Setting 12: 2039 DAY 15, Just beyond Winhill Cemetery

"Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain. Exalted reason,
Resplendent daughter of the head divine,
Wise foundress of the system of the world,
Guide of the stars, who are thou then, if thou,
Bound to the tail of folly's uncurb'd steed,
Must, vainly shrieking, with the drunken crowd,
Eyes open, plunge down headlong in the abyss."

-Johann Christian Friedrich von Schiller

 

"Geronimo!" Laguna hooted in his midair dive, bringing his arms into a streamline position with his body. Kiros and Ward had told him time and time again that what he considered intrepidity was really just his lack of a common evolutionary knob in the back of the head from which rationale and caution emanated.

But what do they know? Itís not every day that you get the chance to make a running dive into aÖrocky creviceÖ

It hit Laguna just then that he wasnít diving headfirst into a pool of water as he had originally thought. He managed to grab the cat that had been trapped on a lower ledge but continued to fall.

Kiros read Wardís eyes knowingly even before the President of Esthar remembered to holler for help. It was never too hard to tell when a collision was going to occur around Laguna; if there wasnít any projectile into whose trajectory he could step, heíd make himself the moving object and go caroming off the walls or over some cliff.

The first thousand times it was funny. After that, wellÖ

Kirosí thought left off as the much expected but less than desirable scream sounded at last.

Judging from its pitch, which Ward recalled and saw that it was indeed related to the number of echoes that reverberated up through and out of the fissure, the large man quickly calculated how far down Laguna had had to have fallen up till that minute. He raised his eyebrows and whistled, visibly impressed. Had it not been for my dissertation on wave mechanics and resonance during my pursuit of double doctorates in applied physics and mechanical engineering, I would have never been able to figure that one out.

Both men realized how dangerous a drop Laguna was enduring. They also dimly noted how annoying his continuous scream had become. Remember to inhale sometime, they thought at the same time.

Right then neither Kiros nor Ward could hold back their laughter any longer, and they doubled over, grabbing their stomachs. On the ground they rolled and hooted until their chests hurt and they began to choke. They had both opted to personally leave Esthar to check up on Laguna and inquire about Elloneís absence because of the obvious entertainment that Lagunaís company would provide. He had not disappointed them.

Suddenly Kiros froze, exclaiming, "Holy Shiva! That poor cat!"

He dismissed the thought and went back to hooting and chuckling in harmony with Ward before he froze again and exclaimed, "Great Eden! How long has it been?"

Ward got to his feet as well and pointed at his watch. Donít even try.

Kiros started biting his fingernails nervously. "Come on, Ward," he pleaded, "this is serious."

Ward nodded. Youíre damn right. But too bad.

Kiros was sweating uncontrollably. "Maybe we misheard. He has to have hit the bottom already!"

Like Diablos he has! Ward shot back with his indignant eyes.

"This canít be happening!" Kiros cried, covering his face with his hands and breaking down into a sobbing fit.

Ward was chuckling wildly. He raised his eyebrows when they finally heard the thud of Lagunaís landing followed by some weak curses and weeping sounds.

Kiros nervously checked his watch. Then he proceeded to swear.

"I donít believe it, Iím so dead!" he mourned, raising his palms to the sky.

Ward grinned and tapped the face of Kirosí watch. Then he held his hand out, expecting his payment.

Kiros swore again, this time invoking Diablos, and reached in his pocket. He stopped himself. Damn, almost cut open my thigh again! I always forget to take these knife-guards off.

It took another five minutes before Kiros was clumsily able to shell out eight thousand Gil, laying each bit on Wardís sweaty palm. All the while, they either couldnít hear Lagunaís weak but laborious groaning escaping from the pit or they chose to ignore it. When Kiros had finished, however, Ward didnít withdraw his hand. Rather he tilted his head indignantly and stuck his hand out farther.

"Thatís all I have!" Kiros cried meekly, raising his hands up to shield his face.

Ward scowled. You know youíre not even half way, right?

"Iíll get you another thousand once we get back Esthar," Kiros assured him hurriedly.

Ward didnít budge.

"Oh, come on," the other pleaded, "how was I to know that that bum was going fall for more than eighty seconds?"

Ward thought it over, and slowly his countenance softened. All it took then was a shrug to remove any tension left in the air. Kirosí despair, however, as well as Lagunaís crying, remained vibrant.

"To Diablos with him!" Kiros growled, kicking a rock that he felt was laughing at him because he underbid Lagunaís fall by eighteen seconds, and he was left to pay the difference in thousands. Stupid 98, what kind of retarded number is that?

Disgustedly Kiros waved his partner off and started heading in the direction of the town. "Iím going to look around for some Gil. If I get lucky, Iíll stumble upon an entire hoard of it that doesnít belong to anyone."

Before Kiros trudged out of range, Ward hit him in the head with the blunter end of his anchor. He seemed to say, "What do you think this is, some kind of game?"

Kiros turned for a second to glare at his companion, and then returned to what he was doing. "That was the down-payment on my sonís college entry fee!"

Ward snorted. We both know you donít have a son.

Kiros either read his mind or knew his colleague well enough to guess his response without even trying to match a semantico-referential value to Wardís sneer.

"How would I know that?" Kiros shouted, flinging his arms into the air and waving them wildly over his head. "Huh? Tell me, how do I know for sure? I could have a son, you could have a son, Laguna could have another son for all Eden knows! Thereís so many of them popping up all of the sudden."

Ward blinked, not having anticipated this outburst. Whoa! Calm down.

"So if you donít mind," Kiros continued, regaining his stoical composure, I have a fortune to stumble on."

Ward stayed his hand so he couldnít do that.

"What?" Kiros posed exasperatedly.

Ward pointed at the chasm. He pointed again and again.

"You want me to check up on that moron?" Kiros protested in disbelief.

Ward grimaced but nodded. I suppose that would be the decent thing to do.

"But heís not screaming any more," Kiros pointed out.

Before either of them could evaluate if Lagunaís sudden silence purported less danger or even more danger, Laguna continued his howling.

"See? At least heís still alive. Do we have to check on him?"

Thatís what we came all the way from Esthar to this backwater sinkhole for! Ward thought furiously. Ask him if Ellone stayed with him.

"But the clown just cost me 18000 Gil!" Kiros whined, hopping up and down in frustration.

