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Belle and Beller

Chapter 4 – Sad clowns, happy crows; death wherever the wind blows

The venue for the Moonlaugh charity night had been constructed for the very event it was hosting. Everything was new—from the sparkling metal walls, to the digital screens showcasing animations of Caith Sith in various clown outfits.

"More laughs, more colors, more cares," went the slogan.

Even Belle cringed as she heard it for the tenth time. Locating Prompto had taken two calls and some bumping into passersby, which earned them dark looks from the security guards.

In his costume, Prompto was more monochromic than the girls: face white, a black tear under his left eye, black fabric clinging to his head, letting out only a few blond strands of hair. His neck was surrounded by a fan collar of black and white fabric, with three large pompoms completing the Pierrot look.

"Does that really count as a clown?" Cindy asked as she recognized his baby blue eyes.

"Right back at you, goth-girl."

"Excuse me?"

Belle was quick to remind them of the reason for their crazy get-ups and steered them toward the nearest entrance to the Moonlaugh charity event. Their VIP tickets earned them a nod of the head, although Cindy observed the way one security agent scuffed at her.

"What's so wrong with my costume? Is it the hair?" she asked Prompto.

The man harrumphed, attempting to appear preoccupied by the crowd that was nearly blocking their way inside. He wasn't ready to comment on what exactly could be wrong with her clown costume. If he started, he might never stop and could say goodbye to anything resembling a date when they would leave this carnival of smiling, laughing, barking and crying clowns.

Cindy inched a bit closer to their Pierrot, wishing she could put one hand on her gun if only to comfort herself. Crossing the curtain to the hastily-put-together venue was like stepping into a rainbow. Filled with masked or painted-on faces that visited the entire spectrum of emotions, while all managing one important thing: nobody in here looked even remotely human. Their smiles were too large, their shoes were too large, their laughter lasted too long. The inner child in Cindy was utterly terrified. On the other hand, Belle looked amazed by the sheer variety of colors and shapes.

A tall, man-sized Caith Sith was giving instructions to the new arrivals and gave them a quick briefing of what they could expect. He also handed out bags of VIP guest goodies either related to Exoneris or the night's main theme.

"Welcome, welcome, laughter workers! The contest will start in about 15 minutes! Your number will be in the bag, so grab a drink, careful with your makeup and find your place in the line of clownsies!"

The numbers were thankfully not random and they could all stand close by in the line of VIPs after checking the place out.

The stage occupied the center of the open-air space, with caterers and tables littered with food lining the walls. Spotlights kept changing in intensity, as though looking for a target worthy of their light. It made it hard to follow the guests buzzing about and commenting on the clowns, the decorations, or the very fact their host wasn't even there yet.

Reeve Tuesti wasn't anywhere in sight. Not even among the circles of celebrities and artists that participated in the bids on the five nicest costumes. Eccentrics had shown up for the occasion, including the ever-elusive Verstael Niffelheim, also known as the "Daemon Doc". Belle knew the man had discovered a cure for more illnesses than any others, while also creating a few plagues of his own in his younger days. That last fact had been more or less covered up when he crossed the border of Lucis to expand his research. He offered his services only to wealthy patrons and cured them of all ailments. End result: he was filthy rich. Which meant he could bask in it and was untouchable despite the means he used to treat "patients".

"Daemon doc?" people whispered in the VIP line. "It's the first time I'm seeing him in person!"

Cindy noticed Prompto tensing up at the very name and gave him a sidelong glance, holding herself back to not elbow him in the ribs. She didn't want to mess up his costume. He shrugged in answer.

"That alias just sounds creepy," Prompto tried to defend himself.

"The guy behind ya looks way creepier, Pierrot," Cindy shot back in a whisper.

"I heard that, goth clown," growled the fat clown with pointy teeth.

Cindy grunted and tugged on Belle's arm.

"Why is everyone acting as though I'm an awful clown? Is it the piercing?"

"Girl, at this point, ya have to own it," Belle answered, giving her a cheerful wink.

That got a smile out of her partner, and before more talking could take place, the man-sized Caith Sith called the first contestant onto the stage. There was a total of 150 clowns. Which meant each contestant had little time to make his case to the crowd. A few tripped on their feet, some on purpose, some out of cheer stage-fright. The crowd mostly laughed about the on-running comments the mascot was making for the whole time of the contest.

