[identity profile] aphelion-orion.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] off_the_homerow
Title: Going off the Record
Part: 11/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now with 100% more end of the world.
I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII Part One, Part Two | IX | X Part One, Part Two | XI


Going off the Record
Chapter XI, Beginning



The sun rose gradually, as if unsure it was actually worth the effort. A crawl of light along the horizon, and on clear days, mornings like this when the city hung high and the clouds low, it looked more like the sun was surfacing, a fiery whale against the edge of the sky. The light changed once it hit the shield, its angle still low enough to actually render the dome visible to the naked eye, the magic refracting it until it looked like the air was full of gold dust, every speck of soot and vapor contributing to its fleeting shimmer.

An illusion, but a rather attractive one, easily one of the most beautiful sights to behold, restoring to Zepp a hint of the mystique from all the childhood bedtime tales, a sheen of glory for the stalwart bastion of knowledge, the last frontier against the ignorance of the world. Miles above the ground, and hundreds of feet above the lower tiers, it was easy to let the impression linger, a delicate lady's veil to conceal a face that was growing old and ugly by the day, sagging cheeks, and wrinkles like trenches, warts bulging from the papery skin tasked with holding it all together, lending some kind of structural integrity to the decay.

Slowly, Aren Gabriel turned away from the mirage of gold, and concentrated on shrugging out of his dirty coveralls. The change from bright to dark momentarily rendering him blind, he fumbled with the breeches, some of the residue oil leaving its mark on the waistband. It didn't matter, he decided, stuffing the workman's clothes into a garbage bin, and made a point to leave his cufflinks undone, the shirt buttons mismatched in their holes. The shirt itself smelled strongly of alcohol, a bottle of hundred ducat liquor sacrificed to be splattered over the fabric in careless abandon. As an afterthought, he shook his hair out of its customary ponytail, and stepped out onto the main street, making for the gateway leading up to the rim boulevard.

Anyone who met him on the streets at this hour would immediately know, not necessarily who, but what he was — betrayed by the fine weave of his clothes and his strong features, the high cheekbones and hawk-like nose, rendered so prominent by generations of Gabriels fussily preserving the bloodline. No different from any other high house, in a world where pedigree was everything, the most power going to the houses that could trace their ancestry to the time before the Great Collapse. The people in the lower tiers were easy to deceive, simple laborers who only knew their rulers as impersonal voices and couldn't even dream of getting as far as the rim. For their lives, a person's past and origin held no meaning as long as he was willing to get his hands dirty. None of the clans were, and so it was a simple matter to walk among them undisturbed, and listen, and learn.

The rim boulevard was another matter entirely. A spiral circuit winding its way to the upper tier that had been fashioned after a legendary city of gamblers, it was home to the luxury brothels and bars, the pulse of Zepp's night life. Full of people who were trained to recognize a wealthy spender on the spot, and full of prying eyes, whores and bouncers and half-drunk patrons, ready and willing to tell anyone who and what they saw for a handful of silver coins. It was better to try hiding in plain view, just another noble son wasting his youth on the glitzy temptations of the rim, and the stink of hard liquor, coupled with an unsteady shuffle, did the rest to discourage any late-working prostitutes from accosting him. Nobody liked the idea of having a prospective suitor be sick all over them, even if the suitor had the money to pay for the damage thrice over.

Rubbing at his temple, Aren stepped out onto the moving walkway, rising steadily towards the top tier gate. The light was getting stronger, rolling over the city like a honey-colored mist and making his eyes ache with the strain.

A night of sifting through the darkened back alley shops by the wavering shine of an oil lamp was taking its toll, but it was all worth it. There lived the people nobody talked to and everyone overlooked, tiny cogs in a great clockwork. Insignificant when taken individually, but put together, and made to grind against the larger cogs, they could yield the occasional spark of insight. Most of them didn't even require money to talk; they simply chattered and gossiped amongst themselves, unguarded and unprompted, content in the knowledge that nothing they did and nothing they had to say would mean the slightest thing to anyone of even remote importance.

That made it easy to find out who had recently requested the disposal of an unusually large pile of scrap, or who had hired a squad of dock workers for double the wage if they worked swiftly and silently, and most definitely forgot the type of ship they were unloading the cargo from. That was the wonderful thing about the bell jar existence of Zepp — even if there were no papers, no records of a happening, someone had always seen something, or knew someone who had seen something, or might be able to find out whether someone had seen something, all in the name of neighborly support and welfare.

For Aren, each of these small sparks offered up pieces of a larger puzzle, an intricate web of events and circumstances that, by themselves, were simple coincidences, small, singular irregularities that happened a hundred times a day. A late-night shipment, without papers or lists, a sum of money that went missing in one place only to surface in another, all of them nothing noteworthy in a city whose only ironclad rule was to never betray the cause: Zepp against the rest of the world. Almost anything was accepted, and what wasn't mostly went unpunished, the lower tiers regulating themselves with their own codes of honor. No one was going to ask about unmarked cargo, with the unspoken understanding that it was stolen, swiped from some excavation site or an Order transport, with pirates as convenient allies in the supply business, food and clothing and holds full of ore against free maintenance and a place to lay low, wrapped in the blanket of plausible deniability.