Itís not like you donít get things for free at the Esthar shops anyway, Ward pointed out dryly.

"You get stuff for free?" an awed Kiros murmured.

Sometimes was the answer.

"Which shops do you go to?" Kiros demanded.

Johnnyís and Karenís, Ward gloated.

"Those skinflints?" shouted Kiros triumphantly. "Ha! Now I know youíre lying."

I kid you not, little man, Ward reaffirmed with renewed fervor.

"What about Cherylís then?" Kiros asked.

Ward was beaming so much that it bothered his counterpart. That may have been the intent all along.

"Impossible!" Kiros fumed. "She never gives me anything!"

Thatís cause youíre not fat or blonde, Ward explained.

"Well, that settles it," Kiros replied gingerly, "I need to find enough change on the ground to dye my hair blonde so I can get things for free at Cherylís and not have to look around on the ground for a check for 18000 Gil!" He practically hollered the last part.

You canít just forsake the cat, Ward argued, staring right back. You can leave him, but the cat has to come with us.

No words were needed to decipher that look that Ward now wore. Kiros knew there was no argument when Ward cast that expression, so he resignedly agreed, but purposely over-dramatized his slouching shoulders as he slinked over to the opening in the ground. He rolled his eyes and exhaled in disgust as Lagunaís pathetic sobs grew increasingly audible with every step he took in that direction. By the time he and Ward reached the perilous edge, the whimpering shook like thunder, a surprising amplifying effect that Ward ascribed to the resonant chasm walls.

Kiros leaned forward, exuding disdain throughout the maneuver, and called down nonchalantly, "Whatís up?" Not him, obviously.

Ward thought just as much, and considered it just as droll.

Laguna was still screaming bloody death.

"Is everything okay?" Kiros pressed.

"I think I broke my leg," Laguna crowed between wails.

"Not you," Kiros reproached caustically, "I meant the cat. Is he okay?"

Laguna paused, slightly confused. "Yeah, heís fine. But my leg-"

"Oh, shut up, you big baby," Kiros shouted, "Take it like a man. Besides, it builds character."

"It does?" Laguna asked.

It does? Ward wondered, taking a quick look at Kiros, who was too busy humoring himself to notice. Why havenít I ever noticed how impressive Lagunaís character is?

"So which leg did you break?" Kiros questioned.

"Do they make distinctions?" Laguna replied, earnestly taken by surprise.

"Yes," the condescending Kiros assured him, "yes, Laguna, they do."

"Iím not sure," was the weak-voiced answer. "Iím inverted right now."

"And why would you be inverted?" Kiros posed.

"I had to stretch out so that Iíd catch myself from falling with something protruding from the walls. It ended up catching my foot, so Iím dangling," Laguna explained.

"Howís it hanging?" Kiros

"Iím serious!" Laguna shouted tearfully, "I need you to get down here!"

He sounded so insistent that Ward patted Kiros on the shoulder and motioned for him to go.

Itíll build character, he pointed out, pushing an extremely recalcitrant Kiros towards the edge.

"Ha, ha, very funny," Kiros responded and backed away quickly. "Keep away from me."

"Will you two quit kidding around and help me up?" Laguna cried from below.

"But thereís two of us up here and we would have to traverse twice the distance that you descended," Kiros reasoned to the desperate invalid, "while youíre the only one down there and all you have to do is climb up one trip length. Wouldnít it make sense for you to get off your ass and come up?"

Yeah, Ward concurred, adding, quit clowning around and get up already.

"Stop being ridiculous and help me," Laguna ordered. "You have no idea how much this hurts."

"Oh, believe me," Kiros urged, "I can relate."

Me too, Ward added mentally.

"How long did we stay in the hospital to recover from that fall?" Kiros asked Ward loud enough so Laguna could hear.

Hmm, let me thinkÖa few months? Ward thought back equally as loud so Laguna could hear.

"And who was it who inspired us jump off the cliff?" Kiros continued, raising his voice. Just to rub it in farther, "What, pray, was the name of this genius?"

Laguna, Ward shot back with his eyes.

"Who was this man," Kiros continued sarcastically, "who made that ever wise decision without, mark this, without ever having studied

Laguna, Ward repeated.

"Louder please, I donít think he quite caught that," Kiros advised.

Laguna! Ward blasted.

"And who, kind sir," Kiros picked up again, "after being reacquainted with me for the first time after all those months and travelling so far to see him, made me kill five or six monsters for him before giving me, poor me, poor and exhausted me, anything to eat or drink, just to impress some woman?"

Laguna, Ward answered acidly and pointed at the perpetrator with an accusing finger.

"Laguna," Kiros summed up gravely, "you are despicable. How low can you go?"

Heís in pretty deep, Iíd say, Ward tried to say.

"But she was hot!" Laguna protested.

Kiros was about to refute that excuse when he saw Wardís reaction.

Heís right, Ward had conceded, she was hot.

Kiros considered it, and shrugged disinterestedly.

"Fine," he called down, "weíll give you that much, but if you want my help, itís going to cost you."

Ward raised an eyebrow, but only because he liked where Kiros was taking this.

Laguna had managed to stop crying, but he was still battling with his sniffles when he heard Kirosí new proposition. The end result was a incomprehensible snort.

"Come again?" Kiros laid out.

"How much?" Laguna elucidated.

Now weíre getting somewhere, Kiros thought to himself delightfully, shifting his weight to his other leg for the sake of comfort, and rubbing his hands together interestedly.

"18000 Gil," he pronounced flatly.

They heard another weak yelp from Laguna and then another thud. Obviously heíd heard the price correctly and slipped. Presumably he landed on a ledge somewhere even deeper in the gorge.

Like that wasnít outrageous or anything, Ward remarked.

"Hey, big guy," Kiros returned, keep your remarks to yourself."

Fine, I will, Ward rejoined, youíre not allowed to read to my thoughts anymore.

There were some strange noises

"The cat is beating me up! Arg!" they heard Laguna clamor.

"Donít hurt it," Kiros cautioned him.

"Iím not!!!" Laguna shouted back.

Ward broke out with, Stop playing around down there.

"Help, help, help," Laguna yelped between screams and heavy pants.

"Sounds like the catís tearing him up," Kiros commented.

