Chapter 8: Confession
The dirt crumbing around the hostile figure was the only sound for several moments other than the idling of Steve's Zaku and the thief's coughing. The mobile suit was kept still with its heat-hawk ready after the order was given, providing a menacing aura as it awaited an answer, but Steve was already considering the scenario at hand. It had been long enough that his companions should already have arrived to investigate the voice. Steve supposed this meant that the canopy had swallowed his voice.
Locking the controls to keep the mobile suit steady, Steve unlatched his harness and twisted around his seat to access the emergency compartment in the back, retrieving the small SMG afforded to pilots. Once he loaded the weapon and chambered a round, Steve opened the hatch and climbed onto the Zaku's hand as its pre programmed software set him down on the ground. It was a rather shallow incline of soil between the Lieutenant and the thief, the golem quickly falling to pieces from the shattered spell and poor components. Clearly the golem wasn't meant to take hits like it had, and was meant to overwhelm him in sudden attacks. The thief just didn't have the means to take him in a standard engagement.
Bracing the submachine gun at his hip and pointing it menacingly at the thief, Steve had to take a moment to gather his words as he saw the 'woman' up close and clearly for the first time.
She was facing to his side, and her cloak still obscured most of her features. Even so and with her kneeling it was clear she was favoring the leg and arm of her right side. It didn't take much thought for Steve to figure out the compression waves of his body slams had probably crushed the other side of her body. Frankly, it was a wonder she wasn't a goopy mess in the soil. Fighting from within the golem was probably her only option, but it still had consequences.
The Zeon pilot had some difficulty shaking the guilt of subjecting a person to that kind of punishment, but he supposed that he had probably done similar damage back home. Really he was surprised she wasn't screaming in pain. The only thing holding her together at this point was adrenaline and the remaining loose clay packed around her.
"Hostile mage, you don't have anything left to fight with. Surrender immediately. Whatever you stole can't be worth your life," he delivered as professionally as he could, seeing his opponents pain up close like this was a foreign experience. Steve hoped she wouldn't force him to shoot, he wasn't sure he could avoid hesitation.
"What would some random noble know about what my life is worth." She bitterly ground out after a particularly nasty cough. "A foreign soldier like you has no right."
Steve narrowed his eyes at her good hand as she laid it to her side. She had something gripped underneath her arm, perhaps a weapon. Steve gripped the SMG tighter; he couldn't chance it. A more pressing matter however was her apparent injuries evidenced by the dark fluid on the surface of her forearm. Her wounds couldn't be too bad if she still had the strength to talk, but they weren't good for her odds of survival, she would need treatment.
"Its a life, as far as I'm concerned that's pretty damn important. And I'm not a noble... just a soldier." Steve left out the title of pilot to avoid a pointless discussion, though something did nag at him. "You aren't surprised that I exited my machine? Could you sense me or something? Actually, that voice..." Steve paused as he processed what he found before him, "Longueville?" Steve was startled to realize that this was clearly the thief, and yet it was the very woman who led them here. "If you were the thief though wh-"
A surge of soil off to her right startled Steve and he backpedaled before taking aim and waiting for the dust to clear. The stiff material of the servant's uniform didn't yield well to the stock of the weapon as he aimed down the sights. It was shortly revealed that his sight picture was perfectly aligned with her chest. The thief braced herself with an emergency pillar of soil encasing her side even as Steve kept his weapon trained on her. The thief's wand clattered to the floor and was replaced readily by an old model anti-armor launcher. She tentatively held her finger over the trigger and began to apply pressure. "I get it now, these weapons have more in common with a crossbow or musket than a foci don't they. I'm sorry but like this I can't afford to be arrested, drop your weapon before I unleash the full power of the staff and destroy you." She stated with no drama spared, clearly wishing to be imposing. It was only ruined by a simple easily overlooked fact from her standpoint.
