© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(Original Draft: 1-22-04)
There was a short but noisy commotion as Cloud walked into the familiar neighborhood of the Seventh District Slumps. Four ponies bolted out the door of the nearby café, followed closely behind by Berett, his weapon drawn. Cloud walked over slowly as Berett put his weapon away. "What was that?"
"Nuthin'," Berett said. "Jus' wait a little for things to calm down."
Cloud looked around as the other ponies scattered out of sight. Would they call the guards? No. Fights broke out in the Slumps with almost as much regularity as the sun that can only barely shine through Midnight City's smog, Berett once said. So to spark a fight in the Slumps, even for no reason at all, would draw no attention whatsoever from the Rin Sha police.
"Okay, coast's clear. C'mon in," Berett said as stepped aside. Cloud hesitated for a moment, then entered the café.
Inside the brightly-lit room sat Biggs and Wedge at a table, eating some food. Jess sat at a second table, watching Cloud come in. In the back was a young, pink pony with orange hair. The youngster ran underneath the service counter immediately after Cloud walked in.
"Well..., that's not a very nice way to say hello to Cloud, is it?" Came a familiar voice from behind the counter. From behind the counter rose a white pegasus with blue eyes and dark, almost black hair, wearing a black apron and holding a set of mugs which she set down upon the counter. "Cloud, you're back!"
Cloud smiled briefly. "Yeah, Lockheart, we're back." Lockheart walked out from behind the service counter. She swung her apron around over her back, then looked behind her under the counter. "Come on. Aren't you going to say hi to Cloud?"
The little pony carefully walked out, standing behind Lockheart. She looked at Cloud carefully, then said "Hi Cloud" and trotted to the back of the room.
"So, you're back in one piece," Lockheart said. "How'd the mission go? ...did you get in a fight again?"
"Not really...," Cloud responded. "Berett called me a showoff a few times, nothing major."
Cloud took a seat at the counter and put his pack down. He began searching through it for something when he found the flowers -- or more specifically, when Lockheart found them for him. "Flowers? How nice...."
"Oh, these? A nice pony in the upper level sold one to me."
Lockheart took out the flower and set it down on the counter. "You never see flowers around here... what do you think? Should I fill the café with flowers?"
Just then Berett came in and shut the door behind him. The young pony leaped up and down upon seeing him. "Daddy!!"
Berett knelt down as the young pony galloped towards him and then jumped onto his back. "You're back!"
"Aw, I said I'd be back, didn't I, my little darling?" Berett responded, playfully. Berett scanned over the room. "All's clear outside. Now we start the meeting!" Berett walked over to the fridge and pressed a hidden button on the back. Electric motors whined, then the fridge slid aside revealing a staircase. "All right you fools, get in here!"
Jess, Biggs, and Wedge followed Berett down the well-lit stairs to the basement.
Lockheart looked at Cloud for a moment, then walked back behind the counter. "Cloud, would you like something to drink?"
"Hm?" Cloud walked over to the counter. "Sure, give me something."
Lockheart nodded, then walked over to the dispenser and poured a glass, then slid it across the counter to Cloud. "You know, I'm glad you made it back safely. The Rin Sha news had a picture of that explosion...."
"You worried?" Cloud asked. "That wasn't a tough job at all. There were a few guards, some locked doors -- but overall . . . ."
Lockheart nodded. "Right. For an ex-Stallion like yourself, I guess. You know . . . Cloud?"
Lockheart paused. "Um..., yeah. Make sure to Berett gives you your pay."
"Right," Cloud nodded. "After that, I'm outta here--"
"HEY!" Shouted Berett from the staircase. "I said we were startin' the meeting! Where is everybody?"
Lockheart walked out from behind the counter. "We were just talking...."
"Whatever," Berett fumed before walking back down the stairs.
Cloud downed the drink quickly, Then followed. The stairs led down in a straight line, and after a short trip he was in the basement, their secret hideout. Biggs and Wedge were sat down at a small table playing cards; Jess, checking some documents on her computer and watching the Rin Sha Information Network ("Midnight City's #1 rated news source!") on the big-screen television; Berett, practicing kicks and other moves against a dummy; and his daughter, Pearline, laying back on a small mat atop some boxes.