Sure seems like it, his friend concurred thoughtfully.

"Itís but a kitten," Kiros reassured Laguna, "donít be rough."

Laguna was too busy screaming to catch the empty words.

"Five to one says the kitten beats him," Kiros whispered to his compatriot.

Thatís no contest, Ward scoffed.

"How about ten to one odds, and consider that it is a de-clawed kitten Laguna is facing," Kiros offered after more consideration.

Youíre on, Ward complied, for 18000 Gil on the cat.

"But even if I win Iíll still owe you a fortune," Kiros whined. "Make it 180,000 Gil."

Fine, whatever, Ward consented, confident that Kiros was the worst gambler in the world and Laguna was the least predictable person on whom to place a bet.

The new wager had distracted them for so long that they didnít notice that the scuffling sounds had quieted. Kiros caught it first.

"You didnít drop the cat, did you?" he inquired, his face paling.

"No, but I have my fingers around its scrawny little neck," Laguna reported.

Donít do anything rash, Laguna, Ward admonished.

"Help me up, or the cat dies!" threatened Laguna.

Stars of Gilgamesh! Laguna Loire! Ward exclaimed. Why I never!

"Letís talk about this," Kiros entreated fearfully.

"I mean it!" Laguna repeated more loudly.

"You better not hurt him, Laguna," Kiros warned.

"I will if you donít help me up," Laguna countered.

"T-This is outrageous!" Kiros stammered. "Unacceptable. What do you think youíre doing?

I never imagined the President as a hostage-taker, Ward reflected. Whoa! This blows my mind. I have to sit down.

"Iíll do it!" Laguna shouted back, "Iím crazy, you know I will."

Kiros looked nervously at Ward and asked, "What now?"

We have no choice. Help him up.

"Does this mean I donít get the money from him?" Kiros grumbled.

Live with it, Ward returned.

"What do you want us to do?" Kiros called down to Laguna.

"Well, it looks like now Iím going to need a rope," Laguna responded after surveying his surroundings.

"Why didnít you ask before?" Kiros chastised severely.

"The sides were rough enough and had footholds before," Laguna clarified, "but Iíve fallen somewhere really smooth and impossible to scale."

"Well I donít have any rope, and from the way youíre describing it, I canít go down there and help you up without getting stranded myself," Kiros pointed out.

"Looks like you canít," Laguna whispered, on the verge of crying.

"Well," Kiros said, brushing his hands off, "it looks like youíre going to be down there for awhile. Do you need your backpack?"

Laguna cried in delight. Iíd forgotten about that!

Kiros was curious why Laguna was celebrating by himself in the pit.

"Is everything okay?" he inquired.

"Yeah, I always carry rope in my backpack so I can elevate myself during my Desperado limit break," Laguna happily replied. "Throw it down here."

Kiros nodded and replied, "Gotcha. Hang on a second, I wonít be long."

He went to grab Lagunaís backpack and threw it into the fissure.

Laguna felt something brush past his head and race farther down into the gorge.

"What was that?" he demanded.

"You said to throw your backpack down to you," Kiros answered, invariably puzzled by Lagunaís question.

"I meant the rope," Laguna said evenly. Iím so dead.

Kiros and Ward exchanged looks. The poor cat is lost, they thought simultaneously.

"We canít help you, bro," Kiros yelled tentatively, "youíll have to figure something out."

"Like Doomtrain I do!" Laguna growled in response. Gritting his teeth, he added, "If you donít think up something quick, Iím dumping the cat."

You wouldnít! Ward contended.

"I would," Laguna affirmed.

Ward peered apprehensively at Kiros. Do something, his eyes seemed to say.

Kiros went over to wear the backpack had been lying and saw Lagunaís machine gun. He picked it up, put in a fresh magazine, and aimed it into the crevice.

"If you do, Iíll shoot you," he threatened.

"This is inexcusable," Laguna roared. "Iíll haul your ass into court for attempted assassination."

"Just donít drop the kitten," Kiros defended himself.

"Put my gun down before you hurt someone," Laguna ordered.

"Only if you hold on to the cat," Kiros offered.

"Fine," Laguna agreed, "just drop the gun."

A minute later something hard and metal-like struck his head and ricocheted into oblivion.

"What the name of Pandemona was that?" he asked, his head pulsating with pain. Thatís going to leave a mark.

"You said to drop the gun," Kiros answered.

"To drop it on the ground," Laguna exploded. "What is wrong with you?"

"Maybe you should be more explicit in your directions," Kiros sneered in return.

"I will not tolerate insubordination, mark you," Laguna warned.

"I did exactly as I was told," Kiros griped.

He did, Ward agreed.

"I am not going to get into another debate with you about semantics and non-referential indexes," Laguna said firmly.

Suddenly they heard Laguna celebrating again.

Kiros peeked over the edge and asked, "I just tried to shoot you, in what are you reveling?"

"What luck!" Laguna excitedly exclaimed. "If the gun wasnít in the backpack, then neither was the rope. I remember that I took out the rope earlier. Itís probably sitting around where you found the backpack!"

"Okay," Kiros replied, "Iíll be right back. Donít go anywhere." Not that he can anyway.

A second later Laguna felt something whiz by his head again.

"What was that?" he shouted.

"The rope," Kiros answered, even more puzzled. "Is that what you wanted?"

"I wanted you to tie it to something!" Laguna yelled, foaming at the mouth.

"Why didnít you say so?" Kiros parried, becoming slightly annoyed.

"Good thing I have another rope," Laguna called up again. "It should be sitting behind where you found that first rope."

"Okay, sit tight," Kiros replied and went to check.

Why is this so difficult? Laguna wondered, feeling sick on the inside because of all the stupidity.

Just then, something whistling through the air caught his attention, and looking up, hit him right in the forehead. It then wrapped itself around his neck. It felt like a rope.

"What the Ifrit is the meaning of this?" Laguna roared. "I thought I told you to tie it to something!"

Kiros peered over the edge again, visibly perturbed.

"I did tie it to something," he explained. "The two ends are bound together, you see?"

Both he and Ward had to cover their ears in order to deafen the volumes of expletives they would have otherwise caught.

"Any more of this and I quit!" Kiros mumbled. "I canít take any more invective from that impossible man."

"Kiros," Laguna hissed slowly, "go and fetch the third rope and this time, tie it to a tree before you throw it down to me."