"We have frizzles and freckles here, but no red nose. Lookie, lookie, with such a round belly, someone doesn't have to worry about ever sinking."

Cindy was half entertained, half wondering if the whole thing hadn't been a sham. Tuesti still had to show up and as the guests took notes, gave grades, and the line slowly thinned out, she started to wonder if either one of them had a chance to be selected for a talk with the CEO of Exoneris. Three intermissions were made for the guests to collect more beverages, while one Exoneris employee or another performed some magic or circus trick in the meantime. Music alternated between comedy slideshows and some classics of the circus world.

"If we have to wait much longer…" the fat clown standing behind Prompto complained.

He'd been staring at Belle an awful lot since the first intermission.

"On to number 127!"

Belle nearly jumped and hurried on the stage, walking a bit awkwardly thanks to her floppy skirt.

"Look at her go, she's like a human, walking bell of colors and sparkles," Caith Sith purred.

Cindy was next and walked with confidence despite the few doubts creeping in thanks to the disapproving looks the other VIPs had given her for the last two hours. She was mentally telling herself that the VIP stood for "vile infinite pain." What man would have people stand still for over two freaking hours!

"Interesting take on the theme. One harlequin has gone dark, ladies and gentlemen! Unless she shocked herself on her way here, hence the crazy hair, ha ha!" the announcer laughed.

Prompto was the only Pierrot of the lot and progressed on the stage with firm but quiet steps, his collar swaying a bit as he walked.

"I love your choice of color, Pierrot. Put a smile on that face. Oh god, I think I'm in love!"

The good part of being in the last contestants was that the trio didn't have to wait much longer for the results. There was a fifteen minutes break so the clowns could drink or eat something. A digital screen rose from the stage's floor, Caith Sith bidding farewell to the guests with a small bow. The robot hadn't vanished out of sight for more than a few seconds when Reeve Tuesti walked onto the stage, suit, tie and beard all impeccable.

"Sorry for the delay everyone," he introduced himself, not seeming the least bit sorry. "I had been working on a little project of mine and thought it might be a funnier way to entertain you than being my boring old sel…" He hacked out a cough, catching something fluffy into his hand. "Oh lord, hairball. This project will need some adjustments," he added.

There were a few laughs while Cindy rolled her eyes, before noticing that Belle was nervously clutching her hands in front of her. If neither of them won, they would need to corner Reeve Tuesti, with him inside of his giant Caith Sith costume or not.

As the fifth and fourth places were given to some other contestants, with the donated sums of 100,000 and 150,000 gils, the trio felt hope dimming. They were talking about some heavy money.

"In third place, with a classic that gathered 500,000 gils, is our one and only Pierrot—Prompto Argentum!" Reeve called excitedly.

Belle gasped and Cindy almost screamed, but Prompto simply blinked, having to be called a second time to realize he had to get back on stage and bow. He just couldn't believe the amount of money Reeve had just said. Number 2 was the fat clown who'd been following them, much to Cindy's dismay. People donated 575,000 on that guy?! They were going to need persuasion to get more than five minutes out of Reeve.

"Now, before naming the highest bid of them all, I'd like to thank everyone for their contribution to this charity. Together, in a few hours, we've amassed over three million gil for the children of Lucis. And we have one lady in particular to thank for it, although I wouldn't want to dismiss the efforts of all the contestants we've had so far. With 864,373 gil, I'd like to call the bell of a clown who graced the floor of this stage earlier: Belle French!"

The crowd cheered and this time, Cindy let out a shriek. Belle stood frozen next to her until her friend and partner pushed on her back, nearly shoving her forward. Who in the hell threw out that kind of money for a mere costume? She flip-flopped up the stairs and hobbled onto the stage, feeling even more self-aware than when she'd first showed her costume to the very same crowd. An enlarged picture of her was shown on the digital screen and Reeve wrapped an arm around her shoulders as she got next to him, pushed in front of the four other winners.

"I hope this doesn't sound weird, but you're the prettiest mess of colors I've ever seen," the CEO told her. "I think you made me smile harder than anyone else today."

There was a warmth to his voice that didn't extend to his arm, or to the way he stood next to her. Belle had doubts about the man, but being this close to him—close enough to smell his cologne and aftershave, a combined experience that made her lungs seized for 30 good seconds—she could tell something was wrong. His eyes weren't looking for colors, but flaws. His smile looked plastered on. If it wasn't enough, his hand was too low down her back for comfort, but she forced a smile as the crowd cheered for their favorite clown. Her nose nearly came off when she gave a light bow to the public.

