Not all suffering was created equal, and all things considered, I had it better than most. I wasn't in crippling debt that would undercut my attempts at getting ahead in life. I didn't have any priors that stopped me from getting a job. The one thing that was holding me back was my lack of identity. But, in a city like Gotham, that problem was hardly insurmountable.
"A new identity?" Jack asked as we sat on the edge of a long wooden dock, fishing poles in our hands with the lines bobbing in the water. He decided to take me out fishing, which was apparently one of the core sources of fresh food. There were donations at shelters, but sometimes there wasn't enough to go around. And dumpster diving was a real good way to get sick.
"Yeah. Apparently despite me living here my entire life, I'm not a US citizen," I explained as I slowly rotated the lever to drag the hook back in. It was my first time fishing, not counting my experience in video games. I decided that I liked it. "And now I don't have anything thing tying me down to my old life, I figured I could do something about that."
Jack scratched at his scruffy beard for a moment, giving me a sideways look. "That kind of thing is expensive. For a completely new identity, you would have to go to someone like Penguin and he'll charge a couple of grand. Or a couple of hundred if you want something that'll hold up to the scrutiny of someone like Batman."
Well, that was a little disheartening, "Huh. Well, what about something that could get me an actual job?" I had a rough plan in place - get a job, make money, then get off the streets. That plan was probably shared by anyone in my position, but the success or failure would be determined by me getting work in the first place.
"Something like an ID card? That'll still cost you about a hundred something," Jack answered, looking at me like he was wondering if I had that kind of money. And I wasn't going to admit if I did or not, much less that I was about halfway.
"Then it sounds like I need to start saving up," I muttered more to myself than to him. Without a job, I had to look to other sources of income.
Jack looked out at the murky brown sea that surrounded Gotham. Our fishing lines continued to bob with incoming waves for a moment.
"There is a way to get the money quickly," Jack said after a long minute of silence. "It's risky, but there's Henching."
"As in being a henchman?" I questioned and earned a nod from Jack. "That sounds… really dangerous," I pointed out. And given what he said last night, I'm surprised that Jack considered that an option. I liked my legs unbroken.
"Not as much as you'd think. The whole Bat-Family can't be everywhere at once, so most jobs go smoothly. So long as you don't get assigned to a big job, and the cops don't bust you, then it's a couple hundred in your pocket per job."
I considered it a moment, still waiting for something to bite at the worm I placed onto my hook. Was I really that desperate? I didn't think so. I didn't feel particularly desperate. Not right now, at least… but, at the same time, winter was coming. Whatever was going on with me helped with the cold, but would it help with negative fifty and below? Could I afford to assume that it would?
"Is that really my best option?" I questioned quietly, still waiting for a fish to bite at my hook.
"Maybe. A lot of the usual tricks are picked clean from people doing last-minute preparation. I won't say that it's your only option, but if you're looking to make some quick cash before winter then it is," Jack said with a nod of his head. He glanced at me again, "I think it'll work out for you. You have more balls than brains, standing up to Waylon like that. Carry yourself like that in everything you do, and it'll all work out for you, kid."
I tore my gaze from the lure that continued to bob in the waves and settled it on Jack. "I'm not trying to sound ungrateful, or anything, but why are you helping me so much? I haven't seen Tony or Bill since last night." After I woke up after hours of nervous thinking, I woke up in my 'new' sheet tent to find Jack holding two fishing rods.
"Because I'm old," Jack answered as if that was an explanation. "I've been living on the streets for… thirty years by now. Longer than I have lived in a house, at any rate. This? This is normal for me. Honestly not sure if I would pick anything different if I had the chance." Then he sent me a lopsided smirk, "You though? I can see it in you - you don't want this life. And you're going to do whatever you can to get out of it."
"Sorry," I said, not quite sure what I was apologizing for, but I felt like I should. "I'm not trying to look down on you or anything, but…" I trailed off, unsure how to explain it without it sounding like I was looking down on him. On everyone that was homeless.
"But you want more. No shame in that," Jack reassured me as he lazily rotated the lever to bring his hook in. "If anything, good on you. You're young. You should want more for yourself than living on the streets. As for why I'm helping you? Well, you seem like a decent enough kid, but your hands convinced me."
