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Innocence and Avarice [closed]

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Two men entered the smoky shop.  They walked between the cramped shelves, crossing around the back: no back doors, no customers.  The grey and the midlander were the last ones in or out.


One of the men walked back to the door and leaned against its frame, looking out.  The other approached the owner then.  He rapped his knuckles lightly against the wooden counter and spoke.  "A man'll be walkin' in 'ere soon.  Don't talk.  If 'e speaks, jus' listen.  If 'e don't, still listen.  'E likes this place an' 'e pays handsome, what's more."  He whistled at his partner then, who opened the door and stepped outside, holding it behind him.  "Golden opportunity, this 'un.  Yessir, jus' don't screw it up."  And he walked out the door.


A short, robed figure stepped through the door and into that thick, smoky silence.  Lalafell most like, by the gait.  It walked the aisles, examining the carvings of rich wood, the huge jars of dank, pungent leaves.  It circled back around to the front of the shop.  A voice crawled out from under the hood.  It was deeper than expected.  Raspier, too.


"Your books, they're in the back?"


Don't talk.  The owner nodded.


"You know why I'm here?"


He nodded again.


"You've received other offers?"  Don't talk.  "Mine's better."


He walked to the door.  Without turning, he spoke once more.  "Both, so we're clear: book and girl."


The door closed behind him.




Styrm carried Brindle from house to hole to hovel, unaware in his exhaustion, his single-minded focus on finding the next clue, eyes ever forward.  He never thought to turn around.


Behind him, throughout the night, a man followed.  Nondescript, quiet, if more than a little nervous, he let himself be led from place to wretched place.  He was tired, he was annoyed, he was bored, but still he followed.  He couldn't go back, not without something--anything--to report.


He wondered if he shouldn't try to throw the roe off, pick off the kid somehow.  But the boss had told him to leave the big man alone.  He wondered why, but he stayed quiet and kept following.  He had his instructions, and the Goodfellow had little patience for deviations.

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Eventually, the night wore out even the stoutest hearts of tavernskeeps, and they closed their doors. The places left open -- Keepers' delights -- they'd already canvassed. The roe had amassed a collection of tidbits: information and advice both, some of it conflicting. Brindle'd collected the same things, snatching the information deep into the heart of his memory. As soon as he got loose from the big lout, he'd be free with it, and free to find Zhio.


"Can ye let me off now?" His voice was whiny and tired, just the timbre that always made Zhi's ears go back.


Because as soon as he was free, he had places to go.


Places that might have Zhi in them.




The shop owner of the smoke shop was not unused to seeing a strange parade of customers come in through his door. Nor was he unused to a steady stream of wheedling, threats, and questions. He kept his own counsel, and his wits about him.

He summoned one of his runners.


"Yeah, Eohric?" The lalafel lass' voice was cool and unruffled, same as always.


"Take a message to Litha. The stakes have changed. Triple pay, or the deal's off."


The lass stared at him, eyebrows raised as she waited for him to collect his thoughts.


"Tell her I ain't gettin' meself shived for lack o' information. Her goods got a trail o' n'er-do-wells on it, and it ain't worth gettin' me store torched. You tell her that."




They was after a book. One what was more'n just words strung together. One that the bint would be tryin' to offload. One that the doublecrossed buyer would be lookin' to get back... and could use some help, like as not, from a local Limsan runner. One who had some idea where their crook-tailed thief ran off to, at that.


That was how he ended up waitin' in a hall waiting to talk to Litha, behind some other runner, his ear pressed up to the door. The smoke seller was playin' with weighted dice, was he? Might be someone who could use that information.


Then he heard the name.




By the time the runner came out of the office, Solitaire was gone.


He had a lalafel to find.

