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And the rest of Chapter XII. Parts One and Two can be found here, otherwise, please continue on ahead.
[Header info and navigation.]
Title: Going off the Record
Part: 12/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate timeline, boom, stabbity.
I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII Part One, Part Two | IX | X Part One, Part Two | XI Part One, Part Two | Interlude IV | XII (Part One, Part Two, Three)



Going off the Record
Chapter XII, take three



"Yo!"

The shout was accompanied by the chorus of a bundle of bells above the doorframe, chiming their rust-flecked welcome. No one else took notice, the sound getting lost in the swell of raucous laughter and the clanging of jugs, smoke cushioning its journey across the room. At the bar, Sol hunched further over his drink, not so much because there was any avoiding the inevitable, but because it wouldn't do anything but encourage conversation if he spared even the slightest bit of attention.

Axl had already spotted him, anyway, and Sol didn't need to turn to know that there was a look of breathless elation on his face, the kind that always made Sol think of a slightly challenged Irish setter who was absurdly proud to have found his way to wherever he'd ended up. Even if that happened to be in front of a runaway combine. All things considered, that wasn't so far off the mark, the idiot sticking out like a sore thumb as he stumbled his way to the bar among a lot of whoops and sorries, jostling more than one table full of bounty hunters armed to the teeth.

Sol knocked back the rest of his glass, feeling the brief spike in tension from a nearby table that died down just as quickly when they realized where the idiot was headed.

"Man, that was cruel, boss, ditching me like that."

A part of him wanted to point out that Axl had looked pretty busy trying to get smacked by the girl at the registry office, but it suddenly seemed like too much of an effort. The only thing it would net him was more whining, or a lengthy sales pitch on the idiot's mission to study the female form across the ages, and that wasn't liable to improve his mood in any way.

The "site of heresy" from the noticeboard had turned out to be nothing but the ruins of an age-old car factory, conveyor belts and welding arms rusting gently in the breeze. No decent lead for the last couple of months, not so much as a peep out of Assholes Anonymous, and if he'd been a naive moron he might have assumed he'd got them all. Finally got them all.

The Postwar Administration Bureau. Under different circumstances, he might have found their lack of creativity amusing, certainly thought that Douchecanoes 'R' Us had a better ring to it, if the name didn't so perfectly encapsulate their mode of operation, the absolute, self-understood legitimization of their actions — destroy it, rebuild it, run it. Divide and conquer.

"Hey, you didn't even save me a seat. So mean!"

With a pout, the idiot slipped away only to drag back a stool from the ass-end of the bar, cramming it between Sol's own seat and that of a scar-faced mercenary who looked none too happy at having someone so close to his blind side. The Gear senses momentarily stopped informing Sol that his gin included two percent lye and eight percent dirty glass to bristle at the invasion of his personal space, demanding he snap at the intruder to make him go away. With a small shake of his head, he reached out to pour another shot to give them something more productive to do.

"Bleh, sticky." Axl was wriggling around on his seat like he hadn't been around long enough to figure out that sticky and smelling of hay and horse piss was part of the ambience for drinking establishments of the future, which couldn't be too different from your average back alley London pub.

"Why'd you take off like that, anyway? She seemed interested in you."

Sol wasn't sure which part of him spelled "approachable," but had the feeling the idiot wouldn't be deterred even if he threatened to clock him on the head. "Hn."

"You're such a charmer, boss. I bet if you'd started saying actual words, she'd have been all over you." Axl considered this for a moment. "Then again… Oh, hello!"

And just like that, the idiot's entire minuscule attention span was taken up by the arrival of the bar maid, which saved Sol from thinking about how the girl in charge of the bounty registry had been a little too blond and a little too flat not to trigger a bout of morose impulses inside his head.

It was always worse coming off a job, when the adrenaline was still pumping, reminding him of other fights, other victories that hadn't ended with him blowing his paycheck on the completely futile attempt of working up a buzz. He'd underestimated the amazing inconvenience of the lizard brain's capacity to get hung up on patterns that appealed to its primitive nature, stupid little things like having a partner to fight at his side, which satisfied its idea of pack hunting. That was probably half the reason he didn't put up more resistance to the idiot tagging along on a bounty run, even though the Gear had long since determined him to be more of a chew toy than a suitable candidate for adoption.

Five years. Five years of the Gear jumping at shadows and then getting pissed off when they turned out to be just that.