Kiros did as he was told, but stuck his tongue out at his superior, knowing he was well out of visibility. Once he had completed the deed, he crossed his arms and waited for his kudos.

Nothing happened, so he tried crossing his arms again and settling back, certain that his kudos would come.

Laguna did not display any of the desired gratitude.

"I canít take it anymore," Kiros said simply, throwing up his arms. "I need a break before I mutiny."

Iím getting tired standing here too, Ward remarked, swatting some Bite Bugs away from his face. Canít we go somewhere?

Kiros had no reason not to.

"Hey, Laguna," he called down, "just wanted you to know, if you need us, weíll be back at the tavern."

"What?" Laguna hissed with a shaky voice.

"Call us when you get close to the surface," Kiros suggested. They had walked nearly out of hearing range.

"But you canít just leave me," Laguna insisted. "I have a broken leg, remember?"

He got no response.

"Hello?" he tried.

Nothing.

"Kiros?"

Still nothing.

"Ward?"

He had no idea that his two aides were already half way to bar.

"I wonder how long Laguna will keep shouting for us," Kiros said.

Youíd be surprised, Ward noted.

"Yeah, I know," Kiros acquiesced.

Somewhere far away, Laguna hollered plaintively, "Kiros?"

As Kiros and Ward passed the chocobo crossing, they saw a curious gentleman seated with his back against the crossing sign and scribbling intently in his notebook. He was dressed in an overcoat, but casually in all other respects from neck down. Neck up he wore a sharp visor and a blue cap that he rotated 180 degrees after every few lines he wrote. His dusty satchel laid open beside him.

"What do you make of this?" Kiros asked Ward as they came upon him.

Beats me, the other answered.

"Doesnít look like a native," Kiros deduced, "since no one in Winhill needs an overcoat."

I concur, Ward concurred.

Somewhere far away, Laguna sorrowfully called, "Ward?"

Back by the chocobo crossing, again referring to the stranger, Kiros said, "He is probably from out of town."

How astute you are, Ward remarked.

Kiros turned on his heel and snapped, "Thatís enough out of you."

Ward answered by sticking his tongue out at his partner and raising his anchor ominously.

"Yeah," Kiros snarled, "like that wasnít childish."

Ward turned his attention back to the stranger and motioned for Kiros to look. The lad was still madly scribbling down notes under the crossing sign, totally oblivious that he was blocking some chicobos from reaching the other side.

Ward whistled and raised his eyebrows. What do you think?

"I think we should tell him to move before the mother chocobo shows up," Kiros suggested.

Ward saw some movement in the brush next to the youth and pointed again.

It may be too late, he realized.

Kiros was about to alert him when he felt Wardís tension ease about five notches.

"What now?" he asked.

Itís not a mother chocobo behind the bush, Ward answered. In fact, there isnít a bush there.

Kiros was skeptical and squinted for better discernment. Hmm, maybe Ward is right.

Of course Iím right, Ward affirmed.

It was a white teddy-bear-like creature covered in raggedy tawny cloth. On its back was strapped a camouflage sack whose loose-hanging flap betrayed the identity of the contents within- scrolls of some sort.

For no reason at all the air suddenly began to pulse with a light melody; the term most often used to describe this quaint phenomenon was "Mogís Theme."

"Hey," Kiros marveled, mouth gaping at the site of the cat-mouse creature, "I didnít know the mogli were back in town."

You must be scared now, Ward observed.

"M-Me?" Kiros stammered. "No way; why should I be s-scared?"

Because youíre a ninny, Ward thought bluntly.

"I am not a ninny," Kiros disputed with a glare.

Oh, so writing up, proposing, and forcing ratification of the Esthar edict of nativity, three Moogle suspicion acts, and four anti-moogle statutes in the Assembly of Nobles RIGHT AFTER you lost your underground prize fight to Mog had absolutely NOTHING to do with your feelings after the fight? Ward sneered in contempt.

"Theyíre mogli!" Kiros explained. "They provide no service to the public and the only time they used to ever come out of their caves was voting day, standing in massive lines outside their local registrarsí offices." And if it hadnít been for Lagunaís patronship, those miserable little Moobas would have been excluded as well.

Look at that one, Ward refuted. Today isnít voting day, and heís carrying the mail for Edenís sake. Is postage delivery no longer considered a civil function?

"They arenít human," Kiros added, "so they shouldnít be voting anyway!"

And thanks to you, now they arenít, Ward shot back.

"I am not a ninny," the other repeated flatly but making no further attempt to defend his side of the argument.

Hey, you know what? Ward brought up with a genuine look of concern painted over his brow. I donít care.

"Besides," Kiros felt compelled to add in response and did, "I was taking a dive

You? A presidential aide? Taking a dive? Ward highlighted skeptically. Thatís like Laguna spelling his name right.

"All very good questions," Kiros commented, "but yes."

So you think Iím going to believe that you consciously performed an indisputably realistic FIRST ROUND knock out to fake the crowd out of its money? Ward derided. There was no way you could drag the fight on longer and make it look like you actually knew what you were doing?

"That is because Iím good at what I do," Kiros beamed.

Falling? Ward clarified.

"Faking," Kiros corrected dryly with a miffed stare.

And his claiming the Mognet Circuit title and the trophy didnít phase you at all? Ward mused.

"It was just a Mogís Amulet," Kiros replied. "Who gives an Ifrit about the MiniMog ability?"

A second later he began to bawl and was barely able to suppress a flood of tears. I wanted it so much. Now Iíll never be able to shrink Maduin and claim the Mognet Special Circuit title!

His mourning was interrupted by Wardís tapping his shoulder.

I think you misunderstood me when I said I didnít care, Ward reiterated just for Kiros. I really donít give an Armadodoís rear end about-

"But Iím not a not a ninny!" Kiros insisted in a weak whine as he dropped to his knees and shook Wardís arm in desperation. "You have to believe me!"

Good gods, man! Ward swore at the same time he was overwhelmed by a sense of disgust. Get a grip! Wait, I didnít mean it literally!

Ward tried very hard to shake Kiros off as the latter began to babble incoherently in a state of panic. This action only prompted Kiros to clutch on even more firmly, much to the embarrassment of his partner. By the time Ward succeeded in reclaiming his hand from Kiros, it was quite conspicuous how the latter was trembling.