As Reeve suggested that everyone mingled and enjoyed the rest of the night, Cindy realized she would have to make a run for it if she wanted to participate in the talk with Reeve that both Prompto and Belle were allowed into. The security guys needed a little charm to get her backstage, but she managed to catch up with Reeve and his five clowns. There was the Caith Sith suit standing in a corner, which looked more like a high-tech piece of armor than anything else. Cindy knew she couldn't be subtle, so she simply walked up to the little group.

"If you want to know the amount of your bid, you can check the watch we gave out in your presents bag, goth-girl."

"Oh my gawd!" Cindy snapped. "I'm here on an investigation for the LPD, mister Tuesti, so just give me a minute of yar time, or I swear to the gods, I'll shoot the next person what calls me that for obstruction of justice."

"You're coming off a bit strong, there, partner," Belle warned her.

"What is the meaning of this?" Tuesti demanded.

"How about you guys go get some refreshments and come back in about 10," Prompto suggested to the three other winners.

A brief show of detective badges was enough to convince the fat, scary clown, the grapefruit clown, and the stilts clown to give them space. Reeve undid his tie and rolled his shoulders, as though he was trying to calm himself. Belle saw how his knuckles blanched and wondered why his angry eyes held much more humanity than his previous smile. It only lasted a few seconds. The man collected himself after shoving the tie into his pocket.

"I'm really sorry to take up your time in the middle of your charity event," Belle started.

"Darling, you don't need to apologize. You won fair and square 5 minutes of my time. I'd give you 5 more if my schedule wasn't so tight, honestly, but that lady over here…"

"Sir, I'm tired of playing nice. This costume is squeezing my…!" Cindy defended herself.

Prompto's eyes widened while Belle quickly interrupted her partner.

"We need access to one of your Caith Sith's database."

"Why would I…" Reeve tried to protest.

"There is a murder investigation going on," Prompto chimed in.

"Pierrot too, huh? Except you don't have a badge, so what are you?" Reeve questioned him.

"A secretary…" the young man admitted, his shoulders lowering.

"Point is, we need to know who bought a particular Cactuar figurine. The One Thousand needles model," Cindy declared.

"A connoisseur…"

"A dead one," Belle insisted. "We need to know if anything weird happened during this transaction. Or if one of your Caith Sith robots…"

She hesitated on how to phrase it and Reeve raised an eyebrow at her.

"Could it have attacked anyone? If the figurine was stolen, or…"

Reeve burst out in a laugh that made the three clowns jump.

"That's preposterous! Did you read some blog about the killer cat robots? I get that all the time from the press. The Caith Siths in Lestallum are fluffy vending machines; nothing more."

"How many Caith Siths do you have in Lestallum?" Belle pushed.

Reeve blinked.

"That's… that type of information is reserved to Exoneris's employees. Industrial espionage and…" he said. Cindy's glare made him grimace, but it was Belle's clownish glower that had him crack. "We have two in the city. Except for that beauty I used to entertain the guests. I can give you a file from my first Caith Sith—the main vendor for the figurines. I had a private detective looking into what happened to it, but you might as well help."

"What happened to it?" Prompto asked.

"It was beaten up and wrecked by some maniac," Reeve said, his voice rising as he showed true emotions. "Those robots are cuddly and friendly."

"Wouldn't they defend themselves?" Cindy questioned, wondering if Talcott would have attacked a Caith Sith. That didn't sound right at all.

The CEO checked his watch, as though to make sure they weren't over their limited time. "I make robots for a living; I have security protocols," he continued. "The civilian-zone machines are all programmed to protect humans. They wouldn't defend themselves if attacked. They'd run if possible, but no retaliation whatsoever. They don't even have claws!" he concluded, sounding outraged by the fact his robot cats lacked claws.

"Well, we still want the file. I'd also liked to ask you where the attack took place and…"

A scream cut Belle off mid-sentence. A violent crash followed by gunshots put the three clowns on high alert while Reeve reacted with cool detachment.

"What now?" he sighed.

"Get out of your hiding place, Tuesti, you sick bastard!" a woman called out.

"Not her again," he breathed through clenched teeth, before motioning towards his Caith suit.

"Don't just walk out there!" Belle called him back.

"No need to worry about me, bell clown," Reeve told her, taking her hand, his palm cold against hers. "If you stay put, there shouldn't be anything going wrong for you guys."