There was a noise in his ear, which meant that Axl had been blown off and was talking to him again.

Biting back a growl, Sol poured another drink.

"—future sucks pretty hard, all my best lines just get dead stares. Though man, I sure learned from the last time I tried to impress a chick with my iPod. Next thing I know, the police are breathing down my neck and I've got to hightail it out of town to get them to stop chasing me."

"Hn," Sol said, not bothering to correct his assumption as to who had been two steps away from arresting his brain-dead Irish setter ass. Axl still found the idea of real-life exorcists and holy knights bizarre; trying to explain to him that the future had both a branch of law fond of flaying and roasting people on the spit for the possession of toaster ovens and a branch of law devoted to bringing peace and harmony and rescuing kittens from trees would probably blow his mind.

/Not that it doesn't blow yours, on most days./

He shoved the thought away before it could connect to anything more concrete, keeping half an ear on the idiot in case he suddenly managed to talk himself into a knife to the throat, and turning the rest of his attention towards the tavern at large. Bounty hunters always knew where the money was at, and for the past couple of weeks, it had been with the smuggler caravans, running almost non-stop between the enclaves and whatever dig sites they'd uncovered.

"—swear you'd think they'd hit gold or something, but nope—"

Hushed voices from a table in the far corner, a group of men leaning a bit too closely over the drinks to be having a philosophical debate on the marvels of the universe. Now that he could actually pick out any given sound in a cacophony, it tended to amuse him that people thought whispering was the way to keep a secret, when everything in their body language was betraying them at the same time.

"Don't tell me you actually took a look." The voice was accompanied by the scraping of metal on wood, the man lifting his pint for a sip with some gravity.

"Don't tell me you wouldn't. I mean, shit, have you seen the paychecks? One thousand, in cash. Per trip. Just for the comfort of having a sword nearby. Do it five times and you've got the prize for bagging a large-class, without any of the broken bones."

A brief silence, before another hunter spoke up, his voice laced with the disapproval of an old hand towards an over-eager rookie. "That kinda pay, and they're usually buyin' your silence with it. You get too curious, you wind up with a hatchet to the head."

"But that's what I'm talking about!" The first one again, and he did sound pretty young, out of place in a profession that attracted those who had spent their whole life fighting and felt unable to live without it. "From that, you'd think it'd be something really valuable, right? But here's the kicker: it's all just paper. Each one of those boxes was just full of old writing stuff!"

"So what else is new? Zepp'll buy any old shit."

"For a price that lets them pay a guy one grand just to look big and mean? I'm telling you, there's something going on."

"There's always something going on with them fuckin' grease monkeys. Might as well go around saying the sky's blue."

"But—"

"Here's some free advice: don't go takin' these kinds of jobs if you can't keep mum about 'em. Course, that's only if you mind spending the rest of your days gettin' weird shit shoved up your arse in some Zeppian lab. Ain't ever seen one of 'em, but any place that can breed giants for war is no place I wanna cross…"

Sol tuned out again as the conversation became all about the sons of heresy and error and what they liked to do to prisoners. Something was stirring in Zepp, that was for certain, and between them and the clergy, he wasn't sure whose plots were grown on a more fertile patch of megalomaniacal insanity. It wasn't really a question of who might be scheming against whom, but a matter of who lost it first and hit the kill-everything button. Perfect conditions for the PWAB to chuck a couple of bees in a couple of bonnets and see what developed.

That, at least, was one thing he'd discovered in the five years since the war ended — to the bastard and his friends, it really didn't matter very much which pooch they screwed, as long as the results guaranteed it couldn't be unscrewed.

"—but yeah," Axl's voice cut into his thoughts, "that was pretty freaky, seeing that assembly line full of monsters. Dunno what it is about places where people used to live, but seeing them in ruins always gives me the shivers. You know, skyscrapers and malls and things. Do we still have malls in the future? Eh, either way, you know what I mean."

Sol squinted, not so much to shake off the frown and more in genuine surprise that the idiot wouldn't stop saying words. Anyone else would have taken the hint and found other means of entertaining themselves, but Axl either didn't notice or didn't care, happy to keep chattering at the only other person who could still point out that the local Walmart during Black Friday hadn't looked all that different from a Gear nest.

At some point during his monologue, Axl had apparently managed to squeeze in an order for a pint and was now toying with it, pushing it back and forth between his palms. "Part of it probably is the constant popping in and out. Hi civilization, bye civilization. But it's also like… it all looks so high-tech and sturdy and then you watch them blow up one of those buildings on TV and it needs, like, fifty tons of C-4… you just kind of expect it to last forever. Something like that." He shrugged. "What were we looking for in that car plant, anyway?"