Back at the ravine, Laguna piteously cried for someone to help him.

Your knees look pretty weak, Ward reflected, reaching out to steady his friend. Do you need to sit down?

Blast Pandemona! Kiros worried. Should I run?

Wouldnít worry about it, Ward succored.

"Who says Iím worried?" Kiros replied too quickly for the statement to be credulous.

Ward rolled his eyes and then proceeded, This one looks like a courier, not a fighter.

He looked up at his elated colleague and caught him just as he was breathing a sigh of relief. Having been caught, Kiros self-consciously made a poor attempt of making the sigh look like a yawn.

The grave Ward slowly lifted his right hand to his forehead and made a his index finger and thumb orthogonal to one anther in a distinctive "L" shape. Loser.

Kiros ruffled his nose and shifted his gaze from Ward to the moogle postman, wearing a roughly leopard-colored costume. The speckle-caped moogle was still struggling with something beside the young stranger. He had not looked up, much to Wardís relief. Two grown men, presidential aides at that, clinging to each other in broad daylight was not intelligence that he wanted the Esthar media to get its hands on.

They took a few tentative steps in the moogleís direction to get a better look.

The moogle seemed to be repeatedly kicking the sole of the manís shoe as he sat there writing.

"Doing a civil service?" Kiros jeered Ward. "Yeah, Iíll believe that."

Ward smacked him. Shut up and go see if he needs our help.

In the middle of his thought Ward reached out and caught the collar of an anxious Kiros whose intent had been to casually slink away without his companion noticing. Ward threw Kiros back in front of him and pushed him forward a few steps. Ninny.

"For the last time," Kiros hissed at Ward though he keep his eyes in front of him, "Iím not a ninny."

The air currents in the area had been pretty inert up to this point, but as they inched forwards with Ward winning the pushing and shoving match against a struggling Kiros, the breeze raised itself once again, resuscitating the landscape and running through the soft Winhill grass by rows. It raced past the two contesting Estharians and apparently picked up some of their scent because as it streamed over the moogle and his human companion, the creature immediately stopped what he was doing and vigilantly turned around. The startled moogle furrowed his big, round nose, puffed up both cheeks, and squinted more ominously than mogli are accustomed to squint.

While Ward had always wondered how mogli could possibly see anything with their narrow eye slits closed, he was not too curious to carelessly offend this particular one by staring back at him. He desisted forcing Kiros forward for two reasons: Firstly, he read from the moogleís crystal white countenance varying shades of suspicion and annoyance; secondly, he was sensing great inner strength stored within the small body. But from what he knew of Ultimecia, Edea Kramerís delicate frame and welcoming disposition were false measures of innocuousness.

Kiros similarly tensed up and whispered so only Ward could hear him, "Postal carrier my ass, look at those bulging moogle muscles popping out from under his cape!"

Ward frowned and nudged Kiros to get his attention. Thatís not what worries me the most.

"What worries you more?" Kiros whispered back fearfully, his hands starting to feel chilly.

Ward didnít want to risk drawing any more attention to himself by pointing so he just indicated as clandestinely as possible for Kiros to scrutinize the moogleís fawn-skin cap. Kiros tried to focus in on it, but saw nothing more than the cap.

Heís trying to hide his antenna, but you can see it popping out from behind the cap, Ward directed.

"What about it?" Kiros hissed back after he had located the orange-red bulb that was no doubt connected to the animalís forehead by a thin black stalk. Kiros concurrently wiped a row of lingering sweat globules from his dark forehead.

Only the more passionate mogli have antennae, and this one comes with muscles. Not a propitious combination for us, Ward grimly made known.

"But Mog didnít have an antenna," Kiros refuted, turning his head slightly to face his comrade who had been using him as a shield during the entire encounter without his knowledge.

Who said that aloof furball was passionate when he gave you the infamous shiner that didnít heal for-

"Okay," Kiros interrupted, turning on his heels, "I get the picture. Do we have to relive that?"

Ward shrugged. Boy is this moogle theme music getting to me!

"What about Maduin?" Kiros asked, shrugging off all the lackadaisical notes, switching desultorily among octaves, that were ringing in his ears.

He has a horn, the next level up, Ward answered and shifted his body so that Kiros was again directly between him and the moogle.

Kiros scowled, becoming dimly aware that he was being used as a shield in case the moogle turned hostile. Hey, wait a second...

Ward gave an alarmed look and redirected Kirosí attention to the furry moogle.

Ward had also broken into a sweat and was having difficulties swallowing. Itís fortunate that Laguna isnít here; I think the moogle might take offense to a total stranger rubbing its furry tummy.

"Help me!" Laguna wailed from the other side of the hill, but his voice did not carry far enough to interrupt the stand off.

Throughout their nervous conversation, the moogle grew increasingly apprehensive and did not take either of his squinty eyes off them. Now, much to their consternation, it lifted its left paw up to its face and rubbed its pink nose until it turned deep crimson, and then took a step back.

Thatís a cautionary sign, Ward translated for Kiros.

Kiros suddenly realized how hard he was breathing, but try as he did, he could not calm himself down.

The moogleís new position at the base of the young manís shoe was most opportune for providing a seat, and so it took a short hop, beating its small cherry wings sporadically, and plopped down on the manís shin. It then crossed its paws, leaned over, set its elbows on the tip of his companionís shoe, and rested its chin on his fluffy wrists. Never once, though, did he avert his eye slits from his targets. The man still had not noticed anything.

From the corner of its eye slits, the moogle saw the two intruders breathe more easily in response to his movement, apparently underestimating how deadly he sitting down even when seated. If mogli in general had lips, this one would have curled its upper lip to one side and jutted its lower lip outwards in a menacing snarl. The scariest expression the creature could muster was two nastily slanted eyebrows and a darkening of its snow white aspect.

"He doesnít seem so dangerous now," Kiros commented, trying his best to laugh off the suffocating tension.

I wouldnít be so sure, Ward interjected, seeing as how the bulb on its antenna is changing from orange to a dark shade of red. Weíd best not provoke it.