My hands? I glanced down at my palm, wondering what he meant by that. Before I could ask, he explained. "Your hands are messed up," Jack said with a light laugh. There were callouses, parts where the skin had dried out and was flaking off and a few scars. Most noticeably was my ring finger that was a little crooked from a break that I had mistakenly trusted a medical student to set so I wouldn't have to go to the hospital. "Those aren't the hands of a pencil pusher. I don't know your story, and I don't got to know. Those hands of yours tell me that you're willing to put in the work to get ahead in life."
Jack offered a shrug before he sighed as his hook came up. The worm was gone. "I had someone help me out when I found myself on the streets when I was around your age. Figured I could pay that forward."
"Thank you," I told Jack, meaning it. I… the number of people that have helped me in life was rather small. Ever since I was a kid, I was the one stuck taking care of myself. First when my mom died when I was preteen, then when I was in foster care, and I kept having to take care of myself when my dad walked back into my life saying that he was a changed man. I have always been stuck taking care of myself and even when people knew how completely over my head I was, only two people had bothered to throw me a lifeline.
One of them was Jack.
"You can thank me by catching something," Jack dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand, gesturing for me to check my bait. I obeyed, letting the moment pass by. As the hook raised from the water, I tsked to myself.
The bait was gone.
The Iceberg Lounge looked like what the name implied - a massive iceberg sticking out of the water that was only attached to land by a long pier that I found myself walking down. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my dark blue canvas jacket that helped hide that I didn't feel the cold. And my scrawny build. I would have felt incredibly out of place when I was dressed up in my best clothes, but now I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Even still, I kept walking forward, following the oddly specific instructions I got from Jack before he sent me over. I walked past the main entrance, finding a wooden walkway that was tucked out of sight. At the other end, by the sea, was a door, just like Jack said there would be.
"Jack has been Penguin's henchmen before," I hazarded a guess as I walked down the steps. He made it sound easy. If everything went well then I would just have to lift some boxes that I couldn't look inside, and that would be that. I would get a couple of hundred bucks and that would be enough to get me set up. I could get a fake ID, a haircut, some nicer clothes, and then I would be ready for an interview.
I was hoping that since he felt comfortable recommending Penguin to me, that meant it was safe enough that I didn't have to worry about getting fed to penguins. Which was an actual worry. What was my life now?
Pushing my doubts to the side, I knocked on the door twice, paused, knocked twice more, then paused again before knocking three times. The door swung open to reveal a beefy looking guy in a three-piece black suit. He wore sunglasses, blocking my view of his eyes, but I could tell that he had narrowed them at me.
But, thankfully, he didn't say anything. He simply jerked his head, gesturing for me to come inside. Once I stepped passed the threshold, again, I felt like I had made a choice. This time, it wasn't between greatness or safety. This time… if I had to put it in words… it felt like I made a choice between asking for help and helping myself.
"Follow me," the guy said, closing the door behind me. I nodded, falling in step as I took in the interior. Everything was purposely gray - concrete floor and walls that were left unpainted with no kind of decoration. The hallway that he took me down was lined with white doors that were perfectly spaced out. In all, it didn't look like a mob boss's place. I expected it to be lavishly decked out considering how rich Penguin was, but what did I know?
I wasn't even a mook, much less a criminal mastermind.
He led me to a seemingly random door before swinging it open, revealing an equally blank room. A simple black couch, but there thankfully wasn't a desk, and that was it. The guy gestured for me to step inside, and once I did, he closed the door behind me.
"I'm seriously doing this, huh?" I asked myself before I took a seat on the couch. I wasn't as nervous as I should be - Jack had more or less walked me through the process, and so far he was right beat for beat. Now, all I had to do was wait for someone to pick a job for me, and then I would do it.
I was seriously about to become a henchman. For a supervillain. Or mobster. I still wasn't sure which universe I was in, so I'm not quite sure what Penguin was. Jack seemed to think he was just a mobster, though. And given that he hadn't steered me wrong so far, I would choose to believe him.
This was seriously my life now, wasn't it? Homeless, dirt poor, and now a nameless mook for a mobster.
Just for now, I told myself. I was only stuck like this for now. I would get my money at the end of the job, and that would open doors for me. At the very least, I wouldn't be dirt poor anymore.
The door opened up again and the same guy stepped inside, this time followed by someone else. A scrawny man in his mid-thirties by the look of it with wide frame glasses. He looked jittery, a bead of sweat falling down his forehead as he stepped inside. Like me, the door closed behind him and the sound made him flinch.
"Uhh," he started, turning to me. I looked at him for a moment, realizing that I should probably be just as twitchy and nervous. And, in a way, I was deep down. It was simply overshadowed by the fact that I was in so deep at this point that I just didn't have a choice. "Are you here to…?" He trailed off, looking faintly reassured when I nodded.