Cindy motioned to stop him despite the fact her shoes made it nearly impossible for her to catch up on him. It was then that footsteps closed in and a burly woman with a red helmet and a thick armor stepped in carrying a gun.

Reeve hurriedly hid inside his suit. It offered him the protection he needed, but made him cuddly-uddly.

"Sania Wilson—for the tenth time—they were only frogs!" Reeve declared, his voice unmodified this time around.

Cindy racked her brain for information on the newcomer, but she had nothing on her. Belle was just as lost and closed her clowny fist around the key the CEO had left her, her brain barely registering the object's presence.

"It was an ecosystem! And you crushed it with the heel of your feet like you do everything else, Tuesti! I've tried exposing you with normal means, but I've stepped up my game."

"Come down to my level, you mean? How the mighty have fallen," he mocked her. "Let's play a game of cat and mouse."

Without further ado, he dropped down on all four paws and lunged forward, propelled by repulsors in his suit. Cindy pulled Prompto to the side to evade Sania's bullets as they ripped through the air.

"Wait… She's using blank shots?!" Prompto realized, seeing the rounds hitting the floor a few feet from them.

"Really?" Cindy blurted out.

Belle took out her gun and rushed after Reeve with her goofy wig flapping around her neck. The two armored humans pushed each other around, sending material flying as they crashed into everything. Cindy kicked off her shoes and carefully stepped on the stage to get a better idea of how the guests were handling the sudden commotion. The security guards were all knocked out and the clowns and bidders were running to the exits in a human stampede.

"We're going to get more wounded just from their panic," Cindy groaned.

Just as she was throwing a glance over her shoulder, the Caith suit flew across the entire venue by a violent kick from Sania. Surely that armor she wore was reinforced like the one Reeve was wearing.

"I equipped myself to face you this time around, Tuesti!" Sania declared as he hit the west wall, the metal actually bending under the shock.

"Stop this madness right now!" Belle called out, her badge held in one hand, her gun in the other.

"I'm already an outlaw," Sania scoffed. "Look it up under S. Wilson, cop clown."

She flicked a switch on her gun and aimed it at Tuesti, the barrel charging up with energy that flickered into a blast of light. The Caith suit was hit square in the chest.

"This charity wasn't supposed to turn out into full-on mayhem," Reeve griped, raising one paw and discharging a blast of his own on the armored ecologist.

Sania was pushed back a few steps, her forearms flashing blue as her suit absorbed the input of power. Cindy was glad the civilians had cleared the nearby perimeter, but couldn't help but wonder where the damage would stop.

"Did you steal and modify one of my tactical suits, you wench!?" the CEO snapped, realization dawning on him.

"I thought it was simply fitting to fight fire with fire. I just scraped off the synthetic fur. Too flammable for my tastes. Although I must say, no gas emission? That's something you should share with the entire world, not the highest bidder, you money-obsessed…"

"Goth-cop!" Reeve called out to Cindy. "This woman has threatened my guests and stolen my company's property for a pesky, imaginary revenge. If you're going to arrest someone…"

"Like hell I will! Ya're using unregulated weaponry and shooting laser beams like some deranged iron cat dude! If anything, ya're both under arrest!"

The Cait suit's eyes turned to slits and its teeth flashed in a feline sneer.

"You don't want to do that. Trust me."

Prompto and Belle had both used that time to get closer to Sania, who seemed to ignore everyone but her target. She barged in and took out the security guards, then focused all her fire on Reeve. No one understood why she was after Reeve. The mention of frogs was too vague to clear things up. Reeve charged another blast, while Sania kicked on her own thrusters so she could take flight.

"I don't want you to get hurt," said Sania, "but if you're asking for it…"

Belle responded by jerking Sania's helmet backwards and swatting at her legs. Sania lost balance long enough for both clown-themed agents to tackle her to the floor.

"We need one of you to stop this madness before someone gets seriously hurt," Belle told the die-hard ecologist.

Sania struggled against them to no avail. She refused to use the armor's strength against some petty clowns.

"Huh, Belle…" Prompto tried to get her attention.

"Move out of the way, Belly," Reeve warned, the energy fully charged in his fluffy palm.