Berett stopped kicking the practice dummy when he saw Cloud arrive. "Good, everyone's here. Hey Cloud, I been meanin' to ask ya -- did ya spot any one from Stallion on the mission today?"
"Nope," Cloud responded quickly. "Not a one."
"Ya didn't have to answer so fast...," Berett complained.
"Well, if there were any Stallion soldiers in the area, we wouldn't have made it out so easy, or at all."
"Easy?" Berett exclaimed. "Now dont go gettin' all pumped up jus' because you was in Stallion!"
Cloud shook his head silently.
"What was that?"
"I said nothing...."
"You damn right you said NOTHING!" Berett yelled. "Sure you're good. Probably all them Stallion types are. But Don't forget you'ses working for us now!"
"Listen --", Cloud tried explaining. "You asked the question, I answered it, nothing more. I would've asked about my money, but --"
"Get outta here--!!" Berett yelled.
"...Fine, I'll leave," Cloud huffed, then turned toward the stairs.
"Cloud...," Jess called.
"He wants to leave, Jess, we let him go! Probably still misses the Rin Sha!" Berett yelled.
"Berett, that's ENOUGH!" Cloud shouted. "Now listen. I don't care about the Rin Sha or the Stallions anymore. But I don't care much more for this, Snowslide, or what the Rin Sha are doing to this Land, either!"
Berett growled and then began to kick the stuffing out of the practice dummy.
Cloud shook his head and then walked back upstairs. "So you're leaving?" Lockheart asked him from behind the counter.
"Psh, it's not worth my time...," Cloud complained as he walked for the door.
"Come on," Lockheart inquired. "We need you. Snowslide needs you. The Land needs you. It's dying, you know."
"Then Berett and the others can fight for the Land. At this rate, it's got nothing more to do with me...."
"So that's it, then...." Lockheart began as Cloud unlocked the front door. "You're just going to take off and abandon an old friend?"
"What?" Cloud paused as Lockheart walked out from behind the counter towards him.
Lockheart looked at him deeply.
". . . Sorry about that," Cloud apologized.
"Did you forget that promise?" Lockheart asked.
Cloud looked at her in confusion.
"Yeah... you did forget, didn't you?" Lockheart inquired. "Remember, it was what, five, seven years ago? Back then you said you'd be leaving for Midnight City, like all the boys were."
"Oh yeah," Cloud nodded. "But it wasn't like that."
"I know," Lockheart added. "You said you were going to join Rin Sha's Stallions. You wanted to be the best...."
"Yeah," Cloud said. "Like the Great Sephiroth...."
"And then we made that promise. We agreed, that if you got into the Stallions, did really well, and if I was ever in trouble -- you'd come and rescue me. Remember?"
Cloud shook his head. "That was a long time ago."
"But you got into the Stallions, didn't you?"
"Lockheart," Cloud replied. "I'm not in the papers. I'm not famous. I can't -- I can't keep that promise anymore."
"That's not true--!" Lockheart complained.
Just then Berett climbed up the stairs. "Yo Cloud, you leavin'?"
"What do you want?" Cloud asked.
"For one thing, you ain't leaving without gettin' your pay," Berett said. He grabbed a small pouch and tossed it in Cloud's direction. "A promise is a promise. Take it!"
Cloud caught it and then counted it up. "100 gold? That's it?"
"Cloud...," Lockheart prodded.
Cloud looked at Lockheart for a moment, then back to Berett. "You got the next mission planned?"
"We were discussin' that now," Berett responded.
"I'll do it for 300 gold," Cloud recommended.
"WHAT!?" Berett exclaimed. Lockheart trotted over and took Berett aside. She whispered something about them needing help, while Berett muttered about needing the money for something else. Miffed, Berett looked back at Cloud. "200 gold! No more!"
"Okay, it's agreed," Lockheart announced. "Where are you guys going?"
"We're plannin' on taking out the Fifth District refractor tomorrow. Jess says the Rin Sha will be watching for us on the trains, so we gotta be more careful. So c'mon down and get some rest. We'll be needin' our strength."
Berett headed back down to the basement. "That's right, get some rest," Lockheart recommended. "I still have some cleaning up to do."
