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Political Games

a CAPOW Tale coauthered by Dot and Dare

     Jonathan was really starting to like this place, as weird as it was. There were times, like when he ate cheescake at that Insomnia place, when he could almost forget why he was here. Other times, though, he would fall into long bouts of depression and homesickness as he thought of those he left behind. Today, he was without a doubt in the latter mood, especially when he read the front page of the paper.

     Roswind's civil war had gotten so out of hand that its 'concerned' neighbors sent troops into it to 'keep the peace'. The civil war was very quickly turning into a multinational one.

     Jonathan crumpled the paper in frustration. He wished that there could be something--anything-- that he could do to help. Yet he knew that the only thing he really could do was nothing: going back to his country now would only be suicide. But Jonathan severely disliked being helpless, especially when his country, his people, and his family were involved. Still, he knew that he could only wait and hope for the best.

     Things had been relatively quiet as far as the exiled King of Roswind was concerned, but Samui wasn't sure whether to be relieved or worried.

     'It can't be possible that no one else knows that Jonathan is here,' she thought to herself. 'And yet no one has tried anything. Either whoever I'm up against is very subtle or very stupid...and I don't like the first option.'

     On a more cheerful note, Samui observed that Jonathan was getting along pretty well with the other residents of CAPOW, especially Kensuke. The boy had taken a delight in calling Jonathan "Mr. Thou", and this never failed to bring a smile to the older man's face. Still, Samui knew that Jonathan would never be entirely happy here until things in Roswind quieted down--but that wouldn't be anytime soon.

     Jonathan and Samui weren't the only people upset by the recent turn of events. Elsewhere (not in CAPOW), several people had gathered together to discuss their future plans.

     "This wasn't supposed to happen!" One of them exclaimed, slamming a fist on the table. He placed his head in his hands. "This wasn't supposed to happen..."

     "Well, it's happened, so deal with it," advised the chairwoman.

     "How can we?" Piped up another person further down the table. "Even if we were able to muster all of the people to help us, that wouldn't be enough to do anything!"

     "So we just sit here and do nothing?" The person sitting across from the one who just spoke asked sarcastically.

     "That's better than going out and getting ourselves killed!" Another person retorted.

     Everyone else began speaking at once, each trying to get his or her opinion heard.

     "QUIET!" The chairwoman roared. She took in several deep breaths to calm down. "Aside from the recent complication, the plan still can proceed as normal."

     "But--" Someone began.

     The chairwoman raised a hand. "I know: we won't have much of a country to rule over if this war continues. But I'm sure that the UN is bound to step in sooner or later, if they haven't already. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the UN, but there aren't that many alternatives. Are there any objections?" Silence. "Good. That's all."

     One by one, the group filed out until only the chairwoman and one other man was left.

     "What did I get myself into?" The man moaned.

     The chairwoman sighed. "It's too late to have second thoughts, Matthew."

     "I can't help it. I'm seriously starting to wonder if all of this is worth it."

     "Even if it isn't, there's no turning back... especially not for you."

     "I know. I just wish there was some other way." --- Talon brushed his pants carefully as he got up. They told him they were ready to see him. He brought the tall bo (or staff) with him as he walked along the long corridors to a large set of oak doors. From inside, they opened and he entered.

     A woman greeted him. She was mature, but not old. She sat at a large conference table and a younger man sat at her right. The glass window behind her showed a splendid scene of the outdoor blue sky. The scene reminded him of a similar conference room...


     "Ah Talon, good," said the older man in a business suit. "How are you?"

     "I'm fine sir," Talon replied with a smile. They said to always smile with the management. Superiors were a different story. "You called for me, sir?"

     The man put up a hand, "Please, none of that 'sir' business. We're not in the barracks. Call me Reeves."

     "Alright, si--I mean--Reeves." He felt a little uneasy at that.

     Reeves reviewed a plain manilla folder. Inside were sheets of paper, of which had a picture of Talon's profile. That was his record. "Hmmm.. yes very outstanding record. Your drill seargent reported you to be an excellent trainee. Smarter than the rest, quick reflexes. You served brilliantly for six years. Oh. You took initiative when your CO was wounded at the Battle of Carraugh."

     Talon nodded, grinning. It was his chance to show off. "Yes sir. Captain Briggs was wounded from a previous skirmish and the latest terrorist attack only complicated the matters. I had to take charge of the situation but thankfully we resolved it." He hoped he left a good impression with that recount.

     "Yes yes," Reeves agreed almost too hastily. "It's that sort of initiative that brings you here, Talon Gauss. You see, we need to establish a small military garrison in a town out by the frontier. Rodick is the place. Do you think you can handle it?"


     "Do you think you can handle it?" the woman said.

     Talon blinked, coming out of his flashback. Remarkably, his subconscious brought back the details of the conversation with the woman.

     "I may be able to locate him," Talon said simply. There was no smile, no enthusiasm. Not like those years before when he was still so young and brash and naive.

     "Good," the woman said. "I do miss him dearly! It pains me to know that he has been away from his kingdom for so long."

     Talon didn't respond.

     "Is there anything you require, Mr. Gauss?"

     "I will need something of his majesty's. Something close to him from which I can focus my thoughts on his whereabouts." his voice was flat and emotionless. He had said those words many times to the many people who had hired him to find their lost ones. If only he could find what he had lost.

     "I'll see to it some of his personal effects are sent to you. Thank you." Talon nodded stiffly and turned to leave. "You don't know what this means to us." He froze.


     "You don't know what this means for the corporation, Talon Gauss. I know you'll do a fine job keeping the peace. Remember to keep your reports. I want especially a good accounting of the mineral resource mine there. We may need to annex it one day."

     "This is great! Err. I mean, yes sir," Talon responded, still smiling.

     "Then good day, _Captain_ Gauss," Reeves added.

     His heart was pounding. Captain! Finally! He was getting somewhere in this outfit! From a mere corporal to a garrison captain! And in charge of a small town on the frontier, nonetheless. He could see it now. His name was rising up amoung the stars. If he could impress the corporation with Rodick, they would, without a doubt, move him up to bigger things. Things were beginning to look up!


     Talon paused. "It is, as you say," he replied differently this time.

* * *

     "What happens when we find Roswind?" Matthew asked as Talon left the room.

     The Chairwoman turned to him. "With Roswind in our grasp, we'll be able to overwhelm the rest and the country will be ours. As it rightfully should be." There was an icy, vengeful tone to her voice. Matthew didn't like it at all.

