"We're coming up on Winhill."
Marshal stepped down into the cabin wearing ivory linen slacks and some kind of lightweight shirt of the same color that was nearly see-thru. He wore a pale blue tank-tee underneath that. His black hair stood up, slightly spiked. I still didn't understand the reason men liked spikes.
Marshal sat across from me at the table in the schooner's kitchen and pulled out his handheld, again scanning for unknown technology. He had done the same when we first boarded, but it had registered only an unknown device. Due to the fact the Network constantly updated their database and, consequently, the information available via satellite link to the handheld, it was always wise to re-scan.
Marshal had done the same at the apartment this morning.
I slightly frowned. That morning he made no mention of the dream or the shower the night before. He hadn't even said anything when I woke in the middle of the night. The entire time I dried off I had expected him to ask 'What's the deal?'. He hadn't. He simply left the bathroom after giving me a slight squeeze on the arm.
I laid awake most of the night wondering why. Seifer would have asked. Raijin would have as well. Hell. I would have asked.
"You excited?" he asked now, in character of course. "I've heard there are some great houses here."
I briefly looked up from my sketched notes of the rough plan. A... spontaneously evolving evaluation/investigation. I looked back down again.
"Come on, Ahndra. Don't look so glum. I'm sure we'll find something."
I wanted to find the suspicious characters in record time. "I hope so," I said, in what I supposed was a 'shy' tone.
Marshal knudged me under the table with his knee. I didn't acknowledge his knudge, not even with another glance. "You'll see. It'll be fun."
I slightly frowned again. Winhill. Its quiet rubbed me the wrong way. Just as Deling City's noise did.
"We'll book into the inn first thing. Then we'll go walk around and see what's to see."
Marshal set down the handheld with a slight shake of his head and a brief motion to the communication center positioned behind him, the action smoothly hidden by him running his hand through his spikes. They bounced back.
My eyebrow twitched. "All right."
"Did you want to go anywhere special?" And he motioned to the list in my hands with a movement of his eyes.
"The empty lots?"
"Why? You think we should build instead of buy?"
Marshal smirked and rested his chin in his hand, elbow resting on the table. "Keeping all your options open? Or is there something you're not telling me?"
"Hmm?" I'm sure my innocent expression was laughable.
"Look. Ahndra, princess," I blinked and looked up, "if you want a house built, we can contact a surveyor and have them scope out the possibilities." Marshal smiled. "Not a problem."
I arched an eyebrow. Marshal was definitely good at double-talk. "You sure?" I looked back down to my list, read it over, and sketched a few more notes. To all intents and purposes I hoped it looked as if I worked on my novel.
"Sure I'm sure. Sometimes building a house is cheaper anyway."
Unless the landowners are holding out for a big payoff from the Network. "Thank you."
"You bet, princess. Oo. Looks like we're here. Let's grab our gear." Marshal stood. "Here let me get that."
He heaved both duffel straps over his shoulders. I sent him a protesting glare, but he shrugged and smirked and winked before promptly going on deck. I pressed my lips together and stood, slipping the note into the back pocket of my white denim shorts. I grimaced, slipped into my white canvas deck shoes and glared down at my pale blue tank-tee. I hated plain-clothes.
I grabbed my purse - Dammit, Seifer! - and my overnight bag as I headed toward the steps on deck. Marshal whistled and I forced a sweet smile. But whether or not anyone believed it was a different story.
Marshal motioned toward the dock as he gestured for me to stand beside him. "Check it out! A photo waiting to happen!" And he promptly readied his camera while verbally prodding me to get in the perfect spot for the perfect picture. I did my best to shyly smile. Considering I didn't smile very often...
Picture taken, I turned and focused on Winhill. Mission objective: further investigation into the surveyor as well as the two landowners who hadn't appeared for their scheduled interviews the previous week with Sally Regal and Zell Dincht. Operation: Any means necessary to discover plots, plans, and purposes. Threat: sabotage of a possible Garden facility.
Marshal came to lean one arm against the railing as he stood beside me. "Hey. You ready?"