Sol made a face, and resisted pointing out that most people would think to ask before they blithely invited themselves along on a trip that might very well end in disembowelment. "None of your business."

"Ouch, that's cold, boss. Real cold. I'm not the most constant guy, if you know what I mean, but I wanna help you out. I could keep an eye out, and things," Axl said, waving his hand to illustrate. At Sol's pointed look, he grinned brightly. "Sure you need help, boss. If nothing else, someone's gotta remind you how to loosen up a little. I swear that scowl of yours hasn't budged in all those years I've known you. Plus, you suck at pulling chicks."

With a snort, Sol refilled his glass, turning back towards the bar. One more connection he'd allowed to happen in the spur of a moment, mostly because letting the idiot get eaten would've been like abandoning a particularly helpless pet on the train tracks, and yet another thing that was well on its way to biting him in the ass. The idea of the idiot helping with anything was pretty non-threatening in its own way, but lately, that knowing grin had been making an appearance more often, Axl under some kind of delusion that he was starting to figure Sol out.

/Yeah, because that's so hard, between your angry face and… your angry face. Maybe it's time to start looking into a new technique for scaring off all human contact, like, I don't know, just not talking to people—/

His internal slap-fight was interrupted by the tavern door flying open with such force that the mercenaries seated nearest to the entrance instinctively went for their weapons. On the step, a scrawny little girl was doubled over, hands on her knees, panting in time with the erratic jingling of the bells.

Sol recognized the look instantly, had seen it a hundred times on kids just as young as her — too young to hold a sword, but not too young to run. Axl was shooting him questioning glances, but was kept from asking by the sudden shift of tension in the room, combat-readiness morphing into something else entirely, backs straightening and shoulders squaring as more patrons caught sight of the girl's uniform, the last vestiges of a light green collar peeking through a layer of dirt and sweat. It might have been possible to take the soldier out of the army, but nothing could manage to take the army out of the soldier.

"E-emergency— dispatch— from Luin! Zepp wants to— Zepp has—!"

Her voice gave out, lungs still trying to catch up with the rest of her body, just long enough for Sol's brain to go through each of the six million things liable to make either the Church or the Laputanians lose their collective shit. Murmurs began rising from the tables as the silence continued to stretch, several hunters shifting uneasily at the mention of that name.

"What? What's going on?"

"Out with it, girl!"

Flinching, the courier tried to pull herself together enough to recite the message. "Nine— nine days ago— the United Flotillas of Zepp launched an— an assassination attempt on f-former High Commander Kiske, who by His divine grace ended the Holy War—"

Her voice went under again, this time buried under a wave of shock and denial as hunters began rising from their seats — impossible, unthinkable, those cowards wouldn't dare, the Commander couldn't be dead, the news was fake, the message was fake, the girl was a fraud—

"…Boss?"

Dimly, Sol was aware that Axl had tilted his stool to whisper at him, but found he couldn't spare the attention to tell him to shut up. During the Crusades, he'd been there to watch Kliff bust more than a few heads for false reporting and fear-mongering, and later, had set fire to his own fair share of notice boards and town criers' podiums to stifle some of the more ridiculous rumors. Every major battle was guaranteed to have at least one idiot to proclaim the savior of humanity gravely wounded or dying, just to follow up with a tale of miraculous recovery a short while later. Nothing like a bit of soap opera to spice up the collective struggle for survival.

Nothing, one panicked little courier meant nothing except an excellent pretext for war.

Around him, the patrons were well on their way to working themselves into a frenzy, yelling and hollering arguments for or against the possibility that the girl was telling the truth. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Axl reaching for his chain-sickle. "Boss, shouldn't we, uh…?"

"Keep it in your pants," Sol growled, darting a meaningful glance towards the man on their right, who had also noticed the idiot's move and was placing one hand on the hilt of his dagger.

"But—"

With a huff, Sol slid off his seat. Whoever had described Irish setters as highly perceptive had obviously never met this one.

The courier let out a shriek when she was lifted up by the scruff of her neck and deposited between the bar and Sol's piercing stare, out of the reach of one particularly hasty moron who'd looked ready to grab the child and shake the truth out of her.

"Alright. What about him."

"S-sir?"