     "Matthew," she called his name. "Keep an eye on Mr. Gauss. See what he comes up with and make sure he doesn't suspect our true plans. The less he knows that I'm not really Roswind's wife, the better. Got it?"

     "Y-yes ma'am," Matthew stuttered and left the room. ---      Matthew sighed wearily. "Excuse me. There's something I need to do. See to it that I'm not disturbed."

     The Chairwoman gave him a sympathetic look. "Of course."

     After the Chairwoman left the room, Matthew pulled out a piece of paper from his suitcase and a pen and began writing.

     'I can't pretend that I don't care anymore. Neither can I fool myself with any idealistic bullshit. Nor can I tempt myself with the idea of power. I'm simply carried along by the momentum, unable and unwilling to stop the mess I started.

     God, I hate myself.'

     Matthew stared at what he wrote for a few moments before pulling out a lighter. Then, holding the paper over the trash can, he set the paper on fire and let it drop, still burning, into the metal receptacle.

     The object that had been mailed to Talon was a rather old photograph of the King and a young boy enjoying croquet. There was something familiar about that boy, but Talon couldn't lay his finger on it.

     'All right...let's see where His Majesty could have gone.'

     Holding the photograph in his hand, Talon began to concentrate. Gradually, a mental image began to form: a tavern from which loud singing could be heard, with a neon sign that read 'The Lurker's Retreat'.

     "/o 99 bottles of sake on the Wall, 99 bottles of sake! Take one down, pass it around, 98 bottles of sake on the Wall... /o"

     The welcoming party for the newcomers was quickly becoming an all out drink-fest. Madoka was busy counting a large bag of gold coins, while Elyssa rushed around the room with the customer's orders.

     Jonathan took a sip of sake from his glass. "Excellent. No wonder 'tis so famous the world over." He offered the bottle to Samui. "Wouldst thou like some more?"

     "No, I'd like to stay sober tonight."

     Jonathan let out a deep, hearty laugh. "The others wouldst be wise to emulate."


     Jonathan 'tsked' and shook his head. "Thou shoulst smile more often, Samui, or else thy face might remain that way."

     "I think it's already stuck." Despite this statement, Samui's expression seemed to brighten a bit. "Besides, I have a reputation to maintain."

     Jonathan chuckled. "Ah." He then noticed that Samui was writing something down on a napkin. He shot her a curious look, and she pushed the napkin over for him to see.

     'I will be able to shadow you more often now, but keep your eyes open nonetheless. Time is running short for Roswind, and I'm sure that your pursuers realize this.'

     Jonathan nodded solemnly, and Samui ripped up the napkin before stuffing it into her glass and pouring sake into it. She then laid some money on the counter and left. Jonathan, after paying for his own drink, headed home as well.

     Checking her mail, Samui found a large envelope from the Space-Time Regulation Agency, marked as if it were mailed by one Ayanami Rei from Tokyo-3. Samui, having masqueraded as Rei in one of the alternate dimensions during a complicated case involving a nasty paradox, recognized the true origins of the envelope immeadiately.

     'Hn. Security measures have gotten more and more interesting lately...' Samui thought as she walked to her apartment. She quickly let herself in and locked the door behind her before opening the envelope.

     "Not just one, but _two_ disks..." Samui raised an eyebrow and stuck the first one into her computer.

     "On X/X/XX at XX:XX:XX, an energy signature resembling that of an Evangelion was detected at St. John's part, and the following individuals appeared..."

     Samui made a mental note to herself to check on that sometime soon, and to meet the individuals mentioned. She then went onto the second disk.

     "Hi, Samui! Well, looks like your persistence finally paid off because they okay'd an unofficial recruitment! Here's a list of potentials..."

     "It's about time," Samui muttered to herself. She skipped down to the list. "Hmm..." Her eyes settled on the name 'Talon Gauss', and opened his file. She let out a low whistle as she read his description. "Nice...I could really use a partner like this." As she came to his background history, she was somewhat miffed to find it 'classified'. Samui briefly considered finding out what exactly was so classified, but stopped herself.

     'It's not something I need to know,' she reminded herself. Bringing up a different program, she ran a search on new arrivals to CAPOW and discovered that while Talon had indeed passed through CAPOW before, he had left almost as soon as he came, and his current whereabouts were unknown.

     "Drat," Samui muttered. She checked the second disk for any further information, and finding none, opened it and destroyed the magnetic tape in it by running it through a shredder. She then did the same for the first disk, and shredded the envelope as well. --- The following days went by quickly. Talon reported that he had a fix on where King Roswind was located. The Queen was very enthusiastic that he had found him and wanted so much to join him. But, as she put it, there were issues at home that could not avoid her immediate attention.

      Talon was relieved. He didn't particular want her on the trip anyway. But something was bothering him. What was the King of this little nation doing at the Lurker's Retreat? Maybe he was just stopping by on his way back to his monarchial kingdom. Or maybe the Retreat was somehow linked to his disappearance. He fingered the purple Locate materia linked to his right bracer. It was a shame the materia couldn't peek into the situation of the place. All he knew was that King Roswind was there.

      They shipped him on a plane to Tokyo. It was rather absurd. Not being from this world, he knew a little about dimensional travel since he had done it once. Entering Capow was such an experience, one that was remarkably done without any sort of high tech gadgetry or science. All it took was the right frame of mind.

      They sent someone to tag along as well. Talon wondered if he was just muscle or an observer. His name was Jeremy, young man that asked too many questions and Talon's silent treatment only fuelled him on. But Talon recalled being young once and he let it slide.

      The pink neon lights of the Lurker's Retreat told them where they were. And that was Capow. It was odd. One moment they were walking around a suburban district of Tokyo and the next, they came across the lonely bar set against a quiet cityscape. Talon had kept Capow on the forefront of his mind. He figured there was something about going to Capow and wanting to go there that made things possible. The rest took care of itself. Still, it was slightly unnerving.

      "Is Roswind, I mean the King," he caught himself, "in there?" Jeremy shifted his weight back and forth impatiently.

      Talon Gauss let his hand slide over the right bracer on his wrist. He touched the dull purple materia linked to it, concentrating on it. The materia began to throb a brighter hue. Inside his mind, he pictured a flame, eternal and consuming all that was fed. He imagined that the flame was so powerful, that it left nothing but a void, a vaccuum. Talon floated inside that void, and sent out his thoughts in all directions at once, focusing on Roswind's picture and of Roswind himself. He felt his feet turn to a direction and when he opened his eyes, he saw a small apartment complex in the distance.

      "Our good King is there," he said with finality.