Cindy took aim, stepped on a shard of glass with her bare foot and missed the Caith Suit's arm by a mile. Sania only had the time to knock Prompto to the side as the lit palm of the Caith Suit released its charge. A large shadow fell over the beam's trajectory, signaling the arrival of a newcomer. Belle only had time to blink before the smell of charred flesh filled the air. Cait Sith-Reeve looked at the newcomer, his over-sized head leaning to the side in inquiry.

"And who are you supposed to be now?"

The mysterious and half charred individual gurgled and spat blood in answer. It was a wonder how he was still even standing! Cindy used the confusion to her advantage, carefully hopping on her good foot in the CEO's direction. With a squeaky toot, the large hooded figure deflated in the shape of an average man. He threw his clown mask to the ground to reveal the bald and scarred head of… Wade Wilson! He spat out sharp, pointy teeth and Cindy realized he'd been the fat clown all along.

What in the name of Hajime Tabata was he doing here?!

"I was hired to give you a good fright, cat-man," the merc stated. "But it sounds like someone beat me to the punch."

"Wade, you picked the worst time..." Sania started.

"Don't worry, cousin, I took that shot to make sure my girl wouldn't be baked alive. Has nothing to do with you. But wait guys, this reminds me: anyone want a Deadpool rib? Think fast, because they're turning raw and lively in the next ten minutes!"

"Oh, please!" Cindy whispered to herself, fighting against a shiver and the throbbing pain in her foot.

Belle asked Prompto to call for reinforcements and tried to catch Wade's attention, only to spot Cindy reaching for the Caith Suit. Next to her, Sania's shoulders sagged.

"Guess I should let Wade take the fall for this one," said Sania. "Taking care of Tuesti isn't the only thing on my agenda." Her boots lit up as her thrusters kicked back on.

Belle tried to stop her."No wait; I need to ask you…!" The detective was forced to shelter her face with her arms, her battered wig turned ablaze by the propellers grazing her as Sania took to the air. Belle hastily threw the accessory off and stepped on the synthetic fabric to take out of the flames.

From up above, Sania waved an imperious finger at Exoneris's CEO. "Don't think it's the last you will hear from me, Tuesti!" she vowed solemnly.

The man had some witty retort burning at the back of his throat, but Cindy cut him short with her gun.

"You are going to step out of this suit, Mr. Tuesti, or I swear to the gods, I'll shoot down every joint of this thing and pry you out of it myself with a wrench and a hammer."

The moon bathed her pale face with an eerie glow, her vein-popping eyes and cold glare adding to the grotesque and threatening impression she gave off. The stud in her nose had fallen and her hair was wild, pointing in every direction. Her skin-tight suit traced tense muscles along her trembling gun arm. Reeve gestured to raise his paws in surrender, and Cindy pistol whipped him.

"Keep them pointed to the ground and take off the stupid suit," she ordered.

"I'd better come to no harm."

"Oh, I think there was enough harm done as it is," Belle observed, walking up to them with an unreadable, checkered expression on her face.

Sirens wailed in the night, all headed for the Moonlaugh charity night. Cries of pain from the guests and a few strangled sobs echoed over the venue. No one really felt like laughing anymore. Reeve stepped out of his suit, Deadpool daring to ask where Cindy had been keeping cuffs and a gun in her crazy get up. All he got was a glare from Belle and raised eyebrows from Reeve, to which Wade shrugged, feigning dejection.

"You're making a big mistake," Reeve warned as the metal links closed around his wrists.

"Maybe you'll think twice the next time you decide to create a weaponized toy, Mr. Tuesti," Belle sagely said while flip-flopping alongside him.

The digital key in her palm burned her skin. Deep in her heart, she was convinced they'd found the real culprit to this string of murders. All she needed now was proof, and she'd get them no matter what it would take.

Cindy couldn't drive her car with her wounded foot. She instead lent it to Belle and Deadpool to give them a chance to escape Jasmine's potential questions. The goth-clown stayed behind to wait for first-aid with the rest of the Moonlaugh charity guests.

Reeve had been driven to the precinct by a fellow officer. Cindy and Belle both knew there would be hell to pay for ditching the usual protocol, but they still weren't quite sure what had happened when Sania barged in on the Moonlaugh night.

Belle had managed to cram her puffy dress into the driver's seat. She was under strict orders to not allow Wade anywhere near the wheel. The two drove off into the night, with Deadpool unmasked and messing around with the radio as he looked for "worthy" music.

"I thought you only took honest jobs nowadays," she observed, jazz switching to rock ballads.

