carried out of the garage, and while it didn't stop the two from laughing, it did spur them on to carry the packages inside.
The inside of the garage was significantly darker, and it took Sora a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he found the place as unchanged as usual. The floor was covered in dust and spots of grease, several large tables sat covered in pieces of wood, metal, tools and the half-finished projects they went with, and larger metal and wood scraps leaned against the walls. Sturdy shelves lined the walls, full of tools and boxes containing small parts. A fire was smoking in the large fireplace, heating up a pot sitting in the center and making the garage a bit stuffy.
Cid was found near a work table taken up by several large polls, which Sora assumed had just been picked up. He was a stocky, muscular man in his middle age, with a thick neck and a pinkish sort of face. His short, straw-colored hair was kept back by a chunky pair of goggles and his eyes were dark underneath his furrowed brow. He wore a shirt that may have once been blue and a pair of pants held up by a complicated utility belt. At his feet lay a large, fierce-looking red dog with a spiked collar.
"Hey Cid!" Sora called cheerily from behind the box in his arms.
"That's Mr. Highwind to you, brat. Just set those down by that table there." They did so and Cid walked over to inspect them. The dog got up and followed him, sniffing the boxes in interest, then sniffing Sora in interest. "Ya got both boxes there? Good, it's about time. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you're missin' one little bolt, then you can kiss all that goodbye."
"Sign here, please." Sora handed Cid a paper to sign and a pen. Cid scribbled a signature and gave it back, then turned and glared at Tidus, who was still standing next to them.
"Tidus, get back to work! That pipe isn't going to fix itself."
"Yeah yeah, whatever you say, old man," Tidus replied with a wave of his hand. He settled into a seat at one of the tables and began working.
"Don't you 'old man' me, you monkey!"
Sora crouched down and scratched the dog's ears enthusiastically. The dog responded with equally enthusiastic tail-wagging and attempted to lick as much of Sora's face as possible.
"Hi Red," Sora cooed at the dog as he rubbed his head and sides. "How are you today? Has it been a tough day? Is everyone yelling and dropping things? It must be hard on your delicate little ears!" The dog gave a loud and frankly ferocious-sounding bark and Sora laughed.
"Stop talking to that dog like he's a baby," Cid snapped as he went back to his work fiddling with the poles. "You keep doing that and he's gonna start thinking he is a baby. Then he'll get soft, and what use is he gonna be at guarding the shop!"
"Aww, but he is soft!" Sora replied, talking to the dog. "So soft and fluffy, aren't you, Red? But you have to guard the shop! And you're very good at it! No one wants to steal anything because they know how strong you are! I know, I know! You are so tough! Everyone is impressed!" The dog continued to cover Sora in slobber, loving the attention.
"Stop that! Red, get over here," Cid said, slapping the side of his leg lightly.
But Red perked up suddenly and froze, pupils large and eyes focused unwaveringly on the doorway.
"Red, get over here! What's he looking at—aw dammit, now the cat's here."
Sure enough, Roxas was sitting in the doorway, looking inside curiously, but cautiously. Red crouched down a bit, waiting to pounce, and gave a low growl.
"What're you always bringing that damned cat around for?" Cid barked. "You know Red gets all worked up. I never seen 'im get so worked up about a cat as he does about that one. He's trained not to, doesn't even chase squirrels, but he's always after that cat!"
Sora stood up and grinned. "It's because Roxas is special," he said, as if it were obvious. He grabbed Red's collar to make sure he didn't bolt off after Roxas.
"Yeah, well something's special alright," Cid grumbled to his tools.
"Hey are you guys going to the parade later?" Sora asked.
"Naw," Tidus answered, "the old man wont let me."
"Yer damn right I wont let ya! We got work to do! I'm not letting you laze around just cuz we're all supposed to get excited about the military. Damn foolish waste of an afternoon, if you ask me. Like we're supposed to be excited about war just cuz some idiots march around in uniform."
"You really think there's going to be a war?" Sora asked.
"Ugh, don't get him started! I'll never hear the end of it!" Tidus moaned. But it was too late.
"Do I think there's going to be a war!" Cid spat. "Well with Alexandria having that blood-thirsty cow of a noble that they do, of course we are. If Sephiroth doesn't get his act together and show some goddamned diplomacy once in a while we'll have no choice! All they ever do is threaten and insult each other at those fuckin' meetings. It's like they want war sometimes, I swear! Idiot nobles don't know how to do a damned thing. They just sit around in their fancy houses drinkin' tea all day while hard-workin' people like myself are gonna have to foot the bill if we go to war. Hah! If I ever see any of those Jenova boys I swear I'll pop 'em right in the jaw. Maybe they'll be more diplomatic with their jaws wired shut. Hah!" Cid screwed some bolts into place emphatically.