Cloud nodded and then went down to the basement to locate a bed.
The next morning, Cloud awoke to the sound of a test pattern on the television and some muffled conversations from above. No one else was in the basement. Cloud yawned and stretched, grabbed and donned his pack and blade, then proceeded up the stairs.
"Good morning, Cloud," Lockheart welcomed as Cloud headed arrived on the café floor. Berett's daughter was busy setting glasses on the counter. Berett and Lockheart were waiting for him by the door.
"What -- time is it?" Cloud asked.
"Almost 8," Berett answered. "You sure slept like a log."
"Did you sleep well?" Lockheart asked.
"Well," Cloud said. "With you around, who wouldn't?"
Lockheart laughed. "You must still be half-asleep."
Berett looked over to Cloud. "Jess an' the others are all waiting for us at the station. We should get a move on."
Lockheart walked over to the fridge and pressed its secret button, then the fridge moved back into its original place, concealing the secret stairway from view. "I'll be coming as well...."
"Then who'll look after the café?" Cloud asked.
"I've asked a friend of mine to watch over the place while we're gone. I suppose, if this trip goes as quickly as your last one, we'll be back by nightfall."
"Okay then," Cloud nodded. "Are we all ready?"
"Not quite," Berett interrupted. "I got somethin' I been meaning to ask ya. What's this?" Berett produced a small green gem and showed it to Cloud.
"Where did you find that?" Cloud asked.
"Someone left it in the control room of the refractor yesterday," Berett anwered. "What is it?"
"It's a magic stone. Don't you know how to use those?"
Berett shook his head. "Beats me...."
"It's easy. Show me that laser of yours."
"O-okay," Berett answered. He lifted his metal leg and placed it on the table, then slid the casing back to reveal his laser weapon. Cloud looked it over and pointed out a few small compartments in it. "See those? That's where you put magic stones. Then you can use them."
"What do ya mean, 'use' them? How?"
Cloud looked at Berett.
"I'm clueless...." Berett admitted.
Cloud sighed, then drew and put his blade on the table. "Let me see that one."
Berett put the gem on the table and Cloud picked it up. He looked at his blade, and then popped a similar-looking green gem out of one of the compartments on his blade, swapping it with the gem Berett found. "Use this one," Cloud said, putting the other gem into Berett's laser. "You'll figure it out -- sooner or later. For now, let's get a move on."
Berett slid the casing on his metal leg/laser shut and Cloud sheathed his blade. Lockheart looked at them both. "Anything else before we go?"
"Nuthin' I can think of," Berett said. Cloud shook his head no.
"Okay then, let's be off. We don't want to miss our train, do we?"
The three of them left the café, with Cloud in the lead. A dark blue pony with spiked red hair was outside. "Donny," Lockheart announced. "We're off for the day. Take care of the place, now..."
"Y-yeah," the blue pony stuttered. "H-Have a, um, a good time, Lockheart. S-see you when--when you get back, okay?"
"Right," Lockheart nodded. "We'll be fine."
Lockheart handed the pony a key to the door, then ran to catch up with Cloud and Berett. In another minute they arrived at the station.
"Finally," Jess shouted in their direction as they arrived. "Let's go!"
"I will need to see your ID cards first," the station guard announced. "You got yours?" The guard asked to Jess.
Jess nodded and showed her fake ID to the guard. The guard glanced over it quickly. "Looks all right, get on," he said, as he waved Jess on to the train. Biggs and Wedge were next, and the guard waved them onboard after a short glance at their ID's.
Berett was the next one permitted onboard. The guard stopped Lockheart for a moment. "The café'll still be open today, right?" Lockheart nodded, and then the guard waved her onboard.
"And you got yours?" The guard asked Cloud.
"Yeah," Cloud nodded, showing his fake ID to the guard. The guard glanced at it. "Former Stallion? Impressive. You're clear," he said, waving Cloud onboard.
Cloud wasted no time hopping onboard. The station bell sounded, and the guard looked around. "Any more?" No one answered, so the guard shut the train door and waved to the conductor. The conductor sounded the train's whistle two times and then fired up the locomotive, and with metal squeaks and whines from the wheels, it began moving, along its rails back to the upper levels of Midnight City.