This one, for instance, took full advantage of the space available. Had to hand it to Reeve: not every part of the city looked inward to Shinra. Some parts were already developing a distinct local flavor. What we called the slums were really just places that refused to retain the antiseptic, futuristic "floating city" aspect found on the upper plate. And they had survived, nearly intact. Unfinished, but unbroken.No doubt Edge was already under construction, at least as an extension of the city of Midgar, long before Meteorfall. All the buildings were stacked together, as if to prepare for future onslaughts of urban renewal, and to allow as many people to live in the neighborhoods as possible.
Reeve had planned a densely packed metropolis: he would be thinking of all the future residents. Unfortunately, the result was that Midgar sucked the very life out of its environs, as well as the color out of its population. Every home in Edge seemed to remember that it was part of a much greater urban area, and the outside, natural world found little representation there. It saddened me to note that, if it were not for the inclusion of a patio, there would not be much access to the outside air, except through the storefront of their little home.
I remembered a conversation between Cloud, our leader, and Barrett Wallace, the head of Avalanche. They were noting the lack of sky available to slum dwellers. No matter how ugly and polluted a place could become, its people would continue to love it as their homeland. Both men had lost the towns they knew to the brutal machinations of Shinra Incorporated or its agents. And while Kalm, my birthplace, was the same, the Midgar of my youth, and that of my daughters, was in ruins. Our Planet was intact, but our homes had all changed. At least my girls were able to adapt and move on.
Same as their old lady, it would seem.
The Bravo house was still very quiet when morning arrived. At least, I believed it was early; I was all slept out. Nevertheless, there was very little light filtering down into the courtyard outside the French doors of the living room. I stretched my limbs and began to think about breakfast. The smell of hot beverages and toasted grains filled the house, calling me to start the day.
I wandered into the tiny kitchen adjacent to the parlor. Everything looked brand new, but it was obvious the room was rarely used. Still, coffee was already brewed and appeared to have been sampled. I poured a small cup and rummaged through the refrigerator for creamer, my stomach a little queasy at the thought of black coffee after a night of too much food and drink. Once the beverage was to my liking, I roamed through the rooms, out into the storefront, wandering by the restaurant’s industrial-sized kitchen on the way. Ah, that was the source of the delicious baking smells.
Breakfast was in full swing at El Francisco. My girls were bustling between the tables, and their men were tending the cash register and greeting patrons. The older Bravos were working the morning shift in the kitchen, at least from what I could see in passing. I moved up to the front counter, squinting in the morning sunshine that was streaming in from the street.
Edge was already a beehive of activity, with people going at a fair trot in both directions on the main road. What could keep so many so very busy, so soon after Meteorfall? I could only hope that all that industry was aimed at rebuilding.
"Mom." Trini sidled up to me, her arms full of trays and tableware. “Vincent Valentine called here about an hour ago, and is on the way to collect you. He sounded put off, and wanted to know what had happened to you. Where is your PHS?”
The phone was right in my pocket. I retrieved it and stared at the listing of all the missed calls. There were six of them, the first occurring right at dawn. Vincent would be rightly irritated; we had coordinated our devices right before we parted, setting the ringers on high. Of course, my PHS was newly purchased and therefore not fully programmed.
It didn’t matter that I had messaged all my contacts with the new code. Even the new numbers wouldn’t wake me if the device were preset to low tones. I had not bothered to customize the sounds and alarms, because it was much more important for me to hurry along to my meeting with the girls at El Francisco. Vincent would doubtless demand an accounting of my unavailability when we reconnected. Well, let him, I had nothing to hide but my forgetfulness.
Nevertheless, I finally took a few minutes to recalibrate the tones, especially as I didn't want to disturb the diners. Still, I was skeptical that anything could wake me after a night of beer and wine and talking. In fact, I was still droopy, and sipped constantly while I worked. The cup was never empty, as my girls and sons-in-law refilled it at every pass.
Soon I was presented with the daily breakfast special: waffles and pan-fried potatoes, and of course, more coffee. My daughters understood that their mother wouldn’t tolerate a simple roll and beverage, or even scones and fruit preserves. Lately my middle was beginning to, let’s say, look a little prosperous, so I eschewed a demand for meat or other animal proteins. Most of the surrounding patrons were nibbling their rolls and muffins, and I thought, looking surreptitiously over to my hearty helpings.