"You think they drink tea?"
"What? Why is that the one part you listened to? If you're gonna be an idiot, why'd you even ask?"
Sora shrugged. "I dunno, just curious, I guess."
"About the tea?" Tidus asked.
"I wonder what kind they drink."
Tidus paused in thought. "Probably something that goes with biscuits," was his conclusion.
"Rich people eat biscuits, don't they?"
"Well whatever is it, I'm sure it tastes like piss!" Cid barked. "Now get the hell outta here. Quit bothering my worker and ruining my dog."
"Okay," Sora chirped. "I'll see you later. Bye Tidus!"
Sora left the garage and hopped back on his bike, and Roxas hopped back into the basket.
"So, what'd he say?" Sora asked as they rode off.
"What'd who say?" Roxas shot back, digging his claws into the basket as they turned a corner.
"Red. What'd he say? Did you talk to him?"
Roxas made a frustrated noise. "No! I didn't talk to him! I can't talk to him! You always ask and it's always the same answer. I can't talk to other animals."
Sora chewed his lip, unsatisfied. "Maybe you aren't trying hard enough."
"That has nothing to do with it! That's not—Watch out for that woman! Jeez, you almost hit her!"
"No I didn't. We weren't even close."
"Yes you were, she was—tch never mind."
"Anyway, maybe you just need to practice talking to other animals more. Then you might get it."
"Talking to you is close enough to talking to an animal."
"Hah! That's good coming from you, Roxas!"
"Yeah well you—There's a car coming! Are you even looking where you're going?"
"So you're not going to try talking to other animals?" Sora asked, disappointed, as he made a sharp swerve. "I wanna know what Red is saying."
"It's not going to happen. It doesn't work like that, I keep telling you. Besides, he's probably not even saying anything. Dogs don't form language like people do. You got your greeting barks, you got your warning barks, you got your 'I'm-an-idiot-dog' barks, and that's pretty much it."
"So you can talk to him!"
"Anyone could come to that conclusion about dog barks! I can't talk to him! I wouldn't even want to!"
"Fine, fine. You're such a spoil-sport, you know that?"
"Whatever, you're the one who never listens," Roxas grumbled.
The next stop Sora had to make was close to the city's central train station. The train happened to pull up just as he finished delivering the package, rumbling, screeching, and billowing smoke, and Sora and Roxas were caught up in heavy foot traffic of people departing and boarding the train as they passed.
It is a well-known and widely-documented phenomenon that people getting on and off of trains become startlingly more aggressive than usual, especially in crowds— pushing, jostling and barreling their way through, wielding luggage as battering rams. When pressed with the urgency and stress of ticket-buying, train-boarding, and seat-obtaining, people who are normally as decent and polite as one could be somehow morph into panicked, selfish creatures, whose fear of missing their scheduled train or losing their luggage pushes out all concern for the well-being of those around them. And so, though Sora tried to weave as carefully as he could through the crowd (not that it seemed that way to Roxas) he found himself swerving and skidding, whisked about by the sea of anxious people.
Just when he thought he was free, he lurched to a halt as a large woman suddenly rushed in front of him with rolling luggage and a brood of children holding hands trailing behind her. The abrupt stop nearly threw Roxas out of the basket, and it was only his claws embedded in its fiber that kept him from flying. The woman didn't appear to have noticed that Sora was there at all, or that they had all come quite close to being seriously injured.
"Eeh! That surprised me!" Sora exclaimed as he watched the group force their way through the crowd almost violently toward the train, practically throwing people aside in their haste
"You'd better take care not to get trampled, kid," a voice chuckled behind him. "You're little kitten there could have died."
Sora turned to find a tall, wiry young man with a mane of shockingly red hair towering over him. He had two diamond-shaped tattoos underneath green almond-shaped eyes, and a wide, mocking grin. He wore a long black coat buttoned up to the neck and carried a small bag over his shoulder.
Sora gave the stranger a smile. "Yeah I'll keep that in mind," he laughed.
"Make sure you do. There are few things more terrifying than a person late for a train, you know. And being trampled to death seems like such a pathetic way to go, don't you think?"