The moogle scratched its nose again and then began to tap the young manís shoe, trying extremely hard to get his attention. Ward wondered briefly how long the two must have traveled together for the youth to accrue the tolerance necessary to ignore the moogleís meddling for so long. In that brief span of time the moogle had tried to bit the toe of the shoe but its mouth was too small and the material too hard. Its only resort was to jump off its seat, afforded by the pant leg, with the usual half-flutter of wings and resume kicking the sole of the manís shoe.

Kiros and Ward watched ambivalently as it grew tired and panted heavily with sagging shoulders.

"We could just help him out and toss a rock in the boyís direction," Kiros suggested to Ward. "That might get him to look up."

Itís worth a shot, Ward guessed.

After more thought Ward considered, Or we could just call out to him.

Kiros did a quick scan of the area and located the choicest rock within reaching distance, and so, after stooping and picking it up, he aimed to miss and tossed it accordingly.

The moogle, who decided that gnawing through the manís pant leg was the best way to get his attention, stopped what it was doing. Its antenna bulb grew bright red, sensing danger. The animal propelled itself off the manís leg and soared in the air. In mid-flight it performed a quick rotation and the resulting roundhouse kick connected squarely with the rock, sending it back along the same trajectory with more force than was originally imparted.

Kiros swore and screamed in pain as the rock hit him in the forehead. Clutching his face, he keeled over just as the young man looked up.

"Whatís going on?" he asked, standing up and dropping his notebook. His moogle pointed at Kiros and Ward with his chubby paws, quickly mimicked how Kiros cast the stone, and then fell back into a fighting stance with fuzzy fists raised.

Kiros was still on the ground moaning so Ward stepped forward and tried to communicate, We were just seeing if you needed help.

"Well, say something," the stranger said, not familiar with Wardís technique.

"Here," Kiros managed to pronounce through groans as he rose laboriously to his feet, "allow me."

Dusting himself off and checking to see if he was bleeding, Kiros eventually introduced himself and Ward, and then inquired the name and business of the stranger.

The other tipped his hat and reciprocated, "I call myself Jeremy."

Ward noted the strands of blonde hair that forced their way out from under the cap before their new acquaintance readjusted his cap

"May I call you ĎJerí?" Kiros entreated, noticing the flashy hair as well.

"No, you may not," Jeremy stated plainly.

"What is your business here?" Kiros then asked, not having gotten the answer initially.

"Why?" Jeremy retorted. "Are you two gentlemen constables?"

"We have authority here," Kiros replied coolly. "Let me see your passport and some identification, boy."

"Give me a sec," the other agreed, and went over to his satchel to find the appropriate cards.

"Kupo ku-ku-kupo kupo-po kupo ku-ku-po kupo-po ku-kupo kupo kupo kupo!" the moogle yelped, brushed his nose twice, and lifted his fists pugilistically

"Is this vicious character bothering you?" Kiros asked.

"Stiltzkin?" the youth, still rummaging inside his bag, replied with an offhand glance in the moogleís direction. "Of course not. Why would you think that?"

His voice revealed his surprise so Ward explained, The creature was kicking your shoe.

Jeremy, head buried inside his satchel, did not see what Ward was trying to say.

Seeing this, Kiros translated for Ward, "That thing was kicking your shoe."

"Was he?" Jeremy returned in an amused tone that bordered on curiosity.

Honest to Eden, Ward answered.

"Oh, yeah," Jeremy replied suddenly, seeming to have recalled something, "he does that."

"Do you want us to get rid of it?" Kiros inquired.

"No," Jeremy answered, floundering amidst a flood of paper, "Stiltzkin is fine right here."

"He is your pet?" Kiros followed the response without another question.

The moogle evidently did not like what Kiros said because his expression hardened. Kiros did not know what to make of the circumstances.

"Here they are," Jeremy

You write a lot? Ward wondered, looking at all the random sheets that had fallen out of the bag while the owner was going through it.

"Do you write a lot?" Kiros asked for his companion though his attention was focused on the inspection of Jeremyís cards.

"Anthropology project," the other explained, making a face, "but not by choice."

Well, you know, Ward attested proudly, I would have been an anthro major had I not switched to ap-phys and e-mech in my junior year.

Jeremy could not decipher what the big man meant solely on kinesics.

Ward turned to Kiros for the translation but he was too busy scrutinizing the cards.

Stiltzkin, meanwhile, had grown tired of being ignored, and sensing no one who would take him up on a brawl, turned back to Jeremy and resumed kicking his shoes. The deep crimson color of the ball on his antenna regressed back to a less-wary peach.

Does that bug you? Ward wondered, referring to the continuous string of kicks.

Jeremy wore a blank expression on his face.

Kiros was too busy reading Jeremyís information out loud to notice that Ward again needed help getting his point across.

"Name: Chapter, Jeremy," the presidentís aide pronounced, "POB: Trabia, EducationÖoh! It says here you actually trained in their Garden for awhile."

"Right," Jeremy confirmed, debating with himself whether he should compliment Kirosí reading skills or not.

"You got this Galbadian border patrol stamp just yesterday!" Kiros noted, pointing at the stamp on the passport.

"Yeah," Jeremy said, unsure if he should compliment the man for his sleuthing skills.

"What were you doing there?" demanded Kiros.

"You canít ask me that!" Jeremy demurred. "I have rights!"

"Not here you donít," Kiros told him.

Actually he does, but whatever, Ward signaled to his partner.

Kiros ignored the comment and repeated more forcefully, "Tell me what you were doing or weíre going to detain you for a few days to check on your background."

You donít actually have the power to do that, Ward hinted.

Iím well aware of that, genius, Kiros thought. Letís see if he buys it.

Meanwhile, realizing that his method was ineffective, Stiltzkin moved to Jeremyís other shoe and began to kick it more fervently than he had the first one.

"I was gathering data for my anthro project," Jeremy muttered finally, moving his leg to check the moogleís activity. Stiltzkinís antenna bulb turned red instantly and he flew back a few feet to avoid the kick and scratched his head. After observing that there was no further danger, the moogle scratched his head until his bulbís color faded back to an off-orange and he hopped back happily to pick up his leg routine where he had left it.

"You were gathering information in Galbadia?" Kiros asked.

"They had an anti-Malboro campaign going on," Jeremy elucidated, "so I helped out."

"Anything interesting happen?" Kiros inquired.

Thatís really none of our business, Ward registered.