For an investigation? Hell yes! I looked over at him with a 'shy' smile. "Yes."
Marshal grinned and motioned to shore with a slight tilt of his head. "Come on. Let's go."
We loaded up yet again, me carrying my own duffel this time, and traversed down the plank to the shore below. Then we started the somewhat long hike to the town itself.
"You love this stuff, huh?"
I adjusted my duffel as I asked, "What?" The way it rode on my hip pulled my shorts to an even less comfortable level.
"The adventure. The mystery. All the tension."
I looked over at him to notice his smile.
Marshal motioned my direction. "You should have seen the twinkle in your eye on the ship."
I couldn't tell if he ridiculed me or not. "So?" I responded slowly.
Marshal laughed. "'So' nothing. I just noticed is all. Sally loves a mystery, too, but she's more for the subtle ones. Not really a head-to-head person like you and me." He shook his head, still smiling wide. "She's growing a spine, though. 'Course I guess she had to what with working under Seifer and you and having Dincht as a boyfriend." Marshal sent me a glance. "I used to have a thing for her. She didn't know. I didn't have time. She was wacky about Dincht anyway. Didn't have a chance in hell."
I arched an eyebrow. I could see Sally with Marshal as much as I could see her with Seifer. I scoffed and looked away.
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
Marshal cleared his throat, by way of reminder. I pressed my lips together.
"Oh really?" he pressed. "Something tells me you don't think much of Sally."
I adjusted my duffel and tightened my grip on the strap. "As security?" I responded, tone carefully under control. "No."
"What? Ahndra, she's the best natural Network task-force cracker-hacker I've seen. And she's damned tenacious! How can you say she shouldn't be on security?"
I briefly pressed my lips together.
Marshal regarded me. "I'm not guessing my way through this one."
I frowned and then stopped. Marshal halted and faced me the same moment I faced him. "Regal performs research and questions. Security involves investigation and reaction. Regal prefers one over the other."
Marshal shook his head. "Nope. You're wrong."
I clenched my jaw.
Marshal stretched out a hand. "Give me a second before you bash my mouth in. Sally researches, sure. She asks questions, hell yes. But she reacts the same as you or me, just on computer or via report to you or Seifer. You know it, too. Anyone who reads her reports and her suggestions of action can tell she thinks out each possible consequence for each possible reaction. So she doesn't do Black Ops, or whatever the hell we call it nowadays. She fries crackers at their computer and then sends people like you and me after them, recognizing her limitations and using it to involve the rest of us." Marshal shook his head. "No. No, she belongs on security the same as you do. You're both damned important. In fact, you and I wouldn't be here without Sally's job at Garden."
I looked away, my jaw muscle twitched. '...recognizing her limitations...' How could admitting a weakness be... good?
Marshal nudged my leg with his duffel, drawing my gaze. "Come on. We've got quite a jaunt, and I'd like to take a shower before walking around town."
As we started forward again I noticed Marshal's continued glances. It wasn't something I was familiar with. Everybody at Balamb Garden had pretty much given me a wide-birth. Even Raijin had avoided me whenever possible. Seifer was the only other person who didn't take my attitude as seriously as I wanted him to. As he said, he pushed and pushed hard. Supposedly for my own good, but I began to wonder if he did it just to piss me off.
More than likely. That was Seifer.
I noticed another glance and realized I tapped my fingers in an absent rhythm against my duffel strap. I ceased.
Marshal pushed buttons, but it wasn't the same. And what irritated was the fact I couldn't categorize the difference. When I put him up alongside Seifer to do just that... I didn't understand the difference. To put it bluntly, Marshal got away with more than Seifer had even attempted-- I pressed my lips together. It's my mission. And I knew that. It still didn't explain something. Something I didn't know how to ask or even... bring to mind.
Which irritated the hell out of me.
I halted, twitching as I looked over at him sharply, eyes a little wide.
Marshal stopped as well. "What?"
I shook my head and looked away again. "Nothing." Exactly. I hadn't heard it. I hadn't heard the hint of my father's voice in the name. "Nothing," I muttered again. It was the first time.
