Disclaimer: I make no claim whatsoever to the characters or world of Final Fantasy VIII, which is the property of Squaresoft/Square Enix.


Chapter I

She stood in the shadows, flat against the wall of the dark alley, waiting for soft, secret footsteps that would belong to Selphie.

This had become their pattern, the way they lived. Irvine would be at the stables at the town gate, loosening the tethers of the nobles' chocobos, ready to be stolen for a swift escape. Selphie would return any moment from the tavern, with a wide grin and both pockets full of silver coins.

The footsteps that came were neither secret nor soft. Selphie hurtled into the alleyway, knocking a cleaner's broom and pail across the cobblestones, the dirty water seeping into the uneven valleys between each smooth gray stone.

"Flee, Rin! It's no good! The lord's men were inside. At least two of 'em."

The girl called Rin slipped out of the shadows, and followed Selphie on light feet as she darted down the alley, and took a turn into the next, then another. The labyrinthine streets of the castle town were designed to flummox outsiders; Selphie was no outsider, and knew exactly how to lose a pursuer in the maze. They dashed and turned, and the heavy bootsteps at Rin's heels soon faded away, but she did not stop running.

Selphie came to a halt in front of a high fence at the very end of a narrow lane filled with musty smells, and leapt up, quickly seeking footholds and handholds in the rickety wood. She swung her body over the top, and Rin heard her drop down. As soon as the fence stopped shaking, Rin followed, ignoring the splinters that drove into her palms.

She reached the top, and twisted her body around to fall without harm, landing softly at Selphie's side. Selphie grabbed her shoulders, and pulled her in for an impulsive embrace, which Rin returned, her pounding adrenaline forcing gasps from her throat. She pulled back to take in their surroundings, a dead end encircled by the tall earthen walls of the town. The ground was muddy, and a crow's carcass lay in the far corner, ragged black feathers strewn across the wet soil.

As she caught her breath, Rin felt inside her pockets for her throwing stars, and let her fingers curl around them in readiness. "You think we're safe here?"

"For now. There's none among the lord's soldiers who are limber enough to scale that." Selphie gave a loud cackle. "Their swords would cut their family jewel-sacks in half if they tried bending that far over."

Rin grimaced at the image. "Tell me what happened in the tavern."

"One of 'em saw me with my hand in a noble's pocket and shouted. I got out as soon as the commotion started."

"So no money this time?"

"Not money, no. But I did get this."

She reached inside her tattered yellow garb and pulled out a long, thick silver chain with a jeweled dragon pendent dangling from it, its multifaceted eyes perfectly carved from glittering redstones. Rin twisted the chain around her fingers and grinned at Selphie.

"Wonderful. That'll fetch us a month's lodgings, wouldn't you say?"

Selphie snatched the necklace back and stuffed it in her pocket. "Two months, if you'd let Irvy share our room."

"Well, I won't. He would enjoy it far too much."

Selphie's mouth opened for a retort that never came, her eyes suddenly wide with horror, and Rin whirled to see a pair of hands appear over the top of the fence. A heavily-built blond man pulled himself over the fence and jumped down, landing skillfully on his feet. Rin caught a glimpse of the black tattoo that sprawled across the side of his face, and tightened her grip on her throwing stars. Facial tattoos were used to brand criminals for life on the island of Balamb.

He straightened, and faced them; he was barely taller than Rin herself, but must have weighed three times as much. Every inch of his compact stature was packed tightly with muscle.

"Now there's plenty who say I'm not the brightest candle in the shop, but surely it takes a special sort of fool to hide away in a dead end." He grinned, revealing a row of even teeth, and cracked his knuckles.

Rin pushed herself in front of Selphie, and faced the man with all the ferocity she could summon, brandishing a throwing star in her hand.

"What do you plan do to us?"

He eyed the star with interest, then shrugged, a cluster of thick metal rings fastened to his belt jangling as he folded one leg behind the other. "Nothin'.

"Nothing?" Rin repeated, incredulous.

"I'll wait for my lord to decide."

Selphie stepped out from behind Rin, wielding her nunchaku with both hands. "You're on the side of the law? You?"

He smiled at her disdain. "Hard to believe?"

"You're a criminal, with that face. Worse than us, I'd wager."