"Okay… okay, so do you know what we'll be doing?" He asked me, taking a seat on the opposite end of the couch, his leg bouncing nervelessly in place.
"Not a clue," I answered evenly, watching the door. Jack was right again. The room will be filling up with people until there was enough for whatever job that needed to be done, then we would go do it.
"Oh… well, do you know how long we'll be waiting for?" He continued and I knew that I should probably go out of my way to reassure him. But, I didn't. People dealt with stress in different ways. He, whoever he was, got jittery and nervous. I got quiet and focused.
"No idea," I answered shortly, really hoping that we left before he could begin a round of twenty questions. The guy looked like he wanted to for a moment, but he got the hint. He closed his mouth with a click as he clasped his hands in his lap while his leg continued to bounce. There was a short silence as we both waited for another person to walk through the door until it was broken by the man.
"Sorry… just… first time doing anything like this," he explained. "Got laid off from my job - apparently my boss can get a million-dollar bonus, but guys like me don't need our jobs. Heard about this through that Henching app, and figured… well… you know." He trailed off, stealing a glance at me before he caught the hint that my situation wasn't exactly stellar. "Have you…?"
Before I could answer honestly, the door opened again. The same guy stepped inside, leading in a girl with hacked at strawberry blonde hair and a scowl permanently etched onto her face. This time, the guy in the suit jerked his head at us, gesturing for us to follow him. The nervous guy jumped up while I stood, realizing that this was the moment of truth.
The three of us followed through the halls and found ourselves taking a seat in a nondescript black car with tinted windows. None of us said a word as the guy drove off, driving through a tunnel that led to the city streets. The sun blazed overhead, which was kind of weird at first until I started thinking about it.
There was that trope 'Reed Richards was useless', and that applied to every superhero in comics. No matter how long Batman fought the war on crime, Gotham was doomed to be an eternal shithole because of the Status Quo. If it wasn't, if Batman won, then there would be no more comics, thus no more money. But, without the status quo, why wouldn't Gotham be a second Metropolis?
It was because the criminals adapted to Batman. Just like they adapted to the police. Just like they adapted to each other. Batman, for all of his tech and training, had been adapted to. He only came out at night? They did their business in the day. He hacked their systems? They wrote things down. He had someone on the inside? When no one knew anything but those at the top, his information would always be incomplete.
We pulled up into a warehouse at the docks, the ninth judging by the massive nine painted on the side of the building. The guy in the suit got out first, prompting the rest of us to do the same. The layout had an opening for a small boat to come through - giving direct access to the warehouse. I knew exactly nothing about boats, but it looked large enough to fit some boxes.
"Get on the boat, grab the cargo, then load them up in that truck. You don't look inside, you get paid. Three hundred each. Look inside, then you get put in a box six feet under," the guy in the suit explained, pointing to a U-haul truck. I heard Nervous Guy swallow thickly, while the girl just grunted. I nodded. "Those two," he said, pointing to two similarly dressed men on the boat, "and I will be making sure that you don't look inside. Now get to work."
And we did. I started walking over first, looking up at the rafters just to make sure that Bat People weren't about to swoop in and break my legs. Luckily there was nothing. After making sure the coast was clear, I stepped onto the boat and tried not to pay attention to the other two men. They gestured down below, and once I was down there I saw that the hull was filled with wood boxes of various sizes. Dozens of them.
Without further ado, I grabbed one and started hauling it up. At the very least, this was familiar. Retail jobs boiled down to picking crap up and moving it around. As I went up, Nervous Guy walked down while the girl waited her turn. Carrying it to the truck, I set it down towards the back and went for another box.
We cleared through the smaller ones first, the ones that didn't need more than one person. Though, thankfully, there weren't many. As the job went by, I felt a knot of tension leave me as it became increasingly clear that Batman wasn't going to drop in to personally hand me my ass. I was getting closer to my paycheck for only an hour of work and then it was all uphill from here.
"This isn't so bad," Nervous Guy remarked as I got ready to lift one end of a long box. He crouched down to lift the other. "If it's always like this, then I could get used to-"
He cut himself off when something thumped from within the box we lifted. A heavy thunk. My heart jumped to my throat, worried that we had just broken whatever was inside, but my heart made a quick drop to my boots when I heard another thump. Then another. Like something was reaching out, hitting the walls of the box with increasing franticness as it realized it was trapped in a box.