The more he looked at her, the more apparent it became that someone had simply stuffed the girl in a runner's uniform, told her what to say and sent her off to deliver the news of the end times. "The Commander. What about him."

"I-I don't know, sir." She sounded ready to cry, struggling to extract an official-looking scroll of parchment from a pouch on her belt. "They gave me this, but… but I can't read!"

Whoever had written the missive had obviously meant for it to be read aloud, the words slanting across the page with an orator's flair, stirring up all the great emotions that were the ingredients to a successful call to arms, grief, outrage, the desire for revenge. An affront against the goodwill of the Church. A mockery of the values of the Holy Order. A grievous violation of all those who believed in the Chosen. Not a word on whether Ky was alive or dead, and with any other piece of writing, he would taken pleasure in picking apart its vague accusations and tearjerker feel to reveal the manipulations at work, but not now. Not here.

War machines in the image of the Savior. War machines that had gone out of control, turning their heretic arts on the innocent onlookers, and damn if he needed to read any further than that, if he couldn't imagine perfectly what had gone down from there on out, just because he knew the kid, and whoever had approved motherfucking robot clones of the kid obviously knew him too, knew that Ky would throw himself in the path of a nuclear warhead if he thought it would save even one life.

Sol closed his eyes against the mounting chill crawling upwards from his gut, his insides slowly filling up with liquid nitrogen.

Project K.

He'd thought removing himself from the equation would be enough. Somehow, stupidly, he'd thought it'd be enough. Somehow, stupidly, he'd also thought the kid would convert his sword into a mantlepiece ornament, settle down on the French Riviera and spend his days raising a bunch of little scowling replicas on the Code Napoléon. Anything to make himself less visible, less appealing, less likely to get caught up in any power games. Anything to shrink the target Sol had stuck on him, bigger and framed with more blinking neon arrows than Ky could've ever managed on his own.

But why like this? Why now?

At the moment, the only thing he could be sure of was that this hadn't been an assassination attempt. The kid was too valuable to kill, had been way more inconvenient when he'd still held the official power to tell two thirds of the world what to do, and this was too complicated, too public, too controlled, and too absolutely bugfuck insane to be about something so simple as taking out a single man.

No, this was their calling card. This was them getting out the poking stick to see what he'll do. This was them making sure he'd have no choice but to respond.

A yelp from the idiot when Sol shoved both the paper and the courier girl into his arms, before turning to grab his cloak off the seat.

"…Boss? What's going on?"

"Read that to them. Tell them it's bullshit."

"What?! But that's crazy! There's a hundred of them and only one of me!"

"Three dozen. You''ll manage." He finished buckling his sword, throwing Axl a sidelong glance. "You need some divine intervention, ask them what they think their beloved Commander would want."

"And that'll help how?! Hey! Heyyy where are you going?!"

"Out."

"Wha—? Wait! I wanna come!" Two sets of footsteps following after him, the little courier scurrying in Axl's shadow.

"No."

"I can help. I'm good at helpi— yeesh!"

Hurling a fireball in a room made almost entirely of plywood and alcohol wasn't liable to do anything but blow up the joint, but the idiot certainly took the threat at face value, backing away until the runner girl was close enough to grab onto the hem of his jacket. Satisfied, Sol closed his fist, extinguishing the flame and turning to leave without paying any heed to the stunned faces of the patrons.

He was almost out the door by the time Axl's voice reached him, carrying an unusual note of sobriety. "Hey, boss? Try not to get in over your head."

Unseen, Sol's lips twitched, curling into a faint, sardonic smirk.





-TBC-




A/N: And with this, the monster chapter is finally complete. Next time, we'll check back in with Ky, and possibly Potemkin & Co. Hope to see you there!

Notes for the bored:
- Douchecanoes 'R' Us TM Tofu.


Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
raging_tofu
Jul. 12th, 2012 08:11 am (UTC)
You actually used it! XD

Awesome chapter! Can't wait to see where it goes from here!
aphelion_orion
Jul. 12th, 2012 12:14 pm (UTC)
*giggles* Of course! It was too awesome not to use! XD

Aw, thanks. I hope I can get the next one done a wee bit sooner.
blackcentury
Jul. 19th, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow! Now there's firework~~~


God, I really can't wait to read more, this is starting to get exciting
aphelion_orion
Jul. 20th, 2012 07:52 pm (UTC)
Aw, glad you like it. Hopefully updates will be smoother from here on out.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )