Chapter one ~ The Girl with the Hood

"Zidane! Please, don't tell me you blew it again!"

The boy who had been called looked up. His blond hair, which closed up to his chin, was gathered to a short ponytail with a blue tie. Strands of his hair hung in his face, but they couldn't cover his light blue eyes, which always seemed to sparkle. Right now, they were glistening with amusement, and the boy's lips puckered up to a grin while he examined the man running towards him.

"Did I do something weird, Blank?" Zidane asked happily, but Blank snorted, trying to do his red, spiky hair, which was held in place by a big brown belt shortly above his gray eyes – or rather, eye, for the right one was covered by yet another belt. He briefly did the other various belts adorning his apparel, set his gloves and then finally looked at the younger man, who was sitting on a small rock right beneath the main street of Alexandria.

"Just tell me one thing," Blank said, his fist shaking. "Were you even thinking about what you've done?"

Zidane laughed. "Oh, come on Blank. You know it's no big deal-"

Suddenly, Blank slapped Zidane right into his face. "Don't tell me it's no big deal, because it is, boy," he spat and grabbed Zidane at his ruffled collar. For a moment, the blue and gray colored eyes held a staring contest, then Blank dragged the youngster along the nocturnal street.

"Can't ya walk a little more slow?" Zidane asked annoyed. With one hand, he felt the red string in the form of Blank's hand on his cheek and gently stroke it, but he didn't seem to be hurt, as if he was used to it.

"No, I can't," Blank grunted. He added some muttered lines which Zidane couldn't understand, who figured it was better that way. While Blank gave vent to his anger, Zidane preferred keeping quiet and observed the quiet streets around them.

Tonight, the houses were much more lighted than usually. Zidane could see right into them, sneak a peak at the people living behind the walls. One man was just about to observe the street with furrowed brows, another one was walking around in his house, holding a little knife.

The people seemed much more restless than usually, and Zidane knew why. All the people of Alexandria, the biggest city of the Alexandrian kingdom, heard the news: A gang of thieves had arrived in town. They'd robbed several houses already and now everybody feared to be next. A little chuckle came out of Zidanes throat. If those people knew!

Blank turned around. "What'cha laughing about?" he snarled, though Zidane knew most of his anger had already vanished. Still, he had to play the common game.

"Nothin'," Zidane replied, trying to give his face a more guilty look. Blank just rolled his eyes, then he jerked his head towards a hidden entry. "I think no one's watching. Let's get in." Zidane nodded and opened a tiny, secret trap door, right beneath a bakery. Blank followed, after taking a last, wary look around. With an almost silently click, he closed the wooden door.

Standing on the ladder, he made a careful step downwards – and touched something smooth with his shoes. "Argh! Dammit, Blank! Be careful!" Zidane's voice was quiet, yet angry, but Blank just laughed. "You gotta be faster then, boy," he answered in a hushed tone, and waited a few seconds until he couldn't hear Zidane's steps anymore before he followed him.

When they reached the bottom, Zidane was sampling the wall with his gloved hands. "It's right there, I'm sure of it..." Suddenly, his fingers caught a hold on a tiny switch in the stonewall. By a click, he turned on the light.

Now, the two young men could clearly see a narrow path, which was immured in natural stone. Since it was meters beneath the natural ground, shores were installed to cradle the walls and ceiling.

The two followed its way an estimated 500 meters until they reached a door, which looked massive because of the steel which framed it. On eye level was a peephole. There was no handle on Zidane's side to open the door, but a small rope hung down next to him.

After pulling it in a special rhythm, steps were to hear from the other side and then, someone opened the peephole. A pair of eyes dark appeared, observing the ones waiting outside, then the door was opened.

Behind it waited a man with a red headscarf. "It's been long time for you to come back," Marcus said, but with no fret in his voice. He jerked his head towards the inside. "Come on."

The room they now entered was surprisingly big, and circular. Its walls were lagged with lumber and everywhere stabilized by shores. A few lamps lit up the interior which looked shabby, yet comfortable with its old armchairs and the big wooden table in the middle. The ground was cushioned with ragged carpets, and while the whole construction was far beneath the street level, it was comfortably warm.

At the table sat another man. His face was terribly ugly and his mouth was deformed in such a way that one would wonder whether he could still talk. In his right hand, he held a hammer which he swung to greet the homecoming people. "So you found him?" Cinna asked Blank, who nodded as an answer.

"Usual place?" Marcus added his question, which was answered by another nod of Blank. Cinna chuckled. "Baku won't be happy 'bout that."

Simultaneously, Blank, Marcus and Cinna looked at Zidane. "He's waiting for you," Marcus pointed out, causing Zidane to sigh and hung his head down. "I know, I know," he muttered while trudging towards the door at the right side of the room. "I'll go talking to him."

When he reached the door, Zidane stopped and turned around with an enormous grin. "Guess it won't be easy to calm the old man down, will it?"