Expect… it wasn't something.
It was someone.
"Wha- hey! Let me out! Hey! Hey! Get me out of here!" I heard a woman's voice shout from within the box, banging at the lid. Nervous Guy's eyes went wide as his jaw dropped, looking at me as if I had some kind of explanation. He stumbled back, his end of the box slipping from his fingers. It slammed into the ground hard enough that the thump and the sound of plywood breaking seemed to deafen me.
There was a person in the box. I… the cargo… was people. No- the other boxes couldn't fit a person. But that didn't change the fact that a person was in the box. I... I was a part of a human trafficking ring. Fuck. Fucking fuck.
Whoever was inside didn't wait to seize the opportunity, pushing away the cracked lid. She half crawled and half dragged her way out of the box, grunting when I dropped my end. Distantly I heard shouting up above as someone raced down the stairs. However, I barely heard them as the woman turned her head to look up at me.
Reddish-brown eyes, raven black hair that was tangled up in an absolute mess, a heart-shaped face while wearing a white tank top with a black sports bra underneath. Despite how impossible it should be, I knew exactly who it was. Tifa Lockhart.
"Help me, please…!" She whispered, her eyes glazed over. Distantly, I was aware that someone had pushed me out of the way, knocking me into another box. My hand bumped into a smaller one that no one grabbed because they didn't want to look like they weren't working hard. Looking over, I saw the guy that drove us here crouching down in front of Tifa, cursing up a storm.
"Ah, screw it," he cursed before he stood, his hand going to side to pull out a gun. For a split second, I thought he was going to shoot Tifa. Instead, he took aim and pointed his gun at Nervous Guy.
"W-wait-" He started to beg, only to be silenced as a bullet punched through his forehead with a muffled whisper. A silencer. Blood splattered over the boxes behind him in a fine mist, his body going slack and fell in a heap. The guy started to turn, but my body moved on its own. My hand curled around the box, gripping it like it was a lifeline, and I slammed it into the guy's face hard enough that the box shattered into splinters.
The murderer went down like a sack of potatoes, falling over with a too loud thump. The contents of the box spilling over him - some kind of blank white card roughly the size of a poker card. The gun escaped his hands as he went down and I scrambled to pick it up and it was only when I felt its deceptive weight did it click into to place what had happened.
"Oh, I'm so fucked," I cursed to myself, looking up at the stairs as I pointed the gun in that direction preemptively while I crouched down next to Tifa. Sparing a glance at her, I saw her look up at me with some suspicion, her head bobbing. Her eyes were glazed over, so I was certain that they had dosed her with something. "Hey, take my hand. I… I'm going to get us out of here," I said, having no idea if that was a lie or not.
Tifa looked at the hand for a second before she reached out and took it, mumbling something, but I couldn't make it out. I helped drag her from the box to see that she was wearing her signature outfit - a black mini skirt with high stocking and suspenders.
"Alan? What's-" Someone started to shout, going to walk down the stairs. I hesitated on what I should do until I saw the gun in his hands. Stray thoughts of trying to explain what happened, or how I would keep my mouth shut vanished like smoke in the wind. They were replaced with an ice-cold certainty that if I didn't do something, then I would die.
No if, ands, or buts. I would die. Here, on this boat, for no reason.
"Oh, crap!" I swore, my finger pulling the trigger. There was a sharp whistle and the gun bucked in my hand with surprising force. The guy, on the other hand, suffered much worse. A shocked scream ripped from his throat as a hand went to his stomach, trying to stem the bleeding of a rapidly growing red spot.
He slid down the rest of the stairs, his back leaning against them. "You, you shot me!" He accused while the hand with the gun moving in my direction. So, I pulled the trigger two more times, this time shooting him in the chest. The gun drifted to the side as his head rolled back, dark red blood staining his suit as blood began to drip down the stairs.
I just killed someone.
Well… getting help from Batman or the cops was definitely off the table now.
Swallowing a lump in my throat, I reached down and helped Tifa to her feet. "T-There should be one left, but I don't know if they have reinforcements on their way. We need to get out of here," I told her, withdrawing my hand. Tifa swayed dangerously, forced to use the crate she just crawled out of as support.
"I'm fine. I… I can help," Tifa said in a soft voice, but I didn't believe that for a second. So, it meant that I was on my own for now. I wasn't going to be able to carry Tifa out of here. I wasn't an action hero. So, we would need a car. But… they would have trackers in them, wouldn't they? Or would they not risk it because of Batman?