"Scaring off someone like Reeve Tuesti is honest work, sweetie," the mercenary pointed out. "You drew that pattern yourself, didn't you? It's pretty mind-boggling, you know?"

Belle frowned. "That I drew it?"

"Nah, looking at it I mean."

"Wade… I'm trying to understand what just happened. Who's that cousin? And what…?"

"Second cousin, thrice removed. Or maybe twice… I never really understood how that worked. Sania is a nice girl as long as her frogs stay alive."

"Frogs?"

"She researches them and has people collect them sometimes. Live specimens, mind you. She protects their environments too. Sometimes, it's about Garrulas, but frogs are her favorite," Deadpool explained seriously.

"And what's the deal with Tuesti?"

"Well, he took out acres of forests and rivers for his factories. Not to mention the cat craze. He needs a shrink and some pills. The robots are one thing, but a full, human-sized suit with that face? Even I'd get nightmares!"

Belle laughed despite her efforts to remain serious. It was hard around that man.

"Why would someone want you to scare him?" she asked, trying to steer the conversation back to her investigation.

"Don't you have a file on him at your department? The guy has more dirt on him than I have scars on my body."

"We are not counting them again, Wade!" Belle scoffed.

"Hey, that wasn't my aim here. The number always changes, anyway…" Wade reminded her.

"What did Reeve do to earn all that dirt?"

"For starters, tonight's charity event was the worst I've ever seen," he pointed out. "Not to mention you caught the eye of that freaky, cat-crazed psycho. Do you collect us weirdos or something?"

His comment was meant as a joke, but Belle winced inwardly. That actually reached far too close to home for her to manage a smile.

"You caught his eye, too, Wade," she retorted.

"Well, that's simply because I'm fabulous in any cosplay! You should see my Captain Ame.."

"In all seriousness, what dirt do you have on him?" Belle cut him off.

"Heh, you should leave the work for tomorrow," he replied. "I'll make you a list. First, I'd like to understand how that dress works," Wade admitted, experimentally tugging at one corner of her skirt.

"I'm driving!" she protested, her laugh sounding more genuine this time around. She wondered if she'd get to check the key's content tonight and told herself to simply wait after a few hours of rest… and comfort since it seemed to be Wade's main concern.

"Where did your red nose go?" he asked her as they walked up the stairs to her apartment.

"Must have lost it when I tackled your second cousin," Belle hummed.

She couldn't wait to get out of that goofball getup, scrub her face, and to hear back from Cindy and Prompto. They swore to be safe, but she couldn't help but wonder how much those two were hiding.

Cindy and Prompto had front row seats to the consequences of Sania's attack on Reeve Tuesti and the stampede of guests running to safety. There were a few broken limbs, some fractured ribs, gashes, cuts, sprained everything and anything, and enough bruises to make the sky dark in the early morning. Costume malfunctions had done a lot of damage. Critically injured casualties were driven to the nearest hospital. Cindy had to wait her turn for on-site treatment, until Prompto had enough and commandeered a first aid kit. He helped her back to the parking lot where he found a spot for his car and settled her in the passenger seat.

"Next time around, we're going out on a real date," Cindy told Prompto as he cleaned up her feet and checked the wound with the flashlight on his phone.

"You wouldn't happen to have tweezers on you?" he asked her instead.

"Why?"

"There's a shard still inside. Good thing you didn't put any more weight on it."

She paled under her make-up and shuddered, despite what moving did to her foot.

"I don't have much more than my gun and a spare pair of cuffs," she sighed. "It's not like I have a lot of breathing room here."

"Only you would go for skin-tight plastic suit when you get a clown theme for a costume party," he teased her.

Cindy might have blushed if she hadn't seen him pull out a tweezer from the kit. Her throat tightened slightly and it was difficult to focus on his blue eyes as Prompto looked at her, trying to reassure her.

"It's small, but it's going to bleed more until I'm done disinfecting it."

"Let's just get it over and go," she pleaded.

The only reason they were still near the scene was because traffic was slow and heavily regulated. Also, Cindy couldn't bear the idea to bleed in anyone's car. It was close to sacrilege. She yelped as the pain reawakened, coursing up her leg. No way she could drive tonight. She would have to stop by the hospital and check on Dr. Nox to get a quick fix so she'd be able to keep up with Belle in that investigation. She focused on Prompto's hands, which worked with purpose and a lot more dexterity than she would have given him credit for in such circumstances. While he appeared fidgety most of the time, he was cool and collected right now.