Zidane slipped into the room of his boss. He closed the door quietly, then turned around and looked at the small, yet functional office. The room wasn't any bigger than two king-sized beds, which made it look even more stuffed than it already was. There were a lot of shelves hanging on the walls, holding old weapons, treasure boxes with unknown jeweleries, blueprints of houses and other odds and ends.

From one second to the other, the illusion disappeared and Zidane saw the real office of Baku. An old desk, stained with ink and other substances (Zidane always wished it was blood so it would give his boss a more dominant appeal than he actually had) dominated the small chamber, and of course there were some shelves, but only with old documents and, most of all, dust.

Behind the desk, sitting on an old chair, Baku was already waiting for Zidane. His face bore little resemblance to a human, more to a tapir, as Zidane thought, which had been reason enough for Zidane to be scared during their first encounter.

The young man walked towards the desk, while Baku was massaging his temples, only looking up when Zidane almost bumped against the wood.

"So Blank found ye, huh?" Baku asked with a tired voice.

Zidane was surprised; he had been expecting tirades, curfew or maybe even a proper beating. But the man in front of him just looked tired, and this somehow worried Zidane more than anything he had expected. Unsure what to do, the boy tapped on his toes.

Suddenly, Baku looked up, his eyebrows almost meeting in an angry frown. "What are ye waiting for, boy? For me to punish ye? I'm tired of doing it. Doesn't seem to work anyway!" Baku lifted himself up with his bulky arms. Though Zidane knew something bad might happen, he was much more content with this enraged man than the tired one a few moments ago.

Baku walked through his little office from one side to the other, his hands crossed behind his back. "Do ye have any clue how hard it is for us with someone like ye? We are Tantalus, Zidane! Don't know who taught ye to be that disobedient, but it sure wasn't one of us. I mean – were ye even thinking one single moment what could've happened? We were there, we were so close... How could ye just sneak away from us to see some... some girls? This kicker would've changed everything! Our prestige, our self-esteem – not to mention the money we could've stolen. How stupid can ye get to ignore all of this? Does our effort, my effort to keep ye alive mean nothing to ye? Ye ungrateful brat!"

During his rant, Baku's voice grew louder and louder until he was at the top of his lungs. He drew a deep, unnerved breath, his eyes darted over to Zidane who stood there, still wearing his wide grin.

"What are ye grinnin' 'bout, boy?" Baku growled angrily. With a few steps, he was by Zidane's side, then he slapped the boy's cheek with a loud clap.

Zidane had been aware of Baku's intention, but he still endured the punishment. Beyond his false grin, he knew he was the one at fault.

A few seconds, there was silence. Then, Baku hung his shoulders down and sighed. "Ahhh... Well. I guess that's it for now. I'll tell Blank to keep his eyes on ye, 'kay?"

Zidane nodded, and Baku gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Alright. Go now."

Zidane nodded once more, the grin still wide and happy, then he turned around and left Baku's office.

When he returned to the main room, only Marcus was waiting for him. Simultaneously to his entrance, a door at the other end of the room slammed shut loudly. Zidane twitched as his eyes darted over to the, sure he'd seen streaks of red hair in the moment before.

He looked over to Marcus, but the man only shrugged his shoulders. "You know it's not easy for him, being the one taking care of you and all?"

Zidane averted his eyes, a foul taste building in his mouth, and took a seat next to the circular desk "Of course I know that. But it's not my fault, is it?" he added and looked up angry. "I'm the youngest one, am I not? So why is a person nearly as young as I am instructed to keep an eye on me and not someone like you, older and stuff?"

"That's the point." Marcus took a seat beside Zidane. "He is part of Tantalus since he's very young. Losing his parents made him tough. Times here made him even tougher. Unfortunately, he started to isolate himself, due to all the sacrifices he made." Marcus played with a little knife, scratching random patterns in the old wood. "And then, you came. You were... Let's say, he could recognize himself in you. With the difference that you are cheerful." Now, Marcus smiled at him. "Baku hasn't instructed him as your prefect to annoy Blank or to... make his life unpleasant. Baku wants Blank to become cheerful again. Like he was when he was younger."

Zidane frowned, then he shrugged his shoulders. "If that's true, then why is he always so pissed when I mess somethin' up? I mean, it doesn't look like Baku's plan works out fine."

Marcus chuckled. "Well, he's simply annoyed you get away so easy when you do something wrong. I guess he claims Baku being unfair."

"Isn't he?"

"No," Marcus shook his head. "Blank needed to learn his lessons his way, just like you need to learn yours your way. Baku is punishing everyone the way they need it. So we learn."

Zidane laid his head on the desk and mumbled something cloudy, then he looked up. "Does Blank come in trouble if I do something wrong?" he asked, and it was one of those rare times he sounded really worried.