I took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. If I stood here doing nothing then we both were going to die. Pushing my worries to the side, I glanced around the hull for some magical answer that would make our problems go away. My gaze landed on the white cards that were sprinkled over the unconscious guy's face.
Reaching down, I grabbed a card and lifted it up. In response, every scattered card on the ground flew up into the one card that I had until it became a deck. That was… kinda neat but not particularly helpful.
"Come out with your hands up, kid," a new voice interrupted my thoughts. As my hand jerked to aim at the one opening, I stuffed the cards into my pocket. "Surrender now and you could still live through this."
A sardonic smile tugged at my lips at the offer, "I think we both know it's way past that point," I shouted back at him. I gestured for Tifa to stay where she was as I slowly crept forward with both hands on my gun. "I surrender here, I definitely die. I escape… I'll still probably die, but my odds are better," I spoke to hide my approach, trying to get an angle up the stairs.
Wood paneling wasn't strong enough to stop a bullet, nor was hard plastic. If he was doing what I was, then he was waiting for me to show myself before putting a bullet in me.
So, another crossroads. Was he peeking from the left or the right?
"Maybe. But you dropped two guys and the boss is the kind of guy that can respect that. You step up here, give me your gun, and odds are you'll be sworn in by the end of the day," the voice on the other end said. It was impossible to tell what side he was on.
I glanced back at Tifa, who looked like she was getting her bearings. She glanced up at me, her eyes wide with her lips pressed together.
I didn't even consider the offer.
"Tempting, but I might be a sorry sack of crap, but I'm not a human trafficker," I responded and I could only hope that caught him off guard because I leaned to the side and picked one to prefire at. I guessed he was on the left and judging by the pained shouts I heard a moment later, I was right. The bullets punched through the paneling, hitting him on the other side. He collapsed in a heap, holding his side as blood poured from his wounds.
Rushing up, I knocked the gun away from his hand, making him groan as he continued to reach for it before giving up. Rolling into his side, he looked up at me. Blood covered his face as his sunglasses fell off - I had hit him in the eye. Probably the one he was using to aim at me with. His one lone eye looked at me for a long second that felt like it could have lasted an eternity. Then he closed it.
"Do it," he told me, his voice firm.
So, I did. The gun bucked in my hand once again as I shot him in the head. An ice-cold part of my brain telling me that killing him would mean one less of them chasing me later. Even still, bile rose up my throat but I swallowed it down. Not here. I could puke and feel horrified with my actions later, but right now we had to go.
A breath I hadn't realized I was holding escaped me. My hand trembled as I flicked on the safety before shoving the silenced gun into the back of my pants. It felt odd having the silencer between my ass cheeks but I paid it no mind as I quickly grabbed his gun before marching down the stairs.
"What happened?" She questioned, her words slightly slurred but her eyes seemed more alert than they had been a second ago. Tifa stumbled a step forward and this time she managed to keep her balance.
I didn't answer in favor of grabbing the unconscious guy's gun before my hands began digging through his pockets. "Well, I took care of the guy upstairs. We… we really need to get out of here before more of them show up," I explained to her, trying to pretend that I was confident. Simply because I knew that freaking out would get me killed. Get both of us killed.
Grabbing the keys, I stood up and offered Tifa a hand. "I… I'm going to do what I can to get you out of here," I told her when she hesitated to take my hand. "So, please, just trust me for a bit, okay?"
Tifa's warm red-brown eyes stared into mine for a second before she nodded, "I'll trust you," she said before she took my hand. Throwing her arm over my shoulder, I helped her up the stairs. With each step, I noticed that she grew stronger, but whatever drug they had dosed her with was still in her system. Walking up the stairs, Tifa spoke. "Where are we going?"
That was a really good question, I had to admit.
"I…," I answered as we made our way to the car. I saw another body, the girl that had gone with us. She laid on her back, a pool of blood spreading beneath her, while her eyes stared up at the ceiling. She was dead. I guess there were orders to kill whoever took the henching job if something went wrong. "We could try the sewers. There's a community down there that let me stay…" I started before I trailed off.
"But we would be leading Penguins men right to them," I said more to myself than to her. I would be putting them in danger to save my own skin. Jack, Tony, and the others - I owed them for helping me out. I couldn't repay their help by bringing trouble to their doorstep, to their home.
What were my other options?