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The sun would be rising soon.  Styrm was unaccustomed to keeping such hours absent drink and more pleasant companionship.  His weariness was beginning to counterbalance his worry, his frustration working against his dedication.  His focus was absolute when on the job, but no deal had been struck.  Why was he so concerned with finding Joz?  Aye, he liked the girl, but he'd had better friends than her disappear without such an effort to find them after.  This was the Lominsan low towns; people disappeared.  It was the way of things.




Taru's odd behavior, his own disappearance, the timing of it all and the connection to Joz, it filled Styrm's stomach with stones.


"Can ye let me off now?"  Gods dammit, he groaned internally on hearing the boy's voice, his tone perfectly pitched to irritate the raw nerve of Styrm's patience.  T'ells with this shite.


Just then, and with no warning, he dropped the boy to the ground.




Further back, their weary, worried shadow stiffened, his body tense with surprise and suspicion, ready to react.  Finally, he might be getting somewhere. 


If he weren't so afraid he might have allowed himself a relieved grin.

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Bells had passed without Brindle's feet touching ground, and he stumbled, cursing. When he'd steadied, he skipped back a few paces out of Styrm's immediate reach. He was wary of the roe. The dull ache of his beating was settling into a more active stiffness, followed by sharp spikes of pain.


"If yer Galleon's get, ye'll not have it," he spat, too tired to curb his tongue in the face of his uncertainty.


He was backing up, preparing to run.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Styrm huffed dismissively.  "Styrm ain't no soul's get, ye--"  He raised his tired eyes, turning them back to the lad.  "Who's get am I, then?




The tail noted the stiffness of the scene and craned to hear the contents of their conversation to no avail.  He'd have to get closer.


Slowly, feigning calm, he began to do just that.

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Brindle backed up a few more steps, a sneer on his face and his back rigid. "Oho, still playin' th' lark, are ye?" There was a distinct lack of certainty in his voice, and more than a fair share of bravado. "Galleon, only th' blimmin' scut what's th' biggest mover o' hot cakes this side o' Eorzea. Yer mind all a-twattle, or has yer head been knocked about too much?"


That he was exaggerating by a few malms would be easy to tell.

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Styrm leaned forward slightly, arms wide.  "Never heard o' no Galleon, lad.  Not till jus' now."  Believe me ye shite.  "But if he knows summut about th' girl, then we oughtta give th' man a visit, we should."  He stared, face blank.  He did not return the boy's sneer.


"Whaddaya say, laddie?  Wanna finally help Styrm find Kink, er d'ye want this Galleon t' find 'er first?"

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  • 4 weeks later...

Silence stretched, marked by Brindle's fidgeting and uncertain movements this way and that. Each time he made up his mind to go, the what if would tether him close and unwilling to quite give up the potential that the big roe represented. Even still, he didn't give up his sneer, youthful arrogance being one of the few things he had left to brandish against a world gone crazed.


At last, he said, real slow, "if. . .iff'n ye ain't heard none o' Galleon, then -- an' I ain't sayin' I believe ye, mate, so don't go thinkin' ye done pulled one over me none -- but if ye ain't heard o' Galleon, then who're ye workin' fer? Who's payin' ye, coin or other?"

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A laugh began to rise in Styrm's throat, where it caught.  He choked on it a little as it died there.


"Lad," he croaked through its corpse, "not a gil's greased' these palms.  In fact, my buggered luck would 'ave it, this search--this night--they've jus' 'bout made off with all of me earnins."  The dead laugh cracked his lips into the shell of a smile.  "Turns out, nothin' costs near so much as gettin' nowhere."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Styrm thought back over those few weeks.  He thought of Joz--not 'er name--and he thought of the suddenness of her disappearance.  And of Taru's.  He thought of Taru's note; short, empty of import until the unbalanced signature at the bottom, the conspicuously absent book.


"Said 'er name was Joz, and I'm thinkin' 'twas 'er what was lookin' t'take from a friend o' mine.  Think it got 'er in some trouble.  Maybe it don't mean much now, but 'e asked me t'look after 'er," he huffed.  "An' I'm tryin' to."