Again, Marcus shook his head. "No, 'course not. He has to keep an eye on you, that's true. But that's the only... mh, I guess you can't even call it punishment since he likes hanging out with you and would do it even if he wasn't instructed to do so. No, the only thing that happens is that he and Baku have a long talk with each other. But you should stop worrying – I'm sure Blank would be even more annoyed if he'd find out."

Zidane knocked at the door to Blank's room. "Come in," the familiar voice answered.

Upon entering, Zidane found Blank lying on his bed, the hands crossed behind his head, one leg at rest, the other one bent, and a book on his face.

"Ah, it's you," Blank said without surprise in his voice. Zidane winced, like every time when Blank showed his ability to sense someone's presence without looking.

Slowly, Zidane approached Blank's bed. "You still angry?" he asked shyly. He wasn't the guy for showing weakness or insecurity, but he also knew Blank saved his ass often, probably even more often than he actually knew.

Blank sighed. "Of course not." He removed the book and put it on the bedside cabinet, next to a candle in a golden retainer, which looked very pretty and precious. Zidane remembered the first time he had seen it, he had asked Blank if he had stolen it from a rich man's house, which Blank affirmed with an exciting story. Zidane still had no clue whether Blank told him the truth or not back then.

"You know I'm rarely angry about you. It's just... This babysitting is exhausting. I was used to be able to do everything I wanted in my spare time. Now I can't anymore." Blank tried to tone his harsh words down with a smile. "You know I'm enjoying spending time with you."

Zidane knew that, just as he knew that Blank was just tired. But still, the frank words hurt something inside of him. Yet, Zidane just nodded with a smile. "Alright then... Would you mind me going outside? Just an hour or so, I promise I won't be late," he added when Blank frowned. He wasn't expecting permission, so he was pretty surprised when Blank nodded.

"But make sure you don't get in any trouble," the redhead reminded Zidane before he left the room. "No matter what happens to you tonight, you are the one who has to bear the consequences."

I should've known it's going to be a quiet night.

Zidane had been walking through the calm, nocturnal streets since almost an hour, deep in his thoughts. No one else was around, nothing was to hear. He knew that few nights before the Great Dance in the castle of Alexandria, people were going to sleep earlier, trying to be well rested for the event to come. Even their big fear of thieves couldn't cover up this excitement.

The Great Dance was a ball, organized by the Alexandrian queen Beatrix. Zidane didn't know much about the Great Dance; he had never attended it since only upper-class citizens used to be invited, and furthermore because the queen had stopped the ball a few years ago, shortly after the death of her husband.

But now, in honor of Princess Garnet's sixteenth birthday, the queen decided to revive the traditional ball, and to top it off, she invited all citizens to the great event.

Even though the reason for this ball was Princess Garnet's birthday, the princess's face was a mystery. She could have only been seen during the Great Dances of former times, but as she had been only twelve back then, most people were sure her face had changed throughout puberty. This was another reason why everyone was so excited – they hoped that finally, the unknown beauty was to be revealed.

Well, guess I should head back. Blank's gonna kill me if I return too late, Zidane decided after another minute.Thinking of Blank, he felt his heart twitching, and his cheery blue eyes got a more sad look to them.

Blank... Why is he acting so cold lately? Has something happened? Or did I... Did I do something weird? Where have those times gone, us fooling around and acting like every day was our last one. Having fun, not doing as Baku said... What has happened? I know, he's always been a bit more calm and way more reasonable than I could ever be. But still... He's not the same anymore... Could it be that something happened to him? Something he could hide from us?

Deep in his thoughts, Zidane didn't notice he took the wrong way. That's why when he finally looked up again, he found himself in one of the darkest streets of Alexandria. It was far away from the houses of the upper-class – and even low-class citizens didn't pass that street often, only when it was desperately necessary.

On this street, the 'bad people' met and had shady transactions. Even Zidane, who enjoyed having a night with an unknown girl once in a while, knew that this street had more than just cheap girls. Thieves and murderers had their home there, too.

Just when Zidane was about to turn around and leave this part of the town as soon as possible, he heard feet walking on the stones behind him. He turned towards the origin of the sound, his hands on his hips where leather bags held his two daggers.

First, he couldn't see who stood just a few meters in front of him because of the spare moonlight. His eyes took a few moments before he could see fairly clearly again.

In front of him stood a person, enveloped in a white cloak with red patterns in triangle shape. Among the cloak, Zidane could see legs, dressed in orange, skin-tight trousers and ending in red boots.

The person first had its arms hang down, so Zidane could see red gloves, but then it crossed the arms behind the back, pushing the upper body forwards, revealing a part of a ruffled blouse underneath the orange jumpsuit.

A breeze came up and the hood of the cloak moved, enabling Zidane to perceive the person's face, which was heart-shaped. The lips, light red, were forming a gentle smile. Brown eyes observed Zidane, from time to time hidden by long black hair.

It was a woman.

And it was the most beautiful woman Zidane had ever seen.