My eyes darted to the Uhaul truck and for the briefest seconds, I considered jumping in it and driving off. I didn't know what else we had loaded up, but if I could sell it then I could be set. Only that plan had so much wrong with it that I didn't even know where to start. Not to mention that if Penguin was going to put a tracker on a truck, it would be the one with the expensive items, not a random goon's car. That, and I didn't want to give Penguin any more reasons to gun for us.
"The Doctor in Crime Alley," I decided, taking Tifa to the car and helping her in the back seat. "She'll be able to help us. Probably," I added, though I felt like I shouldn't have. Settling into the front seat, I turned on the car and resisted the urge to peel out to put as much distance between us as I could.
"The Doctor in Crime Alley?" Tifa questioned, forcing herself into an upright position. "Who… where…" she trailed off as we pulled out before I heard her gasp. "The plate - where are we?"
"Gotham City," I answered, pulling out onto the road. I scanned the incoming cars for one similar to the one I was driving. Thankfully, I found none, letting me drive away from the scene of the crime unmolested. "The Doctor is someone that runs a no questions asked clinic. She should be able to get whatever crap is in your system out of you, and then… well, we'll just have to take it from there." I hoped I sounded more confident than I felt.
"Gotham City? Where - I've never heard of Gotham City. Is it close to Midgar?" Tifa questioned. There was a time and a place to have a heavy conversation about the multiverse and traveling through it. Driving away from the scene of the crime wasn't it. "What's going on? Who were those people, why did I wake up in a box and- and who are you?!" Tifa demanded, her confusion and fear morphing into anger.
"Look, I don't know, okay?" I told her honestly, looking at her in the rearview mirror as we came to a stop at a red light. "I have no clue why you were in the box - I was just hired to move them from place to place by a mobster called Penguin. I had no idea you were in there. I... I thought I would be moving drugs or expensive crap."
Tifa seemed to mull that over for a few seconds, the light turning green and letting us continue on our way. "And your name?"
"Vergil," I answered, taking a left as I tried to recall how to get back to the manhole that was above the homeless community. A landmark to help me orientate myself. "My name is Vergil… Saint fucking Jude," I added more to myself than to her. I hadn't been a believer in a long, long time but I could use a little luck and Saint Jude was the patron saint of lost causes.
"I'm guessing that middle bit isn't really your name?" Tifa questioned. And, to that I responded with.
"It might as well be."
"I'm Tifa Lockhart," Tifa introduced herself. "Thank you for helping me. It… seems like it's causing you a lot of trouble," she observed before she crawled into the passenger seat. She sighed heavily when she all but collapsed into the seat, warning me that she still wasn't at a hundred percent.
I kept my eyes on the road, anticipating the entire mafia family to appear as I drove past each block. "Don't worry about it," I dismissed the topic. Trouble was an understatement. If the Penguin caught me then I was beyond dead. "Just… check the glove compartment for me. There might be a map in there," I said, hoping that would be the case. Hard copies of maps couldn't be hacked by Batman.
There was, luckily. Leaning forward, I spotted the road we were currently pulling into, "Alright. Find a road called Everett street, then another called Park Row," I ordered, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. My heart was still pounding in my chest, but the edge of the adrenaline was starting to wear off. Now there were dozens of thoughts tugging at my focus, and the one thing they all had in common was how utterly screwed I was.
This was supposed to be a simple job. Instead, I killed two people.
"Okay, go straight until you reach a Charleston avenue, then go right," Tifa said, looking over the map before she looked out of the window. "How big is Gotham?" She asked, eying the buildings and skyscrapers in the distance before looking back at the map. "It looks like it's about as big as Midgar," she continued, answering her own question.
"I'm not sure. It's a major city, but I arrived last night," I told her, spotting Charleston avenue and taking a right. "So it's probably home to… eight million people, or something," I said, earning a sharp look from her. Her lips thinned before she glared hard at the map, the paper crinkling where she gripped it. "Sorry for not having more good news for you."
"Don't be sorry, it's not your fault," Tifa said with a shake of her head. "It's this Penguin guy's fault," she reassured me, and her tone told me that she intended to get answers directly from him.
And she might be able to, I thought to myself. I had no idea how exactly she was here, and my knowledge of Final Fantasy 7 was spotty at best, but I knew that Tifa ended up punching out kaiju. Not sure how much of that was a result of gameplay mechanics, but at the very least she was an accomplished martial artist.