Marshal remained quiet a moment before asking, "Is it okay if I keep on with the 'princess' thing? I like how it sounds, for realism I mean. Tell me to 'screw off' if it rubs you wrong."
I again tapped my fingers on the duffel strap in my hand on my shoulder, staring down the road and not knowing how I felt one way or the other. I hadn't ever had anything but 'Ahndra' and the dozens of other nouns and adjectives a child should probably never hear. I didn't cringe when he said it, but what did that mean? If anything.
I pressed my lips together. "It's fine." It's better than bitch or whore or slut... isn't it?
"Okay," he said slowly, and I could feel him watching me.
Seifer watched that deep... didn't he? I didn't know. I never noticed. I never cared-- "Thank you."
My eyebrow twitched after I said those words. I didn't know why I said them... I looked over at Marshal. His expression showed calm seriousness. Maybe he knew.
"No problem, Ahndra."
What wasn't? "Others would have asked." Asked what?
Marshal slightly nodded, his gaze still holding mine. "I know," he acknowledged carefully, "but you didn't need more questions."
I looked away. No. I hadn't. In the shower. This morning. On the ship. Now... I stepped forward again; Marshal matched my pace. No. I didn't. I had enough. Questions that wouldn't ever be answered. Answers that would never have questions.
Marshal sent another glance. I met it. "What."
He slightly smiled as he shook his head, and his ears pinked as he said, "Nothing."
"You are not a good liar."
"You'd be surprised." Marshal sent me another sidelong examination. "Just trying to put together a puzzle piece by piece."
I arched an eyebrow as I continued to watch his profile. Intrigue fluttered. "A puzzle?"
Marhsal chuckled as he pointed out a pothole in the road. I stepped around it. "Gotcha with that, huh?" He briefly glanced. "I like puzzles. Mysteries. I like trying to explain why things are the way they are."
He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "A challenge. A way to see truths about ourselves. A way to learn something deeper." Marshal glanced my direction a couple times. "An answer to a question."
Marshal's expression grew serious, which fanned my intrigue. He cleared his throat. "What. When. Why. How." Marshel sent another glance and held my gaze longer this time. "How," he said again.
I regarded him a moment. "Questions for whom?"
"Me." He shrugged again. "Like I said, it's a challenge-thing I do."
Marshal squinted ahead. "Sometimes. Not always."
I silently studied him, intrigued beyond anything I had known before. A game that wasn't always a game. A challenge to learn something deeper of himself while piecing a puzzle of someone else. "Do you ask?"
Marshal looked at me. "Ask? Ask what?"
Marshal blinked. "For the puzzle?"
I curtly nodded.
Marshal smiled. "Well... sometimes. It depends on the puzzle."
"How can you solve without the asking?"
"Observations. Listening. Looking beyond what is said and shown. There's always a story beneath."
My eyes narrowed as I held his gaze. Then I looked away. I knew a lot of hidden stories.
"I can give you an example," he said quietly.
I focused on his profile. "Example?"
"Finding a hidden story by observing." Glance. "I have an example."
I waited, silent.
Marshal slightly smiled as he continued staring ahead. "Sally. Perfect example. Walks with a slight - very slight - limp. Has a specially designed chair at her desk in the security office. Has trouble breathing - well, a slight wheeze and puff - on cold days. Has a scar behind her left ear and on her collar bone toward the right." Marshal glanced toward me. "I figured she was in a major accident, so I asked."
"Getting her to tell me was like pulling teeth, but I was right. Remember when Galbadia Garden attacked Balamb Garden?"
I nodded slowly. I hadn't been there, but I had heard and read the reports.
"Sally got caught when some of Garden's structure tumbled." Marshal met my surprised expression. "She minimizes it, but I have a gut feeling she almost didn't make it."
I looked away, shocked. Sally Regal hadn't seemed...
"Yeah, there's always a hidden story waiting to be found. A person just has to take the time." Glance. "It's worth it."