"Thatís none of your business," Jeremy spelled out for him.

"I get paid to know things," Kiros told him, "and to find out what I donít know."

Seeing his addressee still reluctant to reveal what he wanted to know, Kiros stamped the ground and barked, "So spill it!"

Jeremy scowled, but finally answered, "Just this girl Mina who ran our errands. She was really helpful in the side-effects research and locating the recent, fatal cases."

"And you were doing this for a class?" Kiros questioned again to make sure.

Jeremy nodded over ardently and feigned a cocktail party smile.

Kiros checked the identification card again and pointed out, "This isnít a studentís ID though."

To himself he said, Donít get smart with me, kid.

"My academy blew up the same time Trabia Garden did," Jeremy declared. Donít get dumb with me, Kiros.

But instead of what he was thinking, he said, "Iím not currently enrolled in any particular institution."

Stiltzkin was now amusing himself by kicking dust on Jeremyís pants.

"For whom are you doing all this work then?" Kiros demanded.

"Iím taking one of those online courses," the other replied.

"You have an answer for everything, donít you?" Kiros put forth, having hoped so hard to catch the man in a lie.

"Oh, you mean the truth," Jeremy laughed derisively.

"Iím going to have to see your papers," Kiros announced quickly to save face.

Jeremy cut his laugh off abruptly and listlessly reached in his pocket for what appeared to be a crumpled document.

"You just got in to Winhill today!" Kiros remarked in surprise after examining the form.

"And boy has it been a pleasurable stay so far!" Jeremy informed, adding a fake smile.

"What are you doing here?" Kiros demanded, shoving the papers and the cards into Jeremyís chest. He didnít do too fine a job because the conglomeration slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground.

"MyÖanthropologyÖproject," Jeremy said very slowly for Kiros, figuring that the point would finally get through this time around, "which you interrupted."

Stiltzkin caught each item before it hit the ground, jumping up and snatching the last floating sheet of paper. These he whisked back to Jeremyís satchel and rushed back to where he could best perform his kicking, which he was sure would eventually take effect.

Ward was growing impatient just standing around without having had anything to drink.

Ask him how long he is staying while you are at it, he proposed.

"That was actually my next move," Kiros whispered back, trying to hide the fact that he originally had no next move.

Ward sniffed contemptuously.

"How long are you planning to stay in these parts?" Kiros questioned, making an obvious attempt to sound intelligent after his extended pause.

"I canít stay long," Jeremy answered.

"I need something more definite, son," Kiros stated, shaking his head.

"No more than three days, and Iím not your son," Jeremy corrected. And I donít care what you need.

Kiros was somewhat ruffled, but he kept his composure and went on to inquire, "What were you scribbling down before we showed up?"

"How would I know how long you were watching me before you started chucking rocks?" Jeremy retorted.

The boy has a point, Ward perceived.

"Just cooperate and answer the question," Kiros said, going on to explain, "It couldnít have been related to your project because there isnít anything around here anthropological to study."

Humor him, Ward implored Jeremy, for he knows not what he is doing.

Jeremy sighed and replied, "If you must know, my novel."

"What is it about?" Kiros wanted to know.

How Ifrit ate Kiros, Jeremy made up quickly but ended up vocalizing, "How it would feel to suddenly discover a brother you never knew you had."

Kiros was considering how dandy the topic was when Ward shook him out of his trance and drew his notice to the book lying by Jeremyís bag.

I recognize that book, he alleged. In fact, I wrote it.

Kiros smirked, remembering how Ward bragged about the same, single book that he published during every drinking party they attended.

"Why are you claiming to be on an anthropology-related excursion when youíre clearly lugging around a text book on differential equations?" Kiros asked. Caught you now!

Though clearly surprised at Kirosí newfound intuitive abilities, Jeremy found the right words and answered, "Because non-linear, n-th order, non-homogeneous differential equations are a bitch and Iíll need to know them if I want to pass the entrance exam for SeeD training later this week."

Maybe we should just leave him alone now, Ward reflected, unless, of course, he wants tutoring.

Now fully convinced of Jeremyís harmlessness, and partly because he didnít want to witness Wardís chest swell with pride any more than he had to, Kiros abruptly proposed to the boy, "Do you want to play some cards?"

"Uh, no thank you, I have a lot of work to do," Jeremy declined, and then added, "That and the fact that I donít know you at all."

Kiros drew back at the rebuff but then realized that his challenge for a game was rather absurd, considering they had just met. Why did I suddenly feel the urge to challenge him to a game of cards?

Stiltzkin had by now acquired a stick and after testing its durability, drew it back and then swung it forward into Jeremyís shin. The whack was accompanied by a stinging sensation that caused the man to jump.

"Hey," Jeremy protested, "quit that!"

Stiltzkin kept whacking him with the intent of keeping his attention.

Jeremy tried to take the stick from him but he held it behind his back, safely out of reach.

"Youíre obviously not its master," Kiros commented, noting the creatureís blatant insubordination.

"I never said I was," Jeremy said, deciding the best way to drive the moogle off would be to swat him, though Stiltzkin easily maneuvered out of the way of each swing.

"So he just follows you around and kicks your shoes?" Kiros asked curiously.

"Pretty much," Jeremy answered.

"I fail to see why you keep him around," Kiros commented.

"Stiltzkin is a great traveler," Jeremy explained, "and we exchange notes about places that one of us has been and the other hasnít. Cuts travel fares by half."

"I know youíre doing it for the anthropology grade, but whatís in it for the moogle?" Kiros questioned.

Jeremy replied knowingly, "Stiltzkin is in the search for four hundred Cactus Thorns to refine into four ĎHundred Needlesí and use them all with a Rosetta Stone, which he doesnít have either."

And that way heíll be invincible, Ward mused. Pretty clever for a moogle.

Kiros smirked without the sufficient tact to hide it from the moogleís notice.

Turning to face Kiros, Stiltzkin yipped as ferociously as a cute moogle could, ""Kupo ku-ku-kupo kupo-po kupo ku-ku-po kupo-po ku-kupo kupo kupo kupo!"

Kiros dropped his smirk and exchanged looks with Ward. They both looked to Jeremy as the interpreter, but the answer was did not come.

"Kupo ku-ku-kupo kupo-po kupo ku-ku-po kupo-po ku-kupo kupo kupo kupo!" Stiltzkin woofed and stuck out a pint-sized moogle tongue.