Isn’t it always like that? So many people barely eat breakfast, not a few skip it entirely. They poke at their meal, and enviously watch the rest of us chow down on our feasts. While it is understood that many unfortunates cannot stomach anything early in the day, the world would be better off if it stopped to eat first thing before any work.
There in Edge, most cafes weren’t even open until close to noon, so El Francisco did a very brisk business each morning, beginning at sunup. The earliest customers would return for lunch, while the later ones might stop by before heading home for the night. Conversation flowed from counter to table and back through the servers; no one was excluded. Immediately I was tapped for contribution, so I smiled and mentioned simply that I came from outside. This afforded a few seconds of peace, just before an onslaught of questions interrupted my meal.“What’s new at Junon?” A burly man raised his voice over the general hum of talking diners.
“Rustlers looking to steal chocobos. You’ll want to watch yourself on the roads out there. They struck a ranch on the other side of the Foothills. Everything is okay, now, though.”
That was the wrong thing to say for anyone who needed to eat in peace. The questions came slowly but steadily, because the other wanted to hear the answers, and stopped eating to listen. In the end, I described the two attacks in as few words as possible, because I wasn’t there for the earlier raid. For the later one, it seemed best not to go into detail, especially given the nature of my embarrassing experience in the Glow. Besides, just remembering the spinning and jostling made my stomach lurch again. No need to pass along that little tidbit.
In the end, I announced that the gangsters returned to the ranch hoping to mop up, and got their clocks cleaned instead. Telling the story made me anxious that the wrong people might hear it, but the news would have traveled anyway. I shook my head slightly at my girls, to squelch anything else they might add.
“Any chance they will try out this way?” The place was buzzing in low tones; the news isn’t so much fun when it might strike locally.
“I would guess. Chocobos are valuable, maybe more so than any gil, until production resumes on automobiles.” Everyone was nodding at that. Edge was nearly bereft of cars and trucks, and public transit was not back in use just yet. People hiked everywhere and missed their Shinra-supported rides.
“You got chocobos?” I looked again at the questioner and shook my head. It would be dangerous for him to know too much.
“No. Arrived on foot, after I hitched a ride over the Central Ridge.” It was probably obvious that a lone person was not likely to cross the mountains on foot. Lord, would he just please accept that answer and shut up?
No such luck.
“Who’s taking riders over the mountains?” The man was trying unsuccessfully to look casual, but I could see greed in his eyes. They were hard, and challenged me, even though he shrugged his shoulders and tried to look casual. At that moment, I decided to provide no more information and tried to ignore him. I returned to my coffee.
“Hey, lady, who’s taking riders? C'mon, I’m interested.” Then the place got much quieter; he didn’t sound just interested; he sounded insistent and louder. My reply came as quietly as I could manage, as I was trying not to get excited.
“It wouldn’t matter, because that person didn’t come to Midgar, or he would be here with me. Don‘t you think?”
The hairs were rising on the back of my neck. I heard the man push back from his table. My curiosity got the better of me, and I turned slowly towards him, standing as I did so. Some of the patrons dropped cash on their tables and edged towards the door.
Lord, it was too early for this nonsense. I shook my head in silence and spread my arm in mute appeal for his cooperation. He practically spat his answer at me.
“C’mon, lady, tell me the name and whereabouts of the service; I may want to use it. Who’s taking riders over the mountains?” There could be no doubting the aggression in his voice. The jerk was moving closer to me, and the room fell completely silent.
I took a very deep breath, because I didn’t want to ignite the Glow. There would be no telling what sort of damage would result to the café, if things got physical. Why in the world did it have to happen at my daughters' place? In an effort to diffuse the situation, I smiled and scanned the faces around me. The diners did not return the good humor, instead anxiously looking towards the door. That’s where I wanted to be, too. At the very least, we would need to take the belligerent gentleman outside. His demeanor was disturbing the diners, even though it was directed only towards me.
I began to back away from the fellow, hoping that we were aiming for the entryway. Both of us almost levitated when the next voice chimed in, answering the man’s previous question.