"What's the last thing that you remember?" I asked, checking the rearview mirror for the tenth time in a minute to see if we were being followed as we made our way to Park Row. We weren't.
"Getting on a train to take me to Sector Seven's Slums," Tifa answered, looking out of the window and up at the sky. "It's weird to not have a massive plate blocking the view of the sky. It's really blue," she remarked.
I… that meant pretty much nothing to me. I knew about Final Fantasy through osmosis and the occasional fanfic. Never played the games for myself, both because I was too broke and the games being so dated. So what I knew was spotty. Sephiroth was bad, Cloud wasn't a Soldier, Aerith dies, the Sector Seven plate falls on Sector Seven and Tifa was best girl. General stuff that you picked up when you were passively familiar with the series.
But, given that the last thing she remembered was that she was going into Sector Seven… that meant she was probably from the start of the game. Meaning that she probably wasn't kaiju KOing levels yet.
Still, Tifa might be a match for a bunch of goons with guns. Hopefully.
Because just like I saved Tifa, it looked like I needed her to save me.
I pulled up to the side of the street and killed the engine. Tifa sent me a questioning look because we were still more than a few blocks from Park Row. "We should walk the rest of the way. They might have a way to track the car and I don't want to lead them right to us," I answered before we got out of the car. Tifa was able to stand on her own now, but looking at her…
"Here, take my coat," I said, seeing gooseflesh rise on her arms and legs. Tifa looked hesitant for a moment, so tossed it to her. "I don't need it and… well, you're a lot more… memorable than me," I pointed out. And by that, I meant she was way, way, way hotter. Tifa seemed to pick up on that given the slight smile that tugged at the edges of her lips before she shrugged on the dark blue canvas jacket.
After readjusting my shirt so that the guns were hidden well enough, we started walking down the street. We were just outside of the couple of blocks called Crime Alley, and it showed. The buildings looked more rundown, some cars parked on the side of the street were stuck on cinder blocks, and the people that walked down the sidewalk openly wore gang colors. They eyed me and Tifa, not making a secret of it, but they were able to recognize what the bulge at my pantline meant so they walked by.
Tifa walked beside me, only occasionally having to use me for support. Though, she did show some hesitance when I walked up to a couple of guys sitting outside of an apartment building, all of them wearing red. They watched me approach, cocking an eyebrow at me. "You a duck?" One of them asked, his gaze lingering on my own red shirt.
"No, just a red t-shirt," I answered before I held up the car keys in one hand. I wasn't stupid enough to pretend to be a gang member. I had enough trouble on my plate as it was. "I'll trade the car for your hat," I said, gesturing to his black hat with a flat brim. The gang member looked over to the car that I had pulled up in, then at me, then at Tifa, then at the keys.
"You in some deep shit, huh?" He questioned but he took off his hat all the same and tossed it to me. In exchange, I tossed him the keys to the car. Turning and placing the hat on Tifa, obscuring her face a bit, I turned to him and offered a lopsided grin.
"Yeah, you could say that. Enjoy the car," I said before we started walking again.
"You're using them to lead Penguin's men away?" Tifa hazarded a guess as we made our way down the streets. I nodded, turning the corner and seeing what must be the Doctor's Clinic that Jack had told me about.
"They know that the car is hot. Hopefully, they'll just get a free car. If they're smart, they'll just take it to the nearest chop shop and cashout before Penguin can find them if he does have a tracker on the car," I answered, leading Tifa to the clinic. I really hoped that I didn't just get those guys killed, but better them than us. "And this is the place," I told her, glancing at Tifa to see that she was looking at me with an unreadable expression for a moment.
It passed before she nodded, opening the door to the clinic. I was hit with the smell of antiseptic and bleach, though it was a welcomed change from the stench of waste from the sewer. An elderly lady was behind the counter, her white lab coat marked her as a doctor and her name tag told me her name. Leslie Thompkins. The Doctor.
"We need some help, she-" I started, uncertain if I should just spill my guts.
"I was drugged, stuffed in a box and now I'm not in the right city," Tifa informed, making Dr. Thompkins' eyes narrow. I expected her to ask some questions for context, but she simply nodded and grabbed a clipboard with a few slips of paper attached to it.
"Come this way," Dr. Thompkins said, gesturing to a room. I started to follow, but she pointed at me, "You go into the waiting room." I could see what she was doing, trying to separate us so she could get Tifa's unbiased side of the story. Just in case if I was pressuring her to say something or something like that.