"Why does he always say the same thing?" Kiros asked Jeremy, scratching his head.

Jeremy blinked, not really following what Kiros just said.

"They were completely different statements," he remarked tentatively.

"Kupo ku-ku-kupo kupo-po kupo ku-ku-po kupo-po ku-kupo kupo kupo kupo!" Stiltzkin cried at Kiros in response.

"See!" Kiros shouted triumphantly, "There he goes again!"

Jeremy removed his cap, ran his fingers through the blonde half of his hair in the front of his head, and then scratched the dark hair in the back before putting the cap back on.

"I think it sounds all the same to you because you arenít listening very closely," Jeremy said after at length.

"Oboete okeyo kono chikkoi kedama wa itsudemo anta o buchinomeshite yattsukete yareru karana!" the moogle growled as he stood up straighter and pointed at his fluffy chest.

While noticeably different, the cry was still as indecipherable as if it were still moogleese to Kiros.

"What did it just say?" Kiros demanded, seeing how hard Jeremy was trying to suppress a chuckle.

This little white furball could kick your ass any day of the weekí," he finally translated, "íand donít you forget that!í Itís just Japanese."

Ward found the declaration equally amusing and roared with sniggered along with Jeremy.

"Kono kaban o omae no nodo no oku ni tsukkonde yaru!" the moogle threatened menacingly, shaking his left fist while hopping up and down. He proceeded to motion towards his scroll-filled backpack and then point at Kiros.

Jeremy had to hold on to the chocobo crossing sign to keep from falling. Kiros was getting red at being left out of the loop. He raised his hands in question.

"This is too funny," Jeremy but went on, "íI'm going to take my satchel and stuff it down your throat!í"

Ward cackled beside himself, much to his colleagueís dismay.

"Moshi mata chikayotte kitara ore no paatonaa to futari de koroshite yaru," Stiltzkin continued without mercy, deliberately overdoing the last syllable for finality, and then dusted off its paws and walked away.

"íCome near me and my partner again and I'll end youí," Jeremy finished up the translation.

So much for your bid for public relations chair, Ward gestured to Kiros who didnít find that entire exchange amusing at all.

"I think we should leave now," Kiros whispered to Ward.

That was actually my next move, Ward noted.

As they hurried away, Ward looked back for a second when he heard an exclamation from Jeremy, apparently induced by an unexpected whack administered by the mad moogle with a stick.

When he turned back to Kiros again, he found that his comrade had stopped. Looking ahead, he saw why.

"What do you know?" Kiros spoke amusedly. "He managed to climb up all this way by himself!"

Lagunaís head was visible just above the edge of the crevice, but he was having trouble

"I hope you didnít drop the cat," was Kirosí first statement.

"Glad to know where your concerns lie," Laguna grumbled bitterly. Ow! My hands are hurting as much as my leg!

"What took you so long?" Kiros asked him.

"What do you know?" Laguna rejoined defensively. "There were some nasty Blitzes down thereÖyou know, those shadow-like creatures."

"I hear another characteristic that have is some sort of invisibility that only random, nondescript Lagunas can see through," Kiros agreed pensively.

A lesser Laguna with an extra arm would have flagged him off for so crude a joke. As it happened though, this Laguna had his arms full of cat fur and rope. He noted to himself to remember to flag Kiros off once he was on stable ground.

"Holy Shiva!" Kiros exclaimed. "Look at the cat!"

Laguna and Ward both looked. To silence the animal earlier, Laguna had clamped his fingers around its neck. In the past half hour, those fingers had not budged.

"She looks rather pale," Kiros stated after surveying the limp figure.

"Itís a white cat!" Laguna returned quickly. "She is supposed to be pale."

"She didnít look like a white cat to me when you first dove after her," Kiros said.

Not to mention she didnít look comatose either, Ward added.

"At least I didnít drop her," Laguna pointed out meekly.

Just give up on this one, Ward advised him. There is no way you can win this argument.

"Just help me up," Laguna said, deciding to deal with one problem at a time.

"Hand over the cat and then Iíll grab your arm," Kiros said.

"Just help me up first," Laguna pleaded. I canít hold on much longer.

"Hand over the cat," Kiros repeated. If I get the cat, I wonít need to help him up.

Laguna was about to comply when something occurred to him. If he gets the cat, he wonít need to help me up!

"If I hand over the cat first, you wonít help me up," he protested.

"Of course I will," Kiros lied. Diablos take him! Who told him? Ward, it had to have been Ward!

"Of course you will what?" Laguna demanded clarification.

"Of course I will," Kiros repeated.

"Youíll what?" rephrased Laguna. "Help me or not help me up?"

"Help you," Kiros finally chose.

"You promise?" Laguna asked naively.

"Mercenary's Honor," Kiros swore. Fat chance.

Ward could not hide his grin, realizing that "Mercenaryís Honor" was a standard term in the Galbadian army handbook to be used by the beholden to wheedle his way out of 412 possible predicaments without perjuring himself. If Laguna hadnít skipped class that day and actually transcribed the notes himself instead of Xeroxing them and changing the name at the top, he would have remembered that invoking the "Mercenaryís Honor" ruse as an oath to rescue a domesticated animal from a madman in a crevice was clearly stated as situation 184, and thus was perfectly legal.

Laguna trustingly handed over the cat. In the process he almost let go of the rope, and had his timing, attention, and luck been less impeccable, he would not have been able to find it again.

"Is it still breathing?" Kiros asked, evidently missing Lagunaís near life-and-death experience.

Somewhat galled, Laguna growled in response, "It had better be."

Are you sure the bartenderís cat is white? Ward deliberated.

"Itís close enough," Laguna evaded, "now help me up."

"Why doesnít this cat have a collar?"

Seems like a stray to me, Ward piped in. Are you sure someone owns it?

Lagunaís only response was stunned silence.

"Thatís not the right cat," Laguna muttered grimly, wondering how best to throw a fit.

Kiros and Ward burst out into laughter and Laguna hid his face behind him hands in shame. Inadvertently this action left him without any hand with which to hang on to the rope, and before any of them realized it, he had begun his blind plunge back into the shadowy depths from which he had strived so long to climb out.

.

To Chapter Thirteen

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