Aren was the only one who thought to keep track of it, of the ins and outs of the lower city, discontent with the lack of attention paid to even the most basic of things. The nobles liked to use the lower tiers, and, after a fashion, the lower tiers used them in return, but they didn't intersect, separated by layers of money and history. Descending from the rim was like passing through a force field, the crackling tension of one magnet rejecting the pull of another, until it seemed like the high tier might break off and float away into the stratosphere, while the rest of the city was ready to plummet towards the ground.

Up ahead, the Hub was coming into view, its dozen branching pods shutting down the lights one by one. Cobbled together from every vaguely East Asian artifact ever unearthed, it tended to look far more impressive at night, lit up like a red beacon, its numerous lanterns reflecting off decorative beams, statues and wall scrolls plastered to the structure wherever there was room. Nobody in Zepp had seen East Asia in almost two hundred years, but it mattered little; the Hub's claim to exotic authenticity was backed significantly by the attraction of free drinks, and the fact that it never ran out of gambling tables.

At this hour, the casino was closing up, the unfriendly faces out front a sure sign that the night's earnings were being put away inside, but Aren paid them no heed, staggering straight past the entrance and around the next corner, where his last stop for the night was waiting.

The man in the alleyway was a small, portly figure, everything from his clothes to the way he carried himself a sure sign that he didn't belong in such a place. Though he was out of uniform, the cheap fabric of his coat and the set of his shoulders marked him as a second-rate servant, and when he caught sight of Aren, he lurched forward reflexively as if a nervous instinct commanded him to bow.

"Master Gabriel..."

"Jonah." Aren murmured, directing them further into the shadows between the buildings. "I received your message. You have what I asked for, then?"

"I. I, um, well..." The man glanced at him, partly in genuine fear, partly with the peculiar jerkiness of someone who had no way left out. Aren didn't need to ask to know it had been a bad night; the Hub rarely had good nights for its patrons, and if he remembered right, the man should have already been on his second advance for this month, drawn to the rim by the irresistible hope of imitating his masters.

"Here, sir," he managed eventually, pulling out a wrinkled envelope and passing it to Aren. "I couldn't get very much, sir, the master's always so careful with his correspondence... this is just what he told me to burn."

"It will suffice. You've looked at them?"

"No! I mean, no, of course not, sir, I wouldn't dare, not after— it's the truth, sir, I swear it."

"It doesn't matter to me one way or the other," Aren said, carefully tucking the envelope into his shirt. "But for your own sake, I suggest you don't remain in the chairman's household."

The man blanched. "You mean..."

"As you said yourself, your master is a very careful man." Reaching into the pouch on his belt, he drew out a satchel, filled to the brim with gold-pressed ducats, and placed it into the servant's shaky hands. "This should be able to buy your way to safety, and then some."

"Master Gabriel... where should I go?"

"Some place less conspicuous than the high tier," Aren said simply. He didn't add 'and the rim,' but it would have been a futile warning, anyway. There was little doubt the man would find his way up here again with time, in a month or two at best, reeled in by the allure of the cards against his better judgment.

"But, sir, I've got family, I can't just... Is there no way you'd perhaps consider...?"

"You are a decent fellow, Jonah. However, you can't expect me to employ a man whose lifestyle renders him so... approachable." He smiled thinly. "If you care to count the money, I think you'll find it to provide for everything you might need."

"I... yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Fidgeting, the man tried to peer around the corner. "I... I should get going, sir. Before... before."

"That might be for the best, yes. Safe passage to you."

He didn't catch the mumbled reply, the man hastily stumbling out of the alley to flee the reminder of his deed, and his desperation. Unlikely that he would manage to set his own life in order, that the ducats would see much use except to amass greater debts. Unlikely that he would even muster the strength to break away from his employer, save his own skin and that of his family. Zepp didn't make concessions to the weak, those without the good sense to stay afloat on their own wit and cunning, and Aren had long since learned that there was no way to save a fool from drowning, if he didn't wish to go under himself.

Shaking his head, he retrieved his boot knife and returned his attention to the envelope. A quick slice along the edge revealed a stack of letters, each of them unaddressed and unsigned, written in the smudged print of a machine. So much for his idea of taking them to a forger, who might have been able to tell the sender by handwriting. With whomever the chairman was in contact, they were certainly a lot more careful than—

Leafing through the pages, he froze, his eyes drawn to a single line.

After a moment's staring, he tucked the letters back inside, his step quickening as he set out for the gate, all thoughts of pretense forgotten. Zepp might not make concessions to the weak, but if he didn't hurry, it would soon stop making concessions to everyone else.






----

A/N: I'm not dead! XD The rest of this chapter should happen soon-ish. In the meantime, thoughts and comments are welcome.

- Yep, the president has a kid. Why? Because I like the idea of Ky meeting a kind of antithesis of himself.



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Off the Homerow: Fanfiction Journal of Aphelion Orion

January 2012

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