The man's smile broadened. "Not any more. Didn't you know that Esthar is the land of second chances?" He craned his head to look past Selphie straight at Rin, his pale blue eyes keen and sharp. "Looks like your little Galbadian friend has wasted hers." At Rin's flinch of surprise, he raised his eyebrows. "Come now, I know a Westerner when I see one, and that accent's hardly well hidden."

He stepped towards them, and Selphie pulled her nunchaku back, ready to man watched her carefully, and neither moved, waiting for the other, and Rin held her breath.

A blast hit her ears, dust and earth filled her eyes, and the blond man ducked as jagged shards of the fence came flying through the air. A tall, rangy figure in a leather cloak stepped through the new gap in the fence, and pressed the barrel of his musket against the blond man's back.

"Irvy!" Selphie breathed.

Irvine wiped the dust from his brow, and prodded his adversary sharply with the musket. He was grim-faced and fearsome, a world away from the charming, flippant thief Rin knew him to be.

"You touch either one o' my girls, and you'll feel gunpowder hit your spine."

The blond man scowled, but held still, waiting for Irvine's next move.

Rin saw the flash of steel before she saw the man who wielded it. An arc of metal swept across the barrel of Irvine's musket, and ten inches of the gun's length dropped to the earthen floor, cut straight through like a piece of cloth. Irvine's expression turned to one of stunned incomprehension and he spun round, only to be met with a swift, sharp elbow to the face, an uppercut that sent him to the ground, knocked unconscious.

The swordsman looked coolly down at the felled musketman, and stepped over Irvine's body. He held his blade out to the side, and Rin's eyes traveled across the long, slender steel of a traditional Esthari sword, one single sharp edge curving gently towards a tip that ended flat in a diagonal finish.

He raised his arm, and in one fluid motion, swung the sword across his torso to sheathe it in the glossy black lacquered scabbard at his waist. He was clothed in black Esthari warriors' robes, with black hide gloves on his hands. The swordsman's long hair was tied at the nape of his neck, except for a few unruly strands at the front that framed his chin. His face was proud, cold, his eyes wrought from the same steel as his sword.

The blond man dipped his head in gratitude, breaking into an admiring grin as he bobbed back up. "Nicely done, m'lord."

The swordsman's eyes flickered to Rin and Selphie, then he nodded to the cluster of rings at the blond man's belt. "Shackle them, and take their weapons."

The blond man unfastened and snapped off two of the rings, and set to work at fixing them to Selphie's wrists while she writhed and cursed at him, then turned to Rin and did the same. He then wrestled Selphie's nunchaku away from her waist, and pulled Rin's throwing stars from the pockets of her garb with nimble hands that, to his credit, sought only her weapons, not her flesh. He took one of the stars between two fingers, and turned it back and forth with obvious appreciation.

"Nice. Very nice."

She said nothing.

He pressed the very tip of one point against his thumb, and grinned in satisfaction at the neat bead of blood that welled up in its wake. He licked it away, ignoring Selphie's loud noise of disgust.

"D'you know how to use these things?"

"Of course. I wouldn't carry them if I didn't."

"Hm." He stuffed the stars into the leather pack on his shoulders along with Selphie's nunchaku. "You'd be the first Galbadian that could, then."

The swordsman made an impatient motion behind them. "Zell. Do not waste your breath on thieves. Shackle the musketman, then let us be on our way."

"Yes, m'lord." The blond man - Zell, evidently - bent to pick up the two sliced halves of Irvine's weapon. He stowed it in his pack, then slapped Irvine's face lightly, receiving no reaction. Zell shrugged and attended to Irvine's wrists with another metal ring from his belt.

"Don't touch 'im like that." Selphie snarled, receiving an eyebrow raise from the swordsman.

"He was ready to shoot my retainer in the back. I'd say he's earned a slap or two."

"He never shot 'im. He's all talk. We ain't done nothin' wrong."

"There are laws against theft in Esthar. How odd that you do not know of them."

"There's theft and then there's theft. The only folks we steal from are snotty-nosed nobles. They never earned a single gil of what they've got, did they? We give it to the ones that really need it."

Zell released a skeptical snort, and the swordsman gazed down impassively at Selphie; her height barely reached halfway up his chest.

"Surely you can appreciate that the lord of this domain cannot allow you to redistribute wealth among his people as you see fit."

Selphie spat on the ground. "What would he know? He's a noble, along with the rest of 'em."