      "Are you sure?" Jeremy asked incessantly. Talon gave him a sidelong glance. "Okay. You go ahead." He pulled out a cell phone. "I'll catch up." Talon nodded and walked on.


      "So Mr. Gauss has located him?" the chairwoman asked. Matthew sat across the table, slightly nervous look creased his face.

      "More or less," Jeremy reported. "We're heading towards an apartment where he believes Roswind is staying."

      "Good. Try to stay out of sight, I don't know if Roswind will recognize you," the chairwoman instructed.

      "I'll do my best. What should do about Talon?"

      She tapped her chin, thinking quickly, "I know..."


      "There's bad news," said Jeremy under a hushed voice. "The intelligence division just informed me that rebels have also located the King and are on their way to nab him. King Roswind's special guard is being sent out for his protection but I have to meet them at the coordinates or they'll get lost. The Queen says you must protect her husband no matter what and take him to a safe place. We have no idea who the rebels are sending, so don't stop for anyone. Hey, are you listening to me?"

      Talon's attention was turned away to the night but his ears were working perfectly. "I heard you," he said. "I'll find him and get him out of here."

      Jeremy smiled. "Good." He pulled out a small device with a button. "When you're safe, activate this transponder and we'll be able to find you. Now, hurry. The future of Roswind depends on you!"

      The young man, ran off into the night. Talon mulled over the words in his mind. The future of Roswind depends on you. Nonsense. But there was someone who needed his help and that was all the reason he wanted.

      He climbed the stairs to the floor he was sure Roswind was located. The hallways were dimly lit, being nighttime and the building wanted to conserve energy. His senses, heightened by the last Locate he used with the materia left him a footprint for which he used to home in on Roswind's position.

      Talon found himself outside a plain apartment door. He gripped the middle of his staff tightly and took in a deep breath. Behind that door, anything could happen. He had to be ready. He reached out to jiggle the door knob.

      It was unlocked.

      There was a foreboding deep inside him. Now more than ever, he knew something was wrong. He swept off to one side and slowly turned the doorknob fully until the catch was released. He pushed the door open.

      Nothing happened. He took a quick glance inside. From the brief look he made out the apartment was pitch black, save for the curtains illuminated by the moonlight. He took another glance to let his eyes adjust to the darkness inside before sliding through the doorway and into the apartment.

      "He's not here," a voice said from the corner of the room. A figure moved from behind the curtain. Talon readied his staff as the green haired woman came into view. He thought he saw her eyes widen as if she knew him but they returned to the emotionless gaze from before.

      "I'm taking the King back," Talon declared. It wasn't a question.

      "It figures they'd send you," she said cryptically. "Well, this should be interesting." Talon had no idea what she was talking about. She grabbed a nearby mop and twirled it around, readying herself. Her eyebrows furrowed at the ridiculous mop end jutting out at Talon. She smashed the top over the counter, snapping off the mop part leaving only the shaft. Now she was ready.

      The woman leapt into the air, sommersaulted once over her staff, stretched out and lunged at Talon. He sidestepped quickly and blocked the swing that was headed for his head. She used the bottom half to sweep out his feet but he quickly saw that old pattern and blocked it too. She backed off.

      Talon tried to manuver towards the bedroom where he hoped to find the King. Instead, the woman blocked off his escape and they locked staffs again. They traded hit with parry, avoiding each other's swings and leg hits.

      Talon jumped onto the kitchen table in hopes of going around her. She moved there too, as he predicted. He rocked the table off balance, tilting it one way while he jumped the other. The woman sprang off in the other direction. He headed for the bedroom, but not before the woman threw a chair at his path. He leapt over it smoothly and landed in the small bedroom chamber.

      Settled in the corner was a chair and a figure tied to it. The King! He quickly raced over to untie the captive King when he noticed the figure wasn't moving. Was he unconscious? He felt for a pulse.

      It wasn't the King. It was a dummy tied to a chair.

      "I moved him," the woman admitted from across the room. Talon turned around, facing her.

      "Where are you holding him captive?" Talon demanded. "Release him immediately!"

      The woman arched an eyebrow. "Captive? Hmmm.. interesting." She sounded as if she made a discovery but Talon couldn't understand what this woman wanted.

      She stepped up on the open windowsill. "Until next time," she said. "I know we'll meet again." She let herself fall out the window.

      Talon gasped and raced to the ledge. He looked down but couldn't find her or where she might have landed. He scanned the surroundings for any trace of movement but saw none. He ducked his head back inside and swore. --- Post #5 [Dot wrote:]

     Samui remained perfectly still in her hiding place until Talon was gone, then re-entered the room the same way she had exited it. Kneeling next to the bed, Samui pushed aside the suitcase that conveniently blocked the King of Roswind from view.

     "You can come out now, Jonathan-san."

     A very relieved Jonathan crawled out from under the bed, stood up, and dusted himself off. "I hopeth most sincerely that I shall not have to do that a second time." He coughed violently.

     "You won't," Samui reassured him. "My gamble only worked because that man assd you weren't here after discovering the 'person' tied to the chair was a dummy." She walked outside and picked up the overturned table. "Let's clean this place up first, shall we?"

     In the Lurker's Retreat, Talon moodily sipped his drink. He had been so sure that the King had been at the apartment, and his Materia had never failed him before.

     And then it hit him.

     The King had indeed been 'moved', but not so far as to throw off the Materia. In fact, Talon half-suspected that the King had been hidden somewhere _inside_ the apartment.

     Talon sighed. 'Things are never as simple as they seem, are they?'

[flashback]      Talon rode on the back of a truck with five or six other men, all older than him. The bumpy road made the ride a rather nausea-inducing one, but Talon was too exited by the prospect of his new mission to feel ill.

     "Where areya headed?" One of the others shouted over the roar of the truck.

     "Rodick," Talon answered.

     The man wrinkled his nose. "Rodick? Why, there's nothing out there except a bunch of rocks! What's a kid like you gonna do out there?"

     Talon told him, not without some pride.

     The man patted Talon on the shoulder. "Lucky boy. You'll be outta there in half a year with something impressive on your res."

     Talon beamed. [/flashback]

     Just for one night, Talon wanted to forget everything. He knew that he would remember again in the morning, but he didn't care at the moment. He took another sip of his drink.

     Samui wrapped duct tape around the mop handle, putting it back together into some semblance of its original purpose.

     "Wilst it be safe to lodge here for the night?" Jonathan asked, Putting the chair--which had been previously used as a projectile--back at the table.

     "Probably, but I think it might be safer if you returned to Ambrosia's."

     "Speaking of which, art thou intending to attend the All Hallow's Eve masquerade there?"