Off to the side, a man stepped in a puddle.  It sloshed and a light curse escaped him.  He shut up and turned to the side, but he didn't move away.

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  • 2 months later...

Brindle spooked, looked past Styrm, and took a few steps back even as his attention returned to the big roe in fits. At once, Brindle's eyes widened, and his full attention focused upon Styrm. "Yer 'im, yer th' -- Lalataru's strongarm, ye are, oh, oh feck!"


And he was backing up, backing away, looking as if he was quite expecting the weapons to come out.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Styrm's focus shot toward the man to the side.  Hearing Brindle's words, his focus half-returned to the boy.  His attention split, he struggled to choose his next move, the words that would put them back on track.  All he knew was the boy looked scared. 


For that matter, so did the man by the puddle.


Endeavoring to keep both the man and the boy in his sight, he responded in haste, his questions flying from between his teeth in a low hiss, "Taru?!  Ye know 'im, do ye?  Where's 'e at, then?  Not with th'girl, is 'e?  Speak up, laddie!"


The man by the puddle was becoming more visibly tense by the moment.  He stuck his hand inside his coat, clutching something there.  Styrm registered the motion. 


He wondered if the kid did too.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Brindle saw. Brindle heard Styrm admit to knowing Lalataru, to not knowing where he was, to being just as lost and out of sorts as Brindle was himself. Didn't matter. Didn't matter with the man standing there, hand shoved in his coat, what with Brindle still bruised and sore from the last round of questions he'd endured. They was in a tangle, right sure, and he didn't know which way he was hanging off it, trapped fly to web as he was. What choice did he have then? What choice but the grace given to him as a street rat with the most practice in one thing?




With a curse and a snarl, he took to his heels, dashing away from both men, legs pumping and lungs heaving. He might not have Zhi's climbing skills, but he knew how to make himself scarce.


He just prayed he could run fast enough to lose the roe and the stranger.

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  • 1 month later...

Gods DAMMIT, Styrm would've thought had he the time.  A practiced reactionary, he was nonetheless momentarily paralyzed by the two paths before him: the fight--that long moment that he knew--or the chase, back after the boy and what he might know.


Styrm had no time to think all of this, but his gut had already decided for him.  He'd found the kid before, but if this man got to him first he'd never find him again, like as not.




The man's hand shot out of his coat as he took a running step forward, wet boots stumbling slightly over the puddles and street stones.  Styrm's huge hand shot out as well, closing around the smaller man's fist and forearm.  Styrm squeezed and the man's running step turned into a full fall as his scream raced against the loud cracks of bones becoming splinters.


The roe swung the man by his now unnaturally limp arm into a crate, splintering it, and maybe a few bones more.


He opened his fist; there was blood.  Most was the man's, seeping out through messy perforations in his arm.  Some was Styrm's, heavy droplets drooling out from the small dagger stuck in his hand.


He felt woozy.  Poison? he wondered.  He pulled out the knife and snorted.  Poison.  But it wasn't enough.


He sank to his knees to rest, breathing heavily over the broken man.


"Now...it's gonna be...yer turn," he spoke out, voice laboring under pain and fury.


The man whimpered and clutched weakly at the bone flecked rope that was his arm.  His teary eyes rose to consider Styrm and they were full of fear.  Styrm somehow felt that all that fear wasn't his alone.  He leaned closer.



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  • 5 months later...

The world was tilted. Zhavi blinked often, trying to clear her head, or the world, or all of it; she knew she had to cut a certain sort of figure, and knew that she wouldn't ever really be able to make it. Especially not when she looked like she'd caught the bad end of an angry chocobo, and then been run over by a wagon, besides. The cocktail of pleasant things she'd taken was helping keep her upright, but it was doing a number on her balance. She shook her head. Spat. Dry mouth.