“If you are my wife, I am. Otherwise, you’ll need to find your own transportation. Would you like to take this conversation outside?” The man nodded--glumly, I thought!--and moved to the door.
"Wait! What about the tab?" No way would I allow him to leave without paying my daughters. He actually blushed, and returned to the table and left a few gil.
"Sorry. Wouldn't want to stiff the kids." He muttered the words to us as he passed. I began to wonder if I was wrong about the man. Vincent followed him out to the street.
My daughters came right over to me as soon as he left. Millie whistled aloud.
"Wow! That was scary!" Trini was visibly shaking, so I reached out to soothe her. Then she shrugged, her eyes smiling.
"You were great! I can't believe how you stood up to him." She took my hands, and it just about killed me to feel her tremors.
"Baby girl, I'm so sorry to have caused you any pain or fear. Trouble just seems to follow me around." Millie shook her head.
"No, Mom. It's like that everywhere now. Only thing is, he's always been a regular. Not every day, all the time, and not usually alone like today."
"He's got friends?" Vincent would want to know. I moved to the swinging doors. "They could be outside waiting for him." But my hero was already standing on the other side. He entered and walked straight up to the Bravo boys.
"He probably won't be back. I'm very sorry if we cost you any patronage." They shook their heads amiably and stuck out their hands." Then Trini spoke over the returning buzz of the other customers.
"If he's going to harass the other diners, then we don't need his business. He wasn't very nice to Mom here."
Trini sounded indignant, oblivious to any gaffes I may have made in the exchange. Mentally, I was reviewing the conversation, feeling guilty that I may have caused an uproar where none was warranted. To chase away customers from the cafe was not the worst I could have done, but the possibility that the man was innocent was beginning to gnaw at me.
Generally people are friendly and civilized to strangers all over the planet. Even the ones who don't trust strangers are coldly polite, following universal custom. On the other hand, there are plenty of rough-edged loners who lack ordinary social graces. Perhaps he was one of them. It was time to add my own apologies, and move on before we could do any permanent damage.
"Well, kids, looks like you can't take me anywhere nice, doesn't it? Trini and Millie, this is Vincent Valentine, a commander in the Nibelheim militia and one of my companions."
I was startled by the sudden burst of laughter that met my introduction. My daughters each took one of my arms and drew me behind the counter. The two Bravos were standing on either side of Vincent, too. Everyone was laughing. Vincent shook his head, and spoke, kindly and fondly.
"Josephine, we have just finished our introduction, and thought we included you. Obviously, you were elsewhere. And you failed to mention that we are somewhat more than companions." The look of hurt reproof surprised me. He could be very insistent on having things his way, I thought. It was irritating to be boxed into his idea of my role in life. What made him think I would hang on his every word?
The girls looked at one another and then to the men. "Hey, guys, why don't we turn the place over to the folks? We can visit a while before you go back to Nibelheim."
Vincent broke in. "Sorry, but I'm not convinced that we've seen the last of that diner. Josephine, we should go directly to the Old Guard Ranch, and warn them that there are other troublemakers who are interested in chocobos."
"But, Vincent, maybe he wasn't a bad guy. It could be he was just crude."
"No, Josephine; it's a fair bet they'll be waiting for us when we hit the road. I want to be still fresh and on the alert when we travel. Party's over, little one. Kiss your daughters and invite them to Nibelheim." He turned to the Bravos. "You are all welcome in our home. My wife misses her family every day you are apart. Surely, it is important to maintain close ties while we can." I thought about his family and how he worked to regain their hearts. Now it was my turn to do the same.
"Vincent's right. This is just the beginning. We can visit again on the other side of the ocean. Let's just make sure this rustler situation doesn't destroy our friends' ranch.
"I expect to see you soon. All of you." It felt good to really hug the girls. And as an added bonus, the boys dutifully presented themselves for an embrace.
Before I could get tearful, I nodded to Vincent.We marched to the kitchen for quick introductions and even faster goodbyes with the Bravo elders.
Then we stepped out into the late morning sunshine and mounted our steed, a very large and sleek Black. The chocobo readily accepted the extra weight and raced across the barren plain to the foothills.
We watched the entire way, expecting to be ambushed. This time, however our trip was uneventful, and we traveled alone up into the mountains.
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