     "Hmm...I haven't thought about it...would you like to?"

     "I have not anything proper for such an occassion."

     "Costs will not be a concern."

     Jonathan smiled. "Then I wouldst be most delighted." --- The large convention centre on the outskirts of Capow was empty today. Nobody had rented the big building out for their use and so only a few employees were on hand, mostly maintenance and cleaning.

That made it easy for Talon to slip inside. His Locate materia showed him that this was where King Roswind was being held. This time, he was more prepared to deal with any tricks that the woman used.

He let himself wander the building until he ended up in the main auditorium. The rows of cushioned chairs were covered with a plastic sheet to prevent excess dust from accumulating. The main stage was large and the velvet red curtain lowered.

Talon walked into the auditorium, eyes scanning back and forth around the rows of seats. He had his bo in the defensive position, mainly upright and butt firmly on the ground as he walked. That was his idea of defensive. Any other posture would be offensive.

As he neared the stage, the curtains began to furl upwards. Talon stopped and tensed, waiting to see what would happen. The stage was dark but a figure walked out from the back. As if on cue, a spotlight illuminated her. It was the woman.

"Hello, Talon Gauss," she greeted emotionlessly.

Talon gripped his bow and shifted his position. Before he could attack, though, the woman pulled out a gun and trained it on him.

"Sorry, but I'm not in the mood for a rematch right now." She guestured towards the seats. "Sit."

Talon did. "Where's the King?"

The woman nodded to her right, and the King stepped out. "As you can see, he has been quite safe." She glanced at her watch. "Hm. Any minute now..."

Talon tensed as an off stage door opened and the sound of running footsteps neared.

The King's eyes lit up. "Pricilla!" He ran into her outstretched arms. The two embraced fiercely.

Talon blinked. "What's going on here?" He demanded.

"Allow me to make some introductions," the woman said. "Talon Gauss, meet Mrs. Pricilla Candace Morgan Roswind. And my name is Namida Samui; I was hired to protect Jonathan-san."

The weight of the realization struck Talon with stunning clarity. He rubbed his temples and cursed at himself inwardly. He knew that taking freelance assignments led to a bit of confusion in the details. What he really needed was an organizational backing. But he had been through that once before and it was not what it turned out to be. He didn't want that to happen, either.

King Roswind was now standing beside his wife, hand in hand. "I see," he indicated with some finality.

"Good. Now that we've got that misunderstanding out of the way..." Samui put away her gun and motioned for Talon to join her on the stage.

Suddenly, the doors burst open and uniformed soldiers rushed into the auditorium. Talon raised his bo while Samui took position in front of the royal couple. The blue uniformed soldiers had their weapons aimed at the four on stage. Nearly every exit was blocked.

The main doors opened again and Jeremy strode in confidently. "Well done, Mr. Gauss. I knew we could rely on your professionalism."

"You led them here?" Samui asked Talon.

He pulled out the transponder Jeremy gave him earlier. The light was still off. It hadn't been activated.

"The button doesn't do anything, Mr. Gauss. It's connected to the led and makes it blink. The transponder was always activated. We've been keeping tabs on your travels."

"So you've been watching me," he concluded.

"Bravo," he clapped his hands softly in amusement. He turned to Roswind. "Queen Priscilla!" he started with shocked eyes. "What? How is it you're here? You were supposed to be secured!"

Pricilla smirked. "Not securely enough, obviously."

"Doesn't matter. I hope you enjoyed your little trip out now that we're here to take you and the King back with us. SEIZE THEM!"

"Run!" Samui shouted, pulling out her gun again.

     Talon unleashed a Bolt attack on a group of the soldiers, sending them flying several feet. The rest of the group paused in their advance. Taking cover, they began firing their weapons.

"Look out!" Talon screamed, knocking Samui out of the way from the incoming fire. He landed on top of her. "Are you hurt?"

"No. Please get off me."

Talon nearly blushed but he scrambled off her body. For the first time since they met, he got a close look at her face. She hid her emotions well, but Talon could still sense that she was no stranger to tragedy.

The soldiers were beginning to advance under the cover fire of their comrades. "We need to find more closed quarters if we're going to put up a fight. It's too open here and we'll never get close enough." Talon's military training was clicking in again.

"Jonathan-san is my main concern right now," Samui answered. Glancing around, she spotted an ungarded door and dashed towards it, dodging the bullets with nimble ease.

"Wait!" Talon shouted after her. He cursed silently. The only reason why this set of doors was unguarded was because they wanted them somewhere. They were being pushed to that destination and Talon didn't particularly want to end up in that trap. --- Post #7 [Dot wrote:]

     As soon as Samui had shouted for them to run, Jonathan bolted towards his left while keeping a tight grip on his wife's hand.

     'Samui had said to head for the catwalk if anything happened,' Jonathan remembered as the metal ladder leading to the area over the stage came into view.

     "We must make haste," he said, helping his wife onto the ladder.

     "But won't we be trapped if we go up?"

     Jonathan considered this briefly, then shook his head. "I have faith in Samui."

     Pricilla stared at him for a little while longer, then shrugged and began to climb. Jonathan waited until she was all the way up before following her.

     "Wait!" Samui heard Talon shout as she made her dash for the door. Having no time to explain, she kept going.

     'I'm getting out of shape,' Samui thought as a bullet whizzed past her ear. Another four leaps brought her within a stone's throw of the supposedly unguarded door.

     Jeremy facevaulted as the green-haired woman seemed to disappear just as she reached the perfect trap he had set for them. A few moments later, something whizzed from the curtains and landed between the seats. Acrid smoke began filling the room.

     Talon stared in amazement as one smoke grenade after another was launched into the theatre. Behind him, he could hear the soldiers coughing and gasping.

     "Please save your staring for later, Talon-san."

     Talon whirled around, and blinked when he saw Samui. He hadn't heard nor felt her appearing; it was almost as if she had [already] been there for a while, but he didn't notice her until she spoke up. "How--"

     Samui shook her head. "Later," she repeated, helping him to his feet. "This way." She nodded towards the back of the stage.

     "Now what?" Talon asked when they made it all the way to the top of the catwalk.

     "My thoughts exactly," Pricilla agreed.

     Samui replied by pulling a hatch open, revealing a short stairway to the roof. "This was originally built into the building in the case of a fire, so that those on the catwalk wouldn't have to make the dangerous climb down the ladder." She guided a stunned Jonathan through it. "Quite convenient, isn't it?"