Nothing a good drink wouldn't solve. She probably should stop, but it was too rutting hard to do anything but keep moving forward at the moment.


She stood in an alley behind a shop. Stood, instead of perched, because she'd tried to climb and nearly thrown up from the effort, and there weren't nothing like vomit on your breath to sour a deal and twist things around until you were lying flat down with a blade 'twixt your shoulders. No, she'd no intention of dying. Not intentionally. She frowned at the circling thoughts, trying to decide whether or not she was just a titch more jacked up then she'd intended. Intentions? The word didn't seem to want to leave.


She stared at the same puddle of something rank she'd been staring at for the last quarter-bell, trying to breathe right and stand right and think right, because everything was too damn hard. She was too damn tired, propped up on things she likely shouldn't have taken together.


The world tilted a little more.


She was leaning against the wall when the lalafel woman showed up.


They watched each other for a spell, seconds oozing past.


"Rudder?" Zhi asked, finally, because she was right nauseous and starting to lose her calm, besides. Stupid name. Right stupid name, for a stupid scrag.


The woman nodded.


"Half now, not a gil less, an' I'll give ye th' place."


"You're not going to take me there yourself?"


Zhi narrowed her eyes. "Want it 'r nay?"


"I've want of proof."


"An' I'll jes bring ye a page, is't?"


The woman hesitated. Shifted. "No. Describe a page to me."


Zhi's turn to hesitate. She swore. Hadn't occurred to her. Why? Was she that far off? She hadn't even cracked the damn thing. Thrice cursed, the whole job. "Deal's off," she snapped, backing off.


"Take me to it," the woman said.


"An' let ye stick me through me bleedin' guts once ye've yer piece? I'm thinkin' no."


"The smoke-seller and his get don't take no for an answer," she said, with the distinctive click of a firearm being readied. Hammer. Was that what it was called? She'd never paid attention. Dead was dead; the mechanics of how didn't matter so much. Not to her.


Gods above, where had the lalafel hidden the blasted thing? Nald'thal and his bleedin' scales, but she'd stared down too many barrels too often. For a moment, the memories mixed into the present, making her queasy.


"Shit," Zhi said.

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  • 1 month later...

The proprietor had nearly tripped over him when he arrived to open the smoke shop in the early morning.  First thinking him a drunk or a ruffian he made as though to tell him off and away, but he noticed two things in succession that closed his lips.


The man sitting on his doorstep, grey-skinned and slimy with night sweat, was nursing a ragged, ruined arm.


Next to the broken man, still half-covered by the fog-thick shadows of the Lominsan pre-dawn, was a giant of a man.  A roegadyn.  The roegadyn.


"Ye'll be knowin' who we are, won't ye?" he rasped through a deep yawn.  The proprietor nodded.


"Tried to poison me, 'e did," Styrm noted, indicating the man with the point of the previous night's dagger.


The shop owner's eyes went wide.  "He wasn't...you weren't meant to--"  He fell silent as the roe rose to standing, huge and slow like a storm on the horizon.


"Hells, we're past all that, we are.  Ye're closed today.  I'll want somethin' for the poke," he squeezed his poisoned palm," and 'im some'ut fer th' arm."


The shop owner only nodded and opened the door.  He closed it behind the three of them.



The Goodfellow?  Styrm took a long drag on the pipe.  It was a fine, fine smoke.  The owner had talked, but he hadn't liked it.  Still, he'd given Styrm the pipe and the leaf, for fear or for pity; Styrm wasn't sure.


He was surer than ever that Joz--Kink, ye bastard, she's Kink--was in some mess.  He'd not ever seen the Goodfellow, no, but he'd heard the name back when he'd run jobs in Thanalan.  Back when he'd met Taru.




Taru had brought him on as protection, bought his time outside the arena.  Kodu Co. was putting a caravan through the Goodfellow's old territory and the merchants had insisted to Taru that he bring more muscle.  There'd been no news of the Goodfellow in some while, but they were still nervous to make the way again.