My expression hardened. "No. Not always."
He continued to gauge my profile. "I haven't found one yet that I regret knowing. Like I said, there's something to learn about ourselves in each story."
And what had I learned in my life's story? Family blood means nothing. 'Love' is a way to torture a child. Mercy for the young doesn't exist. My story held nothing but rage and regret.
Marshal released a deep breath and looked away. "Yep. Definitely a lot to learn," he said softly.
'Won't you ever learn?' smack-smack
I gripped the strap of my bag. What I had learned I did my damndest to forget.
"If you want," Marshal spoke up suddenly, "you could try with me."
I met his gaze. "Try?"
"The puzzle. The 'game'." He shrugged and looked away. "Just a thought to keep you from getting bored."
But Seifer had already confessed Marshal's hidden stories. There wouldn't be a challenge because I already knew the puzzle. I looked away.
"Ouch," Marshal said, smiling. "I'm not that interesting, huh?"
"I have your puzzle."
And yet that statement didn't quite ring true. I had a picture of his past, but I still didn't understand him. He was still a puzzle.
Marshal's smile vanished. "What're you talking about?" His tone had changed. It rang almost wary.
For some reason, I didn't want to tell him how much I knew. That came as a mild surprise. Bluntness had always been both shield and sword for me.
Marshal halted me with a hold on my arm as he watched my face. I continued to stare ahead.
"Ahndra," he pressed, "what do you mean you have my puzzle?"
I pressed my lips together before simply stating, "Seifer."
Marshal's hand dropped from my arm and he swore. I faced him. Marshal glowered, hand clenching the strap of his duffel over his shoulder. He briefly pointed at me. "You didn't need to know." He turned away. "The damn... Shit!"
Marshal grumbled under his breath as he ran a hand through his spiked black hair.
"Why?" I asked again. I didn't understand why he would invite me to solve his 'puzzle' and then say I didn't need to know. "Blake," I pressed in a firm voice, but he still didn't face me. I frowned. "I would not work with you if he hadn't told me."
Marshal focused his scowl on mine. "What the hell are you talking about? Ahndra, there was no reason for him to say anything. It's my life and not his damned security file to pass out whenever..." Marshal pressed his lips together. "You didn't need to know that. What damned difference did it make?"
"You are the only one who understands." Marshal's frown disappeared, forced away by his blink of surprise. I looked away. "I would not work with you if he hadn't told me," I repeated, and then I stepped again toward the inn.
Marshal followed after a muttered, "Dammit, Marshal," which had become so familiar.
No. If I hadn't known about Marshal's own hell, I wouldn't have agreed to the mission. Seifer knew it. And a part of me was glad he knew me that well. Some days I felt he knew me better than I did. Better than I ever wanted to.
"Ahndra. Ahndra, wait."
I halted. I understood the shame and humiliation at having something like that revealed. I likely would have killed Seifer - or done my best - if he had told Marshal any of my past.
He came to stand beside me. "I'm not mad at you. I figure you know that, but I need to say it. Anyway... I'm sorry for blowing up at you."
But Marshal didn't hold a candle to my dad's temper. I met his gaze. "It's fine."
Marshal nodded. "I know. I kind of figure you've seen worse tempers than mine, but I was still out of line."
'I kind of figure you've seen worse tempers...' "Why?"
"Why...?" he pressed.
Marshal's eyes traveled my face. Then he reached up toward my eye. I tensed and tightly gripped my duffel strap to keep from stepping back.
He lowered his hand without touching. "I've seen the signs before. I see a lot, being chief of security. Even had to boot some people out because of rough stuff." Marshal lowered his gaze and then looked away. "Beat the crap out of an ass once who slapped his girlfirend around. Got written up because of it, but I didn't give a damn. I did what I had to do."
'I'm going to kill you, you sack of shit.'
I examined Marshal's face. I understood about that. Doing what one had to do to survive. Seifer and I had been doing that for years. I looked away once Marshal moved his gaze back to me. 'Beat the crap out of an ass once who slapped his girlfriend around.' Yes. Seifer had done that, too. Marshal and Seifer were a lot alike. Maybe that was why... I slightly shook my head and stepped forward. Marshal followed beside.