"Definitely," Sora responded, nodding thoughtfully. "It would not be a heroic death at all. Hey Roxas, are you alright? I know how much you would hate dying, even if it was heroically."
Roxas was huddled in the basket, ears flattened against his head and tail fur thicker than ever. He gave the red-headed man a baleful glare.
"Roxas, huh? Is that his name? He's such a cute little kitty. Can I pet him?" the man asked, reaching a hand toward Roxas. Roxas growled.
"You probably shouldn't try to pet him. He doesn't like other people much," Sora warned.
The man gave a disappointed frown. "That's too bad. I'm usually pretty good with animals." He let his hand drop. Roxas stopped growling, though he didn't stop glaring.
"Nah, don't take it personally. He's just like that. He's very picky when it comes to people he likes."
"Well I'm nothing if not a man who can bounce back from rejection, even from so fair a creature." The man's crooked grin returned.
At the sound of a person wailing, they both turned just in time for a figure loaded with several large bags to collapse in a heap at their feet. The figure disentangled itself from the luggage and stood up, turning into a young man about the same age as the red-headed stranger, though not nearly as tall. His dirty-blond hair was cut in an odd style, sticking up rather tall on top, cut short on the sides, and long enough to reach his shoulders in the back. He was similarly dressed in a long black coat, though a spot of a bright blue neck scarf peaked through.
"Axel! How could you leave me with all the bags!" he moaned at the red-head. "Did you see how crazy these people are? Now I'm all sweaty and gross! And most of this is your stuff anyway!"
"Oh? Didn't you say you wanted to carry them all? I could have sworn you said that earlier. Ah well, if you weren't strong enough to carry them then you should have admitted it. There was no need to be ashamed. I really thought you would have been more capable, though."
"I said no such thing!" the second man squawked. "Don't turn your laziness into my failure! You need to pull your own weight if this is going to work, in this case literally—" He stopped suddenly, just having noticed Sora and the cat blinking up at him. His faced morphed instantly from a scowl into a friendly smile. "Hi there!" he beamed. "I'm Demyx, nice to meet you!" He grabbed Sora's hand and shook it enthusiastically.
"I'm Sora. And this is Roxas."
"Aw what a cute kitty cat! Look at him in his little basket!"
Roxas was immediately on the defensive again and snarled at Demyx's approaching hand coming in to pet him. Demyx snapped his hand back with a startled yip.
"And I am Axel, at your service" said the first man with a flourished bow.
"Are you two new in town? Looks like you just got off the train."
"Indeed we are," Axel replied in a lofty voice. "Demyx and I are but two humble traveling performers going from city to city, seeing the world and providing entertainment where we can. This is our first time in this wonderful city-state of Nomura, though I doubt we will stay long. Ours is a wandering nature, you see. We never stay anywhere for too long."
"Performers? Really? What do you do?" Sora's eyes brightened with excitement.
"Ah, we do many things," Demyx broke in with a grand manner equaling Axel's. "We are well versed in song, dance, story-telling, juggling, and magic. Few can match our talented diversity!"
"Magic? Ohoo that's so cool! I can't wait to see!"
"And so you shall, my friend, and so you shall! A better show you'll be hard-pressed to find!" Axel said with a friendly clap on Sora's shoulder. "We are called the Flurry of Dancing Flames and the Melodious Nocturne!" He gestured dramatically for emphasis. "Make sure to memorize that."
"Eh? How could I memorize that? That name is way too long!"
"What are you talking about?" Demyx balked. "It's a perfect name! It took us a long time to come up with it, you know."
"Well you definitely need a better one. That one stinks. It sounds like you just came up with it on the train." Demyx's eyes widened, horrified, and Axel raised his thin eyebrows.
"And what would you suggest?" Demyx asked, quite concerned.
"I dunno. Something shorter. Catchier. How can you market such a long name for a show? It wouldn't fit on any banners. And traveling shows need to have good banners."
"That's true that's true!" Demyx cried. "How could we not have thought of that! We won't have a good banner! And then no one will come to our shows!"
Axel didn't seem to be as concerned as Demyx was about their show's poor title, but was was instead quite amused.
"Well, anyway," said Sora, "I'd better get going. Work to do. I'll see you around!"
"Wait! What about our name? The Flame of the Dancing Nocturne? The Melodious Flurry of Flame? Dancing Music Fire? Happy Burning Songs?"
"They just keep getting worse! I have to go, though. I'm sure you'll think of something. I can't wait to see your show, whatever it's called! It was nice meeting you!"