"I'm afraid that's not going to fly, you see... All I have to do is pull this trigger and my weapon will let a flurry of bullets rip up your torso. You have to pull a priming pin from the warhead on the end of that rpg before you pull the trigger, and wait a second for it to actually fire." Steve responded with a wry grin.
"Priming pin? I don't see any such thing, stop toying around." Fouquet bit back angrily.
"You don't see it because it isn't there, neither is the warhead for that matter, that weapon isn't loaded." Knowing his captive's harmless state, Steve removed the magazine from his SMG and ejected the active round as an object lesson. He then primed the weapon and fired it at her feet, unleashing a singled useless TICK before he reloaded and chambered his first round. "I guess you can pull the trigger for an amusing click if the action is actually active, I'll admit I don't know how the action on a RPG works." Steve admitted before lowering his weapon to diffuse the situation, "I reiterate, please surrender, that hunk of crap really isn't worth your life."
It only took the simple useless clack of the action on the RPG for the woman's resolve to break down, and she slumped down into the once more decaying construct of soil she had used to steady herself, a moment later she mumbled something sounding like an apology, clearly not one meant for Steve though.
Perhaps it was him having more paranoid second thoughts, like the possibility the 'secretary' would accuse HIM of being Fouquet, or maybe it was sympathy for another totally defeated soul, but Steve couldn't just stay silent and return to his Zaku while leaving the woman be. "Screw this, a cell is a terrible place to recover from wounds like that, you need care from a doctor who gives a shit, and I need an insurance policy."
The green haired woman looked up with a confused and somewhat wary expression, "What are you talking about?"
"I'm sure the adrenaline and numerous distractions and terror aren't letting it be clear at the moment," Steve explained as he pointed at the woman's arm. "But your left side is pretty...well...broken. Not the limbs specifically, just your left side. I'm sure a prison doctor in a place like this is liable to malpractice the shit out of you."
Steve switched the fire selection on his SMG to safe before lowering it in one hand and walking up to the woman. Taking the weapon from her shoulder, (with a grimace due to its weight) he shoved it under his gun hold arm and braced it with his body before offering his hand again. She looked apprehensive as she reached forward, but took the assistance nonetheless.
"So here's what's going to happen: Fouquet is road pizza, but while you were finding a private place to urinate, like I thought you were, you got caught up in the ambush and were injured, you found that thing in the debris when the 'Nice Steel Golem' carefully helped you. All I ask in return is you don't mention 'ME' per se, and maybe vouch for me when I come out." Steve awkwardly supported and carried the thief to the Zaku's hand, before easing her to a seated position on the palm, before he handed her the RPG again. "Also, when you return this thing, could you find out where the academy got it? It really shouldn't be here."
When her only reply was a pained grimace, Steve decided requests were out of the question for the time being. The Lieutenant hurriedly got back into the Zaku's cockpit and shut the hatch, setting into motion back outside the dense canopy.
Louise glared at her reflection in the window of the infirmary as she awaited the headmaster. The original plan was to meet back in his office with no complications and the property returned. Now their group was huddled around in the infirmary, as Miss Longueville recovered in the bed. The healers had been diligent and managed to repair her side, but wanted her under Headmaster respected that and postponed the meeting and moved it to her room.
His secretary had barely said a word since she had come out of the forest though, only just managing to verify Fouquet's death. The staff cradled in her mangled arms at least verified the success of the quest. Louise was again grateful for the sensitive peculiarities of her familiar, and its capacity for gentle care. What seemed silly before with Tabitha's dragon was now vital and life saving.
But it was still solely her familiar's efforts. Louise had taken all the capable current mages into that damned hut, and left Miss Longueville alone, unguarded. If not for her familiar, her record would have been marred by yet another disastrous failure. She knew she would be credited anyway, with the familiar being an extension of the mage, but it seemed tarnished. Louise wasn't there to help the secretary personally, was unable to prevent her grievous injury or the apparent mental trauma. While injuries of the body may heal, injuries to the mind and spirit may not.
Clearly, she had let the summoning make her too complacent. The incident in alchemy the day after, the magical experiment with the noodle in Professor Schwartz's class, and now this travesty. Was she fit to be a Noble?
She nearly missed the headmaster's arrival and was in a daze for most of the discussion. Louise finally decided to actually listen as Tabitha was winding up the series of events leading to the disaster.
"Valliere, Zerbst, and myself entered the main structure with Longueville alone with Sylpheed and the Golem, almost immediately after we shut the door behind us the attack started." Tabitha explained, Louise nodded in support, which drew attention as she had been motionless for most of the time. Louise was dimly aware of some surprise registering in relation to Tabitha's lengthy description, but her professionalism quickly overcame that interest.
"My familiar's musket crashed into the nearby storage shed shortly after and we rushed outside to see it being drug away into the forest by Fouquet, and Longueville was nowhere to be seen. Kirche recommended that we take to the air on Tabitha's dragon, and we did hoping to find Fouquet and find out where we could help." Louise explained in a dull fashion, trying to follow up Tabitha's professionalism.
Colbert was next to speak, raising his staff to draw focus, "From there I can surmise the rest, we don't need to go over that in detail. The staff is back, and Fouquet met their end by Miss Valliere's familiar. I don't see any further need to stress you all. I am sorry for underestimating the danger of what we put you through." He ended with a sincere apology, though his gaze curiously lingered on Louise almost as long as it did Miss Longueville.
As the group stood to disperse the secretary spoke up, "Wait, Headmaster Osmond, if you could?" The old mage had only taken a couple steps, but still hesitated in his motion before turning to regard the recovering aid, "Thank you. Even in all that chaos I couldn't help but notice how similar the Staff of Destruction looked to the weapons of the Steel Titan, where did you get such a thing?"
Osmond stared at Longueville for a curiously long time before glancing off to the side and out the window. The overlooking view of a scorched and ruined courtyard seemed to bring back some unbidden memory, before it was dispersed. Coughing once into his free fist, Osmond looked back at the green haired secretary before speaking, "I suppose that is something to note, but I didn't notice any similarities between uniform of the original owner and that golem, the Steel Titan as you put it." Coughing again, he glanced back out the window, trying to summon the memory again for clarity, "Many years ago as I wandered the countryside I was beset one day by a great hydra. The beast had a great many years behind it and its elder strengths proved too much for my own magicks. I was certain I was going to die when suddenly that man appeared from the forest."
Louise could see that this was clearly an important moment in Osmond's life, and the clarity with which he could recount it made it clear any senility he displayed was an act. When the diminutive pinkette shifted her focus back to Longueville, she could see that revelation was only just now striking the secretary as well, though she seemed subtly disturbed by the implication. Further contemplation on the matter was interrupted by the headmaster finding his words again and continuing.
"He looked like he had already been through hell, and when he spotted the hydra immediately readied two Staves of Destruction and with both foci struck the beast with powerful fire spells, blowing it apart. I hesitated I'll admit at the shock of the proficiency with which he used two foci, and the power of the spells, but it likely didn't make any meaningful contribution to my failure to save his life afterwards. The man had grievous injuries, and was in delirium, and simply muttered 'Kill the death gods', over and over again. He died that night in the medical ward of the nearby town."
"There were two Staves?" Longueville queried, "One man wielded two Staves of Destruction? What happened to the other, or his other artifacts."
"They were buried with him, out of respect. As much of a lost cause as it was I still failed to do all that I could have for that man. I keep the remaining staff not as an artifact of power; considering none who have studied it have been able to use it to focus magic, but as a reminder, a reminder of things as they must always be done." Osmond straightened his back and turned to stare directly into the eyes of the secretary with eerie intensity and focus, "With great care and professionalism."
Louise had to wonder why the Headmaster stared so intensely at the secretary, considering her condition, when his stare and tone had seemed almost like a threat or warning.