"What exactly did he tell you?"
Enough. "Galbadian soldiers gang-raped your sister in Dollet. You were beaten and forced to watch. You enrolled at Galbadia and plotted retaliation. Joined as chief of security once administration changed."
Marshal scrubbed at his scalp. "Right." He released a quick breath. "Oh hell. I guess that makes me a damned 'tortured soul'. Girls go for that."
I sent him a dubious look.
Marshal laughed. "Okay, most girls go for that. But hey, it's fine with me. I don't want any pity or 'Aww, you poor man.'" Marshal grimaced. "Poor man." He spat. "Hell no."
I smirked. No. Definitely not a phrase I would choose.
We arrived at the inn a few minutes later. Marshal checked in, we had a previous reservation, and then received the key from the clerk and directions on where to find the room. We assured the clerk we could handle our luggage ourselves and then made our way up the stairs and to the room.
"Oookaaay." Marshal set down his duffel and pulled his handheld from the side-pocket. "I'm going to send an e-mail and let them know we got here."
Marshal began scanning the room for audio/visual devices as I made my way to the dresser in the one-bed room. I kept my gaze away from that bed.
"They're expecting a portfolio of pictures within the next couple days. Did I tell you?"
"Yes." I began unpacking.
"I figured the extra work would be great for our nest egg. Maybe it'll help us build a bigger house?"
"That would be nice." I set a framed picture of the two of us onto the dresser and stared at it.
"Where is that e-mail address?" Marshal made his way toward me, still scanning. "You saw me type it in here, right?"
"Yes." I turned from the picture and began unpacking Marshal's duffel into the other dresser.
"Don't tell me--"
Marshal stopped speaking so abruptly that I straightened and looked over at him. He raised his eyes to meet mine. "What's wrong?" I didn't like the look on his face.
"I forgot to return the video."
My insides crawled. That statement meant our room had been compromised with both video and audio devices. We would need to either find a believable way to get a different room, or play up the engagement in the verbal and visual realm.
Requesting a different room would look suspicious, especially since it appeared someone knew we were coming. That was the only way to explain the listening devices in our apartment in Deling City and on the schooner chartered for our trip here.
I turned away and grabbed a pair of Marshal's jeans. Dammit... "We can call to extend the rental, Blake. It will be all right." I can do this. I can do this.
"Oh. Right. Of course." He rubbed at the back of his neck as he glanced my direction. I could feel it.
"You better send the e-mail before you forget."
My eyes focused on the framed picture of us as a couple. My mouth went dry. Engaged and living together for four months. First night of vacation... I knew what it meant. I looked down at the pair of jeans clutched in my hands. It was my mission. I had to do it. I couldn't let daddy screw it to hell.
Marshal stepped up to me and took the jeans from my hands. "I'll send it later. We just got here, so they probably won't expect an e-mail until tonight." He rested a hand on my shoulder. I looked up. "You look tired, princess. Why don't you take a nap while I finish?"
I absently nodded and turned away, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. Marshal began unpacking, whistling. 'You want it so bad, I'll sex you--' I laid on my side and tucked my legs to my chest, arms wrapped around myself as I squeezed my eyes shut. I expected to remember the weight and the smell and the pain... but it didn't come. There were only the words that I could force silent.
'I'm going to hold you, Ahndra.'
I opened my eyes and rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling. Why did... I blanked my mind. It didn't matter. Any memory, no matter the reason, was preferable to that of my father.
Marshal closed the dresser drawer and passed the bed to the bathroom. "I'm going to take a shower, Ahndra. I'll let you know when I'm out."
The door closed and a few moments later I heard the sharp sound of water on tile. I blinked, remembering again the touch felt. The water and the slight warmth of his body next to mine. Arms trying to protect me from something he didn't know. It had been different. Burning away a burning. Giving me a new memory... I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. A new memory that felt so much... better.
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