"I'm sure we'll meet again," Axel said with a two-finger salute.
Sora rode off as Demyx stressed through a whole set of possible new names. Narrow green eyes followed Sora's retreating figure until he disappeared through the crowd.
"There was something odd about that kid, don't you think?" Axel asked.
"I've got it! The Water and Fire Musical Variety Show!"
"Tch, whatever you want. Let's just get out of the train station already." He adjusted the small bag over his shoulder and set off through the busy mob of people.
"Hey wait! How did I get stuck with all the bags again! Get back here! These aren't even mine!"
The only packages left to deliver were to the University, further into the northern district. In direct contrast to the southern district, and quite different even from the western district, the northern district was a very refined and shockingly clean part of the city. Buildings were taller, larger, less cramped, and constructed of more stone and glass than wood, many with neat green lawns and tall fences. Long blocks of proud apartments lined the more major boulevards, continuous and mostly similar in style. They were made up of practical, even lines, some with more elaborate facades than others, but all with windows and stylish iron balconies aligned. The sidewalks were wider and the streets straighter, lined with wrought-iron lamp posts twisted into complicated designs. There were more automobiles on the roads in a larger variety of brighter colors, yet there was somehow less honking. And if honking did occur, it was usually directed at the motorized scooters weaving through traffic and the rich, dashing young men and women riding them. The people on the street were unquestionably more posh—the women with large, ostentatious hats and skirts and men in colorful vests and jackets. While the northern district was nowhere near as hilly as the southern district, it was certainly constructed on an incline, with neighborhoods rising higher in tiers the further north you went. At the top of this large hill, overlooking everything, was the Jenova mansion, the house of the governing nobles of the city. It was an impressive building, bigger than the whole block of buildings on Sora's street, and could be seen from almost anywhere in the northern district.
Looking up, Sora could see the mansion, but it wasn't his main focus. He was searching for the high glass dome of the University, which was somewhere on that hill, though not nearly as far as the mansion. Spying the glitter of sunlight on a large glass surface which could only be the University, he marked his course and set off. There were a lot more people on the street, though, obviously getting ready for the parade, but mostly getting in Sora's way. People walked slowly and in large groups, horse-drawn carts full of decorations of some kind ambled along, and petty officers had started roping off parts of the street. Sora wasn't exactly tired, but the incline certainly wasn't easy on a bike, and with the crowds, the going wasn't the fastest. Roxas, at least, was pleased by this.
Eventually Sora found himself at the University, a cluster of grand buildings made of smooth, whitewashed stone and long glass windows, connected by covered walkways and arched doorways. The famous glass dome sat atop the tallest of these buildings, looking both elegant and formidable. Around the buildings lay lavish gardens and manicured lawns that Sora always found a bit too symmetrical and unnatural to enjoy completely, but they were certainly pretty by most standards.
Sora chained his bike up against a fence and made his way into what he knew to be the student dormitory building. He handed his small stack of packaged books to a stern-looking woman sitting behind a large desk just inside the door. The woman looked down her long nose at the sight of Sora, taking in the messy hair, dirty clothes, and cat on his shoulder with disgust, as if the sight of him was a personal affront. She signed for the packages in a keen silence clearly meant to be more insulting than any words she could come up with. The sting was mostly lost on Sora, however, and he was soon off on his merry way.
Finally free to enjoy the parade, Sora zipped down the hill with a bike free of extra burdens. He could hear cheers and marching tunes played by trumpets and drums already. They reached the main plaza before the procession did, which gave Sora time to lock up his bike and find a good spot. The latter was easier said than done, however, as the sidewalk was quite densely packed with people who all seemed to be unreasonably tall. And since the parade apparently lacked people on stilts, this was a problem.
Sora pushed and squeezed his way through the crowd as best he could while Roxas weaved expertly through people's feet behind him. Eventually, Sora was able to make a spot for himself behind two people in the front of the crowd. One was very tall and the other was very fat, but Sora was could see the parade through a nook created by their elbows. Roxas settled down on Sora's feet.
The procession finally reached their stretch of the road, with trumpets blaring and drums pounding patriotically. The sound of hundreds of pairs of feet marching in time was steady and firm, accented with the clop of horse hooves scattered throughout. The street became a stream of green and silver uniforms, shouldered bayonets, and ruddy faces trying their best to look forward stoically instead of smiling arrogantly at the people cheering for them.