Evening flights were rather less calming when the prefered locations mostly overlooked marred courtyard around the academy, but one had to make due with what one had. Tabitha had long since learned to appreciate life's little pleasures. Pleasures such as a kinder sister embodied in her familiar. Her naivete was appreciated as it helped add to the image. An image that, after all, required reinforcement. Most people didn't have abrasive-scaled one ton little sister perfectly capable of serving as a mount.
"Irukuku wonders if maybe nice man stays in big man because big man is mean. When dirt man showed up he just was like 'hug me kui~!' Then metal big man shoved him away and started breaking his spine all like 'raaaaaagh, crunch!' Irukuku is pretty sure people need spines not all smashy broken, why was metal man like that?"
Then again, a little sister might not be so naive as to misinterpret a manhunt and an ambush so completely. "Complicated." Was the only reply she could really give, not that it was really true. Perhaps just coming up with a means to fix the misconceptions was too complicated to bother with.
"Then dirt man kept grass hair lady inside and big steel man crunch her bones too, thats double mean, because its mean to dirt man and grass hair lady. What if big steel man got nice man crunchy-hurt, kui~..."
Siesta was uneasy as she went about her duties, finding that even if all issues regarding her employment had been averted, the attention from Mott and following intervention did appear to have a significant impact on the impressions from her peers. She found herself missing the commentary shared in the staff corridors, but most of her coworkers seemed uncomfortable speaking to her, almost as if she was a noble herself.
This policy did not extend into the kitchens thankfully, as Marteau could see it made her unhappy and made it quite clear such behavior was not acceptable in his work area. The serving staff in the dining hall also treated her much the same as before when it became clear that such was acceptable in the kitchen.
The looks and gestures in the hallways to individual quarters and tasks were still forefront in her mind however, and quite troubling. More troubling was addressing Mr. Smith's dietary needs without Professor Colbert's assistance. It seemed the teacher had delivered most of his backlog of lectures and was busy preparing one for the next day and several for the coming week.
Siesta hadn't been particularly comfortable in the Lieutenant's presence since the man's rather pointed aggression against her concepts of war and romance. His apparent dismissal of social statuses was alarming as well, and Siesta could only hope that he didn't bring a noble's angry fist down upon those who helped him.
Such a worry was at the forefront of her mind when she entered the courtyard that evening with the refugee's meal and only realized upon taking her first steps off the tile path that the headmaster's secretary was immediately behind her. Siesta hadn't even realized the woman was free from the infirmary. It was too late to change direction without being obvious however, and the maid could only hope that the Lieutenant had a way to deal with this. As she closed on the machine of his she noted that the secretary seemed to know about it already, so surely she wasn't making a mistake as either the Lieutenant knew already or would have to anyway.
Seeing the hatch open ahead of them, Siesta was quite certain this was the right course of action, and resumed a dutiful and assured pace. The pilot stepped out with a distinct impression of distaste however, making her wonder if this was again like the lunch incident.
"Longueville, I do have to point out this is a terrible idea of subtlety you seem to have." The pilot stated with no small degree of irritation.
"Oh, I thought it was pretty clever, bringing it to Colbert's attention that his lectures have been getting weak, as if stretching out material." Longueville snapped back cleverly.
"You attend a lot of his lectures? Or interview a lot of students in intensive care? No? Oh dear it seems we've said something suspicious."
Longueville came full stop as she took on an extremely irritated expression with Steve's immense sarcasm and disrespect, "Why you little- I have been at this far longer than you."
"Oh bam two for two, shall we draw Siesta a picture of suspiciou-"
"What is your problem?! I seem to remember a much more pleasant and kind individual earlier." Longueville burst out, exasperated. Really, while idle thought on the sentences might have recognized some oddities, the soldier explicitly pointing out each suspicious statement was much more destructive on that front.
The query actually gave the Lieutenant quite a lot of pause before he shook it off and sagged considerably, "Sorry, its just... fighting that damn golem made me remember more shit that I rather wouldn't." It seemed that when called out on it, Steve could easily find fault in his behavior. Lashing out at anything, anything at all that he could attack for the sake of attacking it was shameful and unproductive, yet it had seemed perfectly reasonable for the soldier.