     Jeremy uttered a very long curse involving the former head of Roswind and several implements of extreme pain. He had lost them again, but this time for real. And he had been so sure that there was no way out of the building without his knowledge. Where in the world could they have hidden themselves?

     That was when Jeremy heard the muffled but still unmistakable sound of a chopper. He uttered another curse--a much shorter one this time--and ordered his men to "get their asses moving, pronto".

     The helicopter, which had been on the roof to pick up the King, his wife, his bodyguard, and the man Jeremy hired, was already out of firing range by the time the men rushed outside.

     Jeremy cursed again. It was at times like this that he really hated his job.

     Samui landed the helicopter in the CAPOW International Airport. She hopped out, then helped Pricilla down, while Talon kept a steady arm on Jonathan.

     "I have to admit, that was pretty amazing," Pricilla said when she got to solid ground.

     Samui eased a suitcase from the copter. "When you're in my line of work, Pricilla-san, you get lots of practice finding good hiding places and praying that the people chasing after you don't think of looking there."

     Talon raised an eyebrow. "What kind of a job do you have?"

     "Gauss-san, I thought you knew better than that," Samui replied in what might have been a playful scolding tone. "But I can assure you that what I do is legal." She set down a second suitcase. "Most of the time, anyway." She reached up for the third suitcase, which was just out of reach. "I could use some help, Gauss-san."

     Reaching over Samui's head, the taller Talon easily grabbed the last two suitcases and set them down. His eyes widened as he realized what Samui was planning. "Wait. You're not really--"

     Samui handed Jonathan and Pricilla each a suitcase. "We'll have to return to Roswind sooner or later, and I prefer sooner."

     Pricilla's eyes lit up. "Of course! No one would expect us to go back..." she suddenly looked worried. "Would they?"

     Samui picked up her own suitcase and began walking towards a small plane that was nearby. "Let's hope not."

     As Jonathan and Pricilla settled themselves in the passenger section of the plane, Talon watched Samui prepare the plane for launch.

     "Do you know how to fly a plane?" She asked as she pressed several buttons and flicked two switches without even bothering to look at any of them.

     "Yes, but I've never really flown a plane before." Talon had done a few simulation flights in training, but he wasn't sure that counted for any kind of experience. For one, you couldn't crash in a simulation. Real life, on the other hand, was a completely different matter.

     "Don't worry, all I need you to do is bring me some food or drink every once in a while, consult the flight manual when I ask you to, and not panic if we're about to crash."

     This time, Talon was pretty sure that Samui was very, very good at not laughing at her own jokes. "I'll try," he answered, mimicking her tone as best as he could.

     Samui buckled her seatbelt. "Could you peek into the back and check that Jonathan-san and Pricilla-san are ready?"

     Talon did. "They're ready," he reported, sitting in the co-pilot's seat and fastening his seat belt.

     Samui put on her headseat and handed one to Talon one as well. "Tower, this is flight 33 requesting clearance to take off."

     "Acknowledged," a voice crackled over the radio. "You are cleared to take off from runway 12."

     "Thank you." Samui gently eased a lever, and the plane began to move. In a matter of minutes, the plane was beginning to coast down the runway. "Tower, this is flight 33 taking off."

     "Have a pleasant trip, flight 33."

     "You can't find him." It was not a question.

     Jeremy hung his head. "No. None of my men have seen anything--"

     The Chairwoman cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Of course you wouldn't. Whoever we're dealing with is an expert at not getting caught."

     Matthew looked up wearily. "He's coming here."

     The Chairwoman stared at him with surprise. "What makes you so sure?"

     "Think about it. Where would you hide if someone's looking for you?"

     "That's easy, a place that they wouldn't think of..." the Chairwoman trailed off. "Oh."

     Matthew forced a smile. "Looks like I didn't take all of those tactics classes for nothing."

     Samui set the plane at a moderate speed, then stood up and stretched.

     Talon sweatdropped. "Uh, Samui? Isn't that kind of dangerous?"

     "Unless we suddenly run out of fuel, no." Samui headed for the cabin. "And I'll only be a few minutes."

     As Talon also stepped into the cabin, Samui pulled a briefcase out of one of the overhead storage compartments.

     "Here are the identities that we will be assuming in Roswind." Samui pulled out two files and handed it to Jonathan. "Jonathan-san, you and your wife will be Tendo Souun and Tendo Ame." She handed another file to Talon. "Talon-san, you will be Chiba Mamoru. As for myself, I will be Yukishiro Tomoe. We will be part of a goodwill group that will bring food, water, and first aid to Roswind. If anyone asks you any questions, try to answer as vaguely as possible." She turned to Jonathan. "Jonathan-san, do you think you can speak non-standard English for a while?"

     "I...shall try."

     Samui sighed lightly. "I think it would be best if you try not to say anything at all." She headed back towards the front of the plane. "Oh, and if anyone is hungry, there's plenty of food in the compartments."

     The plane landed at the airport of the country bordering Roswind late in the afternoon. Wearing caps and shades to hide their features, the group, lead by Samui, made their way to the nearest hotel and paid for three adjacent rooms.

     "Tendo-san," Samui said as they neared their rooms, using the false identities in case anyone was listening, "you two take the middle room. Mamoru-san, would you like the left room or the right room?"

     Talon shrugged. "Makes no difference."

     "Then I'll take the right room." Samui swiped the keycard in the slot and let herself in. "When would you like to have dinner? My treat."

     Talon chuckled, as Samui was the only person who carried money. "How about 7?"

     "That would be nice," Pricilla agreed. "We would have some time to get settled in."

     "See you at seven, then." Samui took her suitcase into her room and closed the door.

     At 6:50, there was a light knock on Talon's door.

     "Come in," Talon called as he buttoned his shirt. "I didn't close it all the way."

     His jaw nearly hit the floor when Samui came in: she had dyed her hair solid black and put in contacts so that her eyes were dark brown. But what had surprised him was not any of these, but the soft smile that was on her face. When he looked closer, however, he realized that she was still as hard to read as ever. In other words, she had simply exchanged one mask for another.

     "Are you ready, Chiba-san?" Samui asked, startling him out of his trance.

     Talon grinned back. "Ready, Yukishiro-san."

     Jonathan, wearing a wig and a mustache, and Pricilla, who restyled her hair into the traditional Japanese woman's bun, came out of their room. "We're ready too," Pricilla announced.

     Samui nodded with approval at everyone's disguises. "Then let's go."

     Dinner passed quickly and without incident.

     "Get some rest," Samui advised as the group headed back to their rooms. "Tomorrow is going to be a long day."

     "Right," Talon agreed. Then a thought occurred to him. "Say, Yukishiro-san...where do you get all your...'stuff' from?"