He'd been shot at and pushed around, and a nasty bruise was blooming on the left side of his jaw from when Sania had thrown him off. But despite the cold night air and sirens wailing a few feet away, he was focused on his task. He was much gentler than the nurses Cindy had had in her past investigations. She didn't need stitches according to him, but he still dressed up the wound with a butterfly closure before bandaging her foot. His white costume was covered with dirt from kneeling on the ground, but when she tried to apologize, he refused to hear any of it. That's what dry cleaning was for.

"Let's just get out of here," Prompto offered.

She nodded, thankful to finally close the car door and feel some warmth coming back in her fingers from the car heater.

"I guess I'm dropping you home?" Prompto asked, backing out of the parking lot.

"Actually, would ya mind if I crash at your place? The costume is one thing, but the foot is another one entirely and I already asked paw-paw's nurse to stay over for the night."

The smile on his face had a hint of smugness and she bit at her lower lip. "Is this still a date?" he teased. "Or am I your extended charity case?"

His lack of confidence made her throat tighten. She felt ready to crumble at any moment. How could she hold anyone back in that fragile state?

"Prompto, I wanted to go on a real date with ya for quite a while now. Not the Moonlaugh anomaly we survived together. And I was worried that charity would be disappointing. I don't mean to impose on ya, and I'm not showing interest in ya out of pity. Give us both some credit here."

"I guess I'm just not sure what you expect from me right now. Girls who come to my apartment on the first night usually vanish the next morning. We work together every day…"

"And that's the very reason why we've been beating around the bush for so long. But life's too short for that, don't ya think?"

They had two very clear examples in mind with the recent murders of Giancarlo and Talcott. Prompto agreed, despite feeling pretty nervous about letting her into his small, modest abode.

"Next time, just give me some warning," he pleaded with her. "Also, I'm on the fourth floor."

"Elevator?" she asked hopefully.

"Nope," came his answer.

"Piggyback ride up the stairs?" Cindy insisted.

"I…" One look to her and he was done for. She was making puppy eyes at him.

"Surely my back can take it. But you're so making it up to me," Prompto grumbled.

She smiled, wondering if he was blushing under his white make-up. It was weird to hold such a serious conversation when they were dressed up like clowns. The way up the stairs was a little more laborious than she'd expected, with a few bumps in the wall, always on the side of her good foot, thankfully. The neighbours complained about the noise before long.

"Paper-thin walls," Prompto commented as they reached the second floor.

Cindy insisted on being let off as they crossed the threshold to his apartment. Removing the makeup came first. Cindy sat on the bathroom's counter while Prompto stood next to her. They helped each other, feeling they were connecting a bit more with themselves as their faces regained normal color—albeit a bit redder than usual. Irritation or blushing, neither could really tell. Prompto lent her some of his sleeping clothes before changing out of his costume into something much more comfortable. Cindy rinsed her hair to remove some of the darker tone from it, wondering if anyone would dare call her goth-girl in this baggy grey shirt and pair of dark cotton pants.

Prompto seemed tongue-tied when she stepped out of the bathroom.

"What?" she asked.

"I think I should snap a picture. It's pretty refreshing to see you in non-fitting clothes," Prompto admitted.

"Are you for real?!"

"You rock pretty much anything you wear, Cin, but that's a fresh look on you. And it's my clothes. I'm bound to like it."

She blushed ever so slightly and it showed on the pictures he took, much to his amusement. They ate some left-overs and snuggled on his couch to talk the night away. The investigation and the Moonlaugh festival were entirely left out, phones forgotten back in the kitchen, the humming of Lestallum's streets the only background noises to their talk. Cindy's wounded foot was propped up on a pile of cushions on the side table—the only real discomfort of the night, except maybe for the unease of allowing themselves to get this close.

The limits were still unclear, but Cindy was grateful that Prompto never forgot her name, unlike her grandfather. She leaned into Prompto just a little more, her back to his chest, his breath to her ear, allowing herself to feel small in his arms, but also safe and warm.

"This feels so cozy, I could fall asleep like this," she admitted.

"Feel free to do so," he whispered to her, kissing the side of her head.

Wherever they were, the Belles drifted off to a peaceful sleep. They certainly needed it for the challenges ahead. Reeve Tuesti might have been sleeping in a cell, but there were still a few hundred assassins on the streets…

To be continued…

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