"Right," I agreed, walking towards the waiting room. I glanced over my shoulder to see Leslie leading Tifa into another room. Tifa glanced over her shoulder to look at me and offered a small smile when our eyes met. Then she disappeared when the door closed behind her. Swallowing thickly, I stepped inside the waiting room to find it empty, thankfully. Walking over, I threw myself into a chair and placed my face in my hands.
My mind was painfully blank as I replayed everything that happened over and over again on a loop. From the moment Tifa fell out of that box, to shooting those men, to arriving here. Just reliving that time again and again in my head, going over it, questioning if I had made some kind of mistake or if I could have done something better.
"They have my face," I muttered into my hands. There had to be some kind of security camera that had seen my face back in the club. Just so they would have a face to track someone down if this exact kind of situation happened. And that meant that without a shadow of a doubt Penguin was going to be hunting me down. I stole from him and killed two of his people.
No matter which universe I was in, things were pretty consistent; that kind of thing would put me at the top of his shitlist.
Dragging my hands down my face, I readjusted the guns in my belt loop so I could sit a bit more comfortably. Only for my hands to fall on the deck of cards that I had shoved in my pocket. I had almost forgotten about them. Pulling them out, I saw that they were completely blank on both sides.
Pursing my lips, I bent the cards a fraction and sent them flying out in a spray over the floor. They scattered on the ground at my feet, sitting there for a moment. Then, with a thought, the cards came rushing back to the singular card that was left in my hands. Within a second, I was holding a full deck of white cards.
"That's… staggeringly unhelpful," I commented, looking at the cards. I had no idea what they were, but there was clearly something weird about them. Only that weirdness didn't exactly help with the whole 'a mob boss wants me dead' situation I had going on for me. Feeling frustrated, I slammed the deck of cards onto a coffee table that was covered by old magazines. And those old magazines fell to the floor when the table underneath them suddenly vanished.
I flinched at the unexpected noise, blinking a few times at where the coffee table had been a moment ago. My gaze drifted from the magazines that hit the ground, to the cards that had scattered about with the impact. Leaving the bottom card exposed.
Brushing away the others on top of it, I picked it up. Only instead of the back of the card being a blank white, it had a dark brown background. Flipping it over, I saw a picture of the coffee table that had just disappeared. Underneath it was the ranking of F, right next to the name Battered Old Coffee Table.
I blinked down at the card for a moment before I tossed it back down to the ground, and the coffee table leapt out of the card, reverting it back to its previous white status. I sat there for a few seconds, my mind wrapping around the callous disregard for the law of conservation of mass before I reached down and grabbed the magazines and cards.
"Huh," I muttered, standing up. Checking around, making sure that I was alone and no one could see me, I reached down to my pants line and grabbed one of my guns. Grabbing a card, I pressed the gun into the card and watched as it sank into the white surface. The white of the card darkened, this time instead of brown it was a steel gray. A picture of the silenced gun appeared on the surface of the card.
Silenced 9mm Pistol. D-Rank.
Okay. That was something. At the very least, I would be able to walk around armed in a less obvious fashion. I could slip by metal detectors without any issue. It was simple, but I needed every advantage I could get. With that thought in mind, I quickly pressed the other two guns into the cards, so I had three of the same, all of them D-Rank. Which meant… something.
Sitting back down, this time feeling much more comfortable without the barrel of a gun poking me in the butt, I looked at the three cards, comparing them. They were all the same rank, but should they be? They were all the same gun but some of them were missing some bullets while one was fully loaded. Did that not count? Would I get a different rank if I put an empty gun into the card?
Looking the cards over, I tilted my head at them. Could I put a card into another card? Maybe that way I wouldn't have to walk around with an entire deck in my pocket? Slowly, I pressed the edge of one gun card into the other and saw that the card sink into the surface, much like the guns had.
Only this time the card changed again. The dark gray became a dark bronze color and the surface of the card changed.
Pristine Silenced 9mm Pistol. C-Rank.
"Huh," I muttered, trying to separate the two guns again, but nothing worked. It seemed once I combined two cards, I lost the item. But, when I counted the cards, fearing I was forever short one, I counted fifty-two. I still had a full deck, so the card had been replaced. Somehow.
I stared at the surface of the bronze card for a long minute, my mind running through the possibilities.
"This opens up some options."
The next chapter is currently available on my Pat re on, so if you want to read it a week early, all it takes is a single dollar in the tip jar. Or, for five dollars, you can read the chapter after that two weeks before its public release! I hope you enjoyed!