     Samui smiled mysteriously. "Let's just say that I have some friends in high places, and leave it at that."

--Two weeks later--

     Jonathan looked very shaken as he saw the pitiful state that most of the Roswinders were forced to live in.

     The leader of the International Humanitarian Aid Society misinterpreted his expression entirely. "This isn't the worst of it, Mr. Tendo" she told Jonathan solemnly. "Near the capital, it's a literal blood bath."

     "Now, now, one at a time," Pricilla said gently as she passed out the food packages to the clamoring crowd. "There's plenty for everyone."

     On the other side of the truck, Samui and Talon were tending to the injured that had been brought forth.

     A young boy who had a gaping wound on his leg pulled back as Samui tried to dress it. "If you don't hold still, I won't be able to help you." The boy continued to stare at Samui in wide-eyed fear. Samui sighed. "Chiba-san, I'm going to need you to hold him down."

     "No!" The young boy cried out as Talon held his legs firmly in place. He screamed in pain and fright as Samui disinfected the wound and burst out sobbing.

     "I'm sorry," Samui apologized, lightly dabbing cream on the wound. The boy quieted down to a whimper as Samui finished bandaging.

     "That was very brave of you," Talon told the boy, letting go of his legs. Samui handed the boy's mother a food package and a roll of gauze, and gave out instructions on how to take care of the injury.

     The rest of the day passed in a similar manner.

     "What a day," Pricilla sighed as she sat down to dinner.

     "Tell me about it," Talon agreed. There seemed to be more and more injured as time passed, and there were even times when Samui and Talon could do nothing more except relieve the patient's suffering slightly before he or she died.

     Jonathan stared morosely into his food. "If only..." he sighed.

     Pricilla placed a hand on her husband's shoulder. "Don't blame yourself, dear. You did all that you could."

     Jonathan shook his head. "No, I--"

     A loud explosion rocked the ground; several people were knocked off their feet by the shockwave. In the distance, an orange glow could be seen.

     'A missle!' Out of instinct, Jonathan jumped up and sprinted towards the glow.

     "My baby!" The woman, barely held back by her neighbors, was in hysterics.

     "What's going on?" Talon demanded between breaths as soon as he got close enough.

     "My baby [girl] is in there!" The woman repeated, struggling against the arms that held her back. "Let me go! Let me go!"

     Sirens wailed in the distance, but Talon had a feeling that they wouldn't be able to get there in time. Fingering his Locate materia tightly, he walked forward to the woman.

     "I'll find her," he promised her.

     Samui shouted for Talon to wait, but he already ran into the burning building.

[flashback]      "Corparation bastard!" one of the towsnpeople spat. "You sold us out!"

     "That's not true!" Talon cried back. "The Corporation needs the resources! But you're still getting paid for it!"

     Another angry miner shook a fist at him. "We can't live off the bloody chicken scraps they're givin' us! We can't make a living with that! You're killing us!"

     "Please," Talon pleaded. "There was nothing I could do. But you have to calm down! We can reach a settlement! We have to try!"

     "I ain't gonna calm down!" the first one shouted. "Come on, let's kick these bastards out of here!" The angry mob charged into Talon. They weilded torches and waved them at the garrison. "BURN IT DOWN!" they shouted.

     Talon grabbed the nearest man and tried to haul him down. He had to stop this before someone got hurt. "Stop it!" he yelled. A man from hit him from behind. His men, seeing their commanding officer assaulted, no longer resisted the urge to hold back as he had commanded. They charged the mob. "No!" he yelled. He didn't want it to start like this.

     The fighting that broke out was uncontrolled and frenzied. Angry miners and soldiers caught in their own skirmishes were taking hits on both sides. Talon fought off the man on his back and raced to help one of his men who was being ganged up on three miners. He pulled one man off and gave him a hit to the face. He stumbled back against the building and dropped the torch he was carrying. The flames spread quickly.

     The other two focused their rage on Talon instead of the soldier. One man tried rushing him, which Talon stepped out of the quickly but the other hit him squarely in the jaw. He fell hard to the ground. The man jumped on him and they wrestled on the dirt. They rolled until Talon got the advantage and knocked him out. He heard a shrill cry. There was someone inside the building!

     Talon started towards the building when two more miners grabbed him. One locked his arms while the other belted him in the stomach. Talon took a few hits, knocking the wind out of him. On the third hit, he strained to pull his legs up and kick the man throwing the punches. His momentum shifted the man holding him back down onto the dirt. Talon got up. He had to get inside the building.

     The man grabbed him from behind again. Talon flung out his arms and got out of the hold. He turned, ducked a left hook to his face, jabbed the man in his stomach and as he doubled forward, sent a flying uppercut. Panting hard, Talon wiped the blood from his mouth.

     The flames had spread quickly in the small building. The heat was an inferno and sweat drenched him in seconds. "HELP!" the voice cried again. It was coming from the second floor. He took a step to the stairs, stepping back to avoid the falling ceiling debris. He had to hurry.

     Running up the stairs as fast as he could, he listened once more trying to figure out where the person was. He heard coughing from one of the rooms. Scrambling to the doorway, he found a boy trapped under a burning beam. "Help!" he cried again.

     "Hold, on kid!" Talon screamed. He took a step towards him. Suddenly the rest of the ceiling supports came crashing down. Talon shielded his eyes from the smoke and dust the settled. "No!" he cried. Talon rushed to the pile, throwing off the beams and wooden supports. Clearing away the rubble, he found the boy. His eyes were open but he was not breathing. He checked a pulse. The boy was dead.

     No! he screamed inside his mind. If I had been faster! If all this hadn't happened! He was supposed to be protecting the town but now it was in chaos. His men were fighting the townspeople, and this boy was dead. Because of him. It was his fault.

     He began coughing hard. He gripped the boy's shirt, unwilling to let go. More of the ceiling came down and he subconsciously forced himself to get up. Hacking from the smoke, he made his way quickly down the stairs before it collapsed too. He stumbled out the door, breathing hard for the fresh air. His feet couldn't carry him any further and he collapsed, coughing hard.

     "There he is!" some more miners shouted. "Get him!" A small group of men ran to his fallen body. Talon felt pain as fists and feet punched and kicked his body. He curled up hard, trying to stop the pain. He lashed out his arms and pulled one of the men down. The group fell back a little. He got up and found the nearest man. All he wanted to do was make them pay. All this fighting cost that boy his life. If they wanted to fight, then so be it!