There was a small cluster of highly-decorated soldiers on horseback riding between a break in the troops, and the crowds cheered wildly as they passed. The man with the most distinguished uniform, quite probably a general of some kind, rode ahead of the others on a fine black horse. Unlike almost every other person involved with the parade, this man did not seem at all happy to be there. Rather, he looked as though he had just finished arguing with someone, and a murderous frown darkened his features underneath his uniform cap, intensifying the fierce scar that ran diagonally across his face. Sora wondered briefly how someone could be so unhappy when they got to ride a horse in a parade, but was reminded that riding horses could be uncomfortable sometimes and figured that that was probably the reason. Or perhaps this man was a bit like Cloud, and pretended to be grumpy because he wasn't sure how to be happy.
The next troops that passed wore uniforms of green and black, clearly identifying them as the renown mage troops. Sora studied them closely, because all things magic were ceaselessly interesting to him. Unlike the combat troops, who all displayed a general uniformity when it came to size and physical build, the mage troops were far more varied. While there were a few with a strong physique, many were tall and thin, others quite small, and some even a bit plump. But all had a confident gleam in their eye betraying their unusual and extraordinary abilities. At the head of these troops was a well-decorated woman on horseback with short blue hair peeking out from under her cap. She looked quite bored, though she was trying her best to hide it. Sora could still tell, though, and thought it was quite funny.
After these troops was apparently the cavalry, and the sound of horse hooves preceded the troops themselves.
There was some shouting somewhere in the crowd behind Sora, as if someone had started a fight. A few people started shoving at each other, which jostled the others around them. Because everyone was so closely packed together, the shoving in one area rippled and increased like a wave to create rough pushing in another, and Sora was squished uncomfortably. A particularly violent thrust propelled Sora forward through the people in from of him, and he found himself quite suddenly sprawled in the street a shockingly far distance from the crowd he had just been part of. He looked up and saw several rows of oncoming cavalry horses moments away from trampling and crushing him. The closest horse reared at the sight of Sora, and the person riding gave a startled yelp. Sora scrambled to get out of the way, but the horse's hooves were flying and coming back down fast.
The crowd watching gave a collective gasp.
Abruptly, strong arms wrapped themselves around Sora's waist and snatched him out of the way. The rearing horse landed on all fours again with a thud, but no bone-crunching accompanied it. Bewildered, Sora saw that he was now out of the street and by the curb of the sidewalk a safe distance away from the parade. The crowd around him had parted slightly, giving him room, and they all peered down at him with worried faces.
For a brief, upside down moment where anything was possible, Sora wondered if Roxas had managed to save him somehow. But when he looked up, it was into jade-green eyes in a handsome pale face framed by longish silver hair.
"Are you alright?"
Blinking, Sora saw that the face belonged to a boy a little older than him, wearing a well-tailored white silk shirt and a concerned frown.
Sora thought about it, but it seemed that all his body parts had indeed been rescued. So he gave a nod, which the boy above him found suitable enough, if the relieved smile was enough to go by.
The crowd watching gave a collective cheer.
The boy stood and offered Sora his hand, which he accepted. Sora brushed himself off a bit and gave the boy tremendous smile.
"Thank you so much. That would have been a terribly un-heroic way to die."
The boy gave him an odd look. "Yes, I suppose it would have been." He paused, looking at the people around him as if suddenly self-conscious, and swallowed uncomfortably. "Well, I'm glad you're unhurt. Goodbye." And with that, the boy turned sharply and left. The crowd parted for him easily, but seemed to close up again when he had passed through.
"Wait!"' Sora called after him. "Who said you could leave!" But the boy had already gone.
A cat's howling alerted Sora to Roxas pawing at his feet. He scooped the cat up into his arms and scratched his cheek as he purred nervously. Together they made their way through the crowd and back to his bike, having seen enough of the parade.
"I'm so glad you're okay," Roxas said once they were far enough away from everyone.
"Yeah me too. It was so exciting!"
"What?" Roxas snapped. "Exciting! You could have been killed!"
"Yeah, but I wasn't! All thanks to that mysterious masked man! I wonder who he was!"
"Sora, he wasn't wearing a mask."
"Yeah, well he should have been. If he's going to run away and be mysterious, he might as well wear a mask. Plus, I've always wanted to say something like 'who was that masked man?' and now I got to."
There was a pause before Roxas responded.
"Sora, you might have hit your head harder than I thought. We should go home so you can lie down."
"Yeah, okay." was his cheerful response as he pedaled along.
A/N: Comments, concerns, corrections, critiques all welcome.