Styrm, good for the job, had wanted more information.  Taru didn't say much.  The Fellow and him, there was some history there.


Not t' hurt me?


What did the Fellow know about him?  Why did he care?


Don't be a shite, Styrm.


The night, the venom, the treatment, the smoke.  His head swam.  He sat down near the door.  In or out, coming or going, they'd wake him.  The shopkeeper would be sometime yet tidying up that arm.  Shop was closed.  He ought to sleep. 




To sleep.  Just a bit.  Sleep.

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Zhi backed up. The woman advanced.


"Take me to it."


Zhi sure wasn't about to bloody die for the damn thing, but it came down now to a matter of chances and choices. Attention and focus on her staring down the barrel of a gun was a right quick way of getting killed, especially if she wasn't quite sober enough to climb. That was rich. Did she ever climb sober? When was the last time?


A wheezing, bubbling laugh forced its way past her lips. It was ugly. Just the way she liked it. "Yeah," Zhi said. "I'll do that. Get it? Don't be gettin' all itchy on that trigger, y'blimmin' churl."


"Move," the blimming churl said, sounding as if she'd used up the last tiny bit of patience ages ago.


Zhi couldn't well blame her.


The trip to the hiding place was long and circuitous. Zhi was having a hard time walking straight, and had to stop a couple times to spit and retch and lean against something solid. She had the spins. Everything hurt. She couldn't quite remember why she'd thought it was a good idea to have Jager beat the living crap out of her, and why she'd thought overindulging in smokes and booze and dust would make everything better. Well, okay, it had, but she'd skipped over the had and into some land of gods make it stop except the gods were cruel and capricious and probably making sport at her expense, before getting bored and leaving her to wallow in her own mess. She fuckin' hated them.


Zhi wasn't entirely precisely sure she remembered where she put the book. Lowtown, yeah, but lowtown was a sprawling, winding maze of spires and docks and bridges, and she'd hidey holes all over the damn place.


The lalafel was getting impatient. Zhi wasn't sure how long they'd been walking, but awhile was pretty much a certainty. She was heading towards one of the small stashes she kept right above the high tide line, but the problem with that was that she had to climb--


there was a sound.


A familiar sound.


Then another.


Syrupy-slow, Zhi spun on her heel, towards the sound-sounds, and the new smells, and the queasy feeling. Man-child: a scream. A yell. A woman's voice. A gun. A gun. Fired once; bodies and impacts.


It was dark now. She saw well in the dark, turned and saw wetness on the wood planks. It was frequently wet in lowtown, but not like this. Not like this.


Another shot, and she surged forward, feet tangling, and fell out flat, useless, the sudden jolt making her stomach move and roll and she felt acrid, stinking bile in her mouth, spat. Useless.


Everything tangled up in a jumble, too fast, too fast. Three sets of breaths, three sets of cries, her own the kind of drunkhigh whimpering sick useless that she hated most of all, and she knew that voice, knew that smell, got up on her knees and crawled, crawled.


She saw them moving, tangling together in some sick parody that would have made her grin if she was less pathetic. The gun was wrested free, and clattered away, leaving them groping and clawing at each other on the ground.


Two sets of breathing: one rattling, gurgling, wheezing, struggling voice had been cut out and was gone.


Gone for good.




Just like she'd taught him.




His blood.


Eternity, and she was on them. She didn't have the strength to fling the carcass away, to throw and stomp and spit on it like she wanted. But she shoved it away far enough, half kneeling on it so she could get to him.


Her fingertips walked over him until he made a noise of protest, his breath all stutter-pain. She started to strip.


"Found ye..."


He was so stupid. Such a ruttin', bleedin', sorry excuse of a damn brat.


"Shut up. Where's yer blimmin' sense, huh?"