     He crashed into the man crazily. He no longer knew what he was doing. He felt fists punch into his side but he ignored the pain. He flung an elbow at the nearest face, knocking that man down. He grabbed another in a choke hold. Squeezing hard, he felt the man's neck snap. The miner slumped to the ground lifelessly. His eyes were filled with rage, staring at the dead miner but not yet comprehending what he had done.

     "He killed Spruny!"

     "Bastard!" the men shouted. One man grabbed a nearby piece of wood and ran at Talon. There was a crack of gunfire and the man fell. The others looked up to see Talon's men return with sidearms. They fled. A few chased after them while the others rushed to Talon.

     "Captain!" a soldier shouted. "Captain, are you okay?"

     Talon's mind was locked in a cycle of hysteria. What had he done? What had he done? Why? Why? WHY?! He grabbed his soldier by the collar and hit him. The others backed off, not understanding what was happening to their officer. Talon spun around frantically like a trapped animal. His legs finally gave out again and he dropped to his knees. The tears wouldn't stop flowing. [/flashback]

     Talon ran, keeping his head under the smoke.

     'All right,' he thought. 'If this house is built like most two-story ones, then the children's bedroom should be upstairs.

     Hoping that his hunch was right, he dashed up the stairs and into a bedroom. Looking around, he found the terrified girl cowering under her bed.

     "Come on," he gestured, reaching out to her. "Your mother's waiting for you."

     As soon as the girl climbed out from under the bed, Talon scooped her and dashed back out as fast as his legs could take him.

     By the time Talon returned the girl back to her grateful mother, the fire department had arrived and began battling the flames. That was also when Samui pointed out that there was a large burn on his arm, and immeadiately set to work on it.

     "How old are you?" Talon asked, amazed at the efficiency with which Samui tended to his injury.

     Samui began rolling the gauze around his arm. "21."

     Talon gave Samui a suspicious look. "No, way. It takes years to be able to do the stuff that I've seen you do."

     Samui shrugged. "I'm a quick learner."

     Talon sensed that Samui didn't really want to talk about it, but he persisted. "You've got to be at least 30."

     "Then tell me what possessed you to run into a burning building," Samui countered.

     Talon decided not to answer that question.

     The Chairwoman paced the room impatiently. "It's been a whole damned month already, and nobody's seen or heard a thing." She glared at Matthew. "You still sure that he's here?"

     Matthew glared back. "What would I gain by lying to you?"

     The tension in the air rose as Matthew and the Chairwoman engaged in a battle of wills. This probably would have continued for a long time if Jeremy hadn't spoken up.

     "No matter where he is, we don't have him, and that's what's important. Unless we have the King formally turn his power over to us, we'll never get the support we need." He waited until he had everyone's attention before continuing. "I have a plan to draw him out..."

--Another week later--

     The International Humanitarian Aid Society continued to administer to the locals while the CNN news team set up around them.

     "Try to stay out of the camera," Samui said to Talon, Jonathan, and Pricilla in a low voice. "No one's recognized us yet, but it's always better to be on the safe side."

     The director signaled for quiet, and the anchorman took one last look at his notes. "On the air in 5, 4, 3..."

     "This is Alex Swartzel reporting live from Egrot, Roswind. During the chaos of the civil war--which very rapidly expanded into a multinational one--many men and women have risked their lives to bring food, water, and, most imporantly, hope into this besieged country. One of the many groups involved in the effort is the International Humanitarian Aid Society, which--"

     "Drop your weapons!" a voice roared. Several shots were fired, and a few of the soldiers protecting the media were struck down before they could pull their weapons. Screams were heard as more shots were exchanged; those not armed dived for cover.

     A group of armed masked men surrounded the group. "Drop your weapons!" The same voice repeated. The remaining soldiers, not wanting to suffer the same fate as their fallen comrades, put their weapons down and raised their hands.

     Another masked man, who Talon presumed to be the leader of the group, stepped forward. "You," he said, gesturing to the shaking anchorman. "Give me your microphone. And you," he pointed to the cameraman. "Come here." Taking the mike, the leader waited for the cameraman to stand to his feet. "Jonathan Edward Roswind the Fifth, you have exactly one week to surrender to us and answer for your negligence of this country." The masked man had the cameraman pan around to show the group of people. "The lives of these people are in your hands." The masked man pointed a threatening finger at the camera. "Don't try anything funny."

     The masked men tensed as four people stood up nearly simultaneously. One of them pulled off his wig and mustache, while the other undid the clasp which held her hair up in a bun.

     There was an audible facevault as everyone recognized the former King and Queen of Roswind.

     "Thou gavest thy word," Jonathan reminded the masked man. "Now, release them."

     "It's very simple, really: just sign the little paper and you'll be free to go," Jeremy explained as Jonathan read through the contract.

     Pricilla crossed her arms. "You actually expect my husband to turn over his power to you after all you've done?"

     Someone else walked into the room. "Please just sign it, Dad."

     Jonathan turned, completely stunned. "Matthew?!?"

     Talon bit his lip in concentration as he worked on picking the chains that held his wrists behind his back using a piece of wire he had hidden in his back pocket.

     'Just a little bit more--aha!' He eased the chains to the floor and began working on the ones that restrained his legs. In a few moments, those opened as well. 'Now, how am I going to open the door...?'

     His question was answered by a loud crash from the adjacent cell, which was rapidly followed by muffled 'umphs' as the soldiers guarding the cells were knocked unconcious. Seconds later, the door swung open, revealing Samui.

     Talon gaped. "How in the world...?"

     "Ever heard of something called a 'Hoi Poi Capsule'?"

     "Um, no."

     Samui reached into her pocket and pulled out a small pill-sized object. "A very good thing I never leave home without these." She put it back into her pocket. "I'll explain on the way."

     Pricilla was first to recover. "I understand's about that argument you had with your father, isn't it? No wonder you were so opposed to changing the government into a constitutional monarchy..."

      Matthew David Roswind looked away. "In the beginning, yes...I didn't mean for it to go so out of hand."

     Jonathan looked at his son sadly. "Thou shouldst have known that not even this wouldst change Our mind."

     Matthew hung his head. "I'm sorry..."

     Pricilla barely restrained herself from slapping her son. "It's a little too late for that now."

     "That's right," the Chairwoman said as she entered, flanked by two guards. "I'm afraid that you've outlived your usefulness." She pulled out a gun. "Even if you don't sign that paper, the throne will pass to your eldest son once you die." Unlatching the saftey, she pointed it at Jonathan. "No hard feelings, Your Majesties, but your reign ends today."