"The golem?" Longueville began in confusion, wondering how something so uncommon could have struck the man so deeply. "You fought a lot of triangle class constructs?"
"I guess you don't have a lot to work with, but no, recall I'm not a mage, meaning that thing behind me doesn't use magic, meaning theres probably a lot of OTHER things like it not using magic."
"So wait, you've fought other steel golems like yours?" The secretary worriedly asked why pointing at the menacing machine behind the pilot.
"I have shot down six GM's without assistance, and contributed to many others, alongside two Salamis class cruisers, and a lucky kill on a Magellan class." Is the almost immediate and rather mechanical reply from the Lieutenant, the sharp contrast in tone and responsiveness was somewhat alarming to the secretary. "If that first number was a seven, maybe more of my platoon would be here. Leonard had a beam bazooka, but one of the GM's I ignored after putting some rounds through the thruster pack survived, and closed in without my notice. It disabled his main camera and damaged the bazooka, and he didn't last long after that. Without his fire support we started dropping off pretty quick."
Steve wasn't even seeming to pay attention to his listeners at this point, a matter evidenced when he didn't even notice Longueville interrupting him to tell Siesta to get some of the densest alcohol she could find. "Stanton went out it the same missile volley that eliminated out last escort Musai, crazy bastard tried to shoot down the missiles with his one-twenty and intercept what he missed with his suit. The bombardment took out our carrier shortly after tha-"
Longueville finally interrupted the Lieutenant by physically shaking him, which got a dumb look in return until he realized what he had been doing. "Sorry, I never got debriefed, kind of a reflex once I get going. I actually used it as kind of a way to vent and forget about it. I really want to, you know? I mean, do you KNOW what it sounds like?!" Steve was once again turning quite distraught, his mood swinging like a tetherball. "The damn Gwazine has so many damn redundant systems that even if the bridge takes a missile it sometimes doesn't stop transmitting! I heard my damn mission operator after she got hit by shrapnel or something, choking on he-"
The sound interrupting the pilot this time could best be described as 'meaty, and painful' as the thief assisted him by belting him strongly across the face with a right hook. Taking a moment rub his jaw, Steve glared at Longueville before allowing his expression to soften to recognize the gesture for what it was. "Thanks, I needed that, but I'm pretty sure most people get a hug for shit like this."
"Don't push it. How long have you been dealing with this?"
"Well its only been this bad the last couple da-"
"The memories, not the flashbacks." Longueville interrupted, more concerned with how long a man let himself be tormented with memories of war.
"About a week I guess, six days. My Master, or mistress, which ti-"
"A week?! Oh well its no mystery I guess why this is troubling so much, Brimir preserve us! Where are the battles occurring? I've never even seen golems like yours." Longueville hadn't even been aware of a war outside the civil one in Albion, and the soldier's accent didn't fit any region she was familiar with.
"Yeah I keep forgetting you aren't up to date on that, I'm not from this world, just throwing that out there, you probably WON'T see any other golem's like mine, or anythi- actually I can't say that, with the RPG."
Seeing a potential segway for the distressed Lieutenant, Longueville began regaling Steve with the headmaster's tale on the matter of the 'Staff of Destruction'. It was rather easy get him tangled up in new topics at current, and although she generally wouldn't have bothered, it helped his apparent state of mind considerably. Longueville had to wonder how long it had actually been since she had talked for the sake of the matters of conversation rather than the keeping of a cover. Her focus on the comprehension of what the Lieutenant said regarding worlds was lacking however until it was too late, and he took control of the direction of conversation again.
"How is the ribcage? You seem fine, so was I overdiagnosing or something?"
"You broke half of my ribs and ruptured my kidney and pancreas, as well as heavily bruising my lung. My treatment bill was eight hundred and seventy-three ecu, you can pay the headmaster back later. So what about the information." She said, trying to redirect conversation towards an avenue less disturbing for her personally, and more profitable.