She wasn't strong enough to tear cloth. Not even the shit she wore. She fumbled out her knife, cursing as she nicked herself. Took her two tries to get a strip, and once she had it she realized she couldn't do anything with it; skinny lad that he was, it wasn't long enough to wrap around him.


"There's men... lookin'... Zhio."


What was wrong with him? He was a complete lackwit. He should've cut and run. She cut more strips, cut herself again, managed to tie them together. His blood was soaking into her pants. She was wet with it.


"Yer more trouble than yer worth, y'scrag. Think I don't know that? Huh? Now lookit what ye've done, gettin' all bloodied up. Think I've time t'be fixin' yer mess?" The words were a raspy snarl. Zhi hardly recognized her own voice.


It took forever to get the mess of knotted strips around him. Everything was slick and hard to get a good grip on.


"I knew it though...that ye'd come this way. I waited, see? Cuz I knew ye'd..."


He was heavy.


"Shut up."




Zhi'd always loved counting. Since the time she'd been old enough for her mam to teach her to count coins, she'd counted. Maybe in that way, gil had been her first love. Shining, pretty, important: her mam had obsessed over how much gil they had, and Zhi'd learned right along with her. Even when she wasn't supposed to, she'd take it out when her mam was sleeping, let the coins tumble through her fingers, each familiar and warmed by her hands.




When she'd gotten older, when she'd started living on the streets for the first time, there'd been more and more things to count. How many mates in the gang she'd joined. How many things they stole. How many minutes, bells, suns since the lad she'd gotten all tongue-tied about had spoken to her, touched her, told her he'd loved her: all sweaty-handed fumbling about in the dark. The dark. Her favorite time in all the world.




Betrayals. How inevitable. How many heartbeats it took before it stopped hurting. Before she stopped caring. Before she learned better. How many breaths since she'd recognized life in her stomach. How many agonizing weeks since she knew he wasn't coming back? How many moons until she'd gone to a midwife, all snarling rage, and sorrow, and heartbreak.




How many years. How many years? How many fucking years since that bloody mess between her legs, since she'd made that choice, since she'd fucked everything up, since the wire, and the gathering in that room, and the look on Bree's face, and that toneless voice telling her that she wouldn't have to ever worry about being a mam, that it was taken care of, that they were all the family she'd ever, ever need?




She retched. She'd gotten over it. Stopped counting those things. Learned better. Become harder. Wiser. Her hands slipped, despite her clawing fingers, and they folded together to the ground. Fifty-three was a bitch. She'd take a little break before fifty-three, them tucked away in some feckless alley, and pulled him so his head and shoulders were on her, cradled between her stomach and her bent knees. Her back was against the wall, like it was supposed to be. Light was touching the city, more's the pity.


Brindle wasn't hers to keep.


He wasn't hers.


She knew that.


She'd sleep. Just a bit. Sleep.

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  • 1 month later...

The sun was streaming hot through the windows and slats when Styrm awoke.  Through the hot, groggy throbbing of his addled head he heard the staccato beat of a fist pounding against the door.  He began to rise when he felt a hand alight on his shoulder.  He looked to its source and saw the old man, his finger pressed against his lips.




Over the old man's shoulder he could see the other man, the one he'd fought.  He looked tragic in his pain and his fear, but he was awake.  His good arm was raised; there too a finger over lips.


The pounding at the door was replaced by a voice: "Open up!"


No one answered.


More pounding, and again: "Open up!"


Styrm made as if to move toward the door, but the shop-owner called out just then that they were closed for the day.




The three of them waited, each in the character of their own expectations: fear, remorse, rage.


It was silent another moment, and then, "Fine.  But you'll be open tonight."


None spoke, wondering if the visitor had truly gone.  Finally, the broken man's voice cracked their musings, trembling but sure.  "He'll come tonight.  We should all go."


The proprietor looked around at his life and his eyes glistened in his indecision.


"I won't," was Styrmsthal's only reply.

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