The swordsman regarded her coolly, but Rin did not miss how he'd flinched at Selphie's spittle. He was used to better manners, it seemed. A high-born sort. She'd known plenty of his type back in the western continent.

"Lord Laguna was once a common soldier, you must know that. He was not born to wealth. He rose to power through his own merit."

"So? He's a noble now, ain't he? Got more silver on the top of that eyesore castle of his than we'll ever see in a lifetime. And that son of his is a right pampered noble, no mistake. I heard he's the snottiest of 'em all."

His jaw tightened. "That's enough of your wisdom for now. You'll join us on our return to the castle, so if it offends your eyes, close them."

"And then what?" challenged Rin. "Throw us in the dungeon, will you?"

He met her eyes, and she now had no doubt that she was looking upon a young lord. The eldest son of an old Esthari noble clan, at her best guess. He had that look to him of one who was primed for responsibility before he ever left his nursemaid's knee. She knew that look rather well.

"Lord Kiros decides the fate of thieves. It is not for me to say how he will judge you. Your musketman's punishment, however, is a matter of course."

Selphie stared at the unconscious Irvine with horror, and Rin's heart sank. The law of Esthar was unyielding on those who handled firearms.

"You ain't... you ain't cuttin' off his hand. He'll kill you first. He'll kill you all."

Zell cocked his head to one side. "What with? M'lord's blade has made a mess of his musket. And he don't look like the fist-fightin' sort."

The young lord's eyes were still fixed on Rin. "You, come with me."

Selphie lurched in front of Rin, her stance aggressive. "Straight for the prettiest, eh? Nobles. Yer' all the same. Disgustin'. Think you can take her as your wench for the night, do yer?"

"Don't be tiresome."

He strode towards Rin and pushed her forwards, the gloved hand at the small of her back far more gentle than the cold thunder on his face. The lord led her through the splintered gap in the fence and several paces back into the alley, where he stopped abruptly, and she turned to face him.

"What do you want with me?"

"You're a noble." It wasn't a question.

She stared defiantly back at him. "'Course I ain't."

"There's no need to insult my intelligence. It's clear as day that you're a noble. Clear to another noble, at least."

Rin found herself robbed of speech, and wondered if she should spit, as Selphie had, but before she could make a decision the lord frowned at her and spoke again.

"Your friends don't know, do they?"

She scuffed her toe in the dirt, defeated. "I... thought they didn't, but..."

"It seems to me that they don't. They know you are different, of course. But they probably think it's merely because you're a Westerner. They cannot see what I see."

His lofty tone made her look up in indignation. "And what is that, pray tell?"

"Your bearing, your manner." His eyes flicked to her shackled wrists. "Your hands, even. No gutter-raised thief has hands free of scars or burns. You will not be able to fool many more people here."

"What are you going to do with me?"

"That's for my lord to decide."

"Lord Kiros?" She repeated the name she'd heard him say to Selphie.

"No. If you were merely a thief, I would take you to Lord Kiros with the others. A noble Westerner as a captive, however, is a matter for the lord of the domain. Lord Laguna."

"So I must wait until he decides how much he can get for me?"

That seemed to offend the young lord, and he announced coldly, "Women are not bought and sold in Esthar."

Rin thought of the tavern girls, sharing their bodies night after night with traders and footsoldiers for a few silver coins, and wondered at how little this proud nobleman knew of the harsher realities of life among the lower folk of the East.

"M'lord," Zell called from the other side of the fence, and emerged through the gap. "Their accomplice has come to his senses."

"Enough to walk?"

Zell twisted his head and squinted, and Rin heard Irvine curse distantly. "Just about."

"Then bring them. We will return to the castle before nightfall."

He turned, and his long strides quickly took him to the next corner of the alley, and he was out of sight before Rin felt the prod at her waist. Zell was there, face expectant, with one hand propping up the elbow of a dazed Irvine, and the other firmly gripping Selphie's shackles.

"Start walkin', then."

He pushed past, and she fell in line, and the three thieves trudged slowly towards their punishment.


A/N:

Thanks for reading this far down! This one's kind of a stretch for me. I've written AU before, but it's been more 'canon divergence' than you-did-what-with-the-FFVIII-characters kind of out-there settings. (Okay, Selphie being undead was a pretty big divergence...heh. But until now I've held onto key elements like SeeD, sorcery, the orphanage.) Reviews welcome as always. -colobonema