Steve glazed over briefly on the monetary allotment, not having any context of the local currency or exchange rates, but perked back up for the question following. "Oh right, well as far as I recall, that type of RPG was just used by guerilla's, as for the muttering, well its a term they used for our Zaku's for a while" Steve emphasized the descriptor by gesturing back towards his machine for clarity, before returning to his lecture, "It was probably a Feddie supported or trained civilian combatant, not an actual soldier, since they would have something better on them."
"By Feddie you mean people like my Grandfather?" Siesta's return had gone completely unnoticed, and elicited a slight spasm from Longueville and a pronounced "Jesus Christ!" from Lieutenant Smith. The secretary noted with irritation that this was likely a loaded topic which would seize control of the conversation AGAIN, as well as likely drive the Lieutenant back into his earlier mood. "Grandfather always took pride in the full name of his nation, saying living next to and then serving at Torrington made him feel so safe."
As soon as the name Torrington came out of the servant's mouth the Lieutenant's face took on a rather sickly pallor, as if his carriage had just run over a sweet little girl's most loyal hound. Taking the initiative, Longueville stepped forward and took the bottle from the maid, "Thank you for your services, but we really request that you leave us for now, if you would."
Siesta appeared to be ready to voice an objection. The implied insult to her grandfather a moment before combined with her important position seemed to bolster her bravery somewhat. However the moment that Longueville drew her wand and gestured menacingly with it the maid's courage fled. Apologetically bowing, the maidservant gracefully and quickly vacated the courtyard allowing Longueville to once again attempt to calm the Lieutenant. Looking about at that point, Longueville had to note that she could easily deal with the witness and cut her losses here, but something held her back as she passed off the bottle of scotch to the man.
The cool night offered only the illumination of the twin moons in conjunction with the sporadic torches around the academy. It was enough light for Longueville to see the glimmer playing with the alcohol Siesta had brought the strange foreign soldier. She saw that despite the nature of the request he merely nursed the contents of the bottle of scotch, rather than quaff it down and properly dull the memories he complained of. Unable to let her conflicted motives stand among so many other quandaries, the thief finally spoke, "Back in that forest, when I was Fouquet, why didn't you shoot?"
"Eh? What do you mean? You're a person now just like you were then." Steve replied with feigned curiosity. He didn't seem too enthusiastic with continuing the earlier conversation.
"Thats not what mattered to you and I know it. I had been trying earnestly to kill you and take advantage of your existence. I was still trying to kill you with the 'Are Pee Gee.'" The secretary countered, "You had your gun trained on me the entire time. Even 'if' I had the means to kill you, you could have ended my life in an instant. Why didn't you shoot when you had every right to do so?"
The pilot turned back to his drink with hesitation before taking a sip. He then turned his gaze to the stars and quietly contemplated his answer. "You said you had someone you cared about right?" Steve asked, he didn't need to look to catch the hesitant nod from his female companion, "When you ask me why I didn't shoot, its... hard to explain." Thinking back to the clearing, the moments at the end of the battle, back to the apology not meant for him, "You were apologizing to someone back in the forest, and-... it looked... well..."
Steve paused for a moment to think about his words again as he swirled his beverage. "My first day here I think I felt the same way. I am a soldier of Zeon, and although I hate to say it Zeon did many horrible things in the name of independence. I joined when I did hoping to save that cause, and prevent the war from dragging our colony into it. I didn't want my sister fighting, dying or both... for such a thing." As he grimaced, Steve apparently finding something increasingly unpleasant and finally drowning it in a hefty application of scotch "During the final battle, when I saw bodies streaming from the ruined bridges of cruisers I disabled, I wept for what she would think of me."
"What she would think?" Longueville was genuinely curious for a moment at the comment, her confusion centered on why a sister wouldn't understand that people killed in wars.
Ignoring the query, the Lieutenant continued, "When I saw you, defeated and pleading for your precious one's forgiveness, I guess I saw myself. I saw myself and I couldn't shoot."