     Seeing the gun pointed at his father brought Matthew back to reality in a hurry. All of his doubts and fears vanished as he came to a decision.

     The Chairwoman cocked back the hammer.

     Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Matthew lept into action, and the door burst open at the same time.

     Talon instinctively lept out of the way as the woman fired wildly, swung around and fired again. Several others drew out their weapons and trained it on him. Out of the corner of his eye, Talon saw Samui take out the lone gunman at the back of the room, whom Talon recognized as Jeremy, and throw the table at the other gunmen to protect the King and the Queen. The table knocked one of them unconcious, and Talon took care of the other one, leaving the woman as the only person left standing.

     Samui took the gun from one of the fallen soldiers and aimed it at the woman, who was about to shoot Talon. "Don't. I'm much faster than you."

     As Talon relieved the woman of her gun, Jonathan rushed forward to someone who was laying on the ground.

     "Matthew!" He cried out.

     "I'm okay," Matthew replied despite the gunshot wound in his chest.

     'He must have been hit when that woman fired the first shot,' Talon realized. Pulling out his Restore materia, Talon knelt near Matthew and concentrated. The materia glowed, and green light circled the wound. A little while later, the bullet floated out of the wound and the flesh around it quickly healed to close it.

     "Jesus, Mary, Joseph," the Chairwoman breathed, awed.

--Rasinor International Aiport, Rasinor, Lanmyri (Roswind's northern neighbor), three weeks later--

     Unlike most of the other travelors in line to buy tickets out of Rasinor, Talon waited patiently. He wasn't in any particular hurry to go anywhere, and the long wait was a good opportunity to think.

     First and foremost on his mind was his most recent job. Talon had always made it a personal policy not to ask too many questions about his clients, as there were many special circumstances under which he would be hired. This time, though, his lack of knowledge resulted in a nearly grievous misunderstanding. Talon wondered briefly what would have happened if he succeeded, and quickly decided that he'd rather not know.

     Which brought him to his second thought: Samui. During the little free time that he had, Talon had tried to find information about her, but came up with nearly nothing. That, plus what few words she said, and what things he had seen her do, added up to a very unusual picture.

     "There you are, Talon-san. I was afraid I missed you."

     Talon almost didn't recognize Samui, her hair still black--although some green was beginning to peek through the roots--but he saw her poker- faced expression, and immeadiately realized who was addressing him.

     "I thought you were still with Jonathan," he stated tentatively, throwing the question out into the air.

     Samui shook her head. "No, I'm heading back home. Would you like a lift?"

     Talon looked down the line and saw that he wouldn't be able to reach the counter any time soon. "Sure."

     "What happened to Matthew?" Talon asked when they had reached the privacy of the plane.

     Samui helped Talon put his luggage away. "When the transition to a constitutional monarchy is completed, he and his accomplices will be put on trial before the new Parliament." She closed the overhead compartment.

     "You should have stayed," Jonathan advised half-seriously. "You would have made a great defense laywer."

     "I don't know enough of Roswind's legal procedures to do that," Samui replied.

     'That's the straightest answer I've heard her give me,' Talon thought.

     Samui buckled her seat belt and began the pre-flight instrament test. "So where are you headed?"

     "I don't know," Talon admitted. "Just any place that needs someone like me, I guess."

     Samui reached behind her and pulled out a small booklet. "Then take a look at this, if only to keep yourself occupied during the flight."

     "What's this?" Talon asked, looking at the cover of the booklet. The letters S-T-R-A were graphically designed as the front logo. "STRA?"

     "It stands for Space-Time Regulation Agency," Samui explained. "Go on, read it."

     Talon took a few minutes to read the mission statement of the agency as well as their operating objectives, principles and code of ethics. The more he read, the more astonished he became. He knew other dimensions existed out there. After all, his world was just another floating in the realm of total existence. But he was suprised that there was a policing to it all. He supposed it made logical sense, but the mere fact that it did exist was amazing in itself.

     "You're with these people?" he held up the booklet. She nodded. "Hmm...I guess it makes sense now. You're so mysterious and secretive about yourself. I figure that you try to let as few people know about who you are and who you work for."

     "Something like that," Samui agreed.

     "But why are you showing this to me?"

     "Isn't it obvious? I'd like you to come on board with us."

     Talon stood there for a few seconds, taking in that last sentence. He grinned, for once in a long while in fact. "You're, kidding right? You're joking."

     Her pokerface was as present as ever. "Do I look like I'm joking?"

     Talon held the booklet up again. "Thanks," he indicated and dumped it back in her hands, "but I think it's too late to start my life over." He started to walk away.

     Samui sighed. "You're not going to make this easy for me, are you? Look, we need people like you. You've got a special ability. You can find people and you can find things. These would take a lot of resources out of us. But you can do it with a whim. We could really use someone like yourself--" "'Use' seems to be the key word," Talon retorted.

     "There's something called 'give and take'," she responded. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "We have a record on you." Talon spun around, angry and surprised. "It's true. Our meeting in Jonathan's apartment wasn't totally by chance. I know a bit about how you operate."

     "Then I'm at a disadvantage," he admitted with a frown. "I can't say the same about you."

     "Think of it like this: I work for an agency. You work freelance. I'm asking you to come work under us. How many times have you gone into a job and wondered about the exact nature of the request or its clients? How many times have you wondered about me ever since I asked you to help Jonathan? Plenty, I'm sure."

     "True, but I think I can handle things on my own." He started to walk away again.

     "You know what the file says about you, Talon?"

     Talon stopped and turned around. "What?"

     "It says nothing. It's all classified, and I can't get anybody to tell my why." She looked deeply into his eyes. "But what I do know is that your file is hiding something you're not proud of, and you're trying to run from it." For the first time since Talon met her, Samui let a bit of her emotions through. "I've learned from experience that running doesn't work." She walked up to him. "I'm asking you to join because I need a partner. Please."

     "You need a partner," he repeated. "I see." He stood motionless for a moment, gazing at the distance between them. Finally, he blinked, turned around, and walked away.

     Samui's head lowered. She tried, but she couldn't force him. She squeezed the booklet, creasing it. Maybe he wasn't such an ideal recruit after all. Besides, there were plenty others from the dossier. But none really measured up to what Talon Gauss could have been with them. At least he wouldn't need to go through training. That alone had made the effort half worth it. With a resigned sigh, she decided it was time to check back in with HQ anway.

     She heard Talon's footsteps stop and him turn around. Looking up, she saw another grin. "Hey, what are you standing around for? Let's get going! I think you have a lot fill me in about STRA."

     Samui smiled slightly. "Thank you, Talon."


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